Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Book Review: Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz

While the term “penny dreadfuls” proper belongs to a particular type of inexpensive newsprint periodical, as explained in the introduction to this volume, the twenty stories chosen here can all be described as lowbrow sensationalist literature written for those seeking thrills in their fiction.

Penny Dreadfuls: Sensational Tales of Terror

Of these, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley (1818 edition), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, and “The Pit and the Pendulum” by Edgar Allen Poe are so famous that it hardly seems worth discussing them.  Suffice it to say that they are classics, and well worth reading at least once, especially if you’ve only seen the movies.

“The Adventure of the German Student” by Washington Irving is a ghost story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.  It stops where a lot of current horror tales would end the first chapter.

“The Wehr-Wolf: A Legend of the Limousin” by Richard Thomson does in fact feature a werewolf.  Most of the story space, however, is taken up by comic relief character Antoine Du Pilon, a quack doctor who is full of knowledge…most of which is wrong.  This kind of dulls the tragic twist ending.

“Sawney Beane: The Man-Eater” by Charles Whitehead was based on a folk story that might have been loosely based on a real incident.  It concerns a cannibal clan near Edinburgh during the reign of James VI.  The story is written in the “true crime” style, regardless of its actual veracity.

“Aurelia; or, the Tale of a Ghoul” by E.T.A. Hoffman has a doctor tell his patient that it’s perfectly normal for a pregnant woman to have strange food cravings, and she shouldn’t feel ashamed of that.  In fairness, she hadn’t told him what her cravings were for.

“Wake Not the Dead!; or, The Bride of the Grave” by Johann Ludwig Tieck is about a man whose first beloved wife dies and he gets remarried.  But it turns out he still isn’t over his first love.  A passing sorcerer finds this obsession unhealthy, but mentions that he could in fact bring the first wife back to life.

The husband insists on having this done, despite being repeatedly warned that this is a bad idea which will have catastrophic consequences.  (Honestly, I think the sorcerer only went along with this for the chance to say “I told you so” later.)  Predictably, catastrophic consequences follow.  The ending comes out of left field and is jaw-dropping in its non-sequiturness.

“The Dream-Woman” by Wilkie Collins is about an apparently prophetic dream, and the effect it has on the dreamer.  Is it a warning of the future, or did he shape his life to fulfill the dream?

“A Night in the Grave; or, the Devil’s Receipt” by Anonymous is a comedic tale told in Scots dialect.  Highland piper Steenie tries to pay his rent, only to have his landlord die before giving Steenie the receipt.  The new landlord claims there’s no record of the payment and no sack of silver to be found, so Steenie must pay the rent again.  The piper must find that receipt, even if it means braving the gates of Hell.  I found this one hilarious, but I like Scots dialect stories.

“The Case of Lady Sannox” by Arthur Conan Doyle was a strange read for me as there’s no Sherlock Holmes in it.  A surgeon is called for a life-saving operation, only to learn the true nature of the veiled patient.  This one has some period ethnic and religious prejudice, which is not mitigated by the fact that one of the characters is deliberately playing into it.

“The Diary of a Madman” by Guy de Maupassant is the journal of a respected judge who starts to wonder what it would be like to commit murder.  Chilling.

“George Dobson’s Expedition to Hell” by James Hogg concerns a coachman’s dream (or was it a dream?) of driving his coach into the netherworld.  This story didn’t work for me, a bit too thick in dialogue that is “yes I will” “Oh no, you won’t.”

“The Apparition of Lord Tyrone to Lady Beresford” by Anonymous is a tedious ghost story that turns out to be a propaganda piece for Anglicanism. “Deism is wrong!”

“Lost in a Pyramid; or The Mummy’s Curse” by Louisa May Alcott is one of the tales she penned anonymously  before hitting it big as a children’s author.  Arrogant white explorers get lost in a pyramid, burn a sorceress’ mummy for fuel, and suffer the consequences of looting the corpse.  The plot requires two separate people not to catch on to the symptoms of slow poisoning.

“In Kropfsberg Keep” by Ralph Adams Kram, two ghost-hunters spend the night in a ruined castle, reputed to be haunted.  One of them doesn’t survive.  A real ghost may or may not be involved.

“The Buried Alive” by John Galt is a premature burial story.  The protagonist suffers an attack that leaves him awake but paralyzed and apparently dead.  His friends and family fail to have an autopsy done, and he is buried alive.  There was apparently a time when this narrow subgenre was hugely popular, to the point that Poe wrote a parody version.

“The Dualitists; or, the Death-Doom of the Doubleborn” by Bram Stoker is about a game of Hack that goes too far.  (In Hack, two similar objects are smashed against each other to see which is superior in strength.)  This story is dead baby comedy, and also includes animal abuse.  You’ll either love this story or be completely repulsed by it.

“The Executioner” by William Godwin is the confession of a hangman who’s become involved in a years-long and highly elaborate revenge scheme.  But is he the revenger or the revengee?

Finishing out the book is The String of Pearls; or, Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street by James Malcolm Rymer (probably.)  This is a true penny dreadful serial, full of twists, murder and unlikely coincidences.  (You may have seen the musical.)

