Category Archives: Books


Xifeng lives the life of a peasant with her seamstress aunt, practicing the family trade. Though poor, she has her natural beauty, a place in her world, and the love of Wei, one of the local craftsmen. But the marks on her back betray the cruel beatings Xifeng receives at the hands of her aunt. And yet both she and her overbearing guardian sense Xifeng is destined for greater things. Indeed, her destiny, if she chooses to pursue it, will take her to the royal court, and even a position of power in the continent of Feng Lu. So says the darkness that writhes within her. A darkness born of magic. But to gain the world, Xifeng will have to give her soul to that darkness. She must choose between poverty and power, love and selfish ambition. A home with Wei, or a throne beside the Emperor. And the darkness within will not make the choice easy.

Julie and I used to frequent the same YA blogs, so we’ve been writing acquaintances for some years. I remember a thousand-word flash fiction contest we both entered, where we had to write stories based on a picture prompt. As I recall, Julie’s story was a re-telling of Rumpelstiltskin, and it involved a walking tree operated by levers. It was so creative, and so well-told, I knew when I read it Julie was destined to be published. And here we are! Her debut novel. And it’s wonderful to be able to say, “Told you so!” ūüôā

Naturally, my expectations for FOREST OF A THOUSAND LANTERNS were high, and Julie doesn’t disappoint. She has created a rich fantasy, almost fairy-tale, world based in East Asian culture, with characters that pop out of the pages. Xifeng is an interesting protagonist, because, without giving too much away, she’s not your average heroine. Indeed, throughout the whole book, her motives are torn between self-interest and doing what’s right. As the story goes on, one side gradually dominates the other. But needless to say, she’s not always very likable, and it’s to Julie’s credit that you feel any sympathy for her, or root for her in any way.

There are twists to the story, and characters you need to keep an eye on. Things are not always as they seem. This is the first of a multi-novel series, so the book ends on a cliff-hanger, with loose ends that need to be resolved. And that’s probably as much as I can say without spoiling it for you!

I don’t usually read YA Fantasy [Side bar: Xifeng is 18 at the start of the novel, which is a little old for a YA protagonist. Yet the voice and style of the novel is definitely YA, which goes to show, age isn’t everything for YA.], but I looked forward to this book and thoroughly enjoyed it. There are a couple of s-words, and some gruesome images, so on the whole, I’d rate it a PG-15. But it’s elegantly written, and well deserving of your attention. I could see this being picked up by Studio Ghibli, so if you like their movies (think “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle”), you’ll particularly enjoy this book. An easy 5 Goodreads stars.

Book Review: THE LAKE by Lotte and S√łren Hammer

The skeleton of a young woman is discovered, tied to a stone, in a lake deep in the Danish countryside. The woman’s identity is a mystery; no one matching her description has been reported missing. After months of fruitless investigation by the local police force, a media scandal brings the case to nationwide attention and is quickly handed over to Konrad Simonsen and his team from the Copenhagen police force. It soon becomes clear that this unknown woman is the key to a sinister world of human trafficking, prostitution, and violence. A world where everything comes with a price and no mistake goes unpunished.

I was sent a copy of THE LAKE by a nice publicity person at Bloomsbury with the thought that I might review it. I don’t consider myself a book reviewer, though I review books… which I suppose makes me a book reviewer of sorts. But I certainly don’t review books simply because someone sent me the book asking me to review it. When people do that, there’s the assumption you’re going to love the book and write a glowing review, and if you don’t write a glowing review, feelings get hurt, you get nasty mail and defamatory Tweets and all that nonsense–I’d rather not go there. But if someone sends me a book, and I deem it worthy of a review, I’ll be glad to oblige.

In the case of THE LAKE, I have to say I didn’t fall in love with the book, but it was good, and had some features that made it worth reading, and of interest for a review. Let me start by saying that it is a translation from the original Danish. I have conflicting thoughts when it comes to books in translation. First, I know that when you translate, you never fully get across the author’s voice. It’s impossible, because you have to take their words and convey them in a language that doesn’t share the same idioms, cadence, grammatical structure, and so on, so aspects of the author’s style are bound to get lost. On the other hand, you don’t want the translator to simply render the whole novel as if it’s set in your culture, because then it becomes a different story “based on a novel by…” THE LAKE is translated by Charlotte Barslund, who is Danish by birth, but has lived in the UK for the past 33 years, so she is fluent in English. Her translation is a little stilted at times, but that was actually a good thing. The book is set in Denmark, and the characters are Danish, so it works that the English feels a bit ESL.

