Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Book Review: The Hunchback of Notre Dame by  Victor Hugo

The Year of Grace 1482 is going to be the big one for Pierre Gringoire; he just knows it!  The poet, philosopher and would-be playwright is debuting his new mystery play for the Cardinal of Bourbon and the Flemish ambassadors on January 6th, the Day of Kings and Feast of Fools.  A good reception will net him rich rewards and fame.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Poor Gringoire!  First, the important guests are delayed coming to the Hall of Justice, and the audience nearly riots to get the play started on time.  Then a cheeky beggar heckles the audience for spare change.  Then the Cardinal and crew finally arrive, drawing all attention from the stage.  The Flemish ambassador pans the performance, and starts the election of the Pope of Fools.  And the few audience members left are drawn away by the mysterious La Esmeralda!

Gringoire is in for even more suffering tonight, but he is not the fellow the book is named for, but just one of the many characters who live near the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

Victor Hugo wrote two great novels that still inspire adaptations today; Les Misérables and Notre-Dame de Paris.  The latter got a title change in English to focus on the most memorable character.  Quasimodo isn’t the protagonist either; the closest to a central character is La Esmeralda (“the Emerald”, named after her necklace), the beautiful dancer and goat trainer.  All the important male characters are defined by their relationship to her.

The 15th-Century date seems significant, a decade before the discovery of the New World would change everything, and so the characters behave as though the Old World will always be.

It’s interesting to me how the changing fashions in literature affect some of Victor Hugo’s story beats.  In the Nineteenth Century, the tall, brave and handsome warrior on a horse was almost invariably the hero of books, while a deformed or disabled or ethnic minority character (Quasimodo is apparently Roma by birth) is cast in a villainous role.  The partial reversal of roles between Phoebus (who is only interested in La Esmeralda for sex) and Quasimodo (who defends La Esmeralda even though it’s clear she is revolted by him) was shocking at the time.  Nowadays, there’s more variation in who gets to be the hero of stories.

And then there’s Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame and very much the villain of the story.  A teen genius and rising star in the religious hierarchy, he loved his little brother Jehan and had good intentions when he adopted Quasimodo.  Claude Frollo was a loving (if excessively stern) adoptive father to Quasimodo, and the local expert on alchemy.  Until he saw La Esmeralda dance, and for the first time had sexual feelings he could not pray away.

With no experience of how to deal with women, and bound by a rigid set of personal and religious codes, Frollo chose to interpret the girl’s effect on him as witchcraft, and began the rapid mental decline that ends with him seeing La Esmeralda hang rather than be with anyone else.

Between this book and Les Miz, I get the distinct feeling that Victor Hugo was not a fan of the French legal system.  Every time a character comes up against the courts and law enforcement, injustice is what ensues.  This is most symbolized by the auditor (assistant judge) who is deaf, and cannot hear that Quasimodo (who is also mostly deaf) isn’t responding to his questions.  He condemns the bellringer based on what he imagines Quasimodo might have said, and increases the punishment when someone tries to convey the truth to him.

The representation of Quasimodo as a person with disabilities is pretty good for the time when the novel was written.  I can’t say the same for the representation of the Roma people, called “Gypsies” or “Egyptians” here.  They’re depicted as a thieving, superstitious lot who hang out with the other worst elements of society.  Part of establishing La Esmeralda as a good person is the reveal that she’s adopted.  (As part of the “stolen by gypsies” myth.)

Mr. Hugo often takes the opportunity to spend a chapter talking about architecture, geography or how technology changes culture.  This can be fascinating, but may irritate people who just want to get on with the story.  He also uses some contrived coincidences to move the tale along.  (In particular, one moment towards the end of the book would in a normal melodrama have been the end of Frollo’s scheme and La Esmeralda’s triumph.  But it is ultimately useless.)

Definitely worth reading if you’ve liked any of the movies and are ready for more moral complexity.

Here’s a bit from the 1939 Charles Laughton film:

Manga Review: Die Wergelder 1

Manga Review: Die Wergelder by Hiroaki Samura

There’s something weird going on with the isolated island of Ishikunagajima.  A decade ago, it was a  poverty-stricken backwater inhabited mostly by fishermen and their families.  Now it’s a thriving red-light district, despite being a five hour boat trip from Japan.  It seems that someone has plowed a lot of money into making sure there are plenty of brothels there.  More money than they could possibly be raking in from the tourists.

