Blog Tour Book Review: Two Journeys Home

 Two Journeys Home: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe
(Book II in The Derrynane Saga)
by Kevin O’Connell

About the Book:

It’s 1767. As the eagerly anticipated sequel to Beyond Derrynane begins, Eileen O’Connell avails herself of a fortuitous opportunity to travel back to Ireland. In Two Journeys Home, the O’Connells encounter old faces and new—and their lives change forever.

Her vivacious personality matched only by her arresting physical presence, Eileen returns to Derrynane this time not as a teenaged widow but as one of the most recognised figures at the Habsburg court. Before returning to Vienna she experiences a whirlwind romance, leading to a tumult of betrayal and conflict with the O’Connell clan.

Abigail lives not in the shadow of her sister but instead becomes the principal lady-in-waiting to Empress Maria Theresa.

Hugh O’Connell leaves behind waning adolescence and a fleeting attraction to the youngest archduchess when he begins a military career in the Irish Brigade under Louis XV. But more royal entanglement awaits him in France…

Author Kevin O’Connell again deftly weaves threads of historical fact and fancy to create a colourful tapestry affording unique insights into the courts of eighteenth-century Catholic Europe and Protestant Ascendancy–ruled Ireland. Watch as the saga continues to unfold amongst the O’Connells, their friends and enemies, at home and abroad.

Editorial Reviews:

O’Connell is a fantastic storyteller. His prose is so rich and beautiful it is a joy to read. The story is compelling and the characters memorable – all the more so because they are based on real people. . . I am Irish but I did not know about this piece of Irish history. It is fascinating but historical fiction at the same time . . . Highly recommended for historical fiction lovers!

(c) Beth Nolan, Beth’s Book Nook

I enjoyed the first part of the Saga awhile back . . . (and) couldn’t wait to continue the story of Eileen and her family . . . this author really does have a way with words. The world and the characters are so vivid . . . Overall, I was hooked from page one. I honestly think that (Two Journeys Home) was better than (Beyond Derrynane) – which is rare. The characters and world-building was done in such a beautiful manner . . . I can’t wait for the next one . . .

(c) Carole Rae, Carole’s Sunday Review, Book Girl of Mur-y-Castell

Two Journeys Home: A Novel of Eighteenth Century Europe . . . is a gripping story that will transport the reader back in time, a story with a strong setting and compelling characters . . . a sensational romance, betrayal, family drama and intrigue . . . The plot is so complex that I find it hard to offer a summary in a few lines, but it is intriguing and it holds many surprises . . .  great writing. Kevin O’Connell’s prose is crisp and highly descriptive. I was delighted (by) . . . how he builds the setting, offering . . . powerful images of places, exploring cultural traits and unveiling the political climate of the time . . . The conflict is (as well-developed as the characters) and it is a powerful ingredient that moves the plot forward . . . an absorbing and intelligently-crafted historical novel . . . .

(c) Divine Zapa for Readers’ Favourite

My Review:

Starting a series with a sequel can be tricky business, though many authors routinely employ the technique of briefly filling in, whether via a quickie paragraph to bring readers up to speed, or a few details scattered here and there. In most instances this works out and all is well. Kevin O’Connell in Two Journeys Home takes it all a bit further by embedding details within the lead character’s reflections, as well as third-person narrative, and it does more than merely work. Because the information is so well paced, the author is able to choose carefully where he places it, and the natural feel within the acquisition of details of Eileen O’Connell’s life in The Derrynane Saga’s first installment, Beyond Derrynane, makes her story so much more readable and enticing.

Two Journeys Home tells Eileen’s story in between the two titular voyages, once upon arriving home to Ireland following several years spent at the Austrian court of Empress Maria Theresa, the second after her return there following a marriage attempt forbidden by her family in the interest of protecting the illegal import business that created their wealth. Readers follow her relationship with her young charge Antoine, the empress’s last daughter, future fill in for a role in perpetuating alliances via marriage. The author explores Eileen’s memories and rapport with the girl, so close that she privately addresses her Irish caretaker as Mama.

O’Connell’s prose really is quite vivid and sensory, with lavish and lovely descriptions painting images not only of breathtaking scenery, but also, if it could be said, of interaction between characters and how they experience various moments within their journeys through life. Their inner landscape is given due attention and it is not rare to feel almost a sense of delight in response to some passages, owing to a sensation of being able to both practically hear the individual’s lines as well as relate to the perspective from which they utter them. Too, we are introduced to other connections, including some of Eileen’s relations in the Irish regiments of the Austrian and French armies, who contribute to the story as a richly related family drama in addition to fantastic and revealing historical fiction. One difficulty I did have with O’Connell’s prose is his overuse of rather long and somewhat arduous insertions requiring frequent re-reads that take away from the passages’ fluidity. Fortunately, after about the novel’s first third, these ease up and we can once more immerse ourselves in a fascinating journey through rarely-glimpsed perspective, that of an Irish experience in Catholic Europe as well as a senior servant within the Hapsburg dominion.

