Last Update 6/26/13

The Far Side of the World by Patrick O’Brian, Fontana, 1985   

Aubrey’s last mission was by his own admission a failure, although due to circumstances beyond his control. Now he’s awaiting word not only about his next assignment but possibly some form of disciplinary action from superiors who don’t like failure no matter how justified. The War of 1812 means that the Americans are now enemies. Aubrey, who has a good deal respect for their seamanship, is assigned to intercept an American ship headed toward the Pacific. The voyage is troubled by the usual – storms, dissension, etc. – but as always O’Brian gives them unique twists and makes them very convincing. The ultimate encounter is long delayed but very rewarding when it does take place. One of the best entries in this series. I almost felt like I was going on a cruise myself. 6/26/13

Treason’s Harbour by Patrick O’Brian, Thorndike, 2002 (originally published in 1983) 

There’s more Stephen Maturin than Jack Aubrey is this volume in the series. There is a spy passing information to the French and although the reader knows who it is quite early, our heroes have to figure it out for themselves. Much of the action is set on land this time, in Malta and Egypt primarily, although there are a couple of brief escapades at sea to keep everything fresh. This is more a story of espionage than of overt action, although there’s plenty of that as well. The story doesn’t quite end – it’s obvious that things will have to continue toward their resolution in the next volume, which fortunately I have sitting right beside me as I type this. Despite the author’s sometimes dense prose, this has been for the most part an exciting series of books. 6/16/13

Ghost Rider by Max Brand, Pocket, 1971 (originally published in 1920 as Clung 

The opening chapter of this is slightly misleading since it introduces Clung, whom we believe to be a Chinese cowboy, although it turns out that he was unofficially adopted and is in fact white. I’m not convinced he could have been mistaken just because he wore his hair in a ponytail. After a run in with some Mexican rowdies, Clung becomes an outlaw.  He meets a girl who is put off by his supposed Asian heritage, gets arrested, is clandestinely freed by the local marshal, then returns to custody when this destroys the lawman’s reputation. Angered by racism, he defiantly takes a false Chinese name, alters his appearance, and opens a gambling casino after winning it in a card game. Meanwhile, the girl who spurned him has come looking, accompanied by her disapproving father and a disgruntled suitor. Much of the book actually follows the adventures of another man – one who betrayed Clung in the past – who briefly seeks to redeem himself but succumbs to the temptation to become an outlaw for the sake of adventure.  The story wanders rather a lot and is clearly padded in the second half. Not one of Brand’s early successes. 6/12/13

The Ionian Mission by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1992 (originally published in 1981)   

Captain Jack Aubrey is assigned to blockade duty off the coast of France in the early chapters of this installment in the series. Stephen Maturin, who was married in the previous book, is finding his new family relationship difficult. They are largely bored with the uneventful duty until their ship is detached for a special mission to the Greek islands. Life aboard a blockade fleet is rather tedious but O’Brian’s description of it is quite entertaining. Even an encounter with a small squadron of French ships ends without a single gun being fired. His old nemesis Admiral Harte puts Aubrey in a difficult situation, from which he extracts himself forcefully.  There’s a lively bit of action at the end. About average for O’Brian, which is well above average for most other writers of historical fiction. 6/10/13

Gunmen’s Feud by Max Brand, Warner, 1984 (originally published in 1920)    

Jerry Peyton’s proudest possession is the gun his father left to him on his deathbed, so when a mysterious outlaw steals it from him, he’s determined to leave no stone unturned getting it back. The thief was actually working to the instructions of the local sheriff, who tricked him into doing it in order to get Peyton out of town because of a local feud which would probably have ended with him either dying or killing someone. The fate of all three becomes increasingly intertwined as the long search comes to an end and further complications arise to cast the outcome in doubt. Brand leaves some loose ends in this one but the story is still one of his best. 6/5/13

