Book Review: Old Celtic Romances

Book Review: Old Celtic Romances by P.W. Joyce

The Gaelic-speaking people of ancient Ireland told tales of their mighty ancestors and great men, not unlike the people of every nation and tribe.  When writing came, they began to put these tales into manuscripts.  Out of the large body of remaining literature, in 1879 P.W. Joyce chose thirteen legends he felt represented the most interesting of Irish tales.  Eleven of these were printed in the first edition, but this volume is a reproduction of the third edition which has them all.

Old Celtic Romances

They’re roughly in order of internal chronology.

“The Fate of the Children of Lir; or, The Four White Swans” is the first of what are called “the Three Sorrows of Irish Storytelling” due to their somewhat tragic endings.   Lir’s four children are turned into swans by their stepmother due to her belief that people liked them better than her.  She curses them to spend nine hundred years in those forms, three hundred years each in three different bodies of water.

Only the arrival of Christianity to Erin allows them to leave their watery prison, and a disciple of Saint Patrick is able to turn them human, whereupon the children of Lir die of extreme old age.

There’s some evidence to suggest that some of the older tales started out under the old “pagan” religions and then were altered to meet new Christian guidelines.  “Druidical wands” are common in the early ones.

“The Fate of the Children of Turenn; or, the Quest for the Eric-Fine” is set in the days of Lugh of the Long Arms, as he battles the Fomori (sea raiders, often depicted as giants or deformed.)  Lugh’s father Kian is murdered by the three sons of Turenn due to an earlier quarrel that is not explained.  Because Turenn is a distant relative of Kian, this is considered kin-slaying and Lugh can choose to have them either executed immediately, or exact a blood price (the “eric-fine” of the title.)

Lugh describes the eric-fine in general terms that makes it sound not so bad, but when the brothers accept, he reveals that each of the items he mentioned are in fact mystic relics of great power guarded by mighty owners, or are otherwise hard to get.  For example, the three apples he wants are the Golden Apples of the Garden of Hisberna, which can heal any wound among other properties.

The brothers cut a bloody swath across Europe gaining the parts of the eric-fine, using each item they gain to make it easier to get the rest.  Eventually, a smart king just gives them what they want rather than have his army and himself slaughtered.  But with 5/7ths of the fine gathered, Lugh plays a nasty trick on the children of Turenn, mind-zapping them into returning to Eire with only that part of the eric-fine, confiscating the magic items, and then sending them off for the rest.

The last two items have the toughest guardians yet, and the brothers are fatally wounded in the process of gaining them.  The children of Turenn manage to return to Lugh successful in paying their fine, and ask him to heal them.  He refuses and cheerfully watches the brothers expire, followed by their grieving father and sister.  The ancient Irish really know how to hold onto a grudge!

“The Overflowing of Lough Neagh, and the Story of Liban the Mermaid” tells the tale of two brothers who decide to leave home with their followers to settle new territory.  One perishes quickly, but the other settles down in an area with a magic well.  Too soon the protection around the well is broken, and it floods the entire valley.  One person, Liban, survives by becoming a mermaid.

“Connla of the Golden Hair and the Fairy Maiden” has the handsome young man lured from his home by  a beautiful woman from the land of Moy-Nell, where there is no old age or sickness.  He is never seen again.

“The Voyage of Maildun” has the title character go off for vengeance against the raiders who killed his father.  He’s told by a soothsayer to only bring sixty crew members, but his three foster-brothers insist on coming along.  Breaking this prohibition gets the ship lost in a storm, and they must sail randomly to bizarre islands and have adventures not unlike the Odyssey.  They lose each of the foster-brothers and are at last able to find their way again, but Maildun learns he must show forgiveness to finally come home.

“The Fairy Palace of the Quicken Trees” is the first of the tales starring Finn, mighty leader of the Fena.  Finn  and his men slaughter an invading army, sparing only Midac, the youngest son of the invading king.  Finn brings up the lad in his own house, intending to turn him to good.

Midac, though, holds a grudge, and when he is fully grown, invites Finn and his men to his palace made of quicken tree (mountain ash).   It turns out to be a magical trap, foiled only by a) a couple of the younger men of the Fena being left on guard outside the palace, and b) Midac holding a huge banquet for all the villainous fellows he’d recruited to help him kill Finn.  The baddies come over in small groups, and by the time Midac is there with his full army, the Fena have been freed to fight.