In the 18th Century, a man named Thornhill comes to London to deliver a pearl necklace to pretty maiden Johanna Oakley from her lost love Mark Ingestrie.  But being a gentleman, he doesn’t want to look scruffy for the visit, so decides to get a shave at the shop of Sweeney Todd.  Mr. Todd says Mr. Thornhill left his shop hours ago, but Mr. Thornhill’s dog is sitting right outside, and the man never arrived at his next destination.  Although they can prove nothing, Mr. Thornhill’s friends become suspicious.

Across the square, Mrs. Lovett’s pieshop is doing land office business, selling the most delicious meat pies in town.  How does she manage to sell them so inexpensively and still make a profit?  And why does she run through so many cooks in the underground bakery?

And on another side of the square, parishioners at St. Duncan’s are beginning to notice a peculiar smell in the old church, a smell that is decidedly…unholy.

This is a fun, if not always coherent story told with a lot of verve.  (And, alas, some excess verbiage.)  The narrator has fun with the reader, reminding them that while all the clues seem to lead up to Sweeney Todd murdering his customers, we’ve never seen him murder anyone on-page.  And while the secret of Mrs. Lovett’s pie-shop (not just a hole in the wall eating establishment, but a distribution center delivering all over London) seems obvious enough, the narrator points out he hasn’t actually said it yet.

While the story stops every so often to give the history of this minor character or that (warning: one character’s backstory involves child neglect and abuse), we never do find out how Sweeney Todd and Mrs. Lovett formed their eight year partnership, or why.  One of the peculiarities of the story is that while Mr. Todd knows a woman who will bake his victims into pie, and a crooked mad-house operator who will imprison any of Mr. Todd’s young apprentices who get too nosy, he doesn’t know any fences, and is completely unfamiliar with the normal criminal life of London.

So Sweeney Todd has a houseful of loot he’s taken from victims and not found a way to sell, and has a dickens of a time trying to dispose of the string of pearls at anywhere near their real value.

Johanna comes close to the damsel in distress stereotype, but never quite crosses over into that territory, even while dressing as a boy to infiltrate Mr. Todd’s barbershop.

A couple of characters just get dropped between chapters, and domestic abuse is played for laughs in one scene.

This is not great literature, true, but if you’re in the mood for this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will enjoy.

Overall, a good collection of a certain type of story, with a handful of mediocre entries.  The Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome red leather cover and would look good on a bookshelf, or in your hands as you read it late at night by the light of a guttering candlestick.

Now, here’s a look at the “Penny Dreadful” TV series, based on the same source material.

 

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6 written (mostly) by J.M. DeMatteis, Pencils by Don Perlin

The Defenders are one of Marvel Comics’ more oddball teams, beginning with a line-up of Doctor Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner, four of Marvel’s most powerful characters who did not belong to other teams.  After a couple of pilot stories, the “non-team” first assembled in Marvel Feature #1 in 1971 to battle the alien Scientist Supreme Yandroth, and shortly thereafter got their own continuing series.

Essential Defenders Vol. 6

With four such volatile personalities, it was difficult to justify them staying together very long, and the warrior woman Valkyrie was added to the group to give them “texture” and a reason to cooperate.  Other members soon followed, either long-term or temporarily, and the Defenders got a reputation for being whoever happened to show up when danger struck, with Dr. Strange being the linchpin of the group.

This volume covers Defenders issues #107-125, and a couple of extras from 1982-83.  We open in the aftermath of a major plotline involving a group of self-proclaimed super-patriots trying to take over America with a group of powerful telepaths.  These telepaths and Kyle “Nighthawk” Richmond combined their mental powers to blow up the bad guys’ base, apparently dying in the process.  As the assembled heroes reel in shock during the aftermath, a stray minion of the super-patriots manages to get the drop on Valkyrie, killing her.

SPOILERS AHOY FROM THIS POINT!

It turns out that due to her convoluted backstory, involving the Asgardian goddess Amora the Enchantress, Valkyrie isn’t quite dead yet.  The heroes split into two groups when Amora offers a deal to restore Valkyrie to full life.  This plotline ends with Valkyrie restored to her true form of Brunnhilda, and no longer with the curse of being unable to fight women.  (She also loses some of her disdain of men in the process.)

Several members of the Defenders are lost in transit back from Asgard, but before that plotline bears fruit, there are solo issues focusing on Eric Simon “Devil-Slayer” Payne and Patsy “Hellcat” Walker.  Then there’s Avengers Annual #11. which features the return of perennial Defenders villain Nebulon.  He and his wife Supernalia clash, pitting the Avengers and Defenders against each other.

This is followed by Marvel Team-Up #119, which features Spider-Man and Isaac “Gargoyle” Christians in a story about aging and the acceptance of same.  Isaac has some insight into these matters as he was already a senior citizen when he made the Faustian bargain that made him a living gargoyle.

