Book Review: Blood Lance

Book Review: Blood Lance by Jeri Westerson

lance

This is the fifth Crispin Guest novel, featuring a disgraced knight of the Fourteenth Century who takes up a career of detection, earning the nickname “Tracker.” I have not read the previous volumes.

Guest happens to witness a man falling from a bridge into the Thames. By the time he reaches the man, the fallen person is already dead–and he didn’t drown. The dead man was an armourer, who it would appear owned a piece of the Lance of Longinius, a relic that supposedly pierced the side of Jesus Christ, and grants victory in battle. The lance has since gone missing, and multiple parties are working at crosspurposes to find it. Two of these are old friends of Crispin’s, but are they his friends now?

All this is set against political maneuverings in the English court, as soon-to-be adult King Richard’s favorite is losing his grip on power. The climax of the novel is an exciting trial by combat, with the actual solution of the mystery for a coda.

The noir elements are quite obvious; the morally ambiguous but still upright protagonist, everyone having secrets and many of those unpleasant, miserable weather and darkness (at least at the beginning, authorities who can’t be trusted and the detective’s falling for a woman too close to the case.

One tricky element of the story is the Spear. This is, apparently, not the first time Crispin Guest has come into contact with a supposed holy object. And while it’s left ambiguous whether or not the Spear actually has any powers, (Guest himself is a skeptic) the coincidences keep piling up. Towards the end, at least one character believes that these are not coincidences, and that artifacts seek out Crispin for a purpose as yet unknown.

It’s a good read by itself, and I would certainly be willing to look up other volumes in the series.

Disclosure:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an ARC, so minor changes may have been made in the final product.

 

TV Review: Northwest Passage

TV Review: Northwest Passage

This 1958 television series is set during the French & Indian War (1756-1763).  A Colonial militia named Roger’s Rangers battle the perfidious French and their Native American allies in what later became upstate New York and Quebec.  Both this series and the 1940 movie were based on a 1937 novel.  (The title comes from an expedition to find an open water route to the Pacific that takes place in the second half of the novel.)  I saw several episodes on a Mill Creek DVD.

Northwest

This was one of the first shows on American television to be broadcast in full color and one can see that the kinks were still being worked out from time to time.

As this is a US-produced show, the part the English Army played in the war is downplayed.  The British soldiers merely maintain the fort the intrepid American troops headquarter in between missions.  There’s some period racism, but it’s not over or under-played.  The stories are exciting, and Buddy Ebsen is good as Hunk Marinner, an uneducated but not stupid backwoodsman.

Trigger Warning:  The episode “War Sign” opens with a father whipping his young son with a switch.  This is not depicted as a good thing, and at the end of the story, the father breaks the switch.

Since the French and Indian War tends to get downplayed in American history courses, overshadowed by the American Revolution about a decade later, it might be worth looking up this series for history-curious young people and their parents.

 

Book Review: The Avenger #7 (Murder On Wheels, The Three Gold Crowns and Death To the Avenger)

Book Review: The Avenger #7 (Murder On Wheels, The Three Gold Crowns and Death To the Avenger)

wheels

The Avenger is one of the classic hero pulp characters, a man so strongly affected by a horrific crime that all color drained from his skin and hair, and his face became frozen.  Determined that no one else should suffer as he had, Richard Benson gathered a few allies who felt as strongly as he did about crime, and founded Justice, Inc.

This volume is one of the Sanctum Books reprints, containing several stories.

“Murder On Wheels”:  The plot of this story involves a stolen prototype super-car that revolutionizes automotive engineering.  But it’s far more notable for being the story in which Kenneth Robeson (actually Paul Ernst using the house name) changed the Avenger.  Apparently, sales of the Avenger magazine weren’t doing as well as expected, so management decided that perhaps the Avenger was just a little too weird for the readers to relate to.  So it was that Richard Benson was subjected to a super-science death trap that didn’t actually kill him, but did cure his albinism and nerve damage.  He was also de-aged by the narration.

The story also introduces Cole Wilson, the last member of Justice, Inc. to join.  For much of the story he’s a surprisingly enigmatic character, who may be playing both ends against the middle.

Murder On Wheels does show some seams where the mandatory new elements don’t quite jibe with the old ones, but the writer does manage to give a sense of urgency and surprise to the Avenger’s transformation,  making it clear that this is an important change.

“The Three Gold Crowns”  is the first full story of the new-look Avenger.  Justice, Inc. is hired by a man who’s being blackmailed..by three of the most respected men in the city.  An anonymous tramp is run over by a train.  A young woman fears for her life after apparently witnessing a murder.  Alll of these events are connected by the mysterious three gold crowns.

