Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Quick, by Lauren Owen

Today I'm talking about The Quick, a novel by Lauren Owen that if I was being entirely honest kind of falls out of the normal sort of thing I would read and/or listen to. To be entirely honest I didn't really enjoy this novel and I think it's mostly because I'm not the target audience for this story. I think for the sort of story that Owen is trying to do she manages to do it very well, but I'm just simply not the sort of person who goes in for that. So what sort of story is she telling? Well, The Quick is a book about vampires. Well, to be more accurate it's a book set in Victorian London in 1892 that happens to have vampires in it eventually.

The first part of the book feels a lot more like Victorian literary fiction because it deals with Charlotte and James Norbury, two children who grow up in a crumbling estate while their father spends all his time away on business. James eventually is sent away to school and heads to London to become a poet, where he falls into forbidden love with his male aristocratic roommate. This is all before any vampires show up whatsoever in the book, mind you. Aside from one or two vague foreshadowings of something unusual occurring later in the book, you could be forgiven for thinking you'd stumbled across a modern version of a mundane Victorian novel. I was actually beginning to wonder myself if I had read the short description incorrectly but eventually the vampires do show up and we get thrown into a dangerous underworld of London.

The thing that I noticed the most about this book was that it feels very much like a Victorian novel. It seemed to engage in a verbosity favored by writers such as Charles Dickens where ten words will be put in where one would do just as well. On the one hand, I can appreciate it because it's accurate to the literature of the time period and Owen does a good job of making it feel like a Victorian novel. On the other hand, this very verbosity is what drives me away from writers such as Dickens in the first place. As I said, I don't think I'm really the target audience for this sort of thing so I'm not really enjoying the book. That doesn't mean it has its own merits or is necessarily bad, but I just cannot stand Victorian style literature that engages in endless tangents and parentheticals just to pad the length out. Well, Dickens did it, Owen may just be imitating the style.

A thing which I found really weird though was that Owen kind of avoids using the word vampire as much as possible. The characters conscientiously avoid using the word and although vampire is actually used at a couple of points, it's remarkable how reluctant everyone is to actually use that word in a book ostensibly about vampires. And I'm not really sure about the reasoning behind it. I suppose on the one hand it could be because the characters are reluctant to admit that such things exist, even though they're struggling with them. This is sort of explored and most of the characters are reluctant to actually use the word. But at the same time it feels like Owen is almost embarrassed to be writing a book about vampires. As I sort of said earlier the first portion of the book is utterly mundane and deals with James's childhood and then his young adulthood in London after graduation and eventual relationship. The book starts off as, and throughout the rest of it, feels very much like literary fiction. It almost feels like the author is apologizing that vampires are in this book. I guess it could also be a stylistic choice but it feels really weird to me.

Ultimately the biggest problem I had with this book was it seemed dreadfully boring to me. It takes something as unusual and paranormal as vampires and manages to make it seem almost mundane to the point of tediousness. I just found myself wishing this book would be over more often than not. There are some plot threads left dangling which again, could be stylistic or could be deliberate sequel bait. In either case I didn't find myself caring enough to really be interested in those remaining threads. And I think ultimately I'm just not the target audience for this book. I'm not a huge fan of vampires or Victorian fiction so this book has got a lot going against it in my case before I've even taken a look inside. I'm sure there are people who like that sort of thing and probably enjoyed this book, but it just wasn't for me.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Eighty Days, by Matthew Goodman

Today I'm looking at a book about the first official race by an individual to circumnavigate the globe in eighty days or less. A long, long time ago I actually talked about the book that inspired this challenge, which remains a classic piece of literature. What may surprise some people is that a female reporter, Nellie Bly, was the first person to accomplish this feat in seventy-two days. What is even less known is that there were actually two women attempting to circumnavigate the world at the same time. While Nellie Bly was travelling east for The World newspaper, Elizabeth Bisland had been sent west by Cosmopolitan in an attempt to beat Nellie Bly at her own challenge. While Bly remains famous in large part because of her trip around the world, Bisland remains practically unknown today.  In this work Goodman not only talks about the lives of both women, but also the world which they circumnavigated.

Goodman spends some time comparing and contrasting both Bly and Bisland. Bly, born Elizabeth Cochran in Pennsylvania, was the daughter of a prominent local merchant, however her father's death left her mother and her siblings fairly destitute and forced Nellie's mother and Nellie to work for a living. Nellie did a variety of odd jobs before sending a letter to a Pittsburgh newspaper to protest an article stating a woman's proper sphere was in the home. Bly soon found herself hired as a female reporter and eventually made her way to New York. Despite strong opposition to women in the newspaper field, most of them being relegated to the society pages, Bly became an undercover investigative journalist. Her first report was to infiltrate the Blackwell Island Insane Asylum and report on the abhorrent conditions there, truly sensational news, but she investigated working conditions and corruption throughout New York.

Elizabeth Bisland was born to a slave-owning family in Louisiana and actually spent a good portion of the Civil War in New York. After the Civil War, the Bisland family found much of their wealth destroyed and their existence considerably more difficult. However, Elizabeth grew up in a literature-rich environment, reading many English novels during her childhood and having the experience of her poet mother. Bisland eventually sent a poem to a local newspaper and was delighted when it was published, launching a literary career that eventually also took her to New York. While Bly was doing investigative journalism for the daily newspaper The World, Bisland was doing reviews of new literature for the monthly magazine Cosmopolitan. While Bly seems the perfect individual to send on a globe-trotting adventure, Bisland was extremely reluctant to go and did not enjoy the attention being involved in a global race brought her.

This book is rather wide in its focus, going well beyond the adventures of Bly and Bisland as they raced around the world. And this is fairly understandable as, once Bly and Bisland were on a train or steamship, there wasn't quite a lot for them to do but wait. The biographies of both women are helpful and it's interesting to see what happened to both of them after the race was over. Bisland happily faded into relative obscurity, being the runner-up in the race, and continued with her writing career, while Bly enjoyed a brief surge of popularity. Unfortunately Bly became involved with a libel lawsuit brought against The World and left the newspaper. She struggled for a number of years before marrying a millionaire which later brought its own set of problems. In her later years Bly returned to newspaper reporting and remained a champion for the poor and marginalized.

In addition to talking about the women sent around the world, Goodman spends a good chunk of time talking about the world that they saw. He talks about the newspaper industry as it had grown in the late nineteenth century, dominated by individuals such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst who had their own fierce rivalry. Goodman also talks about the travel conditions during the era, whether by train or by the ocean-going steamers which were the only means of long-distance travel in the late nineteenth century. There is a particularly fascinating segment about conditions in the boiler rooms of steamships which I found especially interesting. There is some time spent about the various locations that Bly and Bisland were able to visit, such as Bly's visit with Jules Verne in France or Bisland's stay in Yokohama, but Goodman does a good job of emphasizing how both women spent most of their time racing around the world travelling rather than taking in the sights.

I do want to say one of the things I noticed which got mentioned by contemporaries again and again was the physical appearance of both Bly and Bisland, something which women are still struggling with a hundred and twenty years later. Both women were accomplished writers within their own subject fields, but contemporaries describing them felt it was necessary to describe both women as attractive. Even today talented and accomplished women get comments on their physical appearance, while men do not. So in a way it's kind of frustrating that we're still struggling against attitudes that are well over a century old.

Overall I think this book was okay. Goodman stretches the book out by providing a lot of background context, but I think that's really necessary for most readers to understand the world that Bly and Bisland were exploring in the 1890's. Plus I think it's important to talk about Elizabeth Bisland who was press-ganged into doing what basically amounted to a publicity stunt with no preparation whatsoever. I also enjoy the irony of the first person going around the world in less than eighty days being unable to vote at the time. Anyway, if you're interested in badass women of history this is definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Phoenix Rising, by Pip Ballantine & Tee Morris

Today I'm looking at the first in a series about the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, Phoenix Rising, a steampunk series by Pip Ballantine. I was drawn to this series initially because it seemed to have multiple things I was interested in, namely steampunk and mysterious government agencies that deal with the unusual. (There is a reason I am a huge fan of Warhouse 13.) This book actually started off pretty promisingly with one of our main characters, Wellington Books, Esq., chained to a dungeon wall and about to be tortured by the nefarious House of Usher. Only to be rescued by a timely explosion set by Agent Eliza Braun who has a fondness for weapons and dynamite. Unfortunately the book kind of goes downhill from there and becomes a jumbled mess. As this is the first in a series it sets up conflict for later books, but I feel like the plot created for this introductory novel is haphazard, thrown together, and ultimately unsatisfying.

The setup is classic buddy cop which, if we're being completely honest, works. Wellington Books is the brains (probably why his last name is Books), typical strait-laced individual from England with an aristocratic heritage. Eliza Braun is the muscle, further emphasized by the reader pronouncing her last name ''brawn'' instead of ''brown'', which is what I thought it would be but I'm a Germanophile. She's a bit of a loose cannon, solving problems with explosives, and is far more relaxed coming from the frontier colony of New Zealand. Now these two different personalities are going to be forced to work together! Yeah, I know, it's a very stereotyped buddy cop, odd couple sort of set up that's been done so many times it's practically cliché. But. It works. And to be honest I like the characters so that's at least something the book has working for it.