Though the greatest part of outright conflict appears in the book’s first half, and the second doesn’t necessarily address the “mélange of political, relational and religious upheaval” Eileen faces, as referenced in the book’s own blurb, there is real allure with the cast of characters, how they relate to one another and the contexts within which they are placed. Moreover, a tension does indeed build as Antoine’s marriage looms and a growing sense of unease develops as readers begin to detect a familiarity with this tale and how Eileen, despite her final assessment of her own, “smaller” life back in Ireland as preferable to Antoine’s luxurious future role, has no way to know how it all will play out. It is as if we are impotent in the face of future danger and maligning forces; we witness it through the veil of time and the players we see cannot hear our warnings as each goes off to their futures and final destinations and we can only watch.

Two Journeys Home concludes before going into the greater part of that future, with Eileen’s connections to her past still very intact, and a sequel approached without previous knowledge of the story becomes one we are drawn to follow to the saga’s very end.

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A copy of Two Journeys Home was provided to the reviewer in order to facilitate an honest review

See below for links to more great reviews, guest blogs and spotlights on Two Journeys Home

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About the Author:

Kevin O’Connell is a native of New York City and the descendant of a young officer of what had—from 1690 to 1792—been the Irish Brigade of the French Army, believed to have arrived in French Canada following the execution of Queen Marie Antoinette in October of 1793. He holds both Irish and American citizenship.

An international business attorney, Mr. O’Connell is an alumnus of Providence College and Georgetown University Law Center.

A lifelong personal and scholarly interest in the history of eighteenth-century Ireland, as well as that of his extended family, led O’Connell to create his first book, Beyond Derrynane, which will, together with Two Journeys Home and the two books to follow, comprise The Derrynane Saga.

The father of five children and grandfather of ten, he and his wife, Laurette, live with their golden retriever, Katie, near Annapolis, Maryland.

Find the author at his website, Facebook or Amazon profile pages, and buy the book here!

Tour Schedule: Blog Stops (February 19th – 23rd)

February 19th

Spotlight  Layered Pages

February 20th

Guest Post –The Writing Desk

Guest Post – Blood Mother Blog

February 21th

Book Review – A Bookaholic Swede

Book Excerpt – Kate Braithwaite

Guest Post – A Literary Vacation

February 22nd

Interview & Review – Flashlight Commentary

Book Excerpt – Just One More Chapter

Book Review –Impressions In Ink

February 23rd

Book Review – Lock, Hooks and Books

Book Review – before the second sleep

March 5th –Tour Recap

Novel Expressions Blog Tours Website

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Book Review: Knight Assassin

Knight Assassin: The Second Book of Talon
by James Boschert

Upon initially encountering James Boschert’s titular character in the first installment of his Talon series, we find a likeable Frankish boy abducted from his Levantine home to Persia, where he remains for five years as his captors assimilate him to their ways. The nature of memories and experience, mixture of perspectives and existence amongst unremitting danger is yet one portion of Talon’s story as he learns in the most honest way he can to cope with all he endures.

Assassins of Alamut leaves off with Talon being separated from the woman he loves as she is forced back into peril, and Knight Assassin picks up shortly after this as we witness Talon, en route to his ancestral homeland, still raw with the emotion of losing her and trying to stay on even terms with the Templars who took him into custody. At his father’s newly-inherited (via his wife) fortress in France he finds a family happy to see him, though bewildered about who he may have grown into and wary of threats against the family and their newly-acquired legacy.

This reviewer fairly flew through Knight Assassin. Having already bonded with Talon helped, naturally, but it is also true that Boschert’s plotlines are innovative and intriguing, and his ability to draw readers into scenes is magnificent. With authentic characters we journey through scenarios depicted in genuine fashion, such as Talon’s entire approach to his previous captors: they are enemies of his people, but he truthfully speaks of what he saw in their culture to admire.

