Book Review: Kiss Your Elbow

Book Review: Kiss Your Elbow by Alan Handley

Before Harlequin became the go-to publisher for romance paperbacks, it published other genres as well, primarily trashy crime novels with steamy bits.  As part of the publisher’s 60th anniversary, it’s reprinting some of these early works, including the one being reviewed here.

Kiss Your Elbow

Tim Briscoe is an actor in late 1940s New York City, trying to break into a big-time role so he can finally make it on Broadway or even into the movies.  (Some of the characters speculate that the new television  world will be a good source of income once it’s got the bugs worked out.)   But he’s not having a lot of luck.  And by the end of the first chapter,  his luck gets worse when he finds his agent dead, with a paperwork spindle through her heart.

The police call it an accident, but Tim removed a vital piece of evidence from the scene, and when a second lethal “accident” occurs, he realizes he’d better find out the truth before he takes a permanent role as a corpse!

Mr. Handley was himself a stage actor and director before moving into television, so his picture of the theatrical world seems at least superficially accurate.  Everyone drinks like a fish (except the alcoholic, who drinks more) and most of them smoke like chimneys as well.  There’s backbiting and backstage politics, and too many actors for too few parts.

I should have seen the ending coming, but was distracted for several chapters by one of the characters having too slick of an alibi at one point.  And I’m not even sure the author planned it that way.  Oh, and despite this being before Harlequin was big on romance, there’s a romantic subplot as well.

Warning:  There are some ugly Forties attitudes at work, which I can’t describe in any detail due to them tying directly to spoilers.  I’m not even going to put them in the tags for safety.  Just be warned that many readers will find certain things distasteful.

Recommended to old-fashioned trashy paperback fans, Harlequin readers, and those who love stories with greasepaint.

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis by Nicholas J. Willis

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

Frances Elizabeth Williams

Frances Elizabeth Willis (1899-1983) was the first woman to rise through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service to become a Career Ambassador, serving as the United Stares ambassador to Switzerland, Norway and Ceylon.  (There had been other women who had served as ambassadors previously, but they had been political appointees.)  This biography traces her remarkable career.

The author (her nephew) starts with a rare anecdote Miss Willis (and it was Miss Willis until she became Madame Ambassador) shared with her family, asking them not to repeat it until everyone involved was dead.  And no wonder, as it contradicted official history and might have reflected unfavorably on another ambassador!  She never kept a diary, did not retain any official documents that were not about her directly, and by the time she thought about writing a memoir, Miss Willis’ memory was beginning to fail for medical reasons.

So it is that there are some unfortunate gaps in this biography–but I have certainly seen biographies with worse gaps.    The author was able to get access to declassified documents, including her service dossier, and the latter has much of the interest in this book.  It seems that during her career, Frances Willis never requested to see what was in her dossier, and as a result, was unaware of just how deep the gender bias against her was.

The subtitle of the biography is “Up the Foreign Service ladder to the summit–despite the limitations of her sex, a repeated phrase in the dossier.  The old saying that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to be given half the respect certainly seems true here.  The “old guard” did not think consular work and diplomacy were fit work for women, and did everything they could behind the scenes to discourage them.

But Miss Willis was an extraordinary person, and went above and beyond to prove her worth to the Foreign Service.  Promotions might have come long after they should have, but she kept plugging away, and those co-workers who knew her personally boosted her career.

This book offers some interesting insights into the world of the Foreign Service, and how it changed during Miss Willis’ long career.  Sadly, some of the most interesting-sounding bits remain classified, so we will probably never know much about the espionage side of her job.

There are photos throughout the text, rather than crammed into the middle like many other biographies.    There’s an appendix explaining the history, bureaucratic structure and nomenclature of the Foreign Service, which is helpful to decipher some of the more arcane moments, as well as an index.

The author is perhaps a little too fond of reminding the reader that he was in the Navy, and there are some spellchecker-passed typos (“compliment ” and “complement” get mixed up a couple of times.)  It’s not bad for a self-published book, but could have used another editorial pass.

This book will be of interest to those who want a look at the workings of American diplomacy, and those who want to read about successful women (note that Frances Williams was careful to distance herself from the feminist movement as such; that could have been the kiss of death in the early days.)

Due to the self-publishing, it may not be stocked in your local library, so consider buying a copy.

Open Thread: Water Damage

A pipe burst in my apartment building Monday night, and quite a bit of water dripped down through my ceiling.    It appears that none of my upcoming Goodreads giveaway books were affected, but some of the books I’ve previously reviewed might have been, and my bedding was soaked considerably.

