Tag Archives: book reviews

The Wolf

It’s never been entirely clear to me why the First World War hasn’t generated the same level of interest that the sequel has here in the U.S. of A. Granted we weren’t in it for very long but it provides an opportunity to not only see how a conflict manifests itself differently throughout the world and at different levels (from the grand strategic to the very personal and individual) but also to examine a fault line between eras. How do civilizations act (and react) do the death of one age and the birth of another? You can see traces of both the ‘old’ Romantic era and the ‘new’ Modern one struggling in the same time and place which, I suspect, has more to tell us about where we might be headed than WWII does 1. So, I’ve been dipping my toe into WW1 readings lately and quite enjoying it.

I recently finished The Wolf by Richard Guilliatt and Peter Hohnen. I wasn’t sure what I expected when I started the book and I don’t have much in the way of nautical interest generally but this was a compelling read. The book follows the journey of the German commerce raider SMS Wolf which spanned the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans (64,000 miles) over 14 months without one trip into port. The ship sustained itself solely through the cargo of the ships it captured. It’s total damages were 30 ships damaged or sunk, totally 138,000 tons. More importantly, the activities of the Wolf had a disproportionate impact on the war effort of the allies, forcing them to restrict the shipping of cargo and troops, revealing rifts in the alliance and causing domestic discord (at least in Australia).

It’s the latter story which is both interesting and frustrating in revealing how little things have changed in our response to threats over the past 100 years. The Australian government, refusing to accept ever more compelling evidence that a commerce raider was prowling in their waters, decided to curry popular support by creating a scare of a secret fifth column of people of German decent. There were internment camps, calls for mass deportation and increasing paranoia about the dangers from the Hun. Re-skin those positions, speeches and laws to the boogy man of the week (Muslims, immigrants, gays, etc.) and you’d hardly know we were in the 21st century.

But apart from that little bit of deja vu, the real story is what went on board on the Wolf itself. As the Wolf had to be self-sustaining, abided but the contemporary laws of war and had no friendly port to pull into, she had to keep all of her prisoners on board for the duration of her journey. That meant some prisoners were kept on the ship for nearly a year and at one point the ship, with a crew of almost 350, had around 400 prisoners on board, including women and children. Keeping so many people in such a small area for extended periods of time and under stressful conditions is bound to lead to all sorts of differing conflicts and relationships and The Wolf does not dissapoint in discussing them. The dynamics between the Germans and the prisoners (of different nationalities), the prisoners amongst themselves, the officers and the crew (while at sea, there was a mutiny of the German Navy and word made it to the crew, causing much confusion and consternation), the ‘civilians’ and everyone else, are facinating and that’s totally separate from the war going on outside the ship’s hull.

As, I suspect, is true with most wartime deployments, it’s the end of the mission that is the most stressful. You’re tired, anticipating being home (or at least out of the battle), and the temptation to give into complacency or paralysis from too much caution can prove fatal. The Wolf had to navigate British blockade many thought wasn’t possible, under terrible weather conditions, with ever decreasing supplies. Prisoners were suffering from scurvy and beri-beri, coal was running low, and huge winter storms were running rampant across the Atlantic.

The prisoners were faced with the dilemma of both hoping to be found by allied ships and dreading the possibility. After all, an allied warship could decide to blow the Wolf out of the water instead of asking for her surrender.

In fact, there are so many levels of drama and conflict within this story I can’t help wondering why it hasn’t been brought to the screen or used to drive a fictional story based on these dynamics. Change the backdrop to a sci-fi universe with the Wolf becoming a spaceship and the story practically writes itself. Or, imagine a much (MUCH) grimmer version of the Love Boat (please no guest cameo by Gopher) where the cast is forever stuck on the Pacific Princess. And no worries, there were enough ladies as prisoners to allow for all sorts of romantic plot lines.

Here’s a video of the Wolf (along with her seaplane the cleverly named ‘Wolfchen’ or ‘little wolf’).

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And a bit from one of the authors…

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  1. Which is unfortunate since people here are more familiar (or as familiar as a historically blind culture can be) with WWII and it remains the ‘go to’ conflict for historical analogies.

Is Anders Breivik our Loki?

