Non-fiction


Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa

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Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa (2016) is an edited transcript of several conversations between Haruki Murakami, the novelist, and Seiji Ozawa, the conductor.

I came to this book as a fan of Murakami’s writing, as many of this site’s readers would. SFF readers may be disappointed to read that these conversations rarely touch on writing, let alone the imagined mirror worlds that give a haunting quality to his novels. Instead, they focus on Ozawa’s memories about his peers like fellow conductor Robert Mann or famous performers like Glenn Gould, of composers like Beethoven and Mahler, and of the day-to-day challenges of m... Read More

The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time: A companion book from the series’ halfway point

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The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan & Teresa Patterson

The World of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time is a companion for readers of Robert Jordan’s THE WHEEL OF TIME novels. Although I enjoyed the ~14 (15, if New Spring is included or fewer if the final three novels are counted as one, the way Jordan intended) WOT novels, I don’t recommend this companion. Here’s why.

The book is written from the point of view of fictional historians from within Randland, but the device doesn’t work. It seems odd that many characters of little renown are mentioned in a history of Randland. Prominent characters from the se... Read More

A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18

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A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18 by Joseph Loconte

During a stressful stretch at work, and the persistently weighty negativity tied to the 2016 U.S. election campaign season, I found myself turning to ‘comfort reading.’ The negative vibes, for me, carried through Election Day and I looked toward J.R.R. Tolkien for relief. I knew I wouldn’t have time to return to the warm depths of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, so instead I read something I’d downloaded a few months earlier: A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friends, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18, by Joseph Loconte.

The unique relationship betwee... Read More

The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars by Dava Sobel

Dava Sobel has long done great work in giving major events and people in science a compelling and engaging narrative, whether it be Nicolaus Copernicus in A More Perfect Heaven, Galileo and his daughter Suor Maria Celeste in Galileo’s Daughter, or John Harrison in Longitude. In her newest work, The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars, her focus shifts slightly from the singular to the plural, telling the story of the group of women who worked as “human computers” at Harvard analyzing the Observatory’s glass plates — a massive photographic record of the stars’ movements in the skies. Their work led to some of the most ... Read More

Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins: Sometimes convoluted, thoroughly informative

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Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins by Charles R. Ault, Jr

In Do Elephants Have Knees and Other Stories of Darwinian Origins (2016), Charles R. Ault, Jr. takes a unique path to explaining the complexities of evolution, using children’s books such as Morris the Moose, Treasure Island, Diary of a Worm and others as springboards to discussing Charles Darwin’s path to discovery, from his time as an insatiably curious child to his adventure-filled twenties to the twilight years he spent focused on the lowly (though not to him) earthworm.

The focus is, as the title notes, on origins, and so we learn about the early ancestors and evolutionary route to those elephants (yes, by the way, they do have knees), whales, tetrapods, and p... Read More

The Witch of Lime Street: It’s society wife vs Houdini in this riveting nonfiction spiritualist duel

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The Witch of Lime Street by David Jaher

Harry Houdini is still famous as a magician and an escape artist. The last few years of his life, though, he devoted large chunks of time to exposing and debunking fake “spiritualist mediums.” In The Witch of Lime Street, David Jaher takes a look at Houdini’s most famous spiritualist case: his two-year battle with the “Boston Back Bay Medium” who used the alias Margery.

Most people date the spiritualist movement in the USA from the 1840s, with the Fox sisters of Palmyra, New York. When the sisters were present, spectral rappings were heard, for which no source could be discovered until decades later when one of the sister ‘fessed up; (she could crack her toes the way some people crack their knuckles). In the interwar period of the twentieth century, spiritualism enjoyed a resurgence, and a power... Read More

Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick: A revealing biography of PKD

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Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin

Philip K. Dick is certainly one of the most iconic, unusual, and hard-luck SF writers ever to grace the field. His books subvert our everyday reality, question what is human, and explore paranoia and madness, all with a uniquely unadorned and often blackly-humorous style. In classic starving artist fashion, he only gained recognition and cult-status late in life, and much of his fame came after passing away at age 53.

