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Monday, October 24, 2016

Review: Yamada Monogatari: Demon Hunter by Richard Parks

Yamada Monogatari:
Demon Hunter 
by Richard Parks  
Diamond Book Distributors  
Prime Books
Richard Parks has been scribbling speculative fiction for decades with fiction nominated for the World Fantasy, Locus, and Mythopoeic Awards, not to mention short fiction appearing in multiple year's best anthologies. Yamada Monogatari may be one of his crowning achievements.

These tales originally appeared in Shawna McCarthy's Realms of Fantasy and Scott H. Andrews's Beneath Ceaseless Skies, reprinted by Scott H. Andrews, Eric Flint, Paula Guran, Rich Horton, Mike Resnick, Rachel Swirsky, and Sean Wallace. For some reason, I thought the stories were all original and was surprised that they had not drawn more attention, but clearly, hawk-eyed editors spotted the strength of these works.

As the collection title suggests, Yamada Monogatari is a demon hunter, or any supernatural creature menacing the people of Japan. He is a nobleman, but not high enough to be embroiled in messy politics--an outsider with swordsmanship that makes him an excellent hire to investigate awkward family troubles.

Along the way, Lord Yamada picks up a sidekick: Kenji, a priest who drinks too much, neglects bathing, and takes too much interest in the fairer sex. None of which recommends his companionship except his willingness to accompany Lord Yamada on these journeys and ability to create wards and spells when needed.

The duo occupy the same literary ambiance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson with similar charms--except the present company investigate supernatural troubles in Japan, rather than crimes in England. They both present fascinating literary riddles and resolve them, if without providing enough clues for readers to unravel the knots themselves. We are just along for the thrill of the ride. And what a ride.

Here are teasers for the ten stories:
  1. A fox woman seems to have run off with her son. The father wants his son back....
  2. Lord Yamada's former lover, now empress, has been implicated in a scandal....
  3. An ogre menaces wayfarers wandering the countryside; however, she seems uninterested in harming any of them except....
  4. Lord Yamada is kidnapped by his friends and the prince in order to dodge a goddess who sends tsunami of boiling water who seeks devoted follower who abandoned her....
  5. The daughter of a ghost bandit won't allow Lord Yamada and Kenji to exorcise the ghost....
  6. A dead child's bride doll is stolen--it is meant to accompany the child as a companion in the afterlife. Is a rival family trying to stir things up? or something more sinister causing the upheaval?
  7. The bones of would-be robbers lie outside a mansion, left by the ghosts who guard it....
  8. The seven-foot tall corpse of a demon has been stolen, taken from the family of famous demon hunters.... (especially good--perhaps for its implications)
  9. A faceless ghost haunts the walls of a nobleman's compound, but this is no ordinary ghost....
  10. Finally in a fitting finale, characters from earlier stories come together. The fox woman, the ghost of a princess join Lord Yamada, Kenji, and others to protect the upcoming emperor from a plot against him....
I'd have given this five out of five stars but for a few small matters. Two of stories are minor. This alone wouldn't be fair to downgrade a collection since the rest have a curious "dimensionality," thanks to narrative events that seem initially arbitrary but later take on new meaning. The main drawback is that the stories could have built toward a more novel-like experience. Characters do recur, and there are some changes in character. Lord Yamada shows he has loved and slows his heavy drinking. But the changes are minor--little more than one finds in Arthur Conan Doyle stories. 

Still, we read Sherlock Holmes nearly a century and a half later. It wouldn't surprise me if Yamada Monogatari scratches that same itch. I am surprised it was not nominated for awards the year it appeared.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Ghostwatch: BBC Halloween hoax

In 1992, BBC apparently had an Orson-Wells-style Halloween hoax. It has moments of creepiness, but it didn't build as I'd hoped.

What is interesting are the participants/actors who  are struggling to contain laughter, which leads to near perpetual smirks. The doctor keeps hiding her mouth.

I half-suspected the hoax to be a hoax--people traumatized as a result of watching it. Apparently so, if Wiki can be believed.

Here's the wiki entry. This reveals the most fun part: Find the "ghost." I'm afraid I didn't see or experience any of the ghost's secret appearances except for one. It might have been more chilling had they let those appearances last longer than they did. Too subtle for my eyes to register, anyway. Still, it's a fun hide-and-go-seek.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Pixar: Borrowed Time

Note: This is not emotionally cathartic, but it does resonate. How many of us feel the same about our own parents, if not physically (I hope)?

I'd like to think, though, that there's more to the story.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Review: Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman

Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
Open Road Media
General Fiction (Adult)

It boggles the mind: 6,000,000 copies sold. A novel--if it can be called that--about a teacher and her students.

