Archive for April, 2011

Erik Larson’s “In the Garden of Beasts” — an American Ambassador and his family in Hitler’s Berlin

Erik Larson’s IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: LOVE, TERROR, AND AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN HITLER’S BERLIN is an outstanding work of narrative non-fiction that reads very much like a novel, except this all actually happened.  This is the story of William E. Dodd, academic and ambassador, the first American Ambassador to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany.  Dodd brought his whole family, which included his wife, Martha (called “Mattie”), his daughter Martha and his son, William, Jr., (called “Bill”).  Martha and Bill were both in their twenties at the time Dodd, Sr., was sent to Berlin in 1933, and it’s the story of this entire family which makes IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS so compelling.

When Dodd and his family arrived in Germany, it was July 13, 1933.  At this time the official President of Germany was Paul von Hindenburg — Hitler was only Germany’s Chancellor, a lower posting but still one with much power (under Hitler, the Chancellor position acquired more power, and is now seen as the equivalent of the Prime Minister in other countries).  Hindenburg was not blind to Hitler’s lust for power and tried to put other ambitious men, such as Franz von Papen as Vice Chancellor, around Hitler to contain him, but this didn’t work.

By mid-1933, Hindenburg was old and ill and was losing his grasp on Germany.  His advisors also didn’t seem to want to overtax the man — this I know from reading history as it’s lightly sketched at best IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS — and perhaps there wasn’t much Hindenburg could’ve done about Hitler due to Hitler’s own brand of personal magnetism.  But what is known, historically, is that not much aside from the attempted “hemming-in” of Hitler was ever done to try to thwart Hitler’s rise to power.

At any rate, our American family (the Dodds) arrived in Germany and as Dodd, Sr., had studied in Germany previously, he immediately noted the changes.  There were many men, all the physically fit and well-groomed, marching in the streets under the auspices of various German ministries, and people seemed much quieter than Dodd had remembered.   All of this marked Hitler’s rise to power and was the first harbinger of many ill omens to come.

Ambassador Dodd was an able man, though not a rich one, and this is something to keep in mind.  Dodd and his family were what you might call upper middle class, while most Ambassadors of that day and time were flat-out wealthy.   This set up a sort of mini-class struggle between Dodd and his fellow diplomats, which might’ve been one reason for why so many of them back in the good old USA didn’t believe him when he said things in Berlin were awful, worse than Dodd had expected (and Dodd’s expectations, might it be noted, were astonishingly low to begin with).

Dodd had been appointed as the Ambassador to Germany  because he was a loyal American citizen who spoke German and loved Germany and its people — Dodd was someone then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt trusted to provide American values and give a good example to the German people.  As Larson notes on pages 19-20:

Dodd seemed unlikely to spark the isolationists’ passions.  He was a  historian of sober temperament, and his firsthand understanding of Germany could prove valuable.

Berlin, moreover, was not yet the supercharged outpost it would become within the year.  There existed at this time a widespread perception that Hitler’s government could not possibly endure . . . .

No one appeared to give much thought to the kind of personality a man might need in order to deal effectively with Hitler’s government.  (Commerce) Secretary Roper believed “that Dodd would be astute in handling diplomatic duties and, when conferences grew tense, (Dodd) would turn the tide by quoting Jefferson.”

All of this points to the fact that William Dodd, Ambassador, was a very mild-tempered, moderate man who was unlikely to make the situation in Germany — which FDR realized was highly-charged even if no one else did — any worse.

But that leaves aside Dodd’s family; his wife, Mattie, was an able woman, someone who enjoyed creating a sense of home anywhere she was.  But we don’t really hear much about her, or Dodd’s son Bill; instead, we read a great deal about Martha (Dodd’s daughter), who was apparently not only a socialite but a budding novelist and writer, and someone who quickly grew frustrated with the air of tension and strife in Germany.  Martha was an outspoken woman who eventually aligned herself with the Communists in the USSR because she saw them as the only ones trying to stop Hitler before it was too late.

Martha was interesting because she had many, many, many lovers.  This was 1933; being in a foreign country for the first time hardly stopped Martha, who was petite, blue-eyed, blonde, had a nice figure, spoke well and wanted to know everything there was to know (she appeared to have had a restless intellect).  She had already been divorced and saw no reason to rein in her sexual appetites, which appear to have been voracious.

