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.)

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

Book Review: Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott edited by Madaleine Stern

Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) is best remembered for her Little Women series of books for girls, but had quite a few other works to her name.  And some that were written under a pen name.  The latter included several short works published in sensational periodicals of the time, considered too spicy to be attached to her reputation as a schoolteacher.  The Alcott family suffered from poverty, and sales of “blood and thunder” stories were a nice way to earn emergency cash.

Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott

According to Ms. Stern, many of these works were lost for years because of the psuedonym and the ephemeral nature of the periodicals they appeared in.  She first became aware of them in the 1940s, but due to wartime conditions was unable to pursue the matter to a conclusion, and it was only in the 1970s that enough clues could be found to allow this collection of four representative stories.

“Behind a Mask ~or~ A Woman’s Power” leads off as the well-off Coventry family engages nineteen year old Scotswoman Jean Muir as a governess.  It seems that for various reasons, the sixteen year old youngest daughter Bella has had her education neglected, and she needs her basics down before her social debut.  Jean turns out to be a multi-talented young woman and quickly wins the hearts of most of the family.  However, when she retires to her new bedroom, Jean removes her makeup, wig and false teeth to reveal that she’s actually thirty–and a very skilled actor.

Jean Muir uses her wiles to entice the family’s two brothers, turning them against each other.  But in fact her ambitions are even higher.  And in the end, despite some setbacks, Jean succeeds in her primary goal!  This makes the story one of the relatively rare “bad guy wins” pieces of fiction.  On the other hand, it’s hard to be unsympathetic to Jean; she’s been dealt a bad hand by life, and in a pre-feminist society, her options are limited.  And to be honest, the ultimate outcome only leaves the Coventry family sadder but wiser.

One bit that may confuse younger readers–the elder brother buys the younger brother a “commission.”  At the time, the British Army allowed rich people to simply buy a lieutenant’s rank.  This worked out about as well as you’d think.

“Pauline’s Passion and Punishment” brings us to Cuba.  Pauline is a woman scorned; the handsome but financially embarrassed Gilbert wooed her, then went on what he described as a short trip–to marry another woman!  She comes up with a scheme to get revenge, and the handsome and wealthy Manuel is willing to marry her to help her get it.  They catch up with Gilbert and his new bride Barbara at a resort hotel.  Gilbert married “Babie” for money, only to find out it was tied up in a trust.  Pauline happens to be an old schoolmate of Babie’s, so she and Manuel have a social “in” to hang out with Gilbert and his wife.

Quite honestly, Pauline dodged a bullet when  Gilbert dumped her; he’s a gambling addict, heavy drinker and bad-tempered (warning for domestic abuse.)   Pauline could have just left it at showing how much better a couple she and Manuel were, living well as the best revenge.  But she just can’t resist twisting the knife, and that leads to tragedy.

There’s a bit of ethnic stereotyping of the “Latins are hot-blooded” type.  This story is illustrated with woodcuts from the original publication.

“The Mysterious Key ~and~ What It Opened” brings us back to Britain.  Lord Trevlyn and his wife are about to have their first child when a messenger arrives.  We do not find out immediately what message was brought, but at the end of the night, Lord Trevlyn is dead of a heart attack, Lady Trevlyn is prostate with shock (and her health never entirely recovers) and Lillian is born.

The story skips ahead to Lillian’s early adolescence, when a mysterious but very polite boy named Paul turns up and becomes a servant for the Trevlyn family.  He and Lillian get on quite well, but it’s clear that he has secrets, and then vanishes one night.

Several years later, Paul turns up again with the name Paolo Talbot.  He has made his fortune in Italy, and has returned to Britain with his cousin Helene.  Helene is blind (at one point mistaken for mentally handicapped by an uneducated person, who uses what was at the time the polite term, but “idiot” is no longer acceptable.)  Lillian thinks Paul is honor-bound to marry Helene, but the truth is far more convoluted.

This story is the weakest of the set, and could have used some punching up.

