Audio Review: If We Were Villains

Audio Review: If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio

Eleven years ago, seven drama students entered their fourth year at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory.  Now, a decade after the end of that school year, one of those students, Oliver Marks, is being released from prison.  Former police detective Colborne has never entirely bought the official version of what happened, and Oliver agrees to finally tell the truth of that year.  Or at least a truth.

If We Were Villains

The highly competitive nature of the school and constantly interacting with each other have made the seven students their own little troupe with defined roles.  But a couple of the students have begun resenting their typecasting, and natural born star Richard is on the verge of snapping.  Even when Richard is removed from the picture, the fractures in the group widen until the tragic climax.

This is a debut novel from Shakespearean scholar M.L. Rio, and is full of William Shakespeare’s words and ideas.  The theater kids often quote (or misquote) Shakespeare’s plays to each other in their dialogue, and sometimes to confused or annoyed outsiders.  A basic familiarity with the Bard of Avon will vastly enhance your enjoyment of the story.

The main characters are the kind of “party hearty” kids I did not get on well with in college; their substance abuse is a large factor in how badly their actions go off the rails, and the sexual shenanigans certainly didn’t help.  And of course, keeping secrets from the adults on campus who could have solved many of the issues early on makes things even worse.  (While I am on content issues, warning for rough language, slut-shaming and domestic abuse.)

Oliver has pressures outside school as well, as his parents are unsupportive of his career goals and one of his sisters has an eating disorder that needs them to redirect their limited financial resources.  (Oliver is alas completely unempathetic towards his sister’s problems.)  And some of the other students have even worse family situations, one of the reasons they’ve bonded with each other instead.

Once having established that the main characters are not the kind of people who make smart choices, the stage is set for the inevitable spiral into tragedy, mirrored by the plays they’re performing.

The version of the novel I’m reviewing is the audiobook from Macmillan Audio, and read by Robert Petkoff, himself an actor experienced in Shakespearean drama.  His voice is well suited to the text (though there were times when I could not distinguish between female characters) and conveyed emotion well.

However, the audiobook experience was sometimes difficult for me.  I sometimes missed important words, especially early on, and “rewinding” the CD was trickier than simply turning back pages to recheck lines.  On the good side, portions of the book are written in a semi-script style that made it clear who was speaking, very helpful when all the main characters are in the same room.

The physical presentation of the audiobook is barebones, just a box containing plain white sleeves for the ten CDs.  There are no liner notes (it would have been both helpful and apropos to provide a dramatis personae), nor a quick bio of Mr. Petkoff.

While this novel has mystery elements, it fits more comfortably into the “contemporary” subgenre.  Perhaps that New Adult category I’ve heard of.  Recommended to Shakespeare buffs, theater kids and fans of last minute twists.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this audiobook from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested nor offered.

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows

Comic Book Review: Ambassador of the Shadows by Jean-Claude Mézières and Pierre Christin

The universe is vast, and intelligent life has arisen on many worlds.  Over millennia, these different lifeforms have spread out from their points of origin and met each other.  Sometimes, these meetings have led to friendly interaction, sometimes they have ended in interspecies war.  No one remembers precisely when, or who did it, but an artificial habitable environment was created to serve as a meeting place for diplomats.  Each new species has added on to that space station to create Point Central, our last, best hope for peace.

Ambassador of the Shadows

Now at last it is Earth’s turn to preside over the Council in the Hall of Screens, and the new ambassador from that planet has big plans.  Plans so big, he needs to be guarded by top spatio-temporal agents Valerian and Laureline.

Valerian and Laureline is a French comic book series originally published from 1967 to 2010, very popular in European comics, and an influence on the look and feel of the movie The Fifth Element.  A new live-action movie version is coming out this summer, so I thought I’d check in on the source material.

The future Earth civilization, Galaxity, is based on time travel technology, which their space travel utilizes for faster than light speed.  This technology is dangerous in the wrong hands, thus the need for special time/space agents.

Valerian is a native of the 28th Century, and initially is quite respectful of authority, and does not question his orders, even when they seem ethically dubious.  That said, he is a good-hearted fellow who does the right thing as he sees it when the chips are down.  While in Middle Ages France, he recruited Laureline as a guide, and she proved so effective that he brought her home with him as an agent.

While Laureline is a fast learner who quickly adjusts to her new surroundings, she has an outsider’s view of them.  A fiery redhead, Laureline is impulsive and suspicious of authority figures, especially when their behavior is fishy.  (She initially was scheduled to be a “girl of the week” but was so well-received by the audience that she became the co-star.)

Earth’s ambassador initially emphasizes the “ass”, but that quickly becomes moot, as both he and Valerian are abducted by mysterious parties immediately upon arrival at Point Central.  Laureline must track them down through the labyrinthine construction and clashing cultures of the diplomatic station.  Comic relief is provided by a cowardly protocol officer Laureline dragoons into service as her sidekick.

