The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series by Greg Keyes

The Kingdoms of Thorn & Bone

My guilty literary pleasure is epic fantasy.  The problem is that a lot of the new fantasy being written is not very good.  With the rise in interest in fantasy fueled by recent trends in movies and television I think a lot of the resulting fiction is somewhat rushed and mediocre.  So when I started craving a high fantasy adventure after a year of not reading any, I had almost decided just to re-read an old favorite instead of risking something new and unknown.  Then I got a recommendation for this series (also known as The Briar King series) and I decided to give it a shot.

Overall, I think the series is a success.  It is comprised of four books:  The Briar King, The Charnel Prince, The Blood Knight and The Born Queen (and that’s it!  the series is complete!  no waiting around for years for the next book…ahem….George R. R. Martin….).  And since all four books are now available in mass market paperback, the monetary risk is relatively low.

Though it does follow some basic formulas found in epic fantasy, namely main characters gradually discovering and coming to terms with great power and responsibility, an unidentified and seemingly undefeatable evil, political intrigue and quests to save the world, the series has a few traits that help to set it apart.  Keyes builds a complex and rich history and diversity of language that he uses throughout the books.  There are some identifiable traits in the languages used in the different parts of his fictional world that correspond with German, Italian, Latin, Gaelic and Old English — just enough to help the reader keep them separate and to create consistent cultures within the story, both current and historical.  Also, I found the series to be unusually dark and foreboding.  The first book was so creepy, in fact, I had to sleep with the light on for a couple of nights.  Once the evil became a little more concrete it lost some of its scariness.  But perhaps the most unique aspect of the series is the way in which Keyes incorporates a musical element.  There is a composer character introduced in the second book who rediscovers the lost (and outlawed) art of weaving magic into music.  The descriptions of the compositions are very detailed and interesting, and the results of the composer’s work within the story are very exciting.

There is a subtle tie-in to American history that was a little weird at first (sometimes real-world references in fantasy novels can spoil the story) but it is so minor and curious that I didn’t mind it, and it wasn’t until the last book that it was (briefly) explained. 

I’m not going to attempt to write a plot synopsis since it’s far too complex and I don’t want to give anything away, but I will say that the series has a well-developed, fleshed out storyline.  Even though the first book was slightly predictable and the last book became harried and chaotic, overall the plot and characters were original enough to be successful.  I almost got the sense from the last book that there was a hurry to get it done.  It could’ve easily been made into two books and the plot was turning in on itself so much at the end that sometimes it was hard to keep things straight.

I noticed a few editorial errors, which always bother me.  Specifically, there was a scene in the third book in which every person present was described or in some way accounted for but a page later an additional (previously absent) character pipes in with a comment.  I went back to the beginning of the chapter to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.  It was very distracting and really destroys the flow of a story when something like that isn’t caught.

Despite its flaws, I think the series is worth reading for those fans of epic fantasy.  I enjoyed it and it thoroughly satisfied my cravings for the genre…at least until next year!

The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series is available at noteBooks in mass market paperback.  Each book is priced at $7.99.

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The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

the art of racing in the rain

Enzo, the narrator of The Art of Racing in the Rain insists that man’s closest relative is not the chimpanzee, but is, in fact, the dog.  Witness his logic:

“Case-in-Point #1:  The Dew Claw

It is my opinion that the so-called dew claw, which is often snipped off a dog’s foreleg at an early age, is actually evidence of a preemergent thumb.  Further, I believe that men have systematically bred the thumb out of certain lines of dog through an elaborate process called ‘selective breeding,’ simply in order to prevent dogs from evolving into dexterous, and therefore ‘dangerous’ mammals.

I also believe that man’s continued domestication (if you care to use that silly euphemism) of dogs is motivated by fear:  fear that dogs, left to evolve on their own, would, in fact, develop thumbs and smaller tongues, and therefore would be superior to men, who are slow and cumbersome, standing erect as they do.  This is why dogs must live under the constant supervision of people, and are immediately put to death when found living on their own.

