Last Update 11/29/18

Inside the World of Harry Potter edited by Christopher E. Bell, McFarland, 2018, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-7355-4

This is a collection of essays about both the books and the movie versions. They vary widely in both interest and execution, examining at times such pointless details as the meaning of the word "pretty" as applied to twin sisters. Some of the speculation goes beyond that which can be justified by the text and perhaps reflects concerns of the individual authors. The article examining the use of alcohol in the novels is a case in point. Some of the arguments are interesting to follow but I doubt that many of them will contribute anything meaningful to our understanding of the works concerned. 11/29/18

Murray Leinster: His Life and Works by Billee J. Stallings and Jo-an J. Evans, McFarland, 2011 

This is a biography of Leinster, actually William Jenkins, by two of his daughters. It includes an extensive bibliography of his work, much of which was not SF. Leinster wrote mysteries, adventure, westerns, and even romance novels and was one of the few genre writers to actually support himself. For many years my ambition was to become the "next" Murray Leinster. His first SF story appeared in 1919 and he was long considered the “dean of science fiction. The biographical portion is heavily illustrated with photographs. This was quite enjoyable and informative, and the bibliography – though incomplete – is very useful. I was particularly pleased to finally figure out all of the western novel title changes. 11/8/18

The Bite, the Breast and the Blood by Amy Williams Wilson, McFarland, 2018, $49.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-6613-6

In case you couldn't tell by the title, this is about vampires. The author champions a rather unusual explanation of why vampire stories are so popular. It's a substitution for breast feeding and the act of Holy Communion, and we read vampire stories because we want to explore the interface between humans and their maker. The author has done a lot of research to bolster her argument, but I was completely unconvinced. I had the impression that the conclusion existed before the evidence, and the evidence is almost always ambiguous at best. Alternate theories that I have heard - obsession with death, the possibility of sex without insemination, the desire to be mastered and abdicate responsibility for one's own life choices, and others - all seem far more convincing to me. And why then has the vampire craze ebbed in the last few years if it was anything more than a temporary fad? 10/27/18

The Maul and the Pear Tree by P.D. James and T.A. Critchley, Mysterious, 1971 

I rarely read true crime but I make exceptions for extraordinary cases, particularly those set in Victorian England. The author of the Dalgliesh murder mysteries teamed up in this account of the 1811 Ratcliffe Highway murders, which involved the beating to death of two sets of victims in a short period of time. The London police were basically just constables with no strong internal organization or investigative capacity, but they eventually identified the murder weapon as belonging to a sailor. This led to a couple of arrests, but one of the suspects committed suicide and it was never absolutely proven that he was responsible, and no motive was ever determined.  Nicely done. 10/24/18

Video Gaming in Science Fiction by Jason Barr, McFarland, 2018, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-6637-2

The agenda of this book is to assert that video game players are unfairly portrayed in science fiction as somehow unsavory and disreputable. A glance at the index is sufficient to establish that the author has apparently chosen to ignore - or is ignorant of - a very large number of books that contradict his premise. Some of the books he does cite are novelizations of movies, which are not part of science fiction prose except indirectly and have nothing to do with his premise. And some titles he does cite directly contradict his argument, like Ender's Game and Ready Player One. Nor was the latter a big hit with science fiction fans as a novel as he asserts. Although the author makes a few good points, I found many of his arguments weak or contradictory, and he spends more time talking about movies and games than in books. 10/22/18

The Gothic Romance Wave by Lori A. Paige, McFarland, 2018, $45, ISBN 978-1-4766-7565-7

I bought a lot of books during this fairly short period of paperback original romantic suspense novels. A few of the authors were actually quite good. A lot of books published as part of the subgenre were actually classic horror stories by writers like Le Fanu, Stoker, and others. This rather ambitious book tries to trace the development from Ann Radcliffe through Fifty Shades of Grey, which I found a bit of a stretch at times. It is largely true, however, that this was the first widespread serious treatment of the competent female protagonist, although in a lot of those novels, she is ultimately saved by a man - perhaps in part because some of the writers like Marilyn Ross and Edwina Noone were actually men. The book is generally entertaining, frequently quite informative, and does a good job of supporting its premise. I was a little surprised that there was no mention of Dorothy Daniels, who was dubbed the queen of the gothic romance for a time. Most of the books and authors from this period are forgotten, but some of them deserved a better fate. 10/17/18

Terrifying Texts edited by Cynthia J. Miller and A. Bowdoin Van Riper, McFarland, 2018, $45, ISBN 978-1-4766-7130-7

 A collection of essays examining the way we portray good and evil in movies, particularly horror movies. The first section examines movies that draw upon the work of H.P. Lovecraft, including the Evil Dead series. The second section is more inclined toward the philosophical, Faust and The Prophecy, though it also includes an essay on It Follows. The third specifically deals with the move Badadook. The subsequent sections include movie which use diaries as a major theme, traditional monsters, and finally non-English language movies. The selection seems a bit random at times, as though the editors wanted to include an essay even if it didn’t really hue that close to the theme. They are generally interesting, however, and only occasionally marred by excessively academic language. 10/3/18

A Brief History of the Vikings by Jonathan Clements, Robinson, 2005

The title tells it all. The author opens with a short look at the religious beliefs in Scandinavia, which varied greatly from place to place. The Viking period generally starts in 793 with the raid on Lindisfarne. The book explores their successes and failures, the extent of their influence, their status as merchants rather than raiders in the Islamic world, and other matters. He asserts that they were no more warlike than most other peoples of that era and that their tendency to violence is overstated in most historical accounts. Well presented and readable but not really gripping, probably because it lacks narrative unity. 9/17/18

