Editor's Choice

The PerfectionistsClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Simon Winchester


The rise of manufacturing could not have happened without an attention to precision. At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in eighteenth-century England, standards of measurement were established, giving way to the development of machine tools - machines that make machines. Eventually, the application of precision tools and methods resulted in the creation and mass production of items from guns and glass to mirrors, lenses, and cameras - and eventually gave way to further breakthroughs, including gene splicing, microchips, and the Hadron Collider.

Simon Winchester takes us back to origins of the Industrial Age, to England where he introduces the scientific minds that helped usher in modern production: John Wilkinson, Henry Maudslay, Joseph Bramah, Jesse Ramsden, and Joseph Whitworth. It was Thomas Jefferson who later exported their discoveries to the fledgling United States, setting the nation on its course to become a manufacturing titan. Winchester moves forward through time, to today's cutting-edge developments occurring around the world, from America to Western Europe to Asia.

As he introduces the minds and methods that have changed the modern world, Winchester explores fundamental questions. Why is precision important? What are the different tools we use to measure it? Who has invented and perfected it? Has the pursuit of the ultra-precise in so many facets of human life blinded us to other things of equal value, such as an appreciation for the age-old traditions of craftsmanship, art, and high culture? Are we missing something that reflects the world as it is, rather than the world as we think we would wish it to be? And can the precise and the natural co-exist in society?

BookBrowse Review

We seek precision in our lives every day. We want to drive from home to work and work to home safely in a reliable car. During a brief stop at the grocery store, we want to find whatever we're looking for, so we don't have to spend more time than necessary shopping. We want the DVR to record what we want to watch so we can start watching when we want and fast-forward through the commercials. All of these require precision.

Simon Winchester knows this, and shares his love and knowledge of all things precise in The Perfectionists. He is especially interested in the precise engineering of GPS, computer chips, car assembly lines, modern-day jet engines, lenses, and even the Hubble Space Telescope. It all began with John Wilkinson (b. 1728), known as the father of precision engineering.

"Iron Mad" Wilkinson was a scion of the iron trade. He came by it naturally - his father was an ironworker and inventor. Wilkinson became consumed by the process and dedicated himself to learning the trade. Eventually he invented a way to manufacture iron cannons that he patented, and in 1774 they became a heralded technique: casting an iron cannon from a solid cylinder of iron rather than a hollow one, which allowed iron to come out of furnaces without air bubbles or "honeycomb problems," as they were called.

History marches on from there and Winchester is fascinated by all of it. Buoyed by his family's own experiences in precision engineering – in the waning years of his father's impressive career he made small motors designed "for the guidance systems of torpedoes" – Winchester deftly profiles such engineering luminaries as Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin; Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, founders of the Rolls-Royce car manufacturing firm; Henry Ford and the trial-and-error of his revolutionary assembly line; and Frank Whittle, who invented the first jet engine. And that's not even properly touching on the incredible process of making computer chips that have become smaller and smaller over the decades.

Besides these kinds of profiles, Winchester displays a practically superhuman range of technical knowledge. There's the sense that he's something of a perfectionist himself, not leaving any piece of information to chance, most likely double and triple-checking it. It's why the extensive computer chip-making process is the best section of the book. Some of the technical information is daunting, particularly when technology becomes more advanced than just interchangeable parts for guns, but Winchester keeps us with him. He understands that those who read The Perfectionists might not have as wide a grasp of the material and organizes his chapters into clear steps that (sometimes, admittedly, after a second read) make sense.

The only thing that becomes tiresome is a tic in Winchester's writing - he repeatedly reminds the reader that, while most of the inventions have been improved on in later years, they were revolutionary in their own time. For example, in a footnote regarding a metal-milling machine, he states, "Improvements made a long while ago can seem mundane and trivial with the benefit of contemporary sophistication but were critical in the evolution of precision engineering." If he had stated that only once it would have been fine. From today's vantage point we do have the benefit of hindsight. But he harps on this idea a few more times, at one point saying that "At the distance of eighty years, it is scarcely possible to appreciate the revolutionary novelty of this idea," as if it's not enough to just let history be history and simply show how it was done back then, trusting us to recognize that we are reading this in 2018 and have made gains beyond it.

