Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Anime Review: Erased

Anime Review: Erased (Japanese title Boku Dake ga Inai Machi “The Town Without Me” or “The Town Where Only I Am Missing”)

The year is 2006, and Jun “Yuuki” Shiratori is on Death Row for the abduction and murder of three children back in 1988.  Very few people still believe that he’s innocent, considering the substantial circumstantial evidence against him.  One of them is Satoru Fujinuma, a struggling manga artist and part-time pizza delivery driver.   Satoru feels somewhat responsible for failing to save the other children (including one of his personal friends) and not convincing the adults that the simpleminded Yuuki was not the killer.  As a result, Satoru has had difficulty moving forward in life.  But he’s about to get another chance.

Erased: the Town Without Me

It turns out that Satoru has been blessed/cursed with a power he calls “Revival.”  When a tragedy strikes that he could avert, Satoru’s timeline reruns over and over until he fixes the problem.  Unfortunately, this usually works out badly for Satoru himself, so he is made even more frustrated by it.

Satoru’s mother drops by for a visit, and witnesses an event that sparks memories–for the first time she is able to realize that Satoru was right back then, and makes the connection to who the killer really was.  Except that the killer recognized her too, and murders her, framing Satoru for it.  Revival kicks in–

–And Satoru wakes up as his eleven year old self in 1988, before the murders began.  He determines that he needs to stop the killings to change the future, starting with saving the pretty but aloof Kayo Hinazuki, one of his classmates.  But how?

This 2016 anime series was based on a manga by Kei Sanbe, condensing 44 chapters into 12 episodes.  A couple of subplots were axed, the endgame is speeded up, and the events reworked a bit so that each anime episode save the last ends on a cliffhanger.

Satoru starts the series as an unenthusiastic person who worries that he’s a hollow shell; he helps people with his Revival power not out of any interest in helping them, but because it’s the right thing to do.  Over the course of the plotline, as he meets or re-meets people who genuinely wish him well and assist him, Satoru lightens up and learns that he doesn’t have to shoulder burdens alone.

This is important when it comes to Kayo; her situation is more complex than Satoru initially realizes, and working alone he can only delay her death, not stop it.  This results in a reverse Revival, as he must return to the future to gather more clues.

There’s some use of cultural allusion.  A reproduction of The Last Supper painting gives some quick foreshadowing, and the Ryuunosuke Akutagawa story “The Spider’s Thread” is something that the killer uses as a metaphor.  As a child, Satoru was heavily into the superhero shows of the time, and some real ones are mentioned.

Content warnings:  Child abuse is an important part of the 1988 section of the plotline, and domestic violence more generally.  Yuuki is framed as a pedophile by the killer swapping out his porn collection (we see some scantily-clad women on magazine covers.)  And of course the serial killing.  I’d rate this for senior high students and up.

Recommended for those looking for a thriller with fantasy elements and a bit of comedy (child Satoru with adult Satoru’s memories often makes slips of the tongue.)

Manga Review: Platinum End 1

Manga Review: Platinum End 1 Story by Tsugumi Ohba, Art by Takeshi Obata

Have you ever looked at the world around you and thought, “Wow, God’s not doing a very good job.”?  Perhaps you have even succumbed to hubris and thought you could do a better job if you, personally, had God’s power.  As it turns out, God’s retiring and has assigned thirteen angels to seek out candidates for the open position.  Each will be able to give their candidate special powers, and there will be a 999-day competition period, at the end of which the new God will be chosen.  Special rank angel Nasse already has someone in mind.

Platinum End 1

Which brings us to our protagonist, Mirai Kakehashi.  He’s introduced to us by tossing himself off a building on the day he graduates from middle school.  Seems that Mirai is an orphan whose life has been made utterly miserable by his abusive relatives (yes, shades of Harry Potter) and now that he’s past mandatory school age, aunt and uncle want him to get a job and sign over the paycheck in return for their “generosity.”  Nasse catches Mirai before he hits the pavement.

The angel explains that she has been keeping an eye on Mirai for a while as his “guardian angel” and she is at last able to intervene to make him happy.  Nasse grants him three nifty powers; wings to fly, red arrows that will make people love him, and white arrows that kill painlessly.  Mirai isn’t too sure about this, especially as Nasse suggests using these powers in ways that seem…unethical to the boy.  He does, however, wind up using the red arrows to resolve the issue of his abusive relatives.