But there’s a twist! The English is actually British English, and the translator uses British idioms, even though this is the American edition of the book (published by Bloomsbury USA). “Of course!” you say. “Ms. Barslund has been living in the UK for the last 33 years.” But I find it interesting that Bloomsbury didn’t try to Americanize her work. Mathematics is “maths,” cell phones are “mobile phones,” colors are “colours,” and there are hundreds more little turns of phrase that reminded me of my homeland and made me smile. This is by no means a negative, but something for US readers to bear in mind.

But what about the story itself? This is the fourth novel to feature Konrad Simonsen, Detective Superintendent of the Copenhagen police. There are, in fact, seven novels in the series so far, but I think they’ve only got as far as translating the fourth, so this one is new to the English-speaking world (the original Danish title is PIGEN I SATANS MOSE, “The Girl in Satan’s Mose”–intriguing, huh?). I have not read any of the previous stories, so I came to this one not knowing any of the recurring characters–I presume the Countess, Arne Pederson, Pauline Berg, and Klavs Arnold have been in previous stories..? In any case, my lack of history with the series didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book. The Hammers (a brother and sister writing team) gave as much background as necessary without long “catch-up” passages for those, like me, late to the party. Though I have to say, it didn’t feel as if Det. Simonsen was really the star of the show here. He is the lead investigator, but I didn’t find him and his Copenhagen police team nearly as interesting as the bad guys.

The book starts like an episode of “Columbo,” showing us the crime, and identifying the perpetrators, so we know up-front who did it and how. But there’s more to these criminals than this one horrible act. There’s a whole family business lurking in the background, and all kinds of intrigues and deviousness going on there. The daughter of the family, Benedikte Lerche-Larson, is perhaps the most fascinating character of the whole story. She is both the dutiful daughter, and also the head-strong independent woman, pursuing her education, and making herself integral to the business. She appears cold and amoral, doing whatever it takes to keep things going. And yet she risks it all getting emotionally invested in someone.

All the acts of violence in the story have connections to the main puzzle: the murder of the woman in the lake. And as Simonsen and his team gradually put the pieces together, they uncover something much larger, much more horrific, and more far-reaching than they could have imagined possible. We, the reader, are always ahead of the police, since we are given front-row seats to each criminal act–at least for the most part. The Hammers plotted the story well so all the pieces fit at the end. However, I didn’t find it at all predictable; while the ending is satisfying, it didn’t tie together as neatly as I expected. There’s one major loose end the police weren’t able to knot… and I daresay that will come back to haunt them in future stories.

To sum up, this is a well-plotted detective thriller (though I use “thriller” very lightly–there aren’t any car chases, shoot-outs, or moments of life-or-death tension for the good guys one might normally associate with the genre). There are some sexual situations, but given that human trafficking and prostitution are part of the story, that’s only to be expected. There aren’t any graphic sex scenes. The acts of violence are a bit brutal. With few exceptions, the language is fairly PG-13. Overall, I’d rate the book an R, because of the subject matter and the violence. It’s a borderline 4-Goodreads-stars novel, but I would have liked to have had more sympathy and connection with the lead character, so to be fair I’ll have to give it 3 stars. Nevertheless, a good read, and one I’d recommend to fans of detective fiction.

THE LAKE will be released in the US on July 3, 2017. You can pre-order it now.

UPDATE: Here’s an interesting article on The Invisibility of the Translator¬†by Stefan Kielbasiewicz¬†from

Book Review: THE LAST LETTER by Susan Pogorzelski

Fifteen-year-old Amelia (“Lia”) Lenelli writes letters that she keeps in a time capsule which resembles a My Little Pony lunchbox, buried two feet under the soil in her father’s flower garden, in a place marked by a turtle statue. The letters are addressed to “Whoever…” Whoever might one day read them. Some day far in the future, perhaps. Someone Lia will never know. So she pours out her heart, talking about the sessions with her doctor, trying to find out why she’s having trouble sleeping. Why she is suddenly doing badly in school. The fatigue, and other symptoms that seem to be robbing her of her life, her friends, and everything that she knew to be normal. They test for every kind of disease and disorder, but the results come back negative. Maybe she’s just making it up, trying to get out of school. But why would she want to feel this way? Perhaps if she can give it a name, she’ll have hope for a cure. Because right now, she’s just surviving. And as hope runs thin, even survival gets hard. If she can just write one last letter, one last way to make her life real, when it seems to be hanging by a thread…

Susan Pogorzelski’s first full-length novel is a semi-autobiographical account of her struggle with Lyme Disease, an affliction that is much more widespread that most people realize, and hard to diagnose since it often mimics the symptoms of other diseases. Part of Susan’s reason for writing is to raise awareness of Lyme Disease, but it’s also to help the rest of us understand what it’s like to live with it.

