Thursday, June 20, 2013

World War II Alternate History...but GOOD!

HITLER'S WAR (The War That Came Early #1)
Del Rey Books
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five, all for the delicious idea

The Publisher Says: A stroke of the pen and history is changed. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, determined to avoid war at any cost, signed the Munich Accord, ceding part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler. But the following spring, Hitler snatched the rest of that country and pushed beyond its borders. World War II had begun, and England, after a fatal act of appeasement, was fighting a war for which it was not prepared.

Now, in this thrilling, provocative, and fascinating alternate history by Harry Turtledove, another scenario is played out: What if Chamberlain had not signed the accord? What if Hitler had acted rashly, before his army was ready–would such impatience have helped him or doomed him faster? Here is an action-packed, blow-by-blow chronicle of the war that might have been–and the repercussions that might have echoed through history–had Hitler reached too far, too soon, and too fast.

Turtledove uses dozens of points of view to tell this story: from American marines serving in Japanese-occupied China to members of a Jewish German family with a proud history of war service to their nation, from ragtag volunteers fighting in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in Spain to an American woman desperately trying to escape Nazi-occupied territory–and witnessing the war from within the belly of the beast.

A novel that reveals the human face of war while simultaneously riding the twists and turns that make up the great acts of history, Hitler’s War is the beginning of an exciting new alternate history saga. Here is a tale of powerful leaders and ordinary people, of spies, soldiers, and traitors, of the shifting alliances that draw some together while tearing others apart. At once authoritative, brilliantly imaginative, and hugely entertaining, Hitler’s War captures the beginning of a very different World War II–with a very different fate for our world today.

My Review: The "Master of Alternate History", per his jacket copy, takes on one of the most popular subjects in all of alternative hitory: WWII. Equaled in numbers of treatments only by the American Civil War, WWII is a target rich environment for armchair historians to play with: Operation SeaLion succeeds (invasion of the UK); the 1944 coup against Hitler succeeds; the 1940 US election returns an isolationist President and the UK reaches terms; Battle of Midway goes the other way; Japan doesn't get nuked, much loss of life in conquering it; etc etc etc blah blah blah. Since 2001, I've read the nasty, hostile, but very interesting posts on the old USENET group soc.hist.what-if, so it takes a LOT to get me interested in something about WWII. Turtledove's fame in the field wouldn't be enough to entice me, I assure you, since I can't *abide* one of his most popular series about aliens landing on earth during WWII.

Here, however, we have something that really piques my interest. It's an actual historical possibility: Chamberlain of England and Daladier of France refuse to hand over Czechoslovakia instead of buying themselves a little longer preparation time by waving bye-bye to their ally as they did on our timeline. (The antique USENET convention for representing alternative history events is to do this: *WWII means the MODIFIED version of the war, where WWII is understood to be the one departed from by the modified version; henceforward, if you see the asterisk, that's what it means.) So *WWII starts in 1938, not September 1939. Poland isn't the first country attacked, and in fact ends up allied to Germany in opposition to its very long-term enemy Russia. The *Spanish Civil War (remember now!) is run by a General Sanjurjo, instead of Franco; the man died for his vanity in OUR reality (called OTL in USENET terms, so again: "OTL" = Our Time Line, the world we learned about in history books). This means for some very cogent reasons that the *Spanish Civil War isn't over when *WWII begins, and there are some significant results from that. The *Japanese, busy raping China into submission as in OTL, realize that one of their longterm ambitions is in easy reach: The conquest of Siberia, with its **astonishing** riches, to add to Manchuria. It's all very plausible, and it's all very tidily constructed.

What Turtledove usually does, he does here: He tells his story through the lens of many different viewpoints on all sides of every conflict. He makes sure the reader sees through American, Russian, Czech, French, Spanish, Japanese, Jewish eyes what the causes and results of *WWII are. All that tidy construction feels quite fragmented, and seems to be an excuse for chaos. In fact, this book could simply not have been written had Turtledove not had a tight and complete grasp of the facts he's departing from, in order to create the modified world. His success is close to complete.

Oh, but the price one pays for following so many, many characters. Nothing ever gets more than set up; the payoff is pages and pages away, several stories of great interest intervening, and sometimes the action sounds quite repetitive because after 40pp the author or his editor thought it'd be a good idea to give a little review of where we left, for examply, Luc Harcourt and Sergeant Demange. Wearing. Action-slowing. Not usually necessary, IM(never-very)HO. But nonetheless, the suspense manages to build, because unlike the OTL history of WWII, the *WWII has events in it we never even heard of! I like that. I like that I can trust Dr. Turtledove to build those events from sound conjectures. And most of the time, I overlook the little inconsistencies (a character bound for Romania suddenly turns up in Berlin, no explanation offered). I like alternative history because I like OTL history, and I like seeing what a storyteller can do with the astoundingly rich vein of material there is in any historical account.

But will this book make converts among those who have not drunk the historical Kool-Aid? No, on balance, I suspect not. I'd never suggest that someone start reading alternative history here. But for those of us already In The Cult, it's a damn good outing and the beginning of a series that promises some very rich rewards.

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More Than an Adventure Tale


by Terry Pratchett

Published by HarperCollins

Reviewed by Amanda
4 Out of 5 Stars

Young Mau is a boy living on an island he knows only as the Nation. He has been sent to the Boy's Island where he must survive until he can, using only the tools of the island, build a canoe that will take him on the return voyage to the Nation. By doing so, he will prove that he is a man and the village will celebrate as he sheds his boy's soul and takes on his man's soul.