This story also introduces Conan Maol (“Conan the Bald”) who is something of a comic relief figure.  He’s a coward, glutton and most feared for his sharp tongue-but also deadly in a fight.

“The Pursuit of the Giolla Dacker and His Horse” has Finn and his men be fooled by a giant calling himself “Giolla Dacker” (“slothful fellow”) who has a equally slothful-looking horse.  Giolla Dacker tricks several of the Fena to mount his horse in an effort to tame it–they are then stuck to it, and the suddenly vigorous horse runs off, followed by its also suddenly speedy master.  The rest of the story is the many adventures of Finn and his men trying to get back their fellows.

One bit that I noticed was Dermat O’Dyna has the habit of never eating leftovers–later his companions are able to know he’s been somewhere by the heap of half-eaten deer, as he kills a new one whenever he’s hungry rather than finish off the old one.

“The Pursuit of Dermat and Grania” has the young hero Dermat elope with the beautiful Grania.  This is an issue as she was promised to Finn (who is by this time old enough to be her grandfather.)  Finn reacts badly.  After much slaughter, Finn finally backs off.

However, this leads to the scene I describe as “remember that time twenty-five years ago when I said I forgave you?  I lied.  Now, I’ve led you into a trap, and will watch cheerfully as you bleed out and refuse to magically heal you.”  The translator notes that this is an unusually negative portrayal of Finn.

“The Chase of Slieve Cullinn” is the story of how Finn’s hair changed from golden to silver.  It involves a shapeshifter, a magical lake, and vanity.

“The Chase of Slieve Fuad” has another shapeshifter lure the Fena including Finn to her brother’s castle to be magically imprisoned and slaughtered.  This is Conan Maol’s big moment as he saves everyone–but also has a sheepskin permanently bonded to his body, requiring shearing every year.

“Oisin in Tír na nÓg” concerns Finn’s son Oisin, (also known as Ossian), the last survivor of the Fena.  He had been scouted by a young woman from the Land of Youth, and agreed to accompany her there to be her husband.  And that fair land was agreeable to him, but Oisin grew homesick.  When he returned to Ireland, the Fena were long  dead, the people had shrunk, and Christianity had come to Erin.  Oisin accidentally broke a taboo, and could not return to his wife, becoming old and blind.  (Tradition has it that this and the preceding two tales were told by Oisin to Saint Patrick before he died.)

“The Voyage of the Sons of O’Corra” has triplets who were dedicated to the Devil before birth (as God had not answered O’Corra’s pleas for children.)  They caused much mischief in honor of their sponsor (mostly destroying churches and outraging the religious) before suddenly coming to the epiphany that evil is bad.

Repenting, they converted to Christianity and started atoning for their ill deeds.  As part of their penance, the triplets and several men of the cloth took a sea voyage where they saw many strange islands, some of which were metaphorical.  (The translator notes that many of the instances are similar to or identical to scenes from Maildun’s voyage.)

“The Fate of the Sons of Usna” ends the volume with the Third Sorrow.  A girl named Deirdre is born, and it’s prophesied that she will bring woe to Ulster and Erin.  Deidre is raised in isolation, but decides that she wants to marry a man with hair as black as a raven, cheeks as red as blood, and skin as white as snow.

This turns out to be Naisi, one of the sons of Usna, and a Knight of the Red Branch.  He reciprocates, and they elope to Alba (Scotland) with his brothers and a group of followers.

Unfortunately, King Conor has decided he wants Deirdre for his own wife, and engages in a series of treacherous actions to bring the sons of Usna and Deirdre back to Ireland and then have the men killed.  This eventually works and Deirdre dies of grief.

Mr. Joyce notes in his prologue that he has erred more on the side of preserving the sense of the language from the old texts than a literal translation.  He’s also kept in the poetry that the characters occasionally burst into, which is probably fragments of the earlier oral tradition versions of the stories.  There are copious footnotes that explain words and the present-day names of places.  End notes go into further detail on aspects of Irish folklore.

As mentioned earlier, this Dover publication is a reproduction rather than a reformatted reprint.  This means it keeps the tiny font of the original book, and the even tinier font of the poetry sections.  It was difficult to read on Kindle, so I would recommend springing for the hard copy instead.  I also urge Dover to come out with a large print edition.

