Thursday, December 27, 2018

Looking Back: The Grand Admiral Thrawn Trilogy, by Timothy Zahn

For my last review, I'm taking a look back to books from the older days of Star Wars, the Grand Admiral Thrawn trilogy. This series, written by Timothy Zahn, first came out in 1991 and is generally credited with relaunching the Star Wars Expanded Universe. If we're being entirely honest about the old EU it was definitely of mixed quality ranging from such debacles as the Jedi Prince series to such weird installments as Splinter of the Mind's Eye. But the Thrawn trilogy, consisting of Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command, was widely regarded as one of the best installments of the old EU.

The books are set about five years after the Battle of Endor. The New Republic has taken the galactic capital of Coruscant and is in the process of transitioning to a permanent government. The Empire, divided after the loss of the Emperor and Darth Vader, has been slowly losing ground in the war. But this soon changes when Grand Admiral Thrawn, the only non-human Grand Admiral in Imperial History, returns from beyond the edge of the known galaxy to take command of the Imperial remnants. From the bridge of the Star Destroyer Chimera with the assistance of Captain Gilad Pellaeon, Thrawn stops the New Republic's advance and puts the Republic in a fight for survival.

I originally read these books a long, long time ago when I was in seventh grade, but I remember these books as being fairly good. Coming back to them about fifteen years later and after all the events of the prequels and then the Disney take over and reboot I will say that it's a little weird to come back to the books after all this time. Especially with the cloning plot within this series and the insane Jedi clone Joruus C'baoth when we finally found out what the Clone Wars were, the series feels a little weird to come back to. It's almost like reading quaint older science fiction that used what was at the time cutting scientific theory which has since been discredited or reanalyzed.

The thing that I liked the least about these books was how the characters kept referencing things in the movies. I feel like the people who are likely to read the books are the sorts of people who have seen the movies and so we don't necessarily need reminders of what happened in the movies. Maybe it would be necessary for people who hadn't seen the movies, but if you haven't seen Star Wars then why the heck are you reading a Star Wars book?

But I think where this book really shines is where Zahn introduces new characters and ideas into the series. I will say that Thrawn and Pellaeon were a lot more ruthless than I remembered, which fit them as Imperial officers. But there are plenty of other characters such as Borsk Fey'lya, Garm Bel Iblis, Talon Karrde, and of course Mara Jade. The book does rely fairly heavily on the movie characters: Han, Leia, Luke, Chewbacca, Lando, as well as more minor characters such as Mon Mothma, Wedge Antilles, and Admiral Ackbar. But the introduction of new characters into the series means that we're not just seeing the adventures of Han, Luke, and Leia over and over again.

Overall as dated as these books feel now, and despite the imperfections, I actually think these books are pretty good and worth taking the time to check out. They may no longer be canon, but I think they're fun Star Wars adventures that build on the universe and take it into new directions.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Blue Sword, by Robin McKinley

Today I'm looking at a book that I read in eighth grade because my English teacher was too lazy to read book reports and just wanted us to do whatever Accelerated Reader tests were available. Fortunately this book was a combination of fantasy, high enough reading level, and on the list of books that my school had tests so I was able to read it. I remembered this book as being really good and enjoyable so when it came up as on sale some time ago I decided I should go back and read it again.

The book follows Harry Crewe, the daughter of a fairly low-ranking minor gentry family who has moved to Damar, the very edge of the Homelander empire, a desert that has stalled the otherwise implacable Homelander advance. Harry adapts to life in the desert but is kidnapped from her home by Corlath, king of the Damarian Hillfolk who live beyond the control of the Homeland. Harry soon learns that the Northerners are planning a massive invasion that will threaten Homeland ambitions, but definitely threaten the very existence of Damar. For whatever reason, Harry is tied up in the mystical power of kelar and her destiny is tied with that of Corlath and Damar.

I actually did a little bit of research on this book and it turns out that it was written in response to a 1919 book The Sheik, a frankly quite awful book in which a strong-willed Englishwoman goes on an adventure, gets kidnapped by an Arabian sheik, who continuously rapes her until she develops Stockholm Syndrome and realizes she loves him. McKinley wrote this book as a response to that novel. I will say as a result with Harry getting kidnapped by Corlath it still feels a little weird, especially knowing that it's written in criticism of The Sheik. At least the destiny and kelar aspects make the kidnapping less bad, it still feels weird to me.

Weirdness aside, I actually really like this book. Harry does kind of come across as a kind of Mary Sue/Chosen One because despite having only six weeks to train she becomes the greatest warrior that the Damarians have seen in years. This is explained partly with her kelar abilities, and to be entirely honest I actually don't mind it so much because I really like Harry as a character. She feels very well-developed as a character and she starts off as confused and irritated as the reader with the situation. She only gradually comes to accept her destiny and still doesn't quite believe it through the book. So despite her being the Chosen One, I really like Harry as a character and it makes the book a lot easier to read.

I will say that I kind of like the prequel, The Hero and the Crown better, but this book is still pretty darn good. If you're looking for a different and interesting book to read, I'd recommend checking this one out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Dodger, by Terry Pratchett

Today I'm looking at one of Pratchett's non-Discworld novels, Dodger. This is a stand alone vaguely historical novel set in nineteenth century London and follows the adventures of the title character, Dodger. Dodger is a tosher, someone whose primary form of employment is to go through London's informal system of sewers to find lost coins, jewelry, and other valuables. On a rainy night, Dodger finds two men attacking a woman desperately trying to escape. Dodger intervenes and drives the woman's attackers off, to return and find that Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew have discovered the unconscious woman. Dodger soon gets embroiled in a plot of international dimensions and faces the possibility that there's something in his life beyond toshing.

I will say that this book, like a lot of historical fiction, seems to veer into Forrest Gump territory from the very beginning. Not only does Dodger meet Charles Dickens and Henry Mayhew, but he defeats Sweeny Todd, meets Benjamin Disraeli, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Sir Robert Peel, and Joseph Bazalgette. Pratchett also draws extensively on Mayhew's evidence and other sources about nineteenth century London to create an extensive image of London. Pratchett being Pratchett he had to take a few liberties, but it does create a rather detailed impression of what life was like.

Dodger constantly running into famous people was a little frustrating but honestly that wasn't what concerned me the most about this book. What bothered me was certain things about the character Solomon Cohen. Solomon is a Jewish jeweler who lives in Seven Dials and provides space for Dodger to live and acts as a good influence on Dodger. There's also evidence that Solomon was a spy previously and may or may not have met Karl Marx. But what concerns me is towards the end of the book when Dodger is preparing to go into high society Solomon goes along with Dodger to help him get the best deals. And it turns out that Solomon is very, very good at haggling the best prices, and I'm not sure how I feel about that. There are a lot of really unfortunate stereotypes about Jews as cheap and extremely aggressive hagglers, which Solomon is. So I'm a little concerned that Solomon, a Jew, is also an extreme haggler. It's just a very concerning stereotype and I hate to see it in a Pratchett novel.

Overall, I thought this book was pretty good. I wouldn't say this is one of Pratchett's better novels, but I think it's well in the middle of his books. If you like nineteenth century London then this book definitely has lots of stuff for you to enjoy.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Retief! by Keith Laumer

Today I'm looking at an anthology of Keith Laumer writings, Retief!, which follows the adventures of galactic diplomat Jame Retief as he works to simultaneously ensure peace in the galaxy and subvert the orders of his superiors at the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrine. The reason I first picked up this book was because it was written by Keith Laumer, who as you probably remember was also the creator of the Bolo books which I am such a fan of. This book includes references to concepts Laumer used such as Bolos and the Concordiat but appears to exist in a slightly different universe. However this is definitely more of the pulp sci-fi action that I enjoy perhaps a little too much.

The Corps Diplomatique Terrestrine is a galactic organization with the missions of ensuring harmony between human-settled worlds, as well as protecting human interests in dealings with alien species. However the CDT as an organization has a distressing habit of being hidebound, corrupt, unimaginative, and desperately out of touch with conditions on the ground. It is perhaps only through the actions of imaginative field agents such as Retief that the CDT experiences any success whatsoever.

I will say that these stories are in many ways incredibly dated. Retief is a typical sci-fi action protagonist: ladies' man, habitual drinker, crack shot, skilled hand-to-hand fighter, smarter than his bosses, and able to develop instant rapport with the native species he encounters. In some ways you could call him a future space version of James Bond, but with slightly more emphasis on diplomacy than on spying. Not to say that this is inherently a bad thing, I rather enjoy the pulpy nature of this book as well as some of the older James Bond films. But that means that this book definitely shows its age. There are a couple of other examples where these stories definitely feel like they were written in the sixties, such as stating a ship full of women would march through a jungle in spike heels. At best it's an unfunny ''women amirite'' joke that's aged horribly. That was the worst example I could think of, but it does put a definite date on the book.