However, that doesn't detract from the sheer breadth of what Winchester achieves here. This is compelling science that never flags; it's a tonic for those who wish for a temporary reprieve from the chaos of daily life. It is a stunning display of those who sought to harness the forces around them to create products and technologies that could only have been fashioned with a keen mind, a steady hand, and the drive to produce precision results over and over again. The Perfectionists is precisely an extraordinary read.

Book reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

Beyond the Book:
U.S. Naval Observatory Master Clock

U.S. Naval Observatory Master ClockYou have a job interview at 9:30. You plan to leave at 8:50. It's really only a 10-minute walk, but the path cuts through pleasant tree-lined neighborhoods and you know you'll take extra time meandering. Right now, it is 8:45 – or around 8:45 anyway. The DVR time atop the TV says 8:46. The microwave and oven times both say 8:47. And your watch, well, your watch, despite a new battery, inexplicably says 8:41. Your phone, by the way, says 8:45, but to paraphrase the classic band Chicago, does anybody really know what time it is anymore?

Actually, there is one person. At one point in The Perfectionists, Simon Winchester states that he's writing the chapter "to the steady beat of a Seth Thomas thirty-day kitchen clock." When Winchester needs to reset it about every month, he calls the time recording from the U.S. Naval Observatory Master Clock, which "operates much like grandfather clocks do: with pendulums. More precisely: a set of the most sophisticated pendulums ever built, carefully counting the "swings" of atoms' radiation with a precision unknown anywhere else in the universe." And it's from the U.S. Naval Observatory Master Clock that the Internet, cell phones, and GPS always know what time it is. Demetrios Matsakis is the Naval Observatory Time Service Department's chief scientist. He oversees all the dozens of atomic clocks whose data combines to present the time through the Master Clock.

Demetrios MatsakisThe U.S. Naval Observatory got involved in timekeeping in 1845, because ships on the Potomac needed exact time to calculate their own latitude and longitude. Then located in Foggy Bottom, the Observatory put up an enormous brass-colored time ball on its roof that was dropped every day at noon, and the ships on the Potomac set their clocks that way. Each city kept its own time, which relied on the sun's position at noon. So Washington was seven minutes behind Philadelphia, which was five minutes behind New York and so on. The railroads kept their own time inside the train cars, which produced quite the headache because different rail lines ran on different clocks than the towns they served. The railroad lobby then pushed for standardizing U.S. time, and the time zones we know today emerged. Because of what it had done in giving ships the exact time, the Naval Observatory became the official timekeeper for the nation. To chronicle what's happened in Naval Observatory timekeeping from then to now would require another exhaustively-researched book from Simon Winchester, so it'll be sufficient to briefly examine the devices that , in combination, form the Master Clock.

Time BallAt the Observatory, down the hall from Matsakis' office, some of the devices reside in environmentally controlled rooms, such as hydrogen masers. Then, in a separate room, there are the cesium clocks, which look like they've been placed in refrigerators with glass doors. An article in the Washingtonian describes the process of finding the official time: "Masers are sprinters, best at keeping time over the short term - a few days - while cesium clocks keep better time over weeks and months. Official US time incorporates readings from both - around a dozen masers and a few dozen cesiums. But because each clock ticks ever so slightly differently, the Time Service Department has picked one maser as the clock and uses other devices to tweak its output every hour."

This collection of devices is called Master Clock 2, which has been at work since 1995. There was a Master Clock 1 for a time, and the Department alternated between the two, but when they scaled back to one, Master Clock 2 happened to be keeping time, so it became the official clock. There are also backup clocks in other buildings around the campus so in case fiery disaster befalls one of the buildings, the backups can continue on.

Simon Winchester uses the time recording phone number for the Naval Observatory Master Clock. The Observatory also helps keep the Internet on time with most computers and services synchronizing with the Master Clock every hour or so. The Observatory also corrects and updates the clock for the GPS Master Control Station at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado and provides time for military satellites, which require even greater accuracy.

Although we never have enough time, we can be sure that the time we do have is accurate.

