Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Review: The Napoleon of Notting Hill

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Feb 15 2017

In a drear future – or, we may say, a drear past that never was – democracy in England died. England sank into a dull despotism. Its army and police almost vanished; its King was chosen out of alphabetical lists. “No one cared how: no one cared who. He was merely a universal secretary.”

In a system like this, anybody could become King. And anybody did.

Auberon Quin was a man who cared for only one thing: a joke. As a private citizen, he made a fool of himself for his own amusement. As a king, he still made a fool of himself, but he quickly branched out to making fools of other people, too. He instituted the Charter of the Cities, making each municipality of London a sovereign city and imposing on them an absurd glory. Each city had its own guard, its assigned colors and heraldry. Each had a Lord High Provost, who could not put a letter in a mail-box without five heralds proclaiming the fact with trumpets.

For ten years, the businessmen and bureaucrats endured the robes and trumpets and heralds. Then the farce was interrupted by a lunatic, who mistook the whole thing for a drama and wanted to turn it into an epic.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was written by G. K. Chesterton and published in 1904. After a satiric prologue about the game Cheat the Prophet, the narrator sets the story “eighty years after the present date.” This adds up to 1984, and the colorless, moribund England of Notting Hill, languishing in a world made ever more uniform by imperialism, would have been dystopia to Chesterton. So this is another English novel presenting a dystopian 1984, but of quite another flavor.

Like all Chesterton novels, Notting Hill is written in omniscient style; the narrator is practically a character, and that character is G. K. Chesterton. A brief sample: “In the beginning of the twentieth century you could not see the ground for clever men. They were so common that a stupid man was quite exceptional, and when they found him, they followed him in crowds down the street and treasured him up and gave him some high post in the State.”

In humor, social criticism, spiritual opinions, and the well-used paradox, whole passages of Chesterton’s fiction are indistinguishable from his nonfiction. There’s a rambling quality to Notting Hill sometimes, and the long paragraphs of dialogue often serve Chesterton’s ideas more than his plot. Still, this book stands out as one of the most disciplined of Chesterton’s novels.

As obvious as Chesterton was in expressing his opinions through the pages of his novels, he also managed one of the most subtle interweaving of theme and plot that I have ever seen. The main theme of The Napoleon of Notting Hill is patriotism, but it takes until the very end of the book to see how the plot cross-examines the idea of loving your country. Notting Hill becomes a nation in microcosm, passing through in twenty years what takes real nations centuries, and new turns in the story present new arguments against patriotism. The slaughter at the end of the novel, uncharacteristic and startling, offers the most final argument.

Although a dystopian of a sort, and set far in the future of its writing, Notting Hill is an unusual specimen of speculative fiction. Neither technology nor magic has any real place in its world, which is the London of 1904 draped with medieval glory. The English government is altered in a few, somewhat metaphysical paragraphs in order to make the creation of Notting Hill possible. But there’s no menace to it, just plenty of room for absurdity. Big Brother is not listening.

notting hill 2Still, Notting Hill shares one great commonality with many better-known works of speculative fiction: It explores the present through the future. The glory of speculative fiction is that it is, more than other popular genres, about ideas, and Notting Hill is about nothing if not an idea.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill overflows with humor and depth. The characters are large as life and enjoyable, though they seem sometimes to be embodiments of different philosophies as much as people. The plot is very good – quick, unexpected, lively. “Two Voices” – the novel’s closing chapter, and its climax – is a masterpiece, the full meaning of the story bursting forth in an evocative and fascinating scene. And Chesterton not only considers the worth and meaning of patriotism, but gives voice to its heart, ringing in the words of Adam Wayne: “I have a city. Let it stand or fall.”

Review: The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History

Book Reviews, History | Posted by Shannon
Aug 15 2016

There are many stereotypes of the Irish, and no doubt most of have some antecedent in reality: the policeman with a brogue, the corrupt politician of Tammany Hall, the talker, the fighter, the drunk, the priest. Behind all these figures, familiar and sometimes even comic, shimmers a history of tragedy and of glory. Often this history is neglected. To remedy this neglect, Seumas MacManus wrote The Story of the Irish Race: A Popular History (first published in 1921, with later editions covering until the end of the 1930s).

On the first page of this book, the author calls it a “crude compendium” and “a rough and ready sketch.” Perhaps so, but at 725 pages and a historical span of nearly three thousand years, it is quite a sketch.

To his credit, the author makes no pretensions to neutrality. He declares on the first page that the purpose of this rough and ready sketch is to provide a history of Ireland for her people and exiles (and descendants of those exiles – of whom I am one). This is a book of the Irish, by the Irish, and for the Irish.

A more rigorous book might have been written, as the author acknowledges at the outset. The opening chapters consist greatly of speculation about the historical basis of Irish legends, especially those of the Tuatha De Danann. The later chapters are strong and unequivocal in their anti-British viewpoint. They are not, however, hateful. (And reading the accounts of Britain’s conquest and keeping of Ireland – including atrocities of murder, rape, and torture – and the ruthless self-interest with which Great Britain ruled the Irish, and the oppressive laws with which it sought to disenfranchise and degrade an entire people … well, I could see why many of the Irish have hated the English. I felt I could come to hate them myself.*)

The book’s clear Irish viewpoint, once recognized, is valuable in understanding the Irish viewpoint. There is also a kind of richness that flows from this viewpoint, from reading of Ireland from someone who loves Ireland. The author’s pleasure in the lore and songs and poetry of Ireland, his love of it through every defeat and misfortune, his delight in its glories – all of this shines through the pages.

The author may well be biased (and his expressed opinions are, of course, not infallible). Yet this is not propaganda. The author means to provide history. He recounts events that reflect poorly on the Irish and provides support for anti-English or pro-Irish statements from sources that have no bias in favor of Ireland (and perhaps some in favor of England).

This book is flavored with deep emotion, sharpened with strong opinions. It is also filled with apt quotations, powerful details, and colorful sketches of great characters. The author shows great skill in what he chooses to relate and how, and wholly avoids the dryness that comes of too much attention to statistics and too little attention to the individual stories that make up the great arc of history.

The Story of the Irish Race is not a definitive history of Ireland, but probably no single book could be. Whatever its limits, it is written with respect for the truth and love for Ireland. It reprises Irish history too little known in America and reflects the Irish spirit that has so doggedly resisted domination down through the centuries.

And it quotes poetry in the footnotes and sometimes in the text itself. What more could you want?

 

*In case the tone of this statement is misunderstood, let me clarify: I don’t hate the English.

Review: Imbeciles

Book Reviews, History | Posted by Shannon
Jun 06 2016

See if you can follow this chain of logic. Human defects – mental, physical, and moral – are carried through heredity. In order to eliminate these defects from the human race, the genes that cause them must be eliminated from the gene pool. In order to eliminate such bad genes, the carriers of those genes – that is, people – must be eliminated from the gene pool. To put it simply, the defective must not reproduce.

There are three ways to ensure that the defective do not pass on their genes and so continue to drag down humanity with the unfit. The first is to segregate them in institutions where they will not have the opportunity to reproduce. The second is to sterilize them. The third is wholesale slaughter. Which door do you choose to enter a brave, new world?

Eugenicists chose door number two, mass, forced sterilization of people deemed unfit by the powers that be.

All this sounds like science fiction, but in sad truth, it’s history – American history. In Imbeciles: The Supreme Court, American Eugenics, and the Sterilization of Carrie Buck, Adam Cohen tells the nearly-forgotten story of eugenics in America. He focuses his account on the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell, which challenged Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law. 

