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Sunday, November 21, 2010

Ghosts in the Snow

Ghosts in the Snow
Tamara Siler Jones
Publisher: Spectra
ISBN: 0553587099

Like many books I’ve read recently, I acquired this one on a whim; it showed up at Waldenbooks, and there was some confusion over whether it should be shelved in the fantasy or the mystery section. Eventually, it ended up in fantasy. Given my enjoyment of fantasy, and my recent rediscovery that I love mystery, I thought I’d check it out.

The Basics:
At its heart, Ghosts in the Snow is a modern-day thriller that’s been transplanted into a fantasy setting. The book follows Dubric Bryerly, head of security at Castle Faldorrah and investigator par excellance. Dubric is also the victim of a strange curse—the ghosts of people murdered at Castle Faldorrah appear to him, and won’t go away until their murders are solved. Generally speaking, the ghosts can’t DO anything, and no one but Dubric can see them (or knows about the curse). Normally, it seems, this isn’t a big deal; someone gets murdered, Dubric solves the murder fairly quickly, the ghost goes away. At least, that’s the impression that I have. We never see Dubric solve a simple case, because, let’s face it, that wouldn’t make for a very interesting novel.

Instead, Ghosts in the Snow pits Dubric against a Hannibal Lector-style serial killer who is murdering, dismembering, and eating parts of various serving girls around the castle. As the murders and ghosts pile up, Dubric is forced to deal with political pressure, servant revolts, crazy nobles, and a variety of other problems, in addition to the killer himself.

The Good:
Jones has set up a fairly interesting story, an interesting setting, and populated it with some fun, if not terribly deep, characters. Dubric himself is a bit of a classic embittered cop who’s lost his faith, his wife, and is wholly dedicated to his job. He has some classic sidekicks, including the geeky peasant made good Otlee, the physically formidable Dien, and Dubric’s understudy Lars, who occasionally perceives the ghosts that plague Dubric as the murders continue. Nella, one of the serving girls who is a focal point for part of the story, is also a fun character, if a bit of a stereotype. In short, Jones does a marvelous job of translating the classic tropes of modern thrillers into a fantasy setting.

Jones is sparse on the world-building, which is a nice touch in an age where fantasy writers seem to feel that everyone needs to write like Tolkien, and that problems can only be resolved over a twelve-book series. She introduces information as it’s needed to advance the story, and not much more. It’s well done, and keeps the story moving at a brisk clip.

The killer’s identity is appropriately obscured; I gave it my best shot, but totally failed to figure it out until the big reveal.

The Bad:
Jones does commit a minor version of the great cardinal sin of mystery’s (and writing in general)—she introduces something that seems relevant or important, but never appears to be. The killer’s means of turning invisible also grants him the ability to perceive the victims internal fluids, blow flow, etc. It’s neat, and gives the killer a sort of Predator-vision that makes him creepy, but nothing ever really comes of the ability. It’s not clear why it matters, or what it’s supposed to be used for.

The red herring in the story is bright red, with flashing red lights that say “Red Herring Here.” Or pretty close. Jones keeps pushing it to the point where it becomes obvious that it can’t be the right explanation, at which point, the continued pushing becomes a bit annoying.

The Ugly:
The killer murders, dismembers, and eats people. He also ties someone up with someone else’s intestines; someone else is literally ripped apart. If gory details aren’t your thing, this book is emphatically not for you.

Overall, Ghosts in the Snow is fun book that, while interesting, doesn’t quite live up to it’s potential. The plot is a little too straightforward, and the overemphasis on the red herring eventually starts to make Dubric seem a bit thick (though even HE gets frustrated with it). It is a first novel, so I’m willing to forgive some of the clunky writing. It’s also apparently the start of series, which is interesting, but leaves me a bit skeptical. The premise doesn’t really seem to allow for a lot of interesting stories except for more of the same. Dubric is a neat character, but a single castle and the surrounding lands seems a bit small to work as a setting for a series of murder mysteries. But I guess we’ll find out.

Fans of mystery, fantasy, or both will probably enjoy this, provided they aren’t looking for anything genre-breaking or mind-blowing. But it’s a fun read, and if you like both those genres, it’s definitely wroth checking out.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Core Performance

I picked this one up a while back on Paul's recommendation. I had seen the book in stores for years, but there was something about it that put me off buying it. Which is unfortunate, since it turns out to be a pretty good book.

What's Good

If you're looking for a comprehensive, one-book kind of exercise program, Core Performance delivers. The book contains advice and instruction on warming up, strength training, cardio (or energy system development, in the Core Performance lexicon), explosive power development, and post-workout stretching routines. It's even got a short, but informative nutrition session. There's a very clearly laid out twelve week program to get you started, and advice for what to do once you complete that twelve week program.

So, yeah, there is a lot of information in here.

The program follows a nice, steady progression that is pretty easy to work into. I actually was using it after coming off of a really bad injury (Piriformis Syndrome, which still plauges me), and used the optional three week starter program before jumping into the full program. My wedding and honeymoon stopped me from doing the last week of the program, but overall, it seems pretty solid.

Even if you're not following the program precisely, there's a lot of good ideas and information in here. The movement prep and pre-hab concepts are invaluable for anyone involved in an athletic activity, particular combat sport. A lot of Verstegen's concepts tie in nicely with the material on Kevin Kearns DVDs, and if you're a fan of one, you will find a lot of value in the other.

What's Bad?

While Verstegen insists that you can follow this program with a minimum of equipment, the actual program does not bear that out. In order to complete the program as outlined in the book, you'll need a heart-rate monitor (or a piece of cardio equipment that has one), barbells, dumbbells, a bench, a physioball, a foam roller, some rope...and that's just what I can think of off the top of my head. If you're a member of a well-equipped fitness facility, you'll probably be fine. If you're like me and mostly workout at home or in a martial arts school, you may have a hard time following the program to the letter.

If you have access to a fully-equipped fitness facility, this is a great "one book" for fitness. If you don't, I'd recommended Ross Enamait's Never Gymless instead. It's just as comprehensive, but not nearly as equipment intensive. Still, the movement prep and pre-hab routines make Core Performance a worthwhile purchase in it's own right. Check it out!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game

The Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental GameThe Fighter's Mind: Inside the Mental Game by Sam Sheridan

In The Fighter's Mind, Sam Sheridan follows up his previous work by digging into the question of how great fighters think. Where A Fighter's Heart is mostly about Sheridan and his own experiences, The Fighter's Mind is essentially a collection of interviews and talks with various combat athletes and coaches, along with a few less combatively oriented candidates, like ultrarunner David Horton.

I unashamedly love this book. It's great. I say that as someone who believes profoundly in the supreme importance of mental strength in the success of a fighter (or anything else, for that matter), so I'm biased. As a practitioner, the challenge of combat sports has always been as much mental as physical; indeed, the thing that drew me to combat sport (and to Tony Blauer and his research) was my recognition that I needed/wanted to challenge myself mentally as well as physically. A lot of the last decade of my training has involved my own search for ways to strengthen my own mental game, and for wasy to improve the mental strength of those I coach.

