Last Update10/19/18

North Star by Hammond Innes, 1974 

The indecisive, morally compromised protagonist of this adventure story is generally unconvincing. He was witness to a major crime but has to be forced to testify. He is threatened with a frame up, and refrains from telling the police about it, which makes it much more effective when the card is played. He gets moved from situation to situation without ever resisting more than perfunctorily. During the course of the novel he finds his father, whom he believed dead for decades, and learns of a plan to destroy an oil rig and pollute the coast of Scotland, but he still refrains from telling the authorities. He claims to be a communist but his political and economic views are very capitalist – he even arranges to buy a trawler as a business venture. There is almost no action at all until the final chapters. Innes seemed to lose his early gift for storytelling during the long gap in the 1960s when he wrote at a much slower pace. 10/19/18

Something of Value by Robert Ruark, Doubleday, 1955

I first read this long novel about the Mau Mau rebellion when I was in high school and it was my first close look at the problems caused by Britain’s colonization of Africa, specifically Kenya. Two young men, one white and one black, grow up under the patronizingly repressive British government. Years later, they will become bitter enemies when the simmering frustration leads to the Mau Mau rebellion and the murders of many white residents. The author makes it clear that this is not a case of good vs evil but rather of one evil against another. There are heroes and villains on both sides of the conflict. The actual outbreak of organized violence comes relatively late in this long novel, which spends a great deal of time illustrating how oblivious the British were to the tensions they were placing on the Kenyans, and also a great deal of time on the superstitions that caused the latter to distrust their rulers. 10/16/18

Jenny by Nature by Erskine Caldwell, Signet, 1961 

This is another depressing story of the rural south. Jenny rents rooms in her house and her tenants include a midget and a single woman who drifts into prostitution. The neighbors, particularly a crackpot church group, is appalled and tries to get her to throw the latter out. Then she allows a mulatto woman to rent a room as well, and that causes a powerful local man to apply pressure which results in murder and the destruction of the house. There is a hint of light at the end but not enough to counter the depressing chain of events that it follows. 10/14/18

A Woman in the House by Erskine Caldwell, Signet, 1949

This collection of short stories is fairly typical of the author’s novels. There is very little humor and most of the characters lead tragic or at least unhappy lives. There are quite a few stories about children, which is a bit of a change. The title story may be the best in the collection although I also though “Indian Summer” was quite good. They tend to be slice of life type stories, single brief episodes with a limited number of characters. They also tend to be quite short. I have two more of his collections but I notice some overlap.10/9/18

Grenadine Etching by Robert Ruark, Ace, 1947 

This was the author’s first novel, a spoof of historical novels. The setting is pre-Civil War south. The title is the name of a remarkable young woman raised by a voodoo witch whose powers are entirely real. Grenadine herself becomes a full grown woman at nine and has almost superhuman powers even without the voodoo. I hadn't read this before and was surprised to discover it is really a fantasy.  Funny for a while, but it begins to get old quite early and is quite a slug once they leave for Cuba and a series of unlikely adventures. 10/7/18

The Golden Soak by Hammond Innes, Avon, 1973 

After his business fails and his wife leaves him, the protagonist relocates to Australia where a relative of his wife has a cattle ranch and an abandoned gold mine. He becomes obsessed with rumors of the discovery of a major copper strike years earlier, lost when its discovered disappeared. There are rumors that the body is somewhere in the closed mine, but a deliberately placed explosion makes exploration impossible. This is a rather relentlessly depressing book filled with repulsive characters. Even the protagonist is less than admirable. 10/6/18

 Place Called Estherville by Erskine Caldwell, Signet, 1949 

Another very depressing novel about life in the rural South. The protagonists are mulattos, brother and sister, trying to find a place for themselves despite being despised by both the white and black populations. They are psychologically and physically assaulted on multiple occasions, belittled, insulted, and deprived of what we would think of as basic human dignity. Nicely done but painful to read. 9/30/18

This Very Earth by Erskine Caldwell, Signet, 1948

Almost every character in this novel about a poor southern family is reprehensible, pathetic, or dead by the end of the story. After his wife dies, Chism Crockett moves his father, one son, and three daughters from their farm to the city where he steadfastly refuses to find work. One daughter marries an abusive man who refuses to get a job, and is eventually murdered by him. Another supplements her meager wages through prostitution. The remaining daughter is still in high school, but is the target of her lecherous brother-in-law. The son is only eleven when his father gets him drunk and introduces him to rape. Although very powerful, it is relentlessly depressing and the conclusion is hardly uplifting. 9/24/18

