Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1: Phantom Blood Volume 02

Manga Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 1: Phantom Blood Volume 02 by Hirohiko Araki

Quick recap: In 19th Century England, orphan Dio Brando comes to live with the wealthy and noble Joestar family.  In retrospective, they probably should have asked more questions about how he became an orphan.  Dio planned to supplant the heir, Jonathan “Jojo” Joestar, then murder his adoptive father for the inheritance.  It didn’t quite work out that way, and Dio has been forced to resort to a stone mask with occult properties.  See my review of the previous volume.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure Part 1: Phantom Blood Volume 02

As this volume opens, the police riddle Dio with bullets, and his presumed corpse falls out the window. Jojo has a touching farewell with his dying father, who now recognizes his fault in treating Jonathan poorly.  The police inspector gives a long speech about how he should have exiled Dio’s father Dario Brando to Australia with his family twenty years ago, but Lord Joestar had covered for the wicked man out of kindness.

Speedwagon suddenly notices that Dio’s body has disappeared, but too late.  Dio is now a powerful vampire, and slices the police inspector’s head off before draining the blood from another cop.  Being shot in the head doesn’t even slow Dio down, and the blood allows him to regenerate.

What follows is the first of the awesome battles that the Jojo franchise is famous for, resulting in a narrow victory for Jonathan at the cost of his home.  While Jonathan recovers in the hospital and is reunited with his childhood sweetheart Erina Pendleton, the Chinese shopkeeper returns to the site of the battle to dig up the stone mask.  As it turns out, Dio is not quite finished.

Dio is badly wounded, and starts recruiting minions to do his dirty work while he recovers, starting with Jack the Ripper.

Meanwhile, Jojo and Erina meet Baron Zeppeli, an eccentric Italian nobleman with a connection to the stone mask.  It seems that when Zeppeli was young, his father was an archaeologist who led an expedition to Mexico, where they found the mysterious artifact.  Zeppeli’s father tried it out on the ship home, and slaughtered the crew except Zeppeli before being struck by sunlight.  The stone mask vanished with the ship, and somehow wound up being purchased by Mrs. Joestar.

Baron Zeppeli has dedicated his life to tracking down the stone mask and destroying it, as well as the monsters it creates.  As part of this, he has learned the martial art “Hamon” which uses human breath to create ripples with the frequency of sunlight, deadly to vampires.  Zeppeli teaches hamon to Jonathan, who turns out to be a natural adept at the art.  (Unlike Speedwagon, who is nearly crippled by his one exposure.)

Erina is left behind as the three men pursue a vampire minion to Dio’s new lair, an isolated village he’s been draining dry.  They’re lured into a trap by a hypnotized young thief, and Dio not only demonstrates an array of new powers, but summons two infamous knights as undead servants to fight the heroes!

This is the good stuff!  With the main plot now fully engaged and battles aplenty, there’s plenty of nifty action with stellar art.  Zeppeli is a good addition to the main cast; his goofy mannerisms contrast his very serious personality.

There’s a certain amount of biased history retelling regarding Queen Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots that might boggle some British folks, as well as a combination of Victorian and 80’s shounen manga sexism.  Araki doesn’t shy away from showing mutilated corpses and body pieces being flung around during violent sequences.  The Chinese shopkeeper is also very stereotypical Yellow Peril in appearance.

If you’re a fan of any of the Jojo anime series, you’ll enjoy this as well.

Manga Review: The Birth of Kitaro

Manga Review: The Birth of Kitaro by Shigeru Mizuki

Blood bank worker Mizuki (no relation) is sent to investigate a report of tainted blood provided by his business, which has turned a hospital patient into the living dead.  Narrowing down the possibilities, Mizuki is startled to learn that the blood donor put down his, Mizuki’s, address!  It turns out there are squatters in the abandoned temple out back of his house.

