Tag Archives: Scott

Swords & History

My last post mentioned a book called Desert Of Souls by Howard A. Jones. Thanks to eCLP, I was able to read Mr. Jones’ book shortly after that post went live, and I was not disappointed! Ostensibly historical fiction, if Desert Of Souls were ever made into a big-budget action movie, it would fall into the “buddy picture” category. Set in 8th century Baghdad, lead characters Asim and Dabir are devout Muslims in the employ of Jaffar, an important judge and close friend of the Caliph. As captain of Jaffar’s guard, Asim knows few equals when it comes to wielding a blade, and his companion Dabir possesses an unmatched level of scholarship and a perceptive eye Sherlock Holmes might envy. Together this formidable pair faces threats both mundane and magical–yes, Desert Of Souls includes supernatural elements that takes it out of the realm of pure historical fiction and into some nether region between it and pure fantasy.

Mr. Jones’ treatment of his Muslim protagonists offers a wonderfully full, real, and nuanced picture of Islamic culture and society in the 8th century, and his protagonists remain devout Muslims while also suffering the normal human foibles that make characters great. He even works in Sabirah, a strong female character who struggles with her role as a privileged royal daughter destined for a political marriage. Having devoured this tale in the span of less than a week (good time for a slow reader like me), I could not help comparing it to Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen Of The Road: A Tale Of Adventureanother “buddy-picture” historical fiction novel I wrote about a while back in this space. While Mr. Chabon’s novel is set in the 10th century and heels closer to pure historical fiction, it compares favorably to Desert Of Souls. Mr. Chabon is fond of calling the book “Jews With Swords,” and his lead characters, Amram and Zelikman, share similar traits of camaraderie won through action that Asim and Dabir possess.

While not historical fiction, if you try the two titles listed above and find “buddy picture” stories to your liking, you might also try some Fritz Leiber, Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser stories. If you want a print book for this CLP’s best option is Thieves’ House : Tales Of Fafhrd And The Gray Mouser.

If you just want some more sword-swinging historical action written in a classic pulp style, you can’t go far wrong reading Robert E. Howard’s amazing Gates Of Empire And Other Tales Of The Crusades. This phenomenal collection of pulp historical tales fails only in one capacity–it does not include a story entitled “Road of Azrael.” This tale would fit nicely into our newly coined “buddy picture” fiction category, as it pairs the Turkish sell-sword Kosru Malik and the Frankish knight Eric de Cogran in a desperate attempt to rescue a Frankish princess from slavery. This story directly influenced Mr. Jones, and he writes eloquently about it and his other sources of inspiration and research for Desert Of Souls here.

Reading this and the titles above has made me hungry for his second Asim and Dabir book, The Bones Of The Old Ones, a short story collection. Once I’ve knocked that one off, I will try one of Mr. Jones’ other inspirations, Howard Lamb’s Wolf Of The Steppes and Warriors Of The Steppes a bit of Cossack historical fiction!

In addition to the links above, you can click on any of the covers below to check out the library catalog record for that item!

Desert-of-Souls_cover   Gentlemen-of-the-road-cover Gates-of-empire-cover    Bones-of-the-old-ones-cover  Warriors-of-the-steppes-cover    Warriors-of-the-steppes2-cover


–Scott P.


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Song Of Ice And Fire Read-Alikes

Over the past holiday weekend I enjoyed unexpected access to HBO on-demand, and managed to watch the first three episodes of Game Of Thrones season four.  Needless to say, I was instantly reminded not only how much I love this show, but also the epic George R. R. Martin series that spawned it.  I feel like re-reading the whole series, but I also feel like it might be more productive to seek out something new to fill the void until Mr. Martin gets that sixth book out to us.

While I have recommended it before here in this space, I want to plug our Novelist database again. A lot of the titles I am going to mention below came from a Game Of Thrones read-alike search on Novelist. While I am not searching for carbon copies of Mr. Martin’s epic, I would like to at least match the tone of his series–gritty fantasy or even historical fiction with plenty of compelling characters.

Name-of-the-Wind_cover The Name Of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.  The first book of the Kingkiller Chronicles, descriptions indicate this book possesses the necessary grittiness of Martin’s work, but with a good deal more magic. It also utilizes different point-of-view characters to tell the story, much like Mr. Martin does in his books. Mr. Rothfuss and this series has been recommended to me before, so that encourages me as well. Also encouraging is that the second book, The Wise Man’s Fear is also out and in our collection. The next installment, The Slow Regard Of Silent Things, seems to be due in October of this year, so if I do really enjoy it, I’ve picked a good time to start reading.

