Book Review: April Morning by Howard Fast (Five Stars)


Book Review: April Morning by Howard Fast

(Five Stars)

“Yesterday, he was a boy. Tonight, he’s not.” “Now what kind of thing is that to say? That’s exactly the kind of thing a man says. I don’t understand that kind of talk. A boy doesn’t turn into a man overnight. It takes learning and growing and hurting. And most of all it takes time.” “Sometimes,” Father said slowly, “we don’t have time.”

The opening of the American War of Independence through the eyes and emotions of a Lexington teen. Outstanding depth of consciousness. The reader is dragged along as Adam Cooper is yanked out of his very conventional colonial New England childhood into a frightening and blood-soaked adulthood on the day world history changed .

“Then I realized that at this range, even if some of the bird shot did reach the redcoats, it would sting no harder than a mosquito. It was a great relief to find some sensible reason not to go on shooting.”

So much better than other fiction by Fast. Is this the normal or an aberration? Fast captures the feel of the times in the syntax and the ideas the permeate this story. As an eyewitness, Adam doesn’t see or know everything—especially not who fired that shot—but he does filter the action through a realistic, immersive point of view.

“Nobody fights in God’s cause,” the Reverend replied sharply. “Isn’t it enough to kill in freedom’s name? No one kills in God’s cause. He can only ask God’s forgiveness.”

Quibble: Modernity creeps in at the edges. Words like “subconscious” are jarringly out of place. The treatment of native American and women is noticeably better than the norm of those days, but plausible given the family ethic portrayed. Occasional typos mar the text.

“It doesn’t make one bit of sense that the British are coming up with a real army. I mean, what for? I mean, why on earth would they want to start a war? You always read about wars. But no one ever explains why a war starts. They just start.”

What was General Gage thinking? By all accounts, he was trying to subdue or seduce the colonists back into the imperial fold, despite hawkish subordinates. How then could he imagine that an armed incursion into the Massachusetts country would not trigger a fight? (When Governor Dunmore stole the Virginia militia’s powder the next day  (which was too coincidental to be coincidental), “the shot heard ‘round the world” had already been fired. And he almost got a fight, too.) Once the sword of war is pulled, for whatever reason, it’s hard to scabbard.

“The April morning when I departed properly belonged in a past so distant and different that it could hardly be evoked. Even if all the scars were healed, nothing would ever be the same again.”


Movie Review: Tolkien, directed by Dome Karukoski (Four Stars)


Movie Review: Tolkien, directed by Dome Karukoski

(Four Stars)

“Where you follow the rhythms of language, I have to tell you, Mr. Tolkien, I’ve never come across anything like it.”

This movie will bomb. Too intellectual and idea driven, like Tolkien’s stories. Little to no action. Solid performances by a cast of unknowns.

“No … you deserve magic.”

Having read much by and about Tolkien, I can attest that this accurately represents the formative years of the greatest story teller of the twentieth century, despite the Tolkien Estate disavowing the film. In fact, reviewing Tolkien’s biography reveals Karukoski et al. took many liberties with fact, hence my labeling this as historical fiction

“There are cakes.”

Like Disney’s treatment of Madeleine L’Engle’s  A Wrinkle in Time, all reference to Tolkien’s faith was excised. Tolkien wrote, “We have come from God and inevitably the myths woven by us, though they contain error, will also reflect a splintered fragment of the true light, the eternal truth that is with God. Indeed, only by myth-making, only by becoming a ‘sub-creator’ and inventing stories, can Man ascribe to the state of perfection that he knew before the fall.”

“In a hole in the ground, there lived a Hobbit.”

Book Review: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict (Three Stars)


Book Review: The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

(Three Stars)

“Another performance. I figured I would find a way out. But the Hedy I truly was underneath all the external playacting had developed real feelings.”

I read–and am reviewing this–as historical fiction, not a biography. As such it’s excellently composed and written. Using a first-person point of view Benedict takes us deep into Hedy Kiesler/Lamarr’s mind, thinking thoughts that we (and she) have no way of knowing whether Hedy thought, based on her decades of seclusion before her death in 2000. If Benedict had sources for such speculation, she didn’t mention them. Most of the facts reveal Wikipedia-depth research.

“You’re not a Jew, are you?” “No, of course not, Mr. Mayer,” I answered quickly. What else could I say? If my survival in this new life depended on lies, then lies it would be. I was no stranger to them.”

Benedict’s thesis: Hedy was rejected because a woman. Yet fellow inventor (and well-connected) Howard Hughes loaners her facilities and help; why did she not Continue reading

Book Review: Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman (Five Stars)


Book Review: Here Be Dragons (Welsh Prince’s #1) by Sharon Kay Penman

(Five Stars)

“Poor Wales, so far from Heaven, so close to England.”

Excellent historical fiction. A critical time of Welsh and English history brought to life through Llewelyn ab Iorwerth and Joanna, daughter of John Plantagenet. Inaccuracies and anachronisms are few.

“If sunlight were not silent, she thought, it would sound much like Llewelyn’s laughter.”

Gives even minor characters enough depth. In the inevitable tension between accuracy and a good story, Penman usually goes with the story. And what a story it is.

“The true significance of this charter is that it changes privileges to rights.” “A pity it will be as short-lived Continue reading

Book Review: Of Noble Family by Mary Robinette Kowal (Four Stars)


Book Review: Of Noble Family (Glamourist Histories #5) by Mary Robinette Kowal

(Four Stars)

“Perhaps she could paint me with a halo.” “Nothing so explicit. Simply a ray of light emanating from heaven, as if you are favored by God.” “Ah, for that, I only need you seated at my right hand.”