The Birth of Kitaro

These squatters are yokai, a married couple who are the last of the Ghost Tribe.  Once, the Ghost Tribe was numerous, and lived all over the country.  But as humans encroached on their territory, the Ghost Tribe was forced first into the wilderness, then underground.  Over the years, their numbers have dwindled, until these two and their unborn child are all that remain.  The wife sold her blood to buy medicine, as both of the yokai are ill.  Out of pity, Mizuki agrees to keep their secret until the baby is born.

Months later, Mizuki visits the temple to find both of the yokai dead, and buries them.  But their child, Kitaro, lives, and Mizuki adopts him, even though he is repulsed by the sight of the little monster.

GeGeGe no Kitaro is Shigeru Mizuki’s best known work, a horror manga for children.  According to the introduction, he took inspiration from Hakaba  Kitaro (Graveyard Kitaro), a kamishibai (paper theater) performance series that had been popular before World War Two.  Most of the records of the series were destroyed during the war, but Mizuki took what was known and refashioned it for 1960s children.  It was an enormous hit, and there have been numerous anime adaptations.

This volume collects “best of” stories from the Kitaro series, rather than have them in order of publication.  Thus, Kitaro’s character design is very different in the first chapter, before he’s learned to groom himself.  Eventually, Kitaro is kicked out of Mr. Mizuki’s house to fend for himself with the aid of Medama Oyaji (Eyeball Dad), the animated eyeball of his deceased father.

The remainder of the stories in this volume guest star Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), a filthy, greedy fellow who constantly tries to find ways to profit from foolish humans and other yokai.  Often, he’s personally responsible for the peril that Kitaro must deal with, but other times Nezumi Otoko just finds a way to chisel some extra yen from the situation.

Another recurring character that makes an appearance is Neko Musume (Cat Daughter), a part-feline girl who is Nezumi Otoko’s natural enemy.  Kitaro uses her to convince the rat to give back all the money he’d swindled from a group of humans to grant them a form of immortality.  In this early story, Neko Musume is much less pretty than later adaptations make her.

In the early chapters, Kitaro isn’t too fond of humans due to being bullied for his hideous appearance and strange behavior; as he gains a heroic reputation the humans become friendlier and Kitaro reciprocates.  However, he knows that he can never be fully welcome in human society and wanders away at the end of most stories.

There’s a variety of yokai in this series, the most difficult to defeat is the gyuki (bullheaded crab), because anyone who kills the gyuki, becomes the gyuki!  Kids tend to be important in the stories, either as potential victims or the ones who call Kitaro in.

At the end of the volume are pocket descriptions of the yokai in this volume, and activities for kids like a maze and word search puzzle.

Keeping in mind that what the Japanese consider suitable for children varies from what many American parents will accept (there’s some rear male nudity, and people die), this would be a great gift for a horror-loving elementary school kid.

Manga Review: Fire Force Volume 01

Manga Review: Fire Force Volume 01 by Atsushi Ohkubo

On an alternate Earth, the majority of Japanese people have been converted (at least on the surface) to the religion of the Sun God.  This may or may not have anything to do with the fact that the biggest threat to human life is now spontaneous combustion.  The vast majority of people who burst into flames become rampaging monsters.

Fire Force Volume 01

However, a few become “second-generation” flame controllers who can manipulate fire but not create it, or “third-generation” flame emitters who can create fire and use it in various ways.  Those blessed or cursed with these powers often join the Fire Force, a subsection of the fire department that battles fire monsters.

One of these is Shinra Kusakabe, a third-generation who can ignite his feet to give himself superhuman running speed (technically gliding.)  His nickname is “the Devil” because of his bizarre habit of grinning widely whenever he’s nervous or upset; when he was a small child, he was found grinning over his mother’s charred corpse.  Shinra has a need to prove himself as a hero, and to find the person or thing really responsible for his mother’s death.

