Tuesday, July 17, 2018

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

Today I'm looking at a history book by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz that seeks to redress the problem of Native Americans, (alternately called American Indians, the First Peoples, or Indigenous Peoples), who are largely written out of standard American history and when they are included at all it is an entirely inadequate representation of the peoples and cultures. This book is not an exhaustive exploration of the indigenous people who lived in the United States. That would be a difficult if not impossible task for a number of reasons including a scarcity of surviving written and archaeological records, often wantonly destroyed by European colonialists, and because the sheer number of Indigenous nations that populated the modern United States. This book focuses largely, instead, on the policy of the Anglo-American settlers starting with the colonies of Jamestown and Plymouth going into the twenty-first century. Dunbar-Ortiz makes a compelling argument that the United States has, and continues to pursue, a policy of genocide against American Indians through a variety of methods and provides suggestions on how to remedy this state of affairs.

Throughout this book Dunbar-Ortiz utilizes the definitions of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as her rubric for defining genocide. Although most people usually associate genocide with the wholesale killing of members of an ethnic group or religion, such as in the Holocaust, the UN Convention includes within its definition the forced transfer of children out of an ethnic group, preventing births within the group, and imposing conditions of hardship on groups calculated to bring about their destruction. Although she uses the term retroactively from its creation, by the modern definition the actions of European colonials from their first contact with American Indians matches the textbook definition of genocide.

Dunbar-Ortiz catalogues the methods utilized by European colonists from the overt to the more insidious as a series of tools utilized through five centuries to wage an ongoing genocide against indigenous peoples. Regular warfare, smallpox, liquor, and the practices of head-hunting and scalping factor heavily in the early years of European contact with American Indians. The only point of concern I actually had at this point was Dunbar-Ortiz's assertion that smallpox could not have killed 90% of the population of the Americas. The current historical consensus is that the total population for the Americas was as high as 100 million people, but around 90% of those died of diseases carried by Europeans that American Indians had no resistance to. Smallpox is often pointed to as the biggest, but blame is also assigned to diseases such as measles, typhoid, diptheria, and pertussis which could have had equally high mortality rates. Dunbar-Ortiz argues it's highly improbable that diseases could have wiped out such a great chunk of the population, but admits that they had their effect. Obviously the evidence available to historians is highly fragmentary so a definitive answer is unlikely.

Aside from the obvious methods utilized by Europeans, Dunbar-Ortiz explores some of the less overt but equally deadly methods Anglo-Americans used to try and wipe out indigenous nations. She places a good deal of emphasis on trade, where natives could provide goods (usually pelts) to whites, and whites would offer food, tools, clothing, firearms, and most dangerously liquor in exchange. By replacing traditional crafts with European-manufactured goods, whites made native communities dependent on trade for their continued survival, providing a powerful lever against native communities. This became even more overt with the American reservation system where many natives were dependent on government supplies to provide food, clothing, and other basic necessities just to survive.

Another horrific practice was the means of ''educating'' native peoples ranging from the Spanish mission system to the infamous Indian Academies of the United States, typified by Carlisle. In these cases young children were ripped away from their families and sent to live in distant boarding schools. Their hair was cut, they were forbidden from speaking in their native tongue or practicing their own religions, and severely beaten for any infractions. This was a concentrated effort by Europeans to force natives to adapt to the dominant Anglo-American culture and did untold damage to the life of native communities in the United States.

Even as recently as the mid-twentieth centuries there have been attempts by the American government to renege on agreements with Native American nations, many of whom had sovereign status recognized in treaties signed with the United States government. Native communities have resisted such efforts to strip them of their rights, but obviously with mixed results. Even issues as recent as the Dakota Access Pipeline underscore the struggle Indian communities still face when dealing with the federal and state governments. However, because there are only around five million American Indians in the United States (making approximately 1.6% of the population), it is unlikely they alone will be able to force change. Dunbar-Ortiz says that it will require African-Americans, Hispanics, and Euro-Americans to cooperate as allies for American Indian communities and allow native voices to be heard. American Indians will speak for themselves, but it's the rest of us that have to be willing to listen.

On a final note, I thought it was interesting in how Dunbar-Ortiz talks about the American Army and how it owes its existence to the need of the American Government to kill Indians and make room for European colonization. The oldest units of the American Army can trace their origins to units in the Regular Army whose ''peacetime'' purpose was to expand the frontier and kill and control Indians. Dunbar-Ortiz even illustrates how the American colonial project, the expansion and domination of the North American continent, made use of colonial troops in the guise of the Buffalo Soldiers, African-Americans enlisted in the regular army and deployed in the Western Frontier to fight Indians. To this day, the American Army refers to territory behind enemy lines as ''Indian Country'', part of the Army's institutional heritage fighting native nations.

I definitely think this book is worth a read because of how Dunbar-Ortiz shifts the perspective and provides an in-depth explanation of how American colonialism continues to affect native communities.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Darth Bane: Path of Destruction, by Drew Karpyshyn

So as you probably realized I've been listening to a lot of books from the Star Wars expanded universe, mostly from the new canon, and I had been feeling kind of disappointed with the results. So I decided to go back and look at a book from the old canon that I remember as being mostly good and see if my tastes had changed or if the books were as good as I remembered. I will say this book seemed pretty okay, if nothing particularly special. I think that's partly because this jumps outside of the movie canon going back to a thousand years before the Battle of Yavin so it doesn't have the baggage associated with the movies.

This book, as you can probably guess, is the start of a series about Darth Bane, who reforged the the Sith order and established the Rule of Two. This book starts with Dessel, a miner trapped on a company-controlled planet digging for cortosis ore that the Republic needs to build armor during the seemingly interminable war against the Sith Empire. Dessel and many other Outer Rim residents have little use for the Republic which doesn't really care what happens as long as the resources continue flow towards the Core. After killing a Republic trooper in self-defense, Dessel chooses to flee and join the Sith Empire as a regular footsoldier. But it's soon discovered that Dessel has an affinity for the Force and he is recruited to join the ranks of the Brotherhood of Darkness.

The book focuses mostly on Bane and his path to becoming the ultimate Dark Lord of the Sith, as well as his conflict with the leadership of the Brotherhood of Darkness. I thought it was interesting to watch how Bane develops as a character and grows in the dark side, opposed to how Luke or many other characters developed on the light side of the Force. It's not a lot to write home about, but I thought it was okay.

Something I wish this book had expanded on more, and maybe we'll see more of in the later books, was the Jedi order at this time. The book focuses a lot on the Sith Order and the Sith forces but doesn't delve a lot into the Jedi order or the Republic forces. In fact, we don't really see the Republic or any Jedi until the last third of the book or so. I think it would be more interesting to see the contrast between the Jedi and the Sith when the galaxy is in open war between the two factions before the Sith go into hiding. It's also interesting that Jedi are going around calling themselves Lord which seems counter to Jedi ideology, so I'd like to see how the Jedi order changed over a thousand years.

Overall I think this book was pretty okay and I'm willing to go check out the other books within this sub-series. I'll have to see if it has the same issues that other parts of the canon have had that I've noticed recently.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Makers and Takers, by Rana Foroohar

Today I'm looking at another book about economics, Makers and Takers, which criticizes the stock market as it currently exists as well as the state of the U.S. economy and seeks to explain how we've gotten to the condition where we are now and where a majority of the population thinks, not unfairly, that the system is rigged against them. Foroohar blames the developments in the American economy on the process of financialization, where the main markers of success are quarterly earnings and stock prices. Company earnings are spent on dividends and stock buybacks which profit the wealthiest percentage of the United States who own the majority of corporate securities. Meanwhile investment in R&D, company infrastructure, and staff wages continue to shrink. On top of this the financial sector, which produces only 4% of the jobs in the United States, consumes 25% of the corporate profits. Foroohar argues that if the United States is to become an economic powerhouse once again we need to invest in people and research, rather than in stock prices.

The name of the book comes from an idea coined by Republicans in the early 2010s. Republicans such as Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney divided the country into two classes, the makers who work and pay taxes, and the takers who Romney described as ''...dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them.''

Foroohar takes this narrative and flips it on its head, arguing that the makers are the 90-95% of the population who live and work in the real economy are the real makers who produce goods and services that make the economy function, while the takers are the wealthy top percent of the country, which is hard to disagree with when the wealthiest 5% in the country control 67% of the country's wealth. This is aided by our financial system that focuses on taking money out of American companies and transferring it into the already bloated wealth of the 1%. Not only is the American dream at risk, but the future of American democracy as well.

