Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning

Book Review: A Shadow Bright and Burning by Jessica Cluess

Eleven years ago, Great Britain was a powerful nation with a thriving magical community.  Then the Ancients were summoned, seven supernatural beings who are hostile to human life as we know it.  Since then, the British have been at war with these occupying horrors, and quite frankly losing.  At the start of the war, orphan girl Henrietta Howel was dumped by her aunt at a dismal school where she is now a teacher, having no other place to go.

A Shadow Bright and Burning

Of late, there have been a series of mysterious fires at Brimthorn School, and a sorcerer has been called in to investigate.  The culprit is Henrietta herself, who has had trouble controlling her ability to set herself aflame.  The sorcerer Agrippa realizes that Henrietta is a rare female sorcerer, and thus the Chosen One of a prophecy leading to the defeat of the Ancients.  So it’s off to London for Henrietta to be trained!

However, it quickly comes to Henrietta’s attention that she probably isn’t the Chosen One, and the penalty for impersonating the Chosen One is dire indeed!  Can she navigate the treacherous currents of magical training and romantic interest before the  Ancients and their Familiars strike against the heart of the city?

The plot moves along at a nice clip, and there are some cool battle scenes.  In general, this book is competently written.

That said, many of the characters seem to come from Central Casting:  the heroine with a tragic backstory who believes she’ll never find love, the “lower class” childhood friend with a dark secret, the seemingly cold man who in fact feels very deeply, etc.

Sexism is the real “big bad” in this story; the branch of magic that is female-dominated is the one primarily blamed for the Ancients and is now banned completely; several of the characters object entirely to the concept of female sorcerers, and young Queen Victoria is being manipulated by male advisers who don’t trust her to run the country.

On the diversity front, which has become more relevant in modern young adult fiction:  one major character is described as having black skin, but this never comes up again and there is reason to believe that isn’t his actual appearance.  As opposed to Henrietta’s “dark” coloration from her Welsh ancestry, which is frequently mentioned.  Also, it’s hinted that two of the male characters are interested in each other, but it could also be just a very close friendship.

There is some child abuse in the early chapters.  Brimthorn is not a good school.  The Ancients tend to cause gruesome deaths or deformity, which may affect some more sensitive readers–I’d say senior high on up should be fine.

This is the first in a series, and a few plot hooks are left hanging; for example, it’s strongly hinted that the story of why the Ancients were summoned is still not fully revealed, despite some major pieces being revealed in this volume.  And just possibly Henrietta may not be a true orphan….

Recommended primarily to readers of YA paranormal romance.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.   No other compensation was requested or offered.

Book Review: Out of the Dead City

Book Review: Out of the Dead City by Samuel R. Delany (originally published as “Captives of the Flame”)

It has been about five hundred years since the Great Fire wiped out the old civilizations.  On the island of Toron, however, enough humans and records survived to begin again.  A settlement became a village became a town became a city.  And when the people of Toron regained the ability to sail the sea, they found a fairly large section of the mainland was still livable, though the people living there were relatively primitive, and proximity to radiation had created two mutant races, the short neo-Neanderthals and tall forest guards.

Out of the Dead City

The people of Toron were able to dominate the mainlanders, and became the Toromon Empire; but by the standards of history, it was a small empire.  A belt of deadly radioactive land cut off further expansion on the land, and dangerous currents likewise circumscribed oceanic exploration.  To increase their scientific knowledge and study the radioactive death belt, the Empire built a new city nearer to it, Telphar.  But not too long after it was constructed, the radioactive area expanded to include Telphar, making it a dead city.

Now the Toromon Empire has air vehicles powered by tetron metal, and has tried flying them over the radioactive barrier–but something is making the engines fail.  It’s becoming more obvious that there is someone on the other side of the barrier, someone that certain government officials want to go to war with.  But none of them are in the small group of people who know the truth about The Lord of the Flames.

This was Mr. Delany’s second published novel (see my review of The Jewels of Aptor,) and the first of The Fall of the Towers trilogy.  (I’ll be following up with the rest at a later date.)  This is revised from its earlier publication, as Mr. Delany explains in an author’s note for the trilogy.  He thinks it an improvement, but decided not to meddle further after that.

There are a lot of characters for what is a pretty short novel, and it takes a while to work out which ones are important (some come more into focus in later volumes.)  Mr. Delany seems to have noticed this, at one point telling the reader to remember a name, and at another point letting us know that another character will play no further role in the story.

Eventually, it shakes out that our male lead is Jon Koshar, a merchant’s son who has escaped from the tetron mines, where he was sentenced for a crime he most assuredly did commit.  (The person who instigated the crime refused to come forward and Jon was honor-bound not to expose him.)  Jon has come too close to Telphar, and been changed.  He is now in communication with a disembodied intelligence known as the Triple Being, which has made him resistant to radiation at the cost of becoming transparent in low light.

