Sunday, September 29, 2013

Ngaio Marsh. Last Ditch (1977)

     Ngaio Marsh. Last Ditch (1977) Ricky, Troy and Roderick Alleyn’s son, has gone to a Channel Island (carefully unnamed) in order to work on his novel. He makes contact with the Pharamonds, old acquaintances of Alleyn’s. A riding accident turns out to be a murder, and drug running and secret philandering complicate the case. Ricky falls in love, and suffers for his naive notions of detecting, Alleyn comes close to committing a serious offence after Ricky has been beaten up by the two prime suspects, and once again, the drug case doesn’t give the desired results. But the murderer is unmasked, which is some comfort. Better than average, with Troy and Alleyn plausibly concerned parents. *** (2007. This was then end of the |Ngaio Marsh binge.)

Ngaio Marsh. When in Rome (1970) & Black as He’s Painted (1974)

     Ngaio Marsh. When in Rome (1970) Alleyn joins a tour group in order to keep tabs on a suspected drug dealer and perhaps use him as a conduit to one of the big boys. A woman who hisses and spits at the dealer shows up dead, and a day or two later, so does the dealer. Alleyn and the Italian police do their best, but do not get any further with the drug investigation. However, the murderer of the woman was the dealer, and the murderer of the dealer was one of the tourists. Not that Alleyn passes on that discovery, if only because there isn’t enough evidence to charge the man, let alone convict him. As a puzzle, oddly satisfying despite its lack of resolution. As a character study, too many cliches, not one of Marsh’s best. **
     Ngaio Marsh. Black as He’s Painted (1974) The ambassador of an emerging African country is murdered at a reception for that country’s president. Alleyn was one of the people detailed to provide security, which is bad enough. Worse, he was at school with the president, who trades on their friendship. Two whites who are about to return to the African country also die by violence. The murder at the embassy is somehow tied in with a nasty little white-supremacy group, and orchestrated to remove the ambassador, an old rival of the president’s. The other two murders arise from hate within that group, and provide the link between the two events. Only the second murderer is brought to justice; the first one may or may not meet his fate in the African country when he returns there. A lovely puzzle, more careful characterisation than usual, and a little black stray kitten make for a better than average Marsh. **½ (2007)

Ngaio Marsh. Hand in Glove (1962) & Clutch of Constables (1968)

     Ngaio Marsh. Hand in Glove (1962) The glove of the title is a clue to the identity of the murderer, who kills from misplaced love and an appalling lack of insight into both herself and her adopted ward. Along the way we meet a clutch of more or less unsavoury types, except of course the young lovers, who represent moral purity, even as Alleyn and his crew represent the avenging Furies who unmask evil. The red herring this time is snobbery, which has moved a central character to revise his past so that he can claim descent from a very old family. **½
     Ngaio Marsh. Clutch of Constables (1968) Troy, fatigued from the opening of her one-man show, decides to join a river cruise when a vacancy opens up because of a cancellation. The cancellation occurs because of a murder; the murderer is seriously wanted by the police; the cruise is a test of a new scam (the “discovery” of a [faked] Constable), and triggers another murder. Troy writes to Roderick, and her letters, Alleyn’s lecture on this very case (to a class at a police academy), and Marsh’s narrative interweave to produce a nicely varied point of view. Technically, Marsh’s most ambitious novel. Thematically, fairly straightforward, with a nicely done fusion of plot, character, and the themes of racism and mixed moral feelings and attitudes. One of Marsh’s best. ***½
2007: I went on a bit of Ngaio Marsh binge. ;-)

Ngaio Marsh. False Scent (1960)

     Ngaio Marsh. False Scent (1960) From the blurb: “Mary Bellamy, ageing darling of the London stage, holds a fiftieth birthday party: a gala where she has assembled everyone who loves her and fears her power....”
     Nevertheless, one of them dislikes her enough to off her, using a scent bottle filled with pesticide. Alleyn solves the puzzle in his usual unorthodox way. The whole action takes place in about 24 hours, making the novel a classic Greek tragedy. The theme is also tragic: the murderer is Bellamy’s husband, who cannot stand the thought that she is becoming something less than the perfection that she embodied when he married her. He dies, too, so all is (tragically) well.
     Some good bits of satire on theatre people, as well as the formulaic romantic subplot: a playwright and a ingenue actress fall in love despite themselves. Marsh does this subplot more than once, which suggests that she (or her audience) likes the idea. Wonder how it relates to her own love life (on which her bios are curiously discreet). Nicely done entertainment. Alleyn, Fox, et al. are as always too good to be true, but that’s what we want from them.**½ (2007)

K. K. Beck. Murder in a Mummy Case (1986)

     K. K. Beck. Murder in a Mummy Case (1986) I did find another Iris Cooper/Jack Clancy case. This one’s set in a California mansion to which Iris has been invited by a college guy who wants to marry her. The period setting (1928) is a bit off, as is often the case when a writer can’t get the language quite right. It’s really quite difficult to mimic the usages and registers of a bygone age.
     The body of a pretty girl is stuffed into a mummy case, but the obvious suspect turns out to be innocent. As usual, money is the underlying motive: her husband wanted to marry the college guy’s sister, a ditzy pseudoblond with altogether too high an opinion of herself. Iris recovers from her initial infatuation with the college guy and ends in Jack Clancy’s arms. Is this a conclusion or a beginning? I don’t know, as I’ve not seen any other books by Beck. Harmless and pleasant confection. ** (2007)

Blackberry (Commentary)

Blackberry, formerly RIM, has tanked. On Friday 27 September 2013, its stock was selling under $8. Its sales of the new phones are well below expectations. People just don’t want Blackberrys any more.


Thinking back to introduction of the Playbook may provide a few clues. At the time, the iPad was cool, but for many people the cool factor wasn’t enough to justify an extra $100 or $200. When I heard that RIM would offer a tablet, I expected something new and better than an iPad. More power. An OS that would run 3rd party programs. More connectivity. A better camera. But mostly,  I expected the tablet to be a phone.

I think that Blackberry didn’t realise is that there’s a non-Apple market out there. A market that wants something more versatile than an iPad. Apple’s products have always been very good at what they do, but they’ve also always done very little for the price. So, what we got was a slightly better iPad that synced to a Blackberry phone.

What drives the tablet market is the dream of a single device that will do everything. Hence the huge number of “apps” available from the Apple store, and now also available “for your Android device”. Most of these apps merely link to websites, but many do real work, and of course there are lots of games.

Since Blackberry didn’t have the time or expertise to develop a slew of apps, it really had only two doable tasks:
     One, develop “apps” for the basics, such as web surfing and email. This could have been done by buying and improving a couple of available products.
     Two, build the OS so that the user could install any 3rd party program or app that they wanted. A Linux-based OS with a Windows virtual machine would have worked well for this.

And of course, make the tablet a phone, too. To do this comfortably would require a device with a 5" to 6" screen. The latest Superphones with 4.5" screens are creeping up to that size. The mini-iPad is approaching it from the other end. I think we’ll end up with tablet phones. Or maybe we’ll end up with Skype and texting as the preferred phone modes, which will make a 9 to 10 inch screen just right.

There were voices that expressed a wish for a small, powerful tablet that could be used as a phone. Mine was one of them. But I guess these desires were too blue-sky for Blackberry. Or else they were so focussed on beating Apple at its own game that they didn’t have enough attention left over to think about alternatives. Pity. Blackberry could have taken the tablet-phone a leap or two ahead of the competition.


Saturday, September 28, 2013

Ngaio Marsh. Off With his Head (1957)

     Ngaio Marsh. Off With his Head (1957) An oddity: a remnant pagan dance and drama becomes the occasion for murder. Alleyn’s restaging of the Sword Dance shows that the murderer acted without planning, but managed to obscure his trail enough to make his unmasking uncertain, except, of course, that Alleyn always gets his man. A bit creaky in places, with deliberately stereotyped characters, but a good entertainment nonetheless. ** (2007)

Colin Dexter. Death is Now Thy Neighbour (1996)

     Colin Dexter. Death is Now Thy Neighbour (1996) A woman is shot, by mistake as it turns out, because the killer miscounted the addresses from the back alley. The motive was a desperate desire for respectability and class, to be gained by killer’s husband achieving the Mastership of Lonsdale College. The incumbent Master, a nasty piece of self-satisfied work, fucks the wives of the candidates, promising his vote, and causing suicide and breakdown. A bleaker than usual book. Its presentation in short scenes shows that Dexter was thinking of the TV adaptation that he expected. However, the video doesn’t follow the book all that closely, which I think was a wise decision, as the video has more depth than the book. ** (2007)

Sue Grafton. H is for Homicide (1991)

     Sue Grafton. H is for Homicide (1991) Kinsey goes undercover when she’s stumbles into an insurance scam after one of California Fidelity’s claims investigator ends up dead in the parking lot. Her friends in the police department want her to help them nail the gang, which she does, eventually, but as usual at great risk to her life. Another nicely done entertainment, but rather forgettable compared to the others. It feels like Grafton is writing to formula. ** (2007)