The story becomes something of a shaggy dog when things going on in the background make the heroes’ actions irrelevant in the big picture, but this volume is important to the continuity because it introduces two recurring elements.  The Grumpy Transmuter from Bluxte is an astonishingly rare animal that can create copies of any item it ingests; since it’s a tiny animal with a small mouth, it’s limited to things like gems and pharmaceuticals.  Since the galactic community has no common currency, it’s like a portable cash machine and becomes Laureline’s pet.  Also, the Shingouz, greedy information brokers who will dispense helpful data in exchange for large payments.  Laureline becomes one of their favorite customers and they frequently appear in later stories.

The art is good, with the setting allowing the artist to go wild with interesting alien designs.  I’m not a fan of the coloring, though, which is often garish and inconsistent.  In particular, the humans often have bright orange skin.

There’s some violence, but it’s non-lethal, and one scene takes place in an alien brothel where we see some scantily-clad aliens (including Laureline in a disguise.)  Say a PG-13 rating.

Recommended to fans of science fiction adventure and/or French comics.

The City of Shifting Waters

And now a special bonus review of The City of Shifting Waters, which is as of 5/13/17 available for free download on Kindle.  This is an earlier adventure, when Laureline was still a new partner for Valerian.  A mad scientist named Xombul has escaped confinement and used a one-way device to travel to New York City in 1986.

Time voyages to that era are forbidden as global disaster, including melting of the polar ice caps, wiped out the existing civilizations, and there’s a blank spot three centuries long in the history books.  It’s not clear what Xombul is up to, but he must be stopped, so Valerian is sent back.

The secret time portal in the Statue of Liberty becomes inoperable shortly after Valerian arrives when the statue collapses, and the agent is pressed into service by a gang looting the flooded city.  While Valerian does manage to find a clue as to what Xombul is doing, he can’t do much with it.

Until Laureline shows up.  When Valerian didn’t report back in, she went to the time portal in Brazil and worked her way up to New York.  Reunited, the time agents make a deal with the leader of the looters, Sun Rae.  Since there are no historical records of this period, one petty warlord or another makes no difference but allowing Xombul to take over would change the future unpredictably.  They’ll let Sun Rae keep any 1980s science Xombul has gathered in exchange for his help against the intruder.

Turns out Xombul has big plans indeed, and intends to spread his “benevolent” rule over all of space-time!  Will our heroes (and their not so heroic ally) be able to stop him before the future vanishes?

The faces are a bit more cartoony in this volume; perhaps the artist hadn’t quite settled his style yet.  Valerian also comes off a bit more sexist, with some stupid remarks.

Thankfully, even in this cartoonier style, Sun Rae (who’s presumably African-American) doesn’t look too much like a racist stereotype.  When he’s first introduced, we learn he was a flutist before the Great Disaster, and he’s pretty sharp, instantly grasping the advantages of having scientific knowledge once he’s alerted to the idea.  He also doesn’t go out of his way to be evil despite his ruthlessness.

Xombul’s a bit more of a stereotype, given to explaining his brilliant plans to his enemies before disposing of them, and wanting to try out new cool gadgets on human subjects before they’ve been completely tested.  His captive slightly saner scientist, Schroeder, is clearly based on Jerry Lewis in The Nutty Professor but is better at social skills.

The writing isn’t quite up to the peak of the series, but is pulpy good fun.

Here’s a trailer for the movie!

Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

Comic Book Review: Essential Daredevil Vol. 4 edited by Stan Lee and Roy Thomas

Created in 1964 by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, Daredevil is Matt Murdock, a blind lawyer.  He was struck in the face with radioactive material as a teen while shoving a blind man out of danger, which both blinded Matthew and gave him extraordinary senses.  When his father “Battlin’ Jack” Murdock was murdered for refusing to throw a boxing match, Matt donned a bizarre devil-themed costume to avenge him.  He then continued to use the Daredevil identity to fight crime and help people.

Essential Daredevil Vol. 4

This volume contains Daredevil #75-101, plus an important issue of the Avengers, #111.  Gerry Conway wrote most of these issues with Gene Colan on pencils.  (As usual, Colan’s work looks great in black and white.)

We open with Matt having mostly broken up with his long-time romantic interest, Karen Page, who is pursuing an acting career.  They’re both having second thoughts, so it’s several issues before they move on and Daredevil can devote his full attention to Natasha Romanova, the Black Widow (who got to share the cover title for a while.)

#75 seems to be a filler issue, with Matt and his law partner and best friend Foggy Nelson visiting South America.  Daredevil battles a revolutionary calling himself “El Condor” after a local hero.  It’s an interesting story because it’s clear that El Condor’s identity was supposed to be a last-page reveal (always wears a mask, the one person who sees his face reacts with shock, and there’s a character who the story logic says it had to be) but El Condor simply dies (crushed by a statue of the original!) and then Matt leaves the country without El Condor’s true identity even being mentioned.

Then begins a long sequence with the mysterious “Mr. Kline” acting against Daredevil and Matt Murdock in various ways.  First he sponsors a mad scientist’s experiments that wind up turning a man named William “Bull” Taurus into the Man-Bull.  A nice touch in this story is that Bull has his own mini-gang and a character named “Freakface” explains why he’s personally loyal to Bull.  At the same time, Kline begins to blackmail Foggy, who at this point is New York City’s district attorney.

