The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax - Dorothy Gilman; Fawcett, 1990

The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax – Dorothy Gilman; Fawcett, 1990

I finished the first novel in the Pollifax series, The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax.  It was first published in 1966 and is not a mystery novel, but a spy-novel.  That is actually the main reason for its relative fame.  The main character, Emily Pollifax, is a senior citizen who decides that she should finally pursue one of her greatest dreams – to be a spy.  She is a widow and has two adult children with lives of their own.  Pollifax realizes her life has become tedious, boring, and dull.  In fact, she has even suffered some rather self-destructive thoughts.  After visiting her medical doctor and having a brief meeting with an elderly neighbor, Pollifax decides to visit Washington, D.C.

Well, what a different world 1966 must have been that Pollifax could enter the CIA in D.C. and just sort of be selected as a spy.  That’s basically what happens – with a little coincidental help.  Pollifax hits the public library, looks up the address to the CIA headquarters, and takes a metro-train right on over.  Luckily, one of the handlers is working on a project wherein he requires an older operative for a courier-type mission.

Pollifax’s gig starts off with her heading off on a flight to Mexico City.  Events transpire and the majority of the rest of the novel takes place in Albania.  Now, Albania is not exactly one of the most commonly researched countries.  It is my strong recommendation that readers interested in this novel brush up on Albania.  A deep and exhaustive examination is not necessary, but do glance at a map and orient yourself.  Remember to pay particular attention to Albania in the 1950s/1960s (Eastern Bloc timeframe).  (Also, Albania has a cool flag.)

Anyway, all of this is tremendously exciting and unique. And should be full of comic relief and edge-of-one’s seat intrigue.  But somehow, I found this novel really difficult to plod through.  It just moves very slowly.  I think it is well-written and there is plenty of unique stuff in it to keep interest – but it just moves like a snail!  It took me months to force myself to read it.  Yes, Pollifax is charming – she is the epitome of down-to-earth and civilized. But she is also quite annoying and aggravating, too.  The main thing is that with Pollifax, you need to have a willing suspension of disbelief.  She actually accomplishes some things in this book that would thoroughly lay out many 30 or 40 year old gentlemen.  Do I know any elderly women who could do some of these things that Pollifax does? Oddly, yes. I also realize that many people do not.

There is a light amount of the typical American patriotism and such going on, too.  It works in this novel, though, because one would expect a civilized elderly woman to hold certain views and ideas.  So, in that way, Pollifax is also an authentic character. An upper class, elderly WASP in the 1960s probably has some not-so-politically correct views regarding Chinese people, Communists, Mexicans, etc. I’ve read worse….

Still, I cannot put my finger on why this novel was so tedious for me. Spy novels in Albania with eccentric elderly women (and there are also goats in this novel) should not be sluggish.  So here is an odd anomaly:  I found the plot and characters charming and interesting, but the pacing and the novel itself was painfully slow. I would read another Mrs. Pollifax novel – but maybe only in the dead of winter and I am out of comic books and movies to play with.

3 stars

Odd Thomas

Odd Thomas - Dean Koontz; Bantam, 2012

Odd Thomas – Dean Koontz; Bantam, 2012

I finished Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz earlier this week.  This novel was first published in 2003 and is the first in the Odd Thomas series of novels (seven total).  I have never read a Dean Koontz because I have assumed he writes grisly, dark stories with mediocre skill.  I do not know why I assumed this – maybe it was extrapolated years ago from reading the newspaper or backs of books or something. All of my books are still experiencing claustrophobia in a room that gives me the same feeling. So, it was a perfect time to grab up a pulp just to have something to read.

This novel is not very good – if we are judging it by the standards we set with writers like Calvino and Nabokov. Also, it is not science fiction nor is it literature. This is a pulp novel pumped out to entertain readers for the short length of time that they are gripping it in their paws.  Was I entertained? Yes. Did the novel have the basic elements needed for a completed story? Yes. Did I hate anything about this novel to the extent that I wanted to stop reading it? No.   The key thing is, before I read it, as I was reading it, and now as I review it:  I know this novel is just a throw-away pulp novel. That means it was destined to have a two or three star rating.