Cohen tells the story of eugenics through Buck v. Bell, and he tells the story of Buck v. Bell through its major figures. Each chapter of the book is named after one of them: Carrie Buck, the victim; Dr. Albert Priddy, superintendent of Virginia’s Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded; Harry Laughlin, head of the Eugenics Record Office and leading advocate of eugenic sterilization; Aubrey Strode, the lawyer who wrote Virginia’s eugenic sterilization law and defended it up to the Supreme Court; and Oliver Wendell Holmes, the famed Supreme Court justice who coined the epigram from which the book’s title is taken: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

This book is structured almost like a series of biographical essays, as the author reaches back into the life-stories of the players in Buck v. Bell and tries to define their motivations. The great strength of this structure is that it makes the book accessible, easy to read, and focused on the individual, human side of the drama. As a way of relating the history of American eugenics, it works surprisingly well, at least in the earlier chapters. The careers of prominent eugenicists like Albert Priddy and Harry Laughlin dovetail nicely with the story of eugenics in America.

The chapter devoted to the lawyer Aubrey Strode is, in this respect, more uneven. Much of it is relevant to the book’s topic, but the author wanders on side trails that are not. It is even worse with Oliver Wendell Holmes. The author is clearly fascinated with Holmes’ background as a Boston Brahmin and whether or not he can be rightly regarded as a liberal judge. No doubt some readers will be as well. But these things, which take up page after page of Imbeciles, have nothing to do with eugenics.

Indeed, it is difficult to justify Holmes’ inclusion in the book purely on the book’s proclaimed subjects. Holmes’ life crossed the eugenics movement in no significant way until Buck v. Bell, and even in Buck v. Bell, his importance is minimal. True, he wrote the majority opinion and made it clever, sharply expressed, and cruel. But although he expressed the Court’s decision, there is no reason to believe he had any special role in making it. The author speculates on how he may have influenced his fellow judges, but there is no evidence that he actually did. The Supreme Court decision in Buck v. Bell was 8-1. Oliver Wendell Holmes was just another vote in an overwhelming majority.

Although Imbeciles lost focus in evaluating the life and career of Oliver Wendell Holmes, it remains a highly informative book on a fascinating, neglected piece of American history. It is also skillfully written, being lucid and articulate without being showy. The information is, moreover, well-chosen and well-presented, and the sources are varied and reliable. I highly recommend Imbeciles to all lovers of history.

Review: Dragon’s Rook

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Mar 13 2016

A border war is, or should be, a simple thing. Two kingdoms want land, to the point of battles and blood; they fight it out, until one gets the land and the other finally goes home. Tragic, as we all know, but straightforward.

But in the war Dissonay and Skarda wage over the unclaimed Territories, nothing is straightforward. Beyond the dispute over the land is a riven family, rumors of an unfaithful queen and brothers-in-law turned against each other and cousins crossing swords to the death. Further yet, a more distant kinship is the heart of a more ancient feud, where lost heirs and lost swords are menaces to the Mad King. And at the furthest edges, old, inhuman powers reach hands into human battles.

In Dragon’s Rook, Keanan Brand spins a complex and epic tale. The novel is high fantasy, of an old-fashioned flavor. There are bits of an invented language, and the story is more multi-threaded than I see in most contemporary fantasy (excepting works by Stephen Lawhead, an old-fashioned author in his own right).

The book itself is long for a modern novel – just breaking 500 pages. A second book will finish the story. It might have been possible to shorten Dragon’s Rook and create a duology, and I salute the author for not doing so. Dragon’s Rook ends in a good place as it is, with its climaxes and converging story lines. Additionally – I will confess it – I have seen so many trilogies, a duology spices things up a bit.

Dragon’s Rook features a large cast of characters, all realistically drawn and many vivid as well. Relatively few got under my skin, but they did exist: Maggie, Yanamari, Mad Morfran and, to a lesser extent, Kieran and Rhon. I felt a couple more would have, had they been given the stage for it. The plot moves through many dangers, and the author lets this take its toll on the characters. A number die, and not only throwaway characters. I am inclined to think too many died. But the author’s willingness to discard characters has its upside, most notably in paving the way for a brilliant new villain.

This novel possesses a strong religious element. Characters struggle with questions of suffering, God’s will, and their own free will. Unlike much Christian fantasy, the outward forms of religion are built into this world: churches (called kirks), priests, religious signs, funeral rituals. Superstitions and a dark, sorcerous order are also part of the religious landscape. In this, as in other ways, the world-building is realistic and thorough.

