Showing posts with label war. Show all posts
Showing posts with label war. Show all posts

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Hell Hath No Fury: True Stories of Women at War from Antiquity to Iraq by Rosalind Miles, Robin Cross

Rating: WORTHY!

YA authors an graphic novel writers could learn a lot from an awesome book like this, about depicting strong female characters. Full of detail, it relates the stories of scores of women who were warriors, most of them in times when women were not considered capable or emotionally up to it, let alone being strong, independent and fierce.

Even with the detail it offers, it also includes references for further reading. The book is divided into sections for different types of female "soldier" in the broadest sense. It offers war leaders such as Cleopatra, Elizabeth I, and Margaret Thatcher, actual combatants such as Molly Pitcher, Lily Litvak, and Tammy Duckworth, spies like Belle Boyd, Virginia Hall, and Noor Inayat Khan, and reporters and propagandists such as Martha Gellhorn, Tokyo Rose, Anna Politkovskaya. It also has a section on women whom we in the west could not consider heroic: women suicide bombers, and despite the success (for their cause) of female suicide bombers, women in the Middle East are still in a fight for equality, respect, and fair treatment.

The accounts are a mix of general overarching stories supported by very many detailed accounts of individual women. There is a bias towards white western women, but then this is where the best documentation resides, and even there, some of it was biased against women or largely erased or considered not noteworthy! Women can't win no matter what color they are, but hopefully that's undergoing what will become a permanent change now.

Despite this there are many women of color included as well as rather obscure women where documentation could be found, and the stories cover ancient history (Greek and Roman) through modern (Iraq War). The authors are not afraid to tell it how it is even if it does not make the woman in question look exactly pristine. While there seems to be something of a bias in World War Two accounts to British and American women, and in more recent wars to American soldiers, there is something for everyone here, and it all goes to prove beyond any question that women are every bit the equal of men, no excuses, no qualifications, no more lies and bullshit.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Shadow World by Andrew Feinstein

Rating: WARTY!

Here's another non-fiction I didn't like. Again I came to this through a TV documentary and it really highlighted the problems with documentaries versus the problems with books. TV documentaries are way too much fluff. They show the same images over and over and over, and ask hoards of questions, but give very few in-depth or satisfying answers. Often they outright lie, as I discovered when watching the documentary Pump about the inexcusable stranglehold oil has on society in the USA.

The problem with this audiobook is that it had way too much detail, going onto things in far more depth than I was interested in listening to! By the time the guy rather breathlessly finished his details, I had forgotten what the heck he'd been talking about earlier! This went on for page after page (or in this case disk after disk, and there were a lot of disks). In the end I simply gave up on it. Yes, a lot of people have got rich off arms sales, including US corporations and politicians. Yes it's obnoxious, but after listening to this I was almost ready to say, "Good for them!" I didn't, but I can't recommend this.

If you're interested in excruciating detail, much of which is out of date, and you can get the ebook or print book and read it quietly, focusing on it 100%, it might be the book for you, but it's not something you want to try to get anything out of when driving in traffic because it requires too much attention to detail!

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Sudden Justice by Chris Woods

Rating: WORTHY!

From a Heath Robinson start with next-to-nothing, the US now has the capability in drones, logistics, and support, to run over sixty simultaneous observation operations with the ability to deliver a deadly payload if required. The old MQ-1 Predator drone could carry two AGM-114 Hellfire missiles or equivalent, whereas the MQ-9 Reaper which replaced it can carry fifteen times more ordnance. We're told these things can observe quietly, gather intel, track people and vehicles, and destroy them if it's deemed necessary, with "surgical precision." The problem, as investigators have discovered, is that no one in their right mind would ever want that kind of surgeon performing an operation this ham-fisted on their body.

This detailed - but not overly detailed - account quickly and efficiently gets to the heart of the issues: where the drones came from, how they were brought into use, how badly-organized the effort was to begin with, and how clinically efficient it is now, yet despite these improvements, the money thrown at it, and the massive support organization, this missteps, and the collateral damage caused by this system is scary - and may be doing more harm to efforts to combat terrorism than it is ever doing good.

