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

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

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

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

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

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

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

Some stories I particularly liked:

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

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

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

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

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

Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1 Phantom Blood 01

Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1 Phantom Blood 01 by Hirohiko Araki

Centuries ago in Mexico, an offshoot of the Aztecs discovered a method of attaining eternal life through the consumption of human blood.  They ruled supreme for a while, then abruptly vanished from the pages of history.  One of their mysterious stone masks was excavated in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, and made its way to Britain.  There, it became the catalyst that altered the fate of two young men and their descendants.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventures Part 1 Phantom Blood 01

In 1868, lower-class ne’er-do-well Dario Brando was returning home from the pub in a storm when he came across a carriage accident.  The driver and the female passenger were dead, and the male passenger looked dead, but an infant was alive.  Dario was going to loot the bodies, but the man woke up and mistakenly believed that Dario had saved his life.  He rewarded the rascal handsomely.

Dario used the reward money to open his own pub, but his alcoholism and general mismanagement drove it into the ground.  He also abused his wife and child, sending the former to an early grave.  By 1880, his health was completely failing and Dario realized he was about to die.  Despite his behavior, Dario did love his son Dio, and decided to prevail upon the rich man in a letter to take care of the boy.

And so it was that Dio Brando came to live with the Joestar family.  A cunning lad, and already a skilled manipulator at age twelve, he swiftly ingratiated himself to everyone but the Joestar heir, Jonathan Joestar, who was nicknamed “Jojo.”  Dio’s plan was to estrange Jojo from his family and friends, cutting him off from all positive human contact.  He meant to drive Jojo to suicide, allowing Dio to become the new heir to the Joestar fortune.

This plan doesn’t quite work, and Dio switches to biding his time, but not before committing a horrific act of animal abuse.

In 1888, with the boys graduating school (Jojo taking a degree in archaeology, and Dio in law), Mr. George Joestar is ill and sinking fast.  Jojo finds the letter Diego Brando sent introducing Dio, and discovers that Diego’s symptoms exactly match those of George.  He swiftly realizes that Dio is somehow responsible.

Jojo heads to the slums of London to get the evidence he needs, and the antidote for his father.  Meanwhile, Dio has filched the stone mask from George’s collection, and is about to find out what it really does.  When these two meet again, the true nature of their fate will be revealed!

This was the first installment of Araki’s series of series about the adventures of the Joestar family and those connected to them.  After the initial color pages, which assure the audience that weirdness is coming, the story switches to a somewhat more realistic tale of a charismatic social climber using any method at his disposal of getting wealthy without getting caught.

Until Dio’s cornered and decides to find out what the stone mask actually does, of course.  The volume ends as he uses the mask himself–the amazing battles that this manga is known for begin with the next volume.

Araki’s character designs are bulkier here than in later installments.  As he mentions in the author’s notes, this was created in the age when Stallone and Schwarzenegger were the big movie stars, and overgrown musculature was all the rage.  Jojo and Dio can barely fit into their somewhat fanciful Victorian suits.

This volume also has the one combat scene where Speedwagon, a former slum dweller who becomes Jojo’s sidekick and a good ally to the Joestar family, does anything of importance.

This is a violent series, and there are often grotesque results fully shown on-panel.  Especially disturbing is what happens to the dog Danny.

As was the custom with shounen (boys’) manga of the time, female roles are at a minimum.  Erina is there to be a romantic interest for Jojo, and to be forcibly kissed by Dio as a way of hurting his rival.  (This scene also shows how abusers can be enabled by their friends; Dio’s hanger-ons admire him for doing things they’re too chicken to actually try.)

This is also very much penny dreadful England, not a meticulously researched historical fiction.  The Chinese character is particularly stereotyped.

The characterization is very shallow, with most of the good bits going to Dio, who would become one of manga’s and anime’s defining villains.  Araki has since gotten much better at writing.

Recommended to anyone who’s enjoyed the Jojo anime series.

