Book Review: Fire-Tongue

Book Review: Fire-Tongue by Sax Rohmer

If there’s one thing a detective hates, it’s when their client hems and haws about explaining basic details of why they need a detective, only to die just as they make up their minds with only a cryptic last utterance as a clue.

Fire-Tongue

But that’s the situation Paul Harley is in with his latest case.  Sir Charles Abingdon, noted osteologist, suspects he may be in danger, but is so vague about the circumstances that it’s impossible to tell why.  He promises to make more explanations at dinner, but collapses just after drinking a bit of water, uttering only “Fire-Tongue…Nicol Brinn” before passing.

Nicol Brinn is an American millionaire who happens to be in London just now, but what possible connection could he have to Sir Charles?  And the phrase “Fire-Tongue” is a complete mystery.  Oh, and neither the water nor the glass itself were poisoned, so how did Sir Charles die?

Brinn appears to know something about “Fire-Tongue” but is evasive at best on that matter, and claims to know nothing about Sir Charles’ death or why he might have felt threatened.  He does promise to let Harley know if he has any definite leads.  Very suspicious.

However, Harley learns that Sir Charles’ daughter, Phyllis “Phil” Abingdon has been receiving “attentions” from Ormuz Khan, a Middle Eastern banker.  And since certain features of this case suggest the “Oriental”, that’s worth looking into as well.

Readers familiar with Sax Rohmer’s work will fnd little mystery here.  Once there’s a “mysterious Oriental” in the case, it’s obvious he’s guilty somehow.  From there on in it’s secret societies, poisons unknown to Western science, subtle mental powers and lots of peril.

This isn’t Rohmer’s best work by a long shot.  He divides the role of hero up between three male characters poorly, has characters make stupid decisions to keep the happenings mysterious, and the backstory is given in four straight chapters of infodump at the end.  Exciting but incoherent.

And that’s before we get to the racism, sexism and making the villain effeminate in appearance to indicate that he’s somehow unnatural.  Perhaps the weirdest bit in this direction is that Brinn’s face is repeatedly described as “Sioux-like” without any indication of Native American heritage.

This is, by the by, the second Paul Harley book; the first, Bat Wing, was apparently more of an actual mystery.  Mr. Harley is an ex-barrister who has turned to political consulting and detection as a more interesting career.  He’s apparently psychic, able to detect auras of evil or danger.  Which would be more helpful if this sense were directional, and didn’t sometimes interfere with his ability to make rational observations.

Like many pulp heroes, Mr. Harley is also a master of disguise.  Pity the baddies were specifically looking for someone in disguise!

Mr. Brinn is a harder-edged sort, and rather cold-blooded.  He has a sense of honor that allows him to dally with other men’s wives, but not break his word.  It’s a good thing he’s a millionaire, or he’d never get away with this stuff.

And then we have Detective Inspector Wessex of Scotland Yard, a bright (but not too bright) fellow who fills in chapters when neither Mr. Harley nor Mr. Brinn is available on-screen.

Overall, only recommended to Sax Rohmer completists.  It’s in the public domain in the U.S.–my copy was from a print on demand publisher, but you should be able to find the text on the internet.

Book Review: Jefferson’s America

Book Review: Jefferson’s America by Julie M. Fenster

In 1803, many people in the fledgling United States expected a Louisiana War, as the Spanish had forbidden American shipping from passing down the Mississippi and through the port of New Orleans.  That didn’t happen, as the Spanish were induced to yield the Louisiana Territory to their allies the French.  France’s then-leader, Emperor Napoleon, said he would “never relinquish” the territory.  But when European troubles drew his attention, the French offered to sell Louisiana to the Americans for a cool fifteen million dollars.

Jefferson's America

President Thomas Jefferson got the U.S. to pay the money, but other than the important ports of New Orleans and St. Louis, it wasn’t clear what all was included in  the Louisiana Purchase.  Someone had to be sent out posthaste to learn river routes through the territory, and apply some scientific curiosity to what might be found there.  And so he chose the men of Jefferson.

This book is primarily about six men who led expeditions into the West, and the outcomes of those adventures.  Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s personal secretary and a man who suffered bouts of depression. William Clark, younger brother of a Revolutionary War hero who had been cast aside by his country.  William Dunbar, slaveholder and scientist.  George Hunter, a chemist bent on making his fortune.  Thomas Freeman, one of the surveyors that laid out Washington, D,C,  And Zebulon Pike, an United States Army lieutenant who was intrepid beyond all reason.

It’s emphasized that other than Lewis, most of these men were not Jefferson’s first choices.  Many better trained people simply didn’t want to risk their lives on perilous journeys, or couldn’t get away from previous commitments.

