The Old Shelter

Dieselpunk Roaring Twenties. Sarah Zama's Author Blog

Archive for the category “Book reviews”

The Trumpet

One morsel review: A fantasy story historically set in the Twenties, this is a smart intuition, executed with more than a few uncertainties.

51eWJOzXNSLThe Trumpet
Damian Fredericks

Genre: dieselpunk
While trying to avoid the police on the street at night, a jazzman comes across a tramp who gives him his trumpet in exchange of the jazzman’s old one. The instrument turns out to be of exceptional quality… it also has the power to make all the man’s dream come true.

The premise of this story is a classic – the deal with the devil – but the author succeeded in making it fresh and enjoyable in spite of its familiarity. Just a shame I discovered at the end… there was no ending. This is not the entire story, but just the first instalment and honestly I’d have preferred to know it up front, rather than at the end.

When Terry, jazz cornet player, stumbles into a tramp in a alley, he sure doesn’t expect the man to offer him his high quality cornet in exchange of the old cornet Terry’s father gave to him. When he tries the cornet, Terry can’t believe his good luck, because he has never heard such poor, beautiful sound. But then, the tramp seems not to believe his good luck either.
The cornet is truly sublime. With its exquisite sound, it almost seem to turn Terry into a better jazzman. But something else also happens: Strange dreams of the Theatre of Shadows start haunting Terry and every time he wakes up, he discovers reality has changed in accord to his desires.

I particularly like this catch of the changing reality in accord to Terry’s desires, especially because, after a while, it becomes apparent these might not be Terry’s own true, more deep desires, but rather the trumpet’s suggestion of a easier, more desirable reality which is materialistically more comfortable. And there’s a price attached to it and Terry knows it.

The fantasy part of the story is the one I enjoyed the most. Not only I find the idea of the changing reality crafted by the trumpet fascinating, but also the place where it may come from, the Theatre of Shadows. In his dreams, Terry finds himself in this theatre full of people but cloaked in shadows, and even if he stands of the stage, he can only see a few of the people listening to him, which is quite haunting and even creepy at times. In this theatre, Terry meets a man (the devil?) who knows a lot about him and his supposed desires and tries to allure Terry into doing what the trumpet wants. These are very atmospheric, suggestive sequences, very effective.

Can’t say the same for the historical setting, and I’ll admit I didn’t like it because I personally think it wasn’t historically very accurate.
The author seems to tap into the surface of the era, but didn’t really researched it. This comes out in the details especially, details that clearly portray today’s life and simply transport it in the Twenties, regardless of things having been sometimes very different back then. This tells of a very superficial portrayal of the era, which spoiled the story for me, because, as good as the idea is, this sloppy handling of the historical setting detracts from the story itself.
Just a shame, because the story – at lest the part I read – was quite entertaining.


The Damned and the Beautiful

One morsel review: Well-informed dissertation about life of the new youth of the Roaring Twenties. Maybe a bit too wordy, but very interesting.

51FcBARjmvLThe Damned and the Beautiful
American Youth in the 1920s

Paula S. Fass

Genre: social history
The book presents a portrayal of family life, with special regard to the education of young people in Victorian/Edwardian Eras. It presents the social and material change that allowed a loosening of habits with regard to man/woman relationship and gives a vivid image of the life of young people in 1920s America.

The book opens with a presentation of the upheaval  the new behaviour of youth stirred in the Twenties, then goes back so to relate what life was like for these youths’ parents in Victorian and Edwardian Eras. People familiar with the history of family will know these facts, but for me everything was new and very interesting. The attitude of bourgeoisie families toward children and personal aspirations in Victorian Era was enlightening, because they made sense of many characteristics of that age, especially with regard to man/women relationship. It was the idea that the fulfillment of personal aspiration was fine, the shifting of social expectation from a community welfare to a more personal fulfillment, and the advancement in contraception techniques, that allowed that explosion of egocentrism that was the Twenties. Young couple could decide now when to have children and even how many children and this resulted in a more satisfying life for the parents and a richer, freer life for the children.
This first part of the book was really very interesting and eye-opening for me.

