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Gabriela, Cravo e Canela
Jorge Amado
Progress: 157/358 pages
Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph (The Authorized Doubleday/Doran Edition)
T.E. Lawrence
Progress: 189/672 pages
The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve
G. Edward Griffin
Progress: 41/608 pages
Peter the Great
Robert K. Massie
Progress: 472/934 pages
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty
Bradley K. Martin
A Time for Trumpets: The Untold Story of the Battle of the Bulge
Charles B. MacDonald
Progress: 191/712 pages
The German Army 1933-1945
Matthew Cooper
Progress: 198/598 pages
Corporal Hitler and the Great War 1914-1918: The List Regiment
John F Williams
Progress: 22/238 pages


The Shadow King - Maaza Mengiste

From reading “THE SHADOW KING”, I developed an ambivalence about it that is hard to explain. Nevertheless, I will try to do so. The novel is set in Ethiopia during 2 critical periods in its history. It begins in 1974 as the country totters on the brink of revolution amid student protests and the scourge of drought in much of the countryside.

One of the main characters in “THE SHADOW KING” is Hirut, a quiet yet strong and resolute woman, who, in her youth had led a humble existence as a servant in the home of a prominent community leader (Kidane). She is sitting in a railway station in Addis Ababa, awaiting the arrival of a Italian photographer (Ettore Navarra), who decades earlier, had played a somewhat adversarial role against Hirut in particular – and against Ethiopia, in general.

The novel then shifts to 1935, where the reader experiences the younger Hirut and the dynamics of her relationships with Kidane and his wife Aster, a rather headstrong woman who feels neglected by her husband and looks upon Hirut as the unwelcome ‘third wheel’ in the marriage. Hirut has little freedom and when Kidane took away the vintage rifle with which her father had once taught her to shoot – for the use of one of the men in a militia unit he is forming because of the likelihood of an impending Italian invasion --- she harbors a deep resentment towards him.

With Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, the nature of the relationships among Kidane, Aster, and Hirut changes considerably. Both women come to assume more prominent roles as part of a insurgent resistance movement to Italian control. Kidane is both a strategist, as well as a battlefield commander with his coterie of junior resistance leaders to assist him in bringing more people into the resistance and in carrying out harassing raids against scattered Italian units so as to acquire additional arms with which to continue the struggle.

The crucial element in keeping the resistance alive is what comes to be known as “the shadow king”. This is a brainchild of Hirut when she discerns one day by chance that one of her comrades bears a striking resemblance to the nation’s emperor, Haile Selassie. A plan is then concocted by Kidane of dressing this man in some of the formal clothing of the emperor which someone in the resistance had managed to obtain earlier. This “shadow king” would accompany the resistance group wherever they travelled from their mountain hideout to show the people that the Emperor Haile Selassie – contrary to reports that he had left the country and was living in exile in Britain – was very much with them in their fight to free Ethiopia from Italian rule.

Ettore Navarra is a soldier in his early 20s assigned to Ethiopia, where he carries out various photographic assignments (he is already a skilled photographer) for his commander, a colonel known for the infamous work he had done in Libya in securing ‘native pacification’ there. It is in this role that Ettore encounters Hirut – along with Aster. I won't divulge how that comes about. But as often happens in war, destinies of various people can become interlocked in unexpected ways.

I appreciate this novel because I learned in some measure from it the impact the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935-36 had on the Ethiopian people, as well as the harsh methods employed by the Italians to pacify and control the country during the 5 year occupation that followed. What I didn’t much like about the novel was the way the author would tell it. This was done with a thin interface between the narrator and the characters. I must admit I’m not a fan of the narrative voice in novels. I want to know the characters directly via their inner thoughts and outer actions. I don’t like feeling that I’m being shielded from them in a way by a narrator, whom by its very presence, puts itself up as a ‘god in the novel’. That’s why I’m giving “THE SHADOW KING” one less star than I would have given it otherwise, were its characters given the freedom to fully express themselves.


African American Troops in World War II - Alexander Bielakowski, Raffaele Ruggeri

This is a comprehensive, concise, well-written history of the roles played by African American men and women in the U.S. military during the Second World War.

During the war, the role of African Americans in a segregated U.S. Army expanded considerably. Besides quartermaster and service units, African Americans served honorably as infantrymen, combat engineers, artillerists, and tankers in a number of tank destroyer and tank battalions in Europe. Also, for the first time, African Americans were given the opportunities to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps (later United States Army Air Force = USAAF) as fighter pilots first with the 99th Fighter Squadron and later with the 332nd Fighter Group, establishing a fine combat record in Europe. Furthermore, African American soldiers also served in Asia and the Pacific.

