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Monday, July 25, 2016

Tigana

Tigana.  It's a name you won't be able to hear, understand or remember if you weren't born there, or are not a sorcerer or wizard.  But Tigana (#583) is the name of an epic fantasy novel from author Guy Gavriel Kay.


In this book, Kay explores the positive effects memory can have, as well as the corrosive and destructive effects when taken too far, or hatreds are nourished down the generations.  In this case, a peninsula standing in for Renaissance Italy with its feuding city states is The Palm.  It's been conquered by Tyrants from both the East and the West because the nine provinces of The Palm could not unite to fend off their attackers.  It is now divided territory with the Tyrants kept in check by their opposite numbers, strong sorcerers both.  When the Tyrant Brandin's son is killed by the Prince of Tigana, Brandin's revenge on the province includes wiping the memory of Tigana from the remaining  inhabitants of The Palm.  But a small number remember, and the Prince of Tigana's son has survived to carry on the fight, biding his time.


There is plenty of action to be had in this absorbing novel, but there's also plenty of food for thought.  Brandin, for instance, is portrayed as principled in his own way, and is a sympathetic character throughout much of the book.  It's hard sometimes as you are reading to know who to root for as motivations are revealed and plot twists uncovered.  Another thing that's difficult about this book is to put it down, both because of the plot and the beauty of the language.  You owe it to yourself to discover Guy Gavriel Kay.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Sent to the Devil

In the second book in a historical mystery series featuring Lorenzo Da Ponte, the Italian librettist who worked with Wolfgang Mozart, Laura Lebow sets Sent to the Devil (#582) in a Vienna torn by political unrest over the Turkish War the Emperor has pledged to fight on behalf of Catherine the Great of Russia.  To make matters worse, a series of horrific murders striking at Vienna's prominent citizens have plagued the city.  Lorenzo is working on a re-write with Mozart of Don Giovanni for the Viennese cast when he begins to receive mysterious coded messages.  Could they possibly be tied to what is going on in the city?


Mozart, Da Ponte and Salieri, the theater manager, are all hoping that Vienna remains calm  enough to allow them to actually present their opera before the theaters are shut down.  Because Da Ponte was able to solve a previous murder for the police (detailed in The Figaro Murders.) he is once again reluctantly drafted to aid Count Benda appointed to lead the official investigation.  When one of the victims turns out to be a retired priest and close friend of Da Ponte, he bows to the inevitable and vows to catch the fiend responsible.


My husband and I both found the Viennese setting of interest since we had been there recently.  Most of what was the backdrop to Da Ponte's life there is still easily recognizable to the modern day visitor.  Besides, we seem to be following the opera Don Giovanni around the world, having attended a performance of it in the Sydney Opera House, and having made a pilgrimage to the theater in Prague where it received its debut.


Mystery, history, high drama, murder all add up to an enjoyable outing.  I look forward to the further sleuthing adventures of Lorenzo Da Ponte.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Grunt - The Curious Science of Humans at War

I recently read a nationally syndicated review of Mary Roach's latest off-beat science book Grunt - The Curious Science of Humans at War (#581).  Suffice it to say that this critic is not a fan!  He objected to her "jokiness" about the serious subject.  Apparently he is not aware of any of her previous works.  I was relieved when my library hold came through for Grunt to find that I, on the other hand, enjoyed this book every bit as much as her earlier work.  It did make me laugh out loud at one point, but more importantly, Ms. Roach illuminates the hard work and research that goes into making our armed forces safer, more comfortable and healthier whether they're in an active war zone or a more peaceful posting.  Like her previous book Stiff, she also highlights the important and unique contributions the dead (both military and civilian) make to these efforts.


If you're a Mary Roach fan, you know what you're in for here.  If not, this might not be the best book to read over a meal table.  Organ transplants, diarrhea and extremely bad smells as a weapon are not necessarily the most appetizing topics.  Much of it might strike you as weird science, but research and development on these issues have made a positive difference to both active military personnel and veterans.  How do you get enough sleep on a submarine?  What's the best type of material to use for a desert deployment?  When are maggots a soldier's best friend?  Why does the same odor appeal to one person, but repel another?


This is serious business, indeed, but Mary Roach's approach to her topic makes it accessible to the average reader, not merely subscribers to scientific journals.  Perhaps if more books like this were available for younger readers, it might inspire them to pursue a career in science.  Just a thought.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Children of Earth and Sky

I hated to come to the end of Children of Earth and Sky (#580).  To me, that's the highest accolade for an author.  Guy Gavriel Kay intertwines the lives and travails of his characters in such a satisfying way you feel immersed in his world.  In this novel, it's a clash of cultures between the West and East in a time resembling the Renaissance.  Seressa with her lagoons and canals is a powerful merchant power owing allegiance to the Emperor in far-off Obravic.  They trade with the East, ruled by a mighty khalif who conquered the storied city of Sarantium, bringing a religious divide to the world.  As long as the Seressinis are free to trade with the Osmanlis, and to subtly pull the strings of diplomacy, they are content.  The fly in the ointment for them are the raiders of the city-state of Senjan.  They are supposed to leave the cargoes of their co-religionist Jaddite merchants alone, but that doesn't always happen.  Any ships on the sea are fair game for the Senjani.  When they raid a merchant ship from Dubrava returning home carrying passengers from Seressa onboard, they change the course of events that the Council of Twelve in Seressa had planned.


We meet a female archer, Danica, whose mission in life is revenge.  Pero Villani is being sent to Sarantium, now renamed Asharias, to paint a Western style portrait of the Grand Khalif at the Khalif's request.  Surely there are opportunities for the Serrisinis here?  Also aboard are a physician and his wife, bound for Dubrava.  When the physician is killed during the Senjani raid, Marin Djivo, son of the ship's owner, takes it upon himself to protect the widow.  Their stories ebb and flow through the politics and religious and cultural clashes all around them.  The telling of these stories is both beautiful and poetic.


The reader will easily recognize Venice, Prague, Istanbul, Dubruvnik and even Rome in this tale.  The historical details about the Ottoman army, Venetian politics and the spread of Islam to the Byzantine empire and beyond are all accurate, and the emphasis on religious differences is provocative. 


Kay's books are assigned to the genre of Fantasy, and in many ways, that's a shame.  I think many readers who are fans of historical fiction would devour his books if only they realized how well-researched and reflective of the times and places in which he chooses to set his novels they are. They succeed in conveying a sense of time and place that is often lacking in straight historical fiction.  If you appreciate a marvelous story well told Children of Earth and Sky should be at the top of your "To Read" list.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

The 5 Greatest Warriors

Matthew Reilly's The 5 Greatest Warriors (#579) is the final installment in this three part adventure series.  It picks up right where The Six Sacred Stones (See my previous post.) left off; with our hero, Jack West Jr., falling seemingly to his death in an abyss.


Of course Jack isn't dead (or there wouldn't be another book!) but in his race to save the world by solving clues from ancient times, planted by an ancient unknown civilization and famous warriors in history, you think each time "This is it - he's not going to make it!"  But he and his stalwart crew and adopted daughter Lily always squeak through, although not without severe consequences for some, if not all of them.  Reilly even manages to provide a happy ending to this tale told at breakneck pace.  For now, Jack's team is able to enjoy some peace and quiet, but author Matthew Reilly assures us in an interview at the end of the book that he will plan to write further adventures for this crew, counting all the way down to "1 Something Something".


If you like nonstop action mixed with a healthy dose of history and geography, Matthew Reilly is the writer for you.  This series may be a few years old, but it's just as much fun now as it was when it was hot off the presses!

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Six Sacred Stones

Despite what you might think from reading my last post, The Six Sacred Stones (#578) by Matthew Reilly is anything but a religious book.  In a cover blurb, Kirkus Reviews calls it a "video game in print".  That's an apt description for this non-stop action thriller.  In fact, the adventure featuring Jack West Jr. and his team assembled from around the world began with 7 Deadly Wonders (See my post of 4/10/15 ), and concludes with the third book, The 5 Greatest Warriors, which is a good thing since The Six Sacred Stones ends with the cliff hanger of all cliff hangers.  At stake here?  No less than the end of the world!  Jack West Jr. and his crew are trying their best to defeat those who are only interested in a) the destruction of earth and b) grabbing and controlling the gifts promised by the ancients to those who act to prevent this from happening.  Total world domination is a pretty tempting prize, you have to admit.


This is so much fun to read as the body count mounts ever higher, and you are sure that Jack, Zoe, Pooh Bear, Stretch, Sky Monster, the Wizard and the twin math geniuses along with Jack's adopted daughter Lily, age 12 and her friend Alby are never going to make it out alive from just about every encounter with their enemies.  You probably won't get that nap in the hammock you've been promising yourself once you start to read any of these books - I know I burned the midnight oil to find out what happens next! 


As an added bonus, Matthew Reilly includes quite a bit of factual information on the ancient world, astronomy and even religious texts while he's at it.  It's a really painless (for us!) way to absorb interesting information - learning without tears.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy

I was surprised to find John Shelby Spong's latest book Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy (#577) prominently displayed under Staff Picks at the main branch of our local library.  I knew the name from my Episcopal background, but I've never read any of his works before.  With time off from EfM this summer, it seemed like the perfect time to remedy that omission.


The premise of Spong's book is that the Bible as a whole, and in this work, the gospel of Matthew in particular, were not written as literal works of history, but rather as metaphors and allegories to teach greater truths.  The original Jewish audience for whom the gospels were written would have understood the underlying stories and allusions to Old Testament scripture.  In fact, Spong posits that Matthew was designed to be read in the synagogues as part of the liturgical year cycle, just as many traditional denominations of Christianity have set orders of readings from both Old and New Testament works throughout the year.  When the new Christian movement broke away from their synagogue-based roots beginning with the Roman persecutions following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE, Spong contends that the now mostly Gentile congregations knew nothing about Jewish scriptures, and so lost the key to interpreting the gospels properly themselves.  They began to read them as literal history.


I found what Spong has to say most interesting.  His arguments are laid out logically and make sense to me.  Of course, I realize after three years of EfM that my mind and theological thinking have stretched considerably.  For many, many others judging from the letters to the editor in my local paper, their first reaction would be to take this book out to the library parking lot and burn it!  (Without reading it first, of course!)  If they could actually bring themselves to read it, the challenge to what they have always been taught to believe could cause their heads to explode.  If they can get past that, it might just open up a whole new way of thinking for them.  You'll just have to read Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy for yourself.