I'm the arrogant sort of person who when I rate a book think that there is some objective element to my rating, and that I'm not merely rating how mucI'm the arrogant sort of person who when I rate a book think that there is some objective element to my rating, and that I'm not merely rating how much I personally enjoyed the book, but also on some level how worthy the book is of enjoyment and how much quality was exercised in the crafting of the book from the level of the individual sentence on up to its grand conceptions and story arc. You might say that in rating a book, my expectation is that everyone else will enjoy the book to within +/- a star of what I rated it, depending on how much the material personally appealed to you and how much - for whatever reasons - you were willing to overlook the books evident flaws. Otherwise, if I did not in fact believe this, whatever would be the reason for rating a book, for if my rating was wholly subjective it would do you no good whatsoever.
Mary Roach's book "Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War" and similar books challenge those presumptions somewhat, in that I don't think a simple one dimensional rating system can in this case predict how much the book will be enjoyed. While for me the book was largely, "Meh" and parts of it were grating, that's because the book is pitched at a target audience that just falls outside of anything that would be a sweet spot for me.
What's Roach is writing is essentially a primer on basic science and engineering, organized around one of the most interesting fields of basic research in the world today - America's high tech war machine. In an academic world too often focused more on publishing results than doing good work, much less doing anything hard and then managing to repeat it, the Defense Department could care less about how much you publish or where you publish, just so long as you give them tangible solutions. It's research wing DARPA is continually at the forefront of progress. Yet for all this, it's also not just interested in fighting the next war, but also the next and the next, and so very interested in the basic research that may lead to great advances way down the line.
Roach approaches this material from a welcome angle, of looking at the less glamorous less macho programs that aim not to create better means of killing people, but rather solve other equally important basic problems of being human in a battlefield environment. For most of human history, man versus nature was still more lethal and more important on a battlefield than the other tribe with its weapons trying to kill you. Infection, disease, starvation, and exposure to the environment killed more men on most military campaigns than the battles did. Roach puts a lens on the modern Defense department's continuing research into keeping soldiers physically and mentally fit during the hardships and horrors of war, and she does so with a self-deprecating, rapier wit and an outsider's eye for the unusual, the bizarre, and details others might miss.
It could be the making of a book I really enjoy, but the basic problem here is - I already know most of the stuff she covers. For me, the book would have been more interesting had it been taken in one of two directions. Either it would have been more enjoyable for me to focus less on the science, and more on the persons involved in the science and the interesting characters she discovers along the way and the anecdotes about them. This is information I don't have, and some of the biographies she uncovers are interesting in their own right - but she doesn't ever go into these people in any great depth, relying instead on deft caricature to set the stage like a comic book artist or a good Game Master. On the other hand, when she delves into the actual science and engineering, I occasionally discovered something I didn't know before, but then all too quickly she was plowing on to some other topic or providing some basic exposition of another fundamental aspect of the science or engineering problem being discussed. As a result, she never actually went into any one subject with the depth I would have liked.
And all this time she's trying to be a comedian as well, with varying degree of success. Personally, as a near autistic, many of her wry asides just struck me as being mean spirited. She had enough empathy for her audience that I didn't feel like she was treating the reader to a tour through a carnival freak show - "Come see the geeks" - but at times I did feel like she felt her desired audience wouldn't understand her empathy, and she still needed to convince them that she wasn't one of the nerds and that she certainly didn't approve of this whole military thing so that she'll still get invited to parties with the right sort of people in SF. That is to say, some of the humor seemed a bit jarring and out of place, like she was two people - one admiring interviewer and the other hidden one that was laughing at who she was interviewing -and she was better when her asides and jokes were humble.
In short, I'm convinced that for the right sort of person who has never even thought of these sort of things, and who enjoys science even if they don't practice it themselves, or has a narrow field of view and hasn't looked much at the big picture this is a five star book. Mrs. Roach has in effect here done admirable journalism and investigation, and turned obscure but important areas of endeavor into a readable funny work suitable for wide consumption. Despite the three stars, I strongly recommend this book to anyone who doesn't have any interest in the military, or whose interest in either science or the military has been at most casual....more
I've been trying to branch out in my reading lately, and every time I do, I get reminded why I don't.
The reason I like science fiction and fantasy isI've been trying to branch out in my reading lately, and every time I do, I get reminded why I don't.