Naval Observatory Master Clock
Demetrios Matsakis, courtesy of www.ellines.com
Example of a Time Ball (the 1881 Boston Time Ball)

Beauty in the Broken PlacesClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Allison Pataki


Five months pregnant, on a flight to their "babymoon," Allison Pataki turned to her husband when he asked if his eye looked strange and watched him suddenly lose consciousness. After an emergency landing, she discovered that Dave - a healthy thirty-year-old athlete and surgical resident - had suffered a rare and life-threatening stroke. Next thing Allison knew, she was sitting alone in the ER in Fargo, North Dakota, waiting to hear if her husband would survive the night.

When Dave woke up, he could not carry memories from hour to hour, much less from one day to the next. Allison had lost the Dave she knew and loved when he lost consciousness on the plane. Within a few months, she found herself caring for both a newborn and a sick husband, struggling with the fear of what was to come.

As a way to make sense of the pain and chaos of their new reality, Allison started to write daily letters to Dave. Not only would she work to make sense of the unfathomable experiences unfolding around her, but her letters would provide Dave with the memories he could not make on his own. She was writing to preserve their past, protect their present, and fight for their future. Those letters became the foundation of this beautiful, intimate memoir. And in the process, she fell in love with her husband all over again.

This is a manifesto for living, an ultimately uplifting story about the transformative power of faith and resilience. It's a tale of a man's turbulent road to recovery, the shifting nature of marriage, and the struggle of loving through pain and finding joy in the broken places.

BookBrowse Review

Ernest Hemingway wrote that we are "strong at the broken places," and Allison Pataki found that to be true when her husband, David Levy, a third-year orthopedic surgery resident at Rush University in Chicago, had a near-fatal stroke at age 30. On June 9, 2015, Dave and five-months-pregnant Allison were on a flight from Chicago to Hawaii for their "babymoon," planning to stop in Seattle to visit Dave's brothers. But they never made it there. On the plane Dave told her he couldn't see out of his right eye. He had an extremely dilated pupil and she asked right away if he might be having a stroke. The plane made an emergency landing in Fargo, North Dakota and Dave was rushed to a hospital for testing. Doctors found he had suffered a bithalamic midbrain ischemic stroke, even though he'd had no risk factors and this stroke type was virtually unknown in patients of his age (see 'Beyond the Book').

Pataki goes back and forth between the details of this health crisis and her past with Dave: how they met in their freshman year at Yale, her time working in journalism in New York City, their wedding, learning that they were going to become parents, and so on. The alternating chapters create a good pace – although I was occasionally impatient to get back to the aftermath of the stroke – and balance out the fear and confusion of that summer with nostalgia for earlier, carefree days.

Along with these two narrative streams, each moving chronologically towards the present day, the book includes fragments from some of the letters Pataki wrote to Dave every night. Especially in the first days after the stroke, when she didn't know if he would survive, let alone live a normal life again, these letters are raw outpourings of grief and worry. Although they function more like diary entries, they are addressed directly to Dave and form a record of his experiences. Because "he could no longer make new memories. Or remember the old ones," she felt she had to do all the remembering for him. Months later, after he'd been through physical and speech therapy, he could hear her stories of what had happened and say, "Gosh, I've been through a lot."

It was determined that a congenital hole in the heart and a blood clot in the leg together led to Dave's stroke. Despite his initial coma and amnesia, doctors were confident that, thanks to the brain's plasticity, he would make a full recovery. However, progress was slow and often interrupted by setbacks; "glimmers of Dave's personality were beginning to emerge, but a lot of the time he basically seemed like an intoxicated or juvenile caricature of his former self."

To keep from despairing about how much had been lost, Pataki relied on her faith. "Lean on God" was her mother's advice, and Pataki frequently mentions how prayers, hymns, and guardian angels came to her aid. It's possible such religious talk will alienate a few readers, but more likely those who have been through comparable situations will recognize the impulse to turn to anything that helps, especially a force larger than oneself.

