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: The Fall of the Towers

Book Review: The Fall of the Towers by Samuel R. Delany

Five hundred years after the old civilizations perished in the Great Fire, the Toromon Empire occupies all the known livable space on Earth.   But they are hemmed in by deadly radioactive belts and there’s nowhere for it to grow.  And yet–and yet, the Empire is not alone and there is something beyond the barrier…is it the enemy the Toromon government claims?

The Fall of the Towers

This science fiction trilogy is an early work by noted author Samuel R. Delany.  I have previously reviewed the first part, Out of the Dead City and it would be best if you read that review first.  To briefly recap, escaped prisoner Jon Koshar, the Duchess of Petra, and scarred giant Arkor are contacted by a disembodied intelligence called the Triple Being to battle another disembodied intelligence, The Lord of the Flames, which is interfering with humanity.  This is set against a backdrop of the Empire preparing for war with its unknown enemy.

The Towers of Toron:  It has been three years since the climax of the previous volume.  The war with the enemy beyond the barrier is in full swing, although it is impossible to tell how well it is doing, as none of the soldiers ever return.  The Lord of the Flames has returned to Earth, and must be rooted out again regardless of the cost.

The emphasis shifts somewhat in this volume, with two previously minor characters taking on new importance.  Clea Koshar, physicist and math genius (and Jon’s sister) is in hiding.  She is suffering what we would now call PTSD due to her war work, and is triggered by a common patriotic phrase, so has holed up in a boarding house under an assumed name and tries to avoid interacting with anyone.  Towards the end of the book, she begins to heal with the aid of circus acrobat Alter.

Runaway fisherman’s son Tel joins the army and is sent into the war.  Anyone who’s ever been through basic training (and quite a few who haven’t) will recognize that the training sequences don’t make any sense–which is only the first clue that something is very wrong here.  Once Tel is in the war itself, it turns out to be a murky affair, mists constantly concealing everything even a few feet away, constantly repairing machinery of unclear purpose, and random lethal attacks by an enemy that is never actually seen.

While banishing The Lord of the Flames is a necessary thing, it is not sufficient to stop the war.  That will take an unprecedented act of communication and understanding.

The City of a Thousand Suns:  A month after the events of the previous book, the war appears to be over, but one of the participants hasn’t put down their arms, and the consequences of the war are coming home to the island of Toron, where the Toromon Empire is centered.

On another front, actions taken by the Triple Being earlier in the trilogy have left their agents susceptible to influence by The Lord of the Flames, which is starting its endgame, to learn how to make war against the universe.  The Earthlings must finish their final mission without the direct aid of their sponsors.  That mission: collect three books that represent the finest thinking of humankind.

One of the authors comes directly on stage for the first time in the trilogy:  poet Vol Nonik.   He’s finally gotten out of the street gang he was in, but former rival gang leader Jeof still holds a grudge.  He and his minions attack Vol and his artist wife Renna, crippling the poet and murdering the woman.  This tips Vol Nonik over the edge into despair..which is good for his poetry…maybe?  He’s not so sure.

This volume is heavy on the Big Ideas as it wraps up the themes of the trilogy.  Creating new perceptions by forcibly moving a person from one setting to another, the question of whether it’s better to fix sick social systems or just let them go smash, and of course, the meaning of life.  One of the recurring images is the gambling game Randomax, which appears  as random as the name suggests, but is actually easily manipulated by those with higher math skills.

There’s more sexism as the trilogy continues, less, I think, from the author himself than from the social assumptions he’s working with.  There’s also a fair amount of “fantastic racism” as prejudice against the Neo-Neanderthals and the gigantic forest guards comes up every so often, and within the forest guard culture, how they treat their telepathic minority.

The closing chapters become clumsy, with hallucinatory paragraphs meant to show a poet plunging into suicidal madness, and a huge infodump by the Triple Being to explain what The Lord of the Flames really is and how it was working behind the scenes of the final book.  The Lord never becomes a character in its own right, and we will just have to accept the Being’s word that it is no longer a threat.

But then there is the city of a thousand suns, and perhaps there is hope for the future after all.

Recommended for Delany fans and those interested in the roots of New Wave science fiction.

Book Review: Scammunition

Book Review: Scammunition by Colleen J. Pallamary

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads Giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or received.

Scammunition

Colleen Pallamary has been working as a volunteer to protect senior citizens and others from scams and swindles for over a decade in Florida.  This book is designed to inform people about the most common tricks she has encountered and how to combat them.  It’s arranged in short chapters covering such topics as phony contractors, fraudulent travel agencies (and employment scams promising to make you a travel agent) and malware.