Case-in-Point #2:  The Werewolf

The full moon rises.  The fog clings to the lowest branches of the spruce trees.  The man steps out of the darkest corner of the forest and finds himself transformed into…A monkey?  I think not.”

Enzo’s compelling logic is made all the more convincing by the fact that he is, himself, a dog.

Enzo is different from most other dogs.  A philosopher and psychologist, he possesses a nearly-human soul.  Enzo has learned a lot about being human from his owner, Denny, and from the hours spent watching television while home alone.  Denny has taught him the thrill and challenges of pursuing a career as a professional racecar driver and the parallels of driving to navigating through life.  From television, Enzo has learned that his favorite actor is Steve McQueen and that Mongolians believe that when dogs die they return as men…but not all dogs, only those that are ready.  Enzo knows that he is ready.  On the eve of his death Enzo reflects upon his life with Denny and the rest of his human family; the unexpected loss of Denny’s wife, Eve, and the lengthy custody battle for his daughter, Zoe, waged between Denny and Zoe’s maternal grandparents.

Unable to speak in human words, Enzo has become an exceptional listener and in this way is able to learn more about people during his short lifetime than most humans ever do.  It’s easy to forget that the narrator is a dog until something unmistakebly canine comes through in his thoughts or behavior.  When that happens it’s almost always humorous and charming, a result of Enzo’s animal innocence.  After reading this book it may be difficult not to look at your own canine pal and think “I wonder….”

This is one of the few books that I would universally recommend.  It’s at times heart-wrenching, but very funny and ultimately uplifting.  As it turns out, you can learn a lot about being human from a dog.

The Art of Racing in the Rain is a New York Times Bestseller and is Garth Stein’s third novel.

Published in: on November 8, 2009 at 5:17 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

white-tiger

While reading The White Tiger I found myself conflicted.  I was immensely entertained and hooked by the story and as a result was reading very quickly, but I suspected early on that I was supposed to be taking something else from this book.  Generally, an increased appreciation and understanding of Indian culture; its caste system, its recent business and entrepreneurial changes and the way in which the morality of its people differs from that of the West.  Indian culture is very different from our own, and because of the changes India is undergoing it can be easy (and wrong) to place Western expectations on its people.

The main character of the story, Balram Halwai, aka The White Tiger is a self-professed murderer.  And yet, it’s not difficult at all for a reader to find themselves rooting for him.  Born in poverty and with little means to change his lot, Balram nevertheless finds a way to be successful.  The book is Balram’s story, in his own words, of how he left The Darkness…the Rooster Coop (caste categorizations)…from which few men escape, and became a wealthy entrepreneur.

I enjoyed reading the author’s interview in the back of the book in which Adiga claimed that his only intention in writing the novel was to entertain, and his vehicle just happened to be the India that he knew, which was not such an alternative view, but really rather mainstream.  But I think that many will find the setting and characters unfamiliar and it will be difficult for some to read this book and then walk away from India after such a compelling presentation of it.  For someone with little exposure to the culture, it opens a door and creates more questions than it answers, especially since the novel is written with a certain amount of sarcasm and humor making it even more difficult to get a clear picture.  In fact, this is a very funny book…at least I think it is…it’s sort of painfully funny and I wasn’t always sure if something was being exaggerated for the sake of humor or just being depicted realistically, in which case I guess it wasn’t funny at all but really rather strange and frightening.

I’m not saying that I think it’ll be necessary after reading this novel for someone to run out and read a complete history on the Indian subcontinent, but a few suggestions were mentioned in the Reading Group Guide in the back of the book which may offer a broader perspective as well as a chance to compare and contrast the ways in which India is presented.  These include popular novels related to India such as The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai and Brick Lane by Monica Ali as well as the nonfiction accounts In Spite of the Gods by Edward Luce, Planet India by Mira Kamdar and The Elephant and the Dragon by Robyn Meredith.

