Last Update 10/3/20

Honour of the Flag by W. Clark Russell, Books for Libraries, 1969 (originally published in 1895)

This is a collection of short stories - most of them just anecdotes really - involving sailing ships and the ocean. Topics include a feud between a retired sailor and a retired tailor, and my favorite - a ship that is boarded one night by a baboon that was drifting on a raft. They're amusingly told with lots of dialect but they are all quite forgettable. 10/3/20

Coming Up for Air by George Orwell, McFadden, 1963 (originally published in 1950)

My second favorite of Orwell's mundane novels is the story of an average man who wins some money on a horserace and decides to indulge himself with a nostalgic visit to the village where he grew up. Naturally, you cannot go home again and he is discouraged, although the pessimistic nature of the story is somewhat ameliorated by some deft humor. Orwell clearly thought that industry and commerce were ruining the English countryside. Superimposed on that is the protagonist's conviction - which proves to be prescient - that the world is on the brink of a new world war. 9/28/10

Burmese Days by George Orwell, Signet, 1963 (originally published in 1934) 

This is a devastating indictment of British rule in Burma, as well as being thoroughly depressing. Every single character ultimately comes to a bad end - suicide, apoplexy, demotion, dishonor, etc. And most of them deserve it. The British residents of a small town are thoroughly racist except for one man, whose attempts to act courageously turn out disastrously. This had to be published in the US originally because so much of it was based on actual people and situations. It was Orwell's first novel and set the tone for his subsequent work. 9/24/20

A Clergyman's Daughter by George Orwell, Avon, 1935

The protagonist of this superb but depressing novel is the inhibited daughter of a self centered, penurious clergyman who suffers amnesia and ends up picking hops for months until her memory returns. Her father pretty much abandons her even when she appeals to him, and it is the unsavory neighbor who comes to her assistance, although only after various tribulations. She returns to a modified version of her old life at the end and there is no sign of hope for her. Orwell's prose is an absolute pleasure to read even when his subject matter is not. 9/2/20

Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, Popular Library, 1955 (originally published in 1936)

Gordon Comstock is a would-be poet who considers the quest for a decent wage to be a trap. His determination to remain free leads to squalor and the constant failure of his romantic life, and since he spends even less time writing than he did while better employed, his resistance is rather silly. That doesn't prevent him from whining and making life miserable for everyone around him. Ultimately he surrenders, and finds himself enjoying life for the first time. He is such a self centered, clueless twit that it is impossible to find much sympathy for him, and he fails even to live up to his own distorted principles. It's not a particularly uplifting story, but Orwell was a superb writer and I was unable to go to sleep until I had read the whole thing. 8/24/20

Inspector Chen and Me by Qiu Xiaolong, Amazon, 2018

This appears to be self published. I am a fan of the Inspector Chen mystery series and expected short puzzle stories. But these aren't mysteries at all. They are essentially tales of his early life and are more about depicting conditions in China of that era than they are about the plots. I suspect there is some autobiography as well. As such they are interesting but not nearly as entertaining as his novels. Fortunately I have the latest in the series sitting beside my bed. 8/20/20

Storm Force from Navarone by Sam Llewellyn, Harper, 2010 

A continuation of the series started by Alistair MacLean. This time our three commandoes are sent to destroy a small base that hosts a squad of submarines which the Germans plan to use to disrupt the D-Day landings. Thereís lots of adventures, not all of it particularly plausible. The character names are place holders and the plot unfolds rather mechanically and very predictably. Llewellyn would write one further sequel. 8/4/20

Thunderbolt from Navarone by Sam Llewellyn, Harper Collins, 1998

One of two sequels to the Navarone books by Alistair MacLean written by this author. This time our heroes are sent to a remote Greek island where the Nazis are developing a top secret missile. Their object is to destroy the facility. It looks like a suicide mission on the face of it, and naturally there are going to be developments that the threesome and the British navy have not anticipated. Not badly written and fairly adventurous, but without the depth that characterized the two books by MacLean. 7/24/20

The Genius and the Goddess by Aldous Huxley, Bantam, 1955 

A youngish, insecure scientist goes to live with his new mentor and the manís much younger life. The older man is suffering from poor health and eventually, almost inevitably, the protagonist has an affair with the wife. The precocious daughter catches on quite quickly. A surprisingly large number of incidents follow, considering this is really a novella. The wife and daughter are both eventually killed in an accident. Reads very quickly and smoothly. 6/26/20

Breakheart Pass by Alistair MacLean, Crest, 1974  

This was MacLeanís only western. An army troop train with some distinguished civilians aboard is en route to a fort in Nevada that is supposedly beset by cholera as well as surrounded by hostile Paiutes. The story is also a mystery because some of the people aboard the train are murdering some of the other people. There are several surprises and reversals in the plot, plus a touch of romance between a supposed fugitive who is actually a Pinkerton detective and the daughter of the governor, who turns out to be one of the villains.  6/19/20

