“No Way Out” by Alan Jacobson (Premier Digital Publishing, 2013)

No Way Out
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In the fifth Karen Vail installment, the great FBI profiler gets to take a trip across the pond and enjoy some bangers and mash, visit Big Ben and help out some bobbies . . . no, actually, it’s much more cooler than that. Vail finds herself on orders to help out New Scotland Yard with a special kind of case that soon turns into something much more complex and terrifying, dragging her from the world of profiling and tracking to outright black ops. But if there’s anyone who can handle it, it’s the awesome Karen Vail.

No Way Out opens with Vail teaching a class at a conference in Madrid, Spain and soon finds herself in hot water and on the wrong side of the policía. Before things can get too heated, Vail gets dispatched to jolly old England for the first time in her life to help out New Scotland Yard with an explosion at a private collector’s gallery. But constables are not expecting much from a “profiler,” even when Vail starts doing her detective work and putting the pieces together.

At the heart of the explosion appears to be an attack against the supposed discovery of an original folio of one William Shakespeare, penned in his own hand. What’s more startling is its possible link to a theory that Shakespeare’s works were in fact originally written by a “dark-skinned” Italian Jewish woman, one Amelia Bassano Lanier. Since England is more synonymous with Shakespeare than the Beatles, it would come as a shocking, thermonuclear blow to the Brit population as a whole.

But as Vail continues to dig deeper, everything is not as it seems, and the case is far more complex and sinister and has ties deep within the British government. Plus one of the guys involved in solving everything turns out to be an old friend of Vail’s, Desantos, who’s working undercover and will stop at nothing to get to the bottom of these terrorist attacks. Because the guy behind it all is on the world’s most wanted list, Desantos has a score to settle, both on an international and a personal level.

No Way Out is the best Karen Vail novel yet, because Alan Jacobson has outdone himself with the research. As someone with a British parent and friends in Britain and having taken a number of vacations to London and the surrounding areas, I take a perverse joy in nitpicking and critiquing novels set in Britain that aren’t always accurate. No Way Out whisked me away to London and planted me firmly there with the culture, the language, the vocabulary . . . Jacobson did a fantastic job.

As for the detail with the British police service, MI5, British military, and even a US aircraft carrier, Jacobson has again done the work and immerses the reader seamlessly into this world. There are also a number of scenes involving the unusual British aircraft the Osprey, culminating in a final action scene that may be one of the best you will read.

What makes a Karen Vail novel so enjoyable is that Jacobson makes them as real as possible. The characters try hunches and ideas and risky plans, but unlike most thrillers, they don’t all work. There are failures and the characters have to go back to the drawing board and start again. It makes for more interesting and believable conflict in the story and keeps that reader reading.

No Way Out goes beyond being a great summer read, and may be one of if not the best thriller of 2013. Fans will love it, and brand new readers will also. Jacobson explains any necessary back-story, escorting the reader along on one wild ride that the reader wishes partly to never end, but at the same time want to find out how it all ends.

Originally written on July 24, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Now Way Out from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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“Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages” by Guy Halsall (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Worlds of Arthur
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One thing we will never be certain of is whether or not King Arthur actually lived.  There are literally hundreds of books, TV series, documentaries, movies, papers and journals on the subject and life of King Arthur.  There are also hundreds of historical fiction novels about him.  There are also a number of secondary sources recorded from various times during the Middle Ages that talk of Arthur, and his time, his battles, his life.  But we still don’t know how true any of these documents are, and whether there really was a large-scale Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain.

Guy Halsall is in the minority, and he admits this up front, in his introduction to Worlds of Arthur.  He has taught at universities in London and York, and has specialized in the Merovingian Period (c. 450- c.750), but has also written about a lot of other subjects from the period, including death and burial, age and gender, violence and warfare, and barbarian migrations.  He is also not a believer in King Arthur.  He believes, from his study of the sources and archaeology, that such a person never existed.  He also doesn’t believe that the supposed large-scale Anglo-Saxon migrations of the mid-fifth century were as large-scale as thought, and in fact began much earlier.

Worlds of Arthur is divided into four parts. The first consists of Halsall discussing the various secondary source that mention or reference Arthur and the period.  The second part is about the archaeology of the period and what it states.  In the third part Halsall goes into detail on these sources and linking with the archaeology to show that they actually tell very little about Arthur and whether he existed or not.  Finally, in the fourth section Halsall lays out his theories and researching about how and why Arthur never really existed and the events we have come to think we know about the period that aren’t completely true.

Halsall is thorough and detailed in his discussions, using his experience and knowledge of the Merovingian period and the subjects mentioned above, but he also seems to rely a little too much on this, and not on the history and archaeology of Britain itself, as well as what its peoples left.  It is nevertheless a worthy debate in the story of King Arthur that is well worth the read and deserves to be heard and accepted, even if it is in the minority.

Originally written on April 27, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Worlds of Arthur from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

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“The Casual Vacancy” by J. K. Rowling (Little, Brown, 2012)

The Casual Vacancy
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After the unfathomable success of the Harry Potter series, with over 450 million copies sold worldwide, likely making it one of the biggest phenomena of our lifetimes, J. K. Rowling is now back with her first new book in five years.  She now turns to a much more adult story about a quaint little English town where everything is most certainly not as it seems.

In the idyllic west country town of Pagford, where things pass at their own pace and everything stays pretty much the same, a change is about to happen.  A respected citizen of the community, Barry Fairbrother suffers a sudden brain aneurysm and dies unexpectedly.  It is a very sad time for the family and for the community, as he touched many lives during his time, as well as being an important member of the town’s council.  But Barry’s passing is also the lighting of a spark that sets off an explosive chain reaction, as the empty space on the town council starts many wondering who should fill his seat, and a number of unlikely candidates come out of the woodwork.

The Casual Vacancy is also the story about a number of the characters of this community, and how they begin to act and react when this person who had an effect on their lives is gone and is no longer there to provide aid and advice.  The book is by no means a happy novel, as these characters make terrible decisions that lead them down a downward spiral of despair.  By the end of the book, the reader is left hoping their might be some sort of cathartic uplift, but Rowling is going for a harsh true-to-life approach here, where things don’t all of a sudden get magically better.

Overall the book comes off as a letdown, slow and dragging at points, with nothing to drive the reader along to keep reading, as things get worse and worse for just about everyone it seems.  Rowling is perhaps pulling from some earlier experiences in her life before her fame and riches, as there are characters dealing with drug addiction, poverty, marital problems, and a whole host of unsavory issues.  The book also comes off somewhat amateurish, as Rowling constantly references many places throughout this imaginary town that confuse the reader, and could have easily been aided with a handy map at the beginning of the book.  Then there is the large host of characters, featuring many couples of about the same age, some even with the same first letters of their names, which often makes things confusing, and could’ve been helped with a simple cast list.  Finally, there is the constantly switching P.O.V. from paragraph to paragraph, without any break in between, so that the reader becomes quite untethered and lost at times.

The Casual Vacancy was an experiment by Rowling in seeing what happens to a town when an important member dies and all the people he’d had an effect on begin making bad decisions that then effect the rest of the town.  By the end of the book the reader is sad over the events of the book, though Rowling makes it clear that if any of the characters had made the decision to not think of themselves for a moment and to notice that nearby person suffering and help them, things would have come out quite differently.  But because this social message is buried in the clunky format and pitfalls of the book with no satisfactory resolution, the reader is left wondering what was the point of reading this book to the last page.

Originally written on January 8, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Casual Vacancy from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Saxons, Vikings and Celts: The Genetic Roots of Britain and Ireland” by Bryan Sykes (Norton, 2006)

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Bryan Sykes, author of The Seven Daughters of Eve and Adam’s Curse, professor of human genetics at Oxford university; has spent many years of his life studying genes, chromosomes, and DNA, specializing in collecting data from all over the world and tracing ancestral lineages back thousands of years.  Sykes was one of the instrumental geneticists in tracing all Europeans back to seven ancestral women.  From this, Sykes now takes on the challenge of determining the ancestry of the British Isles.  How much Saxon, Viking, and Celtic DNA is left in a modern day Englishman?  Saxons, Vikings, and Celts is a bold and ambitious embarkation that reveals the astounding results of Sykes many years of study; while the facts may present more questions of why than answers, Saxons, Vikings and Celts is one of the most important books of the twenty-first century.

Do not be daunted by the prospect of pages of DNA statistics, Sykes goes out of his way to break everything down and explain it in a detailed and simple way; he even warns the reader before the “part with all the numbers.”  Saxons, Vikings, and Celts apart from being a book about DNA and genetics of the British Isles, is also an amazing source for history.  The first chapter is spent setting the scene with Sykes’ career and research.  Chapter two is one of the most brilliant summaries of British history: from the end of Roman rule, through the history of King Arthur, past each important monarch, on to the present status quo; Sykes has an innate ability for explaining things in a way that make their connections obvious to everyone.  The next few chapters are spent explaining his process for collecting the genetic data throughout the British Isles, first with blood samples from schools and blood banks, and then with plastic brushes that are scraped on the inside of the cheek to get skin samples  — an easier method better received by the people donating their samples.  Sykes then dedicates a chapter for each country covering it’s history of immigration with Celts, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans, with successive chapters covering the genetic correlation of these specific countries.