Fodor’s Railways of the World (1977)

     Fodor’s Railways of the World (1977) “Frimbo” (Roger E. M. Whitaker) contributes a pleasant narrative to this overview of passenger travel in the late 1970s. But the overview of railway travel is too vague and general to be of much use. There are no timetables whatever, so I wonder who’s the intended audience. The tone of the entries suggests the armchair traveller, but the dearth of interesting or curious details makes that unlikely. I haven’t seen Fodor’s Guides in years; perhaps too many people found them as pointless as I find this one. For the historian of passenger travel, the book may provide some useful data, since it lists classes and types of trains run, thus indirectly providing dates for these services. Jon found this book in a Toronto Public Library sales bin, but I don’t think I want to keep it. * (2007)

Chris Ellis, ed. Airfix Magazine Annual (1971)

     Chris Ellis, ed. Airfix Magazine Annual (1971) The annual compilation of magazine articles together with new material appears to be a peculiarly British custom. This book illustrates the phenomenon nicely. It includes 18 articles, a quiz, and a selection from the magazine's photo pages. Airfix made mostly aircraft and military models; the articles deal primarily with these subjects. Histories of the prototypes, instructions for kit building, painting, and detailing, or design of dioramas form the bulk of the contents. One article describes “One Man’s Model Railway”. The book (and the magazine) encouraged serious, historically accurate modelling. Airfix went bankrupt in the late 80s or early 90s, despite attempts to expand its range by buying other model manufacturers. That makes this something of a nostalgia item, but it contains a good deal of useful information for anyone interested in its subjects. I’m going to try to sell it. ** (2007) Update 2913: I didn't sell it, but I did donate it to a book sale.

Herbert Wöber. Festschrift 1893 -1993: Von Strobl nach St. Lorenz

     Herbert Wöber. Festschrift 1893 -1993: Von Strobl nach St. Lorenz. A compilation of news reports and other sources chronicling the construction of this section of the “Salzkammergut Localbahn” (as originally spelled.) A few pictures (postcards, photos) round out the pamphlet. Of interest to an SKGLB fan, and useful to a social historian: the references to the High and Mighty are amusing, especially in the account of the Emperor’s deigning to ride the line from Salzburg to Bad Ischl. Like all such amateur compilations, the reproduction of the photos is below par, and the collection of clippings etc leaves a lot of questions unanswered, but it's worth a look by anyone interested in Austrian narrow gauge railways. ** (2007)

Christianne, a musician from Blind River

Find her music here.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Susan Wittig Albert. Rueful Death (1996)

     Susan Wittig Albert. Rueful Death (1996) I buy cheap paperbacks at library book sales, used books stores, Value Village, etc. This book is one such, and it was worth more than the 25 cents I paid for it 
     China Bayles needs some rest time from her herb shop, books into a nunnery along with her friend Maggie, a former nun from that same nunnery, and finds herself the official investigator into a mess of badness swirling around and focussed on a mess of money that some nuns want to use to build a retreat centre, that is a resort for clergy and their friends. Local small town politics and an old flame complicate matters. The resolution's plausible and works psychologically. The religious life is cake, not icing, as it often is self-styled Christian fiction. A pleasant confection, with some nice references to herbs and such, as well as better than average scene setting. One can almost smell the river that borders one side of the property, and which China sees and hears from her cottage. **½

Monday, September 23, 2013

Jay Ingram's Barmaid's Brain

I've added a second review to the post of 12 September 2013, because I read it twice. I do that sometimes.

Ngaio Marsh. Scales of Justice (1955)

     Ngaio Marsh. Scales of Justice (1955) Ancient family secrets, a tight-knit society, an outsider who married one of the set and is made to feel unwelcome, a widower who is both a fool and at a dangerous age, and unacknowledged ties between people come together to produce murder. The solution hinges on the curious fact that no two fish have exactly the same pattern of growth rings on their scales. Nicely done, with rather more of the police procedures than usual. **½ (2007)

Ngaio Marsh. Swing, Brother, Swing (1949) & Opening Night (1951)

     Ngaio Marsh. Swing, Brother, Swing (1949) A murder takes place in plain view of a roomful of restaurant guests, including Alleyn. The puzzle is one of Ngaio’s lesser efforts, too tricky by half, and with insufficient clues, but the story-telling and the characterisations are as usual very well done. **½ (2007)
     Ngaio Marsh. Opening Night (1951) One of Marsh’s best: it’s about theatre and Theatre, told mostly through the viewpoint of Martyn Tarne, a New Zealander whose cash was stolen shortly after her arrival in England and who fetches up at the Vulcan Theatre, run by a distant relative of hers. The theatrical plot is complex, the characters are believable, the on- and back-stage atmosphere is beautifully rendered, and the murder, when it comes, is seamlessly integrated into the story of how Martyn comes to go on as understudy and succeeds in her role and ambition. Alleyn does a neat job of ‘tecking, but we’re used to that. Wonderful book, worth reading as a story about theatre (with a bit of crime included.) **** (2007)

Sue Grafton. G is for Gumshoe (1990)

     Sue Grafton. G is for Gumshoe (1990) A con wants Kinsey dead and hires a hit man. A daughter wants her aged and ailing mother found. Kinsey moves into her new home (courtesy of Henry). She hires a bodyguard (Dietz) after being run off the road. The plot is not as complicated as that sounds, but it does give Grafton a chance to write a more personal story for Kinsey. The climax is of course another near-death experience, with a few dead bodies scattered about. Grafton’s stories are very American: Gunfire and rage resolves all problems. Curious notion. Not up to earlier books. ** (2007)

The Lady Vanishes (2013)

      The Lady Vanishes (2013. D: Diarmuid Lawrence. Charles Aitken, Paolo Antonio, Osaba Mokany) A remake of the Hitchcock classic. Not bad. Since most of the story takes place on a train, the train sets and sequences are crucial to the effect. They’re quite well done here, especially the actuality of crowded corridors and the differences between the classes. The other crucial element is the character of the girl whom no one will believe. Mokany as Iris Carr does a creditable job. The other actors generate just the right amount if smugness, self-centred obliviousness, and menace masked by careful good manners. That the logjam of deception loosens when an adulteress decides to revenge herself on her callous lover adds a nice little irony. **½

The Pale Horse (2010) Movie review

      The Pale Horse (2010. D: Andy Hay. Julia MacKenzie, Jonathan Cake, Neil Pearson.] Father Gorman mails a letter to Miss Marple just before his murderer attacks him. The letter contains a list of names. Investigation by the police, Mark Easterbrook, and Miss Marple reveals they’ve all died recently, apparently of natural causes. Miss Marple discovers a devious scheme to murder people for profit. The Pale Horse is an inn where witchy rituals take place; these supposedly cause the deaths. But in fact thallium is the poison the murderer uses.
       Julia Mackenzie is not as good a Miss Marple as Joan Hickson. But she’s better than Geraldine McEwan, who I think was miscast as Miss Marple. It’s quite clear from Christie’s texts that Miss Marple has no illusions, that she’s capable of acting flustered and fluffy-minded when it suits her, that she has clear and strict moral code, that she’s very observant, that she understand not only human nature but a good deal of what used to be called general knowledge, especially of poisons.  Mackenzie does these traits are very well here. But people who know Hickson’s version will feel that something is missing. Hickson gives the impression that Miss Marple knows the dark side better than most; and she shows us the inner core of a steely determination to dispense justice.
        The dramatisation, filming, supporting cast, narrative pace and so on are all good. A good hour and a half’s entertainment. **½

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A. C. Kalmbach. Model Railroad Track and Layout (1953, 5th edition)

     A. C. Kalmbach. Model Railroad Track and Layout (1953, 5th edition). Kalmbach covers all the bases, focussing mostly on design of the layout, with the latter chapters of the book dealing with track, and bench work. Like Armstrong in the 50s and later, Kalmbach emphasises prototype operation. Some of the material is reprinted from Model Railroader. Still a good text, although not as well organised as it could be, and of course the line art and halftones suffer from the shortcomings of mid-20th century printing technology. Out of print, but worth buying if you find a copy. **½ (2007)

K. K. Beck. Death in a Deckchair (1984)

     K. K. Beck. Death in a Deckchair (1984) A nice bit of fluff, in which narrator Iris Cooper helps unmask a killer on a luxury liner. A Balkan prince, political skulduggery, romance, and miscellaneous touches of period (1927) make for an undemanding and pleasant read. Plot is a bit muddled, but the clues are all there. Characters two dimensional, but clearly drawn, sketches. Beck tried her hand at other novels, and wrote at least one other Iris Cooper confection, but I’ve seen none of them. *½ (2007)

Earnest F. Carter. Electric Control of Clockwork Railways (1951)