Except, when he returns, there are no fires. There are no feasts. There is no one to welcome him home. What is there is death, destruction, and the dawning realization that the Nation, a powerful island tribe, has now been reduced to a population of one. If Mau dies, then the Nation--its heritage, its ancestors, its religion--will die, too.

This book had two strikes against it when I picked it up: 1) it's marketed as young adult and 2) my one foray into Pratchett's writing, The Color of Magic, was underwhelming. So Nation was a very pleasant surprise. This isn't young adult literature in the sense that it's written strictly for a younger audience, but I think it has been labeled as such because the protagonist is young and, now that no one is there to perform the rituals that will draw his man's soul to him, wonders if he'll always be more than a boy but less than a man.

What seems to be a deceptively simple adventure tale on the surface has levels of complexity as it explores issues tied to colonialism, existentialism, feminism, and racism (and one must admit that's an impressive collection of "isms"). As Mau works tirelessly to bury the bodies at sea according to custom, he begins to--as so many do after a traumatic and life-altering crisis--question the gods and everything he's ever been taught to believe in. This confrontation with the void is complicated by the fact that Mau suddenly hears what may be the voices of the gods speaking directly to him. When he comes into contact with whites, he questions whether or not his people, who seemed to have everything, were really inferior savages.

Now, if all that sounds terribly tedious and didactic to you, WAIT--THERE'S MORE! There's also action, adventure, romance, and humor. There are tsunamis, shipwrecks, mutineers, kings, secret passages, sharks, beer, cannons, and a foul-mouthed parrot. And there's a damsel who can take care of herself, thank you very much.

And that's the wonderful thing about this book. It causes the reader to think while being entertained. And Pratchett accomplishes all of this without being preachy or trying to substitute his answer for your own. In fact, his message seems to be that you must have faith in something--whether it's a god, a science, or a nation. As long as what you believe in is good and furthers mankind, your faith is not wasted. Perhaps his stance is best summed up by one of the characters:

Everything I know makes me believe Imo [the god of the islanders] is in the order that is inherent, amazingly, in all things, and in the way the universe opens to our questioning. When I see the shining path over the lagoon, on an evening like this, at the end of a good day, I believe . . . I just believe. You know, in things generally. That works too. Religion is not an exact science. Sometimes, of course, neither is science. (366)

In Nation, as in life, there are no easy answers, but, as in life, it's one helluva ride.

Meet the Shelf Inflicted Staff - Trudi

Today's guest is one of Canada's most dangerous reviewers, Trudi. Trudi also posts at Busty Book Bimbo.

How did you discover Goodreads?
One of my librarian friends joined in 2008 and sent me an invite. I accepted and it was love at first sight.

What have been your most memorable Goodreads experiences?
Reading the reviews has become a valued part of my reading life -- some have made me laugh so hard it felt like I might've broken something, and a few have made me cry (but I'm not telling which ones). This site has also brought some seriously funny, seriously smart people to my attention and it's been a real delight getting to know them better through the books they love (and hate).

Name one reviewer not in the Forbes 25 that people should be aware of.
My pal Carol and fellow zombie enthusiast.

What was your initial reaction to Amazon buying Goodreads?
Remember Nancy Kerrigan after the knee-capping incident? Yeah, like that (only more dramatic). I'm getting over it gradually. The more I drink, the better Amazon looks. I'm just going to stay drunk from now on.

How many books do you own?
I've moved around lots and was a student in one form or another until I was 32, so a lot of my books got purged over the years. My physical "owned" library has been whittled down to about 70 of my most precious darlings, including a few first editions by Stephen King that I'll be buried with just in case it's BYOB (bring your own book) on the other side.

Who is your favorite author?
Stephen King. My mom loved him and I started reading him when I was 10. I've been a Constant Reader ever since. His books are the soundtrack to my life and when I need a comfort read, it's his books I inevitably turn to.

What is your favorite book of all time?
Oh jesus, really? I can't pick one. I have about 30 that are constantly jockeying for position. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak holds a special place in my reader heart though.

What are your thoughts on ebooks?
Love them. I'm much more of a story junkie than a book junkie, if that makes sense. I'll take a good story any way I can get it -- big screen, little screen, around a campfire, in a song, I don't care just tell me a story and make it a good one. Ebooks have made it even easier to get to the stories that I want to be reading, and to even discover some authors that would have withered away in obscurity without the ebook revolution. Physical books can be a beautiful, precious commodity and I don't see them going extinct ever, but ebooks have their place too. They're not the enemy.

What are your thoughts on self-publishing?
Let's face it. There's a river of crap out there and some huge, dickish egos behind it. But if you're really courageous, and willing to take a paddle and head upstream, diamonds in the rough are waiting to be disovered. Never before have the barriers between author and reader been so few, the access so direct. No longer are authors strictly dependent on big publishing houses to deem their work "worthy" to go to market accompanied by a sexy publicity campaign. Authors and readers are doing it for themselves these days, and I for one think it's a beautiful thing. However, this should be writ law and punishable by death: No author should self-publish until he or she has read King's On Writing. And use the goddamn spell check! It was invented for a reason.

Any literary aspirations?
I think I make a much better reader than I would a writer. Inventing stories is so much work and takes so much time, time that could be spent reading. I'm the junkie in this relationship, not the dealer. I'm satisfied with my reader high, just keep the cooks in the kitchen and the meth on the streets, yeah? Heisenberg blue.

What is your ideal super villain lair?
The recently revealed Men of Letters bunker on the CW's Supernatural. It's underground, it's a library, it has a firing range and a kitchen. It's the perfect place really to launch a campaign for world domination.