Random Book Day 2015: You’ll Know It When You Read It

Ah, that rare moment when it happens. You start reading a book, and at some point (usually early on) you realize that it isn’t a book at all, but a BOOK. A revelation. A work of art. This doesn’t happen often, and many times it is by chance. It is wonderful to be surprised in such a way. This happened to me not long ago, and that book kicks off our third annual Random Book Day blog.

This is not a random bear.
This is not a random bear. The cat pic comes later.


Here by Richard McGuire

Here book cover

I could start by saying that Here is a graphic novel, but that is so limiting. Graphic novels (and I blogged about them before) simply tells us the format of this book. It has pictures. It is illustrated. A much better descriptor of Here is “literary force of nature”.

Here tells the story of a particular room, or more accurately a particular place. Each page is like a snapshot of the room at a different period in time, from the distant past to the far future, but mostly focusing on the last 100 years or so. We can see what was happening there throughout the years, and see the people who were there. Birth, death, happiness and sorrow. Ultimately the story is not as much about the room but about the life that happens there, and believe me life suffuses this book start to finish. Maguire both wrote and illustrated it, and I think he deserves a medal.

I finished reading it while on my lunch break, and it is a good thing I did so because otherwise I would have been late coming back. There was no way I was not going to stop reading it. It wasn’t just my favorite book of the year, it was the best book I read this year.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Room book cover

Speaking of rooms, my next book is called, umm, Room. It is told from the perspective of Jack, a five year old, which that alone would be interesting, but Jack’s life is not typical. He has spent his entire life, all five years, in the same room. His mother was kidnapped and imprisoned in the room by the only other real life person Jack has ever seen, Old Nick. Jack does not realize this man is his father via the rape of his mother.

Okay, you can tell already that this is an intense story. I had reservations about reading something that would be such a downer, but it came well recommended. As in I asked my wife for something to read and she literally stuck this in my hand. While it is intense, everything being filtered through the innocence of Jack (who thinks the entire world is contained within the room) softens the blows a bit.  And, mild spoiler alert here, when they escape Jack is thrust into a world of wonder that also terrifies him.

The emotional impact of the book can be rough at times but it is well worth the effort. Many others would second this. And now there is a movie of the book, starring the talented Brie Larson, that is on my must watch list.

Bimbos of the Death Sun by Sharyn McCrumb

Bimbos of the Death Sun book cover

And now for something completely different. McCrumb mostly writes contemporary historical fiction set in the Appalachian Mountains. This is not one of those books. It is a murder mystery set at a science fiction convention. A prickly author is killed, and the convention attendees are left to both keep the show going and try to discover who the killer is.

Bimbos (the title is the name of a book one of the protagonists had written) serves as a perfectly fine mystery, but also realistically captures the feel of both the setting and the people who inhabit it. There are a lot of stereotypes involved, but McCrumb never makes them seem cliche. Plus, just like me, you can learn about filk music (that is not a typo).

This book may seem at first to be lowbrow, especially considering the pulp style cover, but it rises well above the masses. In fact, it won an Edgar Award. A good choice to do some genre breaking. it is also fun to see the differences in technology, such as a lead character talking about this new thing called email they are using at the university he teaches at.

Random House Tower in NYC. Because books.
Random House Tower in NYC. Because books.


Ghostman by Roger Hobbs

Ghostman book cover

Hobbs debut novel is quite impressive. Jack is a career criminal, a ghostman, a man who can hide in plain sight and disappear without a trace after a job is finished. Jack is very good at his job, but a mistake he made years ago comes back to haunt him, and to pay off his debt he is off to clean up a botched New Jersey casino heist. Of course the job is not as straightforward as it sounds, and Jack has to use all of his skills to come out alive.

Hobbs does a great job of keeping the suspense high, and of giving an inside view of how a man like Jack operates. I was honestly surprised that a new writer could craft a book is such a masterful way. Fans of Lee Child and Robert Stark are doing themselves a grave disservice by not reading this. Granted, the follow up Vanishing Games certainly falls short of the high mark set by Ghostman, but I am still looking forward to what else Hobbs produces.

In Red by Magdalena Tulli, translated from the Polish by Bill Johnston

In Red book cover

I mentioned I was going to read this not long ago, and indeed I did read it. And it was good enough to add to this list. Set in a small town in Poland in the early 20th century, In Red is a mixture of gritty realism and fancy surrealism. I found myself reminded of The Grand Budapest Hotel in some ways, and also of Salvador Plascencia’s wonderful book The People of Paper. Bouncing from character to character, one scene will be a straight telling of standard doings in the town and the next will feature something like a girl whose heart had stopped refusing to die and going about her regular routine of reading French romance novels, or a bullet that was fired years ago striking someone after completing its circumnavigation of the globe.

I started to grow disheartened as the end of the book, as it all seemed to be heading towards an incredibly sad ending, but Tulli reminds us that these are all just stories, and that stories are told in many different ways. This book is told in a very entertaining way, and my hat is off to both Tulli and Johnston, who translated it so well. Also, I don’t typically wear hats.

Armada by Ernest Cline

Armada book cover

I feel a bit bad for this book, because Cline’s first one, Ready Player One, was not only a really fun read but had such a distinctive voice to it that it makes it hard for Armada to get out from under its shadow. Nevertheless, Armada is a fine read, a rollicking sci fi adventure that does some clever lampshading.