The central part focuses on a very important age of life for the youth in the Twenties: college. In the Twenties, the number of middle-class young men and women going to college skyrocketed, which of course again impacted on personal aspiration and expectations, but also amplified the change already happening in the lives of young people.
It was in the colleges that what the author calls the ‘peer society’ was born. For the first time, young people found an early, prolonged adolescence free of family and society obligations and so they could devote all of themselves to their friends and groups of friends, who were the ones setting values, approving and sanctioning behaviours and generally choosing by themselves, never actually seeking the approval of the older generation. This attitude of finding their own way with their own means and shaped by their own values was general, but in colleges it became amplified by the share number of students gathering in the same place, away from their families’ direct control.
Although the dynamics presented are interesting, I found this central part of the book to be quite boring. The author reiterates the same concept over and over and over again without really adding anything new every time she talks about the subject matter. I really think this part could have easily been half the length and lose nothing.

The last third of the book was the more interesting for me because this is where the author covers attitudes and behaviours of the young generation of the Twenties. What they did, how they dressed, what they wanted to own, who they wanted to be around with. But also, more importantly, why they acted like that, why they dressed like that, why they talked like that, what they thought and why their values clashed with those of their parents even if there wasn’t a true breaking between the generations. It also covers how young people’s lifestyle influenced and often reshaped the lifestyle of the older generations as well in what was truly a social revolution.

So, all in all, the book was very interesting and informative. Pity it was too long in the central part and generally too long-winded in style.

A Fistful of Nothing

One morsel review: Very dark noir mystery set in dieselpunk 1950s Hollywood. Stunning visuals but a somewhat unclear plot.

511WiV471ALA Fistful of Nothing
Dan Glaser

Genre: dieselpunk

Jim is just trying to get his money back from his bookie, but things get out of his hands and a kid gets killed. Now Jim needs to find the culprit, or he won’t live with himself and his shame. But this investigation will turn his world upside down.


Imagine WWII didn’t end in the 1940s. Imagine it actually expanded, spreading all over the world and in Los Angeles turned into a continuous bombarding that made life impossible. In this desolation, the bombing itself cause cave-ins that created a whole new environment beneath the city, a maze of tunnels and undergrounds plazas and streets, buried buildings and cave-like adobes where – in the 1950s – people can actually live… or pretend they do.
These are the Hollywoodholes, a place where there is no sky and no light but just an eternal night lit by neon lights.
I’ll say it, the setting of the novel is the part I liked the best. It makes for a very noir place, with a definite dieselpunk twist, with all the mechanics involved in it, and the atmosphere is claustrophobic and ominous. I really enjoyed it.

It’s with the story that I actually had a couple issues.
The structure of the story is recognisably a mystery, but I found it too convoluted and difficult to follow. I could feel all the elements for understanding the action were there, but they were buried so effectively into the plot that they didn’t actually make it to my attention. So I ended up missing pieces of the mystery and this left me confused, even when the mystery was dissected by one of the characters in the end.

I think this is also the reason why I had some difficulties relating to the characters. Because the plot wasn’t clear to me, the characters’ reasons also evaded me in many places. But regarding characters, I really liked the relationship between Jim, the main character and Betty, the female main character. Despite a lot of sexual tension between them, it never becomes a romance, but on an emotional level, they become very close, in that complicated, somewhat twisted way noir man/woman relationships are. Their last dialogue on the phone, more honest that any they had ever had, was probably my favourite part in the novel.

But if as a mystery ‘Fistful of Nothing’ might have a couple issues, as an adventure it worked perfectly: action-packed, very fast-paced, full of unusual characters.

This is the first instalment in a planned trilogy, the Hollywoodholes Sonata. Watch out for the new releases.

Dulce at Decorum Est

One morsel review: a dieselpunk story set right on the fields of WWI, with a great atmosphere, a definitely noir mood, but maybe too distant characters.


