Blish, James. A Case of Conscience.

NY: Walker, 1958.

James Blish was one of the more intellectual science fiction authors of the mid-20th century and this is probably his most important work, for which he won a Hugo in 1959. “Religion in science fiction” leads most fans to think of A Canticle for Leibowitz, published at about the same time, but there the Catholic Church was simply the background for a post-holocaust plot line. Blish — who was a thoroughgoing agnostic at the least — is more interested in actual questions of theology. And that makes for a fascinating and involving story. Moreover, it’s only the first of his four books on similar themes.

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Kleid, Neil & Nicolas Cinquegrani. The Big Kahn.

NY: NBM Publishing, 2009.

The author and artist of this graphic novel are both new to me, though they seem to have a body of work already on the market. It’s kind of a strange one, too. The story opens with the funeral of Rabbi David Kahn, who helped establish New York’s Congregation Beth Shemesh, served as its leader for many years, and was a noted figure in the community. And his eldest son, Avi, presently his father’s assistant, is the obvious choice for the job.

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Published in: on 24 November 2017 at 5:32 am  Leave a Comment  
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Eisner, Will. Life, in Pictures: Autobiographical Stories.

NY: Norton, 2007.

Eisner is very much the godfather of the modern graphic novel. There’s a reason the field’s most important award is named for him. This fat compilation volume brings together five previously published pieces, two of them quite long, which are drawn from his own life and ancestry — and if not entirely in a factual sense, then in tone and in general approach.

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Gaiman Neil. Norse Mythology.

NY: Norton, 2017.

Like Gaiman — like most of the geekier sort of adolescent boys, in fact — I went through a period of reading everything I could find about mythology as a kid, beginning with Edith Hamilton’s classic work on the Greeks and Romans. But, also like Gaiman, I developed a strong preference for the Nordic deities — Odin, the All-Father, who is very wise but can’t be trusted, and Thor, not the sharpest god in Asgard but a good person to have on your side, and especially Loki, who seems the most human of the gods with his talent for making mischief. And there’s Ragnarok, the final battle in which the gods will be destroyed so that the world can start over again.

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Harris, Robert. Conclave.

NY: Knopf, 2016.

I’m not Catholic — I’m not really a believer of any kind, in fact — but I am interested in the anthropology of power, and I know from experience that Harris always tells a good story, so I was willing to give this one a try and I’m glad I did. Set just a couple of years from now, it’s about the struggle for succession following the death of a pope who is obviously meant to be Francis.

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Published in: on 11 September 2017 at 2:08 am  Leave a Comment  
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Harris, Robert. An Officer and a Spy.

NY: Knopf, 2013.

Harris is very good at thoughtful, carefully researched historical novels, whether they’re set in ancient Rome or in the 20th century. This time, he undertakes to tell the story of Alfred Dreyfus, Alsatian Jew and captain in the French army in the 1890s, who was accused and convicted of treason — spying for the Germans — and who was packed off to Devil’s Island (reopened especially for him) as an object lesson to everyone else.

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Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

NY: Liveright, 2015.

Until recently, Beard wasn’t that well-known outside the world of academic classicists, her occasional appearances on BBC notwithstanding. Then this engaging and engrossing volume of her thoughts on the Roman republic and the early empire came out after (literally) fifty years in the making, and everyone’s reading it. She may have done more for popular interest in ancient Rome than any writer since Gibbon.

First, she makes it clear that this is not a complete history of the 1,500 years of Rome’s existence in various forms. She’s interested mostly in the city’s establishment and the slow, nearly mythical formation of the Republic from its period of what were essentially warlords and gangsters. And she ends with Caracalla’s extension of citizenship to all free people within the empire in 212 CE, because after that it was an entirely different game with different rules, and not really “Roman” any more.

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Black, Benjamin. Christine Falls.

NY: Henry Holt, 2006.

For anyone who doesn’t already know, “Benjamin Black” is the nom de crime of Irish novelist John Banville, and this was his first mystery novel featuring Quirke, a decidedly quirky forensic pathologist in Dublin in the 1950s, when the Church ran absolutely everything. But even though this is a “detective story,” it’s nothing at all like what Michael Connelly or Lawrence Block might write.

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Cole, Allan & Chris Bunch. The Wolf Worlds.

NY: Ballantine, 1984.

This is the second volume in the mostly military adventures of Karl Sten in the 40th century, and it’s very well done space opera. The Eternal Emperor controls a vast amount of space and several thousand inhabited planets and that requires not only a huge army but the much smaller Mantis teams for quiet surgical operations.

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Published in: on 23 October 2016 at 9:04 am  Leave a Comment  
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Holland, Cecelia. Rakossy.

NY: Atheneum, 1967.

I’ve been a big fan of Holland’s historical novels almost the appearance of her first book, written while she was still a college undergraduate and published shortly after she graduated. This is her second novel, written when she was twenty-one.

The year is 1523 and Janos Rakossy is master of Hart Castle, in the foothills to the east of the wide Hungarian Plain. Just beyond his closely-held territory are the Turks, who are making their way farther into Eastern Europe with each passing year — but this is where they will be stopped if Rakossy and the other Magyar barons have any say in it.

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