Book Review: Seven Come Infinity

Book Review: Seven Come Infinity edited by Groff Conklin

The title of this anthology refers to the phrase “seven come eleven” from craps, referring to the ways you can win.  In the preface, it’s mentioned that there are a finite number of possibilities for the outcome of rolling two dice.  But when you write a story speculating on the future, the possibilities are infinite.  Will these seven stories be winners?

Seven Come Infinity

“The Golden Bugs” by Clifford D. Simak starts us off in 1950s suburbia.  An insurance salesman is living a reasonably comfortable life with his wife and son, but there’s that one neighbor he hates.  It’s an engineer that is building a robot orchestra in his home and insists on testing their musical abilities first thing in the morning.  Also, our protagonist’s house has a bug problem.

This is not the first time he’s had an insect incursion (the grease ants have been a recurring issue) but this is most assuredly the weirdest.  The little golden critters look like nothing on Earth (according to the retired entomologist next door.)  At first, they’re mildly annoying, then turn helpful…and then scary.

The golden bugs are nicely alien, and their motives are never clear, only their actions, which may or may not have anything to do with their attitude towards humans.  The threat level multiplies as we learn more about the bugs’ capabilities.  There’s a comedy twist when the protagonist figures out a plan to deal with the bugs that might have worked, but the music-loving neighbor puts his better plan into operation first.

“Special Feature” by Charles V. DeVet opens in Saint Paul, Minnesota, as a murderous alien infiltrates the city one winter night bent on mayhem.  She’s confident the stupid humans will be easy prey as she learns to fit in and kill her way to the top.  What she doesn’t know is that she’s already been caught on camera.

And that’s where the story gets interesting.  For in this future, the surveillance society is not run by the government, but by the entertainment companies.  There are cameras nearly everywhere in the city that can be operated remotely, and content providers scanning for anything they can sell to the networks.  Vern Nelson is one of those workers, and he spots the alien before it makes its first attack.  He realizes how exciting this will be and gets exclusive rights to make a reality show of it.

For the rest of the story, we watch Pentizel as she cleverly figures out how to pass for human (at least from a short distance) and schemes to conceal her presence from the locals as she picks them off.  We also watch Vern as he finds ways to exploit Pentizel’s actions to attract an audience (and advertiser dollars) without ever letting her know her every move has been watched.  (Well, almost every move.  The broadcast standards people decide that even if it’s an alien, “no bathroom stuff.”)

Eventually, the authorities decide that ratings or no, Pentizel has killed once too often (that is, someone who isn’t a homeless person or a criminal) and the show must end.  Vern has to find a way to finish the program with a bang!

Television was still in its early days when the story was written, but in some ways it’s eerily prescient.  Suitably updated, it’d probably make a great movie.

“Panic Button” by Eric Frank Russell concerns an Antarean exploration mission looking for new inhabitable planets.  They’ve found one, the problem being that there’s an inhabitant, an Earthman.  And he’s already pushed the big blue button on the wall.

The situation is pretty transparent to the savvy reader, but the fun comes from the aliens debating over what they’re going to do each time new information comes in, and their contrasting personalities.

“Discontinuity” by Raymond F. Jones is about a new experimental process of computerized brain repair.   Among other things, it uses the memories of people who know the patient to help rebuild the parts of the brain related to those relationships.  Unfortunately, everyone who’s been treated by the process, while now able to get along physically, is completely aphasic, unable to communicate or understand communication.

When the inventor of the process suffers massive brain damage as the result of a murder attempt, he’s subjected to the process (over the objections of his wife, the attempted murderer) in a last-ditch attempt to perfect the operation.  He, too, emerges aphasic.

However, unlike previous test subjects, Dr. Mantell is not immediately restrained, and is able to escape.  He soon discovers that his mind is functioning just fine, other than being completely unable to understand human language (including gestures.)  Then he meets other escaped subjects and learns that he can communicate with them.

Dr. Mantell realizes that they have in fact become hyperrational superbeings, and the reason they no longer understand human communication is because it’s inherently irrational enough that their refined minds are no longer able to handle it.  In order to survive, they will need to find a way to, well, dumb themselves down to talk to the humans.

This story uses the “10% of the brain” thing, though not by name.  More annoyingly, it uses the cliche common in Fifties SF of “wife of scientist that doesn’t understand or care about science and is therefore horrible to him.”  To the writer’s credit, Dr. Mantell realizes (now that he’s hyperrational) that he was a total jackass to her himself and is equally responsible for the failure of their marriage.