One of Martha’s many lovers was a man named Rudolf Diels, the first head of the Gestapo.  Diels was a man of conscience who later testified against many other German officers during the Nuremburg trials after the end of World War II, and Diels didn’t like what he was seeing even in 1933.   Diels felt Martha was a relatively safe person to talk with because of her position as the Ambassador’s daughter, and perhaps he was right.

The Dodds watched in mixed fascination and horror over the next year as bad things, even worse things, and astonishingly horrible things happened around them, culminating in the “Night of the Long Knives” on June 30, 1934.  This is also sometimes called the “Röhm Putsch” as the head of the Sturmabteilung (SA), Ernst Röhm, was one of the more high-profile Germans killed on that night.  Others killed included prominent German General Kurt von Schleicher (Hitler’s predecessor as Chancellor) and his wife and many of Vice-Chancellor von Papen’s personal staff.  No one knows how many were killed; estimates range from 85 to well into the mid-hundreds, partly because the Nazis in power refused to give a complete list of those executed.

During the days that followed, Dodd and his family became gravely concerned.   Ambassador Dodd sent many telegraphs (cables) to Washington, DC, asking what they wanted him to do and urging some sort of action — and nothing at all happened.  (This may have been why Martha, later on, decided to go all-in with the Communists.)  Though they held their Fourth of July ceremonies at the American Embassy as per usual, Dodd really didn’t know what he should do next.

While Goebbels himself tried to calm the unrest by an unequivocal radio address on July 2, 1934, where he insisted that the actions taken during the “Night of the Long Knives” were absolutely essential for the continuation of Hitler’s Germany, the countryside mostly didn’t believe it.  Finally on July 13, 1934 (one year to the day from the Dodds’ arrival in Germany), Hitler came out with a very long, nationally-broadcast speech that more or less confirmed what Goebbels had said earlier; quoted verbatim from Wikipedia (link: (note that Larson also quotes most of this on page 331):

In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterise down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life. Let the nation know that its existence—which depends on its internal order and security—cannot be threatened with impunity by anyone! And let it be known for all time to come that if anyone raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.

The only thing Ambassador Dodd could do (or was allowed to do) was to refuse to go see Hitler’s speech in person; instead, he listened to it via the radio.  He hoped by refusing to observe what Hitler was doing that it might send some sort of message that the United States, in the person of its ambassador, refused to dignify such remarks.   Dodd wasn’t the only one to take this tactic; many other diplomats did the same, including the then-French Ambassador, André François-Poncet.  But it still was a brave action in the context of its time.

What I got out of IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS was this: some things must be opposed.  Ambassador Dodd and his family did their best in their disparate ways to oppose Hitler, oppose Nazi Germany, and be some sort of bastion for American democracy in the middle of a horrific nightmare.  In that, Ambassador Dodd became, in Larson’s words (from page 356),

Dodd proved to be exactly what Roosevelt had wanted, a lone beacon of American freedom and hope in a land of gathering darkness.

As for a grade, I believe this book is an A-plus.  It’s a must-buy for everyone.  This is essential reading, mostly because of the Dodds’ struggle to maintain any sort of stability as Hitler’s Germany grew crazier all around them, and partly because of the inexplicable refusal of other world governments and leaders to do anything to curb Hitler and his men until it was nearly too late.
reviewed by Barb


Kate Paulk’s “Impaler” — A Must-Read, Superlative, Tour de Force

Kate Paulk’s IMPALER  is a seriously different way to look at Vlad the Impaler.  Historically, Prince (later King) Vlad has always been drawn as a madman and berserker, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever.  However, as Paulk has ably shown here, no one would’ve followed Vlad Draculea (Paulk’s transliteration, to avoid any possible confusion with Bram Stoker’s DRACULA) if he didn’t have good qualities — and in this version of Vlad’s story, Vlad shows many outstanding qualities including love, loyalty, friendship, sacrifice, and much more.  While this is a historical with some fantasy — and a bit of an alternate history at that, which I’ll get to in a bit — the bones of this novel rest squarely on Paulk’s strong historicity and excellent understanding of what we’d now call realpolitik.

The time is 1476.  Vlad Draculea has started to re-take Wallachia for the third time (first was as a child, second under the sponsorship of Prince Matthias Corvinus of Hungary) and has two hundred men given to him by one of his best friends, Prince Stephen of Moldavia.  With luck as well as skill, Vlad re-takes possession of Wallachia and promises to do better than the first time he’d ruled it as an adult (approximately 1456 to 1462) when he’d murdered many of his sitting boyars (noblemen, equivalent to earls, counts and dukes, dependent on how much territory any given boyar had) and had ruled by the force of his will along with what he’d then felt was the quickest and easiest weapon: terror.

Note that Vlad’s nickname of “Tepes” was given after his death, though the Turks often called him “the Impaler Prince” due to his method of execution.  Vlad hated the Turks, who were Muslim, and often used stakes to impale his enemies, living or dead.  (To insult the Muslims, who, in historical context, Paulk accurately calls “Mohammedans,” Vlad would have the stakes coated in pig fat as the Muslims believed that touching anything to do with pork would defile them, soiling them to the point they could not go to Heaven.)  Vlad was a devout Christian to his death and his faith, along with his torturous path to anything approaching what he believed was redemption, is described exceptionally well here by Paulk.   (That Vlad impaled his enemies is unquestioned, but why he did so has really never been explained except by sheer cruelty, which Paulk shows may well not be the most accurate motivation.  The fact that everyone tended to do this at this time in war against whomever whatever side felt were infidels tends to go by the boards.)

Prince Vlad of Wallachia is a much different man in 1476; he’s been tempered by the love of a very good woman, Ilona, his second wife, and now has three children — one by his first wife Cneajna, Mircea, and two by Ilona, those being Vladut (“little Vlad”) and Alexandru, the latter being most likely asthmatic and sickly.  He’d been imprisoned by the King of Hungary on false pretenses after fleeing Wallachia in 1462 and that changed him (along with his love for Ilona); the change was positive, as he learned to rely upon his love of learning and scholarship along with his talent for war.  In 1476, while Vlad realizes terror sometimes must be used, he’d rather not use it unless it’s absolutely called for — a particularly welcome change, and one that makes sense in the context of Vlad’s maturity.

If you know anything about Vlad the Impaler, you’ll realize that there are some diversions from history here along with a rather unusual take on Vlad’s berserker tendencies.  The truest form of alternate history is that of “what may well could’ve happened,” and that’s exactly what Paulk gives us — a Vlad who is tortured by what he’s done, who has a curse of drinking blood that he can’t do anything about but tries to use on the battlefield alone (rather than using it senselessly as he now believes he had in his prior reign).  A Vlad who realizes that love and loyalty are far more important than territory, and a Vlad who hates that good men often die needlessly in war — but realizes if he doesn’t do it, with his gifts and talents, even more men will die needlessly, and possibly more innocent men in the towns and cities Vlad has pledged to protect in the bargain.

This Vlad Tepes is a far, far different man than history has given him credit for — he’s sober, reliable, responsible, dependable, and realizes full well who is truly in Vlad’s corner (Prince Stephen) and who, while unreliable, must be treated as if he’s still in Vlad’s corner no matter how much Vlad’s been betrayed by him (Corvinus).   This is a Prince Vlad who must use his gifts wisely, and treats his love of blood (and berserker tendencies, which Paulk puts together and calls a “curse” — which makes perfect sense in context) as an impediment but not a fatal one if managed wisely and well.  (Think of this “curse” as a type of disability; all Vlad can do is manage it well and live with it.)  And best of all, this Vlad is a very wise and able ruler — still someone capable of cruelty, but not one who needlessly provokes anyone anymore, because he realizes he has no time for it.

Here, Vlad must use what he’s learned of the Turks in order to fight them and free his people along with what he’s learned of life along the way, and this makes perfect sense in historical context.  This is an astonishing take on Vlad that makes the point that Vlad had risen above much of his upbringing (he was raised by the Turkish court but that was no sinecure; he was often tortured physically and possibly even sexually abused) and had learned a great deal from life, and wanted to rule his people wisely and well.  Paulk has ably shown that there was a reason nobles believed in noblesse oblige, and that it’s quite possible that Vlad III indeed felt exactly that way (which is why, at the somewhat advanced-for-the-times age of 45, he was attempting to re-take Wallachia and lead it in 1476).

Anyway, if you love history, you will love IMPALER.  If you love intrigue, you will appreciate IMPALER, and if you enjoy stories of self-sacrifice, nobility, unusual friendships and the willingness of someone to set his own personal “curse” (disability) aside in the course of what he can’t help but see as his duty, well, then you’ll admire IMPALER as much as I do.

Grade:  A-plus.   A must-read, superlative, tour de force that makes you actually root for Vlad III — what more do you want?  (Except to read more from Kate Paulk, of course; the good news there is, she has another novel out from the Naked Reader later this year.)

