This is one of those books with a fairly straightforward plot that's a vehicle to say a lot of things about a lot of topics: how much of one's fate isThis is one of those books with a fairly straightforward plot that's a vehicle to say a lot of things about a lot of topics: how much of one's fate is set in childhood, parenting, relationships, the seemingly inescapable crucible of environment, class differences, the media, emotional and physical abuse, stalkers, and of course, child murderers.
The Wicked Girls is set in England, and seems to have been inspired by the murder of James Bulger, a three-year-old boy who was abducted, tortured, and murdered by a pair of ten-year-olds. In The Wicked Girls, the victim and the perpetrators are all girls, and of course, there's more to the story.
Annabel Oldacre and Jade Walker come from opposite sides of the tracks; Annabel's family is upper-class and wealthy, while the Walkers are known throughout their community as the British equivalent of trailer trash. Annabel and Jade by chance strike up a friendship one day, but by the end of the day, a little girl is dead and the two of them soon become the most notorious and hated eleven-year-olds in England.
Twenty-five years later, the two of them are both living under new identities, but under lifelong probationary conditions which include monthly check-ins, and an absolute prohibition against contacting one another ever again.
Jade is now "Kirsty," a journalist, and Annabel is "Amber," a cleaner at a seedy amusement park in a seaside resort town. This reversal in expected outcomes — the girl from the bad family is now an educated, middle-class career woman with a family, while the girl from the posh family is now a weary, friendless cleaning woman — is the first statement the book makes about how the circumstances of one's childhood do not predetermine the outcome.
It turns out that Jade, the girl without a future, was sent to a relatively progressive institution where she was actually given an education, and when she was released on parole, was able to make a life for herself. Meanwhile, Annabel, whom the media had labeled the "dominant" member of the pair, on the assumption that the rich girl must have been pure evil while one could only expect the poor girl to have a broken moral compass, spent her years in juvenile detention in a hellhole. She emerges basically broken and hopeless.
When a serial killer begins killing tourists in Amber's home town, Kirsty comes to cover the story. The two of them run into each other, recognize one another, and the secrets the two of them have kept hidden their entire lives immediately threaten to spill out, no matter how hard they try to avoid each other.
The Wicked Girls has a nicely twisting plot and a range of secondary characters, each of them bringing up other issues, from Amber's emotionally manipulative boyfriend to Kirsty's struggles to support their family with her husband "excessed" out of a job in his mid-40s, the minimum wage workers at the amusement park that Amber has been put in charge of, the abused girl she takes in only to be betrayed, and of course, the media, which just like twenty-five years ago, seizes on lurid details and interviews with unreliable people to construct a narrative that will sell papers and generate moral outrage, whether or not it actually bears any resemblance to the truth.
Watching two women whose lives were destroyed as children try to reconstruct an existence under the constant fear of discovery, even by their own families, and then see it all come unraveled once again, makes this book both a suspenseful psychological thriller and a tragedy even before the climax.
It's not quite 5 stars — while I liked the story and the characters, something about the writing just didn't grab me enough to make me love it. But this is still a pretty good "social" novel under the crime/thriller surface, and I'll look for more books by Alex Marwood....more
You'll see most reviews of this book referring to Battlestar Galactica, and it's pretty obvious why. A great big obsolete starship has been sitting arYou'll see most reviews of this book referring to Battlestar Galactica, and it's pretty obvious why. A great big obsolete starship has been sitting around collecting the dregs of the fleet, with a washed out alcoholic captain, and then suddenly aliens attack and it turns out the Ark Royal is the only ship that can fight them. Christopher Nuttall obviously really loved BSG. He also seems to really love strategic space combat games and the British Royal Navy, and really hate reporters.
There isn't much fleshed out in this future universe. All the countries of the early 21st century seem to be pretty much intact and similar in their relative power and politics in the future, even though they've all begun colonizing other planets. Humans have yet to encounter intelligent aliens. Then suddenly aliens attack a colony world and wipe it out. The alien ships are armed with plasma cannons, which the shields of all the newer starships cannot withstand, so a multinational defensive fleet is quickly wiped out.
The admiralty decides to send the 70-year-old carrier Ark Royal on a crucial mission because they hope its heavy armor plating, built for a previous era of space warfare, will do better against the alien weapons. This despite the fact that they know the captain of the Ark Royal is a drunkard.
