Monday, December 10, 2012

The Million Death Quake: The Science of Predicting Earth's Deadliest Natural Disaster by Roger Musson

The Million Death Quake: The Science of Predicting Earth's Deadliest Natural Disaster
by Roger Musson

This is a quick, breezy but surprisingly jam packed book discussing earthquakes.  I don't have much of a science background since I stopped taking those sorts of classes in high school but I was able to follow the clear explanations of terms and concepts.  It actually reminded me of some enthusiastic professors I've had over the years.  Musson is clearly fascinated by the subject and wants to share his interest with the rest of us.  The book contains a quick history of earthquakes as well as their detection and explanation.  The book concludes with sections on government policy and what people should do.  The chapter on building standards was fascinating.  I'll never quite looking at a large lobby in a hotel the same way again.

Highly recommended!

Note this book was provided for review by the publisher.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Fantasy Sexism and History

There are times when even I have to actually get off my butt and do some blogging. One of those was a column like this. Basically to summarize fantasy based on history shouldn't be sexist because history is all sexist nonsense anyway.  Well...  OK.

At least there is reference to social history.  It does deal with more pro feminist discussion.  However it's not made clear that at least in North America social history is the dominant field of study since the 1980s.  If we're going to study evil sexist military history than in Canada there are pretty much only two civilian choices University of Calgary and university of New Brunswick.

Do you really wanna go down a road where it suggested that the entire written record is corrupt?  All right fine but guess what that means you're reduced to archaeology and that's about it.  Kind of hard to discuss all those powerful women working behind the scenes if all you've got are some ruins and remains of pottery.

The comments are chopped up with all sorts of fail as well.  Circular logic and strawmen [strawpeople?].  My favorite is pointing out Eleanor of Aquitaine as a powerful woman in her own right.  Sure but not exactly typical of your average peasant woman living to 35 and dying in childbirth.  Which actually nicely ties in with the "big man" view of history which of course the social historians despise.  So it's a bit of a garbled mess.  Or the shock amongst shock memoirs from women who dressed up as men and fought in the American civil War.  The reason why these memoirs are so famous is because they are unusual.  Yes women fought in the Viet Cong know they were never near 50%.  Also see the Night Witches from WWII.  But again unusual.

When I was explaining this to my dad he rightfully pointed out.  This is fiction right?  If there's a demand it'll sell.  He's right and don't rush down to comment and tell me that the New York publishers are a bunch of sexist jerks.  In an era of crowd sourcing and electronic publishing if everyone in that comment thread that is so enraged chipped in the price of a hardcover you'd have one very well funded small press.

I guess what irks me the most is the final line.  Telling people to "Make your books better." No sorry you make yours better.  You don't get the judge the quality that's for "me" to decide.  No one gets to take that agency for me.

Although if that comment thread is any judge none of the above matters because the last time I checked I'm a guy.

Friday, October 05, 2012

The casual vacancy by J. K. Rowling

The casual vacancy
by J. K. Rowling

This contains spoilers. So if you don’t want to be spoiled, then stop reading now.

I really need to stop pre-ordering books. That is perhaps the moral of this story, because I am not sure the book itself has one. But, first, let’s try to deal with the plot such as it is. The back cover blurb makes it sound like the central plot of the book will be about an election to replace a council member who died, that this election will divide the community, rich against poor, old against young, et cetera, et cetera. We find out, eventually, that the major political issue of the campaign is whether or not to keep a poor section of the community within its boundaries. Yes, the election does take place. No, the vote doesn't actually take place. No, we never get closure on what happened to the boundary.

So, instead, what do we have here?  Basically we have 500 pages of characters screaming at each other and occasionally having sex, but mostly screaming.  I have no idea who I am supposed to sympathize with. I have read in some places that this book is considered left wing propaganda.  If it is, it fails miserably. Presumably the left wing cause it trumpets is the poor, but it is not as if their portrayal is particularly positive either, dismissed as trapped junkies forced into crime and prostitution, unable even with government programs to escape the circle of dependency.The only character that did actually escape is the dead member of council who we never actually meet.

The rich or, at least, middle class townspeople come off just as badly, petty, small minded, vindictive, manipulative. What I found particularly aggravating was the professionals in the book, the teachers, social workers, doctors appeared to have absolutely no idea what they were doing. Even basic things like confidentiality agreements were ignored when it suited the plot, but suddenly remembered when it was necessary. Perhaps that is the point, that all people are evil and anyone in authority is incompetent. If so, I would have preferred to save my time and my money.