Now that Mirai has a future again, he works hard to get into the same school as his crush, Saki.  While that’s going on, Nasse explains more about the “replace God” contest, and they become aware of a God candidate who is most definitely abusing his powers.  This story doesn’t really intersect with theirs, as he’s quickly taken out by a third candidate, who has decided to murder his way to victory.

“Metropoliman” uses his powers to appear to be a superhero so that he can  openly hunt for the other candidates with the public on his side.  This makes Mirai worried, but the murderous “hero” isn’t his top priority when a fourth candidate turns out to be going to the same high school.  A candidate who’s gotten the drop on him!

This monthly manga is by the creators of Death Note and Bakuman, and was much anticipated.   The art is certainly excellent!  But large chunks of the premise seem to have been lifted from the Future Diary series, and several of the characters in these early chapters are kind of blah.  In particular, Ohba seems to struggle with the right balance of competence and initiative for female characters.  I am hoping that future chapters will improve this.

That said, Nasse has a lot of potential as an angelic creature that doesn’t quite grok human morality.  Her design which makes it difficult to tell whether she’s wearing clothes or just has an unusual body is also nifty.

Content issues:  In addition to frequent mentions of suicide (and one on-camera attempt) and child abuse, there’s rape and female nudity in a sexual context.  While the series is aimed at high schoolers in Japan, it gets a “Mature Readers” tag in the U.S.

Primarily recommended to fans of the creators’ previous series.  Consider getting the physical edition–there are some neat effects on the cover that don’t come across in a scan.

Book Review: Daughter of the Pirate King

Book Review: Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller

Disclaimer: I was provided with an Advance Reader’s Edition for the purpose of writing this review; no other compensation was offered or requested.  There will be changes in the final product; the one I know about is that the published version will have a darker cover, less “chick lit” and more “piratey.”

Daughter of the Pirate King

We first meet Alosa disguised as a cabin boy on a ship that’s been captured by the pirate ship the Night Farer.  Despite this, she is soon spotted as a woman, and the very prize Captain Draxen and his brother/first mate Riden attacked to find.  Soon Alosa is secured in the Night Farer‘s brig, and a ransom demand is being made to her father, Kalligan the Pirate King.

Just as Alosa had planned.  For the brothers have one third of a legendary treasure map, and the only way to get on their ship to steal it was to be invited.  But though Alosa is clever and skilled, there are a few secrets she doesn’t know, and that could sink her mission before the fortnight is out.

This adventure novel is aimed at the higher end of young adult, with a protagonist who doesn’t hesitate to kill people if that’s what’s needed to accomplish her job.  Alosa has had a rough, even abusive, childhood being trained up to become a worthy successor to her father.  As a result, she has quite an edge, and her first-person narration often puts other people down in the process of showing herself to be good enough to please her father.

The one person on the enemy crew who can keep up with her acid tongue is Riden, who is perhaps a bit more compassionate than is safe for a pirate.  It comes as no surprise to the reader when the two start falling in love despite their respective positions.  The romance might be obvious, and take up more time than the action, but the banter is nice.

Alosa at times comes across as smug, especially when she reminds us that she’s holding back to hide her true awesomeness, but that does make the moments when the rug is pulled out from under her more satisfying.

The world building is minimal; it’s the Age of Sail but with a vastly simplified political situation, and a fantasy element that becomes more important in the last third of the novel.  While most of the immediate plot threads are wrapped up, this is a bit too obviously a book with a sequel coming soon.

Content:  In addition to the child abuse mentioned above, sexual assault is something Alosa thinks about a lot, due to her circumstances.  There’s some heavy petting scenes, but the characters never go all the way.  Also torture just off-stage.

Primarily for pirate story fans who do not mind a heavy romance subplot.

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

Eleven years ago, Great Britain was a powerful nation with a thriving magical community.  Then the Ancients were summoned, seven supernatural beings who are hostile to human life as we know it.  Since then, the British have been at war with these occupying horrors, and quite frankly losing.  At the start of the war, orphan girl Henrietta Howel was dumped by her aunt at a dismal school where she is now a teacher, having no other place to go.

