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A Wholly Reluctant Blog

A blog by someone who prefers writing to writing about writing, but treats blogging like bad-tasting vitamins.

Currently reading

The Phantom Tollbooth
Jules Feiffer, Norton Juster
Walter Scott
Cloud Atlas
David Mitchell
Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit
Daniel Quinn
Bulfinch's Mythology
Thomas Bulfinch
Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863
Shelby Foote
A History of Mathematics, Second Edition
Carl B. Boyer, Isaac Asimov
Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West - Tom Holland The title of this book would lead a reader (this reader, anyway) to believe the focus to be the Achaemenid Empire and it's leading men, Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, leading up to and through the clash between Persia and Greece. That assertion is an error of scope, as Holland looks not only at the rise of Persia, but that of all the major players (e.g., Persia, Sparta, Athens, etc.) in characteristic thrifty but efficient detail, which was much more than I expected--so much the better.

Persian Fire corroborated much of the information about the Achaemenid Empire Gore Vidal provided in Creation. This duplication, coupled with the abundance of sources (though largely 20th century), seems an indication that the information is well established, it's simply overlooked as part of a grade school education of the period. Notably, the most prominent Greeks as fractious, greedy, and overconfident; not that that isn't characteristic of most peoples, only that it contrasts with the cursory lay education most receive on the topic. The bulk of Greek history consists of Spartans Strong (like USA!); Athenians Philosophical (like founding fathers!); Doric, Ionian, and Corinthian columns; the Parthenon (made of columns!); Zeus; the like, et al.

The most enjoyable aspect of an education is when an important historical event one has accepted (suspected, perhaps, but never had the sense or resources to investigate), has in truth been falsely represented or unduly oversimplified, and is at last exposed as a fallacy.

My favorite example of a shattered illusion is the unprecedented beginning of the West's cherished Democracy and the halcyon Greek period that bore it. In Holland's work, Democracy is presented less as a philosophical belief that the common man should have some say in the form of their government rather than the aristocracy, or that positions of authority ought not be exclusive to inheritance, all of which arose as a consequence of Greek philosophers gathering to determine the most equitable method of rule. Instead, it came about as a means for one aristocratic family to wrest power away from another at the cost of the inability for anyone to maintain absolute power. It was a brilliant and elaborate stroke, but invariably one brought about by, as Holland implies, the spite of an out-of-favor aristocratic family.

Naturally, the citizens of Athens enthusiastically supported the proposal that they would be allowed to help decide the rules of their society, they rebelled in the streets when Cleisthenes, who gave the power to vote on laws to the people, was chased from the city by a "tyrant" (a form of monarch, though rarely of the disposition that lends to the modern definition of tyranny), who in turn found themselves faced with the power of the mob.

Similar anecdotes are strung through Holland's works, creating a tapestry of interwoven events from which he often extrapolates the thoughts, feelings, and ambitions of the characters in these histories. It is a style that may seem somewhat dishonest without supporting text, and is probably the point where he takes the greatest creative license, but at the same time makes the historical figures more than empty-eyed marble busts or rigid profiles on coins, is extremely engaging, and makes sense in the context provided.

I believe Holland is in the same league as Pulitzer Prize Winner David McCullough in terms of narrative skill, with an ability to draw a reader into a historical period through the details they choose to include and elaborate upon. The difference between the two, thus far, is McCullough (an American author) tends to focus on American (i.e., USA) history, while Holland (an English author) spends his time on ancient civilizations.

Holland began his his writing career as an author of supernatural fiction. He has since turned his English acumen toward bringing history to vibrant life, and he's clearly made the right move for his career, and, more importantly, my enlightenment.

I still have two more Holland historical works to read, but I'm enthused by the prospect that, according to his current pace of publication, we should be getting a new Holland work in the next year. I look forward to continuing the process of adulthood re-education.
Killing Lincoln: The Shocking Assassination that Changed America Forever - Martin Dugard, Bill O'Reilly PREFACE
As a person who is generally curious about historical events and the people involved in them, a book on Lincoln's assassination is something that piqued my interest. How did I discover this book amidst a sea of noise? Did its merits cause it to rise above the rest, standing head and shoulders above other historical works, nay, other books, nay to that too, other random gatherings of paper? I suppose that's possible, but it probably helped that Bill O'Reilly has his own television show where he can hawk his wares ad nauseum--I don't watch The O'Reilly Factor often, or any "news opinion" programs, but the guy always seems to be saying "Buy my book! Buy my coffee cup! Buy this pen! Buy this hairpiece! Buy this shamwow!" and shaking his wares at you.