It seems that Earth has now become part of the battleground between the Triple Being and their enemy, The Lord of the Flames.  The Lord meddles with less evolved beings by puppeteering one of them, evidently for its own amusement, while the Triple Being tries to drive it off while causing the minimum of disruption to the hosts’ civilizations.  The being currently being possessed by The Lord of the Flames is behind the strange things happening around the radiation belt, and Jon and the other two humanoids contacted by the Triple Being must stop it.

Since the struggle is happening simultaneously at multiple points in space-time, this involves some trippy scenes where the protagonists inhabit alien bodies for short periods.

There’s also some relatively mundane action going on, such as the abduction of the empire’s heir presumptive, and a series of business competition actions that result in “accidental” mass poisoning.

For 1963, the novel comes off as surprisingly non-sexist beyond the typical occupations of men and women.  Content note:  there’s a short torture scene.

With so many plot threads, several of which are still dangling at the end of the story (thus the trilogy), this novel feels overstuffed and sometimes lacks focus.  As a standalone, it’s a bit lacking, so check back next year for my opinion of the complete product.

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street

Book Review: The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

In the wake of World War One, Spiritualism, a religious movement centering around contact with the dead, was on the rise.  With this came a fad for mediums who claimed to be able to channel those unquiet spirits, both for the knowledge they had and to create uncanny physical effects.  Understandably, there were many who were skeptical, but felt that these mediums should be scientifically investigated.  Just in case there was any quantifiable evidence that wasn’t fake.

The Witch of Lime StreetScientific American, the leading popular science magazine of that time, offered a cash prize to the first medium to pass rigorous scientific examination and be proved genuine.  And on that five-man jury was one man who had a reputation for spotting fakes and chicanery–the magician and master escape artist Harry Houdini.  Most candidates for the prize were easily disproven.  But then there was Mina “Margery” Crandon, wife of a respectable Boston surgeon.

Her gifts, brought to her through the spirit of her dead brother Walter, were impressive indeed.  But was she the Queen of Mediums, or simply a master of parlor magic to rival the great Houdini himself?  This is the story of their meeting and what came of it.

Told in bite-size chapters and a handful of photographs, this book starts with Arthur Conan Doyle learning of the end of WWI, and his involvement with the Spiritualists.  His tours in support of the movement helped create interest in the United States, and indirectly led to the prize competition.  He tried to recruit Houdini, but the showman was less than convinced.  As became something of a pattern, Sir Arthur took Houdini’s politeness in not calling out a fake at the time as impressed belief.

We also learn of how Mrs. Crandon became a medium, but certain aspects of her and her husband’s earlier life are kept from the reader until much later in the story.  (And some mysteries are never solved.)  It should be noted that some conversations are reconstructed from later recollections, which may be fallible.

There’s a lot of interesting material in here for those interested in the mystic lore of the period, including a cameo by Theodore Roosevelt.  But once the investigation of Margery begins, the chapters start to drag, and it feels like the author stretched this part to fill out the page count.  Those of you who are history buffs will already have figured out that Mrs. Crandon didn’t win the magazine’s prize.

There’s a list of helpful sources for further reading, and an index.  There’s quite a bit of discussion of female private parts, from whence mediums were supposed to issue ectoplasm (and, it was alleged, where fake mediums often hid props.)  That might make the book unsuitable for readers below senior high level, depending on their parents’ discretion.

Overall, this is a helpful book for the reader who wants a quick look at Harry Houdini’s investigation of mediums from the aspect of his most famous case, and how it fit into events of the time.  There are several fine biographies of Houdini that will be more helpful if his career is the reader’s primary interest.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume from Blogging for Books for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (2016)

Manga Review: Shonen Jump Weekly (2016) by various creators.

It’s the fourth anniversary of this blog (where does the time go!?) and thus my annual review of the online edition of Weekly Shounen Jump, Japan’s best-selling manga anthology.   The 2016 reaper has been busy here as elsewhere, with several long-running series ending:  Bleach, Nisekoi, Toriko and even the record-setting but mostly unknown outside Japan Kochikame (a gag series about a lazy cop in a quiet neighborhood police station.)  World Trigger and Hunter x Hunter are on indefinite hiatus due to creator health issues.  So let’s take a look at what’s left, starting with the weekly series.