In his prolific career he published 44 novels and 121 short stories, and in 2014-2015 I read 10 of his novels, 7 audiobooks, and 3 short story collections. There’s something so enticing about his paranoid, darkly-comic tales of everyday working-class heroes, troubled psychics, bizarre aliens, sini... Read More

The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less): A master class in concision

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The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less) by David Bercovici

The Origins of Everything in 100 Pages (More or Less) by David Bercovici, in his own words, “covers the Universe’s greatest hits, recounting when and most importantly how its various pieces emerged.” That’s a tall order for any book, let alone one that is so short, but Bercovici tempers the readers’ expectations early on, letting us know that:

"There are other excellent books, far more comprehensive than this one, on the history of the Universe and life ...The goal of this book is not to be deep and comprehensive but instead to be boldly (or baldly) shallow and superficial in the best sense of these words ... My aim is to give a quick and hopefully readable overview that provides a taste of our Universe’s story (and to some extent hu... Read More

A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts: A well-written and illustrated introduction

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A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts by Olento Salaperäinen

A Field Guide to Fantastical Beasts, by Olento Salaperäinen, is a nice if basic introduction to 50 mythological/supernatural creatures, one suitable more for younger readers than older ones (say, high school or up) due to its relatively brief entries and often familiar subject matter.

The guide is encyclopedic in form, dividing the creatures into six basic groups: Fairies and Little People, Demons and the Undead, Water Creatures, Hybrid Beasts, Humanoid Creatures, and The Sacred and the Divine. The groups themselves are organized alphabetically, with each having between 7-10 creatures and 2-4 pages of description devoted to each creature. Each section also has a small sidebar that usually offers up a modern day (and often modern media) use of the creatures, such as how zombies were used in Shaun of the Dead Read More

Wonder Women: Perfect for young (and not-so-young) historians or scientists

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Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History by Sam Maggs

If you know a young woman who’s interested in the contributions of women to various STEM/STEAM fields, or perhaps were one of those young women at one point in your life, you’ll be pleased to learn that Sam Maggs’ latest non-fiction work, Wonder Women: 25 Innovators, Inventors, and Trailblazers Who Changed History, is an entertaining and surprisingly thorough look at the ways in which women have positively changed the world. The women featured in this book succeeded despite opposition from society as a whole, ruling theocracies, or discouragement from family members; very few of them began with the support one might expect for their potential, but all of them persevered through difficulty to make their marks on the world.

Maggs has made a name for hers... Read More

Between Light and Shadow: A prodigious study of SFF’s most elusive writer

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Between Light and Shadow: An Exploration of the Fiction of Gene Wolfe, 1951 to 1986 by Marc Aramini

Last year I tried twice (unsuccessfully) to finish The Best of Gene Wolfe: A Retrospective of His Finest Fiction, giving up in defeat. Gene Wolfe is frequently described as one of the most brilliant SFF writers in the genre by critics, authors, and readers alike. Some fans prize his books above all others, and there is a WolfeWiki page dedicated to discussing his work. But there are also many SFF readers that are baffled and frustrated by his stories because they are packed with metaphors, literary references, and hidden themes, and require extremely close reading to understand and appreciate. So I didn’t expect to make any more attempts in the near future.

However, when the 2016 Hugo Awards... Read More

All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Alien Life

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All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Alien Life by Jon Willis

All These Worlds Are Yours: The Scientific Search for Alien Life (2016), by Jon Willis, is structured around a simple proposition: if you had four billion dollars to spend (Willis explains why that number late in the book) to seek out non-terrestrial life, where would it make the most sense to spend it? Willis gives his readers a head start by narrowing their choices at the outset to five "plausible scenarios:"

Mars (of course)
Europa
Enceladus
Titan
An exoplanet

Willis begins by offering up a relatively quick but sufficiently detailed overview of the conditions that apparently were necessary for life on Earth (liquid water, magnetic field, atmosphere, plate tectonics, a basic shared biochemistry, and a few others),... Read More

The Tyrannosaur Chronicles: All you ever wanted to know about tyrannosaurs (plus maybe a little more)

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The Tyrannosaur Chronicles by David Hone

I've been on a bit of a dinosaur run lately. Not because I suddenly grew interested in the great creatures; that interest began at around age two or three and hasn't waned a bit. No, it's just simply that for whatever reason, a good number of new books have been released recently, including this review's subject, The Tyrannosaur Chronicles (2016) by David Hone

