Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences

Book Review: Great Historical Coincidences by Pere Romanillos

“Serendipity” is the good fortune that comes when you discover something useful or interesting while you were looking for something else.  Knowing how to grasp the opportunity offered by serendipity is one of those skills that every scientist and artist should have at their disposal.  This book, originally published as ¡Menuda chiripa! Las serendipias más famosas covers many instances of serendipity, mostly in the area of science.

Great Historical Coincidences

After a lengthy introduction on the subject of serendipity and fortunate coincidences, there are 49 essays on individual discoveries divided by scientific field.  We begin with physics and Archimedes’ Principle (and the origin of “Eureka!”) and end with archaeology and the terracotta soldiers of Qin.  Many of the stories were familiar to me, such as the melting chocolate bar that revealed the existence of microwaves; while others were new to me, such as the origin of the Pap smear.

This book is heavily illustrated and the translation by Janet Foster uses language that should make this book suitable for bright junior high students on up.  (Some parents may find discussion of the biology of sex unsuitable for their kids.)  There’s some clumsy phrasing from time to time.  There’s no index or citations, but there is a bibliography to search for more information–much of it in Spanish.

This is one of those books primarily meant as a present; the treatment of each discovery is short and only covers highlights and often context is missing.  Consider it for a budding scientist or history buff, perhaps as a pair with the same author’s Great Historical Blunders.

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2

Comic Book Review: Essential Tomb of Dracula, Volume 2 mostly written by Marv Wolfman and art by Gene Colan.

When the Comics Code restrictions on horror were loosened in the 1970s, DC primarily went in for horror anthology comics, while Marvel Comics based entire series around horrific heroes and villains.  One of these was the classic (and public domain) character of Vlad Tepes, aka Count Dracula.

Essential Tomb of Dracula Volume 2

This series revealed that Bram Stoker’s book (highly recommended if you haven’t read it, by the way) was highly fictionalized, and Dracula had not in fact finally died at the end of it, only being very inconvenienced.  He had been various places, doing various things, temporarily being put of commission now and then…and this storyline opened with him once again being awakened to start his reign of terror anew.

Opposing the Lord of Vampires was a crew of vampire hunters including Quincy Harker (the son of Jonathan and Mina), now an elderly man confined to a wheelchair by injuries received in past battles with Dracula; Rachel van Helsing (great-granddaughter of Professor van Helsing) a crossbow-wielder who wasn’t always as effective as she’d like; Frank Drake, a descendant of Dracula (before becoming a vampire) who had wasted his wealth and had to man up over the course of the series; and Taj Nital, an Indian man who had been rendered mute when Dracula injured his throat.  Independent of them were Blade, who only hunted Dracula because he hated all vampires due to the murder of his mother by Deacon Frost, and Hannibal King, a detective that Deacon Frost had turned into a vampire, who avoided taking blood from living humans.

Of course, Dracula didn’t just have vampire hunters after him, but people who either wanted to become lord of all vampires themselves or otherwise exploit him.  The most persistent of these was Doctor Sun, a Chinese scientist who’d been turned into a disembodied brain hooked up to a computer, who wanted to take over the world.

At the start of this volume, Dracula learns of the current whereabouts of an artifact called the Chimera, which re-sparks his desire to conquer the world himself.  (He’d had to put that on hold as a vampire army large enough to take over would promptly drink the rest of humanity to extinction, and then where would they be?)  Fortunately for the world, Dracula is not the only one after the artifact, and it ends up smashed.

Dracula has noticed his powers waning, and this leads him to a near-final confrontation with Quincy Harker, before learning that it is in fact Doctor Sun behind it, and the action moves to Boston.  There the cast adds nebbish “true vampire story” writer Harold H. Harold and lovely but ditsy secretary Aurora Rabinowitz, who act as comic relief.

After the Doctor Sun situation is resolved, Dracula takes control of a local Satanist cult and marries a woman named Domini, who he believes will give him a proper heir.  (The leader of the Satanists, of course, has other plans.)

