Book Review: Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History

Book Review: Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History by Antony Mason

For about 12 centuries, the English have been ruled by monarchs, and eventually this form of government spread to all of the British Empire.  That’s a lot of history, and many kings and queens to take account of.  This small volume with cartoony illustrations gives the reader an overview of those people and what they did.

Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History

There’s a brief discussion of monarchs before the official first king of the majority of England, Alfred the Great, starting in 871 C.E.  This includes the legendary King Arthur who may or may not have been based on an actual person.  After that is a chronological listing of English kings and queens, with a paragraph or page for each, with chapters cutting away to the Scottish monarchs.  (The Irish kings do not get the same courtesy.)  With King James I & VI, the lines are consolidated, and after that they’re all British kings and queens.

This is very much a highlights-only history book, with only the most famous bits of each reign mentioned for most of the monarchs.  There are, however, frequent sidebars on such subjects as palaces, revolutions, jewels, the Magna Carta and mistresses.  The serious scholar of British history is unlikely to learn anything new.  The book finishes up with a glossary, timeline, and index to make it easier to find the particular monarch you’re looking for.  It’s current as of January 2015.

Due to some salacious subject matter, I’d rate this as suitable for senior high students on up.  (There’s also a lot of violence; many of these people left the throne via murder.)  This would make a nice gift for your Anglophilic friend or relative, or Game of Thrones fans who have somehow never read the history that show is loosely based on.

 

 

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth

In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known  for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD.  But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.  He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts.  (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)

The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America.  Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.

The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.  The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.

The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict.  Several of these are top-rate.  “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes.  “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling.  “Corpse on the Imjin!”  was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic.  And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”

Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda.  And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story.  But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.

The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.

The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.

While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.

Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.

Book Review: The Deaths of Tao

Book Review: The Deaths of Tao by Wesley Chu

Note: This is the sequel to The Lives of Tao and this review may contain SPOILERS for the previous volume.

The Deaths of Tao

Millions of years ago, the Quasing crashed on Earth.  They could not survive in Earth’s atmosphere, and were forced to piggyback inside the native lifeforms.  They managed to survive until a semi-intelligent lifeform appeared.  Since then, the Quasing have guided the humans to create a civilization advanced enough to achieve space travel so that the aliens can get back home.  However, a while back the Quasing split into two factions.  The Genjix consider the humans a servant race to be used and discarded; humanity owes everything it has to the Quasing, and must be prepared to have it taken back.  The Prophus (“betrayers”) think of the humans as partners and want them to have free will.

Now, the Genjix are within sight of achieving one of their major goals–which will have the side effect of wiping out the human race as we know it.  The embattled Prophus and their human allies must find a way to survive and if possible stop this plan–even if it means being stranded on Earth forever.

We have six viewpoint characters in three pairs.  Roen Tan is a former computer whiz who is now the partner of the title character Tao (who used to be the partner of Genghis Khan, among other things).  He’s turned into one of the top agents of the Prophus, but has gone off the reservation for the last couple of years chasing down leads to the latest Genjix plan.

Which has led to a separation from his wife Jill Tan, a Washington, D.C. political aide.  Her partner is Baji, who previously inhabited Roen’s trainer Sonia.  Jill is fighting her own battle against Genjix-sponsored legislation that fits into their world domination plans…somehow.  Something in the complex bill is a deadly trap, but what?

Meanwhile, Genjix Council member Zoras has exhausted his current vessel, and now enters Enzo, a specially-created and trained ubermensch.  Enzo has been designed from birth to be the perfect vessel for one of the Holy Ones, smarter, stronger and more ruthless than any mere human.  Unfortunately, he is well aware of this, and is determined to demonstrate this superiority, which clashes with Zoras’ master planner mindset.  They are in charge of the latest Genjix project, which is achingly close to completion, if they can just hold off the Prophus a little longer.

This science-fiction thriller is fast-paced with interesting characters and a premise that allows both good guys and opponents to show up in surprising ways.    The Quasing being behind almost every event in human history (except the rise of Hitler; that was all us) does get a bit tiring–I’d have liked to have seen that humans have some initiative for positive action.  The Genjix are even behind global warming!

The bad guys indulge in a bit of torture, as well as murderous medical experiments.  There’s also a lot of conventional military violence.

The ending really shakes up the status quo, and Mr. Chu promises that things will get even worse for the characters in the sequel–I’m looking forward to that.

Recommended to SF thriller fans and secret history buffs.

Book Review: The Greatest Knight

Book Review: The Greatest Knight by Thomas Asbridge

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and there will be changes to the final edition.  Specifically, there will be maps, genealogical charts, and an index.

