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Ride a Pale Horse
Helen MacInnes
The Samurai's Wife
Laura Joh Rowland

Out of Order : Stories From the History of the Supreme Court / by Sandra Day O'Connor

Out of Order: Stories from the History of the Supreme Court - Sandra Day O'Connor

I remember when Sandra Day O'Connor was appointed to the Supreme Court.  I was only a kid, but her nomination was significant.  It told me that women could be more than secretaries, nurses, and teachers.  Women could be powerful, and could hold the same jobs that men could hold.  Women could be educated, talented, professional.  Women could be anything.  


Because Sandra Day O'Connor was a symbol for me, maybe I expected more out of Out of Order.  This woman has a unique perspective on the Judicial Branch of our government.  She is in a unique position to tell the story of the Supreme Court, and to really examine that history from a very interesting vantage point.  This book could have been full of substance.  It really kinda wasn't, though.  There were points of interest, and there was some "neat" history, but just when Justice O'Connor would prick my interest, she'd back off and leave me feeling cheated out of substance.  Out of Order was more broad than deep.  Any given chapter could be plucked from this book and be easily turned into a six, or eight, or ten panel pamphlet to be handed out to tourists visiting the Supreme Court.  This book was history-lite.  Not at all taxing, somewhat interesting, but mostly capable of having been so much more.

The Notorious Benedict Arnold : A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery / by Steve Sheinkin

The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery - Steve Sheinkin

I think that we have all known someone like Benedict Arnold.  Not like the Benedict Arnold that was an amazing, brave to the point of reckless general.  Not like the Benedict Arnold that was this country's most infamous traitor.  In other words, not many of us actually ever get to know people who are larger than life history-makers.  But we all know people like the Benedict Arnold who was plagued by entitlement, vanity, insecurity, and an easily wounded pride that lead him to hot words and rash deeds that he just couldn't climb down from.   We all know people like that Benedict Arnold, because that Benedict Arnold is like the rest of us mere mortals; flawed, imperfect, defined by our past and our experiences, human.  One has to wonder, if Benedict Arnold had had a good psychotherapist to help him gain a little self-knowledge and internal insight, would he have never committed treason?


The life of Benedict Arnold reads like a Greek tragedy, or like Macbeth.  Like figures in Greek tragedy, or like Macbeth, Arnold soars to glorious heights.  He is an undisputed hero.  The Americans found him to be a great warrior.  Even the British feared him.  But Arnold's fall comes about because of his own fatal flaws.  Benedict Arnold's story is kind of sad, actually.  His name did not have to be remembered for treason.  But he sabotaged himself.  He was his own worst enemy, and he made a lot of enemies.  In the end Arnold not only betrayed his country, but also the legacy he should have, and could have had.  He may never have had all of the praise and fawning admiration he wanted in his own lifetime.  But if he had just not been such a hot head, his name would have been an honored one in American history.  He would have had glory and accolades 200 years later.  Instead, his name is synonymous with the stain of dishonor.  His story is above all, tragic.



Moment of Battle : the Twenty Clashes That Changed the World / by Jim Lacey and Williamson Murray

Moment of Battle: The Twenty Clashes That Changed the World - Jim Lacey, Williamson Murray

Let me start off by saying that one should probably disregard the number of stars that I gave this book.  They are merely a reflection of how the book and I got along, they are not an accurate reflection on the quality of the book.


Moment of Battle is military history.  It covers the twenty battles whose outcome the authors believe changed the course of world history.  The book begins with the Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., and ends with Objective Peach, the Drive for Baghdad in 2003.  So it covers a lot of history.


The authors write clearly and enthusiastically about their subject; they are clearly knowledgeable and have put deep and broad thought into the battles and into how those battles changed world history.  They spend time covering not only the battles, but the key figures in those battles, trying to bring to life their motivations, their thought processes, and their brilliance (or lack thereof), and their humanity.  The book is well written, colorful, enlightening, and educational.  Sometimes the reading is quick, other times it's a slog.  It really depends on the battles being waged.    


BUT.  But.  I do not have a mind that can envision the scene of battle to the extent that this book demands.  I can't keep in my mind what division is over here, and whose company is doing what over there, and what the cavalry is doing back there, and what tank battalions are rolling over what village.  My brain could not keep track of the battle, particularly once we hit WW I and warfare became impersonal mechanized massacre on a grand scale (which in itself was eye opening and terrifying, by the way).  To help me track the battles I could have used one of those big battle maps like you see in war rooms.  When we are talking about 1000, or 3000, or 5000 troops, I can see it.  When we are talking about 20,000, or 50,000, or 250,000 dead on both sides, it's beyond my scope of comprehension.