Needless to say, the Ark Royal flies into glorious battle and kicks ass, there is much space combat, Captain Ted proves himself to be a great officer once he puts the bottle down, and also every single female officer about the Ark Royal is apparently a slut. (I don't think any woman had a scene without her breasts being described.)
Ark Royal is reasonably entertaining candy for those who like military SF. Accept the premise that starships are just like naval craft, and the British Royal Navy once again rules the wavesstars, and it's fun to visualize ship counters moving across a hex map as the battles are described. (At times, I could almost hear dice rolling.)
The writing is okay, though like a lot of self-published novels, the lack of polish is evident. Facts are repeated, heck, everything is repeated, and there are a lot of contradictory plot points. The worldbuilding is scant; just as much as is needed to put those ships counters on the map. Being a true SF fan, I don't just want starship combat, I want to know about the aliens, and by the end of this book, even though they have captured a few of them, they still know absolutely nothing about them or why they attacked.
This was not a bad book, but it didn't stand out from the many similar series. If you like space combat, and the idea of an "old school" British navy fighting aliens, or anything Battlestar Galactica-themed, you'll probably like it....more
The Lies of Locke Lamora was a fun bit of thieving and rogueing in a crapsack fantasy world. Red Seas Under Red Skies is more of the same, plus pirateThe Lies of Locke Lamora was a fun bit of thieving and rogueing in a crapsack fantasy world. Red Seas Under Red Skies is more of the same, plus pirates. I actually enjoyed it more than the first book, not necessarily because of the pirates.
Locke Lamora is a thief, the sort of thief who makes people want to play the thief class in AD&D, and then find out that even if you reach 15th level you're still not going to be able to pull off epic fantasy novel stunts. Locke prides himself on being able to steal anything from anyone, and quite often Lynch will have him pull off audacious stunts offscreen, like waltzing into a nobleman's heavily-guarded mansion and stealing a prize piece of jewelry from around his mistress's neck while they are in bed together. But the plots that drive these books are capers — as is pointed out several times, if Locke and Jean just wanted to be rich, they could make off with a nice haul and retire whenever they like. But they always have to find a big, difficult, dangerous score, preferably one that involves pissing off powerful people. Then of course in the process of setting up a long game, they end up crossing even more powerful people, get screwed over every which way, and have to pull off a spectacular triple-plus-cross to get out of it.
Following the events of book one, Locke Lamora, the Thorn of Camorr, and his bruiser best friend Jean, flee Camorr to lick their wounds. Locke goes into an alcoholic pity party while Jean starts building up a new gang of thieves in the small town they've wound up in, until in an effort to stir him from his depression, Jean provokes Locke into an overly audacious bit of thievery to demonstrate that he's still the most cunning bastard ever. This causes them to flee, and the whole subplot with Jean's little gang of teenage thieves is dropped, never to be mentioned again. I have noticed that Scott Lynch leaves lots of loose threads dangling, like the ancient race that left the Elderglass ruins, and the lost love that Locke has been moaning about for two books now. Either he's planning to wrap this all up spectacularly in a future volume, or he is just one of those authors who gets nifty ideas, doesn't know what to do with them, and forgets about them.
Lynch's plotting is great, though — grant his main characters the sort of epic talents they are credited with, and their scheming is clever and entertaining enough to allow the reader to cross that bridge suspended over disbelief.
Anyway — pirates. They don't really show up until about halfway in.
Jean and Locke travel to Tal Verrar and spend two years preparing to steal from the Sinspire, a grand casino with successively higher levels one can only ascend with a combination of wealth, status, and game play. The Sinspire's vaults are, of course, supposedly unbreachable, and the Sinspire is run by yet another evil mastermind, so that's Locke and Jean's target. In the process of planning their con, however, they come to the attention of the Archon of Tal Verrar, who is a rival of the master of the Sinspire and a politician with a problem familiar to historical monarchs — he commands Tal Verrar's army and navy, but Tal Verrar's "priori," or ruling council, controls the purse strings. He needs a threat to materialize and convince the priori to loosen up their purses. Another pirate attack like that one seven or eight years ago would do nicely. Once he gets Locke and Jean in his power, he assigns them to... go recruit a bunch of pirates and attack Tal Verrar so the Archon can defeat the pirates and have a well-funded navy again. So Locke and Jean have to satisfy both the Archon and the master of Sinspire, convincing each that they are a double-agent for them working against the other. Meanwhile they've been poisoned, the bondsmagi they pissed off in the first book are after them, the Archon's right-hand woman is actually working for some unknown third power, and that's before Locke and Jean even get out to sea and meet the pirates they have to convince to attack Tal Verrar so they can all be hunted down and killed.
