Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1 art by Dick Dillin and Charles Cuidero

In September 1939, Poland was invaded by Germany and the Soviet Union.  The valiant Polish people battled bravely against the two-pronged attack, but it was to no avail.  One aviator was shot down, as it happens, near his family’s farm, only to watch as it was blown to bits by a Nazi bomb.  He discovered his siblings inside the ruined farmhouse, dead or dying.  The aviator vowed vengeance against the Nazis, and particularly the pilot of the plane that had murdered his family, Captain von Tepp of the Butcher Squadron.

Showcase Presents: Blackhawk Volume 1

Months later in England, the aviator stewed in frustration.  The RAF did not trust the Polish airmen who’d fled to their shores, thinking that because they’d lost, the Poles were inferior pilots.  Unable to get in the air through the regular channels, the aviator found a small group of other pilots who were refugees (plus one American volunteer) and likewise unable to get into the fight.  They pooled their resources and secretly purchased several Grumman XF5F Skyrockets, as well as supplies for them and a secret island base.

The aviator had discarded his civilian name and now went only by Blackhawk.  His men were the Blackhawk Squadron, or just the Blackhawks.  They operated on behalf of the Allies, but independently of any military command, striking wherever the need was greatest.  After a few missions never detailed, Blackhawk and his men were able to track down von Tepp and Blackhawk took his revenge.  His personal business complete, the Blackhawks were free to fly anywhere at any time to fight the Axis.

The Blackhawks first appeared in Military Comics #1 in 1941, under the Quality Comics label, and got their own title, Blackhawk, in 1944.  They were very popular, at one point selling just below Superman.  In 1952, they even got a film serial, starring Kirk Alyn, who’d previously played Superman in the movies.

But by 1957, sales were waning, and Quality first leased, then sold, its trademarked characters and titles to DC.  Blackhawk was one of only a handful of titles to continue (the other notable one was G.I. Combat.)  It kept its art team, but had an assortment of now-anonymous writers.

This volume reprints the DC run, starting with #108.  At this point, the team had long been stabilized at seven members.  Blackhawk (Polish/American/Polish-American) was the leader.  Hendrickson (Dutch/German) was the team sharpshooter and the oldest member.  Stanislaus (Polish) was generally the second-in-command–at this point he was said to have been a aerialist before the war and was quite acrobatic.  Andre (French) was a mechanical engineer and a bit of a ladies’ man.  Olaf (Swedish) was large and exceptionally strong.  Chuck (American) was a radio specialist.  And Chop-Chop (Chinese) was the team cook.  We’ll get back to him.

Since the Korean War was over and Vietnam was not yet hot, the Blackhawks (now flying Lockheed XF-90 C jets) primarily fought spies, saboteurs and mechanized gangs.  In the first couple of issues, their primary opponents are International Communism, the agents of whom are mostly pure evil (except the one woman who is won over by Blackhawk’s chivalrous behavior and moral rectitude.)

At a guess, these stories were left over from previous writers, as after that contemporary politics vanishes altogether, and much more time is spent on borderline to full science fiction plots.  Lost civilizations, time travel, aliens, and lots and lots of robots and awesome vehicles.  The team also acquired a pet between issues, a black hawk named Blackie who was of human intelligence (even able to tap out complex messages in Morse Code!)

The Blackhawks also ran into supervillains, most often a high-tech pirate calling himself Killer Shark or his marine-life themed minions.  They even fought the first Mr. Freeze DC had.

The plots tended to be simple, as the stories were quite short and mostly meant for kids.  There’s relatively little characterization, with each of the Blackhawks having just a few well-worn quirks.

And then there’s Chop-Chop (who did not even get a proper name until the 1980s!)  It’s worth pointing out that even when he first appeared in the 1940s, Chop-Chop was exceptionally competent and good in a fight.  But he was also clearly a comic relief character, short, round, and with facial features that look pretty darn racist towards Chinese people.

