winterbadger: (books)
Recently completed:

Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby (1). A charming account of the author's initial captivity as a British officer in an Italian POW "camp" (a repurposed orphanage) and his wanderings in central Italy after the Fascist government surrendered. He recounts several months spent among the rough and poor, but amazingly kindly peasants of the region, who risked a tremendous amount to shelter and support escaped POWs like him. His descriptions of the people, the landscape, the lives of wartime farmers and herders, and his unsparing portrait of himself are fascinating and tremendously readable.

The Seven Wonders by Steven Saylor (2). The author of the acclaimed Gordianus the Finder mysteries was begged by hs fans to write prequles, tellign some of the oft-referred to experiences of his protagonist as a young man. This is (chronologically) the first, a series of short mysteries solved by the newly adult Gordianus as he follows his former tutor on a tour of the Seven Wonders of the World, from Greece to Asia Minor to Babylon and finally to Egypt. Bite-sized mysteries tied together with a "road trip" narrative and a little extra meta-story besides. Very enjoyable.

In process:
The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor
With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
The Philadelphia Campaign: Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia by Thomas J. McGuire
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Little, Big by John Crowley
Eastward to Tartary by Robert B. Kaplan
Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid
winterbadger: (books)
Shinju by Laura Joh Rowland (24) Though this author's work is a cut above I.J. Parker's (there seems at least a modicum of recognition of Shogunate Japan being a different place and time, with a different culture and sensibility), there seem still a woodenness of character and an overabundance of exposition and explicit internal dialogue than I would say characterizes good fiction. If I'm conscious that I'm sitting outside the character, watching him or her declaim their impressions and reactions, rather than be immersed in the character feeling and seeing those reactions from the inside, something is wrong, to my way of thinking. The plot was fairly predictable, the characters believable but not overly engaging. I'm not going to pursue these authors.

Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst (25). This is the fourth of Furst's novels that I've read (unless I'm losing count), and it's as enjoyable as ever other has been. It describes the events before and after the entry of Greece into World War Two, as seen through the eyes of a Greek police officer in the city of Salonika. What I find compelling about Furst's writing includes his characters, his settings, his narrative and structural style, and the overall air he imbues his stories with. His characters are usually sketched out in what looks on the surface like a rough, superficial way; but the author conveys a great deal about his people by their reactions to events, their interactions with each other, and the way they live in the world. Instead of telling you about them, he shows you them. Though they are sometimes introspective, their internal thoughts sound convincingly like the thoughts any one of us might have, rather than being self-consciously dramatic monologues, rehearsed and broadcast clumsy soliloquies. His settings are perfect; I'm not a student of the physical and social culture of mid-20th century Europe, but these convey a sense of place and time that gives every appearance of being both genuine and not overdone. Sights, smells, sounds flow into you from the page; you absorb the sentiments and attitudes of the people and cultures the characters wander through.

And all of Furst's novels that I've read so far have something of the air of "a day in the life"; they do not usually begin with a dramatic event or end with the finality of a completed epic. They introduce you to a protagonist well along in their life, established with a past, traveling toward a future. And while the events of the story that the book involves are generally wrapped up within its pages, there is no feeling that those characters are done. They have the rest of their lives (long or short) to go on with; you have walked together this far, and now it is time to part. But not an ending.

And I wish I could describe better what it is that I find so perfect about his stories, but the best I can do is this: they are fiction, but they feel true. They're stories, but you feel almost as if these characters were doing, have done, will do all these things whether you pick up the book and open it or not. They're your glimpse into someone else's life. I wish I could write so well.

