Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6

Manga Review: Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6 by Yoshiki Nakamura

Quick recap:  Kyoko Mogami dropped out of school and moved to Tokyo to support her beloved Sho as he tried to break into show business.  A couple of years later, the now rising star let slip that he has never liked Kyoko back, just using her as a free servant.   Enraged, Kyoko has vowed to get revenge by defeating Sho at the one thing he truly cares about, public popularity.

Skip-Beat! Volumes 4-5-6

Despite no training in the field or immediately obvious talent, Kyoko managed to get a internship at the LME talent agency, because she amused eccentric president Lory.   Kyoko and another young woman with difficulties due to attitude, Moko, have been assigned to the “Love Me” section where they do humiliating chores in an effort to get noticed.

At the beginning of this combined volume, Kyoko manages to pass an audition to acting school by flipping a schmaltzy script to let her acid tongue shine.  She doesn’t get the full scholarship, though, because Lory’s granddaughter Maria (whose home situation mirrored the script) interfered.  Maria and Kyoko bond, and Lory begins to get an idea of how bad Kyoko’s mother was.

Next up, a series of coincidences wind up placing Kyoko in a chicken suit on a TV variety show just as that show has Sho as the main guest.  When Kyoko hears Sho telling fibs to make himself sound more cool, she decides to use her anonymity to get revenge by making the heartbreaker look bad.  It doesn’t quite work out the way she planned, but does allow her to see a different side of her coworker Ren.

We also learn that Ren has deeper connections to Kyoko than she’s aware of, but keeping them a secret because of his work ethic.

The following story has Kyoko and Moko  trying out for a soft drink commercial, and we’re introduced to Moko’s self-appointed arch-nemesis Erika Koenji.  A spoiled rich girl, Erika has never forgiven Moko (real name Kanae, by the way) for getting the lead in a third-grade play over her, and has used her wealth and connections ever since to quash Moko’s acting aspirations.   This is at least partially responsible for Moko’s attitude problem and unwillingness to be friends with other girls.

Learning bits of this makes Kyoko, who has never had a female friend either, feel a connection to Moko, and their unique acting styles (plus some dumb luck) gets them the commercial spot.

The next big storyline has a cold going around the office, knocking out Ren’s manager, and since all the regular replacements are also sick, this leaves Kyoko with the job (while she’s also studying for a high school entrance exam–she really wants to complete her education.)  Kyoko isn’t very good at a talent manager’s main job duties, but her skillset comes in handy when Ren falls ill as well and needs a nurse.  Ship tease!

While Kyoko’s negative personality traits are still present, this collected volume allows her to show the positive ones as well.  The appearances of her (literal) “inner demons” are less frequent.   We also get some nice development for a few of the supporting characters, and hints of deeper backstory.  I like the balance of comedy and dramatic elements, and the romantic hints aren’t overwhelming the story.

The character art is good, but backgrounds are often sketchy or outright absent.

Kyoko’s absentee mother comes across as a real piece of work; parents of younger readers may want to discuss unreasonable expectations with their children.  Aside from that, this book is suitable for junior high kids (especially girls) on up.

Recommended to shoujo readers who like a little tartness in their heroines.

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One

Comic Book Review: The Superman Chronicles Volume One by Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster

While there were several precursors to Superman, he’s generally agreed to be the first full-fledged comic book superhero.  Superhuman abilities, a distinctive costume, and a dual identity, he had them all.   When Superman first appeared in Action Comics #1 in 1938, the readers had not seen anything quite like him before, and the comic book flew off the shelves.

The Superman Chronicles Volume One

However, the fellow who appeared in those early issues wasn’t quite the Superman we’ve come to know after all these years.  The “Chronicles” series of reprints gives us full-color reproductions of the stories in order of publication, starting with the very first, plus the covers of the issues.

Action Comics #1 starts us off right with the classic scene of Superman smashing a car into a rock, which turns out to actually happen in the story.   The feature begins with an abbreviated version of Superman’s origin.  The dying planet that sent a single rocketship to Earth (not yet named Krypton), a passing motorist (not yet identified as the Kents) who takes the infant to an orphanage, his growing powers (strength, speed, leaping, nigh-invulnerability) and his determination to use his powers to help those in need.  Clark Kent’s powers are explained by his physical structure being far more advanced than Earth humans, giving him the proportionate abilities of an ant or grasshopper.

The story itself starts in media res, as Superman carries a murderer to the governor’s mansion.  Leaving her tied up nearby, the Man of Steel forces himself past the governor’s servant, and through a metal door to that worthy’s bedroom.  He produces proof that the woman about to be executed is innocent, and stays right there until the governor pardons her.

The next day, Clark Kent is pleased to see that the Daily Star did not print anything about Superman’s involvement.  But the rumor of a superhuman fellow in a bright costume has already come to notice, and the Star’s city editor puts his rookie reporter Kent on the job of discovering the truth.

Kent learns of a wife-beating in progress, but it’s Superman who appears at the scene and roughs up the abusive husband.  The cad faints, and it’s Clark who greets the police.

