Book Review: Respectable Horror

Book Review: Respectable Horror by K.A. Laity

Horror is a wide-ranging genre, which can be tailored to a variety of tastes.  Some folks prefer their scary fiction with a maximum of gushing blood and sharp objects being plunged into soft flesh; others like a more genteel approach that emphasizes the subtle wrongnesses and growing atmospheric dread that comes before the end.  This collection is geared towards the latter audience, with one of the inspirations being the work of M.R. James.

Respectable Horror

There are seventeen stories in all, starting with “The Estate of Edward Moorehouse” by Ian Burdon.  The title character went missing in a remote section of British coastline seven years ago.  He’s been declared dead, and a relative is looking through his estate and discovers that Mr. Moorehouse was searching for traces of a buried village on a beach mentioned in an old text.  He decides to honor the man by visiting the same beaches.

This is a thoroughly modern story with Facebook ™ and SIM cards, but ancient evil has adapted to the new technology.

The final story, “The Astartic Arcanum” by Carol Borden, is more of a period piece.  A Cthulhu Mythos tale, it pits poet Nita Sloan against a cabal of wealthy old men in Detroit who want to change the world.  It would appear that her latest work might be the only thing that can stop them–provided they don’t manage to sacrifice her to their dark god first!

Some other standouts include: “The Feet on the Roof” by Anjana Basu.  Set in 1960s India, there is culture clash between a wealthy widow and her daughter.  The daughter just up and vanishes one day, but then mysterious footprints begin to appear where no footprints should be.  It’s nice to see a horror story set in India that is by someone who actually comes from there.

“Miss Metcalfe” by Ivan Kershner is a Bradburyesque story about a substitute teacher.  It is the day before Halloween, and there’s a new substitute teacher, with a radically different lesson plan.  It involves bats.  Nicely spooky, and dances right up to but not past the line.  Read it to your kids.

“The Well Wisher” by Matthew Pegg concerns a series of poison pen letters.  One target of the letters has already been driven to suicide.  A governess may be able to unravel the mystery of the “Well Wisher”, but can she do so without revealing her own dark secrets?  Innovative, but also comfortably period.

My least favorite story was “Recovery” by H.V. Chao.  An author with writer’s block has moved to a small French village in the hopes it will help.  It hasn’t, but he’s enjoying listening to the guest next door speak to a lover who never answers.  The story never reaches spooky, just barely making it to odd.

Most of the other stories are decent to quite good; this would make a fine Halloween present for a sweetheart or other book  lover.

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences by Pere Romanillos

“Serendipity” is the good fortune that comes when you discover something useful or interesting while you were looking for something else.  Knowing how to grasp the opportunity offered by serendipity is one of those skills that every scientist and artist should have at their disposal.  This book, originally published as ¡Menuda chiripa! Las serendipias más famosas covers many instances of serendipity, mostly in the area of science.

Great Historical Coincidences

After a lengthy introduction on the subject of serendipity and fortunate coincidences, there are 49 essays on individual discoveries divided by scientific field.  We begin with physics and Archimedes’ Principle (and the origin of “Eureka!”) and end with archaeology and the terracotta soldiers of Qin.  Many of the stories were familiar to me, such as the melting chocolate bar that revealed the existence of microwaves; while others were new to me, such as the origin of the Pap smear.

This book is heavily illustrated and the translation by Janet Foster uses language that should make this book suitable for bright junior high students on up.  (Some parents may find discussion of the biology of sex unsuitable for their kids.)  There’s some clumsy phrasing from time to time.  There’s no index or citations, but there is a bibliography to search for more information–much of it in Spanish.

This is one of those books primarily meant as a present; the treatment of each discovery is short and only covers highlights and often context is missing.  Consider it for a budding scientist or history buff, perhaps as a pair with the same author’s Great Historical Blunders.

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz

Right up front, I have to say that the title is the most annoying thing about this book.   Did anyone ever use “rad” as an adjective unironically?  That said, “radical” is not an unfair term to apply to many of the women whose short biographies are written in this volume.  There are forty stories set around 30 “countries”, starting with Enheduanna of Mesopotamia, the first named author that we have records of, and wrapping around the globe to Emma Goldman, born in Russia, anarchist and advocate for worker’s rights.

