Open Thread: 2013 Roundup

Haven’t finished reading the next book in my pile yet, so let’s have a generic year’s roundup post!

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

People from around the globe have looked at this blog. The top ten countries for 2013 are: United States (way out in front, no surprise there), Canada, United Kingdom, France, Australia, Phillipines, Germany, Spain, Brazil and India. Only one visitor from Jamaica though. Can anyone recommend some good Jamaican books?

The top ten posts were:

  1. Anime Review: Magi – Labyrinth of Magic (Aided by the series getting a sequel in Falll 2013, still running and fairly popular.)
  2. Book Review: Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right (This autobiography of a daughter of John Birch Society stalwarts aroused a lot of interest.)
  3. Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 1 (The story of Japanese culture hero Miyamoto Musashi by the artist of Slam Dunk.)
  4. Manga Review: Ayako (A “mature readers” story by the legendary Osamu Tezuka–It’s good, but I have to wonder how many people clicked on it because of the naked lady on the cover.)
  5. Book Review: Ghosts in the Yew (This fantasy novel got almost all its clicks in one day when the author mentioned the review on his blog. He needs more fans.)
  6. Comic Strip Review: Dick Tracy (A review of the ongoing strip, still very good.)
  7. Manga Review: A*Tomcat (Another by Osamu Tezuka, this one a children’s story about an adorable kitten.)
  8. Comic Book Review: 47 Ronin (The classic Japanese based on a true story tale, illustrated by Stan Sakai. I also reviewed a book and 1962 film version, but not the 2013 film.)
  9. Manga Review: Triage X (A medical-themed vigilante tale by the artist but not the writer of Highschool of the Dead.)
  10. Comic Strip Review: Chester Gould’s Dick Tracy, Volume 13 1950-1951 (One of the fine collected volumes of the strip’s original run.)

Other posts did not fare so well, with only a single click so far:

  • Book Review: Waco’s Debt (Part of J.T. Edson’s Western cycle.)
  • Book Review: Blood Lance (A medieval murder mystery with a guest appearance by the Spear of Victory.)
  • Book Review: Who Died in Here? (Short stories about death involving the restroom.)
  • Book Review: Torsten (The very first gay historical paranormal romance novel I’ve ever read.)
  • Book Review: Dead But Still Ticking (Humorous murder mysterry set in Columbus, Ohio.)
  • Book Review: Journeyman Wizard (YA fantasy/mystery set in a cold land.)
  • Book Review: The Devil – With Wings (Aviation pulp action set in 1930s China.)

Please consider sharing some love with these.

I’m looking forward to reading more books and writing reviews of them in 2014! Tell me what books you enjoyed reading in 2013, and what you’re looking forward to in 2014.

Happy New Year!
SKJAM!

Book Review: Glitter & Mayhem

Book Review: Glitter & Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne M Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Glitter & Mayhem

This volume is an anthology of speculative fiction short stories,  themed around dance clubs, loud parties, roller skates, sparkly light and glitter.  They’re full of sex, drugs and disco music.  I’ve never been much of a party person myself, not being fond of noisy crowds, deafening music or flashing lights.  So I can’t speak to the authenticity of the party scenes.

That said, there’s a fair mixture here of fantasy, SF and horror; as well as a couple of less genre-specific pieces.  The characters are a diverse lot, men, women and less defined genders, of multiple sexualities and races.

The stories I liked best were two straight-up roller derby tales: “Apex Jump” by David J. Schwartz, about a small town derby team that gets invited to an away game that’s out of this world;  and “Bad Dream Girl” by Seanan McGuire, which ties into her InCryptid series (which I have not read, but this story makes look promising.)

The introduction by Amber Benson comes off as overly pompous, and is quite skippable.  There are a number of interesting tidbits in the author bios in the back, which should help you if a story makes you want to read more of a particular writer.  This book, by the way, was a Kickstarter project, and the sponsors get their own thank you pages.  I am pleased to say that some of that money seems to have gone to competent proofreading and book design.

Trigger Warning:  The protagonist of “Subterraneans” commits rape by deception, and is not one whit repentant.