For me, this book is a gem. It offers an opportunity to get in the minds of a number of legendary fighters, some of whom I'd never have the opportunity to speak with otherwise (Kru Mark Dellagrotte being a notable exception), and learn a bit about what motivates them. I felt like there was probably something useful I could take away from every chapter. It's one of the few books I've read recently tht I'm likely to re-read SOON, rather than eventually.

If you are a combat athlete, read this book. If you are interested in sports psychology, read this book. If you want some idea of how champions are made, regardless of the sport, read this book. It's worth it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A History of Warfare

A History of WarfareA History of Warfare by John Keegan

I decided to read this one after listening to a course on Military History from the Teaching Company. I've always had a fondness for military history, and figured that this would expand my knowledge and baseline.

This book turned out to be a bit more than I expected, though not in a bad way. More than just a military history, Keegan's History of Warfare is an attack against the Clausewitzian notion that "war is a continuation of politics by other means". Instead, Keegan argues that war is a cultural phenomenon, and that culture, not politics, is one of the driving forces behind warfare.

The book itself is broken up into five main sections: War in Human History, Stone, Flesh, Iron, and Fire. These are separated by smaller sub-chapters, Limitations on War-making, Fortification, Armies, and Logistics and Supply. In each section, Keegan examines the history of warfare as it relates to a particular technology or development (the Flesh chapter, for example, focuses a great deal on the Steppe nomad cultures).

The scope of this book is, not surprisingly, quite wide. Keegan is trying to cover the history of warfare throughout the globe, which necessitates a superficial look at any particular conflict. Readers interested in an in-depth look at any particular conflict would be better served by looking at something else. On the flip side, this book is intellectually rigorous enough to not quite qualify as "light reading". This book is not a "History Channel" summary of battles and conflicts; Keegan is seeking to illustrate a particular idea, and much of his discussion and writing is focused on that notion. If you're not into military history, or if you are simply looking for a quick and dirty summary of some battles, this book will not serve you well at all.

Personally, I enjoyed the book and found reading it quite valuable. A very brief web search indicates that the book is a source of some controversy among historians, which means nothing except that it was published and some historians read it. Given Keegan's widespread popularity as a writer of military history, I think that anyone interested in the subject would find reading this worthwhile. Even if Keegan's argument does not convince you, the man is influential enough to be worth reading.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of FightingA Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting

A Fighter's Heart: One Man's Journey Through the World of Fighting
Sam Sheridan

A Fighter's Heart has spent years on my "I need to read this" shelf without me ever actually reading it. Having finally done so, I'm very glad I did.

A Fighter's Heart is the story of Sam Sheridan's exploration into what it is that makes competitive fighters tick. Along the way, he explores Muay Thai, Boxing, Brazilian Juijitsu, Mixed Martial Arts, and (of all things) Tai Chi. He also explores dog and cock fighting, spends some time in a Buddhist monastery, and does a little bit of stunt fighting work. At each stage, he comes back to the same burning question "why is it that people like doing this stuff, anyway?".

Some of the fun of this book is just the travelogue aspect of it; Sheridan literally travels the world, meeting all kinds of strange and fun people, and his writing style gives the whole book an air of easy conversation. But it also contains some serious introspection into the mind of what drives some people to jump into confined spaces and try to beat each other up for no particularly apparent reason.

The only thing I didn't like about this book was, predictably, the section on dogfighting. While Sheridan does an admirable job of trying to find something good and noble in the activity, I just can't get behind it. Despite his best efforts, I will continue to view people who fight dogs as scum--if they are that invested in testing their gameness, they can get into the ring or on the mat themselves. Having someone (or something) else fight for you by proxy does not prove anything.

While combat athletes will doubtless enjoy this book (and find a lot of themselves in it), those are not the first people I would recommend it to. Instead, I would recommend it to those people who are close to combat athletes, but cannot, for the life of them, make sense of why they do what they do. For those trying to figure it out, Sheridan's book may offer some insight.

Overall, I really enjoy this one. If you have any interest in combat sport, it's worth the read.


Ellen Kushner

I should really like this book.

There's a lot to like about it. Action and adventure. Swordsmen dueling in darkened schools dedicated to their art. Nobles plotting intrigues against each other. A noble seeking to become a swordsman. An man with a hidden past. An opera that no swordsman will watch, because every swordsman who sees it dies in their next duel. Vengeful nobles. Mysterious benefactors, and mysterious women.

Swordspoint is fantasy only in the sense that the story takes place in a world clearly not our own. It takes place in an unnamed, but socially highly stratified, city. That this is not a real city is about all that separates it from just being a period piece; there is no magic, no fantastic creatures, nothing really "fantasy" about it. Not a bad thing, by any means, but it makes it hard to classify.

The story mostly focuses around Richard St. Vier, the greatest swordsman in the city, and his lover, Alec, who is some sort of disgraced noblemen. Herein, perhaps, is the weakness of the story for me. I don't really care for either of the main characters. Looking at the reviews on Amazon shows men that many people feel they're quite brilliant, but I just don't get it.

In a lot of ways, I feel badly. This is well-written book. Kushner crafts a story full of intrigue, populated by well-developed, and at times, unconventional, characters. The very fact that the two main characters are gay lovers sets this book far outside the conventions of the genre.

And yet, for all that it has to recommend it, I just didn't like it. I can't entirely explain why. I wouldn't steer anyone away from it, but I doubt I'd pick it up a second time.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Catching Up

For a variety of reasons, I've been way, way, behind on my reviews lately. So, while I've tried to avoid doing this on this blog, I'm just going to do a quick catch-up post, and cover a bunch of stuff at once. Hopefully, it will actually work, and get me back on track with this.

Barney Ross

A fascinating look at the life of one of the great Jewish boxers, from a time period when there were a lot of great Jewish boxers. Douglas Century does a fantastic job of exploring Ross's seemingly contradictory life, and presents a very complete picture of a man torn between his upbringing, religion, and personal self. I, of course, am no Barney Ross, but the story of a Jewish boy pursuing a decidedly non-Jewish career resonated with me very strongly. Boxing fans should definitely read this one.

The Core Performance: The Revolutionary Workout Program to Transform Your Body & Your Life

Interesting strength and conditioning book. Program seems solid, if rather equipment-intensive. Am now experimenting with the "preliminary" phase, as I'm coming off a two month injury. Will post about progress.

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why

Gonzales has some very interesting insights into who survives desperate circumstances, and who doesn't. Gave me a lot to think about in regards to training, mindset, and life in general. While not directly about self-defense, anyone who teaches any kind of survival skill ought to read this (if for no other reason than its extreme popularity). Lots of good info here.