The problem mostly seems to be, as I said, with the plot. The book starts out with Wellington being rescued by Eliza from the House of Usher, the long-standing enemies of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences. Since Wellington is the chief archivist for the Ministry and privy to numerous secrets he's obviously a valuable prize, but what exactly the House of Usher wants with him is never really explored. In fact the House of Usher pretty much disappears from the novel after that. There are two scenes where they show up, but in both cases they die very quickly and what exactly their plans are remains unknown. This is frustrating to me because I feel like the first novel in a series shoulders the biggest burden in establishing the universe of the series. So I'm left asking questions like, ''Who is the House of Usher? What do they want? What are their goals? Why are they enemies of the Ministry? Are they just big Edgar Allen Poe fans?'' None of these questions get answered and it's just really frustrating to have some people you think are going to be villains but are hardly in the story at all.

The main antagonist for this book is the Society of the Phoenix whose goals are also...poorly defined. Wellington and Eliza are investigating an abandoned case that Eliza's former partner was working on before he disappeared and then turned up stark raving mad. They think there's a connection to grisly murders where people showed up either completely flayed, completely exsanguinated, or completely de-boned. ...sorry, I don't know of a fancy word meaning all of somebody's bones are gone. But why these murders are happening and how they're connected to the Society is vague even to the characters and they spend considerable time stumbling around in the dark. For most of the book we're not really sure what the Society is or what their goals are either. There's some sort of vague mention of wanting to preserve the British Empire but it remains mostly vague. The book is set in the 1890's when the British Empire is still at its height, if being challenged by newer powers on the scene, so why they think the empire's in decline remains elusive. Also how they intend to maintain the power of the Empire is also vague.

And on the one hand, it's okay for the characters to not know a lot as they're investigating a mystery, but by the end I'd have appreciated some more detail. The Society's evil plan is eventually revealed but why they're doing what they're doing is never explained. It's all very well and fine to build a giant death ray, army of mechanical monsters, or killer cheeses, but it's helpful to have a reason. It's almost like the Society was bound to fail because they weren't entirely sure what they were doing either, which doesn't make for terribly good villains.

There are also numerous plot threads which are left for later books to pick up, which are slightly more infuriating because there are so many of them. First of all, there are forces within the British government who wish to shut the Ministry down and are engaging in a clandestine campaign for that purpose. Secondly, there's an unknown force, pulling the strings of possibly both the Society and the House of Usher, but what they're planning is still frustratingly vague beyond being bad guys. And then there are aspects of both Eliza and Wellington's backstories that are mentioned but not really explained and I'm sure will be gone into detail later. For example, why is Eliza exiled from New Zealand? Is serving in England really an exile for her? What's that all about? Also why is Wellington afraid of guns? I assume it's tied to his military service which is referenced in passing but it was mentioned to briefly I actually thought I'd imagined it until the authors brought it back again. There are just so many things tossed in that it makes the story that much more of a jumble.

Ultimately this book's plot is a mess. As interesting as the characters are, the motivations of the villains remain vague and ambiguous for most of the book and that makes the stakes unknown. We don't know if it's the fate of the world or just the fate of Mrs. Miggins Pie Shop. I mean, both could be bad but I think the fate of the world slightly outweighs the fate of the pie shop. I honestly don't know if I'll continue listening to this series or not because of how downright confusing everything was.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Incident, and the Illusion of Safety, by Eric Schlosser

Today I'm looking at Command and Control by Eric Schlosser which is divided into roughly two parts. The first part deals with the Damascus Incident in 1980 where a Titan II missile, armed with a nuclear warhead, exploded within its own silo outside the rural town of Damascus, Arkansas. The other half of the book deals with a significant chunk of America's history with nuclear weapons from the Manhattan Project of World War II, to what little information is available about current U.S. deployments of atomic weapons. The result is a very frightening picture of how the most lethal and dangerous weapons humanity has ever created, capable of wiping out life on the planet, have nearly done so through human error and it's almost sheer luck that the Cold War passed without an atomic exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The biggest thing I question about this book is Schlosser's decision to divide the focus of the book. The book starts with the beginning of the Damascus Incident where a technician, adjusting fuel levels inside the rocket, dropped a socket from a gantry. The socket then bounced off the missile but not before piercing its skin and creating a fuel leak. The situation only got worse from there. The book then shifts focus and goes back to the Manhattan project and the very first atomic weapons, which were such extremely ramshackle affairs that it's almost a miracle they worked. Schlosser then talks about the ensuing fight among the armed forces for control of the atomic stockpile, which in 1946 consisted of approximately one functional bomb.

At the start of the book it's kind of a weird division because you jump back and forth between the narrow story of a situation rapidly getting out of hand at Damascus and the broader history of America's atomic weapons policy. Over time I sort of understood why Schlosser made the decision. As the staff at the missile silo try to resolve the problem before an accidental atomic detonation occurs, they run into the extensive bureaucracy of Strategic Air Command which wastes precious hours dallying about how to best solve the problem before coming up with a solution the people on the ground find confusing or downright stupid. Schlosser then spends time explaining how exactly that bureaucracy, which was originally created to prevent unauthorized use of atomic weapons, came into existence. Schlosser also spends a good chunk of the book going into a lot of close calls and near misses, including a time we scattered plutonium dust over Greenland, which illustrates how the Damascus Incident, rather than being an unusual outlier, was actually uncomfortably close to the mean.

 It does raise the question of why Schlosser chose to focus on Damascus out of all the other examples. It is fairly late in the Cold War, which means numerous policies that had been developed through the fifties and sixties would now be in place. Furthermore it's an example of an obsolete weapon system, utilizing highly dangerous liquid fuels in leaking, poorly maintained rockets which made an accident almost guaranteed. It is nearly miraculous that the warhead, which was blown out of the silo and landed in the Arkansas countryside after flying a thousand feet into the air, was mostly intact and did not contaminate miles of Arkansas. But compared to numerous other examples from Greenland to Morocco to airbases in the United States, Damascus is just one of countless examples of things inevitably going wrong. It is only that with atomic weapons the risk is so, so much greater.

The impression I got most from this book is how dangerously uncontrolled America's atomic arsenal has been in the past and continues to be. The first atomic bombs were almost ad hoc in their construction and certainly should not have been loaded into bombers which would then fly on alert in case the Russians launched a surprise attack. The fact that B-29 and B-52 bombers have a frightening tendency to crash or catch on fire, especially as their flight times began to rack up thanks to constant airborne alerts, makes it no less distressing. There are unfortunately multiple incidents where a fire or crash of a B-52 bomber imperiled its nuclear payloads and in some cases spread plutonium dust over a wide area. To say nothing of bombs which were accidentally released through a crewman pulling the wrong lever at the wrong time.

On top of this considering how tense relations between the United States and Soviet Union were through the Cold War, as well as an almost fatalistic assumption that an atomic war wasn't a matter of if so much as when, it's almost a miracle that we're sitting here right now with only two atomic bombs having been used in warfare to date. (And hopefully it stays that way.) After all, an important contributing cause of World War I was the widespread assumption in Europe that a war was bound to break out sooner or later to the point it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. The almost constant accidents involving atomic weapons, as well as numerous false alarms caused by aging computers or faulty detection systems for organizations such as NORAD, and scant security the military employed around atomic weapons, made atomic war all that much easier to cause by accident. Most chilling of all, the lack of Strategic Air Command for any plan beyond a devastating first strike against the Soviet Union, with thousands of warheads, means even the American high command either did not plan for or did not expect to confront whatever happened after the missiles had landed.

Overall I think this book was rather interesting, even if I was sort of confused by Schlosser's organization. As I said, it makes a lot more sense as you get further into the book and gives you a better understanding of how the atomic arsenal has been managed in the United States. The Damascus Incident goes from being an incredibly terrifying and dangerous situation to almost being downright mundane. Make no mistake, we got off lucky and even then one serviceman was killed and several others were seriously wounded, but it's almost typical of all the other close calls we've accumulated over the years. If this is a subject you're interested in I'd definitely recommend checking it out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Sharpe's Havoc, by Bernard Cornwell

This week I'm looking at yet another book in the Sharpe series, Sharpe's Havoc, and I honestly hate to say it but I feel like this is another one of those books where we're in between waiting for things to happen. In the last book, Sharpe ended up, somewhat accidentally, in command of what was left of his company of the 95th Rifles, trying to make their way back to British lines in Portugal while evading the seemingly endless hordes of Frenchmen. Sharpe and his two dozen or so riflemen are still in Portugal, despite all of the 95th being safely back home in Britain at the moment, having spent the intervening time protecting a British military engineer who's been mapping Portugal. Very soon Wellington arrives to take command of the British forces in Portugal and Marshal Soult, who looked like he'd have an easy march to Lisbon, is now on the run and trying to extricate his army to Spain.