The story ends on a pro-transhumanist message, as an ordinary human begs to be the next one uplifted.    Chilling if you’re not into hyperrationality as the next step in human evolution.

“The Corianis Disaster” by Murray Leinster concerns the title starship, stuffed to the portholes with planetary dignitaries (and one physicist), which has an accident with its faster than light drive.  It takes a couple of hours to replace the burned out parts, so the ship is late to its destination.  Or is it?  It seems that the Corianis landed a couple of hours ago.

Each ship appears to be identical to the other at first, right down to the passengers.  (With the exception of physicist Jack Bedell, who is not duplicated.)  Since the appearance of these doubles might be the work of sinister forces, neither ship’s personnel are allowed to disembark.

Most science fiction fans will realize what happened immediately, but Mr. Bedell takes much longer, and none of the civilians ever grasp the truth before he finally kind of sort of explains it towards the end.  They’d rather believe in evil alien shapeshifters, or witches.  It doesn’t help that Mr. Bedell seems incapable or unwilling to put things in layman’s terms.

This is another one where Fifties social norms date the story.  Women are wives, nurses and secretaries, not government officials or scientists.  Mr. Bedell’s love interest is a secretary who doesn’t get what he’s talking about but can tell he’s the only sane man aboard.

“The Servant Problem” by William Tenn starts “This was the day of complete control…” and ends “THIS WAS THE DAY OF COMPLETE CONTROL.”  In between, we meet Garomma, the Servant of All, the humble dictator of the world.  He enjoys thinking about how he has domesticated the entire human population into thinking he serves them instead of the other way around.  Then we pull back a bit to meet the man behind the man.  And the man behind the man behind the man.  And….

It’s a fascinating look at social power structures, and how systems become self-sustaining.

“Rite of Passage” by Chad Oliver rounds out the book.  Three survivors of a plague ship take a shuttle down to the nearest planet.  The natives appear primitive, but are reasonably friendly.  One of the survivors, an anthropologist, realizes that appearances are deceiving and the local culture is far more complex than it first appears.  Also, there’s evidence the plague survivors aren’t the only technologically advanced visitors around.

This fits into the category of Utopian fiction more than anything else, as the Nern society turns out to be better than the visitors’ in just about every way.  (Think the civilization version of that Japanese decluttering method.)  Lots of infodump towards the end.

I liked “Special Feature” and “The Servant Problem” the best.  “Rite of Passage” is a little too taken with its message for my tastes.

This volume does not seem to have been reprinted past 1967, but some of the stories may have been collected in more recent books.  Keep watching garage sales!

Book Review: Nine Lessons

Book Review: Nine Lessons by Nicola Upson

A churchyard in a village not too far from Cambridge in England has one too many bodies in its graves.  The victim, a respected organist, was entombed alive, and odd details about the scene make it clear that this was murder most foul.  Detective Chief Inspector Archie Penrose is called in from Scotland Yard to investigate.

Nine Lessons

One of the clues brings DCI Penrose to Cambridge itself, where the victim was a student at King’s College before World War One.  As it happens, Penrose’s good friend, mystery writer Josephine Tey is in town, house-sitting for her very good friend Marta.  The days are turning chill as Armistice Day approaches, but there’s something else that is bringing fear to the university town–a series of sexual assaults on young women.

This is the seventh in a series of mystery books starring a fictionalized version of author Josephine Tey.  For starters, in the books this is her actual name, rather than being a nom de plume  for Elizabeth MacKintosh (1896-1952).  The real author is perhaps best remembered for her 1951 novel, The Daughter of Time, in which a hospitalized police detective amuses himself by investigating the supposed murder by Richard III of his nephews.  But this story is set in approximately 1937, as it’s mentioned that Alfred Hitchcock is loosely adapting one of Tey’s books into a movie.

But Mr. Hitchcock is only mentioned; the primary literary influence here is M.R. James, once Dean of King’s College, and famous for his chilling ghost stories.  The murderer seems to be taking inspiration from those stories, and all the victims were once in the King’s College Choir (which sings the Nine Lessons and Carols from whence the title derives.)

The subtitle on the cover is “some wounds never heal”; Inspector Penrose and some of the other characters are still carrying the scars from the War, while others are dealing with more personal wounds.  Another theme of the book is kindness, given, withheld, found in unusual places and the devastating effects if kindness is taken away.

An important subplot is the romantic relationship between Inspector Penrose and his current (and former) lover Bridget.  She’s been keeping a large secret from him that Marta (and thus Josephine) have learned about.  Keeping this secret is a betrayal, but it’s not theirs to tell.

