Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE BURNING LAND, by Bernard Cornwell

<a href="http://""">The Burning Land</a> Book Cover
The Burning Land Fiction Harper Collins 368

In a clash of heroes, the kingdom is born. At the end of the ninth century, with King Alfred of Wessex in ill health and his heir still an untested youth, it falls to Alfred’s reluctant warlord Uhtred to outwit and outbattle the invading enemy Danes, led by the sword of savage warrior Harald Bloodhair. But the sweetness of Uhtred’s victory is soured by tragedy, forcing him to break with the Saxon king. Joining the Vikings, allied with his old friend Ragnar—and his old foe Haesten—Uhtred devises a strategy to invade and conquer Wessex itself. But fate has very different plans. Bernard Cornwell’s The Burning Land is an irresistible new chapter in his epic story of the birth of England and the legendary king who made it possible.

THE BURNING LAND is the fifth Bernard Cornwell tale about Uhtred, a fierce ninth-century warlord battling his way through enemy shield walls in an England waiting to be united. You should know this right away, along with the fact that it won’t be the last of the series. It’s hard enough to write one novel, but it’s downright difficult to pen five of them consecutively with the same characters and themes and keep the writing fresh and interesting. “Difficult” isn’t even the word; “impossible” is more like it. (Even the most devout Cornwell fan is going to have a hard time getting through the whole 20-plus volumes of the Richard Sharpe series without wincing at the umpteenth explanation of how Sharpe got his telescope or the workings of the deadly seven-barreled gun.)

But if you liked the first four volumes of Cornwell’s Saxon Tales, the good news is that there’s more of the same in THE BURNING LAND. There are cruel and disgusting Viking invaders, heartless and crafty priests, dangerous and exotic women, and the endless machinations of Alfred the Great, which invariably lead the doughty Uhtred into a welter of gore. Cornwell has not lost his deft touch in describing the joy of battle, the inexorable flame that runs through a warrior when he stabs someone in the eye with a spear.

One of Uhtred’s core beliefs is that his fate is determined by the three spinners of Norse legend — that he is a plaything of the gods, to be turned this way and that. It’s easy to see why he might think so, especially because Cornwell uses him so often as a pawn. Uhtred is forever being manipulated by one character or another, and it doesn’t really help the narrative much that he is aware of this and is somewhat cynical about it. But there is one moment in the story after Uhtred has fallen for a truly transparent ruse where he is able to break free from the ties that bind him to Saxon Wessex. And this leaves him free to follow his own desires for once, where he can take his Viking longboat with the wolf’s head prow and finally settle an old score. It appears — at least for a while — that this will be the book in which Uhtred finally captures the unassailable fortress of Bebbanburg, kill his usurping uncle and reclaim his stolen patrimony.

If that had happened, it would be a truly impressive feat of arms, leading to a bloody and violent battle, ending in triumph and disaster. It would also end the series. And as you might expect, Cornwell has other plans for Uhtred — and even though these plans lead him to another improbable battlefield, against a fearsome foe, it is still something of a letdown. This is not to denigrate THE BURNING LAND in any way; it’s superior entertainment (if you like your entertainment blood-stained and brutal). Uhtred is a fully-realized character, capable of great bravery and great foolishness, mixed in with — as he might describe himself — the deviousness of Loki and the thunder of Thor’s hammer in battle. And Cornwell’s eye for period detail and his capacity for pulling off deft reverses are still in place, which helps to keep the narrative turning briskly along.

The only thing to dislike about THE BURNING LAND is that it didn’t go in the direction that the main character (and at least this part of the readership) wanted it to go. But that means that the issue of who holds Bebbanburg Castle will be resolved in another volume, and given Cornwell’s talents, that will be a book to wait for indeed


How a Random Tweet From a Theater Critic Inspired My Novel WREATHED

I wish I had favorited the tweet, but I didn’t, and I couldn’t bring it up on a quick Google search. I found this tweet, though, and it’s close enough:

George Jones Tweet

Okay. So, I follow Terry Teachout on Twitter, and he’s a playwright and author and drama critic in New York, and I am a work-a-daddy lawyer in beautiful downtown Trenton, New Jersey. I don’t think we have much in common except politics (we’ve both written for National Review Online, although not for several years for either of us) and an appreciation of country music.

