Saturday, April 04, 2020

Daughter of the Reich - Louise Fein

Louise Fein’s  novel Daughter of the Reich is loosely based upon her father’s family history. Fein’s father was one of the lucky Jews who managed to escape Hitler’s clutches before that became impossible. He and his young wife were taken in by England in 1933 on a temporary visa, and he remained there on a “temporary” basis until finally being granted citizenship in 1946.

The novel’s narrator is Hetty Heinrich, the daughter of a high-ranking Nazi officer with grandiose ambitions. The story begins in 1929 when seven-year-old Hetty accidentally falls into a lake’s deep water and has to be rescued by Walter, a friend of her older brother Karl. Of course, the entire Heinrich family is grateful to Walter, including Hetty’s father – even though Walter is a Jew. Now, flash forward to August 1933, and things are very different. Hitler is becoming more and more powerful, but it is happening so gradually that the inevitableness of what is to come is not immediately apparent.

Even Karl and Hetty, four years after Hetty’s rescue by a Jewish boy, are succumbing to the anti-Jewish propaganda that now dominates their world. Karl and Walter are no longer friends at all, and Hetty is fast becoming convinced of her own racial superiority. But for Hetty, that begins to change on the day that she encounters Walter again and feels the strong mutual attraction between them. Theirs, though, is a doomed relationship so powerful that it could result in both Hetty and Walter confined to concentration camps as punishment for daring it. The greatest sin a German woman can commit in the 1930s is to pollute her pure German blood by mixing it with that of a Jew. No excuses, no exceptions.

Louise Fein
Hetty knows exactly what will happen to her and her family if her relationship with Walter is exposed. It will mean the ruination of them all. And Walter knows that exposure would almost certainly end with his death in one of the country’s new concentration camps. But for the next six years, the couple will risk everything in order to keep their relationship alive, hoping all the while that war will end before they are exposed. Soon enough, they learn that this will not be the case.

Bottom Line: Daughter of the Reich is a well-researched combination of historical fiction, psychological thriller, and coming-of-age novel that largely makes for riveting reading. It, however, suffers a bit from the relatively slow pace at which things finally come to a head for the novel’s two main characters – even to the degree that it all starts to seem a little over-repetitive. Too, the novel would have had, I think, a stronger emotional ending (even though it would have been an open-ended one) if its epilogue had been eliminated. Still, Daughter of the Reich has plenty to say about the ease at which politics-as-usual can go bad, and that’s an important message in today’s world.

Review Copy courtesy of Publisher

Thursday, April 02, 2020

A Different Flesh - Harry Turtledove

I’ve read Harry Turtledove’s alternate history novels for years, and I consider him to be one of the masters of the genre – he’s certainly among the genre’s most prolific authors. Alternate history is defined by Wikipedia as “speculative fiction consisting of stories in which one or more historical events occur differently,” and I think that’s an accurate general description of the genre. The real fun in reading an alternate history comes from the “speculation” part of its definition, in tracking how one or two changes in historical fact can lead to massive changes in reality over the next decades or centuries.
Homo erectus

That’s exactly the approach that Turtledove takes in A Different Flesh, a collection of seven loosely connected short stories that chronologically span over 300 years of American history. Turtledove’s basic premise is that the ancestors of the American Indian population that the colonists found upon their arrival in the New World never make it across the Behring Strait. Instead, the continent remains so isolated until the 1600s that it is still dominated by saber-toothed tigers, wooly mammoths, and Homo erectus, an upright species said to be the ancestor of several more advanced human species. Poor Homo erectus gets to stand in for the real-life abuse suffered by both the  Native American population and most of what happened to the Africans who were imported to the colonies later on.

The first story, “Vilest Beast,” features the Jamestown colonists a few years after Captain John Smith has been killed and eaten by a group of wild “Sims” (the name universally applied to the Homo erectus species). By now, both the colonists and the Sims prefer to stay clear of each other, but after one bloody conflict, at least one of the colonists is starting to wonder just how “human” the Sims might be.

The next two stories, “And So to Bed” and “Around the Salt Lick” follow the evolving relationship between Sims and America’s settlers through the late 1600s, a period during which Sims are captured and sent back to Europe for study. The two species have even by now developed a sign language that allows them to communicate thoughts to each other, and in some cases they develop deeply binding friendships. Overall, however, Sims are still considered animals – and are treated as such.

