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The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend

The Death of King Arthur: The Immortal Legend. Thomas Malory.
Adapted by Peter Ackroyd.
Viking. November 10, 2011.
ISBN: 978-0670023073

Ackroyd, perhaps best known for his door-stopper fictionalized biography of Charles Dickens, has turned his hand to Malory’s compilation of Arthurian tales. Malory created his compilation/re-telling of various Arthurian texts while in prison. He used a number of sources, both French and English, to create his work (though Ackroyd only refers to Malory’s French sources). Malory’s title was The hoole booke of kyng Arthur & of his noble knyghtes of the rounde table but when William Caxton printed Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in 1485, he referred to the entire collection with the attention-grabbing title of the last part; Le Morte Darthur.

Ackyroyd says his intention in this “translation,” as he calls it is

to convert Malory’s sonorous and exhilarating prose into a more contemporary idiom; this is a loose, rather than punctilious, translation.

In fact, what Ackroyd has done is to butcher Malory’s prose, and insert entire sentences into the text, drastically changing the story. For instance, here’s the opening of the first book in Malory’s version, which delineates the circumstances of Arthur’s father, Uther Pendragon’s attraction to Igraine, the wife of the Duke of Cornwall.

It befell in the days of Uther Pendragon, when he was king of all England, and so reigned, that there was a mighty duke in Cornwall that held war against him long time. And the duke was called the Duke of Tintagel. And so by means King Uther sent for this duke, charging him to bring his wife with him, for she was called a fair lady, and a passing wise, and her name was called Igraine.

So when the duke and his wife were come unto the king, by the means of great lords they were accorded both. The king liked and loved this lady well, and he made them great cheer out of measure, and desired to have lain by her. But she was a passing good woman, and would not assent unto the king. And then she told the duke her husband, and said, I suppose that we were sent for that I should be dishonoured; wherefore, husband, I counsel you, that we depart from hence suddenly, that we may ride all night unto our own castle. And in like wise as she said so they departed, that neither the king nor none of his council were ware of their departing.

And here’s what Ackroyd makes of it:

In the old wild days of the world there was a king of England known as Uther Pendragon; he was a dragon in wrath as well as in power. There were various regions in his kingdom, many of them warring one against another, and so it came about that one day he summoned a mighty duke to his court at Winchester. This noblman was of Cornwall, and he was called Duke of Tintagel; he reigned over a western tribe from the fastness of his castle on the rocks, where he looked down upon the violent sea. Uther Pendragon asked the duke to bring with him to court his wife, Igraine, who had the reputation of being a great beauty. She was wise as well as beautiful, and it was said that she could read the secrets of any man’s heart on the instant she looked at him.

When the duke and his wife were presented to the king, he rose from his throne and invited them forward with open arms. “Come,” he said, “embrace me. This dragon will not bite.” They were treated with all possible courtesy and honour by the whole, court, but the lady Igraine had seen into the king’s dark heart. She knew well enough that he wanted to violate her. He looked at her with lust and cunning. The moment came when he took her by the shoulders and whispered something in her ear. She shook her head, disgusted, and broke away from him. She went to her husband at once and told him what had occurred. He was enraged, so angry that he smashed his fist against one of the tapestries that lined the wall of the great palace. “We were summoned here to be dishonoured,” he said. “I will never submit to that. Pride is the essence of knighthood.”

This isn’t a translation, or really, even a retelling; it’s a hack-job. The prose is crude, without any vigor or life. The characterization and subtlety of Malory’s narration and dialog have been flattened, and the circumstances of the episodes altered in telling ways. Ackroyd has introduced his own reading in a particularly annoying flat-footed and didactic fashion; his take on the character of Uther is fairly typical of his tendency to iron out any subtleties.

Ackroyd appears to be the textual equivalent of a tone-deaf musician. For instances, where Malory says of Morgan Le Fay “And the third sister Morgan le Fay was put to school in a nunnery, and there she learned so much that she was a great clerk of necromancy.” Ackroyd gives us “Igraine’s third daughter, Morgan le Fay, was put into a nunnery where she learned the mysteries of the magic stone as well as other secret arts.” The “magic stone” is entirely Ackroyd’s invention. The farther you read, the more Akroyd wrenches the story, and the prose, out of all recognition. If you’re a fan of Akroyd’s other work, then by all means, read this, but don’t read it thinking you’re reading a translation of Malory. You’re reading Akroyd’s take on Malory’s take on the matter of Britain.

