Thursday, January 30, 2014

An Officer And A Spy by Robert Harris

“Kill the traitor! Kill the Jew!” These words rang out on the streets of Paris on the fifth of January 1895. As Captain Alfred Dreyfus was publicly degraded after being found guilty of espionage by a court martial. Dreyfus, a young artillery captain in the French army was accused of passing along military secrets to the German nation. Among those convinced of his guilt was a Major Georges Picquart. Picquart had been promoted to the head of the “Statistics Section.” This was the name of the military counter intelligence agency. Among his many duties his superiors told him to keep an eye out on the Dreyfus case. They wanted to make sure that no appeal would ever be able to stand.

Picquart did as he was told. That led to a problem.  As Picquart began to close in on another suspected spy he began to have doubts about the evidence used to convict Dreyfus. Before long he asked too many questions and was himself the target of the military establishment. Eventually the whole of France would be drawn into this affair and the repercussions would still be felt over a century later.

This is the story that bestselling author Robert Harris set out to tell. An Officer and A Spy is told in the first person by Colonel Picquart. The book is very well written with meticulous attention to detail. The world of late nineteenth century Paris comes vividly to life. We meet a fascinating cast of characters. In addition to the military officers we also meet Emile Zola, George Clemenceau, and many other influential figures from this era.

One of the most important aspects of the Dreyfus Affair is the that it served as a focal point for the rising anti-Semitism of the period. Harris covers this quite well, He brings out the open hostility of many in the military towards Jewish officers. I found one of his footnotes rather chilling when he pointed out that the officer in charge of the initial Dreyfus investigation was the father of the Vichy official in charge of Jewish affairs during the German occupation. In many ways the Dreyfus was the first glimpse of what was to come in the next century.

This is a great novel. As always, Harris keeps the action moving and the characters interesting. I highly recommend this book.

Death of an Old Sinner by Dorothy Salisbury Davis

Death of an Old Sinner, a classic 1958 murder mystery by Dorothy Salisbury Davis will be released in ebook format this February. This is the first book featuring her character Mrs. Morris. Mrs. Morris is a housekeeper for General Ransom Jarvis. The old general comes from a good family in New York. In fact one of his great granduncles was a President of the United States. The general is a bit of rascal and his income is tied up in debts. His son controls the purse strings and keeps his father on a tight leash. The general decides that he can make some extra after going through the President’s old papers in the attic. The President was had also been the Minister to England and left blank pages in his diary from those years. The general decides to add forged entries in the diary that would show that his forbearer had engaged in an illicit affair with a married noblewomen while in England.

All of this is completely unknown to his son who is about to run for governor. When the General dies suddenly foul play is suspected. The general’s latest mistress seems to be connected to organized crime. Now his son, the determined Mrs Morris, and an investigator from the District Attorney’s office are on the case. This is a fun story that harkens back to the classic days of detective fiction. People who enjoy Agatha Christie’s books should enjoy Mrs. Morris. Open Road Media is a digital publisher that publishes great books from the past in digital format. They are releasing all three of the Mrs. Morris mysteries in February. If you enjoy classic mysteries then do yourself a favor. Get these great books and enjoy.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Godborn by Paul S. Kemp

The Godborn
Paul S. Kemp
Wizards of the Coast

Erevis Cale is dead. At least that is what seemed to have happened at the end of Shadowrealm. Cale sacrificed himself to free his friend Magadon from the clutches of the archfiend Mephistopheles. If you haven’t read the Twilight War trilogy by Paul S. Kemp you really should. First of all it’s an excellent series. Secondly you will be lost in this book without the background.

During the Twilight War the god Mask helped Cale’s pregnant lover Varra to escape the Shadowstorm by propelling her forward into the future nearly 100 years. There she gave birth to their son. She gave him the name Vasen, the true name of Erevis Cale. Even though he is the son of a Shade, Vasen has been raised in an abbey that is dedicated to Lathander, the Lord of Light. 

The enemies of his father are looking for Vasen. It is believed that he is the key to unlocking the divine essence of Mask that has entered into Cale’s friend Drasek Riven, the Shodovar Prince Rivalen, and the arch fiend Mephistopheles. Mask seems to have left behind some unfinished business. Now Vasen and his new friends must fight to save the world from annihilation. To do this they first have to save one other person. That person is none other than Erevis Cale.

