Book Review: The Rebels

Book Review: The Rebels by John Jakes

Philip Kent, nee Phillipe Charboneau, would much rather be at home, caring for his pregnant wife Anne.  But after he was forced to kill his murderous half-brother in self-defense, Philip has gone all in for the cause of the rebels against British rule.  Thus it is that on June 17, 1775, Philip finds himself on Breed’s Hill near Boston, waiting for the order to fire on the advancing Redcoats.  Too soon, Philip will discover that the price of liberty is steep indeed.

The Rebels

Far to the south in Virginia, young wastrel Judson Fletcher dissipates himself with strong drink and other men’s wives.  Denied the woman he truly loves, and disgusted with the system of slavery that gave his family wealth but too weak to stand up against it, Judson dreams of the West, but does not have the courage to go.

Neither man knows it, but destiny will entwine the fates of these rebels who never meet.

In the mid-1970s, America’s mood was pretty glum.  We’d lost the Vietnam War, Watergate had done a hatchet job on trust in the federal government, and the economy was not doing at all well.  But we did have an important anniversary coming up, the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence, generally treated as the birthday of the United States.  Two hundred years of freedom (more or less) was something to celebrate, and thoughts turned more and more to that period in our history as 1976 drew near.

One of the most successful tie-ins to the Bicentennial was this series of books, “The Kent Chronicles”, a sweeping saga of one family’s fortunes during the first century or so of the United States of America.  Extensively researched and well-outlined (the family tree in this volume indicates which family members appear in volumes that hadn’t been published yet), the series was well received, and at one point John Jakes had three volumes of the series on the New York Times bestseller list at once.

The story is told in tight third-person from the viewpoints of the two men (except for a brief section where Anne Kent is the viewpoint character.)  Philip and Judson both meet many historically famous people while never quite making it into the history books themselves.

Philip serves the Continental Army in several important battles and behind the scenes actions.  (It helps that he’s close friends with the Marquis de Lafayette.)  A series of hard knocks musters him out before the British surrender, but some wise investments by Anne allow him to start his own printing business.

Judson acts as a substitute delegate to the Continental Congress for his ailing brother Donald, even helping to craft the Declaration of Independence.  Unfortunately, his alcoholism and inability to keep it in his pants rob Judson of the chance to sign the document.  He then has an even worse failure of character before his last chance at redemption comes up.  His old friend George Rogers Clark needs men for a expedition in the West.  Beset by some of the worst luck a man can have, will Judson arrive in time?

There’s plenty of exciting action, but it’s interspersed with lengthy sections where Mr. Jakes catches the reader up on events our protagonists weren’t there for, but read about in the papers.  This is historical fiction with an emphasis on history.

There’s the expected period racism, sexism and anti-Semitism.  Violence abounds, and a couple of characters commit suicide just off-screen.  I had forgotten since I read the book as a teen just how much rape there is too.

Rereading this book after forty years, it’s pretty clear that the enormous popularity of the series was at least partially because they were the right books at the right time.  They’re very much a product of the Seventies, made for 1970s America.  That said, a blast of nostalgia every so often doesn’t hurt.

And now, a video about the Declaration of Independence: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vrSeCYSnj5Y

Book Review: Last Hope Island

Book Review: Last Hope Island by Lynne Olson

Disclaimer:  I received this Advance Review Copy as a Goodreads giveaway for the purposes of this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.   Some changes may be made before the final publication date of 4/25/17–for example, the index isn’t included in this version.

Last Hope Island

This book opens with Movie Night at the German embassy in Norway, April 1940.  The film shown to Norwegian government officials was Baptism of Fire, a documentary about the invasion of Poland in 1939.  Afterwards, the German ambassador made a speech that roughly translates into English as “Nice country you Norwegians have here.  It’d be a shame if anything happened to it.”  Four days later, the Nazis invaded.

