Book Review – Night Witches

  • Title: Night Witches A Novel of World War II
  • Author: Kathryn Lasky
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/12/2019

**Spoiler Alert** I ordered Night Witches from Amazon after reading about the all-female Russian combat pilot group that fought in World War II. I didn’t realize before ordering it that it was a Young Adult novel, but that is on me, and it made for a quick read. Valya and her sister, Tatyana, learned how to fly at a young age – their father was an air force flight trainer before he disappeared – a victim of Russia’s internal politics. When Stalingrad is blockaded by the German Nazis, Tatyana joins the Night Witches immediately. Valya wants to join too, but at 16, her mother thinks she is too young. During the siege of Stalingrad, first, her grandmother and then her mother are killed. After her mother’s death, Valya leaves the apartment that has been largely leveled, to join the Night Witches. She receives some help from a Russian sniper that took shelter in her flat the night of her mother’s death.

Valya tries to get out of the city to join the Night Witches at their hidden base camp. It’s not an easy journey and for several months she is forced to join a big gun trench. There she loads the guns with huge shells and helps turn the wheels to lower or raise the gun. Valya proves to be very good at shooting tanks and blowing them up. She eventually tries to get to the river to join a ferry that is trying to escape. She is unable to get on the crowded ferry and thus survives when the ferry sinks.

However, eventually, thanks to her excellent work in the trenches, she is given a pass to join the Night Witches. At the staging area, the higher-ups argue about how to physically get her to the base camp. Valya borrows a plane and flies herself there.

At the camp, Valya is first assigned to the maintenance and turn-around crew. She’s disappointed but makes the best of it. Finding the unorganized running to and fro of the crew to be inefficient, Valya comes up with a better way. Her immediate supervisor dismisses the idea – but another woman recognizes a good idea when she hears it and implements it immediately anyway. The new assembly-line type plan, where women work specific jobs instead of running all over greatly improves efficiency. Valya is promoted to navigator.

Valya flies several missions as a navigator, telling her pilot where to fly and dropping bombs on the Germans. In one mission, her friend and pilot is shot – Valya takes over the plane and lands it, despite the damage – but her friend is dead. Valya is promoted to pilot and becomes close friends with her navigator, Galya. On one mission, Valya turns and sees her close friend, Galya, missing from the plane. Fortunately, though, she is found and rescued by other pilots. Valya and her sister, Tatyana also are rivals, until Tatyana disappears on a mission.

The novel briefly summarizes the real history surrounding the siege of Stalingrad, and after the city is freed, the Night Witches become a more general combat unit, but also drop vital supplies to Russian troops. Valya and Galya are on another mission when they are shot down.

When Valya wakes up, she finds herself in a Ukrainian house, being cared for by a strange woman. This woman tells her that her navigator didn’t make it. Valya gradually starts to figure out the issue with the woman – she’s part of the anti-Russian Ukrainian Resistance. Valya also knows that Stalin has decided that all POWs are traitors and ordered them to be killed as enemies of Russia. Valya is stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea – even if she’s “rescued” she’ll be killed. Eventually, though, she is rescued by Galya and a small taskforce. Her commander arranges a suitable story to keep Valya alive. When the sniper from earlier in the story tells that same commander he’s seen Valya’s sister in a German POW camp the soldiers are about to liberate, the commander comes up with a plan. Valya, Galya, and a small group are able to rescue Tatyana when she is being moved between locations. Again, the helpful commander prevents Tatyana from being killed as a traitor for getting captured.

The war ends and Tatyana and Valya are given medals by Stalin for their accomplishments as Night Witches.

