Ross Poldark by Winston Graham: A decent read, but it’s not for me.

Ross PoldarkRoss Poldark

by Winston Graham
Series: The Poldark Saga, #1


Paperback, 379 pg.
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2015 (originally published 1945)

Read: December 27 – 28, 2018

Ross Poldark, the scandalous son of a minor land-owner, comes back from serving the Crown in the War for American Independence to find his father dead, his estate in disrepair, and the woman who he’d hoped to wed engaged to someone else (a formerly close friend, actually). Understandably, he’s about to throw in the towel on life, but instead he starts putting things together.

He bullies his fathers’ (and now his) servants into getting to work restoring the house and lands, and hires some new help and even rescues a poor little girl being picked on by some nearby children and brings her into his house as a kitchen maid. He has to fight and then pay off her abusive father for the privilege, but does so. He takes care of his tenants, and is soon seen as half-one of them half-landowner. He starts a new mine with some other people in the area, doing a lot to help the local economy.

There’s some legal drama, a touch of medial as well, a malicious criminal presence, too — but it’s hard to take any of these seriously, and they are all dispatched quickly. In fact, that’s pretty much par for the course for everything — a problem arises and is resolved soon. There’s no real book-length plot to this novel — there’s no central or driving conflict. You might be able to make the case that it’s a story of Ross finding contentment and/or happiness after the way his homeland welcomes him. But I’m not sure I can buy that.

There is just so much wrong with the love story involving Ross that I’m not going to touch it. I get that it’s a different time, different standards, and everything, but he’d be locked up today for what happens — and rightly so. Frankly, all of the romances are a bit . . . off. Nothing that Austen would touch, for sure. One of the Brontë sisters might have, though.

This book feels like someone was convinced the only proper kind of book for a British person to write is one that Austen, a Brontë, or Dickens could have written — so he combined the three influences into one. But Graham isn’t one of those. He’s a passable writer of limited imagination. Every so often he’ll write a passage — a small paragraph to a page or so in length — that strikes me like he’s realized he hasn’t done anything “writerly” for a bit and dashes something off that fits the bill. Then he gets back to his usual story telling for 5-10 pages until he repeats the process. This isn’t to suggest he’s a bad writer, it’s just usually decent prose with odd splashes of flair.

It’s hard to describe any of the characters except in reference to Ross — and would end up spoiling a lot of the book to do so. I found them all relatively two-dimensional and without a lot of growth or development. What change there is in most of them is hard to believe, or at least happens off-screen and without explanation. The maid that Ross brings in is the easiest to see grow and develop, and we almost get a real sense of who she is — but I’m not sure I can say that.

Ross Poldark isn’t a bad book — but there’s nothing about it that grabbed me. I did grow to be a bit interested in two of the characters, and was pleased to see things go well for them. I’m not driven to pursue things to the next book much less eleven more, however. I can see the appeal — I think — that this book and/or this saga would have for some, but it’s not for me. But for people who like semi-romantic historical epics, you’d be well served by trying this. I probably sound more negative than I really am — I’m more indifferent than anything else.

—–

3 Stars
2018 Library Love Challenge

✔ Read a book recommended by one of your parents (in-laws count).

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The Crescent and the Cross by Kurt Scheffler: An Uneven But Ultimately Satisfying Historical Fiction

The Crescent and the CrossThe Crescent and the Cross

by Kurt Scheffler


ebook
2014

Read: December 20 – 24, 2018


I normally reserve disclaimers for the end of a post — but I’m going to start this post with one. I’ve met Kurt Scheffler, he seems like a good guy. He has taught every one of my children, is currently teaching two of them, and will be teaching one for the next three years. He’s beloved in my house and the impact that he’s had on my kids is almost incalculable. Also, one of my kids bought this for me — not in a “hey, here’s an easy way to get brownie points” kind of move; but a “I know someone who wrote a book, my dad likes books, I should combine those things” kind of way. So basically, I’m trying to say that I have every reason to airbrush what I’m about to say, but I’m going to try to not do that. Also, no parent wants to see one of their kid’s teachers use the word “whoring” that much.

