Book Reviews, Literary

Review: A MAN AT ARMS, by Steven Pressfield.

From the acclaimed master of historical fiction comes an epic saga about a reluctant hero, the Roman Empire, and the rise of a new faith.

One of the most interesting facets of religious belief is that religious belief has answers for everything. The Bible is full of what’s called “wisdom literature,” with advice on how to solve everything short of how to fix holes in drywall. In Orthodox Judaism, this is supplemented with incredibly detailed rabbinical teachings. Deuteronomy 6:9 commands that the words of the Shema prayer be written on the doorposts of your house, which is easy enough, until you realize that there’s a dispute as to whether the words on the scroll should be horizontal or vertical, and that because of that, you have to put them diagonally.

Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion. (Here’s how you can tell; Stoicism doesn’t have holidays.) Stoicism is behaviorist; its teachings are focused on ethics and virtue. The true stoic isn’t (as the modern usage has it) someone who is indifferent to emotion; it is someone who lives their lives consistent with their own ethical code.

I don’t know if Steven Pressfield identifies as a Stoic or not, but his signature philosophy is something of an uneasy marriage between Stoic ideas and Manichean cosmology. The Manicheans, like George Lucas, believe in a dark side in constant conflict with goodness and light. Pressfield’s philosophy, expressed succinctly, is that there is a creative spark of light in all of us, and an invisible dark force, called Resistance, that is trying to blot that spark out. The job of the creative mind is to create, and not to surrender to the siren call of Resistance, however that manifests (usually as negative self-talk).

The appeal of the Pressfield Way, for lack of a better term, is threefold. First, it’s uncomplicated. It doesn’t take a very sophisticated viewpoint to understand that applying butt to chair is work, and checking your email and Twitter and sneaking into the kitchen for a snack is not-work, and is therefore the work of Resistance. Second, it’s task-oriented, a philosophy that is supremely helpful if you have a job to do that needs doing and you need to eliminate distractions in order to do it. Third, it tallies with lived experience. Everyone deals with obstacles and procrastination every day; the Pressfield Way is dead useful as a mental model for addressing these conflicts. (I just this minute brought up the George R.R. Martin website, and he’s busy watching movies and reading Hemingway and, as far as we know, not writing, so that tells you something right there.)

There are, however, three main limitations with using the Pressfield Way in practice. First, it can’t always tell you what kind of work to do. This is especially difficult if, like me, you have creative projects pointing at different directions every day. Down in the basement, I have furniture that needs to be refinished, and an art project that I need to finish, and the kids got a keyboard from Santa Claus and I want to learn how to play that at some point. I have this book review to finish, and a hundred others I’ve written that I want to cross-post to my website. I have to rework the website for my (struggling) publishing company, and I have a web project about baseball and one about music that I want to complete. I have a good idea for my sixth law review article. My fourth novel is about halfway complete, and then I have two non-fiction projects (one about politics and one about history) that I want to pursue. And I have a day job on top of that. I not only have your ordinary garden-variety everyday Resistance to deal with, I have an inner voice telling me that I need to work on the other things that keeps me from completing the thing I am doing.

Second, the Pressfield Way can’t tell you if the work you are doing is crap or not. The most common self-talk you get from Resistance is what you are doing sucks and you are wasting your time with it. Pressfield teaches us that Resistance is always lying and always full of crap. Which is true enough as far as it goes, but every lie has a kernel of truth in it. Maybe what I am doing really does suck. How do I know? How can I tell? (This is where your editor and your beta readers come in.)

The third limitation in the Pressfield Way is love.

A MAN AT ARMS is about this limitation, about the intersection of fighting Resistance with finding love. Its hero is Telamon, a Greek warrior in the Roman legions now working as a mercenary. Pressfield portrays him as an exemplary Stoic, someone who acts according to his own code, impervious to any other concerns other than the welfare of his mules. Telamon accepts a commission from a Roman officer to track down a fugitive Christian who is carrying Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. The Romans want to suppress the apostle’s message, and Telamon wants to be paid.

The problem is that there’s a little girl involved.

As a story, A MAN AT ARMS Is lacking in a lot of ways. Telamon seems scarcely human, and seems an unlikely object of childish devotion. The narration is chock-full of little deviations, some helpful, others with the consistency and appeal of cold oatmeal. The action scenes are taut and cinematic, though, and the villains are suitably villainous. But the attraction is in the clash of philosophies more than anything else, and in this area if no other, A MAN AT ARMS is instructive, and worthwhile.

The message of the Pressfield Way in terms of the twenty-first century would-be novelist, typing merrily away on his wireless keyboard, listening to 80’s rock through his Bose speakers, is forthright. Spouses and children are tools of Resistance. You spend all your time hanging out with other people, whoever they are (which you can’t of course always do in this year of grace 2021), and you are not going to get as much work done, and that is a fact. But you have to talk to your wife, you can’t (sigh) let your kids play with their screens all day, you have to do your other job, and what do you do with that? Pressfield, in his other books, says that you fight Resistance, you become a professional, you follow the path of the warrior.

In A MAN AT ARMS, he comes to a very different conclusion, and the correct one. Pressfield paints an idealized man of infinite Stoic virtue and accomplished prowess, the exemplar in many ways of his own personal philosophy, and it all comes to tatters in the face of love.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: TINSEL: A SEARCH FOR AMERICA’S CHRISTMAS PRESENT, by Hank Stuever

The author of Off Ramp takes readers on a journey into the excess and beauty of Christmas in an American suburb by following three people through all their holiday preparations and celebrations. Reprint.

Critics, in one way, are sort of like World War II submarine captains: they love nothing more than a juicy target — and the bigger, the better. In TINSEL, Washington Post critic Hank Stuever has two of the most tempting targets in his sights — well, three if you count Sarah Palin, who just merits a quick sideswipe here.

