Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Trip to the Light Isles- Why the Vikings are less than trustworthy....

More often than not, the types of books I enjoy have an air of mystery or suspense to them.  You're never altogether sure which direction the author's going to take.  I love that; I love that building of anticipation that comes from not knowing where the story is going.  Oh sure, I might be able to make an educated guess as to how the plotline is going to fall out, or what kind of character development is going to happen, but overall I like being along for the ride.

In fact, usually when I can see the layout of a story, I lose interest rapidly.  However, this time was very different.  In the first twenty pages or so of Wolfskin, by Juliet Marillier, the author sets out the entire premise of her story; I won't lie, it's like seeing a train wreck before it happens.  And the author gives you the choice: read on, and see how it plays out in real time, or set the book aside and find something a little tamer.  I'll admit, I did debate for a day or so.  Can I put myself through this psycho-drama?  Can I handle what's coming?

After getting my crash gear on, I dove back into the book with vigor, and pushed through it.  Don't get me wrong, it's not some badly written piece of literature that you have to work at to finish.  It is altogether sublime in its development of characters and building of tension.  Instead of a usual back country winding road that I usually drive, I've signed up to swim across Lake Champlain.  The challenge is seemingly obvious, but the far shore is still hidden by fog.  All I have to rely on is the author's elusive offer for a good ending.  I had to hope that would be enough.

Opening this story with an old Norse legend of two men who swear to each other a bond of blood brotherhood, the author sets the stage for an intense emotional rollercoaster.  The two main characters, Eyvind and Somerled, are a study in contrast.  From the time they met as boys on the cusp of manhood, both cling to the other, seeing a perfect compliment and companion.  They, too, swear a bond, one that is based on faith, meant to last an eternity.  Both have large dreams and the dedication to bring those dreams to life.  Sadly, the dreams of one will make a living nightmare for the other.

The author uses these two characters to explore a complex framework- the permanence we associate with promises and vows versus the constant change inherent to life itself.  In a time when certainty is necessary to maintain any semblance of civilization, making vows or giving one's word acts as a cornerstone to the functioning of society.  The fabric of trust needed in keeping a community together and thriving is based on that concept.  But the old axiom still applies- people change.  It is a universal law that we change over time; none of us are the same from one year to the next, because the experiences we have alter us and our perceptions of the world around us.  So how can you have both?  Is it even possible to make a deep vow to someone and be able to keep it over the years?  What if the vow is made in error of judgment?  How do you come to grips with trying to keep a promise, knowing that the other party is not worthy of the loyalty? 

The setting for this is one of my favorite spots in the world- the Orkney Islands off the coast of northern Scotland.  From the time of the Neanderthals, the smalls islands of the Orkneys have had many waves of inhabitants.  The author uses the backdrop of the late 8th century-early 10th century on the Isles, and she cleverly gives a plausible story for the settlement of the Vikings and the reaction of the inhabitants (mostly of Pictish decent).  I've seen Maes Howe, Skara Brae, and the Stones of Stenness, all of which are featured in some form in the story.  I think the author did an excellent job of describing the geography, as well breathing life into what is mostly conjecture on the culture and society of the Orkneys during this period of history.

Despite my trepidation at the outset, I have to say this story evolved in an amazing fashion.  If you have any interest in Viking culture or the Orkney Islands, this is a very good read.  Or if perhaps you like that feeling of seeing the challenge at the outset and like a good train wreck, this is might be a book for you as well.  I might still hesitate a little when this author makes an offer like this in another story, but at least I know I'll be in for a good time before the crash and burn.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Mini-Update: Look what I found!

Out of boredom with Iron Chef, I started surfing around on GoodReads.  Since joining the site back in 2007, I've never really looked around.  For that, I am a moron.  I would update my bookshelves, and maybe look at the shelves of friends, keep updated on what they've read ad maybe add it to my own lists.  Again, I am a bit of a moron for not looking around sooner.

Did you know GoodReads sponsors giveaways?  I feel like just about everyone but me must've noticed this.  I've often wondered how a book that was not yet published could already have reviews.  This is one of the ways; you enter a giveaway, and if you win, you get an advanced copy of the book.  You don't have to write a review, but if you do, GoodReads will use it to promote the book and/or author in question.  So all I have to do to get free new books is enter my name and address in a giveaway for the books I choose?  Yep, I am so regretting not finding this sooner!

