The Friar’s Lantern by Greg Hickey—Goodreads Review

Originally posted on and Reedsy Discovery.

“If you think you can beat the computer, that you can actually win, that’s when you’ll lose. Victory is a mirage, a will-o’-the-wisp, ignis fatuus.”

A choose-your-own-path (CYOP) novel that follows the seemingly disparate dual plots of a scientific study and a murder trial, The Friar’s Lantern by Greg Hickey is an engaging, entertaining examination of free will and biological determinism. Although the two storylines may at first seem distinct, they intertwine in both thematic and concrete ways to form a single experience pervaded with the question of whether our conscious individual choices really are as willful and clear-cut as we assume.

The fact that Hickey concretizes all of this—logic, philosophy, and contemporary real-world psychological research—into a CYOP novel, where the story one experiences is simultaneously a choice by the reader and a plotline predetermined by the author, adds a layer of self-awareness to the work that only increases its depth. This is underscored by the fact that the title of The Friar’s Lantern, another name for the ephemeral will-o’-the-wisp used within the story to describe the elusive idea that one might be able to outsmart a computer, thus stands not only for the determinism that forms the book’s central theme but also for the genre as a whole.

However, the novel’s depth does not mean it is inaccessible as entertainment. To be honest, I have not read many CYOP novels, so I came into the experience with little to compare it to. If I note any novelties or gripes, I am fully aware they may be unique to me—and they may be exactly what readers of the genre expect. While I initially tried to read all paths simultaneously, I soon stopped approaching the book as a reviewer and started enjoying it as a reader, devoting myself to one storyline before going back to read the others. To avoid spoilers I won’t name my path; I’ll only say that once I settled on the ONE I wanted, I did not deviate.

While the initial branches differed on binary lines, with little divergence, they eventually weave into completely different events before returning to (and then turning away from) essential shared moments. At first I worried the side characters’ actions and dialogue would simply mirror the opposite choices of the reader—thus changing their characters according to caprice—but I soon found that this was not the case, and that the characters develop consistent identities. Meanwhile, something I did not notice until near the book’s end was the lack, so far as I could find, of gender markers for the reader-protagonist. While I, of course, had imagined a male, I realized I could have as consistently imagined a female going through the story. I assume all of this is to be expected from the genre, but it was nonetheless gratifying to find such subtleties upon going back after my first finish. However, I would have nonetheless liked more interactions with and background of the characters apart from the philosophical questions at the book’s core.

However, the book has its flaws. One aspect of the book that jarred me from the first page is the amount of physical description in the scene-setting. I usually dislike so much description, but I assume this is a trope of the genre, where the narrator must lead the reader through what they are seeing in order to make their choices. Still, the descriptions can interrupt and run long, with some analogies being pulpy and abruptly hyperbolic, and at times a bit dated (the book explicitly takes place in 2012, of which one is reminded by comparisons and remarks relevant to that and the previous year). However, these detractions are minor, and others may overlook them more easily than I. I can’t imagine it’s anything but precarious to narrate the thoughts and reactions of one’s reader.

I enjoyed this read, especially after I let my choices guide my experience. The fact that the topics discussed are, through the course of the novel, cited in psychological studies, which Hickey names and incorporates for dramatic potential into the book, was fascinating, and it marks the book as an excellent example of literature’s ability to concretize and work out the implications of scientific peer review for a great reader experience. Although I give the book four stars due to the few stylistic noted above, the book was a great read, and, if indicative of the genre as a whole, not my last CYOP novel.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of the book for review from the author.


Bourbon Empire by Reid Mitenbuler—Goodreads Review

Originally published on and

If I could sum up Bourbon Empire in one idea, it would be that myths are no less real for being myths—in fact, that might make them more real, as far as the experience is concerned.

In Bourbon Empire, Reid Mitenbuler traces the history of America’s favorite drink, whiskey, from its first distillation in the new republic, through its becoming a symbol of the American spirit in the industrial revolution, past its joint status as black market item and loophole product during Prohibition, into its importance as a symbol of the West during the Cold War, and to its present status in the global drink industry. Throughout his detailed, and often humorous, recounting of the key figures and periods of the drink’s—and America’s—history, Mitenbuler keeps an eye on the role that legend and myth play in the perception of taste, often returning back to the motifs of the big name brands and how they acquired (or maneuvered) their ethos and cache.

This is one of the most charming aspects of the book. While he does pull back the curtain on certain key aspects of the whiskey industry, then and now, Mitenbuler does not do so maliciously, as if trying to invalidate the drink’s history. He recognizes, from the first chapter, that myths—even myths we know are not literally true—can still be an essential and enjoyable aspect of the experience. One can know that the image of the pioneer farmer distilling his corn into bourbon was, by the mid-1800s, a myth, and that most bourbon was being made in large distilleries, and yet still enjoy the link between the whiskey’s taste (which tastes little now like it did then) and that first image of the pioneer. In this way, the book mixes romantic idealism with the realism of its subject, and the result is a charming read or listen.

However, this does touch on one of my few gripes with the book. Despite his awareness of myth’s ephemerality, Mitenbuler ironically accepts as fact the myth that the late-19th-century industrialists like J. D. Rockefeller were little more than unscrupulous and cynical social darwinists, which is flat incorrect. Rockefeller was a public and private detractor from that view and did much to counter its influence; I encourage readers interested in a nuanced presentation of Rockefeller and his times to read Ron Chernow’s Titan.