     Earnest F. Carter. Electric Control of Clockwork Railways (1951) After reading this, I wonder why anyone would want to go to the trouble of electrical control of clockwork trains. Carter is a born tinkerer, and his solutions undoubtedly work, but oh what complicated devices he ends up with! A brake that works by electromagnetic attraction to the steel wheel of the (O scale) trains. A ramp with a sliding shoe that engages a pin on the loco and brings it to a slow stop. A magnetic governor to control the speed of the locomotive by creating electromagnetic drag on a spinning iron core. All very ingenious. All to make clockwork trains behave as much like electrically driven ones as possible. And, after all is said and done, no cheaper than electric trains, unless on counts one’s labour at zero cost. IOW, the book is lovely example of what happens when someone hangs onto an obsolete technology long past its viability. The last chapter describes making a zinc-potassiumbichromate battery, a fearsome thing that requires mixing a sulfuric acid solution. A curio, and a very British book. *** (2007)

Lawrence Block. The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian (1983)

      Lawrence Block. The Burglar Who Painted Like Mondrian (1983) Bernie Rhodenbarr, an antique dealer, moonlights as a thief of fine art and artefacts. I tried reading this book twice, and got about 20 pages both times. Block has tried to create the witty thief, the crook with whom we empathise, and twenty-odd years ago this ploy worked. But now it seems dated, and Bernie just isn’t an interesting enough character. He’s just a container for adolescent fantasies. (2007)

Elizabeth Peters. The Last Camel Died at Noon (1991)

     Elizabeth Peters. The Last Camel Died at Noon (1991) I gave up about half way through this interminable Victorian pastiche of sex, sand, and stars. Amelia Peabody and her husband go on a dig, and various kinds of skulduggery ensue. The arch references to their sex life grate after a while; Amelia seems to keeping score. Their parenting is far too modern. And so on. Altogether too clever by half, but not clever enough: Peters wants to write in the Victorian manner, but too many modernisms creep in and spoil the effect. It’s damn hard to maintain a century-old style. * (2007)

Ian Rankin. Beggars Banquet (2002)

     Ian Rankin. Beggars Banquet (2002) Rankin’s short stories are clever but not engaging. He knows how to tell the story, how to present a character through speech (both internal and external), and can set a mood or sketch a locale in a few phrases. But these stories all have the same pattern: they are designed to surprise and shock, and most of them depend on the twist in the plot for their effect. They were written for magazines and themed anthologies (the modern version of the pulps). The title should have an apostrophe, too. ** (2007)

Alison Gordon. The Dead Pull Hitter (1989)

     Alison Gordon. The Dead Pull Hitter (1989) Gordon was the first woman sportswriter allowed into the locker rooms. She loves baseball. Setting a murder story in Toronto, with the “Titans” as the team to watch, must have seemed like a good idea at the time, and she certainly knows how to plot the puzzle, and describe ball games. But her characterisation is thin. Despite nicely done sketches of the players, I had a hard time keeping track of who was who. Gordon hasn’t the knack of differentiating characters’ speech. Not a keeper. *½ (2007)

Ngaio Marsh. Final Curtain (1947)

     Ngaio Marsh. Final Curtain (1947) Troy is asked to paint the portrait of a Grand Old Man of the theatre, a vain family tyrant. She accepts the commission to help pass the time waiting for Rory to return from his stint in the antipodes. The old man dies, and an anonymous letter hints at murder. Alleyn, just returned, must do the honours, with Troy as one of his chief witnesses. It was murder, the motive was money, for the Old Man has altered his will in favour of his mistress and soon-to-be wife, a bimbo several decades younger than himself. His daughter-in-law killed him not realising he had done so, and trying to preserve some of the inheritance for her son, a ghastly number. The characters are a nice collection of nasties, normals, and sturdy retainers. This was Marsh’s first post-war book, and she apparently decided to treat the Alleyns’ relationship more seriously. Their marriage demonstrates Marsh’s ideals, and in some ways rebukes Sayers’ impossibly perfect picture of the Wimsey’s marriage. Nicely done, as always. Marsh’s world is one I like to enter. **½ (2007)

Ngaio Marsh. Died in the Wool (1944)

      Ngaio Marsh. Died in the Wool (1944) Another spy story, I guess every mystery writer at the time tried their hand at this genre. But this is just another domestic murder with a spy as the perpetrator. Alleyn is called in because of the spy angle, and he works by listening to the family discuss the dead woman, who was by all accounts a bundle of energy and ambition, and not nearly as pleasant as she no doubt fancied herself to be. She sussed out who the spy was, a lethal discovery. Alleyn works out the puzzle from the smattering of facts scattered among the piles of personal reminiscences and assessments. This technique gives Marsh another opportunity to do what she does best, create character. A pleasant entertainment, with no pretense at police procedural (which Marsh never completely describes anyhow, no doubt as bored with mind-numbing detail as her readers would have been.) **½ (2007)

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Simon Schama. Scribble, Scribble. Scribble (2010)

     Simon Schama. Scribble, Scribble. Scribble (2010) Schama‘s TV series impressed me hugely, so I couldn’t resist buying this book. He’s passionate and personal about his subjects, supporting his insights and judgments with thorough scholarship. These occasional pieces for the most part deal with non-scholarly subjects such as cooking, travel, politics, and ice cream. He’s one of those foodies who makes you believe you can cook, at least while reading the essay. Even his most casual investigations entail historical and cultural research. He’s a scholar no matter what, especially when he’s discussing art, which changes the way you look at pictures. He tells us enough about his life and family that we believe his more focussed responses to what he’s talking about.
     And “talk” is the word. Even if you hadn’t heard him on TV, I think you’d hear a voice here. The voice of a man who’s found what he likes, what he wants, what matters to him, and can share his intellectual and emotional engagement. The essay from the beginning was personal. The charm of Montaigne is our sense that we are in his company when we read him. This goes for Schama, too, and exhilarating company it is. ****

Ngaio Marsh. Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)

     Ngaio Marsh. Death and the Dancing Footman (1942) Jonathan Royal assembles a group of guests who all have reason to hate each other, just to see what will develop. What develops is murder, done to gain a fortune and thereby the hand of a femme fatale. Along the way Marsh indulges her taste for comedy and satire, and does a very neat job of scattering red herrings about. The romantic lead and the ingenue fall in love as expected, the host is struck by pangs of conscience, and several other people come to their moral senses. The conventions of melodrama are thus respected, and a very pleasant four or so hours of reading provided. *** (2007)

Sue Grafton. F is for Fugitive (1989)

     Sue Grafton. F is for Fugitive (1989) A dying man, father of a fugitive convicted murderer, hires Kinsey to find the real murderer of a school girl 17 years after the fact. The setting is a small town, which means there are open secrets that no one acknowledges, and secrets that no one knows. The murderer is the fugitive’s sister, a school counsellor who has a lunatic crush on her principal and suffers from pathological jealousy. Kinsey’s investigations provide fuel for her jealousy, and prompt more murders. Grafton, like so many women crime writers, is a good satirist, and in her characters presents us with a number of acid comments on human frailty and vanity. A pleasant entertainment, but lacking the tension and edge of earlier books. **½ (2007)

Guy Williams. The World of Model Railways (1970)

     Guy Williams. The World of Model Railways (1970) It’s difficult to decide what audience Williams had in mind for this book. He tries to include everything: a brief history of railways, the development of railway modelling as an adjunct to design, then the appearance of toy trains, and the slow but steady growth of true-to-scale modelling. His technical discussions vary from accurate to simplified and thereby misleading. Errors abound (many mere typos, the kind that galley proofing should have caught.) He devotes chapters to layouts, track, rolling stock, buildings, scenery, etc, but deals with none of them in a way that would help a beginner to design and build his own layout, nor how to select commercial offerings.
      The book also displays the weaknesses of Williams’ sources. He doesn’t have a wide enough knowledge of “the world of model railways” himself, so he relies on others to fill in the gaps. That’s done in a haphazard fashion, for example, New Zealand gets more ink that the USA, although well over half of all model railroaders in the world are located in North America. There is no way for the naive reader to judge the relative importance or accuracy of the information Williams provides, while the knowledgeable fan sees many distortions and misleading emphases. The black and white photos are poorly reproduced, but the colour plates are sharp and clear. Some captions refer to the “realistic” scenery, which is somewhat too kind a description. All in all, a hodgepodge which satisfies neither the beginner nor the seasoned modeller. (2007)

Lynn Truss. Talk to the Hand (2005)

     Lynn Truss. Talk to the Hand (2005) Truss discusses the ways in which manners have changed for the worse, with occasional acknowledgments of improvements. I agree with her. Civility and good manners may be the least of moral issues, but like all moral issues, they deal with the fundamentals, here how we deal with each other in public. Good manners is the most basic realisation of the golden rule: Deal with other as you would like them to deal with you. The word Truss invokes is “respect.” Respect is acting out the assumption that the other person is as important as yourself. That’s all. Easy to understand, isn’t it? So why is it so hard to do? ***½ (2007)

