The best thing about "The Last Conquistador" is the cover. Oh, and also that it's very short.
The characters are thin and the action is sporadic and ra...moreThe best thing about "The Last Conquistador" is the cover. Oh, and also that it's very short.
The characters are thin and the action is sporadic and random. I didn't care what happened through the final third of the book. I rushed to finish reading the book, like, I suspect, the author did in writing it. (less)
This immediately jumps towards the top of my all-time favorite books by King. He's spot on with his blend of horror and emotional depth. I literally c...moreThis immediately jumps towards the top of my all-time favorite books by King. He's spot on with his blend of horror and emotional depth. I literally cried one day, and was horrified by every bump in the night, another.
"Everything had already been loved and everything has already been told. If we only listened to the stories." Estebanico, the North African slave who n...more"Everything had already been loved and everything has already been told. If we only listened to the stories." Estebanico, the North African slave who narrates "The Moor's Account"
In its most apparent aspect, Laila Lalami's "The Moor's Account" tells the story of the four survivors of Panfilo Narvaez' disastrous exploration of La Florida about a decade following Hernan Cortez' conquest of the Aztecs. In and of itself, this fictionalized retelling is full of action, a little love, and a lot of survival. Its focus is on Estebanico, a North African slave who warrants exactly one line of notice in the popularized relacion written by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca originally published in 1542. Lalami, though, chooses a wonderful lead for her novel, utilizing the accepted history of the events as a foundation upon which to build her piece historical fiction.
The novel is actually about much more than the somewhat fantastical trials and tribulations of three spanish conquistadors and one lone slave. Lalami is clearly a fan of the art of storytelling. Her passion seeps through the pages of her novel, and through the well-written voice of Mustafa ibn Muhammad who's given the name Esteban when he sells himself into slavery.
"When I fell into slavery, I was forced to give up not just my freedom, but also the name that my mother and father had chosen for me. A name is precious; it carries inside it a language, a history, a set of traditions, a particular way of looking at the world." - Mustafa
Lalami writes a strong voice in her character of Estebanico. She sets the right tone with his frank narration, brief dialogue, and insights from his internal monologue and simple plot elements. As the story progresses, the parallel plot threads of Mustafa's backstory and the expedition itself, take on more meaning and imbue the reader with the feeling that they will ultimately flow together and create something of significance.
Pafilo Narvaez, who made a rather notorious name for himself (and lost an eye) during Cortez' brutally successful campaign against Moctezuma, continued to seek his fame and fortune by pulling together an expedition to the new world of La Florida. A disaster almost from the outset, only four of the adventurers survived (and only barely at that), and in the process transformed themselves into traveling medicine men who came face-to-face with the horrors their own people had unleashed upon the New World natives.
"Telling a story is like sowing a seed--you always hope to see it become a beautiful tree…" - Mustafa
The narrative itself is made up of stories; some longer, none particularly long. Within the narrative itself, the act of storytelling -- the listening and telling -- are recognized and accepted with high value. Mustafa says, "Reader, the joy of a story is in its telling. My feet were throbbing with pain and my stomach was growling with hunger, so I could not resist the pleasure that a tale would bring me."
As the four travelers wind their way across the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, they find that their collective modicum of medical knowledge is leaps beyond the natives' capabilities. The legend of their healing abilities precede them, but Mustafa confides that they actually knew very little and that "A good story can heal" as well as, or perhaps better, than the treatment itself.
Lalami's writing is trim and stark, though very literate. Interestingly, Lalami doesn't use quotation marks, which adds to the flow and almost dreamlike quality of the storytelling.
There were two drawbacks to the story. First, there was only a weak sense of location; since the story is based in fact, a map would've helped, there wasn't one with my advanced reader's copy - maybe there will be with the final published product. If not, readers should search the internet for maps of the journey told in this story. Second, aside from Mustafa, none of the other characters were particularly well drawn. The story itself, and the strength of Mustafa's character, successfully drive the narrative, but building out the complementary characters would also have added significantly to the tale.
