Last Update 6/28/19

Robots in American Popular Culture by Steve Carper, McFarland, 2019, $45, ISBN 978-1-4766-7041-6

Although there is a brief discussion of robots in fiction, most of this book deals with the robot as portrayed in movies or as they are in real life. The chapter on early fictional accounts is quite good, however, the author's concept of the robot embraces androids and other creations, although admittedly writers have been inconsistent about the terms right from the start. There are references to fiction sprinkled through the rest of the book - Asimov in particular - which deals primarily with films, televisions, comics, etc. I found most of the ensuing chapters quite interesting as well, and considering the breadth of the subject, Carper covers a great deal of territory more than adequately despite the constraints of a single volume. There was a good deal of new information for me, and the prose is quite readable. My only complaint is that if ever a book called out to have illustrations, this would be it, and there's not a single still or photograph included.6/28/19

The Sacred in Fantastic Fandom edited by Carole M. Cusack, John W. Moreland, and Venetia Laura Delano Robertson, McFarland, 2019, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-7083-6

I'm afraid I didn't find the theme for this collection of essays at all appealing. It claims to be an examination of the overlap between fantasy fiction, movies, and computer games and religion. It compares convention attendees to pilgrims visiting holy places - a pretty strained comparison. Some of the essays were interesting - others not so much. The discussion of Muslim role players was probably the one I found most informative. On the other hand I doubt very much that Buffy the Vampire Slayer's popularity was because it examined the concept of having a soul. Some of the other essays reach just as far to snatch a subject out of the air. The few interesting entries are often troubled by opaque, academic prose. I have noticed that a great many academics who "study" pop culture from the outside seem to have little actual feel for their subject matter. 5/23/19

Robots That Kill by Judith A. Markowitz, McFarland, 2019, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-6813-0

This is a wide ranging examination of the question of homicidal machines that includes but is not limited to robots - drones and mythological creatures such as golems are considered - and which does not confine itself to fiction but rather examines real world applications, ethical questions, and practical ones. Drones are the most obvious contemporary example, although they are not robots, and there have been increasing efforts to develop artificial intelligence, also not necessarily robots. The theme is one that could have inspired a shelf full of books and the author's survey is therefore at times somewhat superficial in order to make room for other subjects. Movies, Isaac Asimov's robots, and magical creatures mix with questions about self regulating war robots, drone strikes, and nanotechnology. This is more of a survey than a detailed examination of the subject, but it does convey the flow of the idea through history. 6/14/19

In Mortal Combat by John Toland, Quill, 1991

This is a very comprehensive account of the Korean War, a mixture of overview and anecdotes including a few from the viewpoint of North Koreans. It reinforced by low opinion of Douglas MacArthur and Syngman Rhee, and didn't show Truman in a particularly good light either, even though it was North Korea and China who were clearly the aggressors. Much has been made of the Russian absence from the UN at the time that was supposedly their error because it allowed the UN action to be approved, but Toland suggests that this was intentional, that they wanted western resources diverted to a pointless war in Korea. The maps could have been better. 4/26/19

The Harry Potter Generation edited by Emily Lauer and Balaka Basu, McFarland, 2019, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-7003-4

I have to say that this seems like a pretty thin idea for a book. It's a collection of essays about how the Potter books have altered or shaped the views and lifestyles of people who read them in childhood. As such, they have to be largely anecdotal and personal to the writers, and necessarily subjective. About half of the essays really aren't about that anyway. They deal with ways of teaching the Potter books in the classroom, or lingering fannish interest in fictional magic, orthe fight over censoring the books, or other related issues. Some of these are interesting, others not so much. I very much doubt that anyone has shaped their life after the Potter books, and if they have, they probably need therapy. 4/10/19

Balaclava by John Selby, Atheneum, 1970  

This is a detailed account of the Crimean War, in some ways the most wasteful and least justified in history. England, France, Austria, and the Ottoman Empire went to war over Russian meddling in the Balkans and also just for the hell of it. The allies had no idea how to support such a large army at such a distance and the split command structure was unworkable. The Russians held out in Sevastopol for far longer than was expected and were finally overcome by weight of numbers more than anything else. The book is a straightforward retelling of events, with anecdotes derived from personal accounts to provide some color. 3/19/19

Harry Potter and the Cedarville Censors by Brian Meadors, McFarland, 2019, $35, ISBN 978-1-4766-7497-1

This is a fascinating account of the efforts by a school board in Arkansas to ban the Harry Potter books - witchcraft - and the various efforts that successfully defeated them. The author is one of the lawyers who was involved in the battle so he has lots of inside information. The intellectual confusion and moral paucity of the would-be censors is a kind of horror story in itself, although in this case with a happy ending. I am old enough to remember when some books were actually illegal to sell in my home state, so this resonated with me right from the outset. Encouraging, but also quite frightening. 3/12/19

