Tuesday, November 29, 2016
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.
Thursday, November 24, 2016
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.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
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.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
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.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
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.
Thursday, November 10, 2016
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.
Tuesday, November 8, 2016
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.
Thursday, November 3, 2016
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.
Tuesday, November 1, 2016
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.