Thursday, December 31, 2015

A New Deal for the World, by Elizabeth Borgwardt

This week I'm reading a historical book that seeks to analyze the creation of international institutions after World War II by the United States through the influence of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In specific Borgwardt focuses on three main areas and ties them back to economic stability, collective security, and international justice. Specifically she talks about the Bretton Woods system and its main agencies, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the creation of the United Nations, and the Nuremberg Charter and associated trials for Crimes Against Peace and Humanity. Borgwardt's main thesis is that all three of these efforts can be traced back to Roosevelt's goal to expand the New Deal beyond the United States and create, as she titles her book, a New Deal for the world.

Borgwardt begins her text with the Atlantic Charter, an informal agreement made between Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in August of 1941. Although the United States was still “officially” neutral until the December attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt had worked on pushing the United States towards entering the war and was already heavily involved in the Lend-Lease program. The Atlantic Charter was not meant to be a binding treaty but was more an informal statement of overall war goals for the Allied powers and why they were fighting against the Nazi regime. Roosevelt also worked on including his Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Fear, and Freedom from Want, which he considered to be essential to the creation of a sustainable peace once the war was over. Borgwardt credits the informal Atlantic Charter as an important step in the foundation of the principles of human rights and the idea that there are international ideals which transcend national law.

The Atlantic Charter proved to be very influential on public opinion and its inspiration spread much further than its drafters intended. The statement of self-determination for all peoples in the world Churchill almost definitely meant to apply only to the oppressed people of Europe under the Nazi regime. Rampant Imperialist that he was, he certainly did not mean for the principle of self-determination to extend as far as India! Roosevelt was also confronted with the awkward system of racially-based repression and discrimination in the United States, which unfortunately lingers to this day. Despite the shortcomings of the creators of the Charter, it would be the first step the Allies would take in organizing the peace after the war in an attempt to avoid the failures of 1919.

Borgwardt also focuses on the differences in public opinion in 1945 versus 1919. Obviously the high aspirations of a post-war international order had their origins with Woodrow Wilson's League of Nations, which proved utterly ineffective at accomplishing anything or even preventing a second war twenty years later. After World War I, Americans in general were ready to return to normalcy, as Warren G. Harding put it, and had no interest in joining an international organization that promised to get them entangled in more European politics. As Borgwardt puts it, everyone wanted to go back to 1913 before the war began. However, by 1945 there was a very different attitude among the American population and a majority of Americans believed that the United States should be involved in international organizations after the war was over to help prevent future conflicts. This assessment was made easier by the creation of scientific polling in 1935, which provided both Congress and the Roosevelt administration with a hitherto unprecedented insight into the mind of the average American.

However, it is curious that a majority of Americans should be supportive of further American involvement abroad when so many Americans had supported neutrality before 1941. Borgwardt's explanation for this shift was the shared experience of the Great Depression, the New Deal, and then service by millions of Americans in the armed forces during World War II. No one wanted to relive the 1930's and the economic and political instability that came with it, so people were placing their hopes in international organizations that would have the resources to promote stability. In addition Borgwardt places special emphasis on the entire generation of Americans the grew up during the Great Depression and saw first-hand the benefits of big government projects during the New Deal which reduced hostility to government-led solutions for big problems. In addition, that same generation was drafted in large number into the military and taken across the globe. Men who may have spent their entire lives in the same small town found themselves in locations as distant as China, Africa, and Europe. Borgwardt asserts that through this exposure to the power of big government, as well as the world at large, the Greatest Generation (to use the popular phrase) became greatly supportive of multilateral international organizations to create a better world for tomorrow.

The three organizations Borgwardt chooses to focus on are, as I said, the Bretton Woods system with the IMF and World Bank, the United Nations, and the Nuremberg Charter and Trials. I will say the final one feels the weakest and there's probably good reason for that, but I'll get to that in a minute. Roosevelt and other New Dealers believed that for a sustainable peace to exist when the war was over, there needed to be economic, social, and political stability in the world which would help keep peace and foster cooperation between nations. Perhaps most important was the Bretton Woods system and its attendant financial institutions, which would hopefully help prevent the problems such as currency devaluation which had made the economic woes of the Great Depression that much worse, as well as promote a certain level of economic welfare. The United Nations, meanwhile, was to serve as a collective security agreement for the Allied Powers and a means to help prevent wars before the start through diplomacy and negotiation. Both of these failed to meet their original intents for a variety of purposes.

In the case of the IMF and World Bank, there has in recent years been criticism leveled against them for engaging in neocolonial practices and there is a certain amount of evidence to support this charge. As the capitalism vs. communism standoff of the Cold War began to set in, the directors of both of these institutions took a very strong pro-capitalism stance and would look to expand free markets regardless of the attendant cost in economic well-being to the populations of various nations. In addition, the World Bank and IMF have demanded strict repayment schedules for loans to developing countries which do not have the political or economic clout to defy these organizations. The result is outsiders demanding harsher and harsher austerity measures from the governments of these nations so they can pay back the loans to the outsiders on time. In an indirect manner this has led to a neo-colonial relationship between the developed and developing world.

In the case of the United Nations, the failure was once again the divide between capitalism and communism. Borgwardt asserts that the United Nations rested on the assumptions the four Great Powers of China, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, would continue to act in concert after the war was over and serve as the policemen of the world. However the divide between the United States and the USSR, both with veto power in the UN's Security Council, resulted in almost perpetual deadlock in that body. This resulted in more power being shifted to the General Assembly, which had relatively small membership while the French and British colonial empires were still considerably large and the Americans assumed they could readily control the General Assembly. However, as decolonization continued the membership of the General Assembly continued to grow and many countries in the Third World, finding themselves ignored and marginalized by the Superpowers, increasingly banded together in defiance of both the United States and the USSR. And of course, superpowers are happy to ignore the UN whenever they find it most convenient for themselves.

I have saved the Nuremberg Charters and Trials for last because they certainly seem a bit odd compared to the other two. While both Bretton Woods and the United Nations meet specific economic and security needs for the United States in a post-war world, the Nuremberg Trials seem more an exercise for the benefit of the Allies more than anything else. This is not to say that these trials were unimportant and they did a great deal to establishing the concept of Crimes Against Humanity. However, as Borgwardt points out, after the Nuremberg trials were over there was no permanent international court of justice until 2002, and the first international tribunal for war crimes and Crimes Against Humanity wasn't until the tragedies of the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990's. There are certainly individuals who have been placed on trial by their own countries for such atrocities, but the history of international condemnation of such atrocities to the scale of the Nuremberg Trials is noticeable lacking.

It definitely seems like the Nuremberg Trials were an attempt for the Allies to cope with the sheer inhumanity of the Holocaust, as well as to take out punishment on more prominent members of the Nazi regime. However, there was plenty of public opinion which had serious doubts about the Nuremberg Trials, stating that instead of being an example of the rule of law and justice for millions of innocent people it felt much more like victors taking one last revenge on the vanquished. The Nuremberg Trials definitely should have happened and set an important precedent to the world in how to handle atrocities such as genocide, but their legacy is far more muted than Bretton Woods and the United Nations.

Overall I think this book is pretty good, it goes into great detail explaining the American motivations for creating these international institutions and explaining after the war was over how they failed in ways their creators didn't necessarily anticipate. I do feel like it's a little incomplete in explaining how exactly all three of these systems were supposed to work, it seems to focus more on building up to these three rather than the actual nuts and bolts mechanics. For people who are interested in American foreign policy and especially policy initiatives of the World War II era, I think this is a very interesting look at an almost unique point in American history.

- Kalpar  

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi, by Tanigawa Nagaru

This week I'm finally returning, albeit briefly, to the Suzumiya Haruhi series with the fourth book, The Disappearance of Suzumiya Haruhi. I was actually going to read this book much earlier but I found out its events occurred around Christmastime so I figured it would be appropriate to review it for today. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the series you can read my reviews here, here, and here.

The book starts off normally enough, at least as normal as any of these books in a world with Haruhi can begin, anyway. As I mentioned, we've jumped forward to December, (The series tends to jump around a little bit within its chronology) and Ordinary High School Student Kyon is ready for the year to end. Haruhi, being Haruhi, has decided the SOS Brigade should do something together for Christmas this year. As argument against Haruhi is a largely futile endeavor, this decision is finalized and Kyon heads home on December 17th. When he awakes on December 18th, however, he notices things have changed. There are subtle changes at first, like when he notices a friend is ill with the flu that he certainly didn't have yesterday, but it quickly becomes far more obvious that something's wrong. People who shouldn't be there are, and people who should be aren't. In fact, an entire classroom has vanished overnight. Most distressingly for Kyon, Haruhi and Koizumi appear to have disappeared, and Mikuru and Yuki don't recognize him at all. Only a scarce handful of clues let Kyon know he isn't totally insane and set him on a race against the clock to figure out what the heck happened.

I will say I at least initially enjoyed this book because it was material that hadn't been adapted to the tv series. Well, I've been told that it actually was adapted to a feature-length film at one point, but as DVDs of it are selling on Amazon for a shade under $200 the last time I checked, I haven't actually been able to watch this. As I sort of mentioned in my other reviews, I didn't always enjoy the other books because I was already familiar with the stories and it sort of felt like a repeat. So getting to see some new material with familiar characters was a special treat for me and I look forward to more material that hasn't been adapted.

That being said, I did end up a little disappointed with this book as well. Without going into spoiler territory it very, very briefly touches on subjects that I'm rather fond of and I felt like it truly deserved a lot more development than what it got in this novel. To be fair, the books are light novels and certainly aren't like some of the doorstoppers I've been known to read from time to time with their richly complex plots and characters. Or at least lots of explosions. But I still felt like there were things that could have been developed more in this book and given more space than what they ultimately got. I will say with the new material I kind of wish these books were a bit heftier, but I guess I can't have everything.

Ultimately, the book's okay. There's less of the awkward stuff you kind of see in the earlier books and personally I liked getting to new material, but I found myself wishing for more beyond what I ended up getting. But for the rest of you, Happy Hogswatch, Joyous Solstice, and watch out for Krampus or Krinsblag, they're some nasty fellows.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Chosen, by K.F. Breene

This week I'm returning to the Fierce e-book collection and reading the next novel, Chosen by K.F. Breene. As most of the other novels in both the Fierce and Epic collections, these are the first books in a collection of different series. I've decided to give them all a sampling but probably won't be pursuing any of the series in depth. At least for now. Anyway, Chosen is the first book in the Warrior Chronicles with the second book released this past year.

The plot follows quite a few characters but the most important character, and the one placed on the cover to the right over there, is Shanti. Shanti is the titular Chosen One, who's been tasked by her people to unite the tribes and fight off the self-described Supreme Being who is slowly taking over the world, either through crafty infiltration or outright conquest. At least, Shanti would be saving the world if she didn't nearly die of starvation and dehydration when it turns out a forest that was supposed to be on the map wasn't there anymore. Fortunately for her, Shanti gets rescued by an inquisitive group of cadets and their commander, being brought back to their home city and nursed to health. Everyone is curious about this mysterious woman and her strange powers, especially the Captain, absolute ruler of their city-state and perhaps a bit more than he appears.

I'll be honest, I have some issues with this book and I'm going to try to articulate them as well as I can. First, let's talk about Shanti's powers. Shanti has what she refers to as a Gift, a collection of mental abilities which enables her to do things as varied as accelerate people's natural healing, read their emotions, influence their thoughts, and even kill them with the proper application of this power. Of course, the bad guys that Shanti is running from have this power as well, just nowhere near the same level of strength or ability as Shanti. The problem that I have is that Shanti complains a couple of times about how the bad guys only use their Gift for destructive or evil purposes. Torturing people, killing people, enslaving people. You know, general bad guy things.

While Shanti certainly uses her powers to help heal people, especially herself, and helps one character get over her lack of self-confidence, she has no qualms about torturing or killing people with her own powers as well. I mean, maybe she's meant to be an anti-hero type who's willing to do whatever's necessary, but I still feel like if you're going to be the good guys you have to be better than the bad guys. To paraphrase Sam Vimes here, you can't do bad things to people in little rooms for good reasons because that leads all too easily to doing bad things to people in little rooms for bad reasons. I just didn't like seeing Shanti be driven by a thirst for revenge and looking forward and even taking pleasure in torturing people, even if they were the scum of the earth. It's just not something a hero, especially a Chosen One, should do.

I also had a considerable amount of frustration with Shanti and the Captain and their interactions. Both of them are very powerful people who are very used to getting their own way with things and butt heads pretty constantly through the novel. Shanti's determined to go off and be on her quest as the Chosen one and doesn't want to rely upon anyone else for help. Even when she was so far gone that she would have died of starvation if the Captain's subordinates hadn't found her first. On top of that Shanti keeps a lot of secrets from everyone for the first half or so of the book. Granted, it's with good reason considering she's been on the run from the Supreme Being and his minions for about a year, but she's not willing to tell her hosts anything and gets downright combative when they ask questions, which actually hinders her efforts to get back on the road again.

The Captain, meanwhile, comes from a culture with very strict gender roles and immediately assumes women can't be fighters at all. He thinks something about Shanti's story doesn't add up, but it's more because she was found carrying a sword and throwing knives and being ambiguous about her answers. And clearly a woman couldn't be carrying a sword and knives! Women aren't fighters! Fortunately the sexism falls away pretty quickly, but the Captain still is trying to get his own way when Shanti's trying to get hers, and the result is a sort of deadlock. I'm left with the feeling that I should slap them both and tell them to quit being so obstinate and work together. Fate of the world's at stake! On the plus side they both start to get a little bit better as the book goes on and you're left with the impression that there's plenty of room for character development in later books. However in my opinion both Shanti and the Captain have quite a way to go to being well-balanced characters.

There are a few other issues, but I feel like they're sort of minor compared to those two. I feel like the book went back and forth on a couple of things at various points which made it feel less consistent. I'm pretty sure the book said two conflicting things about how powers are passed down through lineage, but it may imply that the characters themselves don't have a terribly good understanding of how the powers work either. I also was kind of uncomfortable with Shanti utilizing lust and sex as a tool to get what she wants or needs from people, and then feeling bad about it later. Especially when she considers the Captain's culture to be prudish compared to her own. But they feel kind of minor compared to my frustrations with the characters.

Overall, the book isn't terribly bad, I just didn't feel terribly excited or interested while reading it either. I can see how some people might enjoy reading it, but for myself the sort of anti-hero willing to torture enemy prisoners angle and the obstinate nature of the main characters made me more than a little frustrated. If you've read this author before and liked her stuff, you may enjoy this, but personally I just wasn't a fan.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Bonded, by Mande Matthews

This week I'm reviewing another book contained in an e-book collection called Epic I bought from Amazon. This particular book, Bonded, is the first in a planned trilogy from Mande Matthews which in her own words is described as a combination of Norse mythology and the Hero's Journey as described by Campbell. For my readers who might be somehow unfamiliar with the concept of the Hero's Journey a.k.a. monomyth, you can find an entertaining and educational video here.

I would provide a brief overview of the plot for Bonded, but I'm kind of at a loss because I felt like the plot was by far the weakest part of Bonded, especially in what it lacked as a monomyth. Basically we have the main characters of Hallad and Erik, along with Erik's brother Rolf, who are out in the forest one day with Hallad's little sister Emma. They meet a mysterious woman in the forest, and suddenly a shadow appears that kidnaps Emma. Very simple plot hook, Emma (both Hallad's sister and Erik's love interest) has been kidnapped so a quest must be undertaken to rescue her. Throughout the book there are statements that imply Emma's kidnapping is part of a much larger plot, but throughout the entire book we're never given specific information about what this plot is. We get some vague information about a prophecy, Hallad being the chosen one, and we meet Lothar who's an underling for the Big Bad referred to only as the Shadow but possibly may be Loki. The plot is very vague on this point which actually makes it weaker as a book in my opinion.

The thing about the monomyth is that it doesn't do subtle. That's probably one of its greatest strengths and why it's persisted for thousands of years. There are very obvious good guys and very obvious bad guys and perhaps more importantly the stakes of the good guys losing are made incredibly clear. For example, in Star Wars you know that the Empire are the bad guys because they have the Death Star, which can blow up planets. Generally, good people don't go around blowing up planets. On top of that, if the Rebellion doesn't stop the Empire they'll keep going on blowing up planets. And that's bad. Or for another classic example, take Lord of the Rings. If Sauron recovers the One Ring, he'll cover all of Middle Earth in darkness. Forever. Also bad. The problem with Bonded was I never learned what exactly the bad guy was planning. There was something sinister afoot, I was assured of that much, but aside from Emma getting kidnapped the bad guys didn't really seem to do anything. And I still feel a little vague on who exactly the bad guy is in this story.

The reason I feel vague on who the heroes and villains are is because of how things work in Alvenheim, a realm the heroes aren't from but a lot of the action takes place in. Basically the majority of residents have magical powers which make them connected with the realm of Alvenheim and allow them to call upon the world to give them food, clothing, shelter, heat, pretty much everything humans need to survive. Fruit is not picked from trees, but rather freely given when asked for. Fires are not created because they cause pain to the world. Instead heat and light are called forth and provided. However, there is a very small fraction of the population which is born without magical abilities. They are completely dependent on others to provide for their needs because they cannot call upon Alvenheim to provide their needs. As a result the majority despises those unable to do magic and sees them as little more than worthless parasites who should be left to die of starvation and exposure.

Those without magic, left to fend for themselves, light fires, hunt animals, and do various other things normal people do to keep themselves alive. Furthermore the non-magical become outright brazen with their behavior because to the non-magical doing as little as picking a flower is worthy of the death penalty. So in the vein of  "may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb" the non-magical people burn the land and boil the sea (sorry, couldn't resist) because they're going to get killed regardless of what they do, may as well get some good old revenge in while they're at it. Which although not explicitly stated, has left me with the impression of a bitter civil war between the two.

Why is this relevant? Well Lothar, the chief minion of the Big Bad and main bad guy for this book, is actually trying to help the non-magical. Granted, he's doing so for his own selfish ends (or so we're told), but he's the only person in the book who treats the non-magical as human beings rather than parasites. It certainly puts a damper on the whole monomyth if you show the bad guy working to help people who are risking death just to feed themselves and their children. Because that sounds like a very good guy sort of thing to do, kidnappings aside.

Otherwise, I felt like a lot of the book was spent sitting around waiting. The characters didn't know a lot of information, so they'd stumble around or sit around and wait and maybe get a little bit of information revealed to them, but not terribly much. I even got the feeling that the main characters got tired of waiting and rushed off into the unknown because they got as bored as I was. As I reached the halfway point I was just forcing myself through but losing any hope of getting a better explanation of what was happening, rather than some events which are tied to a mysterious and sinister plot.

Overall, I didn't really care for this book. The inclusion of Norse mythology is a nice touch and the author has definitely done her research on that subject. But plot wise I felt like this book was a bit of a mess, especially for something trying to follow the monomyth. There's a bad guy, but he seems to have very limited goals and the stakes are fairly small for a monomyth story. Plus, if your bad guy is helping people in trouble it makes him a little less of a bad guy. I'd recommend passing on this one.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Conquest Through Determination: Steampunk in All of its Splendour, edited by Miles Boothe & Deana Roberts

This week I'm reviewing an anthology of steampunk-themed short stories that I picked up quite a while ago and finally got around to reading. For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with the idea of steampunk you can always watch my video rant explaining steampunk, or peruse a fine variety of other sources which explain what steampunk is. To provide the short explanation, it's a genre of science fiction usually set in the late nineteenth century with advanced technology relying upon steam power. (Although this is a very general definition, steampunk has expanded well beyond just a literary genre.) As someone who is interested in the history of the nineteenth century it's a genre that seems almost made to fit me and I have quite a lot of fun with it.

Conquest Through Determination is an anthology of over  a dozen short stories from a variety of authors, all of which are set in a variety of steampunk universes. Of course, it being an anthology I run into the issue I've had with other anthologies I've read where I can't go into much detail about the stories without potentially ruining them all. So I end up giving more of an overall impression of the book rather than a very specific review of its contents. And while this book is kind of short, at about 260 pages, I think there's quite a few entertaining and interesting stories which I think people will enjoy reading.

One theme which I noticed across these stories was a tendency to have spunky female characters who defied social conventions by being engineers and mechanics, and acting all unlady-like!  Which I'm actually in favor of and I think it's a theme in steampunk overall rather than just this collection of short stories. Modern authors generally do not hold the same Victorian ideas of gender roles and seem to take great delight in shocking Victorian sensibilities with their outspoken female characters. And honestly, I think this is a good thing. Even in the twenty-first century we still suffer from a lack of strong, female characters in fiction and so steampunk as a genre consciously making that decision is definitely a step forward. My only concern is that it will become obligatory for steampunk to have a female mechanic/engineer/scientist who doesn't give a damn about proper Victorian manners and it'll become just another worn-out trope over time. (And it did get a little repetitive for me to see so many characters that felt the same in that respect.) Hopefully, however, as steampunk continues to evolve as a genre in the future this will develop as well.

Overall I liked this anthology and I recommend it to any other steampunks out there who might read my blog, especially if you've got a little time to kill and just want to read a short story. I do remember being frustrated that one story set in an alternate American Civil War confused Frederick Douglass with Stephen Douglas, sort of a big difference. Some of the stories are sad, some are fun, and there are a couple that border on the downright bizarre, but all in all it's a pretty good read.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Make Room! Make Room!, by Harry Harrison

Hello everyone and happy Thanksgiving! That is, if you live in the United States anyway. If you're Canadian and reading this, happy Thanksgiving like six weeks ago. Anyway, in celebration of a significant number of us having enough food to gorge ourselves sick I'm reviewing Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison. If you're not a classic science-fiction fan you might not have heard of this book, but there's a pretty good chance you've heard of the film adaptation of this book, Soylent Green. And for those of you who have not even heard of Soylent Green through pop culture osmosis, let me just make the obligatory reference right now. SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!

Okay, to put that into context, both the movie and the book deal with an overpopulated future where humanity has reached a whopping total of seven billion. (A number we actually reached in 2011.) Due to pollution and squandering of natural resources humanity is shoved into increasingly smaller places leading to a great amount of overcrowding and New York City alone has a population of over 35 million people. Food is hard to come by, most people survive on products made out of soybeans and lentils (hence the name soylent) if they're lucky. If they aren't then they're surviving off of various foodstuffs made out of plankton and seaweed. Soylent green is the final, logical step in which people are turned into food, creating a self-sustaining cycle. Interestingly enough the soylent green so famous in the movie actually doesn't show up in the book, making it an original creation of the movie. I kept expecting it to show up in the book, but was surprised when it never did, which was very interesting for me.

Harrison does a very good job of depicting the decay and desolation of an overpopulated world. His descriptions of the decay, the filth, and the utter desperation definitely gives you a feeling of how bad the world has gotten. The description of Sol's improvements to his home stove, adapting it as more and more types of fuel become unavailable really drives home the desperation and sense of hopelessness. I was reminded greatly of the novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, a book written by a Ghanian author dealing with the rampant corruption and decay of Ghana (and many other African nations) in the 1960's. (Incidentally I highly recommend checking that book out to get a really interesting look inside life in Africa in the 1960's.) Anyway, Harrison really makes you feel and understand how bad the world can get when basic necessities like food and water become difficult for people to obtain.

The whole purpose of this atmosphere of desperation is to eventually let Harrison make an author tract through the character of Sol in support of birth control. Which, aside from contraceptive methods like the pill or condoms, would include the option of abortion as well. Today the book looks rather antiquated because we freely talk about birth control and it's actually been an issue as to whether or not employers should be required to provide it through health insurance to their employees. The fact that we can actually talk about this subject shows how much progress we've made in the last fifty years. Although there had been some progress made starting from the late 1870's, by the 1960's it was still almost taboo to even talk about birth control, much less make a decision about it. The fact that we can, in theory, talk about it like rational adults means that a ton of progress has been made. (Thanks, second-wave feminism!)

Ultimately Harrison is making a strong argument that we need to have access to methods of birth control because if we let human population continue to grow exponentially then there will be serious consequences, something which I've seen in other stories such as The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov. Most specifically, food supplies not growing to meet the demands of the population, a realistic concern in the 1950's and 1960's as expansion of health care across the globe helped decrease infant mortality and we also began seeing longer life expectancy for people as well. Fortunately we had the Green Revolution which significantly increased crop yields across the world and meant things haven't fallen apart. Yet.

Despite declining birth rates in industrialized countries like the United States, we are still facing a growing population, especially in places like South America, Africa, and Asia. Scientists are fortunately already working to bring about the next Green Revolution to try and make food supplies meet demands, but there is concern that their work will not be enough. Whether they will be successful or not remains to be seen.

Overall Harrison's work is an interesting look into the fears and concerns of the 1960's, but it definitely feels outdated by modern standards. The concern of population outstripping food supplies is a very real problem for the twenty-first century, but the availability of birth control makes Harrison's arguments unfortunately outdated. The book ends with a overall sense of desperation which makes you feel like if nothing is done now, the future could very easily end up like it is in the book. Certainly we have different challenges to face in 2015, but we still need to take action now if the future is to be liveable for all of us.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Darkling Wind, by S.P. Somtow

This week I'm finishing the series referred to as The Chronicles of the High Inquest with the final book, The Darkling Wind. Again, as this is pretty soon after my review of the previous book, Utopia Hunters, it's because my friend foisted the last two upon me at once and I'd like to return these books in a timely manner. Largely because I hate people who borrow books for two years and then never read them. Anyway, this is the very last of a rather odd series of books which by the author's own admission is a five book trilogy contained in four novels.

I'll begin by saying that everything that happens in the previous three books definitely feels like it's been building up to the final book. And it opens very triumphantly with prologues and a dramatis personae of the seven Inquestors at the center of this story so it certainly feels like you're getting into an epic adventure. The problem I had was as you start getting into the novel it felt less like an epic adventure and more like a chore. The one thing I noticed about this book was that it dragged for so long. I think it ties back to that the ultimate fate is sort of known to the reader. We know the Inquest falls, mankind enters a ''dark age'' of sorts, and the facts about the Inquest become shrouded in myth and legend. We're told as much in the prologue, we know what the ultimate ending is going to be. It's not a matter of if the Inquest is going to fall, it's just a matter of how. Sort of like in the third of those movies which shall not be named. We already knew the Jedi were going to be wiped out and Anakin Skywalker was going to become Darth Vader, we just didn't know the how. And so while you've got characters walking around, fighting over the fate of the galaxy, I just couldn't get invested in the conflict because I knew how it was going to end. The fact that at one point one character explicitly says he doesn't care about the Inquest and their war made it even more difficult for me to care as a reader.

During this war there are also half-hearted attempts at arguing philosophy and the characters themselves even state they're bored with going over the same arguments again and again. No, literally, one character actually says that. So hearing them argue about philosophy when they themselves aren't even really interested is tedious at best. And you might even say it's not really an argument because one side wants to perpetuate the Inquest with their ''compassion'' and pretend wars, while the other wants to end the Inquest and doesn't really offer anything as a replacement. Granted, humanity doesn't really need the Inquest as far as I'm concerned because they don't accomplish anything useful, But I feel like the Shadow Inquest's arguments are underdeveloped to say the least. Mostly ''The Inquest is bad. We should stop them.'' So it sort of lurches along and eventually the Inquest just...self-destructs. And that's it. We're done. War's over. All the Inquestors are dead. Just like that. It feels very anti-climatic considering the pomp that went into launching the book.

The absolute final ending is a little interesting but also confusing. Well, the confusing part involves time-travel and people in stasis and I don't entirely understand it so let's not worry about it too much. But at the very end there are two short appendices which in a very weird way claim that the entire thing is mythological claptrap and in our enlightened future age we're not even sure that the Inquest exists or not. It's a little meta considering that Somtow himself is writing these stories, and then appendices to these stories, claiming that they're all made up. It's...interesting to say the least.

Basically when I was reading this book I just couldn't wait for it to be over, and I'm a little surprised I made it through the entire thing if I'm being honest. It just sort of ends and you're finally glad the ordeal is over more than anything else. Personally I feel kind of bad because these books mean a lot to my friend, but for whatever reason I'm just not getting the appeal.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The Somme: The Darkest Hour On the Western Front, by Peter Hart

This week I'm reviewing something a little more serious, a history text from Peter Hart, The Somme: The Darkest Hour on the Western Front. For my readers who may not be aware, The Battle of the Somme was a battle of World War I that took place in and around the Somme River valley from 1 July to mid to late November in 1916. This battle was one of the worst in the nightmares of trench warfare, with some 300,000 men killed on both sides, and another 700,000 wounded, although exact totals are hard to verify due to the inability to account for the thousands of men missing, presumed dead. Clearly this is a topic that requires a very sober approach to give it the full historical weight it deserves. And while I have nothing wrong with Hart's methodology and he does a very fine job researching the material, I feel like this book leaves much to be desired.

The greatest strength of this book is the incorporation of primary sources as the basis of its research. Hart incorporates numerous entries from diaries, letters, and official memos which provide an intensive ground-level look at the Battle of the Somme as it was experienced by the Tommies of 1916. However, this becomes the book's bane as well. There are numerous points where Hart incorporates long citations from primary sources, and often includes at least two examples of the same event he's talking about. And while this is certainly good methodology, it quickly becomes very tedious to read. And many of the results are the same. There are so many ways to talk about how you climbed over the top of the trench, watched as people got cut down by machine-gun fire, and then took refuge in a shell hole. The plethora of accounts that tell that same story show how common it was to the experience of the Western Front, but I felt like Hart included more examples than was necessary to prove his point.

Another shortcoming in this work is how incredibly Anglo-centric this work is, which isn't necessarily a flaw. Hart is, after all, a British historian and has interest in British things. The problem for me, however, is the very, very brief inclusions of German sources and near total dearth of French sources in this work. The result is a story that seems very one-sided and while going into great detail about the British plans to create a breakthrough on the Western Front and return to mobile warfare, it barely talks about German plans responding to the Somme and their (largely effective) efforts to stop the British advance. If Hart had focused just on the British experience and explicitly said that, I would have less problem with it, but the bare inclusion of German and French perspective makes the overabundance of British views all the more jarring.

Hart also explicitly sets out to provide an exoneration of the British high command, specifically the chief commander, General Sir Douglas Haig. This proposition is not entirely without merit considering Haig has often been portrayed in a negative light. The example in Blackadder Goes Forth of Haig, portrayed by Geoffrey Palmer, callously sweeping tin soldiers off a map into a dustpan certainly comes to mind. However, the evidence that Hart marshals to counter the "lions led by donkeys" (itself a claim which is under much revision) actually supports the very argument he is trying to bring down. Take for example, the decision to launch a major offensive on the Somme River valley. The decision for this location was entirely based on the politics of the Anglo-French alliance. The Somme was intended to be a mutual offensive occurring at the point where the British and French sections of the Western Front met. As Hart goes into great detail, there was nothing else to recommend the site. The Germans had control of the high ground in the region, constructing three independent lines of very strong defenses, which proved to be incredibly difficult to capture. The existing transportation infrastructure was utterly inadequate to supply an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands which required food, water, spare parts, ammunition, and the thousands of other things an army requires to stay in the field.

On top of that, plans which Hart attributes to Haig show absolutely no realistic expectations for combat on the Western Front, and it is his subordinate, General Henry Rawlinson, who comes across as the far more realistic. From the start of the offensive in July, Haig fully expected the British to be able to break through all three lines of the German defenses, allowing the cavalry to rush through and exploit the breach. In reality, most of the attacks utterly failed and it was only small portions of the first line that were taken. By the end of the Somme offensive in November, the British still hadn't reached the objectives they had hoped to take in July, and the Germans had only built more lines of trenches further back, preventing any chance of a breakthrough. Haig even hopes the cavalry will be useful in October, when rains had turned the ground of the Somme into a thick semi-liquid mud that made it difficult to impossible for the infantry and artillery to get through, never mind the cavalry. And yet Haig is still hoping for the breakthrough that will win the war in a few short weeks.

To an extent there is an incorporation and adaptation of new methods of warfare, such as the creeping barrage, the tank, and the use of aerial reconnaissance, but much of the conflict is still the same for the Tommy and every foot of ground is gained at enormous human cost. Personally I have not read much that portrays the high command of either side of World War I in a terribly positive light, but Hart certainly fails to achieve his goal of exonerating Haig of his inability to adapt and learn from the brutal experience of the Somme.

Finally, I personally detected an almost jingoist tone to some of Hart's analyses of individuals and their actions during the course of the Somme. An example is a contrast between three officers, all of whom went home to England for medical reasons. In the case of the first two officers, they served in a front line capacity, being heavily involved in taking and holding German trenches, before finally getting wounded and sent back to England to recover. The third officer, however, reaches the front line and is set by a sudden attack of nerves before encountering combat and is sent back home on a medical discharge for weak constitution. In Hart's descriptions of the first two officers they're brave and noble warriors, both recipients of the Victoria Cross, who earned their trip back to England by facing the foe manfully. With the third officer, he doesn't out and out say it, but there is a very strong implication that the man was merely a coward who couldn't face danger and chickened out before experiencing a baptism of fire. Quite frankly I find this a rather outdated and unenlightened attitude, especially for a book published in 2010. Combat is a trying experience for even the most stout-hearted of people and I'm sure there were hundreds, if not thousands, of men on both sides who were gripped with absolute terror at the prospect of going over the top into combat. Some were able to head home before becoming another casualty, while others were left with no choice. To treat their experience of the war and the terrors it involved as somehow less valid or less worthy of praise is merely an extension of the outdated, militaristic jingoism of the turn of the century that resulted in the Great War in the first place.

Overall I have nothing wrong with Hart's methodology as a historian. He has certainly done exhaustive research and introduced a plethora of primary sources to provide a worm's-eye view of the Battle of the Somme. However, the conclusions that Hart draws from these sources seems both outdated and fallacious. He utterly fails in his attempt to redeem Douglas Haig as a general and only succeeds in making his subordinate, Rawlinson, seem the more realistic of the two. His use of primary sources becomes a handicap as we are submitted to yet more letters and diaries saying the same basic failures of trench warfare. I personally would not recommend this book for students of the First World War and would recommend trying to find something far less frustrating.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Utopia Hunters, by S.P. Somtow

This week I'm reviewing the third book in the series which is referred to, by my friend anyway, as The Inquest. I will also be reviewing the fourth book later this month because my friend foisted the last two books upon me at once so I want to read them as quickly as possible and return them because unlike certain other slackers I could name, I try to return books loaned to me in a timely manner. Anyway, for my readers who haven't read my reviews of the previous two novels, you can find Light on the Sound here, and The Throne of Madness here. Onwards with Utopia Hunters.

To provide a bit of a refresher for people, The Inquest occurs in a distant future where humanity is scattered across the galaxy, inhabiting thousands or perhaps millions of worlds. The only thing connecting all of humanity is their rule by the distant Inquest, viewed by most people as immortal god-kings, watching humanity from their starship palaces as they drift through the galaxy. However, figuring out even that much is a little difficult in the beginning if you start with Light on the Sound. As I've said in my previous reviews, Somtow has a habit of interspersing lengthy passages of purple prose with some refreshingly direct exposition, but until this book I had felt like I was missing some vital pieces of the puzzle. I had an overall idea of what seemed to be going on, but I feel much more aware thanks to Utopia Hunters.

The book is a collection of short stories set within Somtow's universe, some of which feel relevant to what's going on, some of which don't. With Somtow's writing I almost feel like I have to guess what bits are going to be relevant and what bits won't be later on, and if I'm wrong I have to go back and poke around again. The short stories to me seem rather unrelated, and having one of the main characters say she doesn't understand why people keep telling her stories makes me ask the same question. Surrounding this is the frame story of Jenjen, a lightweaver artist who has come in contact with the Inquest and, much like us ordinary humans, is desperately trying to understand their seemingly ineffable motivations. To the book's credit, the short stories do manage to shed some light on that, as well as the Inquest's terrible flaws. I finally got confirmation of several things I suspected before in Throne of Madness, which leaves me rather disliking the Inquest as an institution overall. Hopefully this book will have provided useful information for the final book in the series.

Most importantly we're told the Inquest's philosophy, which I had kind of guessed at before but was trying to piece together from disparate bits of information. Basically, the Inquest believes that humanity needs chaos from time to time to keep from becoming stagnant or entering the dead-ends of utopias. So the Inquest (in their compassion) has taken it upon themselves to create ''war'' from time to time in the galaxy and shoulder all the guilt for killing people. Basically the Inquestors play a game called makrรบgh, and based on who wins or loses certain planets will be destroyed to keep humanity from becoming stagnant. And in their compassion (that gets repeated a lot) the Inquest tries to mitigate the destruction by shipping as much of the population off-world in people bins before they totally destroy the planet. To summarize: The Inquest blows up planets from time to time to keep things from getting too boring for humanity.

As my readers may have guessed, this annoys me to no end because this is the Broken Window Fallacy taken to the extreme. For those of you unaware of the Broken Window Fallacy, it runs a little something like this. There's a bakery in the center of town, and one day some yahoo chucks a brick through the front window of the bakery, completely shattering it. The people of the town gather around and make the usual comments of kids these days. However, one person speaks up and says maybe the vandal did a good thing for the community. Because now the baker has to buy a new window, which is money that will go into the pocket of the window-glazier. The window-glazier in turn will spend that money on other things, causing a ripple of productivity to go through the community. So perhaps, a little destruction can be good for the economy! The purpose of this thought exercise is to explain the economic booms in the United States, Europe, and Japan after World War II. Perhaps the destruction of World War II caused such a need for capital to be spent that it allowed economies around the world to prosper.

The simple fact of the matter is that this idea is utterly fallacious on every scale. On the micro scale, the fact that the baker has to buy a new window doesn't help the baker. He's now out the money he needs for the new window. Money which he could have spend on new equipment for his bakery, or a new suit of clothes, or any number of other things. Instead that capital is spent on repairing things that they shouldn't need to fix in the first place. With World War II, the economic prosperity for the United States can be explained by the absolute destruction of the industrial infrastructure of pretty much every other nation in the world at the time, leaving the United States the sold industrial superpower. However, extensive investment under the Marshall Plan ensured that Europe and Japan were also able to quickly recover their industrial power. All the resources that are used in a war on things like planes, tanks, guns, bombs, and so on, are resources that can't be used elsewhere and for possibly better purposes. Wanton destruction is only detrimental when it's inflicted. The Inquest's approach of randomly destroying planets in an effort to keep humanity from becoming stagnant is perhaps worse than the Broken Window Fallacy because humanity doesn't even get anything tangible out of it. It seems to be destruction for destruction's sake, which is completely pointless and wasteful.

The worst part is that the Inquestors insulate themselves from the destruction they cause, and Jenjen actually calls them out about it in the book. A lot of Inquestors surround themselves with art in various forms. Paintings, sculptures, music. The idea is to keep from ever having to think about the destruction they cause. There are people whose sole job is to remind Inquestors of the worlds they've destroyed, but they seem to often be shunted aside so as not to harm the Inquestors' delicate sensibilities. It's like the Inquest are children who are given the power to do anything they wanted, and they decide to use that power to burn anthills down, call it compassion because the ants have to leave their hill, and then assuage their guilt over the whole matter with pretty things.

My friend has told me we're not supposed to like the Inquest, but it makes me wonder about these books to some degree. Because ultimately liking characters helps you get invested in a story and care about whether they succeed or fail. Since I don't care one bit for the Inquest I rather hope that they collapse with the oncoming civil war and absolutely nothing is left in their wake. Humanity is left to ponder the galaxy without the Inquest, and considering the Inquest seems to do nothing but burn planets, I think the galaxy will be much better off. We'll just have to see what the next books brings.

- Kalpar  

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris

This week I'm completing Edmund Morris's three-part biography of Theodore Roosevelt with the final installment, Colonel Roosevelt. While The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt covered everything up to his presidency, and Theodore Rex focused on TR's seven years in office, Colonel Roosevelt follows TR for the remainder of his life until he passed away in January of 1919. I will admit that this was, for me, probably the hardest of the three books for me to read, simply because the material got rather dry or repetitive at several points. In addition, TR seems to go through a marked decline during his final years, exacerbated no doubt by his numerous physical ailments. As a result, the less savory aspects of TR's personality, although present in the past, seem to come to the fore in his later years and certainly tarnish some of his dignity. On top of that, TR begins to take a back seat to other figures, especially as World War I dominates the final part of Morris's narrative. It's certainly a necessary ending to a monumental life, but seems to drag.

To assist Taft's presidency, Roosevelt decided to take a retirement safari in Africa, hunting specimens for the Smithsonian, followed by a whirlwind tour of Europe. The problem, of course, was even in retirement TR was far more of a fascinating figure than Taft, who Morris portrays as a very sleepy and ineffective president. But more on that later. The simple fact of the matter is that Roosevelt made good copy wherever he went, and was almost universally hailed by people in Europe wherever he went. TR also spoke very strongly about the importance of imperialism and the duty of the white man to civilize and enlighten the savage, statements which I found most distressing. Roosevelt certainly had an imperialistic streak, his buildup of the American navy and construction of the Panama Canal are evidence of that, but they seem to come to the fore more than they ever had before during this time in Roosevelt's life. But this should unfortunately be expected by a rich, white man raised in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

Upon TR's return to the United States he almost immediately becomes displeased with Taft's policies and although maintaining a political silence for some time he comes out very strongly against Taft's administration. This couples with a growing split within the Republican party between the progressives who seek to expand TR's regulatory and reform initiatives, and the more conservative business wing which seeks to maintain the laissez faire policies of the past. TR, despite his privileged background, sides strongly with the progressives and seeks to keep the Republican party moving forward. Morris depicts Taft as more aligned with the establishment and the business interests. This in turn leads to the dramatic split of the Republican Party in 1912 with Taft's nomination on the Republican ticket, and Roosevelt's nomination on the Progressive ticket.

Morris writes very much from TR's corner and I would call some Morris's accusations against Taft as too much, at one point he goes so far as to describe the president as a hippo. I counter with the fact Taft did not desire the job of president in the first place and was really pushed into it by Roosevelt, his mentor, and his wife, Helen. This of course begs the question why Taft even sought a second term as president, rather than bowing out to his far more popular predecessor who probably could have won with the Republican nomination in 1912. Morris offers no reason beyond perhaps spite and a vague belief that TR shouldn't pursue a third term. Goodwin, by contrast, provides at least a very personal reason for Taft to run, the matter of judicial recall. Morris vaguely touches upon this issue, but does not go into depth how Taft believed in the importance of the courts and feared the potential disaster that overturning judicial decisions could cause, something Roosevelt seemed blithely unaware of. I think Morris is rather unfair to Taft, as was Roosevelt at the time, who lashed out at everyone who "stole" the election from him. It makes TR seem far more unstable and potentially even dangerous.

After his defeat in the 1912 election, TR takes a second trip to explore an unknown river in Brazil. This was the part of the book that dragged the most for me. I'm sure that Roosevelt's accounts of struggling for weeks down an unknown river, unsure that he'd ever make it back to the United States, is all very interesting. But Morris somehow manages to make it more of an ordeal than anything else and he also almost seems bored with this chapter of TR's life. It really just amounts to a lot of getting sick in the rainforest and hauling canoes past rapids so they can continue downriver. And perhaps it's hindsight considering TR almost dies because of this adventure, but considering he was in his fifties when he decided to go explore an uncharted river in Brazil it kind of seems like it was a bad idea. Perhaps it was bravado and lust for adventure on Roosevelt's part, but he was really getting to old for that sort of thing.

After World War I breaks out, Roosevelt becomes probably the loudest voice in favor of American involvement in the war, especially after word of atrocities committed by Germans in Belgium gets out. However Roosevelt's bloodthirsty streak also comes out and for many Americans who see no need to get involved in what amounts to a European family squabble he comes across as a sabre-rattler. And considering a significant portion of the American population, including in my hometown somewhere around fifty percent, claimed German heritage there were many not unsympathetic to the German cause. (Although Woodrow Wilson's neutrality more amounted to Allies-friendly neutrality.) There is a certain irony that Roosevelt seeks for himself a glorious death in battle at the head of a cavalry charge and makes sure that all four of his sons enlist in the military when America finally joins the Allied side, but his extreme grief at the death of his youngest son, Quentin, and considerably less warlike tone after the wounding of his sons Theodore, Jr. and Archie. It seems almost like TR didn't believe that the worst could happen to his sons and was unsure how to respond when it did. However even at the conclusion of hostilities in late 1918 TR still advocated strong military assets to protect American interests.

Overall, this book seems to be about a man in decline. TR is certainly past his prime by this point, his health fails with repeated bouts of malaria he originally caught from his time in Cuba. After being president of the United States it's hard to find a career after that, and TR is no individual to stay still and enjoy his golden years. Unfortunately it comes across like an old man desperately trying to grasp at his youth long gone. While there are some good parts of TR, I feel like more of the bad came out in his later years as well.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sharpe's Trafalgar, by Bernard Cornwell

This week I'm making a return back to the extremely popular Sharpe series written by Bernard Cornwell. In keeping with my habit I've been reading the books in the series's own chronological order rather than reading them in order of publication. So far I've enjoyed the series and Sharpe's adventures in India, watching him rise to a sergeant and eventually an ensign before being transferred back to England with the 95th Rifles. (And greater fame and glory I have no doubt.) Of course, Sharpe has to get back to England in the first place which means a long ship voyage across two oceans. And Sharpe just so happens to be off the coast of Spain on an October day in 1805.

I will admit I kind of have a problem with this book and I ended up not enjoying it as much as some of the other Sharpe novel's I've read. And I think part of it may be because I'm reading these books in chronological order instead of publication order. For me it's really weird that Sharpe's at Trafalgar at all. I mean, the man's a footslogger, an excellent footslogger, and there's something fascinating about watching him fight on land. (Although I'm sure the fans of the television adaptations will admit Sean Bean isn't hard on the eyes either.) Cornwell himself admits that Sharpe has absolutely no business being at Trafalgar and he sent Sharpe there because he thought it would make an interesting story. On the one hand, it's kind of annoying because it's the Forrest Gump Effect dragging Sharpe into the course of history once again, but on the other it kind of makes sense. Let me explain.

A good example would be the Gaunt's Ghosts series, which is basically Sharpe IN SPACE! And yes, it's interesting to watch Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt and the Tanith First and Only wandering around on a variety of planets and fighting the forces of the Archenemy. But it was somewhere in the middle of reading the second omnibus, The Saint, that I started to get bored with the series. There's just so many ways that you can tell stories about soldiers fighting battles before they start running together. Fortunately in the next omnibus, The Lost, Abnett managed to bring some new and interesting ideas to the series and so kept me interested as a reader. But if you have a long-running series like that it can be a challenge to keep the ideas fresh and interesting. So while Sharpe's Trafalgar is relatively early in the internal chronology, it's later on in the publication order. And for long-time readers of the series it was probably refreshing to see Sharpe do something different instead of the same old battles over and over. For a relatively new reader such as myself, though, it was sort of a weird installment.

I also should warn people that this book has a ton of historical information about the British Royal Navy in it. A lot. As in there are extended expository conversations among the characters about these sorts of things. A character at one point states what it cost to build a ship, down to the penny. It's very obvious that Cornwell did a ton of research in preparation for writing this novel, talking to people at the HMS Victory museum, which is a very good thing if you're writing historical fiction. There's nothing I hate more than historical fiction that gets things downright wrong when it shouldn't, and it's always nice to see how Cornwell has done his research. However it starts spilling over into the book and it almost feels like an information overload. Now, thanks to a certain other series  and my many hours logged on Empire Total War I have more than a passing familiarity with the history of the Royal Navy, but I felt like some of the information was just proving how much research Cornwell had done and didn't really contribute to the plot. While I as a history nerd found it all very interesting, I'm sure there are more than one reader who would be overwhelmed.

Unfortunately, for most of the book there just isn't terribly much for Sharpe to do. He's no sailor so he spends most of his time as a passenger, just passing time on ships and finding things to do to occupy his time. Sure, there are things going on but it feels like a distraction until we get to the final big event itself in the last part of the book. Maybe it really captured the tedium of traveling by sailing ship in the early 1800's, but it was a tedium I'd have rather avoided. When it comes to Trafalgar there is plenty of action and the amount of detail is almost excessive. Although personally I'm somewhat surprised considering the amount of carnage that goes on in these books when I find out how relatively light the actual casualties were, at least for the British. You read about ships getting blasted by broadsides and men getting torn apart, but the final tally for the British is just under 1,700 dead and wounded, a tenth of the British force. The combined Spanish and French force, though, loses half their ships and half their men in the battle, a decisive victory for the British indeed.

Overall, I found this book somewhat less enjoyable than the others I've read so far. I know some people really enjoy it and maybe you just have to be an Age of Sail navy fan to really enjoy it. Personally I'm much happier on the land, thank you very much. And if you're not eager to learn a bunch of Royal Navy statistics I'd recommend avoiding this book. If that's your thing then read away, but be prepared for lots of details.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 15, 2015

The Carpet People, by Sir Terry Pratchett

This week I'm reviewing what's often referred to as PTerry's first novel, The Carpet People. There actually is a little bit of background for this novel which was originally published back in 1971 by a much younger Sir PTerry. The edition which I read is a reprinting from 2013 which includes illustrations made by PTerry, but perhaps more importantly it's also been rewritten. By PTerry's own admission in the introduction to this edition the original version of The Carpet People wasn't very good. And quite frankly I can't blame him. Early books tend to be very rough around the edges and it can take a while for an author to find their voice. In addition, PTerry began work on The Carpet People when he was 17 and it was first published when he was in his twenties. Even if you're the greatest writer in the world, the stuff that you write when you're a teenager isn't going to be as good as the stuff that you write later on. So while I'm not entirely sure what the original version of this book contained, I've been informed that it was basically Lord of the Rings, but on a carpet so I'm very much in favor of a rewriting of the novel along more Pratchett lines.

To provide a summary of the plot, the entire story takes place on a carpet, inhabited by tiny people and animals. So tiny that one of their major cities is about the same size as the period at the end of this sentence. The story focuses largely on a tribe known as the Munrungs whose village is destroyed by a mysterious force known only as the Fray. (What the Fray is is never explained in the book so theories abound.) Once their village is destroyed they begin being attacked by creatures known as Mouls, who apparently worship the Fray and are determined to spread death and destruction across the Carpet. Again, the motivations of the Moul don't go much beyond they're a bunch of jerks and I kind of wish they'd been more developed. Anyway the Munrungs wander across the Carpet trying to avoid Mouls, the Fray, and find somewhere safe to live and discovering things may be much worse than they thought.

For me, this book feels kind of underdeveloped, but it may be because it's meant for children. It definitely has a very easy reading style and it's very easy to read through it quickly, so I think that may be intentional on the part of the author. It has a very unpolished feel to it as well, which I expected for it being a first book, but it definitely has the distinctive PTerry feel to it as well. There are a lot of lessons and themes in this particular book which have turned up in Discworld books as well so it definitely feels as part of Pratchett's work. In addition, the idea of little people was explored again in his Bromeliad trilogy which results in a book that feels like an unpolished example of the author's work.

Overall this book is pretty good, but it definitely has that unpolished feeling and I wish that some of the ideas or topics that PTerry brought up in this particular novel were explored a little more, but we can't have everything we want. Definitely a good book for younger readers and I highly recommend it for them.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 8, 2015

In Enemy Hands, by David Weber

This week I'm reviewing another of the Honor Harrington series, in this instance the seventh book in the series: In Enemy Hands. As I have stated in previous reviews it has gotten to the point it's very difficult for me to talk about these books without spoilers. That being said, I will try to avoid them as much as possible, but there are definitely going to be some spoilers. Please be advised. Anyway, after her adventures in the Silesian Confederacy Honor is being returned to front-line duty in the growing Haven-Manticore war. However, instead of returning to Grayson service, Honor has been promoted to Commodore in the Royal Manticore Navy and is being given overall command of a squadron of cruisers which will form part of Alexander Hamish's Eighth Fleet. Not one to spend time idle, Honor volunteers her squadron as a convoy escort while the main fleet's still forming as a means to get them in top shape. Unfortunately a Havenite ambush results in Honor, as well as numerous other crew members, becoming prisoners of war, a huge propaganda coup for the People's Republic of Haven.

The biggest problem I had with this book was an issue which I sort of mentioned in the previous one, which was the realization of how much exposition goes on in these books. I'll admit that I didn't really notice it until Sursum Ursa pointed it out in her video, but Weber really crams the exposition in there. And this book is kind of the worst offender by far in my opinion. A good half of the book occurs mostly in a very exposition-dump style where a lot of information and important events are thrown at us. Very often in a character's internal thoughts rather than in dialog. And to an extent, you have to do that because there's information the reader needs to know. But at the same time it's frustrating because I know that Weber can write better than that. I've read numerous books and stories of his and he can write in the active voice. And there are a lot of things that should happen in the active voice instead of being exposited. For example, the decision by Nimitz, Samantha, and a number of other treecats to colonize another planet. (Short version, about a dozen treecats have decided to pack up and move to Grayson.) There is of course surprise on the part of Honor and her family, some outrage by the Sphinxian Forest Rangers, and a suspicion that the treecats are far more intelligent than they let on to humans. It's all very interesting and could make a decent story in its own right, but this all gets exposited to us in a flashback. I don't know if Weber wanted to avoid derailing the plot even further by going into a sub-plot, but it could have been handled better.

Probably the worst example of something that we desperately needed to have shown to us instead of being told to us was the fall of Trevor's Star. To summarize for those unfamiliar, Trevor's Star is an outlying star system that's part of the Manticore Wormhole Junction, which allows effectively instantaneous travel between the two star systems, a process that otherwise could take weeks. This star system had previously been in the hands of the People's Republic of Haven and posed a serious threat to Manticore because a large fleet could be launched from Trevor's Star directly into Manticore's home system as part of an invasion. On the other hand, if Manticore controls Trevor's Star then it gives them a forward base into Havenite territory which allows ships and supplies to be sent much more quickly from Manticore to the front. Obviously there are advantages to both sides holding the star system and quite a lot of effort has been spent in trying to take control of the system. In fact, in the previous novel, Honor Among Enemies, Admiral White Haven spends most of his time trying to decisively win at Trevor's Star and secure it for the Manticore Alliance. At the start of this next novel, however, Trevor's Star is in the hands of the Alliance. We're briefly told that Haven lost control of the system between books and Haven's now trying to stop the overall advance of the Alliance before they push further into Haven territory.

If there was something that should have been shown in a book, it should have been the Battle of Trevor's Star. The emphasis of this star system had been underlined numerous times in previous novels. Hell, the importance of Manticore controlling Basilisk, another wormhole junction, was part of the first book of this series! Haven was trying to gain control of Basilisk so they'd have a second jumping-off point for an invasion of Manticore! Trevor's Star was this big, huge, important thing and it all happens offscreen. And yes, it'd probably result in longer books, but at least everything wouldn't be happening in exposition dumps.

I did have one other small problem where Honor and Earl White Haven have a moment of "connection", like they realize their souls are reflections of each other. It just rubbed me the wrong way, and it may be because I'm a crotchety old man who isn't a huge fan of romance stories. Or even the romance aspects of stories. I got in this for awesome space action. But that's just me, and compared to the reams of exposition it's fairly minor by comparison.

Honestly, my biggest problem is the reams of exposition. And don't get me wrong, I'm the sort of person who goes and reads encyclopedia entries for the sheer fun of it so I don't mind a good bit of exposition here or there. The problem is that so much of the book happened in exposition format that I couldn't get involved in the story. It was like a bunch of things happened, but I didn't get to see these things happen, which would have made a more interesting reading experience. If the later books are also exposition heavy I'll admit that I'll be a little disappointed. But, I'm kind of at a point where I'm so far into the series that I'm invested and I don't want to give up now because I'm interested in the characters. And space battles. SPACE!

If you're this far in the series I'll admit that this book will probably be rough, but I'm hoping the next one will make the journey worthwhile.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Mageborn: The Blacksmith's Son, by Michael G. Manning

This week I'm reading another book from the larger e-book collection I purchased off of Amazon some time back. This particular collection is referred to as Fierce. Why, I have no earthly idea but that's entirely irrelevant at this point so onward with the review. The Blacksmith's Son is the first of five books in Michael G. Manning's Mageborn series. As a result, this book is largely an introduction to the characters and universe of the story which Manning is creating, as well as setting up some elements of a larger plot which I'm sure will be more fully developed in later books. I will say that this particular book just kind of...ends, which is a little disappointing.

This book focuses on the character of Mordecai Elridge, the titular blacksmith's son. Like several fantasy heroes I'm sure my readers can think of themselves, Mordecai discovers he's secretly nobility and a wizard. What I just said would count as a spoiler, except for two very important facts. First of all the prologue basically gives us Mordecai's tragic backstory ahead of time so we know exactly who Mordecai is, which makes his character's discovery of his true heritage not terribly surprising for the reader in the latter half of the book. The other fact is that a lot of the book is written from Mordecai's perspective, specifically he's writing from an older perspective recollecting on his youthful adventures so I at least got an inkling he was going to find out he was special fairly early on. As a result, a lot of the conflict doesn't really come from Mordecai's discovering of his abilities and heritage so much as his conflict with other characters. Which is a fine approach to a book, but it felt like specifically the discovery of his true family took place too far back in the book considering we the readers knew all along.

