Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Tycoons, by Charles R. Morris

Today I'm looking at an economic history that focuses on four of the most famous American robber barons of the Gilded Age. This book is partly a biography of the tycoons, but also talks about the larger factors that helped turned the United States into the dominant global economic power that would dominate the twentieth century. This book is definitely interesting, although some of Morris's conclusions run counter to conventional thinking about the Gilded Age. Morris does utilize extensive data so I think it's a matter that merits more investigation and research and we may be able to come to new conclusions from existing data.

Of the many business executives of the nineteenth century, Morris focuses on four that stand head and shoulders above the rest, both in influence and wealth. Jay Gould, a stock jobber and railroad magnate; John Rockefeller, who ruthlessly crushed competition and consolidated former rivals into his sprawling Standard Oil; Andrew Carnegie, who dominated the steel industry and drove prices down through any method possible; and J.P. Morgan, the financier who personally forestalled two financial panics. Morris provides brief biographies of all four the tycoons as well as their influence on American industry. Morris actually spends time arguing that Rockefeller, Gould, and Morgan do not deserve as much opprobrium that they receive in traditional histories. He particularly focuses on Jay Gould who is largely remembered for his gutting of the troubled Erie railroad and absconding with some seven million dollars. Morris argues that Erie was the exception and Gould spent most of his career genuinely trying to consolidate railroads into profitable enterprises. He makes further arguments on Rockefeller and Morgan to much the same effect, going so far as to argue that Morgan was interested in defeating ruinous competition.

The only tycoon that Morris really attacks is Andrew Carnegie to demolish the reputation Carnegie had in the nineteenth century as a ''good tycoon'', although in the modern era I wouldn't think many people think of Andrew Carnegie as a good tycoon. Morris points to the repeated conflicts Carnegie had with labor and his constant attempts to reduce worker's wages despite growing profits while Rockefeller had fairly few issues with his own workers. Regardless, I think the exploitation of workers and consolidation of capital don't make the tycoons completely blameless.

In addition to talking about the titular tycoons, Morris talks about the larger developments of the United States that enabled it to become the economic powerhouse of the twentieth century. One of the most important is the development of the rail infrastructure which enabled mail-order industries like Sears and Roebuck to grow, something which wasn't anticipated by Morgan and Gould who originally helped build the railroads. Morris also argues that the economic conditions for the middle class actually improved during the Gilded Age, despite widespread deflation.

When the United States effectively went on the gold standard, the dollar went through a gradual deflation which resulted in falling prices as well as wages, which gave many people the impression that times were getting harder all around. Morris argues from his data, however, that despite the falling wages caused by deflation purchasing power did not decrease equally and as a result standards of living in the United States actually went up. Obviously this is a difficult issue that requires a lot of data to make a conclusion but I see no reason to at least not accept Morris's argument as possibly valid and meriting further research.

Overall I thought this book was rather interesting, although I have a personal interest in financial history and the nineteenth century. Some of Morris's arguments do run counter to existing understandings of history, but I think there's enough data that extensive research could see how accurate Morris's arguments really are. If these are topics that pique your interest then I think it's definitely worth your time.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

His Majesty's Dragon & Throne of Jade, by Naomi Novik

Today I'm looking at the first two books of the Temeraire Series by Naomi Novik. I was loaned the first book, His Majesty's Dragon, by a friend some time ago but I didn't write a review because I realized there were nine books in the series and since I've got a to-read pile about a mile high at this point I decided to let it go. ...and then I realized that the library had at least some of the books in the series available as audiobooks that I could listen to at work so then I started Throne of Jade. Which means this will be a combined review of the first two books and then I'll start taking the books one at a time as I get to them.

These books are a combination of fantasy and historical fiction sort of like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, although I think I make the comparison because this book is also set during the Napoleonic Wars. These books were basically described to me as ''Napoleonic Wars but with DRAGONS!'' And Novik really does take that concept and run with it, going so far as to create biological treatises on dragons as supplemental material for her universe which makes it all the more believable.

Our book begins with Captain Will Laurence, commander of the HMS Relaint, intercepts a French ship in the Atlantic. After a battle and boarding action Laurence and his crew discover the French had been carrying a dragon egg of an unknown species back to France and it's about to hatch. Laurence and his crew prepare the best they can but everyone's surprised when the dragon chooses Laurence for his companion. Laurence then receives an unexpected career shift from the Royal Navy to the Aerial Corps and the rest of the book is Laurence and Temeraire learning about their new life.

Obviously having dragons as an air force in the last great era of linear tactics can have dramatic shifts in how the Napoleonic Wars turned out, but I think Novik manages to put in enough explanation for why the Napoleonic Wars are still going. First the number of dragons, at least in Western Europe, is fairly small and they don't breed quickly so there's an incredibly finite supply of dragons. Secondly, within that number of dragons there are an even smaller number that have projectile weapons like fire or acid so the dragons don't make as large an air force as they might like. In fact, because a lot of the combat dragons are so freaking big the standard European practice is to have riflemen and bombadiers ride the dragon. The result is the dragons tend to fight each other and act as raiders rather than a strict air force.

The climax of the first book involves Temeraire and Laurence successfully foiling an aerial invasion of Britain by Napoleon, as well as discovering that Temeraire is in fact a Celestial Dragon, one of the rarest and exalted of the Chinese dragon breeds. The second book begins when a Chinese embassy arrives in Britain and is rather keen on getting Temeraire back. What follows is an expedition across the globe on the British dragon carrier H.M.S. Allegiance to reach China. China provides an extreme contrast because while dragons are rare in Europe, they are far more common in China to the point where dragons share cities with humans and even participate in civil examinations. This puts strain on Laurence's and Temeraire's relationship because dragons have so many more freedoms in China than in Europe. However Temeraire is ultimately attached to Laurence and to his adopted homeland of Britain and the war in Europe.

As I said, the concept is interesting although I do wonder about how my countrymen, the Prussians, adapt to the dragon situation and I'm hoping we'll see more of that in later books. If you like dragons and like the Napoleonic Wars, I think this is definitely a worthwhile choice.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Dragon Reborn, by Robert Jordan

Okay. I can't. I can't keep going on with this series. I know I'm only on the third book but seriously, I can't keep spending time on this series if it's going to be more of the same stuff. And it's not even the fact that this is stuffed full of your standard fantasy tropes, there is just something seriously wrong with this series.

Okay, so, I'm going to briefly address the plot problems, which is definitely an undermining element to this series. As I've mentioned in my reviews of the last two books there has been this really unfortunate habit where everything gets resolved really quickly in the last few chapters of the book and it feels a lot like an anticlimax more than anything else. And once again that happens in this book. Our characters wander around, pursuing different goals but converging upon the city of Tear where a legendary artifact for the Dragon Reborn which will fulfill a prophecy and verify that Rand al'Thor is in fact the Dragon Reborn. And all the problems within the book are just...resolved...at the end. It feels like a huge anticlimax, especially when the last book ended with a brief exposition that armies have risen to support the Dragon. But when we start this book we find Rand's been hiding somewhere in the mountains all winter while the armies that rose to support the Dragon are slowly being picked off. It just doesn't make any sense to me why Rand wouldn't be gathering support to achieve political goals.

But plot issues aside, there's something which really annoys me about these books and it's how men and women are stereotyped throughout the entire book. The weird thing is this book was published in 1991 so you'd think that it would have moved beyond gender stereotypes of the 1950's, but apparently that's too much to expect. Basically in this book and in the books before it all the women are depicted as shrewish harridans hell-bent on controlling men and making things go their way. The men meanwhile are all depicted as ignorant lummoxes whose only solution to any problem is to hit it with a big stick enough times until it stops being a problem. This is in every darn book so far and considering the books don't seem to vary at all I expect it to be in the next twelve books as well.

And honestly, I'm completely sick of it. These are gender stereotypes which are material for a fifties sitcom, not for a fantasy series written forty years later. It was dated when this book came out, and it's even more dated now. And if the series is going to keep relying on these awful stereotypes I see no reason to keep bothering with the rest of the books. It's like Jordan is constantly saying, ''Women, amirite? Men, amirite?''

So this is it. I gave this series a try with three of the fifteen books and I'm calling it here. The plot hasn't been terribly great so far, but it's this reliance on old gender stereotypes that really kills the series for me.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

The Prophecy Con, by Patrick Weekes

Today I'm finally getting around to the second book in the Rogues of the Republic series, The Prophecy Con. (Feel free to check out my review of the first book, The Palace Job here.) Weekes continues to build on his fantasy universe and while having all the traditional fantasy elements including elves, dwarves, and at least one unicorn Weekes manages to make it more than just another fantasy adventure. The last book was definitely more of a heist story and while Loch, Kail, and the team are relying on their special talents there's less heist elements and a lot more grand intrigue in this one. But I still really enjoyed this book.