The writing style is a bit stiff and old-fashioned, but that’s to be expected.  Recommended to those wanting to research Celtic legends but without the ability to read the sources in the original languages.

Disclaimer:  I received a download of this book through Netgalley for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Manga Review: Manga Classics: The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

Manga Review: Manga Classics: The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe adapted by Stacy King

When I was young, a half century or so ago, there was a line of educational comics called Classics Illustrated.  These presented classic public domain works of literature in a comic book format.  The art tended to be static and pedestrian, difficult or disturbing plot material got left out, and very little of the stirring language that made these works classics remained.  But they read fast, and had helpful pictures for kids not ready to tackle Cliff’s Notes.

Manga Classics: The Stories of Edgar Allan Poe

There have been several revivals and imitators since then, and currently Udon Entertainment has brought out a line of such works under the group name Manga Classics.   The word “manga” is used rather loosely here as the material is neither produced nor created in Japan.  The artists do use “mangaesque” art styles, and some of them are at least of Japanese heritage.   It will be published in the chunky paperback format familiar to manga fans, and printed to read right to left for aesthetic purposes.  The hope is that the sort of kid who enjoys other manga will pick up these volumes.

The current volume retells four of Edgar Allan Poe’s weird stories, and the poem “The Raven.”  The strong narrative voice and short length of the works means that nearly the entire prose of the story can be used as word balloons or caption boxes for the illustrated panels.

The collection begins with “The Tell-Tale Heart” in which a murderer explains that he is not insane, just gifted or cursed with sensory sensitivity.  The format is used to switch between scenes of the narrator telling his story to a doctor or lawyer (it isn’t clear which) and the narrator’s actions that led up to his imprisonment.

“The Cask of Amontillado” is a tale of the perfect revenge (for what, the narrator never quite makes clear) as a fool is led to his doom by his love of and expertise in wine.  The art goes heavy on the screentone.

“The Raven” has a man thinking of his lost love and being tormented by the title bird with its cry of “Nevermore.”  The art style makes the man look too young for the tone of the poem, but it’s otherwise a good adaptation.

“The Masque of the Red Death” is about a party held in the last refuge from a plague; the rich and powerful safe and well-fed while the poor die in droves.  This one works very well, but suffers a bit from not being in color, since the color schemes play so much into the atmosphere.

“The Fall of the House of Usher” finishes the volume with a long tale of the last dregs of a noble family and their symbolic dwelling place.  There are some rather large implausibilities here, but the faces of Usher as he succumbs to madness are well done.

Poe’s masterful writing is the best thing about this volume, but the art is pretty good too.  Most recommended for younger teens who enjoy both spooky tales and manga-style illustrations.  It seems less likely to appeal to older readers already familiar with the material.

Disclaimer:  I was provided a free download of this upcoming book through Netgalley for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.  There may be changes in the final edition.

Let’s have a trailer for the Vincent Price version of Masque of the Red Death!

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Magazine Review: Saucy Romantic Adventures August 1936

Magazine Review: Saucy Romantic Adventures August 1936 by various

This was one of the “spicy” pulp magazines, sold “under the counter” to readers wanting something more titillating than the standard action fare.  By modern standards, this is pretty tame stuff, mostly consisting of descriptions of women’s naked bodies (minus genitalia) and strong hints that the characters engage in extramarital sex.  The reason this particular issue was reprinted by Adventure House is because the Domino Lady is on the cover (painted by Norman Saunders).  But we’ll get back to her.

Saucy Romantic Adventures August 1936

The lead story is “Yeomen of the Woods” by Armstrong Livingston (almost certainly a psuedonym.)  It takes place during the Anarchy, the war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in 12th Century England.  Four people traveling through the woods are set upon by bandits led by John o’ the Glade.  John, it turns out, is in the style of Robin Hood (who traditionally is said to have lived some decades later.)

The wealthy knight is held for ransom, and his squire set to fetch it.  A poor monk returned from the Far East is treated with a bit more respect.  As for the stripling lad, it turns out to be a maiden in boy’s clothing.  Alais has in fact come to the woods to find John and request his help.  Her father is a craftsman, and false rumors of his wealth have reached the ears of Baron Raymond de Gondrecourt.

As a result, the wicked baron has captured Alais’ father and is trying to compel the old man to tell where his treasure is hid.  Since there is no treasure, the baron will no doubt resort to torture unto death to force the old man to speak words he does not have.