As Cornwell himself says, Sharpe has no business being in Portugal at the time because nobody of the 95th Rifles were in Portugal at that point. Sharpe's in an ad hoc situation only loosely attached to the army and spends a considerable portion of the book trapped behind enemy lines which puts him outside the British chain of command and forces Sharpe to rely on his own best judgment. I will say seeing Sharpe make himself a royal nuisance for the French is definitely more interesting than him sitting around the barracks in Britain so I can't say I blame the author for giving him something to do, even if it stretches the bounds of historical authenticity.

Plot-wise Sharpe is tasked with keeping an eye on Colonel Christopher, a man from the Foreign Office sent to gauge popular opinion in Portugal and to see if it's really worth Britain's time and effort to send troops to fight the French. Out of deference to his position in the Foreign Office, Christopher has been brevetted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, despite having no military experience whatsoever. For his own reasons, Christopher is not thrilled at the prospect of having Sharpe and his ragamuffin band of riflemen following him around the Portuguese countryside and is determined to get rid of Sharpe as soon a possible. It is only the winds of war that keep the two from going their separate ways.

Honestly, I feel like this book is just killing time. Wellington's arrival marks a turning point in the Peninsular campaign, but they're far from driving the French back across the Pyrenees. It's like Cornwell had some time for Sharpe to go on an adventure and kill some Frenchmen, and so that's what Sharpe did. And in a way I'm okay with that. The books are marvelously well researched and provide interesting insights into military life in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but there's not a lot of substance beyond that.

And I like the Sharpe books, I really do. It's easy reading and while Sharpe is a brutal and vicious character, there's still something admirable about him and the fact that he's got more self-control than a lot of the other soldiers in the series. (Which is a pretty realistic portrayal of warfare at this time as well.) But they're just sort of quick, fun little reads for me when I feel like reading something set during the Napoleonic era. And I guess that's okay. Not everything I read has to be great literature.

Overall, the book's okay. If you're a fan of the Sharpe series you'll probably enjoy this like all the other books you've no doubt read by now. But if you're not a fan yet I'd recommend looking elsewhere for an introduction because this is definitely in the middle of things to say the least.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, by Gregory Maguire

This week I'm taking a look at a book I'm actually calling more historical fiction than fantasy, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Much like how Maguire's more famous work, Wicked is a retelling of The Wizard of Oz from the perspective of the villain, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a retelling of the classic story of Cinderella from the perspective of the stepsisters who in many adaptations have very little characterization and are just antagonists to Cinderella. Maguire also takes an interesting approach by making the story completely mundane by excising all of the magic, which makes this book feel a lot more like a historical fiction novel than a fantasy novel, even if it's inspired by a fairy tale.

The story is framed by the reminisces of Ruth, one of the two stepsisters who has discovered that children have begun telling the story of Cinderella, albeit in a far more fanciful and edited form than the family scandal that Ruth remembers. The majority of the story is told from the perspective of Iris, the other stepsister who is described as fairly plain but very intelligent and talented at art, while Ruth struggles with an intellectual disability. The book is set in the early seventeenth century with Ruth and Iris forced to flee England with their mother to Holland after their father was killed by a mob. They first spend time working for a master painter, who with his apprentice Capsar remain good friends with Iris and Ruth, and later Iris is recruited to be a friend for Clara, the only child of a prosperous tulip merchant family who is sheltered in the extreme from the world by her mother. As for the rest of the story, well you can probably guess. Maguire stays faithful to the structure of the story, while putting his own twist on it and keeping the story well grounded in the mundane world.

I think ultimately the most interesting things were the decisions Maguire made to make the story different from the original that we all know by heart. There's some debate as to how wicked Ruth and Iris's mother is, although in my opinion she seems kind of a bad person rather than just morally ambiguous. Maguire does emphasize how physically ugly Ruth and Iris are, which I have to admit gets really repetitive after a while and it made me say, ''No wonder the two of them have such low self-esteem!'' However, they both come across as decent people who are just trying to do their best to survive in the world. Which is an almost total inversion of the ''attractive in body but ugly in spirit'' interpretation which has become common in many modern portrayals.

What's also interesting is the approach to Clara. While in practically all versions Cinderella is portrayed as a gentle and kind-hearted girl, in the book she's portrayed as really a spoiled brat. She's described as incredibly beautiful and since her family is wealthy she's had the luxury of never having to help her family or work to survive, opposed to Ruth and Iris. In addition, thanks to her mother she's incredibly coddled to the point of not being allowed to leave the house, which has definitely stunted her emotional development despite her being well into her teens. Although Clara has her good aspects, she comes across as an incredibly frustrating character as well. Overall Maguire does a pretty good job of showing people as not all good or all bad, even if he inverts the major characters the most.

The setting of early seventeenth century Holland is also interesting and the tulip mania actually plays a slight role in the story which makes it much more interesting. I actually spent some time wondering if there had been a made-for-tv movie adaptation that I only half-remembered until I could finally get to a computer and look it up. (Short answer, yes, there was a tv movie and I'm not crazy, at least not for that reason.) It's very distinct from any of the other interpretations of Cinderella that have been produced through the years and gives the book a distinct flavor which I appreciated.

The biggest weakness for this book is I think it kind of dragged at various points. We have the disadvantage in this story of knowing how the story ends so a lot of the suspense is either gone or tied up in ''how do we get from this point that's unfamiliar to the familiar point?'' And once we start venturing into familiar territory I just felt like we were just killing time until the climax, which made the story feel much longer than it probably was.

Overall I think this book is interesting. I honestly was a little disappointed to find it was strongly mundane and there were almost no fantasy elements whatsoever, but it's an interesting approach. Portraying the story of Cinderella as an old family scandal that became town gossip and then faded into memory as myth is an interesting and somewhat plausible origin story. Overall, I liked the book, even if I felt it dragged in the middle. Although it doesn't have magic if you like fairy tales this might be worth your effort.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card

This week I'm taking a look at the sort-of sequel to Ender's Game which I reviewed quite some time ago when the movie came out. Speaker for the Dead is, in Card's own words, the book he actually meant to write and Ender's Game was meant sort of as a prologue. Card himself is aware of the irony that Ender's Game is by far the most widely read of his works and Speaker for the Dead is left playing second fiddle.

That being said, I think Speaker for the Dead is a great example of how science-fiction as a genre can be serious literature that talks about serious themes which seem to be relegated to''real'' literary fiction more often than not. This isn't to say that Ender's Game doesn't deal with serious topics as well, but I would say that Speaker for the Dead feels much more serious than its predecessor. An analogy I heard once was that Ender's Game is kind of like The Hobbit to the later three books which are more like The Lord of the Rings. They're all within the same universe and share characters, but there's a definite tonal shift between the two. I'm definitely sensing the tonal shift and I feel like Speaker for the Dead, and most likely its sequels Xenocide and Children of the Mind, are going to be more mature than Ender's Game.

Plot-wise the book is set some three thousand years after the events of Ender's Game and the Third Bugger War where humanity destroyed the buggers for good and humanity has scattered among a hundred colony worlds. Ender is remembered as the Xenocide, the worst monster in all of human history, while the most revered is possibly the first Speaker for the Dead who wrote The Hive Queen and the Hegemon which made humanity realize the barbarity of their extermination of the buggers and led them to repent the act. The irony that these were the same person is not lost on Ender Wiggin, who is only in his mid thirties thanks to the time-dilation of interstellar travel, wandering from world to world with his sister Valentine.

Events on the colony world Lusitania have drawn Ender's attention because humanity has made contact with another sentient species, referred to by humans as the piggies. Conscious of their collective sin of exterminating the buggers, humanity has tried to compensate in the other direction by making very limited contact with the piggies and keeping them safe from human contamination. However when one of the xenographers who has been studying the piggies turns up dead, apparently ritually murdered by the piggies, Ender fears humanity may let their more ruthless instincts get the better of them.

Further complicating this is the existence of Jane, a sentient AI created by the ansible network which links the disparate colonies with instantaneous communication. Jane is very aware that humanity has feared the emergence of an AI and has only revealed herself to Ender, the one individual who wouldn't immediately react with fear to her presence. Jane hopes that someday humanity might be ready for her to come out into the open, but she'll need Ender's help to get humanity to that point.

I have to say, despite the disparate plots going on at once, this book is really good. I was engaged throughout the book and although there are plenty of rough corners, I ended up enjoying it. As I said earlier, this is a great example of how science-fiction can talk about serious topics just as well as ''real'' literature. According to Card he just had the idea of someone telling the truth at a person's funeral, his idea for the Speaker for the Dead. He noticed that so often after someone passes on we tend to lie about the person, in the tradition of never speaking ill of the dead. So he thought it would be interesting, if perhaps painful, to tell the truth instead. From this idea has spawned a book that's about so much more than death and secrets and the lies that come with it. There's humanity, what it means to be human, compassion, empathy, and a whole host of other emotions which make this a really interesting book.

