August 2009


Author :  John Dunning

Publication Date :  January 25, 2005

Publisher :  Pocket Star Books

ISBN-10: 0743476298

ISBN-13: 978-0743476294

No. of pages : 496 (Mass Market  Paperback)

The Story:

Homicide cop turned book collector and seller, Cliff  Janeway acquires a valuable book written by a famous Victorian era explorer, Richard Burton.  The book is in pristine condition and worth thousands of dollars; but,  Janeway’s pleasure is short-lived.  A ninety-year old woman shows up at his door, claiming ownership of the treasured book through her grandfather, Charles Warren, whom she  insisted to have been Burton’s companion during one of his travels.

Furthermore, she  tells  a surprised Janeway that the book  is only part of an incredible library of Burton material, all of  which had been sold unscrupulously to shady book dealers.    A few days after,  the old woman is on her deathbed and extracts a promise from  Janeway :   find the rare collection, in particular,  a priceless journal which purportedly Burton gave to her grandfather for safekeeping.

What starts out as a skeptical investigation soon becomes a serious and deadly tag with other treasure hunters.  When a friend is murdered, Janeway realizes there is something more than just treasure hunting.  A past secret is being covered up and Janeway  is now in the way.

The Review :

With “The Bookman’s Promise“, John Dunning presents us with some refreshing elements for a crime/mystery thriller. Now a book collector is a macho hero and the hullabaloo is about books — old, invaluable books written by a real live explorer, Richard Francis Burton.  Plus, the author incorporates the world of a book trader which makes for an interesting facet in this novel.

As much as Burton becomes, through Dunning’s engaging portrayal of the man,  an intriguing personality for a number of his readers, this novel still very much targets a small niche in the reading  audience.  Not many, this reviewer included, have heard of this famously irreverent explorer and so may have some difficulty in appreciating the novel in the way it deserves.  One simply cannot appreciate Burton’s idiosyncrasies or whatever the author wishes to please us with if one does not know him. Familiarity of Burton is indeed essential for the full enjoyment of this book as the core plot is rather mundane, despite the aforementioned new elements.

However, if you are familiar with Burton, you may take a different tack.  You would perhaps revel in the fictitious or factual (I wouldn’t know which) details generously written in the book and pronounce Dunning’s novel a capital one.  This is simply this reviewer’s conjecture on something she is not very sure about.

Like its hero, the prose is quite masculine.  One could immediately discern that the story was written by a man, which is nice as long as the testosterone is not overly used to include most of its characters.  However, it does, as the majority of the characters, whether male or female, exhibit a strong will and drive.

Dunning’s characters show too many strong traits as to render them sometimes irksome and distant.    For instance, Erin is a sassy lawyer who constantly takes offense at anything she deems chauvinistic.  This is okay in some situations but downright pesky in some, where, in reality,  she clearly will be in the way.  She is not a character one can empathize much with, unless one believes that someone can be constantly strong and fearless.   There seems a lot of sass in the dialogues, too, between characters which tend to be tiresome halfway through.

In A Nutshell :

The Bookman’s Promise” is neither a great novel nor a very bad one.   One major weakness is that a reader’s  unfamiliarity with Burton  may be a significant block for him seeking to enjoy this novel.  This, and possible character non-empathy could be two very detrimental factors in capturing reader interest.  Otherwise,  it could be an enjoyable read.

Having said these, I recognize that there are probably two stark opposing camps to this novel :  those who loved it (readers who understood the nuances of Burton and the book trade) and those who just couldn’t get into it (readers who don’t know a fig about them).   Sadly, I belong to the latter for the reasons stated above:  I don’t know Burton and I just couldn’t like the characters so much.

My Mark :  Mediocre

But you must read the book to know for sure.

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My stumble on Stainless Steel Droppings brought me my first book challenge.  I love gothic stuff and feel a guilty magnet toward the macabre.  So, a challenge to immerse myself in the dark side was too irresistible to declare my usual, “Oh, maybe next time.”