The other thing I noticed about this book is that the battles were largely centered on Western civilization.  Greece, Rome, and European battles figured prominently.  The battle of Dien Bien Phu, and the Battle of Midway were covered, but that's pretty much it for Asia.  I did find that a little odd, since you know, China.  In over 5000 years of history there has to be a battle or two there that shaped the world.  And then there's Genghis Khan.  Betcha he is responsible for some world changing war activity.  Not to mention Korea, which let's face it, is a place of great interest to the world even today.  South Korea, the United States, Japan, China, and Russia all keep a watchful eye on that little corner of the world.  Battles in the New World weren't covered.  I would argue that the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, Inca, and Maya probably changed the world to a great degree, and certainly changed the face of the Western Hemisphere.  But anyway.  The authors covered 20 battles, not 50.  There will always have to be omissions when one is setting a numerical limit.


Overall the book is a good read if you like history, military history in particular.  I'd argue that you need to be prepared to spend some time with the book, though, and be prepared for enough description of battle to make you think you need to go wash the blood off your hands when you put the book down.

Escape From Camp 14 : One Man's Remarkable Odyssey From North Korea to Freedom in the West / by Blaine Harden

Escape from Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West - Blaine Harden

Escape from Camp 14 is the story of Shin In Geun, now Shin Dong-hyuk, the only person known to have been bred and born inside a North Korean labor camp, indeed, its most infamous labor camp, and to have escaped and survived to tell his story.


So here's the thing.  I can't wrap my head around this story.  It is impossible for me to imagine living conditions so bad that a human being doesn't really know how to feel like a human being.  Shin grew up viewing his own mother not as a mother, but as a competitor for food!  He says, "sometimes I try to cry and laugh like other people, just to see if it feels like anything."  Brutality, cruelty, torture, dehumanization were normal to Shin.  What was not normal, or even known to him was love, generosity, kindness.  I cannot comprehend a human child being torn down to the point that his humanity is virtually non-existent.  What is even harder for me to comprehend is that the humanity in this child was dismantled before he was even born!  His parents were literally bred together.  Like animals.  He was born into the world lower than a slave, lower than livestock.  Born in no better than a beast.  I can't comprehend that!  


Shin didn't escape from his labor camp because he had finally had enough, and imagined a better life beyond the fence.  He didn't know there was a world beyond the fence--I don't think he could imagine, really.  He had heard stories from newly incarcerated prisoners that there was food beyond the fence.  He escaped because he wanted to eat.  That's it.  It was the allure of stories of roasted meat that made Shin run and propel himself at an electrified fence, made him risk being shot down like he was nothing, made him risk public execution if caught, made him risk dying of exposure, starvation, or murder.  It wasn't because of his humanity.  It was because he wanted to have food in his belly.  Basic animal survival instinct.  


You know what this book made me think of?  Victor of Aveyron, a French feral child who was found in 1800.  One observer remarked of Victor, "there is something extraordinary in his behavior, which makes him seem close to the state of wild animals".  This is true of the people born inside Camp 14, too.  Like Victor, they too lived lives with no notion or affirmation of their humanity.  I am glad Shin escaped, and I am glad that he is maybe getting to know the nobility of his humanity.  And that is hard to wrap my head around, too.  What must it take to find value in yourself when your whole life you've been trained to believe none exists there?




The Secret History of Wonder Woman / written and narrated by Jill Lepore

The Secret History of Wonder Woman - Jill Lepore

The Secret History of Wonder Woman is a history of Wonder Woman, but it's so much more than that. It is a history of the social movements that birthed her, a biography of the people who created her, an analysis of the scientific, legal, business, and political realms which alternately tried to chain and unchain her. This was clearly a labor of love on Jill Lepore's part, and she did her research, to be sure!  Not only did I learn a lot about Wonder Woman, but I learned a lot about how it came about that I, as a woman, have the freedoms that I do.


