Last Update 12/22/20

The Blockade Runners by Jules Verne, 1865  

This is an interesting short novel about a British merchant who decides to run munitions past the Union blockade into the Confederacy and trade them for cotton. He is successful at that, but later effectively changes sides in order to rescue a man being held hostage by the confederates. It might be the translation buy the prose on this one seems denser than in the other Verne novels I’ve read recently. The adventure is well constructed and suitably exciting. 12/22/20

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron, Bantam, 1979 

This one is so depressing that it took three efforts to get to the end. The focus is on three characters who live in a Brooklyn boarding house. Two of them are lovers and the woman, Sophie, was interned in Polish concentration camps during the war and has been psychotically scarred, although we don’t learn the worst of her experiences until the end. The third character loves her and is disturbed by her partner, a supposed scientist who is actually hovering on the brink of insanity. The story – which is in large part about antisemitism – does not end well for any of those concerned. 12/14/20

In Search of the Castaways by Jules Verne, 1867  

Aka The Children of Captain Grant. A bottle containing a damaged message about a shipwreck is retrieved from the stomach of a shark. An expedition is launched from England to search for them in Patagonia, and the two children of the lost captain go along. They have various adventures including an attempted mutiny and a shipwreck of their own before the finally find the stranded travelers and outwit a fairly minor villain, leaving him on a deserted island from which he will later appear in another Verne novel, The Mysterious Island. This was actually a good adventure story but despite the movie version, it seems to be generally overlooked. 12/13/20

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron,  Random House, 1966    

Styron’s best novel in my opinion, though like the others, it is a depressing experience. Nat Turner led a short lived slave rebellion in Virginia. He and his followers were killed or captured. The story ends with him awaiting his execution and consists of a series of flashbacks to his life as a slave. The author points out that even the “good” masters were thoroughly hated. Turner’s embrace of Christianity – he was a preacher as well as a slave – provides an interesting contrast to his blood thirsty intentions. Smoothly written and engrossing, but horrifying. Some of the chapters are positively painful to read.  12/8/20

The Adventures of Captain Hatteras by Jules Verne, 1865  

This is a two part adventure story that opens with the construction and crewing of a ship obviously designed to visit the Arctic. The owner, who is also the unnamed captain, does not appear during this process or even during the early days of the voyage to the north from England. Even after reaching Greenland and having dealt with icebergs and minor crew problems, there is no sign of him and no one knows what their ultimate destination is to be. Mysterious communications suggest that the captain is already aboard, either in hiding or masquerading as one of the crew. The latter proves to be the case – although there is no real reason for the charade – and when mutiny threatens he emerges, takes charge, and announces that their destination is the North Pole. After many hardships, a subset of the company reaches the Pole, which includes a volcano. Hatteras is driven mad by his experiences and is placed in an asylum when the survivors return to England. 12/6/20

Five Weeks in a Balloon by Jules Verne, Wesleyan, 2015 (originally published in 1863) 

I had not previously read Verne’s first published novel, only the Gardner Fox novelization of the movie. The translator calls this science fiction but it is not remotely part of the genre. It is the story of a balloon trip across Africa that encounters hurricanes, wild animals, hostile natives, a spell becalmed in a desert without water, and other adventures. There are no lost worlds or marvelous inventions – the balloon is of a new design but involves nothing out of the ordinary. It is necessarily episodic and at times mildly repetitive, but it is still a fine adventure story, particularly for its time.  12/3/20

Set This House on Fire by William Styron, Signet, 1960   

There is a murder early in this one, but it’s not a mystery novel. The initial setting is rural Italy. The protagonist is certain that the death of another American is murder although the police are convinced it is suicide. His suspicions are connected to yet another American, an unpleasant man, and the bulk of the novel consists of flashbacks to the early life of both men in different parts of the southern US. The pace is ponderous and a lot of the prose could have been cut out without affecting the story. This is another book I read decades earlier and could not clearly recall, and I suspect next year I will have trouble recalling it again. 11/29/20

The Long March by William Styron, Signet, 1968 (originally published in 1952) 

This novella reminded me of much of what I despised about the military. It is set in a marine training camp around the time of the Korean War. The commanding officer orders a grueling cross country forced march even though many of his men are reserves who are physically out of shape. It becomes a duel between him and one of his subordinate officers. Unpleasant but unfortunately not unbelievable given my experience of some clearly sadistic personalities in the military. 11/19/20

Lie Down in Darkness by William Styron, Signet, 1951

Styron's first novel was impressive but not uplifting. It's the story of a dysfunctional southern family prone to hating one another, drinking too much, and sleeping around. The focus is on one of the adult daughters, and much of  the story consists of flashbacks from her funeral. The writing is excellent for the most part - a few sections seem to drag on a bit. The characters are nicely drawn, although you're not likely to find any of them particularly admirable. Styron would be much more effective in subsequent novels. 11/14/20

The Wrecker by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1891  

My least favorite novel by Stevenson (and his collaborator Lloyd Osbourne). It is, roughly, a fictional autobiography that includes a shipwreck and some mystery elements but there are so many subplots that it feels like it was cobbled together from several short stories, all of which are more or less tied together at the end. This was one of his last novels and his health was declining rapidly. I believe this was also his longest book, and it is far too long for its story. 11/13/20

St Yves by Robert Louis Stevenson, Scribner, 1910

Stevenson was working on this at the time of his death and never finished it. The closing chapters were added by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. The story is about the adventures of a French soldier taken prisoner by the English. It is episodic, uneven, and lacks the vividness of the author's better known novels, but it is not unreadable. Stevenson became one of my favorite writers when I rediscovered him about ten years ago. I had somehow dismissed him as a writer of children's fiction. 11/6/20

List, Ye Landsmen by W. Clark Russell, Mershon, 1892 

Russell specialized in stories about the sea, including this novel about a young man’s adventures when he decides to become a sailor. Some of his subsequent adventures are rather routine. A couple of events are out of the ordinary. It’s a solid story, although Russell’s prose is a bit old fashioned at times. This is not one of his better known novels, and its rare departure from the predictable is probably one of the reasons. 10/29/20

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. There’s 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 man’s 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 MacLean’s 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 – 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. Today’s standards are different.  Cinema has previously appeared as The Masochist – 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 MacLean’s name isn’t 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 don’t believe the real author’s 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 isn’t 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