The Da Vinci Code By Dan Brown

The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown, Doubleday, 2003

2 Stars

Rating: 2 out of 5.

Book – The Da Vinci Code

When I was a kid, I adored the Saturday morning cartoon “A Pup Named Scooby-Doo.”

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Remember this ABC Saturday a.m. cartoon, kids? No? Damn, I’m old.

It was my favorite incarnation of Scooby Doo as it was bright, colorful, amusing, and kept me wanting more. While reading Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, I was reminded of this series, only because I was amazed that a made-for-children animated program had more wit and mystery than this mess of a book. I started to read this and went into a tizzy. What the hell was Brown guy thinking? Did millions of people worldwide truly take this poorly-researched, poorly-written junk seriously?

The plot isn’t complex: Langdon Brown, Harvard professor of Cryptology, or some such nonsense, is in Paris to give a lecture and then meet the overseer of the Louvre. But before Langdon can meet him, the art scholar is killed. Langdon is called by police to go to the Louvre to solve some puzzling clues. A mysterious young beauty, Sophie Neveu, arrives and then Langdon is soon considered the prime suspect of the murder. The two flee from police, while solving “complex” puzzles that lead to more clues.

Meanwhile, in Rome, Bishop Arringarosa, head of the secretive organization, Opus Dei…

The Right Reverend, His Excellency, the Bishop

…has sent his henchman, Silas, a self-flagellating, albino monk who wears brown robes and wraps barbed wire around his thigh so it constantly bleeds (because that’s the kind of guy who blends into a crowd) to make sure a secret regarding the Holy Grail—-one that could destroy the whole Christian faith—-is never revealed.

The book was obviously written with its eye on Hollywood (I haven’t yet seen the movie, and this book doesn’t inspire me to do so). Langdon is referred to looking like “Harrison Ford in Harris tweed” and Dan Brown admittedly wrote the character of Bezu Fache with actor Jean Reno in mind. I enjoy good pulp-fiction, a potboiler that leaves you on the edge of your seat, waiting to know what happens next…but this book was not that kind of read.

For people with ADD/ADHD like me, The Da Vinci Code is split up into short chapters, which should make for easy reading. However, they usually end with nail-biting cliffhangers such as:

“Now, I’ll tell you the rest of the story.”

Or: 

“I can’t drive a stick-shift!”

Dun-Dun! Can you feel the suspense?

Lots of Action: Running and Talking, Driving and Talking, & More Running and Talking!

The pacing is all wrong; the book is 450+ pages long and 90% of the action takes place over 12 hours. Perhaps my definition of a fast-paced novel is different than Brown’s: to me, it’s not one set in a short period of time, but one where a lot of action and suspense occur. Stuff happens here, but mostly it’s just running: Langdon and Sophie escape from the police, they hide though out the Louvre, then drive through the streets of Paris to the countryside to meet a friend, fly to England, hide some more, and skulk their way to another museum, always fleeing from police and bad guys.

All the while, there are a lot of stupid questions asked by supposed code-expert Sophie. Langdon’s long-winded explanations of facts that Sophie should be more than aware of are ham-handedly inserted to enlighten the reader. Thrown in are lots of extemporaneous, long speeches about what this work of art represents plus stupid flashbacks. For example, as they’re pursued by cops, Langdon thinks: “Hmm, this reminds me of the time I was sharing my divine knowledge with prison inmates in a speech about the ambiguous sexuality of the Mona Lisa. She’s really a dude. That blew the their minds. I’m so smart, heh-heh.”

There is another flashback where Landon describes the Fibonacci code to a class of Harvard students who are shocked and dumbfounded that such a series exists in nature.

Really? A 15 year-old-stoner who’s watched Darren Aranofsky’s misnamed “Pi” knows the relevance of this basic sequence!

There are plenty of other silly ideas, such as Langdon stating that the Greeks used the word Eros as an anagram for rose. But this makes no sense because “Eros” is Greek and “rose” is English or French. In Greek, rose is ρόζα which translates into roughly “rhodon” or “rodon,” and the alphabets are different besides!

Brown claims in the painting The Last Supper there is a disembodied hand holding a knife at Jesus’s back. In every version I’ve seen, it’s Peter who is holding the knife. (Ok, some art historians claim that it was added in a restoration of Leonardo’s work, as he was such a master of the human form that it makes little sense to have Peter in such an awkward, unnatural pose.)

But Brown is no religious historian either; his “facts” should in no way be taken as such. He’s an average pulp writer trying to make a controversial book and sell copies, and by hitting those divisive notes he shows himself to be a better salesman/promoter than author.

It’s Just Fiction, Relax…

I realized to take Brown’s errors with a grain of salt as I had a huge epiphany about halfway through this book. In a startling revelation, Langdon points to his Mickey Mouse watch and discloses that Walt Disney, like numerous notable historical figures, was one of the keepers the Holy Grail’s secret. Many of his films were filled with hidden “Easter Eggs,” such as the “The Little Mermaid” where Ariel’s red hair makes her a perfect match for Mary Magdalene!

And I finally got it, slapped myself on the forehead, and exclaimed, “D’oh!”

Dan Brown is screwing with the reader and had a jolly old time laughing his way to the bank.

Like the—ahem—History Channel’s program “Ancient Aliens,” he throws so much crap and conjecture that some might figure, well, even if 1% of what’s said is true, then this changes everything! We are through the looking glass, people!

Dan is both a hack and a genius! What’s more he made himself known as a “preeminent” author and made a ton of cash!

Thankfully, I got this e-book for free.

Opinion of The Da Vinci Code

As long as I’m entertained, I can tolerate a silly plot. For me, the Da Vinci Code started out as horrible, then mildly irritating, then unintentionally quasi-hilarious.

If you want to find something amusing that skewers sacred cows, I suggest watching the South Park’s “Fantastic Easter Special” episode, which was snot-flying-from-the-nose-hysterical and revealed the Catholic Church’s true secret:

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Papa Lepus

If you want a nail-biting action-thriller, look elsewhere; as far as I’m concerned Sidney Sheldon’s reputation as “The Master Storyteller” is still safe. If you want to search religious or artistic truth, seek non-fiction, documented sources. Brown might claim his facts are so, but some simple research will show otherwise.

