Monday, August 2, 2021

Gordon McAlpine: Woman with a Blue Pencil

This is a very unique novel. Its structure is complex but I did not find it confusing, after I settled into reading it. 

Takumi Sato, a Japanese-American man in California, has written a novel with a Japanese-American protagonist, Sam Sumida. Sumida's wife, Kyoko, was killed earlier in the year. He has left his job as a professor and is devoting his time to finding her killer.  The police have given up on the case but he refuses to. 

Takumi Sato's story has been sold to a publisher and his editor Maxine Wakefield is communicating with him via letters as he sends chapters to her. The story begins in early December 1941.

On December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor takes place, and all of a sudden a book with a Japanese-American man as protagonist is no longer acceptable. Maxine gives Takumi the option of returning his advance check or rewriting the novel with suggestions from her. The new novel she suggests is the story of a Korean-American man who becomes a spy for the US government; his mission will be looking for Japanese spies in America.

The novel has three threads: (1) excerpts from a rewritten version of the original novel (titled "The Revised") that follows Sam Sumida as a character who has been erased from the story and no longer exists to the people who knew him, worked with him, or his friends; (2) the new novel that follows Korean-American spy Jimmy Park (The Orchid and the Secret Agent); and (3) the letters from Maxine, the editor, spanning the years from late 1941 through 1944. I know that sounds like it would be hard to follow using but really it isn't.


In addition to being a good mystery, Woman with a Blue Pencil provides commentary on the treatment of Japanese-Americans after the war against Japan is declared, the internment camps that the Japanese-Americans are forcibly moved to, and prejudice against Asians in general. 

I loved everything about this book. I admit that, about halfway through the novel, I was wondering how the author was going to pull it all together. But at no time was I bored. In the end the plotlines come together brilliantly. This was a fascinating story. 

The novel is brief, a quick read, under 200 pages.

Also reviewed by John Grant at Noirish and Kevin Burton Smith at Mystery Scene.


Publisher:  Seventh Street Books, 2015.
Length:      189 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Setting:      California
Genre:       Historical Mystery
Source:      Borrowed from my husband.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Foundation: Isaac Asimov

I am intimidated by writing a review of a classic of science fiction like this one, when I am not that knowledgeable of science fiction in general. But I will do my best, and I welcome comments and corrections.

As the Foundation series begins, Hari Seldon is predicting the fall of the Galactic Empire. an extremely large group of planets settled by humans. He also predicts that the breakup of the Galactic Empire will cause 30,000 years of turmoil. He proposes to set up a group of men to write an encyclopedia that will include all human knowledge and preserve it, and claims that the effort will reduce the years of turmoil to 1,000.

The Commission of Public Safety accuses Seldon of treason, but they allow him to carry out his project of developing an encyclopedia. They force him to move this group to a remote planet, Terminus. The rest of the book follows the events on Terminus and adjoining planets over a period of about 200 years.

This book was not what I expected. What did I expect? Maybe more of a space opera, maybe more action. That is not to say that there is no space travel or action. The society is futuristic to a point. This novel is more about society and interactions in society. And a lot of talk. People arguing about ideas, people convincing others to do things.

The book was divided into five sections:

  • The Psychohistorians
  • The Encyclopedists
  • The Mayors
  • The Traders
  • The Merchant Princes

It took me a while to get into the book, especially while reading the first two sections. The writing was sort of dry, and I could not get interested in any of the characters. Each section is about a new set of characters although some characters carry from one section to the next. But with each part the story improves, although I remained confused through at least the third section. There was humor in the fourth section, The Traders. That section read like a good short story, and only later did I realize why. In the end, overall, I thought Foundation was an exceptional story.

After I finished reading Foundation, I read Asimov's introduction to that edition (written in 1982) which explained that he had put each book in the trilogy together from previously written stories. That did explain a lot about the structure and some confusion I had. The introduction was fascinating and I was amazed that doing that worked out so well.