I accept Peril the First as my challenge from September ’til Halloween and to this I commit the following novels:

1.  The Historian —- Elizabeth Kostkova   (2006) 

2.  The Glass Books  of the Dream Eaters —-  Gordon Dahlquist   (2006)   

3.  The 5th Witch —- Graham Masterton    (May 2008)

4.  The Ghost of Flight 401 ——  John G. Fuller    (1976)  

5. Merrick ———-  Anne Rice  (2000)  

I think these are lot of  scary reads to indulge in, in just two months — a lot for someone whose choice of reading depends upon the mood at the moment.   For me, picking up a certain genre contrary to my reading mood is difficult in itself.  But then, that’s why it is a challenge! : )

My knowledge of this book came from reading a blogger’s take on the movie, “300“.  I do not recall the site anymore but I do recall the blogger’s disappointment in the movie’s distance from historical facts. (As per another blog, “300” was supposed to be based on some comic book  and was meant to be more of a visual treat rather than a factual account on the Battle of Thermopylae.)  This book is one he expressly recommended as one of the best fiction novels on that famous battle as the events and descriptions thereof are well-researched and hold true to history.

Author  :  Steven Pressfield

First Publication Date :  October 20, 1998

First Publisher   :  Doubleday

This Edition’s Publication Date :  September 1999

This Edition’s Publisher :  Bantam Books

No. of Pages :  460

ISBN : 0-553-58053-I

The Story :

After the Persian’s victory at the pass of Thermopylae, a Greek soldier is discovered as the sole survivor of that horrendous battle.  At King Xerxes’ command, the man, Xeones, is spared and nursed as much as could be done for a man with grievous wounds.  It is Xerxes’ desire to know his enemies  whose paltry numbers have decimated a staggering multitude in his army.  As much as his desire is so,  it is also the Greek’s urgent need to tell the story to immortalize the men who valorously held the pass against insurmountable odds.

He begins his discourse with his life’s story, from a homeless boy of a conquered city to a helot in service to a Spartan master.  Of  Sparta he describes its military way of life, where self-discipline and subordination of the needs of one for the many are paramount virtues.  Boys, as young as 12, are subjected to military training, a way of life that would make them into formidable warriors and therefore, real men, ready to defend their state for honor.  Battle training does not merely mean molding superb physiques and extraordinary fighting prowess.  There also exists the Spartan psychology of war in which battle philosophies are inculcated to create a strong foundation of selflessness and a state of mind that renounces fear in the face of death.  This has made Sparta’s military might superior to all as their battle readiness is a product of complete physical, mental, and emotional endurance.  Even Spartan women are physically fit  and stoically ready to give up husbands and sons to defend Sparta.

Under the huge threat of the Persian invasion, Sparta rallies other Greek states to counter this dangerous intention.  The Spartan king, Leonidas, selects 300 soldiers to march to Thermopylae to defend this narrow pass into Greece.  These 300, along with their Greek allies totals a handful 7,000 against 2,000,000 Persian enemies.

Xeones’ narrative breathes life into the personalities behind this historically famous “last stand” and earns for the Hellenes, in particular Sparta, the respect of the enemy who are awed by Greek determination to defend their country to the last man.

The Review :

Few books on war may ever enthrall one as much as “Gates of Fire“, Steven Pressfield’s brilliantly executed story on the Battle of Thermopylae.  The story is done with great mastery for depicting human nature, Spartan culture and psychology, and ancient Greek warfare and battle tactics.

Although war and the violence of  hand-to-hand combat may be alien to most of us, Pressfield makes the sights, smells, sounds, and emotional experiences of the fight so palpable, it intrudes the comfort of one’s reading chair.  One can feel the grit, the determination, the almost inhuman physical and mental endurance, and the nobility of it all.