A Shadow Bright and Burning

Of late, there have been a series of mysterious fires at Brimthorn School, and a sorcerer has been called in to investigate.  The culprit is Henrietta herself, who has had trouble controlling her ability to set herself aflame.  The sorcerer Agrippa realizes that Henrietta is a rare female sorcerer, and thus the Chosen One of a prophecy leading to the defeat of the Ancients.  So it’s off to London for Henrietta to be trained!

However, it quickly comes to Henrietta’s attention that she probably isn’t the Chosen One, and the penalty for impersonating the Chosen One is dire indeed!  Can she navigate the treacherous currents of magical training and romantic interest before the  Ancients and their Familiars strike against the heart of the city?

The plot moves along at a nice clip, and there are some cool battle scenes.  In general, this book is competently written.

That said, many of the characters seem to come from Central Casting:  the heroine with a tragic backstory who believes she’ll never find love, the “lower class” childhood friend with a dark secret, the seemingly cold man who in fact feels very deeply, etc.

Sexism is the real “big bad” in this story; the branch of magic that is female-dominated is the one primarily blamed for the Ancients and is now banned completely; several of the characters object entirely to the concept of female sorcerers, and young Queen Victoria is being manipulated by male advisers who don’t trust her to run the country.

On the diversity front, which has become more relevant in modern young adult fiction:  one major character is described as having black skin, but this never comes up again and there is reason to believe that isn’t his actual appearance.  As opposed to Henrietta’s “dark” coloration from her Welsh ancestry, which is frequently mentioned.  Also, it’s hinted that two of the male characters are interested in each other, but it could also be just a very close friendship.

There is some child abuse in the early chapters.  Brimthorn is not a good school.  The Ancients tend to cause gruesome deaths or deformity, which may affect some more sensitive readers–I’d say senior high on up should be fine.

This is the first in a series, and a few plot hooks are left hanging; for example, it’s strongly hinted that the story of why the Ancients were summoned is still not fully revealed, despite some major pieces being revealed in this volume.  And just possibly Henrietta may not be a true orphan….

Recommended primarily to readers of YA paranormal romance.

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

Manga Review: Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1

Manga Review: Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1 by Hiroaki Samura

Manji used to be the samurai retainer of Lord Horii, and served faithfully until the day he discovered that the people he’d just killed on orders from Horii were in fact not criminals, but innocent peasants who were going to the government with evidence of the lord’s tax embezzlement.  In a fit of rage, Manji executed his master.  Now a fugitive, Manji wound up killing one hundred police officers in his efforts to remain free.

Blade of the Immortal Omnibus 1

The last one turned out to be his sister Machi’s husband, and witnessing this event drove her mad.  This sobered Manji somewhat, and he reconsidered his habit of resorting to lethal violence while trying to take care of his sister.  It was at this point that Manji met the Buddhist nun Yaobikuni, who infested him with the kessen-chu (holy bloodworms) that regenerate any wound, making Manji functionally immortal.

After a ronin (masterless samurai) gang murders Machi to force Manji into a duel, he no longer has a reason to be immortal.  It turns out that he can be released from the bloodworms if he can complete a worthy goal.  Manji decides to make up for murdering one hundred cops by killing one thousand criminals.  But he believes he must have proof of evil before he kills someone, otherwise he’ll just be adding more stains to his soul….

This 1990s seinen manga series (originally titled Mugen no Juunin “Inhabitant of Infinity”) is set in the Edo period of Japanese history, but uses deliberate anachronisms to indicate that historical accuracy is not to be found here.  The creator states in an interview contained in this volume that he was trying for a “punk” sensibility.

After the introductory chapter, the story begins to focus on the other protagonist, a young woman named Rin.  She is seeking revenge on a man named Anotsu who murdered her father (in revenge for his grandfather’s offense against Anotsu’s grandfather) and had her mother raped before carrying the woman off.  The problem is that Anotsu is the leader of the powerful Itto-Ryu gang, renegade warriors who are out to destroy all other schools of weapon use.  Rin may be plucky, and can handle weapons, but she hasn’t had nearly enough training to handle expert fighters.