Iron-King_cover  The Iron King by Maurice Druon.  Brought to us from France by the same outfit who publishes Mr. Martin’s books, it’s no coincidence why the cover of this historical novel has a similar livery to the Song Of Ice And Fire series. Mr. Druon’s epic tale of the rule of the Iron King, Philip the Fair of France served as Martin’s inspiration for Game Of Thrones. A cast of flawed and fascinating characters populates this epic tale of ambition, violence and revenge.

Legions-of-Fire_cover Legions Of Fire by David Drake.  I have long been a fan of Mr. Drake’s sci-fi writing, but I have only read his shorter fantasy fiction, so this one would be a first for me. Set in a fantastic analog of the Roman Empire, Legions is the first book in a quartet of novels in the author’s Books Of The Elements series. Out Of The Waters marks the second title in the series, and the fact CLP also has it on the shelves makes this one another enticing option on my list!

Desert-of-Souls_cover The Desert Of Souls by Howard A. Jones.  Part of another series, this book could prove a good example of the sort of serendipitous meandering that results when using Novelist.  I found this title after plowing through a few of the database’s sidebars of suggested titles. Set in 8th century Baghdad, this quasi-historical novel contains some interesting fantastic elements, and is followed up by The Bones Of The Old Ones.

A few minutes poking around in Novelist gave me quite a few options to plan my next few weeks and months of reading!

I would also be much obliged for other title suggestions. Thanks!



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Walking Between Worlds

Sci-Fi and Fantasy often provide new worlds for readers to explore. A purer form of escapism would be hard to find. In many cases a book immediately immerses you in a new world. If you read Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, you start in the far future with dudes in powered armor nuking hostile aliens. A Game Of Thrones opens in a fantastic land with three desperate Nights Watchmen encountering the undead.

Of late I seem to be gravitating toward a slightly subtler brand of escape in my sci-fi and fantasy reading. Maybe it comes from my own interest in parallel and alternate worlds, but the idea of a character from our world discovering and crossing into a new one fascinates me. This is a sub-genre that in my experience has  no real name. So I’ll call it “threshold sci-fi,” as the characters involved often do pass through or cross some physical, or metaphysical line into another world. I’ll talk about one I’m reading now, and a few of my other favorites, and maybe folks who read this can add a few more titles that fit the label.

Skin-Map  The Skin Map by Steven Lawhead.  The first book in the Bright Empires series features the protagonist, Kit, a twenty-something Londoner with a largely unfulfilled life, meeting his 125-year-old great grandfather after taking an ill advised short cut in a dirty alleyway. Actually a ley-line bridging multiple “Earths” and time periods, the alley leads Kit to his long missing and presumed dead great grandfather, and opens  whole new worlds of danger and adventure to him. Sinister forces move through these worlds, and heroes and villains find themselves seeking a map etched on pieces of human skin. Finding the map will unlock the pathways to power and control of this amazing multiverse. After showing the usual befuddlement one would assume comes when everything you thought you knew about the universe proves untrue, Kit rises to the occasion and embarks on a grand adventure. This one is really hitting the “threshold sci-fi” sweet spot for me, and I cannot wait to finish it and move on to the next book in the series.


Neverewhere_cover  Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman.  This one might be more “urban fantasy” than “threshold sci-fi,” but it still fits my newly minted category, I think. Modern Londoner Richard Mayhew makes a fateful decision to aid a homeless woman in distress, but finds more than he bargains for when she turns out to be a member of a heretofore unknown society of magical subterraneans. Torn from the safety of his humdrum life, Richard struggles to survive in a London Underground of magic and mystery. While Richard winds up a bit wimpy for my taste, Gaiman’s awesome world building abilities shine through and make you believe the magical realm beneath London really could exist. In the end Richard has to choose between worlds; he cannot live in both. This choice is often a feature of “threshold sci-fi.” Once a character crosses that line, he undergoes a transformation of some kind. Sometimes it’s physical, but often it represents a changed world view that makes returning to his old life impossible.


Imajica_cover   Imajica by Clive Barker.  I’ve written about this one in other posts, but I love it so much, I am going to talk about it again here! London artist John Furie Zacharias, also known as “Gentle”, becomes embroiled in strange events that lead him to revelations of other worlds connected to Earth by a strange void called the “In Ovo.”  While mind blowing in itself, Gentle quickly learns that beings from these other worlds want his girlfriend dead, and that he himself is part of a grander destiny that will force him to cross the In Ovo and accept his heretofore unknown powers. Another Londoner? Is this a pattern? I promise it’s not!  You don’t have to be a Londoner to become embroiled in a “threshold sci-fi” story, but author Clive Barker is British, and his almost lyrical ability to write both about London and the strange environs beyond the In Ovo make this massive tome of a tale worth the ride.