—— reviewed by Barb


Dave Freer’s “Without a Trace” — effective YA suspense with parallel worlds

Dave Freer’s new novella “Without a Trace” ** is out from the Naked Reader e-books ( is about Michael “Mike” O’Hara, a youngster from present-day South Africa.  He’s impoverished and lives with his father and one loyal family of black tenant farmers; before his grandfather went missing twelve years ago, the family was wealthy, but of course Mike doesn’t remember anything about that because he was only three months old when his grandfather disappeared without a trace.

Mike’s life is like many twelve-year-olds; he goes to school and hates it, then plays with his friend Amos (who he’s grown up with) when he gets home and enjoys that.  Mike appreciates his father, who’s always been there for him, but hasn’t even examined his relationship deeply — his father is just his father, and while Mike admires him, it’s something that he’s never really thought deeply about.  This makes sense considering Mike is the point-of-view (POV) character, and throughout the first two-thirds of this approximately 22,000 word novella Mike is never named by anyone.  (Freer apparently wanted kids to be able to put themselves in Mike’s place more easily, which is why Mike isn’t named until quite late in the narrative.  Freer is a highly accomplished writer who wouldn’t do this unintentionally, so he must have made a conscious choice in this regard.)   Mike is like any other kid of this age, with the typical kid-problems, and isn’t big on self-examination or self-expression.

This changes when his father, suddenly, falls into a coma.  Mike doesn’t want to be taken away from his home, so starts exploring to find a place to hide where he won’t be found (thus can’t be taken away).   During his exploration, he finds a secret room underneath his family’s home, then hears a cryptic radio message and writes it down.  He doesn’t know what the radio message is, but he does understand co-ordinates, and he needs to be away from home before he can be taken by the state, so he and Amos take off and start their adventure.

What do they find?  First, there’s a parallel South Africa that they fall into and they discover many things, some shocking, some sad, and some frustrating.  Next, Mike finds a man who needs rescuing — but can he and Amos do it?  And finally, they realize that just going home and leaving that parallel world has to be the next adventure, even if Mike and Amos don’t understand how they’ve gotten there nor how to leave — so, will they do it?  Or instead, will they end up vanishing just like Mike’s grandfather did years ago?

That’s for you to read, but I can assure you that it’s well worth your time to do so.  Mike’s an interesting character — he’s not extremely smart but he adapts quickly and he tries hard and goes full out, all the time, which should endear him to kids — and Amos was just as strong, a fully-realized, fully-developed friend with breadth and depth.  I really liked Mike’s father, and his favorite teacher, and the tenant farmers and just about every “good” character in this novel. 

But the best part of “Without a Trace?”  It’s a lot of fun from start to finish.

As for how I’d rate this novella, I’d give it a solid B-plus.  “Without a Trace” carried me along effortlessly, and I enjoyed it a great deal.  (Mind you, I didn’t like it that Mike wasn’t named until two-thirds in, but it’s not a deal-breaker for the reasons I gave before.)  I think “Without a Trace” is a good, interesting story that will be enjoyed by kids of all ages but is likely to be better understood if your kids are anywhere from age eight on up. 

This is the first middle-grade, young adult offering from the Naked Reader, and it’s a good one.   I believe it’s an e-book that will be appreciated by many kids of all ages, and I truly hope it finds its audience, because “Without a Trace” has good adventure, good suspense, nice pacing, and it’s a really pleasant tale of families, mistakes, friendship, and redemption.

— Reviewed by Barb


** Note: No picture was available at the time of this review.


The Saxon Uprising — Where’s This Going?

Eric Flint’s 1636: The Saxon Uprising picks right up after the events of 1635: The Eastern Front. If you haven’t picked up by now, the 163x series is a very long, expanded series which is almost a shared universe now (thanks in no small part to the offerings of the Grantville Gazette and Flint’s other coauthors) and is very, very detailed. Quite a few people have asked where to start, to which I always reply “1632“. But this isn’t about 1632, nor the subsequent novels. This review is about 1636: The Saxon Uprising.

The book starts off with the King of Sweden, Gustav II Adolphus, muttering incoherently and not entirely sure of his surroundings. He has suffered a grievous injury during a battle in 1635: The Eastern Front. As I mentioned previously, 1635: The Eastern Front was (to me) nothing more than the expanded prologue for 1636: The Saxon Uprising. But the King is not aware, therefore making his Chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, the lead advisor for the current prime minister, Wilhem Wettin. Axel, seeing a chance to restore the aristocracy to its place of power (something that the arrival of the Americans in war-torn Germany nearly put a complete stop to), he subsequently uses Wettin to stir up the nobility and kicks off a not-quite civil war.

