Reading in January 2013

Another month, another stack of books...

1. Aaronovitch, Ben. Midnight Riot. Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2011. (A)

With its strong emphasis on police procedure and coping with implacable forces I'm reminded of Diana Rowland's "Kara Gillian" stories, as self-sabotaging Peter Grant (who is barely hanging on to his career of as a London policeman) finds that he has a knack for magic and is taken under the wing of what might be the last actual wizard in Britain, who just happens to be a senior police detective. I haven't made up my mind whether I cared for the payoff or not, but Aaronovitch is to be complimented on not pulling any punches in terms of roughing up his characters.

2. Ashby, Madeline. vN: The First Machine Dynasty. Angry Robot 2012. (A-)

Without giving away any spoilers this story reads something like you might get if you threw Snow White, Huckleberry Finn and Blade Runner in a blender and hit the puree button. I will say that for an author who suspects that self-awareness is overrated, this novel does seem remarkably sentimental at points, but those points are usually followed up with a sharp “learning experience;” perhaps the only freedom that matters is the right to say no.

3. Brady, Tim. Twelve Desperate Miles: The Epic WWII Voyage of the SS Contessa. Crown Publishers, 2012. (B-)

A retelling of the famous scheme in the invasion of Morocco in 1942 to reopen the airfield outside of Port Lyautey by direct naval assault up the Sebou River. What makes this exercise worthwhile is that the author has found new primary material about some of the main participants in this operation; French harbor pilot Rene Malevergne (who had been spirited out of Morocco for his knowledge and expertise) and William Henry John, the master of SS Contessa that was to provide logistical support to American fighter planes flown off carriers to the base. While this whole endeavor turned out not to be as essential as imagined, it's still a good story well worth telling.

That I don't rate this book a little higher is due to there being a little too much slop for my taste in terms of mistakes; the most egregious one being to credit the American battleship Mississippi with being a participant in the naval action off Casablanca against Vichy French forces, instead of the Massachusetts.

4. Cooper, Brenda. The Creative Fire. Pyr, 2012. (C+)

Reading much like a Young Adult story set in C.J. Cherryh's "Alliance-Union" universe, one follows the story of how protagonist Ruby Martin uses her talent as a singer to help foment a political uprising on a failing generation ship where the social order has turned corrupt. I have to admit that the story didn't exactly engage me and the author's admission that she cribbed much of her theme from the story of Evita Peron (no hero of mine) was an actual turn-off. That said, tensions are set up in the climax of this novel that might take the plot in interesting directions when the ship returns to its home world.

5. Goda, Norman J.W. Tales from Spandau: Nazi Criminals and the Cold War. Cambridge University Press, 2007. (A)

Call this book a case study in trying to exact justice under less than ideal circumstances, as Goda examines the complications entailed by the extended incarceration of men such as Rudolph Hess, Albert Speer, and Karl Donitz. Much of the complexity stemmed from bad logistical decisions made immediately at the conclusion of Nuremberg war trials (never mind the flaws in that judicial process) and the decision to hold these men in Berlin, at which point their fates became entangle in the fate of the divided city. The next level of complexity derived from how much of a support group the prisoners had outside of prison, what with the aristocratic elite of Wurttemburg speaking up for Konstantin von Neurath, the German naval officer corps supporting Admirals Raeder and Donitz, and elements of the German business community helping Albert Speer; Hess and Baldur von Schirach, not so much. Finally, there was the chronic matter of the balance between seeing that these men were forced to endure the sentences meted out to them, with the fear of making them into martyrs.

In the end Goda concludes that the meaning of Spandau was most important to the Soviet government, as the prison was the symbolic validation of the Cold War division of Europe and the international regime that resulted. As for the way forward in such cases, Goda notes that national leaders serving sentences as war criminals will inevitably remain points of conflict and the hope of virtually entombing them so that they are forgotten like a quarantined contagion is a pipe dream. Countries trying alleged war criminals need to enter into this endeavor "with open eyes and with thick skins," and to remember that the real punishment for the likes of the Spandau Seven is the "bar of history."

6. Kercher, Stephen E. Revel with a Cause: Liberal Satire in Postwar America. University of Chicago Press, 2006. (A)

A sweeping history of one aspect of the liberal critique against the McCarthyism and the Eisenhower Consensus of the 1950s. Kercher takes you from the editorial cartoons of Mauldin and Herblock, through MAD magazine, the emergence of improvisational comedy theater and the rise & fall of the satire "boom" of the early Sixties. The climax of this being the film Dr. Strangelove, which can be seen as building on the work of the proceeding ten years.

Besides considering a whole range of cultural projects that are often not well-remembered, Kercher is at his most interesting when examining the failures of liberal satire. Essentially being a product for young men by young men, it sometimes undercut itself with unexamined misogyny. Dismissive of suburban consumer culture, there was some failure to appreciate that for most people this beat the hell out of the alternatives. Also, when looking at the rise and fall of the show "This is the Week that Was," there is the matter that whatever the problems of speaking truth to power and making a living at it, these problems are magnified when trying to do so as a party loyalist; as Mort Sahl learned (for example) when he crossed the Kennedy Administration and found himself to suddenly be commercial poison.

Finally there is the small matter that, at best, satire is a palliative for social problems, and that if hard-hitting social critique via comedy seemed to fade as the Sixties rolled on, it was because what could be done with satire had been done, and that the way forward was through political action, with all its risks and sacrifices; see the careers of Lenny Bruce and Dick Gregory.

7. Laramie, Michael G. The European Invasion of North America: Colonial Conflict along the Hudson-Champlain Corridor, 1609-1760. Preager (ABC-CLIO), 2012. (B-)

Once you get past the rather pretentious title of this book, the subtitle tells you what the meat of this history is about; the cut and thrust of warfare up and down what Laramie calls the "Old Invasion Route." The higher narrative is essentially one of how the French colonial regime adopted raiding warfare as a means of keeping the potential strength of British America off balance and at bay, and which probably worked more successfully in the long run than really should have been allowed to happen.

