Last Update 12/31/14

Golden Lightning by Max Brand, Warner, 1975 (originally published in 1931)  

There’s a bit of a twist from Brand’s usual formula in this western adventure. The protagonist is an average man who is hired at an unusually high pay rate to spy on another man and his son. He doesn’t know why his employer is interested but he doesn’t ask any questions. The problem is that the objects of his surveillance are alert, aggressive, and have a number of ways of protecting their privacy. That presents a challenge that he finds intriguing and he becomes interested in the situation beyond what the job calls for, eventually learning the truth about a well concealed secret. One of the more enjoyable recent Brands I’ve read. 12/31/14

Androcles and the Lion by George Bernard Shaw, 1912 

This is an historical play set during the Roman persecution of early Christians. Androcles is a slave who is to be sacrificed in the arena. He is ultimately spared by the lion who is supposed to kill him. It is, among other things, an indictment of hypocrisy and a celebration of martyrdom. Despite the serious and rather depressing themes, this is often quite humorous and is one of the better of Shaw’s historical efforts. The preface is considerably longer than the play itself and details Shaw’s conviction that the Christian church is based on the philosophy of Paul rather than Jesus. 12/28/14

The Hair-Trigger Kid by Max Brand, Pocket, 1963 (originally published in 1931)   

Another reprise of Brand’s fixation on innocent young men who are fast with a gun and good with a horse, but run into trouble when they cross paths with a pack of outlaws. He’s not shy about straying across the line between legal and illegal either, particularly when his life is at stake. The usual action sequences, confrontations, and gunfights. Brand’s prose had become quite polished by this point in his career but the spontaneity and inventiveness of the first few was gone and would only reappear spasmodically in his later stories. That said, this was a pretty good story. 12/26/14

Helena by Evelyn Waugh, 1950   

Although there are bits of humor sprinkled about, this is essentially a serious historical novel set during the Roman occupation of Britain. Helena is the daughter of the British king who marries a Roman soldier who seems, initially, to be on a clear road to promotion. But politics and intrigues are rife in the Roman court, his patron is murdered, and his rivals see a deterioration in his position. Helena, who is essentially an intelligent but simple country girl, is only vaguely aware of whar is going on. Eventually she sets out on a quest to find holy relics and her son is eventually emperor of Rome. Smoothly plotted and written but the first half is superior to the second. 12/25/14

The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh, 1948   

Waugh spoofs the Hollywood lifestyle – and specifically the funeral business - in this short but very funny novel, basis of a very funny movie.  Barlow has recently arrived from England but the only work he can find is at a funeral home specializing in pets. When his uncle hangs himself, Barlow has to make arrangements at Whispering Glades cemetery, a high class place determined to wring every dollar out of its clients. He falls in love with the rather naïve cosmetician who has attracted the romantic attention of the bizarre embalmer, Mr. Joyboy. It’s a delightfully funny story that goes by so quickly that it felt much shorter than it actually is. 12/22/14

Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart, Random  House, 2006 

I picked this up almost randomly one day at a bookstore. The narrator is a rich, grossly overweight Russian named Vainberg. He was educated in the US and wants to return but cannot do so because his gangster father, recently murdered, was responsible for the death of a wealthy American. His girlfriend is an American woman who has returned after a prolonged stay in Russia. His adventures eventually take him to the mythical former satellite country of the title. This is a broad satire picking fun at everything in sight, and most of the time it is very funny indeed, although I thought it ended up being a trifle too long.  At times this felt like a raunchy reincarnation of Evelyn Waugh because of the sometimes heavy handed satire.  I’ll be looking for the author’s other book. 12/21/14

Valley Vultures by Max Brand, Popular Library, 1957 (originally published in 1931)  

The Dexter family was notorious for its gunmen and outlaws and the neighbors breathed a sigh of relief when the last of them was dead. Then a stranger shows up and they discover that the clan isn’t quite extinct after all. Although  the newcomer isn’t aggressive, he knows a secret that could be dangerous to several men in the area, and they are determined to make sure the last of the Dexters dies before that secret gets out. The mystery is pretty obvious early on but this is actually a pretty good western and reminded me at times of Brand’s best novel, Destry Rides Again. 12/15/14

Twenty Notches by Max Brand, Dell, 1963 (originally published in 1931)  

This western is almost an example of sympathetic magic. A young man with a quick gunhand becomes owner of a pistol that belonged to a notorious killer, and the reputation of the former owner transfers to the new one. Although the plot sounds fairly standard, Brand reverted to the style of his first few novels for this one, and there’s an atmosphere of myth and near magic throughout, although there is nothing overt to suggest it’s a fantasy. I wouldn’t call this one of Brand’s best novels but it’s certainly among his more interesting ones. 12/10/14

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, 1945   

Unlike Waugh’s previous novels, this one is quite serious. It follows the life of Charles Ryder, who is drawn into the orbit of a family of English Catholics by a school friend. The parents have been separated for years and the father has been excommunicated. Ryder is puzzled and entranced by their religion – Waugh had converted to Catholicism in 1930 – although he considers himself an agnostic. He is nevertheless impressed by various aspects of their faith, and when his later marriage breaks up, he becomes romantically involved with one of his old friend’s sisters, until they both decide it would be immoral to continue. Waugh expressed disdain for much of the novel in his later years, despite its great popularity. I found it rather slow moving and I never felt much sympathy for Ryder, although I did like some of the other characters better.  12/8/14

Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, 1937

Put Out More Flags by Evelyn Waugh, 1942 

Two novels in one volume. The first is a very funny spoof of journalism that ages quite well. The nation of Ishmaelia in northeast Africa is on the verge of civil war – one tribe decides that they are actually Aryans – and Europeans newspapers send a mob of journalists who can’t find anything newsworthy so they make things up. William Boot, a nature writer of little talent, is mistakenly sent to represent a British paper instead of the famous novelist and travel writer who was supposed to be dispatched. He had various adventures – most of them genuinely funny – among his fellow newsmen and a variety of corrupt local officials and others. There is a genuine, though short lived, communist coup and Boot returns in triumph to England, the only reporter to have been on site to tell the story. Funny from beginning to end.  The second novel is less slapstick and is set in the opening days of World War II, which is when it was written. The main plot involves a rather disreputable man whose family decide will benefit from being in the army. It’s another spoof of British attitudes, particularly toward war, with some knocks at bureaucracy, the arts scene, and political fads. Although often quite funny, there is some bitterness in this one. Waugh clearly viewed the war as a useless disaster. 12/6/14

Tamer of the Wild by Max Brand, Warner, 1979 (originally published in 1931) 

This western adventure is almost a quest story. The protagonist is a young man who relishes overcoming challenges – breaking the horse no one else can ride, fooling men who are supposedly much smarter than he is. When he hears about a fabulous jewel owned by a local tribe of Apaches he decides that his next challenge is going to be to steal it or earn it or do whatever it takes. This time the challenge may change him forever. I liked this better than the last several Brand novels, although it is not generally considered to be among his best. 12/5/14

Trouble Kid by Max Brand, Pocket, 1972 (originally published in 1931)   

As the title suggests, this is another of Brand’s stories about a brilliant but pesky young man with a short temper and a fast gun. He isn’t basically a bad guy but he becomes friends with an outlaw – and many of Brand’s outlaws are actually good people in a questionable profession – and that association gives him a dubious reputation. It is assumed that he is also a lawbreaker so the local sheriff decides to arrest him, but finds the job a bit more challenging than he expected it to be.  Things develop predictably from there. This was one of Brand’s less common first person narratives and if it hadn’t been such a familiar plot it would have been one of his best efforts. 12/1/14

Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh, 1932   

Waugh’s third novel was set in the mythical African kingdom of Azania. Its founder’s English educated grandson Seth has just assumed the throne.  Seth has improbably won a civil war despite the desertion of most of his government. The foreign population is pretty much as incompetent as the locals. The British embassy keeps losing the code book so they can’t read the messages they receive from London and anyway the current croquet game is much more interesting. A rather disgraceful English adventurer arrives and becomes head of the government department of modernization, but there’s a coup and Seth is replaced by his senile uncle. The second half of the novel is particularly funny as it lampoons every institution in sight, and provides a grotesque revelation. Definitely not politically correct. 11/30/14

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh, 1930 

Waugh’s second novel is somewhat disappointing. It follows the adventures of a young man who wrote his autobiography in France only to have the manuscript destroyed by an overly zealous customs man. He then meets a succession of odd characters, becomes wealthy and then poor again in a matter of minutes, loses his fiancé, encounters the now out of office Prime Minister, and has a variety of mild adventures. It’s all satirical and a few sequences are genuinely funny, but most of the story moves slowly and isn’t very interesting. 11/26/14

Ride the Wild Trail by Max Brand, Pocket, 1967 (originally published in 1931)   

Brand wrote several coming of age novels but this one is the most obvious. A young man is to travel across the Old West, but since he is naïve and inexperienced, an older man is assigned to accompany and mentor him. His father expects him to run into adversity and become a “man” but he doesn’t anticipate just what a trial it will be when the two run into trouble in the form of a gang of ruthless men. As usual there are no real surprises and readers of the western pulps weren’t expecting them. Considerably more character oriented than most of Brand’s work, but with lots of action in the second half. 11/25/14

Great Catherine by George Bernard Shaw, 1912 

Trifles and Tomfooleries by George Bernard Shaw, 1909  

A very short play about a British military attaché sent to Russia during the rule of Catherine the Great. After a perplexing encounter with the drunken Prince Patiomkin, he finally gets to see Catherine, whose wily ways make fools of both him and his wife as their rigid social standards collapse when exposed to the looser and more devious habits of the Russian court. Mildly funny. It is occasionally funny but not consistently.  The third title is a collection of very short playlets, and they are even less interesting.   Another is a broad satire of the medical profession, one of Shaw’s favorite targets, and other matters. It is occasionally funny but not consistently. Even Shaw had his off days. 11/20/14

Storm on the Range by Max Brand, Warner, 1980 (originally published in 1931)  

This is another familiar retread for Brand. Tom Fernald is a sheepherder, softspoken, not known for his gunplay, careful to avoid fights. Quite by chance, he discovers a hoard of money formerly owned by a man now dead and decides to make it his own. His secret is known only to one other man, who decides to arrange things so that Tom is arrested and imprisoned. The only way for Tom to survive is to take up the weapons he formerly avoided and become a kind of outlaw. There’s some ethical confusion in this one on the part of both main characters, but good wins out in the end, more or less. I confess I’ve started to get tired of Brand’s reliance on the same few formula plots. 11/17/14

