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Book Review – Imperial Stars Vol. 2: Republic and Empire

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Today’s book is an anthology created by Jerry Pournelle with John F. Carr. Published through Baen Books, the collection contains quite a few short stories, several poems, and numerous essays. Each of the above are directed at a single point: what is the difference between a republic and an empire? Which is the best form of government – that is, which provides the most room for freedom and mankind’s success? Most importantly, is tyranny confined only to an Empire, or is it a state of corruption that can ruin either type of government?

It is not hard to guess that this volume is densely packed. These are weighty questions, none of which can be defined easily or answered lightly. Although a Republic offers more freedom than an Empire, it is no less susceptible to the cancer of tyranny. And so the writers’ created stories and essays to explore what it means to be free and what it means to be a Republic…or an Empire. In keeping with the ideal of liberty, they leave the audience to make up their own minds on which of the two is ultimately better than the other.

Due to the solidity of this volume’s philosophical points, I will not be discussing the essays within the anthology. Suffice it to say they are thought-provoking, if a little pedantic and/or academic. If one wishes to skip past them to read the stories, doing so will certainly make the reading go faster. On the whole, though, I would recommend reading them – either before or after the stories they proceed/introduce.

Some of the stories do contain adult content, though. It did not bother me too much, but Younger Readers ought to keep it in mind if they decide to pick up this collection. This blogger will make a note of which stories have explicit scenes that conscientious youths may wish to avoid.

As a final notice, I did not read the last story in the compilation. This is a tale called “Shipwright,” which was written by Donald Kingsbury. Since the person who gave me the book wrote “Not a Good Story” next the title, this blogger accordingly avoided it. I also skimmed “These Shall Not Be Lost” because…well, the story just didn’t appeal to me. It felt out of place and boring, so I am afraid that this blogger cannot comment on it, either. If you want to know how these tales go, readers, you will have to find out yourselves. I cannot help you here.

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Okay, with all of that out of the way, we can get down to business. The first story in the book is “Outward Bound,” by Norman Spinrad. This is a very good piece, with no sex scenes, gore, or foul language. In this tale space travel takes years, Earth-time. A man aboard ship can be eighty years old physically, but by Earth standards he will have lived eight hundred years.

This means that good ol’ Terra has her sixty colony worlds under her heel. Because of the time lag between them, Earth is the undisputed ruler of this tiny corner of the galaxy. No matter what they do, the colonies will always be sixty, eighty, or a hundred years behind the homeworld.

For man the only freedom to be found is aboard trading ships, such as the titular Outward Bound. They can go where they wish and have no worries that Earth will yank their chain, bringing them to ground. Dealing in knowledge of scientific techniques rather than money, the Outward Bound arrives on the planet of Maxwell to trade the plans for a force field. Maxwell doesn’t have much to trade; all they have of near equal value is a fugitive scientist from Earth. And since Terra never pursues a criminal this far into space the captain of the Outward Bound, Peter Reed, knows this scientist has something they want badly. And that means whatever knowledge he has is valuable – perhaps incalculably so. Thus, after a bit of haggling, he trades the force field for Dr. Ching pen Yee.

But Dr. Yee’s knowledge isn’t just valuable, it is a game changer. It could not only alter the future of space travel and Man; it could bring down Terra’s tyrannic control of her colonies. Reed has to decide if profits will rule the day or if Man will at last own the stars.

This is an enjoyable story, and one this blogger highly recommends. I do not know what else Norman Spinrad wrote (yet), but I intend to look up his other works and take a crack at them. “Outward Bound” was that good.

After this comes a less appealing tale written by Wayne Wightman. Titled “In the Realm of the Heart, In the World of the Knife,” it shows readers a world where tyranny and corruption have won. Revolution has brought down the previous order and established a new, “perfect” administration – complete with death camps, gulags, and state-sanctioned murder of those who offend their overlords in even the slightest manner.

This is not one of my favorite stories in the anthology. I recommend reading it because it is important, but it is not a likable or inspiring tale. While there are no explicit scenes, there are reminiscences of romantic interludes. The story also describes various forms of death and dismemberment that will probably startle Younger Readers.

None of this should make them avoid the story forever, since it shows the face of evil so and makes it more easily recognizable in the real world. But they should be aware there will be some disgusting things described in brief during the course of “In the Realm of the Heart, In the World of the Knife.” It will be unpleasant, of course, but evil always is. If we want to have good, then we have to know the face of wickedness in order to fight against it and preserve what is true. “In the Realm of the Heart, In the World of the Knife” makes this point quite memorably by showing readers what is lost when tyranny wins.

