Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

Anime Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable

Anime Review: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable

Josuke Higashikata (the kanji for his name can also be read as “Jojo”) has lived all his life in the northeastern coast city of Morioh with his single mother and his police officer grandfather.   When he was a small child, he became deathly ill for several weeks, and at one particularly dangerous moment, the family was helped by a passing stranger with a distinctive hairstyle which Josuke later adopted in gratitude.  Ever since recovering from his illness, Josuke has been able to manifest a Stand, a psychic projection that allows him to smash things and then fix them (he doesn’t have to put them back together in the original configuration.)  He calls his Stand Crazy Diamond.

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Diamond Is Unbreakable

On the first day of high school, he and his new classmate Koichi Hirose meet a mysterious stranger who turns out to be Jotaro Kujo, a marine biologist who is Josuke’s nephew.  Say what?!  It seems that Josuke’s father is Joseph Joestar, an aging millionaire who had a brief affair with Josuke’s mother some years back.   Jotaro is his grandson by Joseph’s marriage.  The family only now discovered Josuke’s existence, so Jotaro came to establish contact and deal with any legal issues…and also warn Josuke that there is a hidden evil in Morioh.  And so the bizarre adventure begins!

This is the fourth installment of the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure series of series about the Joestar family, based on the manga by Hirohiko Araki.  The story is set in 1999, the near future at the time (which might explain some of the bizarre fashions the school-age characters are allowed to wear to school…but I doubt it.)  It’s a strong contrast to the previous installment, Stardust Crusaders.  Instead of a race against time across an entire continent, it’s about a number of incidents that interrupt the daily lives of people in a single small city.  Unlike the world-conquering DIO, the ultimate villain of Diamond Is Unbreakable just wants to be left alone to live a quiet life as a serial killer.

However, this series also strongly ties back to the earlier ones.  In addition to the returning characters of Jotaro and Joseph, this storyline reveals at least some of the mysteries behind the power of Stands.  It turns out there are arrows tipped with meteoric stone; anyone pierced by them gains a Stand, but not everyone survives the process.  This is how DIO got his Stand (and somehow passed the change down to everyone related to Jonathan Joestar, whose body he was wearing at the time), and created many of his minions.

After the events of Stardust Crusaders the stone arrows wound up in Morioh, and several people have been pierced (and in addition people who were born with Stands have moved to the city, as Stand users tend to attract each other as if it were fate.)  Most of these people are at least initially hostile–it’s good that Josuke has friends!

Josuke’s Stand reflects his central trait of compassion, but his kindness is leavened by being much more of a “teenager” than Jotaro ever was.  He likes goofing around and more than once comes up with a get rich quick scheme based on his and other people’s powers.  He’s also very touchy about his hair.  Josuke is initially hostile to the now-seemingly senile Joseph, but eventually warms to his old man.

Koichi is a short, wimpy fellow who initially does not have the fighting spirit to survive being imbued with a Stand, and only lives due to Josuke healing him.  He undergoes the most character development of the heroes, learning how to use his Stand Echoes (which evolves along with him) and finding his true courage.  His personality is less off-putting than Josuke’s, and he makes more friends, even getting a love interest!

Okuyasu Nijimura is initially an enemy, but this is largely due to the influence of his brother Keicho, who was creating Stand users to find a solution for their father, who had been a hidden servant of DIO and became severely mutated as a result.  After Keicho’s murder by a would-be crimelord, Okuyasu joined the heroes to get revenge, and quickly became Josuke’s best friend.  Okuyasu’s simple but powerful Stand The Hand is seldom used to full advantage as he is kind of stupid.  (“I’m not very bright, you know” is Okuyasu’s catchphrase.)  He’s also most of the comic relief.

Jotaro Kujo is still the same stoic badass we saw back in Stardust Crusaders, but more educated.  He appears relatively seldom, preferring to concentrate only on the main enemies, but is much feared by the villains due to his Platinum Star Stand having a time stop ability, and having managed to defeat DIO.

About midway through the story, we also meet Rohan Kishibe, an extraordinarily gifted and arrogant manga artist whose stand, Heaven’s Door, allows him to read people like a book.  Literally.  Rohan turns out to have a deeper connection to Morioh’s mysteries than he ever suspected, and becomes allied with the heroes.

The unique Stand abilities and the differing personalities of the main characters allows for interesting battles-it’s seldom as simple as overpowering an enemy, but requires lateral thinking, use of the environment and quickly understanding the implications of how the Stands interact.

The anime adaptation has been slightly rearranged to foreshadow the existence of the final villain and make the flow a little more even.  Still, there are a few episodes that feel like padding.  (The best of these, “Let’s Eat Italian!” is a brilliant inversion of a common episode plot in the third series–in that one, any time our heroes entered a shop or eatery with a bizarre-acting proprietor and weird things happened, it was a deadly trap, while in this episode, the outcome is entirely different.)  I had to force myself to finish the episode that introduces Mikitaka, who is probably an alien, as it was just too sitcom.