For those attached to the Middle Ages, every page feeds the hunger as well as whets the appetite for more. There are feasts and feuds, love interests and family loyalties, clerical abuses of law and authority —elements one might expect, with much more added to Boschert’s creations. The author makes it more personal without an over focus to endanger the tale’s relatability. His dialogue gives us clearer portraits of those who populate his stories, and there is a satisfaction to the manner in which Talon lays down his plans and then carries out each mission. He holds enough back to keep us in suspense, divulging just the right amount to skip the minutiae while pumping up anticipation from the details we are privy to. We find ourselves Talon’s champion, even in moments of fearful doubt, breathing immense sighs of relief when he is in the clear.

That, however, doesn’t always happen, and Boschert knows exactly when to go in which direction. He also knows just who to add, and where they need to go, in Knight Assassin’s case, a group of Welsh archers, or a girl from a Catharic background, one not widely known or understood today. It stirs the sense of hunger, providing tantalizing details for further exploration of this saga that proves itself the very reason why humans crave stories. Fluid and addictive, meandering like a river through various locales, we wonder where the author might next take us in the series’ number three—and it can be assured we shall be journeying there.

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For reviews of two more James Boschert reading treasures, click the titles below:

Force 12 in German Bight

When the Jungle is Silent

The author provided a copy of Knight Assassin in order to facilitate an honest review. 

Keep your eyes peeled for my cover crush of this fantastic novel

 

 

Book Review: Future Confronted

Future Confronted by Louise Rule

An indieBRAG Medallion recipient

It has on many occasions through time been spoken of: the unnaturalness of outliving one’s own child. Unfortunately, many people have had to endure this terrible order of events and each has their own way to grieve. It takes great fortitude to re-count events, for in so doing, one re-lives them and their affiliate pains, not only in the telling but also the reverberating ache that strikes the heart long after the listener has gone away.

In summoning the courage to tell her story—her son’s story—Louise Rule has gifted upon us a piece of herself, of her strength and love for people and life that teaches us without lecturing, enables us in our quest to see the world and its inhabitants as the precious creatures they are.

Rule’s son Rob was just 20 when he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, and less than two months later he was no more. Just like that, one might think, right before the swoosh of horror that passes through the consciousness coming to grips with the understanding that most people take much more time than that to absorb the very reality of such an illness. Just like that.

That sort of swiftness is related to the flash of time Rule writes of in her poem, “Just a Moment,” that serves to introduce Rob’s memoir. She references that first awakening of each day before full consciousness, wherewithal, has set in—preceding the full knowledge, for her, of the reality that is.

This Moment lulls me into trusting

Everything is fine. The Moment

Passes, reality remains

I remember…

It is fitting that Rule opens the book with two memories: one of herself as a child staring up through an apple tree to the sky above, leading closer to the present as it transitions to an ash tree and a downpour, as if the heavens themselves are weeping at the loss to the world, whose tree we are under. Symbolic of healing, a state Rule pursues though cautioning on the difference between this and the impossibility of “getting over it,” the tree has now embraced Rob’s remains, his ashes, holding him in a way his mother no longer can.

Like life, even a life punctuated with occasional negative events, this memoir has its bright moments, most often shared with loved ones. Rule recounts these, too, proceeding by first talking about life after Rob’s death—fitting, given the sometimes-overwhelming task of continuing to live not just after her child has died, but also following a harrowing ten-week period in which speed and unplanned become key notions of existence, when even the compensation of adrenalin threatens shutdown and yet somehow keep going is the order of the day, and then, suddenly, without warning—stop. The adjustment is harrowing and can be debilitating.

Reflected in the title, this circumstance can lead to the breakdown of an entire family, and Rule relates how her clan could not simply go gently, as they say, nor move on: circumstances necessitated a confrontation with what was coming and a reconciliation with what was. She artfully manages the roles of each section in the book by steering them in their duties: a nonlinear storyline—the only way, really, it could have been done—told to an imaginary companion whose presence develops into a full personality, one who understands the singular import of allowing the bereaved to do all the talking. In so doing, she anchors Rule as the author finds her way to a voice uniquely hers, yet fitting for all.

Rule is also clearly suited to the English degree she achieved—having commenced before her son’s illness and finished up after his death. Lyrical and flowing, while simultaneously conversational, her prose maps out these and other events free of emotion for its own sake, but with a writing quality and management skills that at times can lead us to envision the scenes in ways that reflect the moments. In one passage, for example, when the family first learn the seriousness of Rob’s diagnosis, it is as if we are viewing the passage through a prism and sensing the confusion via the distortion.

Nobody spoke; a heavy silence. We were all studying the registrar’s face, eventually; he looked at each of us in turn, then began talking again. I must admit to the fact that I can’t remember what he said after that. His mouth was moving, yes. I could hear a mumbling, yes, but I couldn’t seem to understand him. I tried…I did, I tried, but it had all become surreal, like watching T.V. with the sound down; it was happening to somebody else, not us…not us. Everything was running in slow motion. I became aware that everyone was standing up and moving toward the door…The door clicked, I turned around and stared at the door. We stood rooted, a tragic tableau in the corridor.