The reason I like science fiction and fantasy is that it tends to obey Eleanor Roosevelt's dictum - "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." - and chooses to discuss ideas above all else. 'War of the Rats' ought to at least succeed at the level of discussing an important event and fascinating people, but it doesn't even manage to do that well.
Indeed 'War of the Rats' was surprisingly bad at pretty much every level. As military fiction, I learned nothing about the character or nature of war. None of the things that this novel is praised for felt in evidence anywhere in the text. As historical fiction, I didn't come away feeling like I had some understanding of the Siege of Stalingrad or gained any insight into the real figures that fought there. As fiction, the characters felt flat, almost stereotypes, suitable for a comic book perhaps but nothing else. The female characters were unsurprisingly the worst, and Tania's depiction was annoying at best and misogynist at worst (and I say that as a staunch anti-feminist). As a thriller, the drama never felt intense or exciting, and the finale was an anti-climatic affair which failed to stand up to even its internal logic. The 'villain' character went full Cobra Commander in the end, doing stupid things that made no sense at all even from the character's own reasoning as presented to the reader and which were completely at odds with the superhuman Über sniper presented earlier in the text or even with the character's own description of his plan of action. For example, if Thorvald knew that Zaitsev was accurate to 450 yards, and he was he bragged accurate out to 1000 yards, why did he choose to engage Zaitsev from a static position at a distance of just 250 yards which he scorned as amateur earlier in the book and at which he also knew he'd have no advantage over his enemy? Why did he choose to shoot the fake position first, when he'd already determined where Zaitsev really was? Shouldn't you shoot the real position first, then shoot the fake second to be sure rather than the other way around? Why, having realized he'd been given away, did he not simply duck down and retreat to a better position - preferably one 1km back as he'd set out to do in the first place?
The whole thing was just a mess that felt a waste of my time. Maybe it wouldn't have been so bad, but between Japanese Destroyer Captain, Victory into Defeat, The Goblin Emperor, and A Face Like Glass I'd been on a real roll lately and this just felt wholly unworthy. I keep trying to branch out from what I know, but every time I do I just feel burned. Either the writer can't write. Or the writer can't tell a story. Or the writer simply has nothing interesting to say. If only two of the three were true, I still might still be able to recommend the work, but in this case I can only say that Robbins offers up a readable work that fails for me to be even good potato chip fiction....more
Well, it was very interesting for getting perspective from the other side of the war, but it ends abruptly and Hara comes off less well than I think hWell, it was very interesting for getting perspective from the other side of the war, but it ends abruptly and Hara comes off less well than I think he intends to appear. The skeptical historian in me has to consider in any autobiography the influence of bias, and I can't help but think that we have a capable man who might not have had nearly the clear insights, courage, and admirable opinions he has chosen to remember himself having. He records readily things he remembers saying to others, but spends very little time recording what anyone told him. He complains continually at never being listened to, but at the same time portrays himself as an obnoxious, abrasive, drunk who never listened to anyone. He is prone of remembering large numbers of premonitions he had of disaster before every disaster, plays himself as Cassandra whose prophesies were rarely heeded, but has almost every single Japanese victory in South Pacific the result of some comment or note of his that someone heeded. He distances himself almost completely from the Kamikaze doctrine, despite heading the school that taught it's naval branch and in the end agreeing to be part of Operation Ten-Go personally. While he admits to some mistakes in moment's of clouded judgment, he's really only admitting to mistakes that are a part of the historical record. His behavior at all points he is the sole record of events is largely exemplar in every respect but his alcoholism - which he personally finds an admirable trait in a leader.
Much is revealed by what he says that he doesn't think to comment on. Hara comes off to me like some sort of knight from a gritty Arthurian tale or a Viking Saga, dressed in 20th century trappings. Samurai, indeed. And it's clear that whatever else, he remains an ardent Nationalist that believes the war was wrong only to the extent that Japan lost it. He ends the book abruptly with what he calls 'The Death of the Japanese Navy', which means that this is not actually the personal story we would most like. He gives us no insight regarding those critical months leading up to and after the Japanese defeat.