Published in: on October 7, 2009 at 8:52 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Great Influenza by John M. Barry

greatinfluenza

The Great Influenza is “The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History,” i.e. the Spanish Influenza, which killed as many as 100 million people worldwide over a period of 24 weeks in 1918 and 1919 during the height of World War I.

This book is indeed epic in scope and it took me quite a while to get through it.  That wasn’t because it was tedious or boring, but only because of the massive amount of information it contains.  It’s not a book to be consumed quickly, but must be digested in small amounts, bit by bit.  Always fascinating and immensely educational, The Great Influenza is two parts history lesson and one part crash-course in bacteriology.  Sandwiched between biographies of some of the most influential scientific researchers during an exciting period of world-wide medical enlightenment is a detailed account of the epidemic’s destructive, murderous path from its probable origin point in rural Kansas to army cantonments throughout the country and then with American soldiers to France, England and on to the rest of the world.

With the current swine flu outbreak it was particularly interesting to learn about the nature of viruses and the influenza virus in particular.  The book offers a detailed layperson understanding of how influenza can be transferred from animals to humans and also how and why some strains are so mild and others so deadly.  It also explains why researchers who were so frantically looking for ways to control the disease in 1918 were having trouble.  They were unable at that time to even identify the pathogen and cutting corners while performing research experiments in an effort to develop an anti-serum more quickly did not help.

Other interesting facts learned from this book:

**Politics played far too great a role in the number of fatalities.  Because of the war, politicians were reluctant to even admit the existence of the epidemic for fear that it would lower morale.  Although local governments in large cities were advised to enforce laws against public meetings, most refused to comply and newspapers did not run warnings or advice until late in the epidemic.

**The misnomer “Spanish Flu” was given to the disease because Spain was the first country to have newspapers running headlines announcing the epidemic.  They were not yet involved in the war and therefore were not censoring their media.

**The 1918 influenza epidemic killed an unusually high percentage of healthy, young people between the ages of 21 and 40, which is typically the age group with the greatest survival rate.  The reason is that this particular strain of influenza was so virulent that the healthiest immune systems would often launch such aggressive attacks that they would essentially destroy the victim’s lungs and/or heart.

**The influenza may have indirectly been responsible for events leading up to the start of World War II.  While in France negotiating peace terms with representatives from Britain, France and Italy, Woodrow Wilson became ill with influenza.  He was bedridden for days, and though he recovered, the illness appeared to have altered his mental capabilities (minor brain damage was later proven to be a common side effect of severe influenza).  He suddenly and inexplicably gave in to all of France’s demands which included many harsh penalties against Germany and set the stage for things to come.  Wilson never fully recovered and for the rest of his term, many presidential decisions were made by his wife and personal physician.

I only wish this book could have contained an afterword addressing the recent H1N1 influenza strain.  It’s possible that information may be added at a later time since I think there was an afterword added regarding the avian flu in an edition published after the version I read.  It would be interesting to know the specifics of the swine flu’s makeup and how it compares to the other epidemics since 1918.  If the 1918 flu is any indication of how things could play out, the mild outbreak that we saw this spring could be followed by a much more severe outbreak this fall.

I highly recommend this book with the warning that it may take a while to get through.  If you’re like me, you may want some nice, easy fiction to read at the same time.

And as a coincidental anecdote, an older gentleman stopped in the store a week ago.  He was from Michigan and was visiting his mother here in Floyd.  Without mentioning that I was reading this book he told me that his mother, who is now in her late 90s, took him to a family graveyard and showed him the row of tombstones which were all marked with dates within the same couple of weeks in 1918 — all victims of the influenza.

The Great Influenza is available at noteBooks in trade papaerback for $16.00.

Published in: on September 13, 2009 at 8:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

time traveler

So I wasn’t planning on including a discussion/review on this book but then I saw on television that The Time Traveler’s Wife has been made into a movie and is being released this month.  The preview reminded me that it really was an excellent story and that I enjoyed it and it is worth talking about.

