Monday, December 21, 2009

Four Book Reviews

Nick of Time
by Ted Bell
Recommended Ages: 10+

If any 12-year-old boy has the makings of a hero, it has to be Nick McIver. Until now, his daring exploits only go as far as sailing his own small boat around the UK Channel Isle of Greybeard Island, just off the coast of France, where his father is a lighthouse keeper on the eve of World War II.

Opportunities for heroic action are already stirring. German subs are cruising the waters of the channel, possibly arming to invade British soil. An experimental U-boat prowls about, commanded by a Nazi naval officer of fanatical nastiness.

Meanwhile, a pirate from the time of Napoleon has gotten hold of a time-travel gadget invented by Leonardo da Vinci. Billy Blood has come forward to Nick's time, seeking the only thing that can stand in his way: the other copy of his device. So far his nefarious plans only go as far as kidnapping people and holding them for ransom. Soon he may hold all of history in his hands.

Lord Nelson's victory at Trafalgar is at stake. So are the lives of two innocent children, abducted before their father's horrified eyes. Nick's faithful dog Jip has been pup-napped too. So this daring, resourceful boy goes back in time to set things right - and to face the grisly violence, chaos, and danger of a real naval battle.

Meanwhile, his little sister Kate is on an adventure of her own, intercepted along with one of England's top spies en route to deliver crucial intelligence to Winston Churchill. It will take more than a secret agent's wits to escape from a mad crew of Gestapo agents, torturers, and a cunning U-boat commander.

Ted Bell is the author of the grown-up mystery/adventure/action/espionage series featuring Alex Hawke - possibly the same Alex Hawke we see in this book as a small boy. This "adventure through time" seems to be his first book for kids. It already has a sequel, The Time Pirate. It promises to be as exciting and fun as this novel, backed up by its author's knowledge of real-world naval exploits. Though it isn't a flawless book - it has, for example, one of those endings that goes on and on - it is packed with an intriguing combination of Nazis, pirates, salt-spray, danger, slices of history, and shmears of fantasy, guaranteed to keep youthful fingers turning the pages.

The Riddle
by Alison Croggon
Recommended Ages: 13+

The second book of the Pellinor quartet continues the quest of a fantasy heroine named Maerad, fated as the "chosen one" to make the decisive choice between light and darkness for the people of a long-lost continent called Edil-Amarandh. Anyone who relishes fantasy with the depth of vision and richness of language of Tolkien's Middle-Earth must have a look at this book by an Australian poet. And if you cut your teeth on the Harry Potter books, you may also find this fare to your taste. Some of its philosophy, at least, should go down well with Potterites, such as this quote from the first US paperback edition, p. 45:
"There's a great force in the renunciation of power that those who are blinded by the lust for dominion cannot understand, because those who love truly do not desire power. Among Bards, it is often known as the Way of the Heart. The Dark understands nothing of this: it is its greatest weakness."
Does that remind you, perhaps, of something Dumbledore might have said about Tom Riddle? The "bards" of which the speaker speaks are the magic-workers of Edil-Amarandh, schooled in arts such as healing, music, and nurturing the fertility of the land. But a "Nameless One" once held the land in his grip during a long, dark age known as the Great Silence. Now the bardic schools, devoted to serving the light, are failing to hold the Dark back. The Nameless One is gathering his forces for another try at world domination. All that really stands in his way is Maerad, who until lately was a slave with no idea of the power she possesses.

Maerad and her teacher Cadvan are on the run now, both from the Dark and from the Light, whose leadership has betrayed them. They must seek the answer to an ancient riddle: What is the Treesong? How was it broken? And how must Maerad restore it in order to defeat the Nameless One? She learns the answers to these questions during a journey full of terrifying peril, heartbreaking loss, and bone-chilling despair. She encounters strange cultures and powerful beings. She discovers new powers and weaknesses within herself. And she comes to realize that the greatest threat to her quest lies within her own confused, contradictory heart.