Mastery of Hand Strength

An older book, but a good one. If you have ever wanted stronger hands, for any reason (or no reason at all), there is plenty of good info in here. Aside from a few out-of-date comments (Kettlebells aren't the rare antique Brookfield describes), this one is very solid. Obviously great for combat athletes, martial artists, and other similar folks, but good for just about anyone who works with their hands a lot.

Sharpening the Warrior's Edge

I'm not entirely sold on Siddle's premises about heart-rate and performance, BUT, he does have some good ideas about using scenarios and simulations to  train people for high-stress events. Again, folks who deal with survival situations should read this, simply because of it's "classic" nature, but I think some of the assumptions are worth challenging.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Book of Jhereg

Like so many authors, I’d heard of Steven Brust and his “Vlad Taltos” series for years before actually getting around to reading it. I am very slow about these things. Fortunately, in this case, my friend Jason just showed up and put it in my hand. Since I’m moving in a few days, I felt obliged to finish the book before I left my current abode, and so, here we are.

The particular book that Jason lent me is, in fact, an omnibus of the first three Vlad Taltos novels, Jhereg, Yedni, and Teckla.

There are some common truths to all three novels; they are, on the surface, fantasy novels (though there’s a science fiction veneer behind it all that gets revealed relatively quickly). They all focus on Vlad Taltos, a human living in the Dragaeran Empire, where humans are second-class citizens to the longer-lived and generally more powerful Dragaerans. They all generally involve Vlad, who is a professional assassin and criminal, getting caught up in a larger conspiracy or event of some sort, and dealing with the fallout of that. There are a variety of secondary characters that flit in and out of the series.

All three novels are written in the first person, from Vlad’s point of view. Brust gives Vlad a very unique and memorable voice, and if Vlad’s sarcasm sometimes gets to be a bit much, it is offset by some truly touching moments of honesty. Brust uses Vlad’s voice, and his interaction with the other characters, to carefully reveal the world that he’s built, always giving enough information to make the reader understand what’s happening, without digressing into what amounts to fake history lesson. My only complaint is that I still don’t know what a Yendi or Teckla actually are, though Jo Walton seems to. Not sure how she or other people figured it out.

Interestingly, the novels are not sequential. Jhereg clearly takes place earlier in time than Yendi (which ends up being kind of an “origin story” of sorts), while Teckla follows very shortly behind events of Jhereg. This is all part of Brust’s much larger “plan”, I’m told. All three novels work fine as stand-alone works, however, in keeping with Stackpoles’ Law.

Of the three, I think I enjoyed Jhereg the most. It’s got a nice mixture of tension, intrigue, mystery, and revelation without going overboard on any of them. Yendi was a lot of fun too, though I remember it being “lighter” for no good reason. Probably because of the love story, which would seem less plausible if it hadn’t been foreshadowed in Jhereg. Teckla is very, very, well written, but I had a very hard time reading it. It includes a huge amount of marital stress as an integral part of the plot, and I just don’t handle reading about that stuff very well. That’s totally a personal issue—Brust writes the relationship, and the tension, brilliantly. I just hate reading about it.

Definitely a fantasy series worth reading.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Secret Atlas (Age of Discovery, Book One)

A Secret Atlas by Michael A. Stackpole

Many, many years ago, I attended a lecture by Michael Stackpole, in which he advanced a theory that any book in a series should form an essentially self-contained novel, so that one could pick it up, read it, and enjoy it without necessarily having to read the whole thing. (His particular example involved being stuck in an airport with nothing but the second book of various trilogies available to him).

The example stuck with me for a long time, but oddly, I never read any of the man's work itself. Partly that was because he wrote a lot of Battletech and Star Wars fiction, and I never liked the former, and burned out on the latter as a callow teenager. At some point, I stumbled across this one, thought it looked interesting, and, after having it occupy space for a little bit, decided to give it a shot.

The book had me concerned even before I started the story. The dedication is to Senator John McCain, and for a brief moment, I worried that the book was some kind of political screed in disguise (something which sci-fi/fantasy authors are occasionally guilty of...see also, brain-eater). But it was to the Senator, not the presidential candidate, and it was focused mostly on McCain's triumph over horrific circumstances. Like McCain or not, he went through some rough stuff, and I think he deserves admiration for that. So, okay. Moving on.

My concerns deepened when I saw that Stackpole was crediting/referencing the team behind Gavin Menzies's "controversial" book 1421: The Year China Discovered America. By "controversial" I mean that it's largely BS, as near as I've ever been able to determine. But,I told myself, this is a fantasy book, and Stackpole says he's using them as reference for ship dimensions. That shouldn't mess anything up, and besides, this is fantasy. I cannot criticize the historical validity of something set in a made-up world.

On to the book itself.

Stackpole builds an interesting setting, which is an odd mixture of Medieval Italy and Imperial China set in a world recovering from a magical apocalypse. There are a lot of odd, made up words here. I don't know if Stackpole went to the same lengths that Professor Tolkien did in his world building, but he definitely has a lot of words here. Sometimes, they get a bit confusing, but for the most part, they're manageable.

The story itself follows a number of different characters, but primarily revolves around Jorim and Keles Anturasi, grandsons of Qiro Anturasi, the chief cartographer of the particular kingdom in which they live. Their family skill at cartography is what has enabled the kingdom they live in to rise to prominence, and they are considered extremely valuable by the Prince of that particular realm. Through a series of intrigues, Jorim and Keles end up being tasked with two different exploratory missions. Jorim sails west to look for a route around the world (sound familiar?), while Keles is sent to explore the post-apocalyptic wasteland to the north. A number of other sundry characters get tangled up along the way. And there are intrigues in the capital city back home.

There's some really interesting stuff in here; the jaedunto, for example, are those who are so skilled as to effectively be doing magic with their craft (this is Kung Fu in it's more literal sense, as opposed to what most of us here in the States think of as Kung Fu). The characters, for the most part, are engaging, particularly the two brothers. I found some of the courtly stuff actually a bit dull, but there you go. There SEEMS to be an evolving plot about the power of people to define their world, and how the role of mapmakers plays into that, but I haven't gotten far enough to know if that's the case.

On the downside, there's some problems. There are a LOT of weird names, and I had trouble keeping track of all of the places, players, and characters. Worse, there were a few characters I just didn't care about, including one whose rather gruesome murder seems completely out of left field, and rather pointless. I suppose I should have felt sympathy for the character, but I just never clicked with her, and then she was dead. It seemed like gruesome violence for gruesome violence's sake, as though the book didn't have enough Hannibal Lector, and was running out of time.

Problems aside, however, I did enjoy this book. So much that I ignored some of my other current readings just to finish it. And I want to read the next one. So that's a good sign.

And, no, it's not one complete story. I mean, I could stop reading here, but I wouldn't feel like things really resolved. So either Stackpole has revised that rule, or he's given it up. It's okay. I like the book anyway.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Facing Ali: 15 Fighters / 15 Stories

Facing Ali: 15 Fighters / 15 Stories
Stephen Brunt

What would it have been like to stand across the ring from one of the greatest fighters of the twentieth century? How does fighting a legend change or influence a person? Those questions are at the heart of Brunt's Facing Ali, which traces Ali's career not through the man himself, but through the men he fought.