Juggling so many knives, Lynch does a pretty good job of grounding them without cutting off too many fingers. The piracy was entertaining, as he introduces a single mother pirate captain and a pleasantly silly bit of seagoing tradition in this world in which ships must always sail with women officers and cats.
The world remains an almost unrelentingly dark one — some of the characters, including Locke and Jean, show streaks of nobility, and Locke in particular seems to be planning some sort of grand strike against the wantonly cruel upper classes. That said, this is a grimdark fantasy world. Casual cruelty, creative atrocities, humiliation and oppression and torture as sport, not to mention everyone being reliably treacherous at all levels, is par for the course.
Lynch follows other predictable cliches as well, like as soon as Jean and his new pirate honey exchanged "I love you"s, I knew she couldn't have been more dead if she already had a sword through her neck.
Despite following a few standard fantasy tropes, this was rollicking good fun, one of those books that is most entertaining not for the swashbuckling or the fantasy bits, but for the impossible situations the author puts the characters in, so the reader is forced to turn pages to find out "How the hell are they going to get out of this one?"
Definitely elevated my desire to read the next book in the series, though I hope Lynch is going to eventually incorporate some larger meta-plot into the story, rather than just continuing to spin yarns about ever-greater heists....more
I have been hearing about this series forever. I'm generally somewhat indifferent to military SF — spaceship battles alone are not particularly compelI have been hearing about this series forever. I'm generally somewhat indifferent to military SF — spaceship battles alone are not particularly compelling to me, unless I'm controlling the ships in a game. Much of Dauntless seems inspired by spaceship combat games, where you get to build a fleet, choose your weapons, select leaders based on their attributes, and so on.
The Alliance has been at war with the Syndics for a century now. Captain John Geary was in command during an early battle in that war. Then he went into emergency hibernation and was presumed dead; meanwhile, legends of his leadership have grown all out of proportion, so when the Alliance fleet unexpectedly finds his survival pod and revives him, much of the fleet reacts as if King Arthur has returned to save Britain.
Through a very briefly described sequence of events, Captain Geary is left in charge of the fleet while its leaders go to surrender to the Syndic forces who have just defeated them after a disastrous attack in the middle of Syndic space. Since the Syndics are cartoon sci-fi villains, they execute all the Alliance brass and then demand unconditional surrender from the fleet. Geary figures out a strategy to get away, and leads the fleet in a retreat through a series of star systems, trying to pick up supplies and fight off pursuing Syndics all the way.
Unfortunately, Captain Geary was never the epic hero his legend has become, and he soon finds that the Alliance has changed in the hundred years he was in suspended animation. Now they're more like rapacious glory hounds than a disciplined military, taking Geary's old command advice literally and out of context to mean that they should never retreat. They've also stopped following the rules of war that were observed in Geary's time, so besides convincing his new subordinates to follow orders and not just charge into battle to score as many victory points as possible, he also has to convince them that they shouldn't simply throw POWs out airlocks, or bombard civilian planets.
That's about the extent of the characterization and the plot. Captain Geary is idolized and hero-worshipped, but he also has a bunch of ship captains who think he's a relic from the wrong time. He stands for AmericanAlliance values like honor, discipline, professionalism, and civilized treatment of the enemy while his descendants have become more like barbarian warriors. There are several battles and some examples of Geary trying to show the fleet the "right" way to do things, but the book ends with the Alliance forces still being chased, deep in Syndic territory, so obviously the series will go on as long as the author can keep spinning it out.
As military SF goes, Dauntless is pretty much the arch-typical example. It's not new or brilliant, it's just a spaceship combat story written for people who like spaceship combat. I liked the story well enough and the writing served its purpose, but I'm really not drawn into the saga enough to want to continue what is already a fairly long series....more
This collection had three tales: The Telltale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Black Cat.
If you are unfamiliar with these classics, you shouldThis collection had three tales: The Telltale Heart, The Cask of Amontillado, and The Black Cat.
If you are unfamiliar with these classics, you should really read them. They are old-school horror, served chilled.
