‘Woman with a Blue Pencil’ – Characters in a mystery novel that is being rewritten find themselves in conflict in a world that keeps changing – #bookreview

 

 

 

Woman with a Blue Pencil

Gordon McAlpine

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

 

What if the characters in a mystery novel are alive in some other universe, and their world keeps changing, because their book, unknown to them, is being edited and rewritten?

And what if one of those characters is trying to solve a murder, but almost everything he knows or remembers, in his version of 1941 Los Angeles, keeps changing or vanishing? What if the people to whom he has been close suddenly cease to exist or no longer know who he is?

Woman with a Blue Pencil is well-written and cleverly structured. It can make you laugh with pleasure when you realize how the story will unfold along two tracks. And you can get engrossed in the actions and motivations of both main characters as their separate tracks begin to merge, and they come into conflict.

This is an intelligent murder mystery with a heart, a message and a poignant, surprise ending. It is set just before and after the Pearl Harbor attack and its aftermath, including the now roundly condemned, racism-driven mass roundup and internment of Japanese-American citizens living on the U.S. West Coast.

Behind the two tracks of story in this tale is an ambitious young Nisei (first-generation Japanese-American) writer who has been trying to get his first novel published. Now, suddenly, he has been relocated to one of the internment camps. And the woman with the blue pencil is his book editor in New York. She keeps trying to help him come up with a new plot that replaces his now-unsalable Japanese protagonist with a Korean-American one, plus create a strong, Western-sounding pseudonym that the author can hide behind once his book goes to market in World War II America.

One word sums up this novel-within-novel: Brilliant.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

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The Last Camel Charge – An intriguing look at America’s pre-Civil War desert military experiment – #bookreview

The Last Camel Charge: The Untold Story of America’s Desert Military Experiment
Forrest Bryant Johnson
(Berkley Caliber, hardbackKindle)

The U.S. Army employed camels as transportation and pack animals in the American West during the mid-19th century and tried to create “a U.S. camel cavalry, a true camel corps,” the author of this fascinating history work notes.

Initially headquartered near San Antonio, Texas, the fledgling camel corps soon became involved in expeditions of discovery, as well as fighting in several areas.

The notable actions included a victorious camel charge against Mojave Indians in the Arizona Territory and helping naval lieutenant Edward Beale’s successfully create a wagon trail from Texas to California.

The Civil War ended the camel corps experiment, the author shows. But Union and Confederate forces both used camels during the conflict, and the last U.S. Army camel died in captivity in 1934.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that a few wild camels, distant offspring of the Camel Corps, are still alive and roaming the most desolate and isolated areas of the American Southwest. Indeed, the author notes, several wild camels were photographed near a West Texas railroad track in 2003.

Si Dunn

Revolution in the Valley: How the Mac Was Made (2nd Revised Edition) – #bookreview #macintosh

Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made
By Andy Hertzfeld
(O’Reilly Media, list price $24.99, paperback)

My wife swears by her Mac. I, however, just swear at it when I am forced to use it.

I have been using anything-but-Apple computers since the early 1980s, starting with a Sinclair ZX80 and moving up through a ragged assortment of Trash-80s, Osbornes,  Kaypros, PC-XTs, PC-ATs, and PCs that run Windows 7.

During a short semi-career in specialized hardware and software development, I tested programs that ran exclusively on machines running Windows. So I have that bias.

Nonetheless, Andy Hertzfeld’s book, Revolution in the Valley: The Insanely Great Story of How the Mac Was Made, is fascinating and entertaining reading, even for those of us who have avoided Apple computers and sometimes still bristle at the smug, superior attitudes exhibited by many Macintosh users. (Don’t tell my wife I said that.)

Hertzfeld was one of the main authors of the Macintosh system software, including the User Interface Toolbox and many of the Mac’s original desk accessories. He later joined Google and is one of the primary creators of Google +.

Originally published in 2004, Revolution in the Valley recently has been brought back into print again by O’Reilly Media as a second revised edition.

The book is drawn mainly from Hertzfeld’s adventures, misadventures, reflections and perspectives. But it is not All Hertzfeld All the Time. Refreshingly, it also includes stories written by “other key original Mac team members”—Steve Capps, Donn Denman, Bruce Horn and Susan Kare.

Their stories recount the chaotically creative and frequently high-pressured race to design and deliver “an easy-to-use, low-cost, consumer-oriented computer…featuring a revolutionary graphical user interface (GUI).”

Hertzfeld and his co-contributors focus on “the development of the original Macintosh computer, from its inception in the summer of 1979, through its triumphant introduction in January 1984, until May 31, 1985, when Steve Jobs was forced off the Macintosh team.