The first — and less obvious — is the concept of the Edge City. First popularized by Stuever’s Washington Post colleague Joel Garreau, the Edge City is what was once pasture and is now a 21st century metropolis with malls, big-box stores serving as urban centers, and new communities tied to — but far from — urban downtowns, largely without history and (depending on who you talk to) wholly without a soul.

Stuever, a self-confessed member of the godless East Coast liberal media, seizes on Frisco, Texas as his Edge City target. Frisco was once a small community in Collin County, a railroad
depot in the vast expanse of prairie north of Dallas. Today, it has over 100,000 residents, a sprawling shopping mall, a Double-A baseball team, and the usual agglomeration of chain retail and dining establishments. In short (not least because Collin County is solidly Republican), it can, under the right circumstances (and if you’re a deep-dyed “urbanist” blue-state liberal), symbolize all that is wrong with America.

Stuever rents a room in a mini-mansion, researches the town’s history, geology and demographics, and identifies three families to follow around the barren and bleak Edge City
landscape. But Frisco is only his secondary target. Stuever is after something bigger; indeed, the biggest thing that there is: the Christmas season and the absolute maelstrom of consumer spending attendant to it. And although the commercialization of Christmas is one of the favorite dead horses for critics to beat (right up there with who-really-wrote-Shakespeare’s-plays and the college football playoff system), Stuever manages to go a few steps beyond the usual so-this-is-what-it-has-come-to story.

The author finds his first family on Black Friday in line waiting for the Frisco Best Buy to open its doors at an ungodly hour (the mother serves as “praise leader” for a big-box church, which, predictably, gets skewered as well). The second family features a stay-at-home mom who has a small business where she decorates the homes of harried suburbanites who don’t have the time or inclination to do it themselves. The third family is consumed with one of those colorful Christmas light displays you see in beer commercials that draws visitors from all over the Metroplex.

TINSEL, like Christmas itself, is wonderful if you’re in the right mood — and if you’re not, it can make you wish you were dead. Stuever’s biting humor (which owes at least a small debt to David Sedaris) undercuts the sticky sentimentality of the season. But it’s his skills as a reporter in noticing the small, telling details that make this book such a fascinating read (his analysis of the Christmas village figurine industry is worth the cost of the book all by itself).

If TINSEL was just a snarky, mean-spirited take on the holiday season as celebrated in a soulless corner of flyover country, it would be a worthwhile and timely effort. What distinguishes Stuever’s work here is not just the excellence of his prose but that it is leavened with more than a little introspection and regret. Just when you think he has gone too far in his criticism — and I say this as a proud son of the North Texas prairie — Stuever takes a step back, examines his attitudes, and manages to find some good in the holiday and those who celebrate it. For a critic, that is quite the achievement.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: GENGHIS: LORDS OF THE BOW, by Conn Iggulden

Continues the story of Genghis Khan as he embarks on a quest to conquer the mighty Chin empire, leaving a trail of devastation behind as he makes his way to Yenking, capital of the empire, and prepares to lay siege to the city and starve it into submission.

Define “civilization” however you want, but there’s always going to be some amount of barbarism mixed in to whatever definition you can come up with.

Only a truly technically advanced civilization could produce things like 50-inch high-definition plasma televisions with picture-in-picture and remote control, but only a truly uncivilized barbaric horde could make sure that the only things worth watching at any given time are celebrity dating shows, Rachael Ray cooking programs, and baseball games on the West Coast that don’t even start until after my bedtime. Civilization gives you email, barbarism gives you spam. Civilization gives you iPods, barbarism gives you “American Idol.” Civilization gives you luxury sedans with satellite radio and heated leather seats, barbarism gives you traffic jams to sit in.  It’s all intertwined.

Conn Iggulden has completed his second book focusing on Genghis Khan’s life story. Large wedges of it are about the conflict of barbarism and civilization, and a lot of that has to do with water, of all things. Genghis leads his united Mongol tribes off the steppes of Central Asia into the hinterlands of China, but is balked by the tall walls that surround the Chinese cities. His soldiers are superb cavalrymen and bowmen — savage, ruthless and skilled — but they stare at fortifications in vain. The first city they encounter is served by irrigation canals, so Genghis sends his men out to break them. This ends up flooding a significant part of the Mongol camp, which is a minus, but leads to the eventual capitulation of the city.

Iggulden makes the contrast between the uncivilized Mongol horde and the civilized Chinese empire even starker in two other scenes involving water. Genghis sends two of his brothers to infiltrate a Chinese city, and they find themselves enjoying the pleasures of hot running water for the first time. At the same time, Genghis leads his young sons to a far-off river in winter, making them immerse themselves in the near-freezing water to make them the kind of tough-minded conquerors who could overthrow the great cities of China.

Iggulden — co-author of THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS — is trying to make the point that the Mongols were able to challenge the more civilized, more educated, more sophisticated Chinese Empire because they inculcated the warrior virtues (which Genghis summarizes as “the cold face”) of stoicism, courage and martial skills. (Iggulden never draws the contrast between our television-addled, PlayStation-wielding boys of today with Genghis’s sons, though it seems to be a preoccupation.) But as Genghis imposes his will on the Chinese, civilization imposes its will on him. Not only is his youngest brother Temuge seduced by the lure of hot baths, he becomes the Mongol Empire’s first official bureaucrat.

All of this sounds as though GENGHIS: LORDS OF THE BOW is little more than social commentary merged with horse opera. Gladly, there is much more to it. There is an incredible amount of wanton destruction and cruelty, enough to delight the heart of the most bloodthirsty armchair Mongol. Early on, there is a scene where Genghis discusses the mob of peasant refugees who have been kicked off their farms by his rampaging horde. He decides that there is nothing left for the peasants to do but die, and they are killed, making a mountain of the dead — and this is just an aside in one paragraph. (Later on, even worse things happen to the next set of peasants.) This is a fighting book, filled with scenes of battles, melees, sieges and military exploits of every kind.