Overall:  There are a couple of standout stories, several quite decent ones, and a handful of clunkers.   If you’re much more into the dance party scene than I am, or are a big Kickstarter fan, you’ll probably enjoy this one enough to pay full price.  Everyone else should consider getting it from the library

Movie Review: Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Ronin)

Movie Review: Chushingura (The 47 Loyal Ronin) (1962)

As mentioned in my previous reviews of book and comic book versions, the tale of the forty-seven ronin is one of Japan’s great stories, based on true events.  Briefly, in 1701, Lord Kira provokes Lord Asano into breaking the rules of the Shogun’s court, a crime that can only be expiated by ritual suicide.  Asano’s samurai followers are immediately made ronin (masterless), and forbidden to avenge their master’s honor.

Chushingura

Several of the ronin decide to defy the shogunate decree, but Lord Kira is well aware of the danger, and his powerful relatives have supplied him with bodyguards to protect against retaliation.  Oishi, leader of the ronin, comes up with a plan to put Kira off his guard, but it will take over a year to complete…

The 1962 film version is in color, and big-budget by Japanese standards.   The early part of the story goes more into Lord Kira’s motivations; while he has a high rank, his holdings are small and impoverished.  Asano is prosperous thanks partially due to his province’s salt farms.  Kira tried to convince Asano to provide salt farming advice, but Asano refused on the grounds that the secret of their success was a proprietary family process.

In addition, Kira is fully invested in the quid pro quo method of doing business in the shogunate.  You give expensive gifts to people or do them favors, and in exchange they do things for you.   Lord Kira is guided by his principles of greed and lust, money and women are the most important things in his life.  At one point, he even hints that his wife should offer herself to the Shogun to earn him political favor.  (She is clearly not impressed.)

By contrast,  Lord Asano hates the bribery system and the corruption it engenders, and points out that laws have been passed against such behavior, that he intends to follow.  While he is aware that he needs Lord Kira to instruct him in court etiquette lest he offend the Emperor’s envoys, Asano refuses to compromise his principles, even though this angers Kira.

You might compare it to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and the conflict between Jimmy Stewart’s young, idealistic senator and the corrupt senior senator.

After Asano’s death, the story turns to the ronin, and how each of them copes with issues of honor, sacrifice and their conflicting emotions.  Meanwhile, Kira shows cowardice and openly mocks the traditional samurai virtues.

This is a long movie, clocking in at just under three and a half hours.  Thankfully, there’s a clearly marked stopping point between “Blossoms” and “Snow” that home viewers can use as a good time for intermission.  While the pacing is deliberate, there are no wasted moments.

This movie has a strong cast, the most familiar to Western audiences is probably Toshiro Mifune, who has an extended cameo as one ronin’s drinking buddy.  He seems to have been added just for the box office; compare to how Keanu Reeves was written to take over the whole film in the 2013 version.

Content warnings:  Although none of the suicides in the film is shown directly on camera, the plotline does revolve around the use of suicide as a way of maintaining or redeeming one’s honor, and several people die in combat, particularly in the climatic battle.  (One old woman is also accidentally killed in a subplot.)

Lord Kira peeps at a woman’s bare back and creepily embraces one of his maidservants, he’s clearly forcing himself on them by his own admission.  Oishi does a convincing job of pretending to enjoy himself in the red light district.  No on-screen sex or nudity, though.  Oh, and several men are seen in period-appropriate skimpy loincloths, going about their work.

Overall, this is a classic film and well worth looking up.  See my review of a comic book version here: http://www.skjam.com/2013/09/30/comic-book-review-47-ronin/  and a literary version here: http://www.skjam.com/2013/07/02/book-review-the-47-ronin/

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book One

Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book One by Makoto Yukimura

It is the Eleventh Century C.E., and Europe trembles in fear of the raiders from the north, who we would call Vikings.  This is the story of one such Viking, the youth Thorfinn Thorssen.

Vinland Saga

This thick volume opens with a battle in the Frankish Kingdoms (later France) as Askeladd’s band of mercenaries offer their services to Lord Jabbath.  Among the raiders is Thorfinn, who is far deadlier than any beardless boy has a right to be.   But Thorfinn serves Askeladd for one reason only, to someday be allowed to kill his father’s murderer in a fair duel.

We then flash back to Thorfinn’s childhood in Iceland, and how it was that his father, the mighty Thors,  was treacherously slain.   But we also learn of old Erik and his tales of a land beyond the sea, without slavery or war.   This “Vinland” remains a place that Thorfinn cannot bring himself to search for until he has had his vengeance, reckless of the cost.

The art is excellent, and the creator has done his research (no horned helmets here!)   On the other hand, he does take some liberties with history (this will become more apparent in later volumes.)    This is an exciting tale of vengeance and violence, although it should be acknowledged that most of the people in the story just aren’t good people.  The one truly heroic person in this volume is the reluctant warrior Thors,  who believes that a true warrior should not need a blade to lead a good life.

