Category Archives: Book Reviews

Recent Reading: Historicals, Monsters, and DNA

Been doing a lot of reading of late; here are some capsule reviews.

Black Chamber, by S. M. Stirling. This is a WWI-era spy novel set in an alternate America in which Teddy Roosevelt was elected instead of Taft and was able to implement his progressive policies with a free hand. It’s got airships, submarines, handsome evil Germans (but no Nazis), and a femme fatale, Luz O’Malley Aróstegui, who takes the battle to Germany. The background is amazingly and thoroughly detailed; Stirling did his research on this one. A little more sex than I like, but a gripping read from one end to the other.

Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past, by David Reich. It turns out that the history of the human species is far more complicated than anyone had guessed, and in surprising ways. Reich is a geneticist specializing in the study of ancient DNA; much of the research was done in his laboratory. Fair warning: some of the paragraphs regarding their experimental procedures are quite exceedingly dry; I confess I skimmed them to get on to the conclusions. With that caveat, though, I found this to be a fascinating book. Rule of thumb: things get more complicated when you look closely, not less.

Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints, by Larry Correia and John Ringo. This is the last book in a delightful trilogy beginning with Monster Hunter Memoirs: Grunge, and the trilogy itself is part of Correia’s larger “Monster Hunter International” series. The Monster Hunter books are a lot of fun; and Ringo’s contributions are somehow more fun than par. But don’t start with this one; start with Grunge or with the first book in the series, Monster Hunter International.

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, by Gerd Gigerenzer. A friend recommended this as a more rigorous take on the topic of Malcom Gladwell’s Blink. I enjoyed it but can’t completely recommend it, as I found myself arguing with the author on almost every page, and certainly in every chapter. The author habitually contrasts gut reactions and intuition with reason, to reason’s detriment; the trouble is, by “reason” he means modern propositional logic, a field that corresponds to only a small part of the human faculty of reason as it was understood by Aristotle or the Scholastics. Virtually everything he discusses is in fact perfectly reasonable and rational by the older definitions of “reason”. On the other hand, he isn’t wrong; it’s one of those cases where I find myself agreeing with the conclusions and disagreeing with the categories. It’s an interesting book if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

A Famine of Horses, by P.F. Chisolm. This delightful book is a mystery novel set on the Anglo-Scottish border in the days of Queen Elizabeth I, and concerns one Sir Robert Carey, newly appointed Deputy Warden of the English West March. The border in those days was a lawless place of horse and cattle thieves and protection rackets in which the Grahams, the Armstrongs, the Elliots, and other “surnames” fought, rustled, and feuded and moved from one side of the border to the other to escape the heat. It’s a milieu I’d encountered before, in George MacDonald Fraser’s excellent non-fiction work The Steel Bonnets, and Chisolm quite brings it to life. Recommended.

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photo credit: Gael Varoquaux Books via photopin (license)

A Bloody Habit, by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson

The cover of Eleanor Bourg Nicholson’s vampire novel led me to expect some kind of late-Victorian Harry-Dresden-meets-Father-Brown mash-up. The truth is considerably less goofy, and far more interesting.

The cover depicts a cheerfully rotund Dominican friar, be-spectacled and be-hatted, carrying a bloody stake and wearing the bloody habit of the cover. This is one Fr. Thomas Edmund Gilroy, O.P., D.C.L. It seems that in response to an alarming rise in preternatural events, Pope Benedict XIV commissioned his various religious orders to attend to the disposal of the forces of evil. The Order of Preachers was particularly tasked with dealing with the vampiric undead. Why he chose the Dominicans for this particular task, I can’t say; but I’ll note that the Franciscans were given responsibility for werewolves. (I foresee a sequel: The Werewolf of Gubbio.) (Apologies to Ms. Nicholson if I gave the game away.)

However, Fr. Gilroy isn’t the main character. That honor goes to a young man named John Kemp: respectable, agnostic, a plain English solicitor of the old school. As the book begins, early in 1900, Kemp is returning home from handling a piece of legal business in Romania; to pass the time on the train he is reading that recently published novel, Dracula, by one Bram Stoker. Traveling in same compartment with him is Fr. Gilroy, who seems to know far more than he should.

