Thursday, October 28, 2010

St. Peter's Fair

[Note:  I listened to this as an audiobook.]

After reading a novel here and there for many years, I've recently set out to (re)read Ellis Peters' 'Brother Cadfael' series of historical mysteries in its entirety.  St. Peter's Fair (1981) is the fourth installment in the series and takes place in Shrewsbury in the summer of 1139 during the period known as The Anarchy.

Brother Cadfael, a Benedictine monk, serves as an herbalist at the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul in Shrewsbury.  Far from being an ordinary monk, Cadfael has extensive experience in the outside world and even participated in the First Crusade to liberate the Holy Land.  After an adventurous life, he has settled down into quiet contemplation as a man of the cloth.  His keen powers of observation and the ability to read people make him well suited to the solving of various crimes--something which he does on a fairly regular basis!

In St. Peter's Fair, we find Shrewsbury still recovering from a siege by the forces of King Stephen the previous summer.  It is the eve of the fair of St. Peter (surprise!), an annual event organized by the abbey where merchants from the surrounding regions gather to trade with one another.  The fair is lucrative business, both for the merchants and the abbey, which receives a proportion of the profits through various tolls, taxes, and offerings.

The townspeople see their chance to recoup some of the damage done during last summer's seige and approach the abbey to demand that a portion of the tolls and taxes go to repair the town's defenses.  The prior refuses, citing the royal charter that grants it the rights to all income from the fair.  It is into this tense atmosphere that a throng of traders arrives at the start of the three day fair.  There soon erupts a confrontation between a gang of rambunctious Shrewsbury youths and a merchant of some renown.  When he is found dead the following day, the abbey (and, of course, Brother Cadfael) is drawn into a plot that could threaten the stability of England as a whole.

Ellis Peters has written another excellent little mystery which is both entertaining and engaging.  She does a convincing job of turning a fairly commonplace murder of a merchant into a plot having wide implications for the security of the realm.  There isn't much to be said in the way of critique for St. Peter's Fair!

Monday, October 18, 2010


I finished reading Imperium (2006) by Robert Harris quite a while ago but have only now gotten around to writing up a review.  I feel like I'm cheating the novel a bit--it was so good it deserves an in-depth review, but in the interest of playing catchup on the blog, I'm going to make it fairly short!

Imperium follows the early life and burgeoning political career of Marcus Tullius Cicero, considered by most to be the greatest orator ever produced by Rome.  From humble beginnings outside Rome, Cicero lacks the ancestral mystique and familial connections used by many of Rome's young politicians to jump start their careers.  Instead, Cicero is forced to rely on his intelligence and political acumen to climb his way up the cursus honorum toward the consulship.

The story is narrated by Tiro, Cicero's slave and lifelong secretary.  Tiro is accredited with having devised a shorthand system in order to transcribe the high volume of Latin dictations required by Cicero's verbosity.  In fact, his writing system was so useful, it was widely used throughout ancient Rome and even as late as the Middle Ages by monks!  Tiro makes for an interesting narrator as he is critical to Cicero's success but as a slave will ultimately always remain bereft of true power.  There are a few poignant scenes in the novel where Tiro longs for nothing more than to be freed and settle down to a pastoral life but realizes it would only doom him to a life of obscurity away from Cicero's side.  Simply put, it is clear that Cicero and Tiro need each other to function to the best of their abilities.

Imperium is a truly excellent novel.  Outside of McCullough's 'Masters of Rome' series, it is probably the best Roman historical fiction I've read.  I was a bit let down when I reached the end of Imperium which ends just as Cicero attains the consulship in 63 BC.  For goodness sakes, Cicero plays such a pivotal role in the years to come that it would be cheating him out of his due to end there!  What about the Cataline conspiracy?  His opposition to Mark Antony?  Give me more!  Well, happily, I discovered that Imperium is the first of a trilogy of novels about Cicero by Harris, so there is much more to enjoy.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Un Lun Dun

I was excited to finally get a chance to read Un Lun Dun (2007) by China Mieville when the book finally came up on my PBS wishlist (I think I'd been in line for almost two years waiting for it...).  Mieville is arguably one of the best talents to appear on the science/fantasy/weird fiction scene in the last decade. His Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002) were absolutely stunning novels, and I see that The City & The City (2010) finally netted him the big one, a Hugo Award, to add to his growing collection of honors.

In a major departure from these previous works, which were most definitely adult-themed, Un Lun Dun is geared toward a younger audience.  I'd say a middle schooler could read the book and understand the plot fine, but some thematic devices  and language complexity add a level of sophistication to the writing.  I didn't think the book simplistic in the least (this was my major criticism of The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman), so readers of "serious" fiction should not hesitate to pick up Un Lun Dun.  I hate to drag out the well-worn 'If you like Neil Gaiman's [insert novel title here], you'll like [insert novel here]' line but, in this case, it rings true.

The story opens with a couple of friends, Zanna and Deeba, who begin to experience some fairly strange things in their everyday life.  One such event, when a broken umbrella is very obviously spying on them from outside a window, leads them to the strange land of UnLondon (hence the name of the novel) which turns out to be a nonsensical mirror of the real London.  UnLondon is inhabited by a vast array of characters that may or may not be human, and most of the objects in the city are a strange collection of things that have been cast off in London as junk.

Amid this strange setting, Zanna and Deeba learn that UnLondon is being threatened by a powerful enemy known as The Smog.  The Smog, as it turns out, is a cloud of smog (think the smoke monster from Lost) that burns anything it can get its tendrils on to grow larger and more powerful.  An ancient prophecy forcasts a Chosen One (the 'Shwazzy') who will save the city from The Smog.  Zanna is immediately recognized as The Shwazzy, but in her first battle with Mr. Smog, she is incapacitated and returns home to London in a debilitated state.

This leaves Deeba (The UnChosen) to save her friend by herself in a series of interesting adventures that are so outlandish that my description couldn't do them justice.  Besides, part of the fun of the book is seeing what crazy thing is around the next corner and what clever pun it will be built upon.  Along the way she picks up a motley group of friends who turn out to be indispensable to her quest.  Mieville throws in a good number of ink illustrations in the pages to help us imagine some of the stranger encounters.

Un Lun Dun deliberately turns a number of time-honored fantasy conventions on their head.  It so happens that the hero chosen by fate turns out to be fairly useless, the all-important quest objects required to reach the ultimate goal go unclaimed by our heroes, and the book of UnLondon prophecy turns out to be almost wholly inaccurate.

I admit that I somewhat struggled to become engaged by Un Lun Dun.  The chaotic, disorderly nature of UnLondon combined with Mieville unveiling it in short bursts (the 300 page book has nearly 100 chapters) prevented me from establishing a strong connection with the setting as a whole.  This being said, there can be no argument that the novel is well-conceived and cleverly executed, and, in the end, I quite enjoyed it.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Where Men Win Glory

My latest read came highly recommended by my dad, who I would describe as a huge Jon Krakauer fan.  I must confess that I read about half of Krakauer's book Into the Wild based on several recommendations, and while it was very readable, could not establish much of a connection with the story.  So, I wasn't sure what I would make of Where Men Win Glory (2009) since it is definitely not a book that I would have chosen to read on my own.  Well, I'm certainly glad I gave it a chance--it was a deeply affecting and, dare I say, perspective-altering experience.

At its heart, Where Men Win Glory is a biographical sketch of Pat Tillman, a professional football player who left behind a successful career (and, I hasten to add, his wife of only a year) to enlist in the United States Army after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  He was subsequently killed in Afghanistan in 2004 as a result of friendly fire.  I must admit before reading this book that I hadn't really given Tillman much credit in the hero department--I only vaguely remembered the story that had been put out in the mainstream media (much of which, as it turns out, was a complete fabrication).

Krakauer spends the first half of the book examining the personality and motives of Tillman, with much of the material culled from Tillman's personal journals. These pages are well spent.  As it turns out, Tillman was the complete opposite of what I expected him to be.  Instead of fitting the classic jock stereotype, he is revealed to be a deeply thoughtful individual who felt an almost instinctual need to serve his country in the wake of 9/11.  This is in spite of the fact that he had considerable qualms over the morality or justice of the war effort of which he was to be part.

Drawing on hundreds of interviews and time spent in Afghanistan on the ground, Krakauer proceeds to paint a vivid picture of the incident that ultimately resulted in Tillman's death.  The description is so intense that during the firefight scene I found myself shrinking down a bit in my chair to avoid an imagined hail of gunfire.  It was fairly agonizing reading this section, all the time knowing what was coming--I found myself irrationally hoping that Tillman might escape unscathed.  Sadly, that was not the case.

The final portion of the book describes the aftermath of the death of Pat Tillman and, more specifically, the lengths to which the United States government went to obscure the truth of the incident.  The conclusion that the Bush White House and the US Army ill-used the legacy of Pat Tillman is inescapable.  Perhaps the most egregious decision by the powers-that-be was to withhold the real circumstances surrounding Tillman's death from his wife, brother, and parents.  It was not until the media finally got wind of the real story that the Army was essentially forced to confess the truth.

Where Men Win Glory is an imminently readable book and a fitting tribute to Tillman and his family.  I leave you with a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche (found in the book) which I found a poignant description of the life and legacy of Pat Tillman:

I love him who does not hold back one drop of spirit for himself, but wants to be entirely the spirit of his virtue: thus he strides over the bridge as spirit.  I love him who makes his virtue his addiction and his catastrophe:  for his virtue's sake he wants to live on and to live no longer.