Tales from a Troubled Land by Alan Paton, Scribner, 1961  

This is a small collection of short stories set in pre-Apartheid South Africa, dealing primarily with race relations. The stories are designed to illustrate points of injustice involving the murder of a white landowner and the retaliation against innocent people, problems at a reformatory, casual violence, moral qualms about hunting, generational discord, etc. Paton uses a spare prose style that moves his plots along swiftly but I found that most of these disappointed me because they didn’t take the time to build the characters so that we would care about their issues. The stories aren't notable individually but as a whole they provide an insightful picture of a very different culture. His novels, however are much better. 6/1/13

Too Late the Phalarope by Alan Paton, Signet, 1953  

Paton’s second novel looks at apartheid from the opposite direction than that in Cry the Beloved Country. The protagonist in this case is a white policeman who falls in love with a black woman. Although he uses some discretion, their relationship inevitably becomes common knowledge. Since it was both immoral and illegal in South Africa at that time to have an interracial romance, he is tried, found guilty, and his entire family is disgraced by his actions. Paton’s indictment of racial prejudice may have been set within a society that no longer exists but the human interactions are still all too much with us. 5/31/13

The Surgeon’s Mate by Patrick O’Brian, Fontana, 1980  

Jack Aubrey escapes from Canada aboard a mail packet despite being pursued by American privateers. Eventually they arrive in England, but the ship which he was supposed to command has been reassigned during his absence. His financial affairs are also plummeting due to some investment problems which I found mildly unrealistic. O’Brian is much better when his characters are afloat. Maturin and the elusive Diana Villiers are engaged to be married but I didn’t hold out much hope that this would ever happen. I don’t care for her character particularly and find the interludes involving her distracting and occasionally annoying. Maturin’s espionage activities also place him in fresh danger from the French. O’Brian is adept at showing us just how time consuming the approach to a sea battle can be, and how short the actual conflict. Eventually they are involved in another shipwreck and end up in a French prison. This particular novel is essentially the second half of The Fortune of War rather than a separate installment in the series. 5/30/13

Trailinby Max Brand, Warner, 1978 (originally published in 1919) 

Anthony Bard discovers his true identity the day that a stranger shoots and kills his father at their home in New York. Although he has never traveled west before, Bard decides to track down the killer and uncover the mystery of his father’s false identity, as well as identify the mother he has never seen. Bard is a typical Max Brand larger than life character, able to tame any horse, fast with a gun, capable of beating a professional gambler at his own game, and able to claim the affection of the most beautiful and fickle young lady around. His father’s killer, Wayland Drew, hires someone to capture Bard and tie him up so that he can talk to him for ten minutes without interruption, but that proves harder to accomplish than expected. There’s also a romantic triangle. The gyrations before the truth is revealed are rather unrealistic complicated but the tone is more of a fairy tale than a serious novel, a common attribute to Brand’s novels. 5/24/13

The Fortune of War by Patrick O’Brian, Harper, 1994 (originally published in 1979)   

Captain Aubrey has a new command in this one after finally reaching the destination he set out for in the previous book. It’s a much more powerful ship than any he skippered before and he’s very pleased with the promotion. But to take command he has to get back to England so he takes passage on another ship just as the War of 1812 breaks out, leaving England with a new enemy. After a shipwreck, they find another ship, only to be taken prisoner by the Americans when that vessel is defeated at sea, after which Aubrey is suspected of espionage. Maturin’s on again off again romance goes through another cycle. I found this one quite slow and in fact interrupted reading it for a day or two and read something else before returning. 5/22/13

Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1991 (originally published in 1978)   

Both Captain Aubrey and his friend Stephen Maturin have reasons to be out of England for a while. Both have offended powerful people and even though they were in the right of it, power has its privileges. So Aubrey agrees to take a shipload of convicts to Botany Bay and discover the truth about Captain Bligh, who has been imprisoned by his own subordinates after being appointed governor. One of the prisoners is held separately, a female spy whose situation requires delicate handling.  There’s an epidemic that dramatically reduces his crew after which Aubrey must play hide and seek with a hostile Dutch ship he cannot hope to outfight.  Although they survive the encounter, the ship is badly damaged and almost unmanageable. They end up on the island of the title attempting to make repairs. As it happens, they never do get to Australia, at least not in this book. 5/16/13