Some of the complaints read as darkly humorous counterparts to American frustrations. For instance, the Americans began the war with a wholly substandard torpedo that infamously would refuse to explode. Hara records frustration that thier very excellent torpedoes were so sensitive, they'd frequently explode when encountering a ship's wake, ruining otherwise excellent attacks.
He makes a scathing indictment of Japanese high command generally, which holds up for the most part as it generally isn't very revisionist and generally accords with traditional Western assessment. But his attack on Yamamoto, I don't think holds up well in part because Hara doesn't show much understanding of grand strategy and is not aware at the time of the writing that Yamamoto's disasters are mostly the result but of US code breaking that rendered his elaborate deceptions moot. His most important insight for me is that the Japanese High command was increasingly isolated from the reality of the war because despite having started with war with a better understanding of how WWII naval combat would be fought than any other power, and despite having mastered those ideas initially, they were unprepared for the pace of technical change that the US war would impose on them. Additionally, they continued to believe their own propaganda. But much of his insight just appears to the be griping of any front line soldier against command, because his criticisms are not consistent even from page to page (beyond the fact of his own neglected foresight, recorded in hindsight). He'll complain on one page how the command staff spent too much time collecting forces together before committing to an attack, and then on the next page praise the operation that resulted from the delay for its use of overwhelming force. Then on the next page he'll complain that forces were rushed to battle too quickly and destroyed piecemeal. Even his own dictum drawn from Sun Tzu that one should not do things the same way twice, seems less of an insight because he fails to understand why it is true, and instead believes in it in a way that feels more like superstition than strategic calculation. It's hard to gather any insight into what could have been done differently, beyond that something should have, which is again in hindsight rather obvious....more
**spoiler alert** A couple of gamer geeks made good.
About 30 pages into this story, I turned to my wife and said, "This guy has done all the same rese**spoiler alert** A couple of gamer geeks made good.
About 30 pages into this story, I turned to my wife and said, "This guy has done all the same research I've done." As it turned out, this only makes sense - we are both game masters.
It's hard for me to review this book. I can't separate my thoughts about the book from my biases the way I feel that I am usually able to. I don't know if the book was really a triumph or merely a mediocre space opera that I like more than I should because I'm sympathetic to the setting, authors, and failings of the story. There are so many things to like that I want to overlook the somewhat serious flaws. So, lets start by getting the serious flaws admitted and then I'll talk about my biases and what this book really does right.
One of the most serious flaws in most recent sci-fi is the problem of childishness. By that I don't mean that the writers are childish, or that the genera is childish, but the genera has begun to reflect the trend toward irresponcibility of the larger society. In sci-fi this turns up as the trope that sometime in the near future, whenever it would be hard to solve the difficult problems of space travel, humanity helpfully encounters some alien artifact or species that gives Earth the technological jump start it needs to overcome the more intractable problems. Where once sci-fi celebrated a can do attitude and engineers with thews of steel, we now have space travelers as intellectual and moral coach potatoes waiting around for their parent to do all the hard work for them. It's annoying when it shows up, and though it's a minor element of this book, it still manages to invade this story as well.
Another problem with this book is the basic plot structure can be described as: "An alien species which parasitically infests its hosts is encountered which is extremely lethal to earth life, so much so that it threatens to destroy humanity if unleashed. An attractive female is infected early on, and ultimately it turns out that the real bad guys are a degenerate corporation that wants to weaponize the alien species." If that doesn't sound familiar to you, it should. So, while there is a lot of good research in the story and a lot of creativity on display, ultimately, there isn't nearly as much originality as there should be. It's standard trope bad guys and trope threats and all the twists are rote and predictable.
Lastly, the plot of the story suffers from several glaring gamerism which will probably be jarring to anyone who isn't a gamer, and which breaks suspension of disbelief from time to time for any one who is. One of the most obvious ones is that the protagonists enjoy PC level plot protection that manifests in their ability to cut a deal with any smart NPC because the smart NPC ultimately recognizes the PC's hero status as the only characters capable of saving the world. If you didn't understand that, what it means is that the protagonists though apparantly lowly and unimportant nonetheless are able to on the basis of no real evidence whatsoever convince really important individuals in the setting to trust them implicitly, to hear them out, and to agree to their seemingly fool hardy plans.
