Last Update 1/20/08

Cylons in America edited by Tiffany Potter & C.W. Marshall, Continuum, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-8264-2848-6

I still haven't gotten around to watching this re-imagining of the disappointing Battlestar Galactica television series from way back when, although I did pick up all of the DVD sets.  Too many things to do, not enough time to do them all.  In any case, that means that this collection of essays about the program was at times opaque if not incomprehensible to me.  The essays are all well written and informative and deal with subjects like stereotyping, reflections in the series of real life situations like terrorist attacks, the interface between humans and cylons, the role of music, and other plot and character points.  A few of them are a little too academic for my taste, but most should be accessible to general audiences.  It provided more incentive for me to bump the series up on my to-be-watched list, and clearly indicates that the series is more substantial than a lot of other television shows, although that wouldn't necessarily be difficult to do.  12/20/07

The Art of Bryan Talbot, NBM, 2007, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-56163-512-2

Another art book in very large format, a mix of full color and black and white illustrations.  Introduction by Neil Gaiman.  Talbot, whose work is new to me, A lot of it is a kind of comic book style that doesn't appeal to me.  A few were quite nice.  The layout and production values are good and if you like this particular style of art, you'll get your money's worth.  12/20/07

The Portable Obituary by Michael Largo, Harper, 2007, $14.95, ISBN 978-0-06-123166-7

This is one of those odd collections of facts that appears every once in a while.  In this case, the subject is the deaths of famous people, how they happened, and other incidentals about their lives.  Did you know that Francis Scott Key died of pleurisy?  That Rocky Marciano was killed in a plane crash?  That Amelia Earhart had an open marriage with publisher George Putnam?  That no one knows how Spartacus actually died?  That Nicholas Tesla's papers are still classified as Top Secret by the US government?  That Red Skelton made two million dollars painting clowns?  These and many more facts are gathered together in this pleasant though rather random stroll through memory lane.  Profusely illustrated, well written, nicely organized, and filled with little tidbits of trivia that you can spring on friends and family.  Largo's previous book, Final Exits, is also worth your time.  11/9/07

A Critical History of Doctor Who on Television by John Kenneth Muir, McFarland, 2007, $$29.95, ISBN 978-0-7864-3716-0

I've been a Doctor Who fan since the first time I saw an episode on television, and I've probably read a couple of dozen non-fiction books about the show as well.  That was a bit of a negative reading this one, because a lot of it was repetitious.  I know the plots of most of the serials so well that I could have written most of the plot summaries myself.  The book also has the disadvantage of having been previously published in 1999, and with no updates, so the three recent years in the new format are not mentioned at all.  Those caveats notwithstanding, this is an excellent reference for fans of the show and others who might be curious about it.  In addition to summaries, cast lists, and so forth, the author provides some critical commentary on each adventure, special effects, script, acting, and continuity.  There's also a condensed history of the show's production, some brief comments on its predecessors and other influences, and appendices on several subjects including the abortive attempts over the years to bring the Doctor back to the big screen after the less than thrilling results of the two Peter Cushing movies.  There are also commentaries on spinoffs, novelizations and original novels, and other associated matters.  The list of the 20 "best" episodes is amusing, but I can't imagine how Tomb of the Cybermen could be the best.  A useful, informative, and pleasant reading experience.  10/21/07

Warnings to the Curious edited by S.T. Joshi & Rosemary Pardoe, Hippocampus, 2007, $20, ISBN 978-0-9771734-8-8

It has been a while since I read much of anything by M.R. James, but I still remember several of the stories so I wasn't completely lost paging through this very hefty collection of critical essays.  James wrote what used to be called just "ghost stories", although many of them did not involve ghosts.  It may well be, as the editors assert, that he was the most influential ghost story writer of all time, and certainly classics like "Casting the Runes" will always be regarded as one of the most significant stories in the genre.  Collected here are reminiscences about the author, an appraisal by H.P. Lovecraft, and a good selection of essays dealing with specific aspects of James' writing or individual stories.  There are discussions of his use of language, the role of innocents, nature as plot element, James' use of traditional and non-traditional imagery, the role of the subconscious mind, and homosexual undertext.  A few of the essays are written in a somewhat stiff academic style, but most are perfectly accessible, although they would probably be more effective if read in conjunction with the stories themselves.  Handsomely packaged and reasonably priced, this is one of the better critical volumes in the horror field this year.  10/17/07

Dead Reckonings #1 edited by S.T. Joshi & Jack M. Haringa, Hippocampus, 2007, $7.50

This is the first volume of a projected magazine to cover the horror field, somewhat reminiscent of the late lamented Necrofile, though more impressively bound.  Most of it consists of lengthy review/essays about the field, with contributions from the editors, Richard Bleiler, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Mike Ashley, Darrell Schweitzer, Paula Guran, and others, along with Ramsey Campbell's revived column.  Among the authors discussed this issue are F. Paul Wilson, David Schow, Brian Hodge, Gary Braunbeck, John Shirley, Jack Ketchum, Stephen King, J.G. Ballard, Joe Hill, Tim Powers, and Tom Piccirilli, so you know there's plenty of meat on the bones.  The field badly needs a serious, steady review magazine and this is certainly a top notch first issue.  Let's hope the editors are able to follow through and maintain the same high quality level in the issues to come.  10/17/07

Mad About Star Wars by Jonathan Bresman, Del Rey, 2007, $21.95, ISBN 978-0-345-50164-6

Here's a collection of Mad Magazine spoofs of the various Star Wars movies, all gathered together, many of them in color.  See what a typical day in the life of George Lucas might be.  Trace the events that caused Annakin to become Darth Vader by means of a maze. Peruse a collection of internet rumors about forthcoming movies.  See Bill Clinton as Luke Skywalker.  And, of course, there are parodies of the films themselves.  There is also commentary on the contents and how they were received by various parties, and alternate covers from foreign editions.  A neat item for fans of the magazine, of the movies, or just people with a sense of humor.  10/2/07

The Evolution of Tolkien's Mythology by Elizabeth A. Whittingham, McFarland, 2007, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-3281-3

Here we have another look at the historical structure of the Lord of the Rings series and associated works.  It's an academic study and definitely not light reading.  The author examines outside influences that might have shaped Tolkien's thinking, then looks at various specific aspects of his created world, how it was created, the nature of the theology, the nature of death, the repercussions of immortality, and the physical structure of Middle Earth.  The author's prose style is quite readable but the depth of her analysis tends to make the subject matter a bit dry at times.  For devotees of the series, this is an insightful and thought provoking examination, but for casual readers, it will probably be too dense. 10/2/07

The Dark-Hunter Companion by Sherrilyn Kenyon & Alethea Kontis, St Martins, 11/07, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-312-36343-5

The Dark-Hunter series, more than a dozen books to date, is an offbeat vampire series that incorporates some unusual variations, not to mention the Greek gods.  The Dark Hunters are various individuals who protect ordinary humans from the things that go bump in the night.  The books are heavy on atmosphere, with more than a touch of romance.  It's not one continuous story, so you don't need to read them in any particular order.  This is, obviously, a companion piece which provides lots of information, of varying usefulness.  There are detailed descriptions of the kinds of hunters and how they function, as well as an examination of the villains and subordinate players.  There's also an interview with the author, a fairly funny parody, some deleted passages, a suggested reading order, list of web sites, and so forth.  It's obviously designed for fans of the series, but readers considering sampling it should also find it useful.  9/18/07

Fritz Leiber: Critical Essays edited by Benjamin Szumskyj, McFarland, 2007, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-2972-1

A few years ago I re-read most of Fritz Leiber's short fiction and I was surprised at how consistently I found it to be even better than I remembered.  This is a collection of essays dealing with various aspects of his work, some of them a bit too formal for my taste, but most of them quite readable.  They only touch on a sample of his work, but even that is a welcome re-introduction.  The essay by the editor about Gather, Darkness! tempts me to add that to the re-read pile, and S. C. Bryce's discussion of the Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories had a similar effect.  Justin Leiber explores his father's theories of time and time travel, and Henrik Harksen talks about his Lovecraftian fiction. Other contributors include John Howard, Bruce Byfield, and others.  My reaction to the book is that it's a nice start, but Leiber's work deserves an entire shelf of analysis and discussion.  As always, McFarland's prices are a bit steep for the casual reader, but Leiber fans will find it worth their while.  9/7/07

Devilengine by Chad Michael Ward, NBM, 2007, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-56163-500-9