I received this book through the Amazon Vine Program.(less)
“...more often than not, murder does out. Something (a certain wifely body in a certain abandoned gravel pit, for instance) comes to light. It’s as if...more“...more often than not, murder does out. Something (a certain wifely body in a certain abandoned gravel pit, for instance) comes to light. It’s as if there’s a fumble-fingered but powerful universal force at work, always trying to put wrong things to right.” Retired Detective Bill Hodges considers the case involving Mr. Mercedes
Stephen King stays away from the supernatural and explores a more Earth-bound and human-centric kind of horror in his latest, “Mr. Mercedes”. The story hits upon a type of tragedy that’s made real-world headlines in the last few years: an out of control car mows down pedestrians standing in a group, caught by surprise, and without any chance escape. While many of these real-life incidents appear accidental, the deaths in Stephen King’s story are quite murderous.
The story is rife with the evocative and foretelling-embued prose I’ve come to love and expect from Stephen King: “Shortly before five A.M., Augi roused from his own half-doze, stamped his feet to wake them up, and realized an unpleasant iron light had crept into the air. It was the furthest thing in the world from the rosy-fingered dawn of poetry and old Technicolor movies; this was an anti-dawn, damp and as pale as the cheek of a day-old corpse.”
A year after the crime, the lead Detective on the case, Bill Hodges, has retired without capturing the notorious Mr. Mercedes. Hodges receives a letter, supposedly from the killer, taunting Hodges back onto the case. Mr. Mercedes writes, “Most people are fitted with Lead Boots when they are just little kids and have to wear them all their lives. These Lead Books are called a CONSCIENCE.I have none, so I can soar high above the heads of the Normal Crowd.”
And from there, we’re off to the races.
Per usual, King’s pace is fast and the plot is tight. He’s able to create attractive personalities with minimal words. Detective Hodges is three-dimensional without being cliched. Mr. Mercedes is cold-hearted, but complex and Kins crafts him out of multi-layered backstory. King is very good with “broken” people, and one of the most “broken” in “Mr. Mercedes” is Holly Gibney, and middle aged woman so wracked with anxiety she’s more child than woman. She plays a key, but relatively small, part only making her first appearance about mid-way through the story. My only wish was for her to receive more print.
The story is terrific. The writing is superb. Stephen King’s stories are a bit notorious for their weak endings, but I didn’t find that to be the case in “Mr. Mercedes”.(less)
"Bombs and Believers" is a serviceable, if not inventive, thriller cut from the Dan Brown cloth. Ancient mysteries, global intrigue, archeological puz...more"Bombs and Believers" is a serviceable, if not inventive, thriller cut from the Dan Brown cloth. Ancient mysteries, global intrigue, archeological puzzles and mildly bland characters drive a plot that reaches from LA to London to Istanbul.
Let me know if this sounds familiar: a preeminent archeologist is murdered hours before he's scheduled to announce the discovery of a lifetime. An LA detective of art crime falls in with the archaeologists' protege and the two find themselves chasing after one of the most mysteries and awe-inspiring statues in all of Greek antiquity. See? It's fun, but not particularly new.
Soneclar's writing is tight, and his plot-logic is well considered. The story as as a straight-up thriller is enjoyable and even at almost 450 pages is a very fast read. Readers of this Dan Brown will recognize the genre-heavy themes of terrorist threats, nations on the brink of world war, fabulously wealthy and shallow evil-doers, and cardboard thin government operatives.
There's just no depth to this story, and perhaps could've been well-served by greater focus on fewer characters.
All the above considered - "Bombs and Believers" is still an enjoyable read. I wasn't tempted to stop in the middle, and found myself reading well past my bedtime. (less)
"The Word of God willed its completion, after all." - from Alix Christie's "Gutenberg's Assistant"
Alix Christie has written a fabulously passionate ode...more"The Word of God willed its completion, after all." - from Alix Christie's "Gutenberg's Assistant"
Alix Christie has written a fabulously passionate ode to the written word. Clearly a student of the 'Ars impressoria' (art of engraving), Christie builds a sepia-toned portrait of the late Middle Ages, with a myriad of characters who burst through the narrative to color the realities of this uniquely world-changing period of history.
Great historical fiction is grounded in the 'touch and feel' of a place and time. Christie finely textures her world with a sturdy poetic sense that splendidly blends the historical sense of the moments with a clear ardor she has for the printed word.
Christie centers her story around Peter Shoeffer, the real-life apprentice (at first), and later 'shop' boss for Johann Gutenberg in his printing workshop. Peter's adopted father asks him to return to Mainz, Germany from Paris where he was enjoying the life of a monastic scribe. Peter was "…a man of letters, a cleric, a scribe. He bore the tools of his profession in a pouch slung like a quiver at his side: the sealed horn of ink, his quills and reeds, his bone and chalk and chamois."