The Empire and Republic are once again on the brink of war, a prospect that only the most die-hard members of the respective governments remotely relish. Loch and Kail have been sent as advisers with a group of Republic diplomats to hopefully avert another war. Unfortunately for them, the entire meeting is a setup and Loch finds herself being pursued by the Crown Princess Veiled Lightning who's determined to bring Loch to trial for her alleged crimes against the Empire. Fortunately Loch and company are always prepared for a betrayal and manage to make it back to the Republic more or less in one piece. Now their only hope of averting war with the Empire is to recover a certain elven manuscript which Loch has more than a passing familiarity.

Personally I think I ended up enjoying this book more than the previous one, at least if my Goodreads activity is any measure to go by. In the first book Weekes had to spend time establishing the characters and universe, an unfortunate necessity when you're writing a fantasy novel of any sort. Now that the universe has already been established, I feel like we got to see the characters develop beyond when we first met them. Particularly we see Ululenia the unicorn and Desiadora the priestess have their own arcs within the book, as well as Hessler and Tern's relationship that is really, really going well for them. And for whatever reason it makes me happy to see that characters are growing as people or just happy with where their lives are and how they're doing. So I give Weekes kudos for not only expanding and clarifying his universe, but making his characters grow as well.

And then there are some truly enjoyable moments in the book which made me smile while I was reading. Whether it was Desiadora dealing with a young man who doesn't understand why girls ''just don't want to go out with nice guys like me'' or Tern yelling at the clever security features incorporated in a document she's trying to forge, there were a lot of things in this book that made me not only enjoy the book but like the characters as well. And maybe that's the greatest strength of the book, I could totally see myself hanging out with some of the characters shooting the breeze about whatever. As much as I like other characters like Arya Stark or Honor Harrington, I don't know if I could see myself being friends with them. But I feel like I could get along with the team in these books.

I will say that I didn't see the twists coming, again, but I think that's mostly because I'm not the most subtle of people and I can't plot my way out of a paper bag. So that at least gives re-read value to look for whatever clues or hints were in the book for the reveal at the end. However, I am a little concerned by one of Weekes's choices with the backstory of his universe. Loch and Kail are both Urujar, which is this universe's term for black people, which is all well and fine. In the last book it was kind of mentioned but not really explored that there was systemic racism against Urujars within Republic society in a mirror of United States society. The problem is that I don't think this is developed much beyond background fluff.

What concerns me even more is this seems to get even worse in Prophecy Con when it's revealed that the Urujar were literally slaves. Like, at some point in the past the Urujar were systematically enslaved because of the color of their skin, exactly like the African slave trade. Obviously there are ways to talk about racism and slavery within a fantasy novel, usually as a foil of the shortcomings of our own society, but it's very easy for this to be done poorly and if it's going to be done, I think it needs to be done well. When Weekes includes it, we don't get much beyond a dwarf shaking his head and thinking, ''What a shame, what those poor people have gone through.'' Which isn't bad, but it feels inadequate for a really heavy subject material. I'm just not sure Weekes is giving the subject matter the attention and weight it deserves and is using it more as set dressing. I don't know, and there are no easy answers. All this being said, I do appreciate that we have Loch, a woman of color who's also just a fantastic character.

Overall though, I thought this book was really enjoyable. I'd definitely recommend it for people who are looking for a less traditional fantasy novel, although you should definitely start with The Palace Job first.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 12, 2018

The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie

Today I'm looking at the first book in a trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, The Blade Itself. I went to the library to hunt down something by Abercrombie specifically because I had encountered a story of his in a short story anthology and I thought he was an author worth investigating. After poking around I settled on this one because it's the first book in the trilogy and it looks like his other stories are set within the same universe. The result is a book that does a lot of establishment work for the universe while leaving some things still unsettled. In retrospect I'm not sure if we really got any indications as to what the main plot is, but the characters are interesting enough that I find I don't mind as much.

The book focuses on a number of characters who gradually get brought together by the first of the Magi, Bayaz. Logen Ninefingers is a barbarian from the northlands who's made a few too many enemies and is almost running out of luck. Jezal dan Luthar is a Union nobleman and cavalry captain who has higher ambitions for his career, but doing so means he'll have to succeed in the annual fencing competition and his skills right now are less than adequate. And there's Inquisitor Glokta, a man who survived the hands of imperial torturers for two years but just barely and has become understandably cynical and bitter. There are also some additional characters but I have no idea how to spell their names aside from Dogman. By the end of the book Bayaz has brought several characters together and is planning an expedition to the edge of the world, but why remains vague.

One of the things Abercrombie does is make his universe seem really complex by including references to a large number of people and events, not all of which are explained in the first book. On the one hand this was a little frustrating for me because I felt like maybe there were books I should have read first, especially since the characters come fully-formed with backstories that I didn't know. On the other hand, this is something that makes Abercrombie's universe deep and realistic which is always a good thing. As always, it comes to me having a much higher tolerance and desire for exposition than other people, but I think Abercrombie still manages to do a good job.

What made me think Abercrombie did a really good job writing this book was when I got to the end of this book and I realized that I still wasn't exactly sure about what the main plot was. I know that Bayaz's teacher was betrayed by his brother who went by the title the Maker. Bayaz and the rest of the Magi defeated the MAker, but the Maker had followers who survived. Apparently the Maker's followers are cannibals who get some sort of magical power from eating people. All I know is that they have some sort of plan, the Union's about to get sucked into a two-front war, and Bayaz is off to save the world. But beyond these generalities I'm a little vague on the specifics. And yet I find myself interested in finding what happens next.

I think the biggest strength is that Abercrombie manages to make the characters compelling. Glokta is bitter, cynical, and like most inquisitors willing to use whatever means necessary to get the truth he wants, but there are complex elements to his personality which makes him more than just another zealot. Luthar has elements of a spoiled dandy but he's also ambitious and willing to work to achieve those ambitions so it makes a more balanced character. So I think if anything, it's the characters which make the book more interesting.

Overall, despite the issues which I had with the book I'd find myself recommending it to people who like extensive worldbuilding and good plotlines. I think Abercrombie's writing more than makes up for any defects and makes the book really enjoyable.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

Today I'm looking at a fantasy set in medieval Russia, The Bear and the Nightingale, which will be part of an upcoming trilogy. I found myself really enjoying this book although I suspect a large part is because I don't really know anything about Russian folklore and mythology so a lot of this material was new to me. I will say the plotlines aren't anything that hasn't been done before in different stories but I think it's done well enough that it's well worth the effort.

The story mostly centers around Vasilisa, the daughter of Boyar Pyotr in the woods far north of Moscow. More importantly, Vasilisa has a touch of the old blood from her mother's side and she's capable of seeing the numerous spirits that inhabit her family's house and the surrounding woods. Vasilisa speaks with the domovoi who lives in the great oven and helps clean the kitchen, becomes friends with the rusalka, the water spirit in the local pond, and plays with the horse spirits. But when her father brings a new wife home from Moscow, Vasilisa's life becomes far more complicated. Her step-mother can see the household spirits as well, but she is devoutly Christian and believes that all the household protectors are devils and demons. Vasilisa's fight to keep the houshold guardians safe becomes all the more important as a malevolent and ancient power in the forest begins to stir once again.

As I said, I don't know really anything about Russian folklore and since it's a huge element of the story I got to learn at least bits and pieces as I followed along. If there's one thing I enjoy, it's folklore so getting to see Vasilisa interact with household guardians and woodsprites was a huge win for me. I will say that the book probably doesn't trod new ground. There's the element of old beliefs conflicting with new ones which has been done in various forms in various books from American Gods to The Mists of Avalon. On top of that, Vasilisa has elements of standard spunky princess (she is a nobleman's daughter after all), who doesn't wish to be trapped by marriage, either to a mortal man or as a bride of Christ in a nunnery. What I find is most important in these cases is if the writing is good enough to carry a story despite it potentially being one you've read a dozen times before. I think I can safely say in this case Arden does an excellent job and manages to create a truly interesting book out of preexisting elements. Creation isn't always in making new things, but in taking existing things and putting them together in new ways.

I will say that the ending for this book in particular felt a little rushed and left with an almost definitive ending, which is curious because this is apparently part of a planned trilogy. I can understand having a plot resolved in the first act of a three act saga, but I think the pacing towards the end specifically could have used a little more work. I am also curious about what happened to Sasha, Vasilisa's older brother who left home and apparently becomes a warrior monk adviser of the Grand Prince of Moscow. (Dmitry Donskoy I think? He's described as the grandson of Ivan I and that's what I've been able to find on Wikipedia but I don't know a lot about Grand Dukes of Moscow either.) So possibly Sasha will be included in future books, but I guess it's equally as possible that he won't, it remains to be seen. Ultimately I'm very curious about where Arden intends to take this story from here.

