Another month, another stack of books...
1. Aaronovitch, Ben. Midnight Riot. Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2011. (A)
With its strong emphasis on police procedure and coping with implacable forces I'm reminded of Diana Rowland's "Kara Gillian" stories, as self-sabotaging Peter Grant (who is barely hanging on to his career of as a London policeman) finds that he has a knack for magic and is taken under the wing of what might be the last actual wizard in Britain, who just happens to be a senior police detective. I haven't made up my mind whether I cared for the payoff or not, but Aaronovitch is to be complimented on not pulling any punches in terms of roughing up his characters.
2. Ashby, Madeline. vN: The First Machine Dynasty. Angry Robot 2012. (A-)
Without giving away any spoilers this story reads something like you might get if you threw Snow White, Huckleberry Finn and Blade Runner in a blender and hit the puree button. I will say that for an author who suspects that self-awareness is overrated, this novel does seem remarkably sentimental at points, but those points are usually followed up with a sharp “learning experience;” perhaps the only freedom that matters is the right to say no.
3. Brady, Tim. Twelve Desperate Miles: The Epic WWII Voyage of the SS Contessa. Crown Publishers, 2012. (B-)
A retelling of the famous scheme in the invasion of Morocco in 1942 to reopen the airfield outside of Port Lyautey by direct naval assault up the Sebou River. What makes this exercise worthwhile is that the author has found new primary material about some of the main participants in this operation; French harbor pilot Rene Malevergne (who had been spirited out of Morocco for his knowledge and expertise) and William Henry John, the master of SS Contessa that was to provide logistical support to American fighter planes flown off carriers to the base. While this whole endeavor turned out not to be as essential as imagined, it's still a good story well worth telling.
That I don't rate this book a little higher is due to there being a little too much slop for my taste in terms of mistakes; the most egregious one being to credit the American battleship Mississippi with being a participant in the naval action off Casablanca against Vichy French forces, instead of the Massachusetts.
4. Cooper, Brenda. The Creative Fire. Pyr, 2012. (C+)
Reading much like a Young Adult story set in C.J. Cherryh's "Alliance-Union" universe, one follows the story of how protagonist Ruby Martin uses her talent as a singer to help foment a political uprising on a failing generation ship where the social order has turned corrupt. I have to admit that the story didn't exactly engage me and the author's admission that she cribbed much of her theme from the story of Evita Peron (no hero of mine) was an actual turn-off. That said, tensions are set up in the climax of this novel that might take the plot in interesting directions when the ship returns to its home world.
5. Goda, Norman J.W. Tales from Spandau: Nazi Criminals and the Cold War. Cambridge University Press, 2007. (A)
Call this book a case study in trying to exact justice under less than ideal circumstances, as Goda examines the complications entailed by the extended incarceration of men such as Rudolph Hess, Albert Speer, and Karl Donitz. Much of the complexity stemmed from bad logistical decisions made immediately at the conclusion of Nuremberg war trials (never mind the flaws in that judicial process) and the decision to hold these men in Berlin, at which point their fates became entangle in the fate of the divided city. The next level of complexity derived from how much of a support group the prisoners had outside of prison, what with the aristocratic elite of Wurttemburg speaking up for Konstantin von Neurath, the German naval officer corps supporting Admirals Raeder and Donitz, and elements of the German business community helping Albert Speer; Hess and Baldur von Schirach, not so much. Finally, there was the chronic matter of the balance between seeing that these men were forced to endure the sentences meted out to them, with the fear of making them into martyrs.
In the end Goda concludes that the meaning of Spandau was most important to the Soviet government, as the prison was the symbolic validation of the Cold War division of Europe and the international regime that resulted. As for the way forward in such cases, Goda notes that national leaders serving sentences as war criminals will inevitably remain points of conflict and the hope of virtually entombing them so that they are forgotten like a quarantined contagion is a pipe dream. Countries trying alleged war criminals need to enter into this endeavor "with open eyes and with thick skins," and to remember that the real punishment for the likes of the Spandau Seven is the "bar of history."
6. Kercher, Stephen E. Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America. University of Chicago Press, 2006. (A)
A sweeping history of one aspect of the liberal critique against the McCarthyism and the Eisenhower Consensus of the 1950s. Kercher takes you from the editorial cartoons of Mauldin and Herblock, through MAD magazine, the emergence of improvisational comedy theater and the rise & fall of the satire "boom" of the early Sixties. The climax of this being the film Dr. Strangelove, which can be seen as building on the work of the proceeding ten years.
