Archive for March, 2011
Ever look at a time in history and think to yourself, “I could write a killer story about an assassin during that time”? Scott Oden does this and so much more in his novel The Lion of Cairo, set in time of Amalric I of Jerusalem and stars the assassin (al-hashishiyya) named Assad.
Assad is the owner of a possessed sword, which seems to Assad to be alive and has a never-ending thirst for blood and vengeance, which fits the assassin’s personality just fine. Assad, who is on the path to kill the vizier of Baghdad until his longtime friend and lieutenant of the head of the al-hashishiyya arrives and gives him a new mission: befriend the Caliph of Cairo, a task most ill-suited for an assassin. Nonetheless, Assad accepts his mission and sets out at once for the massive city on the Nile.
The setting is, naturally, during the Crusades (if you haven’t already figured that one out) and everyone mentioned in the book either did exist (Amalric of Jerusalem, for one example) or probably did (Assad and others). However, it is not a historical fiction novel so much as it is a historical fantasy, for there are demons and necromancers scattered throughout. These little tidbits delight the history geek in me as I caught myself wondering if the person was real or not. However, even those pale in comparison to the pure joy of reading about Assad.
So rarely does a non-European character come to life as thoroughly as Assad does. The author makes Assad leap of the pages, his fury and rage perfectly balanced with his desire to accomplish the goal set by his Hidden Master of Alamut, the region of the al-hashishiyya. Assad is also very determined and single-minded in his goals, something every hero should be. However, Assad is more the anti-hero, a bad man doing work for a cause that can be good or bad. Combine all this with the author’s perfect detail about historical Cairo and the speech patterns and inflections, and you have a book that should be the talk of the town. This book would be a great read for anyone who loves conspiracy or history, or even has a passing interest in the Crusades. Because despite what history has led us to believe, there was much more going on during the time of the Crusades than simply the capture of Jerusalem.
The writing is clean and the pace is fantastic, the scenes building up as Assad dodges both dangers and a rival assassin as he struggles to befriend the Caliph of Cairo. Throw in murder and conspiracies in the court of the young Caliph (who doesn’t know what’s going on, opium in the wine tends to do that to you) and you’ve got everything the modern reader desires. The characters are believable and draw you into the story.
The first book of a trilogy, The Lion of Cairo reminds one of a smarter The Da Vinci Code, along with having better characters than Dan Brown’s work. The action is real, the smells and sounds of Cairo are alive on the pages and the people are very, very real. They are both noble and petty, cultured and savage. I could easily read this book over and over again.
This is a must-buy book. The author has something special here.
–Reviewed by Jason
You know you do it. Sitting in church one day, you glance around and think to yourself “I wonder who’s going to do that weird/annoying thing first this week?” and immediately feel ashamed for having said thoughts. How were we supposed to know that almost every other person in the church was having that very same thought?
Jonathan Acuff‘s hilarious take on everything under the sun involving Christianity is the theme for his breakout novel, Stuff Christians Like. Tackling everything from church prayer groups (introducing the hilarious moniker of the “prayer blocker”) to that feeling of insecurity a parishioner has upon realizing that the minister has a nicer car than they, Acuff exposes the very thoughts of practicing Christians for public dissemination while keeping some (albeit a very narrow definition of the word) dignity in his book.
The book is more of a field guide, come to think of it. Imagine if you were traversing dangerous lands of Christianity, and you needed a book to help guide you safely through. Stuff Christians Like is the book that 9 out of 10 of the people who went before you would recommend. Biting yet honest, funny and eye-opening, Acuff has hit something here that many writers wish they would have thought of first.
Oh, and he talks about the “Casserole of Hope”, which brings to mind all the casserole people brought over when my aunt died many years ago. Sad but true, you know? I mean, ever had a tragedy and someone (invariably someone you don’t know that well) brings you a casserole? Yeah, Acuff calls it the “Casserole of Hope”. Puts a whole new spin onto “The Audacity of Hope” now, doesn’t it?
If only our president had baked us a casserole…
Stuff Christians Like is hilarious, with little illustrations inside providing many hours of enjoyment. The rereading value is high, since you can always whip it out and shove it in your pastor’s face without the fear of being clubbed by his five-ton bible. It’s also a great conversational piece (Hey Larry, you know when we were at church last week? Yeah, you were totally in the “hot pie” position when you were feeling the Spirit, man) and sits well on any coffee table, begging to be picked up by curious friends who come to visit.
Buy this book, it’s great. Acuff has a winner here to go along with his successful website.
