Saturday, May 11, 2013

Review: Desert Wives by Betty Webb

Lena Jones is back to work in Desert Wives and this time she is up against a polygamist compound. Her intention was to get her client's daughter, Rebecca, out of Prophet Solomon Royal's clutches. Rebecca is only 13 years old and doesn't want to marry Prophet Solomon and her mother doesn't want that either. She had already gotten away from that life and she wants a better life for herself and her daughter.

Len gets Rebecca back, but Rebecca's father Abel is determined to get her back, especially since he gets two 16-year old brides for giving his daughter to Solomon. Lena and Rebecca also find Solomon dead on their run through the night. Solomon's death means Rebecca is free, but only as long as her mother, Esther, didn't kill him, and it looks like Esther might have done just that.

With Esther in jail awaiting extradition to Utah and Rebecca staying with her partner Jimmy's friends on the reservation, the only thing left is for Lena to go under cover in Solomon Royal's polygamist compound and find out who killed him or Rebecca will end up married to the new polygamist prophet.

The clash between polygamists and the rest of the world is a meaty subject. Betty Webb tackles the incestuous relationships among local police and government officials and the tangled webs of polygamist families in Desert Wives. Lena is the most likely undercover agent ever since she has a hard time pretending to be meek and obedient and keeping her mouth shut. In short, Lena sticks out like a giant black ram among a herd of cowed white-fleeced sheep.  She isn't very effective and spends more time sticking her nose into personal family relationships than finding out who killed Solomon Royal.

The polygamist compound is a quagmire of intrigue, abuse, and male superiority with a loathsome cast of characters on all sides and everyone is a suspect. However, Webb spends more time detailing the polygamist life and abuses than in laying down the clues that will lead to Solomon's killer, waiting until the very last for Lena to have an ah-ha moment and failing to share the brainstorm with the reader. Webb does give up the murderer but it is a wetly fizzled climax.

What Webb does very well is populate her stories with standout characters, many of which get great cameos that don't last, and very little development beyond Lena's passing interest. Webb describes the countryside beautifully but telegraphs the ending with a less sure hand. In the warring muddle of tracking down the murderer and moral outrage, Lena shines like a dark angel that lifts Desert Wives out of the ordinary.

Webb spends most of her crystal clear prose generously on Lena and the landscape, but seems to ignore the basic premise of a mystery is to solve the case. I enjoyed Desert Wives and was fascinated by the polygamist machinations, in this fast paced story, but was faintly dissatisfied in the search for the killer. All's well that ends well, except when the ending feels rushed and incomplete. I did, however, enjoy finding out more about Lena's past.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

Review: 1984 by George Orwell

1984 is one of those books I thought I'd read in school, but hadn't actually read. I did see the movie with John Hurt as Winston Smith and most of the language of 1984 has passed into common use, like Big Brother, thought police, thought crimes, etc. George Orwell's take on the future is powerful and clairvoyant -- and we are living a version of his constricted, hate-filled world today.

Winston Smith, Orwell's protagonist, begins the book by hiding out of sight of the telescreen and writing in a diary with pen and ink purchased at different shops so as to be more difficult to track. He is writing his thoughts about Oceania and Big Brother and the world he lives in, the gray, unemotional, fear-filled world that surrounds him but does not include him. He is writing for O'Brien, a man in the inner circle of the Party, someone Winston believes is also rebelling against the status quo. As Winston continues his small rebellions, Orwell illustrates how Winston is less free than he thinks he is. Winston is merely an inconsequential cog in the wheel of The Party.

Orwell paints a world where Oceania is always at war and thus always asking more of its citizens by giving them less and expecting them to accept less with equanimity because it's for Oceania, the Party, and for Big Brother. Outwardly, everyone lives the same way with oily gin, gray coveralls, and cramped quarters always in vies of the telescreens where even in the parks and countryside there are microphones to capture even the whispered confidences between lovers and co-conspirators. Children turn their parents in for what they say in their sleep that proves there is rebellion in their minds. Life is a gray, empty round of hate and fear and hopelessness, even among the proles who are not subject to the dictates of the Party because they are not allowed to be party members. The proles are serfs, slaves and belong to Big Brother as surely as do the party members.

Orwell creates Winston Smith's world with simple, straightforward language, evoking a cold world full of people looking over their shoulders and clutching their small rebellions in secret. Paranoia and disgust oozes from the pages and stays with the reader long after the book is closed. Even the passages of the Book that explains the workings of The party and how Oceania, though a bit pedantic, ring with truth.

