Book Review: Four Nails

Four Nails by G.J. Berger

Four Nails is a recipient of the San Diego Book Award for Best Published Historical Fiction (2016-2017) and an indieBRAG Medallion Honoree.

From its striking cover to opening passages beckoning readers into the camp of an elephant trainer in ancient India and the paths that lead him to the battles of the Second Punic War, Four Nails entices readers to an age commonly identified by one name – Hannibal Barca–though nearly as often shrouded in mystery. Author G.J. Berger lifts the veil a bit, bringing us closer to events of the era and the “[e]veryday ordinary people made to survive, to endure, to nurture their children, and love those close to them in times of great hardship[.]” Relating the tale of one man’s odyssey, the storyteller opens to readers a world many of us have had precious little opportunity to explore.

As this prequel to Berger’s first novel, South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon, opens in 227 B.C., we meet Ashoka and his family’s elephant camp from which he is sold into slavery by his desperate father. After long and weary travel, he is tasked with training elephants for war, then sold into Hannibal’s service, where he once again meets up with Four Nails, the elephant he’d previously forged a special bond with.

As Hannibal leads his army through the Alps in his aim to reach and defeat Rome, Ashoka pours his entire existence into the care and consideration of his team, as his memories and other experiences also provide us with glimpses into his love for another and determination to speak truth, even to a power that could easily crush him. We come to understand his view of the differences and similarities between the two armies he has experienced as Ashoka endeavors to survive this war he never asked to serve in and make his way back to India. Simultaneously a love story unwinds, serving to contrast the ravaging of the Italian peninsula and showcasing acts of bravery that won’t make it to the history books.

Having previously experienced this author’s narrative style in the course of another telling of war and defense of one’s personal interests, I was looking forward to Four Nails, especially given the amazing exploits of a military commander bringing an army and trained elephants across a mountain range stretching through the territories of hostile weather, tribes, natural conditions and even one’s own turmoil and conflicts with confederates. Result: lush, descriptive passages and protagonist’s voice not only does not disappoint; it gripped me from start to finish.

A marble bust, reputedly of Hannibal, originally found at the ancient city-state of Capua in Italy, by © 1932 by Phaidon Verlag (Wien-Leipzig) (“Römische Geschichte”, gekürzte Ausgabe (1932)), via Wikimedia Commons

Before reading any of Berger’s works, I was aware of only very basic information about Hannibal, Carthage or the era, and was impressed to find that historical information I researched matched the true events played out in Four Nails. Once engrossed in the tale, it was easy to be drawn in and mesmerized by the author’s ability to wind together several layers and even stories, threads from one Indian boy’s life that meet with those of others, how they inform and affect one another and the places—geographical as well as emotional—to where they lead.

It would seem that in a story of this scope, the narrative details can’t be rushed, and Berger understands this well. Ashoka’s experiences unwind at a pace natural to events and its flow allows Ashoka, and not the war, to be the center. In this manner the novelist doesn’t allow his story to fall into the trap of mere rehashing or history lesson. He does a magnificent job of portraying ancient Indian and Carthaginian cultures: their habits, elements, sensibilities, ethics, worship and more. Immersed in the story as readers become, the characters do not seem so distant as the dates might insinuate. Living, breathing people with affections and fears populate this time and this tale, and the author lets them expand. We truly do get to see them in their moments of great hardship and what they do to endure and to love.

It is some time before we are given to recognize the significance of the beloved elephant’s name; once we reach this point, Berger gifts us with an even larger understanding of Ashoka’s character, which renews the continued reality of the world he holds dear, no matter where fate places him. We urge him on, even as the boy seems to resist our persuasions to make an escape in a way that makes sense to us; he will do it on his own terms. The author’s ability to portray an authentic voice for each of the larger characters is brilliant, and we can feel the angry power, modest timidity, quiet determination, for example, as distinct personalities hold their own.

Hannibal´s route of invasion given by the Department of History, United States Military Academy. There is a mistake in the scale. By Frank Martini, Cartographer, Department of History, United States Military Academy, via Wikimedia Commons

Four Nails speaks to friendship, loyalty, truth and heroism in a time of destruction, cruel conquest and shifting of powers, when all has been lost and the impending new order wants to extract yet more. Insightfully probing into the recesses of history, the author captures the voices of those seemingly lost to their time and those that follow. This is historical fiction that causes us to us reconsider all our previous notions about Carthaginian civilization—and ours.