The source material was aimed at boys, so it’s not too surprising that there is less for female characters to do.  The most prominent is Yukako, a classmate of Koichi’s who falls in love with him,  Unfortunately, she is a yandere (sweet on the outside, stalker-crazy on the inside) girl who makes Koichi very uncomfortable before learning to dial it back a few notches, at which point he begins to return her interest.  Sadly, despite her fearless nature and useful Love Deluxe Stand, which allows her to control her hair even when it’s detached from her, she fades from the story once she reforms and doesn’t help out in any further battles.

Then there’s Reimi, a ghost bound to the alleyway she died near, and who has important clues to the final villain.  A small role, and she’s not very powerful, but does get a couple of great scenes.

As a violent action series where two of the villains are serial killers, there’s quite a lot of blood in various scenes (though actual wounds are blacked out) and one episode has full-frontal male nudity.  One villain has committed rape in their backstory, but doesn’t get a chance for it in the present day.  There’s also an extended and really creepy subplot in the later episodes that may be too uncomfortable for some viewers for spoilery reasons.

Due to trademark issues, many of the Stands (which have music-relateed names) have been renamed in the subtitles.  Crazy Diamond, for example, is renamed “Shining Diamond” even though you can still hear the characters saying the original name in English.

Overall, this series is a lot of fun for fans of superpowered battles.  If you liked the previous installments, you will probably enjoy this one–if your watching of Jojo starts here, you might be a bit confused for the first few episodes relying on readers remembering previous events.

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

In the wake of World War One, Spiritualism, a religious movement centering around contact with the dead, was on the rise.  With this came a fad for mediums who claimed to be able to channel those unquiet spirits, both for the knowledge they had and to create uncanny physical effects.  Understandably, there were many who were skeptical, but felt that these mediums should be scientifically investigated.  Just in case there was any quantifiable evidence that wasn’t fake.

The Witch of Lime StreetScientific American, the leading popular science magazine of that time, offered a cash prize to the first medium to pass rigorous scientific examination and be proved genuine.  And on that five-man jury was one man who had a reputation for spotting fakes and chicanery–the magician and master escape artist Harry Houdini.  Most candidates for the prize were easily disproven.  But then there was Mina “Margery” Crandon, wife of a respectable Boston surgeon.

Her gifts, brought to her through the spirit of her dead brother Walter, were impressive indeed.  But was she the Queen of Mediums, or simply a master of parlor magic to rival the great Houdini himself?  This is the story of their meeting and what came of it.

Told in bite-size chapters and a handful of photographs, this book starts with Arthur Conan Doyle learning of the end of WWI, and his involvement with the Spiritualists.  His tours in support of the movement helped create interest in the United States, and indirectly led to the prize competition.  He tried to recruit Houdini, but the showman was less than convinced.  As became something of a pattern, Sir Arthur took Houdini’s politeness in not calling out a fake at the time as impressed belief.

We also learn of how Mrs. Crandon became a medium, but certain aspects of her and her husband’s earlier life are kept from the reader until much later in the story.  (And some mysteries are never solved.)  It should be noted that some conversations are reconstructed from later recollections, which may be fallible.

There’s a lot of interesting material in here for those interested in the mystic lore of the period, including a cameo by Theodore Roosevelt.  But once the investigation of Margery begins, the chapters start to drag, and it feels like the author stretched this part to fill out the page count.  Those of you who are history buffs will already have figured out that Mrs. Crandon didn’t win the magazine’s prize.

There’s a list of helpful sources for further reading, and an index.  There’s quite a bit of discussion of female private parts, from whence mediums were supposed to issue ectoplasm (and, it was alleged, where fake mediums often hid props.)  That might make the book unsuitable for readers below senior high level, depending on their parents’ discretion.

Overall, this is a helpful book for the reader who wants a quick look at Harry Houdini’s investigation of mediums from the aspect of his most famous case, and how it fit into events of the time.  There are several fine biographies of Houdini that will be more helpful if his career is the reader’s primary interest.

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

Comic Book Review: Joe Kubert Presents

Comic Book Review: Joe Kubert Presents by Joe Kubert and others

Joe Kubert (1926-2012) was one of the all-time great comic book artists.  The bulk of his work was done for DC Comics, including many Hawkman and Sergeant Rock stories. Joe Kubert Presents was his final series, a tribute to him by the company he’d done so much for.   Mr. Kubert was given free rein to choose which stories to do, and which other creators he wanted to share the spotlight with.  Rather than risk an announcement of the series ahead of time only to not be able to deliver (this had happened to him before), Mr. Kubert insisted on having several issues “in the can” before it was put on order forms for retailers.  The sixth issue was nearly complete when he died.

