Book Review: Savrola

“Savrola” by Winston S. ChurchillIn 1897, the young (23 year old) Winston Churchill, on an ocean voyage from Britain to India to rejoin the army in the Malakand campaign of 1897, turned his pen to fiction and began this, his first and only novel. He set the work aside to write The Story of the Malakand Field Force, an account of the fighting and his first published work of non-fiction, then returned to the novel, completing it in 1898. It was serialised in Macmillan’s Magazine in that year. (Churchill’s working title, Affairs of State, was changed by the magazine’s editors to Savrola, the name of a major character in the story.) The novel was subsequently published as book under that title in 1900.

The story takes place in the fictional Mediterranean country of Laurania, where five years before the events chronicled here, a destructive civil war had ended with General Antonio Molara taking power as President and ruling as a dictator with the support of the military forces he commanded in the war. Prior to the conflict, Laurania had a long history as a self-governing republic, and unrest was growing as more and more of the population demanded a return to parliamentary rule. Molara announced that elections would be held for a restored parliament under the original constitution.

Then, on the day the writ ordering the election was to be issued, it was revealed that the names of more than half of the citizens on the electoral rolls had been struck by Molara’s order. A crowd gathered in the public square, on hearing this news, became an agitated mob and threatened to storm the President’s carriage. The officer commanding the garrison commanded his troops to fire on the crowd.

All was now over. The spirit of the mob was broken and the wide expanse of Constitution Square was soon nearly empty. Forty bodies and some expended cartridges lay on the ground. Both had played their part in the history of human development and passed out of the considerations of living men. Nevertheless, the soldiers picked up the empty cases, and presently some police came with carts and took the other things away, and all was quiet again in Laurania.

The massacre, as it was called even by the popular newspaper The Diurnal Gusher which nominally supported the Government, not to mention the opposition press, only compounded the troubles Molara saw in every direction he looked. While the countryside was with him, sentiment in the capital was strongly with the pro-democracy opposition. Among the army, only the élite Republican Guard could be counted on as reliably loyal, and their numbers were small. A diplomatic crisis was brewing with the British over Laurania’s colony in Africa which might require sending the Fleet, also loyal, away to defend it. A rebel force, camped right across the border, threatens invasion at any sign of Molara’s grip on the nation weakening. And then there is Savrola.

Savrola (we never learn his first name), is the young (32 years), charismatic, intellectual, and persuasive voice of the opposition. While never stepping across the line sufficiently to justify retaliation, he manages to keep the motley groups of anti-Government forces in a loose coalition and is a constant thorn in the side of the authorities. He was not immune from introspection.

Was it worth it? The struggle, the labour, the constant rush of affairs, the sacrifice of so many things that make life easy, or pleasant—for what? A people’s good! That, he could not disguise from himself, was rather the direction than the cause of his efforts. Ambition was the motive force, and he was powerless to resist it.

This is a character one imagines the young Churchill having little difficulty writing. With the seemingly incorruptible Savrola gaining influence and almost certain to obtain a political platform in the coming elections, Molara’s secretary, the amoral but effective Miguel, suggests a stratagem: introduce Savrola to the President’s stunningly beautiful wife Lucile and use the relationship to compromise him.

“You are a scoundrel—an infernal scoundrel” said the President quietly.

Miguel smiled, as one who receives a compliment. “The matter,” he said, “is too serious for the ordinary rules of decency and honour. Special cases demand special remedies.”

The President wants to hear no more of the matter, but does not forbid Miguel from proceeding. An introduction is arranged, and Lucile rapidly moves from fascination with Savrola to infatuation. Then events rapidly spin out of anybody’s control. The rebel forces cross the border; Molara’s army is proved unreliable and disloyal; the Fleet, en route to defend the colony, is absent; Savrola raises a popular rebellion in the capital; and open fighting erupts.