The Poles, meanwhile, are in an extended fight with the USE (United States of Europe) thanks to King Gustav’s desire to reclaim much of the land Poland grabbed the last time they went to war with one another. Stanislaw Koniecpolski, the Grand Hetman and military commander of the Polish Army, doesn’t really want to fight but is more than willing to defend Poland from foreign invaders. Down south, Murad IV (Murad the Mad) has retaken Baghdad and is looking to invade Austria. So pretty much the entirety of Europe is sitting on a lit powder keg (as it was before the Americans mysteriouly showed up).

Meanwhile, former prime minister Michael Stearns is leading his army off to war, leaving behind his capable wife Rebecca to deal with the burgeoning crisis. Or so everyone thinks. For despite being a superb politician, Mike is somewhat of a prophet, and clearly figured that splitting his army up to return to the Germanies the moment he received word that Axel was doing something illegal. This all hinged on the crown princess Christina and her betrothed, Ulrik of Denmark, escaping Sweden and making their way to Magdeburg.

Confused yet? Yeah, I was too actually.

I’ve read just about every 163x book out there (save for a few collaborations), and the primary character, Mike Stearns, has gone from savvy union coordinator and former boxer to elderly statesman with Nostradamus-like “guesses”. I actually was unable to suspend my disbelief here, because the idea that Mike is always right and always in the perfect position to take advantage of something he shouldn’t know what people are going to do blew me out of the story.

The idea that Mike could accurately predict every single event leading up to the civil war bothered me. If he knew it was going to happen, why did he let it go? Is Mike starting to believe the same ideals of the nobility, that people can needlessly die so long as the “right” people retain hold of their power. Gone is the idealistic American who believed that nobody should die stupidly in war. Now we have a statesmen who is not above letting people die so that things work out the way he thinks they should be.

Okay, so I’m letting a bit of the ideologue get to me. I apologize. It’s just that a character usually doesn’t change so much as a series goes onward, unless the person is a teen becoming an adult. The fact that Mike would change his morals to fit his needs is a bit disturbing, and reminds me much of Stalin’s “One death is tragic, one million deaths is a statistic” sort of approach to governing.

The story was okay, though the author does have some memorable one-liners in it that made me laugh out loud and caused more than one person to look at me funny. The writing itself is good, as you would expect from Eric Flint, and the series continues to chug along. However, I have a feeling that this train is slowly running out of steam. Eventually, to keep interest in the series strong, I think Flint’s going to have to kill off a major uptime (from the 20th century) character, which basically means either Jeff Higgins or Mike Stearns. That’ll allow for more character development for their respective spouses and keep the series fresh.

Because everyone knows that in real life (as real as the author tries to make the 163x series seem), everyone runs out of luck eventually.

I’d give this a decent rating, a buy if you’re like me and have collected the entire series to date. I’d buy the ebook if not, however, or check out it from the library. Too many things that bugged me in this prevents me from saying this is a must-buy book.

–Reviewed by Jason

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“Alaska Republik” — Good, but not Deep

I had very high hopes for Stoney Compton’s ALASKA REPUBLIK after reading his previous book in this series, RUSSIAN AMERIKA, which I reviewed a few days ago.  And some of my hopes for ALASKA REPUBLIK were fulfilled — but not all, which is a shame because with a few quick fixes, this book would’ve been outstanding.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

ALASKA REPUBLIK starts out by re-stating what happened at the very end of RUSSIAN AMERIKA: Gerald “Jerry” Yamato, a Republic of California pilot, has been shot down.   He and a wounded Russian sergeant major, Rudi Cermanivich, are quickly taken prisoner by three Alaskan natives — Bodecia, her husband Pelagian, and their adult daughter, Magda — who are all members of the Dena Separatist Movement (DSM).  Bodecia, being a healer, quickly takes charge of the men while getting them back as fast as possible to safety.

Ah, but safety is so fleeting in a war zone, as Bodecia and Pelagian find out once they send Jerry and Magda off to get help (as Rudi’s broken his leg, he can’t move very quickly).  Pelagian gets shot, which leaves Bodecia to first figure out how to keep both remaining men safe and warm, then to get her badly-injured husband and the non-ambulatory Rudi to safety.

