S. Martin Shelton

Retired U.S.Navy Captain, Novelist

Archive for the tag “Book Review”

Book Review: Traveling the Silk Road


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.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mexican Revolution: A Short History 1910-1920 by Stuart Easterling

Mexican RevolutionEasterling makes a reasonable clarification of the chaos of the Mexican Revolution—as he says “…ten years of social conflict, deprivation, and bloody warfare.” He skims through the ten-year revolution with seminal characters in this petite book as:

  • Profirio Diaz (1839-1915). Dictator of Mexico from 1884 to 1911. Overthrown by
  • Gustavo Madero (1875-19130. President 1911 to 1913. An advocate for social justice but not for distribution of the land to the peasants. Overthrown and assassinated by
  • General Victoriano Huerta (1850-1916). President from 1913 to 1914. Established a harsh military dictatorship. The Constitutionalist Army consisting of the bandit/revolutionary Francisco “Pancho” Villa and his Northern Army, Emiliano Zapata and his Liberation Army of the South, and disaffected generals including Álvaro Obregón, Huerta was overthrown by
  • Venustiano Carranza (1859-1920). President from 1917 to 1920. Promised to restore the constitution of 1857 but did not affirm social reform. He waged war against Villa and Zapata—subduing both. Corruption was rampant in his administration.       He declined to participate in the 1920 presidential election. His best general/politician,
  • Álvaro Obregón (1880-1928) won the election and after a time brought a semblance of order to Mexico. He was ssassinated in 1928.

He assiduously avoids discussing the military campaigns, except in passing. He focuses instead on the personalities, their interactions, and affect on the populace and their reactions. To discuss, even in minor detail, the military operations, would have significantly clarified many passages that seem incongruous or the lack of a raison d’être for subsequence actions.

Unfortunately, Easterling’s narrative has several major construct problems.

  • Far too often Easterling leaves out important details in his narrative.
  • For example. During the 1915 presidential campaign, we learn that First Chief (President) Venustiano Carranza would not support his general, Álvaro Obregon as a candidate. Questions: Did Carranza decide on a second term? If not, why not. Would Obregon be his rival? This key information is not stated and is perplexing. (I found the answer on Wikipedia.)
  • Another example: He mentions the “The Red Battalions,” but does not explain who they are, their loyalty, or what was their function in the Revolution.
  • From time-to-time, his syntax introduces confusion in the narrative. For example, “Following the capture of a train hub that had been in Constitutionalist hands, some ninety soldaderas, their men now dead or wounded, were assembled and awaiting their fate.”

Throughout, this Haymarket publication (Chicago labor riots in 1886) is imbrued with Marxists phrases and jingoism. Here are several “collective organization, communal landownership, agrarian revolutionaries, anarcho-syndicalism, agitated for radical change, undermine the legitimacy of the regime, agrarian radicalism, capitalist economic transformation, dictatorial political system, urban proletariat, agrarian socialism, and social revolution, tyranny of capitalism.”

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BOOK REVIEW: Terry and the Pirates Volume Two: 1948-1949 by George Wunder

Terry & The Pirates IIThe Hermes Press is leaking slowly reproductions of the famous comic strip titled “Terry and the Pirates.” The talented Milton Caniff created this innovate and artful adventure comic strip in 1934 and continued it until 1944. George Wunder continued the strip until 1973.

In this volume are three rather mediocre stories of Terry and his cadre traipsing about China and Indochina unbraiding the “bad guys and gals.” His art, at times in masterful—characters are sharp and the backgrounds are detailed. However, frequently, he skips the background. His composition generally is satisfactory, but sometimes it’s pedestrian. Mimicking Caniff, his gorgeous and sensuous dames have wasp thin waists, high arched eyebrows, and brazen figures. Without fail, they lust after Terry with perfidious schemes. Oftentimes they’re close to success, but they never succeed. After all, this was a strip published in the newspapers for family reading.

The book I have has serious binding problems—ten pages are missing, twelve are misplaced, and two are duplicated fifty pages deeper into the tome than their original position. Additionally, the printing (in China) of the black and white images are far too contrasty. And color images are slightly too contrasty.

BOOK REVIEW: Steve Canyon, Volume 1955 to 1956 by Milton Caniff

SteveCanyon5_PRI opened the cover of this tome with eager anticipation—to read and view another of Caniff’s boffo comic-strip stories about the rousing adventures of the heroic Lieutenant Colonel Steven B. Canyon, USAF. Alas! I was disappointed.

I found that Caniff’s stories in this volume had plots that are incongruous to the Steve Canyon mystic, and unfortunately, some are nonsensical.

Included are several of out-of-character stories: three smarmy, soap opera narratives. One smacks of the travails of Pearl White in Perils of Pauline film serials of 1914–Steve “Do Good” Canyon rescues the damsel in distress from a fate worse than death. Another is a Y/A recital in which Canyon adopts a distant cousin—a sixteen-year old rambunctious and comely female who helps Canyon save his Air Force base from a hostile populous.

I missed the roaring adventures of Canyon in some exotic location out whiting the classic “bad guy” that usually has distorted facial or body features. I missed Steve matching wits with a glamorous dame clad in a skin-tight ensemble that reveals more than it ought, and who is intent on corrupting him into her evil designs. I longed to see Caniff’s eeevil Dragon Lady maneuver her voluptuous charms to inveigle Canyon into her piratical schemes and into her quarters on her sea-going junk sailing the South China Seas.

Canyon drafts his females out of a dream—gorgeous creatures with body proportions not seen on humans—all proffer a wasp-thin waist, high-arched eyebrows, and brassy bosoms in blouses that are cut on the bias that emphasize their near-perfect form..

I miss Caniff’s finely detailed drawings of yesteryear where most every frame was a cameo —“Terry and the Pirates” of the 30s and “Miss Lace” of the 40s, for examples. However, progressively in the Steve Canyon narratives, his drawings reflect a short cut to his art. Occasionally some of his drawings mimic his past exactness but far too many do not.

Nonetheless all the above, I’m looking forward to getting the next publication in this series.

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