Far from being the engaging blockbuster that I had heard, I found The Da Vinci Code to be an unremarkable let-down filled with flat characters and silly “twists.” Christians of all stripes, Gnostics, atheists, agnostics, historians, lovers of art, readers who enjoy characterization or fast-paced thrillers or even mildly entertaining books, all these people should be offended, because if you’re paying good money for an appealing story, this isn’t it. But like I said, I got it for free, so there’s that.

This was a frustrating read, but it wasn’t so boring that I hated this thing. That’s a positive, I suppose.

Peter the Cruel by Edward Storer

Peter the Cruel, Edward Storer, Andesite Press, 2015 reprint

Spoiler Alert ⚠

5 Stars

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Prince Pedro

In a dusty castle in Andalusia there resided an abandoned Queen and her son, the Infante Don Pedro, heir to the Castilian throne. For years Queen Maria of Spain, daughter of Portugal, had been cast aside by her husband King Alfonso XI in favor of his mistress Leonor de Guzman and the ten illegitimate children she bore him. By right it was Maria who was Queen but it was a concubine who reigned in the King’s court as consort. And so, for years Queen Maria languished, while in her heart burned a longing for vengeance.

By the mid-14th century the romance of the Medieval Age had long-ago subsided. Troubadours and jongleurs no longer galivanted from city to walled city. The Black Plague tormented the continent. As war ravaged Europe, the people were beset by vagabonds, pirates, and thieves. The Renaissance, which had begun in Italy, had not yet reached the Hispanic Peninsula. Five kingdoms ruled Iberia: Portugal to the west; Castile-Leon taking up the vast center; Navarre to the northeast; Aragon to the east; and in the south, the last Muslim stronghold of Granada. Violence ruled the day. Although there was often intermarriage among the Christian kingdoms much time was spent battling each other, not to mention the centuries-old Christian Crusade of the Reconquista to overtake Granada.

It was in Granada where Pedro’s father, waging yet another war, met his end to the Plague. Pedro was not quite 16 years of age. At long last, Maria and her son were set free.

Book – Peter The Cruel: The Life of the Notorious Don Pedro of Castile, together with an Account of His Relations with the Famous Maria de Padilla

Pedro had not harbored resentment towards his father and half-siblings as his mother had. He longed for his brothers’ and sisters’ company and welcomed them into his fold. Leonor de Guzman, as the mother of his half-siblings, he believed, was due respect. One may wonder how such a seemingly kind-hearted young boy grew to be such a despised monarch. When Pedro reached maturity, he would be a fine figure of a man at 6 feet in height, blond-haired, blue-eyed, active, and fit, and except for knees that tended to crack when he walked, had few physical flaws. He would reign on and off for 19 years over a time of civil war and strife and earn the menacing sobriquet of Pedro el Cruel, or Peter the Cruel.

Edward Storer’s Peter the Cruel: The Life of the Notorious Don Pedro of Castile, together with an Account of His Relations with the Famous Maria de Padilla is a terrific historical read. His compact book of 333 pages is supported by 60 works of references, including direct accounts Pedro’s personal historian, Pedro Lopez de Ayala, who was no lover of King Pedro, as well as apologist Prosper Merimee’s hefty 2-part biography (no joke, I own these books and they are about 3 inches thick each). Storer’s work is academic, dismissing rumor from fact, resulting in a fair, ostensibly unbiased look at the much-maligned king.

The Young King Learns to Rule

Young Pedro was, as youths tend to be, naïve. He did not understand how great his brothers’ powers were. Their father, King Alfonso, had given them lands and titles. Enrique, the eldest surviving son, was named Conde de Trastamara (remember that name), his twin, Fadrique, was made Master of the order of Santiago, and the third son was named Don Tello. To guide King Pedro through political waters was Don Juan Alonso de Albuquerque, a nobleman of Portuguese origin. First, Albuquerque set his sights on marriage for the King to a lady of a great family, Juana de Villena. In the first of many betrayals, Pedro’s brother Enrique would elope with Dona Juana, claiming a childhood betrothal gave him the right to her hand and her vast fortune.

This led to various factions across the kingdom fighting it out in the first on many civil wars. Pedro learned that betrayal must be punished with the harshest of penalties. His first murder was that of a knight, Garci Laso, who had the misfortune of choosing the opposing side. Upon Pedro’s order, Laso was maced to death, his brains and skull splattering upon the stones of the floor before Pedro’s throne.

There would be many more brutal slayings to follow, some the typical works of a king seeking to consolidate power, others the kinds that even God might not forgive.

In another betrayal against Pedro, his mother Maria plotted in secret to have her former adversary Leonor de Guzman murdered. Despite who she was, Pedro had never wanted this. While his brother Don Tello received the notification of his mother’s death with ease, the twins were not as forgiving. Enrique & Fadrique would be consumed with a bloodlust for their brother that could only end in murder.

After a bout of sickness, Pedro set upon ruling. Although Storer does not go in depth at this point, it is said that Pedro relaxed laws against Jews, giving them more opportunities (indeed his treasurer Simuel el Levi was Jewish) and tightened control over the nobles. This could not stand.

Enter Maria

Albuquerque plotted to take his young King’s mind off governing and introduced him to one, Maria de Padilla. While not as politically powerful as other royal mistresses in history, such as Madame de Pompadour or Barbara Villiers, the influence she wielded on King Pedro and his reign is undeniable. She was his love, his obsession, his sanctuary, his torment. In his favorite city of Seville, he lived an idyllic life of Oriental decadence with the ravishing Maria, who would bear his children.

After it became obvious that Pedro’s obsession with his mistress was more than a fleeting romance, Albuquerque again attempted to maneuver a political alliance for Pedro. This time he was successful, arranging a marriage to Blanca (Blanche) of Bourbon, niece to the king of France. He sent Pedro’s half-brother, Fadrique, to France to accompany the sweet lady into the land of castles.