This shounen manga is the latest work of Atsushi Ohkubo, the creator of Soul Eater.  It’s done in his distinctive cartoony style, with some terrifying flame monsters.  Special Fire Force Company 8 is the usual assortment of quirky characters, and there’s considerable humor between the dramatic bits.  I also like the creative use of powers.

Before I get into the next bit, I need to talk about “Watsonian” and “Doylist” analysis.  The terms are named after the two writers of the Sherlock Holmes stories; John Watson, the in-story chronicler of his friend’s adventures, and Arthur Conan Doyle, the real world author.  This is used for the explanation of story elements.

A “Watsonian” explanation is “in-story.”  For example, Professor Plum murdered Mr. Boddy in the kitchen with a candlestick because he was being blackmailed over an affair he had with a student.  A “Doylist” explanation is “metatextual.”  Professor Plum murdered Mr. Boddy because this story is a murder mystery, so someone had to commit a murder.

Both approaches have their place, but have difficulties when crossed.   A Watsonian explanation may work perfectly fine in context of a particular story, but trying to assuage Doylist concerns with one doesn’t always work.  For example, if every one of an author’s stories has a damsel in distress being rescued by a handsome man, the explanations for this in each individual story may be quite plausible, but that doesn’t excuse the author from being criticized for not varying the formula.

So when we have a scene of two young women showering (seen from the back) in the introductory chapter, the Watsonian explanation is that they’ve gotten sweaty and dirty from fighting an infernal, of course they’re going to take a shower.  The Doylist explanation is that the writer wants to give fanservice to the primary audience of teenage boys.  (After all, we don’t see the male characters in their shower.)  The scene also serves the purpose of establishing some personality traits of the female characters (by failing the Bechdel test) and establishing that Sun God nuns, unlike Catholic ones, are not expected to stay celibate.

And fair enough, this is a manga for teenage boys, and I also appreciate the female form.  Plus it flows naturally within the story.  So far, so good.

But then we get to Chapter Five, where we meet a bunch of other rookie Fire Soldiers.  The male ones are wearing fairly sensible firefighting outfits that would protect them while fighting fires and monsters.  But the one woman, Tamaki Kotatsu, is wearing an open coat with a bikini.   More, she has a “condition” where she automatically moves in a way such that men around her are forced to cop a feel–and then she gets offended by that, especially by Shinra since he’s got that painful grin on his face.

Now, I am sure there is a perfectly reasonable Watsonian explanation involving the way Tamaki’s powers work that require this.  But from a Doylist perspective, it’s just fanservice, and shoddily done at that.  It isn’t funny, it calls attention to itself, and it’s degrading to the characters, both Tamaki and Shinra.  My interest in following this series crashed.

So, not recommending this one unless you are willing to forgive the crass fanservice.

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.

Book Review: Goblin Quest

Book Review: Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines

Jig has always lived in the mountain, only hearing third-hand stories about the outside world.  Even stepping outside the goblin warrens is dangerous, why risk going any further?  Still, he dreams of being promoted from his lamplighter duties (a child’s job) to a patrolling warrior.  Jig’s smart, but that counts little in goblin society when he’s also small and weak, with poor vision.

Goblin Quest

Then  one day Jig is bullied into acting as a scout for a lazy patrol, only to find himself captured by adventurers who have killed the rest of the goblin patrol.  A captive, Jig is forced to become a guide for the party of four.  There’s Prince Barius, a younger son touchy about his honor and his low status among his siblings; Ryslind, Barius’ brother whose magic seems to be adversely affecting his sanity; Darnak, a dwarven cleric and tutor to the brothers, and Riana, an elvish pickpocket who was also dragooned  into serving Barius.  It seems they’re after the Rod of Creation, a powerful artifact that supposedly created the mountain itself.  Jig’s chances of survival just keep dropping!

This is the first volume in the “Jig the Goblin” trilogy of comedic fantasy novels by Jim C. Hines, who was a Guest of Honor at Minicon 52.  It’s heavily based on the kind of “kill monsters and take their stuff” style of fantasy common to games of Dungeons & Dragons, and in specific seems to be parodying aspects of the Dragonlance series of D&D tie-in novels.