Zack is a pretty standard high school kid. Having lost his father at a young age he has some anger issues to deal with, which gives his character depth that many teens depicted in fiction do not. He of course spends a lot of time playing video games, and one day while sitting in class he looks out the window and sees a spaceship directly out of Armada, his favorite game. It turns out that the game all along was intended as a training simulator for an inevitable alien invasion. Zack, being one of the best players in the game, is recruited along with many others to combat the alien threat.

The book stays focused on Zack, but because of his skills and his background he is exposed to the highest levels of the military and we get to follow both his story and the big picture of the invasion. Armada is filled with sci fi and 80s references, but not to a distracting degree, and not to a level that you feel like you are missing out if you don’t get all of them. I also really liked how Cline pokes some good natured fun at the genre. Zack realizes quickly that this invasion has massive plot holes in it, much like so many books and movies do, and he starts asking questions and doubting the official narrative. A fun read, and one that has a bit more depth than is first evident.

Time to play the game. Some of you know what I mean.
Time to play the game. Some of you know what I mean.


Swan Song by Robert McCammon

Swan Song book cover

Well, enough of the fun and whimsical reads. Swan Song is horror, and lives up to the genre. It tells the story of survivors of a nuclear war who find themselves on the opposite sides of a conflict between good and evil. Sounds a bit like Stephen King’s The Stand you might be thinking, and you would be right to a degree, although Swan Song is certainly not a derivative work.

One thing that happens is that many of the characters start being afflicted by growths that cover much of their bodies, especially their faces. In this way even some of the good guys have the outward appearance of monsters for much of the story. On one side is the girl Swan, who has the power to bring life back to sticken plants, and her ex-wrestler protector Josh. On the other side is former survivalist Colonel Macklin, and his protegee, a teen by the name of Roland who shows us that real monstrosity comes from within.

Swan Song is a long book, and set in the 1980s it is a bit dated now. Plus you really have to wait for the payoff at the end. But that payoff is certainly worth it. In fact it was the co-winner of the first Bram Stoker Award, along with King’s Misery, so that should give you an idea of the quality of this book.

The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins

The Last Days of Video book cover

So in full disclosure I will say that I work with someone who is related to the author. That being said, I wouldn’t talk about this book if it wasn’t any good. The title is pretty self explanatory. Waring Wax is the proprietor of a small independent video store in a small college town in North Carolina. Wax muddles drunkenly through life without much concern until threatened by the arrival of a shiny new Blockbuster across the street.

See what Hawkins did there? This is a new book, published in early 2015, and we all know that there are no more Blockbuster stores anymore (sort of). Hawkins presents a standard enough story that has a lot of non standard elements. Wax has to overcome his personal issues, and his employees who chip in to help have to overcome theirs. Throw in a director of a movie being filmed in town who believes himself haunted by the ghost of Alfred Hitchcock and you end up with quite the tale.

Hawkins has said he was influenced by the BBC bookstore comedy Black Books, but I think there is some A Confederacy of Dunces in their too, and there is nothing wrong with that. Plus it has a really cool cover.

The Rook by Daniel O’Malley

The Rook book cover

This was my favorite book of the year up until the point I read Here. I wouldn’t have said it was the best book I had read, but I sure did enjoy it. Like Ghostman above it is a debut novel, and it was recommended to me by the same person who recommended Ghostman. Hmm, there is another book on my list he told me about. I think I ought to read that one too.

The Rook is the story of a woman who awakens in a muddy park surrounded with bodies and with her memory largely gone. She finds a letter in her pocket addressed to her that starts explaining things. Her name is Myfanwy (sounds like Tiffany) Thomas, and she works for a secret British organization that is basically a supernatural MI6. She herself is a high ranking member of the unit, a Rook. The memory loss was the result of an attack by a rival, and anticipating it she had written the letter in the pocket, and many others as well, so her future self might have a chance to survive. And to track down her assailant, an enemy who poses a threat not just to her but to the Britain itself.

On the surface one might think this was a version of James Bond crossed with Lara Croft, but it isn’t really. Myfanwy is not so much the action type, and in fact previously was loathe to use her powers. Her new self, however, isn’t as timid, much to the chagrin of her enemies and rivals.

I liked the various powers characters had. Many felt fresh in a genre where it seems like we have seen it all before. The book does have a conclusive ending, but is well suited for a sequel(s). Something I am eagerly awaiting.

Well, that wraps up Random Book Day 2015. I hope you’ll find your own random, or not so random, reads this year that will make you want to share them with the world.

Random Book Day 2013

Random Book Day 2014

Not so random kitten.
told you.

Read Local at Fontana Regional Library

Read Local with Fontana Regional Library
Read Local with Fontana Regional Library

Fontana Regional Library will be hosting its 2nd Annual Read Local Book Fair- this year with 2 events at 2 locations!

Macon County Public Library will host the first event on Saturday, November 7th from 10am-2pm and Jackson County Public Library will host the following weekend on Saturday, November 14th from 10am-2pm. Over 50 local authors will be attending the Read Local Book Fair- meeting the community, reading selections from their works, and selling/autographing copies of their books.

