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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Sunday, March 18, 2012

Mysteries of History: The American Revolution - Reviewed

Mysteries of History: The American RevolutionMysteries of History: The American Revolution by U.S. News & World Report
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this through Goodread's giveaway program.

This issue is a fantastic sampling of facts, anecdotes, personalities and analysis of the American Revolutionary War. For an expert of the era, some of the articles will be more of a reminder, but even still there were a number of fascinating articles. These included one on an attempted submersible designed by the rebels (with Franklin's help), and another on several less-known heroes. Recommended.

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Thursday, March 8, 2012

James Madison and the Making of America - Reviewed

James Madison and the Making of AmericaJames Madison and the Making of America by Kevin R.C. Gutzman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received this Advance Reading Copy through Goodreads First Reads program, so I'll refrain from any quoting or commentary on spelling and proofing.

Gutzman has obviously done a tremendous amount of research to put this book together. If what you're looking for is a more textbook telling of James Madison's public life in in-depth detail, this is the book for you. Unfortunately, Madison's public life does not lend itself to a very compelling narrative. Though he was one of the great Founding Fathers, other luminaries such as Washington, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and Jefferson are much more interesting reads. This book never really takes the reader from Philadelphia, Virginia, or DC, and we spend most of our time inside convention halls, salons, and newspapers. Perhaps that is the greatest take-away for me from this book: Madison's contributions to our nation's founding were instrumental and demand careful study, but they do not lend themselves to a compelling read.

The other strike against this book is Gutzman's presentation. It is 363 pages (without the end notes), yet it is only divided into eight chapters with no additional breaks in the narrative. It is simply page after page of text, which makes for chewy reading. Fischer's Washington's Crossing in contrast (a book of comparable length) is broken up into 19 chapters and includes a wonderful introduction that orients the reader. Additionally, Washington's Crossing includes 19 maps and many dozens of inset portraits and paintings of the relevant personalities and places involved. These not only serve to further inform the reader, but also break up the text to make it more digestible. Gutzman's organization of the material may be logical (in that it is chronological), but it needs to be served in more concise and smaller portions.

Gutzman's chapters are as follows:
1: From Subject to Citizen
2: Winning the Revolution
3: The Philadelphia Convention
4: Ratifying the Constitution, Part One
5: Ratifying the Constitution, Part Two
6: Inaugurating the Constitution
7: Secretary of State, Then President
8: An Active Retirement

If you want a daily account of the Philadelphia Convention, a summary and analysis of each of the Federalist Papers, and a blow-by-blow of every twist and turn the ratification process, then I suggest this book. If you're looking for a page turner, look elsewhere. Though I can't get enough of this era, I found myself skimming large sections of this book knowing that I would never be able to retain its minutiae. It's a shame, because Madison's public life is worthy of study. But perhaps not in this level of detail.

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Friday, February 24, 2012

The Road - Reviewed

The RoadThe Road by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It seems that I'm very much out of the majority in my opinion of this novel. It came recommended, and I had high hopes. This was also my first McCarthy novel, and it will be my last.

The Road is short, which is why I finished it despite my many misgivings. Even to those who adore it, is one long black trudge through a devastated world. We never know why all the animals and plants have died, only that the unnamed boy and unnamed man are traveling through what had once been North America.

This is the darkest book I have ever read. I usually reserve such exposure to bleakness in my non-fiction reading. Why would I subject myself to it in novel form, when it simply comes from the mind of one author? It is rife with cannibalism, including such an awful scene toward the end that I wish I could unread (I won't even describe it here, it was that disturbing to me). I don't know why this novel was written, nor why it is so beloved.

While I do appreciate some of the writing style, much of it was distracting. How can McCarthy be lauded for his 'sparse prose,' and yet deliver a quote like this:

“Ten thousand dreams ensepulchred within their crozzled hearts.”

That's prose, but it is anything but sparse.

I wish I hadn't read this book, and I would never recommend it.

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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Conqueror: A Novel of Kublai Kahn - Reviewed

Conqueror: A Novel Of Kublai KhanConqueror: A Novel Of Kublai Khan by Conn Iggulden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read the Advanced Reading Copy, received through Goodread's giveaways program, so I will not comment on formatting or syntax, since any issues there will be cleaned up come the final version.

This is book five in the Conqueror series, and it picks up where Empire of Silver left off. My review for book five is very similar to book four, the series is only getting better. Iggulden does a superb job of breathing life into the likes of Guyuk, Batu, and, of course, Kublai. That he can make these leaders of such a brutal people so sympathetic is amazing. His prose is never over-wrought, and his dialogue never stilted. He takes some liberties with the historical record, but not enough to warp your understanding of this era of history. Quite the contrary, you'll emerge on the other side of having read this book (and its predecessors) very much enriched.

This is what historical fiction (and least of the militaristic type) is all about. Highly recommended.

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