As I said, there are some rough edges around the book. One of the things I found really weird about the book was how dated it felt for a distant space future, especially since the book was written in the 1980's. The Brazilian colonists on Lusitania may strongly represent the Brazilians Card encountered during his missionary work there, but I've no way of knowing if they're indicative of Brazilians today or even thirty years ago. There's a major plot point that revolves around the fact one character can't marry another because then he'd have access to all the information she had because husband and wife are considered legally the same. Even for the eighties this feels outdated since it's well past Second Wave Feminism and much of the fights of First Wave Feminism in the early 1900's was to allow women to maintain a distinct legal identity from their husband. It just feels incredibly weird to me that this would be the case in the space future.

Overall I highly recommend this book, and I can say it is popular for a reason. If you've read Ender's Game but for whatever reason never got around to the sequels, I can say at least Speaker for the Dead is well worth the effort. If you haven't read Ender's Game, I would recommend starting there because it's a pretty short read and it will fill you in on a lot of details before you start Speaker for the Dead.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Ashes of Victory, by David Weber

This week I'm continuing with the Honor Harrington series with what's the ninth book, Ashes of Victory. The biggest thing I've noticed with this series is I'm only continuing to read it because I like the characters and I want to see what happens to them as time goes on. I hate to say it, but I've noticed the writing has gotten weaker over time and while I'm still enjoying the series and getting to see Honor and the cast of eight million other characters do lots of cool stuff, I can see where there are some problems coming up. The biggest is the issue of show don't tell, which has been happening a lot as the series progresses. And like Sursum Ursa said, there's a lot of exposition being thrown around as well. Well, and Honor's taking a back seat when she' know...the main character. On the one hand it kind of makes sense because she's a full admiral and a duchess now and intimately involved in the political operations of not only Manticore but Grayson as well, but on the other I kind of miss seeing her out in the field, leading ships into battle.

Usual disclaimer, I'll be talking with spoilers after this point in the review. Well, okay, I kind of spoiled earlier but there's no helping this. Honestly if you're not this far into the series you're probably not going to be impressed with this book because it's...okay. Like, I liked it but it's mostly because I liked the characters more than anything else. Also I'm starting to ramble. Anyway, spoilers, beware, so on and so forth.

So I'll briefly cover what happens to Honor over the course of the book. After successfully managing the largest prison break in history, evacuating some half a million people from the prison camps on Hades, Honor has returned to wild acclaim by the members of the Alliance. Because she lost her cybernetic implants, Honor is going to be spending considerable time recuperating and gets sent back to Manticore to teach tactics at the military academy at Saganami Island. She's also given a new duchy since her cousin was granted the previous Earldom of Harrington, and gets some people to work on sign language for treecats which allow them to communicate with humans, something previously not possible. So it's a pretty full docket and Honor's very much on the sidelines for most of the book.

So if Honor's on the bench, where is the rest of the action happening? Well quite frankly all over the place. You've got the Alliance military, in all its disparate locations, who finally have enough of the new weapons to make a decisive change in the war and are getting ready for the next big push. There are plots going on within Grayson which becomes a major issue later in the book. And there are plots galore going on back in Haven as distrust between Pierre and Secretary of War McQueen continues to grow. It's very complex to say the least so it kind of feels like a bridge between what was happening earlier and what Weber has planned afterwards. But that remains to be seen on my end.

As I said, my biggest problem is Weber tends to tell us things rather than show them. The very best example I have in this book is the battle between McQueen and Pierre that finally breaks out in the capital of Haven and leaves Oscar Saint-Just as the man in charge of the People's Republic of Haven. Now, this is a huge event. Pierre's been in this series, at least being mentioned, since book one. We've been watching McQueen manage the Navy and get them back on the offensive, along with her own plans knowing that Pierre and Saint-Just are planning to betray her when they no longer need her. McQueen isn't really as prepared as she'd like to be, but she knows she doesn't have the luxury of waiting anymore.

I mean, this is huge! McQueen launches her coup, there's fighting in the streets, Pierre gets killed by a band of marines, and Saint-Just only manages to escape with his life. McQueen locks down in the Octagon, the military nerve center of the PRH, and takes numerous hostages to prevent Saint-Just from storming the place. Unfortunately, she hadn't counted on him planting a nuke in the basement and actually using it to resolve the situation. This is a huge change in the political scene for the universe.

...but we find out about it after the fact. Like...this is what's so insanely frustrating. We get to see McQueen give the launch order and then later we're told what happened. Pierre and McQueen both die offscreen and it feels very glossed-over. This book would have been so much more interesting if Weber had taken the time to actually write out the events of the coup, at least some of them, than telling us what happened. And there are plenty of other examples, not just in this book but in other books as well. The taking of Trevor's Star which happened between books was another good example which confused me then. Like, I get that there's a lot going on and Weber's created an insanely detailed universe, but I feel like it's starting to get to be too much and we're just getting lists of things that are happening rather than actual events.

There's also a lot of people standing or sitting around talking about things. I noticed it less because I was reading the book rather than listening to it, but that was a huge complaint I had about the Dune series which made me stop listening to it entirely. So I guess it's a good thing that I'm reading these books rather than listening to them. Because it's just a lot of people sitting around and talking about things happening. I think this is a problem of space opera specifically, but somehow I still love the genre in spite of that problem.

Overall the book's okay. I think I enjoyed it because I've come to expect a ton of long debates about politics or economics and less space battle action. And there is a lot less space battle action in this book than in most of the other ones. It's definitely one of the less strong of the books and I think newcomers to the series aren't going to start here, but if you're interested in the series and you've made it this far, well you're probably willing to go a little further.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty, by Dan Jones

Today I'm looking at another book from Dan Jones, in this case Magna Carta: The Birth of Liberty, which was written as part of the celebrations last year over the eight-hundredth anniversary of the issuance of Magna Carta by King John of England in 1215. To historians, though, the excitement over Magna Carta seems largely misplaced. Put within the context of the era, it was an attempt at a negotiated peace between King John and his rebelling barons, a peace which did not last a month before John was repudiating Magna Carta and trying to exert his will over his barons once again. Furthermore Magna Carta is overwhelmingly concerned with the rights of the nobility concerning the king and the limited rights it granted freemen, as Jones points out, would have affected maybe twenty percent of England's entire population in 1215. Jones argues rather eloquently that the Fourth Lateran Council, which condemned trial by ordeal, should be more remembered than Magna Carta. And yet somehow this obscure document has earned an almost sacred status.

The majority of the book focuses on putting Magna Carta within the proper historical context. As Jones is a medieval historian this makes a lot of sense because that's the subject that he's studied the most and has the most expertise talking about. Jones does a very good job of explaining the history of heavy-handed governance and taxation, started by Henry II and Richard I to finance their perpetual wars, which finally came to a head under the less successful and less charismatic John. Jones does spend time going into subjects such as medieval siegecraft which give a fuller understanding of the story, but may not entirely relate to Magna Carta specifically. And since I've already listened to The Plantagenets from the same author, who of course covers Magna Carta in that book as well, a lot of the subject matter was review for me.

Ultimately I did find myself wishing that Jones had spent more time talking about the evolution of Magna Carta in the intervening eight hundred years and why it has developed such a significance. When pointing out that it is mostly a medieval document concerned with issues such as scutage and feudal inheritances, it seems very strange indeed that Magna Carta has such significance today. The last chapter of the book very briefly covers how Magna Carta went from an embarrassment best ignored by the sixteenth century, to a key constitutional argument for opponents of Charles I's attempts at absolute royal authority during the English Civil War. Even as the numerous clauses in Magna Carta became obsolete, principles such as trial by jury, due process of law, and a vague notion of representation in exchange for taxation, became part of English tradition, as well as the traditions of numerous countries settled by English colonists. This is a huge subject which could be its own book, or even multiple books, but I think it would be interesting to listen to or read about.

I think if you've already read The Plantagenets or even seen Monarchy with David Starkey (who actually taught Dan Jones!) then you'll find a lot of the stuff in Magna Carta a review because it talks mostly about John's reign more than anything else. It's still very good writing from Jones who is becoming one of my other favorite English historians and if you want a much shorter book focusing just on this subject matter then this is a good choice. But I still recommend The Plantagenets over this one.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Romanovs, by Simon Sebag Montefiore

This week I'm taking another look at the field of Russian history with a biography on the Romanov dynasty, the family that ruled as tsars in Russia for about three hundred years until the Russian Revolution of 1917. Needless to say this is a very long book because it has to deal not only with the tsars and tsarinas but the various ministers and the various situations in Europe which Russia had to respond to, with varying degrees of success. Although the Romanovs ultimately fell to violent revolution, Montefiore says they were successful in expanding Russia's territory consistently during their reign and maintaining an increasingly multi-ethnic empire which by the end had Russians as a plurality. As successful as they were, the biggest issue seems to be that the Romanovs did not change enough with the times and were relying on antiquated theories and systems of government which simply could not maintain the Russian Empire during World War I.