This is a story of intrigue, adventure, and conflict in the “Ruritanian” genre popularised by the 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. Churchill, building on his experience of war reportage, excels in and was praised for the realism of the battle scenes. The depiction of politicians, functionaries, and soldiers seems to veer back and forth between cynicism and admiration for their efforts in trying to make the best of a bad situation. The characters are cardboard figures and the love interest is clumsily described.

Still, this is an entertaining read and provides a window on how the young Churchill viewed the antics of colourful foreigners and their unstable countries, even if Laurania seems to have a strong veneer of Victorian Britain about it. The ultimate message is that history is often driven not by the plans of leaders, whether corrupt or noble, but by events over which they have little control. Churchill never again attempted a novel and thought little of this effort. In his 1930 autobiography covering the years 1874 through 1902 he writes of Savrola, “I have consistently urged my friends to abstain from reading it.” But then, Churchill was not always right—don’t let his advice deter you; I enjoyed it.

This work is available for free as a Project Gutenberg electronic book in a variety of formats. There are a number of print and Kindle editions of this public domain text; I have cited the least expensive print edition available at the time I wrote this review. I read this Kindle edition, which has a few typographical errors due to having been prepared by optical character recognition (for example, “stem” where “stern” was intended), but is otherwise fine.

One factlet I learned while researching this review is that “Winston S. Churchill” is actually a nom de plume. Churchill’s full name is Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, and he signed his early writings as “Winston Churchill”. Then, he discovered there was a well-known American novelist with the same name. The British Churchill wrote to the American Churchill and suggested using the name “Winston Spencer Churchill” (no hyphen) to distinguish his work. The American agreed, noting that he would also be willing to use a middle name, except that he didn’t have one. The British Churchill’s publishers abbreviated his name to “Winston S. Churchill”, which he continued to use for the rest of his writing career.

Churchill, Winston S. Savrola. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1898, 1900] 2018. ISBN 978-1-7271-2358-6.

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This Week’s Book Review – Shep in the Victorio War

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Neither side backs down in ‘Shep in the Victorio War’

By MARK LARDAS

Sep 11, 2018

“Shep in the Victorio War,” by Don DeNevi, Texas Review Press, 2018, 168 pages, $18.95

Shep is back. The adventures of this black German shepherd are continued in a sequel to “Faithful Shep.”

“Shep in the Victorio War,” by Don DeNevi, carries on the tale of Shep, his owners William Wiswall and Joseph Andrews and the Apache chief Victorio.

A band of Mescalero and Warm Springs Apaches led by Victorio had left their reservation. The band supported itself raiding. Cattle, horses, or wagons loaded with supplies were targets.

The previous book ended with Wiswall and Andrews recovering Shep from deep within Apache territory assisted by a Texas Ranger company and their Indian scouts. Recovering Shep required a confrontation with Victorio and his warriors, who let Shep and his rescuers escape.

“Shep in the Victorio War” opens with Wiswall and Andrews informally attached to the group that rescued Shep, Texas Rangers Company A, Frontier Battalion. They are helping out until they decide what they will do next. Just as the two decide to move on to California, they learn Company A is being mobilized to hunt down Victorio’s band. Of course, they choose to stay until this job is finished.

The Rangers join what became known as the Victorio War. A three-year effort running from 1879 through 1881, it involved finding Victorio’s band to either force them back to the reservation or kill them. This book captures the war’s end-game.

DeNevi, through the eyes of Wiswall and Andrews, takes readers into that war. Company A participates in the chase for Victorio in Texas and later (through the invitation of the local governor) into Mexico. DeNevi also shows the conflict from Victorio’s view. He and his band left the reservation because they were not fed (as promised) and the place was disease-ridden.

The story becomes a tragedy because both sides believe they can justify actions leading to the destruction of one of the two sides. Neither side will back down. Along the way, Wiswell, Andrews, and Shep meet a constellation of notable historical figures who participated in the campaign.