Rad Women Worldwide

This is a sequel to Rad American Women A-Z by the same creators; the greater scope allows them to have more variety.  There are scientists, athletes and entertainers, politicians and even a princess!  The book is written for middle-grade girls, but some of the subject matter may be difficult for more sensitive readers.  (A couple of these biographies moved me to tears.)  Many of the women covered I had heard of before, but a few were new to me.

The papercut illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl give the book a distinctive, rough-hewn look; it also ties the appearance of the volume together better than a mix of photographs and paintings might have, as there are both historical and contemporary women covered.

This book also wears its politics on its sleeve, obvious in the selection of women to write about.  Politically conservative parents might find it uncomfortable that Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera (fights for gay rights in Uganda) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (anti-war activist) get full entries while such right-wing icons as Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa don’t even make the 250 honorable mentions in the back.  The poem about “the stateless”, refugees, exiles and others torn from their homelands includes the line “No human being is illegal.”

As is common in collections of short biographies, only the highlights of any given woman’s life are included, and edited according to the author’s intent.  Many of these women were controversial during their lifetimes, and some of them are still controversial now.  A reader who takes a particular interest in one of the subjects would be well advised to seek out more complete biographies.  I’ve previously reviewed biographies of King Hatshepsut http://www.skjam.com/2016/01/20/book-review-the-woman-who-would-be-king-hatshepsuts-rise-to-power-in-ancient-egypt/ and Queen Lili’uokalani http://www.skjam.com/2014/02/21/book-review-lost-kingdom-hawaiis-last-queen-the-sugar-kings-and-americas-first-imperial-adventure/ , for example.

I expect that this book will end up in  a lot of elementary school libraries.  I’d also recommend this volume to parents of middle-grade kids (yes, boys too, to go with their many books about famous men) with the caveat (or bonus!) that you might want to sit down with them to discuss some of the topics that will come up.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: Justicariat

Book Review: Justicariat by Nathan Bolduc

In an alternate history, the newly-formed United Nations created an extra-national force called the Justicariat.  Its members, the Justicars, hunt down and kill those they believe to be criminals, not bound by any authority or law higher than themselves.  They have absolute immunity from local laws or regulations, though many will cooperate with/commandeer local law enforcement when it is convenient for them.

Justicariat

Two North American Justicars, Brian Galan and Noriko Tachibana, are assigned to a multi-jurisdiction operation when it’s learned an international syndicate has acquired what appears to be a doomsday weapon.   Shortly after they arrive on the remote island, the mission goes south, and it’s unclear just how many enemies the Justicars actually have.

In the early part of the novel, we see both Justicar Galan and Justicar Tachibana on more typical operations, Galan tracking down a cop killer in Detroit, and Tachibana dealing with a mob boss in Las Vegas.  Both of these end with considerable collateral deaths, although only Tachibana receives a mild reprimand; Galan faces no repercussions for straight up murdering a police officer for daring to punch him.  We are assured that the Justicars themselves deal with Justicars who have gone wrong.

I’d expect there to be more suspicion of the Justicariat among the general population, but they seem to be generally admired, and the problem of potential corruption from their legal immunity is handwaved with intensive and selective training.

This is closest to the “military SF” subgenre, I think, with lots of loving description of weapons, emphasis on tactics, and stuff blowing up.  There’s lots of action in here, with a climax out of a James Bond movie.

Sadly, little is done with the alternate history aspect of the story–there do seem to be more serial killers and terrorists than in our timeline, or perhaps the regular governments have left them to be taken care of by the Justicars since they don’t have to care about human rights or actual proof.  I was reminded of Judge Dredd and how it’s made clear in that series that the Judges are part of the problem as well as the makeshift solution.

Torture is indulged in by both villains and nominal good guys, and rape is mentioned but does not happen on screen.  Several people die in horrible ways beyond just violence.   It’s mentioned more than once that mercy is a weakness, and forcibly demonstrated.

To be honest, the Justicariat creeps me out, so I wasn’t as sympathetic to the main characters as I suspect I was supposed to be.  It’s a battle of very dark grey vs. absolute black.

From  a writing aspect, there are multiple viewpoints (none from the bad guy side), and there’s a fair amount of redundancy between the characters’ accounts and dwelling on minutia–I think this novel could have been a good ten percent shorter with nothing of importance lost.