In Progress

Dark Star by Alan Furst
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by Julian Thompson
Berlin Diary by William Shirer
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid by Jimmy Carter
Master and God by Lindsey Davis
1914: The Days of Hope by Lyn MacDonald
winterbadger: (coffee cup)
Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare by Stephen Budiansky (16) This was a fascinating 'read' (another recorded book from the library I enjoyed). It's a bit schizophrenic, as it starts out as if it were intended to be a dual biography of Patrick Blackett (a brilliant British scientist who was instrumental in the development of operational research during World War II, especially in its application to anti-submarine warfare) and Karl Donitz (a German naval officer who rose to command the German submarine forces and eventually the entire Navy during World War II). But, despite that biographical beginning and it's suggestive title, the book is less about Blackett and Donitz and more about the way in which the British (and later) American military recognized and took advantage of the benefits that civilian scientists could bring to military problems. In many cases it took long, hard lobbying or mandates from the services' political masters for Navy and Air Force officers to accept that non-professionals could contribute anything of value to their procedures. (Interestingly, there is almost no mention of the Army; I don't think that is because that service was unaffected; it may be the result of the author's personal interests/bias.)

As always, when I encounter discussions of the theory and implementation of operations research, I'm fascinated by the ideas it tackles, the things it looks at, and the ways it's used to solve military problems. But when I go off to look for ways to learn more about it or find out more about it, I meet such a blank wall of higher mathematics that I give up. At least nowadays, it seems that OR and the related (and to me intriguing) world of modeling and simulation are just not very welcoming to people without advanced maths and engineering training.

The Chrysanthemum Chain by James Melville (17) In this, the second Superintendent Otani novel (apparently I shifted it one place out of order), our self-effacing Japanese police official is confronted with some very tricky situations arising from the murder of a foreign resident. A substantial portion of the novel actually takes place from the point of view of a British consular officer dealing with the murder, as he gets embroiled in the seamy side of Japanese society, where politics and organized crime mingle. The novel also includes one of Inspector Otani's rare victories (small though it is) in his perpetual war with Ambassador Tsunematsu, the Foreign Office official reponsible for dealing with foreign nationals resident in Japan, especially those of interest to the shadowy security services (which, in practice, tends to be most of them, just by virtue of their being foreigners). There's also the first mention in the series of the burakumin, the outcaste people of Japan.

In progress:
The Other New York: The American Revolution Beyond New York City Ed. by Joseph S. Tiedemann and Eugene R. Fingerhut
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olson
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
Crisis on the Danube: Napoleon’s Austrian Campaign of 1809 by James R. Arnold
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz

more books

Mar. 13th, 2015 01:30 pm
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
The Chinese Bell Murders by Robert van Gulik (11) Another interesting set of Chinese mysteries from the Dutch Sinophile and diplomat van Gulik. Judge Dee handles a crime of passion, a gang of smugglers, an ancient feud, and a suspicious monastery with the help of this two trusty lieutenants and his dependable sergeant.

Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman--from World War to Cold War by Michael Dobbs (12) It would take some time to give this book a proper review, but as an opener let me say that I found it much more satisfying then the similar work by Michael Beschloss that I recently listened to. Some of the difference is doubtles due to the latter having been an abridged version (I hate those), but I find Dobbs to be, among other things, simply a better writer. That said, what stands out is the richness of detail and the vivdness of the character portraits he provides, things that might well be compressed in an abridged edition. Likewise, the breadth of the topics touched on is incomparably to the advantage of Dobbs's book. One fair point of comparison, I think, is that while Dobbs introduces a good many of the people invovled in the events of the period, from US Ambassador Averill Harriman and Soviet FM Molotov right the way down to the American and Russian soldiers meeting for the first time along the Elbe River, his focus remains on the principals: FDR (and later Truman), Stalin, and Churchill. Beschloss spends a tremendous amount of time and attention on Henry Morgenthau, Jr. While he was an important advisor to FDR and a major player in the considerations behind Allied treatment of postwar Germany, it makes little sense to pay more attention to him even than to Roosevelt, especially given that his plan for the occupation, though an important chip in the three-power game of poker, wwas never implemented.