By 1957, this had been toned down considerably.  His face was still stereotypical, but not really more so than say Olaf’s.  He’d ditched the queue and lost weight, but still only came up to chest height on the other men and dressed in a “coolie” outfit that had been outdated even back in 1941.

The other Blackhawks treated Chop-Chop as an equal, and he remained good in a fight.  But he also didn’t have his own plane (usually acting as navigator for Blackhawk) and sometimes gets left out of Blackhawks group activities.  He’s also the sole Blackhawk to admit feeling fear, having the catchphrase “Wobbly woes!”  In his one spotlight story, he’s held hostage for a time.

This was a relatively good depiction for a Chinese character in the comics of 1957-58, but sets the teeth on edge for modern readers.

Certain plot elements do get reused.  There are no less than four times the Blackhawks fight counterpart teams!  The first is the all-female Tigress Squadron.  They don’t have a Chop-Chop or Blackie equivalent.  At first Blackhawk tries to pitch that crimefighting is man’s work, but after they prove their competence, Blackhawk simply switches to criticizing their plan to execute a criminal mastermind instead of turning him over to the police.  (In fairness to the Tigress Squadron, they’re entirely composed of the widows that criminal murdered after he escaped from the prison the Blackhawks delivered him to multiple times.  They have good reason for wanting to make sure this time.)

Next up is the all-villain Crimson Vultures.  They do have a Chop-Chop equivalent (who never does anything) as well as a crimson vulture named Crimson to fight Blackie.)  Unfortunately for them, Crimson is not as smart as Blackie, and that costs them the battle.

And two entirely separate miniature robot versions of the team created by mad inventors!  (Both have a Chop-Chop but not a Blackie.)

Coordination between writers was plainly not a priority.  In one story, a humanoid robot intelligent enough to infiltrate a criminal gang for months is brought back after several issues of being missing, and the Blackhawks take it back to their island.  In the next issue, Blackhawk needs a humanoid robot for something, and builds one from scratch, without even mentioning the previous robot, who also does not appear again in this volume.

That said, there are some tremendous machines in this series, and the War Wheel is always a joy to see in action.

Primarily recommended to older fans who fondly remember the Blackhawks from their childhood like me.  Others should take advantage of interlibrary loan.

And now, here’s a trailer for the Blackhawk serial!  Hawk-aa!

 

Book Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness

Book Review: Hector and the Search for Happiness by François Lelord

Once upon a time, there was a psychiatrist named Hector, who was very good at his job.  But he didn’t feel that he was as good as he needed to be, because he had patients who were unhappy, and he didn’t know how to make them happy.  So he did what any sensible person would do, and went on a round the world trip to learn more about happiness.

Hector and the Search for Happiness

This is the first novel by M. Lelord, which was a big hit in France, then Europe and then did well enough in the United States to be turned into a movie.  It’s spawned two sequels as well.  The book is essentially a self-help book written as a children’s story.  The language used is simple, and it should be readable even by people who aren’t strong readers, with short chapters.

Hector travels from country to country, meeting up with old friends who now live in those countries, and learning something about happiness in each place.  He also spends time “doing the thing that people in love do” with several different women, which is not something I’d put in a children’s book, and I have to wonder if they’d even do it in France.

If you take the book as a series of events designed to introduce different concepts about happiness, it’s mildly amusing and has some good points.  However, the language sometimes comes off condescending (perhaps a translation problem?) and there’s a lot of male gaze going on here when the narrator talks about Hector’s interactions with pretty women.

The story plays coy with the reader by not naming countries except China; most of them will still be recognizable from context.  They’re mostly seen from Hector’s very privileged viewpoint  (sometimes he even admits it).  And perhaps one of the inadvertent lessons of the book is “happiness is easier if you’re friends with a powerful crimelord.”

All that said, I can see why this book was a hit with certain audiences.  If you like your self-help tips mixed with an actual story, this  is one with plenty of interest-holding events.  If, however, you react badly to perceived condescension, this book may not be your best choice.

Disclaimer:  This book review was sponsored through GoFundMe as an incentive reward.

