Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts Volume 2 by Go Ikeyamada
Recapping from Volume 1: Megumu and Mitsuru Kobayashi, fraternal twins, have been impersonating each other at their respective schools in an effort to get Mitsuru to not fail history. As a side effect, each of the twins has fallen in love with someone at the other school but cannot reveal this without admitting the deception. In addition, other complications are arising.
In this volume, the twins learn that their love interests are coincidentally more closely connected than they had realized. In addition to that, Megumu learns that her romantic interest Aoi Sanada (who looks like her favorite historical hottie, Date Masamune) is allergic to girls. Oh, and several characters are beginning to question their sexuality due to the twins’ shenanigans. It ends with a cliffhanger, as the twins accidentally expose themselves to (perhaps) the wrong people.
It looks like this may be the last volume with the initial premise (which wasn’t going to stand up long in any case.) But the light comedy and romantic hijinks are complemented by the adorable art. The most innovative part of the manga is still the use of sign language to communicate with deaf schoolgirl Shino Takenaka. (The end notes section has some explanation as Japanese Sign Language is somewhat different than ASL.)
The heavy use of coincidence may be off-putting to some readers; it gets highly improbable that the twins always face the same sort of crisis at the same time. There is some partial female nudity for plot reasons.
Still recommended to fans of light romantic comedy.
Magazine Review: Phantom Detective #2: Dealers in Death | The Yacht Club Murders edited by Anthony Tollin.
The Phantom Detective was wealthy playboy Richard Curtis Van Loan, who became bored with his civilian life after serving in World War One. His friend, publisher Frank Havens, suggested he put his brains and assortment of interesting talents to work solving a mysterious crime just to see if he could. Van Loan did, and enjoyed it so much he decided to dedicate his life to fighting crime as a “phantom.” A master of disguise, he identified himself with a platinum mask-shaped jewel set with diamonds, a signal known to police forces world-wide.
The Phantom Detective was actually the longest-running of the pulp hero magazines, lasting from 1933 (appearing a month before Doc Savage) to 1953, though both Doc and The Shadow had more issues. Inside the stories, Van Loan was just “The Phantom.” The character was kind of generic as pulp heroes go, almost all of them were wealthy masters of disguise with good fighting skills and a variety of useful talents. He didn’t really have a gimmick that made him stand out, but the stories always had gimmicks that caught reader interest, so the magazine was a consistent seller.
The two main stories in this issue are both attributed to house name “Robert Wallace”, which took over from house name “G. Wayman Jones” when the series turned more hard-boiled from the earlier, more adventure-focused issues.
“Dealers in Death” is from 1936 and primarily written by Norman Daniels, though the text article indicates it got a substantial rewrite from an unnamed writer. A daring penthouse jewel robbery that ends in murder happens the same night a crime reporter employed by Frank Havens is assassinated in the Clarion newspaper offices. The story introduces ace reporter Steve Huston of the Clarion as the murdered reporter’s protege and a recurring supporting character. But more importantly, it is the first appearance of the red light atop the newspaper building that Mr. Havens has lit whenever he or the police need the services of the Phantom. This “Phantom signal” inspired the later Bat-Signal of the comics.
The most interesting character in the story as a character is Kate Wilde, the second-in command of the criminal gang. As the leader’s identity is part of the mystery, she does most of the on-screen skulduggery and contrasts her own love-sickness for the leader with her bodyguard’s devotion to herself. She’s competent and a good actress. It’s an unusually good performance for a secondary female character in the genre at the time.
The cover is for this story, but somewhat misleading–while there is a knifed corpse, and a note with the body, the note is not attached to the body by the knife. The climax of the story is the Phantom infiltrating the criminals’ hideout in the Everglades.
“The Yacht Club Murders” from 1939 was written by Charles Greenberg, and largely takes place in and near the yacht club of the title. The ten owners of the club have been offered a large sum of money for land the club owns, a sum which could save one of the men from financial ruin with just his share. But another member blocks the sale with his mysterious control over several of the other shareholders. He’s assaulted by the ruined man, and just as things are getting calmed down, the ruined man is murdered by a shot through the window.