The missing Defenders turn out to have been transported to Earth-S, a parallel universe where the main hero group is the Squadron Supreme, a parody of/homage to the Justice League.  On their earth, Kyle Richmond is President of the United States.  Which would be great if he weren’t under the mental control of the alien known as Overmind.  As is most of the Squadron, saving only Hyperion (their version of Superman), who is suffering from lethal radiation poisoning.

And Nighthawk, “our” Kyle Richmond, is helping him out, having been transported to this Earth by the group mind that were once human telepaths.  He brought in the missing Defenders, who now summon the rest of the team for a moon mission to keep the Overmind from conquering the rest of the universe.

Except it turns out that “our” Kyle Richmond is actually “their” Kyle Richmond, given Nighthawk’s memories by the group mind.  But wait, then who’s the President?  It’s actually Null the Living Darkness, which has been puppeteering the Overmind to draw attention away from its protective shell.  The climax is kind of disappointing as it’s the group mind’s show, co-opting everyone else for a battle of wills with the ultimate darkness, only to have Null destroy itself with its own inner light.

So in the aftermath, “our” Kyle Richmond is as really dead as a Marvel superhero gets (not coming back from the dead until 1998!); Earth-S’ Kyle Richmond regains his true memories and reunites with his old teammates (who would go on to the Squadron Supreme miniseries, one of the best superhero stories ever); the group mind inhabits the currently vacant body of the Overmind; and the Defenders return to their own Earth.  (With a slight detour for some of them in a Dr. Seuss-inspired adventure.)

The next few issues weave together the resolution of the Patsy Walker/Daimon “Son of Satan” Hellstrom romance, Hank “Beast” McCoy’s growing irritation with the Defender’s “non-team” ethos… and the return of the Elf with a Gun.  This last had been a subplot during the Steve Gerber run, involving an elf with a gun popping up and seemingly murdering random people.  It was abandoned when Gerber left the book with the apparent death of the elf in an accident.

Mr. DeMatteis wanted to change the direction of the book, so revived the elf (now revealed to be multiple identical beings) as the agent of a time tribunal that was attempting to prevent the destruction of Earth.  Removing random Earthlings had not done the trick, so the tribunal had to convince the four original Defenders that they must never all be in the same room together again.  Unfortunately, the elf took over the narration for a couple of issues, and he was written as a very annoying character.

The resignation of the four founders gave Beast the opportunity to reconfigure the group as the New Defenders (complete with title change as of #125).  He roped in his old X-Men teammates Iceman and Angel, holdovers Valkyrie and Gargoyle, and new member Heather “Moondragon” Douglas.  A powerful telepath who had a revolving door hero/villain history, she had been released into the custody of the Valkyrie to re-learn human values.  (The Overmind simply disappeared between issues; this would become a plot point later.)

This began a period in which the New Defenders were an official team, with rules and such.  But that’s for Volume Seven.

Overall, a decent run with consistent art, and some good character focus stories.  Some of the writing is a bit heavy-handed with the morals; there’s a consistent theme of learning to have hope even in a world full of loss and pain.  The Dr. Seuss inspired story will either be laugh out loud funny or a total miss depending on your tastes.

Recommended to fans of the characters or 1970s Marvel storytelling.

 

Book Review: A Storm of Swords

Book Review: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first two volumes in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

A Storm of Swords

The Battle of King’s Landing is over, and the forces loyal to King Joffrey are triumphant.  But the War of Five Kings rages on, with no part of Westeros left untouched.  Lord Tywin Lannister returns to power as the King’s Hand after many years and his iron grip is soon felt both by the people of the land and his own family.

The various factions scheme and negotiate and betray, but all of this may soon be pointless as the Others gain strength and seek to slay all who live.

This is the third and largest volume so far in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series.  In a foreword, the author explains that the chapters from different points of view do not immediately follow each other chronologically.  Indeed, the first few chapters of A Storm of Swords take place before the last few chapters of A Clash of Kings, catching us up on some characters who were not at the Battle of King’s Landing.

The members of the Stark family remain a plurality of the viewpoint chapters, but other folks are catching up.

Catelyn Stark takes a calculated risk in freeing Jaime Lannister to exchange for her daughters, which angers some of her son’s bannermen.  Thus she has little room to talk when King Robb himself makes a major diplomatic faux pas.  (Robb still doesn’t get a viewpoint chapter.)  With their alliance falling apart, will the King in the North be able to mend fences before his enemies regroup?

Jon Snow infiltrates the Northern Wildlings as he was ordered, in order to learn what Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, is up to.  Like many spies before him, Jon learns that the Free Folk are people not so different from those he has loved and sworn to protect, despite their odd customs and desire to invade his homeland.  It is a bitter pill to swallow, but realizing that you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom.

Sansa Stark, trapped at King Joffrey’s court, continues to be a political pawn, valued primarily as a possible claim on the lands surrounding Winterfell, and if rebuilt, the castle itself.  She’s forced into a political marriage which she will need all her courtesy and will to survive.  The wolf may be caged, but she has not forgotten how to wait.