Mending the Moon by Susan Palwick, Tor, 2013, $24.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-2758-1

A woman on vacation in Mexico is murdered by a man who subsequently returns to Washington state and commits suicide. The dead woman's adult son and her circle of friends, each of whom had a different kind of relationship and each of whom is facing crises of various sizes in their own lives. The tensions caused by her loss create schisms and anxieties which might understandably worsen when the mother of the dead killer invites them all to come to Seattle for a memorial service. Against all expectations, each of them decides to attend. This is all wrapped up in the son's  obsession with a comic book superhero named Comrade Cosmos, whose fictional but in many ways very real presence hovers over the events of the next few days. As with Palwick's previous novels, the story is not so much about the plot - and this certainly isn't a murder mystery - as it is with the various characters, how they interact, the way they occasionally and not always intentionally wound one another, and what they do to themselves in the process. Palwick has the ability to touch her readers in ways not available to most other writers. 5/16/13

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1977   

Jack Aubrey lacks a command and is on half pay, which makes it difficult to support his extended family in the manner to which they are accustomed.  Then he is made commodore, commander of a squadron of ships sent to deprive the French of an island base. He has an early problem – one of his subordinate captains is a martinet whose crew is on the verge of mutiny and another is a conceited fop, but he perseveres and wins a major victory halfway through the book. A hurricane complicates matters as he prepares to lay siege to an island port with a sizable French squadron at anchor.  The battles for Reunion and Mauritius are historically accurate, although it was Josias Rowley who was commodore, not Jack Aubrey. The English actually lost the sea battle, although the island surrendered anyway, but in this version it is not Aubrey’s fault but a combination of happenstance and incompetence. 5/15/13

Francesca's Kitchen by Peter Pezzelli, Kensington, 2006 

Francesca is an elderly Italian woman whose husband has died and whose children have been dispersed, leaving her with a sense of emptiness. Seeking a new purpose, she becomes involved as a babysitter/nanny for a single mother and her two teenaged children. The family is more confused than troubled and there is considerable light humor sprinkled through the story. Francesca's horror at the sight of frozen dinners is a good example. Francesca has a number of problems to overcome. The mother is interested in a man who is clearly not one of the good guys, the children are undisciplined and quarrelsome, and the house is in a disastrous state of clutter and disorganization. Little by little she introduces responsibility and self respect without crossing the border into pushiness. This is a restful story. Readers will know pretty much how things are going to turn out and that nothing bad will happen. Happy endings are largely out of fashion lately but it's always a pleasure to see one that's convincing. 5/13/13

Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, Scribner, 1948  

I read this in junior high in the late 1950s and only vaguely remembered it. The novel is set in pre-apartheid South Africa and involves a black pastor’s search for his son in Johannesburg. Unfortunately the son has been arrested for murdering a white man, actually the son of one of the pastor’s few white friends. Rather than drive them apart, the common tragedy brings them together. The novel is quite moving as well as providing a window into a kind of society which we find difficult to imagine today. His work also made him very unpopular within elements of South Africa during his career. 5/12/13

H.M.S. Surprise by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1991 (originally published in 1973) 

Jack Aubrey has to rescue his friend Maturin from French torturers at the outset of the third book in this series, after which he has a new command and a mission to deliver an ambassador to the Far East. There are several adventures along the way – a storm, an outbreak of scurvy – and a good deal of humor, including a drunken sloth and some purloined rats. Aubrey’s marriage prospects have their ups and downs and Maturin gets stranded in the middle of a violent storm. This one seemed to me more episodic than the first two, and it spends a larger portion of its time at sea as well. There’s an exciting sea battle toward the end and Maturin fights a deadly duel.  Looking forward to the next. 5/10/13

Riders of the Silences by Max Brand, Berkley, 1987 (originally published in 1919 as Luck 