The Phantom is coincidentally on hand, and his investigation soon reveals that the murder was part of a criminal conspiracy led by the mysterious Bat, who wears a dark cowl, and a ribbed cape that looks like a bat’s wings. By this point in the series, Van Loan is going steady with Frank Havens’ lovely daughter Muriel. Knowing that the Phantom is somehow connected to Mr. Havens, the Bat kidnaps Muriel in an attempt to get the detective to back off. Like many masked heroes in the comics, Richard Curtis Van Loan never bothered to inform his girlfriend of his secret identity. This got her kidnapped and threatened a lot without knowing why. (This finally came back to bite the Phantom in the 2006 “continuation” The Phantom’s Phantom, when a bitter Muriel leaves Van Loan over his long deception.)
There’s an article by pulp scholar Will Murray about how the Phantom Detective influenced the Batman comics, including the possibility that the Bat from the later story, which would have been fresh in memory when Batman was created, inspired some costume details. Editors Mort Weisinger and Jack Schiff both worked on The Phantom Detective before coming to DC Comics, and Mort became editor of Batman just about the time the Bat-Signal was introduced. Hmm….
To round out the issue, we have a story from the comic book version of Richard Curtis Van Loan published by Nedor Comics, “The Case of the Complex Corpse.” Illustrated by Edmond Good (later artistic director of Tupperware), the story concerns a rest home that’s been murdering its wealthy patients. It’s a quick story with little mystery, but allows the Phantom to show off his disguise skills and quick-change abilities. Also, it shows some criminal stupidity. If one of your patients tells a visitor that he fears being murdered by a “freak accident”, you probably should hold off on murdering him for a while to throw off suspicion.
Both the main stories are notable for the absolute ruthlessness of their criminal masterminds towards their subordinates, murdering them en masse to save money and avoid being fingered. There’s also a bit of outdated ethnic stereotyping in the first story that may be uncomfortable for some readers.
While Batman fans are the ones most likely to want this issue, these are pretty good pulp stories in their own right and worth taking a look at.
Manga Review: Vinland Saga Book Six by Makoto Yukimura
To recap if you haven’t read the previous reviews: It is the age of Vikings. After the murder of Thorfinn’s father, he dedicated his life to revenge on the man who did it. That didn’t end as he had hoped, and Thorfinn is now a slave on the estate of wealthy farmer Ketil. He and fellow slave Einar have been told that they can buy their freedom by clearing and planting enough farmland. Thorfinn has come to the realization that violence is not a way of life he can in good conscience continue, and wants to try out a new path of peace.
In this volume, Einar and Thorfinn are within sight of their goal of buying their freedom, but a new danger is afoot. Gardar, a slave at a nearby farm, has escaped, killing his master and that man’s family. A fearsome warrior, Gardar also just happens to be the husband of Arnheid, Ketil’s sex slave. They were unaware how close they were, but now their paths cross. Thorfinn and Einar, who has fallen in love with Arnheid, must make hard decisions when Snake and the other mercenaries hunt Gardar down.
Meanwhile, King Canute returns to Denmark to attend the deathbed of his brother, King Harald. The young king will become the ruler of both England and the Danelands, but the budget is stretched tight–he needs to squeeze some more wealth out of his Danish subjects to support the occupying army in Britain. Opportunity arises when Ketil and his sons come to pay homage to the new king. One of the sons, Olmar, is a vain fool who wants to be a great warrior, but is unable to defeat a dead pig. It’s easy to trick him into “defending his honor” in a way that can be labeled treason.
The art and writing remain excellent; in the endpapers, Mr. Kitamura mentions that it takes four times as much work to do the backgrounds as it does to draw the people, since he wants the scenery to look as authentic as possible. He also talks about the long-term plan of the story–an action series set in a violent time where the hero renounces killing; how does that work, especially if the writer doesn’t cheat?
Despite Thorfinn’s newfound ethical stance, there is a lot of violence in this volume, some quite graphic. There’s also discussion of rape, though none of it happens in this particular part of the story. This is still a Mature Readers seinen (men’s) manga.
