Book Review: The Perfect Horse

Book Review: The Perfect Horse by Elizabeth Letts

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Perfect Horse

The year is 1945.  The war in Europe is almost over.  American troops learn that a stud farm in Hostau contains horses looted by the Nazis from all over Europe, including all the mares of the famous Lipizzaners of Austria, the pride of the Spanish Riding School.  Unless something is done to ensure the area is captured peacefully, the cream of Europe’s equine population will be at risk of destruction in the fighting.

There’s a huge problem standing in the way; Hostau is on the other side of the Czechoslovakian  border, where the U.S. Army has been forbidden to trespass.  Can the 2nd Cavalry convince command to make an exception in time?  Even if they do, can they pull it off with minimal bloodshed?

That mission is the centerpiece of this volume, but there’s considerable material both before and after it.  Author Elizabeth Letts is an equestrian herself, and it really shows in the descriptions of the bond between rider and mount.  There are also quite a few black and white illustrations that give context to the story.

One of the central figures of this history is Alois Podhajsky, introduced riding dressage for the Austrian team during the 1936 Berlin Olympics before taking the reins of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna.  A great lover of horses, especially the Lipizzaner, he did what he had to do to preserve the horses and the riding school, even if it meant abandoning the school building to save the stallions.

On the American side, there’s Colonel Hank Reed, cavalry commander from the days when they had been horse soldiers (not that long before–it was 1942 when the U.S. decided to make their cavalry completely mechanized!)  He was fully aware of the value of what might be lost if Hostau was not captured without a battle, and was the one to order the mission.

But there are plenty of other humans involved.  Gustav Rau was Nazi Germany’s Master of Horse, and believed that he could breed a perfect horse, superior in battle, and destined to aid the Third Reich in conquering the world.  (Since he was a civilian and not involved in any war crimes against humans, he got off scot-free at the end of the war.  Information that has come out since has made his legacy more controversial.)

Rudolph Lessing was a German Army veterinarian who’d spent the first few years of the war fighting on the Eastern Front.  It wasn’t until he was pulled back to Occupied Poland that he realized just what atrocities were happening and that his country might not be the good guys in this conflict.

And of course General George S. Patton, America’s Fightin’est General, who sort of authorized the Hostau mission, in the Mission: Impossible sense.  “If you are captured or killed, Command will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”  He, too, was a man who appreciated a fine horse, and also helped out the stallions of the Spanish Riding School.

Of course, just capturing the stud farm didn’t actually make the horses safe, and they then had to be moved to better locations.  Some went home to the countries they’d been stolen from (and the Spanish Riding School exists to this day), others made the perilous sea voyage to America, and some found homes wherever they were.

There’s an epilogue section that details the final fates of the major figures in the story, both horses and men.  There are endnotes (including notes on when the sources used contradict each other), a bibliography and full index.

The book is movingly written and will be appreciated both by horse lovers and World War Two buffs.  There is some discussion of disturbing material, but this book should be suitable for senior high readers on up.

Older readers may be thinking, “wait, wasn’t there a Disney TV movie about this?”  Yes, there was.  The Miracle of the White Stallions was released in the early 1960s.  It was, of course, somewhat loose with the historical facts, but here’s the trailer.

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

Anime Review: Ghost in the Shell: Standalone Complex, Vol. 03

It is the year 2030, and after the effects of World Wars Three & Four, Japan is relatively unscathed, having become one of the world’s economic and technological powerhouses.  In particular, they lead the world in cybernetics, and various cyborg upgrades are commonplace.  Of course, this means that cybercrime is even more of a threat than in 2002 (when this series first aired) and the government agency “Public Security Section 9” is detailed to deal with those crimes, especially if they also involve terrorism.

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Vol. 03

Section 9’s top agent is Major Motoko Kusanagi, who is a full-body cyborg, a “ghost in the shell.”  She has been in this state since childhood, and is adept at transferring her consciousness into alternate robot bodies (though she has a strong preference for ones shaped like female human beings.)  Along with her superior combat skills, this makes her a whiz at secret agent missions.

