The 6 Sacred Stones: Yin and Yang, Light and Dark

March 24, 2008

I always snickered at the part in Men in Black when Tommy Lee Jones tells Will Smith that the tabloids and the sensational, wild stories they contain are not only true but the best source for information on what is really going on in the world.  I snickered because there is a part of me that wants to believe those wild tales. 

Apparently Matthew Reilly does too.  His latest novel, The 6 Sacred Stones, is the second in his modern quest series in which the world must be saved from yet another Apocalypse triggered by cosmic events.  The first book, 7 Deadly Wonders, had Jack West, Jr and his team of scholars and soldiers saving the world using items found in the Seven Wonders of the World.  This book has the same team continuing their quest to find sacred stone objects (the philosopher’s stone, Stonehenge, etc.) that will prevent the Dark Sun from destroying the world. 

This book is not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it has an interesting plot (one that appeals to the mystery seeker/mythologist in me).  The characters are fairly one-dimensional and the dialogue occasionally clunky, but I like that the book is fast-paced.  It’s a perfect book for a quick read (I read it in an afternoon) and light enough to be beach reading.  I also thought it was better than the first book in the series.  Reilly ends the book at a crucial point, so I’m eagerly anticipating the next book.

Oh, the only thing I didn’t like was that Reilly, an Australian, paints the United States as an evil empire.  It was more pronounced in the first book, when his team was first put together “Fellowship of the Rings-style”, representing small, usually less important countries.  These books are tongue-in-cheek, so I can’t get too bent out of shape about it, and I’m sure there are many, many people in the world who do perceive the United States as the evil empire.   Reilly has written a series of other books about a US Marine named Shane Scofield (also recommended), so I know he isn’t really anti-American, but it was disconcerting to encounter that point of view.

Also Recommended:

  • Contest (Reilly):  have you ever wondered what happens in the library after hours?  Or for fans of Alien Vs. Predator (seriously)
  • Temple (Reilly):  legendary manuscripts, Incan idols and planetary destruction

Georgette Heyer’s Regency World: Regency Fiction from a 20th Century Author

March 24, 2008

Spend a little time in the romance section of Barnes & Noble, Borders or any bookstore, and you are likely to come across novels by Georgette Heyer.  A prolific writer, Heyer is known for her works set in the Georgian and Regency periods, and she is considered to have contributed greatly to the development of historical romance as a genre.  Her works are similar to Jane Austen’s with the most important difference being that Georgette Heyer lived in the 20th century. 

I must confess that I have not read a Georgette Heyer book.  When I used to venture into the romance section, let’s just say that a Jane Austen-like book was not the type of romance in which I was interested LOL.  Perhaps Heyer’s works are done a disservice by shelving them there because until I read more about her, I never realized how similar her writing was to Austen’s. 

I read Jennifer Kloester’s Georgette Heyer’s Regency World because I hoped it would provide me with even more information on the customs, dress, manners and places of the Regency era, and I was not disappointed.  It was an incredibly thorough book, and I learned details I did not know (e.g. why driving a certain type of carriage indicated your prowess with horses and driving).  I finally can visualize some of the carriages I’ve read about (phaeton, etc.).   The only chapter I thought was a little weak was the first chapter, the chapter on the nobility (always a favorite topic of mine).  It seemed a little muddled and not as well-written as subsequent chapters. 

Like the books on the Regency that use Austen’s novels, Kloester explains Regency customs and places using examples from Heyer’s books.  This was obviously a bit difficult at first since I haven’t read any of her books, but I got used to it, and honestly, the examples intrigued me enough to make me want to read her books.

Other recommendations:

Blasphemy: Is God in the Machine?

March 18, 2008

 Blasphemy, Douglas Preston’s (of Relic fame) latest book, explores science and religion, provocatively suggesting that science is the next stage of religion.  It’s about a group of scientists who are part of a government-funded project to explore new sources of energy as well as the Big Bang.  To do this, they have built Isabella, a superconducting supercollider particle accelerator (try saying that 3 times fast).  However, just before completion, the project runs into snags as the scientists encounter something they do not expect from the machine…something that refers to itself as God.  Into this situation falls Wyman Ford, a former CIA operative the government hires to explore the delay.  At the same time, a smarmy televangelist and a preacher determined to bring Christianity to the Native Americans who live on the land surrounding the science experiment use Isabella for their own ends with  explosive consequences.

This book was a lot better than I expected it to be.  I have read other Preston books, and they aren’t as tightly crafted as this one is. The characters are a little weak, but the plot was provocative and thought-provoking.  The comments supposedly coming from God were fascinating and could have been an entire novel on their own; when the action diverged from Isabella, I was impatient for the plot to return to her.  I wanted more.  I had a visceral reaction to other parts of the book and was disgusted by the events set in motion by the unscrupulous lobbyist and the televangelist, and it’s easy to see how a very simple chain of events could begin a religious war in this country.  Terrifyingly easy.   In an election year, with lobbying scandals in the recent past, with Creationism still battling with evolution in our nation’s schools, this book seems very timely.   

I also liked how the book didn’t cop out with the God issue.  The book left just enough ambiguity so that the reader thought he or she knew what was going on, but the door was left open for other possibilities.  Sometimes other books will handle these types of questions for which there are no answers by ending with a weak, “Oh no.  The book fell down the well.  I guess we’ll never know who the real Shakespeare is” (Yes, I’m thinking of you, Interred with Their Bones).  Humph.  I’m not looking for a book to rewrite history, but when you explore a fascinating premise, don’t be afraid to go to the edge.  Take a stand!  Choose a position!  There is also nothing more I dislike than a book that is about a great mystery like Atlantis or aliens or something and after letting my mind soar with possibilities, dumps me to the ground and brings me back to reality with an explanation of fakery.  I want to suspend my disbelief.  It’s ok…I’m a big girl.  I know what’s real and what is not.  But I also read these books because I like to think that maybe, just maybe there are some mysteries that haven’t been solved or debunked.  

For a book on a similar topic:

The Devil’s Bones: More Devil Needed

March 18, 2008

I have 6 weeks to go in my semester, so time is getting a little tight as work shifts to final projects. My posts for the next few weeks will likely be mostly fiction since I can breeze through it pretty quickly.  I’m also behind in posting, so hopefully I can catch up this week.

I like forensic mysteries, so I thought that Jefferson Bass’ The Devil’s Bones sounded promising when I picked it up.  What I didn’t realize was that the book was actually the 3rd in a series (and I haven’t read the other two).  Enough of what I assume was in the previous books was recapped in this one so that reading the previous books was unnecessary (though I hope they were better than this one!).   

The book contains several plots, but it starts out with the main character, Dr. Bill Brockton, consulting with the police on the death of a local woman who was found burnt in her car.  Another plot strand concerns Dr. Brockton’s discovery of a seedy crematorium in Georgia.  The final plot strand involves the escape from prison of Dr. Brockton’s nemesis (from previous books) Garland Hamilton, and it is his shadow that looms over the book since you know he is going to reappear but you don’t know when or how.

“Jefferson Bass” is the pen name for two men:  Dr. Bill Bass, founder of the Body Farm in Tennessee (where researchers explore decomposition under various conditions) and journalist Jon Jefferson.  Dr. Bass’ involvement lends credibility to the science in the book much as Kathy Reichs’ experience does in hers.  The forensics are sound; unfortunately, the book is rather a mess.   It reads more like an account of a few days in the life of Bill Brockton (look at these bones here; return these bones there; maybe I have feelings for my graduate assistant; hey, let’s go visit the grandkids; crap, that murderous thug escaped from prison and I’m going to sit in my room with my gun while it rains outside) than a cohesive narrative.  It’s a shame because the forensics truly is interesting.   After reading this book, I have no interest in reading the previous books in the series.

If you like forensic mysteries, you might like:

  • Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan series (who and what the show Bones is –poorly IMO–based on)
  • Jeffrey Deavers’ Lincoln Rhyme series (the film The Bone Collector was based on his book)

The Archivist: Do I Dare?

March 12, 2008

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
       T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

The Archivist by Martha Cooley…I’m struggling with how to summarize this book, which is why it has taken me over a week to post about it.  It was an odd little book.  Ok. Let’s try again.  The Archivist is about Matthias “Matt” Lane, a rare book/documents archivist at a unnamed East Coast university.  The letters of TS Eliot to Emily Hale make up a key piece of the collection; the letters, though, are sealed until 2020.  In his late 60s, Matt has been a widower and contentedly alone and isolated since his wife’s suicide in 1965 (the book is set around 1985), but the arrival of young poet and graduate student Roberta Spire asking to see the letters gives Matt the opportunity to right many wrongs in his past.  For Roberta reminds him of his late wife.  Both women were poets.  Both women struggle with their connection to Judaism, the horror of WW2, and the truth of their parents’ pasts.  Matt, Roberta and Judith (his late wife) also share a love for Eliot’s poetry, and there are also parallels between their lives and Eliot’s life.  Ultimately, Matt, a quiet, solitary, passive man, must find the courage to to do what he thinks is right, to finally act

Sometimes it is uncanny how you  stumble across a book.  I found this book at the county library book sale in 2006 but hadn’t read it yet.  After I read The Secret of Lost Things, I noticed that several reviewers said that it was in the tradition of The Archivist but not as good.  So remembering that I had the book, I decided to squeeze it in. 

