Thursday, 1 July 2021

Recommend Things to Review and Read

People have said that they enjoyed the recent spate of reviews that I did. So I thought I would ask the erudite and educated readers of my blog for some further recommendations of things to read and review. Preferably OSR or 'OSR adjacent'.

I also thought that since I am asking, I would ask for some other reading recommendations, as I am finally coming to the end of a huge backlog of books bought during lockdown. I am looking for:


  • A good, detailed, readable, narrative account of the American Civil War (preferably a big fat tome or series of tomes)
  • Political biographies
  • Narrative histories in general
  • Good non-Amber Zelazny novels
  • The Best of Vance (but not what I have read: i.e. the Dying Earth/Cugel, Lyonesse, Planet of Adventure, Cadwal, Demon Princes)
  • Forgotten high-quality 1970s-1990s SF in the vein of CJ Cherryh and and Lois McMaster Bujold

62 comments:

  1. 1) The "canonical" BFT of the ACW is McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom." (It's on my bookshelf, but I haven't gotten to it yet.)
    2) I quite liked "A Jack Vance Treasury," although it does overlap with sources elsewhere such as Dying Earth.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Zelazny - I can't offer much beyond Lord of Light and Creatures of Light and Darkness; Lord of Light is probably the more coherent and better of the two. A Night in the Lonesome October is good, though a trifle glib - and unseasonal.

    Narrative histories - I recall JH Elliott's Imperial Spain 1469-1716 as being rather good. Max Hastings's Korean War was fairly readable, as was Massie's life of Peter the Great.
    I have a review of a history of the First World War in East Africa, Tip & Run here: https://worldbuildingandwoolgathering.blogspot.com/2020/05/tip-run-untold-tragedy-of-great-war-in.html

    Oddly, despite the number of history books around me as I write, I'm not sure there are many I would press upon you - I suspect I tend to use them as consumable resources, rather than ornamental works.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love Max Hastings and read his Korean War book back when I was a lad (my grandfather fought in Korea, having stayed on in the army after WWII because he enjoyed it so much!).

      Delete
  3. In terms of narrative history, my Canada Day pick would be Dead Reckoning by Ken McGoogan. It's a great book about the long history of the search for the northwest passage. From a gamer's perspective, it is packed AF with hooks and weird characters for NPC inspiration.

    Continuing the theme, I'd also recommend The Inconvenient Indian, by Tom King, and Montcalm and Wolfe, by Roch Carrier. King's book is less pure history, but a great primer on Indigenous/European relations in North America. Also a great antidote to the po-faced, ideological historiography of our age. I'm a sucker for biographies about pairs of antagonists, and Carrier's book is that and more in spades. The Plains of Abraham was more a fulcrum of North American history than almost any other single battle, and the focus on the totally different lives and yet near-identical fates (spoilers) of the two generals is extremely readable.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Many thanks for these - I think I shall be picking up Montcalm and Wolfe.

      Delete
    2. They do all sound interest. All I know about Canadian history you could write on a postage stamp.

      Delete
  4. Zelazny - 'Lord of Light'

    ReplyDelete
  5. People already recommended Lord of Light, but I will name it too. It is one of my favorite books of all time.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Empires of the Sea - Roger Crowley

    Have you read much Andre Norton? More pulpy than you might be looking for.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I've read nothing by Andre Norton but will I am sure get to her one day.

      Delete
    2. I read quite a lot of her stuff when I was younger (so more than 25 years ago?) and quite enjoyed it. Then again, it was a while ago.

      Delete
    3. I second Empires of the Sea.

      Delete
  7. Not the civil war itself, however, I am working my way through "The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government's Relations to Slavery" by the late Don E. Fehrenbacher and Ward M. McAfee (a former student of Fehrenbacher's), who finished editing the book after Fehrenbacher passed away. It speaks to me more related to the present (so far) of factionionalism in American politics and how US politics tried to limit slavery, but also accommodated slavery to stave off a civil war that was perhaps inevitable. It covers the period from the ratification of the United States constitution up to the civil war and is crazy that you can see the same state factions today more than 150 years since the civil war. Generations later and there are still overt political battles along the same lines and one of our major political parties seems to actually view US politics as war. Anyhow, it is a really interesting read (albeit I am a lawyer, so...) and not too heavy (under 500 pp).

    ReplyDelete
  8. (1) Foote - outdated in some respects but beautifully written.
    (3) Runciman, particularly "Constantinople 1453"
    (4) Lord of Light
    (6) no addition except to say Bujold, like Holdstock, is horrendously underrated

    ReplyDelete
  9. I think you'd be a fan of Poul Anderson particularly the technic series.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by McPherson
    Grant's autobiography
    Vance: Night Lamp, The Last Castle, The Blue World

    ReplyDelete
  11. For Vance you should read the 3 Alastor cluster books: Marune, Wyst and Trullion.

