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