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Book Review: The Keep by F. Paul Wilson (Series, #1) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

December 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Book Review: The Keep by F. Paulu Wilson (Series, #1)Summary:
Captain Klaus Woermann isn’t a fan of the Nazis or the SS and doesn’t exactly keep this a secret.  But he’s also a hero from the First World War, so the Nazi regime deals with him by sending he and a small troop to Romania to guard a pass the Russians could possibly use.  They set up to guard the place in a building known as the keep.  It should be a quiet assignment, but when the German soldiers start being killed one a night by having their throats ripped out, the SS is sent to investigate.

SS Major Kaempffer wishes to solve this mystery as soon as possible so he may start his new promotion of running the extermination camp for Romania.  He is sure he can solve this mystery quickly.

Professor Cuza and his daughter Magda are Romanian Jews who have already been pushed out of their work in academia.  They also just so happen to be the only experts on the keep.  When the SS sends for them, they are sure it is the beginning of the end.  But what is more evil? The mysterious entity killing the Germans or the Nazis?

Review:
It’s hard not to pick up a book that basically advertises itself as a vampire killing Nazis and the only ones who can stop the vampires are a Jewish professor and his daughter.  I mean, really, what an idea!  Most of the book executes this idea with intrigue and finesse, although the end leaves a bit to be desired.

The characterization of the Germans is handled well.  They are a good mix of morally ethical people who are caught up in a regime following orders and see no way out (the army men) and evil men who enjoy inflicting pain upon others and are taking advantage of the regime to be governmentally sanctioned bullies, rapists, and murderers.  Having both present keeps the book from simply demonizing all Germans and yet recognizes the evil of Nazism and those who used it to their advantage.

Similarly, Magda and her father Professor Cuza are well-rounded.  Professor Cuza is a man of his time, using his daughter’s help academically but not giving her any credit for it.  He also is in chronic pain and acts like it, rather than acting like a saint.  Magda is torn between loyalty to her sickly father and desires to live out her own life as she so chooses.  They are people with fully developed lives prior to the rise of the Nazis, and they are presented as just people, not saints.

In contrast, the man who arrives to fight the evil entity, Glaeken, is a bit of a two-dimensional deus ex machina, although he is a sexy deus ex machina.  Very little is known of him or his motivations.  He comes across as doing what is needed for the plot in the moment rather than as a fully developed person.  The same could easily be said of the villagers who live near the keep.

The basic conflict of the plot is whether or not to side with the supernatural power that seems to be willing to work against the Nazis.  Thus, what is worse? The manmade evil of the Nazis or a supernatural evil?  Can you ever use a supernatural evil for good?  It’s an interesting conflict right up until the end where a reveal is made that makes everything about the question far too simple.  Up until that point it is quite thought-provoking, however.

The plot smoothly places all of these diverse people in the same space.  The supernatural entity is frightening, as are the Nazis.  These are all well-done.

One thing that was frustrating to me as a modern woman reader was the sheer number of times Magda is almost raped or threatened with rape, and how she only escapes from rape thanks to anything but herself.  In one instance, the Nazi simply runs out of time because the train is about to move out.  In another, she is saved by a man.  In a third, she is saved by supernatural devices.  While it is true that rape is a danger in war zones, it would be nice if this was not such a frequently used conflict/plot point for this character.  Once would have been sufficient to get the point across.  As it is, the situation starts to lose its power as a plot point.

The ending is a combination of a deus ex machina and a plot twist that is a bit unsatisfying.  There also isn’t enough resolution, and it appears that the next books in the series do not pick up again with these same characters, so it is doubtful there is more resolution down the road.  It is a disappointing ending that takes a turn that is nowhere near as powerful and interesting as the rest of the book.