Mixed throughout this volume are soap-opera subplots involving the various supporting cast, and interludes of Dracula’s adventures in other times and places.  Marv Wolfman’s writing is often excellent, but he sometimes doesn’t consult previous issues, resulting in some minor continuity glitches.  Gene Colan’s art is more consistently outstanding, and fits the mood well, especially in this black and white reprint.  (Some stories from the Giant-Size side series are included, with art by the less impressive but very competent Don Heck.)

Make no mistake, Dracula is the main villain here, and rare is the issue where he does not murder at least one innocent person just to remind us of that.  Much of his time is taken up with petty revenge against people who have crossed him and when he acts against other villains, it’s usually out of pride or personal vendetta.  Every once in a while, he does show a moment of kindness, but the door soon slams shut when his darker nature prevails.  Because he’s the title character, Dracula has what TV Tropes calls “Joker Immunity”; he can never be permanently killed off, only temporarily thwarted, so the heroes seem ineffectual.  (Quincy Harker broods about this frequently.)

These stories do take place in the Marvel Universe, though this series avoids most of the implications of that.  Brother Voodoo helps Frank Drake through a bad patch in his life, and Doctor Strange actually temporarily kills Dracula (but is hypnotized not to notice it’s not permanent until later.)

In addition to the expected violence (but relatively little gore–the Comics Code was still in effect), Dracula’s attacks on women are often treated in a sexualized manner.  There are some instances of suicide, both voluntary and forced.  Dracula is also depicted as being racist (mostly against Blade) and sexist (he is not at all kind to the memory of Lucy Westerna.)

And speaking of sexism, one story includes a woman who’s a bit of a “straw feminist”; the owner of a fashion house who only hires women even if a man would be more competent at the job (except one dress designer who might be gay given the coding) and who has an enormous grudge against the various men who tried to keep her down.  Dracula agrees to kill her enemies in exchange for information she can get more efficiently than he, but leaves her in a sticky situation at the end of the story.

Despite often high melodrama, there are some very well-written moments as well.

Recommended for vampire comics fans, Blade fans who want to see his early adventures, and those who enjoy Gene Colan’s art.

Book Review: The Queen of Zamba

Book Review: The Queen of Zamba by L. Sprague de Camp (Also published as Cosmic Manhunt)

It started out as a normal missing person case.  Victor Hasselborg was hired to find runaway heiress Julnar Batruni.  Her trail is easy to pick up, as she used her own name to buy tickets off-planet with her lover, one Anthony Fallon.  Victor pursues them to the distant world of Krishna, where he runs into a snag.

The Queen of Zamba

It seems that Krishna is under a technological interdict, to prevent the warlike natives from gaining the ability to destroy themselves (and others) before their civilizations advance to more peaceful methods of conflict resolution.  Thus Victor must shed most of his advanced equipment and disguise himself as a native to search for the lovers.  Can a man used to automatic pistols and fast cars survive with a sword and aya-drawn buggy?  And once he does find his targets, will he survive his encounter with the Queen of Zamba?

This story is part of the Viagens Interplanetarias setting, created by Mr. de Camp as a way to use many of the tropes of “planetary romance” in a more plausible way than had previously been the case.  (Edgar Rice Burroughs, the founder of the subgenre with A Princess of Mars, had focused more on the fiction side of “science fiction” and most authors writing in the same vein had stuck with that.)   So the Krishnans, while appearing close enough to Terrans so that they can easily disguise themselves as each other, can make whoopee with humans but not babies.  There’s a reasonable explanation for using swords and riding animals when more technologically advanced items exist.  And our protagonists can’t just zip between worlds–thanks to relativistic effects, voyages that take months for the traveling characters take years for the people left behind.  Even with improved human longevity and safe suspended animation, normal people with settled lives aren’t keen on repeated space travel.

