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.

 

Comic Strip Review: Kill 6 Billion Demons 1

Comic Strip Review: Kill 6 Billion Demons 1 by Tom Parkinson-Morgan

Disclaimer:  I received this volume as a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Post-graduate student Allison Ruth and her boyfriend Zaid are attempting to have sex for the first time.  But the usual awkwardness becomes a non-issue when demonic-looking knights invade Allison’s dorm room and kidnap Zaid.  Their apparent leader jams a jewel into Allison’s forehead that…expands her consciousness?  When her vision clears, Allison doesn’t know where she is, but it’s certainly not Earth!

Kill 6 Billion Demons 1

According to “82 White Chain Born in Emptiness Returns to Subdue Evil”, an angel (approximately) who becomes the closest thing Allison has to an ally, this world is Throne, the center of the Multiverse, and used to be Heaven (approximately) before the gods went elsewhere.  Now Throne is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, infested with demons, demiurges and less savory beings as ganglords and shady guilds squabble over territory.

The gem embedded in Allison’s forehead turns out to be a powerful key, which makes her a valuable prize ripe for the taking.  But Allison isn’t at all keen on what anyone else wants for her.  She wants to be reunited with Zaid, go home, and have her life make sense again.  Not necessarily in that order.

This is the first collected volume of the webcomic, which can be found at http://killsixbilliondemons.com/comic/kill-six-billion-demons-chapter-1/   It covers the first few chapters, up to about the point Allison finally gets her head together some and decides to take her own actions instead of being just dragged around from one madcap situation to the next.

The setting (which takes aspects from Hinduism, Zen Buddhism and many other sources) allows the creator to stretch his imaginative muscles with bizarre backgrounds and distinctive non-human characters.  Allison undergoes several appearance changes herself, with the one consistent feature being her wide-open eyes, giving her a perpetually startled appearance.  (To be fair, most people would be perpetually startled under the circumstances.)  The one flaw with this being a print edition is that some of the larger spreads wind up having explanatory tags in  tiny font, so you may need a magnifying glass for full enjoyment.

Actual plot is thin on the ground, as Allison is only interacting with other characters in chases, confrontations or brief breathing spaces–we’re introduced to over a dozen characters who seem like they’ll be important to the story later, but right now we just have names/job titles/distinctive appearances.

Allison comes across rather shallow, but again this is excusable under her extreme circumstances; I’ve read ahead, and she gets more interesting.  In this volume, the interesting people are White Chain, who holds on to their (angels are agender, officially) ethical standards as much as possible even when circumstances require a far lower bar for what’s acceptable; and Cio, a cynical blue-masked demon who used to be a powerful master thief but has been depowered and now works as a bookkeeper in a brothel (until she quits to help out Allison…for her own reasons.)

While there’s quite a bit of discussion of sexual topics, and some non-graphic nudity, there’s no on-camera sex.  Lots of violence, though, some pretty graphic.  Some rough language as well.  Every so often there are text pieces that tell stories from the background mythology; these don’t always have standard endings.

Recommended for fantasy fans who don’t mind that much of what’s going on is confusing and won’t make sense until much later.  Yes, you can read it for free on the internet, but cash infusions from the print version help the artist keep creating.

 

 

 

 

Manga Review: Nisekoi

Manga Review: Nisekoi by Naoshi Komi

Raku Ichijo is a mild-mannered teenager who just happens to be the heir-apparent to the Shuei-Gumi Yakuza clan.  He wants nothing to do with this, intending to become a strait-laced civil servant when he grows up.  Raku also dreams of romance.  He has a lock pendant from ten years ago, that he promised to keep so a girl could unlock it with her key and they would get married.  Unfortunately, he no longer remembers the girl’s name or appearance.  But he wouldn’t mind if she was his current crush, Kosaki Onodera, who is sweet and shy.

Nisekoi Volume 1

However, another girl comes crashing into Raku’s life, knee to face first.  She’s Chitoge Kirisaki, a boisterous, half-American girl who’s very pretty and athletic, but sorely lacking in proper deportment.  Raku and Chitoge get on like mongoose and viper, each seeing the other as the source of problems.  (Most notably, Chitoge accidentally caused Raku’s pendant to go missing.)  Over the next couple of weeks, being constantly thrown together allows them to learn each other’s bad points and some of their good, but at last it looks like they’ve reached a truce.

It’s at this point that Raku’s father announces that in order to make a truce with the new criminal organization in the city, the Beehive Gang, Raku must enter into a false relationship (the nisekoi of the title) with the daughter of that gang’s leader.  Who is, of course, Chitoge.  In order to keep peace between the gangs, they must pretend to be lovey-dovey, while in reality they drive each other up the wall!

Legend has it that Komi’s previous series, Double Arts, was innovative and took some creative risks, but struggled to find an audience and was cut short.  So he deliberately made this romantic comedy series as cliched as possible, but as well-written as he could manage to capture sales and series longevity.  And yes, many elements of the series are very predictable.  Of course Onodera secretly has a crush on Raku she’s too shy to ever act on.   Of course Raku and Chitoge find themselves growing closer even as they valiantly struggle against such feelings.  Of course new wacky characters appear to cause more complications in their lives as the circumstances force them into sitcom antics.

Most of the time, it’s done quite well, and is enjoyably readable.  There’s just enough of a twist at times to keep it from being completely obvious, and most of the characters are kind of likable when they aren’t being sitcom stupid.

Like many Shounen Jump series, there was a long period in the middle where the manga seemed to be spinning its wheels, doing fun stories, but no real plot advancement.  Then about a year real time before the series ended, Komi started resolving plot points one after another, devoting arcs to clearing away the complications that prevented the central relationship from advancing.  The ending, while also in its way cliched, was very satisfying.

There’s also an anime adaptation of the early part of the manga.

I have the first volume to hand.  After the initial set-up, Raku and Chitoge are forced to go on their first (fake) date, which is something of a disaster, especially when Onodera stumbles on them together, and is convinced the relationship is real.  There’s also the reveal that Onodera wears a key pendant that looks like it might fit Raku’s lock pendant.  Could she be the promise girl?

This is followed by the entire school finding out about the (fake) relationship, so Raku and Chitoge can’t even let their guard down there.  The final chapter in the volume reveals that neither Chitoge nor Onodera can cook, good thing Raku can!  The main menace in this volume is Claude, security chief for the Beehive gang.  He’s pretty sure the relationship is fake, and keeps spying on the couple.  (He fades into the background a bit in later volumes when his teen protege Tsugumi is introduced as Chitoge’s bodyguard.)

The series is fanservice-light, with slapstick violence, so should be suitable for junior high readers up.  Recommended primarily for teens, as older readers may find all the cliches a bit much.

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