Gary Carden

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If you remember Charles Portis’ wonderful 1968 novel, True Grit (and the subsequent Kim Darby/John Wayne film), you are likely to have a nostalgic regard for plucky Arkansas teenagers who just get up and go on when life smacks them down. Stubborn little Mattie Ross’ pursuit of her father’s killer inspired me some forty years ago, and I still get a little moral lift when I remember her. Aided only by a drunken sheriff who was frequently more of a hindrance than help, willful little Mattie persisted.

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Back some 30 years ago when I still had some tenuous claim to academic respectability (I taught literature), my teaching sometimes included the study of “picaresque novels.”

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Before Cormac McCarthy’s nameless father and son have ventured more than a few yards down The Road, we realize that something is terribly wrong with their world. The only sound, other than the shuffling gait of these two creatures and the father’s wracking cough, is the sound of labored breathing – an act made more difficult by the layers of cloth that obscure their faces.

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“The Ruins does for Mexican vacations what Jaws did for New England beaches.”

— Stephen King


The Ruins by Scott Smith. Alfred A. Knopf, 2006. 319 pages.

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“Riding the range once more

Toting my old 44

Where you sleep out every night

Where the only law is right

I’m back in the saddle again.”

— Gene Autry (and others)

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Ask the Dust by John Fante. Black Sparrow Press. $13 (paperback) — 165 pages.

Back in Charles Bukowski’s youth (the 1940s), he spent most of his time wandering aimlessly about the skid-row sections of Los Angles in an inebriated funk. Like many of his homeless and drunken friends, he observed the time-honored practice of avoiding rain and snow by taking up residence in the local library. However, as his cohorts snoozed in the reading room, Charles Bukowski read.

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bookThere is something about carnivals, amusement parks and shoddy summer circus operations that inspire a special kind of supernatural tale. Certainly, a reader who has read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) or Charles G. Finney’s classic work, The Circus of Doctor Lao (1935), is familiar with the carney sensation that blends expectancy and unease.

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Stephen King has written more than 40 novels now — books that are classified in the “horror/thriller/fantasy genre.” King is especially adept at molding plots that incorporate one or more trendy topics (serial killers, the paranormal, pyromania, schizophrenia, child abuse, etc.)

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Listen! Did you hear that? I’ve been hearing it for weeks now, the faint but steadily growing whisper of something approaching. From the east, I hear ... Dum, dummity, dum, dum! Me and my drummm ....” Heard that, didn’t you? And now, from the west ...“Three French hens, two turtle doves, and a partridge in a pear treeeee ...

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Coronado by Dennis Lehane. William Morrow Publishers, 2006. $24.95 — 232 pages.

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Well I just received a hurriedly written letter from 2006. (It was on a page torn from a Gideon Bible). She asked that I forward her belongings to an address in Music City, and that she was sorry for the “recent misunderstandings.”

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Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. New York: Vintage Crime/Black Lizard. $12.95 – 288 pages. Dearly Devoted Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. New York: Doubleday and Company. $22.95 – 292 pages.

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Well, dear readers, modern pop fiction’s most famous killer, Hannibal the Cannibal, has quietly returned. For those of you who thought you had seen the last of Thomas Harris’ deadly (but cultured) gourmet murderer, brace yourselves.

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As you probably know by now, we are on the verge of another “revolution in technology.” Specifically, your current DVD and CD players are about to become obsolete.

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I grew up thinking that libraries had a lot in common with churches. I guess I need to explain that.

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If you remember those wonderful fairy tales in which the hero acquires the aid of “helpers” in their journey to acquire some prize — usually, three or four creatures with remarkable powers — then you have the basic plot of The Stone Raft.

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Coventry by Joseph Bathanti. Novello Festival Press, 2006. 261 pages.

When 30-year-old Calvin Gaddy finds himself working as a guard in Coventry Prison, he is plagued by the memory of the promise he had made to his mother: that he would never follow his father MacGregor Gaddy’s example and become a prison guard – especially since the aging, retired “Mac” had become a legend at Coventry due to his reputation for cruelty.

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bookRobert Morgan has a rare and cunning gift: he can sift through the detritus of the past, pluck objects and images from his memory (especially his childhood) and elevate them to the point where they become — in the sense that Joseph Campbell uses the word — “numinous.”

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Back in the 15th century, when Europe underwent a remarkable surge in creativity, the word “Renaissance” (meaning “rebirth”) was frequently applied to England, Germany, Italy and France where music, art, literature and the sciences were suddenly thriving.

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Back in the early 1950s when Western Carolina University was still Western Carolina Teachers College, I got a crush on a feisty little co-ed named Hedy West during my sophomore year. Hedy played a banjo and sang exhilarating songs about dying miners and terrible injustices visited on people who worked in cotton mills.

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Recently, a distressing bit of information surfaced on CNN about the war in Iraq. There has been a significant increase in the number of civilian rapes and murders in Iraq and Iran (and correspondingly in West Africa). New evidence indicates that many of these crimes may be the work serial killers who are using the war as a convenient camouflage.

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In the small Southern community where she lives, Finch Nobles, the narrator of A Gracious Plenty, easily qualifies as a “quare woman.” Disfigured by a household accident at the age of 4 (a pot of boiling water), Finch finds that the townspeople commonly regarded her ruined face with pity or revulsion.

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Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill. William Morrow, 2007. 376 pages

Although both the publisher and the author of Heart-Shaped Box seem reluctant to admit that Joe Hill is actually the son of Stephen King, there is ample evidence to support this conclusion.

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bookMy decision to read this “docudrama” (part memoir, part history and part detective story) was prompted by my genuine wish to gain a better understanding of the history of racial conflicts and violent conformations that took place in North Carolina between the 1950s and the present.

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bookStephen Dobyns has written 20 novels and more than 10 volumes of poetry; however, he is difficult to “classify.” His writing is praised by big league names as varied as Francine Prose and Stephen King, but he is most famous for a “sexual harassment” charge brought against him while he was teaching at Syracuse University (allegedly, he was overheard making “salty and crude” comments at a party).

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bookMark Powell’s The Dark Corner is probably the best Appalachian novel that I have read in the last decade. It is also the most disturbing. In this, his third novel, Powell captures both the natural beauty of northwestern South Carolina and the seething violence and paranoia that lurks beneath the surface. This is a region where the interests of environmental groups, real estate developers, the federal government and right-wing extremists collide. The result is volatile and unstable, as homemade nitroglycerine.

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bookThey were known as the West Memphis Three: Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr., three teenagers who were accused of murdering three 8-year-old boys in Arkansas in 1993. Their trial was marked by tampered evidence, false testimony and public hysteria. It is small wonder that it became an event so bizarre, it attracted the national media.

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bookRecently, when I was surfing through a depressing collection of nighttime TV programs — religious rants, psychics, cooking shows and weight loss commercials — I stopped on a “true crime” channel with a provocative title: “Dangerous Women.” Before I could punch the remote, a solemn voice announced: “Tonight, a horrifying story from a remote cove in Appalachia, we bring you the story of Frankie Silver, a woman who not only murdered her husband but burned his body in the fireplace.”

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bookRon Rash’s latest collection of short stories echos a theme that runs through all of his works: an awareness that Appalachia is in transition, that it is becoming something else. Of course, this is a quality that is shared by all things — what the poets call “mutability” — but in this instance, the author is mindful of what our world is becoming in contrast to what it once was. Like the drowned girl in his short story by the same title, Appalachia may be undergoing a “sea change” and will emerge as “something rich and strange.” The substance may be alien, repugnant and/or fascinating.

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bookIn recent years, I have become interested in an obscure incident that occurred in Jackson County in 1882 — the accidental drowning of 19 chain gang convicts who were working on Cowee Tunnel near Dillsboro. Who were they? Where did they come from? Where are they buried? The details are sketchy, and outside of a few basic facts, most of the stories have been passed down by oral tradition.

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bookIf you are literate and moderately aware of what passes for entertainment in film, popular novels and comics, then you are acquainted with of the strange “zombie” craze that is currently dominating much of the popular arts. In recent years, the popularity of “The Walking Dead” has grown to epic proportions.

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bookA couple of years ago, I blundered into something called “The Bottom Dog Appalachian Writers Series.” Published in Ohio, this series is dedicated to showcasing “new Appalachian writers.”  When I looked at the list of writers and poets, I didn’t see a single name that I recognized, but since this is supposed to be works of “new blood,” I decided to start reading them. Well, a fellow named Charles Dodd White is at the top of the list with a prize-winning collection of short stories and a new novel, Lambs of Men. I read his impressive reviews and discovered that White had a short story in the prestigious North Carolina Literary Review, so I ordered his short story collection.

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bookDaniel Emerson is afraid of black people. After a chance encounter with a group of violent African American teenagers left him with a broken wrist, a chipped tooth and an abiding belief that he is going to be killed by either one of his clients or a crack addict, the young lawyer persuades Kate, his current helpmate, to sacrifice the advantages of the big city for the pastoral peace of his hometown, Leyden.

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bookAnyone who remembers Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby (1967) and the Roman Polanski film that came out about a year later, then you have a handle on a spooky plot wherein two New York parents-to-be are faced with the daunting possibility that the wife may be pregnant with (and by) something that is “not of this earth.” I’m still haunted by Mia Farrow’s tortured dilemma as she stands before the crib that contains “the spawn of Satan” ... stands with a knife in her hand. Which is stronger, a mother’s love or her moral obligation to protect mankind from evil?

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bookI have been a Dennis Lehane fan for about two decades now, and after reading classics like Mystic River, Shutter Island and the short story collection, Coronado, I can easily recognize the author’s “signature” talents: cliff-hanger chapters, passages of riveting suspense/terror and, a marvelous gift for writing introductory paragraphs that hook the reader immediately. Here is the opening of Live by Night:

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art martharedboneApart from the fact that this is a remarkable recording, in terms of Martha Redbone’s liquid vocals and the harmonious blend of John McEuen’s instruments (banjo, guitar, dubro, fiddle, mandolin, autoharp and dulcimer), the combining of music with William Blake’s “songs” is an amazing achievement.

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bookI always thought he was guilty. Any doubts that I might have felt vanished after I read Joe McGinniss’ Fatal Vision. Jeffery MacDonald had murdered his wife and two daughters, stabbing and bludgeoning them to death in their apartment at Fort Bragg. I did not believe his story about the “hippies” who broke into his house at 3:30 in the morning chanting “Acid is groovy” and “Death to the Pigs.” In essence, I guess I agreed with the military police, the FBI and the Fayetteville Police Department that it sounded like an unconvincing, “copycat” version of the Manson murders some six months before (the word “Pig” written in blood was also at the murder scene).

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bookKind hearts, winter has come. That dire prediction that began over 4,000 pages ago with A Game of Thrones has been fulfilled. In this, the final (?) book in the Songs of Ice and Fire series, all of the bleak predictions that began with “Winter is coming,” are gradually come to pass. However, that does not mean that we will finally see justice done. Unlike the marvelous world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where the good king finally comes home and the world becomes orderly and rational once more, the final chapters of A Dance With Dragons finds Westros and the Seven Kingdoms racked by war and famine. The majority of Martin’s characters appear to be lost, trapped or missing in action.

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bookHere is a book about storytelling that strikes a responsive chord in my own heart. Not only is Mary Hamilton a gifted storyteller who is in demand throughout Appalachia (and beyond); she has built a career based on identifying and preserving the folklore of our region. She is not content to merely tell the stories — she wants you to know where the tales originated and why they are significant. In addition, she often gives you a half dozen variations of a tale and makes specific recommendations to storytellers (parents, teachers and librarians) about the subtle factors that make an audience (or a child) responsive.

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bookLet me begin by telling you that the book title above is misleading. Gerry Spence has more then a dozen published works, but I thought that his most provocative title might get your attention.  Certainly, this review will talk about BB&PPOP, but I would prefer to talk about all of this man’s remarkable books. In addition, bear with me while I tell you how I came to visit Gerry Spence’s Lawyer’s College in Debois, Wyo., last week.

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bookRamblin’ in Rabun is a reprint of a delightful book that was written down in Clayton, Ga., some 40 years ago. I have always been a fan of books that were compiled by some imaginative journalist who became profoundly interested in the region where he lived and decided to develop a column composed of anecdotes, jokes and vanquished history. L.P. Cross started “Ramblin’ in Rabun” back in 1937 and it continued until 1953. During that time, Cross spent his weekends prowling through Rabun County, collecting odd bits of folklore, oral history and “folksy wisdom.” The column was extremely popular, and in time people sought Cross out to share some special bit of information, such as folk remedies, ancient murders and gossip.

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In 1991, 30-year veteran and master teacher John Taylor Gatto resigned immediately after being named “Teacher of the Year” in New York. A number of educators and concerned parents took note — especially after the disillusioned teacher’s reasons for resigning appeared in the Wall Street Journal, under the caption, “I Quit, I Think.”

