Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Reviews-47th Street Black, The Blade Itself, Armed America, The Scourge of God

47th Street Black
by Bayo Ojikutu
This was a debut novel that I impulsively purchased and read. It won the Washington Prize for Fiction and the Great American Book Contest. I see why it got some acclaim, though in truth it left me wanting a little more. It is a crime novel but it's just as much if not more a literary novel with all the baggage that word implies. It's very quiet and extremely well written but lacks a little emotion in my opinion.

Ojikutu tells the story of two black teens, J.C and Mookie, small time hustlers and would be criminals in 1960's era Chicago. They discover the tortured corpse of the local black crime boss who was not only stupid enough to have had an affair with a Mafia hoodlum's very blonde and very white girlfriend, but also stole money from the gangster as well. Seeing an opportunity to take his place, J.C. and Mookie decide that this is their chance to make the big time. They wheedle/bluff their way into working for the Chicago Outfit.
As time passes they both figuratively and literally get their hands dirty as Mob associates. With social changes the black criminal underworld becomes more assertive and powerful. Mookie and J.C are in an excellent position to play the Outfit and its black subsidiaries against each other for their own benefit. Everything seems to be going well until J.C., by far the more violent of the two, is convicted of a murder that the two men did together and sent to prison for a decade and a half. Mookie rises in power dramatically while J.C. is behind bars. This sets up some unpleasantness upon J.C.'s release. Although the setting is criminal, this story investigates almost everything except organized crime. Well maybe that's an overstatement but in truth this book is just as much about race relations, male friendships, whether age makes you wiser or just more bitter, missed opportunities, the exploitative nature of capitalism,  the nature of life and death, the pointlessness of revenge, and how to be a man as it is about organized crime. Good stuff and much deeper than I expected.

The Blade Itself
by Joe Abercrombie
I liked the First Law Trilogy by British writer Joe Abercrombie.  I reviewed his later work here but thought his debut trilogy deserved a mention. The story takes place in a quasi-medieval setting in a world not dissimilar to our own. But that's where similarities to other writers stop. Abercrombie is one of the more original (and cynical) writers today. His primary interest is in real recognizable characters, not magic or elves. The closest comparison I can think of is what George Martin has done in his "Song of Fire and Ice" series but Abercrombie's writing is more tightly edited. And no one writes better action or battle scenes.
The first book of the Trilogy, "The Blade Itself" introduces most of the main characters. It takes place at a time when the world's oldest empire, The Union, is under attack by enemies from all areas and is falling apart from corruption.
The major characters include:
Inquisitor Glotka, a loyal police functionary of The Union who seeks to ferret out dissent or treachery and has no scruples at how he does this. Years ago during war Glotka was tortured while captured. He now uses on others the same methods he endured. Glotka lives in constant pain and can not even walk without a cane. Glotka used to be quite the dashing Army hero but now looks so horrific that the only joy he gets out of life is watching people pretend not to react to his face. Much of his backstory is related through asides to himself. He is one of the book's funniest characters. Athough Glotka is thoroughly merciless and without much empathy for some reason he is friendly, kind and loyal to..

Colonel West, a Union Army officer, who is lowborn and must navigate the contempt of noble officers who hate taking orders from him. West also is overly protective of his attractive and hardheaded younger sister. West tries to avoid politics and keep his head down but despite his disdain for nobles he is friendly with ..

Captain Jezal, another Army officer who is West's friend but is much more interested in West's sister. Jezal is proudly lazy and only has his position because of noble birth. Jezal's primary motivations in life are women, gambling and drinking, pretty much in that order. Through an unbelievably unfortunate turn of events Jezal discovers he may actually have to work at his job. For this he blames...

Bayaz, a friendly but quick tempered old wizard (or con man) who claims to be the wizard who helped establish The Union centuries ago. Bayaz never seems to tell anyone the full story. But somehow he manages to know a lot more than he should about things and has a tendency to show up where least expected. Bayaz has some very interesting enemies. For some unexplained reason he's taken interest in Jezal's career. Needing help to fulfill a poorly explained quest Bayaz hires...

