Book Reviews: Toads, Titan, and Tokyo

When she ordered the enchiladas with cheesecake, I told her I wasn’t going to kiss her goodnight.
She seemed relieved.

As you can tell from the title, I love alliteration.

Toad Weather
Tiny children’s book where Mom cajoles daughter and grandmother into a walk in the rain; grandma is grumpy the whole way while the little girl jumps in puddles. Eventually they come to a strange sight that even grandma agrees was worth getting wet. And it’s based on a true story!
There really isn’t much you can say about a picture book that runs 32 pages; just a cute simple story for kids. What I did find fascinating were the paintings. At the beginning it says they’re pastels, but they’re so lifelike!

Titan Born
A sci-fi tale where the solar system has been colonized and a lot of people not on Earth are none too happy with the mother planet. In this maelstrom an enforcer for one of the giant corporations gets a new partner and is sent to take care of things.
After a while I realized this was future noir, if that’s really the term; not exactly Philip Marlowe in outer space, but close. There’s a lot of world building, future Earth building, right down to religion, with some moderately well done info drops. I never really understood what Zhaff was—human, android, cyborg?—even with the reveal toward the end of where he came from.
And speaking of the end, there’s a big twist, which I saw coming. It also ends in a cliffhanger, but there’s sure to be a sequel.

Random Body Parts
A small book that’s basically florid rhymes—some forced, some clever—about body parts, followed by more scientific explanations.
For me this was almost a guessing game; anatomy was my worst subject. And some of them are pretty gross. The twist is the whole thing is based on Shakespeare; if the Macbeth opener doesn’t convince you, the “Shall I compare you?” sonnet will. There’s even a rudimentary drawing of Shakespeare later on.
In a book that’s only 48 pages, and a lot of that being graphics, just a little more than half of that is actual book, with a glossary and poetry explanations taking up the rest. And yet I couldn’t say that making it longer would necessarily make it better.

Motions and Moments
This is the third book in a series that features essays about Tokyo, from an American who’s been living there for decades. The first two books were excellent in his examination of the minutiae of Japanese life that everyone else misses, and this third is more of the same sheer joyfulness. For example, it starts with the Japanese take on staring contests, a small everyday thing that was exactly the kind of event the author explained so well in the first two books.
I would have never thought anyone could write so much about futons, or plastic. Every city has kiosks, but only this author writes about them, and seems genuinely fascinated by them. He even manages to find some fundamental truths about jazz, far away from New Orleans or anywhere else the style is famous. There’s even a whole section on the psychological impact of the giant earthquake and aftermath.
But it’s his prose that most gets me. “When someone drops a cell phone, when the little silicon center of the universe clatters to the floor, it is like a young child falling over: everyone looks to see if the child is OK.” Moments like these show we’re not so different after all.


Book Reviews: Aliens, Time Travel, Tokyo

Definition of Awkward:
Walking innocently down Hollywood Blvd. and being solicited by a hooker whom a second later realizes she usta model for me. . .

Tokyo’s Mystery Deepens
This is a sequel to “Beauty and Chaos,” which I reviewed last month, a collection of essays on what it’s like for an American to live in Tokyo.
It’s gonna be hard coming up with something I didn’t say about the first volume, as this is more sheer goodiness in the same vein. Michael Pronko is one of those people who notices all the little things that most don’t, like the intriguing relationship between mothers and daughters in public. Considering what’s in energy drinks here in the States, I sure as hell wouldn’t try an energy bottle. People don’t lose their speaking inhibitions at the bars, but rather at the gym. The author laments that train stations are now like shopping centers. There’s even a chapter on sweating; basically, don’t do it, or at least never let them see you doing it.
To point out how observant the author is, how many Tokyo natives would notice all the flowers? Other than when the cherries blossom. But for me personally the most important chapter was about smoking, where it’s mentioned that despite all the prohibitions against certain behavior in Tokyo, lighting up is not one of them. Boy, is he right; I’ve been in Romanian nightclubs that didn’t have as much nicotine residue in the air as strolling along a sidewalk in Tokyo.
As I mentioned in the previous book, I read this almost like science fiction, as though I was receiving insights into an alien culture. If you ever wonder how something like Hello Kitty could become so huge, this is the place to start.

Second Contacts
In brief, this is a collection of science-fiction short stories about what happens after first contact, specifically fifty years after.
The start was not auspicious, as the first two stories hardly seemed worth the effort. By the time I reached the midpoint there was only one entry I liked, about a young lady chosen to interact with a being that wants to eradicate all life from Earth.
Thankfully the second half was much better than the first. For me the best was “Grief,” which involves an alien race where two entities function as one—not quite Trill, but you get the point. When one dies, the other part is inconsolable, so they get a human grief counselor to help. Another fine entry was “The Peace of the World,” where Mars conquers Earth economically after invasion fails. Funny.
So as to be expected with collections, some are good and some are bad. Compared to others I’ve read, though, there’s less to like here than usual. Though I’m a science-fiction fan I didn’t recognize one single author here, though that’s hardly different than today’s Analog or other magazines. Perhaps there are too few stories in this very narrow niche to provide the editors with a richer choice.