Book Review: Oliver Twist

Book Review: Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

An anonymous woman stumbles into a village about seventy-five miles from London, heavily pregnant and with her shoes in tatters.  She collapses in the street, and is taken to the parochial workhouse.  There, she gives birth to a boy and then perishes, seemingly leaving no clue to who she was.

Oliver Twist

The boy is named Oliver Twist, the surname being because he is the twentieth nameless foundling in the parish since Mr. Bumble, the parochial beadle (a sort of petty law enforcer) took up the office and started using alphabetical naming.  He is shuffled off to an “orphan farm” to be neglected until old enough to start picking oakum in the workhouse.  At the workhouse, Oliver is labeled a troublemaker when he dares ask for more gruel.   Is it possible for things to get worse?  Probably.

This was the second novel length work by Charles Dickens (1812-1870).   He moved from the straight-up comedy of The Pickwick Papers to a dramatic plot with comedic undertones.  Much of what happens to young Oliver in the early parts of the book is drawn from what Dickens remembered from his own poverty-stricken childhood.  In the preface to the Third Edition (the one used for the reprint I read), Mr. Dickens defends his use of what we’d call “gritty realism” compared to the usual treatment of poverty and crime in that time’s literature.    Then he admits to toning the language way down to avoid having the book be banned for cuss words.

Once the adults in the charity system have decided that Oliver is a bad child, they proceed to behave as though this is the case while completely ignoring the lad’s actual behavior and character.  (Consistent with the general treatment of poverty as being the result of moral failings, and therefore the poor being undeserving of better treatment, and indeed an excuse to treat them horribly.)

The first adult we see even momentarily show some concern for Oliver is a magistrate that refuses to apprentice the boy to a chimney sweeper that routinely works his apprentices to death on the grounds that Oliver is clearly terrified by the man.   The workhouse managers blame Oliver for failing to look properly grateful.  A second apprenticeship application by undertaker Mr. Sowerberry goes better.

Mr. Sowerberry cannot be described as a good person; there’s too much petty greed and schadenfreude in his character.   But he’s not actively hostile to Oliver and sees a way to make the boy useful and good for the business.  Unfortunately, Mrs. Sowerberry,  older apprentice Noah Claypole, and serving girl Charlotte are hostile and make life miserable.  Noah, whose living circumstances are barely above Oliver’s, has always wanted someone to punch down at.

Oliver finally snaps after one too many insults to his dead mother, and punches Noah back.  This gets Mr. Bumble called in, and it appears that Oliver will be sent back to the workhouse, if not prison.  Understandably, Oliver decides to run away.  Life is not easy for a penniless child alone on the road, but a day’s coach ride out of London, Oliver meets someone who likes the cut of his jib.

This is Jack Dawkins, known on the street as the Artful Dodger.  A bit older than Oliver, and good-natured for a hardened criminal, the Dodger brings Oliver home to meet a gentleman who would be willing to teach Oliver a trade.  This gentleman is Fagin, a “kidsman” who trains children to steal for him.  At first, Fagin pretends that he teaches the boys hanging out in his shelter how to make handkerchiefs and wallets.

Oliver learns the truth when he’s sent out on his first mission with Jack and his amiable partner Charley “Master” Bates.  When he sees the pair steal an old man’s silk handkerchief, Oliver runs away from them, making it appear that he is the pickpocket.  The victim, Mr. Brownlow, quickly realizes the truth and does not press charges, instead taking the seriously ill boy home to tend him.

Mr. Brownlow realizes that Oliver Twist looks a lot like someone he used to know, but keeps that information to himself to avoid raising the boy’s hopes.   The lad grows well again, and for the first time in his life experiences enough to eat and decent clothing.  (Fagin provided minimal food and shelter.)  Unfortunately, Fagin’s gang, including Nancy (whose job is mentioned in the preface as prostitution) and Bill Sikes, a brutal burglar, have managed to track Oliver down.

The very first time Oliver is alone outside the house, he is abducted by the gang.  Fagin worried that Oliver might be induced to give evidence to the police, and also has been engaged by the mysterious Mr. Monks to make sure Oliver returns to a life of crime.  After they think that Oliver’s will has been broken enough, Sikes bullies Fagin into giving him the boy for a job in the country.

