Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Lest We Forget: MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
Again, as was the case with my recent posting of my The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien review, this review is clearly NOT of a book which fits the Ancient & Medieval tone of this blog. Vietnam war is classed as historical fiction, which is my primary interest, but that is not why I have posted this review here.
I am posting this review here because this is my only blog and this is one of my all time favourite books...of any genre. I want to keep this review stored on my blog and I want to share with you my personal thoughts on this powerfully evocative story.

I do not intend on making this a regular thing.  (Putting reviews here for books that don't fit the blog).
 At this stage, I believe this review and my review of The Things They carried, will be the only two.
And so, here is my review of Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Read a few years back, it still haunts me to this day....

Matterhorn. Karl Marlantes. What can I say? It has taken me a while to leave this review because it has taken that long to find the words.
Matterhorn is powerful, emotional, gripping, gut wrenching, but most of all, it is haunting.
Haunting. Yes, that is it most of all, it is haunting in a way that is beyond anything that I have read for a very long time.
I want to thank Karl Marlantes for the experience and the insight.
I want to thank him for sharing with me a story that I have no doubt has reflections in his own memory. But most of all, I want to thank him for keeping this war in my mind. Lest we forget, as they say.

Vietnam was not a glamorous or politically expedient war (if there is such a thing). We all know the stories of what society did to these Vietnam Veterans when they returned home, and we have all heard the horrible tales of chemical residues killing nervous systems and nurturing cancer. This we know and in many cases, it is all people bothered to know.
 People remember other wars and veterans with nostalgia and Vietnam with indifference. I was born in the 70's, too late to feel the tension of Vietnam, so perhaps I will never understand why this is.
There are books aplenty on WW1 and 2, and people devour them readily. Sometimes these wars are romanticised too much and this finds them favour with readers.
The Vietnam War is hard to romanticise and so it rarely finds fertile ground in the minds of younger readers. And I suppose I can understand. It is easier for those of certain constitutions to read stories of hope. Stories of survivors. Stories of heroes, of dog fights in beautiful old spitfires, of spies, of Nazi occupation, of secreting Jews out of Germany and Paris, of the beaches of Normandy, the ocean islands of the Pacific.
Vietnam - compared to these wars filled with heroes - had body bags and political protest, and men dying in jungles for unknown political reasons, chemicals, resume hunters and, of course, officers needing to prove that they had once won status in Korea.

So again, I thank Karl Marlantes for bringing me his Vietnam. As a place where men and boys from a Coalition fought men and boys from Vietnam and both sides lost.

- MM

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Hey kid, who are you REALLY?

How does what we read as a child affect our reading tastes as adults? I often see my childhood self in what I read today. Something in the books that we were made to read forged a fire within me that still burns now.
There are some mysteries I am yet to solve, but overall, as if looking into a crystal ball, I can pinpoint when precisely my favourite genres formed, by looking back at what books I was introduced to as a burgeoning reader and a developing human being.

Naturally, there were some titles and interests that stayed in my childhood and didn't follow me out.. (even if I have tried to resurrect their adult counterparts I have failed). ie..books about ponies (Black Beauty, My Friend Flicka) and teen sleuths (Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew), but those really were my choice. Books chosen by a child's mind. I can see their influences in my adult reading history, but they are more connected to reading phases and not to an everlasting passion for genre.

It all started in primary school (other countries have different names for this period of education, so to define, primary school in my country when I was growing up, was 5 yrs old to 12 yrs old).
Of all the books we were asked to read in school, I am not sure who was electing them. I am not sure if there was some list put out by the Education Department or if the books were a mix of Education Department recommendations and a few personally chosen by the teacher. I guess I will never know as it has been a few decades since I was in Primary School and those teachers have long moved on.

It is surprising, considering that two books we read as a group of children in school were The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe and The Hobbit, that I didn't go into the fantasy genre more than I have. But, while the fantasy genre is the obvious link to those two books, there is also a not so obvious link.
Those who read them as a child and were drawn to the magic and dragons and mythical creatures may have gone on to love the fantasy genre as an adult. And I find that those that learned to love the fantasy genre as a child, will go on to love it for the rest of their life. They may have years without reading a single book, but they will always love fantasy. 

For others - such as myself - it was not the magic and mythical creatures that struck a chord with me as a child, it was the escape to other worlds for dangerous journeys and wild adventures.
To this day, because of these reads, I still want to and like to escape into other worlds, into the adventures and journeys of colourful heroes and heroines, only it isn't into fantasy worlds, it is into our own history through the genre of Historical Fiction.
I went through a brief phase in my twenties of reading some fantasy, but I have never been passionate about the genre. That was during a period when I did not know historical fiction existed (thought it meant romance) and all my friends were reading fantasy. It seemed only natural to read fantasy too.

So, my focus is adventure and journey. Through the beginnings with The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe and The Hobbit, and then complimented by other journey or adventure juvenile fiction like Watership Down or The Incredible Journey.
The fact that these are animal journeys made no more difference to my developing self than if the journey were with hobbits. 
Now I love books like The Whale Road (and all the books in the series that came after it) by Robert Low, the Raven series by Giles Kristian, the Warrior Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell, Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead and even The Shardlake series by C.J Sansom  (set in Tudor England, but Matthew Shardlake gets around a lot, having adventures).

What of those Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew books then, and my draw to modern military non fiction?
I know I read the teen mystery series' because my peers were reading them and the protagonist was a popular girl. Two influences that were intoxicating to a young schoolgirl.
As an adult, there came a time in my twenties where I went through a full blown crime thriller phase. It only lasted a few years and I attribute that more to wanting to have something in common with my father (something else we can blame childhood for).

As for the war..
Can it have come from these two books? I Am David and My Brother Jack? I think it must.
It was those books that created an interest in reading true war stories (never fiction, I have never been interested in fiction war stories), coupled with seeing the Peter Weir directed movie, Gallipoli.

I find it an eye opening thing to suddenly realise where my adult reading interests came from.
I always thought they came from who I am now. In this moment!
I never looked deep enough to realise my reading tastes, the ones I am most passionate about, are fed from a childhood memory. That the movies and other things I am getting into now, I have been into before. Decades before. They are all influenced by moments in my childhood.
 Is that stupid of me?  Has everyone else realised this already? Am I just slow to the blocks?
I had never thought about it until last year when a conversation with other readers and a past blog post of mine here on the Ancient & Medieval Mayhem blog, got me to thinking.

Hard to believe sometimes that even now, as a fully fledged adult, with my vast (?) maturity, vast (this is true) mortgage, and my vast (I am not as old as that makes me sound) life so far, filled with many different roads laden with a thousand life experiences....that I am still learning such simple things about myself. And how that, over multiple decades, the reader I was learning to be as a child never truly went away. She has been leading me by the nose my entire life and I only 'thought' I had shaken her loose with my much more superior and lofty adult matureness.

I guess I had better thank those couple teachers for their wise book choices then.
So, without further adieu....Thanks!.......whatever your names were. 
 (names withheld due to childhood grudges). :)

- MM

Monday, 20 January 2014

Carried a Step Too Far: THE THINGS THEY CARRIED by Tim O'Brien

The Things They Carried
This review is of a book that is neither Ancient history nor Medieval history.
Some may even question if it is even historical fiction, but according to many historical fiction standards (including the Historical Writers Association), the Vietnam War does fit within the realms of historical fiction. And because it is a personal favourite review of mine, I wanted to share it with the blog. So that it gets stored here with my other reviews.

My review of the haunting book, The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.

This is an extremely hard review for me to compile, because I am extremely conflicted on my impression of this book. And I think this reflects the very nature of the stories presented to us in The Things They Carried. They are conflicted, true, not true, true, not true. Happening truth, story truth. A maelstrom of fiction and non fiction that sometimes feels raw and poignant and sometimes feels exaggerated and fake.

I gave it 4 stars, and yet sometimes I think it was 3 stars, and then at other times I think was 5 stars. 4 stars, I beleive, is the line in the sand for me.

I feel the only way to review this book is to cut it into positives and negatives.
I trawled through a lot of online reviews looking for others who felt like I did about the negatives of this book, but whilst there are ample 4 stars and a few less than, no-one tells me why they dropped that star. I will tell you why I dropped mine.
It comes down to fiction and non fiction. I do not like my lines blurred. In war fiction written by a vet I like to feel that it is fiction drawn on life experience. In my Non Fiction, I like to feel that what I am reading is the vets true emotions and experiences without exaggeration or lies.
This book bludgeons both my categories and gives me something that is not quite either. And I hate to say it, but sometimes amidst the authors heart felt truths lies the lurking ugliness of falseness. Of exaggeration and drama created purely because the author had not much of a story to tell.
I feel this book is one long feast of platitudes.