The problem with the system is a human one, as always! The issues range from getting good intel from sources other than the drones in order to set the drones on the right track in the first place, to correctly identifying targets and tracking them. The drones fly at 18,000 feet (6K meters), and from that height, even with good video, you can't tell if a person is carrying a weapon. You even be sure who that person is. And without expert support and the patience of a saint, you can't be sure if the gathering you're about to blast with a HARM missile is a meeting of terrorists, or some kids sitting around playing and chatting. The reaper can also carry Sidewinder or AMRAAM air-to-air missiles.

Another issue is the pilots/observers. The USAF has been of late training more pilots for these vehicles than for any other system, and these people evidently work twelve-hour shifts. That's twelve hours (with breaks of course) spent in a darkened room, staring at a rather grainy monitor on which very little is happening for very much of the time. Who came up with a dumb-ass scheme like that is a mystery, but it has government and military stenciled all over it. The result is that pilots are falling asleep and are diverted from the monitors by other interests such as reading a book, chatting with others in the room, and playing computer games! The regular games won't work on this system, but games built using the Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or clones of it will work quite handily! This is how a virus - fortunately benign it seems - came to be found in some of these systems.

This book gives the goods on all of this and a lot more. I recommend it if you're interested in finding out what these drones are up to and what their shortcomings are.

The Way of the Knife by Mark Mazzetti

Rating: WARTY!

Unfortunately this is what you get when a reporter writes a book and doesn't realize he's writing a book and not a newspaper column. He's so focused on making the subject seem real that he goes way overboard. Did I really want to know that Mr A smokes Benson & Hedges? Seriously, no!

It's true, as the blurb says, that "America has pursued its enemies with killer drones and special operations troops; trained privateers for assassination missions and used them to set up clandestine spying networks; and relied on mercurial dictators, untrustworthy foreign intelligence services, and proxy armies." How a writer can make that boring is a mystery to me, but this one did.

This book, which I came to via a TV documentary I watched recently, had some really interesting bits, but most of it is now out of date and the bulk of it is boring. Overall it was a tedious listen. I found myself skipping tracks more and more, and then I skipped the entire rest of the book. I can't recommend it.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

Rating: WORTHY!

After someone whose reviews I follow mentioned this, I requested it from the library thinking initially that it was a woman's account of being in the IDF, but while the author has indeed been in the IDF, this is a fictional work about three other women in the IDF. As such, I'm sure that it does contain biographical elements, but it is not a biography. That clarified, I found it an eminently worthy read. It was fascinating, funny a hell in parts, and engrossing. A couple of pieces fell completely flat for me, and the penultimate chapter was completely bizarre, but overall I loved it. The closest thing I've read to this was Joseph Heller's Catch-22 which I favorably reviewed back in February 2014. If you liked that, you'll probably like this, and vice-worsted.

This fictional work follows three Israeli women (Avishag, Lea, and Yael) from their last months in high school in an isolated north Israel village, to enlistment the Tsva ha-Hagana le-Yisra'el (known in the west as the IDF or Israeli Defence Force), and beyond. It's written by a Harvard graduate who grew up in Israel in a location similar to the one where the novel begins. All Israelis, male or female, are required to enlist at age eighteen, for two years. There is no distinction between genders. That's what makes the IDF so amazing. The rest of the world is scrambling to catch up to this obviously optimal state of affairs.

The story isn't exactly linear, nor does it follow the usual story flow. Normally this would annoy me, but once in a while it works, and it works here. I lived in Israel for a short period of time (a while ago!), and this story came across as authentic through and through. The layout is a series of slightly disconnected vignettes or impressions - almost still life's - of these three girls as they travel through the next two or three years, and it is by turns disturbing, frightening, saddening, hilarious, and heart-warming. The way the story is laid out makes the reader feel disconnected, too, and makes nonsensical stories make sense in this context. It also serves to give the reader a good idea of what it's like to live in a nation which feels itself constantly at war even when no overt war is going on.