Still, if you are looking for science fiction action starring people who don’t have to deal with pettifogging regulations when  they eliminate criminal scum, you could do worse.  The end has a strong sequel hook, and that book is in the works.

Book Review: Red Randall on Active Duty

Book Review: Red Randall on Active Duty by R. Sidney Bowen

Red Randall and his buddy Jimmy Joyce have completed their flight training and been assigned to a base in Darwin, Australia.  They’re looking forward to getting some revenge against the Japanese for Pearl Harbor, but there’s not much excitement at the moment.  Until suddenly there is!

Frontispiece
Frontispiece

The young pilots distinguish themselves in the combat, and are picked for a special secret mission.  It seems Douglas MacArthur needs new planes and pilots to hold the Phillippines against the Japanese invaders.  Surprisingly, our heroes botch their mission and are captured by the Imperial forces.  Can they free themselves in time to save the day?

This 1944 boys’ adventure book is the middle of a trilogy, between Red Randall at Pearl Harbor and Red Randall Over Tokyo.  (The latter apparently inserting Red into the Doolittle Raid.)  Red and Jimmy’s fathers were in the Army and Navy respectively, and were gravely wounded or killed in the December 7, 1941 attack.

To be honest, this book is bottom-grade, poorly researched (the Japanese use the wrong weapons, and our heroes take off from an aircraft carrier without being trained at all in how to do so) and dripping with racism against the Japanese.  It’s not exactly spotless in other areas either; the heroic Solomon Islanders Red and Jimmy get rescued by are referred to as “the whitest black men.”  It is hilarious though when Red spends a couple of pages talking in “I am speaking to a congenital idiot” lingo, only to have John Smith respond with better English than Red normally speaks.

The timing is weird too, suggesting that Red and Jimmy went through basic training, flight school and transport to Australia between 12/7/41 and 2/28/42 in order to participate in MacArthur’s retreat from the Phillippines.

No romance here; the closest the story comes to a woman is the mention of “nurses” who might be male nurses for all we can tell.  The middle section of the book takes place on a Japanese-controlled island, and our heroes spend much of it flat on their faces while John Smith and company plan a rescue.

I really can’t recommend this one for young readers due to the racism and poor writing–it’s mostly interesting for collectors of WWII memorabilia.

Book Review: Billy Smith Shanghaied Ace

Book Review: Billy Smith Shanghaied Ace by Noël Sainsbury, Jr.

William “Billy” Smith, noted teen aviator, has been called to Australia by a wealthy banker, Mr. Clafflin whose daughter Janet was on the missing passenger liner GLORIA (sic).  The banker believes that the ship was not sunk, but is stranded off course somewhere in the Solomon Islands.  He has hired Billy to search the islands by seaplane.  However, no sooner has Billy started preparing for the journey in Sydney than he is tricked into an ambush.

Billy Smith Shanghaied Ace

Billy finds himself shanghaied aboard the blackbirder (slave ship) PAULINE S, under the command of Captain Hammond.   This is bad enough, but after the ship goes through a dangerous “white squall”, Billy is lost overboard.

By an amazing coincidence, Billy is rescued by the only other boat in these waters, a whaleboat crewed by four Tahitians and a lad slightly younger than Billy, John “Jan” White.  As it happens, they are headed to Rennell Island, where the PAULINE S. was also sailing.  They were passengers on the GLORIA who managed to escape when the Malay pirate Che’ Ali captured her.  Jan has an aunt on board and wants to rescue her.

Billy, being a famous hero (he already has a series of books about his adventures despite being no more than eighteen, in universe!), is put in charge of the rescue effort.  The small party soon learns that the blackbirder captain and pirate are in cahoots, and the GLORIA is somewhere near the dangerous island of Malaita.  Billy is able to regain his seaplane, and the rescuers luckily coordinate with the one white man allowed to live on the remote Solomon Isle.