Joe Kubert Presents

The first issue leads off with “Hawkman”; this iteration is closest to the science fiction-inspired Silver Age version, but not in continuity with any previous story.  Katar Hol and his partner Shayera (Hawkgirl) are sent from the utopian planet Thanagar to observe Earth up close and determine what steps should be taken in the future.  The Thanagarians worry that the Earthlings will not mature out of their destructive behavior before they develop interstellar travel.

The aliens land in Africa, observe the wanton slaughter of wildlife and environmental destruction, and decide to visit a nearby village.  Unfortunately, this particular village sits atop a toxic waste dump; the poverty-stricken villagers have become economically dependent on the storage fees.  The villagers worry that the Thanagarians have come to stop the practice and react badly.

While I understand the good intent of the story, it really does look like technologically advanced white people lecturing primitive native Africans on proper respect for the environment.  And the Hawks destroy the natives’ livelihood and leave without considering that consequence, so their victory leaves a bitter aftertaste.

“Spit” is a recurring feature about an orphan who runs away from the orphanage and winds up stowing away on a whaling ship.  In short vignettes, he suffers much abuse, but eventually learns how to survive at sea and decides to become a whaler.  The first few chapters are in sepia tone, but the finale is mostly in full color.  One (landlubber) character is implied to be a pedophile, but is thwarted before he can do anything.

“The Redeemer” is three chapters of a series Mr. Kubert solicited back in the 1980s before he discovered he wouldn’t be able to deliver it on time.  Jim Torkan is the title character, a man who reincarnates across time and space  to gain the wisdom he will need to eventually save the human race from itself.  He is the target of the Infernal One, who sends agents to tempt Torkan from the path of righteousness, so that the Redeemer will be under his control.

The first two chapters take place in the far future, as Torkan is a scientist whose space station is invaded by murderous robbers seeking a chemical he’s developed that can control minds.  His love interest is actually an agent of the Infernal One who tries to convince him to join up with the would-be dictator to save his own skin.  The third chapter has Torkan as an ex-Confederate soldier just after the Civil War.  The story carefully avoids mentioning what the Confederacy fought for beyond “justice and right” (hint: slavery), but it was all a waste and Torkan is without purpose.  He gets involved in a treasure hunt, but at the end discovers something more precious than gold: himself.

“Farewell” was Kubert’s last Sergeant Rock story.  The son and grandson of one of Easy Company’s soldiers visit a D-Day beach and the cemetery nearby.  They discuss the possible death of Rock, but in the end it doesn’t matter if he is buried here–a piece of each soldier who fell rests with every other soldier.

“The Biker” is about a wounded Afghanistan veteran and motorcyclist who bunks down for the night in an abandoned house.  But maybe not as abandoned as it looks.  Some excellent coloring work here.

Then there are two stories written by Joe Kubert, but with art by other people.  “The Ruby” (art by Henrik Jonsson) is about bandits attacking a Himalayan temple–it turns out to be a possible origin story for an obscure DC character.   “Devil’s Play” (art by Brandon Vietti) is a Kamandi story, as the last boy on Earth battles the animal-men that have taken over the planet.  This story offers a different explanation for the Great Disaster than usual.

The series also contained several “U.S.S. Stevens” stories by Sam Glanzman, telling tales of his WWII service aboard that destroyer.  “The Figurehead” is the most interesting of these, featuring an eccentric crewmate of Mr. Glanzman’s who may or may not have had unusual abilities (it’s possible that this is a sailor’s yarn and he’s pulling our leg a bit.)  This material has been collected separately, along with Mr. Glanzman’s other memoirs.

Brian Buniak gives us “Angel and the Ape”, based on the Bob Oksner series about private detectives Angel O’Day (an attractive human woman) and Sam Simeon (a cartoonist who also happens to be a gorilla.)  It’s not quite in continuity with any other appearance of the characters, but as a comedy strip, continuity was never a huge issue.  The pair are hired to prevent a restaurateur from being murdered; they do so but he is shot anyway, and they have to figure out whodunnit.  After they solve that case, a reporter gets the story of their origin (or at least Angel’s version.)  There’s an energy and attention to humorous background details reminiscent of early Mad, but sometimes the exaggerated art style can go a bit off.

If you are a fan of Joe Kubert’s art, this volume is a must-have; if you’re indifferent to that, the stories are only average, and the problematic material may knock this down a star or two for you.  I liked this very much.

Magazine Review: Science Fantasy #4 Spring 1971

Magazine Review: Science Fantasy #4 Spring 1971 edited by Sol Cohen

Science Fantasy was a short-lived (this is the final issue) reprint magazine from Ziff-Davis Publishing, which should not be confused with the long-running British magazine of the same title.  The stories in this issue come from the late 1940s/early 1950s, and reader tastes had changed considerably by the early 1970s, which may explain why the magazine didn’t last very long.  The cover and interior art are uncredited, although some of the illustrations are signed, and Virgil Finlay’s stuff is unmistakable.  Let’s take a look at the eight stories featured.

Science Fantasy #4 Spring 1971

“Medusa Was a Lady” by William Tenn:  Perennial sucker Percy S. Yuss probably should have been more suspicious about the apartment being so cheap to rent, especially as the last few tenants hadn’t taken their stuff with them.  But he’s on a shoestring budget since being talked into buying a half-share in a failing restaurant.  So he takes the place, then tries to take a nice relaxing bath.  Except that when he opens his eyes, the tub is in the ocean, a long way from shore!

Percy soon learns that he has somehow been cast in the lead role of the myth of Perseus.   Now he must avoid being executed by the tyrannical King Polydectes, rescue a beautiful woman from a monster and slay Medusa of the Gorgons, with the help of Hermes.  But is the Olympian being entirely honest about what’s going on?

Pulp SF did a lot of “explain mythology with science fiction” stories, and this novella is firmly in that camp.  “Cyclical history” is involved, and we are told by one character that events don’t have to repeat exactly as they were reported before.  The ending suggests he might be wrong.

This story is also somewhat satirical, with Percy noting the absurdity of his situation several times.  This may also account for minor character Tontibbi, a “Negro girl” who clearly has more common sense than anyone else on the island of Seriphos and is described as being from a more advanced civilization in Africa.  Sadly, she is in the wrong culture, so is reduced to one of Polydectes’ concubines, and no one listens to her sensible suggestions.

(Versions of the Perseus story also appear in The Blue Fairy Book and Greek Myths: A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, which I have previously reviewed.)

“One Guitar” by Sam Merwin Jr.:  Lew Harlow, jazz guitarist, falls in love with singer Diana Wray.  She’s got the talent for the big time, but refuses to leave the small city she was born in.  It seems that every time she tries to leave, horrible accidents happen to those around her.  Also, there’s her bedridden mother to consider.  Lew decides that he likes Diana well enough despite their short acquaintance to marry her and stay in town too.

This triggers a confrontation with his new mother-in-law, who’s been hiding secrets about both herself and her plans for her daughter.  Lew will need both his knowledge of science and guitar-playing skills to get out of this one intact!  The story has a black character as a servant to Mrs. Wray, who has a stereotypical accent in her brief appearance.

“You Take the High Road” by Stephen Marlowe:  A Terran spaceship has crashlanded on a distant world and needs steel for repairs.  Unfortunately, negotiating with the natives has proved fruitless as they react with violence to all attempts to communicate.  After two crew members vanish, Doug Chambers decides to try something different.  As spoiled by the tagline, it turns out that the Murkies only respect fighters, and Chambers makes friends by beating them up.

“There’s No Way Out” by William P. McGivren:  An absurdist tale of an insurance agent who’s lured to an address with no building on it–until suddenly there is.  The building directory has no floors or suites listed with the names, and Sidney Wells is baffled by the contradictory directions he gets from the inhabitants.  Oh, and the elevators only go up, to the lobby.  Things just get worse from there.  No explanation in this one, Mr. Wells just finally accepts his situation and possibly goes insane.

“Witness for the Defense” by Paul W. Fairman:  This story was apparently a reply to one that had a decidedly negative view of the future of humanity.  Three bums pass time by holding court as to whether humankind is worth allowing to live; there’s a surprise witness who turns out to be a carpenter from Galilee.  Very short, and some readers may strongly disagree with the witness’ conclusion.

“Checkmate to Demos” by H.B. Hickey:  Dave Harkness, now effectively the world champion of chess, must play against an alien overlord for the fate of Earth.  But Dave has a dark secret; he’s not actually the best chess player in the world, merely the front for that person.  And when he can’t contact Binky, Earth is doomed.  This is a science fiction story until suddenly it becomes fantasy just long enough to give Dave a “hope spot” (a plot twist that makes it appear things are getting better just before they get much worse), and then the survival of humanity falls on Dave’s shoulders alone.  Heartwarming ending.  Some folks may find the characterization of a person with a disability dubious.

“The Girl in the Golden Wig” by Chester S. Geir:  Edward Shannon is a successful engineer, working for a major firm.  But he has secrets that are eating at him.  He has no memories past two years ago, just waking up one morning already in an apartment and working for Meyrick & Brandt.  He also wears a wig to conceal his complete baldness, which may or may not be important to his missing past.  He’s taken to wandering the streets at random at night, and one of those nights he bumps into a beautiful woman…whose golden wig falls off, revealing she too is completely bald.

Zell is a singer with an unwanted suitor (who turns out to be Shannon’s boss) and yes, their mutual baldness is a clue.  Turns out they’re aliens who are having a quiet civil war, and Shannon is one of the casualties.  Zell is the one who actually saves the day, using Shannon as something of a distraction.

