Self-awareness is difficult. To be honest with yourself you have to be willing to see yourself in an unflattering light and have the clarity to self-diagnose. This combination is rare. Even those who possess both of these qualities don’t possess them all the time. Philosophical, religious, and creativity clarity are frequently portrayed as intermittent. Self-awareness is similar. In this story, the main characters experience old-school, ritualistic magic. They wonder if the things they see are real physical manifestations or hypnotic images beamed into their minds. Many times they are a combination of both. Reality and illusion are so intertwined that they cannot tell which is which. I’ve never trusted my senses or memory implicitly. If the body of evidence in the present moment contradicts the past, I assume the present is real and act accordingly. Long story short, I would have died in this book. Sometimes you should trust yourself.
In this sequel to Plague Ship, the Solar Queen is about to start a mail route between planets on the edge of human exploration. While retooling the ship for mail transport, a Chief Ranger from Kafka, a planet known for its big game hunting, consults the occupants of the Solar Queen. Kort Asaki, the Chief Ranger, recruits three members of the Solar Queen’s crew to help him with a problem on Kafka. Asaki is particularly interested in Medic Tau who investigates ritualistic magic as a hobby and is deeply knowledgable on the subject. Kafka has a long history of ritualistic magic but it is not frequently dangerous. Recently, a magic-man has been swaying many of Asaki’s people and he wants to know if this impressive mans powers are real. Be prepared for some bushwhacking as the trio of Dan Thurson, Captain Jellico, and Medic Tau investigate the Voodoo Planet.
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As an avid reader, I like to read from different perspectives. This doesn’t mean I enjoy contorting myself in weird ways physically while reading. I just enjoy seeing how different people think about the world. This means I seek out authors of different backgrounds. As someone who reads almost entirely out-of-copyright books, this is a challenge. Minority authors are scarce and concentrated in a few select genres. While there are many strong female authors who specialized in writing dramas, adventures, detective novels and murder mysteries, the number of female authors writing science fiction used to be incredibly tiny. For some weird reason, sci-fi wasn’t a genre that women broke into until fairly recently. I am happy to say that this great book is written by the award winning sci-fi author Alice Mary Norton who wrote under many different pseudonyms over her long career. This is one of her earlier stories and we are lucky that it has fallen into the public domain. I read the entire book assuming it was penned by a man because of the pseudonym. I am pleasantly surprised to be wrong.
Dale Thurson is going with his senior Van Rycke to negotiate with the Salariki, an intelligent alien race native to Sargol who are descended from felines. The planet of Sargol has these precious Koros stones which are all the rage around the galaxy. They fetch big prices so the crew of the Solar Queen wants to trade for them. They are making slow progress however. What do the Salariki want in trade? They seem disinterested in many of the good brought by the freetraders to Sargol. Eventually the crew finds out that the Salariki prize fragrant herbs that aren’t native to Sargol. They trade the minuscule amount of herbs that they have and head back to Terra. The journey to Terra will be more exciting than usual; their ship has been labelled a Plague Ship.
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The life of an orphaned teenager is incredibly difficult. I cannot pretend to understand its difficulties having never lived through it. In this book, the main detective, Mr. Crewe has an assistant sleuth on his payroll, an orphaned teenager named Joe Leaver. Joe is the sort of kid who lives half in fiction and half in reality. That last sentence could describe any number of kids who lapse into exciting fiction when they are bored or otherwise unoccupied. That is not the case with Joe who works half the time as Crewe’s assistant and the other half watches movies and dreams of acting. Crewe has found that Joe has a talent for sleuthing. Joe can tail people along the street, watch suspicious characters, and notice important clues that might escape the eyes of his rich benefactor. In my mind, he is the most fascinating character in the whole mystery. The ability to continue the daily grind in the absence of any familial relations would be difficult to say the least. He seems relatively unaffected, smart and put together. I hope I have those qualities when times get tough.
A judge, Sir Horace Fewbanks, is found murdered in his empty mansion. The judge had been out of town and was not expected back for some weeks. His family and friends had not been informed why he came back to London from his country estate. The police are called in but appear useless so the daughter of the murdered man calls in Mr. Crewe, a private detective known for solving tough cases. The biggest suspects are the butler, and two of the judge’s close friends, Mr. and Mrs. Holymead. Yet, none of these three suspicious characters seem callous enough to commit murder and none of them have any motive. The chase is on to solve The Hampstead Mystery.
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This story brings up important questions of female independence in the 1920’s. Of course, a female author extraordinaire like Carolyn Wells would like to voice her opinion on the matter. Eunice Embury is upset at her husband because he won’t give her any pocket money. She is not altogether without purchasing power. Instead, her husband allows her to buy anything and everything on credit. For some strange reason, he won’t give her any cash. She fumes at this restriction which is the only major gripe in their marriage because she knows that there are a million small social uses for cash. The ability to tip servants, send for a cab, donate to a cause, buy small trinkets or clothing at a friend’s house, or buy a newspaper on the street all hinge on having money ready and at hand. She sees his refusal as a refusal of her independence which she holds dear. Nowadays it may seem funny for people to quarrel about money like this. Time reveals changing attitudes; it is useful to look back to see the difference.