The reason I wasn’t planning on writing about it was only because I listened to the audio book version during a long road trip rather than reading it myself and since I don’t do that often, I can’t help but think that it may have changed my perception of the book.  Every once in a while, for example, one of the readers (there were two, one male, one female reading each of the two main characters’ parts…and the male sounded like Chris Parnell from Saturday Night Live, which was distracting…) would use emphasis or inflection that would change the meaning of a statement from how I think I would have interpreted it myself.  It’s also easy to sort of zone out for a few lines while listening and I was less likely to go back on the CD to listen again when I would’ve definitely backtracked in the book had I been reading it.

But anyway, there are plenty of great things about this book regardless of the medium.

A quick synopsis (if possible):  Henry has a genetic disorder that causes him to spontaneously travel through time to places, people or events that have been or will be significant to him during his lifetime.  There are certain things that can trigger it, like watching television, or high-stress situations, but for the most part it is completely unpredictable and when Henry goes, he takes nothing with him, not even his clothes.  Clare is Henry’s wife and soul mate and has known him since she was six years old and he appeared for the first time as a naked 41-year old man in her parents’ back field.  The entire story jumps around chronologically as the pieces are gradually put together to complete their lifelong story.  Each chapter is prefaced with the date and with Henry and Clare’s ages to help keep things straight.

I thought the time-traveling aspect of the book was really unique.  There are no paradoxes to complicate things.  In fact, Henry actually travels back to help his young self deal with his “disorder.”  Using his own boyhood memories as a guide, he offers young Henry tips on how to stay safe when he finds himself in unfamiliar or dangerous situations.  He refrains from telling either his younger self or young Clare details about the future so that they can continue to live their lives and make decisions with minimal influence.  Henry time travels often, and the amount of time that he is away from the present varies, leaving Clare to wonder where and when he is and when he’ll return.

Apart from the science fiction, the book was also a very poignant love story, not only regarding the couple’s enduring romance, but also their heartbreaking struggles to start a family.  Any fetus that inherits Henry’s disorder has a chance of spontaneously travelling outside of Clare’s womb, either to places unknown or in bed next to her, which is quite possibly the most tragic thing I can even conceptualize.  I’m not sure if it was because of the voice actors, but it really seemed to be an especially emotional  book, even unashamedly, violently so.

Henry has a geneticist working closely with him to try to pinpoint his exact chromosomal anomaly, but in the meantime he has traveled to the future and been told about his death and so is racing to find a “cure”  in order to change his future before it is too late.

The story is excellent and the writing is pretty good with only occasional weirdness.  I would suggest reading it for the unique, romantic story.  The Time Traveler’s Wife, which was released in 2003 was a national bestseller.  Since then Audrey Niffenegger has penned two graphic novels, The Three Incestuous Sisters and The Adventuress.  According to Wikipedia her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry, is due out this fall.

Published in: on August 19, 2009 at 4:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Women by T.C. Boyle

the women

I enjoyed Nancy Horan’s historical fiction, Loving Frank, so much that when I saw the latest book by acclaimed author T.C. Boyle, which is also a Frank Lloyd Wright-centric work of historical fiction, I hungrily grabbed it up.  But whereas Loving Frank is the story of only one of the women in Wright’s life, The Women encompasses a much larger period of time and tells not only the story of the architect’s mistress but also of each of his three wives.

A larger-than-life character, Frank Lloyd Wright struggled against social, moral and aesthetic conventions for nearly his entire life.  Plagued by scandal and financial troubles, he refused to deny himself any desire, whether material or feminine in nature.  Ironically, the women in his life brought him both comfort and happiness but were also often at the root of his woes.

