Potpourri

I’m trying to review at least 100 books this year…9 to go. Toward that end, here is a random assortment of 5 mini-reviews.

Title: Our Kind of Traitor
Author: John LeCarré
Genre: Espionage Thriller
Pages: 320
Rating: 2.5 of 5

This tale of an average British couple whose lives become entwined with a Russian mobster/defector started out as one of LeCarré’s better post-Cold War novels (which, honestly, isn’t a very high bar). However, the ending was just stupid. It felt like LeCarré got bored and just quit writing. The final action of the book made sense, but it was absurdly abrupt and left almost all of the plot lines unresolved.

Title: Fearsome Journeys
Editor: Jonathan Strahan
Genre: Dark Fantasy Short Stories
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5

I purchased this primarily because it has a Black Company story in it. That story was mediocre…as was the collection as a whole. I have no idea why this anthology is titled Fearsome Journeys as there are few stories that focus on journeying. The unifying theme actually seems to be people with morally ambiguous (at best) professions: mostly mercenaries, thieves, and assassins. It wasn’t bad, but a bit one-note.

Title: The Bear and the Nightingale
Author: Katherine Arden
Genre: Russian Fairy Tale Fantasy
Pages: 368
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This is ridiculously well-written for a first novel! The fairytale style and 13th century (I think) Russian setting were fascinating. What annoyed me was the “dour, manipulative, fear-mongering Christianity vs. harmonious paganism” narrative that was fairly central to the story. Depending on your particular worldview, your mileage may vary…stylistically it was a well-executed fairy tale (of the original variety, not the the cutesy Disneyfied kind).

Title: Judge Sewall’s Apology:
The Salem Witch Trials and the Forming of a Conscience
Author: Richard Francis
Genre: Colonial American History
Pages: 388
Rating: 4 of 5

Samuel Sewall was the only judge from the Salem witch trials to publicly apologize for his involvement. While that apology is the source of the book’s title, the book actually covers his entire life as recorded in his journals. The author presents Sewall as charming and ahead of his time in regard to slavery, the treatment of native Americans, etc. He sometimes lays it on a bit thick and seems to read too much between the lines, but overall this is an interesting, informative look at Puritan culture and religion.

Title: The Shakespeare Requirement
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: General Fiction / Satire?
Pages: 309
Rating: 4.5 of 5

If you’ve ever worked in academia and/or some similar buzz-wordy bureaucratic job, you should really read this book. I would say that it’s satire, but the woes of the new head of the English department trying to wrangle his colleagues into agreeing to a mission statement while fighting off the economics department (and convince the public that he is not anti-Shakespeare) ring all too true. Hilarious!

Quintessential American Adventure

Title: The Last of the Mohicans
Author: James Fenimore Cooper
Genre: American Classic
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5

This was the monthly read over at the Dewey Decimators book club, which gave me a push to finally read this book that has been lingering on my mental “I should really read that…” list. I’m glad I read it because of its place as one of the classic adventure stories of the US, but it didn’t really grab me, and I found some parts pretty cringe-y. To be fair, some of my “meh” reception may be due to massive stress at my job right now (the reason I haven’t posted here for a while) and just personal ambivalence toward almost any “manly American frontiersman” story line.

The book works when taken as a fairly typical light adventure classic from the 1800’s, featuring wordiness, a peril/action-driven plot, and the need to frequently overlook the racial prejudices of the characters (and possibly the author). The plot moves along from one damsels/heroes/soldiers in distress situation to another with quite a few action set pieces. Our heroes are manly, stoic, and competent in a fight. One of our heroines is dark-haired and firmly faces the perils of life, while shielding the other who is a blonde, innocent rag doll. Stylistically it reminded me a lot of something like Scott’s Ivanhoe or Stevenson’s The Black Arrow ( though as a matter of personal taste I much prefer those two books because of their Medieval European setting).

This is most definitely not a “politically correct” book. Our primary white hero, who never ceases to remind us that there’s “no cross [racial/ethnic mixing] in my blood,” navigates his own self-sufficient life between the noble wood-wise savagery of the dwindling Indians and the enlightened but naive and lacking-in-survival-skills white settlements. There’s a lot of stereotyping going on, but I think the hero/author does treat some of the Indians (as long as they aren’t from the Iroquois confederacy) with more sympathy and respect than the average author of his time. Your enjoyment of the book will be directly impacted by how much you are willing to overlook as “even if I don’t like it, that is how people thought/spoke/acted back then.”

Overall: not my favorite, but your mileage may vary depending on personal taste and mental state.