23 Following

Viking2917's books


Heresy - S.J. Parris As a child growing up, I used to read the encyclopedia at the breakfast table. and read under the covers with a flashlight. If you love books, you know the feeling. So it's easy to like a monk who gets caught reading a banned book in an outhouse at a monastery. Giordano Bruno is caught in an outhouse in Naples with a copy of Erasmus's Commentaries. Trapped, with nothing else to do, well, he throws the book "in". But it's not enough to save him, and the Inquisition is called for him. Making a rough & ready escape, he flees the monastic life and becomes something of a philosopher adventurer. Eventually falling into the retinue of the French ambassador to England, he finds himself in England in the circle of Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's secretary of state, and chief spyhunter. Giordano finds himself embroiled in a murder mystery as well a secret community of Catholics, who are under edict. Giordano is an historical figure, who extended the Copernican theory of the relationship between the Earth and the Sun to the rest of the universe, accurately theorizing that the stars were other Suns. For this he was indeed accused of Heresy, and [Heresy] seems quite true to actual events, although of course many of the events and people are likely invented (such as Sophia, the attractive daughter of Underhill the Rector). Underhill himself is historical and did debate Bruno at Oxford. Heresy is the 2nd Medieval/Elizabethan novel I've read recently about a male protagist/detective, written by a female novelist - Veil of Lies by Westerson (http://www.librarything.com/work/6352302) is the other. Readers of one will like the other. I think Westerson does a better job of handling relationships; Giordano's interactions with Sophia seem forced and superficial to me. But Parris's depictions of the forces of religious, cultural and political conflict between Catholics and the supporters of the Elizabeth are sharp and bring home the reality of the era. Heresy is well written for a first novel, moves quickly, and doesn't flag. Fans of period history will enjoy it. In spite of Bruno's known interests in arcana, magic, astronomy and memory tricks, this is no "Name of the Rose". Just a well-written, enjoyable read. (Received through the wonderful LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program)

Counting Heads

Counting Heads  - David Marusek Tons of interesting ideas. Reminiscent of Charles Stross. Enjoyable, but I found the writing uneven.

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl - Paolo Bacigalupi A bleak future Bangkok after a genetic engineering disaster....echos of William Gibson...


Palimpsest - Catherynne M. Valente a fever dream of a novel. Four strangers mysteriously find their way to a very strange city, in their dreams, apparently. The city is described in delirious prose that almost feels drug induced. The strangers can only get there by having sex with someone who's already been there and has a tattoo, a mark, on their skin with a map of part of the city - whereupon they receive a mark as well. The book has a strong internal logic and powerful eroticism, taps that emotion about wanting to be somewhere else and with someone else and being willing to do anything to get there. Fairy tale - like in that the story is mysterious and magical but the overall plot is murky and the moral of the story is hardly clear….but worth reading for the prose alone.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Millennium Trilogy)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Millennium Trilogy) - Stieg Larsson Third book in this fantastic series about a Swedish hacker and her circle of "friends". The third book suffers from a bit of sequel syndrome - it's good, but feels much more "pro-forma" than the first two. Movie of the first book is out now, which I really want to see.

The Places In Between

The Places in Between - Rory Stewart A crazy Scotsman walks across post-Taliban Afghanistan. Great insight into rural Islamic society; some great history along with some crazy stories.

The Last Legion

The Last Legion - Valerio Massimo Manfredi, Christine Feddersen-Manfredi Good fun. Some well-known Arthurian characters show up along the way.....an interesting take.