Andrew F. Krepinevich’s SEVEN DEADLY SCENARIOS: A MILITARY FUTURIST EXPLORES WAR IN THE 21ST CENTURY is one of the scariest non-fiction books I have ever read. Krepinevich is a military planner — a real job, mind you — and takes this seriously; his job is to try to plan for things that no one else in the military wants to think about, talk about, or do anything about. As he was trained at West Point, then served on the staff of three previous Secretaries of Defense, Krepinevich definitely knows all of this cold, and lays it out there with little elaboration, as it needs none.
Now, if you’ve ever read any alternate history, you know that with an alternate history the author builds upon what was known at a certain point, then diverges from those known historical events. (For example, in Eric Flint’s monumental 1632, Flint built up the known history of the period, then added in a bunch of contemporary folks from a little town in West Virginia, and watched the results play out.) This is also what Krepinevich does here with his SEVEN DEADLY SCENARIOS, first building upon what is known right now, then projecting this several years into the future. Note that in order to show the most realistic scenario, Krepinevich has drawn from as many contemporary sources as he possibly can.
The scenarios include a pandemic (think something along the line of a combination of the 1976 “Swine Flu” and the worst projections of the Avian Flu in the early 2000s), the collapse of Pakistan, an economic calamity started by terrorists (our world economy now being so fragile and interconnected, this is more likely than it has ever been), and worst of all, a bunch of low-level nukes and “dirty bombs” taking out several major American cities. These are all scenarios, not full-fledged stories, and they do not end, per se. Instead, they are put out there, and the reader must try to answer the questions as if the reader is, for the moment, the President of the United States (or at minimum, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff); this if nothing else gives real clout to the gravity of the job Krepinevich has done for most of his adult life, as these scenarios are nothing to mess around with.
Note that while all of these scenarios are drawn from realistic sources, at times Krepinevich has to make things up (anything from mid-2008 on is a made-up quote or from a made-up story, so keep this in mind) in order to project far enough out into the future to make his scenario work. And because the solution to the scenario is not given, this does not always read easily or well at times.
However, that one drawback can also be seen as a strength, because refusing to resolve these scenarios adds teeth to what Krepinevich is talking about — in this case, scary, demoralizing, and depressing “teeth,” but that’s the nature of what we’re discussing.
SEVEN DEADLY SCENARIOS points out how many things most people never even think about must be taken into account by the Secretaries of State and Defense, those at the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff . . . all of these things are obviously well-known to the current United States military or they never would’ve been allowed to be put into a nonfiction book, which begs the question of how many more of these terrifying, ghastly scenarios are being drafted by military “futurists” like Krepinevich right now.
Mind, the depressing nature of these scenarios may explain why so many others in the active duty military don’t want anything to do with stuff like this because most people would prefer to keep nasty thoughts — no matter how realistic they may be — away in a primitive “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” sort of thing. (I point this out not to say it’s right to push these scenarios away — it isn’t — but to make the nature of this otherwise inexplicable belief comprehensible.)
Krepinevich wrote these scenarios to prove a point, which is something he discusses in the introduction — just because many terrorists tend to come from Third World countries does not make them stupid. Our capabilities are known, and that means someone out there is trying to figure out how to get around our capabilities, just as we’d do if we were in their position. And if we fail to learn from the folks who do find solutions — as we did in 1932, when war games proved that Pearl Harbor was vulnerable (and nothing was done, so Japan was able to exploit these known vulnerabilities in 1941), or as the French failed to learn from Germany’s 1937 war games (where the blitzkrieg manuever that later became famous was first shown), or as the early 2000s military refused to believe that anyone from a Third World country could touch us (until the World Trade Center bombing happened — note this particular thing was not discussed by Krepinevich, merely implied) — we surely are giving up the advantage right away.
Because if SEVEN DEADLY SCENARIOS is right — and I have no reason to believe it’s wrong — the most important thing for any type of warfare is simple: you must use your head. Then, you must learn from history. And finally, you must prepare for all you know to be obviated quickly . . . and it’s the last that tends to get the military in trouble, because most high-ranking military men in any age have always prepared us for the last war. Not the next one, which is why it’s so important that people like Krepinevich keep doing what they are even though none of these particular scenarios are likely to happen precisely because they are known.
In other words, you owe it to yourself to read this book. Then ask yourself why questions like these aren’t asked of Presidential candidates . . . because if they want to “sit in the big chair,” these are the exact types of things they’ll have to deal with, and they’d better have some idea of how bad it could be before they ever take a seat at the table.
–Reviewed by Barb
Have you ever gone to the south during college football season and wondered why there were people in the supermarket on a Saturday afternoon and not at the game? Have you ever yelled “War Eagle!” to a fellow wearing an Auburn shirt while walking down the street in New York City? Ever shaken your head at the pathetic parent who clothes their child in a Vanderbilt jersey? Have you sworn that you bleed Crimson – and that anybody from Arkansas is just a dirty pig? If you have, then God & Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC is just the book for you.