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bookWell, kind hearts, here we are in the fourth of a five-book series.  At the risk of being accused of indulging in extravagant praise, I must begin with words like “amazing, astonishing,” and yes, even “spellbinding.” All of George R. R. Martin’s characters are still here (although some have momentarily vanished), and they are still scheming, deceiving, murdering and ... surviving.

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When winter comes now, and I see those familiar pale shafts of sunlight that briefly touch the tops of the Balsams — just before total darkness settles on Rhodes Cove — I find myself remembering a trip to see my great grandmother some 60 years ago.

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Chemistry and Other Stories by Ron Rash. Picador, 2007. 230 pages

This remarkable collection of short stories has already been named one of the 15 “notable books” of 2007 by the Story Prize Committee — an award that is presented annually in recognition of the nation’s best. The top award, $20,000, is the largest literary prize in America. In announcing their selection, the contest officials stated “The Appalachian Mountains are the setting of this beautifully crafted collection that begins and ends with a fish and spans several generations in an isolated region with characters as craggy as the landscape.”

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The Sweetest Sounds

The sweetest sounds I’ll ever hear

Are still inside my head.

The kindest words I’ll ever know

Are waiting to be said.

— Rogers and Hart

 

Over the past 40 years, as my hearing has steadily declined, most of my friends became accustomed to my evasive behavior. Instead of saying, “I can’t hear you,” I developed a habit of nodding, smiling and saying, “Yes.”

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bookI apologize. About a month ago, when I concluded my review of Clash of Kings, I noted that I would not continue reviewing all of the books in the Songs of Ice and Fire series (I believe that there are five, but then there are rumors of more). My logic was that although I found this series marvelous reading, I was spending too much time on a single author. Of course, I fully intended to keep reading the series myself since I am beginning to feel that Martin’s fantasy world is on a par with Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast novels or J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The truth is, after finishing A Storm of Swords, I find that I have turned into a fervent disciple who is duty bound to recruit new converts and followers. You have been forewarned.

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book“... and these signs shall follow those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poisons, it will not hurt them; they will place their hands on the sick and they will get well.”

Clem Barfield, the sheriff of Madison County, has been doing his job for 25 years, yet as he ruefully notes, he is still considered an outsider.

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I found Booger at the Coffee Shop some 15 years ago – a tiny kitten with only one eye open, and although I could easily cover her with one hand, I couldn’t muffle the anguished MEEOOW! that she produced. It was like the cry of some tortured soul in hell, filled with equal parts of despair and terror. She had matted, multi-colored fur and when I cupped her to the shoulder of my jacket, she sank her tiny claws deep into the fabric and clung there like a small wad of velcro. Something had plucked her from a bleak and uncertain fate and she had no intention of letting go.

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Although A Clash of Kings, the second in George R. R. Martin’s epic series, has a multitude of unforgettable characters, none is more fascinating than the grotesquely disfigured Sandor Clegane. Shortly before the final attack on King’s Landing, a great city that is under siege by four separate armies, Sandor has a conversation with Sansa Stark, a captive who owes her life to Sandor. Stung by Clegane’s mockery and contempt, Sansa says, “Does it give you joy to scare people?” Sandor’s reply could well serve a grim revelation and a daunting insight into medieval warfare and the dark heart of humanity:

“No, it gives me joy to kill people ... Killing is the sweetest thing there is ... You think it is all taking favors from ladies and looking fine in gold plate? Knights are for killing.” He laid his long sword against her neck, just under her ear. Sansa could feel the sharpness of the steel. “I killed my first man at twelve. I’ve lost count of how many that I have killed since then. High lords with old names, fat rich people dressed in velvet, knights puffed up like bladders with their honors, yes, and women and children too – they are all meat and I’m the butcher. Let them have their lands and their gods and their gold.” Sandor Clegane spat at her feet to show what he thought of that. “So long as I have this,” he said, lifting the sword from her throat.

This singular speech by a brutal, psychopathic killer summarizes the basic theme of A Clash of Kings. In spite of its mesmerizing splendor, George R. R. Martin’s fanciful world is often cruel and blood-splattered. This second book in the Songs of Ice and Fire series contains an excess of carnage. Thousands die in sea battles, drowned or burned by wildfire (a kind of medieval napalm). Countless lords and nobles are beheaded and thousands more fall before axes, swords and crossbows. Occasionally, the author pauses to note that the nameless dead – the “little folk” in ravaged villages and farms – they all die without  the glamor of armor or heraldry. The rape and slaughter of multitudes are merely a by-product of war ... the small or common folk die simply because they were “in the way” and they die without purpose of meaning.