John doesn’t have the forces to invade Gondrecourt Castle, but comes up with a plan to trick the baron and one of his neighbors (who the baron is at odds with) into fighting each other away from their castles, then have a third lord of better character mop up the survivors while John and his men use a ruse to take the small garrison that will be left at Gondrecourt.  This works, up to a point, but it turns out that Gondrecourt’s castellan is a wily old fellow and more than a match for John’s strategy.

The monk turns out to have brought gunpowder back from China, a very useful item.  Too bad that history must be preserved!

Honestly, this story contains no “spicy” bits whatsoever and could easily have been printed in any of the standard adventure pulps.  There’s period ethnic prejudice between the Normans and Saxons, and the monk uses some unfortunate language to describe the Chinese.

“Emeralds Aboard” by Lars Anderson is the Domino Lady tale.  Ellen Patrick was a California socialite until her father was murdered by the crooked political machine.  To avenge her father and maintain her lifestyle, Ellen donned a domino mask, cape and backless white dress to become the Domino Lady.  She steals from the rich (particularly corrupt politicians) and takes a cut for herself before giving the rest to the poor.  She was one of only a handful of masked mystery women in pulp fiction.

In this story, Ellen is returning from vacation in Hawaii when she learns that the snooty wife of a corrupt politician is aboard, and sporting some valuable emeralds.  Also aboard is “Fingers” Deshon, a known jewel thief, and part of a gang that has a grudge against the Domino Lady.  Ellen must find a way to lift the gems and deliver her rival to justice, with the unwitting assistance of a handsome ship’s officer.

The cover depicts a scene from the story, as Fingers (disguised as a ship’s officer) whips the concealing deck chair blanket off Domino Lady.  The clown in the background is seasick and doesn’t see any of this.  Later, Ellen starts a striptease to distract Fingers, but he doesn’t get to see much before she knocks him out.

An amusing but slight story.

“Cupid By a Nose” by Ernie Phillips takes us out West, to a young farm girl hoping to make some money by competing in a rodeo.  What Clara Lou doesn’t know is that the women’s competitions in this particular traveling rodeo are fixed to make sure that the owner’s daughter Vesta always wins.

Vesta’s fiance Bob Carter takes a shine to Clara Lou pretty much instantly–he’s telling her that he loves her later that night.  Vesta understandably reacts badly to this, framing Carter for running off Clara Lou’s handsome trained horses.  That leaves Clara Lou with just Cupid, a scarred, scrawny-looking cayuse.

This being an underdog tale, Clara Lou and Cupid outperform expectations, even winning the big race.  The crooked judges try to disqualify Clara Lou in favor of Vesta, but Carter shows up with Clara Lou’s other horses and the proof of wrongdoing just in time to save the day.

The insta-love thing aside, I liked that both the male and female leads got to shine and contribute to the solution of the story’s problem.

“Aloha Oe” is set in Hawaii.  Bim Arlen, recent Annapolis graduate, is on shore leave on the big island.  Taking a walking tour, he’s shocked yet intrigued when he spots a young woman skinny-dipping on a remote beach.  After waiting for her to put her clothes back on, Bim introduces himself to Kee.

Kee is a local mixed race girl, who is “white-passing” at a small distance.  She works as a schoolteacher in Honolulu, but is on vacation here in her tiny home village.  Bim and she fall in love almost instantly and are soon engaged with the blessing of her father.

Except that then Bim remembers that all his relatives are racist, and the Navy officers’ wives society isn’t much better.   He’s not sure he has the moral courage to stand up to them, nor does he want to subject Kee to their scorn.  Bim’s cold feet lead to an apparent suicide.  You suck, Bim.

“The Lover of the Moon Girl” by Hector Gavin Grey, is schlock science fiction.  Zane Hansard, an unusually handsome and strapping astronomer, discovers that a spaceship from the moon is about to land near his Pasadena observatory.  He rushes to tell his boss, only to discover that said boss is in league with the moon invaders–indeed, he was the one who invited them here!

Cecelia, the moon girl, comes from a society that uses artificial wombs, and knows not the concept of love between a man and a woman.  (Or any of the variants you might have thought of.)  One hot kiss later, Cecelia has converted to the Earth cause, and winds up pumping babies out the old-fashioned way.

It’s exactly the sort of thing that gives pulp SF a bad reputation, with bad science, plot holes galore and a terrible romance plotline.

