Friday, August 10, 2012

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Beautiful Sacrifice by Elizabeth Lowell

Publishers Weekly –

Houston-based archeologist Lina Taylor and former Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Hunter Johnson join forces to locate four ancient Mayan artifacts that turned up during a drug bust and then vanished. Clues point variously to grave robbers trying to sell the valuable pieces on the black market, narco lords using them in ritual killings, the revival of an ancient cult, and Lina’s own shady aristocratic family in Mexico. As Lina and Hunter dodge bullets and trade wisecracks across the Southwest, Lowell (Death Echo) deftly incorporates creepy basement corpse discoveries, sleazy antiquities dealers, crumbling jungle tombs, charmingly sinister relatives, fascinating archeological elements, and a well-realized, completely invented Mayan god. Less deftly handled is the attraction between Lina and Hunter; their turgid ruminations often read like an awkward second skin stretched tightly over the primary story. But these moments are scarce as Lowell quickly and smartly returns to the breakneck pace of her intriguing narrative. 

A Blaze of Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Shiloh by Jeff Shaara

Kirkus Reviews –

War novelist Shaara returns with this first of a projected trilogy about the Civil War west of the Appalachians. Why Shiloh? It was a flyspeck in a corner of Tennessee, 20 miles from the Rebel stronghold of Corinth, Miss. The two-day battle in April 1862 was an inconclusive victory for the North. Still, the seesaw nature of the contest, coupled with the death of a commander in the saddle, gives it obvious dramatic appeal. That appeal is missing in the troop movements that take up the novel's first half. Everything is slowed in a sea of mud produced by the incessant rains. Shaara alternates between Union and Confederate war councils, while the common man is represented by a very green cavalry lieutenant from Memphis and an equally green infantryman from Wisconsin. It is the interplay between the generals, though, that fascinates Shaara. Grant must cope with his boss, the vainglorious Halleck in St. Louis, just as the sympathetically portrayed Southern commander, Johnston, contains his ambitious deputy Beauregard. While Grant waits for reinforcements, Johnston orders a surprise attack: a full-frontal engagement at dawn. The Confederates will dominate the first day, though waves of panic will infect both sides. Then Johnston dies suddenly, a leg wound. On the second day, Grant's army, much enlarged, gains the upper hand. Shaara tracks the constant flanking maneuvers on a battlefield obscured by smoke. The sheer detail becomes numbing, though there is great dexterity in his long, rolling sentences. Due recognition is given to the staggering numbers of dead and wounded (one quarter of all soldiers); the psychological state of the survivors gets less attention. One infantryman who has discovered the joy of killing sees himself bound for hell, but this revelation of a man's essence is rare. The particulars of the battle have been meticulously researched and rendered; what's missing is a vision that would transcend them.




Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

Kirkus Reviews –

Second in Mantel's trilogy charting the Machiavellian trajectory of Thomas Cromwell. The Booker award-winning first volume, Wolf Hall (2009), ended before the titular residence, that of Jane Seymour's family, figured significantly in the life of King Henry VIII. Seeing through Cromwell's eyes, a point of view she has thoroughly assimilated, Mantel approaches the major events slantwise, as Cromwell, charged with the practical details of managing Henry's political and religious agendas, might have. We rejoin the characters as the king's thousand-day marriage to Anne Boleyn is well along. Princess Elizabeth is a toddler, the exiled Queen Katherine is dying, and Henry's disinherited daughter Princess Mary is under house arrest. As Master Secretary, Cromwell, while managing his own growing fortune, is always on call to put out fires at the court of the mercurial Henry (who, even for a king, is the ultimate Bad Boss). The English people, not to mention much of Europe, have never accepted Henry's second marriage as valid, and Anne's upstart relatives are annoying some of Britain's more entrenched nobility with their arrogance and preening. Anne has failed to produce a son, and despite Cromwell's efforts to warn her (the two were once allies of a sort), she refuses to alter her flamboyant behavior, even as Henry is increasingly beguiled by Jane Seymour's contrasting (some would say calculated) modesty. Cromwell, a key player in the annulment of Henry's first marriage, must now find a pretext for the dismantling of a second. Once he begins interrogating, with threats of torture, Anne's male retainers to gather evidence of her adulteries, Mantel has a difficult challenge in keeping up our sympathy for Cromwell. She succeeds, mostly by portraying Cromwell as acutely aware that one misstep could land "him, Cromwell" on the scaffold as well. That misstep will happen, but not in this book. The inventiveness of Mantel's language is the chief draw here; the plot, as such, will engage only the most determined of Tudor enthusiasts.




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