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Book Review: Blade of the Samurai

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Book Review: Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann

Review by: Prof. Jenn

 

How good a combination is a ninja-detective, seriously? What a perfect set of skills to be able to solve a murder in 16th-century Japan. Blade of the Samurai is a sequel to Claws of the Cat, which are historical thrillers starring Hiro, our shinobi protagonist, and his partner in solving crime, Father Mateo, a Portuguese Jesuit priest. With these two intellects at the helm of any investigation, no murderer will stay safe for long. Admittedly I haven’t read the first in this series, so I can’t tell you how the characters have evolved in this sequel, but I can tell you if this is your first foray into the investigations of these two, you will have no problem getting to know our characters, their situations, and setting immediately.

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An official in the shogunate has been murdered, and a whiff of a plot to assassinate the shogun himself is in the air as Hiro and Mateo are conscripted to investigate the murder before Oda comes to invade Kyoto. The inclusion of real historical figures (Nobunaga Oda, Hattori Hanzo, etc.) and detailed descriptions of the 16th century Japanese setting plunges us right into the setting as good historical fiction does. However, the quick, clipped pace, the tension begun right as the story begins, and the short chapters make this also a well-crafted whodunit. This book is difficult to put down, and is a quick, exciting read. It’s also a fun addition to have the cultural differences pop up between Father Mateo and his Japanese surroundings (especially noble and samurai encounters, normal Western gestures and thoughts being offensive to the Japanese characters). The outcome of the mystery is complex and not cookie-cutter easy, and the end leaves us with many open ends ready for another sequel (Flask of the Drunken Master, out in 2015).

Bottom Line: Blade of the Samurai is highly recommended.

 

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Comics Review: Crime Does Not Pay vol. 5

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Comics Review: Crime Does Not Pay vol. 5 ed. by Philip R. Simon

Review by: Prof. Jenn

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I enjoyed reading the 5th collection of Crime Does Not Pay for some of the same reasons I enjoyed Daredevil Battles Hitler: it’s a treat to look back in time with these collections. Just as entertaining as the stories themselves (if not more so) are the vintage ads–it’s fascinating to see the wartime admonishments to conserve, etc. Environmental historians would have a field day with just the ads alone.

The collection is a fun romp through the colorful world of 1930s “true crime” stories, both set in what would have been current times, all the way to retellings of crime from Renaissance Rome. The art is cartoony and fun, classic if you’ve looked at any comics from this era, and the recurring ghostly criminal mastermind character is actually creepy.  The dialogue is very 1930s gangster movie (“hey copper, you’ll get nothing outta me, see), and the characters are delightfully stereotypical. Of course these were obviously made mainly for a male child audience, so the repeated warning that Crime Does Not Pay does get a bit, well, repetetive but it’s not really a problem, as reading this collection is more like looking through a time capsule than anything else.

Bottom Line: This is a fun collection, particularly for the fan of history, or crime.

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The Art of Bioshock Infinite Review

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Bioshock Infinite was released last week, bringing a new, exciting chapter of the hugely popular game series for fans to obsessively play for days at a time. I, myself, am a fan of the franchise and when I heard about a book release accompanying the game which would outline the artistic development involved, I was thrilled to have the chance to review it. The Bioshock games are known for their complex story lines and tormented characters, but I think the real core of these games is in the mind blowing art work. I still remember my first time watching the opening sequence for Bioshock. I felt real terror and fear living the experience of sinking on a huge ship, watching people and flames plummet in to the ocean around me as my character sank deeper and deeper. Then, the elation of discovering Rapture, the city under the sea, glowing and majestic, yet abandoned and incredibly eerie at the same time. Bioshock has never settled for less than ‘holy shit amazing’ in the visual department and by the looks of The Art of Bioshock Infinite, this latest installment is no different. songbird2

The introduction to the book is by creative director Ken Levine and he explains that the process of developing a video game on the level of Bioshock Infinite is far more complicated and time consuming than some may assume. ” the process of making anything—and certainly an Irrational game—is grueling and exhilarating, exciting and depressing, thrilling and scary as hell. For every idea that makes it into the game, a dozen are put against the wall and shot.” This book puts this process on display for you, showing the character and world development, sketch by sketch. Hundreds of pieces of art and ideas were thrown out in the editing machine, but no less impressive. It becomes obvious right away that the artists who created this new Bioshock universe toiled endlessly to achieve the perfect effects on every single detail of every puzzle piece that eventually became Bioshock Infinite.