So despite what would seem to be astute observations on the evolution of the military situation in Upstate New York and a strong writing style, how is it that I really don't trust Laramie's work? For one, Laramie has a bad habit of imagining situations and attributing emotional states to his subjects that I doubt he can document; this is history after all, not historical fiction. Two, despite being issued by what I would normally consider to be a reputable publisher, the footnoting is so weak as to be almost nonexistent. Three, I found some of the source choices to be rather odd; at the very least a book on warfare in Colonial America ought to include the work of Fred Anderson and Francis Jennings in the bibliography.

My recommendation would be to use this as a source with caution and to read Fred Anderson first.

8. Ransom, Stephen. Junkers Ju 287: Germany’s Forward Swept Wing Bomber. Classic Publications (Ian Allan), 2009. (A-)

So the question if you already own Thomas Hitchcock's old Monogram study of the Junker Ju 287 is do you really need this book. If you're interested in this machine, the answer is yes, as besides getting a much more sophisticated understanding of what was to be achieved with this bomber you will also be getting a study of the swept-forward wing concept in general.

9. Spencer, Wen. Elfhome. Baen Books, 2012. (B-)

Returning to the setting of a Pittsburgh unhinged from dimensional stability, this novel is mostly a continuation of the themes in the first two books, as the war between the elves and oni continues while Tinker sorts out her role as an elven aristocrat. The key point is that the deep politics of the elves rears its ugly head (mostly their deep aversion to the misuse of genetic engineering) and provides most of the drive to the plot. As others have noted, this book is much less about Tinker and more about her cousin Oilcan and he is just not as interesting a character to me; I should probably care more, but I don't.

As for the way forward, I'd like to see Spencer deal more with what a disaster such as has befallen Pittsburgh means to human society at some point. Perhaps this would be its own story, perhaps it would be as part of spill-over from the war between the elves and the oni.

10. Votaw, John. The American Expeditionary Forces in World War I. (Battle Orders 6). Osprey, 2005. (B+)

This turned out to be a very good summation of the command and force structure of the U.S. ground forces in Europe in the Great War. About my one critique is whether the space devoted to the Army Air Service would have been better spent on U.S. troops deployed to Siberia and Italy.

11. Warren, Adam. Empowered (Vol. 2). Dark Horse Books, 2007. (B+)

More sophomoric, over-sexed shenanigans by Warren’s “D” list superheroes, though character development is starting to rear its ugly head.

12. Weber, Jennifer L. Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North. Oxford University Press, 2006. (B)

It would seem inevitable that any work on the "Copperheads" would have a revisionist slant. Where Frank Klement downplayed the insurrectionist nature of the movement, Weber tends to depict the hardcore among the faction as talking a good line in terms of exploiting the violence in the Federal states generated by the old social order being hammered in the course of the war, except when the time came to take organized action and the nerve failed. The impression left is that of just another in a series of reactionary American political irruptions that have turned out to be glorified acting out more than anything else, except for the victims of the resulting terrorist actions incited.

Where it's possible that the author did herself no favors is in terms of how she structures her monograph, which tends to ploddingly link the ebb and flow of the Peace Democrats and the Copperheads (who are not quite synonymous) with the fortunes of the Lincoln Administration on the battlefield. This is fine so far as it goes, but playing up issues such as the pre-war fraying of the Jacksonian White Male Order, the perceived hostility between Abolitionists and the Catholic immigrant communities, and sectionalism in the Old Northwest might have said more about the potential of the Copperheads as a political party. This is assuming that more dynamic leadership had been available than the ilk of Clement Vallandigham, who in these pages very much comes off as a legend in his own mind.

Last reading list of 2012

The usual collection of genre fiction, history and military hardware:

1. Barlow, Jeffrey G. From Hot War to Cold: The U.S. Navy and National Security Affairs, 1945-1955. Stanford University Press, 2009. (B)

A workmanlike institutional history of how the United States Navy adapted to the creation of the Department of Defense and the inception of the Cold War. Barlow is at his best when he's writing about that inchoate period between the end of World War II and the outbreak of the Korean War that crystallized the security climate for several generations.

2. Butcher, Jim. White Night. Roc (Penguin), 2007. (A)

While I had a harder time than usual getting into this round of Butcher's epic, and was expecting to mark it down for being a middle installment in the series, the particular virtue of this book is not the descent into the politics of the White Court vampires, it's not the fight against the still murky conspiracy of the Black Council, and it's not even the set-piece battles. No, it's that Butcher continues to develop Harry Dresden's character as he gets used to being an organization man with responsibilities beyond being a free-lance paladin.

3. Chant, Chris. Austro-Hungarian Aces of World War I. (Aircraft of the Aces 46). Osprey, 2002. (B)

While containing useful information about the Hapsburg air arm and its pilots, it's a bit off-putting how much of this booklet is devoted to providing a general survey of Vienna's war effort. It makes one appreciate that a new number in the series concentrating on Austrian Albatros aces is coming out; my initial impression is good.

4. Glantz, David M. & Jonathan M. House. Armageddon in Stalingrad: September-November 1942. University Press of Kansas, 2009. (A)

The middle volume of what will be close to the definitive study of Germany's 1942 Offensive in Russia, this exhaustive book makes use of the best available documentary evidence to give you a block-by-block examination of the actual fighting in Stalingrad, up until the point that Stalin was ready to unleashed the offensive that sealed the doom of Germany's Sixth Army. If there is a key insight it's that both sides were fighting with fewer resources than older sources have suggested, with Glantz & House documenting the mutual slaughter in close detail. The authors also make the key point that the real failure of 1942 was not the test of wills in Stalingrad, but the culminating failure of the German effort to conquer the oil reserves of the Trans-Caucasus region.