Next, it’s time to establish the “mild-mannered” part of Clark Kent’s persona.  Clark convinces fellow reporter Lois Lane to go dancing with him, but she’s showing a distinct lack of enthusiasm.  When Clark backs down far too easily to a hood named Butch who cuts in, Lois is disgusted at his cowardice and leaves the dance hall.

Butch is angered by Lois’ refusal to dance with him, and sets out to abduct her with a few of his criminal friends to teach Lois a lesson.  Naturally, Superman shows up and the cover scene ensues.  The Man of Tomorrow carries Lois home and advises her not to tell anyone.  Sure enough, the next day, no one will believe her wild story.  It will take her a couple of issues to fully process her reaction to Superman.

The Star’s editor has a new assignment for Clark Kent.  South American republic San Monte is having a civil war, and since the home front is getting so dull card games are front-page news (I am now imagining a 1930s version of Yu-Gi-Oh), Kent should go down there and file some war reports.  Oh, pictures would be good too.

Rather than head directly south, Kent first travels to Washington, D.C.  He spots a Senator Barrows being furtively contacted by lobbyist Alex Greer, who’s known to be connected to “dark money” but no one knows whose.  Eavesdropping on their next meeting, Superman learns that the bill Senator Barrows is pushing is designed to entangle America in European affairs.   (We never come back to this plot point.)

Afterward, Superman approaches Greer to find out who his backer is.  Naturally the lobbyist declines to state this information, so Superman picks the man up and starts leaping all over town with him.  He even finds time to impart a science fact about birds and power lines!   His last leap doesn’t quite make it to the next building, and the men begin to fall….

All that in thirteen pages!

Action Comics #2 does not have Superman on the cover; he would not make it back until #7, and thereafter would usually be mentioned in a text box even if the cover was of someone else.

The story picks up where #1 left off, with Superman and Greer landing on the sidewalk.  They survive, the sidewalk doesn’t.   Greer spills the beans on his boss, international arms dealer Emil Norvell.  Superman then uses his considerable persuasive powers to make sure that Norvell travels to San Monte and enlists in their army.

Lois is assigned to go along with Clark Kent to South America.  Lots of things happen, including Norvell learning what it’s like to be on the pointy edge of his munitions, Lois nearly being shot as a spy, Superman just straight up killing a torturer (oh sure, we don’t see him land, but being tossed several miles away?  He’s not going to have a soft landing) and the Man of Steel finding a creative way to stop the war.

The story is followed by an advertisement for the daily Superman comic strip, soon to come out.

#3 has Superman get a neglectful mine owner to improve safety conditions for workers.  (Some ethnic slurs by baddies.)    There’s also an announcement of the first Superman fan club, the Supermen of America.

#4 is Superman kidnapping a college football player for several days to impersonate him in order to prevent a game from being fixed.  As a side effect, it also improves Tommy’s love life.

#5 has Lois Lane get enraged by the editor’s sexism (“no job for a girl”) and trick Clark Kent into pursuing a fake story while she goes off to cover a bursting dam.  Superman saves Lois a couple of times and she admits her feelings for him while still despising Clark.

#6 is the first Superman impersonator story.  A crook dresses his henchman up in a Superman suit and has him do faked stunts of superstrength so that the crook can claim he’s got a legal license to sell Superman merchandise.  Lois easily sees through the fake, but still needs rescuing.  Also has the first Superman-themed song.

#7 has Superman join a failing circus to give it an attendance boost, and reveal the criminals that are trying to take it over.  This is a good spot to mention that Superman’s distinctive costume was partially based on a circus strongman outfit, including trunks worn over tights to keep certain body bulges smoothed out.  This story also introduces Curly, the first of what would be a recurring type of bully who also works at the paper and pranks Clark Kent.  By the end of the story, Clark finds a way to get some payback.

#8 is another classic moment for Superman as a social justice warrior.  He decides to tackle the problem of juvenile delinquency in slum kids–by tearing down the entire slum, thus forcing the government to build them new housing ala FEMA!

Of course, actions have consequences, and in #9, the police bring in Chicago cop Detective Captain Reilly, known as “100% Reilly” for always getting his man.  Reilly’s plan hits a significant snag when he attempts to chisel an informant out of the substantial reward money promised.   Clark Kent is barely able to escape detection, but at the end, the visitor is known as “99% Reilly.”

#10 is another social justice story–Superman goes undercover as a prisoner to expose inhuman conditions imposed by a crooked warden.  (Warning: torture.)

#11 continues Superman’s impersonations.  To expose a crooked oil company, he poses as investor Homer Ramsey and contrives a beautiful scam where he tricks the oil company executives into trading their real money for their own worthless stock.  Environmentalists may cringe at how he does it, though.  (Presumably Superman turns the money he made over to charity.)