Although the book is not generally graphic, there are grisly moments. I found one scene hard to bear. The large cast, though mostly a strength, had a negative side in that the characters were sometimes hard to keep track of. It wasn’t always easy, for example, to distinguish one secondary member of the Fourth Lachmil from another.

Dragon’s Rook is strongly written, with beautiful phrases and evocative descriptions. It is a complex epic, drawing its characters from many different corners to face the revival of old hostilities, old legends, and old hopes. Recommended to all lovers of high fantasy.

CSFF Blog Tour: The Shock of Night

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Dec 08 2015

Willet Dura has survived a great deal – war, years of pursuing criminals, and (most impressively) the Darkwater Forest. It all helps to explain his uncanny interest in death, but it doesn’t quite excuse it. As the king’s reeve, he is called to investigate murders in the royal city of Bunard; sometimes he arrives at the scene of the murder before he is called. And there he does the one thing no other reeve in the city does, or has ever done: He questions the dead victim. What do you see?

Happily, there is never any answer.

The Shock of Night, written by Patrick W. Carr, is the first book of the Darkwater Saga. The novel is fantasy, and its world-building is particularly elaborate. From the treacherous world of the nobility, with all its grand constructions; to the ancient church, divided into four orders and weighted with history and tradition; to the almost superhuman “gifts” that divide mankind into classes, to the poor quarter and the urchins and the royal city itself – this is an unusually intricate world, and it’s not mere scenery. These are not only elements of the world but of the story itself.

That is to Patrick Carr’s credit, but it necessitates a slower pace and a more elaborate style than is normal in modern novels. In another aspect, however, the novel’s style is very modern: It switches off between a first-person and a third-person viewpoint, with the first-person narrator sometimes appearing in the third-person sections. I have known other modern authors to do this, and I have always regarded it as a kind of cheating – an unsportmanslike attempt to dodge the limitations all narrative styles necessarily bring. The stark combination of two different styles breaks the unity of the narrative and can create dissonance for the reader, though many readers doubtless rise above.

This novel boasts a large cast of characters, realistic and handled with a human touch. Willet Dura, the protagonist, is intriguing from the start, a genuine hero with an indefinable dark side. There is something wrong with him, but we aren’t sure what. And neither is he. Toward the end he began to verge on the unlikeable, as he passed judgment where he had no right to and condemned people without realizing they were much like himself.

Having read Carr’s previous trilogy, I can see in his newest book his continuing maturation as a writer. I regard The Shock of Night as his finest novel yet, holding onto the strengths of his earlier books and allaying the weaknesses. I did not, of course, find the novel perfect. I thought the characters showed a remarkable lack of zeal in questioning their one eyewitness to a murder they were so eager to solve.

Worse, it puzzled and eventually annoyed me to watch one character shift his loyalty from the Vigil to Dura. Admittedly, the Vigil did some things that were … difficult. But that is from the reader’s viewpoint. From the character’s viewpoint, he had watched the Vigil do such things for many years, and served them faithfully through it, and evidently approved, or at least accepted, all of it. I saw no reason why he should have suddenly taken offense, especially for Dura’s sake. I enjoyed Dura as a character in a book. But as an individual in the real world, I would not let him loose on the streets.

The fantasy concepts of The Shock of Night – the Darkwater, the Vigil, the gifts, mental “scrolls” – are fascinating and well-handled. The world of the story is complex and convincing, and the style of the book matches it. The Shock of Night is a worthy fantasy novel, and I am glad to see Patrick Carr back on the scene.

 

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher. 

Review: Point Horizon

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Nov 17 2015

Ever since his family left Virginia for Colorado, Tommy has been at loose ends and out of sorts. He left behind him in Virginia not only his Aunt Maggie, but the pictures she taught him to see and all of his dreams. In Colorado, everything seems dreary, or hostile – the barren plains, the dusty town, the gang of teenagers who roam the neighborhood, each one with a strange new name. Even his dreams have turned against him.