The Read Local Book Fair is an event conceived from the Shop Local and Eat Local movements, which seek to encourage communities to support their local economies. Authors featured at the Fontana Regional Book Fair are all within driving distance of Macon and Jackson County Public Libraries.

If you can’t make it to the Read Local Book Fair, stop in and check out the “Read Local” display at Macon County Public Library or this list of books from our “Read Local Book Fair” authors.

Visit FRL’s website for more information about the “Read Local Book Fair” – including a list of participating authors, reading schedules, and more!

CHURCHILL II, 1939-1965

When Winston Churchill became the First Lord of the Admiralty for the second time in 1939, he ended his decade exile from government.   Then Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister on May 10, 1940 and Winston Churchill assumed that office.   Soon afterwards he addressed the British people and later the House of Commons.  He told both groups he could only offer, “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”   As Prime Minister he announced to the Commons he had formed a government made up representatives of Tories and Labour to meet the crisis  situation on the continent caused by the German blitzkrieg.   The French forces and BEF (British Expeditionary Force) were retreating, with the latter in the danger of being surrounded with their backs to the English Channel at Dunkirk. Eventually, the French government surrendered and BEF was rescued by an armada of boats of all sizes and shapes. Later, in September 1940, the blitz, the bombing of English cities, began;  the aerial Battle of Britain was underway.  The Royal Air Force (RAF) kept the Germans from gaining air superiority over England and forced Hitler to postpone Operation Sea Lion, the cross-channel invasion.

Earlier, when Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty, he opened correspondence with Franklin D. Roosevelt, the President of the United States.  The two men kept the communication open throughout the blitz and into 1941.  In June that year, Hitler attacked the Soviet Union, turning his military might  eastward, away from Britain.  Two months later, Churchill boarded a battleship, sailing to Newfoundland to meet with FDR.   That was the first of eleven times during the war that the two men met, including lengthy stays at the White House and the president’s estate in the Hudson Valley in New York and twice in North Africa, once in Iran, and once in Crimea, in the southern part of the Soviet Union.   Stalin joined Roosevelt and Churchill in the last two conferences.  Churchill as met with Stalin without Roosevelt.

After the United States joined the war in December 1941, Churchill tried to convince Roosevelt to commit American troops and resources to defeating Hitler’s Germany instead of going after the Japanese, whose attack on Pearl Harbor brought America into the conflict.   Roosevelt was convinced that crossing the English Channel to attack German forces in Europe was the best way to introduce American troops into the European theater.   Churchill and his military staff convinced the Americans to land in North Africa, to help the British fight Gen. Rommel’s German army in the desert.  With Stalin trying to the Allies to commit to a second front in Western Europe, it was decided the invasion would take place in the spring of 1944 with Gen. Dwight Eisenhower  as the commander.

As the war processed, Churchill felt his relationship with Roosevelt was getting strained.  There were a number of reasons for this:  first, after Stalin joined the summits, Churchill found himself playing a less significant role in the meetings;  Roosevelt was playing more attention to the Russian leader and less to the British Prime Minister.   Another factor was Churchill’s determination to keep the British empire together in a post-war world, which countered  Roosevelt’s policy to free nations from the British yoke after the defeat of Germany and Japan.   A final reason was the British military was having less of say in the strategic decisions how the war was being fought.  At any rate, when Roosevelt died in April 1945, Churchill felt he had lost a dear friend.

As the the Allies were getting closer to defeating Germany, the British Labour Party decided  to end its participation in the War Cabinet and got Churchill to call a General Election, that was to take place in the summer of 1945.    The election was held on 5 July, but the votes were not counted until 26 July to allow for the votes of service men and women who were abroad to be counted.  In the meantime Churchill went to Germany to meet with Stalin and Harry Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt, taking Clement Attlee, the leader of the Labour Party with him.   The two returned to London for the vote count, which gave the Labour Party a solid majority in Commons.  The British people had rejected Churchill, who now was the leader of the Opposition.  However, six years later, Churchill was back in power.

In his second term as Prime Minister, Churchill lost an other close supporter, George VI.   The monarch died of lung cancer in February 1952, while his eldest daughter was on tour in South Africa.   Churchill became the first of twelve Prime Ministers who have served under Elizabeth II.  Churchill remained her as Prime Minister until 1954, when his health became an issue.

In the post-war years, Churchill continued to write, finishing his History of the English Speaking People and publishing his memoirs of World War II.  He also traveled abroad, notably giving his famous “Iron Curtain” speech in the  United States.   In 1952, he had a re-recurrence of the heart problems that had bothered him during the war.   In 1953, at the age of 78, he had a stroke.  In the spring of the following year, he resigned.  Following four additional strokes, Churchill died at 90 years of  age in January 1965.

Max Hastings.  Winston’s War.

John Keegan.  Winston Churchill.

John Lukas.  Blood, Toil, Tears and Sweat.

William Manchester and John Reid.  The Last Lion, Vol. 3.