They're all creepy as hell - Poe depicted narrators going completely mad better than just about anyone else, including florid ol' Lovecraft. This would be fine listening on a dark Halloween night....more
William Hope Hodgson's stories were apparently published during the boom of detective fiction that followed the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, and HodWilliam Hope Hodgson's stories were apparently published during the boom of detective fiction that followed the popularity of Sherlock Holmes, and Hodgson more or less follows Doyle's formula: each Carnacki story involves Carnacki going to investigate some unusual occurrence and using detective work to figure out what's going on. The difference is that Carnacki uses occult techniques as well as "scientific" instruments such as the "Electric Pentacle," and some of his cases actually turn out to be supernatural in origin.
Instead of a Watson, Carnacki relates his cases after the fact to four friends, including the narrator, "Dodgson," who are a passive audience for Carnacki's stories. So there is no buddy dynamic here. The stories are somewhat formulaic as well — mostly haunted houses, haunted rooms, and in one case, a haunted ship.
They are interesting in that you never know until the climax whether the "ghost" or other supernatural phenomenon will turn out to be an actual haunting, or some human perpetrator acting out a Scooby Doo plot, trying to scare people off with wires and trapdoors and luminescent paint for some nefarious reason.
When the case does genuinely involve supernatural entities, though, it's not just phantoms drifting around. Hodgson was possibly an inspiration for H.P. Lovecraft, and his horrors are inhuman, malevolent, and alien. Even the mere "ghosts" are pretty dark, causing not just chills but "supernatural miasmas" of fear (or "funk" as Carnacki keeps calling it, in I presume the idiom of the day). In some cases, Carnacki encounters creatures that could properly be called demons:
"I saw something terrible rising up through the middle of the 'defence'. It rose with a steady movement. I saw it pale and huge through the whirling funnel of cloud - a monstrous pallid snout rising out of that unknowable abyss. It rose higher and higher. Through a thinning of the cloud I saw one small eye... a pig's eye with a sort of vile understanding shining at the back of it."
This book, collecting all of Hodgson's Carnacki stories, was an interesting read given where Hodgson sits historically and literarily, between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft. His prose style was florid and stilted, and while the stories are imaginative, with Carnacki's "Electric Pentacle" and colored "defenses" and "Sigsand Manuscript" and other references to Hodgson's invented arcana, and when the monsters show up they are genuinely dreadful, after a few of them you can see they're just repeating the same ideas over and over. Had Hodgson written more, perhaps he'd have eventually expanded Carnacki's world....more
One of Lovecraft's earlier stories, and the first one mentioning one of the so-called Elder Gods who become part of his "Cthulhu mythos."
It's very shoOne of Lovecraft's earlier stories, and the first one mentioning one of the so-called Elder Gods who become part of his "Cthulhu mythos."
It's very short and full of the windy prose Lovecraft is famous for. A sailor whose cargo ship was sunk by a U-boat (this being World War I) is captured by Germans but escapes, and after falling asleep, wakes up on a big black slimy island that's apparently just been heaved up from the bottom of the ocean by a volcano. He hikes over the island until he discovers a strange monolith with strange fishy symbols on it...
The story ends the way most Lovecraft stories do, with the narrator going insane, warning of unspeakable horror, and being ignored by the rest of the world.
The end is near. I hear a noise at the door, as of some immense slippery body lumbering against it. It shall not find me. God, that hand! The window! The window!
I was a little ambivalent about trying one of these "Great Courses" on audio, especially with references to diagrams and such, but the instructor promI was a little ambivalent about trying one of these "Great Courses" on audio, especially with references to diagrams and such, but the instructor promised at the beginning that you could follow along at home without needing the pictures, and he was right, though there are points at which it might benefit a listener to pause the lecture long enough to look up the diagram if you are having trouble visualizing what he describes.
This is a course on advanced physics for people who are not physics students. All that high-level stuff like General and Special Relativity, the three fundamental forces, quantum mechanics, why nothing can go faster than light, how time dilation works, what is really going on with black holes and whether "wormholes" really exist (answer: there is currently no actual evidence of them, we just know that the math supporting the possibility of their existence works) and a dozen other topics for any long-time science fiction reader.
And that is why I downloaded this course, because I haven't had a physics class since high school, and I've had only a brief survey course on quantum mathematics, but I wanted to understand the physics behind relativistic travel and the formation of the universe and quantum theory and all that jazz well enough to feel educated when I read science fiction that tries to be "hard" (and even to have a better grounding for any SF I might write myself...).