Now that I've written that, I have to say that I just got done putting in a full day at work (where I am in a leadership position; oh, and I'm also the breadwinner in my household), came home from an hour-and-a-half commute, did the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen (after my husband cooked dinner), took the dog and the husband for an hour long walk, came home (again) and spent another hour cleaning the house.  I haven't taken off my work clothes, or even my shoes yet!  I can't imagine what my day would be if I also had children.  Am I still chained, or am I free?  Because not only do I now still run a house, but I have a career, too, with all of the additional responsibilities that brings.  My husband's shoes are off, and have been for hours.  He's had his shower, and is in his pajamas.  Just sayin'.  And these very themes are central to The Secret History of Wonder Woman.  She was born out of multiple women's rights movements, struggles by women to win the right to birth control, questions about whether or not a woman could or should have a career and a family at the same time, questions about whether or not women really wanted equality, and indeed, whether they would ever really have it.  Why do modern women identify with Wonder Woman?  Because she, like we, were born out of the same history.  The Secret History of Wonder Woman is the secret history of every woman.    

The Sittaford Mystery / by Agatha Christie

The Sittaford Mystery - Agatha Christie

Not cricket, Dame Agatha! The story was enjoyable enough, but it was unsolvable by a reader because Agatha Christie withheld information until the denouement. She usually plays more fairly, and her stories are usually more cleverly spun!

The Case of the Baker Street Irregular / by Robert Newman

The Case of the Baker Street Irregular - Robert  Newman

I finished reading this book sometime last week, and it's honestly taken me a week to figure out how I feel about it.  I found the plot to be convoluted--there were too many mysteries going on to keep my full attention.  They did all tie together in the end, but it was a bit like making sausages, I thought.


Secondly, I honestly couldn't tell if this book was aimed at young adults or adults.  The writing wasn't particularly difficult, and I'd go so far as to say that it lacked depth, and, thirdly, and most importantly, the author simply did not have the voice or the character of Sherlock Holmes down in this book.  It just wasn't Sherlock!  I really think that he did his story a disservice by placing Sherlock Holmes into the book as the story's detective.  If you're going to use an iconic character, you'd better make sure you have that voice down pat, otherwise it's just not going to work!  A detective of his own creation would have been more interesting, and I think would have made the story walk on its own two feet a little better.  It was also this caricature of Sherlock Holmes that made me question which audience this book was reaching out to.     


In the end, I didn't particularly enjoy this book, and I'm not likely to pick up another from this series.


1421 : The Year China Discovered America / by Gavin Menzies ; narrated by Simon Vance

— feeling doubt
1421: The Year China Discovered America - Gavin Menzies

This book sounded good.  And then I started to read it.  I am stopping not even 50% into it, because I have discovered myself regularly asking questions like, "How in the world does the author know that?" Or, "so, besides being a submarine commander, what else qualifies this author to make these assertions?" Or the one that really sets my alarm bells off, "Wait a minute.  HE discovered this?!  Is he telling me that no other scholar in the world for the last 600 years has noticed the things that he is claiming?"  Um, nope.  At best I am dubious about this author's scholarly authority with regard to this topic.

Crime and Punishment / by Fyodor Dostoyevsky ; translated by Constance Garnett

Crime and Punishment - Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Constance Garnett

I have no profound insights into Crime and Punishment, and besides, even if I did, others have already said it, and said it more thoughtfully and eloquently than I could.


Apparently I have read Crime and Punishment before, but I didn't remember much about it, other than that Raskolinkov spent an awful lot of time laying around on his bed moping. I was too young then to understand Crime and Punishment, and besides, I could not then relate to this book at all.


Since then, though, a bad thing has happened.  A few years ago, my cousin killed a man.  Shot him in the belly with a rifle.  It's a long and sordid story, and I am not going to air it on Booklikes.  Suffice it to say, that like Raskolnikov, my cousin suffered from too much drink, too much "brain trouble," and too much depression.  Also like Raskolnikov he committed his crime believing it to be not a crime, and even believing he was protecting his home, his woman, and himself.  Like Raskolnikov, he is a generous man, apt to give someone the shirt off his back, apt to help someone in a bad situation, which, incidentally, is exactly the thing that put him on the path to murder.  Like Raskolnikov he had never been in trouble with the law before in his life.  Like Raskolnikov, he tried to throw away, cover, distort the evidence of his crime, and like Raskolnikov, he only found himself in prison.


So, reading Crime and Punishment meant more to me this time.  Did my cousin feel the things Raskolnikov felt?  Does he simultaneously disdain and crave love and forgiveness?  Does he simultaneously loathe himself and yet feel empowered by what he did?  And his family.  How do we still love a murderer?  How do we look on his crime with horror, look at him with disbelief, fear, and anger, but still love him, believe in the good in his soul, and wait for the day when he puts his feet onto the path of redemption?  How do we love him and simultaneously loathe ourselves for doing so?  Will I ever be able to sit down beside him in comfort at a dinner table again?  I don't know.