Arya Stark may have escaped the ill-omened castle Harrenhal, but the land is still torn by war, and one thing after another delays her reunion with her mother.  Among other events, Arya falls in with the Bannerless Brotherhood.  Once the enforcers of the king’s law, a change in government has made them outlaws who steal from the rich to give to the poor.  (For certain values of “rich” and “poor.”)  Arya may need to cash in a certain favor if she is to survive on her own terms.

Bran Stark, presumed dead after the fall of Winterfell, is headed north with the faithful Hodor and the Reeds.  (He has parted company with Rickon, who still gets no chapters.)   His link with direwolf Summer continues to grow, and he learns new facets of his powers.

Tyrion Lannister, badly wounded by an assassination attempt during the Battle of King’s Landing, finds himself fallen from power.  His father Lord Tywin grudgingly admits that Tyrion did a decent job as King’s Hand, but is soon back to treating his little person son like dirt, including saddling Tyrion with a cruel arranged marriage.  Queen Cersei and her son King Joffrey also take every opportunity to mock and belittle their relative.  How much can one man take before he snaps?

Daenerys Targaryen has come to realize that while being the Mother of Dragons is way cool, her reptilian wards are not yet big enough to win Westeros for her alone.  She needs an army, but where to get one?  Dani’s also finding that celibacy is becoming a harder stance to hold than when she was newly widowed.  Ser Jorah Mormont loves her, but the queen doesn’t love him that way back.

We don’t get any chapters from Theon Greyjoy’s perspective this time, though he is reportedly still alive and in possession of at least some of his skin.

Davos Seaworth, on the other hand, managed to survive the burning of the Blackwater, and returns to the service of King Stannis Baratheon.  The King of the Narrow Sea has been listening to the counsel of the Red Priestess Melisandre, and is prepared to sacrifice his nephew Edric Storm if that’s what it takes to gain enough power to rule Westeros.  Davos makes what is perhaps the smartest choices in the book when he realizes that Melisandre may be reading her prophetic visions backwards.

New to the list of point of view characters is Jaime Lannister, known as the Kingslayer.  Released in the custody of the female knight Brienne in order to get back to King’s Landing in exchange for the Stark daughters, Jaime must cross a hostile land with almost every hand against him.  We learn the reason he became the Kingslayer, and Jaime has to face up to how his past misdeeds have helped put Westeros in the mess it’s in.  Like Arya Stark, Jaime just keeps getting delayed on his journey until it is perhaps too late.

Finally, we follow Jon Snow’s less combat-effective friend Samwell Tarly, a steward for the Night Watch.  While Jon goes off on his secret mission, Sam assists the other Black Brothers in their scouting mission beyond the Wall.  The Others are deadly, but what may finish off the Night Watch might be treachery in their own ranks.

This is the book that really cemented the series’ reputation for having anyone die at any time, and kills off major and minor characters left and right.  (One character who seemed like they were going to be very important in the second volume dies offhand in a single sentence here.)  But that comes with a caveat that anyone who is only reported as dead may in fact be alive, and being dead doesn’t mean not making any more appearances.

The big theme of the book is marriage; there are multiple weddings, none of which turn out particularly well.  There’s also several songs that recur throughout, most notably the bawdy “The Bear and the Maiden” and “The Rains of Castamere”, which has more sinister connotations.

Parts of the book do become a slog as there are multiple characters trying to get from one place to another and not getting there over and over.  A couple of the Stark family just miss meeting each other, and some plot twists are gratuitously cruel.  (As are some actions taken by the characters.) A few of the mysteries in the first two volumes are solved, for what it is worth.

As always, there is plenty of gory violence, some sex, attempted rape of major characters and off-camera rape of minor characters, and great steaming heaps of rough language.  Torture takes place off-stage as well.  But if you weren’t warned by the first two volumes, there’s not much I can say.

There’s some nifty world-building, and a handful of great scenes.  Primarily recommended to people who liked the earlier books in the series.

And now, a song!

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.

Comic Book Review: Saints: The Book of Blaise

Comic Book Review: Saints: The Book of Blaise written by Sean Lewis, art by Benjamin Mackey

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Saints: The Book of Blaise

“Monster” Blaise is a heavy metal musician with “one weird trick”–his glowing hands can cure throat ailments.  It’s never occurred to him to look further into this, so it’s a bit of a surprise when a mysterious archer interrupts one of Blaise’s assignations.  The bowman claims to be the reincarnation of Saint Sebastian, yes that  Saint Sebastian, and our protagonist is the reincarnation of Saint Blaise.

Blaise wasn’t raised Catholic, or even Christian, and is none too clear on what’s going on.  But bad things are going down, and they must find the last few reincarnated saints before the end of the world.  The next on the list is Lucy Sweetapple, a grocery store clerk with the gift of Sight, and whose parents own a painting of Jesus that talks to Blaise.  It’s only getting weirder from here.

The author of this Image Comics-published story was raised Irish Catholic, he tells us in the foreword, and he’s combined his childhood love of the Saints with metal and comics for this series.  He’s best known for his plays, and it takes a while for his comics writing to click.  The art is strongly inked to give it a bit of a stained-glass feel, and works well with the story themes.

