Into the Book


Historical Fiction

  1. It’s been over a year since Aubrey Hansen published her first novel. Now she’s back, just like Ah-nuld. And she’s stepping up her game.

    Peter’s Angel is historical fiction with a twist. It takes place in the aftermath of a lost War for Independence, following young Lord Peter Jameson as he struggles to protect the small patriot state of Rhode Island from the greedy hands of New Britain.

    This is alternate history at its most intriguing, and for the most part, Aubrey pulls it off beautifully. Against this backdrop, she sets in motion an invasion, a kidnapping, a rescue, and a love story. And that’s only the beginning.

    W. Somerset Maugham once said that “only a mediocre writer is always at his best,” and I think it’s safe to say that Aubrey’s style have improved since her debut. Make no mistake: I think Red Rain is a great read. But I also think Peter’s Angel blows it right out of the water.

    For one thing, it’s more ambitious. You could say the stakes have been raised. There’s a boldness to the characters, a thematic and dramatic depth to the story, which clearly marks Aubrey’s growth as a storyteller. There are a couple of places where the story drags, but the plotting is generally tight, and the large cast is well-managed. The main characters – particularly Peter, Nathan, and Mark – are more complex than you might initially think. If book one is any indication, I’m willing to bet on some fascinating character development as the rest of the series runs its course.

    That’s right, I said “series.” Peter’s Angel is the first book in a proposed trilogy. As such, I think it will be even stronger when considered alongside its sequels. There’s room for growth here, because the story isn’t over. Aubrey has started something big, and I’m eager to see where she goes with it.

    There were some things about the writing which bugged me – nothing major, just little quirks that stood out to me. For instance, I didn’t care for the repeated use of “what if” paragraphs (silly name, I know, but I’m not sure what else to call them). Example:

    Were the soldiers prepared for battle? What if the British outnumbered them? What if Peter didn’t get the message to pull back? What if the they wouldn’t accept Stephen’s plea for a ceasefire?

    That kind of internal monologuing is fine in moderation, but it appears more frequently in the story than I would’ve liked.

    Thankfully, the good far outweighs the bad here. Peter’s Angel gets an enthusiastic recommendation from me. It’s a promising start to a potentially epic series, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for part two.

    – Corey P.

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  2. A word of advice from Stephen King: “Read sometimes for the story: don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words – the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”

    Cloud Atlas is a book to be treasured.

    Combining old-fashioned adventure, an eye for puzzles, and a taste for the bizarre, author David Mitchell has written a delightfully original piece of fiction. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it before. It is a novel of novellas, one big story comprised of several smaller ones (six, to be exact). Each of these stories is set in a different time and place. Each is written in a different style of prose. And each is broken off midway and concluded in the second half of the book.

    The Pacific Journel of Adam Ewing takes place circa 1850, and chronicles the adventures of a shipwrecked American notary from San Francisco. You may want to keep a dictionary close by as you read this one, as Mitchell draws on a formidable vocabulary. I, for one, had fun with it, but if you’re allergic to words like “scrimshandered” and “tatterdemalion”, you may find yourself giving up before you’ve even started. Don’t. The reward is well-worth the effort.

    Letters From Zedelghem follows the young Robert Frobisher, a scoundrelly English musician who finds work as an amanuensis to a famous composer in Belgium, 1931. The story takes several dark and sordid turns, dealing with themes of adultery, betrayal, greed, and arrogance. A tragedy, in many ways, but Mitchell’s knack for textured characters is nowhere more evident.

    Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery jumps to Buenas Yerbas, CA in 1975. Miss Rey is an investigative journalist determined to uncover the shady events surrounding a new nuclear power plant. I’d love to see Mitchell do more noir – if this story is any indication, he’d be darn good at it.

    The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is far and away my favorite part of the book, recounting the misadventures of a vanity press publisher in the early 21st century UK. It’s clever and frequently hilarious, and the flavor is distinctly Wodehousian at times. Dashed good stuff, what?

    An Orison of Sonmi~451 is dystopian science fiction set in Korea. The story takes place in flashback, during the interrogation of a genetically-engineered fabricant, or clone. It’s a bizarre and thought-provoking story, and reminded me of something Asimov (or possibly P.K. Dick) might have come up with. Part of me wishes some of the science had been explained further; the other part can understand why it wasn’t.

    Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where the tribesman Zachry is visited by “Meronym”, one of the last surviving members of technologically-advanced civilization. Inventive though it is, this story is my least favorite, primarily because of its strange and slangy prose. Appropriate within the context, no doubt, but a chore to decipher.

    I won’t tell you how all these tales come together – that would spoil one of the chief joys of reading this book – but they do come together. Every piece has a place in the grand, kaleidoscopic tapestry of Mitchell’s world. Watching him dance from genre to genre, and then tie everything up in the end, makes for one of the most entertaining head-trips I’ve had in awhile.

    While I’m sure expounding all the symbolism and thematic material would be a fascinating task, I’ve decided not to bother with that here. I would, however, like to point out that the overarching theme is, in many ways, a Christian one: we all have a part to play in a story bigger than we could ever imagine. No one lives in a vacuum. The choices we make, the lives we touch, are not without meaning or consequence. We may not be able to understand the part we play in the God’s cosmic epic, but rest assured, we do play a part.

    As N.D. Wilson says,

    Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shenikah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag. 

    This isn’t meant to imply that Mitchell, or his novel, embrace a distinctly Christian worldview, but we can value this reminder all the same. It is an important one.

    At the end of Ewing’s journal, he resolves to work at shaping his world for the better. He also imagines his father-in-law’s scorn upon hearing such a resolution:

    He who would do battle with the multi-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & and his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!

    Ewing’s response: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

    – Corey P.

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  3. As a reader who tries to roam far and wide on the literary landscape, I’d like to think I know craziness when I see it. And Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is crazy.

    I’ve tried to write a detailed and semi-coherent plot summary. And I’ve failed to write a detailed and semi- coherent plot summary. So I won’t try anymore. Catch-22 is all over the place. Norman Mailer dubbed it “the rock and roll of novels,” and if by that he means that there is little discernible flow or structure to it, then I agree – rock and roll just about says it.

    This lack of narrative flow would usually be a turn-off for me, but Catch-22 is an exception. I would even argue that lack of flow is part of what makes the novel as potent and memorable as it is.

    They say war is hell, but according to Catch-22, it is also absurdity. Chaotic, vain, bloodletting absurdity. In keeping with this theme, Heller opts for a storytelling approach that is less-than-tidy; that is, in fact, the opposite of tidy. Just like war itself.

    The novel is set in World War II-era Italy, and centers around a young bombardier named Yossarian, who happens to be furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. His worst enemy, though, is his own army, which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Oh, and there’s a catch… did I mention a catch?

    There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause in Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

    “That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed. (p. 46)

    Confused yet? Good. To couch the Catch in less mind-boggling terms: a man is insane if he willingly flies combat missions, but if he makes a formal request to be removed from duty, he is proven sane and therefore required to fly. Saavy?

    Catch-22 is a satire, and a funny one at that. But no amount of humor can disguise the fact that it’s also a very grim, cynical, and sad piece of work. Heller doesn’t go for the subtle approach, either – his tool of choice is less the scalpel than the cricket bat, and war is his pinata.

    A pacifist I am not, but I did appreciate reading this book. It gave me a different perspective to consider, and for that, I am always grateful. I even found myself in agreement with some of Heller’s criticisms (which surprised me). Having said that, it seemed to me that in certain respects, Heller is so over-the-top as to be unfair.

    In the afterword of Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden observes that in the three most notable modern literary war novels (Catch-22, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow), World War II, the great triumph of freedom over totalitarianism,

    becomes a sensible enterprise only to malevolent, invisible, powerful interests behind the scenes. Soldiers were meaningless because modern war itself was so terrible and costly that no cause or victory could justify it.

    And of course, “when war is madness, soldiers can only be stooges, sadists, victims, or lunatics.” Those four types are, indeed, the only types you’ll find in Catch-22.

    But is not this a rather lopsided way of looking at things? Am I really to believe that war is ever and only madness, and that those who fight are ever and only insane? Perhaps it’s just me, but I find it hard to reconcile such a picture with the one in, say, Ambrose’s Band of Brothers.

    I’m not denying that there is an element of madness to warfare, because there is. But that’s not the whole story. As Bowden puts it,

    Perfectly decent, honorable people are driven to war for very sane reasons. So long as one group of men on this planet would take what they want or impose their will by force, civilized people will organize to defend themselves and defeat them. Another way of saying that is, evil exists. So long as men are both good and evil, inside themselves and in their actions in the world, there will be conflict. And where there are evil forces at work in the world… good men and women will step forward to fight.