Foroohar focuses on a process she calls financialization, where finance has come to dominate the economy and making money becomes an end in and of itself. This affects not only the finance industry but other parts of the American industry as well. She assigns a significant part of the blame to the financial sector itself, which she argues should not be a dominant industry in and of itself, but a means to allocate capital and resources to other industries. She points out that while the finance sector accounts for only 4% of the jobs in the United States, it accounts for 25% of the corporate profits. However these profits are generated by moving money around and turning it into more money, opposed to producing goods and services consumed by the majority of Americans. Foroohar argues that the financial sector has become a parasite on the American economy, draining money and talent into an area of the economy that ultimately produces nothing.

Foroohar also blames the domination of American companies by accountants who focused on the company's bottom line and reducing all the company's processes to numbers. Foroohar traces this back to Robert MacNamara and the ''Whiz Kids'', who became known as the beancounters and dominated Ford and other American companies opposed to the car guys and other innovators who had previously dominated American business. While the car guys were focused on producing the best cars possible for market, the beancounters were concerned with one thing, and one thing only, the bottom line. The beancounters would try to squeeze as much profit from as many sources as possible. Rather than whatever material was best for the job at hand, the beancounters would choose whatever was cheapest. Foroohar argues that this actually had a negative effect on American business by reducing quality and standards of American products resulting in disasters such as the infamous Edsel and Ford Pinto. This weakening of American industry left it vulnerable to foreign competition.

Foroohar's arguments are strongly compelling and suggest that American business's priorities have been skewed towards short-term profits rather than long-term sustainable growth. If America is to become a place where all of us can thrive, there will have to be serious changes in how America does business. Whether that will be accomplished remains questionable, but I think this book is worth reading.

- Kalpar

Thursday, July 5, 2018

A Long Reign, by Victoria L. Szulc

Today I'm looking at A Long Reign, a book I picked up some time ago in one of the numerous kindle book deals that I see on Amazon. The book starts with an interesting premise, the world is ruled by an immortal Queen Victoria whose armies conquered North America after both sides had been exhausted by the Civil War. Lavinia James, a girl from the farmlands of Missouri, joins the Underground resistance to fight the redcoat armies, topple Victoria, and restore the world to its proper timeline.

As I said, the book started with an interesting premise, but unfortunately there is a lot that's wrong with this book. The result is it feels like a very, very rough first draft that desperately needed an editor to go through and help knock off the rough edges and polish it up. The writing just doesn't flow well and sometimes gets downright confusing so it definitely could have used a second set of eyes to improve it. This book also relies heavily on sex as drama and ordinarily am not a huge fan of that being done in fiction. This book has attempted rape, actual rape, and Lavinia having to seduce other people as an agent of the Underground and hates herself for doing it, so sex causes a lot of the drama in this book and because the writing is so rough it makes it very hard for me to read personally.

There are also a lot of plot points that don't make sense which makes this book feel even more like a rough draft. I assume that Dr. Carthage and Ebersol replaced Victoria with a humanoid robot but what they hoped to accomplish by doing this isn't made clear. They seem to be in control of the Empire but what they're planning on doing with the empire doesn't make a lot of sense. It's implied that they're strip-mining the entire earth for resources and creating an army of robots made from human bones and skin, but to what purpose remains unclear. I mean, once you've killed everyone on earth and have your own army of robots and a pile of all the world's resources, now what? Are you going to colonize Mars? If Szulc explained what the villains were trying to accomplish maybe it'd make more sense, but as the book is it's like they're being evil just to be evil.

And this doesn't get on the political and economic situation. At least in Missouri it seems like a large portion of the population has been enslaved to harvest farm produce that gets shipped off...elsewhere for the good of the Empire while they're controlled by the British garrison of soldiers. Now there's a point where they separate the men and women in the slave camps and say the slaves aren't allowed to reproduce anymore because it means more mouths to feed. So the slaves are separated. And then the garrison announces that the men need female companionship so once a year they'll select from the women who have reached maturity to serve as wives or paramours. Which implies that the soldiers will be reproducing because they'll be having sex with the slave women, which therefore defeats the purpose of keeping the slaves from reproducing in the first place. And even before the slaves start being harvested for skin and bones, the British keep working their slaves to death and bringing in more slaves from elsewhere. It just doesn't make sense to me and tells me that this book definitely needed an editor.

The result is a book that desperately needed an editor to help put it into shape. There are some ideas with potential, but the book feels very much like a rough first draft which could be expanded, edited, and improved. As the book is right now, I unfortunately can't say that it's worth reading.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Tarkin, by James Luceno

Today I'm looking at yet another book in the new Star Wars canon, Tarkin, apparently because I'm a sucker for punishment. Or I'm just desperate for something to listen to from the library. Bit of column A, bit of column B. As you can probably guess, this book focuses on Wilhuff Tarkin about five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith. This book bothers me like a lot of the rest of the new canon because it drags the Rebellion down to the level of the Empire and creates a sort of moral equivalency between the two. In a way I find it rather ironic because when Disney first bought Star Wars everyone was concerned that the franchise would be, well, Disneyfied and made lighter and softer. But instead it seems like they've gone in the opposite direction and I don't know if I really like that change in the Star Wars universe. Star Wars as a universe has always been fairly black and white, which I'll admit has been to its detriment at time, but I feel like we're going too far in the other way whihc is making Star Wars...well...not Star Wars.

The reason I bring this up is because in this book we once again have a band of rebels who fall more heavily on the terrorist side of the freedom fighter/terrorist spectrum. And while I don't oppose the idea that the Rebellion wasn't entirely filled with pure, good, innocent people like Luke Skywalker. After all, Han Solo didn't exactly start as good person when he signed up for the Rebellion. The problem is that in the new expanded canon, we seem to be moving towards all factions of the Rebellion being ideological extremists. The flip side of this is that the Empire also gets more humanized which, again, is fine, but when the Empire is regularly committing atrocities such as blowing up planets and people think this is fair and necessary it really undermines the idea that people in the Empire aren't terrible. Ultimately I feel like the new canon is dragging both the Rebellion and the Empire to a level of them being shades of grey and it just feels wrong for Star Wars. But I'm willing to accept that I'm part of the old-school fandom who probably wouldn't have been happy regardless of what Disney did.

The majority of this book focuses on Tarkin and Darth Vader doing what almost amounts to a buddy cop story. The Emperor sends them to investigate a rebel plot and ultimately Tarkin's special ship Carrion Spike gets stolen by rebels so Vader and Tarkin have to get it back. Which weirdly results in Tarkin doing a lot of detective work to figure out who the rebels who stole his ship are, where they're going to strike next, and how to stop them. I'm not sure if this is supposed to be an homage to the fact that Peter Cushing played Sherlock Holmes in a Hammer Horror adaptation of Hound of the Baskervilles and in a 60's TV adaptation, but I'm going to pretend that it is. I don't know if it really makes sense for Tarkin to be a great detective, but I'm willing to at least roll with it.

But the other personality traits and abilities they give Tarkin don't really hold up. Especially with him being a crack fighter pilot. I say he's a crack fighter pilot because there's a part of the book where he flies an old-school V-wing Starfighter in a dogfight and manages to keep pace with Vader. Now I consulted with several old-school fans who agreed with me that this was a feat of flying which would require a pilot on the level of Wedge Antilles or Soontir Fel. So while Tarkin might not have racked up enough fighter kills to be counted as an ace, he certainly has the skills to be a crack pilot. And it just...it doesn't work for Tarkin.

At the risk of going all Plinkett on you, Tarkin always struck me as a political bigwig with connections that enabled him to reach a position of influence. Probably someone from a core world with all the benefits of the upper classes to help ease his ascent into the command ranks. Tarkin seemed the sort of person who would be truly comfortable on the command deck of a Star Destroyer, marshaling a fleet, but would be incredibly out of place in the cockpit of a starfighter. It's just a weird thing that stood out among the other things in Tarkin's backstory that seem so at odds with the character as I knew him from the original Star Wars. Again, I'm probably being an old fuddy-duddy who's upset over the replacement of the old canon but I feel like there are some legitimate complaints against the new canon to make.

Ultimately I don't know if this book really works well. Tarkin gets a backstory and abilities, some of which mesh with the cruel administrator who advocates rule through fear, and some which just leave me confused. This book doesn't build on the canon in any meaningful way, and I don't think we really needed to explore why Tarkin believed rule through fear was the way to handle the galaxy. I think this book can be safely skipped, even by the most diehard fans of the canon, old and new.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Henry Clay: The Essential American, by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler

Today I'm looking at a biography of Henry Clay, one of the most prominent statesmen of the early American Republic. With John C. Calhoun and Daniel Webster, Henry Clay formed a triumvirate that represented the political and sectional differences of the United States. For nearly forty years they held positions of high office in the United States and held the country together. When the three giants died in the early 1850's, America was aware that it was the end of an age and it would only be a few years until the Slaveholders' Rebellion would tear the nation apart. But even in his dying days Clay labored to keep the country together.