I had only seen a few of the paintings and photographs in this collection previously and none of them had struck me as particularly outstanding, although they weren't bad either.  Ward has an eye for the bizarre, and most of these have at least vaguely supernatural or at least horror elements.  Individually they struck me as anything from unimpressive to quite nice, but collectively there is a certain sameness among many of them - a central figure, human, distorted in some fashion - that gets a bit monotonous after a while.  There's a section with three dozen DVD covers he designed, all horror films, and it may be significant that even though I watch a lot of horror movies, I'd never seen any of these, and the covers didn't raise my interest level at all.  Not to my taste but it may be to yours.  The reproduction qualities are quite good and the price, for an art book, isn't bad at all.  8/29/07

Victorian Science edited by George Basalla, William Coleman, and Robert H. Kargon, Doubleday Anchor, 1970 

This is a collection of the presidential addresses given to the British Association for the Advancement of Society, which was founded in the 19th Century as part of the effort to make science a profession, and to distinguish it from the Royal Society, which largely consisted of amateurs and dilettantes.  At the time, Oxford and Cambridge refused to teach science in any form, considering it ungentlemanly.  The active support of science in other countries, particularly Germany, threatened to leave Britain lagging behind.  Each essay has a brief introduction.  The first one is, as you might expect, about the reasons for founding the society, but it has a couple of interesting points in it.  One is that science is severely handicapped by the tax on glass, which makes it too expensive for museums to display a large portion of their contents.  The other is the impracticality of the patent system, since patents were effectively only enforced following the first lawsuit, and lawsuits were expensive.

Most of the speeches collected here are generic, calls to action, to unity, and glorification of science.  A few are more interesting, and several were very enlightening about the difficulty scientists experienced during the 19th Century.  The most interesting to me were the last few which included a speech on the consequences of Darwin's theories which - though mild by contemporary standards - was apparently very controversial at the time.  Unfortunately, considering the percentage of the American public that still refuses to accept evolution, it appears we haven't progressed very far in the last century. 8/20/07


The Cryptopedia by Jonathan Maberry and David F. Kramer, Kensington, 2007, $16.95, ISBN 978-0-8065-2819-9

The front cover describes this as a "dictionary of the weird, strange, & outright bizarre", and that's exactly what it is.  Each of the thirteen (of course!) chapters deals with a different aspect of the paranormal, opening with an essay followed by an extensive glossary.  The subjects range from astrology to Wicca and include sections on UFOs, voodoo, cryptozoology, herbs, fairies, and so forth.  There are occasional black and white illustrations and a full color insert section.  Occasional sidebars provide more detailed discussions of some entries, but this is primarily what it claims to be, a dictionary rather than a more serious or detailed study.  Not the kind of thing you read straight through, obviously, but an interesting reference with a few surprises lurking among the more familiar terms.  8/6/07

The Frodo Franchise by Kristin Thompson, University of California Press, 2007, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-520-24774-1

Over the years I've read a good number of insider books associated with movies and televisions shows, and in general they follow very much the same pattern.  Some are better organized than others and some are clearly better written, but the authors are constricted to a certain extent by their subject matter.  The dull production of a dull film is likely to result in a dull book, however well crafted.  The subject of this one - the Lord of the Rings trilogy brought to screen - clearly is not a dull subject.  The films were superb, even if they did stray from the source material more than slightly, and they certainly have been and will continue to be very influential on future films.  I suspect Harry Potter would have been just as big without Peter Jackson's work, but the fantasy epic has been forever changed - at least on the screen.  The author attempts to document that, along with telling the story of how the movie was made, the effects on cast, crew, fans, non-fans, and the business of Hollywood as a whole.

Thompson certainly has made a prodigious effort, interviewing everyone from Jackson himself down to the designers of movie related computer games.  She was also present during part of the filming of the final installment.  If there is any flaw in the book, it's that the author tries to cover too much, everything from websites to fan reaction to special effects technology.  There are lots of photographs, side stories, and interesting details.  I'm not sure that I'm completely convinced that the movies were quite as influential as is implied here, but a certain amount of hyperbole is natural when a writer is so caught up in a project.  A much more ambitious and thoughtful examination than is the case in most superficially similar books.  8/2/07

The Pocket Venus by Henry Blyth, Walker, 1967

My fascination with the history and culture of Victorian England brought me to this account of a notorious scandal during the 1860s, a love triangle involving two men and a woman which ultimately destroyed the reputation of all three.  Harry Hastings was the last Marquis of Hastings, a member of the aristocracy.  His rival was Henry Chaplin, representative of the landed gentry.  Florence Paget was the daughter of a well respected family which had become somewhat profligate with its money, leaving her poor but used to socializing with wealth.  All were in their early twenties at the time of the scandal.  I was primarily interested in the background, the attitudes of the time when “One did not ask of a young man that he should be perfect – only that he should have an income of ten thousand a year.” 

None of the three had strong figures in their home lives.  The two men had lost their fathers at early ages and Florence her mother.  They did not meet until after she “came out” in 1862, by which time Chaplin was well set in his habits of sport and business and Hastings had learned to spend money freely and gamble unwisely.  The worth of a young man was then gauged by his ability to drink, seduce, gamble, and enjoy himself.  Intelligence and education were suspect.  Hastings was a practical joker and a spoiled brat, known to have released a horde of rats in a fashionable music hall.  Chaplin hobnobbed with royalty, and was smug and complacent.  The two men became mild rivals, which had little focus until they both became interested in Paget, the Pocket Venus, in 1863. 

Paget was considered one of the great beauties of her time, fashionably tiny in an era when men were wont to show off their manliness by being masters in the family.  The only mild criticism that surfaced early was that she was self-willed and unconventional, presumably through lack of strict training by her absent mother.  Both men courted her affection.  Chaplin shared her interests, but looked upon marriage as a business arrangement.  Hastings had a less savory reputation, but his lack of orthodoxy appealed to her rebellious nature.  Chaplin finally proposed, probably fearing that Hastings would beat him to it, and Paget accepted, only to mysteriously disappear and marry Hastings a short time later, to the consternation of Chaplin and society at large. 

The author clearly considers Hastings the real cad.  There is evidence that Paget had attempted to demonstrate to Chaplin that she didn’t want to marry him, that she was overwhelmed by the problem and simply fled.  Chaplin was clearly wronged.  Hastings, on the other hand, had conspired in secret for some time to steal the fiancé of a man supposedly his friend.  As time passed, Chaplin seemed to shrug off the affair and was generally looked upon as having comported himself with honor.  Hastings apparently grew frustrated that his “victory” was not applauded.  The fact that both men became obsessed with owning a horse that could win the Derby was probably coincidental, but Hastings took it as a personal affront and their rivalry became much more intense and bitter. 

The climax of their rivalry was right out of a movie.  Hastings had grown increasingly dissipated and had frittered away most of her fortune.  Paget had abandoned her efforts to reform him and may have been trying to reconcile with Chaplin.  Chaplin seems to have been indifferent to them, and then he bought a horse, Hermit, which seemed destined to win.  Incensed, Hastings bet heavily against Hermit, with funds he didn’t have.  At the last minute, it seemed he would be reprieved because Hermit burst a blood vessel a few days before the race.  His jockey was released, but Hermit recovered miraculously.  Unfortunately, all the seasoned jockeys were now employed.   Hastings was ruined and he died in 1868, at twenty six years old.  8/1/07

Hugo Gernsback and the Century of Science Fiction by Gary Westfahl, McFarland, 2007, $$35, ISBN 978-0-7864-3079-6

In case you didn't guess by the title, this is a critical history of the early days of science fiction.  The opening chapters are dedicated to refuting John Clute and Brian Stableford, two critics who have been less than sympathetic to Gernsback's reputation. I have no doubt that Westfahl has found errors in their arguments, though they seem relatively trivial to me, and frankly I think the issue about Gernsback is not so much what he intended or what he actually accomplished but whether or not he was responsible for the separation of SF into a genre (read ghetto) of its own, to the detriment of the field.   It's one of those issues we spend a great deal of time talking about but which can never be proved either way.

The bulk of the book discusses the Gernsback magazines and his own fiction.  While they were clearly influential in the early days of the field, the fiction published in them - as well as Gernsback's own work - is pretty lacking in interest and is rarely read today, so this is of more historical than literary interest.  The chapters devoted to more modern authors, tracing their influences backward, are more interesting but less convincing. Westfahl's championing of Gernsback continues - responding to Brian Aldiss and others - but feels increasingly quixotic.  The book is worthwhile as a detailed examination of a period in the development of SF that has been inadequately covered in the past, but one should be aware of the author's prejudice in Gernsback's favor.  7/25/07





Comedy and Culture by Roger B. Henkle, Princeton University Press, 1980

 Although the author of this book is examining comedy in literature in general, and specifically that of Victorian England, his opening discussion closely resembles one that has taken place in SF fandom more than once, namely, that we tend not to take humorous fiction seriously and rarely consider it for Hugos and Nebulas.  Henkle then develops his own definition of humor – which strikes me as a bit too broad to be useful – but it’s his book so he can define the terms however he likes.  Basically, it’s any piece of literature that doesn’t consistently deal with its subject matter in strictly realistic terms.   

