Friday, January 31, 2014

The Awakened Mage

The Awakened Mage (Kingmaker, Kingbreaker, #2)The Awakened Mage by Karen Miller
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

With his entire family dead, magic-less Prince Gar must assume his role as weather worker of Lur, unaware of the coming storm and the man destined to stop it: his best friend, the lowly fisherman Asher.

Three words from this fan of epic fantasy: too damn slow. The mourning for the dead king, queen, and bratty Princess Fayne takes up a full third of the story, contraposed with the evil magician Morg's struggle for life inside of a broken body.

More interestingly, there is also a growing romance between Asher and Daphne, all the while the secret of the prophecy standing between them. And Asher and Gar continue to seal their fate together, taking steps that progressively lead to the breach of the kingdom's number one rule: Olken don't do magic.

When Asher at last learns of his destiny as the Innocent Mage, he is annoyingly pouty about it. It's that whole "You lied (for good reason) and now our love means nothing!" cliche that I hope never to see again. It's too bad to see an interesting main character blank out at the eleventh hour, which may be why he is given so little time to step up as the Awakened Mage.

This is the conclusion of two books that might have been better served as one, with some judicious pruning. Perhaps it simply isn't my cup of tea, since it's a character-focused fantasy that is light on the action and world-building. We do get to understand more of Doranen history, and more about the Wall, but the system of magic is pretty bland and unoriginal (especially compared to recent books like Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy). The story of Barl and Morg seems more interesting than the aftermath of their doomed love, and is told in the prequel A Blight of Mages.

There are plenty of books out there with hooded mages on the front, but let me help you cut through the fantasy dross to get to the best: try Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind and (a series that admittedly needs no recommendation), A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in HistoryThe Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the final days of World War II, the 'Monuments Men' scoured Europe to preserve the most important art and buildings in Europe - priceless masterworks Hitler ordered destroyed if the Reich fell.

The Monuments Men were a group of art experts assigned the chaotic task of assessing buildings and art pieces for damage in the wake of two armies battling through historic cities. Doing their best with no backup, no special rank, and no transportation, the Monuments Men acted to preserve the great works of art the Germans had been looting in occupied territories.

Heartbreaking destruction, of not only human lives but also the history of Europe, followed the clash of Axis and Allies. Hitler and his cronies embarked on an unimaginably complex and widespread scheme to despoil the riches of the occupied territories. The Nazis burned modern art by Picasso, stole from Jewish families, and absconded with anything thought to reflect German heritage. War usually entails looting, but the scale of this plot is breathtaking.

The more I learn about Hitler, the more he seems like a maniac straight out of Saturday morning cartoons. He coveted great works of art, was endlessly embittered by the Treaty of Versailles, believed in grand symbolic gestures, planned on enslaving eastern Europe and playing in the rest, tried to exterminate entire classes of people, and named his new government the Thousand-Year Reich. He did everything short of strapping on a cape and cackling "I have you now!" to Superman.

The list of art the Nazis stole included Michelangelo's "Bruges Madonna", the massive and massively important Ghent Altarpiece, Vermeer's "The Astronomer", Rembrandt's enormous oil painting "The Night Watch", and the Bayeux Tapestry - plus thousands of other works of art, pieces of jewelry, statues, porcelain, furniture, and gold. These valuables were hidden in salt mines and other unlikely places throughout Germany, including the famous mine in Altaussee.

Against this seemingly unstoppable machine of destruction and theft stood the few lone Monuments Men, determined to restore order and put the art world to right again. It was a race against time, especially given the fact that many of his stooges interpreted Hitler's infamous Nero Decree to extend to the stolen art he had amassed for his dream of a Führermuseum in Linz, Austria.

Interspersed with tales of Monuments Men exploits are letters they sent to loved ones and colleagues (all a cut above the average soldier's letter), charting the excitement and then the increasing jadedness of the Monuments Men as they struggled to do their jobs single-handedly on the frontlines of a horrific war.

Edsel also tells the tale of the remarkable Frenchwoman Rose Valland, whose ferocious determination and subtle spycraft ensured that the patrimony of France did not simply disappear into the night. She is the only female member of the Monuments Men (and not an official one), and without her tireless efforts the impact of the war would have been even more devastating to the art community than it proved to be.