Widowers’ Houses by George Bernard Shaw, 1892  

A short play by Shaw in which a young man seeks to marry the daughter of a particularly obnoxious slumlord, although he is unaware of that fact for much of the story. The father’s consent is dependent upon the suitor’s family expressing acceptance of the prospective addition to their family. When the suitor discovers the truth, he is momentarily shocked, but is convinced that he is just as guilty of profiting from the misery of others. By this point the woman has decided not to marry him, and she is revealed as just as nasty as her father.  Ultimately our hero becomes corrupted and allows himself to be drawn back into both the romance and an even deeper criminal scheme. Rather depressing. This was the first of Shaw’s plays to actually be performed on stage. 11/13/14

The Return of the Rancher by Max Brand, Warner, 1977 (originally published in 1931)  

Our hero in this western is in danger from a gang of outlaws with a grudge against him, but of course he's in the right. The story unfolds at a rather leisurely pace for Brand, describing the situation which led to the conflict between the protagonist and the head of the outlaw band in great detail, followed by a series of escalating confrontations to prepare us for the climax.. Behind the scenes, an old enemy is also manipulating things in order to dispose of his rival,  our hero, and the town in general sides with the bad guys, partly through deception, partly just orneriness. About average for Brand. But it all works out eventually.  11/12/14

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh, 1928  

Evelyn Waugh’s first novel is a broad satire taking aim at British social attitudes, racism, class distinctions, the importance of a proper school even if you don’t learn anything, and a host of other subjevts. Paul Pennyfeather is unjustly thrown out of college and becomes a teacher at a small but pretentious school where he meets a cast of wildly eccentric characters. Eventually he escapes the school and becomes engaged to a very rich, if somewhat dotty, woman. It takes a while for him to realize that the love of his life makes her money from brothels.  He ends up taking the fall for her, goes to prison, is eventually smuggled out by his friends and takes up a new life, which is very much like the old one before it got interrupted. Very enjoyable and with some minor changes it could almost be a contemporary novel. 11/11/14

Getting Married by George Bernard Shaw, 1908  

This is another of Shaw’s plays satirizing the institution of marriage and divorce. A family is gathered for the wedding of the last of several daughters. The usual cast of snobs and poseurs interact. There is false camaraderie, pretentious proposals, awkward moments, and displays of utter ignorance. Although not one of Shaw’s major plays, this is a steadily comedic and somewhat biting  pillorying of the status quo, and a lot of points made here are, alas, equally valid today. 11/9/14

The Devil’s Wind by Patricia Wentworth, 1912   

Patricia Wentworth wrote more than a dozen novels on various subjects before she created Maud Silver and concentrated on crime fiction. This is one of those early novels, an historical set in India during the 1850s, which was the time of the Sepoy rebellion. She concentrates on a rather impractical and spoiled young woman and her ambitious husband as they deal with various personal problems leading up to the outbreak of violence, and then have to struggle to survive. Her attitude toward the Sepoys is surprisingly modern and fair.  It lacks the tightness of her later writing but it’s a readable story. although John Masters did it immensely beter.. 11/7/14

The Outlaw of Buffalo Flat by Max Brand, Pocket, 1977 (originally published in 1930) 

Harry Delancey is a notorious outlaw who preys on settlers and townsfolk alike. What few know is that he is actually Ching Wo, raised as Chinese although we find out at the end – though it’s obvious all along – that he was kidnapped as a baby and is actually a white man. Chinese could not be dominating, manly western heroes in the 1930s. If it wasn’t for the rampant racism, this would have been one of Brand’s better novels. The villains aren’t entirely villainous and the hero isn’t entirely a good guy, making for more complicated situations. The pacing is quite good as well and the story flows logically from its premises. It’s the premises that are the problem.  11/6/14

The Apple Cart by George Bernard Shaw (1929)

This was not one of Shaw’s better plays although it has its moments. It’s a political satire about a mythical English king who is engaged in a series of maneuvers and conflicts with advisors and others. His prime minister wants to effectively render the throne powerless and he has strong allies, but the king is too clever for him and ultimately carries the day. It’s fairly short though with a fairly large cast of characters. 11/1/14

Happy Jack by Max Brand, Paperback Library, 1981 (originally published in 1930) 

This short novel features another of Brand’s misunderstood heroes who becomes an outlaw through no fault of his own. Before long he has bested a notorious gunman and a highly regarded lawman, become a fugitive, escaped capture, foiled some real bad guys, restored his good name, and finds a new place for himself. Not bad at all but I’ve read enough Brand stories now to recognize all the familiar devices and situations. The prose has shown a slow but steady improvement through the years, but the plots have – with a few exceptions – grown stale and monotonous. 10/31/14

Mountain Guns by Max Brand, Warner, 1985 (originally published in 1930)  

Max Brand frequently used tenderfeet Easterners in his westerns, including this one. The tenderfoot this time is no one to fool around with. He’s handy with guns, knives, and fists and he’s on a mission to track down and kill an outlaw who murdered someone close to him. He spends years searching the Old West for his quarry, and when he finally tracks him down, only one of them will leave alive. Starts well and ends well, but the middle third is wordy and uninteresting. 10/29/13

Misalliance by George Bernard Shaw (1910)

