Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Monuments Men by Robert Edsel

One of the most enjoyable aspects to the study of history is always finding new stories. Even when you think you know a lot about a field you find something new and enjoyable. That one of the many reasons that I enjoyed Monuments Men so much. Robert Edsel has provided us with a look at an area of World War II studies that has gone virtually unnoticed for nearly 70 years. The men and women of the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives) Division served an almost unknown, but incredibly valuable part in the war against the destructive evil of Nazism.

When Hitler's forces overran Europe they set about looting the national artistic treasures in a methodical manner. Priceless treasures were pillaged from the museums and galleries of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Poland, and other European nations. All property belonging to Jews were taken. Hitler's dream was to create an enormous museum that would be the envy of the entire world. Instead he launched the most destructive war in history.

The allies were aware of the cultural heritage in the areas that they would be fighting. This is why the MFAA was created. The original MFAA officers were tasked with traveling into the war zones and identifying historic sites that needed to be preserved. The stories of what these men accomplished is truly amazing. Time after time they were able to save important buildings from being destroyed.

As the book progresses we see another dimension of their work. They began to investigate the Nazi looting. Their job shifted from simply protecting buildings from destruction to locating stolen works of art. At times the book resembles an action thriller story. The theft of priceless works of art. The heroic civilians who work undercover to spy on the Nazis. The small band of men rushing from place to place to save these priceless objects.

I really enjoyed this book. I enjoyed the subject, I enjoyed the writing, I enjoyed everything about it. Robert Edsel has done an excellent job of sharing this important story with us. Perhaps there is no greater evidence of the statement that those who do not study history are bound to repeat it. We never studied the important work of the Monuments Men. As a result the allies were not prepared when Iraq was invaded in 2003. The looting of those priceless antiquities could have been avoided by simply employing a group like the MFAA. Perhaps this book will help to raise awareness so that tragedies like the Iraq museum will not happen again. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Telegraph Hill by John Nardizzi

Telegraph Hill is the first novel by John Nardizzi. In this volume we are introduced to Mr. Nardizzi’s private eye Ray Infantino who runs a successful office in Boston. The novel opens with a murder. A chinese mobster is gunned down by rivals on a hotel rooftop in San Francisco. In the next scene we meet Infantino. Nardizzi is obviously a fan of the great hardboiled detective novels. Infantino is Nardizzi’s addition to the genre. Infantino is hired to find a missing chinese girl. Seems like a simple case. Rich girl runs off, rich parents want to find her, they want it kept low key. Sounds simple. That is until Infantino leaves the lawyers office. The lawyer then makes a mysterious phone call and it looks like he is signing Infantino’s death warrant as soon as the girl is found.

The girl in question Tania Kong. In her time in America she has become a high priced escort in San Francisco. She was unlucky enough to have been on the site when the Chinese mobster was gunned down on page 1. She is on the run. The triad has dozens of killers on the lookout for her. Will Infantino be able to find her before the triads do? Will they both be able to escape whatever the client is planning?

In addition to the main story line Infantino is also working on a private matter. A few years earlier his girlfriend was killed in a bomb blast meant for him. The case has never been solved and he wants answers. He believes that the bomber is from a white supremacist group that he was investigating. Now he is back in San Francisco and he intends to finish this case.

This is a good first novel. The plot moves quickly and the dialogue is very good. Nardizzi tends to overdo the narration at times, the desire to get that classic noir feel sometimes feels a little wooden. The well written dialogue shows that the author definitely has skill and I have no doubt that over the course of future books this quality will only continue to grow and shine. Hardboiled fiction is difficult to write well. By its nature it can lead to excess or cardboard cutout characters and events. This is avoided with great skill. While a 250 page novel doesn’t give a lot of room to go into great character depth you do get a feel that these characters are real and you want to get to know them better.

Infantino is a likable character and he seems to have a good supporting cast. I definitely look forward to reading more novels about Ray Infantino. If you love hardboiled detective novels then this is a fun way to spend some reading time. 

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands by Charles Moore

Margaret Thatcher was an amazing political leader. In her own lifetime she was both admired and reviled by many. Even on the occasion of her death the responses could be quite loud. Margaret Thatcher: From Grantham to the Falklands is the first volume in a two volume biography of the Iron Lady by author Charles Moore. Moore spent many years working on this project. Lady Thatcher gave him access to her own material and encouraged others to talk to him. The only stipulation was that the book be published after her death. Moore is quite thorough in his work. He covers Thatcher’s life in great detail. He also covers her personality. This is not an attempt to canonize the subject. Thatcher is shown to be stubborn, difficult, and at times even a bit abusive of her colleagues. Moore points out her many weaknesses as well as her strengths. The overall image is not flattering, but it does show a very human Thatcher, something that we do not see very often when she is portrayed.

