Book Review: The Middle Ages by Morris Bishop (Four Stars)

Book Review: The Middle Ages by Morris Bishop (Four Stars)

“Our judgments of the Middle Ages as a whole must be relative to our assessment of our own age. It was an age of superstition; and so is ours, though the superstitions are different.”

An overview, not a history, of the Middle Ages. Lots of context, few specifics. In this case, that’s good. Readers put off by lists of kings and battles will find a topical collection essays on what was really going on in the lives of real people.

“In a deeper sense, the Middle Ages were a continuation of the ancient peasant culture that goes back 10,000 or 20,000 years, to the Stone Age.”

A healthy antidote to common misperceptions about what life was really like between AD 50 and 1500.

“Animal fat for cooking was in short supply, for it was in great demand to make candles, soap, and axle grease; a pound of fat cost as much as four pounds of lean meat.”

Repeatedly touches people and events which impact modern (in 1968, when published) pop culture–Joan of Arc and King Arthur–whether fact or fiction.

“Men were not ignorant of the things they needed to know – practical agriculture, weapon-making, the strategies of survival; and they had no interest in rediscovering the speculations of ancient sages.”

Book Review: Red Thunder by John Varley (Four Stars)

Book Review: Red Thunder (Thunder and Lightning #1) by John Varley (Four Stars)

“The Apollo program was possibly the stupidest way of getting somewhere the human mind has yet achieved … but it was the only way to win the ‘race.’”

A playful exercise in wish fulfillment through miracles in science. Gives the reader a premise—a new, source of power—and runs with the implications, as experienced by a late teen on Florida’s east coast.

“Do you trust your government that far, Sam?” “I’m an American.” “So am I, and God bless her, forever. But that’s not what I asked you.”

Published in 2003 but has a pre-9-11 vibe. Plenty of intentional political incorrectness but strive to be inclusive in a greater sense.

“Don’t do anything. I’ll be right over.” I figured not doing anything didn’t apply to fishing. If you’re seriously doing something when you’re fishing, you’re missing the whole point.

Great adolescent voice. Naïve about science, politics, economics, girls … just about everything. Which is perfect.

“Remember our cardinal rule. If you think you might need it, bring it. Right?” “Roger. And if you really have to have it, bring three.”

Quibbles: Lots, but few that destroy the story’s vibe. “We lost the antenna,” Despite the preceding quote, several critical components had no back-up or spare. “One of the tires turned into black confetti. … and I didn’t bring a spare.” Or “Our radar equipment had been scavenged from … the nose of an old fighter plane. It was the best we could do.” They could do lots better, and an “old fighter plane” would have meant tubes, which would not have worked, even if you could have mounted the fool thing on Red Lightning. “So for every pound of oxygen we bring we’ll also be bringing four pounds of nitrogen.” No, we don’t metabolize nitrogen.

“Travis was a terrific storyteller. … stories of space, and of rocket piloting, of guys and girls actually getting out there and doing it. Kissing the sky.”

Book Review: The Tempered Steel of Antiquity Grey by Shawn Speakman (Three Stars)

Book Review: The Tempered Steel of Antiquity Grey by Shawn Speakman (Three Stars)

“You might have saved my friend. But I do not trust you.” “When you begin to trust, the friendship the world has spun for us will be put in motion.”

A good-hearted if naïve coming of age science fiction set is a far future dystopic “Erth.” Stereotypical characters act in the expected ways. Predictable but well-developed plot arc–teens against the big bad guys trying to save the world.

Antiquity lowered the knife. “Why you not ending me?” the golem implored. “I not real.”
“You are real enough,” Antiquity said, decision made. “Besides, you are about the only family I have left.”

Antiquity will appeal to some readers as a plucky female lead. Other will be irritated by her Mary Sue ability to shed each adversity almost as soon as it manifests.

“Do you see what’s down there, Chekker? Are your sensors shot? Look!” “I do. I see trouble.”
“Trouble finds me all by itself, you old bot!”

Indestructible robot sidekick, enemies turned allies, and enigmatic ancient advisor. Who needs light sabers when you have dragons? Nice cover art.

Be the change of the moment,” the old woman said. “My love for you would be remiss if I did not prepare you for the world such as it is, not the world we wish it would be. And that world is coming for us even as we speak.”

