Book Reviews: Customer Service, Absurdity, Westerns, and Lizards

Tried to remember “Shadowing of Angels” and “Fascist Lizards,” but of course when it mattered it came out “Shadowing of Lizards” and “Fascist Angels.”
Hmmm, I wonder if that last one is a sequel to Paradise Lost. . .

The Best Customer Service Quotes Ever Said
If you thought these would be quotes from people about customer service they’ve received, you’d be wrong. This is about how to give customer service, so the title is a little misleading. And most quote books don’t have such a narrow focus.
A lot of these quotes are by the author himself, but because I’ve read his previous book, which I considered one of the top of last year, it’s worth it. Every once in a while some gem will pop up, sometimes by the last person you’d expect.

Extraordinary Shorts
Very short stories that feel like the author is a Twilight Zone fan but wanted to write five minute episodes rather than half hours. The first one reminds me of the tale of the coat left on the girl’s grave I first heard as a kid, and most followed in that vein. Toward the end there were some stories that forgot to include a punch line. The author sure loves setting her scenes, almost overdoing the descriptions, but maybe because these are for kids there’s no great effort to make the plots anything but bare bones. I expected more.
The scariest part wasn’t the stories, but the pencil artwork, especially the faces.

The United States of Absurdity
From drunk baseball games to Agent Elvis to lobster madmen, here are moments in history that were probably better off left without this light shined on them. Michael Malloy, for example, is a darkly comic version of Rasputin.
But it’s important to remember this isn’t intended as a history book, rather to make the reader laugh. The snark is in full effect; it’s the best part of this. It’s not like these history lessons are important. . .
At times juvenile, but mostly innocent—and not so innocent—fun.

High Noon
Subtitled: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. That’s an important distinction, lest you make the mistake of assuming this is just a behind-the-scenes of the making of the popular Western film.
It starts with a fantastic bio of Gary Cooper, but then shifts to a long history of American communism during WW2. The Cooper stuff is the best part of the first half; the Red scare hearings drag things down, slow the pace, though once in a while there’s a gem, like the news that Ayn Rand had a big part in this that no one knew about.
There’s an interesting take by one of the lawyers representing someone “asked” to testify: “He would not represent anyone who took the Fifth Amendment, arguing that if they were former Communists, as all of his clients claimed to be, they had not broken any law and therefore did not need the amendment’s protection.” The best job description ever written has to be “the industry expert in frying producers.”
This is a difficult read, both emotionally and. . . reading wise. Thankfully there’s some optimistic moments, such as the part at the end that tells about the movie’s—or at least the poster’s—role in helping Solidarity overcome the Communist government in Poland. Another fun fact is that this movie has the distinction of being the most requested by American presidents. But the most heartwarming has to be the story of detective work that unearthed the original manuscript of the screenplay for The Bridge on the River Kwai, leading the author of High Noon to receive credit for the Oscar-winning work just in the nick of time.
Acknowledgements, notes, and bibliography take up the last 12%.
As can be perceived by my previous comments, the parts about the movie were so much more interesting than the hearings. 4.5 for the movie stuff, 2.5 for hearings, so according to old math that comes out to:

