S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

Archive for the tag “Book Review”

Book Review – The 1929 Sino-Soviet War: The War Nobody Knew

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Rating – Four Stars

Congratulations to Michael Walker on his assiduous research and lucid manuscript about this seminal 1929 conflict between the Republic of China and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) over control of the China Eastern Railroad (CER). The CER runs through Chinese Manchuria and links the Russian Far East city Chit with Vladivostok. This railroad spur is a shortcut of about 1,200 miles between these two cities on the northern loop of the Trans-Siberian Railroad that skirts Manchuria. If you study a map of this area, you will understand why both its economic and its military value have been apparent to Imperial Russia, the USSR, Russia, and China.

In 1896, after the first Sino-Japanese War, 1894–1895, the Chinese Qing dynasty was weak and adrift under the inept leadership of the Empress Dowager Tz’u His. Under intense Russian pressure, the Qing government granted a concession to Czar Nicholas II of Imperial Russia to construct the CER through northern Manchuria. Work began on the CER in July 1897. The contract provisions provided for dual control by the USSR and Imperial China, and for employment of Chinese executives and workers.

A large Russian army occupied Northern Manchuria to control the CER and protect it from bandit raids and Japanese incursions. The Japanese were gravely concerned that Russia was appropriating their sphere of influence; this led in large measure to the Russo-Japanese war of 1904–1905.

Freight traffic on the CER line started in November 1901, and regular passenger traffic from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok across the Trans-Siberian railway and the CER began in July 1903.

Problems of ownership of the CER and its operations festered for years.. In July 1919, the Soviets promised to return the CER to Chinese control without compensation. The Soviets had laid the foundation for a double-cross to regain complete control of the CER and its auxiliary lines. In 1924, the Soviets, under the reign of Joseph Stalin, reneged, and began a campaign of subterfuge to get rid of all Chinese control and interest in the CER. The Soviet Comintern spread Marxist agitprop among the Chinese executives and workers, led strikes, and encouraged sabotage.  In the ensuing years, the controversy escalated.

In 1929, Generalissimo Chang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang government in Nanking was weak and controlled only about fifty percent of the land area of China. A collage of warlords controlled the remainder. The powerful warlord Chang Hsuch-liang (Wade-Giles spelling), the leader of the Fengtian clique, governed Manchuria with a large, well-trained, and well-armed modern army

The Soviets intensified their perfidious campaign with wide-ranging agitations, purloining of CER funds, and assassinations. In turn, Chang began retaliation activities including the kidnapping of Soviet CER executives—leading to his goal of a forced hostile takeover. Realizing that armed conflict with the USSR was inevitable, Chang Hsuch-liang pledged his army and his loyalty to the Kuomintang government in Nanking. In turn, Chang Kai-shek pledged what support he could. Warlords in other cliques also offered backing.

The armed conflict started slowly in the summer of 1929 with skirmishes along the Amur and Songhua Rivers. The first battle started on 17 August 1929, when the Soviets attacked Chalainor. Chang’s troops retreated to a heavily armed trench line. The Soviets advanced into a killing zone, and suffered heavy losses. Following that, the Chinese troops fought a valiant and bloody defensive campaign. However, by late November, the USSR’s overwhelming military power forced the Chinese to sign a treaty on Soviet terms on 13 December 1929.

The most serious negative I find with Walker’s narrative is the absence of a series of small-scale maps to detail the conflict areas and include the many geographical names mentioned in his text.

Note. The USSR conceded ownership of the Chinese Eastern Railway to the People’s Republic of China in 1952.

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Book Review- Steve Canyon Volume 7: 1959 to 1960 by Milton Caniff  

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Rating – Two Stars

Disappointed again. Perhaps I’m getting too old nowadays to appreciate Caniff’s story-telling art. I recall clearly my thrill as a nipper waiting for the morning paper to see and read new frames of Caniff’s classic “Terry and the Pirates” comic strip—superb in every dimension. I ordered this Steve Canyon book several months ago and was in keen anticipation of reading superior action-adventure tales set in exotic locations and with lustful dames as dangerous protagonists—for example, the ominous and strikingly beautiful Chinese pirate, the Dragon Lady.

