Last Update 2/27/20

Those Barren Leaves by Aldous Huxley, Avon, 1964 (originally published in 1925)

A small group of people gather to socialize and compare their idiosyncrasies at a villa in Italy. These include a woman who writes novels, an aspiring painter, a gigolo, a religious fanatic, a snob, and others. Their interactions lead us to realize that they are all sad people masquerading as being happy while they are actually various degrees of miserable. Although it has some great moments, this is far too long and is frequently tedious. It took me a lot longer to read than it should have. 2/27/20

Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley, Bantam, 1923

The protagonist of this mildly comic novel decides that he is bored with teaching and sets out to make a fortune by developing a kind of pneumatic trousers that will have cushions built in.  The humor is abstruse at times and I found some of the long conversations more tedious than entertaining. The protagonistís rejection of conventional morality was quite controversial at the time and the book was banned in Australia because of the attitudes expressed about sexuality. It is very tame by contemporary standards. Iíve seen racier stuff in television sitcoms.  2/18/20

The Devilís Work by John Brunner, Norton, 1970  

Iím afraid this is a pretty dull, sort of thriller, about a young man forced to live with his unpleasant father in a small village in England. His efforts to make friends with the local people fail as well and he eventually comes under the sway of Mr. Someday (Samedi), who is the leader of a cult and who expects his followers to engage in the occasional sacrifice. It churns along, not very quickly, and the characters are pretty flat. Not impressed. 2/16/20

Caravan to Vaccares by Alistair MacLean, Crest, 1970 

The protagonist of this adventure story is investigating a group of gypsies who are involved in some sort of criminal enterprise under the leadership of a man none of them have ever seen. They sense his interest and he survives multiple attempts at murder, even after he is hampered by the presence of a young woman he inadvertently involved. There are a couple of nice twists at the end, which is mildly confusing, and the good guys only succeed because the villains are so incompetent. The opening chapters aren't bad, but the story sort of meanders after that and there is no real sense of authenticity. 2/5/20

Fear Is the Key by Alistair  MacLean, Perma, 1961 

Unfortunately this is a really bad novel filled with internal contradictions, implausible situations, and lapses of logic. An undercover man is sent to find out why a very rich man has been acting strangely and has some unsavory companions. They are holding him hostage and have stolen a bathyscape with which they hope to salvage an undersea treasure. The protagonist has just the specialized knowledge that the villains would want, which is interesting since the authorities had no idea what they were planning and therefore would not have been able to choose him in advance. We are told that the rich guy and his daughter are not allowed to be apart, but our hero abducts her from a courthouse where she is unaccompanied and has been visiting friends, a fact which MacLean apparently forgot. The staged set up is so elaborate and implausible that it actually becomes funny. The villains are cartoonish. Painful to finish. The movie is actually better. 2/3/20

The Days of Wrath by John Brunner, Kerosina, 1988  w1255 

A somewhat autobiographical novel dealing primarily with the organized effort to ban nuclear weapons. At times it evokes a real sense of purpose in serving a cause, but although individual elements of the book work reasonably well, there is a lack of focus in this episodic and mostly trivial series of events that never really comes to life.  This was probably written to satisfy Brunner's enthusiasm for the movement even though it never really accomplished much of anything.1/31/20

The Golden Gate by Alistair MacLean, Crest, 1976  w1240

I should have liked this a lot more than I did. A very large scale criminal conspiracy takes the President and two foreign dignitaries hostage in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fortunately, one of the entourage is an undercover FBI agent who finds ways to communicate with the authorities. There are some logical flaws with the criminal plan that make the entire thing implausible, and a handful of relatively minor misunderstandings about how the government works. Generals ARE subject to the Presidentís orders, for example, even in emergencies. It felt rather slow moving as well. Unlike most previous MacLean novels, this one was never filmed. 1/31/20

The Great Steamboat Race by John Brunner, Ballantine, 1983 

Brunnerís attempt to break out of the genre with this sprawling historical novel was probably doomed to failure, although he reportedly blamed the publisher for a lack of support. Itís about a steamboat race in the 1870s and itís actually done pretty well, but the opening chapters introduce too many different characters for casual readers as it jumps around in time. The first two hundred pages introduce a large number of characters - most of them quite well presented - and the pressure by two rival steamboats to engage in a race up the Mississippi. The race is beset by problems beyond human control, as well as sabotage and internal dissensions. Although I enjoyed the book, I never got the sense that Brunner really understood steamboats or life on the river. The most vivid scenes are those set in New Orleans. 1/28/2-

An Unfortunate Woman by Richard Brautigan, St Martins, 2000

The author committed suicide before this final novel was published. It is quite short and cast in the form of a travelerís journal. As usual, there is not a strong plot. The narrative is mostly focused on the deaths of two of the narratorís acquaintances. There are some very effective scenes but I would not be surprised to learn that this was not a final draft. 1/26/20