    ReplyDelete
  12. I am putting together an illustrated version of Vance’s Wyst novel. It’s part of the Alastor trilogy (the three are rather disconnected), but I’d recommend all three of you haven’t read them.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I am putting together an illustrated version of Vance’s Wyst novel. It’s part of the Alastor trilogy (the three are rather disconnected), but I’d recommend all three of you haven’t read them.

    ReplyDelete
  14. When I was in grade school I found a copy of Zelazny's "Changeling" in my school library and I was enraptured. The plot seems a bit trite in retrospect, but it did have some interesting tidbits -- I remember quite liking the idea of magic being worked by manipulating threads that floated in the air, invisible to non-magicians, and of using music, or elaborately shaped staves, or gestures to braid or pull the threads to work different spells.

    If you're a ten year old boy, it will probably blow your mind.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That sounds a tiny bit like the magic in The Death's Gate Cycle. I bet Weis and Hickman ripped him off.

      Delete
  15. Another vote for McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom here.

    ReplyDelete
  16. OSR recommendations:
    Anything from Gabor Lux or E.M.D.T.
    Winter's Daughter
    The Palace of Unquiet Repose

    Vance recommendations:
    Alastor Series: Vance's most Vancian fiction imo. Picaresque adventures across weird human cultures. Each novel has different characters except for the mysterious ruler of the Alastor Cluster, who travels among his subjects incognito.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Everybody is recommending Alastor! So I suppose that will be next.

      Delete
    2. I think you'll like it! I'd also like to amend my Gabor Lux recommendation: check out Echoes From Fomalhaut #06, #07, and #08 for the City of Vultures material. It's a different take on Orientalist fantasy than your Yoon-Suin, but I think you will find it intriguing and enjoyable.

      Delete
  17. For Vance, I found a copy of Blue Planet by him in a used book store and liked it enough to read it twice. It's the least "Vancian" of the books I've read by him. Reads a bit like something by Poul Anderson or somesuch (with maybe a dollop of LeGuin) with a pretty conventional plot and characters but a lot of emphasis on world building and the nuts and bolts of how a specific sub-set of humanity would adapt socially and technologically to a strange alien world.

    The prose (except for some dialogue from the traditionalists ranting) is less Vancian than you normally get which makes it less memorable but a lot faster to read. Easy to zip through in an afternoon.

    Has some standard Vance humor in poking fun at pompous traditional authority.

    If you like Bujold, have you tried her Chalion novels? Their treatment of religion in a fantasy context is excellent.

    For 70-90's sci-fi I really loved C. S. Friedman when I was younger, reading it as an adult I still liked it but I'm not sure how much of that is clouded by nostalgia. Her main sci-fi novels:
    -In Conquest Born: Space Opera about an endless war between wannabe Nietzscheans and wanna egalitarians, both of which have pretty serious feet of clay.
    -The Madness Season: a sci-fi story with strange aliens and a vampire protagonist. Hard to categorize, lots of worldbuilding about alien psychology.
    -This Alien Shore: if you can get around shouting "MUTATION DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY" at the book it's a fun bit of cyber-punk in spaaaaaaaaace. Thinking about it it's a bit weird how little interstellar cyberpunk there is out that there doesn't go full transhuman (which this book definitely does not). Pretty good grasp of internet development for a 90's book.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Narrative history: have you read Batavia's Graveyard? The most narrative of narrative history books I've ever read, utterly gripping, I sat up until 3am because I simply couldn't put it down. Amazing book.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. No, but I read about the Batavia in a Bill Bryson book. I've ordered it on your recommendation so it had better be good.

      Delete
  19. One of my favorite non-Amber Zelazny novels is Doorways in the Sand.

    1966 might be a trifle early, but maybe The Witches of Karres, James H. Schmitz? I guess not exactly forgotten since Baen Books somehow turned it into a series in the early 2000's by getting folks like Mercedes Lackey to write sequels...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well I've never heard of it so that's "forgotten" enough for me!

      Delete
    2. The Witches of Karres is pretty much exactly "Write me a Traveller adventure, light on the Imperium, heavy on the psionics please."

      Delete
  20. Several people have recommended Lord of Light; I’ve tried to read that twice and both times bounced of.

    My recommendation would be Donnerjack, which is only mostly a Zelazney.

