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Viking2917's books

The King's Gold: An Old World Novel of Adventure (Red Lion)

The King's Gold: An Old World Novel of Adventure - Yxta Maya Murray Fun read, for the history. The main character consistently acts sufficiently unrealistically as to cause the book to cease to be serious. For example, willingly following a known kidnapper onto a plane because she's curious about some documents. Come on, please. Enjoyable, but cartoonish in characterization at times.


Agincourt - Bernard Cornwell Very well done. Captures the gory details of medieval battle, and more interestingly to me, the characters seem medieval (rather than modern) in their thinking. The voice of Saint Crispin (& Crispinian) in Hook's ear was very nicely done. Cornwell seems fairly scrupulous in terms of historical accuracy with respect to the battle itself, and as well to the living conditions of the time. Somewhat surprisingly the siege of Harfleur takes up a huge chunk of the book, perhaps more than the battle of Agincourt itself (and to be fair real events had similar durations in time, the battle of Agincourt was only a few hours). Particularly enjoyed the rendering of the siege of Harfleur and the tunneling operations that were a part of it. Heading off now to re-read the Agincourt section of [The Face of Battle] by Keegan....

Alive in Necropolis

Alive in Necropolis - Doug Dorst If you love Tim Powers, you will like this a lot. The book has great characters with very real flaws. Juxtaposed with those characters are denizens of a supernatural world that are jealous of those in the "real world". These ghosts (those who were buried in the San Francisco Cemetery Town of Colma are malicious, and fight amongst themselves as much as attending to the living. The interactions between the two worlds remind strongly of Tim Powers, and Dorst has the potential equal to the early novels of Powers. But the internal logic of this other world seem a bit vague and the interactions between the worlds is not nearly so carefully thought through as, say, Last Call or Declare. The novel feels rushed, even though it's 450 pages - but it's very strong for a first novel. Looking forward to his next outing.

The Conquest

The Conquest - Yxta Maya Murray The Conquest is pretty good. Definitely better than the last book I read of Murray's, [The King's Road]. The evocation of ancient Mexico, and the history of Cortes' invasion, are nicely done. The characters (at least the contemporary ones) act with much more believable motivation than in the The King's Road. The more fantastical characters aren't supposed to be realistic so it's not a problem when they do something bizarre 8).

Vellum: The Book of All Hours

Vellum: The Book of All Hours - Hal Duncan Interesting concept and some great characters. Started well, last 1/3 of the book really got bogged down in the parallel story lines...