In hindsight, I have to admit Retief seems to do a lot of his negotiating at a barrel of a gun, whether literally or figuratively. There are some examples where he shifts CDT paperwork around and uses the bureaucracy to his advantage and to hinder his opponents, but for the most part a lot of his negotiating is done through violence. I don't know if that makes him a very good diplomat, after all the saying of the Foundation was ''Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.'' But for me that makes exciting reading.

Ultimately I have to say that this book is what it is. It's a lot of pulp sci-fi action adventures and if you like that sort of thing this will definitely be the sort of book for you. If you're not a fan or want something a little more introspective then I'd suggest looking somewhere else.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Smek for President, by Adam Rex

Some of you might remember when I reviewed the book The True Meaning of Smekday, which the...questionable movie Home is based on. I actually hunted down the book because I was forced to watch Home and was surprised at some of the fairly deep questions it asked, specifically with colonialism. In my review of The True Meaning of Smekday I was left a little disappointed because I felt the book got inches within having a very serious conversation about colonialism in a way kids could understand, but then went into a standard alien invasion story where a small item defeats the aliens and life goes back to mostly normal for Terrans. All that being said I thought it was a good book and worth other people checking out.

Smek for President takes place about a year and a half after the original Boov invasion. Gratuity and her mom are living in upstate New York, along with J. Lo who's moved in with them. The Boov have moved to Titan, the moon of Saturn, and renamed it New Boov World where Captain Smek remains as absolute leader. J. Lo is having trouble fitting in with human society and is more than a little homesick. Most of all he wants the other Boov to forgive him for making an honest mistake and while he told the Gorg where Earth is, he more than made up for that by helping Gratuity drive the Gorg away. So J. Lo and Gratuity decide to take a road trip to New Boov World to meet with Captain Smek, explain the whole situation, and hopefully make the other Boov not hate J. Lo.

I think this book is slightly shorter than the original so it spends far less time on development than the original book did. You definitely need to read the first book to make sense of this one. The biggest conflict is J. Lo trying to earn forgiveness while Captain Smek clearly is only interested in using J. Lo as a scapegoat to solidify his own powerbase. There's a second conflict between Gratuity and her mom, who as I mentioned in my other review went from being a ditz to being a responsible parent which is a lot for Gratuity to adapt to. I actually found this plotline rather touching and emotional, perhaps for personal reasons, so I kind of liked it better than the other one, but I'm not sure if the book would have been better if it had focused more on that. The J. Lo plotline is fine, it works. Nothing terribly spectacular about it, but it works.

Again, I have to give Bahni Turpin a ton of credit. She does all the voicework in this book and makes the Boov sound like aliens that just don't have English syntax down. Considering there's some portions where Turpin had to use alien language entirely I thought she did a really great job. And Gratuity as always is a great character.

This book may not be as developed or quite as potentially deep as The True Meaning of Smekday, but I really liked this book and though it was worth the time to check out. I highly recommend that you go check it out for yourself as well.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Policing the Black Man, edited by Angela J. Davis

Today I'm looking at a collection of essays about the issues within the criminal justice system and the inherent, and not always conscious, racism which makes the criminal justice system target black men more strongly than almost any other ethnic group in the United States. In the introduction Davis states that women of color, and other ethnic minorities in the United States have their own experiences with a biased justice system, but this book specifically focuses on the black male experience. This is an issue that's risen to prominence in recent years with events like the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, Eric Garner in New York City, and Freddie Grey in Baltimore, Maryland. These are just a handful of cases in a list that is far too long and illustrates that the system is in drastic need of reform for multiple reasons.

The essays talk about a lot of topics and various areas where reforms can be undertaken. A good example is the socialization of black children with police. There is a growing body of evidence that black children, and other children of color, have bad experiences with police during formative years. This is usually typified with police assuming children of color must be up to something, an assumption that is rarely if ever applied to white children. Because children are, well, children, and can be obstinate, disrespectful, impulsive, and a host of other ''improper'' behaviors, bad childhood experiences with police can leave children of color assuming the police cannot be trusted. And in a way, this assumption is correct and only reinforced by every bad experience. There are many instances where people of color are unwilling to go to the police because of this distrust and can stall legitimate criminal investigations because the community is unwilling to help law enforcement.

An important step to undertake is creating better social interactions with police, both for children and adults of color, that help them learn to trust and respect police and make them willing to work with police in future. They use an anecdote where a police officer does something as simple as explaining why they need people to not enter a certain area which helped build a rapport with people in the community and led to tips on other cases they were trying to solve. If police treat communities of color as people to treat with respect, protect and serve, much as the police treat white communities, rather than as problems to be ''managed'', the response from communities of color will be much more positive. But it's vital that police take that first step to begin the process of respect.

There is also the intrinsic problems of the criminal justice system that disproportionately targets black men. There is a large body of evidence that black men are often seen as more dangerous and more threatening than white men. The best explanation available is an implicit, unconscious bias created through societal stereotypes. This may explain why unarmed black men are continually shot by police who state they are ''in fear for their lives'' while white mass shooters somehow manage to be taken alive. The best method to fight implicit biases is training and education, to raise awareness within law enforcement and help police officers overcome their implicit biases, and there is some evidence that this training has helped to reduce violent responses from police. So it shows that things can be done to help end this senseless police violence.

Finally there is the issue of explicit bias, which people consistently try to prove but are blocked from accomplishing this by the courts. There is some evidence that black men consistently get harsher sentences than white men for similar crimes, and black men are more likely to be given the death penalty in cases where the victim is white, than in cases where the defendant is white and the victim is white, where the defendant is white and the victim is black, and where the defendant is black and the victim is black. I say some evidence because there are attempts to collect this data and multiple attempts by civil rights groups to collect prosecution data to prove a systemic and perhaps explicit bias by the criminal justice system. However when these cases are brought to the courts, the courts have consistently ruled that in order to prove systemic or explicit bias, the plaintiffs need to have evidence that prosecutors are acting in a biased way and without that evidence they cannot bring a case. But that very evidence is what the plaintiffs were asking for when they brought suit because they don't have access to that data and it's only through access to that data that they can bring their case. It's a sort of paradox where to bring a suit you need evidence, but you can't get evidence without bringing a suit. Until we can get more data from the criminal justice system and greater transparency, this will continue to be a problem.

Overall I thought these essays were interesting and pointed to specific issues we can try to address in the future. There's a lot of work that needs to be done to create a more just and equitable society in the United States, but I think if we're willing to learn and change it's something we can accomplish.

- Kalpar

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, by Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik

Today I'm looking at a biography of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who has become a popular figure in recent years and the subject of countless internet memes. The amount of adulation around Justice Ginsburg can be somewhat surprising, considering other popular figures are usually movie stars, musicians, and other entertainers. Most people would not expect and octogenarian jurist to become the subject of internet fame on t-shirts, hats, and other popular media. But this biography proves that RBG, as she's referred to throughout the book, is well-deserving of the adulation and remains an vital figure in American civic and legal life.

This biography is fairly short, coming in at about 240 pages, so it's not an incredibly in-depth and fairly easy to read, but it leaves us with a very powerful portrait of a woman who has refused to let anything to stand in her way. RBG was born to a Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1933 and encountered many barriers as she attempted to enter the legal profession after World War II. As a married woman, a mother, and a Jew, RBG faced discrimination on multiple fronts and found it difficult or impossible to find a job. But RBG did not let any of this stop her and through determination, buckets of hard work, and a little help.

For years RBG worked tirelessly on behalf of the Women's Rights Project with the ACLU and argued several cases before the Supreme Court on the issue of women's rights. Carmon and Knizhnik show how RBG was extremely strategic in her fights for women's rights, planning gradual steps that would chip away at the edifice of patriarchy and gradually undermine the entire structure. Although large, sweeping decisions are dramatic and emotionally satisfying, they also provoke significant reactionary backlash. RBG firmly believed that a gradual approach would wash away the resistance of conservative, male judges until they finally came around to her way of thinking. RBG was also very strategic in some of her cases that she argued, using examples of how patriarchy harmed men through assumptions of gender roles. RBG believed, quite rightly, that using cases that affected men would resonate better with male justices.

