Open Thread: Top Ten Books So Far

Things are still difficult here, though I have another job interview tomorrow to start off October.  I haven’t had an open thread in a bit, so I’m going to do a Top Ten list.

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

These are the books that the review posts of have gotten the most views over the life of this blog.  This does not necessarily indicate quality, but it’s the ones visitors to the blog were most interested in.

  1. Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments by Barbara Postema
  2. Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right by Claire Conner
  3. Good Advice from Bad People by Zac Bissonette
  4. The 47 Ronin by Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford
  5. Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone & Sheila Heen
  6. Ghosts in the Yew by Blake Hausladen
  7. They Talked to a Stranger by Len O’Connor
  8. Blood Aces by Doug J. Swanson
  9. Global Friendship Vol. 5: United Kingdom to Zambia by H. Aitoro
  10. Shanghai 1937 by Peter Harmsen

That’s a fairly decent spread of genres, with only two fiction books (and the 47 Ronin book also has factual essays.)  Some had a burst of activity due to a specific happening, while others just get a couple of views a week, week in and week out.

Which reviews have you enjoyed reading?

Movie Review: The Duke is Tops

Movie Review: The Duke is Tops (1938)

Duke Davis (Ralph Cooper) is a show producer who has a star act, Ethel Andrews (Lena Horne), who is also his sweetheart.  Their current show, “Sepia Scandals” is doing very well in the small Southern cities it’s playing.  A big-time East Coast agent wants to put Ethel on Broadway, but doesn’t need Duke tagging along.

The Duke Is Tops

Worried that he’s holding Ethel’s career back, Duke tricks her into breaking up with him so that she can head up to New York City.  Unfortunately, without her, his next show flops.  Now poison in local show business, Duke happens to meet up with an old friend, Doc Dorando (Laurence Criner.)  Doc’s elixir sales have been doing poorly, as he’s still using the same old spiel.  Duke convinces Doc to let him turn their old trailer into a full-fledged medicine show.

Things go poorly at first, but after they reach the bottom of a river, Duke turns the business around using savvy marketing and good music.  Then he learns that Ethel’s show on Broadway has been a flop.  Turns out the big-shot agent is no producer, and is mishandling her career.

Ethel finally learns the truth about Duke’s trick moments before he shows up at her door.  With his help and that of his medicine show pals, they put on a show that’s a real hit, and Ethel becomes a star.

This musical is different from the other ones I’ve reviewed in that almost everyone in the cast and crew was African-American.  At the time, these were known as “race films”, designed to be shown at segregated movie houses that black people were allowed to be seated at.   Thus it effectively takes place in an alternate universe where there are no white people, and no struggle with racism.  The effect can be a bit eerie for pale-skinned people like me, so used to seeing white casts, with one or two token minorities (especially in these older films.)

This was Lena Horne’s first film, it was reissued in 1943 as Bronze Venus with her name above the title as she’d become a star n her own right.  Ralph Cooper was the host of Amateur Night at the Apollo Theater for a whopping fifty years!

Good stuff:  The music is excellent.  Ms. Horne isn’t quite up to her career peak, but the songs are lovely.  Duke and Ethel make a good couple.  For most of the film, it’s free of the usual Hollywood stereotypes of black people.

Less good:  For most of the film, it’s refreshingly free of the Hollywood stereotypes inflicted on black characters in the 1930s.  And then comes the “tribal number.”  Um.  The contrast really makes this stick out.

Also, Duke is manipulative of Ethel, “for her own good.”  This gives her little agency in the film.

Of interest to people who like musicals, and want to see more black people as the stars of the show.

Book Review: Hell-Bent

Book Review: Hell-Bent by Jason Ryan

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an advanced reading copy, and changes will be made in the published version, due out November 2014.  In particular, the end notes and index were not yet finished.