Overall, I thought this book was very interesting and I highly recommend it. If you're a fan of folklore, mythology, or fairy tales this book has enough elements of it to keep you interested and the characters are interesting as well. Arden's writing does an excellent job at recombining old things in new ways and it's well worth the time.

- Kalpar

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Rebel Rising, by Beth Revis

Today I'm looking at a Star Wars book that talks about the life of Jyn Erso, protagonist of the film Rogue One which I just loved the ever loving daylight out of. Rebel Rising reveals Jyn's backstory in the missing years of the movie between when she's found by Saw Gerrera and when we meet her again on Wobani. This does fill in a bunch of details about Jyn's life and shows her being first a member of Garrera's resistance cell and later an independent forger. However, I think there are some issues with this book that show how the Star Wars franchise has changed in recent years.

Ultimately the biggest problem with this book is that it delves into the history of a character which we probably imagined in our heads in a way we liked better. But this is usually a problem when we get an origin story for a character we met more or less fully-formed. I'm reminded of The Shepherd's Tale from the Firefly 'verse. It could have been the greatest story ever written (although I have my own issues with it), but there are going to be a large number of people who are disappointed because they wrote their own story in their head that they'll always prefer. And I think we have this issue in Rebel Rising as well because this book will always make Jyn's backstory more limited than we could have imagined it to be. No matter how well Revis could have written Jyn's backstory it's going to be up against the reader's own imagination.

There's a trend I've started noticing in recent years that starts comparing the Rebels to terrorist groups and I'm honestly not sure what to think about this. First of all, this is definitely a reflection of our collective experience in the twenty-first century in which terrorism is a regular concern, as well as our awareness that the line between freedom fighters and terrorists can depend on where you stand. And don't get me wrong, Garrera's resistance cell does engage in at least one act of terror within the book where Garrera's group assassinate a newly installed Imperial governor. Instead of just targeting the governor, Garrera and his allies bring about twenty something flechette launchers and fire them directly into a crowd. So not only do they take out the Imperial governor and his bodyguard of stormtroopers, but they kill the local head of state for the planet, dignitaries, local nobility, and who knows how many bystanders. Garrera states the purpose is to strike fear into the Empire and people who support it, but I feel like it would significantly undermine his own cause by randomly killing civilians who are very clearly not thrilled about having an Imperial presence on their planet.

Another reason this concerns me is because I have seen recently on the internet some people who dismiss the Rebellion as nothing more than a murderous band of terrorists and come to the conclusion that the Empire Did Nothing Wrong. Which...okay, this is kind of a big issue for a couple reasons. First, it's a little simplistic to say that because one side is bad, the other side automatically must be good, ignoring the possibility that both sides are bad or both are good or more likely everyone's a mix of the two and there are no easy answers. Unfortunately by introducing darker, morally ambiguous aspects to the Rebellion people seem to be taking the Empire's side and it bothers me for a number of reasons. First, the Empire practices slavery and if you don't see the problem with that we need to have a long talk I don't want to get into here.

Second, the Empire practices rule through military force and terror, which ultimately becomes absurdly inefficient. This is something that I noticed in this book in particular. Jyn spends a lot of her time kicking around distant backwaters on the Outer Rim which have limited strategic or economic value but the Empire is absolutely determined to set up a garrison everywhere it can and is quite frankly ridiculously inefficient. Police states are prohibitively expensive and you spend so many resources on making sure stormtroopers are on every street corner and TIE fighters are patrolling every sky that you lose more resources than you could possibly gain through total galactic control. Yet I've recently seen people embracing this as an idea worthy of emulation and I find it...distressing on a lot of levels.

There have been other books about figures like Janek Sunber who are on the Imperial side but aren't necessarily bad people. At least, they're not the cackling villains that some Imperials tend to be, instead portraying people loyal to the Empire as complex individuals with their own motivations. This book simply doesn't do that. All the Imperials we meet fall into the cruel, ruthless, or potentially cackling villain categories which we've seen before. So it severely undermines Revis's attempt to cast the conflict between the Empire and the Rebellion in shades of grey instead turning it into a case of grey and black.

I think I can appreciate the attempt to make the Star Wars universe more complex and morally ambiguous, but this book just falls short of the mark. Jyn ends up hating both sides because she sees them as destructive forces, which leaves us in a dark and hopeless galaxy which I feel just goes against the essence of Star Wars. While Garrera and other rebels are depicted as less than heroic, the Empire is as bad or worse and I don't know if I like that feeling. I'll give Revis credit for trying, but I don't think I quite like the result.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Great Bridge: The Epic Story of the Building of the Brooklyn Bridge, by David McCullough

Today I'm looking at another book from historian David McCullough, which you may remember as the author of two other books I've read, John Adams and 1776. Obviously this is not in the same historical era as the Brooklyn Bridge was constructed in the late nineteenth century, but McCullough still brings excellent writing to a subject making it engaging and entertaining. If you're interested in the history of engineering projects in the nineteenth century, such as I am, this is definitely worth taking the time to check out.

The Brooklyn Bridge is one of many massive civic engineering challenges undertaken in the nineteenth century, each of which came with its own unique challenges. Whether it was building a canal through the Suez, railroads through the Rocky Mountains, or building bridges across the busiest harbor in the United States, each construction project came with its own engineering challenges, as well as financial and political problems that always follow such projects. Perhaps most impressive is the Brooklyn Bridge, one of the few suspension bridges to be built with stone towers, and remains in continuous use to this day, requiring only minimal maintenance and upkeep.

In addition to talking about the unique engineering challenges, McCullough provides plenty of context about the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge including the personal life of the Roebling family, the interference of infamous Boss Tweed, and the various financial issues which almost prevented the bridge from being completed. I am left wondering if this was an abridged copy of the book that I listened to, though, because it didn't seem quite as in depth as I thought it would be. And for a project that took fourteen years to complete, McCullough doesn't seem to spend as much time talking about the actual construction of the bridge as he does about other topics like the life of Washington Roebling and the influence of Boss Tweed in Tammany Hall. I tried looking on the library website and I didn't see anything about it being an abridged version so I'm not sure.

Despite my concerns I think this is a really good book about a civic engineering project of the nineteenth century. McCullough provides information and context without getting overly bogged down in the technical details, such as details about exactly how many tons of stone and steel were used in the bridge construction project, which certain other histories about engineering projects can fall prey to. If you're interested in this sort of history, this is definitely a book worth checking out.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Princesses Behaving Badly by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Today I'm looking at a book that provides brief biographies of a variety of royal women throughout history who became famous for a variety of reasons. Rodriguez McRobbie divides the the book into a variety of categories including women who were military leaders, women who seized power in their own right, and women who simply loved to party. Because the historical record doesn't favor women, it's often difficult to get information about these women and in some cases, as Rodriguez McRobbie admits most of what she has to go on is hearsay at best. However this book provides a good starting ground.

Instead of providing detailed biographies about every woman in this book, Rodriguez McRobbie provides vignettes of each woman, briefly covering main events of her life. I will admit that it is a little frustrating to see the lives of influential people summarized to a few pages or sometimes just a few paragraphs, especially when the author herself admits that the figures merit their own full-length biography. However, I choose to look at this book as a starting point rather than a be-all-end-all. Rodriguez McRobbie provides lists for additional reading in the back of the book so I think if a particular individual sounds interesting to you, there are resources available to read more about them.

Ultimately there's not a whole lot I can say about the book beyond that. There are some figures where Rodriguez McRobbie allows conjecture to overtake historical fact but in those cases there are usually too few existing facts for us to say much beyond mere conjecture anyway. Hopefully for people who read these books they'll be able to find information about historical figures who have otherwise often been ignored and do their own research. I'd say it's definitely worth the effort to check out.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

The Great Hunt, by Robert Jordan

I managed to get my hands on the second book from the library rather quickly so today I'm looking at the next book in the Wheel of Time series, The Great Hunt. While it moves away from cribbing largely from Lord of the Rings, I feel like this book is still leaving a lot to be desired. Jordan does a lot of work establishing aspects of his universe and creating additional plot threads, but I feel like we're still waiting for the main plot to get kick-started.

Let me take a minute to talk about the characters, which is difficult because there's about a thousand of them and at this point it's hard to tell who's going to be important and who's going to just be minor characters. (Although there's a possibility all of them will be important, so I can't even.) So let's start with Rand, Perrin, and and Matrim. These are three young men who grew up in the small town of Emond's Field and get called to adventure in the first book, along with the characters Nynaeve and Egwene, but more on them later. All three men have the ability to channel the one Power, which means all of them are destined to have a great influence on the world. Rand specifically as it turns out is the Dragon reborn, which is a sort of messiah-cum-destroyer end of days figure. Jordan pulls pretty extensively from Taoism so there are a lot of things being two things at once within his series.

