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Audiobook Review: Nine Princes In Amber, By Roger Zelazny

I know that Nine Princes In Amber is considered one of the great fantasy classics, but my reaction: Meh.

First off, I loved Alessandro Juliani’s skillful narration of this book, but I had a hard time caring about Corwin, the book’s narrator.

Written in a style frequently reminiscent of hard-boiled detective novels, awkwardly combined with the occasional bit of pseudo-Elizabethan dialog, this very short book follows the adventures of a man who wakes up, amnesiac, in a private hospital, and makes a daring escape, followed by the eventual revelation of his true identity as a royal price of Amber, a kingdom located in a alternate universe.

Once he discovers who he is (and that he’s part of a large brood of seemingly-immortal, mostly-amoral siblings), he reveals himself to be mostly self-centered, ambitious, and ruthless, with occasional flashes of decency and compassion (though not enough to make him a very sympathetic character). His goal–to prevail against his other brothers, and seize the throne of his late father.

To do this, he forms and breaks alliances with various of his other brothers and sisters, and recruits a huge army of gullible aliens (who believe him a god) to use as cannon-fodder. In a sparsely-described campaign (and how did Corwin manage his supply lines for his 250,000 soldiers as they conducted a perilous march through hostile dimensions?) he manages to gets every last one of his followers killed in an ill-advised and poorly-planned assault upon Amber, and his own life is subsequently placed in grave peril.

While these events were exciting, the book failed to spark my interest in listening to subsequent volumes because I simply didn’t care whether Corwin became king, or one of his other brothers. They all seemed equally arrogant and awful to me, a bunch of entitled, privileged scions who considered all those not of royal blood to be mere pawns in their game of thrones.

Book Review: David Attenborough’s LIFE ON AIR: MEMOIRS OF A BROADCASTER

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been listening to an absolutely delightful audiobook during my commute to and from the Day Job, Life on Air: Memoirs of a Broadcaster by renowned documentary filmmaker David Attenborough

I grew up watching Attenborough’s wildlife documentaries on PBS, and found this book an absolute joy to listen to, filled with fascinating and frequently-hilarious anecdotes of his globetrotting adventures, skillfully-narrated by Attenborough himself in a warm and frequently-wry manner.

He’s a man who loves animals and people, and his joy in his experiences and discoveries, as well as his deep respect for the various people he met, really came across in this memoir.

This is one of the best books I’ve listened to so far this year–I was actually disappointed on the days when my commute ran smoothly, because it meant spending less time with David Attenborough in Africa, or Australia, or South America, or Tonga, or…

Grade: A

Book Review: The Lies Of Locke Lamora

I just finished listening to the audiobook version of this fantasy novel, and what a fun story it was!

The Lies of Locke Lamora is set in a world littered with the mysterious buildings and artifacts of an alien civilization, master con-man Lock Lamora and his band of sworn brothers set out to swindle the nobility, Robin Hood-style, in a setting that mingles Renaissance Italy and Dickensian London.

An orphan sold to a notorious thief-master, and trained as a pickpocket and petty thief, Locke is a born troublemaker, a restless genius with a knack for biting off more than he can chew, and leaving chaos and unintended destruction in his wake. Along with Jean Tannen, warrior and intellectual, a young thief nicknamed ‘Bug,’ and a set of larcenous twin brothers, Carlo and Galdo, Locke is later adopted by a priest determined to train a select group of thieves to prey upon the city’s upper classes, and ultimately to break the power of the city’s Capo, the master of all the criminal gangs.

Unfortunately for Locke and his gang, a new and mysterious criminal figure, nicknamed The Gray King, is also determined to take over the city’s criminal underworld…and the Gray King has a frightening and powerful sorcerer at his bidding. What follows catapults Locke into a complex scheme of revenge and bloody conflict as he finds himself cast into the role of the city’s unwilling savior.

Loved the high-spirited plot and the sharp dialogue, enhanced by a wonderful performance from narrator Michael Page, who gives each character a distinctive voice and characterization. I’ve already downloaded the sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies, and am looking forward the publication of the third book in the series in October 2013.

Bodies And Shadows: Caravaggio And His Legacy, At LACMA

Last weekend, I drove to Los Angeles to visit with a good friend, and to indulge in one of my favorite pastimes–visiting museums.

On a warm, sunny Southern California winter afternoon, we toured the Page Museum at the Rancho LaBrea tar pits, with its unrivaled collection of Ice-Age fossils. There’s nothing like getting a real idea of the size of a mammoth by standing next to a reconstructed skeleton, tinted a mellow dark brown by millennia of immersion in asphalt, and realizing that you don’t even come up to its knee!

By happy coincidence, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) is located next door to the Page Museum. And even happier, they are currently featuring a special exhibition, Bodies and Shadows: Caravaggio and his Legacy.

Now, I’ve been interested in Caravaggio since reading two compelling books about his life and art:

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, a real-life detective mystery about the search for one of Caravaggio’s paintings, and M : The Man Who Became Caravaggio, a controversial biography of the artist that paints a vivid picture of his life and times.

