Book Review: The History of Opera for Beginners

Book Review: The History of Opera for Beginners by Ron David

Opera is one of the great art forms, blending theater and music into a powerful emotional experience.  But it also has a stereotype of being incomprehensible melodrama that boring rich people drag their unwilling spouses to.  And many of the books about opera are written by scholars who got their Doctor of Musicology degrees in the subject and expect you to follow along.

The History of Opera for Beginners

This volume is by an interested layman who presumes that you have very little knowledge on the subject and want a good place to start.   It begins with the roots of opera in older forms of musical theater, then moves on to Italy in the Sixteenth Century, where the opera as such was invented.  It covers the spread of opera across Europe and the major composers that created the most popular or influential pieces.

Then there’s a section on the part of opera that’s most accessible to the casual fan, the singers.  It talks about what castrati were, and the historical performers we know about because the audience wrote about them.  There’s rather more material about singers who have been recorded, starting with Enrico Caruso (who should probably replace Columbus as the official Italian-American holiday celebration.)

This is followed by a selection of the “best” operas with plot descriptions (most fit in a single page as opera tends to very thin plotlines.)

The book winds up with the author’s thoughts on where to proceed if you’re interested in more scholarly approaches to opera, a bibliography, and a guide to his favorite Youtube clips.

The general tone is snarky humor, enhanced by comedic art from Sara Woolley.

Recommended primarily for casual music fans, bright teenagers who want to know more about opera, and as a gag gift for opera lovers.

Speaking of Youtube, let’s all enjoy Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma” (“None Shall Sleep”).

Manga Review: Oh My Goddess! Volume 27

Manga Review: Oh My Goddess! Volume 27 by Kosuke Fujishima

Keiichi Morisato is an engineering undergraduate at the Nekomi Institute of Technology when his overbearing upperclassmen stick him with watching the all-male dorm over a holiday weekend.  (It’s not like it’s going to interfere with his social life.)  Getting hungry, Keiichi tries to order delivery, but each restaurant he tries is closed.  In a fit of frustration, Keiichi punches random keys on the phone–and is connected to something called the Goddess Help Line.

Oh My Goddess! Volume 27

The voice on the other end says that an operator will be with him shortly, and it turns out they meant physically.  A beautiful goddess named Belldandy (after Verthandi, the Norse Norn of the present) offers a single wish to Keiichi.  Lonely and with no luck with women due to being short, the dumbstruck Keiichi wishes for “a girl just like you to stay with me forever.”

The wish is granted by forcing Belldandy to stay on Earth with our young protagonist.  The returning upperclassmen kick the couple out of the dorm (“all-male” and they mean it) so Keiichi and Belldandy move into an abandoned shrine that Belldandy shines up with her powers.  Not too long after, Belldandy’s sisters Urd and Skuld show up…and never go away.  Our young couple is finding themselves truly falling in love, but will they ever get enough peace and quiet to fulfill it?

This seinen (young men’s) manga series (Aa! Megami-sama in Japanese) ran monthly from 1988 to 2014, a total of 48 volumes!  It’s been immensely popular over the years, spawning a set of OAVs, three anime series (one a gag spin-off), a theatrical movie and a novelization.   The relatively chaste nature of the series (Keiichi and Belldandy seldom do more than hold hands for most of the run) made it a good choice to show new anime fans in the U.S.

This is one of those series that showed marked artistic improvement over the years as Fujishima mastered his craft.  (The animated versions use the later character designs even when covering the early events.)

This is very much male wish-fulfillment.  A beautiful girl falls in love with our outwardly schlubby hero because she’s not fooled by his unimpressive looks and can see the true nobility of his inner nature.  While the course of true love seldom runs smooth, it’s almost always interference coming from outside, and Keiichi seldom has to actually work at building and maintaining the relationship.  Plus, Belldandy is in many ways the positive stereotype of the traditional Japanese housewife, kind, efficient, competent at all things feminine and ready to follow Keiichi’s lead.

Also irritating to some readers is that the main relationship plateaus early on as the creator realized what a cash cow he had and determined to milk it as long as possible.  It’s not until the final volume that Keiichi and Belldandy finally move past “grade-school sweeties who live in the same house”, and then the long stall is turned into a plot point.

All that said, they are cute together and most of the characters are likable.

In the volume to hand, #27, shenanigans have turned a former demon’s familiar partway into an angel.  (Angels are bond creatures to gods as familiars are to demons.)  Without a god or demon to bond to, the new “angel” will die.  Keiichi, being the kindhearted and steadfast fellow he is, has volunteered to host the critter in his body temporarily.  This is killing him as the volume begins.

Keiichi disappears, and the goddesses look for him, only to find him in the most likely place.  Then the crew realizes there’s one being in the neighborhood that could host the bond creature–Velsper, the demon who’s been trapped in the form of a cat to curb his powers, and doesn’t have his own familiar.   There’s a smack of homophobic humor, but all ends well (if embarrassing for Velsper.)

Then Urd, Skuld and Peorth (an unrelated fourth goddess who’s also staying at the temple because reasons) get into a rubber band war that escalates far beyond just flicking office supplies at each other.  Silly and inconsequential.

The volume is rounded out by a story in which we meet the Machiners, one of the many races that share Earth with the humans–at a slight angle.  The Machiners are machine people that come in various sizes and shapes, and sometimes need repairs.  It’s a good thing that Belldandy and Keiichi are good at machine repair, Belldandy due to her supernatural nature, and Keiichi because he loves machines.   This is a “sense of wonder” story that stands well on its own.

There are also a few Mini-Goddesses gag strips, and the first chapter of the novel First End, which posits a scenario in which Keiichi dies.

This series is now being reprinted in omnibus volumes, and those may be easier to find than the older ones.

