Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran

Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year.  Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror.  That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy.  Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014

Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste.  In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements.   She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.

This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem.  Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield.  Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls.  Will history repeat?

The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee.   A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before.   They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them.  In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how  targeted the weapon.

Some stories I particularly liked:

“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them.  This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.

“Phosphorous” by Veronica  Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions.  The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to.   She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules.  Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night.   So simple.  But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery.  Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.

One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess.  There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story.  There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.

Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented.  If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.

Book Review: The Edge of Tomorrow

Book Review: The Edge of Tomorrow by Howard Fast

There have been several books titled The Edge of Tomorrow, none of which have anything to do with the recent Tom Cruise movie, which borrowed most of its plot from the Japanese light novel All You Need Is Kill.  (I think you can see why there was a title change.)   This particular volume contains seven science fiction stories by the author of Spartacus and other fine historical novels.

The Edge of Tomorrow

“The First Men” starts in 1945, as Harry Felton is discharged from the Army following World War Two.  His anthropologist sister sends a request for him to stay in India for the purpose of finding a child allegedly raised by wolves ala Mowgli.  He finds her, but she is mentally unable to function except as a very smart wolf.  Similarly, the South African boy raised by baboons is essentially a furless baboon.

Then the actual idea behind Jean’s research is revealed.   Children at an early level of development raised by animals can never be more than animals.  Children raised by flawed human society will never surpass ordinary humans.  But what would happen if a group of highly intelligent infants from around the world were raised under utopian conditions by enlightened scientists?

Harry helps gather the children for this experiment, which must be carried out in complete isolation from the outside world.  In 1965, he is called in by the government.  It seems all communication with the creche has been lost, and a zone of nothingness has sealed off the area.  Does he know what’s going on?

As it happens, Harry has a sealed letter from his sister for just this moment.  In it, she reveals that the experiment was highly successful, and the children have taken the next step in mental evolution.  Hyperintelligent and telepathic, they are preparing to bring the children of humanity up to their level as fast as they can expand their zone of influence.

Harry’s government contact reacts badly.  Not that I can blame him, given the implications.

Some readers may be squicked by discussion of sex among the upraised youngsters.  At the time this was written, 1959, certain readers might have been more upset with the idea that all the races of man were equally capable of being uplifted.

“The Large Ant” has a writer on vacation instinctively swatting what appears to be an oversized insect to death.  Upon realizing it’s no ordinary insect, he takes it to a museum.  It’s not the first specimen they’ve gotten of this type.  And given that every human that’s encountered them has immediately defaulted to killing them, we can no longer assume that peaceful contact is possible.  Heavy on the infodump.

“Of Time and Cats” has Professor Robert Clyde Bottman, who teaches physics at Columbia University, help out a fellow professor with a defective experimental circuit.  As a result, he ties a knot in time, and multiple iterations of himself keep appearing.  That gets fixed, but not before his friend’s cat also ties a knot in its own timeline.  The best story in this volume, with a humorous touch.

“Cato the Martian” posits a civilization on Mars that has become aware of Earth due to the radio and television waves of the last few decades.  One of the members of the Martian Senate is alarmist about the potential for the violent Earthlings to escape their home world and invade Mars.  He’s been saddled with the insulting nickname Cato, after the Roman politician who wanted to destroy Carthage.

But Cato has taken the name as his own, and gradually won over most of the Senate to his cause.  His plan is to drop atomic bombs on the U.S. and U.S.S.R. to make them think the other has attacked, and start World War Three.   Turns out the plan has one fatal flaw….

“The Cold, Cold Box” is a chilling tale of a Board of Directors meeting where they discuss whether or not to continue committing the crime that has brought them to be de facto rulers of the world.  By rights, they should turn over power to the person they act on behalf of, but things are running so smoothly without that person.  And to be honest, that person was kind of a jerk anyway.   A look at how easy it is to salve your conscience with the other good you’ve done.

“The Martian Shop” concerns the opening of three stores allegedly selling products from Mars.  It’s really more of a vignette than a story, going into great detail about how the shops were set up, the merchandise they had, how bizarre the shop personnel were, etc.  Then there’s a couple of paragraphs at the end revealing what the shops actually are.  Between this story and the Cato one, I’m beginning to see where Alan Moore gets his ideas.

“The Sight of Eden” is the final story.  An exploratory mission from Earth lands on what appears to be a paradise planet.  One that is mysteriously empty.   Still, this is the first sign of an inhabitable world they’ve found, and the first sign of other inhabitants of the universe.  Then they meet the caretaker and learn why the place is empty.  Downer ending.

Overall, decent writing but too reliant on infodumps, and I’ve seen most of these ideas done better.  But if you enjoyed Spartacus and want to see what else Howard Fast wrote, this is a handy start.

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:

 

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.)

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide

Book Review: Rad Women Worldwide by Kate Schatz

Right up front, I have to say that the title is the most annoying thing about this book.   Did anyone ever use “rad” as an adjective unironically?  That said, “radical” is not an unfair term to apply to many of the women whose short biographies are written in this volume.  There are forty stories set around 30 “countries”, starting with Enheduanna of Mesopotamia, the first named author that we have records of, and wrapping around the globe to Emma Goldman, born in Russia, anarchist and advocate for worker’s rights.

Rad Women Worldwide

This is a sequel to Rad American Women A-Z by the same creators; the greater scope allows them to have more variety.  There are scientists, athletes and entertainers, politicians and even a princess!  The book is written for middle-grade girls, but some of the subject matter may be difficult for more sensitive readers.  (A couple of these biographies moved me to tears.)  Many of the women covered I had heard of before, but a few were new to me.

The papercut illustrations by Miriam Klein Stahl give the book a distinctive, rough-hewn look; it also ties the appearance of the volume together better than a mix of photographs and paintings might have, as there are both historical and contemporary women covered.

This book also wears its politics on its sleeve, obvious in the selection of women to write about.  Politically conservative parents might find it uncomfortable that Kasha Jacqueline Nagabasera (fights for gay rights in Uganda) and Buffy Sainte-Marie (anti-war activist) get full entries while such right-wing icons as Margaret Thatcher and Mother Teresa don’t even make the 250 honorable mentions in the back.  The poem about “the stateless”, refugees, exiles and others torn from their homelands includes the line “No human being is illegal.”

As is common in collections of short biographies, only the highlights of any given woman’s life are included, and edited according to the author’s intent.  Many of these women were controversial during their lifetimes, and some of them are still controversial now.  A reader who takes a particular interest in one of the subjects would be well advised to seek out more complete biographies.  I’ve previously reviewed biographies of King Hatshepsut http://www.skjam.com/2016/01/20/book-review-the-woman-who-would-be-king-hatshepsuts-rise-to-power-in-ancient-egypt/ and Queen Lili’uokalani http://www.skjam.com/2014/02/21/book-review-lost-kingdom-hawaiis-last-queen-the-sugar-kings-and-americas-first-imperial-adventure/ , for example.

I expect that this book will end up in  a lot of elementary school libraries.  I’d also recommend this volume to parents of middle-grade kids (yes, boys too, to go with their many books about famous men) with the caveat (or bonus!) that you might want to sit down with them to discuss some of the topics that will come up.

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

Book Review: Herblock at Large

Book Review: Herblock at Large by Herbert Block.

Herbert “Herblock” Block (1909-2001) was a multiple-Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist.  He’s most famous for his coverage of McCarthyism and Watergate, but kept working until just before his death.  This 1987 collection covers the early years of the Reagan administration.

Herblock at Large

As might be expected, these cartoons aren’t very kind to that administration.  From an Attorney General who was more concerned with “proving” pornography caused violence than with tracking down illegal arms shipments to America’s enemies, to the heavy influence of the Religious Right on the government, to the dubious Supreme Court nominations (the Senate finally balked at Robert Bork), there were a lot of things to criticize.

Iran-Contra gets a lot of play here, as does the fact that under Reagan’s “fiscally responsible” administration, the national deficit and debt both skyrocketed.  (A feat that would be repeated by his fiscally responsible Republican successors, while the fiscally irresponsible Democrats brought down those numbers.)  The rise of televangelists also came in for several cartoons, contrasting the prosperous preachers with the poverty-stricken viewers who donated to them.

Now, of course, we know that Ronald Reagan really was having memory problems at the time, early symptoms of his Alzheimer’s.  The cartoons about terrorists hijacking airplanes also take on a new connotation since that subject came to a head.

There are also text pieces by Herblock introducing the themed chapters, clarifying his views if the cartoons weren’t pointed enough.  One bit of information is helpful for those who did not live through those times–Mr. Block often drew the Secretary of Defense with a $640 toilet seat around his neck as that was one of the ludicrously expensive trivialities the military was spending tax money on instead of servicemembers’ salaries.

