THIS IS SPARTAAAA!!!

Title: Gates of Fire:
Author: Steven Pressfield
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 442
Rating: 4 of 5

Historical fiction is not my go-to genre. Maybe it’s because I was scarred by Gilbert Morris and his ilk as a teen. Whatever the reason, most of the time I’d rather just read non-fiction to get my history fix. Nevertheless, this book came highly recommended so I decided to give it a shot…and I’m glad I did!

Steven Pressfield provides a far more complex and realistic portrayal of the Battle of Thermopylae than something like The 300 or a gun enthusiasts explaining ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ This isn’t just 442 pages of carnage (though there is plenty of carnage). The battle is placed in its historical context with far more of the book exploring Spartan society, politics, and warrior ethos rather than describing the battle itself.

Most of the narration comes from a gravely wounded Greek survivor, dug out of the piles of the dead after the battle and commanded by King Xerxes to give him a soldier’s-eye-view of the men who made this valiant/futile stand against him. The story jumps around erratically within the narrator’s timeline, focusing on events that reveal the character of individual Spartans and ending with a moving/horrifying description of the battle.

The author’s somehow creates sympathetic characters within the pervasive brutality and oppression of Spartan society. He allows us to overhear and contemplate these warriors’ thoughts on violence, valor, honor, etc. (with some of the characters perhaps failing to show the proper laconic demeanor of true Lacedaemonians). He explores both the glory and the horror of war through events that still echo through history almost 2,500 years later. If you aren’t fazed by occasional info-dumping, profanity-laced rants, or graphic violence this is well worth reading.

Everybody was kung fu fighting…

A Hero Born: The Definitive Edition (Legends of the Condor Heroes Book 1) by [Yong, Jin]Title: A Hero Born
(Legends of the Condor Heroes – Book 1)
Author: Jin Yong
Translator: Anna Holmwood
Genre: Martial Arts Fiction
Pages: 416
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 9/17/19 (Thank you to the translator & publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review) 

If you like martial arts movies, this is a must-read. However, if you leave that kind of movie saying things like, “cool stunts, but why were they fighting again…and why did that guy let himself die?” you might want to give this a miss.

I found the historical fiction aspects of this quite interesting. My knowledge of Chinese history is negligible, and this was kind of a fun way to get a feel for cultural and political issues in the early 1200’s (Temujin / Genghis Khan is a major secondary character).

The story’s highly episodic plot (this was originally a serial) is driven by a very Eastern code of honor combined with quick tempers and arrogance. It’s probably just my Western mindset, but to me a lot of the interpersonal behavior just seemed incredibly petty and/or driven by passing whims (with little purpose other than setting up a kung fu action set piece).

There is very little plot resolution at the end of the book. We now have most of the major characters in the same place (and they have all managed to kung fu fight amongst themselves in various combinations), but none of the major story arcs have been resolved.

The translation work as a whole seemed to flow fairly smoothly considering how much difference in writing style and sentence structure there must be between the two languages. One slightly odd feature of the translation was the inconsistent handling of names: some were translated with their English meaning and others merely transliterated with the meaning pointed out in an aside. 

Overall, I’m glad for the opportunity to experience a book from another culture that is so staggeringly popular (>300 million sold plus bootleg copies probably totalling over 1 billion according to one of the appendices), but apparently martial arts fiction just isn’t my cup of tea.

Second Tier Twain

Title: The Prince and the Pauper
Author: Mark Twain
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 253
Rating: 3 of 5

In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court Mark Twain wrote scathing satire of medieval England. In this historical fiction (written earlier than Yankee) he pokes gentle fun at the pampered life of royals and points out the barbaric harshness of Tudor punishments, but his overall tone is much lighter…almost cutesy.

This kinder, gentler Twain felt a bit flat to me. A lot of the historical “color” consisted in paraphrasing or outright quoting chunks of historical documents that described the clothing and royal ceremonies of Tudor England. The well-known “identical strangers switch places” plot wasn’t especially believable, but it lets Twain look at different aspects of society through the eyes of outsiders and has some nice little dramatic tension at the end.

Sometimes I find Twain’s caustic wit in other books to be a bit much, but I prefer it to this book. Overall, I think I would have enjoyed The Prince and the Pauper a lot more when I was a child. As it is, I’m using this as my “Book from the Americas (author or topic)” category over at the Back to the Classics ChallengeSeven categories down; Five to go!