Although this play opens with a usual cast of Shaw characters – a woman engaged to be married to an emotionally immature young man with a father who is also romantically interested in her. She is bored and uncertain whether or not to proceed when an airplane literally crashes into her house, sending the plot in an unexpected direction. Two people get out of the wreckage and intermingle and by the time of the end of the play – which only covers a single afternoon – there have been eight marriage proposals. As usual Shaw’s female characters are more likely to be admirable than the males. 10/26/14

Rippon Rides Double by Max Brand, Pocket, 1975 (originally published in 1930)   

This is easily one of Brand’s best westerns, with a fairly original plot, a crisper style than usual, and better drawn characters. Rippon is hired to impersonate a man who – many years earlier – killed a member of the Barrett family. Now the Barretts say they want to conduct a business deal but Palting, the one time killer, suspects their motives and hires Rippon to take his place. His caution is justified because at least one of the Barretts is determined to seek revenge, but Rippon obviously doesn’t want them to get it, misguidedly or not. If Brand had spent more time writing stories of this quality, his name would be even better known than it is. 10/24/14

Man and Superman (1903)

I really like the premise for this play. Following the death of her father, Ann is left jointly the ward of an older friend of the family, Ramsden, and a younger man named Tanner. Ramsden considers Tanner an irresponsible revolutionary and initially refuses to serve with him, but Tanner predicts accurately that Ann will manipulate them both into serving despite their reservations. Tanner recognizes that Ann is a very clever schemer although he confesses that he cannot escape her charm. At the same time her sister, secretly married, causes a minor scandal and walks out.  The third act is known as Don Juan in Hell and is a diversion in which Don Juan interacts with various people in hell and it seems to have little to do with the main story. In fact, it is often omitted when the play is performed. I didn’t think it added anything significant and just diluted what was otherwise Shaw at his best. 10/21/14

Battle’s End/The Three Crosses by Max Brand, Tor, 1990  

Two novellas from the early 1930s, technically westerns but not the first is more of an adventure story set in Alaska. The protagonist has a deadly enemy and seems doomed but for the interposition of a young boy and an unusual dog. I rather liked this one. The second is a more conventional western. A typically naïve Max Brand hero is the butt of a practical joke that wakens his inner nature and makes him over into an assertive righter of wrongs. I rather disliked this one. The transformation is unconvincing and the writing felt tired and forced. 10/19/14

Caesar and Cleopatra by George Bernard Shaw, 1898 

This is a somewhat nontraditional view of the relations between the two title characters, although factually accurate. Shaw’s Cleopatra is less mature than is usually assumed although the suggestion that she was using Caesar for political rather than romantic reasons sounds right. He clearly admires Caesar and his efforts to promote an effective and relatively popular government, as well as for his strategic genius both in war and in politics. The play is quite long although with relatively few characters and covers the period from Caesar’s arrival in Egypt until his departure. Although very well written it lacks the quirky humor present in most of the better Shaw plays. 10/18/14

The Devil’s Disciple by George Bernard Shaw (1897) 

Set during the final days of the American Revolution, this short play is about a smuggler and social outcast who is mistaken for a local clergyman with revolutionary tendencies. He allows himself to be arrested by the British Army and makes no attempt to identify himself partly on impulse and partly to impress the clergyman’s wife, even though he knows that he will almost certainly be hanged as a traitor. The wife is appalled when her husband refuses to correct the error and does her best to free him, only to discover that her husband has actually managed to find a clever way to save both their lives. I vividly recall the 1959 movie starring Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, and Laurence Olivier.  One of my favorite of Shaw’s plays. 10/15/14

Timbal Gulch Trail by Max Brand, Leisure, 1995 (originally published in 1929)   

Mirroring an earlier Brand novel, this one is largely about the rivalry between a wealthy town dweller and a local and equally wealthy rancher. The former wants to incorporate the ranch into his growing financial empire and the latter understandably objects. The rivalry escalates as legitimate ploys fail and the villain attempts to use murder to get what he wants. Provoked to respond, the rancher decides that the town is only big enough for one of them. Not bad, not great. 10/12/14

Candida by George Bernard Shaw (1895)

Morrell is a socialist clergyman convinced that he knows the truth and overly proud of his speaking abilities and importance. Tension troubles his life when a young man he befriended announces that he is in love with Morrell’s wife, whom he believes is secretly unhappy.  There is also a secretary infatuated with Morrell. This casual love rectangle is further complicated by the idiosyncrasies of the characters, several of whom are considered to be mad by others, and a variety of misunderstandings. It was meant as a comedy but has some interesting observations about what husbands and wives owe to one another. Not generally considered one of his best plays but I enjoyed it. 10/8/14

The Galloping Broncos by Max Brand, Warner, 1974 (originally published in 1929)

The second consecutive Brand western about an unlikely cowboy mastering a horse no one else could ride is actually a bit better than the previous one, Mistral, and in part because of the change of scenery. Our hero ends up in South America where he has to match wits with that continent’s most feared outlaw. Argentina bore a notable similarity to the Old West in many ways so it’s not that much of a reach to transport a traditional story there. Still not one of his best but at least he was trying to introduce some variety. 10/7/14

Arms and the Man (1894)  

