Saturday, 31 January 2015

The Good Man of Nanking: The Diary of a Good Nazi

A Review By: Amelia
I’ve had a grim fascination with World War Two since I was a child thanks to my grandfather who told me countless war stories. I thought I knew everything there was to know about the war into a few years ago when I read a historical fiction novel called The Devil of Nanking (which I have also reviewed for this blog). It had details about a part of the war that I had no idea existed: the Asian invasions and conflict that Japan roused in China. Since discovering this facts, I’ve had an even grimer fascination with the rape of Nanking and have read all the material I could find on the topic. That is how I came into possession of the book The Good Man of Nanking.

The Good Man of Nanking is a diary that documents one of World War Two’s most horrific incidents of genocide, one which the Japanese have steadfastly refused to acknowledge. In November 1937, as Japanese troops overran the Chinese capital of Nanking and began a campaign of torture, rape, and murder against its citizens, one man put himself at risk and in order to save the lives of 200,000 poor Chinese.

John Rabe was a German businessman and member of the Nazi party who is best known for his efforts to stop the atrocities of the Japanese army during the Nanking Occupation and his work to protect and help the Chinese civilians during the event. The Nanking Safety Zone, which he helped to establish, sheltered approximately 200,000 Chinese people from slaughter during the massacre. He officially represented Germany and acted as senior chief of the European–American establishment that remained in Nanking when the city fell to the Japanese troops. He kept an extensive account in the form of a diary documenting the fall and subsequent rape of Nanking. His diary includes the years leading up to and during the Rape of Nanking and after he left China and returned to Germany.

Rabe’s record of this often forgotten World War Two massacre is an awe-inspiring tale of one man’s generosity and bravery in the face of appalling, unnecessary human brutality. Rabe’s thoughts convey not only jarring information that few people knew about, but also his emotions. This diary is that of a man who was pushed to his breaking point but just kept going because he knew if he didn’t, more people would have been slaughtered. Rabe was a Nazi but much against what we know Nazis to be. He was a good man and without him, what happened in Nanking could have been much worse for much longer.

My final thoughts on The Good Man of Nanking are that it’s an interesting book with a very niche topic. It’s certainly not something a casual nonfiction reader could pick up and fall into, but a history buff might find many new (if mostly disturbing) facts. 

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Sherlock Holmes A Study in Scarlet: A Study in How Many Things Can Be Turned Into a Graphic Novel!

A Review By: Amelia

Sherlock Holmes is a literary figure that will never stop sparking people’s imaginations. In my lifetime alone I’ve seen his period pieces (Guy Ritchie movies), his modern pieces (the BBC Cumberbatch series), and his ultra-modern pieces (the Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century cartoon). He’s impossible to escape! So I thought why not read his graphic novels (which I just discovered recently)? I mean, honestly, I’m a little surprised he didn’t get graphic novel adaptations sooner but that’s beside the point.

In the debut of literature’s most famous sleuth, a dead man is discovered in a bloodstained room in Brixton. The only clues are a wedding ring, a gold watch, a pocket edition of Boccaccio's Decameron, and a word scrawled in blood on the wall. With this investigation begins the partnership of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. Their search for the murderer uncovers a story of love and revenge and, out of the literature fiction, heralds a franchise of detective mysteries starring the formidable Holmes that are still being enjoyed nowadays.

The original author of A Study in Scarlet is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but we all already know that. The adaptors of the graphic novel are Ian Edginton, a British comic book writer known for his steampunk/alternate history fiction pieces, and Ian Culbard who is a designer, inker, colourist, and letterer for comics and is a fan of H.P. Lovecraft and especially Arthur Conan Doyle, so the perfect guy for the job!

The plot of A Study in Scarlet follows the original novel closely with a bloody and strange homicide, Holmes and Watson meeting for the first time, and murderous Mormons. The thing I liked the most about A Study in Scarlet however was the art. I’m not usually a big mystery fan so I’ve always stayed away from Sherlock Holmes for the most part. The exception being the movies with Jude Law as Dr. Watson, but I digress! The art style of the piece was blocky and angular and it was just really appealing to me. I especially loved the smug half-smile that was always on Holmes’ face! It was a very simple style overall, but it fit the story and mood nicely.