Then one day, while exploring a canyon with a new friend, he is chased by the gang deep into a cave – and then down, down, down. He and his friend will end up in the Firmament – which is not quite where he wanted to go, but it may be better than where he’s been.

Point Horizon is a book for middle-graders, written by David Zelenka. Although a novel, its primary purpose is to give a vision of the world that blends an awareness of beauty, a knowledge of science, and spiritual vision. Point Horizon is a scientific book as much as it is an adventure. Zelenka, a teacher and a former Park Ranger, writes knowledgeably about the landscape and animals of Colorado and about the science of the Firmament’s special environment.

He also writes in a clear, vivid style that evokes the natural beauty of the places he brings his readers to. The spiritual vision of the novel is clearly and broadly put forth; the doctrines of Christianity are not delineated, but the spirit of it shines through.

Physically, the book looks good. The cover is eye-catching, the font easy to read, and the illustrations at the chapters’ openings are simple but enjoyable. The book is 40,000 words and totals up to just under two hundred pages – roughly half of an adult novel. Point Horizon is, as I said, written for middle-graders, and considering the length, content, and writing level, it is an excellent bridge for young readers transitioning from children’s to grown-up books.

The adventure side of the novel was not, I thought, quite strong enough. It needed something – more excitement, some additional danger or opposition to the characters. Despite this lack, Point Horizon is a well-written, imaginative book that shows knowledge and serious thought. Recommended for children about ten to twelve, especially children interested in science or other worlds.

CSFF Blog Tour: The First Principle

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Sep 22 2015

Vivica Wilkins lived at the top. Her mother was governor, and about to become the president of the United Regions of North America. She had straight As, a personal bodyguard, money, social status, and awesome hacking skills.

And then she got involved with a boy and lost all of it, except the hacking skills. This should be a lesson to all of us.

The First Principle, Marissa Shrock’s debut novel, is a YA dystopian. It struck me initially as verging toward sci-fi, but not because of technology or aliens. It seemed, rather, futuristic, and even if it was an undesirable future, it didn’t have the grimness and desperation I associate with dystopians. I saw no sign of the Apocalypse.

Now, on further consideration, I regard it more as a dystopian, and I think the impression of sci-fi came from two things. One, the distance between the characters and whatever catastrophe turned the United States of America into the United Regions of North America. Vivica is sixteen and, far from having any experience of the catastrophe, puts aside a history book because she’s not interested in the depressing details. Two – and this also relates back to character – Vivica is a member of the elite. Although the world she lives in is restrictive, and there are clear intimations of greater troubles just outside her circle of experience, her world hardly feels bleak.

The First Principle is more directly engaged with current issues than other dystopians I have read. No less for that, it still paints a credible and oppressive future, with growing tension between an outward calm and simmering unrest. The dystopian world was well-constructed, real-world elements blended nicely with futuristic elements.

The novel’s plot had its surprises; the common enemy was a well-added factor, layering the story. Drake was an entertaining character, and Vivica’s mother nicely complex. And I enjoyed the interplay between Melvin’s relationship with Vivica, his relationship with her mother, and his own ambitions.

I appreciated how strongly the author used the mother/daughter relationship in this novel. I don’t see that often in the speculative fiction I read, and I am glad when I do. The echo of Jesus’ words a daughter against her mother, a mother against her daughter was effectively played.

My one issue with the book is that it didn’t really sell me on the main character’s two major decisions. The author spent time developing both issues, and the final decisions were reasonable, but I hardly saw the character transitioning to them before, suddenly, she was there.

The First Principle is the first book in a series, and I liked how the author ended it. The essential conflict of the story was resolved, and at the same time there was room for the story to go on – and some clear glimpses that it would go on to greater things. Given the quality of this novel, and the fact that I have very rarely read a series where the first book was the best, I felt confident regarding the next novel.

The First Principle is a well-conceived dystopia with strong character relationships. Recommended.


In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Review: Last Stand at Lighthouse Point

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Jun 22 2015

Frank Denton knows that he’s unlucky. So when it becomes gradually obvious that he has made more powerful enemies than he quite realized, and he’s about to lose his job, and he’s running out of money again … it only makes sense to leave.