I would say this course works very well for that purpose. The professor promises that the math is minimal, so at several points he handwaves the formulas, saying "Trust me (but go look it up if you want to really understand it)" but assures us that the concepts he explains require no more than high school algebra, for the most part, and this was also true. So this is a very "math light" physics course for non-physicists, and thus for someone who is a veteran of hard SF there won't be much here in the way of new concepts - you have probably read Heinlein's Time for the Stars in which a pair of telepathic twins conduct the famous "twin experiment" with one twin staying on Earth getting old while the other twin sets off on a journey in a spaceship traveling at near-lightspeed. And you've read lots of stories about black holes and how they "slow time" as you approach the event horizon. (Go see Interstellar - it's a fantastic movie.) And you know that pure matter-energy conversion would be a billion times more efficient than nuclear fusion, if we could do it. And you've heard of Schroedinger's Cat and how supposedly we could use paired qubits to achieve faster-than-light communication (we can't). And gravity warps time and space, and light is a particle and a wave (and in fact so is all matter, really), and Einstein refused to believe God rolled dice with the universe.
All that is covered here, and at the end of it, you'll understand it better, conceptually, but obviously this cannot replace an actual physics course and if you want to really, really understand it, you'd have to actually get deeper into the math. I now have a better understanding of what physics says about General and Special Relativity and black holes and time travel and quantum entanglement. Do I really, thoroughly understand it? You'll probably find several points Professor Wolfson covers need to sit with you awhile, and some stuff you'll really have to read more deeply to fully "get it." But you can get the gist adequately from this course.
So, this course will not work as a substitute for taking an actual physics class. It probably won't even work very well as a primer. But if you're just a layman who already has some idea of the stuff you've been reading about in science fiction but you want to know more about it, you'll find this course quite valuable, and if you actually don't know any of this stuff, it will probably blow your mind.
The lecturer builds up his topics very carefully, starting with what ancient astronomers and physicists knew, all the way back to Aristotle. There is a lot of physics history here, so you'll get your Copernicus and Galileo and Newton and Maxwell and Bohr and of course Einstein, and that part is also quite interesting, as there is just a little bit of biographical information about each person, but more importantly, what exactly they figured out and how and how it changed what was known up to that point in time.
Overall, well worth the investment in listening to....more
Volume seventeen in this long-running series sees the aftermath of the death of Mister Dark, and is divided between three major storylines:
1. With theVolume seventeen in this long-running series sees the aftermath of the death of Mister Dark, and is divided between three major storylines:
1. With the North Wind dead, one of his grandchildren must assume the title. Snow and Bigby Wolf are not thrilled, since it involves their cubs going on epic quests and/or daily scavenger hunts, the other three Winds drop by to throw their weight around, and there is a general sense that this is going to end badly for someone, especially when it turns out that there is a prophecy involved. One of the children is eventually chosen, and we see a return of Bellflower, the former Frau Totenkinder reborn in a newly hot body but just as powerful (and probably just as devious) as before.
2. Bufkin the flying monkey is leading a ragtag band of revolutionaries in the former kingdom of Oz, which is now ruled by yet another evil emperor, this time the Nome King. The Soviet-style propaganda posters are amusing, but the story drags, even with the comic relief.
3. Rose Red returns to the Farm, as the Fables prepare to migrate back from Haven to their former home in Manhattan... where Miss Spratt is waiting, vengefully.
Aside from the North Wind storyline, there were a lot of cameos by Fables old and new but not a lot of the old characters doing much. This was a decent entry in the series in that we can see setup for climactic events to come, but nothing epic, astonishing, or really funny. Also, Mark Buckingham's penciling seems lazier than usual.
Some of the short stories in the back were more interesting than the main storylines, particularly as we learn about a powerful magician, unmentioned until now, who was really responsible for protecting Fabletown from the Emperor, and Rose Red's quest to determine who she will be as a new paladin of Hope....more
If at first you don't succeed, get rid of the bitch and move on to the next sister.
A Kiss Before Dying is a taut little thriller about a sociopath whoIf at first you don't succeed, get rid of the bitch and move on to the next sister.
A Kiss Before Dying is a taut little thriller about a sociopath who conceives an ingenuous plan to seduce the daughter of a wealthy copper baron. Except she goes and gets pregnant before his plan can come to fruition. Since Daddy is the moralistic disinheriting type, he figures a kid before they are properly married and he's had time to work his charms and soften the old man up will just ruin everything. When he can't persuade her to get rid of it, he's left with only one option - a well-planned murder in which he manages to make it look like a suicide, and then avoid any connection between him and the dead girl.