Supporting RBG in her decades-long career was her husband Marty Ginsburg, who not only supported his wife pursuing a legal career, but helped take on chores at home. Most famously Marty took on the duties of cooking after an infamous incident involving a tuna casserole. Marty took great joy in becoming a world-class chef while RBG continued to work on the highest court of the land. Carmon and Knizhnik include a small sampling of the notes between the couple over the years and reveals a deep and abiding friendship and love built on mutual respect. It reveals a deeply personal side of RBG's life that is immensely touching.

The biggest change we've seen from RBG over the past decade was RBG's increasing willingness to voice her dissent and speak up. For years RBG developed a reputation as someone who didn't rock the boat and worked to create compromise. However the court has taken a hard shift to the right in recent years and begun to challenge many of the freedoms that she had fought for before the Supreme Court. As a result RBG has begun speaking out more and as the senior-most liberal has led the other three liberal justices, occasionally winning a critical fifth or sixth vote. Because of her championship for progressive causes, RBG has become an icon to many young people who believe in the same causes. Today many continue to hope that RBG will hold on at the Supreme Court and continue to fight for the rest of us.

I would highly recommend this book to everyone. As short as it is, it's a very quick read and provides great insight into probably the most influential jurist of her generation. I knew basically nothing about RBG about this, and while I now only know a little bit more it's infinitely more than I knew before.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Girl With Ghost Eyes, by M.H. Boroson

Today I'm looking at a short novel by M.H. Boroson, the first in a planned series, The Girl With Ghost Eyes. This book is set in San Francisco's Chinatown in the late 1890s and follows Xian Li-lin, the daughter of a famed Daoist exorcist and a powerful exorcist in her own right. I thought this would be like a typical urban fantasy, someone with magical abilities in a city solves magical problems, but with the twist of using Chinese mythology and the setting. So I thought this was worth the time taking a look and seeing if it was any good.

The book starts with an interesting premise, but I'm left with some hesitations about Boroson's decisions with the book. Chinese mythology is deep and complicated, spanning dozens of ethnic groups, thousands of years, and with no singular religious tradition to unite them. So when it comes to depicting Chinese mythology you have a lot of options you can kind of pick and choose and jumble together, which Boroson does. And quite frankly I don't know enough about Chinese mythology to say whether this is accurate or not, so that's not a huge part of my concern.

The biggest thing I noticed was an emphasis on the concept of ''face'', an obsession with honor, social standing, prestige, and all that comes with it. Again, this is a subject that I don't know a whole lot about but I do know that a lot of what people assume Chinese culture is about tends to rely more on nineteenth century stereotypes about Chinese culture rather than actual representations of Chinese culture. The prevalence of the use of the word ''face'' specifically and emphasis on how gaining and losing face makes me think this wanders into stereotypical territory rather than an accurate representation of Chinese culture.

I also noticed that Boroson tended to repeat concepts or phrases over and over, especially if it was something like the March of a Hundred Devils or the Death of Five Touches. But Boroson also emphasizes how the tongs aren't just criminal organizations but function as support networks for immigrants as well. And these are just a handful of examples throughout the book. This book isn't all that long in the first place and I suspect that if Boroson hadn't repeated himself so much this book might have been significantly shorter.

I was kind of left uncertain on my opinion with Li-ling. She kind of vacillates between hyper-competent in her job as a Daoist exorcist and having to rely on her father or other people to help her out. I've been finding that a lot with various urban fantasy characters in the books so it seems to be a trend within the genre. Long-team readers will know the number of times I've lamented Harry Dresden's decision to leave his brain cell at home or with Thomas for the day. As far as I can see this is the only book in the series as of right now, so I don't know if Li-ling improves in her abilities and that may be determined in future books.

Overall the book is okay. I wouldn't say it's the best book I've read, but at least Boroson is trying something different.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 29, 2018

First Watch, by Dale Lucas

Today I'm looking at First Watch, the first book in a series titled Fifth Ward by Dale Lucas. This series is set in the city of Yenara, a massive fantasy city along the lines of Ankh-Morpork. I kind of made that comparison in my head because the book focuses on the watch wardens of the city. However the characters in this book are nothing like Sam Vimes and his own City Watch. The watch wardens of Yenara are largely another gang. This is reinforced by how the watches are set up. The city of Yenara is divided into five wards, with each ward having its own watch. The prefects of every ward are jealously defensive of their territory and will fight members of other wards that come into their territory. In addition, the majority of crime in Yenara is handled through a fine system, and everyone is in on the rampant graft. So this is definitely a darker fantasy.

The book focuses on the character of Rem, a former nobleman who decided to leave home and take his chances in the big city. Unfortunately this resulted in Rem getting into a major bar fight and waking up in the dungeons of the Fifth Ward. Through talent and a good dose of luck Rem manages to get himself recruited as the newest member of the Fifth Ward Watch. Rem is soon paired up with Torval, a dwarf whose partner has gone missing and is less than thrilled that he's been assigned a rookie to babysit. But Rem and Torval soon discover that Torval's former partner's been murdered, and he may have gotten himself into something much bigger and more dangerous than even Torval could have expected.

I'll have to admit, I have pretty mixed feelings on this book. As a fantasy cop mystery book I think Lucas does a pretty good job and managed to keep the story interesting throughout. I honestly think my biggest problem is that the book isn't the City Watch books from Discworld, and Rem, Torval, and the whole system are nothing like Sam Vimes and his crew. And I guess it's really not fair for me to say this book is bad just because it isn't Discworld. Lucas is doing his own thing and creating his own story.

On the other hand, the characters are supposed to be police, and Rem and Torval seem pretty okay with the whole concept of torturing people. On top of this, we see Torval being a good, honest family man who cares about his sister and three children. To go to Discworld again, it reminds me a lot of the bit in Small Gods where Pratchett said that even the worst and most terrible tortures could be casually inflicted by otherwise good an honest people who are just doing this for a paycheck. Ultimately I'm left conflicted about these characters, and I'm not certain if I can really get behind them. Maybe it's just because I like Discworld so much.

So really, that's my biggest criticism, it's not Discworld and Rem and Torval are in many ways dirty cops, so I'm not sure how much I can get behind them. That being said, it's not a terrible book so it might be worth your time to check out and see for yourself what you think.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Dreadnought, by Robert K. Massie

Today I'm looking at a book about relations between Britain and Germany from the formation of the German Empire in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. I originally thought based on the title that this book would focus more on the development of the dreadnought battleship and the naval policies that put diplomatic strain between Germany and Britain and eventually put the two nations at war. Massie goes into considerable detail in his book, but I'm left wondering if the amount of detail is a little too much, and it's no surprise that this book is over nine hundred pages long. Massie's definitely done his research but I think there's a lot of material that could have been excised from this particular book without sacrificing a lot.

The H.M.S. Dreadnought was a battleship that brought about a revolution in naval warfare and tactical thinking, spawning an entire class of battleship named after it and descendants, the superdreadnoughts. There hadn't been a major naval conflict since the Napoleonic wars but naval technology saw considerable improvements. In 1806 the two and three decked ships of the line with muzzle-loading cannons were the mainstays of navies across the globe. The advent of steel armor, breech-loading artillery, and steam power meant ships had gone through radical changes. But because of this gradual evolution of ship design there was one key problem. Battleships had an armament consisting of guns in different sizes. In addition to complicating ammunition supplies, this meant that accurate ranging of the ship's weapons were difficult if not impossible. The splashes from the different caliber guns would be at different ranges so it would be nearly impossible for a gunnery officer on a battleship to determine where his shells had landed. As artillery increased in its accuracy and range, the importance of accurately and reliably aiming broadsides became a matter of life and death.

The solution was the all big-gun battleship, carrying massive broadsides of heavy guns in one caliber. With improvements in fire control a battleship could fire a devastating broadside accurately and repeatedly into an enemy ship. The release of the dreadnought launched a new arms race among the Great Powers. The ship with heavier guns could fire at a longer range, sometimes safely from beyond the range of enemy ships with lighter guns. In addition a certain amount of prestige was attached to having a fleet of large, powerful battleships. As Germany accelerated its building program of battleships, Britain grew increasingly concerned for their own safety and gradually British interests aligned with those of France, rather than where they had traditionally been with Germany.

