Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Jones, Stephen, ed. The mammoth book of best new horror: 15. New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004. 624pp.

Another one of those self-recommending books. If you like short horror fiction, you will like this book. Even if you don't like short horror fiction, you will probably find a few stories worth your effort but perhaps not enough to make it worth buying the book.

This series is pretty reliable, quality-wise. I usually tend to like about half the stories, be indifferent about a quarter and sorta dislike about a quarter. The half I like is usually worth the price of admission. So, how does this volume stack up? Actually quite a bit better than average -- I would say I like upwards of 60% of the stories or even more. Probably one of the best volumes in the series I've ever read, and the first was volume 6, I think.

the stories from this volume that really stood out for me:

  • Cell Call by Marc Laidlaw
  • Hunger: A Confession by Dale Bailey
  • Mr Sly Stops for a Cup of Joe by Scott Emerson Bull
  • The white hands by Mark Samuels
  • Dancing Men by Glen Hirshberg
  • Bitter Grounds by Neil Gaiman
  • Child of the Sones by Paul McAuley
  • Exorcising Angels by Simon Clark & Tim Lebbon.

The closing story, Exorcising Angels by Clark & Lebbon was easily my fave from the book. An eerie WWI/WWII historical, featuring Arthur Machen and miracles and the blitz not to mention a valid historical basis, a real tour de force with a sharply defined setting and a terrific premise.

One small note. This book has extensive front and endnotes giving lots of introductory information on the "year in horror" from 2003 (yeah, a little behind in my reading). The actual stories take up about 520 pages.


Novik, Naomi. His majesty's dragon. New York: Del Rey, 2006. 353pp.

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik is the first book of a new series, one of the real buzz books of the last several months, with great reviews and lots of hype. The setting for the series is the Napoleonic wars, but with a difference. There are dragons. Big ones. And both sides use them as sort of a cross between fighter planes and sailing ships, with an odd array of battle tactics to boot.

This novel is the story of Will Laurence, British ship captain, who captures a dragon egg from a French sailing vessel. The egg hatches before they can get to shore and give it to the authorities and the dragon latches on to Will as his combination mommy and trainer. Kinda weird, but in a good way. Dragons in this universe are highly intelligent and articulate. This novel mostly sets up the rest of the series, with a lot of time spent on the care and training of the dragon, Temeraire, paying particular attention to the close relationship between Temeraire and Will.

There are a few good battle scenes at the end, a little unrealistic in their construction. For example, they often use their dragons (which have crews of a dozen or more "sailors" strapped to their complex riggings) to come up beside and actually attempt to board other dragons. Just try to imagine it and you'll see how unlikely it seems -- couldn't the dragons just fly away when the other one got close?

Anyways, enough quibbling. This is a good, solid first novel. I look forward to the sequels. The one worrying thing is that Novik has apparently signed up for at least 5 more books and I often get worried about quality in long series.

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McBain, Ed. The gutter and the grave. New York: Hard Case, 2005. 217pp.

Another dynamite reprint from Hard Case, this one a classic Ed McBain from 1958. The Gutter and the Grave is a story about a man, Matt Cordell, done wrong by a cheatin' woman who gets another chance to be a real man and help a friend solve a petty crime. Well, the friend ends up accused of murdering his business partner, so Matt ends trying to clear his friend. Lots of gorgeous dames and tough talking ensue, a couple of surprises at the end and Cordell gets his chance to rise up from the gutter and ends up...well, read the novel to find out what happens to him.

They don't get any more hard boiled than this. At 217 pages, another short sharp shock from the fine folks at Hard Case. Next!

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Goldstone, Lawrence and Nancy. Used and rare: Travels in the book world. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1998. 215pp.

McGinn, Colin. The making of a philosopher: My journey through twentieth-century philosophy. New York: Harper Perennial, 2003. 241 pp.

Two memoirs, both describing the entry of someone into a rarefied and highly selective world. The first, rare book collectors and the second, philosophers. Both are highly entertaining, amusing and stimulating and, for McGinn's in particular, thought provoking as well.

