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Matt's rating system:

GO!  I liked the book a lot and recommend it to you without reservation.  (Comments in this category are also posted at amazon.com.)
CAUTION  I liked it, but your tastes may be different.
STOP!   I really didn't like the book at all.
YIELD  I recognize that there is merit here, but as I'm not a member of the target audience, I'm not sure my comments are useful.
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2015 Book Comments
RAZOR GIRL  by Carl Hiaasen  (2016)  I think Mr. Hiaasen is everybody's favorite guilty pleasure, and if you fall into this category, you
already know that
Razor Girl is for you.  It has all the accouterments of South Florida Trailer Trash life that readers have come to expect
and just enough of a plot to keep you turning the pages.  It's not Hiaasen's best work or his worst, and if I had to say, I'd put it closer
almost exactly in the middle of his canon in terms of quality and readability.  If you just really need to know, it's about a Key West
restaurant inspector who's trying to get back on the regular police force.  He's comes into contact with all kinds of trash (human and
otherwise)--a mid-30-ish woman who's profession is rear-ending male motorists for various reasons and getting them to follow her to
some secluded parking lot where they're threatened by her much larger and more violent co-worker.  It works on the men every time
because when the offended motorist comes back to her car to bawl her out for hitting him, he finds her with her skirt up around her waist
and giving herself a Brazilian.  Not many folks can make a book out of this, but that's the genius of Carl Hiaasen.  (12/8/2016)

THE WHISTLER   by John Grisham  (2016)  Who am I to criticize John Grisham?  I will say, however, that I read this book two weeks
ago, and today, I had to look at it again to remember what it was about.  Oh, yeah--corrupt judge in the pay of Florida Panhandle Indian
casinos and the spunky Tallahassee bureaucrats who bring her down.  Got it.  As with every John Grisham book I've read (I have to admit
that I tuned him out for about fifteen years, and I've never sampled his young adult books), it's not about the destination, it's about the
journey.  I used to complain that his book were all plot and no characters.  
The Whistler definitely has better characters, but the plot is low
on the fireworks that have made his books so compelling over the years.  That's neither a good or bad thing, it's just the way Mr.
Grisham's style has evolved over the years.  I will say that although I had to go back and see what
The Whistler was about after two
The Firm is still etched on the brain twenty-seven years later. That's bound to mean something.  (12/02/2016)

THE CULTURAL REVOLUTION: A PEOPLE'S HISTORY, 1962-1976  by Frank Dikotter  (2016)  Over the years, I've had a number
of conversations with people my age and older about how Americans  could sit around and do nothing while a Holocaust was raging in
Europe in the 1930's and early 1940's.  Generally, the conclusion was reached that Americans either didn't know what was going on in
Germany or couldn't do anything about it.  Reading
The Cultural Revolution, it occurred to me that at some point, young people might ask
me why I did nothing to raise a hand or a voice to an atrocity that was several times more horrific that was raging in China during my own
teens and twenties.  My response will be, no doubt, either that I didn't know anything about it, and/or could do nothing about it.  Tens of
millions of Chinese people died of starvation or worse as a result of programs whimsically given names like the Great Leap Forward, The
Hundred Flowers, Never Forget Class Struggle and the Cultural Revolution--each and every one dreamed up by a madman who thought
that millions of deaths was a small price to pay for hanging on to power at all costs. It remains a mystery to me that academics in America
admire Mao Zedong, who surely would have banished them from their comfy lives in academia and exiled them to some country village
where they would spend the rest of the Revolution digging sweet potatoes twelve hours a day for about five dollars a month.  Mr. Dikotter
is an excellent writer, and he does what he can to tell the story of mass murder among 800 million people anecdotally.  The downside of
the approach--and almost any anecdotal approach to an overwhelming tragedy is that the "little" stories get lost in the sweeping arc of a
tragedy that ripped apart and gutted the largest nation on Earth.   I'd like to think that Mr. Dikotter wrote this book to whet the appetite to
learn more about the greatest atrocity ever committed on the planet.  (11/13/2016)

by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge (2016)  OK.  Enough's enough.  Ace Atkins is one of our finest writers.  I am SO TIRED of
him wasting his time on Spenser novels. ROBERT B. PARKER IS DEAD, PEOPLE!  Let's move on.  As anyone who's read of Mr. Atkins'
other books can tell you, he's got better things to do.  Likewise, I believe Mark Sullivan and Michael Ledwidge should be allowed to write
the terrific thrillers with great characters that we know they're capable of, because they're making a lot more money keeping James
Patterson's characters alive for him.  
Private: Paris is a big step up from some of the earlier Private efforts, and I'm not sure I've read any
Michael Bennett Thrillers, but I can recommend these to you as a good way to kill time on an airplane. But in the future, I'm going to
be reading a lot fewer of these books of the undead and more books who only have one author listed on the cover.  This means that James
Patterson is going to have to start writing his own damn books, but also I think that will be healthier for the publishing business--and all of
us.  I hope you'll join me.  (10/23/2016)

