Book Review: Rain of the Ghosts

Book Review: Rain of the Ghosts by Greg Weisman

Rain Cacique may have just hit puberty, but her future is already locked into place.  Rain is going to stay here in the Ghost Keys near Florida, the Prospero Keys to outsiders, and serve the tourist industry in some way.  Just like her parents and grandparents before her.  She’s never going to see the outside world, to be a tourist herself, or have her own career.  True, her grandfather did once leave the islands during the war, but that was long ago, and he doesn’t talk about it.  She herself will never escape.

Rain of the Ghosts

Or at least that’s what Rain assumes.   When her grandfather dies, he leaves her an armband of two golden snakes intertwined, and strange things start to happen.  With the aid of her best friend Charlie, new girl Miranda, and the mysterious Dark Man, Rain will have to face ghosts both literal and metaphorical to unlock the secrets of the Ghost Keys.

Greg Weisman is best known for his work on the popular animated show Gargoyles, including some writing credits.  Rain was repurposed from a television project that fell through into a series of young adult novels.  (Two are out, with a third planned.)

Good stuff:  There’s a neat twist on the semi-omniscient narrator, and trying to figure out just what’s going on there is part of the fun.   Also, I like the multiple layers of meaning in the title.

The writing does a good job of establishing Rain’s character and initial dilemma, as well as the special subculture of island kids she belongs to.  There are plenty of exciting bits once we move past the long setup phase.

The Dark Man is a fun character, despite being scary at first.  And the resolution to the Dark Man’s secret is very satisfying.

Less good:  Charlie’s unrequited and unnoticed crush on Rain feels cliche, and perhaps unnecessary.  Miranda, the girl who’s been so long away that the others mistake her for a tourist, is woefully underused.

The roots of this as a television series are painfully obvious in a scene towards the end which sets up a formula for each subsequent volume.  (I think this will be less of an issue for actual young adults.)

Recommended for junior high readers on up.

 

Comic Book Review: Essential Hulk Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Hulk Vol. 1 Created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Mild-mannered nuclear scientist Bruce Banner worked in America’s weapons program, and developed their latest improvement on the atomic bomb, the gamma bomb.  As it was about to be tested, Dr. Banner spotted a teenager named Rick Jones, who’d wandered into the blast zone on a dare.  Banner saved Rick from the bomb, but was directly exposed to a massive dose of gamma rays.  That evening, as the sun set, Dr. Banner transformed into the rampaging monster soon to be known as–the Hulk!

Essential Hulk Vol. 1

Created in 1962 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, old Jade-Jaws had a short run in The Incredible Hulk, only lasting six issues.  Sales were not good, but the character was too awesome not to use, so he was in the first few issues of The Avengers, and was later brought back for solo stories in Tales to Astonish, first sharing that book with Giant-Man and then with Namor the Sub-Mariner.  This omnibus volume collects the Hulk issues, and TtA #59-91.

In the first issue, we are introduced to Bruce Banner, a mild-mannered scientist who abhors physical violence, yet has no ethical qualms with creating enormously destructive weapons for the American military.  (Communism was an existential threat to all that was good and American.)   He’s developed the most powerful nuclear weapon yet, the gamma bomb, and it’s about to be tested at an Army base somewhere in the American Southwest.

He clashes with the military officer in charge of the base and weapons testing program, General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross.  General Ross is a blustering bully who despises Dr. Banner for being a physical weakling, but is covetous of the neat weapons the scientist has produced.  He drags along his daughter Betty, who naturally has the hots for Bruce and vice versa.  In this first installment, Betty is very much the damsel in distress type, whose positive qualities are beauty and compassion.

And then there’s Dr. Banner’s colleague Igor.  Igor is worried that some important details of the gamma bomb’s construction have never been shared with the rest of the research team.  If anything were to…happen…to Bruce, how would they carry on?  Dr. Banner assures Igor that the plans are safely tucked away in his quarters.

