Amazon Store

Monday, December 21, 2009

Amazon Store Update

Made some massive changes to my Amazon store the other day. Will continue to try and update it as the reviews keep on rolling.

I've done my best to populate it only with books I've actually read and think are worth buying. Many of them I've reviewed here. If I haven't, feel free to ask me about them.

If a review I write inspires you to buy a book, and you buy through Amazon, please, buy it through my store. If you buy from other sources, then, hey, more power to you.

More reviews on their way soon.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Last Kingdom

I don't remember exactly when my father passed The Last Kingdom on to me. It may have been in one of my more recent trips home, or it may have been a while ago. I'm not really sure. I know that he had previously gotten me hooked on Cornwell's Grail Quest trilogy, so I figured that this one was worth a shot. Of course, I didn't know it was also part of a trilogy until I started reading it. Oh well. To late for recriminations now.

The Last Kingdom tells the tale of the Danish invasion of Britain and the rise of King Alfred the Great, through the eyes of Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Uhtred, the son of a minor duke, is only ten years old when the Danes kill his father and capture him. Fortunately, Uhtred impresses his captor, Ragnar the Fearless, through an act of either colossal bravery or colossal stupidity, and so rather than being ransomed or killed, Uhtred becomes a foster son to Ragnar. As he grows older, he learns the Danish ways of war and life, before ultimately being brought back into contact with the English, and being forced to choose between his heritage and those who raised him.

There is a lot to recommend this book; Uhtred himself is an interesting and well-written character, and I really enjoyed following his musings about his relationship with both the Danes and the English. The many historical figures that Uhtred interacts with (Alfred being the most notable) seem quite human, with sufficient virtues and flaws to seem human, without coming across as either unbelievably saintly or unbelievably villainous. 

As much as I love his characters, in some ways, I love Cornwell's England in this novel even more. His descriptions of the abandoned, mysterious Roman ruins, ancient pagan halls, and the wide panoply of the English landscape give his characters a place to live that manages to feel real and mythic by appropriate turns. It's very convincing, and very enjoyable to boot.

Hard core historians will be proud of many of Cornwell's word choices; he eschews the term "Viking" for the Danes (correctly noting that "Viking" is an activity, not a person), London becomes Lundene, and so on. I do appreciate his attention to detail, though I have to confess that at times, I had trouble translating the Saxon names into their contemporary locations. But it's a small matter, and does not detract at all from the general quality of the book. Fans of historical adventure should definitely give this one a look.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Jirel of Joiry

Jirel of Joiry Jirel of Joiry by Catherine Lucille Moore

I had never heard of C.L. Moore or her stories until Poe Ghostal lent me this book, which is a bit sad, since she seems to have been quite a figure. Specifically, she was one of the earliest women writers to enter into the sword-and-sorcery genre, publishing stories in the same magazines as Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft.

Jirel of Joiry collects some of those stories, specifically the ones that deal with...Jirel of Joiry. Jirel, the ruler of a fictional kingdom located somewhere in medieval France, is very much what you might expect from a female version of a pulp protagonist. That is to say, she's a bit like Conan, if Conan were a woman. She is skilled, strong, attractive, and angry. Oh man, is Jirel angry. A number of the stories revolve around Jirel's quests to take revenge on someone for slighting her, and in several cases, it is her rage that allows her to prevail against supernatural odds.

Which is good, because the supernatural is what Jirel spends a lot of her time dealing with. With one exception, all of these stories feature Jirel journeying to another reality or plane of existence, where she does battle with the supernatural forces that live there. Those force are often powerful, terrifying, and largely incomprehensible to Jirel. Lou Anders points out that there is something almost Lovecraftian about the realms that Jirel visits, but philistine that I am, I have not read Lovecraft, and so cannot compare. They definitely are strange places, however.

The first two stories in this collection, "Black God's Kiss" and "Black God's Shadow"are very short on human (or even non-human) interaction, dealing mostly with Jirel's wanderings through strange, alien lands on her quests. Moore's descriptions of these strange dimensions are exquisite, but by the second story, I was starting to wonder if all Jirel stories were mostly tourist narratives. Of the two, I found the first one to be much more compelling, in part because I found Jirel's motivations for the quest much more convincing than I did in the second one.

In "Jirel Meets Magic", however, we finally get to see Jirel in a confrontation with forces that, if she cannot comprehend them, she can at least interact with them. This is about as classic sword-and-sorcery as you can get, with Jirel out on a quest to kill a wizard, something which is never easy, especially in these stories. Very fun stuff.

"The Dark Land" sets up an interesting confrontation, wherein Jirel's world-hopping comes back to haunt her. Of all of these stories, this one is the most "high fantasy" of them all, featuring a very new and very weird dimension that gives Jirel no end of grief, and may give the reader a headache as well.

The last story, "Hellsgarde", is interesting in that it takes place more or less on Earth (though the castle known as Hellsgarde is hardly a normal place). It's basically a haunted house story, with a bunch of weird characters for Jirel to interact with, a ghost, and a lot of creepy weirdness.

While Conan has made his mark far beyond the sword-and-sorcery genre, I get the impression that neither C.L. Moore nor her creation are nearly as well known. Which is a shame. Jirel of Joiry is every much a sword-and-sorcery protagonist equal to Conan, and ought to be remembered better. If you enjoy this type and style of writing, go pick this one up.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Night Train to Rigel

Night Train to Rigel Night Train to Rigel by Timothy Zahn

Yes, I know I am deeply, deeply behind on my reviews. In my defense, I tried to write a review of this one, but it got lost by the Interwebs, and now I'm trying to do it again. Hopefully, it will stick this time.

In short: Night Train to Rigel is a pulp/hard boiled detective novel that has found it's way into a science fiction setting. Adventure ensues. Good times are had by all.

The slightly longer version: Night Train to Rigel is the story of Frank Compton, a retired (read: fired) government investigator (read: private eye), who is hired by the Spiders, a race of mysterious entities that run the Quadrail. Which is basically a train through space.

No, that last sentence is not a typo. There is, in fact, a space train. The reason WHY there is a space train is eventually explained in the course of the novel, but I won't spoil it for you. For now, suffice it to say that there is a space train.

There are also vast interstellar conspiracies, treacherous aliens, friendly aliens, corrupt government officials, mysterious employers, even more mysterious enemies, and a fair share of fist-fights, double-crosses, and a space battle or two.

In short, it's just about everything you could want out of this kind of novel.

It is, of course, a very Zahn novel. If you aren't a fan, this novel isn't likely to make you into one. If you are a fan, then you'll definitely enjoy it. If you're just generally into space opera or pulp detective thrillers, this one is probably worth checking out.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Marley and Me

Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog by John Grogan

What I learned from this book: John Grogan is a jackass.

I listened to this book on audio CD for two reasons: one was that it was about the only thing I had available to listen to recently, and I was sick of surfing the radio. The other was that several people I knew had spoken highly of the book to me. It was a bestseller (of course, so was the Da Vinci Code)! It got made into a movie (so did the Da Vinci Code. There was a clue here...).

Marley and Me starts with a simple premise. John and Jenny Grogan are happily married newlyweds living in Florida, when they get a plant. I don’t remember what kind of plant, but it hardly matters, because the plant dies. Jenny waters the thing to death.

Now, planticide is not a punishable offence in Florida, nor is a Federal Crime, but Jenny Grogan is nevertheless distraught. After all, the Grogans want to have children some day. If they cannot care for a sessile organism that requires nothing more than light and water for survival, how will they care for a mobile, sentient, organism that requires food, drink, play, education, and so on? It seems so discouraging! But then, Jenny his upon a solution. The Grogans will get a DOG!

