Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate edited by John Gaterud

Yes, this is yet another literary magazine; I picked up a bunch inexpensively at the book fair.  This one seems to take its title from Jack Kerouac’s writing; this first issue was published in 2007.

Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

The index is unusual for this kind of magazine.  Rather than a linear index, or arranged by subject or type of literature, it’s by author.  It also doesn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction–while some pieces sound more fictional than others, you will need to make up your own mind.

Insert my usual comments about modern poetry here.  The most interesting ones for me are “Postcards to Mike” by Ed McManis, a set of verses describing a school trip to Europe, the small disasters and odd moments of traveling with students.

A couple of the pieces are very much written in 2006, and feel dated now with their jabs at the Bush administration.  Deserved jabs, but still.  “Letter from Iceland” by Bill Holm and “Letter from London” by Donna R. Casella are both most interesting as time capsules, I think.

Best of the prose pieces from my point of view was “O Mary, Where Art Thou?” by Suzanne Lillian Bunkers.  It’s an examination of the various appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, with an emphasis on the sites that the author has personally visited.  One of the qualifications for authenticating a visit by Mary, it turns out, is conformity with Catholic doctrine.  If your vision of Mary has her advocating ordination of women, you’re out of luck officially.

Overall, the theme is of road trips and journeys.  Many of the pieces are sad or bittersweet; others are nostalgic.  I do not know if any further volumes were published by Blueroad Press.

As with other literary magazines I’ve reviewed, it seems decent if this kind of literature is your thing.

Anime Review: Argevollen

Anime Review: Argevollen

When Tokimune Susumu’s sister Reika is killed in a mysterious “training accident”, the boy decides to join the Arandas military as a Trail Krieger (basically walking tanks) pilot to work his way up the ranks in hope of eventually having enough access to learn the truth about her death.  He’s still very green when he is assigned to the 8th Independent Unit under Captain Ukyo Saimonji.  The unit is swiftly mobilized when the neighboring country of Ingelmia mounts an invasion, breaking through a previously impenetrable fortress.

Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen

On the way to the front, the 8th stumbles across a convoy that was ambushed by Ingelmian forces.  Tokimune is ordered not to reveal himself, but charges into battle when he sees there is a survivor of the convoy.  For his troubles, his mecha is shot to bits.  The survivor, rookie engineer Jamie Hazaford, decides to have Tokimune use the convoy’s cargo, a prototype war machine codenamed Argevollen.  Despite Tokimune’s inexperience, Argevollen is so advanced over the enemy mecha that he is able to defeat them easily.

Due to the emergency field activation, Argevollen now requires both Jamie and Tokimune to operate, and the shadowy Kybernes Corporation instructs their employee to stay with the 8th so the unit can be tested without having to rip out all the activation hardware.  Tokimune must learn to work with his machine, Jamie and his fellow soldiers if Arandas is not to go down in defeat.  But dark secrets abound, and Argevollen may be more connected to its pilot than was the intention.

Shirogane no Ishi Argevollen is a 24-episode anime series by the Xebec studio, and as of this writing, can be watched on the Crunchyroll website.

This series tends to come across as very generic for the mecha subgenre, especially in the first few episodes.  There are some notable features, however.  The first is that the series takes place in a world where aircraft were never invented.  This is never explained in a satisfactory manner, but does justify some of the military tactics used.  (The first episode has Ingelmia unveil Trail Kriegers that can jump over walls, the first time this has ever been done in history.)

While Argevollen is a “wonder weapon” it is made clear that it’s not a total game-breaker.  It’s like having one 21st Century tank in a World War Two setting, really effective when it works, but where are you going to get spare parts and a mechanic who can fix it?  Worse, when the production model is developed, Kybernes Corporation withdraws their software support.

The Ingelmian military are not the villains of the series, as such.  They’re mostly well-meaning soldiers obeying orders, told by their leader that they are “liberating” Arandas from its dictatorial king.  (“Just like they liberated my homeland,” notes one officer cynically.)  Even Richtofen, who becomes Tokimune’s self-appointed nemesis, is a pretty decent chap at first.  The real baddies are international arms dealers, a coalition of whom have been secretly exacerbating conflicts world-wide and convincing countries to start wars so they can sell weapons to both sides and test their latest creations.

Most of the characters are stock mecha anime types, for good or ill–this works least well with Jamie, who often comes across as much younger than she actually is, and best with Saimonji, whose stoic determination to spare the lives of his fellow soldiers leads him on a dark path, and an alliance of inconvenience.

The ending is rushed, with several plot threads brutally cut off, and a clear sequel hook; the series is selling poorly, I’m told, so we are unlikely to have that sequel.

Mecha fans are likely to find the show too generic for their tastes, with the fights somewhat downplayed.  Several episodes have little or no giant robot action at all!  But the more sober take and slower-paced episodes might appeal to viewers reluctant to watch more flashy mecha shows.  Parents should be advised that a couple of episodes have scenes where the characters are undressed (but tastefully blocked) and there is of course some bloody violence.  Probably not suitable below junior high.

Book Review: Cat Breaking Free

Book Review: Cat Breaking Free by Shirley Rousseau Murphy

Joe Grey is a talking cat with superfeline intellect and digestive abilities.  Fortunately, he has chosen to use these powers in the service of justice as a civilian investigator for the small California city of Molena Point.  Along with his fellow talking cats Dulcie and Kit, they keep solving crimes and assisting the police.

Cat Breaking Free

In this volume, Molena Point is invaded by a large organized robbery gang; in what might be a coincidence, a woman named Chichi Barbi moves in next door to Joe’s human partner, Clyde.  Joe is immediately suspicious as the woman had conned Clyde out of money when they lived in the big city.  In a possibly related subplot, the feral clowder of talking cats Kit used to belong to is back in the area, and it seems that someone’s been setting traps for them.

This series is part of the intersection of mystery and speculative fiction, the “one impossible thing” story.  In this case, the impossible thing is talking cats.  The origin of these mutants is not explained in this book, and apparently is unknown to the cats themselves–Joe just suddenly realized one day that he could talk.  Even with the feral clowder, it’s not known how long the natural lifespan of a talking cat is.

Much of the book is taken up by the human romantic subplot; Clyde’s love interest Ryan, who is not in on the secret, is being harassed by a handsome, suave fellow she knew in the big city, while Chichi is coming on to Clyde in a distressingly obvious way.

Most of the plot points tie together by the end, although there are some red herrings, at least one of which doesn’t get explained.

There are some editing issues, which I find distressing in a book published by HarperCollins.  There are a couple of spellchecker typos, but more importantly, there’s a major time discrepancy.  It’s a plot point for a couple of chapters that two events are separated by several days, then a chapter later, the first event is described as “yesterday morning” even though the second event is also in the past.  It isn’t relevant to solving the mystery, but speaks to characterization.

This is a good read for mystery fans who are also cat lovers, although there is some emotional abuse by one of the villains.

As you might be able to make out on the cover, this is a BookCrossing book, left in a public place to be picked up and read; it will soon be going to someone else.

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