One would think that with his mother having been so ill-treated by her husband, Pedro would grant his Queen the respect that was her due. But either Maria de Padilla’s embraces were so memorable, or poor Blanca was so repulsive, or perhaps Blanca’s dowry had not yet been received, that Pedro tired of his wife after a mere two days of marriage. He fled to seek the comforting arms of his mistress, only to return for a few more days and then once more leave his bride, alone & imprisoned, for the rest of her short, pathetic life.

His romance with the infamous Padilla woman was filled with passionate turmoils. After one heated argument Maria threatened to retreat to a nunnery and Pedro left in disgust. During this separation, he found time to romance Juana de Castro, a beautiful, elegant widow, whom Pedro pursued with a deep intensity. Juana would not be content to live as mistress to the King; she wanted Holy Matrimony. Pedro’s marriage to Blanca was declared null and void by his decree. But this was not enough. King Pedro threatened two bishops upon penalty of death to declare King Pedro free to marry. This resulted in the bishops being called to the Pope’s residence to receive harsh punishments. Pedro, himself, would later be excommunicated by the Church for cruelties against the clergy.

In a phony marriage ceremony, Pedro bonded himself to Juana. Unfortunately for Juana, she was to be humiliated in the worst way, abandoned by the King after only one night in his bed. One wonders for what reason such a beautiful lady could have displeased the King. Was it merely the pursuit of the hunt and not the nubile target that intrigued him? In any case, Maria never entered a convent, and it was back to her loving bed where Pedro returned.

Ramon Madaula as Pedro el Cruel

Endless Violence

It is here where events turn endlessly violent. The Padilla family had gained power in Pedro’s court, ousting Albuquerque who fled to Portugal, as did the Dowager Queen, who had found love in her homeland with a handsome knight. Pedro had many enemies: the Portuguese, including his mother and the spurned Albuquerque; the French whom he had offended with his ill-treatment of Blanche; his Trastamara brothers; the Spanish nobles who plotted against him; and the kingdom of Aragon, with its slight ties to the Castilian throne. Bloody skirmishes were fought.

Eventually, Pedro was captured by his brothers and pled for mercy. He was held prisoner for some time and would never be the same after his eventual escape. He had been disgraced; now, he hungered for vengeance. There would be no mercy, not even for his mother. Maria had foolishly decided to go to battle against her son. As punishment, he had her lover and other knights murdered before her horrified eyes. It just one of many in a series of assassinations. Heads on pikes were a common sight in the middle ages. During Pedro’s reign, they were prolific.

More murders were to come. Although Storer denies the veracity of such claims, it was said that during the long months’ travels from France to Spain, Pedro’s bride, Blanca, had been especially close with her guard, Don Fadrique. A love affair had formed. Pedro heard these rumors and it was yet another insult his brothers had cast against him, yet another bitter potion to swallow. He was insatiable in his quest for vengeance.

War was also on the agenda. A moment at sea where Pedro found himself tauntingly threatened by Catalan pirates led to a protracted conflict with Aragon.

Betrayals and Love Affairs

In the meantime, his mother was disgracing herself in the courts of Portugal. Maria, seeking to stamp out memories of her beloved knight was entertaining herself with lover after lover. Her death via poisoning soon followed. Storer admits that Pedro could have been behind her death but dismisses the charges as improbable. More likely, it was her father the King of Portugal who had Maria poisoned. Medieval politics made for tenuous family ties.

A new love affair ensued for King Pedro. This time with a Dona Aldonza whom he chased with an intense ferocity, his pursuit sprouting legends, worthy of the ancient Greek gods. She hid in a convent believing herself to be safe in such a holy sanctuary, but Pedro mercilessly searched every room until he found her. Yet Peter had not forgotten about his Maria. Like a sultan of old, Peter had two households of women. Two women who shared his bed and his ear for politics. A power play arose between the ladies. Ultimately Aldonza overplayed her hand, leaving Maria victorious and Pedro disgusted with her. Thus, she retired again to a nunnery for the rest of her life.

Several more betrayals by his Trastamara brothers led Pedro to the conclusion that their deaths would be the only solution to his problems. In the Arabesque halls of his beloved castle in Seville, the Alcazar, he would order the death of Fadrique de Trastamara. His brother was hunted down like a rabbit, dying only after a long, harrowing chase. His butchered body lay on the mosaic tiled floor, gore flecking the walls.

Pedro dined at his corpse.

Don Tello was also on Pedro’s kill-list, but due to his more suspicious nature, Tello fled before Pedro’s men could reach him. Fadrique’s gruesome death, coupled with the executions Peter mandated for the Spanish nobleman who revolted against him, made the tales about his despotism grow. The soil was fertile for Enrique to gather allies against the King. Illegitimate though he was, he was still a Prince and he perceived he had rights to the throne.

More cruelties followed, including the death of Pedro’s Queen, Blanca, who had been locked away for years. Storer demurs to claim outright whether Pedro ordered her death, offering several options and letting the reader can come to his or her own conclusions. In my opinion, he likely did.

The End for Pedro

Then came his beloved Maria de Padilla’s death. Her loss was painful, but ever the amorous man, King Pedro was able to find solace with numerous women in the remaining years of his life. It was the death of his only son with Maria that profoundly changed him. He became weaker, more dissolute. More murders of noblemen occurred. The number of his enemies grew larger and larger. Numerous people wanted Pedro dead.

Eventually, Pedro became involved in the Hundred Years’ War, allying himself with England. The Black Prince himself came to Spain with thousands of men to lend aid to Pedro. On one side were the Castilians and the English, on the other, the Aragonese, the French, and the Trastamaras. Many knights from far away lands came to Hispania to battle for glory.

Whether through subterfuge or capture, Pedro found himself in a military tent with his brother, Enrique. The knights watched as brother fought brother. It looked as if the more powerful Pedro had the upper hand, but a knight—probably the famous French knight Bertrand du Guesclin—aided Enrique, allowing him to get to his knife and sink it into Pedro’s flesh. Whether Enrique gave the killing blow, or if Pedro was done in by the final stabs of others, is not certain. On that twenty-third day of March in the year 1369, Pedro the Cruel’s reign came to an end.