A few weeks ago Jack MacDonald over at Kings of War had a superb post about the apparently unrelated subjects of the plethora of superhero movies over the past decade and lone wolf terrorists.

I think that superheroes happen to be an important way of thinking about ‘lone wolf’ terrorists such as Timothy McVeigh or Anders Breivik. A single person, capable of unleashing terrible force/changing the planet etc. Nietzsche was talking about Supermen as persons unbounded by the morality of the herd, Moore made the point that persons capable of unleashing terrible force should be an object of worry, regardless of whose side they happen to be on, and furthermore, there’s no reason to think that they might agree with ‘our’ way of thinking.

And more…

What is important about lone wolf terrorists, and, for similar reasons, movements such as anonymous, is that we’re sliding towards a world of ‘supermen’, and it’s not a pretty sight…What happens when these individuals or small groups start going to war? There have been nods towards this in the real world (remember the Anonymous ‘vs’ the Mexican cartels hoax a while back?) but the worst is yet to come. What happens when Anonymous pisses off some criminal black hat hackers? What if another Breivik provokes a violent response from a similar type on the ‘other side’? In either case, lots of innocent people are going to get caught in the crossfire.

I have to admit, this was a really enjoyable post for me to read because it was well written, combines ideas from different ideas to make a new point and I disagree with that point.

While I agree we’re in an age where an individual can unleash a ‘terrible force which can change the planet’ it seems to me this is a change of degree rather than something new and previously unseen.  After all, Tim McVeigh and Anders Breivik may have done some serious damage but Gavrilo Princip really set the world afire and that was nearly a century ago.  Certainly more people have the capability to do big damage (however we may define that) today than a century ago but it seems MacDonald misses the flip side of his argument.  People also have an increased capability to do ‘good’.

Worries about whether people with these increased abilities adhere to ‘our’ way of thinking seems to be regular old (small ‘c’) conservatism, afraid of change.  It seems the very same argument could be made at any point in history undergoing radical technological change.   The internet, electricity, industrial development, gunpowder, the wheel, domestication of animals.  Each of those dramatically enhanced the abilities of individuals and groups for good and ill. Times change and it may be worthwhile to remember that a few centuries ago ‘our’ way of thinking involved slavery, burning or stoning people who demonstrated too much individuality as witches and other horrendous things.  I’m just not that concerned with maintaining ‘our’ way of thinking over the long run.

After all, in the long run we’ll all be dead.

While I bemoan the lack of community as much as I suspect MacDonald does, I don’t think it necessarily means we’re headed towards some sort of destructive anarchy.  Humankind seems to crave structure and its desire for it seems to be demonstrated every day among the hundreds of millions of people who have the power to act like the Nietzschian supermen yet do not.  Suicide bombs have been around for decades, where are the million (or thousands) of people expressing their individual vetos?  At the risk of minimizing the criminal networks, terrorists and thugs that are all over the globe perhaps we should look at the vast majority of people who aren’t involved in such destructiveness.

So maybe a world full of superheroes might be more chaotic than what we’ve got now but it might not be a bad thing.

Along that same thread, I just finished New Model Army by Adam Roberts.  This is, on its surface, a book that should be right up my alley.  It takes place in the near future where the old (MacDonald) world is falling apart.  As the state is disintegrating new, crowd-sourced, mercenary armies are springing up and fighting against state militaries while in the pay of new, smaller states (Scotland in the book).

The book has gotten very good reviews which makes me think I’m missing something here but it really seems to fail across the board unless the author is trying to make a point very similar to MacDonald’s while superficially trying to demonstrate the opposite.  If that’s the case, I’m afraid Roberts to both too subtle and too clever for me.

The book spends (IMO) too much time on rather bland battle scenes while glossing over what a real crowd sourced society would look like and how it might coexist with a more traditional one as they compete for supremacy.  The New Model Army is really a one trick pony which reminded me more of 15th century Italian mercenaries that acted as roving bands of parasites than anything truly new or innovative.  The ending may have had some interesting sci-fi possibilities but the idea ended barely after he introduced it.  So, given that you’re only likely to read 1,000-2,000 books in your lifetime, I’d recommend giving this one a pass.

Tomorrow, I’ll talk about a better description of crowd-sourcing military and intelligence operations.