Thus our protagonist, Victor Hasselborg.  In some ways, he’s a typical fictional private eye.  Disappointed in love, recovering alcoholic, tough talker, will kill if he has to.  But he’s also a germ-phobic hypochondriac who is skittish around attractive women who seem a bit too interested, and none too interested in the adventurous life.

There’s also some inventiveness in the general setting–after World War 3, the Soviet Union was gone and the United States crippled to the point it had to merge with Canada to survive.  And Brazil became the world’s leading power, aided by having invented starships.  On the other hand, people still smoke cigars in this 22nd Century, and the number one occupation of Earthwomen is “housewife.”  (A Krishnan woman expresses her desire to become one as the rumors she hears of Earth romanticize the position.)

During the story, Victor runs into treachery and eventually must team up with another Terran in disguise to prevent technological horror from being unleashed on Krishna.

Originally written in the late 1940s, this story was reprinted by Ace Books under the title Cosmic Manhunt and with the ethnicity of one of the characters changed due to politics.  This “Asimov’s Choice” edition restores the original title and character.

To fill out the volume, a longish story entitled “Perpetual Motion” has been added.  Con artist Felix Borel comes to Krishna to fleece the natives with a twist on the technology ban.  He can’t introduce any innovation that is beyond current Krishnan science or technology, but since perpetual motion machines are impossible, they don’t count, right?  Felix is not a good person, though he can twist events to make himself look better–right up until his luck runs out.  This story shares a minor character with the main event.

This is light adventure and fast reading; even with the added plausibility, you shouldn’t think about the science too hard.  Recommended for planetary romance fans.  There are quite a few Viagens Interplanetarias stories; I also recommend Rogue Queen if you can find it.

Book Review: The Wrath of Brotherhood

Book Review: The Wrath of Brotherhood by Ozgur K. Sahin

Captain Roy Toppings had planned to live a relatively peaceful life plying a small shipping route  between England and the Continent, but the murder of his sister by pirates set him  on a different course, and now he’s a privateer  operating out of Port Royal.

The Wrath of BrotherhoodRoy’s quest for the man who he blames for his sister’s death has to be put on hold for the moment.  It seems that the Spanish are up to something big, and the Dutch colony of Curaçao is in imminent danger.  Can  the crew of The Constance and their new-found allies save the day?

This is the first novel by Minnesota writer Ozgur K. Sahin, and the first in a projected “The Brotherhood of the Spanish Main” pirate fiction series.  The setting is the Caribbean Sea circa the Restoration of Charles II in the 17th Century.

It’s interesting to compare the character attitudes to earlier pirate-themed works I’ve read.  Captain Toppings is remarkably non-sexist and -racist for his time, as well as anti-slavery  a good century ahead of most people.  He’s hired Ajuban, an African ex-slave, as his first mate, and soon signs on refugee Incan woman Coya as a scout.  The crew is rounded out with other quirky characters, most with “nice” personalities.   One character is depicted as being more romantically inclined towards Coya than she’s comfortable with, but this is shown entirely from her point of view and as of yet he has confined himself to attempting to talk to her when she doesn’t want to.

The plot breezes by with an acceptable level of coincidence, but the one concern I have is that the crew’s luck is a bit too good–one or two well-timed setbacks   would have ratcheted up the tension.  Perhaps this will happen in the sequel, since there’s a very obvious hook.

There is talk of torture, and it’s made clear that the privateers will resort to it if they must (there’s a minor character who does this professionally), but none occurs on-stage.

Some use of dialect is genre-appropriate, but I know it ticks off some readers.

That said, although this book was written for adults, it should be okay for pirate-loving junior high readers on up.   I like the handsome hardcover edition with endpaper maps, but the perfectly acceptable ebook version is more affordable and will also help keep the author fed.

A good first novel, recommended for fans of pirate tales.

 

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

Magazine Review: The Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate edited by John Gaterud

Yes, this is yet another literary magazine; I picked up a bunch inexpensively at the book fair.  This one seems to take its title from Jack Kerouac’s writing; this first issue was published in 2007.