Fascist Lizards from Outer Space
Most likely the best title of any book this year, and not what you think of at first blush. Instead this is about the making of the incredibly popular science-fiction franchise known simply as V, from the original blockbuster to the lackluster reboot.
The first important note is in the intro, where the author states this project evolved from a master’s thesis to a full-fledged book. For the most part that’s hard to tell, but on the other hand it does explain a few niggling problems. For example, it’s stated right away that the original miniseries, of which I remember fondly and was a huge fan, drew more than 40% of the viewing audience, which even in the days before cable is an astounding number. But as awesome as that factoid is, it doesn’t bear repeating four times in the opening quarter of the book, and more times after that. Made me wonder if this was mashed together from several different writings, and not edited.
Another point that’s repeated time and again is the mention of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, a book that is incredibly relevant to the story as well as today’s America—more on that in a bit—but annoyed me by the fourth mention.
What I learned most about the making of V was the history of its auteur, Kenneth Johnson. Not being a Hollywood insider, I was unfamiliar with his name on anything other than this, so it was with fascination that I read about his work with three other intriguing series: The Bionic Woman, the Incredible Hulk, and Alien Nation. Much is made of his background in classics and literature, like how he equated the Hulk with Jean Valjean from Les Misérables, a “lonely fugitive relentlessly hounded by an obsessed adversary.”
There’s plenty of fun little notes, such as the fact that the original miniseries’ four-note motif represents the letter V in Morse code. And I’m loving some of the alternative stories that never got done. But at the end there’s no more fun, quite the opposite. Maybe this is why this book was written now; there’s a whole section on it, probably originally written as a stand-alone, but this is the basic sum-up: “The violence and discord occurring at Trump’s rallies harkens back to the brutalities committed by Hitler’s Sturmabteilung (also known as “Brownshirts”) during his ascendency to the German chancellery.” And since this is where Johnson got the original idea for the whole story. . .
The last 7% is appendix, book list, episode credits, merchandise, bibliography, and index.


Book Reviews: Another Graphic Post

“I assume every woman I’m interested in is married. Saves time.”

Wynonna Earp Volume 1: Homecoming
Never heard of either this series or the TV show, where a descendant of Wyatt Earp is part of a federal agency that kills monsters and zombies and the like; the things you learn when you don’t have cable. . .
There’s a short but satisfactory intro, leading right into some gruesome humor; talk about setting a tone. Another tone-setter is the zombies, as well as Federal Agent Dolls, who’s complaining about all the gore stinking up his ride, yet lets her into the car and doesn’t seem to care she left gore all over the passenger seat. So that’s what the relationship between these crime-fighting partners is like, although there’s a surprising but nice moment later when they have a genuine heart-to-heart.
There’s a lot of fun touches that keep this from being just another shoot-‘em-up zombiefest. The phrase “Emotionally frugal” is so good I intend to use it as soon as possible. Like all macho heroes, male or female, she’s more interested in her jacket not getting ruined than the fact she was almost killed. You get a moment where she’s actually almost-sweet and fun, like when she pushes John Henry’s hat down over his face, or when she admits her experience watching porn in the middle of a bar, to take a breather before going back to the gore fest. And of course there’s the requisite Trump mention. It really is the bits of humor that save this from what might have otherwise been something seen many times before.
The story kicks up a notch when Valdez shows up; she’s definitely not whom I expected, making for a nice twist. She’s the kind of girl who forgets all about having to wear frilly clothes once she gets her hands on a Gatling gun. There’s good use of Old West mythology, particularly the OK Corral, in the final showdown.
A few other lines to look for:
“Sometimes fighting paranormal crime isn’t as sexy as TMZ makes it out to be.”
“You just pooped on my pep talk.”
“Well done.” “He is now.”
“I’m gonna miss Dick.” “Pardon me?”
And look carefully for the well-placed “Hang in there” poster.
So this turned out to be much more enjoyable than I thought it would be at the beginning. In fact, this is one of the rare ones where I can’t wait for the continuation. And let’s hear it for the short recaps at the beginning of each issue, something a lot more graphic novels could use, since you can’t assume people will pick up the first issue when browsing at the store.

Little Tails in the Jungle
An extremely short book about the adventures of a couple of rudimentarily drawn animals flying around in a cardboard plane. After flying above maps for a while, they land in Africa, where it’s time for the squirrel—I think—to teach the puppy about the animals they see in the jungle. And bugs. And then they fly on to the next place. . .
If I have one complaint it’s that I couldn’t tell the two main animals apart, or even what species they were, if not told by the publicity blurb. The format is one comic-strip like area surrounded by colorful jungle vistas, which are the real highlights here, though I could have done without the life-sized tarantula! Better was the appearance by the pink Amazon dolphin–while they still exist–but what about piranhas? Yep, there they are. . .
The animal drawings are so gorgeous it’s almost a shame to use them in a book that only kids will be seeing. The banter is witty without ever seeming mean. The last few pages give more detail on the various animals.
The big thing here is that this is from the same guys who do the LOVE series, which explains why the artwork is so beautiful.

