Last Update 12/19/11 

Dead Reckonings 10 edited by S.T. Joshi and Tony Fonseca, Hippocampus, 2011, $7.50

The latest issue of an irregular but always interesting collection of reviews and commentaries about the current and past horror field. I was particularly interested this time in Darrell Schweitzer's remarks about Sarban, one of my favorites. I also enjoyed the discussions of Gary Braunbeck's Mr. Hands by Tony Fonseca and Paula Guran's musings on vampire fiction. The rest of the articles were of varying interest to me although always intelligently written. I thought the extensive index to past issues was rather a waste of space but otherwise this is well worth both your time and your money if you have any interest at all in the horror genre. 12/19/11

Zombies Are Us edited by Christopher M. Moreman and Cory James Rushton, McFarland, 2011, $45, ISBN 978-0-7864-5912-4

A collection of essays about the meaning and usages of zombies in modern culture, mostly movies. The essays are mostly academic in style and nature. Some of them are very informative - particularly those discussing Hollywood's use of the zombie.  Some are very near to self parody, frankly. There's a Buddhist take on zombies and an analysis of  zombies in legal proceedings.  The article on zombies and religion really stretches to make its connections. Somehow I don't think the book covers subject matter that really cried out to be explored intellectually, although with the current popularity of zombies, there may well be an audience for this sort of thing.  But $45 is a pretty steep price to indulge one's curiosity. 11/1/11

The Emergence of Latin American Science Fiction by Rachel Haywood Ferreira, Wesleyan, 2011, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-8195-7081-9

With the exception of Jorge Luis Borges and a handful of odds and ends, I really wasn't aware that there was much Latin American SF at all. The author here presents a survey of speculative fiction mostly from Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina that dates back as far as the 1850s, although some of it is more likely fantasy than science fiction. She spends a good deal of time comparing methods, themes, and details to English language SF, which was enlightening at times, but I was more interested in hearing about the actual works with which I was unfamiliar. The text is much more accessible than most scholarly studies and avoids most academic jargon. There are a good many stories mentioned here that I wish I could read in translation. 10/23/11

Divided Waters by Ivan Musicant, Castle, 1995 

A naval history of the Civil War.  I have read so many accounts of the Monitor and the Merrimack that I could almost have written this section, as well as the one about the raider Alabama.  On the other hand, the battles at Galveston and Mobile were fairly new to me and the fighting on the Mississippi River was variously familiar and unfamiliar. We tend to think of it as a land war but the naval portion was very significant. The blockade cut off foreign trade and aid, and the capture of the Mississippi split the Confederacy permanently in two. There were a lot of incompetent generals and politicians, on both sides, but that’s endemic even today. 10/17/11

Krakatoa by Simon Winchester, Harper Collins, 2003 

The eruption of the volcano incorrectly named Krakatoa in the Western press completely destroyed the island upon which is rested, was the first natural disaster to be known around the world in a matter of days thanks to transatlantic cables, and was one of the worst in recorded history, although most of the deaths were due to tsunamis rather than the eruption itself. The sound of the explosion was heard 3000 miles away and it colored the sunsets world wide for months. It also generated a shock wave that traveled around the world seven times, registering on every barometer in the world.  This is a comprehensive account of events leading up to the explosion (including a few historical diversions), the explosion (explosions, actually) itself, and the aftermath. Well organized and entertainingly written. 9/29/11

The Lesbian Fantastic by Phyllis M. Betz, McFarland, 2011, $40. ISBN 978-0-7864-5885-1 

I don’t think the title of this book is entirely appropriate since much of the discussion is of feminism in fantastic literature, particularly the SF section, rather than lesbianism, and the two are not the same.  The SF section is particularly scarce on details and most of the novels actually mentioned are from borderline presses and are not well known within the genre. The horror section is closest to the title.  Betz has some interesting observations, although her prose drifts into that stilted, artificial style peculiar to academics and may put off some readers. The back cover blurb says that SF “has long been a haven for lesbian writers”, which argument the author never makes, and which is patently untrue except in a very few instances. 9/20/11

The War of 1812 by John K. Mahon, Da Capo, 1972 

The subject matter of this one should be obvious from the title. It’s a very detailed and quite well written account of the war between the US and the UK, showing the warts on the faces of both sides. With rare exceptions, the only high points for the former were individual sea battles, in which the British were generally bested by better ships and crews, although with 1000 ships to a few dozen, the outcome would not have been in any doubt if the war had continued.  Most of the fighting was along the Canadian border, although the British did a lot more raiding along the East Coast than I had expected.  I also hadn’t realized that Kentucky and Tennessee were so prominent in the fighting, although I did know that New England was so unhappy that they talked about seceding. The US ended up with none of its prewar demands; the British ended up with a crippling national debt. About the only good thing you could say about it is that it made European nations recognize that the US was awakening as a significant power. 9/18/11