The preliminaries over, he moves on to the early part of the 19th Century and the Silver Fork novels, written by people like Benjamin Disraeli and Bulwer-Lytton, which poked fun at the upper class and which were read in large quantities by the emerging middle class.  The authors at the time assumed that this was simple curiosity, but there was another factor involved.  The middle class had money and wanted to distant itself from its humbler roots, so they were looking for models upon which to pattern their own behavior.  Bulwer-Lytton was horrified to discover that people were actually adopting the tastes and attitudes of his fictional dandies, but in retrospect it’s not at all surprising.  The other side of the coin is that portrayal of the lower classes became increasingly absurd, probably to insulate readers from having to recognize the dire conditions under which the poor were forced to live. 

Henkle suggests that aspects of comedy in writing reflected other aspects of early Victorian society.  Absurd situations reflected a lack of underlying purposes in life, simplistic characterizations were a symptom of dehumanization, and terrible, exaggerated fates indicated feelings that human society was out of control and headed for a bad end.  The author illustrates this with examples from the novels of Evelyn Waugh and suggests that Waugh was in fact a product of the evolution of comedic writing.  His predecessors, however, were more detached from the world than critical of it, perhaps resigned to the inevitable.

The book goes on to explore the work of a number of writers, some of whom I've never read, a couple of whom I will read.  It made me more likely to re-read William Makepeace Thackeray than I'd been, and pointed out a couple worthwhile books of his that I've never seen.  The comparison of Thackeray to Dickens was interesting; Henkle contents that while Dickens' characters interact with one another and change, Thackeray's are immutable.  Their attributes are pre-set and the story resolves from their interplay, but without having any effect.  Thackeray attempted to describe events in his work, while Dickens sought a moral core.

Henkle chronicles the gradual change in literature reflecting the disillusionment of the later Victorians, Dickens' disillusionment with the middle class, and how these are all reflected in the literature of the time.  All in all, I thought the book tended to ramble through its material, and that it never really convinced me that the author wasn't choosing evidence that supported his argument and excluding that which did not.  7/17/07

Horrifying Sex edited by Ruth Bienstock Anolik, McFarland, 2007, $39.95, ISBN 978-0-7864-3014-7

Despite the melodramatic title, this is pretty much an academic book, a collection of essays on "Sexual Difference in Gothic Literature".  The general theme is the confusion between or identification of sex and the supernatural in classic horror fiction, a general thesis that has percolated pretty well through the fan world as well.  It's no secret that Stoker looked at vampirism as a kind of venereal disease, and there are obvious sexual themes in Le Fanu and other writers.  Some of the works examined here are obvious - Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Ann Racliffe's The Italian, Carmilla and Dracula, and so forth, but there are some surprises.  Jane Eyre is also included, as well as H. Rider Haggard's She. 

Nor are the authors restricted to just the 19th Century and earlier, or even to the written word.  There are essays on I Married a Monster from Outer Space and Aliens, as well as on Clive Barker, Christopher Isherwood, Shirley Jackson,and others.  I had an ambiguous reaction to the choice of articles.  On the one hand it provides a wider scope and more variation among the articles.  On the other hand, it tended to leave the book as a whole rather unfocused.  Although there are obvious parallels between the treatment of female characters in Stoker and in Hollywood, I'm not convinced that you can make that point effectively in a multi-author collection, although a book length work by a single author might well do so.  I didn't care for the title either, because in many cases what the authors are talking about here is gender rather than sex.  Although a few of the essays occasionally drift toward academese, they are for the most part quite readable, and they work better as individuals than as a cohesive whole.  7/9/07

Star Wars: A Pop-Up Guide to the Galaxy by Matthew Reinhart, Orchard, 10/07, $32.99, ISBN 978-0-439-8882-8

CORRECTION:  Apparently I missed a note that the copy sent to me was NOT the complete book, but only a sample.   Presumably there are more pop-ups to be found in the finished version, which I have not yet seen.  Stay tuned for further details

This is a neat little pop-up book, but it's certainly not a guide to the galaxy.  When you open it, a large Darth Vader head dominates the center of the book, and you can see Annakin Skywalker's face inside.  There are two smaller pop-ups to either side, one of Darth Vader and one of Luke Skywalker.  They open up brandishing light sabers which actually light up through some process I can only guess at.  It's a nifty effect.  The lower two pop-ups are of Yoda and the Emperor Palatine, considerably less impressive.  There's a small amount of text accompanying each and that's it.  Not much bang for your buck.  6/23/07

The Casebook of Forensic Detection by Colin Evans, Wiley, 1996 

I’ve never been particularly fond of true crime literature (other than the Jack the Ripper case), but this one is out of the ordinary mold.  It’s actually a history of the development of scientific techniques in crime detection, illustrated by one hundred case summaries.  Given the large number of entries, allowing only 2-3 pages each, the individual articles don’t go into much detail, but they do place the developments in historical context.  A few are well known – Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy – but most would be new to all but those already interested in criminal history. 

The articles are arranged by category. First is ballistics, which I knew a little about.  Other non-biological subject areas are disputed documents, explosives and fire, fingerprinting, psychological profiling, voiceprints, and trace evidence.  The biological developments include blood typing, DNA, toxicology, time and cause of death, serology, identification of remains, and forensic anthropology.  The cases are drawn primarily from the United States and England, with a sprinkling from other European countries, Africa, Australia, and even New Zealand.  The oldest is in the middle of the 19th Century and the most recent only a few years before the book was published.  Some of the individual cases are interesting and I would have been interested in a more in depth look, but that would be another book.  The author has since published a second, similar volume. 6/10/07

The Mammoth Book of Pirates edited by Jon E. Lewis, Carroll & Graf, 2006, $13.95, ISBN 978-0-78671-729-3 

This is a collection of non-fiction pieces about pirates, of varying quality and interest.  It opens with an account by Sir Francis Drake of an attack he was involved in, although I imagine he thought of himself as a privateer rather than pirate at the time, and another by Sir Walter Raleigh.  There follows a more contemporary piece about John Ward, an early 17th Century English pirate who worked the Mediterranean, and who was apparently quite famous in his time, though forgotten today, and a brief fragment about piracy in ancient Rome. 

The first significant article is by Howard Pyle, a recounting of the early days of pirating around the island of Tortuga, also in the 17th Century. There’s also a fragment of a pirate’s diary, although the authenticity of the document is open to question.  The portrayal of Henry Morgan – who later became governor of Jamaica and who was knighted by the king of England – is considerably more unfavorable than most I’ve read before.  His major exploits were on land, attacking towns and forts, and he seemed more inclined to violence than most buccaneers, who preferred to take their prizes without fighting.  He also made frequent use of torture on his prisoners, including the women. Although he was undoubtedly a brilliant strategist, some of his most remarkable successes came primarily because of the stupidity or cowardice of his opponents. 

There are a couple of good excerpts from the work of A.O. Exquemelin, who was himself a pirate who served under Morgan and others.  There’s also an interesting essay about piracy on the Thames river.  Under British law, theft committed at sea (which included the Thames) was almost by definition piracy, so when a group of men waded out to a moored ship and looted it, that’s what they were charged with.  Although the excerpts from actual pirates are often interesting, the editor reminds us that they may have had an axe to grind, and in fact even one of the historical essays is accompanied by a warning that the author may have engaged in some wishful thinking about the dire fate of its subject. 

There’s a fairly good selection of excerpts from books previously published, but little if any original material.  The essay on Jean LaFitte apparently depends heavily on his supposed memoirs, which are generally believed to be a hoax.  The author portrays LaFitte as an American patriot, which is rank nonsense given the historical record.  I hadn’t realized before that Blackbeard the Pirate only had a career of fifteen months, and that most of that time was spent off the coast of the Carolinas rather than in the Caribbean.  There’s also an interesting bit about the real life inspiration for Jonathan Swift’s Robinson Crusoe.  The history of pirate flags reveals that the Jolly Roger was actually red.  “Roger” is a corruption of “rouge”.  This collection does a fine job of giving the feel for historical piracy, but I’m very dubious about accepting the accuracy of some of the information. 6/7/07

The Amazing Transforming Superhero! by Terrence R. Wandtke, McFarland, 2007, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-3189-2

Since virtually every superhero has a secret identity, in one sense they all transform, but the editor of this collection of essays has a more specific meaning for the term.  I've never heard of any of the contributors, all of whom have strong academic credentials.  A few of the essays drift into academese occasionally, but for the most part they're accessible to a general audience.  I was more interested in those characters whom I was familiar with, understandably.  All of the essays deal in some way with the manner in which the created image of the superhero is altered over time to reflect changes in politics, the moral climate, or other factors that influence the readers as well as the writers.