The Major and her colleagues will need every bit of their skill to battle the world-class hacker and cyberterrorist known as The Laughing Man, whose real face is impossible to see by anyone or anything with cybernetic connections, replaced by a bizarre logo adorned with Catcher in the Rye quotes.

Standalone Complex is a science-fiction anime series based on the Ghost in the Shell cyberpunk manga by Masamune Shirow.  While it shares many characters and most of its background with the manga and previous adaptations, it is not necessarily in continuity with those, so there are some minor contradictions.  “Motoko Kusanagi” (a name rich with connotations in Japanese culture, equivalent to naming a British secret agent “Victoria Excalibur”) may not even be the Major’s real name.

The structure of the show is interesting; odd-numbered episodes are “complex” and tie into the Laughing Man plot arc, while even-numbered episodes are “standalone” and tell individual stories.

As it happens, I got the third DVD volume of the series for Christmas, so let’s take a closer look at that.

Episode 9, “Chat! Chat! Chat!” takes place almost entirely within a virtual reality chat room for discussion of the Laughing Man phenomenon.  This…is not a good episode to come into the series on, as it is largely just people sitting around having conversations.  And not even the main characters (except the Major in disguise) but a bunch of people who probably didn’t appear before and won’t appear again.  We do get some background on what is public knowledge about the Laughing Man (not much) and some discussion of whether it’s even the same Laughing Man from previous incidents or a copycat.

Episode 10, “Jungle Cruise” focuses on Batou, a former Army Ranger with obviously cybernetic eyes.  A serial killer is loose in the city of Niihama, who skins his victims alive in a distinctive fashion.  The identity of the killer is quickly revealed when two CIA operatives from the American Empire (World War Three was not kind to the United States, which split up into three countries, of which the Empire is the most active in world affairs) appear to ask Section 9 for help capturing him.

We learn that the killer was part of a CIA black ops mission in Southern Mexico known as “Project Sunset.”  It involved murdering civilians in particularly horrific fashion to break the will of the enemy.  Batou, as part of the UN peacekeeping forces, encountered the killer, but was unable to stop him.  The killer’s war has not ended, now brought to the shores of Japan,  Does this also mean that Batou’s war is not over?

Episode 11, “Portraitz” follows Togusa, the least cyberized field agent of Section 9 (just a “cyberbrain” that allows him to communicate with other people who have cyberbrains) as he infiltrates a facility for children  with Closed Shell Syndrome, a condition where one becomes too dependent on cybernetic communication, making it difficult to operate in the real world even while becoming a savant with computers.  There’s something sinister going on in the facility; but is it one of the staff who’s responsible, or one of the patients?

Episode 12, “Escape From” is two related stories.  In the first half, a Tachikoma (an artificial intelligence robot that serves as a small tank for Section 9) goes walkabout without orders, heading into the city and learning about the human concept of death.  Along the way, it picks up a mysterious box.  In the second half, we learn that if someone cybernetically connects to the box, their “ghost” vanishes inside it and won’t come out.  The Major must investigate, but will she too be seduced by what’s inside the box and lost forever?

This one manages to touch on some deeper philosophical topics:  death, the rapidly developing individuality of the Tachikoma AIs, escapism and artistic integrity.

Each episode ends with a short comedy skit starring the Tachikomas, usually tying in with the plot of the episode somehow.  Also included in this volume are interviews with Batou’s actor and the sound director.

The opening credits are full-on CGI, which is a bit jarring, and really showcases how silly the Major’s default outfit looks, especially from behind.  (It reminds me of the US superhero comics fad for putting their heroines in costumes that were basically glorified swimsuits.)  The music is good, though.

I liked “Jungle Cruise” best of the episodes in this volume.

Content notes:  “Jungle Cruise” does involve skinning people alive, and we see some of the results.  There’s a nude female statue in “Portraitz”, which some parents might find unsuitable for younger viewers.  (But honestly, if you let them watch the previous episode…)  The dub version may have some rough language.

Overall, I am looking forward to seeing the entire series so that I can make more sense of the Laughing Man episodes.  Recommended to fans of other Ghost in the Shell versions, and cyberpunk fans in general.