The Great Earthquake and Firestorms of 1906 by Philip Fradkin, University of California Press, 2005 

This is an account of what was the greatest urban disaster in US history, at least until Hurricane Katrina. As the author points out in a new preface, it is difficult to make comparisons but they were both on the same scale.  The earthquake was devastating, but it was the fires that followed that destroyed the city of San Francisco over the course of three days.  Using excerpts from many first hand accounts, the author has three main story lines.  First, the fires were largely caused by people using explosives to make firebreaks who chose the wrong areas and used the wrong explosives, therefore causing new fires and facilitating the spread of the original ones. Second, even though there was ample knowledge of both the earthquake and fire hazards, no serious efforts were made to prepare the city beforehand.  Third, corrupt rich people abrogated the law and used federal troops to kill innocent people in the power struggle that followed the disaster. The book is far more concerned with the politics than the details of the earthquake itself, so I wasn’t as interested as I’d expected to be. 9/13/11

The Jesus Dynasty by James D. Tabor, Simon & Schuster, 2006 

This is a summary of the historical data and speculation about Jesus of Nazareth. Much of it I was already aware of but some of the information was new to me.  I did not know for example that Mary was pregnant prior to her marriage to Joseph and that during his childhood he was known as the “son of Pantera”, Pantera being a Roman legionnaire. Obviously this isn’t something Christian churches like to talk about. I did know that it is generally believed that Joseph died while Jesus was young  and that he had a half dozen siblings, although I didn’t know that the Catholic Church teaches that they were cousins rather than siblings. I was also unaware of the probability that Mary remarried Joseph’s brother Clophas in accordance with Jewish tradition, that he may have fathered some or all of the six children, and that he also apparently died while Jesus was young. Nor did I realize that the term “carpenter” at that time meant stoneworker or builder and that neither Jesus nor Joseph likely ever worked at carpentry.  Some of his speculation about the way the church developed under Jesus’ brother James was a bit dry and technical but for the most part the book is very accessible. 9/8/11

The Ends of the Earth by Isaac Asimov, Weybright & Talley, 1975 

One of Asimov’s science books, this one describing various aspects of the North and South Poles, with lots of illustrations and lay explanations. This was obviously aimed at high school kids and is rather written down, and I found myself skipping sections that explained things I already understood perfectly well.  Asimov does his usual adept job at making the complex sound simple and he makes a handful of interesting observations along the way.  Probably slightly dated by now but still useful. 9/6/11

Weird History 101 by John Richard Stephens, Adams Media, 1997 

The title of this one is a misnomer.  The book consists primarily of firsthand accounts of historical events – and it overlaps with Eyewitness to History which I’d read only a few days earlier – but few if any could be described as weird.  There is also framing material by the author which is frequently quite interesting – the sections on the Gunfight at the OK Corral, mummies in Egypt, North Korean propaganda, and Presidential extramarital affairs were the most interesting. Some aren’t even particularly historical. There’s a humorous piece by Mark Twain, for example.  The framing text is generally interesting but is filled with dropped words, grammatical errors, and other signs that no one edited or even proofread it.  Of limited interest. 9/4/11

Decision at Sea by Craig L. Symonds, Oxford, 2005 

This is a detailed discussion of what the author perceives to be the five most important naval battles in American history.  Four of them were no brainers.  Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory on Lake Erie, the Monitor vs the Merrimack actually the Virginia, Dewey’s conquest of the Philippines, and the Battle of Midway.  The fourth choice is a battle in the late 1980s in which the US destroyed several Iranian oil platforms and sank one of their cruisers in retaliation for their having laid mines in the Persian Gulf. He justifies this one as the first time when the US Navy acted as international policeman rather than just in self defense. The author makes no secret of his skepticism about US motives in some of these cases. The policies enforced in occupied Philippines were exactly those which we had used as an excuse to intervene in Cuba for humanitarian reasons, for example. He also points out the high incidence of luck in the outcome of various battles. The analyses are detailed but entertainingly written. 8/27/11