“Doing Well While Doing Good” follows “In the Realm of the Heart, In the World of the Knife.” Now “Doing” is actually a fun piece. It is a bit convoluted at first, but the finale clears up most of the confusion. Hayford Pierce, the author of this tale, certainly came up with one of the most ingenious answers to the pollution question that this blogger has ever heard! 😀

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Following this is a story titled “Minor Ingredient,” by Eric Frank Russell. Now this is a good story; no gore, no romantic interludes, and no language. Warner McShane arrives at the Space Training College for officers. A pilot-navigator on track for leadership training, he is taken through the college to his dormitory.

Once there, McShane is presented with a most unwelcome accessory. This would be Billings, his batman or personal servant. Scorning the idea that he would need someone to nanny him, McShane sends Billings away. But when the officer in charge of his dorm arrives and discovers this, he demonstrates why Billings’ presence is needed: the batman knows all the etiquette for the school, down to the proper arrangement of McShane’s clothes in his dresser drawers. Without him, the young man cannot hope to succeed in following the house rules, which will undoubtedly get him tossed out of the academy.

Unhappily, McShane agrees to take Billings back. Testing the older man to see just what he can and cannot get away with, the prospective officer finds himself frustrated at every turn. Over time, however, he comes to value his batman as a great friend and mentor, realizing how much the serving man and his fellows are doing for him and the other students.

This is a really, really sweet story. I cannot recommend it enough. More than worth the purchase price, “Minor Ingredient” is the piece de resistance of this collection. If you find it in a volume of a different kind, readers, snatch it up at once. This is a tale that should be on every book shelf in the country.

Next in line is Philip K. Dick’s “The Turning Wheel.” This is an odd piece which I still do not know what to make of, since it is rather bizarre. Set in a post-apocalyptic Earth, it shows a rigid caste system that has developed since man blasted himself almost back to the Stone Age. I say almost because the Bard Caste – the highest level in the caste system – uses rusting ships, viewscreens, and robots. The technology diminishes the further down the castes one goes.

At the bottom of the caste system are the Technos – the Caucasians or “Caucs” for short. Considered stupid, boorish animals, Technos are treated as pariahs by civilized society. But some of them have begun to challenge the ruling castes’ beliefs (which are a weird mixture of Buddhism, Christianity, and science). Known as the Tinkerers, this heresy is a threat to the ruling Bards.

The Bard Sung-wu has been sent to the Detroit area to check on reports of Tinkerer activity. He is not eager for this assignment. Due to die in the near future, he is more concerned with atoning for the adultery he committed with the wife of another man in order to avoid reincarnating as a carrion fly on another world. Unable to admit that to his superior, Sung-wu accepts the assignment and leaves – only to discover that, maybe, the Tinkerers aren’t so bad after all.

As I said, this is a weird story. It’s also a bit explicit in places, and so may not be appropriate for Younger Readers in the 12-15 age range. While it is a wacky piece, the tale is not necessarily a bad one. It is certainly worth reading at least once.

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“Custom Fitting,” by James White, is next. This is a straightforward tale about a tailor who receives galactic recognition for his work. Hired by the government in secret to design clothing for a Centauriform alien, George Hewlitt is struck dumb with fury when he discovers what type of clothing the administration wants him to design. A true craftsman, he sets out to fulfill his clandestine contract – the way he believes it should be done.

This is definitely a worthy story. It is readable for anyone of any age, with no objectionable content whatsoever. A fun romp, it is more relaxing than most of its fellows in this anthology.

Following this is Vernor Vinge’s “Conquest by Default.” This is a very disturbing thought experiment about how an anarchic government could be achieved. Anarchy is, and will always remain, an impractical form of governance in reality. You cannot have everyone running around doing their own things and still maintain a unified, ordered front.

Of course, that is not the point of this story. “Conquest by Default” is science fiction and thus it suspends this rule of reality to make a point about what anarchy would do to a society if it could be made into a workable frame for governance. A sad tale with an enormously important message, it has some objectionable content and may not be good for youths to jump into at once.

I did not like “The Skills of Xanadu,” by Theodore Sturgeon, very much on the first read through. The second reading left no better impression than the initial one. Young Bril of Kit Carson arrives on the world of Xanadu to exploit its people and technology. Although human, the Xanadu people appear childishly simplistic. They wear strange belts that produce a filmy energy outfit that hardly covers them and live in idyllic innocence.

But for a people that should be easy to conquer, Bril finds them almost impossible to outmaneuver. Whatever attempt he makes to learn the secret of their magnificent belts and skills is solidly stonewalled. It is like dealing with gullible, indolent children who have somehow crafted fantastic powers of the mind and technology one hardly notices.

For me, this story did not work. It is hard to say just why without giving anything away. Suffice it to say that the resolution feels too…effortless for this blogger to accept it. Although the message of the story is an admirable one, it is highly unrealistic, moreso than that found in “Conquest by Default.” Perfection is not possible in this life, and every time a story resorts to this trope, it bothers me because it is so implausible.