Within the pages of Future Confronted Rule takes us through the journey Rob and his family face as they make their way through a labyrinth, navigating in a learn-as-you-go fashion of how to do death when, in reality, despite modern advances in technology and a world of endless interpersonal seminars on taking life by the horns, most of us are still learning how to live.

Rule understands this, and makes no attempt to pass off anything formulaic—or even anything except what she knows and claims only for herself. She shares with us events from Rob’s (and her others sons’) childhood, linking, always linking her transitions and leading us to something we know we have to hear, not because it is hers, but because of her courage and generosity, that becomes ours.

The Russians say that no one ever truly dies as long as there is someone to remember them, and the author brings this to bear on the words of Cicero as she quotes:

The life of the dead is placed

In the memory of the living

Breathtaking and perhaps even frightening in the enormous responsibility this carries, Rule utilizes her skill and draws on her faith to achieve this memory keeper duty. In so doing, she allows us to see Rob a little bit more deeply, allowing us to share her task.

This review previously appeared at Before the Second Sleep’s former location

Book Review: Hand of Fire

Hand of Fire: A Novel of Briseis and the Trojan War

by Judith Starkston

Set during the Trojan War, Judith Starkston’s Hand of Fire opens with the vain attempts of Briseis to save her mother, Antiope, from a wasting disease that eventually kills her. Briseis’s grief is further compounded by the stress of her duties as a novice healing priestess of Kamrusepa—her skills, she fears, underdeveloped and now at risk without her mother’s guiding hand—and future wife to the violent bully Mynes, heir to the throne of Lyrnessos. The impending union is delayed for the mourning period, but eventually the pair are wed.

It is perhaps unsurprising that Briseis, reared alongside three brothers is, even in the patriarchal society that grew her, a strong and intelligent woman. Her parents—chief military advisor to the king and senior healing priestess—surely set the tone for the brothers, who enable Briseis with an interest in her father’s estate as well as his metal works. So it is that her dread regarding her marriage threatens all that she is, in addition to the physical violence that lay in wait.

Briseis manages to assuage her fears amongst other events of her life, including a visit from Greek traders and a frightening incident in which she heals Hatepa, queen to Euenos and demanding mother of Mynes. She also sees visions of Achilles, that half-mortal whose goddess mother, in her quest to protect him from an eventual mortal’s death, equipped him with the fierce fighting ability that even in his own time already is legend.

At this point many readers will have nodded their heads in recognition, at least at the name Achilles and likely that of Agamemnon, Mycenaean king and commander of the Trojan War. Where though, they may ask, is Briseis in all this? The answer is that she actually plays a significant role in the Iliad of their previous study, though Homer only gives her a few lines. Here, then, is a huge portion of the majesty of Starkston’s novel, that she has crafted an entire story from a few lines in an epic poem of a ten-year war.

Those lines, of course, convey a great deal of Briseis’s life, and reveal her status as a once future queen, the fall of Lyrnessos and death of Briseis’s entire family, her later status and then of the rift between the two warriors when the commander removes Briseis from Achilles for his own pleasure and the half-god’s subsequent refusal to continue fighting for the greedy Agamemnon.

Using these lines, historical research and archeological resources, Starkston presents a multi-dimensional woman character who is much more than the now-standard “strong female behind the scenes.” Homer does assign Briseis a backstage role, but Starkston infuses her with the passion, dreams, fears, understanding and weaknesses that drive her. In the midst of swirling rumors of Greek raids a group of traders seek business in Glaukos’s absence; in her desperation to end her hospitable obligation and send them on their way, Briseis inquires about Achilles.

Briseis and Phoenix, red-figure kylix, c. 490 B.C. via Wikimedia Commons

She loved the bards’ tales. The tale of Achilles had enthralled her the first time she had heard it sung. Some versions even said an immortal, Chiron—half horse, half man—had taught Achilles to be a healer, of all things. It seemed a pleasant topic to her, but the traders looked alarmed. She remembered that her mother had often warned her not to go on about the stories she loved—it was unladylike and wild. Look what she had done—made them uncomfortable with her inappropriate conversation.

Indeed, both Starkston as well as Briseis admit to the latter’s shortcomings, Briseis owning up to dodging temple duty and the possibility of her own incompetence. Nevertheless, with precision she aims to do the best she can. As wife to Mynes she is unsure of her place: “When she had arisen each day at her father’s, she knew what tasks lay ahead[. . .]. She did not know how to live this new life, but she would figure it out.”

