Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Hidden by Tobias Hill

He saw that they had been very kind to him. They had let him into their circle. They were strange children, elder children, who had let him play a game he had never quite understood. There had been rules which no one had explained to him, which he had never really grasped. He had not been grasping, after all. He had never asked much of them. He had asked them questions, but somehow never the right questions. He had put up with Jason's bigotry and Max's stubborn hostility, but most of all with what seemed to be his necessary ignorance. He had needed them, needed to be with them, more than he had wished to know what they kept from him. Even in Pylos, when he had finally demanded answers, he had been content with half-answers. He had cherished his contentment. It had been enough to be with them, even if he wasn't one of them, not really, not one of Us.

As you might gather from the excerpt above, the main character of Tobias Hill's The Hidden, Oxford archaeology student Ben Mercer, is lacking in the attributes usually assigned to the hero of a thriller. For that matter, Hill's novel fails to meet many of the conventions of the thriller genre, as well, so let me say right up front that whoever decided to market this book as a thriller made a big mistake. This is literary fiction with gorgeous descriptive writing that builds to a thrilling climax and the book deserves to reach an audience that's more amenable to that kind of approach.

In other words, this is a book for the likes of me.

The aforementioned Ben Mercer, who's irredeemably mucked up his marriage and taken himself into self-exile in Athens, takes the first stopgap job he's offered, out at a meat grill in a suburb called Metamorphosis. When Eberhard, a former Oxford classmate who "had a measuring way of looking at the world, where Ben only ever measured himself against it," inexplicably shows up at the restaurant, Ben learns of an archaeological dig taking place on the fringes of Sparta. Ben has been compiling notes towards a thesis on ancient Sparta and is quick to make the appropriate phone calls to get himself hired on to the excavation, despite the classmate's obvious reluctance to have him join the group.

These notes of Ben's, including the transcript of a lecture Eberhard delivered the previous year at Oxford, are interspersed throughout the novel. The notes provide both a fascinating history of Sparta and insight into the ongoing situation at the dig.

The international group Ben longs to be befriended by has styled itself after the Crypteia, a circumspect band of young terrorists who kept the helots, the captive foes of Sparta, in a state of subjection and fear for hundreds of years. While Ben is included in a few of their ritual activities, and seemingly finds acceptance after he shoots a jackal in a secret nighttime hunt, his position is much more naturally that of a helot than a "real Spartan" like the rest.

The Spartans were warriors; the helots did all the rest of the work. The helots and their descendants were the state's merchants; Ben's family has "always been selling something" and Mercer itself means merchant. Names are important in The Hidden and Hill drops many a clue about his characters through them.

As Ben learns more of the group's true purpose and the excavation exposes some unsavory facts about the ancient Spartans, the reader sees the parallels between the terrorism of the past and that in the present. Events and asides and portents from earlier in the book gather import and resonance.

Did the Spartans fear the world outside? Did they guard against its jackals and wolves? Their wall-less city claimed fearlessness. The Spartans had faith in themselves until the day they were destroyed. And yet their faiths themselves--their gods--are full of flashes of terror. If it was not the world without they feared then what was it, unless themselves?

I read The Hidden as part of the TLC Book Tour. Check out the other reviews; I'm disappointed that I'm the only one who's enjoyed the book so far. Perhaps your tastes will align more with my own.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Latest tower of books

I realized yesterday that I need to read just one book a week for the rest of the year and I'll reach 100 for the first time since 2001. A shamefully small number for many book bloggers, I know, but one that makes me happy nonetheless--particularly since I have not cut back on internet useage at all. Whatever happened to my resolution last January to use time wisely?

But I do intend to cut back on book purchases so that I'll have time to work through some of my stockpiles--particularly since I may need to downsize the collection considerably if we move. No more giving myself a pass to buy a book because it's available in the UK and not in the US--my alma mater's libraries routinely add the British titles even more quickly than I can manage to, and, if we move, I'll live close enough to check out great swathes of them.

But the new books that have squeaked in before I officially change my nefarious ways:

Outliers. Malcolm Gladwell. Borrowed from my daughter.

