Open Thread: Inspired Blog Challenge Wrap-Up

Today is the last day of the Inspired Blog Challenge, so it’s time for a wrap-up 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.

The main objective was to post twenty times during the month, and that was accomplished.

While joining the challenge did not greatly increase the number of pageviews (other things I did during the month were more effective), I did get a lot more comments than usual, a couple of them from people not even in the challenge!

My top ten viewed posts during the last month were:

  1.  Book Review: Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments (Mostly by fans of Shutterbug Follies, a comic strip featured as an example in the book.)
  2.  Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition (A just-published volume based on a best-selling revisionist history book.)
  3.  Open Thread: Inspired Blog Challenge Day One (This one definitely boosted by joining the challenge, as everyone in it gave me one shot.)
  4. Open Thread: Mother’s Day (Everyone loves their Mom, or knows someone who does, right?)
  5. Anime Review: Magi – Labyrinth of Magic (Very popular show among anime fans.)
  6. Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 1 (A biography of famous sword-slinger Miyamoto Musashi, by a popular creator.)
  7. Manga Review: Weekly Shonen Jump (USA) (The most popular ongoing manga series.)
  8. Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book 1 (Exciting, well-researched Viking story.)
  9. Book Review: The Saint: The Man Who Was Clever (Got a big boost from being mentioned on a site for pulp fans.)
  10. Book Review: Blood Aces (Biography of a Texas gangster who made it big in Las Vegas.)

I don’t know that the Inspired Blog Facebook group is the best fit for me, given most of the other blogs in it are “lifestyle” or “artistic.” But we’ll see going forward.

Got a huge increase in spam once I joined the challenge, Akismet seems to be dealing with it.

So, topics for discussion: have you ever been in a blogging challenge, and how did it go for you? Or alternatively, plug a blog other than your own that you really like and people should go see.

Book Review: Jet Set

Book Review: Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Sex in Aviation’s Glory Years by William Stadiem

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and there will be considerable changes made to the final product, due to be in stores June 2014.

Jet Set

This is a chatty history of the period from 1958, the introduction of the 707 passenger jet, through approximately 1970, the heyday of fast, easy and almost affordable travel between the United States and Europe.  The book opens with an account of the Cháteau de Sully crash in 1962, the worst blow to Atlanta, Georgia’s society since General Sherman, as a 707 crashed in Paris with most of the Atlanta Art Association aboard.

But most of the book is less about the ordinary travelers of the period, or even the pilots and crew of the jets.  Instead, we get short biographies of the movers and shakers of the jet aircraft industry and airlines, the glitterati who made up the “Set” even before jets were added, and the various hoteliers, restaurateurs, movie folks and gossip columnists that gave the era much of its glamour.

It’s very much a “six degrees” book, with Celebrity A having been married to Model B, who then married Executive C, who attended parties for Movie Star D…There’s a lot of name-dropping.  Often, the narrative will flit through three or four different tangents before coming back to the story the chapter is telling.

There was an awful lot of sex going on in the Jet Set, it seems, with many of the people discussed having three or four spouses, and twice as many affairs.   Also a lot of sexism.  While there are stories of a few notable women who managed to beat the odds, becoming successful and influential in the society world, the Jet Set was not a hotbed of the Women’s Lib movement, which was going on elsewhere.

By the end of the time period discussed, a number of factors killed off the Jet Set era; skyjacking, inflation, the aging out, imprisonment or death of many playboys, and the youth movement making “cool” more important than “smooth.”  The final chapter describes the fate of many of the main people discussed.

There’s a scattering of black and white photos, and in the finished product there will be a bibliography and index.

The book’s style tends towards the gossipy, with more sober chunks interspersed.   I’d recommend it more for the casual reader who is nostalgic for the era, or would like to know what it was all about,  than the serious scholar.

Anime Review: Elfen Lied

Anime Review: Elfen Lied

There is a secret laboratory off the coast of Kamakura, Japan.  There a naked woman wearing an eyeless helmet, codenamed “Lucy”, is undergoing experimentation.   When the helmet is damaged, allowing Lucy to see, she sets about freeing herself, slaughtering many of the lab’s personnel in the process.  Yes, even the adorably clumsy comic relief character.   One of the lab’s guards manages to get a shot in that breaks the helmet off and give Lucy a head wound.  As we see that the woman has horns, she falls into the surrounding ocean.