There’s a lot of glowing description of Cambridge’s architecture.  I’ve only been there one day many years ago, so cannot speak to the accuracy of the descriptions, but the author lives there so presumably knows what she’s talking about.  The author deliberately moved some 1970s events into the 1930s to fit them into this novel.

The murder mystery part of the book wraps up several chapters before the end, allowing the other plotlines to take the foreground.  The ending is bittersweet at best; criminals have been found and taken off the streets, but the wounds they caused remain.  (Content warning: rape, suicide.)

Some bits made me cry, but then I’m the sentimental sort.  Recommended to fans of historical mysteries.

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

Here’s a video of the King’s College Choir and the Nine Lessons:

 

 

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead

Book Review: A Man Lay Dead by Ngaio Marsh

Sir Hubert Handesley’s weekend entertainments are to die for, so young reporter Nigel Bathgate has been told.  And now, thanks to his well-to-do older cousin Charles Rankin, Nigel will have the chance to participate in one himself.   The game is “Murders”, which should be jolly good fun for the middle-upper crust guests.

A Man Lay Dead

As it happens, Charles has brought along a new toy, a Mongolian dagger said to have associations with a Russian secret society.  That knife ends up in his back when the lights go out.  Did the mysterious brotherhood take revenge for learning their secrets?  Did the two affairs he was having, one with a married woman, create the motive?  Or did Nigel, who will inherit a pile of money from his cousin, decide to speed up the process?

Inspector Roderick Alleyn of Scotland Yard will need all his wits to unravel this puzzle!

This was the first Alleyn mystery published by Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982), a New Zealand author who cleverly left off her first name of Edith to stand out on the bookshelves.  She spent a fair amount of time in Britain, but New Zealand was her home, and several of the Alleyn books take place there.

As is par for the course with British detective stories, Inspector Alleyn is a bit eccentric.  He carries a notebook which he uses constantly, and claims to have a “filthy memory.”   (His memory is superior to most people’s.)   He’s somewhat upper-class, has an appreciation of the arts, and had originally been in the Foreign Service until an incident (unexplained in this volume) diverted him into police work.

After establishing that Nigel is almost certainly not the killer, Alleyn begins using him as a “Watson” to bounce ideas off of and explain his thought processes to.  (This continues in later stories.)

There’s some exciting scenes involving the secret society, which yes, really exists and endangers several characters.   The solution to the main mystery is a bit unlikely, but well established by clues in the lead-up.   Unlike some other mysteries of the period, the servants in the household are noticed and have roles to play, if only minor ones for most.  (A staff of about a dozen to support two members of the nobility!)  I also like that Inspector Alleyn gets on well with his Scotland Yard subordinates.

One glaring thing:  A use of the N-word by Nigel–keep in mind that this was written in England in the 1930s, so there’s a slightly different context.

If you enjoy Christie and Sayers, you will probably like Marsh as well.   (But the volumes set in New Zealand might be of more interest to someone looking for variety.)

Here’s a TV adapation (some liberties have been taken):

Book Review: The Pavilion

Book Review: The Pavilion by Hilda Lawrence (also published as “The Pavilion of Death”)

When Regan Carr’s mother passes away from illness, the young woman is hard-pressed.  Her part-time job as a small town librarian for $25 a week (roughly equivalent to an $8/hr job in 2017) is not sufficient to cover the doctor’s bills and other expenses of her mother’s final days, let alone allow her to live in any sort of comfort.  So when a letter arrives from her distant (and wealthy) cousin Hurst Herald, asking her to live with him, Regan decides to give it a try.

The Pavilion

But when Regan arrives with her meager possessions, Hurst Herald is dead.  And he evidently hadn’t told the rest of the family she was coming, so the relatives view Regan with suspicion.  There are those who seem glad to see her; Miss Etta, a kleptomaniac pensioner who was an old friend of Hurst’s, and the Crain sisters, elderly maids who appreciate Regan’s kindness.  The relatives warm up a bit when she proves her arrival was expected, and Regan is given an out-of-the-way room for the moment.

This novel is in the Southern Gothic tradition, featuring a dysfunctional family with dark secrets living in a fine mansion that is beginning to decay.  It’s a slow burn in many, many ways–it’s halfway through before Regan realizes that the family’s history of tragic accidents doesn’t include any actual accidents.   Much depends on her suppressed memories of what happened in the pavilion out back of the house during her childhood visit.

Regan is a petite woman, who looks even more childlike than her age of twenty-two.  A running gag is her bunny slippers, a rare splurge purchase for the poverty-stricken lady.  In a more action-packed story, she would be the damsel in distress type, but the menace here is more subtle, hidden between the lines of seemingly innocuous conversations.