Which allows him to move on to daughter #2.
But daughter #2 proves a little too intuitive — she starts putting clues together and realizing her sister didn't commit suicide, and wants to find out who murdered her. She figures everything out just a little too late.
And our boy, as long on audacity as he is short on scruples, decides third time's the charm: the rich industrialist had three daughters, and after all that research he did to seduce the first two, he knows the oldest sister pretty well...
As improbable as this story may sound, I couldn't really spot any plot holes. Sure, our protagonist needed a bit of luck here and there, but nothing so overwhelmingly coincidental as to be completely implausible. He's just a meticulous, cold-blooded schemer with a knack for manipulation.
A lot of people want books with "relateable" protagonists. Well, the protagonist of this book is a murderous, gold-digging sociopath. You want him to trip up and get caught, and you want his victims to get away, and at the same time, the exciting part is finding out how he's going to get away with it.
This book is dated now — it was written in 1954 and it's set in the early fifties, so the campus life described, and the so-visible class distinctions are not the same as now, but that just makes this suspenseful novel a period piece as well. In fact, some of the period details are what made it interesting. For example, there is surprisingly little moralizing about the proposed abortion — she doesn't want to do it, but it seems more for emotional reasons than any real ethical or religious qualms. And it struck me that in some ways, the "boy from the wrong side of the tracks" was a thing that would be even harder to envision today — nowadays, we like to pretend that American society is less class-stratified, but that's because the rich are increasingly distant and out of sight. Working class people just don't socialize, at all, with the very wealthy, which makes it easier for us to pretend that there is no such thing as class.
Ira Levin also wrote other thrillers, like Rosemary's Baby and The Stepford Wives, and with this pacey, suspenseful novel, it's easy to see how readily his stories became a part of pop culture. Definitely worth reading, and motivated me to read more by him someday....more
I have a read a lot of superhero novels. There isn't a nerdier, more ridiculous premise, not even dragon fantasy or space opera, and also hardly a fanI have a read a lot of superhero novels. There isn't a nerdier, more ridiculous premise, not even dragon fantasy or space opera, and also hardly a fantasy/sci-fi premise harder to do well as a book. Some authors just revel in the cheesiness of a four-color universe, others try to take them seriously, some tackle superheroes "scientifically" and make them just another science fiction concept.
Please Don't Tell My Parents I'm a Supervillain is more towards the four-color end of the spectrum, but it's not cheesy. Instead, it's written as if it takes place in a standard kid's superhero comic universe, and then plays it straight. Every genre convention is observed and taken seriously. Penelope Akk and her friends live in a world with an extensive superhero mythos of its own — there is magic (which Penelope's super-scientist dad refuses to acknowledge) and there was a secret alien invasion that all the heroes and villains know about but most of the "civilian" world does not, there are unspoken rules governing conduct between heroes and villains which most (but not all) of the villain observe, and in Northeast West Hollywood Middle School, there are numerous children of superheroes (and villains).
Penelope Akk's father is Brian Akk, a super-genius inventor, and her mother is the Auditor. Her friend Claire in the daughter of the retired super-seductress the Minx. Her friend Ray is... well, we don't learn much of anything about his parents in this book, though what little we do learn implies that they aren't good.
When Penelope's powers start to manifest, her parents are proud but tell her it will probably take four years for them to develop enough for her to become a full-fledged superhero. Little do they know that Penelope's gift for mad science is evolving at record speed, and soon Penelope is creating gadgets even her father couldn't conceive. When she concocts a formula that triggers Claire and Ray's powers, the three of them decide to get a start on their own superhero careers... except an ill-timed run-in with a sidekick who also happens to be their school's Mean Girl puts them on the wrong side of a public brawl, and suddenly the three of them are... villains!
Worse, they discover they're really good at it.
This is a fun, young adult romp with enough homage to classic superhero tropes to entertain even an adult (if you like superheroes). If your favorite character has always been the mad scientist/gadgeteer/supergenius type - the Reed Richards, the Tony Stark, the Lex Luthor - then this book is for you. Penelope's power has almost a mind of its own as she goes into a sort of trance state in which she starts building things that could only exist in a world with superhero physics, but she also turns out to have a genius for plotting and tactics. She and her friends go from one battle to the next, cleaning the clocks of much more experienced superheroes and supervillains, and making a name for themselves: The Inscrutable Machine.