This crime goes south quickly, and things look bad when Oliver is shot.  But this is where Oliver’s fortunes truly turn, as he is taken in by generous householders, one of whom feels a certain kinship towards him.

The villains, however, are still at large, so Oliver’s trials are not yet done.

The last third of the novel moves the focus away from Oliver as the various schemes and plans of the adults in the story play out for good or ill.  Only at the end do we return to the boy as his true heritage is revealed.

Good:  Dickens had a way of language, and a saucy narrative style.  One character has the habit of exclaiming “I’ll eat my head!” and the narrator points out that even if science devised a method by which eating one’s own head was physically possible, the appendage in question is too large for him to devour in one sitting.

Many of the characters are comical even while being horrible, as with Mr. Bumble, who talks up his virtuous charity while doing nothing of the sort.  Bill Sikes is a notable exception, with no punches pulled as he abuses pet and lover alike, before slipping into outright murder.

Plus, Mr. Dickens was good at pulling on heartstrings.  Thus it feels earned at the end when the good people mostly are rewarded, while the bad people tend to meet stickier ends.  (Though I do kind of hope that the Artful Dodger makes good in Australia.)

Not so good:  Mr. Dickens was paid by the word in monthly installments, and you can spot passages where he’s using more verbiage to fill out his pagecount, and plot twists thrown in where the monthly installment would have ended to make sure the readers would come back.

And then there’s the antisemitism.  Fagin really gets hit with the stereotype stick in earlier editions, in addition to being referred to as “the Jew” in the narration.  Mr. Dickens claimed that he hadn’t done this because he thought Jews were criminals, but because he was given to understand that the type of criminals that Fagin was tended to be Jewish.  But that doesn’t change that the entire Jewish representation in the book is Fagin (a fence and pimp who exploits children), Barney (a henchman of Fagin’s with a speech impediment) and an unnamed rag dealer who does business with Fagin.

Later in life, after Charles Dickens actually met some Jewish people and got to know them better, he revised the book to lessen the emphasis on Fagin’s Jewishness and excise a few of the physical stereotypes.

There’s also some period sexism, with the villains sliding into outright misogyny.  Mr. Bumble falls afoul of the down side of patriarchy for men when he learns that the law will consider him responsible for the crimes of his wife.  (“The law is a ass.”)   The actual women in the story range from saintly (Rose) to wicked (Mrs. Bumble).  It’s worth noting that Nancy, despite her never-explained day job and criminal behavior, for which she feels she can never atone, is still a better person than say Mrs. Sowerberry, who never breaks the law, but has no charity in her heart.

And of course, there’s some pretty contrived coincidence involved, as Oliver just happens to run into the only two people in England who have personal reasons to help him…and the only person in England who has personal reasons to make sure he never reaches adulthood.

This is a classic novel which has had considerable influence on popular culture, and is well worth reading once.

And a trailer for the musical, perhaps?

Book Review: Respectable Horror

Book Review: Respectable Horror by K.A. Laity

Horror is a wide-ranging genre, which can be tailored to a variety of tastes.  Some folks prefer their scary fiction with a maximum of gushing blood and sharp objects being plunged into soft flesh; others like a more genteel approach that emphasizes the subtle wrongnesses and growing atmospheric dread that comes before the end.  This collection is geared towards the latter audience, with one of the inspirations being the work of M.R. James.

Respectable Horror

There are seventeen stories in all, starting with “The Estate of Edward Moorehouse” by Ian Burdon.  The title character went missing in a remote section of British coastline seven years ago.  He’s been declared dead, and a relative is looking through his estate and discovers that Mr. Moorehouse was searching for traces of a buried village on a beach mentioned in an old text.  He decides to honor the man by visiting the same beaches.

This is a thoroughly modern story with Facebook ™ and SIM cards, but ancient evil has adapted to the new technology.

