Book Review Roundup: War And Shakespeare

04/25/2011 01:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 25, 2011

"1861: The Civil War Awakening" by Adam Goodheart

Not everyone will be enamored of “1861.” Some will object that it concentrates too much on the white men of the North, giving short shrift to women, blacks and Southerners. Readers hoping for a conventional war story might be put off by the book’s peripatetic structure. Skeptics may look askance at Goodheart’s unabashed optimism and open admiration of the Union cause in spite of the many ways it would fall short of its most noble goals. But readers who take “1861” on its own passionate, forthright terms will find it irresistible. And for those who don’t like this Civil War book, well, just wait — there are plenty more to come.

"Wingshooters" by Nina Revoyr

The novel's horrible climax and final scene are shocking, almost too shocking to be believed as Earl becomes the embodiment of pure evil. The contrast of his twisted nature with the somewhat stereotyped nobility of the Garretts is a flaw in "Wingshooters," though not a fatal one. Otherwise, the narration and pace of this novel are expertly calibrated as it explores a topic one wishes still wasn't so current.

"You Think That's Bad" by Jim Shepard

However ugly these guys are, Shepard's own prose never fails to be devastatingly handsome, accreting hard particles of technical description and tough-mouthed man-talk before reaching a lyrical climax that tends to involve the whiteout of real or imagined death. And if Shepard's thematic soundtrack can rumble a bit portentously at times, the subtly pinging connections between the stories keep the reader from wandering out for more popcorn before the next mini-feature starts.

"The Physician" by Noah Gordon

Vivid descriptions permeate throughout the book such that one gets the feeling of actually being in the dusty streets of ancient Isfahan skirting legless beggars and camel dung. An insightful and unforgettable read.

"The Tragedy of Arthur" by Arthur Phillips

Although the title contains the word "tragedy," there's much in the book that's comic, and maybe in the end it's the novelistic equivalent of a Shakespearean "problem play." Certainly, it contains literary echoes of Nabokov, Stoppard and even the Thomas Pynchon of "The Crying of Lot 49" (containing his Jacobean pastiche "The Courier's Tragedy"). I don't think these comparisons are unmerited. This is the real deal: You just can't fake this stuff.

"Field Gray" by Philip Kerr

Sometimes I tire of novels about the Nazis. For lazy writers, Hitler and his minions are an easy symbol of evil, one they find more useful than jihadist terrorists, drug lords and serial killers. But Kerr resurrects the past to remind us that the fascist mentality endures, all over the world, even though swastikas and jackboots are no longer its outward trappings.

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