Book Review: Black Bird of the Gallows

Book Review: Black Bird of the Gallows  by Meg Kassel

Cadence, Pennsylvania used to be a mining town.  The economy never fully recovered from the mines closing down, but the town survived.  But there are some disturbing signs.  There’s an unseasonably high number of crows for February, and an even more unseasonable number of unusually aggressive bees.

Black Bird of the Gallows

Angelina “Angie” Dovage doesn’t pay too much attention to that at first.  She’s trying to survive her last year of high school, live down her past life with her drug-addicted mother, keep her identity as Sparo (the town’s hottest DJ) secret from her classmates, and checking out the hot new boy who just moved in next door.  The tall, dark, brooding boy who has a mysterious past.

This is a young adult paranormal romance, so Reece Fernandez turns out to be a supernatural being with strange powers, and also a strong attraction to Angie.  And of course he feels the need to “protect” her by not telling her relevant information until much later than it would have been useful.

There’s also Rafette, a much less pleasant supernatural being who has taken an interest in Angie, and knows way too much about her mother for his appearance in Cadence to be a coincidence.  Unlike the crow-based Harbingers, Beekeepers can’t be killed–or at least that’s what everyone’s been told.

On the more normal high school drama side of things, there’s Angie’s musical friends Daniel “Deno” Steinway and Lacey Taggert, and mean girl Kiera Shaw.   Deno still seems to carry a bit of a torch for Angie, and is oblivious to Lacey’s interest in himself.   Kiera seems intent on bringing up Angie’s supposedly sordid past at every opportunity.

Things get progressively worse in Cadence as increasing numbers of people go mad, and the real reason the Harbingers are in town approaches.

At my current age, I sympathize more with Angie’s well-meaning but out of the loop father when it comes to her apparent relationship with Reece.  The story fudges a bit on the “much older guy falls in love with a teenage girl” thing, but it still comes off icky.

Thankfully, Angie’s reasonably competent on her own; it’s only supernatural problems that she needs a supernatural rescuer for.

A third kind of supernatural being comes into the plot briefly, creating a sequel hook.  (Yes, of course this is a series.)

Overall…I’m not the audience for this book.  It seems competently written, and I didn’t actively hate any of the characters, but they didn’t engage me either.   It will probably work much better for teenagers, and more likely artsy young women.

Let’s have a video of crows being annoying!

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster

While there were several precursors to Superman, he’s generally agreed to be the first full-fledged comic book superhero.  Superhuman abilities, a distinctive costume, and a dual identity, he had them all.   When Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the readers had not seen anything quite like him before, and the comic book flew off the shelves.

The Superman Chronicles Volume One

However, the fellow who appeared in those early issues wasn’t quite the Superman we’ve come to know after all these years.  The “Chronicles” series of reprints gives us full-color reproductions of the stories in order of publication, starting with the very first, plus the covers of the issues.

Action Comics #1 starts us off right with the classic scene of Superman smashing a car into a rock, which turns out to actually happen in the story.   The feature begins with an abbreviated version of Superman’s origin.  The dying planet that sent a single rocketship to Earth (not yet named Krypton), a passing motorist (not yet identified as the Kents) who takes the infant to an orphanage, his growing powers (strength, speed, leaping, nigh-invulnerability) and his determination to use his powers to help those in need.  Clark Kent’s powers are explained by his physical structure being far more advanced than Earth humans, giving him the proportionate abilities of an ant or grasshopper.

The story itself starts in media res, as Superman carries a murderer to the governor’s mansion.  Leaving her tied up nearby, the Man of Steel forces himself past the governor’s servant, and through a metal door to that worthy’s bedroom.  He produces proof that the woman about to be executed is innocent, and stays right there until the governor pardons her.

The next day, Clark Kent is pleased to see that the Daily Star did not print anything about Superman’s involvement.  But the rumor of a superhuman fellow in a bright costume has already come to notice, and the Star’s city editor puts his rookie reporter Kent on the job of discovering the truth.

Kent learns of a wife-beating in progress, but it’s Superman who appears at the scene and roughs up the abusive husband.  The cad faints, and it’s Clark who greets the police.

Next, it’s time to establish the “mild-mannered” part of Clark Kent’s persona.  Clark convinces fellow reporter Lois Lane to go dancing with him, but she’s showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm.  When Clark backs down far too easily to a hood named Butch who cuts in, Lois is disgusted at his cowardice and leaves the dance hall.

Butch is angered by Lois’ refusal to dance with him, and sets out to abduct her with a few of his criminal friends to teach Lois a lesson.  Naturally, Superman shows up and the cover scene ensues.  The Man of Tomorrow carries Lois home and advises her not to tell anyone.  Sure enough, the next day, no one will believe her wild story.  It will take her a couple of issues to fully process her reaction to Superman.