As the title implies, Hone is working within a tightly constrained focus here rather than dealing with dinosaurs in general. His focus on tyrannosaurs (the group, not simply the singular Tyrannosaurus Rex) is laser sharp, allowing him to delve into what we think we know about the creature in great and all-encompassing detail. Some, particularly casual fans of dinosaurs, may very well find the book too detailed — it really does drill down into the ... Read More

Some Remarks: The glory of infodumps separated from narrative

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Some Remarks by Neal Stephenson

Some Remarks compiles eighteen short texts by Neal Stephenson. Aside from a couple short stories, this is a book of essays, interviews, and speeches. These short texts should please most Stephenson fans because they combine humor, insight, and exposition — in other words, these are infodumps gloriously freed from narrative.

Hesitant readers would do well to test this book by reading its opening essay, “Arsebestos.” Stephenson points out that although sitting all day is unhealthy, much of corporate America requires its office drones to sit in cubicles. People would be better off doing their work while ambling along on a treadmill, as Stephenson does, but managers are too cowardly to risk changing the status quo. After all, what if w... Read More

Articulating Dinosaurs: A dense academic book, but rewarding even for a lay fan

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Articulating Dinosaurs by Brian Noble

I have to confess that Articulating Dinosaurs (2016) by Brian Noble wasn’t quite what I’d expected, though that was certainly more my fault for not reading the description closely and in its entirety. Basically, any author/publisher has me at “dinosaurs,” so everything after that is just so much superfluous verbiage. So yes, I can’t say I was at all fully prepared for the academic/critical theory nature of the work, though it didn’t take too many early references to Lacan or Foucault before I figured out my misperception and readjusted my expectations. It’s been a few years (OK, decades) since my crit days, and I can’t say that even when I was reading critical theory that I was wholly enjoying or comprehending it (I do recall doing a lot of back-and-forth page-flipping re-reading with Lacan, for instance. ... Read More

A Slip of the Keyboard: Too comprehensive, or not comprehensive enough

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A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

A Slip of the Keyboard collects much of Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction. In speeches, articles, and letters, Pratchett holds forth on a variety of subjects, ranging from book tours to hats to policies relating to Alzheimer’s and assisted dying. He also discusses Australia, conventions, and his development as a writer.

The book is divided into three sections, and I found the third section, entitled “Days of Rage,” the most powerful. Most of these texts touch on either Alzheimer’s or assisted dying. Eager to move past any taboo related to his disease, Pratchett concisely and generously shares what he experiences before urging his audience to take action. Though many lines stand out in this section, here is one that struck... Read More

Bandersnatch: The Inklings as writers group

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Bandersnatch by Diana Pavlac Glyer

Diana Pavlac Glyer abridged her academic book The Company They Keep and published the abridgement as Bandersnatch. In it, she studies the Oxford circle of writers and thinkers that included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams through the lens of a creative community. Glyer chose the title Bandersnatch from of a quote by C.S. Lewis about Tolkien, that “No-one ever influenced Tolkien — you might as well try to influence a Bandersnatch.” In fact, the book goes on to explore in depth just how deeply and broadly Tolkien was influenced by the Inklings and by the creative currents that swirled around the group. T... Read More

A Man Without a Country: Essays from the GWB Years

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A Man Without a Country by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man Without a Country collects essays about living in George W. Bush’s America. Published in 2005, these essays were written after America invaded Iraq in order to defeat terrorism, to find and neutralize weapons of mass destruction, and to spread freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East.

Briefly summarized, Vonnegut is critical of the state of America, which has been hijacked by psychopaths, and let’s not forget the state of the world, which has been destroyed by a century of fossil fuel emissions that produced nothing more than transportation. He’s not especially glad that so many nuclear weapons remain, either. He defends the arts, humanism, and, generally speaking, compassion and mercy. He regu... Read More

The Oxford Inklings: The influence of a circle of friends

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The Oxford Inklings by Colin Duriez

