Book Review: No Man’s Land by Simon Tolkien (Three Stars)

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Book Review: No Man’s Land by Simon Tolkien

(Three Stars)

“They’re the salt of the earth and we are being told to send them over the top to walk across no man’s land with their packs on their backs. It breaks my heart, or what’s left of it.”

Horror and humanity collide. A window into life in London, Yorkshire, and the trenches a hundred years ago. Tolkien writes like an amalgam of his grandfather and Charles Dickens, but his characters don’t engage the reader. The protagonist offers insights to his situation and feelings, but sounds too modern.

“It’s like I looked at the sun too long and what I’ve seen has burnt away the meaning of everything. It’s left me hollow inside.”

Lingered too long in building his world and protagonist. Dickensian detailed descriptions Continue reading

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Book Review: Peony by Pearl S. Buck (Five Stars)

Book Review: Peony by Pearl S. Buck

(Five Stars)

“You paid money for me, but that does not make me yours. A human creature can’t be bought whole.”

Excellent. Buck delves deep into the thoughts and emotions of the title character and those closest to her. Unlike typical novels, the reader is immersed in the flow of hopes and uncertainty of all the principal cast. Based on history, Buck explores the assimilation of Jewish communities which had existed for hundreds of years in China.

“Out of the dark and sullen bottom of a lake the lotus flowers bloomed upon its surface, and she would pluck the flowers.”

A full immersion for the reader in the life and times of a Jewish remnant in China. Paradoxically the Jews in Europe, persecuted to death, kept to their faith and culture; while Jewish communities in China Continue reading

Book Review: Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriet Gillem Robinet (Five Stars)

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Book Review: Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriet Gillem Robinet

(Five Stars)

“What you reckon owning land be like?” “We’ll wake singing and go to bed laughing. We be having both joy and peace.”

Historical fiction of the best sort. Robinet looks into the lives of freed slaves in the post-Civil War South through the eyes of a young freed slave. Pascal has a heap of challenges, but how he learns to face them makes for entertaining and educational reading.

“White folks should be glad we free so they don’t got to be so mean no more.”

Thoroughly researched. Of necessity in a story this compact and intended for young readers, Robinet simplifies her peripheral characters to allow extra depth to her central cast. Nevertheless, the spectrum of characters presents Continue reading

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Five Stars)

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Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

(Five Stars)

“All poetry is a call to action.”

Bravo. A romance tucked inside an adventure stuffed into history festooned with whimsy and culture. Fully-realized characters burst off the pages as surely as they rupture the walls of Moscow’s historic Metropol Hotel.

“… and generally clamor about the world’s oldest problems with its newest nomenclature.”

Catches the spirit of each age. His grasp of the history and culture of Moscow in the span from after World War One into the 1950s betrays a respect one who looks for from a native. Pop culture references–music, politics, fashion, movies–appropriate to each decade.

“Adversity presents itself in many forms. If a man does not master his circumstances, his circumstances will master him.”

Comparable to Tolstoy; patronymics, diminutives and other naming varieties included. The scope of this work demands Continue reading

Book Review: The Nazi’s Wife: A Thriller by Peter Watson. (Four Stars)

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Book Review: The Nazi’s Wife: A Thriller by Peter Watson

(Four Stars)

“When your brother is a Nazi; you can’t ignore evil forever.”

Historical fiction, yes; a “thriller”? Not so much. Well written. Close first-person narrative of an art recovery expert after VE Day. Published in 1985; there’s been a sea change in Europe since.

“… People who realized that they would never have as much purpose in their lives, or as much self-respect, as the war had given them. … would never be so happy.

Encyclopedic knowledge of Austria and its art and culture, especially near Salzburg. Much of his knowledge about the inner workings of the army and soldiers seems drawn from hearsay. Watson loves semi-colons; commas, not so much. His punctuation occasionally distracts.

“I joined the army to fight Nazis not to fall in love with their wives.”

Respectful of the religious beliefs of Germans in a way no longer routinely found in literature, but is vital to understanding the motives of some characters.

“The war was over; it was time to put away wartime things.”

Book Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave (Five Stars)

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Book Review: Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

(Five Stars)

“I was brought up to believe that everyone brave is forgiven, but in wartime courage is cheap and clemency out of season.”

Outstanding. A penetrating look at love, war and humanity presented with external and internal dialogues that are simultaneously honest and humorous. Gives the reader a sense of time, place and circumstance which few authors achieve. Captures the feel of being at war, in love, immortal, dying, indignant, and learning to doubt everything, then learning to trust again.

“You are a mousetrap of a friend, all soft cheese and hard springs.” “I use you for practice. One day I’ll have a husband.”

Loosely based on real people (the author’s grandparents) in London and Malta at the onset of Continue reading

Book Review: The Spy by James Fenimore Cooper (Three Stars)

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Book Review: The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground by James Fenimore Cooper

(Three Stars)

“The law was momentarily extinct … and justice was administered subject to the bias of personal interests.”

Wonderful Romantic adventure “inspired by a true story” during the American Revolutionary War. Well-developed plot. Cooper’s first “hit.”

“The heart which has not become callous, soon sickens with the glory that has been purchased with a waste of human life.”

So, why hasn’t it more famous, and why wasn’t it made into a movie? Why only three stars? Because, being a very early work, it lacks the stirring storytelling for his later works. In fact, it’s awful. Twenty-five years later he was “compelled to admit there are faults so interwoven with the structure of the tale … it would cost less to Continue reading

Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (Five Stars)

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Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

(Five Stars)

“It is not beauty that endures, it’s love that makes us see the beauty.”

This is a book about love: love of self, love of country, love of others. A monumental work: over a thousand pages of text with a huge cast and historic sweep. Yet draws the reader intimately into the lives of a circle of families on the eve of a catastrophe which will transform their lives and their culture.

“The entry of the famished army in the rich and deserted city resulted in fires and looting and the destruction of both the army and the wealthy city.”

Two stories intertwine: the intimate inner life of a circle of young friends worthy of an Austen or Dickens and a detailed analysis of Russia’s role in the Napoleonic wars worthy of a Gibbons or Churchill. For the young adults, the real war is within. For the soldiers, Continue reading

Book Review: Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold by Andrew Rowen (Four Stars)

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Book Review: Encounters Unforeseen: 1492 Retold by Andrew Rowen

(Four Stars)

“The sea has protected our people from whatever lies beyond.”

A monumental effort. Deep historical research marred by modern, irrelevant speculation. The depth and detail Rowen attempts leads to so many narrative threads and point-of-view characters (often hopping from one head to another mid-paragraph) that keeping track is a challenge. Too much exposition disguised as narrative. Slow going, but worth the effort.

“The bones of the dead are food for the living.”

A strong point is the evenhanded depiction of the varied beliefs, even when the thoughts or actions seem reprehensible to modern sensitivities. Rowen doesn’t shy away from Continue reading

Book Review: A Pillar of Iron: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Taylor Caldwell (Four Stars)

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Book Review: A Pillar of Iron: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Taylor Caldwell

Four Stars

“Republics decline into democracies and democracies degenerate into despotisms.” Aristotle

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.) is probably the most important man in history most of us never heard of. That he was one of Rome’s greatest orators and writers is secondary to his impact on modern western political thought. “The influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any language,” wrote classicist Michael Grant. Cicero’s thoughts undergirded much of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. America’s founders often quoted the Roman.

“His own existence was less secure because his father no longer existed. Another statue had crashed in his hall of life and its senseless rubble littered the floor.”

Taylor Caldwell tried to change that in 1965 with this historical fiction biography. Drawing on speeches and letters of Cicero and Continue reading