This is just a very brief overview, of course, and the book goes into a great many other subjects, such as Kaiser Wilhelm II's personality and strange love-hate relationship with Britain which added further problems to existing relationships between the two powers. And Massie goes into a great amount of detail about those problems. I think the biggest thing Massie could have done was reduce the overall scope of his book. The reason I say this is that Massie goes back to Victoria and Albert and their many children, of whom their eldest daughter, Victoria, married Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia, and later Crown Prince of the united German Empire and the tragically short-reigned emperor Friedrich III. Friedrich's own fondness for England and English customs is used to explain Wilhelm II's psyche and his strange relationship with the nation. I think Massie simply went too far back to make his history concise.

Another issue I noticed was that Massie included detailed biographies of every important figure that factored into the historical narrative somehow. While I can understand talking about, for example, Jackie Fisher, the admiral who was responsible for modernizing the British Navy and developing the H.M.S. Dreadnought, I think detailed biographies of other figures could be skipped or at least heavily reduced, such as Philip Eulenberg who was accused of homosexuality in Germany and at the time caused a considerable scandal. Massie fails to place it into the larger context and how it would have an effect on the naval arms race. Every major government official involved, from Bulow to Holstein to Caprivi to Asquith to Roseberry to Grey gets their own biography chapter which bloats the length of the book out far beyond what I think it needed.

Another criticism I have is for a book titled Dreadnought, the ships themselves don't seem to be as large as the diplomatic relations between nations about them. There's a chapter about their development which goes with Jacky Fisher, and there is a chapter about the Naval Scare, but significantly more of the book is spent on people's biographies and diplomatic exchanges rather than the ships. Maybe this will be talked about more in Massie's other book, Castles of Steel, but there's very little commentary on the dreadnoughts. And Massie doesn't even talk about the Battle of Jutland, the only major dreadnought engagement in history, stopping his narrative with the declaration of war in 1914.

Overall this book is very detailed and it shows that Massie has done considerable research into this subject, but this book is far more about the personalities and diplomacy than about the ships themselves. If you're looking for a more military-focused history, then this book is not going to serve you well. But if you're just looking for a ton of nineteenth and early twentieth century history, especially with Britain and Germany, then this is definitely worth your time.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Empire of the Summer of Moon, by S.C. Gwynne

Today I'm looking at another book about Comanche history, Empire of the Summer Moon, by S.C. Gwynne. Some of my long-time readers may remember a lifetime ago when I looked at another book, Comanche Empire, and while I quibbled over the use of the term ''empire'' for what appeared to be a band of similar nomadic ethnic groups that exerted military and economic control over a vast geographic area, but I thought that Hamalainen did a pretty good job with their arguments. In Empire of the Summer Moon, however, Gwynne uses outdated methodology that reveals an underlying racist ideology which brings his whole work into question. The focus on Quanah Parker, who some people might suggest was a collaborator, further leads me to suspect this book isn't worth the effort of reading.

I know that in the last paragraph I made some pretty serious charges, but I think this is entirely justified by Gwynne's use of the terms ''primitive'' and ''civilized''. Without going into a huge lecture, basically the social sciences (history, sociology, anthropology, etc.) basically avoid using the terms primitive and civilized to describe people, societies, nations, etc. This is because the terms primitive and civilized, especially in how they were used in the nineteenth century to justify colonization and imperialism, come with inherent moral baggage. Civilization is good, primitiveness is bad and needs to be countered with the force of civilization. We're even at a point where using simple and complex to describe societies is debated because a society that appears simple may in fact be rather complex, depending on how one wishes to use the term.

At multiple points through the book, Gwynne uses the terms primitive to describe the Comanche people and pits them in conflict with white civilization. I remember two specific examples that stuck out for me. First was when Gwynne briefly talked about Comanche language he said that despite its primitive nature, it had extremely detailed descriptions of horses, such as a yellow horses with black hair and a black tail, a horse with red ears, a horse with white ears, and so on. To which I reply, of course the Comanche don't have words for concepts like plumbing or income tax. They're a nomadic hunting culture where horses are central to their way of life. Where their language is going to get precise and sophisticated is with horses, not with concepts they have no use for. Comanche language can be complex without necessarily talking about abstract ideas.

Another example is when Gwynne talks about the Comanche response to diseases such as cholera, smallpox, and syphilis which they had no previous experience dealing with. He dismisses their traditional medicine as ''primitive'' which would have had no effect on the underlying disease. Again, this is an assumption that native people are automatically primitive and white people are somehow advanced. I would like to point out by our modern standards at the time the Comanche were dealing with these illnesses, the 1850's, Western medicine was equally primitive, or perhaps even more harmful. The Comanche may not have been able to do anything about syphilis, but at least they weren't treating it with mercury pills.

On top of this, Gwynne seems to get invested in the idea of the Comanche as a warrior people. I will admit that the Comanche were extremely well trained as mounted archers, but considering their livelihood was hunting the American bison, it makes sense that they would get very, very good at mounted archery just as a matter of survival. Gwynne seems to take especial pleasure in describing the torture, murder, abduction, and rape carried out by Comanches against white settlers. While this is certainly a thing that happened, I find it frustrating when Gwynne literally glosses over the Sand Creek Massacre by merely saying that ''what happened is too terrible to speak about in detail''. To go into detail about Comanche atrocities while largely ignoring the extensive, systemic, and documented atrocities as part of the genocidal campaign of the American government does a great injustice to the cause of Native American history to merely pass over this. Coupled with his usage of the terms primitive and civilized leads me to think there is a far more racial bias in Gwynne's work.

All of this leaves me to look somewhat askance and Quanah Parker's inclusion in the book. As Gwynne depicts it, Parker seems the most responsible for encouraging the Comanche to settle on a reservation and adopt white ways of life. Because of the racial overtones in Gwynne's work, and the positive light in which Parker is depicted, I almost come to the conclusion that Parker was a collaborator with the white government in betraying his people. I don't know what the current Comanche people think about Parker, but Gwynne certainly leaves me with doubts.

Overall I would not recommend this book. Gwynne's mythology is flawed and he uses racial tones within his writing. Considering this book was written in the last ten years, that raises some serious red flags for me. If you're looking for a book about the Comanche, I would definitely go with Comanche Empire instead.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Today I'm looking at the first book in a series of steampunk books by Cherie Priest, Boneshaker, which I've heard is her most famous novel. At least to the point within the steampunk community that Boneshaker is often remembered as her fist novel when Priest had actually written other books prior to this one. (This is at least what Priest said anyway.) Overall I'd say this book is okay, but it leaves me with a lot of questions, at least one of which I think needs a serious answer.

The book is set in an alternate history United States about 1876 or so. Right before the American Civil War began, gold was discovered in Russian Alaska and the Klondike Gold Rush began. Seattle, located on the western coast and an ideal launching point for prospectors, boomed with the growth of the gold trade in the Klondike. Until the incident with the Boneshaker.

See, the biggest problem was most of the gold in the Klondike was inaccessible to miners. (Have you read a Jack London story? Don't, the lesson is Alaska is a dangerous place and will kill you.)  So the Russian government held a contest for the design of a machine to make mining the goldfields practicable. The winning submission was presented by Dr. Levi Blue of Seattle who at the behest of the Russians launched a test of his Boneshaker Drill. The result of the test was a significant portion of downtown Seattle was destroyed and a source of deadly Blight Gas, which kills everyone and turns some of those exposed to it into zombies, made the city uninhabitable. The residents of Seattle responded by building a wall two hundred feet high around the old city, containing the Blight and the shambling monsters.

Our main characters are Briar Wilks, widow of the late, unlamented Dr. Blue, and her son Ezekiel. Zeke is convinced that all rumors that his father's use of the Boneshaker was intentional are false, and is determined to prove that what happened to render Seattle uninhabitable was an accident. To do this, Zeke goes under the wall into old Seattle searching for scraps of evidence left behind. Briar knows that inside the wall is a deadly place that her sixteen year old son can't hope to survive, so she goes in to rescue her son herself.

Plot wise, I don't know if I really enjoyed this story. Despite the setting, it felt like a ''two characters trying to find each other'' sort of story, with at least a few incidents where the characters paths potentially could cross but don't until we get to the climax of the story. I mean, it's good that Briar is looking to rescue her darn kid from his stupid and potentially deadly situation, but for whatever reason I couldn't find myself getting emotionally invested in them as characters.

I will leave aside, for the time being, the question as to how the Civil War has been going on for about sixteen years. It's at least implied within the book that there are at least a few reasons why the war could be extended as long, including airships, a southern railroad, and British intervention. At this point I will forego my usual historian rant about the larger economic, social, and political factors which make such an outcome unlikely to say the least.