Kvick Tänkare

The Horror Etc. podcast has not one but TWO (!) episodes centered around Nordic horror.  Horror Etc. is fast becoming one of my favorite podcasts as it brings the right level of quality, likability of the hosts, geeky levels of enthusiasm about their subject and horror.

Matter is a kickstarter project looking for donations to provide weekly, in-depth reporting on science and technology.  If you’re interested in that sort of thing (as I am) and you’ve got a few bucks to spend, please consider supporting them.  They’ve got some nice rewards for modest donations ($25 gets you a 3 month subscription and $10 will get you their first 5 stories free).

Even if you aren’t interested in that particular project, think about browsing the kickstarter site (or RocketHub) and funding some other project.

I can’t remember if I posted this or not but even if I did, it’s worth a second look.  amazing dogfight animation that makes me want to watch more.  Check out Paths of Hate.

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God may have 1,000 names but hobos had 23 in the 16th century.  I wonder if the need to name so many particular varieties of vagabond was like the Inuits having 18 different words for snow?

Finally, I just finished reading ‘Tooth and Nail” by Craig Dilouie.  There’s not much character development here and a bit too much military jargon but this guy can write some great action.  Think Black Hawk Down in New York City during the zombie apocalypse.  Very quick and very fun read.

Happy 6th

Well, it’s TwShiloh’s sixth ‘official’ anniversary (the actual origins of the blog are really lost in time so I’ve assigned October of 2004 as the origin of this little slice of heaven).

The year has seen some pretty dramatic changes around here as we abandoned our WordPress.com blog and got our very own domain name.  I kept the old site open as an experiment and as it continued to receive activity I recently decided to reopen the site and cross post most of my stuff there as well as here.  Still, this (twshiloh.com) remains  our primary site.

We witnessed the departure of Jason Sigger from the blogging field.  I looked to Jason as a source of inspiration and motivation for my own humble efforts here and his departure leaves a sizable hole in the interwebs.  He is missed and I eagerly await his return to the public square.

The timing of the anniversary, coinciding as it does with the season and my own predilection for horror themed entertainment has encouraged me to hijack this post to recommend a couple of recent items which I have consumed.

Soft Apocalypse by Will McIntosh is an interesting take on the post apocalyptic genre.  Unlike others in the field, the end comes with a whimper rather than a bang.  Rather than one event causing the end of civilization, the book takes a close look at one man and his small group of friends over ten years as a collection of events contribute to a general yet marked dissolution of civilization.  Since the story follows an ‘everyman’ big picture events like global warming, wars, financial collapse, etc. are only discussed tangentially but you see the effects of them on Jasper’s life.  In some ways this book reminded me of a flip side of Brave New World and I’d recommend reading these together.   I knocked this back in a few days and it was a compelling read.  This book is very much a product of our current time and does an excellent job of playing upon our current fears of financial, political, economic, environmental and military uncertainty.

Robotapocalypse by Daniel Wilson was another fun, yet not nearly so profound, read.  Very similar to Max Brooks’ ‘World War Z‘ only replacing the zombies with robots, the book still manages to provide some neat twists that make it worth reading.  In fact, there clearly is a sequel buried within this book focusing on the fully autonomous robots (no more can be said without spoilers).

Shifting from books to games is Dead Island.  I’ve been playing for a couple of weeks now and while it’s a very good zombie game, I’m not sure it’s worth the current $50 price tag, especially given that you can pick up Left4Dead or its sequel for less than half that.  They aren’t the same games as Dead Island has some role playing elements to it but there’s nothing so compelling about it that makes it imperative you get it now.  Wait for the sale and revel in how good it is as a $20 game.

And now, since this is the sixth year of the blog and I was unable to find any appropriate images to go along with that, let’s celebrate the number six with Iron Maiden…

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History in review

Book cover

Image via Wikipedia

I just finished Rising ’44 by Norman Davies about the Warsaw Uprising during World War II (not to be confused with the Ghetto Uprising of 1943).  I knew almost nothing about the uprising and Davies does an admirable job of placing the battle in the wider context of the Second World War.  In that regard the book should probably be subtitled ‘The betrayal of Poland”.