Yaobikuni suggests that Rin hire Manji to help her.  He’s dubious at first–he’s been lied to before, after all, and how does he know which if any side of a revenge cycle are the evil ones?  But because she reminds him of his sister, he’ll at least come along and see for himself.

As it happens, one of the Itto-Ryu members is locatable as Kuroi Sabato has been sending Rin love poems since participating in the murder of her father.  As you might guess from this inappropriate behavior, Kuroi is very wrong in the head(s), and Manji agrees to help Rin out with her revenge.

The remainder of the series is trying to track down Anotsu and getting him to stay in one place long enough for Rin to get revenge, while battling members of the Itto-Ryu and other enemies made along the way.

This omnibus edition covers the first three Japanese volumes.  The art is nifty with distinctive character designs (though the young women do tend towards same face.)  There’s plenty of exciting blood-drenched fight scenes, and musing on the cycle of vengeance and where it gets you.  The dialogue is generally good, but heavy on the snark from most of the characters, which can get tiresome.

Manji wears his namesake symbol, the counter-clockwise swastika, on his back.  This is in context a Buddhist reference and has nothing to do with Nazis.

More problematic is that there’s a lot of rape in this series.  While none takes place onstage in this volume, there’s discussion of it in the backstory , and male characters often threaten or express a desire to rape women.  (Later on in the series, one of the recurring villains is a serial rapist.)  Also, when we see Anotsu’s backstory, we learn that his grandfather was physically and emotionally abusive to both him and his cousin.

That cousin, Makie, has a story that’s centered around the ill effects of sexism.  Because she has a natural talent for weapons use that is far greater than any other person in the series, Makie can’t fit into the standard social roles for women.  (She tries being a prostitute for a while, and then a geisha; neither work out.)  But she can also never get the respect or rank that her skills would earn if she were a man.  To be Makie is suffering.

I’d recommend this series to fans of samurai revenge drama who enjoy some anachronism and can overlook the problematic elements.

There’s an upcoming live action movie, but in the meantime, here’s a trailer for the anime version.

Comic Book Review: Joe Kubert Presents

Comic Book Review: Joe Kubert Presents by Joe Kubert and others

Joe Kubert (1926-2012) was one of the all-time great comic book artists.  The bulk of his work was done for DC Comics, including many Hawkman and Sergeant Rock stories. Joe Kubert Presents was his final series, a tribute to him by the company he’d done so much for.   Mr. Kubert was given free rein to choose which stories to do, and which other creators he wanted to share the spotlight with.  Rather than risk an announcement of the series ahead of time only to not be able to deliver (this had happened to him before), Mr. Kubert insisted on having several issues “in the can” before it was put on order forms for retailers.  The sixth issue was nearly complete when he died.

Joe Kubert Presents

The first issue leads off with “Hawkman”; this iteration is closest to the science fiction-inspired Silver Age version, but not in continuity with any previous story.  Katar Hol and his partner Shayera (Hawkgirl) are sent from the utopian planet Thanagar to observe Earth up close and determine what steps should be taken in the future.  The Thanagarians worry that the Earthlings will not mature out of their destructive behavior before they develop interstellar travel.

The aliens land in Africa, observe the wanton slaughter of wildlife and environmental destruction, and decide to visit a nearby village.  Unfortunately, this particular village sits atop a toxic waste dump; the poverty-stricken villagers have become economically dependent on the storage fees.  The villagers worry that the Thanagarians have come to stop the practice and react badly.

While I understand the good intent of the story, it really does look like technologically advanced white people lecturing primitive native Africans on proper respect for the environment.  And the Hawks destroy the natives’ livelihood and leave without considering that consequence, so their victory leaves a bitter aftertaste.

“Spit” is a recurring feature about an orphan who runs away from the orphanage and winds up stowing away on a whaling ship.  In short vignettes, he suffers much abuse, but eventually learns how to survive at sea and decides to become a whaler.  The first few chapters are in sepia tone, but the finale is mostly in full color.  One (landlubber) character is implied to be a pedophile, but is thwarted before he can do anything.

“The Redeemer” is three chapters of a series Mr. Kubert solicited back in the 1980s before he discovered he wouldn’t be able to deliver it on time.  Jim Torkan is the title character, a man who reincarnates across time and space  to gain the wisdom he will need to eventually save the human race from itself.  He is the target of the Infernal One, who sends agents to tempt Torkan from the path of righteousness, so that the Redeemer will be under his control.