Note:  While there is no rape in this volume, given the subject matter, I would not be surprised if it came up later in the series.  As is, there’s plenty of blood spilled and heads flying off;  it’s rated 16+, and I’d advise parents to stick to that.

I recommend this volume to fans of Viking tales and lovers of violent action stories.

Book Review: Why Do We Say It?

Book Review: Why Do We Say It? by unknown

As the subtitle on the cover suggest, this book is about words and phrases used in English, and where they came from.  It’s primarily in alphabetical order, except for some quizzes with answers at the back.  While many of the entries are amusing or interesting, a few are just “we borrowed it from French, but pronounced or spelled a little differently.”  Some of the word derivations are also a bit suspect,

Why Do We Say It?

This edition is put out by Castle Books, and was published in 1985.  There’s no author listed, no sources cited, no index; your college professor is not going to accept this as a source for your research paper.  From the typography, the writing style, the date of phrases not included, and some dated cultural assumptions, I believe this book is a reprint of one from the mid-1940s  (Some of the catchier phrases haven’t been in common use since the 1920s!)

Overall, a fun book, but the serious student of etymology will need a better-cited volume; for entertainment purposes only.

While we’re at it, here’s five questions from the book.  Can you answer them all?

  1. Why is some cloth called “broadcloth”?
  2. How did an unruly lock of hair come to be called a “cowlick”?
  3. What is the origin of the expression “fair-weather friends”?
  4. Why is a lively person said to be full of “ginger”?
  5. Why do we call a celebrity a “bigwig”?

Book Review: JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency

Book Review: JFK in the Senate: Pathway to the Presidency by John T. Shaw

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

JFK in the Senate

As someone born after John F. Kennedy was elected president, and about two years old when he died, I don’t really remember him in the same way as the generation just a bit before mine.  I learned about his PT boat exploits in World War Two, and about the events of his presidency, and especially about his assassination.  But he didn’t come out of nowhere as a young president.

In the later 1940s and the 1950s, JFK served Massachusetts first as a member of the House of Representatives, and then as a senator.  This volume concentrates on those years, tracing Kennedy’s development from a callow new representative to a successful presidential candidate.  For me, this is pretty interesting reading, shining some light into the political processes of the time, and Kennedy’s learning process.

However, this is very much a volume about John F. Kennedy the politician, not JFK the person.  We read little about his personal life and how it might have affected him.  Rather than a strict chronological retelling, the book focuses on various policy areas that Kennedy worked on during his senatorial years; domestic issues, foreign policy and his special committee to choose five senators to honor with portraits.

Thus, not only do we not learn anything about how Jackie Kennedy might have influenced his personality or politics, but there is no mention of when JFK married her.  Just a note at one point of a magazine calling Kennedy a “bachelor” and at another of Jackie attending the club for wives of senators.  Similarly, nothing of his children save brief acknowledgment that they existed.

Therefore, this work would best be supplemented by a fuller biography for most readers.  But for the Kennedy scholar wanting a closer look at his early political career, this will be a big help.  There are some black and white photos at the center, one of which is mentioned as being staged.  As well, there are end notes, a bibliography and index.

Check it out from your college or public library if the subject matter appeals to you.

Comic Book Review: The Thrilling Adventure Hour

Comic Book Review: The Thrilling Adventure Hour by Ben Acker & Ben Blacker

The Thrilling Adventure Hour, it turns out, is a continuing theatrical performance and podcast in the style of old-time radio.  As such, it’s full of action, comedy and thrilling adventure.  This is their first illustrated tie-in graphic novel.

The Thrilling Adventure Hour

The contents range from straight-up science fiction (Tales of the USSA) through superhero action (Captain Laserbeam) to space western (Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars.)  My personal favorite was “Down in Moonshine Holler”, about a millionaire undercover as a hobo seeking his true love; in this chapter he and his fellow hobos arrive in Jacksonville during their annual lottery, but something seems off…..

The art is nice, featuring a variety of webcomics and small press comics artists.    Between the stories there are fake ads for the show’s sponsors, Workjuice Coffee and Patriot Brand Cigarettes.  The latter, and the feature “Beyond Belief” about perpetually drunk paranormal detectives, means that parents might not want to give this to small children.

This is rollicking good fun, and recommended to fans of anthology comics and old-time radio.