Book Review: Kings of Georgian Britain by Catherine Curzon (Four Stars)

Book Review: Kings of Georgian Britain by Catherine Curzon (Four Stars)

Far from the media-managed, publicity friendly machine that is modern celebrity, where spin doctors and PR gurus ensure that the crowned heads of Europe are never less than squeaky clean; more than two centuries ago, there was really no such thing as too much or too far.

Biographies of the four Hanoverian kings who ruled the United Kingdom for a century and a half. Each worse than then one before. Sadly poor, crazy George III seems to have been the best of the lot. Talk about a low bar.

Though he abhorred the idea of marriage to Caroline the prince was a realist and, perhaps more importantly, a spoiled brat.

Serious history, footnotes and all, told in a breathless tabloid style.

[Charles] Fox told him, ‘I always thought your father the greatest liar in England, but now I see that you are.’

Book Review: Murder on Black Swan Lane by Andrea Penrose (Four Stars)

Book Review: Murder on Black Swan Lane (Wrexford & Sloane #1) by Andrea Penrose (Four Stars)

“Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,” responded Tyler, his brows tweaking up in amusement. “You have to agree this has all the ingredients for a corking good play involving mystery, murder, and mayhem.”

Meticulously researched and imaginatively integrated details of science and culture of Regency London. Quill’s occupation and her need to maintain anonymity are great launching points. Excellent, if thoroughly modern, female lead.

“There is nothing simple about the truth. As Lord Byron said, it is but a lie in masquerade.” “Actually, he said it the other way around. But I like your version better. The punch is aimed more squarely at one’s vitals.”

Historical fiction is more difficult to write than a simple romance or murder mystery. Penrose, for example, has to recreate Regency London while her inspiration, Jane Austen, had only to write about what was going on about her. She even manages at least one verbal homage to her motivator. “It is a universally acknowledged truth that Love is never simple. Nor easy.”

How was it that some individuals believed they had the right to transcend their mortal powers to play God with the universe? No possible answer came to mind, save for that the temptation of Evil had been an elemental part of the human condition since the Garden of Eden.

Numerous anachronisms. “cut to the chase” (twice), “death warmed over,” and “the pen being mightier than the sword” (not penned until 1839) jar the attentive reader.  Modern intrusions break the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief and destroy the spell of the story. Reads more like late Victorian than Regency London.

“Lead into gold? Wasn’t that just an obscure medieval fantasy?” said Charlotte. “Surely it’s been dead for centuries, along with the mad monks who had created it.”

Monks had almost nothing to do with it. The author disregards the wall now separating medieval alchemy and modern chemistry was being erected at that time. By those men. She correctly notes that some of the medieval hocus pocus were the first sprouting of the modern, and that its practitioners encoded their research for both privacy and safety.

“To reach out and grasp the immortal beauty of genius requires taking a leap of faith.”

Book Review: Always the Baker and Never the Bride by Sandra D. Bricker (Five Stars)

Book Review: Always the Baker and Never the Bride (Emma Rae Creations #1) by Sandra D. Bricker (Five Stars)

He’d gained at least five pounds since Emma Rae Travis had come into his life, but his taste buds blocked all paths to caring.

Thoroughly enjoyable story about food and people in contemporary Atlanta. Christian fiction, but good fiction. Comfort fiction. The come-to-Jesus moment is subtle and cast/situation appropriate. Well done.

“My grandparents are both from England.” (A southern wedding.)

Recipes and wedding tips intersperse the chapters, but this is not a cookbook or even a cooking book. Emma’s mission seems to be to draw everyone into diabetes, though of the second type. Bricker shuns the obvious ploy of a diabetic crisis, though … .

“Her smile caused the deep dimples on either side of his mouth to cave like bread dough pressed with two large thumbs.” Excellent word picture; too many words.

Quibbles: Too many adjectives. Only two characters of color. The cast focuses on two families, but … . Except for the need for her to be Italian, Fee would have been better cast as black. Is anyone Goth anymore? Jackson is almost superfluous to the plot. Do southern dinners really start with the entrée? (p. 139)

“I love Fee!” “She’s not nearly as frightening as she looks.” Emma grinned, deciding not to tell her that it depended on the day whether Fee was frightening or not.

If Bricker didn’t invent After Care, she uses it to good effect. Though Dickens brings this series opener to a satisfying conclusion, she leaves the reader hungry for more. Perhaps not five stars on an absolute scale, but relative to other Christian fiction.

