Tag Archives: History

Review: “The Runestone Incident” by Neve Maslakovic

Title: The Runestone Incident
Author: Neve Maslakovic
Series: The Incident Series #2
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: 47 North, 2014

If you’ll remember, last month I read and reviewed Neve Maslakovic’s The Far Time Incident in an attempt to get my money’s worth out of my Amazon Prime subscription. Fortunately, the second book in the series is likewise available to borrow, and so now I give you a review of The Runestone Incident. Obviously, there will be spoilers for the previous book. Nature of a series and all that. You’ve been warned.

“We…found ten men, red from blood and dead. Ave Maria save from evil.” Unlike Pompeii, I actually had no prior knowledge of the Kensington Runestone. I was most of the way through the book before it even occurred to me that the artifact in question (and thus the debate being explored) really existed. It does, and you can read about it on Wikipedia here. It’s an interesting debate, but since we unfortunately don’t have access to a real-life time machine, one that will likely never be satisfactorily solved.

St. Sunniva University was just getting back to normal, and then this. Last year there was the thing with the missing professor, and the attempted murder-by-time-machine, followed by the shock of the travelers’ return and the revelation that the supposed-culprit was framed. Julia Olsen and her companions returned safely, but they managed to keep one relevant fact out of the news stories that followed–they accidentally brought a young Pompeiian girl home with them when they returned. Now Julia’s not-quite-ex-husband (the divorce papers, like the proverbial check, is “in the mail”) has shown up in town threatening to expose their secret if he’s not allowed the use of the time machine to prove the authenticity of the Kensington Runestone, which his grandfather supposedly helped discover. Being a stubborn sort, he refuses to take no for an answer, and soon disappears into the past with Dr. Holm, who is herself fixated on finding the fabled Vinland. Is Holm a hostage or a fellow conspirator? Julia doesn’t know, but they can’t take any chances….they’re going to have to follow the pair into pre-Columbian America and hope for the best….

As with the previous volume, the author really did a great job with her research. Just as important, she manages to communicate the relevant factual information to the reader in a way that avoids at least the worst brand of info-dumping (i.e. Character 1 telling his friend, “As you know, Ourland has been at war with Daenemy for over a century….”). Most of the relevant information is being learned for the first time by the primary characters, and believably so. Do the secondary characters lecture? Sure, some, but the lectures are required not only by the reader but also by the characters. Anyway, I wasn’t bugged by it. You might be. The story was fun, and I enjoyed it immensely, but I wouldn’t say it’s incredibly thrilling. The stakes just aren’t all that high. Quinn is going to reveal their secret? Oh darn, the media will pester them. So horrifying! Quinn and Holm have disappeared into the past? We don’t really like Quinn, so if he comes to harm it’s little loss to us. We like Holm somewhat, but Julia (our POV character, and thus our filter for all information) doesn’t trust her completely, nor does she believe Quinn is capable of kidnapping and/or murder, so there’s not really the highest of stakes there either. Of course, she could be wrong, and like I said I was interested all the way through, but it’s not life-or-death for the most part. The most dangerous factor is actually History itself trying to keep them from changing anything. The historical question? Well, I am interested, but a novel is hardly going to actually solve a real-world mystery. Whether the Runestone is real or fake at the end of the book, it’s still a mystery here in the real world. For those of you who complained about the obvious “sequel-bait” ending to the first novel, be forewarned that Ms. Maslakovic has done it again here, but don’t expect me to share your annoyance. It just doesn’t bug me. Some of my favorite authors do that. Jim Butcher put a bullet in his main character’s brain and left him sinking unconscious into the depths of Lake Michigan, for Heaven’s sake! My only reaction to that was to bite my nails until the next book came out….

CONTENT: Mild language. Brief violence, or at least the threat thereof. Mild sexual innuendo, far more subtle than most authors would make the implication.

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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.

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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.

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