Dulce et Decorum Est

John Paul Catton

Genre: dieselpunk
On the fields of WWI, an unexpected, mysterious and deadly enemy appears, changing everything. The soldiers call them Angels.

If you have ever read anything dieselpunk, or watched any dieselpunk film or enjoyed any diesepunk art, you’ll know: WWI setting is the classic of classics for this genre.
This story is set right on the fields of WWI, in a wasteland that resembles Hell more than any place on earth, where angels walk.

Angels. This is how soldiers call the mysterious enemy they face. Supernatural beings that changed war and the people involved in it.
There’s a strong sense of foreboding about these angels. Nobody knows what they are, where they came from, or why they are here. Everybody knows their destructive power. All the story revolves around the mystery surrounding them, which kept me reading. But, if I may be honest, I found the resolution a bit too cryptic. Well, at least for me. Which may or may not be a problem, since the ending stays in the same mood as the rest of the story. I just felt there was more I could (and should) have grasped.

The characters are also right into the tradition of noir disillusioned characters. Their sense of disempowerment invest the entire story. This is particularly true for Captain Blake, the main character, who’s a men who feels trapped and unable to save the men he’s responsible for.

I had kind of an issue with Captain Blake, though. He’s the main character, still I could never come close enough to him to really identify. I live all the story through him. I see the trenches though his eyes, I feel the foul, sticky air through his senses, I can read his every dark thoughts on what’s happening to him and his man. The narration is very vivid. And still, there is always a distance between me and Captain Blake, as it seems to be a distance between him and the story unfolding before his eyes. It’s like he’s a witness more than an actor, as if the actual story happened to someone else.
So, because of this distance of the main character from the story, I also felt detached, which in a way didnt’ allow me to become involved as deep as I could have.
Bit of a shame, because all the other elements – atmosphere, historical details, dark mood – are very vivid. It was still an enjoyable read.

This is part of a collection of stories. Each story had been available individually, but a collection is coming out now gathering all of them, Tales From Beyond Tomorrow – Volume 1
Keep an eye out for it.

The Cocktail Book

One morsel review: Anastatic reproduztion of a 1926 book, this is a collection of recipes of cocktails popular in the Twenties. Fun to own.

The Cocktail Book

A Sideboard Manual for Gentlemen

Ross Bolton

Genre: Recipes Book
This book collects 172 recipes of well known – as well as less so – cocktails, divided into categories, if a bit arbitrary (one category, for example, is “Some recent favourites”). There’s also a section for non-alcoholic drinks.

I love old books, so I love anastatic reproductions too. Granted, an anastatic copy isn’t the real thing, but it’s good enough, and they still have that feeling of old, because the copy also reproduces the mars and imperfections of the original. Anastatic copies aren’t perfect. Also on this one, the characters are sometimes blurred, sometimes even unreadable, but I think this is the charm of this kind of publication.

This book was originally published in London in 1926, and by today’s standards is a funny book. It starts off with a very unlikely story of how the word ‘cocktails’ was born, but the story is told with such amusement it’s hard to say whether the author is being serious about it. It is fun to read, that’s for sure.

The book then just lists the recipes of the cocktails. For every cocktail, a list of ingredients and very brief directions are provided. And that’s it. No comment, no advice, no pictures. It doesn’t really look like a recipes book how we know it today.
Still it is interesting because of the reference. If a cocktail is in this book, you’ll know it was around in the Twenties. And as anyone doing a research will know, sometimes finding out whether something was around at a particular time it’s the hardest part.

At the back of the book, there are some tips on how to properly handle a dinner, as far as alcohol is concerned.

So, I may have been a bit disappointed, because there is very little in here other than the recipes, and I was hoping for some more piece of information, but I still find it useful and love to own it.

Gods of Chicago

One morsel review: A fast-paced, dark adventure in a city ruled by a dark, faceless power. Claustrophobic setting, lot of action, characters with a lot of potential.