My final thoughts on A Study in Scarlet the Graphic Novel are that there’s nothing much to say about it besides it’s quite good. It really worked well as a graphic novel. The art style is eye-drawing without being overbearing and the story compelling but cut back enough to make it a quick and snappy read. It doesn’t add anything new to the Sherlock Holmes mythos but it’s a good standalone for anyone interested in Holmes’ mysteries but maybe not the classical prose! Trust me, you’ll like this graphic novel: it’s elementary my dear reader... I’ sorry, I couldn’t resist!

Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Looking Glass Wars: Another Gritty, Dark Fairy Tale Retelling

A Review By: Amelia

Fairy tale retellings have become a mainstay in the modern world of literature. You get to take an established universe and work in a new story from someone’s perspective that you haven’t seen before and, as an avid writer of fanfiction, it’s a section of fiction that I’m fond of. Most of it ends up being something dark and gritty and The Looking Glass Wars fits in that category to a tee.

When Alyss Heart, heir to the Wonderland throne, must flee Wonderland to escape her murderous aunt Redd, she finds herself lost and alone in Victorian London. Her identity is stripped from her and she becomes a normal girl of the time period while Redd is left unopposed to rule with an iron fist. Fortunately, Alyss is gone, but not forgotten. Her Royal Bodyguard Hatter Madigan goes searching through every corner of our world to find the lost princess and return her to Wonderland so she may eventually battle Redd for her rightful place as the Queen of Hearts.

And so goes the tale of The Looking Glass Wars. A tale that pushes aside Disney’s notion of a curious little blonde girl and leads us on a journey of epic portions in the war for Imagination! The author of this ambitious reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s fantastic tale is Frank Beddor. In addition to being an author he’s also a champion freestyle skier, a film producer, a stuntman, actor, and CEO of Automatic Pictures Production Co. His best known works are There’s Something About Mary and Wicked as a producer, and writing the retelling of Alice in Wonderland with The Looking Glass Wars series.

Wonderland, in this retelling, is a vast kingdom that’s sort of a mirrored version of the Earth we know and love. If our world is one of science, theirs is one of magic (aka imagination in this story). There’s huge deserts and unimaginably complex cities. To travel quickly about Wonderland one takes a mirror expressway; and to travel to our world one can jump into the pool of tears and wind up somewhere on Earth by means of a puddle. After Redd takes over, Wonderland becomes a sinister place with arenas built for Jabberwocky blood sport and deadly machines skulk through the dark alleys of abandoned glass apartments. The magical forests and quaint (if not a bit strange) villages and cottages are replaced with a glittering metropolis: more like that of science-fiction than fantasy, but familiar just the same. It’s a pretty amazing world actually, despite Beddor not quite describing it as much as I would have liked. It’s definitely an interesting take on the Wonderland we all know.

Just as interesting as the take on Wonderland as a landscape is the take on all the characters. The book is set up in such a way that the Alice in Wonderland that we know is a warped version of a little girl’s stories about her kingdom Wonderland. Alice is actually Alyss, the princess and heir of one of the most powerful imaginations in all of Wonderland. The White Rabbit is Alyss’ twitchy tutor Bibwit Harte, and the Mad Hatter is Hatter Madigan, Alyss’ solemn bodyguard with hidden blades in his trademark top hat; and this is just to name a few. Like the landscape of Wonderland, the characters we know have been turned on their heads and an original twist added to them, but once again Beddor’s lack of prose really drags it down as the characters are described as they would be in a screenplay (that is to say with two sentences dedicated to physical description and that’s it) and their dialogue falls flat more often than not. 

Ambitious is the best word to sum up The Looking Glass Wars. It’s ambitious in the scope of the story and the originality but in how it was executed it falls short. Beddor might know what needs to be done with a screenplay but a novel is another organism entirely. Unfortunately, Beddor just doesn’t have the chops for novel writing and (in the sequels especially) it shows.