Imperfect Briseis certainly is, but her humanity is intact as Starkston shows us, in one of the more shudder-inducing scenes, that even those who lived in ancient times are closer to us than we may presume. They were also people who lived, laughed, loved, labored, hungered and, in the midst of savage behavior, died. They are more than distant characters whose lives played out on a blurry screen. Following the fall of her city and in flight via the back gate, Briseis in anger peers into one of the shops.

The family had not left in time. A man lay dead amidst a pile of broken pots—his trade. Huddled in a corner, three children had been run through with swords; their blood formed a pool around them. A baby had been swung against a wall, its head crushed. The mother must have been dragged off. The Greeks left only the dead. Briseis fell to her knees. She ripped away the linen covering her mouth and threw up, then pulled herself up.

Briseis’s rage alters the course of her life in ways she could never have expected and with the princess we journey through the aftermath of destruction, the intense and complicated emotions and further awareness it brings out in her, how she sees staggering beauty amongst unimaginable carnage and recognizes that love and hate are wed. Starkston portrays Briseis with compassion, remaining faithful to Homer’s place for her while artfully revealing much more, moving at a pace realistic to modern readers, all the while staying true to the Late Bronze Age sensibilities in which the characters all live.

Truth be told, this reviewer was initially uncertain of the novel’s ability to provide satisfaction, owing to it being outside a previously established comfort zone as well as prior lack of love for The Iliad. But “Who doesn’t love The Odyssey?” paired with a summoning from Hand of Fire’s blurb provided unresistable temptation, a magical pull, and once readers are in, Starkston’s ability to weave a story that wraps itself around its audience like a warm and comfortable cloak captures the imagination and beckons a following.

Achilles’ surrender of Briseis to Agamemnon, from the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii, fresco, 1st century A.D. via Wikimedia Commons

While the opening scenes at first seemed to move slowly, Starkston brings us to realize—without having to articulate the understanding—that this reflects a long and arduous process of descent as experienced by the ailing Antiope as well as Briseis, who prolongs her mother’s agony with false hopes and cures. From then on out events in Hand of Fire move as quickly for us as they do for Briseis, Starkston’s own hand skillfully beckoning us within, utilizing history and mythology to see more deeply into the life of Briseis as well as Achilles from her perspective.

Starkston has quite magnificently brought to brilliant, vibrant life one very small portion of a much larger work, showing us in the process how much life resides within the diminutive. Giving voice to an important figure in the Trojan War, she employs vivid and dramatic descriptions, enabling readers often to sense the same emotions that swirl around the characters, to feel as if they, too, are part of the story:

“The air turned chill and the darkness edged in around the torches’ flares as if it were a living presence. The smell of dank mold surrounded them.”

Many other reasons to admire this novel are also within the content of her author’s note, where Starkston succinctly and eloquently explains her methods and some details behind the writing of the book. Not your grade school teacher’s handout notes, this is readable, fascinating and honest; the author speaks of the manner in which characters, even in the process of being written, claim their own identities, all while remaining true to historical fact and documented archeological evidence. Her consideration for readers is also woven in, and she succeeds magnificently, for even those most worried about dry and dull Hittites will quickly observe in Briseis a mirror of their selves, one in which is seen strengths and shortcomings, and the ability to adapt to love, loss and that which we cannot change–a life worth remembering.

The author provided a gratis copy of Hand of Fire in exchange for an honest review. 

This review previously appeared at Before the Second Sleep’s former location

Book Review: Anna of Byzantium

Anna of Byzantium by Tracy Barrett

Anna of Byzantium is Tracy Barrett’s young adult historical fiction account of Anna Komnene, daughter of Byzantine Emperor Alexios I, now known for her medical practice, hospital administration and historical scholarship, particularly an epic account of her father’s reign, the Alexiad. Compressed for time and characters, the novel moves quickly yet presents an appealing account of Komnene’s life, from royal status as heir to her father’s throne to devastating loss and betrayal.

Her misfortune advances from several directions, so the book’s own blurb revealing her removal doesn’t ruin the story, because getting there is an important part of the plot. As events develop and occur, readers get hooked into the tale and Barrett’s savvy understanding of when to drop the hammer and when not, keeps our exhalations of relief weighted as we continue to wait for the other shoe to drop.

