Book Review: The 47 Ronin

The 47 Ronin by A.B. Mitford

47

This is an abridged and dolled-up reprint of A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan with lots of color illustrations.  Tales was originally published in 1871, as Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, a member of the British legation in Tokyo, witnessed the rapid modernization of Japan.  He decided to set down some traditional stories before they were completely altered by new attitudes and customs.

The centerpiece, of course, is the mostly-true story of the forty-seven ronin who avenged their lord’s death against the enemy who caused his downfall.  The ronin are culture heroes of Japan, who have been imbued with the virtues of honor and self-sacrifice by the frequent retelling of their story.  As such, the behavior shown in this version may seem exotic and a little puzzling to modern Western readers.  They’re all so polite!

(There is an upcoming movie which casts Keanu Reeves as a forty-eighth ronin character written specifically to shoehorn a partially-white person into the story so that Americans will watch it.  I recommend the Stan Sakai comic book adaptation instead.  Read the review for that here.  http://www.skjam.com/2013/09/30/comic-book-review-47-ronin/)

There are several other stories of revenge and bloodshed, but also some light-hearted moments, and tales of the supernatural, including both evil and good cats.  In between stories, Mr. Mitford has scattered information on the samurai swords, sumo wrestling and other interesting topics.  The book finishes with scholarly appendixes on ritual suicide and funerary rites as they were then practiced in Japan.

The writing style may seem overly formal to modern readers, but is free of the more purple filigree often associated with Victorian literature.  I strongly recommend this book to students of Japanese culture, and to manga/anime fans interested in the roots of some stories they’ve only seen modern adaptations of.  (The original text is in the public domain, so should be easy to find in less expensive formats.)

Book Review: Deadly Defiance

Book Review: Deadly Defiance by William Manchee

Deadly

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

This is the tenth volume in a series about Stan Turner, a Dallas based attorney for the firm of Turner and Waters.  It’s 1995, and the law firm is going through a bit of a financial crunch.  Their current clients don’t seem to be likely to help with that much.  First, there’s Maureen Thompson, whose bankruptcy filing is put on hold when her estranged husband turns up dead from multiple icepick wounds.   Which might be defensible–except that her first husband died of the same thing!

Then there’s the Alvarez family, impoverished immigrants, who are seeking a wrongful death settlement from a notorious sweatshop owner with ties to organized crime.  There’s also the search for a missing heir, but the family involved in that doesn’t want to pay to have him found–though they might pay Stan to drop the search.

This book is more of a procedural than a fair play mystery, full of filings and legal maneuverings.   And our protagonists aren’t exactly squeaky clean; Stan’s partner Paula Waters in particular does some questionable things to ensure she’ll get paid, which could easily come back to bite her later.  There are some exciting scenes involving a Mexican drug cartel.

I think the book could have used another editorial pass.  The first chapter starts with a paragraph that makes it look as though Stan’s wife Rebekah will be doing something in the chapter, but switches gears to Stan’s day at the office.  References to previous volumes are shoehorned in (I’d recommend just going with footnotes) Also, there are a couple of apostrophe use typos.    The pacing is better in the later chapters.

A decent read, but overall a little unsatisfying.

Comic Book Review: Bully Eater

Comic Book Review: Bully Eater by Raymond Brown

Bully

Disclosure:  I received this book from a Goodreads Giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Isao Akio has been bullied most of his life.  Deciding enough was enough, he went out and got himself some martial arts training.  This helped until he transferred to Longwei High, where the bullies have superhuman powers.    Things are not entirely lost–there’s another new student who has personal reasons for standing up to the local bullies, and powers of his own.  Can Tien Lung help make Longwei High a better place to get an education?

I like that Tien Lung is nearsighted; too proud to wear corrective lenses, but serious enough about his studies to want to see the chalkboard.  It’s a nice touch.

This volume collects the first two issues of the comic book.  While the series is clearly inspired by manga (Tenjou Tenge is a really obvious influence), I am more strongly reminded of the independent comics boom of the 1980s.  It’s a labor of love, and the creator’s enthusiasm really comes through.  But the pitfalls of a one-man show also are evident.  The art is crude and graffiti-ish, the proofreading is poor, and the exposition is clumsy.

Most of the independent comics creators of the Eighties out out an issue or two, then vanished, but a few found fame and appreciation.  This series does not look like it will be the breakout for Raymond Brown, but I hope to see improvement by his next effort.

Book Review: The Boy Knight

Book Review: The Boy Knight by G. A. Henty

boy

G.A. Henty (1852-1902) was a writer of children’s historical fiction, who began his career as an author after a friend heard him telling bedtime stories to his kids.  Like many Victorian authors, he’s out of favor these days, but my parents found this book at an estate sale.