Then Kline frees the Owl from prison and provides the gliding financier advanced technology to attack Daredevil.  At the same time, he manipulates the Black Widow into meeting Daredevil as part of a long-term backup plan.  As well, the reader learns that “Mr. Kline” is not as we might have thought one of Daredevil’s old enemies, but an android (MK-9) controlled by an even more mysterious master which codenames it “Assassin.”

Kline’s next maneuver is sending out the Scorpion, who acts somewhat out of character (actually an android), and is apparently killed by the Black Widow.  The Assassin then has Foggy insist on prosecuting Natasha for murder (her background as a Communist spy prejudices people against her.)  The trial is rigged further by Mr. Hyde (another android) murdering the coroner and replacing him with a duplicate.

The trial ends when all the evidence is destroyed by an explosion, but Black Widow is still under suspicion.  She heads to Switzerland, where the Assassin springs the backup plan of having her convince Matt Murdock to undergo an operation to restore his eyesight.

The secret boss is finally revealed to be…no one we could have reasonably guessed.  Baal, a computer from the far future, is trying to avert a disaster in the past that Daredevil (and Iron Man of all people) will eventually cause.  Trying to kill him has failed, though they have managed to prevent Foggy Nelson from eventually becoming the president of the United States.  But restoring Matt’s eyesight will also eliminate Daredevil.

The plan doesn’t work because too obvious, and a deus ex machina prevents Baal from reverting to the “kill Daredevil” idea.

After a couple of transitional issues which resolve the Karen Page subplot, Matt Murdock moves to San Francisco with Black Widow and her chauffeur Ivan, taking a set of rooms in her house there.  At this point in time, the Comics Code prevented unmarried characters from sleeping together.

The local police are less than enthused about their new vigilantes, especially Commissioner “Ironguts” O’Hara.  It takes him a long time to warm up to the colored longjohns  set, even though they’re a big help against powered criminals like Electro and the Purple Man.  (The latter has a flashback sequence to explain how he escaped from jail–which is missing a crucial panel.)

Another lengthy plotline involves Project Four, the very first case Natasha ever worked on as a spy, and the return of her first partner, Danny French.  Danny is ethically bankrupt (he’s now a private detective introduced working both sides of a blackmail case) but winds up having some redeeming qualities.  A new Mister Fear also shows up, but is a red herring.

Gerry Conway wraps up his run with the return of the Man-Bull, and Steve Gerber takes up the writing chores as of issue #97.  He introduces another mysterious mastermind who is empowering seemingly random people for unknown purposes, starting with Mordecai Jones, the Dark Messiah.

This plotline is interrupted by a guest appearance of Hawkeye, Black Widow’s former love interest, who wants to see if he can rekindle the relationship.  No, but it does lead into an Avengers crossover.  They need DD and BW’s help against Magneto, who has managed to mind control the X-Men and most of the Avengers, and is trying to seize the United States’ nuclear arsenal.  (This includes a really skeevy scene of Magneto compelling the Scarlet Witch to dance for his pleasure, which would get even skeevier in hindsight once she was retconned into being his daughter.)

Daredevil turns down an Avengers membership (at this point his supersenses are not sufficiently tuned to allow him to work in a large team) but Natasha accepts.  He thinks that means she’s leaving him.

Issue #100 has Daredevil being interviewed by Rolling Stone and recapping his origin for the readers, in between bouts of mass hallucination.  The latter turns out to be the work of Angar the Screamer, an aging hippie being controlled by the mysterious mastermind previously mentioned.  Black Widow returns (she plans to commute to Avengers meetings) and they manage to drive Angar off…for now.

The good:  Gene Colan art, some nifty villain appearances, Black Widow getting to be competent most of the time, random civilians getting the gumption to fight back against criminals on their own.

Less good:  Matt Murdock’s internal monologues tend to the verbose at best, Daredevil too often feeling he needs to protect Black Widow from danger even though she’s repeatedly shown her competence, gratuitous scenes of Natasha dressing/undressing/showering in a way we don’t see Matt doing, Marvel’s writers just not “getting” the counterculture or feminism despite theoretically catering to them, and the Marvel soap opera formula meaning that Matt can never just be happy for an entire freaking issue without finding something to angst about, often completely unnecessarily.

That said, this is a decent run on the title (though nowhere near the quality of Frank Miller’s first run) and worth checking out at the library.

 

Book Review: Twice Told Tales

Book Review: Twice Told Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) is one of the great American writers; his The Scarlet Letter is studied in many schools across this land.  But it took him quite a while to reach that status.  After crushingly disappointing sales for his first novel, Fanshawe, Hawthorne spent a dozen years in poverty, scraping by selling short pieces.  In 1837, his friend Horatio Bridge put up the money to have a collection of those short pieces (titled “Twice Told Tales” because they’d all been printed before) printed in a book, first anonymously, then with his name attached once good reviews came in.  A second edition with more stories (39 in all) was published in December 1841, and is the one usually reprinted.

Twice Told Tales

As the introduction by Professor Gemme explains, Edgar Allan Poe’s review of the later edition became famous in its own right–Poe objected to several of the pieces not actually being “tales” (what we’d call “short stories”) but essays  or sketches.  And in the process of explaining that, he set down his own theory of what a proper short story was.  This was influential in American literary circles.  Poe did praise those “tales” that met his criteria, hailing Hawthorne as one of the few worthwhile authors America had produced to that date.  After that, another review seems superfluous but I will proceed.