Although there are some light moments, the overall mood of this volume is tragic, as the characters’ actions and goals trap them within their wyrd (fate); their pride or honor or love preventing them from stepping aside from doomed pathways. Olmar and his brother Thorgil are by no means sympathetic people (and their father Ketil, we are reminded, is a slaveowner and rapist) but it’s still painful to see them fall into the king’s trap.
There’s an interesting parallel between Thorfinn and Canute; both of them are haunted (literally? who knows?) by the men they hated. Thorfinn’s mentor and archenemy Askeladd wants Thorfinn to succeed in rising above the path of murder, while Canute’s father Sweyn Forkbeard seems amused as his son uses ever more morally dubious methods to steer the kingdom, despite his lofty goals. Or both men could just be hallucinating.
This series has slowed production, and the next volume isn’t due out until December 2015, so savor this installment. Highly recommended.
Magazine Review: Water~Stone Review Volume 18: All We Cannot Alter edited by Mary François Rockcastle.
This is the latest volume of Hamline University’s annual literary magazine, which I picked up at the Rain Taxi Book Festival. The subtitle comes from one of the poems in this issue, “Is This What Poets Do?” by Elizabeth Oness. Thus the theme is effectively what cannot be changed, and what people do about that.
The poetry is all that modern stuff I don’t understand and thus cannot evaluate the quality of. One might well ask why I keep reading literary magazines, as they inevitably go heavy on the modern poetry. I don’t have a good answer for that. “Suckling” by Jenna Le does have some interesting pink milk imagery, and “SS Eastland Capsizes in the Chicago River, 1914″ by Renny Golden tells a fairly coherent story. “Frank’s Nursery and Crafts” by Bao Phi is a tale of bad customer service possibly exacerbated by racial prejudice, and would have worked about as well in prose as far as I can tell.
The interview by Katrina Vandenberg and Taylor (Doc) Burkhard is also about poetry, as the subject is Detroit wordsmith and slam artist Jamaal May. He talks about how he structured his first book.
From the fiction section, worth noting is “Duotone Portrait of a Dragonfly” by R.T. Jamison. It’s the story of a brief affair between a Japanese art student and an American otaku (fan of Japanese pop culture), interspersed with marks used in traditional print-making. “As You Are Now” by Jeff P. Jones is a story set during a zombie apocalypse from the point of view of a zombie that has lost the ability to interpret its senses. It’s only able to feel alive again when it is eating the living, but that soon passes.
The best of the “creative non-fiction” category is Paul van Dyke’s “Goomey and Aflow”. An Iraq War veteran and a Somali refugee bond over their experiences as soldiers and names that are unpleasant enough no one will bother to insult you further. They may be beaten down, but not permanently. “The Café Book” by Charisse Coleman imitates the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon with lists and random thoughts.
The photography section is random and nothing particularly stands out. There’s also a longish essay on “Mood Rooms” which is apparently cut down from an even longer piece. It’s so-so.
There are two book review columns, one of which is all modern poetry books and largely impenetrable to me. The other one is supposedly about books of essays, but half of the books discussed are actually more modern poetry, which I think is a cheat.
This volume is a good way to get a broad view of what the Midwestern literary community is up to, and if you are into modern poetry, I think you will enjoy it much more than I did. I should also note that the 2016 volume is accepting submissions through December; aspiring writers might want to give it a shot.
Manga Review: The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 14 story by Eiji Ohtsuka, art by Housui Yamazaki
It’s finally out! To recap for newer readers, the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is five students at a Buddhist college that each have skills or talents related to the dead. They form a small firm that fulfills the last requests of corpses, resulting in creepy yet funny stories often focused around odd bits of Japanese culture.
This volume has three stories; the first has our heroes going up against a fake Kurosagi team of corpse disposal workers who are actually making a profit. It unfolds into a conspiracy involving a completely unnecessary dam project that has been claiming lives for three generations. The story also introduces a mysterious man named Nishi who manipulates social media and may communicate with the dead via smartphone app.
The second story is a one-shot breather about an Americanized cartoon version of the series, where the boys are all pizza delivery workers (with special talents) who wind up employed by the FBI’s Black Heron division identifying corpses that died in bizarre circumstances. There are interesting touches, like making one of the delivery guys a former rescue worker who discovered his powers on 9/11, and the diminutive embalmer an actual child prodigy. But it would never fly as an actual American cartoon due to the morbid bits. (At the end we learn it’s a bootleg DVD Numata picked up…along with a leather jacket with a really cool design…which turns out to be made by the bad guys in the cartoon!)
