Book Thoughts

A place for me to give my thoughts on books, history, and their influence on my life.

Review of Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut is certainly quirky, but I always enjoy his novels.  This book sarcastically looks at life and death, weapons of mass destruction, religion, and relationships.  The book moves quickly with 127 chapters - each only a few pages long.  The story itself is somewhat interesting, but really just a means to an end for Vonnegut to make his points.

Review of The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee

Life and Times of Michael K - J.M. Coetzee

The is my second novel by Coetzee and I am still not that impressed.  This one is depressing - it starts that way and ends that way.  I understand that the author is describing how awful wartime can be, especially for people limited by money or by intellect, but I just felt that it was overdone.  

Review of The Face of a Stranger by Anne Perry

The Face of a Stranger - Anne Perry

I liked it, but I didn't love it. This is the first in a series that I will certainly continue, and I imagine that the later books in the series will be better. The series follows a police detective in mid-19th century London. This particular novel used the old story that the detective has completely lost his memory, but doesn't want anyone to know as he returns to his cases and his life.

 

To be concise - I liked the detective story and the world building. I thought the author very much overdid it with the class divisions in the society of the time (it was an important point to make, but we were a bit beat over the head with it). I also don't really think it was necessary to use the amnesia angle - I won't say more as to not give anything away.

 

Review of Sapiens by Yuval Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind - Yuval Noah Harari

I found this to be one of the more fascinating and thought-provoking books I have read in years.  While most of the explanations and conclusions are rather simple, I thought Harari's ability to look at history and science objectively was unique.  As someone who reads a lot of history, placing humanity (sapiens) in a global and evolutionary context was important for my thought process.

Review of The Fourth Hand by John Irving

The Fourth Hand - John Irving

This was my fourth Irving novel and while I did enjoy his writing as always, this particular story didn't move me like the previous three novels.  This one follows a main character who loses his hand, but it is really about his relationships and how he tries to put his emotional life together.  For Irving fans I think this would be worth the read, but it was not a page turner like some of his more famous works.

Review of Tarkin by James Luceno

Star Wars: Tarkin - James Luceno

My first Star Wars Cannon novel that was not simply a movie novelization.  I enjoyed learning more of the background of Governor Tarkin as the movies don't quite let you know why he is so revered and respected in the Star Wars Universe.  As a standalone novel, I was not really that impressed.  I appreciated the interactions with Tarkin and Vader, but overall the story did not have me turning pages.

Review of The Man From St. Petersburg by Ken Follett

The Man From St. Petersburg - Ken Follett

Not what I expected, but I very much enjoyed this read by Ken Follett.  I went into the novel thinking it would be a typical spy story centered around the events leading up to World War I, but it quickly turned into a story more about the characters and their connections/relationships throughout the years.  I can't really say more than that without giving things away.  Recommended and makes me want to read more of Follett's stand alone novels.

Review of Blue Horizon by Wilbur Smith

Blue Horizon - Wilbur Smith

I always enjoy reading these epic Wilbur Smith novels of Africa. There is great culture and history, and while not great literature, the good guys are always really good, and the bad guys are always really bad. You know exactly what you are getting in one of these stories. This particular story finishes a prequel trilogy that tells the origin story of the Courtney family from the Age of Sail.

 

A common criticism is Smith's treatment of women and that is absolutely fair. On the one hand, the female characters are always strong and insert themselves into important decisions in the story, but on the other hand, they always end up fully accepting their roles as the domestic rulers. Also, every good woman has a huge sexual appetite in Smith's stories - clearly these books are written with a heavy masculine point of view.

 

For me, these are the historical fiction version of James Bond movies - just have to let go and enjoy.

Review of The Road to Camelot by Thomas Oliphant

The Road to Camelot: Inside JFK’s Five-Year Campaign - Thomas Oliphant, Curtis Wilkie

This was a very strict political history of Kennedy's run for President in 1960.  It covers the five years leading up to his historic election in great detail and shows how in many ways, the Kennedy campaign revolutionized the way presidential campaigns would be conducted moving forward.  I learned a great deal about the ideas of favorite sons and how the primary system developed into its modern form out of this election.  I would think you have to be a political junky to truly enjoy this book, so parts of it dragged a bit for me with all of the names thrown out that I did not recognize, but overall it was a good read and a good look at the Kennedy operation.

