Category Archives: Reading

Religion, acting, monsters and birds of prey: books read

THE FOURTH R: Conflicts Over Religion in America’s Public Schools by Joan DelFattore is, as I recalled, an excellent history of the subject, starting in the 19th century when Catholics began agitating against Protestant prayers and King James readings, while baffled Protestants insisted there was absolutely nothing sectarian about all that, it was just that making kids Protestant made them more America. Then follows court case after court case, which contrary to right-wing myth almost never involved atheists (more often it was Jews, Catholics, agnostics or minority sects) and definitely did not “kick God out of the schools.” DelFattore does a great job showing how the “pro” and “anti” sides often disagree among themselves, which has repeatedly derailed efforts to restore school prayer (moderates locking horns with those who think mandatory school prayer is perfectly reasonable and unobjectionable). Well done.

AN ACTOR’S WAYS AND MEANS was a print collection of several lectures Michael Redgrave gave to an acting school, which as he notes means a presentation targeted to aspiring professionals now goes to a much wider audience. Redgrave tackles questions that go back at least to Diderot as to whether the superior actor is driven by feeling or reason, whether the chameleonic actor is better than one who plays the same personality and when an actor can feel they’ve mastered their craft and whether we should take Hamlet’s advice to the players seriously. Even though I haven’t done any theater since the move to Durham, quite interesting, and I find myself debating whether some of his points can be applied to writing (I may come back to that in a later post). In any case as this was Mum’s copy from when she was 20 I’ll hang on to it.

THE MONSTRUMOLOGIST by Rick Yancey is the first in a series about a 19th century crytozoologist told from the POV of his twelve year old servant, Will. I’d thought this would be more in the urban fantasy vein but it’s more horror and didn’t really work for me; the opening scenes are bizarrely creepy, but after that the anthropophagi might as well be the monsters from Alien (they’re tough, they’re scary, they eat people). And the mentor/protagonist relationship seems kind of abusive, even given the danger of their calling. I gave up on this about halfway through.

BATGIRL AND THE BIRDS OF PREY: Full Circle by Julie and Shawna Benson, Roge Antonio and Marcio Takara has Batgirl and her team (and a lot of female costars) coping with their old foe the Calculator, a disease that sickens men and Huntress’ long-lost mother. This was entertaining enough, but something about the lettering or the art or the number of word balloons made it feel too cluttered to enjoy reading as much as I should have.

And while it’s not part of anything I read this week, I’ll wrap up by sharing this striking Jack Kirby splash page from Fantastic Four.

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Copyright, trademark and writing links

A writer says that Amazon can outsource sales of your book to a third-party seller, which means no Prime shipping and possibly a higher price. Another writer looks at the drawbacks of embedding Amazon links in your blog posts.

Some freelance markets are outsourcing their payroll to companies that offer to advance writers their pay early, in return for a slice.

Writer David Mack talks about balancing realism and spectacle in his magic system (something I discussed here).

Harlan Ellison reminds us that we’re entitled to get paid, and not in exposure.

If the content of a website is illegal, is it covered by copyright? In one Israeli case involving porn piracy, the court said yes, but as the content was illegal, the plaintiff got no damages.

The Wickeds mystery-writing group discuss characters surprising them.

If you’re in a legal matter involving your online comments or posts, taking them down prematurely could get you in trouble.

Will a new law make it easier or harder for musicians to get compensation from streaming-music services?

The alt.right turned Pepe the Frog into a mascot. The creator is using copyright to fight back.

Publishers often don’t fact-check books (gotta say, McFarland does well on that).

Do you ever feel that writing fun, fluffy fiction is a waste of time in this era? It isn’t. Reading it is good too (“I don’t want these books dismissed as silly and trivial, when for many readers they are profoundly emotionally restorative.”)

Roger Ebert: ” “When I think about the kinds of movies that make me cry, that make tears come to my eyes, I usually don’t think about sad films. Sad films, I sort of just look at it. It’s movies that are about selflessness, that are about sacrifice, about humans that believe in the good of the human race that sometimes move me.” Courtesy of Fred Clark.

