Want some enlightening escapism? Try this ninja detective thriller set in 16th-century Japan

Betrayal at Iga

A Hiro Hattori Novel

Susan Spann

Seventh Street Books, paperback

In this fifth novel in Susan Spann’s Hiro Hattori series, danger starts on page one and doesn’t let up until almost the very end.

Set in 16th-century Japan, the series focuses on Hiro Hattori, a master ninja from the Iga province who once refused a commander’s orders and is now serving what is supposed to be a long, humiliating punishment. Hiro is tasked with protecting a Portuguese Jesuit priest named Father Mateo, who, at first, speaks insufficient Japanese and doesn’t understand how easily he could be hurt or killed for inadvertently blundering over an important local custom or taboo.

During the four previous books of the series, Hiro grudgingly has been helping Father Mateo get a better grip on feudal Japan, its rulers, its warlords and its strict and unforgiving social order. Along the way, the ninja and the priest also have been thrust into situations where they have had to work together to solve some murders.

In Betrayal at Iga, Father Mateo now is more knowledgeable and comfortable with being in Japan, speaking its language and reaching a few Christian converts. And Hiro has recognized that the foreign priest is an honorable man in his own way. Hiro now admits that he and Father Mateo have become friends. But it is a time of trouble, so he and the Portuguese Jesuit have had to take refuge among Hiro’s clan. And, in their “safety,” they soon discover they are sheltering in a village where many people are trained assassins.

Indeed, when an ambassador from a neighboring clan appears and tries to negotiate a peace agreement with Iga, he is poisoned during a welcoming dinner and dies right in front of Hiro and Father Mateo.

If the killer is not found soon, war may break out between the ninjas of each clan. Or Hiro and Father Mateo themselves may be killed. No pressure at all on the two investigators!

The author, Susan Spann, has a degree in Asian history and has maintained a lifelong fascination with Japanese history and culture. She has an excellent eye for detail and creates believable settings and scenes without bogging down her smooth writing. She also has her characters speak with straightforward, accessible dialogue.

Betrayal at Iga is fine escapism: a 16th-century ninja detective procedural. The story also offers subtle and absorbing lessons in Japanese history, geography, customs, warfare, love, honor and friendship.

It’s five-star reading and definitely recommended if you are looking for something well beyond an ordinary detective thriller.

Si Dunn

 

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WRATH OF THE FURIES: Roman detective Gordianus the Finder tries to go undercover amid angry Greeks bearing arms – #bookreview

 

Wrath of the Furies

A Novel of the Ancient World

Steven Saylor

Minotaur Books – hardback, Kindle

As a young student, I deliberately avoided the ancient world—all of those armless and headless statues, magnificent carved-stone structures collapsed into rubble, “wonders of the world,” and gods and goddesses who allegedly had both magical powers and human frailties.

Now that I am somewhat older (okay, a lot older), I have read several of the 15 novels in Steven Saylor’s popular Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries. The series features a clever Roman investigator known as Gordianus the Finder. Gordianus is a fictional character, but he encounters many of the ancient world’s real-life kings, queens, generals, political leaders and other figures while trying to solve murders and other crimes.

Thanks to Saylor’s expertise and irrepressible enthusiasm for ancient Roman and Greek times, I have found myself both enjoying his engaging fiction and pausing now and then to look up more about the people, places, things, and customs that Gordianus is encountering in each book. In other words, I am learning some eye-opening things about the ancient world and wishing I had gotten an earlier start.

In Saylor’s new novel, Wrath of the Furies, set in 88 B.C., Gordanius is a young man of just 22 and still somewhat subject to youth’s reckless belief in invincibility.  He receives a cryptic message, apparently a distress signal, from his former tutor and friend, Antipater, and decides to sneak into Greek-held territory to try to rescue him. Of course, this is at a dangerous moment. Greek forces led by the brutal King Mithridates are taking back Greek-speaking cities previously held by the Roman Empire. Some of Italy’s states also are revolting against Rome. So now is not a good time to be Roman detective snooping around amid angry Greeks bearing arms.

It is also not a good time for travelling with your slave (and lover), Bethesda, while trying to disguise yourself as a mute so your Roman-accented Greek won’t give you away. And it is an especially bad time to be going to the ancient Greek-speaking city of Ephesus (where King Mithridates now holds the home-court advantage), particularly when you don’t realize that sinister and powerful forces are drawing you in, and you must solve the mystery of Antipater’s message before it gets you and others killed.

Wrath of the Furies is a fine addition to Steven Saylor’s excellent Roma Sub Rosa ancient history-mystery series.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

Journey to the Wilderness: A family’s Civil War letters about hope, honor, love, sacrifice, and the despair of death and defeat – #bookreview

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Journey to the Wilderness

War, Memory, and a Southern Family’s Civil War Letters

Frye Gaillard

New South Bookspaperback, Kindle

The Civil War ended 150 years ago. Yet, it remains alive in many aspects of American culture and politics.

