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: Superheroes

Book Review: Superheroes edited by Rich Horton

Superheroes as we know them more or less started in the comic books of the late 1930s, with the most obvious first “true” superhero being Superman.  And comic books have largely shaped our perceptions of costumed superheroes ever since.  But sometimes prose is a perfectly acceptable way of writing about people with unusual powers and distinctive appearances who fight crime and injustice.  There have been quite a few anthologies of short stories in the field, and this is one of them.

Superheroes

The sixteen stories cover various aspects of the superhero genre, from the superheroes themselves, through supervillains, and to the civilians who have to try to survive in these larger than life worlds.  The lead story is “Sunlight Society” by Margaret Ronald.  A nethead (a cyborg able to interface with computers) is called in to deal with a virus in a superhero base’s computer.  But that’s not all he’s there for, and the information he seeks will cost him dearly.

“Wonjjiang and the Madman of Pyongyang” by Gord Sellar is the story of a South Korean superhero who’s been forced into the role of leader for a multi-national team operating in his homeland and sometimes in neighboring countries.  Unfortunately, politics has freed his North Korean nemesis, budget cuts have gotten Wonjjiang laid off, and our hero’s overbearing mother is pushing him to get married.  (Sadly, the one woman he’s interested in already has a boyfriend.)  One of the more “traditional” superhero stories in the book.

A couple of the stories are of special interest.  “Wild Card” by Leah Bobet is set in the Shadow Unit continuity, about a secret group of government agents that normally battle serial killers who’ve developed super-powers.  Except that this time, the “anomaly” has picked on someone whose personal mythology comes from comic books, and he’s decided to become a full-fledged super-villain.  Somewhat lighter than the usual Shadow Unit story.

Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn) contributes “Dirae.”  Suddenly in the city there’s a woman who appears out of nowhere to save lives like a real-life superhero, then vanishes again until the next rescue.  It’s told from the perspective of that woman as she slowly comes to realize she literally does disappear between those incidents, with no clue where she’s spending the rest of her time, if any.  She tries to work out who she really is and what’s happening to her.  Mr. Beagle is an excellent fantasy writer, and this is one of the best stories in the book.

The weakest story for me was “Secret Identity” by Kelly Link.  A young woman comes to a hotel to meet a man she got to know on the internet; by coincidence (or is it?) there’s a superhero convention going on at the same time.  The secrets she’s been keeping from her prospective lover are compared to a hero’s secret identity.  I didn’t like the main character and found most of the people she interacted with boring.  Overall, a decent collection of 21st Century superhero themed writing.

There’s some vulgar language and sexual situations in the stories, and a couple of them deal with euthanasia.  I’d recommend this to senior high students and up.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents Men of War edited by Paul Levitz

In 1977, African-American male leads in mainstream comic books were still countable on one hand (and don’t even ask about African-American women!)  But this also had the effect of making a comic with a black person on the front attention-getting.  And I suspect that at least some of the creation of “Gravedigger” came from that fact.

Showcase Presents Men of War

Gravedigger was the lead feature in DC Comics’ last-launched war comics series of the Bronze Age, Men of War.  He is introduced as Sergeant Ulysses Hazard, a polio survivor who threw himself into intense physical training (including martial arts) to overcome his handicaps.  Despite his superior physical condition and combat skills, Hazard was consigned to a segregated battalion and assigned to funeral detail (thus his codename.)  After his heroics saved lives (except his best military friend) and defeated Nazi troops, the white officers ignored his contributions and denied his request for reassignment to a combat unit.

In the second issue, Hazard somehow gets back to the U.S. and single-handedly infiltrates the Pentagon War Room to demonstrate his skills.  A character identified in that issue as the Secretary of War but in later issues demoted to an undersecretary (as his sliminess would have been a slur on the character of Henry L. Stimson, the actual Secretary at the time) decides to use Hazard as a political pawn.  If “Gravedigger” fails on one of the suicidal missions, he can be written off, but if he succeeds, the Undersecretary can take credit.