The Greatest Knight

William Marshal started life as the younger son of a minor noble, so little regarded that when he was taken hostage, his father pretty much said, “go ahead, I can make more.”  But a combination of superior battle prowess, a gift for political maneuvering, and a certain amount of luck caused William to rise through the ranks of knighthood, until he ended his career as regent of all England, acting for the boy king Henry III.  In some ways, he came to define what people expected a knight to be.

We know more about William Marshal than many other figures of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries because his family commissioned a flattering  biography of him, the sole remaining copy of which turned up in the 1860s, and was finally read and translated in the 1880s.   Now, I say “flattering”, but as the author points out, what people in the 1220s considered admirable traits do not necessarily conform with what Twenty-First Century folks consider to be the ideal of chivalry.   William often acted out of naked self-interest to gain rewards of land and titles.  It’s also pointed out when The History of William Marshal skips over or obfuscates events we know from other sources that William was involved with, but don’t reflect well on him.

William Marshal’s life was strongly tied to the fortunes of the Angevin dynasty, and this book covers the political situation of the time, as well as a general discussion of  knighthood as it then existed.  It puts the treachery of John Lackland against his brother Richard the Lionheart into perspective when we see that their entire family was like that (Richard was actively trying to overthrow his father when the old man suddenly took ill and died.)  It’s just that King John was much less competent at it than most of his relatives, so he got saddled with the worst reputation.

While the writer has to speculate in places, it doesn’t feel forced.  He has the advantage of writing about an interesting subject who lived through many historic events.  But William Marshal soon fell into obscurity; all his sons died without heirs, and his biography was written in the days before printing presses, so only a few copies were ever made.  By Shakespeare’s time, he was reduced to a cameo in the King John play as “Pembroke.”  Thus you may be hearing about him for the first time.

While this book is written for adults, it should be suitable for junior high students and up.  I’d especially recommend it to readers who love tales of knights and kings, and Game of Thrones fans who want deep background.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales Volume 1 edited by Joe Kubert & Joe Orlando

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, the relaxation of the Comics Code in the early 1970s created a horror anthology boom at DC Comics.  At the same time, the once best-selling war comics were going into a slump, at least partially due to the real-life Vietnam War becoming increasingly unpopular.  So a hybrid title was created that combined the two genres.

Showcase Presents: Weird War Tales

Like many anthology comics, there was initially a framing device of a narrator telling the stories to a soldier and the reader.  This switched around a few times, until the series settled on Death as the host of the book.  For who knows the stories of war better?  The majority of the stories are set in World War Two, both because the writers and artists had served in that conflict or were close to those that were, and because the sides were so clearly drawn.  None of the stories in the first twenty-one issues are set in the Vietnam conflict; the most recent war covered is the Korean War in one story, and even then not presented by name.

The art in this volume is stellar.  Joe Kubert (who also got to be an editor on this title), Russ Heath, Irv Novick and others are well-served by the black and white reprint.  The stories range from good to trite.  The two most often used plots are “Corporal Bob saved your life?  But he died last week!” and “Arrogant Nazis disregard local superstitions, die horribly.”  A couple of standouts are Issue #11’s “October 30”, which is a series of interconnected stories taking place on that date in different years as Von Krauss seeks glory and promotion in more than one war; and “The Warrior and the Witch Doctors!” which has a Roman legionary time traveling, but a unique twist ending changes everything.

The Comics Code, while loosened, was still in effect, so while rape and suicide are implied, they are never directly shown.  The gore is also turned way down, unlike many current horror comics.  On the other hand, there’s enough violence to make the “Make War No More” buttons that sometimes end the stories seem out of place.)  There are some period ethnic slurs in a couple of the stories.  Only one female soldier is seen, and very briefly at that in a post-atomic war story.

The subject matter means that this volume won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but the art makes it well worth it for fans of war comics who can take a little weirdness in with it.

Book Review: The Year of Three Kings 1483

Book Review: The Year of Three Kings 1483 by Giles St. Aubyn

This history of the eventful year 1483 (and surrounding events) in England was written for the five hundredth anniversary in 1983.  The three kings in question are Edward IV, Edward V and of course, Richard III, formerly the Duke of Gloucester.   1483 ushered in the final act of the War of the Roses, a series of succession crises about the throne of England.

The Year of Three Kings 1483

Richard is the most famous of these kings, his actions to take the crown being controversial even in his own time.  The public may be most familiar with his depiction in William Shakespeare’s play Richard the Third.   That play was heavily based on a negative portrayal by Sir Thomas More in his history of the period.  There have since been revisionist versions of Richard’s life, both negative and positive.