Rather than turn over the reins to local fascist Vidkun Quisling as the invaders wanted, King Haakon VII and the remnants of the Norwegian government fought a running battle until they could be evacuated to Britain, where they joined other European governments in exile.  Soon, this “Last Hope Island” and the embattled people sheltered by it were the only thing standing between Nazi Germany and complete victory on the Western Front.

This volume discusses various aspects of the joint efforts of Occupied Europe and the British against the Nazis.  From the early gift of an ULTRA machine by Polish cryptographers so that the British could read German codes, through the contributions of combat-experienced Polish and Czech pilots in the Battle of Britain, the Norwegian gift of its merchant marine, and Resistance fighters of all descriptions, the governments in exile (and General de Gaulle’s Free French) gave invaluable help.   The BBC’s transformation from a stuffed-shirt government branch to a voice of truth and freedom that brought words of encouragement from exiled leaders is detailed.

But all was not beer and skittles.  Pre-War resentments and cultural attitudes often caused misunderstandings and in-fighting.  As it turned out, the British didn’t have the world’s best spy agency, just the world’s best spy novelists, with both MI6 and the Special Operations Executive (who were supposed to be creating and working with Resistance networks) making bungle after bungle.  And once the Soviet Union and the United States entered the war, Britain’s focus shifted to appeasing these powerful allies even when it went against the interests of the occupied countries.  (This culminated in the shameful betrayal of Poland and Czechoslovakia to the Russians.)

After the war, while the formerly occupied countries of Europe were and remained thankful to Britain and its people for all the help given, they also knew that they couldn’t rely on the island nation to protect them.  So new alliances were formed, and greater cooperation established, eventually leading to the creation of the European Union.

Quite a bit of this is material I had not known before, partially because much of my WWII history reading was done in the 1970s, while some of the source documents were still classified, and partially because my sources were USA-centric.  Various people involved get a stronger focus because they survived the war and became famous, such as Audrey Hepburn, who was trapped in occupied Holland.

There are scattered illustrations (possibly more in the finished product), extensive endnotes, a bibliography, and the full book will have an index.  The writing is clear, and this book should be suitable for bright high school students and up.

The benefits of hindsight are very evident throughout (the end material may or may not be updated to reflect Brexit.)  I do recommend this book to those curious about the relationship between Britain and Occupied Europe; however it is at the same time a fairly narrow subject, but covering a multitude of intersecting fields.  I would recommend having to hand a more general WWII history for reference, and checking the bibliography for more specific works on individual people and incidents.   (The author explains in her foreword that Greece and Yugoslavia were completely cut out of the book due to their different circumstances, so readers with an interest in those countries will definitely need to seek out other material.)

Magazine Review: Gamma 3

Magazine Review: Gamma 3 edited by Charles E. Fritch

Gamma was a short-lived science fiction magazine (five issues in 1963-64), known for high-quality cover art and snagging stories from authors connected with the film industry.  (Indeed, I picked up this issue because of the sweet Morris Scott Dollens art.)  It was digest-sized and relatively thin.   Let’s look at the contents!

Gamma 3

“The Girl of Paradise Planet” by Robert Turner concerns retired millionaire George Prentiss.  He and his third wife Evvie have come to the title planet on a long vacation (her idea.)  Bored, Robert has taken up underwater swimming with future SCUBA gear.  This world is not supposed to have any native intelligent life, but then where did that water-breathing naked girl come from?  Is George having hallucinations from the water pressure, or is he just going insane?

Over the course of the story, we learn that George is a self-made man who spent his youth starting a business, growing that business and getting rich, so he didn’t look for romance until middle age, and three times went for trophy wives, none of whom have worked out.  Which is okay…except that the possibly imaginary Irlana comes across as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl whose function is to rekindle his love of life (and is younger and prettier than Evvie.)

Mr. Turner was an experienced author, but this was his first time writing science fiction, and I can tell.  He’s certainly no climatologist, and the ending twist relies on most of the characters forgetting a perfectly logical explanation for events that would be common knowledge to them, even if the reader wouldn’t know it.