Hell-Bent

Hawaii’s reputation as a tropical paradise vacation destination tends to gloss over the fact that it’s inhabited by fallible human beings, who have the same problems there as anywhere else.  In particular, during the 1970s, it had a skyrocketing crime rate, with far too many unsolved murders.  But this wasn’t the exotic crime you’d see on Hawaii Five-O, but mundane crime like drugs, prostitution and gambling.  And not clever locked room mysteries but thuggish mob hits.

This book centers its narrative on the murder of Charles “Chuckers” F. Marsland III, a nightclub bouncer, and its effect on his father Charles F. Marsland, Jr.  Mr. Marsland, an attorney, was galvanized into desiring the eradication of organized crime from Hawaii, and eventually became the Chief Prosecutor of Honolulu.

The history of Hawaii is briefly sketched from the first time it was contacted by outsiders, through the loss of its sovereignty, and becoming a state.  Thereafter, it concentrates on the matter of organized crime, why it became such a big issue, and who the major players were alleged to be.

While many of them were convicted of crimes, one of the people mentioned most in the book has never even been indicted, much to the frustration of Marsland and others who believed him to be the “godfather” of Hawaiian crime.  The fact that he’s never been proved a criminal is repeatedly brought up, often after a direct quote from someone accusing him of crimes.

Mr. Marsland was apparently, like many driven people, a difficult person, often accusing people who did not completely follow his program of being soft on crime, or actively corrupt.  While he made great strides at bringing down the crime rate, he eventually lost re-election to a more reasonable-sounding prosecutor.

Hawaiian politics play some role in the book, as does the entertainment world.  Many of the criminals had gone to school with people who’d made good, so odd-seeming friendships were not uncommon.

There will be a photo section, bibliography, end notes and an index when the book is fully published.  There’s also an essay by the author on his sources, who he could and could not get information from.

The writing is okay but not gripping.  I’d recommend this book to true crime readers, and people with an interest in Hawaii beyond the tourist destinations.

Movie Review: Doll Face (1945)

Movie Review: Doll Face (1945)

“Doll Face” Carroll (Vivian Blaine) is a burlesque queen who wants to move into Broadway productions.  When slightly snobbish producer Flo Hartman (Reed Hadley) scorns her audition because Doll Face isn’t “cultured”, her manager Mike Hannegan (Dennis O’Keefe) comes up with the idea of making her seem more accomplished by having her write an book.

Doll Face

The problem there is that Doll Face has no idea what to write, even if she were lettered enough to try.  Mike assures her that this will not be an issue, as he will hire a ghost writer to help her create an autobiography.  This writer is top-seller Frederick Manley Gerard (Stephen Dunne), an intellectual who loves lofty vocabulary and has no interest in burlesque.  He does, however, take an interest in Doll Face.

Frederick turns out to be willing to fudge the facts considerably to make Doll Face’s biography more interesting (moving her birthplace from Brooklyn to Arden Hills, for example.)  His smooth talk and kindness also make him a strong contrast to the overbearing and uncouth Mike.  Cynical and sarcastic friend of the main couple Chita (Carmen Miranda) sees where this is going and tries to head it off to no avail.

In a subplot, singer-songwriter Nicky Ricci (Perry Como) tries to woo showgirl Frankie Porter (Martha Stewart), who only has eyes for Mike, who only likes Doll Face.

Mike tries to cancel the autobiography when he thinks enough publicity has been  milked out of it, Doll Face disagrees, and they quarrel.  When a bizarre coincidence makes it appear that Doll Face and Frederick are having it on, Mike dumps Doll Face.  This leads to misery for everyone, but the show must go on….

This 1945 musical was based on the play Naked Genius by Louise Hovick (better known to most of us as Gypsy Rose Lee.)   The name change was one of the many alterations required by the censors; the burlesque seen in the film is toned way down (though there are still some risque costumes on the ladies by the standards of the 1940s.)  There’s a brief mention of World War Two in one of the songs.

The music is quite good, and Perry Como is terrific as a singer to no one’s surprise.  There’s a couple of especially good lines, too.  “Do you always swim with your top hat on?”  “Only in opera season.”