Let me go over that thought chain again: I cannot successfully raise a plant, so I will raise a dog instead. That’s sort of like saying; I cannot successfully pick up a fifty pound rock, so I will deadlift 500 pounds as practice. Or, to paraphrase the Internet: sense. This thought process makes none.

But hey, fine, they want a dog. At least they go out and carefully research and plan to acquire their new family member, right?

Wrong. Rather than actually learning anything about what they’re getting into, the Grogans decide that they can just flip through the classifieds until they find something that catches their eye. They chug off to buy their AKC purebred Labrador retriever without the foggiest idea of what a purebred Labrador retriever actually is. Once they arrive, they are delighted to learn that the breeder is willing to part with one of the puppies that shows interest in them at a $50 discount! Why, that’s wonderful. They not only got a new dog, but they got him at a bargain! (Never, apparently, does it cross their minds that there might be a REASON why this dog is being offered so cheaply, and that it might not be a good one.)

What follows is less a litany of the struggles of the Grogans with a bad dog, and more of a litany of the Grogans failure to properly raise and care for a very difficult animal. While the book cover makes much of Marley’s faults, the faults are most Grogans.

The book cover tells us that “Obedience school did no good. Marley was expelled”. Which is true, except that “obedience school” consisted of the cheapest class that the Grogans could find, run by amateur dog trainers in a parking lot. When the woman running the class proves unable to control the dog, the Grogans simply give up. It apparently never crosses their mind to seek out a professional dog trainer to help them. Rather, they just decide to take matters into their own hands. The gouged drywall and tranquilizers mentioned on the book cover are both related to Marley’s psychotic fear of thunderstorms, which is apparently quite bothersome to Grogan, but not so bothersome that he bothers to find a solution other than leaving the dog locked in a metal grate and cleaning the blood off when he gets home. (And the tranquilizers, but those don’t help).

At every turn in this book, I’m consistently amazed by the ability to not only be ignorant, but to remain ignorant. According to the book, Grogan is a journalist, but apparently, it never occurred to him to actually do anything resembling research either before or after getting his dog. It takes him years to read anything on the Labrador retriever, or learn that there are actually two varieties of the dog. He is completely unaware of the existence or possibility of bloat until Marley has a case of it (which nearly kills him). It’s absolutely disgusting. He ties the dog up to a table at an outdoor restaurant, and is shocked that the dog drags the table off when chasing a poodle (despite the dogs habit of chasing after damn near everything).

To be fair, Grogan is not deliberately malicious. This isn’t Michael Vick’s autobiography, and Grogan does honestly seem to want to help Marley a better, happier dog. He’s just to ignorant to know how to, and to arrogant to ask for more than the cheapest help.

Are there some cute stories about Marley here? Certainly. But honestly, they are a lot of the same kind of cute stories you’ll get out of any friend that owns a Labrador retriever. They’re really not particularly wild.

Grogan himself reads the book, which is a poor, poor, choice. He narrates the entire story in the same jovial tone, with no variation in his voice except for some poor attempts at an Irish accent, and one dog owner who transitions from southern hick to surfer dude in the space of a chapter.

I don’t doubt that Grogan really loved Marley, but I can’t help but be annoyed at the way he treated him. For all his talk of the lessons he learned from Marley, it seems to me that he missed the most important one: dogs are a whole lot of friggin responsibility, and you ought to think very carefully about how you go about getting one.

I wish I could recommend this book, but I can’t, except maybe as a “how not to” guide for future dog owners. Take what Grogan did, and do something different. Otherwise, the only person to blame is you.

My American Journey

My American Journey My American Journey
Colin Powell

Again, I'm going to try and keep this short and sweet.

This book was a bit outside my usual reading habits, but Tony Blauer had it on his list of recommendations, so I thought it would be worth checking out. And I was right. It was worth it.

As the title implies, My American Journey is the story of how Colin Powell went from sub-average school student of Jamaican immigrants in the Bronx to being the commander of the one of the most powerful militaries in the world. It is a quintessential rags-to-riches sort of story that many Americans enjoy as children and dismiss as propaganda as teenagers (adults fall on all sides of the debate, of course). This is all nice, of course, but not necessarily worthwhile reading on its own. There are plenty of books that tell a similar kind of story, either factual or fictional, and if all you want is a feel good read, this isn't necessarily what you want.

Powell works his way through the story of his life with a level of introspection that might surprise readers who expect him to be a military-minded thug. His voice comes across as honest and genuine, and he is more than willing to admit when he thinks mistakes were made--especially if they were his own. This may be a success story, but it's not one where the author is gloating; Powell acknowledges when he screwed up, if he feels he does. And he acknowledges when OTHER people thought he screwed up, even if he doesn't think so.

And that, really, is what makes the book so fascinating; not just the life Powell has lived, which is admittedly impressive an interesting, but the way he thinks about that life. The book is a fantastic insight into the thinking of a very successful man. Even if you find his politics abhorrent, his thought processes are still worth understanding and thinking about. This is a man who knows how to succeed, and there's a lot to be learned from this.

Dragon and Liberator: The Sixth Dragonback Adventure

Dragon and Liberator (Dragonback, #6) Dragon and Liberator
Timothy Zahn

Okay; I am way, way, WAY behind on this thing. I'm taking advantage of a trip out of town to try and catch up, but I'm trying to catch up on a couple of other things as well. So, while I will do my best to provide you with my usual scintillating reviews, I will also apologize in advance if some of them seem a bit rushed.

On with the show.

Dragon and Liberator is the final volume in Timothy Zahn's Dragonback cycle, a six-book science fiction series aimed at young adults. I started reading it because I'm a huge Timothy Zahn mark, and kept reading the series because I discovered I actually enjoyed it. It's not deep literature, but it's enjoyable in the usual Zahn fashion: interstellar conspiracies, action, mystery, and more plot twists than you can shake a stick at. In short, it's fun.

Dragon and Liberator is the endgame of the long plot which Zahn has been building over the last six books. The K'Da fleet is on its way, and Jack and Draycos need to make one final, desperate push to stop the conspiracy that plans to kill them--and is tied into the one that killed Jack's parents.

Like any Zahn series, this one has a lot of plot threads kicking around that need to be wrapped up. Zahn manages to tie everything together, and even to give readers introductions to a few new characters along the way (we finally meet the Valahgua who have been lurking menacingly in the background for the whole series). The new additions don't create any new plot strands, fortunately, and the whole series manages to tie up in a nice, neat, but satisfying way (while still leaving some room for more, if Zahn really wanted to do it).

Of course, there's all the action and adventure that the previous entries into the series promise. And there's the shades-of-grey morality as well. This series is very much a coming of age story, and is as much about Jack's growth from a selfish, immature thief into an honorable, mature young adult. Not always entirely subtle, but satisfying nonetheless.

If you've been following this series, finish it. It's worth the wait.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Happy Birthday to the Bagginses

Sept 22nd, is, in fact, the day of the Long Expected Party.

For those who, for whatever reason, find this fact interesting or entertaining.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

The Martial Arts Game: A New Business, Teaching & Coaching Model For The 21st Century Martial Arts-Life® Coach

The Martial Arts Game: A New Business, Teaching & Coaching Model For The 21st Century Martial Arts-Life® Coach The Martial Arts Game: A New Business, Teaching & Coaching Model For The 21st Century Martial Arts-Life® Coach by Rodney King

Like most American martial artists, I first heard of Rodney King (not to be confused with THAT Rodney King) some years back when he put out a series of DVDs through the Straight Blast Gym. In those DVDs, King introduced to the world his "Crazy Monkey" system, which was, to all appearances, a method of teaching fundamental boxing skills to new students. Depending on who you asked, it was either totally revolutionary, reasonably effective, or total hogwash. In other words, it was received just like every other innovation in the martial arts community.