However, that being said, Mordecai's struggles to learn about magic and its capabilities, especially with a lack of anyone to teach him anything about magic, provides an interesting conflict in and of itself, coupled with most people's association of magic with evil powers which makes it all the more important for him to keep it a secret. In addition, there is conflict with other characters who are in league with evil powers and Mordecai's efforts to both stop them and protect his family and friends, which aren't always successful. The disappointing thing is that in the first book all the plot threads seemed to be tied up very neatly. There are some vague and nebulous threats which I'm sure come into play in the later books, but there isn't a threat in the first book left to bridge to the second book because they're all handled within this book. It left me a little confused about the overall direction of this series because it seemed like Manning didn't have a clear direction as to where he wanted to go. There are some general ideas and potentialities, but nothing terribly concrete.

And I will throw in, because I feel obligated to whenever I run into it, that there is a case of attempted rape in this book. I personally was left with the feeling that it was rape being utilized to up the drama and make a particular character seem even worse, but I didn't really need a lot of convincing that this guy was bad in the first place. So it just feels wrong to me, but that's ultimately a matter of personal opinion more than anything else.

To this book's credit, though, the writing is fairly enjoyable and I found myself chuckling along at several points throughout the book so it has that going for it. Plus all the main characters are teenagers who often act in irrational and stupid ways, which I find very believable for teenage characters. Especially considering all the hormones they've got surging around inside their bodies.

Overall this book isn't bad. It could be a lot worse than it is. But on the flip side I'm not jumping up and down and telling people they should go out and read it either. For me it was okay at best, but it's not something I'd foist on other people.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Naked Sun, by Isaac Asimov

This week I'm reviewing the second book in Isaac Asimov's Robot Series, The Naked Sun. Like the previous book, The Caves of Steel, this follows the adventures of Lije Baley and his occasional partner, R. Daneel Olivaw. As Asimov states in the introduction his intention with this series was to first write a murder mystery on a world where humans are abundant but robots are scarce, as shown with Earth's population of eight billion crammed into underground cities of concrete and steel. In the second book, Asimov wanted to do a murder mystery on a planet where robots were abundants, but humans were scarce, which is this story.

In this particular instance, a murder has occurred on the Outer World of Solaria. The first murder in three hundred years, as a matter of fact, which means the Solarians are utterly unequipped to handle the situation. At the insistence of the Aurorans, the most powerful of the Outer Worlds, the Solarians have invited Earth detective Lije Baley to investigate, accompanied by Olivaw. Once again Baley is confronted by a murder with no weapon, no readily apparent motive, and only one suspect which he believes is incapable of committing the murder. As a result Baley has to dig deeper into Solaria's society and find out how a seemingly impossible murder could have happened.

I will admit that I was a little prejudiced against this book once I found out the Solarians were involved again. I had already run into them in a book I'd previously read, Foundation and Earth. As my readers may remember, I ended up throwing that particular book against the wall as punishment for its mind-numbing and never ending argument on the same damn topic. The Solarians, or rather a stagnated and decadent descendant of theirs thousands of years into the future, are not depicted flatteringly in the future and as a result I was prejudiced against them. Even without having read Foundation and Earth, (which I recommend, it's not a very good book) I think most readers can tell that there's something rather wrong with Solaria as a society, which is probably the point of this book more than the murder mystery. Much like Caves of Steel, more time seems to be dedicated to talking about the science-fiction society that Asimov is portraying rather than clues about the murder mystery itself. Granted, Baley gets to show his chops as a competent detective in this instance, but I feel like the murder mystery is really an excuse plot to get to this crazy planet with robots.

At the conclusion of the book Baley asserts that Solaria is a dead end in human development, but Earth has also become one. The humans of Earth need to break free from the confines of their great cities and travel the stars once again, and seeing as I've read the Foundation series I know this will definitely happen and humanity will become the masters of the galaxy.So it's definitely encouraging to see that humanity isn't going to stagnate and eventually go the same way as so many other species before. The ending also sets up the third book of the series with Baley stating he should probably go to Aurora to see what the Outer Worlds are really like, since Solaria is really an exception rather than the rule. And as Asimov said he wanted to finish with a story that has a more even blend of humans and robots, which hopefully will be interesting to read.

Overall this book is okay. It certainly doesn't make my top favorites in Asimov literature, but there is a lot of Asimov literature out there, and you can certainly do a lot worse. I'm kind of looking forward to the next one because I'm hoping it'll be a little bit different, but that will remain to be seen.

- Kalpar

Thursday, September 17, 2015

John Adams, by David McCullough

In a continuation of my quest to expand my knowledge, this week I'm reviewing the widely-acclaimed biography of John Adams by Davide McCullough. This text focuses on Adams's life, starting with his early years and entry to Harvard at age fifteen, to his eventual death on July 4th, 1826, the same day as Thomas Jefferson and the fiftieth birthday of the United States. Fortunately for historians Adams was a prolific writer during his lifetime, engaged not only in correspondence with dozens of people over the years but also writer of a handful of essays and pamphlets and a regular diarist. This provides a great amount of insight into Adams's own thoughts, feelings, and motivations, as well as how other people perceived him in their own writings. Although by no means the final word on John Adams, it provides a very good look into one of the oft overlooked founding fathers.

John Adams has often been overlooked in American history, and no one was more aware of this fact than John Adams. And I suspect part of it was the fact that Adams is, in a way, rather boring. He doesn't have the wit, charm, and skill with the ladies like Benjamin Franklin. He doesn't have the imposing stature and dignity of George Washington (Although Adams certainly shared Washington's reputation for honor and integrity.) And he doesn't have the reclusive genius of Thomas Jefferson. Adams is described consistently in this book, as well as in the writings of his contemporaries, as a man of integrity; who's candid, forthright, honest, and reliable. Practically the very epitome of New England Puritan virtue. And I personally rather like those virtues in a person and find them something to aspire towards, but it certainly doesn't make for interesting copy. Adams is simply overshadowed by the more colorful characters that inhabited the same time period as himself and so definitely merits reappraisal.

I will say that this biography paints Adams in very glowing terms, and there definitely seems to be a lot to admire, such as his aforementioned virtues, but it makes me wonder how much this should be taken with a grain of salt. There are numerous points where McCullough makes a point to talk about how exceptional or, in many cases, self-sacrificing Adams's behavior has been. McCullough exults in Adams's eight years and thousands of miles travelled in Europe calling upon the governments of France, the Netherlands, and England as an emissary of the United States, as well as his years of painful separation from his wife Abigail. Although other figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had to suffer separations from loved ones as well as difficulties in Europe. Adams's efforts in supporting the Declaration of Independence, his drafting of the Massachusetts state constitution, and his service as the first Vice President of the United States are all given glowing reports from McCullough. To be fair, Adams doesn't get terribly much praise for these efforts as part of his overall neglect in history, but I feel sometimes that McCullough was laying it on a little thick, as if to make up for all the decades of neglect. And considering McCullough's criticism of other figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton, it almost feels like McCullough is on Adams's side.

Thomas Jefferson specifically plays a large part in this book, which is reasonable considering his friendship, then enmity, then friendship with Adams over the years. McCullough even talks about the contrasts between the two men, such as Jefferson living off the backs of slave labor while isolated at his mountaintop villa, while Adams works on his own farm surrounded by family and neighbors in the small-town spirit of New England. Considerable focus is spent on Jefferson's habit of rebuilding practically any structure he inhabited, usually at great personal expense, which contributed to Jefferson's eventual bankruptcy by the time of his death. By contrast Adams wholeheartedly embraces the Puritan ideals of thrift and independence and remains fiscally solvent for most of his life, despite considerable fiscal pressures. I feel like McCullough almost goes a little too far in building up Adams and tearing down Jefferson as a biographer, and I'm not a terribly big fan of Jefferson in the first place.

I'm also interested in trying to read more about Alexander Hamilton, who plays a large role during Adams's Vice Presidency and Presidency and certainly was no friend to either John or Abigail. In this book he's portrayed as the consummate power-hungry schemer with almost imperial ambitions for America. Personally I don't know terribly much about Hamilton beyond his advocacy for a strong central government and a national bank, both measures I find to be rather reasonable. (I'll admit it, I'm a Federalist.) So to see this more ambitious side of Hamilton is a bit of a surprise and it makes me curious to say the least.

Ultimately I feel like this is a fairly good biography, if nothing else then because it educates people about one of our more-overlooked presidents and Founding Fathers. It is a little effusive in its praise so reading of different sources for more information on this subject material is probably a good idea as well.

- Kalpar