And now, here’s the trailer for the movie.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iWFVAIbIkS4

 

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989 by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the final volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s history of Japan and his personal life during the Showa Era.  It mixes events that affected the entire country with stories of his struggles as a man and an artist.

Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

As noted in the introduction by Frederik L. Schodt, this volume covers more time than the previous three put together.  It covers Japan’s transition from a militarized country reeling from utter defeat, to a nation that was all about business.  Many of the events covered will be new to American readers (though manga and anime fans may see the roots of certain storylines in real life happenings.)

The book also chronicles the long years of poverty Mizuki endured as he struggled to earn a living as an artist.  Again, this is a warts and all portrayal, so we learn that his arranged marriage was by no means a love match, but something his parents insisted on.  Even when Mizuki finally makes it big with a hit manga, he learns that success is its own trap.  Now that people want his product, he has to keep putting it out on strict deadlines bang bang bang.

I learned a lot.  For example, while it’s been retrofitted into many historical dramas, kidnapping for ransom was a new crime in 1963, made possible by rising prosperity meaning rich people had enough cash to pay ransom.  The “paradox of prosperity” is discussed:  As rising prosperity made the inside of people’s houses more comfortable, the associated pollution made the outside of their houses less comfortable.

As Mizuki’s personal star rose, he had to take on assistants to help him produce all the work he was now obligated to put out.  Some of these assistants, like Ryoichi Ikegami, went on to become famous manga creators in their own right.  Others…did not.  A subplot in one chapter has an assistant vainly attempt to get his original work published to impress a potential marriage partner.

A couple of chapters are dedicated to daydreams Mizuki had, one where he takes a vacation to the afterlife, and another where he contemplates a company that facilitates extra-marital affairs (and admits that his long-suffering wife might also appreciate the idea.)  In real life, he reconnects with the New Guinea natives that had befriended him decades before.

The volume ends with a completely transformed Japan, and Mizuki’s wish that while the future is yet unwritten, the new generations will learn from the mistakes and suffering of the past.  Mizuki lived on into the second decade of the 21st Century, still working up until the end.

Once again, the primary narrator is Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), and we meet the real life person who inspired his personality.  One chapter is instead narrated by a traditional storyteller who mentored Mizuki for a while.  Readers who are unused to manga conventions may find the art shifts uncomfortable.

In addition to the standard footnotes and endnotes, this volume ends with a number of color plates that demonstrate Mizuki’s art at its most detailed.  this is great stuff.

There’s some uncomfortable bits, including rape, cannibalism and suicide.  There’s also some toilet humor (which at one point turns dramatic.)

Like the other volumes in the series, a must have for manga and anime fans who want to know more about Japan’s recent history.  It would also be good for more general history students seeking a new viewpoint.  Highly recommended.

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1939-1944

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1939-1944 by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the second volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s history manga (I have already reviewed the first and third.)  This volume covers most of what Americans call “World War Two” and the Japanese call “The Pacific War” as they had already been at war with China for years by the time the rest of the world went to armed conflict.

Showa: A History of Japan 1939-1944

As with the other volumes, the author covers not only national and world events, but his personal experiences.  Mr. Mizuki depicts himself as a dreamer who puts little effort into school or work, being expelled from both, but enthusiastically pursues whatever knowledge catches his interest.  When he is finally drafted, Mizuki is also an incompetent soldier (much like the American Sad Sack) who blows his chance at a relatively cushy spot as a bugler and instead is shipped out to Papua New Guinea.  (His gentle nature does, however, allow him to make friends with the natives.)

Having bit by bit become a military dictatorship, and with the Soviet Union looming on its doorstep, the government of Japan felt comfortable allying itself with Nazi Germany (and then Fascist Italy) against their common foe.  Japan was then confused when Germany made a non-aggression pact with Russia (and they followed suit) only to invade the Soviet Union a year or so later.  Meanwhile, the Japanese military continued trying to liberate/take over their neighbors in the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.