#12 has an interesting Zatara cover with a nifty spaceship.  The Superman story has him getting angry at reckless drivers and automobiles that are unsafe at any speed.  So he imposes a reign of terror on the city.  (And admittedly, fixes a particularly bad stretch of road.)  You can just feel Siegel’s outrage boiling off the page as Superman refuses to use doors in his pursuit of strict traffic enforcement.  Also in this issue, an announcement of DC’s second superhero, the Batman!

New York World’s Fair #1 ties into that 1939 event.  Clark and Lois are sent to cover the opening, but Superman spends most of his time helping attractions open on time and thwarting a criminal plot.

Action Comics #13 starts its story with Superman fighting the “Cab Protective League”, a shakedown racket aimed at taxi drivers.  However, we soon meet the first ever evil mastermind to battle Superman.  The Ultra-Humanite is a bald scientist who has given himself super-intelligence (which may or may not have anything to do with his paraplegia.)  Moriarty-like, he’s been secretly behind some of the criminal schemes Superman has thwarted.

His vast knowledge of science allows the Ultra-Humanite to stun Superman, but not kill him.  The evil scientist then appears to die in a plane crash, but Superman is unable to find a body.   He’ll be back several times, until Lex Luthor takes over his ecological niche.

And the volume concludes with Superman #1, as Superman became the first superhero to have his own solo comic book.  Most of the contents were reprinted from Action Comics #1-4.

However, the first story had a new introduction naming Krypton and the Kents for the first time, and establishing that John and Mary Kent had passed away from old age after training Clark in American values.  We then see how Superman learned of the innocent person condemned for murder and where to find the murderer seen in the first story.

The explanation of Superman’s powers now explained that Earth’s lighter gravity aided his advanced body structure to perform his superhuman feats.

Finally, there’s a two-page text story.  These prose stories appeared in comic books to force the post office to classify them at a lower postal rate.  Usually, they weren’t very good.  No exception here.

The art is crude but dynamic, and it’s fun to watch Superman perform his many feats.  This is a rougher-edged fellow who very much has opinions, and isn’t afraid to take matters into his own hands.  Soon he’ll calm down a bit and become more authority-friendly (and develop a code against killing.)  No more random kidnappings!

Highly recommended to Superman fans and those who want to know more about the early history of superhero comics.  Check your library!

 

Book Review: The History of Opera for Beginners

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

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

The History of Opera for Beginners

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD #2020-24

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD #2020-24 Edited by Tharg

As I’ve mentioned before, 2000 AD is a weekly comic paper with a speculative fiction bent that’s been published in Britain for over forty years.  It keeps up the schedule by featuring several short stories in each issue, most of them serialized.  A while back I c came into possession of the March 2017 issues, which seems like a good chunk to look over.

2000 AD #2020

“Judge Dredd” has been a headliner in the magazine since the second issue, and stories set in the dystopian future of Mega-City One are in almost every issue.  We start with a two-parter titled “Thick Skin” written by T.C. Eglington with art by Boo Cook.  Two vid stars have their skin slough off on camera in separate instances.  Coincidence?  Plague?  Terrorist plot?  It’s up to lawman Judge Dredd to investigate.

This is followed up by “The Grundy Bunch” by Arthur Wyatt and Tom Foster.  A family/cult that worships “Grud and Guns” has taken over one of the few remaining green spots in the city.  Despite the topical overtones, the story turns out to be a setup for a terrible pun.

“Get Jerry Sing” is by classic Judge Dredd team John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.  The title phrase is a bit of graffiti that’s been appearing all over the city.  What it means is a mystery, but pop star Jerry Sing isn’t happy about being a target.  This one has a karmic twist ending that brought a dark chuckle from me.

Lastly, there’s the first part of a longer story, “Harvey” by John Wagner and John McCrea.  The Day of Chaos and subsequent disasters have left the Judges severely understaffed, and it will be a while before they can train new human ones.  So there’s a renewed interest in the robot Judge program, Mechanismo.  Previous experiments with the artificial intelligences have proved disastrous, but this time, the Tek-Judges think they’ve cracked the problems with earlier models.  Judge Dredd is asked to take on “Judge Harvey” as a trainee, to see if this time robot cops are finally viable.

2000 AD #2021

The “Sinister Dexter” series is about Ramone Dexter and Finnegan Sinister, a pair of gunsharks (hitmen) who live in the city of Downlode.  Due to shenanigans involving alternate Earths, the pair have managed to get themselves erased from human and computer memory, and are slowly re-establishing their reputations without the baggage of the past.  They’re inspired by the hitmen from Pulp Fiction, but now bear little resemblance to them.

We have three stories in this group by Dan Abnett and Steve Yeowell.  First, the robotic security system for their new apartment building decides that Sinister and Dexter are a threat to the tenants.  A threat that must be eliminated.  The second story is from the point of view of the bartender at their favorite watering hole.  He doesn’t remember their previous interactions, but does know there’s something odd about the pair.  And finally, there’s a new hitman in town, who calls himself “the Devil.”  And his killing skills do seem…supernatural.

I find these characters smarmy and unlikable, but this sort of “not quite as bad guys” protagonist is popular with a segment of the readership.