I will say this book wasn't perfect and there were some issues that I had. First of all the book is incredibly Euro-centric in its focus, which I think is a weakness when talking about Russia which straddles two continents. Ultimately Russia's policy in Asia was influenced by events in Europe, and events in Asia influenced their policy in Europe. To leave out Asia almost entirely is to tell just one half of the story. Furthermore the expansion into Siberia and Manchuria were major parts of Russian expansion during the Romanov years and to leave it out feels like talking about American history but leaving out half the United States.

Montefiore also seems to be strangely fixated on the sexual habits of the Romanovs, whether a devoted couple such as Nicholas II and Alexandra, or the numerous affairs of individuals such as Alexander I and Catherine the Great. It does humanize the Romanovs and make the reading less dry than it could have been, but I feel like he's trying to expose the Romanovs as an entire dynasty of extreme sexual deviants. Frankly, I'd have been more surprised if they hadn't had an insane number of affairs and illegitimate children. These things are practically an obligation for royalty during these time periods. So maybe some people enjoy having the Romanovs' dirty laundry aired, so to speak, but it felt like a weird obsession of Montefiore's to me more than anything else.

The strongest theme I noticed was the dependency on the authority of the tsar. When Tsar Michael Romanov acceded the throne in 1613, the tsar was an absolute monarch with complete authority over his subjects only limited by the assent of the boyars who were fairly supportive. Three hundred years later very little had changed in Russia. Despite numerous attempts at reform and to shift the increasing burden of managing a continent-spanning empire onto multiple, capable shoulders, numerous tsars, most specifically Alexander III and Nicholas II, resisted such attempts as attacks on their royal power. The tsars were still trying to rule from the principle of divine right of kings, something most of the rest of the world had discarded for a century.

By putting so much emphasis and power on the tsar, the fate of Russia also became highly dependent on the competency of the respective tsar or tsarina. Things work very well under intelligent rulers such as Peter the Great or Catherine the Great (hence their sobriquets), and Alexander II was, as Montefiore puts it, probably the best-prepared heir in Romanov history. But under weak rulers such as Paul or Peter III the situation quickly deteriorates and unrest spreads, which proved to be fatal in the course of Peter III. By the later years even though Nicholas II was a man of moderate intelligence who might have served competently in a more limited capacity, the sheer number and scope of crises facing him, as well as the stress of managing a massive empire, meant he simply wasn't able to pull the Romanov dynasty through World War I successfully. Even a Peter of Catherine would have been sorely challenged by the problems Nicholas II faced.

Ultimately I think this was a good look at an influential European ruling family which I didn't know terribly much about and I was glad to increase my knowledge in this area. Despite its size, this book has limits and we're not getting the whole story. But for three hundred years of history Montefiore does a pretty good job. Definitely worth checking out if you're interested in the subject.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 24, 2016

All Aboard! The Railroad in American Life, by George H. Douglas

Today in a move that should surprise exactly nobody, I am reviewing yet another book about railroad history, something I've done from time to time here on the blog because of my ongoing obsession with trains which I can honestly say has existed since before I can remember. Today I'm looking at an amateur history, All Aboard! The Railroad in American Life, by George H. Douglas. I say amateur history because Douglas is an English and creative writing professor who has written a few histories about railroads, a topic he is interested in, rather than being a professional historian. At the risk of sounding snobbish, I have to admit that it shows through in a couple places in this book and being someone with an education in history I found myself wishing for more in this book, such as more evidence of research.

All Aboard! is an attempt to very briefly cover the history of railroading in the United States from its infancy in the 1820's to about the 1980's. This is an audacious task and would be difficult for anyone to cover in a four hundred page book. There are whole books written about one single railroad, or one specific location, or one specific time period in the history of railroading in the United States. Obviously there is a great amount of detail left out, simply because Douglas just doesn't have the space to talk about it. However, it still feels rather limited in scope for a history of railroads in the United States.

A good example is Douglas's use of anecdotes from the history of railroads to provide vignettes of life related to the railroad. Although the story of Augustus S. Messer, a conductor on the New Haven Railroad, adds a definite human element to the story, Douglas doesn't do a terribly good job of working it into the larger narrative of railroad history. Looking back too, I think that a casual reader might be a little confused. As an avid reader of railroad history I had some of the necessary context to understand what Douglas was talking about, but I think less experienced readers could easily get confused by the use of terminology without explanation.

There are also some comments that just seem terribly outdated for the time when this book was published in 1991. Douglas takes a fairly anti-labor stance in his historical narrative, siding with railroad executives, which is odd considering most historians consider the complaints of labor such as the incredibly dangerous working conditions on railroads as legitimate concerns. I also remember a comment about slave labor in the south used before the Civil War to build railroad lines as being ''fairly well treated'' which bothers me for a variety of reasons, mostly it seems an almost backhanded attempt to justify slavery as not that bad. Which of course is a whole other issue which I've talked about in books that deal more directly with slavery elsewhere.

Another thing that was kind of disappointing was Douglas's inclusion of works of literature, film, and music which included trains and railroads. Sometimes Douglas goes into depth with analyses of a specific work and its use of railroads within the story. Most of the time, though, Douglas just provides a long list of works that include railroads, perhaps in only a minor capacity, and talks about how railroads affect the American psyche in a variety of ways. As an English professor I would expect this to be the most-developed part of his work, looking at how the railroad is portrayed in various mediums. Unfortunately it comes across more as a list of books and movies that have trains in them more than anything else.

The problem with this book seems to be it starts off with a very audacious goal and doesn't quite get where it needs to be. I feel like Douglas would have benefited from more research to give a lot more meat to his text which feels pretty fanciful at times. Ultimately this feels like a book written by a railfan for the enjoyment of other railfans, so if you're already well into the train fandom this book might have some gems you'd enjoy. But if you're a relative newcomer or looking for more nitty-gritty analysis of railroads in the United States, there are better resources out there.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Raiding the Stacks: A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Today I'm delving into another old book, in this case A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Originally published in serial form, like most novels at the time, and later collected in book format, A Princess of Mars is the first in the wildly popular series featuring the adventures of John Carter on the planet Mars, or as the inhabitants call it, Barsoom. In addition to the John Carter series, Burroughs was also creator of the Tarzan series and I can see where there might be some overlap between the two. Strong, muscular men who go around without shirts on, saving women and fighting bad guys. Although that's a whole sub-set of pulp adventure novels that used to be wildly popular if they weren't terribly nuanced.

The plot follows the adventures of the aforementioned John Carter who, while prospecting for gold in Arizona after the Civil War, stumbles into a cave to escape from Apaches. Carter finds himself unable to move and then collapses into sleep. Somehow he finds himself standing outside himself and is then transported to Mars, a dying planet where the inhabitants, the green and red races of Martians, are locked in endless battles over dwindling resources. Because Mars has much lower gravity than Earth, Carter finds himself able to kill Martians twice as big as him with his bare hands and able to jump thirty feet in the air. He quickly rises to prominence as a warrior among the Martians and meets and falls in love with Dejah Thoris, a Martian princess. Carter spends ten years living on Mars and then, just as mysteriously, ends up right back on Earth.

The book actually focuses more on Carter's early adventures, his arrival on Mars, integration into Martian society, and eventual rise to prominence. The story then abruptly glosses over nine years of his time on Mars before his return. Which is clever in a way because it left plenty of room for Burroughs to write sequels of Carter's adventures on Mars. The book does a pretty good job of introducing the reader to the world of Mars that Burroughs has created, leaving some room for expansion, if being basically a bunch of exposition lobbed at you.

I was actually able to pin this book down to the decade it was written because of the presence of radium in the book, which I thought was kind of neat. Specifically radium is the Applied Phlebotinum of choice for the book and is used for all sorts of things from weapons to airship engines. There was this really big fad in the 1910's to put radium in everything, including toothpaste, on the logic it was new and it glowed, therefore it must be good! Unfortunately a lot of people then died of cancer because of this rampant use of radium, but it does serve as a means to date the book.

So how does the story hold up compared to modern times? Not terribly well. There is a typical, subtle sort of racism in that John Carter, a powerful white man from Virginia, is a better warrior than anyone else on Mars and is the absolute best at everything. It definitely falls into Mighty Whitey territory. Also, as is typical of pulp adventures from this era there is a ridiculous amount of people who are naked all the time. Which is something I just don't understand. Clothes are useful! They have pockets which let you hold things! Like pocket watches! And there's a lot of fighting and killing and dying, as well as some old-fashioned sexism. It may have been progressive or scandalous when it came out, but it's pretty tame by today's standards.