Dostoyevsky pretty much hit the nail on the head with Crime and Punishment.  The psychological torment, the profound, soul crushing emotions, the shock ...  But in the end, if God wills it, the redemption.  Russian Lit is so beautiful in its juxtaposition of dark and light, misery and rapture, life and death.  It touches the deep places in your human soul like no other literature can.  It speaks.

Oliver Twist / by Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist - Charles Dickens

Oliver Twist was "ok."  I have to be honest, given that I've heard how much flak Dickens received for his portrayal of the poor classes in Victorian England, I was expecting a much darker and less hopeful story.  Maybe something more along the lines of what this would have been if it had been written by a Russian during the same time period.  There was a little too much light in this story, and I'm just not sure that there really would have been that much hope for a little orphan in Victorian London.  


I also became a little weary of the length of this story.  At the same time I was reading it, however, I took a tour of my library's Special Collections collection, and learned that we have the original serializations of Dickens' stories.  The librarian informed us that because Dickens had to meet a certain length when the magazines ran his stories, he tended toward the wordy, often began story lines that didn't go anywhere, and ended up with characters whose names would change as the story progressed.  When I learned all of this, I began to read Oliver Twist differently.  I viewed it more as a bunch of serializations that were put into novel form, and that made the whole book have a different feel for me.  I became less annoyed by the length of the story, and more impressed with the responsibility Dickens must have felt to meet the length requirements, and to keep the reader interested enough to come back to read the next installment in a later issue.  With this in mind, Oliver Twist became more than just a story for me.  It also became a study in the issues authors faced when getting their stories published in the Victorian era, and that kept me interested.

True Grit / by Charles Portis

True Grit - Donna Tartt, Charles Portis

Let me start by saying that I have never seen either of the True Grit movies.  I was only vaguely aware that there was a young girl at the center of the story, and that John Wayne once played a character named Rooster Cogburn, but I had no idea what movie that character was from.  So True Grit the book is my experience with True Grit.


There is a simplicity about True Grit that appealed to me.  The writing is clean, uncomplicated and precise.  There is no fluff in this book.  Mattie is out to bring the man who killed her father to justice.  She's not admiring scenery, she's not learning big life lessons, she's not coming of age.  She doesn't have time for foolishness, or really even sentiment.   She is not a baby, she is not out here playing.  She's got a mission, and she fully intends to fulfill it, come hell or high water, consequences be damned, let's get this show on the road, there is work to be done.


Because Mattie is no-nonsense, the book moves at a good clip.  This story gets rolling right out of the gate, says what it's got to say, and when all that needs to be said is said, it's done.  The last sentence is "This ends my true account of how I avenged Frank Ross's blood over in the Choctaw Nation when snow was on the ground."  Crisp, to the point, and starkly beautiful, just like the rest of the book.  A simple pleasure to read.



The Bones of You / by Debbie Howells

The Bones of You - Debbie Howells

I really did not care for this book.  The characters were flat, cliched, and unsympathetic.  I felt absolutely nothing for any of them.  The main character in particular was dim-witted,  and I just couldn't understand her involvement with this case.


The mystery was completely predictable, and the red herrings practically screamed that that is what they were.  Most of the book is just the main character saying, "that poor family, this is all so awful," and nothing ever really moves forward at all.  She was completely unnecessary to this story.  It would have been better, I think, as a police procedural.  


That said, the book is a page turner.  It was something I couldn't look away from, even though I was totally aware that I was reading, shall we say, something less than good.  It was a literary train wreck, in my opinion, and was certainly no Gone Girl, as the accolades for the book proclaimed.  I couldn't stop reading, just like you can't help looking at a car accident.

The Hound of the Baskervilles / by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

— feeling sad
The Hound of the Baskervilles -  Arthur Conan Doyle

This is not my first time reading The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the book I read this time sure must have been a different book than the one I read the first time around!  I was about 15 when I first read this book, and I was completely entranced by it.  It was creepy, suspenseful, tragic.  


Good. Grief.  This time around I found the book to be slow, boring, predictable, and the only tragedy was that a reread made a book I five-stars-loved into one that I could barely give two stars to! I spent six weeks of my life dragging myself to the conclusion of this book, and when I was done with it I wished for every second of that time back.


