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Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

Nonfiction Review – I Wish I’d Been There

Wednesday, August 22nd, 2018

I Wish I’d Been There by Byron Hollinshead

Review by Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

“What is the scene or incident in American history that you would like to have witnessed—and why?” This is the thought provoking question that Byron Hollinshead posed to twenty of our finest American historians, with an invitation to answer in essay form. Those essays were then gathered together and put into a fascinating book called “I Wish I’d Been There: Twenty Historians Bring to Life Dramatic Events That Changed America.”

This is such a fun book! First, I had to think about my own choice. If I could only pick one incident, which one would it be? That’s a hard one, but I think I’d have to say I would have loved to sit in on the first Thanksgiving. Or maybe be at Roanoke Colony, right before everyone just disappeared. Then again, it would be so neat to sit in a crowded, darkened theater and watch Harry Houdini perform.

I don’t know if the participating historians had as much difficulty as I did when choosing their one, single event to witness—but I do have to say they choose some great ones.

Mary Beth Norton, a professor of American History at Cornell University, chose the Salem Witch Trials. Of course! What really happened in Salem in 1692? Were the four young girls truly being tormented by witches…or just bored? To watch an entire community descend into panicked paranoia would be compelling. On the other hand, these accusations could have been made in order to seize lands and property, to benefit a few greedy men. Mary Beth Norton tells us what she knows, what she believes, and why she would love to have witnessed it all.

Thomas Fleming, historian and author of fine historical fiction, wanted to be with John Brown at Harpers Ferry. Being a novelist, his essay is a rich imagining of what it would be like if he had been…say, a journalist in 1859, assigned to follow Brown and report on the happenings. He drops the reader into that long-ago time, and brings us along on the raid that changed our country forever.

There are so many choices! We have essays on the day Abraham Lincoln was shot; the day Chief Joseph surrendered; the day Lewis and Clark first see the Rocky Mountains; the day Jenny Lind debuts in America, courtesy of P.T. Barnum. Each historian chose a fascinating snippet of American history, and the enthusiasm and longing for that snippet comes through in each chapter. Not every choice was from our distant past, either; there are essays about sitting in on the meeting between JFK and his brother Robert when they discussed America’s role in Vietnam; one historian wanted to march on Washington with Martin Luther King; one wished he could have been in the White House on March 13, 1965 when Lyndon Johnson confronted George Wallace. Read: at one point, Johnson says “Now look, George. don’t think about 1968, think about 1988. You and me, we’ll be dead and gone then, George. Now you’ve got a lot of poor people down there in Alabama, a lot of ignorant people. You can do a lot for them, George. Your president will help you. What do you want left after you die? Do you want a great big marble monument that reads George Wallace—he built? Or do you want a little piece of scrawny pine board that read George Wallace—he hated?” That meeting would have been something to see.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Each participating historian offers a well-written, well-reasoned explanation of the slice of history he or she wishes to have witnessed. And to be honest, I wish I could have been at each one of these events too. It certainly makes one think: which historic event do you wish you could have witnessed?

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – Death and Taxes

Monday, August 20th, 2018

Death and Taxes by Thomas B. Dewey

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This Detective “Mac” mystery was published in 1967. Mac’s first and last names were never revealed in these PI novels, which went on from the early 1950s to about 1970. Mac never aged either, staying in early middle age for the entire run.

Mac is assigned to deliver a million dollars in cash to the daughter of his client, a notorious gangster Marco Paul, upon the thug’s death. However, Marco Paul is gunned down in an old-style gangland hit before he has a chance to tell Mac when he stashed the stacks and stacks of hot cash. Gangsters being awful gossips, plug-uglies sniff the existence of the million and assume that Marco told Mac of the location of the cache. This makes Mac’s life difficult, as he becomes the subject of strongarm tactics to get him to tell. This is a hard-boiled mystery for 1967 so the strongarm scenes aren’t disgusting. So Mac needs to catch the killer and find the cash fast.

There are two attractive female characters in the mix, but Mac, as always, is chaste. Mac, in fact, is rather a worrier, who wears his emotions and concerns on this sleeve. After reading lots of Dashiell Hammett lately, I feel that Mac rather pales beside the rugged but human Op. Mac is based in Chicago, but besides street names there is little local color. Finally, Mac doesn’t wrestle with The Ambiguities like Phil Marlow or Lew Archer. Nor does Mac seem to have any kind of life outside of detecting (his lives in an apartment attached to his office).