When the book was reaching its climax I paused for a moment to text a friend to tell them that I imagined the author sitting in front of her computer screaming at the top of her lungs, “Adult? I will show you adult.” And she did, if you consider adult to be the following: profanity, sex, teenage sex, drug use, smoking, petty crimes, rape, cutting, possible pedophila and, finally, suicide. 

The book also contains an impressive amount of use of the F-word often in multiple times in the same sentence.  It is like she watched Pulp Fiction one too many times or really had problems making word count.
And the book does drag horribly. She repeats characterization over and over again.  Part of this is necessary because she introduces such a huge cast of characters. Apparently it is mentioned in the Kindle edition that there are over 80.  If she had bothered to focus in on two or three or maybe four, we could get to know them, but we are being shuttled around constantly. Just when we got used to some one we are off to somebody else.

From a technical standpoint the writing itself is occasionally bad, first writing course bad. Basic things like avoid adverbs in speech tags are ignored, is rampant. There is one dinner party scene where I think we are changing point of view every few lines of dialog. There is a reason why you don’t do this. It is because it confuses the reader. Eventually they have no idea whose head you are in. I became lost at least three times.

As was typical in her other books, she likes her figures of speech carpet bombing the text like the RAF on a night raid over Germany, the explosions ripping into the pages.  See how jarring that was, how superfluous? Think of 500 pages of that.  She also gladly leaves the boring parts in. We get a discourse on fake versus real breasts in pornography. As for the idea that a council website would have a forum, but at the same time have it set up by someone totally incompetent who only passed one class is just too ridiculous to contemplate. When a major plot device in your book is that anyone can hack into this forum when I know free forum software that presumably was reasonably secure existed 15 years ago, it makes the author who named drops Facebook and other brand names seem either lazy or out of touch.

I am not sure if I am getting my point across. I was very disappointed with this book. If it had been cut down by at least a third, possibly a half and had only focused on a handful of characters, I could maybe see this working. How a single event can transform the lives of all who experience it. It is an interesting idea, but in the execution we have to be able to cheer for someone, a hero or even an anti hero. I hope this was her big message book and she got it out of her system and that she will go back to writing fun stuff. But I will wait for the reviews to find out. I am not preordering her stuff anymore.

Not recommended!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran by David Crist

The Twilight War: The Secret History of America's Thirty-Year Conflict with Iran 
by David Crist

Over the last 40 years there has been a cold and occasionally hot war between the United States and Iran. This history is usually only discussed in academic or service journals. This is the first book that I am aware of that attempts to deal with the interaction between the two countries since the Iranian revolution as a whole. 

Not surprisingly, the book is mostly focused with Washington, D.C. and the various military and bureaucratic infighting about what to do about various Iranian actions. There are so many players discussed in the diplomatic intelligence and military spheres that it can be hard to keep them all straight, even for someone like me who has a deep interest in late 20th century American politics. That criticism aside, the descriptions of the different groups’ views and the bureaucratic infighting is fascinating, at least to someone like me who took several political science courses. 

If you are more interested in combat and spy craft, you will not be disappointed. There are also detailed descriptions of the various engagements that the two nations have been involved in, mostly over the shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf. 

One of his major points is that both countries—particularly at this stage during the Obama administration—are so paranoid towards the other that doing any sort of confidence building is probably impossible. Whenever one country wished to soften its stance towards the other, they would be pushed away. Naturally the roles will be reversed a few years later. So over the last generation this means that neither side is willing to take an olive branch put forward by the other seriously. In the future, this does not bode well, particularly with the conflict over the Iranian nuclear program. 

The book usually relies on American sources, although there seems to be a few from Iran, although, of course, it would not be possible to go in and do archival research in Tehran. So this isn’t going to be the last word on the topic by any means, but it is an excellent start and well worth your time if you are interested in the subject. 

Highly recommended.

 Note:This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Handel by Christopher Hogwood

by Christopher Hogwood

This is a biography of the composer most famous for Messiah.  Hogwood a conductor and musician does a pretty good job of sifting through the various available sources to give us a picture of the man.  Unfortunately Handel didn't produce much material and what he did so often played fast and loose with what actually happened.  So there's a lot of third party information.