Truthfully, I never paid that much attention to the system. Because most of my training takes place at a top quality striking school, I didn't feel like I was missing a lot in terms of training or teaching methodologies in that regard. A bit closed-minded of me, perhaps, but there it is. I did follow some of King's writings, and checked out the occasional clip on youtube, but nothing I saw leapt out at me enough to make me want to plunk down $100.

So why did I pick up this book?

A few reasons. First, the book appeared to be about pedagogy, which is something that I am far more interested in than technical material at this point (particularly in regard to empty-handed striking). Second, it appeared to have a lot to do with teaching private clients, which is something I do a lot, and hope to get some ideas from. Third, it appeared to offer a business model similar to the one I've been trying to work with, so I figured that it was probably worth checking out.

And it absolutely was.

The Martial Arts Game is a combination of business manual, self-help book, pedagogical treatise and impassioned plea to the martial arts world. King begins by outlining what he perceives as some of the major problems in the martial arts community. I think some of his observations are dead-on accurate, though they are clearly colored by his long association with the mixed martial arts community. It is through the observations that he comes to suggest a different model of coaching the martial arts.

I almost wrote that it's a new model, but the truth is, what King is suggesting is, for many arts, really a return to an older model. Small classes, with a good student/teacher ratio. Classes that focus on the student's needs, not on some arbitrary desire by the instructor to pass on the "style" to all of his little carbon copy students. It's a model that I think was much more prevelant in the arts in previous centuries, but has been lost with the growth of the martial arts as an industry.

But new or old, it is a great model, especially in today's society. It really allows teacher and student to develop in ways that are much more difficult to do in a large group class. And King outlines the whole model very well, from suggestions about how teach a specific lesson to how to market and run an entire business. At every stage, he provides some examples of the process that he's talking about, though some are more concrete than others.

The book is good, but it's far from perfect. For one thing, it's very general. King seems to have really only scratched the surface of his ideas here, and it seems like there is room for much more detail. His pedagogy and examples are focused entirely around using a combat sport as your teaching methodology, so teachers of "traditional" martial arts may have a hard time adapting his methods to their instruction.

And I confess that I would have a hard time referring to myself as a "Martial Arts Life Coach", but that is my own personal bias. I'm not sure that my skills at coaching martial arts necessarily make me qualified to help people run their lives; on the other hand, I have occasionally turned into something of a therapist in shorts for some of my clients, so what do I know? Maybe King is on to something there.

Actually, I take that back. King is definitely onto something here. If you're a martial arts teacher, whether you have one student or one hundred, this is book is worth reading.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Hood (King Raven, Book One)

Hood (King Raven, Book 1)Hood
by Stephen R. Lawhead

For reasons I don't entirely understand, I've always had a fascination with Robin Hood. I had a general fascination with archery as a child, and it may be that there was something about a character with a reputation for being such a skilled bowman that drew my attention. Maybe it was the entirely to numerous viewings of Prince of Thieves (which, awful though it may be, holds a special place in my heart) as a youth. Who knows? Whatever the case, the fascination is there, and it combined with my belief that I probably should have read something by Stephen Lawhead by now that caused me to grab Hood and bring it on my trip to Maine in July.

Hood is not just a retelling, but a reimagining. Not content to simply rehash the same old story, Lawhead transplants the story of Robin Hood into Wales in the year 1093. The Sherrif of Nottingham and King John are replaced with the Norman overlords, who are busy asserting their power in Wales at the expense of the local Welsh lords. The role of Robin Hood himself is taken on by Bran ap Brychan, Prince of Elfael, after his father is killed by the Normans while he travels to London to negotiate with them. Friar Tuck, Little John, Guy of Gisborne, and the Maid Marian all make appearances, though all changed to greater or lesser extents from the common vision of them.

Being the first part of a trilogy, Hood is less about the exploits of Bran, and more of an "origin story", detailing Bran's transformation from apathetic prince to rebel leader. Lawhead weaves an element of Celtic mysticism into the tale as well, which may be jarring to readers, but ultimately feels right within the context of the story. The major plot twists and turns come from the machinations of the Norman overlords, while Bran's story is relatively straightforward, though still fun and entertaining all the same.

Bran does not get all of the screen time, however, as the story jumps back and forth between him, other members of the eventual band, and several priests and dukes besides. Questions of religion and faith pop up surprisingly often for a Robin Hood tale--at least, more than I would have expected.

Hood is, by and large, and good Robin Hood story. It has humor, action, grief, drama, betrayal, and mystery, all in varying but appropriate doses. Some readers may find Lawhead's use of alternative spellings and archaic language off putting, but once you get into the book, it flows fairly quickly. If I have a complaint, it's that the book is a story unfinished, and while I don't begrudge the idea of reading the next installment, I find it frustrating to get to the end of a story without there being, well, an ending.

(Like this review? Please support my reading habit by purchasing this book through my Amazon store.)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

"Do you like Kipling?"
"I don't know. I've never Kippled"
--I don't know where that one comes from. I got it my from my dad, and I'm giving him credit.

When I first heard that Neil Gaiman was coming out with a new book, I was excited. After all, I love Gaimain, so a new book from him is always welcome, right?

So I thought.

The I discovered that the Graveyard Book was Gaiman's riff on Kipling's Jungle Book, and I was filled with dread.

Let me explain (no, there is too much, let me sum up) : I absolutely loved the Jungle Book when I was a kid. Not that shoddy animated piece of Disney trash either. The original. The real McCoy. Etc.

The Jungle Book was great. It was wonderful. I keep meaning to re-read it (more so now). I loved it. And the idea that someone, even someone whose work I enjoy as much as Gaiman trying to do something with it filled me with dread.

Apparently, I needn't have worried.

Like the Jungle Book, the Graveyard book is the story of an orphan. In this case, the orphan is named Bod, which is short for Nobody. Nobody Owens, in fact. After Bod's family is murdered by the mysterious Jack, the citizens of the graveyard take him and raise him as one of their own. Which means that Bod is raised by a collection of ghosts, a vampire, a werewolf, and few other supernatural oddities. In his various adventures, he encounters ghouls, witches, and other strange creatures, including some of the strangest of all: other people.

The story is a bit more linear that the Jungle Books; there is no Graveyard equivalent of Riki-Tiki-Tavi and the great war he fought single-handed. It is, to maintain the analogy, as though you just had the parts of the Jungle Book that are about Mowgli. It works fine--there's no particular sense that you're missing anything, though I personally would have loved more stories about some of the other characters. The Hound of G-d, in particular, I found fascinating.

This book has gotten many rave reviews and even won several awards, and there's little I can say about it that probably hasn't been said already. It is a wonderfully written story that, despite all of the supernatural trappings, is very much about the very natural process of growing up and finding yourself in the world. While some of Bod's childhood experiences are a bit outside of the norm, many of his internal struggles, questions, and feelings will be familiar to all of us.

Kipling would be pleased.

Classical Fighting Arts of Japan: A Complete Guide to Koryu Jujutsu

Classical Fighting Arts of Japan: A Complete Guide to Koryu Jujutsu
by Serge Mol

I've had a long time fascination with the Japanese martial arts, a fascination I blame primarily on a combination of my father's Judo stories when I was a kid, the ninja-craze of my childhood (when everyone knew that ninja were just the coolest things ever, and that pirates were lame), and the fact that Aikido was the first Asian martial art I ever seriously studied (I did Tae Kwon Do before that, but not very seriously or very well).