Brunt begins chronologically, starting with Ali's first professional opponent, and moving through until he comes to Larry Holmes, the man who beat Ali in Ali's final night in the ring.

Each man gets a chapter all to himself, in which Brunt recounts the interviews he's conducted, along with providing some background on the men before the faced Ali, and their fate afterward. His writing is casual, but engaging, and he does a wonderful job of bringing the men he's interviewing to life.

While all of Ali's big name opponents are featured here, I actually found the stories of the lesser known men more fascinating in some ways. While Brunt does have some good things to say about Foreman, Fraizer, Holmes, and Ken Norton, it was the lives of men like Tunney Hunsaker (who spent most of his life as well-respected small town sheriff), or Jurgen Blin (a German boxer, who fought Ali when Ali couldn't fight in the states). These are the stories of men who were caught in the wake of a legend, who brushed with him, but are somehow forgotten when the legend itself is told.

Fans of any combat sport, particularly boxing, ought to pick this one up, as should anyone who's just interested in the legendarium that grows up around our modern athletes.

(Like this review? Visit my Amazon store and pick up a copy, or any number of other titles I've reviewed and recommended.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Tolkien Reading Day

Unbeknownst to me, today apparently is Tolkein Reading Day. It's only thanks to the Cimmerian that I'm aware of this.

Through no particular planning of my own, I'm wrapping up listening to the Hobbit again. It's always a fun and interesting listen or read. While the Lord of the Rings is arguably a more "mature" work (it is certainly much more developed), the Hobbit is filled with a lot of wonderful and thought-provoking moments as well.

Also, Rob Ingles is a wonderful narrator. Just sayin'.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Books of the South: Tales of the Black Company

The Books of the South: Tales of the Black Company
Glen Cook
Publisher: Tor Books; 1st edition (June 10, 2008)

The Books of the South is an omnibus that collects three books in the Glen Cook's Black Company Series. The first two books, Shadow Games and Dreams of Steel, deal with the company's journey south after the events of the White Rose. The last book, the Silver Spike, deals with the titular object, and events surrounding it's fate.

Shadow Games picks up shortly after the end of the White Rose, with Croaker now in charge of the remnants of the Black Company. He's decided to march them south to the city of Khatovar, which is where the Company supposedly originated. Of course, the book would be pretty boring if they just got home fine, so there's a lot of complications, mostly courtesy of the Shadowmasters, a new group of antagonists who have a problem with the Black Company...

Like previous books in the series, the narration jumps around in perspective and person; Croaker narrates the portions he participates in directly, while other chapters switch to the third-person narrative. It's a little jarring at first, but Cook's writing is engaging and consistent enough in tone that it's easy to get absorbed in pretty quickly. Despite not having revisited the Black Company series in a few years, I was able to get caught back up pretty quickly, which was nice.
Nothing is worse than jumping into a new book and realizing you need to re-read three other ones just to know what's going on (GRRM, I'm looking at you).

While Shadow Games is fun and engaging, the plot of it is glacially slow. Really. The whole book is set up for Dreams of Steel, which isn't much of a problem when you've got a collection, but I can't imagine how frustrating this would have been to read by itself. I found myself constantly checking the page count, wondering how much I had left, and when something was actuallygoing to happen. Fortunately, I was able to just jump right into Dreams of Steel .

While the plot of Shadow Games is almost all set up, Dreams of Steel is a plot in motion. The first-person narration duties get shifted to another character (for reasons I won't get into), and the plots that were set up in Shadow Games start crashing forward at a rapid pace. There's a lot more twists, turns, and double crosses, but it's all very, very engaging.

It also does not resolve itself at ALL.

Which leads me to my big complaint about this collection.

Many, many years ago, I attended a writing lecture by Michael Stackpole (an author I still have yet to read, oddly). In it, Stackpole said that his worst nightmare was to be stuck in an airport where the airport bookstore was stocked only with the second book in a trilogy. His reasoning was that most authors tend to write the middle book of a trilogy as a cliffhanger, which makes it totally unreadable on it's own.

This is precisely the problem with the Books of the South. Or rather, it's the problem with two-thirds of the Books of the South; they set up a very interesting story and scenario, but don't end it. Frankly, it doesn't even give you an acceptable stopping point. Now, my beloved JRR Tolkien does the same thing in the Two Towers, but that doesn't make it right.

The third book, the Silver Spike, is actually a self-contained story, but has very little to do with the previous two books. It moves back up north to revisit Darling, Raven, and a few other characters who were left out of the Books of the South. It's a well-written novel, and I enjoyed it, but I also found myself wondering why I cared about this story when stuff down south hadn't resolved. I thought maybe things would all tie together at the end, but no such luck. If there is a tie-in, it happens in a later book.

So is this collection worth it? If you read the first Black Company Series. , and want more military fantasy action, yes. If you DIDN'T read the first trilogy, start with that before moving on to this one. Reading this the collection alone will just give you a headache.

(Like this review? Visit my Amazon store and pick up a copy, or any number of other titles I've reviewed and recommended.)

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Book 7) (Hardcover)
by J. K. Rowling (Author), Mary GrandPré (Illustrator)
Publisher: Arthur A. Levine Books; 1st edition (July 21, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0545010225

What’s more frightening than “You-know-who”? How about trying to write a review of the last installment of Harry Potter?

I always get a bit nervous at the thought of voicing my opinions on anything Harry Potter. After all, Harry inspires some pretty strong (and crazy) emotions. Say the wrong thing, and legions of rabid fans could descend on you, screaming latin-esque words and poking at you with sticks.

But I dawdle.

Ending a story is no easy task; anyone who has read or watching any of JMS’s works knows exactly how difficult it is to end a story. And the larger and grander the story, the harder it is to end. Capping off a story about a man going to the grocery story is relatively simple. Capping off a story about The Boy Who Lived, which has captured millions of readers around the world…well, that’s a bit more difficult. So I went into this book with a certain amount of trepidation. Would Rowling be able to succeed where so many writers fail? Would she, at the last possible instant, cave into the fever that seems to have gripped Robert Jordan and other fantasy authors, writing book after book without end? Or would she tie everything up in a satisfying, reasonable, and authentic fashion.

Without spoilers: I think Rowling did do a good job of wrapping up her story. The themes of the Harry Potter series finally come to the forefront, and she manages to tie up many of the lose ends, and answer many questions that have plagued reader’s throughout the series. When you finally reach the end of the book, there are no unanswered questions, and if Harry’s ultimate fate is doubtless not to everyone’s tastes, it is, I think, a very reasonable conclusion to the character’s story.