    ReplyDelete
  21. For Vance, Night Lamp is excellent. Later, mellower Vance. A Gaean Reach novel published after Lyonesse. Good protagonist, satisfying conflicts. Some of Vance's best "speculative anthropology" work. There's also a send up of academic groups that you'd probably enjoy.

    Don't bother with Big Planet (too early, too stock), but I really enjoy its sequel set on the same planet, Showboat World. Doesn't require reading the first. Picaresque with rival riverboat captains who travel around putting on elaborate theater productions to classic Vancian villagers.

    Ports of Call and Lurulu are not to everyone's taste, but I love them. Functionally plotless meditations on a life well lived by Vance in the twilight of his authordom. I think there are profound connections and meaning among the series of vignettes and parade of characters, but can't quite put my finger on it. Which I think is partially the point.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks - those are good recommendations.

      Delete
  22. Also have you read Emphyrio? If not, you should read that right away. Short and essential Vance. I'm certain you'd like it very much.

    Here is a chunk of Joanna Russ's review:

    I really cannot do it justice. Mr. Vance knows about childhood, grief, love, social structure, idealism, and loss, but none of these breaks the perfect surface of the book; everything is cool, funny, and recognizable while at the same time everything is melancholy, real, and indescribably strange. There are veins of pure gold. The seven-year-old hero, after seeing a puppet play, "had come to suspect that the puppets were stolen children, whipped until they acted and danced with exact precision: an idea investing the performance with a horrid fascination." Or "I watched a Damaran walk; it walked with soft feet, as if its feet hurt."

    . . . [T]he tone is perfectly controlled. What is one to say of a puppet play the title of which is "Virtuous Fidelity to an Ideal Is the Certain Highroad to Financial Independence"? Or of an author whose ear is so sure that among names like Ambroy, Undle, and Foelgher, he can serenely place a district called Riverside Park? Others grunt and heave to sweat out sophomoric diatribes against organized religion; Mr. Vance merely produces a Temple Leaper who asks, the hero’s father severely whether he has lately leapt to the glory of Finuka. Even the "happy” ending of the book is curiously abrupt and somehow sad; what remains is not the euphoria of a successful revolution but the memory of two boys watching the sunset from Dunkurn’s Heights and dreaming of riches, the exact and effortless taking-apart of a whole social system, the old puppeteer (his puppets are living creatures) who says, "The years come fast. Some morning they’ll find me lying stark, with the puppets climbing over me, peering in my mouth, tweaking my ears . . .”

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Have you read "This Is Me, Jack Vance"? Is it worth getting?

      Delete
    2. It's worth getting if you really like Jack Vance, but not before you've read many of the books mentioned above. Unfortunately there's little if anything about his writing or his process. More of a stream of consciousness ramble through his very interesting life. People he met, odd jobs he did to keep afloat as a young man, trips he took, etc.

      He was very, very old when he wrote it, and that's pretty apparent. Like sitting down with an elderly, diminished grandparent and listening to him string together stories. Fun, enlightening, heartwarming -- but also a little sad.

      Delete
  23. re: Zelazny I'll second the recommendations for Changeling, Creatures of Light and Darkness, and of course, Lord of Light.

    I'll add a suggestion for Jack of Shadows. disclaimer - Jack is not a nice guy.

    Also, check out the short story collections, some of his best stuff imho. A Rose for Ecclesiastes, The Keys to December, Love is an Imaginary Number, so many great stories.

    If I had a gazillion dollars I'd buy the rights to Changeling and make a movie out of it, it's got perhaps the simplest plot of any Zelazny book and would be entirely suitable for an action movie.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I have read a lot of Zelazny short stories and he was a master of the form. I really like the one hunting giant fish on Venus... The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth? Something like that?

      Delete
  24. A good, detailed, readable, narrative account of the American Civil War (preferably a big fat tome or series of tomes)-- A big fat series of tomes would be Shelby Foote's "The Civil War: A Narrative" It is comprised of 3 fat tomes. It is a glorious read.

    Political Biographies: "Truman" and "John Adams" both by David McCullough.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Henry Clay: Statesman for the Union by Remini is a great political biography. Clay was 'the great pacificator' who brokered peace between the North & South until his death, delaying the civil war (which advantaged the rapidly industrializing North).

    I'll also recommend The Best of R.A. Lafferty (https://www.amazon.com/Best-R-Lafferty/dp/1250778530/ref=sr_1_1). He's a wild short story author, and probably a genre unto himself. His work is a blend of Irish tall tales and Native folk tales, lightly disguised as SF. Here's a write-up in Wired: https://www.wired.com/story/who-is-r-a-lafferty-best-sci-fi-writer-ever/.