For me, Lea was the most fascinating character, especially after her experience with a man who slashed the throat of her fellow guard on the border-guard duty they were engaged in. How Lea reacts to this - the slow burn she undergoes - is disturbing and deeply unnerving. Avishag is the most amusing character. Her entire life seems almost like a Monty Python sketch and her name seems particularly à propos. At one point she completely loses it while on guard duty in a tower across from the Egyptian border. They are so bored with nothing happening day after day after day that when she takes off all of her clothes and lays down in a fetal position on the floor of her tower, the Egyptians don't even notice for some time.

Eventually one of the Egyptians is so bored that he decides to actually do his job as a break from the monotony, and when he aims his binocs at the Israeli side, there are two female border guards lying naked on the floor of their watch tower. The Egyptians think it's some sort of trick or insult, and a report travels up the Egyptian chain of command to the top, crosses the border, and travels down the Israeli chain of command. The girls get eight weeks in the brig for being improperly dressed on duty or something. Yael, for me wasn't quite so interesting, and some of the snapshots in general were boring to me, but overall, the novel was quite stunning and I fully recommend it.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Princes of War by Claude Schmid

Rating: WARTY!

I gave up on this at one third the way through it. I know they say war is a lot of sitting around waiting, punctuated by intense action, but this novel - in the third of I could stand to read - consisted of nothing but sitting around and no action at all. All there was, was soldiers introspectively hashing endlessly over and over what they're doing there, what the political purpose is, what the stressors are, and it goes round and round. Nothing came out of any of this, and there was literally nothing else on offer here. That was fine for the first few pages, but every single page was the same, relentlessly and without end for page after page. It was boring. How you can make a story about the Iraq 'conflict' boring is a mystery to me, but this author achieved it.

I don't expect a novel like this to be endless action either. That would be boring, too, and amateurish, but I do expect, in a war zone, some warlike activity to be taking place, and there was none in sight here. It was so tedious that I was simply not prepared to suck it up for however many more pages it took to get there (assuming we ever got anywhere other than here).

The sad thing is that this was written by someone who has been there and done that, so I thought at the very least it would offer some interesting insights into life over there, but it really didn't, unless life over there was one long nonstop run of boredom from start to finish, which is not my experience form other things I've read about it. I honestly believe that a true biography of this author's time there would have been more entertaining than this novel. It certainly could not have been less so. Even if life was boring, there's no need whatsoever, in a work of fiction, to transmit that to the reader.

For a novel set in such an exotic location, there was nothing to excite the senses here, nothing revelatory, nothing humorous, and nothing to engage the mind, unless you happen to be one of the probably very rare people who is quite literally clueless about Iraq and what went on there. That aside, there was nothing here that you would not have gleaned from watching the nightly news in 2004 (when this novel is set). In fact you would likely have gained more, because this gave me no insights and very little by way of explanation of the whys and wherefores of the activity the soldiers were engaged in. For example, one day they go out to conduct a census in a street somewhere, and never is the purpose of the survey explained. Yes, of course it's to discover who lives where and how many there are, but to what ultimate end? I got no idea from this novel.

One big problem was the endless meandering back and forth with constant flashbacks without any good reason. They contributed nothing to the story for me, and worse, they did nothing save add to the tedium. I took to skimming these in short order. This addiction to flashback-ing ill-served the story too, as I shall explain here! The author gives times in military time of course, but there is no punctuation, so instead of 20:35, we got 2035. This was the first time I saw a time in numeric form in this novel, and I thought it was a date. It honestly looked like, in context, one of the soldiers was flash-forwarding, fantasizing or looking forward to a date thirty years into the future where he would be retired from the military and hanging with his friend having survived and lived to a ripe(r) old age, but he was actually just talking about eight thirty-five that evening! It was confusing for a second or two and then provided the only laugh I got from this novel!