"The textura lettering was squat and ugly, yet every string of letters was unnervingly even, all across the line. Each of those lines ended with an utter, chilling harmony, at precisely the same distance from the edge. What hand could write a line that straight, and end exactly underneath the one above? What human hand could possibly achieve a thing so strange? He felt his hear squeeze and his soul flood with an overwhelming dread." - description of Peter Shoeffer's first look at a sample page run off of Gutenberg's press.
Religion is a pervasive force in the lives of the people in Mainz. From Peter's youth, he recalls his master's words: "Your hand is but His tool. The parchment that we write on is pure conscience, on which all good works are noted. The rule that we use to draw the lines for writing is God's will. The ink with which we write is pure humility, the desk on which we write the calming of our hearts."
This religious specter floats over the entire notion of the written word delivered by anything other than the human hand. Writing is akin to religion. The act of putting thought to paper, next to godliness. What then is the press? I couldn't help but connect the introduction of automated printing, to the more recent lettered debates centered on the arrival of the ebook (though on a much less religious scale, of course).
Gutenberg lives in a world of guilds, corrupt religious leaders, and where people don't have to think too far back to remember the horrors of the Black Death. Describing a scene at a local tavern, Peter describes "Elders all, patricians from the city or the minor nobles from the land: the clergy was made up of second sons from wealthy families, stashed and suckled by the Mother Church for life." It's a world of reformation, fear, and paranoia. Christie captures this world through a religious weightiness to her prose; a serious communion between the words of her novel and the printed word's of Peter's and Gutenberg's within the story.
Of course this story is based on the real life events surrounding the printing of the Gutenberg Bible. It didn't just 'happen', there were years of exceedingly hard, and mundane, work, amidst a world stepping out of the Medieval darkness and into the light of the Renaissance. Christie deftly intertwines the more easily written drama between characters and classes, with the more difficult dramatization of the technical aspects of the printing itself.
"When you get to my age, Peter, you do begin to wonder. If it really is a gift from God---and not a curse sent up from hell." - Gutenberg to Peter, in Alex Christies 'Gutenberg's Apprentice'
While Peter's personal story includes his adoptive family, a love interest that introduces a view into Middle Ages Germany's class distinctions, Christie's tale orbits around the explosive personality of Johann Gutenberg. He's really cast as mad scientist – moody, aggressive, undeniably driven. As Peter reflects on the years (yes years!) printing the now-famous bible he considers, "Much has been said in the decades since, but almost none of it is true. They've practically canonized the man who found this wondrous art. How Gutenberg would laugh if he could see them from above…or else below."
The most exquisite drama of the novel is the growing reformation of religious attitudes and worldwide outlook. Gutenberg's press was introduced during a time when class wars were playing over the halls of Mainz and were reflected in the church's ever lessening control over its population. Revolution was in the air. An overhaul of Church abuses was on the horizon. Gutenberg and Shoeffer race to publish the first editions of the book before the secrets of their methods for publishing quickly and inexpensively (at least relative to the hand-copying method of monastic scribes) float up to the corrupt church.
My only wish for this novel is that it would've come with a map or two, as there's a significant amount of traveling in and around Mainz, and perhaps a diagram or two of the actual press itself.
I received this book through the Amazon Vine program. (less)
The king of Gettland must be a doting son to Mother War, however ill-suited he might be. He had to prove to the older warriors ranged around the squar...moreThe king of Gettland must be a doting son to Mother War, however ill-suited he might be. He had to prove to the older warriors ranged around the square that he could be more than a one-handed embarrassment.”<\i> - from Joe Abercrombie’s “Half a King”
Joe Abercrombie has built a reputation on stories both gritty and rough, whose characters are strong and often in ways that are not so obvious. His genre is considered fantasy, but this story has no magic, no dragons, though plenty of action, steel and adventure.
“Half a King” is focused on Yarvi, the youngest son of a king, younger brother to the successor to the throne in Gettland. Yarvi is studying to become a Minister - an advisor/wizard (not the magical kind…more of the medieval scientific kind) while forgoing any future claim on crown or wife. Before he ‘graduates’ to Minister, his brother and father are killed through an act of deception, and the young boy, never a fighter, small, weak and with only one fully functional hand is called to the throne.