Loosely Linked Mini Reviews

Title: George MacDonald: An Anthology
Author: George MacDonald (duh)
Editor: C. S. Lewis
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 152
Rating: 4 of 5

C. S. Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was heavily influenced by George MacDonald. In this slim volume he collected 365 excerpts from MacDonald’s writings. Most of these gems come from his (deservedly) lesser-known writings rather than his beautifully crafted fantasy novels which Lewis claims must be taken as a whole to be fully appreciated. The writings of Lewis (especially Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters) do indeed echoe many of these thoughts, though I would say that MacDonald has a more mystical bent and many of his ideas smack of perfectionism of a rather Methodist variety (a doctrine I find unsustainable both Scripturally and through observation of the real world). Overall, this is a great little book with many thought-provoking ideas. However, to see MacDonald at his best I’d recommend reading the two books of the Curdie series.

Title: Creed or Chaos
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 85
Rating: 5 of 5

This book also has a vague connection to C. S. Lewis as Dorothy Sayers is considered to be an associate of the “Inklings” literary circle. In this collection of essays she discusses the need of sound, objective doctrine over a more subjective “all you need is sincerity” approach to Christianity. I have previously admired Dorothy L. Sayers as a translator of The Divine Comedy and author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, and I must say she is equally engaging as a theologian/philosopher.

Title: The Dante Chamber
Author: Matthew Pearl
Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction
Pages: 357
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Speaking of The Divine Comedy, Matthew Pearl has returned to the world of his wildly popular The Dante Club with this sequel. Now people are turning up dead in London, gruesomely killed in ways reminiscent of The Purgatorio. Pearl’s main historical characters for this one are Christina Rossetti (and family), Robert Browning, and Alfred Lord Tennyson (with an encore appearance by Oliver Wendell Holmes). There’s lots of info-dumping of interesting historical tidbits about these people and fawning commentary over the greatness of Danté wrapped around a twisted mystery. It’s basically the exact same formula as the first one and as such felt a bit played out…for me it was only okay.

Title: The Magic of Recluce
(Saga of Recluce: Book 1)
Author: L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512
Rating: 2.5 of 5

“Only okay” brings us to our next book. I found The Magic of Recluce to be pretty disappointing and almost DNFed it a couple times. The main character is a sullen brat who constantly complains about being bored and whines that no one tells him the answers to his questions but zones out when given the opportunity to learn anything important. The plot is a wandering “find yourself” narrative where mister whiney-pants suddenly makes huge deductive leaps, vast progress in his skills, or sudden increases in maturity seemingly at random. At the end he’s a better person but it all felt pretty haphazard. The Order vs. Chaos dynamic of the author’s world is interesting enough that I’ll give the next book a shot, but it had better be a whole lot better than this one.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot) Agatha Christie 0425200477 9780425200476 And when the second and final colume of Williams Collected Poems is published, it should become even more apparent that he is this centurys major American poet. --LTitle: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
(Hercule Poirot, Book 4)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 358
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book is one reason I’m willing to give an author or character a second chance. I do not care for Hercule Poirot; I am annoyed by his smug manner and holding back information so he can make a big splash at the end. However, this book has one of the best twist endings ever in a “cozy” mystery, so it’s worth putting up with the smarmy little Belgian.

Brutality & Redemption

Title: A Tale of Two Cities
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic Historical Fiction
Pages: 466
Rating: 4.5 of 5

I enjoy Charles Dickens. I don’t (usually) mind his wordy style, ridiculous names, amazingly convenient coincidences, or overblown page counts because he creates such wonderful, memorable characters and situations. That said, it took me several tries over quite a few years before I managed to slog through the first chapter or two of this book. Once the book gets going, it becomes clear that its status as one of Dickens’ most celebrated novels is richly deserved.

To me, much of the book’s impact was in the setting and events more than in individual characters, as is more usual with Dickens. I’m not sure how the people of France view the French Revolution, but this book crystallizes the horrified British view of the bloody affair. Dickens vividly portrays both the cavalier abuse of the poor by the Ancien Regime and the almost bestial vengeance of the mob once the tables were turned.