And here’s a Jim Aparo cover showing us the power of fiction creators to alter lives. Er, something like that.

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Cover art Wednesday

“Improbable, yes! Interesting, very!” What a good tagline.

I think she’s supposed to be sexy but the eyes make her look like a pod person.

One by John Schoenherr

A thriller cover by Peter Stevens. Black Mask was the a-list for mystery fiction back in the 1930s.

It’s not selling sex and sin, it’s in the Bible!

And VIncent di Fate’s wrap around cover for the first Riverworld book. A nice job capturing the disparate elements of the series.

#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder. Artist is uncredited where I didn’t name them.

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Technicolor, immortals, a princess and superheroes: books and graphic novels

I knew the word “technicolor” in my teens but vaguely thought of it as meaning just in color, instead of black and white; GLORIOUS TECHNICOLOR: The Movies’ Magic Rainbow by Fred Basten explains why Technicolor was once a name and a company to conjure with. While some movie makers had been interested in filming in color even back in the silent days, the tech just wasn’t there. The Technicolor company developed the first color movie that was anywhere close to visually satisfying, then went on to refine their process until we got the vibrant colors of films such as The Wizard of Oz. This required not only overcoming technical challenges but uncertainty about whether there was enough public interest to justify the money, and makeup and set decorating professionals who weren’t sure how to work in this medium (several female stars resisted doing color films because they’d got their B&W look perfect). Interesting.

NO LESS DAYS by Amanda G. Stevens is a Christian fantasy about David, an immortal (with unusual restraint he’s less than two centuries old) bookstore owner who witnesses a YouTube daredevil surviving an apparently fatal stunt — is it possible he’s also unkillable? It turns out the daredevil is indeed another longevite, but David now has to deal with one of the others killing to protect their secret; whether to share the truth with the woman he’s fallen in love with; and how his immortality can possibly fit into God’s design. This is a warm, non-judgmental Christian fantasy (and after so many evangelicals endorsed Brett Kavanaugh it’s nice that Stevens takes consent and abuse issues seriously) but after the intriguing opening it slowed down and got way too talky to old me.

PRINCELESS: Make Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and multiple artists has Princess Adrienne continuing her efforts to rescue her sisters (all locked in towers by Dad until handsome princes can rescue them) while dealing with issues including her kinky hair, other characters’ same-sex relationships, and dwarven gender roles. This didn’t hold me as well as other volumes, partly because it’s been so long since I read one (I don’t remember the characters in one subplot at all) and it’s a bit heavy on Social Issues For Younger Readers. However I really loved that when Adrienne’s dwarven sidekick tells her grandfather she’s become a smith in defiance of dwarf tradition, he’s cool with it (it’s really amazingly rare to have fantasy characters bend on proper gender roles).

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN: Family Business by Mark Waid, James Robinson and Gabriele Dell’Otto has a woman who claims to be Peter’s long-lost sister recruit him to wrap up one of their CIA parents’ last missions, involving a stockpile of Nazi gold guarded by a mecha. This is good fun, though the sibling angle is obviously a ruse (not the first time, either — a supposed sister turns up in the Revenge of the Sinister Six novel trilogy).

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Should magic have a price? Revisionary by Jim C. Hines

It’s been a while since I did an Is Our Writers Learning? post, which is partly because I think the format’s become a little stiff (check through some of my past posts for examples). So this time out, I’m going to take a question—does magic need to have a price attached?—and what I learned about it from reading Revisionary: Magic Ex Libris Book Four by Jim C. Hines.

This was the fourth and final book in the series (I’ve also read one, two and three). The premise is that Gutenberg developed printing because the psychic effect of hundreds or thousands of people reading an identical text gives it a kind of reality; libriomancers such as protagonist Isaac Vainio can reach into a book and pull out, say, Lucy’s healing elixir from Narnia, Excalibur or the love magnet from The Road to Oz (some books are locked so that nobody can access ultrapowerful items such as the One Ring or the Cosmic Cube).