Elfen Lied

Not too long after, a young man named Kouta is walking on a Kamakura beach.  He’s recently moved to the city to attend college, and shares a house with his cousin Yuka, a native of the area.   Yuka has had a crush on Kouta since they met as children, but he suffered a long illness that has wiped out most of his childhood memories and doesn’t share her interest.  Kouta stumbled across a nude girl lying on the beach, who has horns.  She appears to be a complete amnesiac, who can only say the word “Nyu.”  Nicknaming the girl Nyu, Kouta takes her home for shelter.

Soon, other visitors begin accumulating at Kaede House, but not all of them are friendly.  For Lucy/Nyu is a diclonius, a mutant offshoot of the human race with deadly psychic powers.    The laboratory wants her back at any cost, because if allowed to run free, Lucy may doom all mankind.  Or at least that’s what most of them have been told.  Oh, and Kouta’s meeting with Nyu might not have been so coincidental after all.

Elfen Lied is based on a seinen (young men’s) manga by Lynn Okamoto.  It’s a peculiar blend of  horror and romantic comedy riffs.   The characters at Kaede House tend to fall into romantic “types” familiar to anyone who’s watched a lot of anime, but twisted by the horrific backstory.

There is quite a lot of gore and nudity; the powers of the diclonius lend themselves to people being ripped open or sliced apart.  Trigger Warnings as well for rape, sexual abuse, torture and child abuse.  This is not a series for the weak of stomach.  (Indeed, it had to be shown on late-night satellite TV.)

The peaceful seaside town of Kamakura (not far from the Enoshima setting of Tsuritama) contrasts with the often violent events.  The real-life location allows for a certain amount of resonance when we see particular sites in flashbacks as opposed to the modern day.  It also allows for a certain amount of clash in the backstory; the diclonius are described as wanting to destroy all humans, but all the ones we see have been horribly mistreated by humans in the first place.

It’s also worth noting that all the diclonius with powers we see in the series are female.  They are treated as property by many of the male characters, to be killed, experimented on or used as weapons at a whim.  This may have a deeper theme, or just be fanservice.

Because the manga was still running when the anime was made, the show ends on an ambiguous note after thirteen episodes.  The manga has now finished, but is not yet legally available in English.

The music for the series is…interesting.  The opening theme is “Lilium”, a religious song in Latin that serves in-story as a bond between Kouta and Lucy.  The closing theme is “Be Your Girl” a peppy sounding pop song (which often clashes with the events just seen) which turns out to be about the pain of unrequited love.  The “Elf Song” referred to in the title is not used in the anime, but only sung in the manga by a character that was not in the anime either.

Overall?  This series is most assuredly not for everyone, or even most people.   You may enjoy it best if you are fond of R-rated horror movies with plenty of gore, but want a bit more character development than you’d normally get.

Open Thread: Content Warnings

One of the features I try to put in my reviews is “content warnings.”  I don’t always phrase it in that way, but the intent is there.   Today I’ll talk a bit about why that is.

You don't see this much anymore, but NC-17 just doesn't have the same ring.

I’m writing for a wide audience in this blog, from internet-savvy teenagers through concerned parents and avid fans of gory media, to people who want to find out what this thing their relatives and friends are talking about is, without going into too much detail.  And my Mom.  (Hi, Mom!)  All of these folks have different concerns about content.

There are some broad categories of content that can cause problems for some readers/listeners/viewers.    The one I’m most concerned about mentioning is “triggers.”  These are subjects that can cause traumatic flashbacks in some audience members.  Coming across these unexpectedly can be very upsetting, spoiling the experience of the media for those people.  Common triggers include rape, torture and abuse of all sorts.  I will always try to warn for these things unless it involves spoiling surprises, and even then I will mention that there is something triggery that I can’t reveal.

Then there are things that are less likely to trigger people, but many audience members are not interested in seeing, such as excessive gore or “onscreen” sex scenes.  Often, these can be indicated by the genre of the media, or a passing mention.  (“Everyone Dies Horribly is a very violent gorefest.”)

And then there are the kinds of content that’s usually considered okay for adults, but that parents aren’t keen on having their children exposed to.  Partial nudity, realistic violence, rough language, that sort of thing.  I try to be most vigilant about this sort of thing when what I’m reviewing is meant for younger people, or might be mistaken by parents as meant for children.  (A surprising number of parents still think that animation is, or rather should be, children’s and family fare exclusively.)

