Category Archives: History

Review: “Bombs Away” by Harry Turtledove

Title: Bombs Away
Author: Harry Turtledove
Series: The Hot War #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2015

Believe it or not, this is actually the first ever Turtledove I’ve had the pleasure of reading. I’ve managed to build a small collection, grabbing assorted works at garage and library sales over the years, but they always seem to be the middle bits of series. Not this time! This time I’m in on the ground floor for his new series exploring what might have happened had the Cold War gone hot in the early days. In the later days, that’s no fun since it would mostly just result in the planet becoming a cinder….

At the height of the Korean War, with Red Chinese forces pouring over the border, the idea of using nuclear weapons to turn the tide was under serious consideration. In the world we inherited President Truman decided against unleashing that genie, but now Harry Turtledove turns his pen to exploring the potential consequences of such action. Come along for the ride in Bombs Away as Turtledove picks apart the threads of history and weaves them together once again in a different and altogether horrifying configuration….

There’s a reason Harry Turtledove is billed as “The Master of Alternate History.” Several reasons, in fact. The man seems to possess an unparalleled grasp of history, knowing instinctively just where to push in order to set events onto a new, believable course. Just as importantly, his characters all feel very real—figures both fictional and historical leap off the page and pull you into their world. While story thrives on conflict, Turtledove stands testament to the fact that you don’t necessarily need a villain, shying away from easy caricature in favor of focusing on ordinary men doing the best they can. From the White House to the trenches of Korea, from the cockpit of a B-29 bomber to the streets of divided Germany, Harry Turtledove gives a stellar introduction to a hellish world that could have been.

CONTENT: Harsh, R-rated language, widespread but not gratuitous. In a world sprouting mushroom clouds, profanity seems appropriate…. Strong violence, as you would expect from World War III. Occasional sexual content, semi-explicit. Some of the characters are racist, and the fallout of the Holocaust is dealt with to a degree.

This is a longer version of a review I did for the Manhattan Book Review.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, History, Novels, Reviews

Review: “X-Men: Magneto–Testament” by Greg Pak & Carmine Di Giandomenico

Title: Magneto–Testament
Writer: Greg Pak
Artist: Carmine Di Giandomenico
Series: X-Men
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Marvel Knights, 2009

“On Kristallnacht, my father wanted to fight. But then the Nazis might have killed my whole family. In the ghetto, I could have gutted a Nazi murderer. But then they would have killed a hundred Jews in retaliation. Two months ago, I could have pushed the Hauptscharfuhrer into the fire pit. But then they would have killed the rest of my work crew.

“So to save everyone, I did nothing. And guess what? They killed them all anyway….” (Max, issue #5)

Whoah. I mean….whoah. Magneto has always been one of the most interesting characters in the Marvel Universe, a nominal villain who seems to fight for the side of the angels almost as frequently as he opposes them. There are all kinds of Marvel villains who are irredeemable psychopaths (Carnage, Mr. Sinister, Apocalypse, the Purple Man, the list is endless), but Magneto is a different breed entirely, the most dangerous kind of villain possible: Magneto believes he is doing the right thing. His methods may be occasionally merciless, but Magneto is  a man who has lived through genocide once before and sworn to never again let that happen to his people. He could not save the countless Jews who went to the gas chambers under the guns of their Nazi overlords, but he’ll be damned if he sees the same thing happen to his new brothers, mutantkind. Given the human response to fear that which is different, and destroy what we fear, Magneto has come to the harsh conclusion that the only way to safeguard his people is to install a new world order ruled by mutants. To that end, he has at times served both as hero and villain. He’s a conflicted character, forged by tragedy. And now, with Magneto: Testament, we’re given the definitive story of his beginnings, from 1935 Nuremberg to the horrors of Auschwitz….and all with an eye to absolute historical accuracy.

In 1935, Max Eisenhardt was a simple German schoolboy. Top of his class, excellent athlete, he’s even managed to catch the eye of a pretty girl. Unfortunately, Max just happened to be Jewish, and Magda just happens to be Romany. Neither ethnicity is going to be able to weather the storm ahead, when the Nazi regime unleashes their Final Solution and institutes the most comprehensive and systematic genocide program the world has ever seen. From the Nuremberg Laws to Kristallnacht, Berlin to the Warsaw Ghettos and on to death camp of Auschwitz, young Max Eisenhardt serves to give us a new lens into this horrific period of human history….and a new insight into one of the most fascinating comic characters I’ve had the pleasure of reading.