My biases in this of course are that as a gamer, I'm fairly willing to forgive gamer tropes. Sure, there are plot holes in the story, but compared to many authors, a writer with a gamer background is going to pay a lot of attention to certain sorts of plot holes and work harder to fill them. The setting is tight, internally consistant, and well thought out. The heroes are cunning and resourceful and the plot doesn't depend on the heroes doing stupid things, and there aren't obvious alternate strategies that the reader wonders why they don't employ. While you can occasionaly see twists coming that the characters in the story are oblivious to, you don't want to throw the book across the room because the characters haven't seen the problem yet because you can sympathize with how the characters are being emotionally manipulated.
There is so much though that the novel gets right. It's smart and often witty with several bits of dialogue that could show up in a Hollywood Summer blockbuster. The characterization is great, and the two principle protagonists are some of the more sympathetic and well realized in all of science fiction. The setting is Earth's glorious solar system, and the technology is believably a few centuries removed from our own in all areas but artificial intelligence (the absence of which is not really explained). The space combat is almost spot on best guess for the available technology level, and the military strategy, economics and physics are well thought out and explained. This is one of the best 'hard' (or at least semi-hard) space operas you'll encounter.
The story telling is artful. One of the things a good author will do when they know that they have a weak twist is layer the more obvious twists on top of each other so they climatic twist is hidden by the others. This strategy counts on your most sluethful readers to guess the first couple of twists within the first few pages, and then - cocky and sure of themselves - to underestimate the author and to not keep looking. Sure enough, they caught me perfectly in this trap (one I've fell to before, so I should have been looking for it). I was well on top of the twists, but they managed to successfully conceal the last twist not through having a really original twists, but by having enough twists along the way that you aren't looking for the last one until the same time it dawns on the protagonist. I love being outsmarted like that. Thanks guys. You made my day.
It's also probably the best collaborative novel I've read. Normally collaboration on a novel is a disaster, but here it works perfectly and seamlessly. I attribute this to gamer backgrounds of both authors, as they are clearly used to sharing a story with another author and make the most of their collaboration....more
This stands out as one of the dumbest books I have ever tried to read. I cannot at this time recall a book with a dumber premise, or a less sympathetiThis stands out as one of the dumbest books I have ever tried to read. I cannot at this time recall a book with a dumber premise, or a less sympathetic protagonist. Some fantasy or science fiction books have a wierd premise that requires a lot of suspension of disbelief, but once that bit of wierdness is accepted they maintain a coherent narrative within the bizarre framework the author created.
This is not a book like that.
The first major premise of this book is that there is this town in which the men have all developed telepathy, so that they are unable to avoid hearing each others thoughts even if they want to. This is a cool premise and its possible that some better author could do a lot with it. But instead, this author does a mindless paint by numbers sci-fi coming of age story which in context makes no sense whatsoever either in its broad scope or its minor details.
Since the X-Files popularized the technique, one of the most commmon Sci-Fi plots involves presenting the reader (or audience) with some baffling mystery while dropping tantalizing clues as to the nature of the mystery a long the way. Ultimately it doesn't matter that the clues are forgotten, or prove incoherent, or contridictory, or that the mystery doesn't even exist, or when revealed that it isn't nearly as interesting as the tantalizing hints seemed to indicate. By the time you start wrapping up the story, you'll already have sold the product to the gullible audience. Fans of 'Lost' might be familiar with the successful use of the technique. Certain fantasy authors of long-winded series appear to be employing the technique to good effect as well, and one famous one managed to die without having to spoil his epic plot by explaining it.
Well, not only am I calling Patrick Ness on this, but of all the authors that have shamelessly cashed in on the technique, this is that lamest abuse of it. For you see, while the main premise of the story is that there is this town were the men can unwillingly hear each others thoughts, the other main premise of the story is that this town is filled with secrets that have somehow been hidden from the protagonist his entire life. Not only is everything he knows to be true a lie, but everyone else in the town apparantly knows that it's all a lie and somehow the protagonist alone isn't in on it. How the young man has managed to be lied to the whole time without him seeing the lie the whole time is not explained, nor really is anything else in the story.