Thank you so much to G.J. Berger, who so kindly gifted me a copy of Four Nails with no expectation of a review. I am honored as well as humbled to promote this poignant and fascinating tale, a study and a story that I highly recommend. You can purchase Four Nails at Amazon or Amazon UK. It is the prequel to award-winning South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon (reviewed here), which can also be purchased at Amazon or Amazon UK

Learn more about G.J. Berger at his website, and
check out my interview with this fantastic writer.

South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon is also a two-time award winner: This marvelous read has taken home prizes from indieBRAG as well as the San Diego Book Awards.
G.J. Berger has been featured in the San Diego Reader‘s Writers to Watch series and The Huffington Post has called Four Nails a Pack Your Suitcase Read. Definitely an author to keep your eye out for, as we’re sure there will be much more to come!

Friday Five: The First Set

I simply couldn’t wait to start gathering my piles together. I’ve been thinking so much lately about so many of the wonderful books I’ve been dreaming of reading in the new year—and very possibly sooner. Not unlike my son, who has been organizing piles since his fine motor skills were first developed enough to curl his little fingers around the items of his choice, I’ve been stacking in anticipation of the day after I post the last review in my current bracket.

What of it? Well, I had planned to re-open for a few more submissions, as I did last time, but in the end decided against that. I may do it again; possibly requests will make their way to me, and certainly I’ll do reviews of some books I read on my own, and blog about things I’ve been wanting to but haven’t had the opportunity. For right now, though, the goal is to finish up the year and open 2018 with a clear, settled, relaxing slate.

So my thinking was that on the occasional Friday I’ll share a bracket of five books I have on my TBR, works I’ve been especially chomping at the bit to get to. I may or may not read them in bracket order, as often my reading choice is subject to mood, and it’s not likely to be easy to choose—you should have seen me just now sorting through books with such indecision—but I console myself with the possession of new time and the understanding there will be other Fridays.


Four Nails (by G.J. Berger) This author’s debut novel, South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon, has been instrumental in widening my parameters to include more reading of Roman and early Celtic historical fiction. This really is a fascinating time, and other great reads related to the era or its people have made their way to me, further adding to my enjoyment of the amazing stories people have to tell. In the case of Four Nails, Ashoka, taken into a slave caravan from India, navigates his way through the Second Punic War as he discovers the power of friendship and strength “known only to those with nothing left to lose.”

The Pirate Coast: Thomas Jefferson, the First Marines, and the Secret Mission of 1805 (by Richard Zacks) I’ve tried to read this book before and been overwhelmed by commitments I’d made to the reading and reviewing of others before it (not to mention real life). Possibly my inhalation of Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates answered my appetite for that time being, but I wanted more about the Barbary Wars and it’s been dancing around my mind, demanding answers. Having started the book once, I believe it provides more extensive details about some historical figures discussed in Brian Kilmeade’s aforementioned title, such as William Eaton, who knew well the old Barbary maxim that “whoever acts like a sheep, the wolf will eat,” an understanding seemingly forgotten in today’s world. I’m looking forward to learning more about these wars and where that might lead me.

The Lost Kingdom—1066: I am the Chosen King (by Helen Hollick) It’s been awhile now I have heard not a small amount of praise about this author, and though I purchased this volume some months ago, have not yet read it, a situation I intend to remedy as soon as possible. I can thank Paula Lofting for pushing me, if not exactly kicking and screaming, somewhat reluctantly into the Anglo-Saxon era, which I completely and utterly fell for. Here Hollick picks up in 1044, when events unfold that have a role in how the battles of 1066 will play out. In this year England stands at a crossroads and everything hangs in the balance as Harold Godwinson sacrifices all for his country. From childhood history lessons we know how this will play out, but here we are promised a revelation of what makes up the real Harold, “shattered by the unforgiving needs of a Kingdom” and given “all the honor and dignity that history remembers of its fallen heroes.”