Whatever the source, I've found the history and practice of the Classical Japanese martial arts (Koryu) particularly interesting, but for many years, couldn't find much written on the subject. Donn Draeger wrote a series of excellent books on the subject, but that was all I was aware of until recently. Serge Mol's Classical Fighting Arts of Japan: A Complete Guide to Koryu Jujutsu was one of the first books on the subject that I found, though it appears to be part of a much larger body of recent Koryu writings that I am not familiar with. More stuff to read, I guess.

As the title indicates, this particular book is focused specifically on Koryu Jujutsu systems; that is to say, Classical Japanese Martial arts whose primary focus was on unarmed, close-quarters combat (as distinct from those systems which focused primarily on the use of weapons, such as swords, spears, and so on). The book opens with a general discussion of the possible origins of the Jujutsu ryuha, and some of the mythology connected with those origins. From there, Mol moves on to define some general terminology common to all of the ryuha, and to introduce some of the "minor weapons" (knives, fistloads, and other smaller fighting tools), before delving into a discussion of the ryuha themselves. A great chunk of the book is devoted to discussing a number of the various schools from different lineages within the Japanese martial arts. As Mol himself makes clear, this is not a totally comprehensive discussion, but it certainly is very large, and relatively in-depth. Mol cannot possibly cover ever Koryu Jujutsu system that ever existed, but he does hit a lot of them.

This is the sort of book that you're either into or you're not. In the tradition of Draeger, it is a relatively serious academic work. Mol has done his research, and he presents the findings of this research here. Oral tradition is cited as oral tradition, not as fact, and supernatural powers and events are treated with the scholarly skepticism that they deserve. If you want to be treated to stories about masters with magical powers that kill a man with a glance, this is not your book. Honestly, even if you're just interested in learning more about the Koryu, this might not be your book. While it's very interesting, and quite comprehensive, someone who has never read anything about the Koryu might find it a little daunting, particularly when reading the laundry lists of various styles and their creation, practices, and so on.

Also, a fair warning. While the book jacket advertises that this book contains "information on how to disarm opponents who are armed with daggers or swords, how to lock opponents with their own weapons, and more", this is not an instruction manual by any means. I realize the efficacy of books as an instructional medium can be debated, but this book doesn't really even try. While it does show some photographic sequences of techniques being performed, it's definitely not designed to be a "how-to" guide.

So who will like this book? Someone interested in Japanese history, or Japanese martial arts. Koryu practitioners may find it useful for placing their art in a broader historical context, as may practitioners of the Gendai Budo (Judo, Aikido, and so on). Even if you're not a student of the Japanese arts, this book will provide a lot of great information to the amateur (or professional) historian.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Beggars and Thieves: Lives of Urban Street Criminals Beggars and Thieves: Lives of Urban Street Criminals

Beggars and Thieves: Lives of Urban Street Criminals Beggars and Thieves: Lives of Urban Street Criminals
by Mark S. Fleisher
  • Publisher: University of Wisconsin Press (August 15, 1995)
  • ISBN-10: 0299147746

Yet another book in the line of "stuff Rory Miller recommends". The last one was psychology. This one is anthropology.

Beggars and Thieves is the culmination of a multi-year anthropological study done by Mark Fleisher. Fleisher, a former prison administrator, spent an enormous amount of time with street criminals, both inside and outside of prison, working to construct a picture of how these criminals are created, and perhaps, to start looking at how they might be treated (or how their criminal tendencies might have been prevented).

After an introduction and overview, the book follows a fairly straightforward pattern, beginning with the childhood of the street criminal, and tracing that life forward until it culminates in old age (provided the criminal gets there). In each chapter, Fleisher includes numerous quotes, stories, and other bits of evidence from his study to help bolster his argument, but also to help create a better picture of the mindset of the people that he's working with. The final chapter of the book brings Fleisher's studies into focus, with a detailed explanation of how Fleisher believes public policy needs to be altered to better address urban crime in America.

While the book is clearly aimed at policy makers, it has a great deal of value for anyone interested in enhancing their personal safety. Fleisher's evidence reinforces the idea that most criminals simply do not think the way the average law abiding citizen does. they are not operating on the same set of values, or even variations on the same set of values, that the non-criminal does. Understanding this mindset, and how it works, is something that everyone working to better the safety of those around them should look into. Definitely worth the read.

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Thursday, July 2, 2009

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1910 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1910

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1910 The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century: 1910
by Alan Moore

I really, really, wanted to like this.

For those not familiar--the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was an interesting idea in which Alan Moore took a number of characters from various stories that were all roughly contemporaneous in their setting, and meshed them together in a sort of "Victorian superhero team". So you had Mina Harker, Alan Quartermain, Mr. Hyde, Captain Nemo, and the Invisible Man all teaming up to, well, fight crime. It's a bit more complicated than that, but that was the basic idea. The second series pitted the same group against the martians from War of the Worlds, and was also cool in it's own right. The Black Dossier deviated from the original group by telling two stories; one, set in the 1960's, about a group related to the original league attempting to recover the titular Black Dossier. The other 'story' was really just the text of the Black Dossier itself, which explains a lot about where the League members came from, places them in a greater historical context, and contains a stupid amount of sex. Really. A STUPID amount of it. It made the framing story feel not only disjointed, but a bit weird, and I didn't entirely enjoy it.

This one though, seemed to just tell a single, straightforward story, and so I had high hopes. Such high hopes that I read it twice, just to be sure.

But even after a second read through, I found I really didn't like this. Mostly because this story lacks two things; engaging characters, and an interesting plot.

To the first; some of the characters are familiar (Harker and Quatermain, as well as Orlando for those who read Black Dossier). Others, like Carnacki, and the other guy, who I cannot remember at all, are new. It doesn't matter, because they are indescribably dull. This is the first story about the League where I absolutely, completely, and totally did not care about the members of said League at all.

Of course, there are plenty of other characters in the story; well, some, anyway. Unfortunately, they are all equally dull. Janni, daughter of Captain Nemo, has some potential, but her story arc is so grossly cliched as to just be somewhere between silly and dumb. I would think that someone so interested in pushing social boundaries (as Moore seems to be) would be able to come up with a story about a woman becoming strong in a way that doesn't follow such a ridiculously cliched path.

As for the plot; there isn't much of one. I gather from reading some other review that this is intended to kick of a series, so I suppose that could be forgiven, except for the fact that I don't really even know where the story is supposed to go from here. Or rather, this installment of the story was so boring as to make me not care enough to figure it out.

While I've read much worse in the graphic novel department (anything done by Rob Liefield comes to mind), this one ultimately just isn't up to the standard set by it's predecessors. It's not even close.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Have I Mentioned?

That I have an Amazon store?

If not, I have now. So if a review I write convinces you to buy something, and you're in the habit of buying off of Amazon, please consider buying it through my store. It will help me get more books to recommend to you, thus perpetuating a vicious literary cycle.


1776 1776
David McCullough

Once again, I find myself not entirely sure how I ended up with this book. I know it's from the time when I worked in Waldenbooks, but beyond that, I have no clue. Up until relatively recently (the last two or three months), American Colonial History has not really been my thing. I've generally preferred periods before gunpowder.

But, as I said, this was on my shelf, and having recently listened to a series on American history courtesy of the Teaching Company, I figured I'd give it a shot.

This is a very excellent book, but a bit strange. I didn't realize until I was almost done that this was actually written as a companion piece to McCullough’s acclaimed John Adams, which I have not read, but which might make this one flow better. Not that this is bad...on the contrary, the writing is excellent. Engaging, thoughtful, and well balanced, McCullough takes the events of one of the most pivotal years in U.S. history and turns it into a fascinating story. His focus leans more heavily towards the American point of view, rather than the British one, but the British get their time in the spotlight too. Nor do the Americans come across as perfect angels fighting for all that is good and right; even "his Excellency" George Washington is shown with all of his doubts, fears, and mistakes (of which he makes a number). The British are not painted as vile villains; even king George comes off reasonably well, all things considered.

