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Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister
Nicholas Shakespeare
The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, Volume 1: The Socialist Offensive: The Collectivisation of Soviet Agriculture, 1929-1930
Robert William Davies
Progress: 56/512 pages
The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914
Richard J. Evans
Progress: 219/928 pages
Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859-1888
John C. G. Röhl
Progress: 229/1016 pages

Podcast #112 is up!

The Sinews of Habsburg Power: Lower Austria in a Fiscal-Military State 1650-1820 - William D. Godsey Jr.

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview William D. Godsey about his study of how the Estate of Lower Austria evolved to finance Habsburg power in the 17th and 18th centuries. Enjoy!

Good, if somewhat dated, overview of America's war in the Pacific and Asia

Eagle Against The Sun: The American War With Japan - Ronald H. Spector

In the 1960s Macmillan began publishing a series entitled "The Macmillan Wars of the United States." Written by some of the nation's leading military historians, its volumes offered surveys of the various conflicts America had fought over the centuries, the strategies employed, and the services which fought them. Ultimately fourteen volumes were published over two decades, with many of them still serving as excellent accounts of their respective subjects.

 

As the last book published in the series, Ronald Spector's contribution to it serves as a sort of capstone to its incomplete efforts. In it he provides an account of the battles and campaigns waged by the United States against Japan in the Second World War, from the prewar planning and the assumptions held in the approach to war to the deployment of the atomic bombs that ended it. In between the covers all of the major naval battles and island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific, as well as America's military efforts in the China-Burma-India theater. He rounds out his coverage with chapters discussing both the social composition of the forces America deployed and the complex intelligence operations against the Japanese, ones that extended beyond the now-famous codebreaking efforts that proved so valuable.

 

Though dated in a few respects, overall Spector's book serves as a solid single-volume survey of the war waged by the United States against Japan. By covering the efforts against the Japanese in mainland Asia, he incorporates an important aspect of the war too often overlooked or glossed over in histories of America's military effort against the Japanese, one that often influenced developments elsewhere in the theater. Anyone seeking an introduction to America's war with Japan would be hard pressed to find a better book, which stands as a great example of what Macmillan set out to accomplish when they first embarked upon the series.

Reading progress update: I've read 23 out of 512 pages.

The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, Volume 1: The Socialist Offensive: The Collectivisation of Soviet Agriculture, 1929-1930 - Robert William Davies

I'm finding that the more history I read, the more I prefer works that draw interesting points from their analysis than those which relate a mass of details. Yet while the first volume of Davies's book is proving so far to be in the second category, I'm finding it to be a fascinating read. He begins the book by detailing the state of the agricultural economy in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, which had recovered from the effects of war, revolution, and civil war but was still underperforming due to a lack of mechanization and outdated agricultural techniques. I didn't know much about this, which is probably why I'm enjoying it as much as I am. 

Reading progress update: I've read 229 out of 1016 pages.

Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859-1888 - John C. G. Röhl

I'm past my original DNF point! Now to make sure that I don't end up creating a new one . . .

The First World War from a different perspective

Pandora’s Box A History of the First World War - Jörn Leonhard, Patrick Camiller

For the English-language reader today there is no shortage of histories surveying the First World War. Thanks to the centenary, several new volumes have been added to the fine books written over the years, giving readers a choice of works ranging from those of contemporary authors such as Winston Churchill, C.R.M.F. Cruttwell, and Basil Liddell-Hart to more modern studies by historians such as John Keegan, Hew Strachan, David Stevenson, and G. J. Meyer. Yet even when these authors have pursued a balanced approach and incorporated available German-language sources into their account, they usually have an inherent British or Allied focus resulting from a combination of factors.

 

This is just one reason why Jörn Leonhard's book stands out as a history of the conflict. Originally published in German in 2014, its translation into English offers readers of the language a survey of the war from an historian coming from a perspective rooted in a different set of sources and influences than those of his British and American counterparts. Yet this is just one of the many distinguishing characteristics of his fine work, which offers what is easily the most comprehensive single-volume history of the war yet written. Within its pages he offers an account that begins with an examination of the factors that lead to the war and ends with its postwar legacy. Along the way he discusses the war in all of its myriad aspects, from the politics and economics of the conflict to its effects on society and culture. No front is left unexamined, and all of it is integrated into a narrative that moves with considerable fluidity from topic to topic.