Pataki is the author of four previous historical novels. (If her last name sounds familiar, it's because her father, George, was the governor of New York between 1995 and 2006 and ran for president in 2016.) She has good control of her story lines in this memoir, and successfully recreates the swirl of emotions she felt after Dave's stroke and the birth of their daughter, Lilly. However, she doesn't completely avoid clichés: there are a few instances each of "ups and downs" and "new normal." I also found her descriptions of Dave to be implausibly glowing. She says "There is no guile in him...he's so honest and pure and genuine" and writes in an email update to friends and family, "Dave is the strongest, most hardworking, most determined person I know." Obviously you're not going to criticize a man who's near death, but at times I felt like she was talking about a hero or a saint rather than a regular man.

There are videos out there of Dave's public appearances with Pataki. He also gets the last word: Responding to a letter his wife wrote a year after the stroke, he reflects on all that's happened and the joy Lilly, to whom the book is dedicated, has brought them during the grueling days of his recovery. It's inspiring to see how far he's come in a year, and sobering to think he might not have made it at all. What I most appreciated, though, was Pataki's insistence that she was never especially strong or brave; she just dealt with these circumstances because she had no choice. Hers is a relatable story of surviving the worst life can throw at you and finding the beauty in it.

Book reviewed by Rebecca Foster

Beyond the Book:
Types of Stroke

Most strokes are caused by blockages in blood vessels, either directly in the brain or traveling from elsewhere in the body to the brain; these are referred to as ischemic strokes. A minority are caused by ruptured blood vessels (hemorrhagic strokes). It is important for doctors to identify the specific type of stroke that a patient has suffered before deciding on a treatment course as the treatment for ischemic strokes generally focuses on thinning the blood which would make a hemorrhagic stroke worse.

All strokes cut off blood supply and thus oxygen to the brain, causing some brain cells to die and leading to memory loss and numbness. Confusion, difficulty speaking, and partial paralysis can also result. The "FAST test" is a quick way to assess whether someone is having a stroke. Does their Face droop to one side? Can they hold their Arms up? Are there problems with slurred Speech? If the answer is yes to even one of these, it's Time to call for an ambulance.

Allison Pataki wrote Beauty in the Broken Places after her husband, at age 30, suffered from a bithalamic midbrain ischemic stroke, a type virtually unknown in people that young.

Here's a closer look at the types of ischemic strokes:

  • A thrombotic stroke results from a blood clot in situ in the brain.
  • An embolic stroke starts with a blood clot elsewhere in the body that travels through the bloodstream.
  • Systemic hypoperfusion results from an inadequate supply of blood and can affect other organs as well as the brain.
  • A temporary blot clot that causes the symptoms of a stroke but no lasting damage is known as a transient ischemic attack, or "mini stroke." Most of these last less than five minutes but should be taken seriously and reported to a doctor because a TIA is considered a warning sign of a future, more severe stroke. If they go without treatment, a third of TIA patients will suffer another stroke within a year.

Hemorrhagic strokes involve bleeding in the brain. A weakened blood vessel ruptures, often due to uncontrolled high blood pressure. Other causes are burst aneurysms (balloon-shaped bulges in an artery) or arteriovenous malformations (abnormal tangles of blood vessels connecting arteries and veins.) The most common subtype is intracerebral, when an artery in the brain bursts; rarer is a subarachnoid hemorrhage, in which there is bleeding in the space between the brain and its covering tissue. Symptoms can include a sudden, severe headache, along with nausea, dizziness, or a loss of consciousness.

Risk factors for all types of stroke are smoking, which damages and blocks blood vessels; high cholesterol, which can lead to blocked arteries; and obesity. Diabetes also doubles the risk of stroke. People over 60 are much more likely to have an ischemic stroke, and there can be a family history of this type of stroke.

One in eight people die within 30 days of a stroke, but the sooner treatment is sought, the better the chances of a full recovery. TIAs are treated with anticoagulant medication. If an ischemic stroke is caught within three hours it can be treated with IV medication to break down blood clots. Another strategy is to physically remove the clot in surgery. The treatment of hemorrhagic strokes depends on the severity. In the case of minor bleeding, rest and physical and/or speech therapy may be sufficient. In more serious cases, surgery may be required to stop the bleeding, repair the blood vessel, and/or relieve pressure on the brain.