Secrets of Leadership: Churchill (Video)

Winston Churchill: The Whole Truth (Video)

Reading With An Accent: Foreign Novels

My wife and I enjoy watching Jeopardy, and one night recently the current phenom contestant correctly answered a question relating to the Russian novel Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev. Coincidentally I came across that book the next day here at the library. When I mentioned this to my wife she asked what it was about. I told her “nihilism” and she is now reading it. In solidarity I grabbed for myself a Polish novel called In Red, by Magdalena Tulli  Since I haven’t finished it yet I can’t tell you much about it, but I can tell you about some other foreign books I have read (and haven’t previously blogged about).

Book sculpture in Berlin.
Book sculpture in Berlin.

There are a few things I like in particular about foreign books. They often have a certain feel to them, a difference in perspective than what we are used to. This is similar to what you see in many foreign films. An example of this is in the great movie Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. Near the end Michelle Yeoh’s character (and I am quite the Michelle Yeoh fan) rides off to the village in search of the antidote for the poisoned Chow Yun-fat. Sitting there in the theater my first thought was that of course she would succeed in obtaining it. That is how movies work. But then I remembered that I wasn’t watching a Hollywood blockbuster, and that the ending was actually in doubt, which made the film’s conclusion that much more riveting.

I also enjoy the settings in these books. Not only are the cultures different, but so is the food and the money and other things. You can learn a lot of new things from them. But that isn’t the real reason I am talking about them. The real reason is that they are good books. Next time you are in the mood to read something different, consider giving one of these a try.

엄마를 부탁해 (Please Look After Mom) by Kyung-sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim. This award winning book, which has sold over two million copies worldwide, tells the story of a Korean family searching for their mother who disappeared on a Seoul subway platform. Switching between the viewpoints of the adult children and of the mother’s (via flashbacks) it is a story of coming to terms with loss, and recognizing things you should have appreciated better. An insightful and moving book.

Display of Andrzej Sapowski books
It might be a bit harder to find Andrzej Sapowski books around here. In Poland he gets a whole display to himself.

オール・ユー・ニード・イズ・キル (All You Need Is Kill) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith. I saw the Hollywood blockbuster movie version first, titled Edge of Tomorrow and starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt. The movie exceeded my expectations, so I decided to read the book. Both versions tell the same basic story, with the lead character being Japanese in the book and American in the movie. This is a tale of war, with an invasion of time-shifting aliens threatening the Earth, and our hero being of the unexpected type. Time travel stories are tricky, but this book handles it well, and is exciting and balanced. Not too surprisingly, the movie has a different ending, although I found both satisfying enough. There is also a graphic novel version.

Damage by Jacqueline Harte . Hey, the United Kingdom is a foreign country to me, so that counts, and Harte was Irish. Told through the narration of the unnamed lead character, this is a sordid tale. A well respected doctor goes into politics, and seems to be living the life, with a lovely wife and two beautiful and successful grown children. When his son starts seeing a mysterious older woman, he himself enters into an affair with her, and to no one’s surprise disaster ensues. Harte lets us know right away that this is not a happy ending story, and we are left to follow along helplessly, awaiting the fate that is coming. Both the different political system and viewpoints in Britain and the age of the book (published in 1991) give this novel that foreign feeling.

Book Off store
Book Off is Japan’s largest used bookstore chain.

みずうみ (The Lake) by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from the Japanese by Michael Emmerich. Yoshimoto’s Kitchen is an all time favorite of mine, and while The Lake may not quite be its equal it is still a good read. On one level this is a story of loss, as protagonist Chihiro deals with the death of her mother. On another level it is very eerie, as Chihiro becomes involved with a man who years ago was involved with a strange cult. As usual Yoshimoto brings her characters vividly to life, making even the mundane aspects of their lives pop off the page, which makes the supernatural underpinnings that much spookier.

Människohamn (Harbor) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. This one has similarities to The Lake, with personal tragedies, a solid realistic setting, and a background of paranormal, but is also completely different. Lindqvist tells a chilling tale (get it? Chilling? Set in Sweden?) that starts when Anders and Cecilia take their six year old daughter across the ice to visit a lighthouse, only to have the girl vanish seemingly into thin air. Later Anders, now divorced and a drinker, returns to the area to look for clues. He finds many a creepy mystery in the town. Something odd has been happening here for years, something dark and perhaps not of this world. Harbor mixes the ordinary, including many flashbacks to an 80s childhood (hope you like The Smiths) with hints of the paranormal, making for quite the interesting tale.

North Korean bookstore.
North Korean’s dig green covers, apparently.

The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia. Technically this is not a foreign novel. It was written in English by an American author. But it still fits in very nicely with the other books on this list. Plascencia was born in Mexico before moving to the US as a boy, and that Latino culture fills much of this book. It also has that “different” feel, as this is a work of experimental fiction. The plot revolves around Federico de la Fe and his war against the planet Saturn. The novel plot (pun again intended) is accentuated by the physical form of the book, with text laid out in different ways, some areas blacked out, and one character’s name literally cut out of the book. Kudos to my wife for finding this brilliant book and making me read it.

book and coffee

Please share with me what foreign novels you recommend, and if you need more here are ones I’ve blogged about before:

Seta (Silk) by Alessandro Baricco, translated from the Italian by Guido Waldman. (It’s Random Book Day!)