The Hidden

The Hidden - Tobias Hill The Hidden follows Englishman Ben Mercer as he flees a broken relationship and graduate school in archaeology/history, and heads to Greece. A series of happenstance encounters and decisions lead him to being on a dig in Sparta, chasing the ghosts of the Spartans of Thermopylae fame. The novel intermixes a series of "notes on a thesis", Ben's background notes for a thesis he's composing. The thesis explores the dark side of the Spartans, which contrasts with the more inspirational side of the Spartans as reflected in the story of the Battle of Thermopylae and as fictionalized by, for example, Steven Pressfield in [Gates of Fire], and the thesis notes are actually very interesting in and of themselves and not just in how they advance the storyline. As the dig progresses, Ben ingratiates himself into the dig team and strange things start to happen. Modern as well as ancient Greece are well explored in The Hidden, but I found the activities of the dig team (I won't say more to avoid spoiling) to be a bit unmotivated and muddled. Still, the exploration of the darker side the Spartans was interesting to contrast with books and movies that celebrate them ([Gates of Fire] and the movie 300). I found the front half of the book to be much more enjoyable and convincing than the latter half, but overall it's an interesting read.

Starfish (Rifters Trilogy)

Starfish (Rifters Trilogy) - Peter Watts Pretty darn good, especially for a first novel - some very interesting and plausible science, and an interesting portrayal of a cast of very flawed people....one hopes for a sequel. (oh - I guess there is one....duh)


Crossers - Philip Caputo On a trip to Phoenix recently, I pulled out Crossers from Philip Caputo for an airplane companion. It's the story of Gil Castle, a 9/11 widower who retreats to the old family ranch in Arizona, near the Mexican border, to recover from the loss of his wife. There he reconnects to his family, to the Seneca he draws consolation from, and finally to himself. Then he stumbles across a Crosser, a Mexican making the crossing from Mexico to a hoped-for better life, and the trouble begins. Crossers is deeply evocative of a time and place in history, much as Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel does for southern France, or Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park does for post-communist Moscow. Like those novels there is a deep nostalgia for the way things were, as well as a recognition that those times are best not gone back to. The novel does a great job of conveying what it means to be a rancher in Arizona, to love the land, and to be bound to it in a way that money can't buy. The book is equal parts No Country for Old Men (comparisons to Cormac McCarthy are inevitable) and CNN news headlines. Most of the atrocities described in the book are factual or near so. The grim realities of those dying attempting to cross the desert and the border, and the horrific violence brought on by the drug trade, combine to produce a level of death and destruction that feels like it belongs to a medieval era in some other country, not 21st century America. The hierarchy of crime in Mexico also feels medieval - drug runners have guns & more money, and so determine who gets to traffics drugs or people along which route. They dominate the coyotes and the engranchadors that run human trafficking of illegal immigrants to the US, much as a feudal lord might direct a lower life form. Interleaved with the current day story line are interleaved tales of Gil's grandfather Ben from the turn of the century border - a time when men pretty much enforced their own law, and lived by a code that often coincided with the law (but often did not). Ben dominates the novel - a self-reliant cowboy who participates in Mexican revolutions, sheriffs on the American side, and constantly battles his inner demons and shifts between good and bad. I found the descriptions of that era, and it's characters, as (or more) compelling than the modern story line. A quick snippet: "Tibbets looked the part. Handlebar mustache, cat's whiskers at the corner of his eyes, two pearl-handled Colt revolvers, and the air of someone who could summon up reserves of unpleasantness if the situation required it." Crossers is a powerful novel. If you have any interest in the reality of life on our southern border, read it. Whatever your perspective on the solution for that problem, Crossers will give you something to think about.