The slow burn serves the story well most of the way through.  There’s a particularly chilling scene where one character’s previously comical behavior is revealed to be the result of psychological abuse as a child.  This does, however, mean that the last chapter needs to wrap everything up in a bit of a rush, with the murderer’s identity confirmed by elimination in the final paragraphs.

The viewpoint is mostly Regan’s, but we do have moments seeing the thoughts of other characters.  For example, one of the maids daydreaming about working for a less strict employer so she wouldn’t have to set her alarm clock an hour ahead to keep her job, and worrying every day that they will notice the difficulty she has getting up the stairs.  (Towards the end she talks about her and her sister’s fear of ending their days in a charity ward.)

There’s a touch of period racism; the family has no black servants because (the housekeeper thinks) they’re superstitious and don’t react well to summons from empty rooms.  African-Americans appear in scene descriptions, but none are relevant to the plot.

This is an atmospheric book that will reward the patient reader.  My 1960s copy is in rough shape; you might be able to find the 1980s reprint in better condition.

Magazine Review: If May 1961

Magazine Review: If May 1961 managing editor Frederik Pohl

If was a science fiction magazine that ran from 1952 to 1974.  It was considered a “second tier” magazine due to frequently low sales, but that should not be confused with “second-rate.”  By 1961, If had become a sister magazine to Galaxy, publishing in alternate months.  Under editor Frederik Pohl, this magazine tended to publish newer writers and more experimental stories, while Galaxy on average worked more with popular established authors.  The cover for the May 1961 issue is “The Commuters” by Jack Gaughan, which has nothing to do with any of the stories.

If May 1961

The lead story is “That’s How It Goes” by J.T. McIntosh.  An overpopulated Earth needs millions of colonists for new worlds.  But it’s only hundred thousands who volunteer.  So most colonists are those who’ve broken laws or rules.  Serious criminals are sent to hellholes like Roc, which is almost certain death.  But for relatively pleasant worlds like Aperdui, which just needs a lot of hard work, any rulebreaker will do.

Thus the seven candidates in the colony office are an actress who wore a see-through nightie on screen, two gluttons, a man who made too many shoes for his quota, a fellow who took a call from his girlfriend and let a food vat die, his girlfriend and the phone operator who let the call go through.  The operator gets a temporary stay, but the rest are shipped off to the new planet to start a farm.

One of the gluttons kills himself because he can’t face life on just enough food to work, and is replaced by an experienced farmer.  We follow the fortunes of the group through their ups and downs, some succeeding and making Aperdui a decent place to live, others dealing with heartbreak.

At the end, one of the colonists becomes a recruiter back on Earth, facing the same sort of involuntary exportees he once was. There’s a picture of a woman skinny-dipping in the distance, her back turned towards the “camera.”  Notably absent from the story is the notion that Earth should perhaps limit its population by other means than emigration.

“Out of Mind” by William W. Stuart concerns a control freak bureaucrat who takes a “vacation” on a planet where the natives have illusion powers that make the place seem ideal, whatever that means to the individual viewer.  Many visitors never leave.  But Screed is ready with anti-illusion pills and a satellite that will disrupt the natives’ powers.  He’ll soon have them whipped into shape as a proper member of the galactic civilization!

Much of the story is Screed being set up to think it’s his idea to go to the planet.  It’s pretty clear his wife (who he allots fifteen minutes of scheduled sex a week) is in on the scam.  It’s a well-deserved fate, but the ending is telegraphed.

“A Science Faction Story” by Theodore Sturgeon is an article on making money from going to space.  Specifically, the then-new idea of communications satellites, a business opportunity that can only be achieved through spaceflight, as opposed to being (Earth activity) in SPACE!

“The Connoisseur” by Frank Banta is set on a generation ship that has forgotten its past, and its goal.  A collector of rare items barters for a child bride with such things as the control knobs which used to be on the navigation panel…before the ship inhabitants killed the last navigator.  No happy ending here, kids.

“Seven Doors to Education” by Fred Saberhagen is an interesting piece about a  swimmer who finds himself undergoing a series of tests to unlock doors to escape wherever it is he’s trapped.  Pete Kelsey’s family didn’t believe in education, and he’s wound up with a steady but dead-end job sorting letters in the Chicago post office.  Now he has to learn, and learn fast if he wants to avoid drowning.  A bit of an infodump at the end, but Pete is faced with a decision that feels meaningful.