Guess what I'll be doing until 2am?.......

When the Romans Leave: What Happens When Central Government Collapses

A couple years ago, a friend read a book about battles in Dark Ages Britain.  I read the review, and I mentioned to him that I would love to borrow the book, as I thought it sounded like a fun read.  He said sure, as soon as I find it again, you can read it.  Time passes, the Wheel of Life turns.  About a month ago, I received a surprise package in the mail- it's my very own copy of Battles of the Dark Ages by Peter Marren!  Inside the front cover was a note, professing an unnecessary apology about the delay, and the happy statement that now I have my own copy of said book (along with some really awesome and handy little metal tabs that act like placeholders; way cooler than post-it notes).  Hurray, what a lovely gift!

Now, as previously mentioned, I kinda stalled for the last two and a half weeks of December, not reading anything because I wanted to add to my challenge list for this year.  So the book sat on one of the many piles of books in my room, patiently waiting for me to pick it up and read it.  For such a slim volume, I'll admit it took me a little longer to get through than I initially planned.  Part of that is because I often forget that non-fiction takes double the time that fiction does; I theorize this has to do with the amount of information presented.  Fiction work is a made-up story; the information presented pertains only to the story, and does not have to be worked into existing frameworks.  Non-fiction though, goes slower because the information must be assimilated and matched up to existing frames of reference.  It's like fiction doesn't take up as much room because it goes into a magic bag of holding in my brain.  However, non-fiction has to be filed in the right box, on the right shelf, in the right closet inside my head.  That takes a little more work on my part.

The second reason it took a little longer than usual is the subject matter.  As much as I love history, as my friend Jim points out, I am not much of a military historian.  It's just not in my wheelhouse, as the chefs would say.  I love to know the cultures, the societies, the politics, and even at times the economics of history.  These things drive us.  I want to know the why's and effects of a war; I could care less about the battles fought or the casualty lists.  I think that military history is best when re-enacted; it makes more sense when you can see it happening.  At the very least it needs an interactive map, showing both political lines and geographical features.  I do realize that geographical and man-made features play a huge role in why a battle is fought, and how that can play into the wins and losses of war.

All that aside, I really enjoyed this book.  I remember all to well in world history classes, the timeline of civilization ran basically like this-

Cradle of Civilization (Mesopotamia)
Byzantium/Dark Ages Europe (which lasted for about 20 pages, and half of that were dedicated to the fall of Rome)
Medieval Europe (starting with the conquest of William of Normandy in 1066)

I was always curious as to what happened in the intervening 600 years.  I understand the basics of it; one of the major civilizations of the time crashed, and as a result of that crash there were roughly six centuries of civil strife across an entire continent.  Who has time for writing things down when you have to worry about your next meal and whether or not you'll be attacked tomorrow.  I get that, but it was glossed over in such a manner as to say six centuries went by and nothing happened other than people fighting each other like dogs in the street.  (I see all your heads nodding, like yep, that's about the truth of it).  I always found that to be an unsatisfactory answer.  As a species, we aren't that old, so any time we are a cogent people, we have to leave something of a mark.  Geologically speaking, six centuries is long enough to leave an indent on terra firma.  So what the hell happened in Europe from the fourth century to the eleventh century?

This book focused on just that- what was happening in Britain after the Roman army left.  It was fascinating!  Given the definition of "army" and the amount of time (from the removal of the legions to the arrival of William of Normandy), there was a battle fought roughly every 18-24 months, more often two or three in any given year.  Basically, it was the Hatfields and the McCoys, only instead of one river valley, it was a series of islands that amounts to the whole of New England.  Everyone was fighting their neighbor, if only because no one could agree where the property line was.

Even more interesting to me were the explanations of who was living where in the British Isles.  I vaguely remember a page or so in high school history dedicated to the discussion of the peoples of Britain, but it didn't make much sense to me.  Why were there so many different tribes for such a small place?  Where did they all come from?  Saxon, Jute, Angle, Briton, Pict, Dal Riadan (Scots), Mercian, Viking, and the Ulster Scots were all groups discussed in this book.  I wish I had a laminated map of Britain while I was reading this, or for each chapter to have a map that showed how the tribal kingdoms altered over the centuries.  It would have definitely helped fix the information in my head if I had a better internal map of England.