Revolution in the Valley is divided into five parts and follows a somewhat chronological path. However, it makes frequent and refreshing use of short anecdotes that are easy and enjoyable to read, no matter what your computer bias might be. It also has a nice assortment of photographs, drawings, screenshots and other illustrations from the development period.

Speaking (again) of smug attitudes, one amusing incident in the book involves the Macintosh team’s April 1981 encounter at a computer show with Adam Osborne, creator of the Osborne 1, “a low-cost, one-piece, portable computer complete with a suite of bundled applications.”

According to Hertzfeld: “As Macintosh elitists, we were suitably grossed out by the character-based CP/M applications, which seemed especially clumsy on the tiny, scrolling screen.” When Osborne realized he was talking to the Macintosh development team, he told them his Osborne 1 would outsell the Apple II “by a factor of 10” and added that they should “tell Steve Jobs that the Osborne 1 is going to outsell the Apple II and the Macintosh combined!”

When Steve Jobs heard what Adam Osborne had said, he called the founder of the Osborne Computer Company and left two messages. The first message was simple and basic, that Osborne was “an asshole.” Jobs’ second message was: “Tell him the Macintosh is so good that he’s probably going to buy a few for his children even though it put his company out of business.”

And the rest, of course, is computer history.

Revolution in the Valley has drawn strong praise from Steve Wozniak, who co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs in 1976.

“It’s chilling to recall how this cast of young and inexperienced people who cared more than anything about doing great things created what is perhaps the key technology of our lives,” he notes in the book’s foreword. “ Their own words and images take me back to those rare days when the rules of innovation were guided by internal rewards, and not by money.”

Si Dunn

The Silver Lotus – fine historical fiction by Thomas Steinbeck – #bookreview

The Silver Lotus
By Thomas Steinbeck
(Counterpoint, hardback, list price $25.00; Kindle, $9.99)

Written in the style and language of a 19th-century novel, The Silver Lotus is a grand, sweeping, absorbing tale of Pacific seafaring, romance, family, and business and cultural interactions that ultimately help spur the growth and development of the Northern California coast.

This elegant work of historical fiction has surprisingly little dialogue. Its author, Thomas Steinbeck, son of the great novelist John Steinbeck, relies, instead, on heavy doses of exposition. Yet The Silver Lotus remains an engrossing, well-written story throughout. And it is a refreshing change from books full of fast and furious action and characters who engage in taut exchanges of clever words, while revealing little about their feelings, emotions or sense of place.

Thomas Steinbeck’s novel begins in Canton, China, the late 1890s, in the home of Master Chu-Woo Yee, a man of “high moral principles.” He also is a successful grain merchant with profitable experience in “a great many [other] varieties of exported and imported goods.”

Master Yee allows very few foreigners into his home. But one of them fascinates and intrigues him: Captain Jeremiah Macy Hammond, “one of the last of a long line of the great Nantucket seamen.”

Steamships now have begun to dominate cross-ocean trade. Yet Captain Hammond continues to transport his cargoes under sail, for a very practical reason: profit. He has amassed a small fleet of schooners that can carry large cargoes while sailing inexpensively with only a few crewmen.

When political turmoil suddenly erupts in China, Captain Hammond uses two of his ships to help to move Master Yee, his family, and the Yee fortune to safety in Singapore. Soon, Captain Hammond and Master Yee’s beloved daughter, Silver Lotus, are in love, and Master Yee is in no position to refuse their marriage.

Lady Yee, as Silver Lotus is known, is a remarkable woman with many talents and interests, as well as uncommon beauty. Before their marriage, she informs Captain Hammond that if he chooses to go back to sea, she will “sail with him, and make her life and home by his side.”

In her honor, Captain Hammond repaints his newest ship his wife’s favorite colors, emerald green with yellow trim outlined in black, and rechristens it “The Silver Lotus.” And Lady Yee proves very adept at living at sea beside her husband. She takes “total interest in everything to do with her namesake, her crew, and her cargo.”

Despite its calm narrative and languid pace, Steinbeck’s book has plenty of action and tensions. There are encounters with pirates, sea storms, illnesses, racism, drug abuse, great wealth, and death. There also are dangerous rescues and glimpses into the intricacies and risks of seafaring commerce, as well as clashes over medical and immigration practices in early 20th-century California.

At one level, The Silver Lotus is simply old-fashioned, entertaining historical fiction, enjoyable to read. On another level, however, Thomas Steinbeck’s second novel is a modern, intelligent reflection on how the melding of cultures, talents, dreams and resources has been a driving force behind the growth and prosperity of Northern California, as well as the rest of the United States.

Si Dunn