The final story, “The Astartic Arcanum” by Carol Borden, is more of a period piece.  A Cthulhu Mythos tale, it pits poet Nita Sloan against a cabal of wealthy old men in Detroit who want to change the world.  It would appear that her latest work might be the only thing that can stop them–provided they don’t manage to sacrifice her to their dark god first!

Some other standouts include: “The Feet on the Roof” by Anjana Basu.  Set in 1960s India, there is culture clash between a wealthy widow and her daughter.  The daughter just up and vanishes one day, but then mysterious footprints begin to appear where no footprints should be.  It’s nice to see a horror story set in India that is by someone who actually comes from there.

“Miss Metcalfe” by Ivan Kershner is a Bradburyesque story about a substitute teacher.  It is the day before Halloween, and there’s a new substitute teacher, with a radically different lesson plan.  It involves bats.  Nicely spooky, and dances right up to but not past the line.  Read it to your kids.

“The Well Wisher” by Matthew Pegg concerns a series of poison pen letters.  One target of the letters has already been driven to suicide.  A governess may be able to unravel the mystery of the “Well Wisher”, but can she do so without revealing her own dark secrets?  Innovative, but also comfortably period.

My least favorite story was “Recovery” by H.V. Chao.  An author with writer’s block has moved to a small French village in the hopes it will help.  It hasn’t, but he’s enjoying listening to the guest next door speak to a lover who never answers.  The story never reaches spooky, just barely making it to odd.

Most of the other stories are decent to quite good; this would make a fine Halloween present for a sweetheart or other book  lover.

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6 written (mostly) by J.M. DeMatteis, Pencils by Don Perlin

The Defenders are one of Marvel Comics’ more oddball teams, beginning with a line-up of Doctor Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner, four of Marvel’s most powerful characters who did not belong to other teams.  After a couple of pilot stories, the “non-team” first assembled in Marvel Feature #1 in 1971 to battle the alien Scientist Supreme Yandroth, and shortly thereafter got their own continuing series.

Essential Defenders Vol. 6

With four such volatile personalities, it was difficult to justify them staying together very long, and the warrior woman Valkyrie was added to the group to give them “texture” and a reason to cooperate.  Other members soon followed, either long-term or temporarily, and the Defenders got a reputation for being whoever happened to show up when danger struck, with Dr. Strange being the linchpin of the group.

This volume covers Defenders issues #107-125, and a couple of extras from 1982-83.  We open in the aftermath of a major plotline involving a group of self-proclaimed super-patriots trying to take over America with a group of powerful telepaths.  These telepaths and Kyle “Nighthawk” Richmond combined their mental powers to blow up the bad guys’ base, apparently dying in the process.  As the assembled heroes reel in shock during the aftermath, a stray minion of the super-patriots manages to get the drop on Valkyrie, killing her.

SPOILERS AHOY FROM THIS POINT!

It turns out that due to her convoluted backstory, involving the Asgardian goddess Amora the Enchantress, Valkyrie isn’t quite dead yet.  The heroes split into two groups when Amora offers a deal to restore Valkyrie to full life.  This plotline ends with Valkyrie restored to her true form of Brunnhilda, and no longer with the curse of being unable to fight women.  (She also loses some of her disdain of men in the process.)

Several members of the Defenders are lost in transit back from Asgard, but before that plotline bears fruit, there are solo issues focusing on Eric Simon “Devil-Slayer” Payne and Patsy “Hellcat” Walker.  Then there’s Avengers Annual #11. which features the return of perennial Defenders villain Nebulon.  He and his wife Supernalia clash, pitting the Avengers and Defenders against each other.

This is followed by Marvel Team-Up #119, which features Spider-Man and Isaac “Gargoyle” Christians in a story about aging and the acceptance of same.  Isaac has some insight into these matters as he was already a senior citizen when he made the Faustian bargain that made him a living gargoyle.

The missing Defenders turn out to have been transported to Earth-S, a parallel universe where the main hero group is the Squadron Supreme, a parody of/homage to the Justice League.  On their earth, Kyle Richmond is President of the United States.  Which would be great if he weren’t under the mental control of the alien known as Overmind.  As is most of the Squadron, saving only Hyperion (their version of Superman), who is suffering from lethal radiation poisoning.