So, while “The Skills of Xanadu” is worth reading, it may not be particularly satisfying. You will have to make your own decision about it, readers, if you wish to read it. Young Readers may find some content a bit disconcerting, but there is not one explicit scene in the story.

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Jerry Pournelle

The same cannot be said of the final piece in the collection that this blogger can review. “Into the Sunset,” by D.C. Poyer, has a couple of romantic interludes. Something of a reverse 1984, the story has a good point despite these scenes and some other irritating tropes. I definitely recommend reading it, since one does not have to like the lead character or some of his actions to appreciate the story.

Admittedly, I cut the lead character a lot of slack because it is really nice to have a tale that shows a Party losing. One of the most depressing things about George Orwell’s 1984 is that it ends in despair. “Into the Sunset” does not have a happy ending for the protagonist, but it certainly is not as discouraging as 1984 was. I will take what I can get.

Whew! This author is wiped, readers. Hopefully she will be back again next week with something new. I am not sure what this will be just yet, but it will certainly not be another anthology. I am taking a break from those! 😀

‘Til next time!

The Mithril Guardian

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Book Review: Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey

Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey - Reviews ...

Black Horses for the King is the first Anne McCaffrey book that I have ever read. No, I am not joking; prior to this, yours truly had never done more than peek at a page of Miss McCaffrey’s books. The Dragon Riders of Pern series is on my “to read” list, but so far this blogger has not actually read those books.

Knowing her reputation with those novels, however, Black Horses for the King looked like a good place for this writer to begin getting to know Miss McCaffrey and her work. While it doesn’t strike me as an excellent piece, it is enjoyable and well written. I really have no complaints about it, beyond a few minor nitpicks.

The story begins with Galwyn Varianus, who has been apprenticed to his uncle, a rough sailor and pagan who despises him. Following his lead, the crew picks on the boy mercilessly. The fact that Galwyn is currently cleaning up after six seasick passengers below decks isn’t helping much, since their discomfort is making him ill, too. Despite that, he is doing his best to avoid telling off the sailors; doing that only makes them increase their cruel teasing. But when one of the sailors insults the lad’s mother, Galwyn whirls around, ready for a fight…

…Only to be stopped by Comes Artos, the Dux Bellorum. Artos is Latin for Arthur, making this novel an Arthurian tale. Miss McCaffrey, however, is leaving off the magic and other familiar trappings in order to remain as true to history as she can. She is also focusing on an almost mundane aspect of the legend – the large horses Arthur had to buy to repulse the recurrent Saxon invasions.

Artos is sailing to the continent to buy big horses he can breed with the larger ponies in England so that his men can face the Saxons on better terms. On their ponies the Britons cannot face the pagan invaders, since the animals are incapable of carrying the large Englishmen for great distances or long amounts of time. In order to out-maneuver and overcome the invaders, Artos and his Companions need bigger horses. So they are sailing to Septimania to buy them.

When apprised of the Comes’ plan, Galwyn finds he approves of it. Having grown up in a Roman villa prior to his apprenticeship with his uncle, the boy has a fondness for and skill with horses. He would much rather tend the animals than sail, but due to his father’s death, working at sea appeared to be the best way he to support his mother and sisters until he can find a different profession. And better companions.

Black Horses For The King ISBN 9780552529730 PDF epub ...

But when his uncle’s crew goes too far, Galwyn seizes his chance and escapes his hateful relative’s ship. He then buys a pony and follows Lord Artos to the fair in Septimania. There his knowledge of horses, his ability to bargain, and his skill with languages prove invaluable in the purchase of a large group of black Libyans – stallions, mares, and foals. Following their purchase he, Artos, and the rest of the Companions lead the animals to port in order to bring them back to England.

Shipping the creatures across the ocean is difficult work, since they are as unused to the water as the Companions, who are too busy taking care of them to get sick this time. On their first arrival in England, Galwyn makes a final end to his apprenticeship under his uncle. Staying with Artos and his Companions, he helps bring the other two sets of horses to Britain.

From there, he travels to a farm where the animals will be tended and allowed to breed with each other and the biggest Briton ponies. On the way he becomes apprentice to the horse expert friend of Artos, a man named Canyd. Canyd and his fellow horse masters are trying to make the first horse shoe in order to protect the animals’ feet. As Canyd likes to remind everyone around him, whether they want to hear him or not: “No hoof, no horse!”

Black Horses for the King does not strike me as the best of Miss McCaffrey’s work. Still, it is an enjoyable story that presents a good picture of the times in which it is set. Horse and history lovers will find it a great read, and it is hard to stop once you get going with it. In the final analysis, it is a worthy book from a good author.

‘Til next time, readers!

Black Horses for the King by Anne McCaffrey (Paperback ...