“The Useless Bugbreeders” by James Stamers has some interesting features.  The narrator is an advocate for alien species who don’t want the expansionist Earthlings to destroy their homes for the ease of space travel.   He must defend them to a panel of judges who are none too thrilled considering the wacky things that happen.

In this case, his clients are the Bugbreeders, who are masters of creating specialty microbes.  He’s brought along one of their scientists to perform some demonstrations.  Unfortunately, poor prior planning causes each of the demonstrations to have predictable bad consequences.  It looks like the Bugbreeders may lose their asteroid home, but there’s one last twist.  This is one of those stories where the advocate and the client should have gone over the testimony in advance.

“Science Briefs” is a set of short science fact developments as of 1961, including a look at radiation therapy to treat cancer.  Fascinating stuff for science fans!

“Cinderella Story” by Allen Kim Lang concerns Orison McCall, a Treasury agent infiltrating a bank where weird things are going on by being hired as a secretary.  Such things as most of the bank’s employees wearing earmuffs in mid-summer and the invertebrate farm upstairs.

Eventually, Orison learns that she’s stumbled onto an alien power struggle.  The story is marred by most of the male characters treating Orison as a romantic target (and the other major female character assuming Orison is her romantic rival on the strength of Orison being pretty.)  This is especially irksome with the male lead Dink Gerding, who very specifically will not accept that “no” means “no”, orders for his date at restaurants, and jumps straight from first date to marriage proposal.  Naturally, Orison is deeply in love with him by the end of the story.

“The Flying Tuskers of K’Niik-K’naak” by Jack Sharkey rounds out the issue.  It’s a comedic tale about a pompous Great White Hunter being outfoxed by his native servant…in SPACE.  It’s overdone, the narration pushing the hunter character well beyond pompous into actively abusive.

The Saberhagen story is the best in this issue, but the McIntosh story is also pretty good.  You can find all the issues of If on the Internet Archive.

 

 

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More

Book Review: Stories from Sleep No More edited by August Derleth

Sleep No More was a 1940s anthology of horror fiction put together by noted Wisconsin historical fiction (and horror) author August Derleth.  It featured primarily creepy stories from the pulp magazines of the 1930s.  In the 1960s, a paperback reprint came out.  To make it a manageable size with the binding limitations of the time, only the first nine stories were included; and presumably there would have been a sequel with the rest had sales justified it.

Stories from Sleep No More

“Count Magnus” by M.R. James leads off with the tale of a would-be travel book writer who visits Sweden and wakes up something that should have been kept sleeping.  Like many tales from the era, it’s told at a remove, reported by someone who found the protagonist’s papers and pieced together the story from them.  That aside, it’s an excellent example of horror by implication–none of the presumably gory bits happen on page, and the results are not directly described.  The moment of most terror is a lock that should not be open being open.

“Cassius” by Henry S. Whitehead is set in the West Indies.  A man who’s had an ugly growth removed is hunted by a small but deadly enemy.  It starts well, but the explanation for the terror is heavily racist, involving some dubious genetics and “race memory.”  Also, the ending is an anticlimax.

“The Occupant of the Room” by Algernon Blackwood is the oldest story in the collection.  A schoolteacher who altered his holiday plans on a whim finds himself at a Swiss inn with no vacancies.  Wait, there is one room, but the catch is that the occupant just vanished a couple of days ago–they may or may not be returning.  The room’s atmosphere is oppressive, leading to thoughts of suicide.  Unnatural thoughts!

“The Return of the Sorcerer” by Clark Ashton Smith has a desperately unemployed man (who happens to know Arabic) get a job as secretary to reclusive scholar John Carnby.  Carnby turns out to be an occultist with eccentric habits, and a fear of leaving his room at night.  Supposedly, the noises in the halls are rats, but the glimpses the secretary gets don’t look like any rats he’s ever seen.  Mr. Carnby needs some passages from the Necronomicon translated at the highest priority, passages about sorcerers being able to come back from the dead.  The job does not end well.

“Johnson Looked Back” by Thomas Burke is a rare second-person story.  The reader is addressed as though they were Johnson, who is pursued by a mysterious blind, handless man.  The narrator urges Johnson not to look behind him, but of course he does and dooms himself.  The ending is kind of kludgy, suggesting the whole story is a metaphor.

“The Hand of the O’Mecca” by Howard Wandrei is set in Minnesota, not far from Mankato.  Finnish-American farmer Elof Bocak is crossing the fields at night to woo his neighbor, Kate O’Mecca.  Perhaps he should have paid more attention to the superstition about bats on the ground.  Some nice local color, but the twist is telegraphed.