The result is a work that is massive in scope yet one that offers an insightful account of the war that defined the 20th century. There is little that escapes his coverage, which is informed throughout by a perspective that will be fresh for many English-language readers of the war. It makes for a book that has set the new standard by which histories of the First World War are judged, and one likely to remain the standard for some time to come.

Reading progress update: I've read 201 out of 1016 pages.

Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859-1888 - John C. G. Röhl

I'm nearly to the point where I DNF'd the book the last time, so it seems a good place for an assessment of the book.

 

As I noted in a previous post, this is an incredibly detailed book. Fortunately the details aren't used to provide a day-by-day account of Wilhelm's life, but instead inform Röhl's analysis of it. He is adopting an almost forensic approach to examining Wlhelm's development, though at times it's more focused on how the prince might have turned out differently than on why he turned out the way he did. The result helps affix some of the blame on the people in his life (most notably his parents and his tutor), but I can't help but feel Röhl's a little too invested in the blame game.

 

Because of his focus, Röhl's book has some elements of psychobiography in it. I've never been a fan of the form (psychology is inexact enough when you're dealing with a living patient you can interrogate; to do it with the fixed records of the dead seems too much like reading tea leaves), but Röhl doesn't take it so far that I have to set it aside. It helps that his insights are usually perceptive and always well-informed. I don't always agree with his conclusions, but I have enormous respect for them.

The cartoon of the aughts?



Growing up I was a voracious consumer of sci-fi media. Of book there were plenty of choices, but much less so in terms of television. There were reruns of Star Trek (before it was retroactively tagged "The Original Series"), Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and the narrow band of Doctor Who (irregularly available), but after the effort to chase after Star Wars's monster success with the original Battlestar Galactica and the revival of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, the television networks mostly steered away from pricey new sci-fi shows.

 

As a result of the limited range of options, I made time for the less easily accessible ones. That was how I discovered the works of Gerry Anderson, who in the 1960s produced a series of iconic shows using "Supermarionation." The most famous of these was Thunderbirds, but at some point I was fortunate enough to chance upon Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons. Set in the mid-21st century, it was premised on the idea that, in the aftermath of a disastrous first encounter, a race of disembodied beings declared a covert "war of nerves" against the unsuspecting people of the planet Earth, using humans who are killed and then reconstructed as their servants. Standing against them was an international agency called Spectrum, whose greatest asset was Captain Scarlet, who had been "Mysteronized" but recovered his original personality. Because the process made him indestructible, Scarlet could undertake exceptional, even suicidal, risks knowing that he will survive them.

While from today's perspective the show has its flaws — like so much of 1960s SF, it premises an optimistic future of global cooperation in which the white men are still the only ones in charge — it enjoys a resilient fan base today thanks to its often dark storytelling and its detailed modelwork. Because of this, in the early 2000s Anderson decided to revive the series, this time using CGI and motion-capture for their visuals instead of marionettes. Entitled The New Captain Scarlett, it premiered on ITV in 2005 and lasted for two short seasons. I had missed it, in part because it was only broadcast in the UK and in part because there has never been a North American DVD release. It wasn't until last year that Amazon Video started streaming the show, though I had avoided it as I felt the CGI would detract from the modelwork that was part of the original show's charm for me.

That changed a couple of days ago, when in the midst of a nostalgia kick I decided to give the series a chance. And I'm glad I did, as I quickly came to appreciate just how much better the new series is when compared to the old one. While the premise remains the same, the CGI allows for a more visually active show, which helps both in terms of the action and the interaction between the characters. The show's attitudes are also better; while the white men are still a little too prominent (the Spectrum leader's code name of "Colonel White" is getting more on-point with each passing year), women and POC feature more prominently in the revival and play a more integral role in the stories.

As I binged on the episodes, though, I started picking up on a new and more subtle factor at play in the new show, which is a deeper appreciation of how terrorism works. When I watched the show as a kid the fact that the Mysterons were waging a campaign of terrorism was largely lost on me, and the revival doesn't hammer home this point either. Nevertheless, the new show captures the underlying dread inherent in terrorism better than did the original series. Part of it is that there's more casual dialogue between the characters in the new series, which helps to provide greater emotional context. But the plot of the episodes seem to reflect this more as well, with the focus of the Mysterons less on attacking Spectrum directly or indirectly (which was their predominant goal in most of the stories in the original series) to targeting humanity more generally. It's certainly a sad reflection of our times to see this, but it helps me to appreciate the ways in which the reboot is as much an artifact of its era as the original series was of the 1960s. Hopefully the next time the series is revived its creators won't have quite the same depth of appreciation of what terrorism entails.