This should go without saying, but this is not a happy book. An important book, one that punches you right in the gut and takes an unflinching (yet respectful) look at the deepest darkness of the human heart, but not one for young children. That said, this book could provide a very compelling supplement to a high school study of the Holocaust–it’s painstakingly accurate, annotated every step of the way with endnotes containing citations for facts and elements that are incorporated into the story, and even contains a teachers guide with suggested activities. I fully intend to add it to my own personal collection at some point when I have the funds. The book is compelling, well-written, and brilliantly haunting, yet at the same time treats the real, historical people who suffered in this most horrific of periods with the utmost respect. For example, the Nazi practice of tattooing the prisoners with their identification number. Showing that number on Max’s arm would be unremarkable, aside from clearing up some of the more geeky arguments about Marvel canon since there have been several different numbers used in different stories over the years. Yet the writer refrained. “We made the decision not to show Max’s actual number in this tattooing scene. The more I read the testimonies of actual survivors, the more uncomfortable I became with the notion of giving our fictional hero a number that a real human being once bore.” (Greg Pak’s endnotes to issue #4) The creators here don’t shy away from the horror of the Holocaust, even dealing with it more in-depth than some other sources due to Max’s status as one of the Sonderkommando prisoners who had to process the bodies from the gas chamber to the crematorium, but neither do they play it for shock value. Every effort is made to preserve the humanity and dignity of the real humans who suffered and died all those years ago. I respect that.

CONTENT: Minor language. No real sexual content, though there is some low-detail nudity as prisoners are stripped for the gas chambers and Max’s uncle (implied to be a bit of a hedonist) is paraded through the streets with a sign that says “I have shamed a German woman.” The violence here is occasionally bloody, but usually restrained in its visual representation. That doesn’t make it any less disturbing as characters are murdered, groups of prisoners gassed, and their bodies piled up or incinerated. Like I said, though I recommend this book wholeheartedly, this is not for young children.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Comics/Graphic Novels, History, Reviews

Review: “D-Day: June 6, 1944” by Stephen E. Ambrose

Title: D-Day: June 6, 1944–The Climactic Battle Of World War II
Author: Stephen E. Ambrose
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Simon & Schuster, 1994

Well, this is awkward. I was all set to tell you how Stephen Ambrose was one of the greatest historians of the Second World War still living, and then tell you to read this book. Except that in looking up tidbits of fact to sprinkle in here and whet your fancy, I discovered two things. First, he died twelve years ago. Secondly, and more important, his reputation is not now as glowing as I had believed it to be. It seems that several of his books are riddled with improper citations and, in a couple places, even inaccuracies. Sentences or even paragraphs lifted almost verbatim from other sources, given a citation but not acknowledged within the text. An easy mistake to make, perhaps, but a rookie level one. Ambrose was one of the leading WWII scholars in the nation, even the world. You would think that indicated a level of care and professionalism that would preclude such sloppiness. (You can read about that whole mess here.) More troubling is the recent discovery that his relationship with General-turned-President Dwight D. Eisenhower was not exactly as he had described. Instead of Eisenhower approaching him to write his biography, Ambrose approached the former president. Instead of the hundreds of hours they allegedly spent talking before Eisenhower’s death, the meticulous records kept by Eisenhower’s secretary and assistant show only five. Some of the interviews cited by Ambrose take place at times Eisenhower was recorded to be elsewhere. Later-used citations are vague as to the date and time, simply cited as “Interview with DDE.” (You can read that story here.) This saddens me, for I had intended to consume his entire bibliography. Now….now my plan is to still read his WWII histories (Pegasus Bridge, Citizen Soldiers, re-read Band Of Brothers) which are less controversial, but I doubt I’ll push beyond that. We’ll see when the time comes I suppose.

But you know what? I’m still recommending this book. It was incredibly engaging and well-written–even his harshest detractors admit that he was one heck of a writer. With two lone exceptions (discussed below), there is no controversy concerning the facts as Ambrose relates them here. There may be a few spurious interview bits from Eisenhower buried in the passages he cites from his own books, I can’t check the whole chain of citation since I only have this one book on hand, but across the board his sources for this one seem legit. Would I use this as a source for a scholarly paper? Maybe not, at least without doing some more serious digging, but that’s really not a question I think most of my readers are concerned with. So far as I can tell, most of my readers are simply concerned with finding good books to fill their reading time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. History degree or not, I’m under no delusions that my review blog is a scholarly source. So, let me be clear as to what this is: Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day is an incredibly compelling study of arguably the single most crucial operation in the Second World War, told mostly by the men who were there and survived the experience. It is a tale of incredible human ingenuity, courage, and resolve, and it is very much worth reading.