All the same, each chapter dealt with a different Dark Ages battle and its impact on the formation of what would become England.  The truly remarkable thing, as the author points out, most of the battles, despite their fame, are still hard to pinpoint on a map.  The few sources that survive from the time are not always factually straightforward; more often than not, the sources are more concerned with the epic poetry describing the battle and less with where and how it was fought.  That makes decoding this part of history all the more difficult, as there isn't much to go on.

The writing was well done.  It was easy to follow, and full of dry British wit, which I can't get enough of.  The author lays out the theories of other historians well, presenting their arguments before adding his own.  I especially enjoyed the photographs of some of the battle sites, along with theoretical maps of how the armies were laid out.  Also, it tickled me pink to read of how gamers are helping to write history; the author makes several references to those who roleplay out battles, using historical sources as guides and acting out how battles could have been fought based on the strategies and tactics of the time.  This can be very helpful to researchers, as it gives them an idea of how it is one side won or lost a given fight.

Also, it looks like the UK comes by its fractious and domineering nature quite naturally; it's been a habit for well over a millenium and a half.  Since the time of the Romans, that particular island has been dealing with "invaders" and learning to assimilate new groups.  Of course, that only led to an expansionist attitude in later years; it is an island, and when all the land is inhabited, you have to start looking to other places to settle.  Or, you can just feud with your neighbor until someone decides that the only recourse is bloodshed.  God, the British are an outwardly violent group for being so deeply conservative with their emotions.

So for anyone looking to dig a little deeper into what was happening in Britain and how it came to be the place it was in the Middle Ages, this is a good read.  It's remarkable to me how it all came together to form one people, one group.  This author does a fair job of filling in the blanks to explain how that happens and why the defending army of 1066 was hardly worth fighting most of the time.  Also, this is great background information for my next book, Wolfskin by Juliet Marillier; it's set in the Viking raids of the 9th century and their settlement of the Orkneys (islands off the northern Scottish coast).  I've been there in July; it was the height of gnat season, and the entire day was rainy.  They called it lovely weather.  I can see why people living in Norway might think so.

PS. Hop, you are, as ever, the only tour guide I want when exploring the ancient world, whether it's Greece, Rome, or Britain.  Thank you ever so much for the thoughtful gift; I hope I put it to good enough use!  Now all I need is book (or five) telling me what was happening in the rest of Europe after the collapse of Rome, I'll be happy.  (How many "Germanic" tribes were there, and where exactly were they living?  Dark Ages France is still on my unsatisfied curiosity list.....).

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Oh Aye, I love a man in a kilt....

And here it is, my first review of the new year!  Reading a book in four days?  That is a trend I hope to continue.  To be fair, this one went down as fast and easy as a bottle of Jameson does for an Irishman.  I bought this book before Thanksgiving, and it's been staring at me for the last month, waiting for me to finish the Black Dagger Brotherhood series.  Then I forced it wait another two weeks, promising it would be first on my list for the new year.  I kept my promise, and I have to say, the anticipation was worth the wait.

Now, with a bit of blush, I'll admit I have a bit of a thing for the so-called kilt-lifter subgenre of romance.  Come on, kilts are sexy as hell, and having been to Scotland once, I am bound and determined to return as often as possible in my life.  My husband would laugh, pointing out that Scotland and Germany have a lot in common, both in the temperament of their people and the cultural urge to pickle themselves with liquified barley and wheat.  So there is a strong appeal to my fantastically romantic side for both countries.

The Sinner by Margaret Mallory is the second book in The Return of the Highlanders series.  I read the first one either towards the end of summer, or just at the beginning of fall.  I had picked it up originally, looking for a fluff novel to read while on vacation.  Then shortly after starting it, I became engrossed with the characters and setting, and got really excited that the second one was coming out in November.  As mentioned above, it got pushed off a bit, as I was a little entrenched with the badass vampires of BDB.  Now that I have finished it, I am more than a little grumpy that I have to wait until this November to get the next one, and March of next year for the final one.