The White Mary: A Novel

The White Mary - Kira Salak I recently received an advanced reader's copy of The White Mary by Kira Salak to review from the publisher, Henry Holt. I was excited to learn of the novel, as I was an avid fan of Salak's wonderful non-fictional narrative of her kayaking tour to Timbuktu, "The Cruelest Journey". Salak is a unique phenomenon and a wild spirit - traveling alone as a woman to places most men would be afraid to go in a group. Her non-fiction travel works capture the fear, wonder, and strangeness of traveling alone, a sort of female incarnation of Paul Theroux. I was looking forward to her first fictional work (although one wonders just how fictional it is, exactly). I was not disappointed. The White Mary tells the tale of Marika Vecera, a journalist/war correspondent. The early parts of novel intertwine her experiences in Zaire reporting on genocide with a somewhat mysterious journey through the jungles of Papua New Guinea. We eventually learn that Marika is chasing the ghost of Robert Lewis, a journalist she worships and who inspired her career. She's also chasing some ghosts of her own; her time in Zaire has scarred her deeply. The White Mary is in fact an extraordinarily powerful portrait of a person who has "seen too much". Marika's near-death experience in the Congo has left her emotionally numb, and walled off from the care of those closest to her. Salak's rendering of Marika's psychological problems is done in pitch-perfect detail. The novel is sometimes adult, brutal and violent, and not for early teens or the faint of heart. Just as folk musicians perform songs in pairs, it's sometimes interesting to read & review books in pairs. At the same time as I was reading The White Mary, I was also consuming "The Painter of Battles" by the renowned author Arturo Perez-Reverte (one of my favorite authors). The Painter of Battles covers very similar territory in some respects - the protagonist there has "seen too much" as a war photographer and has given way to despair, retiring to paint a battle that spans all historical battles, and to avoid all human interaction (interestingly one of the key characters in The White Mary is a war photographer). Where the Painter of Battles is deeply philosophical and contemplative, the White Mary is visceral; the Painter of Battles is carefully drawn, exquisitely written and intriguing to read. And yet, three weeks later, the Painter of Battles is not finished, and The White Mary yielded in two sittings. It's that compelling; I had to finish it. Perez-Reverte's prose is smoother and more ornate, even in translation (or perhaps because of it), whereas Salak's prose is more muscular and direct. The writing in The White Mary is occasionally awkward but still compares favorably with that of such a distinguished author as Perez-Reverte. Salak's Marika is an extraordinarily well-drawn character; I never doubted her reality for a moment. And Salak regularly captures one of the key aspects of travel - the shock of experiencing fundamentally different cultural assumptions. Marika for example, is sent to the "women's hut" when she is menstruating, where she rages at the artificial and (to her, of course) ludicrous belief system that requires it. Marika's progress through something like post-traumatic stress disorder is carefully and believably painted, and you root for her to come back even as she spirals downward in self-destructive behavior. In short, the White Mary is a powerful and gripping first novel, a cautionary tale full of danger, travel, and adventure, and at the same time gives deep insight into the human condition. (If you'd like to explore the geography of The White Mary, I've plotted many of the locations mentioned in my Books/Google Maps mashup, CodexMap.

Escape from Amsterdam

Escape from Amsterdam - Barrie Sherwood I got Escape from Amsterdam through the early reviewers program. I found it enjoyable, in a cotton-candy kind of way - it was superficially tasty but disappeared quickly and didn't leave much behind. Sherwood can throw off the verbal pyrotechnics with ease. The book revolves around a young Japanese student Aozora, and his attempts to spirit his sister away from her new environment, near a Japanese theme park called Amsterdam. Aozora is a punk, no two ways about it. Self-centered, disrespectful, congenitally unable to tell the truth or keep his mouth shut at the right time. Frankly it was hard to like him much or care about him. The book itself is like a carnival ride - wild, crazy swings, odd encounters, memorable characters who spring out of nowhere. The format of the book is a bit unique - there are photos and diagrams and manga scattered throughout. Sherman can turn a phrase, there's no doubt. Describing a decrepit old hotel Aozora was staying in (alongside some of these photos), Sherman writes: "I could probably go on at length, but these snapshots I took do the place a kind of vigilante justice". In the end though, I didn't really get it. The book didn't really seem to have a point - I think maybe the carnival ride was the point. Aozora didn't really go anywhere as a character - he didn't grow up, he wasn't rewarded or punished for being a self-centered young punk, other than getting half a million dollars in an inheritance. I didn't really feel edified about some underlying phenomenon of modern Japanese culture.

The Gargoyle

The Gargoyle - Andrew Davidson (You can see the complete review at: http://viking2917.blogspot.com/2008/05/gargoyle-by-andrew-davidson.html) The Gargoyle, by Andrew Davidson, created a minor sensation in the literary world when it went out for bid in 2007. Reportedly, early bids of $1 million were declined. Doubleday eventually came out the winner. Responding to a banner ad from Publisher's Lunch, I was fortunate enough to receive an Advance Readers Copy, prior to the book's August 5, 2008 release. The narrator of The Gargoyle (it seems that he's consciously never named by the author) had a troubled childhood, and has grown into full-bore bad guy: Pornographer, Drug Addict, and, as the story opens, a Very Impaired Driver on a mountain road. Mysteriously, a volley of burning arrows flies across the road and in front of the car (are they real? hallucinated? Flying through a warp in the space-time continuum?). One too many over-reactions on the Narrator’s part, and he and his car are plunging down the mountainside, toward a crash and an inferno. By the top of page 3, the narrator is on fire. The opening of the Gargoyle is like a stiff Scotch, accidentally swallowed down the wrong pipe. It burns going down (you'll pardon the metaphor), with fumes all up your nose, and you’ll want to take a deep breath. And like a great scotch, once the first drink settles, you'll want more: (the rest of the review is at: http://viking2917.blogspot.com/2008/05/gargoyle-by-andrew-davidson.html)