The first two chapters take place in the far future, as Torkan is a scientist whose space station is invaded by murderous robbers seeking a chemical he’s developed that can control minds.  His love interest is actually an agent of the Infernal One who tries to convince him to join up with the would-be dictator to save his own skin.  The third chapter has Torkan as an ex-Confederate soldier just after the Civil War.  The story carefully avoids mentioning what the Confederacy fought for beyond “justice and right” (hint: slavery), but it was all a waste and Torkan is without purpose.  He gets involved in a treasure hunt, but at the end discovers something more precious than gold: himself.

“Farewell” was Kubert’s last Sergeant Rock story.  The son and grandson of one of Easy Company’s soldiers visit a D-Day beach and the cemetery nearby.  They discuss the possible death of Rock, but in the end it doesn’t matter if he is buried here–a piece of each soldier who fell rests with every other soldier.

“The Biker” is about a wounded Afghanistan veteran and motorcyclist who bunks down for the night in an abandoned house.  But maybe not as abandoned as it looks.  Some excellent coloring work here.

Then there are two stories written by Joe Kubert, but with art by other people.  “The Ruby” (art by Henrik Jonsson) is about bandits attacking a Himalayan temple–it turns out to be a possible origin story for an obscure DC character.   “Devil’s Play” (art by Brandon Vietti) is a Kamandi story, as the last boy on Earth battles the animal-men that have taken over the planet.  This story offers a different explanation for the Great Disaster than usual.

The series also contained several “U.S.S. Stevens” stories by Sam Glanzman, telling tales of his WWII service aboard that destroyer.  “The Figurehead” is the most interesting of these, featuring an eccentric crewmate of Mr. Glanzman’s who may or may not have had unusual abilities (it’s possible that this is a sailor’s yarn and he’s pulling our leg a bit.)  This material has been collected separately, along with Mr. Glanzman’s other memoirs.

Brian Buniak gives us “Angel and the Ape”, based on the Bob Oksner series about private detectives Angel O’Day (an attractive human woman) and Sam Simeon (a cartoonist who also happens to be a gorilla.)  It’s not quite in continuity with any other appearance of the characters, but as a comedy strip, continuity was never a huge issue.  The pair are hired to prevent a restaurateur from being murdered; they do so but he is shot anyway, and they have to figure out whodunnit.  After they solve that case, a reporter gets the story of their origin (or at least Angel’s version.)  There’s an energy and attention to humorous background details reminiscent of early Mad, but sometimes the exaggerated art style can go a bit off.

If you are a fan of Joe Kubert’s art, this volume is a must-have; if you’re indifferent to that, the stories are only average, and the problematic material may knock this down a star or two for you.  I liked this very much.

Book Review: Four Sided Triangle

Book Review: Four Sided Triangle by William F. Temple

Suppose for a moment that you had access to a device that would create an exact duplicate of any object placed inside.  What would you do with it?  Solve world hunger?  Commit massive art fraud?  Resolve your sexual attraction to your  best friend’s wife?  Yeah, that last one is the possibility we’re exploring here.

Four Sided Triangle

This 1949 novel is narrated by Dr. Harvey, one of the last old-fashioned country doctors in the village of Howdean.  He’s very specifically not possessed of a full scientific education, and would never pass muster in today’s technically-oriented medical profession (indeed, he’s already having trouble keeping up when he’s in his forties!)   But he is bright enough to realize that young Bill Leggett is a child prodigy.

Dr. Harvey acts as a mentor to the young genius as much as he can, and when Bill’s abusive and alcoholic father dies, gets himself appointed Bill’s guardian.  He sponsors Bill’s further education, and secures the lad a scholarship to Cambridge.  At university, Bill meets and becomes friends with Robin Heath, who as it turns out is the son of the  lord of the shire Howdean is located in.  Robin is much more conventional in his thinking than Bill, and not nearly as brilliant, but is a good steady problem-solver who complements Bill’s impatience well.