The Godborn is the eighth novel to feature the character of Erevis Cale. Like the other Cale novels this is a faced paced and well written book. The characters are fascinating. Kemp writes characters that have hard choices to make. Most of his characters are torn and conflicted individuals. They have to rise above the hardships that life has dealt them. Those who choose to fight and stand out always seem to emerge victorious, even if that victory is a glorious death in battle. Those who choose to take the easy way, who search for power to further their own benefit always seem to fall in the end.

If you have read the other Cale books then you will want to read this book. If you haven’t met Erevis Cale yet then get the other books and this book and read them all. I am looking forward to what Kemp has is store for the future of these characters. Whatever it is, it will be great.

The Companions by R. A. Salvatore

The world is changing. That is the theme of The Sundering, the new series from Forgotten Realms. In this six book series the writers promise us new and world changing events. The first novel in this series is The Companions by R. A. Salvatore. As a fan of the Drizzt series of novels I was very excited when I saw this title.

First with The Dragon King and then in Gauntlgrym the friends of Drizzt knows as The Companions of the Hall died. It was heartbreaking to lose these characters. In the following three books Drizzt spends his time trying to come to grips with his loss and move on. Little did we know that something this special and amazing was in store. 

There are so many surprises and changes in this book that it is hard to review. I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises. Let us just say that we get to see our favorite companions again. They have been sent back with a mission. They must help Drizzt in his greatest struggle. Their path back will be strange. It will be dangerous. As they move through the challenges before them they grow and mature in new and powerful ways.

Salvatore uses this book to really develop the characters of the Companions. After reading this book I can’t wait to see how the story continues. To avoid spoiling the story I won’t say much about the plot. I will say that this is one of Salvatore’s best novels to date and it made me laugh, it made my cry, and it left me wanting more. If you are a fan of the Drizzt novels then I suggest you buy this book now. 

The Shadow Protocol by Andy McDermott

The Shadow Protocol
Andy McDermott
Bantam Dell
Release Date: January 28

Adam Gray is America’s new secret weapon in the war against terror. He is a highly trained agent. He also has another advantage he is armed with PERSONA. This top secret device allows his team to copy the memories from a person and implant them in his head. The effect only last 24 hours, but during that time he is able to access the memories, emotions, and skills of the other person. Now captured terrorists can have their memories extracted and he can learn all of their secrets. There is only one secret that he does not know: his own past.

His memory before PERSONA have been wiped. On a mission to stop a radioactive device from falling into the hands of terrorists he is confronted by shadows from his own past. Now he wants to find out who he is. He wants to know why he lost his memory. Little does he know that sometimes the most dangerous thing of all is the truth.

The Shadow Protocol is the first novel in a new series from bestselling author Ady McDermott. Featuring the mysterious Adam Gray, his faced paced novel keeps the story moving and fresh. Too many action authors get bogged down in technical details about some firearm or technological device. Instead he gives us a great story with great characters. The enigmatic Adam Gray is a puzzle. He seems to have little personality, but he is a top notch field agent. Bianca Childs, a PhD in neurochemistry, is brought in to join the team when her own mentor, a co-creator of the project, is wounded in the field. Bianca is not at all ready for what is in store for her, but she rises to the occasion. The rest of the team are fun characters. McDermott does not fully develop them, but they are interesting and there is plenty of room for these characters to grow.

Faced paced and exciting, this is a great new series. Adam Gray and Bianca Childs are sure to become favorites among the lovers of action novels. Do yourself a favor and pick up this book.

The Arnifour Affair by Gregory Harris

Title: The Arnifour Affair
Author: Gregory Harris
Publisher: Kensington
Expected Release Date: January 28, 2014

Victorian London has known its share of detectives. The most famous is of course Sherlock Holmes. Now there is another sleuth looking for criminals among the masses of turn of the century London. The Arnifour Affair introduces us to Colin Pendragon and his partner Ethan Pruitt. Pendragon is an intelligent detective who has a penchant for weight lifting, wrestling, and solving crimes.

Lord Arnifour has been beaten to death and his niece, beaten into a coma, has been left for dead. The widow hires Pendragon to find the killer. The police suspect the gardener, but she believes him innocent. Pendragon quickly learns that is client’s family is anything but ideal. There seems to be nothing but lies, intrigues, deceptions, and run arounds at every step. As Pendragon tries to solve the crime he seems to get more hindrance than help from the family. That does not quell his determination. Before the story is over a great deal of sordid information will come out.

Inside this tale of murder and intrigue there is an additional story. A young man comes to the flat looking for help from Pendragon. The young man’s sister is missing. While searching for information on the murder case the detective and his streetwise partner take time to search for the missing girl. This search will take them from a poverty stricken tenement to Embassy Row. Before it is done this case will also provide many twists and turns and end up with a complete surprise.  