Over the course of the previous three books, the existence of magic became public knowledge and the immortal Gutenberg bought the farm. In this one Isaac’s getting it from all sides: the government’s cracking down, there’s a conspiracy within the Porters (the libriomancer’s guild) to sell out, and he’s using so much magic he’s burning out.

Which brings me to the point of my post. My friend Gail Z. Martin has commented on several Illogicon panels that magic must have a price to make the story interesting. I don’t necessarily agree. Magic does need to have limits, but I don’t think it’ll suffer if the hero pays not penalty. And the price can be something as simple as “you’ll spend years of your life studying to master it” or “dealing with demons is risky.” Then again, I’m not a fan of the Charmed approach where magic is easy, basically just a super-power. Then again, I enjoyed Charmed just the same, and several other TV series/films that take the same approach.

Revisionary is an argument for Gail’s position, I think. For all that Isaac talks about the danger of what he’s doing, and the damage using so much magic does to him, he ultimately uses a shit-ton of it without a price. He’s waaaay more powerful than in the previous books. He wields magic from Jim Butcher and Alice in Wonderland, tech from Philip K. Dick and Roger Stern’s The Death and Life of Superman; he flies, ray-blasts, has force fields and telepathy. The opposition doesn’t stand a chance, although Hines does make the final battle challenging. It’s quite obvious Isaac could be even more powerful if he tried: draw out Captain America’s shield from one of the Marvel print novels or Superman’s invulnerable costume from, say, the Bronze Age novel Last Son of Krypton (the Stern novel came out when the costume wasn’t super).

Ultimately, it really is too easy for him. But it’s also entertaining, seeing Isaac become a superhero of sorts, pulling rabbits out of hat after hat, finding the perfect defense against every threat. It’s spectacle, and as a spectacle it works. I enjoyed it. It works better than the previous book in the series, which also had a high level of magic but Isaac was largely passive.

And Hines does a good job, mostly, with the politics. It comes off very bureaucratic and pragmatic — magical healing requires NHS testing for instance — rather than the mindless witch hunting cliches. That falls apart at the end (the bad guys might as well be Operation Zero Tolerance, Project Wide Awake or any other Marvel mutant-hunters). And I find it hard to believe testing is the only issue with magic healing: I’d expect the American Medical Association and Big Pharma to throw roadblocks in Isaac’s path out of self-interest.

Overall it was a fun book. And it does make me appreciate Gail’s viewpoint a little more.

#SFWApro. Cover image by Gene Mollica and Denise Leigh, all rights remain with current holder.

 

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From female mages to the Flash: books read

SISTERS OF THE RAVEN by Barbara Hambly succeeds where I thought the overrated The Power  failed: the opening sequence alone in which Rashaelda has to hide from a killer and realizes none of the men nearby bothered to intervene, is chilling. Rashaelda is one of several women who’ve acquired magical power just as the men of their desert kingdom are losing theirs. Men, even non-magical men, resent the change, and the women are struggling to prove themselves against a deadly drought and political upheaval. I’d have liked this better if it focused more on the gender dynamics, which get lost as the other plotlines amp up, but I still liked this a lot.

HOUSE OF HADES: Heroes of Olympus, Book Four by Rick Riordan is my first exposure to his wildly popular Percy Jackson mythos about Olympian demigods living among us. Riordan makes it easy to follow who’s who and what the goal is (reach Hades’ temple and shut the gateway allowing Gaia to flood the world with monsters) and he’s certainly a good writer. However this is more a series installment than a standalone novel — the battle isn’t decisive, most of the character arcs are in motion — so it didn’t convert me to a fan of the mythos.