Doc’s Codicil
This is one of those stories where the recently deceased leaves the descendants some puzzles to solve before they can receive the inheritance goodies. There’s the good girl, the guy who thinks it’s a waste of time, and other stock characters, though their interactions and thought processes as they try to solve the puzzles are stimulating enough. But most of the story is taken up by two historical threads, which are described in a book that is where the characters most look for clues. One concerns the dead man’s life as a veterinarian, while the other involves a Christmas pageant where everything that can go wrong does.
I will say that I learned far too much about veterinary medicine than could possibly be good for me. The humor sneaks up on you, especially with the character—if you can call him that—of Doofus (drawn faithfully and hilariously on the cover), although the crown of best individual goes to Gladys the camel. Though it seems to meander at times, in the end it does lead exactly to where the inheritance hunters need to go, if they can figure it out.
If nothing else, whenever I need to get away from someone I can’t stand, I can say that I’m taking Doofus squirrel fishing. . .

In a world where there is no USA, North America is still part of the British Empire, and there are social levels that can’t be escaped, a highly intelligent but poor bookworm of low standing finds himself recruited into a secret organization of time travelers whose motives might not be what they claim.
This is an intriguing variation on the time-traveler-screws-up-history trope, though it’s interesting that the author doesn’t mention any of this; you figure it out from small clues in the first few chapters. As the story goes on there’s a few counterfactuals that made me think “This is the moment where everything changed,” but no, they were just interesting tidbits until we get to the actual moment where history was sidetracked, due to the slightest error by the protagonist. And suddenly the story is taking place in our actual existing universe, outside the book.
But here’s the switch: whereas in most stories of this ilk it becomes a struggle to set everything back the way it was, in this one the new world is so much better than the “real” one of the book, leading the hero to wonder which is the best course, not just of action but of history.
For me the best part was this fish-out-of-water trouble he had in my world, describing things I’m very familiar with, like the subway and the central library in downtown Los Angeles. There’s even a mention of the Hollywood/Vine subway station, normally not a big deal except that I was there on the very day I read that (I know, it takes so little to make me squee). The t-shirt his new friend gets him, with a famous glasses-wearing dog, was hilarious.
It’s easy to cheer for him, and the story has plenty of villains to root against. Ultimately I wondered if his solution was made for the betterment of mankind or personal reasons, but I suppose his answer would be “Both.”

Flash Bang
In what appears to be the start of a series—quite a relief considering I usually end up joining them in progress—a young professional in Chicago has her work life destroyed, only to be followed by a plane crash and EMP attack that have her leaving the city for her family’s farm up north. Attacked by rednecks—apparently they exist everywhere—she’s saved by former Marine Corps Recon guys who have their own survivalist-type compound in the woods.
But this isn’t your typical romance, even with the erotica thrown in. The leader of the group and his best friend have a habit of sexually double-teaming a woman, and she’s certainly hot enough to fit the bill. So does she give in to them or continue on her journey to get back to her family? Or both, somehow?
Why are the characters in romance/erotica always so stubbornly stupid? I suppose if they didn’t have such interpersonal conflicts to overcome it would be a much shorter story, but as a former Marine who came so close to qualifying for Recon—flunked scuba—while there’s plenty of guys like this, there’s many more who are not. You don’t get to be in the Special Forces of any branch by being as dumb as the main male character was too many times. Of course it’s not all his fault, as our heroine had to be almost suicidally stubborn as well. I suppose I shouldn’t knock the author for what’s really the genre’s fault, but it’s still irritating enough to make me give it a slightly lower score than otherwise. The writing is well done, the characters more than just stock with interesting backstories, the sex scenes steamy, and there’s plenty of humor, so there’s a lot to like, as long as you don’t expect the protagonists to make sense.


Book Reviews: Buddhism and Prison Ships

Totie Fields
I’ve been on a diet for 2 weeks and all I’ve lost is 2 weeks.

Hadn’t realized until the last moment, but with books on yoga, Tokyo, New Guinea, and ancient Japan. . . definitely an accidental theme here.

Ours to Embrace: ES Siren 7
It’s the 7th in the series, not all by this author; a shared universe, I believe they call it. There’s a prison ship going from Earth to another planet, and all the stories take place on this platform. This particular plot deals with a shuttle pilot and one of the prisoners, of course a gorgeous woman. There seems to be a lot of backstory to her, no doubt in previous books, while he’s easy enough to grasp: just think Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds.
Though there’s a conspiracy by a few of the prisoners to not just escape but take over the ship, at heart this is a romance, with the usual jumping to conclusions and bad choices that get in the way of what they want. Setting it on a prison ship heading to a new world is certainly different, but the plot feels more complicated than it really needs to be. I can’t help thinking I would have enjoyed this more had I read the previous ones.