Note that having problematic content does not make a particular piece of media “bad”, nor does the absence of such make it “good.”  It can, however, make that piece of media suitable or unsuitable for particular audience members.  It’s perfectly fine to skip a movie with swearing if you’re not happy when characters spew obscenities.  Just don’t ask the rest of us to skip it too.

Also, with children and teenagers, a lot will depend on the particular kid.   A story that gives one eight-year-old screaming nightmares might be considered tame kid stuff by their identical twin.  A twelve-year-old may be much less ready for frank discussion of sexual interest than a fifteen-year-old.  Parents need to keep up with where their offspring are mentally and emotionally when choosing media for them.  (And be ready to discuss difficult questions that might pop up even in the tamest stories!)

So, topic:  Tell me about a time you wished you’d had a better content warning,   Or about a book that you recommend, even though you have to warn people about the content.

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl: A Long Forgotten Fairytale

Comic Book Review: Uptown Girl: A Long Forgotten Fairytale by Bob Lipski

Once upon a time, in a land far away (possibly Maine), there was a cursed village.  No one could leave the village, because it was ruled by the King of Birds.  The villagers did not know much about their king, save that he hated it when anyone asked questions about him, and could command birds.  Few visitors came, and none escaped.

A Long Forgotten Fairytale

Meanwhile in Minneapolis, ace reporter Uptown Girl goes on a fitness kick while her slacker friend Rocketman runs up his credit card bill.   This culminates in a trip to London that gets cut short–and they and artist Ruby Tuesday wind up in a certain cursed village.

This is a true graphic novel, a long-form story in one volume told in comics format.  It recycles a storyline from the out of print floppies, but adds a lot of new material and updates the modern day setting a bit.   The main plot should be easily understandable by new readers, but there are a couple of cameos and background references to other stories that may elude them.  (For example, Bandwagon Soda.)

The art style is fairly simple (almost all women have perfectly circular heads), which leads to a bit of mental confusion when the only difference in body shape between Uptown Girl and the advertising model that sparks UG’s fitness kick is that you can see more of the latter’s shape because she’s wearing less clothes.

The first part of the book is very humorous, with the story becoming somewhat more serious once the protagonists reach the cursed village.  Man-child Rocketman refuses to become less silly.  Some folks may find the motivations of the King of Birds less than satisfying, as he’s not forthcoming beyond a desire to rule, and no one else knows.

While the main characters are in their late twenties, there’s nothing here to make the book unsuitable for middle schoolers on up.  I’d recommend this to fans of small press comics, especially those that also like fairy tales.

 

Book Review: The Saint: The Man Who was Clever

Book Review: The Saint: The Man Who was Clever by Leslie Charteris, with art by Dave Bryant

Simon Templar, the Saint, was created by Leslie Charteris in the late 1920s and went on to become a major franchise.  Mr. Templar (not his birth name) was a roguish young man with a murky past, and a fondness for sticking it to wealthy criminals he considered “ungodly.”  He and his associates used confidence tricks, disguise and good old fisticuffs to deliver a form of justice, stealing from the crooked rich to give to the poor–minus a percentage to keep them in the style to which they were accustomed.

The Man who was Clever

“The Man Who was Clever” is the earliest Simon Templar story by internal chronology; there had been others published first, but Mr. Charteris was dissatisfied with them.   Although he already has the nickname of “the Saint” and his band of friends, this is the first time he publicly operates under the Saint brand, complete with his calling card stick figure.

It begins with Simon witnessing an act of brutality by a gang of small-time extortionists.  But rather than jump in immediately, he investigates the gang and learns the full extent of their organization, then begins a campaign to bring not just them, but their backers as well, down.  As part of this, the Saint locates the one member of the gang who’s redeemable, a basically decent fellow who has racked up gambling debt, and recruits him as a double agent.

Simon Templar is a cool customer, looking innocent (but sexy) and calm, even in the worst circumstances.  He’s also a cunning planner, with only a stroke of bad timing causing any difficulty with the gambit he has in play.  He’s also a good fighter, able to take down five hoodlums alone with little difficulty.  (And a swordcane.)

This being written in the time period it was, Mr. Templar smokes and drinks, but is down on the harder drugs.  (The villain of the piece considered himself no worse than a bartender in this regard.)   There’s a bit of the xenophobia common to pulp stories of the period, with the main criminal being a foreigner who has changed his name to sound more English, and his insidious contact in Greece.  The main female character, the double agent’s sweetheart, is a damsel in distress type, while Simon’s love interest Pat barely appears before being bundled off to avoid being distressed.  (In other Saint stories, Pat is much more useful.)