While it is no fault to say that this is not the first book about the battle of Stalingrad you should read, I'll admit that I found the maps a little disappointing; in particular, maps that did a better job of relating the fighting in Stalingrad proper to the operations mounted to take pressure of Chuikov's Soviet 62nd Army would have been appreciated. This is a small complaint in relation to the greater achievement of the authors.

It should also be noted that German air superiority into late 1942 played a large role in this campaign, but that is mostly just alluded to in this book. Those who would like to have a better sense of the campaign in three dimensions should consult Joel Hayward's "Stopped at Stalingrad" and Christer Bergstrom's "Stalingrad: The Air Battle."

One also comes away wanting to know more about how the Soviet naval forces kept men and supplies flowing into Stalingrad, as this has to be an epic story in and of itself.

5. Isenberg, Andrew C. Mining California: An Ecological History. Hill & Wang, 2005. (B-)

The virtue of this book is that it's wider ranging than the title suggests, as while the impact on California's resources by gold mining (particularly hydraulic mining) and associated industries is the foundation, how this related to farming and stock-raising, the rise of the city of Sacramento and even the Modoc War of the 1870s is also dealt with. The problem is that this means that the treatment comes off as a little superficial; I feel that this book could easily be distilled down to an article in the New York Review of Books. The theme would then be how the lack of capital and labor led to extensive development, and the exhaustion of the California landscape.

6. Kelso, William M. Jamestown, the Buried Truth. University of Virginia Press, 2006. (B)

A popular account of how the archaeological work of the last generation has given us a new understanding of the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia. I'm not as impressed as some people but Kelso does tell the story of his work on the site with great verve.

7. Palmer, James. Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Death of Mao’s China. Basic Books, 2012. (B+)

While this book does deal with the Tangshan Earthquake of 1976, to a larger degree it's an overview of Mao's last year and the casting down of the Gang of Four; it's not a bad book but linking the disaster with the proverbial loss of the "Mandate of Heaven" doesn't quite come off. One might argue that what's one more disaster when there had been so many under Mao's regime? Still, Palmer writes with a dry wit and has done the footwork to make this book worth your time; this is particularly if "Mao's Last Revolution" looks a little too daunting to tackle.

8. Peeler, Nicole. Tempest’s Legacy. Orbit Books, 2011. (A-)

Book three in Peeler's epic about the selkie girl Jane True picks up right where the second book ended; in a dark place that is going to get darker before it gets better. Besides getting to the bottom of the horrific medical experiments conducted on magical beings, and the real powers behind these acts, Jane is going to spend more time sorting out just what her life can be; let's just say that the cute cover art of the American edition is probably ever less appropriate for the series.

9. Rottman, Gordon L. Army of the Republic of Vietnam, 1955-1975 (Men at Arms 458). Osprey, 2010. (B+)

Vis-a-vis some of the commentary over at the Amazon page on this booklet, this is a perfectly fine overview of the ARVN's history, the evolution of its force structure, and how the men in it were equipped by one of Osprey's more reliable writers.

10. Taaffe, Stephen R. Marshall and His Generals: U.S. Army Commanders in World War II. University Press of Kansas, 2011. (A)

Besides working as a "tour d'horizon" of the conduct of the American ground war in World War II, one receives a good sense of just how the U.S. soldiers who held the higher command positions in World War II received those positions and, on occasion, lost them. Beyond professional achievement, much of this boiled down to a man's relationship with George Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower or Douglas MacArthur. This is the only thing that explains the survival of Courtney Hodges as the commander of the U.S. 1st Army in the ETO, as the evidence seems clear that he should have been withdrawn after the Huertgen Woods campaign (if for no other reason but ill-health) but his friendship with Marshall, Eisenhower and Omar Bradley kept the man in the saddle. Besides that Taaffe also deals with the now unheralded influence of Lesley McNair who, for all his genius in creating the combat structure of the U.S. Army's ground forces, seemed to over-esteem organizational ability over character and force of will, and whose recommendations for operational command (such as Lloyd Fredendall and John Lucas) are justly regarded as failures. It's the collection of these personal relationships, for good or ill, that makes this book valuable.

If there is a particular revelation for me in this book it is that of the career of Jacob Devers, who eventually parleyed a staff slot in the backwater of Italy into command of the U.S. 6th Army Group; much to the annoyance of Eisenhower, Bradley and Patton. Besides demonstrating a certain mastery of bureaucratic politics, Devers' fine performance also brings into question just how essential some of the standard heroes of the U.S. war effort in ETO were; as they say, the graveyards are filled with indispensable men.

I have very little to mark this book down for, but two points come to mind. One is that it's not clear Taaffe really appreciates the concept of operational warfare, or at least he doesn't explicitly make judgments of achievement on that basis. Two, Taaffe also doesn't spend much time talking about what a limited base that the U.S. Army had to draw from in terms of its field commanders, which would be part of the explanation of why some individuals who deserved relief, if only for health reasons, were allowed to remain in combat positions. Then again, Taaffe does remind readers of why this was less of a concern than it might be, as the U.S. Army was not depending on individual virtuosity on the field of battle to win the war.

11. Tregillis, Ian. The Coldest War. Tor Books (Tom Doherty Assocs.), 2012. (A)

If you've read the novel "Bitter Seeds" (and if not you should probably stop reading right here), you will know that Britain defeated Nazi Germany's cybernetic psionic supermen with the aid of of higher-dimensional beings who see Humans as an error in the cosmic order, and who demanded an excruciating price for this assistance.