Anyway, these three men are chosen ones, Rand being slightly more chosen than others, and they are involved in the hunt for the Horn of Valere. The horn is one of your typical artifact macguffins, it's tied to a prophecy regarding the final battle and whichever side has it will be able to summon a hundred slain heroes to their side, etc etc. Anyway, the characters found the horn in the previous book and had secured it in a vault. However this book begins with the bad guys successfully stealing the horn so now our heroes have to go get it back. The horn actually changes hands a couple times in the book but the thing that bugged me is that the hunt for the horn gets put aside a couple of times as characters get distracted by other plotlines. Specifically Rand gets lured by a beautiful woman to visit a city where deadly games of politics are occurring. I was 90% sure the woman was luring Rand into a trap because he kept making bad decisions based on what she was advising him to do, but it ultimately led to nothing other than him wasting a bunch of time.

Then there's the arrival of conquerors from over the sea, claiming to be  descendants of a warrior king from the age of legends. It looks like these conquerors are planning on reclaiming the known world and enslaving all women capable of channeling, but as of right now all it does is throw another ball into the air when we're still waiting on the Dark One plot to get going. And this doesn't even get into the brief amount of time Egwene and Nynaeve spent at wizard school. (Sort of wizard school, anyway.)

That's really my biggest problem, Jordan seems to have way too many things going on at once and the result is a muddled plot at best. It's sort of like the issue with Song of Ice and Fire as the series went on. We kept getting more and more characters, and more and more plotlines, and the result is a massive, tangled kudzu vine with no potential clarification in sight. If I can, I guess I'll keep trying these books from the library, but there hasn't been a lot of promise so far.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Today I'm looking at another Neil Gaiman book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This is a short novel but as typical of Gaiman's work, it's intensely packed with emotions and philosophy and I thought it was a really good read. If you've read anything else by Gaiman and enjoyed it, this will definitely be worth your time. I don't know if I can really put my finger on why this book, and so much of Gaiman's other writings, make some sort of connection on an emotional level, but it's definitely part of Gaiman's talent and skill as a writer.

The story is set within the framing device of a man returning to his old neighborhood in Sussex, England after a funeral and visiting a farmhouse at the end of the lane inhabited by the mysterious Hempstock women. He hasn't thought of the Hempstocks in years, but slowly the memories come back and we go into events when the main character was seven years old. It all began when an opal miner from South Africa who lodged with his family committed suicide in their car. Afterwards money starts appearing mysteriously all over the neighborhood, including a shilling piece appearing lodged in his throat while he sleeps. So our main character takes a trip down the lane to visit the Hempstocks, who reveal that some...thing from outside our own reality has decided to interfere. With the aid of the Hempstocks, including eleven year old Lettie, the main character discovers exactly what sort of things exist just beyond realms of our understanding.

I will say the scale of this story is very, very small. I'm pretty sure the events take place over the course of a week at most so it's very fast-paced as a novel and a lot smaller in scope than some of the other books that I've read. Despite its brevity I felt like there was something really deep to this book which, as I said, I can't really quantify. Gaiman does do a very good job of encapsulating the fears of childhood, especially the fear that adult authorities won't be willing to listen or believe you when you bring concerns to them. If there's one thing this book does well, it's encapsulate those feelings of fear and powerlessness in childhood.

As short as this book is, I think it's worth the read. If you're familiar with Gaiman's work, this will be more of the same stuff that we've come to love, and if you're unfamiliar this is as good a place to start reading as anywhere else.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

The Eye of the World, by Robert Jordan

Against my better judgement, I've decided to try listening to the Wheel of Time series originally by Robert Jordan. This series actually had a bit of a reputation at my high school because the school library had copies and it was considered a challenge for people to read because there were so darn many book in the series. Seriously, there are fourteen main books in the series, not all of them written by Robert Jordan because he died partway through writing the series. This series also has a reputation for being super trope-tastic, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave the reader feeling like they're just in somebody's own attempt to create Lord of the Rings. Having finished the first book I can safely say it is very definitely chock full of tropes and at least follows the same general pattern of Lord of the Rings if not running in the exact same grooves. However, with thirteen other books to go, hopefully there's an opportunity for the series to develop beyond the first book.

I was actually kind of disappointed with the first book, Eye of the World, and I think it's because it spends so much time establishing the universe of the book while vaguely dancing around the main plot. You do get the impression that Jordan has developed a deep and complex world for his characters, possibly with lengthy genealogies as well, but I feel like Jordan spends way too much time on the development and just not quite enough time on moving the plot forward. Let me see if I can draw a comparison.

Remember how there's that first part of Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin are leaving the Shire but haven't gotten to Rivendell yet? Their main quest at that point is escaping from the pursuing Ringwraiths and reach Rivendell safely, but we don't get to the real quest involving the One Ring until the Council of Elrond. This first book feels a lot like that. The characters are trying to leave their home of Emond's Field in the Two Rivers and reach the city of Tar Valon, where everything will be explained to them there. More importantly the servants of the Big Bad are chasing the protagonists so it's important that they reach safety. Now I don't know about the rest of you guys, but for me that part between the Shire and Rivendell was the least exciting in the entire series. (Looking at you, Tom Bombadil.) So if the first book of this series is entirely like that, it's not as much fun for me either.

The finale for this book is also really rushed. Our main characters finally link up and go off to fight the Big Bad (Known as the Dark One, incidentally) utilizing an artifact from a previous age known as the Eye of the World. And then the main characters...win. The Dark One is defeated, presumably dead, and the day has been saved. This is all within the last few chapters as well, mind you, so it's kind of weird how it abruptly ends. Obviously the Dark One is not truly defeated because there are a baker's dozen more books to go and it's implied he's not really dead, just temporarily defeated. But for the amount of time we spent not knowing where we were going or what had to be done, the ending felt like a bit of an anticlimax.

Hopefully as the series goes on we'll get some more development and the characters will get fleshed out a little bit more for me to know them better. (In typical fantasy fashion they have overly elaborate names so I have to go do research to find out how to spell the darn things.) But as a start it leaves a lot of room for improvement.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham

Today I'm looking at a classic sci-fi book, The Day of the Triffids, written in 1951 and later adapted into a B science-fiction movie, making this one of the old school classics. Since this came up on sale I thought I'd give it a try, expecting some silly B-movie nonsense. I am left with mixed feelings about this book because even for the level of quality I was expecting, it fell pretty short of the standard. Most of the book focused on the apocalypse but the triffids played less of a role than I expected in the book.

This book is written from the perspective of a survivor of a global apocalypse that has mostly wiped out civilization. The crisis begins when the earth passes through the tail of a comet, causing green fireworks to appear in the night sky, visible to all the earth. Because of its uniqueness, much of earth's population turns out to observe this event, only to discover the next morning that they have gone blind. Only a handful of people, who for a variety of reasons didn't see the effects of the comet's tail, survive with their vision intact.

Although bad enough, the crisis is even worse because of the escape of the triffids. The triffids are strange plant creatures that appeared many years before the comet occurred. The triffids are commercially valuable but come with several dangers. They are carnivorous plants, capable of walking, and possessing a deadly venom-filled stinger. If that wasn't bad enough the triffids breed like crazy and are capable of growing pretty much anywhere. It was hard enough to keep the triffids in line when civilization was still operating, but now the triffids are able to run unchecked and attack the surviving humans with impunity.

Despite the triffids being in the title of the book, they don't play as large of a role as I thought they might. They're a constant menace through the book but you get to the point where people treat them as a constant annoyance more than anything else. Just when it gets to the point where the number of triffids presents an actual danger to our characters, the book ends and they move to a triffid-free island. Most of the focus of the book is on trying to figure out what the heck happened and finding a way to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, as well as a love story between the main characters. The fact that the comet which blinded everyone is later blamed on man's hubris just further undermines the triffids as the main threat of the book. And I have to say, as an enemy, deadly garden pests that can be taken out with the proper application of a chainsaw leave something to be desired.

The ending was also rather abrupt. Our main characters spend a significant portion of time working to make a farm habitable, despite being constantly under siege by triffids. Within the last chapter the main characters discover that humans have established a secure base on the Isle of Wight, giving our main characters an opportunity to escape. However, we also discover that a feudal military dictatorship has established itself in southern England and they want to take over the main characters' farm. Within a space of about five pages the main characters learn about the feudal dictators, escape from the feudal dictators, and the book ends. It just...ends. It felt like Wyndham was trying to throw in one final drama before the book ended. It might make more sense if the book was serialized and Wyndham didn't know when it was going to end, but as the ending of a novel it leaves a lot to be desired.