In fact, the aftermath of World War II is still with us, in lost lives and destroyed artworks. As proof, I offer two recent articles about hoards discovered more than 70 years later. This story is so vast it almost seems unbelievable. The book begins slowly, but soon picks up, with the author's passion for his subject showing through on every page. (He points out, rightly, that we could have used a Monuments unit in Baghdad after the 2003 invasion.) Essential reading for anyone interested in art and war.

There are a few other books on the topic of art theft, including The Rape of Europa by Lynn H. Nicholas, also about WWII, and Loot: The Battle Over the Stolen Treasures of the Ancient World by Sharon Waxman that shows just how tricky the provenance of art objects can be. Finally, Stealing the Mystic Lamb by Noah Charney illuminates one of the works most mentioned in The Monuments Men: the peerless Ghent altarpiece by Jan van Eyck.
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"Hitler knew it was impossible to steal renowned masterpieces [...] without drawing the condemnation of the world. While he had the conqueror's mentality - he believed he was entitled to the spoils of war, and he was determined to have them - Hitler and the Nazis had gone to great lengths to establish new laws and procedures to 'legalize' the looting activities that would follow. This included forcing the conquered countries to give him certain works as a term of their surrender." - 150

"The Germans had used the [Dampierre] library's renowned Bossuet letters for toilet paper, but after they left, the caretaker found the letters in the woods, cleaned them off, and returned them to the library. Now that was dedication. That was service!" - 202

"Just seeing the warehouses the Nazis had filled with 'confiscated' items brought home to him the size and complexity of their looting operation. This wasn't accidental damage or angry retaliation, but an enormous web of deliberate deceit that stretched all over Paris and down all the roads back to the Fatherland and all the way to Hitler's office in Berlin." - 239

"To save the culture of your allies is a small thing. To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life and the life of other men to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle was was unheard of, but that is exactly what Walker Hancock and the other Monuments Men intended to do." - 321

"No age lives entirely alone; every civilisation is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past. If these things are destroyed, we have lost a part of our past, and we shall be the poorer for it." - British Monuments Man Ronald Balfour (qtd. on page 465)

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Hoarder in You

The Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered LifeThe Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life by Robin Zasio
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dr. Robin Zasio, known for her work on A&E's Hoarders, reveals the keys to uncluttering your mind and life, exposing the truth about anxiety, compulsion, and hoarding tendencies.

This is a self-help book, so expect plenty of helpful lists, mantras, and words of encouragement. Zasio is very compassionate toward people struggling with this disorder, but firmly believes it can be conquered.

She discusses issues from degrees of clutter to the emotional cost of clutter in relationships, collecting verses stockpiling, and the key to defeating our acquisitive impulses; illustrating with fascinating stories from her patients' lives.

There are many great books out about this topic. Dr. Zasio mentions another researcher by name often, so definitely check out his book: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee. Sam Gosling's book Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You isn't about hoarding per se, but it is about the meaning of the objects we surround ourselves with. You may never look at your bedroom the same way again. Finally, another A&E alum, Matt Paxton, has a book out called The Secret Lives of Hoarders.


"In our consumerist society, even minimalists have countless catalogs from which to order streamlined accessories to decorate their spare spaces, and of course own far more than they need to survive." - 19

"While non-hoarders do not typically put their loved ones in danger by creating fire hazards or unsanitary conditions, living with someone whose mind is cluttered in part because their life is cluttered can be exasperating." - 58

"Out of habit, some people save bits and pieces from most every experience, not just the meaningful ones, and still others equate holding on to an item with holding on to a memory or a feeling - it's as if they didn't have the experience unless they keep the item. It's easy to see how your space can get so filled with stuff from your past that it's hard to live in the present." - 85

"A home doesn't become hoarded overnight: the process is gradual, and thousands of small decisions and in decisions about what to keep ultimately lead to a home so filled with stuff that it can become hazardous to one's health." - 141

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Innocent Mage

The Innocent Mage (Kingmaker, Kingbreaker, #1)The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When fisherman Asher escapes to the big city to make his fortune, the brash young man little suspects that he is destined to be the center of earth-shattering events that may destroy his homeland.