Red Pierre was raised to enter the priesthood but left when he discovered that his father was dying after a gunfight with a man named McGurk. His father dies and Pierre decides to exact vengeance even though it was a fair fight and his father was probably to blame. Within hours of making that decision, he has already killed one gunfighter and wounded another. Through happenstance, he falls in with a band of outlaws, although the distinction between good and bad is blurred in almost every character in the novel. The daughter of the man leading the outlaws falls in love with him, predictably, and his first encounter with McGurk leaves both of them wounded, after which McGurk disappears for several years. Pierre meanwhile goes to a dance and finds the woman he believed dead, which complicates his love life.  Then McGurk comes back and begins eliminating the gang one at a time until there’s a final confrontation, the romantic triangle gets resolved, and things move on – although somewhat uneasily. Larger than life characters were Brand’s trademark. 5/6/13

Post Captain by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1990 (originally published in 1972)   

The second adventure of Jack Aubrey finds him landbound with no command, and increasingly in difficulty because of his financial situation. He finally flees to France to escape his creditors, only to discover that war has broken out again. Disguised, he and his friend Maturin make their way to Spain, eventually board a British ship, only to be captured by French privateers. Fortunately their imprisonment is short lived and they return safely to England although to Aubrey’s dismay, there appears to be no ship for him to command. Then he is offered an experimental ship and risks becoming a laughingstock. I loved the section where the bailiffs have come to seize him as a debtor and he presses them into his crew. Both men have troubled romances and we learn more about Maturin’s secret life as a British spy. Not quite as good as the first but very nice overall. 5/3/13

Master and Commander by Patrick O’Brian, Norton, 1990 (originally published in 1970)  

The first of the Jack Aubrey novels, in the mode of the Hornblower books by C.S. Forester which I read in high school and really ought to re-read.  Although this is essentially an adventure story, O’Brian tells it at a very leisurely pace, which might seem like a drawback but it’s not. Instead it serves to draw the reader more fully into the story. As you might expect, the first book is about his first command, a small warship assigned to convoy duty in the Mediterranean.  It establishes his relationship with the ship’s doctor, Maturin, and the crew, particularly Lieutenant Dillon, his second in command.  There’s a great deal of nautical lore and description, some of which went slightly over my head, but it helps to create a convincing setting. Aubrey is heroic but flawed – he drinks and eats too much, is more concerned with booty than the rightness of his cause, and is rather obtuse on subjects in which he is less interested. As a consequence he is more authentic and credible as a protagonist.  Eventually he wins a notable victory against long odds, but his dalliance with the wife of his superior puts his career in jeopardy. Excellent historical adventure. 4/29/13

A Star in the Wind by Robert Nathan, Knopf, 1962   

This is the longest novel by far of all the Nathan’s that I have read. It follows the adventures of a number of characters during the years directly following World War II and the struggles for national identity in the newborn Israel. The chief protagonist, who does not initially have much of a sense of being Jewish, is changed dramatically by the events he experiences, as are several other characters. Although this is a very fine novel, it didn’t have the feel of Nathan’s other work and is considerably darker in tone. 4/17/13

Krapp’s Last Tape by Samuel Beckett, Grove, 1960   

This is a collection of five short plays of which the title piece is the most famous. It’s a single character play in which a man comments on tapes he made at different stages in his life, expressing his dissatisfaction with his former selves. “All That Fall” is the longest piece. A woman has various encounters with people and the protagonist’s discovery of the death of a child. It and “Embers”, which I didn’t care for, were written for radio rather than the stage.  The last two are short mime plays – no dialogue – that are occasionally interesting but rather oblique. Mildly interesting but not nearly the stature of Beckett better work.  4/10/13

Mr. Whittle and the Morning Star by Robert Nathan, Knopf, 1947   

Mr. Whittle is a teacher who one day decides that the world is about to end, that humanity has created the means of its own demise without any progress in learning how to live with itself. His wife, daughter, and students fail to understand how devastating a discovery this is. His conviction not only changes his outlook on the world but affects various people around him. He particularly upsets certainly religious people, who object to his statements about human history as well as his projections of the future. Like most of Nathan’s work, it is understated, the ending is almost tentative, but it is beautifully written. It’s not one of his major works but it deserves better than its present obscurity. 4/5/13