The Search for the Giant Squid by Richard Ellis, Lyons Press, 1998 

The giant squid, architeuthis, is so elusive that as far as was known, no human being had ever seen one unless it was dead or dying.  The rarity is such that an appendix to this book lists every known specimen ever found. Ellis tells us what little we understand about its physiology and behavior and recounts speculation by scientists over the course of centuries. There’s also a chapter about the giant squid in fiction and movies.  He likes Arthur C. Clarke, is ambivalent about Michael Crichton, and sarcastic about Peter Benchley. There are numerous photographs and drawings, excerpts from first hand accounts, and other material.  In 2004, after the book was written obviously, a research team did manage to photograph a giant squid in its natural habitat. Comprehensive and entertainingly written. 8/15/11

Eyewitness to History edited by John Carey, Harvard University Press, 1988 

There are over two hundred eyewitness accounts of historical events collected here, most of them quite short, derived from newspaper reports, letters, diaries, and other sources. They range from ancient times like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius to the fall of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.  There’s a great variety of subject matter, battles, assassinations, illnesses, accidents, social customs, sports, crimes, the sinking of the Titanic, and so on.  Some are more interesting than others and some, obviously, are better written. I jumped around in this a lot since it doesn’t have to be read chronologically – although it is arranged that way – and some of the topics didn’t interest me.  8/12/11

A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourami, Belknap Press, 1991 

This is a survey of the subject of the title, beginning with the life of Mohammed and ending in the 1980s.  The author spends a good deal of time explaining how the Muslim religion shaped politics, including the Sunni/Shia split and other variations. Since it’s about the Arabs, he doesn’t spend much time talking about the Turks and other Muslim ethnic groups, except insofar as they impacted the Arab countries, which was obviously considerable in the case of the Ottoman Empire.  I was actually quite disappointed. There’s a great deal of information about the Muslim religion and social customs but not much history. The fall of Constantinople doesn’t rate a full sentence and the lives of Mehmet and Saladin only get one sentence each. The crusades are covered in a single paragraph and there’s not even a mention of the Battle of Lepanto, possibly the most significant sea battle in history. There’s more detail after World War II but even that is sketchy.  8/7/11

Ancient Egypt by Lorna Oakes and Lucia Gahlin, Barnes & Noble, 2003 

This is mostly a picture book, full color throughout, and is a kind of survey of ancient Egypt  concentrating on mythology and architecture and art.  The separate sections mostly follow the chronological history of Egypt, although so little is known that there are obvious large gaps. The illustrations are a mix of photographs and drawings, many of the latter reproductions of historical documents.  The “articles” making up the book are almost all two pages long, including artwork, so obviously they don’t go into much detail. As you might expect, there’s a great deal about burial customs.  Almost every surviving building is shown and discussed, including temples and government buildings. The title is a bit of a misnomer since the book covers books and events throughout the Christian period and beyond, even including a section on the Aswan dam. The section on Egyptian gods is quite interesting and well illustrated.  There is a lot of duplication in various sections, possibly because there were two authors who didn’t compare notes enough.  7/29/11

Early Victorian England edited by G.S. Young, Oxford, 1934 

This is a collection of essays on various aspects of life in the British Empire between 1837 and 1865.  Some of the essays are better than others, obviously, but I was surprised at how interesting I found the one on life in the typical home, the preparation of meals, the Victorian horror of plainness or empty spaces in a house, the urge to demonstrate conspicuous consumption, and so forth.  The essay on the British Army is amusing because the author is actually trying to defend the custom of purchasing commissions, and he makes no bones about naming politicians he considers stupid, vile, or misguided. The naval essay concentrates on the transition from sail to steam and from wooden to steal hulls. Others on work and wages, sport and country life, are only intermittently interesting.  The collection consisting of two volumes, with the second covering other subjects which I found considerably less interesting including the world of art and architecture, although the comprehensive survey of the newspaper and magazine industry was fascinating. I was surprised that there was nothing significant about the literature of the day. 7/26/11

Eternal Egypt by Pierre Montet, Phoenix Press, from the 1964 French edition 

A while back I was planning a novel based in part on ancient Egypt so I picked up a handful of books on the subject.  The project fell through but I still had the books to read.  This one is nicely written and has lots of useful illustrations, but suffers from an inescapable lack of a narrative structure.  We know so little about large periods of Egyptian history that it is necessarily patchy and doesn’t provide a continuous progression.  The fact that most things in Egypt did not really change in thousands of years doesn’t help any either.  So it was easy for my attention to drift away and I was left with lots of bits and pieces in my memory rather than a comprehensive understanding. 7/10/11