And the volume wraps up with another political story, as a museum of execution devices is abruptly closed by the government agency that controls it just before an investigation into its funding is about to take place. It seems that more than one person is losing their head over bureaucracy. The villain uses a gender-based slur.
As usual, the art and writing are excellent, with the “cartoon” section allowing the artist (and assistants) to show off some range. There’s an extensive endnotes section with all the cultural references and in-jokes, which Kurosagi is rich with. It’s been about two years since the last volume due to undeservedly poor sales; the problem is that this series, while of superior quality, is very niche in its appeal. Dark Horse will be releasing the early volumes in “omnibus” editions, so I urge readers to purchase those to increase the chances we’ll see volume 15 this decade.
This particular volume doesn’t have any appreciable nudity, but there is some nasty violence and dismembered corpses, so the mature readers warning still applies.
Book Review: The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells
Edward Prendick, a young man of independent means, decides to take a natural history sea voyage (ala Charles Darwin) aboard the Lady Vain. Somewhere in the Pacific, that ship crashed into a derelict and was lost. Prendick and two other men managed to escape in a dinghy, but after a disastrous attempt at cannibalism, he was the only survivor. Prendick was found by the tramp ship Ipecacuanha, which happens to be carrying a passenger named Montgomery, who nurses Prendick back to health.
Montgomery, as it happens, is a former medical student who had to leave London in a hurry a decade ago (for reasons never fully explained.) He and his odd-looking manservant have engaged the ship to deliver a supply of animals to a certain island, including a full-grown puma. At the island, the animals are delivered to also odd-looking but differently so boatmen, and Prendick is not invited ashore with Montgomery. On the other hand, the ill-tempered, alcoholic captain of the Ipecacuanha won’t let him stay on board either.
Thus Prendick is dumped back in the dinghy. After some parley, Prendick is reluctantly allowed to land on the island by its master, the highly antisocial Doctor Moreau. Prendick recognizes the name as someone who also had to leave England in a hurry under a cloud of suspicion. After some initial misunderstandings, Prendick learns the secret of the island…which I am fairly certain you already know.
This 1896 novel by H.G. Wells was the second of his book-length (but just barely) speculative fiction works. It still stands up as literature thanks to the multiple levels it works on. It’s a chiller about a man stranded on an island of beast people who are rapidly going feral, a warning against cruel/unnecessary animal experimentation (Prendick is not opposed to vivisection per se, but becomes even more disgusted with Moreau once he realizes the doctor has no actual goal beyond turning an animal into a human being to prove he can), and an allegory about the animalistic behavior lurking beneath the thin veneer of human civilization.
Prendick, like the Time Traveler, is a bit of a stumblebum. He has a smattering of scientific education which allows him to follow along when Moreau and Montgomery give explanations, but not enough knowledge in any given field to be useful in survival. He also burns down Moreau’s lab entirely by accident, and is repeatedly bad at making rafts. Prendick only eventually escapes when he stumbles across the Ipecacuanha‘s lifeboat, with the captain’s corpse inside (which is never explained either.) On the other hand, Prendick turns out to be an excellent shot with his very limited ammunition.
Montgomery is the most nuanced character, a man who lets his weaknesses (primarily alcohol) guide his actions, but with frequent decent impulses. We learn that it is in fact, he, not Moreau, who came up with the Law that the Beast People follow, in an attempt to help them not regress to the animals they once were. He also shows small kindnesses throughout the book until his death.
Moreau, conversely, is very much the mad scientist. He starts with the knowledge that body grafts are possible on a small scale, and decides that turning an animal into a human being would be a really cool achievement. There’s no scientific method involved, he doesn’t bother with anesthesia, and he loses all interest in his creations once they fail to live up to his expectations. Like Victor Frankenstein, he’s so busy sculpting his new humans that he fails to step back and look at the aesthetics of his creations until he’s already done. Unlike most real scientists, he fails to apply any ethical standard to himself or his work, although he does feel that he is religious and that the pain he inflicts is meaningless in light of his higher nature.