The O'Mays Factor

In truth, it's a book owned by my in-laws, and something I could get for free. My only misgiving about the book was that it was produced by a media personality rather than a historian, but for all I know O'Reilly was a college history major He was! An honors student with a BA in History. and spends his free time gorging himself on historical documents.

It was inevitable that O'Reilly would produce something that interested me. Really. Inevitable. Eventually, if you have an infinite number of Bill O'Reillys and an infinite number of products, one is going to interest me. If it wasn't a book (about something other than himself or politics), it would have been a line of tools, or pet grooming shampoo, or a Cold War themed RTS in which THE USA CANNOT LOSE UNLESS THEY ARE DESTROYED FROM WITHIN BY SOCIALISTS.

As a sensible person, I decided to do some research to determine if this was something I could enjoy. I do that, even when I think I'll like something, often to confirm my bias, other times to my chagrin. This was one of the other times.

The book is apparently a good read. All due credit to Bill O'Reilly, since he is the brand that people want to buy, but the text is probably a product of co-author, Martin Dugard. It's fast-paced, it's intriguing, and it's well written--everyone seems to agree on that. If you want something similar, look no further than Rubicon, by quasi-historian Tom Holland, who has degrees in English and Latin, but no history degrees. Granted, Holland's books tend to provide an orgy of bibliographical sources.

Though there are a few conspicuous differences between the work produced by O'Reilly and Holland, it turns out the main difference is a pretty significant one: research ethic. One of these writers has an issue with knuckling down over some primary sources. Hint: the theme of his television show could be misunderstood as symptomatic of a clothes dryer in need of maintenance.

The bulk of the reviews for the book are quite positive. However, the tone of the positive reviews, and their feverish positivity, as well as the negative reviews and their equally zealous negativity, pretty well cancel out. What's left are those middling reviews from people who know about the topic and are looking for a fresh take. The tone of those reviews is, frankly, a disappointment. What's entertaining is that many positive reviews appear to be a response to the lukewarm reviews. The unsettling theme for anyone genuinely interested in history is, to paraphrase, "facts aren't important in a history book if it's entertaining. Besides, all history books have errors told me the book was well written and he will add it to his library of Bill O'Reilly books."

"Having heard some good reviews of he book, I was surprised to find it as good as it was."

"I liked this book so much I asked some of my students to read it."
Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic - Tom Holland Breezy and brisk, Tom Holland tells the story of the early Roman Republic and the counterintuitive yet inevitable transition to a monarchy in a style that is very easy to read. The Roman Republic was founded upon an abhorrence of kings, making the presumption that Rome was destined to be ruled by emperors somewhat hard to swallow. Holland, however, makes the case for Roman personal ambition and competetiveness as major motivators for kingship, and also highlights a variety of additional interesting oxymorons built into Roman dogma.

The speed with which the reader is whooshed through the narrative makes one worry how thorough a history can be without being stodgy and meticulous. Carthage, the Punic Wars, and Hannibal receive perhaps two pages. One gets the impression as they read this book that they are zipping through an art museum on a roller coaster.

Gladly, the details Holland chooses are chosen very well, which makes his accelerated style very functional. They are concise and illuminating and well crafted, and they make it possible to describe the Carthaginian wars effectively.

The Roman attitude is the primary theme, with all its perks and pitfalls. For example, Romans regarded their city with pride and arrogance, yet Holland (and others) compare it unfavorably to other cities of its day in terms of layout, consistency, and architectural beauty. The anathema of long-term despotic rule does have its advantages, as Holland indicates, allowing long-term architectural projects and metropolitan organization, compared to 1-year consular rule that prevented extensive plans of action, resulting in a Rome that was, in short, a haphazard dump in which it was easy to get lost. Romans likewise cherished the illusion of public opinion swaying the direction of their city and nation, when in truth the ruling class held sway more and more as years passed, as the Republic gradually metamorphosed into a plutocracy.

Because this period of Roman history has been covered to great extent, it's difficult to question the veracity of historical fact Holland presents--he offers up seven pages of source material in defense of his writings. Holland has degrees in English and Latin, not history, and may take a bit of creative license with the figures in his book, but he doesn't spend much time on anyone without a significant amount of contemporary writing done about them, and it's easy to infer what sort of men Julius and Augustus Caesar, Pompey, Sulla, Cicero, and others were through their actions, and because they constantly wrote about themselves or had someone else do it for them (though they may have elaborated somewhat upon their histories--it's plausible that Julius Caesar was not, in fact, a god). While the opinions and feelings he projects upon the characters may or may not be true, the circumstances certainly were, and Holland uses his Roman Thesis to calculate them appropriately.