Clay had a long and varied career, serving in the House of Representatives, becoming Speaker, being a commissioner in Ghent that formed the treaty that ended the War of 1812, Secretary of State, and finally Senator. Clay left an indelible mark on the United States both metaphorically and very literally with actions such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Clay's most enduring power was to marshal votes, create majorities, and form a consensus despite the incredibly fluid nature of American politics. Despite there being only one or two political parties during Clay's lifetime a person's political ideas were less likely to be dependent on party and more likely to depend on geographic location and economic background. So it was probably easier for Clay to form bipartisan measures in his era than in our own.

Clay's most enduring project was what he called the American System, a program that would promote American development through a variety of measures. Specifically Clay advocated for a protective tariff to stimulate American industry, internal improvements including canals, roads, and later railroads to stimulate trade, and a central bank to ensure a stable currency. Clay made some progress with at least the tariff and funding internal improvements but due to the rise of Jacksonian democracy Clay never succeeded in creating a central bank and reforms to banking would have to wait until Salmon P. Chase's tenure as Secretary of the Treasury.

I think the most frustrating thing about Henry Clay is he spent a lifetime perched on the fence in regards to slavery and perhaps no other person than Clay personally represented the dilemma America faced. Clay owned slaves and personally detested the institution of slavery, but also opposed the platform of abolition and immediate emancipation. Clay spent a lifetime as president of the American Colonization Society, an organization that sought to neatly solve the problem of slavery by gradually emancipating slaves and sending them back to somewhere in Africa and completely sidestepping the issue of racial relations in the United States. Colonization as a plan was never practical for a variety of problems. First, colonization never attracted sufficient money to emancipate and transport slaves in any practical means, so it remained a minor solution at best. Second, the timeline for emancipation and colonization was theoretical at best, inevitably pushing the problem to some later date when increases in population would make slavery unnecessary. Finally, colonization never took the opinions of the slaves themselves into consideration either. African-Americans, all of whom at this point were born in America, knew nothing about Africa and had no desire to be sent there and they had no desire to be sent anywhere else. The Colonization Society perfectly matched Clay's attitudes on slavery, an attempt to ignore the problem and hope to solve it at some later date while it grew to be a problem that almost tore the country apart.

Clay is an interesting individual and was at the center of every political issue during the first half of the nineteenth century, even with his individual failings. If you seek to understand politics of the early Republic and the antebellum era, this is an excellent book to read.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Empire's End, by Chuck Wendig

Today I'm finishing the Aftermath trilogy with the book Empire's End and in coming to the end I'm still left with more questions than answers. I get the feeling that I went into this series with completely wrong expectations because I was hoping to at least get some more explanation on issues, the biggest one being WHERE THE HECK DID SNOKE COME FROM?! This question has been vexing me and my friends for some time, moreso after Last Jedi came out, and even the expanded universe has been incapable of answering that question. This book does finally, partway answer the question of where the First Order came from but I feel like the books weren't worth the ultimate effort.

As I mentioned in my review of Life Debt, a lot of this focus is also on the relationships of characters such as Norra and Temmin Wexley, Jas Emari, and Sinjir Rath Velus. However it's difficult for me to get invested in the series for a couple of reasons. The first is the lack of emotional stakes in the series, which is something I mentioned in my review of Aftermath. There are multiple points where Norra almost dies and Temmin's robot Mr. Bones actually gets destroyed but at the end of the book Mr. Bones is put back together. The second book was similar in that respect. Our characters were put in danger, but nobody died. Jom Barell lost an eye, Brentin Wexley was a programmed sleeper agent, and Mon Mothma got seriously wounded but everyone was still alive afterwards. It didn't feel like there were serious consequences.

This book keeps doing the same thing with putting Sinjir's boyfriend, Conder Kyl in danger (but no actual harm), and even going so far as to bomb Mon Mothma's office (but without Mon Mothma in it).  The book does finally pull the trigger, in a very literal sense, and kills off both Jom Barell and Bretin Wexley (oh and Mr. Bones dies too), but neither had as much of an emotional punch for me. In fact, it seemed strange to me in the end of the book that Temmin seemed more upset that Mr. Bones was destroyed than the fact that his dad died. Norra also seemed to move on pretty quickly to Wedge after Bretin's death as well. I guess it could be implied that they had already moved on emotionally since Bretin had disappeared years ago but I felt it would have been more emotionally impactful for Norra and Temmin to get Bretin back from the dead just to lose him again. As for Jom, I felt like the books simply weren't long enough for him to be developed into a character for me to be invested in.

At the end of the day, I feel like these books took a little too much time for too little payoff. I appreciate the attempt to introduce new characters, but for whatever reason I found it difficult for me to get emotionally invested in them. While we get some explanation of where the First Order came from, with the remnants of the old Empire fleeing beyond the edges of the known galaxy. It does beg the question of what happened to Admiral Sloane afterwards and again, HOW THE HECK DID SNOKE END UP IN CHARGE? But otherwise there doesn't seem to be a lot recommending this, or other books in the new canon.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Tongues of Serpents, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm looking at the sixth book in the Temeraire series, Tongues of Serpents. I'll say from the start that this book seem to mostly be more of the same in the previous five books, but with a change in setting. In this case our characters are in distant Australia, after Laurence's sentence for treason against the United Kingdom was commuted from execution to life transportation to Botany Bay. Laurence hopes to spend at least some time living with Temeraire in obscurity, but a rebellion in Australia deposed the local governor, the infamous Captain Bligh (events which actually happened, by the way, so that's neat). Laurence is once again placed into an awkward situation because of Temeraire. Bligh is eager to offer Laurence a pardon in exchange for his help to reestablish Bligh as governor. The leaders of the rebellion, by contrast, are willing to offer Laurence material benefits such as land and influence within the colony for his help to secure their control of the colony.

Faced with an unpalatable choice, Laurence takes a third option offered by one of the rebel leaders. Laurence, Temeraire, and the rest of the dragons will take a band of convicts to build a cattle road into the mountains surrounding Sydney and help expand the colony into Australia's interior. Tharkay has also been charged with the East India Company with discovering the source of the many smuggled Chinese goods found in Sydney, and he believes that the smugglers are sending the goods overland. Discovery of porcelain in the Australian interior confirms this hypothesis, and soon Laurence, Temeraire, and company are racing across the Outback.

In some ways this feels a lot like parts of Blackpowder War because of the vast sections of travelling, but instead of following the Silk Road from China to Istanbul, our characters are crossing all of Australia from south to north. The result can be a little tedious because they're basically flying through an enormous desert, although some of the challenges they encounter are interesting. But I think the parts towards the beginning and and end of the book are the most worthwhile.

This isn't to say that there aren't redeeming parts to this book. I think my favorite thing out of this book was the dragon Kulingile. When he first hatches he's so malformed that most of the experienced aeronauts don't expect Kulingile to live and want to mercy-kill him. However Demane, one of the African boys who joined Laurence's entourage, adopts Kulingile and much to everyone's surprise it turns out that Kulingile will not only live, but will grow to be larger than even a Regal Copper, probably reaching some twenty-four tons. Despite all this, Kulingile is such a kind character that I ended up cheering for him, especially when he ends up becoming a balloon dragon. So I'm looking forward to more of him in the last few books.

I also liked the development of the trade network between native Australians, Pacific Islanders, and the Chinese which use dragons as a means of transportation. Granted I'm a sucker for stories about transportation so seeing a trade network develop is fun for me, but maybe not as much fun for other people.

Overall I thought this book was fine, if mostly more of the same. But I'm finding I say that about a lot of this series. I don't know if there's anything specific in any of the books that stand out and make it seem like a fantastic series to me, but it's still a good series. Novik is an incredibly competent writer and her books in the series have always been enjoyable and very easy to read or listen to. They're solid mid-grade fiction worth your time if it piques your interest.

- Kalpar 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

How Markets Fail: The Logic of Economic Calamities, by John Cassidy

Today I'm looking at another history of the economic crisis of 2007-2008 tied to the subprime mortgage bubble because I am sucker for a period of history that I actually lived through and has affected me, as well as economic history. This book not only provides an explanation for the causes of the economic crisis, but Cassidy also details the history of the field of economics and the growth of free-market ideology most espoused by figures such as Alan Greenspan, former chair of the Federal Reserve. I thought this book was interesting and informative, if unfortunately somewhat outdated since its publication.

As I said, Cassidy spends quite a lot of time talking about the history of economics as a field and the growth of free-market ideology. Cassidy takes time to point out that figures such as Adam Smith and John Stuart Mills envisioned roles for government within a free market system, such as providing protection of property, national defense, infrastructure development, and education. In fact, as Cassidy illustrates in his book, for much of its history economics saw a need for the government to intervene, especially in projects where there is a net benefit for society but not necessarily an individual benefit. More importantly, Adam Smith and other early economists did analyze banks or financial markets so what may be true for commercial markets does not hold true for financial markets. As Cassidy argues, the idea that there is no role for the government in the economy is a relatively new development, Cassidy dates it to the anti-Communist movement following World War II and it only became ascendant with the conservative resurgence in the Eighties.

