Tag: Book Review

An Arthurian Tale in a Science Fiction Future

 

In the far future, civilization experienced a catastrophic collapse in the centuries-ago past.  Jon of Dun Add is reforging isolated pockets of human habitation into a unified and civilized whole. His Hall of Champions is a tool in this effort. This fellowship enforces justice across Jon’s realm. Pal is one of Jon’s newest knights, and one of the most respected.

“The Serpent” by David Drake is the third novel Drake’s Time of Heroes series. It presents Pal’s adventures in this possible future. It follows “The Spark” which introduced Pal and “The Storm,” which showed Pal maturing into his current role.

Baseball and Bootleggers in the Roaring Twenties

 

It is 1927. Prohibition is on and the stock market crash is in the future. Joe Rath is a catcher for the National League Baltimore Beacons.

“Pickoff,” a novel by GP Hutchinson, opens with Joe heading off for the ballpark to join the team for a road trip to Chicago.

Joe is a family man, with a young son and a wife he dearly loves. His wife, Mena loves Joe, but is less thrilled with his peripatetic career. She believes being married means being with your family, not haring off on long road trips. She wants him to quit.

When Silicon Valley Values Meet West Texas

 

Texas ranching has been under economic siege almost since it began. It has always offered an opportunity to make a small fortune, nowadays by starting with a large one. Yet for all its flaws, ranching is addictive. So is abandoning ranching.

“The Big Empty,” a novel by Loren Steffy, steals one of the classic tropes of Texas letters: modern technology displacing ranching. The oil industry is the traditional disrupter. Set at the dawn of the 21st century, Steffy makes high tech, computers, and the internet ranching’s competitor. He adds a spin. The ranchers are rooting for high tech to win.

Conquistador is a dying West Texas cattle town. While not at the end of the world, on the flat West Texas plains it might as well be. Ranching is fading as a business. Conquistador’s residents are desperately seeking new industry to draw jobs there. They even tried getting the state to build a prison, just for the jobs, only to be turned down. Conquistador is too remote even for prisons.

Hunting Aliens and Traitors for Fun and Profit

 

Earth had been invaded by aliens from outer space, the Visitors. After a devastating war, humanity drove the invaders off. The victory was costly, but eventually the Visitors withdrew to Mars.

“The Family Business,” a science fiction novel by Mike Kupari, takes place in that invasion’s aftermath. Nathan Foster is a bounty hunter. He occasionally tracks down murderers and drug dealers, but his primary quarry are war criminals and human traitors who collaborated with the Visitors.

Located in Prescott, Arizona, it is a family business. His understudy and assistant is his fifteen-year-old teenage nephew Ben, Nathan’s only surviving relative.  Also assisting Nathan is Shadow, a genetically enhanced Doberman-Shepherd mix, a trained attack dog. His partner and office manager is Stella Rickles.

The Rise of the Conquistador

 

The European discovery of the Americas and the subsequent colonization of that land by Europeans was the most consequential occurrence of the last millennia.  Two men prominent in that discovery’s opening events were Christopher Columbus and Hernando Cortés.

“Sword of Empire: The Spanish Conquest of the Americas from Columbus to Cortés, 1492-1529,” by Donald E. Chipman, tells the story of these two men. It explores the events of the first forty years of the Spanish acquisition of the American possessions.

Columbus opened the Age of Exploration. Cortés opened the Age of the Conquistador, where Spanish freebooters conquered the great empires of North and South America. Together the men form a set of bookends in the story of the Americas. Columbus departed the New World for the last time in 1504, dying in 1506. Cortés arrived at Santo Domingo, the colony founded by Columbus in the year of Columbus’s death.  This allows Chipman to follow the thread of the opening years of Spain’s American adventures using these two as his focus.

A British Police Procedural Updated to the Present

 

The British police procedural is one of the most popular forms of detective fiction. The twentieth century brought Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse and P. D. James’s Adam Dagliesh. There are many others, including some set in the nineteenth century.

“Queen of Swords,” by Robert Mills, brings the genre into the twenty-first century.

Senior nurse Jenny Butcher is found strangled in her London flat. Detective Inspector Sanjay Patel, a British-born Indian is the case’s first investigator. He is assigned as deputy to Chief Inspector Tracy Taylor, and an important part of the investigation.