After several stories with heavy sfnal or horrific elements, The Three Gold Crowns is a relatively mundane plotline.  Only a murder by way of modern painting is truly bizarre.  Instead, interest is kept up by way of twists, turns and the fact that the whole truth isn’t being told.  As the new kid, Cole Wilson gets quite a bit of focus in the story.

A fine tale with an explosive ending.

“Death To the Avenger” is a later piece by Emile C. Tepperman, who took over the writing duties after the Avenger’s magazine ended and he became a back-up character in other pulps.  This is a more hard-boiled tale, and a shorter one.  Richard Benson decides to get rid of a particularly well-connected mobster, only to have said criminal kidnap Nellie Gray to force a hostage swap.  Bad news, criminal, the Avenger doesn’t do hostage swaps.

Rounding out this volume is a Whisperer tale, “High Explosive” by Alan Hathaway writing as Clifford Goodrich.  A mad scientist is threatening the city with a new development in seemingly unstoppable bombs, and Police Commissioner James “Wildcat” Gordon, aka the Whisperer, must stop him.  A quick, thrilling adventure.

Overall:  Highly recommended to pulp fans for the historic value–beginners may want to seek out the first volume for the more iconic tales.

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Comic Book Review: Demon Knights Vol. 1 (Seven Against the Dark)

Comic Book Review: Demon Knights Vol. 1 (Seven Against the Dark) by Paul Cornell, Diogenes Neves & Oclair Albert

demonknight

When DC Comics rebooted their mainline universe in 2011, this left them free to rearrange the past of that universe .  To fill in part of that timeline, we have this title.

After a brief moment at the fall of Camelot, we see the town of Little Spring, a relatively peaceful village that just so happens to be host to seven ill-assorted strangers.  It’s a close call as to whether these strangers or the encroaching army of the Questing Queen is more of a danger.  Nevertheless, it falls to this ragtag band of misfits to defend Little Spring until it can be relieved by Alba Sarum.

The “heroes” of this story don’t much like each other, and several of them aren’t very heroic at all.  But like it or not, they have to work together…or do they?

This is one of the more successful reimaginings of the New 52.  Paul Cornell does good banter, and blends what we “know” of various characters with new information in interesting ways.  Several mysteries are set up, only a couple of which actually get movement in this volume, which contains the first seven issues of the series.  Also, kudos to Mr. Cornell for a relatively diverse cast, and not pretending it was only white able-bodied men who did anything important in the Middle Ages.

There’s quite a bit of gory violence, and some dark themes–I would recommend this for older teens and up.

 

 

Comic Book Review: Ghosts #1

Comic Book Review: Ghosts #1

ghosts

After the Comics Code  was revised in the 1970s, DC Comics had a small explosion of horror anthology titles.  One of these was “Ghosts”, which had the gimmick of being almost entirely allegedly true ghost stories.  Even as a teenager I realized that these “true” stories were bull, but it still managed to have some nice chillers, and it’s a great title for an anthology comic.

So to keep the trademark on that title, DC’s Vertigo imprint has come out with a “Ghosts” anthology just in time for the holiday season.  There’s nine stories, a mix of veteran comics creators and newcomers.

The story of greatest interest to me is ” The Boy and the Old Man” by Joe Kubert, the last story he wrote and penciled.  Because he died before he could ink it, DC decided to run the story with only the addition of legible lettering.  The story itself is fairly straightforward in the classic ghost tale style.  I enoyed it a lot.

Also good are most of the other stories by such folks as Rufus Dayglo, Amy Reeder and Gilbert Hernandez.  The stories that didn’t come off so well were “Bride” which just left me baffled as to the message it was trying to convey (it felt like it had been chopped down from a much longer but more meandering story); and “Run Ragged”, which features the Neil Gaiman-created Dead Boy Detectives, but is not by him, and is only the first chapter of a continuing story.

This book is “suggested for mature readers”: there’s some gruesome violence, partial nudity, sexual situations and four-letter words, but not in every story.  This would make a good holiday present for horror fans and the more grown-up comic book reader.

 

Book Review: A Planet of Your Own/The Beasts of Kohl

Book Review: A Planet of Your Own/The Beasts of Kohl

kohl

Back in the day, science fiction and fantasy novels tended to be much shorter than they are now.  In some cases, so short that they didn’t make a decent-sized paperback.  So Ace Books came up with the Ace Double, two novels (or short story collections) in one, with the contents and covers upside down from each other.  This gave good value for money.  The book we’re looking at today is one of these.