The Path of the Hawk (by Ian Graham) This is another novel, first in a series of the same title about “an elite unit of soldiers and spies,” that I purchased and reluctantly put aside in this year of overflowing plate. It came to my attention via a review written by author Steven A. McKay (remember this name—you’ll see it again), who describes exactly what I’m looking for in a fantasy novel (when I do read one): “The writing style is engaging and entertaining, the action fast paced and imaginative, and the characters interesting and well-drawn. The world they inhabit is detailed enough to feel real but not in the boring, overdone way some fantasy writers do.” Real is a key word for me here, not dismissive of magical elements, just that they don’t appear each time like some deus ex machina, with little or no relationship to the characters or their history. I also like McKay’s mention of fast-paced, and knowing they are spies and soldiers—characters I’ve been enamored of since childhood—I’m very much looking forward to a thrilling read.

Sextant: A Young Man’s Daring Sea Voyage and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans (by David Barrie) I almost feel guilty mentioning this account, given I’ve done so at least twice before. I love the sea and reading a history of mapping it, I imagine, will provide a glimpse into a world so many of us only dream about knowing, even having learned of all those important historic expeditions in school. Of course that’s not enough! “[A] love letter to the sea and sky,” this book’s blurb gives me the impression it will tap directly into more of my childhood fascinations as the two definitively linked earthly elements recount memories of my own attempts at creating a sextant—wholly unsuccessful, but the keeper of a fleet of wondrous memories.

Thanks for joining us and look for more in weeks to come!

Author Interview: G.J. Berger (B.R.A.G. Medallion Winner)

south-of-burnt-rocksRecently I had the great opportunity to read and review author G.J. Berger’s B.R.A.G. Medallion and San Diego Book Awardwinning novel, South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon. Today Berger joins us for a bit of chat.

Good day, G.J. Berger, so awesome to have you here with us today! Hope you’ve been enjoying the sun in your neck of the woods—ours has returned since some weeks but the warmth to go with it is just now making itself more apparent. 

Your bio mentions your mom telling you, when you were eight, the story of Hannibal’s Alps crossing—with a great army and elephants, no less! Is this a bit of history she occasionally returned to, or was this a one-time story that gripped your imagination? 

For reasons I can’t fully explain, her story of Hannibal did grip hold and would not let go. She told me many stories, but none remained so vivid. At that time my single mom, with me in tow, was so poor that some nights we would have slept in her car. Except she did not own a car. But she was well educated, had lost everything several times in WWII, divorced my dad, and fled war-torn Germany for Australia. There and later in the US, she cleaned houses and watched the children of others to survive. After our work was done (I learned to dry dishes very well, washed cars, did yard work) and with no TV or Internet, we took walks or just talked. It was in these moments that she would tell me stories out of her extended family or out of deeper history.

What do you think could be amongst effective ways for families to get back into storytelling—historical events, family lore or other verbal tales that could spark young (or old!) imaginations?

I suppose they have to start by being families again from an early age, not just a collection of beings living in the same home and interacting once in a while in between all the other activities of their lives. Whenever a group of adults and youngsters gets away from modern trappings—say on a boat trip, an extended car trip, a place where the Internet is not pervasive—they tend to discover each other again, and stories about their lives or the lives of others naturally start spilling out. When our kids were of that age, we set aside regular family meeting time, and any member could ask for a family meeting. Pretty soon every member understood that these meetings helped us all understand and cope. Building little stories into such family meetings could really work well.

When did you first go to Celtic Spain and what brought you there? Did you go back more than once for research? What kinds of sites (or sights) did you see?

In my late teens I shipped out on a tramp steam ship. Its route was from NYC to Europe, around the Mediterranean, and back to NYC. That was my first “conscious” visit to ancient sites in Spain. Virginia and I went again in 2009 with the express purpose of roaming around some of the locales of South of Burnt Rocks. Spain has reconstructed or preserved a variety of structures from the time of Hannibal and Lavena, the main character of Burnt Rocks.

The site is the ancient city of Numancia. It was the place of the last stand by the locals against the Roman invaders. By then Lavena would have been an old woman, and Numancia might make for my third novel in a trilogy. At that site I visited reconstructed houses of the kind Lavena might have lived in and walls of the kind that might have protected her village. In the photo I’m looking at the pillar of a taller fancier house the Romans built after they finally won their multi-year siege.
At the site of the ancient city of Numancia by reconstructed houses of the kind Lavena might have lived in, and walls of the kind that might have protected her village. In the photo Berger looks at the pillar of a taller fancier house the Romans built after they finally won their multi-year siege.

