Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories

Book Review: Classic American Short Stories compiled by Michael Kelahan

This book is more or less exactly what it says in the title, a compilation of short(ish) stories written by American authors, most of which are acknowledged as classics by American Lit professors.  The stories are arranged by author in roughly chronological order from the early Nineteenth Century to the 1920s to stay safely in the public domain.

Classic American Short Stories

The fifty-one stories included begin with Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle”, a tall tale about a henpecked husband who drinks ghostly beer and sleeps for twenty years, right through the American Revolution.  The book ends with “Winter Dreams” by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  A young man from Minnesota finds great success in the laundry business, but heartache when the woman he loves cannot settle for just him.  In between are ones that are very familiar to me, like “The Telltale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe (a murderer confesses his crime in an effort to prove his sanity) and stories that were new to me, like “The Revolt of ‘Mother'” by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman (a New England woman, tired of an unkept promise, takes matters into her own hands.)

There’s a wide variety of genres represented, from “realistic” slice of life stories through mystery and fantasy to outright horror.  The chronological order highlights the changing social attitudes depicted in the stories, particularly the two Edith Wharton stories about divorce.  Women are reasonably well-represented, and there are a couple of writers of color as well.

Of course, just because a story is “classic” does not mean it will appeal to everyone.  I found Henry James’ novella “The Aspern Papers” (literary buff infiltrates the household of a famous poet’s ex-lover in an effort to gain any memorabilia she might have of him) tedious and predictable.  I am not alone in this, but many other readers have found it fascinating.

Content issues:  Many of these stories have elements of period racism, sexism and classism; sometimes it’s dealt with within the story itself, but other times it pops up as a nasty surprise.  “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather, about a boy who wants the finer things in life without the tedium of putting in decades of hard labor to get them, deals with suicide.

This is a Barnes & Noble collector’s edition, and is quite handsome and sturdy, with a leather binding, gilt-edged pages and a silk bookmark for a reasonable price.  However, the fact that it has a “compiler” rather than an editor is telling.  There are scattered typos; I do not know if they were caused by errors in transcription, or if the sources were not scrutinized carefully enough.  The author bios at the end are not quite in alphabetical order, and miss out Washington Irving altogether.

Overall, most of these stories are worth reading at least once, and many are worth rereading over the years.  Highly recommended to people who don’t already have their favorites from this collection in a physical book, or are curious about the stories they haven’t read yet.  It’d also make a nice gift for your bookworm friend or relative.

Book Review: Japan Tuttle Travel Pack

Book Review: Japan Tuttle Travel Pack by Rob Goss

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

Japan Tuttle Travel Pack

Tuttle Publishing was founded by Charles Tuttle, a Vermonter who came to Japan with Douglas MacArthur’s staff after World War Two.  His job was helping the Japanese publishing industry get back on its feet; along the way he married a Japanese woman and founded the first English-language bookstore in Japan.  Tuttle Publishing’s goal is to print “books to span the East and West.”  So it’s not too surprising that they’d publish a tourist guidebook.

The author is a British writer who has resided in the country since 1999 and traveled extensively, writing about his journeys and Japan’s tourist destinations.

The book itself is thin and light, designed to fit well into a backpack or tote bag for easy consultation.  There’s  a fold-out map of Japan (and details of certain areas) tucked into a pocket in the back, as well as several detail maps in the book itself.  There are many color photographs as well.  (One of Sapporo’s Snow Festival is reused several times.)  It’s slickly produced, but sturdy enough that it should survive a several week journey.

After a quick overview of Japan at the encyclopedia summary level, the main book starts with a chapter of “must-see” sights, ranging from Mount Fuji to the “Art Island” of Naoshima.  These alone would take a month or so to get in with any comfort, as they are scattered all over the country.

This is followed by an “Exploring Japan” chapter that focuses on the tourist sights of the major cities and individual regions, making it easier to plan an itinerary.  This includes callbacks to the opening chapter, but also mentions what else is around the must-sees.  There are sidebars on local cuisine travelers might like to sample.

Chapter 3 is the “Author’s Recommendations” section, where he talks about hotels, museums, kid-friendly attractions and the like that he personally really likes.  The edition I have is from 2013, so there may have been some changes–he mentions that a particular fish market was scheduled to move to a different location in 2015.

