Book Review: If I Were You

Book Review: If I Were You by L. Ron Hubbard

Before L. Ron Hubbard got involved in…you know, he was a middling-good and prolific pulp author. The Golden Age Stories line is reprinting many of his stories in attractively designed paperbacks. This volume contains two short stories, , a preview of another, a glossary (really needed this time because of heavy circus slang) and a hagiography of Hubbard that does not mention…you know by name, just calling it “serious research.” Hee. It’s double-spaced in a largish typeface for easy reading.

You

The title story concerns a little person, “Little” Tom Little, who works as a circus midget, and then discovers a mystical method for bodyswapping with other people. He promptly decides to use this to swap with the tall, imposing ringmaster Hermann Schmidt. But Schmidt has troubles of his own, which could get Tom killed regardless of which body he’s in!

There’s a nice bit of foreshadowing early in the story, with what seems like random cruelty to Tom, but is actually a hint of what Schmidt’s issues are. The lion phobia, on the other hand, was a bit too telegraphed. The payoff to that is a very exciting scene, mitigating the obviousness. There’s a nice bit of ambiguity, too, in the motives of the Professor, who leaves Tom his books of magic.

The second story, “The Last Drop” is co-authored by the much better L. Sprague de Camp. A bartender foolishly creates a cocktail with some untested syrup from Borneo; growth and shrinking hijinks ensue. A fun story that at least waves at scientific plausibility as it goes by, in the form of the square-cube law. (The glossary explains it for the benefit of anyone who might have forgotten.)

While it’s a handsome package, and the stories are fun, the book is thin on content for the price. I’d recommend looking for used copies at a steep discount, or checking it out from the library.

Manga Review: Anesthesiologist Hana

Manga Review: Anesthesiologist Hana by Hakua Nakao and Kappei Matsumoto

One of the manga genres that doesn’t get a lot of press in the US is “work manga”.  These are more realistic looks at an unusual career, showing the day-to-day life and challenges, as well as what it takes to get and keep the job.  Firefighter, forest ranger and in this case, anesthesiologist.

Hana

Hanako Hanaoka is a young anesthesiologist at a small hospital connected to a major university hospital, which is being upgraded to a tertiary care (the most drastic emergencies and operations) facility.  Her specialty is relatively rare (and there don’t seem to be nurse anesthesiologists at that facility) so she’s constantly overworked and underappreciated.  Worse, sexism and sexual harassment from her fellow doctors are everyday hassles.

However, the job does have its own rewards, so Hana perseveres.

There’s a lot of interesting medical tidbits about a specialty you might not have been informed about before (not exactly a TV-friendly set of procedures, after all.)  Excitement is kept up with the introduction of more difficult cases and the hidden background of a couple of Hana’s colleagues.

However, the fanservice gets out of hand; and in a couple of cases is awkwardly shoved into stories that don’t really need it.  There are some really painful cases of “male gaze” as well, and the sexual harassers never seem to face any actual consequences for their actions.  And then there’s Hana herself.  To allow the audience to be filled in, she is often shown as being dense and uninformed about her own job; she’s a grown woman, a medical doctor, heck, she’s not even an intern anymore, how is she such an immature novice?

Worth looking at for the medical information, but the ecchi elements may turn off some readers.  This manga is out of print in North America as of 2014.

 

Open Thread 12/23/12

Open Thread

Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.
Created for me by Indigo Caldwell; please do not reuse without permission.

I’ll be off until after Christmas.  When I return, I hope to have reviews of several books handy, including the manga “Anesthesologist Hana.”  (I might even get an interview with the translator!)

In the meantime, if you have any relevant questions or  statements, such as what you’d like me to put in the reviewing queue, please comment!

 

Happy Holidays!

Book Review: Blood Lance

Book Review: Blood Lance by Jeri Westerson

lance

This is the fifth Crispin Guest novel, featuring a disgraced knight of the Fourteenth Century who takes up a career of detection, earning the nickname “Tracker.” I have not read the previous volumes.

Guest happens to witness a man falling from a bridge into the Thames. By the time he reaches the man, the fallen person is already dead–and he didn’t drown. The dead man was an armourer, who it would appear owned a piece of the Lance of Longinius, a relic that supposedly pierced the side of Jesus Christ, and grants victory in battle. The lance has since gone missing, and multiple parties are working at crosspurposes to find it. Two of these are old friends of Crispin’s, but are they his friends now?

All this is set against political maneuverings in the English court, as soon-to-be adult King Richard’s favorite is losing his grip on power. The climax of the novel is an exciting trial by combat, with the actual solution of the mystery for a coda.