The Information Officer

The Information Officer: A Novel - Mark Mills Max is an information officer stationed on the island of Malta in 1942, during the second world war. "It's part of what we do at the Information Office." "You mean propaganda?" "That's not a word we like to use". Max detected a worrying flicker of youthful righteousness in the other man's gaze.... Malta was a strategic airbase in the Mediterranean for the Allies and a key element to holding North Africa against Rommel. Max's task is to keep the Maltese supportive of the allied war effort and bases, a task complicated by a series of murders of young women which appears to be the work of a British Officer...and by the potential presence of a German agent on the island. The Information Officer is part mystery, part historical novel, part espionage novel, and the story of a love triangle. Max's life is, as they say, "complicated". Mill's depiction of the war atmosphere on Malta is very well done - the bombing raids by the Germans and the Italians is vivid and engaging, and the impact on both civilians and the military feels very true. The impact of being under siege has the expected impact on the psyche and morale of those on the island, especially the Allies, and there is nary a false note in the rendering of the characters and their behavior. The atmosphere and language of the novel reminds me Lawrence Durrell, as the British and Americans interact with the native Maltese. Mills writes effortlessly, it appears - the words flow off the page easily, and the novel never flags - the pacing, plotting and prose are all very well done. The writing is not as atmospheric as Durrell or as compelling as Pressfield's [Killing Rommel], a great novel set more-or-less contemporaneously in North Africa. Yet the novel compares well to the writing of both. At the same time, the characters in [The Information Officer] seem less heroic and more human than the characters of [Killing Rommel]. The Information Officer is a fine novel and will definitely repay the time spent on it (which will be short, as the novel reads easily and rapidly). I received a copy of The Information Officer through the LibraryThing early reviewer program - thanks LibraryThing and Random House!

The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played with Fire - Stieg Larsson read this book. you won't be sorry.

The Devil's Company

The Devil's Company - David Liss The Devil's Company is the latest from David Liss. It's 1722 in London and Benjamin Weaver is being blackmailed. Weaver is equal parts James Bond and Flashman (George Macdonald Fraser's lovable scoundrel). The first sentence of the novel lets you know who you are dealing with: "In my youth, I suffered from too close a proximity to gaming tables of all descriptions, and I watched in horror as Lady Fortune delivered money, sometimes not precisely my own, into another's hands.“ The first chapter hooks you very quickly – Liss deftly sketches Benjamin, and the rather interesting situation he’s found himself in. Benjamin is involved in a double (or is it a triple?) cross, at gambling, in disguise: “...for I had dressed myself as a beau of the most foppish sort, and if the nearby revelers took notice of me they saw only a man who wished to be noticed, and who is more invisible than that?”. A very James Bond-like opening sequence – good fun, exciting, and mostly useful to propel you into the novel. Weaver manages to get himself blackmailed into spying on the East India Company, which he finds not-too-distasteful as he thinks little of the Company. In fact although The Devil’s Company is fundamentally an historical adventure/mystery, throughout the novel is there is an interesting undercurrent of philosophizing about the dangers of both big government and big business: “What?” Elias barked. “Give it to the Company? Have you not understood how monstrous it is?” (to find out what “it” is, you’ll have to read the book). “Of course I do, but these companies are born to be monstrous. We cannot ask them to not be what they are. Ellershaw once said that government is not the solution to problems of business, it is the problem of business. In that he was wrong. The company is a monster, and it is for Parliament to decide the size and shape of its cage…” The atmosphere of 18th century London is well rendered, and the period language that Liss employs is quite enjoyable – it consistently adds flavor without being overbearing or hard to parse, as is sometimes the case, with, for example, Patrick O’Brian’s works. The mystery of who precisely is blackmailing Weaver into stealing & spying, and why, unfolds gradually, with many interesting characters making their appearance, and with a variety of plot twists and turns. The Devil’s Company is my first exposure to David Liss (and Benjamin Weaver); The Devil’s Company makes me want to have more. It’s tightly plotted and moves along quickly, and is mildly educational in addition. A great summer read. (Received through the wonderful LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program)