And Nighthawk, “our” Kyle Richmond, is helping him out, having been transported to this Earth by the group mind that were once human telepaths.  He brought in the missing Defenders, who now summon the rest of the team for a moon mission to keep the Overmind from conquering the rest of the universe.

Except it turns out that “our” Kyle Richmond is actually “their” Kyle Richmond, given Nighthawk’s memories by the group mind.  But wait, then who’s the President?  It’s actually Null the Living Darkness, which has been puppeteering the Overmind to draw attention away from its protective shell.  The climax is kind of disappointing as it’s the group mind’s show, co-opting everyone else for a battle of wills with the ultimate darkness, only to have Null destroy itself with its own inner light.

So in the aftermath, “our” Kyle Richmond is as really dead as a Marvel superhero gets (not coming back from the dead until 1998!); Earth-S’ Kyle Richmond regains his true memories and reunites with his old teammates (who would go on to the Squadron Supreme miniseries, one of the best superhero stories ever); the group mind inhabits the currently vacant body of the Overmind; and the Defenders return to their own Earth.  (With a slight detour for some of them in a Dr. Seuss-inspired adventure.)

The next few issues weave together the resolution of the Patsy Walker/Daimon “Son of Satan” Hellstrom romance, Hank “Beast” McCoy’s growing irritation with the Defender’s “non-team” ethos… and the return of the Elf with a Gun.  This last had been a subplot during the Steve Gerber run, involving an elf with a gun popping up and seemingly murdering random people.  It was abandoned when Gerber left the book with the apparent death of the elf in an accident.

Mr. DeMatteis wanted to change the direction of the book, so revived the elf (now revealed to be multiple identical beings) as the agent of a time tribunal that was attempting to prevent the destruction of Earth.  Removing random Earthlings had not done the trick, so the tribunal had to convince the four original Defenders that they must never all be in the same room together again.  Unfortunately, the elf took over the narration for a couple of issues, and he was written as a very annoying character.

The resignation of the four founders gave Beast the opportunity to reconfigure the group as the New Defenders (complete with title change as of #125).  He roped in his old X-Men teammates Iceman and Angel, holdovers Valkyrie and Gargoyle, and new member Heather “Moondragon” Douglas.  A powerful telepath who had a revolving door hero/villain history, she had been released into the custody of the Valkyrie to re-learn human values.  (The Overmind simply disappeared between issues; this would become a plot point later.)

This began a period in which the New Defenders were an official team, with rules and such.  But that’s for Volume Seven.

Overall, a decent run with consistent art, and some good character focus stories.  Some of the writing is a bit heavy-handed with the morals; there’s a consistent theme of learning to have hope even in a world full of loss and pain.  The Dr. Seuss inspired story will either be laugh out loud funny or a total miss depending on your tastes.

Recommended to fans of the characters or 1970s Marvel storytelling.

 

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars

Book Review: The Baker Street Peculiars written by Roger Langridge, art by Andy Hirsch

It is 1933 in the city of London, and what appears to be a stone lion from Trafalgar Square is running wild in the streets.  Three children from different walks of life (and a dog) have separately decided to chase down the lion to learn what’s going on.  They eventually lose the trail, but meet the legendary detective Sherlock Holmes, who engages them for a shilling each to be his new Irregulars.  They’ll investigate the supposed living statue while he’s busy with other cases.

The Baker Street Peculiars

But wait; assuming Sherlock Holmes wasn’t just made up by Arthur Conan Doyle, didn’t he retire to a bee farm in Sussex before World War One?  There’s more than one odd thing going on here!

This volume collects the four issues of last year’s children’s comic book series of the same name.  As a modern period piece, it’s a bit more diverse than the comic papers that would have been published back in the day.

Molly Rosenberg is a whip-smart girl, who wants to be a detective.  Her kindly but conservative tailor grandfather has forbidden her formal education as he’s afraid she’s already too learned to attract a good husband.