1453 by Roger Crowley, Hyperion, 2005   

The title refers to the year in which the city of Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Empire after a comparatively short siege.  The city had been sacked by Christian Crusaders much earlier and had never recovered and there were estimated to be only about eight thousand defenders to oppose an army estimated to have run from forty to four hundred thousand, with the truth no doubt somewhere in between. The Ottomans under Mehmet launched a very innovative siege and performed some engineering marvels that make it hard to understand how the city could have held out so long. In fact, according to Crowley, if a charismatic Venetian leader hadn’t been wounded at a critical moment, the city might have not have fallen, at least not to the current attackers since the Ottoman army was discouraged, worn down, and restless. Crowley’s account is clear, systematic, and quite detailed, since many accounts survived to the present, although sometimes contradicting one another. This would make a good movie. 7/5/11

From Columbus to Castro by Eric Williams, Vintage, 1970

The author of this history of the Caribbean was the first prime minister of Trinidad and was largely responsible for leading its independence movement.  The book covers the discovery through about 1970, as you might gather from the title, but is primarily about the time prior to the 20th Century, specifically dealing with the economics of the slave trade.  His analysis includes large dollops of statistical tables and such, and those parts are relatively dry, but it did convey to me that sugar was an even larger element of the economy of that region than I had realized. His conclusions, including those that Castro would probably have won any free election in Cuba, seem reasonable and while he is clearly leery of the US and its meddling in that region, he is not rabid on the subject.  I did wish that he’s spent more time on Cuba in the years leading up to Castro’s revolution, which he barely skims, but otherwise found this quite informative. 6/27/11

Spinsters Abroad by Dea Birkett, Dorset Press, 1989  

I had not realized how many Victorian women has set off on lone explorations of the wilder parts of the world between 1850 and 1920, nor did I realize that there was so much interest in them that the newspapers of the time posted regular accounts of their progress.  This is a look at about fifty of these women, although only half a dozen are examined in real depth, but it is more interested in why they wandered and what common traits they shared than in what they accomplished. As the title implies, they tended to be spinsters – although one is a widow – and generally they were in revolt, open or otherwise, against the restrictions placed on women by their culture. In almost every case they traveled without other Europeans in their party, shunned the settlements and missionaries, and in fact they were sharply critical of colonists because in their company they were forced back into the restrictive roles they were trying to escape. In fact, they opposed anything that might Europeanize the local peoples because this would potentially threaten their freedom to be unconventional. They tended to be reactionary and most of them were staunchly opposed to suffrage and other women’s rights. The author points out that male explorers, who got almost all the credit of course, tended to move in straight lines toward specific goals while the women explorers wandered almost randomly. The book is organized by theme rather than the individual characters which makes it rather difficult to keep track of who is who, but I can’t see any other way it could have been structured without scattering the other relevant information.  Quite enlightening. 6/21/11

Enter Rumour by R.B. Martin, Norton, 1962

This is subtitled four Victorian scandals, but that’s not entirely accurate. The first is indeed scandalous. A young woman at the court of the young Victoria was unjustly accused of having become pregnant out of wedlock, apparently with the connivance at least of the queen, and various means were taken to prevent her from clearing her name. I was surprised to find this actually quite interesting. The second is not a scandal at all, but an account of the Eglinton Tournament, a mismanaged and misconceived effort to recreate the medieval era. Although the many miscues were embarrassing to the host, it was hardly scandalous. I found this section rather flat and uninteresting. Part three involves financial scandals in the Church of England, which I enjoyed, and part four about financial wrongdoing in the railroad industry, which I thought was potentially interesting but which skipped over the parts I was interest in. I’ll have to chase down a biography of George Hudson. 6/13/11

Walter M. Miller Jr. by William H. Roberson, McFarland, 2011, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-6361-9  

Despite a relatively small body of published fiction, Walter Miller was and remains one of the most significant writers in the SF genre. A Canticle for Leibowitz has been in print ever since its first publication and he won several Hugo awards. Other than a brief chronology, bibliography, and list of works, the books consists of 1500 short descriptions of terms, names, and places found in Miller’s fiction. It’s a reference book rather than a critical piece and probably the most useful part is translation of various Latin phrases found in Miller’s fiction. His career basically only lasted from 1950 to 1957 and his posthumously published book was completed by Terry Bisson. 6/1/11

A Literary Stephen King Companion by Rocky Wood, McFarland, 2011, $39.95, ISBN 978-0-7864-5850-9  

