Last Update 12/14/15

The Complete History of China by J.A.G. Roberts, Sutton, 2004   

Chinese history is every bit as complex as European history, and I had only the vaguest idea of how the national evolved until I read this lengthy (it took me three weeks) – originally published in two volumes – but necessarily superficial history. It ends with the death of Deng Xiaoping. Interpreting recent history poses a bit of a problem since the Marxist and Western interpretations frequently differ substantially, but the author attempts to present both viewpoints without choosing between them except where the evidence seems clearly to indicate one side or the other. I was struck by how many times the US had the opportunity to improve relations with China, or vice versa, but neither side was willing to budge, usually because of domestic resistance.  There are lots of maps, which are always helpful, and a section of photographs, which were somewhat interesting. 12/14/15

From Here to Hogwarts edited by Christopher E. Bell, McFarland, 2015, $40, ISBN 978-0=7864-9931-1

A collection of essays about the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling and about the fandom that has sprung up around them. There is a good deal of time spent making the obvious point that most of the social structure at Hogwarts is a reflection of that of contemporary society. Despite what the blurb says, however, I doubt that the series ranks among "the most influential texts in modern history." Since the writers are generally academics, it's not surprising that so many of the essays focus on that, but sometimes merely as an excuse to discuss the author's own agenda. The introduction, which mentions that a conference on the subject spent three whole days trying to decide whether or not the films should be considered canonical, pretty much sums up my major problem with the book - too much time spent on trivial subjects. A few of the essays were interesting. 12/4/15

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, Picador, 2015, $16, ISBN 978-1-250-06218-5   

Although the cover blurbs would have you believe this is a unified narrative, it is actually a collection of essays with a common theme, the mass extinction of species. The author covers a few incidents from the past but concentrates mostly are currently endangered species and ecosystems. Some of this was familiar to me – I knew that coral reefs and frogs were at risk but didn’t know the mechanism – and some was not. I did not realize, for example, that bats are experiencing a mass die-off. Most are accounts of her visits to places where these changes are evident and she leaves little doubt that the main cause – intentional or inadvertent – is the spread of humanity around the globe and the ensuing cross contamination of species in a very short time frame. The essays are well written and entertaining as well as informative. 11/4/15

Monsters and Monstrosity from the Fin de Siecle to the Millennium edited by Sharla Hutchison & Rebecca A. Brown, McFarland, 2015, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-9506-1 

Although this is another collection of academic style essays, it is unusually interesting in that it discusses a considerable number of stories and films that may not be familiar even to most horror readers and viewers. The authors covered include William Hope Hodgson, Richard Laymon, Marie Correlli, Angela Carter, Shirley Jackson, and H.P. Lovecraft, among others. The articles are more accessible than most I have seen in this format, and while I didn’t always agree completely, I found the arguments generally logical and defensible. The role of the monster in modern film and literature cannot, of course, be more than lightly touched upon in a single book but this one at least offers a few insights without becoming so convoluted that they are incomprehensible. 11/2/15

The Wheel of Time Companion by Robert Jordan, Harriet McDougal, Alan Romanczuk, and Maria Simons, Tor, 2015, $39.99, ISBN 978-0-7653-1461-1   

This is a massive compendium of information about characters, places, etc in the popular series created by Robert Jordan and completed following his death by Brandon Sanderson.  The entries vary from a single sentence to more than a full page depending on the importance and complexity of the subject.  This runs to a total of just over eight hundred pages, which also include a few black and white illustrations. There is a map on the inside of the cover, but personally I would have liked a few more detailed maps to supplement it since it represents such a large geographical area. Reading the right entries can explain bits of historical data that might otherwise be obscured, particularly if you're reading the series over an extended period of time. This was clearly a labor of love and fans of the series should be adding this copy to their libraries, although  it is of limited utility otherwise. 11/1/15

Pendulum of War by Niall Barr, Overlook, 2005 

My recent reading of Rick Atkinson’s trilogy about World War II skipped the Battle of El Alamein, the turning point in the battle in North Africa and the last major battle the British fought without the US. Rommel had pushed beyond the ability of Germany to consistently resupply him, which was a key reason why Montgomery was able to prevent him from capturing Alexandria and eventually push him back into Libya. He and his predecessor were able to buy time at El Alamein to build up a superior force – particularly artillery and air power – and to alter their tactics to better accommodate desert fighting. This is a comprehensive study that is perhaps a bit too interested in the minutiae of tactics.  10/25/15

The Guns at Last Light by Rick Atkinson, Holt, 2013 

Third volume in this series about the World War against Germany. This volume opens with the D-Day invasion and ends with the surrender of Germany.  The political maneuvering among the allied generals was disheartening, although I knew that Montgomery and Patton were both egomaniacs. Turns out Omar Bradley and Mark Clark were pretty much the same. I had not realized that airborne operations were almost complete disasters if every instance, including the German attempt during the Battle of the Bulge. Hitler’s insanity became more obvious toward the end of the war. This is a very detailed out come – lots of battle maps – and it covers a lot of familiar battles and incidents including the bridge at Remagen, the execution of Private Slovik, and the discovery of the concentration camps. There were a lot of incidents in which American soldiers mass executed prisoners, though not on the scale practiced by the Germans. Ultimately no one responsible would be punished although some were charged. Excellent book. 10/18/15

Science Fiction Double Feature edited by J.P. Telotte and Gerald Duchovnav, Liverpool Press, 2015, $120, ISBN 978-1-78138-183-0