Comic Book Review: ‘Tain’t the Meat…It’s the Humanity!

Comic Book Review: ‘Tain’t the Meat…It’s the Humanity! art by Jack Davis

EC Comics was for a short time a brilliant publisher of crime, SF and especially horror comics in the early 1950s.  One of the things that made them so great was having some of the best artists working in the field at the time.  This book collects several stories artistically rendered by Jack Davis, particularly from the Tales From the Crypt series.

'Tain't the Meat, It's the Humanity

Mr. Davis had a great line in rotting corpses, feral rats and ugly-natured humans.  This is a black and white reprint, which allows his use of strong blacks to be shown to advantage.  (He went on to a long, successful career in other comics areas after horror comics were gutted by the Comics Code.)

EC’s horror titles were notorious for their twist endings, and horrible puns.  The title story is no exception, being about a World War Two-era butcher who gets tempted by the money of the black market.  Other standouts include “The Trophy!” about a hunter who only kills animals for bragging rights (two versions, one done originally for a 3-D comic!), “Gas-tly Prospects!’ about a murdered prospector that won’t stay buried, and “Lower Berth” with (at the time) the most unexpected twist of all.

There’s also some biographical material about Mr. Davis, whose life was thankfully nothing like the stories he illustrated.

This is classic stuff, and highly recommended for teenagers and up.  (Some scenes may be a little intense for preteens.)

Book Review: Murder by Sunlight

Book Review: Murder by Sunlight by Barbara Graham

Disclaimer: I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Murder by Sunlight

It’s coming up on the Fourth of July in tiny Park County in Tennessee, and Sheriff Tony Abernathy must deal with not just the heat and increased traffic, but a sudden wave of crime.  Someone is going around assaulting people in an attempt to find “Bob”, a man is found impaled on a tree, and a woman is murdered–by sunlight!  Good thing the sheriff’s wife Theo runs the local quilting shop, where she can catch the gossip while a charity quilt is being made.

This is part of the “Quilted Mystery” series, none of which I have read before.   Amusingly, the fact that several high-profile murders have occurred around one small town is acknowledged, and may be causing political problems for the sheriff.

The story reflects the business of a sheriff’s department, with many issues popping up, some connected to the main plotline, others mostly irrelevant.  I found most of the characters likable, or at least believable–as often happens in murder mysteries, the central victim has a personality that leads you to question why she wasn’t murdered before this.

I really liked that volunteerism leads to at least one character having as happy an ending to their part in the story as is possible under the circumstances.  And crafty people may enjoy putting together a quilt pattern that’s slowly revealed through the book.

It’s a good fast read and a fun mystery.  Thrifty readers may want to check to see if there’s paperback editions of the earlier books, or consult the library, as the hardback is $25.95 new.

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (USA)

Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (USA)

It’s the first anniversary of my blog!  To celebrate, I thought it would be nice to update the very first review that appeared here.  http://www.skjam.com/2012/12/09/manga-review-shonen-jump-alpha/

Shonen Jump

Shounen Jump is still Japan’s number one best-selling manga anthology title.  Although the primary market is still middle-school through high school boys, people of all ages and body shapes enjoy these tales of friendship, struggle and victory.  Weekly Shonen Jump is the English language edition, which now has many of the series available online the same day they’re legally for sale in Japan.  (Due to a persistent piracy problem, scans of the Japanese version appear online a week early.)

Because of the change to same-day release, the name of the ezine was changed from Shonen Jump Alpha to Weekly Shonen Jump.  Those of you who live outside the U.S.A. will be happy to hear that  Viz (the publishers) have arranged for it to be legally available in most English-speaking countries, and they’re working on the rest of the world.

Now, let’s take a look at what’s currently running.

Weekly

One Piece:  Still Shonen Jump’s flagship title.  Young Luffy D. Monkey lives on a world that’s mostly water.  He decides he’s going to be the Pirate King, and sets out on a voyage to find the mysterious One Piece treasure.  Along the way he gathers a wacky crew and battles evil pirates and the dictatorial World Government.    Having captured the main baddie on Punk Hazard, the Straw Hat Pirates sail to Dressrosa (which looks like a cross between Spain and Toyland) to negotiate with his boss.  Unfortunately, Dressrosa turns out to be a lot more sinister than it looks, and while Luffy is distracted by a gladiatorial contest, the rest of the crew learns dark secrets.

