BOOK REVIEW: Firebreak

Firebreak
Nicole Kornher-Stace
Saga Press
Copyright 2021 by the author

Mal (short for Mallory) is your typical young adult. She shares a room in a converted hotel with a handful of other young adults, works at assorted jobs like dog-walking, and spends a lot of her free time playing in a “first person shooter” MMORPG where she makes a little income on the side by streaming her sessions.

Mal lives in New Liberty City, a sort of “free city” nominally controlled by Stellaxis Corporation, which is defending the area from attacks by the rival Greenleaf Industries. Stellaxis runs the place as a strict company town, controlling everything – including access to water.

So when Mal gets a strange “sponsorship” offer from a strange woman that will pay her in gallons of water per week, and all she has to do is play the MMORPG well enough to get in-game access to the “avatar” of one of Stellaxis’ supersoldiers, well, it’s hard for her to say no.

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Book Review: God’s Shadow

God’s Shadow: Sultan Selim, His Ottoman Empire, and the Making of the Modern World
Alan Mikhail
Liveright Publishing Corporation
Copyright 2020 by the author

Mikhail opens with a note of curiosity. On the Mexican side of the mouth of the Rio Grande, there’s a town called Matamoros. In Spanish, that means “Slayer of Moors”. What is this reference to the Reconquista doing in the New World?

He goes on to explain that Spain’s system of colonizing the Americas involved land grants to that war’s veterans, and that encomendia system was a direct carryover from how Moslem lands were distributed back in Spain. He also notes that the major driver for Spain’s exploration was to find a way to outflank Moslem domination of the eastern Mediterranean, which had monopolized control of the trade routes to the Orient.

That’s his launching point for a look at the rise of the Ottoman Empire – and the sultan responsible.

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Book Review: Then Everything Changed

Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternate Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford, Reagan
Jeff Greenfield
G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Copyright 2011 by the author

Greenfield, author and political analyst, adds his considerable knowledge and experience to the “alternate history” field with this surprising and insightful trio of lengthy essays. He takes great care to avoid creating words for historical personages, instead taking what they actually said (albeit in different contexts) and using that to bring his hypotheses to life.

His first essay deals with the prospects of a John Kennedy administration. The early 1960s are fertile ground for counterfactual history. Given the constitutional crisis resulting from Richard Pavlick’s assassination of Jack Kennedy before he had been confirmed as president by the Electoral College, it’s no wonder. We all know how Lyndon Johnson took the reins of power through the sheer force of his personality and guided us through that crisis. But without it, Greenfield suggests that the charisma of Kennedy would have blinded us to his utter lack of political experience and the many scandals waiting to happen just below the surface.

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Book Review – Columbus: The Four Voyages

Columbus: The Four Voyages
Laurence Bergreen
Viking Penguin Press
Copyright 2011 by the author

What with theongoing hubbub over Columbus popping up again in the news this summer as his statues were defaced and knocked down and there were calls to rename the things we’ve named in his honor, I thought it would be a good time to read another biography of him, and perhaps cut through both the hagiography and the demonization to get to know him a bit better. And perhaps be able to counter the arguments used for and against him. In any case, it ought to be a fascinating read for a history buff like me.

Bergreen is a historian and biographer whose previous works followed Magellan (Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, 2003) and Marco Polo (Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu, 2007). This work is (presumably) in the same mode; more of a chronicle of Columbus’ voyages rather than a complete biography. He uses Columbus’ own journals, logs, and letters, along with the many personal journals and letters of those who accompanied him on his voyages, to assemble as good an account of those trips as you are likely to get.

Along the way, he shows that pretty much everything you knew about Columbus is, well, complicated.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Night Land

The Night Land
by William Hope Hodgson
Published in 1912
https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/10662

Hodgson was one of the numerous writers of the Late Victorian – Edwardian Era who wrote in that genre that would eventually become known as Science Fiction. Although in his case, there’s little “science” in his stories. And while there are some horror tropes, his work doesn’t fit well in there, either. Perhaps “Weird Fiction” is the best way to classify it. There’s a little science, some fantasy, and enough creepiness but not enough scares to be called horror.

This work was his last published novel; he died at the Fourth Battle of Ypres in 1918, after actually re-enlisting to fight in the Great War. It’s not certain when he actually wrote it; it’s been surmised that his novels were published in the inverse order of writing. His first-published novel, The Boats of the “Glen Carrig”, has a more mature and accessible style than The Night Land.