“You just bring out the worst in her. With everyone else, she’s—” “Mother Teresa, I know.” “Well, I wouldn’t go that far.” “Nice to know you haven’t lost all perspective.”

Book Review: Longitude by Dava Sobel (Three Stars)

Book Review: Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel (Three Stars)

Harrison stood alone against the vested navigational interests of the scientific establishment. He became entrenched in this position by virtue of his own high standards and the high degree of skepticism expressed by his opponents.

Fascinating but too much fluff. Should have left it as the magazine article it originally was. I’ve learned to be wary of books with paragraph-length subtitles. This one was a unnecessary as most.

A novel antifriction device that Harrison developed for H-3 also survives to the present day—in the caged ball bearings that smooth the operation of almost every machine with moving parts now in use.

John Harrison was one of those lonely geniuses who labors against the scientific (and wrong) tide of his day. All the great and worthy members of the Board of Longitude knew he was wrong; some actively sabotaged his efforts. Harrison never got the credit (or credits) he was due, but the world of navigation (and beyond) benefited by his monomania.

With his marine clocks, John Harrison tested the waters of space-time. He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth—temporal—dimension to link points on the three-dimensional globe. He wrested the world’s whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch.

Book Review: Legacies by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Three Stars)

Book Review: Legacies (Corean Chronicles #1) by L. E. Modesitt Jr. (Three Stars)

“Don’t you feel trapped? It doesn’t matter what we feel. It doesn’t matter what we want.” “That’s life. Someone always wants what someone else has. If you don’t fight for it, you lose what you have. If you do, some people die and lose anyway.”

Formulaic, but well done. Here is a master of epic fantasy starting a new series. World- and character-building two generations of fans love.

“…The brave, the craven, those who do not care, will all look back, in awe, and fail to see, whether rich, or poor, or young or old and frail, what was, what is, and what is yet to be…”

Heavy on stage directions and over-telling, but enjoyable nonetheless. It’s all too easy; never get a sense of existential crisis.

“What else could I say? What did you say?” “Same thing. I also told them you were part of the attack.” “That…and a bullet…will get them the same grave.” “You and I know that, but you’ve got a reputation.” 

Book Review: A Live Coal in the Sea by Madeleine L’Engle (Four Stars)

Book Review: A Live Coal in the Sea: A Novel by Madeleine L’Engle (Four Stars)

‘But all the wickedness in the world which man may do or think is no more to the mercy of God than a live coal dropped in the sea.’ William Langland

This is the quality story one expects from a master. L’Engle displays the height of her storytelling in this very adult tale about the reverberations secrets and lies can cause those protected and those who think they are protecting.

‘Well, it seems very peculiar that God or evolution should make creatures that see upside down and then have to reverse everything. Is there a reason?’ ‘It’s just the way it is.’ ‘Like life. Upside down.’

Decidedly non-linear. Convoluted sequel to Camilla, written thirty years earlier. Few authors have L’Engle’s gift for segueing through time and point of view. Numerous shifts between numerous point-of-view characters and timeline without losing the attentive reader. (The casual reader is hereby forewarned.)

‘When two people, lovers, or sometimes friends, have an enduring care for each other, allow each other to be human, faulted, flawed, but real, then being human becomes a glorious thing to be.’

Camilla’s voice is that of a Ph.D. who is more at home at a lectern than with her own family. Didactic. Many sermons on just about every subject. Many autobiographical references, though the reader need know nothing about L’Engle. Not even necessary to have read Camilla.

‘Once upon a time we used to be so happy.’ ‘That time is gone, my darling. We have to live where we are now, somehow trying to clean up the mess.’

Book Review: Hounds of Autumn by Heather Blackwood (Four Stars)

Book Review: Hounds of Autumn by Heather Blackwood (Four Stars)

Credible steampunk novel of manners. As if H. G. Wells and Jane Austen collaborated on a murder mystery. Pays better attention to Victorian folkways among the gentry than most modern writers.

Requisite misdirection and conflict. Headstrong, but not always right female lead who bucks the traditions of the time, buts let the reader know that Blackwood at least knows the strictures of propriety that Chloe doesn’t-quite-flaunt.

Dirigibles and steam-powered motorcycles abound. The nickel-cadmium battery and film-that-doesn’t-need-developing subplots are so anachronistic as to be humorous.