Reviews: The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, Lords of the North, Sword Song, The Archer's Tale, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton, The Nine

February 25th, 2010

The Last Kingdom, The Pale Horseman, Lords of the North, Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell - 8/10

The first four novels in Cornwell's 'Saxon Chronicles', these books are set in ninth century England, at a time when Saxons and Danes (aka Vikings) are contending for control of England. The protagonist is a Saxon, but one who fell in amongst Danes as a young man and is culturally more Norse than Christian.

The books are fine adventure stories, full of battle and revenge, but the characters are human and lack the silly machismo that makes so many adventure novels hollow. I enjoyed the first half-dozen or so of Cornwell's more famous 'Sharpe's Rifles' series, and these are in the same mold, enjoyable to read, with solid characters and honest plotting.

One thing I appreciate about this series is Cornwell's deft handling of the period setting - he doesn't rub it in your face, and he resists the temptation to inject future-hindsight motivation to his characters. All the characters from main to insignificant, from King Alfred to the nameless Welsh border-raiders, behave as they do because that's who they are, rather than behaving according to any sense of historical impulse. Too many historical novels contain a false gravitas, with the characters laboring under an awareness of being an important past rather than simply human beings acting in the now. There's none of that here.

Simply by its nature, of course, the setting is deeply interesting, with cultures clashing and mingling in an era of drawn swords and raiding ships. It requires no embellishment, and Cornwall spends his energy instead on telling an interesting story with compelling actors.

The Archer's Tale by Bernard Cornwell - 6/10

Same author, same genre, yet a very different result. The characters in The Archer's Tale are much less compelling than those in the Saxon Chronicle, the plot is less interesting, and it was a much less enjoyable read overall. It's set during the hundred years' war, and Cornwell handles the period deftly, but all of the individual elements of story just weren't as good.

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Biography by Edward Rice - 6/10

Richard Francis Burton is a fascinating individual - first European to see Lake Tanganyika, fluent in 20+ languages, pilgrim to Mecca, first European to visit the forbidden city of Harar, translator of the first definitive English edition of the Arabian Nights (in addition to several other works), his life took him to almost all corners of the world.

To the great detriment of posterity, after his death his wife burned many of his papers, and many others were discarded or never released by the British government. Also unfortunately, Rice's biography doesn't really rise above those challenges. In this biography Burton comes across as surly, arrogant, bitter, repeatedly stymied by his enemies - all of which were probably true - but sadly he does not come across as particularly fascinating. Rice pays little attention to Burton's successes, other than to deliniate them, and fails to convey any deep sense of interest in the man.

I'm glad I read this biography - it's certainly well-researched and does an admirable job of presenting the facts, but I don't recommend it as a good read, and would be interested in reading a better one.

The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin - 8/10

An excellent 'biography' - perhaps 'snapshot' would be a better term - of the individuals who sat on the supreme court between 1981 and 2008. Although possessed of conclusions (namely, that the supreme court represents America, is a political institution, and is becoming more conservative) where this book really shines is in presenting the justices as people, with opinions, convictions, eccentricities... it's a fine exercise in biography, and I recommend it as a pleasurable read entirely aside from being a fascinating look into the functioning of the supreme court.

It is a Bad Time for a Diet

February 23rd, 2010

Cadbury Creme Eggs are available in stores.

Snow Day, Part Two

February 21st, 2010

This blog post is coming to you from the Yosemite Lodge. Outside a light snow is falling; we expect a quite dazzling morning of three to six inches of fresh powder, just right for snowmen and snowballs.

Drove up today - because it's a Sunday, I had no trouble making reservations, and the price was less than half of what they charge on Saturday night. There was a cold rain falling during the day, which was sub-optimal, but it turned to snow and the 4-year-old had his first ever chance to catch snowflakes on his tongue, which he did with gusto. Looking forward to the morning.

Tom Bihn

February 17th, 2010

...makes the best bags in the world. I purchased my Tom Bihn backpack from his store in Santa Cruz in 1997 or so, and I still use it on a near-daily basis. It saw me through graduate school; I took it to Mongolia. It has never had a zipper break, never had a stitch fray, has acquired no holes either through abrasion or piercing or any other means. It looks, as it sits on the desk return behind me, almost like new.

At any rate, I expect much the same from my new Tom Bihn messenger bag, which my lovely wife gave me for Christmas. It looks smart and is chock full of pockets, holds not just one but two laptops in safety, and is just all-around well-made. All the zippers have sturdy rubberized tabs; it even has an external water-bottle holder (currently used to hold my eyeglass case).

Made in the USA - Seattle to be precise, whence Tom decamped after Santa Cruz. So if you are looking for a bag, satchel or backpack, hit up his website. They're not cheap, but in my experience they last for well over a decade (so far!), whereas my previous messenger bag (company swag) lasted for a little over two years before the generalized fraying developed into serious holes.

What have we got here?

February 15th, 2010

I was entertaining the baby yesterday, and flipped the television over to VH1 (I entertain the baby, the teevee entertains me), discovering a portion of a Behind the Music about Judas Priest. During the course of the show, they discussed Rob Halford's subsequent solo projects, which included the one-disc band '2wo'.

During the brief discussion of 2wo, they played a clip of a song I had not heard since, well, 1998 - a song for which I knew neither the artist nor the title. So I've pretty much been listening to I Am A Pig all day today. (Warning, link is to Youtube video which is probably NSFW. Here's a link to a YouTube of just the audio, which is SFW.)

It's neat to suddenly find yourself with sufficient information to rediscover something you never anticipated hearing again.