Now Captain Ulysses Hazard so that he can pull rank when necessary, Gravedigger returns to Europe and takes on a number of commando missions ranging from rescuing art from the Nazis to destroying an experimental mini-sub.  There are guest appearances by a couple of DC’s other war comics characters, and the final issue features Gravedigger actually leading Easy Company (normally the job of Sergeant Rock) for a few hours.

Gravedigger was basically “military Batman”, performing superheroic feats on a regular basis.  To be fair, this is common in comic books about commando-style solo characters, but if you are a stickler for realism, look elsewhere.  Later in the series, he gets a cross-shaped facial scar to give him more distinctive looks, important in comic books.  He even gets an archnemesis, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Minister of Propaganda, who enlists mad science in a massive scheme to rid the Reich of this one commando.

In the next to last story, Gravedigger personally saves the lives of Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, though an opportunity is missed to have Captain Hazard bond with FDR over their mutual experience with polio.

In addition to the expected violence, there’s also period racism, ableism and anti-Semitism (the last confined to Nazi characters.)

The back-up features varied from issue to issue.  “Enemy Ace” featured Baron Hans von Hammer, “the Hammer of Hell”, a World War I German fighter pilot.  He was depicted as noble and honorable, one of a dying breed of warrior outdated by brutal modern warfare.  Some of the stories have art by Howard Chaykin, who is not as well served by the black and white reprint as the other artists.

“Dateline: Frontline” was about American reporter Wayne Clifford, covering World War Two while the U.S. was still neutral, and having his naivete chipped away bit by bit.  He struggles with censorship, the temptation of writing the story to suit the person who can give you access, and the moral gray areas of war.

“Rosa” features a spy working in the late 19h Century who is loyal to no country, and has the habit of switching accents in every sentence either to disguise his nationality or (as he claims in a somewhat dubious origin story) because he is literally a man without a country.  His name might or might not actually be Rosa.  Most notable for having a character switch sides between chapters for plot convenience.

This volume contains all 26 issues, and is not brilliant but is decent work by journeymen creators.  Worth picking up if you are a war comics fan, or interested in the history of African-American characters in comic books.

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 2

Book Review: Nick Carter Volume 2 edited by Anthony Tollin

As noted in my review of the first volume, Nick Carter, Master Detective, was a long-running character who had three distinct phases.  These reprint volumes primarily cover his pulp magazine career.  The stories were written under the house name “Nick Carter,” even though they weren’t in first person.

Nick Carter, Volume Two

“Whispers of Death” by John Chambliss leads off the volume.  A Presidential Commission has met to decide if New York should have a federally-run electric power distribution system, ala the Tennessee Valley Authority, (still new in 1935 when the story was written.)  They’ve made their secret decision and sent it off to Washington so that the President can announce it in four days’ time.  But Mr. Ballard, the head of the commission, suspects something has gone wrong, and calls Nick Carter in for a consultation.  By the time Nick arrives, Ballard has been murdered!

The government orders Nick to keep this murder a secret, even from the police, so that the public won’t panic about what this means for the power industry.  This hampers his investigation considerably, although it’s clear that whoever the murderer is, Ballard knew them and it is almost certainly something to do with the commission’s decision.  And therefore the other members of the commission are the main suspects!

Nick Carter and his closest associates soon discover they’re up against a “whisper gang” that uses cleverly planted rumors to manipulate markets.  But who’s behind the gang?  They’ll need to do a lot of shooting, fist-fighting, escaping from death traps and, oh yeah, actual detective work to figure it out.

Of note is that the writer apparently was not aware of FDR’s physical limitations (or, since the President is never named, we are in an alternate universe) as he has him walking around freely.

There’s a touch of period ethnic stereotyping and sexism (it’s mentioned a couple of times how surprising it is that Nick’s female assistant Roxy is a competent operative.)

“Trail of the Scorpion” is by Thomas Calvert McClary, who also wrote “The Impossible Theft” in the first volume (and which is referenced in this story.)  Nick Carter receives a visitor who’s tattooed in a code known only to himself and one other person (who is not the person with the tattoo.)  A messenger will soon arrive beating a ring engraved with a scorpion, and the fate of far Iraghan hangs in the balance.

