Manga Review: Fragments of Horror

Manga Review: Fragments of Horror by Junji Ito

Junji Ito is one of Japan’s top horror manga creators, whose famous works include Uzumaki (spirals are scary!), Gyo (landshark!) and Tomie (the girl who just won’t die.)  He’s slowed down some in recent years, so this collection of short stories has been brewing for a while.

Fragments of Horror

Mr. Ito does some excellent art, and several of the stories have large, complex images that show this off, as well as his twisted imagination.  Viz has brought out the collection in a fancy hardback complete with wraparound cover–my image conveys only a fraction of what’s going on.

This volume starts with “Futon”, about a man who won’t get out of bed.  But is the fate that awaits him if he does so worse than his fate if he stays?  The ending story is “Whispering Woman”, which features a young woman with an anxiety disorder and the woman who’s hired to give her direction.  A woman who rapidly seems to have no life of her own.  Not all of the stories are scary; “Gentle Goodbye” is a wistfully sad story about ghosts.

Perhaps the freakiest story is “Wooden Spirit” about a woman who loves old-fashioned wooden house construction in the wrong way.

Despite Mr. Ito’s drawing skill and imagination, he does tend to default to the same three or four faces for “pretty” or “normal” people.  This makes it feel like you’re watching one of those old anthology TV shows where they have the same actors in slightly different roles over and over.

This is horror, so there are disturbing images and some nudity and this is not a book for younger or more sensitive readers.

Highly recommended for horror comics fans.

Book Review: The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition

Book Review: The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual Edition edited by Judith Merrill

This 1960 book features a selection of speculative fiction short stories published during the 1958-60 time period.  Editor Judith Merrill provides an introduction about the concept of wonder, chatty introductions to each story (she doesn’t think much of Kingsley Amis as a literary critic) and an ending summary (as well as a listing of “honorable mention” stories.)

5th Annual World's Best SF

The 22 stories themselves begin with Damon Knight’s “The Handler”, which is a metaphor for Hollywood phoniness, and end with “Me” by Hilbert Schenk, Jr., a humorous poem about the difference between machines and humans (which is as of now, still true.)

The absolute standout in this volume is the original novella version of “Flowers for Algernon” by Daniel Keyes.  Charlie Taylor, a man with developmental disabilities, volunteers for an experimental surgery that increases his intelligence.  Told through Charlie’s own journal, the use of changing vocabulary, literary style and attitude is masterful.  The dawning of a new intellectual world, the disappointment when Charles learns that being smart doesn’t in itself make you happier, and the sinking horror when he discovers that it’s all going away make for a powerful gut punch.

The story is also commendable for the sharply drawn minor characters, like Fanny Girden, who fears what has happened to Charlie and considers it evil, but refuses to sign a petition to fire him because discrimination is against her principles.  The novel version is also excellent but contains more sexual content (sometimes published as Charly because of the Cliff Robertson movie.)

Also interesting is an editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr. titled “What Do You Mean…Human?”  It asks the perennial question of what precisely the definition of “human” is, and how to explain it to something that is not human, such as an intelligent robot.  The question remains open at the end, but it’s a good starting point for late night discussions.

“Mariana” by Fritz Leiber turns out to be about clinical depression, and a failed treatment program.

Mark Clifton’s “What Now, Little Man?” is a question about the nature of intelligence, and an uncomfortable look at colonialism.

“The Other Wife” by Jack Finney details how one man learned how to travel between alternate universes, and how he exploits this fact.  Kind of sexist, as he doesn’t let either wife in on what’s going on, but decides for them that this is the best use of his time.

Most of the other stories are readable, but also a bit forgettable.  As is common with books of this vintage, “World’s Best” means the English-speaking world at maximum, and there’s a heavy tilt towards white male protagonists.  The New Wave hasn’t quite hit in this volume, although there  is a hint of it in J.G. Ballard’s “The Sound Sweep” which focuses on the social effects of new acoustic technology.

Well worth looking up at your library or picking up if you see it at the used bookstore.

