A Cheap Dupin Knockoff

The Old Man in the Corner: The Teahouse Detective: Volume 1 (Pushkin Vertigo) by [Orczy]Title: The Old Man in the Corner:
The Teahouse Detective, Volume 1
Author: Baroness Orczy
Genre: Armchair Detective Mystery
Pages: 224
Rating: 2.5 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the contents of this review in any way)

In 1887 Arthur Conan Doyle  stole  borrowed Edgar Allan Poe’s eccentric detective C. Auguste Dupin, and transformed him into the wildly popular Sherlock Holmes. While Holmes is arguably more entertaining than Dupin, the host of imitations created by other authors trying to cash in on the “genius detective” craze were seldom more than pale imitations. Such is Baroness Orczy’s unnamed Old Man in the Corner.

This collection of short stories features conversations between a young reporter and an “odd scarecrow” of a man who sits in the corner of a teahouse tying complex knots in a piece of string while quietly (but arrogantly) expounding to her the answers to unsolved crimes. His deductions are based almost exclusively on attending inquests and reading the stories as they appear in the newspaper. The old man has no desire to bring the criminals to justice and offers no concrete evidence that could do so. He is content with working out to his satisfaction (and his listener’s amazement) what must have happened.

For me, everything about the book was very bland. The characterization was shallow, relying on the same few stock descriptions (“scarecrow” “sarcastic” “tying and untying complex knots”). The subject matter of the stories was the usual assortment of blackmail, gambling debts, unhappy marriages, inheritance disputes, etc, with nothing terribly unexpected, exotic, or spine-tingling, and the solutions to the mysteries became tediously similar after the first two or three. The eARC Pushkin Vertigo edition that I read provided nothing in the way of background, commentary, or any other added interest.

Overall, if you’re really into classic armchair detectives, you will probably enjoy this, but if you’re just dipping into the “genius detective” genre go with Holmes or Dupin.

Compressed Alternate History

Title: The Tyranny of the Night:
Book 1 of the Instrumentalities of the Night
Author: Glen Cook
Genre: Dark Fantasy / Alternate History
Pages: 432
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Imagine that all the most interesting/infamous people and religious/geopolitical situations from the 1200’s through the early 1500’s existed and happened contemporaneously. Also imagine that the world oozes with dark godlike powers and beings. That’s pretty much the worldbuilding behind Glen Cook’s Instrumentalities of the Night series.

If you don’t know your Medieval Crusader-era history, you can easily become hopelessly lost in the bewildering tangle of politics and religion that drive the plot. Even if you do know that history, it takes a while to sort things out since Cook has renamed all of the people, places, and religions. At the end of this post I’ve listed the identities of some of the major players as far as I can figure them out (and you can find similar lists elsewhere). I didn’t bother with individuals since some of them seem to be composites of a few people (though there are clear analogues to Rodrigo Borgia, Raymond VI, Saladin, Genghis Khan, and others).

At this point, I’m hard-pressed to say what the overarching plot is. We spend the most time with a Praman (Muslim) secret agent who worms his way into the heart of Brothen Episcopal (Roman Catholic) power, but other major strands include Maysalian/Connecten (Cathar/Languedoc) politics, Devedian (Jewish) self-preservation (or possibly world-dominating conspiracy; I can’t decide whether it’s just our Praman/Muslim agent or Glen Cook himself who is coming off a bit anti-Semitic), and a healthy dose of Norse mythology.

In spite of a few overly graphic bits (the crusading era was brutal and Rodrigo Borgia’s papacy was decadent and perverted) and an incredibly unfocused plot, I found this book fairly enjoyable. Cook mixes together vast swaths of history and a lurking dread of dark powers into something unique…messy but interesting so far.

 

A partial list of places and religious/ethnic groups as far as I can tell (If you’ve read the series, I’d love your input):

Andoray- Scandinavian nation (Norway?)
Arnhand- France
Brothe- Rome
Calzir- Barbary pirate states but located in Southern Italy (and Sicily)
Connec- Languedoc (Southern France, home of the Cathars/Albigenses)
Direcia- Iberian peninsula (mostly Muslim occupied, but being “reconquered”)
Dreangerea- land of the (Fatimid?) caliphate south of the Holy Land (Egypt?)
Eastern Empire- Byzantine Empire
Firaldia- Italy
Friesland- Nation conquering/uniting Scandinavia (Denmark?)
Grail Empire- Holy Roman Empire
Great Sky Fortress- Asgard
Lucidia- land of the (Ayyubid?) caliphate north of the Holy Land (Syria?)
Navaya- Navarre (or Castile)
Platadura- Maritime city-state, Muslim ally of Navarre
Shippen- Sicily
Sonsa- a major maritime city-state
Viscesment- Seat of the anti-pope (Avignon?)