Richard Robert's superhero universe is well-rendered - it has exactly the feel of a long-running comic book universe with its own history and continuity, established old timers, mighty powers whose names are spoken with awe, old battles and grudges, a big pool into which these three middle schoolers are now wading.
It seems like most of the negative reviewers complain that this book isn't "heroic" enough - Penelope and her friends stumble into being bad guys through mischance, but although they're never evil, and plan to "reform" eventually, they discover they kind of like making chumps out of heroes and proving they can hold their own against grown-ups. Thus, they embark on a number of schemes that are, let's face it, worse than criminal mischief, all while telling themselves they'll just go straight before their parents find out. This hardly makes them the noblest of "heroes" (though they remain rather adorable), but it does make them believable thirteen-year-olds, whose moral lobes haven't fully developed yet.
I actually thought this book treated its middle-school protagonists with surprising maturity - they act like kids, but kids on the threshold of adulthood. They are smart enough to compete with adults, but not wise enough to know when they shouldn't. They are starting to feel the rush of hormones, and you can tell that Claire is going to be big trouble when puberty really hits.
Mostly, though, the powers, the supers, and the battles were just awesome.
I give it 4.5 stars for pure fun, but your mileage will vary unless you are a superhero devotee like me. The book was a little bit bloated - there are a lot of extraneous scenes that were interesting but probably could have been cut. Also, the one point I got hung up on, challenging my suspension of disbelief even in a superhero novel, was the Inscrutable Machine's ability to fool their parents and keep their secret identities. Penelope's parents are both supergeniuses, and as a supervillain, she goes around calling herself "Bad Penny" - now come on!
But, I'm still rounding up to 5 stars because it hooked me hard enough to definitely buy the sequel!...more
You might think a book written in 1941 about Hollywood in the 30s would be too dated to be of interesting to anyone but Hollywood historians. Wrong, bYou might think a book written in 1941 about Hollywood in the 30s would be too dated to be of interesting to anyone but Hollywood historians. Wrong, baby, wrong! This book, a modern classic, is a must-read for anyone who is fascinated by Hollywood, or interested in character studies of incredibly compelling anti-heroes. In the 21st century, What Makes Sammy Run? is essentially a historical novel, but it's still a damn fine character-driven story, and let's face it, Hollywood is surely still crawling with Sammy Glicks.
The title question of the novel, "What makes Sammy run?" is asked by the narrator, Al Manheim, a reporter at a New York City paper who first meets Sammy as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 15-yeear-old copy boy.
"I'll keep my ear to the ground for you, kid. Maybe in a couple of years I'll have a chance to slip you in as a cub reporter."
That was the first time he ever scared me. Here I was going out of my way to be nice to him and he answered me with a look that was almost contemptuous.
"Thanks, Mr. Manheim," he said, "but don't do me any favors. I know this newspaper racket. Couple of years at cub reporter? Twenty bucks. Then another stretch as district man. Thirty-five. And finally you're a great big reporter and get forty-five for the rest of your life. No, thanks."
I just stood there looking at him, staggered. Then...
"Hey, boy!" And he's off again, breaking the indoor record for the hundred-yard dash.
Sammy runs, runs, runs, and Al Manheim is as obsessed as he is horrified as he watches Sammy shamelessly lie, cheat, and steal (ideas) and promote himself with the unselfaware genius of the truly narcissistic. He stabs his "patron," Al, to get a newspaper column of his own, and when a young writer comes to him with a story idea, Sammy calls up a big-name Hollywood agent, having no idea just how ridiculous the thing he is doing is, and soon is saying goodbye to the Big Apple and hello to Hollywood, leaving behind his friends, his family, his abandoned fiancee, and the guy who wrote the story he's now launching his career with.
Al manages to get snagged into the Hollywood writing gig himself a little later, and soon he's also making more money than he ever did as a reporter, but watching Sammy outstrip everyone. When Sammy becomes a $500-a-week writer (big money in the 30s!), he's seething with dissatisfaction because he knows some writers are making $2500 a week. When he becomes a $2500/week writer, he wants to join the inner circle of $5000/week writers. And when he joins them... well, who the hell wants to be a mere writer, bottom of the Hollywood totem pole, when the big money and power comes from being a supervisor, a producer, a studio head...
Sammy keeps running, and Al is there to witness it. Sammy Glick never writes a word himself or has a single original idea, yet he manages to keep rocketing up into the big time while Al trails behind him, modestly successful, held back by his own basic decency, a trait for which Sammy mocks him contemptuously and yet makes him Sammy's confidant and the closest thing he has to a friend, since whenever Sammy does something lowdown and dirty, it's only Al he can confide in.