J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had an influence on modern fiction, especially speculative fiction, that is still felt to this day. In their prime, at Oxford, they saw themselves as champions of myth and meaning, bringing back the “old Western” literary values, elevating myth and “fairy stories” into a place of prominence in an academic world that was increasingly valuing modernism. The two friends surrounded themselves with British writers and thinkers of the time, a group they nick-named the Inklings, and that group’s influence on the writing of the time still cannot be calculated. The Inklings capture our imaginations just as deftly as LORD OF THE RINGS or Out of the Silent Planet... Read More

The Geek Feminist Revolution: Just didn’t do it for me

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The Geek Feminist Revolution by Kameron Hurley

The Geek Feminist Revolution is a collection of writing by Kameron Hurley, much of which was originally published online. And at the risk of sounding curmudgeonly and persnickety, from my viewpoint the problem was they read that way. Some of that I think is in the nature of the writing, and some of that probably is my own issue in the expectations I come with when a book is subtitled “Essays” (and there’s that “persnickety” part).

The collection is made up of nearly 40 essays divided into four sections, though as one would expect, there’s a fair amount of overlap in their subject matter. The sections are: Level Up (dealing with the craft and business of writing), Geek (media criticism), Let’s Get Personal (these are, well, more persona... Read More

How Great Science Fiction Works: A college course for science-fiction fans

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How Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe

For years I’ve been a fan of the GREAT COURSES audiobooks, which I usually pick up at my library or at Audible. These are a series of college-level lectures devoted to a specific topic and delivered by an expert in the field. A couple of months ago they released a set called How Great Science Fiction Works. Our teacher is Gary K. Wolfe, a professor of Humanities who received a BA in English from the University of Kansas under the tutelage of science fiction writer James E. Gunn and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Chicago. Wolfe (no relation to Gene Wolfe)... Read More

Tim Hanley talks about INVESTIGATING LOIS LANE and gives away a book!

Today Fantasy Literature welcomes Tim Hanley as he celebrates the release of his second book, Investigating Lois Lane: the Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter. (Jana, unsurprisingly, loved it.) Mr. Hanley was kind enough to chat about the Daily Planet’s most-decorated employee, his research methods, and his favorite tea. Plus, we’ve got a copy of Investigating Lois Lane to give away!

Jana Nyman: What was your initial impetus behind writing a comprehensive survey of Lois Lane as she appeared in various media like comic books, television, and film throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?

Tim Hanley: In part, I wanted to write about Lois just because she's such a great character. I read a bunch of Lois comics for my first book, Wond... Read More

Investigating Lois Lane: The Turbulent History of the Daily Planet’s Ace Reporter

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Investigating Lois Lane by Tim Hanley

There’s something irresistibly appealing about Lois Lane, DC Comics’ globe-trotting and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter. In the hands of a good writer, she’s got grit and guts to spare, she’s smart enough to track down crime bosses or dissolve child-smuggling rings, and she’s tough enough to stand toe-to-toe with the likes of supervillains Lex Luthor and Braniac. In the hands of a bad writer — and there have been many — she’s a sex object, a romantic conquest, a pawn whose numerous meaningless deaths are nothing more than the catalyst for Superman’s emotional arcs. This is a character who, in the year 2011, was referred to as a “trophy wife” by a DC editor at San Diego Comic-Con. “Turbulent” isn’t a strong enough word for Lois Lane’s 77-year history, but it’s a good place to start.

Investigating Lois Lane Read More

Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010: Interesting choices

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Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010 by Damien Broderick & Paul de Felippo



Note: You may also be interested in Stuart's reviews of:
Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, 1946-1987.
Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, 1949-1984.

Ever since high school, I’ve used David Pringle’s Science Fiction: 100 Best Novels, 1949-1984 (1985), Modern Fantasy: 100 Best Novels, 1946-1987 (1988), and The Ultimate Guide to Science Fiction (1991) as excellent guides to some of the highest-quality, distinctiv... Read More

Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, 1946-1987: Introduces many lesser-known fantasy works

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Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, 1946-1987 by David Pringle

Note: You may also be interested in Stuart's reviews of:
Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010.
Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, 1949-1984.

Following on the success of 1985’s Science Fiction: 100 Best Novels, An English-Language Selection, 1949-1984, it made sense that David Pringle would tackle the wide-ranging and ill-defined field of fantasy with Modern Fantasy: The 100 Best Novels, An English-Language Selection, 1946-1987. It’s actually an amazi... Read More