Chaldarean – Christian
Episcopal – Roman Catholic
Maysaleans- Cathari/Albigenses
Brotherhood of War- Templars with shades of the Inquisition
Devedian- Jewish
Dainshau- Orthodox Jewish?
Praman- Muslim
Sha-lug – Mamelukes (or Janissaries)

Visual Dad Jokes

Title: The Ultimate Droodles Compendium:
The Absurdly Complete Compendium of All the Classic Zany Creations
Author: Roger Price (Author), Fritz Holznagel (Editor)
Genre: Comics / Humor / Art / Biography
Pages: 280
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: March 6, 2019 (Thank you to the publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

When I was ten or eleven years old I found a book of brainteasers that had belonged to my mom when she was about that age. The most interesting things in it were these strange “guess what this is” line drawings called droodles. Most of them were pretty much unguessable and made you groan when you read the answer. They were basically visual dad jokes. I especially remember one a lot like this (courtesy of wikipedia):

In case you’re wondering, that is four elephants sniffing a grapefruit (as well as several other possible unrelated answers). The most famous droodle is “ship arriving too late to save a drowning witch” which was used as an album cover by Frank Zappa.

It turns out these things were somewhat of a fad back in the 50’s and 60’s. I’m a child of the 80’s and only encountered them once before by chance, so I had no idea they were such a big deal until running across this book on NetGalley. This large collection provides plenty of laughs/groans depending on your sense of humor…my wife and daughters inform me that they’re mostly stupid, but they think the same thing about my (dad) jokes.

Aside from the absurdist humor, it is entertaining to see the little stories and slices of life that Robert Price could conjure with a few simple lines, squiggles, and shapes…and frequently adds to with meandering tangential footnotes. His mind certainly worked in strange ways. That said, I didn’t find the biographical section at the end terribly interesting. However, I’m not usually much into biographies of pop culture icons, so that’s just my own personal taste.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this collection of visual dad jokes and would highly recommend it to fans of absurdist humor and/or minimalist art and creativity.

Do you have what it takes?

Title: Secret Agent Brainteasers:
More Than 100 Codebreaking Puzzles Inspired by Britain’s Espionage Masterminds
Author: Sinclair McKay
Genre: Puzzles / History
Pages: 288
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: May 7, 2019 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

The question of this book is “do you have the mental acuity to be a secret agent?” Light, chatty descriptions of the history of various British intelligence agencies and famous spies alternate with collections of 8-10 puzzles loosely tied to the spy skills described in the historical section.

The puzzles vary significantly in difficulty. Many (most?) of them are variations on anagrams and/or arranging words in boxes. In some the spy connection feels genuine and in others it seems like a random puzzle from any old brainteaser collection with the spy bit “tacked on.” A few of the puzzles require knowledge of British places, history, etc. that a non-Brit might have a hard time coming up with. I would recommend this, if you enjoy word and pattern recognition puzzles (and spy trivia). You should definitely go with the printed version rather than the ebook so you don’t have to re-create all the grids, diagrams, etc. on a seperate piece of paper.

That one student…

43358773Title: The Education of H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N
Author: Leonard Q. Ross (aka Leo Rosten)
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 176
Rating: 4 of 5

In my college language classes (English & Greek) I had a classmate who was always ready to stand up and enthusiastically share his compositions or translations with the class. His answers frequently left the professor with a look of disbelief on his face while he tried to figure out how to even start correcting the beaming student. More than once, poor Mr. Smith looked like he was thinking about throwing himself out the window (if only it weren’t on the ground floor), and Dr. Brown once said, “No, I said translate verse 10” only to hear “that was verse 10.” This book took me right back to those classes.

The book follows the travails of Mr. Parkhill, the beginners class teacher at the American Night Preparatory School for Adults as he tries to teach English to immigrants, including the irrepressible Hyman Kaplan (aka H*Y*M*A*N K*A*P*L*A*N). Most of the humor revolves around Mr. Kaplan’s enthusiastic mispronunciation and misuse of English (e.g. “Bad, Worse, Rotten”).