“The Abbot’s Ghost ~or~ Maurice Treherne’s Temptation” is a Christmas story.  The noble Treherne family has several guests staying over Christmastide.  Love triangles abound as a result.  Maurice has been confined to a wheelchair due to an accident, and it is deemed unlikely that he will ever walk again.  He was also disinherited by his late uncle for initially unspecified reasons, and is dependent on the charity of his cousin Jasper, who inherited the title and money.

Christmas is a time for ghost stories, and the Treherne house happens to have a resident spook, an abbot who was turned out of his home by a distant ancestor of the Trehernes.  It is said that an appearance by the abbot’s ghost foretells the death of a male member of the family.  Sure enough, the ghost appears (or is it a hoax?)  Who will die, and who will get married?

There’s an ethnic slur hurled by one of the characters, who is portrayed as unsympathetic at the time.

Three out of four stories involve possible cousin marriage; I wonder if that was really such a big thing back in the 1860s in Britain, or if Ms. Alcott just had a thing for that storytelling gimmick.

The writing is clear and direct, with a few obscure words and outdated pop culture references.  While apparently pretty daring for their time, there’s little in here that will shock modern readers.

Recommended for more mature Alcott fans, and those who enjoy romantic thrillers.

 

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles

Book Review: The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Once, Mars was a place of mystery.  Humans looked at it from the blue Earth with feeble telescopes, and imagined what life, if any, might inhabit that red dot in the sky.  Were there canals filled with water?  Bloodsucking tripod operators?  Beings that had never fallen from grace with God?   Ray Bradbury looked, and imagined stories of Martians and Earthlings, and the doom of both.

The Martian Chronicles

Several of the stories in this volume were written in the latter half of the 1940s, and then connected with interstitial material in 1950 to make a chronological narrative.  The book opens with “Rocket Summer”, when a January 1999 Ohio winter is interrupted with heat from exhaust tests on the launchpad.  It ends with “The Million-Year Picnic” as refugees from war-torn Earth arrive on Mars in October 2026, and see the new Martians.   In between is the coming and going of the human presence on Mars.

The first three expeditions to Mars all die; perhaps if the U.S. government hadn’t outlawed science fiction and fantasy (but apparently not religious texts) in the 1970s, they would have been  better prepared.  But they get posthumous revenge; in a nod to H.G. Wells, by the time the Fourth Expedition arrives, the majority of Martians have been killed off by a common Earth disease.

Wave after wave of Earthlings arrive, most of them from the United States, as it monopolizes the construction of interplanetary rockets.  In the story “Way in the Middle of the Air”, the entire black population of the Southern U.S. decamps to Mars.  (in this bleak future, race relations did not advance beyond the early 1950s; poll taxes have only recently been abolished as of 2003. and the Klan is still very active.)   One particularly virulent racist panics when he realizes he will soon not have African-American people to oppress!  There’s use of the N-word and other racist language, so this story is sometimes left out of school editions of the book.  Because of the stitched-together nature of the collection, this large population of emigrants is never mentioned again, and their fate is finally revealed in a completely different short story collection.

Eventually, once the early settlers have made the place relatively safe, the moral guardians who eradicated speculative fiction  on their homeworld arrive to make Mars just as joyless.  “Usher II” has a multimillionaire who is still hopping mad about their destruction of his library take revenge in inventive ways mostly inspired by Edgar Allan Poe.  Mr. Bradbury was tangentially involved with the comic book industry, which was undergoing the attacks (“think of the children!”) which would lead to the Comics Code.  He would return to the theme of book burning in Fahrenheit 451.  As a kid I could easily imagine boring grownups banning all the good stuff.

Eventually, atomic war breaks out on Earth, and most of the population of Mars returns to that planet in a probably vain attempt to help out their relatives or home nation.   “The Silent Towns” concerns one of the very few people left, a miner who’d been up in the hills without communication for a few weeks when everyone else took the rockets home.  He’s initially thrilled when he learns there’s a young woman also still on Mars, but isn’t pleased when he actually meets her.

