Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Book Report

I finished reading The Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara, the other day. I ended up disappointed. Shaara's writing got awful clunky after the mid-point and there were whole blocks of text like this:
He stopped, took a deep breath, stook still, then turned to look for Tom. Saw Morrill, of Company B, wandering toward him through thick brush....

Chamberlain thought: Kilrain. But he could not hurt Spear's feelings. And his mouth was gritty and dry. Spear handed it over solemnly, gravely, with the air of a man taking part in a ceremony. Chamberlain drank. Oh, good. Very, very good. He saw one small flicker of sadness pass over Spear's face, took the bottle from his lips.
Pages of that kind of stuff get old pretty fast.

But the characterisations were great. The description of Pickett's Charge was heart-breaking. Lee's illness, miscalculations, and indecision are clear. Longstreet's anguish is, too. But it is Lawrence Chamberlain's profound courage, depths of morals and faith, and thoughtfulness that caught my eye. I am amazed by this man and want to go find out more. He was a man most definitely of his age, but embodying its best qualities, someone worthy of respect.

I read next, in just a few days, Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe's Siege. This is part of a historical adventure series set during the Napoleanic Wars in Spain and France. Richard Sharpe is the son of a whore, raised in a work house and living on the streets. When he accidentally kills a man at 16, he is given the King's Choice: be hanged or join the Army. So begins his career. The series follows him from soldier to officer and through the War. It has drama, war, intrigue, revenge, love, brotherhood, sacrifice, betrayal.

I discovered it through the television series starring Sean Bean as Sharpe. You can find that series locally and it's well worth renting, all 14 two-hour movies. Start with Sharpe's Rifles, then print out the list from the BFS Entertainment site, as the DVD boxes don't tell you the right order to watch them in.

Some of the production's low-budget roots show -- having Turkey stand in for Spain makes for some odd-looking Spaniards -- but the historical accuracy is very high. Although Sharpe is twice the man of any officer he meets, because they are the aristocracy he is treated like shit, and often finds himself having to fight his way out of scrapes that incompetent or corrupt officers stick him in. With only a couple of exceptions, the episodes are very well written and directed; the actors are all top notch and give wonderful performances. There are some great guests, too, like Pete Postlethwaite, Brian Cox, Elizabeth Hurley, Alexis Denisof and Assumpta Serna.

But I hadn't read the books that inspired the shows. I discovered a paperback copy of Siege accidentally a few weeks ago at Midtown Books and snapped it up. That was a smart thing to do.

There are some descriptive differences, of course, as the actors don't match the characters as written. But the book went into much more detail and length, with a long, winding adventure that kept the action high and the drama suspenseful. You get a lot of period detail -- maybe too much and not always explained sufficiently -- and people behave appropriately for the era.

I enjoyed Siege. quite a bit and will definitely search out the rest of the series. For those of you who have read the Master & Commander books or seen the Horatio Hornblower series on A&E, I'm told they share similarities in style, era and quality, and therefore Sharpe might appeal to you. Either the television series or the books! Rousing stuff with good characterisations.

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