Thatcher’s father made a great impression on her early life. He was a storekeeper and a lay Methodist minister. Many of her strongest beliefs were instilled by her father at a early age. This included a strong work ethic and a strong desire to help those in need. For all of her critics claim to the contrary her greatest desire was always to look after the working men and women in England. Whenever she looked at a bill she tended to look at it like a housewife examining an item on the family budget. She disliked inflation because she felt that it wiped out the hard earned savings of industrious workers. She fought hard to sell off government owned housing to the people who lived in the housing. 

Moore tells us a lot about her early life. Thatcher was always very closed about her personal life, always referring to discuss policy more than her own past. Moore shows that Denis was not the first man that she dated, something that she always claimed. We see that she was often so focused on her own life and career that she at times neglected other members of her family like her sister and her parents. We also see Margaret the snappy dresser. It is sometimes hard to remember that great people that we see in middle age were once teenagers. Thatcher loved to shop for clothes and had a particular passion for hats. From the time she was young she seemed to be destined to break down barrier. In the “old boy” world of education and politics she took second place to no one. Moore recounts the story of a headmaster congratulating the young Margaret on her luck at winning a prize in school. She responded that it wasn’t luck, she had worked hard for the award.

Early on in politics she was added to the Shadow Cabinet in a traditional “woman’s position.” She worked through that and soon showed the boys how to run a government. Neither the Labour leadership nor the Conservative leadership ever knew what to do with this upstart middle class woman who didn’t seem to know her place in the system.

Readers not familiar with the British system of government (where the Prime Minister and the Cabinet are all elected members of Parliament) it will seem amazing that from the beginning Thatcher had to fight not only with the opposing Labour party, but with members of her own cabinet. Many in her cabinet considered her as nothing more than a fluke and wanted to remove her from power so that they would be able to resume the game of politics as normal. That was not to happen. At least not for a long time.

This book is very detailed and has extensive notes and sources. In fact if there is any criticism it would be that it is too detailed. For a person who loves the minutiae of policy making this book would be wonderful. For those looking for a general biography they may find it to be a little cumbersome in the shear amount of detail given. One other observation. Most Americans know very little about the English education system or the English system of government. This book is written by an English author who assumes that everyone understands these topics. Perhaps a glossary or an appendix explaining these systems would have been useful in the American edition.

These slight criticisms aside the book is well written and fascinating. If you want to learn about one of the most important and fascinating political figures of the twentieth century then pick up this book.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Octopussy and The Living Daylights by Ian Fleming

Octopussy and The Living Daylights is a short story collection by Ian Fleming. It was collected and published after Fleming’s death. The book is very short and only contains four stories. “Octopussy” Is a story about a former British officer who is now in retirement. All seems to be well until a man named Bond shows up and exposes an old crime. “The Living Daylights” has Bond using his skills as a sniper to protect a spy who is trying to escape from East Berlin. In “Property of a Lady” Bond has to trap a mole inside the office. Finally in “007 in New York” Bond spends an evening in the Big Apple.

The stories are short and are not exactly his best work. Fleming was a great writer of novels. His novels were never long, almost all coming in at under 200 pages. Somehow that format better fits his style. “Octopussy” is an interesting morality tale of murder and greed. “The Living Daylights” is an interesting story because it shows Bond at odds with his duties as a 00 agent. The other two stories are below par for Fleming’s work. Overall the two title stories are alright. If you want to own all of Fleming’s Bond Books then you will need to get this book. Don’t make it your first Bond book though.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

This is the first Philip Marlowe book. Marlowe would go on to become one of the great icons among hardboiled detectives. Marlowe is a private investigator. He will tell you that he has a problem with authority. At the beginning of the novel he is hired by General Sternwood, a very wealthy, very elderly client with two wild and reckless daughters. Marlowe thinks that he is handling a simple case. On the surface a man is just asking for a gambling debt owed by the youngest daughter be paid. Marlowe thinks that blackmail may be involved. Before the novel is over he will have dealt with the blackmail. Of course the case turns out to be bigger than he thought. Before all is over he will have to deal with blackmailers, gamblers, pornographers, and murderers. That is the simple part. The hard part is keeping his client’s daughters out of the trouble that they seemed determined to end up in.