“Shep and the Victorio War” seem aimed at a young adult audience, yet will captivate all ages. It is brief, but memorable.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: Ideal

“Ideal” (novella and play) by Ayn RandIn 1934, the 29 year old Ayn Rand was trying to establish herself in Hollywood. She had worked as a junior screenwriter and wardrobe person, but had not yet landed a major writing assignment. She wrote Ideal on speculation, completing the 32,000 word novella and then deciding it would work better as a stage play. She set the novella aside and finished the play version in 1936. The novella was never published nor was the play produced during her lifetime. After her death in 1982, the play was posthumously published in the anthology The Early Ayn Rand, but the novella remained largely unknown until this edition, which includes both it and the play, was published in 2015.

Ideal is the story of movie idol Kay Gonda, a beautiful and mysterious actress said to have been modeled on Greta Garbo. The night before the story begins, Gonda had dinner alone with oil baron Granton Sayers, whose company, it was rumoured, was on the brink of ruin in the depths of the Depression. Afterwards, Sayers was found in his mansion dead of a gunshot wound, and Gonda was nowhere to be found. Rumours swirled through the press that Gonda was wanted for murder, but there was a blackout of information which drove the press and her studio near madness. Her private secretary said that she had not seen Gonda since she left for the dinner, but that six pieces of her fan mail were missing from her office at the studio, so she assumed that Gonda must have returned and taken them.

The story then describes six episodes in which the fugitive Kay Gonda shows up, unannounced, at the homes of six of her fans, all of whom expressed their utter devotion to her in their letters. Five of the six—a henpecked manager of a canning company, an ageing retiree about to lose the house in which he raised his children, an artist who paints only canvases of Ms Gonda who has just won first prize in an important exhibition, an evangelist whose temple faces serious competition from the upstart Church of the Cheery Corner, and a dissipated playboy at the end of his financial rope—end up betraying the idol to whom they took pen to paper to express their devotion when confronted with the human being in the flesh and the constraints of the real world. The sixth fan, Johnnie Dawes, who has struggled to keep a job and roof over his head all his adult life, sees in Kay Gonda an opportunity to touch a perfection he had never hoped to experience in his life and devises a desperate plan to save Gonda from her fate.

A surprise ending reveals that much the reader has assumed is not what really happened, and that while Kay Gonda never once explicitly lied, neither did she prevent those to whom she spoke from jumping to the wrong conclusions.

This is very minor Ayn Rand. You can see some of the story telling skills which would characterise her later work beginning to develop, but the story has no plot: it is a morality tale presented in unconnected episodes, and the reader is left to draw the moral on his or her own. Given that the author was a struggling screenwriter in an intensely competitive Hollywood, the shallowness and phoniness of the film business is much on display here, although not so explicitly skewered as the later Ayn Rand might have done. The message is one of “skin in the game”—people can only be judged by what they do when confronted by difficult situations, not by what they say when words are cheap.

It is interesting to compare the play to the novella. The stories are clearly related, but Rand swaps out one of the fans, the elderly man, for a young, idealistic, impecunious, and totally phoney Communist activist. The play was written in 1936, the same year as We the Living, and perhaps the opportunity to mock pathetic Hollywood Bolsheviks was too great to pass by.

This book will mostly be of interest to those who have read Ayn Rand’s later work and are curious to read some of the first fiction she ever wrote. Frankly, it isn’t very good, and an indication of this is that Ayn Rand, whose reputation later in life would have made it easy to arrange publication for this work, chose to leave it in the trunk all her life. But she did not destroy the manuscript, so there must have been some affection for it.

Rand, Ayn. Ideal. New York: New American Library, 2015. ISBN 978-0-451-47317-2.

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Book Review: An Inconvenient Presidency

“An Inconvenient Presidency” by Eric M. HamiltonThis novella (89 pages in the Kindle edition) is a delightful romp into alternative history and the multiverse. Al Gore was elected president in 2000 and immediately informed of a capability so secret he had never been told of it, even as Vice President. He was handed a gadget, the METTA, which allowed a limited kind of time travel. Should he, or the country, find itself in a catastrophic and seemingly unrecoverable situation, he could press its red button and be mentally transported back in time to a reset point, set just after his election, to give it another try. But, after the reset, he would retain all of his knowledge of the events which preceded it.