Cuthbert is fifteen when the story begins, a lad of mixed Norman and Saxon blood during the reign of Richard I (Richard the Lionheart.)  This gives him ties to both his late father’s cousin, the Earl of Evesham, and his mother’s relative, the landless freeman Cnut.  Learning that the Earl plans to rid the forest of the landless men, Cuthbert warns them in time, then happily finds a way for the woodsmen to help save the Earl’s daughter from his real enemy, the Baron of Wortham.

Recognized for his bravery and cleverness, Cuthbert is made the Earl’s squire when a Crusade is called.  The noble (in the best sense of the word) lad is quickly noted by King Richard, and soon becomes a knight.  Alas, after many adventures the old Earl dies without a male heir, but before he goes convinces Richard to appoint Cuthbert the new Earl of Evesham and the betrothed of the old Earl’s lovely daughter.

More adventures later, Cuthbert arrives back in England incognito, to discover that wicked Prince John has appointed one of his unpleasant cronies as Earl and betrothed.  Now Cuthbert must defeat the false Earl, save the maiden and find the missing true king.  With a little help from Robin Hood and Blondel, he accomplishes all this.

The prose is rather stiff with an antiquated vocabulary–today’s children might get the impression that they’re reading a book for grown-ups.  Those looking for deep characterization are likely to be disappointed.  Cuthbert begins the story honest, kind, brave and clever, and remains so throughout.  His primary character flaw is that he is, perhaps, just a little too boyishly fond of adventure.  When not engaged in battle, even the lowliest of persons is formal of speech.

This is not to say the work is free of moral ambiguity.  It’s admitted that the Crusades had generally bad results in spite of their lofty purposes, the Muslims have valid reasons for opposing the Crusaders, and King Richard’s selfish actions are shown to have negative consequences even while he remains the great hero of the story.  Parents reading this with their children may wish to discuss how easily religion can be used as an excuse for war, and the real history of the Crusades.

This book can also be found under the title “Winning His Spurs.”  It’s a good example of children’s literature of a bygone age, and with some caveats is suitable as a bedtime story even today.  As it’s in the public domain, there have been some inexpensive reprints in recent years.

Manga Review: Ayako

Manga Review: Ayako by Osamu Tezuka

Osamu Tezuka is best known in the United States for his early children’s manga and their subsequent animated adaptations like “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion.”  But later in his prolific career, he also produced quite a few works for more mature readers, such as “MW” and “Ode to Kirihito.”  Ayako falls into the latter category.

Ayako1

The year is 1949, and the last of the Japanese POWs are returning to Japan.  Among them is Jiro Tenge, second son of a wealthy landowning family.  Times are tough for the Tenge clan due to the occupation’s land reforms breaking up their holdings.  They’re desperately trying to hold on to their remaining prestige, a task made more difficult by the family’s dark secrets.  Jiro has his own secrets from the time he was in American captivity, and soon there is death in the story.

Soon, it is decided that the only way to protect the Tenge clan is to seal away the youngest  daughter, four-year-old Ayako, in a cellar.  There she remains for over twenty years while the rest of the family sows the seeds of their own destruction….Given the recent cases of women escaping from long captivity, the story has a resonance today.

Even Tezuka’s children’s work did not shy away from deep themes (parental abandonment and racism in Astro Boy, questions of gender identity in Princess Knight), but this is a particularly dark work.  In addition to the nudity and sexual situations you might have guessed from the cover, I need to issue TRIGGER WARNINGS for rape, child abuse, incest, torture, abuse of the developmentally disabled and domestic abuse.  None of this is depicted as good things, but it can be seriously disturbing.

This story uses few of Tezuka’s trademark “stars”, instead trying to come up with new faces for its cast.  One notable example is police officer Inspector Geta, who seems to be heavily inspired by Dick Tracy.

Inspector Geta
Inspector Geta and his mentor, Inspector Tanuma.

Bits of real Japanese post-war history are woven in, and there are footnotes indicating where this has happened.  Tezuka’s explanation of events is not kind to the American Occupation.

Again, this is a book for mature readers.  Late high school students might be able to handle it, but certainly not children.  (Given the NSFW cover, you might not want to read it in public even if you’re an adult.)  Recommended for Tezuka fans and those ready to explore the darker side of post-war Japan.