Kaufman had her finger on the pulse of the American zeitgeist of the time. She wrote for Esquire--the first female to do so. Her grandfather was the writer Sholem Aleichem, and her mother also wrote. So writing as a livelihood was accepted in the family.

The format of the novel is related in letters, memos, student essays. No narrative thread carries the readers through this wash of memoranda. Imagine wading through a bunch of teacher memes on Facebook, which this novel is in essence.

It is true that Americans were ready for a change in narrative format. Metafiction hit the literary world in the 1960s, and the New Wave hit SF. An anthology on Points of View, edited by James Moffett, had been out, detailing all the different ways narrative has been presented.

Historically, school integration was in full swing, and people were still uncertain about it as this novel attests.

Maybe this is what drew people to the novel. It seems most appropriate for new teachers, especially English teachers, getting ready to step into the classroom. It still has a great deal of relevancy, too, despite being fifty years old.

The novel treats Sylvia Barrett, a first-year teacher, thrown into the inner-city New York classroom with over two hundred students to teach, with classes of over forty students per class. She has an older mentor who reassures her along the way. She has a love interest in a young teacher who composes Rodgers-and-Hammerstein style lyrics for every educational event. Her students are mostly in love with her, except for a few, one who hates women teachers. Her bosses have a dictatorial style that Barrett doesn't believe is helpful.

Barrett takes a keen interest in her students. A few of them have dramatic events that draw the reader back in after feeling the monotonous onslaught of essays and memos. One student dies due to an unprofessional abortion, another attempts death when the man she falls in love with (a teacher) doesn't reciprocate her feelings.

Finally, Barrett decides to teach at a private school where she can have her own seminar over Chaucer, but things get hectic at her old school. Her request to leave gets lost. And her foot gets smashed in a cafeteria melee. Her students rally around and she returns.

That is the plot. Yes, full of spoilers, but if I hadn't spoiled it, some might put the book down in boredom. An arc does exist. The characters are vividly and charmingly portrayed in all their ungrammatical and misspelled splendor even if the characters are not dynamic.

It has much to teach us about the 1960s, the worries and concerns, which are not wholly alien to today's human yearnings. Even more potent are the trials of the teacher: trying to juggle student concerns with adminstrators' concerns and those of the parents. Even the parents are the same, begging for their kids to pass even if they don't deserve it. If there is a significant difference between Kaufman's era and our own, this must be it. While similar, the helicopter parenting has spiraled upward.

What is amazing about the novel is that all of the future changes (or pushes for change) in education can be found in here. Sometimes it's as a joke, sometimes not. But even what was an educational joke in the 1960s is taken seriously today. It's almost as if the novel is prescient.

This may not be a novel for the casual reader. That is, while I love the format, it doesn't develop characters enough through it. If your fascination runs to education or the 1960s, your interest will not flag. New teachers might steel themselves for the teaching life with this novel, though.

There is also a movie version, starring Sandy Dennis.


Saturday, October 15, 2016

Review: The Dig by Brad Taylor

The Dig 
A Taskforce Story 
by Brad Taylor 
PENGUIN GROUP Dutton
Pike Logan is a member of the Taskforce. He is training (and slowly falling for) Jennifer Cahill, a young anthropologist, who has gone on a dig in Guatemala with Pike. She wants to further her career and jumps at an archaeological dig in Roswell, New Mexico. Their affair is slow but mounting and involves awkward if fair turnabouts.

As they excavate in Roswell, they uncover something that says the dig isn't what it seems, and the local henchmen rally to stop them. Pike's time and resources in the Taskforce allows him to unearth what's truly going on.

The suspense here is first rate. The characters involving enough for their genre--if macho-oriented--as one might expect from a military thriller.

I will defer to the author in terms of combat as he was a member of the military's Special Forces. I'm not as certain about the violence as a means to an end. At least, one act to incapacitate the enemy pushed it too far into the gruesome. After all, the guy was a hired local flunky looking for a quick buck. Of course, it's hard to tell the baddie's motives as the readers aren't in his head. But how far is too far? He can be a gentleman with women but how about with men? Couldn't he have done something that wouldn't maim the man for life?

I'm sure the guys who love this genre would gobble this stuff up, but it leaves me wondering about the protagonist: Is he impulsive? Is he giving enough thought to his actions? Will his sense of chivalry drive him to unnecessary damage?

It's one narrative moment, but it impaired my confidence in the character's judgment. Maybe it's something he has to work on, but it'd be nice to see that concern about his impulses addressed if not fully resolved, as this is only a short novel.