Book Review: Last Stand at Papago Wells by Louis L’Amour

Last Stand at Papago Wells - Louis L'Amour Wiki

Here we are, readers – the first post of a new year! Today’s topic is a Louis L’Amour novel, one of my favorites. Last Stand at Papago Wells was one of the first two or three L’Amour books that I read, and it has a special place in my heart because of that.

This tale is a beauty. Full of suspense, action, intrigue, and tension, L’Amour poured a great deal into this story. It would make a fantastic film, and I hope someone gets the rights to it one of these days. This is a Western that deserves to be on the silver screen!

Okay, enough of the fan-ranting. It’s time to describe the story!

Logan Cates is drifting through the desert when he picks up a trail going toward Yuma. At roughly the same time, he spots a cloud of dust moving in the same general direction. It could be nothing more than a posse or a few travelers headed West….

But with Churupati, a half-Apache, half-Yaqui Indian raiding, pillaging, and murdering small farms and settlements throughout this section of Arizona, those explanations are not entirely satisfactory. Either set of trails Logan has seen and is following could belong to the renegade’s men. It is hard to make sure at a distance, though one trail definitely seems to have been made by white men and not Indians.

Worried by the flurry of activity in what should be a fairly empty desert, Logan pushes forward. This portion of the Territory is largely waterless; only a few tanks up ahead hold out any hope of water. Known as Papago Wells, these particular tanks fill up with water inch by inch over the desert months. Catch them at the right time and you will find enough water to help you along. Come upon them at the wrong time, and you are dead. Logan needs water, and so he is headed to the Wells to refill his canteens….

Last Stand at Papago Wells by Louis L'Amour ...

…And that’s the same place everyone else he has noticed seems to be heading as well.

Up ahead, Jennifer Fair and her fiancé, Grant Kimbrough, are on their way to Yuma to marry. Pursuing them is Jennifer’s father, Jim Fair, a well-known and well-respected cattleman. Having been to school back East for the last few years, Jennifer has come to hate her father and Arizona. This hatred has been fed to greater heights by the fact that she saw her father gun down a young man her ten or eleven year old self had a crush on. She is determined to leave the country by any means available or necessary.

Taking advantage of all this, Kimbrough proposed to her. When her father absolutely refused to accept him as a prospective son-in-law, he suggested they run away to marry, which Jennifer was all too happy to do. On the way toward Yuma they happen across the remains of two cowpunchers the Apaches killed and mutilated.

Lonnie Foreman, the only survivor of the attack, pops up from the rocks and explains what happened. Hitching a ride with the couple, they continue on to Papago Wells. There they meet an old buffalo hunter and his Pima Indian companion, who were pursued to Papago Wells by a posse from Yuma after they killed a young man intent on making a name for himself by murdering one or both of them.

Elsewhere, Junie Hatchet is taken captive by a band of marauding Indians. She escapes them temporarily, only to be chased into an outcropping of rock over the course of the following day. A cavalry patrol which was absorbed into the posse finds and rescues her before heading into Papago Wells, too.

Prior to their arrival Logan pulls into the tanks and mentions the Apaches are watching and waiting to strike at those who will congregate at the Wells. Not long after the gang is all together, Churupati puts them under siege. Elected leader of the group, Logan Cates must find a way to keep them all alive until search parties from Yuma, a nearby fort, or Jim Fair reaches them. Otherwise they are doomed to die at the hands of the Apache.

This book is a tense, action packed little novel that will keep you on the edge of your seat, readers. Part horror, part Treasure of the Sierra Madre, L’Amour’s Last Stand at Papago Wells is a worthy addition to any library. It is one of the best stories the man ever wrote. I recommend you pick it up and enjoy it at your earliest opportunity, because you won’t be disappointed by it. 😉

‘Til next time!

Flickriver: Photoset 'The Western Novels of Louis L'Amour ...

Book Review: Sole Survivor by Dean Koontz

Sole Survivor by Dean R. Koontz - Reviews, Description ...

Here we are, readers, reviewing yet another Dean Koontz novel. Unlike Innocence, I was able to finish reading one, so you know it’s a good story. 😉 Originally published in 1997, Sole Survivor is still current. Yeesh, it is scary how much art is mirroring real life….  Brrr! But if you wanted to know more details about that, you would be watching the news. Since you are here, you want to know what to expect when you pick up Sole Survivor. Therefore, let us begin the description process….now:

The hero of this book is one Joe Carpenter. Thirty-seven years old, Joe used to be a crime reporter for the Los Angeles Post. Then, a year ago, his wife and daughters died in a plane crash on their way back from a trip to the east coast.

The grief and anger he feels over his loss led Joe to quit the Post and alienate most of his friends during the course of the past year. He can’t look at a crime scene without seeing his wife and daughters’ bodies rather than the real victims’; he can’t go a day without suffering panic attacks. During these episodes he imagines dying with his beloved family, feeling racked by guilt that he could not die with them, leaving him the sole survivor of the Carpenter clan.