This book consists of two parts. The first is a somewhat disorganized look at various aspects of King’s writing career, and while some of the observations are interesting, the style in which they are presenting is often awkward. It reads more like a fan letter than an analysis. The second part is a discussion of each piece of writing and a few characters or places or other significant King creations. There are a few glitches. We are told that King did not “allow” his story “The Cat from Hell” to be collected until recently. King states in that book that he didn’t realize it hadn’t been collected until his agent pointed it out so the implication that he suppressed it is not justified. He refers to the cursed car in Christine as an original idea, but The Car had been a movie and a novel six years earlier. And I also cannot imagine anyone calling Insomnia one of his “major novels.” 5/26/11

The Generation Starship in Science Fiction by Simone Caroti, McFarland, 2011, $38, ISBN 978-0-7864-6067-0  

Generation starships have been around in SF since the 1930s, and the author of this book covers their entire history up to the present, placing them in context of the changes in the field itself.  Although I think we wander from the subject rather far at times, most of the text is interesting and accessible and even suggested a few new ways to look at individual stories. The author appears to know the field reasonably well and the emphasis is, as you might expect, on Brian Aldiss, Robert Heinlein, and Gene Wolfe. I do have to point out a couple of notable titles missing from the chronology of generation starship stories.  There’s no mention of The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss, Marrow by Robert Reed, or The Seed of Light by Edmund Cooper. 5/25/11

Victorian People by Asa Briggs, Harper, 1955 

This is a collection of short essays about various prominent individuals from the mid-Victorian period of England. They stand alone but together are designed to portray the way a variety of social and ethical issues evolved over a comparatively short period. The sections dealing with the fear of democracy and Trollope’s social attitudes were the most interesting for me, but the others have bits and pieces I found interesting as well. Some of the people covered were almost unknown to me previously, and were involved with developing public education or were on the fringes of the political battles of the time. Nicely written but a little dry. 5/23/11

Masters of Imagination by Michael McCarty, Bear Manor Media, 2011, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-59393-630-3   

This is a collection of short interviews with prominent names in both the written and screen forms of horror and fantasy, mostly horror.  Included are people like Adrienne Barbeau, John Carpenter, Ray Bradbury, Joe R. Lansdale, and even Frederik Pohl for a diversion into SF. They vary considerably in quality. Some are light and frothy, others more substantial. I noticed several typoes and the bibliographies and such are not complete in some cases. There are a few  photographs but the reproduction quality could have been better. All of the essays were previously published but usually in obscure places where most readers are unlikely to have seen them. Interesting for its better parts, but some of those interviewed are inherently more interesting people than others.. 5/10/11

The Other Victorians by Steven Marcus, Bantam, 1966 

This is an examination of Victorian era pornography, primarily the autobiographical My Secret Life, although there are discussions of a few other titles like The Lustful Turk, the only one I had actually heard of. There is also a lengthy discussion of a famous bibliography of pornography compiled at the time by a collector, who forced the British Library to accept his collection of porn by making it a condition of his willing them his enviable collection of Cervantes. Some of it is dull, some quite interesting. I was particularly amused by his charge that the compiler was not objective and allowed his moral attitudes to color his annotations in his index, since Marcus himself refers to pornography as a “morass” and uses other pejorative terms suggesting his own moral prejudices. 5/8/11

The Mythic Fantasy of Robert Holdstock edited by Donald E. Morse and Kalman Matolcsy, McFarland, 2011, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-4942-2  

I had considered Robert Holdstock a good but not remarkable writer until I read Mythago Wood and revised my opinion dramatically upward. Although I still think that was his best book, several of those that followed were nearly as good, particularly those using the same mythos. The essays collected here deal primarily with these fantasies, but there are also pieces covering his earlier SF and some of the work he did under pseudonyms. The bibliography seems complete, including work under other names. Several of these essays are quite good and most are completely accessible to ordinary readers as well as academics. I would not be surprised if Holdstocks reputation continues to grow even after his death. His work generally mixes popular and academic qualities and there's a kind of timelessness about some of his plots and settings that survive the tides of time. 4/29/11

Vader, Voldemort, and Other Villains edited by Jamey Heit, McFarland, 2011, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-5845-5  

Villains are much more interesting than heroes. If you look at characters who have become icons, there are a few of the latter like Sherlock Holmes or James Bond, but most are villains – Dracula, Frankenstein, Mr. Hyde, Becky Sharp, Moriarty – or more recently Darth Vader or Hannibal Lecter. This collection of essays looks at villains and evil as portrayed primarily in movies. Most of them deal with fantasy and horror, and one looks at the television program 24. Many of the observations are interesting but sometimes the academic prose is daunting. There are a few glitches. Darth Vader did not order the destruction of Alderaan, for example. A sometimes interesting look at popular culture.  4/23/11