Of course, they are not the only people covered in this history text.  We also meet the legendary Sacajawea, without whom Lewis & Clark might well not have made it past the Shoshone.  Aaron Burr, who you may remember from that recent musical.  Blackbird of the Omaha, whose dinner invitations you should find a way to politely refuse.  And many others.

The story is primarily chronological, and skips back and forth between expeditions happening at the same time.  But it’s not all “this happened, then that happened.”  There is room for a certain amount of editorial opinion, and oddball moments.  The book begins with a visit to New Orleans in 1820 by John James Audubon, who was later to gain fame painting birds.  At the time, he was seeking wealthy patrons who needed their portraits done, to fund his passion.  He met one of the famous Jeffersonian explorers, who alas had not aged well.

While the book is matter-of-fact about the issue of slavery, including some of the worst consequences of the system, it very carefully does not mention Jefferson’s own slaves, even when talking about his time at Monticello.  I have to wonder if the author felt she’d have to put in another chapter just to explain President Jefferson’s complicated relationship with slavery and felt it best to avoid the issue.

The treatment of Native Americans is more directly dealt with, as they occupied parts of the lands the explorers were moving through.  There’s quite a bit of politics involved, both between tribes, and their relationships with the various nations who wanted their goods or land.  Zebulon Pike is mentioned as having noticed that the introduction of strong liquor as a trade good was distorting tribal life.

There are many direct quotes from letters and journals, and these are sourced in the extensive endnotes.  There’s also a bibliography and index, several maps, and a thin section of illustrations in the center.

The age of Jeffersonian exploration lasted only a few years, but established the workability of scientific expeditions into the wilderness, rather than just cash and land grabs.  It’s briefly mentioned that unlike the slapdash American expeditions, the Spanish science explorers under Carlos III were well-trained and equipped for their journeys–it’s just that they’d never gotten around to the Louisiana Territory.  (I would like to read more about those expeditions, please.)

I found this book a pleasure to read, and recommend it for senior high students on up (there’s some frank talk about sex) who are interested in this period of history.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume through Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, more about Sacajawea:

 

Book Review: The Hollow-Hearted

Book Review: The Hollow-Hearted by C.A.  Bryers

Things are not going well for Natke Orino.  After having to leave her old job as a secret agent, Natke has moved to the Odyssan Archipelago to form her own exploration company.  But her rivals seem to be always one step ahead getting to new archaeological sites and Natke’s financial backers have stopped funding her.  Also, her barely-kept-secret relationship with her second in command Fuorento is at a crisis point.  If she doesn’t have a success soon, she may need to admit defeat and go to work for a smug competitor.

The Hollow-Hearted

That’s when Natke’s information expert L’Anne reveals that there’s been an earthquake on a remote island associated with legendary assassin Cary the Hollow-Hearted.  It’s exposed what may be the cave system that Cary made her final stand in, and if an explorer found proof of Cary’s existence, they’d be set for life!  Natke quickly gets her small (and rapidly dwindling) company aship, and they are on their way to Hollow Rock.

But although they seem to be the first expedition to arrive, it’s soon clear the explorers are not alone, and whoever or whatever else is on the island, it’s hostile.  Natke must battle for both her life and her career, but will victory cost her heart?

This novella is a prequel to The 13th Paragon duology by the same author.   The genre is unclear, so let’s call it science fiction for now.  It’s set in a world where technology was once at a higher level, but is swiftly regaining ground.  Natke and Fuorento were supporting characters in the duology, and this fills in an important piece of their mutual background.

As a short work, this is fast-paced, and sheds characters quickly (not all by death, thankfully.)  Sadly, some of the characters I liked best were vanished from the story for the all-important final confrontation to work better.  And those who have read the work this is a prequel to will know at least some of the end already.

Overall, this is a light read that will most appeal to fans of the author’s other works.

Manga Review: Ranma 1/2

Manga Review: Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi

Soun Tendou, a widowed martial arts instructor in the Nerima suburb of Tokyo, has three daughters: gentle Kasumi, cunning Nabiki and fiery Akane.  They are surprised to learn one day that their father made an agreement with his old friend Genma Saotome to marry one of them to Genma’s son Ranma.   Akane is unimpressed with the old-fashioned idea of an arranged marriage, especially as it turns out Mr. Tendou has never actually seen Ranma and knows nothing about him.

Ranma 1/2 1-2

Imagine their surprise when a panda shows up at their door with a young girl in tow, who claims her name is Ranma Saotome!  Akane immediately takes to her fellow martial artist, who is endearingly shy.  However, when Akane walks in on Ranma in the bathtub, it turns out he’s male after all!   Also, the panda is actually Genma Saotome.  A  couple of months ago, the two of them fell into cursed pools in a training exercise gone horribly wrong.  As a result, they change forms when splashed with cold water, returning to normal when exposed to hot water.