Fitting end to the series: Jane and Vincent must deal with family, that most Austenian of plot movers. But Austen–even glamour–gradually recedes for center stage as our protagonists move far from the shores of England into physical, political and social situations as outside their experience as being impoverished in Venice, to Antiqua in the Caribbean.

“She held his gaze and waited. If there was one thing that a young lady learned, it was how to wait with a tranquil expression.”

Kowal tries to maintain a Jane Austen tone–to the point that the grammar is often stilted–but her subjects are far beyond the cloistered existence of Regency England. Kowal enjoys, and makes good use of, resources far beyond anything Austen could imagine.

“It was difficult to avoid noticing how many times Julian had been whipped. Jane ground her teeth together as they worked.” This was not England, but England was responsible.”

That other cultures may understand and use glamour differently than Europeans might seem obvious, but Jane like us occasionally misses what is right before her. Kowal does a credible job defining these alternate approaches–remembering Jane as many Americans seem unaware that Africa is a huge and diverse place–and imagining a credible response for Jane to it.

“His eyes were wide and serious with the slightly troubled expression unique to newborns, as if he had come into the world knowing how to right all the troubles but could no longer quite remember how.”

Book Review: Vaour and Vanity by Mary Robinette Kowal (Four Stars)


Book Review: Valour and Vanity (Glamourist Histories #4) by Mary Robinette Kowal

(Four Stars)

“But true love will always triumph. Is that not what the novels says?” “Yes, but we are in the land of Romeo and Juliet.” “What a happy thought that is.”

This glamour history eschews the usual Regency England setting for a more exotic locale: Venice after the dissolution of the Republic by Napoleon. Kowal likewise confronts our protagonists with new threats and new antagonists. The story has been compared to Ocean’s 11, but Kowal’s task was more difficult because she maintains a single point of view throughout, where modern swindler-the-swindler stories depend on multiple, rapid shift of POV.

“Allow me to offer one exceedingly simple reason to not remove to Lord Byron’s.” He raised his eyebrows in question. Jane placed a hand to her bosom and sighed over-dramatically. “I fear for my virtue.”

Kowal demonstrates her virtuosity by melding Lord Byron into a story which had not originally included him, but Kowal’s research discovered the notorious poet in residence in Venice at the very time of her plot. Too good a character to shun.

“Times are hard. I shouldn’t have … you used to be a lady, didn’t you?” “Yes.”

Jane and Vincent’s brief excursion into poverty broadens their characters and increases the stakes. In the process they deal with isolation, deceit and a most unconventional convent.

“Prayer provided only the illusion of control, but Jane was too accomplished a glamourist to deny that illusions could provoke emotions. The same perception allowed her to see beyond the curtain of bravery to the fear in her husband’s eyes.”


Book Review: Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal (Four Stars)


Book Review: Without a Summer (Glamourist Histories #3) by Mary Robinette Kowal

(Four Stars)

“Vincent’s jaw tightened. ‘Jane. Stay in the carriage.’ She did not.”

This series keeps getting better. Kowal confidently draws the reader into a historical London and the summer that wasn’t.  Readers continue to follow Jane Vincent, now Lady Jane, into the deprivation and politics of that time. And sometimes the biggest threat to the happiness of herself and those she loves are her own assumptions.

“She comes from good English stock on her father’s side. It is not as though she were Irish.”

Kowal addresses a time when some people of color were accepted in the upper reaches of English society and some were barred–when Irish were considered not white. When myth and rumor are more readily believed than truth.

“They cannot think that coldmongers are responsible for the weather. It flies in the face of science.” “Superstition rarely troubles with facts.”

The pretty girl on the cover may be Melody, but shouldn’t the gentlemen then have red hair?

“I know that I should not feel sorry for myself because I am pretty, but sometimes it is nice to have someone speak to me as though I am not.”

Book Review: Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal (Four Stars)


Book Review: Glamour in Glass (Glamourist Histories #2) by Mary Robinette Kowal

(Four Stars)

“Jane had made the plan as simple as possible, believing that–as with glamour–the fewer threads there were to tangle, the more robust the illusion.”

Better than Shades of Milk and Honey. Kowal strikes out on her own, with a clearer voice, former roots in history, and less mimicking of Jane Austen. Good job. Since this book is firmly rooted in history, the reader can detect that the universe with glamour is parallel, not the same as, our own. Newlyweds, Jane and David Vincent stumble into the crisis of their era, and ….  Continue reading

Book Review: War of the Wolf by Bernard Cornwell (Three Stars)


Book Review: War of the Wolf (The Saxon Stories #11) by Bernard Cornwell

(Three Stars)

“The rumor was believed because truth is ever feeble against passionate falsehood.”

Bernard Cornwell is my favorite author of historical fiction, but he was off his game with this eleventh installment of his Saxon Stories. All the well-loved elements were there: skilled melding of fact and fiction, conflict, eucatastrophe–all mediated by Uthred’s snarky inner voice.

“Bravery is overcoming fear,” I said. “and I don’t know how you do that. Duty helps a little, and not letting down your comrades helps a lot, but really bravery is a kind of madness.”

But it’s heavily laden with backstory and repetition. Needed another editing to reduce the duplication. Starting near the end of this series is not recommended, but a new reader would have appreciated all the repetition; those who have read the preceding ten, not so much.

“I didn’t say anything like that!” I told the poet. “Well, lord–” “It’s a poem, I know.”

Saved by a smashing closing battle and the happy inclusion of a poet. The dialogue involving the latter recovered a star of rating.

“The world of glory was gone and we were sinking into a darkness of smoke, fire, savagery, and blood.”

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


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