Book Reviews

Enzan The Far Mountain: A Connor Burke Martial Arts Thriller
In this fifth book in the Connor Burke martial arts thriller series, John Donohue breaks some new ground. Throughout Burke’s newest adventure, Donohue weaves the story of Burke’s sensei, Yamashita, as a young man. He looks at issues of loyalty, obedience and impetuousness while telling an edge-of-your-seat story involving kidnapping and the Korean mafia. As always Donohue gives us a meaty story that can be read as a darn good thriller, or as a study in human nature, or as a commentary on the traditions and inner workings of the martial art. Pick it up on Friday night when you don’t have to be at work Saturday morning. If you’re like me, you’ll be up half the night reading “just one more chapter.”

Battle Hymn of the Tiger MotherBattle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother requires a certain flexibility of thought. The premise involves contrasting “American parents” and “Chinese parents” using experiences from Chua’s life bringing up her two daughters. But the narrative opens a hornet’s nest of questions: What is the purpose of childhood? Can what is deemed cruel in one culture be kind in another? If you had to choose between enjoying your life and doing something special with your life, is one choice more moral than the other? What if the choice was not for your own life but for your child’s?

If Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was an easy book for you to read and process, you probably missed most of the nuance. The characters’ lives are filled with mindless simplification: sweeping generalizations, unwarranted dramatics, blind ambition, and false dichotomies. Chua does not appear to be a very reflective subtle person until you realize that in writing the book she is being very subtle and reflective about her lack of subtlety. Then you realize that your own response is not a simple response to a narrative but also a knee-jerk reaction to your own life as both a parent and a child.

Read it with your fiance, with your teenaged child, with your mother after you are grown and out on your own. Then talk. It asks for reflection and conversation, not just a gut response (though you will probably have one of those, too).

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Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid’s Memoir That Inspired “Upstairs Downstairs” and “Downton Abbey” by Margaret Powell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The cover of the book compares Below Stairs to “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs, Downstairs.” In fact, the image of Daisy, the kitchen maid in “Downton Abbey” kept floating through my mind as I read. But what this book has that the two series don’t is a closely wrought picture of the life and heart of a kitchen maid. We see images of young Margaret, new to service, polishing the front door brass until her hands swell with chillblains, only to be dragged in front of the mistress of the house for a dressing down regarding the bits she missed. In Margaret Powell’s stories, we see not only how tough the work was, but the toughness of mind and the emotional calluses that she needed to form to do that work. She tells the story in simple, straightforward, almost childlike prose, but the detailed pictures she painted drew me in and made me ask the question of whether I could have survived the work and the indignities as well as she did.

Susan Lynn Peterson
author of Clare: A Novel
a story of Irish immigration in the early 20th century

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Dukkha: The SufferingDukkha: The Suffering by Loren W. Christensen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Not many people can write both fiction and nonfiction well. Loren Christensen can. I’ve been reading his nonfiction for some time now, and have always found it straight-forward and informative. His new novel, Dukkha, has a similar no-nonsense feel to it. His fight scenes are hard and realistic, and so is his look at the inner world of his protagonist, a cop suffering after having to shoot someone in the line of duty. I don’t normally read thrillers, but I picked this one up because of my interest in martial arts. I have to admit I lost a couple hours of sleep to it. I had that much trouble putting it down. It’s a nicely done debut novel.

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When I was a beginning student sometimes high ranking black belts would come to the dojo to visit, teach, or train. I discovered that if you hung around after class and asked a few leading questions, sometimes the visiting black belt would open a new world to you: stories about his teachers or about masters now gone, techniques for strengthening a particular part of the body, martial philosophy and psychology, new ways of looking at old techniques, or challenges to think about and test yourself against. Shin Gi Tai: Karate Training for Body, Mind, and Spirit is like having Michael Clarke visit the dojo and drop all these things and more in your lap. It is an eclectic book containing everything from training techniques to history, background on why karate-ka do what they do to commentary on modern trends in the martial arts. Mostly it is a chance to hang out with a senior martial artist and to listen to him talk about the many-facets world of karate. I will be mulling over his insights for months to come.