Picture of Scully the Cat Ghost (tm) created by Djinn for my personal use, please do not reuse without permisson.
Picture of Scully the Cat Ghost ™ created by Djinn for my personal use, please do not reuse without permisson.

So it may be a bit for new entries while I clean and try to catch up on homework.

In the meantime, anyone  got a good tropical vacation story?

Comic Strip Review: Johnny Comet

Comic Strip Review: Johnny Comet by Frank Frazetta & Earl Baldwin

Before Frank Frazetta hit it big with movie posters and book cover paintings of brawny barbarians and scantily-clad women, he worked in comic books and tried to break into the lucrative newspaper comics business.    After a couple of abortive efforts, Mr. Frazetta was hired in 1952 to do the art for Johnny Comet, the tale of a driver of midget race cars.

Johnny Comet

The strip was written by Earl Baldwin, although the name of Indy 500 winner Peter DePaolo was attached to raise reader interest.   Johnny starts the strip loaning a tire to a hapless competitor of his, who goes on to win the race while Johnny crashes his vehicle.  Johnny’s idea of becoming a  mobile car repairman almost immediately falls through when his jalopy is destroyed in Clover, California.

Fortunately, this puts him in position to help out Jean Fargo,  a garage owner who just happens to have a midget car that needs a driver.  Aided by engineer “Pop” Bottle, his acerbic wife Mrs. Bottle and mechanic Sparky, Johnny and Jean battle the evil Al Gore(!) and his secret backer, who have good reasons to not want Johnny Comet to win the race.

The writing is kind of mediocre, with the basic plot device of a job opportunity for Johnny or his friends meaning ruin for someone else, who will then resort to violence rather than think of a less criminal way of doing things used repeatedly.  Mr. Baldwin was also overfond of resolving plotlines with the karmic death of the villains or an offstage arrest.

The art, on the other hand, was excellent, with Frazetta’s trademark handsome lead, attractive women , vile looking villains–and some very nice-looking cars.  There’s some fine craftsmanship on display in these strips.  A nice touch early on was the safety tips tucked into panels that let you know not to do the crazy stunts the characters get up to.

Towards the end of the strip, it was reworked, with Johnny being renamed Ace McCoy and becoming a stuntman.    There’s one storyline of this, and then the strip was cancelled three installments into the next plot, leaving the characters hanging forever.

The Sunday strips had a separate continuity and are reprinted here in color; they quickly switched to a gag format, mostly about Pop Bottle and Johnny being bumbling men who manage to offend Mrs. Bottle even when they’re trying to help.

There’s also an article on Mr. Frazetta’s comic strip career (he wound up as Al Capp’s assistant on Li’l Abner for eight years.)

If you’re a Frank Frazetta fan, or a midget car racing fan, this is a must-have.    Others will want to check it out from the library for the good art and mostly fun read.

Book Review: The Overcoming Life

Book Review: The Overcoming Life by D.L. Moody

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

The Overcoming Life

Dwight Lyman Moody (1837-1899) was one of the great evangelists of the Nineteenth Century.  Although of limited education himself, he strongly supported higher learning and founded the Chicago Bible Institute (renamed after him after his death).  He was a big believer in missionary work as well and sent many people to China to spread the good word.

This book was originally published in 1896, towards the end of Mr. Moody’s career.  It is, essentially, a sermon in book form on the subject of living a life that continues to overcome the old sinful nature.

It comes with a new introduction by J. Paul Nyquist, and a short biography of Mr. Moody.   You might want to skip the former until after reading the book, as it’s a bit redundant and a teensy “here’s how you should read this book.”

Once into the main text, Mr. Moody demonstrates his preaching skills.  He might have started barely able to read the Bible himself, but by this late date he had plumbed its depths and could call up needed verses with a natural flow.  He’s also full of stories, both those he experienced himself and ones he was told by others or read, that illustrate points.  The language is a bit antiquated in parts, but nothing that a strong reader won’t be able to parse.

He has messages for both the saved Christian and those who are unsaved.  It is not necessary to come to Jesus already cleansed of sin, Mr. Moody states, you come to Him as you are, even with the chains of wrongdoing and worldly urges still upon you.

But once you are saved, and salvation is free for the asking, it is up to you to continue working on overcoming the old nature within you.  “It is like this:  when a man enters the army, he is a member of the army the moment he enlists; he is just a much a member as a man who has been in the army ten or twenty years.  But enlisting is one thing and participating in a battle another.”

Some Christians become discouraged because they face temptation even stronger than when they were unsaved, and God seems to have left them alone on the road.  Mr. Moody points to the many great men of the Bible who failed at some point or another, yet God did not desert them.  He also speaks of his own struggles with the sins of pride and anger, often having to mend fences with those he has sinned against.