“‘He Cometh and He Passeth By!'” by H.R. Wakefield concerns a barrister named Edward Bellamy.  He’s contacted by an old school friend, Philip Franton.  They’d fallen out of touch after the War, but now Franton is in a spot of trouble.  It seems he was for some months host to Oscar Clinton, a fascinating fellow who Philip was quite entranced with initially.

Eventually, Clinton’s less appealing habits (impregnating chambermaids, stealing and forgery) became unbearable, and Franton broke ties with the man.  Some time later, Clinton tried to use his “friendship” with Philip as a recommendation to a club, and the wealthy man blackballed him.  Clinton was not well pleased, and sent Franton a supposedly cursed image.  Now Philip is jumping at oddly shaped shadows.

Bellamy is unable to prevent his friend’s horrible death, but perhaps he can get a little extrajudicial revenge?

Oscar Clinton is cartoonishly decadent.  To quote:

“I fancy,” said Clinton, “that you are perplexed by the obstinate humidity of my left eye.  It is caused by the rather heavy injection of heroin I took this afternoon.”

It’s probably meant to evoke the image of the notorious “Wickedest Man in the World” Aleister Crowley.  While Clinton only mentions sex with women, there are homoerotic undertones in his relationships with Franton and Bellamy.  His comeuppance is satisfying.

“Thus I Refute Beezly” by John Collier is titled after Samuel Johnson’s famous rejoinder to Bishop Berkeley.  “Small Simon” Carter is a friendless child who spends most of his time in the garden, playing alone.  He claims to be playing with a “Mr. Beezly” who is hard to describe, and no adult has ever seen.

Small Simon’s father, who insists on being called “Big Simon”, is a dentist with some odd ideas about parenting.  Big Simon is big on science and fact, and when Small Simon won’t admit that Beezly is imaginary, decides to punish the lad.  That’s a mistake.

This story is more often reprinted than most in this collection, and there’s analysis of it at various websites.  What struck me was that the author is being snotty about “modern” parenting methods of the sort where parents insist on children calling them by first name.  “See?  This fellow is all ‘progressive’ and such, but when logic fails, it’s back to corporal punishment just like normal folks!”

Rounding out the collection is “The Mannikin” by Robert Bloch.  A schoolteacher picks a random isolated town for vacation, only to discover that this is the hometown of his old school friend Simon Maglore.  In the time they’ve been parted, the deformity of Simon’s back has gotten a lot worse, and the superstitious locals shun him.  The basic twist is the same as “Cassius”, minus the racism.  Some Lovecraftian references in this story, too.

Most of these are good if dated stories; “Cassius” is the only one that has become outright uncomfortable to read due to its attitudes.  While it’s long out of print, the paperback edition should be relatively easy to find in finer used bookstores.

Book Review: Army Wives

Book Review: Army Wives by Midge Gillies

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

Army Wives

The life of a soldier is hard and often dangerous, but the life of a soldier’s spouse has its hardships and hazards as well.  This book collects the stories of various British Army wives from the Crimean War (where wives sometimes shared tents near the front lines with their husbands) to the modern day, when social media allows spouses (now including husbands) to worry about the servicemember’s safety in “real time.”

After chapters on spousal travel and accommodations, the remainder of the book is in roughly chronological order.  There tends to be more information on officers’ wives than those of enlisted men, as especially in the early days they were more likely to be literate and thus leave behind letters, journals and memoirs.  Most of the women covered are ordinary people who rose to the occasion, but there’s also Lady Elizabeth Butler, who was a famous painter even before marrying a famous soldier.

The epilogue is about life after the army, both in the general sense, and the fates of the specific women used as examples in the book.  There’s a nice center section of pictures, many in color, plus a bibliography, end notes and an index.

As always, learning about the lives of people in unusual circumstances is fascinating, and there is quite a variety of women and outcomes represented.  The writing is decent, and some sections are emotionally affecting.

On the other hand, covering so many different stories means that some feel as though they’ve gotten short shrift.  Edith Tolkien, for example, gets two pages, mostly about the codes her husband (J.R.R.) slipped into his letters to let her know where he was.  And the section on soldiers who came home from World War One with facial disfigurements has no direct testimony from wives at all.

That said, this book should be of interest to those interested in military history (especially about women in military history) and those considering being the spouse of a military person.

And now, a video of the British Army Wives’ Chorus:

 

Manga Review: Dawn of the Arcana 1

Manga Review: Dawn of the Arcana 1 by Rei Toma

Princess Nakaba has bright red hair.  This is not a rare hair color in her homeland of Senan; indeed it’s all too common.  Both in Senan and its southern neighbor Belquat, all the nobility and royalty have pure black hair.  Her flaming tresses suggest that Nakaba is the product of an affair with a peasant, or some weakness in her family line.  Thus she has long been shunned and mistreated by her royal relatives.

