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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

No Prize for John Le Carre?

John Le Carre has apparently asked that his name be withdrawn from the Man Booker International Prize shortlist.

Interestingly, some of the committee members say he can’t withdraw, because it’s not the sort of prize which one enters for. It’s just given.

Crazy times.

Tuck (King Raven, Book Three)

Stephen R. Lawhead

The final book in Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven trilogy, Tuck picks up almost immediately where Scarlet left off. It’s hard to be more specific than that without giving away spoilers, but suffice to say, Rhi Bran and his Grellon are on the run. Again. And the monk known as Friar Tuck is with them.

Unlike Scarlet, which shifted between a first-person narrative by the titular character and a third person narrative focused on other events, Tuck is written entirely in the third person. In fact, while Tuck is the titular character, the book isn’t necessarily heavily focused on him. TO be sure, he is involved in many of the major events of the book, and plays a singularly important role in the final resolution of the story, but the book really isn’t ABOUT Tuck in the same way that Scarlet was about Will Scarlet.
That’s more a complaint about the title than about the book though.

The book itself is consistent with the other two books, which is to say that it’s awesome. Lawhead manages to balance a sense of historical verisimilitude with the swashbuckling adventure that should come in any good Robin Hood story. There are chases, disguises, evil nobles, battles, and all the other things that you expect from Robin Hood. A chunk of the book is devoted to what can only be described as a side quest, where Bran goes off seeking some allies in a distant land, but honestly, it’s so much fun that the distraction is totally worth it.

I can’t think of many people who I wouldn’t recommend this series to. I guess if you don’t like Robin Hood, don’t like Historical action/adventure stories, and don’t want a rousing good time, don’t read these books. If any of that stuff sounds fun, check this out.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Never Let Go: A Philosophy of Lifting, Living and Learning

Never Let Go: A Philosophy of Lifting, Living and Learning
by Dan John

Someone once shared with me the piece advice that you should never trust a man with two first names. Dan John is making me reconsider that particular piece of wisdom. Apparently something of a living legend in certain strength and conditioning circles, I only found him after reading a few posts of his on a random internet forum. I subsequently discovered his website, blog, and articles; I liked what I read, so I bought Never Let Go.

The book is a collection of articles, some of which were previously published online. Of course, having them in print form has a number of advantages, particularly if you haven’t read them before. I had only read one or two of them, so a lot of the material was new to me.

There is a lot of good information in here, from specific programs for developing strength, size, or endurance, to more philosophical thoughts on structuring programming, training for the long term, and evaluating the utility (or lack thereof) of certain programs. John’s background as a religious studies teacher gives him some interesting insights into the way people tend to think in regard to their strength and conditioning programs. He also has been around the block more than a few times (someone apparently made a joke about Dan John having coached Milo while he was lifting the bull), and isn’t afraid to acknowledge his failures along with his successes.

Indeed, one of the things I appreciate most about this book is that Dan John has used himself as a bit of a human guinea pig, and is willing to talk about his experiences doing so, both good and bad. I’m sure that his willingness to point out the flaws in various training programs hasn’t made him a lot of friends, but I appreciate his candor and forthrightness.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Dan John is just fun to read. One of the great difficulties in trying to learn more about strength and conditioning is that sometimes even the good information is presented badly. Dan John’s writing is clear, but it’s also engaging, and at times, insanely humorous. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much reading a strength and conditioning book (or rather, I’ve never laughed so much WITH the author, rather than AT him). Hell, even my wife found some of the parts I read aloud funny.

This book is accessible to anyone, though it’s worth noting that you can’t follow every program in this book at once. Well, you could try, but you’ll probably die. This is the kind of book you read, enjoy, and then go back and cherry-pick ideas from. Right now I’m playing with the “one lift a day” idea, though I’m not doing it exactly as outlined in the book, because of time and strength factors. There’s a lot of other stuff I’d like to play with in here too; I’m sure I’ll get to it sooner or later.

If you must trust a man with two first names, Dan John seems like a good place to start.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Scarlet (King Raven, Book Two)

Stephen Lawhead
A couple of years ago, I stumbled across Hood, the first book in the King Raven series. I grabbed it partly because Stephen Lawhead was one of those prolific and apparently well regarded fantasy authors I had never gotten around to reading, and partly (perhaps largely) because it appeared to be a book about Robin Hood. And I am a huge mark for a Robin Hood story.

Hood presented a re-imagining of Robin Hood, not as a rebel against John Lackland, but as a Welsh rebel fighting the Normans after the Norman Conquest of England. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, stop reading this review and go learn some basic history. I’ll wait.

I enjoyed Hood, which struck a nice balance between a sense of historical verisimilitude that Lawhead was striving for and the sense of adventure required of any good Robin Hood tale. My long delay in reading Scarlet was less a matter of lack of interest, and more a matter of my apparent inability to read any series straight through. Having finally gotten around to it, I’m very glad I did.