Cassidy takes a fairly moderate position by arguing that there is a place for the free market because of the inherent complexity of production. Even products as simple as bread or soap are dependent on massive amounts of information that a government central planner simply doesn't have access to. How much bread do people want to buy? What sort of bread do people want to buy? What prices should we charge for the bread we produce? How much wheat should go into making bread for people to eat? This is all information that a government central planner doesn't have access to, but fortunately the workings of the free market enable all of this to be done. The important thing to remember, though, is that the free market ensures people most able and willing to pay for goods and services are the ones who have access to their goods and services. And as my old economics professor said, this works fine for bobbleheads but it raises some serious ethical questions when it comes to healthcare.

The biggest issue Cassidy points out with free market ideology, however, is the ideological constraints it assumes as categorical absolutes that are always true, including belief that prices in financial markets reflect actual value and people always act rationally. With these assumptions free market economists came to the conclusion that speculative bubbles simply could not happen because people would not fall into the euphoria surrounding bubbles and the prices would never get inflated beyond true values. However, there is ample historical evidence that bubbles do happen and basically anyone who isn't an economist can tell you people don't act rationally. Cassidy utilizes these and other arguments to illustrate why government regulation of financial markets is a vital and necessary function.

The oddest thing about this book is the fact that it has become dated so incredibly quickly. It was published in 2009 and so Cassidy argues that increased regulation of banks and financial institutions will be an important step for Obama's government, as well as changes in healthcare and a strong environmental policy to combat climate change. Cassidy even states that Republicans will have to acknowledge these facts as self-evident and work with Democrats to create new legislation. Sitting here nearly ten years later, we all know how well Republicans responded to the attempts of the Democrats to better regulate health care, rein in the banks, and cap carbon emissions. In hindsight the book feels charmingly naive and it makes me wonder what Cassidy would say to the various Republican arguments advanced in the past few years.

Overall I think this book is still valuable because it delves so deeply into the history of economic thought and explains not only how the financial crisis happened, but the ideological forces that enabled it to happen in the first place. I don't know if it's because this is the third book I've read on this subject or if Cassidy does a better job of explaining, but I feel like I'm finally beginning to truly understand the past crisis. This is definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Life Debt, by Chuck Wendig

Today I'm looking at the second book in the Aftermath trilogy, Life Debt. As Star Wars fans can probably guess from the title, this book focuses, at least in part, on the liberation of the wookie homeworld Kashyyyk, and includes some awesome scenes of wookies ripping stormtroopers apart.And of course I'm all for that, but the liberation of Kashyyyk makes up only a small part of the book, most of it focusing instead on the relationships of not only Han and Leia, but the relationships of the members of Norra Wexley's team as well. I think the hardest part is that I haven't really connected emotionally with the members of Norra's team so it's hard for me to get invested in their personal relationships.

The things I care the most about these books, obviously, is how much it explains the political situation in the galaxy when we get to The Force Awakens. Unfortunately this book just leaves me with as many, if not more questions, than I had previously. The biggest complaint people have had recently, especially after The Last Jedi, is we know basically nothing about Chairman Snoke. We don't know who he is, where he came from, how he ended up in charge, or why we should care about him. However we're into the second book and the only people in charge of the remnant Empire at this point are Grand Admiral Rae Sloane and Fleet Admiral Gallius Rax. We have gotten some hints that Admiral Rax had deep connections with Emperor Palpatine and may be a Dark Side cultist of some sort, but Snoke hasn't made any appearance. Obviously this is still some thirty years until the events of Last Jedi but I feel like this would have been a good explanation for how the First Order came about from the ashes of the old Empire.

Another thing that I didn't care for was the prison ship Ashmead's Lock, which was apparently a centuries-old prison ship that crashed on Kashyyyk and was retrofitted by the Empire to hold rebel prisoners in stasis. There are a couple of problems with this ship. First, and perhaps dumbest thing about the ship, is that it uses the prisoners as a power supply, just like in The Matrix. It was dumb when The Matrix did it, and it's dumb when it's done here because using humans and other living beings as batteries is impossible. Humans and other biological beings generate heat, true, but only by burning calories from food they consume. To get energy out of a human being you have to put just as much, if not more energy in, making any energy profit impossible.

Secondly, Ashmead's Lock is part of a program to brainwash rebel prisoners and make them sleeper agents for the Empire, to activate them to wreak havoc with the rebellion. I will admit this would be a spoiler for the book except that it's telegraphed so obviously that it's hardly a surprise when it does happen. Admiral Rax orchestrates the liberation of Ashmead's Lock so it's clear that it's part of some nefarious plan he's got cooking. Then we see the liberated prisoners acting strangely after they came back and having secret meetings, so when they try to assassinate Mon Mothma and the rest of the New Republic leadership it doesn't come as a surprise at all. It also doesn't make much sense for the Empire to be sitting on these sleeper agents for years and years and never deploying them when they could conceivably use the agents to deal the rebellion a blow after a setback such as Yavin. Why keep them until the Empire's all but lost the war for the galaxy?

Overall the book's okay. By far the largest parts of the book focus on the personal relationships of the characters, but because I haven't gotten deeply invested in people such as Jas Emari and Sinjir Velus, so those parts of the book just don't hold as much appeal for me as other sections. If people get invested in those characters those parts of the book will obviously have greater appeal, but for whatever reason they just don't work for me. Otherwise these books don't answer nearly as many questions as I'd hoped.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie

Today I'm finally finishing the First Law Trilogy with the last book, Last Argument of Kings and I hate to say it, but this series has been a pretty big disappointment. The series basically ends with quite a few questions that are simply unanswered and I feel like the last book could have been condensed and merged with this book and maybe bring the book to a better resolution. I was left wondering if there were more books in the series to wrap up the series, but I checked and this is definitely the last in this plotline, if not the last book Abercrombie has written in this universe.

To adequately talk about what's wrong with this book, I'm going to have to talk about some spoiler materials and while I'd feel badly about spoiling the end of this book I feel like they're just not worth the effort. The most important part of this is the character Bayaz, the first of the Magi and a powerful wizard. As I mentioned in my review of the last book I got the impression that Bayaz is behind the events that leave no heirs to the throne of the Union and with Jezal dan Luthar in a perfect position to be elected king, however I didn't see quite how it was possible for Bayaz to orchestrate the events because one of the princes dies in an entirely accidental fashion. However, it turns out I was in fact correct about Bayaz orchestrating the situation for Luthar to become king, and Bayaz is the puppet master behind numerous other plans as well.

The big reveal towards the end of the book is that Bayaz has been pulling strings and moving pieces the entire time to counter his enemy Khalul. While Khalul takes the direct approach of religious control over the Gurkish Empire to the south, Bayaz has taken indirect control through the financial and political institutions of the Union. So ultimately the wars of conquest between the Gurkish in the Union have been moves in a proxy war between Bayaz and Khalul.

Now, considering that Khalul has a religion that eats people you'd think that Bayaz would be the good option. Or at least the less bad option. However in Before They are Hanged I started getting this weird impression that Bayaz wasn't telling the whole truth, especially when the superweapon he wanted to use against Khalul had been hidden in a different place. This is the superweapon, by the way, which almost destroyed the entire world with demons the last time it was used and definitely destroyed the capital of an older and even greater empire than the Union. It makes me wonder if maybe Juvens, Bayaz's master, had lied about where he had stored the superweapon because he didn't trust Bayaz.

This distrust of Bayaz continues as he starts making disparaging comments about the common people to Luthar, saying literally that it's not important to actually care about the poor people so much as seem like he cares about the poor people. This and other offhand comments start to build a suspicion that Bayaz really isn't that great of a guy and it ends with the reveal that Bayaz probably was responsible for the death of Juvens, as well as Kanedias, and probably through his lover Tolomei from the House of the Maker as well. Bayaz declares himself beyond the laws of magic, greater than Juvens, and ultimately uncaring about the amount of death and destruction caused by winning this part of his ongoing feud with Khalul.

Personally I feel like this reveal should have come in the second book rather than towards the end of the third book. I say this partly because the second book felt like it meandered and went into plot cul-de-sacs. If we had the reveal of Bayaz's true intentions in the second book, or even in the beginning of the third book, then we could have had the characters reacting to the situation and maybe brought it to a better resolution. Instead we have a war with the Gurkish not quite resolved, Luthar and Glokta are left with questionable control of the Union, and Ferro Maljinn literally just walks out of the story and is never seen again. So many threads were left dangling that I wasn't entirely certain this was the end. Again, it seems there are other books set within the universe, but whether they continue this plotline or not I cannot tell. Personally I would have felt better if the third book was used to tie up the ends a little more neatly rather than leaving things unresolved.