Asher leaves home hoping to make a better life for himself, and on his first day in the city he seems to have succeeded with startling dumb luck: he is soon employed by Prince Gar, son of the Doranen king of Lur. Asher isn't one you'd peg as a champion; he's outspoken, rough-mannered, and highly opinionated. He's also completely unaware of the plans others have for him from the moment he sets foot in the capitol city.

Prince Gar lacks the magical gift of the Doranen race and is regarded as a cripple by his people. His powerful younger sister, Princess Fayne, is the next heir to the throne because she has the ability to work the weather magic the kingdom relies upon. The weather magic has kept Lur safe from external threats for centuries, feeding a huge wall that blocks off the former Doranen homeland. Shunted aside, Gar is placed in charge of the concerns of the Olken people, magic-less natives of Lur who have been ruled by Doranen for centuries.

Gar and Asher soon become friends in spite of differences of background and temperament. But there is a cloud on the horizon that neither is aware of: a prophecy of end times is coming true, and both Gar and Asher are destined to play a part.

A group of Olken conspirators, scheming to to preserve their unique, hidden brand of magic and prepare for the coming of the prophesied 'Innocent Mage' (who is apparently Asher), merely lurks, seemingly without a real plan. Only their goal is clear: help the Innocent Mage, and manipulate him if necessary, to save Lur.

The Innocent Mage feels like a long ramping-up to the real story. Since neither of the two main characters are magic-users (there is a powerful - though seemingly nonsensical - taboo against Olken use of Doranen magic, backed by the death penalty), the magic of the Wall and the shadowy threat beyond remain well in the background. We instead get a slow introduction to the various characters as they get to know each other and bicker.

Anyone expecting a Game of Thrones-like intensity and complexity won't find it here, though I think Asher is an amusing and compelling character - even if the supporting cast and setting don't quite measure up in terms of inventiveness. Fortunately for completists who don't have time to wait for yet another fantasy series to finish (looking at you, George R. R. Martin), this is part of a completed duology and concludes with The Awakened Mage. (There is also a prequel that tells the story of Barl and Morgan: A Blight of Mages.)

For other epic fantasy stories, try Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind or Brandon Sanderson's excellent Mistborn series.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014


CarnivoresCarnivores by Aaron Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When misunderstood predators lacking self-confidence meet weekly, strange things are sure to happen.

If your kids thought Bruce the Shark was screamingly funny in Finding Nemo, then Carnivores is a bedtime story for them. It has the same wicked sense of humor, and can go right next to This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (if you haven't seen its book trailer, do yourself a favor).

Kids who start here will be reading Roald Dahl and Lemony Snicket in no time. Mark my words.

Heeere's Brucie!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Fortunately, the Milk

Fortunately, the MilkFortunately, the Milk by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Going out for milk turns into an adventure of epic proportions for one boy's father.

So much depends on a white bottle of milk. At least, that's according to our young narrator's tale-spinning father, who goes out for cereal milk and returns with a wild story of hot air balloons piloted by a time-traveling stegosaurus, pirates, aliens, volcanoes, and one very important breakfast condiment.

The illustrations, provided by Skottie Young, are as wild and manic as this tall tale. It's one kids will enjoy and parents won't mind reading, with all the calculated silliness and fun of classic stories like Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan.

For more tall tales, check out American Tall Tales by by Mary Pope Osborne and Michael McCurdy (illustrated by Michael McCurdy), or this list from Goodreads.

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Hidden Gallery

The Hidden Gallery (The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place #2)The Hidden Gallery by Maryrose Wood
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

On a visit to London, the mystery surrounding the wolf-children of Ashton Place deepens when their young governess, Penelope Lumley, receives warnings of danger at every turn.

Things have barely settled down after the disastrous Christmas party when renovations at Ashton Place make a visit to London highly desirable. The three wolfish Incorrigible children are thrilled to be in a new place, but their governess worries about how their squirrel-chasing and growling tendencies will play in a big city.

It's the least of her worries, as it turns out. Miss Lumley must cope with her Hixby's Guide, the most uniquely worthless guidebook to London ever written, invitations to tea, the troubles of the querulous Lady Ashton, a chance meeting with a handsome stranger, postcards to squirrels, and eerie warnings from fortune-tellers. Her excellent upbringing at the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females serves Miss Lumley well as she learns to navigate a crowded and unpredictable city.

