Tag: Book Review

A New Look at Colditz

 

Colditz was a World War II prisoner-of-war camp run by Germany. It was the place incorrigible escapers and special political prisoners were sent. It is one of the best-known German POW camps, thanks to one escapee, P. R. Reid. Postwar, he wrote a book about his exploits, giving birth to a genre of escape literature about Colditz castle.

“Prisoners of the Castle: An Epic Story of Survival and Escape from Colditz, the Nazis’ Fortress Prison,” by Ben MacIntyre is the latest edition to the canon. MacIntyre takes a fresh look at the castle adding new research to previously published sources. Can anything be added to the story? The answer is yes.

Time has distanced us from the events at Colditz during World War II. The participants are all dead. The Iron Curtain, which separated those writing about the story from where the story took place, has fallen, allowing free Western access to Colditz castle. MacIntyre takes advantage of all of this to provide an unparalleled look at what happened.

Spellbinding Fairy Tales with a Modern Twist

 

Fairy tales served as medieval entertainment. They were cautionary tales, with advice about how to live your life as much as fables. They were not just for children.

“Odd Magics: Tales For The Lost,” by Sarah Hoyt, are a dozen updated fairy tales, snatched from traditional roots and garbed in modern clothing. Hoyt has taken stories you read as children, giving them her unique spin.

They are all there, The Frog Prince, Cinderella, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty, and seven more. No longer set in Never-Neverland, they take place in 21st-century America (mostly Colorado).

A Socialite Turned War Correspondent

 

In 1935 socialite Virginia Coles was a society-girl columnist for toney magazines like Harper’s Bazzar, writing about fashion and gossip. She traveled the world writing light pieces about the places visited. Then in Italy she encountered Mussolini and his fascists and her career took a different turn. She became a war correspondent.

“Looking for Trouble: The Classic Memoir of a Trailblazing War Correspondent,” by Virginia Cowles tells that story. It is her memoirs during the period 1936 through 1941, collected from the columns she wrote for various US magazines over that period.

During that period she was everywhere. She covered the Spanish Civil War, her first attempt at being a war correspondent. She was the only correspondent to report from both sides of the conflict, visiting both Republican and Nationalist Spain during the struggle.  It proved addictive. From there she went on to cover events in Europe as the continent slid into World War II.

Looking for a Publisher, Pre-Printing Press

 

Sir Thomas Malory is dead. Anthony Tanner learns of his friend’s death when he arrives at Newgate Prison, where Malory had been imprisoned.  Three of Malory’s friends and supporters need advice from Tanner on the handling of Malory’s life work, “L’Morte de Arthur.”

“Malory’s Quest, a novel by Helen Lewis, follows the adventures of Tanner, Malory’s men, and the fate of Malory’s manuscript. Set in the aftermath of the 1471 Battle of Barnet (where Tanner fought for the losing side), it shows them attempting to carry out Malory’s posthumous wishes for the disposal of the manuscript.

The Newgate Three, Malory’s scribe Monty Pickle, his stationer Jack Works, and his servant, John “Pom” Appleby, were charged with placing the manuscript in the archives of Westminster Abby. Being London born and bred, they have no idea how to get there. The well-traveled Tanner (a soldier and spy), advises them, intending to accompany them.

The Bad Boy of the Union Army

 

Few today remember Benjamin Butler. Those that do generally consider him an incompetent Union general during the American Civil War, or as “Spoons” Butler, enriching himself through stealing silver from Confederate sympathizers while he was military governor of New Orleans.

“Benjamin Franklin Butler: A Noisy, Fearless Life,” by Elizabeth D. Leonard, is a new and sympathetic biography of Butler. It reveals the beauty within “Beast” Butler. It also explains how he obtained his “Beast” Butler reputation.

Butler’s defense of the downtrodden, especially his support of black and women’s rights, led to the disdain of his peers and hatred from post-war Lost Cause Confederates. He was pugnacious and never forgave a slight.