I am now left feeling confused (what made me love this book the first time?), sad (A book I thought was great just  isn't), and embarrassed (crikey, how many people have I suggested this book to over the years?!).  My advice on rereads:  Think twice before you go there.  The heart that gets broken could be your own.

Blood Lance / by Jeri Westerson

Blood Lance - Jeri Westerson

Generally speaking, I like the Crispin Guest novels.  Crispin is a disgraced English knight, whose life, although spared, is now something less than the rich and pampered one he once lived.  To keep bread on his table Crispin is now, as he sees it, reduced to solving crimes, often involving some religious relic.  Crispin is honorable, bold, sexy, and sometimes a bit of a navel gazer, which makes him thrilling and tiresome in equal measure.


While I typically enjoy a Crispin Guest novel, Blood Lance did not grab me.  The primary problem I had with the book was that the story was just all over the place!  There is a triple murder, a search for the Holy Lance (the lance that was used to pierce the side of Jesus Christ as he hung on the cross), some kind of intrigue involving knights, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Lenny a common thief.  Then there was a beautiful woman and her elderly father who were somehow connected to the murdered people, as well as to a bunch of other minor characters that it is hard to keep track of.  As if all of that is not enough to be getting on with, there is the ordeal with Sir Thomas, a knight, and friend to Crispin, who has deserted his lord in battle and is now faced with charges of cowardice, political discontent among the king, his cronies, and the general population, battle going on in Spain, and a dying Abbot Nicholas of Westminster Abbey.  I mean, seriously, I love the research and work that Westerson puts into her Crispin Guest novels, but she really didn't have to cram all of this into one book!  This is a lot for any one book, and frankly, the mystery gets so lost in this stew that when the denouement happens it's barely noticeable, and not even all that satisfying.  By the point the murderer is revealed, the reader is too tired to care.  Or at least I was.



Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen / by Terrance Dicks. ; narrated by David Troughton

Doctor Who and the Abominable Snowmen - Terrance Dicks

This isn't the best Doctor Who book I've read (or listened to), but it was entertaining enough.  I like anything to do with cryptid ape creatures, and I do enjoy the creativity of the Doctor Who universe, so a Doctor Who story featuring the yeti was something I couldn't pass up!  


The story was a little, I don't know, bland(?), but I really enjoyed the characters of The Doctor and Jamie.  The narrator was very good--I actually think he would have been perfect reading something like the Harry Potter series.  He did evil voices quite well, and varied his pace and tone to help convey the atmosphere of the story.


Overall this was some good brain candy.  It may not have been chocolate, but sometimes gummy bears will satisfy just as well.

The Concubine's Tattoo / by Laura Joh Rowland

The Concubine's Tattoo (Sano Ichiro Mysteries) - Laura Joh Rowland

The Concubine's Tattoo is written so much better than The Way of the Traitor, that I can barely believe that the same person wrote these two stories! In The Concubine's Tattoo Laura Joh Rowland is back to writing beautiful lines that are evocative of Japanese poetry. The plot moves along at a steady and rewarding pace, and there is some real growth in Sano, the main character.

Where The Way of the Traitor explored Japan's relationship with Western cultures, The Concubine's Tattoo really looks hard at the roles of women in Japanese society. The story centers around women and around what options were open (and closed) to them in Japan at the time this story takes place. Perhaps not surprisingly, sex, marriage, and motherhood are the dominate themes in women's lives, and this story looks at how those roles serve as motivations for various women in the story.

There is a lot of sex in this particular installment of the Sano Ichiro series. Heterosexual, homosexual, voyeurism, violent sex, loving sex--it's all there. It seems like someone is having sex in at least every other chapter. Much of this, though, I think is used as a way to illustrate that women's greatest power and their greatest vulnerability comes from their sexual roles in this society.

I really only had two problems with this book. First of all, why in the world, in every Sano Ichiro book I've read so far, does the protagonist always let the bad guy know that he's on to him?! I mean, seriously, if you had an enemy and you discovered his plot against you, would you really walk up to him and tip him off that you had found him out?! This just drives me crazy. No sane person would do that! Secondly, this book was riddled with typos. And not even normal ones. Many times I found "chüd" in place of "child." "Sano-sarc" also showed up many times instead of "Sano-san." The story was good enough that I did my best to disregard these typos, but there was some significant copy editing that needed to be done.

I am looking forward to seeing how Sano's life is going to progress in the rest of the books in this series. With this introduction of a bright, smart, feisty, loving wife into the story, Sano's life should get a lot more interesting and a lot more fun.