This is the story of a guy whose job it is to “control the superhero population.” That’s a new one, and as you might expect, a human taking down superheroes isn’t exactly the easiest way to make a living. Chapter 1 was an intro to the kinds of jobs he does on small fry, but after that comes the fight against the big boys.
Things always perk up when you add a leather-clad redhead, doubly so when she’s the protagonist’s ex. And here’s a life lesson: if you’re gonna kill a powerful superhero, make sure you get him and, you know, not leave him alive when you accidentally take out his girlfriend. . . or a random groupie he was about to make out with. And definitely do not let your bear sidekick eat her. Too bad he didn’t get much of a chance to live up to his name: Scarebear!
A perfect sample of the goings-on: “My name is Clive, asshole.” “Your name is Clive Asshole?”
“The judge is about to quit you.” “Don’t you mean acquit?”
Phone Homie! Almost wish I’d thought of that. . .
“You’ll never take me alive!” “Target has been taken alive, sir.”
“Any last requests?” “Yeah, don’t shoot me.” She shoulda shot him just for that.
Like most of his ilk, the drama-queen villain is happy to have an audience; he just wants to share. But of course Duke manages to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Attention to detail: in the hospital room, on the tiny TV, you can see the Kirk/Spock fight from Amok Time.
Did not like the last twist, which he didn’t deserve one bit. Almost anyone else would have been a better choice for that job.
At the end there’s a two page list of people who contributed to the project, as in donated money.
All in all just a silly timewaster, nothing deep here. That will probably be enough for most.

Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein: Storm Surge
The title pretty much sums it up: a famous author writes a graphic novel about raising the dead as another hurricane ravages New Orleans.
The main character seems to be a pretty clone called Erika 5th, who is either pissed about the regular beatings she receives or not being allowed to read, or both. The only person she can talk to, and I use the description “person” lightly, is Karloff the talking head. She gets pulled into an alternate universe, but she’s okay with that, because no one can tell her she can’t read; I love how she uses her already short dress to carry books.
In this alternate world the Dr. Frankenstein is making an army of zombies, except they don’t follow his orders. Didn’t think that one through, didja? Against him are a team of Mulder and Scully knockoffs, though she’s a lot more abrasive than your usual FBI redhead; it’s beautiful how she says she has no problems putting two in his brain if he turns.
“You’re under arrest. You have the right to remain dead.” But he doesn’t.
“You have a flashlight?” “Of course. . . in my car.” Thank goodness for the humor here, because it’s dark far more than just the artwork. The chapter names in particular are well done, like Moveable Feasts and Dead People’s Lives.
Hard to stop a horny monster once you ask him to bite your neck, huh, Erika?
For a relatively typical zombie story, the prose comes off high and mighty; even the hunters use words like “consternation” at each other. Who is this supposed to impress? And even though it says “The end?” too many questions were left unanswered.


Book Reviews: More Graphic Novels Edition

Marthe Trolycurtin
Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

Malice in Ovenland, Vol. 1
Schoolgirl in NYC has to stay home and do chores over vacation while all her friends go do fun stuff. As if that wasn’t bad enough, she has to put up with her mom’s organic food—even has to trek to water the garden—and then her mom goes away; is it legal to leave a kid that young alone? But she perseveres and does as told, getting everything done until the last item: clean the oven. A creature steals her earring and it’s all Alice in Wonderland, greasy style, from there.
There are some great lines in here, like “Now I know how a French fry feels.” There’s a poem called “The Day the Grease Stopped Flowing.” I knew organic food was bad for you! The Ovenland crest has crossed spatulas under a plate of bacon. . . I want one.
“Ahem!” Never seen a ghost beg for attention.
The protagonist talks out loud rather than thinking it—that’s a bit annoying, but thankfully corrected midway. The “Lily Ma’am” thing pops out every once in a while and it always makes me chuckle. She somehow manages to turn a giant roach into a puppy. There’s even a reference to Pizza Rat.
Don’t really buy the ending; maybe she likes the food now, but the chores?
6 pages of bonus art, including a cover that would have been better than the one they used. Never thought I would say this sentence, but there’s a cover of Lily “riding the roach,” and no, that’s not a euphemism.
All in all, fun enough for kids, though maybe too gross for the younger ones.