So what makes the book so odd? Mostly that it's a book that tells the story of a year with very little context, and very little follow up. McCullough simply jumps into the story at the end of 1775, tells it through to the beginning of 1777, and then stops. There is very little in the way of detail on the beforehand or afterward, which makes a certain amount of sense for a companion piece, but which I found a bit startling reading this as a stand alone work.

Still, that's a quibble about a book that is overall, engaging, fun, and interesting. For those who enjoy American colonial history, this is an excellent choice. Those looking for a simple overview of the revolution should probably look elsewhere.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Anansi Boys

Anansi Boys: A Novel
by Neil Gaiman
  • Publisher: HarperAudio; Unabridged edition (September 20, 2005)
  • ISBN-10: 0060823844

This is an Anansi story. Of course, all stories are Anansi stories now, but this one is really about Anansi. Well, it's mostly about Anansi's son's, Fat Charlie and Spyder, but that's almost the same as being about Anansi himself.

This is actually the second time I've listened to this book; I've never actually sat down and read the text, just listened to the audio. Lenny Henry does the reading, and he does an absolutely marvelous job bringing the story to life.

As I mentioned, the story mostly concerns itself with the life of Fat Charlie Nancy, an American transplanted to London after his parents split up, and who is perpetually scarred by the embarrassing tricks his father played on him as a youth. After his father's (embarrassing) death, Fat Charlie learns that he has a brother he never knew about, and decides to contact him. WHich is when things get very interesting, particularly in the Chinese sense of the term.

While ostensibly connected to American Gods, this book doesn't have much overlap with that one, other than a generally shared setting, and a belief in the importance of stories. Anansi Boys feels much lighter and more cheerful, though it's still got some rather gruesome and disturbing moments. It's got a lot of interesting twists and turns, and a variety of fun and memorable characters who are just as fun the second time around.

My only complaint, both times, has been the predictably of hte various romantic entanglements. But it's a small thing, really. In the end, this is still a great story. A great ANANSI story, really.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

David Eddings, RIP

I'm a bit late on this one, but...David Eddings apparently passed away about a week ago.

Eddings is one of those authors that I have weird mixed feelings about. I read the Belgariad and the Mallorean as a teenager, and really enjoyed them. Sometime in my twenties, I re-read them, and discovered that I still enjoyed them. They were popcorn fantasy, but the characters were fun and dialogue was witty, and by and large, I enjoyed it. None of it made me think very deeply, but I did enjoy it.

Everything I read of his afterwards got steadily worse. The Elenium and The Tamuli were mostly just dull. The Redemption of Althalus was just awful. I barely finished it.

Somewhere in there, I read one of his few non-fantasy works, The Losers, which actually turned out to be probably the best thing of his I've ever read. I remember being shocked, both because I kept expecting fantasy to creep in (the main characters names are Raphael and Damien, for crying out loud), and because in the end, it just turned out to be a good story about people. Nothing more, nothing less.

It's actually the book of his I'm most likely to go back and re-read, at this point.

I never picked up any of his other books; part of it was a belief that he probably wasn't turning out anything better than he more recent attempts. Part of it was reading a couple of statements of his that mocked the fantasy genre as a whole, which seemed a little crass to me (it's fine to not like it, but when you make your living writing it, it seems to me you shouldn't verbally piss on your audience...).

On the other hand, he does deserve credit for putting out some good, fun reads. And for fighting very hard to make sure that his wife eventually got the credit she deserved for helping him with his writing.

Thanks for the stories, Mr. Eddings.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades

John Scalzi

  • Publisher: Tor Science Fiction (May 1, 2007)

  • ISBN-10: 0765354063

When Poe Ghostal lent me Old Man's War, the first book in this series by John Scalzi, I thanked him. A few days after he lent me Ghost Brigades, I cursed him.

Ghost Brigades isn't just good; it's so good that it distracted me from the other reading I was doing. Hell, it distracted me from work. After about four chapters, it was distracting me from everything short of eating and other essential bodily functions. Fortunately, I finished it with no serious damage to myself or my upholstery.

Though set in the same universe as Old Man's War, calling Ghost Brigades a "sequel" is slightly misleading. This is not another story about John Perry (the titular "Old Man" from the first book); instead, the book focus primarily upon Jared Dirac, a recently created member of the Ghost Brigades, who was designed to be something a little different from an ordinary solider.

Specifically, he's designed to be a traitor.

I'll let the book jacket do the weight of the talking here

The Ghost Brigades are the Special Forces of the Colonial Defense Forces, elite troops created from the DNA of the dead and turned into the perfect soldiers for the CDF's toughest operations. They’re young, they’re fast and strong, and they’re totally without normal human qualms.

The universe is a dangerous place for humanity—and it's about to become far more dangerous. Three races that humans have clashed with before have allied to halt our expansion into space. Their linchpin: the turncoat military scientist Charles Boutin, who knows the CDF’s biggest military secrets. To prevail, the CDF must find out why Boutin did what he did.

Jared Dirac is the only human who can provide answers -- a superhuman hybrid, created from Boutin's DNA, Jared’s brain should be able to access Boutin's electronic memories. But when the memory transplant appears to fail, Jared is given to the Ghost Brigades.

At first, Jared is a perfect soldier, but as Boutin’s memories slowly surface, Jared begins to intuit the reason’s for Boutin’s betrayal. As Jared desperately hunts for his "father," he must also come to grips with his own choices. Time is running out: The alliance is preparing its offensive, and some of them plan worse things than humanity’s mere military defeat…

While some reviews seem to disagree, I actually found this book far more engaging than Old Man's War; I think a lot of that has to do with Dirac, who I found to be a really intersting character to read about. He goes through a very interesting evolution that is a bit different from that of John Perry, but contains a similar amount of deep introspection and thought. I also found the supporting characters in this story a lot more memorable, and even enjoyed Jane Sagan (one of the few major characters to reappear from Old Man's War) more this time around.

The plot itself is a good sci-fi military conspiracy plotline, as befits a novle that opens with a traitor faking his own death by kiling his clone, and working forward from there. The pacing is great, but very, very fast. I desperately don't want to use reviewing cliches like "it moves at warp speed", but I'm having a hard time dodging it. Once it ramps up, this plot MOVES.

In case I give the wrong impression, Ghost Brigades is not just a summer blockbuster in written form. Yes, it moves, and yes, there are fights and guns and explosions and sex...BUT, there is also a lot of introspection and thought about human beings, their motivations, and ultimately, what makes a person, well, a person.

There are apparently two or three other books in this series, and I can't wait to steal the rest from PoeGhostal.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Cross-Posted From An Honest Philosophy

Because I'm not sure you all read that one.

Anyway. I usually try to keep my personal life off of this thing (that's what Facebook and Livejournal are for), but this is pretty big, so I thought I'd share it here.

On Sunday, May 24th, Emily and I officially got engaged. This is actually something we’ve been discussing for a while, but it is now official.

We’re looking at a wedding date of Fall 2010, but haven’t set anything further than that. More details will, of course, be coming along.

I’m sure there’s something more profound and deep I’m supposed to say at this point, but I’ve got nothing. We’re both very happy, and, well, there’s not much else to say. Hooray us!

{We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming)

Powers (Annals of the Western Shore)

Ursula K. Le Guin
Publisher: Harcourt Children's Books; 1 edition (September 1, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0152057706

It's been about a week since I actually finished this book...I've just been taking my sweet time in reviewing it. Which I'd apologize for, but I've been trying to work on things like my business, which sadly leaves little time for book reviewing (which, as of yet, no one pays me for).