In the end, Holland covers ground similar to that which Plutarch covers with the latter, Roman portion of his Lives, but with more energy and a great deal of circumspection about the nature of Roman society, with the aforementioned disdain for an inevitable monarchy at the forefront, and how successive personalities laid the path for Emperors.

I liked this book a great deal.
The Beginning of This, the End of That: Part 1: The End - James E. Matteson The world of the 21st century has come and gone by way of cosmic cataclysm, but unlike the dinosaurs and other victims of global extinction events, humanity managed to survive and reorganize into a functional society a millennia later. Not without help, though, as some suppose the supernatural or extraterrestrial may have had a hand in developing the utopic post-apocalyptic world. The 31st-century editor, however, strongly doubts the veracity of these claims , but as I've recently discovered, there's more truth to these claims than I'd been led to believe.

Rendering of 31st-century apostle

This story has a fascinating premise with a marvelous setup describing the power and functionality of myth and an editor that acknowledges the seeds of truth from which myth can spring, while resisting belief in the more obnoxious supernatural fallacies that make something truly mythical.

The framework for this compilation of myths is extremely convincing. The editor's voice is spot on, both dubious of the myths he has assembled while acknowledging they must have come from somewhere, and the quotations selected by author Matteson are well chosen and display topical erudition that lends credence to the expectation that the tales will be well-formed.

I am sadly not well versed enough in Nordic mythology and that of northern Europe to identify the many references to the Poetic and Prose Eddas found in the chapter titles, or Nordic myths found elsewhere, as there surely are. Those familiar with them are likely to take more from these stories, see the connections and implications they make, and better appreciate them.

With that in mind, the foreignness of the work appealed to me--a direct consequence of my ignorance. All around me droplets of information fell, and every so often I recognized the notes they struck upon the ground. A wealth of references to worldwide theologies abounded, and every once in a while I was able to tie something I recognized to something I did not, which gave me the impression that comprehension was only a few inches out of my grasp. This in itself was a good reason to continue on.

In some myths there are tradeoffs, however. Strictly observational myths filled with symbolism tend to suffer with me, largely because the symbolism is often too obscure for me to understand, and reading through them is akin to driving down a road littered with stop signs. This isn't all bad, and it certainly isn't the worst. If there were a primer for this book, or if someone did a nice study of it, reading such a book in conjunction would certainly be helpful. As I've stated in other reviews, however, this isn't necessarily the fault of the author, but my fault for lacking the expansive knowledge necessary to draw from required for full comprehension. This becomes apparent very early on when the self-denoted "Flying Man" states the following:

I am the shaman of initiation
You are the initiates of Lascaux
I am the yogi of sindhu
You are the brahmachari bhava-pratyaya
I am the bodhisattva Quan Yin
I am Tara, Yemara, Chenrezig of one thousand compassionate arms
You are the sentient beings, the inner anima and the animus
I am Hermes, I am Thoth
Passing from the chthonic carrying the caduceus
I am the flying man
You are the water pigs
You are the fetish rodent and the genius of the snake
You are the wild duck, the impetuous swan
You have come to rest under the juniper tree
to drink the galbuli to shade under its whorls
to be healed with its oils to build with its red cedar woods
You have come to rest under the juniper tree
I will feed you and send you forth
I will send you to Horeb
to hear the wind, to feel,
to shake as the rocks,
to hide yourself from the fearsome fire.
I will send you to the wilderness.
I will I will I will I am the Flying Man.

Here we have an amalgamation of references from Buddhist, Greek, Egyptian, Christian, Judaism, and other theologies I likely was not able to identify, as well as locations, psychological archetypes, etc., all essentially stating "I am a messenger from the Gods, a teacher, and an artisan; you are the clay." After picking through this dense knotting, it seems fairly clear Flying Man is a direct reference to Hermes. Without an understanding of any of these references, it's gibberish. Add a rhyme scheme to it and you have something straight out of Alice in Wonderland (minus the mathematical undertones). Add a cause to it and you might end up with a book by Ted Geisel. In a metafictional sense, Matteson could not have chosen a truer opening quote with: "In a senseless world, a myth makes sense of nonsense." Knowledge tends to dispel myth with sense, but knowledge of myths is helpful in making sense of this long stream of information.