Låt den rätte komma in (Let The Right One In) by John Ajvide Lindqvist, translated from the Swedish by Ebba Segerberg. (19 Scary Books for Any Horror Mood)

キッチン (Kitchen) by Banana Yoshimoto, translated from the Japanese by Megan Backus. (Strange on Our Shelves)

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson (English). (It’s Random Book Day!)

Män som hatar kvinnor (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) by Stieg Larsson, translated from the Swedish by Reg Keeland. (Dark Fiction: 5 Things To Read After Gone Girl)

In The Woods by Tana French (Irish). (Dark Fiction: 5 Things To Read After Gone Girl)


ADHD Awareness Month


It’s a busy time of year! But October is (apparently!) an important month. I’m reblogging my post from last year, “ADHD Awareness Month“, because I feel it’s a very important topic. If you or your family are struggling with an ADHD diagnosis, check out this video “The 30 Essential Ideas Every Parent Needs to Know” featuring Dr. Russell Barkley, from the Centre for ADHD Awareness, Canada.

If your October needs more excitement, check out another previous post, “Observe October.” This week is also Mental Health Awareness Week: you can find a display at Macon County Public Library for suggested reading and information from the North Carolina- Appalachian South chapter of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

And if you’re not busy doing your own thing or celebrating/observing everything October, stop by Jackson County Public Library for their “Star Wars Reads Day – Family Night” on October 8th at 6pm.  Join in and dress-up with some pre-Halloween costuming!

Originally posted on Shelf Life in the Mountains:

October is Attention –deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) awareness month.  As of 2011, approximately 8.8% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD in the United States. Though it’s estimated that the rate of occurrence for ADHD is similar in adults, only 4.4% of adults are diagnosed with ADHD – a significant portion of the adult ADHD population goes undiagnosed and untreated.

216776_tomsan_adhd-bunnyThere are a lot of myths and misconceptions about ADHD and ADD (ADD has been somewhat recently re-categorized as a sub-type of ADHD- ADHD, Primarily Inattentive).

It’s not uncommon to hear people dismiss ADHD as a behavioral issue: “If only he’d try harder!,” “If her parents just made her…,” “She just doesn’t want to pay attention!” However, brain scans show that there is a significant difference in the brain activity of people diagnosed with ADHD versus neurotypical or “normal” participants. Nearly every mainstream medical, psychological, and educational organization in the United States…

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Churchill I, 1874-1939

Fifty years ago last January, Great Britain lost one its greatest leaders.  Winston Spencer Churchill had been Prime Minister twice, once during World War II in the reign of George VI and then under George VI again, until king’s death in 1952 ;  then  under Queen  Elizabeth II, as she started her long reign.  In fact during the first half of the 20th century there were very few years that Churchill was not a part of the government of the British Isles.

Followers of “Downton Abbey” would recognize the world that Churchill was born into in 1874.  His father was the youngest son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough.  His mother was one of a number of American society women who married British nobility (see “Downton Abbey again”)   When Churchill was born the sun never set in the British Empire, when he died, in 1965, that empire had shrunk and turned into a commonwealth of self-governing nations.

In Victorian England, children born into the aristocracy saw little of their parents.  Nannies and tutors saw their raising and education.  As they grew older, boarding schools took up the learning.  With young Winston it was Harrow, not Eton.  Churchill was not much of a scholar, not bright enough for civil service.  It took three attempts to pass the entrance  exam for the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where he ended his formal education, after which he joined the 4th Hussars, a cavalry regiment.

On duty with the 4th Hussars in India 1896, Churchill managed to moonlight as a newspaper correspondent, sending back dispatches on the war on the Afghan frontier.   From there, in 1899, he joined Kitchener’s army in Africa, where it was charged with avenging the  1885 murder of Charles George Gordon at Khartoum.  That ended his military career, except or a short time in the Great War.  After that, he resigned from the army and went as a reporter to cover the Boer War in South Africa, where he was captured and put on a prison-of-war camp, but later escaped.

Then it was time for him to step into politics. It took Churchill two attempts to get himself elected to the House of Commons. In 1900, he won the election for the Oldham constituency, in the greater Manchester area, in the Conservative Party.  Unlike the United States Congress, a member of the House of Commons does not have to reside in his constituency, he only needs keep a office there.   It did not take Churchill long before he disagreed his party’s policies and began vote against the Government.  Finally, in May 1904, he crossed the House and joined the Liberal members in opposition.  Four years later, he was elected from a secure seat in the Scottish city of Dundee and he married Clementine Hozier.

As part of the Liberal Party, Churchill was appointed to different positions in the government:  the Colonial Office, the Board of Trade, and the Home Office.  Much like he did in the years leading up to World War II, Churchill spoke out in Commons for the government to spend money on  the Army and Navy to match to power of the European nations who were in an arms  race with Germany.  In 1911, Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty, the political head of the British Navy.   He was in that position when war broke out on the continent in August 1914.   The Gallipoli fiasco  the next year brought his resignation from that post and eventually from the government.  After that he spent six months as officer in the trenches in Belgium. (See my last blog for details on Gallipoli)

After the Great War, Churchill was made Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air from January 1919 to February 1921 in the government of David Lloyd George.  However, in General Election of 1922, Churchill lost his Dundee seat. In the However, two years later he was  returned to the Commons as the Member for Epping, a seat he held until 1945  In the mid-1920’s Churchill crossed the House again and rejoined the Conservative Party.  . When Stanley Baldwin led the Conservative Party to victory in 1924, Churchill was made Chancellor of Exchequer, a post he held until 1929.  For the next ten years Winston was out of government but still in the Commons.

