Book Review: Taran Wanderer

Book Review: Taran Wanderer by Lloyd Alexander

With the Black Cauldron destroyed, Death-Lord Arawn has retreated to his own lands for the time being, and no other major threats beset the realm of Prydain.  Long peaceful days at Caer Dallben have given Taran Assistant Pig-Keeper time to think.  Taran has realized a number of things, including that he wants to be together with Eilonwy for the rest of their lives…and that he has no idea who he is.

Taran Wanderer

That’s both in the metaphorical and literal sense.  Taran has no idea who his parents were, or if he has living kin.  And his life at Caer Dallben has been more about caring for the oracular swine Hen Wen than discovering his own way of life.  What if he is of noble birth?  What if he is truly a peasant?  Can he be together with a princess if his birthright is unknown?

Dallben the enchanter is as usual not a great deal of help; he either cannot or will not tell Taran the details of the boy’s heritage.  So it is that Taran sets out with his faithful companion Gurgi to the Marshes of Morva.  There, Taran consults the three dangerous sister enchantresses, but learns he cannot pay them a price high enough to learn his own secret.  They do, however, mention that the Mirror of Llunet might give him a glimpse of his true self.

Lake Llunet, where the Mirror was last seen, is clear at the other end of the country, and the rest of the story is about Taran’s journey there.

This is the fourth of five novels in The Chronicles of Prydain, a children’s series based loosely on Welsh mythology.  (Mr. Alexander mentions in the foreword that he’s borrowed bits from other folklore as well.)  The focus is on Taran’s character development, so there’s no one overwhelming threat, but a number of smaller problems and lessons that Taran must overcome or learn from on his way to maturity.

Indeed, Taran has grown a great deal from the callow lad he was at the beginning of the series; he shows wisdom whenever he thinks about how to help others, rather than his own problems.  But he still needs to let go of the notion that he needs to be special before he can embrace his true destiny.

Not everything is hard lessons; not-quite-human Gurgi and the prevaricating bard Fflewddur Fflam provide comic relief.  But there are villains as well, the terrifying Morda, who cannot be killed by mortal means (and who is responsible for some of the mysteries in earlier books) and the greedy mercenary Dorath.  Eilowny does not appear, but is often mentioned.

The book is well-written, though some of the running character tics grow tiresome by the end.  (And the lesson at the end is obvious at the beginning if you’re at all familiar with children’s literature.)   It’s a good breather before the climactic events of the final volume, where Taran and Eilowny must take their mature roles.

I recommend the entire series, and the Disney version has its good bits as well.

Book Review: Tiger by the Tail

Book Review: Tiger by the Tail by Alan E. Nourse

Alan E. Nourse (1928-1992) was a medical doctor and science fiction/fact author.  His professional training often showed in his stories, perhaps best exemplified by the novel Star Surgeon.  He also wrote The Bladerunner, about a dystopian future where medical care is rationed.  Hollywood optioned the title and stuck it on a Philip K. Dick story.

Tiger by the Tail

 

This book is a collection of nine SF short stories originally published in the 1950s, when speculative fiction was getting more psychologically complex.

“Tiger by the Tail” leads off with store detectives watching in amazement as a shoplifter blatantly stuffs merchandise into her pocketbook.  Far more than could possibly fit into it.  It ends with an existential threat to the entire universe.  The story is exposition heavy, but pays off when an iron bar moving a centimeter becomes a horrifying event.

“Nightmare Brother” is the longest story.  A man finds himself walking down a long tunnel without knowing where he is, how he got there, or even who he is.  And the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train!  He escapes that peril, only to find himself in a worse situation, over and over.  Why is this happening to him?!  Some dubious psychology, and a hint of Fifties attitudes towards women.

“PRoblem” involves a public relations man called in to sell the public on allowing extradimensional aliens to take temporary refuge on Earth while their babies are born.   The aliens are almost designed to cause revulsion in humans, and their personalities are irritating.  And then he finds out their real dealbreaker.  I get the feeling this one was written around a typo.

