Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Mr. K's Used Books, Music, and More

The luminous Mrs. V. and I just finished a whirlwind road tour of the Deep South (NY to St. Augustine to New Orleans to Vicksburg to Charleston to back home). The last thing we did before beginning what was supposed to be a ten hour plus drive straight through to Staten Island from Charleston, we stopped at Mr. K's Used Books. Wow, I didn't think places like this existed.

Here in NYC, even the paperback book traders are pretty much all gone. Skyrocketing rents and the competition from online sellers and e-books did them in. And, truth be told, most of them aren't too much of a loss. The really good used books stores were far off in Providence and distant parts of New Jersey. Anyone who ever tells you how great the Strand is isn't a person who buys genre books. The store's selection is pretty poor.

Mr. K's is a bookstore dream come true. Its selection in every genre is large and fairly comprehensive. While newer books tend to predominate, each section (especially mysteries) has a decent selection of older books. And the prices are great. Norton Critical Editions (books I pick up used whenever I come across decent copies) sell for $6 and under, a very good price. The prices I saw on mass market editions ranged from as little as $1.50 to $5 for rarer paperback originals. Hardcovers looked to priced the same way.

And, as the title implies, they don't only sell used books. They have a huge selection of CDs, and DVDs. The place is huge to the point of being overwhelming, which is great. 

And despite all my praise, I only made a few purchases (while Mrs. V. picked up a stack of decorating and art books, and mysteries). But what purchases they were. And I only found one of them, my wife found the others.

Mrs. V. spotted both the three-disc The Sabata Trilogy and Lin Carter's Imaginary Worlds. The first was on a shelf of new arrivals and the second was shelved in the literary criticism.

The last thing I got was on a whim. I was skimming the Political Thriller section when the Len Deighton books caught my eye. I've only read a couple of his books (the searing Bomber and the Hitler-Wins-thriller SS-GB), but I've always meant to read The Ipcress File. And now I've got a nice copy for under two bucks. Even if it stinks, who cares?

And that's what I most loved about the old days roaming around used book stores. Of course I wanted to find that perfect (and underpriced) copy of a Ballantine Adult Fantasy book, but it was taking a chance on something completely new. That's a lot harder now and I'm probably never going to spend money on a brand new book without a real serious recommendation from someone I really trust. In the past, I could go to the Book Pit in Red Bank, NJ, and fill up a shopping bag of horror books with cool covers, mysteries that looked nicely off-kilter, and all sorts of classic sci-fi I had never gotten around to reading.

So, if you have the chance, check out Mr. K's. They also have several other locations: Greenville, SC, Asheville, NC, and Johnson City and Oak Ridge, TN. If you get the chance, definitely stop in.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

More Worlds Fantastic and Strange

A few years ago I wrote a piece titled Worlds Fantastic and Strange fantasy maps. Just this past Tuesday, I wrote a sequel over at Black Gate called Guides to Worlds Fantastic and Strange with more ruminations on maps at the front of fantasy books. 

The thing about maps and fantasy is there's an endless supply of them, at least it seems that way. So, here's a bunch of especially good ones.


P.C. Hodgell's maps of Rathilien. Hodgell's an artist from a family of artists. Her maps are clean and elegant, with attractive fonts for the titles. There are also detailed 3-d style maps of various buildings in many of the books as well. Good stuff. 


Pauline Baynes, illustrator of the Narnia books, also ended up doing artwork for several of Tolkien's books. She did gorgeous maps of both author's worlds. Both of these would make wonderful wall posters (hey, that's an idea).


Drawn by Cliff Bird for REHupa #34 in 1978, I wish this map of Charles Saunder's Nyumbani had an outline of modern Africa behind it just like the one of Hyboria. Alas, it doesn't, and we just have to enjoy it for what it is: a guide to Imaro's travels. If that's not good enough for you, I've got nothing else to say.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Last Year and This Year

This past year was a haphazard one here at Swords & Sorcery: A Blog. First I tried to review all of Chaosium's Cthluhu Mythos anthologies, but Lin Carter killed that for me. Really, it was just too much of too much of the same stuff over and over again. To get to the really good stories I had to wade through lots of meh, to lousy, to hair-torn-out-at-the-roots bad stories. So after only a few volumes that whole business crashed and burned.