The book also highlights the roles performed by African Americans in the U.S. Navy, U.S. Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the U.S. Merchant Marine.

Anyone interested in learning about a still largely unheralded saga in U.S. history will gain much knowledge from reading this book.


My Life: J.G. Bennett and G.I. Gurdjieff: The Memoirs of Elizabeth Bennett - Elizabeth Bennett

"My Life: J.G. Bennett and G.I. Gurdjieff: The Memoirs of Elizabeth Bennett" is an incomplete memoir by the author. It spans from her formative years as the daughter of a house master at Eton College, the health challenges she faced as a little girl and adolescent, the 5 years she spent in service with the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the Second World War, to her meeting with J.G. Bennett near the end of the war --- a man 20 years her senior best described as far-seeing in thought, attitude, and action, with whom she would later share her life and bear him 4 children -- and the charismatic mystic and teacher G.I. Gurdjieff.

The memoir is focused more on relating the experiences Elizabeth Bennett had with Gurdjieff in France in the late 1940s (til his death in 1949), as well as with Bennett (whom she referred to as 'Mr. B') through the mid-1950s. There are also numerous color drawings made by Elizabeth Bennett herself during various phases of her life (she passed away in August 1991 from cancer; she was 72) and what loose ends there are in the memoir are filled in by her 2 sons. On the whole, this is a very readable book, written in a very honest, straightforward manner.


Alarmstart East: The German Fighter Pilot's Experience on the Eastern Front 1941-1945 - Patrick G. Eriksson

"ALARMSTART EAST" is representative of what is likely to be the final story (much of it told first-hand from the few surviving veterans) of what the air war over the Eastern Front was like for the German fighter pilots who fought there between 1941 and 1945.

This is a very solid, very well researched book, with photos - many never before seen - from the private collections of several of the Luftwaffe fighter pilots the author had interviewed over many years, as well as diagrams and illustrations which give the reader a palpable sense of what life at the front was like for these pilots, ground staff, and support personnel. There is also a chapter that examines and evaluates the various criteria the Luftwaffe used for assessing the aerial victory claims of its Jagdflieger (fighter pilots).

For any aviation enthusiast, "ALARMSTART EAST" is an excellent reference source for learning about the nature of the air war over the Eastern Front between the Luftwaffe and the Soviet Air Force.


Till the Boys Come Home - Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

I finished reading "TILL THE BOYS COME HOME" several minutes ago. Reading it was like riding at times a boat down white water rapids. There would be moments of calm, and then -- WHOOM! tragedy and devastating sadness.

The novel carries the reader across the length and breadth of the year 1918. A year that started uncertain for Britain and many of the novel's main characters. The expectation was that Germany would launch a great offensive in the spring - now that Russia had withdrawn from the war, thus freeing up for Berlin several infantry divisions it could deploy on the Western Front against the British and French - and crush the Allies in a series of attacks before the Americans could enter in appreciable numbers to affect the outcome of the war. All the while, there is this war weariness that permeates every aspect of life both at the Front and in Britain, which is reflected in the Hunter family and their servants. There were a lot of ups and downs, as well as twists and turns in the story that caught me unawares. And -- along with Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' skill in making her characters come alive --- I was captivated with this novel. I simply had to know how everything would turn out. Now I need to catch my breath before reading Novel # 6 in the series.


Icelight - Aly Monroe
It is late 1946 and Peter Cotton has returned to Britain from having served as part of an economic mission to Washington DC. In a very short time, he is put on temporary detachment from his regular government job in London and is seconded to Operation Sea-snake. This is an operation endorsed by both MI-5 (Britain's equivalent of the FBI) and MI-6 (the British equivalent of America's wartime Office of Strategic Services [OSS] which would be superseded in 1947 by the Central Intelligence Agency [CIA]), two organizations normally not well-suited for working together. Operation Sea-snake entails a ferreting out of Soviet spies and traitors, as well as coming to grips with some of the seedier elements of British society and the political establishment.

What also makes "ICELIGHT" a compelling and gripping novel is the atmospherics the author skillfully renders of the starkness of everyday life in postwar Britain as it was during 1946 and 1947. Rationing, shortages abound, and the severity of the winter of 1946-47 as it impacted upon the country: these seemingly disparate elements --- along with Cotton's efforts to carry out an assignment not always knowing whom to trust --- kept me gripped from start to finish. Furthermore, there are a rich variety of characters, great and small, all of whom the author fleshes out brilliantly. Truly, this is a novel worthy of being read again, so richly textured and compelling it is. Just what anyone could hope for in an espionage thriller. 