NIGHTSHIFT: A NOVEL OF MIDNIGHT, TEXAS  by Charlaine Harris (2016)  If Tuna, Texas (Population 26) the second smallest
town in Texas, Midnight might be in contention for the bottom five.  Of course, it would depend on how you count.  If you're just
people, there might be ten, but if you include the witches, angels, vampires, psychics, were-tigers and others, it might be bigger
than Waco.  This is the third in the series of
Midnight books that Ms. Harris has written after she left the vampires of Bon Temps,
Louisiana, to fend for themselves.  These books have none of the fun or sex appeal of the
True Blood books, but they do have a
late-middle-age comfortable charm about them.  Ms. Harris is undeniably a fine writer, and she knows how to keep characters in focus and
move a story along.  If you're interested, go get the first book, (Midnight, Texas), read it and work your way up to this one.  (10/13/2016)

HITLER: ASCENT, 1889-1939  by Volker Ullrich (2016) In the Introduction to this book, Herr Ullrich, a noted German historian, tells us
that of the (literally) thousands of books about Hitler, only four "have stood the test of time."  He cites, Konrad Heiden's
Hitler: A
from the 1930's; Alan Bullock's Hitler: A Study in Tyranny from the early 1950's; Joachim Fest's Hitler: A Biography from
1973; and Ian Kershaw's works in 1998 and 2000.  I mention this because I am confident that when Ullrich's
Descent is published and
translated into English in some future year, it will expand the list of great works to five.  It's that good.  What distinguishes
Ascent is that it
is the first major Hitler biography to be able to tap into the extensive diaries of Joseph Goebbels as a source. No Hitler toady had the access
that Goebbels did and had the insight into his private life.  While there is a lot here to suggest Hitler's private life during his years of rising to
power, there is--as usual--no real insight into Hitler's inner life.  He was a sociopath, and--to our knowledge--has never shared his
innermost thoughts with anyone.  Ullrich has done a remarkable job of throwing as much light on Hitler as we're ever likely to see.  If that
interests you at all, I can't recommend this book highly enough.  (10/9/2016)

THE LIFE OF LOUIS XVI  by John Hardman  (2016)  How much do you really want to know about the king who lost his head in the
Revolution?  It seems a bit like telling the Easter story and focusing on Pontius Pilate or telling the story of the moon landing by focusing on
what Nixon was doing.  It might be fair to say that the man who did the most to assure the success of the French Revolution was the
crowned head who convened the Estates General that transformed itself into the National Assembly, and then reluctantly endorsed their
work while trying to assure that the country didn't completely fall apart in the process. Yes, he was a more interesting figure than he is
usually given credit, and yes, he did more to move France into the dawning industrial age than anyone--but so what?  Mr. Hardman has his
facts together, and he presents them as well as can be hoped.  While "interesting", Louis was not decisive when he needed to be, and that
caused him to literally lose his head.  As a Bourbon monarch, he was never going to embrace the type of constitutional monarchy instituted
in Great Britain, so that it was a given that he would eventually have to be sacrificed--which makes the story of his life a sad narrative,
regardless of how well-written it might be.  If you're really, really interested in the subject, I'm happy to recommend it.  If, however, you
are a casual consumer of historical biography, it's kind of a bummer.  (9/18/2016)

THE LONG WEEKEND: LIFE IN THE ENGLISH COUNTRY HOUSE, 1918-1939   by Adrian Tinniswood  (2016)  Oh, those crazy
Brits.  Mr. Tinniswood is English and lives in Bath.  I bring this up because though most of the great country houses he discusses in his
book are indeed in England, a sizeable representation of them are actually in Scotland-some of them are even in Wales.  He should know
better than anyone that a great country house in Scotland might look English to the casual observer, but it's not.  This is of course a very
trivial point, but it's one that gets you off to a bad start with this book. The book starts strong--explaining how a country weekend unfolded
between the wars, but it diverges fairly quickly into who decorated the houses and (rather dull) family histories of some of the owners of
said houses.  I highly recommend the first 50 pages--the ensuing 240, not so much. (9/11/2016)

LIBERTY OR DEATH: THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  by Peter McPhee (2016)  Until today, the only book I've ever recommended
about the Revolution has been Simon Schama's sublime
Citizens (say it three times fast), but I think I've discovered a version of the events
that can stand as its equal.  What
Liberty or Death lacks in the imagery and poetry of the Schama book, it makes up for with forthrightly
explaining that such and such was the defining reason that caused something else to happen.  For example, he says that compelling Catholic
priests to swear allegiance to the state was the signal event that caused the initial popular phase of the Revolution to splinter into the
factionalism that eventually produced the Terror.  If you're just going to read one book about the Revolution, it should probably be this
one.  Mr. McPhee, an Australian historian, provides an excellent introduction to events that will make you want to read more.  Then you go
dive in to
Citizens.  (8/28/2016)