And yet it is also emotionally scarring and based enough on truth to get me where it hurts.
In 'the Nam', in the jungle, there was a platoon of young men. Some of them died, some of them did not. Tim O'Brien did not, and he has tried to do his best to heal and memorialise and I beleive that he has done that to effect.
There are plenty of positives to this book. The writing for one is brilliant at times, the stories for their part are wounding at times.
There is not a doubt in my mind that the combination of O'Brien's writing and his wounding stories will leave every reader in a different state of contemplation in the end. For me, this was a 4 star book, for you it will be a 5 star book, for the rare few it will be 3 or less.

The fact is though, that this book was/is a bestseller and when you look down the list of reviewers on Goodreads there is one thing that you should notice. It does not matter what your race, your country, your sex or age, your likes or dislikes, your favourite genre of book, this novel has something for everyone and it is being read by all sorts. That, for the memory of our Vietnam Vets, is a very good thing indeed and that, is probably the biggest positive to come out of this book altogether.

- MM

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Samurai Sauce: THE 47 RONIN STORY by John Allyn

47 Ronin by John Allyn
What a way to NOT start a New Year. It is the first half of the first month of 2014 and despite my hopes that this would be a big year for me and my reads, it has kicked off with a real let down.

I have seen 47 Ronin pop up in my friends' reading lists for a couple of years. I always thought it was a Young Adult book and avoided it as I only read adult fiction.
 Then recently, I was looking for a book with an Asian Medieval (or near enough to it) flavour to suggest as a monthly read in my book group. I researched 47 Ronin and could not actually find anything anywhere that implied it was a young adult book. I am not sure now why I always thought that it was. I have my suspicions that perhaps it was via word of mouth. Someone must have told me that it was. It wouldn't surprise me if that were the case, because if there is any book that suits the title young adult more, it is this book.

It isn't that it is a story about children, don't assume that, it is more about the way it is written. It is simple, lacking in depth. In fact it did not surprise me to learn that the author was an editor in the television and motion picture industries and then a pictorial censor in the army later on. There is something about the way this story is written that reflects a mind that is used to cutting the fat and censoring. Only over editing can explain why this book suffered so from a complete literary devolution.

The characters were strangers to me. I did not know any of them in the entire book. Could barely tell them apart because the author attached no uniqueness to them.
The setting and environment, where depth of descriptions and cultural laminations should have been laid one atop the other to form a contextual feel (an important facet of historical fiction), were completely missing.
The best way for me to describe the lack of layers to this story is to say that I do not believe the author knew enough about the Japanese mind to write this book. He knows enough about Japan and its languages due to his career specialities, to think about writing a book about the Japanese, but I still think he has had some trouble working out who the Japanese male is. Or at least, who the Japanese warrior is.

The writing itself was not so bad. No glaring offenses there as far as technical skill goes. It was just basic and uncomplicated writing.

I cannot say if there are better historical fiction books out there which will offer a better viewing platform to the culture of the Japanese Samurai, as I have not read many on the subject, but I think you should probably try 47 Ronin. It may have more appeal to others than it did to me. I am fussy when it comes to writing and adult fiction. I expect a certain standard of characterisation and scene development. Not everyone has these same standards.

Apologies that I have not gone into what the book is about or who the characters were. To be brutally honest, I have no idea what the book was about and who the characters were. The whole thing was a mystery to me. I couldn't get into it or appreciate what was going on.
I did not know who was who or which way was up and that reflects in my rating for this book. 2 stars out of 5.

- MM

Welcome 2014. Please do come in...

2014 is finally here and I am looking forward to it.
I had a couple weeks over Christmas and New Year where I took the pedal of the interweb socialising and now I am back. Refreshed. Refocused.

Had a slow start to the year in regards to reading too, having hit the halfway mark in the first month of the year, I find I have only just finished my first book. It was not a very long book either. I don't plan on making that a habit.

2014, with any luck, will be chock-a-block full of great historical fiction reads. Great enough at least to inspire me to feverishly review, review, review!

The book I just finished and am about to review, was not a terrific start. A 2 star out of 5 stars read. Not good. Hoping 2 star reads won't be a common occurrence this year

Here's to great and inspiring reads in 2014.

- MM