Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Book Review - Burton and Swinburne in the Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack by Mark Hodder



Burton and Swinburne in the Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack

Mark Hodder

Pyr (2010)

Trade Paperback

373 pages

ISBN 1616142405 / 9781616142407

While not a true aficionado of steam-punk I can say that I’ve read a fair share of this genre lately and have yet to be disappointed. George Mann’s The Affinity Bridge (see review September 05, 2009), Drood by Dan Simmons (see review March 30, 2010), The Wind-up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, Perdido Street Station by China Meiville, and almost anything by Cherie Priest lead the pack in pure unadulterated Victorian Era steam-punk fun. Burton and Swinburne in the Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack continues that tradition. Let it be known that I have scoured the four corners of the Internet looking for information and reviews concerning this book and the legend that spawned it. I have yet to find a single bad review of this book. Nor will you find one here.

Spring-Heeled Jack does not really set any new precedents but the concept of engaging real historical figures together to solve a series of crimes committed by a mythological creature/criminal is brilliant. The title character, trapped by his own folly, is a wonderfully written individual but a miserable human being. Complex but tortured we find that Spring Heeled Jack is simply a lost man searching for a way back home. In the end, you may be surprised to find yourself feeling sorry for him. Of course, Hodder’s work has that little extra punch that I, as a book reviewer, am always looking for. First, this is his debut novel (and I wish you a long and prosperous career, Mr. Hodder), secondly, the plot twists and turns through time in short vignettes that are creatively layered over the main story and then coalesces together to complete a tightly woven story that completes itself perfectly in a beautifully created epic, yet tragic, finale.

Hodder’s prose will lift you up and drop you down in the midst (and mists) of Victorian Era London. You’ll hear the clickety-clack of the steam driven coaches on the cobbled streets and the zzzzzz of overhead gondolas as they whizz by on compressed air. DNA altered animals will appear as second nature and the unlikely pairing of Sir Richard Burton, the adventurer, and Algernon Swinburne, the poet, will emerge to solve a number of crimes. From time travel, and automatons, Rakes, aero-copters, sword fights, Libertines, to genetic engineering on a bizarre scope, the underbelly of London, and characters whose brains have been removed Spring Heeled Jack never once failed to entertain.

4 out of 5 stars

+ add ½ star for being a debut novel

StarStarStarStar 1/2

Additional Reading:


Burton & Swinburne

1. The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack (2010)

2. The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man (2011)


Pyr’s webpage for Spring Heeled Jack

Literary Landscape’s Review

Well-written Review at “Mell’s Words on Words” blog

Mark Hodder on Sir Richard Francis Burton

Mark Hodder’s Sexton Blake tribute site

Pyr’s Blog site

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Classic Book Review – Gateway by Frederik Pohl



Frederik Pohl


Del Rey Books

278 pages

1977 Nebula Award Winner, 1978 Hugo, Locus and John W. Campbell Award Winner

What exactly is Gateway you ask? For those Science Fiction fans unfamiliar with this novel I will say this, “You will definitely want to read this masterpiece.” It is a classic SF work that even after a number of re-reads never fails to entertain me. Number 32 on the Top 100 SF Book list it has won the Nebula, Hugo, Locus and John W. Campbell Awards, the only book I’m aware of to do so. Now for those of you who have read Gateway I’d like to say a few words. Something about this book has always stood out for me but I’ve always had trouble defining and articulating what it was. Now that I’m a bit older I understand it better and hopefully will be able to help you do the same. Gateway is filled with nothing less than “The Pioneer Spirit” that helped to make the United States the country it is today. Let me explain. In 1845, my great-great-great-great grandfather moved, via wagon train, from New York to Wisconsin settling in the newly opened territory of Dodge County. When they left New York they knew they were leaving everything behind for good. Family, friends, homes, jobs, everything they knew was replaced by hard work and a completely new environment. So begins Gateway. Spacers head out in newly discovered alien spacecraft in search of riches and a better way of life. (Sound familiar?) Change the spacers to farmers and the exploration of space to unknown territory and you have what our ancestors faced when they began their treks west.

Obviously, I was not thinking about historical aspects or pioneers when originally reading Gateway, nor have I on additional readings. On the contrary, I am always totally immersed in the Science Fiction (the alien culture, the unknown destinations, spaceships, etc) of the book throughout my entire reading. It wasn’t until much later that I saw the correlation between the pioneers of America and the characters in this story. Be that as it may, I don’t think a better novel of the human condition has ever been written using SF as a backdrop. The frailty of the human psyche and the complexities of the heart are so well-written that you’ll feel sympathy for the main character knowing full well what a schmuck he truly is. And, the technology Pohl covers holds up – information concerning black holes, holographs, A.I. psychology software, and the characteristics of relativity described in the narrative continue to stand up under scrutinization.

Pohl’s Gateway, Joe Haldeman’s Mind Bridge, and Jack Chalker’s Midnight at the Well of Souls remain, to this day, my favorite novels from the year I graduated high school. What do they have in common? They all explore space and while doing so examine the human condition. All are worthy of five star ratings and all should be in your library.

Gateway has all the elements of great Science Fiction - fear of the unknown, underlining terror of an alien race (Xenophobia), some of the coolest settings in all of literature, alien heirlooms and collectibles, robotic A.I. psychotherapy, technically advanced civilizations, the exploration of far-off star systems, brain downloading, vaguely understood alien spacecraft, unknown destinations, and one of the best writers of our time pulling it all together into a tightly bound plot. Find it, devour it, and love it. You’ll revisit it again and again in the ensuing years ahead. Alternative guaranteed.

Heechee Series

1. Gateway (1976) -- Nebula winner, 1977; Hugo, Campbell and Locus SF winner, 1978

2. Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (1980) - Nebula and British SF Awards nominee, 1980; Hugo and Locus Awards nominee, 1981

3. Heechee Rendezvous (1984) -- Locus SF Award nominee, 1985

4. Annals of the Heechee (1987)

5. The Gateway Trip: Tales and Vignettes of the Heechee (1990)

6. The Boy Who Would Live Forever: A Novel of Gateway (2004) -- Campbell Award nominee, 2005

5 out of 5 stars

Additional reading:

Gateway Article Interesting article (read the entire essay for full disclosure) 

Gateway Game Download (Note: Does not work with Windows 7 OS)

Frederik Pohl’s Blog

Author’s website

Frederik Pohl's Wikipedia Entry

Internet Science Fiction DataBase Bibliography

In-depth and Insightful interview With Pohl

Pohl on Writing the Gateway Story

The Alternative

Southeast Wisconsin