The Big Sleep is a great hardboiled detective novel. Chandler’s prose is masterful in the way he brings out the story. Written, like many hardboiled detective stories, in the first person the character of Marlowe is a fascinating blend of pragmatic man of the world and the idealist trying to do the right thing. The book is very much a product of it’s time and some of the language and attitudes might offend some readers today, but don’t let it bother you as you experience this wonderful piece of American literature. Get The Big Sleep today and enjoy.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Drizzt Novels by R. A. Salvatore

I have now read through the entire series of Drizzt novels by R. A. Salvatore. This has been a wonderful journey. I am looking forward with great anticipation to the next novel. Next in the Fantasy genre I will look at the Erevis Cale novels by Paul S. Kemp. Stay tuned for some more reviews of great fantasy novels.

Streams of Silver by R. A. Salvatore

In the aftermath of the battle against the wizard Akar Kessel and the Crystal Shard Drizzt, Bruenor, and Wulfgar decide to go on a search for the great dwarven realm of Mithral Hall. Bruenor is the rightful king, but his people had been driven from the Hall and the path has been forgotten. They are joined by Regis who seems to be in a strange hurry to join in an adventure. In the meantime Cattie-Brie is kidnapped by a new nemesis, Artemis Entreri. Entreri is hunting Regis and intends to have him. The travelers face many adventures. Catti-Brie finally escapes and warns them about Entreri. Together they continue the search for the famed dwarven halls. The search takes them through a number of adventures and they meet new friends along the way.
An important theme running through this story is the treatment of Drizzt. As a Drow (dark elf) he is feared and hated. He understands this because of the well known viciousness of his people, but it still hurts him at times. More than that his friends truly experience this hatred and have little patience for it. This helps to cement their bond as a group.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Last Threshold by R. A. Salvatore

The Last Threshold is the newest novel in R. A. Salvatore’s Drizzt series. So much has happened in these novels since Salvatore first introduced Drizzt and his companions. In The Ghost King and Gauntlgrym Drizzt lost his companions of many years. Over the last two novels he has built up a new group of friends. At the end of Charon’s Claw Dahlia had her revenge against Herzgo Alegni. She was struck by an even more profound discovery. The misshapen tiefling wizard Effron is the son that she thought she killed by throwing him off a cliff as a baby. Artemis Entreri thought that the destruction of Charon’s Claw would end in his death. It did not. Now these two join Drizzt on a new journey. Neither have any real place to go. Joining them is Ambergris, the dwarven cleric who had embedded herself as a spy in the Shadovar mercenary team Cavus Dun. She has brought with her another refugee from the mercenary band, a young monk named Afafrenfere.

Drizzt decides to give the group a purpose, so he travels to the city of Port Llast which is under attack from evil sea creatures. Will Drizzt be able to reform this ragtag group? Most of these companions have only lived for themselves and have been killers and thieves. To secure the safety of Port Llast Drizzt will have to work with the Ship Lords of Luskan. There are many more wheels turning in this story. Tiago Baenre seeks to kill Drizzt to cement his own fame. Drayo Quick has taken Guenhwyvar prisoner and is now able to spy on Drizzt and his companions through her eyes. Effron wants to track down Dahlia and make her pay for what she did to him. Wound up in all of this is the drow mercenary band Bregan D’aerthe.

The Last Threshold nicely wraps up the Neverwinter Saga with a lot of surprises and some beautiful story telling. The end of the novel was very unexpected. There is a major new event coming to the Forgotten Realms starting this summer. The first novel is a Drizzt novel. I have no idea what Salvatore is planning, but I can’t wait to read it. It is amazing to me that after twenty-three novels Salvatore still manages to keep the Drizzt stories exciting, entertaining, and thoughtful. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Charon's Claw by R. A. Salvatore

Charon’s Claw takes Drizzt to new challenges as he tries to deal with all of the events that have been swirling through the Neverwinter Saga. The Thayan forces have been pushed back by the death of Sylora Salm. At the end of Neverwinter Dahlia learned that Herzgo Alegni was alive and in control of Neverwinter. She sets out for the city to claim her revenge on the warlord who murdered her family and raped her. Drizzt does not know the reason for Dahlia’s hatred, but he follows along reluctantly. Barrabus the Grey was revealed to be Drizzt’s old nemesis Artemis Entreri. Entreri joins them in their move against Alegni even though he knows that it could spell his own long overdue death.

In another thread of the story the drow of Menzoberranzan are on the move. House Xorlarrin sends out an expedition to locate the Dwarven city of Gauntlgrym. Their goal is to create a new drow city from the ruins of the ancient homeland of the dwarves. As always with the drow there is much intrigue.