Seascape by Edward Albee, Dramatists Play Service, 1975 

The Play About the Baby by Edward Albee, Overlook, 2004    

Edward Albee’s plays were, generally speaking, grimly realistic but there were always touches of the absurd and fantastic. Both of these fits right in. An older couple is sitting on the beach, trying to find a new focus in life, somewhat unhappy with the society in which they live. They encounter a second couple who are actually some kind of lizard from the ocean, although they walk upright, and discover that the newcomers are unhappy with the ocean and are trying to live on land. Entanglements ensue until the human couple drives the other pair back into the ocean, suggesting that despite our problems, we are ultimately happier in a familiar setting. Not one of his major plays but interesting. The second and much better play won Albee his third Pulitzer Prize. A couple with a baby are confronted with a second couple who want to steal the child. The plot is surreal but the intensity of the dialogue sweeps the reader along through all the improbabilities. 4/4/13

Everything in the Garden by Edward Albee, Pocket, 1968 

All Over by Edward Albee, Pocket, 1971   

The first of these two plays opens with a look at a married couple who are living beyond their means because they want to appear capable of living beyond their means. Although husband and wife have different forms of obsession, it amounts to the same thing in the end. The wife is procured by a high class madam who wants her to be one of her escorts. After initial disgust, she does so, and has her accumulated pay sent to the house anonymously, although much to her horror her husband decides there is something fishy and wants to turn it over to the police. He discovers the truth just as they are about to host a party and as their son returns home from boarding school. The party allows Albee to get in some digs at racists. Eventually the husband learns that his friends’ wives are also prostitutes and the husbands all know about it. The play ends with the murder of a neighbor who stumbles upon the truth. A  rather nasty poke at our obsession with appearances. The subject of the second  play doesn’t sound promising. An elderly man – whom we never see – is dying surrounded by his wife, his mistress, two children, his best friend, and assorted others. The tensions ebb and flow, some predictable, some not. Although this is a fairly intense play, it doesn’t rival Albee at his best, and there really isn’t much of a narrative. It’s not one of his weakest plays but it doesn’t rise near the top either. 4/1/13

The Sea-Gull Cry by Robert Nathan, Popular Library, 1942   

Another short novel, this one concerning a young girl and her even younger brother, refugees from the war in Europe who have taken up temporary residence in a scow on Cape Cod. When a vacationing professor wrecks his boat nearby, they develop an odd friendship that evolves when the boy is put in peril. Nicely done and with some interesting supporting characters but this lacks the intensity of Nathan’s better work and the love affair is far less interesting than the one in Portrait of Jennie and elsewhere. 3/30/13

A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee, Pocket, 1966   

There’s another dysfunctional family in this intense play, consisting of an older married couple, there troubled daughter, and an alcoholic sister. Another couple completes the cast, friends of the family who have temporarily moved in following a severe attack of formless anxiety. Their visit is the focal point of what follows, in which the author examines the sense of loss each character feels to be prominent parts of their lives. The various perceptions of reality are also at odds. The play won the Pulitzer Prize even though the committee had given no award in the year of the superior but controversial Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Albee would later win the award on two more occasions. 3/29/13

Tiny Alice by Edward Albee, Pocket, 1966  2 

A rather difficult play that examines a philosophical point about the function of a church to interpret God and the ability of the human mind to perceive the existence of a deity.  Julian is a lay brother who has doubts about his faith. He is employed as a middleman when a rich woman agrees to give the church a sizable grant, but all is not what it seems. This is not one of my favorite Albee plays although it has its moments, perhaps in large part because I don’t find the central issue that interesting. 3/22/13