2. Dragon Lady with Pistol.

Unfortunately, this volume of Steve Canyon’s adventures falls short. Too many of the mise en scénes for Caniff’s stories are domestic and lack panache. His art is superior to almost all other comic strip artists. His perspective and detail give keen depth to the frames, but too many do not have the vivacity that I would expect from Caniff. From time to time, nonetheless, sparks of the past pervade this tome. The following are the scenarios:

  1. Canyon is in Latin America to rescue a refugee girl whose brother is an American intelligence agent, from eeevil Red agents. Impossible adventures result.
  2. Madam Lynx, a beautiful and skillful opponent, appears out of the past, this time as the headmistress of an exclusive girls’ school in a unnamed Central American country. Canyon discovers that the school is not what it seems. It is an academy to train “swallows”—seductive young women working for the Comintern. Lynx has her way with Canyon. Undeterred, he prevails by closing the school, having the Red no-goodnicks arrested, and rescuing a captive Air Force nurse.
  3. A desperate appeal, via a clandestine radio, sends Canyon to a mystical Mideastern country. It’s from his old annoyance, hip-talking Convoy, now grown into a comely woman who, as before, is determined to marry Canyon. Convoy leads a guerrilla cadre of widows, dubbed the Black Widows, determined to rid their country of the Reds. More follows.

Scenarios 4 and 5 are domestic soap opera starring Mrs. Olsen, Canyon’s impossible love, and the eeevil and glamorous Copper Canyon, a female industrialist—both embroiled in domestic scenarios of no import.

Following those are more domestic scenarios that feature his hot-tempered ward, Poteet Canyon, bent on marrying Steve, and the troubles she generates.

Lastly, Canyon saves Tokyo from an atomic bomb detonation by a feat of derring-do nonpareil.

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Book Review- King Tut and the Plagues of Egypt (The Adventures Through Time Series Book 1)

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Rating – Five Stars

Derrer sets the fantasy scenario for this manuscript in the 25th century. He weaves an intriguing and thoughtfully designed narrative that successfully integrates quantum physics, time travel, and family adventure. The patriarch of the family is Max Planck, who designed a quantum-physics time machine—controlled by the mastermind “Jeeves,” the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-intelligent android computer. Of note, the patriarch is a direct descendant of the Max Planck—German theoretical physicist, who developed the fundamentals of quantum mechanics in the early 20th century.

The Planck family’s goal is to visit Egypt during the 18th Dynasty in Thebes (about 1310 BC) during the co-regency of the ailing Amenhotep III and his young son Amenhotep IV, King Tutankhamun’s father. Historians aver that this time was one of the most turbulent and complex periods of ancient Egypt, exacerbated by holding the Israelites in slavery and their demands for freedom laced with horrific threats from their God.

At the time, the volcano Thera on the island Santorini was erupting violently. A monstrous Plinian column rose thousands of feet. Northwest winds battered Egypt with gale force tempests containing acid rain, toxic gasses, and tephra from the volcano. Subsonic eruptions periodically racked the kingdom. These calamities were the precursor of the 10 plagues that lacerated Egypt. The family wanted to observe (unseen) how the co-regency dealt with these vexing problems.

Using invisibility suits, they plant telecommunicative bugs in various temples and in the royal palace. They witnessed religious rites of human sacrifice, revelry, and drunken orgies to placate the god of war, Sekhmet, who was believed to be responsible for the plagues, but to no avail. The bugs transmitted images of the strikingly beautiful Nefertiti, wife of Amenhotep IV, and Moses and Arron demanding that Amenhotep IV release the Children of Israel from slavery. Moses delivered his ultimatum, “Let my people go. If you do not, the angel of death will strike down all the first-born of Egypt, man and animal, in a night.”

I was particularly impressed with Derrer’s scientific explanations of the cause of the plagues. No giveaway here.