My one-hundred and eleventh podcast is up!

The Treasures of Alexander the Great: How One Man's Wealth Shaped the World - Frank L. Holt

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Frank L. Holt about his examination of how Alexander the Great financed his many conquests and what he did with the loot he seized. Enjoy!

Podcast #110 is up!

Bayly’s War: The Battle for the Western Approaches in the First World War - Steve R. Dunn

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Steve R. Dunn about his account of the Royal Navy's battle against the U-boats off the coast of Ireland during the First World War (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

An ideal Star Trek novel

Yesterday's Son (Star Trek: The Original Series #11) - A.C. Crispin

Two years after the U.S.S. Enterprise's visit to the dying planet Sarpedion, a young crew member finds evidence that, when transported to the past during his time there, Spock fathered a son. Determined to rescue the boy and his mother, Spock, Kirk, and McCoy use the Guardian of Forever to journey to the planet's prehistory, where they meet Zar, Spock's son, and bring him back to their time. Though Zar acclimates quickly to his new surroundings, bonding with his father proves difficult until an incursion by the Romulans forces the two to work together — and Zar to confront his future.

 

A.C. Crispin's novel was one of the first of the Star Trek Pocket Books series that I read, and one of the ones I remembered most fondly. I was a little worried that revisiting it would cheapen my recollection; instead it only deepened my appreciation of what the author achieved with it. Crispin manages to achieve an ideal balance between the original series (integrating details and characters from five episodes) and her own creations for the book. Foremost among the latter, of course, is Spock's son Zar; while not an original idea (with the introduction of Kirk's son in the movie Wrath of Khan predating this book by a year), he is introduced in a way that is extremely faithful to the series. Yet the strongest element of the book is Zar's relationship with his father, which manages the difficult trick of being emotionally moving while remaining true to the depiction of Vulcans. Taken together, it makes for a model of what a Star Trek novel should be, setting a high bar for the many works that followed.

Is optimism in science fiction our social coal-mine canary?

Children of Time - Adrian Tchaikovsky

While reading some book-related articles today I came across a description of Adrian Tchaikovsky's 2015 novel Children of Time. Though short, it was intriguing enough to get me to add it to my TBR list, but it also got me thinking about what seems to be the decline of optimism in science fiction.

 

The trigger was Tchaikovsky's premise about a colony ship that contains the last humans in the universe, traveling to a planet occupied by another species from Earth, this one altered. That very description strikes me as more than a little sad, but also one that I've seen a lot in recent SF in various forms: the representatives of a dying species, struggling to survive. Sometimes it's our fault, sometimes it's just that we've had our run, but what they all share in common is the sense that humanity's last days are behind them.

 

This matters to me in the sense that for all of their futuristic settings all science fiction is ultimately about the present, which is why I'm worried about what the apparent increase in the prevalence of such tales says about us today. Yes, apocalyptic SF is as old as the genre itself (if you forego the work that gave us the concept as we understand it today, you can find it as far back as Mary Shelley), but it seems to predominate science fiction more today than it did even just a couple of decades previously. Moreover, the more optimistic strain seems to be one the wane, as the novels set in a gee-whiz future of promise and excitement seem fewer and further between than they were in the "golden age" of the 1950s.

What bothers me about this the most is what this says about our times, as it seems that optimism is an indulgence as we dwell more on the negatives in life, on losing what we have than on gaining something more in the future. I could attribute it to living in the eroding white American middle-class, but it's there in a lot of Chinese science fiction as well, which suggests a far broader trend than the one in my own bubble. And what makes it so perplexing to me is that in so many ways life is better for most people than it has ever been. The irony here is rich: in so many ways humanity is actually achieving the promise of a better future, yet we're focused more on decline and catastrophe.

I suspect this is why I've spent the past couple of months indulging myself with old Star Trek novels, as more than ever I miss the idea of an optimistic future — and you can't get much more optimistic of a future than Gene Roddenberry's vision of it. Yet it's suggestive that some of the novels that I've most enjoyed are the ones that spin a darker path out of Roddenberry's day-glo premise. To adapt an old saying, perhaps in the end the fault lies not in us, but in myself.