E. O. Parrott. The Dogsbody Papers (1988)

      E. O. Parrott. The Dogsbody Papers (1988) I gave the is book to Jon in 1994. As expected, it showed no signs of use: Jon can read a book without leaving a trace, not even smudges from dirty thumbs.
     The title describes the contents, but not the angles taken by the several contributors. Apparently many of the most significant events in history were caused by misunderstood comments or instructions, sometimes issued by, and sometimes to, a Dogsbody. Dogsbodies had relatives in other countries, too. In Normandy, there were the Corps du Chien, for example. But wherever they lived, they derailed, redirected, or otherwise changed history in unexpected ways. These records unfortunately confirm that it made no real difference. Human chicanery, lust, greed, hypocrisy, and bloodymindedness inevitably triumph. Bah! **½ (2007)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Ngaio Marsh. Colour Scheme (1943)

     Ngaio Marsh. Colour Scheme (1943) A war book, in many ways a propaganda book. Spying happens at a badly run resort in southern New Zealand. Then there’s a murder. Alleyn, who’s spending a good part of the war assisting the New Zealanders on security matters, presents himself as a guest, solves the puzzle, and quietly melts into the background. The book focusses on the hapless British middle-class expats, the Maoris (somewhat sentimentalised to modern sensibilities, but not at all so conceived or perceived in 1943), the temperaments of actors, the clash of sensibilities, the effects of shyness, and so on. Social comedy, in other words, and well done. The murder and its solution are almost perfunctory, and for the most part are used to further illuminate character, and so comment on the society they form. Thoroughly enjoyable. **½ (2007)

Ngaio Marsh. Artists in Crime (1938)

     Ngaio Marsh. Artists in Crime (1938) This is the book in which Alleyn meets Troy. They are sailing from Suva on the same ship, and he surprises her painting the dock as the ship moves out. He likes what he sees, but she misunderstands his interest, and bristles, so Alleyn misunderstands. When a few weeks later Alleyn must attend a spectacularly gruesome and ingenious murder at Troy’s class for painters, the misunderstandings multiply. Alleyn solves the puzzle, with the usual help from Fox, Bailey, and Thompson. We meet his mother, too, and get several scenes showing what a marvellous mum she is, as well as a very smart lady. She approves of Troy, in part because Alleyn bought her portrait of himself which she had painted on the ship.
     Marsh’s penchant for social comedy appears more strongly here than in earlier books. The opening act, the journey from Suva, includes a nicely sharp-clawed portrait of a spoiled and self-centred Hollywood actress, and seems to have been written as much to make satiric points about such females as to introduce us to Troy, and Alleyn’s sudden (and beautifully rendered) love for her. The case itself affords more opportunities to show Alleyn and Troy’s progressive entanglement with each other, each afraid that the other will mistake motives and emotions, and so each unable to trust their perceptions. The story ends happily for them, but one does wonder (briefly) what the effects of the murder will be on the other people involved.
     The murderer is another self-centred woman, but not a silly one. While the actress was merely vain, the painter is a psychopath. The puzzle is well done and fairly presented: an alert reader could solve it. I’m not an alert reader, I’m more interested in characters and atmosphere than clues. All the same, I often divine the culprit, though I can’t give a coherent proof of guilt. In this case, I spotted the murderer just before Alleyn unmasked her. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the book. *** (2007)

Ngaio Marsh. Killer Dolphin (1966)

      Ngaio Marsh. Killer Dolphin (1966) US title of Death at the Dolphin, with internal evidence of some textual changes, for example, “torch” printed in italics: it looks like the typesetter didn’t replace that word with “flashlight.”
Most of the book is about the Theatre, specifically The Dolphin, a derelict building that almost kills playwright-director Peregrine Jay when he goes to view it. A mysterious stranger who rescues him turns out to be the owner, who then agrees to renovate the old building and underwrite its operation. A glove, allegedly made by John Shakespeare for his grandson Hamnet, and a couple of documents (one of them in W. S.’s own hand) that attest to its authenticity figure in the plot. Jay writes a play about W. S., which opens the new Dolphin, and is a huge success. An attempt at stealing the relics goes awry, an elderly watchman dies, and an obnoxious child actor barely survives being tossed over the balcony rail.
     Alleyn is brought in early to “advise” on the security arrangements around the display of the Shakespearean relics, and appears briefly to solve the puzzle, but as in many of Marsh’s later books, the police work and detecting are there for formula’s sake only. She loved the theatre, was an accomplished playwright herself, and was damed for her services to the New Zealand theatre. Over half the book deals with the realisation of Peregrine’s vision, the casting and directing of the play, and the workings of show business. Nicely done, and very entertaining. ***  (2007)

Dorothy L. Sayers. Lord Peter. Compiled by James Sandow (1972)

     Dorothy L. Sayers. Lord Peter. Compiled by James Sandow (1972) All the Lord Peter stories in one volume, together with a decent introduction by a loyal fan, an essay about Sayers’ literary and scholarly career by another loyal fan, and a nicely done satire by E. C. Bentley, (whose Trent’s Last Case was itself a pastiche of various ‘tec stories). Most of the stories present Peter in his earlier, Woosterish version, but about halfway through, his later more adult version appears. The last story, unpublished before this book but republished since then, shows Peter and Harriet as parents to three very boyish boys, playing host to an offensively self-righteous guest full of modern theories of child rearing, theories which still cause mischief today.
      I like the universe in which Lord Peter lives and moves and has his being. It’s civilised, which means it covers the dark side with a hopeful appearance of mutual respect and fellow feeling, an appearance that in some people and places becomes reality, if only intermittently. Of course, money is a great enabler of the gracious life, and the cynic in me is too aware of Peter’s wealth, which allows him to indulge his scholarly hobbies. Marsh made her aristocratic ‘tec a policeman; Sayers could have done so, too, but then she would have had to swot up police routine, which on the evidence she knew little about.
     Sayers wanted such a world, but knew that evil is real, and both she and her hero are tough-minded observers of what we now call sociopaths, people who will do whatever they think they can get away with in pursuit of their own interests, or merely to revenge themselves for fancied disloyalty. One of these silver-plates his victim, the other withholds thyroid extract from his wife so that she becomes a drooling imbecile. Then he shows her to her supposed lover. That makes for not only entertaining but occasionally thought-provoking mysteries. Sayers occasionally lets Peter administer justice, knowing full well that “there are crimes that the Law cannot touch,” to quote Impey Biggs, a K. C. and old friend of Peter’s, who collaborates with him in destroying a blackmailer.
     However, I think that Sayers, like Ngaio Marsh, was in essence a writer of social comedy, with the mystery plot providing the framework and structure of what might otherwise have become a series of more or less satiric sketches. Sayers loves to give us sketches of attitudes and behaviour she disapproves, sometimes drawing in broad strokes: see Miss Quirk in “Tallboys.” She likes to use dialect to denote social class, and to demonstrate that true democracy consists not in an absence of class, but in an acceptance of people at their worth. She has a nice talent for naming places and people, no doubt of great use to her when she worked in an advertising agency. There’s a Yelsall manor, for example, or a Miss Twitterton (whose twittering hides a shrewd observer of her fellow workers). Sayers knows of current intellectual fads, as in “The Image in the Mirror”, where a popular article about the fourth dimension (written by H G Wells, no less) prompts a conversation between a nice young clerk and Peter, and leads to the arrest of a murderer.
     But she has her own ideas of proper human and familial relations, which she not too subtly brings into her tales. For example, Peter is a good uncle to his nephew Gherkins (George), treating him as an equal when they visit an antiquarian bookshop, thus creating another book collector. Later, when a shady character offers to buy back the book, Peter defers to Gherkin’s judgement, which prevents an injustice in the distribution of an estate.
     All in all, a pleasure to reread. *** (2007)

Rosamund Pilcher The Empty House (1973)