    Lastly, I'll recommend the Landmark editions of Herodotus & Thucidides. These editions bring the ancient histories to life, with lots of nice maps and explanations.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I might read that Henry Clay one. I am a sucker for big biographies about people I've never heard of but turn out to have been important.

      Delete
  26. Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny has been recommended quite a few times, I will echo it.

    I am just going through Herodotus myself so I would be remiss if I did not recommend it, along with Xenophons Anabasis and Thuycidides's History of the Peloponesean War.

    Vance: To Live Forever, Emphyrio and his short story collections are very much worth reading.

    Forgotten high quality SF in the Vein of these two authors: Difficult, as I am only passingly familiar. Perhaps Hyperion by Dan Simmons? Hardly forgotten. And if not, then In Conquest Born by C.J. Friedmann might scratch your itch.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Herodotus, the Anabasis and Thucydides are all favourites of mine. If you are a fan of ancient history mixed with fantasy the Gene Wolfe "Soldier of the Mist" series is excellent.

      Delete
  27. You've already been given a large number of good Vance novels to read, so I'll go lighter and suggest picking up an anthology that has his short story "The Moon Moth". It's set on a world where everyone wears masks with archetypal significance. All speech is sung and must be accompanied by the appropriate instrument. The story revolves around a hapless foriegn official who is attempting to fit in and apprehend a suspect.

    ReplyDelete
  28. If you’re looking for great American Civil War content, this is a set of Civil War songs commissioned in 1962 by the BBC and performed by a troupe of American entertainers. Super well-arranged and well-performed with a variety of American accents.

    https://soundcloud.com/user-450658033/the-blue-and-the-gray-the-bbcs-songs-of-the-civil-war

    ReplyDelete
  29. For Vance, try "Languages of Pao" - good fun, especially if you are interested in languages. For Zelazny, try Shadowjack.

    ReplyDelete
  30. The documentary on the American Civil War by Ken Burns is the best thing available. It's long, beautifully done, and highly informative. For once, a book will not beat a documentary.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. It's very well done but gives too much voice to the view that the war wasn't fought over slavery, which is simply silly. The Cornerstone speech makes the cause of the war very clear.
      "It has been criticized for its historical accuracy, which focuses more on the battles of the civil war, and provides a divided view on the causes of the war. While most historians agree that slavery was the cause of the war, Burns presented a range of commentators, including Shelby Foote. Foote's view was that the cause of the war was not slavery, but, rather, failure to compromise. Foote was a journalist and not a trained historian, and was the descendant of slaveholders, but was given more screen time than any other commentator. Burns was not a historian, and neither was most of the production team, which has led to accusations that Burns did not give a thorough enough historical overview. Criticism was also leveled at the fact that Burns and most of his team were white men, which may have contributed to the lack of the series' coverage of women and issues around blacks, or examining reconstruction. A group of leading Civil War historians published a highly critical review of Burns's work in a 1997 book, The Civil War: Historians Respond, to which Burns was given a chapter to reply to their concerns. The film has also been criticized for propagating the Lost Cause of the Confederacy myth. Because Burns' documentary was so influential, and serves as the main source of knowledge about the Civil War to many Americans, it is claimed to have led to a continuation of Lost Cause views."

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornerstone_Speech

      Delete
  31. For Zelazny, I would recommend A Lonesome Night in October and Jack of Shadows. Both really fun pieces of work. I know that some have already recommended them, but I want to amplify those recommendations. Both I highly recommend.
    For Biography and narrative history, I cannot recommend more the Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. A Renaissance Italian Goldsmith and, if his autobiography is to be believed, professional adventurer. His Autobiography influenced the development of actual picaresque novels. It is an amazing thing to read. Benvenuto Cellini gives Cugel the Clever a run for his money. Gives you a look into a very alien mindset than today and the autobiography itself is hard to believe because it is written literally in, "I am the greatest man to have ever lived and anyone who disagreed with me or crossed me was wrong, evil, and died horribly" style If you only check out one recommendation, Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini is the one.
    I would also recommend The Secret History of the Mongol Queens or anything by Jack Weatherford.
    Harriet Tubman: the Road to Freedom is good for both biography and Civil War.
    Also recommend The All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat: The Life of Ra Lotsawa. A translation of a Tibetan Buddhist Hagiography, this book is insane. You get a totally different version of Tibetan Buddhism from the western stereotypes. Same with Benvenuto Cellini, it is written in that style of "This was the greatest man to have ever lived and all his enemies were evil and died horribly." Hard to be believed as historical fact, but it does answer the question of what if Hunter S. Thompson was a homicidal Buddhist sorcerer.
    For Sci-fi recommendations, I don't know this fits the wheelhouse because both are from the 50's but I would recommend Andre Norton's Starman's Son and Manly Wade Wellman's Who Fears the Devil.