This is not a book for those who like their religion orthodox; the writer plays fast and loose with the abilities of the saints, the motivations of angels and the nature of God.  The ministers who have joined up with the antagonists are from non-standard churches, and there’s a children’s crusade filled with child soldiers.  Meanwhile, the protagonists’ forces include morally dubious metal bands and a demon.

While this isn’t specifically labeled “mature readers”, there’s nudity, gory violence, sexual situations and some unnecessary vulgarity.  Urine drinking in the first scene for shock value, for example.  Lucy attacking Blaise in the mistaken belief that he was about to sexually assault her is played for laughs, but it’s pretty obvious men have tried it enough before to make her violence an ingrained reaction.

There are some clever bits with the saints’ abilities being based on their folklore but not confined to that; and very effective artistic renderings of revelatory messages.  But in places I was uncomfortably reminded of some of the excesses of early Vertigo Comics.

I think this will go over best with lapsed Catholics and comparative theology majors.

Open Thread: Webcomics You Might Enjoy

Open Thread: Webcomics You Might Enjoy

Over the holiday weekend, I went to ConVergence 2016 in Bloomington, a yearly science fiction convention.  One of the panels I was on was “Web Comics”, during which we discussed many webcomics that panelists and audience members have enjoyed.  As promised, here’s a list combining the handout by Kathryn Sullivan http://kathrynsullivan.com/ with those mentioned by other people that I remembered to write down.  Descriptions I am copying from Ms. Sullivan will be marked by (KS).

O Human Star Volume One

Some of these strips may have Not Safe For Work (NSFW) content, and not every webcomic will appeal to every reader.  Nor is this anywhere near an exhaustive list of good webcomics.  If you don’t see your favorite, by all means comment and tell me about it.

Achewood http://www.achewood.com/index.php?date=10012001 by Chris Onstad is surrealist humor focusing on a small group of anthropomorphic animals, stuffed toys and robots living in the house of the never-seen Chris, in the community of Achewood.  The most celebrated storyline in the series is “The Great Outdoor Fight” which is to an extent exactly what it sounds like.  Sometimes has NSFW content.

Anna Galactic http://www.baldwinpage.com/annagalactic/2015/01/28/43/ by Christopher Baldwin.  Anna and her friends investigate why their ship seems to be settling a planet rather than just refueling.  Updates Monday, Wednesday, Friday.  (KS)

Batgirl Inc. http://batgirlincorporated.tumblr.com/tagged/read%20batgirl%20inc  by Max Eber & Yulyn Chen is a fan comic which teams up the various characters who have been Batgirl in the DC Comics as their own group.

Blindsprings http://www.blindsprings.com/comic/blindsprings-page-one by Kadi Fedoruk is about spirits and the politics of those attempting to control magic.  Updated Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Breaking Cat News http://www.breakingcatnews.com/comic/everything-is-broken/ by Georgia Dunn is a news show where all the reporters are cats, with their own special take on what seems newsworthy.

Cucumber Quest http://cucumber.gigidigi.com/cq/page-1/ by Gigi D.G. is a cute fantasy adventure comic starring bunny children.  (Note that I have not read all the way through–check carefully for surprises before letting your kids on.)

Demon http://www.shigabooks.com/index.php?page=001 by Jason Shiga begins with Jimmy Yee attempting to commit suicide and failing repeatedly.  Eventually he discovers that he didn’t fail–every time he dies, his spirit simply possesses the closest available living person.  Somehow the Feds know about his ability even before he does, and now Jimmy is on the run with an escalating body count.  NSFW.

Digger  http://diggercomic.com/blog/2007/02/01/wombat1-gnorf/ by Ursula Vernon is for an older audience than her Dragonbreath series.  The completed version won the Hugo Award and is the tale of a wandering wombat and the beings she encounters.  The collected issues are available in paper.  A wombat wandering a magical world.  (KS)

Dinosaur Comics http://www.qwantz.com/index.php?comic=1 by Ryan North has the exact same images for (almost) every strip as a Tyrannosaurus Rex discusses philosophical questions with other dinosaurs while running amok.  Often funny, sometimes makes you think.

The Firelight Isle https://www.paulduffield.co.uk/firelightisle/1  by Paul Duffield is a fantasy coming-of-age story about two childhood friends about to undergo the trials of adulthood on an island controlled by a mysterious religion.  Done in “ribbons” that require scrolling down to see all of.

Forming http://jessemoynihan.com/?p=11 by Jesse Moynihan (one of the Adventure Time people) involves ancient astronaut “gods” and their effects on the civilizations of Earth.  Some NSFW material.

A Girl and Her Fed  http://agirlandherfed.com/1.1.html by K.B. Spangler is about a young woman who’s haunted by the ghost of Benjamin Franklin and the federal agent who has been assigned to watch her and has his own annoying invisible companion.

Girl Genius http://www.girlgeniusonline.com/comic.php?date=20021104#.V3sALvkrLcs by Phil and Kaja Foglio is an alternate Earth story where mad scientists called “Sparks” have run amuck and made history unrecognizable.  Agatha Clay discovers that she is actually Agatha Heterodyne, a powerful Spark and the heir to a near-mythical dynasty.  Largely comedic, but with an epic story.  Has won several Hugos and has multiple print collections.