The actual tweet (and again, I don’t have it, and am too lazy to go winding through Teachout’s Twitter timeline to find it) was either a link to this Commentary review of a book about country-music legend George Jones, or a link to the book itself, endearingly entitled “He Stopped Loving Her Today: George Jones, Billy Sherrill, and the Pretty-Much Totally True Story of the Making of the Greatest Country Record of All Time.” Either way, it was enough to encourage me to buy the book (written by Jack Isenhour) and read it closely.

This is the point of the story where I need to direct people to the actual song, in case they haven’t heard it. (This is not a very good version, and has Jones kind of mangling the words a little, and of course does not have the Billy Sherrill production values that Isenhour’s book dissects, but it’s George Jones singing “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” what more do you want?

Okay. Now, how do you get from that song, to a whole contemporary romance novel set in New Jersey? Well, for that (as he said, rubbing his hands together), you’ll have to read the book. What I can say is that the book is about a funeral, and a woman who returns from the deep past to attend said funeral, and the events that happen afterward, and that there are at least a few references there to George Jones songs, and lost love, and heartbreak.

But the amazing thing that happened, or at least I think so, is this: Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam sat down and wrote a song together, and that got Billy Sherrill to put together the musicians and the arrangement, and that got George Jones to be just sober enough to get into the studio and make a hit record, and that got Jack Isenhour to write a book about it, and that got Terry Teachout to write a book review about it, and when George Jones died, Teachout (using a technology that no one imagined in 1980) tweeted about it, and I saw the tweet, read the book, and wrote a novel incorporating its themes. If even one of those things doesn’t happen, I end up doing something else with my time, and you don’t have a nice book to read, or if you do, you have a different one, probably about a spaceship. So there you go, and thanks to all the good people who helped make it happen.



I have been floored by the warm and generous critical response for Rain on Your Wedding Day. These are some of my favorite reviews.

<a href="">Rain on Your Wedding Day</a> Book Cover
Rain on Your Wedding Day Fiction Scary Hippopotamus Books 218

RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY is a poignant, moving tale about the need for forgiveness, redemption, and Coca-Cola.

“Curtis Edmonds did a fantastic job with this book. Well written with characters you want to reach out and hug. The story is heartwarming, tragic but full of love and hope too.” – Have You Heard My Book Review

“Edmonds balances hope and crushed dreams, love and shattered trust, and belief and cynicism on the knife’s edge, producing a beautifully written page-turner.” – IndieReader

“I believe this is the best self-published book I have read this year.” – Ivory Owl Reviews

“Hope. Believe. Love seems to be the message in this contemporary romance. The mystery and unanswered questions even had me doubting Will at one point. For a really sad story I felt the ending was poignant and uplifting.” – Zili In The Sky

Rain on Your Wedding Day was a fabulous book. Well crafted and a roller coaster of emotion for the reader. I cheered for Will and his family through to the end. If you like literature about the human journey, pick this one up. You will not be disappointed. Edmonds’s first outing is wonderfully impressive and I cannot wait to see where he takes us next.” – Rabid Readers Reviews

“It is beautiful and intelligently written. Flawless in it’s writing and delivery. The characters are potent. Very well developed with a strong, intellectual dialogue. I honestly didn’t know what to expect when I agreed to review this book but I am so very glad I took the chance. This is going to go down as one of my all time greatest most powerful reads. No matter what genre you prefer to read I strongly suggest to give this story a chance.” – Krystal Clear Reviews

“This is a story the makes you feel for Will and root for him till the very end. The author does a brilliant job of writing the story and makes the reader feel for the characters.” – Mrs. Mommy Booknerd

“I absolutely enjoyed this story, the tone, the characters and the size of the story as well. This is Curtis Edmonds’ first novel; let’s hope there are many more to come. – Reign of Error

“Curtis Edmonds has captured in cameo the human condition, with particularity and a sense of time and place, that works, as it always does work, to transcend these particulars and become universal.” – Markham Shaw Pyle, Bapton Books

Commentary, Literary

Seven Things I Think About NaNoWriMo

I tried doing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) once. It was in November 2001. I was working on a cheap PC in a tiny apartment in Austin, just off Airport Boulevard. I was using the desk my parents bought me when I was twelve. I didn’t finish that novel for another three years. It never got published. Neither did the next one. The next one got self-published. None of them were NaNoWriMo projects, for the simple reason that it takes me longer than that to write a novel. RAIN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY (which was published in March 2013) was written in two sections, the first half in the summer of 2010 and the second half (after a New Year’s resolution) from January to March 2011. That doesn’t include two years of querying, interspersed with substantial and painful bouts of editing.