Weekly Shonen Jump (2016)

One Piece: Now the tentpole long-runner of the magazine, the story of the Straw Hat Pirates as they sail around a world of mostly water in search of freedom and the ultimate treasure continues to be awesome, though the cast is perhaps now too large to fully utilize all of them properly.  Currently, the plot is centered around Sanji, the ship’s cook and would-be ladies’ man.  His unpleasant family has caught up with him, and Sanji is being forced into a political marriage with Pudding, the daughter of Big Mom, one of the Four Emperors.  Naturally, the rest of the crew and a few new allies are determined to rescue Sanji…even if he doesn’t want to be.

My Hero Academia:  The kids of Class 1-A have almost all gotten their provisional superhero licenses.  One of the exceptions is the explosive Bakugou, who has almost but not quite figured out the connection between formerly Quirkless classmate Deku and the now powerless All-Might.  Bakugou and Deku are now having a discussion about their relationship, and in the tradition of both superhero comics and shounen manga, they’re having it with their fists.  Still one of the best superhero school comics out there.

The Promised Neverland:  New this year, and the most promising of the newcomers.  Emma and the other children in the orphanage never questioned the rules about not leaving the grounds, or wondered what happened to the kids who were adopted.  Until the day they learned the horrible truth–the children who leave are eaten by demons!  Now Emma and the two smartest boys in the orphanage, Norman and Ray, must figure out a way to escape, even though Mother Isabella and Sister Krone are keeping a sharp eye out for potential trouble.

We’re still in the early stages of the plot, and much remains mysterious–just what is Isabella’s real motive here?  Do the demons control all of Earth, or just the area around the orphanage?  Just where is the orphanage anyway?  With all the plotting and counter-plotting, this is so far a worthy successor to Death Note.

Black Clover:  In the world where everyone has at least some magical ability except Asta (who now has anti-magic), the Black Bulls are the dregs of the Magic Knights of the Clover Kingdom.  But just because they’re a ragtag bunch of misfits doesn’t mean they’re pushovers!  Currently, two groups that are enemies of the Clover Kingdom have teamed up to attack the Witches’ Forest–good thing the Black Bulls just happened to be there to get medical attention for Asta’s arms!

Food Wars!:  Soma’s education at the elite culinary school Totsuki Institute is threatened when an embittered former student, Azami Nakiri, takes over the school and insists that everyone must now cook only the recipes he likes in the way he prescribes.  Soma and his fellow rebels have been whittled away by rigged final exams, but now Azami’s old classmate (and Soma’s father) Joichiro has shown up to propose a team shokugeki (cooking contest) for all the marbles!  Can the Polar Star team win, even with Azami’s genius chef daughter Erina on their side?

RWBY:  Based on the popular webtoon, this manga covers events that happened before the four girls who make up the RWBY team joined together at their school for monster hunting training.  The current plotline involves Blake (the “B”), who is a member of the Faunus, a humanoid species that is discriminated against by the majority humans.  She was once a train robber to help her people, but her partner Adam crossed the line….  I have not been very impressed with this tie-in.

The most recent issues have two “Jump Start” series that have just started in Japan and may be added to the regular rotation.

Demon’s Plan involves two boys who grew up in a slum together, working hard and saving money for a chance to get a wish from an artifact known as “the Demon’s Plan.”  It turns out that artifact was a fake, but in  the process the owner of the real thing shows up and turns them both into “demons” who must now battle other demons and eventually each other.  The one  who’s less enthused about that idea has made it to the big city in search of the cruel creator of demons.  Could be good, not hitting me well just yet.

Ole Golazo is about a lad named Banba who was a tae kwon do champion before being banned from the sport for fighting.  (In fairness, he was provoked beyond endurance, but rules is rules.)  Adrift in high school, he develops a crush on a girl, and tries to join the soccer team she manages.  Banba has amazing kicking skills, but knows nothing of the rules and customs of “the Beautiful Game.”  Can he be trained to work with a team to achieve victory?  Very reminiscent of the early chapters of Slam Dunk and has some likability.

And then there’s monthly features as well, so let’s look at those–

Seraph of the End:  On the post-apocalyptic world, our heroes have gone AWOL from the Demon Army (which is humans who use demon weapons that if abused will turn them into demons) and teamed up with the nicest vampire they’ve met so far.  They’re in a tenuous alliance with some vampires that seem to be rebelling against their top-heavy social order, but who are not to be trusted.  In the most recent chapter, annoying vampire Crowley reveals he is far more powerful than he’s been letting on.  But he’s still well below the person the alliance will need to beat for the next step of the plan.

Blue Exorcist:  The focus is off Rin “Son of Satan” Okamura for the moment, as his classmate in exorcism training Ryuji works with unorthodox investigator Lightning to discover what happened to several missing people on the Blue Night.  It seems there’s a secret laboratory located on a different time axis below the cram school.