One of the common hallmarks of comedic fantasy is to tell the story from the viewpoint of someone who isn’t the typical hero of heroic fantasy stories, and in this case, it’s one of the “monsters” who would normally be cannon fodder to allow the protagonists to show off their prowess before getting to really tough opponents.

Jig is initially only sympathetic because of his underdog status; he’s cowardly, selfish and all too willing to let others suffer or die in his place.  As the story progresses, Jig has his horizons expanded as he learns about the adventurers from their perspective, and realizes that goblin social norms put them at an even greater disadvantage than they already had due to their small size and lack of technology.  He even finds a god!

Meanwhile, the adventurers are no heroes; Prince Barius’ motive for seeking the Rod is entirely self-centered, Ryslind has a hidden agenda, Darnak is at least honorable, but must serve the brothers’ will, and Riana is only serving due to a threat of prison or execution.

And that’s not getting into the truly strong and evil monsters that wait deeper within the mountain.

Once Jig is dragooned into the party, the plot is a fairly straightforward dungeon crawl with some backtracking towards the end.  The back half of the book reads quickly, and the ending is reasonably satisfying.

Recommended primarily for fans of the tabletop role-playing games the setting is based on.

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: A Shadow Bright and Burning

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

Eleven years ago, Great Britain was a powerful nation with a thriving magical community.  Then the Ancients were summoned, seven supernatural beings who are hostile to human life as we know it.  Since then, the British have been at war with these occupying horrors, and quite frankly losing.  At the start of the war, orphan girl Henrietta Howel was dumped by her aunt at a dismal school where she is now a teacher, having no other place to go.

A Shadow Bright and Burning

Of late, there have been a series of mysterious fires at Brimthorn School, and a sorcerer has been called in to investigate.  The culprit is Henrietta herself, who has had trouble controlling her ability to set herself aflame.  The sorcerer Agrippa realizes that Henrietta is a rare female sorcerer, and thus the Chosen One of a prophecy leading to the defeat of the Ancients.  So it’s off to London for Henrietta to be trained!

However, it quickly comes to Henrietta’s attention that she probably isn’t the Chosen One, and the penalty for impersonating the Chosen One is dire indeed!  Can she navigate the treacherous currents of magical training and romantic interest before the  Ancients and their Familiars strike against the heart of the city?

The plot moves along at a nice clip, and there are some cool battle scenes.  In general, this book is competently written.

That said, many of the characters seem to come from Central Casting:  the heroine with a tragic backstory who believes she’ll never find love, the “lower class” childhood friend with a dark secret, the seemingly cold man who in fact feels very deeply, etc.

Sexism is the real “big bad” in this story; the branch of magic that is female-dominated is the one primarily blamed for the Ancients and is now banned completely; several of the characters object entirely to the concept of female sorcerers, and young Queen Victoria is being manipulated by male advisers who don’t trust her to run the country.

On the diversity front, which has become more relevant in modern young adult fiction:  one major character is described as having black skin, but this never comes up again and there is reason to believe that isn’t his actual appearance.  As opposed to Henrietta’s “dark” coloration from her Welsh ancestry, which is frequently mentioned.  Also, it’s hinted that two of the male characters are interested in each other, but it could also be just a very close friendship.

There is some child abuse in the early chapters.  Brimthorn is not a good school.  The Ancients tend to cause gruesome deaths or deformity, which may affect some more sensitive readers–I’d say senior high on up should be fine.

This is the first in a series, and a few plot hooks are left hanging; for example, it’s strongly hinted that the story of why the Ancients were summoned is still not fully revealed, despite some major pieces being revealed in this volume.  And just possibly Henrietta may not be a true orphan….

Recommended primarily to readers of YA paranormal romance.