One complaint I had is the lack of women in the story. No women characters at all until the fifth part, which is over 2/3 of the book. And the only woman in that section has no significant role. I know the stories were written in the 1940's and the book was published in 1951, but I found it irritating, regardless.

Also see FictionFan's review.

Foundation was first published as part 1 of a trilogy. The second book is Foundation and Empire and the third part is Second Foundation. Later, more books were added to the series. I will be reading further in the trilogy, and more books by Asimov outside of the Foundation series.


Publisher:  Del Rey Books, 1986. Orig. pub. 1951.
Length:     285 pages
Format:     Paperback
Series:      Foundation, #1
Setting:     The Galactic Empire
Genre:      Science Fiction
Source:     Purchased at the Planned Parenthood book sale, 2017.

Tuesday, July 27, 2021

Short Story Wednesday: Edward D. Hoch collections

Last week for Short Story Wednesday, George Kelley featured a collection of stories by Edward D. Hoch, Funeral in the Fog, which contains 16 Simon Ark mysteries. George's post has an overview of the book and Hoch's short stories, and lists the Table of Contents. The book has an introduction by Gigi Pandian, who describes Simon Ark as an occult detective, "drawn to mysteries that seem to have a supernatural explanation."

On the same day, after reading George's post, I ordered a copy of Funeral in the Fog and another collection of Hoch's stories, Hoch's Ladies, both published by Crippen & Landru. Hoch's Ladies includes stories about three female sleuths: Susan Holt, a department store manager; Libby Knowles, a professional bodyguard; and Annie Sears, a police detective. If you are interested in more information, there are reviews at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel and George Kelly's blog.

I have not read the stories in either of these books yet but I will be sampling from both of them soon.

Sunday, July 25, 2021

All Systems Red: Martha Wells

This first novella in the Murderbot Diaries series is set in a far future where exploratory research groups venture out to distant planets. There is a company that oversees these expeditions and it requires that a security robot accompanies each team (at a price, of course).  

The main character, Murderbot, is partly robotic and partly human. To me it seems closest to an android, with a lot of human parts. Murderbot is the SecBot assigned to a research team headed by Dr. Mensah. As the story begins, it is monitoring the activities of small team sent to investigate a specific area when a very scary large "hostile" explodes out of the bottom of a crater and attacks one member of the team. Murderbot assesses the situation, deals with the hostile, and gets them back to safety, but the SecBot has also been damaged in the incident. It can repair itself during rest but this takes a while.

Along the way the crew and the SecBot discover that there is a third group on the planet, unbeknownst to them. They knew of the existence of a second group and they had been briefly in contact with that group, but the third group could be dangerous to them. When they cannot make contact with the other authorized group on the planet, they realize there may be a big problem.

What made this book such a good read is the narration by Murderbot. That character has an unusual and entertaining personality. It is painfully shy around people, and keeps its distance when possible. The job of a SecBot is not usually too demanding, and this one would rather be watching video that it has downloaded than interacting with people. It has made alterations to itself so that it cannot be remotely controlled by "the company" from afar, but this is a secret it has to conceal from the others. 

Since we only get the story from Murderbot's perspective and the story is novella length, we don't get a lot of character development of team members other than Dr. Mensah. The other team members have varying degrees of sympathy for and trust in the SecBot after the rescue, and they all have to get used to changing relationships.

All Systems Red has good pacing, a lot of action, and is entertaining throughout. It ends with a cliff hanger of a sort, but that was fine with me. Even before reading the book, I expected that I would want to continue the series. I am looking forward to learning more of Murderbot's story.


Publisher:    Tor, 2019 (orig. pub. 2017)
Length:        149 pages
Format:        Hardcover
Series:         Murderbot Diaries, #1
Genre:         Science fiction thriller
Source:        Purchased in June 2020.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Short Story Wednesday -- Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories by Charles Beaumont

After reading Patti Abbott's post featuring "Black Country" by Charles Beaumont, I was motivated to read some of Beaumont's stories in the collection, Perchance to Dream: Selected Stories. From reading articles on his work, it seems he wrote mostly short stories in the horror, fantasy, and science fiction subgenres.