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I found the notes explaining the process behind the art development as intriguing as the pictures themselves. To get a glimpse in to the great care and immense thought behind every detail in this game feels like peeking in to someone’s window and watching them create. Someone with more artistic chutzpah in their little finger than I could achieve in a lifetime. Watching the floating city of Columbia come to life in these paintings and sketches is so much fun, but for me the best part was being witness to the birth and growth of the enigmatic characters of Bioshock Infinite. Booker DeWitt, Elizabeth and Songbird are focused on heavily, their personality and story details being just as imperative as their styles and physical make up. Readers are invited to observe the ideas behind Sky-Hooks, airships and the menacing, powerful Heavy Hitters.

The Art of Bioshock Infinite is a beautiful, enlightening lesson in video game development. It’s not quick, easy, simple or lacking in sacrifice. At least not a game on this level of quality and brilliance. I haven’t actually played Bioshock Infinite yet, but reading this book makes me feel like I already have an intimate knowledge of the people and creatures (or machines) that make up the city of Columbia. Whether you’re a fan of the Bioshock franchise or just a lover of artwork, this book is definitely satisfying and worth having on your shelf. It’s been a real treat for me and has only increased my desire to experience Bioshock Infinite for myself.

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Book Review: A Conspiracy of Alchemists

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Book Review: A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwartz

Review by: Prof. Jenn

If you like perky romantic tropes, and you like Historical Fiction motifs, and you dig steampunk, this book is for you.

No, really–I mention tropes because they’re here in spades, but in no way do I mean to imply that’s a15849472 bad thing. Schwartz delivers the goodies into expectant hands in this high-action story, and just because we know what the goodies are (and have had them before) does not diminish their deliciousness.

Elle is an independent, stubborn, beautiful-redhead airship pilot (I know, how cool, right?) who finds herself embroiled in a take-over-the-world plot beyond her ken. Of course. Unexpected help comes in the shape of handsome, rich, magically-powered Mr. Marsh, whom she *definitely* isn’t in love with, nope, no way, and he absolutely will not fall in love with her either, huh-uh, nothing doing… oh. Yeah. Except they of course do. This is not a spoiler–you will see them getting together miles away, the moment the first flirty banter exits their mouths. But again–that’s not a bad thing.

This book is unabashedly rife with tropes, and absolutely does not apologize for them, nor should it. When Elle put on her goggles to pilot her airship, I bounced with joy. When Marsh ventured into old Italy and met a mage within a dusty apothecary shop, I sighed as I do when I am sipping a favorite brand of coffee. And there’s a train trip. With intrigue! Yes, I’ve seen many of those before, but I *like* them! It’s like watching an episode of Star Trek, or reading a Sherlock Holmes story, or watching a James Bond film. There are certain motifs and images (even lines or events) you’ll see over and over in these, but you *want* to see them, you expect to see them, that’s what makes those media so enjoyable. It’s a similar effect in Conspiracy, except Schwartz has included a few different genres mixed up in a big fun sundae.

There is a little awkwardness just in some of the mechanics of the writing. For example, we get a little overburdened with exposition, and there are some places where Schwartz loses hold of her feel for the time period–even though this is a Fantasy world, some of the dialogue comes across as anachronistic. But hey, I’ve just gorged happily on vampires and airships and absinthe fairies; I’m willing to forgive such minor shortcomings.

Bottom Line: A Conspiracy of Alchemists is a heckuva lot of fun. I recommend it.

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Book Review: Anno Dracula Cha Cha Cha

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I have had the great pleasure of reviewing Kim Newman’s previous Anno Dracula books (Anno Dracula, Anno Dracula: the Bloody Red Baron), and was happy to get the chance to check out Newman’s newest Anno Dracula book: Dracula Cha Cha Cha.

Newman’s first book took place in Victorian England, his second during WWI. Both books do a thing which I very much enjoy (when done well)–they combine a historical fiction base with fictional characters. This makes for a lovely mix of alternative history and mystery in one of the funnest cross-genres I have enjoyed reading lately.* What Newman does especially well in all these books is make the setting very important ( as all historical fiction should), includes fictional as well as historical (and original) characters in vital ways, and makes sure the story remains paramount.

In Dracula Cha Cha Cha, Newman puts us in 1960s Rome just as deftly as he previously put us in Victorian England and WWI Europe, with enough setting description to put us there, without detracting from the story. This is important because it’s in essence a detective story, and the what-will-happen-next, whodunit aspect is actually the most important thing in a story like this. Another quite skillful thing Newman does is incorporate the setting into the action, which means we’re getting more of the setting while still investigating the murder.

One of the funnest* things about all three Anno Dracula books is the spot-the-character game. Many beloved characters from fiction in the time period when the book is set appear in vital roles, and while Newman never randomly throws these characters in for no reason, it’s still an Easter egg game to see who shows up, and who ends up being a vampire. This latest installment is no exception–I know a lot of my geeky friends and I claim James Bond is a Timelord, but in this book he’s a vampire. Totally makes sense, and the way favorite character Kate Reed interacts with him is priceless. The deadly Lovelies are quite Bondian without being associated with Bond, and the groovy student-and-drug related novella Aquarius (included in this volume) are right out of a 1960s movie. I only wish Newman had included the Avengers (TV spies, not superheroes) in this mix. But that’s just me.

Both stories in this volume (the main novel, plus the novella Aquarius) are murder mysteries, and are just as gripping, mysterious, and full of twists as a story of that genre should be. I won’t even reveal anything about either plot itself, only that they are well crafted whodunits. They do get a little gory, but that’s of course to be expected in a vampire book. The only other thing I can say about plot, is that I wish Newman had had only the novel here, and published the novellas (from the last book and this one) in a separate collection. I understand that that would mean having two stories in two different time periods instead of keeping to one volume, one era, but the way it is now makes for kind of a long read. It’s not really a big deal, it’s just a thing to think about for the next one, guys. 🙂

Bottom Line: the Anno Dracula series is excellent, and I highly recommend this latest one.

*i am an English professor by trade. I’m allowed to say “funnest.”

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~Prof. Jenn

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Book Review: Blood Eye

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Book Review: Blood Eye by Giles Kristian
Review by Prof. Jenn
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Historical Fiction is one of those tricky genres that read like a few other genres combined. It’s a delicate balance between realism and storytelling, in which the setting is extremely important–almost a character. An author must do a lot of research to get the setting feeling correct and yet not become so bogged down in true history that he fails to immerse the reader in the setting (and in the story, of course).

Blood Eye by Giles Kristian is one of those historical fiction novels which performs this delicate balance quite well. The big secret to this book, IMO, is the easy way the POV character puts us right there with him. He’s young enough that we get things explained to us (in a good way) and a strong enough personality that he gets himself into unending amounts of trouble (which is great for us as readers, not so great for him!) and so we have tramped across half of early medieval Britain by the time his coming of age adventure story is complete. Not only that, but as this is the first of a trilogy, it reads as a sort of origin story for the hero that began as Osric and becomes Raven. It’s an origin story that definitely makes me want to follow him into the sequel.

The only weak spots in this narrative are the haphazard scenes in which Raven is apparently old, and telling his story to an audience. These scenes are few and only occur towards the end, and they feel out of place. He’s instructing various faceless whippersnappers to light the fire, get him a drink, etc. and it does nothing to help the story along, nor does it enrich his character. In fact, they read like a sloppy ripoff of the Kingkiller Chronicles premise. So that, not so good. The story itself? Fantastic.

Bottom line:  Blood Eye is a good read. I recommend it with hardly any exception.   ~Prof. Jenn

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Book Review: Anno Dracula–the Bloody Red Baron

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Kim Newman’s last “Anno Dracula” book was all Victorian, all the time. It was Holmes and the Diogenes club and Mina and Lucy and Dracula, and Jack the Ripper, and Queen Victoria, and…London. I was in allusion glee reading that one, weren’t you?

The second “Anno Dracula” book is called The Bloody Red Baron, so you can guess what’s happening here. We’re in the throes of WWI, the Red Baron is a vampire (duh, wasn’t he in real life?) and we have many many exciting air battles. We also get a lot about the horrors of war, and what monsters war makes of all of us, including people that are already monsters. Oh, and there’s a delightful novellette in the back that’s a meta murder mystery told from both a pre-teenaged live girl and an elder vampire’s POV. Packed with nods to modern vampiric romances, and the girl’s change of perspective is at once heartwarming and hilarious.

I enjoyed both Newman’s “Anno Dracula” books because not only are they super postmodern in their treatment of vampires (self-referential, rife with allusion to literature and pop culture alike), but the world he creates is quite real–it has all the trappings of good historical fiction, along with the trappings of good Fantasy: the world is complete, realistic, not many info dumps to speak of, and we want to know what happens next. And we do care about our POV characters (so much so that I was a little miffed to find so little of Genvieve in this installment, though I loved the novelette she appears in at the end).

I personally don’t know nearly as much about WWI-era Europe as I do about Victorian England (I am a Holmes nerd, big time), so I’m sure I missed most of the literary/pop culture characters and references beyond the big names (oh, Poe is a vampire too. I know, right?), but the story is so compelling it actually didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment. There was just enough horror to make me happily cringe (one name: Isolde. That is all), and I have to say that I dug Kate Reed’s role in this story. Oh, and Beauregarde. Isn’t he just your favorite guy, ever?

Bottom line: I highly recommend The Bloody Red Baron, and I don’t care a whit whether you read Anno Dracula first, though of course you will get much more from Reed and Beauregarde as characters if you do.   ~Prof. Jenn

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Review: Forever Barbie by M.G. Lord

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If you self-identify as a nerd, your favorite childhood toys may have included chemistry sets, board games, and the ever-popular action figures. I was obsessed with my superhero action figures and some of them (including my beloved Catwoman doll) even managed to survive my childhood. But since I’ve always loved fashion, I liked Barbie dolls a lot as well. Barbie played a big part in the formative years of hundreds of kids: say what you will, she’s a true cultural voice.