Still, Riordan did much better handling eight books of backstory than Sherrilyn Kenyon did with DEATH DOESN’T BARGAIN: A Deadman’s Cross Novel which is only book two (that may be because, according to this review, it’s part of a much larger mythos). It starts off with an interminable discussion of who’s allied to who against what, with the speakers each having a couple of different names…it’s like a textbook example of how not to hook readers (though apparently lots of people were). After about a hundred pages, it still seemed to be characters rehashing the first book’s backstory, so I gave up.

The main plotline of FLASH: Cold Day in Hell by Joshua Williamson, Michael Moreci and multiple artists is that Flash’s Rogues, led by Captain Cold, have turned the Iron Heights prison into the basis of a crime empire; fortunately Barry’s been assigned to handle the prison’s evidence locker, so when one of the Rogues is murdered, Flash is instantly on the case. There’s also a two-parter involving an evil speedster and one with pre-New 52 Wally West trying to figure out his role in the new DC. The writing isn’t bad, it’s just not terribly interesting. Partly because this is just not my Flash: the New 52’s Negative Speed Force, Wally no longer married to Linda (I love her as a love interest, but apparently nobody since Geoff Johns’ run on Flash has any interest in her), Barry and Wally and New 52 Wally all crowding into Central City, Barry haunted by his mother’s murder (works fine on the TV show, but it’s gratuitous in the books) … it leaves me cold.

#SFWApro. Image is Hades and Persephone, fresco in the tomb called “Eurydice”, Vergina, Greece. Public domain, courtesy of wikimedia.

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Wonder Woman: 300 and Counting

When Roy Thomas and Gene Colan jumped from Marvel to DC in 1982, it was a big honking deal. Particularly Thomas: he’d been the first of a new generation of young fans-turned-writers to go to work for Marvel (after a week at DC), written pretty much every book at some point, and seemed as truly Marvel as Stan Lee. But he’d had some disputes with Marvel, and they became frustrating enough he headed to the competition. And one of the first books he wrote was Wonder Woman.

Following Gerry Conway’s departure, we had one forgettable fill-in by Robert Kanigher and a Marv Wolfman one-shot teaming Diana up with his creation, the new incarnation of the Teen Titans. This was noteworthy if only for returning Dr. Cyber and giving her the armored costume she’s worn ever since.

Then came a promotional insert, a Wonder Woman story in DC Comics Presents introducing readers to WW’s new creative team. With WW #288, the regular series launched. Thomas departed the book a year later (and that year included a three-part story by Dan Mishkin) but it was a good year.

Thomas gave us the Earth-One version of Dr. Psycho, though less misogynist than the Golden Age original: rather than enslave them, he simply wants to have one of his own. Tapping into Steve Trevor’s fantasies about Diana and his wishes to be her equal, Psycho (an Ellis Island change to his ancestral name of Psychogenos) creates “Captain Wonder,” a superhuman form for himself to occupy.

Another foe was the Silver Swan, a gifted but unattractive dancer whose career was frustrated by lookism. Ares reveals to her that she’s the distant descendant of Helen of Troy; he transforms her into the Helen-class beauty Silver Swan (Helen’s mother was a swan. Look it up) in return for helping her launch the world into war. It’s sexist (it comes off less as a critique of beauty standards and more OMG I’ll Do Anything To Be Pretty) but the mythological origin makes her more interesting to me than the later Perez reboot. This arc also shows General Darnell, Diana Prince’s superior, as a creepy sexual harasser, rather than just a pushy suitor as Conway wrote him.

A subsequent story, originally intended as a miniseries, has Wonder Woman and an assortment of DC superheroines (Supergirl, Zatanna, Raven, Madame Xanadu) try to stop a cosmic entity from pronouncing sentence upon the Earth. It’s an old concept, but well executed.

Another three parter pitted Wonder Woman against General Electric, a Sandman foe. No, not Gaiman’s Sandman, nor the Wesley Dodds Golden Age character but a short-lived Bronze Age superhero (sufficiently obscure I’ll blog about him at some point).