Rajani Malakar is an orphan of Bengali descent who was raised (when not confined to juvenile institutions) by professional thief Big Jim Cunningham.  Big Jim had an alcohol-related fatality a bit back, and she’s had to make her way alone with petty theft.  Rajani is probably the oldest of the children, as she’s hit puberty.

Humphrey Fforbes-Davenport is the youngest son of a large upper-crust family.  Evidently he was unplanned and unwanted, as he was shipped off to a harsh boarding school as soon as possible, with only a golden retriever named Wellington as a valet.  (Wellington doesn’t talk, so his level of intelligence is difficult to gauge.)  Over the course of the story, Humphrey learns to weaponize his class privilege (within his own class, of course, it’s never done him any good, so he didn’t even realize he had it.)

As it happens, Molly’s cultural background is especially useful in this case, as the villain is Chippy Kipper, the Pearly King of Brick Street, a self-willed golem.  Chippy has the mind of a small-time protection racketeer, but has realized that the ability to bring statues to life gives him an army with which he could take over the city–maybe the world!

The kids are on their own through most of the adventure.  The sole representative of the law enforcement establishment is PC Plank, who’s intellectually lazy, and would rather arrest known riffraff Rajani than investigate any other possible criminals.  Sherlock Holmes is…elsewhere…much of the time, and Daily Mirror reporter Hetty Jones is well behind the children in her investigations.

The art is cartoony, with several Sherlockian in-jokes hidden in the background.  This serves to soften somewhat the several off-screen deaths.

This volume should be suitable for middle-schoolers on up.  Parents may want to be ready for discussions on period sexism and ethnic prejudice.  (There’s also a subplot about dog farts.)

It appears that this may be the first in a series about the kids–I should mention that despite the Holmes connection, this and potential future volumes seem more about the “weird adventure” than mysteries.

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Comic Book Review: Oni Press Starter Pack 2016 by various

While I spend many of my comics-related posts on this  blog talking about the Big Two’s superhero comic books, there are a number of worthy small press comics companies that put out interesting material every year.  Oni Press has put out an affordable collection of seven first issues from various series they’ve printed over their existence.

Oni Press Starter Pack 2016

Leading off this trade paperback is The Sixth Gun by Cullen Bunn & Brian Hurtt.  This horror-western about a collection of cursed firearms is as it happens something I have reviewed before.  I won’t repeat myself here, but note that the series lasted eight collected volumes in its main storyline, with three extra graphic novels of spinoff stories.  Pretty impressive!

Letter 44 by Charles Soule and Alberto Jiménez Alburquerque is science fiction.  When incoming president Stephen Blades reads a letter left for him by his predecessor, he learns that many of the bizarre actions taken by Francis T. Carroll were based on information not shared with the American people..  It seems that there are aliens doing…something…in the asteroid belt.  President Carroll felt it was most important for America to arm itself just in case the aliens are hostile, thus his warmongering activities on Earth that have made a mess of foreign policy while neglecting domestic issues that are coming to a head.

The United States also sent a secret manned space mission out to the location of the alien activity in an effort to learn more; they’re just now coming close to their destination.  The astronauts have concealed certain information from their Earth-bound mission controllers…among other things, one of them is pregnant.

There are some pretty clear parallels to the Bush/Obama transition, with mentions of lies about weapons of mass destruction, and a white conservative president with a bad reputation on the economy and war being replaced with a darker-skinned liberal.  But as the series progresses, the special circumstances lessen those similarities as President Blades tries a very different approach to the same situation President Carroll faced.

Meanwhile, the astronauts learn the truth behind the alien presence, and we learn the backstory of their mission.

The Bunker by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Joe Infunari starts with five recent college graduates going out to the woods to bury a time capsule.  Except that they find themselves uncovering a bunker with four of their names on it.  A bunker that contains items alleging to be from the post-apocalyptic future, including letters from their future selves.

It seems that by their actions, the quintet will bring about the near-extinction of the human race.  But not doing so might create an even worse future.  It’s not clear if the future selves are trying to create a time loop, or avert one.