Crusaders Council via Wikimedia Commons

Because Komnene—Anglicized to Comnena in the novel—is born less than two decades following 1066, her story gives us insight into what occurs in other parts of the world as England reels from a devastating invasion. The author skillfully fills in details of Comnena’s region throughout the book, and her brevity provides quite a bit more information than young (or any) readers might realize they are absorbing. Moreover, with extremely strong writing, she does it typically through dialogue or Anna’s own contemplations, which further bring us closer to our protagonist.

Like many authors of historical fiction, Barrett takes liberties, including that relating to her marriage to Nicephorus Bryennius. She addresses this in her author’s note, but doesn’t explain why, which we would have appreciated. The ending also comes rapidly, though it does answer some questions as it links to details of the real Komnene’s history and work. The book’s thematic angles—justice, misrepresentation and even sibling rivalry, amongst others—are ones young adults will relate to even as they recognize the vast differences in their and Comnena’s lives, and very well may inspire many readers to reach out for more on this intriguing historical figure.

Book Review: Britannia’s Spartan

Britannia’s Spartan
The Dawlish Chronicles: June 1859, April – August 1882
by Antoine Vanner

In this captivating nautical historical fiction adventure, Antoine Vanner’s Britannia’s Spartan takes us east, a welcome change in setting for those of us new to the series chronicling the life of Nicholas Dawlish, RN.

As captain of the newly commissioned HMS Leonidas, Dawlish is tasked with a voyage of mechanical testing. His 1882 tour finds him, however, smack in the middle of a clash of political wills as the Crown, China, Japan and Russia all seek to influence the still-isolated Korea, as diplomatic protocol and demands dictate his balance. Encountering various power brokers, he must constantly assess their motives against the narratives they present. As his diplomatic and political abilities are tested, military clashes breach his mission, which soon enough becomes nearly one of survival.

Our first foray into The Dawlish Chronicles by way of winning Britannia’s Spartan in a contest, it seemed appealing for its setting, and upon reading does not disappoint. Vanner skillfully weaves in background information on Victorian class tensions, technological advancements of the era, seafaring culture and tactical pursuits, to name a few. As events heat up, Dawlish’s responses are authentic, and his military inititatives—especially when taking grand chances that could destroy his career—are intense in their nail-biting thrill.

Vanner’s own abilities, such as spinning information new to many readers (e.g. nautical terms, military tactics), are impressively developed, and his descriptive prowess takes the breath away. His attention to detail enables succinct coverage of unfamiliar situations, and readers quickly become vested in what happens to the captain and his crew. An engaging tale of a time and view to cultures often unexplored by readers of historical fiction, Britannia’s Spartan is an outstanding seafaring story that continually calls, and I suspect readers—including this one—will happily hear more of that in the rest of the series.

Reading 2017: Rounding Out the Year

See bottom for links to further entries in the “Reading 2017” series.

Well, 2017 has been an absurd year in too many ways, so it was nice to end it with the feeling that at least my reading wasn’t doing too badly. As I’ve mentioned earlier in the series, I wanted to focus more on content and not just books in terms of numbers. After my first year reading challenge (2016), in which I aimed for a certain amount of books to read, I found a way this time to shift away from that numeric goal with some fun and variety. The dirty details:

Three books from each of three new or newish genres:

Graphic novel: These turned out to be The Metamorphosis; The Iliad and the Odyssey and Frankenstein. In passing I also read a couple of Raina Telgemeier’s, who I knew from my son having read her in the lower grades. Two, Smile and Claudia and Mean Janine, I quite liked, though a third not so much as the whole story generally felt unfinished. All three of my central choices I’d read before (in “regular” form) and loved—save The Iliad, which I mildly enjoyed. (Perhaps I ought to give that another shot in ’18.)

Until reading Mary Shelley’s entry in a sort of nineteenth-century Fright Night writing contest, the only thing I really knew about Frankenstein was that everybody mistakenly referred to the monster by the title name. I was surprised at how much I liked the plot way back, though I admit Shelley’s style of writing more than likely had something to do with it. Nevertheless, the graphic novel version held up as well, even though it lost a bit from me knowing how it would end. Still, the tension was apparent and you felt for all parties involved; there just was no winning corner.

In contrast is The Odyssey, which in previous poetic reading I loved on a level so much higher than Frankenstein that I even told stories from it to my boy when he was littler (the island of the cyclops being a favorite). Here, however, we see that color isn’t everything, which is a pity because the shades are rather vibrant and alive. They don’t, however, really do anything for the narrative, though the fault of that may lay within the technique of text on bottom of panel, words within, floating in speech bubbles—too all over the place. The effect is meant to convey casual asides and humorous remarks, but I found it irritatingly distracting. Also, there is so much lost in the story, and while I get there was a lot for the author to choose from, this just isn’t a dynamic intro to Homer’s amazing tale.