Flash forward twenty years and there's a cold war between Britain and the Soviet Union (the United States having not participated in World War II), and Raybould Marsh and Wil Beauclerk (the main characters of the last story) find themselves dealing with the fallout from the dirty war they fought in different ways; Marsh by hunkering down in the ruins of his marriage and Beauclerk by devoting himself to building better relations with Moscow.

At this point the malign oracle Gretel von Westdorp, and her many schemes to force the future of her dreams, reenters their lives with the force of a bomb detonating; I will say that I was a little bit surprised with what this scheme is, but you will not be surprised when desperate choices come back to blow up in faces of decision makers.

12. Tully, Anthony P. Battle of Surigao Strait. Indiana University Press, 2009. (A)

Written by one of the proprietors of the estimable "Imperial Japanese Navy Page" on the Web, Tully weaves together previously unused information to truly revolutionize our understanding of history's last great naval surface action. The key point is that Vice Admiral Nishimura's reinforced division of old battleships was not a pointless afterthought, but a brave attempt to further draw American forces away from the Japanese main force that was supposed to savage the American invasion force off Leyte, and which essentially worked.

What is this Mayan apocalypse of which you speak?
Not that I was expecting one, but it would beat the hell out of dwelling on inexplicable massacres of the innocents, moronic right-wing politicians, or driving home for Christmas in the teeth of the first big storm of the season.

Another month, yet another stinking reading list

1. Ahmed, Saladin. Throne of the Crescent Moon. DAW Books, 2012. (A)


Having set up an imaginary world of Islamic flavor, but not so Islamic as to agitate the true believers, this fantasy is notable for how all the point of view characters, be they old magic users or young warriors, are afflicted with either a sense of failed duty or of the wrong choices having been made. Eventually, the plot resolves into something that more resembles urban rather than epic fantasy, as doom falls upon the ruling house of Ahmed's re-imagining of Classic Baghdad. If I have a problem with this story it's that I have a hard time wondering how Ahmed is going to push forward, considering how dramatic the climax is.


2. Bisher, Jamie. White Terror: Cossack Warlords of the Trans-Siberian. Routledge, 2005. (B+)


This is one of those books where the sub-title is an example of truth in advertising, as the author examines the reign of terror wrought by men such as Roman Ungern-Shternberg and Grigorii Semenov (among others) who, once freed from their obligation of service to the Czarist throne, could think of nothing better to do but prey on the Russian society of the Far East with no vision greater than personal aggrandizement. Call this part of the explanation of how the weakness of Russian society possibly made Bolshevik victory inevitable; barring a really major intervention by outside powers.


As for the drawbacks to this book, apart from the rather fearsome price (this is definitely an inter-library loan special), there are times when Bisher's background as a security analyst rather than a scholar becomes a little problematic. He does get bogged down in the mass of material he has collected and it seems that he could have tied the rise of the Cossack warlords to wider trends in Russian society, such as the history of the "service" aristocracy in Czarist Russia. Still, there's really nothing else like this book on the subject.


3. Broderick, Damien & Paul di Filippo. Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels, 1985-2010. NonStop Press, 2012. (B)


Inevitably idiosyncratic as all such lists are, Broderick & Di Filippo at the very least like their science fiction in the sweeping cosmic tradition of Olaf Stapledon, they like it Trans-Human, and they like to invoke the term "fantastika" a lot. According to John Clute (who admittedly ought to know), "...fantastika designates science fiction and all the other literatures that SF shares significant characteristics with..." This allows for the annexation of novels by Philip Roth, Kazuo Ishiguro and Cormac McCarthy to the canon in question.


What's most interesting to me are some of the authors for whom Broderick and Di Filippo don't seem to have a lot of love; no David Brin, no Dan Simmons, no Mary Gentle, no James Morrow and no George Alec Effinger (just to note a few). Perhaps their visions just aren't radical or literary enough for the authors, or perhaps it was thought that they're sufficiently well known that they needed no additional attention. Let’s just say that even if you’re a partisan of the concept of "transrealism (as Broderick turns out to be)," which tends to privilege subjective perception over naturalistic realism, I still have a hard time buying that the likes of George Zebrowski, David Marusek and Jamil Nasir should be included. Let's just say that I'd like to see the list of the twenty-five or so novels that didn't make the cut. Which is another way of saying that if you're throwing around the word the "best" as a description I'm likely to respond with a rhetorical "oh really?" An index would have been nice too.


4. Fernandez, Jose. Macchi C.200 Saetta. Mushroom Model Publications, 2012. (B+)


A typical Stratus/MMP book featuring numerous excellent photos (many in color), profiles, and drawings. If you are looking more for operational data that's a little schematic in terms of what's provided, though you still receive coverage of all the theaters of the war where this machine was used.


5. Grguric, Nicholas. The Mycenaeans ca. 1650-1100 BC (Elite 130). Osprey, 2005. (B)


The most relevant point of this booklet is to make the argument that the Mycenaean citadel states had well-organized military forces and that sufficient documentation exists to back up this assertion. This is as opposed to fielding a Homeric mob of heroes and spear carriers.


6. Gumbel, Andrews & Roger G. Charles. Oklahoma City: What the Investigation Missed and Why It Still Matters. William Morrow, 2012. (B+)


A surprisingly restrained examination of a super-heated topic. Essentially, the authors seek to reconstruct the social environment that Timothy McVeigh functioned in before the 1995 bombing in Oklahoma City, explain why it was so hard for federal authorities to penetrate that world before the strike, and dissect the mistakes made in the investigation of the crime.


How you value this book will depend on how much you take the post-conviction testimony of Terry Nichols seriously. The authors figure that up to seven individuals lack plausible stories to separate them from the bombing, including Roger E. Moore, gun dealer and the possible bank roller of this crime, and Andreas Strassmeir, a German national who loved the Oklahoma survivalist community and who seemed to have unusual military skills. However, Nichols really doesn't implicate further anyone who hasn't already been associated with this action.