Mr. Kemp is a skeptical man who has mostly rejected his father’s Calvinism and found nothing much with which to replace it. He has a young lady in London with whom he almost has an understanding, and whom he no longer really wishes to wed, but is resigned to the inevitable. (It is the young lady, Adele, who pressed Stoker’s novel upon him.) In proper English fashion he regards Papistry as foolish, superstitious, and genuinely weird, and he has no desire to continue his acquaintance with Fr. Gilroy.

And then things start happening. His sleeping compartment on the train is invaded that night, and his beloved’s favor, a handkerchief, is stolen. And were those fangs he saw? And was the creature truly driven off by Fr. Gilroy’s business card?

He returns to London and things do not improve. His no-longer-so beloved develops anemia. He begins to have a nightmares. His clientele grows increasingly creepy. Violently mauled bodies are found in Hyde Park. And he keeps running into Fr. Thomas Edmund Gilroy.

This is not a Harry Dresden novel; nor is it a Fr. Brown pastiche, though Fathers Gilroy and Brown would certainly get on well. Rather, it’s an understated and slyly comic tale of late Victorian horror that nicely replicates the feel of Stoker’s Dracula while subverting as many of our expectations (and John Kemp’s!) as possible. The late Victorian prose and dialog is spot on. The horror is in the tale itself; the comedy is mostly in the reader’s head as one responds to things that do not work out as one had expected (or, again, when they do), but it’s there all the same.

A Bloody Habit is a deeply Catholic book; its theory of vampires pays decent lip service to Catholic theology and metaphysics, and its Dominican friars are as cheerfully Dominican as Dominican can be. (I suppose there exist morose Dominican friars, but I’ve not yet met one.) But it isn’t in any way preachy, and though there are many interesting tidbits said in passing, there are no lurking treatises on the theological implications of vampirism. Catholics will get a few chuckles, but I don’t see anything here to put off non-Catholic readers.

In short, I enjoyed reading it; and this despite not having much taste for vampire novels in general. I’d love to see a book in which Fr. Gilroy has to collaborate with his Franciscan opposite numbers. And I confess that I’m extremely curious to know what kinds of supernatural bogeymen the Jesuits and the Carmelites got assigned to deal with. Or the Carthusians. (Yetis, perhaps?) Recommended.

Fair disclosure: I received a pre-release copy of this book from Ignatius Press. That said, I asked for a review copy because I thought I’d like it…and I did. It will be available for sale next month.

The Duty and Destiny Series, by Andrew Wareham

Beginning with The Friendly Sea, the Duty and Destiny series is the story of Captain Frederick Harris of His Majesty's navy. The (currently) eleven book saga follows Harris' career from his days as a newly made lieutenant in the Caribbean to his days as baronet and commodore at the beginning of the Peninsular Campaign in Spain. In between he travels from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean and back again, with time left over to marry, father children, and build up two grand estates.

The books have their flaws. Harris is faced with a variety of challenges, but seems to take them all in stride; he is the very ideal of the successful naval officer, rich in prize money, rich in the interest that comes from having friends in politics, a fighting captain who is prudent enough to take counsel from others and to invest his winnings wisely, moving from strength to strength with only minor setbacks. As such, the books lack any real suspense: the reader knows that Harris will come through, if not unscathed than at least smelling of roses. On top of that, Harris' attitudes toward certain moral issues arising on the ships of His Majesty's navy seem surprisingly modern for the era in question. Ahem.

The obvious comparison is with Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin novels, and Wareham's books come off a distinct second. The books have neither the depth nor the immediacy of O'Brian's; when I read about Jack Aubrey on the quarterdeck of the Surprise I can see the sun on the grain of the holystoned decking and the water splashing against the chains as the ship heels in a stiff breeze. More than that, O'Brian's novels are simultaneously romances and novels, the sea story serving as the occasion for much deeper story-telling, whereas in Wareham's tales the sea story is essentially all there is.

But the comparison with O'Brian really isn't fair; playing in O'Brian's sandbox is an endeavor which could lead any author to feelings of gross inadequacy. What I can fairly say is that I've now read all eleven books in the series, and that Wareham has kept me happily turning pages. If you're a fan of sea stories and you're looking for a new fix, Wareham's your man.

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photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Seeking Jesus in Everyday Life

I have on my desk a copy of Julie Davis‘ new devotional book, Seeking Jesus in Everyday Life; and let me begin my review by saying that as soon as it was available I immediately ordered copies for the six people in our RCIA class who will be baptized or confirmed at Easter this year.