As far as the music much is made of Handel's operas.  I can't really speak to the musical assessments I actually found the discussion of infighting and politics between the various operatic companies to be one of the best parts of the book.  Overlaid as it was by the different factions of British royalty.  Messiah is glossed over as far as a piece of music instead it's considered within its religious context.  Could something with religious themes be shown as a secular entertainment?  Did that devalue its religious aspect?  Something that doesn't seem to come up that often these days if anything it's usually the other way around can something secular be used for religious instruction...

The book concludes with why Handel who after all was German has been embraced so much by the British.  Hogwood argues that it was because he portrayed the best of what the British thought of themselves.  That anyone with the requisite talent could be a success in their chosen field.


Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Leak:why Mark Felt became Deep Throat by Max Holland

Leak : why Mark Felt became Deep Throat
by Max Holland

This book takes a different perspective on the scandal that brought down Richard Nixon than most.  It deals with the motivations of Mark Felt the FBI official who became famous as Deep Throat for his leaking of sensitive information to Woodward and Bernstein.  Instead of the myth that grew up around "Deep Throat" Holland argues convincingly that instead of being worried about the legality of Nixon's actions Felt was instead trying to undermine the current FBI director. Nixon was in many respects collateral damage which is ironic because Nixon was one of the few people who believed that the FBI should be led by someone who was a member of the organization.  As opposed to finding someone new who would reform the behemoth J. Edgar Hoover left after his death.

The book also looks at the reporting and legal investigations. Holland goes to great pains to demonstrate that Felt's material although useful was not critical to the breaking of the story and that the secrecy surrounding the identity of Deep Throat only became a major issue after the scandal.  This section of the creation of a myth I found particularly well done.

Highly recommended for those interested in American politics and the media.

Note:This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Second Siege by Henry H. Neff

 The Second Siege
by Henry H. Neff

This is the second book in the fantasy young adult series. I already reviewed the first one. I have to say that the issues I had with the first seem to be magnified in this one. In brief, the plot follows directly on from the first book. The forces of darkness are chasing our hero and his friends. The school setting is nearly completely absent and we jump into a second world fantasy for a short while.

It is strange to say this, but this book seemed rushed even though it is over 600 pages. Even allowing for the large type and fewer words per page of an young adult book, this is still a lot of room to work with. The problem here to me seems to be that the main character doesn’t have much time to react to the plot points.

For instance, for the first book and most of this one, a big deal is made that his mother is missing, not dead. There is, of course, a reveal. What seems like a key plot point that should drive the rest of the book and, perhaps, the series is dealt with quickly and we are on to something else. The characters have no time to react to the situations. I am not expecting that he would develop a drinking problem or PTSD, but some reaction would be nice.  I have the third book here and will read it, but instead of being excited, I am a little apprehensive.

Mildly recommended.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Admiral Nimitz: The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater by Brayton Harris

 Admiral Nimitz: The Commander of the Pacific Ocean Theater
by Brayton Harris

This is a short biography of the United States naval commander in the Pacific. The back copy of the book notes that this is the first full memoir to be written about him in decades and it is quickly apparent why. He did not grant interviews, write his memoirs, keep a diary or leave us a treasure trove of letters to be mined for his personal opinions. Instead we are left with descriptions of others and occasional official documents.

I give the author credit for not falling into the usual trap with subjects such as this and filling in the rest of the book with general information. Only enough general information is included to explain the narrative.
World War II takes primacy in the account as it should.  Students of the Pacific campaign will be disappointed in that there isn’t much new here, mainly a discussion of the conflicts with Macarthur.

I actually found the material on the development of naval tactics in the 30s and the pushback against the attempts to unify the armed services in the late 40s and early 50s to be the most enlightening. I can’t recommend this for the casual reader, but if you want something different, give it a look.

Recommended for someone who has a strong interest in the topic. Note:This book was provided through LibraryThing's early reviewer Program.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

 Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
by Timothy Snyder

This book is a history of Eastern Europe, the territory that was fought over between Hitler and Stalin. The book starts with Stalin’s purges of the 1930s and ends with the doctor’s plots and Stalin’s death.