And at the head of the river of blood stands Genghis Khan, imagined by Iggulden as implacable, honest and forthrightly determined to make the world safe for Mongols to do what Mongols do. Genghis is a bit less likable here than he was in Iggulden’s first book about him, GENGHIS: BIRTH OF AN EMPIRE, where he was an abandoned child struggling to survive. But here he leads his incomparable cavalrymen into a conflict with civilization itself, one that he can win, and one where civilized modern readers (safe in their armchair, with their satellite radio and laptop close at hand) can cheer his victories.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: RESCUING PATTY HEARST, by Virginia Holman

A daughter of a schizophrenic mother recounts how she and her sister were held hostage for four years while their mother gave way to psychosis and how the medical system of the 1980s inhibited patient progress and victimized their families.

In 1974, Virginia Holman was kidnapped. RESCUING PATTY HEARST is her ransom note.

The kidnapping was “custodial”, which usually conjures up images of battery or abuse, or a divorce gone horribly wrong. The perpetrator here was not Holman’s father or mother; instead, it was a disease. Holman’s mother began experiencing delusions related to an undiagnosed case of schizophrenia. She came to believe that she was a soldier in a secret war and had to set up the family’s vacation cottage on the Virginia coast as a field hospital to care for hordes of orphan children. But there were only two children in the small cottage — Virginia and her baby sister — and they were not being cared for.

Holman tells the story of her childhood experiences on two parallel tracks; each chapter has a date heading that explains whether a younger “Gingie” Holman, or her older, wiser contemporary counterpart is telling the story. We see what happens to Gingie, what she felt about it at the time, and how it affects her now. The author constantly evaluates and reevaluates her mother’s actions and her own through the prism of time and experience, rotating back and forth in time to better understand what happened and why.

The book’s subtitle is “Memories From A Decade Gone Mad”; its first line is “Nineteen seventy-four was a bad time to go crazy.” Holman does not blame the excesses of the 1970’s for her mother’s illness, but makes the point that society was so topsy-turvy at that time that her mother’s schizophrenia-induced actions seemed more normal than they otherwise might have. Holman’s role model at that young age was Patricia Hearst, kidnapped heiress turned domestic terrorist. She is invoked as a symbol of the times, showing how stunning reversals in character and action can take place.

RESCUING PATTY HEARST is a beautifully realized portrait of a seventies childhood set against the backdrop of a devastating illness. Holman is blessed with both a powerful memory bank and astonishing skills at reviving the spirit of a lost civilization from the misty past. Some of this is unavoidably sentimental, but the areas of the book dealing with her mother’s mental illness are starkly unsentimental. Holman’s intimate knowledge of the disease is tinged with both sympathy and anger, leading to an honest, non-sensationalized portrayal of the reality of mental illness. Her memoir covers not only her mother’s strange and powerful delusions, but also the day-to-day struggle that accompanies mental illness. Early on, Holman discusses an early delusion of her mother’s that results in a stare of disgust from a harried salesman — “a look,” Holman writes, “that would become increasingly familiar in the years to come.”

If Virginia Holman’s mother had never experienced mental illness, there still would have been the makings of a memoir here; her portrayal of a childhood and a time is masterfully written and affecting. The presence of mental illness lends the book a wrenching quality, bringing home the reality of mental disability and the effects that it has on families and lives. Holman succeeds in describing her childhood; she triumphs in describing her mother, her illness and her plight. RESCUING PATTY HEARST is an extraordinary work, putting to shame more conventional or sentimental portrayals of mental illness.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE GHOST MAP, by Steven Johnson


I think that it must be a very rare thing indeed for an author to not want a book he or she has written to sell a lot of copies–or at least for them not to sell a lot of copies for a bad reason. For example, I enjoyed GHOST FLEET, an imaginative thriller about a possible Chinese invasion of Hawaii, and while I certainly would like to have the book earn a wide readership, I would not want that to happen because China had, in fact, invaded Hawaii. (I imagine that the authors would agree.)

THE GHOST MAP, as I write this in January 2021, is selling well, and is selling well not because the book is so well-written and well-researched, but because the world is struggling with a global pandemic. Although there is not a great deal of similarity between the mid-nineteenth-century cholera outbreak in London and the twenty-first century outbreak of COVID-19, there is a commonality in terms of the fear of infection and frustration about how the crisis can be dealt with.

THE GHOST MAP is only sort of a history of the cholera outbreak that devastated (and, as the author points out, decimated, in the literal sense) the Soho neighborhood of London. It is primarily an intellectual history of the outbreak, and illustrates both the “knowledge problem” as set forth by Friedrich Hayek, and its corollary, written by Mark Twain, writing decades before Hayek.

The “knowledge problem” can be summarized thusly:

The peculiar character of the problem of a rational economic order is determined precisely by the fact that the knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess. The economic problem of society is thus not merely a problem of how to allocate “given” resources—if “given” is taken to mean given to a single mind which deliberately solves the problem set by these “data.” It is rather a problem of how to secure the best use of resources known to any of the members of society, for ends whose relative importance only these individuals know. Or, to put it briefly, it is a problem of the utilization of knowledge which is not given to anyone in its totality.

Or to summarize, nobody can know everything that he or she would need to know to make rational decisions. And as Twain observed, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.” Both the lack of knowledge and the persistence of what we may call anti-knowledge are ubiquitous in society, and are especially troublesome in the time of pandemic.

For London, the facts were that the bacteria that causes cholera was both unknown and unseen, and as so, there was no consensus on how it was transmitted. John Snow, a Victorian (in the most literal sense of the word) surgeon had determined that cholera was transmitted through the water supply. But the scientific community at large had determined that cholera was spread via bad smells, of which there were an abundance in London.