The last major section, “Travel Facts” is the most likely part to be useful on your actual trip, with the location of important embassies, key Japanese phrases to use, how the transportation system works, and so forth.  There’s an index and a page of photo credits.

The language is clear and straightforward, with key words bolded to make them easier to find.  As a tourism booster, it focuses almost entirely on the positive; people who like to be more cautious might want to do further reading to see what they need to prepare for.

This book would be most useful for tourists who like to plan their own itineraries, or at least dream about doing so.  Package tours, well, you see what’s in the package.   People who want to live in Japan for extended periods will need to consult more substantial materials.

Another group that might find this book useful is fanfiction writers.  You’ve decided that Jeneriku High School will be taking a summer field trip to Okinawa; how long will it take to get there, where will Hana and Tarou be going on their date, and what sights offer the most ideas for plot twists?

Overall, very good of its kind.

Book Review: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Super Friends by Various

Back in the 1970s, there was a Saturday morning cartoon titled Superfriends.  It featured several superheroes from DC Comics,, plus “Junior Super Friends” Wendy and Marvin, trainee superheroes with their pet Wonderdog.   Each episode taught valuable life lessons to kids across America.  While reruns of the cartoon continue even today, younger fans may not be aware there used to be a tie-in comic book as well.

Showcase Presents Super Friends

Because the Comics Code of the time was surprisingly less restrictive than the Standards & Practices Board that governed children’s broadcasting, the writers of the comic book had more flexibility to put in story elements that explained how the team worked, and the full range of the heroes’ powers.  The book took place in a close parallel of the DC universe, so other superheroes could guest star.

Now, I said the writers could be more flexible than the TV show, but I am still amazed that they got away with mass murder as a plot point in the third issue.  Some of the deaths even happened on panel!  And they weren’t even reversed by the end of the story.  To explain, a mad scientist captures over a hundred supervillains (none of whom were established characters) and disintegrates them to create the World-Beater, which has all their powers combined.

After a few issues, the comic book explained (as the show never did) the change from the first season’s Marvin and Wendy, to the later Wonder Twins, aliens named Jan and Zayna.   This was a truly epic plot which also introduced a slew of international superheroes who later joined the mainstream DCU as the Global Guardians.  (It also gave the comic some much-needed ethnic diversity.)

Many creators worked on the series, but the distinctive art of Ramona Fradon is perhaps most representative.

Aside from the mass murder, this is a kid-friendly title; there are some dated attitudes that parents might want to discuss with their children.  The writing is typical for the time period, and certainly better than the television show.

Recommended for fans of the Superfriends cartoon and nostalgic comics fans.

Book Review: Jet Set

Book Review: Jet Set: The People, the Planes, the Glamour, and the Sex in Aviation’s Glory Years by William Stadiem

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an Advance Uncorrected Proof, and there will be considerable changes made to the final product, due to be in stores June 2014.

Jet Set

This is a chatty history of the period from 1958, the introduction of the 707 passenger jet, through approximately 1970, the heyday of fast, easy and almost affordable travel between the United States and Europe.  The book opens with an account of the Cháteau de Sully crash in 1962, the worst blow to Atlanta, Georgia’s society since General Sherman, as a 707 crashed in Paris with most of the Atlanta Art Association aboard.

But most of the book is less about the ordinary travelers of the period, or even the pilots and crew of the jets.  Instead, we get short biographies of the movers and shakers of the jet aircraft industry and airlines, the glitterati who made up the “Set” even before jets were added, and the various hoteliers, restaurateurs, movie folks and gossip columnists that gave the era much of its glamour.

It’s very much a “six degrees” book, with Celebrity A having been married to Model B, who then married Executive C, who attended parties for Movie Star D…There’s a lot of name-dropping.  Often, the narrative will flit through three or four different tangents before coming back to the story the chapter is telling.

There was an awful lot of sex going on in the Jet Set, it seems, with many of the people discussed having three or four spouses, and twice as many affairs.   Also a lot of sexism.  While there are stories of a few notable women who managed to beat the odds, becoming successful and influential in the society world, the Jet Set was not a hotbed of the Women’s Lib movement, which was going on elsewhere.