I like a good military read with something to say, but this wasn't it, and I cannot recommend it based on the portion I read.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Tin Men by Christopher Golden

Title: Tin Men
Author: Christopher Golden
Publisher: Penguin Random House
Rating: WORTHY!

Not to be confused with the movie of the same name or with a score of novels of the same name, this story with a rather unoriginal and un-inventive title is about a soldier named Danny Kelso who is at the end of his tether with the relationship he's in with Nora, but he can't think about that right now because he has to get to work. Work in Danny's case is driving a robot soldier.

Set in the near future, Danny lives in Germany, but is fighting in Syria. When an EMP hits his robot, he finds himself trapped inside it. How this works - how it was even allowed to work is never explained, and that, in a tin shell, is the biggest problem with this novel. It requires far too much faith and trust without giving a thing in return. It requires your disbelief to be suspended so high and for so long that it chokes the life out of it.

The novel started out okay, but it seems a little odd that Danny was concerned about being late. He clocks in on time, and then has breakfast - something the soldiers are allowed to do - but his sergeant is immediately on his case for being late? This made no sense to me. Other than that, the story moved speedily towards the action.

This underlying idea borrows heavily from the movie Avatar and from the movie The Matrix, and from the movie Surrogates, and from the movie Robocop, but it makes none of the contextual sense that those movies make. These soldiers are not 'dressed up as robots' to look like the local natives, who are human. They're not in their cocoons so some machine race can suck up their emitted energy. They're not so attired out of vanity or playfulness or because of a money-grubbing corporation.

Instead they're merely remote soldiers, enhanced by the strength, speed and power of robotics, and the only reason offered for this is to save soldiers' lives, yet even that is a flawed premise as we shall see. These soldiers are not remotely piloting the robots - so at least that flaw is bypassed, but their consciousness is downloaded into the robot. This makes zero sense, casebook it means that their real bodies, in Germany, are now essentially vegetables, and if anything goes wrong, a soldiers' consciousness is trapped inside the robot and when it dies, they die. How is this an improvement over what they had?!

Why anyone would design a system like this is a complete mystery, but this trope is the same one we saw in The Matrix and many other such stories and it's fatally flawed because no rationale whatsoever is given for why your mind is gone from your body or even how it's gone. You know, even if you delete something from your computer hard drive, it's actually still there. You have to physically overwrite that section of the drive with something else before it's erased. So why would copying your mind to a robot erase your mind?

When you have photos in your cloud and you send one to a friend or family member, the original photo isn't erased. It remains in the cloud, What you send is a copy and it doesn't matter if you send one or you send one to every one of the seven billion people on Earth, you still have that original. So where is the precedent for voiding the mind of a human being? There is none. It makes no sense.

Quite the contrary, it would make far more sense to copy the mind and have the same person inhabiting a whole platoon of these robots, working in perfect coordination and for a fraction of the cost of hiring and training a whole bunch of soldiers. Naturally you want a variety of soldiers so people think out of the box, but you don't need the million person army the US currently has (counting the National guard and the reserve). You just need a core of excellent soldiers and a host of mechanics and fabricators. The problem then, though, is that without this old trope, an author is screwed for the drama, so this is why we're so frequently asked to just leap right over this huge pothole and hope we land in irises and daffodils, and not the muddy depths of another pothole.

When I checked some of the reviews for this novel I noticed that one reviewer had downgraded it purely for the bad language on the first page, but there really wasn't any bad language on the first page! There was one four-letter word, and not even the worst four-letter word, and that was it. The deal here, though, is that this is a novel about the military in combat. You don't get military in combat with no bad language! If you get a story like that, with soldiers saying things like "Rats!" and "Curses" then you know this story is not at all realistic! Although it would be hilarious!