Numbers Too Large (and Small) to Count

 

At one point in the children’s novel “The Phantom Tollbooth,” its protagonist, Milo, sets out to reach infinity. When he abandons the quest as hopeless, he is advised “Infinity is a poor place.”

“Fantastic Numbers and Where to Find Them: A Cosmic Quest from Zero to Infinity,” by Antonio Padilla, holds a different view. As the author shows, infinity can be terrifying, but it is filled with an endless amount of numbers.

This is not a book just about numbers. It is about the relationship between numbers and physics, and how the world works at both the largest and the smallest scales. The numbers Padilla examines are fantastic in two senses. They are so extreme as to challenge belief and they are so extravagant as to seem fancy. And they define how the universe works.

Who’s Killing the Actors of Rome?

 

In 1989 Lindsey Davis first wrote about the adventures of Marcus Didius Falco, a Roman informer (private investigator) in First Century AD Ancient Rome. After 20 novels Falco aged out. Davis continued introduced a new line of mystery novels featuring Falco’s adopted daughter, Flavia Albia as the investigator.

“Desperate Undertaking,” by Lindsey Davis is the tenth Flavia Albia novel. It starts at Saturnalia. Domitian is Emperor. Falco is off out of Rome, celebrating the season. Flavia Albia is holding down the fort at Falco’s auction house.

When an old acquaintance of Falco shows up, seeking to hire Falco for an investigation, Albia does what Falco taught her to do and would expect her to do. She poaches his client, convincing the man to hire her for the investigation. Chremes runs a theatrical troupe with his wife Phrygia. He was murdered in a particularly gruesome way, crucified, mimicking the final scene of the play Laureolas. (The play ends with the death by crucifixion of the main character, usually played by a condemned criminal. Theater in Ancient Rome was a full-contact sport.)

A Journalist and a Spy

 

Katherine Clark was an investigative reporter active between the 1940s and 1960s. She was the first female Allied war correspondent entering Berlin in 1945. Her 1950s beat was Eastern Europe. There she spoke truth to power, what investigative reporters are supposed to do. But she spoke the wrong kind of truth about the wrong kind of power. So, unlike those widely lionized today, like I.F. Stone, Clark has been allowed to be forgotten. Until now.

“The Double Life of Katharine Clark: The Untold Story of the American Journalist Who Brought the Truth about Communism to the West,” by Katharine Gregorio, brings Clark’s biography to the attention of a new generation of Americans. What a story it is.

Gregorio focuses the story on Clark’s Eastern European years, when Clark covered anti-Soviet uprisings in Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. More importantly, it reveals her efforts on behalf of Milovan Djilas, one-time vice-president of Yugoslavia. An ardent Communist who became disaffected with Communism, he was stripped of his position and the privileges and power that went with it after speaking up against its totalitarianism.

Seeking Revenge Becomes Something Else

 

Gregory Roarke is a Trailblazer. He and his Kadolian partner Selene conduct surveys of unexplored worlds. It does not pay as well as bounty hunting, the pair’s previous career. Trailblazing covers the bills, barely. And that only if you include the money they make diverting samples from their hiring client for resale elsewhere and unskilled short-term jobs they take between trailblazing contracts. It is safer than bounty hunting. That cost Roarke an arm before he quit.

“The Icarus Plot,” by Timothy Zahn, follows Roarke and Selene. As the book opens, they are one step away from getting their spaceship seized to cover debts. Things get worse when Roarke gets fired from his job as server cum bouncer at a bar. They stand to lose everything.

A reprieve comes through a thuggish sort named Geri.  He and an associate named Freki hire Roarke and Selene to survey of Bonvere Seven, a Terran-type planet. They pay well, and Selene is able to identify a very marketable seed, samples of which they extract and hide from their employers. Only the whole point of hiring them for the survey was to catch the two in an illegal attempt to hide samples from the employer.