The Star’s editor has a new assignment for Clark Kent.  South American republic San Monte is having a civil war, and since the home front is getting so dull card games are front-page news (I am now imagining a 1930s version of Yu-Gi-Oh), Kent should go down there and file some war reports.  Oh, pictures would be good too.

Rather than head directly south, Kent first travels to Washington, D.C.  He spots a Senator Barrows being furtively contacted by lobbyist Alex Greer, who’s known to be connected to “dark money” but no one knows whose.  Eavesdropping on their next meeting, Superman learns that the bill Senator Barrows is pushing is designed to entangle America in European affairs.   (We never come back to this plot point.)

Afterward, Superman approaches Greer to find out who his backer is.  Naturally the lobbyist declines to state this information, so Superman picks the man up and starts leaping all over town with him.  He even finds time to impart a science fact about birds and power lines!   His last leap doesn’t quite make it to the next building, and the men begin to fall….

All that in thirteen pages!

Action Comics #2 does not have Superman on the cover; he would not make it back until #7, and thereafter would usually be mentioned in a text box even if the cover was of someone else.

The story picks up where #1 left off, with Superman and Greer landing on the sidewalk.  They survive, the sidewalk doesn’t.   Greer spills the beans on his boss, international arms dealer Emil Norvell.  Superman then uses his considerable persuasive powers to make sure that Norvell travels to San Monte and enlists in their army.

Lois is assigned to go along with Clark Kent to South America.  Lots of things happen, including Norvell learning what it’s like to be on the pointy edge of his munitions, Lois nearly being shot as a spy, Superman just straight up killing a torturer (oh sure, we don’t see him land, but being tossed several miles away?  He’s not going to have a soft landing) and the Man of Steel finding a creative way to stop the war.

The story is followed by an advertisement for the daily Superman comic strip, soon to come out.

#3 has Superman get a neglectful mine owner to improve safety conditions for workers.  (Some ethnic slurs by baddies.)    There’s also an announcement of the first Superman fan club, the Supermen of America.

#4 is Superman kidnapping a college football player for several days to impersonate him in order to prevent a game from being fixed.  As a side effect, it also improves Tommy’s love life.

#5 has Lois Lane get enraged by the editor’s sexism (“no job for a girl”) and trick Clark Kent into pursuing a fake story while she goes off to cover a bursting dam.  Superman saves Lois a couple of times and she admits her feelings for him while still despising Clark.

#6 is the first Superman impersonator story.  A crook dresses his henchman up in a Superman suit and has him do faked stunts of superstrength so that the crook can claim he’s got a legal license to sell Superman merchandise.  Lois easily sees through the fake, but still needs rescuing.  Also has the first Superman-themed song.

#7 has Superman join a failing circus to give it an attendance boost, and reveal the criminals that are trying to take it over.  This is a good spot to mention that Superman’s distinctive costume was partially based on a circus strongman outfit, including trunks worn over tights to keep certain body bulges smoothed out.  This story also introduces Curly, the first of what would be a recurring type of bully who also works at the paper and pranks Clark Kent.  By the end of the story, Clark finds a way to get some payback.

#8 is another classic moment for Superman as a social justice warrior.  He decides to tackle the problem of juvenile delinquency in slum kids–by tearing down the entire slum, thus forcing the government to build them new housing ala FEMA!

Of course, actions have consequences, and in #9, the police bring in Chicago cop Detective Captain Reilly, known as “100% Reilly” for always getting his man.  Reilly’s plan hits a significant snag when he attempts to chisel an informant out of the substantial reward money promised.   Clark Kent is barely able to escape detection, but at the end, the visitor is known as “99% Reilly.”

#10 is another social justice story–Superman goes undercover as a prisoner to expose inhuman conditions imposed by a crooked warden.  (Warning: torture.)

#11 continues Superman’s impersonations.  To expose a crooked oil company, he poses as investor Homer Ramsey and contrives a beautiful scam where he tricks the oil company executives into trading their real money for their own worthless stock.  Environmentalists may cringe at how he does it, though.  (Presumably Superman turns the money he made over to charity.)

#12 has an interesting Zatara cover with a nifty spaceship.  The Superman story has him getting angry at reckless drivers and automobiles that are unsafe at any speed.  So he imposes a reign of terror on the city.  (And admittedly, fixes a particularly bad stretch of road.)  You can just feel Siegel’s outrage boiling off the page as Superman refuses to use doors in his pursuit of strict traffic enforcement.  Also in this issue, an announcement of DC’s second superhero, the Batman!

New York World’s Fair #1 ties into that 1939 event.  Clark and Lois are sent to cover the opening, but Superman spends most of his time helping attractions open on time and thwarting a criminal plot.

Action Comics #13 starts its story with Superman fighting the “Cab Protective League”, a shakedown racket aimed at taxi drivers.  However, we soon meet the first ever evil mastermind to battle Superman.  The Ultra-Humanite is a bald scientist who has given himself super-intelligence (which may or may not have anything to do with his paraplegia.)  Moriarty-like, he’s been secretly behind some of the criminal schemes Superman has thwarted.

His vast knowledge of science allows the Ultra-Humanite to stun Superman, but not kill him.  The evil scientist then appears to die in a plane crash, but Superman is unable to find a body.   He’ll be back several times, until Lex Luthor takes over his ecological niche.

And the volume concludes with Superman #1, as Superman became the first superhero to have his own solo comic book.  Most of the contents were reprinted from Action Comics #1-4.

However, the first story had a new introduction naming Krypton and the Kents for the first time, and establishing that John and Mary Kent had passed away from old age after training Clark in American values.  We then see how Superman learned of the innocent person condemned for murder and where to find the murderer seen in the first story.

The explanation of Superman’s powers now explained that Earth’s lighter gravity aided his advanced body structure to perform his superhuman feats.

Finally, there’s a two-page text story.  These prose stories appeared in comic books to force the post office to classify them at a lower postal rate.  Usually, they weren’t very good.  No exception here.

The art is crude but dynamic, and it’s fun to watch Superman perform his many feats.  This is a rougher-edged fellow who very much has opinions, and isn’t afraid to take matters into his own hands.  Soon he’ll calm down a bit and become more authority-friendly (and develop a code against killing.)  No more random kidnappings!

Highly recommended to Superman fans and those who want to know more about the early history of superhero comics.  Check your library!

 

Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

We open on a good day for Paul Bäumer and the men of the Second Company.  The sun is shining, there’s a light breeze to cool them, and they’re getting double rations.  The reason the men are getting double rations is that half their company was killed in the last action at the front lines, and the supplies were ordered before that was known.  But hey, at least their bellies are full for a change.

All Quiet on the Western Front

A few months ago, Paul and his classmates were idealistic young patriots, who signed up for the army en masse at the urging of their schoolmaster.  War seemed a glorious adventure then, and they wanted to serve their country.  Too late, Paul has realized that old men start the wars that young men die in.

This novel was published in 1928 as Im Westen  Nicht Neues (“Nothing New in the West”).  It’s based in large part on the actual experiences Mr. Remarque had during his service for Germany in World War One.  (Compare Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, which I have previously reviewed.)  It quickly became a bestseller, not only in Germany but around the world for its gut-wrenching picture of the lives of ordinary soldiers.  About the only people who didn’t appreciate it were the Nazis, who banned the book when they came to power.

Although there are small moments of individual heroism (and cowardice) in battle, this is not a book where the main characters contribute to a major victory or have the influence to come up with brilliant tactics.  At best, they gain a few feet to another set of trenches, and more often, they die to no purpose.

Gritty realism is the main focus here, detailing how the soldiers become desensitized to body modesty, sexual mores and lice.  The extreme violence of war can still get to them, though.  One of the most memorable scenes is when Paul is trapped in a shellhole with a French soldier who’s taken a mortal wound, but doesn’t die for hours, and how Paul’s emotions change over those hours.

On Paul’s rare leaves, he feels detached from the civilians he’s fighting for, who do not understand the horror of the front lines.  But the civilians are suffering too; the bread made from actual bread ingredients Paul brings home is much appreciated, and his mother is dying of cancer.  Paul and his fellow soldiers realize well ahead of the civilians that the war is being lost; the leaders are still talking about victory even as the Americans enter the fray.

Although there are deaths in the first part of the novel, the last third increases the pace of mortality as the Second Company falls one by one.  The breaking point for Paul is the death of old veteran Katczinsky, who mentored him and the other new recruits in the arts of survival and scrounging.  And then comes the end; the book has been told from Paul’s viewpoint until the final page, which is an anonymous postscript telling us Paul is dead.

There are bits of dark humor scattered throughout; one of the more amusing scenes from a schadenfreude perspective is when the schoolmaster who talked Paul and his classmates into enlisting is himself drafted into the Territorial Reserves.  His drill master is one of his old students, who delights in throwing the teacher’s motivational speeches back at him.

As one might expect, there’s a certain amount of crude speech from the soldiers, and the usual disturbing events that surround war.

This book is indeed one of the classics, particularly in the field of war literature, and is worth reading at least once, preferably before signing up to go off to war.

Here’s a scene from the 1930 movie version:

 

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