Sammy's rise is the epic quest of an anti-hero. He's a louse, a creep, he is... in the immortal words of Daffy Duck: despicable.
Al's obsessive quest to find out what makes Sammy run eventually leads him back to the Jewish New York ghetto where Samuel Glickstein grew up, and then back to Hollywood after being temporarily exiled for his participation in the struggle of the Writers' Guild against the big studios, where he witnesses Sammy's final triumph: marriage to the heiress of one of the Wall Street men who finances the studio, elevation to studio head, being feted and brown-nosed by all, and still, of course, running.
I thought of all the things I might have told him. You never had the first idea of give-and-take, the social intercourse. It had to be you, all the way. You had to make individualism the most frightening ism of all. You act as if the world is just a blindfold free-for-all. Only the first time you get it in the belly you holler brotherhood. But you can't have your brothers and eat them too. You're all alone, pal, all alone. That's the way you wanted it, that's the way you learned it. Sing it, Sammy, sing it deep and sad, all alone and feeling blue, all alone in crowded theaters, company conventions, all alone with twenty of Gladys's girls tying themselves into lewd knots for you. All alone in sickness and in health, for better or for worse, with power and with Harringtons till death parts you from your only friend, your worst enemy, yourself.
Almost as interesting as the story is the historical background behind the novel and the author. Budd Schulberg was a "Hollywood prince," son of B.P. Schulberg, a founding member of the AMPA and a producer for the big Hollywood studios. Budd Schulberg grew up among a Who's Who of Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, so when he wrote What Makes Sammy Run?... it made a splash. A big ugly splash. Louis B. Mayer himself called for Schulberg's exile from Hollywood, and Schulberg heard from his own father those immortal words: "You'll never work in this town again."
Much of the acrimony was over the character of Sammy Glick, whom Schulberg insisted was not based on any one person but a composite of Hollywood personalities and anecdotes he had heard over the years. Yet apparently most of Hollywood thought they knew who Sammy "really" was. However, a lot of it was over what's really just a subplot in the novel, the attempted unionization of the Hollywood writers' guild. Schulberg was called a Red, because of his sympathetic portrayal of an event that was still remembered bitterly by the major studios decades later.
The edition of the book I read included an afterword by the author, written in 1989, 50 years after the original publication of his novel. Besides containing more amusing anecdotes and name-dropping (apparently John Wayne himself was one of those who never forgave Schulberg for siding with the unions, and the two of them nearly had a fistfight in Mexico), Schulberg observes that when the novel first came out, and over the next couple of decades, Sammy was viewed with fear and loathing, a sleazy anti-hero who is the personification of Hollywood's id. Yet in the 80s, young film and writing students started coming up to him and praising Sammy as an inspiration, a role model for ambitious career advancement! Schulberg, still a liberal after all these years, was appalled.
And thus Sammy Glick is not only a fascinating anti-hero, a brilliant portrayal of a rags-to-riches narcissist, but also a textbook case of an author's creation who runs out of control, taking on a meaning and significance his creator never intended.
This Audible freebie is a nice way to hear the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. It's not a particularly thrilling fable - boys meets girl,This Audible freebie is a nice way to hear the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale. It's not a particularly thrilling fable - boys meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back - though really, it's the girl who does the getting.
The story starts with an evil hobgoblin (also referred to as a demon) who goes to magic school (why did Rowling not find a way to hook this into her mythology?) and creates a magic mirror which shows "reality" in the harshest, ugliest way possible. It is shattered into a million pieces, and spread around the world, where it becomes smaller mirrors, spectacles, or tiny specks of glass getting caught in peoples' eyes, creating mischief and cold-hearted misunderstanding.
One such shard gets in the eye of a little boy named Kai, who then spurns his childhood sweetheart, Gerda. One day he goes wandering in the woods and is picked up by the Snow Queen. Gerda, convinced that he is not dead, goes on a quest to find him.
There are talking flowers, talking crows, and a not-really-evil witch, and of course, the Snow Queen herself.
A cute story with perhaps a few too many elements thrown in for the fantasy-minded modern reader, but it would certainly entertain children. Anderson does wrap this tale up with a rather saccharine Christian moral, but it's a story to please those in search of adventuresome girls and magical talking animals.