A Famous German Scientist and His British Fans

 

Albert Einstein was one of the twentieth century’s great men, vying with Winston Churchill for the title of “Man of the Century.” In addition to relativity, he was an accomplished musician and a noted pacifist. He was an Anglophile. He was also an assassin’s target in the 1930s.

“Einstein on the Run: How Britain Saved the World’s Greatest Scientist,” by Andrew Robinson tells two tales. It explores the admiration Einstein and Great Britain mutually shared. It shows how the British offered Einstein sanctuary at the scientist’s moment of greatest peril.

The book is also a biography of Einstein, but it is a focused biography. It recounts his life in the context of his relation with Britain. It shows how British physicists, most notably Sir Isaac Newton and James Clerk Maxwell, shaped Einstein’s scientific studies, and fostered an admiration for British scientists.

A Tale of a Real Shooting Railroad War

 

Railroad rivalries played a significant role in nineteenth-century US history. No rivalry was as intense or bitter as the one between the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, and the Denver and Rio Grande railroads.  At times it erupted into actual gunfire.

“From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West,” by John Sedgwick tells the stories of their battles. The stakes were high. The winner could gain access to the Pacific. Could, rather than would because other railroads sought to block the winner from advancing.

Sedgwick frames the story as a personal duel between two individuals: General William J. Palmer and William Barstow Strong. Palmer, a Civil War hero, had relocated to Colorado to build the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Strong was the corporate-minded manager of the Santa Fe. Both men had a vision of driving a railroad to the Rio Grande River and from there west to the Pacific Ocean.

An Unconventional Admiral in a Critical Assignment

 

Rear Admiral Terrence Murphy is the son of a famous admiral who died winning a critical battle in a decades-long war between the Terran Federation and the Terran League. Recently Terrence Murphy won his own battle. That minor success does not erase his reputation as a clothes’ horse and a fop. It is enough to win him an appointment as military governor of a backwater stellar system, though.

So opens “Governor,” a new science fiction novel by David Weber and Richard Fox. It is set in a future where humans occupy thousands of planetary systems scattered across the galaxy.

Human planets are split into several polities. The largest is the Terran Federation, centered on Earth. The Terran League is its main rival. The two have been locked in a stalemated war for decades.  Part of the reason for the stalemate is the Federation is unwilling to commit the resources to win the war.

To the Uttermost Depths and Back

 

During the decades humans first reached outer space, they were also reaching for the ocean’s uttermost depths.  They even managed to reach those depths before placing a man in orbit.

“Opening the Great Depths: The Bathyscaph Trieste and Pioneers of Undersea Exploration,” by Norman Polmar and Lee J. Mathers tells that story.  It is a history of Trieste. It also fits Trieste into its historical context.

The authors reveal an unexpected origin for the bathyscaph: high altitude ballooning. Its initiator, Swiss academic Auguste Piccard made his name in the 1920s setting altitude records in free-flight balloons. His purpose was scientific, measuring cosmic rays at stratospheric altitudes. He was equally interested in plumbing the ocean’s depths. He used concepts developed for balloons in designing the bathyscaph, an ocean-plumbing balloon. Gasoline substituted for hydrogen to provide buoyancy, iron shot provided ballast, with the crew in a pressurized spherical compartment.

A Fresh Look at Tolkien

 

J.R.R. Tolkien may be the most beloved twentieth-century author with the most diverse reader base. He appealed to Christian and New Age audiences as well as readers across the political spectrum. Fame and fortune were the last things he really sought. An Oxford professor, he just wanted to tell some stories.

“The Real J.R.R. Tolkien: The Man Who Created Middle Earth,” by Jesse Xander, is a new biography of Tolkien, the first major biography in nearly twenty years.

It is an independent biography, offering a fresh look at Tolkien. Xander reveals Tolkien as simultaneously archetypically ordinary and extraordinarily remarkable, an obscure professor who wrote momentous fiction.

Adventure in the Roaring Forties

 

Jack Pembroke is a Royal Navy officer badly injured during the Dunkirk evacuation, now assigned to command a minesweeping flotilla in South Africa. Emil Falk commands a Nazi auxiliary cruiser – a disguised and armed merchantman conducting commerce raiding far from Europe.

In “The Cape Raider,” a novel by Justin Fox, the two have a rendezvous in the waters between Africa and Antarctica.