Boruto:  A sequel to the long-running Naruto series starring the son of Naruto.  His father’s turned into a boring bureaucrat who’s hardly ever home, and Boruto tries to get his attention by winning big in a multi-village tournament/exam.  Except that Boruto is talked into using some devices that are against the rules, and is shamed by his father for it.  Now, Naruto has been captured by new villains, and Boruto must regain his honor by joining the rescue team.

Yu-Gi-Oh! Arc-V:  I have actually completely lost track of what the plotline is supposed to be, though it seems that both the multiple personality protagonist and his arch-enemy have traveled back in time from when children’s card games destroyed the Earth.  I’m not even sure a full twenty-four hours have passed since the beginning of the series, and certainly the card game school mentioned early on has gotten zero development since.  This is a hot mess.

One-Punch Man:  Saitama, the superhero who can defeat any opponent with a single punch (and that really sucks for him) is participating in a martial arts tournament in a wig disguise.  Meanwhile, most of the other heroes are dealing with a huge monster infestation.  Slow going, but still very amusing.

Although the loss of several popular series seems to have caused a drop in sales for the print edition, the online version is still excellent value for money and is highly recommended for fans of shounen manga.

Comic Book Review: Joe Kubert Presents

Comic Book Review: Joe Kubert Presents by Joe Kubert and others

Joe Kubert (1926-2012) was one of the all-time great comic book artists.  The bulk of his work was done for DC Comics, including many Hawkman and Sergeant Rock stories. Joe Kubert Presents was his final series, a tribute to him by the company he’d done so much for.   Mr. Kubert was given free rein to choose which stories to do, and which other creators he wanted to share the spotlight with.  Rather than risk an announcement of the series ahead of time only to not be able to deliver (this had happened to him before), Mr. Kubert insisted on having several issues “in the can” before it was put on order forms for retailers.  The sixth issue was nearly complete when he died.

Joe Kubert Presents

The first issue leads off with “Hawkman”; this iteration is closest to the science fiction-inspired Silver Age version, but not in continuity with any previous story.  Katar Hol and his partner Shayera (Hawkgirl) are sent from the utopian planet Thanagar to observe Earth up close and determine what steps should be taken in the future.  The Thanagarians worry that the Earthlings will not mature out of their destructive behavior before they develop interstellar travel.

The aliens land in Africa, observe the wanton slaughter of wildlife and environmental destruction, and decide to visit a nearby village.  Unfortunately, this particular village sits atop a toxic waste dump; the poverty-stricken villagers have become economically dependent on the storage fees.  The villagers worry that the Thanagarians have come to stop the practice and react badly.

While I understand the good intent of the story, it really does look like technologically advanced white people lecturing primitive native Africans on proper respect for the environment.  And the Hawks destroy the natives’ livelihood and leave without considering that consequence, so their victory leaves a bitter aftertaste.

“Spit” is a recurring feature about an orphan who runs away from the orphanage and winds up stowing away on a whaling ship.  In short vignettes, he suffers much abuse, but eventually learns how to survive at sea and decides to become a whaler.  The first few chapters are in sepia tone, but the finale is mostly in full color.  One (landlubber) character is implied to be a pedophile, but is thwarted before he can do anything.

“The Redeemer” is three chapters of a series Mr. Kubert solicited back in the 1980s before he discovered he wouldn’t be able to deliver it on time.  Jim Torkan is the title character, a man who reincarnates across time and space  to gain the wisdom he will need to eventually save the human race from itself.  He is the target of the Infernal One, who sends agents to tempt Torkan from the path of righteousness, so that the Redeemer will be under his control.

The first two chapters take place in the far future, as Torkan is a scientist whose space station is invaded by murderous robbers seeking a chemical he’s developed that can control minds.  His love interest is actually an agent of the Infernal One who tries to convince him to join up with the would-be dictator to save his own skin.  The third chapter has Torkan as an ex-Confederate soldier just after the Civil War.  The story carefully avoids mentioning what the Confederacy fought for beyond “justice and right” (hint: slavery), but it was all a waste and Torkan is without purpose.  He gets involved in a treasure hunt, but at the end discovers something more precious than gold: himself.

“Farewell” was Kubert’s last Sergeant Rock story.  The son and grandson of one of Easy Company’s soldiers visit a D-Day beach and the cemetery nearby.  They discuss the possible death of Rock, but in the end it doesn’t matter if he is buried here–a piece of each soldier who fell rests with every other soldier.

“The Biker” is about a wounded Afghanistan veteran and motorcyclist who bunks down for the night in an abandoned house.  But maybe not as abandoned as it looks.  Some excellent coloring work here.