The series is set on the Isle of Skye, the largest of the Inner Hebrides and the traditional home of the Lord of the Isles.  It is 1515, just two years after the crippling defeat at Flodden by Henry VIII.  The whole of Scotland is in disarray, and we find ourselves joining in with a band of young men who are trying to reclaim their lands and set their clan to rights.  Alex MacDonald is cousin to the chieftain of clan MacDonald of Sleat. He is notorious throughout the Highlands as a man who will sleep with any willing woman, and proudly boasts that he will never marry.  Unfortunately, Fate and his chieftain have other ideas.

As a bid to help secure the aid and goodwill of another chieftain from the Outter Hebrides, Alex is asked to marry Glynis MacNeil.  Glynis has been married once, and refuses to ever do so again after the humiliation and abuse she suffered previously.  Alex's smooth ways and infamous reputation do little to win her over.  However, his past sins force the two of them into an unlikely marriage; the question is, will it last?  (A more in-depth review of the plot can be found here).

I'll grant you, it has all the hallmarks of a cheesy fluff romance novel.  Somehow, though, the author rises above it all.  The characters are well-rounded and fully present.  They have distinct voices, and realistic strengths and weaknesses.  The setting is rich, and often calls on actual historical people and events (or legends).  Alex has genuine fear of marriage, based on his own childhood misery; Glynis is serious-natured and sharp-tongued, but she only wants the kind of marriage her own parents had.  There are a few plot twists, which add a nice complexity to the story, keeping it from being too fantastic or boring.

Here's the only annoyance I have with the whole thing, and it's the cover.  The cover is symptomatic for the rest of the genre.  Romance as a genre, does not take itself seriously; more often than not, the entire genre is written off by society at large.  It is usually seen as literature written purely for women's sensibilities and full of outrageous plots that sound like something out of a soap opera.  Here's the thing though; by and large, the stories are just as complex as anything in the fantasy and sci-fi genre, and just as dramatic and meaningful as anything in the rest of the fiction section.  As a readership, the romance genre has very intelligent, discerning, and witty fans.  Why it continues to be disregarded I think rests solely on the premise that has to do with sex, love, and our societies taboos about sex and love.

Not to put it mildly, but American society has a hard time talking about sex.  Actually, let me refine that.  Our society, in general, has a hard time discussing meaningful sex and real relationships.  The thing is, real relationships take work; meaningful sex is a byproduct of that work.  We are awfully Victorian in our view of sex- it can be objectified and seen anywhere, but it cannot be discussed in any intensity for any length of time; to talk about it would mean having to acknowledge it and be responsible about it.  For this reason, we still have Victorian views of romance novels; the romance novels of the 19th century were a whole lot of flowery words and idealized emotions, with none of the hard work to attain those rarefied moments.

Like any good story, a romance novel should make you think; you should be asking yourself how you are similar to the characters, or how your reactions would be different.  They should expand your view of the world, and your place in it.  Brainiac that I am, it bugs me to no end that the covers of most romance novels pander to society's base perceptions of sex and love; we should want to hear stories of love and relationship-building, be inspired by the characters to be better husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, parents, siblings, cousins, and friends.  A hunky man on the cover of a romance book is more likely to have me looking for something else to read.  I don't need a publisher's idea of what I might find sexy glaring at me from my nightstand.  Give me a real cover, like you would have for anything else found in any other genre.  Don't try to pander to me.  Either I'm going to want to read the book because it appeals to me intellectually and emotionally (you know, the driving reasons as to why I read), or I'm going to move on to something that does hit those two spots.  If I wanted to stare at half-naked men, there are other places and ways I can do that.  Don't belittle me with your Victorian notion of whatever flowery ideal you think I want.

Ok, I think I'm done with the soapbox.  For the moment.  I might break it out again.....

Despite the irritation and rankling the cover of the book brings to me, the story itself is a good one.  The people in it are true to life; the writing is very good.  I think the author's underlying point is very well illustrated- a healthy, functioning relationship hinges on honest communication and trust.  I don't think enough of us act on that truism, and I don't just mean in our romantic relationships.  This axiom is true for any interaction between two or more people; it may seem difficult to do, but like any habit or skill, practice makes perfect.

