Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg

This was my Halloween season read this year, an anthology commissioned for the Barnes & Noble stores in 1995.  There are indeed one hundred stories in this hefty tome, averaging about six pages.  They are not all about wicked witches, however–some witches are good, some are just mischievous and others are hard to pin down on a moral spectrum.

100 Wicked Little Witch Stories

The volume opens with “Gramma Grunt” by Donald L. Burleson, about a man returning to the streets of his youth and regretting joining in the taunting of an old woman; and ends with “Wall of Darkness” by Basil Wells, about a piece of architecture that should be left strictly alone.  The oldest story (1933) is “The Mandrakes” by Clark Ashton Smith, one of his Averoigne stories, in which a murdered woman gets revenge through the title plants (though her murderer really should have known better.)  Most of the stories, however, are exclusive to this book.

As might be expected, most of these short tales depend heavily on a twist ending, but a few play it straight with an ending foreshadowed throughout.  Sometimes good people win the day, other times evil triumphs, at least for now.  There are many variations in kinds of witches as well, the most bizarre of which is “Fish Witch” by Lois H. Gresh, with a witchlike species of marine life; it’s got a garbled ending.

Some standouts include:

  • “The Only Way to Fly” by Nancy Holder:  An aging witch who’s lost most of her magic through disuse is on a plane to her retirement home.  Does she have one last spark in her?
  • “There’ll be Witches” by Joe Meno:  Danny is haunted by witches that make him wet the bed.  Too bad the grownups never see them!
  • “Beware of That for Which You Wish” by Linda J. Dunn:  A woman who wants a son consults a wiser woman; the wheel turns.
  • “The Devil’s Men” by Brian Stableford and “The Caress of Ash and Cinder” by Cindie Geddes, a nicely matched pair of stories about witch hunts seen from the victim’s point of view, yet with mirrored perspectives.
  • “The Mudang” by Will Murray:  A skull collector discovers a two for one bargain in Korea.

There’s a few duds as well, but they’re short and over quickly.

Scattered among the stories are a few with scenes of rape, abuse, suicide and other triggery subjects.  There’s also a few iffy ethnic portrayals and those of you who are witches may not like some of the more negative portrayals.

You can probably find this for a modest price from Barnes & Noble; I see it’s been reprinted several times.  Or try the library if you just want to read the bits by your favored authors.

Anime Review: Humanity Has Declined

Anime Review: Humanity Has Declined

In the indefinite future, homo sapiens as we know it is slowly going extinct.  Not to worry, though, our successors have already appeared, the New Humans, also commonly referred to as “fairies.”  The Mediator is a young woman who works for what’s left of the UN, acting as an intermediary between the Old Humans and the new ones.

Humanity has Declined

This 2012 anime series is based on a series of light novels, Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita, by Romeo Tanaka.  It’s a satire on human behavior, with plenty of dark comedy mixed in with science fiction concepts.  The fairies have seemingly miraculous technology but can’t master the concept of making sweets for themselves.  No one seems to be terribly fussed about the extinction of humanity, at worst being a bit melancholy about what sort of legacy it will be leaving behind.

The series is told in anachronic order; the first two episodes take place near the end of the storyline, while the last two cover the Mediator’s education.  (Very few people in this series have actual names that we hear.)

There’s some slapstick violence, particularly in the first couple of episodes, in which the fairies try to help with a food shortage, and it might not be suitable for viewers with sensitive stomachs.  There’s also a couple of incontinence jokes, and a character that’s overly fond of stories where boys become more than friends.  Still, it should be okay for most viewers junior high age and up who can handle dark comedy.

Anime Review: Matchless Raijin-Oh

The fifth-dimensional Jaku Empire (literally, “the Evil Empire”) has decided to conquer the third dimension, starting with Earth.  Good thing Earth has a powerful guardian spirit named Eldoran.  Or perhaps we should say had a powerful guardian spirit, as Eldoran blocks the invaders’ one-shot superweapon at the cost of crippling himself to a near-death state.

Matchless Raijin-Oh

Eldoran has a back-up plan.  He bestows the remainder of his power, in the form of giant robots that combine into larger giant robots, on a class of fifth-graders who are in school on Saturday doing make-up work.  The military isn’t too thrilled with the fact that the world’s fate is in the hands of a bunch of pre-teens, but the Earth Defense Class is the only ones who can use the mighty Raijin-Oh against the weekly monster attacks.

Zettai Muteki Raijin-Oh was a 1991 anime series for children, the first of the “Eldoran Trilogy.”  It falls into the “super robot” subgenre of the mecha genre, which means that it generally ignores questions of practicality and treats the laws of physics as mild suggestions.  (As opposed to the “real robot” subgenre where they at least handwave explanations as to how the mecha work in realistic terms.)

There are eighteen kids in Class 5-3, nine boys and nine girls of varied size, shape, social status and personality, so it’s easy for most viewers to have a favorite.  And all of them are important.  Sure, some of them get much more screen time, but even if your job is just to pull the transformation lever, no one else can do that, so if you go missing, the team will lose.