Usually a book would deal with either the crimes of Stalin’s or Hitler’s regimes’ separately. This book takes a different tact by showing that the two totalitarian states were not only in competition with each other, but fed off of each other learning ways to control their populations. There is a large amount of material here crammed into 400 pages, so much so that it occasionally seems like a summary. There is a lot of statistics.

Curiously, one of the author’s goals is to remind us that these were individuals being murdered. The book is peppered with accounts of the sufferings of individuals. This would be quite effective if it wasn’t for the mind numbing statistics.

One of the interesting parts in the conclusion is when he states that when we are told a number that rounds to zero we lose a sense of humanity about the individuals as opposed to a number that gives a definite total. For instance, 3,100,000 or 3,100,015. He is actually right. I have never thought about it like that.

Highly recommended if you can stomach 400 pages of humans’ inhumanity to each other.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940 by WilliamL. Shirer

Collapse of the Third Republic: An Inquiry into the Fall of France in 1940
by WilliamL. Shirer

Why did the French Third Republic collapse in 1940?  This book tries to give an answer to that. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite get there. It is 1000 pages of mistakes, disasters, lost opportunities and conflicts, but never quite gets at the central issue.  Oh, there were many reasons why the French state came apart, everything from the conflict between right and left in the 30s, the unwillingness of the upper classes to pay their fair share to, at its end, strategic and tactical failures in the campaign of 1940.  But there never is a central reason given.

The book is based on a parliamentary report done after the war as well as interviews with those who were alive in the 1960s.  The author, a journalist, does tend to wander into hyperbole on occasion. There are many ominous statements about how this will be key in the collapse of 1940. The problem is: many of them really aren’t, or only partial.  If the French military had had better command and control as well as deployment of tanks, all of the left right debates of the 1930s would have been irrelevant.

I did like that the book dealt with the interwar period from Paris as opposed to most books on this topic which come at it from Berlin, London or Moscow. There are also some interesting character sketches of the major figures.

Mildly recommended, interesting if it never actually answers its own question.

J.K.Rowling signs for new book

No information on release date, plot or genre yet. Wasn't there mention of a mystery in one of her interviews?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Hound of Rowan by Henry H. Neff

The Hound of Rowan
by Henry H. Neff

Let’s get one thing out of the way first. This book has many similarities to Harry Potter.  This is both a blessing and a curse; a blessing in the sense that it is the only reason why I came across the book in the first place. I was searching LibraryThing for other books that dealt with the magical school plot device. On the other hand, it is a curse, because it is easy enough to dismiss this book as being derivative or a knock off.  So the question we are left with is: Does the book stand on its own merits?

The plot in a nutshell: Our hero discovers that when he looks at a tapestry in a museum it begins to move.  Naturally this leads to bad people trying to capture him and good people trying to rescue him. The good people end up spiriting him away to above mentioned magical school where he starts his education.  This contains the usual school sub plots. Naturally the overarching good versus evil story line kicks in again for the conclusion.

So how does it hold up? Well, the writing is decent, not brilliant, but serviceable.  The world building seems to be based on the idea that if Hogwarts had it we should double it. Not only is there a magical sport, but a magical strategy class, magical creatures who are part of the faculty, familiars of the students and last, but not least, dorm rooms that reconfigure themselves to fit the personality of the occupants.

I hope that these ideas will be fleshed out more because as it stands after book one I am suffering from magical school whiplash. There is just too much crammed in here. So will I be going on to the second book? Yes. I will.  The characters are engaging and the concepts, although rushed, are interesting. 


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Vic Toews

When you can't give rational arguments for something make crazy accusations.  Over the years I've heard that the Conservatives have a decent sized libertarian contingent.  They can't be too happy about this this morning after all if the long gun registry and long form census were government intrusion this is too.  Now do they actually stand up or not.  Not that I condone this but I wonder if there's a Canadian branch of Anonymous.  Toews may want to be  deleting any sensitive email right about now.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Chuck vs. the satisfactory conclusion

Note, this spoils the final episode of Chuck. If you don’t want to be spoiled, then stop reading.

As MIck Foley said in his autobiography, “Amnesia angles never get over.” This is something that the Chuck creators should have remembered. It was a ridiculous premise to go out of their way to destroy the last five years of characterization for Sarah by hitting the reset button which made it even worse was that Chuck, who spent most of the series learning that he did not need the intersect to be a spy, ended up with the intersect back in his head.