“He Knew All the Answers” by Dallas Ross:  Jeremiah Perkins one day realizes that there is no true proof that light exists when he can’t see it.  From this bit of solipsism, he comes to the conclusion that the entire world is a sham, much to the distress of his wife Martha.  Since this is a speculative fiction story, Jeremiah isn’t completely wrong.

There are also short articles on Devil worship (the writer thinks the cultists are deluded) and the possibility of audiobooks (the writer is agin them as he feels it will lead to mental laziness, but is willing to make an exception for blind people.)

The Tenn novella and the Hickey story are the most satisfying ones.

Inexpensive used copies can be found through the Internet, but you might check your finer science fiction bookstores as well.

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: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology

Book Review: Sisters of the Revolution: A Feminist Speculative Fiction Anthology edited by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer

As the subtitle of this volume indicates, it’s a collection of 29 short stories written from a feminist perspective. There are selections from the 1960s through the 2000s–SF, fantasy, horror and a couple of stories that seem to be included out of courtesy because of “surrealism.”

Sisters of the Revolution

The anthology begins with “The Forbidden Words of Margaret A.” by L. Timmel Duchamp, an account of a journalist’s meeting with a woman whose use of language is considered so dangerous that a Constitutional amendment has been passed to specifically ban those words. The journalist has a photo-op with Margaret A. in the prison that woman is being held in, and the experience changes her. It’s an interesting use of literary techniques to suggest the power of Margaret A.’s words without ever directly quoting them.

The final story is “Home by the Sea” by Elisabeth Vonarburg, in which a gynoid in a post-apocalyptic world returns to her mother/creator to ask some questions. The answers to those questions both disturb and give new hope. Like several other stories in the volume, this one deals with the nature of motherhood, and the mother-daughter relationship.

There are some of the classic stories that are almost mandatory for the subject of feminist speculative fiction: “The Screwfly Solution” by James Tiptree, Jr. (men abruptly start murdering people they’re sexually attracted to, mostly women but the story tacitly acknowledges homosexuality); “When It Changed” by Joanna Russ (a planet with an all-female society is contacted by men from Earth after centuries of isolation–it originally ran in Again, Dangerous Visions, an anthology for stories with themes considered too controversial to be published elsewhere, times have changed); and Octavia K. Butler’s “The Evening the Morning and the Night” (a woman with a genetic disorder discovers that she has a gift that fits her exactly for a specific job, whether she wants that job or not.)

The anthologists have also made an effort to include stories that are “intersectional”, providing perspectives from other parts of the world. “The Palm Tree Bandit” by Nnedi Okorofor tells the story of a Nigerian woman who defies a sexist tradition and starts one of her own. Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” is a retelling of the Bluebeard story in modern Jamaica (this time the women avenge their own), and “Tales from the Breast” by Hiromi Goto, wherein a Japanese-Canadian woman discovers a solution to her breastfeeding problems.

Some other standouts include: “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (a fairy tale about language); “The Fall River Axe Murders” by Angela Carter (one of the stories that really doesn’t feel like speculative fiction, but is really well-written, set in the moments just before Lizzie Borden is about to get up and kill her parents) and “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” by Eileen Gunn (how far would you go to fit into the corporate culture? Would you let them shoot you up with insect genes?)

Tanith Lee’s “Northern Chess” is a fantasy tale of a warrior woman infiltrating a castle cursed to be a deathtrap by an evil alchemist. It’s exciting, but the ending relies on a now-hoary twist. Still worth reading if you haven’t had the chance before.

Most of the other stories are at least middling good. The weakest for me was “My Flannel Knickers” by Leonora Carrington, which falls into the surrealist category and seems to be about a woman who has rejected conventional beauty standards. Probably.

Rape, sexualized violence and domestic abuse are discussed; I’d put this book as suitable for bright senior high schoolers, though individual stories could be enjoyable by younger readers.

Recommended for feminists, those interested in feminist themes, and anthology fans.

Movie Review: When Marnie Was There

Movie Review: When Marnie Was There directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Anna is an orphan with asthma and alienation issues.  When she is sent to a rural village for the fresh air, Anna believes her foster parents are just dumping her on their friends  for the summer.  But the area certainly isn’t a bad place to be, and her hosts are gracious.  Anna starts making sketches of the nearby Marsh House.

When Marnie Was There

Anna is told that the Marsh House is long abandoned, and when she peeps in the windows, it certainly appears to be.  But sometimes there are lights, and a girl named Marnie that seems very interested in meeting Anna.  Are Anna’s experiences just dreams by a lonely girl…or is Marnie very real after all?

People who are only slightly acquainted with anime might think it is only kiddie shows designed to sell toys and lurid sex & violence shows for “mature viewers”, but Japanese animators also have a long tradition of creating adaptations of classic children’s literature.  In this case, it’s a relatively obscure British book by Joan G. Robinson, done by Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away).

