Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What Erik Larson does in his novels is so difficult for me to define I don’t have a category for it. I labeled it as both “historical fiction” and “non-fiction”, he calls it “narrative non-fiction”, but by any name it is mesmerizing. In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson synthesizes a staggered amount of meticulous research to provide an intimate vantage point within The White House, British Intelligence, the passengers and crew of the Lusitania and the captain of the German submarine that sank her.

Larson works by aggregating enormous amounts of data, newspapers, autopsies, museum collections and reports. He then incorporates the actual voice of the characters from their journals, ship logs, letters and interviews. He builds from their list of possessions a portrait of their final moments and with the benefit of one hundred years of distance can unravel the events with clarity and context. The story is immensely compelling. When laid bare with the benefit of hindsight and the combined knowledge of all participants I think it is even more tragic. I was surprised at the extent of the culpability of British Intelligence and their leadership. While the actual act of war was committed by the Germany captain of the U-20; the circumstances had seemingly been arranged through both planned action and inaction by the British with the specific goal of bringing America into war.

I only had a vague framework of events which lead to The Great War; the paragraphs read and forgotten in high school history courses. Larson breathes life and bares witness to these pivotal moments in our past. I am astounded by his gift for forensic and empathetic storytelling. Highly recommended.

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Review: The Golem and the Jinni

The Golem and the JinniThe Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A good fairytale should breathe magic into a familiar place. It should be a little dark and scary, and it should have a lesson or at least a reflection of who we are and who we could be. This is a great fairytale. Set in New York City in 1899, The Golem and the Jinni is an immigrant story of two neighborhoods – one Jewish, one Syrian, and their cultures, community and mysticism.

Ahmad is a thousand-year-old jinni. Born to be shapeless and free – he is bound to human form and chafes at his restricted life as a Syrian tinsmith. Chava is a newly created golem. Made to serve, Chava finds herself without a master and overwhelmed. There is a wonderful counterpoint at play between the two. They clash in almost every impulse, but are united in their loneliness and the weight of the secrets they must keep about their natures. The primary themes of free-will and destiny are revealed in complex layers and reflect through the relationships they have formed.

Beyond the fairytale aspects, it is just wondrous to see New York through their unique perspectives. The immigrant experience is thoughtfully illustrated and breathes more life into the struggles and joys than most historical fictions. Helene Wecker’s incorporation of mysticism does more than just provide the fantastical elements, it grounds the cultures in tradition. The Golem and the Jinni is an excellent book and highly recommended.

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Review: Wolf’s Head

Wolf's Head (The Forest Lord, #1)Wolf’s Head by Steven A. McKay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This version of the Robin Hood legend is told through the lens of historic fiction. Steven A. McKay attempts to recount the economic and political circumstances and inequities in setting his scene for a more sensitive and thoughtful Robin Hood. The focus on realism does make the story unique among versions of the legend I have come across, but it also steals most of the roguishness and magic from the telling. It all comes too easily for Robin. Having never fought he walks into the outlaw band as the best archer anyone has seen. He is accepted readily and masters all the fighting disciplines and strategy within weeks. Almost every character is wholly good or evil and each gets their due. The most interesting character is by far Will Scarlett who has seen unspeakable tragedy and lost some of his humanity as a result. The darkness, danger and complexity he brings adds much needed energy to a folktale woefully short of the mystique Robin Hood’s name engenders.

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Review: The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood BibleThe Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barbara Kingsolver has a complex relationship with Africa. You can read the love and respect as well as the frustration and despair. There are two characters who act as catalysts. First, Baptist Minister, Nathaniel Price, driven by guilt and shame to dedicate his life to the service of his god and save the souls of unenlightened Congolese. He is arrogant, obstinate and abusive to his flock and family and fails to open himself to any wisdom beyond his limited interpretation of his bible. And later Ruth May, the youngest daughter, whose cultural development is equally African and American, and is the focus of the family unit – binding the women of the Price family together. The story is told through the alternating perspectives of Oleanna Price and her four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, starting with their arrival in Africa and continuing to adulthood and beyond.