Here’s the opening music, for those who like that sort of thing:

Book Review: First Contact

Book Review: First Contact by Michael R. Hicks

The scout ship Aurora is searching for new worlds, especially inhabitable ones for the citizens of Earth and the various worlds their descendants have colonized.   What at first seems like a bonus of two viable worlds in the same star system turns into a deadly encounter.  Those worlds are inhabited by members of an alien race that will come to be known as the Kreelan Empire.  And now that the Kreelans are aware humans exist, they are very excited about going to war with us.  All of us.

First Contact

This is the first book in the In Her Name trilogy of trilogies, though the middle trilogy was written first.  It details how the Human-Kreelan War got started.  The series is a cross between military SF and full-on space opera, though this volume tends more towards the former.

It seems that the Kreelans are what TV Tropes call a “Planet of Hats”, a society that is entirely based around one concept or activity for the purposes of moving the plot along.  In this case, their “hat” is honorable battle; Kreelans want to fight, preferably hand-to-hand, and the humans are the first new opponents they’ve had in millennia.  In order to ensure that they aren’t going to accidentally wipe out the humans before the war can really get started, the Kreelans actually go back to their history books and recreate weapons and vehicles of roughly the same technological level as the humans have now.

Early in the first chapter, we are told that most of the characters we’re meeting are not going to make it through the next few hours.  This makes it a bit of a slog as various crew members’ backgrounds and personality quirks are  revealed, often during a combat scene.  The Kreelans are choosing a Messenger to send back to human space and get the squishy people ready to fight.  Once they have that sole survivor, the focus shifts to Earth and the other human worlds’ reaction to the news, and finally to the defense of the first planet on the invasion list.

Many of the people in the book seem to come straight out of Central Casting; the eccentric but brilliant general, the sassy lady reporter, the bungling officer who dies to let a real hero take command, etc.  This is exacerbated by many stereotypes of Earth cultures spreading to their colonies.  For example, people from the Francophone colonies are all some variant of French stereotypes, right down to having their best troops being the Foreign Legion.  One of the heroes comes from the planet of Nagoya, which is basically the Japanese city of Nagoya, but a whole planet of it.  The only mitigating factor is that the casting is a bit more diverse than it would have been in the Twentieth Century.

This means that many of the best passages in the book are those told from the perspective of the Kreelan Empire, which has the advantage of being alien enough to engage the author’s creativity.

There are quite a few exciting combat scenes, and one of the things I like is that the story does not shy away from showing that even the “good guys” can be forced into taking civilian lives as collateral damage.  (The Kreelans have no real concept of “civilian”, seeing them more as “targets that don’t fight back and thus only worthy of extermination.”)

One weakness of this being in the military SF subgenre is that the book has a tendency to make the Kreelans “right”–the only humans of consequence are those that engage in combat or provide support for those that do.   I’d like to see the human tendency to do things that aren’t somehow related to combat or survival as a strength that the Kreelans have discarded in their single-minded pursuit of battle.

Briefly discussed in this book, and apparently a major factor at the beginning of the next one, is that the Kreelan warriors are all female.  Due to a “curse” their males are non-sentient, and mating is only semi-consensual.   Easily triggered readers might want to give that a miss.

Otherwise, this is a pretty clear-cut “no shades of grey” war story where you can root for the human heroes.  Not the best military SF, but readable.

 

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War edited by Paul Levitz

In 1977, African-American male leads in mainstream comic books were still countable on one hand (and don’t even ask about African-American women!)  But this also had the effect of making a comic with a black person on the front attention-getting.  And I suspect that at least some of the creation of “Gravedigger” came from that fact.

Showcase Presents Men of War

Gravedigger was the lead feature in DC Comics’ last-launched war comics series of the Bronze Age, Men of War.  He is introduced as Sergeant Ulysses Hazard, a polio survivor who threw himself into intense physical training (including martial arts) to overcome his handicaps.  Despite his superior physical condition and combat skills, Hazard was consigned to a segregated battalion and assigned to funeral detail (thus his codename.)  After his heroics saved lives (except his best military friend) and defeated Nazi troops, the white officers ignored his contributions and denied his request for reassignment to a combat unit.