The Fortune of War (Vol. Book 6) (Aubrey/Maturin Novels)

The Fortune of War - Patrick O'Brian As always, a great sea-tale from O'Brien. This time, off to America. Funnier than most all the other books in the series. Intrigues with the French, the Americans, and some time spent in Boston.

The Lost City

The Lost City - Henry Shukman A quick & wonderful read. A great adventure; mild flavors of Indiana Jones (the ruins are well rendered) mixed in with seasonings of John LeCarre, and, especially, Kem Nunn. As I read this I could not help but think of "The Dogs of Winter", another truly powerful novel exploring a damaged man finding a measure of redemption and recovery.

Christine Falls: A Novel

Christine Falls  - Benjamin Black It started like CSI Dublin... There are a wealth of fascinating characters in Christine Falls (more on that momentarily), but the atmosphere of the book is almost more compelling than the characters, or the underlying mystery (more on that as well). Quirke is a pathologist in 1950s Dublin. It starts off feeling very much like an episode of CSI:Dublin. A mysterious death, a persistent pathologist. But not the clean, crisp, morally certain world of CSI:Miami, but rather the lonely, smoky atmosphere of forensics in what seems like a disintegrating, dilapidated world: Quirke, still in his gown and green rubber apron, sat on a high stool by the big steel sink, smoking a cigarette and thinking. The evening outside was still light, he knew, but here in this windowless room that always reminded him of a vast, deep, emptied cistern it might have been the middle of the night. The cold tap in one of the sinks had an incurable slow drip, and a fluorescent bulb in the big multiple lamp over the dissecting table flickered and buzzed. In the harsh, grainy light the cadaver that had been Christine Falls lay on its back, the breast and belly opened wide like a carpet bag and its glistening innards on show. And then there is the smoke. Everything smokes in this book. Quirke smokes. His niece smokes. The chimneys smoke. The fireplaces smoke. Of course the police smoke, but that is described with loving, almost intimate care: Quirke finished his cigarette and Hackett offered another, and after the briefest of hesitations he took it. Smoke rolled along the top of the desk like a fog at night on the sea. Even the nuns smoke: Sister Stephanus sat motionless and stared at the hastily squashed cigarette butt, from which there poured upward a thin and sinuous thread of heaven-blue smoke. By the time the book was over, I wanted to smoke. About the only thing that's more frequent than smoking is drinking - but they are usually inextricably linked. The book is dark and smoky, and most of the characters seem to have an ashen taste in their mouths, as the phrase goes. There are some wonderfully humorous moments, and the occasional respite from the darkness. But these are exceptions. Black/Banville has created a protagonist worthy of more than just a genre novel. Quirke is rendered with precision, sympathy, and believability, even when he might not be the most sympathetic of characters at time. To my mind, he most resembles Martin Cruz Smith's redoubtable Arkady Renko. Quirke is incapable of turning off his almost irrational curiosity, even in the face of clear physical danger. And he seems congenitally unable to tell a lie to spare someone's feelings (perhaps even his own), even when it seems there's no chance the lie will be exposed. But one senses that this is not because he has moral qualms about lying - rather it seems to stem from pure obstinacy. Class makes its presence felt in the novel - the Catholic / Protestant split is clear both in Dublin and Boston, and the economy class distinctions are on display as well. Dublin is wonderfully painted, compellingly so. Boston I found to be done reasonably well, but the scenes there did not hold my interest until well past midway of the book. As an evocation of time & place, the Boston scenes were good, but not in a class with some of the best books set in the area (by, say, Dennis Lehane or Robert B. Parker). But Dublin....now that was well done. But the book does not feel like it's ultimately about class, or location, or even religion - rather, it seems a meditation on secrets, mistakes, and the past - the gripping tentacles that reach forward in time to drag us down. The mystery itself (this is after all at least in the form of noir mystery) - well, the surface mystery is not so hard to figure out - I won't spoil it, but I guessed the answer fairly early on in the book. The deeper mystery is harder to sniff out, and (at least for me) comes like a sucker punch in the gut. Christine Falls was compelling reading. Superficially, it was genre - but like the best literature, it's about what makes people tick. (A minor complaint - I received this book as part of the LibraryThing "Early Reviewers Program". The implication is that this program is for reviewing not-yet-released books. As it happens, this book has been out for some time - after writing this review I found that there is a NY Times book review written on this book from over a year ago, and the original copyright is from 2006. Abby confirmed that this is in fact a new edition of a book previously released in the UK. And in the end, who can complain about receiving a book of this quality for free?)