Both books paint a fascinating portrait of a man who was simultaneously sensitive and gifted with a brush, while also living the life of a street tough with a long arrest record, a hard drinker, and even a murderer. And to me, his paintings have always had more life to them than the stylized, impossibly perfect figures of saints and angels of many of his contemporary artists.

Commissioned to create paintings illustrating various incidents from the Bible or allegorical subjects, he used his apprentices, carpenters, painters, prostitutes, and other denizens of his working-class Roman neighborhood to bring characters to vivid life–callused feet, dirty fingernails, and all.  Even his still-lifes of fruits and flowers are bursting with sensual vitality (and in some cases, rot).

In addition to his gift for depicting naturalistic figures in classical or Biblical settings, his use of light and shadow was unparalleled and influential. One of the interesting features of the exhibition was the grouping of contemporary and later paintings around each of the six Caravaggios on display, showing aspects of that influence.

Caravaggio died relatively young–at age 38 or 39, possibly waylaid and murdered on his return to Italy from exile abroad, though some have speculated that he fell ill and died after making landfall, or possibly succumbed to complications from lead poisoning (which might also account for some of his bizarre and paranoid behavior in the final years of his life).

Book Review – Augustus: The Life Of Rome’s First Emperor

Beginning with a gripping account of Augustus’s death in AD 14 (the author speculates that Livia may have participated in an assisted suicide so that timeline for the transfer of power to Tiberius would go exactly as planned), Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor, by Anthony Everitt, is a  fascinating account of the life of the first Roman emperor covers both the personal and political life of Augustus, who was shrewd and ruthless, cruel yet loyal to his friends, a master manipulator of public opinion, and a consummate propagandist who maintained the facade of being merely the “first citizen” in a republic, while holding sole power for forty years.

In addition to vividly sketching Augustus’s famous contemporaries–Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Cleopatra, among others–the author also presents a lively picture of life in ancient Rome, from weddings to funerals, from food to sexual mores.

A very enjoyable and informative book. I’m currently reading up on a lot of Roman history in preparation for my next novel, and I’m definitely going to be downloading this author’s biography of Emperor Hadrian next!

The Magical Mystery Vampire Tour Of History

I have always loved vampire novels (and the occasional movies) that focus on the immortality aspect of vampires, and explore what it means to be able to live through centuries…millennia, even. In discussing the appeal of vampires, Marian and I both realized that we were always less interested in stories that focused on the good guys defeating the Vampire Villain, or (the modern corollary) the vampire as Sex God.

A large part of the appeal of Anne Rice’s early vampire novels (Interview with the Vampire (Vampire Chronicles) and its sequel, The Vampire Lestat (Vampire Chronicles)) was that we got to see the vampires as the protagonists, and we got to experience history through their eyes. Sure, Louis and Lestat weren’t very heroic in the traditional sense (one was hopelessly passive and depressed, and the other arrogant and sublimely self-absorbed) but at least they were *interesting* and not just the run-of-the-mill bloodsucking undead. And we got a grand tour of eighteenth-century France and nineteenth-century New Orleans in the bargain.

And then there was the Comte de St. Germain. I remember discovering Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Hotel Transylvania at my local library when I was in high school, and thinking that I’d finally found the perfect vampire novel, with an interesting historical setting, a grand romance, and a very sympathetic (and heroic) vampire as the main character.

Marian had a similar reaction to the early St. Germain novels–finally, a good guy who wore fangs! And whose author actually spent some time exploring the effect of immortality on the soul and character of a profoundly compassionate man who loves and loses his mortal friends and lovers over and over again. In Yarbro’s vampire universe, the real villains are found in the intrigues among power-hungry upper classes of ancient Rome, invading Mongols in medieval China, Satanic cultists in pre-Revolution eighteenth-century France, or among religious fanatics and the Inquisition in Renaissance Florence.

It’s no wonder that we both became fans of the late-night vampire cop show, Forever Knight – The Trilogy, Part 1 (1992 – 1993), that aired in the early 90′s. Handsome, brooding vampire hero trying to atone for the sins of his past? Check. Lots of historical flashbacks? Check. Attractive, and talented cast? Check!

Marian and I actually met through the FOREVER KNIGHT fandom–she was trying to establish herself as a screenwriter, and had written several FOREVER KNIGHT spec scripts, and I had long wanted to write a vampire novel that incorporated the historical flashbacks I enjoyed so much. We soon became critique partners, and then, a year later, embarked on co-authoring the first version of the novel that eventually became Glass Souls.

In the process of writing, we evolved a somewhat different kind of vampire by discussing how immortality might work from a practical standpoint.  Instead of making our vampires the traditional brooding loners, haunting the centuries in solitude, we gave them a support network (The House of the Rose, a vast mercantile empire of perfumers) and jobs (they’re the protectors of the House’s business enterprises and its people, as well as the keepers of the family’s memories and traditions). And in doing so, we got to evolve a whole set of traditions and a hidden culture based on ancient Sumerian mythology, as well as set our stories in some very interesting periods of history, such as the Crusades and the Mongol invasion of the Middle East.

How about you? What’s the thing about vampire novels or movies that appeals to you the most?