(2016)  is the story of Betty Pack, daughter of a Washington socialite who married a British diplomat and become one of the most
successful spies in history.  Mr. Blum gives her credit for helping to crack the Enigma codes, learning the Nazis order of battle before the
invasion of Poland, stealing French naval codes prior to the invasion of North Africa and other things. I have no reason to doubt that what
Mr. Blum says is true, but if it is all true, I wonder why we haven't heard her name until now.  Mr. Blum is fairly specific in regard to how
Ms. Pack was so successful--she was a tramp.  So much so that I wouldn't have been surprised if Nazi collaborators in the war had
printed up bumper stickers "Honk If You've Done Betty".  It's a fascinating story, and my only complaint is the way Mr. Blum tells it.  In
the book, Betty's story is sandwiched between a British journalist who's down on his luck and thinks he can make a bundle by selling
Betty's story to the London tabloids.  Throughout the book, Betty's story is interrupted from time to time with the journo wondering how to
keep her talking.  While that part of Betty's story may also be true, it sounds very much as if
The Last Goodnight is being prepped for a
movie sale, and that Mr. Blum is pimping Betty's story the same way that the writer in the book is doing.  Betty Pack's story stands by
itself and doesn't need this type of literary framing that cheapens the whole enterprise.  (8/21/2016)

THE JACOBITES by Jacqueline Riding  (2016)  There's nothing really dreadful about The Jacobites.  The author is an academic with
much curatorial experience with various British museums, and I suppose it's fair to say that she's did a good job of curating the adventures
of Prince Charles Edward Stuart, but maybe not such a great job of telling the story.  (For instance, a map or two would have been really
helpful.) And I confess that British history really one of my passions.  I suppose that if you want to know the facts of the ill-fated
The Jacobites will give you what you need.  You just might not enjoy the ride.  (8/1/2016)

THE INNOCENTS  by Ace Atkins (2016)  While I continue to assert that Ace Atkins is the best writer in anybody's neighborhood, he is
starting to wear me down.  I read the Spenser novels because I like his writing, but practically everything else about the series annoys me.  
Atkins' series of books about the fictional Jericho, Mississippi, have always been raw--often painfully so--but they were totally engrossing.  
The Innocents is the sixth book in this series, and it's starting to feel as if mission creep is setting in. I've noticed a tendency in this series to
combine disasters in the course of a novel--in one, a Category 5 tornado roared through town just as all hell was breaking loose on the
criminal justice front.  In this book, Mr. Atkins combines a version of a horrific crime in Courtland, Mississippi, a couple of years ago in
which a young woman was set afire and left to die, with a sub-plot featuring undertones of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State. I'm
not ready to accuse Mr. Atkins of "phoning it in" because even his less than great works like this one are still better than almost anything
else out there.  But I am starting to miss the guy who wrote
White Shadow and Wicked City.  (7/23/2016)

THE BLACK WIDOW  by Daniel Silva (2016)  I read this book in mid-July, 2016.  If you're keeping track it was about halfway between
the Arab terrorist truck attack in Nice and the massacre in Munich.  I think we've reached a point in history when fiction is struggling to
keep up with current events.  In
The Black Widow, an Islamicist cell has already detonated a massive bomb in the heart of the Marais in
Paris and is plotting bigger mayhem in Washington, DC.  Although the book is 500th or so book that Mr. Silva has written about
"legendary" Mossad operative Gabriel Allon, it reads like a current newspaper story--and that's not good for anybody.  Mr. Silva is a
wonderful writer who works magic with sentences, and this book may be one of his best.  But coming on a day when I had to wait in
traffic for a half-hour to get onto the Interstate in Baton Rouge because a funeral for a policeman was going by, I'm not sure that this kind
of action is what I need right now.  If you're looking for a gripping page-turner, here's your book--just wait a while and hope that the
world regains some part of its mind before you read it.  (7/22/2016)

A HERO OF FRANCE  by Alan Furst (2016)  I'm sure I should be envying Mr. Furst for his excellent writing skills, but this book was
just kind of "meh".  "Mathieu", a legendary figure of the French Resistance is instrumental in sneaking downed Allied airmen out of France.  
Perhaps the biggest impediment to my enjoyment of reading this book was having finished
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah--a much
better novel on the same subject--a few weeks earlier.  "Mathieu" glides around Paris, doing good deeds and giving the Nazis what for, but
somehow, it just doesn't seem as if his heart is in it.  If you're looking for a ripping good story of the heroics of the Underground, check
The Nightingale.  (7/18/2016)