Each member of the Price family reflects an archetype of foreign involvement and perspective of life in the Congo. Overall the narrative voices are strong and distinct, offering numerous small revelations as each awakens to realities of this very different life and culture. Other aspects of the narration were painfully rendered. The oldest daughter’s speech is so full of malaprops that I could have sprained myself eye-rolling. I get that she is the least intelligent but that is established in her word choice and limited perspective. A few malapropisms would have been fine, but it is constant and disruptful. She offers a folksy pragmatic approach to the challenges of the Congo without introspection. Also, the palindromic journalling of Adah Price was often unnecessary, but clever often enough to overlook the awkwardness. Barbara Kingsolver has great command of descriptive language, in particular for emotional landscapes. The arch of Oleanna Price is expertly delivered, both through the early self-disillusionment then through her awakening and grief.

I enjoyed the story the most when the focus was on the girls, not as archetypes, but as children struggling to understand and be understood in this small village which was foreign in so many ways. I appreciate that Barbara Kingsolver’s motivation in writing The Poisonwood Bible was to educate the world about the international meddling; taking and giving without first understanding. Her sincerity and her disgust is leaping from the page, but whenever the intimate story expanded into the overarching lesson, you feel that you are being preached to.

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Review: The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Pillars of the Earth is brilliantly set in the 1100s between the actual historic events of the sinking of the White Ship and the murder of Thomas Beckett. This period of time was marked by anarchy as the succession of the English throne was broken by naval tragedy and the confrontation between the rival heirs and their varying alignments to the Catholic church created political and religious battlefronts. Ken Follett chose to geographically locate his story between the fictional Earldom of Shiring and Kingsbridge Priory. The political and religious successions and alignments are mirrored within this small corner of England where two warring families fight over the Earldom as the Priory struggles between pious tradition and political authority. As England wars with itself to remake the monarchy, Shiring and Kingsbridge battle for the site of the archdiocese’s new cathedral church and the political and economic power that it commands.

The diegesis of these parallel frames does paint our characters into heightened stereotypes as they allegorically represent the various philosophies, political and religious institutions and castes of England in the Middle Ages. But Follett provides enough humanity to make them relatable. The world can also seem pretty small when all plot lines come down to the same twelve people controlling the fate of the region, but in a time when most people would not travel more than fifty miles from their home I imagine it is probably closer to reality then I am capable of appreciating.

The analogy of the cathedral is more than simply the rebuilding of England and re-balance of church and state because this period also coincides with the development of the gothic architectural style. This is significant because architecturally gothic cathedrals were a technological leap forward with soaring heights, vast interior volumes all the while reducing the structural mass to bring light and air. They were in every way superior as buildings to the roman style they replaced. Through this lens we can see that England, now rebuilt, is greater than the nation that it had been. Unfortunately the gothic style then converts toward exponential focus on ornament over technology and loses its way which also parallels the regression of England at the end of the middle ages, but that is a conversation for art class.

Historical fiction is a tremendously difficult genre to write. Ken Follett had to research every aspect of life, politics, philosophy and definitely architecture of the era. Many of the characters are anachronistic, but I think we want it that way. We want to be teleported into history, but if you teleport us you have to bring our modern values with. I wish there was a little more gray area in each of the characters, and that there had been a lot less rape in the story, but we were dealing with extremes and allegory which elevates the scope of the work a staggering degree. Pillars of the Earth is epic by any measure and absolutely deserving of all the accolades it has received.

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Best of: Historic or Realistic Fiction 2014

As I described in my introduction this Best of list reflects my favorite Historic Fiction or Realistic Fiction books I read in 2014. It is less an awards kinda thing, and more a distillation of my year of reading and a short list of recommendations. Here’s a link to all of my Best of 2014 lists.

The MartianAndy Weir – The Martian
This debut novel is funny, smart, thrilling and among my favorite books I read this year in any genre. Andy Weir’s adventure is set in the near future during a manned mission to mars that goes disastrously wrong. What follows is some of the most scientifically accurate and engaging science fiction you are apt to read.

Everything I Never Told YouCeleste Ng – Everything I Never Told You
I don’t read as much contemporary fiction as I should, possibly because I am too soft-hearted for the emotional pummeling this book put me through. It is both absolutely heartbreaking and beautiful. Like The Martian, this is a debut novel for Celeste Ng. She tackled a tremendous amount of sensitive social issues in this novel with equal grace and authority.