Gates-to-Witch-World_cover  The Gates To Witch World by Andre Norton.  I’ve written about this one before too, but the first book in this collection, Witch World, is quintessential “threshold sci-fi,” and bears mentioning again here.  Simon Tregarth (not a Londoner) is a desperate, war-haunted man hunted by assassins and forced to choose escape by the most desperate of measures, the Siege Perilous. In passing through it the person incurs its judgment and travels to another place worthy of his or her character and standing.  Tregarth gets the Witch World.  Norton takes the Siege Perilous from Arthurian legend and makes it the ultimate threshold of no return.

Plenty of other books and series feature threshold themes, mixing them with urban fantasy or straight-up fantasy trappings. The key for me remains the element of choice. Every good threshold story features a moment where the protagonist crosses over, and his or her life changes forever because of it.

Still, if you know of the location of any such threshold in our own world, Siege Perilous or not, let me know! While I am not a Londoner, I’d certainly be up for trying my luck! In the meantime, share any titles you might know of that fit into this tiny corner of the sci-fi genre.




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Reading On Hiking

As summer creeps inexorably toward us and the weather in the northeast heats up, hikers and would-be hikers will take to trails near and far to experience the simple joy and occasional serendipity of walking in nature.  As one of those hikers, I thought it might be nice to highlight a few library resources that can help folks get the most out of their outdoor adventures.  While hiking remains one of the most broadly accessible physical endeavors–almost anyone can do it–certain techniques and approaches can benefit experienced and novice trekkers alike.  The following items provide excellent information on all aspects of hiking, and represent just a smattering of what CLP has to offer in its catalog.

Long-Dist-Hiking  Long Distance Hiking by Dan Feldman.  This book will provide critical information on excelling at long-distance hikes.  It covers aspects of nutrition, injury prevention, and camp site planning, and Mr. Feldman’s easy writing style makes it a highly accessible primer.  The subject matter works best for more experience trekkers, but it will prove invaluable for rookies prepping for their first-time long haul hikes!

Remote-Exposure-cover  Remote Exposure : A Guide To Hiking And Climbing Photography by Alexandre Buisse.  Expert photographer, explorer, and adventurer Alexandre Buisse offers a primer on getting the best pictures out of your outdoor adventure experiences.  A veteran of numerous excursions, Mr. Buisse discusses advice on getting the most out of your digital photography, including choosing the best gear, managing your time and photographic methods, and working without a tripod.

Hiking-Backpacking-cover  Hiking And Backpacking by the Wilderness Education Association.  A host of experts offer articles on the basics of preparation and techniques for getting the most out of your hiking adventures.  This primer provides ideal advice for beginning hikers, including handy quizzes at the end of each chapter that will test your knowledge of the material as you read it.

Solo-Hiking-cover  Basic Essentials. Solo Hiking by Adrienne Hall.  If you’re anything like me you might enjoy the idea of hiking alone.  This combines awesome exercise with the opportunity to think and move without the concern of companionship.  Sometimes you need that, but solo hiking offers its own challenges, and Adrienne Hall’s book addresses these issues.  Safe solo treks require planning, preparation, and care.

Complete-Walker-cover  The Complete Walker IV by Colin Fletcher & Chip Rawlins.  When Field & Stream magazine  dubs your book the “hiker’s bible,” you know you’re doing something right!  While perhaps a trifle dated for 2014 (this was published in 2002), this handy little book has sold nearly a half-a-million copies throughout its publishing history, and much of the advice it dispenses includes timeless wisdom on making a successful camp, wildlife, and many other aspects of the hiking hobby.

I cannot write a post about hiking without also suggesting perhaps the most valuable hiking book ever published for Western Pennsylvania trekkers:

60-Hikes-cover  60 Hikes Within 60 Miles, Pittsburgh : Including Allegheny And Surrounding Counties by Donna L. Ruff.  Ms. Ruff’s book provides the most critical component of any hiker’s plan: a destination.  As the title suggests, this book offers sixty destinations to be more precise!  For folks who live in the Pittsburgh area, every entry represents an accessible escape not more than an hour’s drive from your front door!  You cannot ask for much more than that!