"Only very white, laid out on those chill slabs in that chill room with shrouds drawn up to their armpits and naked swords gleaming on their chests. Yarvi kept expecting his brother’s mouth to twitch in sleep. HIs father’s eyes to open, to meet his with that familiar scorn. But they did not. They never would again. “ <\i>
While Yarvi swears vengeance on his father and brother, the tables turn quickly in an act of treachery when his Uncle attempts an assassination in order to claim the throne for himself. Yarvi survives but is sold as a slave to a trading ship, chained to a bench and forced to row.
Yarvi, much stronger in mind and wit than brawn and muscle, eventually works his way off of the rowing bench. And while "enemies are the price of success", Yarvi also collects a handful of friends, an ensemble cast worthy of a series (Abercrombie is, in fact, planning two sequels). Yarvi is the focal point; no single character stands out significantly from the others, but as a group they fulfill the reader through their conflicting and complementary qualities.
I couldn't help but make connections to Georege R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire". Aside from the very medieval atmosphere, Abercrombie's world is flush with history and mythology. Without hammering the reader with a myriad of meaningless backstory, he subtley introduces the mythological depth of his world's history and slowly reinforces it over the course of the story. Also like Martin, Abercrombie loves to embed gems of wisdom like "...great warriors die no better than other men. And usually sooner.” Most of these come from Gettland's Minister, Yarvi's wizened old teacher. Think of a modified version of a Martin maester.
“Half a King” is strong in tone and bold in voice. The themes are heavy and dark - vengeance, death, slavery, regret. The story is a tad melodramatic, but within the context of this epic tale, the drama is appropriate, while adding to the heft of the atmosphere. Abercrombie balances the weightiness with a sharp sense of humor and sharper wit.
He's commented that he wrote this book with a young adult audience in mind. While the story is "clean" there was very little indication, other than its length, that implied "young adult”.
I received this book though the Amazon Vine program. (less)
“Hoopoes coated the town like frosting, piped along the rain gutters of the governor’s mansion and slathered on the gilt dome of the Orthodox church....more“Hoopoes coated the town like frosting, piped along the rain gutters of the governor’s mansion and slathered on the gilt dome of the Orthodox church. In the trees around Yakob and Leah Cohen’s house the flock seemed especially excited, chattering, flapping their wrings, and hopping from branch to branch like a crowd of peasants lining the streets of the capital for an imperial parade. The hoopoes would probably have been regarded as an auspicious sign, where it not for the unfortunate events that coincided with Eleonora’s birth.” - from “The Oracle of Stamboul” by Michael David Lukas
Amid portents that include this ‘conference’ of birds, Eleonora Cohen is come into this world. Signs, signs, everywhere there’s signs. An ancient prophecy (which is never detailed) foretold the birth of this very unique child. “Just after twilight, in that ethereal hour when the sky moves through purple to darkness, the hoopoes fell silent. The gunshots ceased and the rumbling of hoofbeats whittled to nothing. It was as if the entire world had paused to take a breath. In that moment, a weary groan choked out of the bedroom, followed by a fleshy slap and the cry of a newborn child.”
This wonderful story follows the travails of a young and uniquely gifted girl in late 19th Century Europe. Motherless, Eleonora (and her flock of hoopoes) stows away on a streamliner destined for (I)Stamboul, where her father intends to spend a month selling oriental rugs. Eleonora is not just a special child. But a girl. A jewish girl. A savant.
Her flock feeds her, protects her, scouts for her. “With time....it became apparent that their attraction was connected in some way to Eleonora. It was almost as if they regarded her as part of their flock, the queen without which their lives had no purpose. They slept when she slept, stood guard while she bathed, and when she left the house, a small contingency broke off to follow along overhead"
The hoopoes are referenced in an ancient allegory which casts the bird as a Sufi master who leads a group of thirty pupils on a pilgrimage to find God. It's an appropriate metaphor for Eleonora and the ever growing role she plays within the Caliph's court in Stamboul.
“The hoopoes would have been more surprising perhaps if Eleonora were not such an extraordinary creature herself. Even when she was an infant in her nurse’s arms, one could already discern the first shoots of what would later blossom into a stunning and demure beauty, her pleasant flushing cheeks crowned with a next of curls, wide green eyes the color of sea glass, and milk teeth like tiny cubes of ivory. She rarely cried, took her first steps at eight months, and was speaking in complete sentences by the age of two.”