With a loan from Rob’s father, the two young men start a research laboratory (“the Dump”) together on the outskirts of Howdean.  While they are pursuing their esoteric goals, Dr. Harvey is called upon to aid a young woman who’s taken a drug overdose.  This is Lena, a beautiful (of course) lass with an artistic bent, a fervor for creation, and no noticeable artistic or musical spark.  She can play other people’s compositions competently, and is good at art and color theory, but whenever she tries to create something new, the result is a fiasco.  Thus her attempt at suicide.

Dr. Harvey realizes that Lena needs a completely new endeavor to distract her from fatalistic thoughts, and convinces Bill and Rob to take her on as a sort of housekeeper and general assistant.  This works swimmingly.  The young men both take a fancy to Lena, Bill’s soaring imagination and Rob’s common sense working together to restore her love of life, and her bright spirit (and a spot of much-needed cash) allowing the Reproducer to become functional.

Things go well for a while, with the Reproducer bringing the young scientists renown and steady paychecks.  Dr. Harvey’s share of the enterprise even allows him to take early retirement from active medical practice.  But just as Bill is ready to propose to Lena, Lena proposes to Rob, and the latter two get married.

Bill does not take this well, but he has a plan.  He’s been working on a way to allow the Reproducer to duplicate living beings.  If there were another Lena, then she could marry him and everything would be hunky-dory!  Yeah.  The obvious objections are raised, but the somewhat selfless Lena becomes convinced that her feelings of friendship for Bill could deepen into love given time.

So it is that a second Lena is created, named Dorothy, and marries Bill.  Unfortunately, it turns out that Dorothy is too identical to Lena, and is unable to turn off her love for Rob, the man she remembers as her husband.  She cares deeply for Bill, but the stress of pretending to love him is driving her to despair.

In a twist of fate, Bill blows himself and the Reproducer up with an attempt at creating a nuclear power plant, being just a little too impatient for Rob to return with a safety device.  This leaves Dorothy free to reveal her true feelings, and Lena wants to share Rob with her as they have identical emotions.  Unfortunately, Rob is very conventional when it comes to monogamy, and nixes the idea.

Sometime later, there is another accident, leaving one of the women dead and the other amnesiac, but which is which?  Rob cannot love Dorothy, no matter how identical to Lena she might be.  Dr. Harvey discovers a clue in Bill’s papers that should allow them to settle the matter one way or the other….

The good:  Since the plot depends heavily on the personalities of the people involved, the characterization is much more in-depth than was common for science fiction novels of the time.  The author makes it believable that the characters make decisions believing they will make things better, but instead make them worse.

Bill, as a survivor of childhood abuse, physical, emotional and (all but said outright) sexual, has difficulties forming normal social relationships.  When he finds the one woman he wants to be with forever unavailable, it is unimaginable to him to find another love.  This one was so hard to work up to!  His impatience and willingness to overlook important social cues also play a large part in the tragedy.

Lena had a stage as a feral child, and has learned to make her own decisions, hide her feelings, and not ask for nor expect help.  But she’s also very tender-hearted towards others, and willing to make any sacrifice for those she loves.  Ditto for Dot.

Rob is very much the conventional English gentleman, which is great as long as there are conventional English gentleman things that need doing.  He’s reliable and steady, and good husband material.  But if there’s an ethical dilemma where his code of honor gives contradictory results, or it’s an unprecedented situation, Rob is at a total loss.

Dr. Harvey’s lack of science smarts means that the author can get away with never having to fully explain how the Reproducer actually works; just describing the end product, without having to worry about plausibility.

Not so good:  Period sexism–it’s mentioned more than once that women just aren’t interested in science (always excepting Madame Curie), and Dr. Harvey believes that Lena’s creative impulse would be best put to use in making a family (i.e. children) and she comes to believe the same.

Also, some science fiction cliches:  There’s only ever one Reproducer; Bill and Rob never patent it nor do they seem to publish any work explaining the principles behind it–one part is even revealed after the fact to be a “black box” that Bill installed without telling Rob how it worked or how to fix it.  Yet they are able to make a decent living from renting out the use of the Reproducer without anyone trying to steal their work or having the government confiscate it or demand proof of concept.

And some readers are just not going to like the ending, telling you now.

Still, if tragic romance with a science fiction twist is your thing, I think this one is well worth seeking out.