Pembroke is a reluctant warrior. A member of a prominent naval family, he bucked family tradition to become a journalist in the 1930s. When World War II started, he accepted a commission in the Royal Navy, serving aboard minesweepers and destroyers.  A long recovery from battle injuries and his civilian mother’s death from bombs during the Battle of Britain led to him asking for a posting in the Union of South Africa, where his Admiral father is stationed

‘Oblivion or Glory: 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill’

 

As 1920 ended, Winston Churchill seemed headed for obscurity. The British failure at Gallipoli brought his political career to collapse in 1916. While partially restored before the Great War ended, he was stalemated in a dead-end cabinet position as 1921 opened. His judgment was widely questioned. He was experiencing financial difficulties.

When 1921 ended, everything seemed changed. His political star was rising again, and his finances were secure. Far from heading to insignificance, Churchill was again heading to a destiny of leadership.

“Oblivion or Glory: 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill,” by David Stafford, tells the story of Churchill’s transformative year. It was a year of great opportunity and great tragedy for Winston Churchill.

The Life of a Free Black in the Early 19th Century

 

James Woodman, a free black, lives in Washington DC. It is 1814. His father, a black veteran of the American Revolution used the land grant he received for his service to establish a farm in the Pennsylvania frontier, near Gettysburg. James struck out on his own, opening a livery stable in the nation’s new capital.

Journey: The Story of an American Family, a novel by Gary V. Brill, tells of James Woodman and his family over four decades of the early nineteenth century.

Woodman has always been free. As the book opens, he is a man of property. Many neighbors, white and black, respect him for his industry and his judgment. He is a member of the local militia.

H.R. McMaster’s ‘Battlegrounds’ a Very Good Second Book

 

Retired Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster’s second book, Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World, while mostly well researched and clearly argued, will not have the institutional significance of his first book Dereliction of Duty, written as a young Army major. If you heard little of Battlegrounds after its publication, that is to McMaster’s credit and our media’s continuing shame. General McMaster kept his honor clean, refusing to put himself out on the same corner Bill Kristol and John Bolton have been working. This is a work well worth your consideration. At the very least, take a look at the brief video summary of his central claim: American long-term failure in foreign policy comes from “strategic narcissism” and a lack of “strategic empathy.”*

“Strategic empathy” refers to the conscious effort to understand the viewpoint, the motivations, of others, rather than projecting assumptions and motives the observer prefers, for whatever reason. “Strategic empathy” is presented as the alternative to wishful thinking across administrations. McMaster is using “strategic empathy” as a term of art, limited to understanding/ taking the other’s position and claimed motivations seriously, not sympathizing. McMaster advances his vision for a more successful foreign policy through country case studies, most importantly addressing Russia, China, Iran, Afghanistan, and North Korea. In each case, he names names and cites failures across multiple administrations of both parties.

McMaster points to foreign policy scholars on the left and right arguing for a deterrence policy with a nuclear Iran. He says it is foolish to suggest that deterrence might work with a set of leaders and at least a significant population that deeply believes in the Shia emphasis on supernatural victory through their own blood. Iran’s religious-political leaders believe in “victory of blood over the sword.” This linked text points to official propaganda seriously asserting that America was defeated by killing the Iranian top terror master. His blood, being spilled, supernaturally created victory for the Iranian revolution. Take them seriously, rather than dismissing it as spin, and you see that under no condition can they possibly be allowed a nuclear weapon.

Achieving Peace through Massive Superiority

 

Thomas S. Power, the Strategic Air Command’s leader in the late 1950s and early 1960s was easily caricatured. The ultimate bomber baron, he was routinely mocked as a warmonger. Dr. Strangelove’s General Buck Turgidson was a parody of Power. After retirement, to ease the path of the fighter mafia in taking control of the Air Force, its establishment tacitly supported criticism of Power.

“To Rule the Skies: General Thomas S. Power and the Rise of the Strategic Air Command in the Cold War,” by Brent D. Ziarnick is a new biography of Power. It provides a more balanced view of Power’s life and his contributions to the Strategic Air Command and to peace. In it Ziarnick overturns many conventional wisdom myths about Power.

Power came from an immigrant family in New York City. Ziarnick traces Power from these origins to his eventual rise to command. Power never attended college, and may not have graduated high school. He scrabbled his way into the Army Air Corps studying to be a flying cadet at night, working construction during the day.

