The Confidence Men, by Margalit Fox****

This stranger-than-fiction story of two World War I captives, one an English officer, the other Australian, that trick their way out of a Turkish prison camp via a long, elaborate con centered on a Ouija board is compelling and at times, funny as hell. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House for the invitation to read and review. This book is for sale now.

The beginning is grim; grim enough that I abandon this story twice before ordering the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons to help me get over the hump. There’s torture, deprivation, and every ugly thing that the notion of an enemy prison brings to mind. I am especially horrified because I thought this book was going to be funny! Reader, it is, but you have to get past the grim and at times, dull beginning to get to the amusing bits. Somewhere between the fifteenth and twentieth percentiles, the shift occurs, and that’s when you can expect to enjoy yourself. You may want to skim a bit through this part; I do, and it works out well.

Harry Jones was an attorney before the Great War commenced; Cedric Hill was an Aussie auto mechanic. Once captured, the two have no chance at all making a conventional escape; the camp is too isolated for either of them to get anywhere, even if they were able to leave. Instead, what they have is nothing but time, and ultimately, that and their excellent imaginations and problem-solving skills, aided by some genuinely stupid captors, is what saves them.

The most impressive aspect of their scheme is that it takes place over a very long period of time. Not many con artists would be able to keep their story straight for so long. Jones and Hill have a great deal of self-discipline and organizational skill. Also, they’re afraid, and fear can improve one’s consistency and attention to detail. Once the meat of the story begins, it is absolutely riveting!

I flipped back and forth between my digital galley and the audio version. Both are equally good, but I would give a slight edge to the audio version, assuming the reader is primarily seeking entertainment. For a researcher, the print version is better for keeping details and sources straight.

Recommended to those that enjoy history and intelligent humor.

The Splendid and the Vile, by Erik Larson*****

If some of what follows challenges what you have come to believe about Churchill and this era, may I just say that history is a lively abode, full of surprises.”

Erik Larson wrote The Devil in the White City, and so when I saw that he had written a biography of Churchill, I leapt at the chance to read it. Thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. This book is for sale today.

I have spent most of my life dodging stories of the second world war, largely because I had grown bored, as a young woman, hearing my father’s ramblings with friends. No young person wants to hear their parent’s stories unless they involve great fame or heroism, and perhaps not always, even then. And so, when someone older than myself would speak of “the war,” my ears closed at once. Footage of Churchill’s iconic speeches sometimes popped up on the television, but all I heard was “blah blah blah,” and I would either change the channel or leave the room. And so, it is only now—after a career of teaching American history and government to teenagers—that I find myself curious about Churchill.

The book begins when King George asks Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain—who, along with his staff, had been carrying on with ordinary length work days despite the crisis at hand, and who had been contemplating a surrender to Germany—to step down, and then invites Churchill to take his place. Churchill has no intention of surrendering a single centimeter of British soil to Hitler, and soon everyone knows this. The book ends when the United States formally enters the war. By focusing on this brief period, Larson is able to include detail, the meaty anecdotes and quotes that a full length biography would limit. That said, the hard cover version of this book is still over 600 pages in length, if one includes the thorough and excellent endnotes, and if you haven’t the stamina for other books of this length, you probably won’t have the stamina for this one, either.

Since my childhood impression of Churchill was that he was dull and stodgy, I was fascinated to learn how truly unconventional he had been. He often worked 16 hour days and expected his staff to do the same, but he did so on his own terms, breaking for two baths daily (but dictating from the tub to a male secretary that sat tub side, tablet and pencil in hand), and likewise doing business from his bed, not merely over the phone, but with documents, a typist, an immense thermador to hold his two foot long cigars, and his cat, whom he called “darling.” He might be clad in a silk floral dressing gown (in America, this would be a fancy robe) and pom-pom slippers, or he might be buck naked. Today we would refer to the working baths and feet up in bed as a sort of self-care; the fact that he was able to carry it off during much more conventionally straightened times amazes me. He kept a machine gun in the trunk of his car, and he armed his family members, including the women. Invasion was a real possibility, and if it occurred, he and his family would be primary targets. He told them that if they were to be taken, possibly killed, the least they could do would be to take at least one Nazi down with them. And like so many fathers, he climbed onto the roof during Nazi bombing raids to see the action despite the risk, but made his daughter stay far away from London in the countryside lest she find herself in harm’s way.