Blueroad Reader: Stardust and Fate

The index is unusual for this kind of magazine.  Rather than a linear index, or arranged by subject or type of literature, it’s by author.  It also doesn’t distinguish between fiction and non-fiction–while some pieces sound more fictional than others, you will need to make up your own mind.

Insert my usual comments about modern poetry here.  The most interesting ones for me are “Postcards to Mike” by Ed McManis, a set of verses describing a school trip to Europe, the small disasters and odd moments of traveling with students.

A couple of the pieces are very much written in 2006, and feel dated now with their jabs at the Bush administration.  Deserved jabs, but still.  “Letter from Iceland” by Bill Holm and “Letter from London” by Donna R. Casella are both most interesting as time capsules, I think.

Best of the prose pieces from my point of view was “O Mary, Where Art Thou?” by Suzanne Lillian Bunkers.  It’s an examination of the various appearances of Mary, mother of Jesus, with an emphasis on the sites that the author has personally visited.  One of the qualifications for authenticating a visit by Mary, it turns out, is conformity with Catholic doctrine.  If your vision of Mary has her advocating ordination of women, you’re out of luck officially.

Overall, the theme is of road trips and journeys.  Many of the pieces are sad or bittersweet; others are nostalgic.  I do not know if any further volumes were published by Blueroad Press.

As with other literary magazines I’ve reviewed, it seems decent if this kind of literature is your thing.

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.

Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue

Magazine Review:  Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College.  Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death.  Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.

Conjunctions 51

The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale.  It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies.  The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.

In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures.  Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear.  Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good.   Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.

With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through.  I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out.   The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.

“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.

Book Review: Mingo Dabney

Book Review: Mingo Dabney by James Street

Mingo Dabney is a Mississippi woodsman from Lebanon who falls in love with the lovely but exotic (white-haired) Cuban woman Rafaela Galbran when she comes to his hometown seeking money and arms for the 1895 Cuban revolution. Being a passionate young fellow, he winds up following her to Cuba and getting mixed up in the fighting.

Mingo DabneyThe story is based on real events and several of the people involved actually existed. Jose Marti, the author of “Guantanamera”, has a small but key role, for example. However, as the author admits in the foreword, he’s a storyteller, not a historian, and has rearranged things to make a better tale. In particular, one incident is moved from the 1868 revolution to 1895.

Racism is acknowledged in the story; while Mingo himself is surprisingly unbigoted for his time and place, the reputation of Southerners for racial prejudice works against him in the early part of the story. The revolutionaries’ fear that American intervention would result in a loss of sovereignty for Cuba is also mentioned.  Rafaela is the only woman with a substantial role in the book, and is primarily a symbol for the troops to rally around.

The book ends before the end of the revolution and the beginning of the Spanish-American War; it could easily have a sequel as there are several plot threads left loose, but Mingo Dabney’s character arc is complete, so it’s a satisfying ending.

You might have a little trouble finding this one–it appears that the most recent Cuban Revolution soured American readers on the topic, and it was not reprinted past the 1950s. But it’s a solid read about a period of history little taught in US schools.

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis

Book Review: Frances Elizabeth Willis by Nicholas J. Willis

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Frances Elizabeth Williams

Frances Elizabeth Willis (1899-1983) was the first woman to rise through the ranks of the U.S. Foreign Service to become a Career Ambassador, serving as the United Stares ambassador to Switzerland, Norway and Ceylon.  (There had been other women who had served as ambassadors previously, but they had been political appointees.)  This biography traces her remarkable career.

The author (her nephew) starts with a rare anecdote Miss Willis (and it was Miss Willis until she became Madame Ambassador) shared with her family, asking them not to repeat it until everyone involved was dead.  And no wonder, as it contradicted official history and might have reflected unfavorably on another ambassador!  She never kept a diary, did not retain any official documents that were not about her directly, and by the time she thought about writing a memoir, Miss Willis’ memory was beginning to fail for medical reasons.