Pendragon is an interesting character. He is obviously a well-educated man, the son of a lifelong member of the British government. He has many of the anti-social attitudes that characterize famous detectives such as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot. Unlike Holmes he can be very charming when he wants to be. In many ways his character is more human, and therefore more believable than Holmes. His partner, Ethan Pruitt, is the narrator of the story. Pruitt’s background gives him an insight to the darker side of London.

There is a certain difficulty in writing books placed in a recent past. The Victorians, particularly the Victorian gentry spoke a certain way. We know a lot about this because this was the age of mass printing. We speak differently today. So an author writing a book set in that period needs to sound authentic, without sounding antiquated. Harris does a very good job navigating these difficult waters.

All told this is a well written and enjoyable book. I enjoyed this book and I eagerly await the next volume in this exciting series.

Bad Guys by Anthony Bruno

Title: Bad Guys
Author: Anthony Bruno
Publisher: Diversion Books
Release Date: January 28, 2014

Agent Mike Tozzi is tired of the bad guys getting away with murder. It seems that justice is not blind, unless you have connections, then it can’t see a thing. So he decides to even out the scales. Tozzi is tracking down the ones that got away. At the top of his list is the unknown man who murdered three undercover FBI agents and sent their severed heads back to the office. He has two problems. First, no one knows, or will say who the killer is or who he works for. Second, his old partner, Cuthbert Gibbons, has been brought out of retirement to bring him in.

Gibbons is a throwback to an earlier age. He still remembers the days when FBI agents hit the streets and did leg work. He spends his spare time catching up on his reading. His favorite subject is the history of Rome. It doesn’t take long for him to track down his old partner. Tozzi is able to persuade Gibbons to join him in his hunt for the killer. Against these two detectives is a shadowy underworld figure. No one seems to know the identity of the person who is pulling the strings since the leaders of some of the biggest crime families have 

This book is full of twists and turns and a lot of action. The story takes place in the mid-80s. The time of movies like Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. It has all of the classic elements. It’s a buddy story, it’s a cop story, it’s an action story. At the heart is the search for justice in a changing world. The old FBI of Hoover is giving way to a new agency full of career men who look to computers. The world of organized crime is changing as well. Old loyalties and alliances give way to upstarts who don’t like getting their hands dirty and don’t want to come up in the organization the old way.

This book is fast paced, well written, and a lot of fun. If you enjoy classic action stories then this book is for you. One of the great things about the digital age is that great books like these can be brought back in to print. I enjoyed this and look forward to reading the others in the series. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

No Labels edited by Jon Huntsman

Title: No Labels
Author: ed. Jon Huntsman
Publisher: Diversion Books
Pages: 102
Release: January 14, 2014

Anyone who looks at the state of the US government today has to agree that there are some serious problems. The left thinks that we need more government, the right thinks we need less. Both sides view the issue as a zero sum game and are fighting to win this game. In the meantime the vast majority of Americans want their elected officials to make things work, and make them work well.

The No Labels organization has stepped in to this gap between left and right. Members in the organization come from all sides of the political spectrum. The aim of this organization is to get leaders to sit down, agree on goals, and then work towards those common goals. This is a refreshing change from the rancor that has wracked the political world for over a decade now. The organization was founded by veteran political strategists Mark McKinnon and Nancy Jacobson. At the national level the organization is led by Jon Huntsman and Joe Manchin. 

Edited by Jon Huntsman, former Governor of Utah and Ambassador to China, this short book lays out the mission of this organization in several short goals. Each chapter describes a need or goal and then has short statements from members of the organization. Each section is equally weighted between members on the left and right. The mission is quite simple. The nation needs goals. The purpose of this organization is to encourage leaders is to create goals that can be agreed on. The primary goals set out are the kinds of issues that most, if not all, americans can agree on.

  1. Create twenty-five million new jobs over the next ten years
  2. Reform Medicare and Social Security so they are secure another seventy-five years
  3. Balance the federal budget by 2030
  4. Make America energy self-efficient by 2035.

The historical examples they use in the book show us how this worked in the 20th century. Eisenhower had a goal. That goal was a national highway system that would make the nation safer, and help to grow the economy. John F. Kennedy set the goal to place a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill came together to make the tax code simpler. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich worked together to balance the national budget. In all of these cases the leaders in question, on both sides, had to give something up to accomplish these goals.