The Lions of al-Rassan

The Lions of al-Rassan - Guy Gavriel Kay Look, it's a great book. There's no doubt. Moments of piercing beauty, and sadness. Heroism, and yet full of the real compromises life often requires. And yet....I have grumbles. Why the insistence on dressing up medieval Spain and the conflict with the Muslim world in fake nomenclature like "Jaddites", "Asherites", "Kindath" - I spent much of the novel going "right, the Kindath are the Jews, and - wait - were the Asherites the Muslins or the Spaniards?". I don't see that attempting to move this novel away from historical terms, while the setting remains intrinsically bound to the cultures described, really buys anything. Sure, the events don't align entirely with real history - but so what? That would not bother any of Kay's readers. I think the novel's power would have grown had he more directly leveraged the known dynamics between the cultures. I know I as a reader would have spent less time on mental gymnastics trying to map the terms to the historical analogs I know he was evoking. On more than one occasion something fundamental would happen to one of the characters, a death, injury, what have you, and Kay would refuse to name the character, obfuscating to whom the mortal blow had been dealt. In one important case, I understand why (avoiding a spoiler here). But in the other cases, I found these "cliffhangers" more annoying than suspenseful. I can always skip forward a few pages to figure out who, but why toy with the reader, especially in the early to middle parts of the book? More annoying than suspenseful. Kay always leverages "archetypal" moments to create power. Here, the love triangle, the yearning for a married man, the duel to the death, ethnic cleansing, the warrior/poet - these are powerful thematic elements. But sometimes the moments feel contrived - a few times I could almost feel Kay reaching for the place where the archetypes are kept, to pull one off the shelf in order to move the plot forward. But it's a small complaint. Kay finds ways to evoke the culture of a place. In Ysabel, he found a way to evoke the south of France with power. I think in Lions, he found a way to evoke the courtly obsession with honor and country in Spain, and the sensitivity to disrespect - there are strong echoes here of Perez-Reverte, particularly the Captain Alatriste works. (This is not to imply Kay is the lesser writer at all - they are both writers I admire greatly - but the tone and evocation are eerily similar to me.) In any case, grumbles aside - read it. You won't be sorry.

The Wise Man's Fear (Kingkiller Chronicles, Day 2)

The Wise Man's Fear - Patrick Rothfuss solid. not great, compared to the first book, which was amazing, but solid.

Winter in Madrid

Winter in Madrid - C.J. Sansom Atmospheric, ultimately depressing novel of Englanders in the Spanish Civil War.

The Dragons of Babel (Tom Doherty Associates Books)

The Dragons of Babel (Tom Doherty Associates Books) - Michael Swanwick good fun; Alice in Wonderland meets Steampunk. A weird adult fairy tale.

Sword Song (The Saxon Chronicles, Book 4)

Sword Song (The Saxon Chronicles, Book 4) - Bernard Cornwell I love this series - but this particular book (aside from the lovely cover art) was a bit of a disappoiintment