The Wages of Zen by James Melville (13) and A Sort of Samurai by James Melville (14) I've started rereading Melville's Superintendent Otani mysteries, enjoyable stories about a mid-ranking Japanese police official in the city of Kobe. Otani, who served briefly in World War Two, is in middle age when we meet him in these tales, set in the 1970s. Otani-san is ably assisted by two colorful characters, Kimura-san, who handles the department's contacts with foreigners, and Noguchi-san (informally known as "Ninja"), who deals with Kobe's underworld denizens. Otani's wife, Hanae, often figures as a supporting character, and his radical-turned-solid-middle-class daughter and son-in-law are never too far away. In The Wages of Zen, the police are called in to a Zen temple to investigate drug smuggling that isn't but soon find a murder has taken place. In A Sort of Samurai, Kimura's language skills and debonair charm are required as the police investigate a suspicious death and some related unpleasantness. Melville (real name R.P. Martin), an Englishman, spent many years in Japan in various diplomatic and cultural positions and was well able to give Western readers a glimpse into the world of postwar Japanese culture. I imagine that his Kobe of the 1970s and 1980s might seem almost as foreign to today's younger Japanese as it was to European and American readers when the novels were published. Melville's stories are entertaining and enlightening without being hugely demanding; his characters are genuine and full o f personality, well rounded rather than simple cut-outs.

The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945—The Last Epic Struggle of World War II by Bill Sloan (15) My reading of this follows my reading of Sloan's book on the battle of Peleliu, Brotherhood of Heroes. Since the two campaigns followed each other as well, many of the US Marine Corps men familiar from that book appear here as well, almost like old friends. Reading Brotherhood was wrenching, a tiny glimpse of the horrific conditions of fighting, even living, in the conditions that Marines suffered under in that battle being enough to turn one's stomach. The same can be said for Ultimate Battle, which conveys the brutality, the awfulness, the bitterness of losing friends and comrades, the horror of warfare, the frightful conditions on the ground, the mixture of fear and adrenaline rush of fighting off kamikaze attacks at sea, the stolid determination of the Japanese military (who knew they could not win the battle in any sense of the word) to inflict as much damage as possible on their enemy before they died, and of the destruction and terror of the native Okinawan noncombatant population, truly the shrimp crushed in the battles of the whales. Even the aftermath, in which is detailed the end of the war and the last attempts by fanatics to hold out in Japan, even to the extent of trying to overthrow the wartime government and the emperor in order to keep fighting, is fascinating. And the recounting of the postwar lives of the men who survived the fighting, who have become familiar to the reader, is heart-warming in its assurance that so many were able to find purpose and live on to ripe old age, many of them being interviewed by Sloan for the book, sixty years and more after the war.

In progress:
Blackett's War by Stephen Budiansky
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
Crisis on the Danube: Napoleon’s Austrian Campaign of 1809 by James R. Arnold
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
So, January was very busy for me book-wise:

Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran by Roxana Saberi (1) Interesting account of an Iranian-American journalist who was arrested and imprisoned briefly in Tehran on trumped-up espionage charges. Listened to it on CD, read by the author. Because the book is primarily about her experience in the political section of Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, one gets very little perspective on Iranian society in general. But she does paint some interesting and engaging portraits of the interrogators and officials she deals with and, even more, of the other prisoners she encounters after her intitial period of solitary confinement. I read a number of the reviews of this book on Amazon after listenign to it on CD, and I found several good characterizations of it. I certainly agree with one of the commentators who grows restive with Saberi's whiny, self-pitying tone. She never endures any real hardship, and she seems inclined to overdramatize both her shame (after she initially decides to "confess" in hopes that it will get her released) and her heroism (when she subsequently decides to engage in hunger strikes to pressure her captors).

Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (2) Another novel by the excellent Furst, who is a great writer of historical thrillers set in the era before and during the Second World War and usually featuring some combination of espoionage and military affairs. This tells the story of the French military attache in Warsaw in the last few years before the outbreak of war, as he runs agents, conducts intelligence gathering himself, and romances a beautiful woman (or two). Mostly mellow (but not boring) with occasional bursts of chilling action, and full of convincing period detail.