Love and Other Consolation PrizesClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Jamie Ford


For twelve-year-old Ernest Young, a charity student at a boarding school, the chance to go to the World's Fair feels like a gift. But only once he's there, amid the exotic exhibits, fireworks, and Ferris wheels, does he discover that he is the one who is actually the prize. The half-Chinese orphan is astounded to learn he will be raffled off—a healthy boy "to a good home."

The winning ticket belongs to the flamboyant madam of a high-class brothel, famous for educating her girls. There, Ernest becomes the new houseboy and befriends Maisie, the madam's precocious daughter, and a bold scullery maid named Fahn. Their friendship and affection form the first real family Ernest has ever known—and against all odds, this new sporting life gives him the sense of home he's always desired.

But as the grande dame succumbs to an occupational hazard and their world of finery begins to crumble, all three must grapple with hope, ambition, and first love.

Fifty years later, in the shadow of Seattle's second World's Fair, Ernest struggles to help his ailing wife reconcile who she once was with who she wanted to be, while trying to keep family secrets hidden from their grown-up daughters.

Against a rich backdrop of post-Victorian vice, suffrage, and celebration, Love and Other Consolations is an enchanting tale about innocence and devotion—in a world where everything, and everyone, is for sale.

BookBrowse Review

Love and Other Consolation Prizes was read and reviewed by 22 BookBrowse members for First Impressions, 21 of whom gave it four or five stars, resulting in an impressive overall rating of 4.7.

What it's about:
Jamie Ford's new novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, is a wonderful blend of historical fiction, coming of age and romance - with a smidgeon of mystery thrown in as well (Barbara Z). Based on real-life events, the plot centers on Ernest, the illegitimate son of a white missionary and a Chinese woman, as he tells his story to his adult daughter - a reporter who has uncovered that as a young boy her father was auctioned off at a raffle held at the 1909 World's Fair. Ernest's tale revolves around the madam who won him in the raffle and his life among the ladies of the night during a time when the women's suffrage movement was campaigning to shut down such houses of ill-repute (Arden A). The chapters alternate between the 1909 and 1962 World's Fairs, both of which were held in Seattle (Judi R). The author vividly describes the despair of a young orphan sold into slavery, the sights and sounds of the wondrous World's Fairs five decades apart, and the tender love that can exist between friends and family – as well as the fragile threads that connect them (Amy P).

The author's character development and writing is a highlight:
Ford provides deeply moving descriptions of each character, as well as their emotions and motives (Amy P). The cast of characters is actually very small, but we get to know them well (Sande O). I fell in love with the Young family and their search for true love both romantically and as part of a family (Lynn B). Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a well-written, moving book (Jean N). As always, Ford has crafted a heartfelt story (Carol S); this is a poignant and subtle novel (Deanna W).

Many also remark on how seamlessly the author incorporated the historical elements:
I really enjoyed the bits and pieces of historical events throughout the book; they grounded the story for me (Jean N). Ford takes stories he has read from old newspapers and documents and weaves a fantastically beautiful story with shreds of truth running throughout (Carm D). The book provides a colorful look at the "Old Seattle," and the two World's Fairs figure prominently throughout the novel (Susan R).

The book explores a great many themes:
The novel is a wonderful account of undying love and respect, heartbreak and unimaginable fear (Carm D). It deals with themes of family, prejudice, identity, and fitting in (Deanna W). Ford explores the racial and economic discrimination of the times as well (Lynne B). Additionally, it covers topics such as medical treatments, immigration and the Suffragette movement (Amy P).

A few feel it did not live up to the author's previous work:
The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was one of my favorite novels. Naturally I had high expectations for this novel. Unfortunately, Love and other Consolation Prizes did not move me in the same way (Vicki O). I hardly felt any connection. I couldn't feel empathy with some of the characters. I sometimes found myself very bored, skimming paragraphs, and would easily put the book down and not want to go back to it. I really craved more action (Lillian T). If I have a quibble with Ford it is with the pace of his narrative. A quickening might have enlivened several sections (Sande O).