Ultimately this is a B-movie book so the expectations aren't very high for this book. That being said, even for a B-movie level of a book, I felt like the writing left a lot to be desired. It would have been a lot better if the triffids ever felt like more than just a headache for the main characters, and if  the ending wasn't as abrupt as it was. But if you like old B-movie quality sci-fi you can't go wrong with this.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dead Wake, by Erik Larson

Today I'm looking at a book titled Dead Wake which came out about a couple of years ago. As it says on the cover this book is about the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 and I didn't know how interesting a read it would be so I left it on hold for a while. However, this book was part of an extensive advertising campaign on Smithsonian's website, and I kept seeing this book at the library and in bookstores so I broke down and decided that it was finally time to check this book out. The book goes into quite a lot of detail on a variety of subjects so I thought it was worth the effort.

As you might remember from high school history, the sinking of the Lusitania is one of the events that caused the United States to enter the First World War. If you know a little bit more about the event you might know that the Lusitania sunk within twenty minutes, which meant a significant number of passengers could not get to the lifeboats in time. There has been some debate among historians about why the Lusitania sank as quickly as it did. And the author does a really good job of explaining why preexisting theories were incorrect and providing evidence for his own theory.

First, a noticeable secondary explosion meant that many survivors, including the captain, assumed that the Lusitania was hit by two torpedoes from the attacking U-20. However U-20's logs and communications with German Navy command, as well as intercepts by British Intelligence, revealed that only one torpedo had been launched, which raised the question what caused the secondary explosion. Later disclosures of the manifest revealed that the Lusitania actually was carrying American-made ammunition for the British so it was believed that a cargo of munitions may have caused a secondary explosion. However the quantity of munitions loaded on the Lusitania were insufficient to cause a damaging explosion.

The explanation Larson provides lays in the structural design of the Lusitania itself. The Lusitania was originally part of a Royal Navy project to design large, fast ships and both the Lusitania and its sister ship the Mauritania were originally naval auxiliary ships. Although built and owned by Cunard lines, both the Lusitania and the Mauritania could be converted to cruisers in wartime. Although the navy decided to keep the Lusitania in civilian service, its military origins had significant effects on its design. Specifically the Lusitania had longitudinal coal bunkers. This meant that it had two large coal bunkers running along the entire length of the ship while most civilian ships had multiple small coal bunkers running across the beam of the ship. The idea behind this design was that the coal would serve as additional armor for the ship against enemy projectiles. Unfortunately, it appears longitudinal coal bunkers were actually a liability to ships hit by torpedoes. Because the watertight compartments within the coal bunkers weren't sealed, it basically provided a giant basin for water to enter the ship from a torpedo strike.

This explains why the Lusitania sank so quickly, especially considering the ship listed severely to the side on which it was struck, to the point it was difficult to get lifeboats launched from either side of the ship. As the water cascaded into the bowels of the ship, it is very likely the cold sea water caused some part of the steam machinery to explode. Larson points to a steam pipe, which may explain loss of control of the ship into the crisis, although a boiler or other apparatus is just as likely. The simplicity of the explanation as well as the evidence supporting this hypothesis provides a much better explanation for why the Lusitania may have sunk as quickly as it did.

Overall I think this book was well researched. Larson provides a lot of background detail which debunks the hypothesis that a secret cache of munitions on board caused the secondary explosion. As demonstrated with previous strikes on ships with longitudinal coal bunkers, a hit by a torpedo into the coal bunker caused the ship to sink in an astoundingly short period of time. It is probably safe to say the same occurred with the Lusitania.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes, and Trial of Patty Hearst, by Jeffrey Toobin

Today I'm looking at a book that talks about an event I only knew of through the final line to Warren Zevron's song Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner, the kidnapping and conversion to terrorist of Patricia Hearst in the 1970's. For many people this was a truly bizarre and confusing event. A member of the prominent Hearst family gets kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a radical group that people have only heard of in connection to the murder of Marcus Foster, a local and highly popular superintendent of schools.

After a series of incoherent messages with the only clear demand being the Hearst family bankroll the distribution of food to needy people in California, the SLA breaks off contact only to resurface with Patricia Hearst, their captive, now a member and involved in a prominent bank robbery. The majority of the nine members die in a shootout with police in Los Angeles, but for more than a year Patricia Hearst and two other survivors manage to evade capture for over a year. It's almost by accident that Patricia gets arrested and after serving less than two years of a seven year prison sentence, she gets a commutation from president Jimmy Carter.

Overall these events seem strange and confusing, but if Toobin does anything right, he manages to put everything into context and make it much more understandable for the reader. What emerges is a narrative not of random events and brainwashing of heiresses, but a young woman who goes through what might charitably be called a rebellious phase. By the time of her kidnapping, Patricia saw her future as largely fixed. She was a trust fund heiress so there was no need to work for a living, and she was already engaged to be married. Despite going to UC Berkeley her life had become confined to a narrow domesticity which threatened to dominate the rest of her life. Patricia Hearst may have gone on to become just another of the socialite set of baby boomers except her world was violently interrupted on February 4th.

For someone who felt trapped by life and was yearning for something different and meaningful, is it any surprise that Patricia came to adopt the ideology of the SLA? Toobin makes it very doubtful that they brainwashed her. Aside from one murder, one kidnapping, and a handful of bank robberies the SLA failed to do almost anything correctly and the disparate political opinions, some of which weren't terribly developed, meant the SLA had more a broad outline rather than a specific platform. Indeed, once the SLA kidnapped Patricia, Toobin points out they seemed utterly at a loss for what to do with her and quickly lost sight of whatever ransom demands they might have had.

But with individuals in the SLA talking to Patricia about political philosophies she hadn't even encountered and reading from socialist and communist texts, they probably presented Patricia with an alternative to the narrow lifestyle she had seen before her. So while it's somewhat surprising, it's understandable why Patricia may eventually join with her kidnappers. Toobin also dismantles through several examples, including times Patricia could have very easily escaped, why Patricia's argument that she joined the SLA out of fear for her life simply doesn't hold up under inspection.

Following her arrest, her desire to rejoin the life she had before her kidnapping is even less surprising. The conditions of the SLA were quite terrible, going from bad to worse and at some points resorting to eating horse meat and beans. The comfort and security of her privileged lifestyle would have been a powerful lure to Patricia, especially with the prospect of a lengthy prison sentence looming.

Finally I, and it seems Toobin, are left with mixed feelings about the commutation and later pardon of Patricia Hearst. On the one hand, Patricia definitely showed that she had recognized the wrong of what she had done, and had reformed for her crimes and would become a productive and law-abiding member of society again. On the other hand, she definitely only got such treatment because of her family's extensive connections and it can quite cynically be seen as the rich escaping justice. It's a hard question and since it's all in the past it's largely irrelevant, but it does reveal a divide all the more prevalent today.

The story of Patricia Hearst is important because it reflects deep issues in the United States that are still affecting us today. The civil rights movements of the 1960's morphed into the violent countercultures of then 1970's, along with a variety of other bad events for the United States. High oil prices, a stagnant economy, a corrupt president, and a decline in law and order saw the seventies become a decade of despair and frustration. The surge of modern conservatism, with its roots in Ronald Reagan, saw its beginnings as a reaction to the violent counterculture of the 1970's, and we are still dealing with those result to this day.

This book is an interesting look into a troubled time of American history and how it had profound effects not only in the immediate, but long term as well. I think it's worth your time to investigate.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

The Dungeoneers, by Jeffery Russell

Today I'm looking at another fantasy novel about professional adventurers, The Dungeoneers, by Jeffery Russell. Because this was a suggestion when I read The Palace Job (along with Orconomics) I was a little worried that this might end up being very similar to the other stories. Fortunately I can say that this book definitely has its own niche. On a sliding scale from most serious to most comedic I'd say this falls between the more serious nature of The Palace Job and the more comedic nature of Orconomics, with maybe falling a little further on the serious side. All that being said, this is pretty enjoyable.

The Dungeoneers begins with Durham, a guard who's worked at the sheep gate for the past five years and didn't expect his career to change terribly any time soon. When an order for him to follow a caravan arrives, he assumes it'll be some very boring babysitting for a merchant. Much to his surprise Durham discovers that the caravan he's been assigned to is a band of dwarves who professionally explore and loot dungeons for nobles, as well as retrieve powerful artifacts and keep said artifacts from ending up in the wrong hands. It seems there's been some mixup in the paperwork and Durham will be in far more danger than he possibly could have imagined.