The Development by John Barth, Houghton Mifflin, 2008  

Every Third Thought by John Barth, Counterpoint, 2011 

The first of these is a collection of nine loosely related stories set in the Heron Bay Estates, a collection of gated communities. The opening tale is about a peeping tom whose essentially mild appearances eventually become a kind of fond memory for the residents. In the next, a toga party precipitates a suicide pact, one of the most depressing pieces of fiction I’ve ever read, though well written. Third is a story about relationships that ends without a conclusion. A genuinely funny story about a college literary competition is next, followed by a story set at a dinner party that I thought was the weakest in the collection. There’s an argument over the gates that is a clear indictment of prejudice of all varieties and another about adjustments people make as they face physical and mental deterioration in their old age.  The last two deal with the consequences of a destructive hurricane. This is a solid collection with moments of humor and others of tragedy. It’s more accessible to the average reader than some of Barth’s books, although he still plays with the form and addresses the reader directly on several occasions. The second title is a novel in which two of the recurring characters from the collection travel to Europe, where one of them suffers a head injury that may or may not be related to a series of visions he experiences after returning to the US.  Some of these are fascinating but the second half of the book is rather a letdown and the collection is much the better of the two. 3/20/13

Winter in April by Robert Nathan, Knopf, 1938     

The narrator of this book is an elderly writer who is raising his teenage granddaughter. He hires a young German refugee as his secretary and she becomes infatuated with him. Meanwhile his bossy sister, opinionated housekeeper, and others interact with the three main characters in ways that vary from comic to near tragic. If I had read the plot summary, I would have decided this wasn’t my cup of tea but it’s actually a very engrossing story that moves so smoothly and efficiently that I was almost done before I realized how much progress I’d made. One of Nathan’s best novels. 3/14/13

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, NAL, 2006 (originally published in 1962)   

This play – and the movie made from it – impressed me enormously when they appeared. I actually bought my first VCR just so I could watch the movie again. George is a professor married to Martha, the daughter of the university president, and their marriage has reached the state where they abuse each other physically at every opportunity.  Nick is a younger instructor, new to the school, and he and his wife Honey fall into the orbit of the other couple, with disastrous consequences. The intensity of the dialogue is almost unrivaled and there’s even a surprise ending that I never saw coming when I first read the play. 3/13/13

One More Spring by Robert Nathan, Bantam, 1945 (originally published in 1933)  

This very short novel is set during the Great Depression. An antiques dealer and a violinist find themselves homeless together. Although it’s a relatively quiet story, Nathan skewers American society from time to time. Only in America, he opines, are parks reserved exclusively for the rich. Only in America are we told that love conquers all, even though it doesn’t. Eventually they add a prostitute and a failed banker to their company. Despite the downbeat premise, the story is actually one of hope and ends on a rising note. Nathan’s talent for offbeat characters was one of his greatest assets, as is his use of unusual and sometimes comic sequences. 3/6/13

Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, Bantam, 1957 

This is the play that led to the term “angry young men”, referring to the then current generation of lower class British men following the fall of the empire. There are only five characters. Jimmy is the somewhat sadistic husband of a much put upon wife. Cliff is a boarder who tries to keep the peace, particularly when bored Jimmy takes a mistress. There are some superficial similarities to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which also features an angry man, as well as an angry woman. The play was rather controversial when it opened but has since become one of the most famous modern dramas, basis for three movies. Osborne's later work always suffered from being in the shadow of this early play. 2/27/13

The Fiddler in Barly by Robert Nathan, 1926

The Woodcutter’s House by Robert Nathan, 1927

The Orchid by Robert Nathan, 1931   

Three early novels by Robert Nathan.  The first involves the arrival of an itinerant fiddler in the parochial town of Barly. He interacts with various locals including a minister who uses religion to suck all the joy out of life, a slightly contrary woman who longs for something more than she has, an innocent child whose greatest joy is dancing, and several others. It doesn’t have a strong plot and the ending is quite low key, but it provides a telling indictment of religious hypocrisy. The second title is a direct sequel, following the young girl’s adventures after the death of her father. She lives for a while in a neighboring community, appears to fall in love, but eventually returns to Barly. I found this one quite disappointing. The characters are relatively flat and the plot wanders  and flirts with fantasy but never quite makes up its mind what it wants to be.  The third novel is very much in the mold of the other two. The characters are slightly higher in the social echelon but their foibles and concerns are very much the same. It deals with the role of art in society, the responsibilities of citizenship, and other issues, but only in the most indirect fashion. 2/26/13