Charming though Simon Templar is, I think he’d be hard to put up with for long in real life, with his bad poetry, annoying nicknames and endearments, and general smugness behind an innocent looking face.

The advertising calls this a “graphic novel”, but it’s really more of a heavily illustrated novella with all the original words.   The illustrations are quite nice (more comic book than pulp magazine style art) but like the pulps of yore, the pictures are often nowhere near the part of the story they’re illustrating.

This is a short read (81 pages even with copious illustrations.)  It’s best suited for people who are already fans of Simon Templar or other pulp characters–new readers will want to perhaps check out Enter the Saint or any of the other Simon Templar books (make sure it’s one of the ones actually by Leslie Charteris) from the library to see if they like the character before making the plunge.

Comic Book Review: Whiteout / Whiteout: Melt

Comic Book Review: Whiteout/Whiteout: Melt written by Greg Rucka, illustrated by Steve Lieber

Carrie Stetko is a U.S. Marshal who’s been reassigned to Antarctica after an…incident at work and the death of her husband.  It’s been a fairly quiet duty post, and Marshal Stetko is getting to feel at home on the Ice.  Then a drilling expedition disappears, leaving only a badly mangled, nearly unidentifiable corpse at the site.

Whiteout

There is murder afoot, and soon Carrie is fighting for her life, not without losses.  She’s no longer sure who she can trust, especially British investigator Lily Sharpe, who most assuredly has her own agenda.  Worse, the investigation must be completed before the mass evacuation of personnel as winter approaches

Melt is a sequel.  Marshal Stetko is called back to the Antarctic from her first vacation in years when a Russian science station explodes.  Certain government agencies want to know if there was anything…against treaty…going on at the station.  Carrie quickly learns the explosion was no accident, and must team up with Russian agent Captain Aleksandr Ivanovich Kuchin.  It seems there might have been something illegal at the station after all, and Carrie must decide between her priorities.

Melt

Assuming the Ice lets anyone survive the chase.

These thrillers are written by Greg Rucka, who is known for his research and attention to detail,   The first volume is a bit more of a mystery than the latter, which is much more about survival.  Art is by Steve Lieber, who took the challenge of a black and white series where white is the dominant color, and used a variety of inking tools to great effect.

This is exciting stuff.  Antarctica is one of the most hostile places on Earth even in good weather.  Add bad weather and human murderousness, and Carrie is fighting for her life most of the time.

The first volume has an attempted rape, and several closeups of Marshal Stetko’s mangled hand.  Melt has some nudity and a (non-explicit, consensual) sex scene.  Both volumes have some harsh language.  As such, parents should heed the “Older Audiences” rating Oni Press has given the books.

There was a Whiteout movie made which takes much of its plot from the first volume.  Marshal Stetko was prettied up quite a bit, Lily Sharpe was replaced by a more conventional male investigative partner, and Carrie’s competence level was lowered somewhat to allow the male heroic characters more to do.  This is believed to have contributed to a relatively poor critical reception.

I recommend this series for thriller fans, lovers of ice and snow, and people who saw the movie.

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business by Lan Bercu

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

The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Beginning some time in the late 1970s, when it became obvious that Japan had become an economic powerhouse, American businesses began taking an interest in Asian philosophies that might explain why companies from those areas were doing so well, especially in industries where America was faltering.   Thus, books for business explicating on The Five Rings, The Art of War and so forth have been written and often sold well.

This is the latest book in that tradition.  The author was born and raised in Vietnam, where The 36 Strategies, a text on warfare believed to have been compiled during China’s Warring States period, is read by schoolchildren.  She has since found the information included helpful in her career as a speaker on business and international matters.

The main text is divided into thirty-six short chapters, one for each strategy.  Each starts with a short story about ancient Chinese warfare, then one or more examples of how modern businesses have implemented these strategies, whether by name or by chance.  This is followed by translation into more basic tips, and questions for the business to ask itself based on the strategy.

Some of the strategies have poetic sounding titles, like “slough off the cicada’s golden shell” or “borrow a corpse to resurrect a soul”, while others are more plain-spoken, like “kill with a borrowed knife.”   The strategies themselves, however, tend to be simple to understand, if sometimes difficult to apply to a given situation.  That last bit is why they’re arranged by type; some are better when you have a clear advantage, others when you’re on the defensive or in a losing position.