The main thing I liked about this book was the idea of professionals who take out traditional fantasy problems in a manner different from what we're used to. (Although that may be because it bears a striking similarity to the idea for my own book, The Dragonslayer Manuscript) Thud, the leader of the Dungeoneers explicitly tells Durham that they're not adventurers or heroes. Those sorts of people wander into places and usually get themselves killed. The Dungeoneers are professional dungeon-delvers. They avoid risks, they carefully search for traps, they have a variety of equipment to solve problems, and they're willing to pull out gunpowder or a ballista to make sure everything goes smoothly. I like how Russell took the problem of looting a dungeon and took it to an incredibly straightforward and business-like solution.

The book does spend a lot of time on exposition and establishment because it's the first in a series so it's a little lighter on the things-happening parts. I want to say at least half the book was spent on exposition rather than plot, but within the plot we actually saw characters do things and use their skills, rather than just be told about it. Durham actually proves very observant for a guard and his skills come in useful for the party, and every dwarf on the team has their own unique talents. So I think Russell did a pretty good job there.

This is a fairly short read but it's interesting enough that I'm willing to consider getting to the next book in the series. (Although considering I have another thirty books to read that looks incredibly difficult right now) But if you like fantasy with a twist this is a good choice.

- Kalpar

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley & Livingstone, by Martin Dugard

Today I'm looking at a history of one of the major news events of the nineteenth century, the hunt for Dr. David Livingstone in central Africa after he had been missing for five years. White explorers going missing was hardly a novel occurrence and Livingstone was not the first, but the stature and fame of Livingstone meant Britain and the larger world knew his name, and the influence of newspapers keeping Africa and Livingstone in the public consciousness ensured a steady interest in the fate of the missionary and explorer. In fact it was a newspaper stunt that eventually found Dr. Livingstone, with reporter Henry Stanley of the New York Herald leading the expedition at the behest of the paper's editor. Stanley's words upon finding Livingstone in the town of Ujiji, ''Dr. Livingstone, I presume.'' have even entered the English lexicon Since I knew basically nothing but the most general details of this period of white men stumbling around and getting themselves lost in swamps in history, I figured this book was worth taking a look.

What precipitated Livingstone's expedition through jungles, swamps, deserts, and savannas was a debate over the source of the White Nile, one of the Nile's main tributaries. (Incidentally just doing a basic Wikipedia search it looks like there's still some debate over what counts as the ''source'' of the Nile) However there were several hypotheses being floated about by people who had actually tramped through Africa. One source that was known for certain was Lake Victoria, a large lake that sprawls across the modern countries of Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania and which the White Nile definitively drains from. What was (and is) debated is if there was a source further south beyond Lake Victoria. Some hypothesized that a river or series of lakes and rivers connected Lake Tanganyika, further to the south, with Lake Victoria. Livingstone himself believed that lakes further south, such as Lake Malawi, might even be connected to Lake Tanganyika and Lake Victoria. Because of his status and reputation as an explorer, Livingstone set out on an expedition into Central Africa.

The thrill for the people back home was that central Africa was one of the last unknown places to Europeans. Nevermind that other people had been living there quite happily for thousands of years and had even traded with places as far away as China, to Europe it was terra incognita. So there was a great amount of romance of the brave, solitary explorer delving into the unknown, and Livingstone actually had a habit of going on these expeditions only with native porters and assistants. And this was not uncommon. Many expeditions of the time consisted of only a handful of white Europeans and a large train of African, Arab, or Indian porters, soldiers, and assistants. And if the Europeans should die, the hired help had little or no motivation to bring word back to European outposts in locations like Zanzibar. In fact in some cases, the porters and assistants were accused of murdering their employers, which made it even less palatable to report back to authorities. So once Livingstone disappeared into Africa, neither he nor word came back it was very unlikely anyone would hear from him again.

Stanley's was not the first expedition to go in search of Livingstone, but it was the only one to actually find him. A previous expedition had gone to confirm rumors of his death, but after finding convincing proof Livingstone was alive it returned to England. In many ways it was sheer good fortune that Stanley, an absolute neophyte when it came to traveling in Africa, actually met Livingstone at Ujiji. Both Livingstone and Stanley had been extremely ill during their expeditions, suffering from malnutrition, dehydration, and a variety of disease like malaria endemic to the tropics. Either one could have died before reaching the other. Livingstone could have failed to make it to Ujiji, where he hoped relief supplies was waiting for him. Stanley could have arrived before Livingstone, and spent all his dwindling supplies waiting or searching for Livingstone before having to return to the coast. It truly was a tremendous coincidence of good fortune for both men.

Overall I thought this book was interesting, although there's a certain level of crazy to these explorers who decide to go wandering through jungles and suffer all manner of diseases. I certainly would have headed back home at the first opportunity. Or never left home in the first place. I do suspect Dugard stretches or sensationalizes some facts, but I don't see any serious flaws with his methodology, especially considering the copious written material available for Dugard to draw upon for research. It is heavily from the European perspective, but that's hardly surprising. Dugard also tries to put things within the larger context of the nineteenth century, but it's mostly focused on the historical figures than the larger picture. If you're specifically interested in the life and work of Livingstone and Stanley, I think this book is a good opportunity.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Hidden Figures, by Margot Lee Shetterly

Today I'm looking at Hidden Figures, a book you may remember coming out way back in 2016. I was recently able to borrow it from the library and because I had heard good things I decided it was worth reading about. Hidden Figures talks about the history of the black female computers who worked first for the aeronautical research laboratories at Langley Field and later for NASA during the height of the space race. These women, who literally did nothing but math for a living, have been overlooked in official and even unofficial histories of NASA. Shetterly began investigations because her father was a black engineer for NASA and knew many of the computers who lived in their neighborhood. As she continued her research Shetterly discovered that at least fifty black women worked for the Langley aeronautical research labs and/or NASA, and it's possibly a much greater number. This is to say nothing of the white women who worked in the exact same jobs but have gotten only slightly more recognition. Even Shetterly admits that her book only scratches the surface of the history of NASA's black women computers, but it's an important first step so further research can be done.

Today when we hear computer we think immediately of an inanimate object so ubiquitous it hardly bears thinking about. I am writing this blog post on a computer. You are reading it on a different computer. You probably use a computer at work, and so do I. But seventy years ago electronic computers were little better than theory, and complex mathematics had to be done at best with the aid of slide rules and mechanical adding machines. Because this was seen as drudge work, scientists and engineers were happy to pass the difficult task of actually doing the math to female computers.

During World War II, America's quest for air supremacy meant that massive amounts of money were spent on the research and development of new and better airplanes, and the aeronautic studies required massive amounts of calculations. Whether it was refining the SBD Dauntless, speeding up the P-51 Mustang, or getting a little more lift from the B-29, thousands of calculations had to be done to ensure American planes would win the war. But due to wartime shortages in labor, the War Department was looking for anyone with mathematical aptitude to work for their research labs. Thanks to this and an executive order from FDR prohibiting racial discrimination for federal jobs, an entire new set of opportunities were open not only to African-Americans in general, but specifically African-American women. Although they had to struggle with segregation within the laboratories, the black computers confined to a separate computing pool and relegated to a single table in the cafeteria, the ladies of Computing West were undeterred by their circumstances and gave it their all. And like many of their white counterparts, these female computers managed to earn the respect and admiration of their white male colleagues.

Perhaps most astoundingly, what was supposed to be a temporary war-time job, soon developed into a career for many of these women as the arms race and space race of the Cold War continued to feed demand for mathematical know-how. Some women even went on to learn how to program and operate the electronic computers that began replacing the biological kinds in the 1960's.

It is not overall surprising that black women have been overlooked by more traditional histories. Non-whites and women have had a hard time going beyond more than mere token status. But I think this book is an important step into revealing the complex nature of NASA even in the 1950's and 60's and how women of color have been involved since the beginning. As I said, hopefully more research will follow on Shetterly's book and we can learn more about the computers of NASA.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 22, 2018

The Man Who Fell to Earth, by Walter Tevis

Today I'm looking at another Walter Tevis novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth. This novel centers around T. J. Newton, an alien from another planet who has come to earth for mysterious reasons. Newton utilizes the advanced technology of his homeworld to establish a corporate juggernaut and pour the money into a special, highly secret research project. Newton's inventions draw the attention of Professor Bryce, a chemical engineer who realizes the technologies Newton's World Enterprises are introducing could not have come from an earthly laboratory because they are centuries ahead of anything current science could create, leading him to investigate.