The Pellinor quartet is a substantial chunk of reading. It could be used as a doorstop. Doing so, however, would be a terrible waste. For it is also a page-turner, full of beautiful language, powerful imagery, and a story whose unfolding is marvelous to behold. I am eager to get into Book Three, titled The Crow.

The Life and Death of Classical Music
by Norman Lebrecht
Recommended Ages: 13+

If you're a narrow-minded, snobbish, stick-in-the-mud devotee of classical music -- like me, bless you! -- you might be put off by the title of this book. Don't be. It's not really a prophecy of doom for musical high culture. It's actually a brief, very readable, and rather gossipy history of the classical recording industry, which for most practical purposes began and ended with the Twentieth Century.

In the "recorded century," many of the great innovations in recording technology were engineered for, and tested on, classical music. Though it was never the top-selling branch of the recording industry - and grew less and less profitable as time went by - classical music had a gigantic impact on the development of the record business, radio, electrical recording, stereo and digital sound, the whole wax cylinder. Or tape, or CD, whichever you prefer.

On the other hand, the currents of change flowed both ways. The recording industry also influenced, and in some ways radically changed, the way classical music was performed and appreciated. In some ways, arguably, the change was not for the better. But primarily, the tragedy of the classical recording industry is the inevitable result of business practices that could not be sustained. The sordid melodrama of big-spending executives, big-name artists, and egos of cosmic proportions, makes fascinating reading. And the story itself is backed up by a review of the 100 most important classical recordings (in Lebrecht's view), along with the 20 ditto that should never have been made.

I have heard many of these recordings, good and bad. Lebrecht knows whereof he speaks. Going by clues sprinkled throughout the text, I would guess that he was there when a lot of this stuff went down. I found it really fascinating to see some of my musical heroes (and villains) reduced to mortal dimensions, and all the many parts of a complex picture related to each other. Lebrecht does this with wit, skill, and a nose for stories that will sometimes move you, and frequently stick in your memory. Perhaps it isn't the last word on what happened to classical music in the 20th century, but it's an enjoyable introduction that may stimulate you to seek out some great records.

by Dudley Pope
Recommended Ages: 12+

I have read every word C. S. Forester wrote about Horatio Hornblower. I have navigated all twenty Aubrey-Maturin novels by Patrick O'Brian. I can add several other novels of naval adventure to this list. Each one that I read makes me want more. Where can I turn next?

I decided the answer would be this book, the first in a series of 18 novels following the career of Hornblower contemporary Nicholas Ramage. Set amid the saltwater battlefields of the wars between Napoleon and George III, they build on Dudley Pope's experience as a naval historian, journalist, and wartime sailor.

I was not at all disappointed. Ramage is an intriguing commander. He doesn't have Jack Aubrey's mathematical genius or Hornblower's tortured conscience, but he nevertheless brings the instincts and conflicts of a born naval captain to vivid life. Young Ramage lives under the stigma of his father's court-martial conviction (loosely based on the notorious Byng case). His political enemies within the service are nearly as dangerous as the French. But not quite.

We first meet Ramage coming out of a daze after being struck on the head by a large splinter. A bigger and better-armed French ship is in the process of sinking his ship. The captain and first lieutenant have been killed, which puts Ramage in command just in time to abandon ship. He and his surviving crew make a daring escape and attempt to carry out their assignment on the coast of Italy, in spite of not having a ship to do it in. One of the nobles they rescue from certain death on the guillotine turns out to be the love of Nicholas's life. Whatever happens to him afterward - whether narrow escapes, or courts martial, or a daring rescue under the guns of a much larger ship - his life will be all the more precious, because it is no longer his own.

What a delight it is to be back at sea, even if only a sea of words! The winds, the canvas, the timbers and cordage, the salt and the sun, the smell of smoke, the boom of guns! Yes, yes, yes! I can hardly wait to begin on Ramage & the Drumbeat, next in this series. Plus, the edition I own carries a huge list of historical novels by a variety of authors, all apparently in a nautical vein. If most of them are as good as this series promises to be, they'll keep me happy for years!

No comments: