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Hello, my name is Valorie. I have a Master's Degree in History and a license to teach-- I have been both university professor and public school teacher. Currently, I am a middle school social studies teacher. I love horror movies and spooky things. Every day is Halloween. I am also a passionate book blogger.

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Book Review: 23:27 by H.L. Roberts

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Book Review: Sway by Zachary Lazar

Title: Sway
Author(s): Zachary Lazar
Genre: Fiction - General
Finished: March 26, 2009

I honestly don't know what to make of Sway by Zachary Lazar. On one hand it is a somewhat fictional telling of the early The Rolling Stones and the Charles Manson murders, based on real life and about real people. On the other hand, it's a dreamlike sort of novel where every human emotion and action is given a significance that isn't typically true to real life. Purposefully, I think, Lazar wove his words into chaotic (almost) anti-poetry- beautiful because it is raw and aggressive- in order to put this special significance to things. The entire book has a surreal quality that makes it even more difficult to accept the reality of what is happening. Now, none of this is bad. I quite like a book that reads like a fractured and distorted fairytale. I said I didn't know what to make of the book, not that I did not like it. Sway, as I've said, takes two different stories and winds them together. Lazar recounts the rise of The Rolling Stones, some of his information falsified but some of it quite true (I've seen the picture of Mick in the Uncle Sam top hat and the Omega t-shirt), and the Charles Manson murders. These two isolated groups and the events included are connected by a thin thread that goes by the name Kenneth Anger. Anger is a struggling filmmaker whose avant-garde styles of imagery and symbolism make him less than ideal for the mainstream, which is just where he seems satisfied to be.

From the way the book describes itself, I was thinking that the two stories would intertwine on a deeper level then they did, and this was a bit disappointing. I guess it was meant to be this way. I gave me to see how things, even great things that seem so grand and therefore isolated within their own distinct worlds, can touch and brush and never impact. How sometimes you just manage to miss something larger than simple life allows without even knowing it. There are moments, though, that the book is starkly real and you no longer feel the invader of a dream. The characters cease to be actors or players on a grand stage and become actual people, no longer characters but objects of existence just as we all are. Flawed, confused, prone to mistakes, and sometimes empty. Sometimes acting without excuse or reason. Sometimes just inflicting. Brian Jones is an abusive mess who is so out of touch with his own needs that he is self-destructive, Bobby just ambles along and thoughtlessly does whatever he decides to do for no good reason, and Anger doesn't seem to fight for anything and only exists to make his films. The anger and escalating chaos of the 60s and 70s are depicted nicely in Sway. Vietnam, militaristic groups, disenchantment with the government and society, and the rejection of the early 60s Summer of Love ideals brought about a new society and destroyed the former not with a whimper but a bang. In fact, many of them. There is a sense, even when reading nonfiction of the time, that America was ready to explode. Indeed, much of the world was. The Rolling Stones and Charles Manson both, in their own ways, embody this feeling. The Rolling Stones is the passion, the rebellion, the new face of youth and expression while Manson is just how bad it can get. Though if Sway did anything, it made me like The Rolling Stones just a little more.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Book Review: Roman Blood (Roma Sub Rosa, #1) By Steven Saylor

Title: Roman Blood
Series: Roma Sub Rosa
Book Number: 1
Author: Steven Saylor
Genre: Fiction - Historical, Fiction - Mystery
Finished: March 20, 2009

Roman Blood (book one of the Roma Sub Rosa series) by Steven Saylor centers around the real life patricide trial of a country farmer by the name of Sextus Roscius. The advocate of Sextus Roscius, the well known Marcus Tullius Cicero, employs the help of a man named Gordianus to dig up information about the murder in order to prove his client innocent. Gordianus is known as "the finder," a man well experienced in finding facts no matter how well hidden or obscure. Of course, such facts don't come easy. There is much lying, much danger, and tons of characters only out for their own benefit that all together paint a picture of a corrupt Roman aristocracy. It is a very perilous time in Rome, after all, which has only just caught its breath from the proscription of Sulla and his restoration of the aristocracy over the common people. In order to prove Sextus Roscius innocent, Cicero and Gordianus must attack those very aristocrats that now hold Rome in a powerful grip.

I avoided reading this book for a while because I didn't want it to disappoint me. And it didn't. Saylor is clearly a historian. If it's not obvious in his reader's notes, it's apparent in his clear delivery of accurate and compelling historical detail. You can almost see the dark dilapidation of the Roman Subura that is as hazardous as it is teeming with life, or see the immaculate scene of Carthage on the Rostra, or imagine the men in togas sitting around the Senate. What Saylor does is bring Rome to life, but not without insult and credit where credit is due. He doesn't present a Rome that is glorious and magnificent as some are prone to do, but neither does it portray it as a place irredeemably corrupt as others would have it. Saylor gives his readers Rome in all her shameless glory without falling into some one of the most common traps of those who attempt to write historical fiction. A tendency of most historical writers is to accentuate what is "abnormal" by today's standards because they imagine it will help people understand the time period more, or respect it for how different it is, but this often backfires. I like how Saylor did not give excuses for Rome, but also did not gloss over its many faults. Details are presented in an easy and matter of fact way, which I found helped me get into the time period more simply because it was all given so casually.

Roman Blood is not a "great men of Rome" sort of book, though it does feature many of the people we know: Cicero and Sulla to name a few. They all play their roles, as great men do, but without stealing the spotlight. Gordianus is a great character because he is likable, realistic and humble. And very Roman. I also quite like the portrayal of Cicero in Roman Blood because I think it captured his peculiarities perfectly while still redeeming him at the end when it was shown to Gordianus the Doubter that Cicero is more than just a picky nag and really is one of the greatest statesmen Rome will ever have.