Only the Eagle Dares: A novel of the Imperial German Air Service ("Eagle Series") (Volume 2) - Mr. Deke D Wagner

"ONLY THE EAGLE DARES" continues from where 'The Eagle and the Albatros' left off.

It is late July 1917. Willi Wissemann, formerly the commander of Jasta 23b (a Bavarian fighter unit), is recuperating at home with his mother following a harrowing escape from French captivity. Despite the difficulties he had faced following the crash of his plane deep in enemy territory, his capture, and treatment for the severe wounds he sustained in the crash, Wissemann is consumed by the desire to return to frontline flying. He almost doesn't make it, following an altercation with a superior officer which results in him being demoted and placed with another Jasta in the Champagne sector, flying against the French. Wissemann has issues with his Jastaführer, but manages to avoid getting into any serious trouble owing to his proven abilities to lead pilots into combat and his remarkable fighting prowess in the skies above the Western Front.

All the while, tragedy on a personal level dogs Wissemann seemingly at every turn. But by January 1918, Wissemann is on the rise again, having been promoted back to Hauptmann and placed in command of Jasta 23b again. Along the way, Wissemann has rubbed shoulders with Anthony Fokker, the famous Dutch aircraft designer, and Rittmeister Manfred Freiherr von Richthofen himself, Imperial Germany's top fighter ace and leader of JG-1, the most famous fighter wing in the Imperial German Air Service.

Wissemann bravely puts himself at risk every day he flies over the Front. His enemy is now the British and he is back in the Somme sector, where he first flew combat in 1916 as a 2-seater pilot on artillery spotting, bombing, and reconnaissance missions. Again, as in 'The Eagle and the Albatros', the aerial combat sequences in this novel are very well written and compelling. As a reader, I could almost hear the whine of machine gun bullets while violently manoeuvring my fighter plane, trying desperately to stay alive whilst determined to bring down an enemy plane.


Yet, there were other parts of the novel that could have used additional editing. And some of the characters were little more than thumbnail sketches or caricatures. That's why I give "ONLY THE EAGLE DARES" three (3) stars. It's a good yarn but with a little more editing, it could have been a much better crafted novel. (less)


TEMPEST V vs FW 190D-9: 1944-45 - Robert Forsyth
For the aviation enthusiast, this is an absolutely first-rate book shedding considerable light on 2 Second World War fighter planes which represented the acme in the development of piston-engined combat aircraft.

The Hawker Tempest V represented an advancement on the Hawker Typhoon, which though originally designed as a successor to the Spitfire, proved to be ideal as a low-level ground attack fighter-bomber. Entering service with the Royal Air Force (RAF) early in 1944, the Tempest V proved adept at combating the German V1 'flying bombs' that were unleashed against Britain during the late spring and summer of 1944. Subsequently, they were employed on the European continent where they came into their own as both an amazingly fast ground attack aircraft, as well as in the purely fighter interceptor role.

The Focke Wulf 190D-9 represented an intermediate advancement on the Focke Wulf 190A-8 fighter with an extended fuselage (necessitated by the introduction of the elongated Junkers Jumo 213A engine), along with a number of other modifications that made it one of the most potent and redoubtable fighters in Luftwaffe service. It would be deployed with a number of Luftwaffe fighter units in Germany and the Western Front during the late summer of 1944. But it wasn't until December of that year, that the FW 190D-9 clashed for the first time with the Tempest V in the skies of Western Europe. It was the first of many contentious encounters between both fighters until V-E Day in May 1945.

Other hallmarks of this book are the rich assortment of illustrations and photos, as well as chapters describing in considerable detail the characteristics of both fighters in addition to the flight training programs devised by the RAF and Luftwaffe in training pilots who would go on to fly the Tempest V and FW-190D-9 in combat. For 80 pages, this book packs a lot and comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.



Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats - T.S. Eliot, Axel Scheffler

Recently, I learned that the musical "CATS" -- which drew its inspiration from this book of poetry -- is staging a revival where I live for a short time. And so, to better inform myself about it before seeing the musical, I decided to read "OLD POSSUM'S BOOK OF PRACTICAL CATS." And what a delightful, entertaining book of poetry it is. I read it in a very short time.