The Twisted Worlds of Philip K. Dick by Umberto Rossi, McFarland, 2011, $45, ISBN 978-0-7864-4883-8  

I read the novels of Philip K. Dick as they originally were published, and then back in the 1980s I re-read almost all of them.  My perspective was considerably different and I enjoyed them in a very different way. If I were to tackle them again now, it would almost certainly be a third and very different experience.  This book is an examination of twenty of those books seen from a single perspective, with special emphasis on showing the relationships among them, not always obvious. There are a lot of errors sprinkled through the text.  The SF Book Club did not do a paperback edition of The Man in the High Castle. The Cosmic Puppets is not fantasy.  DAW books did not exist when Time Out of Joint was published. Eye in the Sky was not an Ace double book. There are some interesting bits and it did make me want to re-read a lot of the books discussed. 4/21/11

Manners and Morals in the Age of Optimism by James Laver, Harper & Row, 1966

I found this brief survey of art, social customs, and associated matters from 1848 to 1914 very entertaining as well as informative.  The author covers England, the United States, and France quite thoroughly, other areas in Europe in passing, and a lot of the material was new to me.  Subjects covered include prostitution, the theater, literature, painting, the suppression of women, and so forth.  In addition to the text, which includes a large number of quotations from contemporary sources, there are lots of photographs and paintings to illustrate events mentioned in the narrartive.  Very well organized and some of his observations are ones I haven’t encountered before, but probably not going to appeal to people with only a casual interest in the period and subject matter. 4/18/11

The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham, Random House, 1991

I enjoyed the author's book on the Boer Wars so picked up this very large history of the European exploitation of Africa from 1876 to 1912.  There were parts of it that I was very familiar with - Egypt and South Africa in particular. Other sections filled in details I hadn't known. Obviously the Europeans treated the native population ruthlessly and I even knew that the Congo was probably the worst, but I was less familiar with the German attempts at genocide in Southwest Africa. There were even a few chapters that were almost completely new to me. I had never chanced upon a history of Ethiopia, for example, one of the few African states to maintain its independence through this period. My opinion of John Stanley, of "Mr. Livingston I presume" fame, plummeted dramatically, and I hadn't realized how Macchiavellian King Leopold really was. The book is well organized and entertainingly written but it is long and chock full of facts and analysis. I actually spent about two weeks reading this, a chapter or so each evening. It's a lot to digest but it's worth the investment in time. 4/7/11

The East End by Alan Palmer, Rutgers, 2000 

This is a kind of history of the East End of London, traditionally the poorer part of the city, covering the 17th through 20th Centuries.  The author treats the subject more descriptively than linearly and there is therefore not much of a narrative thread, so I read this in fits and starts over a couple of weeks.  Some sections are quite good – particularly those involving more recent events, but others were less than enthralling, in part I think because I was not familiar with some of the places and buildings about which he was speaking.  Approach this with some caution if you’re looking for something that will pull you into the book. 3/30/11

The Steamboaters by Harry Sinclair Drago, Bramhall, 1967  

Steamboats are one of my interest areas so there wasn’t a whole lot of new information in this nostalgic look at the steamboat era as there might have been, but I still found it very entertaining.  Drago has collected a number of interesting anecdotes about that period and the people who plied the river, and many of them were new to me.  He does have a bit of a prejudice against various parties – Robert Fulton and Easterners in general, the railroads, and others – but it’s often justified by the facts, at least in the situations he describes.  There are a few photographs, but they seem to be almost an afterthought and do little to convey the atmosphere of the text.  I read a number of westerns by Drago back in the 1950s and hadn’t realized he had done non-fiction as well. 3/22/11

Remedios Varo: Unexpected Journeys by Janet A. Kaplan, Abbeville, 2000 

Way back when I was in college, a friend showed us a Mexican art book by a painter named Remedios Varo, of whom I had never heard.  The paintings were fascinating, and as close as I can come to a comparison, they reminded me of Salvador Dali.  For years I searched for books of her work to no avail and finally gave up.  Sheila encountered this biography, with many full color illustrations, recently and picked it up.  Varo was originally from Spain, fled the Spanish Civil War to France, fled occupied France to Mexico, where she spent the balance of her life.  Her art is almost always surreal, sometimes extremely inventively, and the paintings reproduced here are all excellent.  I’d still like to find more of her art but this is a great start, and the text is fascinating as well. 3/16/11