Snow was as close as anyone could be to solving the knowledge problem; he had exactly the set of medical, social, and analytical skillsets needed to determine the source of the cholera outbreak. As Hayek stated, Snow was “in the best position to command all the best knowledge available.” But he had to fight against those who believed the alternate theory, and he was unable to prove his theory until a local clergyman–seeking to disprove Snow– became  the “man on the spot,” with the specialized local knowledge to find the specific cesspit located next to the specific well which was the cause of the epidemic.

Johnson’s story is, happily, triumphant, and the the problems of cholera have, in the Western nations, largely been licked. (Outside of Western nations, cholera is a real problem, causing thousands of deaths each year.) Removing the handle of the pump on the contaminated well was a perfect solution–effective, cheap, and simple. (Treatment of cholera, which was unknown at the time, is basically Gatorade–Johnson has a hearty laugh at the quack nostrums sold in London to battle cholera.

THE GHOST MAP concludes with a long essay about how the work of John Snow impacts modern times–which I thought was a bit too long, until Johnson made some very prescient comments about the next pandemic and what it will look like. The knowledge problem related to COVID-19 is much more fiendish. COVID-19 is everywhere, not just in one impoverished London neighborhood. It is spread (or we think it is spread) by airborne particles or close contact, and up until recently we thought it was spread by asymptomatic patients. Although we seem to have a solution to the outbreak, the logistics in getting vaccines to billions of people is several orders of magnitude higher than removing one handle from one pump. The anti-knowledge, or misinformation, about COVID-19 has spread faster and farther than the virus itself.

There’s no doubt that the current popularity of THE GHOST MAP is due to COVID-19, which may be one of the few good things that has occurred as a result. It’s outstanding history, sociology, and epidemiology all in one. I hope that we are fortunate enough to have enough John Snows in this generation, and that we’re able to cut through the misinformation in time to save lives.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE HOUSE OF STYX, Derek Künsken

The first in a ground breaking, action-packed and exciting new science fiction series from the best-selling author of The Quantum Magician. Life can exist anywhere. And anywhere there is life, there is home. In the swirling clouds of Venus, the families of la colonie live on floating plant-like trawlers, salvaging what they can in the fierce acid rain and crackling storms. Outside is dangerous, but humankind’s hold on the planet is fragile and they spend most of their days simply surviving. But Venus carries its own secrets, too. In the depths, there is a wind that shouldn’t exist. And the House of Styx wants to harness it.

I bought in to THE HOUSE OF STYX based on one word, and that was “Venus.” I have been fascinated and intrigued about the idea of living on dirigibles in the Venusian atmosphere since the idea was first broached. Derek Künsken imagines a far-future where the different nations have staked claims to the different worlds, and somehow or other the French-Canadians got hold of Venus. All righty then. I was sold.

To the extent that THE HOUSE OF STYX is a pioneer story, it works very well. The main characters–a family of scruffy outlaws scraping the lower depths of the Venusian atmosphere–are exactly that, explorers of a new frontier. And rebels in the bargain, once a socialist-medicine death panel decrees that their oldest child should be medically exiled due to his Down Syndrome diagnosis. But it’s a pioneer story with twenty-first century priorities and values. (I disliked the heavy-handed seduction of the sixteen-year-old transsexual character by an older character, mostly because everyone else in the book seemed to be cool with it, no big deal.)

The difficulty I had with THE HOUSE OF STYX is not its setting, necessarily, or its villains (yes, of course they’re faceless capitalist bloodsuckers, because of course they are) but with the author’s lack of faith in his source material. This leads to the inclusion of a plot point that seems preposterous, to the point where the main characters are constantly having to explain to the other characters that it’s not as preposterous as it sounds. (I won’t reveal it here except to say that it’s real CHARIOTS OF THE GODS type stuff.) I was very much attracted to the idea of colonists making their way in a harsh Venusian landscape (there is still plenty of that) but not so much the machinations of the plot Künsken has constructed.

I quite like THE HOUSE OF STYX, and I certainly forgive the author for writing the book he wanted and not the book I expected. It’s solid stuff. But I came away caring much more for the characters (well, some of them) than what awaits them on the surface of Venus in the next installment. That’s a recommendation, mind you, but a slight one.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE SENTINEL, by Lee Child and Andrew Child

“It is close to midnight on a Saturday night when Jack Reacher gets off a bus at the Greyhound station in Nashville. Reacher is in no hurry. He has no appointments to keep. No people to see. No scores to settle. Not yet anyway. But in the early morning hours, under particular circumstances, a familiar thought will be snaking through his sharp, instinctual lizard brain: A voice in his head telling him to walk away. Of course, this wouldn’t be the first time he listened to his gut instead. Meanwhile, seventy-five miles south and west of Music City is a sleepy little town where a recently-fired guy nurses a grudge that will fester into fury–and a desire for payback. But who is watching him, standing guard over a long-buried secret, ready to strike before it can be revealed? If you don’t have a sense of the danger you’re in, then it’s best to have Reacher”–

There are basically two Jack Reacher plots; one where he gets roped in to addressing a major national security threat, and one where he accidentally stumbles into someone’s evil scheme. I like the first kind much better, because it makes more sense. I dislike the second kind because the suspension of disbelief in which you have to engage is like dangling the Chrysler Building into the Grand Canyon with a fly rod and thirty-pound monofilament fishing line. Can’t be done.

THE SENTINEL is a bit of a hybrid of these two styles, but it relies on Reacher being in a small Tennessee town in the exact same instant that the evil schemers are forcing an innocent man into a car. If Reacher is ten minutes early or late, or is in Key West or Seattle, he never sees this happen and the story doesn’t happen. This isn’t quite as ridiculous as him spotting the evil scheme from a moving train, but it’s close.