THE SECRET WAR: SPIES, CIPHERS AND GUERRILLAS, 1939-1945  by Max Hastings  (2016)  Max Hastings is a former editor of
The Evening Standard and Daily Telegraph.  Recently, he wrote a very good book about the onset of WWI (reviewed herein) called
Catastrophe, 1914.  I mention this to point out that he writes like a newspaper reporter, not a historian. (See Jungle of Stone below.)  Mr.
Hastings covers the stories of the miracle-workers who broke the Nazi Enigma code at Bletchley Park--just as dozens of other historians
have done in recent years. But even though he really doesn't bring any new information to the table about Alan Turing and his gang--or the
other tens of millions of people who participated in WWII to any degree--he organizes the stories of the--for lack of a better term--"spy
agencies" in all of the war's belligerents.  The book is a tour de force on the subject of spies and spycraft and well worth your time, if
you're interested in the history of the war.  (7/11/2016)

THE NIGHTINGALE  by Kristin Hannah (2015)  I admit it.  I avoided this book for over a year because everything I read about it when it
came out last year led me to believe that it was just a book about a couple of devoted French sisters who were awfully brave in WWII.
Well, shame on me.  Ms. Hannah has actually written a book about a couple of devoted French sisters who were awfully brave in WWII,
The Nightingale has as much action as any spy novel you'll read this year.  If I were to compare the book to anything, it would be
Thomas Keneally's
The Daughters of Mars, a book I liked so much, I named it my favorite book of 2013.  (See left panel.)  Ms. Hannah is
an excellent writer, and if her story seems to poke along at times, it's only because the lives of the farmers of Normandy poked along at
times as they dealt with the ongoing crushing oppression of occupying Nazis.  If you didn't read it last year, go get it now!  (7/9/2016)

Lesley M. M. Blume  (2016)  I've never seen a novel cited in the subtitle of another book until now.  Curious.  But be that as it may, that is
indeed the subject of Ms. Blume's excellent book about Hemingway and the ill-fated road trip to the San Fermin
feria of 1923. I'd thought
that this material had been beaten to death over the decades, but the book is fun and informative.  And while you might not actually care
whatever happened to the women who were the inspirations for Lady Brett Ashley and Frances Clyne and the various low-lifes who played
the male characters in the book, it was fun to read about how the rest of the Paris ex-pat community felt about being outed in Hemingway's
pages. Most of Hemingway's acquaintances (not sure he really had friends) felt that while his writing was inspired, the book itself was
better classified as
reportage than fiction.  If you're remotely interested in the Lost Generation and those who tried to cash in on it
(regrettably, the otherwise empty auditorium at the showing of Genius the other night suggests that there isn't), I think you'll get a kick out
Everybody Behaves Badly.  (7/5/2016)

AN HONORABLE MAN  by Paul Vidich (2016)  The morning after I finished this novel of the 1950's Cold War CIA, I had forgotten the
name of the book and everything about it.  Even as I write this, I had to look at the dust jacket to remember what it was about.  That alone
might tell you what you need to know about
An Honorable Man.  And now that I'm looking back, I can't remember who was the titular
character.  Let's just say that it's about the CIA, circa 1953.  If you think that might interest you, you can probably find it anywhere.  (I'm
giving my copy to the Baton Rouge Public Library for their book sale.  You might want to start there.  7/1/2016)

THE NOISE OF TIME: A NOVEL   by Julian Barnes  (2016)  The spiritual connection there is between those who consider themselves
the intellectual elites and the Russian "intellectuals" of the early 20th century continues to baffle me, but whatever it is is given its full
expression in
The Noise of Time, which is more a collection of random observations about the life of Dimitri Shostakovich than a novel.
There's no denying Mr. Barnes's ability to string words together.  Some of his insights are inspired.  

Tragedies in hindsight look like farces.

But this was not an ideal world, and so irony grew in sudden and strange ways.
Overnight, like a mushroom; disastrously, like a cancer.

Brilliant observations like these are littered throughout
The Noise of Time.  The problem is that Mr.  Barnes doesn't seem to have a grasp on
what he wants us to take away from the life of Shostakovich--if anything.  Maybe that's the point; maybe he doesn't think there is anything
to take from Shostakovich's life.  I don't think that's true, but the evidence of the book is inconclusive.  (6/28/2016)