In a cold wind of February, we traipsed around the old stone fort above Sagunt (Sagunto), so central to the story. We ducked around the reconstructed Celtic city of Numancia and there explored a house that might have been similar to the one Lavena grew up in. We traveled through several mountain ranges in Spain. In Europe, only Switzerland has more mountain terrain. We visited small museums of the Celtic Iberians as well as the city of Cartagena, the staging area for Hannibal’s great army.

In terms of world building within your books, has any of it been inspired by ruins you’ve visited? Did you see any locations and get visual ideas that moved you forward?

In the Google age, it seems everything an author needs is at one’s finger tips. Not so. Before we left on that more recent trip, I Googled the reconstructed city of Numancia. The actual site was so different—the air, she sky, the wider terrain, the scale of things large and small, the vegetation can’t be conveyed on a computer screen. The fort above Sagunto is both massive and had multiple parts—some built by the locals, then by Hannibal, then Romans, and later the Moors. Cacti protect the sloping ground below the walls—and don’t register on a computer screen search. The confidence of having been there makes the writing more secure, makes for details that put the reader there.

How much information had you gathered before you had a rough plotline for South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon?

Ah, this is a bit out of the box. South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon was my second completed manuscript of that time and place. So I already knew the history pretty well and used the history as the plot outline. Authors who write about true history don’t have to struggle about the larger plot lines—but they had better be careful to get it all correct.

What was your favorite chapter in the book to write? Which one was most difficult? What made each so?

Close call, but the one I turn to most often when others ask for my favorite is “First Strikes.” This chapter echoes detailed lessons learned by Lavena while training years before as a young girl to become a “she-warrior,” lessons that confound Roman brutes who would appear to have the better of her.

“Thunder Down From Mountains” was the most difficult. It contains fierce action carried out by several men and women and is also terribly sad. It ends Part I, setting the stage for Part II. If this chapter did not work, the rest of the story would not work either. I rewrote this one more than any other.

How do you develop your “fictional fictional” characters? That is to say, those other than who actually existed and were assigned biographical details in your novel—for example, the young Lavena and the Roman soldier who follows her?

At the time I started this novel, another novel had just been taken on by a New York agent who sent the earlier one out to publishers. She asked me about what I was working on next. I pitched about five ideas. She and I both settled on this one, but she asked me to ditch my proposed main character—an old Celtic warrior dying after battling Romans—and make the main character a woman. After about five beats, cocky me said, “I can do that.” I decided in that moment to make the main character the old fighter’s youngest daughter.

The Roman scout popped in for the first time after I had finished Part I. My writing muse told me Part II needed a Roman point of view, and a Roman scout seemed right.

How would you describe your style of writing?

I’ve been told there are two basic ways to write fiction. Outline everything in great detail and then fill in the rest, or let the first word push the next, the first sentence push the next sentence until done. I believe I use the second method more than the first, but I don’t start until I have a character I love, an opening place and time and some distant lights on the shore I want to get to.

FourNailsGJBerger_FrontCoverTrimSize96DPI_600x900webCan you tell us a little about your next book? When should we expect it?

Ah, this one is easy. It just came out. Its title is Four Nails. It’s about Hannibal’s lead elephant driver and his great and glorious elephant. Here’s the link.

What books were your favorites when you were eight? Which would you consider as favorites now? Which books are currently on your night table?

Not sure when I was eight, not many books around where we lived then. But I loved comic books then, especially Mandrake the Magician, his love interest, Nada, and his helper, Lothar. They solved all sorts of problems in most interesting ways. A couple years later when I had access to a library, I inhaled books of adventure—Jack London, The Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy, whole series on figures out of history. One of my favorites was the Scottish collie story, Bob, Son of Battle.

My favorites now include The Book Thief, The Last of the Mohicans, and The Road. Dead Wake, a non-fiction book on the sinking of the Lusitania sits unfinished on my night stand.