The Goldstone's book Used and Rare, is a light-hearted look at the husband and wife's entry into the world of rare book collecting, from just wanting a few nice-looking hardcovers for their shelves to exploring some second-hand stores, to going to high-priced auctions in various parts of the US. Lots of fun book talk to keep things moving, this memoir resonated with me quite a bit. While never a serious book collector myself, I have nibbled at the edges of the hobby a few times and I do have a few really good finds in my library. I also know a couple who have the bug pretty badly, so it's a fun look inside the world. The Goldstones have written a bunch of other books on the collecting world which I look forward to hunting down in the shops myself!

McGinn's story is a kind of philosophical coming of age tale -- going from being a working class kid in the English industrial heartland to a philosophy prof, first in the UK and then in the US. It's also a history of his branch of philosophy of language and mind in the later half of the twentieth century. The two parts mix reasonably well, if sometimes a little heavy on the philosophy and a little light on the life story. In any case, the book is well written and engaging, and you certainly don't have to be a philosophy expert to understand most of it; there's only a couple of parts I briefly had trouble following.

McGinn's claim to fame, "New Mysterianism" gets quite a bit of coverage near the end; the main idea is that humans are fundamentally and completely incabable of understanding our own mind and how it works, that cognitive science and philosophy of mind are fundamentally limited in what they will ever, in the entire future of humanity, be able to discover. Personally, whenever someone uses words like "never" in reference to such a new human endeavor as cognitive science, I get suspicious. It always sounds like someone at the beginning of the last century saying we would never be able to fly or understand the workings of the atom.

Korchnoi, Victor. Chess is my life. Zurich: Edition Olms, 2005. 226pp.

Polgar, Susan and Paul Truong. Breaking through: How the Polgar sisters changed the game of chess. London: Everyman, 2005. 319pp

Two chess biographies, and they couldn't be more different. The Korchnoi is probably one of the finest of its kind ever written, a terrific book, one for the ages by a player for the ages. The Polgar, a book with just as much potential, also about very important players, is a bit of a disappointment. The Polgar is a bit bloodless where the Korchnoi bleeds chess passion on every page.

Victor Korchnoi is one of the greatest figures in the history of chess, a renowned fighter and fierce competitor. Most believe that he is the greatest player never to be world champion, having faced Anatoly Karpov twice for the championship and lost. As well, he faced Karpov in 1974 for the right to play Bobby Fischer in 1975, which Karpov won. As we know, Fischer refused to play and Karpov was awarded the title. This book is Victor the Terrible's memoirs. From his early life in Lenningrad during the Nazi seige to his turbulent years as a grandmaster in the Soviet system to his defection to the west and his life in Switzerland, this book covers a lot of ground. Korchnoi is very open and honest about everything, he pulls no punches. He doesn't hide his disdain for the Soviet's favourite sons and their machinations, particularly for figures such as Petrosian and Karpov, who tried to hold him back. He is candid about his reasons for defecting, going into some detail about his thought processes and the actual process of defecting and how he ended up in Switzerland. He discusses many of his tournament and match victories (and losses) in detail.

A great book. But, be warned. This is not a games collection. Korchnoi only annotates a handful of games in this book. He does have several games collections (both in books and on DVD) available. As an added bonus, the book comes with a CD of 4280 unannotated games. Korchnoi is still playing, of course, still at the a very high level in international tournaments, still rated 2600 and ranked 134th in the world.

Susan Polgar is the eldest of the three famous Polgar sisters, Judit being the youngest and most famous and Sofia the middle and least famous. They're famous because their father used them as a sort of pedagogical experiment to see if he could raise chess grandmasters by various educational strategies, mostly via tactical drills. Well, he succeeded. The details of how he did this would be facinating as well as instructive, wouldn't it? This book is the story of how these three women became a sensation in the chess world and beat a lot of men at (supposedly) their own game. The best part of this book deals with the girls stuggles as they were growing up to be taken seriously in the male dominated world of chess, both in their native Hungary and in the world at large. These parts of the book are quite effective, and really make the book worth purchasing on their own. As well, there are many insights and stories about the sisters lives that make this an interesting and entertaining book.

