Category Archives: Series

Alone (The Second World War: Book 2) by Winston Churchill

The second volume in Winston Churchill’s history of World War II focuses on the time period after France had fallen to the German invasion until the entrance of the United States into the conflict. It was a hard time for the British people. Their nation was the only free European country actively opposing Hitler’s scheme of domination. For this, Germany turned its full strength upon the island and brought Britain to its darkest hour. This volume is a testimony to the unconquerable spirit the British had in the face of a merciless enemy.

In a few short years, Germany had gone from a struggling bankrupt nation into a war machine that controlled nearly half of all Europe. After all the missteps that the European leaders took – which Churchill relates in Milestones to Disaster – the British army finds themselves in Occupied France facing complete destruction. Alone begins with the account of the unbelievable escape accomplished at Dunkirk – the largest marine transportation event in the history of the world at that point. Thousands of ships, many civilian, saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of men.

After this miraculous feat of logistics and sheer will, Britain is isolated on their little island home. They know that Hitler will come to destroy his final opposition. Churchill, in amazing detail and frankness, reveals how England steeled themselves for the onslaught. Massive defense measures of every town went into action. Every port was mined and patrolled. Every able bodied citizen was assigned a war duty task such as fire watch, food supply, child care. The Royal Air Force was called upon to keep constant vigil in the air while the Royal Navy swept the seas and harbors. At no time has there been a country more single-minded in its effort for defense. The delightful shores of Albion became a bulwark.

Through this and the Battle of Britain to come, Churchill rallied the people with his speeches. Never for a minute was surrender considered an option. Optimism and perseverance was always the tone. The strength of this history is the resolve of the people of Britain to overcome. Hardships came in droves, but they survived. A fictional account would only ring hollow. This true story gives the reader iron in his spirit to face the evil of their own time.

In the end, we know they came through. With dreadful losses, England lasted until the world could rally. Their determination probably saved the future of freedom. You should read of the debt we owe to this brave people whose lives shone in what was “their finest hour.”

7.5 stars out of 10

photo: archives.gov  – London, 1940

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson (The Reckoners: Book 2) with Mitosis (Book 1.5)

There’s no spoilers for Firefight, but if you haven’t read Steelheart yet, then you’ll probably want to skip this.

The second book of the Reckoners series takes the action and the plot to another level but it leaves some of the dialogue charm of the first one behind. This is probably due to the tension inherent in the David/Megan relationship and the switch to another Reckoner cell. However, on a whole, Sanderson has expanded the Reckoner universe in a good way. He gives depth to the characters that have been a little thin up till now. More understanding is brought to the Epics dealing with their powers and the source of them. The ante is raised going from Newcago to Babylon Restored (Manhattan) ruled by the enigmatic Regalia. All in all, Firefight survives the sophomore slump with a strong sense of its own identity.

Following Steelheart’s overthrow in Newcago the Reckoners, led by Jonathan Phaedras, find themselves drawn by clues to Babylon Restored – the mostly underwater remnants of Manhattan island. There Prof and David (now increasingly known as Steelslayer) must figure out Regalia’s plans to keep the city and its many inhabitants from being destroyed. Of course along the way, David wants to find Megan and save her from the corruption of Epic powers. He believes that together she may be able to overcome Firefight. The local Reckoner cell doesn’t make it easy for David to fit in, but they’re all working on the same side….right?

The issue with stories where key characters are getting corrupted by some force is how to keep the characters true during their corruption phase. I felt like Sanderson walked the line with this in Firefight. Prof and Megan’s struggles seemed to sometimes be no big deal and at other times almost without hope. I’m sure this is to keep the tension high in the struggle, but it came off as forced and somewhat arbitrary. Again, I think that this is an issue with first person perspective – trying to reveal the heart of other characters while stuck in the head of the protagonist. But, kudos to Sanderson for at least wrestling with humanity as opposed to just having superheroes with issues. That is what mainstream media keeps offering up as depth.