I have a very narrow amount of time (from about 10:30 to 11:30 at night, on nights when I’m home) to write anything. That means that my output (which includes blog posts like this one and short stories and making fun of people on Twitter) is, necessarily, narrow. I started my current work-in-progress in (I think) June of this year, and I’ve written only twenty-five thousand words from then to now–more if you count short stories. (This includes two separate vacations where I didn’t write anything except my name on credit card slips.)

Could I ramp up my production, just for November? I mean, sure, I suppose so. I could crank out fifty thousand words, in thirty days, at least in theory. In theory, I could learn to do that thing where you drive your motorcycle off a high ramp and leave your seat while still holding on to the handlebars. In theory, I could think of a better joke than the one where you list all of the silly and impossible things you could do in theory.

Seven things I think about NaNoWriMo:

  1. If NaNoWriMo works for you, let it work for you. If it doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work and you shouldn’t worry about it. If you want to try it one time and see if it works for you, it doesn’t hurt.
  2. NaNoWriMo won’t make you a better writer. Only failure and rejection can do that.
  3. NaNoWriMo may make you a more disciplined writer, at least in terms of forcing yourself to sit in your chair and write. But it’s not magic. Like most things involving self-discipline, “it works if you work it.”
  4. NaNoWriMo won’t get you published, especially if you’ve never written a novel before. If you don’t understand that, down deep inside, don’t do it.
  5. I went to Baylor, and one of the sports team slogans they’ve had at Baylor in the past few years is “pressure makes diamonds.” That’s true as far as it goes. Pressure and heat and time make diamonds. Too much pressure, applied the wrong way, makes coal dust. You don’t want coal dust. If you are like me (God help you) you already put a huge amount of pressure on yourself to succeed with your writing. If all NaNoWriMo is going to do is make you put more pressure on yourself for no good reason, then don’t attempt it.
  6. NaNoWriMo is a commitment. There’s nothing wrong with making a commitment, and if you’re able not only to make it but to carry it through, that’s a real positive. But your real commitment is not just to write, not just to finish, but to see the project all the way through until you have your own book in your hands, however that happens. NaNoWriMo is an independent step, not an end in and of itself.

Mark Helprin: The Gates to the City

Every city has its gates, which need not be of stone. Nor need soldiers be upon them or watchers before them At first, when cities were jewels in a dark and mysterious world, they tended to be round and they had protective walls. To enter, one had to pass through gates, the reward for which was shelter from the overwhelming forests and seas, the merciless and taxing expanse of greens, whites and blues — wild and free — that stopped at the city walls. In time, the ramparts became higher and the gates more massive, until they simply disappeared and were replaced by barriers, subtler than stone, that girded every city like a crown and held in its spirit. Some claim that the barriers do not exist, and disparage them. Although they themselves can penetrate the new walls with no effort, their spirits (which, also, they claim do not exist) cannot, and are left like orphans around the periphery. To enter a city intact it is necessary to pass through one of the new gates. They are far more difficult to find than their solid predecessors, for they are tests, mechanisms, divides, and implementations of justice. There once was a map, now long gone, one of the ancient charts upon which colorful animals sleep or rage. Those who saw it said that in its illuminations were figures and symbols of the gates. The east gate was that of acceptance of responsibility, the south gate that of the desire to explore, the west gate that of devotion to beauty, and the north gate that of selfless love. But they were not believed. It was said that a city with entryways like these could not exist, because it would be too wonderful. Those who decide such things decided that whoever had seen the map had only imagined it, and the entire matter was forgotten, treated as if it were a dream and ignored. This, of course, freed it to live forever.

Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale

Do not expect me to explain here why I’m writing about Mark Helprin’s work. If you’ve read his three great novels, Winter’s Tale, A Soldier of the Great War, and Memoir from Antproof Case, or even his sharp, crisp editorials for the Wall Street Journal, you know why. If you haven’t, the hope is that you will, and soon. My goal here is to illustrate certain recurring themes in his novels, themes that are best explicated by the passage quoted above.