A Planet of Your Own by John Brunner, first–Kynance Foy is a young woman from Earth who decided to go out and make her fortune among the stars…and failed. At the end of her rope, she’s offered a job by the Zygra Corporation. A job that sounds too good to be true, despite the obvious hardships. But she’s desperate, so sign she does. It isn’t until she gets to the planet of Zygra that she discovers the true nature of the trap, but is it too late?

Good stuff: This is a rare mid-Sixties SF book with a competent female lead. Amusingly, towards the beginning she lists off traits that in bad fanfic would make her kind of Sueish (smart, multi-skilled and exotically beautiful) but it turns out that the further she gets from Earth, the more common these traits are, to the point that normal fifteen year olds are earning the equivalent of a doctorate.

The moment Kynance figures out what the trap is, she sets about systematically disarming it, using the skills she established earlier. And when male characters show up, they don’t take over the story or assume control just because they’re men. Kynance simply works them into her plan. And there isn’t a shoehorned-in romance, either. Just a hint at the end that now that she’s made her pile, Kynance might consider a relationship, possibly with one of the male characters.

Not so good stuff: Kynance’s boss sexually harasses her as an added topping to his other slimy activities, just to reinforce that he’s the bad guy here. There’s the people calling a grown woman a “girl”, and being surprised she’s in the Zygra job (though the same character admits that a woman would be equally able to do it.) And the ending relies heavily on the legalistic version of technobabble.
The Beasts of Kohl is by John Rackham. Kohl is an aquatic lifeform that travels to other star systems, explores them, and sometimes brings back smart animals to serve it. (Thus the title.) But one day, Kohl’s bipedal servant Rann asks a question that makes Kohl realize he isn’t just a very intelligent animal, but a fully sapient being like Kohl itself. Since Kohl’s ethics prevent it from enslaving true setitents, it decides to take Rann back to his home planet for a visit, so that Rann can make an informed choice about his life.

Joined by his female counterpart Rana (who has had a less wise master and is thus more emotional and unskilled), the great canine Gromahl and thehunting bird Virgal, Rann accompanies Kohl to a certain small blue planet. What none of the visitors realize is that quite some time has passed on that world, which has changed considerably. And in a single jam-packed day, Rann and Rana learn both good and ill about their home world and its inhabitants.

It’s a fast-paced story, with some nice “outsiders looking at Earth culture” satire, but the latter half depends entirely too much on coincidence to speed things along. This easily could have been twice the length without spoiling the plot. There’s some gender essentialism, and some readers may groan at the “nerdy guy gets the incredibly hot girlfriend” subplot.

Also, the story is implied to take place on Earth in “the near future” from 1966, so it’s interesting to see what the author thinks would have changed, and what looks exactly like the Sixties.

 

 

TV Review: The Adventures of Jim Bowie

TV Review: The Adventures of Jim Bowie

Bowie

I watched several episodes of this 1950s television show via a Mill Creek DVD.  As you might have guessed, this series is a heavily fictionalized story about the famous land speculator and knife fighter, Jim Bowie, popularizer of the blade that bears his name.

The series is primarily set in Opelousas and New Orleans, Louisiana in the early 1830s.  (A time when the real Bowie had already moved to Texas.)  JIm rescues fair ladies and fights various badmen, usually culminating in him reluctantly using his famous knife to settle affairs.

The best thing about this series is the music, almost entirely choral arrangements by Ken Darby and the King’s Men.  They give a unique flavor to the show.

However, the music points out one of the less pleasant things about the series.  In particular the theme song’s line, “He fought for the rights of man.”

Two of the episodes I watched referenced the Indian Removal Act of 1830, signed into law by Andrew  Jackson.It authorized the U.S. government to negotiate with the Native American tribes of the Southeast to give up their native lands in exchange for federal reservations west of the Mississippi.  You may know it by the more poetic name, “The Trail of Tears”, a name never mentioned in the program.

In the episode “Osceola,”, Jim meets and bonds with the famous Seminole leader.  Although he admits that the natives are getting a raw deal, and saves Osceola from the army, he also advises his new friend that he should give up battling the removal to avoid more bloodshed.

The episode “Jackson’s Assassination” sees Bowie accompanying a Cherokee man to the president’s residence to see if his dishonorable discharge from the Navy on trumped-up charges can be reversed.  Jim and Andrew Jackson convince the lad that Jackson’s not an “Indian hater”, and get him restored to his rank so that he can convince the Cherokee people to accept the removal peacfully.

In both episodes, Jim Bowie is contrasted with open bigots, but behaves paternalistically towards Native Americans, and shows little interest in fighting for their overall rights, as opposed to helping out people he personally knows.