Wolf of the Deep by Stephen Fox, Knopf, 2007   

This is an account of the Confederate raider Alabama, commanded by Raphael Semmes, the only effective commerce raider the Confederacy ever brought to sea.  Built in England – and largely crewed by English sailors – it captured and burned scores of Union merchant ships, evading the generally incompetent efforts to chase it down and creating turmoil entirely out of proportion to its actual depredations.  It struck everywhere from Galveston to the coasts of Europe to Newfoundland, and sank a Union warship as well as its less formidable prey.  Semmes does not come across as a particularly likable character – his crew mutinied at least once and he seems to have turned a blind eye to piratical rather than privateering practices. He had also condemned privateering publicly before it suited him to become one himself.  The book is well organized, alternating between events aboard the ship and reaction to those events elsewhere.  This was arguably the most effective commerce raider of all time. 3/10/11

Visions of Mars edited by Howard V. Hendrix, George Slusser, & Eric S. Rabkin, McFarland, 2011, $40, ISBN 978-0-7864-8470-6

Although this is another collection of academic essays about SF, in this case as related to the planet Mars, it is much more accessible than most and rarely resorts to jargon, which is a definite plus.  It also deals with more specifically genre related writers than most, including Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip K. Dick, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Leigh Brackett.  The essays tend to be relatively short and sometimes include a good deal of scientific commentary about the planet.  I found most of the discussions to be quite intelligent and even enlightening although I think the attempt to link Brackett and Burroughs to neo-colonialism went a bit overboard.   I was surprised to see no mention of the Mars novels by Ben Bova, particularly in the articles that emphasized the need to adapt to our real time knowledge of the planet’s physical nature.  All in all quite interesting, although the price tag is likely to discourage casual readers. 3/3/11 

Victorian People and Ideas by Richard D. Altick, Norton, 1973 

The author provides a comprehensive survey of Victorian attitudes – which were not uniform across that period – and explains how they influenced and were influenced by literature and the other arts.  He points out the unique situation in England as opposed to other industrializing nations, and makes it clear that the problems and solutions were not as obvious then as they may be today.  Although some of the material is complex, Altick has a readily accessible style that makes even difficult concepts easy to understand.  A very nice panoramic portrait of an age that encompassed a great many different forces and philosophies.  The discussion of the various dissenting movements within the church was the most comprehensible I’ve encountered. 2/27/11

Science Fiction and the Prediction of the Future edited by Gary Westfahl, Wong Kin Yuen, and Amy Kit-Sze Chan, McFarland, 2011, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-5841-7

I found this collection of academic essays potentially more interesting than most similar books even though I was already well aware of the fact that SF writers have been wrong in their predictions far more often than otherwise. It contains, unfortunately, a good deal of nonsense, references to “new and unique emotions” and other fantasies.  It is also replete with academic language that seems designed to constrain rather than facilitate communication, like “anagogical myths,” “places of alterity,” and so forth.  There are some coherent and interesting essays, including one by Gregory Benford and a couple that deal with movies rather than written in SF, but it’s pretty heavy slogging for anyone who wants to really know about SF’s track record in predicting the present. 2/24/11

The Writing Family of Stephen King by Patrick McAleer, McFarland, 2011, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-4850-0   

This is a critical study of the fiction of Tabitha King, Joe Hill, and Owen King.  I have read a little of the first, most of the second, and nothing at all of the third, so there were sections here that meant  little to me and I skipped through them.  The author has  an agenda – concern that reading is dwindling to insignificance and therefore making it virtually impossible for writers to achieve recognition – which colors a lot of his work.  He also uses an artificial style I can only call academic which makes his meanings occasionally unclear and his prose tiring to read at any length.  He does make a comprehensive survey of all the works involved and occasionally offers some interesting insights, but this isn’t likely to attract readers looking for a more accessible look at the works of these writers.2/19/11

Wanted Undead or Alive by Jonathan Maberry and Janice Gable Bashman, Citadel, 2010, $16.95, ISBN 978-0-8065-2821-2  

This is another riff on the vampire, werewolf, zombie craze in movies, books, and elsewhere.  It’s a series of very short articles on a wide variety of subjects, from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Shadow magazine to serial killers.  Much of it is informational; some of it is funny.  The authors cover movies and books, legends and realities, and everything else even remotely related to their subject matter.  Black and white stills and other materials are sprinkled through the text.  Although a lot of it is interesting, it covers so much ground that it appears unfocused and I’m not even sure where I would shelve it – literary criticism, occult studies, humor, movies, mythology?  Most people will find parts of it dull and parts of it interesting, depending on their particular interests.  2/18/11

A Weird Writer in Our Midst edited by S.T. Joshi, Hippocampus, 2011, $20, ISBN 978-0-9844802-1-0  

I remember when H.P. Lovecraft was little known outside the horror genre, and not that prominent even within it.  Editor Joshi has gone back to that time and gathered what little criticism and commentary appeared during his lifetime and the years immediately following his death, and he has turned up a surprising volume of work including memoirs, excerpts from letter columns, articles, and miscellaneous pieces.  There’s work here by Frank Belknap Long and Robert Bloch, not surprisingly, but also pieces by Will Cuppy, Peter DeVries, Vincent Starrett, and Anthony Powell.  Most of it has aged well and since the subject matter obviously didn’t change, their insights are as valid today as they were back in the 1930s.  A varied and often very interesting selection. 2/16/11

Outcast London by Gareth Steadman Jones, Peregrine, 1971  

I suspect this was a thesis originally, as it is certainly written in a dry, scholarly, and not very interesting style.  The focus is ostensibly on the interface between the classes in British Victorian society, specifically about the middle of that period.  In fact, a good deal of the book is necessarily spent on describing the individual class cultures so that the reader can more readily understand the frictions and interactions among them.  Includes charts and graphs and a handful of photographs and drawings.  Not one of the most stimulating books I’ve read this year, though no doubt well researched and reasoned.  Parts were so dry I just skimmed them. 2/2/11

The West by the editors of Harpers Magazine, Gallery, 1990  

This is a largish collection of facsimile reprints of articles from Harpers Magazine dealing with the Old West.  Most of them are essentially travel stories describing various locations, customs, natural features, and such.  They vary only slightly in quality and even style, although some deal with more interesting subjects than others and I find myself reading some in detail and skimming others.  Possibly the best part of the book is the three hundred line drawings reproduced from the magazine, which often tell a considerably more colorful story – no pun intended – than does the prose. A book to be dipped into rather than read straight through - I did two articles a night and found it just fine. 1/27/11

Adobe Angels by Antonio R. Garcez, Red Rabbit Press, 1996  

Regional ghost stories aren’t my usually in my interest area but since my son lives in this part of the world – New Mexico – he sent me a copy of this and I was curious enough to read it.  The ghosts are all contemporary rather than historical appearances, although most are based on older stories.  For the most part, they tend to be poltergeists rather than pure ghosts.  The author – who alternates English and Spanish versions of each chapter, interviewed people who claim to have had ghostly encounters, took lots of pictures, and proved himself to be entirely too gullible.  But it makes a better story that way. 1/24/11

The Knights Templar by Stephen Howarth, Barnes & Noble, 1982 

I had only the haziest awareness of the history of this order, and the treacherous way in which they were wiped out by avaricious men.  This account of their history is necessarily in large part a discussion of the Crusades themselves, and that also largely conformed to my conception of those wars as having been silly even by contemporary standards, with Moslems allied with Christians against Moslems, and sometimes against Christians, and with many of the supposed Crusaders primarily rapacious adventurers.  The author provides a balanced view of the Templars, who were sometimes brilliant, sometimes not, sometimes very loyal to their principles, sometimes not, and often successful in their endeavors, sometimes not.  The politicking is as important as the warmaking, and was ultimately their downfall. 1/10/11

The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham, Random House, 1979 

This is actually an account of the second Boer War, between the British colonies of Capetown and Natal against the two Boer states, Transvaal and the Orange Free State.  It was largely caused by the connivance of a British diplomat named Milner and his cronies, although it is hard to imagine that the conflict could have been deferred indefinitely in any case.  The actual war started with the Boers invading Natal, and if there was any chance that this was going to be a war between gentlemen it ended early when the Boers used a white flag to lull a British unit, then attacked them treacherously, and indiscriminately shelled medical stations despite the Red Cross markings.  The British troops were poorly placed to defend the colony and even though they proved more effective in the early fighting, they were outnumbered by as much as four to one.  The infighting among the British generals is particularly nasty and the Boers would easily have defeated them if the odds hadn’t turned so dramatically against them in short order.  Despite claims of moral justification, the British were blatantly the aggressors and the native population was probably worse off after being “liberated” than they had been beforehand.  Kitchener, whom I always considered an ignorant thug, is even more ignorant and thuggish in this one, killing tens of thousands of women and children by rounding them up into badly supplied and organized concentration camps. 1/1/11