I am by no means a critic of cryptic gibberish. When I can pull off a bit of nonsense in my own work that, in the proper context or with a second read, makes sense, I feel gratified by a fleeting sense of genius. In short, Matteson knows his stuff and it would be helpful if you knew it, too.

For me, the lone drawback was not the layers upon layers of information, nor the myths themselves, but perhaps the execution of them and the description of the characters within them. Where the editor's remarks were sharp and professional, the myths in the telling were not as crisp and tended to provide information rather than let it flow along with the plot. The characters were oddly functionally observational at times, making leaps of cognition in their dialogue that turned them into narrators rather than participants in a story, and coming across as strangely detached from events taking place around them that were at times so surreal and bizarre they would have terrified any normal person.

This might be a pithy complaint considering the greater volume of myth is conveyed in extremely tedious detail designed to move the story forward, but as a matter of preference a character more fully engaged in their world is more compelling. For example, you might tell me Bruno is seven feet tall and likes to eat cheese, but this paints a dispassionate picture of Bruno--he is a block of wood. Or you could describe Bruno hunching through a doorway, one hand pressing a block of cheese into his mouth while the other fished eagerly through a pocket in search of more.

Fussing aside, this is a story I liked. I might have liked it more had the characters been more real to me, but making the story more character driven would probably deemphasize the mythmaking, which was the best part of the story. As a fan of history and myth, this book is plenty good.

I would undoubtedly benefit from a second read, and possibly a third, to understand the content more fully. While I haven't re-read a book in a long, long time, I have a file set aside in my mind that I will revisit with any new knowledge and hold it up to the kaleidoscope of my brain to see what the book looks like through each new facet. In terms of ambition alone, this story easily warrants a five-star rating.
Le Morte d'Arthur: King Arthur and the Legends of the Round Table - Thomas Malory, Keith Baines, Robert Graves I started reading this book almost 20 years ago, but made the mistake of reading T.H. White's The Once and Future King first. The difference in prose between a book written in the 1950s (White) and a book written in the 15th century (Malory) was so stark as to make this book nigh impenetrable. Needless to say, my memory of the book is having read up through a battle that seemed like a series of people losing their horses and going to get another in order to lose their horse again. The story read like a baseball box score in paragraph form.

For example (purely by memory):
Sir X rode into battle and killed 10 people, then had his horse killed. He left battle and returned with another horse, and killed 10 more people before losing his horse again. Sir Y also had a pretty good day in battle, killing 15 people, then losing a horse, then returning to kill Sir Z, who had killed 20 people up to that point.

Very dry.

I can see myself giving it another try eventually, simply because the legends are so fascinating, but I can't see myself getting up a hill this steep.
The Gunslinger  - Stephen King
From the Beginning to The Gunslinger and the Man in Black

This review could easily bump up to 5 stars once I understand the full story, but to reach that point would require a massive undertaking--seven more novels follow this one. King is, in my mind, not a writer who creates the kind of book one can digest in just a few days. Granted, I've never read anything else by King, but I've seen his works bending the shelves at bookstores and libraries with their bulk. This work, too, by King's own admission, is essentially a chapter in a massive magnum opus that stretches over several books, making it considerably longer than anything else he's written, which is saying something.

Based on this book alone, I'd have to say that King is pretty good at spinning an ominous yarn, withholding information to compel the reader to continue, maintaining tension (even if it's the sort that makes me uncomfortable), and convincing enough with turn of phrase. I liked the story and it made for a fast read, despite some curious techniques that would make Andy Farmer proud. On more than one occasion we are presented with a flashback inside a flashback, and at least once we're given a flashback inside a memory inside a flashback.

Yeah. Exactly.

Still, despite these acrobatics, I never lost the thread of the story. All due credit to King for pulling it off.

There's also the plot of the story itself: Roland, the last Gunslinger, searching for the Tower. Do I know what the tower is? No. Do I know why he's looking for it? No. Do I know where he is? No. Do I know what happened to all the other gunslingers? No. The better part of the story is like this: posing questions that are not answered. Yet.

Throughout the work King drops crumbs indicating the world might be a future version of our own, an afterlife, or some surreal composition of those who occupy it. It's impossible (for me, anyway) to guess what all this portends any better than reading the first volume of an encyclopedia would tell me what is in the last. These tidbits are tantalizing and frustrating in their isolation. Without reading further they appear arbitrary and without meaning. One is left with the hope that the author knows that meaning and will eventually explain. With a writer as lauded and successful as King, I have to believe that is the case here.

