Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “history”

Katie’s #CBR4 Review #43: The Virtues of War

Title: The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great
Author: Steven Pressfield
Read for: Ancient and Medieval Historical Fiction
Source: library
Rating: ★★★★☆
Review Summary: Immersive story which will draw you into Alexander’s era and into some very cool speculation on his personality, based on historical accounts.

The Virtues of War is the perfect mix of fact and fiction to make a good book. The author clearly did his research and uses accurate details to form a fascinating picture of life around 320BC.  However, as he states in the introduction, he’s also able to take liberties with the facts and put battles and speeches in the order which makes the best narrative. Best of all, the book is told as though Alexander is speaking to a nephew, leading to what I think are some of the major strengths of this book.

Read more on Doing Dewey.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #37: The Holy Thief by William Ryan

This is the first in what promises to be an excellent detective series from Irish writer William Ryan. His protagonist, Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev, is a detective with the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division in 1936. That little tidbit of information alone had me hook, line, and sinker. I love detective novels and I have a PhD in Russian/Soviet history (actually did my dissertation on early Soviet prisons and penal theory). I knew I would either love this book or hate it. It’s love! Ryan’s bibliography at the end shows that he did smart up-to-date research on politics and life in Soviet Russia on the eve of the Great Purges. I also really liked the way he portrayed Korolev as a man who believes in the Soviet system but slowly begins to question some things and knows that his own neck is on the line as he investigates a series of brutal torture/murders that seem to somehow involve the NKVD — Stalin’s secret police.

The novel opens with a description of the torture and eventual death of a woman in a church told from the point of view of the torturer. Whoever the woman is, she is refuses to talk. The identity of the torturer is also a mystery, but he has been given sanction to torture the woman to death from “the highest levels.”  When the body is discovered the next day, the case falls to Korolev, but he soon receives contact from Col. Gregorin of the NKVD and the criminal case becomes a complicated political case. Korolev has to walk a tightrope between the criminal and political divisions of law enforcement to find the killer(s).

Ryan has created a great group of supporting characters for Korolev to work with. His CID boss General Popov is respected by his men but has been accused of a lack of vigilance by political enemies. The coroner Dr. Zinaida Chestnova and crime scene photographer Gueginov can tease details from a crime scene and a dead body that the average investigator might miss. Count Kolya is the “prince of thieves” in Moscow. Korolev’s sidekick Lt. Semionov seems very young but has interesting contacts around the city. The lovely Valentina Koltsova and her daughter Natasha share a flat with Korolev and are wary, given his occupation. And renowned writer Isaac Babel happens to live in the same building and helps Korolev in unexpected ways.

I absolutely love how Ryan shows street life in Moscow 1936. His description of the scene at a soccer match was brilliant, from the details about the architecture of the Hippodrome, a grand building falling into disrepair, to the gangs of youths trying to crash the gates. Ryan also nails criminal culture — how thieves rank themselves, interact with each other, their code, if you will. There is a passage on thief tattoos and their significance that is fascinating. Ryan also addresses the very real problem of orphans in Moscow in the ’30s, the result of political arrests that left children with no family and no home. Gangs of abandoned children banded together on Moscow streets and supported themselves through crime or else died of starvation and exposure. And no crime novel would be complete without some sort of chase scenes. My favorite is at the end of the story and involves a hot pursuit dangerously close to the annual parade celebrating the October Revolution, wherein large inflatable balloons representing life on the collective farm (think Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade) are released into the skies.

If you enjoy detective/crime novels, this is a good choice. The Holy Thief was shortlisted for several crime fiction awards. If you aren’t familiar with Soviet history, this is a well researched introduction to a regime known for its oppression and brutality. It looks like the second book is already out, too: The Darkening Fields (US version of The Bloody Meadow), also shortlisted for some awards.

faintingviolet’s #CBR4 review #35: Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell

In Unfamiliar Fishes Sarah Vowell brings to life the time in the history of the United States when it transforms into a world power for the first time and begins to most closely resemble the United States we have today.  Set with a Hawaiian backdrop Vowell explores the reality of missionaries and imperialistic conquests at the end of the Spanish-American War. And helps explain those land issues you didn’t understand while watching The Descendants.

Vowell accomplishes in her writing a goal I can only hope to dream of achieving. She makes history relatable and interesting while also doing the legwork and primary source research to substantiate the thesis. More here.

