Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files are pretty well known by now, since they inspired a short-lived  TV series and a RPG game. Butcher has used the success of the series to create two other book series. I’ve read them all and found that they are at the worst decent time-wasters. Like any author his books can be hit-or-miss just based on the individual’s interests as well; Fool Moon was not his strongest entry, but I just like werewolves and so I was swept along where someone else might not have persevered. A later entry in the series called Ghost Story was much better written and showed off Butchers’ skill, but spirits on the other hand are not that fascinating in my opinion. That being said, I’ve never really been interested in in Faeries or stories about them, but the way he writes them and makes them “modern” and yet inhumanly fascinating was able to get past my initial reluctance.

     Summer Knight starts off with Harry Dresden in a bad place following the events of the previous book, and things quickly go downhill. He is contacted by one of the Faerie Courts (known as the Seelie and Unseelie) in order to put something right. This means that a hapless young wizard is surrounded by mysterious, powerful beings who in many cases could squash him like a bug, as well as years of intrigue and fighting for status (magic + politics = fireballs instead of filibusters! Highest-rated TV channel ever!). This book is where the universe Butcher was planning to create really took wing, and I suspect where the groundwork for his RPG was laid as well. It features a host of new characters, an in-depth look at the power players and factions within the magical community, and some further suggestion that events in the earlier books might have alternate meanings.

It’s for these reasons, as well as the increased confidence Butcher shows in the writing that Summer Knight is one of my favorite in the series, (the rest of which are constantly shifting in rank as they are reread). As a person who likes to start a series in the beginning, it’s startling to consider that this book is probably the best place to enter the Dresden Files series of books if you want a serving of excellent writing without the early-days problems that dog most series.

In an earlier review I looked at Storm Front, the first of the series, and the two books side by side could be used to teach a class on writing improvement. On the one hand, starting at the beginning of the Dresden Files might be for the best-on the other, why not jump in where the fun really begins? I can’t answer which way is best. I’ve also begun listening to this book on CD, and it says something that the story sound just as good when spoken aloud as when read silently.

Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon

Divisions in a country or a population are rarely stark unless they are right in front you-unless you’re directly affected. This was obviously not true of Berlin in 1949, the title location of this spycraft offering by Joseph Kanon. The Wall was obviously a fact of life for the people, with capitalism and communism standing side by side for all of the world to see, and of course such a place became a hothouse of espionage, similar to Istanbul after WW2, which, incidentally is the setting of another Kanon thriller called Istanbul Passage (which I now want to read).

The main character in Leaving Berlin is Alex Meier, a Jewish writer who settled in the United States after the War. After a brush with the warmhearted politics of the McCarthy trials, Meier is offered the chance to “clear” his name by returning to Berlin Berlin and reaching out to his old family friends in order to give the newly founded CIA an agent inside the divided city. Needless to say, it all goes downhill from there.

This is the first book by Kanon I’ve read, and it has ensured that this will not be the last. He paints a vivid picture of the shabby glamour and desolation of Berlin, and of the struggles of the people who are just trying to survive after having a brutal separation imposed on them by outside forces after the horrors of WW2. The mystery itself proceeds at a slow but steady pace, with plenty of time for characters to be introduced. One minor difficulty I did encounter was that two of them had very similar last names, which necessitated a bit of page-turning to remember who was who at one time. And of course there are no clear-cut bad guys and good guys, just people living in an extraordinary time and place.

It’s a gently despairing story (but still quite entertaining), which is probably true of most spy stories, since living with lies and no one to trust is probably one of the toughest occupations in the world. In the 1950’s at least you might hear from a physical source if someone was talking about you or giving away secrets and information was easier to find, but in these days of social media there are layers upon layers of data and stories to dig through. I wonder if the semi-mythical days of Bond were more fun for spies?

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Our Man In Charleston by Christopher Dickey

Living as I do a short distance from Gettysburg, due to sheer repetition the facts and battles of the Civil War have honestly never been very interesting to me. I’ve avoided the various museums and exhibits featuring items from that time, and in general have been a poor student of local history. However, a recently purchased book about the Civil War has kept my attention, much to my own surprise.