Some readers might find this offensive (it certainly isn’t PC), but since the focus is generally on Mr. Kaplan’s self-assurance and unique thought process driving his teacher to distraction I felt that it was more about his charmingly ridiculous personality than a dig at immigrants. The other classmates show a more realistic portrait of someone trying to learn this ridiculous language of ours. After a while the jokes were a little one-note, but Mr. Kaplan reminded me so much of my classmate (who similarly butchered English in spite of it being his native language) and of the frustration of trying to teach English as a second language (which I did part time for about a year) that I was thoroughly amused.

I am using this for my Classic Comic Novel category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.

God & Guns

Title: Beating Guns:
Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence
Authors: Shane Claiborne & Michael Martin
Genre: Theology/Philosophy/Politics
Pages: 288
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: March 5, 2019 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

I come from a denominational background (American Evangelical/Baptist) where it is not uncommon for people to treat the broadest possible interpretation of the Second Amendment (right to bear arms) with practically the same devotion as any of the basic tenets of the faith. Attempts to discuss gun violence are met with, “It’s not a gun problem. It’s a heart problem” or some similar slogan. Over my last eight years as a pastor I have grown increasingly troubled by the gun culture I see among Evangelicals and the not-so-Christlike attitudes that it seems to foster in many people. I picked up this book to try to get another perspective on the issue.

These authors contend that the US has both a heart problem and a gun problem. The book is loaded with history and disturbing statistics on gun sales, ownership, lobbying, laws, crime, self-defense, and suicide in the US (especially as compared to other industrialized nations). Furthermore, they point out Scripture passages where the prophets speak of a future without weapons or warfare (the title Beating Guns is a play on prophetic verses about “beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” – Isaiah 2:4) and where Jesus speaks of non-violence and loving one’s enemies (e.g. the Sermon on the Mount – Matthew 5-7). While leaving some room for individual conscience as to what “commonsense gun laws” and responsible gun ownership might look like, they rightly challenge Christians to seriously reflect on how we as followers of Jesus Christ should relate to guns as far as ownership, admiration, advocacy, voting, etc.

Unfortunately, there is some serious “cherry picking” going on in their use of Scripture. They completely ignore passages that are in tension with their completely pacifist approach…passages that, if we take the Bible seriously, must be taken into account. For example:

  • Most of the prophets who describe the coming world peace talk about it being preceded by violent judgment from God/Jesus rather than a utopia brought about purely by social reform (e.g. Revelation 19)
  • Jesus’ rebuke of Peter for attacking a member of the party who came to arrest Jesus is preceded by a difficult, variously-interpreted passage in which Jesus talks about his disciples arming themselves (Luke 22:36-38)
  • The government is said to be God’s instrument for restraining evil, including by use of the sword (Romans 13:1-5)

This is not to say that the authors are entirely wrong in their concerns, but their approach to the Scripture is selective and incomplete. This makes me wonder if some of the history and statistics have been similarly oversimplified or misrepresented.

Another minor quibble that I have with the book is that the some of the information gets repeated over and over with very little variation in wording. I did read an eARC so maybe an editor will remove some of the redundancy and tighten things up before publication.

Overall, I appreciated the roundup of information and the challenge to think biblically (not just pragmatically) about the issue, but I do feel that there was some serious oversimplification going on here.

Time Travel & the Fear of Death

Title: The Psychology of Time Travel
Author: Kate Mascarenhas
Genre: Time Travel Sci-Fi
Pages: 336
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: February 12, 2019 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

I have always been fascinated by time travel stories in which time travel cannot create reality-altering paradoxes (e.g. To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis). As this book’s title suggests, it explores what kind of psychological effect this sort of time travel might have on people. The author does so with a degree of thoughtfulness and complexity that I don’t think I have seen before in time travel sci-fi. Topics explored include crime & punishment, romance, mental illness, bullying, fate/fatalism, and especially the fear of death.

What makes the plot great isn’t the solution of the mystery (the “whodunnit to whom?” is obvious well before the end). Rather, the fun is in watching the characters figure it out and seeing how the three different story arcs (starting in 1967, 2017, and 2018) fit together. The actual narration of the story was a bit flat (e.g. sometimes something momentous would happen and it would be stated so blandly that I would have to go back and reread to make sure I read correctly), but the plotting and worldbuilding more than made up for it.