“The Feather Bed” by Shelley Lowenkopf presents a bizarre future in which the economy runs on make-work.  For example, three years after a building is built, all the piping is torn out and replaced just to give the plumbing crews something to do.   This extends to writing as well.  Every 37 years, all extant editions of Shakespeare are destroyed, and replaced with “newly written” versions by living authors.  Except that it’s just retyping the whole thing verbatim.  And the same goes for all other works of fiction by dead writers.

Lew has had it with the system–he doesn’t want to “rewrite” King Lear again, and on the union points system, it will be years before he’s allowed to write more of the original fiction that made him a successful author in the first place.  Unfortunately, he’s just one man against the system, and winds up causing even the FBI to intervene.  If Lew sticks to his principles, he could lose everything, including the writing he really wants to do.

“Angel Levine” by Bernard Malamud stars  Jewish tailor Manischevitz, who is going through hard times.  His shop burned down, and the insurance money was eaten by customer lawsuits.  His son died in the war, and his daughter ran off with a man and never communicates.  He’s got chronic pain, and his wife Rosie is dying.  Manischevitz asks God for assistance, but when an “angel” named Levine shows up, there are reasons the tailor is unconvinced.  It’s ultimately a story about belief in the face of your assumptions about people.  There is racism and anti-Semitism in the story.  (This one was reprinted from one of the author’s collections.)

“The (In)visible Man” by Edward W. Ludwig  is a fantasy about James Smith, who has become socially invisible.  He’s finally decided to exploit that fact, but one person has finally become able to see him, and that is both Mr. Smith’s weakness and best hope.  It’s a fairly sweet story, helped along by James Smith, even when he turns criminal, sticking to a “least harm” principle.  There is an attempted suicide in the story.

“Inside Story” by Miriam Allen deFord takes place in a far future when the Galactic Federation sends scouts to find new worlds that one of their myriad species can live on and isn’t already inhabited by intelligent life.  These planets are exceedingly rare.  It looks, however, like this one might be ideal.  Presuming the scout party doesn’t find any surprises like rapid inexplicable temperature variations….

In this future, scout ships have mixed-sex crews, but this is because every member of that crew is a different non-compatible species.  The twist ending is suitably bizarre.

“The Birth” by George Clayton Johnson is a retelling of a classic story from a different perspective.  See how long it takes you to figure out which one!

“Buttons” by Raymond E. Banks concerns John Burke, a starship officer who is forced by disaster to upload his mind to a computer memory storage system.  Supposedly, he will have his mind reinserted into his human body once that’s fixed.  But that procedure has a high failure rate, and Burke is rapidly discovering the advantages of being a disembodied intelligence.  There’s some relatively early thought about the benefits versus possible hazards of transhumanism.

“Society for the Prevention” by Ron Goulart is a humorous piece about the travails of a interplanetary surplus store manager.  He’s just gotten a large shipment of extremely ugly wicker urns, the natives of the planet have organized a violent “Shop Local” campaign, and the newly arrived Young Girls Space Police and Welfare Committee officer suspects him of being in cahoots with the inventor of a death ray.  Everything more or less works out in the end, but now the store manager has to try to explain to his boss why the urns didn’t get sold.  The female Space Police officer is treated as a joke–admittedly so is everyone else, but it may not sit well with some readers, as part of the joke is that women are completely unsuited for the work.

The final story is “The Snail Watcher” by Patricia Highsmith.  This creepy tale is about a man who gets a little too fascinated with the reproductive habits of snails, not noticing that these particular snails are reproducing much more rapidly than is anywhere near normal.

Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham
Art copyright 1964 by Luan Meatheringham

Interior art is by Luan Metheringham, who sadly seems to have completely dropped out of sight with only her Gamma appearances known.