This sequel to The Mysterious Howling has the same attractions and flaws as its predecessor: too many mysteries, not enough solutions. Miss Lumley remains charmingly eccentric, but there is a lack of a cohesive story here in this overly serialized book. Perhaps the sequel, The Unseen Guest, will hold more answers?

If you want a somewhat more satisfying series for middle readers, I definitely recommend A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket. You might also try The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Men at Arms

Men at Arms (Discworld, #15)Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A strange new plot is afoot in Ankh-Morpork's Assassin's Guild: one that threatens to draw the Watch and Captain Sam Vimes - on the eve of his retirement - into the path of a deadly new weapon.

Captain Samuel Vimes is soon to marry his dragon-loving aristocratic fiancée and give up his life as a beat cop. As Sam struggles with his impending wealth and union with blue-bloods, Sergeant Colon and Nobby Nobbs are in charge of training a diverse pool of Night Watch recruits: there is Detritus, a huge troll with a deadly salute, Cuddy, a dwarf with a grudge against trolls, and Angua, who is a shapely w - well, that would be telling.

The clear choice for Vimes' replacement is Corporal Carrot, a supernaturally likeable, huge and naïvely competent man raised by dwarfs. (I imagine him as a sort of ultra-charismatic Gary Cooper.) He becomes the lightning rod for an insane Assassin's plot to restore the monarchy.

Ankh-Morpork, the city with water dirty enough to walk across, is a character in its own right and a setting worth discussing. It barely manages its bubbling ethnic tensions without bloodshed. It is ruled by the cold-blooded Lord Vetinari, and contains Leonard da Quirm, the "most dangerous man in the world". It also can boast Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler (the most dangerous purveyor of sausages in the world), guilds of (ahem) seamstresses, clowns, and thieves; plus various nonhuman citizens including zombies, vampires, trolls, and keenly intelligent dogs. Oh, and Death is sure to make an appearance in a city this riotous.

It's not strictly necessary to read the previous Watch novel, Guards! Guards!, though I certainly recommend it. Another of the best Discworld novels is Night Watch, also about Sam Vimes (one of my all-time favorite Discworld characters).

But if you love smarter-than-average fantasy with a razor-sharp sense of humor, you've probably read most of Pratchett already. Might I also recommend Neil Gaiman?

"It was hard not to notice Carrot in a room. There were bigger people than him in the city. He didn't loom. He just seemed, without trying, to distort things around him. Everything became background to Corporal Carrot." - 99

"The river Ankh is probably the only river in the universe on which the investigators can chalk the outline of the corpse." - 109

"Cuddy had only been a guard for a few days, but already he had absorbed one important and basic fact: it is almost impossible for anyone to be in a street without breaking the law. There are a whole quiverful of offenses available to a policemen who wishes to pass the time of day with a citizen, ranging from Loitering with Intent through Obstruction to Lingering While Being the Wrong Color/Shape/Species/Sex." - 148

Monday, January 13, 2014

The Radicalism of the American Revolution

The Radicalism of the American RevolutionThe Radicalism of the American Revolution by Gordon S. Wood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon S. Wood takes a nuanced look at pre-revolutionary shifts in American culture, family structure, politics, religion, education, and economics. It's a complex re-envisioning that only occasionally looks at the lives of individuals - Wood does not subscribe to the great man theory of history, but is interested in the larger context. He asks, why did the American revolution happen? Americans were generally prosperous, free, and barely aware of the far-away king in England:

"By the late 1760s and early 1770s a potentially revolutionary situation existed in many of the colonies. There was little evidence of those social conditions we often associate with revolution (and some historians have desperately sought to find): no mass poverty, no seething social discontent, no grinding oppression. [...] there was a great deal of jealousy and touchiness everywhere, for what could be made could be unmade; the people were acutely nervous about their prosperity and the liberty that seemed to make it possible."