Then, in reaction to reading nothing but fantasy and being driven nuts by the state of the nation and the world, I turned to the Long 19th Century Project. While it crashed and burned as well, I will still go back to it. 

The rise of Western Imperialism and its attendant wars is one of the most compelling and interesting periods of world history. The great powers of today, save China, were forged into their modern versions during this era: industrialized America and Japan, Germany and Italy both united, Russia's completion of its southward and westward expansion, England and France chopping up Africa. 

My problem was I went overboard, trying to cram a vast stack of of books into my brain too quickly. I will definitely return to this in the coming year, just not with as concentrated attention, probably no more than a book or two at a time, but I will return.

Finally, there was, and still is, EPIC. It's going to be around at least until I finish the several series I've already started reviewing: First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Riddle-Master of Hed, and Fionavar. I need to read the next Kencyrath book from P.C. Hodgell, To Ride A Rathorn. Heck, I might even throw another Shanarra book in just for the heck of it. If I can think of anymore good stand-alones like Red Moon and Black Mountain I read/review them as well.

Then there are the reviews I've been asked to do (or will be shortly). The next Charles Saunders book should show up soon (oh, yeah!), a Gonji collection. Some other things I don't even know what they are yet.

And, as I've been doing for several years now, my short story reviews. I really don't read much new fantasy except in bite-size form, which suits me just fine. I get to read a wider array of authors, styles, and encounter dozens more ideas in a stack of doorstoppers. 

I do read a few books, mostly by people I know now, but very little of the popular stuff the kids are digging. With their terrible photo-realistic covers and their monstrous thickness and endless sequels, they just don't catch my eye. I need to read from people whose taste run similar to mine that a new book's good for me to chance it. I'm turning fifty this year, so I'm allowed to be crotchety.

And, of course, other posts about things that catch my fancy. Genre related things just not necessarily about a specific book or story, though they could be. You know, whatever.

I hope nobody got too bored or frustrated with my rapidly changing interests here during the last year. I like to believe I'm providing decent value (or amusement) for your dollar. I hope everyone sticks with me for the next twelve months. I don't know what it'll really bring, but I'm still having fun here and at Black Gate, so I with any luck that'll be apparent in what I write. Here's hoping, and a Happy New Year to everybody!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Mail Bag - pre-Christmas presents to myself

The e-book revolution continues as more and more books long out of print come on line. There's a long list of titles tucked in the back of my brain, of books I want to read but never found a copy of. Usually it's because they're out of print. Problem is, that list is old and rarely consulted. I need something to trigger it. So I have to wait for some random event to remind me I'm supposed to be keeping an eye open for a title and then look to see if it's available at some reasonable price. That little mental "ping" I'm listening for went off twice in the last month.

The first time was for James Stoddard's The High House. I've been curious about this one since Howard Andrew Jones wrote about it this past summer. Tooling around the net looking for other people's comments on Joy Chant's Red Moon and Black Mountain I came across Stoddard's site and saw The High House (and its sequel The False House) was now out as an e-book. So I bought it. Haven't started it yet, but am very curious.

The other e-book I snagged is MAR Barker's The Man of Gold. The prompt for this one came when I was reading some stuff about James Maliszewski's Empire of the Petal Throne magazine, The Excellent Travelling Volume. I've always been curious about EofPT. Even though most reviews of the book emphasize it's kind of dull, they all point out, it's a great introduction to the mad inventiveness of Tékumel. So I bought it. At $5.99 it's a really "Why not?" situation.

The last book is different. By the recently retired Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington, it's The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretative History of Russian Culture. With an eye more to cultural history, it looks at Russia from the founding of Kiev, Moscow's ascendancy, and finally to the Revolution and the Soviet Union. Published in 1970, I expect it will feel a little truncated today. 

This was referenced in one of the laudatory reviews I've read of the recent novel, Laurus by the Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin. It's about a Russian holy man in the Middle Ages and sounds great, but I think I'll benefit from a better grounding in the period before reading it. 