Amelia’s story unfolds in the form of the letters she writes to her unknown reader who, presumably, will one day unearth the time capsule. This letter format gives her the freedom to talk about her life, her hopes, her fears, and her feeling of helplessness as her world crumbles around her. Susan’s prose does an excellent job of conveying the emotional struggle of a high school girl who is forced to watch life from the sidelines, and whose closest relationships are shaken, all because of something outside her control, and seemingly beyond medical treatment.

I found it both sad and fascinating, as I was invited into this young girl’s life, to see through her eyes, and to experience something I hope I never have to go through. Perhaps the fact many of Lia’s experiences reflect Susan’s own¬†is what gives her prose a resonance with reality. It’s hard to read and not feel at least sympathy, if not be affected by this girl’s struggle, and the bravery she shows battling though days when she hasn’t the energy to leave the couch,¬†or when her friends turn their backs on her.

I don’t know how this is “officially” classified, but I would call it literary YA. The focus of the novel is not so much on a plot, but on a person, Lia, and her life over the six years covered by her letters. It’s particularly poignant that this time period covers the events of 9-11. Lia’s reflections on that tragic day, especially in light of her own personal sufferings, make for thoughtful reading as we’re challenged to consider bravery and survival in two very different contexts.

I’d say this book is for an older YA reader (and above, of course), given the emotional depth of the narrative. Susan’s novel is an¬†excellent example of the power of fiction to¬†draw the reader into a reality unlike their own. What she does in this book is more challenging¬†and affecting than any medical description, or textbook definition. By reading Lia’s story, you get to live the disease with her. And it’s a credit to Susan’s skill as a writer that it works to that end. May it have a wide readership, and achieve the purpose for which it was written.

Book Review: THE ENGLISH AGENT by Phillip DePoy

Playwright and secret agent to Queen Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe is back for another adventure. This time, his commission is to travel to Holland and prevent an assassination attempt upon William the Silent, an important ally to England against Spain, and one with insider knowledge of the Spanish court. Having just witnessed the tragic demise of his latest play in a seedy Cambridge¬†pub, Marlowe is up for the job. But there’s more to this assignment, as he will soon discover. William is not the main target of the conspirators. Indeed, the very throne of England is in danger, and Marlowe may be the only thing between Good Queen Bess and the business end of a blade. If only he can figure out who, when, and how in time.

Disclaimer: My review is based on an Advance Uncorrected Proof of the novel sent to me by Phillip’s agent. It was sent for my enjoyment, and I was not placed under any obligation to review the book in return.

This is the second installment of¬†Phillip DePoy’s new series of novels featuring Christopher Marlowe. In real life, Marlowe was a playwright and later friend of William Shakespeare. In this series, Phillip imagines Marlowe in the role of a secret agent, working On Her Majesty’s Secret Service–“Her Majesty” here being the first Queen Elizabeth. He brings an interesting skill set to the job: master swordsman, a quick mind, and an eye for plot. These combine to help him navigate the various obstacles he meets both in England and Holland, and¬†try to figure out the main players in the plot, and the best way to outsmart them.

In my review of the first novel, A PRISONER IN MALTA, I noted the ease at which Phillip immerses the reader in the historical context of the book without turning the novel into a textbook on life in Elizabethan times. The same holds true here, where we get a glimpse of what the first performance of a play would have been like back then (a far cry from The Old Vic), and the theater culture of the day. Phillip also introduces us to some of the delightful cuisine of the period, including goose blood pudding, for which he even provides the recipe: goose blood, oats, warm milk, pepper, nutmeg, sugar, salt, rosewater, and coriander seeds. This was supposed to be a breakfast meal! (Urggh!)

I was pleasantly surprised to see John Bull, then organist of Hereford Cathedral, make a cameo appearance. Hereford is my home town, and I am a former student of Hereford Cathedral School. Needless to say, I’m quite familiar with the Cathedral,¬†and have heard some virtuoso performances on the organ in my time.

As with the first novel, Phillip’s story is well plotted, and he keeps you guessing¬†right up to the end. Phillip surrounds Marlowe with a wonderful cast of characters, including Leonora Beak, whose friendship, strength, and thoughtfulness is a great asset to Marlowe, and Ned Blank, a boy actor¬†whose skill at playing female roles is threatened by the onset of puberty.

If you enjoyed A PRISONER IN MALTA, you will like THE ENGLISH AGENT. If you’re a fan of historical fiction, and especially historical mysteries, you should definitely read this series. Also, anyone with an interest in Elizabethan England will get a lot of pleasure from the way Phillip brings it to life with these stories. I give it an easy five Goodreads stars.