The characterization is very good.   His ancient warriors do put a new dimension on the concept of  “real men”.   Aside from pure brawn and unimaginable stamina, they are able to transcend basic human nature in the face of insuperable odds.  One may be drawn to how humanly vulnerable the characters are to many weaknessees, like fear, the desire for self preservation, etc. and be filled with admiration for their ability to rise above themselves for the good of the many.

Pressfield’s writing has a poetic quality, rich in metaphors  and analogy, which greatly enhances the descriptive style of his work.

“…Instead each warrior’s lungs pumped only for breath; chests heaved like foundry bellows, sweat coursed into the ground in runnels, while the sound which arose from the throats of the contending masses was like nothing so much as a myriad quarrymen, each harnessed to the twined rope of the sled, groaning and straining to drag some massive stone across the resisting earth. ” — p. 297

What may please one more is that although “Gates of Fire” is a fictional novel,  it is , I believe, laboriously researched and therefore historically accurate.  The author’s knowledge of the battle and characters seem so intimate as to make one believe he had been there himself.  What also makes the book more special is the fact that it also deals with interesting Spartan psychology and philosophy of war:

“War not peace, produces virtue.  War, not peace, purges vice.  War, and the preparation for war, call forth all that is noble and honorable in a man.  It unites him with his brothers and binds them in a selfless love, eradicating in the crucible all which is base and ignoble.  There in the holy mill of murder the meanest of men may seek and find that part of himself, concealed beneath the corrupt, which shines forth brilliant and virtuous, worthy of honor before the gods.   Do not despise war….do not delude yourself that mercy and compassion are virtues superior to andreia, to manly valor.” — p.157

How does one conquer fear of death, the most primordial of terrors….Dogs in a pack find courage to take on a lion.  Each hound knows its place.  He fears the dog ranked above and feeds off the fear of the dog below.  Fear conquers fear.  This is how we Spartans do it, counterpoising to fear of death a greater fear:  that of dishonor.  Of exclusion from the pack.”  — p.265

“Habit will be your champion.  When you train the mind to think one way and one way only, when you refuse to allow it to think in another, that will produce great strength in battle. — p. 159

The excerpts above may appear verbose or too lofty for some when taken as is, but as part of the book it doesn’t seem so.  Steven Pressfield manages to balance his writing to create a wonderful reading experience of a novel — a  remarkably inspirational gem I think few of its genre can equal.

To Read Or Not To Read :

Definitely, a must read!  I must say this is one of the best “battle books”  I’ve ever come across.  It’s a testosterone-laden narrative full of blood, guts, muscle, and masculine stoicism;  yet it is poignant too for the tremendous sacrifice, honor, and virtues  all upheld in this story as well.

For budding ancient war enthusiasts, you will be thrilled by the accurate depiction of battle techniques, strategies, rigorous training methods and the unwavering mindset one must have to become truly Spartan.

Somehow it is hard to believe that men with such physical and mental endurance such as these Spartan warriors ever existed.  But the  mind-boggling part is that they did!  The human mind and body is actually capable of so much more than what we believe so.

Imagine tearing your hamstring (agonizing enough in itself)  and still getting up to fight, using tremendous leg power to push against a human enemy wall, pushing back in return, all the while carrying a spear and a massive oak and bronze shield.   This you should do without surrendering to pain and self-pity, for hours on end with hardly a respite for food and water.   Sounds ridiculously incredible?  Yet this could have been what a warrior must have endured to keep the phalanx intact:

“…I could see the warrior’s feet, at first churning in disarray for purchase on the blood and gore-beslimed earth, now settle into a unison, a grinding relentless cadence….With a heave, the warriors’ shield-side foot pressed forward, bows-on to the enemy;  now the shield-side foot planted at a ninety-degree angle, dug into  the mud; the arch sank as every stone of the man’s weight found purchase upon the insole, and, with left shoulder planted into the inner bowl of the shield whose broad outer surface was  pressed into the back of  the comrade before him, he summoned all force of tissue and tendon to surge and heave upon the beat.  Like ranked oarsmen straining upon the shaft of a single oar, the unified push of the men’s exertions propelled the ship of the phalanx forward into the tide of the enemy. “— pp. 296 – 297

Well, if such “supermen”  existed before, one may come to think :  how come we don’t make many of them anymore?  Tee Hee! 😉

As An Aside :

It is interesting to note  : “‘Gates of Fire‘ is on the Commandant of the Marine Corps’ Reading list. It is taught at West Point and Annapolis and at the Marine Corps Basic School at Quantico.”  — Wikipedia

It has been floating around that this movie will be adapted to cinema.  However, this project is still in development with no particular date in sight.  Don’t be lazy though and wait for the movie.  Pick up this book;  it’ll be well worth your time.

In A Nutshell :

Steven Pressfield is now on my personal list of fave authors for “Gates Of Fire“, a very beautifully written graphical novel which showcases the author’s superior writing talent.    This is one of those books you can read again and again through the years.  Definitely a keeper and a treasure on my shelf.

My Mark :  Excellent;  Superb!

Have an appetite for something original?   Look no further than “The Eyre Affair“.   Indulge in absurd reality to enjoy Fforde’s imaginative inventiveness and wry wit.

Author           :  Jasper Fforde

Date of Publication :  February 25, 2003

Publisher     :  Penguin

ISBN-10        : 0142001805

ISBN-13       : 978-0142001806

No. of Pages   :  384

The Story :

Fforde’s Britain is a surreal state where vampires and time travel are common realities; excursions into alternate worlds in books are possible; different versions of dodos can be had from a store; and bookworms are actual worms that feed on words.

This is the world of Thursday Next, a special operative of LiteraTec, a government agency in charge of, well, keeping everything literary, safe and intact. Thursday is a feisty, no-nonsense yet feminine literary cop who finds herself facing her greatest nemesis, Acheron Hades, the worst villain of all time.

A true villain who revels in being “differently moraled”,  Acheron is a SpecOps nightmare.  His latest caper, stealing the original Chuzzlewit manuscript and having his minion enter its literary portal to kidnap Mr. Quaverly for execution, has  Britain in an uproar, as the Dickens’ story is changed forever.

Thursday  Next must stop him as he sets his sights on his next victim,  Jane Eyre.  She must enter  Jane’s world to protect her, rid the world of Hades, and  thus preserve literature as it should be.

The Review :

Surreal yet charmingly quirky, Fforde’s novel is either a book one will really enjoy or a book a reader just cannot get into.    Fforde’s fantasy is just so different that one must like the wacky, the funny, and the outlandish to enjoy his world.

The heroine, Thursday Next, is a lovable  oxymoronic character, both vulnerable and tough.  This successful blend of opposite qualities renders her immediately endearing.  His villain, Acheron Hades,  is a unique sort whose amorality, style, and total contentment of his heinous nature makes him darkly fun and perpetually intriguing.

Fforde begins each chapter with little excerpts from writings of fictitious personalities from his world.  These  set the mood or clue the reader in on the chapter’s background— quite good devices for giving more information and rounding out the sections quite well.

To Read Or Not To Read :

It would be nice if one is more familiar with the literary works and authors Fforde liberally sprinkles references to throughout.  Unfamiliarity with them though, will not detract the reader from enjoying this humorously crafted oddball of a novel.

However, read only if you are inclined toward something really off the beaten track.   Don’t pick this up if you are annoyed, not in the mood for the surreal, or just do not fancy anything fantastical at the moment.  You may just miss Fforde’s clever prose and unusual wit (this, together with his fertile imagination defines his writing style) which requires a certain lightheartedness to appreciate it.

In A Nutshell :

The Eyre Affair”  is Jasper Fforde’s first novel, a cocktail of mystery, fantasy, suspense, murder, comedy and romance.  Its bold but successful concoction shows Fforde’s brilliant writing talent and guts in daring to push literary barriers.

My Mark :  Outstanding