The Superyogi Scenario
At first I thought the premise was corny—yoga can turn you into a superhero!—but it ended up being very enjoyable, in a science-fiction kinda way. I mean, is that really any different than being bitten by a radioactive spider or shot in a rocket from a dying world on the other side of the galaxy? Why not?
I had a few questions about the first scene: If she can shapeshift, why does she need to change clothes? And why bother disguising yourself if there aren’t going to be any survivors/witnesses? These are the types of little things that annoy me, but fortunately the writing gets better. Later on a magnificent new character is introduced, only to be killed off by the end of the chapter; fortunately she got better too.
There are a few well-done drawings of the main characters in their superhero uniforms, but I didn’t like them much, because they didn’t seem to match the earlier word descriptions. And quite frankly they didn’t show off the beauty of these two ladies that had been an integral part of their characters since we were introduced to them.
Parts do get a bit silly, but if you don’t take it too seriously you’ll be fine with it. There are bad yogis who want to destroy the world, or at least New York, with a main villain we never meet who has brainwashed others to do his bidding. Instead of all these characters being Superman, they each have their own unique powers, which makes things a lot more interesting. There’s a lot to like here, but it could have been better, or will be, once the author has more experience; I’d be shocked if there aren’t sequels.

Beauty and Chaos
Here’s a book of essays on Tokyo, told by an American who’s lived there for a while now. It reads like blog entries, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s certainly better written than most blogs, not including this one (up to you to guess if I’m joking).
I’ve been to Japan a half dozen times, but never for more than a few days, certainly not long enough to gain the type of insights he has on the culture. His is an interesting point of view, a Westerner in Tokyo but someone who’s lived there for years, more than just a tourist, so he fills the inbetween.
There’s a whole chapter on how people hold themselves up on trains; he says women have better balance, even in heels, holding on to the straps with their fingers, while men use the whole palm. That’s the kind of close detail you can expect in this book. There’s also a piece on why Japanese women go even more overboard with pink than American women, yet the color is also used to attract men to sex stuff. And everything else is white, black, or grey. Hmmm. . .
This book is filled with interesting tidbits that most people, including the residents, wouldn’t notice. There’s a chapter on how ubiquitous maps are, which I certainly don’t remember from my trips to Tokyo, and I would have remembered, cuz I love maps. . . which is why I’m enjoying this anyway, vicariously. Another entry talks about shopping bags, including how they would save civilization in a major earthquake; that’s too silly even for Japan. But for someone who’s never been there, or only for a short time as a tourist, it gives a sense of wonder, almost like science-fiction, reading about a whole new world. And isn’t that what travel books are supposed to do?

Lost in Shangri-La
This is one of those amazing true stories that you would think everyone has heard of but has been lost in the mists of history. In World War Two the United States has established bases in New Guinea, and a few soldiers and WACs go off on a joyride to look at the almost Stone Age natives in a hidden valley in the interior. The plane crashes and most of the passengers are killed, with only three survivors. This story is about how they managed to stay alive, befriend some natives, and ultimately be rescued from this desolate area too high for choppers, too hilly for planes, and weeks away by foot from any outpost.
As one would expect there’s a lot of background in the beginning, setting the scene. Once the crash happens the story narrows down to what the three do to survive, as well as asides on why the natives are always at war with each other, and a piece on a white explorer in the area that none of the players here knew about. Frankly, I’m quite surprised the author managed to get so many pages out of this, as the whole thing could have been told much more succinctly, especially once the rescue operation gets underway, with medics and troops parachuting in to keep the survivors safe from what turned out to be friendly natives.
The way they’re finally rescued left me incredulous. Still can’t believe it worked.

Wow, this is not your typical comic book/graphic novel. For one thing, it’s historical, set in 13th century Japan. For another, there’s no superheroes or such, unless you count the main character, a Buddhist monk, and his attempts at social change, dealing with a government that doesn’t care.
Though not by any means a Buddhist, I’ve read some of the main texts, so it’s not surprising for me to find some familiar stuff, like the old story about collecting mustard seeds from a house that has not experienced death in order to bring the dead back to life. Such familiarity helps set the scene, but its really jarring to believe this takes place 800 years ago when the writing is modern and simple, with the occasional “Whoa!”
My favorite line: “There’s a ghost in the outhouse!”
As far as the story goes, there’s three chapters that give examples of his attempts to make things better for the population, especially the poor. Not knowing how true to history these episodes are, I wonder if the people in this time period really were that gullible, believing all the lies told about Nichiren. As for the Buddhist priest himself, he considers himself so enlightened yet is incredibly stubborn. He knows people who have much to lose aren’t going to listen to him; he knows he’s in danger from them, but he never changes his strategy. As much as I would have liked him to succeed, I’m not at all surprised he didn’t. But I suppose since these events actually happened, I shouldn’t be criticizing the book for them.
All in all this is a quick easy read, though perhaps there’s too many characters to keep track of for too long; there’s a guide for that at the end, which I think proves my point. Some of the story was interesting, others not so much. I doubt the lack of color had anything to do with that, but yes, it’s in black and white.