Though he spent a decade out of government, Churchill remained busy.  He needed to make money to make up what he lost in the way of investments due to the stock market crash in 1929.  He finished his story of the Great War, The World Crisis and an autobiography,  My Early Life.  A multi-volume biography of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough was finished in 1938.  When he was not writing his books, he was publishing newspaper articles and making speeches warning about looming crises in Europe brought on by Hitler’s seizure of power in Germany.   The Nazi leader’s expansion of his country’s borders was met a policy of appeasement by  the Conservative Party until the German invasion of Poland in September 1939.  Churchill was once again First Lord of the Admiralty.


David Cannadine, Editor.  Winston Churchill, Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat:  the Great Speeches

Winston Churchill.  Frontiers and Wars

John Keegan.  Winston Churchill

William Manchester.  The Last Lion:  Visions of Glory

William Manchester.  The Last Lion:  Alone

Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years, 1929-39 (Video)

Where’s My Flying Car? Science Fiction Predictions

It is always fun to read science fiction and see how the author predicts the future. This is especially true for older books. Not only was our technology not nearly as advanced back then, but we can also truly see how it all turned out. For instance, a lot of writers still had us using cassette tape forever. Now there are plenty of blogs and articles out there that will give you a list of books that made “predictions” that came true. I am going to go in a slightly different route and just talk about some books that I have read and what wonders I found in them. Some you will have heard of, and some you probably haven’t. Hopefully some of them you will want to read.

A warning or a reminder?
A warning or a reminder?

Neuromancer by William Gibson (1984). It is an eerie feeling when you read something like this and realize just how close he came. Gibson’s protagonist Case is a former computer hacker and current petty criminal. Drug addicted and despondent, he searches for a way out and gets caught up in a tangled scheme that allows him to once again use his Internet skills. Now, look at that summary again and notice the publication date of the book. Although it is called the “Matrix” in the book, it really is the Internet. He coined the term cyberspace, after all.

Neuromancer isn’t always an easy read (although it is a very good read), and cyberpunk isn’t that popular of a genre, but it is an important book. It is one of those that you kind of feel embarrassed about not having read, so if you haven’t already please add it to your list.

Impossible Things by Connie Willis (1986-1992). I suppose you could say that in a short story collection the author has more chances to hit a successful prediction. Whether that is true or not, I found a few interesting ones in here. “Last of the Winnebagos” has characters accessing the “Lifeline” to pull up info on people, such as their schooling and employment history and hobbies. Sounds a bit like Facebook to me. “Even the Queen” has tablet computers, which isn’t that noteworthy since Arthur C. Clarke had those in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). But it also features a Mandela led South African government, and optional genetic surgery.

You also get things like a Humane Society run amok, PC (political correctness) run amok, and ruminations on who really wrote Shakespeare’s play, which is a debate (of sorts) that still goes on. The fact that there are multiple award winning stories in the book means that you shouldn’t read it for the predictions but for the great writing.

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein (1959). Video games are something this blog hasn’t talked about enough. One of the premiere game franchises of recent times is Halo. When I read the first chapter of Starship Troopers I thought to myself “this is Halo”. Then I checked the copyright on the book and had one of those stereotypical jaw dropping to the floor moments. The beginning of the book details a human attack on an alien city, with soldiers wearing fully mechanized armor complete with an onboard computer system and multiple weapon packages. Just like in Halo. And the movie is better than you remember.

Star Trek. The many TV series and movies has become well known for using many types of technology that have become reality. Let me point you to a couple of pieces on that, here and here. I think it is a good reminder about how wonderful it is to live in this day and age and to have access to this stuff. 3D printing technology, for instance, is truly amazing and is revolutionizing the way people do things. And remember, there are lots of great Star Trek novels, such as Imzadi and Spock’s World.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953). Okay, this is a famous book. But did you remember the earbuds in it? Montag’s wife Millie uses them while watching her flat panel TVs.

The Wonderful Future That Never Was by Gregory Benford and the editors of Popular Mechanics. Okay, so they don’t always get it right. Popular Mechanics started out in 1902, and over the years gave many scientists and writers a chance to predict the future. This fun book compiles many of the misses, and gives credits to some of the hits too. You can get more recent issues of Popular Mechanics at the library.


The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester. This is a classic, and while the main new technology in it, teleportation, hasn’t come into reality it is very interesting to think about the ramifications of such a thing. In the book it causes economic disruption substantial enough to start wars. Similarly, when reading newer scifi it is interesting to contemplate how the fictional technologies portrayed might affect us if (or when) they become real.

The Voyage of the Space Beagle by A. E. Vogt. Besides the tech predictions it is fun to read books that inspired future stories. Such is the case with this one, which like many books of its time was actually a compilation of four stories originally published in magazines. The Ixtl seems awfully familiar to those who have seen the Alien movies. In fact it was familiar enough that Vogt sued. The Couerl has appeared in many Final Fantasy games, and also became the Displacer Beast in Dungeons & Dragons. Classic fantasy is rife with elements that made their way into D&D, as is evident by reading authors such as Vance, Moorcock, Howard, and of course Tolkien (which also led to litigation), but I suppose that is a conversation for a future blog.