I liked this book a lot. It’s a Young Adult book, so the horrors of war are downplayed, but the author doesn’t downplay the realities of war so much as to make it sound exciting or in any way a “good thing”. It’s horrible – but Valya is doing her part because it’s necessary. Valya is also interested in the sniper she meets the night her mother is killed, but this isn’t a young adult romance. Valya is frankly too busy to think about boys. The night flying scenes are actually a little vague, but the history of World War II, especially all the details of the Siege of Stalingrad are extremely well integrated into the story. The real history impacts the fictional characters. I also liked Valya, even though, upon reflection, she’s a bit of a Mary Sue. Still, while reading the book the impression is more that Valya is lucky and determined, rather than boringly perfect. I highly recommend this book, especially for pre-teen and teenaged girls.

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Book Review – The Man Who Died Laughing

  • Title: The Man Who Died Laughing
  • Author: Tarquin Hall
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/10/2019

**Spoiler Alert** Set in post-colonial India, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing features a private detective named Vish Puri and his friends and employees. One of the things I didn’t like about the book though is Vish’s employees don’t have real names – they have titles based on what they do. For example, his driver is called, “Handbrake”, his tea boy, “Door Stop”, his undercover operative is “Facecream” and his assistant operative is “Tubelight”. I really dislike this kind of laziness on the part of the writer – at least give your characters names. And if the author thought the reader wouldn’t be able to handle the “exotic Indian names” that’s extremely patronizing.

The story begins with Dr. Suresh Jha taking his early morning walk in a private, upper-class New Delhi neighborhood. He reaches the Laughing Club, a semi-spiritual group that practices morning laughter as a way of relaxing and even seeing the lighter side of life. The group is outside. Dr. Jha joins the group. But after a round or two of laughter, there is a flash of smoke, the members seem frozen in their tracks and the Hindu goddess Kali appears. After this remarkable occurrence, Dr. Jhu is found dead on the ground, stabbed.

Vish Puri had been a friend of Dr. Jhu, a famous debunker of spiritualism, and India “magic” and miracles. Although Vish didn’t agree with everything the “logical” Dr. Jhu claimed (Vish was Hindu) they were still friends, so Vish immediately becomes involved in the investigation. Dr. Jhu had been investigating Maharaj Swami a famous spiritualist who ran an ashram on the Ganges in the city of Haridwar. Dr. Jhu was trying to debunk Swami’s levitation act and communication with spirits and other spiritual “miracles”. He was also trying to get someone from the police to investigate the death of a teenaged girl at Swami’s ashram.

Vish Puri and his friends investigate – interviewing the police, friends of Dr. Jhu, and even India magicians to learn more about how tricks are done. Facecream is sent undercover to the ashram, where she is drugged, sees a “vision”, and is brought for a private audience with Swami. She talks with the dead girl’s roommates at the ashram and learns more about the suspicious death. Eventually, she searches the underground tunnels and office of Swami and finds evidence of how the ghostly vision is created on stage (they really do it with mirrors) and evidence of impropriety between Swami and the young women at the ashram. She’s unfortunately caught but then rescued by Tubelight and company.

Meanwhile, Vish eventually figures out that Dr. Jhu had faked his death and was planning on revealing how it was done on national Indian television. He was hoping such a grand gesture would make strides for logic over spiritualism in India. But as Vish goes to the place where Dr. Jhu is hiding out, he hears sounds of a fight and gunshots. By the time he, his crew, and the police get inside both Dr. Jhu and his partner have been murdered – for real this time.

However, the case against Swami – including how he drugged visitors to his ashram, and the sexual improprieties against young women come to light and he is arrested. He is also involved in “creative accounting”.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing was a different book – but I found the broken English of the main characters a poor choice. I also didn’t like the job descriptions for names. There’s a great impression of what life in the largest city in India is like. However, the book also has a condescending, patronizing, imperial side to it – as if the British author suggested India wasn’t capable of self-rule after the British left. For the most part, politics are left alone – yet bribes, corruption, and graft are common. One of Vish’s clients even has to pay a bribe to get his children into a good school. Yet, despite their lack of names, the characters are interesting. I liked the short internal case of Vish’s wife and mother-in-law solving, by themselves, the robbery of their “kitty party” (a sort of women’s group with guest speakers and monthly lotto). This book would have been improved greatly if it had been written more from a genuine Indian point of view rather than a condescending British one. Thus I can only give it the so-so rating of 3 out of 5 stars, and not wholeheartedly recommend it. I will say that if you keep in mind the author’s obvious prejudices it’s not completely horrible.