     Rosamund Pilcher The Empty House (1973) My mother used to get Woman’s Own. I read three parts of it faithfully: the agony column, a cartoon about a “Watchbird” watching the bad behaviour of some unfortunate child, and the stories. I usually skipped the serials, but I liked the short stories “complete on these two pages”. They established their setting and plot within the first two or three paragraphs, relied heavily on dialogue, and resolved into some kind of happiness, or at least contentment. I learned a lot from them. Together with the agony column, they gave a portrait of What Women Want. They also showed how to get a story moving quickly, and how to sketch character with minimal means.
     Rosamund Pilcher writes these kinds of stories. They focus on what was long presented as the central concern of women: family life, which entails the search for a suitable husband. Love romances still focus on these twin desires; that their heroines now are more “emancipated”, i.e., sexual, and engage in all kinds of careers, merely reflects current received wisdom. The love romance has also branched out into subgenres: cowboys, historical (usually set in the Regency period, when men and women dressed in gorgeous clothes), mystery and thriller, and corporate power struggles. But the basic plot still remains: the heroine must find and win her ideal mate.
     Pilcher’s story here is the old-fashioned kind, no sex, no crime, no difficulties with work or career. Virginia, recently widowed (from an unsuitable mate) with two children, dominated by her dead husband’s mother and Nanny, returns to Cornwall for a holiday and re-encounters Eustace, the only man who (ten years earlier) ever saw her as herself. He is of course older than she (by ten years, with discreetly noticed grey hair), masterful (he owns and operates the largest farm in the district), sensitive (he arranges that the empty house she rents will be cleaned and stocked with food), and very manly (he has intense blue eyes before whose gaze she wilts). After a few mild difficulties with her mother-in-law and the Nanny, and the couple of mild misunderstandings between herself and Eustace, all ends well. The flashbacks fill in the ten years and explain why Virginia married the wrong man. Eustace accepts this man’s children without a qualm, which of course clinches his suitability as the Ideal Man.
     I’m a sucker for Romance, and enjoyed this mild entertainment while I read it. Better than average of its kind. It would make a good “women’s movie”, as they used to be called. **½

Monday, September 16, 2013

Michael Rix. Industrial Archeology (1967)

     Michael Rix. Industrial Archeology (1967) In this pamphlet published by the Historical Association, Rix makes the case for recording, studying, and preserving the remnants of the early industrial revolution. His remarks seem quaint now, with so many preservation societies in England and elsewhere, and the fashion for working museums that not only preserve the artefacts but also to demonstrate their function and use. The Hamilton (Ontario) Pumphouse comes to mind, among many others. But at the time his plea for the preservation of industrial artefacts was expressed a new appreciation for out technological history.
     Rix stayed with us while on a trip across Canada; he was a nice chap, recommended to us by Uncle Paul. His other enthusiasm was the Great Western Railway, and railways in general. He was delighted to be able to ride the train here (the Budd car was still operated by the CPR back then), and we had a pleasant visit. He died of a heart attack not long after; like many single men, he did not take his health seriously, and ignored the warning signs. He committed the term ‘industrial archeology’ to print in an article he wrote for The Amateur Historian, thus giving it respectability, though some academics jibbed at it at first. Two pages of photographs. **½ (2007)

Anonymous. The Tank Engines (n.d, early 1970s)

     Anonymous. The Tank Engines (n.d, early 1970s) A 32-page picture album of NZ Railways tank engines, of which there were many classes used in every kind of traffic. The photos are just fine for a railway fan, especially a NZ one, and fairly well reproduced. I’m trying to get rid of this book, but so far (23 July 2007) no takers. ** (2007)
     Update 2013: if you want this pamhplet, send me an e-mail. Free, including postage, but you must donate a suitable sum to your favourite charity.

Rex Stout. The Rubber Band (1964)

     Rex Stout. The Rubber Band (1964) A theft, a murder, and an ancient (and outdated) debt come together in this confection. Wolfe, Archie, Cramer and the rest behave as expected, the puzzle is neat and fairly clued, and Stout’s wit is fresher than usual. He targets the respectable and mighty with a few satiric darts, and alludes to Wodehouse in his language. Good entertainment. I usually read two or three of these confections at a time, but this was the only one available. **½ (2007)

John Gribbin & Jeremy Cherfas. The First Chimpanzee (2001)

    John Gribbin & Jeremy Cherfas. The First Chimpanzee (2001) An extended (and unnecessarily long IMO) argument that humans, chimps, and gorillas shared a common hominid ancestor some 3 to 4 M years ago. In other words, the chimp-gorilla line did not split from the human line before the evolution of hominids, but afterwards. That would make chimps and gorillas hominids. This hypothesis was developed by Sarich and Wilson in the late 1960s, when the molecular clock was first calibrated.
     The argument rests on molecular biology, and the development of the molecular clock. It’s been shown that DNA/RNA and hence proteins evolve at surprisingly steady rates. This enables the calculation not of dates but of ratios of time spans, and hence of the relative positions of divergence points in the evolutionary trees of related species. Fossil evidence has calibrated the molecular clock pretty accurately for non-human genera, and for vertebrates and chordates generally, so that its application to the primate group should be a no-brainer. However, it seems that paleontologists don’t like to have their speculations checked by objective evidence from a different discipline. Even amongst themselves, they get rather testy when a colleague finds a fossil that requires “re-evaluation” of existing guesses.
     Along the way, Gribbin and Cherfas provide reams of interesting data, the most important of which is that the sum total of all humanoid fossils could be laid out on a dining room table. Most of them are teeth.
     Insofar as I can judge the evidence, I go with Gribbin and Cherfas. Well written but somewhat whingey in the final chapters, where they discuss the reception of the Sarich-Wilson hypothesis **½ (2007)

Mordecai Richler. The Best of Modern Humour (1983)

      Mordecai Richler. The Best of Modern Humour (1983) Nothing dates as fast as taste in humour. Here it is a mere quarter century after Richler's collection appeared, and most of the pieces already seem dated. That is, their humour is lame, jejune, and superficial. Richler likes the New Yorker type, and while not all the pieces in here were first published in that magazine, many of the later ones read as if they should have been. Richler is a satirist, and most of the pieces he has selected are satires. The oldest ones, from the turn of the 20th century, are the best, I think. Lasting humour reveals itself with age, as current concerns and fashionable twitches recede into the misty twilight of history. Leacock’s “Gertrude the Governess” opens the collection,, and it is by far the best piece in it. I won’t keep this book, as I no longer feel the need to have such representative anthologies by me. They are really reference works. ** (2007)

Ngaio Marsh. Death in a White Tie (1938)

     Ngaio Marsh. Death in a White Tie (1938) The fourth Alleyn mystery, IIRC. Lord Robert Gospell is killed on his way home from a party. He has been helping Alleyn gather evidence about a blackmailing racket. A charming man, much more intelligent than his looks and manner suggested, he was a much loved figure in Society. The killer was the blackmailer. Marsh is in fine form here, she has a satirical eye as well as a very good sense of character. the puzzle is well done, and we hardly notice that Alleyn behaves more like a private detective than a policeman. Agatha Troy appears on the fringes of the case, which gives Alleyn an opportunity to avow his love for her, which she eventually returns. So that’s all right. A pleasurable read (for the second or third time). **½ (2007)

David E. Stephens. Iron Roads: Railways of Nova Scotia (1972)

     David E. Stephens. Iron Roads: Railways of Nova Scotia (1972) Stephens ran the Musquodoboit railway Museum for a while, but it has long been defunct. This little book, clearly an amateur’s production, summarises the history of NS railways, with nicely reproduced photos, and rather sketchy maps. A few typos mar the text. The book has been superseded by more thoroughly researched texts, but is still of interest to any one who wants a brief introduction to Nova Scotia's early railway history. ** (2007)

Mel Gordon. Lazzi (1983) & Susan Kelz Sperling. Poplollies and Bellibones (1977)

      Mel Gordon. Lazzi (1983) A compilation of stage business bits used in the Commedia. Of interest to scholars, as they say, and perhaps to actors studying improv. * (2007)

      Susan Kelz Sperling. Poplollies and Bellibones (1977) Sperling has not only collected “lost words”, she has devised rimes, dialogues, and catechisms using these words. Lovely. Dad made notes of related Austrian and German words, and I’ve made a few too. A Poplolly is a little darling, or mistress. A Bellibone is a pretty girl. A book for the words shelf. *** (2007)

L. H. Sparey. The Amateur Lathe (5th edition, 1972)

     L. H. Sparey. The Amateur Lathe (5th edition, 1972) I did not read this book, but I did dip into it, enough to know that there might be a time when I may want to refer to it for advice. The author covers every aspect of using the lathe, with remarks on other machine tools where appropriate. Vertical drills and milling machines can be considered lathes set on end, so it is true to say that the lathe is the universal machine tool.
     Sparey gives a very brief history of this tool, enough to whet one’s appetite for more. I can’t judge the quality of the book’s contents. It went into five edition between 1948 and 1972, with this copy being the 5th impression of 1980, which suggests that there was a large demand for it. The plain and clear writing, and the layout of illustrations close to the relevant text, make this a model of a technical book. *** (2007)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Chuck Shepherd et al. Beyond News of the Weird (1991)

     Chuck Shepherd et al. Beyond News of the Weird (1991) Chuck Shepherd for several years ran a newsletter gathering strange news. I have a nearly collection. The criterion for inclusion was publication in an actual newspaper, with as much detail as possible. He asked people to send him clippings; I did this for a while, and my reward was this book and my name listed as a contributor to his efforts. The newsletter morphed into a syndicated column and a web site. His collections show that reality is weirder than urban legends. I read this one over two days. It’s definitely a potato chip book.
     Samples: In Jasper, Texas, a panty bandit was arrested after 11 months of stealing panties; many of the victims were too embarrassed to report the thefts. (p.11) The owner of the Whispers nightclub in Columbia, Missouri, sent letters to fraternities touting his bar as a place to meet “drunk, horny women”. (p.64) Three teenagers in East Wenatchee, Washington, dug up a corpse because they wanted to take photos of themselves with it. (p.73) In June 1990, about 7,000 King penguins stampeded near McQuarrie, Tasmania, and died in the crush. (p.114) Eight inmates broke out of jail in Nashville, Tennessee, and found themselves in the women’s cell block. They stopped to have sex with their fellow prisoners, and were apprehended by the guards, of course. (p.166)
     As you can see, these events would make good starting points for fictions, if they weren’t so unlikely. Good book. ***

Friday, September 13, 2013

Louis A. Safian 2,000 Insults for All Occasions (1965)

     Louis A. Safian 2,000 Insults for All Occasions (1965) Just what the title says. A handful are bizarre enough to raise a smile, most are more less lame. Demonstration that “witty insult” is generally an oxymoron. Taste in humour has changed since the 60s; actually many of the more obnoxious one-liners show a 50s sensibility, or even earlier.

