Book Review: Honorable Treachery by G. J. A. O’Toole (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Honorable Treachery: A History of U. S. Intelligence, Espionage, and Covert Action from the American Revolution to the CIA by G. J. A. O’Toole

(Three Stars)

Encyclopedic but mind-numbing. To cover the topic O’Toole set out for himself necessarily demands an encyclopedic effort. On a technical level he succeeds.

“We find by fatal experience, the Congress consists of too many members to keep secrets.” John Jay, 1790

Reads like a history book, footnotes and all. Too many biographical personal details about the people and too little about what they did. Published in 1991.

“We failed to anticipate Pearl Harbor not for want of relevant materials, but because of a plethora of irrelevant ones.” “The president’s chief intelligence office, the one person in the government responsible for national intelligence, had not even been told of Continue reading

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Book Review: The Devil’s Novice by Ellis Peters (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Devil’s Novice (The Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #8) by Ellis Peters

(Four Stars)

“Suspicion drapes itself round him like cobwebs on the autumn bush.”

Another excellent excursion into medieval England. Ellis’ world building is worthy the best of fantasy—simultaneously delivering verisimilitude and a sense of other.

“Cadfael … had considerable sympathy with the ardent young, who overdo everything, and take wing at a line of verse of a snatch of music.”

This chronicle explores the matter of love. Not just romantic, but familial and patriotic. What might a man or woman do for someone (or some cause) they truly love. Die for it? Kill for it? Take the blame for another?

“I never knew a postulant to pursue his novitiate with so much passion, and so little joy.”

Moderns, of course, cannot imagine a young person willing exiting Continue reading

Book Review: The Sanctuary Sparrow by Ellis Peters (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Sanctuary Sparrow (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #7) by Ellis Peters

(Four Stars)

“Fear for yourself crushes and compresses you from without, but fear for another is a monster, a ravenous rat gnawing within, eating out your heart.”

Who belongs, and how do they belong? Or not? Among Peters’ better Cadfael tales. Medieval enough to be other; modern enough to be understandable. Lots of misdirection, even Cadfael is befuddled occasionally.

“Young things are easily moved to generous indignation and sympathy. The old have no such grace.”

As in modern mysteries—and maybe real life—officialdom tends to follow the obvious and easy clues. The mob even more so.

“I would have taken her barefoot in her shift!”

Peters has a penchant for star-crossed lovers. Occasionally even … oops, that would be telling.

“And now, I suppose, you will tell me roundly that God’s reach is longer than man’s.” “It had better be, otherwise we are all lost.”

 

Book Review: The Virgin in the Ice by Ellis Peters. (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Virgin in the Ice (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #6) by Ellis Peters.

(Four Stars)

“Never go looking for disaster. Expect the best, and walk so discreetly as to invite it, and then leave all to God.”

Among the most popular of the Cadfael chronicles, this tale heralds the first appearance of Oliver de Bretagne. (Read the book to discover his significance.)

“In a land at war with itself, you may take it as certain that order breaks down and savagery breaks out.”

By this sixth volume, Peters has reached her stride. Firmly set in the history and geography of twelfth-century England, these tales dig into the always-current dirt of humanity and find both gold and dross. Often it’s our favorite monk doing Continue reading

Book Review: The Death and Life of Miquel de Cervantes: A Novel by Stephen Marlowe (Three Stars)

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Book Review: The Death and Life of Miquel de Cervantes: A Novel by Stephen Marlowe

(Three Stars)

“But history is—” “Truth?” Cide Hamete supplied. “Because it’s documents? But why should the ledger be truer than the legend? The merely measureable truer than the truly memorable?”

Monumental effort: for both the author and the reader. Extrapolating from Cervantes’ great fictional work Don Quixote and contemporary history, Marlowe casts this tongue-in-cheek autobiography. Lots of literary and historical references.

“It’s bad enough when, in relating Don Quixote’s story, you keep interrupting yourself to tell what other characters are doing, but to be guilty of the same lack of focus in your own death and life is positively absurd.”

Marlowe recreates Cervantes style to mind-numbing effect. The reader has no doubt where the story is going—or isn’t—but the ride becomes tedious. A hundred pages could be excised and the story would be so much the better.

“To submit to fate was the folly of the weak, and in those days I worshipped at the altar of free will, the folly of the strong.”

True believers will love it. Others will find treasures among the dross.

“The first thing writers of fiction have to do is willingly—not just willingly but joyfully—suspend their own disbelief.”

Book Review: The Leper of Saint Giles by Ellis Peters (Five Stars)

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Book Review: The Leper of Saint Giles by Ellis Peters

(Five Stars)

“Such as he live with a humility that transcends all possibility of humiliation.”

One of the best of the twenty-volume corpus. Ellis Peters has found her pace and strides boldly forward.