Book Review: America In So Many Words

Book Review: America In So Many Words by Allen Metcalf & David K. Barnhart

America

American English is its own animal, with a vocabulary that marks it out from British English.  This volume traces American history through the words that have been important to or invented by Americans.  It’s set in roughly chronological order, from “canoe” (1555) through “gerrymander” (1812) to “millennium bug” (1998.)  The authors admit to a certain amount of fudging, with some words discussed in the year they were invented, others when they became common and some when their usage changed.

Most of the entries are entertaining, full of useful or exciting facts.  Some words’ origins may be very familiar to educated readers, while others are obscure.  The indexes in the back are both alphabetical and chronolgical for easier searching.  The illustrations are somewhat sparse.

This is a good book for both the American history student and the lover of words.

Open Thread: It’s my birthday!

But you might be the one getting the present!  Check out this giveaway…

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

http://www.skjam.com/2013/06/15/arc-giveaway-the-cat-sitters-cradle-ends-june-30-2013/

And feel free to leave comments!

Got the news tonight that my current job is over.  Know of anything for a book blogger?

Manga Review: A*Tomcat

Manga Review: A*Tomcat by Osamu Tezuka

Atomcat

A perennial comic book idea is animal versions of previously created superheroes, such as Hoppy, the Marvel Bunny for Captain Marvel.  It turns out that manga creators can do it too.  Back in the 1950s, Osamu Tezuka created Tetsuwan Atom (“Mighty Atom”), the story of a super-powered robot that looked like a human boy.  In the U.S., he’s known as Astro Boy.  For a children’s series, it was quite deep, dealing with themes of identity, prejudice, parental abandonment, war and death.  (Did you know Astroboy died in Vietnam?)

A*Tomcat takes place in a world where Tetsuwan Atom is fiction, an old-time manga that young Tsugio and his father (an inventor of much more realistic robot technology) bond over.  Tsugio is easily bullied (the lead bully is nicknamed Gadaffi) and after a particularly humiliating session, Tsugio finds an abandoned kitten and names it Atom.

One bizarre accident with aliens later, little Atom is granted superpowers similar to the boy robot, which it uses to protect Tsugio and battle evil.  Supernatural cats (the mummy cat is particularly creepy), a crime syndicate, pirate ghosts, that sort of thing.

Tezuka’s art is in his more cartoony style, hearkening back to the Tetsuwan Atom series–indeed some pages are direct redraws of the older manga to provide a counterpoint to the cat’s adventures.

The bullying scenes may be a bit much for some readers (Tsugio winds up naked more than once) and there’s some toilet humor.  Otherwise it’s a fun kids’ manga, and there’s only one volume, making it relatively affordable.

 

Book Review: Shanghai 1937

Book Review: Shanghai 1937 by Peter Harmsen

Shanghai

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  This is my 25th win!

This is the first English-language book specifically about the battle for Shanghai in 1937, which is considered by some to be the start of the Asian portion of World War Two.  It’s notable for having unusually comprehensive press coverage for the time.  This was because both the Chinese and Japanese were very careful to involve the foreign quarter of Shanghai in the fighting as little as possible.  Neither of them wanted the Western nations to side with the other due to attacks on their citizens.

What that means is that there’s a wealth of contemporary sources of information about the battle, even if it’s obscure now because of the larger conflicts that followed.  AFP reporter Peter Harmsen has woven this into a chronological retelling of the conflict.  There are accounts from both the Chinese and Japanese soldiers, as well as the foreign observers.

A couple of points that stuck out to me:  having the large foreign quarter be neutral ground created tactical problems for both sides, and both sides frequently made tactical blunders that prolonged the three month battle.  Chiang Kai-shek does not come off at all well, demonstrating the qualities that would eventually result in his retreat to Taiwan.

There are excellent photos and maps, as well as the battle order.  There are copious footnotes, bibliography,and an index.  The prose is clear and understandable

This volume is a bit pricey at $32.95, but will be worth it to the World War II and military history buffs.  Everyone else should check it out at the library.

ARC Giveaway: The Cat Sitter’s Cradle (Ends June 30, 2013)

This giveaway has ended!  Congratulations to the winner!

Please check to see if there’s a new giveaway!

Hey, folks!  I thought I would give giveaways another chance.  So I’ll be giving away an Advanced Reading Copy of The Cat Sitter’s Cradle by Blaize & John Clement. in a contest.

Cradle

Rules

  • The contest begins today, June 14, 2013 and ends June 30, 2013 at ,midnight Central Daylight Time.
  • U.S, residents only (sorry international fans.)
  • One entry per person.
  • To enter the contest, comment to this entry with an answer to the topic:  “I like cats because…”

Even if you aren’t interested in the book yourself, please consider telling other people who might be interested on your favorite social networks.

Good luck!

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