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

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Once, Mars was a place of mystery.  Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky.  Were there canals filled with water?  Bloodsucking tripod operators?  Beings that had never fallen from grace with God?   Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.

The Martian Chronicles

Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative.  The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad.  It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians.   In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.

The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been  better prepared.  But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.

Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets.  In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars.  (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.)   One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress!  There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book.  Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.

Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction  on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless.  “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.  Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code.  He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451.  As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.

Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation.   “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home.  He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.

Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them.  Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story.  Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written.  After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.

One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.

Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through.  Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long.  And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.

Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.

The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016

Magazine Review: Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine July 2016 edited by Janet Hutchings

Frederick Dannay, who along with Manfred B. Lee wrote the Ellery Queen mystery stories, was asked by Mercury Press to be the editor of a new magazine that would print a higher class of detective stories than the general run of pulps, with the first issue of EQMM coming out in 1941.  At first it was a reprint magazine, featuring classic tales by writers like Agatha Christie and Cornell Woolrich.  But by the seventh issue, new stories began to appear, and one, “The Bow Street Runner” by Samuel Duff, was that author’s first professional sale.

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine July 2016

Over the years, Mr. Dannay sought out new writers to appear in “The Department of First Stories”, many of whom went on to great success.  His successors have carried on that tradition, and as part of the magazine’s 75th Anniversary celebration, the July issue #898 features new stories by authors who got their start in EQMM.

“The Staff of Asclepius” by Stephen Saylor features his Roman sleuth Gordianus the Finder.  This one is set in his youth, when Gordianus and a friend were on a trip to see the Seven Wonders of the World.  They winter in Rhodes, home of the fabled Colossus.  During their enforced idleness, Gordianus learns of a shipping magnate named Rhosander who has suffered several bouts of illness, then miraculously recovered due to wacky cures he dreamed of in the temple of the healing god.  Perhaps these episodes are the symptoms of some underlying illness…but they could also be slow poison.  The illustration has male rear nudity, which is germane to the story.

“Department of First Stories: A History” by Marvin Lachman reveals the material I cited at the beginning of this review, but in much, much more detail, including a list of some of the most famous writers to debut in the magazine and their accomplishments.

“The Granite Kitchen” by David Morrell is a monologue to a real estate agent by a woman selling her home.  She’s obsessed with making her homes just so, always moving on to a bigger project once she has it right.  And either she has the unluckiest bunch of family and friends I have ever seen, or….  Chilling.

“Blog Bytes” by Bill Crider is a regular column of mystery-related internet sites; this time focusing on fans of the Ellery Queen stories.

“The Jury Box” by Steve Steinbock is a more traditional book review column.  Among other works, this month it mentions several novels starring famous writers as the detectives, including A Riot Most Uncouth by Daniel Friedman, which I reviewed a while back.

“Get Them Out” by Nancy Pickard has a homeless man kicked out of a shelter for making a disturbance.  The new janitor at an apartment building offers him a place to sleep in the basement, but his motives may not be altruistic.  Ends on an ambiguous note.

“Black Monday” by John H. Sherman is a first story.  Howard, a lab technician at a hospital, has been having problems with alcohol and painkiller addiction, and has missing time.  His dreams of swimming have gone dark, and he can’t remember what he did last night.

“The Red Tattoo” by Percy Spurlark Parker is a noirish tale featuring Las Vegas private eye Trevor Oaks.  He’s hired to find a man’s missing identical twin; the only clue is that the twin was seen in LV with a woman who had a red tattoo.

“The Hangman” by David Dean is the story of a cops-and-robbers game gone south, and the years later sequel.  Depressing.

“Flight” by Trina Corey is set in a nursing home during the Vietnam War era (I suspect to avoid easy fixes by technology.)  Rachel is crippled by multiple sclerosis, unable to speak or write.  Perhaps that’s why a murderer has taken to coming into her room at night to gloat, knowing that she can’t tell anyone.  But Rachel still has her mind, and there’s a young nurse that hasn’t lost her ability to care yet, and maybe there’s a way to stop the killer.