THE ROMANOVS: 1613-1918  by Simon Sebag Montefiore (2016)  In the next paragraph, I give a good author some grief because I
don't think he told an "epic" story in a particularly epic fashion.  In the profoundly unlikely vent that he ever reads the review and asks for
an example of how "epic" is supposed to read, I will refer him to Mr. Montefiore's tale of the Romanov clan.  On the second page of the
Introduction, he writes,
The Romanovs inhabit a world of family rivalry, imperial ambition, lurid glamour, sexual excess and depraved
sadism; this is a world where obscure strangers suddenly claim to be dead monarchs reborn, brides are poisoned, fathers torture their sons
to death, sons kill fathers, wives murder husbands, a holy man, poisoned and shot, arises, apparently, from the dead, barbers and peasants
ascend to supremacy, giants and freaks are collected, dwarfs are tossed, beheaded heads kissed, tongues torn out, flesh knouted off bodies,
rectums impaled, children slaughtered; here are fashion-mad, nymphomaniacal empresses, lesbian
menages-a-trois, and an emperor who
wrote the most erotic correspondence ever composed by a head of state. Yet this is also the empire built by flinty conquistadors and
brilliant statesmen that conquered Siberia and Ukraine, took Berlin and Paris, and produced Pushkin, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky and
Dostoevsky; a civilization of towering culture and exquisite beauty
.  How could you resist 654 pages of that?  And why would you try?  

 by William Carlsen (2016)  The ruins of dozens of ancient Mayan cities were hiding in plain sight in the
jungles of Guatemala and Mexico for hundreds of years before John Stephens, an intrepid American writer, and Frederick Catherwood, a
brave British artist spent a couple of years of tick, snake, alligator, mosquito and Mexican Revolutionary hell going up rivers and through
jungles to visit, write about and record images of the ruins of Copan, El Mirador, Tulum, Chichen Itza and dozens others. Stephens and
Catherwood are said to be bigger than life characters, but for some reason, Mr. Carlsen describes them as if they are anything but. For that
Jungle of Stone misses an opportunity to tell an epic story epic-ly. Mr. Carlsen would probably tell you that he was writing a
scholarly work (in his defense, there are fifty pages of bibliography and notes at the end of the book), but I guess I wish he'd decided to
tell a story instead of document one. (5/29/2016)

EVERYBODY'S FOOL  by Richard Russo (2016)  Nobody's Fool--Paul Newman, Bruce Willis, Jessica Tandy, Melanie Griffith, Philip
Seymour Hoffman, et al--is one of my favorite movies of all time.  It's 22 years old now, but it's still in my regular watching rotation, and
every time I see it, I find something new to love.  It was based on a book by Mr. Russo, who now takes us back to Bath, New York, and
the early 1990's.  It's about five years later and Miss Beryl (Tandy) is gone, but almost everyone else is about the same. Raymer the cop
(Hoffman) is now chief of police in North Bath, and we travel with him through the streets of the town, encountering sadistic son of a
bitches--and cobras.  (You know how I love cobras.) It's a wonderful reunion with old friends and easy to imagine all of the original
characters inhabiting these roles--although with the loss of Newman, Tandy and Hoffman, it's certainly not going to happen.  I didn't read
Mr. Russo's original book, but it seems that he might be trying a little bit too hard here to sustain a high-level of absurdity. Sure, a small
town in upstate New York
could sustain a toxic waste incident, a building falling on somebody and a cobra attack in the same day, but
what are the odds?  But I suggest you suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride.  
Here is your summer beach book.  (5/24/2016)

ROBERT B. PARKER'S SLOW BURN  by Ace Atkins (2016)  Well, you know we love us some Ace Atkins around here, and his taking
over the Robert B. Parker "Spenser" series is what we love him in spite of.  I choose to think that he does it to support himself and his
family as he writes more interesting books about other things. Someday, he'll figure out that he's
already a better writer than Robert B.
Parker ever was, and he'll devote his time to speaking in his own voice. In the meantime, we get annual dosages of Spenser that feel an
awful lot like last year's dose.  If you like it, you know you want it.  (5/21/2016)

SPAIN IN OUR HEARTS: AMERICANS IN THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR, 1936-1939  by Adam Hochschild (2016)  If Mr. Hochschild
had presented his book as an objective history of the Spanish conflict--or even the stories of some of the Americans who participated in it,
I would have condemned it in the strongest possible terms.  But while he may be a pinko of the old school, at least he's honest about it.  In
the Prologue, he says,
All of us who care about social justice feel a need for political ancestors, and surely, it seems, that's what these men
and women--some 75 American women, mostly nurses, volunteered in Spain--were.  
And then there's 372 pages of loving tribute to his
political ancestors--which is fine. Some of the Americans in Spain were interesting, many were not.  Unfortunately, Mr. Hochschild spends
way too much time with those who were not, but I don't begrudge them their turn in the limelight.  Hochschild has a breathtaking ability to
stand perspective and context on their ears and he finds villains in all the usual places. (Texaco is singled out for particular scorn, even
though almost every American oil company sold product to the Nationalists.)  If you're not familiar with complicated and confusing history
of the Spanish Civil War, I suggest you read several more objective books before circling around to this one.  (5/20/2016)

