Friday, February 27, 2015

Clash of Eagles (Book 1 of the Hesperian Trilogy), by Alan Smale

In this alternate version of historical fiction, Alan Smale envisions that the Roman Army in the year AD 1218 has never fallen; and in fact Rome has been prompted by rumors of Cities of Gold to sail across the ocean to invade the mysterious continent the Norse have told them about.

Landing in the Chesapeake Bay area, the Romans begin the march across the continent.  The engineers go first, cutting through forests, building roads as they go, and the Legion of soldiers with  their gear and supplies, cover about 20 miles per day in their wake.  With their vast military superiority, they envision total sublimation of the people of this continent, which the Romans have named Hesperia. 

As the march takes them further and further from the coast, they have overrun small villages and taken slaves.  There have been no battles, but the Roman soldiers are frequently harassed by surprise attacks that pick off one or two soldiers at a time.  The Roman general, Gaius Publius Marcellinus, scorns the Iroqua warriors as cowardly, but nevertheless is concerned about his men and their morale.

Before long, the army comes upon the body of one of their scouts, barbarically killed and left along the road for the marching army to find. "Could the Hesperians really not distinguish between soldiers and scouts? Did they intuit nothing of civilized conduct? How could a war even take place without scouts to guide the armies together?," he ponders to himself.

Too soon they come upon the city they have heard the rumors about.  They see no gold, but these people are prepared to do battle with the Romans, and even without wheels and iron, they are militarily superior in some surprising aspects.  Marcellinus is spared death, but he is captured and must learn to live among these strange people. As it turns out, they have much to learn from one another.

Smale has researched the Roman culture as well as the ancient Indian civilizations that thrives during this time period. The book is a great study comparing the two cultures. Lots to ponder in the interesting "What Ifs" that are presented, including the role of women in leadership and battle, attitudes regarding discipline in the military, attitudes about child rearing, and the relative value of central government.

  I received Clash of Eagles as an ebook from Edelweiss. It is due to be on the shelves in March, 2015.  Definitely an interesting read and I am wondering where books 2 and 3 will take us...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Three Doors to Death, by Rex Stout

What is better than finding an unread title of a Nero Wolfe volume by Rex Stout? It's finding three, all consolidated into one volume entitled Three Doors To Death. The three novellas were published in magazines in the late '40's, but Stout's writing ability and clever plotting is as fresh as ever.

Archie Goodwin remains Nero Wolfe's stenographer, gofer, assistant detective and Man on the Spot for the brilliant detective who hates to leave his home as much as he hates to miss a meal. In his witty style, Archie, the narrator of the Nero Wolfe books, writes a Foreword that pulls the three novellas together, pointing out the details the stories have in common as well as the exceptions to Nero's mystery-solving methods represented in each.

In Omit Flowers, for instance,  Wolfe does leave his home to take a meal in the restaurant of a close friend, and then proceeds to take on a case involving a friend of the restauranteur, and winds up solving the case as a favor to his friend(i.e., NOT for money!)...both rare exceptions to Wolfe's usual style.  In Door to Death, Wolfe once again leaves his lair to resolve a murder in upstate New York.  He makes the exception because he is set on hiring away the gardener of the estate. He may be the only gardener capable of taking care of Wolfe's orchid collection while his own Theodore Horstmann is on emergency family leave, and thus unable to render the tender loving care to Wolfe's orchids that their survival requires. Once at the estate, Wolfe has to stay to absolve the gardener, who discovers the body of  his own fiancee' in his greenhouse, and is then unjustly accused of killing her.

In Man Alive, the detectives are hired to find the uncle of the young lady who hires them.  He is presumed to have committed suicide, but his niece is sure she has recently seen him.  But before they can locate him, he is found dead at the family business.  Once again, there is a murder to solve.

Rex Stout is a witty man, incredibly non-"politically correct," and in the process, hilarious, not to mention a gifted creator of mysteries and  resolutions to the mysteries that are just as creative.

Friday, February 20, 2015

A Quest of Heroes, (Book 1,The Sorcerer's Ring Series) by Morgan Rice

Morgan Rice has created a fast paced fantasy series suitable for the younger readers who love quests, sorcery, magical creatures and coming of age stories.  In the first of the series, A Quest of Heroes, we are introduced to Thor, a younger son of a poor widower in an insignificant village.  Thor is apparently unloved and very under-appreciated as the shepherd of his father's flock.  His dream is to join the Legion and learn to be a great warrior.

He is just reaching the age of eligibility and knows that the Legion will be passing through selecting young men from each village to train at the nation's capitol, so when he spies the entourage approaching the village from his mountainside vantage point, he races home just in time to receive the scorn of his father, who doesn't want Thor to jeopardize the chances of his older sons by putting himself forward.

He is rejected and sent back to find the sheep, one of whom is missing. When he goes in search of that sheep he meets a mysterious man who seems to know more about Thor than he will tell.  When the sheep is threatened by a monstrous creature, hidden powers previously unknown to Thor are manifested and he kills the beast.  The mysterious stranger directs Thor to walk the highway to the capitol and present himself to the Legion headquarters.

Thor is met with skepticism but proves himself and is accepted by the Legion command.  Slowly he makes friends, but even faster, some dangerous enemies.  He wins the favor of the king and is soon embroiled in palace intrigue, even as a budding romance with the king's daughter begins.

Lots of characters and their side stories complement the saga of Thor, so this is another book whose ending demands that you immediately pick up the next in the series to see what next will happen to our heroes!

Persuasion, by Jane Austen

Jane Austen's books are classics for a reason.  Her writing is witty, her plot lines are intriguing; her characters are people one comes to genuinely care about interacting with interesting people with traits we don't necessarily admire, but are hard to look away from.

Persuasion is Anne Elliot's story.  She is a 27 year old young woman, living with the consequences of her decision to break off her engagement some eight years previously.  At nineteen, she was persuaded by her older friend, Lady Russell, who believes Anne would be consigning herself to a diminished role in society if she marries a man who's main qualifications are merely his love for Anne and his confidence in his own ability to become a man of wealth.

Ironically, Anne's own position in society is now tenuous, as her vain father and shallow older sister have squandered the family fortune, acquired a great deal of debt, and are in danger of losing the family estate.  They are forced to lease their beloved home to a retiring Admiral, and Anne is sent to stay with a married sister in a near by village.

What Anne finds out though, is that the Admiral's wife is the sister of her ex-fiance'!  And now he has returned, still single but greatly sought after by the younger single ladies and their parents, for now he is the highly successful Captain Wentworth who has made his name and his fortune in the British Navy.

Anne's love is immediately rekindled but she must subjugate those feelings when their paths cross, as Captain Wentworth now seems to disdain and ignore her even as he gets to know the young and eligible sisters of Anne's brother-in-law. Anne's people skills and intuitive wisdom make her a sought after friend and companion to all she meets, but will she ever have the chance to reclaim that first love?

Even if you know the answer, there is great pleasure in reading every word of this volume.  If you've read it before, it is probably time to pick it up and enjoy one more time!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Saving Grapes, by J.T. Lundy

J.T. Lundy, author of Saving Grapes, has a humorous idea, which is that Jason Barnes, a guy who habitually avoids hard work and responsible grown up behavior, is suddenly on track to inherit a vineyard worth France, no less! But his poor choices and boorish behavior mean he owes fines he has no money to pay, nor does he have money to buy a plane ticket to France.  Not to be put off by the judge who is holding his passport, he has his friend Stumpy buy the tickets and actually BORROWS a passport, which, lucky for him, fools the TSA folks at the airport.

But in my opinion, Lundy did not create a sympathetic-enough bumbler to carry the lead.  Barnes is selfish, self-centered and is apparently missing a moral compass.  In anger, he destroys the property of his employer...maybe understandable, as his employer is also self-centered and selfish, and by the way, also his former step-brother.

It's harder to overlook Jason Barnes' harsh and unloving attitude toward his aunt, the woman who raised him, not to mention leaves him the vineyard! He has one loyal friend, but doesn't show him much in the way of kindness either.  Once he gets to France, he realizes that the vineyard he is eager to sell is being run by some pretty formidable nuns who can prevent the sale of the vineyard if he does not cooperate with them.

As one might expect, the nuns show wisdom and patience beyond what Jason deserves, but in his desperation, he even steals from the nuns!!  His former step-brother is hot on his trail, knowing that he stands to inherit the vineyard when Barnes fails to meet the criteria set by the judge and lawyers, and step-bro intends to do whatever it takes to prevent Jason from inheriting his aunt's vineyard. Lots of impersonating and trickery, even kidnapping, ensues, but the threat of a body cavity search was not appropriate in a romantic comedy, IMHO.

It is quite the adventure, but I am a little put off by the book's back cover blurb which compares Saving Grapes to P.G. Wodehouse's delightfully funny mad-cap romances, in which the women are always smart, the guys are hopelessly naive, and there is likely to be a brilliant valet, aka, Jeeves, to come up with the ingenious plan to solve the problem/win the girl's affection/save the day.  Don't think the middle school body cavity humor would have made it into the Wodehouse books...

Thursday, February 5, 2015

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

Another great book detailing how WWII affected the citizens of war torn Europe at a grim and terrible time in our world history,  All the Light We Cannot See tells the story of two children, one a blind girl named Marie-Laure in France whose dad is the key keeper at a French museum in Paris. The other is an orphan boy named Werner, who is growing up in a coal mining town in Nazi Germany.

Anthony Doerr draws the details of their lives into our hearts in such a way that we know both of them very well, and feel enormous sympathy for the unfairness and harshness of their brief childhoods.  Too soon they are thrust into adult roles, having little control of their destinies...destinies which are fated to intersect as the war is winding down on the French coast line where she hides from Nazi bombs in her uncle's home while he waits with other Nazi soldiers in what may be a death trap in the cellar of a hotel that the Americans have just bombed.

The author chooses to tell their stories, hopping from present to past and from her story to his, as the past slowly becomes the present.  Doerr tells not only their stories, but the stories of their immediate families and both the French and German people that become part of the story as well.

I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers, by Thomas Hine

I Want That! is a surprisingly readable and entertaining treatise on shopping.  It's a history book with humor an insight into a very basic human activity.  Author Thomas Hine also explores how sales tactics and marketing emerged over time, drawing more and more shoppers into the web that is the market place.

Though it was published over a decade ago, the author is already familiar with online shopping and the invasion of privacy issues that soon follow.  He also explores the economic impact of Christmas and how it has moved away from its spiritual roots to a season of shopping that has an impact on not only local, but the global economy.

Reading this book is almost like reading a sociology book.  One enjoys discovering how trends in tastes emerge, affect fashions, housing, and just as quickly, render the fashionable passe' and call for something new and different.

This was one of those non-fiction book club reads that I really enjoyed...again, one I would never have picked up without a nudge from a friend. (Thanks, Jan H.!)  If you see it at Half Price, its a dollar well spent!