They also witnessed the Israelis crossing the Sea of Reeds (usually and erroneously referred to as the Red Sea), and the pursuing Egyptian army destroyed by a tsunami wave.

I’m not an avid fan of science fiction. Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this narrative, and I enthusiastically recommend it.

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Book Review: Traveling the Silk Road

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Rating – 3 Stars

 

This is a heavy and beautiful book. Its design, execution, printing, and binding is extraordinary and professional. It is a “coffee table” travel book of startling heft in weight and content. Starting in Xi’an, China, the narrator leads us by the hand and we vicariously travel the Silk Road. We stop at Turfan, Samarkand, Bagdad, and Constantinople (Istanbul). At each stop we learn of the history of the place and its importance in sustaining the flourishing trade on the Silk Road. Though goods and all manner of merchandise (including slaves) traveled both ways, perhaps the most important commodity was the exchange of ideas, language, and learning.

The photographs are outstanding as are the reproductions of ancient artwork, scrolls, and porcelains. This is a book of learning for the ordinary folks.

Unfortunately, this tome has several major negatives:

  1. The failure to publish topographic maps in appropriate scale is unforgivable. Not once do we see the various tails of the Silk Road from Xi’an to Istanbul on one panoramic map. Throughout, the narrator describes a geological or man-made feature, and without a relevant map, we’ve no idea where it is or how it relates to the area. The maps included are art rather than functional information.
  1. All too often, the writing is pedestrian and at time is patronizing. For example, on page 141, “…whom we’ve already learned about.” On page 124, while telling about the Turfan area, the narrator discusses the clever method the folks captured water from the mountains’ snow and use it for irrigation: “…the water carried from the mountains is guaranteed to remain plentiful.” No water supply is “guaranteed” to remain plentiful indefinitely.

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Book Review: The Decisive Campaigns of the Desert Air Force 1942 – 1945

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Rating  – Four Stars

Evans relates the large-scale accomplishments of the Royal Air Force in the Cyrenaica, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns in World War II. His matter-of-fact style, presents the Desert Air Force’s (DAF) campaigns in a chronological, military style order. I would suggest that this book is for the military aficionado—clearly not for the casual reader.  It’s a dry recitation, laced with a few personal tidbits. 

He offers several maps, however, not enough of them and not annotated in pertinent detail enough—making it nettlesome to follow his narrative. Such especially is the case in his narrative of the Eight Army’s campaign in southeastern Tunisia. For example, on page 73 he discusses the Army’s capture of the strategic Tebaga Gap in March 1943. Unfortunately, Tebaga Gap is not spotted on the relevant map.

The RAF’s command of the sky over Cyrenaica and its perfected close air support technique were the deciding factors in the Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery’s British Eight Army’s successful breakout at El’ Alamein in December in 1942. The key to victory was the DAF’s total quashing of supplies for Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps’ Panzeramee. In particular, it was the sinking of the two Italian supply ships in the harbor at Tobruk, Proserpina and the Tergestea that was the death knell for the retreating Afrika Korps. Allied air power had won the air war over El’ Alamein.

Following, it was the DAF’s supremacy of the air that enabled allied armies to crack the Nazi’s Gustav strategic defensive line at Monte Cassino in May 1943; and the Gothic Line in the Po Valley in April 1945.

Overall, I rate this book four stars and a fine addition to a military historian’s library.

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Book Review: Hell and Good Company by Richard Rhodes

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Rating – Three Stars

Rhodes writes an easy read, semi-informative book about the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) that pitted the Fascists forces of General Francisco Franco against Spain’s “Republican” government. The Spanish government was far from a democracy—it was a pseudo-communist government that was suffused with Comintern agents of the Soviet Union. In May 1937, Spanish Communists took over the government.

Fighting with Franco were German and Italian air, artillery, and ground forces. Supporting the government were the military forces of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republic. About two million soldiers were involved in the war—200,000 killed and many thousands more wounded and missing.

