Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Spy Who Never Grew Up: A Short Story for the Permanently Young at Heart

A Review By: Amelia

The Spy Who Never Grew Up by Sarah Rees is the fifth story in the short story complication Kiss Me Deadly: 13 Tales of Paranormal Love, edited by Trisha Telep. The Spy Who Never Grew Up is an odd mish-mash of old school espionage, a paranormal almost-romance, and – are you ready for this? – Peter Pan.

Six generations after the infamous Wendy, Ashley – Wendy’s great, great, great grandchild – finds herself whisked away to Neverland where she comes face to face with the thing that has haunted her family for generations: the boy who won’t grow up, Peter Pan himself. But Neverland has changed and Peter seems… older. Could it have something to do with his job working in Her Majesty’s Secret Service? Whatever happens, Ashley is in for an interesting experience as she learns to fly, explores the dying Neverland, and comes face to face with someone from Peter’s past who’s more than eager for revenge.

Now, considering this is a short story – less than thirty pages within the four hundred page book – there’s not a tonne to go into depth about. I can talk about the characters, but we all already know about Peter Pan: boyish charm, a naivety about almost everything, and an infinity for ‘thimbles’. The Lost Boys have all left Neverland, as have Tinkerbell and the pirates. The original character, Ashley, Wendy’s great, great, great granddaughter, is brash, jaded, and hateful of Peter’s friendly (for the most part) advances. She’s been told stories of Peter Pan’s insanity since she was a little girl because like it or not, Peter Pan always comes to collect what he believes is his: Wendy’s bloodline. She mentions more than enough times that her parents made her sleep with pepper spray under her pillow and how, if she ever has a daughter, she’ll make her sleep with a stun-gun under her pillow. Don’t get me wrong, the author completely ‘gets’ her characters. She makes them funny and clever and Peter’s even creepy when he wants to be, but for some, their over-the-top nature may leave you wishing they were kinder, gentler characters. Or, at the very least, had some kinder, gentler moments.

As far as locations go, Neverland is painted as a gruesome picture of a land tainted by unchanging time. The trees, grass, and flowers have all withered away, the Indians all died out (leaving Peter without Tiger Lily, his other favourite bloodline to tease and torment), and the water has become stagnant and unusable (a shame for the poor mermaids who became deformed monsters because of it). Of her time in Neverland, Ashley does nothing but bitch and threaten Peter to take her home or else some threat or another. She doesn’t even pretend to enjoy the adventures Peter takes her on until the last few pages of the book when they are sent, by the Queen of England herself, to destroy that certain someone from Peter’s past.

Now, why is Peter Pan a secret agent working for the Queen, you may ask? Well, the answer is… unanswered. It’s never really explained why Peter works for MI-6. Perhaps he took a job because he was bored with his life in the dying Neverland. Perhaps he took a job because he’s the perfect spy: young, athletic, and completely magical! Whatever the reason, the government of England has counted on him for a long time and it adds a pinch of originality and flare to this otherwise humdrum story of almost-romance.

My final thoughts on the short story, The Spy Who Never Grew Up, are that it’s an interesting concept to have Peter Pan working as a secret agent. More interesting than that is having Peter obsessing over Wendy’s bloodline; pining away long enough that he kidnaps granddaughter after granddaughter to try and fill his need for a mother. Ashley, as a character, might put you off as she is a teenage girl in an almost-romance story and, that in itself, is a whole new type of annoying character, but Neverland in its steady rate of decline is more than enough reason to see this story through to the end. If you’re looking for an interesting take on a classic story, The Spy Who Never Grew Up is a perfect choice. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it will give you more than enough happy thoughts to learn to fly (although pixie dust is not included).

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Lady Snowblood: A Manga Gory Enough to Inspire Quentin Tarantino

A Review By: Amelia
Lady Snowblood issue one
Ever think to yourself you’d like to read an ultra-violent manga about a sexy geisha-esque woman hell-bent on revenge? One that goes to any length to achieve her vicious goals, usually while naked? Yes? Well then, Kazuo Koike’s Lady Snowblood is just the manga for you! Never heard of it you say? Honestly I hadn’t either until its vibrant yellow and black spin caught my eye on the shelf of a comic book store. The picture of the lovely, sword-welding woman on the front sealed the deal and for ten dollars, the first volume of Lady Snowblood was mine to enjoy!

In the early 1970s Lady Snowblood was published in Shueisha’s Weekly Playboy but wasn’t translated to English until 2005-2006 by Dark Horse Comics. Once translated, Lady Snowblood was split into four volumes, each volume containing five or so separate episodes that have self-contained arcs, but are also a continuation of the main plot.