If I might digress for a minute and talk about language, a crucial part of writing, I have to say that this whole thing about bad language is amusing to me because it's patently ridiculous from the ground up. Think about it. As a society, we English speakers have chosen to designate some words as "Very Naughty Indeed" (VNI). Speakers of other languages have made similar rules and regulations, but their rules are nonsensical to us because their designated words, which are appalling in their own language, are meaningless to us.

This hasn't stopped us, however! We have all of us agreed that they're "Very Naughty Indeed", and none of us really ought to be saying any of these VNI words. They're not just cuss words either. We've agreed to include some racist words and even words that insult relatives, such as "Yo' mama". We mustn't say these words, we've agreed, and we must pretend to be shocked when people use them. In fact, we've become so adept at this pretense that many people don't even need to pretend - they're genuinely shocked at hearing them.

Curiously, most of these words are related to sex organs or sexual functions, and to be good and upright citizens we mustn't ever say them and we must appear appalled when we hear them. We all agreed on this! How crazy is that? How ridiculous are we that we make up these conventions? How crazy is it that some words, even amongst the shocking ones, are more shocking than others, and some people will take offense at one and not at another?"

Oh I'm going to be hurt by that racist word, because I have a prior agreement with you, the person who is abusing me, that if you use a little six letter word to try and hurt me, I promise to you in return that I will be genuinely hurt. This is the pact made between a racist and their intended victim: that the one will say the word and the other agrees to be wounded by it!

The truly weird thing here is that these apparent antagonists are really on the same team. They're working together in this. They're playing from the same play-book. These enemies are partners! How utterly absurd is that? The only rational response to the use of such words isn't hatred or outrage or cowardice. It's to laugh - a good belly laugh at this patently ridiculous convention to which we all subscribe, whereby I agree completely to let you hurt me by using a VNI word.

Parts of this novel bothered me. The idea that only the US can save the rest of the world and that when global warming somehow turned the world into an apocalyptic wasteland, the US was the only nation willing and able to step up - the US which is the one doing a lion's share of the polluting, guzzling a lion's share of the resources, burning oil like it will never run out.

Another thing was the genderism. Even while writing a story presenting women as equals including, commendably, a handicapped woman, we still got this: "Early twenties, black, lovely in the awkward never-going-to-realize-I'm beautiful sort of way that some women had." Change 'beautiful' to 'handsome' and 'women' to 'men' and read it again. Does it sound weird? It shouldn't, but it probably does, because you never see writers write like that about men. Even female authors write like that about women though. I was rather expecting some jingo-ism, military bravado, and genderism in a story like this, I'm sorry to say, but even so it's still off-putting to read, in 2015, that a woman really isn't of any value unless she's beautiful. Otherwise why mention it? And what difference does it make that she's black?

When Kelso 'downloads' into his bot, he discovers that one of the others from the previous shift has painted a target on his chest. It seems that discipline is seriously lacking here. The bots pair off and start patrolling Damascus. Why the US is there at all is a mystery given the trouble Syria has had and the US stayed clear - at least in terms of ground deployment, but here we are. Nor do I get what resource is in Syria that needs protecting. People, yes, but the US has never been as big on protecting lives as it has on protecting non-human resources. What happened to the Syrian government such as it was? What happened to the Syrian army that the US now has free reign in this nation? None of this is explained.

It's actually when the pilots got into the bots that we started seeing some inconsistencies. First we're told that the bots have no identification markings (other than what jokers have painted on them), to insure that no enemy can identify the leaders. This makes sound military sense. Then they have Kate, one of the pilots or drivers, saluting the sergeant, thereby identifying him as the leader. This makes no sense. No one in their right mind salutes in deployment conditions for precisely that reason - so the enemy doesn't know who is in charge and are not presented an easy and perhaps critical target. But the readily identifiable markings on each robot clearly define who is who.

There's very little information given about how the download works. In a scene pretty much taken directly from the remake of Robocop, when the drivers 'wake up' inside the bots, they're evidently standing in the street where anyone who knew the shift change could have simply destroyed them before they got their new pilots! Not smart. Robots patroling a Middle East nation is how the movie began.