To be honest, most of this is pretty basic material that would seem like common sense–but scammers still catch people with these tricks every day.  It’s certainly worth reading through just to refresh your memory.  About a third of the book is a listing of Better Business Bureau offices and government agency contact information for the United States and its territories, which will be especially helpful if you are dealing with a multi-state scam operation.  Although this book was published in 2012, these sorts of addresses tend not to change so the vast majority of them should still be good.

However, the chapters on cybercrime have already become a little dated–check the latest government warnings for new angles con artists have found.

This book was self-published, and it’s very obvious with the heavy use of public domain clip art, pithy mottoes and reproduction of government forms.  I did not spot any obvious typos, which is a huge plus at this end of the market.  Those with e-readers may want to go with the cheaper electronic version as there’s no real loss of quality.

Recommended for seniors, soon-to-be seniors, and close relatives of seniors, but usable by any adult who wants to be careful with their money and credit.

Comic Book Review: Roy Thomas Presents: Planet Comics, Vol. 1

Comic Book Review: Roy Thomas Presents: Planet Comics, Vol. 1

Comic books were still a very new thing in 1940, and the publishers were still trying to figure out what there was a market for.  Science fiction themes seemed popular, so Fiction House created the pulp-inspired Planet Comics to appeal to fans of rockets and aliens.  This volume collects the first four issues, including some of the advertisements.

Planet Comics, Vol. 1

After a brief introduction by Carmine Infantino, which is mostly about the fact that he had nothing to do with any of the included material, we get right down to some luridly colored adventures.  Dick Briefer was the artist on “Flint Baker and the One-Eyed Monsters of Mars”, the first story in the volume and perhaps the most complex.  Mr. Baker has designed and built a spaceship, but no sane people want to go on a trip to Mars with him.  So he pulls political strings to have three murderous mechanics freed from Death Row if they’ll volunteer for the voyage.

After takeoff, it’s discovered that Mimi Wilson, a reporter for the New York Globe, has stowed away on the ship.  Flint is quickly *ahem* convinced to let her stay aboard.  The three convicts tell their stories, and amazingly, all three of them were actually guilty.  The first one does claim self-defense, but the second decided to shoot his sister’s fiance at the altar on the grounds that he was “rotten.”  The third man, Grant, claims to have been forced to murder by a mysterious man with hypnotic powers.  Hmm….

It turns out that Mr. Baker’s is not the first expedition to Mars.  As the ruler of the light side of Mars and his daughter Princess Viga explain, the Earthmen were criminals, and exiled to Mars’ dark side (protip:  Mars does not have a “dark side”) where even now they plot to conquer the peaceful Martians.  The word “they” turns out to be misleading.  Their leader, Sarko, has murdered the others and seized control of an army of one-eyed monsters.

There is a fierce battle, during which the named women are captured, and the King of Mars gives up.  The Earthmen are made of sterner stuff and infiltrate the enemy headquarters.  Sarko is planning to kill Viga to prevent any opposition to his eternal rule, and is going to give Mimi immortality to be his Empress.  Turns out that Sarko was the man who forced Grant to murder and then left him in prison to rot–they both wind up dead.  But more adventures next month!

Other standout characters are the Red Comet, a mystery man who can shrink and grow at will thanks to a special belt, Amazona, last woman of a superior Arctic race, and Auro, Lord of Jupiter, who was raised by a saber-tooth tiger.  Spurt Hammond is not so special in and of himself, being a standard two-fisted space pilot, but he battles the Lunerzons, woman warriors of the Moon with a vaguely Chinese culture, who are easily defeated when their leaders both get the hots for Spurt.

Art by Dick Briefer
Just look at this car. Is it not magnificent? Art by Dick Briefer.

 

The design aesthetic is very pulp SF, which leads to some fascinating spaceships and cityscapes.  But much of the art is crude, and some of the stories have lazy pages of big panels with little art in them.  Often the stories are disjointed and somewhat nonsensical; this is most obvious with the Fletcher Hanks “Tiger Hart” piece which is apparently a medieval story with a couple of word balloons edited to make it happen on Saturn.

There’s no real depth of theme in these stories, just plenty of action.  Be warned, there’s some period racism (seriously, a global invasion by what appear to be Eskimos?) and sexism.  For most people, I’d recommend checking to see if you can find this through your public library.  Only the most fanatical Golden Age collectors (like me) are likely to want to own it.