However, as Mitenbuler’s account is about whiskey, and he is using the Rockefeller myth for figurative comparison to describe unscrupulous whiskey distilling of the “Gilded Age,” it does not detract much from the book, overall. Yet, because of this, and, one wonders, other glosses, I would not recommend the book as a replacement for a serious history (of course, it’s not trying to be that). In context, though, Bourbon Empire provides many excellent details of figures that history students may not have heard of. As a literature tutor, I found much to inform my unit on Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.

Bourbon Empire is a fun and engaging overview of American history through the lens of our national drink. Having previously enjoyed similar accounts, and generally appreciating the view that the local economy is a prime mover of history, I would recommend this book, especially, of course, to those who enjoy or are curious about whiskey.

Capitalism in America: A History by Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge—Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on and

“America prospered, in large part, because it accepted that destruction is the price for creation. The world’s most liberal bankruptcy laws allowed companies to go out of business. The world’s biggest internal market allowed people to move to places where their skills would be more generously rewarded. The United States accepted that ghost towns and shuttered factories are the price of progress.”

As its title says, Capitalism in America covers the history of the United states with a focus on its economic setting and growth. From the joint stock companies of the English colonists (which they identify as a wholly new invention in a world where mercantilism was taken for granted) to the entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, Greenspan and Wooldridge lay out the circumstances leading to, the benefits produced by, and the reactions against the free (and at many times not-so-free) market of the United States. I listened to the audiobook version read excellently by Ray Porter.

One of the unifying themes of the book is the necessity of creative destruction for growth. As great as the major leaps of the market were—spurred on by the mutually reinforcing and liberating inventions of like the Lowell Mills, the Bessemer Process, the steam engine, the telegraph, and many others—they meant that investments in previous processes, industries, locations, and jobs were and had to be liquidated, adjusted, or left behind. The authors, thus, also follow the growth of reactionary movements such as the populist Grange Movement and the unionization and regulation of the Progressives—all the while citing the benefits and, more often than not, economic drawbacks and ironies of such things.

However, being a general history, the book does not focus only on the turn of the 19th – 20th century (though the surrounding events and precedents set the stage for later discussion). Honestly elaborating on the dreadful economic impact of plans like the New Deal, the authors nonetheless lay out the social and presidential merits of actions by presidents like FDR to slow or stave off the destructive elements of the market (and give that president, perhaps, more credit than one might expect, or is due). The authors also go through the rest of the 20th century and early 21st, describing the relative economic plans of the Cold War and post-Cold War presidents, which many times diverged from their respective executive’s party affiliation or persona. The book ends at 2019, noting the various economic benefits of President Trump’s deregulation agenda, as well as the looming effects of his administration’s declining to cut entitlement spending. While the fact that the authors could not foresee the sudden economic downturn caused by the 2020 lockdowns, etc, or the inflation of the 2020-2024 administration lends a bit of irony to the final chapters, such events do fit within the book’s final prediction of recession, as well as within the broader themes of economic cycles.

As an AP US History teacher, I plan to recommend this book to my students, if not use it in class. Besides some parts which discuss elements of market economics (e.g. when the 2008 mortgage loan bubble is discussed), the book is clear enough in its language and consistent enough with its themes to be readable by non-economists (and even those aforementioned parts are manageable and made clear within context). While Greenspan takes a generally conservative view of America’s economic history, he is, nonetheless, quite even-handed in his treatment, which may be what some readers are looking for. I was tempted to give four stars because of a few minor gripes, but I decided those were due to my own differing views on some of the book’s topics and not due to any deficiency in the book, itself.

An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews – Goodreads Book Review

Originally posted on

A biographical history of the USSR’s most successful covert agent, An Impeccable Spy by Owen Matthews follows the life of Richard Sorge, a German by name but a Russian communist by conviction who set up spy rings for the Soviets in China and Japan during the age of Stalin and leading up to World War II. Blessed with a death-defying daring, a seductive savoir-faire, and a perfect cover, Sorge was a formidable asset in the Soviets’ war against fascism – or he would have been, did not the very traits that made him so singular cause the communist regime, and Stalin, himself, to distrust him.

Based on newly-declassified records, Matthews’s history is as meticulously researched as it is readable. The focus is always on Sorge’s character, and the chapters are drawn together through a narrative that, after we have gotten to know Sorge, begins to obscurely hint at the book’s ending. Rather than spoil anything, this foreshadowing maintains a suspense that parallels Sorge’s daring character. And yet, though it can be read as a character study of a Soviet James Bond (alcohol, motorcycle rides, and romantic liaisons punctuate the book’s elaboration on how Sorge established his spy rings), An Impeccable Spy consistently maintains a peripheral view of the main events of the twentieth century of which we have read and/or heard of in school.

Foremost among such events was, perhaps, Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s plan to break the Molotov-Ribbentrop nonaggression pact and invade Russia. While the conventional story is that, despite the similarities between their ideologies (which Sorge discovers, finding as he does how easy it is for a communist to pose as a fascist), Hitler betrayed and took Stalin by surprise, Matthews shows that not only had Sorge sent intelligence of Operation Barbarossa to Moscow, but Stalin had prepared for such a possible attack. However, for reasons established by Matthews, Stalin – who had by that time begun his party purge, from which Sorge was spared by distance – had begun to distrust Sorge. Thus, Matthews draws on a theme common to both his nonfictional and fictional works: the incompetence of the suspicious self-cannibalism of communist bureaucracy.

I read An Impeccable Spy as part of my goal to better understand Matthews’s other work, especially his historical fiction. However, a few hours into the audiobook (excellently narrated by Mike Grady), An Impeccable Spy became one of my favorites of Matthews’s contributions to the scholarship on 20th-century Russia. As with his other works, I plan to recommend friends and students read An Impeccable Spy for an entertaining and well-documented look at the eastern side of the Iron Curtain.