As always, Dickens’ cast of characters contain a wonderful mixture of the pathetic, the loving/virtuous, the ridiculous, and the loathsome. The two most prominent women were the best of characters and the worst of characters (come on…you know I had to make at least one comment like that). Lucie Manette is virtuous, loving, and completely flat: very much the ideal Victorian “angel in the house”…blech. Madame DeFarge, on the other hand, is truly terrifying as she embodies the bloodthirsty implacability of the Revolution. She may have been the most interesting/memorable character in the book until she was beautifully upstaged at the end by true love and redemption (“It is a far, far better thing that I do…”).

Overall, Dickens’ lone foray into historical fiction deserves its reputation. As long as you don’t completely hate Dickens’ style, you should read it. Don’t let the first chapter or two stop you.

Diotima Takes the Lead

Title: Death on Delos
(Athenian Mysteries – Book 7)
Author: Gary Corby
Genre: Historical Fiction Mystery
Pages: 330
Rating: 4 of 5

Nicolaos (Socrates’ fictional older brother and slightly bumbling agent / investigator / fixer for Pericles) and his wife Diotima (historically, one of Socrates’ teachers) are back for another case. I love how the author always centers the action around a major historical event in Athenian history. This time it’s the seizure of the Delian League’s treasury by the Athenians…for safekeeping, of course!

The murder mystery is well-constructed as usual with plenty of red herrings and a convoluted but believable solution. This time Diotima, ten months pregnant by the Athenian calendar, gets to take the lead. This isn’t isn’t too different than usual as she’s generally the smarter of the two, but this time it’s official.

I don’t read much historical fiction or mysteries (other than vintage noir), but I love this series, and this book was no exception.

ERB Does Historical Fiction

Picture1Title: The Outlaw of Torn
Author: Edgar Rice Burroughs
Genre: Pulp Historical Fiction
Pages: 255
Rating: 3 of 5

Earlier this month I read Tarzan of the Apes and was thoroughly unimpressed. I decided to give Burroughs another shot in a genre that didn’t lend itself as easily to product-of-its-era casual racism. Judging from the awkwardly drawn musclebound caped rider on the cover I thought this was something in the swords & sorcery genre, but it turned out to be historical(ish) fiction set during the reign of England’s King Henry III.

The plot features a (completely fictional) prince kidnapped at a very young age and raised as an England-hating outlaw by a vengeance-seeking French swordmaster. As you would expect in adventure pulp, there’s very little actual history as the plot revolves around swashbuckling, chivalry, and romance. Basically it was the cheaper, pulpier version of escapist classics like Scott’s Ivanhoe or Stevenson’s The Black Arrow. Given its genre, it was okay…I probably would have really enjoyed it as a young teenager.

One thing that I found interesting/stupid is that Burroughs repeatedly denigrates the era’s obsession with noble birth, but also weaves in the “blood will tell” trope for our noble-born-but-raised-as-an-outlaw hero. I guess it doesn’t pay to think too hard when it comes to pulp…just sit back and enjoy the hokey action if you can.

Rise & Fall of a NYC Mafioso

Image result for I mobster gold medal bookTitle: I, Mobster:
The Confession of a Crime Czar
Author: Anonymous (Joseph Hilton Smyth)
Genre: Crime/Noir, Historical Fiction
Pages: 160
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Mafia tropes, historical references, and self-justification abound in this fictional memoir. It’s all pretty straightforward; no high action or dramatic plot twists, just a matter-of-fact description of the rise and fall of a New York City mafioso in the 1930’s-40’s. Our protagonist/narrator, Tony (what other name would you give a fictional Italian mobster?), interacts with real-life mobsters like Charles “Lucky” Luciano and Louis “Lepke” Buchalter during the events leading up to and following the formation of “The Commission” and Thomas E. Dewey’s time as prosecutor and DA of NYC.

Throughout the book we are treated to Tony’s view of the absolute corruption of “law and order,” justification for his own actions (and the existence of the mafia), pride in his cleverness and accomplishments, and feelings of being trapped and forced into this life. It reminded me a bit of a much less literary version of Robert Graves’ I Claudius and Claudius the God (just with the mob instead of the Roman Empire). It’s worth a read if you’re into crime/noir.