“Dark Lady” by Mohammed El Bey is set in Egypt.  Archaeologist Nelson Cliff bears an amazing resemblance to the statues of Amen-Ra the Second, whose tomb he is excavating.  His headman Abu has been acting suspiciously of late, far less efficient and effective than when they started.

Things come to a head when a young woman from a nearby city comes to the dig claiming to be Ayesha, wife of Amen-Ra.  Nelson is not amused, but a series of incidents indicates that even if she isn’t a reincarnation of the ancient queen, the girl has some peculiar gifts.  Abu’s trap works, but not before he himself is destroyed.

Murky story, and the villain is ill-defined.

“Mockery” by Marie Forgeron is a short-short.  A man meets his ex-wife on a cruise ship back from Hawaii.  It turns out this was deliberate; she’s gotten divorced from the man she dumped him for, and is ready to let bygones be bygones.  Unfortunately for both of them, the man has a subtle and horrific plan for revenge.  An effective little chiller.  (Some offhand racism.)

The issue is rounded out with “Our Days are Numbered” by Patricia Peabody.  It’s a numerology column, which strikes first with the note that it’s hard to get any pleasure out of numerology if you don’t believe in it.

This is a nifty little reprint.  If you’re just interested in the Domino Lady, her stories have been collected into their own book.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4 edited by Julius Schwartz

The Flash is Barry Allen, a police detective who was working during a thunderstorm one night when a bolt of lightning struck a shelf of chemicals, spilling the mixture on him.   Barry quickly realized that he’d been gifted with super-speed, making him the fastest man alive.  Taking inspiration from a comic book hero of his youth, Barry Allen protects Central City and the world as the Flash!

Showcase Presents the Flash, Volume 4

This fourth volume of the Showcase Presents collection of the series covers from Flash #162-184, 1966-68.  The first story in the set is “Who Haunts the Corridor of Chills?”   A Walt Disney stand-in is inspecting the new spooky ride at his amusement park when he’s unexpectedly transformed into a rampaging monster.  Flash is temporarily handicapped by developing a sudden phobia of dark spooky tunnels.  By the end, the story becomes a parable about not jumping to conclusions.

Most of the stories are workmanlike tales of the Flash encountering a criminal or monster, encountering some sort of obstacle that prevents him from simply using his immense speed to solve the issue, and thinking his way through to victory.  Barry Allen was very much a “thinking” hero, using his scientific know-how and reasoning abilities as much as his ability to move very fast.

Some have criticized the Silver Age Flash for having a bland personality, but “bland Midwestern science fan” is a personality I see all the time in real life.  Barry’s serious but not grim, and even when he loses his temper, it’s in a subdued fashion.  This makes him becoming a braggart in the cover story, #177 “The Swell-Headed Super-Hero!” especially jarring.  This particular story is also interesting because it’s the only one in the volume where we see Barry performing his day job as a crime scene investigator for more than one panel.

Alas, he doesn’t use any of his science skills on-panel, but instead performs a Ralph “Elongated Man” Dibny-style feat of deduction to solve the “impossible” crime.  This story also has a great panel by Ross Andru of horrified civilians seeing the transformed Flash for the first time.  (The Silver Age writers loved transforming the Flash.)

The thinness of characterization is perhaps clearer in the villains, who tend to have very similar personalities, leavened slightly by Captain Cold being a would-be ladies’ man, and Abra Kadabra’s need to be the center of attention.  (The latter may explain why he appears the most in this volume.)

And then there’s Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash.  He only gets one appearance, but it’s a doozy, as Barry Allen finally gets around to marrying Iris West.  Except that Zoom decides to take his similarity to the Flash to the next level by changing his face to Barry Allen’s and impersonating the hero–even to the point of marrying his girlfriend!  Barry manages to escape in time and prevent the false vows, but this plotline will define Professor Zoom for years to come.

Barry, very protective of his secret identity, doesn’t tell Iris that he’s the Flash until a year into the marriage!  (Flash television show viewers can take heart that this tendency is faithful to the comics.)  However, it turns out Iris has known since the wedding night as Barry talks in his sleep.  (Wah wah waaaah.)   This is directly contrasted with Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick’s relationship with his wife Joan, who was in on the secret from the beginning.