        Our Man In Charleston touches upon a little-considered aspect of the War: that of the international response to our homegrown conflict. Established nations such as Britain naturally had diplomatic representatives stationed in various cities across the young United States. These individuals lobbied for favorable trade rights, hosted visiting dignitaries, and in general kept their government informed about the inner stirrings of the American political animal. A consul could be a valuable witness and resource to his superiors during a time of unrest, and the time leading up to the Civil War was certainly one of those.

Britain was firmly against the slave trade that kept the American South competitive in the cotton trade, and a series of problems between the nations on this issue had convinced the English that they needed a more complete knowledge of the area. Robert Bunch was a career politician who wanted a challenge, and so he was appointed the local consul for the area and instructed to learn as much as he could about the area and local feeling in regards to slavery in general, as well as to change local laws that put British-born African sailors in danger. In order to do so, he was also required to convince the influential citizens of Charleston that he shared, or at least condoned, their own bigoted and cruel system of slavery, when in truth he held them in a deep contempt, as did the majority of British citizens.

The book is an interesting examination of the careful tightrope Bunch was forced to walk in order to do his job in a time when both his neighbors and the Northern government were constantly on the alert for any hint of disloyalty. It also includes character portraits of many of the important figures of the era such as Judah Benjamin who, for good or ill, feature in the events of the era. I’d highly recommend it to any student of the Civil War or even history in general. It’s the unknown or unheard stories that are often the most interesting.

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Will Thomas’ Some Danger Involved

Back after a long absence….

This was an impulse pickup from the library. The Victorian detective novel is obviously a genre that seems like a challenge for your first novel, given the gigantic shadow that Sherlock casts over it, and I was curious to see how Thomas would shake things up. If he would add any twists or innovative ideas to the detective/sidekick pairing or the setting, thereby putting his own stamp on the concept.

The mystery is set in Victorian London, and is chiefly concerned with the increasing Jewish population of the city. This has led to conflicts and tensions on both sides as this historically-persecuted group attempt to find a new home where their ways rub the nerves of the solidly Christian majority. When a young Jewish man who looks very similar to the popular image of Jesus is found crucified, a detective with a close relationship to the Jewish community, Cyrus Barker, is called upon to investigate soon after he has hired his new assistant.

Sadly, I found very little of the sort. The protagonist, Thomas Llewelyn, is a down-on-his-luck Welsh lad who has spent time in both Oxford College and prison, and it is this odd history that recommends him as an assistant to Cyrus Barker, a well-known “enquiry agent.” This background doesn’t seem to add anything to Thomas’ identity, and indeed his personality isn’t well fleshed-out, though his backstory is solid. If the book had been about him as an assistant inheriting Barker’s practice, it would have been more interesting, in my mind. Unfortunately, this is not so, and we meet Mr. Barker. His backstory, why he always wears spectacles, and his eccentric methods and staff attempts to create a sense of mystery that falls flat. I understand that Mr. Thomas was attempting to follow the same path as Arthur Conan Doyle in gradually uncovering the character of their detective, but there just isn’t much there there once the story is told.

Barker is as unfailingly omnipotent as Holmes, but he doesn’t seem to have the same flashes of personality, instead depending on quirk to fill in the blanks. He has a vast and already settled network of contacts (and in fact a passage of Doyle’s regarding Moriarty’s spiderweb of influence is paraphrased by Barker) so that we’re along for the ride, but never encounter something or someone new or different without Barker’s presence, so that there’s no sense of discovery. Investigating the mystery itself seems to consist of talking to the chief suspects and little else, and the reveal of the killer, as well as his motive, is pretty anticlimactic. I got the sense that Will Thomas more wanted to display his skill at creating a picture of the time and people who might have existed in it than he did in making an engaging mystery. Indeed, there is an entire chapter dedicated to Llewelyn’s time working in a rabbi’s house over Passover which could easily have been snipped out, given that it did not advance the plot at all.