Now, the plot of Lady Snowblood follows a young woman, Oyuki (aka Lady Snowblood), in a generation-spanning revenge plot. Oyuki was born and then meticulously trained for one purpose and one purpose alone: to kill the group of men who kidnapped and repeatedly gang-raped her mother after slaughtering her family. It’s not a gentle backstory and it gets no more gentle from there on in. Oyuki sheds blood with her charms, her sex appeal, and her cleverly concealed katana sword without batting her beautiful eyes. She makes her way through a crime-ridden, shit-sack, feudal Japan working as a mercenary for anyone who can afford it, all the while moving closer to her final objective.

Oyuki in all her glory
The whole of the story follows Oyuki on her gory quest of revenge and she’s really the only character you learn anything about. A few personalities from her past appear throughout the four volumes (her past really being her mother’s past but I digress). Oyuki is a very beautiful women but that is where her positive attributes end. Sure she’s intelligent, charming, and determined but she’s in it for all the wrong reasons. Oyuki could be seen as a femme fatale as she uses her sex appeal to achieve her goals but femme fatales are not usually bad to the bone. Oyuki, although she slays many people who deserve to be slain, has crossed a few lines in order to reach her endgame. Oyuki was born of hate, raised in hate, and sustained by hate; some of her exploits will leave a more gentle reader reeling.

One other character worth mentioning is Miyanara San who is a character who threatens to burst the fourth wall wide open! Miyanara is a writer who pens Oyuki’s stories of brutal conquest in an effort to draw out the killers of her family; and although played as an antagonistic character to begin with, he eventually comes into his own as he treats Oyuki like his daughter and even risks his life for her.

The on-going themes of Oyuki’s struggles are hate and revenge; and trust me when I say they’re on-going. You never stop hearing about how much Oyuki hates everything, about how her mother’s revenge must be fulfilled. Truthfully, by the last volume, you’ll be so sick and tired of hearing about her unwavering belief in her family’s retribution. Oyuki has a seriously unbreakable code. I’d almost say ‘righteous’ if not for the fact that what she does isn’t in the least bit honourable. She’s been indoctrinated to an extreme: nothing is too much to reach her goals and by the end of the series, you’ll be happy to have her murderous shenanigans over and done with.

The art style of Lady Snowblood fits nicely with its themes. The style is surprisingly beautiful when compared to the storyline. The locations (streets, forests, houses, etc, etc) and clothing have a level of detail usually not seen in manga. The faces and bodies of the characters, in comparison to everything else, are rather bland. They’ll have smooth, regular features if they’re a good character and rough, odd features if they’re not. Nakedness is seen often–Oyuki gets naked at least once a chapter–but, for the most part, it’s tasteful. Okay, maybe not tasteful, but not too overly offensive for people who don’t mind nakedness.

An action sequence
Action is drawn with long, sweeping lines and the blood splatter (and there’s a lot of it) is done in solid black. It’s actually a really nice effect against the snow and rain of certain fight scenes. Of course there’s only so many new ways to draw a katana sword slicing through a person’s neck so style does end up getting a little stale towards the end.

Lady Snowblood is very obvious in its intentions. It’s a ‘seinen manga’ (a seinen manga being a manga aimed at the target audience of 18-30 year-old men) and it is damn proud of that fact. There’s a storyline, but it’s not a complex one, there’s plenty of blood, violence, and more than enough sex to satisfy any red-blooded reader (it was published in a weekly Playboy after all). But women, like myself, who enjoy a good romp in violence every now and again can still enjoy this manga. Oyuki is a woman after all and, although not a woman to base your own character as a person upon (I can’t stress that enough!), she’s kickass, smart, confident, and doesn’t take anyone’s shit. 

My final thoughts on Lady Snowblood is that it’s an interesting manga. It’s ultra-violent, ultra-sexual, and gruesomely ridiculous. Its storyline is a little tired, a little trite; its characters a little hollow. Yet it’s still a compelling series. Don’t discount the work because it was published in Playboy, it offers something I’ve never seen in a manga before. It’s hard to explain but, put simply, Koike has brought to manga what Tarantino has brought to film. I guess it’s only fitting that Tarantino’s violent revenge epic Kill Bill was inspired so much by Lady Snowblood’s gory exploits thirty years before.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Devil of Nanking: A Horrible Yet Fascinating Tale