Nazis were trying to build The Bomb during World War II, and they needed a lot of "heavy water", one of the few sources available to
them was a Norwegian called Norsk Hydro, which distilled the stuff near a town called Rjukan, a hundred miles or so from Oslo.  
Naturally, the Allies didn't want them to access to the material, and after a failed raid by British engineers and an American bombing run
that failed to destroy the plant, they turned to a squad of Norwegian patriots who were willing to go in and sabotage the place.  This is their
story. While calling the plant a "winter fortress" might be a bit of a stretch--it was guarded by a team of thirty German soldiers, there can
be no doubt that the brave men who blew it up went through hell to accomplish their mission.  They lived off the land for months at a time,
killing their own food and fighting off unbelievably cold winters.  At one point, one of the members of the team is diagnosed with beriberi
because he's eaten nothing but reindeer for months at a time. Mr. Bascomb does a fine job of telling their story, and an adequate job of
explaining how the heavy water manufactured at Norsk Hydro fit into the overall Nazi war effort.  It's a thrilling story, but it's not told
thrillingly. Whether that is good or bad depends on what kind of book you're looking for.  (5/18/2016)

TO HELL AND BACK: EUROPE, 1914-1949   by Ian Kershaw  (2016) is the first of two books that will lay out the political history of
Europe in the twentieth century.  To the extent that this book is different from hundreds of other books about European history of the era,
it is its focus on development, rise and fall of political movements and parties in European countries. I suppose that is a noble endeavor, and
it certainly has a place in the world. It's just that there's no new information here and it's not terribly interesting the somewhat pedestrian
way Mr. Kershaw tells it. The author exhibits a level of scholarship far above anything I could ever aspire to achieve; he just doesn't tell
stories particularly well.  (5/7/2016)

THE TRAVELERS   by Chris Pavone  (2016)   Well, at least I've read at least one terrific mystery in 2016.  I'm not familiar with Mr.
Pavone's work, but I'm definitely checking out his other two books,
The Accident and The Expats. In The Travelers, a poor, young,
full-of-himself, and full-of-it writer for a magazine (called
Travelers) finds himself in a compromised position in which he's forced to spy
for the CIA.  Or does he?  And who is he really spying on?  And why?  In one passage, the author who narrates the book talks about the
photo of himself that is included on the "Contributors" page of the magazine.  He says it's a photo that his wife took of him in a burgundy
banquette at a Paris restaurant on their honeymoon.  I'm sure it's just coincidental that the photo of the book's author on the dust jacket
shows him in what could very well be a burgundy banquette in a Paris restaurant.  My point is that Mr. Pavone has fun with the book.  I
think you will too.  (4/1/2016)

OIL AND MARBLE: A NOVEL OF LEONARDO AND MICHELANGELO   by Stephanie Storey   This much is true.  1. Both artists
lived in Florence from 1500 until 1504.  2. They are reputed not to have liked each other.  3. During that time, Leonardo finished his
portrait of Mrs. Gioconde, and Michelangelo carved a large piece of marble in to a famous slingshot artist.  From this, Ms. Storey has
developed a story of how they may or may not have interacted with each other.  Not that it matters, but Leonardo seems to be the one
playing the heavy in this story.  It may be because he's the older man, or because it's because his enormous ego and talent were trapped in
the body of a petty and spiteful little man.  For his part, to call Michelangelo obsessive is to underestimate a serious character disorder.  It's
hard to criticize this book too much because Ms. Storey says she spent twenty years thinking about it before putting it to paper.  Part of
me thinks that's kind of too bad, but another part of me thinks that in 2036, we'll have another unobjectionable but not terribly inspired
story to read.  (3/25/2016)

FLIGHT OF DREAMS   by Ariel Lawson  (2016--actually the first 2016 book I've read)   Perhaps less a book than an writing exercise
where the task was to incorporate real people known to be aboard the
Hindenburg on that fateful day in May of 1937 into a readable novel
and make one of the take the rap for the explosion.  Despite taking liberties--a lot of them--with the lives of actual people who did or did
not survive the crash, Ms. Lawson has more or less completed her assignment proficiently.  Yes, she did kind of cop out on the "who done
it", but she presents an interesting cast of passengers and crew and tells an interesting story.  Under no circumstances should
Flight of
be read as history, but it is an interesting yarn.  (3/5/2016)

MARCUS AGRIPPA: RIGHT-HAND MAN OF CAESAR AUGUSTUS   by Lindsay Powell  (2015)  I'm giving this one a pass because I
think the author meant well.  Mr. Powell, a historian with a preference for military history points out that there hasn't been a new
English-language biography of Agrippa in the past 80 years.  The very good reason for this, probably, is that there hasn't been much if any
new information about the subject that's come to life in the past century.  Mr. Powell's major sources are Ovid and Pliny.  Agrippa's
greatest attributes were his organizational skills and his unswerving loyalty to Augustus--hence the title.  While both traits are admirable,
neither is sufficiently scintillating to send most history writers--or readers--over the moon.  Put another way, not even Plutarch thought
Agrippa was interesting enough to write about.  (3/1/2016)