Roman Blood is as much mystery as it is historical fiction. It's full of murder, perversion, ruthlessness, and doubt. There are enough twists and turns to make the plot interesting while not so many that you lose the sense of the thing. In the end, you come to understand that everyone is guilty of something in some way and even an "innocent" man has committed plenty of crimes of his own.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Book Review: Dirt: An American Campaign by Mark LaFlamme

Title: Dirt: An American Campaign
Author: Mark LaFlamme
Genre: Fiction - Suspense
Finished: March 13, 2009

Dirt: An American Campaign is a high energy, fast-paced novel about grief, personal connection, and political corruption. Governor and Presidential candidate Frank Cotton (no relation to the Frank Cotton in Hellraiser, of course) is in a peculiar situation just at the dawn of his potential election as the Republican candidate for the Presidential office. Mr. Cotton is not quite topping the polls and is having trouble with his son Calvin, whose wife just recently passed away. You see, Calvin stole the corpse of his wife and took off with it. What a scandal that would make for the Presidential hopeful. Enter Thomas Cashman, an ex-military man and CIA agent who is sent on a mission by the Cotton administration to stop Calvin before the press and public get wind of the Cotton family grave robbery. Cashman is just the kind of guy I like-- humorous and down to earth, but without pretense and willing to do what needs in order to be done to be successful at his job. To help get into the mind of Calvin, to better understand and predict him, Cashman employs the help of an alcoholic ex-writer named Billy Baylor. Baylor is somewhat of an expert in what would make a seemingly normal man do something so grotesque because that was the sort of thing that he wrote about before losing his wife and daughter in a car accident. There is, in fact, a large list of characters: a small-time reporter, an environmentalist lawyer, a cemetery attendant, numerous Presidential hopefuls, whole political administrative teams, two news reporters hot on the trail of Calvin, and roadside scoundrels. What connects them is politics, protecting and exposing people, or just the need to seek self-gain. There is little difference between the politicians who take joy in destroying their rival's life and the bullying bikers in the grocery store parking lot. Every chapter is short, giving a sense of immediacy to the novel. Though the chapters are short in length, I do not feel as if the book is lacking in detail or story. LaFlamme manages to say it all and say it wonderfully within his tightly packed sections. The way that the book flips from one person to the next gives the story a fast pace that made it even harder for me to put the book down at the end of the night. It was difficult for me to find a "good guy" in this novel, but it was likewise just as hard for me to find a "bad guy". The characters in Dirt are simply people, each trying to get by, neither good nor evil. Everyone has a secret, something dirty in their past. When all of the dirt starts to come out, no one can stop it. No one is left unexposed. I can almost guarantee with total certainty that you will not see the ending of Dirt coming. LaFlamme throws one twist at you before delivering the final dizzying punch.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Book Review: Imperium (Cicero Series, #1) by Robert Harris

Title: Imperium
Series: Cicero Series
Book Number: 1
Author: Robert Harris
Genre: Fiction - History
Finished: March 9, 2009

You know Cicero? Yes, Cicero, the Roman statesman who is known by us today as the guy who talked and talked and did a lot of stuff with law. And oh yeah, talked. You probably had to read something by him in high school or college, so you likely have pretty bad and boring memories related to the name Marcus Tullius Cicero. So when I read that Imperium by Robert Harris was about Cicero, I gave an internal groan. A premature assumption of boredom that turned out to be totally wrong. Imperium is a great book. It's that simple. The story is told through the narrative of Cicero's ex-slave Tiro. Tiro takes us through Cicero's life up to the events leading into his Consulship. What Harris writes is based on truth and has some evidence to support the basics. The events Cicero finds himself a part of are quite full of power plays, intrigue, and political corruption. But to set the background, we first meet Cicero as a student of philosophy with a humble farmer background and a sharp mind and wit that has the unfortunate result of offending many of the wrong men. After his study of philosophy, we move with Cicero into his political career, where he climbs up the ladder of the state, gaining office as he becomes a champion of the people.

The first half of the book involves Cicero taking on the case of Verres, a corrupt Sicilian governor who has friends in all the right places. Cicero's way with words and luck with evidence, attributed to his cleverness, leads to a resounding victory against all odds and popularity beyond words. But not all is good with Cicero at this pointâ-- prosecuting Verres puts Cicero at odds with the aristocratic foundation of the Republic. After Verres comes the grand general Pompey (the guy Caesar chased out of Rome when he crossed the Rubicon much later) and his rivalry with Crassus. Cicero gives his support to Pompey and makes a powerful enemy of Crassus, who soon engages in vote buying at a high scale to pack the government in his favor. The plan is to arrange the government so that Crassus and Caesar will have an open door to increasing their own power. Pretty clever Crassus. Naturally, Cicero finds out about the plot and exposes them before the Senate, winning a victory for Consul at the youngest age allowed.

You have a lot of big names: Pompey, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Piso, Metelleus. Since Imperium is about Cicero and his dealings, these characters are supportive in nature only and come and go as the story requires. This is just as well because there are volumes written about Caesar by everyone and their grandmother. It was quite amusing to see Caesar portrayed as a horny, shady, power hungry youngster and nothing more. Oh, I respect Caesar and am quite enamored with him as most are, but the turn of character was great. Usually, Cicero is the annoying old man who won̢۪t shut up and Caesar is the charming hero. In Imperium Cicero was the hero and a quite charming one at that. What about the politics and history? Was it dry and full of historical detail? Historical yes, but dry it was definitely not. I don't think that this is a book for your Roman novice, though. For anyone not familiar with the various political offices, names, social classes, and Republican standards, the book may be difficult to grasp. I feel that my background in Roman history helped me a lot in reading through the book as a fluid novel rather than a pause and continue that requires a bit of Google searching to understand completely.