Cover of John Steinbeck's Acts of King ArthurRather than look to Ackroyd’s book for a modernized Malory, I’d look to John Steinbeck’s masterful re-telling. Steinbeck never finished his version; his re-telling stops at the beginning of the love affair between Lancelot and Guenivere, but it’s still well-worth reading. While Steinbeck was thinking of his audience as young boys and teens, from ten on, the writing is not at all dumbed down, and Steinbeck has made these tales as much his as Malory’s, without turning them into heavy-handed toneless prose. The collection of letters between Steinbeck and his editor and others about the book at the end are interesting in that they reflect Steinbeck’s desire to due justice to Malory’s language and style, while making the stories live for younger readers.

If you’re not interested in Steinbeck’s re-telling, I heartily endorse Mary Stewart’s Merlin Trilogy. Stewart has adroitly produced a genuine retelling (though one based on Monmouth more than Malory), with all the skill at story telling and prose that Ackroyd’s ham-fisted rendition lacks. Malory’s prose is really not that difficult; you can easily find modern editions of the version printed by William Caxton, or one based on the Winchester manuscript, which was probably used by Caxton, with revision. Do take a look at The Malory Project “an electronic edition and commentary of Malory’s Morte Darthur (1469-70), with digital facsimiles of the Winchester Manuscript (British Library, Add. MS 59678) and John Rylands Copy of Caxton’s first edition” is an ongoing project, and worth keeping an eye on.

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David Sibley’s Sibley’s Birding Basics

David Sibley, the author and illustrator of Sibley’s Birding Basics is best known as the man responsible for The Sibley Guide to Birds (second edition 2014). David Sibley is also the content expert behind the iOS app The Sibley eGuide. The son of an ornithologist, Sibley grew up birding, beginning to draw birds as a young child, eventually leading birding tours. Deciding that the current birding field guides could be better, he released his first New York Times bestselling bird guide, The Sibley Field Guide to Birds in 2000 (second edition 2014). He’s also partnered with Audubon in producing the new Audubon Online Field Guide To North American Birds.

cover of Sibley’s Birding BasicsSibley’s Birding Basics is not a bird identification field guide; instead, it’s a how-to manual about bird watching and identification. Or, as Sibley says in his “Introduction”: “It is the challenge and the process of identification that is the primary focus of this book.” This isn’t a book for the casual birder, instead it’s a book for the kind of birder who keeps a list of birds they’ve seen at their feeder (or in their life). It’s a book intended for someone interested in the next level of birding, someone who already has a field guide (or three) and is interested in becoming a better birder.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]“It is the challenge and the process of identification that is the primary focus of this book.”[/perfectpullquote]

In addition to the Introduction, there are sixteen chapters; the first eight are broadly about locating and identifying birds based on physical traits and behavior. The first chapter, Getting Started is particularly helpful int terms of specific tips like “Learn to see details,” and “Focus on the bird’s bill and face.” He talks about the importance of watching for various patterns in terms of appearance and behavior. I particularly like that he talks about the value of not only a good field guide and binoculars, but suggests using a notebook for quick notes and sketches (whether or not a birder is artistic, sketches help remind us of what we noticed). I also liked that Sibley points out the usefulness of marking up a field guide with annotations or stickers as a way to help remember and to make finding information easier.

Sibley also covers “Finding Birds,” “The Challenges of Bird Identification,” “Misidentification,” “Identifying Rare Birds,” “Taxonomy,” and “Using Behavioral Cues.” He offers lots of specific examples of what to avoid in terms of attempting to identify a specific bird, and a wealth of tips. The tips are both specific and practical, for instance, “A simple method of ‘measuring’ part of a bird in the field is to compare it to another part of the bird.”

