The War That Ended Peace

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by Margaret MacMillan

Published 2013

So, I don’t know that any of you have been following me since I first started this book blog (originally on tumblr) back in December 2011, but the very first book I ever reviewed online was called George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I.  At the time, I had realized that my 20th century history was incredibly weak, and was determined to do an independent study on the subject.  Using Tapestry of Grace as a general outline for reading material, I jumped right in.  But, per usual, I found myself getting bogged down with questions.  By Week 3 of Tapestry, I was already supposed to be blowing through World War I, but I had no idea why World War I was happening.  I stumbled across the George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm book and decided to give it a whirl, and it was fantastic.  The problem is, that was in 2011, and I’m still only partway through World War II.  THEN FictionFan published a review of The War That Ended Peace.  Despite all my reading on World War II, the first World War is the one that’s continued to hold my fascination, and I couldn’t resist what sounded like an amazing read, even if it did mean spending almost 700 pages going backward on my history timeline.

This book was well-worth the effort.  As an American, I always greatly appreciate reading world history books written by non-Americans, especially covering a topic wherein the Americans were (per usual) rather late on the scene.  MacMillan takes a gigantic topic and makes it incredibly readable.  The book flows well, and the writing was excellent.  I also loved the fact that the pictures/photographs were scattered throughout the text instead of in clumps of pages here and there (this  means the pictures aren’t on the traditional glossy paper, but that’s okay with me), because it really helped to break the text up a bit, aiding in the ease-of-reading.

In a way, this covered a lot of the territory I’d read in the Royal Cousins book, but the perspective is different enough to make this read just as interesting for me.  MacMillan makes an effort to draw some parallels between the ramp-up to WWI and current events.  Most of the time this was interesting, although sometimes it felt almost too random – I’d be right in the thick of a narrative from 1907 and all of the sudden, “very similar to China in 2011” or something, and it was a bit jarring.

Overall, though, I highly recommend this book.  For the amount of information that it covers, it is remarkably easy to read.  Frequently, non-fiction books involve far too many people, but MacMillan makes them interesting enough that they are memorable, and she reminds the reader of who someone is if it’s been too long since he was last mentioned, which I appreciate.  (It can be very frustrating when an author expects me to remember who “Copenhagen” is when I haven’t heard from Copenhagen in 173 pages.)

I will say that one of the things that really struck me was how, relatively, a very small number of people  made the decisions that started the war – millions of people die, and for what?  Did normal, every-day Germans really want more territory?  Or were they just interested in growing some food, going to work, raising their children, living their lives?  So often, history books use country’s names as though they are people – Germany did this, Belgium thought this, France wanted this.  But the truth is, it’s a few leaders of each of those countries who are doing, thinking, and wanting: I truly believe that what most of the people want is simply to be left alone to live their lives in peace.

One of the reasons that this book was so intriguing was because, besides the obvious parallels that MacMillan specifically mentions, there are plenty of times where it is easy to see similar things that are happening around the world today.  The quote “those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it” seems particularly apt when reading about World War I and its seemingly arbitrary causes.  Sometimes, when the circumstances are just right, it doesn’t take much to start a war.

Charmed Life

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by Diana Wynne Jones

Published 1977

So I’m afraid that my reading (and thus this blog) has been in a bit of a rut lately …  frankly, I’ve cheated a bit on my usual rotation because I’ve been enjoying the Amelia Peabody books so much that keep skipping over the boring looking books so I can get to the next Peabody story!  That, combined with the fact that I’ve also read several Pride & Prejudice variations/sequels that were so dreadful/fanfictionish that I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve read them, means that this blog has been a tad repetitive.  And while that trend will likely continue (because let’s face it, I read basically the same types of books all the time), I’ve branched out a bit by starting Diana Wynne Jones’s “Chrestomanci” series.

This is a series that I’ve been meaning to read for quite some time (pretty much every since I found out about Jones about a year ago when I read Fire & Hemlock).  The problem is that everyone seems to have a different opinion on the order in which the books should be read.  Some people are adamant that they be read chronologically.  Others are just as determined that they only be read in published order.  Some people are ambivalent, saying that they can be read in any order – except you have to read first (there are multiple opinions one which book is).  I just couldn’t decide how to do it!

In the end, I ran into someone on tumblr who convinced me to go with the published order, mainly because we got into a passionate discussion about the injustice of the Chronicles of Narnia being republished in chronological rather than original published order; we agree that this is a terrible, terrible decision, and we both spend time thrusting The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe into people’s hands and demanding that they read it before reading The Magician’s Nephew no matter what the numbers on the spine say.

ALL THAT TO SAY that Charmed Life is the first-published of the Chrestomanci books, and so I read it first.

The other problem I have with reading/reviewing Jones’s books in general is that she has an almost cult following.  I’ve discovered over the years that I’m simply not clever.  I read books and more or less take away the actual story from them.  But extrapolating theories and making insightful and subtle connections – not my thing.  (Case in point: I have been mocked by multiple people online for my personal indifference towards the A Series of Unfortunate Events books.  I just didn’t “get” them.  No one ever bothers to explain what it is that I haven’t gotten, but I’m apparently incredibly obtuse for not getting what I’m supposed to get, because while I appreciated the intriguing writing style, the point of those books is just beyond me.)  So sometimes, while I enjoy Jones’s stories and characterization, I find her endings a bit abrupt and disappointing.  But I’m scared to say so because the entire We-Love-Diana-Wynne-Jones-Club jumps all over me for my inability to “get” her writing (tumblr, I’m mostly talking to you).  Ah well.  I guess what I’m saying is – reading is about opinions and is incredibly subjective, so if I decide I do or don’t like one of Jones’s books, please don’t let that take away from your ability to enjoy (or not) what she’s written.

Wow, this is a really long entry that, thus far, hasn’t actually reviewed a book!  Gracious.

So.  Charmed Life.  It was a good book and I liked it.  I found Gwendolyn to be above-and-beyond disturbing.  She gave me the legit creeps, and while I could somewhat understand Cat’s love for her, since she was his sister, etc., I couldn’t really understand why he continued to yearn to have her back even after discovering how she had used and abused him.  Consequently, Cat kind of got on my nerves.

The concept, however, that every time there’s a major battle or decision or whatever, that another world is created that has the opposite result, so that there are multiple worlds all similar yet different – I love that idea.  It’s perfect, and it gives Jones the ability to write about a world that is a lot-but-not-exactly-like our own.

Overall a strong 4/5, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of the series (I’ve only read The Magicians of Caprona so far).