There are a couple of real clunkers in this collection.  The first is #167, “The Real Origin of the Flash!”  This was the most hated Flash story of its era (and for many years thereafter.)  It introduces Mopee, a fumbling “heavenly helper” who somewhat resembles Woody Allen, and claims that he made an error in giving Barry Allen the power of super-speed.  He spoils several attempts by the Flash to “re-earn” his powers, before finally getting it right.  The reader reaction was so negative that the story was simply not referred to again for decades.

#180-181 “The Flying Samurai” & “The Attack of the Samuroids!” is a fun story that has aged badly.  Barry and Iris go to Japan on vacation and the Flash gets involved in a battle against nigh-invulnerable flying samurai robots.  So many well-meant but glaring ethnic stereotypes!  Among the lowlights: A cute female secretary is named Tushi (a name that doesn’t even work in Japanese); Japanese people speaking broken English even when alone among themselves (particularly annoying with supposed traditionalist Baron Katana); one of Barry’s Japanese friends referring to marital relations as “tender tentacles”; and villain Baron Katana assuming no one will think to look for him at the abandoned castle…that has belonged to his family for generations.

There are a couple of appearances by Golden Age Flash Jay Garrick (once with his friends from the Justice Society of America), a visit from Hal “Green Lantern” Jordan, and a race against Superman that guest stars the Justice League of America.  Plus, the first Earth-Prime story, in which Flash winds up in “our” world and meets Julius Schwartz.

The final story in this volume, “Executioner of Central City!” has the Flash apparently destroy his home town in an attempt to save it from a pulsar flare.  Of course, this is revealed to be incorrect.  The community has in fact moved to the distant future where humans are much larger and “programmed” against aggression.  Well, except for their leaders, which turns out to be a design flaw.

There’s some excellent art by long-time Flash portrayer Carmine Infantino, and not quite as good art by Ross Andru.

Overall, a good choice for Barry Allen Flash fans; fans of other versions of the Flash might want to check it out at the library.

 

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Martin J. Dougherty

The Arthurian mythos is a familiar one to just about everyone in some form or another.  But unless you’re a scholar of the subject, you might not know where all the pieces came from and how they got put together.  This “coffee table” book gives an overview of basic information about King Arthur and his knights.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

This generously illustrated tome begins with a look at what we know of early British history, and historical figures that might have inspired the tales of Arthur, even if no actual King Arthur ever existed.

Then it moves on to the major sources of the Arthurian stories.  The first written account we still have is that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Arthur is just one in  a line of probably fictional rulers.  The book also covers the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (who was big on graphic violence and courtly love), the Grail Quest (heavy on the preachiness and religious allegory), and of course Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which pulled material together from multiple sources and added some of his own touches.

A final chapter touches on modern retellings of the Arthur cycle, from Mark Twain’s satirical proto-science fiction work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, through the musical Camelot to the recent television series Merlin.  The author also talks a bit about what might be called tertiary Arthuriana, where a character could say, “this bell was enchanted by Merlin” with no other references to King Arthur, yet the audience will immediately know what’s being talked about.

This book is for the layman, and should be suitable for tweens on up.  (Parents of younger readers might want to discuss the theme of marital infidelity that comes up in the relationship of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, as well as other places in the Arthurian cycle, not least Arthur’s own birth.)  There is an index, but no bibliography, so serious scholars will want something more advanced to work with.

The author also talks a bit about the enduring appeal of King Arthur and his stories.  Heroic knights and chivalry, a struggle of good against evil, a kingdom where right is more important than might, even if it is doomed to fall and be followed by a darker age.  “A moment so bright it will be seen on the far side of that darkness.”

This book would make a good gift for the casual fan of things King Arthur, especially bright teenagers.  Did they like the recent movie?

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Japan Tuttle Travel Pack

Book Review: Japan Tuttle Travel Pack by Rob Goss

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Japan Tuttle Travel Pack

Tuttle Publishing was founded by Charles Tuttle, a Vermonter who came to Japan with Douglas MacArthur’s staff after World War Two.  His job was helping the Japanese publishing industry get back on its feet; along the way he married a Japanese woman and founded the first English-language bookstore in Japan.  Tuttle Publishing’s goal is to print “books to span the East and West.”  So it’s not too surprising that they’d publish a tourist guidebook.

The author is a British writer who has resided in the country since 1999 and traveled extensively, writing about his journeys and Japan’s tourist destinations.

