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

Book Review: Chains by Laurie Halse Anderson (Four Stars)

 

Book Review: Chains (Seeds of America #1) by Laurie Halse Anderson

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“She cannot chain my soul.”

Award-winning young reader account of the plight of slaves in colonial North America. Being in Rhode Island or New York was no protection in 1776. Isabel was probably more articulate in her feelings, but those emotions ring true. Honest look at the errors and hypocrisy of both sides.

“It mattered not. My bones were hollow and my brainpan empty.”

Anderson skillfully wove historic facts–battles, destruction of the king’s statue, the fire, Hessians–into plausible descriptions of the life and observations of a young enslaved girl. The whole has a readable, authentic feel.

“Both sides say one thing and do the other.”

Minor chronological errors, but closer to fact than many popular Revolutionary War dramas.

“I was chained between nations.”

The Seeds of America series continues with Forged, previously reviewed.

Book Review: The Physician by Noah Gordon (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Physician (Cole Family Trilogy #1) by Noah Gordon

Four Stars

“To feel somebody slip away, yet by your actions to bring her back! Not even a king had such power.”

Excellent. Historical fiction is hard. A single false detail destroys the illusion. Historical fiction set in the eleventh century is extra hard. The purpose of this book is to “touch the hem of the robe” of ibn Sina, the great Moslem physician, philosopher and polymath, know to us as Avicenna. Gordon succeeds. Yet avoids romanticizing medieval Islam as so many Western authors do. Strong states rest on contradictory foundations, then and now.

“Allow learning to become a part of you, so that it is as natural as breathing.”

Gordon’s protagonist is an English man with a healing “gift,” which he seeks to improve under the greatest physician in the world. Unfortunately for him, Persia is a long way away. How he gets there and who he interacts along the way sets the frame for his time at the feet of the master. (He also displays a gift for languages.)

“When one rode an elephant all things appeared possible.” Rob J. learns that, then as now, one who can be your patron and protector can also be your greatest peril. Lord Acton was right, power corrupts, and absolute power absolutely.

“This strange city where everything was forbidden by the Qu’ran and committed by the people.”

The PG style of the story is spoiled by several semi-soft- pornographic scenes and some language.

“Can it be that we’re all three wrong?” (A Jew, Moslem and Christian) “Perhaps we’re all three right.”

Gordon admits to being creative when the historical record is sparse, but the result takes the reader to another time and place much better than many novels set in the nineteenth century. Along the way we are introduced to the Shah’s Game (chess with no queen), the Parthian Shot, and of course medieval medicine.

“The worst had happened and therefore he had been freed from the terrible prison of dread.”

Movie Review: Hidden Figures, written, directed and produced by Theodore Melfi, et al. (Five Stars)

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Theatrical release poster

Movie Review: Hidden Figures, written, directed and produced by Theodore Melfi, et al.

Five Stars

Outstanding movie, based on real people and real events, but dramatically presented. The story about African-American women mathematicians at NASA-Langley in the 1960s. Also, of course, a story about overcoming personal and institutional prejudice.

Doesn’t sugar-coat the issues, yet isn’t silly either. Some people road buses, some sat at lunch counters, some went to work and did the job, even though they didn’t get credit–often didn’t get permission.

As much about the barriers overcome by women as those by African-Americans. The protagonists suffered the double challenge of being both.

The journey isn’t done by any means, but people who didn’t live through the 1960s have no idea how far we’ve come. We have come a long way.

Good Entertainment; good message. Go see it.

Book Review: An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters (Five Stars)

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Book Review: An Excellent Mystery by Ellis Peters

Five Stars

“A duty once assumed is a duty to the end.”

My favorite Cadfael story. All the elements familiar to Peters’ readers–death, mystery, and sleuthing set amid a historic civil war, medieval culture, Welsh borderlands, and young love; but Peters mixes the ingredients a little differently this time.

“To me he has been all the sons I shall never father.”

Peters’ best investigation of what constitutes a life well lived. A man returns from the Crusades, as had Cadfael himself, to retire from the world into the Benedictine order. This noble is also ruined of body. As he fades, those around him seek to ease his earthly and emotional burdens, including the disappearance of his espoused bride three years previous.

“His spirit outgrows his body … there is no room for it in this fragile parcel of bones.”

Murder mysteries all involve death. Or do they? Yes, someone dies here, but was someone murdered three years previous? Why? Where? How? And most important Continue reading

Book Review: Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson

Four Stars

“All because he stole something that should have been his to start with.”