Black Jack Ketchum
After a historical lesson about the central figure, who was indeed a real-life person, things turn weird—yeah, the thing with the snow—and science-fictionly, part Brisco County and part Sledge Hammer.
I love how the guy at the poker table is completely blasé with shots being fired all around him. Even more I love his sidekick, even if she doesn’t talk; taciturn plays well here. There’s one panel that squicked me out much more than I could have ever imagined, when he was cleaning the gun.
When the stoic poker table guy finally gives his name, it explains a lot of things; particularly enjoyed the inclusion of that famous story. So we add Twilight Zone to the reference mix, and possibly Twin Peaks.
Each chapter, or issue, starts off with more of the historical stuff until we find out his fate in real life, so there’s a lot of shifting. Even then there’s still the fantasy to play out. Things go sideways—first literally, then storywise; the metaphysics of it all hurt my head. There’s a musical interlude, for no reason other to show bad lyrics. Then there’s the ultimate in dual realities, leading to a deus ex machina from the last shoutout, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?
If you search for photo of the real Black Jack, you’ll find this version is drawn true to life. There’s a gorgeous also-true-to-life panel of Monument Valley which alone is worth the expenditure.
At the end there’s 10 pages of bonus materials in the form of sketches, with the finished product sometimes intertwined.
This can be intriguing, as long as you don’t take it as seriously as it takes itself. But who was the girl? Why was she there?

Alice in Wonderland: Special Collector’s Manga
Only a month ago I read a complete Wonderland/Looking Glass graphic novel done as faithfully as can possibly be expected. This one didn’t figure to be at all the same, not with Tim Burton’s name on it. If you’ve seen the Burton movie, you know this already, but for others, no matter what the title, this is not the same story; it’s more of a direct sequel than Looking Glass.
I’m reading this in digital form, but there’s a warning right at the beginning that tells the reader you’re doing it wrong. Since it’s manga, it’s done in Japanese writing style; in other words, it starts at what most of us call the end. The funny thing is it jokes not to start here: “You don’t want to spoil the fun and start with the end, do you?” It’s Alice in Wonderland, what spoilers are left?
But I went to the back and found a lot of prologue, with an older teenage Alice being married off to a boring lord. It takes almost 20 pages for the real story to start, which it does with a bang; for once the fall, or rather the landing, hurts. Again, if you’ve seen the movie all this isn’t a surprise, but if you haven’t, it’s a completely new story, which will either fascinate or enrage you.
She’s awfully calm next to the giant cat, but then she keeps telling herself it’s just a dream; good luck with that.
The book ends before the story’s over, but by then I was okay with it. Didn’t really like the story, but that’s the fault of those who wrote the movie. . . not because it’s so different, it’s just not as interesting as the original. The artwork is black and white, sketchlike, and at times difficult to make out; similar with some of the lettering, especially in the Jabberwocky flashback.