The Way of the Sword (Young Samurai Series #2)The Way of the Sword by Chris Bradford

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read the first two in the Young Samurai
Series. Let me say, first of all, that I enjoyed them. They are young adult books, but they are decent light reading for adults who don’t take their martial arts novels too seriously. They are, however, shameless in their cribbing of popular motifs.

The Young Samurai books are what you get when you cross James Clavell’s “Shogun” with the Harry Potter novels. See if this sounds familiar: a European stranded in Japan is adopted by a powerful samurai and becomes samurai himself. There are a stolen rutter, a Catholic priest complete with Japanese dictionary, ninja attacks and gifts of swords to cement alliances. There is also a teenaged boy with two friends, a boy and a girl, at a special boarding school, chased by an incredibly powerful adult, menaced by a boy at his school, facing trials to prove his skills. It’s Harry Potter with kimonos and katanas.

“The Way of the Sword” is, however, a good read. And though it is not a slave to cultural accuracy, it has more than just sword battles. A good chunk of it is devoted to mind-body training and the internal aspects of the martial arts. I’ll read the rest of the Young Samurai novels when they come to my local library’s digital collection. They’re interesting, exciting, and they make me want to get up and do kata.

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Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy #1)Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A very spotty book. I’ve always liked Ken Follett’s work. His “Pillars of the Earth

Kage: The Shadow A Connor Burke Martial Arts ThrillerKage: The Shadow A Connor Burke Martial Arts Thriller by John Donohue

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t read a lot of thrillers, but I’ve read all four of Donohue’s novels. Donohue’s characters don’t just wade in with guns blazing; they live with the consequences of their actions. His main character, Burke, a scholar and advanced martial artist, can deal with a tough situation–Donohue writes a good fight scene. Burke has the sardonic humor characteristic of the genre. He’s also a fully formed character with a family, a social life, a profession, and a fully developed range of opinions and quirks. But most importantly for me, he’s reflective. He brings not just his martial skill to a fight, but his martial philosophy and mind-body training. In other words, Donohue’s work has depth and texture.

In terms of depth and texture, “Kage” is probably Donohue’s best work yet. I finished the book in two days, recommended to everyone at my dojo, and am thinking about reading it again. It’s a really good read, and it’s much more than a really good read.

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A Wretched Man - A Novel of Paul the ApostleA Wretched Man – A Novel of Paul the Apostle by RW Holmen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As someone who’s self-published a novel, I know that self-published books have to work twice as hard to prove their worth. When I pick something up on Smashwords, I assume it will be bad until it proves that it’s worth reading. I came to “A Wretched Man” in that spirit. Within the first dozen pages, I knew that the author could write. It wasn’t long after that that I figured out that he also had something worthwhile to say.

“A Wretched Man” is not only a good read, it’s thought provoking and solidly researched. It’s not just a regurgitation of the Acts of the Apostles. In fact, in a couple of places there are slight inconsistencies between the two. But the two authors are doing two very different things with their text, so the differences didn’t bother me much. “A Wretched Man” wonders out loud, “What was Paul really like?” “Why did he seem to be such an extremist in certain areas of doctrine and practice?” The book will probably tick some people off, but then so did Paul.

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Facing Violence: Preparing for the UnexpectedFacing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected by Rory Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you teach martial arts or self defense, especially if you teach young men, you must read Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected. It covers the dynamics of violence, both violence perpetrated by social predators and violence that stems from social posturing and dominance behavior (the “monkey dance”).
As an author, I have a lot of respect for Sgt. Miller’s writing abilities. The book is nicely structured and tightly written. The style matches the content perfectly–clear, straightforward, no-nonsense. As a martial artist who hasn’t been in the trenches, I am grateful for his insights and examples. Sgt. Miller, as a protector of society, has seen it all. Because he has seen it all and has thoroughly processed it for himself, he is able to describe it to us members of society who sincerely hope we never see any of it. I have read a several books of its kind, and this one is hands-down the best. He has written an emergency book–what do do when faced with real-world violence–that will undoubtedly save lives.
As an aside, I have a request for his next book: facing domestic violence. This book addresses predator violence and dominance behavior violence. It’s outstanding in the way it addresses the kind of violence men (and some women) face. Next, I’d like to see Miller’s take on male-female violence, particularly between intimates.

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