For those of us who grew up in the South in the 1940s and 1950s, it was not uncommon to have elderly relatives who had been small children during the war and who still remembered some of the conflict and how it affected their families. It also was not uncommon to hear the war described as if the South had not been defeated. (Indeed, my elementary school was named after Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and I attended infamous Little Rock Central High at the time when it was forced to re-open and admit black students under the protection of paratroopers sent by  President Eisenhower).

Journey to the Wilderness is structured around an intimate, engrossing collection of Civil War-era letters. They were written by some of Frye Gaillard’s ancestors, including his great-great-grandfather, Thomas Gaillard, and Thomas’s sons, Franklin Gaillard and Richebourg Gaillard, both of whom were officers in the Confederate army.

The letters eloquently capture the high hopes of Southerners as the long fight begins. Then the grim realities of mid-19th-century warfare begin to hit home. As the war stretches out in duration, some of the Gaillards’ letters from the front lines continue to praise the gallantries of Southern infantry and artillery batteries, even in defeat, while condemning the apparent ineffectiveness of Southern cavalry units in certain battles.

At the same time, the two Confederate officers spare few details when describing deaths and injuries witnessed during combat, in such notable battles as Shiloh, Gettysburg, Sharpsburg, and the Wilderness.

The family letters in his book, Frye Gaillard writes, “help paint a portrait of a horrifying time in American history, a time when 622,000 soldiers died on American soil, and when the southern half of the nation–so righteous and defiant when the conflict began–experienced a loss that was measured not only in blood but also in what one of my ancestors called the ‘cruelty and humiliation’ of defeat.”

Frye Gaillard also devotes part of his important book to his own “reflections on war and memory–on how the past lives on in the present, and how it draws us, slowly if we let it, in the painful direction of a more honest truth.”

For anyone drawn to Civil War history and to the conflict’s continuing ramifications, this book is a gem to seek out and read.

Si Dunn

A Home for Wayward Boys: Keeping juvenile offenders in line…with God, rifles and a marching band – #bookreview

 

Home for Wayward Boys

A Home for Wayward Boys

The Early History of the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School

Jerry C. Armor

NewSouth Books – paperback, Kindle

Early in the 20th century, male juvenile offenders in Alabama sometimes were sent to the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School (ABIS), near Birmingham, rather than put into prison with adults. Their crimes ranged from manslaughter to smoking cigarettes as minors. A number of orphans, runaways and victims of broken families also ended up there.

Opened in 1900, the ABIS was a not a “reform school” in the typical sense. The boys’ school had been founded by a dedicated, driven and religious woman, Elizabeth Johnston. And it operated with a very unusual structure: its board of directors consisted entirely of women, at a time when women still could not vote in elections and mostly were expected to just stay home and not get involved in business and politics.

As the ABIS grew, so did what it offered to “wayward boys.” At first, it mainly provided food, a rustic but safe place to sleep, religious services and some hard work doing farming, repairs and other tasks on the school’s sprawling acreage. Soon, however, the ABIS began stressing military discipline and training, too–indeed, issuing army-style uniforms and rifles to young juvenile offenders who had been sent to ABIS by Alabama judges. Then a military marching band evolved and expanded, and it eventually led a parade in Birmingham for President Theodore Roosevelt, played with the U.S. Marine Band in Washington, D.C., and appeared at numerous other events.

As the ABIS gained more buildings and staff, it began offering education in a variety of trades, including tailoring and sewing, painting, barbering, sheet metal work, bakery work, and radio repair.

Many of the youths sent to ABIS as offenders turned their lives around and graduated, and some earned outstanding combat records in World War I and World War II. Some even came back to teach and administrate at ABIS.

Jerry C. Armor’s book is an eye-opening and uplifting look at the 75-year history of the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School. He places a special emphasis on the school’s difficult formative years, as well as on funny, sad and strange anecdotes about how some of the youths ended up there.

Armor details how one woman who sensed she was following God’s calling fearlessly lobbied the Alabama governor and state legislature and begged businesses and various organizations for funds and supplies to start the school and keep it running and growing. And he tells the stories of key leaders within the school who helped it survive and thrive during its colorful, yet little-known, history.

A federal law enacted in the 1970s established the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. And that new agency’s “policies, standards, and recommendations…drastically changed how states dealt with troubled youth,” Armor writes. In 1975, he notes, the Alabama Department of Youth Services assumed control of the ABIS and several other facilities in the state.” The campus soon was renamed, and its programs were changed to meet the new requirements.

Armor’s book includes a call to action for citizens of Alabama who are concerned about today’s high rate of recidivism (70%) for juvenile offenders in their state. The rate was considerably lower, he notes, for the youths sent to the Alabama Boys’ Industrial School.

