Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Cannonball Read #26 (5K Book 5 -- Sci-Fi/Fantasy): Arena (Magic: The Gathering) by William R. Forstchen

This book was not good.

I probably should have realized that a book based on a CARD GAME would probably be below par, but I was stuck for a Sci-fi/Fantasy book for the 5K and The Boyfriend happened to own this one.

The basic premise is that a mysterious one-eyed stranger arrives in town on the eve of the annual magic festival (actual magic...no cards here) and pits the pre-established magic-wielding groups against one another for his own secret purposes. There is much magicking and some sneaking and a little implied sex and a certain amount of violence. The "mob" is always "howling" and magicians' hands are always "waving" and everyone has names like Zarel and Kirlen of Bolk and Naru and "The Walker." People set magical bears on one another and one guy's go-to magical defense is--I kid you not--magic trees. Sometimes they're magic trees that eat people but sometimes they're literally just a bunch of trees in which he hides. Everyone is very concerned with "mana," which is the power that magical things in this world run on. I vaguely recall the concept from a time when a former roommate tried to teach me the game "Magic." (It was entirely too complicated for someone as stoned as I was at the time to comprehend. Not to mention unbearably dull. And the fact that he took all the good cards involving dragons and stone demons and such while leaving me with cards like "Drought" and "Hornets" just made me decide he was kind of a cheating douchebag.)

The only redeeming factor about this book (besides the fact that it is short) is the characters, who are relatively entertaining. The crude elderly pickpocket who becomes servant to the mysterious stranger is pretty cool, and there are actually a couple women in the story who--while not as awesome and brave as the mysterious stranger, of course--are pretty bad-ass. Even the mysterious stranger is all right for the most part, aside from when the author is working far too hard to make him seem "tortured by memories but still totally a bad-ass fighting machine."

On the whole, I can't imagine why anyone would read this on purpose, but I suppose if you like "Magic: The Gathering" or are extremely desperate for something to read and there are no magazines or grocery store circulars available, you could do worse than this.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Cannonball Read #25 (5K Book 4 -- Non-Fiction): Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894 by Daniel James Brown

When I was a kid, our house burned down. I was nine, and it was two days before Christmas. I don't remember much about it--it was the middle of the night, and I was rousted by my bed from my mother and hurried down the stairs and out the front door into the chilly drizzle in my nightgown. What I DO remember was looking back through the front door and seeing my father come running down the hall from the back of the house while the fire blew in the back windows and followed him down the hallway. It's a memory I haven't thought of much in the ensuing eighteen years, but reading Under a Flaming Sky brought it back...and made me realize how very lucky we were to have all escaped the fire that destroyed our home unharmed.


On Labor Day in 1894, a wildfire swept out of the woods in Minnesota, destroying everything in its path. One of the things that lay in its path was the small lumber town of Hinckley. Daniel James Brown (whose grandfather was actually a survivor of Hinckley) lays out in detail the broad circumstances that led to the fire--adverse weather conditions, poor forest management, nature's normal course--and also how those circumstances effected specific members of the Hinckley community. Brown not only tells those personal stories, using historical accounts to pull together a moment-by-moment human account of the tragedy and resulting heroism, but he also goes into the science of fire, the history of burn treatment at the time, the psychology of disaster and its effects on the psyche, and the politics and culture of the time. It's both incredibly detailed and incredibly personal. At the end, he visits modern Hinckley to see how the town has survived. Beyond the final chapter (at least in the edition I read) was an interview with Brown discussing his family attachment to the story and how he came to write the book.

It's a fascinating read, though I'll admit that I had to read some of the heavy scientific passages more than once in order to fully understand what was going on. Obviously, it's not really a cheerful read, but it's extremely interesting if you're interested in the history of the time, the area, or stories of amazing heroism. I'd highly recommend this book to any fan of non-fiction.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cannonball Read #24 (5K Book 3 -- Biography): American Scoundrel: The Life of Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles by Thomas Keneally

This book is a fascinating look at a person who could either be considered a national hero or an irredeemable asshole.

This is the story of Dan Sickles, a native New Yorker who was brought up through the Tammany system. Although not well-remembered today, Sickles was a dynamic, popular, and very gossip-worthy figure of his time. His connections to Tammany Hall were definitely not entirely honest, but he often used them to accomplish good things, like the establishment of Central Park, and many years later would head the effort to preserve the battlefield at Gettysburg.. He served in the US government, and became friends with many powerful people, including the Lincolns. Sickles was also (as mentioned in the title) a general during the Civil War, fighting on behalf of the Union, despite his pre-war Southern sympathies. His actions at Gettysburg--moving his troops ahead of the planned position and onto higher ground--could have resulted in Union disaster but instead led to victory. However, the most dramatic episode in Sickles's life came when he went on trial for shooting down his young wife's lover (son of Francis Scott Key, the anthem writer) on a sunny Washington street. His trial would be the first time "Temporary Insanity" would be used as a legal defense in the USA.