Is it worth reading? If you like old-fashioned pulp adventures from the early twentieth century, then sure, go right ahead. As much as I like pulp, I have to say this isn't quite the sort of pulp I like. I've never really gone in for the heroic barbarian type so it makes sense for me to be less than enthused with the idea. But if you like you some techno-barbarians? Probably for you.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Raiding the Stacks: The Lost World, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

So this week I'm doing something I haven't done in a very long time and dug up a very old sci-fi classic. Well, I say sci-fi although it's fairly tame compared to H.G. Wells or Jules Verne. Anyway, this week I'm talking about The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which I borrowed in audio format from the library. Doyle is most famous, of course, for Sherlock Holmes but The Lost World is no less important because it has given a name to a whole subset of the adventure genre.

Lost World fiction involves an isolated location, either a plateau, cave, or mountain range deep somewhere in an ''unexplored'' continent, or equally common an isolated island. Often a lost civilization or species previously believed to be extinct (dinosaurs being the most common) are contained in this secluded, mysterious, and fantastic location. Although less common nowadays because of increased cartographical knowledge, it still works as a period piece and has found its way into plenty of pulp adventures, which I'm definitely a fan of.

The Lost World involves Professor Challenger who claims to have found a plateau in the Amazon rainforest with living examples of previously thought to be extinct species, including dinosaurs. As this is an extraordinary claim there are demands for evidence and one of Challenger's critics, Professor Summerlee, sets off into the Amazon with Lord John Roxton and reporter Edward Malone, before having their expedition hijacked by Challenger. They eventually discover Challenger's plateau and a world filled with dinosaurs, ape men, and an isolated tribe of humans. There are some thrilling adventures and everyone manages to make it back home to England, with much congratulations all around.

The book feels pretty standard for a jungle adventure of the 1910's. There are brave white men, piercing the mysteries of an ''unexplored'' and ''savage'' continent, dealing with physical danger and the occasional treachery of non-white people. And there is really a lot of unfortunate racism in the book, although that honestly should be expected considering when it was written and who was doing the writing. There are still some pretty cringe-worthy parts, such as when the survivors of a group of ape-men are forced into slavery by the group of humans on the plateau. Now, while the ape-men had been killing humans for years, it still doesn't feel right to commit something very close to genocide and systematic slavery.

The science on the dinosaurs is also pretty dated. This was during the era when it was assumed dinosaurs were all large and fairly stupid creatures to explain why they all went extinct. In fact, it wasn't until the late twentieth century that the stereotype of dinosaurs as being incredibly stupid creatures was replaced by our current understanding. So it's definitely odd to see, especially anyone more familiar with the post-Jurassic Park era.

Overall I'd say the book is okay. It's interesting from a historical viewpoint but I don't know if it's got that much else going for it. There are plenty of other Lost World genre stories, some of which are probably more entertaining than this one, if with slightly less purple prose.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century, by William Rosen

This week I'm talking about The Third Horseman, a book ostensibly about the Great Famine, an event in the early fourteenth century with widespread food shortages in Europe caused by a variety of factors which is often overlooked because of the Black Death which appeared a few decades later. I say ostensibly because this book feels only partially about the Great Famine for most of the time. Instead Rosen spends a considerable amount of time talking about the reigns of Kings Edward I and Edward II of England and their on-again-off-again wars with the Scottish. Rosen tries to tie this to agriculture and how the wars exacerbated the Great Famine in England, except the Great Famine affected much of northern Europe, which was almost always in varying degrees of conflict. And he spends considerably less time talking about France, Germany, the Low Countries and Scandinavia where the famine was equally harsh. The result is very disappointing and feels like another history of England's wars with Scotland.

What I found most interesting was the parts where Rosen actually talked about medieval agriculture. I know, I know, that's a really weird thing to be interested in but I went into this book hoping to expand something I knew very little to nothing about whatsoever. Rosen goes into some detail about the European diet, heavily based on cereal grains, and argues medieval agriculture had become more and more tenuous through the Medieval Warm Period. For those of you that aren't aware, the Medieval Warm Period was a centuries-long period of increased average temperatures experienced by Northern Europe from about the ninth to the fourteenth century C.E. Reasons behind it are still not entirely understood, and as far as they can tell it was an event localized to Europe rather than a global phenomenon. Equally mysteriously, the Medieval Warm Period was followed by what's referred to as the Little Ice Age, an era where temperatures returned to much cooler levels in Europe.

Rosen argues that during the Medieval Warm Period, warmer temperatures and more reliable weather made cultivation of land not optimal for cereal cultivation more profitable. Increased food led to increased population, which pushed further demand for increased cultivation until more and more marginal lands were under cultivation. However, once the weather patterns of Europe changed, with cooler and wetter summers, these lands no longer produced sufficient food for the population. This problem was further exacerbated by land exhaustion as fields were used repeatedly for the cultivation of wheat, a nitrogen-intensive crop, which led to more decreases in yields. Plus the constant warfare which entailed raiding and burning crops made a bad situation much, much worse.

Rosen also tries to argue that certain social structures, feudalism being a big example, were a result of the Medieval Warm Period and increased agriculture. I feel like this argument doesn't stand up as well because, at least from my understanding, feudalism was largely a response to the limitations of the era which required localized administration, government, and defense. Of course there's ongoing debate among medievalists about what exactly feudalism was because it has become a sort of catch-all term and while it's portrayed in medieval Europe as a neat and tidy pyramid, the truth is far more complicated.

The biggest impression I got, though, was that Rosen wasn't really interested in writing about the Great Famine. Yes, it and agriculture and the Medieval Warm Period are all part of the story, but he spends far more time talking about Edward I, Robert the Bruce, and Edward II than about agriculture. I was left with the feeling Rosen really wanted to talk about that instead, and agriculture was just sort of a supplement rather than being the main topic of conversation. Numerous chapters are devoted to the wars between the English and Scottish while the history of Germany and the Holy Roman Empire during this era gets shoved into one chapter. If Rosen wanted to talk about the English and Scottish wars, that's fine. I just wish he'd have titled the book about that instead.

My biggest complaint ultimately is the book doesn't feel like it's really about what it's ostensibly about. The parts about agriculture and the Medieval Warm Period are interesting, but they just make up far too small a part of the book for the book to really be about that. If you want a book about the Plantagenets, then I recommend the book by Dan Jones more than this one.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Battlefront: Twilight Company, by Alexander Freed

This week I'm descending once again into the craziness of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, although in this case I'm reading something that's apparently canon. For the time being, anyway. This is one thing which kind of confuses me is figuring out what's canon anymore and what isn't. I understand the decision made a few years back to declare basically everything but the three movies not canon. (''But Kalpar!'' you're probably saying. ''What about the other three movies and the two tv series?'' To which I respond: ''What other three movies and two tv series?'') After thirty years the EU had gotten so clogged with novels, comics, and video games that you needed an encyclopedia to keep track of everything. So by razing everything to the ground it makes a lot of sense. Although now with the introduction of yet more novels, comics, and video games it's becoming an even more incomprehensible tangle. Much like how the Marvel cinematic universe is becoming a crazy, interlocking mess in its own way, but that's a rant for another day.

Battlefront: Twilight Company is a tie-in to the video game Star Wars Battlefront, actually the second game with that name because I totally remember when the first one came out. But again, a rant for another day. This book follows the adventures of the 61st Rebel Mobile Infantry, also known as Twilight Company, in the days immediately before and then after the Battle of Hoth, with one of the characters actually participating in the ground battle and managing to escape from the Empire's net. The book is pretty standard sci-fi military fare, which I've read numerous times with the 40k novels about the Imperial Guard over the years. What makes this one different is it focuses a lot more on the struggles of Twilight Company in sticking together.

Within the universe of Star Wars these are dark times for the Rebellion. Although there's the victory of destroying the Death Star, the Empire has scattered the Rebels across the galaxy and they haven't had much success since then. The loss on Hoth is also a crippling attack on morale. So this book deals a lot with rebel soldiers, the ground-pounders who are fighting, bleeding, and dying on countless worlds against the stormtrooper legions of the Empire. And you really get a sense of the desperation and how hard it can be for people to keep fighting. Especially when it seems like they're fighting for a lost cause. So while there are elements of standard sci-fi military fiction with daring raids and infantry attacks, it's got a more psychological element as well.

There's also the inclusion of a character who serves as a member of the stormtrooper garrison on the planet Sullust, and her path eventually crosses with Twilight Company, albeit in a limited fashion. And I'm kind of mixed on her inclusion in the story. On the one hand it's a good thing because it humanizes stormtroopers, the ultimate faceless goons who have been killed in droves since 1977, and helps people understand why someone might join the Empire and be proud of that. But on the other hand, it feels kind of tacked on compared to the rest of the story. She really could have gotten her own book that explored and humanized the Empire and how people saw it as a force for order, but it's sort of an addendum to the book and feels less developed.

Because this is an audiobook I will comment on the sound effects which I actually commented upon in other Star Wars audiobooks I've listened to. In this case, I felt like it just wasn't quite up to par with some of the other books. As it was a military book there was a lot of blaster fire used, but it felt like the same sound effect got used a lot which got repetitive really quickly. The inclusion of music from the movies was nice and really useful in one or two scenes, but it was rather limited. It just felt like there was less effort spent on sound production in this book compared to others.