Girls Next Door http://pika-la-cynique.deviantart.com/art/GirlsNextDoor-Introductions-73082145 by Pika la Cynique has Christine Daae (of Phantom of the Opera and Sarah of Labyrinth as college roommates, dealing with their stalkers and trying to get through finals.  Irregular updates as it needs to be translated from French.

Gunnerkrigg Court http://www.gunnerkrigg.com/?p=1 by Tom Siddell concerns Antimony Carver, whose mother has recently died.  Her rather distant father ships her off to the school of the title, which is decidedly weird, especially if you add in the magical forest across the bridge.  Almost everyone has secrets, many of them dangerous.  Note that the art improves drastically over the course of the series.

Hark! A Vagrant http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=1 by Kate Beaton is a humorous strip, mostly doing historical & literature jokes.  Updates have become sporadic as Ms. Beaton has gotten paying gigs.

Homestuck http://www.mspaintadventures.com/?s=6 by Andrew Hussie is a recently concluded epic fantasy that operates like a cross between a webcomic and a Flash game, using the writing style of an old-style computer adventure game.   John Egbert and three of his friends are going to be playing a new virtual reality game, Sburb.  Naturally, the game hides secrets that affect real worlds and has many plot twists that are massive spoilers.

How to Be a Werewolf http://www.howtobeawerewolf.com/comic/coming-february-3rd/ by Shawn Lenore is yes, about werewolves.  It just started last year.  Updated Tuesday and Thursday.  (KS)

Hyperbole and a Half http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.com/2010/10/god-of-cake.html  by Allie is more of a heavily illustrated blog than anything else, often telling stories from Allie’s childhood.

JL8 http://limbero.org/jl8/1 by Yale Stewart is a fan comic depicting members of the Justice League as roughly eight-year-olds attending elementary school.  Very irregular schedule.

Kill Six Billion Demons http://killsixbilliondemons.com/comic/kill-six-billion-demons-chapter-1/ by Demonaic starts with Allison about to have sex with her boyfriend when the room is invaded by “demons” that drag off the boyfriend while Allison has a “key” forced upon her that transports her to the world of Throne which is inhabited by demons, “angels” and other weirdness and must make her way without knowing anything about her new setting.  NSFW.

A Lesson Is Learned but the Damage Is Irreversible http://www.alessonislearned.com/index.php?comic=1 by David Hellman and Dale Beran is a Dada-esque strip that takes advantage of “the infinite canvas” to have as much space as it needs to tell the day’s story, which is seldom directly linked to any other story.

Namesake http://namesakecomic.com/comic/the-journey-begins by Megan Lavey-Heaton & Isabelle Melançon follows Emma Crewe, who is a “Namesake”, a person who is expected to follow in the footsteps of a literary character, in her case Dorothy of Oz.  She has no interest in being locked in the story, and is prepared to fight fate with the help of new friends she’s made and her little sister who develops the powers of a Writer.

Necropolis http://necropoliscomic.tumblr.com/post/118905492171/prologue by Jake Wyatt is a high fantasy story with some fine illustration work; it’s still relatively new so the full plot isn’t know, but there’s a war between kinds and a young woman who battles the undead.

O Human Star http://ohumanstar.com/comic/chapter-1-title-page/ by Blue Delliquanti begins with a robotics engineer having a dream of dying, only to awaken to it being true.  He’s now in a robotic body that resembles his original appearance, and it’s fifteen years in the future when intelligent robots have won civil rights.  Alastair is originally told his former lover Brendan arranged his “resurrection”, but Brendan denies this.  Also how does Brendan have a teenage daughter that strongly resembles Alastair?  I reviewed the first print volume, and a second is in the Kickstarter process.

Phoebe and Her Unicorn http://www.gocomics.com/phoebe-and-her-unicorn/2012/04/22 by Dana Simpson was formerly known as “Heavenly Nostrils.”  A delightful story of a young girl who becomes friends with a unicorn.  It’s now available in newspapers and past issues were collected into three books, Phoebe and Her UnicornUnicorn on a Roll, and Unicorn vs. Goblins.  Updated daily.  (KS)

PS 238 http://ps238.nodwick.com/comic/12072006/ by Aaron Williams is an elementary school for metahumans hidden beneath a regular school.  Amazon has both the collected and the individual issues available in paper, so trying to find the collected issues can be difficult.  (I’ve found the term ‘paperback’ worked.)  This one I recommend starting from the very beginning, as the setup for the school is very interesting.  Updated weekly.  (KS)

Questionable Content http://questionablecontent.net/view.php?comic=1 by J. Jacques is slice of life in a world where weird things happen but usually don’t get life-threatening.  This is another one where the art drastically improves over time.

Rice Boy http://www.rice-boy.com/see/index.php?c=001 by Evan Dahm is a surreal fantasy about a young fellow who may or may not be the one who can fulfill a prophecy, but is curious enough to at least investigate what the prophecy is.  Completed, and there are two other series set in the same world accessible from the website.