I’m particularly pleased to see an entire chapter of Sibley’s Birding Basics devoted to identifying and paying attention to “Voice,” or the songs and calls that birds make. Sibley offers clear description and definitions of the distinction between calls and songs, and breaks them down even further, with kinds of calls: Contact call, Flight call, Other calls. I also like the way he notes the common mnemonics birders use to remember what birds make what songs; like the White-throated Sparrow “Old Sam, Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” This is one of the most helpful things for a new birder to know. I wish that he had included more (and that more birders knew about them).

The second half of the book is largely devoted to bird anatomy and the correct terms of art for various parts of birds in order to specifically focus on identifying the species, and even the age and sex of a particular bird. There are particularly helpful and deep discussion about feathers, how they function, what the various sections are called, coloration and color patterns, and the nature and function of molting, both as a seasonal event and in terms of the changes some birds pass through as they age from fledgling to breeding adult. I am particularly glad that the final chapter is on “Ethics and Conservation” in the context of birding.

The ebook version seems to have all 200 illustrations (though I didn’t count them), but honestly, this is an instance where personally, I’d much rather have the printed version than the ebook. The artwork is fantastic, and it really does add a lot to the book. The binding is a semi-rigid “flexibound” plastic binding. It’s flexible but durable. The paper is high quality and the artwork, which includes full birds as well as detailed images of specific features, really does shine.

David Sibley’s Sibley’s Birding Basics is very much like having an experience birder by your side. Lots of specific practical tips, terms of art carefully explained and illustrated, and loaded with specific examples, often profusely illustrated with 200 of Sibley’s paintings. Birding Basics is not a substitute for a field guide, but it is a wonderful introduction to birding effectively and a great companion to a field guide.

David Sibley has a Website. He’s also written a number of other books about birds, birding, and trees.

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Joe Kissell Take Control of Thanksgiving Dinner

I’m a fan of TidBit’s Publishing Take Control series of ebooks that make technology understandable and practical. I’ve been impressed with this affordable ($10.00, with free updates for new versions) series of .pdf , Mobi, and ePub ebooks (you can print the .pdf if you’d rather) right from the start.

In Take Control of Thanksgiving, Joe Kissell, an able and adept technical writer about all things Macintosh, and a long-term foodie, turned his geekly technical writing skills to creating Thanksgiving dinner.

The first version of Kissell’s Take Control of Thanksgiving came out in 2007. This is an updated edition Take Control of Thanksgiving. Kissell outlines, in simple understandable terms exactly what to do in terms of planning a menu, organizing your shopping list, and figuring out a cooking and prep schedule for a typical Thanksgiving dinner (roasted turkey, with gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry relish, candied sweet potatoes, and pumpkin pie) with a number of alternates for dishes, and cooking styles, and the idiosyncrasies of guests.

Kissell, who is very much aware of the importance of presentation and visual appeal in terms of creating food people want to eat, feels that, properly speaking, a proper Thanksgiving dinner is built around the colors of “the traditional Thanksgiving colors of white, yellow, orange, red, and brown” (TCT 61), nonetheless offers not only the “traditional” Green Bean Casserole recipe, but a nifty suggestion for Roasting Green Beans. I’ve used his method, and it works beautifully.

One of the things I love about this book, aside from the easy, comfortable, and clear writing, is that there’s a lot of practical help here. Don’t have time for a day of shopping and a day of prep? Joe’s got that covered. Need to cook for more people? See the section explaining how to scale recipes. Worried about a post-Thanksgiving day  life that includes six months of turkey tetrazzini? It doesn’t have to be that way, if you use Kissell’s very smart “Deal With Leftovers” advice. Plus, in one of the really, smart, helpful user-friendly parts of the Take Control of Thanksgiving ebook there’s a file of shopping guides, and prep schedules ready to print and use. Kissell really does cover all the bases—including vegetarian guests, Tofurkey Roasts, and a homemade Polenta Dome (à la Moosewood Cafe). Joe Kissell’s Take Control of Thanksgiving is a book that’s good to have in terms of trying something new, as a guide to planning your first “cook a whole bird” Thanksgiving, or if you’re in charge of planning a very large scale community or family gathering for Thanksgiving.

You can download a free 38-page sample of Take Control of Thanksgiving.

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Cover of A. M. Dellamonica's Child of A Hidden Sea showing a tall ship's sail behind a woman wearing swashbuckling clothes and a man

A. M. Dellamonica, Child of a Hidden Sea

Sophie Hansa is a twenty-something videographer living in San Francisco, a much-loved adopted child with a younger (briliant) brother. She’s a child of privilege in that her parents can help her with college and travel; she’s a partially-trained biologist, an all-but-thesis grad student. She’s also been seeking her birth mother, whom she finds, but who wants nothing, at all, ever, to do with her. In the course of finding her mother, she inserts herself into the thick of exactly what her adoption was meant to avoid, when she defends her previously unknown aunt from what appears to be a mugging.

Cover of A. M. Dellamonica's Child of A Hidden Sea showing a tall ship's sail behind a woman wearing swashbuckling clothes and a manThat action sends Sophie to an alternate Earth called Stormwrack, one where her mother is a self-exiled member of a powerful ruling family, thereby allowing Dellamonica to simultaneously subvert two fantasy tropes at once; the portal fantasy and the fairy princess. Sophie is also one of those sorts of heroines that we’re more familiar with from urban fantasy; the unlikeable but yet oddly likable heroine. She is unlikeable in her willingness to manage the lives of others; likable in her desire to make the world better, her insatiable curiosity and fascination with science and nature. Sophie is vulnerable in ways that don’t quite ring true; her self-perception as someone that isn’t and won’t be listened to is more a matter of her own petulance than reality. It’s not an unbearable character flaw, but it is a little disconcerting in terms of her own perceptions of herself and those around her.

The alternate Earth aspect of Child of a Hidden Sea includes the familiar (stars and the moon) and the unfamiliar; new species and the art of scribing, wherein magic is embedded into people or objects in ways slightly reminiscent of the was geasa function in medieval Irish tales. The efficacy of a scribing has to do with the creator’s intent, which is one of the aspects that makes it similar (though quite different) from geasa. Sophie is in someways reminiscent of Miriam, the heroine of Charlie Stross’ Hidden Family series, but where Miriam’s approach to problem solving is via economics and political theory, Sophie focuses on science and deduction (and both use social engineering successfully).

There’s some fine world building here, both in terms of the magic system, and the ecological differences and similarities between this Earth, or Erst While, and Stormwrack. The world building includes some well-done cultural and linguistic foundations. It’s refreshing to see queer characters without a lot of hand-waving or cultural blindness.

A. M. Dellamonica’s Child of a Hidden Sea is the first of a projected Stormwrack series. The second book Daughter of No Nation has just been published, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. You might want to take advantage of the current ebook $2.99 sale price for Child of a Hidden Sea, at the usual vendors.There’s an excerpt here. A. M. Dellamonica has a website and tweets as @AlyxDellamonica.

(Tor, 2014)

Sara Kasdan, Love and Knishes

Sara Kasdan’s Love and Knishes is both a cultural guide, and a cookbook. Sara Kasdan’s much loved guide to traditional Jewish cooking (illustrated by Louis Slobodin) first appeared in 1956. The book was rapidly reprinted as it proved strikingly popular with Jews and non-Jews alike who wanted to know how to make traditional Ashkenazi comfort food from matzah ball soup to kugel and mandelbrot. It’s all here, from knaydelach to kugel, and everything in between, including hamentaschen.
kasdan_love_and_knishesThis is a very basic primer for Jewish cuisine; it’s not fancy, and it’s very down to earth for people who want to make tsimmes, not have one. Note that parts of Love and Knishes is written in authentic dialect; ignore those reviewers who are wringing their hands over the use of dialect. Here, it’s done well, and it’s both authentic and charming, and a mark of affectionate nostalgia rather than mockery. There are many who remember that bubula used just that phrase. There are also those who are offended by Kasdan’s cultural impropriety in including a few standard American dishes of the 1950s; they should get a life and get over themselves. This cookbook was written for the generation that was all about adapting to life in America, yet still missing the food they grew up with. And yes, it’s true, there is an entry in the table of contents for Yom Kippur; if you turn to the chapter in question, you’ll see “Shame! You looked.” What’s not to love about an authentic cookbook with a sense of humor?

This is the cookbook I used when I learned to make latkes. It’s also the one I used for hamentaschen.

There are lots of copies of Love and Knishes at the usual used book sites (including the first hardcover edition) it is, alas, no longer in print. If you’re looking for a broader, less Americanized take on Jewish cuisine, I suggest Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food. Roden’s book is a thorough international culinary, cultural and historic survey of Jewish history via a very large selection of recipes, many of which she presents with regional variations. For a kosher survey of Jewish cuisine, see Spice and Spirit The Complete Kosher Jewish Cookbook by Esther Blau, Tzirrel Deitsch, and Cherna Light. For those interested in Jewish desserts specifically, see George Greenstein’s A Jewish Baker’s Pastry Secrets: Recipes from a New York Baking Legend for Strudel, Stollen, Danishes, Puff Pastry, and More.

Cover of The Art of Lord of the RIngs, ed. by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond, showing Tolkien's jacket design for The Lord of the Rings of

Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, Eds. The Art of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Cover of The Art of Lord of the RIngs, ed. by Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond, showing Tolkien's jacket design for The Lord of the Rings of

The Art of The Lord of the Rings is a magnificent book. Published to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of The Lord of the Rings, this collection of Tolkien’s art was edited by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, the top-notch Tolkien scholars previously responsible for The Art of The Hobbit, among other Tolkien-related books.

The Art of The Lord of the Rings includes all the art, the maps, the preliminary sketches and final versions that Tolkien sent his publishers for possible use as interior art and covers, as well as the numerous sketches Tolkien made in various mss. to help him visualize the story and scene. In some cases there are multiple versions of the same image, as Tolkien works through a rough sketch to a version he sent to his publisher, or a finished piece for his own use. In each instance, Scull and Hammond provide both a context for the piece in terms of Tolkien’s composition and in terms of the internal chronologies of LOTR.

Many of the sketches were originally created on scraps of paper from the end of student exam booklets or similar bits of paper; these are already yellowing with age and acid, so having all of these images not only reproduced accurately at full size but having had a digital record made by the two primary libraries involved (Marquette University and Oxford University’s Bodleian) is especially wonderful.

There are some truly wonderful images here, like the “facsimiles” of leaves from the Book of Mazarbul found in Moria, which Gandalf reads from in Book II chapter 5 (“The Bridge of Khazad-dûm”). Plates 55–63 show multiple versions of the leaves as Tolkien used different materials and deliberately tried to capture the look of a worn ms., complete with the typical holes, as well as showing the damage done by fire. I know Tolkien felt a bit awkward about making some of the drawings, and certainly he was stung by some of the critical response to the small images included in the first publication of The Fellowship of The Ring, but I think that the manuscripts he created like The Red Book of Westmarch, as well as Tolkien’s own scholarly background, suggest that we should view many of the drawings and maps as if they were in fact parts of an illuminated manuscript.

It’s also wonderful to see full-color full size plates featuring some of the “finished” drawings Tolkien made for himself or for possible inclusion in the books, like the aerial view of Rivendell (plate 34).It’s also fascinating to see the writer’s mind at work, not only in the examples of the recursively edited mss. but in his recursive sketches as he works out the appearance of Orthanc, or Farmer Cotten’s house, or, most especially, the various maps of Middle Earth. In all there are over 180 images, more than half of which have not been previously published.

This is a beautifully produced and meticulously edited book, and so well done that it’s of interest to the casual reader of LOTR as well as the dedicated reader or scholar. I’m going to be giving The Art of The Lord of the Rings as holiday present, and can’t wait to hear what the recipients think.

Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond.The Art of The Lord of the Rings. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

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Cover of Samuel Fromartz IN Search of the Perfect Loaf

Samuel Fromartz, In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey

Cover of Samuel Fromartz IN Search of the Perfect Loaf

I was intrigued by the basic premise of Samuel Fromartz’ book In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey. An experienced journalist with a weighty list of credits, Fromartz got That Call in late 2008. The economy was in a downward spiral and he lost two major long term gigs on the same day. When a travel publication appeared on his horizon, he pitched a story about going to Paris to learn how to make the perfect baguette, that iconic symbol of the Parisian boulangerie. The editor accepted, and that initial article was the starter for this book.

Fromartz, an experienced home baker, had tried to make the classic baguette (his “perfect loaf”) at home and been less than satisfied. The book begins with his trip to France, and his experience working in a French bakery (Boulangerie Delmontel). From there, successive chapters discuss trips to other bakers, covering a variety of bread and baking styles, ranging from sour dough and flat bread to archaic and heritage wheats and grains, to a trip to Germany to learn the secrets of working with rye.

As much as I value Ken Forkish’s Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, I think Fromartz’ book is a better place to start as a serious home bread baker (honestly, you’ll want both books). There are some important concepts explained exceedingly well in In Search of The Perfect Loaf, most notably, the idea that a long rise is ultimately beneficial for good bread. This is not unique to Fromartz, of course; in fact he notes that it’s part of the reason that “no knead” breads popularized by Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman work so well. But Fromartz explains the whys and the wherefores very clearly, both in terms of the science of bread making, and perhaps more memorably, by anecdote. The other concept that underlies his introduction and the narratives that frame his recipes is the idea that a lot of the difficulty of bread making is removed by practice. By being open to less than successful loaves, and willing to try again, bread makers will learn. As Fromartz notes, “it takes time to learn.”

The chapters each feature a recipe, its difficulty graded as Easy, Moderate or Difficult. The measurements are given in gram weights (you really do need a kitchen scale and a thermometer, at least at first), but one of the most helpful aspects of the recipes are the detailed instructions about the process, including the schedule, divided into sections as “Morning, First Day,” “Evening, First Day,” “Second Day,” and “Baking.” Having said that, his explanation and tips for a baker’s first time creating a sour dough starter are the clearest and least fussy I’ve seen.

There’s a glossary at the end of the book, though Fromartz does a great job of explaining words in context, and end notes for those interested in the particulars of, for instance, the history of grain cultivation, the nature of yeast, or celiac disease, an extremely useful and clear “Bibliographic Note,” and an index. There aren’t a lot of pictures, but they’re well chosen, and do more than offer eye candy.

In Search of the Perfect Loaf was short-listed for the Art of Eating prize and won the Literary Food Writing award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals for the first edition (Viking, 2014). I read the paperback edition for this review, and I would encourage Penguin to list the difficulties for the various recipes in the table of contents where they list the included recipe as part of the chapter detail. This book is a perfect book to publish as a video annotated multimedia ebook; I hope that that happens some day.

Samuel Fromartz has a website. He blogs and is on Twitter as @fromartz. For a typically clear and practical example of his writing, see this post on his blog about dough temperature and successful bread making; the book is full of such information.

(Penguin Books, 2014)

Kate Elliott, Court of Fives

Cover of Kate Elliott's Court of FIves showing an elaborate labyrinthKate Elliott has created a richly detailed world in Court of Fives, her first YA novel, though not her first excursion into heroic fantasy. Jessamy, or Jess, is a twin, one of four sisters, the daughter of a Patron (or Saroese) army officer, and his Efesa (and hence a Commoner) concubine spouse Kiya. Her father Esladas has done the unthinkable; he has kept his Commoner concubine by him, instead of a Patron wife, and he has kept and acknowledged his four daughters, including a pair of twins and one with a club foot, much to the scandal of those of higher social status than he.

When the novel opens, Jessamy is scheming to sneak away to compete in the Fives, an elaborate and dangerous race that takes place on an obstacle course. Her father is being fêted as the triumphant hero of a military success, even invited to bring his socially suspect concubine and daughters to witness his triumph as his sponsor and superior, General Ottonor rewards him for his military service.