Ultimately, I'm not sure if this series is really worth your time. I will say that some of the characters such as Logen Ninefingers, Luthar, and Glokta can be compelling and they go through varying degrees of character development, although I feel like Logen goes through the least. But with the second book meandering pointlessly and stuff in the third act that I, personally, thought should be in the second act I feel like it's not worth the time and effort.

- Kalpar

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Victory of Eagles, by Naomi Novik

Today I've reached the halfway point in the Temeraire series with the fifth book, Victory of Eagles. I will say that my first impression of this book is that it's providing more of the same that we've seen in the previous four books. That being said, I do like what Novik's been doing with this series so I don't mind terribly much that the books feel fairly similar in structure, if not in particulars.

This book picks up some months after the ending of Empire of Ivory, with Laurence convicted a traitor and his sentence of death commuted until such time as the government can be certain Temeraire won't attack Britain. Laurence has been imprisoned in a British ship of the line while Temeraire has been relegated to the breeding grounds. Temeraire has been having a frustrating time because there is very little to do within the breeding grounds other than eat, sleep, and breed, leaving him starved for intellectual stimulation. Temeraire starts introducing the dragons to concepts such as personal property when news comes that Napoleon has landed in Britain.

Laurence the ship he's imprisoned in caught in the first battle of Napoleon's invasion of England and only through great luck and skill manages to survive the sinking of the ship and make it safely back to Dover. Due to the extremity of the situation Laurence is ordered to gather Temeraire and help drive back the French invasion. This is made more complicated when it turns out that Temeraire has just...disappeared, and with a large number of dragons with him.

I think what I liked most about this book was following Temeraire and his scratch company of dragons which achieves official military status when, due to an assumption by military command, Temeraire receives a commission as a colonel. There're also some interesting dragon characters such as Minnow and Perscitia who I came to like just as much as I liked Temeraire and Iskierka who were by far the most developed dragon characters within the series. I also like the developments of integrated human and dragon forces in the military and the innovations that Temeraire and company use to help fight Napoleon.

I don't know how I feel about the ending of this book because despite their efforts, Laurence and Temeraire are transported to Australia. Personally I dislike this because I wanted Laurence and Temeraire to stay and help fight Napoleon, and I wanted to see more land battles with dragons and infantry squares and artillery. Largely because I like the Napoleonic wars. The books have definitely spent far more time travelling outside of Britain exploring locations like China, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa. Now that Laurence and Temeraire are banished to Australia it looks like we'll be spending even more time exploring distant lands. I just feel like this series promised Napoleonic Wars with Dragons and I'd have liked to see more of that but I guess it was wrong of me to expect that.

All my issues aside, I did enjoy this book, much like I enjoyed the other four books, and I intend to keep following the series as I can get them from the library.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

The World of Ice & Fire, by George R.R. Martin

Today I'm looking at The World of Ice & Fire, a supplemental book to the Song of Ice & Fire series, better known as Game of Thrones. This book delves into the history of the Targaryen reign of the seven kingdoms, as well as goes into a detailed account of each of the regions of Westeros, as well as region across Essos. While this book is an interesting supplement providing some background material, I was left with feeling that this book was inadequate on a lot of levels. Irritatingly, it also leaves questions we've had for quite some time unanswered and really leaves me wishing Martin would finish the darn series already.

The book is divided into roughly two halves. The first half talks partly about the history of the world and the history of Westeros. The book very briefly talks about the Dawn Age and the Age of Heroes, but the majority of the history is focused on the arrival of Aegon the Conqueror and the reign of the Targaryens up through Robert's Rebellion. The second half of the book talks about each region of Westeros in detail, providing more historical information especially before the arrival of the Targaryens, and then goes to the various locales beyond Westeros including the nine free cities, the Dothraki lands, and territories even further beyond. It's a lot of great supplemental information designed for the super-fans of Song of Ice & Fire, but you can safely enjoy the series without having to read this. At least for now, anyway.

I think the biggest issues I had with this book were, as I said, that Martin leaves some important questions unanswered and it doesn't deliver some materials that I would have enjoyed learning about the book's universe. The biggest two issues I had were the Tragedy at Summerhall and what exactly happened to Lyanna Stark. The narrator of the book mentions both events within the book but makes comments that they're ''so well known'' within the universe that there's no need to talk about them further within this book. The problem is, we the readers know little or almost nothing about both events which leave them a mystery and by saying they're well-known within the universe so he doesn't have to explain them. For those that aren't familiar, Summerhall was a palace built by the Targaryens and where a large number of the family gathered to celebrate the birth of Aegon V's great-grandson, Prince Rhaegar. From the information we have available, we know that the palace burned down and a significant number of the Targaryen family died. A few other clues suggest that wildfire and dragon eggs were involved, with perhaps Aegon V trying to create dragons using wildfire. Other than that we don't know a whole lot. This doesn't play a huge role in the larger series, but it's frustrating that Martin keeps it vague.

The other big issue was Rhaegar's abduction of Lyanna Stark, which sparked Robert's Rebellion. This is one of the big sources of speculation within the series, with multiple theories abounding to explain the events. In all probability this is tied to some major plot point Martin has in reserve for later within the series, but I find that the book brushes the incident off as ''too well known to merit mentioning'' honestly rather frustrating. It makes me wish that Martin would go ahead and just finish the darn series so we can have all our questions answered rather than sitting around playing what if for forever and ever. (Yes, I know, there's the tv show but I'm in the book camp.)

Otherwise I was a little disappointed with what Martin ultimately included within the book. I personally would have appreciated more stories about Bran the Builder, Garth Greenhand, the Winged Knight, and Lann the Clever, the figures from the Age of Heroes who influenced the world of Westeros. We do get versions of the story of how Lann the Clever stole Castlery Rock from the Castlerys, but it's told in a very dry and historical way, I kind of wish that Martin had told it like an anthology of folklore instead of as a historical text.

Ultimately this is a history and geography text book for the series and it's probably going to be dry for even the most dedicated readers of the series. It's okay, but I wish we'd gotten more answers than we got and maybe I just want Martin to finish the series.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Stepford Wives, by Ira Levin

Today, I'm looking at a classic sci-fi novel The Stepford Wives which has gotten two movie adaptations and has even entered the lexicon as a phrase in and of itself. The book really is more of a novella, clocking in at about 130 pages, but I think that the brevity really works to its strength rather than a weakness.

Because the book has become in many ways part of the cultural zeitgeist you're probably familiar with the generalities of the plotline. A new family moves to the neighborhood of Stepford and the mother, Joanna, notices that something is...off...about their neighbors. The women all seem friendly enough, but they spend all their time on housework and say they're far too busy to spend any time on social activities. Joanna manages to meet a handful of other women who are also recent transplants to Stepford and agree that something is weird about Stepford. And then one by one the members of the group start turning into Stepford wives themselves, their entire old personalities erased.

The book itself is a little vague about what happens to the women after they've been ''Stepford-ized''. It's implied they're replaced by robots, but I personally like the idea of them being brainwashed and reprogrammed better. Either way it's very creepy and the pacing works incredibly well to underscore that.

The book is, of course, about feminism and was published in 1972, putting it solidly within the era of Second Wave Feminism which, among other issues, included a drive by white women to escape the role of housewife that had been created by the post-war American economy. Women fought for opportunities outside the home and equality in the workplace. And yes, I'm grossly oversimplifying a critical movement in United States history, but that's how it's relevant to this work. As this book relates to feminism it's not even subtext, Joanna is a member of the National Organization of Women and is ready to march on the Stepford Men's Association because of their exclusion of women.

The sad thing is that this book, much like Handmaid's Tale, remains incredibly relevant. We are in the middle of a great political struggle in the United States and there are people who seriously suggest that women's natural place is as a wife and mother and women shouldn't work outside the home. Some people go so far as to argue that this is what's undermining ''western civilization'', completely ignoring the fact that women have had to work for most of history to support their families, and even if a woman chooses to take care of her home and children, that is valuable unpaid work that she provides. And yes, women do far more unpaid work than men. Unfortunately we're at a point where we still need feminist propaganda.

Looking at this as a book, as I said the brevity of the book I think actually works to its benefits. As Joanna gradually pieces together what's going on in Stepford, she realizes that time is running out for her and her husband may already have plans to replace her with a submissive, zombified version of herself. As you start physically running out of book, you know that Joanna is running out of time as well and you hope that she can get away and get help before she becomes Stepford's latest victim. It made for a very emotional reading experience.