Then came the Dan Mishkin three-parter, pitting Wonder Woman against Aegeus, a terrorist getting magical help from the renegade Greek hero Bellerophon (this was the first story to refer to Themiscyra, identified as the Amazons original home in the Aegean). Mishkin became the regular writer on the book but not before Thomas returned for #300. In this one, the Bronze Age Sandman shows up to help Wonder Woman against mysterious nightmare creatures. Complicating things is that she keeps collapsing into sleep and imagining alternate versions of her history: what if she’d stayed on Paradise Island? What if Steve were as bad as Amazons expect men to be? What if a kryptonite weakened Superman had landed instead of Steve (showing how long people have seen Clark and Diana as a potential couple — though it didn’t work out)?

The anniversary issue also deals with the Steve/Wonder Woman/Diana Prince relationship. It ends with Steve and Wonder Woman — well, it sure looks like Wonder Woman might not have been as virginal back then as people assume.

Dan Mishkin’s run on the book was good too, and lasted until the Crisis on Infinite Earths rebooted her. I’ll post about that in a few months.

#SFWApro. Covers by Gene Colan (top) and Rich Buckler. All rights remain with current holders.

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From super-hero teams to bees: graphic novels and books read

THE SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY ARCHIVE by multiple writers and artistscollects the first four issues of Leading Comics, which introduced comics’ second superhero team after the Justice Society (despite the JSA’s success, Marvel’s flop All-Winners Squad was the only other attempt at a super-team back in the Golden Age). Seven of DC’s second-stringers (Green Arrow and Speedy, Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy, Vigilante, Crimson Avenger and the Shining Knight, plus a couple of their sidekicks) take on the Hand, the Black Star, Dr. Doome and the Sixth Sense in different stories. Hardly the best of the Golden Age, but enjoyable, more than some JSA stories; the Sixth Sense story is tricky enough to be really good (no surprise it was written by Batman co-creator Bill Finger).

JUSTICE LEAGUE: The People vs. the Justice League has Christopher Priest (best known for his excellent Black Panther run) riding his usual hobbyhorses about how superheroes are kind of silly and just wouldn’t work in the real world and should probably be laughed at (exceptions being the few characters he likes, like T’Challa). Unfortunately this story of the League massively screwing up and people asking Hard Questions about whether Earth can allow unauthorized vigilantes running around only plows a field countless other writers have already farmed — and as I’ve complained before, this kind of thing is just meaningless posing as it won’t change anything. Art by Pete Woods.

THE CASTOFFS: Mage Against the Machine by MK Reed, Brian Smith, Molly Ostertag and Wyeth Yates, is a competent fantasy adventure (Y/A, so in fairness I’m not the target audience) in which three female mages must travel across a post-apocalyptic wasteland dominated by hostile mecha. Nothing really new, but enjoyable enough.

KIM REAPER: Grim Beginnings is a fantasy rom-com by Sarah Graley that happened to suit my mood perfectly. College student Becka crushes madly on Goth classmate Kim, only to discover Kim’s part-time job is claiming souls for Death (he has to hire extra help). Can she convince Kim a job in retail would be just as good? Can Kim convince Becka they’ll work as a couple even though she walks around with a scythe? Fluff, but enjoyable fluff.

PLASTIC MAN ARCHIVES Vol.2 shows writer/artist Jack Cole improving steadily from Vol. 1 , as the delightful splash page below demonstrates. And so does Plas launching his own magazine (#1 is included in this volume), as solo books were strictly for A-listers back then. Cole’s humor is often very black as in The Game of Death or The Eyes Have It (a remarkably dark story involving an orphaned child and some child murdering fiends), but he can turn in a comedy detective story (The Rare Edition Murders) or just be gloriously silly. A pleasure to reread.