Levkas Man by Hammond Innes, Avon, 1971   

The protagonist accidentally kills a man and decides to flee from England. He discovers that his estranged father, a paleontologist, has gone missing in Greece, so when he is recruited for a smuggling operation in that same area, he decides to kill two birds with one stone. His father is actually on the brink of a major discovery about primitive humans, but the Greeks are concerned because he was a communist in his youth, and a rival scientist wants to steal his discovery and proclaim it as his own.  The story is slow paced, wanders off into technical discussions far too often, and the motivations of the characters are frequently opaque. This was the author’s longest book to date, but also one of his least interesting efforts. 9/22/18

The Sure Hand of God by Erskine Caldwell, Signet, 1947  

An uneducated woman tries to get along in a small Southern town by odd jobs and sexual liaisons while raising an almost adult daughter. She decides that it is important to marry off the daughter to prevent her from ending up in the same squalid life, and she is not particularly discriminating in choosing potential husbands. Mildly funny, more than mildly tragic, and darkly satirical as is most of Caldwell’s fiction. Caldwell's books are not going to brighten up your day, no matter how well writtten they are. 9/15/18

The Strode Venturer by Hammond Innes, Signet, 1965 

An ex-naval officer gets involved with a family owned business in which one brother – rather an outcast – has a radical new vision for the company based on the discovery of a newly born island that is rich in manganese deposits. His two brothers prefer things the way they have been, despite the steady loss of income, and eventually try to dissolve the company. The outcast gets stranded on the island and is presumed dead, but of course he isn’t and eventually there is a climactic board meeting at which the good guys prevail. I found this one rather dull. 9/14/18

A House in the Uplands by Erskine Caldwell, Signet, 1946

The protagonist of Caldwell’s first completely serious novel is a woman who married into an old but decaying family. Her mother-in-law clearly hates her and her husband plays around but seems reluctant to sleep with his own wife. He is also a compulsive gambler and eventually thus leads to his downfall and his death. Despite a late attempt to give him some redeeming qualities, the husband is such a horrible person that his decline is not remotely tragic. His wife is so ineffectual that I had little sympathy for her. The only likeable character is a friend of the family who tries to help, and he only does so because he’s in love with the wife. Not up to the author’s usual standards. 9/12/18

Atlantic Fury by Hammond Innes, Dell, 1962  

There is incompetence but no real villain in this story of a disastrous attempt to evacuate a military unit from a remote island off the Scottish coast. The officer in charge is a ditherer who does not get along with his executive officer, who is more competent. The latter also has a secret. He has stolen the identity of a dead man and is actually the brother of the protagonist, who was court martialed for insubordination many years earlier. The evacuation is hampered by a surprise storm with hurricane force winds and a series of unlucky coincidences that eventually cost dozens of lives. The sense of impending doom dominates the story, which is brilliantly plotted and carried out. 9/7/18

Tragic Ground by Erskine Caldwell, Signet, 1944

The inhabitants in a poor section of an unnamed major city live in squalor and dream of getting away. The story focuses on one family. The father is lazy and weak spirited, the mother is a lush who rarely leaves her bed. He fights with the next-door neighbor and she harasses the social worker she is convinced is after her husband. The younger daughter has run off to a whorehouse and only the older one seems likely to get her life together, marry wisely, and move away. As usual Caldwell uses humor to mask the other tragedy he is describing. Not a book to make you optimistic about the world. 9/3/18

The Doomed Oasis by Hammond Innes, Knopf, 1960 

A lawyer travels to the Middle East to find out what happened to a young man whose estate has been entrusted to him for disposition. He discovers a complicated web of political, military, and commercial interests in the possibility of oil in a small independent Arab kingdom that is on the verge of collapse due to the destruction of its irrigation system. He gets involved in a siege, a war, and various political intrigues before an international crisis finally brings things to a head. There are some good sequences in this one, but most of the siege takes place off screen and the protagonist's personality seems quite at odds with the choices he makes. 9/2/18

Georgia Boy by Erskine Caldwell, Signet, 1961 (originally published in 1950)