Manga Review: Chaika: The Coffin Princess #1

Manga Review: Chaika: the Coffin Princess #1 Original Story by Ichirou Sakaki, art by Shinta Sakayama

It has been five years since the end of the war with the Gaz Empire, and up until now, there has been peace.  Not everyone has adjusted well to the post-war era.  In particular, Toru Acura based his entire identity around being a “saboteur”, a kind of super-warrior with the Iron-Blood ability to make himself stronger and faster.  He refuses to take any other kind of work, and has spent most of the last five years sulking in his bedroom.

Chaika the Coffin Princess #1

Toru’s sister Akari, tired of being their sole support, informs him that he won’t get breakfast unless he earns it himself, and he leaves the house for the first time in weeks, possibly months.  No one needs a saboteur, and he isn’t willing to lower himself to anything else, so he winds up in the woods looking for edible berries and roots.

This not being a story about wilderness survival techniques, Toru runs across a young woman who does not speak the local language well and is carrying a coffin on her back.  As it happens, she is Chaika, who is being pursued by a bloodthirsty unicorn creature.  Chaika makes a bargain to feed Toru in exchange for him helping her with this problem.  Turns out she’s a powerful wizard, but her spells require a lengthy start-up time, and Toru must engage the unicorn in battle until she can unleash destruction.

Thankful, Chaika buys Toru breakfast, and departs.  But soon she’s back.  It seems she needs the services of a couple of saboteurs, and she noticed Toru and Akari were out of work.  Because of Chaika’s communication difficulties, she isn’t able to convey the full meaning of this mission, which is unfortunate, because it turns out there are other people interested in the same target she is.

This fantasy manga is based on a light novel, which was also recently turned into an anime series.  There’s some interesting world-building going on here, and hints at a complex political situation.  I also like Chaika’s personality and those eyebrows.  The clothing choices are kind of dubious–Chaika’s outfit is in no way suitable for long wilderness hikes. and Akari’s has some obvious vulnerable spots not wise to have for a warrior.

Also, I like the language difficulties, not often realistically done in fantasy works.

However, I cannot recommend this manga to most readers due to something it shares with too many recent light novel adaptations.  Akari is constantly making incestuous remarks towards or about Toru.  Now I’m sure that it will turn out they’re not blood-related, or it’s her idea of a hilarious running joke, but I just don’t find incest funny, and that tainted the entire story for me.  If you are okay with this sort of humor, you will probably enjoy it more than I did.

Still, good art, some interesting story potential.

Book Review: The Deaths of Tao

Book Review: The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

Note: This is the sequel to The Lives of Tao and this review may contain SPOILERS for the previous volume.

The Deaths of Tao

Millions of years ago, the Quasing crashed on Earth.  They could not survive in Earth’s atmosphere, and were forced to piggyback inside the native lifeforms.  They managed to survive until a semi-intelligent lifeform appeared.  Since then, the Quasing have guided the humans to create a civilization advanced enough to achieve space travel so that the aliens can get back home.  However, a while back the Quasing split into two factions.  The Genjix consider the humans a servant race to be used and discarded; humanity owes everything it has to the Quasing, and must be prepared to have it taken back.  The Prophus (“betrayers”) think of the humans as partners and want them to have free will.

Now, the Genjix are within sight of achieving one of their major goals–which will have the side effect of wiping out the human race as we know it.  The embattled Prophus and their human allies must find a way to survive and if possible stop this plan–even if it means being stranded on Earth forever.

We have six viewpoint characters in three pairs.  Roen Tan is a former computer whiz who is now the partner of the title character Tao (who used to be the partner of Genghis Khan, among other things).  He’s turned into one of the top agents of the Prophus, but has gone off the reservation for the last couple of years chasing down leads to the latest Genjix plan.

Which has led to a separation from his wife Jill Tan, a Washington, D.C. political aide.  Her partner is Baji, who previously inhabited Roen’s trainer Sonia.  Jill is fighting her own battle against Genjix-sponsored legislation that fits into their world domination plans…somehow.  Something in the complex bill is a deadly trap, but what?