And then there’s the elephant in the room.  It’s the 1830s in the Deep South, how does the show handle the topic of slavery?  By not ever mentioning it.  While black people appear in bit parts as servants, their status and the economic system of the time goes completely unspoken.  Of course, this show was produced in the 1950s, a time when TV networks were extremely skittish about offending their white Southern viewers.  And it might have been going too far to have Jim Bowie come out against slavery, given that in real life he was a slave trader in league with pirates.

 

Overall:  While the writing is clever and there are some great turns by the character actors, the disjoint between the show’s heroic Bowie and the man he actually was gives me an uneasy feeling in the gut.  I can’t recommend it except as a starting point for discussion of historical revisionism and Hollywood’s whitewashing of those it wants to be heroes.

 

 

 

Manga Review: Ninja Papa

Manga Review: Ninja Papa by Yasuhito Yamamoto.

papa

Nobuo Matsuri is a typical Japanese salaryman (office worker.)  At thirty-two, he’s got a low-paying dead-end job at a second-rate food company, an incompetent boss who treats him like dirt, a heavily-mortgaged home and a nagging mother-in-law who never hesitates to point out all the many ways in which he’s a disappointment.  But he also has a lovely wife, two adorable children, and happiness.

Also, Nobuo Matsuri has a dark secret.  Up until age 21, he was a top assassin for the Nakuru ninja clan.  When he fell in love with Aya, he left the clan, violating their rule forbidding meaningful contact with outsiders (and experiencing actual love.)  As a result, Nakuru Clan ninja often attack Nobuo, and he must kill them to survive.  More troublingly for this man of peace and reason, he often runs across people who cannot be reasoned or negotiated with and who threaten those he cares for with mortal danger.  Then he must reluctantly use his ninja skills to kill those people.

This manga is very much a wish-fulfillment fantasy for salarymen.  A ordinary working schlub who is meek, mild and bumbling at the office, but has great sex at home and kicks the ass of those who thoroughly deserve it.  As such, it goes over the top sometimes.  Nobuo’s manager is incompetent and cartoonishly sexist in a way that would get him fired at any real company, even in Japan.  And it never occurs to the Nakuru clan assassins to just look Nobuo up in the phonebook–he hasn’t even changed his name!

But as an office worker, I can well identify with many of the situations Nobuo finds himself in.

This is an 18+ manga for bloody violence and sex scenes. It is not currently in print in the U.S.

Overall, a fun book, but not very deep, and has elements that may not appeal to many readers.

 

 

 

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Alpha

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Alpha

Shonen

Let’s start with something hefty, shall we?  Shounen Jump is the #1 manga anthology magazine in Japan, selling in the millions of copies.  Its emphasis on the themes of “friendship, struggle, victory: have made it a favorite of both its primary demographic of teenage boys (“shounen”) and the general public.  The series featured inside often get animated adaptations, which feed back to the popularity of the magazine.

Thus it was that Viz comics, , which imports manga to the North American audience, had a magazine called “Shonen Jump” which brought monthly installments of some of the most popular series to Western readers.  But the print magazine market is such that that approach wasn’t working as well as the company would like, so they’ve switched to an online magazine format instead, “Shonen Jump Alpha.”

Alpha comes out weekly at http:shonenjump.viz.com with chapters two weeks later than the Japanese print edition.  As of January 21st, they’ll be speeding it up to same-day release.  There are at present six weekly features licensed, and several monthly offerings; depending on the scheduling and if one of the regulars is having a skip week, this can make for a thin issue or a very large one.

Weekly Features

One Piece: In many ways the flagship title of SJA.  A boy named Luffy decides he’s going to become the pirate king.  He sets off on his adventure and gains a crew of wacky characters to assist him while fighting evil pirates, monsters, and the corrupt government. Cartoony art, engaging characters and a good variety of emotional tones have made this a standout series.  At present, the crew has answered a distress call from the supposedly deserted island of Punk Hazard, site of a chemical weapons disaster some years before.  The island is of course not nearly as deserted as it would appear.

Naruto: Orphaned ninja Naruto, despised and mistreated by his fellow villagers, decides that he’s going to become the Hokage, the chief of his village.  He is both aided and hampered in this quest by the fact that his body is the prison for the legendary Nine-Tailed Fox, a powerful spirit that attacked the village long ago.  The characters are more superhero than ninja per se, but this series can be a lot of fun  Presently, it looks like the Great Ninja War is finally winding down, with Naruto and his allies confronting the real (for sure this time!) mastermind behind everything.

