The Princes in the Tower, by Alison Weir
I’m clearly a fan of Weir as both an historian and a writer of historical fiction. And I was no less impressed with her research behind the murder of Edward IV’s two young sons, Edward V and Richard, the Duke of York, at the hands of Richard III – who usurped the English throne during the tumultuous years now referred to as the War of the Roses.
Although there is certainly no surprise that Weir reaches her verdict that Richard is solely responsible for ordering the two princes deaths while locked up in the Tower of London – despite a long-held belief by contemporary Yorkists sympathetic to Richard III that it was someone else – she does provide thorough evidence against Richard, as well as evidence against pro-Yorkist theory. She also manages to elucidate life in pre-Tudor England, by remarking that anti-Richard sentiment was oft exaggerated for the benefit of later Tudor rulers. In fact, she commented that Henry VII – who defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth -- was very much like him.
He was ambitious, unscrupulous, devious, avaricious, astute, cautious and highly intelligent. Not violent by nature, he preferred to adopt a policy of reconciliation and pacification, but he could be ruthless when crossed. He love money to excess, but, like Richard III, he possessed great qualities of leadership and was an able administrator.
In hindsight, Richard will always be the wicked and power-hungry hunchback as depicted by Shakespeare. But in reality, he was just like most other successful English monarch who had act with singular impunity to stabilize his reign and realm. (In fact, one could easily argue that Henry VIII was even worse than Richard, although Tudor writers and dramatists would not have deigned to depict him as such.)
For a thoroughly considered evaluation of Richard’s culpability in the deaths of the two princes in the Tower, look no further than Weir.
Conan the Barbarian, by L. Sprague De Camp and Lin Carter
Adapted from the screenplay by Oliver Stone and John Milius, De Camp and Carter score high marks with this well thought out novelization. While they could have been complete hacks and provided the bare bones minimum, the two go out of their way to weave an origin story for Conan that succeeds by appearing to be written by Robert E. Howard at his best. (Die-hard fans argue that many of his Conan stories are actually poorly written, despite the genius behind Conan, Cimmeria, Hyborea, et. al.)
Although it is well established that the world of Conan is not complete, or even properly organized in any way – a result, no doubt, of Howard’s untimely death, as well as health issues during his life that prevented him from created a cohesive fantasy world (like Tolkien or Martin) – there is no doubt that American fantasy would be the poorer without him. When it comes to dark sword and sorcery, look no further than Howard and his greatest fictional creation, Conan, for inspiration. He, like Tolkien, sets the bar high.
A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin
Martin has sucked me in. Again. Fresh off my reread of A Game of Thrones, I immediately picked up the second book without a day’s respite.
Not only am I surprised at how many of the details (minor subplots and lesser seen characters) I’ve completely forgotten since I first read this back in 2005, but I’m in continually awe here with Martin’s sheer skill as a writer to deftly handle an epic saga with a cast that is now literally at a thousand. He also brilliant shows that his series defies most, if not all, of the stereotypes of the fantasy genre. All of which goes to show that A Song of Ice and Fire was a more than obvious choice for a TV adaptation courtesy of the dramatic series producer-geniuses at HBO.
Some highlights from this second reading include: The fierce sibling rivalry between the late King’s brothers (Stannis and Renly), Sansa’s situation (and who, despite annoying me at great length during the first book, has some of the best and most intense chapters in the series from hereon out), Arya and Tyrion (still my two favorite characters), the fiery inferno that marks the Battle of Blackwater (whose episode in season two will be scripted by none other than Martin himself, as he noted recently in his blog), and the introduction of Brienne, one of my second-tier favorite characters.
There is much to love about A Clash of Kings. Once I finished all nine-hundred-and-then-some pages, I had to force myself to fit in a book that I got from the library before jumping right into A Storm of Swords. July 12th* can’t come soon enough, I tell you.
* A Dance with Dragons.
A Game of Thrones, by G. R. R. Martin
In anticipation of HBO’s adaptation of Martin’s first book in his A Song of Ice and Fire, I decided to reread it. But what I wasn’t expecting or planning was that I going to be completely and thoroughly engrossed. Again.
True, it has been several years since I last read the first three books in this sprawling and over-populated fantasy epic. But my memories of it the first time around included the sheer intensity of the various plot-lines coupled with remarkable dramatic realism of the various main characters who “narrate” the book. Arya and Tyrion are still my two favorite characters, and Sansa – who I had partially forgotten – is still the irritating older sister with delusions of romantic love, her role as a young woman, and court life in King’s Landing. Although I was more than just irritated by her during the first half – and that’s putting it mildly – I will go so far as to say that she’s a great character. Not a favorite of mine, personality-wise, but her journey is certainly intriguing considering the situation in which she ends up.