The Monkey's Wedding by Joan Aiken (3) I'm always stumbling across new collections of Aiken's short storie, which I have been reading (along with her YA fiction and her novels) since childhood. This is a typical collection of her worK: some of the short stories it contains are whimsical, some gruesome, some mournful, and some simply odd. Lots of magical realism to be found in her stories, and a great del of fun as well.

FDR: The First Hundred Days by Anthony J. Badger (4) An excellent introduction to the subject, but for the novice a bit like drinking from a firehose. The names, dates, associations, and legislative histories come think and fast in this relatively short work (in recorded form it is just five CDs). While it's engaging, it only scrapes the surface of any of its subjects. I learned a great deal about the causes of the banking crisis, some of it quite different to the common conceptions of the origins of the Great Depression. The parallels to the Great Recession are many and startling; the biggest difference is the extensive cooepration that FDR got from his party and the Republicans. He was by no means popular with everyone, and resistance to the New Deal existed and grew during its lifetime, but he was always able to find sufficient legislative support for the policies he pursued. Part of that came from his strong support among Southern Democrats, cultivated over many years. (Blacks were more or less entirely shut out of the New Deal planning and implementation and hardly even considered at all during FDR's administration.) Part of his support came from a group almost unknown today, the Progressive Republicans who had backed his cousin Theodore Roosevelt; though not so much like those who call themselves progressive in today's politics, they were worlds ahead of the current mainstream of Republican thinking, being concerned to constrain business and industry far enough to make life fair and bearable for the working man.

Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke's Drift by Mike Snook (5) The second half of Snook's pair on the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, this tells of the British victory in the early stage of the campaign that served to leaven the disaster of the battle of Isandhlwana. The small garrison of a two-building supply depot guarding a river crossing managed to hold out against the reserve corps of the Zulu army. Snook examines the events immediately preceeding the "siege", the battle itself, the immediate aftermath, and the remainder of the campaign. Like any good storyteller who has given you deep and interesting portraits of a variety of chacters, Snook provides details of what happened to the major protagonists (and some of the supporting characters) throughout the rest of their lives. The book brings the invaluable perspective of a professional military man to examining the action. Snook has spent a good deal of time in the region, and he served most of his career in the modern descendant of the 24th Foot, the principal Regular Army unit invovled at both Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift. His officer's eye view gives the reader information and an understanding of the combats (and the campaign overall) that few (possibly none) of the other well known writers on the campaign could supply. On the other hand, he seems (to me) a little too ready to show solidarity with some of the actors and excuse faults or put the best construction on a situation in order to preserve the reputation of his regiment and of the Army as a whole. I'm also inclined to think that a professional historian would manage to supress his inclination to snipe at characters he dislikes a little better than Snook does. But this pair of books remain, in my opinion, both invaluable and long-overdue analyses of the opening stages of the 1879 campaign.

Four by Jonathan Gash. He's a writer of mysteries centered around an antique dealer, Lovejoy, who lives near Colchester in Essex. He's an expert in many fields of the antiques trade, a diviner (able to suss out true antiques, whether he can analyze them or not), perpetually skint, and a cheerfully sexist womanizer. The stories follow a predictable pattern. Someone involves Lovejoy in a hunt for a specific treasured antiqu; he is or becomes invovled with one or more women; violence ensures--usually someone close to him is killed or injured and he goes out looking for revenge and the antique; more violence happens--Lovejoy getting his revenge...and the antique. Curtain. So, formulaic, but the stories are kind of a delivery mechanism for the things that Gash has learned about hunting for--or faking--antiques, which is quite a lot and certainly interesting. There's usually some location that we learn about too, often as part of the climactic events.