Death in Paradise Season 2 Review

  • Series Title: Death in Paradise
  • Season: 2
  • Episodes: 8
  • Discs: 2
  • Network: BBC
  • Cast: Ben Miller, Danny John-Jules, Gary Carr, Sara Martins, Don Warrington
  • DVD: Widescreen DVD (R1, NTSC)

The second season of Death in Paradise is better than the first. The crimes are darker and more complex, and there’s more character development. New father, Fidel, is studying for his sergeant’s exam, which he passes in the final episode of the season. DI Richard Poole and Camille start to have feelings for each other but they ignore them. “Saint Maire” is beautiful as always. The cases involve both residents of the island and tourists.

However, this is still a lightweight series, and almost in the “cozy” style than a procedural. Poole, Camille, and Fidel and Dwayne solve cases by finding the one detail that doesn’t fit. It makes for a diverting hour of television – but it’s not earth-shattering, and the series could do better. In the last episode, Poole is sent back to the UK escorting a prisoner. Camille, Fidel, and Dwayne worry he won’t return to Saint Maire, but of course, he does. And again, the cases are interesting, but at times they are flat.

I do like the cast and characters though, and it’s nice to have a British series with people of color in starring roles who aren’t stereotypes. And the Island itself (actually Guadalupe in the French Carribean) is beautiful. I just wanted a bit more to this series. Still, recommended when you’re in the mood for something light and diverting.

Read my Review of Death in Paradise Season 1.

Book Review – Bombshells vol. 6: War Stories

  • Title: Bombshells vol. 6: War Stories
  • Author: Marguerite Bennett
  • Artists: Mirka Andolfo, Aneke, Laura Braga, Carmen Carnero, Sandy Jarrell, Richard Ortiz, Wendy Broome (Colors), Kelly Fitzpatrick (Colors) J. Nanjan (Colors), Sandra Molina (colors), Wes Abbott (letters)
  • Characters: (Poison) Ivy, Harley Quinn, Supergirl, Power Girl, Raven, Zatanna, John Constantine, Lois Lane, Reaper (Andrea Gruenwald), Lt. Francine Charles, Batgirl (Vampire Barbara Gourdan), Enchantress, Ravager, Hugo Strange, Faora Hu-Ul, Ed Nygma, Swamp Thing, Trigon
  • Publication Date: 2017
  • Publisher: DC Comics
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 08/02/2019

**Spoiler Alert** The final volume in the Bombshells series, volume 6 War Stories brings the series to a satisfactory conclusion, although there will be a sequel series called, Bombshells United. This volume largely takes place during the Seige of Leningrad, though there are different areas of the battle. There are also a few flashbacks that largely work.

However, the first story in Volume 6 is largely unconnected. The Suicide Squad (Barbara Gourdan), Ravager, Enchantress, Killer Croc, and Lt. Frankie Charles) sneak aboard a German U-boat commanded by Edward Nygma. They’ve come to rescue Luc Fuchs, an engineer and close friend of Barbara’s. They discover the sub is a ship of tribute to the King Beneath the Black. The Suicide Squad rescues the engineer, foils Nygma’s plot, and escapes.

A flashback introduces Faora Hu-Ul, a Kryptonian, who is the real power behind Joker’s Daughter, the Baroness, Killer Frost, and Hugo Strange. She was hidden in an Egyptian tomb explored by Lt. Charles. Charles hears the warning about Faora, and it is instrumental in her joining the Suicide Squad under Amanda Waller.

But the introduction of Faora Hu-Ul, and the adventure with Nygma are mere prologue – the rest of the book is the final conflict between good and evil during the Seige of Leningrad. This includes magical conflicts. Zatanna and John Constantine are looking for Raven. Raven is looking for her father, Trigon. Supergirl hopes to see her adoptive parents again. The theme of parents, children, and family is strong.