However, having so many times in the recent past been led upon a meandering and complex path in the hope of reaching some profound revelation, I've been disappointed that the purpose of so many wrinkles is to engage the reader/viewer brain, and the ultimate effort to tie these threads into a satisfying cord instead disintegrates into a half-baked conclusion that exposes the story as little more than disparate permutations meant to capture people's desire to find patterns where they ultimately, and disappointingly, do not exist.

Guilty. Also, stole that theme from Band of Brothers.

Still trying to figure this one out. The Last Supper? Why? Also, Baltar and 6 are... what? Ignorant?

In the end, in spite of so much, I enjoyed this book. I'm not about to rush out and buy part II of CXV, but I can acknowledge this sets up some framework around which I can envision King putting up walls and ending up with a serviceable house. To be perfectly honest, he gets half his stars based upon potential alone.

Perhaps in some far off future I will finish this voluminous series and have a fuller understanding of what King intended for it. At that time I will fill in any missing stars, should I deem it worthy.

On the other hand, maybe King went this route. In which case I'll take all of the stars, crumble them into dust, and blow them in his eyes. It's the least I can do for wasting so much of my time.

Post the Final Chapter: The Gunslinger and the Man in Black

There's also the plot of the story itself: Roland the last Gunslinger, searching for the Tower. Do I know what the tower is? Sort of. Do I know why he's looking for it? No. Do I know where he is? Maybe. Do I know what happened to all the other gunslingers? No. The better part of the story is like this: posing questions that are not answered. Yet.
The Black Cauldron - Lloyd Alexander The film adaptation of this book terrified me as a child. It's time I overcame this fear before going to the grave frightened of a children's book when there are far more reasonable things to be frightened of.
The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss Probably never, ever going to read since the synopsis points toward an oh-so-familiar series I might read down the road just to say I had. But I wanted to be able to write a review just so I could take a stab at the question implied by the book's title.

I'm putting all my chips on Esteban.
A Postmodern Belch - M.J. Nicholls I'm not sure what I feel about this book other than I feel it very strongly. If I am ever capable of parsing the genuine from the false, either in the content of the book or of these reviews, it will confirm with some certainty that the final thread tying me to my sanity has at last frayed and broken. I suspect this is precisely what the author intended.
Taunton's Shelves, Cabinets & Bookcases - Matthew Teague, Helen Albert
Warning: This review may contain HYPERBOLE (patent pending) in moderate to high doses. HYPERBOLE is not meant for those who cannot distinguish between facetiousness and sincerity. This HYPERBOLE is for instructive purposes only. If you take HYPERBOLE seriously, please seek immediate medical aid as prolonged exposure can exacerbate existing impediments to normal cerebral function.

By no means comprehensive, and lacking some measurements I think would have been helpful, this book was a curious mix of extremely basic introductory material and more complex woodworking expected of a practiced woodworker with a wealth of (non-enumerated) tools. In all, I would call it a contradiction of reader expectations with some startling omissions.

Things this book will teach/expect you to do/have knowledge to make.




For example, a "built-in" bookshelf, in one part of the book, amounts to "build a footer; build a box; place the box on the footer; add prefabricated trim." It's essentially a more cost-effective way of building a crummy box than buying one at your local non-furniture, everything store with slightly higher-quality material than the flimsy particle board furniture that seems halfway decent if you don't look directly at it for too long. Another takes on the building of drawers (just the drawers, though, not the rollers or how they should be installed) held together using a variety of dovetail joint options, though there are few hints as to how to make them (you'd need a router, the correct bit, and, unless you're really skilled, a dovetail template) other than some are more difficult than others.

Easy, right?
Easy, right?

If you're good at synthesizing disparate bits of information, and consult additional sources to fill in the numerous blanks (assuming I know the type and dimensions of wood needed to make a base for a bookcase is quite a leap if you assume I didn't know how to make a plywood box), this will probably work well for you. Otherwise, you're stuck with making exactly what projects (ranging from jaw-droppingly simple to fairly simple) are available in the book. Most of which are pretty dull and utilitarian.

Of course, you've got to start somewhere, and, for me, that somewhere was here.