Then there are two stories written by Joe Kubert, but with art by other people.  “The Ruby” (art by Henrik Jonsson) is about bandits attacking a Himalayan temple–it turns out to be a possible origin story for an obscure DC character.   “Devil’s Play” (art by Brandon Vietti) is a Kamandi story, as the last boy on Earth battles the animal-men that have taken over the planet.  This story offers a different explanation for the Great Disaster than usual.

The series also contained several “U.S.S. Stevens” stories by Sam Glanzman, telling tales of his WWII service aboard that destroyer.  “The Figurehead” is the most interesting of these, featuring an eccentric crewmate of Mr. Glanzman’s who may or may not have had unusual abilities (it’s possible that this is a sailor’s yarn and he’s pulling our leg a bit.)  This material has been collected separately, along with Mr. Glanzman’s other memoirs.

Brian Buniak gives us “Angel and the Ape”, based on the Bob Oksner series about private detectives Angel O’Day (an attractive human woman) and Sam Simeon (a cartoonist who also happens to be a gorilla.)  It’s not quite in continuity with any other appearance of the characters, but as a comedy strip, continuity was never a huge issue.  The pair are hired to prevent a restaurateur from being murdered; they do so but he is shot anyway, and they have to figure out whodunnit.  After they solve that case, a reporter gets the story of their origin (or at least Angel’s version.)  There’s an energy and attention to humorous background details reminiscent of early Mad, but sometimes the exaggerated art style can go a bit off.

If you are a fan of Joe Kubert’s art, this volume is a must-have; if you’re indifferent to that, the stories are only average, and the problematic material may knock this down a star or two for you.  I liked this very much.

Manga Review: Vampire Princess Miyu Volume Two: Encounters

Manga Review: Vampire Princess Miyu Volume Two: Encounters by Toshiki Hirano & Narumi Kakinouchi

The Shinma (“god-demons”) are supernatural creatures that come from a place known as the Darkness, which many of them have escaped from to the bright and warm Earth.  It is the fate of Miyu, born of the union of a vampiric Shinma and a mortal human, to be the Guardian who hunts down stray Shinma and returns them to the Darkness.  In this she is assisted by her bodyguard, the foreign Shinma called Larva.  Separated from her parents by her duties, Miyu yearns to go to the Darkness herself, but cannot do so before returning all the escaped Shinma.

Vampire Princess Miyu Volume 2: Encounters

Vampire Princess Miyu was a shoujo horror manga running from 1988-2002, which was turned into two anime adaptations, and had three spin-off manga series.  The manga was brought over by Studio Ironcat, but never fully translated, and is now out of print.

Miyu is something of a morally ambiguous character; while she primarily banishes Shinma who are preying on human souls or bodies, she also attacks those that aren’t doing any immediate harm or are even helping humans.   Sometimes she seems to enjoy playing with her prey, but can also be taciturn and business-like in her eliminations.  And Miyu requires the blood of humans every so often to function.  She only takes the blood of volunteers (usually people who’ve suffered great loss but are still aesthetically pleasing), to whom she promises “eternity”–a deathlike coma of endless comforting dreams.

This volume contains three stand-alone stories.  In “The Jewel Taken By the Sea”, a young man who loves aquariums sees a mermaid at the aquarium in the new village he’s moved to.  But at his school, he meets a girl who looks almost identical to the mermaid, except for clearly being human.  She’s obviously got a secret, but is it the one he thinks it is?

“Doll Forest” concerns a small shop that makes traditional Kyoto dolls, some of which look disturbingly like young women who have gone missing in the neighborhood.  Miyu investigates–is the monster the creepy old dollmaker, his uncannily handsome son…or something even scarier?  This story does include an overweight woman with self-image problems.

“When Birds Cry” is about a homeless man named Tori (“bird”) and his two wards, a bird and a little girl both named Ruri.  He’s taking care of the Ruris, but are his motives really benevolent?  And if Miyu banishes Tori, who will take care of the little girl?  This one has a teen boy who’s interested in Miyu, and not at all understanding the mystic weirdness going on.  His intentions are good, but people close to Miyu tend to die.

Interestingly, all three stories wind up being clean-ups from previous banishings that Miyu performed.

The art is light and airy, and can sometimes make it difficult to tell who’s speaking isolated speech bubbles.  The mood is less scary than sad, death or banishment is the inevitable outcome.  The writing is okay, but sounds many of the same notes repeatedly.

This volume and the other Vampire Princess manga may be difficult to find; the anime is somewhat more available.  Recommended to fans of YA vampire stories.

And here’s a music video with footage from the anime!

Book Review: Age of Daredevils

Book Review: Age of Daredevils by Michael Clarkson

This book covers two generations of the William “Red” Hill family of Niagara Falls, Ontario.  They were river men, swimmers, rescue workers, boat handlers–and some of them were driven to perform dangerous stunts.  And around Niagara Falls, the most daring stunt imaginable was to go over the Horseshoe Fall in a barrel.  The Hills, father and sons, were involved in most of the attempts at this feat until the 1950s.