The Beast People are victims of Moreau, animals carved into humanoid shapes (and sometimes blended for fun, like the hyena-swine), given limited speech and intelligence, yet just human enough to realize that they are not fully human and never will be. Yes, they are dangerous, and a couple of them may actually be evil by human standards. But they never asked to be made or abandoned; for them death is a kind of mercy.
It is nigh impossible to re-create the experience the original readers might have had, not having seen anything like this story before. I note, however, that the trope of deformed, degenerate sub-human tribes of natives tucked away in the depths of Africa or the Pacific was common in adventure literature of the time, and the first readers might have believed they were getting such a tale from the early chapters.
The framing of the story is old-fashioned; there’s an introduction by a nephew of Prendick’s, explaining that this manuscript was found among his uncle’s effects, and while the shipwreck part is true, and Prendick was found a year later in a lifeboat that might have been the freighter’s, nothing else can be verified. The only island in the area of pick-up shows no sign of the events of the story, and Prendick claimed traumatic amnesia regarding the missing year during his lifetime. (Prendick explains in the story proper that he did this to avoid being locked in a loony bin.)
This is a good read for both horror and science fiction fans who can handle the old-fashioned vocabulary and slow start. The vivisection theme makes it more suitable for junior high on up, and parents of younger readers may want to discuss proper scientific ethics with their wards. One of the classics.
“Not to go on all fours, that is The Law. Are we not Men?”
Book Review: A South Dakota Country School Experience by William E. Lass
By happy coincidence, shortly after finishing my review of a school book used in South Dakota country schools, I have found a book about being a student in one of those schools.
Mr. Lass is a historian who attended eight grades at Emmett School in Union County, in the southeastern portion of South Dakota, during the 1930s. (He wound up teaching history in Mankato, Minnesota for many years.) While much of the book talks about his personal experiences, he also consulted historical records for the school and county to provide context.
The book is divided thematically, rather than chronologically, starting with a physical description of the school, then students, teachers and what they did there. While some of Mr. Lass’ experiences are unique, Emmett School was fairly typical of a rural school of the time, and those who shared that education will no doubt be able to relate. (He doesn’t seem to have had trouble with rattlesnakes, which were a problem in my mother’s area of South Dakota.)
It appears to have been plenty tough for teachers at these schools, teaching eight grades in the same room and trying to keep all the children busy! For $585 a year, no less.
The book is handsomely bound and has some color illustrations, as well as black and white photos. The language in most of the chapters isn’t too difficult, and could easily be read by a bright fourth-grader on up; the epilogue has more difficult vocabulary and is rather bittersweet. There are reference notes and a list of suggested further reading for the serious scholar.
This would make a good gift for an older relative who went to a country school themselves, or has an interest in South Dakota, but also should be shared with younger readers to show them how school was done in their great-grandparents’ day. Consider purchasing it directly from the publisher, Minnesota Heritage Publishing. Highly recommended.
Book Review: The Curious Case of the Jeweled Alicorn by Michael Merriam.
We open in media res, as Arkady Bloom’s assignation with Countess Moretti takes a dangerous turn. It seems that in addition to being a minor court poet, Bloom is also an agent of the Crown’s Supernatural Intervention Agency, and the Countess has stolen the key to a valuable secret formula. Bloom survives the encounter with the aid of his African valet Chillblood, and goes on to accept his next assignment.
This turns out to be attending a house party by the Baron de Blackmere the coming weekend. The Baron will be showing off some artifacts to his eccentric guests, one of which might be the elusive perpetual energy device. Several unpleasant parties would like to get their hands on that, I dare say. Bloom’s assignment becomes more complex when the sidhe (the Fair Folk, his mother’s people) approach him with a request to obtain a severed unicorn’s horn (the alicorn of the title) which they need to restrain a rampaging monster.
Bloom must navigate his multiple goals and loyalties, while trying to figure out which of the Baron’s guests are after what–and perhaps have a little romance on the side.
“Steampunk” is a subgenre of speculative fiction set roughly in the Age of Steam (1770-1914) when rapid industrialization and steam engines changed the face of civilization. It generally involves the use of steam power to do things that the technology was not used for historically, and may indeed be impossible, such as clockwork dragons or spaceships.