It should be noted that the more literal applications of some of these strategies to business, such as “replace the beam with rotted timbers” and “deck the tree with false blossoms” may be considered unethical, and in some cases are outright illegal.  The author points out that businesses (and customers) should be aware of these strategies anyway, to help defend against them.

The short chapters and copious examples make this a good read for the busy person on the go; this is one time I would suggest buying the e-book version.  The book comes with an ad for the author’s services, bibliography and an index.

The utility of this book will depend on whether you already have another of the books relating the 36 strategies to business.  If so, you may not need this one.  This book also has a lot of synergy with The Art of War, so you may want to invest in one of the business books that concentrate on that text as well.

In war, do not repeat the tactics that have gained you one victory.  Rather, let your methods be determined by the infinite variety of circumstances. — Sun Tzu

TV Review: Man with a Camera

TV Review: Man with a Camera

Mike Kovac (Charles Bronson) is a World War Two veteran who works as a freelance photographer.  He’s a tough fellow who’s known for getting the shots other shutterbugs can’t make.  As a result, he’s often called in to help investigate incidents for newspapers and private citizens.  Mike is aided in this by a number of trick cameras, such as a miniature camera disguised as a lighter.

Man with a Camera

This 1958-1960 series was the only television show Charles Bronson played the lead in; after that his movie career took off, as well as guest roles on many TV shows.  His looks served him well here, coming across as a tough, working-class fellow who can’t be intimidated.

Most of the series took place in New York City, but the two episodes I watched on DVD take place out of town, so are absent Mike’s normal supporting cast.

“Two Strings of Pearls” takes place in Rome, where Mike has just finished covering the Italian election.  At the airport, he spots a woman he knows from an ocean trip several years before.  She, however, doesn’t appear to recognize him and has a completely different name.  Mike decides to stay in Rome long enough to see what’s going on.   Romantic scenes do not appear to be one of Mr. Bronson’s strengths in this series.

“Missing” involves the disappearance of a police officer’s wife in San Diego.   The officer doesn’t want to involve his own department as she was formerly mixed up with a criminal gang, and the scandal of their marriage has only just died down.  Investigating the slim clues available, Mike finds a lead in her recent visit to Tiajuana in Mexico.  The climax is an intense  fight in a car wash.

Both episodes feature the advantages of Mike’s close relationship with law enforcement, his photographs allowing suspects to be identified.

A similar series might do well in the current day; the technology may have changed drastically, but not the difference one dedicated person can make with it.

Book Review: The Idea-Driven Organization

Book Review: The Idea-Driven Organization by Alan G. Robinson & Dean M. Schroeder

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

The Idea-Driven Organization

This is a follow-up to the authors’ 2004 book Ideas Are Free, in which they made a case that innovation can be driven by ideas presented by front-line employees, rather than imposed from above by management, or restricted to a particular department.  Since then, they’ve consulted on various organizations’ new idea processes and have more insights, as well as some updated information.

Many of us are familiar with the old suggestion box method of getting ideas from employees–and how seldom it seems to make any difference.  While reading this book, I happened to chat with a fellow who had put suggestions in his company’s box for twenty years, often getting cash prizes for the best idea that month.  A grand total of zero of his ideas were ever acted on.

The authors touch on many of the obstacles to making an organization idea-driven, from leadership that’s out of touch with the common workers, through managers who won’t work with other departments, to demoralized employees who’ve been told for years that their ideas are “too expensive” or “just whining.”  In many cases, putting an idea process in place may require some major rethinking of management policy.

They also give many guidelines for a successful reorganization of the idea process.  One of the most important is to have a pilot program that allows the organization to see where any roadbumps are before trying to impose the new process on the entire organization at once.  The book also stresses the importance of getting everyone on board, starting from the leadership team on down.

There are copious real-world examples cited throughout; the unsuccessful ones have the company’s name withheld to avoid embarrassing them.   There’s a short end notes section and an index.  The book is designed to be used as a textbook or supplemental reading for business school classes, with a helpful summary of the main points at the end of each chapter.

I am taking a business management degree, so found this book interesting and informative.  It’s likely to be less interesting to those without an interest in organizational structure or business management.  Perhaps you might consider it as a gift to a CEO you know?

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