The East Gate: Acceptance of Responsibility

In A Soldier of the Great War, Helprin deals with (among many other things) the collapse of the WWI Italian front described by Hemingway in A Farewell to Arms. Guaraglia, a Roman harness-maker, deserts through no fault of his own after the conclusion of a doomed secret mission. He returns to his home and family in Rome, which is full of deserters and is full of soldiers trying to capture them. The deserters are hiding out in the catacombs, but Guaraglia knows he must protect his family, must continue to earn a living. In a desperate and painful act of sacrifice, he saws off his own leg so that he can pass as a wounded veteran. The ruse does not work, and he dies in prison with one prayer, “God protect my children.”

The narrator of Memoir from Antproof Case accepts the responsibility of protection as well, and understands that the first person you have to protect is yourself, which, as he says, “was my sole responsibility from an early age.” Moreover, after his parents die, he assumes the responsibility of protecting them, because they no longer have the capacity to protect themselves. After years of misdirected effort, he finally identifies the culprit in their murders, his elderly, wealthy employer. He confronts the tycoon in his room, resulting in a confession and a plea for forgiveness that cannot be answered.

In Helprin’s world, accepting responsibility is, well, a gateway, rather than a destination. Accepting responsibility means accepting and welcoming the ordeals that go along with that responsibility. Helprin characters are always undertaking ordeals, from the protagonist of the short story The Schreuderspitze, who climbs (or does he?) an immense Alpine peak with no training or experience, to the unlikely and positively hilarious catapult that’s built in Winter’s Tale to the gold robbery that provides the spine of Memoir from Antproof Case. And they’re not simple ordeals, either, but immensely complicated tests of character, perseverance, and planning.

The flip side of the gate is in the occasional characters that are totally, gleefully irresponsible. The old order scribe, Orfeo, from A Soldier of the Great War is the best example. Orfeo is similar to nothing in literature save Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, except that Orfeo is small where Reilly is gargantuan. Orfeo is a humble, pathetic little man whose career has gone the way of the buggy whip, until the Great War places him in a Godlike position to dispense chaos and trouble by making nonsense of all the Italian military orders. Orfeo, the “fount of all chaos.” symbolizes every insane impulse from Higher Up that sends brave soldiers on the ordeals I talked about a second ago.

The South Gate: Desire to Explore

This is mostly covered by the nameless protagonist in Memoir from Antproof Case, who is an adventurer at heart in the body of a bank executive. (Antproof Case starts off with one of the best riffs on Melville ever; “Call me Oscar Progresso. Or, for that matter, call me anything you want, as Oscar Progresso is not my name.”) Antproof Case is a hilarious, picaresque journey through the life of a well-traveled rogue. It’s a novel that trips back and forth among New York, North Africa, Europe and Brazil with the same amazing speed that it lurches back and forth through the decades of the twentieth century. However, here, the spectacular travel and the offbeat humor and the long, meandering story are combined with writing of amazing insight. Here, Helprin tells us about horseback riding in the Rockies, switching from a traveler’s tale to a profound metaphor:

The way to cross fences was to cut the two upper wires and step the horses over the one that remained. Then you used six inches to a foot of the wire you carried (depending on the tension of the wire you cut) to mend the damage, and you went on. You did it as carefully as you could, out of respect and courtesy, and as the toll for crossing land not your own. We took a little lesson in how to do it properly, and the cuts we left behind were put back together with many more than the required twists, which is more or less what I wanted to do with my life and what I have not been able to do, but what I may do yet.

The West Gate: Devotion to Beauty

At this point, it is best to illustrate Helprin’s devotion to beauty by quoting an indefinably beautiful passage. You can find them anywhere you look, because no one transmits the shining beauty of language like Helprin. This is one I picked almost at random, from Winter’s Tale, about the great white horse Athansor and his journey, early in the book, from Brooklyn to Manhattan:

A thousand streets lay before him, silent but for the sound of the gemlike wind. Driven with snow, white, and empty, they were a maze for his delight as the newly arisen wind whistled across still untouched drifts and rills. He passed empty theaters, counting-houses, and forested wharves where the snow-lined spars looked like long black groves of pine. He passed dark factories and deserted parks, and rows of little houses where wood just fired filled the air with sweet reassurance. He passed the frightening common cellars full of ragpickers and men without limbs. The door of a market bar was flung open momentarily for a torrent of boiling water that splashed all over the street in a cloud of steam. He passed (and shied from) dead men lying in the round ragged coffins of their own frozen bodies… And he was seldom out of sight of the new bridges, which had married beautiful womanly Brooklyn to her rich uncle, Manhattan; had put the city’s hand out to the country; and were the end of the past because they spanned not only distance and deep water but dreams and time.