2000 AD #2022

“Kingmaker” by Ian Edginton and Leigh Gallagher is a newer serial.  A fantasy world was having its own problems dealing with a wraith king, when suddenly technologically advanced aliens invaded.  An elderly wizard, a dryad, and an orkish warrior riding dragons are beset by alien pursuers.  When they finally defeat this batch of invaders by seeming divine intervention, the trio realizes they may already have found the chosen one.

Cyrano de Bergerac is the narrator of “The Order” by Kek-W and John Burns.  On his deathbed, the boastful writer tells of his experiences with the title organization, which does battle with beings known as the Wyrm.  Time has come unglued due to the latest Wyrm incursion, and a mechanical man from a possible future might or might not be the key to victory.  The Wyrm are driven back, but at a cost.

“Kingdom” by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson is set on a future Earth where humanity as we know it has been all but wiped out by giant insects known as Them.  The genetically-engineered dog soldier Gene the Hackman has finally found the “Kingdom”, haven of the last humans.  Unfortunately, there are dark secrets in this supposed sanctuary, so Gene and his allies must strike even against the Masters.

2000 AD #2023

“Brink” by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard takes place in the late 21st Century after Earth had to be abandoned due to ecosystem collapse.  Bridget Kurtis is an inspector for the Habitat Security Division.  After the horrific death of her partner on the last case, Bridget is assigned to investigate mysterious suicides on a new habitat that’s reputed to be haunted…even though it’s still under construction.

The latest installment of “Scarlet Traces”, set in a world where H.G. Wells’  War of the Worlds took place is by Ian Edginton & D’Israeli.  Humanity’s history has been twisted by access to Martian technology.  It’s now 1965, and the Martians are doing something to the sun.  It may require allying with the Venusian refugees to thwart them.  This is fascinating alternate Earth stuff.

“Cursed: The Fall of Deadworld” by Kek-W & Dave Kendall is set in the backstory of Judge Death, the lawman from an Earth where life is a crime and the penalty is death.  Sydney D’eath has put himself in charge, twisting the world to fit his vision of a crime-free paradise.  We follow Judge Fairfax, his sentient vehicle Byke, and the orphan Jess as they search for a haven.  Doesn’t look good for them, frankly.

2000 AD #2024

There’s also two “Future Shocks”, stand-alone shorts.  “The Best Brain in the Galaxy” by Andrew Williamson & Tilen Javornik features a descendant of Horatio Hornblower who will do anything to win a competition to become captain of the most important starship voyage ever.  Anything.  “Family time” by Rory McConville and Nick Dyer is a parody of a certain Hollywood couple who like adopting children from around the world.  Except that this version is adopting orphans from across time.  The Child Protective Services are concerned that these children may not be orphans in the usual sense.  I liked the first story better.

There’s also the short humor strip “Droid Life” by Cat Sullivan  in a couple of issues, depicting life for the robotic staffers of 2000 AD.  Plus Tharg’s editorials, and actual letters pages.

2000 AD stories tend to be on the violent side, and sometimes get quite gory.  I didn’t see any nudity in these particular issues, but the comic doesn’t shy away from toplessness.  Parents of preteens may want to vet these comics before giving them to their kids.

As always, it’s a mixed bag for quality, but the very nature of the magazine means that there’s always something different to look at if the current story displeases, and serials are rotated frequently.  worth looking into if you can afford it.

 

Book Review: A Feast for Crows

Book Review: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first three volumes in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.  If you have not read those, you may want to consult my reviews of those books instead.

A Feast for Crows

While war still ravages the land of Westeros, for the moment it is contained to a handful of trouble spots.  In King’s Landing, King Tommen is the puppet of his mother, Queen Cersei as she schemes to gain complete power over the realm.  In sunny Dorne, daughters seek vengeance.  In the Riverlands, the last castles are yet to be taken, and outlaws and soldiers alike despoil what little remains of the smallfolk.  In the Vale, there is no war, but their lord’s castle, the Eyrie, feels the effects of winter early.  Across the Narrow Sea in Braavos, a girl has lost much and stands to lose more.  On the other side of Westeros, the Iron Islands must choose a new leader.  And in Oldtown, there are sinister doings at the Citadel of the Maesters.

And everywhere, the crows are feasting on carrion.

When Mr. Martin realized that this book was getting way too long, he could have taken the Wheel of Time route and split the story in half by time.  But that would mean checking in with about thirty viewpoint characters, most of whom would accomplish relatively little in that timespan.  Instead, he chose to split this and the next volume, A Dance with Dragons, up by location.

The good news is that this allows the characters that do appear to advance the plotlines considerably.  The bad news is that if your favorite characters were in the other territories, you won’t see them until the next book.  And back in the day, that would be another five years!

There are a bunch of new viewpoint characters, and Mr. Martin gets “cute” with the chapter headings, naming them “The Soiled Knight” or “The Kraken’s Daughter” instead of the character’s name.  He even uses different nicknames for different chapters!