The worst element of this novel is that first-person narrative is supposed to be from a twenty year old. However, in no world is it believable that this kid, Odd Thomas, is that young. The characters are in a Catholic church and the narrator identifies a prie-dieu (page 156).  Besides myself, I know no one else that would put the name to the object correctly. Certainly no one under fifty. The narrator also shares architectural descriptions like this:

County General, the oldest hospital in the region, features an impressive porte-cochere with limestone columns and a dentil-molding cornice all the way around the building. – pg. 296

Do you know any twenty year olds that would describe a hospital like that? I don’t. And this is just using vocabulary as an example. There are other ways it seems that Odd Thomas is not written as a true twenty year old.

The basic concept for these novels is not exactly unique, but it is interesting enough that I can see lots of readers being curious about what Koontz can do with it.  Odd Thomas lives in a small desert town called Pico Mundo.  He possesses some abilities that put him in contact with more than the regular world. He sees and interacts with the dead.  He recognizes non-human, not of this world entities. He also is sensitive to psychic “luck” or “guidance.”  Basically, there is a desert town in which a twenty year old kid can see ghosts. Not unique, but always interesting.

The plot here is what most readers would expect. A creepy guy comes into town, Odd (with his special powers) notices. Trouble ensues.  There was one element that I did not expect and that was interesting and I was hoping Koontz would develop, but it kind of just went away.  It was only there to add a little more spooky, I guess. But I wanted more out of that incident. (Not to spoil anything: it is a unique room in a particular house.)  Anyway, Odd has a whole series of friends that he consults and who help him.  (I love Terrible Chester – who is a cat.) Odd is the only one who thinks he is aloof and independent. In reality, he bounces from character to character for advice or assistance or just a place to relax.

Still, Odd is likeable.  He can be annoying, he can be witty. He generally does better than those oh-so-dumb characters in the 1980s who seemed to always do the wrong thing and make the worst choice possible.  I feel bad for Odd at the end of the book. Nevertheless, there is some depravity in this book. I know many readers might just call it gore, but I am not talking just about descriptions of chopped up guts or whatever. I refer to the actual motives and intentions of some of the villain characters – not nice, not good.  Depraved, for sure.  And actually, not just the villain characters – Odd’s parents are both quite nasty.

Overall, I give this three stars, understanding that this is a PULPY three star rating. I may read the next book in the series. I recommend this for contemporary pulp fans looking for the typical murder crimes with a little supernatural thrown in.

3 stars

Green Rider

Green Rider - Kristen Britain; cover:  Keith Parkinson; DAW 2000

Green Rider – Kristen Britain; cover: Keith Parkinson; DAW 2000

Green Rider by Kristen Britain really does not seem like it would appeal to me, but I read it and I do not have a whole lot of bad things to say about it.  It was definitely surprisingly good; I suppose I must have had low expectations?  I only have two complaints about this novel, which was first published in 1998.  It is the first novel by the author and the first novel in its series. One of my complaints is that the novel is too long. The paperback runs to 471 pages, but I feel the story could have been ended closer to the “standard” 430 pages. The cover, by Keith Parkinson, made me really want to hate the main character because the girl looks like that mouth-breathing actress from the Twilight movie series…

I have read two of three of Mercedes Lackey’s “Arrows” trilogy. I did not have very many nice things to say about those two books. Shame on me, but I allowed those novels to color my notions of other fantasy novels by a female author and with a female main character. Bad, bad chauvinist jerk!  However, there are some correlations here – both have strong female leads, both females have strong relationships with their horses, both of these are “epic fantasy” settings (swords and arrows, a king’s road, etc.)  Here is the crux of the matter:  if we compare the two stories, Britain’s is more balanced, honest, and “realistic” than that rubbish Lackey wrote, by a large margin.