Review of Grant by Ron Chernow

Grant - Ron Chernow

There is not much I can say that has not already been said about Chernow and about this instant classic book on Grant. I have read a handful of biographies on Grant and this one clearly is the best. Chernow's writing style is smooth yet detailed and it somehow doesn't feel like I just finished a book with almost 1000 pages of narrative text.

 

I think Chernow is fair in his praise and in his criticisms of Grant - especially in his personal life and in his Presidency. I think my only criticism of the book is that I think Chernow spent too much time discussing Grant's alcohol problems. I realize it is an important part of his story, but it felt to me like the author went back to it too often. Other than that, this book is one of the best.

Review of Lincoln's Last Trial by Dan Abrams

Lincoln's Last Trial - Dan Abrams

Just when you thought there was not another angle to find to write a new Lincoln book, here is a book that looks at the last major trial Lincoln was involved with as a lawyer before he became President. The story tries to work like a novel and uses transcriptions from the trial in an attempt to do that.

The trial itself is a self-defense/murder trail so there is never any mystery other than whether or not the accused will be found not-guilty by reason of self-defense. The story itself was not all that interesting for me to be honest, but the historical bits I loved were about how the law was viewed and handled at that time. I loved the discussion of the stenographer and his trade would loved to have read more about him.

Lincoln is one of my favorites and there is nothing really new here about him in this book. It was good to read about his reputation as a lawyer from the local people that knew him, but other than that, the focus wasn't necessarily on him in this story.

Review of Benjamin Franklin by Edmund S. Morgan

Benjamin Franklin - Edmund S. Morgan

I really enjoy reading about Ben Franklin, but this particular biography was difficult for me to get through.  Edmund Morgan is one of the top scholars of the period, but the writing style just dragged for me with this read.  I felt it was repetitive and focused too much on the same idea that Franklin was simply a master negotiator Europeans loved and American leaders didn't always understand.  There were parts I enjoyed, but overall I feel there are better biographies of Franklin out there.

Star Wars Rebel Jail by Jason Aaron

Star Wars Vol. 3 - Jason Aaron, Mike Mayhew, Leinil Yu

This is the third in the Star Wars series filling in the story after the first movie. Sadly, I feel that the stories have gotten progressively less interesting. They keep adding new characters that I don't know much about their back story (I did know who Dr. Aphra was, but for people that did not it must have made this novel even less interesting) and it simply was not as exciting.

 

With that said, I did appreciate the leadership of Leia in thus particular story. First time she really had the central role in one of these stories.

Review of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold by John le Carre

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold - John le Carré

This was a really great spy-thriller!  I read my first two le Carre novels last summer - the first two George Smiley books - and I was not that impressed.  I thought they were slow and not worth the payoff.  This third book was superb and far better than the first two in the series.  Without giving away anything, it is basically a long-con played out between British and East German spy agencies during the era of the Berlin Wall.  Very well done!

Review of Star Wars Volume 2 - Skywalker Strikes by Jason Aaron

Star Wars Vol. 2: Showdown on Smugglers Moon - Jason Aaron, Simone Bianchi, Stuart Immonen

While not as good as the first entry in the series, this was another solid read that continues the story of the major characters of the original Star Wars.  I felt the story in this one dragged a bit, and it introduced a few new characters that I didn't necessarily love right away.  With that said, it continues to fill in the gaps between the movies and the overall story is strong.

Review of Endurance by Alfred Lansing

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage - Alfred Lansing

I can't believe I had not read this book before now.  What a gem of a story!  Most people have a general idea about Shackelton and his incredible tale of survival, but I had no idea how utterly miserable and hopeless most of their experience was in the Antarctic.  What these men overcame and endured is almost short of believable.  This book was incredibly well written and tells the story with great detail, suspense, and excitement.  Highly recommended!