When Raven finds Trigon and confronts him, she is angry that he never took responsibility for the harm he did. Raven is also upset he joined the Nazis. But when Trigon is killed – Raven loses control of her magic. With help from Zatanna and John, she learns to control it. Constantine meets Abigel Kholland who is leading Russia’s magical creatures that escaped the Nazis, including Swamp Thing.

Reaper finds Hugo Strange and kills him because he murdered her family but she is then killed in turn by Killer Frost. Killer Frost is then captured by Lois Lane.

Faora tells Kara (Supergirl) about Krypton and tries to recruit her in her plan to create a Kryptonian Empire on Earth. Supergirl refuses because she’s shocked that Faora destroyed Krypton. Kara feels it is better to work within the system to improve and fix it, rather than to destroy everything. As Raven rejected Trigon, Kara rejects Foara. She even uses Kryptonite to capture Faora, who had become Doomsday, inside Swamp Thing. Kara is also reunited with her foster parents and her sister, Stargirl’s biological father. The reunion doesn’t last, because they sacrifice themselves in the spell to bind Faora.

I really enjoyed the Bombshells series. Volume 6 War Stories rushes to a conclusion but it is still a good read. I felt including a Kryptonian who turns into Doomsday using magic and Raven’s blood was unnecessary. But, on the other hand, Joker’s Daughter and the Baroness had already been defeated. Killer Frost is defeated in this volume, but not before doing a lot of damage. There are also some great panels in this volume (I loved seeing John transform himself into a hare again.) And the art is stunning. And I loved seeing both Supergirl and Raven confront their evil parental figures, rather than just agreeing with them out of hand. However, this volume could have used more character development (there’s some – but it’s mostly a series of battles, including magical ones.) I recommend the series and this volume in particular.

Death in Paradise Season 1 Review

  • Series Title: Death in Paradise
  • Season: 1
  • Episodes: 8
  • Discs: 2
  • Network: BBC
  • Cast: Ben Miller, Danny John-Jules, Gary Carr, Sara Martins, Don Warrington
  • DVD: Widescreen DVD (R1, NTSC)

Spoilers for the first season of Death in Paradise

When the British DI in charge of the Honoré Police Station is murdered, uptight British DI Richard Poole is sent from London to Saint Maire a formerly French Carribean island to investigate. Poole doesn’t like the sun, sand, surf, or food. But he’s also a brilliant detective who is excellent at finding the one clue that will help solve the case. In the first episode, a locked room mystery where a man is murdered inside a locked panic room, Poole proves the man was alive when the door was opened and he was killed by a corrupt police officer. This leads to Poole being invited to stay. Also, one of his suspects turns out to be an undercover policewoman, who is then permanently assigned to Honoré Police Station. Two long-time Honoré police officers round out the cast: Officer Dwayne Myers and Officer Fidel Best. The police commissioner from Guadalupe also makes regular appearances.

Every episode of Death in Paradise includes a seemingly impossible murder, yet Poole and in the later episodes the rest of the Honoré police department are able to solve them. Poole, an obsessive man, often notices tiny details about a crime scene, the victim, or a situation in the crime that doesn’t make sense. At first, his fellow police officers are inclined to disregard this “one little piece” that doesn’t fit. But as Poole solves case after case based on the small detail, the other officers start to realize it can be important. Watching Fidel, Dwayne, and Camille grow is fun, though I felt there could have been more character development. Poole also slowly starts to adapt to the Island lifestyle, though by the last episode in the season he is still wearing his expensive and totally inappropriate London suits and complaining about the heat.

