Category Archives: Fiction

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin”

Harriet Beecher Stowe

This, along with “Frankenstein, was my “book I should have read long ago” pick for a recent trip to Italy. To appreciate it you have to get around all the baggage attached to the story and to the phrase “Uncle Tom”, but I’m glad I finally read it.

I wouldn’t call Stowe a great writer. The book sentimental and full of melodrama, stereotypes, and speechifying, and she was no Twain when it comes to rendering dialect. But the characters — both good and bad — are memorable and interesting and the strong religious element is moving. It’s a powerful document about slavery, which is a part of our history that we seem afraid to explore in depth.

While there’s no room to doubt that it’s an anti-slavery novel, Stowe allows her pro-slavery characters their arguments and she shines a light on Northern hypocrisy about slavery. She shows the immorality of both “good” slave owners and harsh ones and, within the bounds of 18th century propriety, doesn’t ignore the sexual aspect of slavery.

“Frankenstein”

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

There are works of art that so saturate popular culture that, when you’re about to encounter the original for the first time, you fear they will have lost their impact. I’m happy to say that, in my experience, works like Michelangelo’s “David” or Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper”, despite their appearance in everything from cartoons to cheap wall hangings to snow globes, retain their power to amaze.

I wondered, when starting “Frankenstein”, whether Boris Karloff, Abbott and Costello, and “The Munsters” had robbed it of its appeal. I needn’t hav worries: I found it a moving and human work. (And yes, I should have read it decades ago.)

“A Close Run Thing”

David Donachie

This is the 15th and, so far latest novel in the John Pearce series. All of what I said about the series in my review of “The Devil to Pay” remains true, but there are some further things I’ve noticed. One is the variety of settings, not just geographic ones, but social ones as well. Another is the fact that Donachie keeps introducing new characters and isn’t afraid to kill off a major character. Third, the author is very skillful in juggling his several plot threads so that there’s always something the reader wants to find out and is always looking forward to the next book while at the same time he ties off certain subplots so that the reader occasionally gets the satisfaction of a story coming to an end.

This is a really great series and it’s frustrating to know that I’ll have to wait for more to be published now that I’ve caught up with it.

“An Onshore Storm”

Dewey Lambdin

I really like the Alan Lewrie series. With one exception they’ve all been good reads, and some have been excellent. This one, though, is a real clinker. It doesn’t move Lewrie’s story much, and the writing is dull and repetitious. Our naval hero attacking a bridge is about the most exciting thing in the book, something that’s no more exciting the second time he does it.

“Weegee: Serial Photographer”

Max de Radigu├Ęs

This is a graphic novel about the New York City news photographer Arthur Fellig, who used the pseudonym “Weegee”. I originally saw it in the store of the fantastic Belgian Comic Strip Center in Brussels. The fictionalized story didn’t quite live up to my expectations, but it’s an interesting work nevertheless.

“Battle for Rome”

Ian James Ross

This is the third book in the “Twilight of Empire” series that started with “War at the Edge of the World” and continued in “Swords Around the Throne“. The main character is Aurelius Castus, a Roman soldier in Britain in the 4th century AD as the series starts who eventually becomes tribune of a legion. Castus’ career parallels the rise of Constantine and the third book ends with Constantine’s defeat of Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 AD.

I’ve enjoyed this series so far. The period isn’t a common one for historical novels about the Roman Empire. There’s a lot of variety in the settings and Ross is particularly good at writing about battles, of which there are many. One thing I appreciated is that Castus isn’t all that bright. It’s not that he’s stupid, but unlike most heroes in historical fiction he makes mistakes and gets taken advantage of. Those failings make him seem a bit more real and a more sympathetic character.