Today Americans want leaders who will look past the pettiness of the ideologue. We don’t want more controversy where legislation is dependent on one party dictating to the other. Get this book. Look at these ideas. Then find out more about this organization. I knew nothing about No Labels before I read this book. Now I want to know a lot more.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lost City by Jay Stringer

Title: Lost City
Author: Jay Stringer
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer
Pages: 314 Pages
Release Date: January 14, 2014

Eoin Miller’s day was going pretty well until he got the call from his boss. At first it seemed straight forward. A stoned john got rough with one of the hookers and she knifed him. Simple fix. Except Eoin knew the john and he wasn’t the violent type. Then another murder happens. Before long Eoin is in a race against time to protect himself and the crime family he works for. He uses the skills he learned when he was a cop to piece things together. The only question is can he get the answer before it is too late.

This novel is full of interesting and dark characters. The protagonist, Eoin Miller, is a half-Romani (Gypsy for those who don’t know the term they use for themselves) living in a modern world still loaded with prejudice against his father’s people. He was a police officer before he left the force and went to work for a crime family. The other characters are just as conflicted. Veronica Gaines runs the Gaines crime family, yet all the while she is trying to find a way to get the family free of its criminal enterprises. There is his ex-wife Laura. What is happening with their relationship? How does she fit in to all of this?

Lost City takes place in an area outside Birmingham, England. This is classic hard-boiled pulp fiction at its best. There is a surprise around every corner. Stringer keeps the reader guessing as to what will happen next. The pacing of the book is very quick. I found myself flying through the book. Now be warned, by its nature hard-boiled fiction has sex and violence. No one wears a white hat in this story.

Ever since Philip Marlow appeared in The Big Sleep hard-boiled detective stories have had a following. Years of reading these novels have taught me that while it is easy to write bad novels in this genre, it is very difficult to write good novels in this genre. Jay Stringer has managed to write a very good novel and I look forward to reading more Eoin Miller mysteries in the future.  This book is recommended for anyone who loves to sit down with a fast paced story full of twists and turns.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

St. Peter's Bones by Thomas Craughwell

St. Peter's Bones
Thomas Craughwell
Crown Publishing
144 Pages
Recommended for the lay Catholic and anyone with an interest in St. Peter's Basilica

In 1940, as part of a construction project at the Vatican, Pope Pius XII authorized a team of excavators to work under the Basilica of St. Peter. As the work progressed remains of an ancient Roman necropolis was discovered. As the excavators dug down layer after layer, they found many tombs from the first centuries of the Roman Empire. Among these tombs and mausoleums they found evidence of early Christian burials. Tradition holds that the Basilica of St. Peter is built over the site of the Apostle’s tomb. The excavators finally reached the location and what they found there is the subject of this short book.

St. Peter’s Bones tells the story of this excavation and also covers stories from the early church period. The book is not so much a work of history as a devout believer’s look at an important moment in the Church. The author’s own faith is very apparent in the first few pages. He does a very good job of explaining what relics are and why they are important. There is a nice summary of the ancient tradition of preserving the relics of martyrs.I won't give away too much since the author tries to lay the book out as a discovery. You will have to read it for yourself to find out what happens.

This book has many good qualities, but alas it also contains some flaws. I will look at the flaws first because the book is good and I want to leave you with the good points. First of all this is not a work by a historian or a even a popular historian. The narrative is a little disjointed. The style works, but it made this reader wish that the author would stop bouncing around and stay on topic. More than anything else the style resembles the writing on a television show like NOVA or National Geographic. This is not a bad thing, but the style certainly works better on television than in print. As stated earlier this is not designed to be a straight forward work of history, much less a scholarly text, but it would have been nice if the author had included at least one source for his statements. He often makes assertions and moves on. There was not a single footnote or endnote to cite the source. There were some other quibbling points, I would love to see any source that states the primary language of Rome in the first century was Greek, and that they only reverted to back to Latin later.

On the positive side this book gives a nice introductory look at the subject. The author makes it very easy for someone with no knowledge at all of the period to at least get their toes wet. I had not read anything on this particular subject, so it was interesting to read about the excavations and the findings. I did enjoy the book and I hope that more will be written on this fascinating topic. This book is worth the money and the short amount of time it will take to read it. I hope that the author is able to find someone in television, like PBS or the History Channel, to make a show out of this. I believe that this book will appeal primarily to lay Catholics, though anyone approaching this subject for the first time will find a lot to learn here as well. The book is short, 144 pages, and the author does a good job of making the subject accessible.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Birth of Classical Europe by Simon Price and Peter Thonemann

The Birth of Classical Europe
Author: Simon Price and Peter Thonemann
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 416
Rating: 5 Stars

There are thousands of books about the classical world so one might ask if we really need another. The answer is yes we do. Our understanding of the past is constantly changing as new information is discovered. New writers have new ways of looking at old subjects. Most of all as the world we live in changes we need new books to help us connect with a past that is constantly moving.