The life of Dan Sickles is packed full of adventure and heroics, but the author never turns away from showing the downside of Sickle's personality--his tantrums, his philandering, his arrogance, and his neglect of his family. It seems to be a relatively fair description of the man, with many details pulled from historical record. However, I found the style slightly lacking. It often felt sort of "And then this happened. And then this happened. And we think this happened, but we can't be sure." Sometimes it felt more like a report than a story. However, on the whole I enjoyed it. I love finding out about forgotten historical figures. I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in Civil War history.

Fun Fact: Sickles had his leg horribly injured by a cannonball at the battle of Gettysburg. The leg was amputated and the bones sent to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington D.C. He visited the leg for many years on the anniversary of its removal, and kept a photo of it in his home until his death. The leg is still on display at the museum for public view.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Cannonball Read #23 (5K Book 2 -- Romance): The Captive by Victoria Holt

Before I start, I must be clear that I actually LIKE many romance novels. I have read all kinds, and I have been a fan of Victoria Holt's for some time. Sadly, The Captive is not the best of Victoria Holt's work. As I said, I usually enjoy her books--the heroines are generally more along the lines of "Jane Eyre" than "Weeping Victim" in that they often are bold, intelligent women who have to find their ways in the world alone, and can't necessarily rely on their looks or charms. Some of the heroines in her books have unconventional occupations (art restorer, for example) despite the Victorian era settings, and most don't go into their situations looking for love. However, they always find love, and generally find a fairly interesting mystery as well. This book showed a lot of promise at first, but then let me down.

Rosetta Cranleigh comes from a family of academics--parents so wound up in their research they barely realize she exists. She grows up relying on the family's servants and a young governess. Then one day her parents decide that she might in fact not be a waste of their time, and decide to take her with them to the Middle East on a research trip. During the voyage, Rosetta meets some boys, and then is shipwrecked with those very same boys (what a coincidence!). The three of them are rescued by corsairs, who sell Rosetta to a harem. The book sort of sells itself as being mostly about her escape from the harem, but as it turns out, that's only about 25 pages in the first third of the book, and then there's a whole laborious murder mystery after that.

Frankly, the book seemed like three different stories (early family life / harem / murder mystery) uncomfortably shoehorned together. I will admit that despite the downfalls, I did greatly enjoy many of the characters in the book, and found them amusing and somewhat interesting.

I would probably not recommend this book, but instead one of Holt's other works like Mistress of Mellyn or The King of the Castle.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Cannonball Read #22 (5K Book--Fiction): Third Girl by Agatha Christie

You know how I was saying before that I didn't understand why I had this strong impression that Agatha Christie's books were for old British ladies? I figured it out while reading this one.

This is one of Christie's Hercule Poirot mysteries. Hercule Poirot is a Belgian detective who seems to think he is better than everyone and spends an awful lot of time twirling his "moustaches" in contemplation while complaining about how rude and gauche everyone is. Frankly, I spent most of the book kind of wanting to punch him in the "moustaches."

The plot requires Poirot to untangle the mystery of a young woman (A hippy! [It's the sixties, you know.] How dirty and appalling and strange!) who confesses that she thinks she murdered someone. Unfortunately, she has no idea who or why, and doesn't even bother to leave her name. Poirot has to start by figuring out who this girl is, where she has come from, and who she might have murdered. He unravels this case with the help of his friend, the quirky mystery writer (sort of a more flighty version of Jessica Fletcher), his near-silent servant George, and his secretary Ms. Lemon.

The book is well-written, in that the grammar is good and the clue seem to add up more-or-less effectively. However, the story winds along at a snail's pace, and were I not reading this specifically for the 5K, I probably would have given up and thrown it out the bus window roughly 30 pages in.

I would only recommend this for the most ardent fan. Although I do intend to read more Agatha Christie, I can promise I'll be steering far clear of any Hercule Poirot mysteries in the future.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Cannonball Read Update: April 5K

So this month I'm taking part in a mini-competition as part of the Cannonball Read process. They're calling it April 5K: The Crabby Smorgasbook and it's pretty simple. Combatants have to read one book from five specific genres in the space of two weeks (and blog about them, of course.) Here's my list:

1. Fiction: Third Girl by Agatha Christie
2. Non-Fiction: Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894
3. Fantasy/Sci-Fi: Arena (Magic: The Gathering) by William R. Forstchen
4. Biography: American Soundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles
5. Romance: The Captive by Victoria Holt

I started Third Girl today, and hopefully will be able to finish and blog on that tomorrow. The competition ends on 4/29. I think I should be able to get through them all, though the biography is a bit hefty. I'm not entirely sure about Arena, but since I am not really into fantasy/sci-fi, I had to borrow from The Boyfriend and that was the only one he had that wasn't like 1200 pages (I'm a fast reader, but I'm not THAT fast.)

We'll see how it goes...wish me luck!
(The prize for winning the 5K, by the way, is having the opportunity to choose the them for the next one, which would be pretty damn sweet.)

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cannonball Read #21: The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett

I think The Thin Man may be one of those iconic books in its genre that has been parodied and referenced so many times that by the time one actually reads it, it all feels terribly familiar.

The main character is Nick Charles, former detective and man-about-town. On a visit to New York with his young wife, Nora, he becomes entangled in the problems of the very emotional and very strange Wynant family. This leads to Nick chasing around New York, following leads, dealing with hysterical women, getting shot at, and having approximately 347 drinks (he seems to do nothing, in fact, except drink and have people in and out of his hotel suite.)

The plot is relatively complex, and I didn't guess until near the end how it was going to turn out. However, I found the characters unrelateable--perhaps it's the era, but all of them seemed rather vapid and/or hysteria-prone. Nick seemed like kind of a jerk, and his wife nothing but a sweet sidekick. Plus, I personally found the writing style somewhat off-putting. A lot of the dialogue was described rather than explicitly written, so there was a lot of "I asked Nora to pour me another drink while I told Dorothy that I thought she was being ridiculous and told her to go home."

Although it wasn't anything I'd read again, I'm glad to have read it, if only because I'm now "clued in" on any parodies...i.e. Dick and Dora Charles in the hilarious film Murder By Death. I'd recommend it for hardcore mystery fans or perhaps those who enjoy the writing style of the 1930s.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Cannonball Read #20: The Great Mortality: An Intimate History of the Black Death, the Most Devastating Plague of All Time by John Kelly

I know a certain amount about history. I mean, I read. I watch the History Channel and Discovery and NatGeo with The Boyfriend. I have access to the interweb. However, I will admit that (like most people) there are certain parts of history I know more about than others--basically, I know a lot about the things they felt the need to teach in school, less about the eras deemed "unimportant." I know about the Greeks, the Romans, the Norman Conquest (which never fails to bring up the mental picture of some little stereotypical-looking nerd huffing up the beach through a chilly, foggy British morning, saying "I'm Norman, and I'm here to conquer you."), the American Revolution, the Civil War, and WWII. There are some very clear and inexcusable gaps in my historical education, to be honest. Thus, when I obtain a book about one subject, only to discover a hidden lode of historical information, I am delighted. This has been the case with many of the disaster books I've been reading--come for the Lusitania, stay for the development of submarine warfare during WWI, for example. The same was true with The Great Mortality.

During the middle of the 14th century, a deadly disease appeared out of Asia with little warning and spread across Europe within a decade. It had many names--Black Death, Bubonic/Pneumonic Plague, Y. Pestis (for the Latin lovers among us)--but the most common way it was referred to at the time was as "The Great Mortality." In the course of 10 - 12 years, nearly a third of the people on the European continent died (as well as a great [but poorly documented] number in western Asia.) Major cities ground to a halt--some smaller towns were all but wiped off the map. This disease caused major changes for society and culture in the midst of the dark ages.

Kelly researches the circumstances (both human and environmental) which lead up to the plague, including several natural disasters as well as the shift of many people into the dirty, crowded cities. He explains the trade routes at the time in an attempt to figure out exactly where the plague originally came from, as well as how it arrived in Europe. He continues, city by city, citing original documents from survivors at the time, to show where the plague went, how it spread, and how the people reacted when it arrived. There were varied responses--some cities behaved as though they were under siege, attempted to wall themselves in and wait out the danger. Some tried to fight off the disease, using all the latest in medical ideology. Kelly also documents some of the more unconventional responses to the spread of the plague, including the rise of the flagellants (a show-stopping religious movement that spread across Europe nearly as quickly as the plague itself) and the persecution and murder of the Jews of Europe.

The deft way Kelly weaves in scientific facts and theories with historical context and first-hand accounts makes for a very interesting book. It seems well-researched but wasn't dull or difficult to read for a person with very little scientific knowledge. Some of the descriptions can be stomach-turning, though, so I probably wouldn't recommend it to the faint of heart. On the whole, however, I would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in either diseases or the history of the 14th century.