Krista’s #CBR4 Review #14 – 20, too many books to mention

You guys! I have totally hit 52 books (actually, just finished #53 tonight!) and have been thinking about how it is going to be impossible to write these dang reviews. But here I am, sitting down and doing it because I don’t want all of that reading to go to waste! Of the 53 books I’ve read, I’ve already reviewed 13 of thew (PHEW!) and tonight I got seven more reviews down (to varying degrees of reviewiness). Here are the links to the full reviews on my review blog:

14. You Have Seven Messages, Stewart Lewis
really, really wanted to like this novel. I was — and still am — in love with the concept. Conceptually, it is a great idea, and one that could work very well in the hands of a skilled writer. Unfortunately, Stewart Lewis is not that author and while I did enjoy, for the most part, reading this book, there were a lot of things that just. didn’t. work.

15. Between Shades of Gray, Ruta Sepetys
I’m no history buff and I don’t know a lot — if anything! — about this part of World War II and the Holocaust, but I really found this to be a well-written, touching novel. The level of human suffering that was experienced made my heart ache, and I wanted to find Sepetys personally and give her a giant hug.

16. Interrupted, Jen Hatmaker
I think this book nails the gospel message on the head. It’s funny, as per Jen’s usual MO, but it’s although amazingly thought-provoking. Jen shares some staggering statistics about poverty, orphans, and disease that exists not only in the world but in the US.

17. Mended, Angie Smith
Mended is Angie’s 3rd book and is pretty amazing. It’s a collection of blog posts written throughout the years, edited and condensed into a format that would work well for a book. Most of the chapters I’ve read before in their original blog format. Many people might find it kind of sucky to read a bunch of blog posts again, only in a book format, but I was really happy with the way this turned out. It was such an inspiration to read through these funny, honest, raw posts. I’m reminded time and time again that there are Christian authors whose works are not full of cheese and sap.

18. Christian History Made Easy, Timothy Paul Jones
This will be my most concise review ever.

19. Friends Forever, Danielle Steel
I don’t usually by Danielle Steel books because a) she is an awful writer and b) nope, mostly because she’s just an awful writer. I’ll read them if they were free from the library or from a friend, but for some reason I thought I’d read this. I’m not sure what possessed me to buy this one because I hadn’t read any especially heavy books before this, so… call it a moment of insanity.

20. The Condition, Jennifer Haigh
To be honest, I was initially disappointed when there wasn’t actually that much focus on Turner Syndrome as the description of the book made out, but after reflecting on what “the condition” even meant, I realized it was something that had so much more meaning than Gwen’s condition.

lyndamk #cbr4 review #18: George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis

The very long life of George F. Kennan. Read more at my blog.

Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #23: Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels

I’ve lived my whole life deep in the Bible Belt.  This is both amusing and frustrating for me as an agnostic.  Pretty much everything, everywhere is awash in religion and religious culture, from the t-shirts ahead of me in the checkout line to the fact that you can’t swing a cat without hitting a church of some kind.  Even the checkout person at the local liquor store isn’t above telling me to “have a blessed day” when I’m on the way out the door.

I dimly remember reading some of Revelation back when I was in high school, and again for a class in college, but I was not in any way familiar with it.  I picked this book up a while ago – it was on the shelf at the local library within reach of The Year of Living Biblically, which I reviewed a while back – and so I figured what the hell.

Revelation was written by a second-generation follower of Jesus named John of Patmos.  John was a Jew, but a Jew who had accepted the messianic nature of Jesus.  He was writing about 20 years after the Romans put down a bloody Jewish revolt in Judea and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem, and Pagels argues that much of John’s symbolic language is directed at the Roman Empire.  The book was intended as both a condemnation of the Romans and a promise to the Jews that the empire would, one day, get its comeuppance.

What fascinated me is how, in the following years, the interpretations of the book changed to reflect contemporary controversies.  When the early Christian movement – which was still largely Jewish – began seeing a large influx of Gentiles, the apocalyptic language was repurposed so that the Antichrist, et al referred to non-Jews.  Later, when Constantine the Great converted to Christianity and the faith began to spread throughout the empire, the church began to be divided by doctrinal differences and the “orthodox” factions declared that the Whore of Babylon symbolized heretical doctrine, and those who spread heresy were antichrists.

Needless to say, the book has been hugely controversial within the church practically since the ink dried.  It made it into the New Testament canon by the skin of its teeth, and mostly on its merits as a condemnation of non-orthodox beliefs.  And there it’s sat ever since, continuing to spawn off newer and newer interpretations as needed.

I found this book to be really fascinating, if a bit dry at times.  At a slender 246 pages, Pagels does a fine job of distilling the theological and social disputes of the early church into easily read chunks, and, with a few exceptions, the book moves along surprisingly quickly.  Overall, very nicely done.


Mrs Smith Reads The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke by Timothy Snyder, #CBR4 Review #19

The Red Prince is a book I read a blurb about somewhere and thought it sounded interesting and educational so I put it in my library queue. The book jacket also mentions that Archduke Wilhelm occasionally liked to wear dresses which piqued my interest even more. Archduke Wilhelm Franz of Austria, aka The Red Prince, was a nephew of Emperor Franz Joseph, cousin of Franz Ferdinand (the man, not the band) and he himself set forth from an early age with a plan to become ruler of a Ukrainian state.