Haven’t you imagined going back in time and explaining to your younger self all of the things you’ve learned by trial and error and attendant bruises throughout your life? The shadowy Government Apperception Liberation Authority—GALA—has endowed presidents with this capability. This seems so bizarre the new president Gore pays little attention to it. But when an unanticipated and almost unimaginable event occurs, he presses the button.

~KRRZKT~

Well, we won’t let that happen! And it doesn’t, but something else does: reset. This job isn’t as easy as it appeared: reset, reset, reset.

We’ve often joked about the “Gore Effect”: the correlation between unseasonably cold weather and Al Gore’s appearance to promote his nostrums of “anthropogenic global warming”. Here, Al Gore begins to think there is a greater Gore Effect: that regardless of what he does and what he learns from previous experience and a myriad of disasters, something always goes wrong with catastrophic consequences.

Can he escape this loop? Who are the mysterious people behind GALA? He is determined to find out, and he has plenty of opportunities to try: ~KRRZKT~.

You will be amazed at how the author brings this tale to a conclusion. Throughout, everything was not as it seemed, but in the last few pages, well golly! Unusually for a self-published work, there are no typographical or grammatical errors which my compulsive copy-editor hindbrain detected. The author does not only spin a fine yarn, but respects his audience enough to perfect his work before presenting it to them: this is rare, and I respect and applaud that. Despite Al Gore and other U.S. political figures appearing in the story, there is no particular political tilt to the narrative: the goal is fun, and it is superbly achieved.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Hamilton, Eric M. An Inconvenient Presidency. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2016. ISBN 978-1-5368-7363-4.

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Book Review: The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun

“The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun” by Matthew BrackenWe first met Dan Kilmer in Castigo Cay, where the retired U.S. Marine sniper (I tread cautiously on the terminology: some members of the Corps say there’s no such thing as a “former Marine” and, perhaps, neither is there a “former sniper”) had to rescue his girlfriend from villains in the Caribbean. The novel is set in a world where the U.S. is deteriorating into chaos and the malevolent forces suppressed by civilisation have begun to assert their power on the high seas.

As this novel begins, things have progressed, and not for the better. The United States has fractured into warring provinces as described in the author’s “Enemies” trilogy. Japan and China are in wreckage after the global economic crash. Much of Europe is embroiled in civil wars between the indigenous population and inbred medieval barbarian invaders imported by well-meaning politicians or allowed to land upon their shores or surge across their borders by the millions. The reaction to this varies widely depending upon the culture and history of the countries invaded. Only those wise enough to have said “no” in time have been spared.

But even they are not immune to predation. The plague of Islamic pirates on the high seas and slave raiders plundering the coasts of Europe was brought to an end only by the navies of Christendom putting down the corsairs’ primitive fleets. But with Europe having collapsed economically, drawn down its defence capability to almost nothing, and daring not even to speak the word “Christendom” for fear of offending its savage invaders, the pirates are again in ascendence, this time flying the black flag of jihad instead of the Jolly Roger.

When seventy young girls are kidnapped into sex slavery from a girls’ school in Ireland by Islamic pirates and offered for auction to the highest bidder among their co-religionists, a group of those kind of hard men who say things like “This will not stand”, including a retired British SAS colonel and a former Provisional IRA combatant (are either ever “retired” or “former”?) join forces, not to deploy a military-grade fully-automatic hashtag, but to get the girls back by whatever means are required.

Due to exigent circumstances, Dan Kilmer’s 18 metre steel-hulled schooner, moored in a small port in western Ireland to peddle diesel fuel he’s smuggled in from a cache in Greenland, becomes one of those means. Kilmer thinks the rescue plan to be folly, but agrees to transport the assault team to their rendezvous point in return for payment for him and his crew in gold.