Of course, getting there is half the fun, and in this book’s case, I believe that statement can be taken literally. The first half of the book has some excellent moments, but there are certain story elements that go on a bit too long, and the really excellent parts of the book get somewhat short-changed at the end. It’s only in the second half that the pace really picks up, but once you break past that second half, it’s very difficult to stop (believe me, I tried).

If you are fan of Harry Potter, there is no reason not to read this book. It’s the end, and it’s a worthy one.
If you’re not a fan—well, you probably have your reasons. Personally, I was a skeptic, but, to borrow a line from my favorite fantasy author, I’m glad to have followed Harry, here, to the end of all things.

This book has two halves: the Harry as adventurer half, and the Harry back at Hogwarts half. The second half is much better. Which is not surprising to me—I’ve always felt that Rowling writes Hogwarts better than anything else in her universe, with a few other significant magical locations running a close second. The adventuring half could have been ok, but it just goes on too long, and too not enough purpose. It eventually starts to feel like a very bad Lord of the Rings knock-off, especially when Ron loses it because he’s been carrying a Horcrux for too long. That, honestly, I thought was the worst moment in the book—not only does it feel far too much like the Frodo/Sam/Gollum conflict (and not in a good way), but it ends with these statements of grand finality “Something broke between them” that is repaired a few chapters later. If that really had been the end of Ron and Harry’s friendship, that would have been interesting…but it wasn’t. And would be surprised to learn anyone really thought it would be.

The events back at Hogwarts are a lot more compelling and interesting, and I wish Rowling had spent more time there. The battle of Hogwarts is fantastic, and some of the final confrontations are done very well. I enjoyed the showdown with Voldemort, and was happy to see that Neville gets his due (though in doing so, he makes the entire plot about stealing/losing Gryffindor’s sword completely irrelevant). It was nice to see Mrs. Weasley get her due (and, indeed, ties into my martial theories about the Potter-verse, but I’ll save that for another day). Snape, I thought, got one of the best deaths, going out with a plot and plan that works well.
The one character that I feel really gets the shaft in all of this (and this will sound strange) is Draco Malfoy. After being Harry’s foil and nemesis for the first three or four books, he slowly fades into the background until he’s just irrelevant by the end (except for being the victim of some rules-lawyering on Harry’s part). Sure, he gets a brief appearance in during the final scenes of the book, but he just ceases to be anything interesting or worthwhile at some point, and it’s a wasted opportunity. I would have loved to see him either a)recognize the evil of his actions and turn around, or b)just give in to evil completely. I guess there’s something in his character about the nature of cowardice, and how many people will side with evil simply because they’re afraid to do otherwise, or about the nature of bullies, and how they’re really cowards at heart, but ultimately, I think his final fate is kind of a let-down.

Speaking of final fates: I have really, really mixed feelings about the epilogue. On the one hand, I like the EVENTS themselves—I like the fact that Harry isn’t a professor at Hogwarts, or the head of the ministry of magic, or anything like that. He’s just a guy with some kids, and while he’s famous, he’s just living a seemingly relatively normal life. I like that. I was slightly surprised that Teddy Lupin doesn’t already live with Harry…I could have easily seen Harry adopting the orphaned boy of Lupin and Tonks. Of course, as I write this, I also realize how odd the timeline of everything is…why is Teddy still going to Hogwarts nineteen years later? Now I’m just confused.

Which, in a way, brings me to the problem I have with the epilogue: while the events are ok, and I really enjoy Harry giving Snape a bit of posthumous respect, the writing in that section is clunky at best. It almost feels like Rowling tacked it on to avoid the endless questions about who ends up marrying whom, rather than because her heart was really into it. I don’t know. 

I am, however, grateful for one thing: thanks to E,  I saw several “alternate endings” written by people, based on the (faulty) information that the last word of the book was “scar.” In many of those endings, Harry’s scar disappears with Voldemort’s death. I’m very, very, glad that didn’t happen. Having it vanish would trivialize the whole story. Even in a world of magic, the scars of childhood should not be so easily erased.

The Onion Picker

The Onion Picker: Carmen Basilio and Boxing in the 1950s

by Gary B. Youmans
Publisher: Campbell Road Press North (August 30, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0815681755

I came across this book rather randomly, which is to say that it was a surprise Channukah present from my father. My first boxing coach had been a student of Basilio’s, and while I had heard a few stories about Basilio from him, I didn’t really know that much about him. This book seemed like a cool way to learn something—besides, it was autographed by the man himself, which makes any book cooler (well, potentially cooler, anyway).

The book primarily focuses on Basilio’s life, from his childhood growing up in Canastota, NY, through his boxing career until his two championship bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson. At times, the book drifts away from Basilio into a more general discussion of 1950s boxing culture, and the corruption that was rampant during that era (not that modern boxing is filled with paragons of virtue, mind you). “Drifts” is probably an inappropriate term, since the chapters are very clearly and cleanly broken up by subject. Youmans also devotes a few chapters to Sugar Ray Robinson, the man that Basilio would ultimately seek to dethrone.
Youmans’ writing style itself is nice: clear, fluid, and appropriately vivid. Where the book suffers in from Youmans’ use of quotations. Large chunks of some of the chapters (in one case, an entire chapter) are composed of nothing but quotes with names appended, usually the following format.
Jake, amateur book reviewer: Gary, what the hell is this quote doing here? Didn’t you learn how to properly integrate quotes into a text at some point in your life? Wait…I think I’ve answered my own question.
Needless to say, this is an incredibly frustrating, especially when it isn’t clear if the quotes that Youmans’ is using are contemporary to the time period he’s writing about, or the modern day. Some of them are interesting, entertaining, or insightful, but they feel as though they were tacked on in a fashion reminiscent of a student trying to pad out a term paper. As a result, the book ends up feeling like it’s got more fluff than substance, which is unfortunate, because it seems like Youmans’ has a lot more information to present than he ends up putting forward.

Still, I can’t deny that I enjoyed the book, in a fluffy sort of way. Youmans’ does a good job of capturing some of the spirit of Basilio, and giving the reader a good overview of the whole culture and spirit of boxing at the time. If nothing else, it got me interested enough to want to learn some more about a sport that has sadly dwindled in the past several decades, in no small part because of the loss of men like Basilio.


by John Steakley
Publisher: DAW (December 4, 1984)
ISBN-10: 0886773687

Armor is one of those novels that I saw sitting around bookstores for years, and always thought it look vaguely interesting (in the way that I think any book with a picture of a guy in a giant suit of power armor on the cover looks vaguely interesting), but was never necessarily inspired to. Eventually, as time went on, I heard from various sources that it was good, and was finally inspired to pick it up after Poe Ghostal reviewed it on his own site. As with so many books I buy, it took me a while to get around to reading it (my reading pace has slowed a lot lately), but I finally did manage to finish it off over the course of several lunch breaks.