Age if Daredevils

Parts of the story are fascinating; the first survivor of a deliberate attempt to go over the falls was a woman in her sixties, Annie Taylor.  And there’s quite a bit of family drama, particularly in the sibling rivalry of Red’s sons “Junior” and Major.  I found the contrast between the acceptance of ultimate risk and the careful shaving off of every bit of lesser risk that could be managed a fair assessment of the character of a daredevil.

The author is a local newspaper reporter who knew the Hills in his youth and has extensively interviewed several of them over the years.  This means that certain details are covered in great depth (and often repetitively), but others are given short shrift–later attempts to go over the falls alive that didn’t involve the Hill family are summarized in a paragraph or two, despite sounding just as fascinating in their backgrounds.   The book also engages in mind-reading from time to time, reporting what a person who did not survive likely felt during certain events.

There’s an extensive sources section and chapter notes, but no index.  This is more of a memoir than a formal history.  I should note that there is discussion of suicides related to the Niagara River.

Recommended for those who have a fascination with daredevils and especially those who have an interest in the Niagara Falls phenomenon.

Movie Review: When Marnie Was There

Movie Review: When Marnie Was There directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi

Anna is an orphan with asthma and alienation issues.  When she is sent to a rural village for the fresh air, Anna believes her foster parents are just dumping her on their friends  for the summer.  But the area certainly isn’t a bad place to be, and her hosts are gracious.  Anna starts making sketches of the nearby Marsh House.

When Marnie Was There

Anna is told that the Marsh House is long abandoned, and when she peeps in the windows, it certainly appears to be.  But sometimes there are lights, and a girl named Marnie that seems very interested in meeting Anna.  Are Anna’s experiences just dreams by a lonely girl…or is Marnie very real after all?

People who are only slightly acquainted with anime might think it is only kiddie shows designed to sell toys and lurid sex & violence shows for “mature viewers”, but Japanese animators also have a long tradition of creating adaptations of classic children’s literature.  In this case, it’s a relatively obscure British book by Joan G. Robinson, done by Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away).

The setting is swapped from Norfolk to rural Japan, but this does little violence to the story.  Indeed, Anna’s unusually blue eyes become part of the reason she feels like an outsider, and she’s very sensitive about them.

There are some mildly scary bits, and Marnie’s background turns out to be quite sad, so parents of younger viewers should watch this with them.  But it’s a gentle story that unfolds slowly and to a certain degree predictably.  Anna learns that she isn’t as unloved as she thought, that she has connections, and even becomes able to make friends in the ordinary world.

As usual with Ghibli, the art is beautiful, with many views of lived-in houses, watery landscapes and rolling green hills.  The Japanese voice acting is excellent, and there are some fine voices in the dub as well.  There’s some odd staging of the first few scenes between Marnie and Anna that make it come off like the start of a romantic relationship; presumably this is due to Japanese cultural differences, because that is not what Marnie has in mind.

Worth looking into if you have enjoyed other Ghibli films, or have children around twelve (Anna’s age) to watch it with.  Also consider reading the book; the movie gave it a boost, so you may be able to find it at finer libraries.

 

Comic Strip Review: The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten: The Junior Commandos

Comic Strip Review: The Complete Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten: The Junior Commandos by Harold Gray

Little Orphan Annie was one of the all-time great comic strips, debuting in 1924.  The story centered on a plucky orphan girl with curly red hair (which was considered unattractive at the time) and her attempts to get by in a cruel world with the aid of her dog Sandy.  Early on, she was taken “on trial” by the unpleasant Mrs. Warbucks, whose husband Oliver “Daddy” Warbucks took an immediate shine to Annie.

Little Orphan Annie Volume Ten

The strip’s formula depended heavily on finding ways to separate Annie from “Daddy” for long periods, or giving him financial troubles so they could go on the road together.  The device of having one of them believe the other was dead was used repeatedly for melodrama.  Mrs. Warbucks eventually relented and made friends with Annie, only to permanently die shortly thereafter.  (There was a second Mrs. Warbucks who was also hostile to Annie, and who Daddy may have murdered offscreen.)

Eventually, the strips added Daddy Warbucks’ exotic servants Punjab (a giant of a fellow with mystic abilities) and the Asp (a East Asian with a mysterious past and no given name.)  Harold Gray had strong conservative views, which often featured in the strips, both as story themes and character dialogue.  He was a big believer in hard work and honesty as ways to get ahead, and sometimes showed huge blind spots about the flaws of capitalism.