One thing that you do come away with from this book is that while Tim McVeigh might have been a legend in his own mind, or covering for a larger conspiracy, he does seem to have been the person with the determination and will to make sure that the attack actually took place. Too many of the other suspects give off the impression that even getting out of bed in the morning was a major challenge for them, let alone staging a major terrorist strike.


7. Hunter, Douglas. The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot and a Lost History of Discovery. Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. (A)


What is most excellent about this account of the exploits of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot is that Hunter does the best job I've seen of putting these men in to the social and geo-political context of their times. Cabot is the more interesting story, as new evidence suggests that he was the front for continental exploration enthusiasts seeking entrance to the court of Henry VII, and who used Cabot's Spanish experience to wrap their proposal in credibility. The book ends on something of slack note, as our protagonists are on the verge of passing on (Cabot now appears to have survived his third voyage and died in England), at the same time it's being recognized by 1500 that something other than the Far East has been found. Some readers are going to wonder if some of the conclusions drawn and linkages made are a bit speculative, but I thought it was a great story.


8. Jaskot, Paul B. The Architecture of Oppression: The SS, Forced Labor and the Nazi Monumental Building Economy. Routledge, 2000. (B+


While it was not exactly news by the time this book was published that Albert Speer had done a fine job of creating the myth of the "Good Nazi" for himself. What this tightly organized monograph does is to examine the precise organizational linkages between the SS industrial system (based on their control of the concentration camps) and Speer's management of Hitler's architectural vision; thus establishing an early horizon for Speer's involvement in the Nazi regime's criminality.


Along with this Jaskot also provides a consideration of how the Nazi architectural aesthetic was impacted by this relationship and analyzes how the SS industrial managers separated "productivity" from "efficiency" in their calculus of making oppression pay for itself. It makes me wonder if a comparative study of totalitarian economics has been done, as the emphasis on output at all costs would seem to be the unifying factor between the Nazi, the Bolshevik, and the Maoist way of doing "business."


In the end, this work is mostly a shot across the bow of the cultural-history community, as Jaskot saw them as continuing to separate art and politics in a fashion he found untenable.


9. Jemisin, N.K. The Killing Moon. Orbit Books, 2012. (A)


Set in a world derived from Egyptian antecedents, much is made in the blurbs of the relationship between Ehiru (a holy assassin and priest) and Sunandi (a lady ambassador) who find themselves forced to depend on each other to expose a conspiracy eating at Ehiru's kingdom. What really drives this book is that Ehiru discovers the cost of the magic that his society is based upon, and which gives him his power and prestige. If nothing else Jemisin continues to show real flair in depicting intense conspiracy and the costs of holding absolute power.

Another month....
...another stinkin' book list.

1. Billington, David P. & Donald C. Jackson. Big Dams of the New Deal Era: A Confluence of Engineering and Politics. University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. (B-)

An episodic examination of how the agricultural development mission of the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineer's concerns with river navigation recombined to produce the great multi-purpose dams of the 1930s, where power generation was a major consideration. This is despite the opposition of private power interests; power generation being the surest way to finance these great structures.

Besides the institutional and economic politics that swirled around the projects chosen for examination, the authors spend almost half of the book on the engineering considerations involved in how these dams were designed and built. The shadow hanging over this effort would appear to be the St. Francis Dam Disaster of 1928 in California, the failure of which discouraged the examination of design approaches that would have been more technological daring and possibly more cost effective; better safe than sorry became the order of the day, despite the extra fiscal outlays incurred.

I could easily have marked this book down further for having all the flair of a text book, and I've read my share of dry-as-dirt books that I mostly read to be informed.

2. Doctorow, Cory & Charles Stross. The Rapture of the Nerds. Tor Books (Tom Doherty Assocs.), 2012. (A)

Living on a ragged and ruined Earth, where most of humanity has uploaded itself into a thought cloud surrounding the Sun, Huw Jones mostly just wants to get drunk, work on his ceramics, and grouse about his long-gone parents. Then, one day, Jones gets swept up in a public inquiry about whether a new technology should be allowed to enter the reservation that is Earth. While Huw had looked forward to this process as an opportunity to vent his frustrations about his up-lifted parents, our protagonist soon finds himself in an infuriating adventure that is by turns dangerous and mind-boggling, and where he might just be forced to grow up and get a life. If you've read Doctorow or Stross in the past you have no good reason to avoid this book; this is unless the prospect of the singularity enthusiasts getting a few swift kicks you-know-where puts you off.

3. Higham, Robin. Two Roads to War: The French and British Air Arms from Versailles to Dunkirk. Naval Institute Press, 2012. (B)

In this effort to examine the British and French efforts to generate air power, Higham has produced a useful survey of how while the British made their share of mistakes, they at least created a strong foundation for the RAF, as compared to the French Armee de l'Air, which like the rest of the French military could not transcend the fragility of the Third Republic.

If I have a particular complaint with this book it’s when Higham dips into assertions of national character as an explanation for events. At least it gives this work a quaint feeling in places. Still, when faced with the mystery of why personal leadership was not forthcoming in France before World War II, it’s an understandable choice.

4. Korshak, Stephen D., Ed. From the Pen of Paul: The Fantastic Images of Frank R. Paul. Shasta Phoenix, 2009. (B+)

This is a very nice collection of images by the artist that did as much as anyone to create the sense of what pulp science fiction was about. A special virtue is that the publishers have taken the time to include illustrations of the surviving original paintings of Frank Paul, not just copies of magazine covers.

