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Why the Allies won (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 15 April 2012 18:10

Like my historical friends, I had this view of World War Two, the string of battles that constituted the path towards Allied victory (unlike those non-historical boobs in the mainstream, who don't know when it was fought and between who). But after reading Richard Overy's Why the Allies Won, the entire thing takes on a whole new meaning. Inevitable turns into improbably in a number of aspects.

When you look at the map and forces in 1941, it looked like it was time to mix cyanide into your scotch. The Germans had swept aside everyone, and controlled the continent from France to western Russia. The Russians were staggering. The British were boxed on their tiny island. The Italians were loose about the Med. And far in the east, the Japanese were oozing down towards Australia (and we'd end the year with our fleet on the bottom of Pearl Harbor). Yes, bad year indeed. Now Germany stood at the verge of world domination, combining Russian coal and crops with her own industry, to become the world's first true superpower.

Winning for us was unlikely. Survival was dicey. But somehow we did win. In the east, the Soviets held (at a cost hard to imagine). In the west, what was left of Britain had to combine with America (which hardly had anything at all). And from that, they challenged a military might beyond measure.

Overy does a good job breaking down the long road to victory, the Battle for the Atlantic (and the critical issue of closing the gap where the Uboats operated). And the airwar over Germany (one we almost lost save for the introduction of drop tanks, which closed another gap). And in the east, the Russians got their army together, modernizing it while falling back, all the time moving their entire industrial base east. And then there are the leaders themselves, and primarily Hitler's micro management, his distrust of science (no, they weren't that close to having the bomb - once Hitler referred to atomics as "Jewish Science", such weapon research became a minor interest for his military). But there are all sorts of interesting points to be made here, the difference in technologies, in production (in unification and utilization), even in the will of the various nations and their own blind spots.

Interesting reading - worth a look if you can find a copy (I got mine while nosing about Slightly Foxed in London).

Dark days indeed.

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Last Updated on Sunday, 15 April 2012 18:35
 
In the days of the comet (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 08 April 2012 10:12

Ever had one of those things you've done in your life where you think back about it and shudder? Like a moment where you were so petty, so selfish, so cruel that you keep it locked down and try not to remember it.

What if the world had thoughts like that, where it would look back and all its bloodshed and religious strife and economic crimes and colonization and collectively wince at itself? It seems amazing, when you think about it, that some people sleep in innocence in mansions while homeless children live in cars.

That's pretty much the course of things in In the days of the Comet, a 1906 H.G. Wells classic about an angry young man growing up in the shitheap of middle England, in a slaggy industrial environment as a junior clerk (until he quits). Locally, there is more pettiness, grime and despair that the reader can stomach. And internationally? Nations, it seems, are just like people. America's economic dumping is throwing England into recession and Germany is making its new dreadnought ready for sea, clearly to provoke. Willie, our protagonist, is (as he later reflects) "ill clothed, ill fed, ill housed, ill educated and ill trained". Almost beyond the notice of the despair cloaking the world, a green comet is nearing our planet.

Personally, I enjoy the first part of the book more. As a baffled-by-how-it-could-work socialist, I see Well's world in ours every day. How I identify with Willie, denied in every way, pissed that his lover has rejected him for the rich mill-owner's son. So he purchases a revolver. He plans to catch up to the happy couple at the sea-side cottage where they have eloped. He loads his gun, he stalks closer, they see him on the beach at night, they run. He raises the gun. Off shore, the British and German navies begin to bombard each other. And suddenly the comet strikes our atmosphere.

And whatever that chemical we were lacking, that gas that makes us reasonable and logical and compassionate and true, whatever it was, it floods our world.

It's depressing that it takes an external source to bring humanity to the point it should naturally come to (just as it's depressing that the movie Serenity had that same sort of gas (injected by the evil federal forces) turn the planet Miranda stark raving zombie-bonkers). But still, the idea of politicians sitting in stunned disbelief of how they'd squandered the trust given them, of each individual marking his misdeeds, of the world tearing down its ugliness and literally rebuilding itself into a better place, well, it's a comforting thought. Someday, perhaps.

It's interesting, the final point Wells makes about love, where the two couples love each other but the old rules (that of iron-clad man-woman relationships) is coolly examined and casually rejected. Shocking then and still strange now (in a world where gays cannot marry or even have the same rights as other couples). One can read this and wonder why that is so - why can't one have a casual sexual relationship (with no more meaning than a lunch date) with another adult? What in these thousands of years of empty rhetoric that prevents it? Funny to find out that we think we live in an open, hedonistic society and yet, in ways, it's just re-branded Victorianism.

Nuf said. I liked it, I recommend it, have a look. Shake the grit from your hands and reach for the skies...

 

Last Updated on Sunday, 08 April 2012 20:04
 
Tigana (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 01 April 2012 15:27

The poor Palm. The Palm is a splayed formation of land under a two-mooned sky, overrun twenty years ago by TWO empires, the Ygrath from the west, the Barbarior from the east. Since that invasion, the land huddles like Czechoslovakia beneath Germany and Russia. Worse, so bitter was the fighting in the west and so angered was the Ygrathian ruler with his son's death in that campaign that he destroyed the two cities of the primary state which had stood against him, toppling its towers, grinding the survivors under heavy taxation, and even magically striking the original name of the capital from the memories of the world. And that name, of course, was Tigana.

And in this world, we meet all manner of people. Displaced princes working their rebellions, young singers, crafty merchants, sexually-supercharged noblewomen, even concubines who have plotted their whole lives to get within dagger-thrust of a hated ruler. So many characters, in fact, that like the very word Tigana, the reader worries they will forget who each person is. I had a couple of "and you are?" moments but pretty much made it through.

But even as we skirt the edge of character-amnesia, the book rolls us along in a gradually unfolding year when everything in this land will be decided. In the course of that, the author springs a number of gotchas, nifty twists that rock the reader back in his chair, neat little shockers that change all those relationships about. I didn't see any of them coming and delighted when they came. And in the end, when I wasn't sure who should win the gigantic land battle taking place, its outcome teetering from side to side, the final gotcha hits like a hammerblow, firming my resolve and bringing down that final curtain.

Yes, I really liked the book. It's not without minor blemishes, of course (the sort lesser authors such as myself delight in pointing out) - the dialog can be a bit windy at time and the scene description a might slow. Vignettes take a number of pages to resolve. Not that I wanted to rush past anything - I was just surprised at how many pages some settings burned through.

My real complaint came from a strange side-story that seemed almost tacked on after the fact, an alternate reality battle between "night walkers" and something else. It came out of left field with no explanation - one of the characters wanders off to clear his head at night and suddenly finds himself in another dimension, dropping into a critical pitched battle. I actually feared that this would be the end of this wonderful novel, that everything would be goofy and inexplicably contrived after this. Thankfully, no, we kept one character out of the batch as a souvenir and returned to the Palm, where events were rapidly heating.

Don't get me wrong with my comments, here. This was a fantastic read, a great visit into a unique world so often monopolized by the same-ol' fantasy-franchises. If you can find it, buy it. And if can't, borrow it (thanks, Karen!). But read it. Great fun!

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Last Updated on Sunday, 01 April 2012 16:08
 
Leiningen versus the Ants (Review) PDF Print E-mail
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Sunday, 25 March 2012 09:32

Short story this time - the magnificent tale of a planter who refuses, against man and nature and the very gods, to abandon his scientifically-run plantation to a sweeping wave of ants.

Written by Carl Stephenson for Esquire in 1938, it carries all sorts of themes across its short length. We have the white man's burden (that is, the blunt Leiningen boosting, rallying, even threatening his squealing fearful natives to hold the line against this formicidaen army). We have the application of science to solve all problems, from the initial success of the the orderly, modern plantation to its defense (with moats and pumps and gasoline sprayers). And all this is wrapped around the granddaddy classification: man vs. nature. And this time, nature is represented by a column of voracious thumb-sized ants ten miles long and two wide.

It's fun to read these old stories, where science solves all problems and introduces none, where social inequity is simply a matter of course and not a plot point, and where the marketing drive of modern publishing is absent (i.e. no single ant limps away from the flaming destruction, vowing in its tiny antish brain that it will return with a vengeance). No, this is just raw storytelling from a more determined age, harking back to King Solomon's Mines and other two-fisted fare.

It's worth looking this gem up and giving it a read - me, I've a copy of it in my old Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural. It's worth it, if only for the moment when the last defense is failing, the ants are massing, the plantation seems doomed, and then Leiningen knows what he'll have to do - it involves a protective suit coated with gasoline, a hand-sprayer for each hand, and a very long run. Through the ants...

Classic!

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Last Updated on Sunday, 25 March 2012 16:41
 
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