Finally, I’ll leave you with a quote from the great John Muir, America’s greatest naturalist and wilderness preservation advocate:

Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail.  John Muir, Our National Parks

Happy hiking!



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The Prisoner Of Zenda And Other Tales Of Derring-do

zenda-coverI am not sure how I got to be my age having not read Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner Of Zenda, but I somehow managed it.  Mistake corrected, and therein lies a short library tale!  One of the great pleasures we librarians take comes with collection development.  That’s a fancy way to say “buying stuff.”  We get to shop for the library.  The lucky among us find ourselves managing collection areas we possess an affinity for.  I recently enjoyed the pleasure of bulking up the Downtown & Business library’s classics collection.  I decided I would try to acquire Dover Thrift editions for most of the titles I went hunting.  Why Dover Thrift?  It seems like Dover had public libraries in mind when they created this imprint.  Printed and bound in the USA with recycled materials, cheap, and still high quality, these softcover gems will deliver great value for our reading patrons!

With this mission in mind, I set about acquiring a somewhat eclectic group of classics from Dover Thrift, and among them was The Prisoner Of Zenda!  I will provide a quick summary for those unfamiliar with the book’s basic plot.  First published in 1894, Zenda tells the first person account of 19th century English traveler and bon vivant Rudolf Rassendyll, a man who is the distant cousin to soon-to-be-crowned King of Ruritania, a tiny (and fictional) eastern European nation.  On a lark, Rassendyll travels to Ruritania to see the coronation for himself, and finds that despite his beard and mustache, he remains a veritable body double for the young King Rudolph–yes, the king’s name is Rudolph too!  He soon finds himself caught up in a vicious political struggle for control of the little nation, and when the young King Rudolph suffers an assassination attempt shortly before his coronation, his desperate advisers convince Rudolf Rassendyll to take his place!  The ensuing action, intrigue, and romance plays out brilliantly, and Hope’s ability to carry this off spawned a whole new sub-genre of fiction dubbed Ruritanian Romance.  

Zenda also enjoyed many adaptations and more than a few parodies.   Most famous among the many theatrical versions of the story is the 1937 film The Prisoner Of Zenda with Ronald Colman in the dual role of Rudolph Rassendyl/King Rudolph.  We own a wonderful combo DVD that contains both this 1937 film, and the 1952 version with Stewart Granger in the starring role.

A few other tales of derring-do that evoke the same spirit as Zenda include:

Gentlemen Of The Road by Michael Chabon.  Mr. Chabon’s brilliant homage to the very genre Mr. Hope helped to create features action and characters that leap from the page!  A pair of adventurers in 950 AD find themselves in the Caucasus Mountains during a period of unrest in a small Jewish city-state, and become embroiled in a fugitive prince’s quest to regain power and keep his head in the midst of a raft of threats.

The Man In The Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas.  This Dumas classic surely influenced Mr. Hope’s Zenda, and the ideas of body doubles, royal imprisonment, and swashbuckling adventure feature heavily in its pages.

A Sundial In A Grave: 1610 by Mary Gentle.  Accomplished duelist and spy Valentin Rochefort embroils himself in a plot to kill King James I of England in Mary Gentle’s amazing historical thriller.

These adventures will be sure to keep you entertained on any journey to obscure European nation-states, or even just a trip to the beach!




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Captain America Primer

Captain America: Winter Soldier hit theaters with the force of a thunderclap two weeks ago, and since it continues to rake in box office “bank”, I thought it might be a good time to provide a quick primer on some of the best Cap comic stories to check out from our fantastic graphic novel collection.

Wint-Sol_covee  Captain America: Winter Soldier Ultimate Collection by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting.  Life and death in comic books is cheap, with miraculous resurrections every bit as common as capes and tights themselves.  But Captain America’s sidekick, Bucky, was different.  While there were a few false flags, Bucky had remained “dead” for more than sixty years of comic and real time, but Epting and Brubaker bring him back in this amazing tale that seamlessly blends the espionage and super genres into one rollicking and gut-wrenching tale of loss and redemption.  This is the one the new hit movie was based on, and it remains a modern classic.


Cap-War-Remem_cover  Captain America: War & Rememberance by Roger Stern and John Byrne.  This too-brief nine issue run of Captain America in the 1980’s redefined the character for modern audiences and did it so slickly that the stories seemed like standard superhero fare.  Stern and Byrne took Cap back to England to face a deadly foe from WWII, had him briefly consider a run for PotUS, and redefined his origin to root him firmly in the mean streets of New York, the quintessential American city.  The run also features some of the  most dynamic super-slugfests ever rendered on the comic page!