Jessamy manages to sneak away just long enough to run the Fives, but must deliberately lose the Fives competition or risk discovery. Her competitor, who is well aware that she let him win, is a highly placed Patron, Kalliarkos. Kaliarkos recognizes her after the competition, but promises to keep her secret. Jess’s life starts to go pear shaped when Ottonor unexpectedly dies. His extensive debts provide a remarkably convenient opportunity for Lord Gargaron to attach Jess’s father Esladas to his household, and wed him to Lord Gargaron’s niece. Gargaron takes great delight in revealing that Jessamy has been secretly, even scandalously competing in the Fives. He forces Jessamy to join his Fives “stable” to train, separating her from his sisters and mother, and dissolving her family and the home she has known her entire life.

What’s more, it turns out that Kalliarkos is Gargaron’s nephew, and that Jessamy will be expected to train along side Kalliarkos. It turns out that nothing is exactly as Jessamy has thought, life is much more complicated, as is her own situation. Yet in the end, Kalliarkos, like Jessamy, proves both his loyalty and his courage, as both work to save Jessamy’s mother and siblings from a horrible fate.

Elliot notes on her website that

I call this Little Women meet American Ninja Warrior in a setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt while the publisher has pitched it as “Little Women meets Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games.”

I think that’s a fair comparison, though Jessamy is both a compelling and a believable narrator. Court of Fives like Fran Wilde’s Updraft is a female bildungsroman, with a well-thought out and richly drawn world. Elliott’s subtle use of magic is especially well-done here, with a world that has both animated corpses and magically powered robotic spider warriors driven by soldiers. Elliott proves especially adept at navigating the troubled waters of a colonized culture, with complicated cross-cultural social, linguistic and class issues, and a much more complicated history than her protagonist Jess is initially aware of. I hope to read more about Jess and her world, and will definitely look for more of Elliott’s fiction.

Elliott is both a Nebula and World Fantasy award finalist, and her latest book Black Wolves has just been released by Orbit. In addition to Kate Elliot’s website and blog, you can find her on Twitter as @KateElliottSFF. You can read an excerpt of Court of Fives at

(Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2015)

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

Sometimes I’m very late to the party. There’s little to do in those cases, but make my apologies as I make my entrance. That’s the situation I find myself in, now, endeavoring to review David Mitchell’s excellent and award-winning novel, Cloud Atlas, more than ten years after its release.

I’m not entirely sure how I missed reading this acclaimed novel a decade ago, while it was still making headlines and the literary world was abuzz with a mixture of adulation and disgust regarding the novels difficult structure and sometimes brilliant prose. In my case, however, that may have worked out for the best. Sometimes all the hype surrounding a famous book gets in the way of simply engaging the text for what it is, and what it is not. Experimental structure is hardly new in ambitious novels, and make no mistake, this is an ambitious novel.

Cloud Atlas is composed of six stories whose relationship with one another isn’t immediately clear until after the sixth and final narrative. Each of the first five sections is abruptly truncated during pivotal scenes, an authorial decision I’ll admit I found both frustrating and disorienting. None of the various parts share a common voice, narrative thread, or even prose style. The first story is set in 1850, and the final story takes place in an unspecified, vaguely post-apocalyptic future. Only after the sixth section are the unresolved threads of the first five sections finally taken back up and knitted together into a whole, so if the individual stories were numerically ordered, the overall skeleton of the whole would look like 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1.

Now, generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of authors showing off just for the sake of proving how clever and facile they can be. I’m especially skeptical of technique-as-showmanship, because all too often, that showmanship seems to be covering a multitude of failings with regard to plot, characterization, or storytelling skill. I’ll freely confess that I approached Cloud Atlas expecting just that sort of stylistic showmanship, ultimately lacking in substance. I was wrong.

There was no one character in the book I especially cared about or identified with, but the book ultimately works because of its sure handling of the overall sense of how relationships and cultures work, and our very mortal interconnection. While the actual characters of the novel aren’t particularly richly-developed or sympathetic, ultimately the whole book succeeds brilliantly as a stitched-together panoramic snapshot of history and potential future; a somewhat-distorted lens capturing the landscape of our humanity, our triumphs and failings.