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Book Review: How To Flirt With A Naked Werewolf, By Molly Harper

An appealing, snarkily hilarious heroine (a Southern belle from Mississippi, raised in a vegan commune by hippie parents and now rebelling against her upbringing), an Alaskan town filled with quirky and delightful characters, and a grumpy but sexy werewolf hero made How to Flirt with a Naked Werewolf the perfect book to listen to on a long drive to and from Los Angeles.

The narration was excellent, and the story was just plain fun. I just downloaded the audiobook of The Art of Seducing a Naked Werewolf, which is the sequel to How to Flirt with a Naked Werewolf, and look forward to livening up my holiday travels with more tales of Grundy, Alaska.

Book Review: Magic’s Poison By Gillian Bradshaw

I’m a big fan of Gillian Bradshaw’s historical novels (her Island of Ghosts: A Novel of Roman Britain  is one of my all-time favorite books), so when I saw that she had a fantasy series available, self-published in Kindle format, I was intrigued.

I just finished reading the first volume, Magic’s Poison, and enjoyed it very much.

Bradshaw has created a fascinating world, a strong (but, refreshingly, not superhuman) and sympathetic heroine, and a wonderful conflict centering around the semi-reptilian Ophidians and their legacy of magic-enhancing venom. The story itself moves along at a fairly fast pace, with lots of escalating jeopardies as the sorceress Marin’s initial peril uncovers a bigger and more dangerous plot.

If there was a weak element, it was that I didn’t feel the romance between Marin and the Duke was very well-developed. I could understand why she was attracted to him, and he to her, but I felt that the actual development of a relationship between them was short-changed in the course of the novel. For a while, I actually thought that the duke’s secretary was going to be her romantic interest–the development of their friendship and mutual respect after their initial rough introduction worked well.

However, that was just a minor quibble in an otherwise well-written and engaging novel. I’m looking forward to reading the other volumes in this series.

Buy Magic’s Poison from Amazon!

One Of My Favorite Fantasy Novels…

A discussion over coffee with some friends today reminded of one of my all-time favorite novels, Kushiel’s Dart, by Jacqueline Carey.

Kushiel’s Dart is the first book in a triple trilogy set in this world, and they are all complex, interesting, entertaining stories, but the first novel remains my favorite.

Here’s the review I wrote for Audible.com some time ago…

This richly-textured fantasy novel is set in an alternate-history pagan Europe where the Picts still rule Alba (Britain), the Celts rule France (called Terre D’Ange in this book), and Christianity is but a minor offshoot of Judaism. Kushiel’s Dart is the story of the coming-of-age of the courtesan Phedre no Delauny, who bears the mark of the fallen angel Kushiel, he who rules over the darker arts of love–submission, dominance, and the infliction of pain as an erotic pastime.

Indentured to the enigmatic nobleman Anafiel no Delauny and trained in the arts of both love and espionage, Phedre is at first merely a pawn in his intrigues among the nobility. But she is highly intelligent and strong-willed, and soon comes to realize that Delauny’s aims are worthy. Then disaster strikes.

Captured and sold into slavery by one of Delauny’s enemies, Phedre and her sworn bodyguard Joscelin uncover a traitorous plot to betray Terre D’Ange to barbarous Skaldic invaders who are being unified by the charismatic warleader Waldemar Selig. Now, Phedre and Joscelin must find a way to escape their captivity and warn the newly-crowned Queen of Terre D’Ange of the coming invasion.

Roman Life: The Ghost City Of Herculaneum

Back in the stone ages, when I was in college, I took an introductory archaeology course, and was instantly captivated by the story of Pompeii’s sister city Herculaneum, also buried in the infamous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79.

Herculaneum is much better-preserved than Pompeii. Where Pompeii was buried in a layer of light ash, which allowed the wood-and-plaster second stories of houses to rot away, and looters from later centuries to dig tunnels and haul out treasures willy-nilly, Herculaneum was buried in the boiling mud of the pyroclastic flow that killed all of the city’s inhabitants who had taken refuge in the stone boat sheds along the town’s waterfront.

That mud later dried to the consistency of concrete, sealing and preserving fragile items like wood, string…even the interrupted lunches abandoned by panicked citizens. In one house, archaeologists found a carbonized loaf of bread and a bowl of dates.

When I enjoyed my own lunch in the modern city of Ercolano, built above the ruins of the old Herculaneum, I was struck by the fact that we were served round loaves of bread that looked identical to the ones I saw in the museum. Talk about a culinary tradition of long standing!

The book that really brought the ancient city to life for me was Herculaneum: Italy’s Buried Treasure.

I took this book with me to Italy when I finally visited Pompeii and Herculaneum years later. It was very odd to walk the unearthed streets of the city, and walk through houses where I “knew” the owners–the names of their spouses and children, what they did for a living, their financial trials and tribulations, lawsuits they’d been embroiled in…I still have a battered copy on my Keeper Shelf in my little library at home.

I’ve now visited Herculaneum twice, and I’d like to share some of my photos from my most recent trip, in April 2002.

Herculaneum – April 2002

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