Another genuine locked room mystery is at hand. Mr. Embury has been murdered, poisoned through his ear like in that Shakespeare classic. But the murder occurred behind a solidly locked door on the tenth floor of an apartment complex without a balcony. Only three people slept behind the locked doors: Eunice Embury, Aunt Abby, and the murdered man. Eunice Embury had a large fight with her husband over the usual disagreeable topic, pocket money. But she doesn’t necessarily seem like the murdering type and as Fleming Stone acknowledges many marriages are unhappy but relatively few lead to murder. He dismisses the possibility of Eunice being a suspect. Aunt Abby is harmless and even though the dropper full of poison was found near her bed she likely wasn’t involved at all. The vital clue to this mystery might just be red, tasty Raspberry Jam.
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Money can have a corrupting influence. The news is littered with stories showing worst sides of greed and jealousy. People spend many hours trying to take money from their friends and neighbors without providing an equivalent service or product. I am reminded of an idea put forth by the late great showman P. T. Barnum. He said that the hardest thing to do in life is to make money dishonestly. Our jails are filled with people who tried and failed to steal and fraud their way to wealth. It is always hard to conceal the motive no matter how beautifully the crime is carried out. The first suspect whenever a rich person dies is the relative that inherits the fortune. Cynthia Wakeham is not killed in this book but there is a scramble for her fortune after she passes. Does greed change people or expose the scoundrel inside each us?
Frank Etheridge, a young lawyer from New York City, is called to a nearby country town to write up an elderly lady’s will. Arriving late at a rundown old house, he becomes worried that this will be a fools errand. Knocking at the front door he is let in by a shifty old man and Etheridge’s worry reaches another level. Hiram Huckins leads him up a rickety staircase past ratty rooms with paint peeling from the walls to the sick bed of Cynthia Wakeham, his sister. Etheridge slowly dictates a will for Ms. Wakeham who is so sick she can no longer speak. Upon completing the will, gathering two witnesses, and Ms. Wakeham finally signing it, Huckins snatches the will gleefully from Etheridge with the ink still wet and runs downstairs. Etheridge is concerned until he hears a weak voice at his ear. Ms. Wakeham desires another will drawn up quickly leaving her property and fortune to her estranged sister instead of her lousy brother, Huckins. When Ms. Wakeham dies moments after the second will is completed, Etheridge is sent to search for the estranged sister and her children. Open the clock and dig up the floorboards in the search for Cynthia Wakeham’s Money.
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Feeling alone in the world can be a depression spiral. Being with one of three surviving family members while sick with an illness that leaves you bedridden would be difficult for anyone. It is even harder if you are young and away from the home of your childhood with an Aunt who is a stickler for rules and really no fun to be around. When we are young time seems to slip more quickly through our hands. The young feel more strongly that they are missing out and work themselves into a fever with worry. Being ill must be more difficult for the young nowadays; they feel as though they are missing out on experiences that their friends tell them about, that they read in books, and that they see on social media. As we age we learn that time always plods along at the same pace; you can neither speed it up nor slow it down. The elderly at least have memories of full vibrant mischievous youth with which to comfort themselves. Don’t worry! Pixie isn’t sick. It’s a new friend, Sylvia.
Four years later the entire O’Shaugnessy family is tucked away in a small house, though still slightly beyond their means, in the London suburbs. The entire family lives here except for Esmeralda who is back at Knock Castle with her new husband still enjoying his riches. She finds many amusing and extravagant uses for the overflowing money. Pixie is still in France practicing the language and learning the customs from that dear French teacher she met in school. But the rest of the family is tucked into this small London suburb. Across the street, they meet Sylvia, a crippled girl of 21 years, who is still recovering from illness. Soon after their first meeting, Bridgie starts to treat Sylvia as part of the family and her companionship takes away the pitiful loneliness from that young sick woman’s life. Bridgie entertains Sylvia by telling many hilarious family stories. Now Sylvia wants to know More About Pixie.
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Even though I’m American I’m not a big fan of guns. My reasoning is simple: I don’t like loud noises and I have no use for guns in my daily life. Other people can use them but I avoid them. By this reasoning I would not feel at home on the Lone Star Planet. The people and government of New Texas are caricatures of Texas around the time of the Civil War. It bears little or no resemblance to the modern powerhouse that Texas is in the 21st century. Texas has a similar GDP to Canada and is successful in a diverse set of industries beyond oil for which it is famous. I think that modern Texas would be a much better foundation for a country than the caricature presented in this book but that’s not the point. Instead, it presents a thought experiment about the furthest possible outcome.
Stephen Silk, a politician from the Solar Embassy, is sent as punishment for insubordination to the planet of New Texas. When warp drive became cheap enough, the citizens of Texas jetted off to find a planet where they could really be free from government oversight and live how they wanted to live. This is a headache for the Solar Embassy which has business relations with and interest in New Texas but no political capital. On the flight to New Texas Ambassador Silk learns that the first solar ambassador bought land on New Texas and became a businessman, the second solar ambassador went crazy, the third solar ambassador killed himself, and the fourth solar ambassador was murdered a month ago. After reading about his predecessors, Mr. Silk is not looking forward to his new position on New Texas. Keep your gun in hand while working on the Lone Star Planet.
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