Larson incorporates a variety of sources, but the two most frequently quoted are from Colville, who was one of his private secretaries, and Mary Churchill, his teenager. I question the amount of ink young Mary receives initially, but at the end, when I see where life took her, my objections fade. Also included are the views of top Nazi officials, primarily Joseph Goebbels, whose diary shows his dissatisfaction with Roosevelt, whose fireside chats inveighed against Fascism and in favor of the British cousins. Goebbels wishes that Hitler would take a hard line against the Americans, reflecting without an ounce of irony that “One must defend oneself sometime, after all.”

Larson’s congenial narrative draws me in almost like narrative nonfiction. Despite the death, the destruction, and the horror, it is—for me, at least—a curiously soothing read in all but one or two of the harshest spots. Perhaps it is because it was long ago and far away, and I know that—this time, at least—the Fascists will lose.

There is only one photograph in my digital review copy, and a note of a map that will be included in the finished version; I wish there were more. I came to my desktop to see images of the infamous Lord Beaverbrook, the Prof, and Pug Ismay, all of whom were Churchill’s key advisers, and I went to YouTube to listen to the Dunkirk speech and others that were so captivating and celebrated. Now that I grasped the context in which they were given, I can understand why they had an electrifying effect upon the British public and won the favor of other English-speaking nations, my own among them.

Is this the best Churchill biography? For those that want all the nitty gritty, there are many others, and Larson refers to them in his introduction, including one that is eight volumes long. For me, though, this is enough. Those that want an approachable yet professional introduction to this subject could do a lot worse; I recommend you get it and read it, and then you can decide if you want to pursue the subject further.

Highly recommended.

Scars of Independence, by Holger Hoock***

ScarsofIndependence I was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Crown Publishing. Thanks go to them for the DRC, and my apologies for being late, late, late. The title was published last month and is available now.

The strongest part of Hoock’s history, which seeks to set the record straight on the American Revolutionary War, is his research. He is an historian of some renown, and his entire life has been dedicated to studying and teaching about Britain. His sources are, as one might expect, thorough and impeccable. His thesis is that there was a great deal more violence over the course of this revolution than is commonly remembered, and

“By ‘violence’, I mean the use of physical force with intention to kill, or cause damage or harm to people or property. I also mean psychological violence: the use of threats, bullying tactics, and brutality to instill fear in people and influence their conduct and decisions…”

This is indeed a broad brush. In most courts of law today, a property crime is not considered a crime of violence, nor should it be. Better someone run away with your television set than shoot you, or knock you over the head, or hurt your family. And…bullying? Certainly such behavior gets more attention today, both legally and socially, particularly where young people are concerned; yet we are talking about a revolution here. A revolution! And this is part of what prevents me from engaging fully with the text. In the thick of a battle that will determine the futures of everyone concerned, a war to wrest control of its destiny from the mightiest naval power on Earth, it seems a bit of a stretch to expect that American Patriots and Loyalists would treat one another with perfect courtesy.

This brings me to the other part of this history that makes this reviewer cranky. The teaser suggests that this will be a balanced account, demonstrating that far more violence occurred on both sides than is widely taught in American schools, and it just isn’t so. In point of fact, although both Americans and Brits are discussed and shown to be more violent than most of us know, most of this book is dedicated to discussing the unprincipled, the unkind, the indecent ways British troops and loyal colonists were mishandled by brutal American Patriots. I went through my DRC with a highlighter, and far more space is given to bullying, demeaning, and other anti-British behaviors.

“Less careful individuals risked being investigated if they were overheard criticizing their local committee, if they drank a royal toast or sang “God Save the King” in the wrong company.”

My violin please.

There’s a lot of strong material here, and some of the tales of physical violence are graphic. In fact, the level of gory detail may be the summer reading dream of a nerdy teen with a strong reading level. And there is a lot of information that is new to me. Hoock depicts Lord North and King George III very differently from any other historian I have read; it would be easier for me to believe that Hoock’s viewpoint is the accurate one, had he admitted up front that he was writing from a largely Anglo-centric perspective.

The maps bear mention here. Rather than produce new maps that are legible on a DRC, Hoocks has chosen to use actual maps from the time period. This choice is hard to argue with; they’re primary documents, and although a second map that is more readable might be desired, I can’t argue that these maps should not be used. In fact, it’s interesting to see a map that includes what is now the Eastern USA and Eastern Canada with no line of demarcation, because nobody at the time regarded the US and Canada as separate entities. But I would say that those that want to read this book and that want the maps—which are important—should consider buying this title on paper rather than digitally, unless you intend to read it on large computer monitor.

Although the text isn’t as evenly balanced as the introduction implies, this is still a strong addition to the study of the American Revolution. It’s not an overview of the Revolution and does not pretend to be, so those looking to read just one book on the American Revolution should get something else. But for historians that want to deepen and enrich their understanding of this struggle and that think critically and independently, this book—in paper—is recommended.