ROBBING THE BEES: A Biography of Honey, the Sweet Liquid Gold That Seduced the World by Holley Bishop, is one of the few pop-science books where adding personal anecdotal touches actually works for me. Mixed in with a history of beekeeping, honey and beeswax Bishop includes her personal experiences as an amateur beekeeper and a year spent hanging with a professional in the Florida Panhandle (in a town so small it’s really surprising to see it mentioned in print). Informative and like Thief at the End of the World it makes me appreciate how incredibly important honey used to be in the world.

 

#SFWApro. Top image by Mort Meskin, bottom by Jack Cole, all rights remain with current holders.

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Covers for Friday

One by Peter Jones. I believe this was for a British edition of the book.

And what would these posts be without a Powers cover?

A good one by Veligursky

One by Schoenherr

And one by Kelly Freas

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Doc Savage, dunderhead: Mystery on Happy Bones and The Mental Monster

This months two novels are good evidence for Bobb Cotter’s thesis that Doc became increasingly human during WW II. Beyond human, really; he comes off as a tough, but extremely fallible guy.

THE MYSTERY OF HAPPY BONES (the last paperback before Bantam switched to doing two Doc novels per book) reminds me a lot of Mystery on the Snow; it’s a mundane adventure focusing on control of natural resources, enlivened by a formidable female character. In Mystery the resource was a new metal, benlanium, for use in aircraft manufacturing; here it’s a tungsten vein the Nazis want to mine.

The story opens with a mysterious messenger dropping off a parcel at Doc’s tied up in wire; the wire is actually an unwound spool from a wire recorder, a way to get a message to Doc past watching Nazi eyes. The messenger is a cross-dressed Hannah, descended from a line of pirates ruling over a small island in the Caribbean (an island of dark-skinned natives, something that hasn’t aged well). Hannah is a truly memorable guest character, up there with Toni Lash and Retta Ken. At one point she knocks Monk unconscious; when Doc tackles her, she proves almost a match for him in combat. It turns out, fortunately, she’s on the good guys’ side; Happy Bones, the island where the Nazis are digging up tungsten, is right next to her own island kingdom. The US plans to set up an air base on Happy Bones, which could throw a spanner in the Nazi mining works. Their efforts to prevent this kick-started the whole plot.

Doc, as I said, comes across a lot more fallible than usual. Hannah holds her own with him in a fight not because she’s Michelle Yeoh but because Doc isn’t being written as his usual invincible self. Later in the novel, Doc’s hiding in an airplane’s cargo hold when he’s suddenly caught. He simply got careless and dropped its guard.

The end result isn’t horrible, but it ain’t memorable, except for Hannah.

THE MENTAL MONSTER shows once again Lester Dent’s lack of interest in continuity: Doc’s already encountered mind-reading technology in The Midas Man and a telepath in The Mental Wizard but the story treats the mind-reading device here (actually closer to a polygraph that works by EEG readings) as if such a thing is impossible.

The story opens with Bill Keeley, an engineer friend of Renny’s, telling Doc someone seems to have targeted his employer, a company developing synthetic rubber production (finding a secure rubber supply was also the McGuffin in The Flaming Falcons and The Land of Fear). Then Bill spots a white bird flying through the restaurant where he’s meeting Doc, panics and runs out. It turns out the bad guys (in it for money rather than the Axis) have a nasty germ concentrate and use the white birds to deliver it, or simply as a threat.

This is a minor adventure, and Doc’s even more of a screw-up here. In one scene, he walks right into an ambush without spotting the threat. At the climax he’s trying to free a tied-up Monk, but realizes he didn’t think to find a knife for cutting the rope; this Doc, it seems, doesn’t have the muscle to just tear them.

The book does have another competent woman, Bill’s girlfriend Carole, though she’s not quite in Hannah’s league. And it does offer one funny moment, when some of the crime ring brag that they’ve just killed Doc Savage. One of the other crooks gets up, announces he’s quitting and joining the Merchant Marine and walks out. He clearly knows that when Doc Savage is declared dead, he never is.

#SFWApro. Cover above by Bob Larkin, below by Emery Clarke. All rights to covers remain with current holders.

 

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