Soun decides that the engagement is still on, so Kasumi and Nabiki immediately dump the arrangement on Akane.  Citing Akane’s difficulties with boys, Nabiki points out that Ranma is a girl some of the time.  Akane objects, and Ranma makes a rude remark that gets him hit with a table.

The engagement stands, and the quarrelsome couple must learn to deal with each other while coping with other transformees, wacky martial artists, a love dodecahedron  and the continuing fallout of Genma and Soun’s terrible life choices.

This romantic martial arts comedy manga ran in Shonen Sunday from 1987-1996, and spawned an anime series, several movies and OAVs, and relatively recently a live-action TV film.  It (particularly the anime) was a gateway series for many American fans in the early 1990s.

Much of the comedy in the series comes from the fact that Ranma is a very macho young man, who is exaggeratedly masculine and often trapped in a short, busty girl’s body.   Raised in relative isolation by his none-too-socially-ept father, Ranma has heroic instincts but is rude and uncultured, often setting off Akane with unthinking insults.  Over the course of the series, Ranma learns how to use his female form to his advantage, but never fully reconciles himself to it or the social role it’s supposed to play.

Akane also struggles with social roles.  She’s very attractive (though you will need to take the story’s word for it) which has caused her problems with boys and other perverts, and exacerbated her hair-trigger temper.  She’s amazingly bad at most traditional feminine domestic skills, and her best strong point, her martial arts ability, is routinely overshadowed by Ranma and his opponents.  Since both the main characters are stubborn and cantankerous, even as they slowly fall in love they can’t admit it.

It should be noted here that most of the people in this series are jerks to one degree or another.  Much of the nonsense that drives Ranma and Akane apart even as they draw closer together could have been avoided if someone hadn’t decided to be a jerk at the wrong moment.   Even normally adorable Kasumi has her off moments.

Overall, the series is a lot of fun, with enjoyable art, funny jokes and silly characters.  And once in a while some tense action.  Like many long-runners, it sags some in the middle (the “introduce new wacky character” gimmick only works so many times) and the ending doesn’t really resolve anything.  But hey, it’s a comedy.

Given the premise, there’s quite a lot of nudity in the series; if your child is too young to be shown that girls have nipples, they’re too young to be reading this.  (One of the running jokes is that Ranma has no body modesty.)

More problematic is that “girls hitting boys that make them angry, even by accident, is hilarious” is driven into the ground in this series.  Akane is the worst offender, being the female lead, but most of the other girls are just as awful proportionate to their screen time.  Even by the 1990s, social attitudes were shifting, and by now it can make for some uncomfortable reading.  Also, some of the things Genma does to Ranma as “martial arts training” would get him arrested for child abuse, and the perverted old master Happosai is treated as an annoyance rather than a sexual offender.

The series does not so much deconstruct Japanese gender roles so much as poke them repeatedly with a sharp stick.

The anime is also good (and has a lot of nice music) but relies heavily on filler (episodes that are anime-only and often have continuity issues) and ends when Ranma’s long-lost mother shows up (about 2/3rds of the way through.)  Later season have poorer animation quality as production was moved to cheaper studios.

Viz originally brought Ranma 1/2 over using the flipped-artwork process to make it read left-to-right; between that and their then deliberately slow release of volumes, it took forever to come out in the U.S. (so the anime was a bigger influence on the fanfiction.)  It’s now being reprinted in the otaku-friendly right-to-left format, with each volume containing two of the Japanese volumes.

In Volume 1-2, the one to hand, the main characters are introduced.  Ranma is assigned to the same school as Akane, and we meet Dr. Tofuu (a practitioner of traditional Japanese medicine and Akane’s first crush) and Tatewaki Kunou, the belligerent and amorous upperclassman who’s done the most to cause Akane’s attitude towards boys.   Kunou starts a feud with male Ranma while falling in love with female Ranma (this does not stop him hitting on Akane, and Kunou never fully grasps that the two Ranmas are the same person.)

Just as it looks like Ranma and Akane’s relationship might be warming up, Ranma’s martial arts rival Ryouga appears.  Although he’s very strong, Ryouga has a terrible sense of direction, and is cursed to turn into a cute little piglet.  Ryouga blames Ranma for that last thing (for the wrong reasons)  and is bent on  revenge.  He also falls in love with Akane.  In this first story arc, Ryouga is a clear “heel” but eventually has the most positive character development of anyone in the series.

Ranma and Ryouga have reached something of a stalemate when a new challenger appears, Kodachi Kunou (sister of Tatewaki), who is a mistress of Martial Arts Rhythmic Gymnastics and plays very dirty.   After she cripples the Fuurinkan High gymnastics team, Akane is called in to save their honor.  Too bad she doesn’t know anything about rhythmic gymnastics!  A teacher appears, but Kodachi is determined to end the match before it begins….

Highly recommended to fans of Inu-Yasha and those with an interest in poking fun at gender roles.

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