Powers is the third novel in Ursula LeGuin's latest "Young Adult" series, The Annals of the Western Shore. I use that label rather gingerly, mostly because this series seems to be to be no more limited to young adults than it is to any other group. I've long since moved out of the age group that is considered "Young Adult", and I have found every book in this series marvelous. Powers is no exception.

Powers, like Voices and Gifts before it, is the story of a child born with abilities that somehow make him or her unique. In Powers, the child is Gavir, a slave boy with a gift for "remembering things that haven't happened." In other words, he's a precognitive, though Gavir himself never uses that word.

Powers traces Gavir's journey from childhood to adulthood, and from slavery to freedom. The story of his escape from slavery is an interesting one, and occurs in one of the most unusual (but quite believable) ways that I can think of. Once free, Gavir wanders the Western Shore, exploring and growing until, at the end, he finds himself connected with Orrec, Gry, and Memer, the protagonists of the previous books in the series.

Since it's been a week, my memories of the details of the book have become a bit fuzzy, but I can say this with certainty; it's an excellent book. Le Guin gives Gavir a lively and honest voice, that draws you into the story and keeps you reading right through to the end. The world she crafts feels very real, and very lived in...this is a fantasy "on the ground"; giant armies and world-saving quests are not the story here. This is a human story, with all of the grief, joy, confusion, pain, and delight that such stories require. Read it.

(And if you don't take my word for it, Powers also won the 2008 Nebula Award for Best Novel. So take it up with those who award such things too.)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Going Ballistic: Circular Strength Training for Boxing Manual

Going Ballistic: Circular Strength Training for Boxing Manual
by Brandon Jones
RMAX.TV Productions

A (short) disclaimer:

Scott Sonnon and his RMAX International organization are one of the more controversial organizations out there, on par with Crossfit in terms of the amount of digital ink and vitriol that has been created around them. I confess to not having a completely unbiased view of on this matter, but I will do my best to review this product in as neutral a fashion as possible.

On with the show.

Going Ballistic is, as the subtitle suggests, a short guide to using RMAX's Circular Strength Training methodology to prepare for boxing competition. In his introduction, Jones further clarifies this by saying that the book itself will focus on preparing for amateur boxing competitions, but that the program could be applied to professional boxing, or even other combat sports. Jones further points out that the manual is not intended for beginners, either in boxing or in Circular Strength Training (CST from here on out).

The introduction out of the way, Jones proceeds to go through a quick overview of the bodies various energy systems, and introduce a variation on the Tabata protocol which is the heart and soul of this program. This section is pretty solid; it's a bit brief, but the information is good, and easily understandable. The specific variation of the Tabata protocol he proposes is interesting--I cannot say if it's effective, because I haven't tried it yet. I may, but until I do, I'll reserve judgement. It seems basically sound, if rooted in some rather corny (or least, cornily-explained) mathematics combined with cliche.

The manual after this rambles a bit, covering some concepts like Joint Mass Center and Emotional Joint Mass Center, a pair of interesting concepts that really could stand a more solid explanation, but the basic idea is conveyed here. Also conveyed here is the concept of triangle point, a concept familiar to many grapplers, but not, perhaps, to many boxers. The information again, is solid, if a bit sparse.

Jones then moves on to attack the "Stinking Bog of Tradition", or four "myths" that he sees as problematic in the boxing world. He breaks down each myth separately and reasonably convincingly. The only one I'm unsure about is his argument about the relationship between having a strong neck and resisting a knockout. I think some of his logic is sound, but having a strong neck still seems valuable to me. but then, as a Muay Thai coach, I can think of other reasons for a fighter to have a strong neck.

There are some pages on the relationship between the head, neck and shoulders, and on static stretching. I didn't find much in here I didn't already know.

The next chapter covers some interesting footwork drills which I plan to play with a bit. I always love finding new footwork exercises, and these seem fun. The diagrams are a bit hard for me to follow, but I've never been good at translating movement from pages.

The next chapter, finally, includes the Clubbell exercises for this program.
Here, frankly, is where I got most annoyed: there is one exercise in here that Jones lists, but refuses to show, saying it needs to be taught in person. Four more are included in a different set of material, and thus not replicated here. Which I guess is fine if you already own those other materials, but rather annoying to someone who wants a single manual for their program. I fail to see how it would have hurt the manual to include some of these exercises, even if there was some replication.

As for the one "unsafe" exercise, if you don't want to teach it, why bother listing it? It seems useless to me.

And that wraps up the manual.

So, is this book worth it?

This part where I diverge into something I rarely talk about with training materials: production quality. For the most part, production quality is rarely a factor for me. Tony Blauer, who I consider a great teacher and mentor, was notorious for having videos with less than stellar production values. I've gotten great mileage out of a lot of material that was not printed on fancy paper, or shot on high-definition digital cameras.


This manual is very, very short. I don't know how short because it's not even paginated. It's printed on white paper, single sided, and bound like it was printed at a local Staples. In short, it looks and feels more like a graduate students term-paper than a professionally produced publication. Yet it retails for as much as a hardcover novel would in a major bookstore.

And frankly, I think it's too much. While the manual offers some very interesting ideas, making full use of them requires investing in a slew of other materials (not just the Clubbells, but other videos or manuals from RMAX as well). The basic protocol which is the heart and soul of the training method takes about two-pages to explain, and while it's an interesting idea, I am not convinced it is $24 worth of interesting. I hate to always fall back to comparing to Ross Enamait's material, but his books have become the gold standard by which I judge value. His production values aren't great either, but his books are PACKED with information. This one, not quite as much.

Still, as I said, I may experiment with it. If you are a S&C junkie like I am, this may be worth looking at particularly if you coach boxers. If RMAX offered this at a cheaper price, or even as a PDF download, I'd say it's worth grabbing. As things stand right now, however, I can't recommend this one.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Functional Training for Sports

I wasn't really sure what to expect when I cracked open Mike Boyle's "Functional Training for Sports". Truthfully, I'm not entirely sure how I ended up with a copy. I know only a little bit about Mike Boyle, and half of it because he apparently made some controversial (or at least unkind) statements about Crossfit, and ended up on Crossfit Radio in the same episode as Coach Blauer. In any case, I decided to finally pull the book off the shelves and actually go through it.

"Functional Training" is one of those buzzwords that has been floating around for at least a decade or two, and it always struck me as something that wasn't terribly well-defined, but involved a lot of bosu balls and core boards. The cover, which depicts a man standing on a core board, near a squat rack, with a medicine ball in hand, did little to dissuade me from that view. But what about the content itself.

The content is interesting, though I confess to having mixed feelings about the utility of it. Functional Training for Sports is Boyle's attempt to bring the concepts, methods, and specific drills of Functional Training to the non-trainer. The book is aimed at the layman, or at least, the non-science oriented trainer. Boyle eschews a lot of the in-depth scientific terminology in favor of a rather straight-forward, basic writing style. The writing is, for the most part, readable and easily understandable, even to someone with a relatively poor science background (like yours truly). Boyle begins by defining functional training in a general sense before delving into specific components of the training, and finally providing some sample plans.

So why the mixed feelings?

On the one hand, the book does a pretty good job of doing what ti sets out to do. It provides a solid outline of various training methods that comprise Boyle's style of "Functional Training". The only section that I felt was a bit sparse was the section on Olympic Lifting, which is a highly technical subject and I think Boyle gives it short shrift. Perhaps he feels that you can learn Olympic Lifts from a book, which is understandable, but in that case, he might have done better to not include them. The short descriptions combined with a few pictures did not quite work for me.