But ultimately, even if there is some really good answer for all the laughable nonsense that happens in this story while its attempting to be 'dark', 'gritty' and 'real', I just don't care, because TODD is got to be the least sympathetic and least believable protagonist that I've ever encountered. He's such a total moron that I kept hoping that the comicly one-dimensional over the top stock chauvanist villains would put him out of his misery. When he's not being a total coward, he's a murderer. I got about to the point where the too perfect heroine love-interest was praising this worthless peice of human garbage for not killing the afore mentioned over the top woman raping child killers who are threatening the entire world, because you know, that would make him just as bad as they were, and I had to stop myself from throwing the peice of trash across the room (because it was a library book).
There isn't a single redeeming feature to this book. If I had to compose an all time worst list, chances are this would make it. I could go on and on about the wierd gender politics of the book, the laughable paint by numbers political correctness of the story, the dumb cliff hangers, the non-twists at the end, the wierd lapses of logic of virtually every character, or any number of other things but I'll spare you an actual detailed review because it would probably kill brain cells to discuss the text further much less read it....more
I read scores of 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books and similar 'text based adventure' series during the craze in elementary school and junior high.
ThiI read scores of 'Choose Your Own Adventure' books and similar 'text based adventure' series during the craze in elementary school and junior high.
This one, which casts you as a resistance fighter conducting an alpine raid against the Nazis, was always one of my favorites.
IMO, A good 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book has the following qualities - lots of oppurtunities to make choices, a large number of possible endings, a few surprising twists that add readability, and some sort of internal logic that lets you correctly guess at least most of the time which path leads to the most satisfying rewards. 'Sabotage' succeeds on all counts....more
This is the second book I've read on the Iraq war. It's not that I've not followed the progress of the Iraq War extremely closely, because I have. It'This is the second book I've read on the Iraq war. It's not that I've not followed the progress of the Iraq War extremely closely, because I have. It's that hitherto, all the books on the Iraq war stuck me as being written by parties removed from the daily affairs of the war, observing it at a distance as I was, and engaging not in the writing of history but in punditry, self-justification, spin, and axe grinding. Authors seemed to feel quite free to write books based on anonymous sourcing, innuendo, unrecorded conversations, rumors, and media coverage of doubtable competency and even veracity. So it's not that I didn't want to read the details of what was happening in Iraq, but that I did that largely kept me away from the dross being cranked out and inflicted on a certain class of willing consumer.
Thus, it was with great relish that I picked up Peter Mansoor's account of his first tour of service in Iraq. A brigade commander is uniquely placed to serve in the role of historian. The perspective that it provides is sufficiently high up that the larger picture can be discerned, but not so high up that you are observing the events from a distance.
Peter Mansoor lacks pretension. Rather than attempting to write a history of the Iraq war, he writes simply an account of his experiences. Writing an account of the Iraq War is at this point probably impossible because of the lack of creditable material. Writing an account of Iraq War at this point is too high of an ambition for anyone, much less someone who wasn't centrally placed in it. To my mind, Peter Mansoor was as centrally placed as any author thus far, and it’s to his credit that he doesn't pretend to be able to tell the whole story.
Col. Mansoor opens the book with a brief, candid and endearing biography. He spills his life story in a few brief pages. It is self-effacing. It is honest, and we know it is honest because no one who wanted to impress us would write so unglamorously. This sets the pattern for the entire book.
Humility is the rarest trait in a gifted soldier. Commanders are generally ego-driven, highly competitive, and ambitious individuals. Narcissists and self-trumpeting blow-hards, even incompetent ones, often achieve high rank: the humble man however skilled rarely does. The shelves of military biographies are filled with useless self-serving tracts written by men with a gift for judging others, but no gift for examining themselves. This is the rarest sort of autobiography of all - the one that will be worthy of study because it’s not afraid to admit to failings.
There is way too much in this book to write about in such a short space, and I'm chagrined that I did not attempt this review when the material was fresher in my mind. Col. Mansoor deserves better, but this will have to do.
Pundits on either side of the aisle with have a difficult time dealing with Peter Mansoor's account. For myself, reading the book I got the uncanny feeling that everyone, whether critics or proponents of the war, was in fact describing the same war. I got the feeling reading the text, that whether you were for or against the war, that many of the central claims being made were largely true. I don't know why this should startle me and force me to reevaluate my thinking, because my mantra is, 'The truth is never simple.', but on this subject it did. I guess I found it impossible to reconcile the conflicting accounts and ideologies behind the positive and negative spin and imagine that such two disparate accounts could be describing the same entity. One or both had to be wrong; but, what I discovered reading the text is that did not have to be the case. The both could be right. Everyone trumpeting a simple truth was no better than one of the blind men groping the elephant.
