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Something TakenSomething Taken by Jerrie Brock
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Terrible things happen. There comes a point in many people's lives where they realize that the world is not small and safe. They realize that it is large, unpredictable, random and terribly dangerous. For some people, the realization comes through watching others. For some it is a process of thought. And some come up against the danger, cruelty and randomness in their own lives without warning.

Terry is in a new place, starting a new life after turning her back on the rags of her childhood. She is eighteen years old, making it on her own, happy with her friends, her job, her dog... And then in one night her innocence is stolen, her trust is betrayed and she is trapped and despairing.

Terrible things happen. You can't bend the rules. You're on your own. The weaker always loses. Something Taken tells of this - and it also tells of a truth that we often lose sight of when we are transfixed by the cruelty and harshness of life: there are heroes. There are the Bright Ones who stand against the dark, who follow their hearts in defiance, sometimes, of the rules.

An old nursery rhyme talks about 'The Benders, the Breakers, The Menders and Makers'.

This is a story of a broken girl and how she comes through it. I found it moving.

There are some things that should be mentioned. This is a story of an eighteen-year-old girl, alone and vulnerable, who is used very badly. Harsh things happen, she is subjected to mistreatment. Brock's gift is that she can tell of a terrible experience and do it completely by recounting the character's sometimes disjointed expressions. She chronicles Terry's descent into hell, and (I will post no spoilers) and of the hand outstretched to her that brought her back.

I read the beginnings of this book nearly a year ago. It was in an early form, and the author was asking for feedback. I was struck by the power of her writing, by her instinctive understanding of people. Her descriptions are very well done, and her characterizations do not falter. It is a powerful book.

This may be a hard book for some to read, for it touches upon difficult subjects, but ultimately it is worthwhile. (There are ways to preview books through Amazon and other sellers. If in doubt, try it out.)

I give this book five stars. It can be dark, it can be harsh, it is, as a whole, a very good book.

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Khamsin The Devil Wind of the NileKhamsin The Devil Wind of the Nile by Inge H. Borg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ancient Egypt is thought of, by many, as the dawn of history. This book takes you to a time that is before history, bringing to life names that we only know from fragments, harking to a rhythm and image that is smoothed and darkened by time. And yet the author makes them human.

This is the very earliest period of dynastic Egypt, a time when the border between history and legend is blurred, when the kings and queens of that land seem to be gods that stepped down from the bowl of the sky and trod the land...

The author states:
At the dawn of the great Egyptian dynasties, before any Pyramids were built and the camel was introduced to the Nile regions, certainly long before the royal title of Pharaoh came into use, Aha rules as the second King of the First Dynasty... H i8s triumph and tragedy plays out centuries before the Greek colonization of the Two Lands... To this day our vague answers are drawn only from relics and mummies of much later dynasties, their cities wrenched from the hot red dust driven into the verdant river valley for fifty days by the Khamsin, the dreaded Devil Wind of the Nile. In Khamsin, the reader is immersed in the life of the fertile Valley of the Nile, as flesh and muscle have been molded back onto those brittle bones...

She molds them well. We meet characters that catch the exotic cadences of the faraway times as we follow the fate of a life conceived in the beginning pages. We watch first one character and then another - the general of the Fourth Army of Amun, who is tender to his faraway wife, lusty with a woman of the desert, and crafty. (And I must remember never to go back to that time and agree to carry an important message...)

And we meet Ramose...

This is a story to savor, written lusciously, with care and enjoyment. I grew to love Ramose, to enjoy his dry wit and his wide-eyed mysticism. The writing is lyrical at times, so rare in a time of utilitarianism, and the Khamsin is in the background, lending its tone to the story.

I enjoyed this - and I rejoice to tell you that Ms. Borg has written another, arising from this but far, far in the future from this story. I think you will enjoy it, too.
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A Bloody Field by ShrewsburyA Bloody Field by Shrewsbury by Edith Pargeter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is going to be a terrible disappointment to a great many modern readers who want to pick up a book and have a lively time that does not involve any intellectual input in the reading. The book's title, 'A Bloody Field', tends to raise expectations in the breasts of many readers of historical fiction - or, perhaps, the sort of 'historical fiction' that are currently popular - that it simply will not meet.

If someone picks up this book expecting the sort of read that is described as Packed with epic adventure and bloody action, or A rollicking, dangerous and often very gory gallop through...  they are doomed to disappointment. The point of this story - and, indeed, of Edith Pargeter's serious historical novels - is not to occupy the reader with a mindless spectacle of spraying blood and the crunch of broken bones with, perhaps, some discussion of tactics thrown in, but instead to immerse the reader in the tragedy, triumph and spirit of a time, a conflict or an event.

Three Henrys come together in this story - Henry Plantagenet (Henry IV), Prince Henry (who became Henry V) and Henry Percy (Hotspur). Others have spoken of the complexities of the characters - or, perhaps, the complexities of the first two Henrys, for Hotspur, who served as Prince Henry's governor or mentor, is as straightforward as a well-aimed lance.

I am afraid that I am a Yorkist, and my sympathy lies wholly with Prince Henry, the son of a usurper, gently treated by the man whose throne was stolen (Richard II - not Richard III, as some reviewers have stated) and regarding his father whom he loves, perhaps, as he has from childhood, but whom he cannot admire. In one scene, Prince Henry remembers going to King Richard in fear, trembling and regret when he learns of his father's return to England as a foe of the king. Richard treats him gently. Earlier, when Richard's beloved Queen Anne has died, Henry the child goes to him in tears and is comforted. All these threads provide the background to the conflict between Henry and his father.

Other characters appear; Shrewsbury is on the border of that turbulent and dark land known as Wales, subjugated by Edward Longshanks and restless under the English rule. We have a microcosm of the Welsh unrest and a compelling account of the rioting that breaks out in Shrewsbury.

One scene that Pargeter handles magnificently is her account of the morning before the battle of Shrewsbury, where Hotspur is gazing at the army drawn up before him. The Prince of Wales is at bay, and will go down to defeat against Percy's superior numbers. Hotspur has made provisions to safeguard Prince Henry, whom he loves and values even though they are, in this conflict, on other sides. "He would impale himself on a thicket of spears," he says to a friend, and he seeks to ensure that this will not happen in the coming fray.

He stands and watches the force drawn up against him, and as he gazes a skein of wind catches the banner at the van, lifting it, shaking it out, showing the red and blue and gold - no mark of cadency on this flag: it is not the army of the Prince of Wales, but the army of the King, of the man who drove his army and himself in a punishing march halfway across England in the fear - hardly realized by himself - that his son might - just possibly - defect. It is a magnificent moment, as is the description of the King's arrival in his son's camp, eagerly scanning his son's face for some kind of gladness or relief.

People are complex, motives are seldom straightforward - unless you are Henry Percy in this story - and the tale proceeds through its climax and the triumph of King Henry over Henry Percy and its aftermath...to a moment of late and hard-won grace and forgiveness.

This is a beautiful book, but it is one that must be read with attention, understanding and heart.

If you want an exhilarating, gory gallop, bloody action and no hint of tenderness or love between man and woman or, even, between father and son, then you had best put this book back on the shelf and read something lighter. There is lots available.

But if you love to contemplate the workings of the human heart as shown in history, if the thoughts and joys of others move you to a smile - and perhaps making marks on pages of books that touch you - then this is for you.

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Killer Of MenKiller Of Men by Christian Cameron

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is the end of 'the long war' - the conflict between Greece and Persia that was one of the crucibles that helped to shape the modern world and modern thought. You are sitting in the afternoon light with some of your friends. One's grandfather sits down at the request of his children and tells the story of his life as you listen. It is quite a life, spanning that crucible period, dealing with those who set the events in motion, shaped them, were destroyed by them.
When the men of Plataea sent Myron to Athens, the storm was still a tower of darkness on the horizon, and we were blinded by our own desires. But the desires of men are nothing when the gods send a storm. The first drops of rain were falling, and only Miltiades knew how big the storm was. And he didn't tell us.
He is an old man, a noble in his home in Thrace. He likes his wine and he likes to tell a good story. He cautions the listeners that his memory may be at fault, but he promises to tell as faithfully as he can all that he saw and did. The story is shaped by the teller, and he is a man of his time - sometimes crude, sometimes heartbreakingly innocent, especially at the first. He faces the truth unflinchingly. He has lived a rough life and done many things that surprise his listeners. He does not apologize, though he understands their uneasiness.
Do we? The narrator is a man of his day, and he speaks to people of his day and age with mindsets far different from ours. He might speak of someone forcing a little slave girl to 'blow his flute', (the man was killed for this) and his granddaughter might blush at this - but this was a society that was closer to matters of life, death and sex than we are at this moment, and the story and the reaction are valid. Who are we to impose our current sensibilities on a story that is trying to be true to the past in which it is set?

'Killer of Men' is a term meaning 'Warrior'. Substitute 'Man of War' or 'Fighter' or 'Champion' and see if it fits better. Arimnestos of Plataea was trained by Calchas, a priest who tended the shrine of a great warrior and a Killer of Men. He was a Killer of Men, himself:

There is a passage, late in the poem, when Achilles is still sulking and Hector rages among the Greeks. And several of the lesser heroes form a line, lock their shields and stop Hector's rush. I remember him singing that whole passage softly... Calchas looked up, into the shaft of light, and his eyes were far away. "That's how it is when the lesser men seek to stop the better. You must lock your shield with your neighbour's, put your head down and refuse to take chances. Let the better man wear himself out against your shield. Poke hard with your spear to keep him art arm's length and refuse to leave the safety of the shield wall." He shrugged. "Pray to the gods that the killer finds other prey, or trips and falls, or that your own killers come and save you."

Arimnestos says "But you were one of the better men." Suddenly his eyes locked with mine and I could see him in his high-crested helm, his strong right arm pounding a lesser man's shield down, until he made the killing cut. I could see it as if I was there. "Yes," he said. "I was a killer of men... I still am. Once you have been there, you can never leave."

Arimnestos was trained to arms and set upon the long, difficult path. The path leads him through warfare - his Plataeans fight off a phalanx of Spartans under King Cleomenes, who gives them the tremendous compliment of asking for a truce to enable them to bury their dead. He studies under the philosopher Heraclitus, he is there to see the event that turns Ephesus against the Persians.

And he fights.

The old man remembers and tells the story as truly as he can, from the beginnings that made him a warrior to his return to the place he lost through another's treachery. He was not a 'mover and shaker' but he went with them, and he watched and listened. He tells his story in the voice of an old man, and it is a good story, well-salted by his thoughts and experience:

Is Achilles really a hero? He's as much of a bitch as Theognis, to my mind. Hector is the hero. And even he would not have made much of a farmer - well, perhaps I do mighty Hector wrong. Given a month of rain, Hector would not surrender or sulk in his barn.

Modern readers seem to want a formula. You don't read "The latest story by George Martin." You read, instead, "The latest George Martin." (I have Josephine Tey - The Daughter of Time - to thank for the illustration). It is not an individual product. It is something put out to fit the perceived wants of a class of readers. Pigeonholes, with the expected pigeons being duly produced to fit into them, safe and secure for the reader's enjoyment. No surprises. If the pigeon does not fit the specific hole we have set for it, if the pigeon is not what we expect, then it is worthless.

This is not a textbook on the Persian war (although Arimnestos, a historic character, is thought to be one of the sources of the histories by Herodotus - If you look carefully, you will see that he makes several appearances in the story wielding a stylus) nor is it a beginning-to-end account of the fighting as it happens, It is the story of an old man remembering his part in the greatest conflict faced by civilization as he knew it. It is about his telling of his experiences, told as though you are sitting there and listening to him.

If I had my way the Glossary and the Notes on Names would be in the back of the book, before the Acknowledgments. I have no other criticism.

I give this book five stars; it has earned them. Skill, language, character. Arimnestos, it seems, will be telling more stories. I think I will enjoy sitting in the sunset with him, sipping wine and listening to him.


Africa AdornedAfrica Adorned by Angela Fisher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I saw this book featured in an article in Smithsonian magazine. I have always been fascinated by people in general - what makes them unique, beautiful, what we all have in common. I thought "This book would be a wonderful gift for my brother!" and I went to the University of Pennsylvania Museum Gift Shop and purchased a copy to give as a gift. I looked through it, gasped at the beautiful photos by Ms. Fisher, savored the chapter text that filled in what was in the photos, and two months later I bought myself a copy. (And it wasn't cheap!)

What can I say about this? As a survey of the way that the people of the continent of Africa adorn themselves, this book is brilliant. The people are photographed in all their personal beauty, Masai and Berber, Pokot and Tuareg, Dinka and Wodaabe. The photographer was obviously welcomed and valued as a person; she was privileged to photograph events that women were not allowed to see. Her enjoyment of humanity and appreciation of its beauty in all its forms shines through. Photographs of the people - an artisan casting 'bronze' jewelry through the lost wax method - wearing garments that were obviously his very finest - young women at a marriage fair - Masai warriors going through the coming of age ceremony - all are works of art in themselves and all the more powerful for showing the personalities of their subjects.

The photographs are paired with sections of text. Each chapter covers a geographic location - the savannah, for example - that gives a little history and has period illustrations.

While this book is a survey of cultures that make up Africa, nowhere does it seem to hold its subjects under a microscope in a detached fashion like exhibits in a museum. The photographs of the adornments, whether laid out as an exhibit or in situ on a human being, are clear, detailed and with captions that answer any questions that might possibly come up.

I have absolutely no criticism of this book; from start to finish it is a splendid effort, well worth its price and its fame. I can't imagine not owning it.

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Splendors Of Meiji: Treasures Of Imperial Japan: Masterpieces From The Khalili CollectionSplendors Of Meiji: Treasures Of Imperial Japan: Masterpieces From The Khalili Collection by Joe Earle

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is the catalog for an exhibit highlighting the Khalili family's fabulous collection of Meiji art including metalwork (bronze, silver, mixed), pottery (Satsuma), porcelain, cloisonné' laquerware (both on furniture and in its own right) and some textiles.

The informational matter - the history of the period, the 'discovery by the west (at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia as a start) and the ways the work spread - is interesting, well-written and well-footnoted.

The photographs are breathtaking; print fidelity is excellent, and I have personally identified about twenty pieces that would look wonderful in my home, if the members of the Khalili family ever decide that they wish to give me a gift for some reason.

This is a book to read for edification and education, and it has served its purpose.

For me, however, it is, perhaps most importantly, a provider of moments of refreshment and beauty, a way to sip the true beauties of Japanese art from a period legendary for its perfection, a reminder of the intricacy of Japanese culture, and a journey through legend, lore and tradition.

The book is no longer being printed, but copies are available for a reasonable price (less than I paid some years ago). This book gets five stars.

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The Axe the Shield and the Halig RoodThe Axe the Shield and the Halig Rood by James M. Hockey

My rating: 5 stars

This is a review of The Axe, The Shield and the Halig Rood by James M. Hockey

This book - from now on 'Rood' - is the second book in a chronological trilogy set in 'dark ages' Europe by way of mid seventeenth-century England through the ancient craft of a Gleeman - a storyteller/historian.. I should comment that the term 'Dark Ages', in my opinion, refers to our lack of concrete history for that time. That being the case, Mr. Hockey provides a very believable illumination in Rood.

Once again we are in the meeting house in the 1600's, gathered with a group of our townsfolk to listen to the tales told by the Gleeman, Bowdyn. He had been nearly killed, had been rescued by Jo - the young man who serves as a sort of overall narrator - and who repaid his benefactors by telling them stories in the evening through the course of several months. These are not general 'stories', but are histories, accounts of happenings told by those who were there, by the movers and shakers, those who did and suffered and triumphed.

Tales they may be, he says, but they are true tales, told right. And we sit and listen with those villagers who survived the bloody revolt of the Duke of Monmouth and saw the backlash against all, going back to another time of conflict and chaos with men and women who faced the challenge, fought hard and won.

Rood starts with a band of travelers, men and women under the command of Gewis, his uncle, who had led them through many dangers, as their ships fought a savage sea and a rocky shore as they approach Britannia, where they will live the rest of their lives. You can feel the heave of the stormy seas, taste the spray on your lips..

While Rood is the continuation of Triton, this story stands alone. Anything that has occurred in the past narration is supplied in the current narration, easily, without fanfare much as you might learn of a friend's life as you become acquainted with him. And so we hear Creoda's account of their landing in Britannia, their hard-won welcome - for they came in peace, willing to purchase land and work it.

It is a busy tale, full of details of the time and place. You watch the development of a people, you see them prosper and fight, and it is told with humor, earnestness and detail that is all the more impressive for its unobtrusiveness. You read of battles and barter, of treaties and treachery.

We all move through legends without knowing it. Every day we touch things rooted in mystery - memories of what truly was, now the stuff of myth... In Halig Rood we move with the tale and find ourselves facing the legends - Weland Smith, Arthur, Caradoc - in this Britannia now left behind by Rome to find its own way. This is a rich tale, a tale full of legend, set in a time of change, of the old ways and the new coming together, and the reader journeys along dim paths illuminated by names familiar from children's stories - now suddenly understandable and believable when told by Creoda's matter-of-fact voice

That, for me at least, is one of the chief attractions of Halig Rood and its prior volume. That and the ingenuity of its setting - people living during a time of hardship listening to a voice from over a thousand years before told through the tradition and genius of Bowdyn the Gleeman. It is handled seamlessly and you don't doubt for a moment what you are hearing and seeing. Creoda telling of great Arthur, bluff Caradoc, Gwenhyvfawr his love.

There is one point that may escape the reader, which I feel needs to be pointed out in order to highlight Hockey's skill as a storyteller. It is Creoda who tells his story over the years, and as the years of his life pass you hear his voice change from that of a very young man to a mature man - and then an old man. The change is seamless and so natural, it takes a moment to understand the skill that has gone into it.

I don't need to tell the story. Creoda summarizes it well:

The Fates brought us here, I believe, because we wanted what all men want: to survive, to love, to care for and nurture those we love, but no more than that We were ready to fight for those simple things. Little men, petty, selfish, greedy men worked against that for their own lusts and so the Fates had us bend then to our will, to the benefit of all; and so all suffer us, for what we want for our lives is what they also desire.

Go and read it. It is well-written, somehow familiar, even in this day and age, and told by one who knows how to spin a yarn (mariners have that knack). And don't forget the Halig Rood. We haven't heard the last of it.

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The Axe the Shield and the TritonThe Axe the Shield and the Triton by James M. Hockey

My rating:5 stars

I just wrote a long review, having finished this book. And somehow it was not saved. I am now going to reconstruct my review.

In 1685, in the time of the rebellion of the Duke of Monmouth, Jo Hocking is sitting on the top of a hill near his home. He has heard snatches of disturbing talk - people being hanged... He looks along the road and sees a wagon going along erratically. It is obviously not being driven by anyone - could it contain treasure? He hurries there to see what treasure it has.

Inside the wagon he finds a man who has been set upon by brigands and beaten half to death. Death is not too far away from him at the moment. Josiah - Jo - takes the man back to his village.

The 'treasure' is a treasure indeed. The man is a 'Gleeman', a teller of stories, a historian. He is nursed back to health. One evening he is asked to tell a story. And so he does:
‘This story,’ he said, ‘is old. It begins in a country east across the sea, nigh on five hundred years after the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ. To Africa it goes and back, and crossing the sea, ends up close by here. It begins with Creoda’s grim tale’
And then something startling happened. The Gleeman sank back in his chair and by some cunning art of positioning, as he did so his face disappeared into the shadow. From the dark a voice spoke and I, for my part, felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck, for it was not the voice of Bowdyn that we heard, but that of a young boy, younger than I, for his voice had not yet deepened into manhood.
Creoda is a young man who lived around 455 AD, and his story begins with an attack by Hun raiders that leaves him injured and shamed. You learn of his revenge and his subsequent travels in dark-ages Europe.

You go across the sea, you watch the sack of a city and the looting.

The book switches narratives. The Gleeman's listeners talk to him and he responds, then goes back to the story. It works very well, and all the characters have singular personalities.

The universe of this book is lived-in. The author is comfortable with the setting and knowledgeable about weapons, travel, comforts and ways of thinking. There are no 'ta-DAH!!!' moments where an author inserts a detail as a sort of window-dressing. This is all too prevalent in some historical novels. You won't find it here. The universe is as described and you do not doubt for a moment, reading Creoda's story, that you are listening to the story being told by a fifth century man. (An example: he encounters stirrups - a new development that revolutionized mounted warfare - and his reaction to them as a refinement that makes fighting on horseback a lot easier.)

The book contains an afterword, a listing of weapons used during its time, roman currency and holidays. The writing of those parts is also good.

Clear writing, a story that flows along. The mechanism for telling the story - 17th century people listening to a StoryTeller recounting the old tales - is unusual and it works. I cared for the characters.

This is a quality story, and I have no reservations about recommending it.

And I am happy to say that a sequel is in the works.

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