This is the story of The Battle of Tours (in 732) and events leading up to it, told through the lives of people close to Charles Martel and Charles on the one hand and a couple of the leaders of the Muslim forces involved in the Arab invasion of France. Specifically, that’s Charles, his longtime friend, his sons, his mistress, and some children who are adopted by a close associate and are practically part of his household; and then the son of the Caliph and Abderrahman.

It’s your typical historical fiction, blending historical events and fictionalized events into one narrative. I really liked some of the characters a lot, and the ones I had no patience for were the one’s the book doesn’t want you to enjoy. I’m not convinced that I didn’t like them for the same reasons I wasn’t supposed to like them — it wasn’t their less-than-savory characteristics, but their portrayal. But still, that’s better than many novels are able to pull off.

I’m not going to try to summarize the plot more thoroughly than that, or talk about any of the particular characters — this post would quickly become too long to bother with. The story takes awhile to coalesce — it almost feels like the novel couldn’t decide what it was going to be about for the first half — it started trying to be X, then it became Y, then Z and quickly A, B, and finally settling on being C (I might have exaggerated a bit there, the book might have settled on B). That’s how it felt, I should say. In retrospect, I don’t think that was the case, it was simply taking it’s time (arguably too much) setting the stage and establishing the characters before launching into the major story.

That said, I found myself enjoying each version of the story the novel gave us along the way, and when it seemed to shift into a different story, I was disappointed to leave X, Y or Z — at least until I got into the new version. Scheffler can tell a story, that’s clear. He’s skilled at sucking you in and feeling what he wants you to.

I do have a few quibbles with the book — I’ll only talk about a few. My notes are full of question marks when we got a historical particular, I just wasn’t sure if he got the timing on some things correct. There’s a lot of anachronisms — for example, Pascal’s wager a few centuries early (sure, someone could’ve said it before Pascal — but it seemed a bit off); some statements about equality that sounded like Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rough drafts; and people holding opinions/values that I just can’t accept given the time (mostly benign things, I should add, like a noblewoman baking as a hobby). The villains might as well be wearing black hats and twirling mustaches, while the “heroic” characters are subtly drawn and live in the gray — I just wish the villains got the same treatment. Practically every character is very aware of the historical significance of the struggle they’re part of — particularly when it comes to the ultimate (and impending) battle between Charles Martel’s and Abderrahman’s armies. I don’t doubt that sometimes individuals understand how vital a role they play in the grand scheme of things, but this seemed a bit overkill (or this is a case of one of the greatest conglomerations of narcissists ever).

There’s redemption, personal reformation, romance, action against a sweeping historical backdrop — there’s something for almost everyone here. Could this book have been better? Yes. Given the themes, the scope, the characters, the setting — there’s a lot more that Scheffler could’ve done here. Also, it would’ve been very easy to make this incredibly dull and/or hack-y. Scheffler avoided that — and I’m very happy about that. In the end, we’re left with something in the middle — an entertaining work with a few problems. You’ll keep turning the pages to see what he does with the characters, but you’ll wonder a little about the background and details. At worst (or best?) this’ll spur you to further reading on the history of the period after reading Scheffler’s fictional take. Really can’t complain about that, right? I’m glad I read it.

—–

3 Stars

✔ Read a book you received as a gift.

Godlefe’s Cuckoo by Bill Todd: A Deadly Game of Hide-and-Go-Seek

Godlefe’s CuckooGodlefe’s Cuckoo

by Bill Todd
Series: Danny Lancaster, #6

Kindle Edition, 270 pg.
DLE-Fiction, 2018

Read: December 19 – 20, 2018

He lit another cigarette. Popped the ringpull on another can of Stella.