Drake Sanders knows he’s lucky. With a beautiful woman he’s ready to marry, with good work at good pay, he has all the happiness he needs. So when a mysterious informant draws his reporter’s eye to a long-ago crime, when enemies seen and unseen go to the farthest lengths to end him … the only thing to do is to stay and fight.

Tiffany Summersby hates to lose, whether the title of valedictorian or a beauty pageant. While investigating a bizarre murder at the Magnum Point Lighthouse, she becomes entangled in something far more sinister than she had ever guessed. And there’s no question but that she’s in it to the end. Whatever the end may be.

Last Stand at Lighthouse Point, written by George Duncan, is a spiritual thriller by way of a mystery. Much as Frank Peretti did in This Present Darkness, Duncan seeks to create a vision of the spiritual war that surrounds us, the battlefield – larger and more ancient than human life – on which human dramas play out. Both books glimpse behind the curtain, to the story behind the story.

Duncan employs a large, convincing cast of characters, in which women are surprisingly prominent. Male-dominated casts are more common, and while I don’t object, it was interesting to read something more female-oriented. Duncan reinforces his characters – and, indeed, the whole novel – with a wealth of detail.

All the detail creates a sense of realism, a strong present-day atmosphere. Yet I came to feel that some of it was extraneous. The novel would have benefited from a firm editor – to cull the unnecessary, perhaps condense certain scenes, and to correct the typos and other minor errors.

Last Stand at Lighthouse Point confronts the hardest question posed to Christianity: Why does God allow so much suffering? so much evil and cruelty? How does a just God permit such terrible injustice, or a loving God permit so much pain?

Here – I’m just going to be blunt – Last Stand at Lighthouse Point departs from orthodoxy. The novel’s answer is that God is not really in control, and on those grounds it holds Him blameless for the world’s suffering (not everyone would). As a rule, Last Stand is reverent towards the Bible, but in this it opposes the Bible’s clear vision of God’s sovereignty and power – not laid down as a doctrine, but arching over everything like the sky. It is foundational, flashing into words again and again. “Our God is in heaven; He does whatever pleases Him”; “Surely the LORD’S arm is not too short to save”; “Ah, Sovereign LORD, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.”

The belief in God’s absolute sovereignty is as universal among His people as the belief in His love and His justice; the resulting struggle to reconcile them is as old as the Bible. Job, the Psalmist, Habakkuk, Jeremiah – they all questioned what God did and allowed. The ultimate reconciliation has to lie with God; “You are Yourself the answer,” as C.S. Lewis said.

And all other answers – even the best ones, rational and sympathetic and tightly constructed – they do not, by themselves, entirely satisfy. The idea that God doesn’t permit innocent suffering because He can’t help it doesn’t satisfy. What kind of Creator loses control of His own creation, and is there really any comfort in the notion that rather than living under the power of God, we live under the power of a web of spiritual laws?

In all other respects, Last Stand at Lighthouse Point shows a charismatic theology. And the novel is other things, too: a story of spiritual warfare, a thriller that achieves genuinely effective moments, a southern mystery.

Review: James Madison – A Life Reconsidered

Book Reviews, History, Politics | Posted by Shannon
May 11 2015

James Madison, more than a Founding Father, is the father of the Constitution – the author of that document, less dazzling but more solid, more worthwhile than the Declaration of Independence. In her new biography of our fourth president, Lynne Cheney asks us to consider again James Madison, his achievements and their meaning.

James Madison: A Life Reconsidered is a beautifully written book. Lynne Cheney acquits history of the old charge (made credible by many textbooks) of being dry. With an eye toward evocative details, with flowing prose, she artfully tells Madison’s story and captures, in him, the humanity that is the heart of history.

