As you can probably tell from elsewhere in this website, I'm pretty much a history nut. My college majors were in history, both European and American, so I have a great interest in the subject.

A Few Good Reads

Below are several book reviews I've written for other websites. They all are historical fiction and are books that I've enjoyed quite a lot. Maybe you will too.

Byzantium by Stephen R. Lawhead


a review by Kathie Courtney

I was very excited when I first saw the title of Stephen Lawhead's latest novel. I had enjoyed his Pendragon Cycle and have a real interest in things Byzantine. I was somewhat dismayed, however, after delving into the book, to find that it had very little to do with the eastern empire and much more to do with Celts, Vikings and Saracens.

The story deals with an Irish priest, Aidan, who undertakes a dangerous journey to Byzantium to deliver the Book of Kells to the emperor. Along the way he has many adventures and misadventures that lead him from Scandinavia to Russia to the lands of the Arabs. He does finally find his way to Byzantium, but spends little time there. On his journey he meets some pretty fantastic characters, from Viking chieftains to Saracen kings. Pretty good for a little, Irish scribe.

So, was I disappointed? Yes and no. Yes, I would have liked to learn more about 10th century Constantinople, its court and intrigues, although Lawhead gives readers a fair taste of these, but the title is a tease. The book is not about Byzantium. It is Aidan's story, pure and simple. I was not however, disappointed. This book is a very good read. It's 600+ pages give a real taste for life in the 10th century, and are full of fascinating characters. Lawhead is a master storyteller and holds the credentials of a scholar. (He now lives in Oxford, where he is researching Celtic life.)

Pick up Byzantium if you have a real interest in the Middle Ages. You will not be disappointed. With any luck, Lawhead's next tome will be entitled Eire and will deal with the eastern empire! There's hope.

Gods and Generals
The Killer Angels
The Last Full Measure

by Jeff and Michael Shaara

Reviewed by Kathie Courtney

The Civil War is hot again. Movies such as Gettysburg and Ken Burns' PBS series The Civil War have breathed new life into what was once considered a tired subject. Compared to the ache of Vietnam and the clinical technology of Desert Storm, the American Civil War seems to be a nobler war, a kinder, gentler war, if you will.

Michael Sharra wrote The Killer Angels in 1974, a book that won the Pulizer Prize in Literature in 1975. It is a war novel with a heart that involves the reader intimately in the Battle of Gettysburg through the eyes of not only the commanding generals, but also lesser-known soldiers. It is a work of fiction, but one teaches while it entertains. Shaara has done his homework. Jumping from one historical personage to the other on both sides of the battlefield, he looks at more than the maps. He crawls into the minds of those who made the decisions for the battle the decided the war. Foremost among Shaara's memorable characters is Joshua Chamberlain, a quiet professor from Maine who inspires his men to hold the key position of Little Round Top. Chamberlain's thoughtful portrayal draws the reader into the story which is far more than lines on a map.

Sadly, Michael Shaara died in 1988, but his love of history lived on in his son Jeff who, fondly remembering summer tours of Civil War battlefields, set out to write a history of his own. In " Gods and Generals Jeff Shaara begins at the beginning of the war and, like his father, chooses players from each side to tell his story. He portrays the great Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, a brilliant, rigid commander, the gentlemanly Robert E. Lee, and, once again, Joshua Chamberlain, as they were before the War of Succession broke out. This book ends with the Battle of Gettysburg, making way for Michael Shaara's Killer Angels.

The Last Full Measure, also by Jeff Shaara, finishes the story with the final struggles of the Confederate Army around Richmond and the surrender at Appomatox. As in his previous book, Shaara captures not only the brilliance of the military chess game played by Lee and Grant, but also the human side of battle. Again, Chamberlain plays an important role, this time as a general, as readers witness the pain and futility of war through his eyes.

I would strongly recommend this series of books to anyone with an interest in the Civil War or military history, and especially to those who prefer their history with a human face. All three volumes can be found on the adult fiction shelves of the library.

Murder and Mayhem in the Middle Ages

Death Comes as Epiphany by Sharan Newman
The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb

reviewed by Kathie Courtney

Theft, heresy, murder? Modern crimes? Nay, verily! Old as time and still fascinating for mystery readers. Lately it has been popular to set murder mysteries in historical time periods, allowing both writer and reader to revel in both the puzzle and the atmosphere of the time. I am not a great mystery reader, but I am a student of the Middle Ages, and that is what attracts me to works such as Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael series. In the same genre are the books of two women, Sharan Newman and Candace Robb. Both are accomplished writers, Newman of fantasy and Robb of historical fiction. In their mystery series they combine these interests with mysteries, with quite interesting results.

Sharan Newman, in her Catherine LeVendeur series, follows a young, French female scholar from her convent days through her life as a wife and mother. Catherine, a very headstrong young woman, always manages to be the center of trouble. In the first book of the series, Death Comes as Epiphany, Catherine, a novice at the Paraclete, the convent of famed scholar Heloise - of Heloise and Abelard fame - becomes embroiled in the search for a stolen manuscript, the publication of which could bring doom to Mother Heloise and Abbot Peter Abelard. Strong-willed Catherine risks the wrath of her merchant father, the Church and society in general to solve the mystery. Always a good read, Newman's books show an interesting facet of Medieval life not seen often in literature: that of Jewish culture.

lovers03 Candace Robb takes a different track with her main character Owen Archer, hero of at least five mysteries. Owen is a King's Archer, forced to retire after an injury. He finds himself on call to solve mysteries around the medieval city of York, England. Along with his wife Lucie, an apothocary and healer, Owen always gets his man. In The Lady Chapel, the second book of the series, Owen is called upon to solve the mystery of the severed hands and the murder of a powerful members of the merchant guild. Robb, like Newman, does exhaustive research for her settings and characters. Readers really feel that they are living in 14th century England. While I don't identify quite as much with Robb's Owen as I do with Newman's Catherine, this is still a very entertaining book and series.

The above books are available at your public library. Stop in and take a look!
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