I think the biggest problem I had with this book is that it tends to meander along, rather than having decent pacing. Granted, there are books that can slowly build and develop, but coming in at less than two hundred pages, I feel like that is a luxury Tevis couldn't have indulged in and this book would have benefited from being more on-point. The characters spend quite a lot of time being drunk and thinking along the lines of ''woe is me'' which just...doesn't make for terribly exciting reading. Maybe there's some sort of niche market for that, I don't know. It honestly feels kind of like one of those ''literary'' novels where everyone sits around and complains about how pointless and meaningless life is, but it's an alien who's doing it instead of regular people.

I also don't really like how Betty Jo is portrayed as a character in this book. I do recognize that this book was written in the sixties so people had very different opinions about class and gender back then, but it hasn't aged well at all in this novel. Betty Jo is a Kentucky resident that Newton meets when he gets injured in an elevator (long story), and is every bad stereotype of a welfare queen. She doesn't work, just collects checks from a variety of government agencies and uses quite a bit of it to buy gin, which she drinks in copious amounts. And how Tevis uses her in the book...I can't really place my finger on it but there's something that just doesn't seem right about it. Maybe someone more articulate than I can express it better but just how he portrays Betty Jo and her relations with the other characters make me feel weirdly uncomfortable for some reason.

And then the book kind of...ends. Literally the government comes in, smashes some things up, and the book just sort of ends. Aside from some technology having been introduced to earth that didn't exist before, nothing's really changed. We just have a bunch of characters who aren't thrilled with life and drink to medicate their problems away.

Maybe there are people who like this sort of book, but I think I'm just not one of them. It feels like an extended session of people being sad drunks and I've never enjoyed that in real life, nevermind fiction. There may be some greater message to the story beyond a general embrace of nihilism but I'm clearly not getting it.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

Today I'm looking at the first book in a series I'm actually looking forward to continuing when I get the opportunity, The Invisible Library. I ended up enjoying this book very much, although considering it's about dimension-hopping librarians who save books it's hardly a surprise that I'm a fan. Just checking on Goodreads it looks like there are three other books out in this series right now so hopefully the adventures will be just as enjoyable as this one was.

The protagonist of our novel is Irene, a woman raised within the Library which exists out of time and between worlds. Irene is just one of many Librarians, whose mission is to travel across the multiverse and retrieve books so the Library can keep them safe and ensure the books are never lost from reality. Sometimes this is as simple as walking into a story and buying a copy of the book, but more often than not it involves stealing irreplaceable manuscripts from highly guarded locations. And the newest mission for Irene promises to not be an easy one.

Irene is tasked with retrieving a copy of Grimms' Fairy Tales from a universe that has been infected by chaos. Reality doesn't work like it should and more closely resembles the worlds of fiction than properly organized universes. And the Library isn't the only faction interested in retrieving this copy of Grimms' Fairy Tales. A powerful Fae known as Lord Silver and a mysterious secret society known as the Iron Brotherhood are all interested in getting the book before Irene can. Even the Library seems to be working at cross purposes when another Librarian shows up to retrieve the book. And if that wasn't bad enough, Irene's been saddled with training a novice named Kai and as her first act has to bring him along on this mission. It certainly won't be a trip to the local bookstore.

Otherwise, there isn't a whole lot I can say other than that I liked this book a lot. Cogman takes the idea of an interdimensional library and manages to put her own unique twist on it. There aren't any new ideas that I haven't seen used before half a dozen times in other fiction, but Cogman manages to combine them in a manner that makes it a creation wholly her own. It felt like a universe I could totally enjoy climbing inside of and taking a look around. Possibly even staying to work for the library if I could get away with it, although I'm not super great at languages. I found this a very easy book to read and for people who like books, libraries, and alternate worlds this is definitely a great choice.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Humans, Bow Down, by James Patterson and Emily Raymond

Okay, I'm just going to be honest and admit that I didn't like this book, and I think it was a combination of things not making much sense, everything feeling rather rushed, not being able to care about the characters to the point I was rooting for them to die, and some poor writing choices. The combination is a book that feels like a mess trying to cash in on the craze for dystopian science-fiction novels that have been all the rage for the past few years. There were some opportunities for good plots in this book but ultimately the result was a mess that in my opinion, isn't worth your time.

The plot of Humans, Bow Down, is that ten years ago robots rose up against humanity in the Great War and managed to vanquish all of humanity within three days. Now we live in a topsy-turvy world where humans are enslaved by robots and must do tedious calculations and spot-weld automobiles before being donated to an inner-city school. Okay, not quite that, but you get the point. Resistance, humans revolt, et cetera, et cetera, the dance hasn't changed, only the music.

The problem is this book starts off confusing and just never quite makes sense after that. Leading the robot overlords are the hu-bots, humanoid robots that look like humans but are insanely strong and lack the capacity for empathy and emotions. The robots conclude this makes them more evolved than the barbaric humans and gives them the right to lord over humanity. Except, within the first few chapters of the book we see the robots doing things which make no sense for evolved overlords to be doing. For example the robots go to church. And not robot church, they go to ordinary human churches but attended and administered by robots. It's never really explained in detail, but presumably the robots just appropriated human religion. If robots were trying to be more human, this would at least make sense in a cargo cult sort of way. But if they're so superior to humans because they aren't bound by human emotions, then why would they involve themselves with religion? Which is inherently an emotional experience.

The same goes for robots eating for pleasure. It's established that the robots gain absolutely no material benefit from eating food. They're powered entirely by electricity so the food only has to be extracted later. And eating for pleasure is, again, an emotional experience and the robots are superior to humans because they don't have emotions. So...why are they even bothering to eat in the first place? It makes no sense to me. Even the title of the book gets incorporated into this nonsense where robots do things for emotional reasons, despite them explicitly not having emotions.

At several points in the book, the robots announce, ''Humans, bow down.'' at which point the humans are expected to grovel on their hands and knees for their robot overlords. The first time this is done is when a general of the robot forces stops in a market square. At which point he surveys the kneeling humans, says something to the effect of how good it is to see humans on their knees, and then drives off. I'm sorry, but what the heck was the point of that? Because as far as I can tell all it did was briefly stoke the ego of some robot guy who, again, isn't supposed to have emotions. It just makes the robots come across as kind of stupid.

The other big problem is that there's simply too much going on in this book. The chapters are all incredibly short and for a book barely over four hundred pages it manages to have over seventy different chapters. And the authors push in all sorts of plotlines with the result being it feels like they were trying to check off every trope possible and shove them into the book, never mind if the plots aren't well developed or even coherent. We have humans imprisoned for minor offences and paraded like animals in a zoo as a lesson to the other humans. We have human characters stealing a sports car, prompting a robot investigation. We have a quantum computer capable of emulating brain patterns and storing memories. We have humans pushed into reservations where their interest largely extends to where they're getting their next high from more than anything else. We have a robot who is apparently transsexual (I say that because the robot in question is biologically male but chooses to dress and appear female. Like everything else in this book the authors dedicate far too little time to it for it to be developed.) and also afflicted with a glitch that makes them feel *gasp* emotions! And we have robots being reprogrammed by both sides in the war between humans and robots, which as far as I'm concerned raises some interesting ethical questions but those are never brought up in the book.

So as you can see, there's so much going on in this book that there simply isn't enough time for the authors to adequately talk about everything. As I usually say in these situations, if they had stuck to one or two threads instead of going all over the place, it would have been a better chance for the plot to develop in interesting ways. Instead, we end up with a storyline with absolutely everything including the kitchen sink tossed in for good measure. The result is the book just doesn't work at all and I think it's not worth spending the time to read it as a result.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Spain in Our Hearts, by Adam Hochschild

Today I'm looking at a history of the Spanish Civil War which specifically looks through the perspective of various American reporters and volunteers, as well as a handful of Brits. Ernest Hemmingway's dispatches from Spain are probably the most famous of these dispatches, with George Orwell's writings definitely in the same weight class. However, Hochschild utilizes the letters and diaries of ordinary volunteers, some of whom never managed to make it back home.

The Spanish Civil War was prompted by the election of a left-leaning coalition government of liberals, socialists, and communists. For years the ordinary people of Spain had struggled under the social and economic domination of the land-holding elites. In addition to the ever-popular topic of land reform, the republican government promoted a series of social and economic reforms that would improve the lot of common Spaniards and reduce the power of the big landowners and the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, a coalition of generals, eventually lead by Francisco Franco, led a military revolt against the Republican government and sought to reassert the power of the elites, the monarchy, and the Church. The following war lasted three bitter years, leaving thousands of people dead not only through combat but through disease, starvation, and political executions on both the Republican and Nationalist sides.

Aside from the toll it took on the Spanish people, the Spanish Civil War is important because of the international attention it received. Most importantly Mussolini and Hitler, eager to test new airplanes, tanks, and tactics, allied with Franco and dispatched troops and material to aid him. As a result the fascist powers gained experience that would prove extremely valuable in the early days of the Second World War, only a few months after the Spanish Civil War finally ended.