Japan was also beginning to run out of vital war supplies like steel and oil, and their biggest supplier, the United States, was turning increasingly hostile.  The U.S. government, led by president Franklin D. Roosevelt, cut off the supplies.  Japanese ambassadors did try to negotiate, but the American idea of compromise was “give up all territories you seized in war, and we’ll sell you just enough to keep the lights on at home.”  Understandably, the Japanese military government found that offer insulting at best.

And so Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Japanese attacks across the Pacific territories of the Allies.  At first, the Japanese scored victory after victory.  Given the nature of some of the colonial governments, in certain places they were even greeted as liberators.  (Though most soon learned that the Japanese had no intention of allowing them true independence.)  However, this had two bad side effects.  First, many in the Japanese military began suffering from “victory disease”, believing that the Japanese forces were invincible and the war could be won easily.  Second, instead of demoralizing the Americans into giving up as was the plan, the attacks instead stung the complacent public into patriotic fervor and willingness to do whatever it took to beat the Axis.

As the war wore on, the United States’ superior production capability, advanced technology and ability to read Japanese codes turned the tide.  The Japanese government, led by Hideki Tojo, decided to just flat out lie to their citizens by never admitting setbacks or defeats.  Increasing rationing and crackdowns on free speech told the Japanese public that things were going badly, but they had no idea how dire the war had become.

The Japanese army is depicted as brutal, with soldiers suffering constant physical abuse from their superiors (who were physically abused by their superiors and so on.)  In this volume, young Private Shigeru gets the worst of this treatment.  Our protagonist misses out on comfort women only by virtue of being too far back in the line when the brothel closes to evacuate.  There’s also some body function humor.

The Bataan Death March is depicted as less a deliberate atrocity than the result of horrific failure of logistical planning.  And Shigeru’s brother off-handedly does something that will later get him tried as a war criminal.

There are footnotes explaining some military terms (some so basic as to seem silly, but perhaps the equivalent Japanese terms might be unfamiliar to young readers) and extensive end notes.

The volume ends with the mission that will eventually lead to Shigeru Mizuki losing an arm.

As with the other volumes, Mr. Mizuki’s art varies between his usual scratchy,cartoony style and more “realistic” depictions.  Some of the war scenes make it clear he could have done straight-up war comics if he’d so chosen.

Highly recommended to those interested in learning about World War Two from the Japanese point of view, and fans of Shigeru Mizuki’s other work.

And here’s a song about Rabaul, the airfield Shigeru was stationed near.

Comic Book Review: The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story

Comic Book Review: The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story written by Ed Brubaker & Matt Fraction, primary artist David Aja

When Daniel Rand was nine years old, his father Wendell Rand took him, his mother Heather, and business partner Harold Meachum on an expedition to the mystical city of K’un L’un, which appears in the mountains of China only once every ten years.  When Danny slipped into a crevasse, endangering his parents, Meachum, who was in love with Heather, treacherously murdered Wendell.  Heather refused to go with Meachum, and continued onward with her son.   They came across a bridge that hadn’t been there before, but a pack of wolves attacked.  Heather sacrificed herself to give Danny time to cross the bridge.  Archers from K’un L’un attempted to rescue Heather, but were unable to drive away the wolves before her death.

The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story

As the years passed inside the mystical city, Danny Rand became the best martial arts student of Lei Kung, the city’s guardian.  Eventually, he was allowed to battle the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying and plunge his fist into its heart.  This branded his chest with the crest of Shou-Lao, and gave Danny the ability to focus his ch’i energy into his fist, making it like unto a thing of iron.  He is not the first Iron Fist, but questions about the past ones are not encouraged.

At the next opportunity, Danny left K’un L’un to seek revenge upon Harold Meachum, a quest that ultimately proved hollow.  He instead embarked upon a career as the martial arts superhero Iron Fist.