The Silver Swan: A Novel

The Silver Swan: A Novel - Benjamin Black I received a copy of Silver Swan as part of LT’s early reviewer's program. In this sequel to Christine Falls, Quirke is on the wagon and sober, his relationship with his daughter (whom he formerly thought was his niece), is broken, and his wife Delia and his wife's sister Sarah, whom he loved, are also dead. Billy Hunt, an old school associate, has come to ask Quirke not to perform an autopsy out of respect for his dead wife. Deirdre Hunt, (or Laura Swan as she’s come to be known in her business), has apparently committed suicide by drowning; Quirke being Quirke, of course, he performs the autopsy anyway. When he does, he concludes she didn’t drown after all. His relentless curiosity compels him to learn what happened. The Silver Swan is not nearly as atmospheric as Christine Falls in my view, but perhaps that's just because it's the second book of Black's that I've read, and perhaps I have adjusted to his writing style. Oddly enough the atmospherics of the novel are often lighter - there's much less smoke (see my previous review of Christine Falls for more on that), and even when the interpersonal relationships seem strained, Dublin seems a fine place to be: ...They set off walking together down the hill road to seafront. For Quirke there was something at once dreamy and quintessential about the summer afternoons; they seemed the very definition of weather, and light, and time. The sunlit road before them was empty. Heavy frondages of lilac leaned down from the garden walls, the polished leaves mingling their faint, sharp scent with the salt smell of the sea. They did not speak, and the longer the silence between them lasted the more difficult it was to break. Quirke felt slightly and pleasantly ridiculous. This could only be called a date, and he could not remember when he had last been on one. He was too old, or at least too unyoung, for such an outing. He found this fact inexplicably cheering. Or.. The day was hot already, with shafts of sunlight reflecting like brandished swords off the roofs of motorcars passing by outside in the smoky, petrol-blue air. In any case, Black spends a lot of time and verbiage describing scenes, settings, and details (often to no apparent point). The writing is lovely, and Dublin is well rendered. Quirke’s constant itch for a drink is palpable, and the mystery is intriguing. But in the end I found this book less compelling than Christine Falls; Quirke’s motivations seem unclear, and while he still smokes like a chimney, his personal challenges never seem to lead anywhere. The mystery, while entertaining, and progressively more salacious, doesn’t rise to the intricately interwoven plot of Christine Falls. It’s a fine book, but doesn’t rise to the level of its predecessor.


The Angel's Game - Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Lucia Graves I received a copy of Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s “The Angel’s Game” via the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program, and while I have received many outstanding books through the program, it’s been some time since I was so excited to be chosen. Zafon’s “Shadow of the Wind” was embraced by book-lovers because of the centrality of books to the narrative, and was a highly regarded worldwide bestseller in 2001. David Martin is an aspiring young writer, laboring under a newspaper editor who "subscribes to the theory that the liberal use of adverbs and adjectives was the mark of a pervert or someone with a vitamin deficiency." Most of the characters in “The Angel’s Game”, small and large, are drawn with similar uniqueness. Like many young artists in novels, David has a rich patron, Pedro Vidal. Vidal gets David fired from his newspaper job in order to push him into a writing career, helps him get a writing contract, and with the proceeds David acquires a gothic nightmare of a house, that’s been unoccupied for 20 years after some kind of terrible event took place. The study was at the top of a tall tower, a peculiar structure at the heart of which was a spiral staircase that led off the main corridor, while its outside walls bore the traces of as many generations as the city could remember. There it stood, like a watchtower suspended over the roof of the Ribera quarter, crowned by a narrow dome of metal and tinted glass that served as a lantern, and topped by a weather vane in the shape of a dragon. Writing under a pen name, David produces “City of the Damned”, a fantastical, gothic tale told in serial installments. At the same time, again anonymously, he works with Christina Sangier to ghostwrite (without Vidal’s knowledge) the novel Vidal is drunkenly dictating to Christina. David is smitten with Christina but she rebuffs him. “City of the Damned” draws the attention of the mysterious French publisher Corelli, who has more than a whiff of the supernatural to him. Corelli enlists David to produce yet a third book, one that will help Corelli create a religion, no less. Working with his newly acquired teenage assistant Isabella, David begins to produce the novel Corelli has paid him an extravagant amount to produce. A series of events shatters David’s life, and at the same time makes him more and more apprehensive about Corelli and the uses to which his book will be put. Spanish gothic in tone and labyrinthine in plot, “The Angel’s Game” is a compelling read. The characters are all wonderfully quirky or mysterious or both. Occasionally the book’s tone or events veer into the territory of the romance novel, but these moments of lightness or predictability are quickly eradicated by darker forces or events. “The Angel’s Game” is no sequel to “The Shadow of the Wind” – this is a much darker, pessimistic work. The wonderful Cemetery of Forgotten Books, which was first introduced in “Shadow of the Wind”, does make an appearance or two in “The Angel’s Game”, but that role is not central. Apart from the fantastical elements of the book, The Angel’s Game sometimes evokes the often courtly tone and style of one of Spain’s other great novelists, Arturo Perez-Reverte, and compares favorably with his work. Readers who enjoy Perez-Reverte should enjoy “The Angel’s Game”. While I can’t comment on the fidelity of the translation from the original Spanish, the prose of “The Angel’s Game” is of very high quality and one has no sense whatsoever of reading a translation. Interestingly, the translator of “The Angel’s Game”, as well as “Shadow of the Wind”, is Lucia Graves, the daughter of Robert Graves, the famous poet and author. The Angel’s Game is a strong novel and stands quite well alone from “Shadow of the Wind”, yet those who loved Shadow of the Wind will enjoy The Angel’s Game. It’s darker in tone, and flags just a bit towards the end, but is well worth the read.