Military Misfortunes by Eliot A. Cohen and John Gooch, Free Press, 1990 

Unfortunately this book was not at all what I expected. Rather than describing several historical battles that went awry or something similar – although it does do so after a fashion – this is more of a treatise on the structure of failure, the development of a lexicon to deal with it, and some abstract theorizing – complete with logic diagrams – to explain how failure should be described. The authors begin by stating that failure could be attributed to the commanding officer, to the command staff, to the entire army structure, or to the nature of the culture that produced the army. In fact, it is pretty obvious that all of those factors are contributory in almost every military defeat – or victory for that matter. I made it to the end by skimming portions that were frankly tedious and uninformative. 2/24/19

The Horror Comic Never Dies by Michael  Walton, McFarland, 2019, $35, ISBN 978-1-4766-7536-7

I saw a few horror comics when I was very young, but my only real recollection of them is when Ballantine reprinted some Vault of Horror and similar stories in paperback many years ago. This then is a fairly comprehensive history of that sub-genre, which was mostly new to me and generally interesting. I knew vaguely that the early horror comics were killed by the obnoxious comics code but this is the most complete synopsis of those events I have encountered. The book covers things right up to the present, including Marvel and DC, some titles of which I have actually seen and read. There are no illustrations here, which I think is a shortcoming, but the history itself is quite readable and for me at least very informative. 2/20/19

Perspectives on Stephen King by Andrew J. Rausch, McFarland, 2019, $35, ISBN 978-1-4766-7417-9

I'm not sure we really needed another critical examination of the works of Stephen King, but this one is actually a collection of interviews with various professionals in the horror field to gather their impressions, reactions, and anecdotes. Those interviewed include Richard Chizmar, Joe Lansdale, Richard Christian Matheson, Paul Tremblay, Stanley Wiater, and many others. Quite a bit of this struck me as rather trivial, but other parts are quite interesting and there are some interesting insights about the contributors, as well as about Stephen King. On balance, not a bad addition to my shelf full of King related nonfiction. 2/16/19

The Best of the Scream Factory edited by Peter Enfantino, Robert Morrish, and John Scoleri, CD, 2018, $75 

The Scream Factory was an excellent source of commentary on the horror field for almost ten years, covering both films and prose. This very large, heavily illustrated collection of seventy essays drawn from the magazine is an excellent and representative selection with work by S.T. Joshi, Max Alan Collins, Brian Stableford, Ed Gorman, and many others – including three by yours truly. Obviously they don’t deal with anything created after 1997 almost all of the entries age well and still retain relevance for modern readers and viewers. I really miss the magazine and this retrospective only made my feeling more acute. The price is pretty steep but you’re getting a lot of content for your money. It's too bad nothing remotely like this survives today. 2/9/19

Post-Apocalyptic Patriarchy by Carlen Lavigne, McFarland, 2019, $39.95, ISBN 978-0-7864-9906-9

This is a critical examination of a rash of recent television programs that have been set in post-collapse societies. Think shows like Jericho, The Last Ship, Falling Skies, The 100, The Walking Dead, etc. The Handmaid's Tale is not included. Each show is observed primarily in terms of how it deals with gender roles, and not surprisingly they are all to some degree or another patriarchal in structure. I was only familiar with a few of the shows covered, but I found only the most minor quibbles with the author's arguments, which were almost always convincing and logical. None of the shows that I have not seen struck me as very appealing based on the description here. The structure of the shows, particularly when taken as a group, suggests a great deal about the people producing them. 2/6/19

The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham, 1991   

The European exploitation of Africa is filled with fascinating incidents as well as showing humanity often at its absolute worst. This long, comprehensive history covers the Zulu and Boer Wars, the Belgian exploitation of the Congo, French imperialism in North Africa condoned by England and Germany, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire’s influence in Egypt and elsewhere, and the British and German colonization of the eastern and southern parts of the continent. Only Ethiopia managed to maintain national unity and independence during this period. I was less aware of the conflict between the English and French in what is now Nigeria, so I found that portion of the book of particular interest. There is a great deal of detail that enhanced my understanding even of events I thought I had covered well in other books. This is probably the best history of colonialism in Africa that exists. I’d been dipping into it for a couple of weeks and finally read the last couple of hundred pages over the course of one day. 2/2/19

The British Comic Book Invasion by Jochen Ecke, McFarland, 2018, $39.95, ISBN 978-1-4766-7415-5 

This is a detailed account of the influence of British comic book writers and illustrators on the American comic book scene. It is very much an academic rather than a popular study and I’m not familiar enough with the subject material to provide much judgment about the author’s accuracy or the strength of his arguments. The prose is also a bit rough going at times. Readers with more knowledge or interest in the subject will likely derive more benefit from the book, which certainly appears to be well researched and thoroughly reasoned. 1/15/19

American Gothic Literature by Ruth Bienstock Anolik, McFarland, 2018, $39.95, ISBN 978-0-7864-9851-2

I have to admit that much of the fiction discussed in this book was unfamiliar to me so I was not in a position to be particularly skilled at evaluating the text, although several of the works cited struck me as potentially interesting. The book traces the evolution of American gothic fiction from that of Europe, with a special emphasis on the roles of women in society and the rise of the patriarchy. That said, it wasn't as didactic as I might have feared and I actually found most of the book quite interesting. And it added title to my want list. 1/3/19