The book itself is thin and light, designed to fit well into a backpack or tote bag for easy consultation.  There’s  a fold-out map of Japan (and details of certain areas) tucked into a pocket in the back, as well as several detail maps in the book itself.  There are many color photographs as well.  (One of Sapporo’s Snow Festival is reused several times.)  It’s slickly produced, but sturdy enough that it should survive a several week journey.

After a quick overview of Japan at the encyclopedia summary level, the main book starts with a chapter of “must-see” sights, ranging from Mount Fuji to the “Art Island” of Naoshima.  These alone would take a month or so to get in with any comfort, as they are scattered all over the country.

This is followed by an “Exploring Japan” chapter that focuses on the tourist sights of the major cities and individual regions, making it easier to plan an itinerary.  This includes callbacks to the opening chapter, but also mentions what else is around the must-sees.  There are sidebars on local cuisine travelers might like to sample.

Chapter 3 is the “Author’s Recommendations” section, where he talks about hotels, museums, kid-friendly attractions and the like that he personally really likes.  The edition I have is from 2013, so there may have been some changes–he mentions that a particular fish market was scheduled to move to a different location in 2015.

The last major section, “Travel Facts” is the most likely part to be useful on your actual trip, with the location of important embassies, key Japanese phrases to use, how the transportation system works, and so forth.  There’s an index and a page of photo credits.

The language is clear and straightforward, with key words bolded to make them easier to find.  As a tourism booster, it focuses almost entirely on the positive; people who like to be more cautious might want to do further reading to see what they need to prepare for.

This book would be most useful for tourists who like to plan their own itineraries, or at least dream about doing so.  Package tours, well, you see what’s in the package.   People who want to live in Japan for extended periods will need to consult more substantial materials.

Another group that might find this book useful is fanfiction writers.  You’ve decided that Jeneriku High School will be taking a summer field trip to Okinawa; how long will it take to get there, where will Hana and Tarou be going on their date, and what sights offer the most ideas for plot twists?

Overall, very good of its kind.

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Ogami Itto was once a samurai warrior of high rank, the official executioner for the shogunate.  He had a lovely wife and new son; life was good.  But another clan was ambitious, and framed Ogami for treason.  Under sentence of execution and with his wife murdered, Ogami asked his infant son to make a choice between merciful death and life on the run. now Ogami is a ronin, and an assassin for hire.  If you need someone dead, and you can find them, you can hire the Lone Wolf assassin who travels with his cub.

Lone Wolf & Cub Omnibus 1

This classic manga series was popular enough to spawn a series of live-action movies, a television series and several spin-off manga.  It was also influential outside of Japan, notably influencing the art and storytelling style of Frank Miller (who provided the cover for this omnibus edition.)  As such, it was one of the first manga series to be translated for the emerging American market, using the expensive and painstaking “double-flipping” method to make it read left to right.

This volume contains the first three volumes of the Japanese version, and these stories are very episodic, focusing on an difficult assassination, a particular facet of feudal Japanese life, or a philosophical point.  It is not until several stories in that anyone recognizes Ogami for who he is, and even longer before even a partial explanation of his past.

Ogami is a stoic character who works hard not to give away his emotions; his tenderness towards Daigoro is almost entirely seen in his actions, not his face.  This does not prevent him from placing his son in danger if it will help with an assassination plan.  Daigoro himself is one of the most ambiguous characters I’ve ever read.  He seems most of the time to act like the small child he is, but in other instances is far too mature for his age, even allowing for the massive trauma Daigoro has undergone in his short life.  It makes him kind of creepy to be honest.

The art is dynamic and varied, able to handle both exciting battles and calm scenes of nature.  There’s a fair amount of reused faces, which with the episodic stories make the manga feel like a television series with a limited pool of guest star actors.

As expected from a samurai revenge story, there is plenty of violence and death; not all of Ogami’s assassination targets are evil people deserving of death.  In particular in this volume, one target is a Buddhist priest who must die for political reasons–he teaches Ogami how to attain mu (“emptiness”) which allows the assassin to strike without projecting sakki  (“killing intent”).  This becomes an important part of Ogami’s personal sword style going forward.

There is also quite a bit of female nudity, and at least one rape/murder scene.  Ogami himself is decent to the women he meets, but feudal Japanese society is not a good place for them.

Because of its influence on the subgenre of samurai manga, this series is well worth reading and rereading.  Recommended for fans of this sort of thing.

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