Another thing that really drew me into the book from the beginning was my ability to follow along with almost all of the major events in the book, and compare them to how I had experienced them as an observer getting most of my news by sifting through various stories in the media. As I said, I followed the Iraq war very closely, following along with the different changes in strategy, the minor operations, and the major campaigns. Peter Mansoor however was in the thick of it, responsible for a section of Baghdad that was repeatedly in the news during that first year.
Mansoor's account of that trying year is somehow exhausting, inspiring, and heart-breaking at the same time. I promise you that around page 228, this book will kick you in the stomach, stick a knife in you, and twist it repeatedly. I don't know how soldiers cope with it. I really don't. It hurts me from here all the way across those miles and years. I don't know what to say except that my admiration for the strength, courage, and honor on display is very great indeed.
Peter Mansoor's account is very tough reading. He is open and forthcoming about the mistakes he made that got people killed; and the things that he did that saved lives and - at this point I think we can safely say although he doesn't - helped win the war. He is unsparing on himself, and lavish on the praise of those he served with. He doesn't however sugar coat things and pretend that everyone always used the best of judgment. Prisoner abuse and mistreatment of Iraqis was an ongoing problem that comes up repeatedly in the book. He makes a full accounting of the stupidity he encountered and the disciplinary steps he was forced to take, while keeping the persons involved anonymous.
He is circumspect but suggestive about the failings of those in higher positions. Those in charge of planning and running the war do not get off without criticism, and its difficult for me to imagine from the text that he actually supported starting the war. He definitely supports winning it. His sometimes exasperation with and sometimes deep love for the Iraqi people also comes clearly through. Few groups, however, get quite as scathing of a review or are as consistently associated with incompetency in the text as the media, which comes off as being less than useless. Given the typically vast disparity between events as they happened and as they were reported, I think that this assessment will go down as fair.
It's still hard at this point to know, but in the future I think the most important part of the text will be judged to be the documentation it provides of the growing interpersonal relationship between the American military on one hand and the Iraqi public on the other. Peter Mansoor, as an American of Arab descent, was in some ways somewhat well positioned to be at the forefront of this deepening understanding between the occupier and the occupied, between the liberated and the liberator, and between the conqueror and the conquered. I think this relationship must be described in this way because I think it was somehow simultaneously all of those things. But also and more importantly, I think it is important to see that for all that complexity, ultimately it was simply face to face relationships between two individuals who were forced by the circumstances to rub elbows, share a life, and try to work together.
And although it would be looking well ahead beyond the events of this book, it ultimately turns out that these personal relationships - and not any weapon of war - that are the decisive factor in the outcome of the war. Ultimately, and perhaps not surprisingly, you win a war against a low level insurgency by being better at making friends than the insurgents are.
Fortunately, in this case, given all the mistakes we made, that didn't prove to be particularly hard.
There are a few things that disappointed me. Really, it must be admitted that it is still too early to begin writing even such unambitious texts as 'Baghdad at Sunrise'. There are a number of points where it seemed that Col. Mansoor deliberately turned away from the train of thought he had been following because of the fact that the war is ongoing. There are times when he says simply, 'We devised a strategy', where I very much would like to have heard the details. As a textbook - and I've little doubt this will become required reading at a war college somewhere - the book would be much improved if the writer didn't have to be so careful to avoid operationally useful information. Likewise, there are times when I think the book would be improved were Mansoor retired and better able to speak his full mind. This is not to say however, that I hope his retirement comes soon. His country still needs men like him.
Because of his frankness concerning his mistakes, Mansoor gets away with trumpeting his own efforts from time to time. He relates how he became to be something of a cult figure to the Iraqi tribal leaders, and how he found himself on Al-Qaeda’s most wanted. But always he does so somewhat sarcastically, comparing his own modest self with the fantasy version of himself others created. Near the end of the book he allows himself a little more latitude describing commands he gave and responsibilities he undertook during the Karbala campaign for which he is in my opinion justifiably proud. Those events in March and April of 2004 I recall as the darkest and scariest days of the whole war - the closest I ever came to feeling that we might lose. It was so welcome to see an inside account of these critical events.