The Eagle and the Albatros: A Novel of the Imperial German Air Service  - Deke D. Wagner

"THE EAGLE AND THE ALBATROS" is a novel centered upon a Bavarian (Willi Wissemann) serving as an officer in the Imperial German Air Service during the First World War. In some respects, it bears a similarity to the novel, 'The Blue Max', which was a best-seller in the 1960s.

The story begins in the spring of 1916, when Wissemann, freshly graduated from flight school (where he showed himself to be a highly skilled pilot) and a brief stint in a Flugpark in Valenciennes (ferrying planes to and from active combat units) is assigned to a 2-seater unit tasked with carrying out photo-reconnaissance and artillery spotting missions on behalf of the Army at the Front opposite British forces in the Somme River valley. No sooner than Wisseman arrives at his unit, his commanding officer (who is on non-flying status owing to a wound he sustained in combat) puts him in charge of a mission against the enemy. That struck me as so utterly INAUTHENTIC! What commander in his right mind would put a newly arrived pilot --- who knows nothing about prevailing frontline conditions and may not be wholly proficient in flying the aircraft with which the unit is equipped --- in charge of leading a combat mission?! Automatically, the novel lost some credibility with me. (From the First World War pilot memoirs I've read, normally a new pilot was tasked with flying a series of 'familiarization flights' to get a feel of the area of the Front where the unit was stationed, as well as learning to fly in formation with his squadron mates before being permitted to fly combat patrols.)

Notwithstanding that, the story of Willi Wissemann's time at the Front -- first with a 2-seater unit and later as commander of a Bavarian fighter unit flying against the French in the Champagne sector of the Front during the winter and early spring of 1917 --- is well-told. Wissemann is roughly 10 years older than the average pilot (30 years old in 1917) and had previously served with a front-line infantry unit from the outset of the war. He was also fairly well-travelled, in a relationship with a woman from a well-born, influential family (whose father detested him because of his humble origins in Bavaria), and spoke fluent French. It was this language skill that would put Wissemann into a precarious position when he volunteers to take on a mission flying a spy by night deep into enemy territory which would cost him his freedom --- and possibly his life. To say more would throw out too many spoilers.

On the whole, I liked reading "THE EAGLE AND THE ALBATROS" and appreciated the author's insertion of a glossary containing a lot of aviation terms unique to both the First World War and the Imperial German Air Service. I also enjoyed the air combat sequences, which were highly descriptive and very well-written. What I didn't like was the depiction of Wissemann's sweetheart Ilse von Linkhof., She often came across as this two dimensional woman constantly pining for her man at the Front, with melodramatic emotions boiling over. I think the author should have developed her character more to give the reader a fully-realized, multi-faceted woman. Not a cardboard sketch of one. For that reason --- and a few others, including some spotty writing --- I can only rate "THE EAGLE AND THE ALBATROS" with 3 stars. On the whole, it's a good novel. But I felt it could have been much better.


Spanish Civil War Air Forces - Christopher Shores

A concise, illustrated history of the use of air power by the Republican and Nationalist air forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).


The Long, Long Trail: War at Home, 1917 - Cynthia Harrod-Eagles

The novel begins on Christmas Day, 1916 and then quickly progresses into 1917. The war for the Hunter Family and its servants, as well as for Britain, has become all-consuming. No-one, not a corner of the country has been left untouched by the war's effects, both direct and indirect. Starvation looms as a distinct possibility in Britain as Germany's campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare (resumed in February) threatens to put a firm stranglehold on it, and cut the country off from its vital sea lanes that keep the nation supplied with the essential foodstuffs and materials with which to continue the fight. 

As for the Hunters, Diana the eldest daughter married to the sly, witty and irrepressible dandy Rupert (Lord Dene) is now with child. David, the eldest, is home permanently from France, where he sustained a serious wound to his leg (which he came close to losing) and is in a deep funk. He has been invalided from the Army and is at loss as to what the future might hold for him. Sadie, the other daughter, continues to work at Highclere, helped to break-in and train horses for the Army. The other 2 children in the family (William, 17, and Peter, 11) are also, in their respective ways, changing because of the war. 

There is so much more I would love to say. But that would be giving away much too much of what is a gripping, emotional roller-coaster ride of a novel. I became fully invested in the lives of many of its characters, several of whom suffer tragedy and heartache -- as well as love.


I've been a fan of Cynthia Harrod-Eagles as a writer for close to 15 years. She never disappoints. And now that I've finished reading "THE LONG, LONG TRAIL, 1917", I'm going to take a short break before plunging into the next novel in the series. 

Reading this, the fourth novel in the 'War at Home' series, has given me a keener appreciation of how the First World War impacted every strata of British society, not just those who served on active service on the various fighting fronts.