The Sand Box/The Death of Bessie Smith by Edward Albee, Signet, 1963   

Two very short plays, the first of which I’ve seen performed by two different high school drama clubs. It’s very similar to The American Dream, an indictment of the way we treat the elderly, but with a bit more surrealism. This was the first Albee play I ever read. The second describes the events surrounding the death of singer Bessie Smith, who was fatally injured in an automobile accident. The play adheres to the fabricated story that Smith was refused admission to a whites only hospital, contributing to her death. This version was later debunked as a deliberate lie. Smith never actually appears in the play and her death comes relatively late. I actually didn’t like this as well as most of Albee’s other work. 2/25/13

The American Dream/The Zoo Story by Edward Albee, Pocket, Signet, 1961 

Two very short plays I originally read in high school. Both are bitter indictments of some aspects of contemporary life, illustrated through a quasi-surrealistic scenario, and each consists of a single act. The first consists of a married couple who are distressed by the presence of the wife’s mother, whom they characterize as senile although she has more sense than either of them and has clearly been psychologically abused for some time, particularly by her ungrateful daughter. The second is an encounter in a park between a staid, somewhat mousy man and another whose life is one of quiet desperation as they say and who tricks his companion into murdering him.  Albee’s unique style was evident even in his earlier work and he went on, of course, to produce several much more famous works including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 2/16/13

The Purple Pirate by Talbot Mundy, Avon, 1970  (originally published in 1935)

The final adventure of Tros of Samothrace, opening with his attempt to disentangle himself from Cleopatra and Egypt.  He has a problem because she holds some of his men hostage. Predictably he gets caught up in intrigue, this time involving Cleopatra’s younger sister Arsinoe and the fate of a fleet of grain ships which various parties wish to seize because of its importance to Rome in the midst of the civil war following the assassination of Julius Caesar.  He also discovers that his enemies in Egypt have proclaimed him a pirate despite his having conformed to Cleopatra’s wishes. Mundy strays rather far from history in this one since Arsinoe was not in fact installed as Queen of Cyprus but was instead imprisoned in Rome until she was executed by Mark Antony.  It ends with Tros saving Cleopatra’s throne once again, but there is no real conclusion. Obviously Mundy had planned further adventures, but died before they were written. 2/6/13

Caesar Dies by Talbot Mundy, Centaur, 1973 (Originally published in 1934) 

Commodus, emperor of Rome, has declared himself a god and is executing enemies to defend himself and friends in order to steal their land.  When one Sextus finds himself on the enemies list, he fakes his own death and assumes another identity, but he is not content to simply lead a life in hiding. This historical novel isn’t badly written but it takes almost a third of the book just to establish the situation and it isn’t until the second half that the plot really begins to unfold. None of the characters have the depth of those in the Tros of Samothrace books set earlier in the same epic. One of Mundy’s lesser works.

The Songcatcher by Sharyn McCrumb, Dutton, 2001   

Although this involves the same characters as her previous ballad novels, there is no mystery element at all this time. The primary plot involves a singer estranged from her dying father whose plane crashes while en route to visit him for one last time. Although she has a cell phone and can communicate, the searchers have no idea where the plane went down. I don’t think this is a plausible scenario today thanks to triangulation, but it may well have been true when the novel was written. There are subplots including a deputy on a solitary camping trip who has an accident and is also trapped in the wild, without benefit of a cell phone. The subplots involve the dying man’s insistence that he has guests invisible to everyone else and the singer’s search for a elusive folk song she heard during her youth. There is also a major subplot involving the origins of that song, another series of historical interludes similar to those in The Ballad of Frankie Silver. Parts of this one held my attention, but others did not, particularly the flashbacks. 1/24/13