Cruising the Ancient Mediterranean in a Modern Cruise Ship

 

Eric Flint’s Assiti Shards stories are alternate history series where people from the present are cast into the past by shards of time-shifting artwork striking the Earth. It started with “1632,” with a West Virginia small town transposed with space from Thirty Years War Germany. In 2017, a new branch of the series began. In “The Alexander Inheritance,” cruise ship Queen of the Sea gets sent back to the ancient Mediterranean, the year after Alexander the Great’s death.

“The Macedonian Hazard,” by Eric Flint, Gorg Huff, and Paula Goodlett continues Queen of the Sea’s ancient voyage. It follows the cruise ship’s adventures navigating the narrow waters of the Mediterranean Sea and the narrow minds of Seleucid leaders attempting to control pieces of Alexander the Great’s disintegrating empire.

The Queen of the Sea won uneasy neutrality in “The Alexander Inheritance,” becoming a floating embassy for the various civilizations ringing the Mediterranean. It hosts passengers from most, serving as a platform where they parley. It also crossed the Atlantic to establish a settlement on Trinidad, from which it extracts fuel to keep the ship going.

This Week’s Book Review: Liberty Factory

 

Before Portland, OR, became the upscale city mocked in Portlandia, it was a down-at-the-heels lumber town and port hard hit by the Great Depression. Its transformation began in World War II, when Portland and its cross-river companion, Vancouver, became major shipbuilding centers. Henry Kaiser established shipyards in the two cities.  These produced ships by the score: Liberty ships, Victory ships, escort carriers, troop transports, and tankers. The wartime shipyards turned Portland into an industrial powerhouse, financing its future prosperity.

“Liberty Factory: The Untold Story of Henry Kaiser’s Oregon Shipyards,” by Peter J. Marsh, tells the story of that transformation. Marsh reveals how Portland acquired the shipyards and chronicles their activities during World War II. Along the way, these shipyards produced over 700 ships. Big ships – all displaced over 10,000 tons.

Marsh shows why Henry Kaiser chose Portland for the location of two major shipyards and Vancouver for a third.  Marsh shows how the shipyards were built – all within months. As Marsh shows, this included more than building the manufacturing centers. Kaiser also built the offices these shipyards needed and housing, child care centers, and hospitals for its workers.

Intrigue Seeking Stolen Nazi Art

 

On March 22, 1945 Major Max Hignite flew his last Luftwaffe mission; a flight to Switzerland in a Ju-52 loaded with artwork stolen by the Nazis. The plane crashed, sealed in a cave by a Swiss lake. Hignite, badly injured, survived. Rescued by local Swiss, he spent months near death in a hospital. By the time he recovered, the Ju-52 had disappeared. Only Hignite was aware of its contents. He decided to move on with his life.

So opens “Ghosts of the Past,” a novel by Mark H.Downer. Moving on included going to the United States after the war ended, joining family who immigrated to the US in the 1930s. In spring, 2001, Hignite is dying. He passes his final flight’s secret to his favorite grandnephew, Matt Ferguson. Matt inherits the aircraft’s manifest cargo and a map showing where it crashed.

Matt, in a well-paying but dull job, decides to recover the treasure as a one-off adventure. Since he is Max Hignite’s executor, Matt uses settling his grand-uncle’s estate as an excuse to take a leave of absence.

A Multi-Level Treasure Hunt

 

In 1764 Tsarina Catherine the Great of Russia started a major war in Europe. It was a culture war. She collected fine art as aggressively as she fought on the battlefield. It spurred Europe’s crowned heads, especially Louis XVI of France and Frederick the Great of Prussia, to compete at obtaining and displaying art, especially fine paintings.

“The Tsarina’s Lost Treasure: Catherine the Great, a Golden Age Masterpiece, and a Legendary Shipwreck,” by Gerald Easter and Mara Vorhees, records a casualty of that culture war Dutch Master paintings purchased at auction for Catherine the Great were sent from Holland to St Petersburg aboard the Dutch merchantman Vrouw Maria. Caught in a storm, the ship sank off the Finnish coast.

The book uses the shipwreck, to frame the story. Among the paintings lost was Gerrit Dou’s triptych The Nursery. Largely forgotten today, Dou was then the most admired Golden Age Dutch Master. (One of Dou’s paintings hung in the Louvre next to the Mona Lisa.) The Nursery was considered Dou’s finest work.