Meanwhile, Genjix Council member Zoras has exhausted his current vessel, and now enters Enzo, a specially-created and trained ubermensch.  Enzo has been designed from birth to be the perfect vessel for one of the Holy Ones, smarter, stronger and more ruthless than any mere human.  Unfortunately, he is well aware of this, and is determined to demonstrate this superiority, which clashes with Zoras’ master planner mindset.  They are in charge of the latest Genjix project, which is achingly close to completion, if they can just hold off the Prophus a little longer.

This science-fiction thriller is fast-paced with interesting characters and a premise that allows both good guys and opponents to show up in surprising ways.    The Quasing being behind almost every event in human history (except the rise of Hitler; that was all us) does get a bit tiring–I’d have liked to have seen that humans have some initiative for positive action.  The Genjix are even behind global warming!

The bad guys indulge in a bit of torture, as well as murderous medical experiments.  There’s also a lot of conventional military violence.

The ending really shakes up the status quo, and Mr. Chu promises that things will get even worse for the characters in the sequel–I’m looking forward to that.

Recommended to SF thriller fans and secret history buffs.

Book Review: Fresh Fear

Book Review: Fresh Fear edited by William Cook

Horror anthologies are like a box of chocolates.  One story might be crunchy frog, another spring surprise, while a more disappointing one is just maple cream.  (Seriously, maple cream?)  This is because horror tends to be a balancing act between what the writer finds scary and what the reader does.   Two different readers looking at the same story may fiercely debate whether it’s terrifying or just kind of gross.

Fresh Fear

This particular anthology is listed as “contemporary horror” which seems to mean mostly recent stories, set close to the present day.  Other than that, there’s no real overarching theme or subgenre requirements.  After an introduction that talks a bit about why people read horror stories (among other things, to feel horrified), the opening story is “God of the Winds” by Scathe meic Beorh, a hallucinatory piece that is at least partially about the tendency of white people to appropriate Native American mysticism in stupid ways.  The final story is “Out of the Light” by Anna Taborska, a Lovecraftian-feeling story about a man who gets too heavily invested in reading a horror anthology.  Hmm.

I was a bit disappointed that the piece by big-name author Ramsey Campbell (“Britain’s most respected living horror writer”) was a reprint from 1988.  Which is not to say that “Welcomeland” itself wasn’t a fine story.  It concerns a man returning to his home town which has been partially rebuilt into a failed amusement park.  Or has it succeeded at its true purpose?  It doesn’t feel dated.

Also outstanding is Christine Morgan’s “Nails of the Dead” which looks at Norse mythology from the point of view of a very minor character with a small but important job.  Of local interest to me is “Just Another Ex” by Roy C. Booth and Axel Kohagen.  A man is sent to find another man who may be unfaithful to his loved one.  His reward is non-standard.

There were some typos, most clustered in “Spencer Weaver Gets Rebooted” by Thomas A. Erb, about a bullied high schooler who gets pushed too far.  Because of this, and the rather immature feel of the plot points, it felt more like something a high school student would write than something for a professional anthology.  (“Did I mention the head bully has a small penis?  Well he does.”)

This is an “18+” book, which has sex, rape, foul language, torture and in some cases excessive focus on body fluids.   Happy endings are few.  But with twenty-eight widely varying stories, there’s something for almost every horror fan.   Recommended for the horror buff who wants to try some new authors.

Book Review: From Ghouls to Gangsters: The Career of Arthur B. Reeve Volume 1

Book Review: From Ghouls to Gangsters: The Career of Arthur B. Reeve Volume 1 edited by John Locke

Arthur B. Reeve (1880-1936) was a newspaper reporter who decided to try his hand at writing fiction.  As it happened, he turned out to be very good at it, making a huge hit with his most famous character, scientific detective Craig Kennedy.  He became America’s most popular detective story writer from 1910-1920, and continued to do pretty well thereafter (despite a bankruptcy when a man who’d commissioned a  bunch of work failed to pay) until his death.  Mr. Reeve also worked on films and radio, and did true crime reporting as well.