This was pointless.

He could sit here forever debating the pros and cons like some poncy intellectual while all the time he knew what he would do.

Fuck it, those bastards had to be sorted out.

Anyway, you had to die of something.

So Danny Lancaster is a former soldier, injured in the line of duty — leaving him with one prosthetic (see also, Cormoron Strike). He didn’t seem to know what to do with himself after leaving the army and ended up a small-time criminal who did a little time in prison. Then he started working as a P. I. (I’m not sure if he could have officially done that given his record, but I don’t know). He seems to have skirted the edge of legality through this career — helping the police frequently, but a known associate of noted criminals (see also, Rebus and Big Ger). The picture I get is of a less intellectual, more violent, and less alcoholic Matt Scudder.

Given that this is Book 6 in a series, Danny Lancaster is a pretty established character and the novel doesn’t spend a lot of time exploring the character, mostly it’s just using him. Which makes sense, especially given the plot — but that means I have to rely a bit more than I normally would on extrapolating from what we’re given and comparing him to better known characters.

When the book opens, he’s been missing — presumed dead by many — for months. There are some hoping he’s still alive, who wish the police (or someone) would find him. There are some who are convinced (hoping?) he’s dead, and are fully prepared to leave him this way. And then there’s one person who is convinced he’s alive — and will continue to be convinced until he sees a body — and he’s determined to find Danny.

The problem is that this man is a Russian mobster, with a lot of money, a lot of power — and no patience or much time to live. Shortly before the “accident,” Danny had disrupted this Russian’s smuggling enterprise and he wants revenge. His associates in England pursue a particular strategy to bring Danny out of wherever he’s hiding — they start killing people associated with him, and will continue to do so until it works. They do this in such a way that it takes the police a long time to realize that’s what’s going on (and no one believes the first one to come to this conclusion).

Once Lancaster realizes what’s happening, he takes definitive steps to bring this to an end. Now that the prey has been flushed from cover, it becomes a matter of hunter vs. the hunted (I’m not sure which is which, really). The action scenes are great, and it’s easy to see why Danny Lancaster (the series or the character) have made it through five books already.

Most of the characters, like Lancaster, are clearly previously drawn and established. There are plenty of them, too. Again, if I knew them, I could appreciate their appearance and use. Those characters that are used for the first time I have a strong handle on and appreciate for.

I’m convinced that I’d have enjoyed this more than I did if it wasn’t my first Danny Lancaster book. That said, you can absolutely read this as an entry point to the series — it won’t work as a stand-alone, you’re going to want to read a possible seventh, and at the very least to go back and read the previous five. I just don’t see anyone reading this and thinking, “yeah, I’m done now.” I didn’t fully appreciate everything that happened here, but I could tell that long-time readers would and that there was something about these characters that could inspire loyalty and excitement.

I liked it, I think I should’ve and could’ve liked it more, if I’d only done my homework. Give it a shot — or better yet, read some of the earlier books and you’ll like this all the more.

—–

3 Stars

My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials they provided (including the book).

The Everlasting Story of Nory by Nicholson Baker: A Look at Life through the Eyes of a 9-year-old Girl

The Everlasting Story of NoryThe Everlasting Story of Nory

by Nicholson Baker

Hardcover, 226 pg.
Random House, 1998

Read: December 17 – 18, 2018

Sometimes the problem with telling someone about a book was that the description you could make of it could just as easily be a description of a boring book. There’s no proof that you can give the person that it’s a really good book, unless they read it. But how are you going to convince them that they should read it unless they have a glint of what’s so great about it by reading a little of it?

When I read these musings of a little nine-year-old girl, all I could think was, “Welcome to my world, kid.” Seriously, what book blogger hasn’t had that thought at least once a week? If this hadn’t been set in the mid-90’s, Baker might have been tempted to have his protagonist take to blogspot to talk about her favorite books (which I absolutely would have read).