Written by Chad Gibbs, God & Football is a fast ride through the religion of SEC football and how it counteracts with his religious beliefs. With a touch of humor and graciousness, Gibbs talks about his travels to every SEC college to watch a game while interacting with various Christian ministries. Gibbs also talks about his beloved Auburn which, at the time of the writing, had just been trounced by Alabama, and how every school he visits has something unique and special to offer a die-hard fan of a rival school.
Gibbs’s journey starts at Vanderbilt, the school where many of us non-SEC fans are thoroughly convinced was allowed into the SEC to bring up the league’s GPA. Watching the Commodores roll to an easy victory, Gibbs reminds us early on that he is a Tiger through-and-through… a point that begins to wear on you by the eighth week of his journey (I mean, I’m a Cardinal all the way, but damn man… you don’t see me- wait, nevermind) by checking Auburn’s score via his phone. They won too, by the way.
The following week Gibbs is back at his beloved Auburn and… yeah, about what you’d expect from a middle-aged man reliving his collegiate glory days (you know, sitting around, drinking, eating BBQ while reminiscing about how great college was… forgetting the absolute suckage of remembering that you had 24 hours to study for your next midterm. Or was that just me?). Gibbs has a great flavor in his writing, and his tone throughout manages to keep a knife-edge between pure absurdity (his response to Alabama beating Auburn was… amusing) and Christianity. You really never know what’s going to come out of his mind next, and that is really interesting when one is reading about college football and Christ.
Good book, if you love the SEC and worship it’s greatness (or just happen to like a football book that isn’t like any other football book you’ll ever read), pick this one up. It’s a great story of life, and the end will leave with a lump in your throat that you will be unable to explain away as a piece of BBQ stuck there. It’s also a great look into how people, and society, no longer plans their days around church but their lives around football. Definitely thought-provoking stuff here, buried in Gibbs’ humor (buried deep, deep within his humor).
—Reviewed by Jason
It’s not easy to add to a legendary set of tales like Alexandre Dumas’s stories about the Musketeers, but Sarah d’Almeida has done an admirable job in writing a new tale in that mythos with DEATH OF A MUSKETEER. d’Almeida (a nom de plume for novelist Sarah A. Hoyt) found a way to add stories by the expedient of “finding” a “previously unexplored manuscript” that purports to be in the various hands of the four Musketeers (being D’Artagnan, Athos, Aramis, and Porthos respectively). DEATH OF A MUSKETEER starts out with D’Artagnan, who’s recently come to Paris to start his career. His father gave him a note commending him to the Musketeers, but it’s been stolen before he meets up with Athos and the others along the road. D’Artagnan was told by his father that he should “fight as often as possible,” which is partly why he starts out by fighting Athos . . . that someone else breaks in on their duel and D’Artagnan must join forces with the three Musketeers or die helps them jell very quickly as compatriots and friends. (The obligatory drunken revel afterward only cements it further.)
But then, the four find the corpse of what appears to be a dead Musketeer — how could this have happened? And what, exactly, led to this remarkable event in the first place?
(Of course, if I told you all of that, that would blow the plotline something fierce, so I’ll stop there with a plot summary.)
Ms. d’Almeida captures the time, look, and ethos of France at the time of King Louis and Cardinal Richelieu effortlessly while adding greatly to the female characters that Dumas seemed to give short shrift; in particular, Porthos’ paramour Athenais is better-rounded and not played for laughs (as Dumas tended to do), instead being a woman of substance who’s unfortunately married to a man much her senior in years with few legal rights and many responsibilities.
Among the Musketeers, Athos’s plight is well-realized, while Aramis and Porthos become real men in three-dimensional life, while D’Artagnan’s youthful naïveté is shown in order to broaden and deepen him as a real, live human being (rather than “merely” an epic hero as Dumas played him). All of them become better friends while investigating the murder of the dead Musketeer, which of course makes perfect sense from a narrative background and is highly satisfying, besides. I appreciated all of these additions and believed they added greatly to the characterization of the Musketeers and their loved ones. This additional depth helps the story immeasurably without getting once in the way of the action — a neat trick, one which Ms. d’Almeida pulls off with great aplomb.
DEATH OF A MUSKETEER is a fast, fun, and furious tale that adds color and depth to Dumas’s best-known protagonists, especially with regards to the Musketeers’ romantic partners, and the added complexity is greatly welcome. I enjoyed this fine novel thoroughly and believe if you enjoy mysteries, sword fighting or most especially the tales of Alexandre Dumas and medieval/Renaissance France, you will love DEATH OF A MUSKETEER as much as I did.