Bleach: Ichigo Kurosaki, a boy who sees ghosts, suddenly finds himself thrust into the battles of the Shinigami (“reapers”) whose job is to assist the flow of spirits to the afterlife, and battle spirits that have lost their way and become “Hollows.”  As time goes by, more and more factions are introduced, and Ichigo unlocks more and more ultimate potential, in addition to learning things about his rather unusual heritage.  Not as good as the above two.  The current arc is supposedly the last, with a group called the Vandenreich attempting to destroy the Soul Society (the primary afterlife) altogether.  Naturally, it turns out that Ichigo has a surprising connection to them…

Toriko:  The adventures of a superhuman gourmand named Toriko on a world where the more dangerous/difficult to get a food ingredient is, the more tasty it is.  He partners with an aspiring chef named Komatsu to track down the rarest and most delicious of creatures.  This is an audience participation manga, with readers sending in their ideas for cool new foodstuffs.  It can be fun, though I am not as affected by the munchies as some other readers by it.  Presently, the characters are involved with a cooking tournament, which with any luck will be interrupted by an evil food company invasion.

Nisekoi: “False love” is the name of the game, as Raku and Chitoge, scions of feuding gangster clans, are pressured into pretending to date to calm the squabbles.  Only problem is that they can’t stand each other!  Meanwhile, Raku made a childhood marriage promise to a girl whose name and face he doesn’t remember.  At least three girls turn out to carry keys that could fit his lock (Freudian!)  This series is generic romantic comedy done right.  Yes, all the elements are out of the standard playbook, but the writer does them so well!  Currently, Chitoge has finally realized that she’s beginning to have genuine affection for Raku…but what does that mean for their fake relationship?

Cross Manage:  Former soccer star Sakurai is adrift in life after leg injuries sideline him.  That is until he meets the ditzy but very earnest Toyoguchi, whose struggling lacrosse team desperately needs a good manager.  This is a gender flip of the usual Shounen Jump sports story, in which a boy’s team has a cute female manager.  Unfortunately, the story so far has spent less time developing the team’s personalities and play styles than on Sakurai’s deep manpain.  This may explain why the series has been struggling in the ratings in the parent magazine, and looks ripe for an early cancellation.  Which is a pity, because there’s a lot of potential here.  Currently, the team is trying to get up to minimum competency to enter a spring tournament.

 

Monthlies

Blue Exorcist:  Rin Okumura discovers that his father is Satan, making him part demon and a danger to everyone around him.  Turns out Rin has inherited his father’s rebellious nature, and chooses to join exorcist school so he can learn to battle against his father’s evil plans and save humanity.  But his heritage also makes him a target, so there’s always trouble brewing.  Despite the subject matter, this series often comes off as more juvenile than scary.  Right now, someone or something is opening multiple Hellgates that can’t be closed by normal exorcists.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan:  Rikuo Nura is one-quarter yokai, (Japanese spirit monsters) so can access his superhuman abilities only for a limited amount of time each day.  Which is a real problem when he’s the heir to the yokai clan leader.This series was in Shonen Jump until earlier this year, but doing very poorly.  Since it was on its final battle arc already, the series was moved to a monthly magazine so the creator could really cut loose and do it up properly without having to worry about the ratings poll.

Rurouni Kenshin -Restoration-:  A distillation of the popular series about an assassin turned technical pacifist during the Meiji Restoration period.  It’s kind of a tie-in to the recnt live-action adaptation.  Think of it like a “Best HIts collection, or an alternate universe retelling.  You can tell that Watsuki is having a ball drawing these characters again, but Kaoru comes across as even more useless in this version.  Currently they’re building up to a fight with the hypnotic gaze fighter.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Zexal:  In the far future, Yuma Tsukuno is a huge fan of the Duel Monsters children’s card game…in the abstract, but has no idea how to actually play it.  when he gains a not-so-imaginary friend named Astral, Yuma starts improving, and soon finds himself battling evil plots to misuse the cards.  Yeah.  This latest installment of the Yu-Gi-OH! franchise continues most of the trends that have annoyed non-fans in the past, including substituting expensive overpowered cards for actual skill as the sign of a strong player.  (And despite our hero being supposedly a huge fan of the game, not recognizing half the cards or basic strategies he’s up against.)  How I miss plotlines that have almost nothing to do with the game.  Just at the moment, the good guys are trying to collect all the Numbers cards, a goal shared by the villains but for opposite reasons.

 

Overall:

An excellent value for money, provided that you are a big fan of the general shounen manga style of storytelling.  There are some lesser parts, but the variety is overall strong.  More new series are scheduled to start soon, so keep an eye out if the current titles aren’t enough to excite you.

 

SKJAM!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello world!

Greetings, citizens of the internet!

world

This blog is primarily for book and pop culture reviews.  I may post some fanfic from time to time as well.

 

Please stand by for more excitement!

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