Really? Six Nifty World War II Facts

I am going to steal some of Stephen’s thunder here. He writes often (and well) about history, but I also do a fair amount of nonfiction reading. Ever since I was a boy I was especially interested in World War II. As an adult I think I pretty much know all the standard facts about that great and terrible conflict, so what tends to grab my attention more now are some of the lesser known stories and trivia.

I started considering this more recently after I read Cajus Bekker’s Hitler’s Naval War, which to be honest is a rather dry tome. But one thing that Bekker did was focus on the lesser known aspects and skip over the more famous things, such as the sinking of the BismarckHe assumed his readers would mostly be familiar with that, and I reckon he was right. So instead we learn things like the fact that early on in the war German destroyers would sail right up to the mouth of the Thames river to lay mines, despite British patrols and lighthouses. For a long time the British assumed that the mines were being dropped by planes. A minor detail, but one I found fascinating.

So in that vein I present to you six WWII trivia facts that I suspect many of you don’t know, and that I hope many of you find interesting.

Leaflet dropped over the Philippines 1944.
Leaflet dropped over the Philippines 1944.
  1. The USS Houston disappears and then helps to build a famous bridge. The Houston  was an American heavy cruiser sunk by the Japanese in March of 1942. She came to be known as the “Galloping Ghost of the Java Coast” for the way she skillfully fought in the early parts of the war. Outnumbered and outgunned, it was only a matter of time until she was sunk. When it finally happened, she was unable to send any signals, and all survivors were captured. The Navy immediately presumed her to be lost, but it was nine months until they could confirm it. The full story did not emerge until after the war, when surviving crewmembers were liberated from prisoner of war camps in…Burma? Indeed, that is were many of them ended up, some working on the bridge that was the inspiration for the epic movie The Bridge on the River Kwai.
  2. German torpedoes were rubbish early in the war, for which Churchill is extremely grateful. German U-boats (submarines) wreaked havoc on Allied shipping in WWII, notably early on before effective tactics were developed to combat them. Some 3500 ships were sunk by them, but the tally could have been worse if not for the fact that, for a variety of reasons, the torpedoes they used were often defective. This was really driven home on October 30, 1939, when U-56 launched three torpedoes at the battleship HMS Nelson. All three hit, and all three were duds and failed to explode. On board the Nelson at the time was the current First Lord of the Admiralty and future Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.
  3. The US Navy spent weeks attacking a deserted island. Did you know that the Japanese invaded Alaska? Well, in a way they did. In June of 1942 they landed on the islands off Attu and Kiska, part of the Aleutian Islands of the coast of Alaska, as part of a failed diversion for the attack on Midway Atoll. The following May the US retook Attu, but at a high price. It was learned that the Japanese would fight to the last man. Therefore Kiska was targeted by a three week sustained barrage. The Navy fired 330 tons of shells and the Army Air Force dropped 424 tons of bombs. When troops landed on Kiska on August 15 they found the island abandoned. The Japanese had evacuated prior to the bombardment, using fog and darkness as cover. All the US attack did was damage what few things left that the Japanese hadn’t taken or destroyed.
  4. Rome and Paris somehow avoided the fate of other European cities. Many European cities were heavily bombed and damaged during the war, especially the capitals of the main combatants. But Paris and Rome both were largely unscathed. How? Hitler gave direct orders for Paris to be destroyed by the Germans if the Allies attacked. The military governor of the city, Dietrich von Choltitz, ultimately disobeyed that order and surrendered the city mostly intact. It helped that the Allies had decided to avoid bombing the city as much as possible because of its historical and cultural significance…and the fact that it would have diverted much needed resources that could be used elsewhere.  Rome was bombed a couple of times. However, when Allied forces approached the city (defended by Germans, since the Italians had already surrendered), negotiations took place that lead to Rome being declared an open city. The Germans were allowed to withdraw, and the city was liberated without further battle.
  5. Many women served as combat pilots for the USSR. Actually, women served in many combat roles for the Soviets. While women did a number of wartime jobs for all the countries involved, they had the most “opportunities” to fight for the USSR. This included being pilots. The ladies flew 1000s of combat missions against the Germans. Moscow native Lydia Litvyak was the first female to shoot down an enemy plane, the first female ace, and is credited with the most kills by a woman. She was shot down and killed in 1943. A group of bomber pilots, flying old biplanes, came to be known as The Night Witches by the Germans.
  6. Japan surrendered on 8/15/45, and signed the documents on 9/2/45, but the war continued past that for many, including prisoners of war. This was certainly a case in the Pacific Theatre, as word of the surrender took time to reach all of the scattered Japanese military outposts. In fact, some lone Japanese soldiers did not give up until the 1970s! This was even a plot point in an episode of Gilligan’s Island. The Batu Lintang prison camp in Borneo is another interesting example. It housed both Allied soldiers and civilian internees. Although the camp was notified of Japan’s surrender in late August, it was not liberated until September 11. A “death order” was found in the camp commander’s possession indicating that all of the inhabitants were to be killed on September 15, a full month after the “end” of the war. I like how the British officers imprisoned there constructed a radio (and later a generator to power it) and kept it hidden from the Japanese for over two years, only to reveal its existence to the camp commander when he himself was being taken away to prison.
WW II female war correspondents.
WW II female war correspondents.