I wasn’t disappointed by Timothy Snyder’s deeply researched history of the decline of the Habsburg empire over the course of two world wars, as it was cunningly disguised as the biography of a very wealthy bisexual with poor financial skills and delusions of grandeur. Wilhelm, prompted by his father the Archduke Karl Stefan, devised a plan to unite Ukrainian nationals in Eastern Europe and release them from German and Soviet control, all with an eye to becoming their presumptive leader—hopefully as a King, and failing that, military dictator would be OK too. Wilhelm liked hanging out with soldiers, especially dark-haired, exotic looking ones.

The Red Prince: The Secret Lives of a Habsburg Archduke by Timothy Snyder

faintingviolet’s #CBR4 review #27: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

I have a perverse sense of what constitutes good beach reading. I tend to stay away from the quick easy reads while sitting under my umbrella. The past two vacations I have spent on the beach I have opted for The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, and Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris. This review is about Ms. Skloot’s book inspired by HeLa cells and the woman who they came from.


Rebecca Skloot became familiar with HeLa cells, the first immortal cells ever reproduced in a lab during her college days. Finding herself mesmerized Skloot set out to discover the person behind cells. However, she discovers more than she anticipated over the course of several years of research. She discovered the story of Henrietta Lacks, born in the rural south to poor tobacco farmers and the family she created for herself in Turners Station, Maryland.


Skloot attacks the layers of the story by flipping back and forth through time and topics. This non-linear story could at times be confusing if not for Skloot’s perseverance in editing and the use of a timeline at the beginning of each chapter. This book is at once the story of Henrietta’s life, the science and discoveries enabled by the discovery of HeLa cells, and the changes in patient rights over the past 60 years.


This is a heavy, engaging read. Well worth your time.

Kemp Ridley’s #CBR4 Review #21 – Peter the Great: His Life and Times by Robert K. Massie

Although I’m a big fan of more recent Russian/Soviet history, I know next to nothing about their pre-Lenin story.  I picked this book up pretty randomly, mostly because I recognized Peter’s name and because it won a Pulitzer.  Randomness served me well, because it was pretty fantastic.

At the end of the 1600s Russia was still a largely medieval place.  The Renaissance never made it that far east, and the country was deep in thrall to an apparently limitless fear of modernization and, above all, of western Europe.  Into this frozen place steps 10-year-old Peter, who was appointed co-czar with his half-brother Ivan.  Peter very nearly didn’t survive childhood thanks to a palace coup led by his sister, Sophia, but survive he did, wresting power away from her in his late teens.

Peter is a hell of a character.  He stood a gargantuan six feet, seven inches at a time when most European men were under six feet tall. Peter enjoyed dressing as a laborer and working alongside his subjects in shipyards and on great construction projects. Even more horrifying to his subjects was his habit of rubbing shoulders with western European expatriates.  European ideas quickly took root in Peter’s mind, and he worked tirelessly to drag Russia into the modern world.  He reformed everything from the church to the military to women’s rights; women in Peter’s childhood were little more than prisoners in their own homes, yet in the next century four of its sovereigns were women (culminating in Catherine the Great).

The story of Peter’s exertions – and the rebellions and conspiracies they spawned – was fascinating.  I know very little of European history in this period, but Massie had me covered.  He took great pains to fill in the blanks and give context, complete with chapters that are mini-biographies of Charles XII and Louis XIV.  (And these intrusions were handled so organically that I never felt like I was being subjected to an exposition dump.)

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in either Russia or seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe.  Massie’s Catherine the Great and Nicholas and Alexandra just got added to my to-read list.


HelloKatieO’s #CBR4 Review #37: The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen

Sarah Addison Allen’s The Peach Keeper is a standard tale of secrets, gossip and female friendship set in the South.  Set in a small town in rural North Carolina, Willa Jackson breaks free of her family’s legacy through a series of high school pranks and later, by running a successful independent business. Paxton Osgood is set up as the classic Southern daughter; dutiful, highly involved in the town’s women society and planning the social event of the season.  As Paxton runs into a series of obstacles planning the gala and Willa falls for Paxton’s brother, both women discover they have more in common than they realized.

The book  is fairly heavy handed in its discussion of female friendship.  Paxton and Willa’s grandmothers bonded over a tragic series of events many years ago, and as those long-buried secrets come to light, Paxton and Willa forge their own bond.  A major theme in the book is rediscovering your roots, and your values, by learning to look past shallow distractions like status.

Keep reading…

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