Now that some experts are giving Marlowe co-author credits on three Shakespeare plays, how about indulging in some speculation on what he might have got up to in his spare time…? ūüôā

THE ENGLISH AGENT comes out on February 21st. You can pre-order it HERE.

Book Review: THE EDUCATION OF DIXIE DUPREE by Donna Everhart

Eleven-year-old Dixie is the youngest child of Evie and Charles Dupree, who live in Perry County, Alabama. She and her brother AJ like to climb trees and do the normal things kids in rural towns during the late 1960s would do. But home is not sweet for Dixie. Her mother, a transplant from New Hampshire by marriage, is discontented with Southern living. She pines for her New England roots, and is not afraid to let her husband know. Charles responds to his brash, no-nonsense wife with swigs of¬†Sneaky Pete, never for one moment believing she would actually leave. From a young age, Dixie has learned to lie, mostly to cover for the bruises, evidence of Mama’s temper. And then a fight between Mama and Daddy gets out of control, leading to Daddy’s sudden departure, and the arrival of Uncle Ray, Mama’s brother-in-law.¬†Uncle Ray saves the family from the inevitable financial ruin that would come without a bread-winner in the house. He gladly drives Mama to the store and helps her buy groceries. Mama’s temper softens, and all seems well for the family. But things start to unravel for Dixie when Uncle Ray’s intentions come to light, and her history of lying comes back to haunt her…

I have to say upfront that Donna is a friend of mine, which may incline me to review her debut novel favorably no matter what I really think about it. I’m happy to say there are no mixed motives in this review because a) the book has already received high praise, including an Amazon Pick of the Month for November nod, and making the USA Today Bestsellers list, and b) it really is an excellent novel (which is a relief!–though knowing the quality of Donna’s flash fiction, I was sure she had it in her).

Another caveat to my review is that I’m not particularly well-read in Southern Literature. In fact, I think the only other book I’ve read that would be considered in the same category is TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, which I consider¬†to be the best novel ever written. But to pit DIXIE DUPREE against MOCKINGBIRD would be unfair. Aside from the 1960s Alabama settings, the two novels have little in common either in terms of theme or voice. So my thoughts are strictly concerning the book on its own merits, not compared to similar titles.

With all that said, DIXIE DUPREE is an incredible debut. The novel starts with Dixie handing over her diary as evidence against Uncle Ray, so at the outset we know her diary is important, and Uncle Ray is a character we need to keep an eye on. But that’s really all we know. In the following chapters, Dixie’s story unfolds. It’s the story of a child learning how to lie, covering up for the adults in her life because, regardless¬†how wrong their actions are, she is convinced life would be worse if they weren’t there. Only her diary knows the truth.

Dixie’s education is not pleasant, and it makes for tough reading at times. The saving grace, however, is Donna’s voice. Choosing to tell the story from Dixie’s point of view enables her to convey some very dark and graphic scenes with youthful innocence. This doesn’t at all detract from the seriousness of what’s happening, but it does soften some of the harsh edges that a more adult sensibility would add. Nevertheless, this isn’t a book for the overly sensitive.

Indeed, perhaps the greatest strength of the book is Dixie’s voice. It’s clear, distinct, and has the ring of authenticity–exactly how you might imagine a well-read eleven-year-old from Alabama would sound. The other characters are well-defined, with their own quirks and flaws. Brother AJ takes to Uncle Ray in a way only a boy could, oblivious to the things going on with his younger sister. Uncle Ray is charming and helpful, hiding well the dark side¬†that threatens to consume him. Evie, her mother, is a complex mix of anger and devotion. She wants the best for her children, but too easily vents her frustrations on them with devastating results. Charles, her father, is devoted to his family, and doesn’t understand why Evie can’t love his hometown like he does. This leads to much of the conflict between them, and his drinking.

I would recommend DIXIE DUPREE, but, as I said, it’s not for those of a sensitive disposition, though I maintain that Donna deals with the issues in about as sensitive a way as one can. The main character is eleven, but it’s¬†not a book for middle graders. I would rate it R for profanity, and the adult nature of some of the scenes. An easy five Goodreads stars.

Links and Stuff

It’s official! We’ve closed on our house, so it’s now ours. At last I feel comfortable to share a couple of pictures. Here’s the front of the house:


And here’s the side of the house, but you can just see the Spanish Inquisition around the corner… just kidding. This is the room that will be my study:


See the square archway? That’s going to become solid wall, starting today. I’m not doing it, since my skill with a hammer is non-existent. You know those commercials that run around this time of year showing “The Perfect Gift for Dad”–and it’s a toolkit? Sorry, I’m not that Dad. So I’m getting help with the wall. (Not from Mexico.) And once the wall is up, I’m going to have big bookcases running almost the whole length of it. It’ll be wonderful. My desk will go against that wall you see on the left. ¬†I’ll share “after” pictures when it’s all done. Of course, I’m going to paint the walls too. I got¬†some color choices:


I’ll probably go with the one that’s second from bottom on the left-hand strip. I forget the name of the color. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but the wall is currently a beige-y color.