In the aftermath of a war, a Bulgarian family has some problems. Their daughter, who is engaged to a soldier, has hidden an enemy fugitive - a Swiss mercenary - but the maid knows about it. The fiancé is flirting with the maid and has resigned from the army because of his idealism – although he’s actually rather stupid. Predictably circumstances conspire to get everyone shifted around into the proper relationships. The former fugitive inherits a small fortune and marries the girl who saved him and the war hero ends up with the maid. This is as close as Shaw got to romantic comedy. 10/5/14

Mistral by Max Brand, Paperback Library, 1971 (originally published in 1929)   

This is another of Brand’s novels about the unrideable horse tamed by the low key, understated cowpoke who then has a series of mild adventures. I’ve never cared for this vein of his western fiction in the past and this title seems like a particularly vanilla one. There are a couple of interesting scenes late in the book but I was mostly browsing by then. It’s clear that the author was either getting tired of the genre, running out of ideas, or both. The prose is, of course, far superior to most pulp fiction. It's the story that is lacking this time. 10/1/14

Rustlers of Beacon Creek by Max Brand, Pocket, 1951 (originally published in 1929)   

Our two fisted hero in this western is hired to bring the career of some cattle rustlers to an end, but he is bested and beaten when he confronts them. Bitter but not dismayed, he bides his time and waits for an opportunity to strike again. This is another of those stories where the outcome is obvious after the opening chapter, and Brand was also very fond of having his heroes bounce back from adversity to strike down their enemies. Nor did he always distinguish between law abiding citizens and criminals, finding good and bad in both parties. This is a rather routine western but it is also very representative of the author’s work, competent, entertaining, but rarely memorable. 9/27/14

Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw, 1894

A young and independent minded woman is reunited with her absentee mother and discovers that she supported herself and her daughter as a high class prostitute. There’s actually a rather well constructed argument about why this was preferable to getting an “honest” job in Victorian England, where a young woman’s options were limited. There are also three male admirers, one of whom is the son of a pastor who had an affair with the mother long ago. It is suggested that he might actually be the unidentified father of the young woman.  The relationship between mother and daughter undergoes several changes and ends tragically. A minor play but effective. 9/26/14

The Dark Lady of the Sonnets by George Bernard Shaw, 1910   

The preface to this play about William Shakespeare’s mysterious “dark lady” explains how it came to be written and why it is almost certainly a misidentification of the woman in question, due to evidence that came to light after the play had been performed. He also discusses various alleged personality faults of Shakespeare. The play itself is quite short. It’s satirical – Shakespeare steals all his best phrases from other people. Queen Elizabeth and the dark lady clash. Mildly amusing but forgettable. 9/25/14

The Exploits of Captain O’Hagan by Sax Rohmer, 1914   

This very short episodic novel – really a series of related shorts – follows the adventures of Bernard O’Hagan, an anachronistic throwback to the days of knights and chivalry. The stories, which are quite repetitive, involve his efforts to defend the honor of himself or a lady in more or less distress, or to convince her to jettison a bad man for a better one. He accomplishes this generally through coercion, blackmail, or thievery and frankly O’Hagan comes across as a bully and a rogue, and not in a pleasant way. This was a very early Rohmer book and has faded into well deserved obscurity. 9/23/14

John Bull’s Other Island by George Bernard Shaw, 1904 

The lengthy preface to this play assumed that Ireland would never be partitioned, so Shaw added a second one after that fact. An Englishman and an expatriate Irishman become partners in an engineering concern. The former is pompous and thinks he knows best what is good for Ireland. The latter has ambivalent feelings about Ireland and prefers not to think about it. Although they differ on every substantive issue imaginable, they remain friends. The Irish partner left a woman behind when he left and she has waited for him almost twenty years, so he is understandably reluctant to return. The play is about English exploitation of Ireland, among other things, and was very popular at its time, but somewhat dated today. 9/22/14

The Stranger by Max Brand, Pocket, 1965 (originally published in 1929) 

This is another example of Brand reprising a previously used plot, although he does a particulary good job this time around. A rich man hires two people at an exorbitant rate to protect his life from a potential murderer whom he doesn’t identify. Naturally he ends up dead and what follows is as much a murder mystery as a western. There’s even a fairly clever solution and Brand took more pains than usual to provide some distinctive traits to his characters. I’ve never seen this listed among his better books, but it should be. 8/22/14

Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw, 1923

Shaw’s lengthy introduction to this play contains some interesting and sometimes really odd statements. He insists, for example, that if a person has hallucinations that lead to a particular conclusion, sanity is determined by whether or not those conclusions are valid. So if the ghost of Pythagoras had appeared to Sir Isaac Newton and explained the theory of gravity, he would be sane, but if he told him that pigs fly, he would be insane.  The play covers her entire career and subsequent trial and executioner. Shaw believed that the trial was actually quite fair for its time, but acknowledges that by then she had been deserted by her friends who joined her enemies in condemning her. I have actually seen this play performed and it was quite impressive. 9/18/14

The Rescue of Broken Arrow by Max Brand, Paperback Library, 1967 (originally published in 1929)  

Max Brand’s depiction of various American Indians generally fell into the pattern of mildly respectful but rather patronizing. On more than one occasion, his outstanding Cheyenne warriors turn out to be white men who were adopted into the tribe. This almost falls into that pattern. The protagonist is a wanted thief who decides to side with the raiding parties against the white settlements, but eventually his experiences alter his attitudes. Brand does show good and bad on both sides, but obviously believes in the superiority of the white culture. About average but a bit slow in the middle. 9/17/14

The Last Showdown by Max Brand, Pocket, 1977 (originally published in 1929) 

Brand’s formula strikes again. In this one we have a misunderstood loner, who happens to be good with a gun and with horses, and who has fallen for a local woman who is beautiful and bright. When someone starts killing and stealing in the area, our protagonist Duster becomes the favorite nominee for the job of villain, even though he’s innocent, and strangely reluctant to deal with the problem. The past that he thought he had left behind him comes up to bite him on the butt and he’s going to have to deal with it if he wants to live happily ever after.  Average or a bit above.