An eccentric himself, Wright found himself drawn to other colorful characters.  The Women tells the story of his first wife, Catherine “Kitty” Tobin, with whom he had six children and whom adamantly refused to give him a divorce despite his blatant unfaithfulness; his mistress Martha “Mamah” Borthwick Cheney a spirited feminist who was tragically murdered at his Wisconsin estate, Taliesin; his second wife, Maude Miriam Noel, a melodramatic southern belle, a morphine addict (and at least as portrayed by Boyle, someone who, in my opinion, should have been certified insane and institutionalized); and his third wife Olgivanna Milanoff, “the Dragon Lady” who was a student of the Russian mystic Gurdjieff and who gave Wright another child later in his life.

A remarkable characteristic of the novel is that each of the four women is presented as both a heroine and a villainess, depending on whose portion of the story is being told.  The book is divided into three parts (poor Kitty’s story is rather brief and mingled with Mamah’s and as a result she appears to be Frank’s most pitiable victim).  As each woman’s story is told, she is presented as the sympathetic character and all others are antagonists.  This gives the narrative a complete and somewhat unbiased personality.   

Boyle is a fantastic writer.  The novel is witty, funny, poignant and imaginative.  He uses another character to help tie the narrative together:  Tadashi Sato is a fictional apprentice of Wright who lived and worked at Taliesan from 1932 until the start of World War II.  His introductions and footnotes pepper the novel with additional insights into the genius of America’s most famed architect as well as giving firm dates for certain events and supplying additional historical facts that are interesting, but not necessarily vital to the story.

T.C. Boyle has written eleven novels including The Road to Wellville and The Inner Circle.  He has also published eight collections of short stories.

The Women is available at noteBooks in hardcover for $27.95.

Published in: on July 26, 2009 at 6:58 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer

artemis fowl

Eoin Colfer’s young adult series starring Irish boy-genius Artemis Fowl is a fantastic summer read.  Actually, the series would make a great read any time of the year, but if you’ve got bored teens or pre-teens at home this summer, these books are sure to keep them entertained, and they’re appealing to both boys and girls.  They’ve been so popular in the store as a matter of fact, that I just had to dig in and see what the buzz was all about.

The first book in the series, titled simply Artemis Fowl introduces young Artemis, who is only twelve, but who is hatching a nefarious plan to extort a large amount of money to fund a search effort for his father.  Artemis senior disappeared in the Arctic during one of his own planned exploits and it is up to Artemis junior to find him and to restore the family’s reputation and fortune.  Artemis’ plan involves stealing an ancient book, which holds the coded secrets to the fairy world and to ransom a fairy for gold.  Denizens of the fairy world live underground, are highly technologically advanced and have managed to keep themselves a secret from humans… at least until Artemis finds out about them. 

Throughout the series Artemis slowly finds himself befriending some of the fairies including Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon Unit, Foaly, a centaur whose technological genius rivals Artemis’ own and Mulch Diggums, a kleptomaniac dwarf with some rather interesting (and disgusting) talents.  Each book presents a new threat against which the heroes must fight in order to save the unsuspecting human world.

The books have a great balance between the high-techno-Mission Impossible-type of spy fun and ancient fairy magic and mythology.  They are immensely humorous and sarcastic but also have a great deal of heart.  The storytelling is fantastic with surprises and twists and each book ties into the previous one seamlessly.  As added fun the author has included secret codes on the covers and along the bottom of the pages of text for readers to crack.

There are currently six books in the series uncluding Artemis Fowl, The Arctic Incident, The Eternity Code, The Opal Deception, The Lost Colony and the newest one which will be available in paperback on August 11, 2009, The Time Paradox.  And even though these books were written for young adults, I really enjoyed them.  They’re quick, funny entertaining reads and I’m keeping my eye out for the rumored feature film that is supposed to be in the works.