The scenery in Death in Paradise is beautiful. Saint Marie is a fictional island, but the show is filmed in Guadalupe in the French Carribean. The sunsets, beaches, water, etc, are beautiful. I liked Death in Paradise but I didn’t love it. The cases didn’t feel complex enough, and Poole’s methods of solving cases had more in common with Columbo than a typical British procedural. On the other hand, Poole is played by Ben Miller of Primeval and Officer Dwayne Myers is played by Danny John-Jules (Cat) of Red Dwarf and it’s great fun to see them both again. Also, it’s impressive to see a British show where the regular cast is mostly people of color. Poole also stands out like a sore thumb and is very much a fish out of water. In my opinion, more could have been done with that, but I’ll take what I can get. Overall, Death in Paradise is a lightweight mystery, enjoyable, but not Earth-shattering.

Justice League Season 2 Review

  • Series Title: Justice League
  • Season: 2
  • Episodes: 26 (13 stories)
  • Discs: 2
  • Network: Cartoon Network
  • Cast: Kevin Conroy, George Newbern, Susan Eisenberg, Carl Lumbly, Phil LaMarr, Michael Rosenbaum, Maria Canals-Barrera (Credited as Maria Canals)
  • DVD: Widescreen, Blu-Ray (R1, NTSC)

The second season of the animated Justice League series is bigger and the stakes are higher. Again, most stories are two parts, except the Holiday episode, “Comfort and Joy” and the three-part season finale “Starcrossed”. The season opens with Orion attacking and defeating one of Darkseid’s attacks, but as Darkseid recovers, he’s attacked by Brainiac – Darkseid convinces the Justice League to help him. They work with Highfather to stop Brainiac’s attack, but it puts New Genesis in danger.

In “Only a Dream”, Doctor Destiny traps most of the Justice League in nightmares, but insomniac Batman is able to defeat Doctor Destiny.

In “Maid of Honor” Wonder Woman befriends the party girl princess of Kasnia. Despite at first complaining about the princess’s lack of responsibility, the two bond and have fun. The princess confesses she doesn’t even want to marry her fiancé but she must as part of her duty. When her father has a sudden “stroke” the marriage is moved up. Diana is shocked that the Kasnian princess’s new husband is Vandal Savage. The Justice League ends up interfering when Savage threatens the world with an orbiting rail gun satellite.

This season features an episode with the Justice Lords – an alternate Earth Justice League that became world dictators after the death of their Flash. The fight scenes in the second part are particularly good because our Justice League doesn’t face off against their own opposite numbers but fights other members. This allows them to succeed.

“The Terror Beyond” has Aquaman, Doctor Fate, and Solomon Grundy fighting off Cthulhu-like monsters. Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl and Superman stop Dr. Fate’s spell to close the gate that’s been opened to the horrific monsters. Eventually, Fate, Aquaman, and Grundy are able to convince Wonder Woman, Hawkgirl, and Superman that they must stop the creatures. While Fate and his group try to close the gate again, Superman and company go through it to stop the invasion from the other side. This two-parter is visually stunning, and the “mad” monsters from the Cthulhu-like beings are drawn well.

“Secret Society” features another group of B-rate super-villains banding together to drive apart the Justice League. However, by spying on the league their plan almost works and the league splits and each go their own way. It takes Batman, who discovers the surveillance to get the League back together so they can defeat the”Secret Society of Evil”.

In “Hereafter” it appears Superman is killed in a battle with Toyman. While the world deals with its grief, and tries to process a world without a Superman – Superman is actually thrust forward into the far future. He meets Vandal Savage who has finally figured out that ruling an empty, destroyed planet is no fun at all. Superman and Savage finish a time machine Savage was working on and send Superman back to his own time.

In “Wild Cards” the Joker (voiced by Mark Hamill) and the Wild Card gang take over Las Vegas. The Joker airs the chaos on TV, like some type of reality show. Joker has also placed a large number of bombs, some real, some fake all over Vegas – the League has to find and dismantle the bombs.