Die Wergelder 1

The mystery of Ishikunagajima is drawing in an assortment of criminals and shady people.  Two loosely-connected yakuza gangs, a German pharmaceutical concern, a blonde sniper named Träne, a Chinese assassin named Jie Mao and a homeless woman named Shinobu who hasn’t been to her home island in  years, and others, are converging on the remote rock in the sea.   What’s really going on in Ishikunagajima, and will anyone survive finding out?

This is the new series from Hiroaki Samura, creator of Blade of the Immortal.  According to the interview in the back of Volume 1 (which collects the first two volumes of the Japanese edition), this series is a homage to the violent and erotic “Pinky Violence” movies of the 1970s.  And make no mistake, we’re getting plenty of violence and sex.  In the first chapter alone, there’s nudity, some disturbing sex, a woman giving birth, and a man being killed in a particularly horrific way.  As you might expect, in later chapters there’s rape and torture.

This is not a story with heroes so far; there are only evil people, amoral people, and those seeking revenge.  “Wergelder”, we are told, is the price one must pay for murdering someone, and at least one character is determined to collect wergelder no matter what.  That said, many of the characters are interesting; they have varying motivations and lines they don’t want to cross.  Shinobu is as close to being an innocent as the story allows for.  She’s been content to survive on only the pettiest of crimes, until a yakuza thug steals from his bosses and offers to take her with him someplace nice.  They’re both caught within two days, and the boss offers her a deal–help him find out what goes on with Ishikunajima and she can live.

Träne used to be an innocent, but very bad things happened in her backstory that have left her obsessed with revenge.  She will do just about anything to achieve that goal, including co-opting Shinobu and the yakuza into her plans to infiltrate the remote island of mystery.  But precisely who is using whom remains in question.

Ro, the minor yakuza thug Shinobu initially runs off with, becomes something of the comic relief as he swiftly accepts that he’s a supporting character in this story–as long as he’s not being tortured or killed, he’s up for whatever.

The first few chapters are a bit disjointed as they set up the various pieces; we don’t really get a lot of the main plot points until after the first scenes at Ishikunajima.

Again, this seinen manga earns a “Mature Readers” warning, so be advised.  Recommended for fans of “Pinky Violence” films and the creator’s previous series.

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts!! Volume 3

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts!! Volume 3 by Go Ikeyamada

Quick recap:  Megumu and Mitsuru Kobayashi are fraternal twins who have been dressing as each other at their schools as part of a wacky scheme to bring up Mitsuru’s history grades.  Each of them has fallen in love while in disguise as the opposite sex.  Hilarity ensues.

So Cute it Hurts!!  Volume 3

This volume picks up moments after Aoi, the eyepatched hunk Megumu has a crush on, got visual confirmation that she’s actually a girl.  (She’s put on a towel in the intervening seconds, preserving the “Teen” rating.)  After some relationship fumbles caused by neither party having been in a romantic relationship before, it’s established that Aoi still likes Megumu (and is secretly relieved he’s not gay) but he still gets panic attacks whenever he gets closer than two feet to a girl.

Meanwhile, Mitsuru’s secret has been spilled to school bully Tokugawa (without the necessity of being naked).   She simultaneously hates him and is lusting for his body, and winds up blackmailing Mitsuru into a date in exchange for not revealing the secret to the teachers.  Mitsuru isn’t sure how to take this, and he still hasn’t gotten around to telling his deaf sweetie Shino who he really is.

This volume appears to be the end of the crossdressing plotline, though I suspect Mitsuru will need to dress up as Megumu again at some point.   Now we’re on to more standard complications to teen romance, as Aoi angsts about the dark secret behind his panic attacks, and Tokugawa doesn’t understand why Mitsuru is attracted to Shino more than her.  (Hint:  It’s because Tokugawa is a bully and Shino is a beautiful cinnamon roll, too good and pure for this sinful Earth.)

The art and characters continue to be adorable, although the sugar level may be way too high for some readers now that the gender-bending shenanigans are over.  I especially liked the scene where Megumu uses her recently learned sign language skills to express her feelings to Aoi when words just weren’t cutting it.

Still recommended to shoujo fans.

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts Volume 2

Manga Review: So Cute It Hurts Volume 2 by Go Ikeyamada

Recapping from Volume 1:  Megumu and Mitsuru Kobayashi, fraternal twins, have been impersonating each other at their respective schools in an effort to get Mitsuru to not fail history.  As a side effect, each of the twins has fallen in love with someone at the other school but cannot reveal this without admitting the deception.  In addition, other complications are arising.