Through fratricide, the bastard, Enrique de Trastamara had gained the throne of Castile-Leon. His descendants would rule Spain for centuries, first as Trastamaras, then as Hapsburgs, for he was the ancestor of Isabel the Catholic of Castile, Juana I the Mad, Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, and King Phillip II of Spain, among others.

Pedro’s Legacy

Pedro’s descendants lived on through his children by Maria. His daughters would be Constance, Duchess of Lancaster, wife to the Edward III of England’s son, John of Gaunt, and the other Isabella, Duchess of York.

As for Pedro’s legacy, it is a mixed one. He was, by the standards of his time, truly not more bloodthirsty a king than most others. However, he did not wage his war upon the peasantry nor persecuted minorities, but on nobles. His attempt at social reforms, his unwillingness to oppress Jews, and his endeavors to decrease crimes through harsher punishments were not forgotten. For that, later historians have called him el Justiciero, the Lawful.

It was in personal matters wherein Pedro was dissolute and wicked. More importantly, he lost his crown to a man who had the power to dictate history, the founding ruler of a powerful dynasty whose bloodline lives on today in the royal families of Europe.

The life of Pedro the I has been the subject of many works, with each artist putting his own spin on the disparaged king. Storer writes his life story with organized, even-handed elegance. This work is history come to life, where you can smell the orange blossoms and taste the metallic blood. Peter the Cruel is a wonderful read, an excellent biography for any Hispanophile’s library.

In the Warrior’s Bed by Mary Wine

In the Warrior’s Bed, Mary Wine, Kensington Brava, 2010, James Griffin cover art

3 Stars

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Something New-ish

After realizing that all the romance novels I read are at least 20 years old, I decided to give something newer a try. Mary Wine’s 2010 Scottish historical romance In the Warrior’s Bed is not a bad book, but it lacks that extra something that makes it memorable.

Actually it’s memorable for one thing: they didn’t get the cover right! If you’re anal-retentive like me, this will bother you. As much as I find them dehumanizing, a headless torso cover would have been preferable. The heroine is supposed to be blond yet the cover depicts a black-haired woman. And let’s not talk about the inaccurate plaid (grumble, grumble).

You can’t blame cover artist James Griffin because the heroine’s name is Bronwyn and most Bronwyns in Romancelandia have black hair, LOL. Plus the author doesn’t give a physical description of her heroine until page 69 of this trade issue book, and then it’s only to briefly describe her honey-colored hair. If one is writing a romance novel, there is no shame in giving a physical description of your character by page 10.

Book – In the Warrior’s Bed

Anyhoo, onto the actual book. We’ve seen this plot before: two Scottish clans are feuding, and the hero abducts the heroine, schtupps her silly and they fall in love, while the evil-doers do their bad thing and try to separate them/kill them.

In the Warrior’s Bed falters when the main characters Bronwyn and Cullen are not together, so fortunately, they’re together a lot. Cullen McJames is a sexy, masculine hero, but I couldn’t really understand Bronwyn. Her loyalty to her family is noble, although not reasonable. They treat her like a slave, humiliate her, and want her dead. Here’s this hunk with a brogue who wants to treat her like a lady, take her away from her violent clan, and give her lots of orgasms. But of course, she just has to fight him every step of the way.

As this is a modern Brava romance there will be no mention of manhoods, manroots, or members, however c***s will be constantly stirring in kilts. For the first half of the book, Cullen is in a constant state of priapism, even when the heroine is nowhere to be found. I thought the guy should have contacted his doctor because we’ve all heard what those commercials say about 4 hour erections.

Opinion of In the Warrior’s Bed

Although the romance here is a bit lacking, the love scenes are quite sensual. The good guys are good and the bad guys are eeevilll! Plus, there’s lots of blood and killing, which is fun in fiction. In the Warrior’s Bed ends nice and violently, so that’s a positive.

This is the second novel in a series of three books, so one day I may pick up the others out of curiosity because Ms. Wine’s writing style is to be admired. Still, it took me two weeks to finish this 277 page romance, as I kept putting it down and reading something else. I’d give it 3 stars, which is not bad, but not a keeper.

The Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille

The Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille, City Lights Publishers, 1928

Extreme seductiveness is at the boundary of horror.

THE EYE

4 Stars

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Carnality Beyond Sex

Written in 1928 and denounced as blasphemous, The Story of the Eye by French author Georges Bataille, straddles the line between horror and sex in a manner that would offend most readers, both 100 years in the past and in today’s modern era.

Although I devour trashy reads from horror to pulp to romance, I am not a fan of erotica. A vanilla erotic romance is ok, but pure pornography rarely moves me in a sensual manner. I was bored senseless by Anne Rice’s forays into erotica. It’s always the same repetitive theatrics in these books: sex in this orifice, sex in that orifice, put this object into this orifice, place that object into that orifice.

What is erotic to me in books, be it literature or trash, has always been the anticipation, the desire for the act, not the technical description of the act itself.

Books with no plot, just sex, remind me of a scene from “The Golden Girls”:

Rose: I hate to admit it, but my relationship with Miles is really getting boring. We even make love the same.
Blanche: How?
Rose: Well, first he says, “Let’s go watch TV in the bedroom.” And then I think, “Wait, he doesn’t have a TV in the bedroom.” And then he says, “Come lie down. I won’t try anything.” And then we have four hours of the most boring sex you’ve ever had in your life.
Blanche: Four hours?
Rose: I guess it could take less if I stopped playing hard to get.

THE GOLDEN GIRLS

The Depths of Depravity

While Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye is hardly sexually arousing, it was such a visceral work it was capable of creating deep emotions within me, whereas pure erotica bores me. Ok, the emotions were not arousal or lust, but revulsion, disgust, pity, rage, and yes, a bit of awe at the writing (which must be incredible in its original French.)

These are contemptible, loathsome people engaging in the most depraved acts. The perversity here can only lead to insanity, imprisonment, or death.

If Clive Barker was influenced by this short work, I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s easy to imagine the Cenobites’ from the Hellraiser films delighting in the blood-and-urine-soaked orgies these twisted characters engage in.

The eroticism of the human eye plays a prominent, profanely obscene role throughout the novel. A woman comes to orgasm upon seeing a man being gored by a bull, the man’s eye impaled by the horn. Later, she sits upon a plate of said bull’s testicles, her vulva bare, and exalts in delight.