Drizzt, Dahlia, and Entreri must defeat Alegni, take Charon’s Claw, the sentient sword that allows him to enslave Entreri, and destroy the blade. Entreri believes that the destruction of the blade will end his own life, but he is willing to pay that price to be free of Alegni. Drizzt knows that the only fire that will be able to destroy such an artifact as Charon’s Claw is the primordial flame in Gauntlgrym. 

Drizzt goes through a lot of emotional growth in this story. He is troubled by the bond he sees developing between Dahlia and Entreri. Their common hatred for Alegni binds them together in a way that Drizzt does not understand. Before all is over the companions will have learned things about their foes and themselves that will leave them shaken. I wish I could share with you the interesting thrill that occurs on the last page of the book.

Salvatore has, for over twenty years, proven himself to be a master of sword and sorcery style fantasy books. You should always expect to see fights that leave you on the edge of your seat. What I love about Salvatore is how he has grown as an author over time. Charon’s Claw is another great book from a master writer.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Training Ground by Martin Dugard

Grant, Sherman, Lee, Longstreet. These are all names familiar to people who have studied the CIvil War. These were the men who fought each other in the most devastating war in United States History. In Training Ground Martin Dugard reminds us that these men were not always enemies. In the war with Mexico these men and many others fought side by side. Training Ground is not a full history of the Mexican War, it is more of a history of the men who fought the war together as young officers and would later command opposing armies. Dugard traces the early biographies of US Grant, James Longstreet, William Sherman, and Robert E. Lee. We see how these men went to West Point and entered into an army that promised very little in the way of a career and promotion.

The primary character in the story is a young US Grant. Each chapter is introduced with a quotation from Grant’s Memoirs. In his later life Grant was highly critical of the actions of the US Government in both provoking a war and then in the way that the Democratic leadership sought to run the war in a highly politicized manner. Of course the young Grant that we meet in these pages is less concerned with the political implication of the war. He is far more interested in getting back home to his love Julia. 

The Mexican War was indeed the Training Ground for the Civil War. If you are familiar with the history of the Civil War you can’t help but feel a little sad as you read this book. You know the history of these young, anxious, promising young officers. You know how they will end up opposing each other. Reading this book I couldn’t help but wonder what the US Army would have looked like had the Civil War not occurred. What would have happened if an army commanded by Lee with Grant, Longstreet, Jackson, Sherman, and the others have been able to do. With that much brilliance they could have stood against any army in the world. Instead they were forced by political forces to fight each other.

Training Ground gives a good overview of the Mexican War. It also gives an insight to men who would shape history only thirteen years later. This is something that a lover of American History or the Civil War should enjoy.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Bye Bye Baby by Max Allan Collins

Bye Bye Baby is another great novel in the Nathan Heller series by Max Allan Collins. When we first met Nathan Heller in True Detective it was the early 1930s. Through the years he has worked a lot of famous cases. Now he is on the scene with the lovely, vivacious Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn is an old friend and calls Nathan to help her with a little job. She wants her phone bugged. She is having a lot of trouble with her studio, Fox, and she wants to protect herself. Heller’s favor for a friend turns into much more. This book reads like a Who’s Who from the period. Heller deals with Joe DiMaggio, Frank Sinatra, Hugh Hefner, John and Robert Kennedy, and many others.

One of Collins’ strengths is his ability to throw lots of celebrities into a book without stretching too much credulity. Of course Heller has to bed Marilyn and at least two other women. This should surprise no one who has read the Heller novels. Heller falls into the category of men who have slept with both Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe. If the book is to be believed then he shares that honor with the Kennedy boys.

Bye Bye Baby is a sympathetic look at Monroe. She is truly a tragic figure and her treatment at the hands of the movie studios and the Kennedy brothers was shameful. Collins tries, and succeeds, to navigate his way in this book between the pro and anti Kennedy camps. Perhaps the most interesting thing of all is the real humanity of the characters. That is one of the trademarks of the Heller novels. The celebrities are not just here to catch our interest, they have a realness about them. So who killed Marilyn Monroe? Was it suicide, an accidental overdose, the Kennedys, or someone else. You will just have to get the book and find out.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Some Great Deals on Books

There are some great deals on books out there today. Check out these offers:

$2.99 today in the Kindle store. Flannery O'Connor is an amazing writer and her short stories are some of the best American literature out there.

$2.99 today in the Kindle store. Flannery O'Connor's first novel.

$2.99 today in the Kindle store.

A classic Newbery Winner from 1959. Only $1.99 in the Kindle Store today.

$1.99 today from Kindle. Johnny Tremain is a great 1943 winner of the Newbery.