Book Review: Kings & Queens of Great Britain: A Very Peculiar History by Antony Mason
For about 12 centuries, the English have been ruled by monarchs, and eventually this form of government spread to all of the British Empire. That’s a lot of history, and many kings and queens to take account of. This small volume with cartoony illustrations gives the reader an overview of those people and what they did.
There’s a brief discussion of monarchs before the official first king of the majority of England, Alfred the Great, starting in 871 C.E. This includes the legendary King Arthur who may or may not have been based on an actual person. After that is a chronological listing of English kings and queens, with a paragraph or page for each, with chapters cutting away to the Scottish monarchs. (The Irish kings do not get the same courtesy.) With King James I & VI, the lines are consolidated, and after that they’re all British kings and queens.
This is very much a highlights-only history book, with only the most famous bits of each reign mentioned for most of the monarchs. There are, however, frequent sidebars on such subjects as palaces, revolutions, jewels, the Magna Carta and mistresses. The serious scholar of British history is unlikely to learn anything new. The book finishes up with a glossary, timeline, and index to make it easier to find the particular monarch you’re looking for. It’s current as of January 2015.
Due to some salacious subject matter, I’d rate this as suitable for senior high students on up. (There’s also a lot of violence; many of these people left the throne via murder.) This would make a nice gift for your Anglophilic friend or relative, or Game of Thrones fans who have somehow never read the history that show is loosely based on.
Book Review: 100 Wicked Little Witch Stories edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg
This was my Halloween season read this year, an anthology commissioned for the Barnes & Noble stores in 1995. There are indeed one hundred stories in this hefty tome, averaging about six pages. They are not all about wicked witches, however–some witches are good, some are just mischievous and others are hard to pin down on a moral spectrum.
The volume opens with “Gramma Grunt” by Donald L. Burleson, about a man returning to the streets of his youth and regretting joining in the taunting of an old woman; and ends with “Wall of Darkness” by Basil Wells, about a piece of architecture that should be left strictly alone. The oldest story (1933) is “The Mandrakes” by Clark Ashton Smith, one of his Averoigne stories, in which a murdered woman gets revenge through the title plants (though her murderer really should have known better.) Most of the stories, however, are exclusive to this book.
As might be expected, most of these short tales depend heavily on a twist ending, but a few play it straight with an ending foreshadowed throughout. Sometimes good people win the day, other times evil triumphs, at least for now. There are many variations in kinds of witches as well, the most bizarre of which is “Fish Witch” by Lois H. Gresh, with a witchlike species of marine life; it’s got a garbled ending.
Some standouts include:
- “The Only Way to Fly” by Nancy Holder: An aging witch who’s lost most of her magic through disuse is on a plane to her retirement home. Does she have one last spark in her?
- “There’ll be Witches” by Joe Meno: Danny is haunted by witches that make him wet the bed. Too bad the grownups never see them!
- “Beware of That for Which You Wish” by Linda J. Dunn: A woman who wants a son consults a wiser woman; the wheel turns.
- “The Devil’s Men” by Brian Stableford and “The Caress of Ash and Cinder” by Cindie Geddes, a nicely matched pair of stories about witch hunts seen from the victim’s point of view, yet with mirrored perspectives.
- “The Mudang” by Will Murray: A skull collector discovers a two for one bargain in Korea.
There’s a few duds as well, but they’re short and over quickly.
Scattered among the stories are a few with scenes of rape, abuse, suicide and other triggery subjects. There’s also a few iffy ethnic portrayals and those of you who are witches may not like some of the more negative portrayals.
You can probably find this for a modest price from Barnes & Noble; I see it’s been reprinted several times. Or try the library if you just want to read the bits by your favored authors.
Magazine Review: Conjunctions: 51 The Death Issue edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow
Conjunctions is a literary journal published twice a year by Bard College. Each issue contains essays, short fiction, poetry and less classifiable writing on a given subject, with this issue being about death. Literary journals tend to have a connotation of pretentiousness, and death is one of the primal subjects, so I approached this 2008 issue with a bit of trepidation.
The issue starts strong with an essay entitled “The Sutra of Maggots and Blowflies” by Sallie Tisdale. It’s a stomach-churning but very informative look at flies, Buddhism, and the Buddha nature of flies. The ending piece is “Andalucia” by H.G. Carrillo, the story of a writer mourning his artist lover, who has died of AIDS.
In between, the most memorable pieces are Joyce Carol Oates’ “Dear Husband”, a chilling suicide note; and “St. Francis Preaches to the Birds” by David Ives, a not-quite-working comedic play about the saint’s encounter with vultures. Several of the pieces caused me to shed a tear. Sadly, as I cannot make head or tail of the appeal of modern poetry, I feel unable to comment on whether any of the poetry was good. Two pieces are illustrated with photographs, the only visual art in the issue.
With forty pieces altogether, this is a thick volume that takes some grit to get through. I understand that the Oates story is in one of her own anthologies, so if noir fiction is your thing, you might want to check that out. The rest is a mixed bag; see if your library system has a copy of this or other issues so you can see if Conjunctions is something you want to subscribe to.
“I am merely departing”–Lucius Seneca.