Dawn of the Arcana 1

When the time comes for a political marriage to quell the periodic military tension between Belquat and Senan, Nakaba is chosen for the task as a deliberate slap in the face to both her and the royal family of Belquat.  The brides in these marriages tend to turn up dead in suspicious circumstances a few years later, so sending Princess Nakaba both tells her how expendable she is, and informs Belquat that their princes are not worthy of purebred wives.

Prince Caesar of Belquat isn’t too thrilled with this marriage either.  He’s the younger son of the royal family, but also has a claim on the throne as Prince Cain is the son of a concubine, while Caesar’s mother is fully married to the king.  His mother’s people are scheming to make him the heir, but Prince Caesar has no interest in ruling Belquat when Cain could do a perfectly adequate job.  Caesar is not a particularly talented warrior, and has won what combat skills he has by long practice.

Princess Nakaba’s sole ally at court (at least at the beginning) is her servant Loki, who has been with her since childhood.  Loki is a member of the Ajin race, humanoids with animalistic ears and tails.  Their senses are sharper than ordinary humans, and their great strength and superior reflexes make them natural warriors.  Ajin are an underclass who are allowed to be servants at best, and are often massacred to keep their numbers down.  Loki is devoted to Nakaba, not least because he knows she has a hidden power called “Arcana” that is about to blossom.

This shoujo fantasy manga was first published in 2009.  There’s heavy romance elements as Nakaba and Caesar must try to make their marriage work despite being enemies, and deal with the passions of other people who have their own love or political objectives.

This first volume has three long chapters.  We first meet the royal couple shortly after the official wedding ceremony.  They don’t like each other, but have to put a polite face on in public and both are trying to make the marriage work to the extent that’s possible.  Princess Nakaba makes an etiquette blunder at her first dinner with the new family,  King Guran takes the opportunity to sentence Loki to death (he really hates the Ajin) but the servant is able to escape.

While Prince Caesar is no fan of the Ajin either, he does pledge to get the death sentence revoked if Loki shows his loyalty to Nakaba by returning to her before dawn.  Loki does, and Caesar stands by his promise.  However, the way the promise is fulfilled in no way endears Loki to Caesar.  Despite that, this marks a turning point in Nakaba and Caesar’s relationship as they begin to see each other’s positive traits.

I’ve looked ahead a bit, and there are many plot twists to come, starting with the true nature of Princess Nakaba’s Arcana.

The art is decent, as is the writing.  There’s a certain amount of violence, so the publisher has rated this series as “Teen.”  There are a couple of forceful kisses, but Caesar backs off his insistence on enjoying his “marriage rights” when Nakaba puts up a fight.

Recommended for fans of fantasy romance.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Batman, Volume 6 edited by Julius Schwartz

By 1971, the Batman television show had been off the air long enough that its sales boost to the Batman and Detective Comics series had faded, and with it, the incentive to model the magazines on the show.  Bruce Wayne moved from stately Wayne Manor to a penthouse in downtown Gotham City and started a charitable organization for victims of crime.  Dick “Robin” Grayson went off to college on the other side of the state, and guest-starred infrequently.  And most of Batman’s regular rogues’ gallery took a vacation.

Showcase Presents: Batman Volume 6

This freed up space for a more somber tone, although this run certainly had its own silliness, such as a return engagement by the Ten-Eyed Man, whose optic nerves had been transplanted into his fingers.  And Two-Face made an appearance for the first official time since the 1950s.  But quite a few of the stories had Batman facing off against ordinary murderers and organized crime…as well as what appeared to be ghosts and psychic powers.

This volume covers Batman 229-236 and Detective Comics 408-416.  The first story, “Asylum of the Futurians” pits the Caped Crusader against a group of apparent lunatics who’ve captured a photographer in the mistaken belief he possesses psychic abilities that will make him their leader.  (It’s never clear that the Futurians actually have ESP; it certainly doesn’t help against Batman; but then how do you explain the sudden impulse he had to investigate the neighborhood?)

Several stories are topical to the 1970s.  Thinly veiled versions of consumer advocate Ralph Nader and “participatory journalist” George Plimpton make guest appearances.  Stories featuring youth activism and black radicals have aged poorly; the latter mixes in a police corruption subplot, the end of which supposedly fixes injustice in the legal system of Gotham City.  Batman’s platitudes towards the radicals he’s fighting/helping come off as tone-deaf.