The problem I found with the book was, having finished it, I found very little I could take away from it. Most of the books programming is oriented towards sports like hockey, football, basketball, and so on. I could probably adapt some of the material to Muay Thai with a bit of effort, and some of the principles definitely can carry over, but I could just as easily get more focused information from other sources (Kevin Kearns, Ross Enamait, etc.). As someone who is just sort of a general fitness nut, I found a lot of Boyle's programs just to long and complex for my needs. Most of his workouts are designed to take an hour to an hour and a half, which is more time than I usually spend on my S&C.

That said, none of those are really fair criticism in the sense that the book is bad. It just didn't offer a whole for my needs, which is less of a failing of the book,and more just a failing of matched purposes. It's certainly nice to have, and I may steal some stuff from it, but for the moment, it doesn't hold a place in my highest rankings.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Booking Through Thursday

My good friend (and great writer) Lizard (aka E, Elizabeth, Liz) turned me onto Booking Through Thursday. By which I mean, she posted it on her blog, and now I'm posting on the same topic.

Yes, I know it's Friday. It's been a busy week.

Anyway, Booking Through Thursday asks:

Book Gluttony! Are your eyes bigger than your book belly? Do you have a habit of buying up books far quicker than you could possibly read them? Have you had to curb your book buying habits until you can catch up with yourself? Or are you a controlled buyer, only purchasing books when you have run out of things to read?

This is one of those "yeah, duh" questions for me. I collect books at a prodigious rate...far faster than I can possibly hope to read them. There was a period of time where I tried to resist or curb that fact. I (theoretically) limited myself to a certain number of shelves for books. I promised to sell things to used bookstores, or to give things away.

No avail. The books kept piling up. Or, I stopped buying books, and started buying up martial arts training videos.

Essentially, at some point, I just accepted a certain fact; I have the sort of addictive personality that makes me want to collect things. I am going to end up buying stuff. I could either fight it, or just accept it, manage it as best I can, and go with it.

Which, honestly, has worked a lot better for me. Yes, I buy books, but stick to books I know I want to read. If I'm not sure about something, I'll leave it be, or borrow it from someone else. I stay away from bookstores, and limit myself when I do go in. I'll for paperbacks instead of hardcovers.

But overall, yeah, I'm a book glutton. And I'm okay with that.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Black Stranger: And Other American Tales

The Black Stranger: And Other American Tales

Robert E. Howard, Steven Tompkins

  • Publisher: Bison Books (April 1, 2005)
  • ISBN-10: 0803273533

Robert E. Howard (REH hereafter) is probably best known in popular culture as the creator of Conan the Barbarian, in as much as he is known at all. I suspect that most people are more likely to recognize the name Conan than they are the name of the man who created him, but then, most people's vision of Conan is based of the very fun, but not very faithful, Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Erroneous picture or not, however, it's hard to deny that in the creation of Conan, Howard gave American popular imagination a figure who has survived for nearly a century, in pastiches, comics, movies. More recently, there has be a bit of a Howard resurgence, and several companies have begun publishing not only Howard's Conan stories (which are all excellent), but a great deal of Howard's other works as well.

The Black Stranger is, for the most part, a collection of REH's stories dealing with America. I say for the most part, because the titular story is actually a Conan tale, taking place in Howard's fictional Hyborian Age, rather than on the American continent proper. The story still fits perfectly, however, with it's dark, brooding forests, savage Picts (who are essentially Hollywood Indians with the serial numbers filed off), and stranded sailors, the story certainly feels like it could be set in a colonial or pre-colonial America. It's a very dark story, with murder, mysterious spirits, bloodthirsty tribes, and of course, some pirates. One of the creepier Conan stories, but compared with the other stories in this collection, it's actually rather...well, not uplifting, I suppose, but the protagonist gets out alive, which is more than can be said for some of them in the other stories.

The rest of the stories do take place on the American continent, though not all of them are "historical" by any stretch. "Marchers of Valhalla" follows a company of Vikings who have gotten themselves severely lost in an area that will eventually become Texas. Several other stories deal with Howard's vision of pre-Colombian America, which features mysterious civilizations paying homage to alien gods, conflict between civilization and barbarism (naturally), and, not infrequently, white men messing around with things they don't understand, and possibly should know better. As I alluded to earlier, some of these stories are pretty grim, and not filled with the sort of cheery derring-do that readers might expect. Which does not make them any less fun.

As the collection moves forward, the stories begin to move into areas of recorded history, and Howard's writing moves in a more horrific vein. "Black Cannan" tells a story of conflict between white and black residents of an insular area of Texas, while "Pigeons from Hell" is, in essence, a classic haunted house story. For the record, despite the possibly goofy title, "Pigeons from Hell" was, for my money, the most frightening story in this collection. If you have trouble sleeping after reading, don't finish off your night with this one.

The collection culminates with a couple of letters from REH, which are more interesting for their insights into Howard's mind and thoughts than they are for any literary enjoyment, and a single poem, "the Grim Land", which I enjoyed, but I'm not a big poetry reader.

The blurb on the back of this book compares the stories in this collection to dark classics like "Young Goodman Brown," "Benito Cereno," and "A Rose for Emily." I confess to not actually having READ those stories, so I'm hard pressed to say if the comparison is accurate. I can say that these stories are fantastic reading, full of mystery, horror, and adventure. Howard continues to impress me not just as a fun author to read, but as an author who really should be taken much more seriously on a literary level. This stuff is pure gold.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Yes, It's Another Blog (Sort Of)

So yes, I'm starting another blog here. Some of you may wonder why. Some of you may not care.

Really, it's pretty simple.

I read a lot of books, and I enjoy reviewing them. For a long time, I did most of my reviewing on a livejournal account. But that account slowly started to morph into something that was half book review site, half random thinking about my life. With the advent of Facebook, Twitter, and my own business, I find that I'm not really using livejournal the way I used to.

I also am, frankly, one of those OCD sort of people that very much likes to organize things. When my girlfriend and I moved into our current place, her first priority was the kitchen. Mine was unpacking and organizing the books--it took me the better part of a day. Yes, I am a bit OCD about these things.

So, here I am. Reviewing books. Whatever ones I happen to read. Yes, there will be some overlap with my other blog (An Honest Philosophy), but not a lot. Much of what I read doesn't belong over there, and much of what I post there doesn't belong here. You should feel free to read them both, however.

I make no promises to update this on any kind of regular basis. It'll happen when I finish reading stuff. Until then, I've migrated over some of my old reviews, and will be bringing more over as I go. I'll probably also be updating the amazon store to cover some of the things I read and think are worth buying.

Comments, thoughts, and whatever are welcome.


Book Review: Inside the Criminal Mind

Inside the Criminal Mind: Revised and Updated Edition
Inside the Criminal Mind was one of the books that I pulled off of Rory Miller’s recommended reading lists. I think I found it on his website, but I’m honestly not sure. Wherever I found it, I’m glad I did.

Inside the Criminal Mind is a very interesting book, though I confess, it’s not entirely what I expected. While Samenow does get very deep into criminal psychology, he does so from a very…global…perspective.

Global is not the right adjective there. I’m having trouble finding one.

Samenow is concerned with explaining the criminal mind, not just as a way of clarifying it for the average citizen, but in a way that will help psychologists, policy makers, and society in general rethink the way that society deals with those criminals. Despite Samenow’s claims that his work is apolitical, there is clearly a political message within it: that society needs to change the way it deals with its criminals.

Not being much for politics myself (they raise my blood pressure), I’m going to ignore the political implications of Samenow’s work for this review. My purpose in reading this book was to gain a better insight into criminal psychology, so that I could be better educated, and could better educate my students about the nature of crime and violence prevention.