This was a double-sized first issue, so a lot goes on.  This does include nudity and on-page sex, as well as some nasty violence and strong language.  The last page twist is foreshadowed, but still pretty shocking.

Stumptown  by Greg Rucka and Justin Greenwood appears to be the first issue…of the third series.  Private detective Dex Parios participates in an amateur soccer match (her team loses) before going to a professional game of footy with her brother Ansel and friend Mercury.  It’s hometown Portland vs. Seattle, and autographs after!  But afterwards, Dex and Ansel find a badly beaten (maybe dead) Mercury in the bushes.  Is it hooliganism or a crime unrelated to sports?

Greg Rucka is well known for his crime comics, but the soccer elements took up most of the issue for a slow start.

Helheim by Cullen Bunn & Joëlle Jones takes place somewhere up North during the Sixth Century.  A stockaded village is caught in a war between witches.  A raiding party is chased by warriors of the witch Groa who soon become the undead.  A man named Rikard keeps having visions of himself weeping tears of blood.  When the village itself is breached, Rickard is beheaded, but that’s not the end of his participation in the war.  Especially if his lover Bera has anything to say about it!

Rikard is relatively nice for a Norseman of the time, not happy about abandoning comrades or turning over loved ones to the enemy as a peace offering.  His father is made of sterner stuff, but neither of them is fully prepared for what happens next.

Kaijumax by Xander Cannon is a considerable change of pace.  The world has long been infested with monsters who ran rampant over the human civilizations.  But now the humans have developed a way to give themselves giant superpowered forms (ala Ultraman) and have been capturing the kaiju they see as criminals, placing them on an island prison.

One of the latest inmates is Electrogor, who claims to have been just out looking for food for its children.  Alas, the humans take poorly to kaiju eating their power supplies.  Electrogor knows the humans are after its children, and it appeals to E68FE3 (“Hellmoth”), a monster that’s about to be released on a technicality, to help the kids out.

E68FE3 wants a return favor though, and the resulting altercation puts Electrogor in solitary confinement.  It’s only then that a guard lets Electrogor know that the “technicality” Hellmoth was released on is that there are no living witnesses to its crimes.  Especially the children.

Despite the cartoony art and many jokes, this series is a commentary on the American prison system and the abuses rampant within it.  So Not For Children.

We finish with The Life After by Joshua Hale Fialkov & Gabo.  Jude sleepwalks through his life, every day seeming exactly like every other day.  Perhaps a little too much exactly like every other day–how many times can one woman drop her handkerchief on the bus?  But today is different.  Today, Jude picks up the handkerchief and tries to get it back to the woman.

It seems like the world is out to stop him, and it starts getting much weirder, but Jude eventually does catch up to the woman, and seemingly breaks her out of her routine as well.  This disturbs secret watchers who say that no one has escaped in two thousand years.

Shortly thereafter, Jude meets Ernest Hemingway, who believes that everyone in their city is in fact a suicide, and this is the afterlife.

Some nifty use of panels and other art tricks, reminiscent of the Franco-Belgian style.

Content note:  the woman’s flashback includes on-panel prostitution, gore and childbirth as well as suicide.

There’s a wide assortment of genres represented here, and this is a good choice to pick up if you’re unfamiliar with Oni Press and want to know which series you might like.  Based on these first issues, I’m least impressed with The Bunker which skews even more cynical than I have a taste for.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

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

Classic American Short Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Festival of Crime

Book Review: Festival of Crime Edited by Christine Husom, Mickie Turk & Michael Allan Mallory

Minnesotans have a reputation for being a bit mild-mannered and reserved.  But we love celebrations just as much as anyone else, and the state is filled with fairs and festivals, from small-town scarecrow contests to the crowded Pride in Minneapolis.  And sometimes crimes happen at these events.  Thus this collection from Twin Cities Sisters in Crime, a local writers group.

Festival of Crime

Most of these 19 tales are indeed crime stories, but not always murder, and a few have mystery elements.  A couple have supernatural elements, though only one has it proven.  Some merely take place at or near a festival, while others have it essential to the plot.