And here’s a great scene from the movie:

Book Review: Fresh Fear

Book Review: Fresh Fear edited by William Cook

Horror anthologies are like a box of chocolates.  One story might be crunchy frog, another spring surprise, while a more disappointing one is just maple cream.  (Seriously, maple cream?)  This is because horror tends to be a balancing act between what the writer finds scary and what the reader does.   Two different readers looking at the same story may fiercely debate whether it’s terrifying or just kind of gross.

Fresh Fear

This particular anthology is listed as “contemporary horror” which seems to mean mostly recent stories, set close to the present day.  Other than that, there’s no real overarching theme or subgenre requirements.  After an introduction that talks a bit about why people read horror stories (among other things, to feel horrified), the opening story is “God of the Winds” by Scathe meic Beorh, a hallucinatory piece that is at least partially about the tendency of white people to appropriate Native American mysticism in stupid ways.  The final story is “Out of the Light” by Anna Taborska, a Lovecraftian-feeling story about a man who gets too heavily invested in reading a horror anthology.  Hmm.

I was a bit disappointed that the piece by big-name author Ramsey Campbell (“Britain’s most respected living horror writer”) was a reprint from 1988.  Which is not to say that “Welcomeland” itself wasn’t a fine story.  It concerns a man returning to his home town which has been partially rebuilt into a failed amusement park.  Or has it succeeded at its true purpose?  It doesn’t feel dated.

Also outstanding is Christine Morgan’s “Nails of the Dead” which looks at Norse mythology from the point of view of a very minor character with a small but important job.  Of local interest to me is “Just Another Ex” by Roy C. Booth and Axel Kohagen.  A man is sent to find another man who may be unfaithful to his loved one.  His reward is non-standard.

There were some typos, most clustered in “Spencer Weaver Gets Rebooted” by Thomas A. Erb, about a bullied high schooler who gets pushed too far.  Because of this, and the rather immature feel of the plot points, it felt more like something a high school student would write than something for a professional anthology.  (“Did I mention the head bully has a small penis?  Well he does.”)

This is an “18+” book, which has sex, rape, foul language, torture and in some cases excessive focus on body fluids.   Happy endings are few.  But with twenty-eight widely varying stories, there’s something for almost every horror fan.   Recommended for the horror buff who wants to try some new authors.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Three

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Threeby Makoto Yukimura

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first two volumes.  If you do not want to be spoiled, see the reviews for those volumes instead.

Vinland Saga, Volume 3

It is the Twelfth Century C.E., the age of the Vikings.  Thorfinn Thorsson serves as a Viking warrior in the band of Askeladd.  But he does so only for the eventual chance to kill the treacherous murderer of his father in an honorable duel.  Askeladd himself holds secrets about his heritage and true loyalties.

In Volume Two,  Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England.  His son, Prince Canute, has fallen into the custody of Askeladd’s band, who are trying to get him back to his father’s camp in the middle of a harsh winter.  They are pursued by the English warriors under the command of Thorkell the Tall, a near-superhuman fighter who switched sides to get better battles.

In this volume, Thorkell and his men catch up with Askeladd’s band.  An epic battle between Thorfinn and Thorkell is the centerpiece, with Thorkell revealing some things about Thors that Thorfinn was unaware with.  Meanwhile, Prince Canute comes to a realization about his fate and makes a decision that may change the course of history.

As with previous volumes, the author’s research really shows (and he talks a bit about it in an interview at the back of the book.)  The art is detailed and dynamic, and the writing is layered.  Thorfinn remains something of a one-note character, but we can see the chips being made in his monomania, and ask what will become of him if he ever achieves his goal.

On the cautionary side, there’s a lot of over-the-top violence, so it’s for older teens and up.  There’s also  some theological discussion as to what “love” is that may be uncomfortable for some readers.

If you enjoyed the previous volumes of Vinland Saga, this one continues to be worth reading.

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Two

Manga Review: Vinland Saga, Book Two by Makoto Yukimura

To recap for those of you who haven’t read the review of Book One, Vinland Saga is set in the early 12th Century, the time of the Vikings.  Our protagonist is Thorfinn, son of Thors, who serves in the war band of Askeladd.  Askeladd murdered Thors, and Thorfinn serves the wily warrior for the sole purpose of one day getting revenge in a fair duel.

Vinland Saga, Book Two

In this volume, the action shifts to the British Isles, and the war of King Sweyn Forkbeard against King Ethelred the Unready.  While Ethelred himself has fled, the city of London stands fast, largely due to the presence of Thorkell the Tall on their side.  Thorkell is a mighty man who hopes to perish in battle against a truly worthy foe, so that he might enter Valhalla with honor.  He switched sides to fight against the Northmen, because they were the tougher opponents!

Askeladd sends the relatively tiny lad Thorfinn in to kill Thorkell, and although it doesn’t work, Thorkell is impressed enough to want to fight Thorfinn again.  Sweyn decides to consolidate his rule over the rest of the country, and appoints his sickly son Canute (who’s the blond on the cover) to handle London’s siege.

Things don’t go as planned for just about everyone, and soon Askeladd’s band is in possession of Canute, and being chased by Thorkell’s warriors across the countryside.  Askeladd is forced to resort to one of the aces up his sleeve, a shocking secret from his past.

There’s a bonus story about Thorfinn’s sister Ylva dealing with the loss of her brother and father, and a chapter of “For Our Farewell Is Near”, about a samurai dying of illness .

There’s plenty of action and violence in this volume, and Askeladd’s idea of “mercy” is a cruel one by modern standards.  Some readers may also be turned off by the alcoholic priest who is not very good at explaining theology.  And probably the real Canute wasn’t that pretty.

However, it’s got good art, interesting characters and a setting that appeals to me, so I recommend this to fans of Viking stories, and students of English history.

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