Here’s another one from Winter’s Tale, where Helprin finds beauty in words that aren’t even words:

“You see this oscillating slotted bar that’s rubbing up too close to the powl and ratchet of this here elliptic trammel? That, my friends, distorts the impact load on the second hobbing, up there, which is applied to that helical gear. But the trouble is, it isn’t. Without that little helical gear, the antiparallel linkage on the friction drive won’t disengage, and the wormwheeled pantograph can’t come into play. Clear so far?”

Of course, I could keep quoting passages like this forever. Helprin’s work is so consistently beautiful and amazingly precise that it’s a temptation just to let his work speak for itself. But “devotion to beauty” refers to much more than Helprin’s style; it’s the hallmark of his best characters. Alessandro Giuliani, the protagonist of A Soldier of the Great War is the best example. Growing up in a lovely garden (graced with the presence of the lovely Lia Bellati), he becomes a professor of aesthetics, and then must spend the rest of his life arguing with peons over whether aesthetics is necessary or useful, or so it seems.

After two and a half years on the front lines of the Great War in the 19th River Guard (Alessandro having enlisted in the Navy in the hopeful — but utterly wrong — assumption that he’d be safe from the infantry in the Navy), he is all but incarcerated in a naval base near Venice. He’s been away from beauty for what seems like two lifetimes, and is hungry for it, hungry to see Venice for just one hour before death. He steals an officer’s hat and dispatch bag and, disguised as a courier, heads into the city, knowing he could be shot as a deserter if discovered:

As he crossed the Grand Canal he greedily began to take in all things not military. His eye seized on every tendril on every plant, every curve or flute in iron or stone work, the most faded patches of color, women in clothes with sweeping lines, restaurant kitchens going full blast, and children, some of whom he picked up and kissed, for he had not seen a child in more than a year.

He knew Venice. A thousand places came back to him as he walked through the streets. Them he remembered that he was allowed to eat… Alessandro ate, and as he ate he sang and talked to himself. The waiter cleared his table and brought a plate of smoked salmon, a grilled filet mignon, and a portion of funghi porcini, along with another carafe of wine and a bottle of sparkling mineral water.

“Things still exist,” Alessandro said.

“Yes yes yes,” the waiter said.

There’s devotion to beauty for you.

The North Gate: Selfless Love

To keep your love alive, you must be willing to be obstinate, and irrational, and true, to fashion your entire life as a construct, a metaphor, a fiction, a device for the exercise of faith. Without this, you will live like a beast and have nothing but an aching heart. With it, your heart, although broken, will be full, and you will stay in the fight until the very last.

– Memoir from Antproof Case

There are two great love stories at the heart of the magical Winter’s Tale, a century-skipping tale of the rise and fall and rebirth of New York. (An eerily prophetic book it is, too.) There are several passionate love stories in Memoir from Antproof Case, as the narrator describes his life and passions. But for my money, the most beautiful is Alessandro Giuliani’s, as he searches Italy for the woman he thought he lost in battle. Alessandro falls blindly in love – literally – with a hospital nurse who he believes was killed in the bombing of a hospital. He finds that, miraculously, the nurse has survived but believes him to be dead. With the smallest of clues and the barest of hopes, he watches and waits for her by a fountain, where his infant son once sailed a boat playfully. He finds her, they are reunited, and married:

She wore a very simple wedding dress; we could afford nothing more. The ring was so thin that it looked like wire. She had no other jewelry, but her hair crowned her face, and through the front of the dress you could see the top of her chest, which was always so beautiful, especially when she blushed. Underneath the satin lace, it looked like a bed or roses. Just to think about her makes me happy. When I die, no one will think about her ever again, which is why I’ve been holding on. On the other hand, if they’ve all gone somewhere, should I not be delighted to join them, even if it means nothing except to be extinguished? At least I’ll have the knowledge, as I slip into the dark, that I’m following, and that I have been loyal in my devotions.

I encourage you to develop a devotion for the works of Mark Helprin. I can guarantee that your loyalty will be repaid in full.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA, by Paul Park

<a href="">A Princess of Roumania</a> Book Cover
A Princess of Roumania Fiction Macmillan 368

Raised by her adoptive family in a quiet Massachusetts town, teenager Miranda Popescu is astonished to discover that she is a princess from an alternate world that is split by a deadly political battle.