For more adventures in woodworking by a novice, and evidence of the oversights made by this "beginnger's" book, check out my So You're Building a Bookshelf blog series. Relish (and avoid) my mistakes or commisserate with them, or add your own experiences and/or advice.
Pink Water - James  Field The Cloud brothers return!

Picking up right where they left off, though a bit more famous as a consequence of their exploits in the previous novel, are brothers Trevor and Russell Cloud, as well as helper-bot AidMe and the ubiquitous and fascinating Everything Machine, the Cloud.

I won't spill the beans about the plot, which you can read in the book summary, or too much about the writing itself, which you can read about in my review of the first work, Gathering Clouds. I will tell you, however, why Pink Water is a wholly good read.

Part of the goodness of Pink Water, though not the primary goodness, is its thriftness. Clocking in at 175 epages, the story is lickety split fast. Imagine yourself making the Scooby-doo skeddadle noise as you read through it. As a story targeted at Young Adults or Older Adults with no time on their hands (i.e., me), this is pretty much the perfect length. Time enough to squeeze in before one sees-something-shiny/goes-back-to-work. There isn't much down time in this story, partly because of its brevity there isn't time for it. The plot zooms.

The stakes are no less high in this work than they were in the last, either. Frankly, at the height of the climax in the first work, I didn't see any way for Trevor and Russell to recover from their incident in deep space. Fortunately for them, author Field and the Cloud brothers have more imagination, intellect, and vigor than I do. Nothing has changed in the sequel--once again the boys find themselves lost in uncharted space--and that's a good thing.

At the conclusion of my first review, I made a wish for the adventures of the Cloud brothers to continue, and the author wasted little time granting that wish. As a consequence, it is my belief that Field is either some form of magical wish-granting entity or a writer of some skill and thrift. While I hope it's the former, I would still be pleased if it's the latter. It's a win-win either way.

Suicide in Salobrena (Max Castillo Mystery #3) - L.H. Thomson It would be silly of me to revisit my thoughts on this book when they are largely encompassed in my review of the first book in the series, [b:Buried in Benidorm|13559698|Buried in Benidorm (Max Castillo Mystery, #1)|L.H. Thomson|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1332647500s/13559698.jpg|19133337]. The themes remain largely the same, and your sensitivity to subjects that deal with the reality of human nature, regardless of profession, may well stain your opinion of this story. While this kind of sensitivity may hint at discomfort with reality, the realm of fiction is, admittedly, designed to allow you to, and broad enough that you can, choose your own, insulated reality.

As I confessed in my review on the first book in this series, my experience with hard-boiled mystery is pretty slim. Apart from one Josephine Tey book and one by Dan Brown, we're talking about Encyclopedia Brown and the Happy Hollisters. So you might interpret my enthusiasm for this story, and its predecessors, as coming from the voice of inexperience. That said, I can speak for the strength of the story as a work of fiction, a category in which I have an abundance of experience, so I don't feel I'm misguiding anyone by saying "Yes, you're probably going to enjoy this."

Using the fewest words possible to describe my experience with this entry, I blew through this book. I tend to take a while to work my way through a story, taking breathers every now and again, ultimately turning the process of reading a book into a weeks-long process. Not so with this one. To my surprise, I roared through it in just a few days.

If you're looking for a gritty story, with a wry, disenchanted, and self-deprecating main character the likes of which you'd run across in film noire, Max is your man. On the other hand, if you're offended by the seedy characters prevalent in hard-boiled private detective stories with touches of spiritual apprehension expected from an ex-priest turned PI, hounded by clergy looking for favors, spare yourself the rage at reality.
The Speaker for the Trees - Sean DeLauder This book is cursed. Any who read it will have their brain transformed into a turnip. The author regrets this.
A Parent's Guide to Preventing Homosexuality - Joseph Nicolosi I'm not going to rate this book, since I have no intention of reading it. That does not mean I can't form an opinion of this book, which I promise I will limit to four more sentences, two of which are borrowed and two of which explain why they are used. There will also be a BONUS sentence hidden in the review, which only the most sleuthy of readers and meticulous of counters will be able to locate (hint: it will include the phrase "BONUS sentence").

As many review writers know, most things that can be said about a thing usually have been by now. With that in mind, I give you a pair of Moses Hadas quotes that seem a good fit for this book.

This book fills a much-needed gap.

Thank you for sending me a copy of your book; I'll waste no time reading it.
Buried in Benidorm (Max Castillo Mystery, #1) - L.H. Thomson There are some authors who can slip from one genre to another without the slightest hiccup, buoyed solely by the strength of their prose. These are the sort of writers you read just to enjoy the infrastructure of their phraseology and the construction of the story. Anthony Doerr is infinitely resourceful for the former; I think L.H. Thomson is a strong candidate for the latter.