Like all middle books, there’s still plenty of more answers to be solved. If the third book was already out I’m sure that I would go ahead and read it, but this isn’t the type of series where the months of waiting are going to be taxing…looking at you Patrick Rothfuss. If you like superhero stories or just fun action, these will please.

Mitosis

Mitosis is the short story interlude between Steelheart and Firefight. The main purpose is as a post script to the story in Newcago after Steelheart is slain. It follows the pursuit and destruction of another Epic named Mitosis. The story helps draw the two novels together in a continuous flow. It’s not necessary, but it does bridge the gap well. The reason for mentioning it here is that Mitosis’ story is alluded to several times in Firefight. So much so, that it might do you well to read this brief intertestamental tale. It’s worth the hour of your time.

Firefight – 6.5 stars out of 10

Mitosis – thumbs up

photo: youtube

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (The Reckoners: Book 1)

No author has been more recommended to me – either by friends or computer generated algorithims – than Brandon Sanderson. Apparently he fits so strongly into that science fiction/fantasy wheelhouse that he’s become a must read. I haven’t picked up a book of his until I decided to finally take a flyer on Steelheart. This is probably not the book that would have been suggested for me to start with, but it did its job. I finished it wanting more of the series. As a young adult series (which I didn’t know until after I started), it’s not as deep as some stories out there, but he does a good enough job with character development and unique concepts to pull the reader through.

Times are hard in Newcago – what Chicago became after the Epic Steelheart transmutated the entire metropolis into steel. Epics are humans that have developed superpowers; the downside is that they all are evil. With their enhanced powers, they subjugate the populace for their own pleasure with Steelheart running the show. David was there the day Steelheart came to power. He saw the Epic kill his dad, but not before he saw the seemingly invulnerable Steelheart bleed. Now he holds the secret to bringing Steelheart’s reign to an end. To do this, he must somehow join with the Reckoners, an underground team of Epic hunters, and convince them to help take down the strongest Epic of all.

Steelheart is a fairly fast paced book. Told in first person from David’s perspective, there is a lot of inner monologue from the near-twentysomething, but Sanderson doesn’t get bogged down with the hero’s vengeance or angst over his life. He allows David to continually act. This draws the reader down a story that could have stalled out, but the action keeps it alive. The concept of power corrupting is not a new one, but to introduce it to a superhero world where it corrupts all superheroes into villains is an excellent conceit to generate plenty of fun storylines. In essence, this becomes a dystopia-lite. Sure the Epics run the world, but none of the characters in the book have any more than just a hint of the brokenness that slavery in actuality brings. It’s meant to be a fun soft action book, and it succeeds.

First person books are a pet peeve of mine. They rarely succeed as the author continually has to throw in semi-third person vantages to get the full story across. And they can get too much into the inner life of the hero. Insight is good, a constant monologue is mind numbing. Sanderson does a decent job keeping it light without needing much objectivity thrown in. I know it’s to try to get young readers to put themselves in David’s place, but being passable is not the same as being preferable.

Check it out if your looking for a fun quick “superhero” read. I’ll probably need to get some of Sanderson’s other work to get a full exposure to his style.

5.5 stars out of 10

photo: amazon.com

Milestones to Disaster (The Second World War: Book 1) by Winston Churchill 

Winston Churchill by any account must be one of the most amazing statesmen of the 20th century. His unparalleled position at the highest levels of government through both World Wars puts him in a unique position to reveal the forces at work in the interregnum between the two. In Milestones to Disaster, he does just that – not as he says as a “history” – but as an eyewitness account to be used by future historians. The fact that he is himself a masterful writer helps one not wait for some future analysis. This work is not only accessible, but it is a very enjoyable if unsettling glimpse into the European political shake-ups of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

I was given Churchill’s six volume history of World War II by my great uncle who had the privilege to meet the then Prime Minister at Harvard. Churchill spoke to the Navy officers that were being barracked there during the U.S.’s initial involvements in the war. This work is actually an abridgment of the first volume of that set The Gathering Storm. Churchill did the trimming himself for this work, but it has been pleasant to peruse the unabridged work to see what has been removed. Mainly it is coordinating documents that help to strengthen the assertions made by the author. It also contains several appendices that contain correspondence between Churchill and other world leaders and politicians. Both the full length and edited versions are readily accessible online and make worthy additions to any library.

In Milestones, the period after the Treaty of Versailles is examined with a brutal eye to all the failings made by the then world powers to keep Germany in check. One misstep after another is frighteningly unfolded for the reader. Even though, we all know where this story leads, it gives one a knot in the gut to see how it all may have been avoided. Churchill reveals how, to his thinking, the overwhelming liberal policies of socialism and disarmament weakened the victorious nations to a point where the defeated Germany could rise under Hitler’s cult of personality. By backing off in the critical moments again and again and capitulating to appease the Führer, the European governments doomed the world to repeat on a larger scale the slaughter of the first World War.

Mr. Churchill is definitely not afraid to point out the mistakes of others. While I’m sure that the facts that are being recorded are all trustworthy, he has gone a fair way to frame them to cast a better light on his position during this time. Churchill was consistently sounding the warning of Germany’s re-armament, and he takes great pride in his un-involvement of the policies that allowed this to happen. He doesn’t sweep his own personal misjudgments under the rug, but he shines a hard light on the British administrations that he sees as failing to protect the world from the German threat. He believes the playing out of Hitler’s conquest of central Europe is a vindication of his viewpoints, and he perceives his rise as an appointment of destiny.

If you’re not familiar with how Germany came a mere twenty years after being completely despoiled to conquering the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and Holland with virtually no resistance, this is the book to read. It’s a tragic tale, but one that needs to be understood if but for the hope that it will not be repeated. Churchill truly is one of the great twentieth century writers, and you will not be disappointed by his recollection.

7 stars out of 10

The Mongoliad (The Foreworld Saga: Book1) by Neal Stephenson et al.

A while back I was listening to a podcast (I wish I could remember which one) where they were interviewing Neal Stephenson. Neal’s been one of my favorite authors since I read Snow Crash almost twenty years ago. The main material in the podcast was over his then most recent work Anathem, but what stuck out to me at the time was his interest in ancient weapons and fighting techniques. He later got together with several (many, if truth be told) authors with a similar fascination. They decided to work on a collaborative effort which involved a realistic world where many of these forgotten martial arts could be put on display in word form. Thus was birthed the first book in the Foreworld Saga: The Mongoliad.

I’ll list all the authors since I’m sure they all want credit: Erik Bear, Greg Bear, Joseph Brassey, E. D. deBirmingham, Cooper Moo, Neal Stephenson, and Mark Teppo. They combine to tell the fairly straightforward tale in 13th century Europe and Asia. There are dual storylines in play – one in Asia where a young warrior is trying to save the Mongolian Empire from courtly corruption and one in Europe following a band of knights on their quest to kill the Khan of Khans. The tales thread back and forth throughout the book with zero overlap and without much thought to pacing. There is however quite a bit of – I’m sure fairly historical – fighting and war-making. Unfortunately all the martial prowess cannot make up for the lack of actual plot.

The book started off slow, but picked up with some early character development. This however played out into a story that went nowhere. Half of this book is supposed to be a knightly quest, yet the heroes never went anywhere significant. The other half is supposed to deal with courtly machinations and intrigue, but only got as far as some thin innuendo. This book did have some interesting characters and seemed to set up some clever plot ideas, but ultimately the story just stops without anything coming to fruition. I’m not sure if this had to do with the multiplicity of authors or the foreknowledge of sequels to come, but typically there is some payoff at the end of a volume that makes you want to follow up. This book provided none. I have some curiosity to see what becomes of some of the characters, but probably not enough to take the time to find out.

I have looked at the Foreworld website, and in the past couple of years, they have put out many sequels and “side-quest” stories. There must be some depth to the series, I just wish this talented group of authors could have done a better job of introducing the world to the reader. Read this only if you have time to spare.

3.5 stars out of 10

photo: Jeff Abt