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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.