A Review By: Amelia
History, folklore and ancient taboos are interwoven seamlessly with a modern-day mystery in Mo Hayder’s third book, The Devil of Nanking (republished as Tokyo in some countries). This story begins with Grey, a young Englishwoman, arriving penniless in Tokyo and nursing a major obsession concerning the horrifying events surrounding the 1937 Japanese invasion of China: specifically their six week systematic rape of Nanking. She has traveled to Japan to find an elderly Chinese professor said to have rare footage of the massacre that has a specific bit of information (though the reader is not privy - at first - to what it is) that has driven her obsession. In exchange for the film, Grey agrees to try to unearth information about a life-saving medicine used by an ailing Japanese gangster. Having no idea what dangers she’s gotten herself into, Grey submerges herself into Yakuza crime and probes at parts of the past that were never supposed to be remembered. Hayder alternates between professor Chongming's wrenching account of his experiences in 1930s Nanking and Grey's unwholesome adventures as a hostess in contemporary Tokyo.

Mo Hayder, for the uninitiated, is a diabolically gifted British crime novelist. She is the author of eight novels, all of which have debuted with wide spread acclaim, despite their often violent and disturbing content. The Devil of Nanking is her third novel and her first historical fiction. Mo left school at the age of fifteen and in the years leading up to her career as a writer, she took a job in Tokyo as a hostess in a high-end night club, which inspired parts of The Devil of Nanking. The segments about the Nanking massacre were inspired by the late Iris Changs book The Rape of Nanking, in which Chang writes about the hugely forgotten atrocities that occurred in Nanking. Mo Hayder uses these atrocities to add an extra dose of horror as the story unfolds: a story that is more about the horrors that people do to one another rather than anything supernatural.

Personally, the best parts of this book for me were the characters. The Devil of Nanking’s characters are an interesting mish-mash of personal demons and macabre pasts. Grey, the main character, is a fragile and - for the most part - disturbed young woman, bearing both physical and emotional scars that reach from her childhood living under her overprotective mother to her years in a mental hospital for an act of depravity as a teenager. For a large portion of the book she seems to be flawed past the point of ever considering herself ‘normal’ again. Then of course there is the supporting cast that goads her on and pushes everything into the extreme. There’s Jason, an American with a pre-occupation with death and a sexual fetish for ‘weirdos’ like Grey, a pair of Russian twins who are superstitious hostesses, and Shi Chongming an elderly Chinese man who holds an awful secret about the Nanking Massacre. The stories two main antagonists are Junzo Fuyuki, the ailing gangster with the mysterious medicine that Grey has been employed to uncover, and Ogawa, Junzo’s lurking, transvestite bodyguard / nurse with a tendency for gruesome violence. Combine these strange and unusual characters with an array of bizarre settings and the overall compellingly disturbing plot of the novel, and you have a wonderful showcase for the characters and their actions.

The themes that drive The Devil of Nanking, like its characters, are complicated and superbly thought out. Guilt and the evils of ignorance are the weightiest, as both Grey and Shi Chongming fight to conquer them. Near the end of the novel these themes then evolve into the separate entities of evil, ignorance, and acceptance as Shi Chongming and Grey are able to let go of their negative feelings about their pasts and accept their collective losses by simply admitting that they were not part of something evil but that they were just acting out of ignorance themselves. The Devil of Nanking is written in such away that all the themes are presented before you right from the beginning of the story but - in a way - it’s all down to you to bring them together: your grade twelve English teacher could have a hay-day telling you all the things she thinks this book means. 

Overall, it all comes down to how wonderfully this novel comes together; how all the little mysteries introduced throughout combine into a white-knuckle climax. The further you read (and trust me when I say it won’t take you long to devour this book) the more the two narratives become more and more engrossing as they gradually and ghoulishly intertwine. Hayder uses the four hundred pages in this novel miraculously as she introduces characters that will have you rooting for them one page and disgusted by them the next. Her writing style will leave you breathless as she elegantly overloads your senses with the places, the personalities, and the horrors of the past and present.

My final thoughts on The Devil of Nanking is that you should read it: now. Ideally, everyone should read everything that Mo Hayder has done and will do in the future, but start with this one. Of course since this is my favourite book of all time done by one of my favourite authors, I’m biased, but there are still many reasons why anyone who’s never read or even heard of Mo Hayder should pick up this book. Hayder writes with beautiful, stirring prose that can captivate and disturb all at the same time. She does a fantastic job of conjuring up the look and feel of Tokyo while weaving in a bit of mysticism. She’s done her research, and pre-World War 2 China come alive in Shi Chongming’s portions of the story. As a warning: if you normally can’t stomach gratuitous violence and graphic deaths, this book will make you squirm. But the story, the characters, and Mo Hayder’s brilliant way with words will be well worth it in the end: this is a story that resonates long after the last page has been turned.