The story takes place during a time when Stamboul is in transition. The Ottoman ways are very much in place and settled in. The world around them is changing. The Sultan, Abdulhamid II, is slowly finding ways to modernize his kingdom, but the world is simply moving to fast to keep up. The Sultan finds an odd ally and advisor in the sweetly naive jewish girl.
Lukas' engaging writing style paints a colorful world of Sultans and court politics. His characters are subtlety complex, well-fleshed through poetic prose and sensible plot points. The deftly layered personalities are well-structured over the course of the book.
My only negative is that the story could easily have carried additional pages. I was sad to say farewell to the world of this extraordinary girl.(less)
“No one had ever spoken to the great unwashed as an equal, held them to their breast, cooed to them like lovers, whispered hatred for those they hated...more“No one had ever spoken to the great unwashed as an equal, held them to their breast, cooed to them like lovers, whispered hatred for those they hated: the rich; the privileged; the whole pointless, pathetic history of their nation." - Gregory Widen's Evita in "Blood Makes Noise"
Evita maintains a special place in popular culture. Already an amazing icon in South America, Andrew Lloyd Weber raised her profile to an unaware but willing world-wide audience. It's arguable that Madonna took it even further and certainly introduced Argentina's former First Lady to a new generation of pseudo historical/pop cultural fans.
Novelist and screenplay writer Gregory Widen, builds on the foundation of the Evita mystique to create an interesting, but uneven, thriller surrounding the disappearance of Evita's body following her death and her husband's exile. Widen points out in his author's note, “Of all the strange things presented in this novel, perhaps the strangest of all is how much of it actually happened."
A bit hokey and evocative of a dime-store novel lineage, "Blood Makes Noise" is at times melodramatic and often without a sniff of subtlety, but its not specifically charmless. Widen's testosterone-leaden tone and prose is both exhilarating and annoying. In its' second half, the novel becomes mawkish, and the plot loses its way from what was originally a solid series of plot elements.
“Evita. In life she’d shattered the pointless cycles of Argentine politics, flung open the gates of history to the great ignored, and ruled them as their pampa Cinderella. This bastard of a cow baron’s toady, the kept daughter of a kept mother of a kept town, rocketed into history on the shoulders of a dream-crazy mob that sang of her, named stars after her, and on her death, at a still-beautiful thirty-three, choked and paralyzed a country with grief.”
While the story's centerpiece is Her body, the plot focuses on Michael Suslov, best described by Widen himself, "twenty-four years old and fresh from spook camp and the frat-boy world view, was sent south, the first new blood in these parts since the consolidation in ’47. The first of the new CIA. And they hated him on sight. Ignored him, fucked with him, and every moment of every day for four years reminded Michael that he worked not for Buenos Aires station but for them.”
Suslov was born in La Boca, one of the poorest sections of Buenos Aires, and naturally had a disturbing and fairly traumatic upbringing. In 1951, he and his emotional baggage have returned to Argentina in the service of a 'new' cold war CIA. He's met Evita a time or two and he's moderately swept up by the passion she's introduced to a country he's not excited to be in.
“That every nation is given one light, one shining instant, and She was ours. Before Her, after Her, we are just immigrant chaos at the bottom of the world."
At its best, "Blood Makes Noise" paints an interesting portrayal of obsessive personalities, spiraling in a never-redemptive loop of anger, violence and dismay. Widen writes descriptively, if a bit cinematic in its visuals. Often it's over the top, but not terribly inconsistent with the tone of the plot. At its worst, the story is rushed, the plot points barely connected. And this is it's downfall. (less)
"You're my only witness, Miss Payne. Everyone else is dead. But you were there. Those crucial three days when the tomb was found, when Carter breached...more"You're my only witness, Miss Payne. Everyone else is dead. But you were there. Those crucial three days when the tomb was found, when Carter breached the wall into its antechamber, looked through and saw his "wonderful things"…You were close by. You knew the people involved. You witnessed the events after that, you watched the story unfold. To me, your memories are like a treasure house." - An interview with Lucy Payne in Sally Beauman's "The Visitors"
Sally Beauman delivers an amazing piece of historical fiction, in which she evokes a world of English colonialism with characters who have real depth and a vibrant pulse. Beauman finds a poignant balance of voice among her mostly youthful leads, intermingled with their English and American upper class parents, and some real-world stars of post World War I society.
The fulcrum on which the story is balanced, is the 1922 discovery of King Tutanhkhaum's tomb in the Valley of the Kings. A fictional Lucy Payne is recovering from typhoid that has taken her mother, and is introduced to non-fictional players that surrounded Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter in the year leading up to his magnificent discovery. Lucy narrates her tale that bounces between her 11th and 12th years in Egypt and England and the present day where she's interviewed for a documentary on King Tut and Carter's discoveries.
"Too much past. So many lost people." - Lucy, from "The Visitors"
Death Surrounds and permeates the story like a dank countryside mist: Egyptian mummies, Lucy's mother, Frances' brother, a family friend, and even more as the story progresses. The theme is at moments dark, but there's always a sense of renewal, of hope. At times haunting, "The Vistitors" thematically skips between ruminations on death, history, and the eye-awakening growth from childhood to adolescence and the leap into adulthood.
Beauman's prose is often poetic; equally strong in its ability to describe an Egyptian sunset over the Nile, as it is in it's sparing and affecting dialogue. Lucy considers her past, one marred with intense relationships and profound sadness, "I could feel ghosts gathering. They're now as familiar with my house as I am. They like to cluster, especially by the stairs. Today their mood seemed amicable; it is not always so."
"I never escape. I never shake the Valley off, it's always in my mind." - Howard Carter comments during an offseason spent in the English countryside.
Howard Carter isn't quite a primary character, but his aura pervades the story, he's a constant influence. He's portrayed as visionary and temperamental. He's obsessed with his discovery and driven with his need to complete his quest. Another character puts a finer point on how Carter's perceived. "Maybe Carter's a genius with an ace up his sleeve. Maybe he's a misguided dreamer - and a fool."
While the story focuses on Lucy's journey through these key moments in her life, we get a glimpse of Carter's journey, viewed through the eyes of a twelve year old. And through her unique lens, we see a changing world as well. Discovery and science are moving past the 'gentleman explorer'. "The day of the amateur excavator is over...Welcome to the brave new world of the trained professional. Welcome to the universities and museums, to scientific exaction, performed by men bristling with doctorates," one character states. Egypt's fight for independence from British rule runs through the background, all too reminiscent of our own modern Arab spring.
Lucy's world is one that orbits an upper crust English society headed by Lord Carnarvon and filled out by an upper middle class that seems vaguely aware of the societal revolutions around them. There's a definitive "Downton Abby" vibe, as Beauman captures English Colonial era dialogue among the upper class gentry. Lord Carnarvon's real-life castle is, in fact, the location of Downton Abby itself.
Beauman strikes a perfect tone in establishing the relationships and emotions which make up the driving threads of the plot lines: Lucy and her friends Frances, Rose and Pete, her step-mother Nicola, and her nanny Miss Mack. Beauman also balances the thrill and tensions of the discovery itself, with the self-discovery we witness within Lucy.
There's a smidgen of romance, but the true romance of the story resides in its very unique timeframe and locations. The discovery of King Tut makes for a very particular place in history, and Beauman deftly encapsulates what it might have been like to live in that era. On the backbone of the fun and excitement of the Tut discovery, Beauman has built a fully developed set of characters.
With it's combination of discovery, exploration, and lifelike emotional characters, I couldn't recommend this book more strongly.
I received this book as part of the Amazon Vine program. (less)
“The voices sank and rose, sank and rose higher. It was like the north wind when it blows screaming through mountain gorges; like the keening of a tho...more “The voices sank and rose, sank and rose higher. It was like the north wind when it blows screaming through mountain gorges; like the keening of a thousand widows in a burning town; like the cry of she-wolves to the moon. And under it, over it, through our blood and skulls and entrails, the bellow of a the gong.” - from Mary Renault’s “The King Must Die"
Mary Renault weaves a tale so mythic in scope, that the story itself is only outshone by her fabulous prose. Beyond a vague awareness of the Minotaur, I was not familiar with the ancient Greek tales of Theseus. Renault takes the myth and works her narrative like Hephaestus works metal; into a believable and credible story.
The novel is flush with gods and goddesses, though not in a true physical sense nor are they metaphysically present, but they persist within the psyche of the Greek people (note: there was no ‘Greece’ in this period, but for the sake of saving space, I’ll generalize). Theseus believes fully in their existence and his fate that's tied to their whims.
Is he human? Is he a god? Or did he spawn from something in between? He certainly believes in the supernatural, and that he has an exceptional relationship with Poseidon. He is driven by fate and faith. His entire existence is colored by the mythical hands from above (and below) that guide his life’s path.