You know, it’s called fantasy literature for a reason. And let’s face it…you do it too. Everyone does, and maybe adopted children do it more than anyone else. What if your parents weren’t your parents, what if your homeland wasn’t your homeland, what if you were born to be a princess ruling a far away land somewhere in your imagination? You need not have spent a lot of your life trying to get through wardrobes to get to Narnia — or down rabbit holes to get to Wonderland, or pick your fantasy of choice — to understand the appeal of A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA.

The real world in which we live (unless you’re reading this on a broadband hookup from Oz) can be a dark, difficult and dangerous place. Although fantasy worlds can be dark and difficult at times, they’re largely meant to be escapist and fun. What author Paul Park has done in A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA is to make things in the alternate fantasy world darker, more dangerous, and much less fun — to the point where characters in the fantasy world tend to see our reality as their fantasy.

In the fantasy world of A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA, the sixteenth century isn’t dead, or else it has been going on for a very long time. America is still a trackless wilderness, populated by its native people and a few brave English and Dutch colonists. The kingdom of Roumania is under the thumb of its German occupiers. Meanwhile, the disinherited Baroness Ceausescu — once the leading lady of the stage, now the penniless widow of an alchemist — plots her return to power. And the way to get power is to gain control over the rightful heiress to the throne.

Meanwhile, the rightful heiress to the throne is in high school in the Massachusetts that you and I know, hanging out with friends, exploring the woods around her home, and, from time to time, looking at the mysterious artifacts she has had all her life. Miranda Popescu is a normal teenager of Romanian descent, adopted out of a Romanian orphanage shortly after the fall of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. (And yes, there is a connection.) She has only vague unanswered questions about her past, and does not know that she is at the center of intrigue, mystery, and an unknowable destiny.

To say much more about what happens to Miranda would be unfair — and it would be even less fair to say what happens to her friends and how they come to accompany her to the alternate Roumania. However, despite a good deal of magical doings, and a subtle and malicious plot, all that A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA manages to do is set a scene. It is clearly intended to be book one of a series, although you might not know that at first. Readers looking for a sense of closure would be advised to look somewhere else, or to wait for the (hopefully) inevitable sequel.

Until then, the real question for the reader is whether he or she wants to spend time in Park’s fantasy world. The world that is created for the reader is dense in detail, in smoke, and in political maneuvering. There is magic both in the story and in the rich, layered, baroque style in which it is written. But it is a world with a long and complicated history, with subtly different rules. There is almost a textbook quality to the novel at times. While it is undoubtedly a complex and challenging work, it feels like it’s almost trying too hard to prove that it outclasses its roots in fantasy literature. The only problem with A PRINCESS OF ROUMANIA is that it’s a bit of a struggle to get down that rabbit hole.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: AGINCOURT, by Bernard Cornwell

<a href="">Agincourt</a> Book Cover
Agincourt Fiction Harper Collins 512

One of the most dramatic victories in British history, the battle of Agincourt—immortalized by Shakespeare in Henry V—pitted undermanned and overwhelmed English forces against a French army determined to keep their crown out of Henry’s hands.

Here’s the situation. You’re a peasant, and as we used to say back home, you’re so broke you can’t pay attention. You’re in the middle of a medieval battlefield, filled with rough characters and sharp weapons, with nothing to cover your own precious hide but the clothes on your back. You have one superb weapon — the English longbow — but not much in the way of arrows. You also have a long, sharp stick, assuming you haven’t burned it for firewood already. On the other side of the line of battle, there is a nobleman, a feudal lord who owns, more or less, the labor of hundreds of people just like you. He’s on a horse, wearing a suit of armor that incorporates all of the best technology of the day and worth more than your entire village can produce in 10 years. You’ve shot your last arrow, and the guy with the armor is coming to crush your skull. A plan would seem to be in order.

This is what you do, if you’re lucky enough and strong enough to pull it off. You plant yourself right in front of the galloping, charging horse (nobody said this was going to be easy), stab it with your sharpened stick, and hope that the animal is hurt enough and scared enough to knock its rider clean off. While the knight is still on his back, trapped under the weight of his armor, you find the one weak spot in the armor — his visor. And then you draw your long hunting knife and stab the no-good wretch right in the eye. Score one for the home team.