    Soldiers make mistakes. They get scared. Sometimes they become tragically confused, shoot at the wrong people, and get injured and killed. We may even be driven to question the wisdom of their leaders. But along with these mistakes and questions, we shouldn’t lose sight of “the undeniable nobility of military service.” Attributing all war and all soldiering to insanity (or worse) is unfair at best; brazenly deceitful at worst.

    By all means, read Catch-22. It’s a pivotal work, and one which deserves consideration regardless of one’s politics. Just remember there’s another catch, besides the Catch – just remember it’s not the whole story.

    – Corey P.

    Note: potential readers should be aware that this novel contains plenty of salty language and a considerable amount of sexual content. Most of the latter is intended to come across as ridiculous rather than sensual, but it’s problematic nonetheless.

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  4. Aibileen is a black maid in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi. She’s always taken orders quietly. No complaining. No sass. But something changed inside her the day her son died; recently, the bitterness is becoming harder and harder to hold back.

    Aibileen’s best friend Minny is also a maid, and perhaps the sassiest woman in the entire state; when she’s hired by someone too new to town to know her reputation, Minny soon figures out that her boss has secrets of her own.

    Then there’s Skeeter Phelan, a twenty-two-year-old white socialite who has returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She has a degree, she’s full of ambition, but without a ring on her finger, it doesn’t look like she’s going anywhere fast.

    Seemingly as different from one another as they can be, these three women will nevertheless come together for a project that will put them all at risk: the writing of a tell-all book about work as a black maid in the South. Neither their lives, nor their town, will ever be the same again.

    The Help is Kathryn Stockett’s debut novel, and if you haven’t heard of it by now, you should probably take your head out of the sand. The popularity of the book skyrocketed last year (in keeping with the release of a movie adaption), and then it really started catching people’s attention. Including mine. By the end of the year, I’d heard so much about the book that adding it to my reading list was not even an option: it had to be there. For the sake of my sanity.

    For starters, I must say that as a debut novel, The Help stands head and shoulders above the crowd. Not only is it a good book, it is a very good book, perhaps one I’d even revisit in future. Stockett knows how to write, and her story offers an enlightening look at Civil Rights era of the 1960s, and the injustices that so many blacks in the South had to endure on a daily basis.

    Stockett’s cast of characters is large and colorful, and she avoids the stereotyped cutouts that many a lesser writer would’ve fallen for instantly. I’ve heard several people criticize her writing, but in all honesty, I think Stockett is exceptionally talented in this area: her prose is rich and smooth, and her dialogue is consistently authentic. There is, I believe, a weight to her pen; one which is sorely lacking in much of modern literature.

    And let’s not forget the humor. The Help is not a comedy per se, but amid the poignant and the tragic, the characters still find time to laugh (and make us laugh with them). Aibileen and Minny, in particular, are full of wry and insightful observations like this:

    Even though she has zero kids and nothing to do all day, [Miss Celia] is the laziest woman I’ve ever seen. Including my sister Doreena who never lifted a royal finger growing up because she had the heart defect that we later found out was a fly on the X-Ray machine. (p. 48)

    As much as I enjoyed these aspects of the book, however, there were a few things I took issue with. Give me a minute and I’ll explain.

    My primary complaint is that certain parts of the story felt distracting and out-of-place, disrupting the narrative flow instead of enhancing it. One scene, involving a naked man who chases Minnie and her employer around the yard, came out of nowhere, with the result that I had put the book down and just sit there for awhile, trying to figure out what the heck I had just read and why.

    In another scene, Stockett takes the ill-timed opportunity to express her sympathy for the gay-rights movement. She does this through the character of Aibileen, who (for no apparent reason at all) begins reminiscing about a girly-boy she used to look after:

    I wish to God I’d told John Green Dudley he ain’t going to hell. That he ain’t no sideshow freak cause he like boys. (p. 285)

    This passage puzzled and annoyed me for the simple reason that it had no business being there at all. It had nothing whatsoever to do with anything; in fact, it felt like something the author went back and added later, just to show that she wasn’t no “homophobic” hick. Any writer who does that loses some of my respect, because that’s not how good writers write. Mrs. Stockett ought to have known better.

    Skeeter’s romance with Stuart Whitworth was another thing that didn’t click with me. I understand the need to explore her character further, but I think it could’ve been done in a better way. As it stands, the romance seems extraneous; like it was added merely for the sake of more drama. It never interested me half as much as the main story, dealing with the maids and Skeeter’s writing.