But once that happens, there’s war, war, and more war, with the backdrop of some romance between Magda and Jerry, a bit of posturing by the Freekorps (mercenaries, very highly trained), some Russians changing alliances, Japan entering the fray, then there’s the talks of unification between the Tlingit Native Americans and the Dena (Athabascans) in order to form a truly Alaskan democratic republic . . . this novel jumps around a great deal, but it’s fun to read and it’s fun to follow.  I enjoyed reading it a great deal, just as I enjoyed the first book.

The problems here were more in the realm of one-level characterization, something you notice on the second re-read (and every subsequent re-read).  Simply put: every soldier, man or woman, on the good side is committed, dedicated, focused and never has one moment, even in his head, where he doubts what he’s doing.  Or whether he’s doing it for the right reasons.  This isn’t so much a problem with Magda, Bodecia or Pelagian — we know why they’re fighting.  They want the Czar gone.  But the Russians — why are they behaving the way they are with no support forthcoming, and with the Czar not giving ’em any air support worth mentioning?

And at that, Jerry Yamato, while an engaging character, does not really search his soul very much at any time during ALASKA REPUBLIK.  He just seems to be along for the ride; he’s a capable soldier, a very good pilot, and he enjoys what he does, but if he wants a life with Magda, he needs to search his soul a bit.  (Most people would, changing cultures in this way.  Radically.  Suddenly.  Without any previous warning.)  And he doesn’t do it.

What this mostly is, when it’s dealing with Jerry anyway, is the “fish out of water” plotline.  And I didn’t see enough double-takes.  I didn’t see many of them — in fact, I saw hardly any of them.   Which gives Jerry’s perspective an odd dreamlike quality that it truly shouldn’t have — this is an experienced pilot of many flying sorties.   He’s a good soldier and infantryman when he’s pressed to it, and he’s not sexist; he can take Magda’s orders, or Bodecia’s, as easily as he takes Pelagian’s or any military officer he runs into during the course of ALASKA REPUBLIK. This makes him a pro soldier all the way.  Which is why his reactions did not feel right to me, especially after his own people from California manage to get to him, and he goes up with his fellow pilots to give air support to the Alaskans.

While there was a bit more internal monologue here, especially with regards to Bodecia and General Grisha Grigorievich (my favorite character, returning from RUSSIAN AMERIKA; he’s the head of the Dena Army), there’s still too much storytelling on one level.  We get some humor here and there — very welcome, that — and we get some romance, also very welcome.   But I kept thinking that this book could be dynamite — and it just . . . didn’t . . . quite . . . happen.

What’s missing mostly are two things: set-up, and introspection.  Now, in a novel of war, you don’t need a lot of set-up, but when you introduce at the very last minute a famous picture, without showing the picture being taken, nor showing the reactions of the people in the picture at the time the picture was taken . . . why do it?  Because you need set-up there — you need there to be some story there, rather than just putting it in there and letting it fly, especially so late in the story (less than twenty pages from the end).  And as for introspection, see what I said before — these characters, some of ’em, are doing things they’ve never done in their entire lives.  Yet very few of them have any care for how quickly their lives have changed except for Grisha and his wife, Wing, or perhaps Bodecia.  Magda and Jerry see what’s happened as “all of a piece,” which is fine — some people do see the world that way — but everyone seeing the world this way?  I highly doubt it.

So what’s here in ALASKA REPUBLIK is good, but it’s not great due to the lack of character depth.  And it could’ve been outstanding with just a bit more forethought, just a little bit of introspection from someone, somewhere (Admiral Yamomoto had a whole lot of introspection in World War II, and yet was considered an admirable strategist, someone who was appreciated even by his foes; this means: “Real soldiers can be introspective.”).  And for pity’s sake, don’t just throw something in there at the end for the sake of throwing it in there when there was a way to fully integrate it with the plot by simply showing it rather than telling it.

Still, if you like war, and you like alternate histories, and you like realism, and you enjoy some family-friendly romance, you will really like ALASKA REPUBLIK.  I believe it can be understood without the first book, RUSSIAN AMERIKA, but it would be greatly enhanced if you read RUSSIAN AMERIKA first.

However, the upshot here is, I expected a lot more out of Stoney Compton’s second book than I did his first, and I didn’t really get it.  There is some improvement from the first book to the second — Jerry Yamato is not shown to be incredibly handsome right away (though Magda and Bodecia are, of course, exotically beautiful, the type of women who’d stand out in any crowd), and there was some more internal monologue, though still not enough.  But I believe Compton can do better.