Frisch (translated in 2015)  This is a terrific book in its own odd, quirky way.  You'd think these two women would have a lot in
common--both headstrong Berliners of about the same age who defied their families and the social mores of the day to go into show
business, where they found astounding success.  But that's where the similarities end.  For all of the scandal that swirled around her,
Dietrich was the daughter of a Prussian army officer who lived her life according to a code of honor and work that gave her the courage to
stand up to Hitler and the Nazis and become a revered American icon during World War II.  Riefenstahl was an adored and spoiled child
who was used to getting her way and justified doing whatever she thought was necessary to advance her artistic aspirations.  She saw the
Nazis as a tool to get things done and exploited them. (Oddly enough, even when Nazi Germany was collapsing around her in 1945, she
was still using concentration camp Romany as extras in a movie that she was filming.)  The book is excellent.  There are a few quirks in
syntax that I suspect is the work of the translator, but it's nothing that detracts in any way from your enjoyment of the book.  (2/17/2016)


Usually, April is French History Month in these parts, but since I'm actually going to France later this month, I thought I'd
move it up.  

THE COMING OF THE TERROR IN THE FRENCH REVOLUTION   by Timothy Tackett  (2015)  I love reading about the Revolution
because it was such a convoluted thing that making sense of it has always been a bit of a puzzle.  Until now, the author who's written
about it in English most comprehensibly--to my mind--has been the great Simon Schama in
Citizens.  Now Timothy Tacket, professor of
history emeritus at the University of California, Irvine, has written an account to give him a run for his money.  Professor Tackett's book
does a masterful job of telling the story of the Revolution from its onset in 1789 through the turmoil of the Thermidor killings in 1794, in a
manner that is understandable and a pleasure to read.  In a departure from Schama's work, Professor Tackett draws much from private
correspondence of men and women who both participated in events and watched it from afar.  I'm so happy that there are now two books
in English about the Revolution that I can recommend without reservation.  (2/17/2016)

THE OTHER PARIS   by Luc Sante  (2015)  assumes that you nothing of Paris.  If that's true, give it a look-see.  Otherwise, I can only
surmise that
The Other Paris was named what it was because The Idiot's Guide to Paris had already been taken.  Mr. Sante (not French,
but neither is John Baxter.  See next blurb.) provides anecdotes and tales of the city loosely aligned with topics like Crime, Show Business
and Death.  Like Paris itself, the book creates its own sense of order that makes no sense to the casual observer and insists that it be
admired.  Paris the city can get away with that kind of behavior, but if you're interested in what makes Paris
Paris, you can do better.  

FIVE NIGHTS IN PARIS   by John Baxter  (2015)  Mr. Baxter wrote a wonderful book about Paris in 2011 called The Most Beautiful
Walk in the World
, about--among other things--how he came to be a tour guide in Paris.  The thrust of that book was that whatever it is
about Paris that speaks to you is The Most Beautiful Walk in the World.  That book, like the new one, is interlaced with anecdotes and
stories of the city, its people and its visitors.  He doesn't beat you to death with Hemingway and Shakespeare and Company, and he offers a
light touch regarding the visitors with whom he has shared the city.  
Five Nights in Paris, not so much.  The undiscerning book buyer
(Let's call him "Matt") might pick up the new book and think that it's about fun and interesting things one might do if one had five nights to
spend in Paris.  In reality, it's a series of vignettes tied very loosely to the five senses.  Nothing in this book will help you decide whether a
visit to Notre Dame or the Ping Pong Bar is worth your time.  If you've read everything else about Paris (and you haven't), sure, pick up
The Most Beautiful Walk in the World and give this one a pass. (2/1/2016)

JOY RIDE: SHOW PEOPLE AND THEIR SHOWS   by John Lahr  (2015)  Mr. Lahr is the theater critic for the New Yorker, and Joy
Ride is a collection of his reviews and profiles of writers and performers.  Whether or not the articles ever interest me, I always like to look
at the Table of Contents of these kinds of books.  You can always get a sense of what's important to the writer by where articles are
placed in the book.  (The exception to this rule was the late, great Pauline Kael, who presented her articles chronologically, but I digress.)  
Assuming that Mr. Lahr (son of the Cowardly Lion, Bert Lahr) doesn't also use some more arcane method of ordering, it's fair, I think to
impute that the three people most important people in the book to him are Arthur Miller, August Wilson and Tony Kushner.  (Last on the list
is William Shakespeare.  Go figure.)  If this is true, you can pretty well get a sense of what he likes and doesn't like and judge whether you
actually want to read the book for yourself.  Despite a tendency to gush over people and plays he adores, there's no doubt that Mr. Lahr is
an excellent writer.  Like any critic, his taste might not be your taste, but he busts a gut trying to convince you that it should be.  