C.I.D. by Talbot Mundy, Century, 1932   

A pretty minor Mundy novel featuring Chullunder Ghose, on his own this time. He’s working for the Criminal Investigation Division, and his current case involves a man eating tiger that may be controlled by a priestess, a prince whose misrule the British would like to bring to the end, various people planning to kill him because of past or present investigations, and a British doctor whose presence serves no obvious purpose until relatively late in the novel. Not boring but not particularly enticing either. 1/22/13

The Winds of the World by Talbot Mundym, Cassell, 1917   

Yasmini, the temptress and conspirator from King of the Khyber Rifles, appears in this early novel as well. The main part of the story involves efforts by German agents to alienate the Sikhs from their loyalty to the British Empire as World War I moves forward. Yasmini, of course, is out to better her own situation.  Plans evolve, are put into action, and meet unexpected reversals. This is one of Mundy’s first efforts and it plods a bit at times and lacks some of the finesse of his later work. Interesting in its insights into certain aspects of British rule and native culture, but rather tame as an adventure story. Mundy would use basically the same plot to much better effect later in his career. 1/19/13

The Hundred Days by Talbot Mundy, 1931

The Woman Ayisha by Talbot Mundy, 1924  

Both of these short novels are in the Jim Grim cycle.  The first involves the visit of a British prince to India and an apparent attempt by dissidents to kidnap him. Instead they capture Jeff Ramsden, Grim’s friend, and a feisty American woman. Most of what follows consists of chases, battles, and escapes but the sequence is quite well done and I found it difficult to put the book down until a natural break in the action provided an excuse.  The second title is less interesting. Another combination of recurring characters gets involved in a battle between rival Arab groups, which is complicated by the involvement of a mysterious woman named Ayisha.  Although the plots of these two are superficially similar, the first is the far superior work. 1/14/13

Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Other Stories by Sharyn McCrumb, Ballantine, 1997 

This is a collection of mostly quite short stories, some of them mysteries, some fantasy, some general fiction. Some of them are character studies and not really stories, although often just as fascinating. Some of the better ones include “Not All Brides Are Beautiful”, a clever story of a woman who marries a condemned murderer for publicity reasons, only to be shocked when he is released. “A Wee Doch and Doris” is an amusing piece about a burglar who encounters an unexpected little old lady. “A Shade of Difference” is a humorous ghost story. There is no dominant pattern in the stories, most of which really aren’t mysteries, but I enjoyed every single one. Recommended. 1/11/13

Cock O’ the North by Talbot Mundy, Bobbs Merrill, 1929   

Published in the UK as Gup Bahadur. A typical two fisted and anti-establishment Mundy hero gets fed up with the government in India and travels into the less regulated regions. A malicious government informer falsely suggests he’s a communist sympathizer, which helps drive him into the arms of a half British woman who is theoretically ruler of one of the Indian states, although she has been deposed by the British. She wants his help in reinstating herself, through military means if necessary. It’s high adventure with a dash of cynicism, a skulking villain, and lots of exotic settings. Solid but still one of Mundy’s lesser novels. 1/9/13

Queen Cleopatra by Talbot Mundy, Ace, 1929

The sequel to Tros of Samothrace takes the adventurer to Egypt where Cleopatra is trying to remain independent of the forces that want to either seize Egypt or marry her to her brother Ptolemy.  Tros smuggles Cleopatra out of Alexandria aboard his galley, then is instrumental in bringing her to his old enemy Caesar. In fact, Tros plays little part in this novel which is mostly about the two rulers and their romance behind, and not so behind, the scenes as the Egyptian civil war came to a close. Cleopatra, actually Cleopatra VII, was the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt. Mundy has done his homework; I was unable to find any historical errors and there is only a trace of secret history in this one, which contains no magic elements and is therefore a straight historical novel rather than fantasy, which ends with Caesar’s assassination.  Although this is a long, very talky novel, it doesn’t feel that way. The interplay among the two main characters is so fascinating that it feels as though a lot more is happening than is really the case. Arguably Mundy’s best novel. 1/1/13