On this second reading, I’m also happy to report that this is an even better book. My only criticism from back in 2005, when I read this last, was that there were too damn many minor characters to keep track of. And which often distracted me from the main plot-lines. (Flipping back and forth between the narrative and the appendix at the back was less helpful, and more disorienting, and it could be jarring as it would break my concentration on the scene at hand.) But now I’m finding myself much more interested in the minor characters, as well as impressed by the level of detail that Martin has been able to go in his many concisely written brief descriptions and fleeting scenes – Bran running stop the walls of the Keep of Winterfell. Not to mention the youngest Stark, Rickon, who is a perfect example of a very minor character that is remarkably fleshed out, although he appears in less than two entire pages in the nine-hundred and seven pages of dense text. And I could go on and on, but I would end up being a verbose as Martin.
It is no exaggeration to say that Martin has been dubbed the American Tolkien. He is. But his brilliance as a fantasy writer lies less in the fact that he follows in Tolkien’s footsteps, as so many American fantasists do so poorly (Jordan, Goodkind, and Brooks come immediately to mind), but in the fact that he relies much more heavily on the Ancient and Medieval history and politics – most notably the War of the Roses and the transition of the Roman Republic into an Empire.
Without hesitation, I look forward to July 12th when A Dance with Dragons is (finally) released. In the meantime, I’m well underway with A Clash of Kings – which I told myself that I would only reread before that was broadcast next year on HBO -- and then A Storm of Swords before my second reading of A Feast for Crows in as many months.
Making our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View, Stephen Breyer
When the judicial branch of our government – the only unelected portion – is attacked as being “activist”, I cannot help but think that the portion of the American electorate that thinks this is woefully unaware not just of how the judicial system works, but also lacking in a basic understanding of U.S. history. Fortunately, a book like this comes along – by long-serving Supreme Court Justice Breyer – that is brilliantly concise and readable. So much so, that it should be considered required reading by all Americans.
From the outset, Breyer asserts:
Our system of democratic government is not pure majoritarian democracy, but majoritarian democracy with boundaries set by our constitutional structure. And by rights that the Constitution ensures to individuals and minorities against the majority’s desires.
Which, as introductory classes on U.S. Government often say, constitutes protecting the minority from the tyranny of the majority. (And more on that later.)
In Part I of his book, Breyer reviews several historical cases that shaped how the Court goes about its business, and how and in what circumstances it exerts its Constitutionally-derived powers – Marbury vs. Madison being the first test cases that established judicial review. (All of which can easily be interpreted as “activist”, I might add.) Of paramount importance, a judicial opinion should be “principled, reasoned, transparent, and informative. And a strong opinion should prove persuasive, make a lasting impression on the minds of those who read it, and (if a dissent) eventually influence the law to move in the direction it proposes.” (The italicized portion – mine -- being “activist” in both theory and practice.) Breyer uses this when reflecting on the fact that the Dred Scott and Cherokee decisions were painfully poor examples of judicial reasoning, while the Little Rock decision (Brown v. Board of Education) was a shining example of justice accomplished.
On an interesting and perhaps ironic side-note, Breyer mentions none-to-casually that the site marking the grave of the wife of the Cherokee chief who died en route during the infamous Trail of Tears (a result of the executive branch doing nothing to enforced a Supreme Court decision in favor of the Cherokee nation during a land dispute with the state of Georgia) lies only a mile away from Little Rock High School, the site where law won one of its greatest victories when the executive branch fulfilled its Constitutional obligation to enforce the law. In short, it shows a complete reversal of the power of the Supreme Court, the public trust, and a true balance of power between the branches of the government that had been lacking a century before.
In Part II, Breyer exits historical analysis of key cases, and considers more broad implications of the role of the judicial branch. From the outset, he notes:
…the Court should reject approaches to interpreting the Constitution that consider the document’s scope and application as fixed at the moment of framing. Rather, the Court should regard the Constitution as containing unwavering values that must be applied flexibly to ever-changing circumstances. The Court must consider not just how eighteenth-century Americans used a particular phrase but also how the values underlying that phrase today to circumstances perhaps then inconceivable.”
Again, not only decidedly argue against an anti-activist stance – and let’s face it, judicial activism has been around with us since Marbury v. Madison – but against strict Constitutionalist theory. (Bogus, if you ask me. Strip away the Amendments one by one, and you have the working of a democracy for a very select few people based upon gender, age, and class.)