The identity of the story’s villain is quickly revealed, an usurper named McClelland, but the mystery is where that man hid the gold he looted from Iraghan’s treasury before he was expelled from that country.  Mixed up in this somehow is a con artist named Winnie the Weeper.  But is she working for McClelland, against him, or just for herself?

Nick gets into a lot of narrow scrapes in this one, having his guns and tools stolen more than once, and taking more head trauma than could possibly be good for him.  The trail takes him to Valdosta, Georgia and from  there deep into the Everglades.

There’s a lot of outdated ethnic stereotyping in this one, as McClelland is an equal-opportunity employer–to the point that one of the minor characters is known as “the Caucasian.”  There’s also some torture by the bad guys.

Another note for both these stories is that Nick Carter doesn’t get paid for either of these adventures, nor does he ever discuss his finances.

“The Voice of Crime”, an episode of the radio show version written by Walter B. Gibson (The Shadow) and Edward Gruskin, on the other hand, has Nick hurting for cash.  Enough so that when a safecracker known as “Vox” offers a $10,000 reward if Nick Carter can capture him, Nick is all too willing to take the too clever for his own good criminal as a client.  One gets the feeling that Nick really enjoys letting Vox think he’s outsmarted the master detective before puncturing his balloon.

“The Shadow Calling Nick Carter” is also by Walter B. Gibson with artist Charles Coll, an adaptation of the radio episode just mentioned in comic book form to turn it into a crossover with the Shadow.  It’s very slight, but a rare crossover by one of the original writers of the Shadow character.

Both of the magazine stories are very exciting, though the second one may have too many racist undertones for some readers.  Recommended for pulp fans.

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante

Book Review: Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante by Susan Elia MacNeal

It is late December, 1941.  The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor, and America is now at war with the Axis powers.  The United States’ alliance with Great Britain is now an active one, and to cement that alliance,  Prime Minister Winston Churchill has crossed the ocean to confer with  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Mrs. Roosevelt's Confidante

Accompanying Mr. Churchill is secret agent Maggie Hope, posing as a humble typist.  When Eleanor Roosevelt expresses worry about one of her employees who hasn’t shown up for work, Maggie volunteers to go with her to check on Blanche Balfour’s health.  As it happens, that young woman’s health is impaired by the fact that she’s dead, an apparent suicide.  There appears to have been a suicide note implicating Mrs. Roosevelt, but the note itself is missing.  Maggie smells foul play.

This is the fifth Maggie Hope mystery novel; I have not read the previous ones.  This volume is not much of a mystery from the reader’s point of view; we are privy to scenes Maggie is not, so it is really more of a thriller.  Also mixed into the plot are the upcoming execution of a young black man (whose trial stinks on ice) and the British intelligence service trying to find out about Germany’s rocket program.

Ms. MacNeal has done extensive research, and cites her sources in a “Historical Notes” section at the end.  This results in a lot of name-dropping and factoids scattered throughout the book.  I did spot one anachronistic reference; World War Two buffs will know it when they see it.

One of the themes of the book is that leaders are human; they have good qualities, but can also have unpleasant sides, wrong opinions, and do less than good things in pursuit of what they consider more important goals.  Both Maggie and her current lover, benched RAF pilot John, must make difficult decisions about their priorities and what will be the best course of action to win the war.

Thankfully, there’s at least one actual villain in the book to provide some moral clarity–they’re a bad person in every important way, and we can cheer Maggie on as she opposes them.  There’s also some Hope family drama back in England, presumably to set up the next volume in the series.

Maggie Hope herself is (as so often in historical mysteries) a woman way ahead of her time in attitudes and behavior.   It’s sufficiently supported by her special circumstances.

There’s period racism and to a lesser extent sexism and homophobia, as well as that apparent suicide.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries and spy thrillers.