With their numbers dwindling and scattered, the Stark family is down to two viewpoint characters.  Sansa Stark is now going by “Alayne Stone”, supposed daughter of the cunning Littlefinger.  With the death of her aunt Lysa and her cousin Robert being less than mentally sound, Littlefinger has free reign as the Lord Protector.  This does not make him or Alayne loved by the people of the Vale, however.

Arya Stark has arrived in Braavos, the city of secrets, and seeks shelter in the temple of the Many-Faced God.  She is learning to serve death, but can she make the final sacrifice of her own identity?

Brienne of Tarth goes back to the Riverlands in search of Sansa.  What she finds instead is outlaws, many of whom have a grudge against her specifically.  Her sections have some of the best writing in the book.

Samwell Tarly is sent south from the Wall to Oldtown to learn maester skills that the Night Watch desperately needs…and for more secretive purposes.  He has an encounter with Arya during a stayover in Braavos, though they don’t realize at the time how they’re connected.

Jaime Lannister quarrels with his sister Cersei and is relatively happy to get the order to end the siege at Riverrun.  He’s still trying to adjust to the loss of his hand, and attempts to navigate the contradictory oaths he’s taken.  Jaime may have no honor as far as most other people are concerned, but he wants to keep what honor he has.

Queen Cersei becomes a viewpoint character for the first time, and we see how the patriarchal nature of Westeros society has contributed to her personality.  If she’d been properly trained in leadership and statecraft from the beginning, things would be better.  But instead she’s always been told her job is to pump out babies, and barred from anything but backstairs scheming.  And scheming is not the only thing needed to run a country.  Possibly worse, a certain prophecy has made her essentially the Wicked Queen from Snow White, right down to dwarfs thwarting her will.  It’s no surprise when her own plots backfire, leaving Cersei in a nearly inescapable bind.

(Indeed, one of the minor subthemes here is “The Patriarchy ruins everything, even for patriarchs.”)

Over in the Iron Islands, we see things from the viewpoints of Asha Greyjoy, daughter of the late King Balon and sister to Theon (who does not appear in this book but is probably still alive); her uncle Aeron, a fanatical priest of the Drowned God, and her uncle Victarion, leader of the Iron Fleet.  None of them like the other uncle Euron Crow’s Eye, who is just outright evil, but at the Kingsmoot Euron reveals a plan to conquer Westeros that most of the Ironmen like.  And with Westeros in the shape it’s in, now is definitely the time to attack.

Asha is the smartest of the lot, but her uncles don’t listen to her because she’s a woman.

Down in Dorne, the viewpoint characters are Areoh Hotah, captain of Prince Doran’s guards; Arianne Martel, Doran’s daughter and heir; and Arys Oakheart, a knight of the Kingsguard who is protecting Princess Myrcella Baratheon.

Under Dornish law, Myrcella would have precedence over her younger brother Tommen for the Iron Throne.  Arianne, who is worried that her father is scheming to have her put aside in favor of her own brother to match mainstream Westeros culture, comes up with a plan to crown Myrcella queen and stir up war with the Lannisters.  Certain facts have been hidden from Arianne, so her plan has disastrous consequences.

Lots of plot twists and interesting developments this time, but I sorely missed favorite characters.  There are maps at the front, and an ever-growing character guide in the back.

As always, there’s tons of violence, talk of rape, and strong language.  Torture is on-page this volume, and worse implied.

Because of the largely-new cast, this volume reads differently than the earlier ones  The reader should probably have the next volume ready by the time they finish this one, as I am told they read better as a set.

 

 

Book Review: Space Opera

Book Review: Space Opera  by Jack Vance

It’s not that Roger Wool doesn’t want to work, as such.  It’s that he doesn’t want to be tied down to a single job day after day, the same desk in the same office.  And he’s too well-bred for most work that involves wandering from place to place doing odd jobs as they come.  Fortunately, his wealthy aunt Dame Isabel Grayce has been willing to subsidize Roger living in the manner to which he’s accustomed, in exchange for being available for her every whim.

Space Opera

And while opera is not Roger’s thing, the avant-garde performance put on by the alien Ninth Company of Rlaru has some interesting points.  However, later that night the performers vanish into thin air, leaving their human manager struggling for an explanation.  Dame Isabel learns that this was supposed to be part of a cultural exchange, and immediately puts her entire fortune behind the project of sending an Earthly opera company to the stars.

This is highly alarming to Roger, who was hoping that his aunt’s largess would continue into her will–if she goes broke on this wild adventure, there goes his inheritance!  While helping to make the arrangements for the voyage, Roger meets a mysterious beauty named Madoc Roswyn, who is hellbent on coming along.  Problem is, she has no musical training or other opera-useful skills, and Dame Isabel quickly sees through the secretary gag.

And so the Phoebus blasts off with a full opera company and orchestra aboard, as well as a crew led by the increasingly nervous Captain Gondar, Dame Isabel and her staff..and Madoc as a stowaway.

Jack Vance (1916-2013) wrote many fine science fiction works.  This comedic novel was a stand-alone, written (so he claimed) to fit the title, rather than adding a title to a finished manuscript as was the usual custom.  Mr. Vance was known for detailed alien cultures with unusual customs, and that’s on full display here.