For my review of Franz Kafka’a The Metamorphosis (adapted by Peter Kuper), click here.

True Crime: I happened upon it quite by accident, when reading an update on appeal of the amazingly entitled Michael Skakel, convicted of murdering fifteen-year-old Martha Moxley in her own front yard. Apart from the crime’s own shocking nature is the jaw-dropping reality that the Greenwich, Connecticut police were either too incompetent or inexperienced to find the young girl’s killer—or were they cowed by the sleazy Kennedy name and money that tries to lord over everything it touches (and frequently destroys)? Former police detective and author Mark Furhman investigated years later and literally wrote the book on how Skakel’s name became seriously linked to the murder. For my review, click here.

I was so impressed with Fuhrman’s style—as a detective as well as writer—that I sought out another, Murder in Brentwood. Here we are given a glimpse into the cross-aisle backstabbing, soulless ambition and strikingly stupid cult of personality behind the scenes of the infamous O.J. Simpson case that de-armed detective authority and investigation and later destroyed Fuhrman’s career. The author himself is no angel and he comes clean on everything the prosecution accused him of while also rightfully stating something to the effect of the R in racism being today’s scarlet letter—and utilized as recklessly. It’s an amazing story that fills in so many gaps I was shocked to read and even more surprised to learn when I talked to people about it, how widespread is awareness that Fuhrman was totally set up by an ego-enabled prosecution utilizing the wrong tack and a defense that would go to any lengths to win. Most of all, however, it made these two lost souls, people cut down so young, so heartlessly and so devoid of justice, individuals and not just more famous statistics, or distant humans you read of in the papers and then forget about.

Ann Rule is also a gifted writer, and her book, The Stranger Beside Me too was a recommended read. Utilizing her previous experience as a police officer, she at the time events in the book were occurring, had retired and engaged as a true crime writer for magazines and newspapers. She volunteered for the suicide hotline of a crisis center along with Ted Bundy, who I knew very little about except that he had been a serial killer. I don’t tend to think much about this sort of psychopath, but can guarantee that after reading this book they were on my mind for weeks. My usual rejoinder, “I don’t lose sleep over it, but—” lost a lot of airtime because I did stay awake more than I should have. Reading about the victims of Skakel and Simpson didn’t have the same effect—and I knew this straight away—because while they were targeted, in a set of rages, perhaps, they weren’t random. Bundy, on the other hand, could strike anywhere, and that set me on edge for awhile, especially having read Rule’s descriptive passages of sexual and mental abuse of such horrific nature I could barely comprehend how any human could even think this shit up. I won’t go into details here, just suffice to say that ISIS probably borrowed heavily from Bundy’s catalogue of twisted torture techniques. It’s not something I’m really keen on reading more of, to be quite frank.

Science fiction: Sky fi, as my wee one likes to call it. That’s one thing, but the real question, I found, is: What is it? To be honest, Jurassic Park didn’t strike me as sci-fi and when himself suggested it, I was initially taken aback. It contains science and is a work of fiction, yet for some reason I tended to think of outer space, which I typically only like reading about as non-fiction. Then someone suggested 1984, which really threw me for a loop. So I dropped it all and instead of heading for booklists, the first thing I did was look up the definitions because in order to choose some sci-fi, I first had to be clear what it is.

From the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction: “Science fiction is the literature of the human species encountering change, whether it arrives via scientific discoveries, technological innovations, natural events, or societal shifts.”

(Inserting a small note here: I’ve never heard of Gunn before, so don’t endorse or not endorse them.) At the web page their definition is expanded, but even in keeping with this foundation, it also squares with this one:

Och, who am I kidding? The real reason I’m on so long about this is because I didn’t manage to finish my sci-fi reading challenge. Surprisingly, quite a few titles appealed to me, although in thinking about it, I’d be willing to bet at least a few of them I’d put down after awhile, which is something I haven’t done a lot in recent years. Hyperion caught my eye, but somehow it went back to the library unread, and later I settled on Jurassic Park, 1984 and The Time Machine, though only ever finished the first. (I did read 1984 in elementary school, if that can score me some points). And while they weren’t official choices for the challenge, I can’t say enough about Richard Abbott’s Far from the Spaceports series, the first of which shares the series title and the second, Timing, continues the adventures.

Both involve Mitnash Thakur and his AI partner, Slate, battling financial fraud in space colonies near Jupiter, though terminating the criminal activity doesn’t tend to involve standard, earth-like consequences. The colonial culture and detective angles also drew me in, and I’m certain these will both be re-reads.