 — Si Dunn

Tinsley Harrison, M.D., Teacher of Medicine: An inspiring biography of a dedicated physician – #bookreview

Tinsley Harrison, M.D.: Teacher of Medicine

James A. Pittman Jr., M.D.

(NewSouth Books – hardback, Kindle)

Dr. Tinsley Randolph Harrison is an important figure in 20th-century American medicine, and both his legacy and his influence live on in 21st-century health care.

Before his death in 1978, Dr. Harrison taught medicine for 54 years and was fond of telling medical students and other doctors: “Learning is more a matter of the heart than the brain.”

Dr. Harrison also was a medical researcher, and he wrote and edited the first five editions of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, which, by some estimates, has been the best-selling medical book of all time. During his long career, Dr. Harrison served as dean at three medical schools: Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., Southwestern Medical College in Dallas, Tex., and the University of Alabama School of Medicine.

This well-written and inspiring biography not only traces Dr. Harrison’s young life and his rise to prominence as a seventh-generation physician. It also presents sometimes shocking looks at the state and practice of medicine in the Deep South during the racially segregated 1950s and 1960s, as well as some of the significant improvements that have occurred in recent decades.

Tinsley Harrison, M.D.: Teacher of Medicine can be enjoyed by physicians, medical researchers, medical administrators and medical students, as well as by fans of biographies in general. The book gives good insights into how some successful people choose their careers and how they work their way to success and prominence in their field.

Si Dunn

Twelve American Wars: Nine of Them Avoidable – Eugene G. Windchy’s new book is a true “must read” – #bookreview

Twelve American Wars: Nine of Them Avoidable

Eugene G. Windchy

(iUniverse – paperback, Kindle)

You may not agree with every opinion, conclusion or finding expressed in this book, but it is a remarkable work that definitely should be read and given thoughtful consideration.

Twelve American Wars: Nine of Them Avoidable offers eye-opening looks at how the United States has blundered, pushed itself or gotten itself dragged into a dozen different wars between the late 1700s and today and how three-fourths of those wars could have been avoided.

Eugene G. Windchy is a superb researcher, and his well-known book Tonkin Gulf has long had special meaning for me. I spent nearly a year in the South China Sea and Tonkin Gulf aboard a destroyer, starting three days after the still-controversial Tonkin Gulf incidents in 1964. I was amazed at what Windchy was able to dig up about those “attacks” and what they ultimately helped trigger: massive expansion of the Vietnam War. Much of what he reported jibed strongly with what I knew and had experienced, but I was forbidden, for many years, to discuss my involvement because of secrecy restrictions.

Windchy’s new book quickly digs beneath the short, glossy, generally laudatory paragraphs we have read in American history textbooks. Indeed, you may be both amazed and distressed when you ponder his descriptions of how and why a dozen significant wars involving the United States actually got started and how at least nine of the wars realistically could have been avoided.

Si Dunn

The Sun is God – Adrian McKinty takes readers well off the beaten path with this new historical mystery – #bookreview

 

The Sun is God

Adrian McKinty

Seventh Street Books – Kindle, paperback

Take a weird but true exotic setting. Throw in some real people and real murders. Add to the mix a fictional investigator: Will Prior, an ex-military police lieutenant who deliberately got himself cashiered from the British army during the Boer War following a deadly clash with African prisoners. Wrap it all up with a (very) surprising ending.

The Sun is God, Adrian McKinty’s new historical mystery, likely will please and amaze many readers. Trying to track down a murderer in a 1906 German nudist colony off the coast of New Guinea is a stunning and challenging departure from his Detective Sean Duffy trilogy set in the urban battles and enormous tensions of Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

McKinty is in fine form in this book as he offers up a complicated crime story set within a little-remembered slice of pre-World War I history: Part of New Guinea, north of Australia, was a German colony in the year 1906.

It is here that Will Prior is now living with his “servant girl,” Siwa, amid the colony’s failing banana, rubber and tea plantations.  While still willing to swear allegiance to the British Empire, Will now lives under German rule. So, when a German army officer, Captain Hauptmann Kessler, comes to his house one day, Will fears that it is to take back the money Germany previously loaned him to become a plantation owner. Instead, Will learns that the colony’s governor wants him, because of his past military police experience, to go with Captain Kessler to an island where some German nudists claim to have discovered the secret of immortality.

One of the immortals, unfortunately, has suddenly turned up quite dead. And while the nudists claim the victim died in his bed from malaria, an official autopsy in the capital of German New Guinea has revealed something quite different: the victim drowned and had bruise marks consistent with a struggle.

Things quickly get even more strange after Will and Kessler arrive and have to camp amid the nudists and share their dangerous diet while they attempt to find clues. There’s sex, yes, and drugs. (But the novel is set 50 years before Elvis Presley, so no rock ‘n’ roll.)  And, once danger erupts for the two investigators, they can’t call for backup, and they definitely can’t hide — not on a very small island that boats seldom visit, because it’s thought to be haunted.

Si Dunn