The plot is episodic, with the Phoebus landing on new planets, meeting new strange customs, and putting on shows.  Most of the performances don’t go so well for reasons ranging from getting the wrong audience to the planet being actively hostile to life as we know it.

There’s a certain amount of classism and  cultural snobbery–Dame Isabel and her coterie are aghast to learn the crew has formed a washboard jazz band in their spare time.  And the romantic subplot is weak.  Madoc is goal-driven, leading her to some femme fatale tactics, and the resolution of that is a letdown.

But top marks for the zany culture clashes and some moments that opera fans will doubtless enjoy even more than the layman.

Recommended for fans of comedic science fiction.

Magazine Review: Science Fantasy #4 Spring 1971

Magazine Review: Science Fantasy #4 Spring 1971 edited by Sol Cohen

Science Fantasy was a short-lived (this is the final issue) reprint magazine from Ziff-Davis Publishing, which should not be confused with the long-running British magazine of the same title.  The stories in this issue come from the late 1940s/early 1950s, and reader tastes had changed considerably by the early 1970s, which may explain why the magazine didn’t last very long.  The cover and interior art are uncredited, although some of the illustrations are signed, and Virgil Finlay’s stuff is unmistakable.  Let’s take a look at the eight stories featured.

Science Fantasy #4 Spring 1971

“Medusa Was a Lady” by William Tenn:  Perennial sucker Percy S. Yuss probably should have been more suspicious about the apartment being so cheap to rent, especially as the last few tenants hadn’t taken their stuff with them.  But he’s on a shoestring budget since being talked into buying a half-share in a failing restaurant.  So he takes the place, then tries to take a nice relaxing bath.  Except that when he opens his eyes, the tub is in the ocean, a long way from shore!

Percy soon learns that he has somehow been cast in the lead role of the myth of Perseus.   Now he must avoid being executed by the tyrannical King Polydectes, rescue a beautiful woman from a monster and slay Medusa of the Gorgons, with the help of Hermes.  But is the Olympian being entirely honest about what’s going on?

Pulp SF did a lot of “explain mythology with science fiction” stories, and this novella is firmly in that camp.  “Cyclical history” is involved, and we are told by one character that events don’t have to repeat exactly as they were reported before.  The ending suggests he might be wrong.

This story is also somewhat satirical, with Percy noting the absurdity of his situation several times.  This may also account for minor character Tontibbi, a “Negro girl” who clearly has more common sense than anyone else on the island of Seriphos and is described as being from a more advanced civilization in Africa.  Sadly, she is in the wrong culture, so is reduced to one of Polydectes’ concubines, and no one listens to her sensible suggestions.

(Versions of the Perseus story also appear in The Blue Fairy Book and Greek Myths: A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys, which I have previously reviewed.)

“One Guitar” by Sam Merwin Jr.:  Lew Harlow, jazz guitarist, falls in love with singer Diana Wray.  She’s got the talent for the big time, but refuses to leave the small city she was born in.  It seems that every time she tries to leave, horrible accidents happen to those around her.  Also, there’s her bedridden mother to consider.  Lew decides that he likes Diana well enough despite their short acquaintance to marry her and stay in town too.

This triggers a confrontation with his new mother-in-law, who’s been hiding secrets about both herself and her plans for her daughter.  Lew will need both his knowledge of science and guitar-playing skills to get out of this one intact!  The story has a black character as a servant to Mrs. Wray, who has a stereotypical accent in her brief appearance.

“You Take the High Road” by Stephen Marlowe:  A Terran spaceship has crashlanded on a distant world and needs steel for repairs.  Unfortunately, negotiating with the natives has proved fruitless as they react with violence to all attempts to communicate.  After two crew members vanish, Doug Chambers decides to try something different.  As spoiled by the tagline, it turns out that the Murkies only respect fighters, and Chambers makes friends by beating them up.

“There’s No Way Out” by William P. McGivren:  An absurdist tale of an insurance agent who’s lured to an address with no building on it–until suddenly there is.  The building directory has no floors or suites listed with the names, and Sidney Wells is baffled by the contradictory directions he gets from the inhabitants.  Oh, and the elevators only go up, to the lobby.  Things just get worse from there.  No explanation in this one, Mr. Wells just finally accepts his situation and possibly goes insane.

“Witness for the Defense” by Paul W. Fairman:  This story was apparently a reply to one that had a decidedly negative view of the future of humanity.  Three bums pass time by holding court as to whether humankind is worth allowing to live; there’s a surprise witness who turns out to be a carpenter from Galilee.  Very short, and some readers may strongly disagree with the witness’ conclusion.