Overall, this is an interesting fantastical take on a historic time period.  The ending could possibly be disappointing and not resolve enough for the reader and some readers will be frustrated with the depiction of the sole female character.  However, it is still a unique read that is recommended to historic fiction fans and WWII buffs that don’t mind having some supernatural aspects added to their history.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: The Hornet’s Sting: The Amazing Untold Story Of Second World War Spy Thomas Sneum by Mark Ryan (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

February 20, 2014 2 comments

Image of a biplane, a swastika, and a man with a gun. The book's title and author's name are on this image.Summary:
Thomas Sneum was a Danish Allied spy during World War II who was periodically suspected of being a double agent.  Partially due to this suspicion and partially due to infighting between the two British spy agencies (SIS and SOE), he never got the attention or respect he deserved.  Mark Ryan, the author, found out about him and set out to get to know him.  Both personally and through research.  Here he tells the true story of Tommy Sneum and sets the record straight once and for all.

Review:
I picked this book up during a kindle sale because I’m a big WWII buff and who doesn’t love real life spy stories?  I thought it was a sure bet, but apparently even a true life spy story can be written in a dull manner.

It’s impossible to read the book without learning a lot.  For instance, I had no idea that Britain had two different spy agencies that were battling each other for control of spying missions.  This infighting between the SIS and the SOE led to lack of communication and lack of a solid spy front with one, unified plan.  Similarly, I didn’t know it was common practice to take people who had escaped from behind Nazi lines, train them as spies, then re-drop them back in their home countries.  I always thought the resistance movement just built up from the inside and then they contacted the Allies on the outside with information.  How much more complex it was is really interesting.  I also loved learning more about those from occupied countries who escaped and fought in other militaries against the Nazis.  In spite of learning all of these new to me facts about WWII spying, the book manages to be dull.  Ryan tends to wander off on side diatribes about the intricacies of red tape and paperwork instead of focusing in on the more action-oriented, interesting bits of the spying.  He also spends a lot of time giving the full name of every single person even vaguely connected with Tommy and the spying, even if they really have no impact on the story.  The book could really have used a bit more streamlining and focus to keep the energy up.  Just because it’s nonfiction doesn’t mean it can, or should, meander.

Tommy Sneum is hard to root for.  He’s not a likable guy.  He abandons his wife and infant daughter to go be a spy.  That could definitely be seen as valiant, however, he expresses consistent distate for his wife and a lack of concern or care for even knowing his daughter.  He certainly comes across in the book as a guy just after adventure, not so much a man looking to protect his country or his family.  Similarly, Tommy express arrogance when it comes to women, claiming that they essentially would go sleep with him at the drop of a hat or a snap of his fingers.  He does not come across as seeing women as people but rather as recreational objects.  One story that really demonstrates this is he tells the author that he had a threesome once, and he was upset that the women dared to pay attention to each other at all, rather than 100% to him.  Sex is supposed to be about people giving to each other, not about one person being worshiped.  His general attitude towards women gave me a squicky feeling throughout the book.  Of course, most people are not all bad or good.  Tommy is no exception.  He expresses a real openness toward a male colleague who was known to be bi.  He refuses to view all Germans as evil monsters and insists, to those high up in the British resistance no less, that most Germans are just caught up in Hitler’s war machine.  Of course, these even-handed views are almost universally held of men.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the book is Ryan’s investigation into the accusations that Sneum was a double-agent.  This part of the book isn’t really played up in the blurb, which I think is unfortunate.  Ryan did a lot of investigative work and lays out all the details that he believes clears Sneum’s name.  Seeing how Sneum and his methods were misunderstood by the British and also how having two different spy agencies working led to misunderstandings was truly fascinating, and I’m glad Ryan took the time to work at finding the truth.

Overall, this is a rather slow-paced work of historic nonfiction that focuses in on the red tape and organizational aspects of spying more than exciting adventures.  It does good work in determining that Sneum was not a double agent in WWII.  Sneum’s womanizing can be a bit tedious at times, although his even-handed perspective on the German people is good to see.  Recommended to those interested in the organizational aspects of spying in WWII, including very minute details.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Note: Apparently this book is no longer available on the kindle.

Book Review: Heinrich Himmler: The Sinister Life of the Head of the S.S. and Gestapo by Roger Manvell and Heinrich Fraenkel

July 20, 2011 7 comments

Nazi flag and photo of Himmler.Summary:
Manvell and Fraenkel conducted years of meticulous research both with primary documents and those who actually knew Himmler to bring about a biography of the man infamous for being in charge of the S.S., Gestapo, and concentration camps that made the terror of Hitler’s reign possible.  They seek to provide a well-rounded look at Himmler’s entire life for those with some familiarity with the events of World War II.