–Reviewed by Barb
James K. Galbraith’s THE PREDATOR STATE: HOW CONSERVATIVES ABANDONED THE FREE MARKET AND WHY LIBERALS SHOULD TOO is a revealing look at contemporary politics through the lens of a noted economist. Galbraith’s main contention is that government, rather than easing the way of those it governs, has become a severe impediment instead due to the way it deals with the economy (or doesn’t). The politicians who’ve “given over” many of their duties to lobbyists also are excoriated by Galbraith at great length and detail, which is the main reason Galbraith considers our current system to be one of predation rather than actually being a helpful, consistent government.
Galbraith explains the problem on page 147:
Predation is the enemy of honest and independent and especially of sustainable business, of businesses that simply want to sell to the public and make a decent living over the long run. In a world where the winners are all connected, it is not only the prey (who by and large carry little political weight) who lose out. It is everyone who has not licked the appropriate boots.“
Galbraith’s strongest points are about lobbying, and lobbyists, and in specific are about the government of George W. Bush and how many things that had previously been highly regulated became unregulated due to the influx of corporate privilege and corporate lobbyists who became part of the government in order to subvert it. Those who would rather profit from the government than doing the hard work of governance are the ones Galbraith has the least use for, and it shows.
But mostly, Galbraith talks about standards and why we need them, and how running deficits (whether trade or monetary) isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Now, is THE PREDATOR STATE an interesting, complex, multi-faceted and multifarious work of non-fiction? Absolutely. But some of it is designed to make you upset, especially considering the main theme of the book is that too many predators have eased their way into government in order to make money in the short run, the long run be hanged. (We’ve seen that recently in the 2007-8 stock market collapse, where the Wall Street bigwigs made out like bandits while everyone else suffered.)
As Galbraith puts it, again from page 147:
In the corporate republic that presides over the Predator State, nothing is done for the common good. Indeed, the men in charge do not recognize that public purposes exist. For this reason, the concept of competence has no relevance: to be incompetent, you must at least be trying. But the men in charge are not trying: they have friends, and enemies, and as for the rest — we are prey.“
These words are incendiary, and are meant to be; I quote them to give you fair warning that at least some of this book will make you boiling mad (perhaps not the same parts for everyone, as Galbraith insults most facets of the political economy equally).
That being said, I’d recommend THE PREDATOR STATE as a blistering exposé of what’s wrong with politics, and most importantly, what’s wrong with our economy on the conceptual level to anyone who’s looking for answers as to why, exactly, our current system seems to have failed us so abysmally.
— Reviewed by Barb
We all have our myths about our first president. The cherry tree myth. The myth that he married Martha out of money and carried on many romantic liaisons. Inventing George Washington sets out to expose the truth from the myth and tell, in pretty exacting detail, just how false a lot of the popular beliefs of the United States’ first president really are. Written by Edward Lengel, the book is fast paced and humorous, something you don’t often find when reading a non-fiction book about Washington.
The book doesn’t chronicle the life of George Washington so much as it debunks the myths created about him after his death. Using a deft touch, Lengel delves through the myths created by various individuals who either sought to idolize Washington (the cherry tree myth is just one of these) or to turn a profit off of his memory (P. T. Barnum succeeded in this). Moving from the Age of Enlightenment to the Industrial Age and beyond, Lengel shows just how our first president was characterized as needed by the populace as we grew as a country.
One of the more interesting points Lengel hits in the book is the continuing changes to George and Martha. Early on, they were both portrayed as heroes to our nation but, as the 19th century drew to a close, Martha began to be imagined more and more as a frumpy elderly woman while George was the epitome of masculinity. Such images were of the times and followed the times thusly, but to see how the “hunk” George Washington was “held back” by his frumpy old wife makes the head spin. How myths are perpetrated throughout society so easily is amusing and, more importantly, very telling of just how much we want to believe that some great men were but lesser gods.
For example, look how much Abraham Lincoln has been deified in recent years. Every president wants to be like Lincoln, and are creating this giant pedestal for him to be placed upon. Again, everyone thinks of Lincoln as a giant, vigorous man (and he was, by most accounts) and his wife, Mary, to be old and frumpy. They quote him and quote myths, often improperly or even something not even attributed to the man. Does this pattern sound familiar?
Lengel does an amazing job at parsing through the myths and even tracing them to their sources, something I found highly entertaining and educational. With quick prose and a good pace, Lengel carefully corrected a few misconceptions I had about one of the Founding Fathers. I’m sure that it will do the same for any other reader as well.
Definite must-own book. I’ve already loaned my copy to a friend, who swore they’re going to buy it as well. I hope I get the book back…
–Reviewed by Jason