The robots evidently blink, too. I have no idea why they would make them blink. Also, their eyes light up! Why do they always do this? We no longer believe as the ancient Greeks (or someone) did that your eyes emit rays which allow you to see, yet they always do this with robots! These bots can also arch their eyebrows and narrow their eyes. Seriously? Why? They gave the robots eyebrows? This made no sense at all. It made as little sense as the US having this technology when it's perfectly clear at this point that the leaders in robot technology are the Japanese. What was it which made the US magically leap ahead in only a decade or so? How come no other nation has anything like this?

There's another problem, too. The bots are obviously electronic. We get no information about what protection they have from electrical overloads, yet every one of them is fully functioning after a pulse strong enough to take out satellites! Despite this, each one of them has a fatal weakness - a weak spot between two joins that no one - unaccountably - seems to be able to fix. None of this makes any sense! What, they don't have any spare patches of depleted uranium to weld over the weak spot? They can't slip a Kevlar vest over them to hide it and protect it?

We meet Alexa Day who is the daughter of the US ambassador to Syria. Her father has invited her to join him in Syria. This took me right of the realm of credibility - that is unless her father doesn't care about her and actually wants to get her killed. This is a war zone in a country where people quite literally hate the US - even more so now, we're told, yet dad invites his teen daughter to visit?

The thing which bugged me most about this story however was that these soldiers do not in any way act like soldiers. They take forever to respond to what's obviously a potential threat. When they do, they stand around in the open all in a bunch, none of them taking up defensive positions. When they're attacked by some guy they can see with a rocket launcher, not a one of them fires back. This allows the rocket man to destroy one of the bots. This is sheer incompetence!

When the EMP hits, instead of taking the fight to their enemy, they stand around gabbing about EMP pulses and whether the satellite uplink is out instead of taking out the guy with the rocket launcher. Only belatedly do they think they ought to be engaging the enemy. This is not how a soldier behaves. I don't care if they feel secure inside the bots.

It was completely unrealistic, and their support was non-existent. We have drones of all kinds flying today. Ten years from now there are none? They send bots up in a helicopter to do aerial surveillance? They have no EMP protection plan? The bots survived an EMP pulse powerful enough to knock out satellites in space?! It simply wasn't realistic.

It wasn't realistic either in that it pretty much assumed that no-one had ever heard of EMP much less done any testing of susceptibility to, or reinforcing of systems against, it, and this is simply not true. Solar flares, and even lightning generate EMP, and airplanes fly through lightning and are stuck by it fairly routinely without crashing from the sky. Critical systems, especially military ones, are routinely tested against EMP pulses emitted from a device called a Marx generator, but you would need a large number of very large devices such as these operating from orbit to affect anyone, and they would have to emit a pulse of sufficient magnitude to overcome the weakening effects of inverse-square law. And how would these ever be put into space without the US or other nations noticing?

I read about a third of this before I gave up, unable to keep the growing weight of my disbelief from coming crashing down. Maybe the pulse will knock your socks off. It didn't affect mine, which are evidently Faraday safe!

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Postcards From a War by Vanita Oeschlanger

Title: Postcards From a War
Author: Vanita Oeschlanger
Publisher: Vanita Books
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

Illustrated by Mike Blanc and Col. Wilfrid Bauknight USAR (no website).

I've become a big fan of Vanita Oeschlanger. She writes unusual and charming children's books, all of which seem to have some purpose other than simply being something pretty to look at and something to read to your kids. I reviewed A Tale of Two Mommies and A Tale of Two Daddies yesterday. This story is slightly misnamed since it takes place immediately after a war, but it's based on a real person who went abroad and sent home illustrated letters for his kids, and that's used as a framework to write an assuring and realistic story for a modern kid whose mom has gone abroad to a war zone.