If you’ve ever read Starship Troopers, you’re fairly familiar with basic setup of Armor; sometime in the distant future, mankind has achieved space travel, found alien life, and it’s bugs. Big, nasty bugs that want to kill us. Or maybe we want to kill them. Either way, it’s war, and that war is being fought by men in giant suits of powered armor and armed to the teeth with weapons of various degrees of lethality. I’d tell you more than that, but Steakley doesn’t spend very much time fleshing out the universe beyond what is immediately relevant to the plot, and for the first third of the book, that’s about all that you need to know.

The book begins with a focus on Felix, a soldier in man’s war with the ants who, due to a series of bureaucratic snafus, is sent on mission after mission without appropriate recovery time. He continues to survive and fight, partially thanks to The Engine, a sort of separate personality/psychological state that empowers him to keep fighting, even when on some level, he’s given up all hope of survival. This is the portion of the book that is perhaps most like Starship Troopers, but there is less of a focus on the philosophy, and more of a focus on the psychology and the action. This one of the places where Steakley really shines; he writes actions scenes amazingly well, providing just enough detail to give the reader a clear picture of what’s happening without providing so much that it bogs down into a blow-by-blow account. The action is vivid, engaging, and intense—exactly what it should be in a book so focused on combat.

The second third of the book is a radical scene shift: the story changes to follow Jack Crow, a bad-ass space pirate with a flair for kicking ass and picking up women. Jack has been freed from prison by a pirate lord, and then sent to the planet Sanction, where he is supposed to do…stuff. I won’t get into the whole plot, since that’s part of the point of the book.

The two halves of the story do eventually intersect in the final third of the book, but I have to admit, I found it a little clumsy. While I enjoy the Jack Crow portions of the novel, they feel almost unnecessarily tacked on, as though Steakley felt like he needed to break up Felix’s story with some other event for some reason. Likewise, the conclusion to Felix’s story arc contains some events that I found a little bit random and confusing. It actually took a couple of read throughs, and I’m still not entirely convinced I got it right.
Despite some of the weaknesses in the plot, however, Armor is still a fun read. The action is intense, the pacing is generally strong, and there’s enough interesting psychology among some of the primary characters to give you at least a little something to think about when you’re done. Sci-fi fans, particularly military sci-fi fans, should give it a look.

Fragile Things

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders
Neil Gaiman
William Morrow (September 26, 2006)
Continuing in my quest to work through a book by each of my favorite authors, I moved on to Fragile Things, the latest collection of short stories from Neil Gaiman. While there are a few older works of Gaiman’s I haven’t gotten around to reading, I figured this one was new and fresh, and so I should give it a shot. I’ve also been wanting to do some short story writing of my own, and figured this would be a good way to explore that particular medium a bit more.

Technically, Fragile Things is actually a collection of several short stories, some poetry, and one novella. By and large, these stories are unconnected to anything else that Gaiman has written, except for the novella, which takes place after the events depicted in American Gods, and which follows the further (mis?)adventures of Shadow after he leaves the US.

I started out trying to do a story by story review of this book, but I realized halfway through that it wasn’t going to work. There are too many stories (and I was skipping the poems), and much of what I was saying about them ended up being too similar. A lot of these stories are similar in tone and theme—which is to say that they are “weird tales”, some of which have a purpose and point, and many of which just seem like they are good stories. Which are, of course, my favorite kind. A few of the highlights include:

“A Study in Emerald”—Neil Gaiman writes a mash up of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft; not being familiar with the source material for either (no, I’ve never read any Lovecraft…he’s on my list), I’m hard pressed to say how “faithful” he is to either source, but damn if it isn’t an entertaining and creepy read.

“October in the Chair”—The frame story, about the months of the year getting together to tell each other stories is neat; the actual story that October tells is sometimes warm, sometimes cold, gradually creepy, a little bit happy and a little bit sad. It’s a very October story, in other words.

“Other People”—A very scary version of hell, and a very poignant story about the pain of confronting one’s personal demons.

“The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch”—A lot of very nice imagery in this one.

“The Problem of Susan”—Gaiman’s attempt to address the most problematic character in C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia: Susan, the girl who chooses to grow up, and is apparently punished for it. I know her very existence and fate in the novels pisses a lot of people off, though I never quite felt the outrage. I suspect that’s partially a result of having only read the first novel when I was a kid, and partially a result of not at all understanding that the novel’s were allegory for anything (the odd advantages of being a Jewish child reading a Christian allegory). In any case, Gaiman’s story works very well, I think.

“Pages From A Journal Found In A Shoebox Left In A Greyhound Bus Somewhere Between Tulsa, Oklahoma And Louisville, Kentucky”—I really enjoyed this story, which sort of reminded me of Griffin and Sabine. Other than that, I couldn’t quite tell you why.

“How To Talk To Girls At Parties”—While this story contains little useful for a shy bachelor, it does contain a very weird and creepy party.

“Sunbird”—The story itself is fun and enjoyable. The background behind it is even better (it was written as a birthday present for Gaiman’s younger daughter).

“The Monarch of the Glen”—The follow-up novella to American Gods (not be confused with Anansi Boys, which is a novel set in the same universe), sends Shadow to Scotland to provide security for a very posh party. Not surprisingly, the party is not all that it seems, and Shadow’s role in the events is as something much greater than that of being a security guard.

Overall, this is a fun collection. In many of the stories, Gaiman is apparently going for a Ray Bradbury/Harlan Ellison type of feeling, but I’m sadly not familiar enough with either author to say if he succeeded. Regardless of whether or not he did, the stories he crafts are all fun, exciting, and extremely engaging. It’s a hard book to put down.

Island of Doctor Moreau

Island of Doctor Moreau
H.G. Wells
Publisher: Barnes and Noble
ISBN: 0-7607-5584-1
For many years now, H.G. Wells’ Time Machine has been one of my all-time favorite books. Despite this, I had never actually gotten around to reading anything else written by him. I tried the Food of the Gods once as a teenager, but for reasons I can’t remember, couldn’t quite get into it. I was lamenting this when I reviewed the Time Machine recently, and Jeff suggested that I check out this book as my next Wells novel. It was a good suggestion.

The Island of Doctor Moreau tells the story of a sailor who, rescued after the destruction of his ship, ultimately ends up on an island inhabited by the titular Doctor, his servant Montgomery, and a large number of animals who have been “uplifted” via the Doctor’s vivisection techniques. Of course, raising animals to human levels of intelligence is fraught with problems, and things go wrong rather quickly. It’s a story that has been replicated all over the place, but I can’t fault Wells for establishing a clich√© any more than I can fault Tolkien for the bad knock-offs of his work. Indeed, part of the reason that I think this book holds up so well is that, while the actual science behind it is a bit dated, the basic concept is something that still seems plausible in modern society. A modern day Wells would replaced vivisection with DNA re-sequencing, but the idea of manipulating animals to make them more intelligent is still one that constantly floats around science fiction (David Brin’s Uplift series, for example). 