Naruto:   Young Naruto Uzumaki, an outcast in his hidden ninja village, decides that he will one day become the Hokage, leader of the village.  A year later, and we are still on the final battle of the Ninja World War–I don’t think even a full day has gone by yet.  It does look like the fight may be winding down within the next year, as all the major players are in one place.

Bleach:  Ichigo Kurosaki, a young man who can see ghosts, finds himself embroiled in the affairs of the otherworldly Soul Reapers who help dead people reach the afterlife.  This one is officially on its final plot arc, with the creator having taken a hiatus to plot out the intricacies of the Vandenreich’s attempt to destroy the Soul Society.  Perhaps by this time next year a full day will have passed.

Toriko:  Toriko is a Food Hunter in a world where the more dangerous it is to acquire the food substance, the more delicious it is.  The attack by the evil food organization, along with the emergence of a new even more evil organization, has resulted in a disruption of the ecosystem, leading to mass starvation.  The other heroes have a plan to restore the world that used to be known as Earth, but  they’ll need Toriko to help, and he’s kind of out of it.

Nisekoi:  False love is the name of the game, as Raku and Chitoge have to pretend to be dating to end a feud between their respective clans.  Meanwhile, Raku made a childhood promise to a girl whose name and face he cannot remember, and there are several girls it could be, including Chitoge.  This very formula romantic comedy continues to play the variations on its central theme.  The main plot development has been the introduction of one character’s little sister, who thinks Raku is an enemy of all women, especially her older sister, and doesn’t realize Raku’s also the mysterious protector she has a crush on.

World Trigger:  Earth is being invaded by creatures called Neighbors from an adjacent dimension.  The secretive agency Border has been formed to fight them.  Osamu Mikumo, a wimpy but goodhearted Border trainee, finds out that new classmate Kuga Yuuma is himself a Neighbor who is on Earth illegally to fulfill the wishes of his late father.  It turns out the Neighbor world political situation is far more complicated than most Earthlings knew.  Currently, our two young men and Chika, a girl whose brother went missing in the Neighbor world, are trying to become full-fledged Border agents.  This series started off very weak, but has greatly improved as it found a direction.

Dragonball Z:  Yes, the one about the mighty Son Goku finding out he’s actually an alien and having to battle against increasingly strong threats to humanity.  This is a rerun, but has been colorized and spiffed up a bit for new readers.  I actually preferred the first half of the Dragonball series, but for those who grew up on Z, this is a nostalgia blast.

Monthly

Seraph of the End:   A mysterious “virus” kills 90% of the adults on Earth.   Many of the children are abducted underground by vampires to protect/feed on them.  On the surface, the remaining humans are hunted by monsters, and the Demon Army has to use dangerous possessed weapons to battle them.   Our protagonist was a bitter orphan even before the series began, only bonding with the rest of the orphanage kids moments before the caretakers died of disease, and then the rest of the orphans were murdered in an attempt to escape the vampires.  So he’s understandably skeptical of the need for friendship to become a functional member of the Demon Army.  He’s kind of a prick, honestly.

Blue Exorcist:  Young delinquent Rin Okumura discovers that he is in fact the son of Satan and thus half-demon.   Rebellious by nature, he refuses to join his father’s forces and instead enrolls in a school for exorcists to battle the forces of evil.   Currently, one of the exorcism students has been kidnapped with the assistance of another student who it appears was a spy for the Illuminati all along.  Time for a rescue mission!

Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal:  Yuma Tsukumo is, in theory, a huge fan of the card game Duel Monsters, despite not knowing anything about the rules or customs of it.  He acquires a not-so-imaginary friend nicknamed Astral who has lost its memories but helps Yuma win duels.  Right now in the manga, it turns out that destroying the Astral World will destroy the human world as well, turning the villains into omnicidal maniacs.  Worse, Astral’s original purpose in coming to Earth was to destroy the human world to protect the Astral one….

One Punch Man:  Saitama, an unemployed salaryman, was bored with his life, and decided to become a superhero.  After training so fanatically that his hair fell out, Saitama became a powerful superhero who can defeat any enemy with one punch.   Which again leaves him feeling kind of empty, since there’s no challenge in that.   Now he searches for meaning in his life, while monsters and villains need punching.  This superhero parody is surprisingly deep for its simple premise, and has had some of the best action scenes in manga.  Currently, Saitama’s best buddy, cyborg Genos, is invited to a meeting of the top heroes and Saitama tags along.

If you like shounen action manga, Shonen Jump Weekly is good value for money.

 

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