I’ve given two reasons, so far, why I should not like this novel. The cover resemblance to the Twilight series and the similarities with the Lackey series. What possessed me to attempt reading this?! Finally, there is another reason.  I am not a wild maniac for things Irish. I have no issue with the Irish. But what else can I say – my heritage is much farther East. Celtic stuff and green stuff and difficult Gaelic words and Yeats and Joyce’s mythologies…. I mean, I don’t even like Guiness! So, with all this green and pseudo-Gaelic feel, I really had no business reading this novel.  Granted, the similarities to things-Irish is only with brief hints.

This is not grimdark, so fans of that subgenre should not expect the grim darkness found in those novels. Further, this novel should not be judged by comparing it to grimdark. I bring this up because this is an “older” novel – and since it was published, fantasy seems to have gotten a whole lot heavier and grittier.  I enjoyed this novel because it was really well-balanced.  There is an evil villain and some grisly monsters, but there are also light-hearted moments and a touch of silliness.

Karigan is at private school, she gets sent home and en route she gets waylaid by a dying Green Rider.  The Rider presses her into service to deliver the message he was carrying to the King.  Karigan does so and meets with assorted adventures. She, naturally, gets help when she needs it and often rethinks what incidents brought her to the path she is on.  She sometimes loses heart, but overall she “does the right thing” because she was raised rightly and is strong-willed.

I actually liked all of the characters. Maybe they are stereotypical and maybe this is perfectly “standard fantasy” fare, but I am very okay with that. The storyline was really quite obvious and almost on the “folk tale” level wherein everyone already knows the story and we are just here to see the presentation. It is like that joy small children get with having a story read to them that they already know by heart.

Around 310 there is a “big reveal” that all other readers will expect, but which, of course, surprised me. This comes late in the novel, and helps re-boost interest in a storyline that is dragging a bit. Another moment occurs on page 343; a villain is revealed! This moment is interesting because should flip the opinions of the reader who fell hook, line, and sinker for a particular fantasy trope. I am purposely being vague to not give away spoilers.

The magic system [using contemporary geek-terminology] is a bit wonky and specious. I do not think it is Britain’s area of expertise. Maybe in future novels she works this out better?  In this one, she doesn’t solidify what magic is, how it works, or where it comes from. Its everything it needs to be to whomever needs it.  Overall, the word I keep coming to with this novel is “balanced.”  It is not great literature, but it is interesting and engaging. I did not hate the characters and even though the plot was familiar, it did not feel labored. I was entertained.

4 stars

A Man Lay Dead

A Man Lay Dead - Ngaio Marsh; Jove 1980

A Man Lay Dead – Ngaio Marsh; Jove 1980

I have not read/reviewed nearly enough books this year. In fact, this is the first review since late January. I moved – and all of my books are still packed in boxes in a room that is also packed tightly. It has been frustrating. However, I did read this Ngaio Marsh novel in February – finally getting around to reviewing it now in April.  A Man Lay Dead is the first (of thirty-two) Roderick Alleyn mystery.  It was first published in 1934. I read the Jove Mysteries 1980 edition.

I have been attempting to read a lot more of the classic detective mystery novels lately. And maybe even some of the not-so classics.  Many of these early stories involve the character archetype of the “gentleman detective/burglar.”  This includes Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsey, Sherlock Holmes, Albert Campion, and Arsene Lupin.  The star detective of this Marsh novel falls under this category.  I have a hit-or-miss sort of opinion of these sorts of characters.  I love Lupin. I love Poirot and Whimsey.  Campion and Alleyn irritate me and I find them pompous and unlikeable. Of course, let’s be honest, I have not really read very many books in any of these series.

The novel that I read before A Man Lay Dead was Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley, which was published in 1929. The lesson to be learned between these two novels is clearly:  avoid house parties. So, apparently, no matter the decade (1930s or 1990s, etc.) house parties have a strong tendency to turn ugly.

This short novel has sixteen chapters, all of them generally focusing on the true main character, Nigel Bathgate.  He, and several others, have been invited to a weekend at Frantock. The group is attending another of Sir Hubert Handesley’s parties.  En route to the destination, Bathgate inquires of his distant cousin (Charles Rankin) who will be attending the party.  Rankin says “the usuals,” which includes the Wildes and Angela North and Rosamund Grant. Also, a Doctor Foma Tokareff – a Russian doctor whom Handesley knows from his “Embassy days in Petrograd.”