Nevertheless, Joe has not taken the ultimate step to utter despair. He is desolate, certainly, but he hasn’t committed suicide yet. Mostly, this is due to the fact that he is not sure there is a life beyond this one. If he gets there and finds nothing but an empty void, he will still miss his wife and daughters. And if there is life after death, which he seriously doubts, then murdering himself will guarantee he never sees his family again.

All of this means that Joe is in a rut. He sold his and his family’s house and now lives in an apartment, waiting for the day he can wake up dead. He can’t drink or dope himself to death because doing so would eventually erase his memories. Since those are precious to him, he doesn’t overdo the beers. But he hasn’t been taking care of himself, either.

This morning, on the anniversary of the crash, he calls his mother-in-law. She’s the only one with whom he feels capable of discussing his grief and despair. She asks after his health and suggests he go back to writing, but he deflects her probing questions, convincing her to describe the sunrise at her Virginia home. Her voice has the same southern lilt that his wife’s did, and so he likes hearing her talk. Joe also wants to make sure she and his father-in-law are doing all right, since they’re still grieving, too.

Sole Survivor - Audiobook by Dean Koontz, read by Ryan Burke

Later on Joe goes to the beach. He’s hoping to lull himself into a mood where he can visit his wife and daughters’ graves later in the day without falling apart or getting violently angry. While he is there, drinking and watching the waves, a couple of young boys sidle up and ask if he is selling something. Joe tells them no, and they say that someone must think he is, because there are a couple of “cops” keeping tabs on him from further down the beach. Thanking the boys, who walk away, Joe soon gets curious and turns to spot the men they identified.

Neither man looks to be the regular variety of cop. They’re definitely interested in him, but Joe can’t guess why they should be. He dismisses them from his mind until he goes to the men’s room. Worried about being jumped, he pays a fourteen year old boy to scope out the territory for the two men. Coming back, the boy tells him he spotted one of the two men staring at a couple of bikini-clad women, one of whom is apparently deaf.

“Deaf?” Joe asks. The boy elaborates and states she kept pulling out and putting in a “hearing aid” in one ear. Paying the boy the rest of his promised money, Joe leaves the restroom and goes back to his place on the beach. Two young women set up next to him and, since he is wearing sunglasses, Joe can keep an eye on them without giving his suspicion away. They are watching him – and not the way young women usually watch men at the beach.

Using up the last of his beer, Joe decides these cops have picked him out of the crowd by mistake and ignores them. He packs up and heads to the cemetery. When he gets there, however, he finds a woman photographing the headstones of his wife and daughters’ graves. She tells him she is not ready to talk to him yet, then asks how he is coping with his loss. It doesn’t take a great detective to see he is in bad shape, mind you; she just needs a conversational topic.

Sole Survivor: Amazon.co.uk: Dean Koontz: 9780747254348: Books

Before their graveside chat can go any deeper, the two are interrupted by a screeching engine. Joe looks up to see a vehicle approaching the cemetery. It stops and the two men who were observing him at the beach jump out. Immediately, the woman takes off, and she is so fast that Joe can’t keep up with her in his poor condition.

His two shadows chase after the strange woman. Doubling back to their vehicle, Joe discovers a third man inside. Taking the brute by surprise, Joe subdues him before studying the interior of the van. Abandoning it, he races off before the thug can grab him. He gets shot at, but loses his pursuers, only to find he has picked up a helicopter instead. Discovering a tacking device on his car, Joe slaps it on a passing dump truck and goes to get some answers.

In the process, he learns there is a reason to keep living. Someone survived the plane crash that killed his family, which should be impossible. But apparently it isn’t and, on the off chance that the woman he met at the graveside can help him locate the survivor, Joe begins chasing after her. As he does he learns by inches why he was allowed to survive his family’s demise.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you, readers. In spite of the protagonist’s depair-induced whining about the world toward the beginning of the novel, this is a riveting book. Joe eventually gets whacked on the head enough times that he straightens up and flies right, naturally. Koontz doesn’t hold with wimps or whiners, though he occasionally writes about them. Sole Survivor is no different than the rest of his works in that respect.

A good read with a good ending, Sole Survivor is as timely today as when it was written. But you don’t need to take my word for it, readers. Pick up the novel at your earliest opportunity and discover how good a book this is yourselves!

‘Til next time!

Sole Survivor « Dean Koontz

Book Review: Off the Mangrove Coast by Louis L’Amour

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Louis L’Amour is a household name due to his wonderful tales of the men and women who made the West. But he would not have gotten there if he had not started his career as an author writing short stories for magazines. Since his father’s death Mr. L’Amour’s son has been going through the author’s archives to collect the short stories which the publishers did not have. Those he finds are put into collections such as the one we will look at today.