5. McBurney, Christian M. The Rhode Island Campaign: The First French and American Operation in the Revolutionary War. Westholme Publishing, 2011. (A)

Rather wider ranging than the title suggests, McBurney begins with the British occupation of Newport, Rhode Island and takes one through all events until the campaign of 1778. The meat of the story are the efforts of General John Sullivan and Admiral Comte d'Estaing create a working joint operation to retake Newport, only to see their plans undone by bad weather and the cranky communications of the time. Apart from some weird phrases ("plumb cake"?) that I suspect are the result of too much dependence on automated proofing, I really have no complaints about this book.

6. Scalzi, John. Redshirts. Tor Books (Tom Doherty Assocs.), 2012. (A-)

While I didn't find the character development to be quite as good as in the "Old Man's War" books, that's less of a problem with such a high-concept novel. You can almost call this a horror story, as our beleaguered "redshirts" start to realize what is behind the awful casualty rates on the good ship "Intrepid," and struggle to retake control of their fates. You really do want to read the three codas, as that is where the real payoff to the story is to be found.

7. Yakushin, Ivan. On the Roads of War: A Soviet Cavalryman on the Eastern Front. Pen & Sword Books, 2005. (A)

In some ways the most striking thing about this book is its normality, in that this story could have been told thousands of times in every-man's army in the Second World War; the tale of the motivated young officer who is trying to do right by his values, his service, and his country. However, not every story begins with struggling to get back into Leningrad before the German siege closes like a trap, and where going to a military high school is the difference between survival and death. From there what gives this tale a sense of veracity is how Yakushin doesn't gloss over the embarrassments in his wartime service, from getting through artillery school, to his first command, to learning how to be a horse cavalry officer on the fly in an elite unit. What Yakushin mostly considers himself is lucky, as he dodged death more than his share of times, experienced mostly victory, and came out of the war in one piece.  I suspect that there was a certain dry irony in the telling of the tale that didn't survive translation.

Obligatory Hurricane Sandy Observations....
While I'm feeling a bit sorry for the folks in New Jersey and points north, that Virginia had a relatively easy time of it is something I give thanks for.

I was expecting things to be at least as bad as when the derecho storm at the tail-end of June blasted through here.

On Capclave 2012
It's over.

Apart from sorting out the finances.

I can go back to thinking about things other than the convention.

Another month, another reading list...
1. Clark, Katerina. Moscow, the Fourth Rome: Stalinism, Cosmopolitanism, and the Evolution of Soviet Culture, 1931-1941. Harvard University Press, 2011. (C)

When it's all said and done this effort to analyze Soviet politics through the prism of literary/cultural theory fell flat for me. While I'm not going to say that Clark is attempting to rehabilitate Soviet culture by keeping Stalinism at arms-length (yes, I've seen that argument made), the more annoying aspect is that she abandons her metaphor of Soviet Moscow as a new Rome very quickly, making you wonder why she even bothered to invoke it. A more conventional contrast between the conflicting demands of the messianic tendencies of the Party, the requirement of Popular Front politics to make overseas connections and the eventual pressing need to bolster Russian nationalism might have served Clark better; though that probably would have rendered much of her background as a cultural analyst irrelevant.

2. Crowley, Roger. City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas. Random House, 2011. (A-)

Another of Crowley's well-written books about the narrative of empire in the Mediterranean before the rise of the Atlantic powers, where he follows the arrival of Venice as a full-fledged empire in the wake of the Fourth Crusade and how attrition and changing structural realities brought that empire low. For Crowley, the climax came at the battle of Zonchio in 1499, where failure of nerve led to strategic failure in the face of the Ottoman offensive; the confidence was never really rebuilt.

3, Dawson, Timothy. Byzantine Infantryman: Eastern Roman Empire c. 900-1204 (Warrior 118). Osprey, 2007. (B+)

A better than average number in this series, as the author appears to have real expertise in the subject. Besides the usual nuts and bolts details, the most interesting suggestion is that the infantry of the last high point of Byzantium might have been a way station to the reintroduction of drilled foot soldiers in Western Europe.

4. Konstam, Angus. British Motor Gun Boat 1939-45 (New Vanguard 166). Osprey, 2010. (B)

A typical Osprey production by one of the usual suspects.

5. Novik, Naomi. Crucible of Gold. Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2012. (B)

At the end of Tongues of Serpents Will Laurence had passed through his personal slough of despond and regained his equilibrium and sense of direction; this is just in time for Novik to send Will and Temeraire on another desperate mission. The British government being hard-pressed enough to stave off a Franco-Tsawana invasion of Brazil that they're prepared to recall our insubordinate duo to service.

What ensues is one disaster after another, but the difference is that Laurence is now prepared to make choices that fit the facts on the ground and make them stick. The question remains as to what will stave off victory by Napoleon, and this means another adventure for our heroes; adventure being defined as someone in trouble a long ways from home.

I’ll admit that I’m pretty much over this series, and the only reason I keep reading is to see how Novik wraps it all up.

6. Silbey, David J. The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China. Hill & Wang, 2012. (B+)

A quick survey of the terminal climax of the Qing Dynasty, as the imperial government of China attempted to direct social revolution against the modern empires seeking to dominate the old Confucian state. The main virtue of this study is that it concentrates on putting the objectives of the assorted players in regards to each other in perspective, and takes the so-called Boxers as seriously as any of the other forces in the field.

7. Stewart, David O. American Emperor: Aaron Burr’s Challenge to Jefferson’s America. Simon & Schuster, 2011. (A)

An entertaining popular history of one of the more bizarre episodes in the history of the United States, Stewart examines in extended detail the efforts of Aaron Burr to recoup his fortunes in the wake of the personal disaster that was his duel with Alexander Hamilton and which covered a spectrum of schemes between spearheading a filibustering expedition against Spanish possessions in North America to shaking down Pres. Jefferson for a new role in the administration. The fact of the matter is that American tensions with the Spanish government of Carlos V provided an environment in which Burr could spin his intrigues with men also interested in exploiting the situation.