My introduction to Thomson was the sci-fi novel The Process Server (go here for that 5-star review). Typically, myself included, most people seem to find a genre and stick with it. Not Thomson, who likens himself a literary polymath on the scale of Isaac Asimov. I'd call him an arrogant cad if it weren't for the fact that he pulls it off (damn him, anyway).

Buried in Benidorm differs in genre from The Process Server, but shares its strengths: rounded, complex characters with a history, tongue-in-cheek dialogue, short but effective descriptions, and here-and-there a poignant and amusing aside.

Perhaps as interesting as the story itself is the history of the main character, Max, and how it informs the rest of the story, particularly his views on the church. Or, at least, the local magistrates.

Max is a former priest who left to clergy but was unable to leave it behind. While he feels no allegiance toward the community of faith, it certainly feels he owes them a debt, along with substantial seminary fees. The story paints clergymen as men clinging to their clerginess, attempting to justify their typical-person behavior (haughtiness, avarice, etc.) by passing it through a sort of ecclesiastical car wash, as if being religious figures makes underhanded behavior acceptable and serving a higher purpose. The case, as we discover, involves the church trying to lay claim to a deceased aristocrat's wealth by implicating his wife in his death, thereby causing her to forfeit her inheritance to the church. That in itself is enough to raise eyebrows, but we also learn from Max that the bishop is, historically, a bully--he'd been one as a child and had no reservations about being one now.

In fact, it is the mystery of Max' departure from the priesthood and loss of faith that is, at least initially, what drives the story, moreso than that of the murder discovered at the opening of the book. This mystery manifests not just as absence of faith and a focus on the secular, but very near animosity, which may be off-putting for readers of a more religious bent who take this perspective as an affront to their God rather than a judgment of the men whose responsibility it is to deliver His message.

This conviction is stated, in no uncertain terms, fairly early in the tale when Max is discussing the interruption of his vacation by the church:

She detected my obvious discomfort. "And...? I take it something has interrupted?"

I nodded briefly. "My former employer."

Caridad giggled. "God?"

I gave her a withering look. "Very funny. The diocese."

She gritted her teeth like she had just driven over bumpy roadkill then uncapped a beer for each of us. "Ay. So, definitely not God, then."

This isn't to say that the church is the only thing to take flak. There's plenty of scorn to go around as the characters in this story all seem to harbor one prejudice or another, whether it be Detective Nicodema's disdain for the wealthy (money creates crime), the layabout Domingo's disdain for the non-religious (though perhaps just Max), Tomas' disdain for Portuguese (which may be a regional thing), the disdain Caridad shares with Max for clergy (due to mistreatment), and pretty much everyone else's disdain for Max as a consequence of his departure from the church. That said, there is an abundance of backstory justifying each of these perspectives, so it never seems as though the author is simply projecting his hatred of one thing or another through his characters. Rather, it's more likely that a disenfranchised former Catholic priest who has turned to private investigation is predisposed to contact with people who have criminal pasts, and harbor grudges against those who have wronged them. Or, perhaps, that's just the way we all are, but fool ourselves into believing we're above the fray or have never had cause to dislike anyone.

This was a good story and a good mystery by my reckoning (considering the limit of my Hardboiled Mystery reading consists entirely of The Happy Hollisters series, Josephine Tey's The Daughter of Time, and The Da Vinci Code), though it seemed what should have been the undercurrent dominated the work. Again, the main crime seemed to me more a chapter out of a larger work. And there's nothing wrong with that, so long as Max Castillo's story is not a one-off and is part of a longer series--which it is.
The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco, William Weaver Because Umberto Eco demonstrates a remarkable knowledge of 14th-century (and earlier) ecclesiastical history, one might suspect him to be a student of the subject, or rather, the dean of a college of religious history. Or, and this seems more likely, an 800-year old biographer who finally got around to putting his early experiences down in writing 30 or so years ago.

Unfortunately, in truth, he was a medieval history professor before being convinced to write historical, monk-centered murder stories set in the middle ages. Take heart, though, that despite the disappointing fact that he is not eight centuries old, this description is probably a significant oversimplification.