This book seeks to sort through the primary sources for the actual facts available, and examine what probably really happened.  It comes with a dramatis personae, numerous family tree diagrams, some black and white photographs, extensive end notes, a limited bibliography (only those works directly cited in the volume) and an index.

While the author attempts to be even-handed, he is not above editorial comment, showing disapproval of certain historical personages.  He also is somewhat dismissive of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (a novel in which a hospitalized detective applies himself to the historical mystery of whether Richard murdered his nephews) as part of a trend by “women” to favor unduly positive views of Richard.

There’s also 15th Century sexism on display in several of the direct quotes from the sources of the time.

The author’s conclusion seems to be that while Richard III was not the villain painted in the Tudor propaganda, he was no innocent either.  He did some very good things for the people, but only in the service of claiming and keeping the throne.  The disastrous circumstances caused by the murky succession and various dubious favoritism moments by kings before him made Richard’s power grab vital to his self-defense.  But he may not have planned to go so far as he did.

This is a good starting point for those interested in this period of history, but the serious student will want to supplement it with other scholarly biographies and histories of Richard and the other people involved.

Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue

Magazine Review:  Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College.  Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death.  Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.

Conjunctions 51

The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale.  It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies.  The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.

In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures.  Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear.  Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good.   Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.

With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through.  I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out.   The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.

“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.

Comic Book Review: The Sixth Gun Book 1: Cold Dead Fingers

Comic Book Review: The Sixth Gun Book 1: Cold Dead Fingers written by Cullen Bunn, illustrated by Brian Hurtt

Becky Montcrief’s stepfather is dying.  But the men who’ve come to their remote homestead aren’t willing to wait for him to finish.  It seems he’s been hiding a gun all these years, and they want it enough to kill for it.   In the heat of the moment after her Pa’s death, Becky grabs the gun and uses it.  This means the owlhoots now can’t take it until she’s dead, so they take her to their boss.

The Sixth Gun Book 1

Meanwhile, a man named Drake Sinclair is also looking for that gun, and he is no saint either.  He’s a step behind the owlhoots, and has to enter the enemy’s lair to retrieve the gun, and while he’s at it Becky.  It turns out her gun is one of a set of six, each with an eerie power,  which used to be owned by an insane Confederate general and his henchmen.  General Hume is dead, but he’s getting better, and he wants his gun back, no matter who stands in the way.

Soon Becky, Drake and Drake’s partner, gambler Billjohn O’Henry, are being chased down by Hume’s ghastly army.  But Becky’s gun is showing her things she’d rather not see, such as Drake’s dark past, and General Hume’s plans once he gets all six guns.

This series is a hybrid of Western action and horror, which meshes pretty well, all things considered.  The various powers of the guns, and the other supernatural occurrences, make for some great visuals.  The immediate threat is dealt with by the end of this volume, but enough plot threads are kept dangling to keep the story going strong.  (The artist told me the final volume should be out sometime next year.)

Becky is a bit naive at the beginning of the story, but soon becomes a survivor (it helps that her Pa taught her how to shoot.)  Drake’s character development is told mostly in flashback, he once willingly served Hume, but is a somewhat better man these days.  The bad guys are perhaps a little one-note, but part of the theme of the story is that they have been warped by their weapons, losing the parts of their original personalities that don’t involve killing people.

Given the genres, there’s a lot of gruesome violence and body horror.  At one point, there’s a technically naked woman, but she’s so drenched in blood that nothing shows.  Surprisingly little cussing, and some mild period sexism.  I’d say suitable for senior high students and up, maybe a bit younger for fans with morbid tastes.

Fans of the Jonah Hex series (especially the more outre storylines) and the works of Joe R. Lansdale should find this entertaining.

 

Movie Review: Union Pacific (1939)

Movie Review: Union Pacific (1939)

The Civil War might still be going on, but the United States has to consider what will happen after the war.   Government approval is given to build railways that will link the eastern half of the country with the western,   The eastern end of the line is being built by the Union Pacific railroad company, while the Central Pacific company is heading east from California.

Union Pacific

A financial speculator, Asa Barrows (Henry Kolker), has a plan to manipulate the Union Pacific’s stock to his profit by delaying the completion of the line.  To this end, he hires Sid Campeau (Brian Donlevy) to run a saloon/gambling hall/bordello that will travel along with the construction, getting the workers drunk, disorderly and perpetually broke.  He also authorizes Campeau to take any other measures necessary to delay the line.