I confess that my jaw dropped when I saw the price of this 250 page book. This is a collection of essays about "cult" SF movies, a term I find annoyingly imprecise, and as you might imagine it talks about really bad movies like Robot Monster and Zardoz, less well known ones like Space Truckers, and surprisingly overlooked ones like A Boy and His Dog. But it also covers titles that don't see to fit the formula, including the Firefly television show and recent movies like Bubba Ho-Tep. Some of the articles - all of which are written by academics - seem to have been shoehorned in and really don't support the supposed overall theme. One of the articles characterizes the humans in Childhood's End by Clarke as being represented as little more than cattle, when in fact the aliens in that novel venerate humans. He also asserts that Clarke's novels frequently involve "imperialistic alien races" but in fact there are none in any of his novels. One article is about Sean Connery's career rather than cult SF movies. The introduction confuses cultists with fans. The best essay is the one discussing A Boy and His Dog. The others range from interesting to almost inaccessibly formal. 10/15/15

The Day of Battle by Rick Atkinson, Holt, 2007 

This is a detailed and very entertaining account of the war in Italy beginning with the invasion of Sicily and ending with the capture of Rome. The Germans clearly had the better generals and arguably slightly better trained soldiers, but the weight of manpower and equipment eventually proved too great to resist. I had not known that the Anzio beachhead – poorly conceived and nearly disastrous – was the brainchild of Winston Churchill and that all of the generals involved thought it was a terrible idea but were afraid to say anything. Includes detailed maps and extensive notes and sources. This is the second in a series about World War II, the last of which I have just started. It is very comprehensive and compellingly readable. 10/6/15

The Vampire in Folklore, History, Literature, Film and Television compiled by J.Gordon Melton and Alysa Hornick, McFarland, 2015, $45, ISBN 978-0-7864-9936-6

The title encompasses such a lot of material that this could easily have been several volumes long without completely covering the subject. Instead this is a group of essays that take a necessarily somewhat superficial look at various aspects of the vampire in each of those areas, more of a survey than a detailed study. The literature section, for example, covers only the classic stories plus a brief look at Anne Rice and Stephen King. There are entries for Elizabeth Bathory and Vlad Tepes. The movie section is also rather spotty, though it hits most of the high spots. The television section discusses Buffy, True Blood, and Dark Shadows, but not Vampire Diaries or Night Stalker. The section about metaphorical use of the vampire was probably the most interesting. An interesting compendium that makes a good starting point for a more detailed investigation. 10/4/15

Modern Mythmakers by Michael McCarty, Crystal Lake, 2015, $15.99, ISBN 978-0-9946626-0-6

This is a collection of interviews with a variety of people from the science fiction horror community, from actors like Adrienne Barbeau to directors like Dan Curtis to authors including Dean Koontz, Thomas Ligotti, and others. The interviews are in the usual format and for the most part the author asked questions to which I wanted to know the answers. Some of the contributors seemed more restrained than others, but overall they're informative and generally entertaining. I was more interested in the ones with authors, obviously, but most of the rest were at least of marginal interest. 10/1/15

The Transhuman Antihero by Michael Grantham, McFarland, 2015, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-9405-7

This is a scholarly discussion of the use in science fiction of augmented, altered, or genetically engineered characters who come into conflict with their societies for one reason or another. The discussion centers on a handful of books starting with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and running up through graphic novels and Richard Morgan. The author felt constrained to explain that there is only one female writer covered - Shelley - because he felt that women's perspectives should be examined separately. The discussion is rather dry - it's a modification of his doctoral thesis - and I didn't find anything particularly revelatory, but on the other hand, the only error I detected was a misspelling of Iain Banks' name. This one is definitely for specialized interests. 9/28/15

An Army at Dawn by Rick Atkinson, Owl, 2002  

This is along, comprehensive, and fascinating history of the war in North Africa, although it barely touches on the campaigns in Egypt and Libya. The US and Great Britain had to first fight and conquer the Vichy French, which was not a cakewalk, before moving east for a series of battles with the two German armies in Africa, one commanded by Erwin Rommel. American troops were poorly trained and inexperienced and there was a good deal of friction between them and the British. Eisenhower was in overall command, but he too was inexperienced and too much of his time was spent dealing with political rather than military issues. The weight of material and men and the increasing effectiveness of the Allied air forces were what turned the tide. Very compelling and interesting reading. 9/14/15

Huey Long by T. Harry Williams, 1969

Huey Long, governor and senator from Louisiana, potential Presidential candidate, was one of the most bizarre and interesting mixtures of idealism and corruption in human history. He was capable of great acts of generosity and was loyal to his friends, but he never forgave an injury done  to his cause. He had a remarkable memory – could memorize entire pages by reading them once, kept mailing lists in his head, and acquired a deep and useful knowledge of state law. He was also soundly opposed by the establishment – politicians and the well to do, as well as the minions of Standard Oil Company. His political life is filled with clever and daring maneuvers to outwit his opponents and if he had not been assassinated, he might have become one of the most significant politicians in the US. FDR called him the most dangerous man in America. This very long biography – over eight hundred pages – points out the good and the bad and suggests that his ultimate downfall was that he let his power go to his head, not uncommon for politicians. An excellent examination of a man who might well have become President. 8/20/15

Harry Potter and the Classical World by Richard A. Spencer, McFarland, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-2141-8

This is a discussion of Greek and Roman allusions in the books of J.K. Rowling. I have a mild problem with this premise because so much of our culture has been influenced by the ancient Greeks and Romans that it becomes almost a secondary source. I doubt that in many of the cases cited here that Rowling was actually consciously thinking of the ancient world. On the other hand, some of it is quite obvious, like the three headed dog. The author does a painstaking analysis of where these allusions lie sometimes hidden more cleverly within the text, and sometimes unconsciously within the author. There are a few places where I think he may have seen a link that doesn't really exist, but for the most part his analysis is interesting and amusing even when not entirely convincing. 7/18/15

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