Blindness by Jose Saramago

blindness

Jose Saramago, a Portuguese author, has had a number of his novels translated into English including Baltisar and Blimunda, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis, The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Stone Raft, The History of the Seige of Lisbon and The Tale of the Unknown Island.  In 1997 his novel Blindness, written in 1995, was translated into English and a year later it was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Blindness is one of the most terrifying books I have ever read, right up there with The Shining by Stephen King.  Unlike The Shining though, which is a supernatural horror story, the terror of Blindness is primarily derived from the darkness and complexities of human nature.  Sort of like a marriage between another King novel, The Stand, and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, Blindess is the story of a city which is hit by an epidemic of “white blindness,” which inexplicably spares all but one and spreads like wildfire.  At first, the government confines the afflicted to an empty mental hospital, threatening to kill anyone who tries to leave and supplying food only intermittently.  The social microcosm within the quarantined building quickly begins to break down and the criminal element emerges, stealing food rations and assaulting women.  There is only one eyewitness to the growing atrocities:  The character known simply as “the doctor’s wife” pretends to be blind so that she can stay with her husband and for some reason, she remains unafflicted.  Once the entire city has become sightless and the authorities can no longer keep anyone quarantined, the doctor’s wife leads a small group through the streets, describing some of what she sees, but keeping most of the visuals to herself as they struggle to survive.  Blindness is a powerful portrayal of both the very worst and very best of humanity.

Assuming that the translation, done by Giovanni Pontiero, remains true to the original style, Blindness is written in an unusual way.  Paragraphs are pages long and dialogue is not separated by paragraphs or quotation marks.  Capital letters and a comma indicate that a second person is speaking and periods are only used at the end of a conversation.  At first this was a little difficult to get used to, but it doesn’t take long for the brain to get into the rhythm.  I wondered why Saramago chose to write the novel this way and came up with a few possibilities:  Without the conventional dialogue punctuation you sort of start to read everything in your own voice, so the story becomes much more personal and internal, just as it must have been for the characters who were so suddenly left without their primary channel to the outside world.  Also, since nobody can see each other when they’re talking, there is no need to include descriptive phrases like ‘he said with a grin’ or ‘she said scowling,’  only the words are important.  As the story progresses, however, the group meets an author who is trying to document the events and who writes on paper by using his fingers to feel the indentations of the pen where he has already written.  I imagine the author would have forgone the more troublesome punctuation when writing this way so perhaps we’re meant to realize that the book we’ve been reading was written by the blind author.

I loved this book.  Despite the fact that it scared me half to death and that it was at times upsetting, horrifying and repulsive (a friend claimed that it must certainly contain the most references to fecal matter of any Nobel Prize winning work) I thought the book was magnificent — but it’s not for the faint of heart.  In fact, there is a movie out now based on the novel and I hear that it is just as difficult to experience as the novel.  Apparently there is a also a sequel to the book titled Seeing but I have not yet read it.

Blindness is available at noteBooks in trade paperback edition for $15.00.

Published in: on June 24, 2009 at 4:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Agincourt

Bernard Cornwell has written over forty novels, most of them historical in nature.  Perhaps best known are his Sharpe stories, which tell of the adventures of Richard Sharpe, a soldier during the Napoleonic Wars.  Cornwell has also written series depicting events during the time of King Arthur, 9th-century Anglo-Saxon England and the American Revolution.  His latest novel, Agincourt, is a stand-alone book written about Henry V and the battle of Agincourt during the Hundred Years War.

The battle of Agincourt (October, 1415) has been featured in numerous works of fiction (it is the centerpiece of Shakespeare’s Henry V), has been the subject of extensive historical research and analysis and remains a source of pride for the English to this day.  The victory is remarkable because the English army was greatly outnumbered by the French (the exact numbers are a source of debate, but Cornwell uses the generally accepted 5,900 English v. 30,000 French).  It is also noteworthy due to the number of casualties (very few English and a significant number of French) as well as the number of French lords who were either killed or captured.  The English army had just completed a month-long seige of the seaside town of Harfleur, had traveled over 250 miles by foot and were suffering from both hunger and dysentery.  Credit for the victory is given in large part to the English archers.  About 5,000 of England’s 5,900 were commoners wielding longbows.  There were other factors involved, but I’ll refrain from mentioning them for anyone unfamiliar with the history and wanting to read the book.