The edition I read was the 1951 Galaxy Science Fiction reprint, which was done using the same presses as their monthly magazine.  It’s unabridged, so has small type to fit it in the available page count, and the cover is glossy  but flimsy.  You might be able to find a paperback edition in better shape.

The novel was also turned into a 1953 movie by Hammer Studios, a precursor to the full-fledged horror films they were soon to move into.  It simplified the ending somewhat, making it less ambiguous.  Here’s a clip:

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013

Book Review: A Memory This Size and Other Stories: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2013 Introduction by Lizzy Attree

The Caine Prize is awarded to a short story written by an African author (which primarily means one born in Africa–all the authors in this volume are from Sub-Saharan Africa), published in English in the last five years and submitted for consideration.  This volume contains the five stories that were shortlisted for the prize in 2013, plus twelve more written at a workshop sponsored by the Caine Prize.

A Memory This Size

The collection leads off with the 2013 winner, “Miracle” by Tope Folarin.  A group of Nigerian immigrants attend a tent revival in Texas.  A great faith healer is scheduled to appear, but will there be a miracle tonight, and what form will it take?  I found this to be rather a blah story, but I am not one of the judges for the contest and don’t know what criteria they based the decision on.  Nigerians dominate this volume, with four of the five shortlisted stories and several of the workshop ones as well.

Three of the five shortlisted stories have a heavy Africa-America connection, to the point that Chinelo Okparanta’s story is actually titled “America.”  A schoolteacher who wishes to join her lover there uses the Gulf oil spill as a wedge to try to convince the immigration people to give her a green card.   There’s an interesting ending in which the protagonist remembers hearing a folktale similar to ‘Jack the Giant-Killer” except that it stops short of the “ever after” with no explanation of what happens past a certain point.

The title story, “A Memory This Size” by Elnathan John concerns a man mourning for his brother, who died years ago, and yet he cannot let go.

There are common themes in these stories, most of which are “slice of life” tales:  government corruption, marital infidelity and environmental destruction.

There are a couple of stories that move into the “magical realism” camp (that is, fantasy, but not called that so critics can treat it as actual literature.)  The better one is “Howl” by Rotimi Babatunde, about a dog named Jack who may or may not have the extraordinary powers the villagers think, but is certainly not a normal dog.  “Clapping Hands for a Smiling Crocodile” by Stanley Onjezani Kenani, however, has the best title in this volume.  That story is about a fishing village threatened by oil developers, and the sacrifice one man makes to save their way of life.

I also enjoyed “Stuck” by Davina Kawuma, told in a series of emails by a young woman who is tempted to have an affair.  One final email changes everything.

My least favorite story was “Foreign Aid” by Pede Hollist.  This tale of a man who returns to Sierra Leone after many years in America, thinking he will be a big man thanks to his money, was too predictable and made me cringe rather than care.

That said, I am glad I took the chance to read this book and learn what some African writers are doing.  There are thirteen volumes of Caine Prize stories published; check your inter-library loan system for any one of them.

I should also mention that there is some disturbing subject matter, and would best suited for college age and up.

Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Book Review:  Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Tom is a good man, a Christian man.  Tom is kind, hard-working, trustworthy, intelligent (though barely educated) and honest.  He’s respected by his colleagues, a faithful husband to Chloe and a loving father.  But Uncle Tom is also a slave, and all his positive qualities mean nothing to the law which makes him a piece of property to be bought and sold.

Uncle Tom's Cabin

Tom’s owner, Mr. Shelby, lives in northeastern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio  border.  While a kindhearted fellow, whose wife is practically a saint, Mr. Shelby is unlucky in his stock speculations and has become heavily in debt.  His notes have fallen into the hands of Mr. Haley, a slave trader.  Mr. Shelby can clear his debts by selling Mr. Haley his best hand, Uncle Tom, and the handsome, witty child Harry…or all the other slaves on the farm.  Mr. Shelby’s choice is clear; it grieves him, but after all, they’re just property.

Eliza, Harry’s mother, refuses to give him up.  Her other children died in infancy, and she knows her husband George Harris is soon to be sold by his own crueler master.  Forewarned of the sale, she runs off with Harry in the middle of the night.  But even if she can cross the broken ice in the river separating Kentucky from Ohio (for it is early spring), the free state holds no safety, for this is the time of the Fugitive Slave Act, and the law requires her and the child to be returned to bondage.