I liked ALASKA REPUBLIK despite all these quibbles, and give it a solid B — but this could’ve been an A-plus, and it’s not.

— reviewed by Barb

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Amanda Green’s “Nocturnal Origins” is Quick, Smart and (sometimes) Shocking

Amanda S. Green’s NOCTURNAL ORIGINS, the first original offering from the new Naked Reader e-books (, is a very smart piece of urban fantasy.  Set in Dallas, Texas, it features policewoman Mackenzie “Mac” Santos, who works for the homicide division.  She’s investigating a recent run of murders that appear to have had an animal involved — something like a very large dog, or perhaps a wolf — and she’s more involved than is usual even for a good cop like Santos because she was nearly killed by what appeared to be an animal just like the one doing all the other killings.

So, we have a potential serial killing, but using animals.  Or are they?

It doesn’t give away much for me to state that there are some shape-shifters involved that may have something to do with these murders.  On one side, there are the “pures,” or those who are born to be shape-shifters; on the other, there are the “weres,” or those who have been “turned” to become shape-shifters (they need to be bitten, which seems like the old vampire legends, except these aren’t vamps).

What Santos learns during the course of NOCTURNAL ORIGINS is that while the world may hold more inside it than she’s ever previously been aware of, she’s still a policewoman and must do whatever she can — including stopping these shape-shifters, if possible — to keep Dallas safe from predators.

This is an outstanding first novel from an author I urge you to keep your eyes on, as Ms. Green has good facility with suspense, murder, and interpersonal affairs.   “Mac” Santos is an appealing character with some flaws to her — I do love flawed characters — and some unusual strengths, and how she interacts with Patricia “Pat” Collins (another policewoman investigating these murders), her Captain, Michael King, and others among the “pure” and “were” community helps to keep the reader interested, amused, and focused.

Now, as to the “shocking” part of this book?  Well, the gore of the murders, while it isn’t reveled in, is obviously present and is a big part of how heinous these particular crimes are, so Ms. Green couldn’t do anything other than what she does here — state the nature of the crimes, have the policemen  ruminate over the crimes, and have them want to stop these crimes from ever occurring again — or she’d have ended up cheating the reader.  And because, as in many good suspense/action-adventure novels, we get inside the murderer’s head early on, we know exactly what the murderer hopes to do — and we can’t help but root for the policemen as they do their best to find the murderer and stop him before anyone else gets killed.

So, this is an urban fantasy — classified as such due to the shape-shifting element — but it’s also an action-adventure, suspense and police procedural, and it succeeds in every particular. 

This is a smart novel which only tripped my trigger in one area ** and it’s one I enjoyed very much.   I believe Ms. Green’s writing style has some similarities with the earliest work of Kim Harrison, and can easily see her breaking out of the pack if given a chance . . . and personally, I intend to give her as many chances as I possibly can.

As far as a grade, I’d give this first novel an A-minus; I’d have liked it to be a little longer, and for the hints of romance to be a bit more well-developed.  But these are very, very minor quibbles (see below for my one “trigger-tripper” underneath the dashes) and I strongly recommend this novel.


** OK.  The one thing that really tripped my trigger was the relationship Santos has with two “pures” who can shape-shift into ocelots.  Ocelots are relatively small cats who can weigh up to 40 lbs. apiece, yet these particular shape-shifters were teenaged humans (twins) of normal height and weight.  Every other shape-shifter save one in NOCTURNAL ORIGINS shifted into a shape that seemed to be more or less mass/weight proportionate, which is partly why this one, isolated event set me off a little bit.

** So the weight/mass thing tripped my trigger because it didn’t go along with anything else, while the behavior of these two “pures” also made me wonder — every time they’re around Santos, who is a rather commanding personality, they shift into their ocelot forms.  Santos absently scratches them when they offer their support in ocelot form. . . anyway, as a human being (no matter how much her world’s been spun around, and no matter how many extra abilities Santos may have), how can Santos forget these are twin human teens to the point that she’s scratching them as if they’re large house cats, no matter if it’s what these teens want or not?  (And let’s not even start on why these teens are behaving this way; let’s just say that the way the “pures” behave is a great deal different from “normal” non-shape-shifting human society and be done with it.)

— Reviewed by Barb


Stoney Compton’s “Russian Amerika:” Well-conceived Alternate History.