The setting is swapped from Norfolk to rural Japan, but this does little violence to the story.  Indeed, Anna’s unusually blue eyes become part of the reason she feels like an outsider, and she’s very sensitive about them.

There are some mildly scary bits, and Marnie’s background turns out to be quite sad, so parents of younger viewers should watch this with them.  But it’s a gentle story that unfolds slowly and to a certain degree predictably.  Anna learns that she isn’t as unloved as she thought, that she has connections, and even becomes able to make friends in the ordinary world.

As usual with Ghibli, the art is beautiful, with many views of lived-in houses, watery landscapes and rolling green hills.  The Japanese voice acting is excellent, and there are some fine voices in the dub as well.  There’s some odd staging of the first few scenes between Marnie and Anna that make it come off like the start of a romantic relationship; presumably this is due to Japanese cultural differences, because that is not what Marnie has in mind.

Worth looking into if you have enjoyed other Ghibli films, or have children around twelve (Anna’s age) to watch it with.  Also consider reading the book; the movie gave it a boost, so you may be able to find it at finer libraries.

 

Book Review: Kaiju: Lords of the Earth

Book Review: Kaiju: Lords of the Earth edited by Essel Pratt

Kaiju (“strange beast”) is primarily a subgenre of the monster movie that became codified in Japan.  They’re mostly gigantic monsters that are nigh-unstoppable by conventional armaments, and run around destroying cities or fighting other giant monsters.  The seeds of the story type were sown in the original King Kong movie, but it was Gojira (“Godzilla”) that codified it, and inspired most of the later examples.

Kaiju: Lords of the Earth

This is a collection of sixteen short stories and poems on the theme of kaiju, all appearing here for the first time.  The book opens with “Call of the Vailathi” by John Ledger, a poem that cautions that even when the kaiju is on your side, it is still a destructive force.  …At least it has a rhyme structure, that’s good.  The closing tale is “Unleashed in the East” as fracking releases a monster from the Java Sea, and two airline pilots must make a decision between saving themselves and saving the world.

I really enjoyed “The Wolf and the Rabbit” by Alice J. Black, in which a disaffected pub worker connects with another random survivor, and finds the will to do what must be done in this crisis.  If the monster seems too easily dispatched, there are hints it wasn’t the only one.

Also good is “Frankentop” by Amanda M. Lyons, which is told from the perspective of an artificial intelligence that both wants to be loved, and to protect itself.  Unfortunately, the latter is easier than the former.  Internet references abound.

“I Awoke…Wutoomba!” by Roy C. Booth homages the Marvel monster comics of the late Fifties and early Sixties.  Jack Lieiber, writer of fantastic fiction, travels to a South Seas island and runs into an assortment of stock characters, including the title monster.  This one is mostly going to please Marvel fanboys who get all the in-jokes.

Most anthologies have a dud or two, but seldom to the level of “The Plastic Centipede” by R.T. Sirk.  The monster itself is a cool idea, a giant centipede made of discarded mannequin parts and the vengeful spirits of a gangster’s victims.  But spellchecker typos, misplaced commas, badly structured sentences and characterization by telling, not showing make this story come off like the first draft of a fanfic, rather than a professionally published story.  This is clearly a failure of editing, as these banes of small press publishing should have been caught early on.

“A Day at the Racetrack” by Essel Pratt is also sub-par, as waste in a stock car racetrack’s inner pond turns animals giant-sized.  Regional stereotypes are played for broad humor, as are potty jokes.

The rest are decent enough stories.   Due to the very uneven quality, I would recommend this book only to kaiju fanatics or fans of a particular author for that one story.

 

Open Thread: Webcomics You Might Enjoy

Open Thread: Webcomics You Might Enjoy

Over the holiday weekend, I went to ConVergence 2016 in Bloomington, a yearly science fiction convention.  One of the panels I was on was “Web Comics”, during which we discussed many webcomics that panelists and audience members have enjoyed.  As promised, here’s a list combining the handout by Kathryn Sullivan http://kathrynsullivan.com/ with those mentioned by other people that I remembered to write down.  Descriptions I am copying from Ms. Sullivan will be marked by (KS).

O Human Star Volume One

Some of these strips may have Not Safe For Work (NSFW) content, and not every webcomic will appeal to every reader.  Nor is this anywhere near an exhaustive list of good webcomics.  If you don’t see your favorite, by all means comment and tell me about it.

Achewood http://www.achewood.com/index.php?date=10012001 by Chris Onstad is surrealist humor focusing on a small group of anthropomorphic animals, stuffed toys and robots living in the house of the never-seen Chris, in the community of Achewood.  The most celebrated storyline in the series is “The Great Outdoor Fight” which is to an extent exactly what it sounds like.  Sometimes has NSFW content.