Besides considering a whole range of cultural projects that are often not well-remembered, Kercher is at his most interesting when examining the failures of liberal satire. Essentially being a product for young men by young men, it sometimes undercut itself with unexamined misogyny. Dismissive of suburban consumer culture, there was some failure to appreciate that for most people this beat the hell out of the alternatives. Also, when looking at the rise and fall of the show "This is the Week that Was," there is the matter that whatever the problems of speaking truth to power and making a living at it, these problems are magnified when trying to do so as a party loyalist; as Mort Sahl learned (for example) when he crossed the Kennedy Administration and found himself to suddenly be commercial poison.
Finally there is the small matter that, at best, satire is a palliative for social problems, and that if hard-hitting social critique via comedy seemed to fade as the Sixties rolled on, it was because what could be done with satire had been done, and that the way forward was through political action, with all its risks and sacrifices; see the careers of Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory.
7. Laramie, Michael G. The European Invasion of North America: Colonial Conflict along the Hudson-Champlain Corridor, 1609-1760. Preager (ABC-CLIO), 2012. (B-)
Once you get past the rather pretentious title of this book, the subtitle tells you what the meat of this history is about; the cut and thrust of warfare up and down what Laramie calls the "Old Invasion Route." The higher narrative is essentially one of how the French colonial regime adopted raiding warfare as a means of keeping the potential strength of British America off balance and at bay, and which probably worked more successfully in the long run than really should have been allowed to happen.
So despite what would seem to be astute observations on the evolution of the military situation in Upstate New York and a strong writing style, how is it that I really don't trust Laramie's work? For one, Laramie has a bad habit of imagining situations and attributing emotional states to his subjects that I doubt he can document; this is history after all, not historical fiction. Two, despite being issued by what I would normally consider to be a reputable publisher, the footnoting is so weak as to be almost nonexistent. Three, I found some of the source choices to be rather odd; at the very least a book on warfare in Colonial America ought to include the work of Fred Anderson and Francis Jennings in the bibliography.
My recommendation would be to use this as a source with caution and to read Fred Anderson first.
8. Ransom, Stephen. Junkers Ju 287: Germany’s Forward Swept Wing Bomber. Classic Publications (Ian Allan), 2009. (A-)
So the question if you already own Thomas Hitchcock's old Monogram study of the Junker Ju 287 is do you really need this book. If you're interested in this machine, the answer is yes, as besides getting a much more sophisticated understanding of what was to be achieved with this bomber you will also be getting a study of the swept-forward wing concept in general.
9. Spencer, Wen. Elfhome. Baen Books, 2012. (B-)
Returning to the setting of a Pittsburgh unhinged from dimensional stability, this novel is mostly a continuation of the themes in the first two books, as the war between the elves and oni continues while Tinker sorts out her role as an elven aristocrat. The key point is that the deep politics of the elves rears its ugly head (mostly their deep aversion to the misuse of genetic engineering) and provides most of the drive to the plot. As others have noted, this book is much less about Tinker and more about her cousin Oilcan and he is just not as interesting a character to me; I should probably care more, but I don't.
As for the way forward, I'd like to see Spencer deal more with what a disaster such as has befallen Pittsburgh means to human society at some point. Perhaps this would be its own story, perhaps it would be as part of spill-over from the war between the elves and the oni.
10. Votaw, John. The American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. (Battle Orders 6). Osprey, 2005. (B+)
This turned out to be a very good summation of the command and force structure of the U.S. ground forces in Europe in the Great War. About my one critique is whether the space devoted to the Army Air Service would have been better spent on U.S. troops deployed to Siberia and Italy.
11. Warren, Adam. Empowered (Vol. 2). Dark Horse Books, 2007. (B+)
More sophomoric, over-sexed shenanigans by Warren’s “D” list superheroes, though character development is starting to rear its ugly head.
12. Weber, Jennifer L. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. Oxford University Press, 2006. (B)
It would seem inevitable that any work on the "Copperheads" would have a revisionist slant. Where Frank Klement downplayed the insurrectionist nature of the movement, Weber tends to depict the hardcore among the faction as talking a good line in terms of exploiting the violence in the Federal states generated by the old social order being hammered in the course of the war, except when the time came to take organized action and the nerve failed. The impression left is that of just another in a series of reactionary American political irruptions that have turned out to be glorified acting out more than anything else, except for the victims of the resulting terrorist actions incited.
Where it's possible that the author did herself no favors is in terms of how she structures her monograph, which tends to ploddingly link the ebb and flow of the Peace Democrats and the Copperheads (who are not quite synonymous) with the fortunes of the Lincoln Administration on the battlefield. This is fine so far as it goes, but playing up issues such as the pre-war fraying of the Jacksonian White Male Order, the perceived hostility between Abolitionists and the Catholic immigrant communities, and sectionalism in the Old Northwest might have said more about the potential of the Copperheads as a political party. This is assuming that more dynamic leadership had been available than the ilk of Clement Vallandigham, who in these pages very much comes off as a legend in his own mind.