Stoney Compton’s RUSSIAN AMERIKA is a well-conceived alternate history.  Set in 1987, Alaska is still a Russian protectorate, while the various Native American peoples (most especially the Dena, otherwise known as Athabascans) chafe underneath the Czar’s yoke.   And in this universe, the United States is no longer quite so united, instead being split up between the USA, the CSA (Confederate States of America), the First People’s Nation, Texas, the Republic of California, and Deseret (the Mormons, but this time are in Arizona rather than Utah, reasons unknown or untold).

We start RUSSIAN AMERIKA by seeing how independent ship captain Grigoriy “Grisha” Grigorievich deals with Alaska as it now stands.  He’s a former member of the Troika Guard, who aren’t — quite — mercenaries, but seem to be more than the usual run of Russian troops, and has retired to run his boat.  He’s in his middle years, fortyish, and all he wants at the beginning of RUSSIAN AMERIKA is to eke out his life his way, incidentally wondering why his marriage is failing.  Grisha is an appealing character with many strengths who is quickly thrown into chaos through no fault of his due to the machinations of Valeri Komenskiya, an attractive Russian Major who might kindly be called a spy.

Grisha, of course, is a former soldier of distinction, so when he gets away from his Russian captors, this isn’t much of a surprise to the reader — but the circumstances of his particular rescue are seen to be unusual because they come at the hands of the Dena Separatist Movement (DSM), and Grisha has no Native American blood at all as far as he knows.  The DSM have had enough of the Czar, and have taken to running off as many soldiers as they can, killing those who don’t take the hint or are known to be especially abusive.

Once in the hands of the DSM, Grisha’s circumstances change again because the DSM needs soldiers with ability and that’s Grisha, hands-down.  Plus, the more Grisha does to help the DSM, the more he realizes he’s on the “right side of history” — the DSM want Alaska to be a democratic republic, or at least their corner of it (they’ll worry about the whole of Alaska later), and Grisha is all in favor of this.  Plus, there’s the mysterious, exotic female warrior Wing — the first woman who’s ever stirred anything in Grisha beyond mere sexual desire (Grisha’s marriage having been dissolved by his ex-wife’s decree by this time) — along with new friends, new opportunities, and an ever-changing amount of warfare going on to keep him interested, engaged and focused.  And all of that is against the backdrop of war, revolution, and the ultimate question: how can you create a democratic republic out of the big, fat mess that the Czar has wrought?

As you might have figured out, I really enjoyed RUSSIAN AMERIKA and appreciated it as an action-adventure story, as a “coming of age” story for Grisha, and as an alternate history.   As Eric Flint’s cover quote says, this is an “exciting story of war and revolution,” and it was a great deal of fun to read.  I also appreciated the craftsmanship, the well-thought out nature of the split-up North American continent (as some historians have opined in the past, it’s more surprising the United States have stayed united than having dissolved or fractured into many parts, which is why Compton’s conception of several different governments all jockeying for position makes total sense), and even the subtle love story between the oh-so-capable Wing and Grisha, as it helps humanize them nicely.

Now, were there some drawbacks here?  A few:  I didn’t see a great deal of internal monologue from Grisha, Wing, Nikolai (Grisha’s good friend, who goes through many trials in this book) or anyone else, nor did I see anyone who wasn’t described as unattractive or out of shape among the “positive leads” of RUSSIAN AMERIKA (meaning that a few of the Russian officers, who are obviously bad guys, or the one promyshlennik — an uber-tracker of sorts — who works for the Russians — are ugly or ill-favored, but everyone else seems not only well-proportioned, but handsome or beautiful in the extreme).  I viewed these critiques as minor in the scope of this particular book (note that the review for the second book in this series, ALASKA REPUBLIK, will be forthcoming later in the week), but they are present and at times, they were a little distracting.

However, this was a first novel; my hunch is that over time, Compton will realize that readers don’t need to see heroes always being extremely handsome or beautiful in order to root for them, nor that a couple needs to be attracted primarily by looks, either; Compton even has this as a sub-plot of sort if you count the dissolved marriage of Grisha near the front of RUSSIAN AMERIKA, as it’s obvious that looks alone will not save a marriage if there’s no meeting of the minds underneath it all.

I definitely think Stoney Compton is a writer to watch — or as Storm Constantine once put it on behalf of a different writer, “a writer to read” — and recommend RUSSIAN AMERIKA without equivocation.

Grade: B-plus (right on the edge of A-minus, solely due to the minor factors that distracted me), recommended.

Reviewed by Barb