Oh yes, graphic novels they call them—comic books—now. They were a bit controversial as they first began to evolve away from the more casual reading content. Nowadays they might have graphic novel versions of books such as the London and Dafoe stories. Do you object or see this as a constructive way to draw kids in larger numbers toward reading?

In my own early reading years, many novels had illustrations, not as many as a comic books or “graphic novel” but plenty enough for the young mind to get into the story very fast. Many non-fiction books use photos and illustrations today. I don’t see any reason (except cost) why fiction works usually only have a cover and perhaps a chart or map on the inside cover.

What would you say to a kid-friendly version of South of Burnt Rocks produced in graphic novel form?

I’m all for it, though I think I lean to a version with illustrations rather than solid comic book panels.

That would be fantastic! Looking back at your novel in its original form: Suppose the mother of an eight-year-old today had told her child the general plot of the South of Burnt Rocks story—the focus being on the historical and of course leaving certain portions for later years—and the child was fascinated by it, much the same way you were with the story your mom told you that led to this book being written. What would you tell this youngster?

Honey, a week from now, tell me about the Celts. Where they came from, where they went, what became of them. And tell me the name of the world city that contains a giant statue of a Lavena-like heroine who almost kicked the Romans out of the British Isles.

The cover of Four Nails laid out on my own table for a fantastic view to the back with its spectacular mountain range. The front cover shows a coin depicting hannibal astride his lead elephant.
The cover of Four Nails laid out for a view to the back with its spectacular mountain range (see above for author commentary about this). The front cover shows a coin depicting Hannibal astride his lead elephant. Image courtesy Lisl Madeleine

How about some getting-to-know-you a little apart from being a novelist~do you enjoy reading aloud to others?

I do enjoy reading aloud to others, but in this day and age, very few people of any age sit still long enough to be read to. If they do, they are likely to be staring into a hand-held device, or worried that they just missed a life-changing text message.

Are you a better cook or baker? What is your favorite dish to prepare? 

Oh, dear, don’t let Virginia see this, please don’t. I make great scrambled eggs, learned how from an old cowboy who did it on the range in Wyoming most mornings. There are several tricks. I make a good goulash, and will passably barbecue about anything. For anything else, I’d have to put my face into the recipe.

What movie for you is a must-see-in-cinema film?

The Godfather—the first one.

Do you collect anything or pursue a particular hobby? If so, how did you get going with it?

I used to collect stamps somewhat seriously, started from having traveled so many places at a young age. Then one day the absurdity of the whole thing hit me, and almost overnight I decided to sell my collection and have never looked back. I think learning about people and places depicted on old stamps and understanding the little tweaks that created or destroyed value in collectible stamps pulled me in. But once I had a few nice ones, the whole thing lost its appeal.

Virginia and I have for decades been learning the Argentine Tango. Once hooked, no other dance comes close.

What’s your favorite board game?


Are you a dog or cat person? Sweet snacks or savory? Hardcopy books or e-reader? 

Dog, but I greatly admire cats and wish I did not have allergies. Savory snacks. Hardcopy.

Is there anything else you’d like to add—related or completely random—that we haven’t discussed?

I am a lucky fellow that I have the time to write. It’s such a selfish undertaking. The writer must shut out all others, all other duties, all other thoughts for great chunks of time. I am lucky that I have writer friends who ask me to look at their work and react and who then come back for more. That part is almost as much fun as writing my own. Apart from family, my readers are my favorite people.

From my work with other writers, from my reviewing many other novels, I’ve learned that there are many interesting stories well told. Now, at last, the Internet allows those stories to find readers without obtaining permission from professionals toiling away in cubicles in office buildings in major cities. It’s a golden age for authors.

I like the way you put that—“without obtaining permission.” There are soooo many amazing stories to be told. Do you believe the more golden of this golden age is yet to come, that the popularity of indie authors will become much greater, almost mainstream? Mainstream, perhaps, in the numbers sense, but they could still be called indie because they retain creative rights and don’t have to seek that permission from someone in a secluded, posh office to tell a great story.

It’s of course hard to tell where the independent publishing world is going to be in the future, where traditional publishing is headed. It’s equally hard to tell whether the future will bring more or fewer readers. For the moment I’m content to let others figure that out and remain very glad my stories can get out to readers without someone else giving me and my stories that permission. The direct author-reader connection is wonderful.