Overall I'd definitely recommend reading this book. It's a short and easy read and while it's not subtle, it packs a huge emotional punch and remains frustratingly relevant.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The President is a Sick Man, by Matthew Alego

Today I'm looking at a book about Grover Cleveland, a president that most people only know because of his election to two non-consecutive terms, a feat which today remains unrepeated. This book talks about a secret operation that was performed on Grover Cleveland to remove cancerous cells from the president's mouth in the summer of 1893. Because of the impending debate over repeal of the Silver Purchase Act as well as the ongoing economic depression, secrecy of the operation was considered paramount for the good of the country. However word soon leaked about Cleveland's operation and a reporter named E.J. Edwards revealed the information in a fairly tame article, drawing ire from Cleveland and his doctors. Despite his reputation for integrity, Cleveland and his aides categorically denied that Cleveland had anything more than some bad teeth removed and E.J. Edward's article was dismissed as a hoax. It would not be until twenty-five years later that William Keen, the leading surgeon, finally admitted the operation had been performed.

I have some issues with this book, and I think it's mostly because there are points where Algeo goes onto tangents to talk about subjects that really don't contribute to the subject matter and I suspect that was to pad out the length of the book. I think Algeo also blows the secrecy surrounding Cleveland's operation out of proportion by comparing it to conspiracies like Watergate. The result is a book that's adequate from a research perspective but Alego's historical arguments don't really work.

Alego does an adequate job talking about the historical facts and providing relevant historical context, such as including the history of the antiseptic movement which dramatically increased the survival rate of surgery patients after its adoption and which probably helped save Cleveland's life because his doctors followed antiseptic protocol. Alego also talks about the silver debate and the importance attached to repealing the Silver Purchase Act as an attempt to rectify the Panic of 1893. For modern audiences, it can be difficult to understand the importance of the money question and how it caused divisions even within the Democratic and Republican parties. Cleveland's Vice-President, Adlai Stevenson, was a staunch silverite and would never have approved a repeal of the Silver Purchase Act. If word that Cleveland wasn't well it would have significantly undermined his political power and given the silverites the motivation to hold out.

However, Alego spends a significant amount of time talking about other subjects which have little to no relevance to the book and feel obviously used to pad out the length of the book. There are at least a couple of passages that could definitely have been removed without losing anything substantive to the book. Among these was when Alego took time talking about the history of men's facial hair in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century until the development of the safety razor, and going so far as to categorize the facial hair of each president who had facial hair. Alego also blames Cleveland's response to the Pullman Strike (sending in federal troops to violently put down the strike) on the pain Cleveland experienced from his surgery. I would say that completely ignores the trend of the government siding with capital against labor in the nineteenth century. I mean, there are multiple times when troops were sent in to put down strikes so it's hard for me to agree that Cleveland having surgery was the sole reason he put in the Pullman strike.

Ultimately I think this book is a lot longer than it needs to be. When you look at the historical context, it's hardly surprising that Cleveland kept his heath condition a secret. Alego himself writes about how the word cancer couldn't even be published in newspapers, much less talked about. Cleveland wasn't the first president to conceal his actual health and project an image of healthy vigor to assure the nation, and he wasn't the last either. While I agree it was an act of dishonesty, this was hardly and act bringing about a constitutional crisis.

Overall I'd say this book isn't worth your time because it hasn't got a lot to say and it becomes very obvious when Alego is just padding out the book to meet a word count.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Battlefront II: Inferno Squad, by Christie Golden

Today I'm looking at another Star Wars book, Battlefront II: Inferno Squad, which is a tie-in with the video game Battlefront II and with the Clone Wars animated series. The book focuses on the titular unit, Inferno Squad, an Imperial special forces unit that handles tasks that the regular Imperial military or the Imperial Security Bureau can't handle. Inferno Squad is charged with infiltrating the Dreamers, an extremist rebel faction led by survivors of Saw Garrera's Partisans. The Dreamers have been hitting multiple high-level Imperial targets and appear to have access to restricted Imperial information so Inferno Squad's goal is to discover where their information is coming from, seal the leak, and then eliminate the Dreamers.

I'll be honest, I didn't much care for this book and mostly because it's a continuation of this evolution that the Star Wars universe has taken and I'm not sure if I much care for it. There seems to have been a movement in Star Wars towards a darker and grittier universe, where not only are the Imperials a ruthless and sinister lot, but the Rebels are as well. Both sides engage in indiscriminate killings and torture to achieve their goals, making the line between good guys and bad guys blur. Now I'm not opposed to there being good Imperials, in fact in the old EU the Imperial officer Gilad Pellaeon was one of my favorite characters. But for a universe whose theme seems to be that there's always hope, it's a little concerning that the universe seems to be taking a darker turn. I'm not saying that there can't be bad Rebels or morally ambiguous Rebels, but I'm not used to the Star Wars universe being so darn dark.

I also have to say it's difficult for me to care over much about the characters in the book, especially the Imperials. At the beginning the book the Imperial characters basically justify destroying Alderaan with the argument that the Rebel children would only grow up to be adult Rebels who would kill more innocent Imperials, so it's best that they were killed when they were young. Now the Rebels make the same argument about killing a bunch of Imperial children, but far more of the Rebels raise objections to killing children than any Imperials do to the same. The problem with trying to make the Rebels and the Empire equivalent is that the factions really aren't, because the Empire practices slavery, restricts personal freedoms, and blows up planets. There really isn't any moral equivalency between the two of them.

It also was very hard for me to empathize with the characters because they were so blase about torturing or murdering people. I feel like there's an attempt to make the Imperial characters more sympathetic by having them develop personal relationships with the Dreamers, but this doesn't work for a couple of reasons. First, Inferno Squad is trying to ingratiate themselves with the Dreamers so they pretend to be friends with the Dreamers to make that goal easier. A second reason is that they kill all the Dreamers at the end of the book. Like, seriously, just execute all of the Dreamers and be proud about it as well. So it's really hard for me to like the members of Inferno Squad as characters.

Overall I was kind of disappointed with this book. It's kind of funny because when Disney first bought Star Wars a lot of people were worried that they'd Disney-fy the franchise and turn it into upbeat kid-friendly musicals. But it seems like under the Disney leadership, Star Wars has taken a darker and edgier turn and I'm not sure if I really like that. I'm willing to admit that this is probably me being an old person who's complaining about how they changed things and different things are bad, but I still feel like a grimdark universe isn't quite right for Star Wars.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm looking at the fourth book of the Temeraire series, Empire of Ivory. When we left off Captain Laurence and Temeraire were helping to evacuate remnants of the Prussian army from the besieged city of Danzig. When we rejoin our heroes they're making a mad dash for the coast of England pursued by French dragons. Despite firing signal flares it's only a shore battery that manages to keep the French dragons at bay and allow Temeraire, Iskierka, and the feral dragons to land safely in England.

Understandably they're perplexed by this situation and much to their dismay that the dragons of England have been struck down by a mysterious plague. Many of the dragons have been sick for a year or more and Britain faces the very real possibility of losing all its dragons. The strategic considerations are gravely concerning, but it's emotionally terrifying for the aerial corps as well because of the deep emotional attachment between the dragons and their crews. Temeraire, Iskierka, and the feral dragons have to protect the shores of England from invasion. When Temeraire accidentally gets exposed to infected dragons Laurence braces for the worst...until Temeraire fails to get sick. It appears Temeraire already had the illness during their trip to China and something, whether the environment of Cape Town or something he ate, fought the illness. Temeraire and his ill friends are packed back back up onto the Allegiance and dispatched back to Cape Town to find a cure.

The thing I liked most about this book was the result of the expedition to Cape Town and their search for the pungent mushroom which is the cure for the dragons' illness. As it was established previously in other books, expeditions into Africa's interior had disappeared without a trace leaving the interior of the continent a vast unknown. The assumption is that feral dragons are in such large populations that any expedition is simply killed. What our characters discover is that the interior is ruled by an organized empire, very similar to the Zulu nation, with the support of dragons who the Africans revere as reincarnations of their honored ancestors. The Africans have been willing to tolerate European interlopers, despite the ongoing slave trade, but with the arrival of European dragons the Africans assume the Europeans are making a serious bid for settlement. In response the Africans launch successful attacks not only against Cape Town, but all the major slave-trading ports up and down the African coast.

I liked this development in particular because it shows an advanced civilization in Africa, as well as a reference to an Incan empire in the Americas that kept Spanish colonialism at bay and the state of Mysore that has used their dragons to keep Britain at bay in India. With the Chinese culture which we saw in Throne of Jade, we see how multiple cultures, with the aid of dragons, have managed to curtail European encroachment, something that took off in the nineteenth century but the seeds of which were sewn in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries. Granted, these are oversimplified versions of various global cultures, but it's not necessarily something I expected from a fantasy series. (Incidentally I also find it somewhat ironic that the deadly dragon-killing disease came from North America and infected European dragons in an inversion of the historical smallpox epidemic which killed upwards of 90% of the Native American population.)