Not unlike Allingham’s novel, this house party decides to play with a particular rare and interesting dagger.  I am not sure what the authors were thinking utilizing this prop.  Do people really go to house parties and fanny around with daggers?  Does anyone really think that this is a good idea and will end well?  Have they considered Scrabble or Yahtzee?  Anyway, no reader should be surprised that there is a murder – yes, the dagger was used. Second lesson:  If you simply must attend a house party and someone hauls out a dagger – for God’s sake, leave the house immediately.

Alleyn shows up to investigate the murder.  He is cryptic and mysterious and annoyingly arrogant.  He begins his investigation by interrogating the members of the house.  However, his interrogation is certainly unique – he suggests they have a “mock trial” through which he will learn the details of the night’s events.  Nigel Bathgate is the most cooperative and interested member of the party.  At some point he seems like he wants Alleyn to think highly of him.  At other points, he is clearly not comfortable with revealing all of his thoughts to the detective. Angela North is a fiery young girl, who is not cowed by Alleyn, nor impressed by Bathgate, though she does take a shine to him.

Alleyn does not do all the work himself. He comes with a team of helpers (to do the grunt work).  Eventually, the storyline moves beyond the Frantock property and there are adventures involving Russian spies and gangs and foreign agents.

Overall, a lot better than Allingham’s showing.  Still, Nigel is the star and he is the one I enjoyed.  Alleyn was average and blah at best.  I am slightly put off with the “Russians are villains” trope, though. I do think I will read more of Marsh’s novels.  Everyone who wants to read 1920s and 1930s detective novels should add this to their list.

3 stars

The Crime at Black Dudley

The Crime at Black Dudley - Margery Allingham; Felony & Mayhem, 2006

The Crime at Black Dudley – Margery Allingham; Felony & Mayhem, 2006

The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham (1904 – 1966) was first published in 1929.  It is the first of the “Albert Campion” mysteries written by the author.  It is the first novel by this author that I have read.  Overall, I was not terribly impressed.  The main complaint that I have is that the pacing for this story is uncomfortably off-kilter.  The main character, believe it or not, is not Campion, but a young Dr. George Abbershaw.

The story largely takes place at the Black Dudley, which is a large, rural estate owned by Wyatt Petrie.  The property has been in the Petrie family for some time, although in the distant past the manor was a variety of things including a monastery. Petrie allows his uncle, by marriage, to dwell at the property, entertaining the man by having “house parties” every so often.  These house parties consist of Wyatt inviting a number of his fellow young-academics over for dinner, drinks, conversation, and games. This story begins with Dr. Abbershaw finishing dressing in his room and heading downstairs for dinner.

Among the members of the party are Albert Campion and Meggie Oliphant.  The former is mysterious and annoys everyone constantly. The second is a red-haired young lady who Abbershaw is sweet on.  In any case, after dinner the group decides to partake in a game involving a ritual dagger. Its like hide and seek combined with hot potato. Wouldn’t you know, during the course of this game, someone gets killed….

Well, the pacing is all wrong in this novel. Chapters go on and on and on – and nothing much really happens at all. I think the reader is supposed to be getting to know the characters during these chapters, but since I did not really care about the characters, I did not care to bother about getting to know them.  The plot itself has a lot of stop and starts – although, more stops, it feels than starts.  Or, perhaps, the characters are painfully dull and crummy.

Campion annoys the other characters, but I think the reader is supposed to be intrigued by him.  I was not very intrigued. I did develop a sort of tolerance for the main character – who is easily the most developed in the novel. Abbershaw’s deductions, though, are sluggish and tedious.  He’s very mature for the most part, until he’s around Meggie, who makes him in turns:  courageous, sensitive, and protective.  The relationship he has with Campion is actually the only way we get to learn anything about Campion.

There are many chapters where I was grumpy because the characters seemed so pathetic.  Many of those same chapters do not advance the storyline whatsoever, either.  And then, late in the novel, I found myself asking:  “why is this story still happening?” it just goes on and on and it really should have been ended long before. Also, the villains – both the specific and in the relation to a larger body of organized crime – are almost completely absurd.