W. J Burley. Wycliffe and the House of Fear (1995)

     W. J Burley. Wycliffe and the House of Fear (1995) An ancient and dysfunctional Catholic family’s house supplies the setting. Five years after the current scion’s first wife dies in a boating accident, the second wife appears to have committed suicide. Wycliffe, on convalescent holiday in the neighbourhood, is near enough the end of his leave that he’s assigned the crime. A typical Burley meditation on crime and criminals, moody, atmospheric, psychologically perceptive. Family history and misplaced pride causes the tangle of stupidity that triggers the crime; the perpetrator is clearly insane. I’d like to see more of Wycliffe’s marriage. Burley’s books are better in the setup than in the resolution, but are always interesting reading. **½

Eric L. Johnson The Iron Horse Comes to the Klondike (2012)

     Eric L. Johnson The Iron Horse Comes to the Klondike (2012) A labour of love, about as complete a history of the Klondike’s railways as we likely to get. It’s an expanded an updated version of Mining Railways of the Klondike (1994), including field research and new photos by friends of the author.
     Almost as soon as the gold rush brought people to Dawson City, coal mines were developed for heating and power generation. Narrow gauge railways and river boats transported the stuff. It was poor coal, but it served the purpose. It’s unclear just how much money was made and lost on these lines, but the few available figures indicate that the promoters must have made a fair coin on their commissions. There’s enough photographic evidence that one could build a credible model based on one of these lines, and a few drawings based on the extant bits and pieces rotting in the bush. Porter supplied most of the motive power.
     Much of the history is gathered from newspaper stories. The tone throughout these stories is boosterish and optimistic. The photos are well enough reproduced that one can tell that many of the older originals were I think mostly afterthoughts made when a photographer happened to be handy and had an unexposed plate or two left.
One of those wonderful books that gets written and compiled only because someone was willing to devote far too much time and energy in the project. ****

Jack Ludwig. Confusions (1965)

    Jack Ludwig. Confusions (1965) Stories about universities in the 60s trigger nostalgia. Some, like this one, catch the spirit of the times so well that one forgives their self-indulgence. The narrator, a Jewish boy from deepest Brooklyn, after earning a graduate degree and teaching assistant position at Harvard, ends up at a California liberal arts college that prides itself on both scholarship and laid-back teaching. The jockeying for status within the English Department is nicely drawn. A Grand Old Man of impeccable Southern ancestry lords it over the merely educated Mid-westerners, but the narrator’s wife, a Radcliffe grad, trumps his social status. A (respectable) hippy-type turns out to have even higher social status. And so on.
     The satire is sharp, several of the characters remind me of professors I have known, and the plot, such as it is, exposes the venality of a college administration that places possible donor dollars over safety, when the narrator discovers that one of his students is schizoid with a history of violence, and will no doubt go beyond silly practical jokes to real doing real damage.
     Reading the book briefly took me back to the time when I was a grad student, not footloose and fancy free, but still in that state when attention to the serious business of committing to a career seemed something that could be put off for a little while longer. Encyclopaedia Britannica indicates that the book got mixed reviews. I’m not surprised. It’s uneven, more a series of anecdotes than a structured novel, the narrator too often is a whinger, plot points are tossed out and left behind, and so on. But all the same, the book works. It’s a satire, and satires are by definition  mash-ups. Fun to read. Not an excellent book, but a very good one. Out of print, but worth the search for a 2nd hand copy.***

Alfred Bester. Star Light, Star Bright (1978)

    Alfred Bester. Star Light, Star Bright (1978) Anthology of Bester’s best, volume 2. Bester is a clever writer. He likes to take on new challenges, in theme, genre, motif, plot, and so on. The result is usually entertaining, sometimes thought-provoking, but never moving. I didn’t reread a number of stories that I’d read before; the ones that were new to me passed the time pleasantly enough.
     The plots are what I call gimmick twists. For example, the title story is about a kid whose talent is wishing. He doesn’t realise this, of course, but the results are spectacular. His friend wants to use his telescope in the rain, so the kid wishes he had a telescope that would see through the rain and clouds. It does. This and other gadgets  attract the attention of the government, who want to use him as some kind of weapon. He wishes these and other people who bother him would just go away and leave him alone. So they end up on a road forever going away. *½ to **½

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Jay Ingram. The Barmaid’s Brain (1999) - two reviews (updated post)

     Jay Ingram. The Barmaid’s Brain (1999) A pleasant collection of articles on the barmaid’s brain and other subjects of interest. Ingram writes well and clearly, and never forgets that scientific investigations are always unfinished. The answers are always merely the best available, and usually raise more questions. A  potato chip book: when you finish one article, you immediately want to read another. The title essay discusses an interesting finding: that while Munich barmaids can remember dozens of orders, they do badly on visualising the level of beer in a tilted glass (they think the surface of the beer is tilted, too). The inference is that by improving one ability, they disimprove another, an inference not in fact supported by this study. The barmaids may just be in the 40 to 60% of the population that makes the same mistake.   **½  (2007)
     Update 2013: Very little of this book is out of date. The last 14 years have added to the puzzles, and clarified a few of the questions Ingram raises. E.g. it's pretty certain now that the senses are the first level of processing, and that one's view of the world, and one's Self within it, are illusions, fabricated by the brain out of the filtered data that the senses deliver.

In 2008 I read the book agian, and wrote this review. You'll note I rated the book higher this tim e. Maybe I was just feeling more mellow:
     Jay Ingram. The Barmaid’s Brain (1998) Ingram likes science and scientific puzzles. His knack for explaining the puzzle and its (possible) solution is similar to Stephen Gould’s, but he casts his net wider, and unlike Gould doesn’t have much of an agenda beyond Science is Fun. He also doesn’t mind having to say “Answer unknown and possibly unknowable.” The hunt for answers is as important to him as the answer itself. The book is aimed at anyone with a high school education, although interested middle school pupils will have little difficulty following the discussion (with the occasional help of a dictionary). I bought this book at the BR Library book sale in July 2007, and gave it to Cassandra after reading it. Now I’ve read it a second time at her house, and a good read it was too.
     The Barmaid of the title is the beer waitress at the Oktoberfest, who despite her experience with beer thinks that the surface of the beer is not always level when the beer is poured, but who can remember a dozen or more orders distributed over several tables. Waiters had almost as high an error rate as waitresses, and both scored well below the average person. The essay also shows how the preliminary results suggest variations on experiments. It seems that believing water can tilt in a tilted glass is not wholly an innate mistake after all, but depends on the kind of container seen or visualized when the question is put: When presented with a drinking glass, about 50% of respondents believed that water can tilt, but when presented with a neutral container (such as a Petri dish), 30% or fewer made that mistake.
     Thus, context (i.e., environmental cues) is crucial. Even the memory feats of waitresses appear to be tied to context: When one experimenter set up a miniature cocktail bar to test people’s ability to remember many facts, waitresses did exceptionally well. Ingram doesn’t report on any control milieu; I would like to know how remembering changed when it was, say, a miniature street-scape. I suspect that a waitress would score only about average on the task of recalling items such as benches, bus stops, hydrants, shop fronts, etc. However, a cop might score higher, since it’s a cop’s job to notice things on the street. Or maybe not; it’s actually his job to notice what’s out of place, and an ordinary street doesn’t have much if anything out of place. Consider the recruiting test at the beginning of Men in Black, where Will Smith shoots at the schoolgirl figure, since a schoolchild reading about quantum physics is somewhat unusual, while the monsters were run-of-the-mill Hallowe’en types. *** (2008)

John H. White. Early American Locomotives (1972)

     John H. White. Early American Locomotives (1972) White.a curator at the Smithsonian, has selected 147 examples of 19th century mostly American locomotives. The cuts are drawn from professional magazines of the time, and are not only precise but also beautiful renderings of these machines. There are few locomotives by non-US builders. White’s captions summarise the histories of the engines as far as is known. A book that pleases the eye as well as satisfies the railway enthusiast's thirst for technical knowledge. *** (2007)