Though I may have to grit my teeth in frustration about having to wait till the fall for the next one in this series, I am going to keep myself in the same geographical area with the next book.  For the first time in several months, I'm going to read a non-fiction book (ugh, the reality of it all!).  Many thanks to my friend Hop for the gift; it is now book number two on this year's reading list!  After that, I have a two-book series that a friend lent me; I believe it pertains to the Viking-held Orkneys, so the geography still won't change much.  Mmmm, Scotland......

Anyway, I hope you've enjoyed my first rant review of the year.  I can only hope the next 49 are just as amusing for you!

Monday, January 2, 2012

And So It Begins Anew

Wow, did the holiday season do a number on me!  Just as I was getting the hang of this, I lost all my free time.  But it's a new year, and I am making it part of my weekly routine to post something.  To help with that, I am adding a widget that will track my progress on this year's reading challenge.  Once again, I have the goal of 50 new books this year.  To be honest, it's a hefty goal; one book a week is about all I can manage (I am a parent, and my kid does have nightly homework and other activities).  Also, this gives a little leeway for other hobbies that may cut into my reading time (like the SCA, or jewelry making, or the three weddings this summer....); if I want to do any rereading of other books, I'd better make it snappy!

Speaking of rereading, I am curious as to whether or not other people often reread their books.  In the course of a random conversation with my family, I learned that my mother and sister don't typically reread stories.  To me, that's like saying you'd never watch a certain movie again because you had seen it once, or why bother going to the beach for vacation because you'd been there before.  My sister said the only time she reread a book was for the Harry Potter movies; she would reread the book before the movie came out so she could refresh herself on the plot.  I've done that myself, and sometimes I refuse to see a movie until I read the book first; the book is almost universally better than the movie.  (The one exception being Howl's Moving Castle; I think Studio Ghibli did so much more with that story than Diana Wynne Jones).

So I'm curious; do any of you ever reread your books?  Or are you more likely to just read a story once and move on?  If you are less likely to reread a book, do you prefer renting it from the library?  Maybe this would be a reason to own an e-Reader like the Nook or Kindle; cuts down on the space of owning actual books that you aren't going to read again.  Sorry for the snottiness, but it does truly boggle my mind that people wouldn't want to read a book over and over again.  I'm not saying read every story again, but I think that's one of the most beautiful things about books- not only does it transport you to a new place with new people, but you get to go there over and over again, revisiting them and seeing them through new eyes as your own perspective changes.

As to this year's reading list, I can look around my bedroom and already count at least seven books waiting here for my attention, not to mention the series that a friend lent me *mumble-three-or-four-years-ago-mumble*.  Also, GoodReads, the terrible fiend, shows me what my friends are reading, as well as recommending books based on my own shelves.  If we go by that list, I've already got about thirty-plus books waiting for me.  And then there was the trip to Books-a-Million (or BAM! as they are calling themselves now) last night; the Leven Thumps series had two books on the bargain shelf, as well as two books from the Peter and the Starcatchers series by Dave Barry.  I got the Leven Thumps books; I consoled myself by saying that I would be back for the Dave Barry books on my next payday. 

I think I might have to break down and check out more books from the library this year.  My wallet will thank me, my bookshelves will thank me, and my family will thank me.  My bedroom would not continue to shrink.

My neurotic need to own almost every book I read will be a bitch to contend with on the other hand.

What say all of you?  Do you need to own the book, or is okay to borrow it from the library?  Do you ever feel the need to read something again and again, or is just the one time good enough?  Tell me all about your reading habits; I am terribly curious to know how everyone else manages something that to me is almost an all-consuming addiction. 

Hope you all have a great year, and keep reading! 

PS.  If you haven't already, join GoodReads.  I know I sound like a paid advertisement, but I do legitimately want to see everyone on there.  I love to see what other people are reading, and it's great as an impromptu book club.  Also, the recommendation software is pretty cool- if you like this story, here are other ones you might want to try.  It's instant feedback; you can comment on other people's reviews, and see why they gave a book a certain rating.  Just saying, that for a bibliophile, it's a great website.