Overall the book's okay. I wouldn't say it's really breaking into new ground. Especially if you're like me and you've read far too much pulp sci-fi military adventure stories than is strictly healthy for you. (I do love me some space operas.) But I liked that it's a fresh perspective in the Star Wars universe which seems to spend an inordinate amount of time following the main characters around all the time. If you like military sci-fi this is a good choice.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup

This week I'm doing something a little different and looking at an autobiography which is a little outside the bounds of what I normally review on this blog. However, it is historical so it definitely aligns within my interests. Also this book was on the list of: Probably should have read but never quite got around to it. And since I could download this as an audiobook it seemed as good a time as any.

Twelve Years a Slave, which was turned into a major motion picture about three years ago, is the autobiographical account by Solomon Northup, who was a free black man born in New York in the early nineteenth century, did a variety of jobs, and had a wife and family. In 1841 two men, who claimed they were circus performers, enticed Northup to come and play violin at their performances in exchange for fairly good wages. Northup agreed and eventually followed the gentlemen all the way to Washington D.C. where Northup took ill. When Northup regained consciousness he found himself chained in a slave pen, despite his protestations that he was a free man. Northup was put on a ship to New Orleans and shipped to Louisiana where he spent twelve years working in slave labor camps until a Canadian carpenter helped Northup send letters to people in New York explaining his situation, which ended with Northup's emancipation and reunion with his family.

When this book was published, a decade within the Civil War, it was highly influential in spreading information about slavery to Northerners and strengthening the abolitionist cause. Although less well known than Uncle Tom's Cabin or The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass, it raised awareness of the issue that free blacks in both the south and the north could be kidnapped and sold into slavery, much like Northup had. It also provides another important first-hand account of what slavery really was like for the enslaved.

There are a couple of things I found rather interesting in this book. First of all the first man who owned Northup, a planter by the name of Ford, is described in glowing terms. Northup goes out of his way to praise Ford and describe him as a better slave owner, despite the inherent wickedness of the institution of slavery. It's very interesting to me that Northup says slavery was almost tolerable under Ford and if he had his family he probably wouldn't have minded it so much. Taken out of context it could be pro-slavery propaganda. However, Northup still feels a deep injustice at the institution and states that it debases not only slaves, but the enslavers, and argues Ford would have been an even better man without the institution of slavery.

Another thing I found interesting was how easy it was for Northup to prove his free status in Louisiana. The agent sent by the State of New York, another gentleman named Northup (actually the descendent of the family that owned Solomon's father before freeing him), seemed to have little difficulty in convincing the Louisiana authorities that Northup was in fact a free man from New York and should be released at once. The greatest difficulty seemed to be in finding where exactly Northup had ended up. For one, his name had been changed to Platt, taking even that basic element of identity from him. Secondly, Northup has been sold twice by the time he managed to get letters sent to New York and wasn't able to provide an exact location of where he was. But once Northup was located it seemed like they couldn't get him out of Louisiana fast enough and were happy to see the last of him. It's very curious to me to say the least.

I have to admit, for real life the narrative is almost too tidy and does make a very good movie plot. Northup is lured away from home, forced into captivity, spends time with both cruel and kind masters, finds a friendly abolitionist, manages to send letters, and is eventually freed and reunited with his family. I doubt there was very little revision necessary to make this a movie, although I have to admit I haven't seen it myself. But I am fairly satisfied that Northup managed to be justly freed through the process of law.

Overall it's an interesting book and not terribly long so it's worth the time. If you're familiar with the institution of slavery this might not cover a lot of new ground, but if you haven't learned a lot on the subject there's plenty to learn here and I highly recommend it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Green Rider, by Kristen Britain

This week I'm taking a look at the first book in a series recommended to me by a friend, although she has strongly suggested that I only read the first three books in this series because, in her opinion, they rapidly go downhill from there. But considering how many other things I've reviewed on this blog, I'm willing to give a wide range of things a read. So without further ado, Green Rider by Kristen Britain, the first of the Green Rider series.

The plot follows Karigan G'ladheon, the only daughter and heir of the prominent merchant clan G'ladheon who has just been suspended from school. Karigan has decided to head back home on her own and has started the journey through the Green Cloak forest. Not very far into her journey, Karigan runs into a dying Green Rider, a member of the king's own elite messenger corps with an absolutely vital message for King Zachary. Being the only person in the vicinity, the Green Rider recruits Karigan to deliver the message and entrusts her with his brooch, sword, and horse. Karigan soon finds herself in a far greater adventure than she could have ever imagined with the fate of the entire kingdom at stake.

Generally speaking this feels like a lot of fantasy books I've read and fits into the mold. That being said, it's a mold that is extremely popular and I feel Britain manages to make the story work a lot better than some of the stuff I've made myself read before. I at least wasn't rolling my eyes the entire time or wondering where details that hadn't been mentioned before had wandered into the book. I will admit that Karigan is giving off a pretty strong Chosen One vibe, and I have mixed feelings about Chosen Ones so that may be affecting my perception of the story. However, Karrigan does have some redeeming qualities like spunk and standing up to bullies of all sorts, which makes her an enjoyable Chosen One, if I am correct in assuming she's the Chosen One.

I do have some other concerns about the books which kept me from fully enjoying it. Foremost, I felt like Karigan wasn't really in control during the book and I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Especially in the first half of the book she seemed to stumble from one crisis to the other and got rescued mostly by the coincidence of friendly people being in the area. On the one hand, it's kind of frustrating because it feels like she's just stumbling around and is only making progress because of fortuitous circumstance. On the other hand, Karigan's only a teenager so it feels appropriate for her to be only marginally competent and have to rely on a lot of help. So, as I said, I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing.

Another thing that bothers me is how much Karigan is refusing the call through the book. And is still refusing it by the end. On the odd chance none of you are familiar with it, the Call to Adventure is something, whether a person or an event which breaks the status quo of the heroine's life and forces her to undertake the quest of the story. Sometimes the heroine jumps at the opportunity, eager to break out of her humdrum existence. Other times she is far more reluctant and may initially refuse the call, such as Luke Skywalker's protest that he can't get involved. (More often than not something comes along to prove the heroin must get involved.) Throughout the whole book Karigan protests that she's not a Green Rider. This is despite her agreeing to carry the message to the king, having turned down countless opportunities to give up, and remaining involved well past the point she had no further obligation and could have walked away. By the end of the book Karigan is still protesting that she's not a Green Rider and will never be involved again. Although the reader, like pretty much everyone else in the book, knows this simply isn't the case and Karigan will be back in the center of things. I kind of just want to shout at her that the Call knows where she lives and she can't avoid it, but I have a feeling that would be utterly ineffective.

Overall, this book's okay despite my reservations. As I think about it, it's much better than some of the first fantasy novels of various series I've looked at and had absolutely no desire to continue reading. I will admit some of the appeal is because a friend suggested this to me, but it's pretty good. I'm actually looking forward to the prospect of reading more in this series.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Death Masks, by Jim Butcher

This week I'm continuing with the fifth book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, Death Masks. In this book there are a couple of plotlines going on at once, which is pretty normal for a book in this series, although in this case I feel like we've sort of got two main plot tracks going at once rather than one. First there's the overarching plot of the war between the White Council of Wizards and the Red Court of Vampires. The Red Court has sent a high-level warlord, Duke Ortega, to challenge Dresden to a duel. If Dresden wins Chicago will become neutral ground and it will end the intermittent Red Court attempts on his life. If Dresden loses, then the Red Court may make peace with the White Council and end their current war. And of course Dresden has plenty of pressure to make him comply with a duel he stands a very good chance of losing. Further complicating matters Susan, his old half-vampire girlfriend is back in town as well.

If that wasn't enough, a group of very powerful demons, known as the Denarians because of their connection to the thirty pieces of silver given to Judas Iscariot, are active in Chicago and all three Knights of the Cross are involved. More to the point, they say the Denarians have some sort of plan for Dresden and he should not get involved, which he of course does anyway. Plus the Shroud of Turin's been stolen and Dresden's been hired to find it. Wait, the Shroud of Turin? The Shroud? Man, things got super serious all of a sudden. Well...more serious than usual I guess I should say.

The biggest thing that struck me about this book was it felt more...muddled than the other books. As I said, all the previous books usually have a couple things going on at once which all tie into a larger plotline towards the end of the book. In this case, it feels much more like there are two plots going on at once. You can probably tell just from my description of the plot that there's a lot going on and I feel like it's slightly to the book's detriment. I feel like maybe Butcher could have focused on one plot or the other for the book. The story with the Shroud and the Denarians is definitely the lion's share of the book and the duel with Ortega feels a little tacked-on. To be honest, most of the war with the Red Court has felt tacked-on at best so I'm hoping there's more focus on that later.