It’s said that no battle plan survives contact with the enemy. In this case, the plan doesn’t even get close to that point. Improvisation, leaders emerging in the midst of crisis, and people rising to the occasion dominate the story. There are heroes, but not superheroes—instead people who do what is required in the circumstances in which they find themselves. It is an inspiring story.

This book has an average review rating of 4.9 on Amazon, but you’re probably hearing of it here for the first time. Why? Because it presents an accurate view of the centuries-old history of Islamic slave raiding and trading, and the reality that the only way this predation upon civilisation can be suppressed is by civilised people putting it down in with violence commensurate to its assault upon what we hold most precious.

The author’s command of weapons and tactics is encyclopedic, and the novel is consequently not just thrilling but authentic. And, dare I say, inspiring.

The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Bracken, Matthew. The Red Cliffs of Zerhoun. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-0-9728310-5-5.

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Book Review: Order to Kill

“Order to Kill” by Kyle MillsThis is the second novel in the Mitch Rapp saga written by Kyle Mills, who took over the franchise after the death of Vince Flynn, its creator. In the first novel by Mills, The Survivor, he picked up the story of the last Vince Flynn installment, The Last Manright where it left off and seemed to effortlessly assume the voice of Vince Flynn and his sense for the character of Mitch Rapp. This was a most promising beginning, which augured well for further Mitch Rapp adventures.

In this, the fifteenth novel in the Mitch Rapp series (Flynn’s first novel, Term Limits, is set in the same world and shares characters with the Mitch Rapp series, but Rapp does not appear in it, so it isn’t considered a Rapp novel), Mills steps out of the shadow of Vince Flynn’s legacy and takes Rapp and the story line into new territory. The result is…mixed.

In keeping with current events and the adversary du jour, the troublemakers this time are the Russkies, with President Maxim Vladimirovich Krupin at the top of the tottering pyramid. And tottering it is, as the fall in oil prices has undermined Russia’s resource-based economy and destabilised the enterprises run by the oligarchs who keep him in power. He may be on top, but he is as much a tool of those in the shadows as master of his nation.

But perhaps there is a grand coup, or one might even say in the new, nominally pious Russia, a Hail Mary pass, which might simultaneously rescue the Russian economy and restore Russia to its rightful place on the world stage.

The problem is those pesky Saudis. Sitting atop a large fraction of the Earth’s oil, they can turn the valve on and off and set the price per barrel wherever they wish and, recently, have chosen to push the price down to simultaneously appease their customers in Europe and Asia, but also to drive the competition from hydraulic fracturing (which has a higher cost of production than simply pumping oil out from beneath the desert) out of the market. Suppose the Saudis could be taken out? But Russia could never do it directly. There would need to be a cut-out, and perfect deniability.

Well, the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever they’re calling this week in the Court Language of the Legacy Empire) is sworn to extend its Caliphate to the holiest places of Islam and depose the illegitimate usurpers who rule them, so what better puppet to take down the Saudi petro-hegemony? Mitch Rapp finds himself in the middle of this conspiracy, opting to endure grave physical injury to insinuate himself into its midst.

But it’s the nature of the plot where everything falls apart, in one of those details which Vince Flynn and his brain trust would never have flubbed. This isn’t a quibble, but a torpedo below the water line. We must, perforce, step behind the curtain.

All right, we’re back from the spoilers. Whether you’ve read them or not, this is a well-crafted thriller which works as such as long as you don’t trip over the central absurdity in the plot. Rapp not only suffers grievous injury, but encounters an adversary who is not only his equal but better. He confronts his age, and its limitations. It happens to us all.

The gaping plot hole could have been easily fixed—not in the final manuscript but in the outline. Let’s hope that future Mitch Rapp adventures will be subjected to the editorial scrutiny which makes them not just page-turners but ones where, as you’re turning the pages, you don’t laugh out loud at easily-avoided blunders.

Mills, Kyle. Order to Kill. New York: Pocket Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4767-8349-9.

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