Spacetrawler http://spacetrawler.com/2010/01/01/spacetrawler-4/ by Christopher Baldwin is a comedic SF actioner about a group of Earth humans abducted by aliens who want to free an enslaved species.  It’s currently on hiatus, but a sequel is scheduled to start soon.  The original is collected in three print volumes, the first of which I reviewed on this blog.

Strong Female Protagonist http://strongfemaleprotagonist.com/issue-1/page-0/ by Brennan Lee Mulligan and Molly Ostertag follows a young superhero who has come to question if “fighting crime” is the best use of her powers, and discards her costumed identity to explore other paths to help people.

Subnormality http://www.viruscomix.com/page324.html  by Winston Rowntree is a “deconstruction” webcomic that looks at tropes and finds new ways to examine them.  It’s an “infinite canvas” strip that takes as much space as it needs.

Unshelved http://www.unshelved.com/2002-2-16 by Gene Ambaun & Bill Barnes is a gag-a-day comic about the workers at a city library and their eccentric customers.  Often has book recommendations.

Wapsi Square http://wapsisquare.com/comic/09092001/ by Paul Taylor is a “paranormal slice of life” comic originally about an archaeologist named Monica who discovers that she’s not crazy, the whole world is.  It starts out as gag-a-day before the plot kicks in, and what a plot it is!  The focus has shifted to another character and her adopted daughters as they try to blend into human society.

XKCD http://xkcd.com/1/ by Randall Munroe is full of math and science jokes.  After some experiments at the beginning, it settles down to stick figure art, but many of the ideas are nifty, and if you like math and science jokes…

Freakangels and City of Reality came up during the panel, but are no longer reliably available on the internet.

Book Review: Hokas Pokas!

Book Review: Hokas Pokas! by Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson

The Hoka of the planet Toka are the galaxy’s best live-action roleplayers.  Given a story they find interesting, the teddy-bear-looking aliens will take on the characters as their own personalities.  And they especially love Earth stories.  Thus it is that they have entire subcultures based around Sherlock Holmes, or the pop culture version of Napoleon or the Lord of the Rings novels.  Alexander Jones, Ambassador Plenipotentiary of the Interbeing League, has his hands full trying to keep the Hoka safe until they’re considered advanced enough to join galactic civilization.

Hokas Pokas

The Hoka stories are comedic science fiction; some of the funniest ever written.  This volume contains three of those stories.

“Full Pack (Hokas Wild)” gives Alexander Jones’ wife, Tanni, a rare day in the limelight.  While her husband is away, Tanni goes to investigate a downed starcraft, along with her young son Alex Jr.  It’s in the Hoka version of India, which is based more on Rudyard Kipling books than on the Mahabhrata.  The mission is complicated when her Hoka escort overnight switches from a British military regiment to a wolf pack from The Jungle Book.  Yet those who are familiar with the book rather than the Disney movie may catch on to the twist more quickly than Tanni does.

“The Napoleon Crime” explains where Alexander Jones was during the previous story, on Earth negotiating for an upgrade in the Hokas’ status.  But back on Toka, someone or something has been twisting the Hoka games, and the planet is on the brink of having actual wars.  With the aid of the heavyworld free trader Brob, Alex must return to Toka unannounced and go undercover as Horatio Hornblower to head off a deadly reenactment of the Napoleonic Wars.

Star Prince Charlie moves the setting to the world of New Lemuria, and the archipelago kingdom of Talyina.  This feudal society has been contacted by the Interbeing League, which hopes to eventually bring the Lemurians up to galactic standards with the minimum of outside interference.  Talyina is visited by young Charles Edward Stuart and his Hoka tutor, taking a vacation from the cargo ship of Charlie’s father.

There’s trouble in Talyina, though.  The current king is a usurper and tyrant, and the people grumble.  One drunken night for the tutor and a local warrior later, a prophecy about a destined prince and the tradition of the Young Pretender cast Mr. Stuart in the role of Bonnie Prince Charlie, and the Hoka is now his Highland Scots retainer, Hector MacGregor.  A local lord is pushing Charlie to fulfill the prophecy, and due to the League rules, the boy can’t just have technologically advanced guards come get him.

The prophecy begins to come true, with a little “help”, and the people rally behind their alien prince.  But as events sweep Charlie along, he comes to realize that overthrowing one tyrant may only lead to a worse one taking the throne.  For the sake of Talyina, he must become the hero they deserve, if not the one they think he is.

This is actually a short novel, written for the young adult market.  It’s very much a boys’ adventure in the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson, with rather more humor.  (All the chapter titles are literary references, for example.)  Charlie moves in a world of men; women are mentioned from time to time, but none are important to the plot, and I cannot remember Charlie ever having a conversation with one.  He does, however, learn not to look down on people just because they’re less educated or technologically advanced.  The bittersweet ending demonstrates how much he’s grown as Charlie chooses to do the right thing rather than the easy thing.

There’s some college papers waiting to be written about colonialism and cultural appropriation in the Hoka stories–much of the humor derives from the latter being turned on its head, and the League tries to avoid the worst effects of the former, but those things are worth considering.