From that perspective, this book is excellent. Samenow presents his observations in a clear, concise manner that it is easily accessible, even to a non-psychologist. There are numerous case studies, stories, and other examples that Samenow uses to help reinforce his points, which make most of his basic tenets a lot more memorable. He reinforces his basic premise sufficiently that the reader can finish with a few simple, clear, easily remembered ideas, without turning the book into a dull, repetitious screed.

For those interested in self-defense, criminal psychology, or criminal law, even, this book is definitely worth a read.

Children of Hurin (Audio Book)

Having read and reviewed Children of Hurin once already, I’m not sure I’ve discovered a lot new to say about it by listening to it on audio. It was awesome in one format, and it’s awesome in another.

Okay, one way it’s awesome in this format is that when I read it to myself, I don’t sound like Christopher Lee. The man who gave us the Voice of Saruman (with good reason), gives us the voice of everyone else in this tale, including a fantastic performance as Glaurang, the great wyrm.

So I take it back. There is a difference; because as much as I recognized it was a tragedy while reading it, listening to Lee read it made the book somehow that much more depressing. That’s a compliment, for the record.

Children of Hurin is a damn fine piece of literature, no matter what format you experience it in, but Lee’s performance makes the audio version especially worthwhile.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

One of the side benefits to traveling to the PDR is that I got to catch up on some of my reading. In particular, I got to finally finish off 1491, which I had been working on for some time now.

1491 is essentially a survey of (relatively) recent archaeological research as seen through the eyes of a journalist. Charles Mann sets out to debunk the "high school" view of what the Americas were like before the arrival of Western Europeans. Along the way, he travels through parts of Central and South America, nearly crashes when his plane runs out of fuel, and eats a variety of sometimes tasty, sometimes odd, local cuisines.

There's a lot that's good about this book, though I confess that I didn't find a lot of it revelatory. That may have more to do with the five years I spent dating an aspiring archaeologist than anything wrong with the content of the book--a lot of it does seem fairly accurate, and even I learned a few new things.

I did find the structure of the book a little confusing; if Mann had a pattern that he was following in his outline of the material, I never caught onto it. He seems to meander from topic to topic, rather than focusing on either a regional or chronological view of the Americas. The latter, as I think about it, would be difficult, but the former might have worked better. Some of the chapters have explicit themes that connect the various subsections, but some of them seem a little random.

A lot of the book is focused on Central and South America; I don't know if that's because that is where the majority of the archaeological data exists, or if it's a personal bias on Mann's part. Personally, I've always been curious about the Northeastern US (or what became the Northeastern US), mostly because I grew up in a town surrounded by Indian Reservations. I was hoping to learn more than what Mann had here.

Mann's writing is clean, crisp, and flows well. His descriptions are vivid without being overwrought, and the information he provides is clear enough to be accessible without feeling as though it was "dumbed down".

Overall, the book is good, if not perfect. Definitely worth the read, for those interested in this sort of thing.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Lankhmar Book 1: Swords and Deviltry

Lankhmar Book 1: Swords and Deviltry

by Fritz Leiber

Publisher: Dark Horse (January 10, 2007)

ISBN-10: 1595820795

Leiber, like Howard, is one of those defining figures of fantasy that I should have read in my youth, but was never able to. Like Howard, I believe his stuff was out of print for a long time, or perhaps I just never really knew much about him. I know that the notion of the “Grey Mouser and Fafhrd” as some sort of pairing of a small, sneaky, guy and a big, strong, barbarian guy was in my head by college, but beyond that, I really can’t remember.

In any case, someone over at Dark Horse (a fact which I did not realize until I started writing this review), apparently decided to reissue Leiber’s Lankhmar stories in a series of small paperbacks. Swords and Deviltry collects three stories which serve as an “origin tale”, bringing readers up to speed on the background of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, respectively, before moving into the tale of their first adventure together.

As sword and sorcery stuff goes, it’s great fun. The stories are very fast-paced, full of adventure, intrigue, excitement, and a good deal of humor. One of the things I really enjoy about them is that both of the main characters are relatively young men, which gives them a good reason to make mistakes that older, more experienced sorts of characters might not plausibly make. Indeed, the characters youthful hubris pretty much drives the plot of their first meeting together, and plays a reasonably large role in their origin stories as well.

The world that Leiber crafts is a pretty interesting one; at least, it seems to be. Like Howard, Leiber doesn’t spend a lot of time on world building, choosing to just give his reader’s snippets of information as he sees fit or necessary. If it’s not relevant to the story, it’s not included. It actually works very well as a world-building method, giving the reader a feeling of looking in on a complete world that they just can’t entirely grasp. It’s a style of storytelling that seems to have faded in the wake of Tolkien, which is unfortunate. I love Tolkien, but I think this method works well too.

Overall, I enjoyed the collection, and I’ll probably grab the next one at some point. The stories didn’t feel like they had quite as much depth as some of Howard’s work, but it is possible that I’m just not giving them their due. In any case, this is worth the read, for sword-and-sorcery buffs, or people who just like a good action story.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Death of the Good Doctor

Death of the Good Doctor: Lessons from the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic Death of the Good Doctor: Lessons from the Heart of the AIDS Epidemic by Kate Scannell

I read this one as part of what is essentially and "exchange program" between myself and my girlfriend. I agreed to read this, which she marks as one of her favorite books of all time, and she agreed to read the Lord of the Rings. Frankly, I got the easier end of that bargain!

Still, I cannot find fault with her for liking this book, as it's actually a very good piece of work.

The book chronicles Dr. Scannell's experiences working in an AIDS ward starting in the early 1980's. There was little understanding of the nature of the virus, and not terribly much understanding of the people who were infected by it. In dealing with her patients, Scannell ends up confronting a lot of her beliefs about medicine, mortality, and existence as a whole.

This is not a linear narrative: instead, it's a series of short vignette's, each focusing on a different patient and Dr. Scannell's personal experiences with or of that patient and the people around them. As with all books that are collections of short stories, some of the stories are more powerful, more horrific, or more engaging than others, but they are all written in an interesting and engaging fashion. Scannell writes smoothly and honestly about her experiences, in a way that honors the suffering her patients have gone through, while at the same time not descending into melodrama. Even at the end, when Scannell finds herself faced the possibility of her own death, the writing remains clear, lucid, and engaging.

Not, perhaps, the most cheerful book on my shelves, but one definitely worth reading and thinking about.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders (Audio Book)

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders
Neil Gaiman
Publisher: HarperAudio; Unabridged edition (September 26, 2006)
ISBN-10: 0061142379
The astute among you will note that I have, in fact, already reviewed Fragile Things some time ago. However, thanks to Todd’s immense generosity, I got to listen to the book on audio, read by the Gaiman himself. So I thought I’d share a few thoughts about it.
First of all, Gaiman is a fantastic reader and storyteller. Indeed, his skill as a storyteller really comes to the fore when he reads his own work, and does a lot to enhance some of the stories in the book that I didn’t find quite as compelling the first time around. The "Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot” for example, I found a lot more compelling and memorable this time around, and found a lot more humor in “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire “, and actually have a more solid memory now of “How Do You Think It Feels?” Granted, some of this may just be an effect of re-experiencing the stories, but I think some of it is that Gaiman’s writing style lends itself very well to storytelling, and hearing him read it just makes them that much more memorable.
Second, this collection contains “Goliath”, Gaimain’s Matrix-based short story. Honestly, just finding out about and getting this story made the effort worth it. While the story makes no sense in the context of the later Matrix films, it is, in fact, way more interesting than said films. Not that that’s much of a stretch, but there you go.
Otherwise, not much new to say about it. I still enjoy most of the stories, but not all of them. If I were to recommend this collection to someone, I’d honestly say the audio format is the better way to experience it. But reading it is okay too.