“The Coffin Cure” involves a cure for the common cold.  Dr. Nourse ignores clinical testing procedures that he would certainly have been familiar with in real life so that the cure can be released to large portions of the public by an overenthusiastic project leader named Coffin.  A few weeks later, the side effects start showing up.  (And they’re fairly logical side effects.) Phillip Dawson, the man who actually came up with the cure, must now find a cure for the cure.   Very Fifties sitcom treatment of his marriage.

“Brightside Crossing” is a grueling tale about a disastrous attempt to cross the surface of Mercury.  Since then, we have learned that Mercury does in fact rotate, so there’s no one “bright side.”  That said, it’s an adventure story with some thrilling moments.

“The Native Soil” likewise is not viable because of new information about Venus.  For the purposes of this story, it’s covered in deep, deep mud–some of which has unparalleled antibiotic properties.  A pharmaceutical company is trying to mine that mud with the dubious aid of the natives.  The enterprise is not going well, and even a top troubleshooter from Earth is about to give up until he finally realizes what’s really going on.

“Love Thy Vimp” has Earth invaded by the eponymous vermin-like aliens.  They cause trouble wherever they go, are vicious and cruel, and nearly impossible to kill.   Barney Holder, a mild-mannered sociology teacher, has been assigned to a task force to get rid of the accursed things.  One vimp has been captured, but experiments reveal no way of stopping it.  Barney must ferret out the vimps’ one weakness.  Fifties sitcom marriage stereotypes pop up again, but this time the nagging wife is an actual plot point.

“Letter of the Law” involves a conman who tried to bilk a group of aliens, only to run into their biggest taboos.   Now he’s on trial for his life, and has to be his own lawyer on a planet where truth is an unknown concept.  The human government emissary isn’t exactly thrilled to be helping.  And even if the conman succeeds, his neck might still be on the chopping block.  Satisfying ending.

“Family Resemblance” isn’t a science fiction story per se, but a comic tale of a hoax designed to make it appear that humans evolved from pigs.  Some groan-worthy humor in this one.

Overall, a decent enough collection of stories that have become dated either through scientific advances or social change.  Worth looking up at your library.

Book Review: Kaiju: Lords of the Earth

Book Review: Kaiju: Lords of the Earth edited by Essel Pratt

Kaiju (“strange beast”) is primarily a subgenre of the monster movie that became codified in Japan.  They’re mostly gigantic monsters that are nigh-unstoppable by conventional armaments, and run around destroying cities or fighting other giant monsters.  The seeds of the story type were sown in the original King Kong movie, but it was Gojira (“Godzilla”) that codified it, and inspired most of the later examples.

Kaiju: Lords of the Earth

This is a collection of sixteen short stories and poems on the theme of kaiju, all appearing here for the first time.  The book opens with “Call of the Vailathi” by John Ledger, a poem that cautions that even when the kaiju is on your side, it is still a destructive force.  …At least it has a rhyme structure, that’s good.  The closing tale is “Unleashed in the East” as fracking releases a monster from the Java Sea, and two airline pilots must make a decision between saving themselves and saving the world.

I really enjoyed “The Wolf and the Rabbit” by Alice J. Black, in which a disaffected pub worker connects with another random survivor, and finds the will to do what must be done in this crisis.  If the monster seems too easily dispatched, there are hints it wasn’t the only one.

Also good is “Frankentop” by Amanda M. Lyons, which is told from the perspective of an artificial intelligence that both wants to be loved, and to protect itself.  Unfortunately, the latter is easier than the former.  Internet references abound.

“I Awoke…Wutoomba!” by Roy C. Booth homages the Marvel monster comics of the late Fifties and early Sixties.  Jack Lieiber, writer of fantastic fiction, travels to a South Seas island and runs into an assortment of stock characters, including the title monster.  This one is mostly going to please Marvel fanboys who get all the in-jokes.