I will add a caveat here: many of the issues I had with the story can be easily forgiven because of the book’s place as the first of an apparently popular series. Finding your voice as a writer is no easy task (which I well know as someone who hasn’t discovered his own) and Thomas certainly has the skill to keep it going. If you read Some Danger Involved and don’t care for it (as I didn’t) then give the next one a try (as I will). It may grow on you.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr

Sherlock Holmes has of course left an indelible mark on culture in the West. There are video games, TV shows, movies, and a horde of books that have dissected every facet of the stories by Conan Doyle. The original books have been reprinted a multitude of times, and a lot of authors have taken the opportunity to write their own additions to the Holmes universe, whether in the form of new mysteries or with a twist, as in  Neil Gaiman’s A Study In Emerald and Kim Newman’s The Hound of the D’Urbervilles, which featured Holmes more well-known enemy, Professor Moriarty.

The Italian Secretary doesn’t have any such alterations; it’s a straight mystery written in Doyle’s style (and therein lies the problem; more on that later). The story itself is set in the town of Edinburgh, and features mysterious doings at the Holy Palace of Holyrood. Deaths have been reported, and a mysterious note has summoned Holmes himself to investigate a crime that, it is suggested, may threaten the Queen herself.

The Holmes stories themselves are fun to read, but in my opinion their great flaw is the omnipotence of the Great Detective as far as allowing people to solve the crime themselves. He picks up on every clue, knows the name of everything and everyone he encounters, and has a massively wide array of skills. Those are staples of the series, but they make reading the old stories slightly annoying in my eyes,  writing a new mystery difficult, and reading one even more so. There’s little suspense or sense of danger to the main character obviously either, but if the surrounding people are well written that doesn’t matter.

That is in effect here, as Carr’s Holmes is always on top of the game and rarely puzzled by anything he encounters. He gathers information from everywhere, bringing out ideas and facts from the barest evidence. Again, I understand that it’s a tradition of the mysteries, but it can be grating at times. Mycroft Holmes shows up as well, but has little impact on the events apart from being the impetus for his brother’s involvement in the following investigation.

The story itself is an odd hodgepodge of ideas, mixing cruel noblemen, Scottish Nationalism, mysterious deaths, and the possibility of supernatural forces at work (which in itself is a dubious idea in Sherlock’s world, given his firm adherence to practicality and logic). The death of David Rizzio, a real murder that contributed to the downfall of Mary, Queen of Scots, is a central theme, and I would be willing to bet that the idea of using the assassination was in place first as a subject of the book and Carr built the Holmes mystery around it.

Caleb Carr is a good writer, there’s no denying that; his previous books were entertaining and vivid. It makes me wonder if his writing is stronger when using characters he has created or fleshed out himself as opposed to those who have been stamped so firmly into their places by many previous hands, including the original creator.

If you enjoy Carr’s writing or the Sherlock mysteries, by all means give The Italian Secretary a read, and I hope you enjoy it more than I did. The Holmes stories are an acquired taste, and it’s possible I haven’t gotten it yet. Perhaps I’ll try this one again some day.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

 

Crows: Encounters With The Wise Guys by Candace Savage

It’s always fun when you can discover an interesting subject in a book found by random at a yard sale. These hidden treasures are sometimes more valuable than a book from a store or as a gift, because you are basically getting the luck of the draw.

A recent outing rewarded the trip with a short but fascinating book about one of the most common but iconic animals: the crow. It’s an in-depth examination of the discovery that they have surprising intelligence and social skills. Their familiar place as messengers and emissaries of dark forces in stories and legends are no surprise when a clever brain is added to their shadowy feathers and diet of carrion.

Candace Savage is both educational and engaging in this book, detailing stories and experiments performed by scientists who study these birds. Crows have been documented to both perform problem-solving and use/create tools to get food, a behavior that was previously only seen in primates and dolphins. In addition, the crows demonstrate the ability to learn from each other by copying a technique that they observed another bird using to eat.

The social patterns and relationships of the birds are likewise analyzed, with the discovery that some demonstrated bonds that make no sense outside of some type of family attachment-grown birds that hang around the nest or come back months after they’re grown, bringing food and caring for the young ones.