The book opens with “The Gray Champion”, a tale of a mysterious old man who appears in 1689 to halt the massacre of malcontents in Massachusetts by the tyrannical Governor Andros.   An unnamed ancient in Puritan garb, the old man is said to return whenever New England faces an existential crisis.   This is only the first of many ghost-like figures in these tales, a haunted New England that influenced many American writers including H.P. Lovecraft.  The first piece in the 1841 addition, “Legends of the Province House” is a collection of ghost stories involving the former colonial governor’s residence in Boston.  There’s a character named Bela Tiffany, which Hawthorne admits is highly unlikely.

There are some classics in this collection, including “The Minister’s Black Veil” about a small-town minister who abruptly and for no reason he will explain conceals his face behind a cloth mask he never removes, and how that affects people’s perceptions of him.  “The Great Carbuncle” concerns the search for a giant gemstone; the motives of the people looking for the jewel affect their fates, and how they react to the carbuncle’s true nature.

“David Swan” is a lesser-known piece about a young man who falls asleep by the road and is visited by Wealth, True Love and Death, awakening unaware of his brushes with fate.  “Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment”, the last story in the 1837 section, involves the title character inviting some senior citizens to imbibe water from the Fountain of Youth.  The story looks at the follies of both youth and age.

“Peter Goldthwaite’s Treasure” is about a man that has failed at every attempt at getting ahead in life staking everything on finding a fabled treasure of his similarly-named ancestor, even to the point of destroying the family house that is his last possession.  The story makes a point of contrasting Peter, whose get rich quick schemes all rely on luck he doesn’t have, with his ex-partner John Brown who never goes for a risky prospect,  but has excellent luck.

The last story in the book is “The Threefold Destiny”, which is deliberately evocative of fairy tales.  A young man becomes convinced that three astounding events will occur to him, with special prophetic signs.  He goes out in search of these, but his worldwide quest has none of these results.  The man returns to his home village to rest before starting anew, and of course discovers his true destiny.

Mr. Hawthorne was big on allegory and symbolism, and sometimes this gets heavy-handed.  Sometimes he also goes out of the way to make sure you get the point he’s trying to make, as in “The Ambitious Guest” where the moral is “you don’t know when you’re going to die, and trying to avoid fate can doom you worse than accepting it, so all human ambition is folly.”

The essays, while certainly not as compelling as the tales, are mostly good, and of interest for what they tell us about life in Hawthorne’s time.  “A Rill from the Town Pump” for example examines life without central plumbing from the perspective of the main water source of the village.  “The Sister Years” on the other hand is clearly a piece written for a local newspaper for New Year’s of a particular year, and has a number of in-jokes that are lost to all but scholars of that time period.  (On the gripping hand, it’s not often that we see the new and old years depicted as women.)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, while very much a Christian, was not a big fan of religious fanaticism; while his Puritan ancestors took the brunt of this in his stories, he also was critical of Shakers and even Quakers on that point.  The most humorous take of this is in “Endicott and the Red Cross” where the Puritan title character’s patriotic rant on the importance of “religious freedom” is interrupted by a “wanton gospeler” who reminds Endicott that he was not so keen on that freedom when he condemned the gospeler for heresy a few hours ago.

A more tragic treatment is in “The Gentle Boy” with prejudice against Quakers leading to murder and ostracism.  There’s even a preacher saying that Christian mercy does not apply to the despised sect, even to their children who are no doubt permanently corrupted.  (Remind you of anything?)

There’s some period sexism and racism in these stories and essays.  The latter really comes up in “Mr. Higginbotham’s Catastrophe”, about a gossipy traveling salesman who hears a report that Mr. Higginbotham has been murdered, with use of the N-word in conversation.  (And an equivalence of black people and the Irish as the lowest of the low.)

Overall, there’s more good material here than mediocre, and more excellence than clangers.  Some of the most famous stories have been reprinted in other anthologies, or if you want to read the entire thing, there are many inexpensive reprint editions, and it is also available from Project Gutenberg.

Here’s the trailer for the 1963 Twice Told Tales movie, which is not at all faithfully adapted, but does star Vincent Price in a triple role.

 

Book Review: Siege 13

Book Review: Siege 13 by Tamas Dobozy

During World War Two, Hungary was one of the Axis powers, with its own fascists led by the Arrow Cross Party.  At first this seemed like a good idea, as Hungary gained back territories it had lost after the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  But late in the war, it became obvious that they were on the losing side.  The Hungarian government tried to broker a separate armistice with the Soviet Union, only to have their country occupied by the Germans.  As a result, they were forced to fight to the bitter end.

Siege 13

In late December of 1944 through February of 1945, the Soviet Army encircled the city of Budapest and besieged the troops and civilians within.  It is that siege that gives us the title of this book, which contains thirteen short stories all of which tie into that event in some way, even if the characters are living in the Hungarian diaspora community in Toronto.