Review:
This was a fascinating and difficult book to read, not because of the writing style or the atrocities recounted, but because the authors succeeded in putting a human face on Heinrich Himmler.  In the intro to the book, the authors state:

The Nazi leaders cannot be voided from human society simply because it is pleasanter or more convenient to regard them now as outside the pale of humanity. (location 31)

In other words, the easy thing to do is pretend the Nazi leaders or anyone who commits atrocities is something other than human.  That they are monsters.  When in fact, they really are still people like you and me, and that should frighten us far more than any monster story.  What leads people to do horrible things to other people?  What makes them bury their conscience and humanity and commit acts of evil?  This biography thus does not say “here is a monster,” but instead says, “Here is this young boy who became a man who committed himself to a cause and proceeded to order acts of evil upon others.  What forces came together to mold him into someone who would do these things?”

One of the more fascinating things brought to light in this book is that Himmler was never actually fit into the ideal of a top-notch Aryan male he himself advocated.  In fact throughout his life he was sickly, pale, and scholarly.  He tried in school to fit in with the athletic boys but never succeeded in anything for any length of time except fencing.  Instead of accepting who he was, he continually pushed his sickly body past its limits throughout his life, trying to force it to fit into his ideals of what it should be.  He actually enlisted his own personal healer, a masseuse trained by a talented Chinese doctor, throughout the war.  This masseuse, Kersten, was working as a spy for the Allies and was instrumental in convincing Himmler to release various people from concentration camps throughout the war.  His sickly body then not only opened him up to the Allies for a convenient spy, but also was key in how he related to the world.  He projected his own insecurities about the ideal body onto everyone else.

Himmler’s anxiety to destroy the Jews and Slavs and place himself at the head of a Nordic Europe brash with health was a compensation for the weakly body, the sloping shoulders, the poor sight and the knock-knees to which he was tied. (location 2189)

This physical weakness and obsession does not mean he was a weak man, however.  He was profoundly intelligent and detail-oriented.  He easily became obsessed with ideas he came up with and would search for proof of them excluding any and all evidence to the contrary.  Those of us who went to liberal, private colleges where we were taught to adjust our worldview for new, challenging ideas may be surprised to learn that Himmler read obsessively.  The fact though is that Himmler sought out in his reading sources that would simply support his previously established, prejudicial worldview.

Like Hitler, he [Himmler] used books only to confirm and develop his particular prejudices. Reading was for him a narrowing, not a widening experience. (location 2547)

Thus we cannot depend on reading alone to prevent close-mindedness.

As the Nazi regime continued on, Himmler grew more and more committed to his obsessions.  Those who knew him well described the frenzy and meticulousness with which he worked over every detail toward his final goal of the “Aryan race” being in control of Europe.

Himmler’s need to rid himself of the Jews became an obsession. The ghosts of those still living haunted him more than the ghosts of those now dead; there were Jews everywhere around him, in the north, in the west, in the south, in the areas where his power to reach them was at its weakest. (location 2074)

The information on Himmler at this time period certainly sound like a man suffering from intense paranoia.  Think of John Nash in A Beautiful Mind and how he firmly believed government agents were all around him persecuting him.  The difference is that this physically weak, close-minded, paranoid man was given immense power over the lives of millions instead of simply being a professor. It is easy after reading this book to see how Himmler could easily have been that crazy neighbor worried that the people across the street were watching him all the time instead of the engineer behind genocide.  All it took was placing near total power and trust in his hands to turn him into the organizer of a genocide.