Star Trek: Starfleet Academy
*This is from the reboot universe, as you can tell from the faces*
This starts with Spock breaking up with Uhura; I still don’t get them being together, but whatever. She tries to get through it by unscrambling a faint signal from out-there-somewheres, but then it moves to three years later, where there’s a new Vulcan female, who looks quite fetching in the short skirt and knee-high black boots that appears to be the uniform at the Academy. And she has green eyes.
The tacked-on plot that moves the action along is the Centennial Games, celebrating 100 years of the Academy. It’s mostly a scavenger hunt against teams from other worlds, like New Vulcan. (You remember in the movie old Vulcan was destroyed, right?) One of T’laan’s teammates is an Andorian, who is much more of a jerk than the Tellurite. Rounding out the team is an alien Captain Obvious—“I am scared for the simulated away team”—and a bubbly Latina redhead who had to be my favorite character. “Bye bye, ship.” Grace definitely grew on me. T’laan is also quite likeable—eventually—especially for a Vulcan.
At first I thought the Centennial Games went on for years! It is definitely NOT made clear that the storylines take place at different times. “Time quicksand” is a fascinating concept, at least to a non-physicist. Possibly the best line is, “Vel smells pie!” And it really is too bad the Vulcan didn’t join the guys on their “road trip to the southern metropolis of Los Angeles.”
As for the art, you’ll have to quickly get used to the bright colors. Uhura is drawn perfectly, but though I recognize Kirk he’s got kind of a token white guy look.
This is easily the best Star Trek graphic novel I’ve seen.


Book Reviews: 60s TV Show, Old West Romance, and Another Bush

Andrew Ross Wynn
Physical comedy is the most immediate way to get a laugh. The first time a Cro-Magnon fell down, I’m sure the other Cro-Magnons watching burst out laughing.

Cold Girl
To put it succinctly, Cold Girl left me cold.
For one thing, it has the longest chapters ever! A Mountie who is the foremost expert on a serial killer goes further north to investigate another murder, leaving his wife and child behind for a few weeks, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s also a cop up from North Vancouver—never did find out what interested him so much in the case—and another policeman damaged by something in his past, though no one knows that, resulting in him being treated like an idiot. Not all the local cops play nice either.
The victim was a musician, so all the bandmates are the likely suspects, especially the boyfriend. Things are of course never that easy. Halfway through, Dion—the damaged guy—becomes the main character, and manages to liven things up a bit, but despite some parts I liked, most of the didn’t engage. My main problem with it was how the murderer was uncovered; I couldn’t follow it at all. There’s also a point where the author calls a particular character “the killer,” even though it wasn’t. Some of the psychological insights were interesting, and the dialogue wasn’t bad, but I couldn’t help feeling this should have been over a lot faster.
2.5 rounded up to 3/5

Five Fingers
This is a book about the making of a TV show from the early 60s, starring two favorites from James Bond: David Hedison, the most famous Felix Leiter; and Luciana Paluzzi, Fiona Volpe from Thunderball (and my all-time fave Bond girl, but I digress).
I thought I knew a lot about this period of television, but I’d never heard of it, possibly because it was cancelled before it reached the half-season mark. . . which begs the question why there would be such a big book about it (never mind, it happened with Firefly). It was a spy thriller before such things were the rage, in fact failing because it was in the same time slot as the two biggest shows of the era, both Westerns.
At first, seeing the length of this book  felt rather daunting, but by page 129 there are episode synopses, followed by actor and crew bios, all of which total nearly half the book. At least there was some fun stuff in the first part; I love how the author writes Miss Paluzzi’s accent, as in “Luciana doesn’t agree that she sizzles. She only agrees that she can be ‘saxy’ when the ‘screept’ calls for it.”
But it’s the second half that leaves the biggest impression. After the episodes there’s a paragraph or two on everyone–except the caterers–who received any kind of credit. Following that is a chapter by someone else about the main character, then another article on the movie, and the real-life human, this series was supposedly based on
Having read books on the making of Twin Peaks, Back to the Future, Sherlock, Starship Troopers, Star Wars, etc. I can’t help but feel this one is quite a bit boring in comparison, though maybe that’s because I wasn’t familiar with it coming in. The best way to put this is that it feels more like a recitation of facts than an actual flowing story.

