Saturday, 27 September 2014

Book Review: Wars to End all Wars

Wars to End All WarsWars to End All Wars by G.L. Lathian
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm a student of World War One and love good historical speculative fiction, so I was eager to read this. Also, in the interests of full disclosure, I'm a friend of one of the contributors. I make it a policy not to review friends' work so I won't be mentioning Andrew Leon Hudson's story "The Foundation" in this review. There's enough other material to make an overall assessment.
Things start badly with a poor introduction by editor N.E. White, who informs us "In the summer of 1914, war was declared between Germany and Russia, between Belgium and Italy, and between the Ottoman Empire and England." Not only does this statement leave out some of the major players (France? Austria-Hungary? Hello?) but it contains two historical errors. Italy did not join the war until 1915 and when it did, it was on the side of the Allies, not the Central Powers. Also, it should be "British Empire", not England.
Another editorial gaffe was White's decision to link each story to a related Wikipedia article. Even the most casual search on the Internet will find better source material, the Imperial War Museum's website or Trenches on the Web, for example.
Luckily, the stories are better than the introduction. Things get off to a strong start with an alternate history tale by Igor Ljubuncic called "The Girl with the Flaxen Hair." What if Gavrilo Princip chickened out at the last minute? We follow his life after pulling back from the fateful moment.
Lee Swift's "Wormhole" gives us simpler fare with a simple monster hunt that's good fun and captures the misery of trench life.
Wilson Geiger's "Jawohl" studies the life of a WWI veteran but appears to be set in WWII. I found it a bit disappointing with more than one cliche (like the protagonist's rage being reflected by a thunderstorm) but it was a decent effort nonetheless.
Elizabeth Moon's "Tradition" is the strongest piece in the collection, a straight-up naval adventure that tweaks history without resorting to any paranormal or futuristic elements.
"On the Cheap" by Dan Bieger has famous writers turned fairies turned WWI veterans reminiscing in an Irish pub. I found this to be an uneven effort that failed to live up to its puckish aspirations.
"One Man's War" by G.L. Lathian is a historical switcheroo between a common man and a famous historical figure that is predictable and fails to deliver any real impact.
In sum, this anthology is an uneven offering as most anthologies are. There's enough here to be worth the cover price but too many shots miss the mark for my liking.

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Friday, 26 September 2014

Old West Photo Friday: Prospectors in California

I love this shot. Even though you can't see too much detail of these grizzled old prospectors, you can see what they're up against. They're making their way along the Campo Trail in Devil's Canyon, California, in 1904.

While at this late date they wouldn't have had to worry about hostile Indians, there were still plenty of bandits, scorpions, and poisonous snakes around. Not to mention the rough terrain and merciless sun. I wonder whatever happened to these guys? Did they strike the Mother Lode or fade into obscurity, poor and worn out? There are no names attached to this photo so I guess we'll never know.


Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Underrated Treasures Blogfest: The Coolest Western You Probably Haven't Seen

Today I'm participating in the Underrated Treasures Blogfest, where bloggers are picking their favorite movie, book, or album that nobody else has heard of. For me, it has to be the 1969 western MacKenna's Gold. This move had everything--stars, a clever plot, hidden treasure, Apaches, heaps of character actors, and plenty of twists and turns. Sadly, even many fans of the genre are unfamiliar with it.

MacKenna's Gold follows the attempts by Marshal MacKenna (played by Gregory Peck) to arrest the bandit Colorado (Omar Sharif). Unfortunately, Colorado captures MacKenna and forces him to lead his banditos to a hidden valley full of Apache gold. McKenna had recently found a treasure map, you see, but in his quest for justice he was too busy hunting down banditos to look for it himself.

It turns out that everyone else has heard the rumors too, and soon the banditos and their unwilling lawman ally have to contend with a corrupt cavalry officer (Telly Savalas) and his equally corrupt soldiers, as well as a horde of gold-hungry townies. And then, of course, there are the Apaches. . .

What I like about this film, besides all the fun characters, is how society totally breaks down at the first hint of gold fever. Gregory Peck's character is the only one who maintains his civilized role, reminding me of Gary Cooper's character in High Noon. This hokey Western ends up being a biting social commentary.

