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The Industrialisation of Soviet Russia, Volume 1: The Socialist Offensive: The Collectivisation of Soviet Agriculture, 1929-1930
Robert William Davies
Progress: 116/512 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

A chummy history of how Churchill became Prime Minister

Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister - Nicholas Shakespeare

The selection of Winston Churchill as Neville Chamberlain's successor in May 1940 is regarded today as one of the most pivotal moments of the 20th century. With his elevation to the premiership Britain was committed to a course of action in the Second World War that ended with victory over Nazi Germany. Given his role in the Allied triumph and subsequent anointing as the greatest Briton ever, such a choice can be perceived as inevitable. Yet was it?

One of the great merits of Nicholas Shakespeare's account of the events surrounding the decision is in his detailing the views of the key actors in the spring of 1940 and the choices available to them. In the process, not only does he demonstrate that Churchill's selection was far from ordained, but he also shows that it was more than a simple choice between Churchill and Lord Halifax traditionally described in most accounts of the event. As Shakespeare explains, ministers and Members of Parliament had several alternatives available to them. For many of them, Churchill was an unacceptable choice for the top post given his recklessness and adventurism, while others seemed much more appealing candidates. Even the very notion that Chamberlain needed to be replaced because of the military debacle in Norway the month before was not generally accepted, and only emerged over the course of the "Norway debate" and the subsequent division that exposed the weakness of Chamberlain's support.

To detail the events of May 1940 and uncover the thinking of the various people involved Shakespeare went beyond the traditional accounts in memoirs and biographies and undertook additional archival research and interviews. This he knits together in a narrative to which he brings all his skills as a novelist, making for an account that is highly engaging. By comparing the at times conflicting accounts and retrospective explanations, he has produced a very detailed description of how it came down in the end to Churchill. Yet it is also an incredibly chummy account, focusing almost exclusively upon the actions and decisions of a select group of elite men (and even a couple of women). While this is understandable given the small circle of people in politics and media at the time, the weaknesses in this approach are more evident in the account of the Norway disaster that precedes it. Given its importance to the events that followed Shakespeare spends a third of the book describing its failings, yet his account of events rarely strays beyond the experiences of key officers and government officials, creating the impression that it was merely their personal experiences which drove their objections to Chamberlain rather than the broader defeat that informed their criticisms of his handling of the war.

 

By narrowing his focus to a group of elite figures (one that includes his own uncle), Shakespeare trivializes the motivations of many of the men involved in the decision to turn out Chamberlain. It's a glaring flaw in what is in many respects an excellent book, one that details the chain of events that would define the course of world history. It is especially unfortunate, given that Shakespeare's extensive research and ability as a writer have produced what is the best account yet of how Churchill became prime minister in those fateful weeks in the spring of 1940. Its weaknesses, however, cause it to fall short of the definitive account it could have been with just a broadening of its scope.

Evil under the Vulcan sun

The Vulcan Academy Murders - Jean Lorrah

After a crewmember is crippled in a battle with the Klingons Captain James Kirk takes the Enterprise to Vulcan, where an experimental treatment under development at the Vulcan Academy of Science promises to return him to health. Also undergoing the treatment is Spock's mother Amanda, who is suffering from a degenerative nerve disease that threatens to end her life. As Kirk, Spock, and Leonard McCoy settle in for an extended stay on Spock's homeworld, an catastrophic failure kills one of the subjects undergoing the treatment. Then a second patient dies, raising an unthinkable question — could there be a murderer on Vulcan?

Jean Lorrah's novel, her first of several contributions to the Star Trek universe, is unusual in several respects. One is its setting, as it is the first to be set on Vulcan. This gives Lorrah an opportunity to offer readers an extended look at life on Vulcan, and it is to her credit that she does not overdo it by making the novel about the arcana of one of the most popular cultures of the Star Trek universe. Given the location, it might be expected that Spock would take center stage in the novel, yet Lorrah surprises once again by making his father Sarek the primary Vulcan in the storyline. This further adds to the novel's appeal, as it gives readers an extended look at a fan favorite who had yet to receive the extended focus he would in subsequent novels and TV episodes.

 

Finally there is the plot of Lorrah's novel, which is a rare bird indeed among Star Trek novels: a murder mystery. Here she develops her setting by introducing several new characters (perfectly understandable, as nobody is going to buy a murder being one of the familiar faces of the bridge crew) and lets the plot unfold while developing them. This she does over the course of the first half of the book, letting suspects accumulate as the murders take place and the motivations are established. Yet all of this is ruined at the halfway point of the novel, when she tips her hand as to the identify of the murderer, after which the rest of the book lapses into a mundane pattern of chasing red herrings and identifying the guilty party at the very end. It's a disappointing ending for a novel that throughout much of its first half offered an engaging tale of mystery in an unlikely place.

Reading progress update: I've read 280 out of 280 pages.

The Vulcan Academy Murders - Jean Lorrah

Yup, she telegraphed who the culprit was.

Reading progress update: I've read 213 out of 280 pages.

The Vulcan Academy Murders - Jean Lorrah

When I was collecting the early Pocket Books Star Trek novels a couple of months ago, there was one that I just couldn't find no matter where I looked: Jean Lorrah's The Vulcan Academy Murders. As time went along and I plowed through my stack the book became something of a white whale. After all, if it wasn't turning up on the shelves of used bookstores, there had to be a reason, right?

 

After I returned from Texas without encountering it at the stores I visited, I broke down and ordered a copy from an online seller. I'm reading it now, and it's proving very entertaining. In effect it's a Star Trek murder mystery — as far as I can ascertain, the first one in the novels. And for the first 150 or so pages the mystery developed quite nicely as there was a good variety of plausible suspects. But I think Lorrah tipped her hand around that point, and since then I've been reading mainly to confirm whether I'm correct in my supposition. If I am then it will likely detract from my final rating, as the mystery was pretty good until that point.

An important read for our dark times?

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress - Steven Pinker

There's an interesting book review essay by Joshua Rothman in the most recent New Yorker that tackles the question of whether things are better or worse. While he looks at over a half-dozen books, he hinges it around Steven Pinker's newest book, which uses statistics and other research to argue that life is improving for most people in numerous ways.

 

I think I'm going to add this one to my TBR list. In these times it would help my mood to read something that puts the headlines about the day-to-day political disasters we're experiencing into a more optimistic perspective.

Reading progress update: I've read 103 out of 528 pages.

Six Minutes in May: How Churchill Unexpectedly Became Prime Minister - Nicholas Shakespeare

This book is proving to be a disappointment. Its ostensible focus is on the events surrounding Churchill's elevation to the premiership, but Nicholas Shakespeare has spent the first quarter of it on a chummy history of the battle of Norway. It's not terrible and his gifts as a writer make it interesting reading, but it's more narrative than analysis and it all feels like padding.

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.