A Brotherhood of Spies, by Monte Reel****

BrotherhoodSpies3.5 stars rounded up. Thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I received free and early in exchange for this honest review.

The story begins with a US spy plane being shot down over Soviet (Russian) airspace in 1960. This is embarrassing. Eisenhower’s people decide to make something up; after all, nobody survives an airplane crash over dry land. Moreover, the pilot was provided with a cyanide capsule—James Bond style—so even if he survived, he must be dead; likewise, the plane was likely blown to bits, with not much left for the Soviet investigators to learn.

Let’s say it was a weather plane. It wandered off course, and those mean Soviets shot it down.

But oh dear, this is even more embarrassing: the pilot lived, and he didn’t feel like taking the poison pill. Would you?  So the Russians know what he was flying, and they know who he is. They’re telling the world.

Just reading the teaser for this book, I was hooked. But just as a brilliant writer can take dross and make a good tale of it, so can an indifferent one take compelling information and make it into a snooze. For me, this was not an entertaining read. I had agreed to write about it, so I had to read it, and it felt like work.

I want to be fair here: there are people that will read this book and like it. There’s a lot of technical information about the spy plane, and about many other spy planes, some of which were never built. Apart from the truly bizarre one that was supposed to be landed on its belly (no landing gear), or the ridiculous idea of a nuclear powered plane, I found my attention drifting during these descriptions. But I am not interested in aviation, and if you are, you may like this.

The other aspect that causes my attention to wander is the history 101 aspect of it. I’m a retired history teacher. I don’t need an author to walk me through the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Bay of Pigs. However, I note that other reviewers came to this work with no knowledge of either, and they are delighted to be clued in. For newbies, count this as a win.

Finally, I have to credit the source work. Reel didn’t take the easy way out. His end notes are first rate.

For those that are relatively new to this chapter of American history, this may be a compelling read. For those interested in the history of American aviation, it is recommended. For those that are well read in the field, maybe not.

This book is now for sale.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, by Robert Matzen****

missionjimmystewartIn Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, Robert Matzen provides an engaging, compelling memoir that focuses primarily on Stewart’s time as an aviator during World War II. Thanks go to Net Galley and to Goodknight Books for the DRC, which I read free in exchange for this honest review.

The book begins with Stewart’s childhood in a small Pennsylvania town. His is a close knit family with a strong military tradition. An outstanding student, he is educated at Princeton and falls in love with theater one summer. He hits the road for Hollywood to fulfill his dream.

Because of the title, I am taken aback at the amount of celebrity gossip that is included in the first portion of the biography. Matzen wants us to know that Stewart used his skinny-awkward-young-man routine as a sort of foreplay to work his way between the sheets with one well known actress after another; he lists many of them. I could have lived without this part, but maybe you’ll enjoy it. If like me you are really only interested in the military aspect of it, skip the Hollywood part at the start and pick it back up when he enlists. Eventually this is what I did.

Once there, the story is fascinating. Stewart resolutely straight-armed studio efforts to keep him in the USA or use him to entertain troops, as some actors that are drafted chose to do. He angers a studio head who actually tells him, “You’ll never work in this town again”. He decides he is going to do his part like any other man, apart from the fact that he had always wanted to fly and now has the money for a private plane and flying lessons. Once he is actually in uniform, he is able to become the aviator he has dreamed of being as a youngster.

As Martzen unspools Stewart’s story, which had to be difficult to research given Stewart’s resolute refusal to discuss that period, I am instantly engaged. I had known at one time that the planes were not heated back then, but hadn’t fully appreciated the dangers and challenges posed by the cold alone once in the air. A man could suffocate if he didn’t regularly break the ice off of his mask. Men could and did lose body parts to frostbite.

The stories of the men that would eventually serve under him as he rises in rank, not due to strings pulled by authorities but as he has wished, by merit and leadership capability, are also both interesting and poignant. Reading the way the pilots name and decorate their planes, how individual aircraft with idiosyncrasies that make them handle differently so that the pilots strongly prefer to fly their own ships, is interesting, and  reading the personal details and in some cases, the deaths of these men is wrenching in some places, poignant in others.

When Stewart has completed his military service, he looks at least ten years older than he is. He’s seen a lot. If he returns to Hollywood, there’s no chance he will play the same roles he used to do. He stalwartly refuses to exploit his time in the service by making World War II films, which are enormously popular, and for a long time, his phone doesn’t ring. He’s sleeping at his parents’ house in his old childhood bedroom, wondering what will happen. But in time he hears from Frank Capra, who has an idea for a picture “based on a story titled ‘The Greatest Gift,’ about a man from a small town who wishes he had never been born. Jim was the only actor in Hollywood whom Capra considered for the role.”

Despite the sense of alienation he experiences with his return to the other-worldly, glitzy city after his gritty, intense experience in the war, Stewart is glad to be back, and he plays what will become an iconic role, that of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life”. He credits Capra with saving his career, and is overjoyed to be back:

“He was engaged in something magical again, something to interest people in the art of living, rather than the art of dying.”

The book also discusses Stewart’s lifelong friendship with Henry Fonda, and his marriage. We get a brief overview of the peacetime lives of the surviving members of Stewart’s first crew.

If it were up to me, I would remove all of the somewhat jarring photos at the end of the book that show Stewart alongside one actress after another, and I’d replace them with photos and maybe diagrams of the planes we hear so much about. A map here and there wouldn’t hurt, since we follow his flight paths and it’s sometimes hard to visualize where these places are. I used Google, but would like to see these included as part of the published memoir, perhaps in the center, where they’re most relevant.

I recommend this biography to fans of Stewart’s, and I recommend most of this book to those with an interest in military history.  The book is available to the public today, October 24, 2016.

Target Tobruk, by Robert Jackson****

targettolbrukMilitary history and World War II buffs will enjoy this well written third installment in Jackson’s  Sergeant George Yeoman series. I hadn’t read any of the others in the series, but it didn’t matter; it serves just fine as a stand-alone novel. Thanks go to Net Galley and Endeavour Press for the DRC, which I received free of charge in exchange for this review.

Yeoman is a pilot; Jackson served as a pilot himself in the Royal Air Force Reserve and flew many different types of planes, so he has personal experience with his topic. The story centers around the battle for Northern Africa before the USA has entered the war.

And did you know how hot the desert is? Those that are considering reading this need to know this one thing: have some water beside you as you commence. I don’t think any novel has ever made me this thirsty!

Those that are not native English speakers may find this too challenging, and so will high school students. The vocabulary, as well as the military and geographic references, calls for a solid literacy level, and those with some knowledge of World War II and the Mediterranean region will be happier reading it than those that don’t. The four star designation is for this demographic; for general audiences unfamiliar with the Africa campaign, I’d take it down to three stars.

The book would really benefit from a couple of maps and some photographs of the many different types of weapons and especially aircraft that are mentioned here.

I am slightly touchy about the racist term that was used during this time period for Japanese; I understand they were adversaries, and yet the ugly racial terms–which went so far further than anything that was said about European members of the Axis forces–turn my stomach. Because of this, I veer away from fiction that has to do with the Pacific theater of this war, because I just know it’s going to be there, probably in liberal doses. The “J” word pops up here just once. On the one hand, it really doesn’t add anything to the plot and could have been left out, but on the other, at least it is in quotation marks, reflecting a character’s mindset rather than the overall tone of the narrative. Given the nature of the story, I felt the author did pretty well in this regard.

Recommended for those with a strong interest in World War II history, this book is more of a novella in length; just 142 pages. It is available for sale digitally now.