Much of the rest of his book is devoted to more recent examples of where the judiciary stepped in and interpreted laws either established by the legislative branch, or policies enacted by the executive. But towards the closing of this slender volume – as it comes in at just over two hundred pages – Breyer astutely recommends:
It takes time and continuous effort to communicate the nature and importance of our government institutions. Support for the judicial institution rests upon teaching in an organized way to generations of students about our history and our government. It grows out of knowledge of our Revolution, our founding documents, the Civil War, and eighty years of legal segregation. It rests upon an understanding of our Constitution, of how government works in practice, and of the importance of the students’ own eventual participation to the Court’s continued effectiveness.
Amen to that.
Excalibur: The Legend of King Arthur, by Tony Lee and Sam Hart
Other than my childhood obsession with Arthur – aided by a traveling exhibit of medieval armor that my friends and I drooled over at the Seattle Center back in the early 80s, as well as one summer between eighth grade and freshman year in which I devoured both Roger Lancelyn Green’s and John Steinbeck’s books on King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table (Sir Thomas Mallory’s seminal text was still a few years away in sophomore year) – what initially drew me to this was writer Tony Lee himself, who is the scribe on the IDW’s Doctor Who series.
No surprise, Lee proves masterful at weaving together the disparate Arthurian legends. You’ll not only find the Pendragon curse, but Guinevere, Lancelot, the Lady of the Lake, Merlin, Nimue, Morgana, Mordred, Sir Gawain, and the Green Knight – all classic standbys – but new permutations (Guinevere, Lancelot, and Mordred’s conception) and additions (the faerie realms of the Seelie and the Unseelie, the former of which Arthur is sent to before being crowned king). True, the Grail Quest is missing here. But even with its conspicuous absence, Lee and Hart manage to breathe some fresh life into a well-trodden and frequently retold legend.
The Happiest Days of Our Lives, by Wil Wheaton
Wheaton, former cast member of the Star Trek: The Next Generation and unofficial Grand Marshal of Emerald City Comicon, is back with another collection of nerdish memories and musings. Although I admit to being an eager fan-boy of his devoted affection for the popular arts, I was a tad disappointed by a few of his entries; if not a little perplexed by the poor editing – at least compared to Just a Geek.
“Blue Light Special”, which I heard Wheaton read live and on-stage at ECCC a few years back, is one of his gems; as it centers around his indecision on which Star Wars action figure to buy when standing in the toy aisle of Kmart. And it cleverly ends on one of the most universal and unanimous sentiments regarding the Star Wars prequels. (All I will say is, “Damn you, Jar-Jar Binks!”)
Outside of his wistful memories about growing up a gamer geek, as well as being the youngest cast member of the greatest sci-fi series in the late 80s/early 90s (with the exception of The X-Files), Wheaton does manage to break the mold by penning a remarkably moving piece about the loss of his cat, in “Felix the Bear.” One particular part I will never forget, which is his observation that “Dogs have master. Cats have staff.” So true, that.
After having finished this – in mere hours, as it comes in at just over 150 pages (and small ones, at that) -- I’m surprised that after having listened to him in person, and having read all three of his books now, I still haven’t checked out his website. And that’s something I plan to correct forthwith. (Two clicks to save it as a “favorite”. I’ve no excuse now.)
Running the Books, by Avi Steinberg
This is the second book about writers working in prisons that I've read; the first being Mark Salzman's True Notebooks. However, where Salzman was working with juvenile offenders in writing program, Steinberg mans the library in the big house with adults in a facility just outside of Boston.
In many ways, Steinberg's narrative structure is discursive; although there is a framing sequence involving being mugged on the outside by a former inmate that he returns to towards the close of this near four hundred page memoir. Swirled within his oft-meandering writing are some true gems. Take, for example, the "kites" -- or notes inmates leave for others -- that fall out from inside the books, and which in their concise style resemble haiku fragment, the inmate who considers throwing out books sacrilegious, or even the paranoid one who believes that a lizard overlord has taken over the U.S. government (shades of TV's V, perhaps?). Or the striking similarity to the allegory of the cave in Plato's Republic, which he shares with the students in a class that he teaches. (How ironic is that, I ask you?) Or even the comparison he makes between the insular Orthodox Jewish community in which Steinberg was raised and the various gangs that move in, out, and around the prison. Moments like these more than make up for his loosely structured narrative style.