I still recommend these hard-boiled mysteries, with a tight stories, a minimum of violence, and no foul language, for readers to this old-school genre.

 

 

 

Nonfiction Review – The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

 

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story
by Douglas Preston

Review by Gail P. (TinkerPirate)

Picture yourself looking through a bookshelf and randomly picking up a book titled “The Lost City of the Monkey God”.  The premise is a group of scientists are searching for a lost city in a deep South American jungle.  You figure you are in for a finger-nail biting, thrill ride.  Then, you learn that many of the scientists develop symptoms of a mysterious disease that takes trips to far-away countries and months to diagnosis.  Oh, yes, you know you have a book that will keep you up at night.  Lastly, you see that the author is Douglas Preston.  Now, you know you have a great read in your hands and you clear your calendar for non-stop reading.  Then, comes the unexpected curve…it’s all TRUE!  “The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story” is Preston Douglas’ eyewitness account of a 2012 expedition in search of this lost city. 

The book set in an area of eastern Honduras called La Mosquitia that consists of tropical rain forests, marshs, and savannahs.  It contains the largest wilderness in Central America and is considered largely unpopulated.  While there are some areas inhabited by people, the vast majority of La Mosquitia is home only to animals that can amuse you, annoy you, or kill you.   In addition to being considered a World Heritage site, it is reportedly the location of a legendary city of immense wealth.  That city is called La Ciudad Blanca (the White City) or Lost City of the Monkey God.  

The search for the Lost City of the Monkey God is not for the faint of heart.  Since the time of the conquistadors, men have been trying to find this lost city.  Many have boasted of finding it, but none have provided evidence of its existence.  Preston provides descriptions of a number of these previous attempts.  His narrative of those expeditions are not only entertaining, but informative.  Along the way you will discover interesting pieced of history about Honduras and the role the United States has played in creating its present state of unrest.  I was surprised to learn the origin of the term “banana republic”.

I went into the book expecting a good read about an expedition into the unknown and some history into indigenous culture. What I got was much, much more.  While the first 60 pages or so were slow, Preston does an incredible job of presenting dry subjects such as Central American politics, archeologic processes, epidemiology, etc. in a way that makes the book a real page-turner.  He brought me into the adventure as an eye-witness to one of the greatest discoveries in the 21st century.

Key things I walked away with: 

  1. Great civilizations fail for the same reasons. 
  2. Humans have an amazing capacity to protect natural and historical wonders, but, unfortunately, more of us just want to exploit whose wonders. 
  3. In a battle between nature and humans, nature wins. 
  4. One of the greatest dangers to us has been around since dinosaurs walked the earth and little is being done to control it. 
  5. Never under estimate the power of a dream. 

 

 

Fiction Review – Prester John

Wednesday, July 18th, 2018

Prester John by John Buchan

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

The beautiful cover of the Oxford World Classics edition of Prester John (1910) hints that Buchan’s descriptions of landscape are pleasant in this novel.

I could scarcely believe my eyes as I ran towards [a gleaming lake], and doubts of a mirage haunted me. But it was no mirage, but a real lake, perhaps three miles in circumference, with bracken-fringed banks, a shore of white pebbles, and clear deep blue water. I drank my fill, and then stripped and swam in the blessed coolness. After that I ate some luncheon, and sunned myself on a flat rock. ‘I have discovered the source of the Labongo,’ I said to myself. ‘I will write to the Royal Geographical Society, and they will give me a medal.’

Ah, the daydreams of a 19-year-old.

Another plus is that the teen hero freely admits to being at the end of his tether on numerous occasions and he feels the physical effects of his ordeals, both of which are rarely admitted in adventure novels of any time. Although not quite as thrilling as Greenmantle, this is an admirable story, packed with chases and escapes. Aside from the total of absence of female characters, modern readers may be put off by the ethnocentrism and imperialism, enlightened or not. What balances the typical opinions of a man of his nation, class, and time, I think, is Buchan’s relevant idea that civilization is fragile, “a pane of glass,” and that savages come in all guises.