Most anthologies have a dud or two, but seldom to the level of “The Plastic Centipede” by R.T. Sirk.  The monster itself is a cool idea, a giant centipede made of discarded mannequin parts and the vengeful spirits of a gangster’s victims.  But spellchecker typos, misplaced commas, badly structured sentences and characterization by telling, not showing make this story come off like the first draft of a fanfic, rather than a professionally published story.  This is clearly a failure of editing, as these banes of small press publishing should have been caught early on.

“A Day at the Racetrack” by Essel Pratt is also sub-par, as waste in a stock car racetrack’s inner pond turns animals giant-sized.  Regional stereotypes are played for broad humor, as are potty jokes.

The rest are decent enough stories.   Due to the very uneven quality, I would recommend this book only to kaiju fanatics or fans of a particular author for that one story.

 

Book Review: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder

Book Review: The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder by William Hope Hodgson

Four men come to the house on Cheyne Walk in Chelsea when the man who owns the house, Thomas Carnacki, summons them for dinner.  They ask no questions, as they know Carnacki will wait until his own good time to tell them a tale of his adventures.  And because he is a ghost finder, that tale will be worth waiting for.

The Casebook of Carnacki the Ghost Finder

William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) was a sailor and physical fitness instructor before taking up writing and becoming best known for his weird tales.  The Carnacki stories were written between 1910 and 1914, when Mr. Hodgson enlisted in the British Army during World War One.  Only six of them were published during his lifetime (he died at Ypers) with the remaining three first appearing in the collected edition in 1947.

Carnacki is very much in the Sherlock Holmes tradition of the cerebral detective, examining the evidence with the best scientific methods known to him.  Sometimes the menace turns out to be merely human trickery, sometimes it is truly supernatural, and then again sometimes it’s both!  Other than that, the stories are formulaic–the four friends arrive, everyone has dinner, Carnacki tells his tale, there are a few clarifying questions, and then the guests go home.

Carnacki is interesting as a ghost finder, as he’s terrified of ghosts and supernatural phenomena, and readily admits it, even as he  confronts these phenomena.  It’s suggested in one story that fear makes you more sensitive to the spirit world–someone who knows no terror might not even notice ghosts!  He also uses both eldritch lore and modern science like photography and vacuum tubes to battle the supernatural.

The collection begins with “The Thing Invisible” in which Carnacki investigates a haunted dagger that seems able to strike on its own with deadly force.  This story was also in The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked Room Mysteries.  It ends with “The Hog”, a tale of sheer horror as a man’s dreams turn out to be a direct conduit to the Outer Monstrosities.  The latter story would be a good source for artists seeking horrific imagery, but becomes overlong with the special effects sequence.

The best story is “The Whistling Room”, a story that starts with a seemingly harmless haunting that becomes much more disturbing by the end as we learn just what exactly the whistling is.  The least effective story is “The Find”, a change of pace that has no supernatural elements even as a distraction.  A second copy of a supposedly unique book has surfaced and Carnacki must learn if it’s genuine.  The case is resolved in a summary to the main suspects, which is summarized for Carnacki’s friends.

The writing is a bit old-fashioned and there’s a bit of genteel sexism.  We learn little of Carnacki’s past, involving him living in a seaside house with his mother as a young man, apparently inspiring his career.  And of the four guests, the only thing we learn is that one of them has studied magical science, apparently in the theoretical model only.

This is a nice little collection of spooky tales, which I would recommend to fans of old-fashioned ghost stories.

Anime Review: Silver Spoon

Ooezo Agricultural High School is the best agricultural vocational/technical school in Hokkaido, and farm kids from all over the territory come there to pursue an education.  But there’s a different student this year.  Yuugo Hachiken is from the big city of Sapporo, and for…reasons…has decided to join the dairy science program at Ooezo in lieu of the prestigious prep school he’d been aiming for.

silver

As a city kid, Hachiken is woefully unprepared for farm life, and has no clue where food actually comes from.  “Chickens produce eggs from their what!?”  He’s warned not to get to attached to a piglet he’s helping raise, but names it anyway.  He’s certainly not ready to wake up before dawn to take care of the chores!