I really enjoy Wells’ writing style; like the Time Machine, the Island of Doctor Moreau is presented as the diary of the man in question. Unlike the Time Machine, the main character, Mr. Prendick, actually gets a name, and has the added advantage of being able to talk to the other characters in the book. Indeed, the fact that he CAN talk to some of the other characters is precisely the source of his, and the readers, discomfort. Wells does an amazing job of making the beastmen incredibly creepy and disturbing. Most of the humans aren’t much better. Wells’ writing is very tight and well-paced; there’s no wasted words or space here, something that I can’t help but appreciate in an era of multi-thousand page epics.

Fans of horror, science fiction, or just good writing really ought to check this one out.

Rocannon's World

Rocannon’s World
World’s of Exile and Illusion

Ursula K LeGuin
Publisher: Orb Books; Reprint edition (October 15, 1996)
ISBN: 0312862113

This is actually reprinted in a collection called World’s of Exile and Illusion, which collects three of LeGuin’s earlier works into a single book. I haven’t gotten around to reading the other two yet, and since I’m not sure when I’ll get back to it, I figured I’d just review this one now. The publishing info/ISBN is for the collection.
All three books are part of LeGuin’s ongoing “Hanish” universe. The conceit of the universe is pretty simple; long ago, there was an enormous interstellar human empire (Hain), which collapsed (as empires are wont to do). Thousands of years later, the Hanish people are rediscovering their universe, and the lost colonies that have survived without them…some in very odd and interesting ways.
The Basics: Rocannon’s World is really a story in two parts. The prologue, which was originally published as “Semley's Necklace”, is a fairy tale with sci-fi trappings. It tells the story of the princess Semley, who goes on a quest to find her ancestral necklace. Her journey takes her to strange lands, and eventually into the kingdom of the Claymen, cave dwelling humanoids with fantastic technology. After much negotiation, they agree to take her to where the necklace is, and she is transported to a strange place, where she meets a man named Rocannon, who gives her the necklace, and sends her home. Though the journey lasts only a night, she returns to find that eight years have passed, and that her husband has since passed away.

The rest of the book picks up years later, with the story of Rocannon himself, who is now living on that world, doing research on the people who live there. When a group of men with helicopters and other advanced weaponry begin destroying local villages, Rocannon sets out with some companions to try and stop them. Like the prologue, it’s a fantasy epic shrouded in sci-fi trappings (or perhaps the other way around). Rocannon’s technology makes him more powerful than mortal men, he encounters violent men, strange creatures, and has all sorts of adventures before finally reaching his destination.
The Good: As stated earlier, I love LeGuin’s prose. It’s just gorgeous. Very simple, but it flows beautifully. This is the sort of story you can just glide through, enjoying every minute of it, and not realizing just how many minutes it’s really been.

LeGuin is a great world builder, and while Rocannon’s World isn’t her most unique creation, she still does a marvelous job of filling in the details in a believable way. And there are a few surprising twists about the world, especially regarding the nature of the “fourth sentient race” that is hinted at from the prologue on…
Rocannon himself is an interesting character—he’s an anthropologist and scientist who has had a fight thrust on him, and is not entirely glad about it. He definitely fills the “reluctant hero” role, but he does it well. The supporting characters are all equally interesting.

The Bad: I wasn’t bothered by this, but Rocannon’s World really is a fantasy novel with some sci-fi trappings. This might bother some readers.

The ending is a little vague; not awful, certainly not JMS level of disappointing, but definitely vague. Could have been better.

The Ugly: Meh. I got nothing.
Overall, it was a good read. It’s particularly impressive when you consider that this was one of LeGuin’s early offerings—her later stuff is even better.

Songs of Earth and Power

Title: Songs of Earth and Power
Author: Greg Bear
Publisher: Tor Fantasy
ISBN: 0812536037

I was lent this book by my assistant manager, a generally wonderful human being who responded to my complaints about having packed up all my books before moving by lending me this, and several other things as well. I started with this because it’s out of print, belonged to her son, and frankly,looked the most interesting. 

According to Amazon, this was originally actually two separate books, which Bear re-wrote and connected to make one large story. He did a fine job of joining them, since honestly, if I hadn’t looked at Amazon, I would never have known. Songs of Earth and Power tells the story of Michael Perrin, a sixteen year old boy who, thanks to a gift from a dead friend/mentor, wanders into the Realm of the Sidhe, and finds himself caught up the struggles and politics of a foreign world. He spends a fair amount of time traveling and learning about the Sidhe, their Realm, and their magic, before eventually making his way back to LA…at which point, things from the other side start spilling over too.

It’s a very interesting book, with some neat ideas, and a very, very, interesting setting The whole structure of the Realm, the nature of the Sidhe and how they interact with humanity, and so on, is thought out and explicated in a way that makes them seem very odd, alien, and well, fantastic.Which is cool. This is not a knock off of Tolkien, Narnia, or any other fantasy world, and seems to have a lot of roots in authentic mythologies, in feeling,if not in actual fact. I found the character’s not quite as engaging as the world, however…Michael is interesting, and is not horrifically angsty for a teenage protagonist (though he does have his moments), but a lot of the other characters are less memorable. As I think of it, the only one’s that really stick out are Nikolai, a Russian fisherman who shows up halfway through the story, and the Crane Women, who are a set of three half-Sidhe crones that train and mentor Michael.

The book is out of print now, but it’s definitely worth tracking down a copy if you’re a fantasy fan. Bear has some really neat ideas,and plays them out in some very interesting ways. The book drags a little in the middle while Michael stops for a training sequence, but once he gets moving, the book picks back up again too. 

Worth the read.

Time Machine

I have no recollection of how I stumbled across the Tantor Media website, or how I discovered that they were giving away free audiobooks if you filled out a free survey. But I did, and they are, so I filled out the free survey. I was expctegin a download in return, so imagine my surprise when I actually received a package in the mail, complete with a copy of H.G. Wells Time Machine on four CDs. I was thrilled!

Having now had a chance to actually sit down and listen to it, I'm even more thrilled. Scott Brick's reading of H.G. Wells classic story is a solid one. Either he's British, or he does a passable British accent, but either way, the accent does help the story. I think it also helps that the book is written as a narative, which translates to an audio format very well. If you close your eyes, you might almost imagine that you are sitting in a proper British study, listening to your friend discourse on his travels through time (you might also crash your car, so don't do that unless you're at a stoplight or something).

I've written before about my love of the Time Machine before, and won't repeat myself here. But if you like audiobooks, this one is definitely worth checking out. I'll probably be looking into Tantor's materials more in the future.

On Boxing

On Boxing by Joyce Carol Oates

If it seems to you that my reading of this book is slightly random, you're only partially right.

I know very little about Joyce Carol Oates as an author. Truth be told, I never really bothered to learn much about her or her writing. Not for any good reason, mind you. She just struck me as a writer of the sort of fiction that is no doubt well written, but does not necessarily capture my interest. I have a peculiar bias against bestsellers which has occasionally steered me past some good writing, and occasionally, saved me from utter drek.