Iron Fist was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane as part of a martial arts fad at Marvel Comics inspired by the popularity of kung fu movies at the time.  He first appeared in Marvel Premiere #15 in 1974, ran for ten issues, then got his own starring series.  It was notable for the rare second-person narration.  (“You are Iron Fist, and you are about to die!”)  When sales fell, Danny Rand was teamed up with blaxploitation-inspired character Luke Cage in Power Man and Iron Fist.  As the “Heroes for Hire”, they became an iconic team for Marvel.

The volume under discussion here appeared in 2007, after several status changes (including being dead for a while) for Iron Fist.  As of the opening of this series, Daniel Rand is the head of Rand International, the company his father and Harold Meachum had founded.  They have been approached by the Chinese corporation Wai-Go Industries, which wants to buy mag-lev train technology and infrastructure from Rand Intl.  Danny senses something wrong with the deal, and cancels it, much to the dismay of Jeryn Hogarth, the person who actually runs the company for Danny.

Investigating the offices of Wai-Go as Iron Fist, the hero learns that the company is actually a front for the terrorist organization HYDRA, and is forced to battle their agents and their latest weapon, the Mechagorgon.

Ordinarily, Iron Fist would call in his allies in the superhero community to assist with a threat of this size, but this series takes place during the Civil War event, when all superhumans are required to register their identities with the government or else.  Many of his friends have joined the pro-Registration side, which Danny is opposed to, and the remainder are now fugitives.  (Iron Fist only remains free due to a legal loophole.)

At about the same time, the Steel Serpent resurfaces.  Davos, the son of Lei Kung, believes that the power of the Iron Fist is his by right, and has frequently tried to steal it from Danny.  He has come to believe there is a conspiracy to keep him from attaining the Iron Fist.  (Mild spoiler: he’s not entirely wrong.)  Steel Serpent has allied with HYDRA and a previously unknown being called the Crane Mother, and is looking for a man named Orson Randall.

Orson Randall (the name is probably not a coincidence) turns out to have been the previous holder of the Iron Fist title, one of the Immortal Weapons.  He relinquished the title and disappeared for reasons not adequately explained in this volume, but can still tap into the power of Shou-Lao.  Flushed out of hiding, Orson seeks out Danny Rand to give the newest Iron Fist some vital information about their legacy.

Lots of kung-fu action ensues!

As the original Iron Fist stories were inspired by the low-budget kung-fu flicks of the early 1970s, this one is heavily influenced by the special effects extravaganzas of the more recent wuxia movies.  There are mystical kung fu powers being unleashed right and left, and huge battle scenes.  The art goes well with this, including some nifty effects to show how Iron Fist finds the precise areas to attack.

Iron Fist’s backstory is somewhat problematic these days, given its use of the Mighty Whitey trope (white person goes to foreign land and is better at what the natives do than they are themselves.)  This series tries to mitigate it somewhat by revealing a more diverse array of past Iron Fists, and hinting in this volume that there’s a specific reason the last two have been Caucasian.  (It remains to be seen how the upcoming Netflix series will deal with the issue.)

Orson Randall is a good guest star as a pulp hero gone sour, and with hints at his own extensive backstory and heritage.

Most of the plot threads are still left dangling at the end of this volume, to be resolved later in the series.  The volume also contains a short piece referring to a period when Danny Rand was wearing the costume of Daredevil while Matt Murdock was otherwise occupied.

Overall, a good update to the Iron Fist concept and a rollicking adventure story.

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences by Pere Romanillos

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

Great Historical Coincidences

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

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

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

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz

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

Rad Women Worldwide

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

Book Review: The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds by Selina Siak Chin Yoke

This is the life story of Chye Hoon, a Nyonya (Malaysian woman of Chinese heritage) who lives between 1878 and 1941, a time of great change in her homeland.  Initially a willful child who wants to break out of her culture’s tradition (why shouldn’t a girl get the chance to go to school like her brother?), Chye Hoon grows into a young woman whose reputation for temper and independent spirit seem to doom her prospects for marriage.