The noir elements are quite obvious; the morally ambiguous but still upright protagonist, everyone having secrets and many of those unpleasant, miserable weather and darkness (at least at the beginning, authorities who can’t be trusted and the detective’s falling for a woman too close to the case.

One tricky element of the story is the Spear. This is, apparently, not the first time Crispin Guest has come into contact with a supposed holy object. And while it’s left ambiguous whether or not the Spear actually has any powers, (Guest himself is a skeptic) the coincidences keep piling up. Towards the end, at least one character believes that these are not coincidences, and that artifacts seek out Crispin for a purpose as yet unknown.

It’s a good read by itself, and I would certainly be willing to look up other volumes in the series.

Disclosure:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an ARC, so minor changes may have been made in the final product.

 

TV Review: Northwest Passage

TV Review: Northwest Passage

This 1958 television series is set during the French & Indian War (1756-1763).  A Colonial militia named Roger’s Rangers battle the perfidious French and their Native American allies in what later became upstate New York and Quebec.  Both this series and the 1940 movie were based on a 1937 novel.  (The title comes from an expedition to find an open water route to the Pacific that takes place in the second half of the novel.)  I saw several episodes on a Mill Creek DVD.

Northwest

This was one of the first shows on American television to be broadcast in full color and one can see that the kinks were still being worked out from time to time.

As this is a US-produced show, the part the English Army played in the war is downplayed.  The British soldiers merely maintain the fort the intrepid American troops headquarter in between missions.  There’s some period racism, but it’s not over or under-played.  The stories are exciting, and Buddy Ebsen is good as Hunk Marinner, an uneducated but not stupid backwoodsman.

Trigger Warning:  The episode “War Sign” opens with a father whipping his young son with a switch.  This is not depicted as a good thing, and at the end of the story, the father breaks the switch.

Since the French and Indian War tends to get downplayed in American history courses, overshadowed by the American Revolution about a decade later, it might be worth looking up this series for history-curious young people and their parents.

 

Book Review: The Avenger #7 (Murder On Wheels, The Three Gold Crowns and Death To the Avenger)

Book Review: The Avenger #7 (Murder On Wheels, The Three Gold Crowns and Death To the Avenger)

wheels

The Avenger is one of the classic hero pulp characters, a man so strongly affected by a horrific crime that all color drained from his skin and hair, and his face became frozen.  Determined that no one else should suffer as he had, Richard Benson gathered a few allies who felt as strongly as he did about crime, and founded Justice, Inc.

This volume is one of the Sanctum Books reprints, containing several stories.

“Murder On Wheels”:  The plot of this story involves a stolen prototype super-car that revolutionizes automotive engineering.  But it’s far more notable for being the story in which Kenneth Robeson (actually Paul Ernst using the house name) changed the Avenger.  Apparently, sales of the Avenger magazine weren’t doing as well as expected, so management decided that perhaps the Avenger was just a little too weird for the readers to relate to.  So it was that Richard Benson was subjected to a super-science death trap that didn’t actually kill him, but did cure his albinism and nerve damage.  He was also de-aged by the narration.

The story also introduces Cole Wilson, the last member of Justice, Inc. to join.  For much of the story he’s a surprisingly enigmatic character, who may be playing both ends against the middle.

Murder On Wheels does show some seams where the mandatory new elements don’t quite jibe with the old ones, but the writer does manage to give a sense of urgency and surprise to the Avenger’s transformation,  making it clear that this is an important change.

“The Three Gold Crowns”  is the first full story of the new-look Avenger.  Justice, Inc. is hired by a man who’s being blackmailed..by three of the most respected men in the city.  An anonymous tramp is run over by a train.  A young woman fears for her life after apparently witnessing a murder.  Alll of these events are connected by the mysterious three gold crowns.

After several stories with heavy sfnal or horrific elements, The Three Gold Crowns is a relatively mundane plotline.  Only a murder by way of modern painting is truly bizarre.  Instead, interest is kept up by way of twists, turns and the fact that the whole truth isn’t being told.  As the new kid, Cole Wilson gets quite a bit of focus in the story.

A fine tale with an explosive ending.

“Death To the Avenger” is a later piece by Emile C. Tepperman, who took over the writing duties after the Avenger’s magazine ended and he became a back-up character in other pulps.  This is a more hard-boiled tale, and a shorter one.  Richard Benson decides to get rid of a particularly well-connected mobster, only to have said criminal kidnap Nellie Gray to force a hostage swap.  Bad news, criminal, the Avenger doesn’t do hostage swaps.