I initially bought the book more for the cover than its contents. In 2017, I bought several classics in the Penguin Classics series, and this was one I came upon by chance. The cover illustration is by William Sweeney.

The book starts with a very enthusiastic and complimentary Foreward by Ray Bradbury. There are 23 of Beaumont's short stories included and an Afterward by William Shatner. At this point I have only read the Foreward and the first six stories.

The title story, "Perchance to Dream", is about a man having the same dream over and over. There is a twist ending and it did surprise me. This one was made into a Twilight Zone episode.

In "The Jungle", a man roams the city he lives in and has designed, looking for the solution to a disease that is killing people. It has themes of development taking over cultures and the assumption that technology always improves things. An interesting story, but not one I enjoyed reading. Also adapted for a Twilight Zone episode, with significant changes in the story.

"Sorcerer's Moon" was a very short story about two warlocks trying to kill each other. Entertaining, with an interesting ending. It was first published in Playboy.

In "You Can't Have Them All", a doctor visits a man who is wasting away. The man's goal in life is to have sex with every woman within his chosen parameters before he dies. It is a long story and goes on and on. I liked the ending, but the premise was so disgusting that I could not enjoy the story. The story was written in 1956, and maybe it was written for its shock effect?

"Fritzchen" was also not a favorite. It was about a man who owns a pet store, and a very unusual animal that his son finds. Not appealing and I did not like the ending. 

The story I liked the best, so far, was was "Father, Dear Father". This very short story (about 5 pages) was panned in another review, at Greenwich Library, saying that the ending was obvious. I guess so, but I enjoyed it anyway. Maybe because I like time travel. 

It may be that Beaumont's stories are too weird for me. The stories with horror elements did not appeal at all. But, I still have seventeen more to go in the collection, and I am sure I will find more that I like. So far I like the shorter stories more than the longer ones.

As noted above, some of Beaumont's short stories were later adapted for Twilight Zone episodes. Although I did watch that show when I was younger, I don't remember having seen the episodes mentioned here. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

A Killing Spring: Gail Bowen

A Killing Spring is the 5th book in a mystery series about Joanne Kilbourn, a political analyst and university professor who gets involved in criminal investigations. The setting is Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. Family and relationships play a large part in these mysteries. There are now 19 books in the series, published between 1990 and 2020. The twentieth book will come out in September of 2021.

This story begins as the head of the School of Journalism at the university where Joanne Kilbourn teaches is found dead, in embarrassing circumstances. Further misfortunes occur in Joanne's life, including a student who complained of sexual harassment and then stops coming to class. Joanne looks into the student's disappearance.

As in the earlier books in the series, the story is told in first person and Joanne is not really doing any sleuthing. The first death occurs early and appears to be accidental. There are questions about the death throughout the book but there is no evidence to point in the direction of murder.

My thoughts:

All the Joanne Kilbourn mysteries that I have read feature death and intrigue within Joanne's circle of close friends or even family members. It seems that it is dangerous to know Joanne. This is one of the problems I have with amateur sleuths. Yet her close involvement with the victims does lend validity to her decision to strike out on her own to find out more about the victims and the crimes. When Gail determines that her take on the sexual harassment accusation was mistaken, she ventures out into dangerous territory, unknowingly, of course.

The stories are well written, gripping, and keep me turning the page. I like getting to know Joanne's family. She is a widow with four children between the ages of six and twenty five. The youngest was adopted. Setting is very important in Bowen's books. The descriptions and use of the Saskatchewan locations are interesting and important to the story.

Links to my reviews of the Joanne Kilbourn series, so far:

  1. Deadly Appearances (1990)
  2. Murder at the Mendel (1991)
  3. The Wandering Soul Murders (1992)
  4. A Colder Kind of Death (1995)


Publisher:   McClelland & Stewart, 2011 (orig. pub. 1996)
Length:       257 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       Joanne Kilbourn #5
Setting:      Saskatchewan, Canada
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased my copy.