The first three entries are concerned with the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, Captain America, Superman, and the Thing from the Fantastic Four.  The article about super-females was the best of these.  The second grouping deal with more recent articles, Batman as the Dark Knight, Spider-Man, and others.  The last section is the most recent and postdates my active interest in comics, although I have watched Smallville and was peripherally aware that Wonder Woman had undergone considerable revision from the days when I used to read that title.  I had never even heard of The Incredibles.  Some of this was very interesting, some moderately, and some held no interest for me at all.  I suspect that comic book devotees will derive more pleasure than I did.  The fact that the characters have changed as described comes as no surprise, but some of the details are enlightening.  6/6/07

The Pirates Lafitte by William C. Davis, Harcourt, 2006, $16, ISBN 978-0-15-603259-9

 I’ve always enjoyed pirate stories and pirate movies, so a logical progression is that I’d be interested in non-fiction about pirates.  There’s not as much as you might think, since pirates were not inclined to keep diaries or publicize much of their activities.  This very detailed history torpedoed another one of those stories we used to be told in school, the one where the desperate pirates repent of their evil ways and pledge their allegiance to the government when a foreign army threatens to attack.  We used to learn that other countries revised history for political purposes but it never occurred to us that we did the very same thing ourselves.  Later in the book, another icon of my youth becomes badly tarnished; Jim Bowie was LaFitte’s partner in the illegal slave trade. 

The early chapters of this book about Jean and Pierre Lafitte (Jean was the pirate brother – although he rarely indulged in piracy himself, Pierre his landbound agent) reflect that.  We know almost nothing about their youth in France, or how they ended up in the New Orleans area, and even then we know more about Pierre than the more colorful Jean.   The author does, however, do an excellent job of describing the environment in New Orleans from 1800-1814, and the surrounding area.  Pensacola was then capital of Spanish owned Western Florida, which included Baton Rouge. 

It was a confused time in the Caribbean and the difference between pirates and privateers was vanishingly small.  Supposedly neither could offload goods in New Orleans, and even legitimate goods had to pass through customs, but there were too many waterways that bypassed the inspection points, and too many officials who were willing to look the other way.  The tension between the inhabitants – mostly French and refugees from the islands – and the American officials who tried to administer the city didn’t help any.  The federal government wasn’t inclined to enforce the law either, since they were hoping to push the Spanish out of all of Florida. 

One of the big surprises for me was that the Lafittes actually didn’t do much of any pirating themselves.  In fact, Pierre Lafitte rarely went to sea at all, and after a heart attack ruined his health, it was Jean who made most of the decisions.  I was also surprised that the fleet of pirates they did employ was comparatively small, not the armada that I’d imagined.  They were smugglers rather than pirates, dealing in slaves and other portable goods that their own pirate employees or others brought to them for sale in the New Orleans area.  They didn’t outfit their first pirate ship until 1812, and the American authorities at the time were afraid that they would join the British side. 

The other not-so-big surprise is that the story that the LaFittes joined Andrew Jackson in defending New Orleans as an act of patriotism is a crock.  They were in legal trouble, the authorities were closing in on them, and they bargained for a pardon in exchange for talking their followers into fighting for the Americans.  The brothers almost certainly thought of themselves as French, if they had a nationality at all, and they most definitely were not patriotic. In fact, their famous offer to help defend New Orleans was a misunderstanding; they merely offered to not help the British, although they were later drawn into Jackson’s circle.  Pierre did indeed perform bravely in the battle with the British, but his contribution was probably negligible.  Jean LaFitte was notably absent from the battlefield, although by then the public thought of the two brothers as a single person. 

The LaFittes were relatively quiet in the year following the end of the war.  They began rebuilding their small fleet and marshalling their depleted resources.  For some months, their main effort otherwise was in joining a group of Americans and Mexican rebels who were planning various invasions and insurrections to free Mexico and Texas of Spanish control.  When it became apparent to both brothers that their associates were incompetent and doomed to failure, they individually decided to become spies for the Spanish government.  It’s interesting that they reached this decision independently, because at the time Jean was in Baltimore trying to win favors from the US government while Pierre was in New Orleans, fending off lawsuits.  There is no evidence that they felt any compunction at all about betraying the conspirators, some of whom had been their business partners for almost a decade.  In fact, they enjoyed the best of both worlds.  Jean LaFitte eventually became virtually ruler of the pirate colony in Galveston at the same time that he was plotting to betray them all to the Spanish. 

To some extent this was all abetted by the US government, which called off plans to attack the pirates themselves (the US claimed that Galveston was included in the Louisiana Purchase) after the successful seizure of Florida from the Spanish.  This was done partly to avoid pushing Spain into war and partly because the undisturbed pirates could continue to prey on Spanish shipping (they carefully avoiding taking American ships).  The LaFittes continued to play the US government, Spain, the rebellious Spanish colonies in South America, the pirates, and numerous adventurers from the US who wanted to seize Texas against one another for some years, but eventually even their cleverness could not conceal the truth.   

The turning of the tide of public opinion against piracy and a warming of Spanish-American relations eventually spelled the end of their small empire.  Late in their lives (although they were only around forty years old), they both turned to active piracy and began basing their operations out of an island off the coast of South America.  Pierre died first, of a fever he contracted after losing his ship and nearly his life.  The location of his grave has been lost over the years.  Jean, paradoxically, ended up as a captain serving in the Colombian navy and was killed during a battle at sea, possibly with a pirate ship.   

A couple of observations about the book in general.  This was one of the most smoothly written histories I’ve read.  Davis’ prose style is clear and entertaining.  He also documents things rather copiously.  Five hundred pages of text are followed by two hundred pages of notes, which are primarily citations and not additional information.  There’s also a useful index.   One of the best histories I’ve read in recent years. 6/5/07

Mystic Faerie Tarot by Linda Ravenscroft and Barbara Moore, Llewellyn, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-7387-0921-5

This is a combination of a book and a 78 card tarot deck, the pictures of which all involve fairies.  If you like fairies, the art seems quite good, but otherwise the cards aren't that easily distinguished from one another.  They presumably represent all the usual tarot characters, although not with their traditional depiction, obviously.  The book that accompanies the deck is almost 300 pages long and has a detailed explanation of each card, designed to be a guide to reading them, and four original fairy tales which are cute but not memorable.  The artwork is by Ravenscroft and the text by Moore.  There's also a tarot bag to hold the cards.  Probably a collectors' item at some point, and an interesting novelty for the moment. 5/31/07

From Castlereagh to Gladstone: 1815-1885 by Derek Beales, Norton, 1969 

The time frame picked for this history of England is from the Battle of Waterloo to the first year when it became obvious that England no longer dominated the world, according to criteria established by the author.   He also characterizes this as being set in the most peaceful century in English history given that only one major war was fought, the Crimean, which overlooks the fact that the British military was in action somewhere in the world almost constantly throughout this period.  The violence may have been remote, but it was certainly there. 

Beales subdivides the seventy years into four chunks, then discusses various aspects of each of those segments in terms of social change, economics, politics, and so forth.  Although this is a straightforward and rather basic history, there are portions that stand out.  There has been a good deal of controversy about whether or not the Industrial Revolution improved the lives of workers in England from the late 19th to early 20th Centuries.  A good deal of that depends on how you define “improvement” and where you set your start and end dates, since the standard of living rose and fell several times.  Beales does a good job of summarizing those objections, then considers another element which I would have thought was obvious, but which I haven’t seen mentioned in other accounts of this question that I’ve read.  The population of England was increasing at an unprecedented rate during this period, and while the causes of that aren’t entirely understood, it certainly was not the result of the Industrial Revolution.  Even if we take the worse possible scenario and draw the tentative conclusion that peoples’ lives were far worse, that still doesn’t mean that we’re talking cause and effect.  In fact, the increase in population might have had a much MORE adverse effect if industrialization hadn’t made it possible to produce inexpensive goods and move food around the country more rapidly than in the past. 