But I love boxing. I really do. I think it's a fascinating, exciting, and amazing sport. MMA is the current combat sport de jour, and I enjoy it, but there is something I find just as enjoyable about a good boxing match. Ms. Oates apparently enjoys boxing too.

On Boxing is a collection of essays in which Oates explores her fascination with the sport of boxing, something apparently inherited from her father. It's a very interesting book, and in some cases, a very insightful one. Although Oates has never set foot in a boxing ring, she's clearly observed enough of the sport to have a very strong sense of it.

As boxing books go, this is definitely a more intellectual look at the sport; there is little technical material in here, and some of Oates deeper philosophical thoughts may come across as overblown to some readers. Personally, I think Oates gets a lot of things right, and offers some really fascinating insights into the sport. Honestly, the population I'd be most likely to recommend it to would be my many intellectual friends who have trouble understanding my own enjoyment of combat sport. The more intellectual combat athlete will probably enjoy this one too. Good stuff.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Aikido, The Dynamic Sphere, and Me

During one of my recent visits back to my parents house, I stumbled across my copy of Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere. I had memories of it being a good book, and figured that I could always use more material for my Examiner column, so I grabbed it and started flipping through it. As it turned out, I still think it's a good book.

What was also interesting to me, however, was the various notes and ideas I had jotted in the margins of the book. There's a lot of me trying to draw connections between the philosophy of Aikido (as Westbrook outlines it) and the Personal Defense Readiness program concepts and ideas (as I understood them at the time). In some places, there's actually a fair amount of overlap; in others, there's some pretty big disparities.

I'm reminded of how much my Aikido experiences really shaped, and continue to shape, my own perceptions of martial arts training. Many of the physical skills I value, like footwork, distancing, timing, and proper body placement are all integral to Aikido (at least, in theory). My belief that a small, well understood toolbox is more useful than a large, poorly understood toolbox began in Aikido too. Aikido gets a rap as being a pretty worthless martial art for learning how to actually fight, but it's got some intriguingly useful ideas buried in it. Actually, they're not really buried. They're right on the surface.

In some ways, I really regret the fact that Aikido turned out to be a poor environment for me to explore in. I have no idea where I might have taken those explorations, but there was something exciting about playing with a conceptual framework and trying to make sense of it in a variety of contexts. I tried experimenting occasionally, especially at Brandeis, where I was the guy in charge half of the time, but it never quite worked. No one wanted to explore. They just wanted the standard, cookie cutter Aikido program.

Was the fault with them, for not wanting to change? Or with me, for trying to make it happen?

In the end, I left Aikido, for a whole variety of reasons, but the biggest was just the sense that I was being stifled. I didn't have room to grow.

It's an experience I don't ever want to repeat. Nor is it one I want to foster on my own students. So for those students of mine who are reading this, listen carefully: you are in control of your own martial journey. No one else. Explore, experiment, grow. Learn whatever you can, from wherever you can. At the end of the day, it's your journey, not mine.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Conan and the Emerald Lotus

Conan and the Emerald Lotus by John C. Hocking

I have, up until now, avoided the various Conan pastiche novels, whose number and poor quality are both as legendary as the mighty thewed barbarian himself. I have a very long list of good books I'd like to read, and it seemed silly to waste time trying to read bad ones along the way. But when Poe Ghostal lent me what is (at least, according him) one of the better quality pastiches, I figured I might as well give it a shot.

I have to say, if this is the best that the pastiches have to offer, I'll pass on the rest of them.

Which is not to say that this book is awful. I was able to FINISH it, which puts it ahead of several other books. It's just not...well, it's not Howard. It tries, and makes a valiant effort, but in the end, it just doesn't quite cut it.

Conan and the Emerald Lotus uses a lot of classic Conan tropes. There's an evil sorcerer (and a not so evil one). Conan is blackmailed into a quest. There are bandits. A monster. And a beautiful woman or two.

Yet somehow, it doesn't quite hang together for me. Part of it was some of the plot elements, like the fact that the big bad is basically a drug dealer peddling magic-enhancing cocaine. Some of it was Hocking's habit of ending every chapter as a cliffhanger, which reminded me less of REH, and more of the Da Vinci Code (a truly awful book). Part of the problem, I think, is that it seemed to me that Hocking was more interested in his own characters than he was in Conan himself. And hey, the rocking adventures of Heng Shih the mute Khitian could be fun. But I didn't want his adventures, I wanted Conan's.

This is not, lest I get carried away here, a terrible book. If you want fun sword-and-sorcery style adventure, you could do a lot worse. But you could do a lot better too.

Friday, January 29, 2010


In an effort to get myself posting on this thing a little more, I'm going to make a list of the books on my review table. Maybe that will help get me going a bit...

So, to review
  • Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere: An Illustrated Introduction 
  • Conan and the Emerald Lotus 
  • Living the Martial Way : A Manual for the Way a Modern Warrior Should Think
  • Mastery of Hand Strength 
  • Northlanders Vol. 2: The Cross + The Hammer
  • Sharpening the Warrior's Edge
Some of those belong on both blogs, some just on one. Either way, I need to get to it.

Kull: Exile of Atlantis

Kull: Exile of Atlantis
Robert E. Howard

I have not forgotten about this blog, I've just been really behind on my reviews. I'll do my best to catch up. Really, I should just start posting on this thing more, but with another blog and an examiner column going, among other things, it's tough to stay on top of it all.

In fairness to myself, part of the delay on this one was that I wanted to be able to find something interesting to say about these stories beyond "they're really good" and "I liked them". I'm not sure I've come up with anything better than that, but here goes.

For those who don't know: Kull was a character created by Robert E Howard prior to his creation of his better known Conan. In many ways, Kull is a bit of a proto-Conan: a barbarian who eventually becomes king of the most powerful civilized nation of his time (an interesting side note-in the Kull stories, Atlantis is the barbarian land, NOT the height of civilization. That presumably happens later).

Unlike Conan, whose adventures we see over the course of his life, all of Kull's adventures take place after he has become king. And he has some very strange and unusual adventures, battling with shape-shifting serpent men, murderous conspiracies, wizards, and the living embodiment of silence. Seriously. The living embodiment of silence. I told you some of them were weird.

Readers expecting mindless hack-and-slash fantasy (or worse, a character resembling Kevin Sorbo) will be disappointed. Kull is actually a very philosophical character, given as much to thinking about the nature of his foes as he is hacking them to bits. There is more depth in these stories (and, indeed, in all of REH's work) than the stereotype would hold. That is not a bad thing, by any means. Quite the opposite. These stories are engaging and thoughtful in a way that few would expect by glancing at the cover.

Fans of REH, or of Conan, would be well advised to pick up this book. Kull is much more than a prototype--he's a carefully crafted, fully realized character who stands well on his own.