How much of this was merely a confidence scheme that went awry is almost beside the point, in that Burr ultimately wound up before Chief Justice John Marshall, a piece in the institutional and political conflict between Marshall and Jefferson, further burnishing Marshall's reputation and adding to the law governing the rights of U.S. citizens when issues of national security are in play. Stewart's background as a lawyer is invaluable here, as he dissects the realities of 19th century U.S. legal practice, and the defects in the case the U.S. government brought against Burr and his co-conspirators.

The weakness of this book is that Stewart admits that some of his documentation in regards to the intentions of Pres. Jefferson is not as inclusive as it could be, as to a large degree he's depending on the published papers of the president, and that series has not reached the period in question. One does wonder why Jefferson waited so long to act against Burr, and why he was willing to tolerate leaving the dubious personality that was Gen. James Wilkinson in a sensitive position, key elements in the whole story. Though by the end of it Jefferson was no longer so positive about the virtues of secession!

The final irony of the story is that Burr survived long enough to witness the establishment of the Texas Republic, and to feel as though he was a prophet before his time.

8. Zichek, Jared A. Secret Aerospace Projects of the U.S. Navy: The Incredible Attack Aircraft of USS United States, 1948-1949. Schiffer Pub., 2009. (B+)

Call this the Cold War equivalent of the "Luft '46" phenomena, as Zichek surveys the surviving documentation for the nuclear-delivery aircraft that were to equip the ill-fated USS United States.

The most interesting point is that there were actually two lines of development; "heavy attack" projects that ultimately resulted in the Douglas A-3 Skywarrior and the so-called "special attack" machines that were essentially manned cruise missiles. The second series of projects seem more appropriate for a Gerry Anderson show (think Thunderbirds are Go) than for combat deployment.

A day away from work....
It was spent at used-book sales and entering the new acquisitions into Library Thing.

The next question is whether I want to do happy hour at one of the local brew pubs or save my money.

Last month's reading list
1. Ballantine, Pip & Tee Morris. Phoenix Rising. Harper Voyager, 2011. (C+)

I wish I could say that I liked this novel better, particularly due to how the authors really tried to build some interesting protagonists, develop a screw-ball relationship between the two, and give you an interesting set of interlocking conspiracies. Part of the problem is that Steam Punk is rapidly setting into a formula, but the main issue is that the middle of this book kind of dragged for me, and that's the kiss of death for what should be a fast-paced thriller. I'm still interested in the next book in the series.

2. Fraser, Nicholas. Dawn of the Dinosaurs: Life in the Triassic. Indiana University Press, 2006. (B+)

While readers are probably going to zero in on the "Dinosaurs" in the title, the author spends as much or more time considering the competitors to Dinosauria, and does so while considering what it meant to be living on a single super continent. Fraser is also to be complimented for keeping this book readable while not dumbing down the proper technical language. If nothing else one can enjoy the drawings and conceptual art of what these animals looked like in their environment.

3. Gilbert, Alan. Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence. University of Chicago Press, 2012. (C-)

While I can respect Gilbert for taking on a difficult topic, in terms of examining the war within a war that was the effort of those of African descent to win their own freedom during the American Revolution, the reality is that he’s written a very tedious monograph that was a chose to read. Even if I appreciate that Gilbert is trying to capture and emphasize what this experience meant to slaves and freedman from their perspective, I get little sense that Gilbert is interested in writing about the war itself; mostly just what it meant to the project of emancipation in the Atlantic World.

Also, if you’re going to court controversy, get on with business at hand if that’s what it takes to enliven the proceedings. Let’s just say that when you have four books listed on Amazon and no one has a good or a bad thing to say about your work that’s a real sign that you’re simply a boring pedant.

4. Kamenir, Victor J. The Bloody Triangle: The Defeat of Soviet Armor in the Ukraine, June 1941. Zenith Press, 2008. (B)

The virtue of this book is that it takes one beyond cryptic little symbols and gives you a sense of what was happening at the level of the corps and the division in the Soviet Red Army in the opening weeks of the German invasion. Kamenir gives particular emphasis to the rather ramshackle state of the Soviet units, the impact of the purges on the Soviet military leadership, and how the failure to mobilize in a timely fashion hamstrung both the Soviet command-and-control capability and the mobility of the artillery and logistical units; in the last case much was expected of civilian assets destined for use in wartime.

One also gets the flavor of Soviet generalship, particularly that of Mikhail Kirponos, commander of the so-called Kiev Special Military District; and the flavor is not sweet. Kirponos owed his rapid promotion to the bloody season of the Great Purge and he appears to have been inept as a military technician and lacking the guile to either deal with his commissar or with high-powered military delegations from Moscow. This is as compared to the soon-to-be-famous Konstantin Rokossovskiy, who handled his ill-prepared mechanized corps about as well as could be expected, while at the same time keeping intrusive political officers at arms-length.

Another plus is that there are an adequate number of maps and the order of battle data is rather good.

The downside of this book is that the author has been let down by dodgy editing in terms of too many instances of poor spelling having been allowed to pass uncorrected and the insufficient use of appropriate articles of speech; it's as though war had been declared on the words "the" and "an." There's also the small matter that I have no sense of author's reputation for veracity, though on the basis of this book I would certainly read another of his works.

5. MacFarquhar, Roderick & Michael Schoenhals. Mao’s Last Revolution. Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2006. (A)

I've become a little skeptical of large and sweeping "history of everything" books as I've become older, but this work is an exception as the authors use the most current documentation to try and sort out the chaotic violence that was the Great Chinese Cultural Revolution. The vision that one comes away with is of Mao as an old bandit who could not imagine that his time was ending, and who used parasitic hacks and cronies to attack the professionals who were trying to make Chinese society work, and thus retain power just a little longer.