Gods of Chicago
Noir Urban Fantasy

AJ Sikes

Genre: Dieselpunk
A dark force is pulling strings in Chciago City, unleashing hungry demons, making the gansgter war harsher. Discrimination laws are put into place, automatons patrol the streets. It’s like a war at home… and reporter Mitchell Brand knows war and its insanity very well.

A diner like many others in Clark Street, a lazy morning… and then the peppering of machineguns. It will become known as the Saint Valentine’s Day massacre, a levelling of counts between Capone’s Outfit and Moran’s Northside Gang. As police converge on the warehose with their airships, little camera-robots (the crabs) hurry to the scene to snap photo evidence.
This is not Prohibition Era Chicago as you know it.

I’ll tell the truth, the setting was what I enjoyed the most. Sure, this is recognizably Prohibition Chicago, with its gang wars and its jazz and its ethnic neighbourhoods, but this is also Chicago City, a place where airships sail the sky advertising news and goods and where automatons do the hard dock work. This is also a place where ghosts may appear to you out of a rip in the air and they will look like trumps on rickety bikes.
The ghosts is actually the element I liked the most, maybe because it’s more fantasy than SF and so it’s nearer to my heart. But the city as a whole is a fantastic place, with amazing settings, like the site of the World Fair – the White City -, with her skeletons of buildings and machinery looming in the night, which appears in the last segment of the story.

The story is told from a few POV, but the main ones are Mitchell Brand’s, reporter and WWI veteran with his own ghosts to cope with, and Emma Farnsworth’s, rich socialite with a rebel heart and a love affair with a black jazzman.
When the city is taken over by a dark power seemingly come from nowhere and that maybe doesn’t even belong to that world, these two characters will try – each their own way – to save a little part of world for themselves… and in doing so they end up helping lots of people.

It is an overall enjoyable story, although I liked the mystery part centred on Brand more than I liked the adventure part centred on Emma. Brand trying to solve the mystery of the power manifesting in Chicago City and the fantasy elements connected to it kept my interest throughout, where Emma and Eddie’s unrelenting race to reach New Orleans, especially in the central part of the novel, felt a bit repetitive and at time almost meandering. I admit I would have liked the two plots to intertwine in a stronger way, because I think one could have strengthened the other.
This might have possibly made the characters’ goals clearer too, because – again especially in the central part –thing happen so fast and one on tail of the other that sometimes I lost track of the line of characters’ action. But for the rest, the sheer adventure, the curiosity to see the mystery unfold, and not least a captivating style of writing, kept me happily reading.

This is the first in a planned trilogy. The author is now working on the second instalment, set this time in New Orleans. We’ve not heard the last of Emma and Brand.

The Jazz Revolution

One morsel review: The history of very early jazz in the U.S., spanning roughly from 1890s to 1920s, alongside very interesting insight into what these music meant on a social and artistic level. Fantastic.

717pdXOIdgL._SL1500_The Jazz Revolution
Twenties America and the Meaning of Jazz

Kathy J. Ogren
Genre: Social history
A history of early jazz, the music, the people, the places. An exploration of how jazz came inot being and evolved during the early XX century. A society that was changing more dramatically and faster than ever before found into jazz – its syncopated rhythms and its free modes of expression – the language to describe itself.


I feel I don’t know enough about jazz. A large chunk of my story takes place in a speakeasy which is also a jazz club and jazz… well, it’s a form or art so peculiar and with such a strong personality. It’s a very complex world of its own and I feel it still eludes me in spite of all my efforts.

So I was very happy when I discovered this book.