Most, though, think Love and Other Consolation Prizes is sure to be a hit:
Jamie Ford has written another winner. I was a fan after Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and he does not disappoint with his latest (Roe P). There is nothing I didn't like about this book: the setting, the eras, the depth of the descriptions of both the times and the characters, the entertaining story, the history lesson... all meshed together to make an excellent read. I wish it had lasted another 100 pages (Arden A). This is a story not to be missed! (Lynne B). I found this engrossing book difficult to put down (Amber B). Readers are certainly going to be happy that Jamie Ford has given us another beautifully written novel (Judi R).

Recommended for a wide audience:
Everyone should do themselves a favor and read this book; it's also a great choice for book club discussions (Carm D). It will be a title that I will keep on my list to highly recommend to friends and family (Jean N). The book is appropriate for younger and older readers (Sande O). Historical fiction lovers will enjoy this novel (Shawna L).

Book reviewed by BookBrowse First Impression Reviewers

Beyond the Book:
170 Years of World's Fairs

Love and Other Consolation Prizes largely revolves around two World's Fairs that took place in Seattle in 1909 and 1962.

Officially known as Universal Expositions, more than 100 World's Fairs have been held in more than 20 countries, large and small, since the first one premiered in 1851. The events showcase a country's industrial and scientific achievements, as well as highlight its culture.  World's Fairs generally run from three to six months, with a major fair held every five years and smaller expositions sometimes held in the interim. During the almost 170 years since the first World's Fair, it is estimated that over a billion people have attended one.

The Crystal PalaceThe idea seems to have evolved from English and French national fairs that were held during the late 18th/early 19th centuries to highlight the countries' burgeoning industries. The first truly grand exposition, though, came about through the efforts of Queen Victoria's husband, Prince Albert.  Having a penchant for all things mechanical and an understanding of the importance of increasing trade with the rest of Europe, Albert championed the idea of a truly large-scale event that would bring attention to Britain's manufacturing sector. He created and chaired a royal commission to plan every aspect of it, including holding a contest for the architectural design of the structure that would house it.  The committee ended up not choosing any of the submitted plans, instead selecting greenhouse manufacturer Joseph Paxton's design for an enormous glass and cast-iron edifice.  Erected in Hyde Park, London, this "Crystal Palace" was large enough to house the entire exposition and became the highlight of the fair for many.  Officially named "The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Continents" it was known to the general public simply as "The Crystal Palace Exhibition" because its real name was such a mouthful. The event, which ran from May 1 through October 15, 1851, made a profit, and the proceeds were earmarked for fellowships for those studying subjects such as engineering and industrial design. 

Fairs soon became all the rage with some were more impressive than others.  The first United States fair was held in 1876 in Philadelphia and was dubbed the American Centennial Exhibition.  It featured a 1500 horsepower Corliss steam engine that weighed 700 tons and powered all the exhibits at the fair. Paris followed suit in 1889, holding an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille.  The Eiffel Tower's construction was a part of this exhibition, and when completed it was the tallest standing structure in the world (although Parisians thought it was an eyesore at the time).  The 1893 Chicago World's Fair (featured in Erik Larson's Devil in the White City) celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in the new world.  Among the other marvels which made up this grand event was the first Ferris Wheel, which measured 264 feet tall and held 36 cars that could hold up to 60 people each.

In 1867 the Commissioner General of the British Pavilion at the Parisian Expo issued a memorandum stating that an organization should be formed to regulate the international exhibitions to standardize their frequency. The memorandum also proposed standards for the exhibits, a standard duration and size, and a set rotation schedule between countries. The document was signed by the Commissioner General's counterparts in Austria, Prussia, Italy, Russia and the USA, and led to the eventual formation of the Bureau International des Expositions (BIE) in 1928, which continues to fill an oversight role today. Today, there are 170 member countries. Notably absent are Canada who resigned its membership in 2012 and Australia which followed suit in 2015, both citing the high cost of membership and the questionable return on their investment.  The United States' membership was revoked in 2001 due to non-payment of membership fees but reinstated in May 2017. The next Universal Exposition is scheduled to take place in 2020 and will be hosted by Dubai, UAE. A full listing of past and future events can be found here.

by Kim Kovacs

The Crystal Palace

The Judge HunterClick for more information including
an excerpt and read-alike recommendations

by Christopher Buckley


London, 1664. Twenty years after the English revolution, the monarchy has been restored and Charles II sits on the throne. The men who conspired to kill his father are either dead or disappeared. Baltasar "Balty" St. Michel is twenty-four and has no skills and no employment. He gets by on handouts from his brother-in-law Samuel Pepys, an officer in the king's navy.