Anna Galactic http://www.baldwinpage.com/annagalactic/2015/01/28/43/ by Christopher Baldwin.  Anna and her friends investigate why their ship seems to be settling a planet rather than just refueling.  Updates Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  (KS)

Batgirl Inc. http://batgirlincorporated.tumblr.com/tagged/read%20batgirl%20inc  by Max Eber & Yulyn Chen is a fan comic which teams up the various characters who have been Batgirl in the DC Comics as their own group.

Blindsprings http://www.blindsprings.com/comic/blindsprings-page-one by Kadi Fedoruk is about spirits and the politics of those attempting to control magic.  Updated Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Breaking Cat News http://www.breakingcatnews.com/comic/everything-is-broken/ by Georgia Dunn is a news show where all the reporters are cats, with their own special take on what seems newsworthy.

Cucumber Quest http://cucumber.gigidigi.com/cq/page-1/ by Gigi D.G. is a cute fantasy adventure comic starring bunny children.  (Note that I have not read all the way through–check carefully for surprises before letting your kids on.)

Demon http://www.shigabooks.com/index.php?page=001 by Jason Shiga begins with Jimmy Yee attempting to commit suicide and failing repeatedly.  Eventually he discovers that he didn’t fail–every time he dies, his spirit simply possesses the closest available living person.  Somehow the Feds know about his ability even before he does, and now Jimmy is on the run with an escalating body count.  NSFW.

Digger  http://diggercomic.com/blog/2007/02/01/wombat1-gnorf/ by Ursula Vernon is for an older audience than her Dragonbreath series.  The completed version won the Hugo Award and is the tale of a wandering wombat and the beings she encounters.  The collected issues are available in paper.  A wombat wandering a magical world.  (KS)

Dinosaur Comics http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=1 by Ryan North has the exact same images for (almost) every strip as a Tyrannosaurus Rex discusses philosophical questions with other dinosaurs while running amok.  Often funny, sometimes makes you think.

The Firelight Isle https://www.paulduffield.co.uk/firelightisle/1  by Paul Duffield is a fantasy coming-of-age story about two childhood friends about to undergo the trials of adulthood on an island controlled by a mysterious religion.  Done in “ribbons” that require scrolling down to see all of.

Forming http://jessemoynihan.com/?p=11 by Jesse Moynihan (one of the Adventure Time people) involves ancient astronaut “gods” and their effects on the civilizations of Earth.  Some NSFW material.

A Girl and Her Fed  http://agirlandherfed.com/1.1.html by K.B. Spangler is about a young woman who’s haunted by the ghost of Benjamin Franklin and the federal agent who has been assigned to watch her and has his own annoying invisible companion.

Girl Genius http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php?date=20021104#.V3sALvkrLcs by Phil and Kaja Foglio is an alternate Earth story where mad scientists called “Sparks” have run amuck and made history unrecognizable.  Agatha Clay discovers that she is actually Agatha Heterodyne, a powerful Spark and the heir to a near-mythical dynasty.  Largely comedic, but with an epic story.  Has won several Hugos and has multiple print collections.

Girls Next Door http://pika-la-cynique.deviantart.com/art/GirlsNextDoor-Introductions-73082145 by Pika la Cynique has Christine Daae (of Phantom of the Opera and Sarah of Labyrinth as college roommates, dealing with their stalkers and trying to get through finals.  Irregular updates as it needs to be translated from French.

Gunnerkrigg Court http://www.gunnerkrigg.com/?p=1 by Tom Siddell concerns Antimony Carver, whose mother has recently died.  Her rather distant father ships her off to the school of the title, which is decidedly weird, especially if you add in the magical forest across the bridge.  Almost everyone has secrets, many of them dangerous.  Note that the art improves drastically over the course of the series.

Hark! A Vagrant http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=1 by Kate Beaton is a humorous strip, mostly doing historical & literature jokes.  Updates have become sporadic as Ms. Beaton has gotten paying gigs.

Homestuck http://www.mspaintadventures.com/?s=6 by Andrew Hussie is a recently concluded epic fantasy that operates like a cross between a webcomic and a Flash game, using the writing style of an old-style computer adventure game.   John Egbert and three of his friends are going to be playing a new virtual reality game, Sburb.  Naturally, the game hides secrets that affect real worlds and has many plot twists that are massive spoilers.

How to Be a Werewolf http://www.howtobeawerewolf.com/comic/coming-february-3rd/ by Shawn Lenore is yes, about werewolves.  It just started last year.  Updated Tuesday and Thursday.  (KS)

Hyperbole and a Half http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/10/god-of-cake.html  by Allie is more of a heavily illustrated blog than anything else, often telling stories from Allie’s childhood.

JL8 http://limbero.org/jl8/1 by Yale Stewart is a fan comic depicting members of the Justice League as roughly eight-year-olds attending elementary school.  Very irregular schedule.