That’s the reality of medieval warfare. It’s savage, messy, and a million miles away from something as comparatively cold and dispassionate as pushing the button that unleashes hundreds of pounds of high explosives from a Predator drone over a terrorist camp. And if you want to bring back that world in fiction, it’s not enough to reproduce the strategies of battle and the blood and slaughter that follows in its wake. You have to know the ground — the sticky French mud that bogged down a huge army, making it vulnerable to barefoot English archers. You have to know the technology — how the English craftsmen took a piece of yew wood and shaped it into a weapon that changed history. You have to know the dynastic politics that animate the strategy, the engineering of the castles and the religious beliefs that led men into battle.

In other words, it’s the kind of thing that Bernard Cornwell has been doing for years — and nobody does it better.

If you’re not familiar with Cornwell’s work, you can start with his bestselling novels about the Viking era in England, which follow a ferocious war leader into the shield walls of Alfred the Great. Or you can check out the monumental Richard Sharpe series, which chronicles a Napoleonic War hero from the torture pits of an Indian warlord all the way to a personal confrontation with the Corsican corporal in exile on the lonely island of St. Helena. Both of these series (as well as other Cornwell novels set in the Civil War or the American Revolution) betray a comprehensive knowledge of their respective historical eras — and, even more important, considerable skill in making the battlefields and characters come to full, comprehensible life.

Cornwell’s books are populated with stout, resolute heroes, noble enemies and the treacherous plots of evil men. AGINCOURT is no exception; the differences are largely in the areas of weapons technology, strategy and the intricate details of late medieval life. Its principal hero, longbowman Nicholas Hook, differs from most Cornwell protagonists in his religious faith (notwithstanding that it’s hard to be a good Christian when your job description involves stabbing people in the eye).

The story of the climactic battle of Agincourt has been told before, most notably by Shakespeare, who gives King Henry perhaps the most rousing speech in English literature. Cornwell incorporates that speech in his narrative, but it’s more of a grace note than anything else. The real work is done in the trenches, by the men with the long bows and the empty stomachs. Cornwell tells their story, and nobody does it better.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: 25 TO LIFE: The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, by Leslie Crocker Snyder

<a href="">25 to Life</a> Book Cover
25 to Life Biography & Autobiography Grand Central Pub 338

One of the toughest judges in the United States shares her stories of life on and off the bench, offering a candid perspective on her controversial career.

By almost anyone’s standards, Leslie Crocker Snyder has a lousy job.

Snyder is a Manhattan Supreme Court Justice, handling criminal cases. (The “Supreme Court” in New York is not the highest appeals court, as it is in some states; there’s a not-particularly-helpful diagram of the structure of the New York state court system in the book for those who are interested.) She routinely draws the toughest cases around; multi-defendant trials of drug gangs, complex cases involving Mafia dons, and courtrooms with spine-chilling murderers. She earns less than a first-year attorney at a white-shoe Wall Street law firm. She has to deal with death threats on a routine basis. She has to battle the dark forces of sexism, and persuade state legislators towards reforming the penal code. Worse, she has to work every day with “attorneys,” and you know what “they’re” like.

The underlying question in 25 TO LIFE, Judge Snyder’s story about her legal career, is why she, or anyone else, would voluntarily choose such a profession, voluntarily put themselves on the front lines in New York City’s continual struggle against crime. Snyder makes it sound simple; she was bored. She was working in the consumer fraud unit of the Manhattan district attorney’s office, and she hated it, and wanted to do something else, and ended up working rape and homicide cases. Along the way, she helped change the legal requirements for proving a rape case, and earned an appointment to the bench. There, she developed a reputation for harsh (although sometimes innovative) sentencing and became a figure of dread among the defense bar.

It’s clearly a rotten job, but one that Snyder enjoys. Despite its grisly detailing of drug deals and homicides and Mafia extortion, 25 TO LIFE is something of a love letter. Judge Snyder writes enthusiastically, almost passionately, about her profession and the men and women in the criminal justice system she works with. If 25 TO LIFE does nothing else, it shows how rewarding, how vital, how necessary a career in public service can be. It should be required reading for law students.