While our world, this modern world, seems less gray and freer, Orwell got it right. His newspeak is our politically correct and his Big Brother is our out of control Congress and President. We don't have thought police per se, but we have a media controlled by the government that spouts the party line and an entire country of people watching and listening to pounce on the slightest misspoken word they gladly throw back in our faces for public condemnation of the miscreant. Although what we see isn't exactly like Orwell's vision, it's close enough to be frightening, knowing that wars are made and lines redrawn to give us somewhere to focus our hate when the real damage is done by the government that is supposed to support and protect us.

George Orwell's 1984 is here and reading about it is frighteningly real.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Review: Conjure Wife by Fritz Leiber

One of these days I will have to sit down and figure out how many books I have chosen to read because of movies I've seen, and how many authors I have finally understood and enjoyed because I saw a movie made from the book first. Conjure Wife is one of the former since I didn't know that there was a book upon which the movie Burn, Witch Burn, which I first saw many moons ago, was based. 

Earlier this week when I read that Conjure Wife was indeed what the movie was based on, I had to read the book. Fritz Leiber was not one of my favorite science fiction and fantasy writers, but I am always game to take a chance. A visit to Amazon and a download later and I was in the midst of the academic world of a small college and into the mind of the professor teaching about the roots of magic and sociology of the primitive and modern minds.

Considering Conjure Wife was Fritz Leiber's debut effort, I was not disappointed. Leiber goes deep into the mind of a modern man who is determined to see the use of magic and spells as an aberration of his wife's intelligence and experience in various sociological forays into primitive societies. How could his rational wife be serious about such medieval notions and actually practice and believe that spells could effect any change in the way things were done?

Leiber erodes Norman Saylor's resistance like a relentless tide eating away at the sand beneath his conventional beliefs. From the first hint of trouble when he burns his wife's last packet of magical protection in his watch casing, Norman is forced to see the truth of his rise and favor in his academic world. Norman is assailed by a psychotic student who has failed exams and been summarily cast out of yet another university, a female student's crush and claims of sexual misconduct, and losing the department chair to a less worthy colleague.

Norman attempts to find some order among the superstitious chaos that surrounds him and seeks help from one of his friends, a mathematics professor, in quantifying the ingredients of a spell that will restore his wife's soul to her body. Conjure Wife is a wondrous concoction of superstition, science, and psychology that brings the war of the sexes into a very real and fascinating journey to the heart of what makes men and women different and the same.

One thing I realized as I read Conjure Wife is that I had seen a frothy and light-hearted version of this story before. Fritz Leiber's book has been made into three movies since it was published in 1933: Weird Woman n 1944, Burn, Witch Burn (aka Night of the Eagle) in 1960, and Witches' Brew in 1980 starring Teri Garr and Richard Benjamin, which is the light-hearted version.

Fritz Leiber mastered the war between the sexes and the way that men and women see and deal with the world in Conjure Wife. Leiber's language is brilliant and clear and his obvious wonder at the secret world of women is priceless, so much so that a fourth remake of the book is now in the works. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the book and Leiber's writing and may now have to remedy the dearth of Leiber's sword and sorcery and science fiction in my library.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Tagged and bagged

This is not how I want to wake up in the morning. I received a notice from my bank that I had made a purchase at the Bentonville, AR Walmart, a place where I do not shop, followed by a notice from Walmart that my account information had been changed. I called Walmart to discover that my old credit card, which the bank was supposed to have canceled and yet still honored, had been used by someone to buy $71.25 worth of goods. After a long conversation, an exchange of information, and resetting my account information, I discovered the thief had bought a box of Durex extra sensitive condoms and had added a TOPUP to his Virgin Mobile account, both of which have been canceled. His email address is: He won't get his Durex extra sensitive condoms nor will his Virgin Mobile phone be topped up. That is the problem with ordering online from someone else's credit card. I sent him an email to that effect. I have, however, contacted the police and have filed a complaint about identity theft. This is the third time in the past 10 years that this has happened and the thieves keep getting stupider or they would have figured out that I am not the kind of person to mess with or that their theft will go unnoticed for a month. This one was noticed within hours of it happening and his ill gotten gains have not been gained. So, whoever you are at, please be advised, you have been unmasked and will need to explain your actions (which have been thoroughly documented) to the police. Good luck and get your condoms in the truck stop restroom like all the other people on the run. Thank you and have a nice day.