I wasn’t exactly buying it sight unseen, mind you; I had the opportunity to read and comment on it before it was published, so I knew what I was getting.

Seeking Jesus in Everyday Life is a series of daily devotions on the subject of prayer. Each page begins with a quote (or two, or three) about prayer, from a variety of sources. Many of the quotes come from Scripture; others are saints like Saint Augustine, or from well-known authors like C.S. Lewis; others are from people you’ve likely never even heard of. The quote is followed by Julie’s own reflections on what the quote has to say, and then the page ends with a short, relevant prayer for the reader.

Now the thing is, Julie didn’t originally set out to write a book on prayer. Rather, as part of a concerted effort to get to know Jesus she began keeping a prayer journal. As she read and prayed she copied down quotes she’d found helpful, and also her own reflections. Now me, when I’ve tried having a prayer journal it’s been a write-once/read-never kind of thing; but Julie used her journal as a kind of devotional, revisiting each insight multiple times and using it as a springboard for prayer. Eventually she realized that it could be that for others, too, and the project grew from there.

In short, this is all material that has helped her in her spiritual life; and I’m here to tell you that there isn’t any deadwood. If you’re interested in learning to pray, or to pray “better”, which is to say if you want to draw closer to Jesus Christ, this is an ideal book to spend time with.

I use the word “spend time” advisedly. It isn’t a book for rushing through, or reading cover to cover over a few days. Rather, it’s meant to be an exercise in lectio divina in its broadest sense: fodder for your own prayer and meditation, taken in small doses.

The book has a unusual feature: you can read it either one page or two pages at a time. Each page stands alone, but facing pages are related in some complementary way, and can fruitfully be read together.

I wanted to end with a quote, and every quote I picked, I found that I wanted to include the whole page. So here’s something from one of Julie’s reflections that resonated with me, taken completely out of context:

God, who created us, doesn’t insist on only one style of prayer from his variable, changeable creatures. I can trust him to meet me where I am, in the way I’ll be best able to know him.

You can find Seeking Jesus in Everyday Life at Amazon, or at Niggle Publishing. Pick one.

Updated 4/12/2017, as I’d mis-characterized the origin of the book.

SJ Rozan: The Lydia Chin/Bill Smith Mysteries

Lydia Chin is an American-Born Chinese who lives in New York City's China Town with her widowed mother; Bill Smith is an Army brat and one time bad-boy. Together, they are the most interesting pair of PIs I've had the pleasure to run across in maybe ever.

Every successful mystery series has a gimmick; in Rozan's case, the gimmick is that she has two quite different main characters, and her books alternate viewpoints between them. In Lydia Chin's outings the plots center around the Chinese community in New York, and Bill Smith helps her out. Bill Smith's tales are more traditional private eye novels, with Lydia Chin providing legwork and color. I tend to prefer the Bill Smith books, but both are outstanding—and my favorites in the series are the Lydia Chin books Shanghai Moon and Ghost Hero.

In Shanghai Moon Lydia is tracing the history of a legendary piece of jewelry that dates back to WWII-era Shanghai, and the history of the people who owned it: a Jewish refugee from Austria (did you know that some Jews fled from the Nazis to Shanghai?), a Nationalist general, a German officer in disgrace, a secret supporter of then General Mao. Ghost Hero takes place in the world of contemporary Chinese art, and harks back to the days of Tianamen Square. Both of them kept me up late.

But the eleven Lydia Chin/Bill Smith books are a lot more than pair of loosely related mystery series, and that's entirely due to the chemistry between the two characters. They aren't lovers; they aren't dating; but everyone assumes that they must be. In fact, Lydia Chin and Bill Smith are a couple in every way but the actual.

It's not for lack of trying on Bill Smith's part; it's clear from the first book that there's no one in Bill's life other than Lydia, and there isn't going to be. But it's to no avail. You see, Lydia's mother was born in China and wants her to marry a worthy and prosperous Chinese gentleman and give over her disreputable profession. She hasn't a single kind word to say about Bill Smith, who is not only not Chinese, he's not prosperous, and his profession is equally and identically disreputable.

But then, slowly, you learn that dear old Mom's just the excuse. Old Bill has some serious baggage that we learn about very slowly over the course of the series. He's committed to Lydia but he can't open himself fully even to her, and she's not going to settle for less than that.