Nory, her parents and her two-year old brother have moved to England from Palo Alto, CA, where she attended a Chinese Montessori School. She’s now attending a Roman Catholic school with grades and a structured curriculum. Which isn’t an easy transition for her (as you’d expect). As she’s an “Americayan” with a strange accent and difficulty understanding British phrases, she’s on the outside of her school’s social structure.

This is rough for her, but I think it’d be rougher for other kids. Nory has an incredibly vivid imagination and tells herself stories (some of which she writes down, some she enacts with dolls and toys, some of which she just says to anyone who might be around). They are intricate, inventive, and as entertaining as the parts of the book that are about Nory (arguably more so). When times are tough, when she’s bored, when she needs to entertain her brother, when she has trouble sleeping — these stories are there for her. The reader gets to go along for the ride with her — which is a nice bonus.

When she’s not making up stories (or opining on the construction of them), she’s struggling through school and through the mine field that is making friends, and searching for a best friend. There’s a girl who frequently seems to like Nory, but would appreciate it if Nory would change a few things. There’s another girl who is bullied, teased, and generally disparaged by the rest of her class. Nory very unsuccessfully tries to defend her, but mostly just tries to be friendly to her.

And that’s the bulk of the book — there’s some “slice of life” stuff with her family, some parts where Nory remembers Palo Alto and the Chinese Montessori school — that kind of thing. But mostly it’s the tale of a few months of a 9 year-old looking for a friend, trying to stay out of trouble in a school she doesn’t understand and playing with her dolls.

Nory is a girl of opinions — some of them very strong. She has very definite ideas about storytelling, and what’s necessary to a successful story or book. Ironically, this book fails Nory’s own tests due to its lack of plot, and relatively small stakes. That’s probably an intended irony, and Baker’s really saying that people like me that want plots like Nory insists on have child-like tastes. I don’t know that to be the case, but I’d be willing to put money on it.

It’s told in third-person, but the narration is very stream of consciousness, very nine-year-old stream of consciousness — bouncing all over the place with a short attention span, and nine-year old misunderstandings of life around her. It’s delightful to read, and only a little annoying when you pause to reflect on what’s happening (or better, what’s not happening). In the moment, it’s just fun to surround yourself with Nory’s thoughts.

I won’t say this is a must-read, but if you give it a shot, I can’t help but think you’ll be rewarded. It’s perfectly safe for anyone Nory’s age or older to read, but I can’t imagine many people Nory’s age will appreciate it (but I could be wrong). It’s better appreciated by those of us who can remember some of what it’s like to be her age. I liked it, am glad I tried it and I expect you will be, too.

—–

3 Stars

Blackwater by GJ Moffat: A Brutal and Gripping American Crime Story

BlackwaterBlackwater

by GJ Moffat

Kindle Edition, 292 pg.
Fahrenheit Press, 2017

Read: December 14 – 15, 2018

           Early went to [redacted]’s body and hunkered down in front of [redacted]. His skin was flaccid and his jaw and face swollen and misshapen from the effects of his injuries. His shirt was entirely soaked in blood.

Early shook his head, thinking: this is what men do.

Take Walt Longmire (Deputy Longmire, before Lucian Connally’s retirement) throw him into Jesse Stone’s Paradise, and then tell a story imbued with the spirit of Fargo (movie or show), your results will be pretty close to GJ Moffat’s stunning Blackwater.

It’s a tale of violence, bloodshed, power, inevitability and death — what men do.

Deputy Sheriff Early Simms of Blackwater County is the son of the previous sheriff and probably the only member of the Department really fit for the job. A tragic accident in High School changed the direction of his life, and as a result he’s in the same dying New England area he grew up in. He’s made peace with this, and even seems to be happy — he’d be happier if his boss (and colleagues) cared a bit more about the job and his father wasn’t battling Alzheimer’s, sure. But this is his life.

