Last Update 6/20/18

Modern Science Fiction: A Critical Analysis by James Gunn, McFarland, 2018, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-7319-6

This is actually the author's master thesis from 1951, so the term "modern" is quite relative. Although he cites authors and titles throughout, many of them are going to be unknown to contemporary readers in the genre unless they have an historical bent, which does not seem to be the case as a rule. Mostly the book concerns itself with themes and variations on themes found in the genre, and this part is to a great extent independent of time and still relevant, although SF today has added some new variations and has certainly altered the emphasis. Telepathy and other powers of the mind are much less common than they used to be, for example, and time travel has become a comparative rarity. Nor is mutation a very common plot element. So this book provides an interesting snapshot of the past as well as a different perspective on the genre's treatment of problems of the present. 6/20/18

Once Upon a Time in a Dark and Scary Book by K. Shryock Hood, McFarland, 2018, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-7346-2

This really is not my area of expertise. The author explores the idea that horror fiction for younger readers deals largely with the unreliability of adults, which premise I don't disagree with, but most of the stories cited in support are ones that I have not read. Even so the author makes a reasonable if not particularly palatable argument. For specialized tastes. 6/14/18

A Brief History of Fighting Ships by David Davies, Carroll & Graf, 1996   

Despite the title, this is really just about military sailing vessels from around the time of Napoleon. There is a good account of Nelsonís career and lots of details about the physical qualities of ships, how things worked, how the crew was organized, etc. There is not much about how the technology evolved, in part because it didnít change much in such a short period. The prose is good and this would be a fine resource for someone who wanted to write a scene in this kind of setting and didnít want to get the details wrong. 6/8/18

Psience Fiction by Damien Broderick, McFarland, 2018, $45, ISBN 978-1-4766-7228-1

This is a look at the use of paranormal powers in science fiction, at one time a major plot element that has diminished in recent years. This trend is obvious from the selection of books covered - only three of them appeared after 2000 while about 30 were published during the 1950s-1970s. The short stories are roughly in the same proportion. Some of the novels are very well known  - Dying Inside by Robert Silverberg, And Chaos Died by Joanna Russ, and The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, for example, but there are also several obscure ones including A Man Called Destiny by Lan Wright, The ESP Worlds by J.T. McIntosh, and The Psionic Menace by John Brunner. Broderick discusses all of these and correctly attributes mych of the popularity to the efforts of John W. Campbell Jr. while he was editing Astounding/Analog. Each book and story has a plot summary and a description of how the paranormal ability is used within the context of the story. Very readable and reminded me of some old friends I need to reread. 5/26/18

A Brief History of Pakistan by James Wynbrandt, Facts on File, 2009 

Pakistan only came into existence in 1947, but the author provides a general history of the region in the first half of the book. Much of the rest I recall from the news although I had forgotten details of how East Pakistan had become Bangladesh, and I had never realized that it had a larger population than what was then West Pakistan. The vacillation between democratic and military rule is as disheartening as ever. Nor had I realized that there is still a separatist movement in Baluchistan and that government control over the northern tribes was more ceremonial than actual. A nice account. 5/24/18

A Brief History of the Circumnavigators by Derek Wilson, Robinson, 1989

As you might guess from the title, this is an account of early expeditions that went around the world. It starts with Magellan - who actually died along the way - and ends at the time of Cook. The narration is sprinkled with actual contemporary accounts and there are a few illustrations, although obviously photography had not yet been developed. Some very useful maps are included. There are some expeditions here that I had never heard of before, and a good explanation of why it took so long to find Australia. Engagingly written as well. 4/29/18

Fallen Angels and Spirits of the Dark by Robert Masello, Perigee, 1994

Iíve read and enjoyed all of this authorís novels so I picked up this nonfiction book out of curiosity. Itís a brief account of legends about fallen angels, Satan and his court through vampires and werewolves and zombies. There were a few things that were new to me but most of it was quite familiar. There are some nice illustrations. More interesting than I thought it would be.  4/28/18

Girls on Fire by Sarah Hentges, McFarland, 2018, $39.95, ISBN 978-0-7864-9928-1

The subtitle is "Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Dystopian Literature." I'm sure this was inspired by the success of the Hunger Games and the various imitators, although some of the titles discussed do not seem like dystopias to me. The theme of the book is obvious and while I was aware that female protagonists were much more common than in the past, I found several books mentioned here of which I had not even heard. The author's observations seem to me generally sensible and occasionally insightful. The prose style is also, thankfully, much more accessible than what I usually expect from academic sources. This was informative and even entertaining reading and one of the better books of its type I have encountered. 4/20/18

Smiley's Dream Book by Jeff Smith, Graphix, 2018, $17.99, ISBN 978-0-545-67477-5

Jeff Smith's artwork is almost always instantly recognizable. This is a very simple story in which Smiley is admiring birds when he discovers that he can fly. He joins them happily until they are menaced by a hawk. He drives off the hawk and the birds show their appreciation. Then he wakes up and realizes it was all a dream. This is for very young readers, of course, but the artwork is charming. 4/20/18

A Brief History of Japanese Civilization by Conrad Schirokauer, Harcourt, 1993 

Japan developed in comparative isolation and it was not even mentioned in any of my high school history classes Ė which never reached anything more recent than the build up to World War I. This provides a good overview of the major trends, and more than half of the text involves arts and commerce rather than politics and war, so it provides considerably more context than many histories. I found the evolution of the samurai system interesting but the section on painting was too brief and did not include many illustrations, and these all in black and white. 4/11/18

