Various book reviews

Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns’ by Paul Green

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

As a cursory look at the Jonah Hex graphic novels will tell you, the Western is the perfect media to incorporate all manner of supernatural and fantastic elements into. (I’m thinking here is the work of writer Joe R. Lansdale and artist Timothy Truman, with ‘Riders of the Worm and Such’ for instance. Lansdale has a feel of dialogue that would put Quentin Tarantino to shame, while Truman is simply one of the great artists and storytellers, I couldn’t recommend their work highly enough. They feature strongly in the Encyclopedia of Weird Westerns, with the steampunk story ‘Zeppelins West’ for instance, and the aforementioned ‘Riders of the Worm and Such’). Even for Hollywood, it was a ‘great’ reverse-achievement to make such a pig’s ear of the Jonah Hex film. All they had to do was film one of Truman and Lansdale’s Jonah Hex stories. Hopefully with the rise of quality television, ‘The Walking Dead’ or ‘Game of Thrones’ for instance, Jonah Hex might one day make it to television where it would really work. Alternatively, a film by John Carpenter and Kurt Russell would work really well.

The genre of Weird Western is more wide-ranging than just graphic novels and films. For instance there was the much-missed ‘Brisco County’ TV series starring none other than the great Bruce Campbell, spaghetti westerns, and cult classics like the Clancy Brown-starring ‘The Burrowers.’

Stephen King’s first ‘Dark Tower book ‘The Gunslinger’ is rightly included here. This book is one of King’s finest and dates back to a time when he would actually listen to his editors and not bloat the stories out with far too much dialogue and exposition. The first three books of ‘The Dark Tower’ cycle are superb, particularly The Wastelands (a collision between T.S Elliot’s ‘The Wastelands’ and John Carpenter’s ‘Escape From New York.’). Sadly, after this book, King lost the plot (literally), and ruined the rest of sag with such ego-driven stupidities as including himself in the stories, and having characters from previous stories discover that are figments of King’s imagination. Over the years, the readers of ‘The Dark Tower’ cycle had followed the stories loyally: they were poorly rewarded.

A few suggestions: it would be a good idea for McFarland to have Green update the encyclopedia every few years. It could do with better thought out illustrations, possibly even some colour ones. Finally, there are films such as ‘Escape From New York’, ‘Hell Comes To Frog Town’, ‘Moon Zero Two’, ‘Outland’ ect, that I’d argue could easily fit the ethos of ‘Weird Western’.

But overall, a fine, well-researched and entertaining book, and one that very much deserves to stay in print.

‘The Czecho-Slovak Struggle for Independence, 1914-1920’ by Brent Mueggenberg

Published by McFarland

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Before the First World War, the ideas that the Czechs and Slovaks could have their own country seemed a thing of fantast. But the outbreak of the Great War changed everything: in devastation there is opportunity, and a liberation movement arose.

This liberation movement became divided between Toma’ Masaryk, who admired Western-style democracy and Josef Durich, who thought that the solution to his people’s future lay with Imperial Russia.

At the pint where the Czech-Slovak liberation movement seemed about to splinter between the force of these two competing ideologies, the February 1917 Russian Revolution paved the way for the Czech-Slovaks to play a part in the war. But when Lenin’s Bolsehvik’s seized power in the October Revolution, they pursued a pacifist policy. The Allied leaders saw the now 40,000 strong Czechoslovak legion in Russia as a way of reconstituting the Eastern Front, in return the Allies would support the Czech-Slovak hopes for freedom.

But, the Czechoslovak Legion found itself embroiled in a savage civil war between the White Russians and the Bolshevik Russians. This is a major part of this book and is absolutely gripping.

Mueggenberg is a fine writer and researcher and his fluid writing style makes what could be quite complicated in the hands of a lesser writer, easy to understand. The selection of photographs illustrating the book is superb too. Highly recommended.

‘The Naming of the Shrew: A Curious History of Latin Names’ by John Wright

Published by Bloomsbury

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Latin names often don’t make sense to the layman. There is, for instance, a Trilobite called Han solo, and a genus of fish called Batman! The Eastern Mole rejoices in the bizarre name Scalopus aquaticus- when it most surely avoid water except when it is thirsty.

It’s also interesting to learn about Linnaeus- the creator of the naming system.

The wittily titled ‘The Naming of the Shrew’ explains what Latin names are for, why they are used, and how scientists came up with them in the first place, and why the said names can change from time to time.

This is a very funny book but you learn a lot as you read, John Wright’s prose is very accessible indeed. It’s the kind of book that has a long shelf life, you’ll find yourself going back to it from time to time. It is also a book to inspire an interest in the natural world which is always a good thing.

‘Rebel Angels in Exile’ by Timothy Wylie

Published by Bear & Company

Reviewed by Steve Earles

An interesting book, part of a continuing saga of rebel angels exiled on Earth…which would surely be sufficient punishment for any crime considering the Hell that humanity has turned the world into.

Anyone interested in such matters will enjoy this book

‘The Complete Lenormand Oracle Handbook’ By Caitlin Matthews

Published by Healing Arts press

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Over two centuries old, the 36 Lenormand cards are an oracle that combines standard playing cards with symbols from the every day world such as book and animals. It is certainly not like the Tarot.