This 1852 novel was originally published as a newspaper serial (which is most obvious in the final chapter “Concluding Remarks”.)  Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896) was an abolitionist, but some of the heartfelt sorrow in the writing came from her own experience of losing a small child.  The 1850s were a time of high infant mortality, and nearly every woman in the United States would have known the heartbreak of losing a child or be personally acquainted with someone who had.  So one of the main target audiences of the book was the nation’s mothers.

At first, Uncle Tom’s fate does not seem too hard; though separated from his wife and children, and everything he’s known, Mr. Haley prides himself on his humane treatment of his goods.  Why, he even makes sure not to sell children directly in front of their mothers!  As it happens, Tom saves the life of a little white girl, Evangeline St. Clare, who begs her father Auguste to buy Tom.

In many ways, Auguste St. Clare is the nicest slaveowner in New Orleans.  He despises the institution of slavery, and the abuses the law allows, so tries to be kind to his servants.  But his own heartbreak has left Auguste feckless, and prone to “I’m only one man, what can I do about the system?”   Worse, he married his wife Marie as a rebound relationship without taking time to see if they were compatible–they aren’t, and she is a cause of misery to all around her.

Evangeline, on the other hand, is too good for this sinful Earth, and is a joy to everyone with her simple and kindly faith.  She forms a special bond with the trustworthy Tom, and even manages to reach the heart of Topsy, an abused girl who frequently acts out with destructive pranks.  Too soon, Eva’s health fails, and she passes away to the sorrow of the household.

Between Eva and Tom, Auguste’s heart is moved, and he resolves to reform, beginning with doing the involved paperwork required for freeing Uncle Tom.  Before he does more than start, however, St. Clare is mortally wounded in a tavern brawl.  While it appears he finally comes to Jesus before he dies, Auguste fails to tell Marie his intention to free Tom, and she refuses to hear anyone else informing her of this.

Thus it is that Tom is sold at auction to Simon Legree, a planter who hates everyone, but especially his own slaves.  Legree is a cruel man who cares only for profit, driving his slaves until they die from overwork.  Tom is deeply unhappy at this twist of fate, but is willing to work hard and help his fellow slaves.  Legree can’t abide kindness, so tries to drive it out of Tom.  But this is where Tom draws the line.  He will not be cruel, even if it costs him his life.  Nor will he inform on runaways, which leads to the final crisis.

This is a very religious book, heavy-handed on the Christian message.  Which is not to say that it’s comfortable reading for Christians.  Many white Christians of the time believed that the Bible fully sanctioned the system of chattel slavery  practiced in the United States, and this is on full view.  At one point, we even have pastors quoting dueling proof-texts.  We also have the character of Miss Ophelia, Auguste’s cousin from Vermont.  She’s firmly against slavery as a matter of principle, but deeply prejudiced against black people, and must overcome her own narrow-mindedness to help Topsy.

And though the people of best character in the book are fervent believers in God, He is silent throughout.  Perhaps He has a hand in fortunate things that happen, and lends strength to His children to endure; He also seems to allow vast suffering and withhold punishment from the wicked.  It’s up to Christians themselves to do the right things as best they know how.

The book is melodramatic, full of coincidences and unlikely twists.  Like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, while individual incidents and types of people are drawn from real life and things that actually happened, all of this happening to a small group of people is clearly fiction.  The last few chapters heap on happy coincidences as if to make up for what happens to Uncle Tom, and point towards what people of conscience should be doing.

As one might expect, the book is full of period racism (much use of the “N” word included) and period sexism also plays a part (in later years, Mrs. Stowe was what we now call a first-wave feminist.)  There is suicide, infanticide, animal abuse, torture and what is obviously rape takes place offstage.  The old-fashioned writing style can also be a bit difficult to get through; I would not recommend this book for teenagers, as it works better if you have some experience with adult life.

This is an important book, and Mrs. Stowe really knows how to hit a reader in the “feels”, while also knowing when to use heavy sarcasm.  If you haven’t already read it, consider doing so; it’s in the public domain, so easily available in affordable editions, or free at the library or online.

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