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley, 1922 

I found this thoroughly amusing, but of the small smile rather than loud guffaw variety. A varied group from the upper class gathers at a country estate where each of them in short order demonstrates his or her insecurity. All of them attempt to cover things up with various masks Ė the aura of the artist, disdain, condescension, bluster, exaggeration, contrived falsehoods, bombast, and other ploys. I think I enjoyed this more than any of the other Huxleys I have so far reread. 5/21/20

Screen Cinema by Barry Malzberg, Stark House, 2020, $15.95, ISBN 978-1-951473-11-2 

This is a reprint of two novels, Screen and Cinema, both of which I actually read a long time ago. They are quasi-pornographic, or were at the time they appeared. Todayís standards are different.  Cinema has previously appeared as The Masochist Ė which is where I read it - and as Everything Happened to Susan. The first title was a spoof of the pornography industry, which has changed a great deal since the book was written, although most of the satire is still reasonably valid. It is at times quite funny but at other times rather serious. The second is considerably more grim and actually ages a bit better. The protagonist is determined to make good in her career, even if that means enduring a series of sexual adventures. Neither is for the easily offended reader. 5/13/20

Santorini by Alistair MacLean, Crest, 1986  

The last of the ghost written novels to appear under MacLeanís name isnít bad. A plane carrying nuclear weapons crashes into the Mediterranean Sea not far from where a yacht catches fire and sinks. A NATO ship picks up the survivors from the yacht and it is immediately obvious that their presence is not a coincidence. And there is reason to believe that one of the nuclear weapons might have activated and the site is near a major fault line. The speculation that this could end all life on Earth is not very convincing, but the story is pretty good, not as talky as usual, although several of the characters are virtually interchangeable. Spoiler. The world does not get destroyed. 5/10/20

San Andreas by Alistair MacLean, Crest, 1985 

This ghost written thriller is a pretty good war time adventure. A hospital ship survives multiple attacks by German aircraft and submarines, although it is obvious that they want to capture rather than sink the ship. Something is aboard that the captain does not know about. And there are saboteurs as well, inevitably, although it is not clear for whom they are working. Much better paced than the other ghostwritten MacLean novels and with some interesting action sequences. I'm not a big fan of wartime fiction but this one held my attention. 4/24/20

Floodgate by Alistair MacLean, Crest, 1983    

Another ghost written thriller, this one not awful although occasional tedious and not very original. A gang of terrorists plans to hold the entire Netherlands at risk by blowing holes in the dikes at strategic places. Several agents go undercover to try to identify the leaders of the terrorist group, but they are hampered by the fact that there is an informer privy to their highest security meetings. The climax is a bit perfunctory and holds few surprises. It does not feel like a MacLean novel at all. 4/22/20

Collected Short Stories by Aldous Huxley, Elephant, 1957

Huxley's short fiction was generally about upper class English people, most of them wealthy, most of them with inflated opinions of their own self worth. The prose is a bit heavy by contemporary standards but his better shorts are still quite readable. "The Gioconda Smile," a kind of murder mystery, was easily my favorite. I also liked "The Monocle," "The Bookshop," "Happily Ever After," and "The Portrait." There were only a couple that I was impatient to finish. I am tempted to say that his shorts are better than his novels. 4/20/20

Partisans by Alistair MacLean, Crest, 1982 

The second ghostwritten MacLean novel. This is partly a retread of Force 10 from Navarone. A spy and mercenary working for the Germans is ordered to smuggle two radio operators into Yugoslavia to help in a major campaign against the partisan army. It is obvious from the outset that the protagonist is a double agent, and there are more hidden motives among the other characters. Mostly, however, they just sit around and talk to one another, sometimes quite tensely. But very little actually happens and I was bored for most of the story. 5/17/20

River of Death by Alistair MacLean, Crest, 1961   

This was the first of the ghostwritten MacLean novels. I donít believe the real authorís name has ever been revealed. The story is very boring. Nazi hunters, Mossad, a vengeful widower, two different Nazi groups, Greek foreign agents, and others all converge on a lost city in Brazil. The actual journey starts on page 120 of 210, much of it is in a helicopter, and the river really isnít significant at all. The confrontation at the end takes place partly off stage and the surprise revelations are mostly not at all surprising. Made into a boring movie. 4/13/20

Athabasca by Alistair MacLean, Crest, 1980 

This is a surprisingly dull and predictable thriller, probably the last novel that MacLean wrote himself, hiring ghostwriters for the last few to appear under his name. Someone is threatening to interfere with oilfields and pipelines in Alaska, and commit a handful of murders along the way, unless they are paid off. An outside security firm is brought in and they determined that it is an inside job. More attacks follow, mostly aimed at the investigators. The police are almost completely absent from the story. Some of the plot elements make no sense. The investigators begin checking fingerprints, which panics the bad guys. But fingerprinting was an absolute certainty from the outset, so this makes no sense. The bad guys retaliate by kidnapping the wife and daughter of the head investigator, but that makes no sense because this would have had no impact on the investigation. Not awful, just dumb.4/5/10

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