In the second issue, Hazard somehow gets back to the U.S. and single-handedly infiltrates the Pentagon War Room to demonstrate his skills.  A character identified in that issue as the Secretary of War but in later issues demoted to an undersecretary (as his sliminess would have been a slur on the character of Henry L. Stimson, the actual Secretary at the time) decides to use Hazard as a political pawn.  If “Gravedigger” fails on one of the suicidal missions, he can be written off, but if he succeeds, the Undersecretary can take credit.

Now Captain Ulysses Hazard so that he can pull rank when necessary, Gravedigger returns to Europe and takes on a number of commando missions ranging from rescuing art from the Nazis to destroying an experimental mini-sub.  There are guest appearances by a couple of DC’s other war comics characters, and the final issue features Gravedigger actually leading Easy Company (normally the job of Sergeant Rock) for a few hours.

Gravedigger was basically “military Batman”, performing superheroic feats on a regular basis.  To be fair, this is common in comic books about commando-style solo characters, but if you are a stickler for realism, look elsewhere.  Later in the series, he gets a cross-shaped facial scar to give him more distinctive looks, important in comic books.  He even gets an archnemesis, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who enlists mad science in a massive scheme to rid the Reich of this one commando.

In the next to last story, Gravedigger personally saves the lives of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though an opportunity is missed to have Captain Hazard bond with FDR over their mutual experience with polio.

In addition to the expected violence, there’s also period racism, ableism and anti-Semitism (the last confined to Nazi characters.)

The back-up features varied from issue to issue.  “Enemy Ace” featured Baron Hans von Hammer, “the Hammer of Hell”, a World War I German fighter pilot.  He was depicted as noble and honorable, one of a dying breed of warrior outdated by brutal modern warfare.  Some of the stories have art by Howard Chaykin, who is not as well served by the black and white reprint as the other artists.

“Dateline: Frontline” was about American reporter Wayne Clifford, covering World War Two while the U.S. was still neutral, and having his naivete chipped away bit by bit.  He struggles with censorship, the temptation of writing the story to suit the person who can give you access, and the moral gray areas of war.

“Rosa” features a spy working in the late 19h Century who is loyal to no country, and has the habit of switching accents in every sentence either to disguise his nationality or (as he claims in a somewhat dubious origin story) because he is literally a man without a country.  His name might or might not actually be Rosa.  Most notable for having a character switch sides between chapters for plot convenience.

This volume contains all 26 issues, and is not brilliant but is decent work by journeymen creators.  Worth picking up if you are a war comics fan, or interested in the history of African-American characters in comic books.

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

Comic Book Review: Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman edited by Gary Groth

In later years, Harvey Kurtzman was better known  for his humor work, among other things being the first editor of MAD.  But while he worked at EC Comics in the early Fifties, Mr. Kurtzman was also known for some very impressive tales of action and warfare in Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat.  He was a pioneer in the area of more “realistic” war comics, ones that didn’t treat the enemy as subhuman or inherently evil.

Corpse on the Imjin! and Other Stories by Harvey Kurtzman

This book reprints many of those stories, divided into two sections, those Mr. Kurtzman illustrated himself, and those done by other artists from his layouts.  (He was notoriously unhappy when those artists deviated from his vision, and as he was also the editor of the books, those artists usually didn’t get invited to work with him again.)

The volume opens with “Conquest!”, a story set during Spain’s expansion of its empire into Central and South America.  Captain Juan Alvarado and his conquistadors initially have great success against their under-gunned native opponents, but their lust for gold undoes them.

The final story (with art by Reed Crandall) is “Memphis!” about a battle between Union and Confederate gunships on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.  The enthusiasm of the spectators, especially the children, is contrasted to the horrific cost of the battle.

The Korean War was going on during the run of these comic books, and the majority of the stories concern that conflict.  Several of these are top-rate.  “Rubble!” is about a Korean farmer building a doomed house, with step-by-step coverage of the hard labor he puts in–the art in some panels reminds me of WPA heroic friezes.  “Air Burst!” is the tale of a Chinese mortar squad as they try to survive a UN attack, their numbers dwindling.  “Corpse on the Imjin!”  was one of Mr. Kurtzman’s favorites, about two soldiers fighting to the death near the title river, with narration that’s deliberately poetic.  And “Big ‘If’!” is a meditation on the randomness of death that focuses on one soldier considering the choices that have led him to this place, sitting facing five “devil sticks.”