Scarlet, as the title suggests focuses primarily on the character of Will Scatlocke (aka, Will Scarlet), who begins the book having been captured as a result of some botched mission. In an odd, but ultimately effective method, the narrative moves between a first person account of Will’s life, as he dictates it to the Norman scribe Odo, and a third person account of various events going on around England, Wales, and France. The transition is a little startling the first time it happens, but once you get used to the flow, it works very well. Scarlet has a nice, unique voice that is notably distinct from the tone of Bran (Robin Hood), but it flows well with the previous book in the series.

Like Hood, this has all of the elements one would expect from a Robin Hood story, and several that you might not. There’s some heavy intrigue involving the church and papal successions, but like any good Robin Hood story, that intrigue is mostly in the background, and serves to drive the action forward.

What is most impressive to me about this work, and the previous book is that Lawhead is successfully constructing a story that makes the reader think “okay, I could see how this would transform into our modern legends of Robin Hood”. I know that was his stated goal, at least in part, but he does it so well that I have to remind myself that this is, in fact, just a work of fiction. But it’s a damn fine one. Totally worth it.

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Shadow War of the Night Dragon Trilogy

As part of their Best SFF Novels of the Decade event, Tor assembled a statistically probably name for a fantasy trilogy.

  • The Shadow War of the Night Dragon, Book One: The Dead City
  • The Shadow War of the Night Dragon, Book Two: Dark Blood Magic
  • The Shadow War of the Night Dragon, Book Three: Dream World of the Fire Wolf

As the Tor site itself notes, this trilogy sounds frighteningly plausible. John Scalzi commented that he'd write it. And sucker that I am, I bet I'd buy it, for the humor value if nothing else.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Focus: A simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distraction

Focus: A simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distraction by Leo Babauta

This review applies to the free version of Focus; there are larger, more extensive versions available for purchase, both on Kindle and on the Focus Manifesto website (see link above). I cannot comment on either one.

I came across this during my recent reading and thinking on minimalism, and download it because a) focus is something that I can always use practice on and b) the price was right. I realize that the second may not be the noblest reason for getting a book, but hey, it worked for me.

The free version of Focus is (as you might expect from an author writing about Zen and minimalism), short and to the point. Babauta breaks the book up into five sections. The first, “stepping back”, is sort of a manifesto of the manifesto. It explains what the purpose of the book is, who the author is, and why he believes focus is both extremely important, and extremely difficult to come by.

Sections two, three, and four, provide the meat of the book, with a variety of solid ideas, drills, and tools to help the reader clear distractions away from their life. I don’t know that any of them are extremely groundbreaking, but they are all worthwhile.

The fifth section discusses dealing with others in your question for focus, particularly those who aren’t as supportive as you’d like them to be. It also includes a chapter for parents, and a chapter for business managers.

I liked this book. A lot. Babauta writes in a simple, clear, and unpretentious tone, which is extremely refreshing. One of the things that has bothered me about some of the minimalist writers I’ve read is that they come across with this holier-than-thou, “just throw all of your possessions in a dumpster, you worthless human being” sort of way that is not only uninspiring, but downright unhelpful. Babauta, by contrast, acknowledges that some of what he’s suggesting is challenging (if it was easy, everyone would do it), but offers a lot of useful guidelines on how to make his ideas work for you. With each activity, he suggests a few variations if one doesn’t work, but always reiterates the point that the goals is to find something that works for you.

I don’t know if I will buy the full version of this book or not. Probably not yet…frankly, there’s enough stuff in the free version for me to work on without adding things, and it seems silly to purchase more until I feel like I need it. But if you’re one of those folks who feels like there is never enough time, or that you just can’t find your focus, I suggest grabbing some version of this. It’s worth the read.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Kill or Get Killed

Kill or Get Killed
Rex Applegate

This is not a review of the entirety of Kill or Get Killed. Of sixteen chapters, I only read six. There is a perfectly good reason for that, as I will explain shortly.

Kill or Get Killed is the textbook complied by Colonel Rex Applegate, one of the grandfathers of the modern combatives systems developed by the British and Americans during the Second World War. This review focuses on the version published by Paladin Press, which originally was released in 1976.

I had heard of Applegate vaguely for years, mostly in conjunction with my father’s stories about the Fairbairn-Sykes Fighting Knife (of which I own at least one replica), and the men who developed it. More recently, there has been a movement to revive and re-popularize some of the World War II Combative methods as viable forms of self-defense training, and it is in that context that I chose to read this book.