The other ones, though … I just couldn’t get interested enough to read them. I did have “discipline” in mind as a factor toward the challenge, though when push came to shove, didn’t see much worth in disciplining one’s self to read something, for leisure, that one can’t get into. I did open my mind to the genre, though, which is the real goal, and may return to those titles at a later date.

It might have helped if I didn’t have others that appealed more, but contributing likely was also my own all-around reading slowdown. Once I finished the massive pile of reviews I’d needed to do, I told myself I would read, during Christmas break,  only what I wanted to read—which turned out to be not much. I picked out a few books but simply spent a lot of time doing other things. I’m rarely not in the mood to read, but it does happen, and when it does, it’s a sizeable block. Close to the end I picked up a bunch of children’s books, the easier reading of which has jump-started me in the past. I pretty rapidly went through an old favorite, Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives, which was as absolutely fabulous as it ever was. I may even write a tad about it in the new year. A couple of others I began and passed on, and as of this writing I’m still reading Company of Fools (Ellis), whose story has also pulled me in.

And, finally …

Five off my neglected TBR shelves:

I didn’t have particular titles in mind, though at the time I wrote up a blog about the ideas, I was eyeing a certain few. It wasn’t long before I had to remind myself that lots of my leisure reading is determined pretty much by mood and what I feel like reading, so even had I definitively chosen, they stood a chance of being displaced—or not. It just depends.

As it happens, this year, like last, most of my reading was for reviewing, so very few of my own books came off the TBR. I did, however, manage to meet and exceed my five: Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War that Changed American History by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger; The Revolving Door of Life, Precious and Grace, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, The Bertie Project and The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds, all by Alexander McCall Smith; and three Peter St. John Gang books I’ve been after since I reviewed one last year: Gang Loyalty, Gang Petition, Gang Territory and Gang Spies. As you can see, I’m a great fan of both McCall Smith and St. John, the latter of whom has at least two more on backorder that I mean to read—and I say that with great emphasis! Semi-autobiographical stories of an orphan evacuee from the Blitz, these tales are funny, poignant and delightful, with a re-readability factor that’s out of this world.

A lot of books I’ve read this year have really great covers (e.g. Cometh the Hour, The Popish Midwife, Company of Liars), which had been a focus of many discussions I’ve seen across 2017, two of which I was privileged to be a part of. Another, Hand of Glory by Susan Boulton, came at a great moment, set during and after the Great War as it is, given my sort of “re-awakening” to the era. For the past couple of years I’ve been remembering all the Siegfried Sassoon we’d studied in high school and telling myself to dip into the era some more. Boulton’s story contains a mythical twist and the war portions are written with such dexterity: sensitivity but also a knowing of harsh realities, and some resulting passages simply wind into your reading being. And, at the risk of overloading anyone else’s TBR or shopping lists, speaking of getting into you: Jennie Orbell’s Two Chucks and a Tabby Cat had me laughing nearly all the way through, even at passages that weren’t always topics of humor. Orbell has such a feel for the foibles of humanity and a witty way of pointing them out to us, all while knowing when to retreat.

Retreat is what I did once in awhile, as you can see scattered through my 2017 reads here, by backing away from reviews and picking up one of my own, most of which are listed above. I love to write reviews, mind you, and I admit it felt a little odd to be reading a book with no intention (at least at the outset, and some I had to reprimand myself and say no) of writing it up. That happened at the end of the year as well, and taking a couple of weeks off to be reading whatever I pick up off the shelf has been simply grand.

Reads from the last part of 2017, some of which you may see again in these pages. As mentioned elsewhere, numbers weren’t the goal, though you have to plug something in. (Click image for full Goodreads spread.)
2017 saw the conclusion of my 1066 series (see tab in sidebar for links to posts), and the beginning to my Knights Templar (Michael Jecks) following. I’ve got the next two queued up to read as I type.
My reading of Susan Boulton’s Hand of Glory really revved my engines for more about the Great War. A mystery with supernatural and mythological twists, the novel has great staying power.
I’m hoping to dip into more reading about the Barbary Wars, having finally found a great start with Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger’s Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates.

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Previous entries in the Reading 2017 series:

The Importance of Covers (Book Bloggers Group Chat)

Readers’ Chat with Stephanie Hopkins

Origins of the Challenge

Reading Challenge 2017

New Genre Library (True Crime): Murder in Greenwich

New Genre Library (Graphic Novel): The Metamorphosis

New Genre Library (Science Fiction): Jurassic Park

New Genre Library is a three-part spinoff series of Reading 2017

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Thanks for reading and may 2018

be your best year yet!