Some of the stories are not quite as good–“Contact!” about a U.S. patrol looking for the North Koreans and finding them ends with a patriotic speech straight out of Hollywood propaganda.  And “Bunker!” (art by Ric Estrada) about two disparate units trying to take a heavily-defended hill, has some unfortunate exaggerated features on the black soldiers that would not fly today, despite the well-meant message of the story.  But overall, most of the stories are solid to excellent.

The stories are reprinted in black and white, which favors the strong inking skills of Mr. Kurtzman, but there is also a color cover gallery that shows off his sense of color design and the work of Marie Severin as a colorist.

The volume is completed with several essays about Mr. Kurtzman’s work and EC Comics in general.

While the violence level is high as you might expect from war stories, these tales don’t lean on the gore as some of EC’s horror titles did–even visible blood is rare.

Highly recommended to EC fans, war comics buffs and those studying the Korean War and how it was seen at the time.

Comic Book Review: Our Army at War

Comic Book Review: Our Army at War edited by Joey Cavalieri

Back in the day, DC Comics had a fine line of war comics.  Primarily focused around World War Two, they paid tribute to the American military and the Greatest Generation.  Which is not to say that they were mindless patriotic propaganda.  The stories often depicted the costs of war, and to an extent the gray areas of combat.  The Comics Code of the time prevented them from showing gore and some of the atrocities of wartime, or going too far in criticizing the officers, but the stories often showed U.S. soldiers who did not live up to strict moral standards, and the human side of the enemy.

Our Army at War

Also, they had some of the best art at DC, with Joe Kubert as their iconic presence.  As I mentioned in my review of Weird War Tales‘ Showcase volume, sales of the war books started to fall in the 1970s with the unpopularity of Vietnam and a general revulsion towards the military.  At the same time, the Comics Code eased and (relatively mild) horror took a rise in popularity, resulting in “weird” elements being inserted in some of the lesser war books.

Eventually, the various series petered out.  While there have been war books for short runs since, they’ve never been the sellers they once were.  However, DC still has the trademarks for the titles, and some classic characters, so in 2010 the company published a handful of one-shots to keep the trademarks active.  They were combined for this graphic novel version in 2011.

Our Army at War itself leads off with “Time Stands Still for No Man” by Mike Marts and Victor Ibañez.  It compares and contrasts World War Two and the then-current Afghanistan War by following the stories of a volunteer soldier in each conflict.  The WWII section has Sergeant Rock and Easy Company, but they are mostly background, as are the mercenary Gods of War in the modern section.  It’s the most innovative of the stories in structure.

Weird War Tales is split into three shorts.  “Armistice Night” by Darwyn Cooke and Dave Stewart is a darkly silly tale of the annual get together of the ghosts of history’s great warriors.  “The Hell Above Us” by Ivan Brandon and Nic Klein spins a yarn of the sole survivor of a sunken submarine…and what he finds when he surfaces.  “Private Parker Sees Thunder Lizards” by Jan Strnad and Gabriel Hardman is one of those borderline cases–is the blinded, dying soldier conjuring up dinosaurs to battle the Nazis, or is it all a fantasy his buddy is enabling to allow Private Parker pass away with a smile?

Our Fighting Forces stars “The Losers”:  one-eyed and -legged PT boat captain without a boat Captain Storm; Johnny Cloud, the lonely Navajo Ace, and Gunner & Sarge, the sole survivors of their Marine platoon.  Four misfits assigned to the toughest missions, who somehow come out alive to nurse their survivors’ guilt again.  In “Winning Isn’t Everything” by B. Clay Moore, Chad Hardin & Wayne Faucher, they are assigned to take out an isolated Nazi air field, but the route mapped out for them is just a little too obvious.  Their innovative solutions may win the day, but is that for the best?