The Woman Who Breathed Two Worlds

But an enterprising matchmaker brings her together with a Chinese immigrant named Wong Peng Choon.  Despite this being an arranged marriage and the pair never actually meeting until the wedding, things work out well.  Peng Choon appreciates Chye Hoon’s cleverness and unwillingness to be cheated, and in return is a good husband.  The young couple moves to Ipoh, a rapidly growing tin mining town.

The next decade or so is good to the couple; Peng Choon is much in demand as an accountant, and Chye Hoon has ten children!  But then Peng Choon must return to China to take care of some family business.  He perishes in that far-off land; while he was careful to make sure that Chye Hoon had enough capital for a couple of years, she knows that raising ten children will soon drain that, and jobs for widows with no formal education are few and low-paying.

Chye Hoon applies her cleverness and cooking skills to the problem, becoming an entrepreneur in the field of tasty kueh (Nyonya cakes of both sweet and savory varieties.)  There are many difficulties involved in making the business a success, but she and her servants make a go of it.

Meanwhile, Chye Hoon must also raise her children, facing times of joy, times of heartbreak and times of great frustration.  In this last category is the increasing  influence of the British over the Malay States as they take firmer control of the government, and increasingly the young people adopt Western ways.   Chye Hoon has become a traditionalist who fears that her people’s heritage will be forgotten in the rush to modernize.

Chye Hoon is based loosely on the author’s own great-grandmother, and apparently many family stories were woven into the narrative.  The parts of the book that give a sense of the time and place are fascinating.  Less helpful is that quite a few of the large cast are underdeveloped or vanish from the story–a couple of the sons get brief mentions at times just to remind us they’re still alive but not doing anything relevant.

The author has made some interesting stylistic choices; uneducated characters use traditional Malayan syntax, while those with formal schooling speak British English.   (Even when they’re clearly not using that language.)  There’s also frequent usage of traditional Malayan filler words and interjections, and the author has chosen to use the older transliteration of some words, as well as some language that is now considered pejorative.  In places, this works well, and in other places it becomes intrusive.  (It also kind of raises the question of just who Chye Hoon is telling this story to at the end.)

The story ends just before the Japanese invasion during World War Two, which gives a pretty obvious cue for a sequel with the surviving family members.

Worth checking out if you are into family saga stories, and especially if you are curious about Malaysian history and culture.

Book Review: First Contact

Book Review: First Contact by Michael R. Hicks

The scout ship Aurora is searching for new worlds, especially inhabitable ones for the citizens of Earth and the various worlds their descendants have colonized.   What at first seems like a bonus of two viable worlds in the same star system turns into a deadly encounter.  Those worlds are inhabited by members of an alien race that will come to be known as the Kreelan Empire.  And now that the Kreelans are aware humans exist, they are very excited about going to war with us.  All of us.

First Contact

This is the first book in the In Her Name trilogy of trilogies, though the middle trilogy was written first.  It details how the Human-Kreelan War got started.  The series is a cross between military SF and full-on space opera, though this volume tends more towards the former.

It seems that the Kreelans are what TV Tropes call a “Planet of Hats”, a society that is entirely based around one concept or activity for the purposes of moving the plot along.  In this case, their “hat” is honorable battle; Kreelans want to fight, preferably hand-to-hand, and the humans are the first new opponents they’ve had in millennia.  In order to ensure that they aren’t going to accidentally wipe out the humans before the war can really get started, the Kreelans actually go back to their history books and recreate weapons and vehicles of roughly the same technological level as the humans have now.

Early in the first chapter, we are told that most of the characters we’re meeting are not going to make it through the next few hours.  This makes it a bit of a slog as various crew members’ backgrounds and personality quirks are  revealed, often during a combat scene.  The Kreelans are choosing a Messenger to send back to human space and get the squishy people ready to fight.  Once they have that sole survivor, the focus shifts to Earth and the other human worlds’ reaction to the news, and finally to the defense of the first planet on the invasion list.