The main problem with the second-order Reacher stories is that the evil schemers aren’t up to his fighting weight. This kind of book puts Reacher up against small-time laundromat owners or yuppie lodging entrepreneurs. Reacher tears through mooks like this as though they were made of wet cardboard.

Here, the evil schemers are a little more adept, but not much, and even though it’s a pleasure to see Reacher prevail, he’s not really being tested here.

The Andrew Child version of Reacher has him being a little more of a motormouth than usual, but other than that there’s no discernible loss of quality in the story. THE SENTINEL is a perfectly cromulent second-rank Reacher novel, if that’s what you’re looking for, that’s what you’ll get.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: LEGACY OF WAR, Wilbur Smith and David Churchill

A brand-new Courtney Series adventure. The action-packed new book in the Courtney Series and the sequel to Courtney’s War. The war is over, Hitler is dead – and yet his evil legacy lives on. Saffron Courtney and her beloved husband Gerhard only just survived the brutal conflict, but Gerhard’s Nazi-supporting brother, Konrad, is still free and determined to regain power. As a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse develops, a plot against the couple begins to stir. One that will have ramifications throughout Europe. . . Further afield in Kenya, the last outcrop of the colonial empire is feeling the stirrings of rebellion. As the situation becomes violent, and the Courtney family home is under threat, Leon Courtney finds himself caught between two powerful sides – and a battle for the freedom of a country. Legacy of War is a nail-biting story of courage, bravery, rebellion and war from the master of adventure fiction.

LEGACY OF WAR is the sixteenth book (unless it’s the nineteenth book) in a series of historical novels that span the distance from (if I have this right) the French and Indian War to the post-World War II period, when this volume takes place.

Wilbur Smith and David Churchill have the unenviable job here to make this book accessible to readers like me who haven’t read the other books in the series while putting in the occasional reference to the other books for fanservice. This is trickier than it sounds; you don’t want new readers to get lost or veteran readers to get bored. How this works out in practice is that Smith and Churchill balance out the action scenes with plenty of scenes that not only aren’t action but that look backward to the previous books rather than forward. This can be made to work, but you have to find a balance, and the problem with LEGACY OF WAR is that it often feels unbalanced.

The way this works in practice is that the action is centered in the novel’s timeline, while most everything that isn’t action harkens back to the other books. As far as the action goes, there’s absolutely nothing to criticize, and you’d look foolish to do it. Smith and Churchill put their heroes up against ex-Nazis and the Mau Mau rebels with panache. There’s an argument to be made that heroine Action Girl Saffron Courtney and her ex-Luftwaffe fighter jock husband are smarter and braver and more talented in the ways of war than any real people could ever be, but LEGACY OF WAR pits them against some very bad people that test even their extreme limits.

Part of the balance issue is that you can’t just have action scene after action scene; you have to give the reader a break. The problem is that the scenes that aren’t action scenes are either dull or incomprehensible. There’s a lot of talk about involving some distant cousin (who apparently features in some of the other books) but that particular subplot sputters out with a wet splat. That sort of thing is just boring (although it may not be to veteran readers); what is actively annoying is that Smith and Churchill spend so much time making the good characters out to be liberals who understand which way the forces of history are going (easy to do in hindsight).

The last paragraph of the book review (at least the way I do it) traditionally recaps the review, provides a pull quote, and makes a recommendation. I’ve been sitting here for the last hour trying to figure out how to do it, and this is me throwing up my hands. There’s nothing wrong with LEGACY OF WAR, there are plenty of things right about it, but you might be better off reading the other fifteen (or eighteen) books first instead. Otherwise (setting aside the well-done action scenes), LEGACY OF WAR doesn’t have enough to recommend it. That’s it. That’s the review.

A Circle of Moonlight, Books

If Only In My Dreams

This is a draft first chapter of my work-in-progress, A CIRCLE OF MOONLIGHT, the sequel to A CIRCLE OF FIRELIGHT, which came out in February and which you can totally buy if you want. Merry Christmas!

Christmas Eve | West Orange, New Jersey

“I suppose I shouldn’t ask you how your holiday is going.”

I lean forward in my wheelchair, just a little bit, and give Dr. Lindbergh my best glare. I would say something to him, but I can’t think of anything withering enough. Given my ongoing struggles with apraxia and aphasia, I am worried that whatever I could say might not come out the right way. The glare is sufficient.

“You know I am not the one keeping you from going home for Christmas.”

This is fair as far as it goes. I was supposed to leave the rehab hospital and go home for the holiday. But the first week of December, my younger sister Penny came down with a serious respiratory infection. Penny has cystic fibrosis, a debilitating lung disease, and what would be a couple of days in bed for most people means three weeks in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for her. Worse, this particular infection was so bad that they installed a catheter in her chest, the better to deliver antibiotics.

Penny has been home for a few days now. I have been in one hospital or another since I was in a bad car accident in August—Penny was in the car with me, but she had a mild concussion, while I had a traumatic brain injury with surgery. I was in Robert Wood Johnson Hospital in New Brunswick for a month, until they moved me here to the rehab hospital. And because I am somewhere where I might encounter all sorts of exotic germs, I am not allowed to go home for Christmas, lest I give Penny another infection, and land her back in CHOP.

None of that is Dr. Lindbergh’s fault. But the rest of it is.

“Ready to walk,” I say. I didn’t want to just go home for Christmas; I wanted to walk in the front door, and I can’t do that, yet, because I haven’t been cleared to by the man behind the desk, whom I am still glaring at.

“We’ve been over this,” he explains. “You need three things to be able to walk. First is balance, if you don’t have that you’ll fall over. Second is support. Your legs have to be strong enough to support you. Third is the actual motion of walking. All three of these things have to be able to work together—they reinforce each other.”

I make the little circular motion with my hand that means yeah, yeah, go on.