By the end of the time period discussed, a number of factors killed off the Jet Set era; skyjacking, inflation, the aging out, imprisonment or death of many playboys, and the youth movement making “cool” more important than “smooth.”  The final chapter describes the fate of many of the main people discussed.

There’s a scattering of black and white photos, and in the finished product there will be a bibliography and index.

The book’s style tends towards the gossipy, with more sober chunks interspersed.   I’d recommend it more for the casual reader who is nostalgic for the era, or would like to know what it was all about,  than the serious scholar.

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business by Lan Bercu

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Beginning some time in the late 1970s, when it became obvious that Japan had become an economic powerhouse, American businesses began taking an interest in Asian philosophies that might explain why companies from those areas were doing so well, especially in industries where America was faltering.   Thus, books for business explicating on The Five Rings, The Art of War and so forth have been written and often sold well.

This is the latest book in that tradition.  The author was born and raised in Vietnam, where The 36 Strategies, a text on warfare believed to have been compiled during China’s Warring States period, is read by schoolchildren.  She has since found the information included helpful in her career as a speaker on business and international matters.

The main text is divided into thirty-six short chapters, one for each strategy.  Each starts with a short story about ancient Chinese warfare, then one or more examples of how modern businesses have implemented these strategies, whether by name or by chance.  This is followed by translation into more basic tips, and questions for the business to ask itself based on the strategy.

Some of the strategies have poetic sounding titles, like “slough off the cicada’s golden shell” or “borrow a corpse to resurrect a soul”, while others are more plain-spoken, like “kill with a borrowed knife.”   The strategies themselves, however, tend to be simple to understand, if sometimes difficult to apply to a given situation.  That last bit is why they’re arranged by type; some are better when you have a clear advantage, others when you’re on the defensive or in a losing position.

It should be noted that the more literal applications of some of these strategies to business, such as “replace the beam with rotted timbers” and “deck the tree with false blossoms” may be considered unethical, and in some cases are outright illegal.  The author points out that businesses (and customers) should be aware of these strategies anyway, to help defend against them.

The short chapters and copious examples make this a good read for the busy person on the go; this is one time I would suggest buying the e-book version.  The book comes with an ad for the author’s services, bibliography and an index.

The utility of this book will depend on whether you already have another of the books relating the 36 strategies to business.  If so, you may not need this one.  This book also has a lot of synergy with The Art of War, so you may want to invest in one of the business books that concentrate on that text as well.

In war, do not repeat the tactics that have gained you one victory.  Rather, let your methods be determined by the infinite variety of circumstances. — Sun Tzu

Book Review: The Idea-Driven Organization

Book Review: The Idea-Driven Organization by Alan G. Robinson & Dean M. Schroeder

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through the Goodreads giveaway program on the premise that I would review it.

The Idea-Driven Organization

This is a follow-up to the authors’ 2004 book Ideas Are Free, in which they made a case that innovation can be driven by ideas presented by front-line employees, rather than imposed from above by management, or restricted to a particular department.  Since then, they’ve consulted on various organizations’ new idea processes and have more insights, as well as some updated information.

Many of us are familiar with the old suggestion box method of getting ideas from employees–and how seldom it seems to make any difference.  While reading this book, I happened to chat with a fellow who had put suggestions in his company’s box for twenty years, often getting cash prizes for the best idea that month.  A grand total of zero of his ideas were ever acted on.

The authors touch on many of the obstacles to making an organization idea-driven, from leadership that’s out of touch with the common workers, through managers who won’t work with other departments, to demoralized employees who’ve been told for years that their ideas are “too expensive” or “just whining.”  In many cases, putting an idea process in place may require some major rethinking of management policy.

They also give many guidelines for a successful reorganization of the idea process.  One of the most important is to have a pilot program that allows the organization to see where any roadbumps are before trying to impose the new process on the entire organization at once.  The book also stresses the importance of getting everyone on board, starting from the leadership team on down.

There are copious real-world examples cited throughout; the unsuccessful ones have the company’s name withheld to avoid embarrassing them.   There’s a short end notes section and an index.  The book is designed to be used as a textbook or supplemental reading for business school classes, with a helpful summary of the main points at the end of each chapter.

I am taking a business management degree, so found this book interesting and informative.  It’s likely to be less interesting to those without an interest in organizational structure or business management.  Perhaps you might consider it as a gift to a CEO you know?

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