Orgies, necrophilia, madness, mayhem, and murder follow the main couple as they take part in one perverse adventure after another.

To others, the universe seems decent because decent people have gelded eyes. That is why they fear lewdness. They are never frightened by the crowing of a rooster or when strolling under a starry heaven. In general, people savour the “pleasures of the flesh” only on condition that they be insipid.

THE EYE

Opinion of The Story of the Eye

This book is disgusting, nihilistic filth. However, it has no pretensions of being erotic. The Story of the Eye  is designed to engage the senses in an offensive way. It is transgressive, postmodernism, and being so, I should have detested this. However I found this to be a more honest piece of writing than many other books I’ve come upon. 

The Story of the Eye is a fascinating psychological study and more so on a metaphysical level. The author was an anti-religionist; even so, spiritual questions arise. Are these characters demonically possessed? Insane? Sane in a crazed world?

Bataille’s writing “transcends” erotica. There is literary merit to his art. It is up to the reader to decide what meaning to attribute to this tale, or if indeed, there is any meaning to it all.

Dark Disciple by Christie Golden

Dark Disciple, Christie Golden, Lucas Books, 2015

SPOILER ALERT ⚠

2.5 Stars

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Look How They Massacred My Girl!

Oh, Don Corleone, I know your pain.

I gave the Christie Golden penned Dark Disciple a liberal 2.5-star rating only because I listened to it on Audible. Otherwise, I do not think I would have had the patience with what they did to my beloved Asajj Ventress, a major villainess in the Star Wars galaxy.

Ventress is a bald-headed Dathomirian Nightsister who, as a Sith assassin, wields two red lightsabers. Her people are so badass that the women enslave Dathomirian Zabrak males as their workers and mates. You know Darth Maul, the devil-looking monster with the dual-bladed crimson lightsaber who killed Qui-Gon Jinn? He and his brothers are the Nightsister’s playthings!

She was the great Ventress, who was introduced in Genndy Tartakovsky’s “Clone Wars” micro-series and fought Anakin Skywalker in an epic death-match on Yavin IV. In Star Wars Legends, it was she who gave Anakin Skywalker his dashing face scar. After Darth Zannah, she’s my favorite female character in all of Star Wars (yes, I am prejudiced in favor of the Sith!), and one of my top 10 overall.

Or she was, until Dark Disciple.

In DD, her character is ruined. I don’t know if the blame lies with George Lucas, Dave Filoni, or author Christie Golden, or all three of them, but why did they have to do that to Ventress? I know this was a lost 8-or-9-episode arc from the show, that, thankfully, never made it to the little screen, but unfortunately is set into canon with this book.

Not My Ventress

Last we met Ventress, she had been abandoned by her Master Darth Tyrannus (aka Count Dooku). Her life as a Sith acolyte over, she now resides in the lower levels of Coruscant, working as a bounty hunter. In a contradictory-mess of a plan, the Jedi have decided that the way to end the Clone Wars is through the assassination of Count Dooku, leader of the Confederacy of Independent Systems. Assassination goes against the Jedi code of self-defense, but whatever. Their plan is to use Jedi Master Quinlan Vos to con his way into Dooku’s life via his former apprentice, Ventress, and he will do the evil deed.

Along the way, Ventress and Vos get close, as close as two people can be.

Oh, but you thought the Jedi couldn’t have attachments? Well, apparently that huge plot point of the Star Wars Prequels gets thrown out the window here. Attachments are ok, so long as you are planning the cold-blooded murder of your political enemy.

You know, the more I think about it, the more I hate the plot of this book.

Ventress grows her hair out into a bleached-blonde cut and wears revealing miniskirts. She goes from this menacing creature:

Ventress inClone Wars”

To this brutal, yet sensual fighter:

Ventress in “The Clone Wars”

To the unholy mother of all evil, Karen:

How I pictured Ventress in Dark Disciple

(Thank you Google for that last one).

Major Spoilers Below (Scroll Quick to Avoid)

I never read the EU comics having to do with Vos. I don’t care how cool he was then. He’s a tool, now. Ventress constantly refers to him in her head as “that idiot.” You know that means she secretly loves him. Vos is a tattooed, dreadlocked, muscle-bound caveman of a Jedi and I cared not one whit for him.

The story here is a mess. Is Vos secretly working with Dooku? Is his partnership with Dooku part of the original plan or has the plan gone awry? When those questions are answered, more arise. How could Vos turn to the Darkside so quickly? And then turn back again? And back and forth, etc.?

The end is meant to be redemptive to Ventress, but she needed no redemption! In Season 5 of “The Clone Wars,” she helped Ahsoka out when Ahsoka sought out the killer who framed her. That was enough. There was no need to make Ventress fall in love with Vos and save his life by taking on Dooku, thus losing her own life in the process! Vos brings Ventress’s body back to Dathomir to bury her with her fallen sisters. And that’s the end of Asajj.

Opinion of Dark Disciple

Look, I love romance novels, the good, the bad, and the extra-cheesy. Asajj Ventress could have had a love story, or many love stories, in her life. But to have it go that way was so underwhelming and out of character. They transformed Ventress from a deadly, savage killer and replaced her with a bland action heroine whose fate is that of a Nicholas Sparks protagonist.

Asajj Ventress deserved better!

2 stars for the book, 3 for the Audible version.

Names Through the Ages by Teresa Norman

Names through the Ages, Teresa Norman, Berkley, 1999

3.5 Stars

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Names Through Some Nations’ Ages

The description for Names Through the Ages claims that “In the first book of its kind, Teresa Norman traces the history of Europe, from the ancient Roman era to the present, and shows how names originated and changed throughout the ages,” which is sort of true, but not completely so. What is presented here is valuable information on the etymology of certain names, both first and last, that range over several thousand years.

As unprecedented as this book claims to be, its scope is limited to a small portion of Europe, specifically France and the British Isles, as well as America. No other European nations are covered. France is the lone non-Anglophonic one mentioned. This Anglocentric perspective is expected, as in the English-speaking world it’s natural to focus on English naming conventions and France’s history has been tied to England’s for over a millennium. Still, it’s a shame, considering many of the names listed are derived from Aramaic, Germanic, Scandinavian, Hellenic, and Roman roots, so it would have been fascinating to learn of other nations’ naming customs.