He is crushed when Ariadne, the daughter of Crete’s King Minos, shockingly relates the planning involved prior to her reading of oracles, “We have ninety clerks working in the Palace alone. It would be a chase every month, if no one knew what the oracles were going to be.” Ariadne’s pragmatic revelation that creates a crack in Theseus’ fate…one, though, that he’s able to keep from spreading.
The mythic themes provide the outline for Renault’s story. Medea, the mistress of Theseus’ (human) father, spits this curse, which touches on the well-know elements of the Theseus myth: “You will cross water to dance in blood. You will be King of the victims. You will tread the maze through fire, and you will tread it through darkness. Three bulls are waiting for you, son of Aigeus. The Earth Bull, and the Man Bull and the Bull from the Sea.”
Within this context, the ‘historical’ aspect to this ‘historical' fiction is very realistic and true to its age and time. The historical misogyny is appropriate in the world and age of Theseus and is often chivalric in it’s own way. The battlefield amongst male and female gods is a significant theme and Theseus travels between societies who sometimes favor the gods and others who favor the goddesses.
Theseus remembering an exchange with his Grandfather when he was still a boy, explaining a violent animal sacrifice to a young boy grappling with it’s meaning. “I had no word to say to him. The seed is still, when first it falls into the furrow.” Like Theseus’ Grandfather, Renault prose plants seeds which grow over time to expose their full meaning and understanding.
("The tiger would pity the fawn, the wolf would weep over its lamb before the Mongol would cringe at the corpse of a child." - from "The Mongoliad"
"Mon...more("The tiger would pity the fawn, the wolf would weep over its lamb before the Mongol would cringe at the corpse of a child." - from "The Mongoliad"
"Mongoliad" is a lot of bluster but little substance. An alternate historical fiction of the middle ages during the reign of Ogedai Khan - Genghis' youngest son - the story follows several indistinct characters and loosely differentiated plot lines across a devastated European landscape. The Mongols are raping and pillaging while Ogedai struggles with alcoholism fueled by the stress of his job (granted, he's ruling an ever-expanding empire with a myriad of borders to defend, Christians to overwhelm, and family members looking to overthrow his rule).
The specific story follows a band of crusaders known as the "Shield Brethren" whose goals ultimately focus on the heart of the Mongol empire itself. The band breaks into two, which creates dual focus for the plot, while a third lens is aimed at two lesser players in Ogedai's court at Karakoram. I won't bother to detail the plots because they're not even interesting enough to remember, let alone take the energy to recount.
The book is enjoyable enough while reading. The plot moves at a solid pace and the plethora of authors know how to spin a good yarn. But overall, the book just falls flat. The characters are bland and mostly superficial. The motivations that drive the plot are thin, and the action between the handful of battles is one-dimensional. Because "Book One" has literally no conclusions, I'm mildly motivated to pick up "Book Two", but I have no driving need to find out how things continue, let alone wrap up.
Buy this for an airplane ride, or sleepy days at the beach. Prepare to be underwhelmed. (less)
"God is afraid of the night," the figure said, his voice a dry rattle in the darkness. "He is afraid of what lives in these woods. What has always liv...more"God is afraid of the night," the figure said, his voice a dry rattle in the darkness. "He is afraid of what lives in these woods. What has always lived in these woods. Your God has fled, and we are all that remain." from "The Sinner", by Mark Teppo
This is a fun little tale that takes place in the universe of the multi-authored historical fiction series, "Mongoliad". The 60-page short story revolves around Raphael and Andreas, two knights drawn into a mysterious death in a small village and one accused witch's battle against the Church and the town. There's a hint of the supernatural, but author Mark Teppo creates a winning story out of his deft creation of two three-dimensional characters, and development of an interesting mystery in so few pages.
I have not (yet) read the "Mongoliad" and this story stands well-enough on it's own.(less)
“…the very soul of Greece danced by firelight.” from Leon Uris’ “The Angry Hills"
"The Angry Hills" is an enjoyable read; there are parts that are memor...more“…the very soul of Greece danced by firelight.” from Leon Uris’ “The Angry Hills"
"The Angry Hills" is an enjoyable read; there are parts that are memorable, but it's uneven. I believe this is Uris' second novel, and while it evokes a depth and nuance of a burgeoning author of historical epics, it also hints at something that's rushed, and perhaps could've used a more firm editorial hand.