Because I lack a similarly vast understanding of 14th century Churchology (I KNOW it's not a word, but understand anyway!) in all its fascinating minutiae, the book made itself a challenge to read in some places. This is not the fault of the story, but, as Ezra Pound might have said, of the reader for being too ignorant to understand it. I certainly fit that bill in some respects, though, as with many great books, this one was an avenue to further my education. And, where once I might have been led to my trusty 1960s era encyclopedia set (so old it was spelled encyclopaedia--a point that cost me dearly in a grade-school spelling contest), an iPad Wikipedia application served to bolster and clarify.

The historical fiction is one that, when done effectively, I enjoy a great deal. In the past year I've started reading [a:Gore Vidal|5657|Gore Vidal|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1344345289p2/5657.jpg]'s novels, and the experience has been delightful and rich for someone accustomed to more straightforward historical books. I enjoy these stories (for the same reason I enjoy historical works, minus the fictional narrative) largely because of the informational safari the process of reading becomes, leading from one research point to a hundred others, along an interweaving web of educational adventure. Anyone who has experienced the fission reaction that is opening a dictionary to find the meaning of a word, only to be led to another word, and on and on until you run out of fingers to serve as placeholders, will understand the kind of digressive undertaking it can become. And Huzzah for that!

Eco's main Sherlock Holmsian character William of Baskerville says as much himself: "Often books speak of books." As does the narrator of the tale, the novice monk Adso: "Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves."

With that in mind, you may want to consider having some form of resource on hand, though it's possible to bull through without it. (It may also help to be fluent in Latin or, at the very least, have an understanding of one of the romance languages, because there's a lot of untranslated Latin.) Fortunately, Eco manages to inject enough intrigue into the story amidst an ocean of detail that I was able to come away feeling I'd read a story rather than bumbled into a food fight betwixt historians and emerged feeling dirty and stupid.

Ultimately, my complaints are few and ridiculous. The characters of the monks grew rapidly tiresome as conversationalists, often because they felt compelled to try and bend every explanation or dialogue into a demonstration of God manifest in the world (which was the point--a point I'll get to...). This made conversing with them exhausting. (... now.) Amusingly enough, it becomes clear before long that these monks are something of a contradiction, for all their pontification. And this is the tension, apart from the murders and the library labyrinth, that drives the story. Here we have God-devoted monks trying to eschew the world around them, yet their purpose is to preserve knowledge of the world, of philosophers, of the secular world, and in many cases, the heathen world (as they reprinted many Islamic texts as well). While material wealth is coveted, ironically, by the monks of the monastery, so is intellectual wealth. And this particular abbey has an Erebor-like hoard of books. It would not be an exaggeration to say the book ends with Smaug descending from the skies, driving the monks away, and heaping all the books into a monstrous pile and falling asleep for a decade. Feel free to use these final two sentences as the springboard for your Lord of the Rings/The Name of the Rose mashup, spinoff fiction.

Eco is a savvy writer and recognizes their attempts to maintain a virtuous shroud, and it's apparent the protagonist felt the same way. I felt the corner of my mouth pull up whenever William offered a short, dismissive platitude in an effort to end some rambling speech about how God Made Such And Such or interjections of humble thanks for some arbitrary blessing and get them back to the subject of his investigation or to add something substantive to a philosophical argument (arguing philosophy with the devout is itself exasperating, considering how easy it is to dismiss rational thought in a world overseen by an omnipotent overlord and thus removing the need for thought altogether). The monks' attitudes are understandable, but speaking to them with the intention of gathering information was like wading through swamplands in sponge boots.

At the same time, and this may not be to the liking of more devout readers, the book is written from a secular angle. Yes, the main characters are all religious as is the narrator, but the monks are very human in their vanities and vices--some of which are decidedly and mortifyingly anti-Christian doctrine.

In the end, the story was definitely interesting from a plotting perspective. A series of murders in a 14th century monastery surrounding a secret library and solved by a Former Inquisitor Turned Thinking Monk? Pretty neat.

Yet the biggest takeaway from this story is the experience of going back to, what seems to me, a vivid and historically accurate experience of religious life in the 1300s, filled with religious proprieties and all its contradictions in the face of the secular Renaissance as it gathered steam, peppered with observations that set intellectuals and religious at odds and strengthened humankind as a provider for itself of technology to sever the need for a giving God, and as the religious battled the countless schisms and interpretations of Christianity as opposed to the belief of the general populace that Christianity has always existed as it is, uncontested and unadulterated.

This isn't so much a story as it is an experience. If you're in the mood for an experience, I encourage you to have this one.