Many of the people in the book seem to come straight out of Central Casting; the eccentric but brilliant general, the sassy lady reporter, the bungling officer who dies to let a real hero take command, etc.  This is exacerbated by many stereotypes of Earth cultures spreading to their colonies.  For example, people from the Francophone colonies are all some variant of French stereotypes, right down to having their best troops being the Foreign Legion.  One of the heroes comes from the planet of Nagoya, which is basically the Japanese city of Nagoya, but a whole planet of it.  The only mitigating factor is that the casting is a bit more diverse than it would have been in the Twentieth Century.

This means that many of the best passages in the book are those told from the perspective of the Kreelan Empire, which has the advantage of being alien enough to engage the author’s creativity.

There are quite a few exciting combat scenes, and one of the things I like is that the story does not shy away from showing that even the “good guys” can be forced into taking civilian lives as collateral damage.  (The Kreelans have no real concept of “civilian”, seeing them more as “targets that don’t fight back and thus only worthy of extermination.”)

One weakness of this being in the military SF subgenre is that the book has a tendency to make the Kreelans “right”–the only humans of consequence are those that engage in combat or provide support for those that do.   I’d like to see the human tendency to do things that aren’t somehow related to combat or survival as a strength that the Kreelans have discarded in their single-minded pursuit of battle.

Briefly discussed in this book, and apparently a major factor at the beginning of the next one, is that the Kreelan warriors are all female.  Due to a “curse” their males are non-sentient, and mating is only semi-consensual.   Easily triggered readers might want to give that a miss.

Otherwise, this is a pretty clear-cut “no shades of grey” war story where you can root for the human heroes.  Not the best military SF, but readable.

 

Book Review: Behind the Forgotten Front, a WWII Novel

Book Review: Behind the Forgotten Front, a WWII Novel by Barbara Hawkins

Like many red-blooded American men after Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant Harry Flynn joined the Army to fight the enemy directly.  But the Army has a lot of jobs to fill, and his excellent handwriting gets Harry posted as a supply officer in a backwater post in India.  The Japanese have taken Burma (now Myanmar), cutting China off from supply by the other Allies.  Therefore, a road must be built from India through Burma to China.  Or at least that’s what the brass think should be done.  Harry is unconvinced–this road seems to be killing more Americans than the Japanese ever did.

Behind the Forgotten Front, A WWII Novel

The CBI theater of World War Two is relatively obscure in American media compared to the European struggle against the Nazis or the Pacific campaign.  So this historical novel was a good change of pace, shedding light on an area I am unfamiliar with.

In the early part of this story, Lt. Flynn is cynical about his superiors, bored with his humdrum duties, and willing to take dangerous steps to fight against what he sees as a doomed strategy.  About a third of the way through, Harry is reassigned as the supply officer for Merrill’s Marauders, a combat unit sent well into enemy lines to take out certain targets that will make it easier to build and use the road.  Then he sees plenty of action!

Probably the best parts of the novel are the descriptions of things that happened in real life, taken from the author’s research (there’s a reading list in the back.)  I’m a sucker for the gritty details of long marches and miserable weather.

Harry is not a particularly likable person, though he gets over his period-authentic racism pretty quickly.  (He’s smart enough to realize it’s a bad idea to antagonize the “Negro” troops, while a designated bad guy isn’t.)  He does some things that put people in unnecessary danger, and probably kills at least one innocent bystander when a sabotage plan goes awry.  Some flashbacks establish where he got his sour attitude from, but don’t justify his actions.

There’s some salty language (perhaps not enough given the setting) and discussion of the factors that lead some women into prostitution.  Lots of violence, of course, with vivid description of the smells.

One character is built up as important in the first part of the novel, then vanishes with a “whatever happened to?” at the end; many other characters have on-page deaths.

The Kindle version I downloaded has a number of spellchecker typos, most commonly “lightening” for “lightning”–it’s an older copy so these might have been fixed by now.

Recommended for readers who want to know a bit more about a relatively obscure part of WWII, and aren’t up for reading straight-up military history (because that can get pretty dry.)

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