A Brief History of Central America by Hector Perez-Brignoli, University of California, 1989 

Panama and Belize are only peripherally mentioned, but this is a pretty good overview of the other five Central American countries. I was aware that Guatemala was the most populous and therefore dominant, and that Costa Rica had consistently been the most stable and progressive. I did not realize that the five nations had briefly Ė fifteen years Ė been a single country, nor did I know that El Salvador had negotiated to enter the United States during the 19th Century. There is considerable emphasis on the regionís agriculture, which is not surprising given how major a role it takes in politics and international relations as well as commerce. The history of US meddling in the region is unfortunately extensive. 3/29/18

Bridges to Science Fiction and Fantasy edited by Gregory Benford et al, McFarland, 2018, $49.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-6928-1

A selection of essays on the genre taken from a series of conferences, some as far back as the 1980s. The contributors include such luminaries in the field as Poul Anderson, Howard V. Hendrix, Gary Westfahl, Tom Shippey, and H. Bruce Franklin, along with many others whose names are not as familiar to me. Taken as a whole, they present an interesting view of the changes in the focus of genre criticism over the course of more than two decades. The price is a bit steep perhaps but the essays are almost without exception better than the general run of academic criticism. 3/23/18

A Brief History of the Boxer Rebellion by Diana Preston, Running, 1999  

The Boxer Rebellion in China took place in 1900 when a popular but brutally superstitious labor movement with xenophobic overtones launched an effort to drive all foreigners out of China. The UK, the US, Russia, Japan, France, Germany, and others found themselves on the side as they sent a relief expedition to lift the siege of the diplomatic compound, which took several weeks. Itís hard to like either side. The Europeans were arrogant, nearly as brutal, and they had not considered that introducing railroads, for example, would put thousands of local men out of work. On the other hand, the Boxers Ė backed on and off by the empress Ė massacred children, tortured their prisoners, were consumed by outrageous superstitions, and did not themselves comprehend the situation. This is a lively, at times suspenseful account that makes it clear that even the ďheroesĒ were of dubious morality. 3/6/18

Harry Potter and Convergence Culture edited by Amanda Firestone and Leisa A. Clark, McFarland, 2018, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-7207-6

The Harry Potter phase has ebbed a bit but is still pretty strong in some quarters. This is a selection of essays relating the books and movies to other cultural trends, like videogames, clothing styles, fan clubs, treatment of minorities, inclusiveness and snobbery, homophobia, Wicca, even the last Presidential campaign. Some of the essays are relevant and interesting. Some of them are stretching a point to draw comparisons between the books and some other aspect of society, but these say more about the authors of those essays than about their subject matter. This is a very mixed bag of insight and near nonsense. 3/2/16

Chivalry in Westeros by Carol Parrish Jamison, McFarland, 2018, $35, ISBN 978-1-4766-7005-8

I've been expecting a small flood of books following the success of the Game of Thrones television series, based on the novel by George R.R. Martin. This scholarly treatise about the role of chivalry in the stories is, however, based on the books, which was a pleasant surprise. She compares Martin's version to the historical record and interprets the actions of a large numbers of characters, some of whom readers might not associate the subject. But chivalry was not confined to knights, and its components affected everyone in the society. A little heavy reading at times but generally accessible and the author makes some interesting and informative observations. 2/24/18

A Brief History of the Great Moghuls by Bamber Gascoigne, Running, 1971 v979 

This is a history of six Moghul rulers of India, or at least parts thereof, staring with Babur. His grandson, Akbar, was the chief reason why the Muslims and Hindus managed to live together for so long. His curiosity about religions was so strong he even invited Christian missionaries to the palace for discussions. The author spends at least as much time on artistic and intellectual developments as on the battles and politics, which was a pleasant change. It was under British rule that the old animosities reappeared culminating in the bloody partition of Pakistan and India. A surprisingly large amount of written material survives including diaries. I would say it was surprising so little of this is taught in high school history classes, but itís obvious that we have been Euro-Centric from the outset. 2/18/18

Jess Franco: The World's Most Dangerous Filmmaker by Kristofer Todd Upjohn, Stark House, 2018, $15.95, ISBN 978-1944520601

I have seen several films by Spanish director Jess Franco, most of them in the horror genre. By contemporary standards, they are generally not very good, and his most famous work was done during the 1970s with low budgets. He usuallly usederotic elements to enhance the films, which raised the ire of the Spanish church. This is a collection of essays about his work, each focusing on one particular film. His classics like The Awful Dr. Orloff and Zombie Lake are examined, along with a lot of movies I'd never even heard off . The essays are mostly the author's personal reactions to the movies and they read more like online reviews than a critical study. The prose could use some work - "this film approaches us at a slightly different angle" and "where would history's most famous vampire be without some luscious vampirettes mucking about being all sexy." The plot summaries are of some interest but the fannish enthusiasm becomes wearing quite early. And why are the films examined in random order rather than chronologically, which might have shown Franco's development? The third entry is from 1981 and third from the end is 1962. 2/6/18

A Brief History of Finland by Matti Klinge, Otava, 1981

About the only history I could remember about Finland was that it was once part of Sweden and that it fought an inconclusive war with Russia during the 20th Century and was for that reason allied for a while with Nazi Germany. This slender little history covers the period up to independence in 1809 somewhat superficially but spends more time on the development of the country after it split off from Sweden. I hadn't realized that independence was the result of Russia having seized Finland in a war and established it as a quasi-independent Grand Duchy. This short history provides a general outline that is essentially all I was interesting in learning at the moment. 1/18/18

 

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