Writer M.G. Lord explores the many aspects of the toy in her book, Forever Barbie (1994, updated 2004). Though it’s been out for a while, it remains an interesting and well-researched look at the archetypal Mattel doll. With Barbie’s recent 50th anniversary (2009), there’s no better time to examine her complex legacy.

After a brief overview of a Barbie convention, Lord devotes several chapters to the story of her creator, Ruth Handler. During the 1940’s , Handler and her husband Elliott progressed from selling Plexiglas furniture to plastic toys, finally forming Mattel in 1945. She got the idea for Barbie from watching her daughter and friends play with paper dolls, noting that they would have the dolls “reflect the adult world around them”. She wanted to “take this play pattern and three-dimensionalize it,” producing a doll geared toward children envisioning themselves as adults.

Handler finally saw the type of figure she wanted on a 1955 vacation to Switzerland- the long-legged and voluptuous Lilli doll, basically Barbie with “racy” clothes and black pumps for feet. Lord provides a detailed account of how Mattel’s artists and manufacturers adapted the Lilli features for the first Barbies, and how ad agency Carson/Roberts crafted her role as a fashion model. Early market research showed that girls were wildly enthused about Babs. Some moms were not, complaining that she had “too much of a figure” and could be a “cute decoration for a man’s bar.” Nonetheless, Barbie was a hit. Her success made the Handlers and Mattel the leaders of a toy empire for years to come.

Forever Barbie is extremely readable because the author skillfully blends facts to delight the average toy geek with a variety of cultural ways to view Barbie. There are chapters on the doll`s status as a “transitional object” to help the child recognize the boundaries of self, her relationship to class issues, and a great analysis of the 1960’s Barbie novels.  One of the best chapters- “Our Barbies, Our Selves”- is all about the Barbie/body image controversy. Lord gives the problem an objective look, citing commentary from eating disorder sufferers and therapists, while noting that most eating disorders probably spring from a combination of family and cultural disorders. She also acknowledges the importance of Todd Haynes’ 1987 short film Superstar, a chilling look at Karen Carpenter’s anorexia made entirely with Barbie and Ken dolls.

My only real caveat about this book is that not a whole lot of space is devoted to how kids actually play with the famous doll. There are isolated anecdotes, such as the one in the preface in which Barbie is summoned as doctor to an ailing Bratz doll. And RuPaul is quoted on her childhood play with Barbie.  It would have been fun to hear from more of the toy’s gay fans.  I’m sure many of us will suddenly recall their long-ago play patterns as they read. I certainly did as I was reminded of how my Barbies fought battles, dated superheroes and GI Joes, and played jungle explorer. Forever Barbie is also chock-full of photos of vintage dolls and Barbie art, though regrettably none are in color. In summation, it’s rare to find a fun and intelligent read about a favorite toy, and Lord’s opus certainly fits the bill.

Guest post written by T. Johnson. T. Johnson is a blogger, au pair, and part-time tutor who has been obsessed with science fiction and comics since roughly first grade. One of her life`s big revelations was discovering Wonder Woman comics-another milestone was starting to read the works of Heinlein and Aldous Huxley. She has always been convinced that girls can be as truly nerdy as any fanboy.

Happy Talk Like a Pirate Day!

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Astrology’s Dirty Little Secret

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I do not believe in astrology, but that is irrelevant to this conversation. This isn’t about the accuracy of astrology itself but about the inaccuracy of the zodiac being used for horoscopes and astrological signs, the forms most people think of when referring to astrology.

There are twelve astrological signs, each corresponding to a constellation from the zodiac. The word zodiac is roughly translated to mean ‘circle of animals’ which is a very accurate description. Each constellation of the zodiac falls into a ring around the earth known as the ecliptic; the paths of the Sun, Moon and planets around the earth also roughly fall in the ecliptic. People’s astrological signs are assigned by the position of the constellations when that person was born. Whatever zodiac is in the sky is that person’s sign.

The zodiac has been around, unchanging, since the Romans; and this is the heart of the problem. That is a long time; so long in fact the earth’s axis itself has shifted. Earth’s axis wobbles slightly, this means that in the 2,000 plus years since the zodiac was first created the earth has shifted its position in space ever so slightly. The stars are around 30 degrees westward in our night’s sky than they were for ancient astronomers.

This means that the constellations no longer correspond to the signs. A chart provided by Wikipedia helpfully shows when each zodiac constellations is present in the sky and when the zodiac sign is considered present. In every instance the constellation rises as the sign sets. A person who is an Aries was actually born under the constellation of Pisces and is therefore actually a Pisces.

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