The collection begins with “Sawbill Checkpoint” by Michael Allan Mallory (wait, isn’t he one of the editors?)   A man is shot during a dogsled race, and his final word may be a vital clue…if only someone knew what it meant.  The last story is “All Sales Final” by Douglas Dorow.  A pair of art dealers discover a treasure trove owned by two elderly women.  Now, how to get it away from them before the old ladies figure out how much it’s worth?

Stories I enjoyed the most were “Looney Daze” by Cheryl Ullyot, in which a gambler woos a woman obsessed with wiener dog races; and “Corn on the  Cob” by Colin T. Nelson, about a sheriff faced with criminals he can’t put in jail, and an election coming up.

“No Time Like the Present” by E.B. Boatner is about a man who spots some anachronistically-dressed people, and learns their secret.  It feels a little too tidy, with a long-winded wrap-up.

Content warning:  homophobia, torture and domestic abuse come up in different stories.

The writing is decent on average, and I only spotted a couple of minor typos.   There are author bios in the back if you decide one of the stories makes you want to read more.

Recommended primarily for Minnesotan crime story fans, as they’ll be most familiar with the local color, but any fan of crime stories should be able to enjoy this.

Book Review: The Mida

Book Review: The Mida by Lyle Ernst & Kimberly Sigafus

Tony was little when his parents died and left him in the care of his grandmother Nola.  She tried the best she could to raise him in the tiny community of Farmingdale, Iowa, but it’s 1952 now and he’s a grown man.  Tony’s made some bad life choices which are about to come back and bite him, as he’s accused of murdering his ex-girlfriend.  As if that wasn’t stressful enough, it turns out his mother isn’t dead after all, and she and the carnival she manages just appeared in town.

The Mida

The Mida, as it happens, is no ordinary carnival.  For one thing, it’s a “Sunday school”, which means no rigged games or other cheats.  More relevantly to the plot of this story, the carnival is mystic in nature, traveling through time and place to where it needs to be.  A number of the carnies have special abilities ranging from eidetic memory to being “a Wiccan goddess” granted by their employment.  Mesa, the manager, knows that the Mida has arrived in 1952 Iowa for Tony, but is reluctant to face the son  she abandoned all those years ago.  Especially as the carnival is being stalked by the dark spirit Jiibay, who has finally caught up to them.

This is the first of three (so far) fantasy books about the Mida.  Ojibwa lore is woven into the narrative, but is not the main thing going on.  For most of the book, the non-supernatural murders are the focus plotline.  It’s not much of a mystery for the reader as the story has multiple viewpoint characters, including the murderer.

Good stuff: a fairly diverse cast, not all of whom are the stereotypes they first appear to be from one viewpoint.  A fairly sensible and intelligent sheriff, who gets to be useful even though this is a fantasy book.

Not so good:  Little to nothing is done with the time travel aspect of the plot.  Most of the carnies probably wouldn’t take advantage of future knowledge for profit because of their personal morality or lack of solid opportunities, but there’s no mention by anyone of changes in technology or customs.  Conveniently, Mesa has aged enough in her travels so that no one doubts she’s the right age to be Tony’s mother.  Other than some mention of contemporary baseball players, there’s almost nothing that makes the setting feel like the early 1950s as opposed to any post World War Two but pre-21st Century rural town.

There are eight main carnies who form a “circle” although this is apparently the first most of them have known that; all get at least a little development.  But then there are thirteen Gatekeepers who also work at the carnival and that the Eight aren’t supposed to know about as they are the guardians of the Eight.  Most of them don’t even get named, let alone individual attention.  And presumably there are even more carnies that aren’t in either of those groups.  With all these people and the townsfolk, the book is jam-packed and some characters just get lost in the shuffle.

There’s some brief transphobia, but oddly enough no anti-Native American prejudice is ever brought up.  Abuse is in some characters’ backstory, and some of the carnies have been criminals in the past.

This is very obviously a first novel and self-published (a few spellchecker typos); later books in the series may show improvement.

Recommended to people who like weird carnival-set stories.

 

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