Something was different about the American Revolution, and it's fascinating to see Wood draw his conclusions from the broad sweeps of the history of ideology and economics. I found the chapter on "Patriarchal Dependence" especially fascinating for its look into the harsh and widespread system of slavery and indentured servitude. The only truly independent people were "large portions of white male society", but everyone was aware of the dark side of dependence on another's will: they experienced it in daily life, after all. The seed for universal suffrage was planted, though it would take centuries to mature.

Our current assumptions about human nature and human relationships stand out in clear contrast to the beliefs of the founders - the America of the Revolution really was another world. Their reshaping of the social fabric, reimagining the ties that held people together, led to the America of today in ways that the founders never would have predicted (and even would have hated), but to us seem inexorable. The bonds of noblesse oblige and gratitude were neatly severed, imperfectly replaced by religion, trade, and mutual self-interest.

This isn't a book I'd recommend for a casual reader, or to those who like more traditional narrative histories like David McCullough's 1776. Fans of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States may enjoy Wood's insightful new take on a familiar era. Revolutionary War-era buffs or policy wonks looking for an unusual history with a commanding sense of an era's subtle movements will find their perfect match here.

Quotable (all emphasis mine):
"Because monarchy had these implications of humiliation and dependency, the Anglo-American colonists could never be good monarchical subjects. But of course neither could their fellow Englishmen 'at home' three thousand miles across the Atlantic. All Englishmen in the eighteenth century were known throughout the Western world for their insubordination, their insolence, their stubborn unwillingness to be governed."

"Monarchy presumed what Hume called a 'long train of dependence,' a gradation of degrees of freedom and servility that linked everyone from the king at the top down to the bonded laborers and black slaves at the bottom. The inequalities of such a hierarchy were acceptable to people because they were offset by the great emotional satisfactions of living in a society in which everyone, even the lowliest servant, counted for something."

"People labored out of necessity, out of poverty, and that necessity and poverty bred the contempt in which laboring people had been held for centuries. Freedom was always valued because it was freedom from this necessity to labor. Most people, it was widely assumed, would not work if they did not have to. 'Everyone but an idiot,' said the English agricultural writer Arthur Young in a startling summary of the traditional view, 'knows that the lower class must be kept poor or they will never be industrious.'"

"The gentlemanly elites of the eighteenth century could condescend and be affable with their subordinates and inferiors because they often thought of themselves as parents dealing with children. Since most relationships in this hierarchical society were still very personal, they were also necessarily paternalistic."

"In the colonies servitude was a much harsher, more brutal, and more humiliating status than it was in England, and this difference had important implications for the colonists' consciousness of dependency. Colonial bonded servants in fact shared some of the chattel nature of black slaves."

"Many colonists, therefore, not only black slaves but white servants and young men and a variety of tenants and of course all women, knew firsthand what dependence meant. Dependence, said James Wilson in 1774, was 'very little else, but an obligation to conform to the will ... of that superior person ... upon which the inferior depends. People who were dependent could not be free; in fact, 'freedom and dependency' were 'opposite and irreconcilable terms.' Dependents were all those who had no wills of their own; thus like children they could have no political personalities and could rightfully be excluded from participation in public life. It was this reasoning that underlay the denial of the vote to women, servants, apprentices, short-term tenants, minors, and sons over twenty-one still living at home with their parents."

"No doubt the cost that America paid for this democracy was high - with its vulgarity, its materialism, its rootlessness, its anti-intellectualism. But there is no denying the wonder of it and the real earthly benefits it brought to the hitherto neglected and despised masses of common laboring people. The American Revolution created this democracy, and we are living with it still."

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Books Read in December

A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett - When Tiffany Aching goes to the mountains to learn the art of witchcraft, she is soon targeted by an immortal creature, one that not even the bold Nac Mac Feegles can fight for her.

The Reversal by Michael Connelly - Defense attorney Mickey Haller volunteers to act as Special Prosecuter against a man who claims to have been falsely imprisoned for the murder of a young girl - a man Haller and Bosch believe will kill again.

Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman - A young boy named Odd encounters a trio of strange animals and with their help strikes out on a mission to save the gods of Asgard from the Frost Giants.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins - At the whim of a totalitarian government, teenager Katniss Everdeen must fight for her life in a brutal game where there can only be one victor - and the cost of losing is death.