This is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination. The original was supposed to be three hours and was cut to two, and the director bridged the gaps with bad narration. There are also some crummy shots thanks to changing the film stock halfway through production. These problems might account for why this film is so poorly remembered, but that's a shame. It's heaps of fun and well worth hunting down.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Military History Photo Friday: WWI Grenade Catapult

World War one was a strange combination of modern and medieval. While it saw the development of aircraft, tanks, and poison gas, it also saw men wearing armor, wielding clubs, and even launching grenades with catapults.

This image dates from 1915 and shows French troops improving their throwing arm by using a catapult to chuck grenades at the German trenches. All sides used these, although they were never terribly widespread. Their accuracy was not the best and better armaments such as the trench mortar soon became available.

I might have to put one of these babies in an upcoming Trench Raiders novel!

Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Forgotten Masters of Fantasy and Science Fiction Silent Film

Satan at Play, bu Segundo de Chomón, 1907.

As you may know, I blog every Wednesday over at Black Gate. For the past two weeks I've been delving into my love of silent film. Ever since I was a kid I've been captivated by these early movies and as an adult I've been doing some research into them. Two early directors who have been all but forgotten are the subject of my recent posts.

Segundo de Chomón was a Spanish director who in the first decade of the twentieth century made some two hundred films, mostly fantasy and horror. Walter R. Booth of England was another early pioneer, starting in films in 1899. He created the first science fiction film trilogy with his Airship Destroyer series from 1909-11.

Both directors used techniques such as animation, split screen, jump cuts, superimposition, multiple exposures, and stop motion animation to make their special effects. Even though their films are more than a century old, many of these effects hold up surprisingly well. Check out the links to the articles and you'll find more links to their best films. Most early films were less than six minutes long so they make a perfect break from work. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Book Review: The First Shot (Caleb Thorn Book 1)

The First Shot (Caleb Thorn #1)The First Shot by L J Coburn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was originally published in 1973 during the high point of the men's action paperback genre, and is definitely a product of that time. This quick, easy read relies on sex and violence rather than plot and characterization to entertain readers.
The title character Caleb Thorn is an unsympathetic cad, a Southern gentleman who cares about no one except his mother (and cares about her way too much). Early in the book, he kills a man in a duel, and by a series of circumstances ends up in the Union army under the command of the boy's father. The officer sends Thorn off on a suicide mission with a group of condemned men.
This is a well-worn formula but it works here. The action scenes are fast-paced and believable, and the tension is unrelenting.
I could have used some more background on the supporting cast. For example, one man is an expert on explosives (there's always an explosives expert in these things) but it's never explained where he got this uncommon skill. The whole book seems somewhat rushed, and padded out with sex scenes that are often distasteful rather than enticing.
If you're looking for an unchallenging read with lots of Saxon Violins (as they say), this may be for you. It's available as an inexpensive ebook from Piccadilly Publishing.

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Friday, 12 September 2014

Wild West Photo Friday: J.W. Swart's Saloon in Charleston, Arizona in 1885

Working on my next Osprey book about the Apache Wars has got me reading a lot about Arizona. I've touched on Arizona history before with a different Osprey publication on Wyatt Earp's Vendetta Ride.

In relation to that already published book, here's an image of J.W. Swart's Saloon in Charleston, Arizona. They look like a friendly group, don't they? Charleston was a rough town situated nine miles southwest of Tombstone. It was right across the San Pedro river from Millville, so named because it milled the silver ore mined from Tombstone. The milling process required more water than was available in Tombstone, so the ore had to be shipped down to Millville.

Charleston was where the men who worked in the milling plant lived. It was a rough town and a meeting place for the infamous band of rustlers called the Cowboys, who would have a date with the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday at the OK Corral. The Clanton family, who were prominent among the Cowboys, had a ranch not far from Charleston. One wonders how many outlaws are in this picture.

Charleston has all but disappeared. The collapse of Tombstone's mining industry in 1886, and an earthquake in 1887, pretty much erased Charleston from the map. All that's left of this wild west town today are a few foundations in a lonely stretch of desert.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Civil War Horror blog, where he focuses on Civil War and Wild West history.

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