Cheney puts forth the theory that Madison suffered from complex partial seizures and builds a strong case for it – a substantial contribution to the study of James Madison. Future writers will do well to consider it, even though Cheney seems, at times, to make too much of Madison’s epilepsy. She gives it, without support, as the reason why Madison became an advocate for religious liberty. Also without support, she speculates that it was why Madison’s first love broke off their engagement and why Madison once rejected the idea of becoming president. Cheney even speculates that a rather involved criticism of Madison, comparing him to a peddler selling ineffectual medicines, was in fact a veiled attack on his epilepsy.

This is, indeed, one of the faults of the book: a little too much theorizing, a few too many unproven assertions. Doubtless Madison read this book, probably he thought this, and no doubt this is what happened. These phrases, put to good employment by Mrs. Cheney, show at least that she is sensitive that these are not proven facts. Yet they are so recurrent that one wishes she had more often left the silence of history undisturbed.

But the primary fault of James Madison is that it is a little too uncritical, a little too biased in favor of its subject. Mrs. Cheney never does justice to Madison’s opponents. She takes an irritated tone toward Patrick Henry, stabs at Alexander Hamilton, and criticizes James Monroe for entering a presidential race that Madison was already in. Even Thomas Jefferson, generally well-treated, is pointedly put down for Madison’s benefit.

And this hurts her book. Her account of the vital political struggle between Madison and Hamilton never cuts to the core because it can never see Hamilton’s point. One cannot fully capture the stakes and meaning of such a great debate when one will not credit the other side. Cheney’s treatment of the War of 1812 is likewise hobbled by her unwillingness to critically question Madison’s assumptions – that America had to choose between France and England, that it ought to choose France.

So James Madison: A Life Reconsidered does not go as deep as it could. But as far as it does go, it is first-class. A telling of Madison’s life, with heart and a certain artistic skill, it is recommended for anyone interested in the Founding Fathers or the beginning of America.

CSFF Blog Tour: Storm Siren

Book Reviews | Posted by Shannon
Apr 14 2015

At the ripe young age of seventeen, Nym is already experienced in being bought and sold – fourteen times experienced. This is proof incontrovertible that her life has been hard. So – and not coincidentally – have been her owners’ lives. And what with the war, and prowling evil wizards, and decadent rulers, and crazy ones – it’s not getting any better. Not that Nym would have expected it to.

Storm Siren is the debut novel of Mary Weber. The book is pure fantasy, with imaginary creatures (generally monstrous), new lands and peoples, and characters wielding otherworldly powers. Although published by Thomas Nelson, the Christian content is minimal. There are a few stray references to “the creator”, but nothing the story could not ultimately have done without.

The most striking element of this book is the style. It was quite well-written, and I knew it from the first page. Storm Siren is one of those books that impress me with the author’s skill from the beginning; I know I am in good hands.

After an intense opening sequence, Storm Siren settled into a long, relatively quiet interval that built up the characters and their world, with all its dangers. The shift surprised me, but it didn’t dismay me. I’m not as hyped for action as some readers are; I like the building and the exploring. I like introspection, I love characters, and more to the point, I liked Mary Weber’s characters.

And yet I reached a point, reading this novel, where I was just waiting for something to change. Although I liked the focus on the characters, and the level of action suited me fine, the angst and the romance were too much for my taste. I get tired of hearing how darned attractive people are; I want only so much depressing background. And when, by a Dark Secret that involves too much coincidence, the story dives into angsty romance …

This interval is book-ended by two sequences, the second much longer than the first, that are filled with danger and action, and are both a bit too grim for me. The end was simply too dark.

I see fully the virtues of the too-grim ending: the effectively-written action, the sudden turns in the story, the genuine emotion. And I was always conscious of how vividly this story is created, how skillfully it is written. So I had an odd sense, finishing this book, that my enjoyment was beneath the level of its craftsmanship.

I appreciated the author’s inclusion of a brother/sister relationship, and an important platonic friendship between a young man and a young woman; the first is unusual in fiction, the second difficult. I also give her credit for bringing the modern issue of cutting into her fantasy world without it appearing forced or dissonant.

Storm Siren is an imaginative fantasy, beautifully written and giving life to strange things, both wonderful and sinister. Many people will enjoy it, especially those with a taste for romance.


In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.