There is part of me that wonders if this is some sort of clever discussion of the concept of a cyclical universe as opposed to linear, but somehow I doubt it. I just think it is lousy plotting. All of this could have been saved by slapping on a scene two years later with where they are living in their dream home, but, of course, that didn’t happen.

Looking around, reaction seems to be split between those who think that it ruined the series for them and those who think it was a masterpiece. I have to say I am somewhere in the middle as usual. I don’t think it ruined the series for me, but on the other hand, I am not running out to buy the DVDs of it.

There are some final episodes that have grown on me over time. I hated the Seinfeld last episode when it first aired, but now it makes more sense that they got their comeuppance in the end. This, however, makes no sense.

Jeffster on the other hand still rocks.

Friday, January 27, 2012

As Comic Book Guy would say

Worst final episode ever. Although it should be noted I never watched Lost or the Sopranos. Chuck what was that? More when I can think coherently.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Now I remember why I enjoyed blogging

To point out stupidity such as this. Nice? Nice? What is being taught at Eton?

While doing some reading on this I discovered that "Git" is not considered parliamentary language. So nice to have Wikipedia back.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Dancing with Colonels: A Young Woman's Adventures in Wartime Turkey by Marjorie Havreberg

Dancing with Colonels: A Young Woman's Adventures in Wartime Turkey
by Marjorie Havreberg

This book is excellently described by the subtitle with one minor quibble, Turkey was never actually at war. It was neutral, which gave the Allies and Axis ample opportunities for espionage and the like. Unfortunately, we don’t hear about any of that in this book. The letters are those that the author sent home, first, from her job working for a United States Senator, later as a civilian working for the war department as a secretary for the military attaché in Turkey.

As the substantial introduction points out, she didn’t talk much about her job which is understandable. There is a comment in one of the letters that they passed through a government censor. However, there is little here about the wider war either. The book is interesting in that it describes just what was served at a cocktail party in the 1940s, but beyond that I found myself not caring who was a good dancer or who was funny over dinner. A few of the people mentioned are relatively famous. Luckily, there are end notes that give short biographies for those that I had not heard of. The book concludes with a biographical note on her later life and a remembrance from one of her relatives.

So who is this book aimed at? Honestly, I am not really sure. There is not enough here for someone looking for an in depth look at the diplomatic service in Turkey. The writing in and of itself is decent enough, more geared towards travel writing than anything else. They took a few memorable trips into the mountains, for instance. Possibly if the introduction had not been so thorough, I would be more forgiving towards the text.

Strangely, this is one case where there is too much academic apparatus, at least for me. I felt that I could have simply read the introduction and that would have been enough, making the next 180 pages or so almost superfluous.

Not recommended.

 Note:This book was provided through Librarything's early reviewer Program.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Catching up on things.

So what did I miss while I wasn’t posting to the blog? Well, we had a federal election. We also had a royal visit and, come to think of it, a royal wedding. Ok, I really haven’t blogged in a long time. Like I said, I will try to do better.

Instead of discussing those things, we are going to talk about Harry Potter and Chuck. Saw the last Harry Potter movie, like most people. I am amazed that some online are considering it for Oscar nominations. Sure, in the technical categories I see their point, just not in the acting ones. Come on, guys. Get real here.

We are down to the last two episodes of Chuck. This final season has been a bit of a mixed bag. I am not sure why they are doing characterization heavy episodes at this point—the entire kidnapped baby subplot, for instance. I do like that they are acknowledging what the series was based on, mainly a mix of action, comedy and, yes, T and A. Sarah’s comment that on missions she has had to wear cat suits and platforms was probably the funniest example of breaking the fourth wall I have come across in years.

When the series concludes in two weeks, I will be down to watching new episodes of the Simpsons and Big Bang Theory.That’s it. They are just not producing shows these days that I am interested in.

Oh, well, this just leaves me more time for reading.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Brushing off the dust

After a very long absence I figured I may as well fire this thing up again. Partly that's because of a review opportunity I'm excited about. The other reason is that it feels like time. Just for the record I only read 100 books last year. A large number of them rereads. Important lesson don't move into a new house that still has daily visits from contractors. Other important lesson moving 2600 books up one flight of stairs and down two flights of stairs is a lot of work.

I'm not going to guarantee how frequent I will be posting. Except to say that the next one will be sooner then a year from now. So what have you been up to?