 

 

 

 

 

Audiobook (Fiction) Review – The Bette Davis Club

Wednesday, July 11th, 2018

The Bette Davis Club by Jane Lotter

Review by Mirah Welday (mwelday)

On a recent work trip, I listened to The Bette Davis Club by Jane Lotter.  Unbeknownst to me, Jane Lotter passed away in 2013. The forward by her daughter Tessa highlighted Lotter’s sense of humor and life as a writer. It was an unexpected and touching way for the book to begin.

Margo Just is a middle-aged woman who is in California for her niece’s wedding.  Dreading the day because of her very strained relationship with her half-sister Charlotte, Margo is drinking double martinis and hoping to get through the event unscathed.  When her niece Georgia disappears before the wedding, Margo is offered $50,000 by Charlotte to go after Georgia and bring her back, along with property that Georgia took without Charlotte’s permission.  Margo has no idea what this mysterious property is and doesn’t want to get involved but finds herself in need of the money and decides to accept the challenge.

Margo finds herself in her father’s classic red 1955 MG convertible with Georgia’s jilted fiancé Tully.  This is the start of a long car ride of awkward discussions, petty arguments, a search for clues of Georgia’s location, and a reality check on the state of her relationships and life.

I thought The Bette Davis Club was a funny and heartwarming novel.  Margo was self-deprecating and seemed like she was in denial but she was funny and charismatic.  Margo’s life had been punctuated by hurt and disappointment that colored her life choices but through the journey to find Georgia, Margo managed to find herself and come to grips with the losses she had endured.

I have since learned that Lotter wrote her own obituary and, after reading it, I wish I would have had a chance to know her in life.  Funny and witty with a great grasp of just the right words to use, Lotter was a humorist of the highest order and I highly recommend her novel.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday – Appleby on Ararat

Monday, July 9th, 2018

Appleby on Ararat by Michael Innes 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

 

In this 1941 mystery, series hero John Appleby is returning to London from The Sunburnt Country (i.e. Australia) by ocean liner with a zany bunch of passengers. After the liner is torpedoed, the plucky band washes up on a deserted island in the South Pacific which turns out to be not so deserted. One of the passengers is murdered, making the island into a classic locked room. With a few silly elements, the story is more adventure a la John Buchan than a restful whodunit. 

Another attraction is among the cast is an archetypal  Australian woman, the intrepid and fearless prototype and paragon, that Innes used in other novels like The Man from the Sea (Innes taught EngLit in the U of Adelaide, in the 1930s and 1940s). 

This one is fun. It isn’t too wordy or frighteningly erudite so it does not feel too long, as ones set in country houses (Death by Water) and colleges (Seven Suspects) sometimes do.

Thriller Thursday – The Spies of the Balkans

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

This spy novel is set in Greece in the perilous months running up to the Nazi invasion in April, 1941. The story stars Costa Zannis, a police detective who heads the office of sensitive cases. That is, with his brains and tact, he handles delicate crimes involving the rich, the famous, the dignified though you’d never know it by the way they act up. A ladies man, Costa has relationships with an old GF, a British spy, and the wife of ruthless tycoon. We readers need the romantic angle as a break from the tension of Nazi cruelty and our rueful previous knowledge that Greece is doomed to Nazi occupation.

Zannis becomes involved in three secret operations. He helps a society woman in Berlin smuggle out Jewish people who have to escape or be interned in concentration camps. The British notice that Zannis has experience with escape routes so they pressure him into going to Paris to smuggle an important scientist back to Greece. The British also back an operation in which Zannis is sent to Belgrade to assist in the (historically accurate) coup by a group of pro-Western Serb-nationalist Royal Yugoslav Air Force officers commanded by General Dušan Simović.

The settings all have evocative details of Salonika, Budapest, Berlin, and Paris. Furst is also effective at getting across the mundane details of ordinary people doing their best in trying circumstances – such as the fine scene of his family packing to flee and the reaction of their worried sheepdog Melissa. The irrepressible S. Kolb, British agent, shows up in this one playing the ghost in the machine that he did so well in Dark Voyage and The Foreign Correspondent.

I recommend Furst’s novels highly but don’t read them too close together, otherwise the formula is a little obvious.