We’re hoping to be moved in a week from tomorrow, so we’re going to be busy for the next few days. As exciting as it is, we’ll be glad when it’s all over.

I just have a couple of links to share with you this week. The first is last month’s announcement that Dan Brown will be releasing a new novel next year. According to the announcement, the book will be called ORIGIN, and it explores “the dangerous intersection of humankind‚Äôs two most enduring questions, and the earth-shaking discovery that will answer them.” Since Dan Brown seems to have made it his life’s goal to annoy historians and Christians, one can only surmise that he’s delving into the area of Creation vs. Evolution. And if Brown’s super-sleuth cryptologist and conspiraciologst Robert Langdon’s track record is anything to go by, he’ll either be proving that “the Church” made up the Creation story to stir up animosity against snakes, or he’ll be proving scientists made up Evolution to make a monkey’s uncle out of us all. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to¬†avoid this one, just as I’ve managed to avoid all his¬†other novels.

Finally, this article in the New York Times¬†announced that the latest edition of the New Oxford Shakespeare will, for the first time, credit playwright Christopher Marlowe as co-author of three Shakespeare plays, namely Henry VI parts 1, 2, and 3. Shakespearean scholars and enthusiasts have debated the attribution of Shakespeare’s plays for centuries. The majority opinion still seems to be that William Shakespeare wrote all the plays he is traditionally thought to have written. However, it seems the naysayers are making inroads, which is why this edition of Shakespeare’s work is significant. It represents the first time a scholarly edition of Shakespeare has acknowledged doubt over the authorship of any of his plays. Of course, this is just one edition of Shakespeare, and doesn’t represent the views of all scholars. But it is a feather in Marlowe’s cap, to say the least. (By the way, Christopher Marlowe is an Elizabethan private detective in¬†Phillip DePoy’s novel, A PRISONER IN MALTA–check it out!)

Have you any exciting news to share this week?

Links and Stuff

RioOlympicsWeek Two of the Rio Olympics and, aside from Michael Phelps winning a boatload more medals, perhaps the most notable thing (at least for me) is how well the UK is doing. As of this writing, they are third in total medal count (behind China), and second in gold medal count (behind the US). Here’s the NBC Olympic Medal Race chart so you can keep track for yourself. As an ex-pat Brit, now a US citizen, I always have conflicting feelings whenever the US and UK compete against each other. I probably tilt a little to the UK, simply because it’s a British trait to root for the underdog, and they are definitely the underdogs against the US. Though I stand by what I said to the Immigration Officer at my citizenship interview: if the US and the UK were to go to war, I’d be on the US side. Sorry Mum. And yes–they asked.

House Hunting¬†Update: We looked at some more houses this week, and I made a list of all the houses we still want to look at, so we can start narrowing down our options. We’ve already crossed off four or five houses, and we have a couple that are the current favorites. But we still have a lot to look at. One house we liked is out in the countryside, but not too far from town. Unfortunately, it’s a little on the expensive side, and it’s still liable for city taxes, so money is a hindrance, even though we all liked it. Wifey grudgingly thinks we should strike it from the list. Call me ever the optimist, but I’m keeping it on there for now. Then there was the¬†house we wanted to see but we couldn’t get in. The realtor’s key turned the deadbolt, but the door wouldn’t budge. We considered breaking the door down, but decided we’re not that desperate. Our realtor is¬†going to contact the selling agent to let them know, so hopefully we can make a return visit. Note to house sellers: if you want to sell your house, make sure potential buyers can actually get into it. ūüôā

I recently read my first Lisa Gardner novel, FEAR NOTHING. Lisa was on the cover of Writer’s Digest not long ago, and I bought FEAR NOTHING on the basis of¬†that¬†interview. I wasn’t at all disappointed. The novel is well-written and well-plotted, using two different POVs for the two main characters. One of these (third person POV), is a police detective injured in the line of duty. The other is her pain therapist (first person POV), who has a genetic condition that makes her incapable of feeling pain. The twist? The therapist’s father was a notorious serial killer, and her sister is currently in prison for murder. What’s more, the case under investigation involves someone who is murdering people in exactly the same style as the therapist’s father…! There’s profanity and some moderately gruesome scenes (depending on your tolerance for such things), but otherwise I recommend it.