Yet, this is a compelling tale and the multitudes of readers seem committed to following this amazingly varied cast to the final (Eighth) book.

Here is a general summary of Book Two: Ned Stark’s tragic death at the end of Book I changed the lives of his family, many of whom fled for their lives. Others such as Sansa, Ned’s daughter, are trapped in King’s Landing, a prisoner (and bride-to-be) of the vicious boy-king, Joffery Lannister. The 12-year-old Arya Stark escapes and  becomes a hapless servant to a half-dozen masters, but dreams of returning to Winterfell and her family. Ironically, Winterfell has been invaded and the fate of her brothers and sisters is unknown. Catelyn Stark, the widowed Queen of Ned Stark, joins her 15-year-old son, Robb who has named himself “King of the North” and vowed to avenge his father’s death. However, as he marches on King’s Landing, his father’s old enemies invade the Stark kingdom of Winterfell.

A Clash of Kings has an abundance of villains. Queen Cersei, although openly denounced as “incestuous and heartless,” manages to retain control of King’s Landing while plotting to rescue her lover/brother, Jaime Lannister, currently imprisoned by Catelyn Stark. A host of self-serving court officials murder, maim and betray at will. There is an offensive eunuch called “the whisperer” for his talent in relaying dangerous gossip and a finance officer named Littlefinger who has an almost supernatural ability to assassinate and betray with impunity. Invariably, his intrigue leads to his promotion to a higher office.

The most maligned character in A Clash of Kings is Tyrion Lannister, the  ugly dwarf who has been nick-named “The Imp.” Despised by everyone including his father and sister, Tyrion survives by his wits and frequently finds himself cast into hazardous situations ranging from riding with a murderous band of thieves to serving as the King’s Hand (the most powerful position in King’s Landing). However, by the end of Book 2, the Imp’s hopes are dashed again. An assassination attempt and a battle wound has rendered him disfigured and helpless and he has been imprisoned by his own family. What next?

The most mysterious figure in A Clash of Kings is Daenerys Targaryen, the Mother of Dragons. The great battles raging in Westros are far removed from Daenerys’ “mission,” yet she believes that she is fated to reclaim her lost kingdom ... lost thousands of years ago, which is the Seven Kingdoms.

In an ancient time when dragons still ruled the skies, the Targaryen family ruled all of the known world. The heart of the Targaryen kingdom was the country recently ruled by Robert Baratheon and Ned Stark. Now, this “golden child” with a small band of devout followers is moving toward the coast of the Narrow Sea. Daenerys has a blind faith in the future. She will acquire ships and twenty thousand armed men, and they will accompany her to reclaim her lost kingdom. She will destroy “The Usurpers” and restore The House of Dragons. When Daenerys talks, people listen because she has something that attracts attention. She has three dragons. They are small, but they are growing larger every day.

Fledgling dragons are not the only bizarre creatures in A Clash of Kings. The world of the supernatural is growing stronger. A sorceress called “The Red Woman” appears in the court of Stannis Baratheon announcing a new religion – one that will sweep away all the gods, old and new. When Stannis accepts the Red Woman’s guidance and replaces his standards and flags with a new image: a heart within a radiant sun – a new destructive force is unleashed – a force that Stannis uses to destroy his enemies, including his own brother.

Finally, there is Jon Snow, the bastard son of Ned Stark, who has abandoned Winterfell and traveled north to join the Black Brothers: an army of dedicated warriors who keep watch on the Wall – a 600-foot high boundary that separates the land of mankind from the sinister forces of “the Others” which, in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, is beginning to move. With the coming of the Others, Jon and his comrades will fight what may be the “last battle.” Much of A Clash of Kings is filled with a sense of fatalism ... Winter is coming, a hundred-year-long winter that will change the world forever and render the dreams of the Starks, the Lannisters and even the Mother of Dragons meaningless.

Although this reviewer is tempted to continue reviewing Song of Ice and Fire through all eight books, he will not do so.  It is time to return to more conventional literature ... works like Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home.  Stay tuned.

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