This novella is in a smaller subgenre that adds fantasy elements. This can be a difficult balancing act as the author must build the world almost from scratch, and there are no established boundaries what magic can or cannot do. The author does a reasonably good job of limiting the effects of magic in this case.
With a dozen plus important characters, multiple agendas and slam-bang action, there isn’t a lot of time for character development in this short book. It’s a light confection and a fast read. This is a small press book from Sam’s Dot Publishing, and there are a couple of typos. You may want to bundle this with another book from the same publisher to beef up the reading time.
Book Review: Murder at the Feast of Rejoicing by Lynda S. Robinson
Lord Meren wanted two things from his trip home to his estate at Baht. First, to enjoy some rest and relaxation with his children, far from the politics and dangers of the court. And also to complete a secret task for his friend and master, Pharaoh Tutankhamun. Unfortunately, Meren’s sister Idut has decided that his visit is the perfect opportunity to hold a feast of rejoicing, inviting all of their relatives…most of whom Meren hates or vice versa.
One of these is Anhai, the beautiful but poison-tongued wife of Meren’s cousin Sennefer. Her marriage with the notorious womanizer is on the rocks, and several other people have good reasons to hate her. Still, it’s a bit of a shock when she vanishes from the feast, and found dead in the granary, oddly positioned. Lord Meren may be the Eyes of Pharaoh, and authorized to take steps to investigate, but his extended family has little respect for him, and his mission may be imperiled.
This is the third Lord Meren historical mystery set during the reign of King Tut, and I do not believe I have read the earlier ones. The author is an anthropologist, and cites some of the research she’s done. She does admit that she’s fudged some of the names for easier reader comprehension.
The characters are distinctive, and mostly unlikable, from drunkard little brother Ra, to the self-righteous Uncle Hepu. At least one of the mysteries involved can be solved early by the reader who pays attention–others require more clues.
In addition to the usual murder, there is also talk of suicide, and some period-appropriate sexism
The paperback edition includes the first few pages of the next book in the series, Eater of Souls, which seems to indicate there’s an Ammit-themed vigilante on the loose.
This is a perfectly decent murder mystery, and I recommend it to those with an interest in Ancient Egypt.
Book Review: In the South Dakota Country by Effie Florence Putney
This is a history of South Dakota written for grade school children in the 1920s, when the frontier days were still in living memory. (Indeed, my mother was educated in a one-room schoolhouse some years later.) This was before Mount Rushmore and Wall Drug, so the emphasis is somewhat different than a current history book might cover.
In the introduction, Ms. Putney explains that she’s tried to write the book in “stories” to make it easier for children to read, but never past the point of it not being good history. The majority of the story is or intersects with Native American history, and the author tries to be evenhanded. The war between the Ree (who were in the territory first) and the Dakota (a.k.a. Sioux) is covered in separate tales for each side. However, there’s a lot of use of words like “savage” and “rude” (meaning crude, without craftsmanship) to refer to the native peoples.
Many of the short chapters are not so much about South Dakota as they are about people who passed through South Dakota on their voyages, such as Lewis & Clark.
The efforts of missionaries and others to “Christianize” and “civilize” the Native Americans are depicted entirely positively, and when the various difficulties between the races are brought up it’s always phrased that the Indians thought that the whites had broken treaties, rather than just admitting that the treaties had indeed been broken.
Towards the end of the book, there’s a chapter on the political shenanigans around the choosing of the state capital, with two major railroads offering free rides to encourage the citizens to vote for that railroad’s favorite. (It wound up being Pierre.) The last chapter is about the activity of the South Dakota Volunteers in the Philippine insurrection. Their heroism is emphasized, though it is mentioned that the Filipinos thought they had been ill-used when the U.S. refused to let them be independent after the Spanish-American War.
This book is primarily of local interest to South Dakotans, but may also be instructive to students of history who want to see how it was taught to children in the early 20th Century. Parents of younger readers will want to discuss the history of Native Americans as we now understand it, and how prejudice can distort our images of those who are different. This volume was reprinted in 2010, so you may be able to find a reasonably-priced copy.