“We can build up your leg muscles, and you’ve been working hard on that in PT. But we don’t know how the brain injury affected your sense of balance, or how well you can perform the motion of walking. The classical way we would do that would be to use parallel bars, or crutches, or a walker. Something to give you support and keep you from falling. But all of that is contraindicated by the wrist injury. There’s too much pain involved, and you could damage yourself badly with a fall.”

I intensify my glare at Dr. Lindbergh. He is not a bad doctor. He is young, with an untidy mop of red curly hair, and thick glasses with thin gold frames. There’s half a hospital-cafeteria sandwich on his desk, and what I think is a glob of Thousand Island dressing on the front of his white lab coat.

“Want to try,” I say.

“Look, Ashlyn,” he says. “You’ve been working hard to build your load-bearing capacity, and you’re almost there. But the left wrist still isn’t at a hundred percent. We’ve had this conversation; we’re probably looking at putting in a permanent screw to stabilize the wrist bones. That’s causing some of the pain; the loose bone fragments are causing the rest of it. A surgeon can go in and clean them all out.”

“Walking is more important,” I say, tripping a little on the sibilant in is. I would omit the verb, but I am tired of sounding like Ashlyn Revere, Unfrozen Cavewoman.

“I understand that. I respect that. Additional surgery is going to set back your rehab, no doubt about it. But that left wrist isn’t getting any better, and you’re overworking the right wrist to compensate—and that wrist had prior damage of its own.”

“I know.” I had jammed my right wrist months before the car crash, when I had tried to punch a hole in a cinder-block wall after losing a field hockey game. Not my finest moment.

“What worries me is that once we give you a walker, you could lean on in hard enough to cause pain in those wrists, and that could lead to a fall. The wrist surgery will set you back two or three weeks. A fall with broken bones will set you back two or three months. It’s not a risk I want to see you take.”

Dr. Lindbergh is right, and I know he’s right, and that makes it all the more frustrating. It would be easier if he were wrong. It would also be easier if I didn’t feel the nagging soreness in my wrist just now, like mismatched gears grinding against each other.

“I have given this some thought, and I think we can get you on a treadmill, if we put you in an upper-body harness and attach that to a lift.”

I turn down my withering glare a notch, trying to figure out how that will work.

“We use the lift to support your body weight, then we maneuver you onto a treadmill. With me so far? You can walk as much as you can manage, however slow or fast as you like. With the harness holding you up, you can’t fall. As you build up muscle strength, we reduce the tension on the lift. Before too much longer, you ought to be able to use the treadmill independently. Then you’d be ready to walk normally.”

“When? Now?”

“Not right now. Too many people off for the holiday. But soon, maybe? Tomorrow? What do you think? Would that make your holiday season a little brighter?”

No, it wouldn’t. I will still be alone, without my family—outside of brief visits and FaceTime calls. I will still be injured, scarred, and vulnerable. I will still be struggling with my speech, and my thought patterns, and my fine motor skills. I will only be one step closer to what I really want, which is to have my independence back.

But as long as that’s a step I can take on my own, I’m all for it.

“Deal,” I say to Dr. Lindbergh, and stretch out my hand for a fist-bump.

“Deal,” he says. “And Merry Christmas to you, Ashlyn.”

I take a deep breath. “M-m-merry Christmas, Doctor.”

Christmas Morning | Residence Inn by Marriott, Henderson, Nevada

It is six in the morning in Nevada, but my body clock is still set on Chapel Hill time. I knew when I got up that I would not be able to go back to sleep, so I came downstairs to check out the breakfast spread at the Marriott. It has not disappointed so far. I am sipping a paper cup with cranberry juice and clearing croissant crumbs off my copy of Biochemistry and Nutrition for Nurses.

“How are you so tall?” a small voice asks.

I look up from my textbook and see a little girl, maybe four years old, in a soft wooly coat. Her mother—or I assume that’s who she is—is sitting in the back of the lobby, typing impatiently on a laptop.

“I drank all my juice when I was your age,” I tell her. “My mother is a dietician—do you know what that is? She helps people learn what they should eat, and she always served us healthy food. That helped me grow tall.” Six feet, one and a quarter inches, to be exact.

“I don’t like the purple juice. Just the yellow.”

“That’s good for you, too, as long as you don’t drink too much of it. Are you having a good Christmas?”

“We’re going to leave to see my Nana here in a minute. Mommy says that Santa Claus brought all the toys there this year.”

“Well, I hope you get something nice in your stocking,” I say. “What’s your name?”

“Angelica. What’s yours?”

“My name is Jennifer. Jennifer Lamb. Nice to meet you, Angelica.”

“Shouldn’t you be with your parents?” the child asks.

“They’re back home, in North Carolina. They’re going to watch me on television, though. I’m playing in a basketball game later today.”

Angelica’s mother closes her laptop with a decisive crack and walks over to collect her. “Sorry if my daughter was bothering you,” she says.

“She’s fine,” I say. “Don’t worry. I need something to distract me from all this homework.”

Angelica’s mother is tall, with sharp features and artfully teased hair. “Did I hear you say you play basketball?”

“You did. University of North Carolina. Pre-season tournament; we’re playing Marquette at two-thirty.”

“That’s great. I played backup point guard in school. Arizona State. We made it to the Sweet Sixteen my junior year. It was an awesome experience.”

“We went out early last year,” I say. “Beat Rice in the first round, lost to Gonzaga.”

“Well, good luck to you, then,” she says. “Come on Angelica. Let’s go see Nana.”

I get up from the table, stretch a little, and then walk over to the counter to get another croissant. Even though it’s a chilly morning, the Marriott has the air conditioner turned up to teeth-chattering levels. I consider running up to the room to get a jacket, but I decide to fix myself some hot tea instead.