A Brief History of the End of the World by Simon Pearson, Carroll & Graf, 2006

This is a survey of apocalyptic predictions, mostly from religious sources, sometimes from end of the world cults. Everything from the Second Coming to alien invasions to plagues and other disasters. None of them have proved to be correct, of course, but that doesn’t stop fresh theories from arising, as we have seen in recent years. The author covers the Third Reich, Osama Bin Laden, the French Revolution, and other historical events that have drawn on this concept. The text is admirably neutral though at times I sensed that the author was chuckling as he wrote one section or another. 9/8/18

Worlds Gone Awry edited by John H. Han, C. Clark Triplett, and Ashley G. Anthony, McFarland, 2018, $45, ISBN 978-1-4766-3377-0

The definition of dystopian fiction has always seemed too fluid for me. Is a comet hitting the Earth dystopian? How about an ecological disaster? An alien invasion? The essays here range even wider. I can't see how Lord of the Flies could possibly be considered dystopian, for example. The Hunger Games books and Stephen King's early novels as Richard Bachmann certain are, but Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash is not. The majority of the essays deal with "literary" novels using SF themes rather than what we might think of as genre SF. Lois Lowry, Margaret Atwood, Cormac McCarthy, William Golding, and C.S. Lewis are all examined, along with William Gibson and a couple more familiar names. The essays are not badly written and are sometimes informative, but apparent disdain for dystopian novels written as SF. And while there are lots of references to George Orwell, there is no mention of Aldous Huxley, which I found quite surprising. 8/31/18

A Dune Companion by Donald E. Palumbo, McFarland, 2018, $35, ISBN 978-1-4766-6960-1

This is pretty much what you would expect from the title, but it relates only to the original six novels by Frank Herbert, and not the thirteen additional volumes added by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson.  The book opens with a lengthy and often interesting discussion of the mythic structure of the story. It is followed by entries for almost every proper noun found in the novels - characters, place names, etc. - and a good number of other subjects - animals, for example. The descriptions are brief but informative. This would prove useful to someone who was making their way through the six novels and needed to refresh their memory from time to time. The author clearly knows and respects his subject matter. 8/19/18

The Age of Dimes and Pulps by Jeremy Agnew, McFarland, 2018, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-3257-5

This is, as you might guess from the title, a brief history of popular fiction from 1830 to 1960 or thereabouts. The author tells us early on that the book is a superficial overview since the subject covers too much material and history for a single book.  He constantly emphasizes the lurid nature of the pulps and one senses that he disapproves of much of the sex and violence connected with the pulp era. The cover art is repeatedly called lurid, lascivious, in bad taste, and so on.  There are sections on the superhero pulps, science fiction, spicy tales, and so on, but most of the emphasis is on westerns and mysteries. The author appears not to be familiar with actual SF as he contends that monster movies about giant mutated insects and similar themes were reflections of popular themes in pulp SF, which is in fact not true at all, although you might not guess that from the cover art of the time. There are some interesting bits sprinkled throughout, and if you're not familiar with the subject this isn't a bad place to start, but enthusiasts will likely find it to be too superficial. 7/31/18

Growing Up with Vampires edited by Simon Bacon and Katarzyna Bronk, McFarland, 2018, $45, ISBN 978-1-4766-7552-7

This is a collection of essays about vampires in children's fiction, as opposed to that designed for Young Adults. Most of these, as you might expect, were benevolent or humorous figures, although there are exceptions. The only books mentioned here which I remembered with any clarity were those by Darren Shan and the Vampirates series by Justin Stomper. The contributors have provided sometimes ponderous academic analyses of what these vampires are meant to symbolize, often some trauma or fear connected to childhood. The book is not really about the literature at all except peripherally, and in fact the index includes only a single reference to a work or prose, and a handful of movies. For specialized tastes. 7/24/18

A Brief History of British Sea Power by David Howarth, Robinson, 1974 

This was previously published as Sovereign of the Seas and it covers British seafaring from the time of the Viking invasions to World War II. This necessarily means that none of the subsidiary topics will be discussed in depth, but it does provide a very good overview of the development of navies and commercial vessels, focused on Britain of course but reflecting changes in technology, tradition, and use in other countries as well. There are a few pictures illustrating distinct points in time. Quite readable. 7/23/18

A Brief History of Mexico by Lynn V. Foster, Facts on File, 1997

I knew a good deal about Mexico’s early history, so I was particularly interested in events in the 20th Century. Unfortunately, this book is twenty years old. This feels more like a collection of very short essays than a unified book so there is little narrative impetus. There are some interesting photographs in the first half. In view of recent events, it perhaps behooves us to pay a little more attention to our neighbors to the south. 7/11/18

I Am Legend As American Myth by Amy J. Ransom, McFarland, 2018, $45, ISBN 978-1-4728-6833-8

Even in my unsophisticated high school days, I recognized this as - among other things - a metaphor for alienation. It was the first novel I'd read by Matheson and I was always disappointed that he wrote so few of them, although his many superb short stories made up for it, almost. Although this book necessarily deals with the novel as such, it is primarily a discussion of the three film adaptations that have been made - so far - and the different themes that have been grafted onto the original material. It is clearly well suited, for example, as a commentary on racism, and I would not be surprised to see a fourth that used it to comment on our current insane phobia about immigrants. The changed people have already been vampires and mutants. The author is an academic and this is not a light examination of film making but rather a more serious attempt to explore the different ways the same story can be told, with lots of references to other critical work. A bit tough going at times for the casual reader, but a great deal of it is very thoughtful. 7/2/18

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