“The Atlas of B. Görbe” is about a struggling writer in New York City who turns to an older author of children’s books for assistance in finding his way.

“The Animals of the Budapest Zoo, 1944-1945” is set within the siege itself as the zookeepers come to realize they might not be able to keep themselves alive, let alone their charges, and the extreme steps one of the keepers takes.

“Sailor’s Mouth” takes place in Romania, where a man has come to adopt a child of Hungarian heritage.  He may have become misled by his carnal urges.  One of the themes in this story is “The Museum of Failed Escapes” that Judit, the woman the man is seeing, tells him about.

“The Restoration of the Villa Where Tíbor Kálmán Once Lived” concerns a deserter who joins the Communist occupation after the war.  He takes over the home of a man who used to provide people with false papers to escape the Axis, and betrays their names to the Soviets one by one.  But he gets the distinct feeling the villa  is rejecting him…this one won an O. Henry award.

“The Beautician” is about a college student preparing his thesis paper.  He finds a possible topic in the dark past of the manager of the club for Hungarian exiles in Toronto.  But is that something he really wants to make known?

“Days of Orphans and Strangers” follows up on the Kálmán family mentioned in “Restoration.”  One of them has been talking in his sleep, but not in the language you’d expect.

“Rosewood Queens” concerns the narrator’s relationship with her father’s lover, a collector of chess pieces (but never full sets.)

“The Encirclement” is about a lecturer on the topic of the Budapest siege, who finds himself with a persistent blind heckler who presents a different version of events.  The details are too close to be fake, but that’s not the way the lecturer remembers it.  I thought this story was the best in the book.

“The Society of Friends” features a long-standing love triangle among three Hungarian emigres.  It reminded me a bit of the movie Grumpy Old Men.  It shares a character with “Beautician.”

“The Miracles of Saint Marx” concerns a secret police officer’s search for a dissident who spreads tales of miraculous events.  It becomes personal when one of those stories is about her.  Also very good.

“The Selected Mug Shots of Famous Hungarian Assassins” is about a boy who handcrafts trading cards featuring what he says are Hungarian assassins.  It seems to be all his imagination, until the narrator finds a book on the same topic years later…  This story includes slurs against people with mental disabilities as a plot point, getting the boys in deep trouble.

“The Ghosts of Budapest and Toronto” is another tale of the Kálmán family.  Ghosts are seen in two cities as separated members of the family miss each other.

“The Homemade Doomsday Machine” finishes the volume with a genius child who seeks the destruction of society and the Nazi atomic scientist who shares that interest.  Has perhaps the happiest ending in the book.  Has a character that seems too eager to diagnose the child as autistic, especially as she has no psychological or medical training.

Most of the stories are bittersweet, with a few downer endings.  I found the writing competent but not compelling on average.

There are frequent mentions of rape, and suicide comes up a time or two. While the travails of the Jewish and Romani people in Hungary are mentioned, the emphasis is on ethnic Hungarians.  There’s some period sexism and a number of the female characters express dislike of the patriarchal Hungarian family culture.  Due to the heavy themes, I’d recommend this for college age and up.

Overall, I am glad I got the chance to read this.  Books on the Hungarian experience are uncommon, and I discovered much I did not know.  Recommended for other people wanting to broaden their experience.

 

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Comic Book Review: The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story

Comic Book Review: The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story written by Ed Brubaker & Matt Fraction, primary artist David Aja

When Daniel Rand was nine years old, his father Wendell Rand took him, his mother Heather, and business partner Harold Meachum on an expedition to the mystical city of K’un L’un, which appears in the mountains of China only once every ten years.  When Danny slipped into a crevasse, endangering his parents, Meachum, who was in love with Heather, treacherously murdered Wendell.  Heather refused to go with Meachum, and continued onward with her son.   They came across a bridge that hadn’t been there before, but a pack of wolves attacked.  Heather sacrificed herself to give Danny time to cross the bridge.  Archers from K’un L’un attempted to rescue Heather, but were unable to drive away the wolves before her death.

The Immortal Iron Fist: The Last Iron Fist Story

As the years passed inside the mystical city, Danny Rand became the best martial arts student of Lei Kung, the city’s guardian.  Eventually, he was allowed to battle the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying and plunge his fist into its heart.  This branded his chest with the crest of Shou-Lao, and gave Danny the ability to focus his ch’i energy into his fist, making it like unto a thing of iron.  He is not the first Iron Fist, but questions about the past ones are not encouraged.

At the next opportunity, Danny left K’un L’un to seek revenge upon Harold Meachum, a quest that ultimately proved hollow.  He instead embarked upon a career as the martial arts superhero Iron Fist.

Iron Fist was created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane as part of a martial arts fad at Marvel Comics inspired by the popularity of kung fu movies at the time.  He first appeared in Marvel Premiere #15 in 1974, ran for ten issues, then got his own starring series.  It was notable for the rare second-person narration.  (“You are Iron Fist, and you are about to die!”)  When sales fell, Danny Rand was teamed up with blaxploitation-inspired character Luke Cage in Power Man and Iron Fist.  As the “Heroes for Hire”, they became an iconic team for Marvel.