I get halfway through the first chapter of the biochemistry textbook when I look up to see Coach Morgan sitting at the table across from me.

“Good morning,” she says. She is uncharacteristically sloppy, wearing a tattered pale-blue sweatshirt, and cradling a paper cup of coffee. “Getting in some classwork, I see.”

“Trying to get a head start for next semester,” I explain.

She nods approvingly. “I thought I would get up early and walk a few miles on the treadmill, but I decided I needed coffee first. And then I saw you here, by yourself, and I thought I would say hello.”

“Hello.”

“I need to tell you something, Jennifer, and I figure now is as good a time as any.”

“What is it, Coach?”

I flash through the last month or so of practice, mentally reviewing my performance, to figure out what she could possibly be wanting to talk to me about.

“I want you to know that you’re my rock on this team, Jennifer. You are the one player I can count on. We’ve been together going on four years now, and you’re the most dependable player I’ve ever coached. I trust you out there, and believe me when I tell you that I wouldn’t trade having you on the team for anyone else in the conference.”

“Thank you, Coach.”

“Which it’s why it’s hard for me to tell you that I’m starting Unique at power forward today.”

If she had slapped me in the face, it wouldn’t have hurt any less.

“You’ve worked so hard, Jennifer. You deserve every opportunity I can give you. But I have to think about the team, too. And Unique—well, you’ve gone against her in practice. You know what she can do with the ball in her hand. She had a rocky freshman year, but all she’s done in practice is light it up, and we need points however we can get them.”

I want to say something, anything, but when she puts it all together, it’s obvious. Unique Templeton is a little smaller than I am, but she is maybe a little quicker, and she has a soft fall-away jump shot that she can make from anywhere on the court. I’m a better defender, no question, but Unique is a better scoring threat.

I just didn’t think she was good enough to take my job.

Coach tilts her head to the left, just a little. I know she is waiting for me to say something, trying to anticipate which way I am going to jump. If I am going to shout—if I am going to cry—she would rather it happen here, in this deserted early-morning Marriott lobby. Not in front of the team, because the team comes first.

You’re my rock, she had said.

Rocks don’t whine. Rocks don’t complain. Rocks endure.

“What Unique is going to need,” I say, “more than anything else, is a good working relationship with Monica. Monica has a hard time finding the happy medium on the court. If she has the hot hand, she gets overconfident and starts taking risks. If she goes cold, she gets tentative and slow. You have to work with her to find the right rhythm; if Unique can do that, she’ll be golden.”

“What would keep Unique from being able to do that?”

“It’s mostly about expectations. If the expectation being placed on Unique is to score, and score big, she’s going to put less emphasis on being a good teammate and working with Monica. The only way this is going to work is if they’re both feeding off each other, both trying to get the ball to the open teammate. If they’re competing against each other for the ball, you’re setting them both up to fail.”

“It’s about being unselfish,” Coach says. “I know you get that. And that’s what I’m asking you to do, Jennifer. For the team.”

I bite back my tears, because rocks don’t cry. “My parents are going to be watching today,” I say. “The whole family is going to be coming over for Christmas, and they’ll have the TV on. I don’t think I’m being selfish by telling you that.”

Coach relaxes, just a hair. “I understand. Don’t worry. I’ll get you some minutes. You’ve earned that, maybe more than you know. And if you’ll excuse me, I need to get up on that treadmill.”

“Okay, Coach.”

“Thank you, Jennifer. Thank you for understanding. I hope we can make it work.”

“We’ll see,” I say, and that’s all I can say. Maybe she wants me to say thank you, maybe she wants me to slobber all over myself in self-pity. I can’t do either.

I am a rock. Rocks don’t react. Rocks don’t feel pain.

But rocks can crumble.

If you hit them hard enough, rocks can break.

Christmas Day | Montgomery, New Jersey

“Jason, you can’t take that deal,” I say.

“You can’t tell me what to do,” he says.

“Yeah, you can’t tell him what to do,” his twin brother Ray chimes in.

“You be quiet. He wants Park Place. And all he’s offering is Connecticut Avenue.”

“I need Connecticut Avenue,” Jason says.

“And he needs Park Place. And he has, I don’t know, fifteen hundred dollars over there, and he can use that to blow us both out of the water if we land on those properties.”

My twin brothers are just old enough to get the rules of Monopoly, but not old enough to evaluate a good deal or a bad deal. Or I don’t think so. Ray is the competitive one. Jason is the smart one, the one who is devious—or he would be if he weren’t as easy to read as a Dan Brown potboiler.

“Wait a second,” I say. “You’re letting him win.”

“No, I’m not,” Jason says.

“Penny, let him do what he wants to do,” Ray says.

“Okay. Maybe you don’t want Ray to win. Maybe you don’t care who wins. But maybe you’re bored, and you want us to keep playing so you can sneak off and play Fortnite.”

Jason makes a face at me. “You are officially my least-favorite sister right now.”

“Call Ashlyn and tell her. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled to hear that.”

“I already talked to her. She says she wishes she could come home.”

“I wish that too,” I say, and I do. I’ve only been home from the hospital four days, and it feels like I was gone for a year. Raymond and Jason look like they’ve both grown three inches; they will be taller than I am before too much longer.

But Ashlyn’s been gone far longer. She and I were in a car wreck last summer; a glazier’s van somehow flew into the air and crash-landed on top of my mother’s old Volvo. I got off with some cuts, scrapes, and a low-grade concussion. Ashlyn got a broken wrist, a broken leg, and a broken skull—all that, and she almost died in the operating room when a jagged piece of rib bone came an inch from poking her in the heart. And then again later, when they had to drill into her skull to remove the pressure from a blood clot on her brain. She has been busy trying to learn how to walk and talk again, while I have been sitting around the house waiting for word from my pulmonologist about my lung transplant—when I’m not in the hospital, that is.