Norman provides in-depth historical details that led to the evolution of names over time. The book is broken down by area and eras, with sections on England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, and later, the USA. The chapters begin with lists of the rulers of each country, then go on to impart information on political, social, and religious norms of individual time periods, before examining how those issues contributed to the formation of names. Roots, prefixes, and suffixes are provided. The lists of names are sorted by gender and their definitions are shown, but not, lamentably pronunciations.

American Names, Too?

The American portion of the book is the shortest, but gives the greatest variety of names, as one might expect considering the multicultural and multilingual roots of her people. The origins of surnames are indicated and vary from English to Spanish to Native American to Japanese. However, the names are not broken down by region, nor indicate how they are distributed among ethnic/racial lines, which would have made it more comprehensive. Nevertheless, it’s possible there are people named Zebulon Chin, Leif Aguilera, Latasha Bear Killer, and Rashad Metzger because that’s just the way America rolls.

A Useful Guide

“Names Through the Ages” is a helpful source for creators of fiction who want authentic sounding names in their works. Looking for a male Scots name circa 1400? How about Ruaraidh Colquhoun? (I assume it’s pronounced Rory Culkin, but don’t hold me to that.) A female character during the French Revolution could be Alexandrine Bouteiller. How about an English Regency-era rake? Sir Lyell Sutton sounds appropriately pompous.

But even if you’re not writing, this is a useful reference. My daughter would often steal this book from my shelf to search for names for her Medieval Sims characters or when she played RPGs. And of course, potential parents will find this handy when trying to find that perfect name for their babies.

What’s here in this book is super utile, however, I was hoping for a wider expanse of names. I’d give this 5 stars if it were called British and French Names Through the Ages as it is very enlightening when it comes to those. I have deducted 1 star-and-a-half as it covers a mere fraction of Europe, but don’t let my grievances deter you from reading this book; it is, as I said, an illuminating source of knowledge.

The Dirty Parts of the Bible by Sam Torode

The Dirty Parts of the Bible, Sam Torode, Book Surge Publishing, 2007

“You’ve got to sin before you can be redeemed. A man might as well enjoy it.”

THE DIRTY PARTS OF THE BIBLE

4 Stars

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Book – The Dirty Parts of the Bible

The Dirty Parts of the Bible by Sam Torode is a loose retelling of “The Book of Tobit” from the Catholic/Orthodox Deuterocanonical books of the Bible. It’s a cutesy story about a 1930’s Baptist preacher’s son, Tobias Henry, a devout atheist.

Well, he’s not a total unbeliever, admitting: 

“Whenever I feared I was in imminent danger of death, I’d call on Jesus and beg for salvation. The rest of the time, I didn’t give him any thought. Jesus was like an insurance policy against eternal fire.”

This is a sweet, whimsical tale, full of little dabs of brilliance.

A Religious and Romantic Journey

After his father is blinded after a bird shits into his eyes, Tobias leaves home to follow his father’s exhortations to seek out and regain the family’s “fortune” & honor. Tobias rides the rails from Michigan to Texas. Along the way, he gets screwed by hookers whom, lamentably, he doesn’t get to screw.

Along the way, there’s a hobo named Craw, who’s full of St Augustinian insights like:

“Don’t get old. When I was your age, all I thought about was girls. When I was forty, all I thought about was money. These days, all I ask for is a good shit once a week.” 

All while subsisting on “sonuvabitch” opossum stew.

In Texas, Tobias meets Sarah, a tough, gun-toting farm girl, whom he falls for. Sarah is unique to Tobias, unlike anyone he’s ever known.

“Sarah might not have been pretty in the usual way, but it was her little quirks that got to me. Her freckles, pointy eyebrows, the fine, downy hairs on her arms, the way she smelled. Other girls powdered over their skin, plucked their hairs, perfumed their hair. Sarah was a wild rose—graceful without trying, beautiful without knowing it. Whether it was love, lust, or just the effects of beer and a wine-colored dress, I didn’t know. But I was smitten.”

Unfortunately, the love of his life is a “durn Cathylick.” Through his relationship with Craw and his love of Sarah, he becomes more accepting to understand different religious perspectives and as he opens his mind, his heart opens to love.

God is Love

Has Tobias been looking for God in all the wrong places? Has he been so stuck on deconstructing fables that he’s missed out on experiencing something truly sacred here on Earth?

Craw tells him bluntly:

“..,[T]he point is, every woman is a vessel of beauty, life, and love—though most don’t know it. And all the forces of evil in the world are dead-set against her. That’s why loving a woman is the hardest battle you’ll ever face. Love isn’t going to fall into your lap—you’ve got to fight for it.”

Tobias discovers that God is found in the holiest of places, with the one you love. With Sarah he is complete.

While this book tackles one of life’s most controversial mysteries, religion, it’s an accessible read for anyone looking for a short, humorous slice of Americana.

The Art of Robert E. McGinnis by Robert McGinnis and Art Scott

The Art of Robert E. McGinnis, Robert McGinnis and Art Scott, Titan Books, 2014

5 Stars

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A Master Artist

For lovers of throwback historical and gothic romances, vintage pulpy reads and spy thrillers, or old movies and magazines, the name Robert McGinnis might be familiar. But if it isn’t, then his works of art surely are. I consider McGinnis, along with H. Tom Hall and Elaine Duillo, as the holy triumvirate of old-school pulp-gothic-romance cover illustrators, although who is the best is greatly debated.

The Art of Robert McGinnis is a glorious book depicting hundreds of beautiful McGinnis images. Born in 1926, McGinnis has spent over 70 years of his life creating book covers for almost every genre, movie posters, such as the famous one featuring Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” magazine illustrations, portraits, etc., and has worked almost exclusively in Tempera paints.