Be that as it may, The Night Land is either loved or hated by most contemporary readers….

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Book Review: Sci-Fi and Fantasy Stories From ‘The Sun’

Sci-Fi and Fantasy Stories from ‘The Sun’
by Edward Page Mitchell
Feedbooks.com edition

Before Hugo Gernsback laid down the law, no one knew there was such a thing as “science fiction”. Many writers, not just Verne and Wells, dabbled in “scientific fantasy” or used the eventual tropes of the genre to give a gloss to their political screeds.

Mitchell wrote his stories to sell newspapers.

In 1874, he published his first (known) stories, “The Tachypomp” and “Back From That Bourne”. The latter appeared in the New York (City) Sun, one of the leading newspapers at the time. It wasn’t uncommon for newspapers to publish short stories – even putting them under the guise of actual news. Mitchell would pen twenty-eight more stories for The Sun over the next twelve years. He’d eventually become editor of that paper, whereupon he stopped writing fiction.

His work remained forgotten until science fiction editor and historian Sam Moskowitz recovered it in the early 1970s.

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BOOK REVIEW: Oscar Charleston

Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player
Jeremy Beer
University of Nebraska Press
Copyright 2019 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska

Thanks to so many people, from Buck O’Neil to the researchers at Seamheads, we know a lot about the Negro Leagues – the players and the business and life in general as a Negro League player. But there are still huge oversights. Josh Gibson (on the basis of his legend) and Satchel Paige (thanks to having actually played in the Major Leagues) are rather widely known among baseball fans. Oscar Charleston, however….

Jeremy Beer has done a remarkable service in correcting this oversight. He has written a truly comprehensive biography of the Hall of Famer, from his childhood in Indianapolis to his death at an age too young to have been part of the Negro League “rediscovery” in the 1970s. He has dug through the archives, and even paged through a scrapbook kept by Charleston over the course of his life and career. This is as good a work on baseball in the Negro Leagues as you are likely to find.

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BOOK REVIEW: Danubia

Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe
Simon Winder
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Copyright 2013 by the author

Like his earlier Germania, this is not your typical political or military history of a nation. Nor is it a religious or cultural history – even though Winder does discuss those subjects. It’s not even a “People’s History” of the sort that Howard Zinn might have written. Instead, it’s what you might get if a good friend of yours spent months traveling across a large part of Europe, visiting a bunch of odd and out-of-the way sites of historical interest, then decided to weave all the stories of his visits into one fun and interesting narrative.

Winder lets you know almost from the start that the tale is going to be gloomier than the one in Germania, his history of Germany. Here, with the Habsburg Empire (to be later known as the Austrian Empire and then the Austro-Hunugarian Empire), the story is one of a long, slow decline with very few moments of glory. The inbreeding of the royal line had a good deal to do with that; the most noticeable result was the infamous “Habsburg Chin” defect. His ever-present wit and occasional light snark cannot fully hide that. You can only adjust a portrait of the Emperor so much before it loses all resemblance….

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Book Review: Checkpoint Charlie

Checkpoint Charlie:
The Cold War, the Berlin Wall and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth
Iain MacGregor
Scribner’s
Copyright 2019 by the author

It’s not really a history of The Wall, or the geopolitical situation in and around Berlin during the nearly three decades of its existence. There are plenty of books covering that, if you are interested. What MacGregor has collected here (and that’s a good term; it’s not a strict and straightforward textual history) is actually more an oral history of the Berlin Wall, from people who were there at the beginning, for key incidents during its “life”, and the ending.

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BOOK REVIEW: Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense

Theodore Roosevelt for the Defense: The Courtroom Battle to Save His Legacy
Dan Abrams and David Fisher
Hanover Square Press
Copyright 2019 by the authors

Even after his failed campaign to retake the White House, Theodore Roosevelt was not one to retire quietly like other former presidents. Even when age kept him from the “strenuous life” that he had long championed, he was still writing and speaking out against corruption in government.

In 1914, Roosevelt came out in support of Harvey D. Hinman, a progressive Republican, for the governorship of New York. Party boss William Barnes Jr. supported his opponent, Charles Seymour Whitman. In July, Roosevelt published a screed where he accused – in no uncertain terms – Barnes and Tammany Hall boss Charles Francis Murphy of corruption and conspiring to thwart the will of the people.

Murphy let the attack go – either he was used to such criticism, or perhaps he felt discretion was the better part of valor given his opponent. Barnes, however, took the attack seriously. He sued Roosevelt for libel.

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