Someday I hope there will be movies about Iraq that are worth watching that portray the war in all its ugly glory without any motivation other than tell a story which is at least mostly true and one would hope central to the larger story. It probably won't be any time soon. It would be too much to hope that Hollywood would pick up 'Baghdad at Sunrise' or Lt. Col. Neil Prakash's equally fascinating and important account as a screenplay. But I hope that it is not too much to hope that Col. Mansoor honors us with a sequel.
In full disclosure, I've bumped into the author a couple of times online as we have certain interests in common. I hope he remains willing to talk toIn full disclosure, I've bumped into the author a couple of times online as we have certain interests in common. I hope he remains willing to talk to me after this review.
The biggest problem with the book is that it’s not really to my taste. Along with Jerry Pournelle, John Ringo is one of the main figures in the pulp military science fiction. You might think that's right up my alley, but really not so much. I just can't get into it. Whether it denounces the horrors of war or it glamorizes the glory or war or even just promotes the necessity of martial virtue, I just have a hard time getting into war fiction. I can and sometimes do enjoy it, but never at the level of light reading that the 'pulp' style promotes.
I didn't have a lot of problem reading 'A Hymn Before Battle'. The prose is reasonably good and the story is fast moving and generally quickly paced. But on the other hand, while it wasn't painful to read neither could I really enjoy it or get excited by it. There were just too many problems in the way. Sure, the characterization was generally shallow, but that's to be expected of pulp fiction. The bigger problem I had was with the ultra-technology, which is both over the top and not at all well realized in my opinion. The actual implications of technology like hand held missile launchers that can reach a significant fraction of the speed of light, hand held surface to orbital weapons and so forth just didn't seem well considered. In particular, it is a well known dictum of military theory that the more lethal the weapon the further the units must be dispersed when in battle. But the tactics of the book seem more rooted in modern tactics at best and at worst table top ancient war gaming than in anything actually implied by consideration of the theoretical technology. It was like reading 'Ender's Game' where Ender never realized that "the enemies gate was down", and instead defeated his enemies by inventing formations.
There are large numbers of instances where the technology seems to possess the power of plot. We can tell the protagonist from the expendable red shirts because their ultratech battlesuits provide only a tiny fraction of the protection granted to main characters. Ordinary humans end up surviving things that would kill most superheroes outright, and I couldn't for a second believe the technology and not the writer was what saved the protagonist. At one point, a main character survives a 10 megaton explosion from a distance of 30 meters.
Additionally, the story has a bad case of the 'Humans are Special' trope which is exaggerated to such a degree it’s just about monkey ego porn. Now, in this Ringo is hardly the only science fiction author at fault, as we can site similar instances by Niven, Brin, and others (otherwise it wouldn’t be a trope). However, in 'A Hymn before Battle' the 'Humans are Special' trope is achieved by making all the other races in the galaxy fundamentally flawed to such an incredible degree it feels like humanity versus the galaxy's special ed. Students. In ‘A Hymn before Battle’, every other species in the galaxy is riding the short bus, and at best could be considered a sort of idiot savant. But even worse, the idiot savant warrior race isn't even particularly good at it.
The non-linear structure does nothing really to enhance the story. The backstory it provides isn't really interesting enough to serve as a story on it's own, and the non-linear structure seems little more than the author's recognition of that. The only reason to shuffle the story around is to parcel out the boring parts into smaller peices.
The story isn't all bad and there are some juicy hints of cleverly crafted interstellar intrigue that are likely to play out in the sequels, but there isn't enough here that is consistently good to make me want to slog through the sequels for the big payoff - especially when I have some pretty good ideas about what some of those big payoffs are going to be.
I first encountered this book in college, sitting forgotten and forelornly on an academic shelf. This is certainly not the proper setting for this booI first encountered this book in college, sitting forgotten and forelornly on an academic shelf. This is certainly not the proper setting for this book, which is hardly heady intellectualism but rip-rollicking good adventure stories disguising what in other hands might be dull history.
As such, this is one of my favorite overviews of the Age of Sail, and in a perfect world would be in the hands of every elementary aged school kid as a way to get them to 'eat thier brocolli' and enjoy it. The book is a fairly comprehensive survey of the period's naval history, and I especially liked its coverage of lesser known wars like the four Anglo-Dutch wars and somewhat forgotten but inspiring commanders like Michiel de Ruyter.