“The Angry Hills” refers to World War II Greek resistance against German infiltration. While Germany invaded Athens and started to clamp down upon, and imprint it’s mark on Greecian government, resistance remained strong and unmoved within the hilly and remote countryside. An American writer comes across a list of Greek government leaders who are quietly supporting Germany. His goal is to get that list out of the country and into Allied hands. Michael Morrison is chased across the countryside avoiding capture, and finds himself enmeshed within the heart of Greece and its culture.
The primary plot thread is fine. It’s a little confusing in parts, but makes for a strong enough hook to propel the story. In parallel, Uris introduces us to Morrison who’s recently lost his wife, and whose kids are with their grandparents in the U.S. Generally, he’s not a happy man. And as we travel through a couple of very remote villages, we find ourselves tracking a man who seeks contentment. This contentment makes itself apparent always slightly beyond Morrison’s graspable horizon through 2/3 of the book.
What Uris does extremely well, is put flesh on the land that is Greece. Uris is known to travel extensively and thoroughly research his subjects. I don’t doubt that this is the case with “Angry Hills”. We’re exposed to a Greece whose collective long-range outlook is optimistic, while pragmatically accepting a fate marked by poverty, and acted out as a pawn in a much larger world war.
“Hills” could easily double in size (my addition came in at only 248 pages), and scope, which might have accommodated Uris’ exploration of the land and heart of the country in which his story is based. Several different Greeks fall in love with Morrison throughout the tale, each in a unique way: a shy farm girl, a hulking farmer who’s lost his son, a world-wise and savvy rebel, and even a prostitute. Honestly, each happens a little too easily and far too quickly.
I’m traveling to Greece for the first time this summer, and I found this book to be a terrific primer on ‘the soul of Greece’. This is a well-written and enjoyable war-time thriller.(less)
Full disclosure: I'm not a dog person. Or rather...I WASN'T a dog person. Until my wife and I decided to get a greyhound. And now I'm a dog person. I...moreFull disclosure: I'm not a dog person. Or rather...I WASN'T a dog person. Until my wife and I decided to get a greyhound. And now I'm a dog person. I used to be a cat person. Cats are low key and require minimal maintenance. Unlike dogs. Well, unlike MOST dogs. Greyhounds are like cats. They sleep a lot. But they're smarter and actually seem to like people.
My dog Jibber (racing name: Rooftop Jibber), is a doll. But she's no Comet. Steven Wolf's Comet is truly one of a kind. Wolf has a series of degenerative back issues. He adopted Comet, and she became his friend, protector, ally, and ultimately, his work-dog. I don't see Jibber having the patience to pull me up from a chair, or leaning on her when I lose balance.
"Hello. I am Comet. I choose you."
I really enjoyed the first half of this book. Wolf nails the personalities and physical tendencies of this speedy breed. When visiting a foster farm to 'choose' his companion, Wolf describes the dogs running within a fenced in area: "thigh muscles bunched, hind paws stretching toward shoulders, mud flying in their wake, individual dogs blurring into a mass of muscle that flowed like mercury."
In spite of the all the running, greyhounds are actually damned restful. They store their energy for when it's most needed: 5 minutes of frantic running, and 23 hours and 55 minutes and dedicated resting. Wolf learns quickly why greyhounds are also know as the couch potatoes of the dog world.
The first half of the book builds up the introduction and discovery process as Steven and Comet get to know each other. Steven exposes his own medically-driven needs and quirks, while detailing the trials of a greyhound learning to survive in a human world. It's touching, it's surprising, and it's amazingly recognizable to any greyhound owner.
The second half of the book focuses on Wolf's worsening condition, the miracle procedure that can ease his many pains, and it's collective impact on his family. Comet plays a key role throughout, but the spotlight turns more towards the author, while Comet orbits in and out of focus.
Wolf is fine through the early parts of his story. He's familiar with dogs and dog training, but he characterizes Comet's introduction to 'life on the outside' with an endearing innocence. As a reader, I was empathetic to his medical issues.
But something happens in the second half, and Wolf becomes unlikeable. To the point where I I no longer cared whether Wolf was able to reignite his relationship with his daughters and wife, or whether the surgery would be successful. I just wanted to read about Comet!
This is still a must-read for any greyhound owner. You'll see your dog in Comet...and you'll wonder if yours is hiding some special knowledge and capabilities behind those bright and oh-so-innocent greyhound eyes.