Book Review: A Carnival of Buncombe

Book Review: A Carnival of Buncombe by H.L. Mencken

The 2016 presidential election campaign has already begun, so let’s take a look at a book about elections of the past, shall we?  H.L. Mencken (1880-1948) was a newspaperman, most famously on the Baltimore, Maryland Sun.  For a number of years, he had a weekly opinion column published on Mondays.  These 69 essays are focused primarily on presidential politics between 1920 and 1936.

a Carnival of Buncombe

That covers Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and the first two elections of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  Mr. Mencken skewers them all, as well as other politicians and public figures of the time.  He was famous for his barbs, and is eminently quotable.  For example “…going into politics is as fatal to a gentleman as going into a bordello is fatal to a virgin.”

It’s interesting to see what has changed about politics since the first half of the Twentieth Century, and what has remained the same.  It’s still amusing to watch a party’s primary candidates tear each other to shreds, then have to work together as best buddies once the party has an official nominee.  On the other hand, the Republican and Democratic parties of the time are barely recognizable as the organizations they are now.  (One can see the beginnings of the policy flips that lost the Dems the KKK vote.)

Mr. Mencken has a wide vocabulary and many useful words that may come in handy for your own writing.  But be warned that he also uses some ethnic slurs that were common at the time.  His views are progressive on some subjects, but highly reactionary on others, and he’s not afraid to speak his mind.  Mr. Mencken is particularly hard on Methodists and Baptists, who he feels bullied the country into Prohibition (which Mencken was against.)

H.L. Mencken did support some politicians on an individual basis, but was quick to edit his own memory of their performance when they disappointed him.  One also has to remember that he had a reputation as a curmudgeon to uphold.

To cover the major players, Warren G. Harding was a compromise candidate chosen for not having particularly strong views on anything; Calvin Coolidge was even less impressive (unless one takes the Jeffersonian dictum that “the government is best that governs least” in which case he is one of the greatest presidents.)  Herbert Hoover was sold to America as exactly the kind of person who could fix a financial crisis should one pop up–he wasn’t.  And FDR would have been better suited to the job of king.

Interesting historical perspective:  Mr. Mencken writes several times about the perception that Hoover was too close to the British, something that didn’t get any play in the little I heard about him in school.

This collection was put together in the 1950s with the aid of political history scholar Malcolm Moos; it already needed an extensive “glossary” of names mentioned in the columns to remind people of who they’d been.  Even with the glossary and index, some knowledge of early 20th Century American politics is vital to the reader getting anything but a few chuckles out of the text.  My copy is in bad shape, as you can see, but the book has been reprinted a few times, so check your library or used book store.

Recommended to students of American politics in the first half of the 20th Century.

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind

Book Review: Insurrections of the Mind edited by Franklin Foer

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  The copy I read was an uncorrected proof, and changes will be made in the final edition.  (Specifically, a second introduction by Leon Wieseltier–an index may also be forthcoming.)

Insurrections of the Mind

The New Republic magazine has its centenary anniversary this year, so a collected volume of some of the many interesting articles that ran in the magazine is an expected celebration.  For many years, the New Republic (so named because there was already a Republic magazine at the time) has been the home of many of the leading voices of liberal political philosophy.  But in addition to politics, it covers art and cultural events as well.

After an introduction which explains the history of the magazine, its ups and downs (Stephen Glass is cited as a mistake, and his writing is not represented), the remainder of the book is essays grouped by decade.  From “The Duty of Harsh Criticism” by Rebecca West to “The Idea of Ideas” by Leon Wieseltier, this book is jam-packed with thought-provoking work.

I especially liked the afore-mentioned Rebecca West piece (I am a reviewer, after all), “Progress and Poverty” by Edmund Wilson, which contrasts the opening of the Empire State Building with a ruined man’s suicide,”Politics and the English Language” by George Orwell, in which you can see some of the ideas that went into 1984, and”Here Comes the Groom: A (Conservative) Case for Gay Marriage” by Andrew Sullivan, which is what it sounds like.

Not every writer represented here saw the future clearly–some of them guessed very wrong about the issues and people they wrote about.  But all of them are worth at least checking out.