The volume under discussion here appeared in 2007, after several status changes (including being dead for a while) for Iron Fist.  As of the opening of this series, Daniel Rand is the head of Rand International, the company his father and Harold Meachum had founded.  They have been approached by the Chinese corporation Wai-Go Industries, which wants to buy mag-lev train technology and infrastructure from Rand Intl.  Danny senses something wrong with the deal, and cancels it, much to the dismay of Jeryn Hogarth, the person who actually runs the company for Danny.

Investigating the offices of Wai-Go as Iron Fist, the hero learns that the company is actually a front for the terrorist organization HYDRA, and is forced to battle their agents and their latest weapon, the Mechagorgon.

Ordinarily, Iron Fist would call in his allies in the superhero community to assist with a threat of this size, but this series takes place during the Civil War event, when all superhumans are required to register their identities with the government or else.  Many of his friends have joined the pro-Registration side, which Danny is opposed to, and the remainder are now fugitives.  (Iron Fist only remains free due to a legal loophole.)

At about the same time, the Steel Serpent resurfaces.  Davos, the son of Lei Kung, believes that the power of the Iron Fist is his by right, and has frequently tried to steal it from Danny.  He has come to believe there is a conspiracy to keep him from attaining the Iron Fist.  (Mild spoiler: he’s not entirely wrong.)  Steel Serpent has allied with HYDRA and a previously unknown being called the Crane Mother, and is looking for a man named Orson Randall.

Orson Randall (the name is probably not a coincidence) turns out to have been the previous holder of the Iron Fist title, one of the Immortal Weapons.  He relinquished the title and disappeared for reasons not adequately explained in this volume, but can still tap into the power of Shou-Lao.  Flushed out of hiding, Orson seeks out Danny Rand to give the newest Iron Fist some vital information about their legacy.

Lots of kung-fu action ensues!

As the original Iron Fist stories were inspired by the low-budget kung-fu flicks of the early 1970s, this one is heavily influenced by the special effects extravaganzas of the more recent wuxia movies.  There are mystical kung fu powers being unleashed right and left, and huge battle scenes.  The art goes well with this, including some nifty effects to show how Iron Fist finds the precise areas to attack.

Iron Fist’s backstory is somewhat problematic these days, given its use of the Mighty Whitey trope (white person goes to foreign land and is better at what the natives do than they are themselves.)  This series tries to mitigate it somewhat by revealing a more diverse array of past Iron Fists, and hinting in this volume that there’s a specific reason the last two have been Caucasian.  (It remains to be seen how the upcoming Netflix series will deal with the issue.)

Orson Randall is a good guest star as a pulp hero gone sour, and with hints at his own extensive backstory and heritage.

Most of the plot threads are still left dangling at the end of this volume, to be resolved later in the series.  The volume also contains a short piece referring to a period when Danny Rand was wearing the costume of Daredevil while Matt Murdock was otherwise occupied.

Overall, a good update to the Iron Fist concept and a rollicking adventure story.

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1 by Various

In 1976, Marvel Comics felt the time was right for another try at a overtly feminist superhero to appear in a solo book.  (Their first stab was 1973’s The Cat, who became Tigra.)  Someone, probably Gerry Conway, who would be the first writer on the series, remembered the existence of Carol Danvers, a supporting character in the Captain Marvel series who early on had had an experience that could be retconned into a superhero origin.  The name was deliberately chosen to reference feminism, and the first issue had a cover date of January 1977.

Essential Ms. Marvel Vol. 1

Ms. Marvel’s backstory came out in bits and pieces over the course of the series, so I am going to reassemble it in in-story chronological order.  Carol Danvers was a Boston, Massachusetts teenager who loved science fiction and wanted to become an astronaut and/or a writer.  She was very athletic and whip-smart.  Unfortunately, her father was a male chauvinist pig who felt that the most important thing for a young woman to do was marry a good man and have kids.  (In his partial defense, this would have been in the Fifties.)  He told Carol that he would not be paying for her to go to college, as the limited funds would be needed for her (not as bright but his dad’s favorite) brother’s education.

Carol pretended to have given up, and after graduating high school with honors, continued a part time job until her eighteenth birthday.  At that point, without telling her family, she enlisted in the United States Air Force.  Her father never forgave her for this defiance.  Somehow Carol got into flight school and became an officer and one of the Air Force’s top jet pilots.  Then she transferred into intelligence and became a top operative, partnering with her mentor/love interest Michael Rossi and rising to the rank of major.  (At some point, her  brother died in Vietnam.)

NASA recruited Major Danvers out of the Air Force to become their security chief at Cape Canaveral.  While there, she became entangled in events surrounding Mar-Vell, the Kree warrior who became known to Earthlings as Captain Marvel.  Carol was attracted to the mysterious hero, but that went nowhere as he already had a girlfriend.   During a battle with his turncoat superior, Colonel Yon-Rogg, Mar-Vell saved Carol from exploding Kree supertechnology.  At the time, no one noticed that the Psyche-Magnitron’s radiation had affected Ms. Danvers.