There are bits here and there that I hadn’t encountered before, like the declaration by the Church of England that gothic was the “only true Christian Architecture”.   He also provides a good description of how political parties evolved in Parliament.  Beales admits up front that he has given short shrift to foreign policy except where it directly affected the British public.  The concentration on events inside Great Britain gives a lot more focus than exists many other histories of this period that I've read.  5/28/07

City of Dreadful Delight by Judith R. Walkowitz, University of Chicago Press, 1992 

One of the early assertions of this feminist oriented study of “sexual danger in late Victorian London” is that the changing attitude toward sex in the 19th Century made it necessary to redefine the terms.  Until then, the link between sexual activity and procreation was paramount, and the change in attitude was frightening enough that certain categories of sexual behavior – homosexuality, adultery, promiscuity, and prostitution – were soon being characterized as particularly “dangerous”.  The author contends that early feminists were to some degree complicit in exaggerating the dangers posed by the existence of a class of privileged, sexually aggressive men, although by doing so women were finally able to directly affect political discourse. 

The main text opens with a description of the mindset of male writers of the 19th Century who tended to see London as an area to be explored, who were predisposed to see distinct cultures in different parts of the city, and who somehow felt themselves separate from the people they observed.  Much of this is difficult to follow because of the author’s convoluted and not particularly accessible prose style which introduces phrases like “intrapsychic incorporation” without explaining what they mean.  Given the occasional obtuse language, what follows is necessarily my interpretation of her arguments, sometimes resulting from interpolation.  A tendency I’ve noticed in academic studies is a reluctance to actually make a point clearly.  She does, however, make a good case for the prostitute as the primary focus of the fears and attractions these men felt toward the changing pattern of human behavior that was manifesting itself in the larger cities. The streetwalker became the visible face of what many saw as the corruption inherent in urban life.   

She also points out the double standard of the time (which persists today).  Prostitutes situated near naval bases were regularly examined to prevent the spread of disease, not the soldiers who frequented the bordellos.  Prostitutes were engaging in sex for personal gain while their clients were simply indulging a “natural impulse”.   Most other laws involving hygiene and public health were also clearly designed to demarcate a difference between those possessing power and wealth and those who had neither.  These efforts may have had the opposite effect to that intended, because the accelerated efforts helped to stir up “respectable” women as well and increase their involvement in the political process.   It is not a coincidence that many of the reformers who agitated for social change cited the moral decline of the underprivileged as their primary concern, rather than the fact that they were underfed, inadequately housed, and frequently diseased.  There was also considerable paternalism; the poor needed to be helped, they could not help themselves. 

The fact that the fear of the underclass was exaggerated is clear from Charles Booth’s study during the 1880s in which he observed that it is not the very poor and unemployed who are politically active and inclined toward revolution but the more skilled, educated, and better paid worker who has the leisure to consider such action, and the energy to pursue a more active political role.  Even Booth was disturbed by the breakdown in traditional gender roles.  Women refused to accept the authority of men; some were even sexually aggressive.  She makes a good case for the rise of the “swell”, the devil may care man about town, as a reaction to the diminution of the role of the male as head of the family in a culture where unemployment and social trends acted to reduce traditional authority figures.  Public spaces were increasingly open to both genders – everything from shops and museums to music halls. 

When women began to frequent the city without chaperones, shopping or working in shops, their temerity was a direct challenge to male supremacy, which is why the woman’s act of shopping was transformed into a status symbol, an indicator of her husband’s social and financial standing.  The charitable movement also gave many women an opportunity to pursue a more assertive lifestyle, to the chagrin and displeasure of most of the male population.  This eventually evolved into even more active roles, including public speaking and political agitation, both developments that further polarized opinion about the separation of gender roles. 

The book next examines the “Maiden Tribute”, a newspaper expose during the 1880s which characterized prostitution as the corruption of the lower class female by upper class males.  Walkowitz interprets the series of articles as implicitly anti-female despite claims to the contrary because the author compares prostitution to the myth of the Minotaur.  Since the Minotaur was born as the result of illicit female lust, then the author – Stead – must have been implying that prostitution was at root caused by females as well.  I can’t say that she completely convinced me on this point but it is clear that the laws that were subsequently passed outlawing prostitution were clearly designed to punish the presumed victims (prostitutes) by requiring painful, humiliating medical examinations, without any inconvenience to their male clients.  Much of Stead’s detailed descriptions sound vaguely pornographic and he was undoubtedly attempting to be sensational rather than informative.  It is also worth noting that it was at this time (1885), that the age of consent was raised from 13 to 16, that consensual sex between adults of the same sex was outlawed, and that prostitution was declared illegal. 

The middle of the book consists primarily of a summary of the proceedings of a discussion group formed in the 1880s to discuss gender issues.  It is interesting to note the differences between the male and female members, both of whom –while shaped by their times – were also trying to rise above them.  There’s also a detailed summary of an attempt to have a female spiritualist declared insane, but the motivation appears more a case of her husband just wanting to get rid of her than any deliberate, gender related plot, although some of those enlisted in the cause clearly included that in their agenda.  The final portion is what attracted me to the book in the first place, a feminist account of Jack the Ripper.

I confess to some disappointment.  The author correctly describes the phenomenon as a political as well as social crisis, and illustrates the attempt by Londoners to separate themselves from Whitechapel and dismiss it as a problem that originated there and must be solved there.  But she really doesn't bring anything new to the discussion other than a well presented summary of the theory that the Ripper had medical knowledge, never proven, but at the time resulting in considerable backlash against the medical profession.  The brief epilogue about the Yorkshire Ripper of the late 1970s is more interesting, though occasionally frustrating.  The author fails to explain, for example, why the police use of volunteers as bait is a "misogynous assault on women's freedom".  On the other hand, her charges that the press deliberately tried to make the crimes more dramatic is right on.  If you can get past the academic prose style, some of the accounts here are fascinating glimpses into little known features of late Victorian England, and many of the gender issues are just as relevant today as they were more than a century ago.  Other portions are bogged down in detail and poorly articulated social criticism.  5/24/07

Finder by Marilyn Greene & Gary Provost, Crown, 1988

A while back, I decided that I wanted to write a series of mystery novels with a recurring character.  I looked at what was appearing regularly in the mystery section and noticed that everybody had a gimmick.  There were crossword puzzle mysteries, cooking mysteries, bead stringing mysteries, herb seller mysteries, and just about everything else you could think of.  So I scratched my head, trying to think of a hook that no one else was using and finally came up with one.  My detective was going to be a professional private investigator.  What a novel idea!  Anyway, in order to do that right, I'd have to do some research first.  I wasn't interested in doing a Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe pastiche.  I wanted something that would accurately reflect how a private detective actually works.  So I picked up several books on the subject, including this one, a sort of rambling memoir by a woman who specialized in missing persons cases.

Almost the first half of the book is about her family and her experiences in search and rescue, interesting more for the side issues - crooked psychics, territorial police posturing - than in the cases themselves.  The latter half was more to the point, although it didn't present anything I wasn't already aware of.  Some of her cases are interesting, others less so, and it's ironic that her own son eventually became a runaway.  Although it didn't add much to my store of background information, it was generally interesting in itself.  There is a paperback edition.  5/16/07

Breakfast in the Ruins by Barry  N. Malzberg, Baen, 2007, $14, ISBN 978-1-4165-2117-4 

This is a reprint of Malzberg’s earlier collection of essays, Engines of the Night (1982), with just about as much new material as appeared in that earlier book.  The essays are about science fiction and while you might think that a lot of the material may have become dated during the interval, you’d be wrong.  In some cases they were prophetic; in others they are as true, or more true, today than they were when they were first written.  The tone of many of them is far from cheerful, about the future of the field, its past, what it does to people who try to write conscientiously, and why it probably will never change.  I’ll skip around a bit and look at some of the more interesting points. 

Malzberg asserts that despite claims to the contrary science fiction is one of the most conservative genres.  Anyone who witnessed the uproar during the New Wave eruption in the 1960s should have no trouble accepting this contention, and if anything the field has grown even more conservative today.  The old voices of innovation – Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ, Thomas Disch, J.G. Ballard, David R. Bunch, Felix Gotschalk, and others – have mostly fallen silent and there really is no equivalent of them today. Oh, there certainly are writers experimenting with style and violating the "rules" of the field, but they appear mostly in the small press, or are tolerated if not ignored.  When was the last time there was a lively debate about a short story as there used to be about Zelazny, Bunch, Ellison, Russ, and Ballard? I’ve read quite a few good SF novels in recent years, but very few truly innovative ones.  The contraction of the publishing field probably hasn’t helped. 