So Cute It Hurts!! Volume 2

In this volume, the twins learn that their love interests are coincidentally more closely connected than they had realized.  In addition to that, Megumu learns that her romantic interest Aoi Sanada (who looks like her favorite historical hottie, Date Masamune) is allergic to girls.  Oh, and several characters are beginning to question their sexuality due to the twins’ shenanigans.  It ends with a cliffhanger, as the twins accidentally expose themselves to (perhaps) the wrong people.

It looks like this may be the last volume with the initial premise (which wasn’t going to stand up long in any case.)  But the light comedy and romantic hijinks are complemented by the adorable art.  The most innovative part of the manga is still the use of sign language to communicate with deaf schoolgirl Shino Takenaka.  (The end notes section has some explanation as Japanese Sign Language is somewhat different than ASL.)

The heavy use of coincidence may be off-putting to some readers; it gets highly improbable that the twins always face the same sort of crisis at the same time.  There is some partial female nudity for plot reasons.

Still recommended to fans of light romantic comedy.

Comic Book Review: El Deafo

Comic Book Review: El Deafo by Cece Bell

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 in the final product (notably, the proof is in black and white, while the real thing will be in color.  Also, the cover will be much less cluttered with endorsements.)

El Deafo

Cece Bell developed profound hearing loss due to an illness when she was four.   This children’s graphic novel is a memoir of her life from then until fifth grade.  Most of the story is about Cece learning to cope with her hearing loss and the rather obvious hearing aids she was given to mitigate the loss.  In particular, her adventures with the “Phonic Ear”, a powerful chest-mounted unit that came with a microphone for her teacher to use.

The title comes about when young Cece realizes that when her teachers don’t take the microphone off, she can hear them speak and what’s going on around them no matter where in the school they are.  It’s like a superpower!  So Cece imagines herself as the superhero El Deafo.

There is also a theme of learning about friendship.  Cece makes several friends over the years, but there are difficulties with each one–sometimes it’s negative qualities of the friend, sometimes it’s Cece’s own self-consciousness and suspicion that causes problems.

The book is written for elementary school children, but has information that will be helpful for parents and other adult relatives, who should immediately turn to the back and read the author’s note.  Parents are likely to get many cultural references that might escape children–Cece grew up in a time before television had closed captioning.

There’s some body function humor of the type grade school kids tend to love but many parents are distressed by, and one of Cece’s moments of bonding with her classmates may not sit well with adults who think that disobedience should be forbidden.

For whatever reason, everyone is drawn with “bunny” features, which does allow the hearing aids to be obvious.  Cece’s deafness is depicted with empty word balloons, or nonsense words when she can hear some but not clearly enough to understand.

The obvious audience for this book is children with hearing loss and their families, but it will be of interest to any family whose children might encounter someone with hearing loss in their school or activities.  And many children will be able to identify with Cece when her “specialness” doesn’t seem positive at all.

Update:  In 2015, this book was a Newbery Honor selection, which means that it was a close runner-up for the prestigious Newbery Medal for children’s literature.  Congratulations, El Deafo!

TV Review: Racket Squad

TV Review: Racket Squad

First, a bit of news:  I have completed my coursework for an Associate’s Degree in Business Management, and should soon have the official recognition.    It’s been a rough couple of years, so I am relieved.

Racket Squad ran on television from 1950 to 1953, telling fictionalized versions of actual cases where confidence artists and other racketeers bilked Americans of their money.  Reed Hadley played Captain John Braddock, who narrated the episodes and provided tips on how to spot con games.  (He would go on to star in the previously-reviewed Public Defender, which had a very similar format.)  Each episode opened with a “City Police” car pulling up to “City Hall” and a police dispatcher intoning “rrRacket Squad!”

Racket Squad

I watched six episodes on DVD:

  • “Kite High” stars a funeral director whose odious mother-in-law is poisoning his wife against him.  In fairness, he’s the kind of dope who goes off to a convention, changes hotels without telling his wife, and then decides to go hunting with a buddy for three days after the convention, also without notifying his wife.  Rather than try to hash things out with his spouse (her mother is living with them due to a mild disability), he goes off to Las Vegas.  While there, he is snookered into playing at a “private” casino that alters (“kites”) the checks he uses to pay for chips to much higher amounts.  Once he figures this out, the funeral director confronts the racketeers and it goes badly for him.   Just as he’s about to be killed, the Racket Squad just happens to bust in, as they were pursuing related leads.
  • “The Bill of Sale Racket” involves two men that “buy” gas stations for far more than they’re worth, using a thirty-day promissory note.  They then turn around and sell the stations at rock-bottom prices to third parties who are unaware that the bill of sale has been received fraudulently.  A man whose wife was taken advantage of this way while he was off in the Korean War sets a trap for the conmen, and there’s an extended shootout in which no one actually gets hit.  (Surprisingly realistic!)
  • “Desperate Money” focuses on a aging tailor with fading eyesight who’s having a bad season.   Faced with eviction, he turns to a loan shark operating out of a boxing gym.  When the bad season lasts two weeks longer than expected due to hot weather, the loan shark starts ramping up the interest and getting increasingly violent.  The tailor is not stated to be Jewish, but there are really unsubtle clues.  Also notable in that the bartender who steers the tailor to the loan shark doesn’t realize how violent the man is, because he’s always made his payments on time.  He learns the hard way when he asks the shark to have mercy on the tailor.
  • “The System” has a man on vacation meet an attractive young woman and her invalid father.  Several weekend dates later, the father reveals that he, his daughter and their manservant live comfortably because the father has a near infallible betting system.   Using a trick to confuse the mark about the time, the con artists make it look like they can predict the outcome of horse races.
  • “His Brother’s Keeper” is a tearjerker of a story about a bum named Longshot who hits upon pretending to be deaf to beg for money for his gambling habit.   This works great, except that it turns out all the deaf beggars in the city have been co-opted by a fake charity that sends them out to beg, then confiscates their earnings in exchange for miserable bunks and thin soup.  Initially, Longshot just plans to hide enough money away to escape on, but when one of the actual deaf people becomes ill due to the poor treatment, Longshot decides he has to step up and help Captain Braddock smash the racket, regardless of personal cost.  One of the villains also played the loan shark in “Desperate Money”, and there’s a particularly good transition shot from the beggars’ miserable fare to the fine steak that the head of the “charity” enjoys while urging his henchman to cut expenses.
  • “Take a Little, Leave a Little” involves a particularly smooth operator that poses as an oil geologist.  That is, he uses the name of a real geologist with a good record, so when people do credit checks and backgrounds on him, they find the good news and are more likely to believe his story about a rich oil deposit near town.  He’s so slick, in fact, that his victims don’t technically lose money, and thus usually won’t call the cops.  However, under RICO, if it’s possible to prove a pattern of racketeering behavior, that’s enough to catch you on, and he goes to the well once too often.

While some of these scams are dated and wouldn’t work as well any more, others have been able to adjust to modern times.   Altering checks has given way to altering credit card charges.  Payday loan offices do much the same work the loan sharks did.   And some rackets work the same as they ever did.  As Captain Braddock often reminds us, “It could happen to you.”

“Kite HIgh” relies heavily on old-fashioned stereotypes about marriage and mothers in law–younger viewers may find the family’s behavior baffling.  The most affecting story is “His Brother’s Keeper,” thank goodness it’s much easier for deaf people to get work these days.  It’s a well done series for its time.

Book Review: The Complete Knifepoint Horror

Book Review: The Complete Knifepoint Horror by Soren Narnia

Disclosure: I received this book as part of a Firstreads giveaway on the premise that I would read and review it.

The Complete Knifepoint HorrorOne of the interesting aspects of writing is the self-imposed challenge. Poems in a rigid format, an exact number of words, not using gendered words–it can stretch a writer’s skills, even if the product isn’t always great art.

As described in its back cover blurb, The Complete Knifepoint Horror is an entire volume of short horror fiction stripped down to essentials. Tight first-person narration (a couple of pieces do cheat on this), no capital letters, paragraphs, page numbers or titles. No gratuitous mood-setting, fancy typography, anything like that.

For the most part, this works pretty well. When the author is “on”, the narrow format makes the story especially intense. On the other hand, it tends to flatten the contrast between narrators. Nineteenth-Century and Twenty-first-Century people “sound” identical in word choice and grammar. Sometimes if I put the book down for a moment, it was hard to tell where I’d left off, even with the aid of a bookmark.

As you might expect, full explanations are rare in these stories. Some come across as a series of random creepy events which may or may not be connected with the final horrific moment.  Others leave the “monster” half-glimpsed and barely described, though there are a couple of straight-up ghost stories and a particularly good zombie apocalypse piece.

I’d also like to point out the “moss” story and the one with the deaf protagonist as innovative and especially worthwhile.

This collection should do well in audiobook or podfic format, though I would recommend having more than one reader to offset the flattening effect I mentioned above.

Recommended to fans of experimental fiction and horror fans with strong reading skills.

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