This 1934 book is part of the Great Ace series by Mr. Sainsbury.  Technically, Billy is not a true ace; while he spent two years at Annapolis Naval Academy, he apparently has not shot down the requisite five enemy aircraft in formal war conditions.  But other than that, he’s very much the standard boys’ adventure hero.  Gray eyes, a muscular 160 pounds, expert in wrestling and cutlass fencing, and qualified as navigator and pilot of both air and sea vessels.  He’s honest and upright, and makes friends easily.  But he’s not perfect, I’ll discuss his one in-universe flaw in the spoilers section below.

The glaring problem with this book for modern readers is the racism.  Once the Solomon Islanders come into the picture, constant mention is made of how ugly, dirty and smelly they are, as well as how savage they are, being cannibal headhunters.  The “black” Melanesians are compared unfavorably to the “brown” Polynesians, and one of the villains even uses the N-word (and he’s the sympathetic villain!)

Also, for purposes of the plot, Malaita is mischaracterized.  By the time this story takes place, the natives were well acquainted with the outside world and quite a few missionaries and traders lived there.  After a British punitive expedition in 1927, many Malaitans converted to Christianity.   A far cry from the howling wilderness populated by stupid, superstitious barbarians who can only be pacified by one eccentric butterfly collector and his mastiff Satan.

As a side note, the butterfly collector, Mr. Bailey, is named after the artist who did the covers for the Great Ace series.

There’s even a plot development where Billy dons blackface to pass as a local.  Erm.

On the other hand, the sailing and flying stuff is terrific, with lots of technical detail for the air enthusiast reader.

Not recommended except as a curiosity.

SPOILERS after this video which will allow some folks from Malaita to have a voice here.

SPOILERS!

Billy Smith’s one flaw, as it turns out, is that he’s a little too willing to accept things at face value.  It gets him shanghaied in the first place.

When they first pick Billy up, the Tahitians pretend to only speak beche de mer (sea cucumber) a kind of Pidgin English better known as Tok Pisin, and that Jan is their master.  They are in fact able to speak American English, and are independent businessmen.

Moreover, Jan White’s full name is Janet White Clafflin, the very girl Billy was sent to rescue in the first place!  She is, as she admits by way of describing “Miss Clafflin” “a bit of a tomboy” and wore male clothing to help her escape when the GLORIA was captured.   She realizes when Billy describes his mission that he would never let her participate in the rescue and would insist on taking her to safety, so she pretends to be a boy.

And Billy falls for it hook, line and sinker, as does Mr. Bailey.   The result is surprisingly feminist for the time period and genre, as Jan fights a shark, and gets to behave competently all the way through without ever giving herself away.  It’s only when she shows up wearing a dress in the final chapter that Billy learns he’s been had.   Billy does plan to scold her for unbecoming behavior, but the story mercifully ends before then.

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler

The title of this volume is slightly misleading; “locked room” stands in for the general idea of impossible crimes in mystery stories.  A man  is found stabbed in the back in a windowless room with the door locked from the inside.   A woman is strangled in the middle of a snowy field, but the only tracks are her own.  Precious jewels disappear from a safe that hasn’t been opened.  It’s a thriving subgenre of the mystery field.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

This book starts with a selection of the most reprinted stories of this type, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and G.K. Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man.”  After these, which most readers will already know the endings to, the remaining stories are grouped by category, such as stabbings or impossible thefts.   A wide swath of famous mystery authors is included, and some more obscure writers with particularly good stories.    At least one of these stories has not been reprinted before.

Not all of these stories are “fair-play” mysteries where the reader can figure out the solution from the clues given, but they all play by the important rules of the subgenre.  It’s never as simple as “there’s a secret passage” and the murder itself is never accomplished by the paranormal.    Some of the stories are tinged with the possibility of the supernatural (Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case” is not one of them, surprisingly), but the solution is always possible, if highly implausible.  (Seriously, random Ourang-Outang attack in the middle of Paris?)

The genre-savvy reader will be able to figure out many of the stories before they end, especially as a couple of them use the same dodge as earlier ones in the volume.  Still, there are often other twists that distinguish the story, such as “The Wrong Problem” by John Dickson Carr, where solving the murder isn’t the real mystery; and “The House of Haunts” by Ellery Queen, which features the overnight disappearance of a three-story stone house, foundations and all!

The stories were mostly written in the Twentieth Century, and the first half of it at that, so there’s some period racism and sexism.  (The Flying Corpse” by A.E. Martin relies a lot on the narrator being unable to follow his wife’s “woman logic” )   I should also mention that at least one of the stories has the “it was suicide disguised as murder” solution, which may be triggery for some readers.