As everyone hunkers down for the bomb test, Dr. Banner suddenly sees a young man in a jalopy who has somehow gotten past the security perimeter and into the blast zone.  Bruce tells Igor to stop the countdown while he removes the teenager personally, not trusting the military police not to just shoot the kid.   Igor decides not to stop the countdown in the hope that Dr. Banner will die.

Bruce manages to reach the boy, Rick Jones, in time to throw the lad into a protective trench, but is himself directly in the path of a massive dose of gamma rays.   He’s surprised to wake up a few hours later, not only not dead, but not dying or even sick from radiation poisoning.  Rick, an orphan, expresses his gratitude to the scientist.  But all is not ending happily, as the sun sets and Dr. Bruce Banner transforms into a monster.

The monster rampages across Gamma Base, and is swiftly nicknamed “the Hulk” by the hapless soldiers it encounters.  Rick Jones attempts to reason with the Hulk, or at least mitigate the damage it’s causing.  General Ross develops a personal enmity towards the Hulk that will drive his characterization for decades.  Near dawn, the Hulk realizes it needs to get to Dr. Banner’s cabin, arriving just in time to find Igor ransacking the place to find the gamma bomb formula.

Igor is knocked out, and the sun rises, turning the Hulk into Bruce Banner.  Now the soldiers arrive, and arrest Igor as they found out off-panel that he was a Communist spy.  Rick Jones points out that the Hulk looks nothing like Bruce, and the soldiers don’t press the matter.  Betty shows up to be nice to Bruce, but is pushed out the door so that Dr. Banner can rest.  Bruce moodily reflects that he doesn’t know it’s over.  Nightfall may again bring forth–the Hulk!

That was an awesome first issue–wait, there’s more?  Turns out that the imprisoned Igor has a secret communicator hidden in his thumbnail, and alerts his Soviet masters to the existence of the Hulk.  This message comes to the attention of the Gargoyle, a hideously deformed Communist scientist.

The brilliant mind of the Gargoyle puts together a plan to capture the Hulk, which works.  The monster and Rick Jones are then rocketed back to the Gargoyle’s lair behind the Iron Curtain.  Except that by the time they land, the sun has come up and Dr. Banner returned.

The Gargoyle, who is very smart, figures out the truth, and has a bit of a breakdown.  Why would Dr. Banner do that to himself?  Why would anyone want to turn into a twisted monster?  A hideously deformed thing like the Gargoyle?  Bruce explains that it was an accident, but more importantly, he knows how to cure the Gargoyle.  It seems that the Gargoyle was once relatively normal, but working on the inferior Communist atomic bombs exposed him to deforming radiation.  Bruce can’t fix himself, but he can fix this!

Sure enough, Dr. Banner is able to rig a device that erases the Gargoyle’s deformities (at the cost of his genius.)  The former Gargoyle rails against a picture of Nikita Khrushchev, rockets Bruce and Rick back to America, and blows up his lair with all the evil Communists still in it.  Now that’s an ending!

In this first issue, the Hulk was supposed to have gray skin, but the printing process of the time couldn’t quite make that shade of gray work, so his skin tone was all over the place, including a panel where it’s outright green.  Stan Lee liked that color best, so it stayed green from then on.

Stan kept tinkering with the concept in these first six issues.  How smart is the Hulk?  What triggers the transformation?  What’s the relationship between the Hulk and Rick Jones?  Is the Hulk just Dr. Banner with his rage issues on the outside, or a completely separate personality?  It all changed issue to issue.  One important plot thread that did start here is suspicion that Dr. Banner is a traitor to the United States as he keeps disappearing at odd moments and turning up behind the Iron Curtain.

Tales to Astonish #59 picks up after the Hulk’s brief time with the Avengers, as Hank Pym, aka Giant-Man, decides to go in search of the green giant.  This is a showcase issue for both characters, as they’re tricked into battle by the Human Top (later known as the Whirlwind), a mutant with the power of super-spinning.   It’s established here that the Human Top is so nondescript out of costume that even people who have seen him unmasked before don’t recognize him.  (This became a long-running plot point.)