On the other hand, there's more about this book that is disappointing than not. First of all, we really don't get much on their father's strategies for turning his daughter's into geniuses, only vague generalities. I was certainly expecting some detail on his methodology and pedagogy.

Also, the focus is really Susan. She takes up 125 pages of the book, Sofia about 70 and Judit about 85. The last 30 pages or so on the 2004 Olympiad also mostly revolve around Susan. The book would have been much stronger if the emphasis was more even, especially if there was more on Judit's rise as one of the strongest players in the last 10 years, being the first woman in the top 10. At least for me, that was a story worth telling. As well, I found all the sections on the sisters a little superficial. I don't need tabloid-style details, but I felt a lack of personal details and real insight made the book seem a bit bloodless, lacking in passion and emotional resonance; the sisters really didn't come alive for me in this book like Korchnoi did in his.

The main reason for this superficiality is the uneasy balance between biography and games collection in the book. Over 70 pages of games and combinations in the Susan chapter, 60 for Sofia and over 65 for Judit, with each woman's bio sections also liberally sprinkled with games and game fragments. So, the vast majority of the book is really a chess games collection, not the story of how the sisters changed the game of chess. Now, the games are well annotated, especially for the average player, but they really dominate the book, to it's detriment. I get the sense Susan Polgar wanted this book to inspire girls and women to play chess, to reach for the top. I think it could have, but their stories would have inspired, their triumphs and tragedies, not their game scores.

This book is certainly worth buying, I don't regret buying my copy. And one day a truly great book will be written about the Polgar sisters, in particular about Judit's rise to the top, but this isn't it. I look forward to reading some other recent books on women's chess, including Jennifer Shahade's Chess Bitch and Marilyn Yalom's Birth of the Chess Queen : A History.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Ellis, Novalyne Price. One who walked alone: Robert E. Howard, the final years.West Kingston, RI: Donald M. Grant, 1998. 317pp.

This wonderful book is the memoirs of Novalyne Price, a close friend of Robert E. Howard during the final years of his life, before he committed suicide distraught over the impending death of his mother. It was the basis for the equally fine movie Whole Wide World in which Renee Zellweger and Vincent D'Onofrio both give terrific performances as Price and Howard. It's well worth seeing for any Howard fan.

The book in question is made up of Price's diary entries chronicling her stormy relationship with Howard. It's never really clear how romantic their relationship became, and that tension and uncertainty is, I think, a key facet of Howard's personality. He never really seems grown up enough to have a real girlfriend, and Price always seems to know that about him. She goes back and forth between wanting a real relationship with Howard and just valuing him for his stimulating friendship, and that's the key tension in the book and, I guess, in Howard's life.

In the final analysis, One who walks alone is a heart-rendingly sad book, a tragic story of a man who could never really grow up, who could never cut the apron strings from his possessive mother. The whole book we know he's going to take his own life at the end, it hovers over every happy moment Price describes, it is forshadowed by every flash of his temper or dark moods. I can't recommend this book enough to all fans of Howard's work or to historians of fantastic literature. Even those who are unfamiliar with Howard's work will find a lot to admire.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

POLL: What I'm going to read on my summer vacation

I always like to plan my summer reading well in advance, to have my beach books ready to go when the summer blogging break hits. This year I thought I'd have a little fun with it and give you, my readers out there in the biblioblogosphere, a chance to determine my summer reading. I've chosen 10 books that are on my long list and you can vote for them. I'll take the top 3 or 4 (depending on page counts) away with me on vacation, starting July 15th. The voting will end on July 14th.

New Update: was too flakey so I've switched to

What novel should I read during my summer vacation?
Clear and Present Danger by Tom Clancy
Darkness that Comes Before by R. Scott Bakker
Homeward Bound by Harry Turtledove
My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due
Old Man's War by John Scalzi
Passage by Connie Willis
River of Gods by Ian McDonald
Romanitas by Sophia McDougall
Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub
Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
Free polls from

Some additional information on the long list books: