Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Starless Night by R. A. Salvatore (A Drizzt Novel)

In the last novel a raid was launched to capture Drizzt and return him to the city of Menzzoberanzen. Drizzt was able to escape with the help of his friends, but not without a price. The noble barbarian Wulfgar fell in battle with an creature from another dimension. His friends grieve over his loss. Bruenor can barely function as king in Mithril Hall. Drizzt knows that his enemies will keep coming for him no matter what. So he decides to end it. What is plans are never become quite apparent. He decides to return to the city of his birth. Along the way he will pass many old places of memory. He will renew old friendships. He will have an encounter with his god. Most of all he will learn that he is not alone, that he must trust in his friends.

Suspenseful and moving this is a a good novel in the Drizzt saga. Here, for the first time Drizzt comes to a greater understanding about his place in the world.

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The Legacy by R. A. Salvatore (A Drizzt Novel)

Drizzt Do'Urden has finally found a home. Together the companions rescued Regis from the clutches of a vengeful pasha. Drizzt battled his enemy Artemis Entreri into a retreat. Afterwards the led a dwarvish army against Bruenor's ancient realm of Mithril Hall and took it again for the king. Now Bruenor sits on his throne and the biggest concern that the companions have is the wedding of Catti-Brie and Wulfgar. Things are not as peaceful as they seem. Unbeknownst to the companions an old enemy lurks below them. Drizzt's family has not forgotten his betrayal. The chief matron of Menzoberranzen sends a war party out to capture Drizzt and put an end to this renegade.

The drow are always confident in their skills, but they underestimate the power of the companions. Bruenoer, Catti-Brie, and Wulfgar all go after Drizzt. Joining them is Thibbeldorf Pwent, a dwarf known as a gutbuster. His somewhat unique style of fighting is to wear armor that is covered with razor sharp spikes. He simply hurls himself as a living weapon at his enemies. It will take all of the cunning and skill of Drizzt and his companions to survive this encounter. Not all of them will make it.

More great sword and sorcery work from the great master himself. Salvatore's stories are always a lot of fun. If you like good adventure style fantasy then check out this book.

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Monday, April 29, 2013

The Camelot Papers by Peter David

This is a lot of fun. So glad the journal of Viviana was discovered so that we can get the true version if what happened at Camelot. Writer Peter David gives us a funny and yet serious view of world of Camelot seen through the eye of the slave Viviana. All of the usual suspects are here. There are times where it gets a bit silly, particularly if you've ever read any actual medieval history. It was not meant to be a realistic portrayal. Instead it is a thinly veiled piece of political humor. For me it gets less funny the more political it gets. As I said it's a mostly fun book that is light reading.

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Very Excited

On his blog Max Allan Collins mentioned my review of his book True Detective and gave the link to the review. He wrote: Here’s a very good TRUE DETECTIVE review. It’s amazing how resilient that book has been. Published thirty years ago, it sold more copies in the last year (e-book format) than in its first several.
I’m very excited that he liked it. Of course I also love his Nathan Heller novels as you all know.

American Gospel by Jon Meacham

The issue of religion, both public and private, has had a place in the United States ever since our founding. Jon Meacham brings a historian's eye to this interesting and complex issue. The men who founded the United States came from diverse backgrounds, yet they had many things in common. Meacham shows that the ethics and morality of the Bible have informed and defined the history of the United States from the beginning.

Religion informs the way that we discuss issues and forms our public lives as well as our private lives. Jefferson used religious imagery when writing the Declaration of Independence. Abolitionists used the gospel to fight slavery. The issue was not couched in economic terms, but in the terms of a system that was evil in its nature. Franklin Roosevelt believed that the New Deal was a Christian imperative to help the poor. Martin Luther King, Jr. couched the Civil Rights movement not as a political movement, but as a spiritual movement.

This is an issue that still divides our nation today. This book will help to set the stage for understanding the complex ways that religion in general and the Christian religion in particular still defines how we talk about political and social issues. Both liberals and conservatives will take issue with different points of this book, but maybe that's a good thing. Whether or not you agree with every point you will find a lot to think about with this book.

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America by Walter Borneman

James Polk was the president who brought Texas into the Union. He also added California, and the states of the Southwest. He made war with Mexico to achieve those ends. He also made peace with England that defined the northern territorial line of the United States and finally settled the Oregon Territory question for good.

Born in North Carolina his family moved to Tennessee when he was a young man. After studying law he moved into politics. His most important mentor was Andrew Jackson. Jackson even introduced young James to Sarah Childress who would marry the up and coming politician. Polk's early career was meteoric. At the age of 30 he was elected to the House of Representatives. He would serve 7 terms and the last two terms he would spend as the Speaker of the House. He was elected Governor of Tennessee. Everyone thought that he would be an easy presidential contender. Then he lost his reelection bid for governor. He then lost the second attempt at the governor's office four years later. Everyone assumed that Polk was finished. Then, in 1844, the Democratic Convention was unable to agree on a candidate for President. Polk became that candidate.

Everyone knew that admitting Texas to the Union would cause a conflict with Mexico. The territory between the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers was claimed by both the United States and Mexico. Polk sent troops to occupy the region. A group of American cavalry were attacked by a force of Mexican cavalry. Several Americans died in the action. Polk requested a declaration of war because "American Blood has been shed on American soil." As a result of the war Polk was able to expand the boundaries of the United States. The war was controversial and Polk had to contend with the opposition led by the elder statesman John Quincy Adams. Assisting Adams on the opposition was a young Congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.

Polk ran with the promise to serve only one term. He kept his promise. After his term of office ended Polk took a tour on the way home to Tennessee. After his return home he became ill and died only three months after leaving office. Walter Borneman is a well respected historian and he has given a wonderful look at the life and Presidency of James K. Polk. This book is well written and is a good look into the issues that led only eleven years after his death to the Civil War.

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Moonraker by Ian Fleming

M is worried. He believes that multi-millionaire Hugo Drax, a member of his club, may be cheating at cards. This could cause all sorts of trouble. It would embarrass Sir Hugo and the country needs him. His new missile guidance system is what the country needs to keep ahead of the Soviet menace. M asks Bond along to the club to see if his fears are valid. Bond soon realizes that Sir Hugo is cheating and is able to beat him at his own game. All parties involved think that the issue is over. Sir Hugo has been warned subtly to stop his cheating. Then Bond is called on to go undercover at Sir Hugo's facility to find out if there is a security risk.

He teams up with Gala Brand, another undercover agent posing as Drax's secretary, and seeks to find out what is going on. Before it is all over Bond and Gala will face several life threatening situations and will have to use every bit of their cunning and skill to discover the true identity of Hugo Drax and prevent a disaster of astonishing proportions.

This is a great Bond novel and a classic spy novel from the Cold War. Other than using the name of Hugo Drax and James Bond this novel is nothing like the film.

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Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Million Dollar Wound by Max Allan Collins (A Nathan Heller Novel)

Another great Nate Heller mystery. After Pearl Harbor Nate Heller and his buddy Barney Ross get drunk, lie about their ages and join the Marines. They end up on Guadalcanal. Suffering from malaria Heller is pinned down while on patrol. Ross is wounded as are several others. Heller suffers battle fatigue and is honorably discharged after he recovers. After he is discharged he has to reacquaint himself with a case that he had worked on years before.

This one is a little more raw than the prior two. The novel has a lot of threads, Heller fighting on Guadalcanal. Heller investigating mob connections to unions in the late 30s. Heller dealing with both of those issues as he recovers from malaria he contracted on Guadalcanal. The threads interweave themselves throughout the book. Like all of the books it is well written, lots of fun, plenty of historical figures, and at least two conspiracy theories.

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American Lion by Jon Meacham

Andrew Jackson is one of the most important and one of the most controversial presidents in American History. During his lifetime the United States came into being and gained large new tracts of territory. Much of that territory was rough and wild, as were the people who lived there. Andrew Jackson became a lawyer and judge in Tennessee. He met and married his beloved Rachel. Their relationship was controversial at the time because they were married before her divorce from her prior husband had come through. For the rest of their lives allegations of Rachel's character would haunt them. At least one man was killed by Jackson in a duel over this. As a military leader Jackson twice invaded Spanish Florida chasing Creek raiders who raided into George and Alabama and escaped to Florida. As a military commander he is most known as the US commander at the Battle of New Orleans. At that battle a ragtag group of regular soldiers, militia, volunteers, Choctaw warriors, and Baratarian pirates defeated a large British army.

The book covers these issues, but it is focused on his two terms as president. Jackson won a contentious election. Over the next eight years he would confront many controversies. He sought to bring more prestige and power to the office of the President. An opposition party would form to battle his policies. They called themselves Whigs after the British party that opposed royal authority. Jackson despised the idea of a National Bank and did everything he could to not only block the re-chartering of the Bank, but to bring it down ahead of it's time. When the South Carolina legislature claimed it had the authority to nullify a federal law Jackson was ready to invade the state to assert Federal authority. In fact Lincoln would cite Jackson's example in the early days of his administration. The act that would be remembered the most in future generations was the Indian Removal Act. This act forced native people to sell their land (often at cut rate prices) and move west of the Mississippi. The mostly ended up in Oklahoma. The suffering encountered by these people would be remembered as the Trail of Tears.

Meacham paints a fascinating portrait of this complicated man. You may or may not like Jackson after you read this book, but you will have a better understanding of this important man. Perhaps like every other person in history we should learn how to admire the good things that a man does while disapproving of the bad. This is a great book and is well worth reading.

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Friday, April 26, 2013

The Chaos Curse by R. A. Salvatore (Cleric Quintet 5)

Cadderly has fought many battles against the forces of Castle Trinity and has been victorious. Now it is time to return to the Edificant Library. He dreads the return because he knows that his return will cause a split among those in his order. He has grown too powerful and is in favor with his god. The hierarchical structure is not happy with this. Little does he know that a much worse fate awaits him.

The fallen priest Kierkan Rufo has returned in secret to the Library. He has been convinced by the imp Druzil that the answer can be found in the Chaos Curse. Rather than simply uncovering and releasing the curse Rufo drinks it. The result is to turn him into a vampire of tremendous power. Now Rufo sets out to bring down the library. Some will join him, some will oppose him, but none can stop him. Can Cadderly and his companions defeat this evil, or will it destroy them?

This is the last book in the Cleric Quintet. This is one of the best Fantasy cycles out there. The battle of good in the face of nearly unstoppable evil rages in this book. The ending is amazing and caps off this amazing quintet. Highly Recommended.

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John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger

John Quincy Adams was one of the most fascinating men in the history of the United States. Born the son of John and Abigail Adams he served his nation over a longer period and in more positions that probably anyone else in history. As a young man he watched from a distance as the British and Americans fought around Boston in the opened fights of the War of Independence. He traveled with his father to France as his father worked with Benjamin Franklin at the court of Versailles. At the age of fourteen he traveled as secretary and interpreter to Frances Dana, the first American ambassador to Russia. After returning to France he became a sort of adopted nephew to his father's close friend Thomas Jefferson.

After graduating from Harvard at the age of 20 he studied law. At the age of 26 George Washington appointed him ambassador to the Netherlands. Three years later at Washington's insistence he was appointed the first Ambassador to Prussia. After Jefferson beat his father in a contentious election Adams resigned and returned him. He served as a Senator from Massachusetts, then as the Ambassador to Russia, then as Ambassador to England. During this time he helped to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812. He serves as James Monroe's Secretary of State and was elected to the Presidency. After losing the next election, Adams quite naturally thought he career over. Two year later he was elected to the US House of Representatives and served as a Congressman for the next fifteen years.

During his time in the House he fought hard to bring down the gag rule that prevented discussion of the slavery issue. He represented the Amistad prisoners. He also fought hard for internal improvements. Adams was an amazing man and has been largely neglected by history. He deserves to be studied. This accessible biography from Harlow Giles Unger is a great place to start learning about this truly great American.

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Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Fallen Fortress by R. A. Salvatore (Cleric Quintet 4)

Bonaduce survived the attack on the Edificant Library and defeated the foe who brought it. He survived the attack on Shilmista Forrest and helped to kill the war chief who led Castle Trinity's forces. Next he survived and vanquished a personal attempt on his life by the dreaded assassins the Night Masks. Now he is tired of being on the defense. He decides to take the battle to his enemy. Against the orders of the Chief Priest he heads out to locate Castle Trinity. He will need all of his new found powers for this journey.

Joined by his lover Danica, their friends Ivan and Pikel Bouldershoulder, Shayleigh the elf, and Vander the firbolg he prepares to strike at his foes. This journey will bring Cadderly face to face with the foes who have tried time after time to destroy him and all that he holds dear. Along the way he will face a dragon, wizards, imps, and foes that were more powerful than he could imagine. Before it is over he will learn what we have known since the first book. The wizard who has orchestrated all of this is none other than Alibaster Bonaduce, Cadderly's father. How will Cadderly defeat this foe and bring down his evil throne? Read and find out.

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Night Masks by R. A. Salvatore (Cleric Quintet 3)

After the brutal battles in Shilmista Forrest Cadderly Bonaduce takes leave of the Edificant Library and moves to the city of Caradoon. He is afraid that he has lost his faith. Once again in battle he was forced to kill and he is not sure how to handle the feelings that go along with that. As he moves forward in his studies he begins to develop new powers. These powers begin to grow in him in new and frightening ways. At the same time he is being stalked by a deadly group of assassins known as the Night Masks. They have been hired by the leaders of Castle Trinity who are tired of the young priest showing up and ruining their plans.

Danica and the Bouldershoulder brothers join him in Caradoon and before long they are all fighting for their lives against an insidious assassin known as The Ghost. Their survival will depend on them working together. Most of all their survival will depend on Cadderly coming to an understanding of these new powers and recapturing his faith.

This book is a pivot point in the series. Cadderly and Danica take their relationship to a whole new level. He has to become a true leader in the fight against their foe. Most of all the young agnostic priest has to come to grips with his place in the universe and learn to believe. By the end he has found his way and knows what he has to do.

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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

In Sylvan Shadows by R. A. Salvatore (Cleric Quintet 2)

Having failed to bring down the Edificant Library with the Chaos Curse, the evil forces of Castle Trinity have moved against the elven homeland of Shilmista Forest. The elves are outnumbered and overwhelmed. Cadderly has spent the last year trying to determine the origin of this foe Cadderly leaves to see the action up close. He is joined by the young warrior monk Danica and his fellow priest Kierkan Rufo. In the forest they meet up with their dwarvish friends Ivan and Pikel Bouldershoulder. Along the way they are forced to battle against an overwhelming foe. Will this be the end of the elven realm?

For Cadderly this is his first journey into the larger world. He is a gentle spirit and is greatly disturbed by the killing around him. Once he is forced to take part in the battle how will he be able to deal with the strain? Will he come out stronger, or will his faith reach the breaking point.Will the other priest Rufo overcome his own lack of character? Cadderly's quest for truth will propel him further than he could ever imagine.

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The Last Founding Father by Harlow Giles Unger

In this biography Harlow Giles Unger brings us a portrait of a man who few know much about today. Born in colonial Virginia Monroe was orphaned at a young age. He took on the responsibility of raising his younger siblings. When the American Revolution broke out Monroe joined up. He became an officer, was wounded at the Battle of Trenton, was decorated by Washington. He served as a Congressman, a Senator, as Governor of Virginia, and as Ambassador to the French Republic. Later he would serve as Secretary of State and Secretary of War under James Madison. He would then succeed Madison as President.

This book has its good and bad points. It is well written and should be easy for the general reader. It is quite informative and gives a good portrait of Monroe. On the downside the author tries a little to hard to build up Monroe by pulling down others around him. Monroe was a firm supporter of the French Revolution and, like Jefferson and Madison, cheered on the slaughter of the former ruling class. This is played down considerably in this book. The author also finds it necessary to try and pull down the character of both John Adams and his son John Quincy Adams. Since the younger Adams was the Secretary of State during Monroe's presidency much credit is given to him for the success of the United States in that era. Unger tries to argue that Monroe was the better diplomat. The only reason that he gives is that Monroe was ambassador to France and Adams was not. He ignores the fact that Adams had been involved in Foreign service for most of his life, including a stint as the secretary and interpreter to the first US ambassador to Russia when he was a young teenager. Adams had served as Ambassador to Prussia and Russia. He had helped to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent. To dismiss his many accomplishments with a single backhanded comment was quite uncalled for.

It is a good book and is well worth reading.

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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Canticle by R. A. Salvatore (Cleric Quintet 1)

A young priest of powerful skills, but a somewhat lazy disposition is forced to confront dark forces and an evil cleric. Young Cadderly Bonaduce is a very gifted priest at the Edificant Library who should have a great future ahead of him. His only problem is that he is a bit absent minded. Unknown to Cadderly or any of his fellow priests there is a malignant force at work. A dark cult has crafted a new powerful spell, The Chaos Curse. It is decided to release this curse against the Library. The chief cleric of the order enters the library and tricks Cadderly into releasing the curse. Things become chaotic and Cadderly has to join with the Bouldershoulder brothers Ivan and Pikel, as well as the young warrior monk Danica to fight this evil.

This book is the first of five in the Cleric Quintet. It is a change in direction from the usual sword fighting books of Drizzt. That’s not to say that there is no fighting. There is plenty of that. There is also more humor than you generally find in the Drizzt books. The wonderful dwarven Bouldershoulder brothers are some of the funniest characters in fantasy. The character of Danica is also very intriguing. She is a monk trained to use her body as a weapon. The skills that she is studying will serve her well in this and the future volumes. The young Cadderly is on a quest to try and understand what he believes and why. It will take all of his skills and all of his faith to defeat the foe that has attacked his home.

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True Crime by Max Allan Collins (A Nathan Heller Novel)

Nathan Heller is back. This time a routine case following a wife who may be unfaithful leads him into the Dillinger shooting. All the players from the period are here: Purvis, Dillinger, Nitti, as well as Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Alan Karpis, and the Barker gang. Lots of fun and some beautiful molls along the way.

It's often hard to give reviews dealing with crime and mystery stories without giving too much away. Let's just say that there are a lot of surprises along the way for Mr. Heller. Of course he also gets to bed some beautiful gals along the way, so it's not all bad.

The book is very enjoyable. Collins really knows how to get the feel of the Chicago of the 1930s

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Monday, April 22, 2013

James Madison by Richard Brookhiser

James Madison is one of those figures who seem to always be at the edge in discussions about historical characters. Some may know of him as the “Father of the Constitution” or as the fourth President of the United States. Few actually know much about the man himself. In this biography Richard Brookhiser seeks to show us that character.

Madison was a small man, barely five feet tall, leaving him dwarfed by the tall Virginians George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He was not a powerful speaker, but he was a man with a great mind and an attention for details. He was the driving force behind the creation of the Constitution of the United States. He was the creator of the first political party in the United States. He was a junior partner in a lifelong political coalition with Thomas Jefferson, but he was never Jefferson’s inferior. He was not without his flaws and neither is this book. Brookhiser tends towards imbalance when discussing Madison’s political foes. Madison was a man who saw conspiracy around a lot of corners. Brookhiser gives this too much credence. For example he makes men like Alexander Hamilton and John Adams look like they were trying to subvert Constitution and create a monarchy. This is patently absurd.

The book itself is well written and easy to read. Be sure that if you read this book you balance it out with others about the period. I would also recommend Founding Brothers by Joseph J. Ellis, Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow, John Adams by David McCullough, and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham.

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Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

After winning the Pulitzer Prize for his masterful biography of Andrew Jackson, Jon Meacham turned his considerable skills to the most enigmatic man in American History: Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson ranks at the top of any list of most important men in the history of the United States.

Born to the planter class in Virginia he never knew anything other than a life of luxury. That did not shield him from the troubles of life. Loss was something that Jefferson knew quite well. He lost his father at a young age. His beloved wife died from complications of childbirth. He outlived all but one of his children. He was also a man who loved liberty. His vision of a nation of liberty would come to dominate the debate in the formative years of the United States. Here we encounter the enigma. Jefferson was a believer in freedom who owned slaves. The story of Jefferson's slaves are very much wrapped up in his own story. Meacham comes back to this topic over and over again. The subject of Sally Hemmings is never far away and it makes for an interesting topic.

Jefferson was a man of many accomplishments. He served in the Virginia legislature, the Continental Congress, as governor of Virginia, as ambassador to France, As the first secretary of state, as the second vice-president of the United States, and as the third president. He wrote letters, books, and legislation. Of course he is famous as the author of the Declaration of Independence. On his tombstone he only asked that three items be remembered. Those accomplishments are the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statutes of Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia. In some ways this sums up his life quite nicely.

Any biography of Thomas Jefferson is a daunting task. There is a wealth of primary source material and an avalanche of secondary material. Huge multi-volume biographies are out of style in our time and that may not be a bad thing. Instead of trying to cover every aspect of Jefferson's life in detail he gives an overview of Jefferson's story, but the focus of the book can be found in the title. Jefferson was a man who craved the power to make the world a better place. This is part of the contradiction. In the thought of the time no leader of a free society was supposed to desire power. Jefferson actively desired power, but had to cultivate an image of indifference. A vocal enemy of political parties he helped to create and lead the first political party in the United States. In a usual Jeffersonian twist this party was an opposition party that he led as Washington's secretary of state and Adams' vice-president.

Meacham has given a wonderful start to Jefferson studies for this generation. His prose is always delightful to read. The book is well researched, but is accessible to the general reader. It is doubtful that we will ever truly be able to understand Thomas Jefferson, but this volume will help to gain insight into fascinating person.

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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming (A James Bond Novel)

The second Bond novel finds 007 working in the United States and the Caribbean. Gold coins have been appearing. They appear to be from the treasure of the pirate Captain Morgan's treasure. No one knows how they are getting into the market. Major distribution point seems to be through New York and Jamaica. Bond is sent to New York where he is teamed up with his CIA buddy Felix Leiter. Together they explore Harlem. They are after a man known as Mr. Big. A large African man who seems to be a criminal mastermind who controls black criminal activity in the USA and the Caribbean.
Bond continues to trace Mr. Big's criminal enterprise to Miami and then off to Jamaica. Along the way Bond experiences some personal setbacks and the near loss of a close friend. Will he be able to stop Mr. Big before he is able to get the rest of the treasure and escape? What about the mysterious Solitaire? How does she fit into the scheme? To answer the questions you will have to read the book.
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The Halfling's Gem by R. A. Salvatore (Legend of Drizzt)

This is the third novel in the Icewind Dale Trilogy by R. A. Salvatore. In the previous book, Streams of Silver, Regis had been taken prisoner by the assassin Artemis Entreri. Bruenor had fallen to his death in Mithril Hall in battle with a dragon. We learn in the beginning of this book that Bruenor is not dead, but was saved from the dragon fire by the magic of Drizzt's sword Icingdeath. Drizzt and Wulfgar set out for Calimport on the trail of Regis and Entreri. Catti-Brie remains behind to gather a dwarven army to retake Mithril Hall from the deugar, a race of treacherous dwarven type creatures. Along the way Drizzt and Wulfgar meet Captain Deudermont, a character who will appear in many more of the novels. The search will bring the four companions together again. The only question is will they be in time to save Regis.

An ongoing theme in the Drizzt novels is the theme of prejudice. Many of the races and peoples of The Forgotten Realms dislike each other. Some races are more hated than others. Orcs, trolls, and goblins are universally loathed. The drow, the race of dark elves who live deep in the earth in the Underdark are among the most hated and feared of all races. Drizzt understands this of course. His race is known for their cruelty and treachery. Their entire culture is built on such ideas. Their evil goddess Loth, the Spider Queen, is nourished by treachery and chaos. Drizzt rejected his people's ways and set out on his own. Everywhere he goes he has to prove over and over that he is different. In this story he fears that the rejection of his race will hinder him in the search for Regis. A friend gives him a magical mask that will change his features to that of a light elf. He uses it, but it causes him great emotional pain. The need for the mask also pains and angers his loyal friend Wulfgar. Along the way though Drizzt will find that his deeds always make him welcome among good people.

All of the usual elements of a great Salvatore novel are here. Salvatore is rightly famous for his fight scenes. The battle between Drizzt and Entreri is legendary and long. Classic Sword and Sorcery fantasy at it's best.

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Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Crystal Shard by R. A. Salvatore

The Crystal Shard is the fourth book in R. A. Salvatore's Legend of Drizzt series. It is also the first book in the Icewind Dale trilogy. This book gives us our first glimpse at several characters who will later be known as the Companions. The book is divided into two sections. In the first part the barbarian tribes who live in the frozen tundra north of Icewind Dale are brought together to attack the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale. The Ranger Drizzt Do'Urden is a drow elf. A dark elf from the great city of Menzoberrranzan. The drow are know as a treacherous and evil race. Drizzt has escaped his heritage and lives on the surface with his friends, the dwarven leader Bruenor, Bruenor's adopted human daughter Catti-Brie, and a halfling named Regis. Drizzt helps the people of Icewind Dale, first by scouting the attacking barbarians, then by fighting on the side of the Ten Towns. During the battle Bruenor knocks a young barbarian named Wulfgar unconscious. After the battle Bruenor takes the young Wulfgar and indentures him for five years to atone for the attack on Ten Towns.

Five years later the story picks up with Wulfgar becoming close to the dwarf and the others. Bruenor makes the young barbarian a great weapon, the battle hammer Aegis-Fang. Drizzt then teaches Wulfgar the art of fighting. During this time a failed wizard named Akar Kessel is left to die by his treacherous colleagues. He comes across the Crystal Shard named Crenshinibon. This crystal is a sentient artifact that is obsessed with power. The wizard begins using the shard to gain control over orcs and trolls. He is joined by a demon named Errtu. Together they decide to use the Crystal to conquer. Of course their first test attack is on the Ten Towns. Once again the Ten Towns must fight a horde of enemies. What is the outcome of this battle and how does it affect our heroes? You have to read the book to find out. I've told you enough already.

The book is a classic example of excellent Sword and Sorcery Fantasy. Salvatore is a master of this genre. He is well known for his fight scenes. His blow by blow description makes the battles come alive. It would be unfair to just consider this to be a slash and spell kind of book. One of the most important themes of the book is the growth of the character of Wulfgar. As a barbarian he has to overcome his racial hatred for the people of the Ten Towns, the dwarfs, and most of all, Drizzt. His growth during the time he serves Bruenor is not just in age and physical stature. He also grows in his understanding of others. How he uses that growth is an important part of the story and of subsequent novels.

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John Adams by David McCullough

This Pulitzer Prize winning biography by David McCullough has become a classic work. John Adams is one of the most interesting and, before this book was published, one of the least known of the Founding Fathers. Born to a farmer in Braintree, Massachusetts Adams went to Harvard and then studied law. He became a respected attorney in the Boston area. He met and married the brilliant Abigail Smith he proceeded to and they produced four children who lived to maturity. From there his career took off. He defended the British soldiers who fired on a mob. He served in both Continental Congresses. He served on the diplomatic mission to France. While in Europe he helped to secure loans from Dutch bankers to keep the American Revolution going. He served on the peace commission. He was named the first ambassador to Great Britain. Returning home he become the first Vice-President and the second President of the United States.

McCullough bring out the brilliant and irascible character of Adams. Adams was brilliant. In fact he was one of the most brilliant men of his age. A man of passionate and fiery temper he often rubbed people the wrong way. He was well known as one of the great orators of his time. His speeches on behalf of Independence helped to lead the way to the Declaration of Independence. As brilliant as he was as a thinker and a speaker he always seemed to have a hard time getting his thoughts on to paper. He tended to write material that was long and rambling. He also never seemed to grasp that other people were not as well read as himself, nor were they capable of understanding some of the subtleties of his thought. A thoroughly practical man he seemed to not understand that he lived in a day of rhetoric and idealism.

The period that Adams lived in and helped to define was a complex period. New ideas were coming together that would change the world forever. So many things that we take for granted, the idea of individual rights, freedom of speech, even freedom of thought, were not accepted as the norm. In fact many believed that a society founded on such ideas was considered dangerous and unlikely to succeed.

As alway, McCullough’s prose is masterful. He has the writer’s gift of making complex issues come alive and seem easy to understand. So many scenes remain with you. You can see the rage of the mob and the fear of the British soldiers as they fire on the crowd at the Boston Massacre. You feel the cramped and stuffy conditions of the Congress as it debates the idea of independence. Most of all you get to know the characters. You get to know, and love the irascible Adams. You get to know his brilliant wife, Abigail, who was the great love of his life. So many other people come out. You feel the friendship that he had with Thomas Jefferson. You feel the pain that he felt when Jefferson chose party ideology over friendship. The pain that his children, except for his oldest son John Quincy, brought to him is heartbreaking. If you have never read this book you should do so. It is a brilliant work of history, and a wonderful work of literature.

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Friday, April 19, 2013

True Detective by Max Allan Collins

First novel in the Nathan Heller series. Heller is a plainclothes detective on the Chicago police force. The year is 1932. Capone has just been taken down by Elliot Ness and is await appeal. The World’s Fair is coming to Chicago. In the middle of all of the young Heller is picked up by two of Mayor Cermack’s favorite detectives. They are on their way to roust Frank Nitti, the man who has taken over Capone’s business. At least that is what they tell Heller. The two detectives shoot Nitti and try to make it look like he was carrying a gun. This was a hit put out by the mayor. Heller saves Nitti’s life by calling for an ambulance.
Disgusted by the corruption on the police force Heller quits and opens his own private detective agency. His childhood friend, the boxer Barney Ross, gives him a place to stay. Heller is off to make his way in the world. Before the novel is over he has worked the World’s Fair, tangled with mobsters, slept with a couple of beautiful women, and watched as an assassin “misses” his chance to kill the newly elected President Roosevelt and instead shoots and kills Mayor Cermack.
This novel sets the tone for the Heller novels. The detective likes to think of himself as a jaded cynic. However he is constantly coming out doing the right thing, if not always in the right way. Tough as nails with a smart mouth Heller is the classic hardboiled, noir detective. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Casino Royale by Ian Fleming

This is the novel that introduced James Bond to the world. Bond is a hard as nails member of the British Secret Service. He is on the trail of a vicious French union leader who is employed by Moscow. This man has to raise money and quickly. To do this he decides to run a baccarat table at the Casino Royale. Enter James Bond. Bond's job is to break Le Chiffre. Along with the French agent Mathis, the CIA agent Felix Leiter, and the beautiful Vesper Lynd Bond has to defeat his enemy, survive capture and torture, and somehow keep the money from falling back into the hands of the Russians. At the end Bond receives a new mission in life. He now is at work with the Soviet organization SMERSH. This enmity will define many of the future novels.

Ian Fleming's Bond is a very different character from the versions in the films. In some ways Daniel Craig has come the closest to capturing Bond’s character. The hard, keen edge combined with a certain ruthlessness and recklessness define the Bond of Casino Royale. If Craig coul capture some of Connery’s suave nature then he may be able to capture the true nature of Ian Fleming's Bond.

This book is an enjoyable spy novel. There are some moments in this book that are difficult to read. I am never a fan of torture scenes and Fleming seems to enjoy writing them a little to well for my taste. Overall it is a grand journey into the past. A world of sophistication and global war of ideas provide the backdrop. More than once Bond is confronted with how small a player he is in the war of great powers.