Mind you, that's never said in so many words; neither Lydia nor Bill are inclined to obsess verbally about their relationship. But it's there, and it's a pleasure to watch it evolve over the course of the series.

Highly recommended. The first book is called China Trade; you should check it out. (H/T Julie at Happy Catholic.)

A Night in the Lonesome October

Halloween is approaching, and Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October is a delightful way to spend some of the evenings leading up to it.

The book takes place during a certain October in the late 1800's—a year when the full moon coincided with Halloween—and has one chapter for each day of the month. It's told by a somewhat shaggy dog named Snuff, who is preparing for a certain event that will take place under that full moon. Snuff's not in this all by himself, of course. He's working for, or more accurately with, a strangely familiar fellow named Jack. Jack has a large magic knife, and seems to be of the wizardly persuasion. One gathers that he and Snuff have played this game many times before, and while they do some of the preparations together there are many things that Snuff does on his own.

For example, Snuff's a watch dog, and it's his job to keep an eye on things: specifically, the Thing in the Wardrobe, the Thing in the Steamer Trunk, the Thing in the Circle, and the Things in the Mirror. It's essential he does so, because otherwise the Things might get out of hand.

But he also has to keep an eye on the other players, of whom there are many, including Rastov the Russian monk and his snake Quicklime; the body snatchers Morris and McCab, and their owl; the Count, and his bat; Crazy Jill the witch and her cat, Graymalk. The Great Detective makes an appearance, as does an odd fellow named Larry Talbot. All the players have gathered for this event on the last day of October, when Something will Happen…or, perhaps, won't Happen, depending on how the game goes. Snuff’s not only a watch dog, though he likes being a watch dog much more than what he used to be before Jack gave him this job….

I won't give it away; Zelazny has too much fun letting you in on things little by little.

This is Zelazny's last novel, and one of his most fun, and I don't think it's ever gotten quite the recognition it deserves. It's a little bit horror, a little bit funny, a little bit goofy, and all-in-all a real gem. Oh, and it has illustrations by Gahan Wilson, another name that's less well known now than it used to be. Highly recommended.

Night Watch, by Sergei Lukyanenko

Sergei Lukyanenko's Night Watch series, recently concluded with the publication of the sixth and final volume, Sixth Watch, is a unique take on the whole "urban fantasy" genre, not least because it takes place in Moscow rather than in London or Chicago.

Urban fantasy has rather been done to death, so much so that it rather surprises me when I find a series that feels fresh and different. Lukyanenko manages it; which I suppose shouldn't surprise me given that the first book in the series, Night Watch, was first published in Russian in 1998, well before the birth of the Dresden Files in 2000.

In Lukyanenko's world, there are two kinds of people: normal people like you and me, and Others. Others are human beings who have supernatural powers ranging from the trivial to the god-like (note the small "g"), and they come in two basic flavors: the Light and the Dark. Light Others are generally more altruistic and Dark Others more selfish, but it turns out that you can't just say the Light are the good guys and the Dark are the bad guys. It's mostly true, but far too simple.

As our story begins, our hero, Anton Gorodetsky, is a young agent with the Moscow Night Watch: the organization of Light Others responsible for policing the activities of the Dark Others. It's the "Night" Watch because historically that's when the Dark Others are most active. And of course, there's also a Day Watch, staffed by Dark Others, who are responsible for policing the activities of the Light Others, and naturally there's a fair amount of friction between them.

The thing is, there's a treaty of sorts in effect between the two sides that requires a balance in the use of supernatural powers. If a Light Other uses magic to make a normal human feel more confident for a job interview, that's an Intervention; and the Dark are now entitled to an Intervention of the same level. For this reason, most Others are severely rationed as to how much magic they can do. And their alternative, should they wish not to be rationed, is to join the appropriate Watch, and use their powers to maintain the balance.

Or so Anton has been told in training.

But, you know, it's all more complicated than that. There are wheels within wheels and layers within layers; and Lukyanenko has managed the difficult trick of pulling the rug out from under the reader in each of the six books, providing new information that changes everything…without it becoming surreal or goofy or really, even, changing what the reader (and Anton) already knew. There's more, and bigger, and shockingly it all makes sense.

From a Catholic point of view, there are some interesting discussions of ethics and morality throughout the series; and the Russian background adds immensely to the moody atmosphere. Highly recommended.

(Hat tip: Julie Davis.)