Another theme that's been growing ever since at least the second book is Laurence and other people seeing dragons as people with rational minds, rather than highly intelligent animals. European cultures, at least, think of dragons as highly sophisticated animals that need to be tamed but you can't expect to reason with them. This is in decided contrast with China where dragons are practically equal members of society, and in Africa where dragons are leaders and advisers. As the series goes on the Europeans are going to be increasingly faced with the fact their dragons are just as intelligent, or perhaps more so, than their human companions.

Overall this was a good installment in the series and I look forward to more.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

Today I'm looking at the second book in the First Law trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, Before They Are Hanged. I do hate to say that this book seems to suffer a lot from the issues that second installments in trilogies have. It kind of meanders and while we have some development, we're left with a lot of things unresolved because the third act needs things to accomplish. Obviously this isn't true of every second act in trilogies, but it feels particularly apt in this case.

The last book, The Blade Itself, established the setting, the characters, and the initial conflict, although what I found most interesting was the characters that Abercrombie created. There are a couple of characters who aren't terribly good people. For example, Inquisitor Glokta is an angry, ruthless, and bitter man influenced by his torture at the hands of the Gurkish and Captain Luthar is a vain, spoiled pretty boy who almost gives up the minute he starts running into a challenge. Despite their shortcomings I found the characters rather compelling, especially Inquisitor Glokta. I think the best thing that Abercrombie does in this book is work on the development of his characters, Glokta in particular. I got the impression from the first book that Glokta didn't have much of an ideology as an Inquisitor, he just tortured people as a sort of revenge against the universe. However I got the impression that in this book Glokta has become aware of the larger political struggle and is becoming more than an unthinking subordinate.

Luthar's development is a lot less subtle, to the point where Luther gets literally beaten in the face with his character development. Seriously, he gets his face bashed in with a mace that makes him try to be a better person. Granted, he's not great at being a better person, but he tries. I definitely get the impression based on how Bayaz keeps giving Luthar lessons on leadership that Bayaz is planning on making Luthar king of the Union in the third book. I say this because both princes of the Union die within this book, but it also kind of strains credulity because Bayaz in no way influenced the deaths of either princes, unless Bayaz is part of a long two man (or three man) con, which seems unlikely.

There are plenty of things that I liked in this book, though. As I said, the development of Glokta was compelling to me, personally and I thought it was the most interesting part of the book. I also really liked Colonel West's story. Granted, Colonel West's story is a pretty normal war story and I was able to predict how at least part of the war was going to go, but that didn't keep me from enjoying it nonetheless.

We also get a lot more exposition in this book explaining the history and the larger conflict which is driving the plot of the book. Now, I have much higher tolerances for exposition than most people so I didn't find it as excessive in this book as I've found it in others, but that's probably a matter of opinion. There is also some debate about how exactly events happened in the past of the book depending on who's telling the story. Personally I liked this because it makes the history of the book feel more realistic because there's always two sides (or more) to any story.

Overall I think this book had some issues because it's the middle installment. I do find myself enjoying the characters and interested in the plot, especially because I understand the stakes for the book, so I'm looking forward to the final installment. Hopefully everything gets resolved in a satisfactory manner because I am a little worried Abercrombie will try to cram too much into the last book. We'll just have to see what happens.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Aftermath, by Chuck Wendig

Today I'm looking at the first of three books in the Aftermath trilogy which helps to fill in the gaps between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. I'm hoping that these books will answer some of my questions about the political situation in the galaxy, although I'm not overly optimistic about the results. To start with as I've said before about Star Wars as a franchise, I worry about the multimedia nature the franchise is starting to take. I've been getting the feeling that to truly understand everything going on in the Star Wars universe, you have to go track down all the comics, books, video games, movies, and whatever other versions of media they decide to utilize. On the one hand, the old Expanded Universe was very much like this and so for people who really like Star Wars it gives them a lot of stuff to explore and enjoy.

On the other hand, to paraphrase Mr. Plinkett, we shouldn't have to read a book to understand a movie. The original movies were self-contained and while not everything was explained in agonizing detail, we didn't have to go check supplemental sources to understand the plotline. We weren't told how the Emperor became Emperor, but for the purposes of the story that wasn't terribly important. We knew he was the Emperor and was in charge, how that came to be was largely secondary. However in the case of Force Awakens, we don't really get an explanation as to who the First Order is or where they came from. Or for that matter what the situation with the Resistance is, because they're apparently not the military of the Republic but they're Republic aligned. So why is the Republic being defended by a paramilitary force? These are questions which probably should be answered within the movie, and we don't even need a super long explanation, a few lines of exposition would be necessary.

As for the plot of this book, Wedge Antilles is doing some post-Endor scouting operations for the New Republic and finds not one but three Star Destroyers in the backwater system of Akiva. Wedge concludes that something big is going down but before he can get the word back to the Republic he finds himself captured by the Empire. He manages to get a message out to Norra Wexley, another Republic operative, who puts together a team on planet to disrupt the Imperial meeting and strike another blow for the New Republic.

Plot-wise this book is okay. Mostly I got the impression that the Empire has bases and resources out in the Outer Rim and beyond the edges of known space where they'll regroup and possibly form the New Order. Otherwise this feels a lot like other Star Wars books which I've read before and I don't know if it brings all that much new to the table. Republic wins and the Empire gets driven further back. I think what I liked most is the vignettes of other things happening around the galaxy to show that the Civil War is not yet over and there are still battles to be won and work to be done to make the galaxy a better place.

The thing that bugs me the most about this book, though, is the character Temmin Wexley, Norra's son. Norra left Temmin behind three years ago to join the Rebel Alliance and has been involved in battles like Endor. She returns to find her son Temmin has gotten involved in black market dealings and basically turned into a typical shitty teenager. I actually found myself really disliking Temmin throughout the book. He isn't interested in the galactic struggle, just wants to keep his head down and make money. By the end of the book he's gotten fully on board with the Republic cause, but I feel like he hasn't learned as a character at all. What annoys me the most is that Temmin doesn't experience any loss during the book. At multiple points his mom Norra almost dies because of her fights against the Empire and towards the end of the book Temmin's robot Mr. Bones (a psychotic patched together battle droid) is shot by the Imperials. But at the end of the book Temmin has his mom and he has Mr. Bones. I felt like this really undermined the book because Temmin didn't experience loss forcing him to grow as a character. Everything turned out okay for him at the end and he goes on further adventures.

I'll have to see where the rest of the books in this series go because so far it's been kind of a disappointment. It's certainly not the most interesting Star Wars book I've read or feeling all that vital yet.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Black Powder War, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm looking at the third book in the Temeraire series, Black Powder War. The book begins where Throne of Jade left off, with Temeraire, Captain Will Laurence, and still in China. The crew are planning to travel with the dragon carrier Allegiance back to Britain via the Cape of Good Hope when an emergency message from the admiralty arrives from overland. Temeraire and Laurence are ordered to head directly for Istanbul and take possession of three dragon eggs and return them to Scotland post haste. Considering our heroes are halfway around the world and there should be British dragons in the Mediterranean, they find these orders rather curious and it implies the military situation back home has deteriorated in the year since they left. After some wrangling, the crew decide to head back overland, hoping to shave at least some time off by avoiding waiting for repairs for the Allegiance and taking a more direct route.

A pretty significant chunk of the book is spent on getting Temeraire, Laurence, and company from China across the center of Asia and finally to Istanbul. Considering the terrain they have to cover includes some of the world's larger deserts this is hardly a simple task and our heroes have to face the challenges of feeding and watering a dragon when logistics are hardly easy, as well as fighting off brigands and feral dragons.

The last half of the book brings our characters out of the wilderness and back into the struggle of European politics. Arriving in Istanbul our protagonists find the British ambassador dead, his staff gone, and all requests for information regarding the purchase of dragon eggs blocked by a byzantine network of pashas and advisers. Eventually our heroes have to take matters into their own hands. Under the logic that the eggs have already been paid for and therefore are British property, the crew breaks out of the sultan's palace and absconds with the eggs. Unfortunately they lose one of the eggs during their escape, but more concerning still the egg of a valuable fire-breathing species is mere weeks away from hatching.

The final part of the book is probably what I enjoyed the most, and that's because Laurence and Temeraire head for the relatively safe harbor of Prussia. (My people). The Prussians have decided to bring their much-vaunted military against Napoleon and expect an easy victory. If you're a student of history like myself, then you realize that this is just a prelude to the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt where the Prussians were crushed by the modernized French forces, prompting a flurry of civil and military reforms in Prussia that enabled it to become a key player in the victorious Sixth Coalition. However Novik manages to capture the stunning overconfidence of the Prussians prior to their thrashing at Jena-Auerstedt and makes even me shake my head at the poor deluded fools. Despite their need to get back home to Britain, Laurence and Temeraire find themselves dragooned into Prussian service and if not unable, at least unwilling to leave the Prussians in the lurch. Apparently the British promised the Prussians the support of a wing of twenty dragons, but those dragons never arrived. This raises more questions about the situation back home in Britain and perhaps things have gotten worse while our characters have been away. Hopefully we'll get some answers in the next book.