Less good, especially by modern standards, is Mike.  He engages in “playful” aggression towards Doll Face, and advises Nicky to beat Frankie up, or at least threaten to, to gain her affection.  (Sadly, threats of force are shown to work on Frankie.)  Mike also prefers to do all the thinking for the couple, and gets sore when Doll Face decides otherwise.  This makes Frederick much easier to root for as a love interest, despite him having some controlling tendencies too; he at least will let Doll Face have her head.

Chita Chula is mostly in the story for her big number “Chico Chico (from Porto Rico)”, but is not portrayed stereotypically by the script–the character could have been any ethnicity.  And she scoffs at the idea she’s anything like Carmen Miranda.

The script is rather lackluster, but the musical performances are good, so it’s an enjoyable watch outside the cringeworthy bits.  If you’re watching it with younger viewers, you may need to talk to them about the kind of boyfriend Mike is and why that behavior isn’t appropriate.

Magazine Review: Infernal Ink Magazine January 2014

Magazine Review: Infernal Ink Magazine January 2014 edited by Hydra M. Star

Disclaimer:  This magazine came to me through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Infernal Ink Magazine 1/2014

Infernal Ink is a horror fiction and poetry magazine aimed at ages 18+.  As such, it contains sex, violence, sexualized violence (Trigger Warning for rape) and crude language.  As of the 01/2014 issue, it is accepting advertisements for suitable businesses.

The cover (which might make this a poor choice to read in public) is by Dave Lipscomb, who also contributes “Demonic Visions”, a selection of his black and white pieces; and “The DaveL’s Music” which reviews albums, in this case, Motorhead’s latest.

There are several gruesome poems; all are modern poetry, so I cannot speak to their quality.

“Amazon Goddess of Doom” is an interview with Saranna DeWylde, who writes both horror and erotica, and helpfully gives us a look at the difference.  Her nickname turns out to come from her day job as a prison guard.

All the fiction is very short.

  • “The Devil’s in the Details” by Robert Lowell Russell:  A woman can have a new lease on life if she convinces someone else to go to Hell for her.  Quick and twisty, with no innocence to be found.
  • “Going Viral (Pop Culture Apocalypse)” by Bosley Gravel:  After the zombie plague, late-night television looks a little different, though just as cut-throat.  Funny if you like your jokes gross.
  • “A Kiss to Die For” by Giovanni Valentino:  Two guys in a bar compete over an attractive woman.  Fairly predictable, but a nice last line.
  • “The Pope’s Dildo” by Peter Gilbert:  The title object is stolen, and it’s up to the Vatican’s top agent to retrieve it.  Very juvenile.
  • “The Ripsaw Floor” by Shaun Avery:  A one-hit wonder meets the woman who inspired that song at his school reunion.   I liked the female lead in this one.
  • “Flow the Junction” by Roger Leatherwood.  A gross-out tale about a woman with constant menstrual flow and her objectification.  Very unpleasant.
  • “Xenophobia” by Michael C. Shutz-Ryan:  New neighbors next door present new opportunities for a lonely man who talks to his Buddha statue.  Another fairly predictable story.
  • “Fey” by Robin Wyatt Dunn:  A relationship with an otherworldly creature.    Dreamlike and hard to follow.
  • “Add Me” by Rob Bliss:  A small twon stalker may have bitten off more than he can chew–or maybe this is what he wanted all along.  A bit longer of a story, so it has an actual build-up to the reveals.

All of these could use some polishing, but I most liked the Gravel and Avery stories.  There are some spellchecker typos, and a couple cases of what might be that or odd vocabulary choices.  Hydra M. Star might need to take a firmer hand as editor.

Mildly recommended to fans of the horror/erotica conjunction; everyone else can safely skip.

 

Comic Strip Review: Shutterbug Follies

Comic Strip Review: Shutterbug Follies by Jason Little

It is the 1990s, before the digital photography explosion.  Bee works in a one-hour photo shop as a finishing technician.  She enjoys her job, not least because she takes copies of the more…interesting pictures shot by the customers home for her own collection.  One day, Bee notices something odd about one of the photographs brought in by a new client.