M. H. Scargill. Modern Canadian English Usage (1974)

     M. H. Scargill. Modern Canadian English Usage (1974) Although the subtitle is Linguistic Change and Reconstruction, there’s precious little discussion of this topic. The book lists the results of a usage survey administered to some 14,000 English speaking Canadians, with nearly equal samples from each province. Why the scholars felt it necessary to use nearly the same number of respondents from every province is not explained. Statistically, it’s pointless. Anyhow, the samples are adequate to draw some conclusions about Canadian usages, the  best grounded being that vocabulary varies a good deal more than syntax. There were no attempts to test the statistical properties of the results. A cursory glance suggests that most of them are barely significant, if significant at all.
     The book is a nice example of what happens when mathematically naive people attempt statistics. Scargill and his committee chose not to survey recent immigrants or children of immigrants, which makes the results useful as a baseline for measuring changes in the last 30-odd years. But a survey of immigrants would I think have been useful as a possible indicator of the influence of immigrant usages. * (2007)

Charles Osborne. Black Coffee (1997)

     Charles Osborne. Black Coffee (1997) Osborne has adapted Christie’s first play as a novel, clumsily. A famous scientist is poisoned after revealing that the formula for a powerful explosive has been stolen. Poirot, whom he had summoned, enters minutes after the death. There is a marriage on the rocks, a mysterious foreigner, a suave private secretary, a bright young thing who delights in shocking her elders, an impassive butler, and of course Hastings and Inspector Japp. A couple of subplots are left unresolved. If Christie had “adapted the play as a novel”, she would have expanded on these, making for a more complex plot and puzzle, and a more depth to the characters.
    What Osborne has done is convert the stage directions into narrative. He’s careful to tell us where everybody sits, when they leave the room, when they move around, and so on. He describes their expressions and gestures as if he reporting a stage performance. But basically he can’t write, and we get no sense of character, despite these details. Christie’s strength was dialogue; her stories move swiftly because she knows how to make dialogue seem natural even as it propels the plot. This is the reason they make such entertaining movies: one can use the dialogue almost exactly as written as a first draft of the script.
     True, Christie has a tin ear for characteristic speech, for the rhythms and turns of phrase that make it personal and revealing. But she has a shrewd eye for the telling detail (it’s no accident that this is one of Poirot’s strengths as a detective). The effect is to make the story matter to us while we read it. Almost all of this is missing in this book. I guess that Osborne was afraid to expand the script. An actor can put a lot of meaning into a single word. The novelist must supply that information by other means. Osborne doesn’t do this, whether from too much respect for Christie’s script or lack of talent is hard to say. I suspect the latter.
     Osborne apparently had a minor career as an actor (he actually played in Black Coffee one summer), before making a name for himself as a critic. The blurb claims international fame for him, but that fame has not extended as far as Northern Ontario.
     Osborne wrote a biography of Christie, which fact seems to have persuaded Christie’s grandson Matthew Pritchard that Osborne could do the job. Not that the job was necessary. The script shows through the threadbare patchwork of prose, and it would be more interesting to read that. But then Pritchard would have to forgo the royalties on this book. It must have had quite a sale as a “new” book by Christie. I bought this copy at the library’s book sale for fifty cents. That’s about what it’s worth.
     Poirot’s mania for straightening things gives him the clue he needs to find the stolen formula: it has been torn up and rolled into spills for lighting the fire. Christie used this motif again. In fact, she reused the concept of this play, but I can’t recall which book. *  (2007)

Sue Grafton. E is for Evidence (1988)

     Sue Grafton. E is for Evidence (1988) Kinsey Millhone just can’t do a major case without serious bodily harm. In the first case, she comes within an inch or two of death. In this one, she is blown up twice, and escapes both times. What is it with this girl? Or is the physical punishment some kind of compensation for some subtle childhood trauma suffered by the author?
     Anyhow, Kinsey is framed for an insurance fraud, so she becomes her own client. The murderer is a paroled psychopath, who has changed his name and made a career for himself. But incest and other family failings arouse his wrath, and he sets out to destroy the family that employs him. The fraud is the first move in his game. Kinsey just happens to be a pawn. Unfortunately for him, she is as smart as he is, and luckier. She survives, he doesn’t. The $5K he deposited in her account to implicate her in the fraud stays there.
     By this time, Grafton’s series was settling into well worn grooves, which makes for competence in the plotting and narrative, but for a lessening of tension, both intellectual and psychological. OK, but not great. Still, I’ll be reading all the others in the series. Pat gave me this one, so I can now move up to I. I don’t have J. **½ (2007)

Friday, September 06, 2013

Gertrude Chandler Warner. The Boxcar Children (1942)

     Gertrude Chandler Warner. The Boxcar Children (1942) A teacher, Warner wanted to write an interesting  story for beginning readers. She succeeded. Her readers loved the independence of the children in the story. Orphans  Henry, Violet, Jessie, and Benny Alden are on the run because they don’t want to be found by their grandfather, whom they believe to be a mean man. They find a boxcar to live in, and a wounded dog for company. Henry, who is old enough to do so, goes into town to work part-time for a doctor, who eventually reunites them all with their grandfather, who is anything but mean. So they live happily ever after. Except that the readers wanted more stories about these children. Warner obliged with a string of mysteries; eighteen more books are listed here. This edition dates from1950, with well done silhouetted illustrations by Kate Deal.
     Warner’s style is simple and straightforward, as is her narrative, which she spices up with a few hints of possible dangers and events that aren’t explained until the end of the tale. She glides over a few improbabilities (less improbable then than now), and the characterisation is about as simple as can be. A good deal of the story is carried by dialogue. I’m not surprised that beginning readers enjoyed the book, and wanted more. I suspect that Warner’s skills improved, and would like to find a later book to see whether that in fact happened. *** (2007)

Ellis Peters. The Will and the Deed (1960)

    Ellis Peters. The Will and the Deed (1960) A diva dies, her presumptive heirs fly to England, but a storm brings them down on an alpine meadow in Austria. The will is read, and it’s not at all as expected. The residual heir is murdered, and the evidence points to the nephew, who is actually provably innocent. The murderer was the lawyer, who stole what he thought were crown jewels, but in fact they are paste costume jewelry.  He dies trying to save them, since he has destroyed his career by committing the theft. So there are two deaths, two near deaths, and a shattered career, and all for £100 worth of glitz. But the two youngsters that should fall in love do so, and with the money from the dead woman will be able to set up a very pleasant life.
     Peters is a competent constructor of entertainments, this time a mystery romance. A keeper only because I’m collecting her books. ** (2007)

John Mortimer. Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (2004)

    John Mortimer. Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders (2004) At last we have the authoritative and complete account of the case that made Rumpole’s reputation, consolidated his preference for defending criminals, and resulted in his marriage to Hilda, daughter of the Head of Chambers, and the leader in the case. The prisoner sacks this eminent example of the finest traditions of the bar, and insists on Rumpole defending him.
     The plot is simple enough: the son of a supposed war hero is accused of the murders, but Rumpole unearths evidence that suggests not only that the dead man and his comrade were traitors but were also murderers. The likely executioner of this unpleasant pair disappears, conveniently for Mortimer, who is thus relieved of having to tie up that loose end. A few minor kerfuffles in chambers also yield to Rumpole’s discreet intervention. It looks like this is Rumpole’s last appearance, since it answers the all-important question of why he married Hilda: because she told him to. But there are signs of some weariness in Mortimer’s writing; the book is as clear as ever, but it lacks the edge and crackle that we expect of Rumpole, that self described hack, champion of justice in the face of the awful machinery of the law. **½ (2007)

Richard J. Cook. Super power Steam Locomotives (1966)

     Richard J. Cook. Super power Steam Locomotives (1966) A handsome book, including a summary history of Lima Locomotives, followed by a reproduction of one its catalogues, followed by a photo section showing first the building of a steam locomotive, and then pictures of the engines at work. Like most books produced by fans who lack academic training in how to present information, it’s somewhat of a hodgepodge, and lacks such useful apparatus as a table of contents and an index. This severely reduces the book’s usefulness, not entirely offset by the high quality of the printing. I bought this book in 1967 or 68, when there were very few books about steam engines or railroad subjects. The photos are technically very good, but in most there isn’t enough visual context, such as landscape, trackside buildings, etc, to locate the engines. They could be anywhere. Lima designed its locomotives to a house style that the railroads could not disguise with options such the placement of feedwater heaters and airpumps, so that the engines become oddly anonymous. ** (2007)