Sticking it to Wells Fargo

Title: The Ballad of Black Bart
Author: Loren D. Estelman
Genre: Historical Fiction / Western
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

I don’t care for Westerns, but this tale of the poetry-writing, walking-rather-than-riding “gentleman bandit” with a grudge against Wells Fargo was an entertaining read. It isn’t a typical Western, but more like “novelized history.” In other words, the author has meticulously researched the people and events he is writing about and retells their story while inventing some dialogue and inner thoughts and using his imagination to flesh out the details (think Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels or Ron Hansen’s The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford).

The style occasionally drifts into sounding more like a history book than a novel and is more about dogged detective work than high action, but it suited my taste. If you like history, especially the history of notorious people, this is worth your time.

More Mini-Reviews

This week is Vacation Bible School at my church so between publicity and preparation last week and keeping control of a swarm of kids this week it’s been insanely busy.  Also, I’ve had kind of a run of “meh” books that I didn’t feel particularly motivated to review. However, I’m trying to give at least a short review of everything I read this year, so here are a few mini-reviews.

Title: The Maltese Falcon
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Hard-boiled Detective/Noir
Pages: 189
Rating: 4 of 5

This is probably the best known of Hammett’s novels thanks to the excellent Humphrey Bogart movie adaptation. Rather than the usual Continental Op, it features shady-but-not-quite-as-dishonest-as-he-seems private eye Sam Spade. Murder, greed, and lies (so many lies) surround the quest for “the black bird,” but Spade sees through the murk enough to come to a satisfactory ending for himself. Personally, I prefer the Continental Op to the more womanizing Sam Spade, but this is still a great book in the morally ambiguous world of Dashiell Hammett.

Title: The Crucible
Author: Arthur Miller
Genre: Play/Historical Fiction
Pages: 147
Rating: 3 of 5

This classic play about the Salem witch trials is really an exploration of the attitudes/actions during the McCarthy era Red Scare. Sadly, most of those attitudes rear their heads now and then to this day (I hate church politics so much!). Even though the author is insightful at times, I’m not a fan of authors of historical fiction altering solid historical facts to make the narrative fit the point they are trying to make, and Miller does this quite a bit. Between that and the overall bleakness, I didn’t really care for the play.

Title: Lysistrata
Author: Aristophanes
Translator: Douglas Parker
Genre: Play
Pages: 123
Rating: 2 of 5

I read this mostly because I needed something short to blast through for my library’s reading contest (and I was already at the plays shelf to pick up The Crucible). The premise of this raunchy comedy is that the women of Greece refuse all sexual favors to their men until they agree to end the ongoing war. The translator’s introduction described it as Aristophanes’ “most phallic” play…it was disturbingly so. Proof that crass humor has always been with us. Blech.

Title: The Stranger
Author: Max Brand
Genre: Western
Pages: 206
Rating: 2.5 of 5

About once per year I read a Western and then decide I’ve had my fill of the genre for at least another year. This one was combination of Western and Mystery as two cowpunchers try to figure out who killed the man they were supposed to be protecting for ten days at $1,000 per day. Between the insta-love, fairly obvious whodunnit, and a plot hole or two I wasn’t terribly impressed.

Title: Woman in the Dark
Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Crime/Noir
Pages: 87
Rating: 3

This short novel, originally serialized in Black Mask, isn’t Hammett’s best, but it’s still a decent pulp story. Rather than Hammett’s usual detective, the protagonist is a convict recently released from prison. When his landlord’s mistress puts him in the middle of a messy domestic situation his newly regained freedom is threatened. Overall, a pretty typical Black Mask story worth reading if you’re into noir.

Title: The Captain’s Daughter and Other Stories
Author: Alexander Pushkin
Translator: Natalie Duddington
Genre: Classic/Short Story Anthology
Pages: 288
Rating: 3.5

I have never read anything by Pushkin before and was curious how he compared to other Russian authors, so I picked up this collection. There was quite a bit of variety from outlaw and soldier stories (reminiscent of Gogol’s Taras Bulba or Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad) to a slightly supernatural tale (The Queen of Spades – probably my favorite in the collection) to one with a nice twist at the end worthy of O Henry. Pushkin has a lot of the bleakness that I associate with Russian authors, but to a lesser degree. I’ll probably pick up more by him in the future.