“Checkmate to Demos” by H.B. Hickey:  Dave Harkness, now effectively the world champion of chess, must play against an alien overlord for the fate of Earth.  But Dave has a dark secret; he’s not actually the best chess player in the world, merely the front for that person.  And when he can’t contact Binky, Earth is doomed.  This is a science fiction story until suddenly it becomes fantasy just long enough to give Dave a “hope spot” (a plot twist that makes it appear things are getting better just before they get much worse), and then the survival of humanity falls on Dave’s shoulders alone.  Heartwarming ending.  Some folks may find the characterization of a person with a disability dubious.

“The Girl in the Golden Wig” by Chester S. Geir:  Edward Shannon is a successful engineer, working for a major firm.  But he has secrets that are eating at him.  He has no memories past two years ago, just waking up one morning already in an apartment and working for Meyrick & Brandt.  He also wears a wig to conceal his complete baldness, which may or may not be important to his missing past.  He’s taken to wandering the streets at random at night, and one of those nights he bumps into a beautiful woman…whose golden wig falls off, revealing she too is completely bald.

Zell is a singer with an unwanted suitor (who turns out to be Shannon’s boss) and yes, their mutual baldness is a clue.  Turns out they’re aliens who are having a quiet civil war, and Shannon is one of the casualties.  Zell is the one who actually saves the day, using Shannon as something of a distraction.

“He Knew All the Answers” by Dallas Ross:  Jeremiah Perkins one day realizes that there is no true proof that light exists when he can’t see it.  From this bit of solipsism, he comes to the conclusion that the entire world is a sham, much to the distress of his wife Martha.  Since this is a speculative fiction story, Jeremiah isn’t completely wrong.

There are also short articles on Devil worship (the writer thinks the cultists are deluded) and the possibility of audiobooks (the writer is agin them as he feels it will lead to mental laziness, but is willing to make an exception for blind people.)

The Tenn novella and the Hickey story are the most satisfying ones.

Inexpensive used copies can be found through the Internet, but you might check your finer science fiction bookstores as well.

Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1 written by Marc Andreyko

Back in the 1970s, live-action television series with a woman in the lead were rare creatures indeed, and one of the best was Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter.  It migrated from ABC (where it was set during World War Two) to CBS in 1977, and it is this “modern day” series that this comic book series is based on.

Wonder Woman '77 Volume 1

In this version, Wonder Woman works for the Inter-Agency Defense Command in her secret identity of Diana Prince, along Steve Trevor, Jr.  Steve may or may not know  that Diana is also Wonder Woman, but at least in these issues, he doesn’t officially know or make a fuss about it. They have access to the latest 1970s technology, including the advanced computer IRA, but Wonder Woman’s powers and compassion are usually the main key to victory.

Where this comic book series varies from the TV version is that the live-action version used none of WW’s comic book supervillains, so versions of these compatible with the show’s look and feel are inserted.

The first story takes place mostly at a disco, where a Soviet defector scientist must be protected from mind-controlling songstress Silver Swan.  Diana’s outfit for this is based on the “white pantsuit” look she had during a brief period where the comics depowered her (to make her more “relevant.”)

The second story opens with Diana waking up in a world where she is not Wonder Woman or Diana Prince, but a mentally ill woman named Donna Troy.  There are some nifty references to the Cathy Lee Crosby TV movie, and the post-Crisis WW continuity.  Diana must figure out what’s going on and fight her way back to the reality she knows.

Next, there is a story that uses the Barbara Minerva version of long-time supervillain the Cheetah.  It brings in elements of the Priscilla Rich version of the character as well–Dr. Minerva is driven by jealousy when the museum she works for dismantles her prize exhibit involving years of scholarship and hard digging for a Wonder Woman-centric publicity grabber.  This allows the Cheetah spirit to take over her body so that Barbara can try to get her revenge.  The climax is a showcase for Diana’s gentle spirit being able to overcome Cheetah’s command of great cats.

Original (so far as I know) villain Celsia takes center stage next.  Due to a nuclear power plant accident that killed her home town, Celsia can project both heat and cold.  She is determined to punish the men who placed profit over life and safety.  We also get a version of the Atomic Knights, including a not-named Gardner Grayle.

And finally Diana has an encounter with the swamp monster Solomon Grundy on Halloween.  Grundy may not be the real monster here…  (Warning: domestic abuse.)

The issue is filled out with an essay by Andy Mangels about the television show, plus a gallery of covers and concept art.

One of the things I really like about this series is Wonder Woman’s dedication to non-lethal force, something that has largely been lost in recent years.  Yes, punching bad guys is an important part of her problem-solving style, but whenever possible, she uses truth and compassion to bring about resolutions.  This Wonder Woman smiles a lot, and inspires others to be better people.

Some of the 1970s elements do come across a bit cheesy, but this is not entirely a bad thing, as they fit with the feel of the show.  On the other hand, the very episodic stories mean that there’s no character growth or deeper characterization–what you see is all you are going to get.

The art is okay, with Diana and Steve being on model most of the time.

Recommended to fans of the TV show, Wonder Woman fans who prefer a lighter style and younger readers.  (It should be okay for tweens with a little parental guidance.)

And let’s enjoy that theme tune!