“The Man from Away” by Brendan DuBois takes place in New Hampshire and Boston.  People tell Amos Wilson he’s too gullible, that his estranged wife is a gold digger he’s better off without.  But when she is accidentally killed by tourists who then vanish, Amos feels obligated to do something about it.  He may be long-suffering, but he’s not stupid.  Satisfying.

“Consuming Passion” by Martin Edwards is about two old friends, one a master chef, the other a restaurant critic, having dinner together.  It does not end well.

“The Peter Rabbit Killers” by Laura Benedict closes out the issue with a little girl whose mother has an obsession with cleanliness, and a neighbor girl who is bullying and not at all clean.   Another creepy tale.

Overall, a strong issue with many fine stories.  I liked “Flight” the best, while “Black Monday” and “The Hangman” were less well done.  This issue is certainly worth picking up while the anniversary celebration is still on.

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Yamada “Decapitator” Asaemon is the o-tameshiyaku, sword-tester for the shogun and official executioner of criminals.  It’s not a pretty job, but at least he has one in Edo-era Japan, during a time of peace.  Without wars to fight, many of the samurai vassals are on tiny stipends, while ronin without lords can at least get paying jobs if they’re willing to be a bit flexible in their ethics.  The merchant class is getting richer, while the underclass of urban poor swells and rural farmers are oppressed by their petty lords.  The social conditions breed crime, so there is always plenty of work for Yamada.

Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

This seinen (young men’s) manga series is by the creators of Lone Wolf and Cub, and shares many of the themes and settings.   Unlike that earlier work, however, there does not seem to be an overarching plotline.  The stories are episodic, and most could take place in any order.  Two stories do, however, guest star young cop Sakane Kasajiro, an expert with his hooked chain.  Yamada helps him discover new ways of using his weapon to protect lives.

Yamada takes a grim satisfaction at being expert at his craft, able to decapitate the condemned with a single stroke and thus minimize their pain.  He was raised from early childhood to succeed his father as executioner, and has chosen to remain single to avoid condemning his children to the same path.  (One story in this volume has him briefly reconsider, but it is not to be.)  Yamada seems happiest when he can bring small moments of joy into a person’s life, and is often sought out for sage advice.

The first story in the volume has Yamada challenged for the post of sword tester by Tsukuya Bakushuu, a poverty-stricken and largely self-trained swordsman.  They participate in a contest of suemonogiri, precision cutting.  Tsukuya loses, but cannot accept this result.  It ends in tragedy.  To be honest, at least half the stories here end in tragedy, not surprising, given Yamada’s job.

The closing story is particularly hard to stomach.  O-Toyo murders the woman her lover abandoned him for, and mortally wounds the cheater.  However, it’s a slow death wound, and he could live up to four months with good treatment.  Her execution will be in three months, and O-Toyo wants to outlive the man out of pure spite.  As it happens, there’s one way for a woman to get her execution delayed–getting pregnant.  Now, how is that going to happen when she’s locked in a women’s prison?  Yes, the story is going there.  There are other examples of female nudity and rape in these stories, but this is the most brutal.  And then the ending comes, and it is even more brutal.  Even Yamada is shaken.

Also outstanding is the story “Tougane Yajirou”, about an elderly police officer whose use of force is considered excessive even by the standards of the time, and who is much more interested in catching criminals than in preventing crime.  Yamada disapproves, but there is a story behind the old man’s cruel behavior.

Koike and Kojma do a masterful job of depicting a world that is both very familiar in its everyday life, and alien in its way of thinking.  This omnibus edition combines three of the Japanese volumes, and is presented in the expensive and time-consuming fully-flipped format, so it reads left to right.

Recommended for mature readers who enjoyed Lone Wolf and Cub or are otherwise fans of samurai action.

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