This book would make a terrific gift for the mystery-lover on your holiday list, or for yourself if locked-room mysteries are your thing.  I do have one caveat; the cover is a bit flimsy for the size of the book, and will not stand up well to more vigorous transportation.

Comic Strip Review: Spacetrawler Book 1 The Human Seat

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

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

Spacetrawler

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

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

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

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

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

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

I recommend Spacetrawler to science fiction fans who enjoy comedy.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends by Various

Back in the 1970s, there was a Saturday morning cartoon titled Superfriends.  It featured several superheroes from DC Comics,, plus “Junior Super Friends” Wendy and Marvin, trainee superheroes with their pet Wonderdog.   Each episode taught valuable life lessons to kids across America.  While reruns of the cartoon continue even today, younger fans may not be aware there used to be a tie-in comic book as well.

Showcase Presents Super Friends

Because the Comics Code of the time was surprisingly less restrictive than the Standards & Practices Board that governed children’s broadcasting, the writers of the comic book had more flexibility to put in story elements that explained how the team worked, and the full range of the heroes’ powers.  The book took place in a close parallel of the DC universe, so other superheroes could guest star.

Now, I said the writers could be more flexible than the TV show, but I am still amazed that they got away with mass murder as a plot point in the third issue.  Some of the deaths even happened on panel!  And they weren’t even reversed by the end of the story.  To explain, a mad scientist captures over a hundred supervillains (none of whom were established characters) and disintegrates them to create the World-Beater, which has all their powers combined.

After a few issues, the comic book explained (as the show never did) the change from the first season’s Marvin and Wendy, to the later Wonder Twins, aliens named Jan and Zayna.   This was a truly epic plot which also introduced a slew of international superheroes who later joined the mainstream DCU as the Global Guardians.  (It also gave the comic some much-needed ethnic diversity.)

Many creators worked on the series, but the distinctive art of Ramona Fradon is perhaps most representative.

Aside from the mass murder, this is a kid-friendly title; there are some dated attitudes that parents might want to discuss with their children.  The writing is typical for the time period, and certainly better than the television show.

Recommended for fans of the Superfriends cartoon and nostalgic comics fans.

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

Book Review: The Third Chimpanzee for Young People by Jared Diamond, adapted by Rebecca Stefoff

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

The Third Chimpanzee for Young People

This is a young adult version of Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, originally printed in 1992.  I have not read that book, so will not be making direct comparisons.  I have, however, read Guns, Germs & Steel, which has some overlap with this volume.

Mr. Diamond is a biogeographer and evolutionary biologist.  In this book, he discusses the information (current as of 1992) that scientists have about the evolution of humans, who share about 98% of their DNA with chimpanzees.  This segues into an examination of human behavior, how it is (and is not) unique among the world’s animals; and winds up with some thoughts about what this might mean for humanity’s future.

The language is clear and should be suitable for strong readers from 10-11 up; there’s also a helpful glossary at the back along with an index.  There is no bibliography, presumably because the sources would not be written for young adults.  There are several illustrations and sidebars to break up the text.

Parents of sensitive tweens should be aware that the book covers some “heavy” subjects, such as war and genocide.  There’s also some discussion of the probable evolution of human sexuality.

A couple of chapters recap the information from Guns, Germs & Steel about why some human societies developed technology more quickly than others.  Mr. Diamond frequently uses “narrative causality”; trying to find the most logical sequence of cause and effect without being able to fill in all the links in the chain.

The final chapters deal with the looming specter of environmental destruction and mass extinction of animal species.  (But not anthropogenic climate change.)  Mr. Diamond is pessimistic about the chances of alien contact.  He does believe, however that conservation and population control can mitigate the worst effects of human behavior.   After all, while evolutionary biology explains many things about human behavior, it is not the only explanation.  We have free will.

This would be a good general introduction to anthropology and biogeography for  middle schoolers and non-science majors.  Some of the information is out of date, due to it being more than two  decades since the original book was written–serious students should review the recent research as well.  As Mr. Diamond repeatedly reminds us, his opinions influence his interpretation of the available evidence.

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