    Plus, in a book populated by colorful characters, Stuart struck me as remarkably flat: the stereotypical stud with a troubled past who has difficulty going steady. I didn’t like him at all; next to the vibrant Skeeter, he was about as memorable as a bowl of grits. Which is to say, not very.

    Lastly, I did not care for the author’s dishonest savaging of Christianity. She does this primarily through the character of Skeeter, who has a rebellious streak as deep and as wide as the Marianna Trench. Hypocrisy among Christians has been, is, and will continue to be a very real issue. I don’t have a problem with discrediting that. What I have a problem with is using hypocrisy as an excuse to discredit Christianity as a whole. Mrs. Stockett seems to think this way; and by the end of the story, it’s apparent that she wants her readers to think this way, too. That Christianity is synonymous with haughty white socialites who send money to the Poor Starving Children of Africa while despising the blacks in their own town.

    If all this sounds like a bunch of complaining, well, it is. I really did enjoy the book, however, and I really do recommend it. I just think it could’ve been better than it is.

    – Corey P.

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  5. “An angry man – there is my story…” Homer sums up his entire tale with these few opening words. The first chapter opens with the King Agamemnon (the leader of the Danaän army) taking a woman from Achillês for his own use – a woman Achillês had “rightfully” won from the spoils of battle; the remainder of the story tells of Achillês’ subsequent anger and the consequences it has among Danaäns, Trojans, and the Olympians above until Achillês finally lets go of his anger in the last chapter.


  6. Quo Vadis captures Biblical times in vivid detail and writing, far surpassing every other biblical novel I have yet read. Better still, this novel walks a fine line almost perfectly: between remaining accurate to Peter and Paul as they really lived, while still fitting them into the story in a way that seems natural.


  7. Fiddler’s Green by A.S. Peterson concludes the story of Fin’s Revolution begun in the first book of the dilogy, Fiddler’s Gun. This incredible story of the American Revolution is as stunningly written as it is intriguing, and by far a worthy conclusion to the first book. (more…)

  8. I have not read a lot of Christian YA fantasy that I have enjoyed and not found too far-fetched or allegorical. However I picked this book up from the Christian bookshop on a whim, and promptly found out that it delivered in all aspects of awesomeness. After all, how could time-travelling girls, knights in shining armour, and ancient Italy not come together to form something epic?

    The first book in the River of Time trilogy opens with the Betarrini girls – Gabi and Lia – on an archaeology dig with their mum in Tuscany. Having recently lost their father in a car accident, the family relationship is somewhat strained as they travel here and there following Mrs Betarrini’s next guess as to where the best dig sites could be. When they have arrived in Tuscany, they are excited discover the lost Etruscan tombs that the girl’s parents had been searching for for so many years.

    However when problems arise concerning paperwork, and permissions to continue the dig, the girls use this opportunity to see inside the tomb themselves. Upon entering, they find two handprints on the wall, which – oddly enough – look the same size as their own. Gabi and Lia press their hands to the prints, and with a flash of light and heat from the handprints, Gabi finds herself alone in the cave. Groping towards the exit, the scene before her is not of the simply Tuscan landscape and their mum’s archaeologist tent, but a full-blown war between mounted knights and warriors.

    Knowing she has somehow arrived in 14th century Italy – yet not sure how – she is taken in by the Forellis, a royal family of the era who is in the middle of a feud with neighbouring royals. This is where she falls for Marcello Forelli, soon-to-be lord of the castle. It is also where she also falls into a mysterious espionage hidden beneath courtly splendour. She has two options: to follow her heart and remain, or follow her mind and return to the future before she effects the past…

    I couldn’t put this book down. The historical elements to it were amazingly done, with so much accuracy and detail that it gave the story a very real authenticity. The crossover between the present and past was also interesting, because the author cleverly included an interior monologue of Gabi in today’s lingo, whilst still keeping the speech of the historical characters true to their era. It made it almost entrancing to read, as it was a constant reminder that the character came from the future. There are a lot of characters in the story, but not too many to lose complete track of as the story progressed. The intrigue was also very captivating, and made you think; trying to work out where certain character’s loyalties stood was thought-provoking. All-in-all, the characters, setting, and plot made for a very enjoyable read.