This volume covers stories from 1941-1943, and is strongly influenced by the events of World War Two.  While Daddy is testing a new bomber plane (he is after all a munitions manufacturer), he and the group are forced to land somewhere in the midwest.  Annie is injured in an automobile accident, and narrowly escapes the ministrations of quack Dr. Eldeen.  Instead, she is placed under the care of Doctor Zee, a friend of Daddy’s he met in Spain (presumably during the Spanish Civil War), who has become a recluse.

Daddy Warbucks and his associates are reported missing, presumed dead, shortly thereafter, stranding Annie in the large town.  Dr. Zee, one of the few sympathetic characters in the history of the strip with progressive views, is brought out of his shell by Annie, and by reconnecting with a childhood friend who has become known as “Crazy Kate.”  Zee starts a low-cost medical practice that clashes with both Dr. Eldeen (who runs a private clinic for not particularly sick wealthy people and uses heavy drugs to keep them under control) and Dr. Dubb, a mediocre physician who owns the town hospital.

Eventually, it is learned that one of Dr. Eldeen’s patients is a scientist called “Zaney” who has developed an explosive formula vital to national security, which Eldeen wants to sell to the Nazis.  This plot fails, and Eldeen has to go on the run.  Daddy Warbucks and crew reappear alive, but now enlisted in the military of “an allied country” so they can fight the Axis menace.  (Gray didn’t have them enlist in the U.S. Army as then they’d have to obey regulations instead of getting straight down to killing the enemy.)

Determined to do her bit to help win the war, Annie organizes the town kids into “Junior Commandos” who sell War Bonds and collect recyclables for the war effort, performing many helpful functions for soldiers and war workers.  Rather suddenly, the town is near the seacoast so that Annie and a new friend can sink a Nazi submarine.  Shortly thereafter, the town takes in a war refugee nicknamed “Driftwood” who has lost his family to “the invaders.”

Doctor Zee enlists in the military, so Annie and the supporting cast move in with a Mrs. Sleet, a seemingly chilly wealthy woman who Annie helps deal with the loss of her husband and son, and who becomes a sponsor for the Junior Commandos.    Daddy Warbucks and his men are reported killed in the fighting, and Dr. Zee returns minus an arm.  But Annie and a female surgeon, Dr. Clover, help Dr. Zee recover his will to be a healer, and after some mild love triangle shenanigans, Zee marries Katie, his childhood friend.  (There’s also a lot of other action going on in the meantime.)

The Nazis become convinced that Daddy Warbucks (now revealed as surviving) left a copy of Zaney’s formula with Annie, and come up with an elaborate plot to get it from her.  This involves impersonating a reclusive writer, Malcolm Mitt, another of Daddy’s old friends, and inviting Annie to a castle built by an eccentric Spanish immigrant to await her guardian’s return.  The castle is full of secret passageways and tricks, as well as Nazi spies and a submarine harbor.  Annie’s able to recruit the local Junior Commandos and Serbian immigrant “Big George” (formerly a spy on the Germans for twenty years) to help her clean out this nest of rats.

But it’s not until Daddy Warbucks finally shows up for real and Punjab uses his disappearing trick that the situation is fully resolved.  The war’s still on, though, and Annie ends the volume being shipped off to live with another of Daddy’s old friends…

Annie does laundry and philosophy. Yes, all her dresses are red and in the same style. Art by Harold Gray.
Annie does laundry and philosophy. Yes, all her dresses are red and in the same style. Art by Harold Gray.

Annie’s tough and wise beyond her years, and a natural leader, but we do see moments of her still being a child, as when she exclaims in glee over a new doll.   The strip openly mocks the idea of protecting children from the knowledge of war; Driftwood is all too aware that the war does not spare anyone because of age or innocence.  That said, this is not a children’s story as such, but a family one–parents should read these strips along with their kids to aid in understanding the context.

Violence is rife in this story, and Annie, while not directly killing anyone, has to dodge a question on the subject of whether she hasn’t disposed of some enemies permanently.  (It’s also noted that in his backstory, Daddy Warbucks once snapped a man’s neck like a toothpick.)  Don’t let anyone kid you that violence in the media is a modern decline!

One interesting tidbit is the appearance of George, an African-American child, who is afraid he won’t be allowed into the Junior Commandos.  Annie assures him he is welcome, and George swiftly proves his worth, getting a promotion.  He only appears in one Sunday strip (and is mentioned on Monday) but black readers strongly appreciated the interlude.  A Southern newspaper publisher wrote to warn Mr. Gray that he might lose readers in the South for showing “race-mixing.”  Mr. Gray’s response was to the effect that while he fully supported the South working out its own issues, a lot of “colored” people bought newspapers too, especially in the large Northern cities.