It's wonderfully written in clear and unequivocal language and it pulls no punches. It speaks intelligently and warmly, and it offers as much reassurance as something as uncertain as this situation can give. Col. Wilfrid Bauknight went to the Philippines to rebuild bridges and so on after Japan had surrendered. He was gone for only six months, but naturally his wife and children missed him, so he wrote back to them often and created hilarious drawings to illustrate his journey and activities.

Depicted here as a grandfather talking to his grandson about war and family absences, we get the story of his own life away as he relates it to his grandson's fears and difficulties. I love the way the grandfather speaks of his grandson's generation as being tasked to find better ways to resolve difficulties than war. I share that sentiment, but let's get started now, let's not wait for the kids to grow up and get to it!

Apart from the great illustrations, one of the finest things about this book is that all net profits benefit the Fisher House foundation (the link is on my blog), which is dedicated to meeting the needs of the nation's service members, veterans and their families. I recommend this story.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

All Clear by Connie Willis

Title: All Clear
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Rating: WARTY!

Read shrilly by Katherine Kellgren.

This was awful! I can't believe how bad this was. I think it's very possibly the most irritating and boring novel I've ever not read - I listened to it. Or to as much of it as I could stand anyway. I got only 10% of the way through it before I threw it away. Not literally, I dutifully and promptly returned it to the library.

It’s book 2 in what’s at least a dilogy, something which I didn’t know, going in. Not that it really matters that much. Connie Willis herself warns at the beginning that you really ought to read book one before you start on this, but what’s the point, honestly, of issuing that warning when you’re sitting there driving down the highway (or even up the low-way) listening to it already? What I’m saying is that it’s a bit late at that point!

I got this from the library and there was nothing in the description on the library's website to warn me that I should read book one first – or even to say this was book two! Here’s the library’s blurb:

Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author Connie Willis returns with a stunning, enormously entertaining novel of time travel, war, and the deeds, great and small, of ordinary people who shape history.

“Connie Willis returns” tells me this isn’t her debut novel. It doesn’t tell me this is book two of a series! Shame on you librarians who evidently just lifted a blurb from somewhere and thought no more about it! (I love them really!) The reader was Katherine Kellgren, and her voice was appropriate to the era, but this merely meant that it was high pitched and shrill, which was really, and I mean really, off-putting. If you must read this, I recommend that you actually read it, and avoid the audio book version.

As for the story itself, I didn’t see the point. This is supposed to be sci-fi time-travel. To me there’s nothing more exciting, which makes me wonder why so many writers use that frame as nothing more than a bait-and-switch tactic to lure their readers into what is, in the end, merely an historical fiction, or worse, an historical romance. Seriously?

If all you’re going to do with your time-travel story is trap your main character in some historical setting, then I’m sorry but you’re really nothing more than a con-artist mis-representing your story! I will resent your tactics and read no more of your oeuvre. For me, there actually has to be some real sci-fi in a sci-fi story!

In this case, a team of time-travelers, who were evidently studying history (you’d have to have read book one to really understand what they were doing or why it even - supposedly - made sense), were somehow trapped in World War two London in 1940 during the blitz, of course, and were in complete disarray. For the first two disks they were obsessed with a store by the name of Padgett's and with whether three people or five people had died there. It went on and on - for two disks. God it was boring!

They're from the future, but were evidently and inexplicably completely bereft of any kind communication devices, and the entirety of the first two disks consisted of some time-traveler woman whining shrilly about her own personal circumstances amidst the destruction, death, and din of London. That was two disks too much ‘whining and dinning’ for me. I can’t recommend this.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Browned Off and Bloody-Minded by Alan Allport

Title: Browned Off and Bloody-Minded
Author: Alan Allport
Publisher: Yale University Press
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

This is non-fiction, yet some of the stories in it rival fiction for how engrossing they are. The author has put together a record of World War Two, told from the perspective of the British army, and he relates this history unflinchingly, warts and all.

Some of the chapter titles might give you an idea of what's involved here: Gentlemen and old Sweats, Strange Defeat, Army of Shopkeepers, Britain Blancoes While Russia Bleeds, Come to Sunny Italy, Fighting Bloody Nature, The Grammar of War, What a Colossal Waste of Time War is.