The kids who get the most screentime are:

  • Jin, the pilot of Ken-Oh, a swordsman mecha, and lead pilot of Raijin-Oh when the robots combine.  He’s a typical boys’ anime lead, spiky-haired, hot-blooded and book-dumb.
  • Asuka, the pilot of Hou-Oh, a bird mecha.  He’s a handsome and diplomatic lad, and a hit with the girls.  Asuka likes being treated well because of his looks, but doesn’t really grok why being liked by women is a thing.
  • Kouji, the pilot of Juu-Oh, a lion mecha.  He’s a dreamer and UFO nut, who’s a bit timid, but is better at understanding people than his two buddies.
  • Maria, the class leader.  She’s an all-rounder who’s good but not the best at many skills, and coordinates the Command Center when monsters attack.  Her only flaw is a bit of a temper, mostly caused by Jin’s antics.  (The series is clearly setting Jin and Maria up for a romance in their teens.)
  • Tsutomu, the class nerd.  He’s the one who handles technical issues and discovering new powers for the robots.

While the adults are shut out of being able to save the day, Mr. Shinoda (the homeroom teacher), Miss Himeji (school nurse) and the Principal (who is skilled in kung fu) often are able to help the kids out with real-world problems.  Even the General eventually is a bit helpful, though he never completely warms up to the notion that military might is not the answer.

Over on the villain side, the leader is Belzeb, who is literally heartless.  Instead, he has an evil fairy named Falzeb living in his rib cage.  He’s assisted by the bumbling Taida, a chubby, childish fellow who isn’t really cut out for the villain lifestyle.   The monsters start out as akudama (“evil balls”), round bits of darkness that are scattered around the landscape.  When activated by the word meiwaku (“troublesome”, “annoying” , “problematic”) then turn into a small monster that takes its theme from whatever was described with the code word.

Thus we have things like a pollution monster, a flu monster, a superhero monster (that one had some serious “which side am I on?” issues) and so forth.  At some point, Falzeb would energize the monster, turning it into a larger, more powerful version, and Raijin-Oh would need to fight it.

The plots do tend to be formulaic.  One of the children has a spotlight subplot, such as being afraid of dogs.  The monster may or may not relate to that subplot, but generally defeating the monster will also resolve the subplot.  There’s plenty of stock footage of the various uniform changes, robot launches and transformations and special attacks.  One episode about halfway through is a clip show, though it does answer a few pertinent questions.  (The robots combining to form Raijin-Oh takes less than three seconds real time, not the over a minute it looks like in the stock footage.)

Some of the spotlight episodes are more disappointing for fans of those individual characters, as Jin has his own secondary subplot, meaning that the character whose spotlight it is gets even less time.

The series is being brought to the U.S. by Anime Midstream, a small independent company formed for the purpose.  They’ve titled it Matchless Raijin-Oh and five volumes are currently available on DVD.  The disks have both subtitled and dubbed versions, with the dub being done mostly by enthusiastic amateurs.  (It’s okay, but not quite up to professional standards.)

The series is kid-friendly, but parents should be aware that Japan has different standards for how much nudity is acceptable for children (we see a couple of naked butts in a non-sexual context) and some old-fashioned ideas about physical discipline of children are on display.  (Jin’s  parents especially believe in the usefulness of a good smack to the head.)  The blooper reels are less kid-friendly; the worst words are bleeped out, but parental no-nos are still heard.

If your kids already enjoy loud exciting action cartoons, please consider supporting this small business.  Older anime fans may find it a bit childish, but there’s still plenty to love.

Book Review: Glitter & Mayhem

Book Review: Glitter & Mayhem edited by John Klima, Lynne M Thomas & Michael Damian Thomas

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Glitter & Mayhem

This volume is an anthology of speculative fiction short stories,  themed around dance clubs, loud parties, roller skates, sparkly light and glitter.  They’re full of sex, drugs and disco music.  I’ve never been much of a party person myself, not being fond of noisy crowds, deafening music or flashing lights.  So I can’t speak to the authenticity of the party scenes.

That said, there’s a fair mixture here of fantasy, SF and horror; as well as a couple of less genre-specific pieces.  The characters are a diverse lot, men, women and less defined genders, of multiple sexualities and races.

The stories I liked best were two straight-up roller derby tales: “Apex Jump” by David J. Schwartz, about a small town derby team that gets invited to an away game that’s out of this world;  and “Bad Dream Girl” by Seanan McGuire, which ties into her InCryptid series (which I have not read, but this story makes look promising.)

The introduction by Amber Benson comes off as overly pompous, and is quite skippable.  There are a number of interesting tidbits in the author bios in the back, which should help you if a story makes you want to read more of a particular writer.  This book, by the way, was a Kickstarter project, and the sponsors get their own thank you pages.  I am pleased to say that some of that money seems to have gone to competent proofreading and book design.

Trigger Warning:  The protagonist of “Subterraneans” commits rape by deception, and is not one whit repentant.

Overall:  There are a couple of standout stories, several quite decent ones, and a handful of clunkers.   If you’re much more into the dance party scene than I am, or are a big Kickstarter fan, you’ll probably enjoy this one enough to pay full price.  Everyone else should consider getting it from the library

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