Gladiatrix - Russell Whitfield I received a complementary copy of Gladiatrix, by Russell Whitfield, through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program (and a wonderful program it is!). Being a huge fan of Mary Renault, Steven Pressfield (ok he mostly does Greece), Wallace Breem, and of course, the movie Gladiator, I was eagerly anticipating this book. Gladiatrix is the story of Lysandra, the female gladiator. Not a lot of mystery about what this book is going to be about! First off, let’s get it out of the way: the title. Gladiatrix. With a name like that, you expect some titillation, and some lesbianism – if that’s what you’re looking for, you will not be disappointed. Gladiatrices regularly seem to fight in the nude, and the sex scenes are pretty graphic. The subject matter seems to inspire lurid treatment – for example, witness Roger Corman’s Gladiatrix movie with Pam Grier, or the Discovery Channel Documentary on the Gladiatrix finds in London (less salacious). Between the title, the premise, and the cover art, I think the book will sell heavily, and although there have been other gladiatrix movies, I’d expect another one. But I digress. The early stages of the book heavily echo the themes of the movie Gladiator – someone from the upper echelons of society, driven by circumstance into the arena – personal misfortune, gladiator school, rising through the ranks because of innate quality. It is heavily derivative from Gladiator, and in the early going I found myself annoyed that it felt so clearly imitative. I got over it before too long – at some level, it is truth in advertising: this book is Gladiator with a female protagonist. I was disappointed early on that some scenes didn’t happen “on camera”: Lysandra is enslaved through a shipwreck and ensuing events – yet the shipwreck and those events are not really rendered – they would have made nice scenes, and a good counterpoint to the constant martial circumstances that follow. I periodically wondered how historically accurate the book was (of course, there were female gladiatrices) – the references to other historical personages seem accurate insofar as I can tell (but I’m no expert here). I don’t know whether Spartan princesses existed, or whether they received battle training, but I was willing to suspend my disbelief on that point. But the historical side of things doesn’t get much play – this isn’t historical fiction ala Saylor or Pressfield. The book at times feels more like a romance novel, oddly enough – due to the interpersonal issues and personal conflicts that drive the novel forward. The dialog is at times stilted, sometimes the prose feels awkward. I believe it’s a first novel and it periodically feels like one. Lysandra comes off as an insufferable teenager (which in fact she is). But after a few hundred pages, I wanted to say to the author, “OK, I get it – she’s arrogant – you don’t have to beat me over the head with it”. I wanted to see more personal development out Lysandra, but perhaps that is to wait for another installment. The book is not explicitly part of a series, but the deus ex machina ending leads me to conclude more is forthcoming. In the end, I enjoyed the book, and finished it quickly, but I am left wondering who the intended audience is. This is no Renault or Pressfield novel, peering deep into the human condition to find the things that ennoble us. And I don’t believe it’s a juvenile book – the tone feels wrong and the sex is a bit graphic for that. The fights are good and the swordplay frequent. Perhaps it’s just good old fashioned entertainment – just like the Arena was, thousands of years ago.