From Ghouls to Gangsters

This first volume is a collection of short stories; the second volume has non-fiction by and about Mr. Reeve.  The first story appears to be his first sale, “The Cat that Didn’t Come Back” (1907), a gruesome but comedic tale of a man attempting to dispose of a cat’s corpse.  The majority of stories are about Craig Kennedy, a professor of chemistry who decides to use his knowledge of science to solve crimes.  He’s assisted by newspaper reporter Walter Jameson, the Watson-like narrator.

We begin with the 1910 story “The Case of Helen Bond.”  A man has died of a heart attack, but the fact that his safe was burgled the same night casts a suspicion of foul play.  Mr. Kennedy uses a primitive type of lie detector (and his brain) to crack the case.   The professor owes a great deal to Sherlock Holmes, but is considerably less eccentric.  In the Holmes tradition, the reader is not given all the clues, but must wait for Mr. Kennedy to sum up the case and how the science plays in.

That story was published in Cosmopolitan, but Kennedy stories appeared in many places, including Boys’ Life (which introduced a young nephew for him) and Country Gentleman.  By the 1930s, Mr. Reeve’s stories mostly appeared in the detective pulps, and took on a more “gangbusters” feel.  He was also beginning to reuse plot beats from earlier, out of print stories.

The science in some of the stories is a bit dated, particularly the case that’s solved by Freudian dream analysis.   As well, period ethnic prejudice pops up from time to time.  Mr. Reeve appears to have been progressive in his views of women for 1910, but some bits look odd from a modern perspective.

Mr. Reeve wrote several stories with female protagonists as detectives, including medical Dr. Mary Mannix and “secret agent” Clare Kendall.  One of the latter’s stories closes out the volume, “The Royal Racket” (1935).  Clare helps identify two corpses, and is then asked to advise a young couple that suspects some of their new social crowd might be less than honest.   The two cases are of course connected.

The Boys’ Life story “The Polar Flight of the ZR-10” (1924) is notable for not being so much a mystery as a speculative fiction story.  The title dirigible is being used to test a transpolar flight route between America and Europe, and finds a long-lost colony of Vikings.  The mystery subplot arises from a “beat the Reds” race that feels more 1950s than 1920s.

Overall, the stories are good, if mostly dated, and demonstrate Mr. Reeve’s ability to write to a specific magazine’s intended audience.  Most of the earlier stories were heavily edited for book publication to make them pseudo-novels, and the later ones have never been reprinted before, which makes this a good collector’s item for detective story fans.

 

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts!! #1

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts!! #1 by Go Ikeyamada

When the Kobayashi twins, Megumu and Mitsuru, were born, their parents named  them after people important in the life of feudal warlord Date Masamune.  It seems that their family was descended from retainers of that Warring States era general.  When they grew to adolesence, Mitsuru became an athlete, specializing it kendo, the art of the sword.  Megumu, on the other hand, became a history nerd.

So Cute It Hurts!! #1

Mitsuru is failing history, and unless he aces a series of make-up tests, he’ll have to give up his Sundays off for cram classes.  There’s no way he’s going to get high enough scores, but Mitsuru has a plan.  If Megumu disguises herself as him, and attends his school as him for a week, she can pass the tests and he can get on with his life.   Megumu thinks this is a terrible idea and refuses.  But on the day, Mitsuru steals a march by swiping Megumu’s school uniform and going to her school as her–so Megumu has to go along with the plan….

This shoujo (girls’) manga pulls a version of the classic “twin switch” plotline.  The siblings look very much alike aside from the obvious, so it’s initially easier than you might think.  However, passing as each other is the least of the complications.  It seems Mitsuru forgot to tell his sister that his all-boys school is ruled by delinquents who have frequent status battles, and he’s relatively high on the totem pole.  And the top fighter is a total hunk who bears a strong resemblance to Date Masamune!  Megumu can’t help acting a little attracted.

Over on the other side of town, Mitsuru gets himself in hot water with the school’s most influential girl, and develops a crush on a cute deaf-mute (and he immediately starts learning sign language once he catches on.)  He’s not sure how he’s going to break the news that he’s actually a guy.

Some other folks get crushes too, and the romantic comedy hijinks begin.

Mitsuru is kind of an ass, but has good guy attitudes that shine through.  Megumu is quieter and less self-confident, but nicer.  The mean girl is kind of a stereotype, but we will hope for some character development in future volumes.  The situation is very contrived and does not lend itself to a long series, but I could roll with it for two or three volumes.

The art is decent,  but may be too cutesy for some readers.

Recommended for those who like adorable love stories with lots of silliness.

Book Review: Soldiers Out of Time

Book Review: Soldiers Out of Time by Steve White

Spoiler Warning: This is the fifth book in the Jason Thanou series, and as such, this review will contain SPOILERS for earlier volumes in the story.  Starting with the very next paragraph, so you are on your own from here.

Soldiers Out of Time

The Special Operations Section of the Temporal Regulatory Authority has at last captured the Transhumanists’ time displacer, which they have been using in an effort to recapture control of Earth.  The hidebound Council declares that this means the war is over, and disbands the SOS.  Commander Jason Thanou isn’t so sure, but this does mean he can at last return to his homeworld and his actual military career.

But before he can actually get on the ship home, Jason and a handful of his friends are called in for a special consultation.  It seems that Transhumanist Underground operatives have been spotted on a distant alien world.  This is odd, as the Transhumanists normally have no interest in aliens.   So it’s off to investigate!

Soon Commander Thanou and his comrades are up to their necks in a Transhumanist plot to plunder 19th Century Afghanistan for slaves to create a new war world to overwhelm normal humanity.

Baen Books is known for what’s called “military science fiction”, a subgenre in which new technologies are applied to killing people and people-like objects in mass quantities.  While it can be quite thoughtful or delve into deep philosophical concerns, that’s not the primary thrust.  Generally these stories tend to feature strategy and tactics as influenced by the latest scientific imaginings, the camaraderie of fighting people, and stuff blowing up.

This volume is a fine example of the type.  In this instance, Earth was taken over by the Transhumanists in the 22nd Century, people who felt that Hitler and Pol Pot had generally the right ideas but didn’t understand that it was genetically modified cyborgs who should rule over humanity.  They were about as awful as one would expect until Earth’s colony worlds helped overthrow the Transhumanists.  The remnants of the former overlords want to come back into power, and want to use time travel to help them.

Due to the way time travel works in this series, they can’t change history–but they can work in the blank spots to create “time bombs” that will unleash their forces at The Day, a point still in the relative future.  Jason’s job has been to find these operations and stop them.  To make matters more complicated, there’s a race of aliens called the Teloi, who don’t have time travel…yet, but are effectively immortal, and believe themselves to be the rightful owners of the human race.

Commander Thanou is your typical hypercompetent protagonist, who is always more skilled/right than anyone else in the area.  The only times he is ever overruled, the person who does so will turn out to be wrong.  The main villain (an old enemy of Jason’s) does manage to get the drop on him a couple of times, but never through any fault of Jason’s/  This does get a trifle wearing.

The Transhumanists are big fans of rape (of women) and torture (of men) and show this off in the story.  There’s some period racism, religious prejudice and ethnic prejudice among the 19th Century folks, and some cultural posturing on the narrator’s part.  (Western Civilization is what let humanity survive to reach the stars, and Islam is inherently a warlike religion, which is only peaceful as a subversion.)

The story itself is exciting, and moves right along in a reasonably logical fashion, with some likable side characters.  There’s some characters that have wandered in from other stories, some of whom will be recognizable to any well-read person, and others more obscure.

Overall, this is a decent example of the military SF subgenre which I would recommend to those that already enjoy such things.  Beginners may want to consult the Baen Books free library at http://www.baen.com as the publishers have a generous selection of free stories and even entire books to download so you can see if this sort of thing is for you.  (Remember to actually buy something if you really enjoy it, print needs all the help it can get!)

Disclaimer:  I received this book free from the publisher because I am a book reviewer.  No other compensation was involved.

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud

Magazine Review: Lapham’s Quarterly: Spring 2015 Swindle & Fraud Edited by Lewis H. Lapham

Mr. Lapham’s literary magazine is based on the principle that history has much to teach the present on many subjects, so presents excerpts from many famous (and not so famous) authors on a loose topic for the education and entertainment of its readers.  This issue covers swindle & fraud, and the topic of lying and stealing more generally.

Lapham;s Quarterly Spring 2015

The pieces are all short, none more than six pages, and most hanging around the two-three page mark.  A long time spectrum is covered, from the classic Trojan Horse gag to the sub-prime mortgage bubble of the 2000s.   After a lengthy editor’s introduction, we start with Lawrence Osborne buying his own death certificate.  Through many authors we proceed to Oscar Wilde’s short play “The Decay of Lying.”Along the way we hear from Charles Ponzi (his original scheme was legal, but he couldn’t raise money for it without resorting to fraud) and Malcolm X’s thoughts on how white politicians lie to black people to get their votes.

There are a few original essays to round out the issue, “Rogue Wounds” by Daniel Mason, on faking illness; “We Buy Broken Gold” by Clancy Martin , on the retail buying of precious metals and gems; and “A Fish Tale” by David Samuels, about Herman Melville and the nature of fiction in Moby Dick.

The issue is profusely illustrated with classic artworks and other depictions of the theme, infographics and short quotes.   Everything is properly attributed, or at least it appears to be.

The general selection of items is high quality, and since they’re short, if a particular piece doesn’t interest you, another one will be along quickly.  It helps that crime and corruption are such interesting topics.  The shortness does however mean that most of the topics are only touched upon in the briefest of terms and you will want to investigate further if a given one interests you.

Highly recommended for strong readers who have limited time at any sitting.

Book Review: Peril by Ponytail

Book Review: Peril by Ponytail by Nancy J Cohen

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  No other compensation was involved.  Also, this is an advance uncorrected proof, and there will be some changes in the final product.  (Such as fixing the typo on the very first page of the story.)

Peril by Ponytail

Marla Vail, hair salon proprietor, and her new husband Dalton Vail, a homicide detective, are on a belated honeymoon.   Dalton’s Uncle Raymond owns a dude ranch in Arizona, and is developing a ghost town as a tourist attraction, so they’re going to spend their vacation there.  But this is a mystery novel, so there’s no rest in store.  A forest ranger has died under suspicious circumstances, and there’s been a spate of supposed accidents at both the ranch and ghost town.

Raymond is pretty sure that another rancher he’s long feuded with is responsible, but Marla’s not so convinced.  Could it be the rebellious daughter; the wranglers with shady pasts–perhaps the ecoterrorists?   The “accidents” become more deadly as the puzzle pieces pile up.

This is the twelfth book in the “Bad Hair Day” cozy mystery series.  Marla normally works out of her hair salon in Southern Florida and uses her knowledge of hair care to help solve crimes.   She’s a bit out of her element here; the flat landscape of her home has not prepared Marla for a case that involves lots of hill and rock climbing, and she’s not a young woman.   She does spot a hair-related clue early on, but doesn’t really follow up on it, and the savvy reader will solve that part of the mystery many chapters ahead of the reveal.

One thing that irritated me as a fan of “fair play” mysteries is that ghosts and psychics are treated as valid (if frustratingly vague) sources of information; unless it’s a “one weird thing” story, the supernatural has no place in cozies.   I was also baffled by the absence of right wing/libertarian loonies from the list of possible threats given by the local sheriff.  The ecoterrorists are more germane to the plot, true, but the former have been in the news more recently in the Southwest.

The character byplay is pretty good, with Marla and Dalton having an active sex life just off camera.   There is quite a bit of family drama that screens the actual solution to the mystery as various members conceal useful information.

Perhaps in deference to the Western setting, the ending involves rather more gun play than one would expect from a cozy, nearly up to hard-boiled levels.

This is a light mystery suitable for vacation reading that’s not too challenging.

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