Fed up with his needy relative, Pepys offers Balty a job in the New World. He is to track down two missing judges who were responsible for the execution of the last king, Charles I. When Balty's ship arrives in Boston, he finds a strange country filled with fundamentalist Puritans, saintly Quakers, warring tribes of Indians, and rogues of every stripe. Helped by a man named Huncks, an agent of the Crown with a mysterious past, Balty travels colonial America in search of the missing judges. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, Samuel Pepys prepares for a war with the Dutch that fears England has no chance of winning.

Christopher Buckley's enchanting new novel spins adventure, comedy, political intrigue, and romance against a historical backdrop with real-life characters like Charles II, John Winthrop, and Peter Stuyvesant. Buckley's wit is as sharp as ever as he takes readers to seventeenth-century London and New England. We visit the bawdy court of Charles II, Boston under the strict Puritan rule, and New Amsterdam back when Manhattan was a half-wild outpost on the edge of an unmapped continent. The Judge Hunter is a smart and swiftly plotted novel that transports readers to a new world.

BookBrowse Review

In London 1664, Balthasar de St. Michel or "Balty" has no discernable skills besides pestering his brother-in-law Samuel Pepys, Clerk of the Acts of the Royal Navy, for money or a job. Eager to be rid of his "pointless, impecunious" relative, Pepys arranges a position for Balty in New England hunting two judges involved in the execution of King Charles I.

King Charles II has ascended the throne, and the people responsible for the first Charles' death have been apprehended and cruelly executed – except Edward Whalley and his son-in-law, William Goffe. While believed to be a fool's errand – the two men have evaded capture for nearly four years – Balty cannot refuse a crown commission, nor a chance at a job. He must travel to New England and try to capture the regicides.

Following a long Atlantic voyage in which Balty spends countless weeks violently ill, he receives a lackluster welcome in Boston. This sets the tone for much of the journey as Balty encounters Puritans unhappy to have an agent of the crown poking his nose in their anti-royalist colony. Indeed, the odds seem insurmountable as Balty also comes across native Americans eager to dispose of more white men on their land, wild catamounts (cougars), and many other unsavory characters in this New World. Luckily, weathered New England veteran Hiram Huncks, also an agent of the crown, has been appointed to accompany the bumbling Balty on his mission. With a mysterious past, and even more mysterious motivations, Huncks forges this unlikely alliance and together he and Balty travel the New England wilderness in search of the criminals.

The Judge Hunter perfectly encapsulates the style and feel of an era while making it accessible to today's readers. At times the novel is woven through with today's sensibilities, sprinkled with subtle wit and humor that seems markedly understated and, despite Buckley's American's lineage, markedly British. During a daring escape, Balty must exit an inn from the roof, inevitably slipping and falling on a pig. A quick perspective change to the pig provides comic relief as "(t)he pig, unaccustomed to serving as a nocturnal cushion for defenestrated humans, squealed vehemently."

While Buckley's humor is highly entertaining, it at times compromises some of the characters. Certain figures seem more like caricatures meant to elicit another laugh. This is at times problematic in the representation of Native American voices either portrayed as violent "savages," like Repent, the Quiripi Indian who kills the husband of a white woman he lusts after, or as too eager to please, like the servant girl, Me-Know-God. At times, they are both.

Part of the blame for such portrayals can be blamed on the prevalent attitudes during the time period. And Repent does later talk about the violence inflicted upon the native Americans by the colonists. However, his voice seems stilted and childlike, particularly when recalling his own violent actions against the settlers: "The white farmer hid them and mocked him…The white farmer and his woman and boy suffered for this." Repent seems devoid of the charm and wit many of the English characters possess. He simply responds to his thoughts and feelings without any empathy or the weighing of consequences.

