Claire Beauchamp Fraser is a nurse who has just been through World War II. She goes on a second honeymoone to the Scottish Highlands with her husband, a man she has met for only a few days during the war years. As she touches a stone in an ancient standing stone formation, she is transported back in time to the 1740s, a time which in Scotland was characterized by the Jacobite uprisings. She finds herself abducted by a band of Highland men and taken to Castle Leoch, where the locals are highly suspicious of her claims to be a woman of fine birth who has been robbed by highwaymen.
Despite the painstaking historical detail and the romantic nature of the setting, I found myself rapidly bored with this book. The use of the first person voice only works for me if the narrator is at least somewhat self-deprecating; preferably even snarky. Claire is neither of these things, and she comes off as quite a bit too serious. The romantic bent of the novel is also too strong, with Claire almost instantly attracted to the rugged Jaime, a handsome outlaw with a quiet demeanor and a well-muscled body. I gave up after a hundred pages or so.
In a small town in Maine, High School teacher Jake Epping is asked by his acquaintance, diner owner Al, to come to the diner. When he arrives, Al has aged years and has gone from healthy to terminally ill in cancer. It turns out that Al has found a sort of time portal in his pantry. The portal leads to 1958. Al’s plan was to live in the past until 1963, and then kill Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy’s assassin. Al believes this would change history in important ways, preventing the Vietnam war and other horrors. Unfortunately Al contracts cancer and cannot complete his mission. Is the past pushing back against those who try to change history? Al returns back to 2011. Things have changed, but not enough, and when the portal is used again, the past resets to how things were. Before dying, Al dragoons Jake into completing the mission. He cannot just kill Oswald a few years before the assassination attempt, however. He must be sure that the man is acting alone, and not part of one of the many purported conspiracies surrounding the Kennedy assassination. Thus starts Jake’s adventure in the past, where many things are different, yet many things are the same.
Mr. King’s research into the late fifties and early sixties is extensive and meticulous. The fact that people smoked constantly and everywhere is an obvious factoid, but the differences go much deeper. From food prices to idioms to the fact that bathrooms in the American south were still segregated, it is fascinating to discover how very unfamiliar current Americans would be with society and its mores in “The Land of Ago”. Jake’s quest takes him on many side tracks as he must become an inhabitant of the era. He makes friends and even falls in love, but he cannot reveal his true purpose. He must be careful lest his use of modern idiom mark him as strange. He must also keep his focus on the objective through five years of “ordinary” life peppered with research and the intermittent stalking of Oswald.
King’s mastery of style, pacing and character building shines in the prose. Despite its considerable length (eight hundred and forty-nine pages for those who still read on paper) it is not a slog to read through. Even trivial adventures become interesting when written so well. I did feel, however, that the book had perhaps been unnecessarily padded, or more accurately insufficiently cut to size. While many events serve to build the character of Jake, they might have been excised without hurting the story, and perhaps things would have moved forward a bit faster. Having said that, the many vignettes of life in the past are fascinating, often funny and as often horrifying to more modern sensibilities.
Without revealing the ending, I will say that I was somewhat disappointed that King chose to reveal some part of the “inner workings” of the time travel mechanism. While as a science fiction fan, I typically want to find out about such things, perhaps in this case it would have been better if it had simply stayed a magical mystery without explanation. I did not feel that it really added to the story, and the point made through the reveal had already been made.
In this Pulitzer winning classic, Michael Shaara tells the story of the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War from both Union and Confederate sides. This is not a history text however, since Shaara has written it as a novel. Mainly focusing on Union Colonel Chamberlain and Confederate General Longstreet, the pivotal battle and its players come alive on the page.