#60 starts the new solo series for the Hulk.   It’s now settled that the trigger for Bruce Banner to transform is over-excitement–any stressful or anger-inducing situation may cause him to Hulk out.   Also, the Hulk is now not very bright and believes Banner to be a separate person.   The latest thing Dr. Banner is working on for the military is a robotic war suit (really more in Tony Stark’s line) which is promptly stolen by a spy.  The Hulk fights it in a two-parter.

#61 introduces Major Glen(n) Talbot, the new head of security for Gamma Base.  He quickly develops the hots for Betty Ross (which her father encourages) and a deep suspicion of  Bruce Banner.

#62 has the first glimpse of the Hulk’s first truly iconic enemy, the Leader.  At this point, he’s a mysterious figure who sends the Chameleon to infiltrate Gamma Base and find out what happened to the spy who was supposed to steal the robot war suit.  (The Chameleon never does complete that mission, but is otherwise a huge hassle.)

#63  reveals the origin of the Leader.  He used to be an ordinary laborer disposing of chemical waste when exposed to gamma radiation.  The rays turned him green and gave him super-intelligence.  Unlike the Gargoyle, the Leader likes his new look, and wants to recruit the Hulk, the only other gamma being on Earth (at that time) to work for him.  The Leader is working for the Communists so he can have resources to build his army of humanoids, but plans to betray them when convenient.

The Leader plotline ends in #74 when he is undone by his own quest for ultimate knowledge, and #75 sends the Hulk to the future for a few issues.  While the Hulk’s away and presumed dead, Rick Jones finally reveals that Bruce Banner and the Hulk are the same person.

In #81, the Secret Empire storyline begins, with a mysterious group planning to take over the world, and wanting to use the Hulk as a weapon.  They enlist former star baseball pitcher Boomerang (suspended from the league for “accidentally” killing a hitter with a baseball) as their agent.  Infighting collapses the Empire before they get much of anywhere (they’d return with Richard Nixon as their leader) but Boomerang is a recurring problem for several issues.

In #90, a Communist spy named Emil Blonsky uses a gamma ray device Bruce Banner had invented to try to control his transformations to give himself gamma powers.  The Abomination was stronger than the Hulk, in full possession of his senses, and permanently transformed, which made him a good prize for the Stranger, a powerful alien who’d intended to enslave the Hulk.  Naturally, the Abomination would eventually escape to become a recurring Hulk foe.

This is classic early Marvel; Jack Kirby, John Buscema and Gil Kane create dynamic art, and Stan clearly loved writing ol’ Jade-Jaws.    There’s not a lot of subtlety or character development here, with Hulk’s personality ebbing and flowing as the plot demands.  Betty is barely there as Bruce’s love interest and a target for Major Talbot’s courtship.

Overall, this omnibus volume is excellent value for money if you are a Hulk fanatic, and well worth reading at the library for other Marvel fans.

Let’s enjoy the cartoon opening!

Book Review: Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories

Book Review: Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories by Naomi Kritzer

This is the first collection of speculative fiction stories by Naomi Kritzer, headlined by the title piece, which won a Hugo Award in 2016.   There’s seventeen stories in all.

Cat Pictures Please and Other Stories

“Cat Pictures Please” is a sweet story about an artificial intelligence accidentally created from a search engine.  It wants to do good, and to be good, but is still learning what that means.  It talks about some early attempts to help human beings, and what did and didn’t work.  Oh, and it would like you to post more cat pictures.  (I personally am doomed.)

The last story in the volume is “So Much Cooking” told in the form of posts from a recipe blog in a time of plague sweeping the United States.   As things grow worse and worse, and ingredients become more scarce, the recipes become more inventive.  At the same time, the family of the blogger becomes larger as they take in other survivors.   It’s very strong on the theme of sharing and working together to endure in times of hardship.

Some of the stories are heavily inspired by other works, such as “In the Witch’s Garden” which is an sfnal take on The Snow Queen, but not the bit most people use, and “What Happened at Blessing Creek”, a horrific tale inspired by the Little House series.