This is historical fiction as it ought to be written: a vivid portrait of the times woven from many factual threads as well as period appropriate people and ideas. But this is no history, rather an engaging, enjoyable fiction. Each chapter opens with an epigram from some primary source draw from letters or journals of that time. The story also explores the lot of the common soldier encamped at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania that brutal winter of 1777-8.

“My humors fell out of balance, and I became tetchy and sour-minded.”

The voice of the protagonist, a young black male fleeing from slavery and joining the fight for American independence, sound authentic. Written to simultaneously capture the attention and persuade young readers.

“Even from his grave, Father could be an annoying fellow.”

A fictional treatment of American slavery risks either sugar coating what was an awful reality or demonizing everyone and everything involved. Anderson draws a clear line against slavery while exploring the varying attitudes and justifications of that day.

“The land which we have watered with our tears and blood is now our mother country.”

A good, standalone read, even though it is the sequel to Chains.

“If our luck does not turn for the good on its own,” she said, “we’ll make it turn.”

Book Review: Payment in Blood by Elizabeth George (Three Stars)

Book Review: Payment in Blood (Inspector Lynley #2) by Elizabeth George

Three Stars

“[Murder] contaminates and pollutes, and no life it touches, no matter how tangentially, can ever be the same.”

Murder on the Orient Express investigated by Lord Peter Wimsey, with an old Scottish manor house playing the part of the train. As with all these cut-off-from-the-world murder mysteries, solving the crime involves untangling the relationships among the characters. That the investigators form early and conflicting opinions of who-dun-it increases the complexity.

“Silence is as useful a tool of interrogation as any question.”

The large and often indistinguishable cast is the strength and the weakness of this story. The reader is often forced to pause to figure out Continue reading

Book Review: The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers (Three Stars)

Book Review: The Drawing of the Dark by Tim Powers

Three Stars

“The next step is always unimaginable until it’s occurred.”

Variations of Arthurian legend has been a cottage industry of western literature for almost a millennia. Power’s take is innovative and well-developed. That his sixteenth century embodiment of the Briton hero is egotistic and a rogue fits the pattern. The melding of the fantastic and the historic worked, mostly. A nod to the history of beer.

“I never used to think much of coincidences, but these days I practically trip over them in the street.”

Quibbles: Modern vocabulary jars the reader out of the sixteenth century setting. Words like bouncer, toast, sleeping bag, bowling pins. A week and a half to travel from Trieste to Vienna? I wouldn’t count on rusty, old chain mail to stop a rapier thrust.

“A morning for a nigh-density volley of prayers.”

The story telling was better than the rating implies, but it’s been done.

“Am I one of the cards? Or a coin in the pot?”

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

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

Four Stars

“There’s many a young man has got his hearts wish, only to curse the day he wished for it.”

Upon my fourth reading, I raise my rating one star because this story compares so well with other historical fiction. In addition to the murder mystery, this tale brings to the reader an understanding of a historical setting which borders on the mythic, an introduction to a medieval craft (in this case, making charcoal), reflections on life then and now, a love story, and the fun of a tale well told.

“He’s innocent enough, God knows, to believe that other men are as honest as he.”

Readers seeking a story grounded closer to fact than the average epic fantasy, which usually loses itself in horses that run forever, swords that never dull, clerics who call down lightning bolts and enough nihilism for a lifetime, Edith Pargeter’s series on the life and times of this former Crusader and now monastic should be welcome. That’s why I’m on my fourth reading of this series.

“Despair is a deadly sin, but worse it is mortal folly.”

Book Review: The Bones You Have Cast Down by Jean Huets (Four Stars)

Book Review: The Bones You Have Cast Down by Jean Huets

Four Stars

“A part of me grieved for myself.”

A storytelling treasure. Huets transports the reader into the mind of a young fifteenth century Italian with all the assurance and intimacy which one expects of a modern bard. The sights, smells, feel of Renaissance Italy seep from every pore of the story. The Inquisition lurks in the shadows. Speculative elements are deftly melded into the mix.

“For a more virtuous person, no doubt, friendship would have trumped rage. Not for me.”

The fifteenth century was a seedbed for religious innovation, mostly aimed as real or imagined abuses practiced by the Roman Catholic Church. The Inquisition zealously sought the heretics; usually the civil authorities meted punishment. The contemporaneous history of the Cathars, Waldensians and Hussites underscores Continue reading