To me, the characters seemed a bit contrived to check as many “strong, diverse female character” boxes as possible (e.g. black, immigrant, lesbian, mentally ill, aristocratic…). All the primary and secondary characters are women with a handful of men putting in very brief whiny, overprotective, or leering appearances. Though it felt a bit overplayed, if you are looking for sci-fi with strong female characters, this is it.

Overall, the plotting, worldbuilding, and psychology mostly made up for any bits that felt flat or contrived.

A Love Letter to Paul

Title: Why I Love the Apostle Paul: 30 Reasons
Author: John Piper
Genre: Theology
Pages: 208
Rating: 4 of 5
Future Release Date: January 31, 2019 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review.)

In the introduction John Piper describes this book as being “personal and idiosyncratic” rather than any kind of systematic treatment of the apostle’s life and teachings. This made for a rather different reading experience than the average serious theology book. Though it was occasionally a bit too gushing for my taste, Piper’s warmth and enthusiasm are moving as he describes the impact that Paul’s testimony and writings have had on on his life. Some people portray paul as harsh and dour, but Piper finds such love, joy, and hope. Overall, it was an encouraging book, though (as advertised) personal and idiosyncratic.

Grimdark Shakespeare

Title: King Lear
(1988 Bantam Classic Edition)
Author: William Shakespeare
Genre: Play (Tragedy)
Pages: 222 (actual play: 137 pages)
Rating: 4 of 5

Ego, ambition, lust, and madness swirl into a raging whirlwind of betrayal and death in this grim tragedy. The plot is so bleak that it fell out of favor for 150 years, and modern scholars are deeply divided over what, if anything, is the point of it all. I’m not sure what possessed Shakespeare to transform a legendary story with a relatively happy ending into this grimdark play, but he did so with his typical flair and devastating result.

The Bantam edition that I read had a decent variety of supplemental material. There is a running glossary at the bottom of each page providing definitions of archaic words and difficult phrases. A couple essays and an annotated bibliography explored possible interpretations of the play, and several sections at the end provided excerpts from older writings that probably served as Shakespeare’s sources. There are significant difference between quarto versions and the folio version, and, like many editions, this one smooshes them all together so as not to lose any lines written by the Bard (the text-critical apparatus is inconveniently located all in one place rather than footnoted in the text where variants occur). Overall, an okay edition of one of Shakespeare’s bleakest plays.

(Also, I will be using this for my Classic Play category over at the Back to the Classics challenge.)

Britain & the Confederacy

Title: Our Man in Charleston:
Britain’s Secret Agent in the Civil War South
Author: Christopher Dickey
Genre: History (American Civil War)
Pages: 400
Rating: 4 of 5

This book provides a unique Brit’s-eye view of the American Civil War. Even though “Secret Agent” appears in the subtitle, don’t expect a convoluted spy yarn. This is the story of British consul Robert Bunch whose tireless activities mostly involved schmoozing politicians and sending his superiors reports on the society and goings-on in Charleston (and the South in general).

Bunch’s disgust for slavery and the cruel, pompous hypocrisy of Charlestonians high society filled his reports as he kept his superiors abreast of the political developments up to and beyond South Carolina’s secession. With his Southern friends and acquaintances he hid his disdain well enough that none of them realized how much he abhorred their “peculiar institution” and how foolish he found the “fire eater” secessionists. According to the author, Bunch’s reports on slavery in the South and the possible revival of the African slave trade contributed heavily to Britain’s refusal to fully recognize the Confederacy (good man!).

Besides offering Bunch’s point of view, the book gives a decent overview of the national political maneuvering before and during the war. This includes both the jockeying to preserve slavery that led to secession*  and relations between Britain and both the USA and CSA. The political maneuverings involving Britain and the African slave trade were something with which I had only a passing acquaintance from previous study, so I found them particularly interesting.

The one major weakness that I found with the book is that the author almost always paraphrases or summarizes Bunch’s reports rather than quoting them at any length. I’m not sure if there are any direct quotes that are longer than a sentence in the entire book, and precious few of even that length. Maybe it’s just me, but this seems a bit sparse and interpretive even for a popular level history book.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and appreciated reading about the Civil War from a different perspective.

 

 

* The “lost cause” narrative of the Civil War that portrays slavery as a red herring is unsustainable in light of primary source material (e.g. secession documents) even if you ignore Bunch’s eyewitness accounts