Overall, it is difficult to be told that most of the characters are skilled, academic professionals and then also watch them act and think so stupidly.  Coupled with the unending circular plot and this novel just is not very good. Nevertheless, I think because it is the first novel in the series, one should not write off this author/series. I do intend to read another Albert Campion/Margery Allingham mystery. Just not too soon.

2 stars

A Nice Class of Corpse

A Nice Class of Corpse - Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

A Nice Class of Corpse – Simon Brett; Dell, 1990

This past week I finished the first novel in the Mrs. Pargeter mystery series by Simon Brett.  A Nice Class of Corpse was published in 1986.  There are, currently, six novels in the series – the most recent having been released in 1999.  A year later, Brett became the president of the famous Detection Club.

Overall, this is probably a 3.5 star rated novel.  It is not a 4, so for this blog it is a 3.  It is a very speedy 221 pages of relatively cozy-mystery.  I say relatively because there are some elements that probably go beyond what mystery readers consider “cozy.” (For the record, some of these subgenre distinctions are a bit ambiguous, anyway.)  You should know that the majority of this story takes place within the Devereux Hotel – which strives to be an upscale retirement community for the rich and/or titled elderly.  Therefore, almost all of the characters are quite old.  Old people get killed off in this novel. Some readers might not find that so “cozy.”

There is also a helping of melancholy in this story.  There are some sad and uncomfortable moments throughout the novel.  This adds just a drop of depth to the novel and makes the story heavier than a simple mystery. Whether that is good or bad is for each reader to decide for himself, I think.  There are also some ridiculous and witty moments – most of them due to the star character:  Melita Pargeter.

We are introduced to this spunky elderly lady as she is moving into her new residence at the Devereux Hotel in seaside Littlehampton.  Her arrival causes some commotion because she does not follow the expected behaviors typified by solemn, droll, and sedate “upper class” worthies.  Immediately, Pargeter banters and shows her independence and spunk.  The other characters react in a variety of ways to this.  Brett does a very good job of describing the social sphere and the interactions of the characters.  He is an “observant” writer, even if he leans just slightly on the ridiculous.

Brett lets us meet the characters, though I am not sure we have access to every one of the clues.  He does provide a number of red herrings and false clues that should throw the reader once or twice. I never guessed correctly, so the ending got me!

Soon after Mrs. Pargeter’s arrival – a death occurs.  Mrs. Pargeter, while surfing the variety of entanglements in this closed community, also decides to do a little investigation on her own.  She is incredibly unobtrusive and does not always completely share her “deductions” with the reader.  Nevertheless, it is interesting to watch her patiently bide her time as she fits clues together.  Maybe she is a little too patient, though?

Through the course of these efforts, we also learn that Mrs. Pargeter and her late husband have lived quite unusual atypical lives.  Without my spoiling anything here, let me just say that we are not actually told a lot of detail about these things things; Brett develops this subplot slowly and with some “mystery.” Nevertheless, this subplot might be more interesting than the actual plotline of the novel?  This Pargeter couple is definitely unique and interesting and may be the sole reason I really want to read book two in the series.

Due to this being rather unique and my preference for mysteries that take place in one building, I felt this could be four stars. Still, this is only a quick mystery novel and I am not convinced readers were given all the clues.  The ending to this story was very well done – a bit somber, a bit surprising. I think most general readers and mystery readers will enjoy this one.

3 stars

I, Robot

I, Robot - Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

I, Robot – Isaac Asimov; 2004, Bantam

vintage-sf-badgeIt is Vintage Science Fiction Month – so designated by my fellow blogger friend, the Little Red Reviewer. Generally, I like participating in this non-challenge reading fun, but this January I’ve been traveling and busy and I am worried I will not have many entries. Nevertheless, I managed to eke out one novel so far. I went with a “classic” vintage work to start off. Honestly, I do not remember if I have read I, Robot before – all or in parts, or other. I do know I have never read further in the “robot series,” so I thought this was a good way to march back down the Asimov-pathway.