Unfortunately, this book has no central theme—it has minimal coherence. Occasionally, Rhodes offers a snippet of the war about and who is doing what to whom, but mostly he focuses his narrative on the volunteer British medical personnel tending to wounded Republican soldiers: their heroism, dedication, and professionalism. Mostly, I reckon he discusses the Western expatriates that pontificated about the horrors of the war and the awful Fascists. Actually, this book is not about the Civil War in Spain, it’s about the expatriates in Spain during the Civil War. Here are a few of these people:

  • Ernest Hemingway. An American novelist. Whilst drinking, womanizing, and sending dispatches to the North American Alliance, he worked with Joris Ivens (Dutch artist and Communist) producing the agitprop film titled, The Spanish Earth.
  • Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s wife. American novelist, poet, political activist, and war correspondent. Worked trying to get Basque children evacuated to safety.
  • George Orwell, British leftist, novelist, and journalist. Volunteered to fight with the people’s militias “The Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification.” Wounded in the throat, he was medically discharged and returned to England. In the following years he wrote the satirical novels Animal Farm and 1984.
  • Muriel Rukeyser, American poet, war correspondent for the Daily Worker, and other far-left publications.
  • J.B.S. Haldane, British scientist and war correspondent.
  • Norman Bethune, thoracic surgeon and firebrand Communist, performed hundreds of operations, some in dire conditions. He was nonchalant about danger and would work in the front lines.
  • Man Ray, American Dada and surrealist artist, photographer, and filmmaker, documented the War.
  • Patience Darton, British nurse with keen initiative, gritty survival, and mental fortitude in tending to the wounded. Fell in love with an ardent Communist soldier—killed in action.
  • The International Brigades composed of Western volunteers.

Rhodes dedicates many pages to Pablo Picasso and his painting “Guernica.” Picasso was horrified by the German Condor Legion’s bombing and utter destruction of this Basque city on 26 April 1937. The commanding officer of the Condor Legion, Lieutenant Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, said, “Guernica must be destroyed if we are to strike a blow against the enemy personnel and material.” Joan Mirό, the Catalan surrealist, painted a large mural titled “Catalan Peasant in Revolt.”

Rhodes does not include pictures of these artworks, and his only overall map of Spain is inadequate. Nonetheless, Hell and Good Company would have an appeal for the literati.

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Book Review: Air War Over Khalkhin Gol: The Nomonhan Incident

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Rating – Three Stars

From May to September, 1939, the Union of Socialists Soviet Republics and the Empire of Japan waged an undeclared war near the Khalkhin Gol (River) over the border between Soviet controlled Mongolia and the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo (formerly the Chinese Province Manchuria). In this little remembered war, casualties in men and equipment were exceedingly high in this vicarious conflict in the remotest and worthless real estate on the planet.

Kotelnikov presents a detailed account of the air war from the Soviet Union’s perspective.  In many ways, his account reminds one of the aerial “dog fights” over the Western Front in the Great War of 1914 to 1918. Unfortunately, his narrative fails to engender empathy in the audience. It’s a dry, statistical account, strung together in a continuous flow of text. The presentation would have been more comprehensible if he would have bulleted the data of the day-by-day air significant battles. His narrative has almost no personal details. We get some of the names of the Soviet and Japanese aviators but we do not get to know them—who they are, what they think, what they do in their off duty hours. The narrative is a dry telling of “just the facts.”

He fails to develop a broad perspective of this conflict. We do not understand very much about the war itself. He does not tell us what the war was really about (a continuation for control of the Pacific provinces—as in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905?). We need some details about the ground war to understand the implications of the air war.  We need information about the belligerent’s political thoughts and implications. At the time, the Second Sino-Japanese war was in full force, and war clouds were building aplenty over Europe.

I fault Kotelnikov severely for not providing comprehensive maps of the conflict. The few maps he offers are miniscule and unreadable. On the positive side, he presents an array of black and white photographs of Soviet aircraft and airmen, beautiful color drawings of the aircraft involved, and a supplement that details the background of the aircraft, their specifications, and performance.