“Though the Heavens Fall,” the book’s fourth story, is set on an 1804 plantation on which Sims are the slaves doing all the heavy field work and the few black slaves on the plantation are used inside the house. As portrayed in the story, there is a definite class hierarchy on the plantation, and the black slaves are very relieved not to be on the bottom of it. “The Iron Elephant,” set in 1781, is a fun story about the evolution of the steam locomotive and how it eventually would put out of business the wooly mammoth-pulled locomotives of the day.

Harry Turtledove
My personal favorite, though, is “Trapping Run,” a long story set in 1812 about a trapper who has gone farther west than any other explorer of his day. That means that the trapping is excellent, but it also means that when the trapper suffers a devastating injury from a Grizzly, he’s is almost certainly going to die there all alone. And he would have if not for the band of wild Sims who befriend him. This is a touching story, but it illustrates the difficulty of the two species ever truly understanding each other on anything resembling equal terms.

“Freedom,” the last story in the book is set in 1988 (the year that A Different Flesh was published), and it’s the saddest and most disturbing story in the book. By this point Sims are being used in research labs around the world, a practice justified in the minds of researchers by the assumption that the Sims are no more human than any other animal species.

One of the more awful covers
Bottom Line: Turtledove’s A Different Flesh is philosophically deeper than it might appear at first glance. The Sims are stand-ins for every racially dominated group in the history of the United States, and the author seamlessly slips his serious messages into the book’s seven stories. This one is probably underrated in part because of some of the awful covers the book has had over the decades. Don’t let that throw you off; this one is worth reading.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Book Chase: The April 2020 Reading Plan

It is definitely not a good sign that working on a blog post is more interesting to me right now than actually sitting down and reading a book. Not good at all.

Even before the official "Stay Home" order hit my county about ten days ago, we were already staying home and away from people as much as we possibly could. It was just good common sense to do so. My wife would be in very serious trouble if she contracted Covid-19, so I've been the one to go scavenging for the things we need. At first, that meant going to the stores every two or three days, but now I try to get all the necessary shopping done on Friday mornings. The only kicker will probably be those prescription refills that just can't wait until a Friday morning pickup. But that's the plan.

So far no virus problems in the family, but I have succumbed to a reading-virus that seems to be plaguing the whole book blogging world. I simply cannot concentrate on my reading right now. I get two or three pages into a book, only to realize suddenly that I have no idea what I just read from the last half page or so. My concentration is not what it was before the bug invasion, and I find little thoughts popping into my head regularly when they should be minding their own business and waiting for later. What am I missing on the news? Are the big cities in Texas starting to crack at the seams? What will happen to the elderly if hospitals can't keep up with the demand for beds and ventilators? Will I ever see toilet tissue and paper towels on the grocery shelf again?

Consequently, my March reading has been relatively light. But as I look back on my reading plan for the month - ten books plus an audiobook or two - I see that I didn't miss the mark as badly as I feared I might considering all the distractions. I managed to finish seven of the ten books on the list and get through one audiobook. And I'm about one-third of the way through another book on the list, and about 75% of the way through a second audiobook. So I guess it could have been worse.

This is what I have planned for April:

1. Daughter of the Reich by Louise Fein is the one that I'm a third of the way through coming into April. (It's a 530-page ARC.) It's the story of the daughter of a high-ranking Nazi who falls in love with an old Jewish friend of hers and begins an affair with him, endangering both their lives. So far it is not different enough from all the similar books I've read in the last couple of years to make me fall in love with it. I'm hoping there are some surprises ahead that will make that happen because right now it's only about a 3-out-of-5-stars book.

2. The Dead Don't Sleep by Steven Max Russo is an e-ARC that I've been looking forward to for a few weeks, and I'll finally be starting it in the next day or two. This one appealed to me because it features an "aging Vietnam veteran" whose war experiences seem to be coming back to haunt him after he meets a strange man who claims to remember him from the war. Once the vet figures out who the stranger is, he knows that it is time for a final reckoning with the man who  should have never been allowed to come home from Viet Nam in the first place. 

3. LBJ's 1968: Power, Politics, and the Presidency in America's Year of Upheaval - Kyle Longley - This is a 2018 ARC that I've had around the house for almost two years and I think I'm finally ready to read it. 1968 was a crazy year for the country - and for me, personally. It's the year I went into the Army, the year I was attacked because of my race by fellow soldiers inside Fort Campbell, KY, after Martin Luther King's assassination, and the year I learned of Bobby Kennedy's assassination via a tiny transistor radio while sitting in a tree in the middle of the night trying to keep an eye on the four or five wild pigs that had me so securely treed. 

4. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout is one of the last tree-books I bought before all this staying-at-home stuff started. I was a fan of the Olive Kitteridge film on HBO back in the day, and I'm looking forward to this collection of stories focusing on the recent doings in Olive's world as she "touches the lives of everyone around her." As those already familiar with Olive will know, having her touch your life is not necessarily a pleasant experience, so this one should be interesting. (I'm already a big fan of Elizabeth Strout's writing, so why I never got around to reading the first Olive book is a mystery to me.)

5. Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles is an ARC I was hoping to carry with me to the San Antonio Book Festival next weekend for an author signature. Well, we all know what happened to the book festival. Jiles is the author of one of my all-time favorite novels, News of the World, so I'm really looking forward to this one. It's the story of a young musician who is conscripted into the Confederate Army just a few months before the end of the Civil War in 1865. Jiles is a brilliant writer, so I have high hopes for this one..

6. As Good as It Can Be by William A. Glass is an ARC I received courtesy of the author back in late January. The book is all about a military brat struggling to stay out of trouble - and out of jail - who gets drafted into the army almost as soon as he gets out of high school. Now his problem is going to be figuring out how to keep from getting the dishonorable discharge that will ruin the rest of his life. 

7. Westwind by Ian Rankin is back in print for the first time in almost thirty years, and I'm wondering how something like that could happen to an author as popular as Rankin is. He  admits that the book, when published in 1990, was a big flop. According to Rankin, it got only one small review in the Guardian before it disappeared. Rankin was happy enough to forget about it - and then the Twitter world starting asking him about it often enough to spark his interest in republishing the book. He says he polished it up a bit, and I have to say that at first glance it looks pretty good. Should be interesting.

8. Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter is said to be "an exceptional depiction of the suffering caused by the influenza" pandemic of 1918. It seems to be on everyone's list of the best books coming out of the epidemic that killed millions of people in 1918 and 1919. More specifically, it's about a newspaper woman and a soldier who both catch the flu. When Miranda comes out of her delirium, she learns that the soldier is dead and that he most likely caught the flu while trying to nurse her back to health. 

9. Pale Kings and Princes by Robert B. Parker came to mind because of the Porter title, up above, I'll admit. I fell in love with Parker's Spenser books back in the mid-eighties, but I've always been afraid to go back and read one of them again because of the risk that the books are not as good as I remember them to be. And that would be sad. Spenser and Hawk are to this day one of my favorite detective teams (well, Hawk is the muscle and Spenser is the detective) of all-time. I hope they still are after this re-read.

10. The Night Fire by Michael Connelly is the latest Renée Ballard and Harry Bosch novel. I've been purposely holding this one back because I know that as soon as I read it I will have to wait several months for the next one in the Bosh-universe series. It's kind of like having money in the bank; it's comforting to know that it's there waiting for you when you need it most. Well, I think that time has come for me. I can't wait any longer.

So there you have the plan for April. But honestly, the main hope I have for the month is that my reading pace gets back to something resembling my normal pace before the month is over. If that happens, I will be satisfied.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick

This was not my first attempt at reading Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. That first attempt, several years ago, did not go very well, and I ended up abandoning this 1962 alternate history novel in a state of confusion about 25% of the way through it. And now, right up front, I’m going to confess that this second attempt was easier than the first one primarily because I watched all four seasons of Amazon Prime’s The Man in the High Castle (a 40-episode series loosely based on the novel) before trying to read it again.

It’s 1962, and World War II has been over for twenty years. The former United States has been split almost down the middle by the victors, Germany and Japan, with Germany occupying the eastern half of the country and Japan the western half. A buffer zone running through parts of Colorado is the only thing that keeps the former Axis allies from each other’s throat. A few “free” Americans manage to live in that zone. The rest are under the thumbs of the Germans and Japanese who treat them as second-class citizens, at best, and as enemies of the state, at worst.

The Germans have continued to exterminate what they consider to be inferior races across the globe, most recently via a botched attempt to do so in Africa. The Japanese are disturbed by the barbarity and aggressiveness of the German government, and they know that Germany must never be trusted. To the Japanese, it is obvious that Germany will settle for no less than total world domination – and that one day she will come for Japan and her North American territory.