Rounding out this volume is a Whisperer tale, “High Explosive” by Alan Hathaway writing as Clifford Goodrich.  A mad scientist is threatening the city with a new development in seemingly unstoppable bombs, and Police Commissioner James “Wildcat” Gordon, aka the Whisperer, must stop him.  A quick, thrilling adventure.

Overall:  Highly recommended to pulp fans for the historic value–beginners may want to seek out the first volume for the more iconic tales.

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Comic Book Review: Demon Knights Vol. 1 (Seven Against the Dark)

Comic Book Review: Demon Knights Vol. 1 (Seven Against the Dark) by Paul Cornell, Diogenes Neves & Oclair Albert

demonknight

When DC Comics rebooted their mainline universe in 2011, this left them free to rearrange the past of that universe .  To fill in part of that timeline, we have this title.

After a brief moment at the fall of Camelot, we see the town of Little Spring, a relatively peaceful village that just so happens to be host to seven ill-assorted strangers.  It’s a close call as to whether these strangers or the encroaching army of the Questing Queen is more of a danger.  Nevertheless, it falls to this ragtag band of misfits to defend Little Spring until it can be relieved by Alba Sarum.

The “heroes” of this story don’t much like each other, and several of them aren’t very heroic at all.  But like it or not, they have to work together…or do they?

This is one of the more successful reimaginings of the New 52.  Paul Cornell does good banter, and blends what we “know” of various characters with new information in interesting ways.  Several mysteries are set up, only a couple of which actually get movement in this volume, which contains the first seven issues of the series.  Also, kudos to Mr. Cornell for a relatively diverse cast, and not pretending it was only white able-bodied men who did anything important in the Middle Ages.

There’s quite a bit of gory violence, and some dark themes–I would recommend this for older teens and up.

 

 

Comic Book Review: Ghosts #1

Comic Book Review: Ghosts #1

ghosts

After the Comics Code  was revised in the 1970s, DC Comics had a small explosion of horror anthology titles.  One of these was “Ghosts”, which had the gimmick of being almost entirely allegedly true ghost stories.  Even as a teenager I realized that these “true” stories were bull, but it still managed to have some nice chillers, and it’s a great title for an anthology comic.

So to keep the trademark on that title, DC’s Vertigo imprint has come out with a “Ghosts” anthology just in time for the holiday season.  There’s nine stories, a mix of veteran comics creators and newcomers.

The story of greatest interest to me is ” The Boy and the Old Man” by Joe Kubert, the last story he wrote and penciled.  Because he died before he could ink it, DC decided to run the story with only the addition of legible lettering.  The story itself is fairly straightforward in the classic ghost tale style.  I enoyed it a lot.

Also good are most of the other stories by such folks as Rufus Dayglo, Amy Reeder and Gilbert Hernandez.  The stories that didn’t come off so well were “Bride” which just left me baffled as to the message it was trying to convey (it felt like it had been chopped down from a much longer but more meandering story); and “Run Ragged”, which features the Neil Gaiman-created Dead Boy Detectives, but is not by him, and is only the first chapter of a continuing story.

This book is “suggested for mature readers”: there’s some gruesome violence, partial nudity, sexual situations and four-letter words, but not in every story.  This would make a good holiday present for horror fans and the more grown-up comic book reader.

 

Book Review: A Planet of Your Own/The Beasts of Kohl

Book Review: A Planet of Your Own/The Beasts of Kohl

kohl

Back in the day, science fiction and fantasy novels tended to be much shorter than they are now.  In some cases, so short that they didn’t make a decent-sized paperback.  So Ace Books came up with the Ace Double, two novels (or short story collections) in one, with the contents and covers upside down from each other.  This gave good value for money.  The book we’re looking at today is one of these.

A Planet of Your Own by John Brunner, first–Kynance Foy is a young woman from Earth who decided to go out and make her fortune among the stars…and failed. At the end of her rope, she’s offered a job by the Zygra Corporation. A job that sounds too good to be true, despite the obvious hardships. But she’s desperate, so sign she does. It isn’t until she gets to the planet of Zygra that she discovers the true nature of the trap, but is it too late?

Good stuff: This is a rare mid-Sixties SF book with a competent female lead. Amusingly, towards the beginning she lists off traits that in bad fanfic would make her kind of Sueish (smart, multi-skilled and exotically beautiful) but it turns out that the further she gets from Earth, the more common these traits are, to the point that normal fifteen year olds are earning the equivalent of a doctorate.