While the first two parts are not specifically written for young adults, they should be okay for junior high students on up.  Some references are likely to go over the heads of younger readers, which makes this a good choice for re-reading later.   Highly recommended to fans of science fiction humor.

 

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book

Book Review: The Blue Fairy Book edited by Andrew Lang

Once upon a time, (1889 to be specific), British children did not have access to collections of fairy tales.  Educators of the time thought fairy tales were too unrealistic and harmful to children, and beneath adults.  Mr. Lang felt differently; he had delighted in such tales when young, and the Grimm Brothers had done quite well with their books.  He selected stories from many countries, and his wife and other translators brought the foreign ones into English for the first time.

The Colour Fairy Book series was a huge hit, running twelve volumes (finishing with The Lilac Fairy Book in 1910.  But since the Blue book was the first, it’s been the most reprinted (and the one I review here is the 2012 Barnes & Noble edition.)

The Blue Fairy Book

The first thing I was reminded of was how random fairy tales seem at times.  Our hero or heroine will be walking along to get to the main plot, but there is suddenly a glass mountain in the way, and it’s time to work for a blacksmith for seven years to earn iron shoes.  Or a wish will be made for a ship that has St. Nicholas at the helm.

The stories have been bowdlerized (edited to be “safe for children”) which seems to do little to tone down the violence, but I note a couple of stories where a man comes to a woman’s bed and promptly falls asleep there…suspicious.  Other stories seem to have the numbers filed off–“The Terrible Head” is the story of Perseus without any of the names.

I also notice a strong theme of materialism.  Humble and giving though many of the good characters are, there’s a lot of attention paid to sacks of gold, diamond-encrusted dresses, houses with so many rooms you could not visit them in a year, and exotic, fabulous food.   I was surprised when Aladdin used his genie sensibly for a quiet steady lifestyle for several years (until he falls in love with the princess, at which point it’s time to pour on the wealth.)

But still, some classic tales, others that I don’t recall reading before, and well worth looking into.  There are even a couple with active heroines; “The Master-Maid” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” (Morgiana is the real hero of the story.)

While the Barnes & Noble edition has a handsome, sturdy cover and overall good presentation, it leaves out several stories from the original, and more importantly, Mr. Lang’s introduction.  If you’re mostly interested in reading the stories for yourself, it may be best to download it from Project Gutenberg to get the full text.  The physical copy would do very nicely as a gift for a child with strong reading skills, or a parent looking for old-fashioned bedtime fare.  To that end, I should mention that two of the stories are in Scots dialect, and you should probably rehearse before reading those to your children.

Book Review: Prophets and Apostles

Book Review: Prophets and Apostles by Joseph Ponessa & Laurie Watson Manhardt

Disclaimers: I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would read and review it. I am a Christian, but not a Catholic, which influences my reaction to this volume.

Prophets and ApostlesThis volume is part of the “Come and See” Bible study series; I have previously reviewed the “Acts and Letters” volume and you may wish to look that up. It’s important to remember that this is not a stand-alone book. For full value, you will need to have a Catholic translation of the Bible with all the books (in particular Baruch and Daniel) and a copy of the most recent revision of the Catholic Catechism. It’s also meant to be used not individually, but in the context of a small Bible study group, meeting regularly and advised by a priest or elder.

This volume, Prophets and Apostles, concerns itself with the so-called “minor” prophets, and the shorter apostolic letters. The primary theme is that the prophets point the way to the ministry of Jesus and the redemptive power of His sacrifice, while the apostles explain how the prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus and give advice for going forward in the life of the church.

As there isn’t a separate “leader’s guide”, this book begins with a chapter on how to set up the Bible study group and keep it running, which is very similar to the one in Acts and Letters.

The text switches back and forth between Old and New Testament, keeping the material fresh. Each chapter covers a book or two, or a large section of a book, discussing the salient points the author of this volume wants to point up. A selection of questions and suggestions for group discussion follow each chapter. There are frequent quotations from Catholic scholars, in particular the previous two Popes.

The text shows the author’s Biblical scholarship, and also a strong adherence to Catholic dogma. The writer’s a bit more personally visible in this volume than in Acts and Letters. Great care is taken to show that the Bible does not contradict itself, even when verses taken out of context would seem to do so.

One nitpick here–In discussing Galatians 4:4-7, the author makes the claim that “sons” is inclusive language, while “children” is exclusive. This seems to be based on the Greek word Paul uses, direct translation “sonship” having special meaning above and beyond ordinary adoption. But such would not be obvious to the lay reader, who is more likely to come to the conclusion that Paul was simply using the pre-Twentieth Century practice of using masculine nouns and pronouns as the generic, on the assumption that male is normative, with the subtle damage that does to communication. The author doesn’t make his case well, and thus comes across as blinkered by his patriarchal training.

Overall, while I do not agree with all the interpretations of Scripture herein, nor the conclusions drawn therefrom, it’s well-written and I believe would serve a Catholic Bible study group well.

“These are the things that you shall do: Speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath.”–Zechariah 8:16-17

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