The River by Jeff Sutton, Tower, 1966  

During the World War II battle for Guadalcanal, a squad of marines gets separated from the rest of the American forces and has a series of violent clashes with the entrenched Japanese soldiers before making it back to safety. Standard wartime adventure fare with no surprises. I wondered if Sutton may have served there during the war. Iíve had a copy of this book for more than fifty years and this is the first time I actually opened it. Somewhat better characterization than in his science fiction. 1/26/20

Puppet on a Chain by Alistair MacLean, Crest, 1969 

A rather unpleasant Interpol agent arrives in Amsterdam to track down a drug smuggling ring. He turns up information about them rather quickly and during a series of extremely violent scenes. The Dutch would never have allowed an agent this out of control to work with their police, but it does make for a fast moving story. There is quite a bit of chauvinism Ė he has two beautiful young assistants who spend a lot of time kissing him. The drugs are being smuggled in hollowed out Bibles, which is obvious early on, and the entire operation is led by a man who is clearly insane. It was also fairly obvious who he was as well. A fair but not outstanding story. 1/23/20

The Secret Ways by Alistair MacLean, Pocket, 1959 

A British agent is sent into Hungary shortly after the abortive revolt to smuggle out a scientist who had been coerced into defecting following the abduction of his family. Fortunately, the agent runs into a member of the Hungarian secret police who is actually a freedom fighter. After considerable trouble and near failure, he succeeds in his mission. Despite some good scenes, this is not a very interesting spy novel and the protagonist is surprisingly shallowly drawn for a MacLean protagonist. It is also quite static despite several scenes which presumably designed to maintain some tension. MacLean would get better at this sort of thing later on. This was filmed in 1961 with Richard Widmark starring. 1/20/20

So the Wind Wonít Blow It All Away by Richard Brautigan, Delacorte, 1982 

I never particularly liked this novella about a young boy growing up in the aftermath of World War II. It has most of the authorís strengths, but it seemed to me more didactic than his other work, and in some ways quite bitter. There is little hint of the wild humor of his other work,and it is considerably less inventive. Brautigan later committed suicide so itís not surprising that he had a dark side. 1/19/20

Revenge of the Lawn by Richard Brautigan, Touchstone, 1971 

The Tokyo-Montana Express by Richard Brautigan, Delacorte, 1980 

Two collections of short stories, although most of them are probably technically not stories at all. Brautigan could have been the writer for whom the term prose poem was invented because most of these are elegantly phrased concepts or images or scenes. Plotting was never among his strong points. They are a pleasure to read particularly in small batches. Although undoubtedly not someone who would appeal to every literary taste, Brautigan was a unique voice who was with us too brief a time. 1/15/20

Sombrero Fallout by Richard Brautigan, Touchstone, 1976

This novel alternates between two stories. In the first, a successful humorist has to deal with the painful end of his love affair. In the second, which appears to be a story he was writing, three men are puzzled when an ice cold sombrero falls out of a cloudless sky. The situation in the latter portion of the book escalates into virtual warfare while in the former, the protagonist becomes increasingly despondent and disorganized. The theme appears to be how people over react to relatively trivial situations and blow them up into actual disasters. 1/10/20

Knightís Gambit by William Faulkner, Signet, 1950 

Six short stories set in a familiar Faulkner setting, tending toward the more conventional edge of his work. Best and longest is the title story, which features one of my favorite of his recurring characters. These are closer to mystery stories than is most of his work. The stories are not included in his Collected Stories for some reason, so you need to pick this up separately if you want to read all of his shorts. 1/10/20

Collected Stories by William Faulkner, Vintage, 1995 

This is a very large collection of short fiction, but it should be called Uncollected Stories because it contains the stories which were not reprinted in any of Faulknerís several previous collections. The most famous is, of course, ďA Rose for Emily,Ē but there are a lot of excellent tales here, most of them in familiar Faulkner communities and dealing with similar themes although there are a few that break the pattern a bit. I read this over the course of about six weeks, a story a night, and I suspect it might be better not to address it in much larger chunks. Faulkner was not the cheeriest of authors. 1/6/20

Force Ten from Navarone by Alistair MacLean, Crest, 1968 

The survivors of The Guns of Navarone are immediately diverted to a new mission in Yugoslavia. There is a complicated plot involving spies, counterspies, people pretending to be fooled and people actually fooled, an attack that is fake and is met by a defense that is fake, firefights in the woods, double agents, triple agents, and so on. This tried to replicate the feel of the original and Where Eagles Dare but only succeeds intermittently. The climax is pretty spectacular. The movie version stars Harrison Ford and Robert Shaw and has a substantially different plot. 1/3/20

Willard and His Bowling Trophies by Richard Brautigan, Pocket, 1975  

An almost indescribable novella in which two sets of characters lurch toward a collision. The first is a married couple who suffer from genital warts and have slipped into mild sadomasochism. The husband seems to be losing his mental faculties and has trouble concentrating or remembering things. The other set are three brothers whose only interest was bowling. Then someone stole all their bowling trophies and they have spent three years searching for them, and robbing gas stations to support themselves. They get an anonymous tip about where the trophies are, but there is a mixup about the address which results in a tragic confrontation. Like most of Brautiganís work, the mood is sad despite the occasional whimsy. 1/2/20