Beyond the very basics, I didn’t know much about the Civil War before I read this book. Certainly I had little awareness of how people thought at the time, or the deeper underlying motivations leading to war. Certainly slavery was a big part of it, but it is made quite clear in the novel that the South and the North are societies that work in different ways. Roughly speaking, the North is “modern”, urban, industrialized and with a firm egalitarian ethic, while the South is more “old-fashioned”. The men are “gentlemen”, with notable class differences. The Southerners also believe in much stronger state independence. The North, victorious, strengthened the federal government, a development which is clearly seen in the United States of today. But they all see themselves as Americans. In fact the officers all have many friends on “the other side” (they were in the same army before after all) and there are many thoughts given to the sadness of having had to part, and then to meet on the battlefield as enemies. Are they fighting for loyalty, or for idealism, or just because they are soldiers?
Shaara went back to letters and first hand accounts for his research, and it shows. Sometimes overlong, but quite interesting internal monologues reveal the though processes of the characters. These are not our contemporaries. They are romantic and in our eyes often naive. They cry openly for lost friendship, they revel in life and companionship. They do not hide their emotions in public like we do today.
The battle scenes are excellent, and frightening. The comparative inefficiency of the rifles of the day is shown by the very short ranges and the fact that soldiers often sustain multiple wounds without notably impaired performance. It is combat up close and personal, with regimental commanders right there among their men. Logistics plays a big part, as does morale. A good commander knows not to throw troops who have marched all day straight into battle, in particular without food.
The undoing of the Confederates in this battle was an absence of strategic and tactical vision. As Longstreet remarks to himself, their tactics consist of “we find the enemy, and then we attack.” Longstreet himself is a master strategist, and strongly urges more refined tactics, making the Union army come at them instead of the other way around. It is not until the end of WWI, over fifty years later, that his defensive warfare ideas become mainstream. Lee orders a massed assault on a fortified position partly because of fear that the men will see it as weak to withdraw and attack on another flank. One romantic, glorious, useless, stupid charge that accomplished nothing but break his own army. And thus the tide of the war turned.
These books are both set in ancient Egypt. The descriptions are quite good and adequately set the scene for epic battles to save the nation and the royal family.
While the stories themselves are pretty decent, Smith’s style can be summed up in one word: Wordcrapper! Argh! Descriptions of feelings in epic prose are all well and good, but Smith just needs to learn to shut up and move on!
The story set in a small village in Northwestern India in 1947, during the division of India into India and Pakistan. The village is on the border with Pakistan, with both Sikh and Muslim inhabitants. The two ethnic groups have been living together in the village for centuries, but events in the wider world around them are forcing separation.
The book is rather short. More a snapshot of life during a troubled time than a story, since there is no clear beginning or end to the narrative itself. Various characters influence events in the village, such as the social worker from the big city, the chief of police, and the well-known criminal (almost a caricature of “the usual suspect”). The behavior of the characters is often absurd, and governed more by temporary feelings than by rational behavior. Many of the situations would be comical if not for their utter human tragedy. I think that Singh is trying to convey to the reader the absurdity of dividing people who have lived together for centuries in peace based on the thoughts of the rulers. In the village of Mano Majra, there is no conflict between Sikhs/Hindus and Muslims. The conflict comes to the village from the outside, forcing neighbors against each other, and resulting in displacement, despair, and finally massacre. The final sacrifice of the Sikh criminal Juggut to save his muslim lover Nooran is noble, but in the end only a drop in the ocean. Singh also shows how, despite a long history of being peaceful, a place can become the theater of bloodshed all too easily if the rulers (a purposefully vague concept in the novel) do not take care in their exercise of power.
The novel is touted as a portrait of what was actually happening during those troubled times on the Indian subcontinent. But it is not a history of rulers and armies in the traditional sense. The story revolves around simple villagers in a simple village. Villagers who, before the troubles, wanted nothing more than to live their lives in peace.
While the naif style of the prose sometimes grated on my nerves, I found that reading the novel sent a profound message about the responsibility of leadership, and the frailty of our heterogenous human society.
Historical novel about England around the Third Crusade. Scott is a bit less fixated on tactical and weaponry minutiae than modern historical novelists. The style is heavy at times but this book is thoroughly enjoyable. A great yarn of adventure, love, and heroism.