Cap-Omnibus_cover   Captain America Omnibus by Jack “King” Kirby.   While I would be more comfortable recommending Mr. Kirby’s earlier, 1960’s run on Cap (with the inimitable Stan Lee), this later one from the 1970’s remains readily available in our collection.  Calling this collection of stories weird or strange really smacks of understatement.  I am fairly certain Mr. Kirby never did any drugs in the 1970’s (his vice was expensive cigars), but after reading these amazingly kooky stories, you might think otherwise.  Kirby’s penciling powers are on the wane by this point, but his storytelling energy remains strong.


Three titles from three different eras of Cap’s storied history should get you up to speed on one of comic books’ most colorful heroes. While Cap plays best as a stranger in a strange land, man-out-of-his-time character, he always manages to embody the timeless aspects of American culture that transcend creed, politics, or other divisive forces.  The ideas of personal liberty, responsibility, and simple compassion for the downtrodden make him Marvel’s ultimate time traveler–he remains relevant in whatever era he shows up in!

And if I might quote the great Stan Lee, “Excelsior!”



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Arrow Hits The Bullseye For TV Supers

Arrow-cover  I just spent the last weekend watching Season One of Arrow.  Regular readers of Eleventh Stack know that I consume a lot of superhero material in any number of mediums.  Arrow might just be the finest television adaptation of a comic book hero I have yet to encounter.  If you’re unfamiliar with the whole DC Comics  Green Arrow  mythos, here’s a quick summary.  Oliver Queen lived a life of leisure as a rich, vacuous playboy until he was shipwrecked on a remote island in the Pacific Ocean.  While there he learned many hard lessons, but chief among them was the value of life, and the inherent wastefulness of his previous bon vivant existence.  Oh, and he also became a badass archer.  You can apply this basic summary to both the comic book Ollie Queen and Stephen Amell’s amazingly kinetic television version.

While Arrow takes great pains to develop a strong supporting cast, Mr. Amell shines in the titular role.  His character returns from five years of exile on that lonely island to exact vengeance on Starling City’s rich elite who continue to drain the wealth and vitality from its middle and lower classes.  While Amell’s Arrow (also referred to as “The Hood” by Starling City’s police and media) does take on street criminals, his principal mission involves righting the wrongs wrought by a specific and mysterious group of super-elite rich folks from a list furnished to him by his now dead father.  There’s more than a bit of class war in Arrow, but the show’s creative team turns that concept on its head a bit because Ollie himself dwells and walks among the city’s ultra rich.  Like the Robin Hood of legend, he robs from these rich scoundrels and gives the money back to their victims.

Among the many fine actors in Arrow, David Ramsey and Katie Cassidy stand out.  Ramsey portrays John Diggle, Afghanistan war veteran and Queen’s bodyguard.  He eventually becomes his confidant and conscience.  Ms. Cassidy portrays Dinah Laurel Lance, Queen’s erstwhile lover, and a continuing source of romantic angst for our hero.  She’s also a crusading attorney for the poor and disenfranchised.  She and her father, homicide detective Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne), have deep and sometimes troubling ties to Queen that reverberate throughout this twenty-three episode run.  Arrow uses these complex character relationships to take the focus off of the sort of zaniness and super powers you might see in a normal show in the genre, and place it firmly into the wheelhouse of gritty action and suspense.  The tone of Amell’s Arrow feels more like Christian Bale’s Batman than the old Adam West version.

That does not mean we don’t get to meet other denizens of the DC Comics universe.  While not always overtly named, the show offers up compelling versions of various DC heroes and villains to tangle with our hero.  The action and fight choreography in Arrow delivers big budget thrills on a TV show budget, and the Vancouver cityscape becomes a character all its own, taking on the role of the fictional Starling City.  Heavily influenced by Thai classic Ong-Bak and the parkour movement, Arrow’s fighting style takes advantage of this urban terrain, and includes plenty of acrobatic takedowns to go with the hero’s truly dazzling archery skills.

If you like action and a bit of melodramatic romance, Arrow  nicely checks both of those boxes.  I’m also not going to lie to you here–Arrow‘s cast is beautiful.  I mean, really beautiful.  Easy on the eyes indeed.  So if you think watching beautiful people doing dramatic stuff in a fictional, superhero setting will work for you as well as it does for me, jump in!  The hard part will come with waiting for Season 2 to arrive at the library!




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