Others feature supernatural beings finding connections with humanity, such as “The Golem”, set in Prague during World War Two, and “The Good Son”, about a member of the Fair Folk who falls in love and finds his lies trapping him in perhaps a better life.

Overall, I found this a strong collection of good stories–a couple were written as gifts to specific people and come off a bit indulgent.

I understand that a YA novel loosely based on the “Cat Pictures Please” story is due to be released next year.  In the meantime, the original tale stands quite nicely on its own, and this book is worth a look.

 

 

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special 2018

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD Sci-Fi Special 2018 edited by Tharg

The long-running 2000 AD British comic book has had many spin-off projects over the years, including various forms of once-a-year annuals.  The traditional time in the British comics industry for these is December, so that young people can get them as Christmas presents.   But if you want to stand out, you also have summer offerings, and this last summer was especially interesting.

2000 AD Sci-Fi Special 2018

It’s no secret that the comics industry overall has been a field it’s hard for women to break in to, and with its roots as a boys’ paper, 2000 AD had and has inertia that made it even more difficult for female creators to make headway.  But times have changed, and this special made a concerted effort to find women to spotlight.  Not just the writers and artists, but the letterers and colourists as well.  So let’s take a look at the seven stories in this magazine.

“The Feels” script by Emma Beeby, art by Babs Tarr:  Judge Dredd (because it just wouldn’t be a 2000 AD project without him) deals with a cult that wants to spread love and peace through a high-tech method of forced empathy.  As one might expect, this approach backfires when used in conjunction with people whose feelings should never be shared.

“Don’t Forget to Blast My Cache” script by Katy Rex, art by Liana Kangas:  Is apparently a prequel to the main “Tyranny Rex” series, and explains how the saurinoid alien became partners with a tech specialist as a 3-D printer download goes horribly wrong.  Felt a bit slight.

“The Thousand Days” script by Alex de Campi, art by Sam Beck:  This Rogue Trooper story is set sometime during the genetically-modified clone infantryman’s initial storyline as he wanders the battle-torn Nu Earth in search of the officers who betrayed his platoon.  He runs into a Souther unit that’s been stuck in the same position for a thousand days, but told they can get fresh rations if they can make an advance.  As it happens, Rogue needs to get across the lines himself, but is the prize worth the candle?

“Delivery” script & art by Tillie Walden is a “Future Shocks” story, a short unconnected with any ongoing series.  This one’s more of a mood piece about a delivery woman on an alien world, with some sort of dangerous creature on the loose.  Effective use of blacks.

“Darkness Descends” script by Leah Moore and art by Xulia Vicente:  A Judge Death story.  The spirit of the judge from a world where life is a crime and the punishment is death begins to influence a female rock band.  Their music gets a lot more metal, but that comes with a price.

“Love Remains” script by Laura Bailey, art by Dana:  Former Judge, now private investigator DeMarco is asked to look into a missing persons case that the official judges have declined to investigate.  Along the way, she meets Mrs. Tippins, who’s married to a Judge.  Since DeMarco knows Judges can’t have romantic relationships, let alone get married (one of the reasons she left) this raises some questions.  But are they related questions?

“The Hockey Sticks of Hell” script by Olivia Hicks, art by Abigail Bulmer:  This is a “Terror Tales” installment, like “Future Shocks” but straight up horror.  Well, not so straight as a 1950s girls’ field hockey team decides it’s time to eschew the genteel girls’ comics of the time and turn to tactics from the EC line.  The art is appropriately cartoony.

“Spa Day” script by Maura McHugh, art by Emma Vieceli: Psi-Judge Anderson is ordered to undergo a “Scrub Personality Artefacts” treatment, designed to erase the psychic traces of the criminals she’s been in mental contact with.  Since her inner demons are extra-strength, this does not go as advertised.

There’s also a lovely Anderson poster by Marguerite Savage to top off the issue.