After the paperback was introduced into the US by Pocket Books in 1939, the business model was for tasteful illustrations, and chic graphic design, almost like mini hardcovers. When other publishers like Dell and Fawcett began producing their own paperbacks, they appealed to a more pulp/comic-book oriented market. McGinnis’s art was tailor-made for these kinds of books, especially the hardboiled mysteries.

Romance Book Covers and More

He started with covers for characters Mike Shane, Perry Mason, and Carter Brown, then grew into spy thrillers, like James Bond, and eventually entered the romance genre.

It was a logical choice, as McGinnis had a talent for depicting the feminine form in a most erotic fashion (as well as males). He started in Gothics, and then soon became the first Bodice ripper illustrator for works by Kathleen E. Woodiwss, like The Flame and the Flower:

Cover of The Flame and the Flower

And later, The Wolf and the Dove:

Artwork for The Wolf and the Dove

But he became super notorious for his Johanna Lindsey covers, starting with Fires of Winter (Haardrad Viking Family, #1) by Johanna Lindsey which began a rage of naked men covers, where the hero would wear less clothing than the heroine. I loved that cover and remember sketching it over and over as a young teen. Supposedly, he painted this one where both hero and heroine were nude and had to cover up the heroine as an afterthought. No matter, I always thought the sight of those pale, naked men’s thighs as one of the most arousing things I’d ever seen. I eternally prefer them the to jacked up naked chests that inundate so many modern covers.

Fires of Winter Artwork

McGinnis’s cover for Lindsey’s Tender Is the Storm by Johanna Lindsey was hugely controversial, with many stores refusing to sell the book. Stickers had to be sent to booksellers to cover up the hero’s naked butt. (It does look like the hero is giving the heroine a gold ole titty bang, doesn’t it?

Tender is the Storm, from The Art of Robert McGinnis

Other famous books McGinnis illustrated, besides Gothics and Bodice Rippers, were epics like The Clan of the Cave Bear, Mandalay, and The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood which required extravagant wraparound covers in intimate detail.

Lover of the Female Form

Whatever modern art enthusiasts may have to say about McGinnis, there is no denying that he adored the female form. “The McGinnis woman” was plastered on hundreds of covers. Lawrence Block of the NY Times notes on the back of The Art of Robert McGinnis “[He] can paint anything– a movie poster, a western landscape–and draw you in. But when he paints a woman, he makes you fall in love.”

“The McGinnis Woman is a mix of a Greek goddess and man-eating Ursula Andress. While today she might be interpreted as a sex object or adornment, she was conceived, in her day, to represent the empowered woman. In fact, the McGinnis Woman possesses a whirling narrative force all her own, a perfumed cyclone of sexuality, savvy, mystery, and danger. She also sells books—lots and lots of books.” (Source: Vanity Fair)

More than a Book Illustrator

Besides his hundreds of book covers, McGinnis is responsible for famous movie posters such as the aforementioned “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “The Odd Couple,” “Barbarella,” several Blaxploitation films, and, most famously, the James Bond films.

Personally, I’m a Roger Moore fan (Of course I would be) and I like this one from “Live and Let Die,” although McGinnis’s representation of Jane Seymour as Solitaire is a bit off.

“Live and Let Die” artwork for movie poster

Some of my favortites:

The Girl Who Cried Wolf:

Judith:

Cotton Comes to Harlem:

As Old as Cain: (The woman is depicted after Goldie Hawn, the man after James Coburn. Can you tell?)

And this is McGinnis’s personal favorite picture:

A Cat with No Name:

Opinion on The Art of Robert McGinnis

Don’t be fooled by the raunchy pictures and book covers, McGinnis also has a fine eye for land and seascapes and personal portraits, as he painted Princess Diana as well.

I enjoy art, but I’m certainly no expert on it. I see what I like and know I like it. For me, Robert McGinnis is a genius of the 20th century, and hopefully, his legacy will live on for ages to come.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins, Riverhead, 2015

SPOILER ALERT ⚠

2.5 Stars

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Book – The Girl on the Train

Everyone at some point in their life has fallen into despair. Perhaps we have all experienced a moment where we want to lapse into oblivion and forget everything awful that ever occurred. When there is no hope, there can only be a dark, deadly, void.

From the moment I picked up Paulina Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, the main character intrigued me. Here is a woman, Rachel, an alcoholic divorcee, unemployed and unable to have children. She is prone to blackouts and has deep psychological issues. Her husband, Tom, left her for sexy Anna, a younger woman, with whom he has a baby. Now the new happy couple lives in Rachel’s old house, a house she passes every day as rides the train into London, to a job which she no longer has.

Just a few houses down from her old home lives another couple: a young, beautiful pair, into whom Rachel puts all her feelings of hope. Now here is a truly happy couple. She doesn’t know their names, so she builds a life for them in her own head: a perfect life, calling them Jess and Jason.

But then Jess goes missing. Where did she go? What happened?

Little by little, ugly truths are revealed. Jess’s real name is Megan and her husband’s is Scott. Everyone in the book is a suspect, especially Scott, Rachel, and even a ham-handedly placed “red-herring.”

An Imitation of a Better Book?

This book has been compared to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and it should, for there are similarities.

–The word “Girl” is in the title.

–A supposedly perfect married couple and a blonde, possibly pregnant, wife goes missing and the husband is accused.

–There are crime groupies (In this case, it’s the main character).

–Use of first-person-present tense and unreliable narration that alternates from character to character to add a sense of confusion.

–A supposed critique of upper-middle-class marriages.

But while Flynn’s writing is gleefully over-the-top, her characterization rapier-sharp and spot on, The Girl on the Train is self-indulgently mopey. At first I felt so bad for Rachel, a woman callously screwed over by life. But does she shake herself off, say “Eff you haters!” and make things better for herself? No. She just whines and drinks and sulks. And while she has every reason to be angry with life, at a certain point it’s just too much! She makes for a very unlikeable character, and not in a good way.

That is the major difference between Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. While Amy is irrefutably an evil, messed-up person, she takes control. Shit happened to her, but she is no victim. She will rule her life by any means necessary. Psycho stuff, for sure, but hell of an entertaining read. Perhaps Amy is not the perfect ideal of feminism, but she is a not someone who lets people screw her over. Rachel is just a sad-sack of misery, she should have just left town and moved on. I’m not an encourager of suicide, and Rachel was leading down that path, so it’s no fun to watch.