Back to Methuselah by George Bernard Shaw (1920)  

The preface to this set of five linked plays, along with some other material, are fascinating. The preface is an assault on the inadequacies of public education, the institution of war, etc. There’s a good summary of evolutionary thought prior to Darwin although Shaw also seems to embrace the Lamarckian concept that one can acquire and pass on new attributes through willpower. While recognizing the sincere belief of some Christians, he finds their need for faith depressing. There’s a fresh commentary written 25 years after the original plays and a complete act dropped from the final version.  The first play is “In the Beginning”, set in the Garden of Eden and it consists of conversations between the snake and Eve, Adam and Eve, and Cain and his parents, mostly about the nature of evil. The second play is “The Gospel of the Brothers Barnabas.”  Set shortly after World War I, it opens with a discussion among three men about how long the human lifespan should be.  They decide to make a three century long lifespan part of their party platform. Part three is “The Thing Happens.” It takes place in 2170, after human longevity has been increased for a few individuals by some unknown process. England is now run by the Chinese, who are better administrators, although China for some reason is run by the Scots. The sarcastic premise is that the British are incapable of running their own country. “Tragedy of an Elderly Gentleman” takes place eight centuries later. The long lived and short lived are so psychologically different that meaningful communication is nearly impossible.  “As Far As Thought Can Reach” takes place in the very distant future. The ghosts of Adam and Eve show up to comment on the new society, which reminded me a bit of the Eloi of Wells’ The Time Machine. Not very interesting despite the SF theme, and I can’t imagine watching a performance. 9/9/14

Tiger Man by Max Brand, Leisure, 1996 (originally published in 1929)

Yet another honorable gunman, misunderstood by his peers, unwilling to explain himself, gets caught up in a battle in the Old West. He runs afoul of a bunch of considerably less admirable types who have ridden roughshod over the local townspeople, and although they would just as soon see the last of them, they don’t want to get caught in the crossfire. Can’t blame them. Nor are they sure that our hero will prove to be a better neighbor if he comes out on top. More action and less talking than usual, but it’s still rather routine and not one of Brand’s better efforts. 9/9/14

The Field of Night by Robert Krepps, Rinehart, 1948  

It is a shame that Krepps didn’t write his SF with the same skill and care as his African adventures, of which this is, I believe, the only one I had not previously read.  In a remote part of Rhodesia, a dozen Europeans gather for a party at a large house placed near a friendly tribe of Matabele. Unfortunately, there is a half mad witch doctor in the area who is constantly stirring up trouble. Things take an ugly turn when the Chief’s young wife is raped by a white man, presumably one of the party goers.  The possibilities are narrowed to five men, but none of them admits responsibility. Then one of the party is murdered, killed with a spear, and another shoots one of the natives in a fit of rage before realizing the murder was done by one of the guests. Things escalate and the house is placed under siege.  It’s a pretty good adventure story wrapped around a minor murder mystery. Not the best of his African novels but superior to any of his SF. 9/6/14

King of the Range by Max Brand, Pocket, 1962 (originally published in 1929)  

A somewhat run of the mill western in which the soft spoken, apparently insignificant man turns out to be lightning fast with a gun and capable of taming the wildest of horses. Since the other strong character in the story is the head of a band of outlaws, it’s pretty obvious that they are going to be pitted against one another, and even though the outlaw has some admirable qualities, he has to be defeated in the end. Solidly written and I’d have liked it better if I hadn’t encountered most of the same scenes in earlier Max Brand novels. 9/5/14

Buoyant Billions by George Bernard Shaw (1946) 

Shaw was in his 90s when he wrote this playlet. It consists of several short scenes in which various characters argue about the structure of society, idealism vs pragmatism, socialism vs capitalism, social conscience vs self preservation, etc.  There’s not much of a plot and other than occasional witty interchanges, it’s pretty boring. The preface is probably the best part. 8/31/14

The Man of Destiny by George Bernard Shaw (1894)   

This short play is set early in the career of Napoleon, while he was fighting the Austrians in Italy as a newly made general. A female spy steals a bundle of dispatches but ends up in the same inn where Napoleon is staying. They have a duel of wits with an extraordinarily dumb lieutenant as their foil, with each outsmarting the other at times, only to have things reversed a short while later. Shaw manages a sarcastic but rather pointed criticism of the English gift for rationalization during the exchanges. Entertaining. 9/28/14

The Happy Valley by Max Brand, Paperback Library, 1972 (originally published in 1929)  

Once again Max Brand features a hero who turned to the dark side, in this case Jim Fanton who went to prison after his fellow outlaws turned state’s evidence against him. In a somewhat similar vein to his classic Destry Rides Again, Brand presents the hero as wanting revenge but not murder, although his plotting is disrupted when someone murders one of the two men he is after, making him the obvious suspect. As you would expect, he spends the bulk of the book determining who really committed the crime and bringing him to justice to clear his own name. Slightly above average. By this point, although Brand had become rather addicted to formula, he had also shed most of his bad habits. 8/28/14

Candide, Zadig, and Selected Stories by Voltaire, Signet, 2962   

I read Candide back in high school and didn’t properly appreciate its satire. The rest of the stories in this collection were all new to me. Candide is an innocent who suffers various horrible  adventures and who inspires, among others, Journey Beyond Tomorrow by Robert Sheckley and probably Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.  He wanders the world, encountering characters we thought were dead, sometimes killing them again. The title character of Zadig has similar anecdotal adventures, but he’s considerably wiser and the adventures – set in ancient Babylon – are more restrained, though no less witty and often satirical. “Micromegas” is an early SF story about a giant inhabitant of Sirius who visits Saturn. “The World As It Is” is another satire, this time involving genies. This is in fact the nature of all the remaining stories, which tend to sound a lot alike after awhile. I particularly liked “Ingenuous” and “Plato’s Dream.”  Occasionally heavy handed but generally pleasant. 8/18/14

Outlaw Valley by Max Brand, Warner, 1973  (originally published in 1928) 

This is one of Brand’s shorter and better westerns, with a more unified plot and better pacing. A typical Brand hero – or perhaps anti-hero – decides to give up his life as an outlaw and hang up his guns after falling in love with a good woman. Despite some problems, it appears that he will make good on his promise and get the girl, but then the girl disappears under mysterious circumstances, and the only way he can get her back is to strap on his weapons and follow the increasingly dangerous trail. Liked this one enough to read it in a single sitting. 8/18/14

Captain Brassbound’s Conversion by George Bernard Shaw (1899)

A domineering but impractical woman and a retired judge employee Captain Brassbound, a smuggler, and his men to guide them into a dangerous part of Morocco. Only when they arrive at a ruined castle does Brassbound reveal that he holds the judge responsible for the death of his mother as the result of a failed lawsuit many years earlier. He plans to hold a trial with a Muslim judge to determine the Englishman’s fate. The woman arouses his better nature, after a fashion, and he decides not to surrender his prisoner to the local Sheikh after all, but that means they are all in danger. An American military unit comes to their rescue, Captain Brassbound is to be tried for various crimes, but the woman cleverly gets him acquitted. This was actually quite fun. 8/10/14

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw (1919)  

A disparate group of people gather at the house of Captain Shotover, who may or may not be senile. They include a woman who has promised herself to a loveless marriage, the man she secretly admired, who turns out to be a married impostor, and various others including Shotover’s two daughters, one of whom he hasn’t seen in over twenty years.  This social satire consists of their interactions and a series of rather clever revelations that  result in our realization t hat each of them is pretending to be something other than what he or she is – the rich entrepreneur is, for example, actually a penurious incompetent supported by the supposedly incompetent managers he employs. I like reversals, so this worked very well for me. 8/8/14

The Sheriff Rides by Max Brand, Warner, 1981 (originally published in 1928)   

Another pretty standard western. A remote town is virtually an anarchy, filled with backshooters, gunslingers, confidence men, and other troublemakers. Johnny Signal rides into town one day and quickly proves himself to be the equal of any man around. It isn’t long before he has effectively become the local hand of the law, as well as having met and fallen for the local beauty. But all of this necessarily means that he has made enemies, including those who wouldn’t dare to face him in an open fight, and he’s soon in the battle of his life. There are a few good moments but this is too much a retread of story elements Brand had already used several times previously. 8/7/14

Circle C Carries On by Brett Rider, Pocket, 1944  

This was the first adult book I ever read, way back in 1951.  A gang of bad guys have moved in on two ranches, killing the owner of one and nearly finishing off the protagonist, Don Cameron, recently returned from the Spanish American War where his father died. This is surprisingly well done. Cameron and the chief bad guy play an elaborate chess game, removing pawns from each other’s side and keeping their opponents guessing.  There’s a young woman to be rescued, a bunch of loyal cowhands, a handful of villains, and a variety of gunfights and chases. It's the sequel to Circle C Moves In. 8/6/14

Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw, 1905  

Barbara is a major in the Salvation Army. She’s also the daughter of a rich munitions maker who has been estranged from his family for many years, although her mother has arranged a sort of reconciliation for the purpose of convincing him to finance the lives of Barbara and her brother and sister. Although her father is hardly an admirable character, her obstinacy when she insists that charities should not accept money from her father and others like him because it is tainted somehow makes her every bit as reprehensible as he is. Shaw’s preface says very much the same thing. There’s a somewhat contrived resolution as her father insists that it is traditional to pass on the family business to a foundling. Fortunately, Barbara’s fiancé fills the bill and she becomes reconciled to the money because now she has a captive audience, the factory workers. Although this is one of Shaw’s better known plays, I struggled with parts of it. 8/2/14

The Gun Tamer by Max Brand, Pocket, 1979 (originally published in 1929)   

A man unjustly accused of murder takes on an assumed identity and tries to make a new life for himself in another part of the country. Unfortunately the local sheriff, among others, has his suspicions, and when he gets romantically involved with a local girl, the plot begins to constrict around him. Following a series of adventures and efforts to bring him to “justice”, his innocence is eventually proven, he is reconciled with the sheriff, and he gets the girl to boot. Unexceptional but still one of Brand’s better efforts. 7/31/14