Who Really Killed the Unpleasant Lord?

 

Kitty Worthington is back for her third adventure in solving crime. In her first, she prevented her brother from being convicted of murder. In the second, she saved her sister’s fiancé from a murder charge.  Now she had a new challenge.

“Murder at the Masked Ball,” by Magda Alexander, follows the same template as the first two books. It is the 1920s, and Kitty Worthington, the youngest child in her wealthy family, is trying to avoid her mother’s attempts at matchmaking.  But she stumbles into a murder, one of her friends and relations seems to be the guilty party, and it is up to Kitty and her crew to prove otherwise by finding the actual culprit.

In this case, the accused is her good friend Lord Newcastle. He has carried a torch for Lady Wakefield since before World War I. He even proposed marriage to her, only to be turned down by her family. (He was not then Lord Newcastle, only inheriting the title and fortune due to the death of other heirs during World War I.) Rather than allowing Lady Wakefield to marry a penniless love, they forced her to marry the wealthy Lord Wakefield. He turned out to be as cruel as he was wealthy, regularly beating his wife for failing to produce an heir.

A Pilot’s View of the Battle of Britain

 

Ian Richard Gleed was one of Churchill’s few, the RAF fighter pilots who fought the Battle of Britain and defeated the Luftwaffe. He put his experiences down on paper, detailing his experiences during the Battle of France, The Battle of Britain, and the 1941 nighttime Blitz.

“Arise to Conquer: The ‘Real’ Hurricane Pilot,” edited by Dilip Sakar is a new release of this classic. Sakar adds an extensive introduction, framing this forgotten story for the modern reader. It also contains footnotes that explain Gleed’s slang and technical terms which might baffle today’s readers.

Gleed’s memoirs were originally published in 1942. It was one of the earliest first-person accounts of the battle available to the public. Although fictionalized, it shows what it was like to be a fighter pilot during the opening days of World War 2. You experience Gleed’s triumphs, terrors, and disappointments.

Wheat and Its Role in Civilization

 

Do empires build trade routes or do trade routes build empires? Have the United States and Russia been locked in an economic rivalry since the 1860s? Was World War I triggered by international grain trade and the desire of Russia to control Constantinople?

“Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World,” by Scott Reynolds Nelson, examines these questions and much more. It is a study of grain, its trade routes, and the impact grain trading has had throughout history. Bread is the staff of life. Nelson follows it from prehistory to the present.

Nelson’s theme is simple: food production drives history. Abundance or absence creates or destroys empires, fuels economic and technological growth, and drives world history. Grain is the most important food. Storable and transportable, it can also be used to create more food, especially meat. The two biggest breadbaskets are the Ukrainian and US plains. There were others, but none as productive.

Harvard professor and human evolutionary biologist Joseph Henrich discusses the psychological, cultural, and institutional roots of Western development. His latest book, The WEIRDest People In the World, received the Manhattan Institute’s 2022 Hayek book prize.

Find the transcript of this conversation and more at City Journal.

The Wild West in Outer Space

 

John Abbott is the All-American boy of the future. He is scrupulously honest yet ambitious, getting ahead on his abilities. An accountant, he is a family man, with a wife, two young daughters, a family dog and a mountain of student loan debt.

“Abbott in Darkness,” a science fiction novel by D. J. Butler follows Abbott and his family as John Abbott pursues a career to pay off his debts. He has taken a job with an American interstellar corporation, moving his family to a planet circling a remote star. The move offers an opportunity to get rich quickly.

How Repeating Firearms Remade America

 

“They say God created all men, but Samuel Colt made them equal.” This saying originated in the American West, testimony to the impact repeating firearms had in nineteenth-century America. Samuel Colt, known for the Colt revolver, may be the best-known gun maker in the United States. In the nineteenth century, he was one among many firearms pioneers.