My biggest question for this book is why the heck people still live in Seattle anymore. The survivors create a settlement outside the wall called Outskirts, and there's still some trading activity, but it was stated that most of the trade has dried up when the most accessible of the gold was depleted in the Klondike rush. Now, cities have grown up around booms and then continued having grown into viable communities, but mining rushes have also produced numerous ghost towns that dot the American West. With the town infrastructure and the trade gone, I'm not sure why people would stay in Seattle. I mean, they have to boil all of their water because Blight Gas still escapes the Wall and even rainwater can't be trusted to be potable, which sounds like it's better to just abandon the place entirely than keep trying. Maybe the amount of trade was bigger than I gleaned from the book, Briar does visit an airship port, but I'm not certain.

The only real resource of note anymore is the Blight itself, which is useful for creating a drug referred to as lemonsap, but that's about it. And most of the Blight collected and processed for lemonsap is done by criminal organizations operating inside the wall. So why anybody would continue to live outside is puzzling to me.

Otherwise the book is okay. I have reason to hope that the later books would build on the foundation and maybe go to more interesting places and more interesting adventures. But because I didn't really emotionally connect with either Briar or Zeke I couldn't get as invested in their personal story as Priest might hope.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple, by Jeff Gunn

Today I'm looking at a pretty serious book which examines the life of Jim Jones and his infamous organization the Peoples Temple. Jim Jones began as a preacher in the 1950's, promoting Christian Socialism and railing against racial and economic injustice. However Jones has become inextricably linked with the mass suicide of him and some nine hundred followers, including three hundred children, in Guyana. How nine hundred people could be convinced to collectively commit suicide remains a distressing puzzle. The debate over Jim Jones for the past forty years has left many wondering where Jim Jones went bad but Guinn's book leaves us with the impression that there was always something not quite right with Jones, perhaps some form of sociopathy, the result is a very dark story that shows people can do the right thing, but very often for the wrong reasons.

The biggest thing that struck me about this biography was the history of Jim Jones from his early childhood. Guinn amasses a large amount of evidence, including Jones's fascination with Hitler, that Jones was always a little bit off. And keep in mind, this is back during World War II when everyone else is solidly behind the Allied cause, Jones has a strange fascination with Hitler and his followers. Perhaps it's only with the benefit of hindsight that we see the numerous red flags, but it creates a long and concerning pattern of behavior over decades.

Even in his work as a church, there is evidence that Jones was doing it not for the help of other people or for the glory of god, but for the glory of Jim Jones. Jones tackled issues such as poverty and racism, but even in the earliest days it seemed to be for his own benefit rather than the benefit of his culture. For example, Jones would frequently ''poach'' members of different congregations by lobbying on behalf of newcomers, writing letters to local government, the local power board, speaking with local shop owners and convincing them to integrate. Jones manages to do good, but it seems to me that his motivation to do good was because it promoted Jim Jones.

As time this got even worse and perhaps more blatant as Jones moved his congregation from Indiana to California. Cut off from friends and family, Jones extorted even larger sums of money from his followers and had them sign over personal possessions to be sold for the good of the Peoples Temple. True, some of this money went to a variety of programs including college tuition for children who were part of the Peoples Temple, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, traditional Christian charity. But millions of dollars disappeared into personal accounts, some of which the government has never been able to recover.

The result is a book that shows a series of gradual increases until a mass suicide becomes the logical conclusion for Jones and some of his most dedicated followers. Many resisted, some hid, some escaped, but the result was three hundred dead children, killed out of fear that they were about to be kidnapped by the CIA.

Guinn does extensive research and provides exhaustive evidence, but the story is hard to read, to say the least. It's a long story and with the inevitable conclusion it all takes a very dark and sinister turn. I'd only read this book if you were really interested, and I'd suggest interspersing it with something light as well.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

God, A Human History, by Reza Aslan

A long time ago, but not in a galaxy far far away, I was a college freshman taking comparative theology. Among the books we read was a history of Islam titled No god But God by Reza Aslan. I remembered rather liking the book and when I found another book from the same author, I thought it was worth taking the time to check it out. Rather than dealing solely with Islam, this book looks at the history of religion in a broader context going back into the stone age and ending with the monotheism of Islam. This book is rather short for tackling such a broad subject and I'm left wondering what other resources are available for additional research, but as an introductory book I think Aslan does a pretty good job.

The issue with debating the theology of stone age humans is that the work is mostly conjecture from the fragments of archaeological evidence that we've found. We know that there are cave paintings throughout the world including discs, handprints, and animals. We can make guesses as to the significance of those paintings and what they might have meant to stone age humans,why they made those paintings, and how they understood the world. But ultimately the best we can do is make educated guesses.

As Aslan manages to get to recorded history he moves onto firmer ground, although again because this book is so darn short I feel like there was a lot more subject matter that Aslan could have talked about but he provided such a short overview that it felt incomplete. Aslan also makes arguments that are so broad and vague that it's difficult to contradict them by their own generality. The stuff that I thought was most interesting though, was Aslan's revelation of theological research showing monotheism only developed in Judaism after the Babylonian exile. Aslan states that there is evidence that Judaism actually practiced a polytheistic system with at least two deities, Elohim and YHWH. It was only after the Babylonian exile that Elohim and YHWH were merged into a single deity, the only deity. Needless to say, multiple books can be written about this subject so for Aslan to talk about it in just one chapter feels a little inadequate.

Aslan also throws in a chapter about early Christian schisms, again another book-length subject, before finally getting to Islam. The result is a tantalizing glimpse at deeper theological subjects showing how difficult the concept of monotheism can be for people to accept. I'd actually be interested in a full-length book from Aslan about just that subject but for an introductory book I think Aslan does a pretty good job.

Overall I think this book is worth checking out. Specifically the information that I didn't know about Judaism and Christianity was tantalizing and I'd have appreciated resource to check out more. (There actually may be more in the physical book but as with most of my books at this point I listened to an audiobook.) But if you're interested in the history of theology in a very general sense this book is a good choice.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 8, 2018

American Pain, by John Temple

Today I'm looking at a book that explores the industry of pill mills that cropped up in recent decades in the United States, with the most flagrant examples being ''pain clinics'' in Florida. The biggest and most profitable of these was American Pain, run by Chris George, a college drop-out, convicted felon with Nazi tattoos. The pain clinics that George operated took in thousands of dollars in cash every day, deposited in garbage cans because regular tills were inadequate for the sheer quantity. Large groups of people from Appalachia would make marathon drives from out of state to purchase supplies of powerful narcotics, and make the trip back in a month. And amazingly the entire thing existed within the realm of legality due to lax laws and weak regulation.

Ordinarily you would not think that a convicted felon in his mid-twenties, whose main experience is house construction, would be able to get involved in anything resembling the medical field. Chris George got his start by selling diet pills and steroids, but a doctor got him started in the field of opioid painkillers. George merely had to rent a location, and provide the start-up money to produce something resembling a walk-in clinic. The doctor would provide their DEA license which enabled George to make purchases of oxycodone and other drugs from wholesalers and the doctor would write the prescriptions. The pain clinic could then fill the purchases in-house under the ''supervision'' of the physician. George wasn't certain that the idea would really take off, but was willing to give it a try. As patients continued coming in, packing the waiting room and stretching the line outside into the tiny parking lot, George realized they were onto something. From there the business grew by leaps and bounds until George's clinic was processing hundreds of patients in a single day, and bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue each day as well.

Why this happened is because of a multitude of reasons, which created a perfect storm situation that allowed George and his cadre to grow absurdly wealthy on something that was (technically) legal. The first was the increase in the availability of opioids starting in the late 1990s. Prior to that period opioids were largely restricted to patients who most likely weren't going to live long enough for addiction to become an issue. However, starting in the 1990s drug manufacturers began aggressively campaigning for increased sales of opioid painkillers through a variety of methods. This included advertising campaigns with fallacious information about how new opioids were safe and non-addictive if taken ''as prescribed'', dubious or downright illegal efforts by drug representatives to encourage physicians to prescribe opioids, and lobbying of the DEA to increase annual quotas of controlled substances. (Go ahead and put a pin in that last part. We're going to come back to it later.)

In addition, Florida had fairly lax regulations regarding pain clinics and opioid prescriptions. Basically anybody who could fill out a business registration form could start up a pain clinic, regardless of their background. And any doctor, so long as they had a valid DEA license, could order and prescribe opioid painkillers. The doctors did not even have to be pain specialists, they just had to have a valid license. There were various ways that doctors could trip automatic alerts and cause increased scrutiny from the DEA and other police agencies, but generally as long as a doctor didn't prescribe more than 240 30mg doses per patient per 28 day period, they could fly under the radar.