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw, 1913  

My Fair Lady is, of course, based on this play but I hadn’t realized how closely. One can almost hear the songs from the play/movie at appropriate moments in the text. Henry Higgins is a linguist who accepts a bet that he can teach a flower girl from the slums of London to speak well enough to pass for an aristocrat, and in the process he falls in love with Eliza Doolittle.  One of my all time favorite plays and I’m embarrassed that it’s been so long since I last reread it – at least thirty years. And it whets my appetite for even more GB Shaw. There is a long afterward explaining what happened to Eliza – she doesn’t marry Higgins. 7/30/14

Fugitive’s Fire by Max Brand, Berkley, 1991 (originally published in 1928)   

One of Brand’s shorter novels, and one with a familiar theme with a slight twist. The protagonist is a cowboy who is captured by the Cheyenne, but by good luck and a little common sense he helps cure some sicknesses and is declared a healer. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean he can go free and he knows that sooner or later they will discover that he has no magical powers. The Cheyenne are generally portrayed as honorable and intelligent and there is better characterization than usual, but the plot isn’t very exciting and the ending is predictable. 7/26/14

The Doctor’s Dilemma by George Bernard Shaw, 1906  

I decided to correct the fact that I have only read two of Shaw’s plays and the first one I picked up is this satire on the medical profession, which has a very long and redundant preface. Shaw wrote his plays for readers as well as actors. Most of his criticism of doctors during his time are valid, although his anti-vaccination stance is now absurd. The play introduces us to a handful of doctors, each of whom has a different specialty which he believes is the cure of all diseases. They encounter a young artist with tuberculosis and a charming wife, but his own charm is diminished by the fact that he’s a self centered monster. The chief doctor, who appears to have a genuine cure, can only handle a limited number of patients and he has to decide whether to treat the talented young scoundrel or an old friend who has devoted his life to helping others. He finally decides for the latter, in part because he hopes to woo the young widow when the artist dies at the hands of one of his incompetent colleagues. The artist dies but the widow blames him for it. An excellent play though I suspect a performance would be rather static. 7/24/14

Singing Guns by Max Brand, Pocket, 1962 (originally published in 1928) 

This western is more character driven than most of Brand’s other work. After a confrontation between a sheriff and a notorious outlaw, a friendship arises between the two men that survives a number of adversities. Several of the character names come from mythology – like Rhiannon – and I suspect that Brand was alluding to a much older story although I haven’t been able to identify it. For a while it seems likely to end in tragedy, and Brand does occasionally have bitter sweet endings, but in this case every works out in time. 7/22/14

Tragedy Trail by Max Brand, Pocket, 1956 (originally published in 1928)   

A rather uninspired western adventure that involves a legendary outlaw who finally meets his match when he steals from a miner going about his own business. The miner decides to settle the score and does so after dealing with various minions of the outlaw. The last few chapters are pretty good but the bulk of the book is predictable and repetitious and sometimes not even very convincing. One of Brand’s minor novels about which there is little to say of interest. 7/17/14

The Border Kid by Max Brand, Pocket, 1947 (originally published in 1928) 

William Benn is an outlaw who takes young Ricardo Perez as a kind of apprentice, only to discover that the pupil has natural skills better than the master and the potential to make a reputation of his own. Benn is convinced that Perez will make him a rich man somehow and concocts a plan to swindle a young heiress out of her fortune.  In order to make a good impression, he wants Perez to confront and if possible kill a rival gunman named Perkins with whom Benn had a falling out. Predictably Perez proves to be the better man but also discovers he has a conscience, falls for the girl, breaks with his mentor, and rides off into the sunset. Routine. 7/11/14

Flaming Irons by Max Brand, Warner, 1982 (originally published in 1927)   

Les Tarron seems almost simple minded at times but he has the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes. When a bunch of hardcases pursue a man past his ranch, he doesn’t seem inclined to get involved, but that encounter will eventually cost him the life of a friend and end up with him being chased himself by almost a dozen men determined to kill him. The detective story elements are interesting but Brand abandons that format fairly quickly and one of his formulaic chase adventures ensues. A pretty good one but nothing we haven’t seen already a couple of times before. 7/6/14

Henry Esmond by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1852 

Although considered by some to be his best novel during his lifetime, Henry Esmond has fallen into obscurity and it is for Vanity Fair that the author is still remembered. That’s rather a shame because it’s quite well done – superior to Dickens as far as I’m concerned – and interesting in that a portion of the plot repeats his position that intelligent women are forced into unfairly restrictive roles by society. Esmond is a bastard with well placed relatives who heads off to Cambridge late in the 17th Century, where it is intended that he will train as a clergyman. As a young man he learns that he is legitimate after all, and by right head of the family, but he defers to those who took him in through kindness and never lets them know the truth, even when the woman he considers his mother spurns him. He spends a short time in jail for participating in a duel, then joins the army and serves in Spain and Germany before returning to reconcile with the woman he loves like a mother. He meets various historical characters - Thackeray didn't much like Jonathan Swift. After various adventures, he is spurned by the woman he loves, then marries the woman he has actually worshipped all his life, although she is much older than he, and the two leave for Virginia. I enjoyed this thoroughly despite its laconic pacing, though the protagonist is perhaps a trifle too good to be true. 7/2/14