The moment Kynance figures out what the trap is, she sets about systematically disarming it, using the skills she established earlier. And when male characters show up, they don’t take over the story or assume control just because they’re men. Kynance simply works them into her plan. And there isn’t a shoehorned-in romance, either. Just a hint at the end that now that she’s made her pile, Kynance might consider a relationship, possibly with one of the male characters.

Not so good stuff: Kynance’s boss sexually harasses her as an added topping to his other slimy activities, just to reinforce that he’s the bad guy here. There’s the people calling a grown woman a “girl”, and being surprised she’s in the Zygra job (though the same character admits that a woman would be equally able to do it.) And the ending relies heavily on the legalistic version of technobabble.
The Beasts of Kohl is by John Rackham. Kohl is an aquatic lifeform that travels to other star systems, explores them, and sometimes brings back smart animals to serve it. (Thus the title.) But one day, Kohl’s bipedal servant Rann asks a question that makes Kohl realize he isn’t just a very intelligent animal, but a fully sapient being like Kohl itself. Since Kohl’s ethics prevent it from enslaving true setitents, it decides to take Rann back to his home planet for a visit, so that Rann can make an informed choice about his life.

Joined by his female counterpart Rana (who has had a less wise master and is thus more emotional and unskilled), the great canine Gromahl and thehunting bird Virgal, Rann accompanies Kohl to a certain small blue planet. What none of the visitors realize is that quite some time has passed on that world, which has changed considerably. And in a single jam-packed day, Rann and Rana learn both good and ill about their home world and its inhabitants.

It’s a fast-paced story, with some nice “outsiders looking at Earth culture” satire, but the latter half depends entirely too much on coincidence to speed things along. This easily could have been twice the length without spoiling the plot. There’s some gender essentialism, and some readers may groan at the “nerdy guy gets the incredibly hot girlfriend” subplot.

Also, the story is implied to take place on Earth in “the near future” from 1966, so it’s interesting to see what the author thinks would have changed, and what looks exactly like the Sixties.

 

 

TV Review: The Adventures of Jim Bowie

TV Review: The Adventures of Jim Bowie

Bowie

I watched several episodes of this 1950s television show via a Mill Creek DVD.  As you might have guessed, this series is a heavily fictionalized story about the famous land speculator and knife fighter, Jim Bowie, popularizer of the blade that bears his name.

The series is primarily set in Opelousas and New Orleans, Louisiana in the early 1830s.  (A time when the real Bowie had already moved to Texas.)  JIm rescues fair ladies and fights various badmen, usually culminating in him reluctantly using his famous knife to settle affairs.

The best thing about this series is the music, almost entirely choral arrangements by Ken Darby and the King’s Men.  They give a unique flavor to the show.

However, the music points out one of the less pleasant things about the series.  In particular the theme song’s line, “He fought for the rights of man.”

Two of the episodes I watched referenced the Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed into law by Andrew  Jackson.It authorized the U.S. government to negotiate with the Native American tribes of the Southeast to give up their native lands in exchange for federal reservations west of the Mississippi.  You may know it by the more poetic name, “The Trail of Tears”, a name never mentioned in the program.

In the episode “Osceola,”, Jim meets and bonds with the famous Seminole leader.  Although he admits that the natives are getting a raw deal, and saves Osceola from the army, he also advises his new friend that he should give up battling the removal to avoid more bloodshed.

The episode “Jackson’s Assassination” sees Bowie accompanying a Cherokee man to the president’s residence to see if his dishonorable discharge from the Navy on trumped-up charges can be reversed.  Jim and Andrew Jackson convince the lad that Jackson’s not an “Indian hater”, and get him restored to his rank so that he can convince the Cherokee people to accept the removal peacfully.

In both episodes, Jim Bowie is contrasted with open bigots, but behaves paternalistically towards Native Americans, and shows little interest in fighting for their overall rights, as opposed to helping out people he personally knows.

And then there’s the elephant in the room.  It’s the 1830s in the Deep South, how does the show handle the topic of slavery?  By not ever mentioning it.  While black people appear in bit parts as servants, their status and the economic system of the time goes completely unspoken.  Of course, this show was produced in the 1950s, a time when TV networks were extremely skittish about offending their white Southern viewers.  And it might have been going too far to have Jim Bowie come out against slavery, given that in real life he was a slave trader in league with pirates.

 

Overall:  While the writing is clever and there are some great turns by the character actors, the disjoint between the show’s heroic Bowie and the man he actually was gives me an uneasy feeling in the gut.  I can’t recommend it except as a starting point for discussion of historical revisionism and Hollywood’s whitewashing of those it wants to be heroes.

 

 

 

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