The Judas Pair (6): in which we learn about flintlock weapons, especially duelling pistols. No specific location.
Gold From Gemini (7): in which we learn about Roman Britain, especially coins. Location: the Laxey Wheel on the Isle of Man.
The Grail Tree (8): in which we learn about religious relics, especially a cup that may be the True Grail. Location: Colchester Castle.
Spend Game (9): in which we learn about early railways. Location: a fictional failed railway, possibly modeled on the Colne Valley Railway.

In progress:
The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss
Crisis on the Danube: Napoleon’s Austrian Campaign of 1809 by James R. Arnold
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
I realized that in my last entry I left off a book. I've also finished another since then.

Learning to Eat Soup With a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam by John A. Nagl (24) Originally his doctoral dissertation, this book by John Nagl (a lieutenant colonel in the US Army and former Rhodes Scholar) compares the organizational learning behaviors of the British Army during the Malayan Emergency and the US Army during the Vietnam War. As a reworked thesis might be expected to be, it's a bit dry for the casual reader and a bit academic for the average military history reader, but nonetheless it does a good job of douign what it sets out to do--documenting how different organizations adapat to situations that they're not accustome to, in this case armies fighting a different sort of war than they have been prepared to fight through training, doctrine, and equipment. The British took a few years but adapated and successfully developed the capability to fight a counterinsurgency campaign. Nagl suggests that this has a lot to do with the sort of conflicts that the British had historically fought, though I think he discounts the historical focus in the regular Army on conventional warfare. The American Army, even with the experience ot the British Army in Malaya to call on, did not adapt to the challenge of dealing with unconventional warfare, continuing to try to fight guerrillas in the jungle using equipment and tactics developed to fight the Russians in Germany and ignoring the political element of the conflict as long as they could.

Roman Blood by Stephen Saylor (25) The first (both in order of publication and chronologically) of Stephen Saylor's novels about the detective Gordianus the Finder, set in late Republican Rome, starts the reader (if not Gordianus's career, which is well underway when the story opens) off with a bang. A brutal and gory murder, political intrigue, incest, and the introduction of an unknown advocate, one Marcus of the Tullii, named Cicero, make this an exciting introduction to this wily and charming investigator. Decent and honest but cynical and world-weary, Gordianus will appeal to most readers. He's clever, but not too clever, and he may take advantage of the wealthy and corrupt, but he's kind and fair to those less fortunate. A good mystery as well as a good read, the plot keeps twisting right up to the end. I've read this before, but I enjoyed it jsut as much the second (or third?) time around.

In progress:

The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World by Greg King and Sue Woolmans
How Can Man Die Better: The Secrets of Isandhlwana Revealed by Mike Snook
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
Recently completed

Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers (6). A re-read of an old favourite. I've gotten to the point that, after maybe half a dozen to a dozen rereadings of this, I don't forget the plot in between :-) and even begin to find the author telegraphing it a bit. But I love the character portraits all the same, and the interaction of the players. Peter Wimsey the clever man playing the fool so as to put other people at their ease; Mervyn Bunter the tireless and loyal servant, firm in command of his employer where he feels he has the prerogative to be so and kindly and affectionate only when he knows it will be unseen and unheard and create no tension in the delicate balance of class and respect and comradeship he shares with Lord Peter. Charles Parker the intelligent, thoughtful, educated man of the middle class, neither filled with inverted snobbery nor lacking the ability to be polite and courteous to those he meets of whatever standing, and fully conscious of his abilities without either deprecating or inflating them. Yes, these are all characters I admire and wish to emulate, each in his own way.