Looking for AlaskaJohn Green – Looking for Alaska
Looking for Alaska was my introduction to John Green’s writing although already a fan of his youtube series Crash Course (which you should definitely check out). His young adult novels never talk down to the characters or audience. Looking for Alaska is a bildungsroman which yanks away each vestige of childhood from our young protagonist, Miles Halter. Through Miles we have some of the most frank and raw discussion of innocence lost and a reminder how vulnerable we all are at that age.

The Fault in Our StarsJohn Green – The Fault in Our Stars
John Green’s tremendous year includes the cinematic release of this young adult best seller. My reaction to this novel was very personal and affecting and only loosely in response the the actual character drama within the book. In my mind that makes it no less effective or resonant. We all have or will be affected by cancer in our families, friends or selves. John Green has made a thoughtful story which attempts to reflect the many and diverse relationships we have with the disease and those living with the cancer.

A Cold and Broken HallelujahTyler Dilts – A Cold and Broken Hallelujah
Detective Danny Beckett is practically the opposite of Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. He is thoughtful, diligent and fully engaged in his investigation. Unlike Sherlock Holmes it isn’t an intellectual interest, or the love of the game. The game is killing him and he cares for each of the victims of the crimes he is unraveling. It may be odd to describe him for what he is not, but this was unlike any detective story I had read before. It is personal. The answers don’t come easy and the process takes a toll. It is a counterpoint of melancholy and hope and a great read.

Review: Wakulla Springs

Wakulla Springs
Wakulla Springs by Andy Duncan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Duncan and Klages have crafted a well written multi-generational character piece centered around a rural natural spring in Florida. The story touches on segregation, racism, Hollywood fantasies, mythology, tradition and a sense of place rooted through the generations. It is not a science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction short story. That seems like an odd thing for me to mention at this point, but this story was nominated for a Nebula Award in 2013 and is shelved as science fiction or fantasy by most Goodreads members. It is such a shame because it is a good historical fiction story, but if you read it waiting for something fantastical to occur you will spend the story in anticipation, grasping at clues which do not exist. There is superstition and reference to cryptozoology, but these are cultural touchstones and daydreams. I wish my experience was better, but the reader is an integral part of reading and preparing yourself to be an attentive participant demands an appropriate frame of reference.

Wakulla Springs can be read for free at Tor.com.

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Review: Treasure Island

Treasure Island
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had a yearning for the sea recently and queued up The Squidder, Moby-Dick and the Audible version of Treasure Island. The narration by Jasper Britton is spectacular. He captures the young fresh voice of Jim Hawkins, regal voice of the doctor, measured voice of the captain as effortlessly as he drawls the gravelly melodic tones of Long John Silver and his sea dogs. This is a classic story of murder, mischief, mutiny and daring do all in the name of buried pirate treasure. The pacing is superb, the action thrilling, but never beyond belief. With Jim as our guide we get to experience the best of all the awe and fear while maintaining our sense of adventure. Tremendous fun and a great listen.

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Review: Peter Panzerfaust

Peter Panzerfaust
Peter Panzerfaust by Kurtis J. Wiebe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Peter Panzerfaust (great title) is a clever retelling of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan set in the french resistance during World War II. The Lost Boys, the Darlings, Hook and others all fit seamlessly into a backdrop of the fall of Calais and Parisian underground. Kurtis J. Wiebe weaves specific lines of dialogue and imagery from the source material without crossing into fantasy. There is a illusion to Peter flying early in the book when Peter leaps from the orphanage to the “second window to the right” (and presumably “on till morning”). But, in the author’s notes at the end of the book, when he mentions that people question him if Peter really flies at that moment, he states “…there’s magic in the memories of old men”. Perfectly stated. That is also the blessing and the curse to the telling of the story. It is written in an interview format. A historian is interviewing the lost boys as old men about Peter and the war. As a result the dialogue doesn’t flow like natural speech, but neither does it have the storyteller quality of a fairytale. There is a lack of magic in the telling. Tyler Jenkins artwork is occasionally beautiful, but frequently inconsistent. The character art is not fixed and can be difficult to distinguish between the Lost Boys, and while there are sporadic iconic frames the faces are not reliably emotive. The quality of the book, paper and coloring is excellent. Image Comics (Shadowline imprint) created an excellent collectable volume of a clever, charming concept.

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