He speaks of the enemies that Christians face, both within and without.  He’s especially hard on the problem of alcohol–Mr. Moody was a forerunner of the Prohibition movement.  he also speaks of the virtues that Christians can use to overcome these enemies; temperance, humility and kindness.

A large portion of the book is given to the matter of Noah, and it is here that I must regretfully disagree with Mr. Moody.   He believes that if the story of Noah is not literally true exactly as it is set down, then the whole Bible falls apart.  There has been a century or more since of advances in scientific knowledge and Biblical scholarship since Mr. Moody’s day, and the literal story of Noah just doesn’t stand up.

If given a choice between the Bible sometimes using metaphor and greatly simplified stories to tell a greater truth, and God deliberately making the stars and stones and genetic material such that they would contradict His own Word, then I’m going to go with the former.

That said, he tells a rip-roaring version of what it might have been like to live in the days of Noah, before the Flood.

The sermon ends with “Seven ‘I Wills’ of Christ”, detailing Jesus’ promises to those who come to HIm for salvation and persevere despite the hardships.

Afterwards are several passages of Scripture, and the words to some great old hymns.

This is a work of invitation, of admonishment and encouragement; if you feel the call, come and read.

Let;s end with a hymn, written by one of D.L. Moody’s friends–“It is Well with My Soul.”  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T8_EfDqF7YI

Book Review: Thanks for the Feedback

Book Review: Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  Also, the version I read was an Advance Readers’ Copy and some changes may be made in the final version.

Thanks for the Feedback

We’ve all been there.  You go above and beyond busting your butt on the job for a year, but your boss’ evaluation says “meets minimum standards” and no pay raise.  Your mother asks for the thousandth time why you can’t be more like your Nobel Prize winning sister who married a brain surgeon and has provided Mom with two lovely grandchildren.  A random crack from a passerby about your nose puts you in a depressed funk for the rest of the day.

We all get feedback that’s not useful, not helpful, unwanted, badly timed or just wrong.   It can really do a number on your psyche, or get rejected out of hand, no matter what the actual truth value of it is.   However, there can be parts of the feedback that would actually be useful if you can excise the wrong parts and the hurtful way it was delivered.

And that’s what this book is about.  It’s by two of the three authors of Difficult Conversations, because they learned that giving proper feedback and receiving feedback were both listed as very difficult conversations indeed.    Most businesses concentrate on teaching their managers to give feedback, so this book primarily works from the other direction, learning to receive feedback in a manner that makes it productive.

First, there’s some discussion of the three main types of feedback, appreciation, coaching and evaluation, what the difference is, and how each is useful in its own way.  Quite a bit of the book is examining the various types of “triggers” that can prevent feedback from being received correctly;  truth triggers (this information is factually wrong), relationship triggers (the person telling me this is not credible) and identity triggers (“so what you’re saying is that I’m an unfit parent?”)

The text examines how to spot that these triggers are happening and how to deal with them.   According to the authors, triggers can make the conversation about the triggers, rather than about the original feedback.  Redirecting the conversation to what the other person actually means by their feedback can be more productive.  One of the concepts I found most helpful was dealing with “switchtracks,” where both people in the conversation  are addressing different issues so both are monologuing about their own pet peeve, rather than addressing them one at a time.  Some of the suggested phrasing is things no human being would ever say in a natural conversation, but that’s what is supposed to make it effective by breaking the negative feedback cycle.

There’s a section on brain functions, which the authors acknowledge may become dated swiftly,   Neuroscience is a rapidly changing field and in five years time everything quoted here may be obsolete or proved wrong.  They do their best to explain current theory and how people can deal with their brain wiring to get better results from feedback.

Then comes the section on using the information on feedback in the actual process, including how to set boundaries (you need to receive feedback properly; that doesn’t mean you’re going to take the advice you’re given.)    There’s information on how to “coach your coach” so that they can learn to give you the feedback that will be the most helpful.  One thing they don’t really cover is dealing with trolls and bullies, people who deliberately give you wrong or injurious feedback for malicious purposes.  You’re still on your own to spot the difference between them and people who give hurtful feedback for non-malicious reasons.

Finally, there’s a chapter on how to integrate better feedback reception (and giving) into an organizational culture.

The acknowledgements are especially interesting as a model for showing appreciation, and there are extensive end notes.  The ARC did not have an index, but did include a “road map” that goes into more detail than the table of contents.  There are a number of illustrations; mostly figures.