Personally, I don't think I could work in a prison library -- after nearly a decade working in public schools. (An odd comparison on some levels, I will readily admit, but more than apt on others.) But I can't help but feel absolutely fascinated by Steinberg's experience, if not awed by his ability to capture in realistic detail the inner workings of a prison library and the various characters that inhabit its wall and scour its shelves -- often desperately -- for some glimmer of hope and inspiration.
Captain Britain and MI13 Volume Two: Hell Comes to Birmingham, by Paul Cornell and Leonard Kirk
Volume two picks up right where volume one left off, with Britain's small but mighty superhero team heading to Birmingham to meet up with Captain Midlands -- a regional defender who I honestly have never heard of before (and he may be a new character for all I know) -- in order to confront a new threat to its inhabitants, the nefarious Dr. Plotka and the Mindless One. If it ain't the Skrulls hell-bent on taking Avalon and its magic by force, it's another would-be usurper who wishes to subdue the British masses into a lethargic reverie.
Although I'm finally getting used to Kirk's art, I can't help but think it would be better if he had better inkers -- as I'm sure his pencils are out of this world, as it is often the case with semi-decent finished comic book art. But what ends up on the printed page looks like DC house art -- and that's no compliment. (Now the covers, on the other hand, are fun to behold; as Stuart Immonen and Bryan Hitch are given cover duties on two of them.)
Captain Britain and MI13 Volume Three: Vampire State, by Paul Cornell, Leonard Kirk, and Michael Collins
Even though this third volume is the last for Captain Britain and allies, this final story-arc brings full circle many of the plot threads begun back in volume one: Jaqueline/Spitfire's vampirism, Brian/Captain Britain's lost-love Megan, and the introduction of the character of Faiza, who became the Black Knight's steward. It may not have been the best series, but Captain Britain and MI13 was a decent superhero team series that showed promise. And written by one of the best TV writers in the sci-fi genre, Paul Cornell. Would that it had a chance to live out a few years longer -- as opposed to a mere fifteen issues -- this had to the potential to become a better series that could have rivaled most of what the House of Marvel churns out every month. Here's hoping that Cornell & Co have moved onto greener pastures.
The Doctor's Who's Who: The Story Behind Every Face of the Iconic Time Lord, by Craig Cabell
Although it has some shortcomings -- typographical errors, as well as a few references that are quite wrong (like naming the Weeping Angels as the Blinking Angels every time they are referred to) -- Cabell's biography on each of the eleven-plus Time Lords captures the essence of all of the actors who have worn the mantle, scarf, coat, or fez of the Doctor. Not only does he include densely packed mini-bios on all of them from Hartnell to Smith, but also those who played the Doctor in another media -- like Peter Cushing in the cinematic re-imagings of the First Doctor, or those who played him in traveling shows produced by the BBC.
One of my favorite parts was not the chronological listings of all the performances of each of the eleven actors who have helmed the TARDIS, but Cabell's essay at the end listing his top favorite twenty-five episodes, followed by a detailed rationale of why each one is great to him. I couldn't help but think what my top twenty-five would be, and -- perhaps more interestingly -- why. That's serious thought worthy of Doctor Who Magazine, if you ask me. No faint praise there.)
The Diary of a Doctor Who Addict, by Paul Magrs
Nearly an unknown here in the States, Magrs is well-regarded YA fiction novelists in the UK. In this possibly thinly-veiled memoir, David – the protagonist -- recounts his coming-of-age in the early 80s when Thatcher was in power. It also begins with the "death" of the Fourth Doctor and the beginning of the Fifth -- which provides the backdrop of David's slow realization that his obsession with the Doctor is too nerdy and abnormal compared to his peers, who are just starting to realize that it's just "kid's stuff." (Oh, but how wrong he is if you fast forward to the past and first decade of the 21st century with an all-grown-up Doctor Who.)
Despite the condescension and derision that David gets for being a Whovian, the novel is so much more than that. David's step-father's mother comes to live with them, and experiences some frightening moments of senility, while David's best friend Robert -- once a fellow fan of the show -- begins to outgrow their friendship when he discovers not just girls, but also more "serious" pursuits (like listening to punk rock, reading literature and philosophy; or at the very least, appearing to read them seriously). And there's also something to be said for David's inkling of an idea that he's gay.
As a character and narrator, David surprises by being astonishingly real -- which is no small accomplishment. He's neither a whiner, a loser, nor a loner. But a believably flesh-and-blood young man that any adult could find themselves akin to when they were his age. And as a fan of the Doctor myself, Diary of a Doctor Who Addict is a refreshingly honest and vivid read that transcends the geeky implications of its title.