Most striking is that the authors can demonstrate just how much of an actual civil war had been incited by Mao, particularly during the peak of the Red Guard period; the mind boggles at the image of the story of two competing student groups allegedly building radiological "dirty" bombs to use against each other.

More meat is also put on the whole mystery of Lin Biao, and whether he was a traitor or not. It would appear that Mao actually made the first move, because if all power flowed from the barrel of a gun, Mao wanted to make sure it was civilian leadership that had the finger on the trigger, and setting the marshal aside was the way to try and assure an acceptable succession. This is particularly since no truly workable heir was available and that Mao had done a fine job of destroying the party to save it.

As you watch the Chinese Communist Party tie itself into knots in 2012 over installing a new government, keep in mind that this is the deep background to a damaged institution that has never really recovered since 1966. Let's say that I'm not as hopeful as the authors that liberal developments will come out of the struggle to come to grips with Mao's poisoned heritage.

6. Martinez, A. Lee. Emperor Mollusk versus the Sinister Brain. Orbit Books, 2012. (A)

A pastiche and a send-up of authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, H. Rider Haggard, H.G. Wells and the like, Martinez sends his protagonist (a humble-bragging, retired super-villain) on a madcap adventure where the enemy is always one step ahead of Mollusk and his disgruntled sidekick (whose mission in life is to make sure that no one kills Mollusk before the Venusian government executes her charge for war crimes). I think this is my favorite novel by Martinez since "Monster" and is well-worth your while if you're looking for some light entertainment.

7. Peniston, Bradley. No Higher Honor: Saving the USS Samuel B. Roberts in the Persian Gulf. Naval Institute Press, 2006. (A-)

A comprehensive narrative of the mining of the frigate Samuel B. Roberts in 1988, where the author provides a portrait of Paul Rinn and his crew and how they saved a ship that had been pushed to the literal breaking point. Besides the struggle to save the ship, Peniston also gives you background on the ship's namesake, the program origins of the ship, the career of then Commander Rinn, the nature of the naval confrontation between the United States and Iran, and how the ship was returned to service. Peniston has a good story to write about and tells it well.

What's less than good is that Peniston wants to pump up the story to a bit more importance than it probably deserves; though the lessons regarding asymmetric naval warfare are still relevant. Maybe the single biggest annoyance is when Peniston claims that the actions he describes were "the first clash between groups of warships since World War II and it featured the first missile duel between surface forces." There are men who served in the Israeli, Egyptian, Syrian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, and Portuguese navies who would be irked by that statement; never mind the Anglo-Argentinean War in the South Atlantic.

8. Resnick, Laura. Disappearing Nightly. Luna Books, 2005. (C)

An okay paranormal romance where the main character is an underemployed actress who gets sucked into a mystery where the participants in stage-magic shows are literally disappearing into thin air. As high concept the novel is respectable enough, but Resnick is not as clever as she thinks she is; in particular, the reveal of the antagonist made me think "idiot plot."

9. Scheck, Raffael. Hitler’s African Victims: The German Army Massacres of Black French Soldiers in 1940. Cambridge University Press, 2006 (B+).

A terse little monograph where the author puts the bad fate of numerous French colonial troops in June of 1940 into context. On one side of the equation was a mixture of bad German memories from World War I and Nazi propaganda. On the other there was the flair of the "Tirailleurs Senegalais" for hand-to-hand combat to the literal hilt of the knife in the service of a desperate defense. This generated what one might call a "normal" process of massacre, wherein the angry victors take their vengeance on the hateful "other." What Scheck doesn't find is much evidence for the institutionalization of annihilation that the German armed forces took with them into the Soviet Union; the progress by which active campaigning routinized violence in the German Army and the Waffen-SS was sufficient in this circumstance.

10. Stross, Charles. The Apocalypse Codex. Ace Books, 2012. (A)

If The Fuller Memorandum was about Bob Howard (our much-put-upon paranormal intelligence operative) learning to survive on his own, then this book is about Bob demonstrating whether he has the capacity to lead and command. This is all in the process of trying to reconnoiter an American evangelical minister trying to get access to the British Prime Minister, meaning the deployment of freelance assets by the “Laundry.” I was going to mark this book down a little more for middle-of-the-series syndrome, but half-way through things go to hell in a hand basket very nicely. I also do begin to wonder if the "Laundry" series will take us through CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, or whether that will be its own series. Finally, I wonder what paranormal intelligence would look like in a conservative Muslim state, if only due to Stross' throwaway reference to the Malaysian Presidential Guard.

11. Warren, Adam. Empowered (Vol. 1). Dark Horse Books, 2007. (B)

A smart-assed send-up of comic-book conventions with manga overtones; your mileage will depend on your enthusiasm for Warren (I’m a fan)

12. Wilson, Mark R. The Business of Civil War: Military Mobilization and the State, 1861-1865. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. (A)

In this examination of the Union military-industrial complex of the American Civil War, the issue is how the Quartermaster Corps of the U.S. Army wound up being the dominant player, due to being a recognized reservoir of expertise, leading to an almost technocratic system of economic management. This is as opposed to a federal system dominated by the state governments, or arrangements dominated by political favoritism.

As it is, the author finds that the real fault line was not over whether the wartime economy would be controlled by politicians in Washington, or the state governors, or Army bureaucrats. No, it was public dislike of a system exploited by "middlemen" with the financial depth to handle large-scale orders made on credit that bred the most controversy. This is particularly when the sense was that small producers and individual workers were being kept from the commanding heights of capital.

As for the long-term implications of this experience, the author suggests that they were deeper then the rapid deconstruction of the wartime economy might suggest. Examples are given in terms of the impact on civil-service reform, the rise of the transcontinental railroads, and the whole example in the long term of how large-scale economic enterprise might be conducted in the United States.


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