Several years later, the Union Pacific construction is way behind schedule, and the company brings on troubleshooter Jeff Butler (Joel McCrea), a former Union captain and engineer to see if he can’t speed things up.    To Jeff’s surprise, Campeau’s right hand man is his old war buddy Dick Allen (Robert Preston), who’s turned professional gambler.  Dick is wooing the lovely Mollie Monahan (Barbara Stanwyck), whose rolling office serves as post office and tea shop for the railroad laborers.

Mollie takes a shine to Jeff, but is frustrated by his apparent failure to catch on to her interest.   He’s far too busy trying to shut down Campeau’s operation with the aid of his comic relief sidekicks Fiesta (Akim Tamiroff) and Leach Overmile (Lynne Overman.)

Barrows is pressured into loaning the Union Pacific money so that they can meet a delayed payroll.  He orders Campeau to make sure that the payroll does not arrive, and the vice lord has Dick pull off the train robbery.    Sadly, the job does not go smoothly, and a guard is killed.

Some convoluted circumstances later, Campeau’s gambling hall is permanently shut down and the payroll money returned.  However, to cover his part in the robbery, Dick has pressured Mollie into marrying him, only to find out that’s not going to help, and he must flee.

A little later, a train carrying Jeff, Mollie and (secretly) Dick is ambushed by Indians.  All but those three die before the Army can come and rescue them.  In recognition of Dick’s courage and assistance, and their old friendship, Jeff allows him to leave peacefully, and in return Dick tells Jeff of Barrows’ treachery.

More excitement later, the two rail lines meet at Promontory Summit, and the final act unfolds.

Yep, it’s another Cecil B. DeMille epic, this time a Western.   Along with Stagecoach, it’s credited with elevating the Western to A-movie status from its usual B-movie roots.  It also reflects the growing desire of Hollywood in the late 1930s to unite the country symbolically.  This theme is foregrounded in the opening title card, and brought back at the end by the image of a modern train on the Union Pacific tracks.

As always with DeMille, it’s a big, exciting movie, though much less bawdy than some of the others I’ve reviewed.  The saloon girls are barely in the movie, and never do anything more suggestive than ask Jeff if he’s lonely.

Plenty of gun fighting and fist fighting though, and a couple of exciting train crashes.

There’s a bit of DeMille’s usual religious theme; Mollie deliberately removes her cross when she feels forced to lie, and prays for people’s safety.  The hasty wedding is Catholic, and she feels bound by it.  She’s a feisty lass, but sidelined after the Indian attack.

An older Irish woman reveals that she had a child that morning, and is already back at work because her husband certainly wasn’t going to be helping out.

The Native Americans are not communicated with, shown as bloodthirsty and baffled by the things of civilization.  Jeff objects to one being shot early on because it will lead to white deaths, not because he’s a human being and it’s murder.  Fiesta is a comical Mexican stereotype, but has the advantage of being a superb whip handler; and partnered with the Southern stereotype of Leach.  (“The last time I saw General Grant, I was lying in a patch of blackberries, taking aim at him.”)

The racism and dubious history aside, this is another blockbuster movie worth looking into.

Book Review: The Thirty-Ninth Man

Book Review: The Thirty-Ninth Man by D.A. Swanson

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a giveaway by the author on the grounds that I would review it.

The Thirty-Ninth Man

On December 26th, 1862, thirty-eight men were hanged in the largest mass execution in American history.    They were convicted of murder and other crimes in connection with the Dakota War.  Thirty-nine were sentenced, one was pardoned at the last moment.  This is the story of how it came to pass.

This is a fictionalized account of the events,  with the main protagonist being Anton McAllister, son of a white trapper and an Algonquin woman.   He becomes a scout and eventually moves to Minnesota during the period shortly before the territory became a state.

Treaties are made with the Native American tribes, allowing more and more white settlers into the area, and pushing the tribes into smaller and smaller areas.  Promises are made, but seldom kept, and the Indians starve, while being cheated by traders who steal from the government allotments.

When famine comes, tensions rise, and it is no surprise that eventually something breaks, and war begins.  Atrocities are committed, and when the immediate uprising is over, there are punishments in store.  But one of Anton’s friends is among the condemned, and he is innocent of the crime he was convicted of, having been elsewhere at the time.

The prose style is a bit old-fashioned, reminding me of the boys’ books of my youth.  I’d call it “stately.”  There are multiple instances of  telling rather than showing when it comes to minor characters’ personalities.  It works here since they are very short interludes in the main story and there isn’t the time to develop them fully.

The author does not hide his sympathies; the natives are clearly the wronged party here, even if some of them are unpleasant or downright evil people.

While this book is not specifically written for the young adult market, I think it would be entirely suitable for teen readers (there’s a list of further reading in the back) who are able to handle the deliberate pacing.  I also recommend this book for Minnesota history buffs.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...