Beneath the Lion's Gaze - Maaza Mengiste

"BENEATH THE LION'S GAZE" tells a story of a family caught up in the full fury of a political revolution that took place in Ethiopia in 1974. 

In reading this novel, there were parallels between the overthrow of the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. Both countries on the eve of revolution suffered from failed harvests and simmering internal dissent. In Ethiopia's case, a group of military officers formed a collective known as the Derg and forced Haile Selassie to abdicate. 

"BENEATH THE LION'S GAZE" conveys the full force of the reign of terror the Derg imposed on Ethiopia, the courage many Ethiopians showed in organizing a resistance movement (which ended up being brutally suppressed and stamped out by the late 1970s), and reinforced in my mind the corrosive effect bloody revolutions have on every aspect of society within a nation. 


The Thunder Girls - Melanie Blake

"THE THUNDER GIRLS" is a roller-coaster, compulsively gripping novel about the most successful girl band of the 1980s, which at the height of its success in 1989, is unceremoniously disbanded by its record label. Of the 4 women comprising 'The Thunder Girls' --- Chrissie, Roxanne, Carly and Anita ---, the decision had been made to launch Chrissie (the self-appointed leader of the band) on a solo career. The other 3 women are abruptly shown the door, and with its closing, so ends the friendship among the band members.

The reader is then carried forward 30 years to today's world driven by bling-bling and social media. Chrissie has fallen upon hard times after her latest husband (a 'boy-toy' model who had bewitched her) took her for every cent she had and disappeared. Her record label offers her one way out from absolute ruin by making her go out and find her 3 former bandmates with the aim of bringing back 'The Thunder Girls' for a one-time, richly lucrative "gathering of The Greats" 1980s music groups in concert at London's Wembley Stadium. 

Chrissie then embarks on a long and winding trek to find and persuade her 3 former friends to reassemble the band. Nothing proves to be so clear-cut. But the reader is amply rewarded with a multi-layered, poignant story in "THE THUNDER GIRLS" that has more hairpin curves than one can shake a stick at. Highly recommended.


No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories - Gabriel García Márquez
  "NO ONE WRITES TO THE COLONEL AND OTHER STORIES" is made up of 10 short stories, each more fantastic than the one that preceded it. Of the 10, my favorite was 'No One Writes to the Colonel' which provides the reader various glimpses into the lives of a colonel from Colombia's Thousand Day War (1899-1902) and his wife, amid the colonel's longstanding hope and expectation of receiving through the mail (which only arrives by boat once a week on Friday) his belated pension. This would prove to be a 60 year wait for the old colonel, who lived a rather threadbare existence in a small town near Colombia's Caribbean coast.

The other short stories focus on the lives of various people, rich and poor alike, in a Colombia that at times seems more mystical than real.

Sometimes the stories would drone on a bit. But I'm glad I read "NO ONE WRITES TO THE COLONEL AND OTHER STORIES" and have no intention to read it again. (Previously, I had read several years ago, Gabriel García Márquez' novels 'The General in His Labyrinth' and 'One Hundred Years of Solitude' - both of which I enjoyed reading very much, because each of them fed deeply into my imagination and thrilled it.)



Hope Never Dies - Andrew Shaffer

Several months ago, I was in a local independent bookstore, where I found this novel on a solid wooden table filled with other mystery novels. The cover drew my immediate attention. (Jeremy Enecio the front cover artist - so acknowledged by the author in the Acknowledgements section of "HOPE NEVER DIES" - did a fantastic job of capturing the likeness of ex-President Barack Obama and Joe Biden.) I read the summary and promptly bought the novel.

"HOPE NEVER DIES" shows both Obama and Biden in Wilmington, Delaware several months into the year 2017. Biden is troubled by the death of a old friend, an Amtrak conductor, in a mysterious railway accident. He and Obama take on the role of amateur sleuths to uncover what the real deal is. Along the way there are some light, entertaining moments in the novel that highlight the special friendship ('bromance') both men had during their 8 years in the White House.

This is only the second novel I've read which featured living historical figures. (The other novel was 'The Golden Age' in which the author Gore Vidal inserted himself as a character.) If not handled right, this inclusion of real, living, public figures can go horribly wrong and come across as grossly inauthentic. Not here. Andrew Shaffer has done a masterful job of crafting a novel featuring ex-President Obama, Biden, and a variety of characters who made "HOPE NEVER DIES" one of the best novels it has been my pleasure to read this year.