My favorites from this issue are “The Thousand Days” and “The Hockey Sticks of Hell.”  “Delivery” is a little too nebulous for my tastes, and “Spa Day” is yet another rehash of Judge Anderson’s ghosts with little new.

Keeping in mind that yes, this is a novelty issue, it’s good of its kind, and I look forward to seeing more work by these creators.  Pick it up if you’re a fan of any of the characters or just want to support women in comics.

Book Review: The Rabbit Skinners

Book Review: The Rabbit Skinners by John Eidswick

Disclaimer:  I received a download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Rabbit Skinners

Newsweek says that FBI agent James Strait is an American hero.  He saved Colorado Springs from being blanketed with nerve gas by doomsday cultists, after all.  But Agent Strait isn’t so sure.  His original plan included no room for heroics.  But then a fellow agent deliberately disobeyed orders and alerted the cultists to the presence of the FBI.

There was little choice but to go in shooting.  Now Strait has a dead girlfriend, an inner ear condition that’s threatening to make him permanently disabled, and blood on his hands.  To add insult to injury, the agent that screwed up the operation got a fat promotion.  Time for a little rest and recuperation!  And that’s why Agent Strait is returning to his home town of Pine River, Arizona.

It’s been a long time since Strait’s police officer father died and he and his siblings abandoned their birthplace.  Law enforcement has gone right down the toilet, and the new police chief is both incompetent and racist, having hired only officers that also match those traits.  As a result, the investigation into the disappearance of 9-year-old black girl Jophia Williams has been stalled for months.  The chief is certain her own father killed her, but hasn’t been able to break the man’s alibi.

The citizens of Pine River have had enough, and since there’s a heroic FBI agent who’s not doing anything right now, they ask Strait to look into the matter.  Strait correctly points out 1) this is not a federal case; 2) his actual FBI status is kind of in limbo due to the disability thing; and 3) the police chief flipped out at the merest suggestion he could use some help so cooperation with the local law enforcement is out.  But he’s talked into at least taking a look around.

Sure enough, Strait almost immediately finds evidence the police missed, and is drawn into the case with some help from his one friend who still works for the feds.  It turns out to be a federal case after all!

I am most reminded of the trashy men’s adventure paperbacks of my youth with the hypercompetent hero, ripped-from-the-headlines concerns (this story very much takes place during the Trump presidency), and bouts of over the top violence.  Strait has a lot of manpain, and his disability does little to slow him down as it just so happens Pine River has the one doctor who’s an expert at treating this rare condition.

The rip-roaring adventure part and violence are done well.

It is however painfully clear that this is a first book, self-published, and could have used another editorial pass.   This is most evident in some dialogue involving place names and directions that don’t make much sense in Arizona, but would if an earlier draft of the book were set in Appalachia and these bits weren’t fully updated.  There’s also a howler involving “FBI dress uniforms” that calls into question the writer’s research on any other topic.

The characterization also has problems with piling on negative traits onto baddies; it’s not enough the police chief is racist and incompetent, he must also be morbidly obese and have a hair-trigger temper.  There was a grand total of one character with any nuance.

After the “mystery” part of the plot is more or less solved, the viewpoint switches to Jophia for a while so we can learn about the motive behind her disappearance.  She’s a likable character, but the motive for her abduction is kind of silly.

Content issues:  Racism (boy howdy, but always depicted as repugnant), child endangerment, rough language, extramarital sex (not graphic.)  There’s a supporting character that’s a cross between the Magical Native American and Mad Prophet stereotypes.

Recommended for fans of trashy men’s adventure who are willing to overlook some rookie mistakes.

 

Book Review: Truth: The Merchant of Dreams

Book Review: Truth: The Merchant of Dreams  by Zak Maymin

Disclaimer:  I received a download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Truth: The Merchant of Dreams

“Don’t lie.”  “Honesty is the best policy.”  “The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”  That’s what we tell our children.  But then we hedge.  “Sometimes it’s best just not to say anything.”  “A white lie won’t hurt.”  “It’s okay to lie to Nazis to protect people.”