I've read the long sample of Billington's book offered by Amazon and loved it, so I think I might get to this book sooner as opposed to later. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

EPIC: The Riddle-Master of Hed Preview

From all I've ever heard or read, Patricia McKillip is a tremendously talented author. Based solely on the three books of the Riddle-Master trilogy I have to agree. Based on her twenty-two other books, I have no idea. I've read the trilogy several times over the past thirty-five years but I have not read anything else by her, which is pretty sad. Some of them look really good. Oh, well, too many books too little time.

My mom took them out for my dad from the YA-section in the St. George Library back in 1979. She thought he'd like them and she turned out to be right. I only read them when he got his own paper back copies from the Barrett Book Trader. I would venture a guess that he read them half a dozen times from then until his death in 2001. I think I've read them three times. While I'm only a little way into the first book I'm finding it as engaging and well done as I remember it. It's always pleasant to find out a book enjoyed years ago holds up to changed tastes and age.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

EPIC: The Summer Tree Preview

I wrote John O'Neill the other day that Guy Gavriel Kay's The Summer Tree was like Andre Norton's Quag's Keep run through The Silmarillion. Sure, it's a bunch of Canadian grad students not American gamers who get sent to a magical world, but it's a good enough analogy for my tastes.

For those not in the know, Kay hasn't always written fantasy set in slightly fictionalized mildly fantastic versions of the real world. His first books were the three volume series called The Fionvar Tapestry. Five Canadians are transported to the ur-world, Fionavar. A great war between the forces of light and those of darkness is brewing as the big bad dark lord is about to break free from a thousand years of captivity. 

What separates it from so many of the other dark lord epics is the depth of Kay's knowledge and use of the corpus of Western myths on which to build his story. Fionavar, its gods, its heroes have their roots explicitly in the stories of Scandinavia and the Celtic world. He doesn't just strip the exteriors and slap them on his own creations. He gets down into the blood and sinews of Odin, Yggdrasil, the Wild Hunt, and so many other things we've read a thousand times before but manages to find new life in them. Like Henry Treece and Alan Garner before him, he found the darker currents flowing through those myths. He then mixes them into a pretty standard high fantasy setting to create something that was much tougher and blacker than was common in the mid-eighties.

Back in the late nineties, after not having read much fantasy for a decade, I deliberately threw myself back into the genre. Since most of my friends didn't read it and the state of the web was a far cry from what it is today, I picked up John Chute's massive Encyclopedia of Fantasy (a great investment at the time. Even today I wander through its pages regularly. Though nearly two decades out of date, it's still an important part of my library). I wanted something to hip me to some of the better, or at least more interesting, epic fantasy I'd missed. Kay's Fionavar books looked pretty alright. That he had served as Christopher Tolkien's right hand during the creation of The Silmarillion made it even more appealing. 

So I read them and liked them. As familiar as the myths and legends he was playing with were, I liked how he used them. Rereading The Summer Tree this week I'm happy to write, so far I'm still liking them. I'm hoping the other two books, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road, hold up as well. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

EPIC: Red Moon and Black Mountain Preview

Not all epics require great length. Great scale and scope can be imparted without having to resort to thousands of pages. Proof of that is Joy Chant's Tolkienesque Red Moon and Black Mountain. Great heroes contend against the forces of evil for the fate of an entire world in this fairly short book. James Stoddard, author of The High House (a book I need to read and just came out as an e-book), calls it the best fantasy novel no one reads. 

According to Lin Carter's foreword, Chant's first novel was discovered by Allen & Unwin, the "discoverers" of Tolkien and his UK publishers. They passed the manuscript on to Tolkien's US publisher, Ballantine, and owner Betty Ballantine gave it to Carter telling him it was terrific. Hesitant about anything being billed as Tolkien-like, he found he loved it, dubbing it a "classic" and worthy of release with the Ballantine Adult Fantasy unicorn colophon.

I first read it about fifteen years ago and remember really liking it. So far it's holding up very well. It's sort of LotR mixed with Narnia and run through Alan Garner's early fantasy novels. It's interesting to read a book influenced by Tolkien before the entire genre seemed to be subsumed by it in the wake of Terry Brooks' success.

Chant only wrote two more novels, both set at different eras in the same world as Red Moon and Black Moon. Aside from a pair of short stories and a non-fiction book called The High Kings, she doesn't appear to have written anything else. Sadly, all her works are out of print.