Radio Girls, by Sarah-Jane Stratford*****

radiogirlsFearless women change history.

Radio Girls is a fictionalized account of the British Broadcasting Corporation and the remarkable women that shaped it. As we near the centennial of women’s right to vote in the USA and the UK, Stratford’s riveting historical fiction could not be better timed. I received my copy free and in advance thanks to Net Galley and Berkley Press in exchange for this honest review. I am overjoyed to be able to recommend this new release unequivocally. You have to read it.

Maisie Musgrave is born in Canada and raised in New York City. Tossed out of the nest without a parachute by unloving family, she makes her way to Britain, the place her heritage began. She wanders into the BBC half-starved and looking for an honest way to pay for her room and board, hoping in the meanwhile to meet a man she can marry for financial security.

At the BBC she meets supervisor Hilda Matheson, who fears nothing:  “Give that woman an inch and she takes the entire British Isles,” a colleague remarks.

Under the firm and commanding wing of Matheson, Maisie’s confidence and talent grow daily. It’s a very good thing, because over the course of time, more will be demanded of her than secretarial skills and errand-running.  My busy fingers marked one clever, articulate passage after another to share with you, but to enjoy Stratford’s fresh, humorous word-smithery, you really need the book itself.

Occasional historical figures drop in—Lady Astor, who was a moving force in the development of the BBC and a champion of women; Virginia Woolf, early feminist writer and crusader. Yet Stratford metes out these references in small enough batches that it’s clear she isn’t relying on them to hold her story together; rather, they are the cherry on the sundae.

Setting of time and place, pacing, and a million twists and turns in plot make this a good read, but it’s the character development that makes it a great one. I found myself wanting to talk to Maisie and cheering her on when she broke through to higher ground personally and professionally. I feared for her when she veered into dangerous waters and nearly wept with relief each time she was able to extricate herself and move forward. There isn’t a slow moment or an inconsistent one, and the protagonist is just the character women need to see right now as we move forward too.

How much of this is based on truth and how much made up for the sake of a great story? Read the author’s notes; she spills it all.

All told, Sarah-Jane Stratford’s historical feminist tale is perfect for today’s modern feminists—and those that love us.

This book is available to the public Tuesday, June 14. Change the screen and order a copy for yourself now. You won’t want to miss it!


Tail Gunner, by RC Rivas****

tailgunnerTail Gunner is the memoir of a member of the Royal Air Force during World War II. I was fortunate to receive a copy free in advance from Net Galley and Endeavor Press in exchange for an honest review. It’s both compelling and informative.

Those accustomed to modern air travel may find it hard to imagine flight during this time period. There was no source of heat, and of course it’s far colder in the sky than on the ground.  Our author was a turret gunner, and it turns out that the turret and the nose are the two coldest parts of the plane. He stoically assures us there is no reason to be too cold up there if one dresses properly, and then lays out the multitudinous layers that must have made flyers look like old-fashioned versions of the Michelin man, but with head gear and a parachute. He describes the layers of ice that formed on the metal inside the turret, and how his oxygen mask freezes while it is on his face.

None of this is all that important once one is shot down, however.

My interest in military history is recent; I studied and taught history for a long time, but for most of those years, I preferred to study the causes of war, and so my primary interest was more political and theory-based. Maybe this is why it never occurred to me that the pilot is always the boss inside a military plane regardless of the ranks of various officers. Rivas points out that there really can’t be a discussion when the pilot says to jump; the point is well taken!

This novella-length memoir is recommended to those with an interest in World War II, particularly its aeronautic aspects, and also to academics and researchers, given that this is a primary document.  It was released to the public April 8, so you can buy a copy for yourself.

The Complete Flying Officer X Stories*****

thecompleteflyingofficerxHE Bates wrote these stories during WWII; he served in the British Royal Air Force and received the unusual commission of author. His whole job was to write one short story after another. He was stationed with British pilots from 1941-1942, and he sat with them when they were between flights and listened with a sympathetic ear. He listened well, and the result is a collection of nearly 30 short stories, one of which is novella length, and they are strong, resonant fictional stories whose protagonists were inspired by actual pilots. Thank you twice to Net Galley and to Bloomsbury Publishers for the DRC. This collection is for sale now.

When I told my spouse that I was reading a collection of short stories about RAF pilots during this time period, he asked if that wasn’t a lot of stories to plow through, all on the same subject. I can understand why he—and maybe you—might think so, but the stories are all so different, and their characters so richly drawn, that it’s a bit like asking a mother of a very large family whether she might not like to trim a few sons and daughters from the herd. Although I can tell you which ones are my favorites, I also have to say there is no filler or weaker material here. Everything is very well written, and each story distinct in setting and characters from all others.