The Korean War by Max Hastings (7). Recorded. A good book, though dated (1987) in some of its comments 'in light of contemporary events'. Hastings is quite an unrepentant British jingoist and Tory, and that shows clearly when he deals with the battle of the Imjin River, where a small British contingent fought a valorous retreat against tremendous odds. A heroic battle, but he devotes about the same amount of time and space to that battle of a few thousand UN troops (which had no tremendous impact on the war) as to the allied landing of 40,000 men at Incheon, one of the pivotal events of the campaign. The voice actor perfectly reproduces the snide sneers that I would expect to hear from Hastings himself, which sort of adds to the entertainment value. :-) The section on POWs (UN and Communist) is fascinating and touches on something that I knew literally nothing about. I'm sure that is comments drawing parallels between Korea and Vietnam and his open-eyed assessment of the US Army's poor performance in Korea raise some hackles, but I think by and large they are quite on point.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris (8) Recorded. I enjoyed this a great deal, but the recording I was able to get hold of was, to my dismay, of an abridged version of the book. The third volume of this trilogy, which I heard earlier in the Spring, was 700-some pages printed and 20-some CDs. This was 920 pages in print but only 8 CDs. I really detest the recording of abridged versions of books, but sometimes they are the only version available. To the extent I can gauge from what is left, this is a thorough and comprehensive description of the early part of Roosevelt's life and career, from his birth to his ascent to the presidency on the death of President McKinley.

The sheer drive and determination of Theodore Roosevelt are quite astounding (especially to a slug like me); he was nervous and unhappy when he wasn't working furiously. At the same time, he seems to have had the most amazing polymath personality, being intrigued by and building up an encyclopedic knowledge about everything he encountered from birds to the history and practice of naval warfare, from Classical authors to public administration. He was also a hugely prolific author, though I have to wonder somewhat about the quality of his writing--he once wrote a life of Cromwell in a month, while vacationing. I can't imagine a professional historian feeling he could properly research the life of Oliver Cromwell in a single year, let alone research and write it in a month while sitting on the verandah of a summer house on Long Island.

What's also remarkable (as I may have remarked after finishing Colonel Roosevelt) is how some fo the same issues and patterns of political and social life that were prevalent aroudn the turn of the 19th/20th century are still front and center: the corruption of the electoral process is front and center in this book, as Roosevelt made great use of the machine politicians of his day, who were all funded and at the beck and call of Wall Street corporate interests. Remarkably, he managed to both use them and remain (to some extent) independent and even advocate and push through reforms that would make the election of legislators and the actions of government much less corrupt.

In progress

Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
The Forever War by Dexter Filkins
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in World War I by Arlen J. Hansen (Some fo COl. Roosevelt's family worked in the American Hospital in Paris, which is mentioned here.)
The Captain From Connecticut by C. S. Forrester (several chapters in; odd to read Forrester wiring about an American)
French Napoleonic Infantry Tactics, 1792-1815 by Paddy Griffith
Enter Jeeves by P.G Wodehouse
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy (Learning all sorts of interesting stuff about the influence of pre-Islamic Persian religion on early Christianity)
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
American Crisis: George Washington and the Dangerous Two Years After Yorktown, 1781-1783 by William M. Fowler, Jr.
winterbadger: (Default)

So odd. From the kindness of a friend, I'm seeing the Ian Carmichael Wimseys again, and the actor playing Denis Cathcart couldn't be further from what I imagine or remember. Not wrong, per se, but very different.

winterbadger: (books2)
Little America by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (32)
(review/synopsis under the cut) )

Dolly and the Bird of Paradise by Dorothy Dunnett (33): Another Johnson Johnson mystery. Another unsuspecting (but capable) young woman encounters JJ, the yachting, portrait-painting intelligence officer and becomes involved in one of his cases. High life, sailing misadventures, murders, and an unexpected (almost unprecedented) glimpse into Johnson's personal life ensure. Of all JJ's appearances, it is here, I think, that he reminds me the most of Francis Crawford. Like all these novels, it comes with a recommendation; just remember that while her detective novels are not as ornately complex and footnoted as Dunnett's historical novels, they're not brain candy--there's plot within plot, and few things are straightforward or, indeed, ever clearly spelled out. Read this when you're awake and clear-headed to get the most out of it.