Some of Bradbury’s stories from this time period showed a nasty streak of misogyny, and this is one of them.  Genevieve stayed on Mars because she’d been constantly bullied about her weight, but rather than treat her sympathetically, the narrative flow treats her as a gross monstrosity for daring to be fat, and indulging herself in ways roughly equivalent to those Walter had done earlier in the story.  Walter escaping and hiding from her for the next twenty years is treated as a happy ending.

“There Will Come Soft Rains” is also included in this collection, one of the most perfect short stories ever written.  After the atomic war on Earth, we look at the last day of a “smart house” that hasn’t quite figured out that all the humans in its city are dead.

One of the interesting things about the stories is that in the early ones, while the Martians are still flourishing, we see their petty sides and moral failings; but after they have mostly died off, those fall by the wayside and their great accomplishments and gentleness are emphasized.

Ray Bradbury really does have a gift for poetic turns of phrase, and his nostalgia for Midwestern small towns shines through.  Sometimes the poetry can get in the way of comprehensibility, or become self-indulgent, dragging on for a paragraph or two too long.  And of course, he made no attempt to be scientifically accurate even to what was known about Mars back in the day–he readily admitted that the stories were really fantasy.

Several of the stories were adapted for EC Comics, and there have been some television show versions as well.

The book is certainly well worth reading at least once, even if it will not be to everyone’s taste.

Book Review: The Infinite Arena

Book Review: The Infinite Arena edited by Terry Carr

Science fiction, in a way, is a very broad genre, that can easily contain stories of other genres within itself.  Thus space westerns, fantastic romance, star war novels and so forth.   In this case, we have a sample of sports stories set in science fiction terms.

The Infinite Arena

Lead batter in the lineup is “Joy in Mudville” by Poul Anderson & Gordon Dickson.  It’s a Hoka story as the imaginative aliens that look like sentient teddy bears have taken up the sport of baseball.  As is their wont, they have assumed the identities of fictional ballplayers of Earth, including the Mighty Casey, their best batter.  Unfortunately, their latest opponents, the Sarenn Snakes, are masters of psychological warfare.  Alexander Jones, the ambassador from Earth, must summon one of his rarely-appreciated talents to save the day.  It’s all very silly.

“Bullard Reflects” by Malcolm Jameson begins with the Space Patrol celebrating the Jovian armistice with athletic contests, including the sport of Dazzle Dart, played with flashlights and mirrors.  But it turns out not all the Jovians are honoring the armistice, and Captain Bullard’s Pollux is sent to track down diehards who’ve taken over an experimental weapons testing station.  Things look dark for the Patrol when they are ambushed and disarmed, but Bullard figures out a way to make the situation a Dazzle Dart game…to the death!  A fine bit of pulp writing, but Mr. Jameson piles the awesomeness of his heroes a shade high.  Not only are they the fleet champions in Dazzle Dart, but are best at all the other athletic contests too, and the Pollux is the only ship in condition to fly when the crisis arises as all the others slacked off when peace was declared.

“The Body Builders” by Keith Laumer posits a future in which most people who can afford it store their physical bodies away and use humaniform robots by telepresence.  Dueling has become a frequent occurrence thanks to the more or less disposable extra bodies, and the protagonist is a professional gladiator.  Which is all well and good until he’s tricked into a duel in his weak “pretty boy” body used for dates, as opposed to the monstrosity he uses for combat.   He sees no way out except to tarnish his honor temporarily in an effort to get to his backup bodies, but is eventually forced to resort to his original organic form–if this one dies, it’s curtains!  Some of the celebrities name-dropped as body models are now obscure, which may make reading the story a chore for the young.

“The Great Kladnar Race” by Robert Silverberg and Randall Garrett has Earthlings stuck on a backwater planet try to create some excitement by organizing a race of the local beasts of burden.   The twist ending is one that could have been thwarted easily if any of the Earthlings had bothered to ask the natives relevant questions.

“Mr. Meek Plays Polo” by Clifford D. Simak involves space polo.  Don’t know how that’s played?  Neither does Mr. Meek, a retired bookkeeper now touring the Solar System in the spaceship it took him a lifetime to save up for.  But he did see a game once, which is more than anyone else in the rowdy frontier of Saturn’s rings has to their credit.  So when the radioactive moss harvesters are talked into a game by a social worker trying to civilize them, Mr. Meek is drafted as a coach for one team, and eventually a replacement player.

As you might guess from his name, Mr. Meek is a timid fellow who tries to explain the reality of the situation, but no one is listening until he is so riled up that he bets his ship on the contest.  (Apparently, he keeps getting into this sort of situation.)  Oh, and there’s an infestation of metal-eating bugs to deal with; that can’t be good.  Things sort themselves out in the end.

“Sunjammer” by Arthur C. Clarke is more “hard” SF than most of the other stories, as solar yachts use the pressure of sunlight to have a race from Earth orbit to the Moon.  One of the ships is manned by the inventor of solar sails, after decades of work finally able to compete; but this will be his last chance.  Soon, solar flares will make it too dangerous to yacht, and he’ll be too old for the sport by the time it’s safe again.  This one has a bittersweet ending.

“Run to Sunlight” by George R.R. Martin is comparatively light considering his reputation.  A spaceport’s amateur football league is thrown into chaos when a team of heavy-worlders apply to play.  The government doesn’t want the coordinator of the league to reject the application as they’re trying to keep a peace treaty going, and this is an obvious propaganda moment.  But the aliens prove to have major advantages in the sport, and the war may start again if they can prove how weak the Earthling really are.  Good use of strategizing and using strengths and weaknesses, but true victory goes to the person with their priorities straight.

I liked the Laumer and Clarke stories best.  The stories were written from the 1940s to the 1970s, so there are none that feature female athletes, and the few women that do appear are largely useless in plot terms.  (The Laumer story has the protagonist choosing between a young woman who hates artificial bodies but genuinely likes his personality and a flashier woman who wants to get married for a five-year trial period so she doesn’t have to work anymore.)

Recommended to fans of “strange sports” stories and fans of particular authors who haven’t seen these stories before.  Check interlibrary loan or the finer used book stores.

Manga Review: Captain Ken 1 &2

Manga Review: Captain Ken 1 & 2 by Osamu Tezuka

Mamoru Hoshino lives on his family ranch on Mars near the town of Hedes.  Life in a backwater frontier town can get a bit stale, so he’s excited when he learns a distant relative, Kenn Minakami, is coming from Earth to live with them.   On the way to the spaceport, Mamoru runs into a gunslinger calling himself “Captain Ken.”  Although a boy no older than Mamoru himself, Ken is a skilled combatant and saves Mamoru’s life from an ambush.

Captain Ken

Realizing that he’s too late to get to the spaceport, Mamoru returns home to find that Kenn Minakami, a lovely girl, has just arrived.  Mamoru is shocked to discover that aside from the obvious, Ken and Kenn look exactly alike.  He begins to suspect that they’re the same person, but other problems become more pressing.

This 1960 manga series by Osamu Tezuka took the concept of a “space western” and ran with it.  In the backstory, the first human settlers on Mars were Americans, who noted the terrain’s resemblance to the legendary Wild West.  They promptly adopted Western garb and customs, as well as building robot horses to ride as wheeled vehicles were not suitable except in built-up areas.  Other countries’ immigrants more or less assimilated into that culture, except the Russians.

Unfortunately, another part of American history repeated itself as the Earthlings stole land from the native Martians and broke treaties with them, pushing them into the worst land, ever shrinking as the humans multiplied.

Captain Ken’s mission is a bit nebulous at first, although he does try to protect the natives from oppression by evil Earthlings.  Tezuka was well aware that most of the readers would have read Princess Knight (originally Ribon no Kishi) and would think he was repeating the trick of having a girl impersonate a boy or vice versa.  For most of the first volume, he makes sure no one ever sees Ken and Kenn together, and has them both engage in odd behavior that would make sense if they were the same person.   The real explanation turns out to be way weirder.

Captain Ken eventually decides to learn “Martian Shooting Style” which is actually only usable by people born under the heavier gravity of Earth.  This is important, as the deadly gunfighter Lamp knows the style and is loyal to the villains.  Everything climaxes as the Martians reveal they’ve been stockpiling weapons for years, and are now ready to kick all the aliens off Mars.  The ending is bittersweet.

This is very much a boys’ adventure series, with women relegated to minor roles (Kenn is more important as a motivation than as someone with agency.)  While this is a children’s story, Mr. Tezuka does not hold back on the violent action, and several people die.  (The story wobbles on whether Ken’s gun shoots lethal bullets.)  Sensitive readers may find it too intense.  There’s also a person who is dying of radiation poisoning, clearly inspired by Hiroshima survivors.

Parents of young readers may want to discuss the treatment of Native Americans, whether using guns is the best way to resolve problems, and perhaps the atomic bomb with their children.

This isn’t Tezuka’s best work, but it’s still well-written fun with his cartoony art.  Recommended to Tezuka fans, space western fans, and boys at heart.

Book Review: The Elfstones of Shannara

Book Review: The Elfstones of Shannara by Terry Brooks

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Elfstones of Shanarra

Long ago, before even the rise of the old humans, the good and evil faerie creatures had a great war.  At the end of it, the evil beings who would go down in legend as “demons” were sealed away in a dark dimension by the Forbidding, a barrier maintained by the tree known as the Ellcrys.  The elves have long protected the Ellcrys, through the rise of the humans, the Great Wars, the creation of the new human races, and even through the reign of the Warlock King.

But now the Ellcrys is dying, and the Forbidding with it.  Already a few demons have slipped out, and eons of imprisonment stewing in their own hatred have done nothing to improve their temperaments.  One of their first acts is to slay all the Chosen, those elves who could be used to replant the Ellcrys and restore the Forbidding.

The last Druid, Allanon, seeks out trainee healer Wil Ohmsford and renegade elf teacher Amberle to go on a perilous quest to find the mysterious Bloodfire while he and the elves fight a delaying action against the demon hordes.   Wil and Amberle gain and lose companions along the way, while Ander Elessedil, second son of the Elf King, must muster the armies of elves and their allies on the homefront.

This was the second of the Shannara books, and generally considered an improvement over the first as it moved away from the Tolkein-derivative plot and themes of the previous volume.  It’s worth noting that the Shannara books were the first fantasy doorstoppers to become big hits when first written–The Lord of the Rings took quite a while to find acceptance.  As such, they opened the floodgates for other weighty tomes of magic and monsters.

Wil and Amberle are reluctant heroes, to say the least.  They have careers they’re much more interested in than gallivanting off to save the world.  Wil suspects that Allanon isn’t being entirely truthful about the nature of the quest (which is correct) and Amberle has her own reasons for not wanting to return to her homeland, although we don’t find out the full details until nearly the end.

Allanon is fallible; he has lived too long by secrecy, and feels compelled not to reveal certain details, which means that those who’ve been burned by him before do not trust him.  He is overconfident in his ability to predict the enemy’s moves, and misses an important clue that hampers everything the good guys try to accomplish.  And he realizes very late in the story that all the secrets needed to fight future problems will die with him if he doesn’t find an apprentice soon.

Ander is a more traditional heroic figure, who steps out of his brother’s shadow to become a competent and charismatic leader when his country needs him.

Female roles are a bit iffy; while the Roma-like Rovers have aspersions cast on them for treating their women as servants at best, there are no women in the councils of the elf kingdom  or any other place shown–no woman rises above the post of innkeeper in this story.   Other than Amberle, the only prominent woman is Eretria, a fiery Rover girl who takes a fancy to Wil, and is primarily characterized by her attempting to get him to reciprocate.  Wil has to be repeatedly reminded to consult Amberle on plans he makes for both of them.

This book is also the one that started the Shannara tradition of bittersweet endings; Mr. Brooks has no hesitation about killing off major characters.

Overall, a good epic fantasy novel slightly hindered by the author’s then blind spot about female characters.  Worth looking up if you somehow missed the Shannara series in the past.

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