Although this is another story of poor rural Georgia, it is quite unlike the author’s previous novels. For one thing, it is anecdotal, a series of stories about a single family rather than an organized novel. For another, the humor is more general and much lighter. The problems involve things like getting goats off a roof or getting caught flirting with a neighbor. There are some obvious bits of satire but they are not as bitter as they might have been. They’re all told from the point of view of a young boy. I liked this a lot more than Caldwell’s better known work. 8/27/18

The Land God Gave to Cain by Hammond Innes, Dell, 1958 

Ian Ferguson travels to Labrador to prove that his late father was not crazy when he claimed to have received a radio transmission from an exploration party that had been reported dead. Despite the active opposition of almost everyone he encounters, Ferguson perseveres and is eventually part of a small search party that eventually discovers the truth. There is a nice red herring. The man we are most likely to suspect of being a killer was actually just trying to cover up a crime to protect the murderer’s daughter, whom he loves. Lots of trekking through the snow and medium level adventures. 8/26/18

Black Sheep by Will Jenkins, Burt, 1946 

Another predictable western. Steve Burt was labeled the black sheep of the family after his father’s death, mostly because he knew that his uncle was involved in rustling. He leaves town but returns a few years later, only to be promptly framed for murder. He ends up being appointed deputy sheriff, but the sheriff is killed and he is on the run again. Naturally he defeats that bad guys and gets the girl. There is actually a small but nice twist at the end when we find out that an offstage villain has actually been dead all along. 8/22/18

Trouble in July by Erskine Caldwell, Penguin, 1940  

I’m not sure you could sell a tragicomedy about lynching today, but Caldwell did it decades ago. A white teenager tries to seduce a young black farm worker and the local busybody decides it was rape. All the white men go on the rampage to hunt him down, except for the local sheriff, who doesn’t want to alienate any segment of the electorate by actually doing something either way. And he’s not unsympathetic to the black man either. Fierce, bitter comedy mixes with clear portrayals of ignorant and brutal racism. This is a very disturbing novel. 8/21/18

Kid Deputy by Will Jenkins, Alfred King, 1935 

The Kid  of the title is a young jeopardy who ventures into an outlaw dominated valley to rescue his friend, the sheriff, from the reader of the outlaws, who happens to be his father. This is a really bad western with little action, and what there is feels like a comic book. It’s a coming of age story, but The Kid doesn’t change very much and the other characters are all stereotypes. Not naming the protagonist probably seemed like a good idea at the time, but the results are terrible. 8/20/18

The Wreck of the Mary Deare by Hammond Innes, Pocket, 1957

This is probably the author's best  known novel. A crooked shipping company secretly offloads a valuable insured cargo and then plans to sink the original ship and collect both ways. Unfortunately for them, the acting captain is an honest man and he survives an attempt to kill him when the crew abandons ship. A passing smaller ship puts the protagonist aboard and he gets caught up in the ensuing drama as the ship is beached on a reef. Now it's up to the two men to prove what really happened, clear the captain's name, and bring the bad guys to justice. One of the best adventure novels. 8/18/18

The Naked Land by Hammond Innes, Ballantine, 1954 

A smuggler turned missionary in Morocco has hired a doctor, who arrives rather dramatically via shipwreck. Because the doctor is trying to avoid Communist agents – and for other reasons – he uses a false identity, which gets him into trouble with local gangsters and revolutionaries. This necessarily involves our hero as well despite his intentions to remain above the fray. The impersonation causes continued complications, as does the interference of a persistent crook and a local man who is determined to free the country from its French rulers. This is one of the author’s better novels. 8/15/18

Journeyman by Erskine Caldwell, Signet, 1948 (originally published in 1935) 

Another bitterly comic novel of poor Southerners. This time the plot focuses on the arrival of a lecherous and dishonest wandering preacher who forces himself upon a family and makes no secret of his plans to seduce every attractive female within range. He eventually bilks some of the characters out of everything they own. As despicable as he is, the methods he uses to develop his schemes are so transparent that I had little sympathy for his victims. 8/14/18

Outlaw Guns by Murray Leinster, Star, 1950 

This is a fairly standard western, although it is set late enough to have automobiles and gangsters. The hero is trying to clear his dead brother’s name – he was accused of rustling – and avoid a horde of people intent upon killing him  He teams up with some outlaws for a while, rescues a damsel in distress, outwits a crooked sheriff, and unmasks the secret leader of the bad guys. Also published as Wanted! Dead or Alive! 8/12/18