Thank you ever so much for allowing us a glimpse into your world and getting to know you some more. It has been a pleasure and a privilege, and I hope we shall be meeting up again soon!


george_1_9-17-13_email6x9When G. J. was eight, his mom told him the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants and a great army. He asked her what happened to Hannibal after that. Mom didn’t know, but he was hooked, had to find out, had to write about it.

G. J. spent much of his young life on the road and at sea, often working as a crew member on a tramp steamer. Wherever his travels took him, old walls, canals, even storage holes deep in the ground, made him wonder about how they got there, about the people who built them, how they lived and got along. The result is this and two other novels wherein the places, the history, even some of the Burnt Rocks characters do and did exist.

When not writing, G. J. tries to roam around the places he writes about, likes to sit and soak up the times back then and bring them to modern life in his stories. G. J. is convinced that for all the changes in last 2000 years, people loved and hated, suffered and rejoiced, destroyed and built the same ways then as they do today.

G. J. lives in San Diego with his favorite grammarian and English professor. They visit their two sons and grandson as often as the kids will have them.

You can learn more about G.J. Berger’s work and news at his website and Twitter. A review for Four Nails, the prequel to South of Burnt Rocks, can be seen here.


Stay tuned for my review of Four Nails

Images courtesy G.J. Berger except when otherwise indicated.

Book Review: South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon

South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon

B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree

San Diego Book Award Winner

by G.J. Berger

While fond of historical fiction, the Roman era is one I’m not typically drawn to, a concern pushed to the side by the blurb for G.J. Berger’s South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon, and I decided to take the plunge. With each page I found myself drawn all the more to the adolescent Lavena’s triumphs and struggles in a transitional era that would test every bit of her enthusiasm, training and even question her survival.

south of burnt rocksSet in Iberia in between the second and third Punic wars, South of Burnt Rocks opens in an era when Rome is attempting to recover resources following Carthaginian assaults that occurred simultaneous to the first of the Macedonian wars. The Village on the Cliff, populated by Iberian Celts, holds a treaty with the Roman praetor Piso, whereby the tribe lives under a levied peace. However, he is recalled to the capital and replaced by a more forceful magistrate who revokes the treaty and plans to resume the monstrous Roman sweep of barbari lands in search of ever more loot: young slaves and their plentiful precious metals.

It is in this setting we meet Lavena, who opens the novel when, as an eleven-year-old future warrior woman, she witnesses a superfluous and ghastly murder committed by a Roman soldier. In short order we bear witness to the truism of various political opinion when Piso’s governorship is discussed amongst a gathering of tribal elders, including her father Sinorix, their leader.

Her father shook his head and grinned. “Piso won’t even let us raid the other tribes for practice like we did before the treaty.”

One of the other old men said, “That’s why we made our treaties…Piso helps us all live in peace, respects us, has for a long time….”

 Her father said, “His men show us less respect than they show their dogs. Roman praetors always leave after they’ve taken what they want from us.”

The narrative moves forward in large part through Lavena’s point of view and as such, readers won’t find Berger lacing the novel with names of historical battles, sieges or dates, as the girl would not likely have referenced them in the way history later would. As readers, we rely on what she knows and learns, and Berger presents this in an engaging and gripping manner that holds us close to their thought processes as well as ensuing action, and provides hints as to some of the tribe’s contact with others.

No river could be longer or wider than her river. Alexandros said the mountains were named after the Greek god, Pyrene. Lavena did not believe that either. Everyone she knew called them Burnt Rocks and that’s how they looked from a distance.

Sinorix contemplates a transition that gives us further insight into what they know of their history.

“Maybe we’ll cross the Burnt Rocks, maybe we’ll go west of the moon and across the big water to the land we came from, to our brothers and sisters in the cold country.”

Lavena prepares, knowing the newer Roman army will soon advance, and she is anxious to prove herself up to the task of helping defeat them. We witness, too, her move into adulthood and become familiar with the role women play in this society, a larger and more central place than Roman women maintain in theirs. It is easy to admire their cunning, will and courage, especially when even at a 2,000 year remove, Berger truly brings home to us just how ruthless and cruel their aggressors are willing to be. His portrayal of the Keltoi brings them to life in such a manner that we seem to be at their side, smarting at the setbacks they suffer, mourning their losses, encouraging their gains.