The discussions of the early stages of SF – the influence of Campbell, the changing of the guard during the 1950s, the absence of anything remotely resembling sexual content until Philip Jose Farmer – all ring true and summarize their topics with impressive brevity.  His short essay about the collapse of the short story market is more obvious today than when he wrote it.  Malzberg asserts that science fiction, unlike any other form of literature “lives in the short forms”, which suggests that the decline of the short story is an even more sinister omen for the field.  I do disagree with his contention that no significant short story writer appeared between 1955 and John Varley in 1975, because that would exclude Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, J.G. Ballard, and Thomas Disch, all of whom produced bodies of short fiction comparable to Varley.  He is right on, however, in lamenting the obscurity of Mark Clifton and, to a lesser extent, F.L. Wallace. 

There’s a well reasoned argument that the tendency to sell novels based on sample chapters and an outline has had an adverse effect on the genre and a moving piece about the late Mark Clifton, whom I agree is one of the best writers no one ever reads any more.  His list of the top ten SF short stories of all time is, of course, subjective but he makes excellent arguments for those he includes.  The predictions about the state of the SF market in the 1990s are remarkably accurate, particularly the rise of fantasy, although it didn’t really reach the levels Malzberg predicted until after 2000. 

One statement that pops up a couple times in the first half of the book is that more than a thousand books labeled “science fiction” were published every year from 1978 to 1982, which is not the case.  Even counting reprints, I doubt the total ever reached five hundred in a single year, and it’s less than that now unless you include fantasy, which doesn’t usually bear that label either.  The new material starts with Malzberg’s response to Disch’s unfavorable review of Engines of the Night, then moves on to describe the further fragmentation and dilution of the field, a conclusion impossible to deny given the decline of SF and the rise of media related novels, fantasy, and routine series fiction.  He doesn’t name names, deliberately, but one only has to look at the cookie cutter military SF series and much of alternate history, other world adventure stories, and other current SF to know what he’s talking about.

Malzberg's reminiscences about his experiences at Scott Meredith are sobering, depressing, enraging, and entertaining.  Even though I'd read them before, they had just as powerful an effect the second time.   Several of the following essays are peripherally, if at all, related to science fiction, and of them I found his reminiscences about the Lone Wolf series particularly interesting (I've read thirteen of the fourteen).   Several essays dealing with a single author follow, presumably introductions to collections (a list of original appearances of these pieces would have been useful).  I can't say I always agree with Malzberg's conclusions, but it's hard to fault his reasoning. If you care about science fiction as a form of literature, you need to read this.  5/11/07

Edgar Rice Burroughs by Robert B. Zeuschner, McFarland, 2007, $$35, ISBN 978-0-7864-3113-7

I discovered Edgar Rice Burroughs comparatively late in life; I was in college when the Ace paperbacks began to appear.  Supposedly that was too late to really enjoy them, but I guess I was still in touch with my inner child because I enjoyed most of them a great deal and I occasionally re-read one or another even now.  I'm not really a collector of his work, but if I was, this handy little guide to everything he's written would be one of my tools, although it limits itself to US publications so all the British publishing info is missing.  There's detailed information about each edition but almost nothing about the plots of the stories or novels.  The added bibliographies are also interesting.  There's a list of all Big Little Books based on Burroughs characters, for example, actually all Tarzan titles.  The list of stories and novels from other publishers based on the same appears to be complete, but does not include any of the obvious imitators like Otis Adelbert Kline, Ralph Milne Farley, etc.  The bibliography of works about Burroughs is also quite extensive.  There are several other indexes as well, and black and white reproductions of some of the artwork from early editions.  All in all, a useful and well organized survey that covers its subject matter thoroughly. 5/8/07

Inside the Hub by Stephen James Walker, Telos, 2007, $24.95, ISBN 978-1-84583-013-7

During the first season of the revived Doctor Who, we first heard of Torchwood, a secret British establishment whose job is to protect humanity from alien threats.  Torchwood's nature was developed somewhat during the following season, and the impression was of an organization whose purposes might be noble but whose methods were somewhat suspect.  Now there's a spinoff, Torchwood, one of two such branches of the Doctor Who world, the other featuring Sarah Jane Smith.  Alas, I have not seen a single episode of either show, and in fact I've heard almost nothing about them, though I look forward to the DVDs when they become available.  That said, I'm not sure how much meaningful I can say about this particular book, which is a history and guide to the first thirteen episodes.  The challenges appear to be diverse and interesting, ranging from telepathy to discorporate alien entities to cannibals and fairies.  The history of the show's creation was reasonably interesting, but I had no point of reference for the discussions of the characters or episodes. There appear to be copious Doctor Who references in the show, and the plot descriptions sound interesting, although without the visuals it's hard to judge.  The author has done a thorough job on cast and crew, media tie-ins, and associated matters.  This book should tell you anything you want to know about the show, and maybe make you put the DVD set on your want list. 4/13/07

Ripe Was the Drowsy Hour by J.E. Chamberlin, Seabury, 1977

 Oscar Wilde was one of the more interesting characters of Victorian England.  As a young man he was jilted by his fiancé, who went on to marry Bram Stoker, and later in his life he was imprisoned because of his homosexuality.  Although this book concentrates on Wilde, it’s not so much a biography as a commentary on the age in which Wilde lived and the way in which he and his environment affected each other.  He points out that Wilde was brought up in the middle of two pervasive controversies that would seem comparatively insignificant to us today, the question of whether or not the Anglican Church should reunite with Roman Catholicism in some fashion – pretty well scotched by the adoption of the doctrines of Papal Infallibility and the Immaculate Conception – and the more nebulous alteration in the public mind about the conflict between individualism and statism, the latter of which began to predominate much more obviously following the Crimean War. 

Another attitude which Wilde embraced that would be out of fashion now was his insistence that art and nature were and should be completely separate, that nature was imperfect, disorderly, and not of the intellect, while art existed as a creation in of itself and that society should dedicate itself to the idea (art) not the actual (nature).  He also despised what he called an “excess of industry”, suggesting that hard work and ambition necessarily led to “stupidity”, that is, an inability to appreciate the finer aspects of existence.  Wilde was not alone in believing this.  Even the artist James Whistler, at one time Wilde’s friend and at another time his enemy, insisted that art must by its very nature be elitist, and that true virtue consisted in being indolent and aloof from the world. Other attitudes were shifting.  Up until late in the 19th Century, “socialism” was understood to be the opposite of “individualism”.  That changed, with “capitalism” becoming the antithesis.   

A good portion of the book is spent discussing the contending viewpoints in the artistic world of the time.  Is beauty objective or subjective?  Should art be realistic, or as divorced from the material as possible?  Is falsehood merely an aspect of truth?  Is an artist in a decadent culture (however that may be defined) inescapably decadent as well?  The author pursues the subtleties of the various arguments at great length and the result is a complex and many layered portrayal of a kind of intellectual ferment that seems to me largely absent from the arts today.  4/10/07

Planet of the Apes as American Myth by Eric Greene, McFarland, 2006, $29.95, ISBN 978-0-2663-8

I read this about ten years ago when it first appeared and this re-issue doesn't seem to have any new material.  I didn't re-read it in detail, however, so I could be wrong.  The publicity information mentions an upcoming new movie, so presumably it's designed to take advantage of that.  I never really understood the attraction of the Apes movies anyway.  The first one was okay, but the next four were considerably less impressive, and the live action television series was a complete waste of time. I never saw the animated version so I have no way of judging it.  The remake of the first movie a few years back had some nice visuals, but it really wasn't an improvement over the original.   Anyway, the author discusses the movies, quite appropriately, as commentaries on various political issues, particularly racial discrimination.  There's a bit of a personal agenda involved as well, but it's not overly intrusive.  Convincingly written, but much of it seems to me to be belaboring the obvious.

Days of the Steamboats by William H. Ewen, Parents Magazine Press, 1967

This slim little book is intended for young adults, but there are so few books about steamboats - one of my minor passions - that I picked this one up primarily for the pictures, which include many photographs and a few drawings.  There is a distinction between river steamboats and their ocean going cousins.  The riverboats had decks which were larger in surface area than the hull so that they overlapped it, whereas ocean vessels contained the decks inside the perimeter of the hull.  The large wheels that propelled them could be mounted either on the ship's sides or at the rear.  The author's research is occasionally superficial, however.  Robert Fulton's first steamboat was, as he says, never named the Clermont despite legends to the contrary.  On the other hand, it was NOT the first successful steamboat, although it was the first to be commercially successful in the US.  Other steam powered vessels had been constructed and demonstrated both in North America and Europe, although they never quite caught on anywhere. Even after Fulton was operating regularly, the steamboat industry did not expand rapidly because he had been given an exclusive right to operate steam driven vessels in New York, and it was not until this legislation was ruled unconstitutional in 1824 that competitors began to invest.  Unfortunately, and predictably, not all of the new ships were as well constructed and there was a rash of serious accidents and sinkings.