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Book Review: Bill O’Reilly’s Legends and Lies by Bill O’Reilly, David Fisher

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Rating – Five Stars

Fisher and O’Reilly have a winner on their hands. This is an outstanding book—an easy read, informative, and factual. Fisher leads us through the life and adventures of a dozen famous men of the “wild” West.  He starts with Daniel Boone and concludes with Butch Cassidy. Fisher strips these biographies of the folderol and presents the facts. He sets the perspective for each person’s story by discussing the history extant and the prevailing social ambiance. Importantly, he does not takes sides—neither accusatory nor sympathetic—such is especially the case in his discussion of the Indian Wars.

I wholeheartedly recommend the book for any aficionado of the historic West.

Book Review: The First World War in the Middle East by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen

The First

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rating – Two Stars

This is a heavy book. Not in its weight but in its syntax. It’s tedious. This text reads as if it were a doctorial dissertation modified for publication. Here’s one example from page 15:

“For their part, the localised backlashes against the closer imposition of colonial

control that emerged during the war and peaked between 1919 and 1922 were them-

selves interlinked through the cross-border exchange of ideas and inspiration.”

Egad! Say again? Over.

This book focuses on the political, economic, and logistics of the middle-east war. Ulrichsen

mentions campaigns with short shift. Fortunately, he discusses the Gallipoli Campaign in slightly more depth. Nonetheless, for the military historian, this book is unsatisfactory. We are left wanting more detail. In particular, I fault the author for not providing detailed maps of the campaigns he mentions and discusses ever so lightly. He does have one overall map of the Middle East and that’s it. Totally unsatisfactory.

 

BOOK REVIEW: Steve Canyon, Milton Caniff, Vol. 6: 1957 to 1958

SteveCanyon6_cvr1-659x510.jpgTwo stars.

Headline: Lieutenant Colonel Steven (Steve) Canyon, USAFR, intensifies his domestic agenda.

Egad! Milton Caniff, what have you done to our iconic hero?

The eight stories in this book all hinge on some sort of domesticity, teenage nonsense or failed romance. Unfortunately, this book is an overblown telenovela, a Bollywood par excellence, a classic soap opera. Starting a few books back we can see that his drawings are beginning to lack the dept, composition and sparkle of previous strips.

How we miss Caniff’s ol’ time adventure stories set in exotic locations and introducing even more exotic dames ardent for Canyon’s passionate kisses. Where is the Dragon Lady when we need her? Where is the consummately evil blackguard planning to do dastardly deeds, destroy Canyon in a diabolical scheme and capture the fair damsel for illicit designs?

Missing is the élan, panache, the je ne sais quoi that propelled Caniff’s strips to the peak of popularity.

Below are my synopses of the eight stories in this book.

  •  The first story centers around a high school basketball team coached by Canyon’s ward, the burgeoning teenager, Poteet Canyon.
  • The second story focuses on Poteet’s teenage romance—to no avail, I might add.
  • The third story rehashes the plight of Princess Snow flower and her lost lover. Canyon, as the romance broker, unites the couple.
  • The fourth story relays the brat Poteet’s struggle with anorexia nervosa and her insane jealously of Canyon’s true paramour, Summer Olsen. The eeevil Copper Canyon, Olsen employer (re: slave master), wants Steve for herself—and does dastardly deeds to get him. Naturally, she fails.
  • The fifth story develops, in an inane narrative, the return of the hotsy totsy, Mizzou, clad throughout the story in her ever-present trench coat—and we are to presume nothing else. I’ve never understood why Canyon or someone else has not given her used clothing to wear—I suspect she has a dynamite body, as all Caniff’s adult females do.
  • The sixth story returns Poteet Canyon. Again she is enveloped in more insane jealously as Canyon shows interest in her handsome landlady.
  • The seventh story has Canyon stationed at the Air Force Academy. Poteet’s jealously causes all sorts of problems for Canyon, et al.
  • The eighth story plops the all-time hot cinema actress Savannah Gay back into Canyon’s love life in a classic romance-novel scenario. He is almost immune, however.

The End.

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