While the Mar-Vell mess wasn’t really Carol’s fault, she hadn’t covered herself in glory either, and her security career floundered.   Between the time we last saw her in the Captain Marvel series and her own series, Carol had decided to try her other childhood dream and wrote a book about her experiences at NASA.  (Apparently it was a bit of a “tell-all” as some at the agency are angry about it when they appear in this series.)  She also began experiencing crippling headaches and lost time, and consulted psychiatrist Michael Barnett.  Dr. Barnett was at a loss for a diagnosis but began falling in love with his client.

Which brings us to Ms. Marvel #1.  An amnesiac woman in a “sexy” version of Captain Marvel’s costume (plus a long scarf that was a frequent combat weakness) suddenly appears in New York City to fight crime.  She soon acquires the moniker of Ms. Marvel.  At the same time, Carol Danvers has been tapped by J. Jonah Jameson to become the editor of Woman magazine, a supplement to his Daily Bugle newspaper.  JJJ is depicted as being rather more sexist than in his Spider-Man appearances to better clash with Ms. Danvers over the direction the magazine should be taking.

Mary Jane Watson befriends the new woman in town (her friend Peter Parker appears briefly, but Spider-Man never does in this series.)  But their bonding is cut short by another of Carol’s blackouts.  Across town, the Scorpion, who has a long standing grudge against Jameson, has captured the publisher and is about to kill him when Ms. Marvel appears to save the day.

Eventually, it is discovered that Carol Danvers and Ms. Marvel are the same person, but having different personalities due to Ms. Danvers being fused with Kree genes and having Kree military training implanted in her brain.  Thanks to this, she has superhuman strength and durability, and a costume that appears “magically” and allows her to fly (until she absorbs that power herself.)  From her human potential, Ms. Marvel has developed a “seventh sense” that gives her precognitive visions.  Unfortunately, they’re not controllable and often make her vulnerable at critical moments.

Much later, the personalities are integrated as Carol learns to accept all of her possibilities.  Ms. Marvel fights an assortment of villains, both borrowed from other series (even Dracula makes a cameo!) and new ones of her own, especially once Chris Claremont starts writing her.  The most important is the mysterious shape-shifter Raven Darkhölme, who considers Carol Danvers her arch-enemy, even though they have never met.  Carol doesn’t even  have Raven on her radar!

In issue #19, Ms. Marvel finally meets up again with Mar-Vell for the first time since her transformation, her origin is finalized, and they part as friends.  The next issue has Carol change her costume to one that looks much less like Mar-Vell’s. but is still pretty fanservice oriented (like a swimsuit with a sash, basically.)  It’s considered her iconic look.  Shortly thereafter, Carol is fired from Woman (she missed a lot of work) and Dr. Barnett starts getting pushy about advancing their romantic relationship.

And then the series was cancelled.  Ms. Marvel was still appearing as a member of the Avengers team, but that was about to change as well.

In the now notorious Avengers #200 (not reprinted in this volume), Carol Danvers is suddenly pregnant despite not having been in  a relationship in some time.  The pregnancy is hyperfast, and the baby is delivered within 24 hours.  The child, Marcus, rapidly ages to young adulthood and explains that he is the son of time traveler Immortus, who’s been stuck in  the Limbo dimension all his life.  In order to escape, he had brought Ms. Marvel to Limbo, and seduced her with the aid of “machines” so that he could implant his “essence” inside her.  He then erased her memories of these events and sent her back to Earth so that Marcus could be born within the timestream.

Marcus’ presence is causing a timestorm, and a device he is building only seems to make the storm worse, so Hawkeye destroys it.  Sadly, it turns out the device was meant to “fix” Marcus so that he would not be detected as an anomaly, and without it, Marcus must return to Limbo.  Ms. Marvel volunteers to go back with him, because she is now in love with the man and wants to stay with him forever.  None of the other Avengers find this the least bit suspicious, and it’s treated as a happy ending for the character.

But come Avengers Annual #10, which is in this volume, Chris Claremont got the chance to respond to that.   Raven Darkhölme had since been revealed as Mystique, leader of the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants  One of the Brotherhood, Rogue, ambushes Carol Danvers in San Francisco, where Ms. Danvers has been living incognito.  Rogue is a power parasite, able to steal the abilities and memories of her prey.  Still clumsy with her powers, Rogue steals Ms. Marvel’s powers and memories permanently; attempting to hide the results, she dumps the victim off a bridge.

Spider-Woman just happens to be nearby and rescues the amnesiac Carol.  The arachnid hero then calls in Professor Charles Xavier of the X-Men to assist in figuring out what happened.  Professor X is able to restore many of Carol’s memories from her subconscious, but not all of the emotional connections.

Meanwhile, the Avengers battle the Brotherhood, which is trying to break some of its members out of prison.  Once that’s settled, they go to meet Carol.  She explains that Marcus made a fatal mistake in his calculations.  By being born on Earth, he’d not made himself native to the timestream, but he had made himself out of synch with Limbo.  Thus the rapid aging he’d used to make himself an adult on Earth couldn’t be turned off, and he was dead within a week.  This freed Carol from the brainwashing, and she was able to figure out just enough of the time travel tech to get home.  And then Carol rips into the Avengers for not even suspecting there was something wrong.  Once freed of the brainwashing, she recognized the rape for what it was and didn’t want anything to do with those who had condoned it.  Chastened, the Avengers leave.