Edwin P. Alexander. American Locomotives ... 1900-1950 (1950

     Edwin P. Alexander. American Locomotives ... 1900-1950 (1950; reprint by Bonanza Books n.d.) A catalogue raisonné of steam locomotives built between the dates given. Photo and drawing of each, with technical data and a historical note. Alexander claims every locomotive is significant in some way, so his notes are rather repetitive. A good reference if you happen to need some data about one of the locos. Since they are in chronological order, the absence of an index by type, builder, etc,  is inexplicable. Printing quality is above average for Bonanza Books, who seem to have specialised in muddy photo-reproduction of popular books. * (2007)

Garrison Keillor. ME by Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente (1999)

     Garrison Keillor. ME by Jimmy (Big Boy) Valente (1999) Keillor’s satire written as a comment on the election of Jesse Ventura as governor of Minnesota. Very mild, actually, and in places the narrative voice seems more Keillor’s than Valente’s. I know nothing of Ventura’s career as a wrestler, nor of his career as governor, He apparently did no lasting harm, if he did any. As a satire on TV, wrestling, the gullibility of the semi-schooled public, conservatives, liberals, and assorted riffraff, it works reasonably well. But Keillor lacks the satirist’s rage. He is more bemused than angered by the follies and vices of his fellow citizens. A decent read, not a great one. ** (2007)

Brian Aldiss, ed. Galactic Empires: Volume two (1976)

     Brian Aldiss, ed. Galactic Empires: Volume two (1976) Aldiss has assembled a good collection of the future history genre of SF, ranging from the swashbuckling space opera to the most subtle of mathematico-philosophical speculations. In all of them some empire-like polity is imagined, and plot points hinge as much on the structure of that polity as on the characters. One of Aldiss’s strengths is that he chooses stories with strong though not always complex characterisation, so that the stories are less thesis-driven than most SF. That makes these stories engaging; that, and the archetypal elements of which they’re built, as Aldiss recognises and points out. It’s been a while since I binged on SF. This book provided several hours of entertaining and thought-provoking reading. A few stories are shaggy jokes, but most are more serious (though not solemn) explorations of the notions of power and government.
     The assumption underlying all the stories is that the larger the society, the more authoritarian it will be. And they all take for granted that power tends to corrupt, everyone except the noble hero, that is. In many, stagnation is seen as an inevitable byproduct of the stability of a powerful empire, and the barbarian invasions as a welcome and necessary revitalisation of the culture. Several stories assume that humanity’s striving for something beyond itself will be unique in the galaxy, a dubious assumption. The treatment of gender and sex tends to be simplistic and very much of the time in which the stories were written, with men taking leading roles, and even powerful women tending to melt into sex kittens as soon as the hero looks at them with lustful intention. No wonder that women generally haven’t liked SF. There are also several stories with simplistic notions of mind, the kind of notions that enable telepathy and the insertion of alien egos into human brains.
     But most stories deal with the human (and alien) costs of the changes and conflicts that are an inevitable byproduct of government. Thoreau’s implicit idea that eventually, perhaps, humans would need no government, is emphatically denied here. To be intelligent and to live in societies means to govern and be governed, to dominate and to resist domination. The result is that the most common tone is elegiac and tragic, for even the most advanced race must eventually face its own extinction.. The comic spirit shows up mostly as satire, equating humans with vermin, for example.
     All in all, the book is worth keeping. ** (2007)

Best of the West: The Railroaders (1986)

     B. Pronzini & M. Greenberg. Best of the West: The Railroaders (1986) 5th in a series of stories culled from the pulps. Well-done examples of the short story as mass entertainment, with clear plotting, plain but effective styles, and often sentimental themes. The railroading is authentic, insofar as I can judge it, and the Western atmosphere conforms to the rules of the genre. Most of these stories are Westerns with a railroad motif or setting, not railroading stories as such. In the days before TV, pulp fiction helped people while away their free time, and I’m sure did much good, considering their unequivocal support of the mores of melodrama: the right will win out, the evildoers will get their just desserts, and the girl will marry the one who is worthy of her. ** (2007)

Thursday, September 05, 2013

W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and Death in Stanley Street (1974)

      W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and Death in Stanley Street (1974) A prostitute’s death leads Wycliffe to more or less crooked real estate deals, drug running, and the effects of naivete on an impressionable young man. Family secrets and the desire for respectability as usual interfere and delay the investiagtion, the solution satisfies, and ambience of the setting and tale keep us believing in this version of Cornish seaside towns. Burley’s talent is atmosphere and character. He’s also very good at sketching the details of police procedure thoroughly enough that we get the illusion of completeness, no mean feat when one considers how much of police work is the deadly dull gathering and sifting of irrelevant details. An early Wycliffe, before Kersy and Lucy Lane. A good read. **½

Louis L’Amour. The Man Called Noon (1970)

Louis L’Amour. The Man Called Noon (1970) Ruble Noon wakes up amnesic, and despite himself becomes re-entangled in a crooked attempt to steal the gold on the Davidge spread. All’s well that ends well: he recovers his self, finds a good woman in Fan Davidge, retrieves the gold, and reduces the number of baddies. A typical L’Amour: well plotted, enough variation on the stereotypes to make the characters interesting, descriptions of setting that display his knack for putting you right there in the scene, straightforward tale-telling that maintains suspense, good dialogue, and so on. I’ve kept this one because some of the action takes place on trains. A very good entertainment of its type. Many people have tried to emulate L’Amour’s Westerns, but few have come close to succeeding. ***

Monday, September 02, 2013

W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Guilt Edged Alibi (1971)

    W. J. Burley. Wycliffe and the Guilt Edged Alibi (1971) An unpleasant woman’s corpse dragged up by a cable-ferry’s chain, another murder, and a suicide; not a large body count. Wycliffe’s thinking meanders, his vague impressions coalesce as he discovers the family secrets that prompted the deaths.  Like most of Burley’s books, more of a meditation on crime than a strictly police procedural mystery. Character as always counts for more than technical detail. People’s unwillingness to reveal disreputable facts gets in the way, but Wycliffe’s talent for waiting in silence unnerves the suspects (and others) so that they talk just to fill up space. I like this series, partly because the TV shows based on it were so well done. Burley has the knack of hinting at the back stories of the secondary characters, so that the world of these tales seems richer than it is. **½

Will Stanton Once Upon A Time Is Enough (1969)

     Will Stanton Once Upon A Time Is Enough (1969) Stanton takes a literal and realistic view of some familiar fairy tales. E.g., Hansel and Gretel are grilled by a prosecutor who wants to convict them of the maliciously planned murder of a sweet little old lady. Bluebeard occasions a riff on Can This Marriage Be Saved? And so on. Well done, in a manner that, alas, may seem too bland for many readers these days. It’s Stanton’s deadpan assumption of normalcy that carries the satire. Victoria Chess’s drawings, reminiscent of Edward Gorey, help out. If you find this book at a yard sale somewhere, buy it. It’s a keeper. ***

Dicey Deere. The Irish Manor House Murder (2000)

     Dicey Deere. The Irish Manor House Murder (2000) Dr Ashenden, respected surgeon, dies when his horse throws him. The horse dies, too. A few days earlier, his granddaughter tried to ride him down, an event witnessed by Torrey Tunet and the local constable. A piece of knitting needle found in the horse’s rump implies murder. Torrey, the series hero, interferes of course, and the page-turner gallops along until the final double twist reveals the true murderer. Dr Ashenden was a psychopath, so justice of a sort has been done. The book is a well-done product of its kind: short (sometimes very short) chapters, each dealing with one scene, a format that just begs for conversion to the screen. This is the 2nd of a series; I didn’t search online to find out if there were any more. Pleasant enough time waster. **

Marvelous Pilgrims (Play)

     Stewart Lemoine, Marvelous Pilgrims. At the Walterdale Playhouse. Directed by Stewart Lemoine. A low-key fairy tale about magical waters, a witch that tries to undo a curse, a personality swap, and of course a love story. Staged using four areas to represent four locales, supposedly set in 1936, but the costumes were more 1906.
     The play’s a fantasy, and such a play succeeds or fails by moving us along briskly so that we accept its premises. The timing of entries and exits, of the switching between locales, and of course the dialogue, must be sharp and precise, and too often it wasn’t so, especially at the crucial plot points of personality swap (which doesn’t have the desired effect and so must be undone before the play is properly done). The script was good enough to engage my interest, though it could have been stretched to explore questions of personality, and/or of the ethics of interfering in other people’s lives, and such. I think the story would have borne the additional weight. Music propelled the story effectively, unusually so in my experience, for playwrights tend to use it to create a mood when the words fail to do so. Here, it was used operatically, to add depth to character and to point the plot. I wouldn’t have minded more music. The overall tone was light, here and there verging on farce. The love story was what it should be: the right people fell in love.
     But the magic hinted at more serious themes: Swapping personalities has heavy implications, and sticking to the merely humorous ones I think was a mistake. Good theatre (which this was) can take us anywhere. In some ways, the play felt unfinished, as if workshopping had stopped because it was time to produce the play. Nevertheless, overall it was a pleasant way to spend an hour and a half. **½