In progress:
Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War Against the Taliban by Stephen Tanner
The Interpreter by Robert Moss
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
In the Skies of Nomonhan by Dimitar Nedialkov
The Fort by Bernard Cornwell
Through a Howling Wilderness: Benedict Arnold's March to Quebec, 1775 by Thomas Desjardins
The Western Front: Ordinary Soldiers and the Defining Battles of World War I by Richard Holmes
Knights of the Cross; or, Krzyzacy by Henryk Sienkiewicz
Tales of Terror and Mystery by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
winterbadger: (books2)
This would obviously have been credited to last year's account if I had read a little faster, but it does just as well being this year's first completion.

A Murder on the Appian Way is the seventh of Stephen Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa mystery novels, a series set in the waning years of the Roman Republic. In this, the series' protagonist, Gordianus the Finder, is enlisted to find out the circumstances of one of the most famous political murders in the history of the Republic--the killing of Publius Clodius, which sparked riots, the burning of the Senate House, and one of the few instances of martial law in Rome's history (to that date).

Saylor does his usual masterful job with the historical setting. He doesn't work as a professional historian, but he took a doctorate in history and classical studies, and it shows in his keen grasp of the setting and his ability to convey a sense of time and place. Ancient Rome is where these characters live, not just a stage set for a group of modern people in historical costumes to walk and pose. Saylor gives you insights into the larger elements of Roman life (politics, history, the judicial system, social structure and customs) and the smaller ones (food, clothing, transportation, architecture). One of the more interesting sidelights in the story is the Roman legal system and how it was substantially changed at just this time, moving from one in which the principal elements were orations (lasting hours or days) by hired speakers and character testimonies by those who knew the parties but who may have known nothing significant about the actual matter under dispute to a system much more like ours today, where the preponderance of time and attention was spent on witnesses to the actual events in question.

Saylor is also a good writer, and a good mystery writer. His characters are complex and fully realised. His stories aren't simple whodunnits but novels about people who happen to be would up in a mystery. He stands in marked contrast to Laurie King, whose novels I reread from time to time with growing ambivalence. For one thing, he manages to write mysteries in such a way as to supply readers with all the information the detective has, challenging them to make the same deductions and leaps of intuition that the protagonist does (or sometimes fails to); he does not, like King, trot out the explanation at the end, complete with information that the characters never shared with the reader. And most importantly, Saylor has the ability that *so* many other writers, including King, so singularly lack--the ability to include characters familiar to the reader from history (or other fiction) without that painful, unpleasant, self-congratulatory, self-conscious coyness of someone  Making a Big Announcement. Saylor treats all his characters as equals, as people, even when their social or potilical standing sets some above others. I think that's why it seems perfectly natural for Gordianus to talk to Cicero, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cato the Younger without it being unconvincing or stilted.

In summary, the writing is good, the plot is excellent (although I didn't guess one of the major plot twists, I was amused that one or two things that had bothered me, little inconsistencies in the different witnesses' narratives, ended up being significant), the characters are appealing: overall a book I would highly recommend if you enjoy mysteries or are interested in the history of Republican Rome.


Sep. 10th, 2009 11:03 pm
winterbadger: (edinburgh)
I broke down and bought some of the Ken Stott Rebus series. I still say that John Hannah is the definitive John Rebus. But I like Ken Stott as an actor, and I love the really comprehenisve shooting that they do in and around Edinburgh. I watched several of them in the last couple of days, and I recognised all sorts of places, large and small (from St Giles and the Castle to the Malt Shovel in Cockburn Street and the Jinglin' Geordie in Fleshmarket Close). I even recognised a couple of places I've not actually been yet, only planned to--a short cut away from the Edinburgh action in "The Naming of the Dead" moves the story to East Lothian and shots of Bass Rock and North Berwick Law (waves to Rho).

I really can't wait to see Auld Reekie again. :-)


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