But life at Ooezo does have its compensations.  Fresh air, exercise, good food…and Hachiken discovers talents he never had the opportunity to exercise before.  He joins the Equestrian Club, and there’s this girl named Aki that just might be interested in him.  There’s a silver spoon mounted outside the student cafeteria, symbolizing a wish that their graduates will never starve.

This series is based on the manga by Hiromu Arakawa, who also created the Fullmetal Alchemist manga.  The story takes full advantage of her background growing up on a dairy farm.

Hachiken is kind of rude and surly early on, initially seeing most of his classmates as hopeless rubes.  However, he quickly catches on to the fact that they have their own useful skill sets and acquired knowledge, even the ones that are actually stupid.   We see that his true nature is helpful and tender-hearted, which gets him in over his head more than once.

The other characters are more complicated than they may first appear, and Hachiken’s friends have their own stories to live through, not all of them successful.

Parents of young children should be aware that animals have natural functions and the show does not shy away from this.  Hachiken skins a deer at one point, and assists with a difficult calving at another.  One episode does have some disturbing imagery from a slaughterhouse (when Hachiken must send Pork Bowl off to be turned into meat); the story specifically warns that this is coming up and sensitive viewers might want to leave the room for a bit.  Overall, if your child is not yet ready for the “where food comes from” talk, they’re too young for this series.

There are some hints of romance and sexual thoughts, but Hachiken points out (when he is falsely accused of an affair) that the students’ schedule just doesn’t allow time for any serious hanky-panky.

The manga is still ongoing, so the anime stops abruptly about three-quarters of the way through Hachiken’s freshman year.  It is unknown at this time if there will be an animation of the remainder of the manga.

Those of you who grew up on a farm will certainly nod along at parts, and big city dwellers can learn new things.  Highly recommended.

Book Review: The Silence of the Loons

Book Review: The Silence of the Loons edited by The Minnesota Crime Wave

The long-time reader may by now have realized that I have something of a weakness for anthologies.  Collections of short fiction are an excellent use of limited lunch reading time.  And I am also a faithful son of Minnesota.  So this book of short mystery genre stories hits several of my buttons.

The Silence of the Loons

Perhaps it is our long, cold, dark winters that inspire thoughts of murder and mayhem, but Minnesota has a bunch of mystery-genre writers, thirteen of whom wrote stories set in the Land of the 10,000 Lakes for this volume.  They were also instructed to choose from a short list of clues.  It will become very evident by oh say the third story which clues those are.  Some uses are quite clever, others are forced.

My favorite story is “The Gates” by Judith Guest, which isn’t really in the mystery genre as such, edging more into horror–but explaining why would spoil the surprise.

The first story in the volume is “Holiday Murder at Harmony Place” by M.D. Lake, which takes place in a senior citizen apartment building only a few blocks from where I live.  This familiarity gives it a great sense of place; the story itself is a “cozy” with a resident of the building investigating the death of a particularly obnoxious neighbor.  The detective work is clever, but fallible, appropriate for amateurs.  (A lot of the stories involve senior citizens; Minnesotans tend to live a long time.)

Finishing the book is “Jake” by Pat Dennis.  A man has quickly tired of his new bride, who is not at all as she presented herself on the internet.  He decides that murder is the best solution, but may have underestimated just how much she lied.

And ten more stories, including “Norwegian Noir” by Ellen Hart, a cautionary tale of a small town woman moving up to the big city suburbs; who can she trust?

While this book is calculated to appeal most to Minnesotans, I think it will please most mystery story fans who enjoy a little dry humor with their murder.  Consider purchasing it directly from Nodin Press.

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