The Birth of Classical Europe is a wonderful introduction to the ancient world. The authors focus on Greek history and then move on to Rome. They do not spend a lot of time on the civilizations of Mesopotamia, the Ancient Near East, and Egypt. That is not because of any Eurocentric prejudice, but rather they focus their story on one specific region. They spend a lot of time on Minoan and Mycenaean cultures. Using archeological discoveries from the last 20 years they build up a picture of the ancient world that is a little less catastrophic than the previous pictures that we have had. They argue more for a story of a sequence migrations that ends with assimilation. This is a little less sudden than the image of hordes of invaders wiping out the natives and resettling the region.

The authors spend a lot of time with ancient authors and recognize the value of the ancient sources. They do not accept the ancient stories at face value, that would of course be a mistake. Instead they look at the archeology and see how that illuminates the stories. Often credible theories of the past can be built when one uses this method.

This book is not meant to be a comprehensive history of the ancient world. Instead it is an introduction to the period. As the first volume of The Penguin History of Europe its purpose is to give the reader an understanding of the foundations of European civilization. The book is designed for the general reader. If you are not well read in the period you can pick this book up and learn a lot. I consider myself to be moderately well read in the period and I learned a lot. The Further Reading section at the end has a wonderful list of books, both scholarly and general reader, that should keep the person interested in the period satisfied for a long time to come. 

I highly recommend this book for anyone who would like to learn about the ancient world. This can be read as a general reader book and could also be used as a high school level textbook for home schoolers or others interested in providing anyone, young or old, with a well written book that is informative and enjoyable.

Red Sonja Volume 1: Queen of Plagues by Gail Simone and Walter Geovani

Red Sonja Volume 1: Queen of Plagues
Writer: Gail Simone
Artist: Walter Geovani
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Pages: 186
Publication Date: February 25, 2014
MSRP: $19.99
Rating: 5 Stars

Let me say right off that I am not a huge reader of comics. I love good storytelling in any genre and I love good comic books. Most of the time I don’t find a lot to keep me interested these days. I am a sucker for classic sword and sorcery books and comics. So when I saw this new series from Dynamite starring everyone’s favorite redhead with a sword I was excited. Gail Simone has written some great stuff over the years and this volume is no exception.

This is classic Red Sonja material. It is also something new and fresh. Sonja’s story has been updated for this new run. Of course the old themes and images are there. What would a Robert Howard character be without seeing her family butchered and then taking revenge. What’s nice in this arc is that Simone takes time to give us brief flashbacks of Sonja’s past. She makes these interesting. The flashbacks are long enough to give us a scene, but short enough that they don’t slow down the narrative. 

In the story a king who once saved Sonja from a horrible fate is in trouble. Sonja comes to the rescue. We meet a lot of new characters. The sisters Ayla and Nias are very interesting. The character of Dark Annisia is well written. It’s great that our She Devil has an opponent who is equally strong and a woman.

Most important is the character of Sonja herself. Simone brings a lot of humanity to the character. One of the flashback scenes is particularly moving. We see Sonja as a young woman. Her family and village is wiped out in front of her. After escaping from one of the raiders she then buries the dead in her village. We learn that among her people the dead are never left unburied. This is where Simone really hooked my interest in the depth of the character. Among ancient cultures such customs were sacred and binding. The part about a young Sonja digging graves until her hands bled made the story seem so real. I don't want to give away too much. There are some great plot twists in this arc and saying too much will spoil some of the surprises.

Sonja is a difficult character to write well. After all, this is a woman who is supposed to be this amazing warrior. She is an expert with every weapon and every form or fighting. She is a strategist and an unstoppable killer. She manages to do all of this while wearing a bikini suit of armor. The question is how does one take this character seriously, yet keeping the classic look. Simone manages this with great skill.

The artwork by Walter Geovani is wonderful. It’s not over the top, but it is not subdued. He captures the perfect look for Sonja and the other characters. He work captures the mood and feel of Simone’s writing. These two make a perfect duo for sword and sorcery comics. There is action and fun, but there is also an emotional depth that is not normally found in fantasy comics. I plan to come back for more and recommend that you do too.