The “Nazis in a castle” story isn’t as good; the introduction notes that the artist had recently lost his father, and may have been distracted from his work; also, he was becoming disenchanted with the U.S. government’s handling of the homefront of the war, which would really show up in the next story.

Still, this volume is a good introduction for kids to what life was like on the homefront in World War Two, with proper parental guidance.  Highly recommended to fans of older comic strips.

TV Review: Checkmate | Colonel March of Scotland Yard | I’m the Law

TV Review: Checkmate | Colonel March of Scotland Yard | I’m the Law

Time for more old-time TV!  Checkmate was a 1960-62 series about a detective agency of the same name based in San Francisco.  Don Corey (Anthony  George ) and Jed Sills (Doug McClure) out of Corey’s plush apartment, and employ Dr. Carl Hyatt (Sebastian Cabot), noted criminology professor, as a consultant.  The agency specialized in attempting to thwart crimes that had yet to be committed.

Checkmate

I watched two episodes on DVD:

  • “The Human Touch” :  The focus is on Dr. Hyatt, as a master criminal (Peter Lorre) he caught years ago is out of prison and wants revenge.  The two men are both very proud of their brains, and we get a lot of cat and mouse dialogue as they try to outsmart each other.  The revenge plan is nifty, but fails due to the title factor.  A fun episode!
  • “Nice Guys Finish Last”:  A more somber story, in which the Checkmate regulars play only a small part.  Instead, the main character is a police lieutenant who is denied promotion because of his obsession with a certain wealthy man about town.  (The man may have even directly intervened to quash the promotion.)  The wealthy man hires Checkmate to protect him from the police detective.   When the lieutenant has an opportunity fall into his lap to destroy his enemy, he takes it,, much to his cost.  An interesting aspect of the story is that it is never proven the rich man did anything wrong, even the one thing that set the policeman on his trail in the first place.  He just acts like a dirtbag, and I for one wanted him to be brought down.

Colonel March of Scotland Yard was a 1955 British series starring Boris Karloff as the eccentric head of the Department of Queer Complaints at Scotland Yard.  The premise was based on a book by John Dickson Carr, a master of locked room mysteries.  March wore an eyepatch (never explained) and was a playful chap who enjoyed a good puzzle.  Sadly, most of the episodes have been lost.

Colonel March of Scotland Yard

The episode I saw was “Error at Daybreak.”  As it happens, Colonel March is on holiday at the seashore, and reading a book on “The Psychology of Crustaceans” when a millionaire with a weak heart dies nearby.  The body is lodged between rocks and impossible to move, but March discovers blood by the corpse, and a mysterious sharp metal rod on the ground nearby.  March suspects murder rather than heart attack, a suspicion given credence when the corpse disappears before the police proper arrive.  The real solution lies in a little boy’s rubber ball.  Pleasant, but not Karloff’s best work.

I’m the Law ran in 1953, and starred George Raft as New York Police Lieutenant George Kirby.  Kirby had been a stage dancer before joining the police force, and never carried a gun.  Mr. Raft’s career was in a steep decline at the time, and was one of the first big-name film stars to be reduced to steady work in television as opposed to special guest appearances.

I'm the Law

Still, the series benefited from his tough-guy air and screen presence.  My DVD had three episodes.

  • “The Cowboy and the Blind Man Story”:  Kirby is contacted by a singing cowboy star (loosely modeled on Roy Rogers) to investigate a stalker of the singer’s current girlfriend.  That lady turns out to be a sharpshooter and fully capable of taking care of herself.  Except a shot comes in through her window, just missing her.  In the office of a blind record promoter across the street, the stalker turns up dead of lead poisoning.  Could be the sharpshooter, but her guns don’t match the bullet.  So who?  Pretty obvious to the genre-savvy.
  • “O Sole Mio”:  A boy’s father is gunned down in Central Park, with only the boy and an organ grinder as witnesses, and the organ grinder was looking the wrong way at the time.  Kirby takes the boy under his wing before the kid gets too far down the road to becoming Batman, and discovers the father had a taste for the horses and too much money for his day job.  The idea of a police woman is treated with some disbelief by the boy, and a subplot involving a seedy newsstand vendor and a juvenile delinquent turns out to be an entire red herring.
  • “The Trucking Story”:  A dockworker is killed in what is reported as an accident, but is pretty clearly an “accident.”  An elderly peddler who was friends with the dockworker calls on Kirby to investigate beyond the official report.  Kirby goes undercover and discovers that the shipping company is sending more than glassware to China.  The dockworker’s union is seen protecting its members from  abusive behavior by the bosses (one of the reasons the death had to be an “accident.”)

It’s an okay series, but relies a bit too heavily on eccentric minor characters to play off the strait-laced George Raft role.

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