    However it wasn’t perfect. Gabi has a “boyfriends come and go” mindset, and a view on love that seems rather temporary. Spoiler: But as the series progresses, this mindset becomes annulled. Gabi and Marcello share several kisses; not too over the top, but in some detail nonetheless. This was probably the only major issue I had with it. The romantic side of the story seemed to happen very fast, however the fact that I prefer it done a lot slower may just be personal opinion. There is a fair share of violence, since they are in the middle of a 14th century war, but I didn’t find anything too graphic or overwhelming.

    So though it had a few things that took away from the story, overall I found this book an engrossing and entertaining read that I would very much recommend. I’d give it 4.5 stars out of 5.

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  9. There are classics. And then there are classics. To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the latter.

    Set deep in the Depression-era South of the 1930s, the story covers three years in the life of young Jean-Louise “Scout” Finch and her brother Jem… three years marked by the arrest and trial of Tom Robinson, a black man falsely charged with the rape of a white girl.

    Scout and Jem scarcely notice the goings-on until their lawyer father, Atticus Finch, agrees to take the case and defend Robinson in court: a fact that the two children (and the other inhabitants of Maycomb, Alabama) are staggered by.

    Harper Lee’s acclaimed novel is ostensibly a courtroom drama, but such a description does not really do this profound and multifaceted book justice. At once poignant, wise, and humorous, Mockingbird is a tale of such excellence that, to quote the Chicago Tribune, “it will no doubt make a great many readers slow down to relish more fully its simple distinction.

    Lee’s writing is graced with an elegance so unspectacular it’s spectacular; more than once, I had to pause and read passages aloud, just for the pleasure of rolling them off my tongue.

    The book concerns itself with a number of weighty, adult themes, but Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a small child. It is within this context – the coming-of-age story or bildungsroman – that she explores the evils of racial prejudice. The result is both subtle and potent; a morality tale that never succumbs to didactic preachiness.

    We’re also presented with an unforgettable picture of moral courage in the character of Atticus Finch. To most of the white folks in Maycomb, Tom Robinson was tried and condemned the moment he was accused. Atticus not only believes differently, he acts differently. Even when the odds are stacked against him, he takes a stand for justice and equity. One man contra mundum – against the world.

    “This case, Tom Robinson’s case, is something that goes to the essence of a man’s conscience – Scout, I couldn’t go to church and worship God if I didn’t try to help that man.”

    “Atticus, you must be wrong…”

    “How’s that?”

    “Well, most folks seem to think they’re right and you’re wrong…”

    “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinion, but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.” (p. 120)

    Scout and her brother, and many others in Maycomb, come to respect him for that. One of the most touching scenes in the book occurs after the trial, when the town’s black minister tells Scout, “Miss Jean-Louise, stand up. Your father’s passin’.” (p. 241)

    Stand up, indeed.

    – Corey P.

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  10. Gods and Generals by Jeff Shaara, is a book I’ve long wanted to read. The movie based off of this book is my favorite movie of all time, and I’ve seen it at least a million times. Knowing that the movies are very closely based on the books, I decided to give this a read. For the most part, I wasn’t disappointed.

    As with Last Full Measure, Shaara’s writing style is a little strange. It’s not enough to detract from the story substantially, but it’s enough to be an annoying niggle. I also found myself comparing the book with the movie countless times; this is sort of unavoidable. The story, obviously, follows the same path as the movie: the beginning of the Civil War, specifically, the lives of Joshua Chamberlain, Winfield Hancock, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas Jackson. And the book is just as engrossing as the movie. The story is masterfully woven, an excellent plot which focuses on the characters and the people behind the war, rather than raw war itself.

    Some themes have been expanded in the movie, others have been shrunk. The entire first portion of the book, telling of Hancock in California, and Lee’s actions before the war, is dropped from the movie. Still, it felt like a complete story…there was more backstory, more reason behind much of what happens later on in the book, which I appreciated. Some subplots were expanded in the movie, most notably, that of Jane Corbin, the little girl who Jackson befriends during the winter of 1862.

    One of the neat things about this book is that some dialogue in the movie is taken literally word for word from the books. This basically meant that I kept following along in the movie, in my head, as I read the book. For the most part, this was a really enjoyable experience. I already had images in my head for all of the characters, could follow them as I read. I suspect if I’d read the book first, the result would have been quite opposite.

    Overall, this was an excellent book. It measures up to the movie in almost every respect. If you’re at all interested in the Civil War or if you’ve read “The Killer Angels” (First book in the trilogy), you are in for a treat with Gods and Generals. And while you’re at it, watch the movie too!

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