This is a comprehensive look at early jazz, the people who played it, the people who enjoyed it, the places where it happened. It focuses very much on life and emotions around jazz, on how people felt and thought, which is always what I enjoy the most about social histories.
It starts off trying to trace down the birth of jazz. Trying, because in spite of several legends, nobody knows where, when and how jazz was born. It was probably not born at all, but rather it evolves from other forms of music, which the author traces as far back as Africa and slave music and dances. More certainly, jazz as we know it today took its firsts steps in New Orleans at the beginning of the XX century, probably in shady places, like brothels and honky-tonks, and was made public to the general population of the city by marching bands, which were extremely popular at the time. The author devotes many pages to depicting a very vivid portrayal of marching bands, their lives, their dynamic, the musicians they fostered and how these musicians prompt a further evolution through an ever changing form of music. This was the most interesting, most vivid part for me, where quotes from musicians and pieces of oral histories abounded. The narration was also very smooth. On occasions, it was really like being there, in that place that perspired music from every cobblestones and person.
The author then moves her narration away from New Orleans, northward, mostly to Chicago and New York, where jazz came of age. Here, she enters the speakeasies, the recording rooms, and even the theatre. The section devoted to jazz and movies was also very interesting, not only because it illustrated the modernity of jazz and what it represented for the people of the Twenties, but also because through it, she has the possibility to show the evolving of African American’s image and position in that society.

The style is very enjoyable. It seldom enters specific language (unless necessary), but rather leans on storytelling as much as possible. But there is also a more clinical, more educated analysis of practices and social behaviours. The differences in techniques and way to enjoy that music between the black and the white community was addressed in details. Where the white audience enjoyed jazz in a more ‘classic’ way, with musicians playing and audience listening, black audience tended to participate in a mutual effort bringing together musicians, listeners and dancers,  where each one influences and inspires everyone else -call and response, she calls it.
Jazz as played by black musicians, the authors asserts many times, will always been different from jazz played by white musicians. Because the roots of jazz run deep into blues, and blues emerged from a historical, social and cultural experience which is very unique to the African American community.

It was a very enjoyable, very interesting, thoroughly detailed and researched work. I enjoyed it very much.

The Hot Dry Spell

One morsel review: Fantastic setting – a speakeasy where fae and werewolves meet and fight in the underworld of Chicago – if with characters that lack just that extra spank to really shine.


The Hot Dry Spell

A short urban fantasy noir

Rae Lori
Genre: dieselpunk
A dieselpunk short story set in Chicago in the Twenties. Fae and werewolves battle each other for the domination of the land and their own survival.

I was so excited about this idea: a Prohibition Era speakeasy peopled by Fae in a city – Chicago – where supernatural being secretly wedge war to each other. A city where historical rivalry between gangs intermingles with a mythical war between supernatural creatures – Fae and Werewolves. The idea really caught my imagination.

So I’m very sorry that the actual story didn’t engage me as much as it could have.

To me, it was quite clear the world fascinated the author – and there’s nothing wrong with this. She took a very long time building it, getting into much details about what the Fae do, what the Werewolves do, what is the connection between them and how the feud works. Why they are fighting each other, how they relate to mortals, ingluding gangsters. She even went as far as to designed a rough map of Fae kingdoms in America. It was a very big work for a short story, and this may be why I expected more out of it.

The story actually turned out to be very simple and linear. We get to know the characters, we get to understand the mechanics of this world, there is a fight. End. The plot is very basic and to be honest, I’m not even sure I would call this a plot, since there is hardly any complication. To me, it sounded more the intro to a story, than a story in its own right. We get the situation coming from the worldbuilding but then we don’t really get a complication. We get action, yes, but it’s something illustrating that situation, not something that touches the characters. The characters just seem to follow the events, not to create them and this created a kind of disconnected between them and me that didn’t allow me to fully enjoy the story.

Really a pity, because there is a lot which was interesting, here: the mix of myth and history, at least one very nice scene idea (Rose seeing what’s happening to Gary while she dances), and interesting fantasy conflict.
But the good news is that I hear from the author she is indeed very much involved in this world and she is working to more stories set in it. I expect something interesting coming our way.

Anxious Decades


One morsel review: A comprehensive introduction to the 1920s and 1930s in the U.S. covering all aspects of life, if just shortly. Essential to get a first taste for these two era of transformation in American history.


Anxious Decades
America in prosperity and Depression, 1920-1941

Michael E. Perrish

Genre: social history
A presentation of America in the Interwar years. Two very different but equally important decades in the history of the country are presented in a very essential form. Only basic information are given, but they ultimately creat a big picture of en entire era.

