The Grand Alliance (The Second World War: Book 3) by Winston Churchill

The third volume in the abridged collection of Churchill’s history of the Second World War (confusingly the third volume in the unabridged series goes by the same title) follows Great Britain out of the time of their isolation in the war. From 1939 until the Germans turned their sights on Russia in 1942, England was the sole force providing continual harassment to Hitler’s swelling dominion. While many other countries were friendly and supportive to the cause, there had yet to be formed an allied front against the Axis countries – except in the Atlantic where the US had already committed to help clear shipping lanes near their own shores. With grit and ferocity of will, England stood the onslaught of the German’s might and lasted. There indomitableness was rewarded when, in 1942, both Russia and the US finally entered the war as full allies. In this, Churchill knew that the war was won.

You will never read a war history quite like Churchill’s retelling of these six, almost seven, long years of struggle. No “man at the top” as it were has written about the minutiae of what it takes from day to day to keep a country focussed toward a common goal. Churchill is both witty and serious about his responsibilities. The reader always feels as if the Prime Minister has a sincere empathy with the men that lay down their lives for freedom’s sake. And yet, Churchill was a shrewd if relatively straightforward politician. He pulls and cajoles the Russians to come to the aid of the Western powers. Stalin is supremely concerned about his own nation, yet this warmhearted Brit maneuvers the cold steely Russian into joint operations. The United States military see themselves as foremost in the world, but Churchill guides them to his points of attack. With an unbelievable aplomb, we get to look in on how a historical giant orders the players of worldwide strategy into a successful defense against Hitler’s schemes.

As a good American schoolboy, I was taught how the US came to save Britain’s bacon when we finally entered the European field. This is true – to an extent. What I never knew was how much had been prepared by the continual strategy of the British Army, Navy, and Royal Air Force. The had the ideas; they needed manpower. And the USA could not provide this at first. It took much longer for the war effort stateside to gear up than one might think. Even though America essentially entered into the war on Pearl Harbor day in 1941. The main focus was toward naval operations against Japan. It was only a small percentage of US troops that made it into the European theater before D-Day in June of 1944. Once the US became an active participant, hardly a defeat was handed to the Allied forces in the west, but this was due to the exceedingly important battle plan developed for years by Great Britain.

My grandfather served in North Africa – where the majority of the action of this book takes place. I don’t know a lot about his service as he passed away in my youth. He was an mechanic in support of air based action. It’s amazing that so many operations of vital importance happened off the continent where the supposed heart of the struggle lay. It’s as if Olympian engineers of war decided to fight somewhere that wouldn’t mess up their civilization. But it did, hundreds of thousands of men lost their lives in North Africa. The many battles of Tobruk and Benghazi, the struggle for Egypt, the swift offensive on Tunis. These are magnificent and costly battlefields that most will never walk because they are so far from our cultured world. Churchill does his best to humanize every campaign, but the scars of the war were greater than most perceive. There may not be a finer set of histories for this time, but come knowing it’s not the view that the average man had.

6.5 stars out of 10

photo: archives.gov

The Fold by Peter Clines

First off, if you haven’t read 14 by Peter Clines yet, no need to continue farther. Go read that book now! Yes, it is imperative. Then come back here, and we’ll talk about The Fold.

Good, now that we’ve got that over with you can understand why after reading 14, I quickly purchased a copy of The Fold. I had read a review that said that this book took place in the same world as its predecessor but wasn’t exactly a sequel. A “side-quel” I think they called it. That pretty much sealed the deal for me. I loved 14, but I didn’t know if I was ready for those characters to change a lot from where I left them. The story was so original; I wanted to keep it fresh for a while. So The Fold seemed like a perfect way to get more without spoiling the original. It sorta succeeded.

Mike Erikson has an eidetic memory – which means he can remember everything. Absolutely everything. His mind is a constant surveillance device through which not even the smallest grain of information can slip. And he’s a nice guy. Mike was a great character, and I would like to read other stories with him in it – especially if they had a Moriarty to his Holmes. Anyway, he gets convinced to go work on a secret DARPA project called the Albuquerque Door that could possibly be a way to instantaneous travel…but of course, things are not quite what they seem.