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Book Review: The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business by Lan Bercu

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

The 36 Ancient Chinese Strategies for Modern Business

Beginning some time in the late 1970s, when it became obvious that Japan had become an economic powerhouse, American businesses began taking an interest in Asian philosophies that might explain why companies from those areas were doing so well, especially in industries where America was faltering.   Thus, books for business explicating on The Five Rings, The Art of War and so forth have been written and often sold well.

This is the latest book in that tradition.  The author was born and raised in Vietnam, where The 36 Strategies, a text on warfare believed to have been compiled during China’s Warring States period, is read by schoolchildren.  She has since found the information included helpful in her career as a speaker on business and international matters.

The main text is divided into thirty-six short chapters, one for each strategy.  Each starts with a short story about ancient Chinese warfare, then one or more examples of how modern businesses have implemented these strategies, whether by name or by chance.  This is followed by translation into more basic tips, and questions for the business to ask itself based on the strategy.

Some of the strategies have poetic sounding titles, like “slough off the cicada’s golden shell” or “borrow a corpse to resurrect a soul”, while others are more plain-spoken, like “kill with a borrowed knife.”   The strategies themselves, however, tend to be simple to understand, if sometimes difficult to apply to a given situation.  That last bit is why they’re arranged by type; some are better when you have a clear advantage, others when you’re on the defensive or in a losing position.

It should be noted that the more literal applications of some of these strategies to business, such as “replace the beam with rotted timbers” and “deck the tree with false blossoms” may be considered unethical, and in some cases are outright illegal.  The author points out that businesses (and customers) should be aware of these strategies anyway, to help defend against them.

The short chapters and copious examples make this a good read for the busy person on the go; this is one time I would suggest buying the e-book version.  The book comes with an ad for the author’s services, bibliography and an index.

The utility of this book will depend on whether you already have another of the books relating the 36 strategies to business.  If so, you may not need this one.  This book also has a lot of synergy with The Art of War, so you may want to invest in one of the business books that concentrate on that text as well.

In war, do not repeat the tactics that have gained you one victory.  Rather, let your methods be determined by the infinite variety of circumstances. — Sun Tzu

Movie Review: South Pacific

It is World War Two, somewhere in the South Pacific.  Marine Lieutenant Joe Cable (John Kerr) has been assigned to infiltrate a Japanese-held island and report on their military movements in preparation for an American offensive.  He wants to recruit French plantation owner Emile de Becque (Rossano Brazzi), who is very familiar with the island in question.

South Pacific

M. de Becque is not keen on this idea, as he is courting young and pretty nurse Nellie Forbush (Mitzi Gaynor).  His mission stalled for the time being, Lieutenant Cable accompanies rough Seabee NCO Luther Billis (Ray Walston) to the nearby island of Bali Hai.  There Cable starts a romance of his own with native girl Liat (France Nuyen) under the watchful eye of her mother Bloody Mary (Juanita Hall).

But there is a war on, and the Americans are not so free of prejudice as they would like to imagine.  Before the story is over, there will be heartbreak and loss.

South Pacific is a 1958 film based on the extremely popular 1949 musical by Rodgers & Hammerstein, itself based on stories by James Michener.  Outdoor locations were shot in Hawaii, standing in for the far away islands.

First off, the music is great.  Almost every song is a winner.  The dancing is good, and the acting is fairly high quality (some of the dialogue is a bit much.)  And Hawaii is very pretty.

The anti-racism message comes through loud and clear, despite the limitations imposed by the Hays Code (which was pretty strict about portrayals of miscegenation.)  Nellie in particular struggles with her prejudices.  She likes to think of herself as open-minded, as opposed to her mother back in Little Rock, Arkansas.  She’s okay with Emile being twice her age, and having killed a man once (as long as it was for a good reason.)  But him marrying a Polynesian woman and having children with her…that Nellie has a lot more trouble accepting.

I was also amused by something related to my current course in Economics–Bloody Mary is an entrepreneur.  The influx of American military personnel to the island has created a boom market for native handicrafts.  Bloody Mary has hired a bunch of her fellow islanders to make these items, at what are to American standards ridiculously low wages.  But they’re double the wages the French planters were paying for laborers and servants.  This has caused a labor shortage on the plantations.  But rather than raise the wages they pay, the planters complain to the U.S. military about the unfair competition!