Dick shows what this occupation of America is like through the eyes of several characters struggling to survive an America in which they have little hope for a better future. One character is a dealer in rare, historical artifacts, two others are involved in creating the forgeries that are sold to Japanese collectors as authentic artifacts, another is the estranged wife of an American Jew, and a fifth has written a novel of alternate history in which the United States wins World War II instead of the Axis powers. All of them, no matter what they do, live in more or less constant fear of their Japanese occupiers.

Philip K. Dick
The Man in the High Castle is a powerful book, one that demands the close attention of the reader if its full impact is to be felt. It is confusing at times, and its open-ended, ambiguous ending is not a particularly satisfying one. It is said that Dick purposely left the book open-ended because he intended one day to write its sequel. Unfortunately, the author found it so difficult to revisit Nazism that he never got the sequel written. Interestingly (and exactly as happens in the novel itself), Dick used the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, for assistance in plotting The Man in the High Castle. And in September 1963, The Man in the High Castle won the Hugo Award for best novel, the highest honor in all of Science Fiction.

Bottom Line: Seldom, if ever, have I recommended that a movie or television adaptation of a novel be watched prior to reading the book. But despite the huge differences between The Man in the High Castle and its film-version (a whole paper could be written on that subject), I’m going to do exactly that this time. If nothing else, the film leaves the viewer with a more easily imagined vision of America under occupation by its enemies, and it introduces all of the major characters from the novel. Admittedly, one or two of the novel’s characters (especially Juliana) are not much like their film versions, but that will not matter for long. This is one of those science fiction classics that every SF fanatic out there needs to read if they want to maintain their Sci Fi street creds.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The Blues Don't Care - Paul D. Marks

The Blues Don’t Care is the first entry in Paul D. Marks’s new series featuring Bobby Saxon, a musician turned amateur detective who lives in WWII era Los Angeles. Bobby is a mean piano player in the style of all the popular jazz and swing bands of the day, but he has a big problem. Bobby is white. His favorite bands are exclusively all black. And, at least in Los Angeles, it’s unheard of for a white musician or singer to be part of what would otherwise be an all-black band.

But persistence has a way of paying off. Bobby sits through so many sets of his favorite band, The Booker “Boom Boom” Taylor Orchestra, that Booker starts to recognize him in the crowd - admittedly, it helps that Bobby’s is one of the few white ones in the whole room. But best of all for Bobby, on the night that he and Booker finally speak to each other Booker is short a piano player, a problem Bobby can help solve for him. And although he is not exactly warmly welcomed by all the bandmembers, by the end of the night Bobby has impressed all of them, especially Booker, with his talent.

When he is offered a regular gig with the Booker “Boom Boom” Orchestra, it appears that Bobby’s dreams have become reality. But there is only one way that he will keep the job, and it has nothing to do with Bobby’s musical talent. One of the other bandmembers has been arrested and locked up for a murder he didn’t commit, and Booker asks Bobby, because he is a white man, to prove the man’s innocence. If he pulls it off, the job is Bobby’s. If not, not.

Paul D. Marks
To say that Bobby is in over his head is an understatement. He has no idea where to begin his “investigation,” but before this one is over he manages to get himself (and anyone who dares help him) punched, kicked, tied-up, shot at, and otherwise abused. But Bobby, as we already know, is persistent – and persistence pays off.

Bottom Line: The Blues Don’t Care is a fun, atmospheric look at 1940s Los Angeles that almost perfectly captures the tone of all those old black and white gangster movies of the day. Bobby Saxon is such a fan of those films himself that he uses them as training films in his quest to make himself into a detective capable of solving a murder the police have little interest in solving for themselves. Sometimes that works, and sometimes it makes him crazily reckless. And that’s exactly why The Blues Don’t Care is so much fun. (Well, that and one other thing about Bobby you’re going to have to learn for yourself – trust me.)

Review Copy courtesy of Author and/or Publisher

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Life Limps On

Thank goodness we live in the digital age. I can't imagine how much harder all of this extreme social distancing would have been to tolerate just two or three decades ago. At least now many jobs can be done from home. There are multiple ways for us to amuse ourselves while confined. And, for the most part, our children and grandchildren are able to transition into online schooling fairly easily. Life limps on.

Just as importantly for the mental health of all the semi-professional readers out there, our virtual libraries are still open for business even though all their brick and mortar locations seem to have locked their doors tightly. This is the perfect opportunity for us to finally tackle the massive TBR stacks we all seem to have on hand. You know, depending on how long all of this may last, I just might finally make a dent in the unread books I have in the house. 

Read on, friends. Stay well.