So it is that there are some unfortunate gaps in this biography–but I have certainly seen biographies with worse gaps.    The author was able to get access to declassified documents, including her service dossier, and the latter has much of the interest in this book.  It seems that during her career, Frances Willis never requested to see what was in her dossier, and as a result, was unaware of just how deep the gender bias against her was.

The subtitle of the biography is “Up the Foreign Service ladder to the summit–despite the limitations of her sex, a repeated phrase in the dossier.  The old saying that a woman has to be twice as good as a man to be given half the respect certainly seems true here.  The “old guard” did not think consular work and diplomacy were fit work for women, and did everything they could behind the scenes to discourage them.

But Miss Willis was an extraordinary person, and went above and beyond to prove her worth to the Foreign Service.  Promotions might have come long after they should have, but she kept plugging away, and those co-workers who knew her personally boosted her career.

This book offers some interesting insights into the world of the Foreign Service, and how it changed during Miss Willis’ long career.  Sadly, some of the most interesting-sounding bits remain classified, so we will probably never know much about the espionage side of her job.

There are photos throughout the text, rather than crammed into the middle like many other biographies.    There’s an appendix explaining the history, bureaucratic structure and nomenclature of the Foreign Service, which is helpful to decipher some of the more arcane moments, as well as an index.

The author is perhaps a little too fond of reminding the reader that he was in the Navy, and there are some spellchecker-passed typos (“compliment ” and “complement” get mixed up a couple of times.)  It’s not bad for a self-published book, but could have used another editorial pass.

This book will be of interest to those who want a look at the workings of American diplomacy, and those who want to read about successful women (note that Frances Williams was careful to distance herself from the feminist movement as such; that could have been the kiss of death in the early days.)

Due to the self-publishing, it may not be stocked in your local library, so consider buying a copy.

Book Review: Torsten

Book Review: Torsten by Joshua Kalin

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Torsten

Aznaro, Cordin and Osoro, three blood brothers, have returned to Spain after a tour of the known world.  Already feeling restless, Aznaro becomes interested in a proposed voyage by one Christobal Colon, who thinks he can sail to India faster by heading west across the uncharted ocean.   The brothers sign up as rookie sailors, although there is a bit of a hitch, since it turns out  that Aznaro had sex with Torsten Rentier, first officer of one of the ships, the night before.

Worse, Aznaro soon makes an actual enemy on board the Santa Maria, a man who comes to share a dark secret with the brothers.  And as you might have guessed from your history classes, the voyage is taking them to a destination they could never have guessed.

Though not listed anywhere on the book itself, this is the second book about the brothers, the first one being titled Aznaro.   The main characters have something in their blood that makes them unaging and very hard to kill.  They have in fact been alive nearly three hundred years at the start of this book.  This causes them a certain amount of angst, and the need to move on frequently.

While the point of view skips around quite a bit, sometimes between paragraphs, the primary character is Aznaro, with the major plot threads being his struggle with the new immortal Rodriguez, and his romance with the man he calls “Reindeer.”  The other brothers are on other ships and play very little part in the story.  Indeed, one vanishes from the book altogether around the 3/4 mark!

While the book is quite good on the details of being a sailor in Christopher Columbus’ time, said personage himself  plays a very tiny role, seldom interacting with the crew.  So I can’t really recommend this book to Columbus fans.

While yes, Aznaro and Rentier have sex, it’s not on camera or explicitly described.  The movie if one is made, could probably get by with a PG-13.

Some issues:  There are a couple of brief torture scenes, the viewpoint switching can be confusing as the author doesn’t mark the switches well, and there are numerous missing words and some dubious grammar that  points up the need for a good editor/proofreader.  (this book was self-published.)

If you are in need of a gay romance novel with some paranormal elements, and a bit of history, this might suit your fancy.   But everyone else might want to wait for a revised version with better editing.

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