Of course the library has a plethora of books about World War II. Many give an overview of the whole conflict while others cover specific aspects. A trend in newer books seems to be dealing with specific stories and details, and here are some of those.

Shadow Divers by Robert Kurson. In 1991 divers off the coast of New Jersey found something they couldn’t believe: a sunken German U-boat. This sets in motion a quest to explore the wreck and find out which one it was and how it got there.

Frozen in Time by Mitchell Zuckoff. In November of 1942 a B-17 bomber crashed in Greenland. Zuckoff tells the story both of the attempts to rescue the crew, and his own involvement with finding the plane decades later.

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckoff. Another book about a plane crash by Zuckoff, this tells the story of a military plane that went down over New Guinea in May of 1945. The survivors were the first outsiders ever encountered by the Dani people, who were confused by the concept of clothes.

World War II on the Air by Mark Bernstein and Alex Lubertozzi, CD narrated by Dan Rather. Not only does this book talk about how reporters brought the war into people’s lives via the radio, but it comes with a CD that includes many of these broadcasts.

Rescue at Los Baños by Bruce Henderson. This new book tells of the daring raid made to liberate the Los Baños prisoner of war camp in the Philippines. The mission used both US soldiers and Filipino guerillas to free more than 2000 inmates from almost certain death.

Target Tokyo : Jimmy Doolittle and the raid that avenged Pearl Harbor by James M. Scott. The Doolittle raid is one of the better known WWII stories. Heck, the first movie about it came out in 1944. Scott’s take on it, well researched, features a strong narrative that brings the story back to life.

Which brings full circle, I guess. My biggest takeaway here would be that no matter how much you think you know, there is still more to learn. Keep reading!

Engraving of Kilroy on the WWII Memorial in Washington DC
Engraving of Kilroy on the WWII Memorial in Washington DC

Gallipoli Campaign

The Gallipoli campaign was a side bar in 1915, the second year of the First World War .  Gallipoli is a peninsula in northwest Turkey on the west side of a waterway leading from the Black Sea past Istanbul (it was called Constantinople in 1915) to the Adriatic Sea.   Because Russia was fighting on the side the Allies in the Great War, Turkey chose to side with the Central Powers and blocked Russia’s outlet  through the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles to the Adriatic Sea.   To restore Russia’s outlet to the west, and to take the focus off the stalemate on the Western Front, the Allies planned an attack on the Gallipoli and the Dardanelles in the spring of 1915.

The chief advocate of this plan was Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty¹.  At first, a fleet of obsolete  British and French battle cruisers and battleships would attack the Turkish forts lining  both sides of the Dardanelles, and with accompanying minesweepers would force their force way to the Turkish capital.  But, with help their German allies, the Turkish army had strengthen the fortresses and laid mines in the waterway. As a result, the naval attack failed:  three ships were sunk, one with over 600 men on board, and several more damaged.

The next step was to land troops on the Cape Hellos end  of  the peninsula and it’s western shore, where Churchill and his colleagues didn’t think there would be much opposition.   But the Turks were dug in the high cliffs overlooking the beaches where the landings were taking place. The Allied force, including members of the French Foreign Legion, Anzac troops from Australia and New Zealand,  as well as British forces from India and the Western Front, was pinned down as soon as it landed. The casualties were high at the outset and continued   in this vein for the next eight months. The planning for this expedition was faulty, and the commanders chosen to lead it  were not given the resources necessary to carry out the objectives of their mission.  As a result, two  offenses, one soon after the landings and one in August,  failed with even heavier casualties. Eventually, like on the Western Front, Gallipoli devolved into a stalemate with both sides ensconced in their trenches, until February 1916, when all Allied personnel were withdrawn.

The British Government, looking for a scapegoat, after the initial attack, sacked Churchill from his post as First Lord of the Admiralty,  but kept him in the government.   The August failure toppled the government and Churchill,  who was also out, was offered a command in the Western Front in Belgium.    At end of the war, he was eventually was posted to the Colonial Office, where he presided over the founding of  the modern Iraq.  In writing about Churchill  during World War II, Max Hastings said this, “Churchill believed himself exceptionally fitted for the direction of armies, navies, and air forces.  He perceived no barrier to such a role in the fact that he possessed neither military staff training nor experience of higher field command.”²   In this context, he evidently didn’t learn his lesson after Gallipoli.  More on Churchill in my next blog.

¹The political head of the Royal Navy.  The person holding this office was a Member of Parliament, part of cabinet and served under the Prime Minister.

²Max Hastings, Winston’s War: Churchill, 1940-1945, p. 102.

John Keegan, The First World War, Pages 234 -249

Martin Gilbert,  The First World WarPages 105-06, 140-41, 146-153, 161-171, 180-85, 188-91, 207-11.

Carlo D’Este, Warlord, Pages 237-262

William Manchester, The Last Lion,  Pages 511-576

The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War I:  3: 716-732, 761-777  4: 1130-1141

 Line of Fire:  Gallipoli (Video)