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Revelation and the End of All Things by Craig Koester

Revelation and the End of All Things is a very interesting study on the book of Revelation and how it has been used in our time. Dr. Koester walks the reader through the understanding of the history and the culture of the period. The author's goal is to break down the images and ideas that have grown up over time around this book and recapture its true meaning. For Koester the book of Revelation is not a cryptic story of the future. Rather it is a book that describes the hope that the Church held that no matter what the earthly powers thought, the power of God stood over all. Hope is the main theme of Revelation and Dr. Koester does a good job of brushing away the fear that many have and helping the reader to regain that hope.

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Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Sojourn by R. A. Salvatore

Drizzt has finally escaped from the Underdark. Now he is trying to find his way in the surface world. This is not easy for a member of the hatred Drow race. Everywhere he goes Drizzt feels the stigma that comes from being associated with his treacherous people. He is blamed when a family that he watches is massacred. He avenges the family, but is forced to move on. He finally finds refuge and friendship with an old, blind ranger. The ranger accepts Drizzt and tries to help him find peace. After the old man passes away Drizzt moves on again in search of a place to call home. Through adventures he makes his way to the Ten Towns of Icewind Dale. There, in a place where all sorts are welcome to flee he finds a grudging acceptance. Here he also meets the dwarf Bruenor and his adopted daughter Cattie-Brie. These friendships will set Drizzt on the path of become the renowned fighter that he will become.

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Exile by R. A. Salvatore

This is the second novel in R. A. Salvatore’s Dark Elf trilogy. This novel follows Drizzt as he tries to find his way alone after fleeing his people. Along the path he makes new friends and learns about his true nature.

Driven from his native city by the hatred of the Spider Goddess Loth the noble warrior Drizzt has taken to the wilds of the Underdark. His family is still searching for him. After nearly killing his sister he decides to flee from the region. He makes a number of friends and begins the process of learning how to live in a world that is not based on treachery and cruelty. No matter where he goes the malice of his family will not escape him. Finally his mother sends the reanimated corpse of his father and mentor to kill him. As he learns to trust others and how to live in the larger world Drizzt starts to understand what it means to live.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Homeland by R. A. Salvatore

First book in the early history of the Drow warrior Drizzt Do’Urden. Born into the underground culture of the Drow (dark elves) Drizzt seems incapable of understanding the evil that his culture is founded on. He is trained to be a warrior and becomes the most formidable fighter in the great drow city. His own innate moral sense is challenged, but not destroyed by the cruelty of his culture. Finally, when he only pretends to kill a surface elf child in cold blood, he is forced to flee the city into the deadly regions of the Underdark.

This is the first novel in the Dark Elf Trilogy by RA Salvatore. It gives the story of the birth and training of the great fighter. It also gives us an insight into the culture of the Drow. It is the perfect place to start reading about this hero. Drizzt’s rejection of his own heritage and the willingness to abandon it all show him to be a true hero. This is classic Sword and Sorcery Fantasy. This novel is more than fancy sword fights. At its core it’s about seeking out truth and taking responsibility for your own destiny, even if the whole culture is against you.

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Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow

This is an excellent book on the life of George Washington. Washington is such a powerful figure in our society that it is hard to write on him. For many he is a semi-divine figure. That is true of his admirers and his critics. The admirers try to place him on a pedestal like a god. His critics seek to tear him off of a pedestal with all the rabid zeal of iconoclasts. Chernow gives us a picture of a human George Washington. He is very free with his praise, but doesn’t hesitate to point out his flaws as well.
The “Great Man” theory of history has fallen out of favor these days. It is impossible to look at the American Revolution and the Early Republic period without considering George Washington. A lesser man might have failed and the Revolution would have ended with a British victory and the death of the leaders of the Revolutionary generation. A lesser man might have prevailed on the field of battle, but succumbed to the lure of power and the American Republic would have become a dictatorship or a New World Monarchy. Washington was a greater man than that.
He did have his failings. He could be vain and had an explosive temper. He tried to temper those personal flaws. He rarely lost his temper in public and always tried to stifle his vanity. His occasional lapses do not make him a failure, rather they make him all the more human.
Chernow is a good writer. His books are designed for a general readership so it is not weighted down with the unnecessary baggage of academic writing. There are times where it seems that he re-emphasizes points that he has made quite clear. For example: we are told many times about Washington’s financial troubles. He goes into detail in many different places as if he is trying to convince the reader that this is true. It seemed a bit redundant at times, but that is only a small niggling point.
Overall this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.
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It's been a while

It's been a while. I have gone crazy with reading books this year and haven't taken the time to actually write any reviews. So from here on out I will try to be better about it. I have already read over 60 books this year. I will be posting a lot of reviews here until I get caught up.

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