(Random House, 2004)

Cover of Neil Rudenstine's Ideas of Order

Neil L. Rudenstine, Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets

Neil L. Rudenstine is a retired English literature professor specializing in Renaissance literature, a former President of Harvard University, and a Rhodes Scholar. Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets is exactly what the title says it is—a close reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Cover of Neil Rudenstine's Ideas of Order

Rudenstine is neither the first nor the last to engage in a detailed examination and reading of the Sonnets; he is preceded most notably by Stephen Booth, in An Essay On Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Yale, 1969), Booth’s facing page edition with a modern spelling and a Quarto version side by side, Shakespeare’s Sonnets Edited with an Analytic Commentary (Yale UP, second edition 1977) and Rudenstine’s Harvard colleague Helen Vendler’s The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Harvard University Press, 1997), as well as numerous scholarly editions like Shakespeare’s Sonnets edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones (Arden, 1997).

What differentiates Rudentstine on the Sonnets from other editors and scholars is, first, his emphasis on reading Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets as a series, a cycle, in a particular order. Secondly, that he takes his initial thesis from an essay published in 1961 by Richard Blackmur (“A Poetics of Infatuation” collected in in Outsider in the Heart of Things. University of Illinois Press, 1989) on the innate order of the Sonnets as printed, or as Blakmur puts it: “the sequence we have seems sensible with respect to [the poems’] sentiments, and almost a “desirable” sequence with respect to the notion of development (6). Rudenstine in Ideas of Order embarks on an effort to read Shakespeare’s Sonnets as a sequence, in context.

He is successful, I think, in providing a sensitive and coherent reading of the Sonnets “in order.” That order, for Rudentstine, is the numbered sequence of the sonnets as presented in their first complete printing, the probably-unapproved-by-Shakespeare “pirate” printing in 1609. Unfortunately, Rudenstine, who states he is writing for the ordinary reader rather than the academic, never specifically states that the order is derived from the numbered sequence in the 1609 edition, the order most editions follow, a point that must be confusing to some readers, but must have seemed patently obvious to a scholar and academic.

In Ideas of Order Rudenstine begins with an introduction that offers an overview of the Sonnets in terms of a thematic, even a narrative, progression. Successive chapters discuss individual sonnets and as parts of smaller sequences. Rudenstine presents his reading of the Sonnets in the first 157 pages, then follows that with a lightly edited edition of the sonnets using conventional Modern English spelling and punctuation, absent any further glosses or annotations. He includes a short bibliography as a guide to those interested in reading more about Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

Rudenstine’s reading focuses on the argument of the Sonnets, the constant waning and waxing and fluctuations of relationships between the poetic speaker and his young male friend in the first 126 sonnets, and later, with the poet’s mistress. The first 126 sonnets from the poet to his friend are followed by 25 more in which the poet addresses his mistress (sonnets 127–54), also discussed and closely commented on by Rudenstine.

Rudenstine observes that the relationship between the poet narrator and his friend, is a matter of love, and that “This love is utterly transformative for the poet, and he remains firmly devoted to it, regardless of the friend’s (as well as his own) unfaithulness” (8). Rundenstine perceptively also draws attention to a different relationship between the poet narrator and the friend; that of the friend’s “chosen or favored writer,” a phrase Rudenstine prefers to the more conventional “patron” because while “Important elements of patronage exist, but the poet’s frequent critiques of his friend, and the intimate nature of the love, take us well beyond anything conventional” (10).

Rudenstine’s reading and thematic tracing of the relationship’s recursive and digressive patterns through the Sonnets is followed by a short conclusion, in which Rudenstine discusses the changing rhetorical selves, or “roles” that the poet presents in the Sonnets. Rudenstine also uses his conclusion to examine larger thematic concerns of the Sonnets, in terms of thematic patterns, of opposition and balance, and finally, of transformation.

This is neither the best nor the worst introduction to the Sonnets, but it is very much worth the time to read it, then progress to reading the unadorned Sonnets themselves; I expect that you will find yourself, as I did, returning to the earlier sections to re-read Rudenstine’s commentary.

In November 2015, next month, Farrar Strauss and Giroux will be bringing out a paperback edition of Neil L. Rudentstine’s Ideas of Order: A Close Reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for those interested in perusing the book for themselves.

(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)