And then everything changes in a couple of days — his old high school flame (and love of his life) returns to town, there’s an investigation into a corrupt public official, an investigation into an assault/attempted murder at a nearby jail, and a couple of brothers on a killing spree have come to the region. There’s also some drug running, spousal abuse, a pretty nasty bar fight. I don’t want to say that Early Simms is the only one investigating the crimes, in trying to preserve the peace — there are three (that we know of) other members of the Sheriff’s Department, some other local law enforcement officers and some FBI agents running around. But Early’s the only individual who’s in each of the stories — he’s the region of intersection in the Venn diagram of Blackwater (and frequently the most capable person around).

One of the criminals we meet in these pages (not saying which one) is clearly not an evil man. There’s some sort of undiagnosed (by the author or by any professional this criminal has ever encountered) mental health issue affecting him. Which does not lessen the evil he does and the trauma he inflicts on others. Part of me wants to know more about the whys, hows, wherefores, and whatnot about this disorder and is a little frustrated that Moffat doesn’t give us any of it. The other part of me is so glad that he didn’t succumb to temptation to get into tall that, instead merely showing his readers what was going on with this man, leaving it to us to do the work. There’s someone else who probably has some sort of Traumatic brain injury symptoms — not quite the same, but some of the same results.

We also see crime perpetrated by someone motivated by power, money and meanness. Also, there are some criminals who just don’t seem to have options, means or inclination to do anything but break the law. It’s up to Early to face down these people, no matter where on the spectrum they seem to be found, to prevent them from inflicting too much harm on the community.

How successful he is at that, well . . .

Moffat can write. That’s all there is to it. It took almost no time at all to recognize that. You get a strong sense of every character in just a few lines and his world is as fully realized as you could hope for. He presents the evil Early sees and fights against in this book fairly realistically, in a way that is as capricious and destructive as anything you see on the news.

So many times — almost every chance he gets — Moffat will do precisely what you don’t expect. What people just don’t do in this kind of book. He’ll put the characters in a situation you’ve seen dozens of times before, and just when you think “X will happen right after I turn the page,” B happens before you can turn the page. I realize there’s a danger in saying that — you’ll be looking for that kind of thing. But I expect that the same thing’ll happen to you as it did to me every time he pulled the rug out from under me — you’ll get sucked in by his writing and the characters (and possibly still be reeling from the last shock) and you won’t even think to expect that he’ll do it again.

I finished the book I was reading before this earlier than I expected to, and didn’t have the next on my list with me, so I took the opportunity to pay a visit to what I call my Kindle’s “Fahrenheit Ward” — where I stick all the Fahrenheit Press books that I buy without time to read — and I grabbed this. I’m so glad my timing worked out that way — this is exactly what I needed. I got sucked in by this immediately, and it was practically impossible to put down. Before I got to the novel’s final confrontation(s), I jotted in my notes, “Man, I hope this isn’t the first of a series — I don’t know if the community can survive another book.”

But if Fahrenheit published a sequel today? I’d shell out cash before the end day. I strongly expect you’ll feel the same way once you recover from Blackwater.

—–

4 Stars

The United Smiths of America by Jon Voss: I read it so you don’t have to.

The United Smiths of AmericaThe United Smiths of America

by Jon Voss

ePub, 371 pg.
2018
Read: December 12 – 14, 2018

This is going to be rough, but I promised to write this, so here goes . . .

Ten citizens of the U. S. wake up in a shipping container. They’re wearing something akin to prison jumpsuits, and a collar. They have no idea where they are, they have no idea how they got there, or who anyone with them is. They are told that they have 10 hours to defeat 9 other teams, made up of people from 9 other regions (some single-nation, others geographic groups) to win $1 billion. There are a couple of vehicles provided for them, and a lot of weapons (that they have to figure out how to use). Oh, and those collars are equipped with C-4 in order to assure they’ll comply.

Hunger Games meets the Amazing Race (or something). The Americans are all named Smith — a sign that they’re random nobodies — and each team is full of equivalents — Garcias, Suzukis, Ivanovs, etc. (these are not necessarily the names, I refuse to open the book again to check and see). Each chapter covers ten minutes or so of the ten hours they have to fight or die.

I did not enjoy a single moment of this experience. When I wasn’t bored, I was offended. When I wasn’t offended, I was discouraged by the writing. I walked away from each session disappointed and dreading returning to it. I’m not saying it ruined my life for a couple of days, but it sure made things unpleasant.

The “humor” (I think there were bits that were supposed to be humorous) was juvenile, puerile, and not funny. To say that the characters from various nations were walking stereotypes would be generous, more than one were also racist — oh, and someone (a fairly educated character) described (presumably white) Australians as a “race.” Which was news to me. One, I stress one of the Smiths came close to being more than two-dimensional and worth reading about — no other characters (no matter their nationality) came close. The story as a whole makes 80’s action films like Iron Eagle look subtle and nuanced. The author uses italics and all-caps to show emotion in dialogue, which should have been the first sign that I need to bail on the book.

The sex scene gives new meaning to gratuitous. I mean . . . ugh.

The fight scenes — and there were many, just not as many as you might expect — were decent, though.

I pushed on to the end because 1. I’d told the publicist I’d read this piece of garbage; 2. I was curious about the point of it all (and yes, you have to get near the end to find it); and 3. I wanted to see if there was anything redeeming to be found in the book. The results were, not surprisingly, disheartening. 1. I can’t imagine that group will want to work with me again; 2. The point is . . . maddening, convoluted, and uninspired; and 3. Nope.

Don’t. Just don’t. If any of you have a time machine and would like to use it to stop me, leave a note in the comments and I’ll give you a time, date and address.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this novel in exchange for this post from a publicist who will probably not appreciate this post at all. Sorry about that.

—–

1 Star

✔ Read a book that takes place in one day.

Dog Songs by Mary Oliver, John Burgoyne: A combination of one of my favorite topics and least favorite form

Dog SongsDog Songs

by Mary Oliver, John Burgoyne (Illustrator)

Paperback, 121 pg.
Penguin Press, 2013
Read: December 6 – 11, 2018

Be prepared. A dog is adorable and noble.
A dog is a true and noble friend. A dog
is also a hedonist.

I don’t know if I’ve posted about poetry here before. Probably not. Despite many attempts (when I was younger) — including a few classes, I’m just not a poetry guy. I can appreciate the occasional poem — and there are a few poets I can really get into, but on the whole? Not my thing.

But part of the 2018 While You Were Reading Challenge, was to read a collection of poetry — and I came close to grabbing an Ogden Nash book off my shelves, but my wife had been given a collection a year or so ago of poems about dogs. And it’s been at least a month since I posted something about dogs, so it’s about time.

So yeah, there are 35 poems about dogs — most of them (all of them?) seem to be based on Oliver’s own dogs — a couple of dogs get a handful of poems about them. Those, obviously, you get a pretty good idea about. Otherwise, it’s just one-shots about some great-sounding dogs.

Oliver does a great job conveying a strong impression about a dog in just a few lines — or even a few words. “He was a mixture of gravity and waggity” is one of the best lines I’ve read in 2018. I do think she goes over the top in terms of the wisdom or deep knowledge, etc. of dogs. But when she focuses on behavior, or personalities of specific animals, I find her pretty entertaining — and even moving.

I’m not saying that I’m going out to grab every Oliver collection in print or anything, but I liked most of these poems — several of them I liked a lot.

There’s also one essay in this slim volume. Skip it. Oliver is a poet, not an essayist.

Does this book need Burgoyne’s illustrations? Nope. But they’re nice to look at, so I’m not complaining. I’d be more than happy to hang some of these around the house.

—–

3 Stars

✔ Read a collection of poetry.