Book Review: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal (five stars)

Book Review: Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal (five stars)

“Noch ein gespenstiger Spion … Another ghost spy.”

Well done. Cobbling together history and popular interest in spiritualism at that time, Kowal writes dramatic, credible historical fantasy set in France during 1916.

“You are a contradiction.” “I like to keep you guessing. It is the role of an intelligence officer to avoid predictability at all costs.” “Mm … and here I thought you just enjoyed being difficult.”

Kowal weaves together a diverse and occasionally real cast to create an engaging mystery as well as highlight the prejudices and practices of that day. Excellent denouncement; set the stage for possible (as yet unannounced) sequels.

“You are as stubborn as your mother was.” “I take that as a compliment.” “I meant it as one.”

Better than her already good Lady Astronaut series. Readers new to Kowal might start here. Excellent cover art, unfortunately not credited in the electronic edition.

“Your hearing is damaged, but your soul isn’t.” “After the war, I’m not sure any of us can claim to have undamaged souls.”

Book Review: The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni #2) by Helene Wecker (four stars)

Book Review: The Hidden Palace (The Golem and the Jinni #2) by Helene Wecker (four stars)

“Stop searching for the things that no one can explain. Isn’t this world cruel enough as it is?”

A fitting sequel to The Golem and the Jinni. Starts slowly as Wecker widens the scope of the story and cast. Like the best historical fiction, she blends her plot into real events, in this case the swelling tide of the First World War, capturing how it looked to the Hebrew and Lebanese communities of Manhattan. Good, clean writing.

“Jinn do not have friends. We may be allies, or enemies, or lovers, but not friends.” “And I suppose a lover is not necessarily an ally.” “Not in my experience.” “Nor mine.”

The pace picks up midway as the scattered treads start to tighten. The various dénouement are well foreshadowed but not revealed beforehand. Some surprise and sorrow is still possible.

“You are exactly like them,” he said, pointing out toward the city. “You’d make me as meek and obedient as yourself, if I would only allow it. You’d make a human of me—no, you would turn me into you.”

Recommended for fans of historical fiction. Not typical fantasy, horror, or science fiction but incorporates elements of all, but with an intimacy that occasionally hurts. Well done.

“Sometimes, she challenges me, constantly, to be better than I am.” “And are there times when you resent the challenge? When you wish that, just this once, she’d let you be a little bit worse than you are?” “Of course.”

“Christmas in the Trenches” by Steve Haywood (Four Stars)


An artist’s impression from The Illustrated London News of 9 January 1915: “British and German Soldiers Arm-in-Arm Exchanging Headgear: A Christmas Truce between Opposing Trenches” (Wikipedia)

Christmas in the Trenches” by Steve Haywood

(Four Stars)

“I wept that night for Charlie, for all my fallen comrades, for Konrad and for all the Germans we’d killed too. Their faces would haunt me for the rest of my life.”

A well-told very-short historical fiction about an older man reminiscing about the Christmas Day Truce of 1914. Taut storytelling. The more the reader knows about World War One, the better the story works.

“I didn’t smoke anymore, and I don’t think he did either, but that wasn’t the point.”

Book Review: Sergeant York by Alvin C. York and Tom Skeyhill (Three Stars)


Book Review: Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary by Alvin C. York and Tom Skeyhill

(Four Stars)

“I only did my duty to God and my country, and every man should do this.”

The true story of an extraordinary man of conscience who also happened to be an incredible shot with a rifle. York’s struggle with the conflicting dictates of his faith and his patriotism is perhaps a more compelling story that his battlefield exploits, and those—though documented—are so incredible as to seem like pulp fiction.

“Great care has been taken to preserve his mountain dialect.”

Writing this in York’s semi-literate dialect may have played well in the 1920s, but today’s reader will find it obscure and dishonest. This is obviously Continue reading

Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old, directed and produced by Peter Jackson (Four Stars)


Movie Review: They Shall Not Grow Old, directed and produced by Peter Jackson

(Four Stars)

A film of World War One “by a non-historian for non-historians” from the point of view of the British infantry soldier on the Western (European) Front. All film footage is from the Imperial War Museums’ archive restored and colorized, narrated by the voices of soldiers who served in it. The result is a terribly intimate view of the horror of World War One.

Some of the footage is not appropriate for children or the weak of stomach.

If you go, by all means stay for the half-hour short following the closing credits of Peter Jackson explains his production process.


Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone (Four Stars)


Book Review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

(Four Stars)

“I’m never quite so gleeful as when I am doing something labeled as an ‘ought not.’” Elizebeth Friedman

History is often stranger–and more wonderful–than fiction. This tale supports that thesis. Elizebeth Friedman and her husband William invented modern cryptography and in the process helped win two world wars and put many criminals in jail. That they got little credit is par for the course.

“The whole deciphering business is based on what we call the mechanics of language. There are certain fixed ways in which language operates, so to speak; and by studying the known elements and making certain assumptions, one can arrive at a result that usually does the trick.” Elizebeth Friedman “She could break a code in a language she could not speak, but Continue reading

Wilson to Blame for Delayed Armitice

21465842Woodrow Wilson delayed the armistice because he was in secret negotiations with the Germans, leading them to think they were getting a better deal and unconditional surrender, based on his famous 14-points. In fact, The Treaty of Versailles was so bad it virtually guaranteed World War Two.

The full story of this debacle may be found in Charles L. Mee, Jr’s book, which I reviewed here.

Book Review: 1919 Versailles by Charles L. Mee Jr. (Four Stars)


Book Review: 1919 Versailles: The End of the War to End All Wars by Charles L. Mee Jr.

(Four Stars)

“It is always easier to start a war than to end one, let alone win it. … Harshness and vengeance nearly always return to haunt those who impose them. But of all the lesson that Versailles leaves us with, certainly the most insistent is that of the inability of the few any longer to govern the many.”

Exhaustive rendering of how the world’s leaders–especially France’s Clemenceau, Britain’s Lloyd George and America’s Wilson–crowned the horror of World War One with the charade of a “peace” that virtually guaranteed World War Two. That’s not news to most readers, but Woodrow Wilson’s role in raising then dashing international hopes may be.

“[Wilson] believed in words, in their beauty, in their ability to move people, in their power to give shape, and structure, and cohesion to the world–in their power, he appeared to believe, to transform reality.”

Wilson conducted secret negotiations with the Germans before Continue reading

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