Normally we think of steamboats in connection with Mark Twain and the Mississippi, but there was a thriving steamboat industry on the Hudson River and elsewhere for many years, and in fact the largest steamboat ever built was used exclusively on the Hudson.  The New York vessels were all sidewheelers, however, and it was on the Mississippi that the sternwheeler became prominent.  It was there that the greatest steamboat disaster took place when the Louisiana's boilers exploded, killing 1600 people.  Ewen interleaves a bit of mild technical data with a long string of anecdotes, most of which are amusing, but the treatment is not in enough depth to make this a particularly informative book.  The pictures, however, are really neat.

Queen Victoria’s Little Wars by Byron Farwell, Norton, 1985 (first published in 1972)

During the entire reign of Queen Victoria, not one single year passed without military conflict involving the British Army somewhere in the world.  Some of those are well known – the Crimean War, the Boer Wars, the Indian Mutiny, and the Opium Wars – but others in India, Afghanistan, Burma, and northeast Africa are less well remembered.  Nor had I realized that there were several military actions in Canada, that the Maori wars have technically never ended, or several other revelations in this wide ranging history.  The author has assembled a somewhat selective account of those conflicts and he quite frankly asserts that many of these were due to British obstinacy, snobbery, avarice, or misjudgment, although he makes a good case that the British Army itself was marvelous efficient during most of this period, in great part because of the quality of the British soldier and even more so the dedication of the British officer.   I think he overstates the case a bit, but it is certainly true that there was something in the gestalt of the British Empire that enabled them to win an astonishingly high proportion of the battles they fought, although one must consider the relative quality of the weaponry as much as the training.  The casualty rates were not nearly as one sides when the British fought the Americans, the Russians, the French, or even the more disciplined Indian states and the Afghans.  It is also difficult to completely accept that the quality of British officers was uniformly high given that commissions were purchased rather than earned, and the military itself effectively operated independently of the civilian authorities until late in Victoria's reign.

Although most of the book confines itself to descriptive narrative, and reasonably objective commentary on some controversial issues surrounding these wars, Farwell makes it clear in his introduction that governments can always find “good” reasons to conduct wars, particularly if they are prideful and opinionated “such as the British were in the last century and the Americans are in this century”.  He also warns that the possession of overwhelming military power makes the temptation to use that power almost irresistible to some people.  Both points have considerable application to recent events in our own history.

I was familiar with much of what is recapitulated here about the major conflicts, but the minor ones were almost all new territory.  I was reasonably acquainted with the causes and consequences of the Indian Mutiny, for example, but far less familiar with the ill fated campaigns in Afghanistan, and the various small wars on the sub-continent, particularly the conflicts with the Sikhs.  Farwell provides succinct, lucid, and informative accounts of these and other military actions, and generally ascribes good and evil motives to both sides, although he clearly sides with the Chinese in the Opium Wars and has considerable sympathy with the Zulus, as did a good portion of the British public.  His insights into the three sided political maneuvering about the future of the army - the Prime Minister, the throne, and the general staff - is particularly interesting.  His observations about the British attitude of complete surprise that subject states were not happy to have a different form of government imposed upon them, particularly in Afghanistan, are also reflected in our contemporary foreign policy attitude.  Those that don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, obviously.

I was also struck by the scale of events.  On the one hand, major battles were fought with surprisingly light casualties, usually on the British side but often on both.  It was not uncommon for less than a hundred men to be killed during a major confrontation, trivial by today's standards.  Other comparisons are interesting for different reasons.  One single British expeditionary force against Afghanistan in the late 19th Century included more troops than they used during the entire Crimean War.  The coverage of the major wars is necessarily skimpy, but this is a good supplement to more specific works on the subject.

Star Wars: Complete Cross-Sections illustrated by Hans Jenssen and Richard Chasemore, DK Publishing, 2007, $35, ISBN 978-0-7566-2704-1

This is an omnibus edition of all four of the separate cross-section books, each linked to a different Star Wars film, which were issued separately in the past.  If you haven't seen them, they're gorgeous art books with very detailed, labeled schematics of ships, weapons, installations, and equipment.  There's not much to say about this because you have to reaslly see the artwork to know how impressive it is, beautifully rendered and clearly laid out.  One caveat.  The cover art shown here was apparently changed at the last minute and the book is too large for my scanner so I can't show you what it really looks like.  But the actual cover art is far superior to that shown to the left.

The Historic King Arthur by Frank D. Reno, McFarland, 2007, $35, ISBN 978-0-7864-3025-3

I've never actually been much interested in the story of King Arthur and Camelot.  Oh, I read them and enjoyed them when I was a kid, and there have been occasional retellings or embellishments since that I've enjoyed, but basically once I knew the story pretty thoroughly, I wasn't often entertained by having it told to me again, no matter how well written, and there have been so many of them over the years that they all tend to blend together.  But I have to admit to having some curiosity about the basis for the stories, a curiosity apparently shared by the author of this book, an extensive study of the history of the British Isles that tries to identify the sources of various details of the legend.  This is not so much a literary study as an historical one, and sometimes it's very technical, so technical in fact that I skimmed some sections.  But in general, it's an informative and often very entertaining examination of historical events, and the way in which real people and their accomplishments can be distorted and embroidered by subsequent generations.  Like most McFarland titles, this is a trade paperback with a hardcover price, but if you're interested in the subject, this is one of those cases where it may well be worth your while.  Includes some useful maps of ancient Britain and other odds and ends.  One of the better recent McFarland titles.

The Hellraiser Films and Their Legacy by Paul Kane, McFarland, 2007, $45, ISBN 0-7864-2752-3

The original Hellraiser film, from the story by Clive Barker, was both original and unsettling, containing some of the creepiest moments in any horror movie I've ever seen.  Included was a new mythos, a world that exists parallel to our own, occupied by people who no longer distinguish between extreme pleasure and extreme pain, and who claim new members of their population by harvesting those who solve a magical puzzle box.  The idea was unique enough to make the first two sequels interesting, though inferior, but unfortunately the level of quality during the next three.  It's not surprising therefore that this scholarly study of the movies concentrates on the earlier ones.  The author explores all aspects of the films, their mythology, their effectiveness as films, some of the history of the creation of the story and the effects in the movies, and levels of symbolism that the casual viewer would probably not notice.  There are a handful of black and white stills and other photos and sketches and an extensive bibliography.  This probably isn't for the casual reader, but fans of the movies might find entire new levels of meaning here.

Storytelling in the Pulps, Comics, and Radio by Tim DeForest, McFarland, 12/04, $35, ISBN 0-7864-1902-4

Although necessarily somewhat superficial because of length constraints, this is an interesting study of the evolution of popular entertainment, tracing the move from Dime novels to pulp magazines to paperback books, along one path, and from radio to television on the other.  The cover blurb describes it as a study of how technology changed popular fiction, which it does fairly well, although a discussion of print on demand books, narrative computer games, and other electronic developments would not have been out of place.  DeForest tends to be judgmental at times.  He charges Burroughs and others with racism, which is undoubtedly true, but which was a reflection of the general attitude of the time rather than Burroughs specifically, and the author himself mentions that Burroughs frequently described individual minority characters as noble and intelligent.  He also devotes an entire politically correct chapter to excoriating the weird menace magazines for their exploitation of female characters which again is accurate but hardly unusual and it still persists today.  On the other hand, he over estimates the quality of some of the pulp writers.  Describing the characterization in the Skylark novels as "a bit flat" is more than a bit of an understatement despite Smith's importance to the field of SF.  There are lots of black and white illustrations accompanying the quite readable and often interesting text.

The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing a Novel by Tom Monteleone, Alpha, 2004, $18.95, ISBN 1-59257-172-7

Over the years, I've seen a considerable variety of author's guides.  Most of them concentrate either on the mechanics of manuscript preparation, submission, and contract language, or on the art of plotting, characterization, and spell checking.  Monteleone touches on all of these, but he avoids the sterile pontifications that sound good but have no practical value in favor of actually advice you can use to improve your chances of writing and selling a book.  He goes into work habits, ways to distinguish good writing from bad, in a no nonsense, practical rather than theoretical fashion.  He also uses a familiar, accessible, and often very humorous style that makes the book entertaining in its own right, as well as useful.



