Friday, May 1, 2015

The Winter Family - Reviewed

The Winter FamilyThe Winter Family by Clifford Jackman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This review was originally written for the Historical Novel Review.

August Winter is the leader of a hardened band of killers, men he picked up during his service in the Union army and his banditry afterwards. Among them are psychopaths, rapists, an ex-slave, and a tortured Indian. These men terrorize the countryside and urban streets, from Sherman’s March to the Sea, to the brutal streets of Chicago, to the deserts of Arizona and Mexico. Spanning three decades, their story is one of tremendous violence, immorality, and carnage.

Jackman’s writing is mesmerizing, and very well done. He sets you deep in the world of the 1860s through the 1880s – the American West as it was opening up to modernity with the advance of steam engines, railroads, and brutal politics. It isn’t the rosy picture so often depicted in Hollywood, at least from yesteryear. Rather, this is the story of the American West from the perspective of the killers and criminals that were so often at the forefront of civilization’s advance.

To call this novel a dark and gritty Western would be a tremendous understatement. We spend its entirety with the worst of men, and Jackman seems to revel in their cruelty and evil. There’s no redemption, little in the way of justice, and nothing good to hold on to. There’s no silver lining, no ray of hope. Just despair and evil. Though I admire Jackman’s storytelling, I couldn’t stomach the graphic violence and seemingly endless wanton brutality.

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By the Sword - Reviewed

By the Sword (Spoils of Olympus, #1)By the Sword by Christian Kachel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I originally reviewed this for the Historical Novel Review.

It is 322 BC and the Macedonian Empire is reeling in the wake of Alexander’s death. Civil war looms as his generals and heirs position themselves to replace their God King – or tear off a piece of the empire for themselves.

Andrikos, a young, fatherless man, faces troubles of his own. He is lured into the seedy underworld of his Ionian hometown, and in his first foray into criminal life he finds himself in far deeper waters than he ever expected. Worse, his family is at risk because of his actions. His only recourse is to join the army, leaving one set of dangers for the larger ones rocking the empire.

After weeks of brutal training – and even worse self-recrimination – he catches the eye of an agent who is part of a secret brotherhood dedicated to the preservation of Alexander’s heirs and legacy. Though he is reluctant to leave his new mates, Andrikos is soon immersed in a clandestine world more secretive than the criminal world he fled and far more deadly than the life as a phalangite offers. And this time, his own contribution could affect the fate of the empire itself.

In this debut novel, Kachel brings the reader on a gritty and powerful foray into Macedon’s conquered realm. It is thoroughly researched, and it has the undeniable authenticity of a soldier (Kachel) writing of a soldier’s life. Andrikos makes for a very sympathetic character, as a young man overwhelmed by his circumstances but eager to rise to the challenge. Recommended, but with a content warning: graphic violence, torture and sexual content. The formatting and cover were well done, and the scattered typos did little to kick this reviewer out of the story.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Spider and the Stone - Reviewed

The Spider and the Stone: A Novel of Scotland's Black DouglasThe Spider and the Stone: A Novel of Scotland's Black Douglas by Glen Craney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Craney brings Black Douglas to life in The Spider and the Stone. Brutal and epic in scope, this novel gives new insights into the personalities of the Scottish War for Independence. Douglas is a sympathetic character, a principled and aggressive man who must work to keep his wavering would-be king on the throne. Yet, must he sacrifice his love for Isabel to do so? It's a compelling read, one which will stick with you for a long time. Highly recommended.

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Monday, December 1, 2014

Severed - Reviewed

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads FoundSevered: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found by Frances Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review was written for Historical Novel Review.

Housing four of the five senses, our brain, and the body’s most elaborate set of muscles, the head naturally ranks as preeminent among our many body parts. It’s no surprise, therefore, that it should have an exceptional impact on human history and psychology. It is this history that anthropologist Frances Larson explores. She focuses on the severed head’s history in the West, with chapters dedicated to 18th- and 19th-century headhunting (by Western procurers), the venerated heads of saints, heads as trophies, the heads of decapitated politicians, and grave robbing by medical students among many others.

Though this book often makes for grisly reading, it is amazingly thought-provoking and never macabre. What could have devolved into freak show is instead elevated to an honest and tremendously insightful study into the severed human head’s history. I had never considered how the boom in head collecting among Western buyers during the 19th century led to a supply problem that could only be met one of two ways: grave robbing and murder. It is insights such as these that make this book highly recommended—for those who aren’t squeamish (there are a lot of pictures…).

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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Song of the Vikings - Reviewed

Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse MythsSong of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wrote this review for the Historical Novel Review, where it was first published.

Norse mythology has long held the fascination of historians, writers, and artists. We know of Odin, Loki, and Thor. We know of Ragnarok and Valhalla and Fenrir. We know of Valkyries and Vikings. The literary, musical, and cinematic worlds have all benefited from delving these depths. And Snorri Sturluson stands at the heart of it all.

His name is known almost exclusively to scholars of Scandinavian history and culture. Indeed, one might expect a book about him and his writings to be at best esoteric knowledge of little value to anyone outside of academia, or at worst to be terribly boring. Not so, not with Brown’s treatment of this fascinating character.

Had Snorri been nothing more than a successful (if over-reaching) 13th-century Icelandic chieftain, his name would be relegated to the dustiest of bookshelves. But he was also a skald and a writer of genius proportions. And it is in this capacity that we owe him a tremendous debt. He is our main—and often only— source for all the stories we know of the Viking’s pagan religion. His sagas and poems give us the tales of Thor and his hammer, two-faced Loki, the Midgard Serpent, the rainbow bridge, Ragnarok, Yggrdrasil the ash tree, and so many more.

Brown weaves the biography of Snorri with the worlds of Iceland and Norway, saga-writing, and skaldic-poetry composition. She builds a rich world for the reader to explore. I was particularly fascinated by her closing chapters in which she outlines the influence Snorri’s work has had on such disparate developments as German nationalism, J.R.R. Tolkien and his literary cabal (Gandalf is patterned after Odin, and each dwarf’s name is pulled from Snorri’s work), and the birth of the fantasy genre, with its werewolves, undead, elves, and dwarves. Recommended.

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Friday, February 15, 2013

Revolutionary Characters - Reviewed

Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders DifferentRevolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different by Gordon S. Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the best books I've read on the founding fathers. Though I've read biographies on most of the individuals written of here, I found the analysis compelling. In particular, I enjoyed the sections on Franklin, Madison, and Paine. Wood's treatment of Madison's seeming reversal of federalist beliefs was particularly enlightening (Wood argues, convincingly, that Madison didn't reverse himself--read the book to find out the details).

Wood's style is engaging, and his command of the subject(s) is obvious. I recommend this book to even the seasoned veteran of all things Founding Fathers.

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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Between Two Fires - Reviewed

Between Two FiresBetween Two Fires by Christopher Buehlman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review was first published in the Historical Novel Review. It is 1348 and the Black Death has come to wreak its destruction. Thomas, a fallen knight, finds himself in the company of a young Norman girl. There is an innocence and purity about her that he finds unsettling. More than that, there is a holiness, one that allows her to see angels and to know what path they must take as they make their way through the cursed countryside.

The world of men has found itself caught between the fires of Hell and the war in Heaven. Demons and abominations walk the land, and the walls of Heaven are besieged. The very throne of God is at stake. And all the hopes of this world lie with this one girl, and her reluctant guardian. Thomas must account for his many sins and find the faith he needs to escort the girl to Avignon and aid her in her mission.

Between Two Fires is a dark novel, one full of horrors and a vileness that had me cringing at times. It is full of miracles, demonic beings, and bloody combat. And it is beautiful. The characters are captivating and the action riveting. The world is full, and the story inspiring. It is one of faith, of redemption, and one of loyalties. I recommend this only to stout hearts, but I do so vehemently. I intend to reread the novel and pick up Buehlman’s debut novel.

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