Is this a useful book?  I would say yes.   It’s well-organized, has useful information in an understandable format, and has applicability in the real world.

That said, I think it is a book the readers will need to seek out for themselves.  Being given or recommended this book is a form of feedback that could be taken wrongly.  (“Are you implying I can’t take feedback?!”)  And being given this book by your manager will arouse as much suspicion as say, Who Moved My Cheese?, notorious as a book that management loves and employees find self-serving.

I recommend this book for business people,  college students (high school students might need a slightly simpler version), bloggers and anyone who finds themselves surrounded by idiots that never, ever give good feedback.

 

Comic Book Review: Boxers & Saints

Comic Book Review: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Disclaimer:  I received this boxed set as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Boxers

Little Bao is a farm boy who loves the Chinese operas performed at the spring festivals every year.  But one year a foreign devil, a missionary, appears and disrupts the festival, destroying the image of the Earth god that protects the village.  Disaster follows soon thereafter, both for the village and for Bao’s family.

Bao comes to hate the Christian missionaries and their foreign backers, as well as the “secondary devils”, Chinese who have converted to the Christian faith.  The government is in the pocket of the foreigners, but eventually Bao becomes part of a liberation movement, the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist.

Saints

Four-Girl is an unwanted child, a fourth daughter who is so unwelcomed by her own family that they don’t even give her an actual name.  Called a “devil”, she resolves to become the best devil she can be–and this leads her to Christianity.   In that community, she finds things she never had before:  cookies, compassion, acceptance, and the ability to choose her own name (Vibiana) and purpose in life.

It’s too bad that the Boxers are going around killing all the Christians.

This pair of graphic novels by Gene Luen Yang, creator of American Born Chinese, are set during the Boxer Rebellion (primarily 1899-1901)  and are reflections of each other.  Both Bao and Vibiana find themselves unable to accept their circumstances, and rebel in different ways.  These counterpart viewpoints cross over during their stories, showing that events have more than one interpretation, and the cruel ironies of incomplete information.

Bao and Vibiana also both have spiritual experiences,  Bao channels Ch’in Shih-huang, the first Emperor of China, who turns out to be a very demanding ghost.  Vibiana has visions of Joan of Arc, who encourages the young woman to seek her own path, but whose final fate foreshadows the ending of both stories.

As these books are fictional versions for the young adult audience, historical events have been simplified somewhat. to fit into the narrative.   No side ends up the “good guys” however.  The Harmonious Fist has high principles, but not everyone in their group keeps all of them, and even Bao finds himself committing atrocities.  Father Bey, an antagonist in Boxers, is a more sympathetic character in Saints, but his judgmental nature and bluntness cause more than one  bad outcome.

Trigger Warning:  Bao’s brothers bully him initially, though they come to respect him later.  Four-Girl goes through years of emotional abuse, ending in a cold-blooded act of physical abuse that drives Vibiana away from her family forever.

These graphic novels cover a period of history that most Westerners are likely unfamiliar with beyond a brief mention in World History or the Yellow Peril literature of the early Twentieth Century.  They are best read back-to-back, and now come in a boxed set for that purpose.  Parents should consider reading these with their young adults to discuss some of the more difficult subject matter, and checking out the Further Reading in the back which lists more scholarly looks at the history.

Overall:  Very good, and well worth a look.

 

 

Book Review: White Fang

Book Review: White Fang by Jack London

Like many a lad, I read this classic adventure story when I was quite young (despite it most assuredly not being a children’s book.)  I have long planned to reread it when I had the opportunity, and was fortunate enough to get it for Christmas.

White Fang

For those who have forgotten the plot, or somehow never got to read the book, the title character, White Fang, is a wolf-dog crossbreed who is born in the wilds of the Yukon Territory.  He is captured by native humans and trained as a sled dog, then sold to a cruel white man who uses White Fang in cage fights.  Finally White Fang comes into the possession of a kind man who treats him with compassion and retires to California.

This book is based loosely on Mr. London’s own experiences as a sourdough in the Klondike gold rush, and is a mirror to his book Call of the Wild, which is about a dog from California that is shanghaied to the Klondike and eventually goes feral.  The story takes its own sweet time getting to White Fang.  The opening paragraphs begin with spruce trees and ice in the Wild, then introduce dogs, then the sled they are pulling, and only then the humans who own the sled.

These humans are fleeing a starving wolf pack, and they don’t all make it out alive.  We then follow the wolves for a while as their party dwindles.  Finally two are left, and they spawn a cub who is named White Fang a couple of chapters later.