Casual readers, though, won’t find much to interest them in 25 To LIFE. Unlike many lawyers, Snyder has a direct, conversational style, but even her style can’t get the reader through the occasional impenetrable maze of legal technicalities. Her manifold encounters with criminal defendants seem to run into each other after awhile. And the book is marred here and there by unseemly bits of self-congratulation, as Snyder pats herself on the back in recounting her exploits. (She is particularly proud that a picture of a stern judge in her likeness appears on heroin bags with the caption, 25 TO LIFE hence the book’s title.)

However, Judge Snyder isn’t a writer by trade (the book was written with author Tom Shachtman), but a jurist, for which New Yorkers can be grateful and appreciative. 25 TO LIFE appropriately shows the dangers and the glories of a life on the bench in the riskiest of situations. It should remind all of us that our safety is largely due to the hard, unacknowledged work of the police and attorneys and judges who work in the criminal justice system, and that we owe them a debt of honor that we cannot easily repay.

Book Reviews, Literary

Review: THE ACTIVIST: John Marshall, Marbury v. Madison, and the Myth of Judicial Review, by Lawrence Goldstone

<a href="">The Activist</a> Book Cover
The Activist History Walker Books 304

The Activist underscores the drama that occurred in 1803 by examining the debates that took place during the Constitutional Convention of 1787—among the most dramatic moments in American history—over the formation and structure of our judicial system.

Once you’re traveling in Constitutional legal circles, “activist” is an epithet — meaning, basically, that the other person with whom you do not share a political party is using the Constitution for political purposes. A horrible thing, to be sure. Most of the time (but not always, there are exceptions) the opposite epithet is “originalist,” which means that the other person wants to interpret the Constitution based on the received wisdom of the Founding Fathers, looking down on us, as from a judicial Olympus with haughty and austere visages, proclaiming the Only Right Approach to Constitutional issues, in voices dry as dust and tinged with the irritation of the centuries.

One suspects, however, that if the Founders were confronted with the issues the Supreme Court is now facing — particularly the recent Establishment Clause case involving an obscure Utah cult dedicated, among other things, to the practice of mummifying pets — that the exalted personages would find themselves laughing like drains at the absurdity of it all.

Lawrence Goldstone’s avowed purpose is to illustrate that one of the Founding Fathers — John Marshall, the first great and consequential Chief Justice — belongs in the “activist” category, and the question of whether he accomplishes this purpose will be left to the intelligent and discerning reader. What he actually manages to do, however (at least in the area of judicial review), is shatter originalism into a thousand broken pieces, scattered across the marble corridors of jurisprudence like the debris of a gallant but doomed civilization overrun by bandits.

The book traces judicial review — the idea that an unelected judiciary should have the authority to invalidate legislative or executive actions that conflict with the Constitution — through the Articles of Confederation all the way down to the thump of Marbury v. Madison landing on John Marshall’s desk. And what Goldstone finds in all this mass of historical evidence is the loud, clear, unequivocal voice of the Founding Fathers, stating in unison, “Well, I don’t know, what do you think?”

Of course, they said no such thing — although it would have been much more helpful if they had, because (as Goldstone proves, and a comprehensive job he does of it) there really isn’t all that much in the record, and what there is displays a good bit of division on the issue, when there is not a complete lack of effort to come to grips with the question. Goldstone follows the tracks of judicial review through the lost history of the ratifying conventions and the Federalist-Antifederalist debate, and comes up with a startling lack of consensus on how the Supreme Court should apply the Constitution to the law in case of a conflict.

The issue wouldn’t come up for quite some time — not until the famous case of Marbury v. Madison — allowing Goldstone to map out the early years of the Supreme Court, notable primarily for the Justice’s gripes about “circuit riding,” traveling across the then-remote American wilderness to hold court outside Washington. He does a phenomenal job of making the murky facts of Marbury, and their even murkier political context, clear and understandable. If Goldstone can’t do quite the same thing for Justice Marshall’s opinion in Marbury, there’s a reason for that. He calls Marbury a “masterpiece of misdirection,” and his clear prose does little to illuminate the thickets of Marshall’s. (The Marbury opinion is included as an appendix for the adventurous.)

THE ACTIVIST proves its central point convincingly; Marbury was an activist decision, perhaps bordering on the partisan. But it does something else entirely, and greater; by parsing out the history of the idea of judicial review, it demolishes the myth that today’s Constitutional issues can best be resolved by consulting the founding documents. There is, after all, no guarantee that they would agree with us on the issues, any more than they agreed with each other.