“Death is present with us every day of our lives, it behooves us to take note of its nearness, not as a threat, but as our common experience on the way to grace.”

These are tales of murder and romance in medieval England. Well researched and well told. That you get a practical history lesson along the way is a bonus.

“A comely person is no warrant to a comely spirit.”

Formulaic? I suppose, but life isn’t easy for anyone, least of all Cadfael. Just as the obvious culprit may be innocent, so the obvious lover may not be Continue reading

Book Review: Saint Peter’s Fair by Ellis Peters (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Saint Peter’s Fair (Chronicles of Brother Cadfael #4) by Ellis Peters

(Four Stars)

“The manifold gifts of God are those to be delighted in, to fall short of joy would be ingratitude.”

Better with each reading. I discovered Cadfael twenty years ago. I have read each book at least twice since as well as watched all thirteen Mystery! episodes. Though they have some merit, many of the latter turned the originals inside out.

“It’s no blame to men if they try to put into their own artifacts all the colors and shapes God put into his.”

Saint Peter’s Fair is a murder mystery, but it is also an immersion in medieval culture and history, a reflection on the world and man’s place in it, and a romance. Peters weaves all her threads into a fascinating tapestry simultaneously fun and informative. Each book has a background story about medieval history or culture. This one focuses on trade fairs.

“Penitence is in the heart, not in the word spoken.”

Earlier readings left me with the impression that Cadfael was a twentieth century man in monk’s robes, but he is thoroughly a reflection of his time, though he rises above the stereotypes.

“What you see is only a broken part of a perfect whole.”

A good story well told. Mystery Theater (PBS) got this one pretty close to right, which they didn’t always.

Movie Review: Downton Abbey, directed by Michael Engler (Three Stars)

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Movie Review: Downton Abbey, written by Julian Fellowes, directed by Michael Engler

(Three Stars)

“I see a Machiavellian look in your eye.” “Machiavelli is frequently underrated.”

Disappointing. They simultaneously try too hard (to replicate the TV series) and not hard enough (to rise above that genre). This movie is more of the same; a fix for Abbey addicts suffering withdrawal, but little to commend itself to a new audience.

“Let’s not argue.” “I never argue. I explain.”

While the setting, costumes and such retain a century-old appearance; the story/stories feel more Continue reading

Movie Review: Ad Astra, directed by James Gray (Three Stars)

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Movie Review: Ad Astra, directed by James Gray

(Three Stars)

“We’re all we’ve got.”

Continues the trend of high concept, hard science fiction what-you-see-is-what-you-get movies. As opposed to space opera—mentioning no names, but Star is prominent in their titles. Special effects are well done. Sub-plots for the sake of sub-plots, which make no sense and slow the already glacial pace. Three stars is a gift.

“He could only see what was not there and missed what was right in front of him.”

Brad Pitt is well-cast as an emotionally-frozen protagonist. Tommy Lee Jones shows more acting in minutes on screen than Pitt in over an hour.

“I can rely on those closest to me and I will share their burdens and they will share mine.”

Quibbles: Several incidents pad the movie to add violence and tension but were complete non sequiturs. Pirates on the Moon? Where do they live? Where their air and water come from? Deep space research lab? Why not orbiting in a La Grange point? Baboons kill a dozen people, but the facility looks pristine. The scale of Neptune and its rings is totally wrong. Why didn’t he tether his craft?

“I will live and love.”

Book Review: Sewer Gas and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy by Matt Ruff (Two Stars)

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Book Review: Sewer Gas and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy by Matt Ruff

(Two Stars)

“But Aristotle has written—” “Forget Aristotle. [He] only covers research and development. This is consumer marketing.” “Which philosopher should I have studied to comprehend consumer marketing?” “Munchhausen.”

Absurd? Of course, it’s absurd; that’s the point. But better written than many similar tales of the silliness of modern life. Better-than-average advocacy fiction.

“So you lied to yourself.” “The first symptom of true intelligence. Selective self-deception. How’s that for a Turing test?”

Still, I don’t recommend this to sensitive, introspective readers. It’s satire, as subtle as a Mack truck. Rude, crude and full of platitudes, though Ruff allows viewpoints other than his own stage time—if only to knock down their strawmen. And lots of profanity.

“What makes war terrible isn’t that the soldiers are men; it’s that men are soldiers. Let women become soldiers—or politicians, or diplomats—and you haven’t changed war at all.”

Ironic. What actually happening in the first two decades of the twenty-first century was as improbably as what Ruff wrote. (He mentions Cray PCs several times. Many may not recognize that reference to the super-computer pioneer, killed in a stupid auto accident about the time Ruff published.) And wrong. Remember when faxes were a big deal? Remember faxes?

“Thanks to the New York Times, newspaper of record, for confirming that even in a rational universe, ‘far-fetched’ is a relative term.”