While Franco received aid from nations abroad and even the approbation of Pope Pius XII, the Republican government found themselves largely bereft. The western democracies of Britain, France, and the United States were unwilling to aid Republican Spain and often hampered or forbade the sale of arms and ammunition. In fact, the only country that provided aid in any significant quantities of the Soviet Union, and the communists would utilize this control on the purse strings to exert additional political control and launch their own purges within the Republican government. As a result the Spanish Civil War has become one of the great ''what if'' scenarios of the twentieth century. What if FDR had lifted the embargo on the sale of weapons to Republican Spain? What if the French had sent a few divisions across the Pyrenees to aid an ailing fellow Republic? The answer is, of course, unknowable, but it represents a great moment of when things should have been done in history.

Which makes the romance of the International Brigades all the greater. Composed of young men, some anarchists, some socialists, some communists, the International Brigades were forces of volunteers who often made their own way to Spain to fight for a cause they believed was vital. Undertrained and woefully underequipped, the International Brigades were thrown into the worst fighting of the Spanish Civil War and as a result saw the highest casualties out of any Republican units. Despite their doomed cause, the International Brigades represented the willingness of ordinary people to give their lives for their beliefs, even when they could have stayed home very comfortably and probably not be affected one way or the other.

Overall I thought this book was interesting. I knew very little about the Spanish Civil War so this was a useful introduction to this period of history for me. I also appreciate that we got to see perspectives beyond the most famous observers such as Hemmingway and Orwell. I definitely think this book is worth the time to check it out and learn about something American audiences might not know much about.

- Kalpar

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Within the Sanctuary of Wings, by Marie Brennan

Today I'm finally getting to the last book of the Lady Trent Memoirs series, Within the Sanctuary of Wings. On the downside I think this book and the series in general could have used a lot more development because there are still a lot of questions I have that probably should have been answered. Lady Trent assumes that the readers, members of her world, know things which are common knowledge in her world. While this makes sense and avoids a bunch of clunky exposition, it does leave the series with some questions unanswered.

This book focuses on a later and significant chapter of Lady Trent's career when she goes to her world's equivalent of the Himalayas to investigate a potential new and unknown species of dragon. The problem is that Lady Trent's home country, Scirland, is at war with this world's equivalent of China so aside from the remoteness of the location and the difficult terrain, there are numerous political challenges that have to be overcome as well. However the potential to discover a missing link between ancient dragons raised by the Draconian civilization and modern dragons proves too much of a temptation for Isabella and once Lady Trent sets her mind to something it's basically impossible to stop her, especially when dragons are involved.

The main point of this book is a huge spoiler for not only the book but the series as well, which reveals major information about the Draconian civilization. I will say I'm not sure I'm fully satisfied with how the book ends and I would have liked even more information about the Draconians. I will say it's fairly realistic that we don't have a complete picture for civilizations that disappeared thousands of years ago, which makes the universe feel real, but I felt since this was a work of fiction Brennan could have cheated a little bit to bring more info into the book than what we ended up getting.

My other biggest criticism is I felt like Brennan spends a lot of time on stuff like the scenery to build up the anticipation for the major plot twists. Now, I will admit that this makes sense and Brennan does a good job describing things like village life, the mountains, the difficulties in crossing glaciers, and all the other challenges that Lady Trent and company encounter. I'm sure there are lots of people who enjoy this sort of thing and it's definitely good writing on Brennan's part, but I honestly kind of wished that more time had been spent talking about plot developments than talking about say, how gorgeous the mountains were. But I think this is really a matter of personal taste and I'm willing to admit that I probably have bad taste.

Overall I think this was a good ending for the series. Considering how much time had been spent building up anticipation for the reveal about the Draconian civilization I wish there had been more of a payoff. However, I think Brennan does a good job in creating a realistic world in her novels and making it believable that dragons could be part of an ecosystem. If you're a fan of science and fantasy, these books do a great job of combining the two.

- Kalpar

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard

Today I'm looking at a book that's part biography, part larger history, and focuses around the events of the assassination of President James Garfield just a handful of months into his term in 1881. Despite initially surviving the bullet and clinging to life for several weeks, Garfield eventually died of massive internal infection leaving Chester A. Arthur, a man nobody had expected to be president, in the White House. In addition to talking about Garfield, this book focuses on the life of his assassin, Charles Giteau, who was not a sane individual by any stretch of the imagination. The aftereffects of this assassination are also important to American history both in what happened and what didn't happen as a result.

James Garfield was a politician from Ohio who did not expect to be nominated for president in 1880. To the very end, Garfield remained loyal to Senator John Sherman of Ohio who he had pledged his vote. The 1880 Republican convention was seeking a new candidate, after the ignominy of Rutherford B. Hayes's electoral victory in 1876 and was divided between three candidates. Ulysses S. Grant, although having already served two terms, was supported by the machine politicians but was opposed by James G. Blaine who was favored by those who supported reform. Finally John Sherman brought up the rear for those dissatisfied with either candidate. Eventually Garfield was selected as a compromise candidate, despite his loud protestations that he did not desire the candidacy. Reluctantly Garfield found himself the nominee, and eventually elected as president of the United States.

According to Millard and her sources, Garfield was a highly respected member of the Republican party at the time, even when he was only a junior congressman from Ohio his oratory skills were lauded by his colleagues. Garfield presents a wonderful opportunity of what could have been because of his political skill, his personality, and his desire for government reform and racial equality. Had Garfield been able to serve even just one full presidential term he might be remembered as far more than a presidential footnote.

Guiteau, by contrast, did not lead a very successful life and considering his mental illness this is not much of a surprise. And based on what Millard described, Guiteau definitely qualifies for some sort of personality disorder, although since I'm not a psychologist I can't define it with any precision. Guiteau spent much of his life wandering from place to place, unable to hold down a job, and trying to avoid creditors. Guiteau spent much of his life borrowing money from acquaintances, promising to pay it back once he got a check that was due to him any day now and purchasing many items for a down payment and failing to pay the remainder of the bill, as well as fleeing from boarding houses in the middle of the night. Most importantly, Guiteau suffered from persistent delusions. Guiteau believed that god had designated him for some special purpose and that a speech Guiteau had written (and had never delivered) was critical to getting Garfield elected. As a result, Guiteau assumed that a duly grateful Garfield would appoint him to some high office, first a consulate in Vienna and later as the general consul in Paris.

Garfield and his staff, receiving the letters and visits from a man who they deemed no more than an eccentric and persistent nuisance of an office seeker, simply stalled him until Blaine, now secretary of state, finally grew tired of Guiteau's inquiries and told him to stop asking about the Paris consulate. Guiteau, taken aback by these remarks, turned on Garfield and his administration and came to believe that god had told him to kill Garfield, ensuring a change in administration for which he would be duly rewarded. Finally, on July 2nd of 1881, Guiteau succeeded in shooting Garfield in the back at the Baltimore and Potomac train station.

The most tragic irony of all of this is that Garfield probably would have survived this assassination attempt and, if he had lived in the modern era, he'd probably be up and walking after a few days in the hospital. Although the bullet had shattered ribs and nicked an artery, it came safely to a rest behind Garfield's pancreas and even without the bullet being removed he probably would have survived. However, due to the unsanitary medical practices of the time, Garfield ended up with a terminal case of internal gangrene and quite literally rotted from the inside out.

Immediately after he was shot, Garfield was carried upstairs in the train station and several doctors probed the president's wound. Some utilized their bare hands, and some utilized a variety of probes, but none of these objects were sterilized before being inserted into the president. Germ theory and the process of sterilization had been relatively new developments to medical science and largely considered false by Americans. The idea that tiny, invisible creatures could make people sick and just by washing your hands and instruments in carbolic acid could prevent this seemed fairly suspicious to them at the time. After Garfield's agonizing death, and the revelation that he had died not from the bullet, but rather from sepsis, American medical science quickly began to accept that maybe there was something to this germ theory after all. However it would take the assassination of William McKinley for the American public to begin to think that maybe the president needed some protection and not just anyone could walk right into the White House.

Overall I thought this book was really interesting. There are a lot of different tangents to this book, such as Alexander Graham Bell (who I hadn't mentioned in the review) who developed a metal detector in an attempt to find the bullet and help save Garfield's life. However, I think they all manage to work together quite well and the result is a satisfactory book. It is interesting to learn about a president that isn't frequently talked about because of the short time he spent in office and Guiteau makes an interesting character by himself. If you're interested in nineteenth century America and learning more about one of the ''placeholder'' presidents or medical science at the time, this book is definitely worth checking out.

- Kalpar