I, Robot is generally considered a collection because it contains stories that were originally published in periodicals in the 1940s. I think it can be successfully referred to as a sort of fix-up novel at this point, as well. The collection as titled I, Robot was first published in 1950 and I read the 2004 (movie cover art) version this time around.  As we all *should* know, the movie starring Will Smith has only a basic and tenuous connection to these stories.  The nine stories contained in the collection form a general timeline utilizing the life of U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men employee Dr. Susan Calvin as a waypoint marker. Therefore, the collected stories form a more cohesive, although faceted, whole than I think Asimov originally created.  For anyone interested in trivia, this collection is dedicated to “John W. Campbell, jr., who godfathered the robots.”

I, Robot is considered a classic for a number of valid reasons.  It is an “early” science fiction work that is not embarrassingly dated by today’s milestones.  It is an intelligent read, unlike much of the 1940s pulp fiction that was being published.  It contains new and exciting ideas that demonstrated Asimov’s wit, knowledge, and forward-thinking mastery.  It ended up influencing and spawning all kinds of science, science fiction, and literary offspring. So, not only were Asimov’s ideas new at the time, but they didn’t wear out after a decade had passed, either.

Since this collection was published in 1950 and is so extremely well-known, it is difficult to know what to say that has not already been said hundreds of times. I am certain that this work has been examined every which way and with all sorts of hermeneutics. Many readers are already quite familiar with this book. If you are not familiar with this book, there are some key things I think you should know.  First of all, don’t connect the same-titled movie to this novel. There is not much connection there, so do not be put off by that.  Secondly, this is a quick-read, therefore it will not pull you too far from your current to-be-read stack trajectory.  Thirdly, it is an intelligent read, but it is not pretentious or high-brow.

The book is an undisputed classic.  However, I only give it four stars for a rating.  The main thrust behind each and every story in this collection is logic.  Literally, logic is what this collection is built upon.  That is fairly congruous since this is a book about “mechanical men” and mathematics and machines.  Asimov is a talented logician.  From only what this book tells me, I can promise that Asimov was comfortable with Barbara, Celarent, Darii, Ferio, etc.  Building all these stories on logic – while making them actually suspenseful and interesting – is really awesome.  However, at the end of the day, the skeleton is just logic and its really not enough.

Since the skeleton is logic, we must say that the Laws of Robotics are the flesh of the stories, the meat as it were. And boy, Asimov does drill these laws into the reader! He actually takes these laws and looks at them from a multitude of contexts and usages and no reader is going to escape this book without a very solid understanding of the laws.  Sometimes, this gets a bit exhausting. On the other hand, Asimov was an excellent teacher. He’s the guy you want teaching you logic, physics, and mathematics. His is the challenging class that you struggle through but your knowledge grows by leaps and bounds. Therefore, even though the laws are hammered at throughout these stories, the number of ways in which Asimov constructs the stories around them is quite masterful. Nevertheless, some readers might get a bit bored.

The most important character throughout this collection is Dr. Susan Calvin.  I am pretty sure someone, somewhere has ruefully commented on her last name and made some sketchy connection to John Calvin and his ideas, so I don’t need to go further on that point. But if this is a valid juxtaposition, it is something some enterprising student should run with in a paper or two.  Calvin is a robopsychologist.  She works for U.S. Robots and Mechanical Men, although most of the time I feel she would rather not.  It is unclear if there exist other such robopsychologists or if Susan is the only one.  Anyway, this “soft science” balance to the hard science of mechanical, mathematical robotics shows that Asimov was a keen observer of humanity.  When I first met Calvin in these stories, I really disliked her. Overall, she is really aggressive and hostile.  She is also, allegedly, really good at her job.  She is definitely a character study for those interested in such things.  More food for thought:  casting her role in a motion picture. . . who is that actress?

Overall, I give this four stars because I can see what Asimov is capable of – and, frankly, he is capable of so much more.  Yeah, I am saying it:  Asimov was a big intellect – but I want to push him for more and better. The skeleton and flesh of these stories is good – but at points also a little monotonous. This is a necessary, classic read that should satisfy most readers.

4 stars

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