The most glaring problem the movie has is the overuse of soft focus and “mood lighting” through the use of color filters.  During the first “Bali Hai” number it kind of works to convey the mystical nature of the island,   But it soon gets out of hand.  The director, Joshua Logan, actually apologized in public; he hadn’t realized how garish the color filters were going to look up on the big screen.

There’s also a pacing issue with the big lump of war movie that shows up in the second half of the film, which is jarring after the rest of the movie has been almost non-stop musical.

Speaking of which, the movie shows its stage play roots by having several minutes of black screen at the beginning while the overture plays, more of this as an intermission,  and at the end with the postlude.   If you are watching this with children who have never seen formal theater before, you may want to explain the idea to them.  Perhaps rig up a little curtain on your TV to be lifted to echo the experience.

As the story is set on a tropical island, there are a lot of shirtless men and some bathing costumes that are risque by 1940s standards.   There’s also brief long-shot backside nudity at the beginning of the movie, apparently allowed by the Code under some sort of National Geographic exemption.  Some viewers may find Bloody Mary’s matchmaking of her daughter to the lieutenant very uncomfortable.  I know I did, the fact that it makes sense in the local culture notwithstanding.

Overall, a flawed film, but well worth seeing for the music and the beautiful scenery (when it isn’t being obscured by the color filters), with a message that is still relevant today.

Book Review: George W. Hamilton, USMC: America’s Greatest World War I Hero

Book Review: George W. Hamilton, USMC: America’s Greatest World War I Hero by Mark Mortensen

Disclosure: I received this book through a Firstreads giveaway, on the premise that I would review it.

George W. Hamilton, USMCEveryone who served in a military in World War One is dead, and we’re rapidly coming up on the centennial of the Great War itself. I expect we’ll be seeing a flood of books, TV series and films on the subject. So it’s no surprise that someone decided to do a biography of George W. Hamilton, one of the most impressive people involved in the war.

It’s not as good a book as it could be, however. The problems start with the introductory material, which overdoes trying to sell the reader on why this book should be written about this person. Some of the famous Marine terseness would have served well here.

Major Hamilton did not keep a journal and did not get around to writing his memoirs, and very few of his letters are still in existence. To cover for this lack of primary source material, particularly in the earlier chapters, the author lists various historical timeline events that Hamilton might have heard about or been in the vicinity of. There’s also a fair amount of attempted mindreading.  “Hamilton would surely have been interested in…”

Once the book gets to Hamilton’s war service, the book gets more solid–probably both because of the extensive documentation of events, and because it’s the meat of the story. I’ll just say that the subtitle of the book is well supported.

The disappointing and short post-war years are covered, followed by a “where are they now” segment for people George W. Hamilton was close to. There’s a postscript that sounds like the author’s attempt to start another attempt to get Hamilton the Medal of Honor (arguably, he was robbed.) Extensive footnotes, a fine bibliography and an index round out the volume.

The book is primarily intended for schools and libraries, and is retailing at $45 a pop; I’d suggest checking your local library for a copy and skipping straight to the war chapters.

Book Review: Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific January 1942-April 1943

Book Review: Fortress Rabaul: The Battle for the Southwest Pacific January 1942-April 1943 by Bruce Gamble

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

Fortress Rabaul

This is the second of three books about the Southwest Pacific campaign during World War Two.  The first book covered the fate of Lark Force, an Australian army unit stationed on New Britain when the Japanese invaded.  The first few chapters of this book recap much the same events, but from the perspective of the air battles.

Rabaul was a small town on New Britain (north of Australia) which had an excellent harbor, but with pretty much constant volcanic activity keeping the local population from getting too comfortable.    Its position made it the best place for the Japanese to build airfields and harbor ships to dominate the Southwest Pacific and prepare for their invasion of Australia.

This is a book dense with information, with detailed reports on many of the air battles in the area.   There are a few black and white photos, but extensive endnotes.  There is a bibliography, and an index which has separate categories for ships, planes and military units

The repeated air battle reports get a bit tedious, enlivened once in a while with a particularly poignant moment.   It was somewhat startling to see just how ill-prepared Australia was for the air war, and how little the initial American forces were able to do.  So many airmen dead, so many vanished, their fate unknown.

The volume ends with the mission that shot down Admiral Yamamoto in 1943, and the definitive turnaround in the course of the war.  The rest will be told in the final book.

This book will be best appreciated by military history buffs, World War Two buffs, wargamers, and those whose relatives fought in the long campaign.

ETA:  Here’s a Japanese propaganda song of the era, with footage of Japanese planes.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oaEa5O3B-KI

Do you like videos with book reviews?  If so, comment.

 

 

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