Book Review: The Empty Throne by Bernard Cornwell (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Empty Throne (Saxon Stories #8) by Bernard Cornwell

Four Stars

“It probably did not matter what the Witan thought … or what I thought. I should have thought harder.”

A romp through a historic game of thrones. History may not be quite as exciting as fiction, but that’s why we have historical fiction. And few authors blow the dust off the pages of time better than Bernard Cornwell.

“It probably did not matter what the Witan though … or what I thought. I should have thought harder.”

Uhtred may be on his last legs. His near-fatal wound is festering, his king is dying, his family is threatened, and his dreams are unfulfilled. What’s a man do to? If that man is Uhtred, attack.

“I wanted an end to the pain, to the problems, but I also wanted to know how it would all end. But does it ever end?”

Well written. Good map, though unreadable in the ebook format. Love, death, betrayal, and surprises. A real life strong female leader. Leavened with humor.

“As I said, Father, I am not noisy.” “And I am?” “Very.”

No quibbles, just looking for an excuse to insert another text quote.

“How?” “By killing any bastard who opposes her.” “Oh, by persuasion.” “Exactly.”

 

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Book Review: The Flame Bearer by Bernard Cornwell (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Flame Bearer (Saxon Stories #10) by Bernard Cornwell

Four Stars

“When a man cannot fight he should curse. The gods like to feel needed.”

Read this book. I can’t imagine anyone starting a series with the tenth installment, but if you’ve read a few and slacked off this is a good place to jump back in. Classic Uhtred.

“… and stroked a stone down a sword already as sharp as the shear wielded by the three fates.”

Cornwell is a master of historical fiction, though he admits that he’s run out of history and in this story, “Just about everything is invention.”

“We’re outnumbered and they have the high ground. Does that mean we’re attacking?” “Of course, it does.”

The battle scenes are gory, the coincidences monumental, and the stakes are higher than ever. Leaven with just a touch of humor.

“You’re an idiot.” “Men often tell me I’m like you, Father.”

“Men see what they want to see.”

Book Review: Warriors of the Storm by Bernard Cornwell (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Warriors of the Storm (The Saxon Stories #9) by Bernard Cornwell

Four Stars

“A man does not rid his house of wasps by swatting them one by one, but by finding the nest and burning it.”

As Cornwell delves deeper into the darkness of English history, his stories become more purely fictional. No less fun, but his pattern is clearer. Though these stories necessarily focus on men trying to kill each other, the female characters are realistic and occasionally historical.

“It is not difficult to be a lord … or a king, but it is difficult to be a leader.”

Like Richard Sharp, the hero of Cornwell’s other extended historical fiction series, Uhtred of is something of a Mary Sue. No matter what chances our pagan protagonist takes he always lands on his feet.

“A man who loves his leader will fight better than a man who merely fears him.”

Quibble: Modern phrases sneak into the dialogue occasionally, breaking the spell of the storytelling.

“I will never understand Christians.”

[Spoiler] Gomer’s name betrays her identity.

“For the rest of us the future is a mist and we only see as far as the mist allows.”

Book Review: Doc by Mary Doria Russell (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Doc by Mary Doria Russell

Four Stars

“The entire criminal code of the state of Kansas boils down to four words: Don’t kill the customers.”

Revising history in a pleasant, readable way. Russell looks deep into the facts behind the tall tales surrounding this Wild West icon and comes up with an engaging story of what John Henry “Doc” Holliday may have been at his best.

“Serious as a snake bite.”

Have read enough of Russell to appreciate how her voice and idioms vary with the time and place of her story. Well done.

“The law can relieve a man of guilt, but not of his remorse.”

Russell also gives insight into the southern state of mind after Reconstruction. A lingering legacy of Radical Republican punishment of the South after the Civil War plays out today.

“Being born is craps. How we live is poker. Mamma played a bad hand well.”

Read the end notes to discover a possible connection between Holliday and Gone with the Wind.

“Dear Lord, please, give him time! Please, Lord, let him finish!” “Now. Now. Now. Take me now.”

Book Review: Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Sterkarm Handshake by Susan Price

Four Stars

“To them, to kill in revenge was a duty; to forgive the killing of a kinsman sin.”

Excellent science-historical fiction mashup. Avoids the time travel paradox by having travelers visit a past in a world a few dimensions away from our earth, but recognizably similar.

“… always worrying about someone getting hurt, as if people could keep from getting hurt.”

Changes point of view often–paragraph by paragraph–but with sufficient clues to keep the reader oriented. Deep into the minds and emotions of all the principle characters (who vary enough to reflect vastly different mores and experiences), to the point that we understand the motivation and worldview of those we might normally consider villains. Female lead has near-terminal conscience and indecision problems, which makes her the perfect lens into the story.

“Lovers divided by family and feud made good stories, but in life it was nothing but misery.”

Excellent immersion into medieval culture: not just sights and sounds, but smells and taste …. And all that filth. Music and folk tales deepen our cultural engagement. A skilled archer misses; hooray!

“It was like the music stopped and I had no chair.”

Quibble: Land Rovers haven’t had hub caps for decades.

If I had but a swan’s wings

Far over hills and sea I’d fly–

To my true love’s arms I’d fall at last

And in her arms I’d gladly die.

Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (Five Stars)

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Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Five Stars

“I want to comprehend. I have to. But he knew he never would. Just be glad and keep moving.”

An early alternative history, it is among the best. Dick not only alters history and politics, but also culture and scientific achievement, consistent with what precedes his story. The result in an incredibly rich, engaging tale of what might have been. Manages to include major philosophic and religious issues. Very close telling of internal conflicts and aspirations.

“Nobody was hurt … until the day of reckoning and then everyone, equally, would be ruined.”

I can’t believe this was written in 1962. Dick displays a depth of understanding which many lacked. I can’t believe I missed it then.

“He should have that cold but enthusiastic look, as if Continue reading

Movie Review: Dunkirk, written and directed by Christopher Nolan (Four Stars)

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Movie Review: Dunkirk, written, co-produced and directed by Christopher Nolan

Four Stars

“You can practically see it from here.” “What?’ “Home.”

The best kind of war movie, one that focuses on human-sized stories without losing track of the big picture. Historical fiction, but incredible realism and drama. Multiple viewings necessary to absorb the depth.

“He’s on me.” “I’m on him.”

Only criticism is the folded timeline. Nolan not only cut back and forth between plot lines, but breaks chronology. The attentive viewer sees the same event as many as five times from the point of view of five different characters. It adds depth to the story, but it often knocks the viewer out of the flow trying to figure out when and where we are.

“There’s no hiding from this, son. We have a job to do.”

 

Book Review: Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

Three Stars

“Not only could a man’s eyes mislead him but his mind could deceive him as well.”

Gripping historical fiction about New York City 110 years ago, though it reads like a fantasy set in another world. Hoffman weaves the lives two strangers to each other between the opening and closing historical horrific fires. Her historical details are exhaustive and apparently correct.

“To find someone, it was necessary to follow … the way that angels follow men’s lives on earth are said to do, chart each trespass without judgement, for judgement is never ours to give.”

Lots of stereotyping by gender, ethnicity, class, and religion–the easy route to character building. She seems sensitive to conditioned inferiority, though in my experience everyone feels inferior about something.

“He wondered if every criminal saw himself as the hero of his own story, and every thankless son convinced he’d been mistreated by his father.”

Hoffman’s plot involves Anglo-Saxon antagonists, but the real villains of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire were the owners, who were Russian immigrants just like the many casualties. Sometimes the worst crimes are committed by those we think of as “us,” yet we give them a bye in our rush to blame others, who are conveniently “them.”

“I had thought my father could work miracles. But I was wrong. He could only possess them.”

Quibbles: The male protagonist is reported to be 6’2” at age thirteen, despite a childhood of poverty. The first-person chapters are Italicized. Hard to read, though it alerts the reader to potential unreliable narration.

“As he slept he prayed that no one would wake him, for it was in dreams that a man found his truest desires.”

Younger people have purer emotions, less experience. It makes for great drama and sad mistakes.

“Like every good man. He, too, has failed. He knows what it means to be a human being.” “To be a failure?” “To forgive. As he has forgiven you.”

Book Review: Roma Mater by Poul and Karen Anderson (Three Stars)

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Book Review: Roma Mater (King of Ys #1) by Poul and Karen Anderson

Three Stars

“God’s hand touches a man and that man turns into one whom others will follow though it be past the gates of Hell.”

Excellent old-fashioned historical fiction/fantasy. Well-researched fourth century setting. Draws the reader into many aspects life. Invented a religion out of whole cloth, but used it to compare and contrast with existing ones.

“Despair was for afterwards. He still had work to do.”

Punctuation irregularities and errors, perhaps optical scanning glitches.

“Magic is ever a two-edged sword, oft times wounding the wielder.”

Why there’s a Spartan on the cover of the ebook edition is anyone’s guess.

“Had he wandered so far, into such foreignness? Had the God of his fathers no longer heard him?”

Broke oft abruptly. Cost them a star. Won’t try the follow-on volumes.

“Wisdom lies in nobody’s gift. We must each forge it for ourselves, alone. As best we can.”

Book Review: Brotherhood by A. B. Westrick (Five Stars)

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Book Review: Brotherhood by A. B. Westrick

Five Stars

“The Civil War has ended, but the conflict isn’t over.”

Outstanding treatment of a sensitive and controversial topic: the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Reconstruction South, specifically Richmond, VA. Appropriately, the protagonist is a white teen boy caught in conflicting currents of loyalties, commitments and aspirations. The reader is swept along with his ambivalence (and occasional stupidity) as he treads this murky maze.

“Those who survive in Richmond reinvent themselves as circumstances dictate.”

Best map (U. S. Army Corps of Engineers Map of Richmond, 1867) in any book ever, including famous fantasy trilogies.  Magnifying-glass-worthy detail. (Yes, maps are a big deal to me.)

“Of course, he’d have asked, but while the girls were standing in front of him, he’d been too flustered to think.”

Excellent use of inner voice and vocabulary to establish both the age and view point of the protagonist, Shad. That he has dyslexia is revealed without using the modern term.

“If the world had ended at that very moment with Shad singing “Glory, hallelujah” in a shed full of coloreds, he’d have gone to his maker with a smile on his face.”

There were southern whites–rich and poor– who opposed slavery. Likewise Reconstruction hardened many whites’ prejudice against blacks. Westrick explores both. Even better, she plumbs Continue reading