Africa and the Victorians by Ronald Robinson, John Gallagher, and Alice Denny, Doubleday Anchor, 1969 (originally published in 1961).

 The first couple of chapters of this account of the British Empire in Africa struck me as disorganized and lacking in sufficient background to convey much of interest, but once past those introductory remarks, the accounts of British colonial and anti-colonial efforts in Africa were quite interesting.  The authors’ contention, which they back up quite well, is that Britain never had ambitious colonial interests in Africa, that they had learned from India that there were limits to their power and to their ability to install British value systems on foreign cultures.  Most of their adventures there – primarily in Egypt and against the Boers – were forced by circumstances rather than policy, or to protect other interests.  They feared that the Boers would eventually dominate the small British colony in South Africa, deemed essential to maintaining naval superiority, and the intervention in Egypt was compelled by fears for the Suez Canal, concern that France or another power might intervene first, financial considerations, and the popular British outcry against the slave trade.  There are some interesting parallels between the British attempts to reform Egyptian politics and finances and our own recent adventures in Iraq.  Those who fail to learn from history…

The book filled in a lot of gaps for me.  I knew that Germany had been active in Africa but few of the details, and the battle for the Upper Nile was something about which I  had only the vaguest notion.  The authors do a fairly good job of explaining the personal and political tensions in the British cabinet, but are sometimes a bit sketchy about what was physically happening on the scene.  The book is also hampered by a serious lack of maps.  Since the place names have changed or lost significance in many cases, I had occasional trouble figuring out where things were happening.  The two maps provided lacked detail and are woefully inadequate.



Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly, Harvest, 1997 (originally published in 1995.)

My childhood interest in pirates had waned since the days of Treasure Island, but On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers brought it back and the Pirates of the Caribbean movies have helped sustain it since.  I decided to augment my knowledge of fictional pirates with background on the real thing, and this is the first of several books on the subject that I was able to locate.  The blurb says that it’s about “the romance and the reality of life among the pirates”, and it opens with an overview advising the reader that much of what we think we know about pirates is wrong, thanks to movies and novelists, but that some of it is right as well.  Just as I was getting interested, however, the focus is diverted into the careers of J.M. Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson which, while interesting and of peripheral interest, is riddled with bits of information which seem out of place.  We really don’t need to know about the problems staging the flying scenes in Peter Pan or the details of a family friend whom Stevenson took as the model for Long John Silver in order to understand anything about pirates or pirating.  This tendency to include possibly interesting facts that are more or less irrelevant is more common in non-fiction than you might think.

Cordingly strays from the subject again for a discussion of the role of women in maritime history (he has written another book devoted to the subject), but for the most part the rest of the text stays closer to the subject matter.  The section on pirate flags was particularly interesting, as was the chapter dealing with the actual strategy of pirate attacks, which rarely involved the exchanges of broadsides common to pirate movies.    The author also makes the interesting observation that most pirates enjoyed a form of democracy that was unknown to the law abiding citizens of any nation at the time, electing their captains, removing them by majority vote rather than mutiny, and that many of the atrocities committed by pirates were no worse than the actions of members of the Royal Navy. 

The waning chapters lose focus again, with occasional side trips into peripheral issues like pirate movies, and several instances where information already provided is repeated.  I'm surprised that so much attention was paid to the relatively ineffective Kidd than the much more significant Blackbeard, but that may be in part because less information is available.  On balance, a not entirely successful treatment of the subject that needed more organization and concentration.



The Victorian Age: 1815-1914 by R.J. Evans, St Martin’s, 1978 (originally published in 1950).

I’ve always found Victorian England to be a fascinating period of history and this is far from the first history of the subject I’ve read, but this particular one was of interest because its author makes no serious effort to conceal his opinion that, all in all, the government ran things as well as could be expected during that period and the Empire was, of course, immensely helpful to all of the subject races despite occasional inequities.  His history alternates between domestic issues – mostly political – and foreign policy, primarily European. 

The former includes the thorny Irish question as well as the abominable conditions that faced the poor during the early stages of the Industrial Revolution.  While admitting that children and women in particular were exploited ruthlessly, Evans insists that progress could not have been accelerated because the state of society, the economy, and technology would not support it.  This not only differs from other accounts I’ve read – which point toward the recalcitrance of both the aristocracy and the managerial class to accept change, as well as the virtual disenfranchisement of most of the population – but it also avoids the question of why, if that’s true, conditions were considerably better in other, less developed industrial regions like America, France, and Germany.  He does make a good point, however, in that the poor communication of news meant that a large proportion of the population was simply unaware of the conditions under which their fellow countrymen suffered, but his suggestion that they rallied and immediately began relieving the situation once it was more widely known simply doesn’t jibe with the facts.

His discussions of foreign policy are similarly tainted.  British negotiators are invariably statesman; their European counterparts were schemers, opportunists, and nationalist megalomaniacs.  His discussion of India glosses over the fact that the conquest of Oudh, the largest source of mutineers during the Revolt, was both illegal by British law and expressly prohibited by the British Foreign Office, and suggests that the spark was simple discontent.  Similarly, British aggression against the Zulus and Boers in South Africa was defensive.  Evans’ distrust of foreigners is also evident in his implication that Baron Stormac, chief adviser to the Prince Consort, was a sinister foreign agent manipulating the crown, despite stating elsewhere that the Prince became very popular with the people of England and contributed notably to the advancement of technology.

All those caveats notwithstanding, Evans has written a concise account of that century, the major efforts at reform at home and the efforts by the government to create a stable Europe.  His explanation of the relative usefulness of land armies and naval forces are clear and non-technical, and I thought his summation of the causes of the Crimean War was the most incisive I’ve read. 

The Photographic History of the Civil War: The Navies, edited by Francis Trevelyan Miller, Castle Books, 1957

This is the only volume I have from this series.  I picked it up primarily because most books about the Civil War treat the naval side as minor, or concentrate on the activities of the commerce raiders, even though the blockade was really the major function of the navy.  Although this was published in 1957, I believe it is a reprint of a much earlier book since President Taft was a contributor and he died in 1930. 

The text is actually quite disappointing, often disorganized, sometimes awkwardly phrased, and prone to interpreting the pictures somewhat romantically.  One can tell the relative poorness of the quality of Russian sailors by their clothing, for example, and in some cases the authors attempt to read the minds behind faces in a crowd.  There is a good case for the importance of the blockade, and an effort to convey the magnitude of the task given that there were only a handful of seaworthy ships available when hostilities broke out.   But the pictures are fascinating, showing many of the civilian ships which were converted for blockade duty.  There are allocations of space in the text as well.  There is almost as much devoted to the pay rates of various ranks in the navy as to the battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac.  This one is primarily eye candy.

Men's Adventure Magazines by Max Alan Collins, George Hagenauer, and Steven Heller, Taschen, 2004, $39.95, ISBN 3-8228-2517-4

This very large book is a collection of full color reproductions of the covers from various men's magazines, accompanied by articles and interviews related to the subject.  Some of the articles are in German rather than English, but the attraction is the artwork anyway.  Drawn from such titles as Champion for Men, Rage for Men, See, War Criminals, Man's Daring, Sir!, Rugged Men, Battle Cry, and True Danger, the covers are grouped by subject matter – war stories, attacks by nature gone mad, Nazi torturers, Communist villains,  pirates, etc.  Bondage and torture are very prevalent in some categories, sometimes with men as the subject, more often women.  The women, regardless of the category, are almost always scantily clad.  They range from victims to aggressors.  The survey of covers  provides a fascinating look at the mindset of the time, and the interview with Norm Eastman is particularly interesting.  Oddly enough, the few interior illustrations provided are generally more artistically interesting and better done than the covers.

In Your Dreams by Mary Summer Rain, Hampton Roads, 3/05, $19.95, ISBN 1-57174-433-9

The sheer audacity of this book deserves comment.  The author has provided detailed definitions of what over 20,000 different words of symbols in dreams actually mean.  Here we can find out that if a dune appears in our dreams, it means we're concerned about too frequently changing our attitude, that coffee grounds symbolize the negative side of re-energization, and that a silver dollar means honesty.  The author appears blithely unaware of the fact that the meaning of symbols in dreams is wholly dependent on the beliefs, experiences, and predilections of the individual dreamer.  The fact that I dreamed of a snowstorm the other night probably resulted from the weather forecast, but according to this book, it indicates a strong comprehension of spiritual truth, and the helicopter that appeared in it means I was being indecisive, so I'm being decisive now.  Don't waste your money.