Caitlin explains the multiple meanings for each card and explains their use and significance. She also provides real case histories and self-tests and practice exercise.

With 36 books to her name, she is an experienced writer, and very good at explaining these cards. It’s an interesting and intriguing work. One that’s beautifully produced and full of superb colour illustrations.

‘How The World Was Won: The Ameircanization of Everywhere’ by Peter Conrad

Published by Thames and Hudson

Reviewed by Steve Earles

In this fine book, cultural historian Peter Conrad explores the rise and subsequent fall of American influence worldwide since the end of World War 2.

He not only explores American influence on trade, politics and warfare but also on music (think of how many singers feel they have to sing in an American accent no matter what there own sounds like!), fashion, fast food, comic books, transport, therapies, and of course, the cinema.

Conrad’s research is very good, and his writing is incisive and fair. An interesting read for anyone interested in the world around them.

‘The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu and the Rise of Chinaphobia’ by Christopher Frayling

Published by Thames & Hudson

Reviewed by Steve Earles

A century ago a literary character created by Sax Rohmer named Fun Manchu entered the public consciousness, a character described as the ‘Yellow Peril’ incarnate in one man.

Christopher Frayling explores why, at precisely the time when China was in utter turmoil and incapable of being a threat to anyone, that the idea developed that China was a threat to western civilisation.

Christopher Frayling had done is usual extensive and incisive research to show how Chinaphobia became ingrained in the Western consciousness and to show how relevant it is in today’s world where China has risen to become a global superpower.

Amongst others, Frayling has interviewed Sax Rohmer’s widow and Edward Said, the last Governor of Hong Kong

Frayling’s investigation is extensive and he gives special attention to popular culture, making the very good point that popular culture is a good indicator of our own fears.

I especially enjoyed Frayling’s piece on the influence of the writing of Charles Dickens, which doesn’t surprise me as Dickens was a superb cultural barometer, and also one that showed the power of culture to influence in turn.

The chapter on Fu Manchu in film is also interesting, as are most things that involve the great Christopher Lee.

I’ve really enjoyed some of Frayling’s previous books such as ‘Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death’ and ‘Nightmare: The Birth of Horror’, and I’m pleased to be able to write that ‘The Yellow Peril’ did not disappoint. An interesting and thought-provoking read.

‘Ten Million Aliens’ by Simon Barnes

Published by Short Books

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Darwin referred to the animal kingdom as ‘endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful’ and this fine book celebrates this: you simply couldn’t make up the sheer diversity of life on Earth, some it extremely weird!

Barnes is a unique visionary, he puts as much of himself and his own interests into his writing as he does research and his book is all the better for it.

With 21 previous books under his belt, the quality isn’t surprising, all that experience has given the author a unique voice, he is well able to impart his enthusiasm for the natural world, and to be frank, the more people that feel as he does, the better.

It’s sad how many people’s eyes are closed to just how amazing the natural world is, ‘Ten Million Aliens’ does a fine job at opening those eyes.

His quotes from people like Charles Darwin and Ian Fleming are very amusing too!

In short, an excellent book, with a long shelf life.

‘The Glorious Madness: Tales of the Irish and the Great War’ by Turtle Bunbury

Published by Gill & Macmillan.

Reviewed by Steve Earles

Turtle Bunbury is a fine writer who has that rare knack of imparting his knowledge and enthusiasm on his given subject to his readers.

His newspaper articles are always a good read, but it’s his series of ‘Vanishing Ireland’ books that really stands the man in good stead: each featuring fifty or so interviews with elderly people talking about the Ireland of the past and of the present. A wise philosopher once said that when an old person died a library died with them: thus, in this series of books, Turtle has done their memories and valuable perspective on the present day, a great service. His ‘Sporting Legends of Ireland’ is also worth a look, as of course, is his classic ‘The Irish Pub’!

Having written about the Irish in the Great War myself (In the graphic novel ‘To End All Wars’ published by Soaring Penguin Press, with £2 from every copy sold going to Medicines Sans Frontieres), I’m always interested in learning more, and in this, Turtle’s ‘The Glorious Madness’ doesn’t disappoint.

Over 30,000 Irishmen lost their lives in the Great War, yet we were never taught about this at school, reading ‘The Glorious Madness’ helps the reader understand why (and it would be good to see it taught at school in future). This is a timely book because recently in Ireland people are openly talking about The Great War for the first time. There can be few families in Ireland whom the Great War did not touch.

Turtle’s research is top notch, but most important, he has that all important empathy for his subjects, he humanises what he writes about. This is not a dry book, it has both sadness and humour (after all, without humour, life isn’t worth living)). ‘The Glorious Madness’ gives a voice to the voiceless dead, and they have something to say, for instance, Woodbine Willie said: ‘There are no fruits of victory, no such thing as victory in modern war. War is a universal disaster and, as far as I am concerned, I’m through.’

‘The Glorious Madness’ has the hallmark of a great history book, it is eminently readable and accessible to it’s readers, it is a book for all (one I would like to see taught at school).

As usual Gill & Macmillan have produced a beautifully bound, presented, and illustrated book, this is a book with literally decades of use in it.

In short, a superb book on Ireland’s significant part in the Great War, written by a great writer.