I sat down and read it start to finish, but once you have the collection, you can jump around however you like. The stories are not in any particular order. If your household has a book tucked into the bathroom or the guest room, a solid short story collection like this is a good choice, because the person that’s in that room won’t be there that long; this gives them a look at something they can finish. Most of the short stories are just a few pages, with just one toward the end in the part labeled as extra stories that might qualify as a novella.

Although I do have favorites, mine might not be the same as yours. I was drawn to “There’s No Future in It”, a story in which a father tries to dissuade his daughter from becoming involved with a pilot. It’s dark and resonates strongly. I also loved “K for Kitty”, a poignant tale about a pilot that strongly preferred one particular fighter plane; “The Young Man from Kalgoorie”, whose parents attempted to hide the very existence of the war from their son by keeping him busy on the farm and away from newspapers; and “O’Callahan’s Girl”, a young woman that loves a shy young flyer who only wants France to be restored to its previous state.

A happy surprise, given the era in which it was written, was the inclusion of a female soldier (in what is referred to as the “Russian” army, though the fact is it was the USSR and therefore Soviet Army at that time). This was a welcome addition. Unfortunately, there are two racist references, and if the stories were being written today, I would have knocked more than half a star off the rating because of them, but from the World War II generation’s Caucasians, I know (my parents having been among them) that the terms they used were thoughtless but made from ignorance rather than malice.

For example, in one story there is a brief mention made of a West Indian “boy” that used to work as a barrister. I blinked for a moment, not getting it at first. What kind of prodigy must that boy have been to have had a law career already and be out doing something else now? And then the penny dropped, and I realized this is actually a man, but he was referred to this way because of his race and ethnicity.

The second reference is to a brave pilot who nevertheless is described as being unusually ugly; his features bear some unflattering characteristics of the “Red Indian” and the “Mongoloid”.

Both of these go by in the blink of an eye, yet it’s only fair you be told in advance.

Finally, the thing that impressed me the most about these stories is that every last one of them had an unusually strong closing. The first few that left me gaping at their brilliance on the last page, last paragraph, last line were noted, but eventually it became clear that all or most of the collection was going to be like that, and of course I am not going to quote them here and ruin the stories’ endings for you. But one thing I will also say is that short stories that end with planned, maddening ambiguity are my pet peeve. For example, if a man is about to go through a door to either meet special delight or certain doom and the writer ends the story by having the man go through the door and gasp, and that’s the whole thing, he may be gasping with delight, or with horror, and we will never know which…? I hate that! And this set of short stories has none of it. Some end poignantly, some beautifully, some tragically, but every ending is in one way or another deeply satisfying and free of ambiguity.

For those that love military fiction, highly recommended.

Harry’s War: A British Tommy’s Experiences in the Trenches in World War One, by Harry Stinton ****

harryswar Harry’s War is a journal that was kept by a British soldier during World War I. It is remarkable not because it is eloquent or poetic in any way, but because it is complete (regarding his own experience) and because he is capable in his explanations. The illustrations are particularly interesting, well done and useful to the reader, breaking up what might otherwise become dull text in places. He also mentions small but singular experiences that break up a sometimes-monotonous march.

Harry is chosen to toss bombs because of his excellent throwing arm. This talent gets him out of some of the unpleasant detail such as night watch duty, but it is also a position even more fraught with danger than what others experienced. He lasts nearly two and a half years before being wounded and sent home. Part of the time he serves is in the less dangerous capacity of “batman”, which was a term that designated the personal assistant of an officer, and it’s possible this accounts for some of the time he stayed out of harm’s way. In particular, he is able to view the battle at the Somme where some 60,000 casualties occurred as an onlooker rather than as a participant; in some ways, this makes his account more useful, because he saw a wider swath of the action. Most of the time, though, he is doing what a soldier does.

I was particularly bemused by the change in his perspective as his tenure became more intense. Before seeing battle, he complains about things like not having privacy for his bath, and being expected to sleep in a “dirty barn” instead of a house. Later he considers himself fortunate when he gets into a nice dry trench, especially when there are no rats or lice about. He becomes increasingly more stoic and toward the end when he says a thing is “unbearable”, you know it really is.

Harry marches across France and through Belgium, and he also encounters soldiers from Canada, Scotland, and Australia. It’s quite an education for him, and he relays it well to the reader, though it is unlikely he ever expected such a wide readership.

As is so often the case when reading military history, you really don’t want this on an e-reader. Get the book so you can see the illustrations. They are frequent and lend much to the reader’s understanding of the text.