Shutterbug Follies
Bee examines evidence.

As she investigates further, Bee finds herself enmeshed in deception and murder.  She’s in way over her head, and a killer is closing in!

This story was originally a webcomic by Jason Little, which then became a book, and recently was rerun in an edited edition on the GoComics website.  (Some nudity is pixelated on the internet, for the uncensored version, you’ll have to read the book.)

The good stuff:  This is a cinematic story, and you can easily imagine it being turned into a live-action thriller.  Bee is a brave, fit young woman but no action hero, and although she’s attractive, her character design isn’t a cookie-cutter comics heroine look.  This makes it easier to root for her as she struggles with some of the challenges she faces.

The supporting characters are also fine; I especially like the cabbie/aspiring musician.

Not so good:  Bee’s professional ethics are somewhat lacking–yes, without those lapses the plot wouldn’t happen, but you wouldn’t want your co-workers acting like that.  Also, her taste in men is a bit unsettling.  (To his credit, the man in question is unsettled.)

Be aware that as a thriller, there is some violence.  Trigger Warning for child abuse.

Apparently, the sequel, Motel Art Improvement Service has enough sex to make it unable to be run on GoComics even with pixelation; for that one you will indeed have to read the book.

I’d recommend this strip to thriller fans, and people looking for a slightly more realistic female lead in an action comic strip.

Book Review: The Invisible

Book Review: The Invisible by Amelia Kahaney

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there may be changes in the final product, due out 10/7/14.

The Invisible

Spring has come to Bedlam City, and Anthem Fleet is beginning to recover from the events of the winter.  The Syndicate seems to be lying low, and she no longer goes out every night to fight it.  But now a new threat raises its ugly head.  The Invisible, a group that seems to have a grudge against the wealthy North Siders, is engaging in ever more deadly “pranks.”  They also seem to have an interest in the New Hope, Anthem’s hero identity.  Things quickly get personal for Anthem, who is more closely tied to the Invisible than she could have imagined.

This is a sequel to Ms. Kahaney’s previous book, The Brokenhearted.  In that book, Anthem lost her human heart and had an experimental “chimeric” heart implanted by a black market scientist.  This gave her enhanced speed and strength, and as of the beginning of this volume, ultrasonic hearing.  This is listed as a middle grade book, but Anthem is a high school senior, and there are sexual references and drug use that puts this more in the young adult category.

There are a number of flashbacks to the time of Bedlam City’s original hero, the Hope, which eventually tie back in to the present day action.  Some background is given as to how Bedlam City became so sharply divided between rich and poor, and the Syndicate became so powerful.

Anthem is thankfully not as blindingly stupid as in the first book, though this may be less because she’s wised up and more because the nature of the plot keeps her from getting too wrapped up in her own love life.  She’s still a bit too trusting of the wrong people, who go against their own best interests to do the evil thing.

The Invisible try to come off as an Anonymous-style social movement, but it is obvious from the beginning that their expressions of regret at people getting hurt or killed are self-serving at best, and their political philosophy is incoherent.    Their leader’s plan turns out to be nothing less than mass murder for reasons that make sense, but diminish that person’s ability to attract empathy.

And even when the Invisible have been stopped, Anthem has to deal with another villain who has gone unseen by her.

One boggling moment is that the city has two separate power grids, with no way to relay power from one to the other in case of failure.  it kind of makes sense the way the background is set up, but a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

Again, due to the subject matter and themes, I would not recommend this to below junior high readers, and conservative parents might want to skim the book first.  That aside, it is better than the first volume in the series and should appeal to fans of action girls.

Book Review: People Tools for Business

Book Review: People Tools for Business by Alan C. Fox

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy is an uncorrected galley, and there may be changes in the final product.