Kill Six Billion Demons http://killsixbilliondemons.com/comic/kill-six-billion-demons-chapter-1/ by Demonaic starts with Allison about to have sex with her boyfriend when the room is invaded by “demons” that drag off the boyfriend while Allison has a “key” forced upon her that transports her to the world of Throne which is inhabited by demons, “angels” and other weirdness and must make her way without knowing anything about her new setting.  NSFW.

A Lesson Is Learned but the Damage Is Irreversible http://www.alessonislearned.com/index.php?comic=1 by David Hellman and Dale Beran is a Dada-esque strip that takes advantage of “the infinite canvas” to have as much space as it needs to tell the day’s story, which is seldom directly linked to any other story.

Namesake http://namesakecomic.com/comic/the-journey-begins by Megan Lavey-Heaton & Isabelle Melançon follows Emma Crewe, who is a “Namesake”, a person who is expected to follow in the footsteps of a literary character, in her case Dorothy of Oz.  She has no interest in being locked in the story, and is prepared to fight fate with the help of new friends she’s made and her little sister who develops the powers of a Writer.

Necropolis http://necropoliscomic.tumblr.com/post/118905492171/prologue by Jake Wyatt is a high fantasy story with some fine illustration work; it’s still relatively new so the full plot isn’t know, but there’s a war between kinds and a young woman who battles the undead.

O Human Star http://ohumanstar.com/comic/chapter-1-title-page/ by Blue Delliquanti begins with a robotics engineer having a dream of dying, only to awaken to it being true.  He’s now in a robotic body that resembles his original appearance, and it’s fifteen years in the future when intelligent robots have won civil rights.  Alastair is originally told his former lover Brendan arranged his “resurrection”, but Brendan denies this.  Also how does Brendan have a teenage daughter that strongly resembles Alastair?  I reviewed the first print volume, and a second is in the Kickstarter process.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn http://www.gocomics.com/phoebe-and-her-unicorn/2012/04/22 by Dana Simpson was formerly known as “Heavenly Nostrils.”  A delightful story of a young girl who becomes friends with a unicorn.  It’s now available in newspapers and past issues were collected into three books, Phoebe and Her UnicornUnicorn on a Roll, and Unicorn vs. Goblins.  Updated daily.  (KS)

PS 238 http://ps238.nodwick.com/comic/12072006/ by Aaron Williams is an elementary school for metahumans hidden beneath a regular school.  Amazon has both the collected and the individual issues available in paper, so trying to find the collected issues can be difficult.  (I’ve found the term ‘paperback’ worked.)  This one I recommend starting from the very beginning, as the setup for the school is very interesting.  Updated weekly.  (KS)

Questionable Content http://questionablecontent.net/view.php?comic=1 by J. Jacques is slice of life in a world where weird things happen but usually don’t get life-threatening.  This is another one where the art drastically improves over time.

Rice Boy http://www.rice-boy.com/see/index.php?c=001 by Evan Dahm is a surreal fantasy about a young fellow who may or may not be the one who can fulfill a prophecy, but is curious enough to at least investigate what the prophecy is.  Completed, and there are two other series set in the same world accessible from the website.

Spacetrawler http://spacetrawler.com/2010/01/01/spacetrawler-4/ by Christopher Baldwin is a comedic SF actioner about a group of Earth humans abducted by aliens who want to free an enslaved species.  It’s currently on hiatus, but a sequel is scheduled to start soon.  The original is collected in three print volumes, the first of which I reviewed on this blog.

Strong Female Protagonist http://strongfemaleprotagonist.com/issue-1/page-0/ by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag follows a young superhero who has come to question if “fighting crime” is the best use of her powers, and discards her costumed identity to explore other paths to help people.

Subnormality http://www.viruscomix.com/page324.html  by Winston Rowntree is a “deconstruction” webcomic that looks at tropes and finds new ways to examine them.  It’s an “infinite canvas” strip that takes as much space as it needs.

Unshelved http://www.unshelved.com/2002-2-16 by Gene Ambaun & Bill Barnes is a gag-a-day comic about the workers at a city library and their eccentric customers.  Often has book recommendations.

Wapsi Square http://wapsisquare.com/comic/09092001/ by Paul Taylor is a “paranormal slice of life” comic originally about an archaeologist named Monica who discovers that she’s not crazy, the whole world is.  It starts out as gag-a-day before the plot kicks in, and what a plot it is!  The focus has shifted to another character and her adopted daughters as they try to blend into human society.

XKCD http://xkcd.com/1/ by Randall Munroe is full of math and science jokes.  After some experiments at the beginning, it settles down to stick figure art, but many of the ideas are nifty, and if you like math and science jokes…

Freakangels and City of Reality came up during the panel, but are no longer reliably available on the internet.

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