Another thing I really enjoyed is when Iskierka, the dragon close to hatching finally does hatch. Appropriate for a fire-breathing dragon she is an absolute firecracker and from the moment she hatches she's ready to go into a fight with the French. I found her absolutely hilarious and I'm hoping to see more of her in the later books.

Overall, I think this was pretty good. There are some funny bits and I feel like Novik is at least incorporating dragons into Napoleonic Wars in a way that makes it plausible. As I said in my last review, if you like dragons and you like the Napoleonic Era, this is a book worth reading.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Wars of the Roosevelts, by William Mann

Today I'm looking at a biography of not one Roosevelt in particular, but more about the Roosevelt family in general. Like anyone who has any familiarity with the Roosevelt family, you're probably aware of the history of mental illness within the Roosevelt family, with several members succumbing to alcoholism. More specifically several members including Eleanor and Theodore show signs of depression or bipolar disorder. The Wars of the Roosevelts is a delve into the ''dirty laundry'' of the Roosevelt family and the revelation of the deep emotional issues that plagued multiple members of the family.

Because I've read so much about Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor a lot of the subject matter was familiar to me. Because the book focused more on Eleanor's father (and Theodore's brother) Elliot, as well as Theodore's children there was more information than what I knew before. Mann specifically talks about the son Elliot had with Katy Mann, Elliott Roosevelt Mann, an illegitimate child and one of the dirty secrets of the Roosevelt family. Mann talks about Elliot's rise as a banker and eventually enter the ranks of the middle class. Despite his success, Elliot Roosevelt Mann never got acknowledgement from his more prestigious relatives. However at the 1991 Roosevelt family reunion the Manns were finally accepted into the fold.

Personally I think it's hardly surprising that the Roosevelt family, like so many families, had its share of internal division and strife. There are plenty of happy families, but there are just as many dysfunctional ones as well. Considering the high amount of pressure put on the Roosevelt family to succeed and the ambitions for political power it's hardly surprising that so many of them struggled emotionally. Throw in a family history of alcoholism, depression, and bipolar disorder and it's a recipe for emotional molotov cocktails.

From the description of this book on the library's website Mann implied that the struggles among the Roosevelts would reach the level of warfare or bloodsport. I will admit that the struggles between the Hyde Park and Oyster Bay branches of the Roosevelt families during Franklin's election runs certainly reached the level of warfare, but that at least makes sense considering the partisan and occasional ideological divisions between the two branches. Within the respective branches of the Roosevelt families, I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it outright war. Let me try to explain.

Mann talks a lot about the non-conformists of the Roosevelt families, people who refused to follow the paths and expectations set by their relatives, usually Groton, Harvard, and then some sort of career in business or politics and a drive to succeed. Specifically Mann points to Elliot Roosevelt, Kermit Roosevelt (one of Theodore's sons), and James ''Tadd'' Roosevelt Jr (Franklin's nephew and son of his much older half-brother Rosey). Elliott and Kermit both struggled with alcoholism and were engaged in extramarital affairs. (Although they were far from the only Roosevelts to do so.) Elliott was eventually forced to separate from his family under pressure of his brother Theodore who threatened multiple times to have him incarcerated in an insane asylum. Elliott died at the age of thirty-four after a suicide attempt. Kermit, Theodore's second son, did not receive the same pressure to succeed as his older brother Ted, their father's namesake and crown prince to the dynasty. Kermit always seemed unsure of what he wanted to do in life and also fell prey to alcohol and publicly flaunted his mistress, leading to additional shunning by his own family. Much like his uncle, Kermit eventually committed suicide while serving in Alaska during World War II. Really the only non-conforming Roosevelt who did fairly well was Tadd who, thanks to being an heir to a slice of the Astor fortune through his mother's side, was financially independent enough to ignore his family after he married a common factory girl. Tadd's marriage eventually soured and he spent the rest of his days living in Florida.

The thing you have to understand is that mental illness was highly stigmatized in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In fact to this day organizations such as NAMI are still fighting to end social stigma associated with mental illness. For a socially prominent family such as the Roosevelts, it's hardly surprising that they would shun or attempt to hide members of their families who showed signs of mental illness and failed to meet the high expectations of the family. I wouldn't call it a war within the family so much as a family of high-achievers reacting like many people in the same time and place would react to family members that failed to meet expectations.

Overall in spite of a good portion of this book being review for me, I still thought it was interesting and worth checking out. This definitely goes into the lives of the less prominent figures such as Elliott, Kermit, Theodore Jr., and Alice whose lives are overshadowed by the giants of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor. If anything, it shows that the Roosevelt family was much like any other, dirty secrets and all.

- Kalpar

Sunday, May 6, 2018

All Good Things

Hello, dear and gentle readers. I wanted to take a moment to let you know about some decisions I've made regarding the blog and what's going to happen in the future. A little over six years ago I decided to start blogging at least once a week, mostly with reviews of books that I've read, but occasionally including tv shows, board games, and other media that I've consumed. Amazingly, I've managed to not only keep up the blog in all that time but starting two years ago I managed to do two posts a week. At the risk of sounding a little boastful, that's hundreds of books that I've read over the course of nearly seven years.

However, I've decided that it's time for me to move onward from this project. The blog has been a good learning experience and has definitely helped me grow, but I think I'm at the point where I'm ready to move on. I've decided at the end of 2018 I will stop posting book reviews on the blog. I may do the occasional update from time to time, but for the most part the blog's going to be shut down. The blog will continue to update every Tuesday and Thursday through the end of December. Hopefully this decision will give me more time to work on other projects. I thank everyone who's been with me this far and hope you've found this blog as interesting to read as I have to write it.

- Kalpar

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert O'Connell

Today I'm looking at a biography of William Tecumseh Sherman, who with Ulysses S. Grant made the winning team the United States needed to put down the slaveholders' rebellion. As O'Connell points out, Sherman has been the subject of varying biographies in the years since his death. While some people depict him as a stalwart defender of the United States, proponents of the Lost Cause mythology tend to depict Sherman as a bloodthirsty monster. This is to provide a contrast to the warlord Robert E. Lee, who in the Lost Cause mythology is almost deified. Lee was good and honorable while Sherman pillaged and burned through Georgia. O'Connell counters that this was not the case but I feel like he goes too far in the other direction and almost becomes a hagiography of Sherman instead.

The issue I have with this book is I feel like O'Connell doesn't deliver on the promises which he made in the introduction. O'Connell states he'll talk about Sherman not only as a general, but as an individual in a separate section. O'Connell does do this, but it feels largely inadequate for the promises he made in the opening.

The majority of this book focuses on Sherman's career during the Civil War as well as the development of the Army of the West into a cohesive fighting force. O'Connell goes so far as to say that the Army of the West was the true predecessor of the modern American ground force, capable of undertaking any task, conquering any terrain, and adapting to any situation. O'Connell argues that this created the institutional DNA of later American forces. Personally I don't know how well this argument holds up, but I'm also no expert on military affairs so it's entirely possible that O'Connell is right.

Unfortunately I think O'Connell focuses on the Civil War to the detriment of talking about other parts of Sherman's life, specifically the time when he was General of the Army after Grant's retirement and when he was in charge of Indian policy in the West. Sherman was an avowed American expansionist and vigorously promoted the building of transcontinental railroads, the extermination of buffalo, and the forcing of Indian tribes onto reservations. Sherman may have grown in his opinions on African-Americans due to his experience with escaped slaves, but his opinions on American Indians remained decidedly intolerant. I think Sherman's policy on Indians, more than anything, is the biggest black mark on his record. Personally I think O'Connell skips over Sherman's post-war career in an attempt to burnish Sherman's reputation to the point of becoming hagiographic.

Obviously nobody is perfect, and human beings in positions of power have more opportunities to make bad decisions. Personally I don't blame Sherman for burning Atlanta and other major cities in the South during the war, especially if it was as limited as O'Connell argues it was, then it makes absolute strategic sense from a military perspective. However the systemic genocide of native peoples by the American government to promote white expansion into the American West has no such argument. I feel like O'Connell purposely ignores this problem because it will be too much of a black mark on Sherman.

Overall I think this book has some problems. First are the organizational issues, where despite his attempts to do otherwise O'Connell focuses heavily on Sherman's Civil War career and only briefly talks about the rest of his life. In so doing, O'Connell takes an almost hagiographic approach to Sherman, almost making him the patron saint of the American military. I feel like this is far too simplistic, especially for a twenty-first century audience, and O'Connell probably could have taken a more complicated view.

- Kalpar