Another fascinating area is the communication between birds. The crows are reported to each have their own calls and borrow noises from new acquaintances, as in the case of a couple of ravens who were given a new neighbor. At first the twosome ignored the newcomer, until the newbie learned to use the specific notes the other two sang. Once these were used, they accepted the new crow into their tiny flock.

Interspersed with the scientific data are various stories and legends about the crow, rook and raven, from a wide variety of cultures. All of them accord the black bird a place as a clever being, such as Huginn and Muninn, spies and messangers of Odin, lord of the Norse pantheon.

Crows: Encounters With The Wise Guys is not a long book; only about 105 pages. But it is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts about these ubiquitous yet uncommonly-fascinating birds that we see every day. I would recommend it to anyone interested in animal intelligence, birds, or just nature in general. I can guarantee that you will learn something new about the members of the Corvus family.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

 

The Making of the Prefident 1789 by Marvin Kitman

I’ve already written a review of Kitman’s other book, George Washington’s Expense Account, and I said then I was gonna write this one up as well. I’ve enjoyed both of these books a great deal, both for the depth of historical detail and the breezy tone in which it educates the reader. Incidentally, that’s not an error in the title-Kitman says that in the past that’s how they spelled President, so that’s how he did it, and so then shall I.

The book details the path by which George Washington ascended to the White House. Born a poor boy with rich neighbors, he was apparently a meticulous study of math. He became a surveyor, buying land with the money he earned.  After his marriage to one of the wealthiest women in the colonies, he entered politics as a rich land & slaveowner who served in the Virgina House of Burgesses, where he did exactly nothing. His military career as a major in the Virgina militia started with a lost battle against the French & Indians, which resulted in the creation of  Fort Necessity, which was placed in the middle of a valley during a pouring rainstorm.

This uniform came in handy later when the Continental Congress was busy deciding who should be their commander in chief against the British. He wore it every day (and evidently had a real taste for dressing well). During the discussions, he wined and dined with many of the power players of the day, some of whom would later have positions in his administration. He also had a great love of dancing, sometimes for hours, with the wives of his hosts.

After much politicking and the promise to serve without pay, Washington was unanimously chosen as commander over John Hancock. Kitman records that Washington was not a natural leader and had some difficulty inspiring his men (not helped by Congress’ slowness in paying). The book has an engaging battle-by-battle discussion of each of the battles Washington commanded. His military career as leader of the colonial troops was not the best-he had many more defeats than victories, which was not due entirely to his own skill.

Washington is generally seen as a model Prefident, a man without scandal or sin. The man was generally loved in his time and is in ours, enjoying overwhelming adoration from the people past and present, ranging from a drastic uptick in “George” as a baby’s name to poems and the suggestion of “His Excellency” as title. Kitman does an amusing job of painting in the shades of our first Prefident. For example, he goes into detail about the pleasures of the day that George would have enjoyed. Washington, as did many men of the day, drank a LOT. An average day’s alcohol consumption in Philadelphia is recorded as “cider and punch for lunch; rum and brandy before dinner; punch, Madeira, port and sherry at dinner, punch and liqueurs with the ladies; and wine, spirit and punch till bedtime, all in punch bowls big enough for a goose to swim in.” During the 178 election, his agents supplied booze to 391 voters: 28 gallons of rum, 50 gallons of rum punch, 34 gallons of wine, 46 gallons of beer, 2 gallons of cider royal.

There were also the suggestions of many affairs Washington had with both notable ladies of the time, bolstered by their own letters about him.  A few names of possible paramours are Kitty Greene, Sally Fairfax, Eliza Powel and many others. While there’s no direct evidence of any dalliances between them and Washington, Kitman offers a lot of educated conjecture and correspondence to support his theories.

Kitman does an excellent and in-depth examination of Washington’s early life, military & election campaign, as well as the schemes and tricks apparently used to gain him the Prefidency, all without losing his respect for Washington or suggesting he was the wrong man for the biggest job in the world.  He quotes and uses a massive amount of documents for this book, and the fun tone of his storytelling doesn’t diminish the hard facts he brings to the table. Oh, and did I mention the foreword by John Cleese? That’s just the topping on the delicious historical cake.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.