Copyright Herblock 1987
Copyright Herblock 1987

One subject where we have seen improvement is South Africa; back then apartheid and anti-equality violence were still the order of the day, with Reagan refusing to do anything that might make the white minority government feel the U.S. was unfriendly to them (what with them being anti-Communist and all, which was why we were allies with a lot of nasty regimes back then.)

This is perhaps not Herblock’s best work, but it’s still very good political cartooning, and a window into the issues facing America in the early 1980s.  Recommended for those who lived through the era and need a reminder, and those that want to know about the time before cell phones.

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler

The title of this volume is slightly misleading; “locked room” stands in for the general idea of impossible crimes in mystery stories.  A man  is found stabbed in the back in a windowless room with the door locked from the inside.   A woman is strangled in the middle of a snowy field, but the only tracks are her own.  Precious jewels disappear from a safe that hasn’t been opened.  It’s a thriving subgenre of the mystery field.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

This book starts with a selection of the most reprinted stories of this type, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and G.K. Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man.”  After these, which most readers will already know the endings to, the remaining stories are grouped by category, such as stabbings or impossible thefts.   A wide swath of famous mystery authors is included, and some more obscure writers with particularly good stories.    At least one of these stories has not been reprinted before.

Not all of these stories are “fair-play” mysteries where the reader can figure out the solution from the clues given, but they all play by the important rules of the subgenre.  It’s never as simple as “there’s a secret passage” and the murder itself is never accomplished by the paranormal.    Some of the stories are tinged with the possibility of the supernatural (Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case” is not one of them, surprisingly), but the solution is always possible, if highly implausible.  (Seriously, random Ourang-Outang attack in the middle of Paris?)

The genre-savvy reader will be able to figure out many of the stories before they end, especially as a couple of them use the same dodge as earlier ones in the volume.  Still, there are often other twists that distinguish the story, such as “The Wrong Problem” by John Dickson Carr, where solving the murder isn’t the real mystery; and “The House of Haunts” by Ellery Queen, which features the overnight disappearance of a three-story stone house, foundations and all!

The stories were mostly written in the Twentieth Century, and the first half of it at that, so there’s some period racism and sexism.  (The Flying Corpse” by A.E. Martin relies a lot on the narrator being unable to follow his wife’s “woman logic” )   I should also mention that at least one of the stories has the “it was suicide disguised as murder” solution, which may be triggery for some readers.

This book would make a terrific gift for the mystery-lover on your holiday list, or for yourself if locked-room mysteries are your thing.  I do have one caveat; the cover is a bit flimsy for the size of the book, and will not stand up well to more vigorous transportation.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends by Various

Back in the 1970s, there was a Saturday morning cartoon titled Superfriends.  It featured several superheroes from DC Comics,, plus “Junior Super Friends” Wendy and Marvin, trainee superheroes with their pet Wonderdog.   Each episode taught valuable life lessons to kids across America.  While reruns of the cartoon continue even today, younger fans may not be aware there used to be a tie-in comic book as well.

Showcase Presents Super Friends

Because the Comics Code of the time was surprisingly less restrictive than the Standards & Practices Board that governed children’s broadcasting, the writers of the comic book had more flexibility to put in story elements that explained how the team worked, and the full range of the heroes’ powers.  The book took place in a close parallel of the DC universe, so other superheroes could guest star.

Now, I said the writers could be more flexible than the TV show, but I am still amazed that they got away with mass murder as a plot point in the third issue.  Some of the deaths even happened on panel!  And they weren’t even reversed by the end of the story.  To explain, a mad scientist captures over a hundred supervillains (none of whom were established characters) and disintegrates them to create the World-Beater, which has all their powers combined.

After a few issues, the comic book explained (as the show never did) the change from the first season’s Marvin and Wendy, to the later Wonder Twins, aliens named Jan and Zayna.   This was a truly epic plot which also introduced a slew of international superheroes who later joined the mainstream DCU as the Global Guardians.  (It also gave the comic some much-needed ethnic diversity.)

Many creators worked on the series, but the distinctive art of Ramona Fradon is perhaps most representative.

Aside from the mass murder, this is a kid-friendly title; there are some dated attitudes that parents might want to discuss with their children.  The writing is typical for the time period, and certainly better than the television show.

Recommended for fans of the Superfriends cartoon and nostalgic comics fans.

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