Unlike fiction, this isn't necessarily the kind of book where you start at the beginning and proceed sequentially to the end. I felt it was more of a dip-in and browse, but even in doing that, I found myself becoming engrossed and reading on and on, past the chapter I'd begun in and onto the next. I have an interest in this war, having grown up next door, and having traveled in Europe, so you might not find this quite as enthralling as I did, but if you have watched any World War Two movies - ones based on actual events - and found them engrossing, then this will more than likely interest you, too.

Some of the stories are downright disturbing. Being a big fan of tanks, there's one which made a lasting impression on me, regarding an encounter between a British Sherman tank and a German Tiger tank, which you can read
here. The book is full of these stories of heroism and incompetence, of life-wasting bad plans and of strokes of genius, of bravery and foolishness, and of victory and disaster. And this is what we ask our young men - and now young women - to put up with. Is it worth it, and if not, then what's a viable alternative to squandering youth on death?

The book doesn't flinch about discussing personal lives and predilections either, such as relating a story about soldier 'Dicky' Buckle, who was not only openly gay (something which was largely accepted during World War Two, and then turned into a crime post-war: Alan Turing I'm thinking of you, and many others), but he was one of the bravest men in his entire battalion. One time he found a wedding dress in amongst German possessions and wore it to the officer's mess that same evening. He was not a rarity, either. no one batted an eyelid at this. Not then.

Women are do not go unnoticed here, although most of the references to them are to those who suffered because hostile nations were fighting over territory which they called home, or who out of sheer necessity found themselves selling their bodies in return for the most basic things they needed just to live from one day to the next. During the war, Britain not only mobilized almost six million men, it also mobilized well over half a million women. A hoard of those who did not enter service in the military did enter it in industry in place of the men who were no longer available. You cannot indulge a nation in those activities on such a massive scale without the consequences, good and bad, permeating every stratum of a society.

This book is really long - some 540 pages, although the last one hundred or so are appendices and exhaustive end notes, but that said, it didn't feel like it was long. It was too interesting. I recommend this for anyone interested in what the conflicts should really be about and how they should be approached.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Ricochet by Mary Jo McConahay

Title: Ricochet
Author: Mary Jo McConahay
Publisher: Shebooks
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.

This is a very short memoir (only 46 pages) but is packed with feeling and intensity. It's related by a print journalist who is resident in Guatemala. She covers wars and insurgencies throughout the area, but this story focuses on the El Salvador civil war, and the fighting going on during an election which the right-wing won and which then went on to rule the nation despite its association with callous death squads.

The narrator is friends with another journalist by the name of Nancy, whom she's known for years and with whom she's very close. The two take up residence in a nice, comfortable hotel along with a gaggle of other journalists from all over the world. In the past this pair has covered stories together, but here, though they share a room, they venture out individually and at risk of their life to cover potential stories for their US newspapers.

There is a stark contrast between their air-conditioned hotel life and real life (and death) out on the dusty, blood-stained streets. They're surrounded by shooting, bombs, and suffering, which hits hardest at the non-combatants - the families, the young children, the moms and dads, the siblings. The narrator seems able to compartmentalize this horror to an extent, but Nancy reaches a point, after a journalist friend is killed in a border crossing misunderstanding, where she cannot stand the idea of seeing another dead body, yet she remains in El Salvador to teach children how to be photographers (in between the times they must spend scavenging at the city dump).

The narrator doesn't believe Nancy will give up her reporting life, but she's wrong, and despite set-backs and a horror story, her friend makes a success of her newly-chosen avocation.

This kind of story is not normally my cup of tea (tequila?) but in this case, I have to say that I am so glad I read it. It's gritty and immediate, and regardless of the details: of how much is related exactly as it happened and how much is a filtered recollection, it's nonetheless as real as it's disturbing, and as depressing as it is heartening. I recommend this memoir.