Other stories focus on Batman as the World’s Greatest Detective, revealing at the end the one clue he noticed where the criminal slipped up.  One, taking place at a production of Macbeth, involves the literal pricking of Batman’s thumbs.

The most notable plotline was the first appearances of Ra’s al Ghul and his daughter Talia.  Talia appeared first, helping Batman bring down Dr. Damien Darrk of the League of Assassins, who had fallen out with her father.  Then Ra’s contrived a scenario where both Robin and Talia were kidnapped in order to test Batman’s fitness to marry Talia (who had fallen for Bruce) and eventually take over his shadowy empire.

As created by writer Denny O’Neil and artists Dick Giordano and Neal Adams, Ra’s al Ghul was a mastermind in the Fu Manchu style (particularly the later novels.)  He controlled a vast criminal network, but did not consider himself a criminal, but rather humanity’s eventual savior.  Over his long life, Ra’s had become convinced overpopulation was the root of all the Earth’s problems.  Therefore he was going to do something about that.

Like Fah Lo Suee before her, Talia was conflicted between loyalty to her father and the desire to jump the hero’s bones.  Ra’s respected Bruce’s intelligence and skills enough to allow them to be mated, but only if Batman accepted a place as the Demon’s Head’s heir presumptive.  And no, Batman was not impressed by the “kill most of humanity to save the rest” plan.

After several encounters, Batman decides to take down Ra’s al Ghul once and for all, assembling a small team of specialists to help.  (This was the first appearance of the Matches Malone disguise, as Batman’s attempt to recruit the hitman went awry.)  After much ado, they finally catch up to the mastermind, or rather his corpse.

Except that it turns out Ra’s has access to something called the Lazarus Pit, which allows him renewed life and vigor at the cost of temporary insanity.  (This puts a different cast on an earlier story where Talia had supposedly believed her father dead.)  Eventually, Batman and Ra’s al Ghul must duel in single combat to determine which of them shall triumph in the last story of the volume.

This is nifty stuff, with some crackerjack writing and excellent art.  On the other hand, Talia’s personality is entirely defined in this storyline by her relationships with men, and she wavers back and forth between them as the plot demands.

Overall, this is a good run of Batman, and well worth requesting for the library, or even buying if you are a big Batman fan.  (Batgirl has a couple of blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos.)

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2  by Takehiko Inoue

Quick recap: In 17th Century Japan, failed soldier Shinmen Takezo has reinvented himself as wandering swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.  Dedicating his life to perfecting his own style of swordsmanship, he travels to Kyoto and starts a feud with the Yoshioka school of kendo.  Unknown to him, his childhood friend Matahachi is also in town, and accidentally sets fire to the Yoshioka dojo.

Vagabond Volume 2

This volume opens with Musashi being nursed back to health by the rough-edged Buddhist monk Takuan.  Realizing he still has a long way to go, Musashi decides to travel to Nara, there to pit himself against the spear style of the Hōzōin Temple monks.  A chance encounter with an elderly gardener may be more valuable than any battle.

Musashi is distracted by thoughts of his other childhood friend, the lovely Otsu.  She’s now the servant of a master of the Yagyu style of swordsmanship, who Yoshioka Denshichiro has come to train with in preparation for his next duel with Musashi.

Others are also on the road.  Gion Toji of the Yoshioka school is tracking Musashi to kill him, and is none too restrained about maiming other people along the way.

Matahachi’s on the run because of the arson thing, and a chance encounter allows him to also reinvent himself as the respected warrior Sasaki Kojirō.  His sections of the story are tragicomedy, as he keeps having good intentions, but the flaws in his character prevent him from following through in a crisis, and we watch him make excuse after excuse for doing less than he ought.

Miyamoto Musashi is better at learning from his mistakes; while he is not the sharpest katana in the armory, he’s partially grasped the concept of critical thinking and examining his own mindset.  Still has a long way to go before being the best swordsman in Japan though.

The successor to the Hōzōin spear style, Inshun, has his own issues.  He’s a natural combat genius who has never known “fear”, or had a truly serious challenge to his skills until now.  Thus his growth has stalled; Inshun must learn how to deal with defeat to become stronger.  His multi-chapter duel with Musashi is the centerpiece of this volume.

The art is stellar, but much of the credit for the plot and characterization must go to Eiji Yoshikawa, author of the novel this manga is an adaptation of.

There’s a lot of violence in this volume, some of it quite bloody.  There’s also a brief sex scene with female nudity–this is a “mature readers” title.

This continues to be a good choice for fans of samurai action stories.

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