George even went to the effort of making it appear they were a legitimate medical facility. MRI reports were required before treatment, mounds of paperwork including a pain management contract were created, and patients with obvious track marks or forged paperwork were turned away, just to give the organization a veneer of legitimacy. But it was at most a paper shield to cover everyone's ass. People could tell that this was drug-dealing, plain and simple. The fact that patients would start shooting ground-up pills in the parking lot was proof enough of that. Eventually the police did end George's operation and new legislation made setting up a pill mill more difficult, but the fact that they operated for two years in the wide open, with multiple imitators and competitors, shows how dangerously lax the regulatory environment was.

Okay, so to return to the issue of the DEA and quotas, this was my biggest takeaway from the book. Every year the various drug manufacturers submit requests to the DEA for quotas on how much of controlled substances, such as amphetamines, opioids, and other drugs, they can produce in a year. Now, the public doesn't know how much opioids a specific manufacturer is allowed to produce in a year, but the DEA does release its total for the industry as a whole. In the past 25 years, the total quota for opioids has increased dramatically. In the past ten years it's at least doubled. In the past 25, it's increased by a factor of 42. Yes. 42. For every kilogram of opioids produced in 1993, there are 42 being produced today. The question isn't how we ended up with an opioid epidemic in the United States. We're so awash in pills nowadays that the more apt question is how couldn't we?

And yet, there's something the DEA could have done. Back in the 1970s when there was concern that amphetamines were being abused, the DEA drastically cut national quotas for the drugs and severely curtailing supply. When the supply dried up, the market for amphetamines dried up as well. At any point in the past decade when people started expressing concerns about the abuse of prescription painkillers the DEA could have drastically curtailed the quotas and dried up the supply of opioids. Instead, year after year, the DEA has obligingly raised the quotas meaning, year after year, we end up with an even greater supply of opioids. If we were serious about ending the opioid epidemic in the United States we could cut the supply off at the source, and it wouldn't cost us anything we weren't already spending.

I think this book is definitely worth reading. If nothing else it reveals the core problems surrounding our current opioid crisis, an overly plentiful supply of drugs and lax regulations regarding them. I definitely recommend giving this book a read for that, as well as the true crime aspects of the story involving the American Pain clinic.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Changeling, by Victor La Valle

Today I'm looking at a novel by Victor La Valle that is only loosely, loosely defined as fantasy and even then I'm not sure if it counts. This book is mundane for basically three-quarters of its total length and when magic is finally inserted in the last fourth of the book it left me wondering if what they'd encountered actually was magic or if it was a hallucination shared by the characters. That's honestly my biggest frustration with this novel, it's classified as a ''fantasy'' novel, but it's so freaking mundane that I don't think it's worth the effort if you're a big fantasy fan.

I'm actually going to do something that I usually avoid in my reviews and include the blurb from the back of the book for this story. I remember being intrigued by the blurb when I looked at this on the library's website so this was a major reason I bothered with this book in the first place:

''Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love.''

Okay, so this plot summary literally, literally, describes the entire book. The major twist, Emma's horrific act, doesn't happen until about halfway into the book. And as I said, we have no evidence that magic is real until the last quarter of the book, and even then the evidence seems pretty scanty. I'm basically left thinking that perhaps this is supposed to be an entirely mundane story and the magic is how the characters understand things. That does leave a large plot hole or leaves us with the conclusion that Apollo and Emma when insane at the end of the book and they just hallucinated the ending. I'm not sure which is more possible.

This book also reminds me of a more ''literary'' novel and I say that because Apollo, the main character, is a rare book dealer and his wife, Emma, is a librarian. Authors by definition are people who enjoy books, that's why they write them. But inevitably whenever somebody wants to write a ''serious'' book it's almost guaranteed that the main character will be a writer or librarian or somebody somehow connected with books. Which would be fine, but I get the impression that Apollo doesn't really care about books. We're told that he's a consistent reader which is how he gets into the used book trade, but after that he seems to just trade in books for the money, rather than for love of books themselves.

I'm also left with multiple questions about this book. There's the character Kinder Garten who is the main antagonist of the book, except we're not given much to understand about him. Why does he go by the alias Kinder Garten? What the hell is his ideology, if any? The character is a consistent liar so we don't know what coming out out of his mouth is true. This gets even more confusing when we get to the end of the book and he's talking with people who use the words ''beta cuck'' and another one mentions white men's natural birth rights. Is he an alt-righter or isn't he? Was La Valle including these just to make the book topical and play well with critical audiences? Who are the Wise Ones? Like how did they come to be, and where and how do people find them? There are just a lot of these questions and I'm left grasping for ideas.

The result is a book that in my opinion isn't all that great. If it was trying to convince me it was a fantasy novel, it did a really bad job and left me thinking there wasn't any fantasy involved at all. This book felt like it was trying really hard to get an award of some sort. If you like the more literary sorts of novels then this book might be enjoyable for you, but this wasn't really my cup of tea.

- Kalpar

Friday, November 2, 2018

America is Going to Kill Refugees

America is going to kill refugees.

I earnestly hope that what I say isn't going to be true. I hope that in two or three months time people can look back and say, ''Well Kalpar was wrong and he worried over nothing.'' And if I get a bunch of people telling me how wrong that statement was, I'll gladly accept the criticism. But right now I am seriously afraid that America is going to kill refugees.

If you don't know, and I can't blame you if you haven't been watching the news, there is currently a caravan of refugees fleeing the crime and violence of Central America. This caravan numbers in the thousands, moving for mutual protection, and is working its way through Mexico towards the U.S. border. In response, the United States government, under the administration of DJT, has sent some 5,000 soldiers to the border and DJT is speaking of plans to send upwards of 15,000 troops to the border. As a fascist and pathological liar, backed by a pack of Quislings, DJT and the Republican Party have boldly claimed that refugee caravan consists of Islamic terrorists, gang members, thugs, with absolutely no evidence. In fact, some right-wing pundits have gone so far as to claim that the refugees will bring diseases to the United States including smallpox, which would be downright amazing considering smallpox was declared eradicated by the WHO in 1980.

On top of all this yesterday there was an off-the-cuff comment, something very easy to miss but which may prove deathly important. DJT made a statement that U.S. troops should consider rocks thrown by refugees to be firearms. What this will actually mean for U.S. troops is still unclear, and it looks like the actual use of firearms is going to be limited. BUT that doesn't mean things can get changed or even confused in the intervening weeks until the caravan actually arrives at the U.S. border. And that doesn't leave out the possibility of a horrible, awful mistake.

Let me tell you a story. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I was a Boy Scout earning a variety of merit badges including the rifle-shooting merit badge. As part of this merit badge we were required to hit a certain number of shots within the space of a quarter. The rangemaster would have us all get set up on the range, tell us to load one cartridge into our .22 rifles, and then wait for permission to fire. Inevitably, someone would fire their rifle before being given permission. I can't say how often this happened, but it happened more than once.

Now you're probably saying, ''But Kalpar! That isn't the same situation at all! You've never even been in the military!'' And that's basically my point. It wasn't the same situation as what's going on at the border at all. A Scout rifle range is fairly low-risk, low-stakes, and if the rangemaster is doing their job right, nobody's going to get hurt or killed. Troops on a border is an entirely different situation whatsoever. All it will take is one accidentally discharged firearm for the situation at the border to turn into a massacre.

There are good arguments that this nightmare situation, of U.S. troops firing on unarmed refugees, will not come to pass. The U.S. military is highly trained, they understand the rules of engagement, and there are rules in place to limit deployment of firearms to U.S. troops in situations such as these. A significant number of the troops being sent to the border, after all, are engineers who are setting up razor wire and other obstacles. And hopefully these safeguards will be enough to prevent something awful from happening.

But in an era where so many other safeguards and institutional precautions seem to keep failing. In an era where people are outright calling these refugees criminals and...well, vermin, in an era where concentration camps are being set up for children torn away from their parents, in an era where DJT thinks he can overturn the Constitution through executive order, I'm not so sure. In an ideal situation we assume everything works as it should and also assume the best of people. But I'm truly afraid there is too much of an opportunity for something to fail somewhere.