Logen Ninefingers, aka The Bloody Nine, an aging barbarian leader from the north who's famously killed more men than the plague. Having fallen out with their king and with a price on their heads, Logen and his merry band of killers (think Vikings so dangerous they scare everyone except Logen as he defeated each of them in single combat) head south to offer service to The Union. Somewhere along the way Logen picked up the rudiments of a conscience, which considering his profession wasn't the wisest thing to do. Like William Munny in Unforgiven Logen has done unspeakable things in the past and spends a lot of time denying them, minimizing them or stating he's not like that any more. He honestly seems to regret some things. But you DO NOT want to make him angry. You wouldn't like him when he's angry.
The book is full of sarcastic asides, black humor and irony.
Abercrombie is a master of misdirection. This is NOT a trilogy where things are nicely sewn up, the good guys all win or people behave in ways that don't make sense. People all behave in their own interest, just like real life. And actions have a cost, not only upon their objects but also on the subject. Violence is shown realistically, not heroically. Again, this is very similar to Unforgiven in its deconstruction of heroic violence. Violence is shown to be very ugly. If you don't like cynicism stay FAR away from this book and trilogy. But if you are at all interested in fantasy or even just good stories, I strongly recommend starting this first book. When an author can make you care about fictional people as much as Abercrombie can, he's got something going.

Armed America: Portraits of Gun Owners in their homes
by Kyle Cassidy
Many people (gun-owners or not) hold stereotypes about people who do own guns and the reasons that they do. The author and photographer of this book, Kyle Cassidy, was curious about how many people own guns-estimates range from anywhere from 39% to 50% of the population- and WHY they own guns. Thus he set off on a trek across America to photograph willing gun owners and their guns in their home. He was curious about just who these people were. Were they all paranoid white supremacists, black gangsters or men suffering from performance anxiety as often stereotyped in the media?        
Cassidy got a wide sample of gun owners (and their spouses, significant others and children)  to agree to being photographed and interviewed. These people were of every conceivable ethnic/racial background, various ages, of widely varying political or religious beliefs, of both genders and of various sexualities or social groups. He traveled over 15,000 miles for two years asking people why they owned a gun. Cassidy made no follow up question and just let the photographs and the individual answers speak for themselves. Reading the book you might wonder if someone ought to be keeping a closer eye on some of the respondents but most are just as reasonable and cogent as any other citizen. If you want to know why people own guns and who these people are, read this book. Or if you're curious about what your neighbor might be packing and worried that you need to upgrade your arsenal to stay competitive, definitely read this book.

The Scourge of God
by William Dietrich
The Battle of Chalons in 451 AD between the dwindling forces of a dying Western Roman Empire and the Hun invasion army led by Attila was one of the Classical World's bloodiest and fiercest battles. It was so violent that contemporaries spoke of ghosts fighting after they died and men drinking blood from rivers that had turned red. It is considered a turning point of Western history. What's less known about the battle is that it was set off in part by a woman.
The Western Emperor's sister, Honoria, was both promiscuous and deadly. She had plotted with her brother's steward (offering the usual enticements) to have her brother murdered and rule together in his place. The Emperor Valentinian discovered the plot but whether out of kindness or weakness decided he could more easily live without a steward than without a sister. He executed his steward and sent his sister to a nunnery to await an arranged marriage. But Honoria wasn't done plotting. She sent a secret letter seeking marriage to Attila-the baddest Bad Boy of the era. She not only promised herself but half of the Western Empire as dowry. At this time Attila had been raiding and wreaking havoc across Europe, held off from the West only by tributes and Roman allies of quite dubious loyalty, who had their own grievances with Rome. Using the marriage letter as justification Attila launched a full scale invasion of the West.

Dietrich tells the story through the eyes of Jonas, a lowly Greco-Roman diplomat and historian who is sent in a Roman delegation to buy off Attila or failing that to murder him. Of course the assassination attempt fails and Jonas (who knew nothing of this) is taken prisoner by the Huns. While there he learns their ways and falls in love with another Roman captive, a beautiful woman, Illana. Captive or not, Jonas is still loyal to Rome and discovers that Attila possesses a relic of great power which some believe is the key to his successes. Jonas has to decide if he wants to escape with Illana or this relic. That is if he can stay alive long enough among the violent, but harshly honest and fair Huns, for whom he finds himself gaining respect. Over time some of the Huns admit that the previously somewhat non-martial Jonas may not be totally without value either.

I liked this book a lot. Historical fiction can be limiting because you know how the story ends but you're able to see how inventive an author can be in fleshing out historical figures and creating his own true to life characters to give feeling to times long past. There are a few lapses into some "Dances With Wolves" tropes but that aside this was a good book.
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