Campbell’s Kingdom by Hammond Innes, Ballantine, 1952 

A man terminally ill inherits a piece of supposedly worthless land in Canada, where his grandfather believed oil can be found. A dam project plans to flood the area and it is nearing completion. The conflict leads to subterfuge, legal challenges, and sabotage before the good guys finally strike oil, only to have the entire area flooded hours later. But there is a flaw in the dam, which results in a disastrous flood and eventually vindication of the hero, whose cancer spontaneous cures itself. This was one of the author's best adventure stories even though there is less melodrama than usual. 8/9/18

God’s Little Acre by Erskine Caldwell, Signet, Penguin, 1947 (originally published in 1933)

I enjoyed this novel of poor Southerners a good deal better than Tobacco Road, his other famous novel with a similar theme. There is a family obsessed with the idea that there is gold somewhere on their land, so instead of raising crops, they dig enormous holes everywhere, always setting aside one acre for which they have promised any income to God. They pull various other people into their mania. This book was challenged as pornographic when it first appeared because of the frank sexual relations among the characters. The courts ruled in favor of the book and the findings – included as an appendix in this edition – are quite interesting. 8/1/18

Air Bridge by Hammond Innes, Avon, 1970 (originally published in 1951) 

The protagonist has somewhat unwillingly gotten himself on the wrong side of the law. This leads to his working with a man who is obsessed with perfecting a revolutionary new kind of aircraft engine. Our hero is eventually blackmailed into stealing a plane, but in doing so he forces a friend to parachute down into the Russian Zone of Germany. His conscience bothers him so he goes to look for him and has various adventures before the obsessed man commits murder to protect his business operation. He also stole the plans from a man now dead whose daughter is determined to get them back. The protagonist is such a miserable person that this didn’t entirely work for me. 7/21/18

Tobacco Road by Erskine Caldwell, Signet, 1959 (originally published in 1932)

This is one of Caldwell’s two most famous novels and is possibly the most depressing book I have ever read. It’s set somewhere in the rural South during the Depression and most of the characters are on the verge of starvation. They live in hovels, are uneducated, have no ambition for a better life and no respect for one another, and perform acts of casual cruelty throughout. The chief protagonist ends up dying in a fire. The prose is great but this was really difficult to read because of the horrible portrait it draws, though it is fortunately quite short. 7/12/18

The Angry Mountain by Hammond Innes, Ballantine, 1950

A businessman visiting Soviet occupied Czechoslovakia gets caught up in intrigue when an old friend is arrested by the secret police. Most of the story takes place in Italy when the friend’s escape somehow goes awry and the protagonist discovers that a war criminal is masquerading as another old acquaintance. The climax takes place against the backdrop of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This is my least favorite Innes. I disliked the protagonist immensely, the plot involves a lot of coincidences and the refusal of characters to provide information to each other that would have made things easier for both parties. They escape by taking off in an airplane over a runway that somehow has been untouched by falling boulders, lava flows, falling ash, and seismic activity. 7/11/18

The Survivors by Hammond Innes, Bantam, 1950

The protagonist gets caught up in a whaling expedition in Antarctica during which a man is lost overboard, either suicide or murder. The chief suspect in the latter case is the son of the man who owns the company. This man’s estranged wife is also present and she is the daughter of the dead man. Through some secretive maneuvering, she now holds controlling interest in the company, which makes her a prime target for another killing. An attempt at murder disables three small ships and places their crews on the ice, and when the larger factory ship tries to reach them, it sets the stage for an even greater tragedy. Literally chills and thrills ensue. 7/8/18

Dallas by Will F. Jenkins, Gold Medal, 1950 

Novelization of the movie about an ex-Confederate officer who adopts a false identity to avoid pursuit while he tracks down the bandits who killed his family. Gary Cooper starred. The bandits are three brothers, one of whom pretends to be a respectable citizen. After a rather standard series of adventures, the hero is able to kill all three brothers, marries the girl he meets along the way, and is granted a pardon for his past crimes. There is a good deal of sympathy for the Confederacy sprinkled throughout the story. 7/3/18

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