My final thoughts on The Looking Glass Wars are that it’s a decent story. It reads like a screenplay and not a novel in some scenes and the sequels it spawned (Seeing Redd and ArchEnemy) read almost play by play like a screenplay but The Looking Glass Wars is a decent read. The characters all had interesting flairs that were inspired by the original tale (or in the story the tale that was based off of Alyss’ observations on her homeland) and the setting was vast in its originality–I’m still curious about it after having read it quite a while ago so it definitely gets points for that. The prose was a tipping point for me however, it just wasn’t up to snuff and too much like a screenplay during action and dialogue sequences. All in all, The Looking Glass Wars gets a two out of five from me: okay but certainly not as far down the rabbit hole as I would have liked!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Every Wrong Turn: A Short Story That Takes All the Right Turns!

A Review By: Amelia

I love Clive Barker. Anyone who frequents this review blog will know that as I’ve reviewed both Books of Blood vol. 1 and Coldheart Canyon. Today’s review is not from Barker himself, but from a short story collection featuring stories based on his classic horror novella The Hellbound Heart, and although Barker did not write any of the stories, it is still a treat to read.

In short, Hellbound Hearts is an anthology that is based on the critically acclaimed novella The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker. It’s a collection of twenty-one stories, all from authors of different walks of fiction, which expand and explore the merciless realm of the demonic Cenobites, of the puzzles that call them forth, and the types of people that would dare summon them.

There were quite a few that caught my attention and held it without pause until I had finished it, but the one that sticks out most prominently after having read all of them, is Every Wrong Turn by Tim Lebbon.

Tim Lebbon is a veteran dark fantasy and horror writer. His short story Reconstructing Amy won the Bram Stoker Award for Short Fiction in 2001, and his novel Dusk won the August Derleth Award in 2007. He’s had a few things appear on the New York Times bestseller list and won a Scribe Award in 2008. All in all, the man knows his way about short story, horror fiction, and the mythos that Barker created with The Hellbound Heart was perfect or Lebbon to work and expand in his own way.

Every Wrong Turn is a story about a man–who remains unnamed–exploring a labyrinth that shows him all the sins he has committed through his lifetime. He sees himself beating and raping his wife Michelle, killing a so-called friend that he thought was a charlatan, abandoning his daughter Jenny, and more. While we see little about the above mentioned characters, we get a good, long look at the unnamed main character. He’s a fiend: rape, murder, child abuse, anger, violence–the list is long. We see his past transgressions and loath him for it. But so does her. He’s remorseful of his actions and becomes more panicked and desperate as he realizes that even though he’s been living with these memories, it’s a horrifying experience to smell and hear them again. He wants to–needs to–be punished for them so that he might have some sort of peace in his life. It’s an interesting angle to work from having your main character seeking redemption for his actions but not have the audience feel sorry for him. Trust me, the guy is a monster and no matter how badly he wants forgiveness, the author sees that he doesn’t get it, from us or himself.

The location of the piece takes place entirely within some sort of ethereal labyrinth, created long ago by a man who then became lost in his creation. The labyrinth holds the pasts of everyone who enters, and as you move further into it, your sins are shown to you: the worse they become the further in your go. The labyrinth is a very interesting place for this story to take place. Is it an alternate dimension? A delusion of a crazy mind? Perhaps a glimpse into the future, or your life flashing before your eyes before you die. It’s never said exactly what it is and it’s up to the reader to decide what they want to believe.

The themes of Every Wrong Turn, like the story it’s based on, involve pain and pleasure interweaving into something greater. The labyrinth is a supposed gateway to hell but scores of people have still tried to make their way through it in search of something they can’t find on Earth. There’s also a theme of memories as the unnamed man has to confront his past, each memory becoming worse and worse as he gets further into the labyrinth. He’s searching for the centre of the maze because he believes it will bring him some kind of peace from his memories, but the story shows us that to leave bad feelings behind, we must first face them head on: whether we like it or not.

My final thoughts on Every Wrong Turn are that Lebbon created one hell of a short story. Strangely, it was not my favourite one within the collection, but it is the one that is staying with me the most. There was just something about the way the unnamed main character is forced to explore his dark memories that… well, disturbed me. There was no puzzle box, no classic Cenobites to speak of, but what the character experienced terrified me more than Cenobites ever have! And I think that because I have no idea why that’s the case–why these memories that someone else and not myself is reliving are capable of disturbing me so much more than demons from a torture dimension… it’s just fascinating. It adds a whole new layer to Barker’s mythos and left me feeling unsettled and anxious, and–in the end–isn’t that what good horror fiction is all about?

Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Woman Who Would Be King: The Non-Fiction Biography That Reads Like Fiction

A Review By: Amelia

Ancient Egypt is the most interesting time period in the history of humanity for me. I love reading about the rituals and gods and architecture that was created by them and practiced for thousands of years. I love mummies and curses and dank tombs. I love the salacious details of palace life, including (but not limited to) the family incest that occurred to keep the royal bloodlines pure. I just love it all and that all-encompassing love of ancient Egypt that I hold in my heart is why I chose to read The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt.

So who is Hatshepsut? Well, Hatshepsut was the daughter of a general who usurped Egypt’s throne when the last pharaoh failed to produce any viable off-spring and a mother with ties to the previous dynasty. She was born into a privileged position in the royal household, and she was expected to bear the sons who would legitimize the reign of her father’s family. Her failure to produce a male heir was ultimately the twist of fate that paved the way for her unheard of rule as a cross-dressing king.  At just over twenty, Hatshepsut ascended to the rank of pharaoh in an elaborate coronation ceremony that set the tone for her spectacular reign as co-regent with Thutmose III, the infant king. Hatshepsut was a master strategist, cloaking her political power plays in the veil of piety and sexual reinvention, who helped to re-establish hundreds of trade routes not used for generations, build tremendous monuments to the gods and herself, and show the ancient world that just because she was female didn’t mean she couldn’t successfully rule richest, most powerful nation in the world.

The writer of The Woman Who Would Be King is Dr. Kara Cooney is an Egyptologist and Assistant Professor of Egyptian Art and Architecture at UCLA who has been a part of the archaeological teams that excavated at the artisans’ village of Deir el Medina, Dahshur, and various tombs in Thebes. She’s been the curator of many museum exhibitions, including one all about Tutankhamun, and she’s worked on two Discovery Channel documentary series: Out of Egypt and Egypt’s Lost Queen. She’s a lady with an immense knowledge/passion for ancient Egypt, and really, who can blame her? The ancient Egyptians were pretty great!

Hatshepsut is an amazing historical figure but until recently she’d been nearly completely forgotten by history. Why? Well, the short answer is that she was a woman who ruled during a prosperous time in Egypt’s ancient history and the patriarchal system of governance in the ancient world (and hell, even in today’s world) glazes over such women. History isn’t for women who do the job successfully, it’s for women who destroy or corrupt or just do a terrible job at leading because it’s a way to keep women from power! To only show the lows and no highs allows great female leaders to be swept under the rug! Oh, excuse me, my feminism is showing again (although all this is completely true and it’s not like I try to hide my feminist views... but I digress).

The Woman Who Would Be King shows Hatshepsut’s life in a speculative way of what she might have been doing day to day in her royal life and how she might feel about certain things. It makes the book feel a little more like a novel but the speculation can become a little tiresome as Cooney will lay something at your feet and then say (more or less) ‘or it could be the complete opposite of this’. I understand, she’s covering her tracks as to not disown herself from the community should she displease them, but books like this are about facts and discoveries and theories! Don’t cover your tracks because you’re scared of confrontation–stand proud and explain why you believe what you believe!

My final thoughts on The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt are that it’s a good historical read but I’m biased because I love ancient Egypt/women’s studies, I just want to say that straight away in case you didn’t pick up on any of that before. That being said, this is still a good book (although if you’re not interested in ancient Egypt, the politics of royalty, biographies, non-fiction, etc, then this book isn’t for you in any way). The Woman Who Would Be King is informative and written in such a way as to not just be one stuffy fact after another. It interestingly traces the unconventional life of a female king as she built one of Egypt’s most prolific/richest building periods but was then almost forgotten just a few years after her death. Cooney has shown history at its finest and given Hatshepsut life once more, for (and here comes a history lesson) in ancient Egypt, to speak the dead’s name is too make them live again.