Finally in “Starcrossed”, an alien spaceship attacks Washington DC, but the ship is destroyed by Thangarian ships. Thangar gets world leaders to accept their “protection”. However, they later impose martial law. Later it turns out the Thangarians aren’t building a shield for the Earth to protect it from a Gordanian invasion – rather they are building a hyperspace bypass engine so the Thangarians can invade to Gordanian homeworld. Unfortunately, activating the hyperspace bypass will destroy the Earth. It also turns out Hawkgirl was an advance scout and spy for the Thangarians. She is also promised or engaged to one of the other Thangarians – which surprises Green Lantern. The League is upset that Hawkgirl betrayed them. But when Hawkgirl finds out Thanagar intends to destroy the Earth she jumps sides, frees the League from their prison on one of the Thangarian ships, and helps the League defeat the Thanagarians and destroy the hyperspace bypass engine. The League decides to take a vote as to if Hawkgirl will still be accepted in the League, but Hawkgirl leaves first.

Justice League Season 2 is bigger than the first season, and the Justice League faces bigger threats. This is still top-notch animation. There are again several notable guest performances. I highly recommend this season.

Read my review of Justice League Season 1.

Book Review – Teen Titans Raven

  • Title: Teen Titans Raven
  • Author: Kami Garcia
  • Artists: Gabriel Picolo (Artist), Jon Sommariva (Artist), Emma Kubert (Artist) David Calderon (Colorist), Tom Napolitano (Letterer)
  • Line: DC Ink
  • Characters: Rachel “Raven” Roth, Natalia Navarro, Max(ine) Navarro
  • Publication Date: 2019
  • Publisher: DC Comics
  • Date Reviewed on GoodReads: 07/26/2019

**Spoiler Alert** DC Comics Ink Series presents graphic novels that are meant for teen readers, especially young women. Teen Titans Raven is an origin story about Raven of the Teen Titans, but it takes entirely before she joins the Titans, or even before she is a superhero. The story opens with Raven and her foster mother having an intense discussion in a car, the foster mother is talking about finally signing the adoption papers – when they are in a car accident. Her mother is killed, and Raven physically recovers quickly but she has lost her memory. She has practical knowledge: how to do a math equation or to use an ATM, but she doesn’t know anything personal – her favorite song, her fashion preferences, what type of candy bar is her favorite. Raven is, in many ways, a blank slate.

She is sent by Social Services to New Orleans to her foster mother’s sister, Natalia, and becomes friends with Natalia’s daughter, Max.

Much of the book is about Raven’s experiences in high school with Max and her friends. Raven realizes she can hear other people’s thoughts, and she tells Max she is overwhelmed by the constant noise of the school. Max gives her noise-canceling headphones to help. Raven is haunted by an evil voice in her head. Sometimes when she thinks something bad about someone (such as hoping the school bully trips) it happens. Raven also keeps seeing a bird shadow in her dreams.

In order to help, Max also takes Raven to a local Tarot card reader and teaches her how to build a psychic shield to help protect herself and block out other people’s thoughts. The Tarot reader says Raven is an empath.

School continues – and everything comes to a head at the prom. Raven’s date is working for Slade Wilson, who wants to recruit Raven. Trigon the demon, who has haunted Raven throughout the story, attacks her. Natalie receives a warning from her dead sister and tries to protect Raven and fight off Trigon, including calling souls to form a binding circle around Trigon. Max is also Soulstorm who can speak to souls and harness their power. Max, Natalie, and the female souls of New Orleans help – but it’s Raven who rejects Trigon and traps him in her crystal necklace. The next morning, Raven gets a note from Slade. She decides to try to find him. Max offers to go with her, but Raven says she will do this on her own.

I enjoyed Teen Titans Raven the art is gorgeous and Raven is an engaging hero. I also liked Max, Natalie, and the friends Raven makes at Max’s school. The end of the graphic novel felt a bit incomplete. Slade Wilson usually isn’t a nice guy, so just what is he offering Raven? We never know. I’d like a sequel to this story. The book includes a preview chapter of Teen Titans Beast Boy which I am going to have to look for. I highly recommend Teen Titans Raven.