    ReplyDelete
  32. On the topic of meaty narrative history, have you read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, A Journey Through Yugoslavia, by Rebecca West? There's a long review/appreciation of it over on False Machine: https://falsemachine.blogspot.com/2014/08/black-lamb-and-grey-falcon.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, I read it, and it took me about 3 months!

      Delete
  33. Michael Shea's The Quest for Simbilis. This was the original sequel to the first Cugel book, before Vance decided to write his own take.

    9 tales of Raffalon, by Matthew Hugues. It's a collecrion of Dying Earth stories, well written and funny. It's a recent book.

    Jasper Ridley's Tito. A good biography of Yugoslavia's leaderJ Broz.

    ReplyDelete
  34. Coming in late...

    1. I can second McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom."

    2. David Nasar's The Patriarch, a bio of Joseph Kennedy. Fascinating in part because Kennedy was such a contradictory figure.

    3. Robert Gordon's the Rise and Fall of American Growth. An economic history of 1870 to 1970 in the US and an argument that we went through a kind of singularity and shouldn't expect change that rapid today. Interesting for insight on the world of its time. If you want to cut corners, the end of each chapter summarizes the chapters.

    4. Has Dilvish the Damned & the Changing Land been mentioned? Fun in part because of certain details. Dilvish has learned powerful battle magics but neglected more practical spells.

    5. Seconding the Languages of Pao - Sapir Whorf on steroids. Premise is a bit silly but fun.

    6. Try Barbara Hambly. Still active but her prime was the 80s. Interesting because she has a background both as a serious martial artist and professional historians which makes her stories more grounded. The Silent Tower & the Silicon Mage combine grounded fantasy and 1980s computer hacking. Fantasy rather than SF mostly.

    ReplyDelete
  35. I'm very very late to the party, but I remember reading a series maybe 25 years ago or so that kind of combines everything you are asking for. If I remember right it's called The Lost Regiment. I don't think I ever finished it, but I read the first three or four books and recall it being pretty good, and being delighted at the amount of historical detail that was present as well as fascinated by the importance the author placed on the sheer logistics of war. Anyway, it's about a Civil War regiment that has traveled to a different world ala Zelazney and winds up meeting a bunch of medieval Russians (it's pretty well researched if I remember right, even if it is fiction, for your narrative history) and fighting 10' tall aliens ala Vance (or maybe more L Ron Hubbard than Vance) and it certainly fits into the forgotten 1970-1990 sci fi request though I have to confess I am not familiar with the two authors there you mention. I haven't thought about the series in years, but something about the combination of things you were asking about trigger me to recall it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have a feeling that's by Harry Turtledove? I never read any of his books but I remember them being in the shops and looking intriguing when I was a teenager.

      Delete
    2. Looks like the author is a guy named William R. Forstchen. Per his Wikipedia entry, "He completed his doctorate at Purdue University, studying under the historian Gunther E. Rothenberg. He specialized in Military History, the American Civil War, and the History of Technology. His doctoral dissertation was The 28th USCTs: Indiana's African-Americans Go to War, 1863–1865." I guess the focus on the minutiae of combat logistics probably comes from his research. I found it fascinating, even though I don't remember a lot of details now (I read it 30 years ago or so).

      I think Turtledove did a different series of alt-history novels where the Confederacy won the US Civil War called the "Southern Victory" series - that's likely what you are thinking of. I haven't read those, but they look to not have the sci-fi elements the Lost Regiment did.

      I never finished the series - the later books might not have even been out when I first read it. I think I read the first three because I seem to recall the title of the 3rd book ("Terrible Swift Sword," lifted from the Battle Hymn of the Republic) sending a little shiver down my spine presented in this new context. If my memory is right, I was staying with a relative for a week and they happened to have these books. I was skeptical but they looked like about the best thing to read, and then being really pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed them.

      Anyway, it seemed to me that the combination of things you requested all came together in the Lost Regiment (at least as I remember it) and so felt compelled to recommend it to you. If you ever do get around to reading any of these books, I'd be really interested in hearing what you think and finding out how accurate my memory is!

      Delete
  36. I concur on McPherson's "Battle Cry of Freedom." As for Zelazny, I've always loved his "Roadmarks" novel, about a time-travel road. Enjoy!

    ReplyDelete