Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Dunnett: The Game of Kings

I keep meaning to write about something contemporary, but I haven't made it to the bookstore in a while. So this post will be about a classic favorite: Dorothy Dunnett's The Game of Kings. This is the first book in the Lymond Chronicles, historical fiction set in 16th-century Europe; The Game of Kings is set in Scotland in 1547. Mary, Queen of Scots is a child; her father, the King of Scotland is dead and the country is ruled by her mother, Mary de Guise, as regent for the minor queen. The king of England is also a child, Edward VI, and his regent, Protector Somerset, wants to invade Scotland to forcibly marry the little girl queen to the boy king. The fate of Scotland is in the hand of its nobles, and perhaps in the mysterious figure of Francis Crawford, accused of treason against his native Scotland and now back at the leader of a mercenary force. Who is he, and what are his motives in returning to the country where he is an outlaw?

Some books, and series for that matter, are like roller-coasters. By that, I don't mean they go up-and-down repeatedly. When you think about the ride on a roller-coaster, it begins with a long, slow climb as you get up to the top of the first peak. This climb powers the rest of the ride, in a way; even the uphills result from that first big ascent. The Fellowship of the Ring is that way for me; the last portion of that book begins the quick drive through the rest of the trilogy. Game of Kings is another. The best place for slow-climbing books like this is the bathroom, where you can read them for short periods of time until the ride gets exciting (and if you're like me, you've got a few other books going at the same time, stashed on your bedside table and other key locations throughout your house).

Game of Kings, and the rest of the Lymond Chronicles, are worth pulling yourself up through--although I found the start a bit slow, this novel has one of the best finishes I've read (a bit of courtroom drama, for those who like that). If this whole being-a-professor plan works out, I'd like to someday teach an early modern literature class and assign this book as an extra credit project, ending the semester with dinner and a book-club style meeting at my house for all the students who finish the book. It's marvellously researched--you'll learn a lot about the sixteenth century, and you will also find yourself faced with some untranslated quotations in Latin (which I can read) and French (which I can't). Don't be put off-they add to the book, but you can usually figure out what they mean from context. And Lymond is worth knowing about--the back cover of the Viking ppbk edition calls him an antihero, but I would disagree. He's just a remorselessly pragmatic hero, which is startling if your idea of heroism begins and ends with Walt Disney movies but which makes him highly enjoyable if you have more nuanced tastes.

Recipe for this post: I invented a salad/side dish! You need:
1-lb bag of Green Giant frozen sugar snap pea pods
1 pint of grape tomatoes
2 tbsps olive oil
1 clove minced garlic
2 tbspns vinegar (red wine or sherry vinegar)
crumbled feta cheese
salt to taste

Cook the pea pods for 2 minutes in boiling water. Drain. Combine with the grape tomatoes--this is best at room temp, so I took the tomatoes out of the fridge and actually put them in the strainer, then poured the hot peas over them. Combine peas and tomatoes in a bowl. Heat the oil in a small saucepan, then saute the garlic in it for a few minutes (you're infusing the oil with the garlic flavor). Remove the oil from the heat and cool. Combine vinegar with oil, and pour over the peas and tomatoes. Add a few handsful of the feta cheese and combine and serve!

Hey, maybe if this whole getting-a-job-as-a-professor thing doesn't happen, I could go work at Every Day with Rachael Ray!

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Forsyth: Day of the Jackal

I keep thinking that I'll read something current and post about it, but my books-in-progress don't point that way. Setting aside the Walter Scott novel, my other current read, just finished, was Frederick Forsyth's The Day of the Jackal. It looks as thought it's still available in mass-market paperback. At least two movie versions have been made; I've seen the earlier one.

Although the book has been classified as a spy novel, it's not about espionage but rather about counter-terrorism. I can see why Hollywood wanted to make a movie out of this, and I enjoyed the film OK. But a screen version misses out on the marvellous effect of what I can only call an "intelligence procedural"--the painstaking, methodical methods of both the terrorists and the government services trying to stop them. Some of these methods are pretty rough on occasion, but the mass of detail moves the novel along, due in part to Forsyth's clean prose. It certainly pulled me along, and if some of the other reviews up on Amazon are at all accurate, it changed the shape of intelligence fiction. The emphases on detail and on the paper-chase that ensues as French police try to protect Charles DeGaulle from the assassin known only as the Jackal both serve as forerunners to LeCarre's classic Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (published in 1974; Jackal first came out in 1971). I assume that Robert Ludlum's Carlos the Jackal, the villain in The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Ultimatum, also tips the hat to Forsyth's book.

I would like to question the comment in one of the Amazon reviews that the only funny part of the book comes with the assassin's visit to a gay bar. The humor is very dry and could be missed, but it's there. Describing the shop of a M. Groossens, a gundealer who custom-fits weapons for underworld characters, Forsyth writes:

"[The Belgian police] were aware of and highly suspicious of the small but superbly equipped forge and workshop in his converted garage, but repeated visits had revealed nothing more than the paraphernalia for the manufacture of wrought-metal medallions and souvenirs of the statues of Brussels. On their last visit he had solemnly presented the Chief Inspector with a figurine of the Manneken-Pis as a token of his esteem for the forces of law and order."

If you don't know what the Manneken-Pis is, you'll miss the sly humor on the part of M. Groossens and Forsyth.

Jackal is a fun read and a classic intelligence novel; if you like that sort of book, pick it up.