This is the first in a series of children’s books about ethical subjects, designed to teach them how to think about dilemmas that might come up in their lives and understand how to make the best choices.  The book is aimed at children roughly kindergarten to third-grade level, and is best used in conjunction with a parent or other trusted adult who can help talk the child through the situation.

As the introduction for adults notes, small children generally do not yet have the life tools to fully understand such concepts as probability analysis, cost/benefit ratio, or hidden consequences.  Thus they will often misjudge when it is appropriate to lie or tell the truth.  The introduction for children is a bit wordy, at about a fifth-grade reading level.

The body of the book is a series of vignettes about Chloe and her friends as they decide not to tell the truth.  For example, Jay decides to tell Chloe a lie as a joke.  Then justifications for two different views of the situation are presented, and the child must choose one.  (Because this is for small children, the choices are kept binary.)

The final scenario, “Lying to Strangers” will need special finesse on the part of the adult helper, as it is Chloe’s truth-telling, not her earlier lie, that causes bad consequences.

There is an answer key at the back where Mr. Maymin gives his own opinions, but your mileage may vary.

Finally, there’s the short story that lends itself to the title of the book.  It’s a fairy tale about a lie destroying a marriage.  The story is dull and didactic, and honestly not very good.  If you’re reading this book to your child, you might want to skip it.

The illustrations are adequate.

The idea of this book is solid, and it may be of use to parents who do not already have another book on hand that teaches their preferred values about truth and lying.

Book Review: London Falling

Book Review: London Falling by Paul Cornell

It’s New Year’s Eve, and Operation Goodfellow is  about to end.  The years spent infiltrating Rob Toshack’s organized crime network, the money spent, it’s all produced nothing they can use to pin a charge on the kingpin.  So at midnight, the Metropolitan Police are pulling the plug.  But they’re not the only ones facing a deadline.  Rob Toshack is rushing around town trying to find something or possibly someone to keep his hold on power.  And if undercover officer Costain can find out what it is Rob’s looking for, all his hard work might not go down the drain.

London Falling

This is the first urban fantasy novel by Paul Cornell, who you may remember from some well-received episodes of Doctor Who or the Demon Knights series I reviewed back when.  And the emphasis is on “urban.”  The story is anchored to London as both a location and a concept, to the point that if any of the protagonists chose to leave London, they’d be perfectly safe from the weirdness at hand.

The first few chapters read like a gritty crime thriller, but take a turn into open weirdness when a captured suspect is exsanguinated without any visible wound or poison.   Even then, the police assumption is that they’re up against a gang of assassins with a previously undiscovered method of killing.  That is until Costain, his fellow undercover cop Sefton, Detective Inspector Quill, and police intelligence analyst Ross come into contact with an artifact that gives them all The Sight.

This is now both a curse and an edge, since they can now see and feel all the supernatural weirdness of London.  Much of it is disturbing or outright hostile, which means sleep is far away.  On the other hand, while the uncanny creatures that rule the shadows are powerful, they have long relied on the fact that they’re invisible to normal people.  Once some of the police can see what’s really going on, their police procedures and methods make it much easier to proceed than if it was just some random private eye.

The primary opponent in this story is witch and serial killer Mora Losley, who has a connection to football (we Yanks call it soccer) legend.   She’s straight out of the nastier fairy tales, cooking children in her cauldron.  Mora’s very old and knows far more about London’s dark side than her police opponents, who are still trying to sort out what precisely the Sight is.

There’s a lot of  British slang and police jargon, so the glossary of terms in the back will be helpful to readers not already familiar with the setting.  Mr. Cornell got input from actual police officers, both uniformed and undercover, so the hardware and police techniques feel authentic.

Content issues:  some rough language, apparent suicide,  children in peril (and some nightmarish scenarios for parents), incidental racism, sexism and homophobia.

A couple of the twists felt telegraphed, particularly one that serves as a plot hook to set up the next few books in the series.

Overall, a high quality of writing, some suspenseful moments, and if I didn’t like some of the main characters, well, that would be because they’re not very nice people.

Recommended for the intersection of urban fantasy and crime thriller fans.

 

Manga Review: Princess Jellyfish Volume 02

Manga Review: Princess Jellyfish Volume 02 by Akiko Higashimura

Quick recap:  Amamizu-kan is a women-only apartment building inhabited by the Amars, a group of socially awkward women who fear socially-skilled people, who they call “the stylish.”  Jellyfish-obsessed artist Tsukimi accidentally befriends the “princess” Kuranosuke, who turns out to be a young man with a penchant for wearing women’s clothing.  Kuranosuke adopts the Amars as friends, and hijinks ensue.  But the fun may end soon, as the real estate developers represented by the wicked Inari want to bulldoze Amamizu-ken.  Can our ragtag band of misfits raise the cash to save their home?

Princess Jellyfish Volume 02

Most of the story in this volume is taken up with early attempts to raise some money.  One of the first steps is finding something to sell.  There’s some nice things in the attic abandoned by previous tenants, but the item that really catches attention at the yard sale is Tsukimi’s handmade Clara jellyfish dolls.  Kuranosuke gets a higher appreciation of Tsukimi’s design skills, and asks Tsukimi to make a jellyfish-themed dress for him.

As it happens, none of the people present actually know how to turn a design into an actual modern dress (Chieko is some help, but is only skilled at sewing kimono.)  After a lot of struggle and the repurposing of one of Kuranosuke’s favorite keepsakes of his mother,  a passable dress is made, but it’s clear they’re going to need more help.

Meanwhile, Inari has tricked Shuu into believing he had sex with her while blackout drunk.  The consequences of that play out as she tries to leverage this into a closer relationship.  This plotline may be more uncomfortable for some readers, as several characters make light of Shuu’s supposed indiscretion.  Inari can be partially excused on the grounds that a) she’s the villain, b) she knows perfectly well no sex happened and c) Inari is not privy to the backstory of why this is so traumatic for Shuu.  Shuu’s father and uncle, on the other hand, should know better, but treat it as “you lucky dog.”

Kuranosuke, at least, has a much better understanding of his half-brother’s personality, and is pretty sure this is a frame-up.  Amusingly, Inari fails to catch on to the connection between Kuranosuke’s male and female personas, despite being perceptive enough to realize that “Kurako” uses heavy makeup and falsies to look conventionally attractive.

Also kind of hilarious is a few moments where Jiji (who fancies older men) and Kuranosuke’s father hit it off.  Let the shipping commence!

Also in this volume we get a bit more backstory as to why Kuranosuke began crossdressing.

The art continues to be good, and the characters funny.

Recommended to those who liked the first volume or the anime.

Speaking of the anime, let’s have the opening theme!

Book Review: Heart of the West

Book Review: Heart of the West by O. Henry

William Sydney Porter (1862-1910), better known to most readers as O. Henry, moved to Texas from North Carolina for his health.  There, he worked on a ranch for a few years before feeling well enough to take up his primary occupation of pharmacist, and fell in love with the state and its people.  As a result, many of his stories are set in Texas, including these nineteen.

Heart of the West

Despite the use of the setting by other authors for tales of gunpowder and fury, O. Henry was not so much a Western writer as a writer of comedic romances set in the West.  Most of the tales in this anthology are about courtship, one way or another.  In many ways this makes them more authentic to the lives of actual cowpunchers and waitresses than the blood and thunder stories of the Wild West.

The collection opens with “Hearts and Crosses.”  A rancher whose wife actually owns the spread, inherited from her father, gets prodded into thinking he should be “king” if she’s the “queen.”  This results in a misunderstanding, and he goes off to handle their range affairs from a distance.  But a few months later, the queen summons her husband, and the question of who rules supreme is settled for good.  O. Henry shows his use of the twist ending well here, with a strong showing for his sentimental side.

The ending story is “The Reformation of Calliope”, in which a man who regularly gets drunk and shoots up the town is finally brought to heel by the one person in the world who he can’t fight.  Oh, and the town marshal is involved too.  This one’s a bit less sentimental and a bit more wry humor.