THE EXPLORER'S GUILD: VOLUME 1   by Jon Baird and Kevin Costner, Illustrated by Rick Ross  (2015)  You're probably thinking,
"Kevin Costner?  Really?"  Well, why not.  He's got a band.  He's patented some sort of bladder that takes oil of seawater.  Word on the
street that he's apparently an actor of some sort.  Why can't he help write a book?  And not just any old book.  It's part novel, part comic
book, part--I don't know what.  The jacket claims
Combining the bravura storytelling style of Rudyard Kipling with the visual appeal of a
richly detailed graphic novel,
The Explorer's Guild captivates the eye and the imagination on every page.    I give the creators of this book
credit: They've spared no expense to make reading the book a sensory experience.  Even the pages are dyed to look as if the book has been
sitting in your grandparents' attic since the early 30's.  But while I will say that the book's claim for itself is mostly true, let's just say that
over the course of 763 pages, the eye and imagination are not entire captivated on every one of them. A lot of background exposition is
provided for characters that don't do much, which leads me to believe that the authors are already beavering away on Volume 2 and
beyond.  I have no problem with that, but it does make me feel that this book is setting itself up like the first movie in a pretty good film
trilogy.  You like what's before you now, but you can't help feeling that you're being set up.  Will Volume 2 be
The Godfather, Part 2 or
Weekend at Bernie's 2? (1/31/2016)

THE GERMAN WAR: A NATION UNDER ARMS, 1939-1945   by Nicholas Starsgardt  (2015)  You're probably asking (or should be
asking, anyway), "What separates this book from the other thousand or so that have come out about World War II in the last couple of
years?"  Good question.  Mr. Starsgardt attempts--and succeeds to the extent that any one person can--to explain what the German people
thought they were fighting for in WWII.  The war was very unpopular among the German people when it was declared in 1939.  But after
year after year of intense Nazi propaganda and coercion and the willingness of the people to believe what to had to believe to get along from
day to day finally created the belief by 1943 that they were fighting for their survival as a nation and a
volk (people).  By end of the war,
most Germans had become convinced that the United States had declared war on them in 1941, not the other way around.  Mr. Starsgardt
is exhaustive in his research.  Most of what he presents is anecdotal evidence about what people were thinking during the arc of the war
gleaned from letters and journals, but he also provides information from weekly reports that prepared for Goebbels that provided an running
commentary of national morale.  I had not been aware of these before and was fascinated that a totalitarian state went to such lengths to
gauge the national mood.  Mr. Starsgardt is Professor of Modern European History at Magdalen College, Oxford, and is an engaging
writer.  Reading
The German War is a dense and daunting task, but Mr. Starsgardt assures that your effort is rewarded. (1/18/2016)

Times Review of Book
, "World Without End is the epic conclusion of an unprecedented three-volume history of the Spanish Empire from
'one of the most productive and wide-ranging historians of modern times.'"  Really.  I have no problem with referring to Mr. Thomas as
productive and wide-ranging; he's written about everything from the slave trade to the Cold War, but it's easy to see that colonial Spain has
a special place in his heart.  What I don't understand is who he was writing this book for.  It is undoubtedly well-researched; the 299 pages
of text are supported by 163 pages of appendices.  But because the narrative is so peripatetic and scatter shot, I can't imagine a serious
researcher finding much here that is useful.  The roaming narrative is also off-putting to casual readers of history like myself.   My
personal experience with World Without End is that I found it to be exhausting and ultimately unsatisfying.  Despite the bewildering flurry
of facts buzzing around me, I'm not sure what it all meant.  (1/10/2016)

think that one of my New Year's Resolutions is going to have to be to go back to letting the staff at Square Books help me make decisions
about what books to read.  Because I spent comparatively little time in Mississippi last year, I started going to places like Barnes & Noble,
where they know nothing about books.  All too often in 2015, I found myself walking out with meh stuff like
Stolen Legacy.  The premise
of the book is fine:  the Jewish Wolfe family of Berlin were big in the fur business until the Nazis ran them out of business (putting it
nicely) and took their massive warehouse and retail building in the heart of  Berlin.  After WWII, the East German government took over
the building, which became the home of the East German railway system until the reunification of Germany in 1989.  At that time, the new
government allowed Jews who had deprived of their property to reclaim it.  The granddaughter of the last proprietor of the furrier (and
author of this book) took advantage of the opportunity and got the building back--in 1995.  Ms. Gold felt so empowered by the experience
that she waited twenty years to write a book about it.  As she explains in the introduction, she didn't get around to it because she was busy
and had other things to do.  To that comment, all I can say is that as a potential reader, perhaps you might have other things to do.  
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