Off the Mangrove Coast, while the title story, is not the first piece which we encounter on opening the book. That is “Fighters Should Be Hungry,” which focuses on one Tandy Moore, a young man with boxing potential who is currently a hobo. Entering a hobo jungle outside Astoria, Oregon, one of the fellas his own age makes a comment which irritates Tandy. He shakes the guy a little, only to be told by one of the other tramps to let the kid alone. Tandy rounds on the older man and gets socked in the mouth after trying to start a fight with him.

Friendships have many strange beginnings, and the camaraderie between Tandy Moore, Gus Coe, and Briggs is no exception. Realizing that Tandy can really fight, the two fellas take him under their wing and teach him some moves before they put him in the ring. But it isn’t just money these men want; they’re intent on taking down a criminal and the boxer who works for him. Tandy especially wants a crack at the other fighter for something that happened a long time ago….

Next we have “It’s Your Move,” a short story set somewhere on the Northwest Coast. It’s about a dock worker who likes to play checkers and is good enough to whip everybody else who works there.

So what do you think happens when he meets a guy who can beat him?

After this comes “Off the Mangrove Coast,” a straight-up treasure hunting story. It focuses on four men who go in search of a sunken ship in the South China Sea. This ship was carrying a gold shipment when it went down and, when there is gold involved, trust becomes scarce. The young hero of this story is not close to any of the men he sails with, and two of them look less than friendly when they talk of the prize they seek. The third, a black man named Smoke Bassett from Port au Prince, seems much nicer. But when the chips are down, who will stand beside their friends, and who will end up shark bait?

I liked these first three stories a fair bit. Smoke Bassett is one of the L’Amour characters I think the most of, even though he only appears in this story. He was a good fella and a strong friend – and yes, I am dropping a veiled spoiler on you here. Therefore, we will go to the next story, which didn’t entertain me near as much as these three did. This would be “The Cross and the Candle,” which is set not long after World War II in France. Here the unnamed hero meets a fellow American who lived and worked in the country before WW II broke out. He had a girl who worked for the Resistance during the Nazi occupation, but she was killed by a traitor. Ever since, this man has been searching for her murderer – and he thinks our unnamed protagonist can help him catch the guy.

“The Diamond of Jeru” is the next story in this collection. It is funny; when I was a child, my father would mention “The Diamond of Jeru” on occasion. So when I saw the title in Off the Mangrove Coast, it rang a bell that took some time to bring back the memories from my youth. For some reason, this title always made me think of an Indiana Jones adventure someone had written up but which I had never seen.

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To be fair, “The Diamond of Jeru” does have some Indiana Jones flair to it. This tale is about Mr. Kardec, a man who went to Borneo in search of diamonds. He found – and lost – a fortune of them, which left him stranded in the country. With no money to pay his way home he has guided others up the Baram River in search of the gems. It means he can meet his bills while keeping body and soul together… but it does not earn him enough to buy a ticket home.

So when a Mr. and Mrs. Lacklan arrive and offer to pay him to be their guide, things begin looking up. Until two problems arise: one, Mrs. Helen Lacklan is younger than her husband, being nearer in age to Kardec than to her man. She is also strong, able, intelligent, and courageous as well as physically attractive. Two, Mr. Lacklan wants to take her up the river with Kardec and himself, which could attract the attention of the natives. But since Kardec desperately wants to go home, he works out a deal with the two despite these problems. Then, a few days before they are to go, the Lacklans return so that Mr. Lacklan can tell Kardec they have found someone who will take them up river much cheaper.

Kardec is angry at first, mostly because everything had been set up and this cancellation is on very short notice. Then he figures out that the Lacklans are being set up by an old head hunter who lives up the Baram – Jeru. Using an enormous diamond, Jeru has lured other treasure hunters up the river, none of whom have ever returned. Kardec tries to warn the two about this but, since it was one of Jeru’s followers with the diamond and not the old man himself, Lacklan decides Kardec is just making trouble. Further angered, Kardec says it’s their funeral and lets them go…

However, the thought of Helen’s head being added to Jeru’s collection finally gets to him, and he packs up to follow the couple upriver.

While this was a riveting story, I cannot say it was one of my favorites. It is much darker than L’Amour’s normal fare – and Indiana Jones’ stories, for that matter. Also, L’Amour rarely had this type of love triangle go on in his stories, but when he did do it, I always found it annoying. So though “The Diamond of Jeru” was well done and relatively interesting, it isn’t a story I like to reread much.

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This means that the piece following this one, “Secret of Silver Springs,” was a breath of fresh air when I picked up the book first. As the title suggests, this is a Western; four men meet on a stage route and, being short on cash, they decide to rob the next coach coming down the line. Instead, they end up saving it from men who want to kill the passengers on said stage. The story starts with this intriguing reversal and, though it gets a bit dark, it is in general the type of Western I have come to expect from L’Amour, making it well worth the read.