I remember the night I picked up this book. The idea for my story (it wasn’t Ghost Trilogy at the time, but the story that came first) had started to take form in my head. I had characters and situations, I had pinned down a few plotpoints. I knew it was time to start researching the setting, though at that time I still thought I’d set the story in the Thirties. I combed the Italian catalogues and came up with four or five titles about Prohibition America (really, there seems to be nothing in my language about this matter) and I picked up this first of all because it sounded the more introductory.

So I sat on my bed with this fat book in my lap and staring down at its cover, I asked myself, “You sure you want to do this?”I remember the night I picked up this book. The idea for my story (it wasn’t Ghost Trilogy at the time, but the story that came first) had started to take form in my head. I had characters and situations, I had pinned down a few plotpoints. I knew it was time to start researching the setting, though at that time I still thought I’d set the story in the Thirties. I combed the Italian catalogues and came up with four or five titles about Prohibition America (really, there seems to be nothing in my language about this matter) and I picked up this first of all because it sounded the more introductory.
“Well… yeah…” I answered.
“You’re aware you don’t know anything about Prohibition America, now are you?”
“Sure. But everybody who knows started somewhere.”
Well, I can’t say this was a good choice, because it wasn’t a choice at all, since this was the only book on the matter I could find, so I suppose it was my good luck that this is a very good book. An excellent introduction to American society and history in the Interwar years.

Even if at the time I was more interested in the Thirties, I liked the first half of the book, concerning the Twenties, quite a bit better. There seem to be a lot going on in the Twenties. The world was changing, and life was changing, and people were changing. Life how we know it today took its first steps in the Twenties. Electric light, house plumbing, telephones, cars, all became commonplace – at lest for the middle class – in this decade. The movies were a popular pastime, the first music recordings came out, holidays became more and more common. Advertising transformed the way people thought to themselves and the way they wanted to live.
There was an important break – many older people thought ‘a shocking break’ – in personal behaviours from the past. Young people started dating each other in an informal way, they started to show their body, relationships between men and women became more relaxed and companiable. Going out with friends to dance and drink (in spite of Prohibition) and coming home in the early hours of the day after became ever more common.

A lot of segments of society gain more freedom and recognition. Women won the right to vote in 1920, but that was just the first step toward a more fulfilling life where work and personal ambitions had a place beside motherhood. Many African American communities burst with life and energy and demanded – and sometimes gained – more recognition. Many immigrant communities found their strength and cohesion, gaining weight in political and economical life.
This new society, which could offer so many new opportunities, allowed many individuals find their way and became famous, rich and successful for a whole range of reasons. Their lives and achievements are briefly presented here.
Each topic is briefly covered, but the coverage is comprehensive. The book touches upon political and economical matters (Prohibition, the resurgence of the KKK, the many race riots, the Stock Market Crush), events that captured people’s attention, particularly the trials (the Scopes, the Sweet, the Sacco and Vanzetti) as well as social changes (the car, new home appliances, advertising and the new consumerism). There’s a brief introduction to everything, that’s why it’s so good for a first taste of the era.

If the first half of the book is a collection of little pictures that ultimately create a bigger picture of the Roaring Twenties, the second half is all focused on one central protagonist: the Great Depression.
How it all started and what happened to people. The crashing stock market, the folding shops and activities, the dying out of the glittering life. The bread cues, the broken families. The book depicts a very vivid image of that era and it’s kind of shocking after the lively, exciting things happened in the Twenties.
Over everything, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s gigantic personality and his vision, his New Deal.

Where the first part of the book focuses on people’s life and the social change involving them, the second part focuses more on political and economic matters, the Great Depression, the New Deal and the way they affected people’s life and the way people reacted to them. The first one hundred days of Roosevelt’s mandate is looked at in details as well as many of the agencies created by the New Deal. A special attention is given to the WPA (Works Progress Administration) project, that created work for hundreds of thousands of people and updated services for many communities.

So it is as if the book had two souls, but it presents what in fact were two very different decades in American history. And does an excellent job of it.

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