However, if you are a human of swift justice and action-packed punches, unpacking human motivations is not your pastime métier. This book cooks up exactly the seasonings you're hankering for. As for the speculative genre, it whets but mostly feints. Its main urge is to pluck those thrill strings.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Review: Netwars - The Code by M. Sean Coleman


Netwars - The Codeby M. Sean Coleman
Bastei Entertainment
JKSCommunications

Looking for a contemporary thriller with an SF feel? Look no further.

In this first episode of six, the author takes us aboard a plane where the pilot, Antony Price--a CEO of security software--is rich and peddles child porn. He receives the following message in flight:

"You will never know me, but I will be the death of you.
I saw what you did -- I see everything you do.
I heard what you said -- I know your secrets.
I know where you went -- I follow you everywhere.
You are not above scrutiny -- I scrutise everything.
You are not above the law -- I am the law.
Don't ask for forgiveness, nor pardon, nor grace.
Just understand this: If you cannot live by the Code, you must die by the Code.
Strider."
The flight goes down after the chilling if slightly long-winded mysterious sentence is decreed.

Mitchell, aka Strider, is the cyberpunk vigilante of  the world, wielding his own brand of justice to society's secret criminals. Coleman grips us by the throat from the first page. The chararcterization and breadth (that intangible quality that the extends beyond the novel's borders) is not this work's forte. Expect a sharp delineation between good guys and bad. But then thrillers aren't especially known for their characters.

The author promises an in-depth look at cyber security as it is today with information available at his website.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Twin Peaks: Season 1

Twin Peaks is two-season TV series, directed by the auteur David Lynch with his characteristic surreal moments set in a small-town murder mystery. The show attained such a cult status--listed in several all-time top fifty tv shows lists--that writers David Lynch and Mark Frost will return to the series for Showtime nearly thirty years later.
Set up:
Twin Peaks, Population 51,201, is a small set inside Washington state on the Canadian border. Pete Martell, who helps run the local sawmill, discovers Laura Palmer, dead, wrapped in plastic tarp on the lakeshore. The local law enforcement, Sheriff Harry S. Truman and his deputies, are immediately on scene.

Ronette Pulaski stumbles into town in a daze, skimpily dressed, with the same twine marks found on her wrists that Laura Palmer had.

FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper arrives, having been on a similar case where other young ladies have died. The letter J is found underneath her fingernail and implicates everyone whose name begins with J, which is nearly every character on screen.

Discussion with Spoilers:
John Gardner in The Forms of Fiction argues that the form helps create meaning. This can be true if with limited utility. I'll start with the "mystery" as a form that shapes what is and isn't going on here.

We have a crime--murder--and typical clues, such as the letter J. But the show veers from the form in its unorthodox methods of detection, primarily in its use of dreams, clairvoyance, and intuition. We accept this, in part, because Sherlock Holmes our founding father of mysteries, worked with such encyclopedic knowledge that it often seemed supernatural. However, one might attribute their use to scientific observations such micro-expressions or body gestures although none of that is specifically used.

Agent Cooper accepts his dreams and hallucinations as a legitimate form of evidence, and investigates on the basis of them, which no one questions. He throws rocks at a bottle to decide whether a person whose name starts with J is related to the murder of Laura Palmer.

The letter J is not only the name of the perpetrator, but also segues into the name of a culpable place. Even clues have double meanings.

Doubles are everywhere. Nearly everyone leads a double-life relationally--a bad one and a good one. If you're blond in Twin Peaks, your primary relationship is bad. Laura Palmer leads a double life as a popular student, but also a destructive one as a professional call girl who has a cocaine habit, which she uses to force her popular, football-playing boyfriend into the double life of dealing the drug. Palmer doubles again when her cousin arrives (played by the same person, except with dark hair). At one point, the actress plays the doubled cousin doubling as her cousin.

Most of the characters have these double relationships, double employments. Benjamin Horne, for instance, not only owns an above-board lodge and department store, but also has plans for the destruction of the sawmill and its owners, not to mention some stake in the prostitution ring in the casino on the other side of the Canadian border. Canada isn't Canada, per se, but that borderland of personality where people aren't who they display on the surface.

The town and its attitudes and limited locales feel more provincial and casual than a town of 50,000. 5,000 may be more accurate. This, too, might be considered a double: plenty of employment opportunity of a larger town but with the casual and intimate relations of a smaller town.

Interestingly, the secondary double assumes the primary role within the narrative in most cases.

I'd be curious to learn what true-form mystery aficionados thought of the series when it aired. One imagines a lot of grumbling consternation.