- Kalpar

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Democracy in Chains, by Nancy MacLean

Today I'm looking at another rather concerning book about the history of politics in the United States and how we got into the seemingly interminable mess that we now find ourselves. MacLean dug into archives from multiple universities and discovered what can only be called a conspiracy, spanning decades, and inspired by the ideological work of at least one man, James McGill Buchanan. This book is mostly a biography of Buchanan and his professional life until his break with the Koch brothers, forcing him into retirement. While I think it may be a stretch to say that Buchanan alone was responsible for the development of the radical right, I think it's fair to say that he was one of multiple influential figures who helped to shape the ideology of the modern right.

MacLean traces the origins of the modern right wing back to a key event in American history,  Brown v. Board of Education, in 1954. Many southerners resisted this decision, and the fight for integration continued for many years, and is in many ways still ongoing. However, the overt resistance in places such as Arkansas and Mississippi were not as appealing to border regions such as Virginia. The wealthy, elite ruling classes of Virginia maintained control through systems such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and extreme gerrymandering to ensure their continued dominance of their respective states, without any challenge from ordinary people. Effectively, an oligarchy in all but name. The federal decision to force integration of public schools under the Fourteenth Amendment promised additional federal changes to existing power structures within the states, breaking the chokehold of the oligarchs. The oligarchs needed a method to resist, without bringing overt attention to their objectives Buchanan managed to provide a solution. Privatize the schools. If there are no public schools, then there can be no discrimination. Private schools can refuse blacks admittance, and the burden of taxes for public education can be removed in favor of people who desire education actually paying for it. And in fact, that's what Virginia did in Prince Edward County for five years, despite massive local protest. The state government overruled local school boards and closed all the public schools, leaving black children without education for five vital years.

Buchanan and many of his compatriots were committed to an ideology that sought to return the United States back to an era of absolute economic freedom, resembling the Gilded Age more than anything else. No minimum wage, no right to organize, and no government regulation. Buchanan and his allies in fact want to go even further, disdaining corporate welfare systems such as health insurance and pension plans provided through employers. If people want health insurance or retirement money, they'll have to do it themselves. The government should exist only to protect private property and to repress the masses.

Yes, that's actually an important aspect of their entire ideology, repressing the masses. See, here's the biggest paradox that Buchanan and his ilk discovered when trying to promote their ideology. It's actually unpopular among the majority of people. For the most part, people like having clean air and water, good schools for children, old age insurance, and a number of other government programs that have to be supported by taxes. As libertarians discovered in the 1950's and 1960's, coming out directly and stating a desire to return to Gilded Age laissez faire did not go over well with really any focus group at all. The solution for Buchanan and their wealthy supporters was to impose their system of economic ''freedom'' on the majority through a combination of voter suppression and outright deceit, gradually dismantling the U.S. support net and regulatory systems until the network is completely destroyed.

This is perhaps the most galling and aggravating thing about libertarian intellectuals is their absolute and total lack of any morality or concern for political freedoms, which becomes apparent in much of their writing. MacLean includes an example of one member of Buchanan's cadre who stated that if their program was successful, many Americans would have to live in slums like the favela in Rio de Janeiro, casually stating that the air and water might not be what Americans are used to, but they'd have to adapt. It's social Darwinism pure and simple, the poor are poor because of some sort of inherent failing or weakness. If they're willing to work hard, tighten their belts, and raise themselves by their bootstraps, they can get ahead through rough individualism. If they're not willing to put in the work, then nobody else should have to carry them. This cruel callousness fits perfectly with their nineteenth century ideology. So long as they're fine, the rest of the world can go straight to hell for all they care.

The picture that emerges is highly disturbing. A small cadre of the ultra-rich and their lackeys, working to simultaneously undermine support for social welfare and regulatory programs while disenfranchising the very masses that they seek to exploit. The rise of the radical right, funded by ultra-wealthy backers, has thrown the future of American democracy in doubt. We are in the midst of a class war, started by the upper classes, and they are in the process of winning because they have convinced a significant percentage of the lower classes that the class war is in their own best interest. It is only through organization and education that we'll be able to fight back against the upper classes and ensure the future of social democracy.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Skin Folk, by Nalo Hopkinson

Today I'm looking at a collection of short stories written by Nalo Hopkinson. This is another one of those books that I picked up from one of the perpetual sales that Goodreads manages to throw my way, and I'm very, very glad that I did. If you haven't heard of Hopkinson yet, I highly recommend checking her writing out. This book in particular reminded my a lot of Neil Gaiman's writing, especially his short story anthologies like Trigger Warning or Smoke and Mirrors. I'm really glad that I picked up this book and I think everyone else should check it out too.

One of the things I really liked about this book was how Hopkinson incorporated her own cultural heritage into her stories. Hopkinson was born in Jamaica with her parents having roots in Trinidad and Guyana, and later emigrated to Canada. Hopkinson incorporates both Caribbean and Canadian elements into a lot of her stories which gives it a very unique flavor. I always really appreciate it when authors incorporate their own unique locations or cultural heritages in their works rather than seeing yet another story set in New York.

Another thing that I really liked about this book was how Hopkinson took a lot of old fairy tales and retold them in a different way. This is definitely a trick that Gaiman has pulled a number of times with great success. Hopkinson, by her own admission, includes a lot of adult themes (aka sex and violence) in her stories, something that I've noticed Gaiman does a lot in his stories as well. The results are stories that make you sit and really think about the results and can really punch you in the gut. It's really good writing that shows Hopkinson really has talent.

Otherwise, this is an anthology of short stories so there's not a whole lot I can say beyond ''these stories are good, go check them out''. It turns out that I managed to pick up another of Hopkinson's books with another Goodreads deal so I'm looking forward to seeing how a full-length book compares to her short stories. This is definitely worth taking the time to read.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Maus: A Survivor's Tale, by Art Spiegelman

Today I'm looking at a pair of graphic novels created by Art Spiegelman collectively known as Maus. Maus follows the life of Art's father, Vladek Spiegelman, through the 1930's and then through World War II. Vladek and his wife, Anja, were Polish Jews who lived in the city of Sosnowiec. Vladek worked as a salesman and eventually invested in a factory while Anja's family owned multiple textile mills in the city. Life for them in the thirties was fairly good but, as can be expected, when war broke out in 1939 things took considerable turns for the worst. The story is divided into two volumes, volume one My Father Bleeds History, talks about Vladek's life from the 1930's until early 1944 when he was sent to Auschwitz. The second volume,  And Here My Troubles Began, tells Vladek's story of survival in Auschwitz, Dachau, and the last few tense months of World War II before being rescued by American G.I.'s.

Framing Vladek's story of survival is Art's own struggles to interview his father, create this book, and understand his relationship with his father. Based on the evidence, Vladek was a very difficult man to live with, ranging from obsessively hoarding money and valuables, to keeping items that most other people would throw away in case they might come in useful, to strained emotional relationships with his wife and his son. Vladek comes across as a flawed and incredibly human person, and while it's clear that life hiding from the Nazis and living in the concentration camps affected him severely, it may have only exacerbated underlying aspects of Vladek's personality. It makes Vladek appear all the more three-dimensional as a character and as a person. Vladek isn't all good, but he isn't all bad either. Like most people he's a mix, but he took action and managed to survive the worst genocide in human history. It makes him very compelling and realistic.

The subject matter is, of course, hard to talk about. This is the worst abuse of human rights, the worst genocide, the worst of man's inhumanity to man, the worst of uncountable crimes in all of human history. There's a reason it's referred to as only The Holocaust. Any other description becomes inadequate in consideration of the cruelty involved. So many people might justly ask, is talking about the Holocaust in cartoon format, where all the characters are depicted as anthropomorphic animals, really the proper way to talk about this? And incredibly, yes, Spiegelman manages to create a depiction that is not only sensitive but emotionally engaging.

The decision to depict Jews as mice is an incredibly brilliant one on multiple levels. First, there is the history of Jews being described or depicted as vermin in Nazi propaganda, pests that needed to be wiped out for the health of the Reich. Spiegelman effectively reclaims that imagery and turns it on its head. Mice, after all, are survivors. Mice hide, mice scavenge, and despite being hunted ruthlessly, mice are still around. For the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who hid, who scavenged, and who managed to survive, a determined mouse is an apt symbol.

I have not read many Holocaust survivor stories. I'm familiar with the narrative in Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaining, another Auschwitz survivor, so there are many similarities in there, but any story by a Holocaust survivor is going to be very emotionally heavy. Maus is no exception, because it not only tells the story of the Holocaust, but also explores the life of the survivor afterwards and shows how years of life spent hiding and suffering can have lasting effects on individuals. We see Vladek surviving not just in the past, but in the future, and it shows we can never really leave the past behind.