Following this we have “The Unexpected Corpse,” a detective piece about a PI who gets a call from an old friend who is now an actress. Having found a dead man in her home, she calls our hero to “hush…up” the mess, but he calls the cops instead. Though he knows the woman has the ability to kill, our detective is ninety percent sure she didn’t commit this crime. But it all comes down to proving that – before the police put her behind bars.

While this story was a little dark, it is not as sinister as “Jeru.” Nevertheless the next tale, “The Rounds Don’t Matter,” was a much better installment. Patty Brennan, an up and coming boxer engaged to the daughter of a police chief, is trying to help the cops catch a mobster who works as a boxing manager. This mobster likes to have the other boxers throw the fight so his man wins the match; those who won’t take the money get taken out. One of those honorable fighters was Patty’s best friend, and he intends to see this guy pay for murdering his pal.

After this we come to the final story in the book, which is called “Time of Terror.” This has to be the darkest story L’Amour ever wrote – it is certainly the most frightening one of his that I have ever read. While having a drink at a bar one night, the hero of this tale sees a man walk into the bar – a man who should be dead. Turns out that this old friend isn’t so friendly; he made a fortune faking his demise, but there are a few loose ends he has to wrap up before he can feel safe enough to live on his ill-gotten gains.

One of those loose ends is our hero.

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In all, Off the Mangrove Coast was not a bad read, though “Jeru” and “Terror” both creeped me out. None of that blights the other tales in this collection, however, which is why I recommend it. Off the Mangrove Coast would be worth the read for the title story alone, but add “Silver Springs,” “The Rounds Don’t Matter,” “It’s Your Move,” and “Fighters Should Be Hungry” into the mix, and you can pass a good evening with this collection.

Despite my criticisms, “Jeru” and a couple of the other stories here were interesting for their historical accuracy. (Plus, the husband in “Jeru” proves that the rotten professor isn’t a recent development, so L’Amour gets points for that.) The only piece in this book that I wish I had not read is “Time of Terror.” THAT was a spooky read. *Shivers.*

These are my opinions, of course; if dark tales are to your taste, you may like the stories I hate and hate the ones I like. All this blogger has done is praise the pieces in the collection which she found most enjoyable. “Terror” and “Jeru” might be right up your alley, readers.

But you won’t know that for sure until you check this book out! 😉 Have fun looking up Off the Mangrove Coast, readers – and feel free to come back with a comment telling me which stories you liked best!

‘Til next time!

Book Review: That Fine Summer by Ella Manuel

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That Fine Summer, by Ella Manuel, is a short children’s book set in Fox Cove, Newfoundland. Never heard of Newfoundland? I am not terribly surprised; The Rock, as her people call her, is not the most popular tourist destination in the world.

Newfoundland was discovered by Norsemen and colonized by them at the turn of the Dark Ages, if my memory serves me correctly. But it was not until after Christopher Columbus discovered America that a more permanent colony was set up. Over time English, Scottish, and Irish settlers came to Newfoundland to make their living on the bountiful cod, as well as the natural wealth of the rugged island itself. By the twentieth century, Newfoundland was its own island nation. I do not know the year, but Canada eventually annexed the island through Confederation.

I believe That Fine Summer is set before Confederation, back when Newfoundland was an independent country. In this short novel, Mahala “Malie” Jacobs marches out to her Grandfather’s house in a right fury. When asked what the matter is, she tells him that her mother has made her wear a new dress and a new set of shoes first thing in the morning.

Mahala is a tomboy who likes to go fishing and sailing, things she can only really do with her Grandfather. Her mother, her grandfather’s only child, wants Mahala to act and dress like a proper lady. The only things the two agree on are that they love each other, they love Grandfather, and they are ardent piano players.

That evening, Mahala’s mother springs another unwelcome surprise on her daughter. She tells Malie that they are going to St. John’s, the capitol city of Newfoundland, for the summer.

Malie is thunderstruck. She does not want to go to the city. She wants to stay in Fox Cove with her grandfather, fishing, exploring the beaches, and just having fun in her own native place. She has had it all planned out for the last few months.

This leads to an explosive family argument, and Malie goes to the person who understands her best to solve the dilemma: Grandfather. Grandfather talks to Mahala’s mother and convinces her to let Malie stay with him throughout the summer… That fine summer.

I’ll not spoil the rest of the book for you, readers. It is a sweet little story, with lots of local color and language. If you do not understand the Newfoundland slang, the BREAKWATER edition has a short glossary of Newfoundland expressions included in it. But between the jigs and the reels, the story should be easy for children to read and understand.

Have fun fishing for this book and learning about The Rock, readers!