In between, the most striking tale is “The Caballero’s Way”, a dark stinger about a Texas Ranger’s attempt to bring in the notorious outlaw known as the Cisco Kid.  It’s the closest to the Western genre, and the cold-hearted, cunning villain of the story inspired a series of movies and television shows…where he’s the Robin Hood-style hero.  Go figure.

Most all of the stories are good, like “The Pimentia Pancakes”, in which we learn why a camp cook never eats his own delicious pancake recipe, or “A Call Loan” where a rancher contemplates robbery when a shortage is discovered at the bank.  (This latter ties in to the author’s own conviction on embezzlement charges.)

“The Indian Summer of Dry Valley Johnson” might be a harder read for modern audiences.  It’s about a middle-aged man developing a foolish infatuation with the nineteen-year-old girl next door and duding himself up to court her.  In addition to this rather cringy plotline, there’s a scene where Johnson chases children out of his strawberry patch with a whip.

There’s some period ethnic prejudice against Mexicans in the stories, which seems less about the author’s opinions than a reflection of the characters he’s writing about.   Also a touch of period sexism.

Overall, this is a lovely collection of short stories by a master of the twist ending.  Some readers may find the twists too familiar for their tastes, as those have often been imitated in other stories.  If you have not read “The Caballero’s Way” elsewhere, this collection is the best setting for it.  Recommended to short story fans who like their stories mostly sentimental.

 

 

Book Review: Seeking the Storyteller

Book Review: Seeking the Storyteller by Jessica Walsh & Briana Lawrence

Alix Andre DeBenit and Randall Fagan are Hunters, tracking down and killing monsters called “demons” that harm humans.  They’re experienced and work well together, and the Twin Cities are surprisingly monster-infested so they’re doing quite well for themselves, with a warehouse headquarters and full-time administrative assistant.

Seeking the Storyteller

But not all “demons” are equally evil or destructive.  Some are pretty benign.  So when a shadowy creature named Dox reveals that he knows the whereabouts of the Storyteller, a demon with the power to (among other things) alter the past, Alix is listening.  At least enough not to kill Dox, because there’s a part of Alix’s past that really needs changing.

Meanwhile, in the alternate world the monsters come from, a Scough (fox-person) girl named Mira realizes that her father is acting out of character in a way that seems sinister.  Her magic book suggests seeking help, but that would require going to the most dangerous place of all–Earth.

This urban fantasy novel is by a pair of local writers, and is self-published.  While most of the protagonists are adults, this book really has more of a “young adult” feel to it.

Randall and Alix are called to the aid of an older Hunter named Xaver, who was a mentor to both of them.   They arrive too late, and then first battle and then inherit Xaver’s latest ward, a boy named Haven who’s bonded to an Ice Dragon.  At this point, they also meet Dox’s friend Cyn, a former rich girl who was forcibly bonded with a plant-type monster.

The investigation of Xaver’s death is derailed by the arrival of Mira, who dragoons them all into helping her with her father’s plight, moving the cast to her world!  This does, however tie into several characters’ own arcs so it’s not a waste of time.

This story feels very much like a novelization of a television series, with both good and bad aspects of that.  The characters were easy to visualize, and I could see how their powers would work on screen.  Their voices were distinct.  The cast is reasonably diverse and LGBTQ+ characters included, some without that being their main character point.

On the other hand, I found the characterization shallow, and the investigation of Xaver’s murder too easily shoved aside without consideration of the possible risk to other Hunters.  A couple of the subplots were blatant plothooks for the sequel Beneath the Chapter, which is already out if you like this book.

Content issues:  child abuse, attempted rape, miscarriage, misgendering (one character’s situation is complicated–possibly over-complicated.)  There’s some ethnic prejudice against the French in a running gag that again feels like it was made for television.

Overall, I think this book is best suited to fans of urban fantasy television shows looking for something similar.  If the books sell well, I would not be surprised if an adaptation appeared on Netflix or Hulu in a few years.

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