I think I would definitely recommend this story to people. It's a very hard read just because of the emotions involved and I find myself thinking maybe I shouldn't have plowed through the books in a couple of days. But it's a very emotional and very real story and well worth taking the time to check out.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Head On, by John Scalzi

Today I'm looking at a book recommended to me by Angela of the Doubleclicks, Head On, by John Scalzi. This book is a sort of sequel to another of Scalzi's novel, Lock In, however this book is a stand-alone novel so you, much like myself, can read Head On without having read Lock In. The book is set sometime in the near future after a disease known as Haden's has affected approximately 1% of the world population. People affected with Haden's Disease are literally locked inside their own bodies, unable to move and dependent on intensive care for the rest of their life. The only way people with Haden's can interact with the world are through the online community called the Agora or through personal robots transports colloquially known as threeps.

Head On begins with the death of a player in a Hilketa match. Hilketa is a new sport that has developed using the technological improvements created in the wake of the Haden's epidemic. Hilketa is a team sport utilizing threeps who engage in gladiatorial combat, a level of violence that other sports can only dream of. And despite the violence between the threeps, the Haden athletes remain safe in their creches, watched over by their caretakers. At least, until Doug Chapman dies very publicly during a pre-season game. The suspicious suicide of a league commissioner gives FBI agents Leslie Vann and Chris Shane a murder investigation with major implications.

Like most Scalzi novels this book is a really quick read because Scalzi keeps the action running nonstop and his writing is incredibly tight. I think this is Scalzi's greatest strength because it makes his books really easy to read. This is especially true for a murder mystery because it makes time all that much more of the essence. As the bodycount continues to rise, Shane and Vann are in a race against a deeper conspiracy and there's a very good chance that they're the next targets.

I also liked the level of realism that comes with Scalzi's depiction of the future. Like a lot of good sci-fi writers he takes things that already exist and moves the into the realm of possibility. Although I'm not quite up on where robotics are currently (because bipedal motion is actually hard to replicate), usage of drones is becoming far more common. I think it would have been a little more realistic for Scalzi to include a scene where someone loses contact with their threep due to bad wifi, but having it happen a realistic amount of times would get annoying pretty quickly so I can forgive Scalzi just sidestepping that problem.

Another plotline that I thought was interesting was the government's repeal of subsidies and tax credits for Hadens which will make many of them unable to afford a personal threep. This certainly has some real-world parallels with increasing health costs and the issues many people with disabilities face. Scalzi could almost create an entire book talking about this subject alone, although I think that could be either part of Lock In, or perhaps in another novel Scalzi does in this universe. But I think to go too much into it would have taken away from the murder investigation.

Overall, I think this book is a really good choice to read. As usual, Scalzi's writing is tight and accessible, fun to read, and just a good sci-fi novel. I should probably read more of Scalzi in the future because I enjoy his writing so much. But this is definitely a sci-fi murder mystery worth reading.

- Kalpar

Thursday, October 18, 2018

White Trash: The 400 Year Untold History of Class in America, by Nancy Isenberg

Today I'm looking at the book White Trash, a book that talks about the history of class in the United States, specifically poor whites living in the American south from the early colonial era into the modern day. Throughout the centuries this underclass has has been called a number of things: waste people, clay eaters, crackers, white trash, hillbillies, and rednecks. This underclass has been consistently stereotyped as poor, lazy, sexually licentious, uneducated, and morally suspect. Isenberg illustrates that these stereotypes about poor whites, which have been extended to poor blacks as well, have been persistent through the centuries and Isenberg draws on multiple sources to make her point. Obviously covering four centuries makes this book more a broad overview than a detailed investigation but I think Isenberg does a very good job of making her points through the book.

When the United States was first colonized by England the major source of colonists, especially in regions such as Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, were what were considered ''waste peoples''. England had a not insignificant population of unemployed people who, due to the harsh poor and anti-vagrancy laws of the time period, were often in and out of prisons or forced to wander from location to location. In times of war this expendable underclass were pressed into service to fight in Britain's military and in time of peace they were expected to either find work or die through starvation or on the gallows. For colonies thousands of miles across the Atlantic and with high death tolls, an expendable population made ideal candidates to be dumped in the colonies. If they died, then they wouldn't be a burden on the home country. If they managed to learn how to work and thrive, perhaps they could become of economic benefit to the mother country. This stereotype of the poor as inherently lazy and needing to be forced to work is one of the most consistent and has perpetuated to the modern era.

As the South developed into a slave economy, the underclass of poor whites developed an important racial component, which has remained an important aspect of American class and racial relations into the modern era. African-Americans and other racial minorities have been the subject of systemic racial discrimination perpetuated by white elites. The real genius of this system is that so long as the poor whites have blacks to look down upon, they willingly perpetuate the system. Poor whites are often no better off than the poor blacks, but as long as there is the feeling of superiority to someone else, they are willing to participate in the system. This is best illustrated in the rebellion of 1861 in which poor whites were overwhelmingly conscripted into insurgent forces while the rich planter class, who began the rebellion, were exempted from military service including the exemption of all individuals owning more than twenty slaves. Poor whites were the muscle that perpetuated the slavery system.

The latest trend relating to poor whites is the almost voyeuristic pleasure that American culture has taken in looking at the lives of poor, mostly Southern, whites. Isenberg specifically mentions figures like Sarah Palin and Honey Boo Boo, although the growth of popularity in the blue collar comedy group including Jeff Foxworthy and Larry the Cable Guy is definitely in the same vein. The growth of the Tea Party and its ideology, although not mentioned by Isenberg, definitely feels like a continuation of the same ideas. Poor whites are manipulated by white elites into attacking (usually) racial others and acting against their own interests for the benefit of white elites. Based on Isenberg's evidence it appears that the issues we are dealing with today is only a continuation of a centuries-long tradition.

Overall I thought this book was pretty interesting if brief and fairly shallow in its investigation of race and class relations in the United States. However Isenberg makes a consistent argument that poor whites have consistently been seen as an expendable, degenerate breed for four hundred years, useful to white elites when fighting or helping oppress other groups, but largely exploited or ignored by elites when no longer useful. I think this is a book well worth reading to gain insight into both class and race relations in the United States that has shaped political debates to this day.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Phoenix Unchained, by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory

Today I'm looking at the first book in a series co-written by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. Now, I've sort of talked about Mercedes Lackey before on here, and her novel Gwenhwyfar is by and far is one of my favorite books of all time and hands down the best reinterpretation of Arthurian legend I've ever encountered. I've also encountered Lackey in the Bolo series and a few of her other books so I was willing to give this one a try to see if it was any good. I don't think I've read anything by James Mallory before so this was a good opportunity to look at more stuff.

As much as I hate to say it, this book is pretty paint-by-the-numbers fantasy fare. The book begins with two adolescent boys who are on the cusp of manhood. Harrier is the youngest son of the harbor master in the great port city of Armethalieh and destined to take over the duties of harbor master himself one day. Tiercel meanwhile is the eldest son of a minor noble family, heading for the university and a probably uneventful career in Aremthalieh's civil service. However a book that Harrier gets for his naming day leads to Tiercel attempting ancient High Magic, a practice that has been extinct for a thousand years since the Flowering that ended the war with the Endarkened Ones. It's soon revealed that Tiercel has the ability to use the High Magic and must leave his home behind to find someone to teach him how to use his abilities before they end up killing him.

Basically this book feels a lot like most epic fantasy quests which have been churned out ever since Lord of the Rings first hit shelves. Now, this isn't to say that epic fantasy quests are bad, there's a lot to be said for them and a lot that can be done with them. But it is kind of frustrating when they all seem to come out the same in the end. Obviously this book isn't exactly the same as Lord of the Rings but it fits pretty heavily into the fantasy quest mold. There's an epic battle brewing between good and evil, the latest in a conflict that's been going for thousands of years, and we have some young heroes who have to leave home and go fight evil, gaining new powers and abilities on the way. They expect the journey will be fairly short and uneventful, but they soon end up on a larger quest that will take them further away from home than they ever expected. There's even a point where they get rescued by a ranger-type character, actually a member of the Forest Watch, who's a centaur. Now, I did like Samara and I thought the idea of including centaurs was kind of neat because you don't usually see those in fantasy.

Overall I think this book was okay, but as I said I felt it fell a little too easily into the standard epic fantasy genre. It's okay and I can't point to anything specific that's wrong with the book, but there's nothing about the book that makes it stand out in any particular way. The arrival of a unicorn at the end of this book made the future potential kind of interesting but the first book leaves a lot to be desired.

- Kalpar