Finally, the British Library¬†has digitized and put online a 1,000 year old manuscript of the poem “Beowulf.” As you probably know, “Beowulf” was written in Old English (or Anglo-Saxon), and is the oldest surviving poem in the English language. So this is quite a big deal for students of ancient literature. Of course, to fully appreciate this manuscript you need to be able to read Old English. But even if your linguistic repertoire does not extend to Anglo-Saxon, you can still have fun getting an up-close look at 1,000-year-old writing.

That’s all from me. How’s your week been? Read anything good?

Book Review: ALEXANDER HAMILTON by Ron Chernow

Those of you in the US, do you remember the “Got Milk?” advertising campaign in the early 1990s? One very popular commercial featured a history buff who gets a random call from a radio station offering him a prize if he can answer the question, “Who shot Alexander Hamilton?” As I recall, the camera pans to a picture of Aaron Burr, the original bullet in a glass case, the pistols, etc. Unfortunately, the history buff has just stuffed a peanut butter sandwich in his mouth, so his attempts to say “Aaron Burr” are incomprehensible to the radio host. With time running out, he pours himself a glass of milk–but there’s only a drop left in the carton. Eventually the host tells him his time’s up. Dial tone. Caption: “Got milk?”

That was probably the first time I’d heard of Aaron Burr, and at the time I knew precious little about Alexander Hamilton. He was one of the US Founding Fathers, and his face is on the ten dollar bill. That he died in a duel? News to me. Funny commercial, though. As an immigrant to the United States, my knowledge of US history was very basic, as I suppose is true for most non-Americans, and while a lethal squabble between the third Vice President and the former Treasury Secretary was not inconsequential, it wasn’t as big of a deal as, say, the Revolutionary War, or the Civil War.

I’ve always been fascinated with history, so when Ron Chernow’s ALEXANDER HAMILTON appeared on a book club list a number of years ago, I saw an opportunity to fill a gap in my knowledge–and for just $1!¬†Chernow’s 800-page tome ended up¬†gathering dust on a shelf for a few years while I caught up on a lot of other reading. Then, a few months ago, having read a short biography of George Washington, I figured it was about time I dusted off Chernow and dug in. When I discovered the enormously successful hip-hop musical “Hamilton” was based on Chernow’s work, that¬†solidified my resolve.¬†After all, I could hardly see the musical without reading the book first, could I? ūüôā

The thought of reading an 800-page book on one of the more obscure (he was at that time, anyway) Founding Fathers sounds daunting. But from the opening chapters, I was hooked. Hamilton’s story is very compelling, and Chernow brings it to life with his¬†absorbing narrative style. Hamilton’s childhood in the West Indies, his broken home and questionable parentage, the hurricane that changed his life, and his move to the American Colonies set him apart from the other Founders from the outset. He came to this country with nothing but money raised to send him to college in New York, and his wits. From that, he rose to become Washington’s right-hand man, not only virtually running the government, but creating the government through his co-crafting of the US Constitution, and writing the majority of “The Federalist Papers”–still considered today the authoritative commentary on the Constitution. If that was all Hamilton did, it would be enough. But he also established the first National Bank, and, as Treasury Secretary, built the financial structures that not only made America prosperous, but are still at the foundation of the country’s economy today. He also had a successful law practice, wrote copious amounts of articles, papers, and letters, and raised a large family.

Given all this, I was surprised to learn that Hamilton is not regarded as a national hero. In fact, my wife had the impression that he wasn’t a very nice person. Up until a few years ago, the Treasury was going to replace him on the ten dollar bill with someone more famous and, I suppose, illustrious. As a foreigner reading Hamilton’s story¬†(as related by¬†Chernow), this makes no sense to me. You couldn’t get more of an illustrious American hero than Alexander Hamilton. For a nation founded upon immigrants, surely the immigrant Hamilton is the prime example of the American Dream? But this is one of Chernow’s major strengths: while Hamilton is the hero of his story, he doesn’t shy away from painting a full portrait of the man, warts and all. His life wasn’t scandal-free, and he did cultivate political and personal enemies.

But Chernow also digs a bit into the lives of those around Hamilton, and it seems even while he was alive he had to contend with a bad press. His actions and intentions were constantly misunderstood or misinterpreted, often, it seems, deliberately, by his opponents–particularly Thomas Jefferson. I found it fascinating to read about the other Founders, and get a glimpse at their characters. Jefferson does not come off at all well in this story. He treated Hamilton abysmally, and sunk to levels of character assassination that Hamilton, in good conscience, couldn’t reciprocate. John Adams, while of the same party, had no time for Hamilton, and did little to promote¬†his virtues. Even James Madison, with whom Hamilton had worked on the Constitution, turned against him, siding with Jefferson, and going along with spreading ill-repute of his former colleague. I suppose, given that his detractors long outlived him, it’s no wonder their version of Hamilton got more attention. This, despite Eliza Hamilton’s attempts to manage her husband’s estate, collect his papers, and make the case in his favor.