People Tools for Business

Alan C. Fox is a successful real estate manager and entrepreneur (and poetry magazine publisher) and previously wrote a book titled People Tools.  That book was a success, so he has written this sequel that focuses on business-related strategies.  It’s divided into fifty short chapters, each with an story or two illustrating the point.

Like many self-help books, some of the advice is obvious, or at least should be, like “show up on time”and “keep a sense of humor.”  Others are a bit more complex, such as the “glass staircase” to overcome the “glass ceiling.”    A few of the chapter titles are directly taken from the author’s personal experience; see if you can guess what situation “Order a Pineapple Fluff” is useful in.

Most of the stories draw from the author’s personal experience, but “Don’t Run Out of Cash” may be more viable for people whose fathers can loan them $6000 to start a business (more in today’s money) than those who have to contemplate selling blood to eat today.  Yes, Mr. Fox did have to let go of some of his three private jets during the last recession, but it’s not quite the same.

That caveat in place, most of the advice in this book is solid, and the short, entertaining chapters make this an excellent book for busy folks such as executives and entrepreneurs.  Consider it as a gift for the business-oriented person in your life.  It goes on sale 9/30/14 as a trade paperback, no word on an audio edition, but I think it would work well that way as well.

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

Comic Strip Review: Spacetrawler Book 1 The Human Seat

Comic Strip Review: Spacetrawler Book 1 The Human Seat by Christopher Baldwin

The Eebs, small green aliens with strange telekinetic powers,  have been declared “less than sentient” and enslaved by the Galactic Organizational Body.    A civil rights group named Interplanet Amity, wants to free the Eebs.  Their best hope is to seek help from a planet that’s almost ready to join the GOB, but hasn’t yet become dependent on Eeb-based technology.  A small blue planet called Earth.  But is this their best hope or a horrible mistake?

Spacetrawler

This webcomic begins with a brief action prologue, then starts the framing device with a lonely old man in South America.  A fish-like alien, Nogg, lands in his yard, and after some false starts, informs the man that his daughter, Martina Zorilla, is dead.    Mr. Zorilla had suspected this, since her disappearance years before.   He insists on hearing the whole story, and the rest of the strip is that tale.

Naive Nogg and his IA colleagues, the sarcastic Krep and amiable but dim-witted Gurf, begin their plan by abducting six humans from around the world, each chosen for their special skills and qualities.  Martina Zorilla of South America, Pierrot Abdullahi of Gabon, Emily Taylor of Southwestern United States, Dmitri Sokolov of Russia, Yuri Nakagawa of Japan and Bill Landing of Australia.  Er, scratch that last one, as Nogg accidentally snags Bill’s paranoid and perpetually wrong-headed twin brother Dustin instead.

This is only the first glitch in the plan, as the Earthlings are less than enthusiastic about being abducted, and dubious about the effects of Earth joining the GOB to overthrow its economic basis.  And even after they mostly get on board, it turns out there are a lot of things the protagonists don’t know about the GOB, the Eebs and even humanity itself that throw spanners into the works.

This science fiction webcomic is comedic, but with a melancholic overtone, as we already know that at least one of the main characters won’t make it out alive.  The characters are diverse, and mostly likable (Dusty being more the Dr. Smith “guy you love to hate” type) and there’s some good character development.  Martina goes from being a bored young woman dreaming of adventure to a capable leader, for example.  Be forewarned however that not all developed characters become better people.  There is a bit of national stereotyping, the American is extremely violent, and the Japanese character is a technophile.

There is quite a bit of violence, and sexual situations, call it PG-13.

This first volume covers the first third or so of the plot, up to the point where the original IA plan completely falls apart.   The complete webcomic can be read for free at http://spacetrawler.com/ but the collected volumes come with illustrated introductions, bonus strips, and they put money directly into the artist’s pocket, which frees him up to make more webcomics.  Mr. Baldwin is now producing One Way, a webcomic about a crew of expendable misfits sent to make first contact with aliens, and their discovery that this trip is truly…one way.

I recommend Spacetrawler to science fiction fans who enjoy comedy.

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