Because of my most recent hospitalization, I have a shiny new piece of medical equipment lodged in my actual body; a catheter that delivers my antibiotic regimen straight into my bloodstream without having to swallow a million actual pills. This is not quite the improvement you might think it is, but it helped me get home in time to spend Christmas Day with my family.

Except for Ashlyn.

But I can either be sad for her or happy for me, and given that choice, I’ll take happy.

“Okay. You kids put the Monopoly set today. I’ll go warm up the PlayStation. Deal?”

“That means I win, right?” Ray asks.

“It means you get to hear me laugh at your weak Fortnite skills. Hurry up.”

My father is sound asleep in his recliner, the remote control in his hand. I try to sneak it out slowly, carefully, like Indiana Jones trying to winkle a golden idol from a hidden altar. I do not succeed, and his eyes open halfway. “Yes?”

“We were going to play Fortnite on the PlayStation. Sorry to wake you up.”

“I wasn’t asleep.”

“Sure you weren’t. What’s the score on the Jets game?”

“They were down three touchdowns at halftime. I switched to ESPN.”

I look at the screen for the first time; it’s showing a women’s basketball game.

“North Carolina playing Marquette. I think.”

“Then you won’t mind us switching to a video game.”

“Not very Christmasy, is it? Violent video games?”

I snort at this. “You watched Die Hard last night, that’s as violent.”

“It’s a Christmas movie.”

“Be that as it may. You can go back to sleep; they’ll be…”

I stop, because I can’t see my dad in his recliner, it’s all a blur.

“What is it, Penny? You okay?”

I am not okay, not one bit okay, and I don’t know why. I start coughing—no big surprise there, but it hurts for some reason. I have a high pain threshold and this hurts like hell. I fall to one knee in the deep pile carpet.

“You’re turning blue.” He doesn’t sound sleepy anymore.

I stop myself from coughing and suck in air. There is a deep pain in my chest, like an icepick to the heart. All I can see is the beige blur of the carpet.

“My name is Dennis Revere. I’m calling for my daughter. She was fine a second ago, and now she looks like maybe she’s having a heart attack.”

Heart attack? I have not lived seventeen years with cystic fibrosis to die of a heart attack. I don’t know what’s wrong with me but your heart stops in a heart attack; mine is going a mile a minute, each beat sending hot spikes of pain through my system.

“She’s still breathing—she has trouble breathing, she has cystic fibrosis—but she hasn’t stopped. Something’s definitely wrong.”

I am down on all fours now, panting with effort. I am not going to die today. I am not going to ruin Christmas Present and all the Christmas Futures by dying. I am going to stay alive, although I have no idea how I do that other than to keep breathing. I cough some more, thick fluid dripping from my mouth.

“What happened?” my mother asks, on the fringe of my consciousness.

“No idea. I’m on with 9-1-1. Call Dr. Morton.”

I am still breathing, with deep, shuddering sobs. The pain has a metallic edge to it, hard and bitter, and it is not subsiding one little bit.

“Morton says have her sit up, see if that helps.”

Oh, that’s brilliant. Sit up, that’s the best he can come up with? If this doesn’t kill me, I am going to write a strongly worded letter to the Pennsylvania medical authorities.

My parents lift me up off all fours and deposit me on the couch. I can feel the pain subside, but only a little. My breathing is slow and ragged, but I am moving air in and out. Someone hands me an oxygen mask, and the cool air takes a little bit of the edge off my panic.

“So I guess this means we’re not playing Fortnite,” Ray says.

“Go upstairs, you two, and change out of those pajamas into something warm. Morton thinks it’s an air embolism, from the central line. Dangerous but treatable.”

“Tell… Morton… go to…”

“Penny. Language. We’re going to the hospital. It’s going to be okay. You understand? You’re all right. Just hold out a little while longer.”

“Sorry,” I say. “Ruining. Christmas.”

“It’s okay, sweetheart. Just keep breathing. That’s all I’m asking right now.”

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE LAST BERSERKER, by Angus Donald





THE LAST BERSERKER is, technically, a bildungsroman, which is a fancy German literary word to describe a novel where the main character starts out young and then learns things along the way. Here, said main character is learning how to become a berserker, a warrior in medieval Europe who enters into a state of bloodlust on the battlefield, heedless of personal safety. This is not what a modern person would call a stable job, but at the time it probably had a lot of glamour and travel attached to it.

Of course, like any other job, you don’t just show up on your first day at the office and start out as a berserker. You have to work your way into it, which is where the bildungsroman aspect of things come in. Our hero, oafish Bjarki Bloodhand from the island of Bago, starts out as an apprentice killing machine, and is spotted by a medieval talent scout, who rescues him from the hangman’s rope and whisks him off to a combat academy in the Black Forest.

There is perhaps a little more postmodernism in THE LAST BERSERKER than you might expect, and if you are thinking that maybe there’s a little bit of Harry Potter going on, you wouldn’t be wrong. (And maybe a little bit of Star Wars, as long as we’re being all analytical about it.) Young Bjarki is attached to the Bear Lodge, where he learns both the basics of warfare and the deep mystical lore of the berserker. This requires the apprentice warrior to manifest an animal spirit inside oneself that gets unleashed, to terrifying affect, on the battlefield.

The bildungsroman is a fairly conventional genre, and there is a fairly conventional progression to the events in THE LAST BERSERKER; if you think you’ve read this one before, you’re probably right. What makes THE LAST BERSERKER work isn’t necessarily the plot, or the characters, or the historical setting, but the description of the battle scenes. Angus Donald manages to handle both the large-scale and small-scale descriptions of battle. And fortunately, there are enough of those to keep the action going and overcome some of the rough spots in the narrative.

THE LAST BERSERKER has one too many convenient coincidences and flat characters to be truly outstanding, but it delivers on its promise of blood-soaked action.