There is also an interview with “Ivan Kirov” about the state of Soviet science fiction in the early 1960s.  He declined to have his real name published for security reasons.  Per the interview, SF in the USSR was beginning to blossom after being suppressed during the Stalinist years.  Noted was a tendency for “nuts and bolts” stories of adventure, with little of the social or psychological exploration that had become common in Western nations’ science fiction.  (At the time, the government censors were big on Soviet Communism going worldwide being the only possible future, and writers were expected to get on board with that.)

The Banks story is the one that I liked best, though the Highsmith story was also effective.  Worth seeking out if you’re a fan of either author or the cover artist.

Book Review: Jewish Noir

Book Review: Jewish Noir edited by Kenneth Wishnia

Many of the themes of noir fiction, alienation, hostile society, darkness and bitter endings, resonate with the experience of Jewish people.  So it’s not surprising that it was easy to find submissions for an anthology of thirty-plus noir stories with Jewish themes.  (Not all of the authors are themselves Jewish; see if you can guess which ones.)

Jewish Noir

The volume opens with “Devil for a Witch” by R.S. Brenner.   A man caught embezzling for what he thinks are good causes has his death faked by the FBI so that he can go undercover in the Klu Klux Klan.  The title comes from an old saying about trading a known danger for an unknown one, and this assignment turns out to be perilous indeed.  The author bio mentions that this is an excerpt from an upcoming novel.

Most of the stories in this collection are appearing for the first time, but two are not.  “A Simke (A Celebration)” by Yente Serdatsky was first published in Yiddish in 1912, and this is its first publication in English.  It’s a melancholy tale of a woman whose refusal to conform to the social norms of Russian-Jewish immigrants made her popular in her youth, but isolates her now that she is middle-aged.  Harlan Ellison® contributes a story first published in 1960. “The Final Shtick”, about a comedian returning to the small town he had good reason to flee, and his feelings concerning this.

As one might expect, several of the stories concern Nazis, neo-Nazis and/or the Holocaust.  “Feeding the Crocodile” by Moe Prager is perhaps the strongest of these–a writer tells stories to a death camp commandant in hopes of surviving just a bit longer.  But the crocodile gets greedy.

There’s a fairly wide variety of protagonists in these stories.  Good people who do bad things, bad people who try to do good things, evil people who sink even lower, men and women, religious Jews and secular ones, Jews of different sexual orientations and skin colors.  Ethnic slurs and antisemitism are peppered throughout, and there is mention of child sexual abuse, suicide and rape.

“The Golem of Jericho” by Jonathan Santlofer is on the borderline with supernatural stories.  A bullied boy and his grandfather build a golem, which may or may not have killed the bullies; it’s certainly a mysterious coincidence.

The weakest story is “Her Daughter’s Bar Mitzvah: A Mother Talks to the Rabbi” by Adam D. Fisher which is just one long kvetch.  (My spell checker doesn’t flag that word, interesting.)  No crime, no hopeless ending, just complaining.

It should be noted here that this volume published by PM Press has no connection to the series of regional noir anthologies put out by Akashic Books despite the very similar presentation and book structure.

Most of the stories are good; recommended to noir fans who are willing to stretch their focus a little.

 

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

Book Review: The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries edited by Otto Penzler

The title of this volume is slightly misleading; “locked room” stands in for the general idea of impossible crimes in mystery stories.  A man  is found stabbed in the back in a windowless room with the door locked from the inside.   A woman is strangled in the middle of a snowy field, but the only tracks are her own.  Precious jewels disappear from a safe that hasn’t been opened.  It’s a thriving subgenre of the mystery field.

The Black Lizard Big Book of Locked-Room Mysteries

This book starts with a selection of the most reprinted stories of this type, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” and G.K. Chesterton’s “The Invisible Man.”  After these, which most readers will already know the endings to, the remaining stories are grouped by category, such as stabbings or impossible thefts.   A wide swath of famous mystery authors is included, and some more obscure writers with particularly good stories.    At least one of these stories has not been reprinted before.

Not all of these stories are “fair-play” mysteries where the reader can figure out the solution from the clues given, but they all play by the important rules of the subgenre.  It’s never as simple as “there’s a secret passage” and the murder itself is never accomplished by the paranormal.    Some of the stories are tinged with the possibility of the supernatural (Stephen King’s “The Doctor’s Case” is not one of them, surprisingly), but the solution is always possible, if highly implausible.  (Seriously, random Ourang-Outang attack in the middle of Paris?)

The genre-savvy reader will be able to figure out many of the stories before they end, especially as a couple of them use the same dodge as earlier ones in the volume.  Still, there are often other twists that distinguish the story, such as “The Wrong Problem” by John Dickson Carr, where solving the murder isn’t the real mystery; and “The House of Haunts” by Ellery Queen, which features the overnight disappearance of a three-story stone house, foundations and all!

The stories were mostly written in the Twentieth Century, and the first half of it at that, so there’s some period racism and sexism.  (The Flying Corpse” by A.E. Martin relies a lot on the narrator being unable to follow his wife’s “woman logic” )   I should also mention that at least one of the stories has the “it was suicide disguised as murder” solution, which may be triggery for some readers.

This book would make a terrific gift for the mystery-lover on your holiday list, or for yourself if locked-room mysteries are your thing.  I do have one caveat; the cover is a bit flimsy for the size of the book, and will not stand up well to more vigorous transportation.

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin

Book Review: Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The title is pretty self-explanatory; this book is about the location of the worst mass murders of the 1930s and 1940s; the part of Europe between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia.  Starting with the 1933 deliberate starvation of Ukrainians by the Soviet government, policies of mass murder were followed by both countries.

Bloodlands

While there were also massive casualties from World War Two, this book focuses on those policies that were deliberately designed to kill as many people as possible whether this was necessary for military purposes or not.  After the starvation of the Ukrainians, Stalin created the Great Terror, designed to remove anyone in the western part of the Soviet Union  who might have loyalties to things other than Communism, or might be able to lead a resistance.

The Nazis got a later start, but kicked their murder into high gear when they allied with the Soviet Union to invade Poland.  Both sides started slaughtering the locals, the Soviets as an extension of the Great Terror, the Nazis because Hitler wanted the area cleared of all non-Germans (but especially Jews) so that it could be colonized as the Americans did to the Wild West.

Then Hitler decided to go to war with Stalin, invading the rest of Poland, and points east to Moscow.  Naturally, the murder of anyone who wasn’t a German or immediately useful to the Germans came with them.   When Russia turned out to be harder to defeat than planned, the Nazis decided to ramp up killing Jews as an actual war aim–if they couldn’t actually win, they were at least going to take the Jews of Eastern Europe with them.

As the Soviet Union advanced towards the end of the war, they were no gentler than they had been before, and those caught between the two dictatorships suffered for it.

The book goes on to describe the post-war “ethnic cleansings”, where millions of people were moved across new borders to match their “nationality”, which only killed people incidentally.  Then it delves into Stalin’s efforts to rewrite history and make World War Two the Great Patriotic War when the forces of imperialism attacked the heroic Soviet Union, and only the Communists (especially the Russians) fought back.  Yes, some Jews were killed, but only as an incidental side effect to them being Soviet citizens.

There even seemed to be a movement by Stalin towards the end of his life to justify a new Great Terror against Soviet Jews–cut short by him dying.

This is all horrific material, and some readers may find it too strong to stomach.  Along with the mass murder, there’s torture and rape.  Nevertheless, it’s an important book with relevance to many modern topics, including the current state of affairs in the Ukraine.

The author believes that it’s not so much a matter of whether Hitler or Stalin was a worse mass murderer.  The Bloodlands were caused by both of them, separately and working to encourage each other.  Even the Western Allies are culpable to the degree they chose to overlook what Stalin was doing and had done, because Nazi Germany needed stopping.  The phenomenon must be studied and understood so that we can avoid it ever happening again.

The danger is not that we might be the victims, but that under the wrong circumstances, we might become the perpetrators.

The book contains multiple maps, an extensive bibliography, end notes and index, and an abstract that summarizes the main points of the book for the “too long, didn’t read” crowd.

Book Review: The Dumb Gods Speak

Book Review: The Dumb Gods Speak by E. Phillips Oppenheim

In 1937, the dying genius Mark Humberstone bequeaths his marvelous inventions to a Council of Seven to be used in the service of peace.  Shortly thereafter, the United States grants independence to the Philippines.  When the Japanese attempt to invade the newly freed islands, their entire fleet is rendered inert.

The Dumb Gods Speak

The story proper picks up on April 14, 1947, in Nice, France.  This is the headquarters of the mysterious International Bureau, an espionage organization run by Mark Humberstone, Jr. and a man named Cheng.  Much rumor swirls around the agency, and the person who calls himself Mr. Jonson has come to join it.  Little does anyone outside the agency realize that it is on the cusp of a great coup–the end of war!

This 1936 novel was written by E. Phillips Oppenheim, a prolific author who mostly wrote spy thrillers and is considered one of the founders of the subgenre.   This one goes beyond techno-thriller and into downright science fiction territory.  The International Bureau uses advanced television (roughly equivalent to satellite TV without the need for satellites) and EMP weaponry; there’s also what appears to be some sort of force field, but that’s only seen as a parlor trick.

The political situation has stayed stagnant (presumably at least in part due to the actions of the Bureau); World War Two never broke out,  but Germany is spoiling for a fight (no mention of the Nazis.)  About the only major change is that Japan has had to set aside its invasion of the mainland due to its naval disaster, allowing China to catch its breath.

The Bureau’s plan is to turn China and Russia into constitutional monarchies, thus making them strong and stable factors for peace.  (Oppenheim was British.)  With that, and the demonstration of the full power of the Humberstone devices, war will be impossible.  Mr. Oppenheim was clearly not familiar with the concept of guerrilla warfare.  He also believed and put into the mouth of a character that without religion as a motivating force, the Russian army would have zero morale and fall easily.  (World War Two disproved that; their leaders might have been bad, their supplies inferior, but the Soviet soldier’s will to fight against invaders is unquestionable.)

Period racism and sexism is on display; Prince Cheng’s plan nearly crashes and burns because he failed to take into account that a woman might not want to marry a man she doesn’t love just because he told her to.  There’s also some not so subtle anti-Semitism.  (One of the villains is mentioned as being obviously Jewish, and there are no other Jewish people in the book.)

Quite a bit of space is devoted to telling us how luxurious the main characters’ lives are, what they eat, the fine wines they drink (they also smoke) and the fancy clothes they wear.  Mr. Oppenheim’s books were very much a predecessor to James Bond in these matters.

Humberstone, Cheng and their respective love interests (everyone is kind of surprised to learn that Cheng actually loves the woman he’s marrying) are kind of smug and omnicompetent, except for that one major bump I mentioned earlier.  More interesting are Mr. Jonson, who is also an omnicompetent as bodyguard/hitman/stage magician, but his loyalties are unclear for most of the story; and Suzanne, a femme fatale who works for the Bureau, who is very fallible and relatively sympathetically portrayed.  (I should mention there are lines in gratuitous French scattered throughout the book without translation, most are easy to figure out from context.)

The actual villains of the story are mostly notable for being completely ineffectual.  Mr. Jonson or the Bureau have been several steps ahead of them all along.

The title is explained near the end, when Cheng explains that the gods of China, long silent, seem to speak to him (and possibly through him) to restore the fortunes of his beleaguered country.

Content warning:  There are a couple of suicides.

There’s some good writing, but Mr. Oppenheim is trying for more utopian wish-fulfillment than serious thinking about the future; I think you would be better served by seeking out his straight-up spy fiction.

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