In a small town in the Old West a man returns after two years, having gone to make his fortune in California. Now he’s back for the woman he loves. . . only to find she’s become a whore.
From her side, she’s a woman who made a deal with the devil for her virginity, having given up on her old boyfriend coming back for her. When he does, drama ensues.
There isn’t much setting here: the town is hardly ever mentioned except for a quick trip to a few bars and his mother’s house. Most of the action takes place at her house outside town. Seems like the geographical vagueness was done on purpose, as it has nothing to do with the story, but as a geography major and fan of Westerns I would have liked a little more specificity. My other quibble is some repetitiveness about her situation that annoyed me, constant reminders of what we already know in order to gain more sympathy for her; put the hammer away already.
Toward the end there’s an interesting switch: whereas throughout the story he’s angry at her for not waiting for him and doing what she did, wanting to punish her, suddenly he’s the bad guy for going to a whore when he was in California, whereas she did it to stay alive. No doubt this is the point the author wanted to make, especially when he uses the excuse of “boys will be boys.” While I agree with the sentiment, it seems a bit out of place in this era of the past, but as an allegory it works.
Not that the writing itself was bad in any way, but once the misunderstandings and declarations of love were out of the way it read much better, smoother. The best moments are when they’re together and can almost admit their feelings for each other, which they finally do, as this is still a romance novel despite the premise.
3.5 rounded up to 4/5

Ostensively written by George Dubya Bush himself, this is an account of how he trained his little brother Jeb to be president despite all the personality quirks and family history working against him. It wasn’t till the bios at the end that I found out the actual writer was the guy who invented The Onion; everything fell into place at that moment.
This isn’t a laugh out loud comedy; this humor is insidious, subversive. . . subtle. When I read Dubya saying, “One of my favorite pastimes at as a boy was torturing frogs,” it explained so much. Another gem is “. . . failing at business—and failing big—is a long-standing Bush tradition.”
So if you like this sort of thing, with supposedly self-deprecating jabs—though often Dubya sees them as positives—this is perfect for you. If you think this kind of thing might offend you, just make sure no one sees you reading it, you’ll chuckle anyway.


Book Reviews: A Trio

As always, got to read them early in exchange for telling you what I think about them. Doesn’t seem like an equitable exchange rate, but I’m not about to complain.
Finding that these three books didn’t generate enough words for me to blog about them individually, I came up with the idea of combining them into one writing. Amazing! I wonder why no one ever thought of that before!
Okay, fine. On with it. . .

Rodeo Red, by Marypat Perkins
Had no idea this would be a children’s book when I electronically picked it up; you know how I am with redheads, so I couldn’t resist taking a look. Glad I did, though. It’s told as a Western, with appropriate dialect, and has great drawings. The basic story is of a little girl who gets a baby brother who wants her favorite toy, and how she figures out how to compromise and live happily ever after. . . or at least till the baby gets to the terrible twos. Actually, the end is written as “happier than two freckles on a sunny cheek,” which is simply awesome.
My fave line: “I thought for sure anybody who hollered that much would be hauled to the edge of town and told to skedaddle. But the Sheriff and her Deputy seemed smitten.”

Battlestar Galactica 2: The Adama Gambit
{Note: this is original series, not “reimagining”}
A collection of comic books which were a bit tough to read on the computer screen, but I persevered. The first story was my fave, with Athena in command on the bridge. There’s also a bit on Adama losing his confidence before growing a pair, and an intriguing take on Baltar and how he became such an ass. {Spoiler: it was Daddy’s fault.}

Far and Near, by Neil Peart
I’m pretty sure that even if I wasn’t a Rush fan I would enjoy reading his books, be they fiction or travel, or even journals, as this is. What’s most interesting to me is that, even though I’ve already read all of these stories off his website—albeit with months in between each one—perusing them now, as chapters of a greater piece, made for a completely different experience. I’m reminded of something he said in one of his interviews, pertaining to music but also valid here: “What I want the listened (reader) to take away is that care has been taken here.” When I post a blog about one of my many trips I prefer to let it live as a stream of consciousness, straight from my memory to the page or computer screen. Not so with him; it is obvious care has been taken here. I’m particularly enamored for his reason for journaling, as he writes in the outro (which was never posted on his website): “When reviewing the stories to prepare this book, many times I came across a passage of description, action, or conversation, and thought, ‘I would have never remembered that.’ Sobering to reflect that if a time and place do not exist in memory or in art, they might as well have never happened.” Exactly.