The fiction portions of the book are only average.  The main character, Thomas Hook, is an English archer who has been outlawed for hitting a priest.  He travels to France and finds himself fighting for the Duke of Burgundy against the French king in Soissons.  During the battle he manages to save a French novice and narrowly escapes the traitorous massacre thanks to the voices in his head (he later decides the voices are Saints Crispin and Crispinian…the significance appears later).  Eventually Hook and the novice, Melisande, make their way back to England and Hook finds a place under Sir John Cornwaille’s command in King Henry’s army as Henry prepares to invade France.  Hook’s point of view serves as a familiar vehicle for the historical action.  The fictional characters move the story forward and make slow parts more engaging.  Cornwell is also very good at writing humor into fiction.  The wise cracks were unexpected but enjoyable.

I found the most interesting parts of the book to be the descriptions of the seige engines and the tactics of war.  The violence seemed a bit gratuitous (there were an awful lot of eyeballs getting popped and sliced) though I guess that’s probably accurate.  I would recommend Agincourt for its great descriptions of 15th century armor, weaponry and tactics. (Cannons were beginning to play a major role in battles during this time, and their volatile unpredictability makes for some grisly situations.)

Agincourt is available at noteBooks in hardcover for $27.99

Published in: on June 10, 2009 at 6:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah

A_Long_Way_Gone

A Long Way Gone is Ishmael Beah’s autobiographical retelling of his experiences as a child soldier in war-torn Sierra Leone in the mid-1990s.  As a child Ishmael lived a relatively happy and normal life with his family in Mogbwemo, a small west African village.  He attended school and was an excellent student.  He enjoyed American rap music and would choreograph dances and performances to the music of his favorite artists with his older brother and friends.  They played sports, hunted birds with slingshots, went to the movies in nearby Mattru Jong and watched curiously as refugees passed through with tales of war that seemed exaggerated at the time.

When Ishmael was twelve the rebel army (RUF) attacked Mattru Jong and surrounding villages.  Ishmael, his brother and their small group of friends escaped capture and traveled on foot looking for food and survivors.  Eventually, after spending a year on the run in the wilderness and without finding his family, Ishmael was picked up by the government army, given a gun and trained as a soldier.  After two years of fighting, at the age of fifteen, he was removed by UNICEF and taken to a rehabilitation center to begin the process of healing, detoxification and self-forgiveness.

The way the book is written is interesting:  Ishmael writes in first person while describing the time period that he was a refugee, and also the time in the rehabilitation center.  However, while writing about the two-year period that he was a soldier, he writes in a series of flashbacks and memories.  I wonder if he chose to write this way because he prefers to keep that time more distant from himself or because it really is harder for him to remember (the army kept their soldiers high on amphetamines and brown-brown, a mix of cocaine and gunpowder).  Whatever the reason, I appreciated it because some of his acts were so atrocious that the distance is necessary to see this person as someone who has been rehabilitated.  The reader is still made completely aware of the depth of horror, without it becoming gratuitously violent.  I’m really amazed that someone could go through what he did and then re-learn how to have a reverence for human life again…is that a trait of humanity in general, of the culture, of youth or of the individual?

Ishmael never found any surviving members of his immediate family.  In 1998 he escaped Sierra Leone and moved to the United States to live with a foster family.  He graduated from Oberlin College in 2004 and is a speaker and activist dedicated to helping former child soldiers reintegrate into society and improve their lives.

A Long Way Gone is one of those books that everyone should read.  It should be added to high school and college history classes that cover recent events (I’m sure some teachers and professors already require it) and it may even be a useful resource for psychology courses covering child psychology.  I highly recommend this book for all adults and teenagers.  The descriptions, details and metaphors are unique and emotionally stimulating.  This is an important story told by an honest and gifted narrator who has roots in a culture of storytellers.

Published in: on May 27, 2009 at 5:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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