To sum up, this book is as close to a definitive work on Hamilton that you will find. It’s balanced, and thoroughly researched. Though not originally a historian by training, Chernow has¬†written a scholarly work that ranks with the best of historians. Chernow’s degrees are in English Literature, and he started out as a journalist, and I think this background plays to his advantage with a¬†book like this. For a large historical work, ALEXANDER HAMILTON is immensely readable, at times as gripping as a novel. It’s little wonder Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by this book to write his musical. I felt I had come to know Hamilton so well, I dreaded those final chapters, and that last encounter with Aaron Burr. Chernow’s narrative is heart-wrenching, especially as he argues his conviction that Hamilton shot first, and deliberately aimed high, hitting a tree behind Burr, so there would be no doubt in Burr’s mind that he had no intention of killing him. This was supposed to give Burr time to reflect, and maybe come to terms. Instead, Burr aimed and shot to kill.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with an¬†interest in American government, and early American history. I also commend it to those who love a great biography. I have read few better. Indeed, this might be one of the best works of history I’ve ever read. A very easy five Goodreads stars.

PS: I still haven’t seen the musical–and given the ticket backlog (not to mention the price), I may as well¬†wait for the movie version!

Book Review: VITA BREVIS by Ruth Downie

Disclaimer: A publicist at Bloomsbury sent this book to me thinking I might enjoy it. She did not ask me to review it, and did not make receipt of the book conditional on any kind of review, good or bad.

VITA BREVIS (Latin for “life is short”) is the seventh book in Ruth Downie’s “Medicus” series, featuring doctor/sleuth Gaius Ruso. As you might have guessed, the series is set in the days of the Roman Empire. This particular story takes place in Rome, the year being 123 A.D. I have not read any of the previous books in the series,¬†so for the first few chapters, not only was I following the story, but I was acclimatizing to the setting, and getting acquainted with the characters. Some, if not most, seem to be regulars. Thankfully, Ruth made this fairly painless, providing sufficient background so a newbie like me could quickly assess how each character stood in relation to our hero, without getting bogged down in re-telling the previous six novels.

It seems our hero, Gaius Ruso, has been in Britannia and has moved his wife and newborn to Rome at the invitation of Accius. Accius is a former legionary tribune, and now head of the Department of Street Cleaning, a man of some stature. Ruso isn’t sure exactly why he is in Rome, until it comes to light that one of the city’s doctors has gone missing. The doctor’s patron, Horatius Balbus, a prominent property owner and developer, employs Ruso to take his place until he should return. Ruso and his family move into the doctor’s house, which has recently acquired a barrel outside the door. To his wife’s consternation, the barrel contains a dead body. Having dead bodies outside your door¬†is not the best way to establish a reputation¬†as a trusted¬†medical practitioner, so Ruso, encouraged by Accius and Balbus, starts to look into where the body came from, and what happened to the previous doctor. In doing so, he opens a can of worms that puts himself and his family in danger from some powerful people.

Regulars to the blog will know that I am a big fan of Gary Corby’s “Athenian Mysteries” series set in Ancient Greece. Like Gary, Ruth manages to drop you into the ancient world without making you feel like you’re reading a textbook. All the details are there, food, smells, customs, and dress, but they are woven seamlessly into the fabric of the narrative. Some of these details were quite fascinating, including the medical remedies Ruso uses, as well as the whole issue of medical ethics, which plays a strong part in this particular story. Ruso and his wife, Tilla, pick up a couple of British slaves, and it’s interesting to see the way they are treated. One of the slaves, Esico, comes across at first as a disgruntled young man who could be a bit of a handful, yet I grew to like him as a character. The fact that Ruso’s wife is also originally from Britannia, and, it seems, a former slave, adds to the family dynamics. She can relate to their new slaves, and, in fact, they provide her with a comforting reminder of home so far away from her homeland. And yet, as the mistress of the house, she needs to remember her station and theirs.

But¬†the story comes first, and I like the way Downie keeps the various plot strands moving, whether it’s the hunt for the missing doctor, or trying to resolve Accius’s love life, or dealing with the neighbors and their wagging tongues, and¬†the followers of Christus and their illegal meetings upstairs. I have to say, I was impressed at the portrayal of Christians in the story. It’s hard to avoid imputing the modern church into a second century context, but Downie handles it well. She doesn’t get into doctrine, but doesn’t avoid the fact that Christians would have argued with each other, just as they do today, while still caring for one another.