The harsh realities of death are constantly brought up in the story–most of the animals and several of the humans we are introduced to die, some of them at the fangs of our protagonist himself.    There’s also a fair bit of musing on the “nature vs. nuture” question, though never put in those terms.   White Fang’s behavior is based on his inherited instincts, but heavily modified by his environment; thus when he is finally shown compassion, White Fang can learn to love.

This is contrasted in the final chapter with an escaped convict, Jim Hall, whose circumstances have turned him into a hardened killer.  (And in an instance of dramatic irony, has a genuine reason for his grudge against the judge who sentenced him to prison–he was innocent that time!)  Hall never got that moment of compassion, and has passed beyond human redemption.

As you might have gathered, there are many scenes of animal abuse in this book which may be too intense for young readers.  In addition, the story is a product of its time, and its portrayal of First Nations people is antiquated.  (While White Fang “instinctively” knows that the white men are superior to the Indians, it’s made clear that this superiority is confined to ability to project power.  The cruel Beauty Smith is a much worse dog owner than the harsh but practical Grey Beaver.)

There’s also some dubious canine behavior, some of which may be because Mr. London was genuinely mistaken, and other bits exaggerated to make the story more exciting.

Overall, this is really one of the great dog stories, and highly recommended to readers mature enough to handle the themes.  This story is in the public domain and you should be able to find it in an affordable edition (often paired with Call of the Wild) even new, or readily available at any used bookstore or library.

Book Review: Splatterlands

Book Review: Splatterlands edited by Anthony Rivera and Sharon Lawson

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

Splatterlands

According to Wikipedia, “splatterpunk” was a movement in horror writing between roughly 1985 and 1995,  distinguished by its graphic and often gory descriptions of violence and attempts to create “hyperintensive” horror with no limits.  Supernatural elements are neither necessary or forbidden.  It seems to have been subsumed by newer trends in horror fiction, but never entirely died out.

Splatterlands is an anthology of thirteen short stories that try to recapture the feel of the splatterpunk movement.   As such, it is filled with sex, violence, sexual violence, crude language and a fascination with body fluids.  I’m going to come right out and issue a Trigger Warning for rape, torture, abuse and suicide.

For example, the first story, “Heirloom” by Michael Laimo, is about a woman who inherits a phallic symbol.  The main action of the story involves an explicitly described act of semi-consensual sexual violence.  If that immediately triggers your “do not want” instinct, then this volume is not for you.

Some stories that stood out include “Violence for Fun and Profit” by Gregory L. Norris, about the origin of a hired assassin/serial killer that’s frighteningly topical; “Housesitting” by Ray Garton (the only reprint), a relatively  understated tale of a housesitter who snoops and finds out things she’d rather not about her neighbors; “The Defiled” by Christine Morgan, about a band of Viking raiders who meet a karmic fate; and “The Devil Rides Shotgun” by Eric del Carlo, in which a police officer makes a demonic pact to track down a serial killer.

One story that really didn’t work for me was “Empty” by A.A. Garrison.  It’s about a woman in a post-apocalyptic world seeking medical assistance for her husband.  It turns out to be metafictional humor, (and I did like the protest sign that said “Too Many Adverbs”), but really came across as trying too hard.

Recommended for horror fans with strong stomachs, especially those who were fans of the original splatterpunk movement.  Probably not suitable for anyone else, despite the high quality of some of the stories.

Book Review: Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments

Book Review: Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments by Barbara Postema

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

Narrative Structure in Comics

This is a scholarly work on the subject of “Comics” which here includes comic books, comic strips, graphic novels and sundry related items.  The emphasis is on the formal elements of comics, the structure which is used to create narrative.  Definition of terms and the historical development of comics as an art form are relegated to appendices.

Ms. Postema’s thesis is focused on the concept of “gaps”, which allow and require the implied reader to fill in those gaps and create the narrative.  The combination of pictures and gaps and often words creates an intertextuality that makes the reader a part of the creative process.

There are numerous illustrations in both color and black & white, while other examples are merely described and the student will have to look them up for themselves.   The fragments on the cover are from  Shutterbug Follies by Jason Little, which is also discussed in some detail (including spoilers!) in the text.  By a happy coincidence, this work is being reprinted on GoComics for free.  http://www.gocomics.com/shutterbug-follies/2014/01/06#.UtQkGZ5dWa8

There’s a considerable bibliography of both scholarly works and fine comics, and a helpful index.    This is, as stated before, a scholarly work that would most likely be used in college courses dealing with comics.  Bright high school students with an interest in the deeper aspects of comics should be able to handle it.  Id’d also recommend it to comics fans who enjoy examining formal narrative structure.

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