As I said in my last review, I'm noticing that there's kind of a formula to these books as well. Especially where Bob's concerned. Usually Dresden gets introduced to a situation, has to find out more information, go talks to Bob, and then doesn't use Bob again in the book. (The exception being Grave Peril.) I think I'm really only noticing this because I really like Bob as a character. That being said, I'm still enjoying these books for their entertainment value.

I also enjoyed getting to meet two more Knights of the Cross, Shiro Yoshimo and Sanya. The Denarians were really bad news so Michael has to call in the other two knights. And to be honest, I kind of like them. Michael's okay but also a little sanctimonious which can make him off-putting. I love Shiro's backstory that he became a Baptist by mistake because someone asked him if he wanted to meet the King and Shiro thought he meant Elvis. And, what's even more appealing to me, Sanya is an atheist. Seriously. Atheist paladin. Had his sword handed to him by the archangel Michael himself. And yet still not entirely sure about the whole god thing. I'm personally hoping I get to see more of him in the future because it's just a really cool idea to me.

Overall, the book's okay. I've come to accept that the Dresden Files are basically entertainment for me. There are good parts, there are bad parts, and there are parts in between. Is it perfect? No, but it's a lot of fun and I've enjoyed listening to the books. And that's okay.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Charlie Wilson's War, by George Crile

So we're taking another look at CIA operations in Islamic nations, but in this case we're looking at the war between the Soviet Union and Afghan fighters from the Soviet invasion of 1979 to 1989. The title comes from a Texas congressman, Charlie Wilson, who had positions on key Congressional committees, such as the Defense Appropriations Committee, which allowed him to channel what would eventually become hundreds of millions of dollars in arming, equipping, and training mujahideen fighters to bleed the Soviet Union white and later give the Red Army a humiliating defeat. The author, and several other people, claim that the Afghan war was critical in helping to topple the Soviet Union and it certainly didn't help matters.

The book spends quite a lot of time talking about Charlie Wilson, as well as other key figures such as Gust Avrakatos and Michael Vickers, who were deeply involved in making the Afghan operation the biggest and, arguably, the most successful operation to date in CIA history. Basically Afghan mujahideen, trained by Pakistani advisors and operating out of Pakistan, were armed and supplied by the United States, who provided half of the money, but half was also provided by Saudi Arabia. A significant number of the weapons and ammunition, which the CIA desired to be Soviet equipment to mask U.S. involvement, was purchased from Egypt or, somewhat surprisingly, Israel. This was a very multinational effort at keeping the Soviet Union from expanding its influence and thanks to the millions of dollars of arms and ammunition sent to the Afghans, the Soviets eventually were forced to retreat from Afghanistan.

Of course this would come back to haunt us about ten years later when it turned out Saudis operating out of Afghanistan were responsible for the 9/11 attacks, which sparked interest in America's involvement in Afghanistan previously. The interesting thing is that Afghanistan wasn't very well covered by the media at the time, despite the fact that it made up roughly 50%, and later 70% of the CIA's entire operational budget. At the time people were far more interested in the Iran-Contra affair and the absolute scandal that turned out to be. Crile and others state that Iran-Contra actually provided a cover for Afghanistan, providing something for Congress to focus on while Afghanistan could continue to operate without being noticed. So many people are still taken by surprise by the fact that we armed and equipped some of the very people we ended up fighting a little over a decade later.

I have several problems with this book, and it's largely how very much pro-intervention this book takes. Obviously I have a slightly different opinion of the decision to intervene because my life experience has been largely the consequences of those decisions to intervene, rather than the apparent political necessity at the time. There seems to be an underlying assumption that it was inherently right for the United States to spend huge sums of money to kill Soviets in Afghanistan and try to topple the ''evil empire.'' I'm not saying the Soviet occupation was good. It was definitely far from that with reports of numerous atrocities. But the decision to arm religious extremists seems to be less than optimal in hindsight.

And it doesn't stop there. People openly admit in interviews that they were breaking the law and doing things extremely illegal, but they treat it like as an inconvenience. This was especially true of the CIA agents who saw laws and congressional oversight as little more than annoyances that got in the way of them doing their work. And the book seems, somewhat implicitly, to take their side in the argument. I found this very distressing, again because of my own lifetime experience which suggests there needs to be far more regulation and oversight of intelligence agencies and bad things happen when they're given a free hand.

Plus Charlie Wilson was a highly irresponsible individual, involved in sex, drugs, and alcohol and tripping from one scandal to another. He developed a reputation as ''Good Time Charlie'' and seemed to delight in scandalizing everyone at most opportunities. Now, perhaps I'm being somewhat puritanical, but it seems extremely unfortunate that a congressman would spend far more time partying and having a good time than actually governing and, once again, the book seems to take it as a little foible. Like he's little more than a rapscallion that we can just shake our heads at. This ignores, of course, his rampant alcoholism which almost killed him through heart failure in the 1980's. Charlie Wilson seems less a hero and more an irresponsible playboy who wants to be involved in a grand adventure.

And finally, which was most disappointing, was only a very brief comment on the failure of the United States to help Afghanistan after the war. After spending millions of dollars to send tons of weapons into Afghanistan to drive out the Soviets, the United States declined to spend significant amounts of money to repair the devastated infrastructure. Obviously the decision to abandon Afghanistan has had far-reaching consequences which are with us to this day.

I think this book, which is supposed to be on some level a cautionary tale, fails to be that. It seems to be more about how the United States managed to defeat the evil Soviets rather than the consequences of that decision. I personally would have preferred more information about the failures in Afghanistan after the war was over. Instead the book gets wrapped up in the romantic narrative of the United States pulling off a covert operation against the Soviets and winning, rather than the dangers inherent in the program. It's certainly informative to know how involved the U.S. was in the 1980's, and should be considered in future American foreign policy decisions, but this book hardly deals with those aspects.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib, by David J. Schwartz

This week I'm taking a look at Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib. If you're wondering why I've included the colon and subtitle, well I'm left with the suspicion that this is the first in what Schwartz plans to be at least a few different books because it ended with several plot threads and quite a lot of questions. A quick look on Amazon didn't show anything new yet from this author, so presumably he's working on his next project, be it this or something unrelated.

The plot focuses around Joy Wilkins, an agent for the Federal Bureau of Magical Affairs (FBMA), who has been sent undercover to work at the Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic as a history lecturer. Joy's real reason for this assignment is to investigate two curious events that may be related. First, the college's previous history professor, Carla Drake, disappeared mysteriously and nobody's been able to turn up a trace of her. Second, the FBMA has evidence that suggests someone is smuggling demons through Gooseberry Bluff and using them in attacks referred to as Heartstoppers where the victims all drop into a state of not-quite-death. However there is quite a lot more than what initially appears to be going on at Gooseberry Bluff and Joy soon finds wheels within wheels.

If I had to describe this book in one word, I would describe it as overambitious. Schwartz sets up quite a few plotlines within this book and resolves a few while leaving others hanging, presumably for later development. The problem is it feels like Schwartz is trying to shove too many plots into one book and the result is none of them feel like they're properly developed. For sake of example, let me make a list of the different plotlines:

  1. Joy must discover what happened to Carla Drake.
  2. Joy must discover who is smuggling demons through Gooseberry Bluff and why.
  3. Zelda, the alchemy professor, is trying to remove an actual magical curse which makes her life a living hell. 
  4. Ingrid, the conjuration professor, is trying to find a way to bring her sister, who was a victim of one of the Heartstopper attacks, back from her state of not-quite-death.
  5. Ken, yet another professor at the university, is engaged in a long-distance magical duel with a mysterious opponent, and seems to be losing.
  6. A shadowy war across dimensions between Chaos and Order.
So that's six plots, and I'm being kind of generous with my definition of plotlines. You could probably refer to some of these as sub-plots within much larger plot lines, but that still gives you about three or four different plots all going at once. Now, some books can pull this off. George R.R. Martin seems to have a psychological obsession with adding as many plotlines as possible until his books become nothing more than a tangled nest of unresolved plot threads. And yet we still love him in spite of that. But keep in mind, the books of A Song of Ice and Fire are really, really long so he has more room to stretch out and develop his plotlines and world. And he includes an appendix of all the characters in the back so you can keep track of who the hell all these characters are.

Gooseberry Bluff, by contrast, is much shorter so it doesn't get enough time to develop its world or its plotlines quite as fully as I'd like. There are hints at an elaborate world and universe that Schwartz has developed, but I feel like we don't get to explore it as much as we really should to get a proper understanding of it. And with so many plots going on at once, the story ends up feeling rather rushed, in spite of the book being a little over four hundred pages. I'm just left with the overall impression that Schwartz had some very grand ambitions for this book and he just didn't quite get to where he needed to be.

Overall, the book's okay, I just feel like the book's reach exceeded its grasp and it suffered because of it. It's very hard to create a narrative with multiple plot lines running and Schwartz attempts to do that here. He doesn't bungle it horribly, it's actually competent, but it just doesn't feel as developed as I'd like. And that's really the emotion this book left me with. The book finishes open-endedly and we'll have to see if Schwartz takes these plots any further and develops them better.

- Kalpar