In the wee hours of the morning, June 6th, 1944, the Allied nations launched the single greatest amphibious assault in the history of warfare. Hitler had spent years fortifying the French coast against this day, certain that it would have to come eventually, and the network of fortifications he had ordered constructed were intended to be impenetrable. Had any one of a hundred different factors played out differently, they may well have proved to be. Had the fortifications been better staffed, had Hitler proved more decisive and/or less inclined to micromanaging troop dispositions, had his staff even proved willing to wake him up when the invasion started so that he could give the proper orders, it would be a very different book I’m reviewing here. Had the invasion failed, what would the world look like today? That’s a question far too large for me to answer, at least here, but Ambrose believes that Berlin would have suffered the eventual fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe, maybe not. At any rate, it’s no spoiler seventy years on to tell you that the invasion of Normandy was successful, if incredibly costly. I urge you to read this book and see the operation through the eyes of the men who were there.

I think I’ve pretty adequately communicated that I think you should read this. I’ve touched on how well it’s written, and how despite the controversy surrounding the author nobody really takes issue with this particular work, with two exceptions. First, Ambrose portrays the pilots ferrying the airborne troops to their dropzones as untrained for the degree of AA fire they were taking, and blames this factor (and, by extension, their fear) for how scattered the paratroopers became. These pilots take offense to this portrayal and have repeatedly lobbied for changes in this and other books that make the same claim. The second minor controversy concerns an incident occurring off of Omaha beach, where a landing craft skipper wanted to abort and the infantry captain aboard forced him to make the run in anyway at gunpoint. A fine story, a compelling anecdote, and properly sourced to boot. Ambrose didn’t simply make this up–it comes from a 1960 article in Atlantic Monthly, and is a story that has been much repeated in a number of other works since. The problem? The sole survivor of that landing craft denies it ever happened. Either way, Ambrose acted in good faith here, though I do somewhat question the reliability of Atlantic Monthly as a reliable source of historical fact. So do with that what you will. But read the book.

CONTENT: Some R-rated language, depending on how the veterans being interviewed censored themselves and their stories. Some graphic depictions of violence, especially in the accounts from Omaha beach. No sexual content.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, History, Reviews

Review: “No Silent Night” by Leo Barron and Don Cygan

Title: No Silent Night: The Christmas Battle For Bastogne
Authors: Leo Barron & Don Cygan
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: New American Library, 2012

I received my copy of No Silent Night as part of the Goodreads FirstReads program. This has no effect on this review, except to ensure that I was able to get a copy of the book. New purchases are being kept to a minimum for budgetary and storage reasons at the moment…..

In December of 1944, Hitler’s Third Reich launched its last-ditch effort to stop the Allied advance–Wacht am Rhein, or the offensive that would lead to the famed Battle of the Bulge. While this battle was more than overflowing with moments of drama and heroism, one of the most fascinating elements was the battle for the small crossroads town of Bastogne. As the German offensive was once more dependent on Blitzkrieg tactics, good roads were going to be essential for moving their armor, troops and supplies quickly to where they needed to be to support the frontline’s advance deep into Allied territory. Quickly taking crossroads towns like Bastogne would be essential to the German advance–a fact that was not lost on the commanders of either side. While the German flood swept towards Bastogne, the Allied command hurriedly installed the 101st Airborne and any other stray troops they could find in defense of the town and its outlying villages, creating an island of Allied resistance that was quickly surrounded. If the defenders of Bastogne could hold out long enough, they could seriously impair the German offensive. If they failed, the Germans would have a direct supply line for their forward troops. Poorly supplied and seriously outnumbered, the defenders of Bastogne were in for a Christmas they would never forget…….

This book first caught my eye because I was passingly familiar with the story–it was featured in the stellar HBO/BBC miniseries Band Of Brothers (if you haven’t seen that, go do so immediately!) Historical narratives have a reputation (not always deserved) of being dry and uninteresting for the non-historian, but I was pleased to find this was not the case with this book. The authors tell the story of Bastogne’s defense from both sides, following both the American defenders and the German besiegers, and the style is very engaging. While the book is a secondary source, I suspect intended more for the general public than for academia, the authors have done quite a bit of original research including interviews with several of the key characters. I will undoubtedly mine their works cited section for some other works on the subject when I get the chance–several of the memoirs they cite look quite intriguing.

This is the first book either author has written, and I had never heard of either of them before, but the book was quite good. According to the dust jacket, Leo Barron has served in the 101st Airborne in Iraq, holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in history, and trains military intelligence officers for the US Army. Don Cygan is a history teacher and journalist.

Content: PG-13 for language and violence. Soldiers’ language can be a bit salty, and this is a narrative about war. On the whole its not too gruesome, but there are a couple occasions that are a bit disturbing and illustrate the horror of war.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, History, Reviews