The last five pages of the book are what the reader has spent the last two hundred and fifty pages reading to get to; here Sykes correlates all the data together and explains the results, which are astonishing to say the least.  They essentially boil down to this: the genetic makeup of the British Isles mainly consists of the Britons and Celts who have lived there for thousands of years, while the invading Saxon, Viking, and Norman people are but a minor percentage of the total.  What does this all mean?  Sadly, Sykes doesn’t really explain this at all – perhaps he is saving it for another book? – nevertheless, the reader is left coming up with his or her own ideas of what these results mean.  Were the invading peoples not that great in number?  Did they not actually settle in such large numbers, as we think?

While Saxons, Vikings, and Celts may not answer every question you have, the facts that it brings to light with the irrefutable certainty of DNA evidence are enough to spend many years contemplating.  Sykes has even started his own company, Oxford Ancestors (www.oxfordancestors.com), where one can sign up and with a sample can have their DNA traced through ancestors who lived, walked, and breathed thousands of years ago.  For those seeking more facts and answers from Saxons, Vikings, and Celts, they should visit www.bloodoftheisles.net.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on February 3rd 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“Lords of the North” by Bernard Cornwell (Harpercollins, 2007)

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In Lords of the North (coming January 23rd), the wonderful writer of great historical periods and characters brings us the third in his increasingly popular Saxon Chronicles series, as he tells the story of King Alfred the Great’s life and his work in unifying the many kingdoms into the country we know today as England.

We continue with our hero, Uhtred of Bebbanburg, who has just helped Alfred save and maintain control over the land of Wessex, therefore preventing the complete invasion by the Danes.  Angered with Alfred’s piousness and making every decision according to God, Uhtred flees north to Northumbria, still hoping one day to defeat his uncle and take back his beloved Bebbanburg.  It is here that he meets old Danish friends and before he realizes what’s going on, a deal has been brokered to maintain peace in Northumbria in return for Uhtred’s enslavement.  Without his blood-stained blade – Serpent-Breath – the many lords of the region are happy to get rid of this formidable warrior.

Uhtred, stripped of his title and power, then spends most of the book suffering abuse and torture as a slave on a trading vessel traveling along the Flemish coast, and back and forth between Britain and the mainland.  On a number of occasions they face off again this “red ship” that is a trader like them.  Upon returning to the original place where Uhtred was sold – so that more slaves can be bought – the red ship appears out of nowhere and beaches the shore.  Foreign Danes stream out and Uhtred soon finds himself face to face with an even older friend who raised him.

Eventually he discovers that it is thanks to Alfred’s help that he has received his emancipation.  With his title, weapons, and armor restored, along with more allies from the south forming a considerable army, they set out to defeat these lesser heathen lords and regain control of the kingdom of Northumbria.  The book ends with the reader contemplating what is next for Uhtred in the further Saxon Chronicles: Will he regain control of his land?  Will he remain a lone pagan among the many determined Christians?  Sadly, we will have to wait another whole year before we can read more about Uhtred of Bebbanburg, slayer of the great Ubba Lothbrokson, and his adventures with the pious Alfred the Great.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on December 9th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Bernard Cornwell check out BookBanter Episode 5.

“Interpreter of Maladies” by Jhumpa Lahiri (Mariner Books, 1999)

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This collection of nine short stories won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999.  The author, Jhumpa Lahiri, is of Indian descent, born in London and currently lives in New York, so each story is a look into a different part of Indian culture or into Indian people and their way of life.  The first three stories were great and the title story was my favorite.  The man literally is an interpreter of maladies, who works at a hospital translating patients’ symptoms to the doctor and in this it is revealed he has a lot of power and obligation in telling the doctor exactly what the patient is suffering from so the correct diagnosis can be given.  After this story, I found the rest of book slow, kind of boring, and the stories just weren’t as engaging.

What started to annoy me as a I progressed through the book was that here you have a no doubt rich and well educated Indian woman who went to very good schools, lived in a good home in England, went to a good writing school for her MFA – probably in New York – and proceeded to publish her work in prestigious magazines like the New Yorker, and yet she is writing about Indian life and how hard it is for most people, especially those not as well off, and it just really got to me that she had succeeded in this way writing about a way of life she’d never experienced.

Now, having finished the book, my thoughts towards Lahiri have changed a little.  For with her upbringing she was never able to experience Indian culture as an Indian living in India.  This was no doubt a big deal to her, and is to Indian culture.  A friend at work, who is of Indian decent, but born here, told me the other day that Indians don’t consider him Indian because he was born here.  I realize now that this was probably the very thing that changed my mind about this book.  It helped me realize that in writing these stories, Lahiri is living the lives of these people, getting the experiences that she was never able to, and in doing so is helping her to define her Indian heritage better.

The result is a collection of interesting and unique stories – perhaps not quite deserving of the Pulitzer — about Indian people trying to live ordinary Indian lives.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on September 16th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.