“But Scott,” you say, “I am not a liberal.  What is there for me in such a book?”  I recommend the essays “The Corruption of Liberalism” by Lewis Mumford, “The Liberal’s Dilemma” by Daniel P. Moynihan and “The Great Carter Mystery” by Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.  Liberals are not above raking each other over the coals, after all.

The book is due on shelves by the end of September 2014.  i recommend it to former readers of the New Republic (current readers should already be aware of it), 20th Century history students, the politically-minded, and those who enjoy a good essay.

Book Review: A Curious Man

Book Review: A Curious Man by Neal Thompson

Disclaimer:  I received this volume free from the Blogging for Books program, on the premise that I would write a review.

This is a biography of Robert Ripley (nee LeRoy Robert Ripley), the cartoonist who created the Believe It or Not! feature.  I was fascinated by the paperback reprints of the cartoons back in my boyhood, but knew little of the story behind the creator.

A Curious Man

This volume covers Mr. Ripley’s life from barefoot poverty in Santa Rosa, California, to his early career as a sports cartoonist, through his discovery of a love for bizarre factoids and the creation of his famous comic strip to his worldwide fame.    He became a world traveler, a millionaire, star of radio and newsreels and knew many beautiful women, all for doing something he enjoyed immensely.

Of course, he also had his faults; Mr. Ripley was a heavy drinker, sexist, racist by our current standards (though progressive for his time), could not keep it in his pants, and had a tendency to fudge facts about his own life the way he didn’t the stories in his cartoons.  He also became a more difficult person towards the end of his life as his health failed and his drinking and overwork caught up with him.

The story of Ripley’s life is told in mostly chronological order,  with little “Believe It!” factoids about the people and places mentioned.  There’s also the story of various supporters of Ripley; most importantly, Norbert Pearlroth, Ripley’s main research person who found many of the factoids that appeared in the comic.  (He actually stayed with the strip longer than Ripley himself!)

There is a black and white photo section in the middle, but if you have a smartphone, you can download an app with audio and video clips from Mr. Ripley’s many public appearances.  For those of you with multimedia capability, this will make the book a much better value for money.  There are extensive end notes and an index as well.

This biography benefits from the very interesting person at its center, and I would recommend it to any Believe It or Not! fans.

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition

Comic Book Review: The Forgotten Man Graphic Edition by Amity Shlaes & Paul Rivoche

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.  My copy was an uncorrected proof, and some changes will occur in the final edition (due out around May 2014.)

The Forgotten Man

This is a “graphic novel” version of the revisionist history book by Amity Shlaes in which she argues that the New Deal policies tended to prolong the Great Depression.  For this version, the story is told through the narration of Wendell Willkie, an electric utility executive that ran against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1940 election.

The black and white Rivoche art serves the subject well, although casting FDR’s face in shadow much of the time is an artistic choice that is perhaps a bit too obvious in its intentions.

The general notion is that government intervention in the economy was (and is) a bad thing, and that self-starting individuals such as the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous could have brought the country out of its slump much earlier.  It also tries to link several of the important figures in the Roosevelt Administration to Communism, a frequent bugaboo of neoconservatives.

That said, there were many missteps in the great experiment of the New Deal, and several of them get a mention here.  Some of them don’t come across quite as the author intended, I think, looking more like the result of bad individual decisions than bad government policy.

There are some really good bits in here, such as the running gag of Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon not talking.

The back has a (possibly misleading) timeline and economic chart, followed by a listing of the cast of characters.  The potted biographies carefully cut off as of 1940, which means that you will need to do your own research on such figures as Ayn Rand to see where they actually ended up.

As noted in the disclaimer, this is an uncorrected proof, and some dialogue balloons have missing words or badly constructed sentences, making them make little sense,  which will presumably be fixed in the finished product.

Fans of the original book should find this one interesting, as well as history buffs who enjoy graphic novels.  Those of you who are not familiar with economics may want to brush up a bit to more fully understand the positions being argued here.  In honesty, I’m recommending this one more for the art than the writing.

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