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

Book Review: The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories edited by Otto Penzler

I have a fondness for Sherlock Holmes, as I am sure the majority of my readers do.  Unsurprisingly, there has been a ton of Holmes fanfiction over the years.  Pastiches that try to capture the feel of Arthur Conan Doyle’s prose, parodies that make fun of the detective’s odd habits, and weirder works.  This is a collection of such, many done professionally by famous authors.  Thus it might be better described as a big book of Sherlock Holmes-related stories.

The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories

There’s an editorial introduction, and the book proper begins with an essay by Arthur Conan Doyle regarding how and why he created Sherlock Holmes, and why he killed the character off.  (The essay being written before he brought the detective back.)  Interestingly, he mentions that the “arc” of a dozen individual stories designed to be collected into a book was an innovation at the time–most of the magazine authors aiming for book publication went with serialized stories.  Then there are two short pieces by Doyle being silly with his own creations.

There are over eighty stories all together, most quite short.  They range in time from the very first Holmes parody “An Evening with Sherlock Holmes” by J.M. Barrie (an obnoxious know-it-all engages in dueling observation with Mr. Holmes) to the very recent “The Case of Death and Honey” by Neil Gaiman (Holmes goes to China to solve one last mystery.)  Several stories crossover with other fictional characters (three times with jewel thief Raffles) or real life people.  Arthur Conan Doyle appears several times, but others range from U.S. President William McKinley to John Merrick, the “Elephant Man.”

There are stories as well, about Sherlockians (fans of the stories)solving mysteries, the most unusual of which is “The Martian Crown Jewels” by Poul Anderson  (a Martian detective investigates the theft of the title gems.)

The selection process heavily favored stories that are historically important or are by famous writers; this means that several of the tales are not of good quality.  “Sherlock Holmes and the Dasher” by the normally excellent A.B. Cox is particularly dreadful.  Most of the bad stories are extremely short.  Some of the stories are frequently reprinted (there’s a section of them towards the front), while others are rare.

There’s period sexism and ethnic prejudice in some of the stories.  “The Marriage of Sherlock Holmes” by Gregory Breitman is particularly bad on the sexism front for purposes of humor; it fell flat for me.  Suicide appears more than once, although some of them are actually murders.

The volume concludes with “The Adventure of the Marked Man”by Stuart Palmer (a Cornish man receives death threats, but he hasn’t an enemy in the world…right?)

Most of the stories are good, but due to the uneven nature of this anthology, I recommend it primarily for dedicated Sherlock Holmes fans who will appreciate the rare tales.  Others should use the library, and borrow the volume to read the stories by authors they like.  (I especially recommend the “Modern Victorians” section for casual fans.)

 

 

Book Review: China Dolls

Book Review: China Dolls by Lisa See

It is 1938, the tail end of the Great Depression, and San Francisco is trying to shake off its blues with a World’s Fair on Treasure Island.  They’re going to need a lot of employees for that, and the prospect of a job draws Grace Lee all the way from Ohio.  She’s from a small town where her parents were the only other people of Chinese ancestry; all these other people who look kind of like her is a bit of a shock.

China Dolls

It turns out that the World’s Fair can’t use a Chinese dancer, but there’s a nightclub called the Forbidden City that’s hiring, and they only want Chinese.  On her way there, Grace gets some help from Helen Fong, a young woman from a traditionalist family, and when they arrive, they meet Ruby Tom, a vivacious woman who’s changed her name because Japanese-Americans have an even tougher time getting good jobs than Chinese-Americans.

The three women try out together, and although only two are chosen at that time, they form a life-long bond.  However, each of them has secrets in their past, and those combine with their ambitions to turn them against each other as well.  World War Two in particular raises the stakes, and their careers and friendship may never recover.

This book is loosely based on real life Asian-American entertainers of the mid-20th Century, and there’s an interview with some of those real people at the end of the paperback edition I read.

Grace makes a good viewpoint character for the first part of the novel; her parents were very insistent on her being “American” so she’s a complete newcomer to Chinese-American culture and the full array of prejudice faced by Asian-Americans outside of her small town.  The reader learns along with her.  Helen and Ruby also have sections from their viewpoints, but at first are concealing details from the reader as well as their friends–we don’t learn some important information about Helen until nearly the end of the book.

Some of the behavior of the protagonists is pretty shabby, and a couple of the betrayals go well beyond what would break most friendships permanently.  Some readers may find it impossible to believe that the characters even speak to each other after what happens.

All three protagonists also have romantic difficulties.  Mistakes are made, and attitudes change over the years.  One of the characters winds up in a relationship that’s considerably less than ideal from just about every angle.

As you might have guessed, period racism and sexism play a considerable part in the story, as well as period homophobia.  Grace’s backstory involves domestic abuse.  There’s some use of period slurs, lampshaded towards the end by a modern-day (1980s) college student asking pointed questions about the attitudes of the past.

I’d recommend this book to people curious about the “chop suey circuit” that Asian-American performers were shunted into during the Twentieth Century–the “Random House Reader’s Circle” edition is designed for use by book clubs.

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