Also admirable are the differences Berger is able to overcome when telling Lavena’s tale. Much has been made of male authors speaking for female characters (and vice versa); add to this a grownup taking on the voice of an adolescent and as mentioned, that of an individual who would have lived over two millennia before. Combined with the dialogue and relating of events as they occur, readers might wonder that perhaps Berger recorded Lavena’s story as she herself related it to him. We become so engaged in the life of her tribe when they are at peace as well as when the battering rams begin to do their work, that there is no question of whether we will follow her, in the wake of her people’s destruction, as she escapes and seeks to engage other tribes to form a defensive consortium.

Berger also gives us an insider’s view to a Roman legion in the form of Marcus, who is tasked with locating a missing scouting group that includes his own brother. We see the decay up close, as well as the corruption of power, though from the perspective of one not in a position to make any high-level changes. The third-person narration transitions occur smoothly and as Marcus and Lavena’s paths grow closer together, the thrill is palpable as Berger’s expert ability to keep us at rapt attention merges with the alternating views of each character. Depending on events as they occur, we may agree or disagree, admire or despise, feel disgust or sympathy for Marcus, as his creator shows us the many sides to even a Roman soldier. The path he winds through the story leads to an ending that surprised me a bit, and the contemplations I had of Marcus pointed again to the author’s caveat that even Romans aren’t all exactly who we think they were.

While Lavena’s objectives take her often frighteningly close to the army as their campaign carries them through Iberia, she also remains true to her spiritual legacy, and Berger magnificently portrays her communion with nature and the departed to whom she speaks, often asking for guidance. Her progression is fast paced and the detail examined from her eyes—surroundings, perceptive recognition of others’ responses to her and events, clues as to the presence of outsiders, for example—is multiple layered without being weighty. Berger has crafted his narrative to near perfection: not a single word is wasted and the world that was, is brought to life for us to witness. The sounds, sights, smells and sense of Roman Spain as well as the events carrying Lavena through the story are so present that we feel as if we are there with her.

South of Burnt Rocks is an extremely satisfying read, one that engages the audience, stirring us to probe further into an era many of us remember only in bits from school-age history classes. To that end, the author’s notes succinctly fill in many gaps and it is evident the research done for the novel is extensive and painstakingly thorough. Our view to history is a bit more privileged than that of Lavena, who learns she must come to grips with her own family’s role in that succession and what it means for her, as well as for those who come to know of her courageous stand against tyranny.


A copy of South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon was furnished to the blogger in exchange for an honest review.


BergerIn north central Spain outside the town of Soria sits an archeological dig being restored by the government. The site is the ancient city of Numancia. It was the place of the last stand by the locals against the Roman invaders. By then Lavena would have been an old woman, and Numancia might make for my third novel in a trilogy. At that site I visited reconstructed houses of the kind Lavena might have lived in and walls of the kind that might have protected her village. In the photo I’m looking at the pillar of a taller fancier house the Romans built after they finally won their multi-year siege.


George_1_9-17-13_email6x9When G. J. was eight, his mom told him the story of Hannibal crossing the Alps with elephants and a great army. He asked her what happened to Hannibal after that. Mom didn’t know, but he was hooked, had to find out, had to write about it.

G. J. spent much of his young life on the road and at sea, often working as a crew member on a tramp steamer. Wherever his travels took him, old walls, canals, even storage holes deep in the ground, made him wonder about how they got there, about the people who built them, how they lived and got along. The result is this and two other novels-to-be wherein the places, the history, even some of the Burnt Rocks characters do and did exist.

When not writing, G. J. tries to roam around the places he writes about, likes to sit and soak up the times back then and bring them to modern life in his stories. G. J. is convinced that for all the changes in last 2000 years, people loved and hated, suffered and rejoiced, destroyed and built the same ways then as they do today.

G. J. lives in San Diego with his favorite grammarian and English professor. They visit their two sons and grandson as often as the kids will have them.

You can learn more about G.J. Berger’s work and news at his website and Twitter. A review for Four Nails, the upcoming prequel to South of Burnt Rocks, can be seen here.