“Gun Barons: The Weapons That Transformed America and the Men Who Invented Them,” by John Bainbridge, Jr. tells the story of the men who brought repeating firearms to market, and the companies they started. They included Christian Sharps, Benjamin Henry, Oliver Winchester, Horace Smith, and Daniel Wesson.

All founded companies to manufacture firearms. A few disappeared. Others, including Colt and Smith and Wesson, still exist. This book’s emphasis is on their histories during their birth century, the period between the late 1830s and 1898.

A Mystery Wrapped in a Mystery

 

Four people sit in the reading room of the Boston Public Library. One, an Australian mystery writer, is in Boston for a year on a writing fellowship. Two others are college students. Another is an author from the Carolinas. They are strangers who have never met.

“The Woman in the Library,” a mystery written by Sulari Gentill, opens with this. The four are quietly observing yet ignoring each other. When a woman screams outside the reading room, library security asks them to remain in the room while they investigate. Nothing is then discovered, and they are told they are free to go.

The incident breaks the ice. They start talking to each other while waiting in the room, then decide to go for coffee together. Soon they bond and become friends. They agree to meet again. When they do meet the next day, they learn a woman’s body was discovered hidden in a room near the reading room. She was murdered. At the urging of one of the four, a psychology student they decide to investigate the murder. The four soon  quickly discover their investigation has led them into danger.

A Remarkable Father-Son Team

 

Isambard Kingdom Brunel is probably the most famous engineer of the nineteenth century. He may have been the best.  Or not. Another lesser-known Brunel is in the running for that title; his father, Marc Isambard Brunel is.

“The Brunels, Father and Son,” by Anthony Burton, is a joint biography of two remarkable men. Burton does a compare-and-contrast on the pair. He concludes it is hard to say who was better.

Isambard Kingdom was best known for building the Great Western Railroad (with its six-foot gauge) and three pioneer steamships, Great Western, Great Britain, and Great Eastern.  Marc Isambard’s signature accomplishment was the Thames Tunnel,  which baffled earlier engineers. He is also known for pioneering mass-production techniques, most notably blocks and army boots.

MI senior fellow Stephen Eide joins Brian Anderson to discuss the meaning of homelessness, how the concept has evolved over the course of U.S. history, and the public-policy roots of the nation’s current homelessness crisis.

Find the transcript of this conversation and more at City Journal.

A Science-Fiction Cookout

 

Food: it is a central part of our lives. It is surprising how relatively little fantasy and science fiction centers upon food. F&SF explores the human condition, extrapolating the present into alternate realities. Why not explore food?

“Eat, Drink, and Be Wary: Satisfying Stories with a Delicious Twist,” edited by Lisa Magnum, takes on that challenge. It is a collection of nineteen fantasy and science fiction stories, with food as a theme.

The nineteen contributors go many different directions with their stories. This book contains hard science fiction, classic fantasy, and just about everything in between, including a variety of genres. There is an old-fashioned murder mystery, a noir adventure, classic horror, post-apocalyptic tales, and urban fantasy. Some stories are laugh-out-loud funny. Others are tragic. A few would serve for an episode of Twilight Zone or Game of Thrones.

Busting Heads in Pre-War America

 

There are few things as repugnant as the Mob. Except maybe Nazis. It kind of makes sense that Jewish mobsters once took an opportunity to improve their image by punching Nazis.

“Gangsters vs Nazis: How Jewish Mobsters Battled Nazis in Wartime America,” by Michael Benson relates the story of one of the strangest campaigns of the 1930s and 40s. It shows how the Jewish community in the United States organized to fight the German-American Bund and other fascist groups in the United States in the years prior to American entry into World War II. They did it by enlisting the assistance of Jewish Gangsters.

As Benson points out, in mid-century America organized crime was big, especially in immigrant communities. They formed in every community with a large, poor immigrant population. The most famous was the Italian Mafia, but there were Irish, Polish, Hispanic, and Jewish mobs, too. They were a product of poverty and desperation.