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters. Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters. Review copy.

A Handful of Dust. Evelyn Waugh. From a sale table at the Strand.

Under the Glacier. Halldor Laxness. Ditto.

Hindoo Holiday. J.R. Ackerley. Because of a mention at Like Fire and because my daughter's going to India next month.

The Story About the Story. J.C. Hallman, ed. Because of Dorothy.

Miss Herbert. Christina Stead. Because I'm collecting Steads and the Strand had it.

Sunflower. Rebecca West. Because it finishes my West fiction collection and the Strand had it.

Half Broke Horses. Jeannette Walls. Because I loved The Glass Castle.

The Lacuna. Barbara Kingsolver. I've not read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle yet, so I'd have felt too guilty to purchase yet another Kingsolver in hardback if not for the Amazon/Wal Mart price war.

Under the Dome. Stephen King. I'm not much of a horror reader, so I've read only a couple King novels in my life, but I always enjoy reading about him, and then this one sounded all appealing and was already on my wishlist to read before the Amazon/Wal Mart price war made me click the buy-now button.

The Complete Stories. J.G. Ballard. Thanks to the balance left on a gift card, I was able to snare this for $2.56. Woo hoo.

No more books for me for awhile.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Green Books Campaign: Small Beneath the Sky

This review is part of the Green Books campaign. Today 100 bloggers are reviewing 100 great books printed in an environmentally friendly way. Our goal is to encourage publishers to get greener and readers to take the environment into consideration when purchasing books. This campaign is organized by Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry by promoting the adoption of green practices, balancing out books by planting trees, and supporting green books. A full list of participating blogs and links to their reviews is available on the Eco-Libris website.


This ache, this country of wind and dust and sky, is your starting point, the way you understand yourself, the place you return to when there's nowhere else to go. It is the pared-down language of your blood and bones.

Canadian poet Lorna Crozier, born in 1948, grew up in Swift Current, a three-block-long downtown of a city in Saskatchewan. Small Beneath the Sky: A Prairie Memoir is her recollection of that time, that place, and her family and friends' particular experiences then and there.

Starting with and then interspersed between the peopled stories are prose poems that hinge on Aristotle's notion of the First Cause--"something beyond the chain of cause and effect, something that started it all," Crozier explains. Such a conceit grants Crozier license to forefront gorgeous descriptions of animals and insects, grasses, wind, horizon, and light instead of keeping them in the background. (These nature-centered brief chapters might be seen as reason enough to include Small Beneath the Sky in any green campaign, but it earns its place in the Eco-Libris tour due to its paper: "acid-free paper that is forest friendly (100% post-consumer recycled paper) and has been processed chlorine free." )

Even the stories themselves are often akin to poetry; Crozier expands her poem "Fear of Snakes" into a four-page chapter, "tasting the air," describing how her brother rescued her from a gang of neighborhood bullies who then proceed to nail a hapless garter snake to a telephone pole. (I found the prose version even more affecting than the poem, but perhaps that's because I read it first.)

Despite growing up in poverty, with a father's alcoholism to keep hidden, Crozier has not written a memoir to showcase her family's dysfunction. Although her family members' weaknesses are exposed, this is more a celebration of connections, characters, and countryside, all the elements that worked to shape and inform the individual she'd become. Even a friend who becomes pregnant, then married, at 15 doesn't follow the typical path for one who finds herself in that position; indeed, she later becomes Crozier's connection to royalty.

I'm glad the Green Books Campaign brought Small Beneath the Sky to my attention. I thoroughly enjoyed it and have already added Crozier's The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems to my wishlist.

Saturday, November 07, 2009


Real life distractions caused me to forget to post this blogiversary weekend. So I'll post it now on, ah, Caturday!

(Please note the John Marsden retelling of Hamlet in front of Ellie. My daughter and I will be seeing the Jude Law Hamlet on Broadway next weekend. Squee!)

A bang, not a whimper

  Two months into L.'s retirement, and I'm finished with the stockpiling of books. No more book purchases! Or at least, no purcha...