Podcast #109 is up!

World War II at Sea: A Global History - Craig L. Symonds

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it I interview Craig L. Symonds about his sweeping naval history of the Second World War. Enjoy!

Rich premise and great characters, but a predictable plot

Crossroad (Star Trek, Book 71) - Barbara Hambly

While engaged in the exploration of the treacherous Crossroad Nebula, the U.S.S. Enterprise detects a vessel that shouldn't exist: a Constitution-class starship with more advanced design elements, yet bearing signs of considerable age and wear. With the ship on a course for Tau Lyra III, a planet with a pre-warp civilization, Captain James Kirk beams aboard the half-dozen members of the ship's crew and detains them for their evident intent to violate the Prime Directive. But the crew soon escapes captivity and takes over the Enterprise, holding it hostage until their ship is repaired and their voyage to Tau Lyra is resumed. As the crew struggles to retake control, the mounting evidence makes it clear that the anomalous ship is indeed from the future and that its crew is waging a war against the greatest tyranny in their galaxy: the Federation.

 

Barbara Hambly's novel is one that I looked forward to reading for two reasons. The first was the back cover description, which promised a rare Star Trek time travel novel involving interaction with the future. It's always interesting to me to see where authors project the future of the Star Trek universe as heading, especially at a relatively early stage in the franchise before the shows locked in the canon. Here Hambly doesn't disappoint, fulfilling every expectation she set for me with her previous contribution to Pocket Books's Star Trek novels, Ishmael (which I still retain fond memories of despite having read it decades ago). Indeed, she provides a very rare bird indeed: a future Federation corrupted by a sinister organization that uses plagues, psionics, and advanced FTL travel to dominate the Alpha Quadrant.

 

The richness of Hambly's premise and the development of her characters (both from the series and her own creations) are undeniable strengths of her book. And yet I found elements of her plot cripplingly tiresome. Far too much of the story follows the predictable patterns of a series episode: alien crew escapes detention and takes over the ship, the crew faces a threat at odds with lofty Federation ideals, and a daring plan involving phaser fire is needed to save the day. To be fair, there are a couple of unexpected twists and turns, but by the end of the novel I couldn't help but feel a little disappointed by the overall result. While Hamby's book is definitely in the better half of the novels in the Pocket Books series, it nonetheless fall short of what it could have been given the material with which Hambly gave herself to work.

My one-hundred-and-eighth podcast is up!

Mayor Harold Washington: Champion of Race and Reform in Chicago - Roger Biles

My latest podcast is up on the New Books Network website! In it, I interview Roger Biles about his biography of the 1980s Chicago mayor Harold Washington (which I reviewed here). Enjoy!

Reading progress update: I've read 172 out of 1016 pages.

Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life, 1859-1888 - John C. G. Röhl

The deeper I get into this book, the more I appreciate what the author is doing in it. Röhl's coverage of Wilhelm's life is incredibly detailed, as he mines the correspondence of the family to reconstruct every aspect of the future kaiser's upbringing. It's both one of its greatest strengths and perhaps its greatest burden; the detail really provides an enormous amount of depth in support of Röhl's arguments, but it often results in a text that can drag. Fortunately much of it can be skimmed, and I know I'm going to appreciate the exactitude once I get into the details of his reign in the next two volumes.

Appreciating it more on the second read

Dominion - C.J. Sansom

Yesterday I went book shopping with my son and two of his cousins. We had a fun time visiting three Half Price Bookstores in town, where they fed their interests by loading up on titles (there are few things I enjoy more then encouraging young readers!). I also picked up a few books for myself, including C. J. Sansom's 2012 alternate history novel Dominion. It wasn't until I got back to our place, though, that I checked Goodreads and discovered that this particular "what-Britain-would-be-like-if-the-Nazis-won" novel was one I had read before.

 

Sadly I didn't write a review of the book at the time, so I don't know why I awarded it three stars on the Goodreads scale. When I reread it, though, I wonder if I might not have been a little unfair in my rating the first time around. It's a little exposition-heavy, and it gravitates around the usual atomic-bomb MaGuffin, but the premise is well done and the plot and characters are pretty good. I'll have to give t another read at some point, both to write up a proper review and to decide whether this is worth adding to my shelf of keepers for rereading.