The book is broken into sixteen chapters, as follows:
1. Introduction to Unarmed Combat
2. Offensive Unarmed Combat
3. Defensive Unarmed Combat
4. Knife Attack and Defense
5. Combat Use of the Hand Gun
6. Combat Firing With Shoulder Weapons
7. Disarming
8. Prisoner Handling and Control
9. Raid and Room Combat
10. Training Techniques and Combat Ranges
11. Elementary Fieldcraft
12. Police Baton and Miscellaneous Weapons and Techniques
13. Chemical Munitions for Control of Mobs and Individuals
14. Civil Domestic Disturbances and Their Control
15. Communist Tactics and Strategy in Directing Mob Violence
16. The Professional Riot Control Unit

Of those, I only read 1-4, 7, and 12. I suppose that if I owned and carried a firearm, I might have read the chapters that deal with the use of, and training with, firearms. But frankly, I’m totally unqualified to evaluate those chapters, so I didn’t bother. I also skipped the chapters that I deemed completely irrelevant to self-defense for the average person; I have no need to learn how to use chemical munitions, nor am I concerned about how to create a professional riot control unit. Police or military trainers might find those chapters useful. I really don’t know.

For the average person concerned with self-defense, the first three chapters of the book are unquestionably the most valuable. Applegate presents a small curriculum of strikes, gouges, chokes, and throws, along with instruction about how to apply these tools against what he perceives as common types of attacks. The small toolbox appeals to my recent thoughts on minimalism, and while I might make some different choices in my selection, Applegate does give the reader enough material to practice without overwhelming them. Perhaps my only quibble is that he ignores any sort of ground-fighting, except to say that fighting on the ground is a bad idea, which is the sort of useless truth in line with saying “don’t get stabbed”.

Despite the books occasional statement to the contrary, however, this book really is aimed at the military and law enforcement. While there are a number of techniques that are appropriate for civilian self-defense, some of the techniques have no particular application outside of the military or law enforcement (I have not needed to remove a sentry any time in recent memory). Even the defenses against attacks that a civilian might face are extremely vicious; used imprudently they’d likely land the average citizen in court, if not in jail. Of course, that’s a weakness inherent in a lot of military combatives systems when they are transferred over to the civilian environment. Of course, there are scenarios where these kinds of techniques are appropriate, but the book doesn’t address the distinction.

The knife attack and defense material is interesting; the attack material I was curious about mostly academically. I don’t carry a knife either, but I like knives, and find their use interesting. The knife and firearm defense material certainly has some potential application for a civilian…some of it does not line up with the material that I’ve learned from Tony Blauer, but that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be worth exploring.

The baton stuff was just a lark. Again, I like weapons. I guess you could train this stuff if you carry a stick, or are involved in a stick-based system (like one of the many Filipino Martial Arts), but ultimately, it’s probably not a priority for the average person.

So is this a good book? Actually, yes, I think it is. It does a very nice job of clearly laying out a program for instructing soldiers and police in close quarters combat techniques. The writing is straightforward, and accompanied by reasonably clear diagrams and photographs. Applegate outlines his rationale for each of his choices, and I think many of his choices are sound.

That said, given the size and cost of the book, I don’t think it is a very good purchase for the average person looking to protect themselves. The military emphasis leaves too many holes that require patching, and used injudiciously, this material could land the reader in jail for a very long time. Experienced practitioners or instructors will probably get more out of the book, as they’ll be able to pick and choose the portions that are appropriate to their needs or the needs of their students. Finally, those with an interest in military history, WWII history, or martial history should definitely give this a read. It’s an incredibly influential textbook, and deserves to be examined on those merits alone.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Dance With Dragons Release Date Set

The interwebs says that the next book in GRR Martins Song of Fire and Ice is coming out in July. GRRM says so too.

I wish I could be excited, but I find that I honestly don't care. I mean, I'm glad it's coming out, because that means the series is one step closer to being finished, but I'm still not going to bother picking it up. I can't be bothered to re-read the whole thing, especially since I just gave away my copy of A Game of Thrones the other weekend.

Still, it gives me hope that the series might end someday. I'd love to read the whole thing.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Tor's Top Ten Sci-Fi/Fantasy Novels of the Decade

The folks over at did a poll about the best SFF Novels of the Decade. The results are interesting.

Of the ten, I’ve read four:

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
American Gods by Neil Gaiman - Which I have not reviewed here, but remember fondly.
A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin - I have also not reviewed this one. I refuse to read any of Martin's Song of Fire and Ice until it is done, or he's dead. Whichever comes first.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel by Susanna Clarke

Of the remainders, I’m torn. Anathem has floated on my “I should probably read this” list for a bit, and I feel like someone (or Amazon) keeps suggesting that I should read Name of the Wind and/or Mistborn: The Final Empire (which may be a good book, but the title puts me off). The one human being I know who’s read Perdido Street Station says it’s AWFUL. I remember seeing Kushiel’s Dart while working at Waldenbooks, but I could never decide if it looked worthwhile or not. I may have to check out some of them.