The writing is gripping and strikes a narrative tone suitable for popular history. I found the books account of the major campaigns every bit as exciting as any modern thriller, and the personalities of the great commanders that are the focus of the book are fascinating and inspired me to read a few more detailed and well-rounded (and definately drier) biographies.
This book is too good to review well in the space of an essay or a paragraph. Properly appreciating and analyzing it would require a several weeks ofThis book is too good to review well in the space of an essay or a paragraph. Properly appreciating and analyzing it would require a several weeks of classroom discussion. I have a great inhibition against marking or defacing books in any fashion, but with this book I have a great desire to take a highlighter and on page after page highlight the great wisdom and perspicacity displayed in this work.
It is without a doubt the finest military memoire I have ever read. I do not think that I can give enough superlatives to cover just how good this book is. I cannot think of anything one would desire to have in a military memoire that is missing from this work. You want honest critical self-appraisal, you've got it. You want detailed accounting of the movement of forces, then you have that. If you want detailed assessment of the trials and difficulties of command, as well as sound advice for overcoming them, then you've got that. If you need stirring inspiration or kick in the pants exhortation for struggling on through the greatest hardships, then you've got that.
This should be required reading for anyone desiring to obtain command rank higher than Captain, and is beneficial reading for anyone who is either professional military or a politician, or who would wish to understand the same. And it is an invaluable resource for any historian whether amateur or professional wishing to understand one of the most neglected fronts in WW2.
John Ferling has done excellent service as a writer and historian in this volumn. It is an excellent and extremely readable survey of the military hisJohn Ferling has done excellent service as a writer and historian in this volumn. It is an excellent and extremely readable survey of the military history of the American Revolution, and in particular is maybe the best treatment of the late war years you'll encounter. It is a thick book, but not as thick as advertised. It runs only 575 pages - the remainder of the book being extensive bibliography and indexes. I enjoyed it immensely.
For a new student of American history, much of what Ferling writes will be revelatory. For those more studied, it will offer fresh takes and insights. There is nothing here however revisionist or driven by churlish motivations. The men and women of the period are made to appear simply as they were, both good and bad, without hypocritical judgment or a too reverent and unskeptical awe. As such, those looking for contriversy or self-serving validation of one modern belief system or the other will need to look elsewhere, as Ferling does not bother endulging his audiences prejudices.
If there is one point on which Ferling departs from orthodox interpretation of the documents, it seemed to me that it was in his portrayal of the relative skills of Franklin and Adams as diplomatic envoys to France. Ferling reverses the usual role of Franklin as the cunning and skilled diplomat, and Adams as the bumbling, niave, and abrasive fool. Instead Ferling portrays Franklin as the all too pliable dupe of his cunning French hosts whose charisma never persuades the French to provide anything that they had not already planned to give anyway to further thier own interests. Adams he paints as the far seeing and wise statesman who enrages the French principally by refusing to sacrifice his nation's interests in the futherance of thier imperial scheming. Since I'm a great admirer of both Franklin and Adams, but hitherto had held the French posting to be unsuitable to Adams temperment this left me much to think about and desiring to do further research.
There are only two things which prevent 'Almost a Miracle' from garnering from me five stars, and in fairness both of these are personal preferences rather than serious attacks on Ferling's methods or scholarship. The first is that Ferling is I think too loathe to employ the long quotation in his narrative. His short quotations - rarely more than sentense fragments - greatly reduce the burden of reading such a tome and keep up the brisk pace of the text, but at the same time a certain amount of weight to me seems proper in a history text. A richer experience of the characters in thier own words is I think at times proper.
The second is even more minor. Having read several other accounts, I am acquainted with a bit more of the details of certain events in Ferling's narrative which Ferling is content to pass over in a sentense or two. While he is quite willing to admit in passing that "No one was as lucky as Washington" and that "the gods of war" were on the side of Greene, had Ferling stopped to explore those occassions in greater detail, he might readily have dropped the 'Almost' from the title. Still, since I'd much rather our secular brothers and sisters read this book than discount it or be offended by it, I'll be content with the excellent work as it is....more