The king of the one word title (Mexico! Hawaii! Centennial! Iberia!) tries his hand at the space program, and does it well. This dramatization of the (mainly US) space program from its origins in Peenemunde in 1944 to post Apollo era, with some fictional tangents, is extremely well researched. If you are even vaguely interested in the space program, you will enjoy it.
Although this novel of British code breaking during World War II received good reviews, and I have no doubt of it’s historical accuracy, it thoroughly failed to captivate me and I gave up on it after only about a hundred pages.
Set during the peak of the Age of Sail in the Napoleonic era, the books detail the exploits of Horatio Hornblower from Midshipman to Admiral. Full of action and adventure, they manage to include shiphandling minutiae without bogging down the story. Page turners for young and old alike. I would recommend starting with Beat to Quarters (AKA The Happy Return) since the earlier books by internal chronology (yet written later) tend to be of a slightly lesser quality.
Mr. Midshipman Hornblower – This short story collection covers the early career of our young hero, from his first onboard ship experience to his two and a half years of captivity in Spain. By the end, Hornblower is promoted to Lieutenant. Even though it is a short story collection, it flows quite nicely and is more of an episodic novel.
Lieutenant Hornblower – The still very young Hornblower has to deal with a tyrannous and insane Captain. He then distinguishes himself by helping in the destruction of a Spanish fortress and taking prizes.
Hornblower and the ‘Hotspur’ – Although the action is fast and furious, this one is a mite tedious. Hornblower spends a couple of years on blockade duty off the coast of France. This sort of duty was demanding and harsh, but also monotonous and performed in cold, dreary weather for much of the year.
Hornblower during the Crisis – The chronologically fourth novel is unfinished due to Forester’s death. Nothing much happens since only the first 100 pages or so are written. Hornblower is about to become a spy. Also included are a two short stories, the latter showing our hero in old age.
Hornblower and the ‘Atropos’ – This one is very episodic in a singularly annoying way. Apart from the one ship commanded throughout, there is no single thread to pull the reader along. Disappointing.
Beat to Quarters (known as The Happy Return in the UK edition) – The first novel to be written, this one is a masterpiece of plotting and action. Hornblower, in command of the frigate Lydia, heads to the Pacific coast of Central America in order to make life difficult for the Spanish colonies there. He also has his first encounter with Lady Barbara. The sailing and combat action is excellent, but one should not forget the evolution of the relationship with Lady Barbara. In the beginning, Hornblower strongly dislikes her, but in the end he loves her. And we see the process every step of the way.
Ship of the Line – Hornblower takes command of the two-decker Sutherland. He carries out five daring raids against the French, but ends up a prisoner after defeat against overwhelming odds. This one ends in a cliffhanger of sorts as our hero is imprisoned in French oppupied Catalonia. Great action, perhaps even better than in Beat to Quarters.
Flying Colours – This picks up immediately where Ship of the Line left off. Hornblower is on his way to Paris to be tried for purported war crimes. Napoleon is trying to score some propaganda points. However he manages to escape and makes his way back to England, where he finds a hero’s welcome. This one is quite introspective in some sections, with Hornblower’s cynicism and doubts coming to the fore. He hates himself in certain ways, not daring to realize how much he means to people. He is afraid of failure despite great success. And finally he cynically realizes how the British use him for propaganda as much as the French meant to. At the end of the book, we find Hornblower widowed with a young son. But Lady Barbara is also widowed. Opportunity awaits, perhaps.
Commodore Hornblower – Our hero is now married to Barbara, and in the landed gentry. He is sent on a mission to the Baltic to ensure that the Swedes and the Russians don’t join the war on the side of Napoleon. Action as usual but not a whole lot of character development.
Lord Hornblower – The action moves to the English Channel as the Napoleonic era draws to a close and the French mainland can now be invaded (ahem… liberated). The last part is pretty boring as Hornblower, together with his friends from Flying Colours, fights a guerrilla action against the new Napoleonic regime during the “hundred days” following the Emperor’s escape from Elba.
Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies – A short story collection in all but name. While mildly entertaining, Forester is basically treading water here. A disappointing ending after such great novels as Beat to Quarters and Ship of the Line.
Military SciFi/Alternate history in which an evil empire appears in India in the fifth century. Famous historical general Belisarius receives a warning from the future and must counter the threat. This series goes deeper into philosophical and poetical tangents than similar works. Eric Flint’s classic wry humour pervades the prose. The books can almost be read as historical novels and contain quite a few interesting tidbits about the period. The series consist of:
An Oblique Approach
In The Heart of Darkness
The Tide of Victory
The Dance of Time
The sixth and final book, The Dance of Time came out over two years late and seems a bit of a late addition. It tied up all the loose ends neatly, even though the actual conclusion to the conflict was foregone by this time. However, the habit of the authors to show off their characters’s cleverness, while only a minor annoyance in the first five volumes, really grated on my nerves in the sixth book. Endless uses of “Why not?” and equally endless enumerations of “how cool are we” items both in the exposition and the dialogue are just plain bad style. Still and all, a satisfying conclusion.
The plot of this story is set in 2019, with humans back on the Moon looking for fusion power fuel, and also in the Soviet Union in the late 1960s, at the height of the Moon race. As things fall apart during a Moon mission in 2019, a NASA scientist must travel to Moscow to find out about a mysterious spacecraft found on the Moon. He uncovers a deep conspiracy about the Cold War Soviet space program. Back then, unknown cosmonaut Grigor Belinsky is maneuvered into taking on an unthinkable mission.
I freely admit that I am a sucker for the subject matter. Secret Moon missions? Blending fact and fiction about the Moon Race? Oh my! I just had to read this book. It delivered beyond my wildest expectations. Unlike the deeply disappointing “Children of Apollo“, another independent publication in the genre, “Red Moon” is masterfully crafted. The plot is intelligent and elegant beyond words and moves powerfully towards a breathless climax. Not since early Clancy novels have I read something with this kind of page-turning power combined with depth.
And the characters! Belinsky feels so alive, so real. He is a classic tragic hero, his inevitable fate sealed by his deep drive and desire to do the right thing in an evil world. The whole way Russians are described is so spot on, showing their poetic and melancholy side, their deeply emotional selves, in a way that few Western thrillers manage. What a book! It satisfies on many levels, with the sprinkling of culturally rooted mysticism, the slice-of-life vignettes from the 60s and the believable, three-dimensional characters lifting what could have been just a competent thriller into the realm of the sublime.
The sequel to Tai Pan is set in the early 1960s, a time when Hong Kong had come into its own as an economic powerhouse with liberal laws allowing huge fortunes to be made and lost. The story focuses around Struan’s, the company founded by Dirk Struan from Tai Pan. The company is in trouble from several fronts, and both inter-company and political intrigue play a part.
Struan’s is rather obviously based on real life company Jardine Matheson, still one of the most important corporations in Hong Kong. while Tai pan was exciting and had a great setting, Noble House reminded me too much of one of the 1980s soaps Dallas and Falcon Crest. Ruthless, scheming rich people bickering and fighting. I read about a quarter of it but became terribly bored and gave up. Despite the really interesting snapshot of Hong Kong life in the 1960s, on the cusp of modernity, I couldn’t make myself care about the plot or the characters.
This massive novel dramatizes the events surrounding the founding of Hong Kong. Our hero, Dirk Struan, is a merchant prince, head of his trading house. He is known by the Chinese expression “Tai-Pan”, meaning “supreme leader”. The book chronicles his efforts to found and develop Hong Kong as a way to both open up trade with China and ensure that the West be exposed to Chinese influence.
The book is skillfully written and a page turner. The characters are larger than life. Great fun all around. Clavell shows a keen eye for the way different people are motivated based on ethnicity and culture, sex and social position. The many action-filled twists do not seem confusing, but drive the story forward without seeming like just pointless noise.