It wasn’t exactly what I thought it was going to be.  I expected it to be more about Eliot.  It was, but he and his writing were in a way just a plot device for the characters and their lives.  The Emily Hale letters actually exist.  Emily Hale bequeathed them to Princeton University, and in reality, they are sealed until 2020.  I am fascinated at the thought of what might exist in those letters.  It seems so rare that we have the opportunity to find out new information or insights about literary greats.  Let’s just say that I hope that those letters avoid the fate they have in the book…when Matt Lane decides to act, he truly ACTS. 

I must admit that I was at times uncomfortable with the Jewish part of the plot–which was a BIG part.  I think my discomfort springs from first of all, a complete inability to comprehend what it must have felt like to be Jewish in America during and after WW2, especially when the revelations about the Holocaust were occurring, a key time in Judith’s life.  The guilt at being in the USA and being isolated from those events and ultimately surviving; the passivity of anyone doing anything to prevent it; the horror at realizing your religion was so despised that members of it had been intentionally exterminated, deemed unworthy to live or exist.  Or the betrayal you feel when you discover (as Roberta does) that your parents were Jewish but converted to Christianity after escaping Germany; your whole life has been a lie.  I can try to imagine what that must feel like, but I feel like my imagination is insufficient for that task.  Some wounds go too deep.  In some ways, perhaps my discomfort is good.  It has made me think, and the Holocaust and other horrors of WW2 have come alive to me in ways they hadn’t before.

Trust, privacy, betrayal and conscience are major themes in the book (between husbands and wives and parents and children), but it was interesting to see them applied to the artist as well.  T.S. Eliot wanted Emily Hale to destroy those letters.  They were his private correspondence not meant to be made public.  Does the artist have a right to privacy?  Where does the art end and the person’s private life begin?  Is it right that we make those letters–any letters–public knowing that it wasn’t what the artist intended even though the artist has long been dead? Eliot felt betrayed by Hale’s decision but she felt betrayed by his decision to end their friendship years before.  I don’t have the answers to those questions.  I’m rather nosy and want to know as much about an artist as possible and what better way than with their letters or private papers?  But do we have a right to them?  Even though Eliot will have been dead for 55 years when the letters are unsealed, is some cosmic wrong or injustice being done in going against his wishes?

 It was a really good book, but I’m not sure if I liked it.  It made me uncomfortable, which is probably a good thing, and I can’t stop thinking about it, which is always a good sign. 

The Terror: Terrifyingly Long

March 4, 2008

I adore snow but living in the South, I don’t see a lot of it.  However, if I ever get a wild hair and decide to go to the Arctic, smack me back into reality please!

The Terror by Dan Simmons combines history and horror into an intriguing novel.  The book recounts the doomed Franklin Northwest Passage Expedition of 1845, a British expedition led by Sir John Franklin to find the Northwest Passage in the Arctic.  Both ships and their crews become fatally icebound for years.  As if the reality of being icebound with limited provisions wasn’t horrific enough, Simmons adds a supernatural element, a huge creature that is stalking the crew and picking them off one by one.

The novel was good, but oh my was it LONG!  It was 784 pages.  Some parts went by more quickly than others, but it still took me a full week to read. I really liked how Simmons mixed the historical facts with his own interpretation of what may have happened to the crew.  I’m not sure whether the book needed the supernatural creature; life in the Arctic was pretty damn scary as it was.  The creature is an interesting touch, though.  I think it fits well with the 19th century mindset (the book takes place pre-Darwin and Origin of the Species) as well as symbolizing possibly the Arctic itself or at least how isolated and unexplored the Arctic was/is since you don’t know exactly what the creature is and whether it is some new species.   

Simmons does an amazing job of making the history come alive.  His narrative is well-thought-out, and the plot points and dialogue fit seamlessly into the known facts.  I liked how the story is told from various characters’ perspectives.  And the Arctic itself with its constant snow and ice is possibly the true main character.  I felt almost claustrophobic as I read the book because of the constant whiteness and neverending ice.  I could feel the crews’ desperation and hopelessness.

Simmons has amazing attention to detail, but sometimes I thought he gave too much detail.  I wasn’t sure how necessary it was to know the backstory of most of the characters, and Crozier’s lists of the surviving crewmembers often went on for pages and seemed unnecessary and repetative.  Truthfully, the book could have been a few hundred pages shorter without losing any impact.  The book begins around November 1847, and I knew that things would happen in April 1848, but it took many, many pages to get there.  I don’t think that recounting each minor event or every few days helped the novel’s pacing or advanced the plot.  The pace made me feel frustrated and weighed down, which may have been Simmons’ point since I’m sure that’s how the crew felt. 

I’m also unsure of how I feel about the end of the book.  Simmons does explain the origin of the creature, and it’s mythic.  I’m not sure if the mythic twist to the story makes sense or contributes to the overall plot.  It also contained a hint of environmentalism which seems anachronistic to a story set in the middle of the 19th century.  Simmons’ authorial voice comes through strongly in the last part, which isn’t exactly a good thing.

Overall, though, it was a really good book.