G.I. Combat is back to the weird with “Listening to Ghosts” by Matthew Sturges and Phil Winslade is centered on the Haunted Tank, a M3 Stuart tank with a commander named Lieutenant Jeb Stuart.  The lieutenant often sees and gets advice from his namesake, Civil War general J.E.B. Stuart.  Usually the ghost only warns of danger with cryptic utterances.  In this story, Lt. Stuart finds that his friendly rival Lt. Billy Sherman, who commands a M4 Sherman tank, has been killed by Nazi snipers, and he must use the unfamiliar machine to assist his regular crew, with another ghost whispering over his shoulder.  Notably, the iconic Stars & Bars flag flown from the Haunted Tank in the original series is absent in this story without explanation.

Star-Spangled War Stories represents the non-American contingent of the Allies with French Resistance fighter Mademoiselle Marie.  “Vive Libre ou Mourir!” by Billy Tucci, Justiano, Tom Derenck & Andrew Mangum has the beautiful and deadly anti-fascist parachuted in to a new Resistance group who she will lead in destroying key railroads.  But treachery is afoot–the local Maquis du Gevaudan would rather use the money Marie brought to buy rifles for direct combat.  More treachery ensues.  Non-explicit sex scenes and some kink, as well as the standard violent death.

It’s a decent collection, but inconsequential.  The Darwyn Cooke story is the most interesting.  I’d say it’s a good choice for someone who wants to sample DC’s war comics characters without needing to find spendy back issues.  Some great art.

Manga Review: Dream Fossil

Manga Review: Dream Fossil by Satoshi Kon

Satoshi Kon (1963-2010) was an acclaimed anime director, making a handful of movies (including Paprika) and one television series, Paranoia Agent.   His themes of confusion of dreams and reality, and madness lying just below the surface of society, made his works fascinating.  He also spent some time as a manga creator, creating several stories in the 1980s before going into anime full time as an assistant to Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira).  This volume collects his short works.

Dream Fossil

The lead story is “Carve.”  After a war polluted the old places of habitation, most of humanity moved to “The City”, a haven of high technology.  However, when a minority of humans started developing psychic powers, they were kicked out of The City, and scrape by in the now less toxic old cities.  Sculptor Kei and his female friend/model Ann notice that Specials are starting to disappear from their neighborhood.  Are The City people up to something?

The fifteen stories cover a range of genres.  There’s a couple of baseball stories, some slice of life, a samurai thriller, and some more speculative fiction.  The characters tend towards the realistic, even if the circumstances are often bizarre.

One standout is “Kidnappers”, about a car thief who discovers that he has a small child in the back seat.  He wants to get the kid back to the parents, but doesn’t want to go to jail for swiping the vehicle–and the actual kidnapper is after him too.  The main character is well drawn as a bad person, but one that doesn’t want to be that bad.

There’s also  “Waira”, the samurai thriller I mentioned.  A feudal warlord has been betrayed by his vassal/brother-in-law, his troops massacred, and now he and a handful of surviving followers are fleeing through a mountain forest in the middle of the night.  The brother-in-law and his troops pursue, but their guides warn them that the mountain is haunted by a murderous creature named “Waira.”  Who will survive?  The nature of Waira comes as a bit of a surprise–it’s so out of place that it might as well be supernatural.

I can really spot the Otomo influence in several of these stories.  The art and writing are decent, but Kon doesn’t sparkle here the way he does in his animation work.  A couple of the stories are photocopied from magazine appearances as the original art is lost; this affects the print quality.

The last story in the volume is Kon’s debut work, a two-parter titled “Toriko” (prisoner).  It’s very YA dystopia.  Yuichi, a teenager, lives in a future society ruled by implacable robot police, and in which you must have your identity card ready at all times for any transactions or even just walking down the street at the wrong time.  When he and his friends break curfew, they are remanded to The Center for “rehab” to become “productive citizens.”  Good thing Yuichi managed to snag a weapon!  Downer ending, depending on your point of view.

In addition to a few color pages, there’s also an interview with Susumu Hirawara, a composer who worked with Satoshi Kon on musical scores for the anime projects.  (One last film, Dreaming Machine, is being slowly finished.)

The intended audience varies, a couple would be suitable for young readers, but overall this anthology seems to be seinen (young men’s.)  Several of the stories have lethal violence, there’s some nudity, underaged drinking and smoking, and one story has an attempted rape.

Fans of Satoshi Kon’s other work will want to own this anthology; others will be better served by checking it out via library loan.

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