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Book Review: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly

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In the Church of Our Lady Mary in Krakow, Poland, there is a special tradition. Every hour of every day, on the hour, one of the firemen of Krakow goes to the tower in the church and plays a special hymn on the trumpet. This hymn is called the Heynal, the Hymn to Our Lady. You can hear it in this video here:

If you listen carefully, you will notice that the hymn ends abruptly. It actually ends on a broken note. Why?

In thirteenth century Poland, the Tartars were invading. They were almost at the gates of the city of Krakow when they heard a song. It was a boy in the brick cathedral of the Church of Our Lady Mary, which at that time was outside the walls of the city. All the other buildings around the church had been burned by the invading Tartars. Only the church remained standing.

The boy was blowing the Heynal on his trumpet, as he had sworn to do in times of emergency. He knew doing this would get the Tartars attention and let them spot him. But it was his duty to play the Heynal on the hour, and the time had come for him to play. So he played.

And a Tartar took aim and fired at him, killing him with the arrow. This left the broken note of the Heynal, as the boy died before he could finish the tune. All who play the hymn today end the tune on the broken note, in memory of the boy who died fulfilling his duty to country, God, and church. Even during the years when the Communists had control of Poland, the Heynal would be played from the tower of the Church of Our Lady Mary.

In the twentieth century, a student and teacher named Eric P. Kelly heard the Heynal being played from the tower of the Church of Our Lady Mary in Krakow. The melody enchanted him almost as much as Poland did. And it inspired him to write The Trumpeter of Krakow.

In later centuries, after the Tartars were driven out of Poland, the Heynal was played not only on the hour, but to alert the city to the danger of fire. The watchman who would play the Heynal on the hour during the day or night (they rotated shifts, of course), would ring the bell and play the hymn to warn the city of invasion and other such dangers. But for the most part, during the fifteenth century, it was to warn against fires.

Krakow had a lot of wooden buildings at the time. One little set of sparks in the right place at the right time and – whoosh! There goes a third of the city up in smoke.

Pan (Mr.) Andrew Charnetski, his wife, and his son Joseph are headed into Krakow one day in July of 1461. Joseph is sitting on the back of the cart with the last possession of his family besides the cart itself, the horses, and the clothes on their backs – a pumpkin. The Charnetskis lived in the Ukraine until their house and property were burned to the ground by raiders.

Now they are headed to Krakow, on a market day. The road to the city is full of farmers headed to market with their goods, as well as with those coming to buy those goods. The Charnetskis are the only refugees of any import in this story.

As Joseph sits on the back of the cart, watching the world go by, he suddenly sees a man riding toward them. Getting his father’s attention, Joseph dives at once to catch hold of the animal’s reins when the stranger commands him to mind the horse. Young though he is – Joseph is fifteen – the youth senses something amiss with the stranger. There is something dangerous, something evil, in his expression.

The man introduces himself to Pan Andrew and talks to him rapidly in a low voice. Whatever he says, Pan Andrew does not like it. In fact, though no one can tell from his expression, the stranger’s words frighten him. He tells the man to be off, but the stranger is stubborn. He then asks how much Pan Andrew will take for the pumpkin.

Pan Andrew tells him it is not for sale, despite the fact that the man offers him far more than any pumpkin ought to be worth. When Pan Andrew continues to refuse to sell the pumpkin, the stranger draws his sword –

But Pan Andrew is better. He knocks the man off of the cart and to the ground. Thinking quickly, Joseph turns the man’s horse and slaps its rump, sending it running. He jumps aboard the cart and his father takes off, leaving the stranger cursing and shouting in the mud beside the road.

The family makes it to the city safely. On their way in Joseph hears the Heynal as it is played from the tower of the Church of Our Lady Mary. Pan Andrew promises to tell him the story of the broken hymn later on. What poor Pan Andrew does not yet know is that all is not well in Krakow. Pan Andrew goes to see his relatives but finds his cousin has been killed in a feud between the tradesmen and the nobles. This leaves the Charnetskis with no place to stay, no money and, worst of all, no protection.

If you want to know what else happens in the story, readers, you shall have to chase down a copy of The Trumpeter of Krakow yourselves. I have whet your appetite, I hope, for this charming story. Someone I know read and went into raptures over the book a long time ago. I waited a long time to read the novel, unfortunately. Perhaps, if I had read it earlier, I would have enjoyed it more than I did.

Poland is left in the dust these days. For twenty years it did not even exist; it was divided between Germany, Russia, and Austria. By far Austria treated the Poles better than the Germans or the Russians. Poland has suffered much throughout her long history.

However, as the Japanese say, “Fall seven times, stand up eight!” Poland has suffered, but she has always stood back up at some point. It is time she was recognized for this strength. This post and, perhaps, others will help to put her back in the world consciousness, where she belongs.

God go with you, readers!