I give VITA BREVIS an easy five Goodreads stars. There’s some mild profanity, but nothing that would put it beyond a PG-15, maybe even as low as a PG-13. If you like historical fiction, I’d recommend this book, and possibly the series, though I need to go back read the previous six novels before I can say that with certainty. And given as much as I enjoyed this novel, I will be doing just that.

What Do You Do With an Evil Book?

In this “Links and Stuff” special, I want to give some thought to an interesting quandary faced by the German government this year. On January 1st, 2016, Adolf Hitler’s MEIN KAMPF became public domain in Germany. MEIN KAMPF, or “My Struggle,” was written by Hitler in 1923 while in prison for his role in a failed coup in Munich. The book discusses his vision for Germany, in particular his desire to rid the world of Jewish influence, which he believed to be the reason for all that is wrong. The values that drive the ideology behind the book became the values that drove Hitler as leader of the Nazi Party, and made him one of the most reviled men in human history.

The book was enormously successful during Hitler’s life. When Hitler committed suicide at the end of World War Two, the state of Bavaria¬†claimed his property, and, with the cooperation of the German government¬†banned MEIN KAMPF. This ban held sway in Germany from¬†1945 to 2015.¬†On January 1st, 2016, the first day¬†of the year after the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death,¬†in compliance with German copyright law, all his works fell into the public domain, and all previous legal restrictions became moot. The Institute of Contemporary History in Munich undertook the publication of the first German edition (with annotations)¬†of MEIN KAMPF¬†since the War. Within hours, it had sold out on Amazon.

The publication of MEIN KAMPF in Germany has not been without controversy. The main fear is that its availability will stir Neo-Nazi sentiments, or give fuel and inspiration to existing Neo-Nazi groups. For this reason, some have opposed publication, and others have advocated restricting its availability. However, the book¬†has been available in most other countries since 1945. The book’s U.S. publisher, Houghton Mifflin, published the book in 1933 until the U.S. confiscated the rights after the war. HM bought the rights back off the U.S. government in 1979,¬†and have been reprinting ever since, reportedly selling about 15,000 copies a year.

What would you do with a book like this? Should it be freely available, or should it be banned? And what about all the money publishers make from the book–who should get that money? Is it okay for the publishers to keep it, or should they donate it? This has been an on-going issue for Houghton Mifflin, as reported in this Boston Globe article. ¬†It seems they kept the profits from 1979-2000 (estimated between $300,000 to¬†$700,000), but since then have been donating the money to groups like the Anti-Defamation League. Recently, they’ve broadened their horizons beyond Holocaust awareness groups to include groups that promote tolerance generally. Not all of these organizations want the money, however. To some, it’s like taking drug money. Consider this.¬†The publisher has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits from the book over the past few years. That’s a lot of copies sold, which means a lot of people are still buying it. Is that good?

As for banning the book, that opens up a whole other bag of worms. Most advocates of free speech oppose banning¬†books, even the most controversial ones, on the grounds that people have a right to decide for themselves what they will buy and read. Even if it’s a book by Adolf Hitler. But should this book be available to Neo-Nazis, or even young, impressionable teenagers? What kind of damage could exposure to these ideas do?

Here’s what I think. Yes, you could ban the book, or make it so prohibitively expensive to purchase that only government institutions and universities could afford it.¬†The danger with that is you give the book¬†a perceived value way beyond its actual worth. There’s a principle in retail whereby people will assess the quality of a product by its price. How often have you bought, say, a watch, a necklace, or some electronics at a ridiculously low price, and wondered, “what’s wrong with it?” That’s because you expect products¬†to be priced according to their worth. If something is cheap, then it’s probably crap–that’s our perception, anyway. And this is why many products aren’t priced as low as they could be: if it’s too affordable, people see¬†it as cheap and worthless. So I would make MEIN KAMPF available as a free e-book in every country, and sell the print version at cost. That way, no-one makes a profit from it, and it gets the price value it deserves.

As for the fear that people will be inspired by it, the fact is people buy into corrupt ideologies all the time. Simply banning a book, or making a piece of literature hard to obtain, won’t prevent this. Unfortunately, our society seems to think the way you deal with unpopular or “offensive” speech is to ban it, whether by law or by public shame. People these days don’t want to have their ideas hashed out in public discourse. It’s easier to thrust a finger in someone’s face and say, “I’m right, and you’re an idiot!” It’s easier to win an argument by suing someone than debating them.¬†If we are convinced Hitler was evil,¬†surely the¬†best approach is to educate people on what Hitler said, and why he was wrong, not to silence him.

What do you think? Ban, burn, sell for profit, sell at cost,¬†make freely available, or something else…?