Buckley incorporates more progressive attitudes about Native Americans through Huncks who opposes and challenges the idea that the "Almighty" meant to "clear the land" of Indians, through force or disease, for English settlers. Huncks often finds himself at odds with several ideologies throughout the novel – both royalist and anti-royalist, Puritan and Quaker, English and Native American. After an encounter with the Puritan Reverend John Davenport, Huncks notes that he doesn't "do well with certain types of pharisee" after the hypocritical tendencies and superiority complex of the Reverend are revealed.

Over their travels, Balty begins to adapt Huncks' moral compass and rejects royalist attitudes. Neither does he embrace the anti-royalist sentiment prevalent in New England. He no longer wishes to apprehend the judges and receive a fancy English title, but would rather "avenge the death of a few farmers" than "catch killers of a king." The humor Buckley uses with Balty's adventures does not mask the horrors he encounters but exposes them in a new light. This new light is Balty's perspective throughout the novel, one of a "civilized" Englishman who believed one set of rules – English rules – governed life. As Balty begins to recognize the absurdity of these assumptions, he becomes his own judge of right and wrong without a religious institution dictating what that looks like.

While the novel is historical, these themes are particularly exigent today. It acknowledges America's troubled past built on the murder of indigenous peoples and fraught with religious persecution despite the promise of religious freedom. Yet it also successfully reflects current divides in our own culture over religion and a strict adherence to a particular doctrine. The novel does not discount religion but rather its fundamentalist tendencies. Therefore, Buckley's combination of humor and history creates a compelling satire of our own modern existence.

Book reviewed by Emily Isackson

Beyond the Book:
Samuel Pepys's Diary

In The Judge Hunter, Balty's brother-in-law, Samuel Pepys, an important historical figure in 17th century London, plays an integral role.

Samuel Pepys Samuel Pepys (pronounced Peeps) was born in London in 1633. He completed grammar school during the English Civil War and witnessed the execution of King Charles I in 1649 at the age of 15. He continued his education at Magdalene College, Cambridge, receiving a Bachelor of Arts. He then went to work for Edward Montagu, a relative who became the first Earl of Sandwich. It is believed that his time with Montagu helped advance Pepys' career. In 1655, Pepys married Elizabeth St. Michel (Balty's sister in the novel), who at the time was 15 years old. In June of 1660, he became Clerk of the Acts of the Royal Navy, the position he holds in The Judge Hunter. Such a job involved keeping the Navy organized and processing relevant contracts. That same year, he started the diary which, long after his death, would make him famous for his eye-witness accounts of several major historical events and his myriad observations of day-to-day life in 17th Century London.

The journal entries are notably similar in tone to that of The Judge Hunter—comically understated despite violent and horrific events. A case in point being his entry on the day he joined the crowds to witness the death of the man who signed King Charles I's death warrant:

…I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-General Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered, which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition."

Written in shorthand, Pepys recounts his experience on the ship that returned Charles II to England as well as the king's coronation. The diary also contains his accounts of both the 1665 Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of London that ended the plague the following year. He writes:

I down to the water-side, and there got a boat, and there saw a lamentable fire. Poor Michell's house, as far as the Old Swan, already burned that way, and the fire running further, that in a very little time it got as far as the Steeleyard, while I was there. Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another.

While Pepys provides invaluable historical insight, he casually inserts his personal life into the diary merging the political and personal in an unintentionally humorous way. His first entry gives a brief thanks to God for his health followed by "My wife, after the absence of her terms for seven weeks, gave me hopes of her being with child, but on the last day of the year she hath them again. The condition of the State was thus…" And he goes on to give a brief account of the political activities of the day.

Pepys' includes other mundane details of life, like what he ate for dinner, the weather, his personal finances and his social calendar. He often concludes his entries with the famous line "and so to bed." More infamously, he depicts his struggles with vices, particularly his sexual romps with women who were not his wife.

He ended his diary in May of 1669 amid fear that writing it would ruin his eyesight. Pepys' career continued – including a brief stint as a member of Parliament – until 1689 when he was falsely accused and imprisoned for being unfaithful to the crown, although he was released. He died in 1703 at the age of 70.

Pepys left his diary and other writings to Magdalene College where they were eventually published in the 19th century.

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