There will always exist human beings who, once they are given a similar power over others and have similar convictions of superiority, may be tempted to act as he [Himmler] did. (location 592)

The lesson the authors send home repeatedly then is that Himmler was just a man overcompensating for a physically weak body who grasped onto the idea that he was actually superior to others simply because of his ancestors with a tendency toward paranoia who was given a dangerous amount of power.  It is easy to imagine how the entire situation could have worked out differently if some sort of intervention had happened earlier in his life.  If he was taught that everyone was valuable for different reasons that have nothing to do with their physical abilities or ancestry.  If he had initially read books that weren’t racist and xenophobic.  If he was never swept into the Nazi Party mania in the 1930s.  If he had been maintained as an office worker in the Nazi party instead of being given so much power.  It’s a lot of if’s, I know, but it’s important to think about all the ways to prevent something like this from ever happening again.  Although the authors’ primary point is “be careful who you allow to have power,” I would also add “intervene when they are young to prevent the development of a xenophobic, paranoid personality to start with.”  With both precautions in place, perhaps we humans as a group can avoid such atrocities in the future.

Readers should note that this book is written by Europeans and not “translated” into American English.  Additionally, periodically the authors sway from the strict chronological method of a biography to follow one thought or event through to its conclusion then back-track.  This was a bit distracting, but absolutely did not prevent me from learning much about Himmler, WWII, and the Holocaust that I did not previously know.

Overall, I highly recommend this to those with an interest in WWII in particular, but also to anyone interested in the prevention of future genocides.  It offers great insight into how these atrocities came to be.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon (See all Third Reich History Books)

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Book Review: A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson

July 13, 2010 4 comments

Woman smelling a flower.Summary:
Ellen’s staunchly feminist, progressive family found themselves flabbergasted by their daughter’s preference for honing her homemaking skills.  However, with time they came around, and they are pleased to see her leave for a house matron position at a boarding school in Austria.  Her childhood has prepared her for dealing with the eclectic, progressive teachers, but the little school has more problems to face than unusual teaching styles and the lonesomeness of the children of wealthy world travelers.  Trouble is brewing in Europe in the shape of the Nazi movement in Germany.  Of course, Ellen may have found an ally in the form of Marek, the school’s groundskeeper.

Review:
I have been fascinated with WWII ever since I was a very little girl.  Also, I have no issue with feminists cooking meals for people or keeping house.  Feminism is about men and women being able to do what makes them happy, not just what they’re “supposed” to do.  I therefore expected these two elements to come together to make for an intriguing read.  Unfortunately, I was wrong.

The main problem is Ellen.  I simply don’t like her.  I can’t root for her.  I can’t enjoy any scene she’s in.  In fact, I wanted multiple times to shove her into the lake the school is on.  Now, I don’t have to like a main character to enjoy a book, but I do need at least one other character in the book to dislike her, so I’m not going around thinking something is wrong with me.  However, everyone in the entire book simply loves Ellen.  They frequently call her “angelic,” and everyone essentially worships the ground she walks on.  Every man of anywhere near a suitable age for her falls madly in love with her.  I can give that a pass in paranormal romance, as there’s a lot of supernatural stuff going on, but this is supposed to be  a normal girl.  Not every man is going to fall in love with her.  It’s just preposterous!  That doesn’t happen!  Ellen is, simply put, a dull, boring woman with no true backbone.  If this was a Victorian novel, she’d be fainting every few pages.

Then there’s Marek, her love interest, who I also completely loathed.  Everything he does, even if it’s helping others, is for purely selfish reasons.  He also has a wicked temper and frequently dangles people out of windows.  Why Ellen becomes so obsessed with him is beyond me.

Ibbotson also obviously scorns many ideals that I myself hold dear.  Any character who is a vegetarian or against capitalism or in favor of nudity is displayed as silly, childish, or selfish.  There is a section in which the children are being taught by a vegetarian director and some of them switch to being vegetarian as well, and of course Ellen finds this simply atrocious and worries about the children.  Naturally, the director is later villainized.  Clearly anyone who eats “nut cutlets” for dinner simply cannot be normal.  I expect an author’s ideals to show up in a book, but the book’s blurb certainly gave no indication that a book taking place largely at a progressive boarding school would spend a large amount of its time mocking those same values.

In spite of all that I can’t say that this is a badly written book.  Ibbotson is capable of writing well, I just don’t enjoy her content at all.  After finishing it, I realized it reminded me of something.  It reads like a Jane Austen novel, and I absolutely loathe those.  So, if you enjoy Jane Austen and WWII era Europe settings, you’ll enjoy this book.  Everyone else should steer clear.

2.5 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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