If you read 14 (and if not, didn’t I tell you to go do that now!), then let me just float out there that this is basically a retelling of the same story with a different cast, location, and doorways. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but it’s basically 14: Round 2. The characters were good again – they make me like Peter Clines as a person and I know nothing about him. The story twists were fun. I really liked everything about it, but it kind of felt that I was living in the same dimensional gambit used by the two books. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this second helping, but part of the sheer power of 14 was the originality. This story, besides the details, was inherently unoriginal.

Peter Clines, if you read this (first – you’re awesome): I love this world that you’ve set up and I want more. Just next time, let’s not do a lovable bunch of interesting characters stumbling down the adventure of discovering some Tesla-like scientist’s secrets. I mean sure, it’s worked so far…okay maybe one more, but after that, let’s open up this world some.

PS. I’m about to get to your Ex-Heroes stories, I’m sure they’re good. Keep on writing!

Ok to recap, 14 – great, The Fold – good. And spoiler alert: yes, there are green cockroaches.

6.5 stars out of 10

photo: wikia.com

Opened Heavens by Jessie Penn-Lewis

In the autumn of 1900, Jessie Penn-Lewis gave a series of addresses at the Quiet Days for Christian Workers gathering in Peekskill, New York. Seven of these talks were collected into the pamphlet Opened Heavens. An additional lecture received its own printing known as Much Fruit. The focus of talks was the need for “Visions of God” to be given to the church to rightly see how one should live. These “visions” were not some height of ecstasy or prophetic dream, but rather they are to be a right understanding of the Scriptures as they pertain to God. In summary, if we rightly perceive the Lord in the Bible, then we will rightly know how to live.

The pamphlet is probably pretty heavy to those who are familiar with the easily accessible Christian writings of today. It starts with a call to the Christian to seek revelation about the persons of the Trinity. It then leads to an urging for a complete denial of self and total service to the will of God. Finally it ends with an exposition on the work of Christ and how the reader should endeavor to partake in it. The language is lofty but the teaching cuts to the quick of an open heart. It has become increasingly harder in a day of instant self-gratification to lay your desires down for others – even more so for a God that calls for your whole life. Penn-Lewis does not ask for a casual faith nor does she want mediocre acknowledgments of the need. Her message is for a total life laid down.

I had the slightly uncanny experience of reading this book on the beach in Puerto Rico during an anniversary trip. Living the high life in the midst of beautiful, rich people gives a perspective to the thrust of this book that was a little unsettling. I was able to relax and get some well-deserved rest, but I was also encouraged by this tract to push deeper in my spiritual life – to get to the point where I could say with Ezekiel, “The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God.” (Ezekiel 1:1) A stern but ultimately encouraging read for those looking for a clearer grasp of the Godhood.

5 stars out of 10

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

“In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river”

-T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

I’ve been avoiding On the Beach ever since I became addicted to Nevil Shute’s novels. Partly because it’s his most acclaimed piece of writing (or at the very least, the most widely read) and partly because of the subject matter. The book takes place in the nebulous time of the late 1960’s after a nuclear war has devastated the world. Fallout has already rendered the Northern Hemisphere completely uninhabitable, and the radioactive cloud is slowly moving southward. The story follows a small group of friends in Australia as they live under the approaching inevitability of death. It is a powerful tale of hope and honesty and love.

I’ll be the first to say that if you are a reader and you’ve let a year go by without reading a Nevil Shute book, then you have missed out on a joy in your life. His books reveal the best parts of humanity in a way that doesn’t make them trite, but instead, noble. Not the kind of nobility that makes you want to rule and lead, but the kind that makes you want to live better and enjoy the every day. On the Beach excels at getting to the heart of who we are. Shute rarely has enemies in his books. It’s like each novel is a refutation of the belief that one must hate something in this world to prove their worth. Even at the end of all things, there is room for love to overcome.

The action follows several naval officers, both Australian and American, as they seek to find a solution to the catastrophe. Now that the world’s purpose can be wholly turned to survival, there is a turn from the day to day struggles of life. Relationships are real and vital. Enjoyment of each hour is what is looked for. It is like a quest for utopia in the darkest hour. The recent Seveneves by Neal Stephenson pushes for an idea that survival is the most important ideal. On the Beach, while not against self-preservation, posits that survival is not the highest ideal. In fact, maybe it’s integrity.

There are solutions to the world destroying itself, and Nevil Shute has done a service in making us think about it. While this book was extremely enjoyable in an eyes half full of water kind of way, I can see why one might not rush out to read it. It will move you if you do.

8 stars out of 10

photo: Forrest Cavale