Weak Female Characters

Actually, in “The Girl on the Train” every woman is just there, saying, “Woe-is me! There’s nothing I can do about life, but pout and pine or do really stupid things and make it worse.”

Woman A: “My life sucks. It’s my ex-husband’s fault. Why did he make me so unhappy?”

Woman B: “My life sucks. It’s my husband’s fault. Why can’t he make me happy?”

Woman C: “My life is starting to suck. I’ll wait for my husband to do something about it and if he doesn’t, then I will…Maybe. But I’ll give him lots of chances first.”

The one character I felt awful for was Scott, the missing girl’s husband. 

If male-imposed misogyny was the theme of this book, then it failed. There was only one male who was a real woman-hater in this. The rest of the women-haters were the women themselves.

This book was popular enough with readers to become a motion picture.

I was conflicted about it. The ending is a major reason why.

Spoilers Ahead

The first half of this book is quite entertaining, with the plot zig-zagging and coiling to keep you guessing. But halfway through, the first mystery is revealed, and now instead of wondering what happened, it’s all about who did it.

I expected a twisted, dark ending, something on a par with Susanna Moore’s In the Cut. After a month of reading Agatha Christie, I was in the mood for a modern murder mystery with shocking revelations.

However, the ending was so predictable. The villain just sits there and does that “Let me tell you what I did and exactly how I did it” routine that just annoys me.

The crime is “solved” and the killer is dispatched.

I thought it would have been a perfect set up to have Rachel sent to prison for Megan’s murder. There Rachel is, standing before a stopped train that is filled with bored commuters looking on as she stabs her ex-husband in the neck in front of his shocked wife.

The way Anna was written, it would have made sense if she accused Rachel of being the killer. Anna had tons of documentation of Rachel’s drunken harassment and stalking. With a little bit of ingenuity, the real killer would have gotten away with it, albeit still dead. And poor Rachel would have suffered the consequences. Now that would have been an ending. 

Opinion of Girl on the Train

I listened to this mostly on audio while also reading it on the Kindle. Perhaps it was the soothing British accents that made this book tolerable instead of a wall banger. It’s one of those bestsellers that everyone is reading, and might even be a major motion picture in a couple of years.

To a certain extent I liked it, at least the premise, but there were many problems with the execution, so it’s a mixed rating.

American Desperado by Jon Roberts and Evan Wright

American Desperado, Frank Jon Roberts and Evan Wright, Crown, 2011

4.5 Stars

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

A Very Evil Man

American Desperado is the story of Jon Roberts’ life as told to author Evan Wright. Just who was Jon Roberts?

He was an orphan, a kid who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, small-time hood, a Vietnam Veteran, a thief, a Mafia associate, a prominent NYC discotheque owner, a drug dealer, a racehorse aficionado and, most importantly, a prosperous businessman who was one of the most successful American importers of all time.

Of cocaine.

And by his own admission, a very evil man.

Reading this memoir of Roberts’ life, one might be fooled into thinking he’s not all that evil. He’s charming, funny, and a capable raconteur. His stories will either have you laughing, reeling in shock, or totally engrossed. His life story is entertaining as hell, having lived more in his 63 years on Earth than a dozen random people combined.

But don’t fall prey to his two-faced nature. Roberts was extravagantly generous to his many, many girlfriends, a cool-headed businessman (when he needed to be), and an absolute lover of animals, exceedingly kind to all creatures, whether feathered or four-legged (except alligators. Eff them.). However, all that pales in comparison to what Jon was truly about. He was a murderer, a rapist, a thief, a kidnapper, a blackmailer, a money launderer, an informant, and a criminal drug smuggler who, from the late-1970s to the mid-1980s brought in several billion dollars worth of cocaine into the US. He was one of several noted American “Cocaine Cowboys,” if not the most prominent.

Jon Roberts, Cocaine Cowboy

Jon’s father was a Sicilian-born Mafia soldier, who made Jon witness a grisly murder at an early age. After his father was deported, Jon turned to a life of crime, being pushed around from schools to juvenile detentions to reform schools. His first sexual experience was raping a young girl whose father considered Jon like a son. Stupidly naive of the man, of course, as Jon never hid his violent, antisocial ways. Though Jon did have an astonishing ability to charm people despite his wicked nature.

He became more entrenched in a criminal lifestyle, interrupted only by a violent four-year stint in Vietnam, which only made Jon more bloodthirsty. After the war he joined the mafia, first running small-time scores for them, then climbing up the ladder bringing in big bucks. Eventually, he became a major player in the night club scene, the owner of various big-named clubs like Salvation, where famous celebrities would turn up. Jon would often lace their drinks with LSD for laughs. Once, Jon spiked Ed Sullivan’s drink, driving the variety-show host to a mini-nervous breakdown after fondling a prostitute’s naked breasts while tripping out. Jon’s old-school mustachioed Mafia bosses were not pleased.

Jon eventually got involved in several murders which brought on too much heat for his mob contacts and was banished from New York. From there he moved to Florida, where in just a short while he became a major mover in the cocaine business, working this time for the Colombian cartels, and raking in millions.

All this before the age of thirty.

A Twisted Empire

I won’t summarize the rest of his life, as there are numerous articles, books, tv movies and documentaries about “The Cocaine Cowboys”’ exploits. If you’re unfamiliar with names such as Pablo Escobar, Griselda Blanco, La Familia Ochoa, the Medellin Cartel, Max Mermelstein, Barry Seale, Mickey Munday, or most shocking of all, the Bush-Clinton MENA connection, I suggest a brief internet search to inform yourself before reading this book. Although it’s doubtful readers who are interested in the biography of Jon Roberts’ life are unaware of most of the characters involved in the Golden Age of Cocaine.

This is a fascinating story, but one so disgusting you may feel the need to take several showers afterward. Whether exaggerated or not, if only one-tenth of what Jon Roberts revealed in American Desperado is true, the War on Drugs is just a big dog-and-pony show that is supported by criminals and politicians alike, not to be redundant.

It’s a horrifying and infuriating notion.