(One bizarre bit is that Carol Danvers is established as being 29.  Nope.  Sorry, not even if she got promoted first time every time in her military career.  She’d be a minimum of 32 by the time she made major, was in that rank for at least a few years, and then there’s her next two careers.)

The volume also contains the Ms. Marvel stories from Marvel Super-Heroes Magazine #10-11, which have the plotlines originally intended for issues #24 & 25 of the series.   Here we learn that Mystique’s grudge against Ms. Marvel was caused by a self-fulfilling prophecy that Rogue meeting Carol Danvers would cost Rogue her soul/life.  As Mystique had adopted Rogue as a daughter, she felt that the best way to protect the power parasite was to kill Ms. Marvel in advance.   The last few pages are obviously drastically rewritten to have Carol vanish from the timestream (and thus invisible to precognition) for a while before returning and the plot of Annual #10 kicking in.

After the issues published in this volume, Carol Danvers went through several different name and power set changes, before becoming the current Captain Marvel.  She’s scheduled for a movie in the relatively near future.

Good bits:  Lots of exciting action sequences, and some decent art by Marvel notables like John Buscema and Dave Cockrum.  (Have to say though that Michael Golden’s art looks much less good without color.)  Despite some clumsiness at the beginning, Claremont does a good job with Carol’s characterization, peaking with her interactions with the mutated lizards known as The People.

Less good bits:  Carol’s costumes are clearly designed with the male audience in mind, rather than any kind of practicality.  Many male characters seem to feel obliged to use words like “dame” and “broad” much more than they came up in conversation even back in the Seventies.  Male (and male-ish) villains seem to default to trying to mind-control Ms. Marvel into serving them–this is one reason why Marcus succeeding at it jars so badly.  And Dr. Barnett suddenly getting so pushy about the relationship and his plans to convince Carol to give up being Ms. Marvel seems off-and we would never have found out why as he was scheduled to be murdered in the next issue.

Most recommended to fans of the current Captain Marvel series who want to see where the character came from; other Marvel Comics fans might want to check it out from the library.

Book Review: The Naturalist

Book Review: The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde

Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919), 26th President of the United States of America, was big on nature.  Specifically, he had a strong interest in natural history, and wanted to become/be known as a naturalist.  This new biography focuses on that part of Roosevelt’s life, from his boyhood collection of stuffed birds to his African expedition for the Smithsonian Institute.

The Naturalist Theodore Roosevelt

The author is himself a museum naturalist, so the narrative is perhaps a bit biased in favor of those who go out to collect specimens for natural history museums.  Roosevelt considered himself a “hunter-naturalist”, someone who went out, observed nature carefully, then killed animals for scientific study.  Sickly as a boy, with bad asthma, Teddy had to re-invent himself several times in his youth.  He worked hard to build up his body and mind, engaging in outdoor activities and especially learning about animals in nature.  His family was involved with the founding of the New York Museum of Natural History, which gave him a head start.

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s choice to go to Harvard seems to have doomed his ambition to become a full-time naturalist–according to this book, the college’s natural history program was dominated by laboratory work, not the field expeditions Teddy favored, and he met his first wife and realized that a naturalist’s pay wasn’t going to keep them in the style they were used to.

Instead, Roosevelt studied law and got into politics, with the results I mentioned in the first paragraph.  While he certainly made some headway as President, including creating America’s first wildlife reserves and other environmentally friendly actions, Teddy chafed at not being able to hunt properly and the last months of his term were largely taken up with preparations for his African expedition.

There were many bits of knowledge in this book that I either had not known before or had long forgotten.  Theodore Roosevelt’s poor vision meant that he was a bad shot, and often had to use far more bullets to bring down specimens than was ideal (and sometimes this meant he wound up killing more animals than he wanted!)

I found the literary feud between Roosevelt (and other scientifically-oriented naturalists) and the “sentimental” nature writers as exemplified by the Reverend William J. Long interesting.  Dr. Long heavily anthropomorphized the animal behavior in his “non-fiction” stories, and often depicted events that were so unlikely that naturalists accused him of just making things up.  (Side note:  I looked up Dr. Long’s work and among other things he penned an entirely serious book on the subject of animal telepathy-not just non-verbal communication, telepathy.)  In response, Dr. Long said that President Roosevelt could only touch the hearts of animals…with bullets.

The book stops with the aftermath of the successful African expedition-the less happy Amazon expedition does not get mentioned at all.  As is common with these specialized biographies, any parts of Roosevelt’s life that did not have a bearing on natural history get short shrift, and the serious student should also read a more general biography to get a balanced picture.

A heavy emphasis is placed on how Roosevelt’s practical experience with hunting influenced his ideas on conservation.  He could see with his own eyes how over-hunting was wiping out game animal populations, even within the span of a few years.

There’s a center section with black & white photos, and a few more scattered through the book.  There are extensive end notes, a bibliography and index.  Bright senior high students should be able to handle the material and language.

I enjoyed this book, and would recommend it to those interested in Theodore Roosevelt, natural history and the role of hunters in nature conservation.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through Blogging for Books for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

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