The Polish Home Army was given wild promises of support from their British and American allies while simultaneously thrown under the bus in their negotiations with the Soviets.  Davies does an amazing job of describing, in painfully uncomfortable detail, of destroying any arguments that the British and American political leaders didn’t know what was going to happen to Poland.  He also (although this has been commonly known for while) clearly lays out the Soviet strategy of sitting by while the Poles and Germans fought each other.

Davies played around a bit stylistically and in terms of format in ways I wasn’t exactly thrilled with.  He ‘simplified’ the names of many of the protagonists thinking that Western readers would lose track of the strange Polish names.  Perhaps that’s true but I found this highly distracting and actually acted to hinder attempts to find out more about various individuals.

Flag of the Armia Krajowa; the symbol on the f...

Image via Wikipedia

Also, rather than sticking with a strict chronological narrative, Davies wrote about the uprising from various perspectives (Germans, allies, Poles, etc).  While that helped keep those sub stories coherent, it made it difficult to understand how events in one of those groups interacted with others.

As an aside, I’d be really interested to see a comparative history of Eastern European resistance movements during the 20th century (under Tsarist, Nazi, and Soviet (and maybe Ottoman?) rule.

I also finished listening to the audio version of Augustus by Anthony Everitt. I have to admit I’m a bit of a fan of Octavian and think he must be considered one of the greatest political leaders in the history of civilization so I’m likely to look favorably on anything about him.  Fortunately, Everitt does an excellent job with his subject and describing the remarkable achievement of how Octavian, at a very young age with a couple of friends, negotiated an incredibly complex political environment against two armed factions, with no (apparent) strengths and managed to become an emperor and reign most of the known world for almost half a century.

Not too shabby.

The audio version complements his work with the obligatory gravitas of a British reader (in this case John Curless).

 

Metro 2033

I just finished reading the post-apocalyptic book Metro 2033.  I picked the book up because of the video game (which I purchased on sale from Steam even though my puny laptop is unable to play it) and was expecting a roller coaster ride of mutant killing mayhem.

I thought we were supposed to win the future?

I was surprised to find a very different type of book.  The story does indeed take place years after (how many years after isn’t clear) a nuclear apocalypse and the only humans left in Moscow are those who moved down to the shelter of the metro.  Stations have formed their own mini-civilizations which engage in collaboration, competition or combat based upon their policies.

And threatening the entire underground are the horrors of the surface.  The threats of mutant creatures are always present forcing those stations with passable exits to the surface to establish bunkers and patrols to keep the nasty things out.

But, if you’re looking for quick action this isn’t your book.  Clocking in at around 450 pages you’ll have to go more than half way through before you get to your first real ‘action sequence’.  Rather, the book is a much more complicated story about a young man on a mission to a far flung station and his journey throughout the metro.

The story does some interesting things with how it describes reality, offering the reader several explanations without really settling upon one.  Are the things the people in the metro experiencing religious, magical, or the result of simple science?  All three possibilities are argued for and work for those who propose them.

I haven’t read a lot of Russian literature but this book doesn’t feel like that by an American, British (or even Swedish) author.  As I was reading it I was struck by how much is reminded me of this book about the Soviet war in Afghanistan in terms of style, pacing and structure (or, at least me memory of the book).  Now that may be that both books were written by journalists (even though Metro 2033 is -obviously- a work of fiction) and might be a reflection of that tradition.  But don’t expect good guys and bad guys in this book.  Don’t really expect a lot of character development.  In fact, you know how in some war movies you get the obligatory speech by the grizzled veteran about how he doesn’t make friends because they just die?  The author let’s you see only that much of his characters.  Apart from the main protagonist, you don’t really know them at all even if you follow them for dozens of pages.

And so, after having read the book I still can’t figure out what I feel about it.  It certainly is an interesting world that’s been created.  An economy that’s fueled by rounds of ammunition and barter.  A metro system that contains fascists, communists, capitalists, cannibals, and unknown dangers that keep everyone on a knife’s edge of existence under the best of circumstances.  On the other hand, you don’t really get invested with the characters and I can’t figure out if it’s supposed to be that way, if it’s a cultural thing or clumsy execution.

It’s certainly not bad and I see a sequel is in the works which I’d probably read.

So, there you go.  Not a review likely to give you much to help you to decide whether to read this or not but I guess that’s appropriate for a book I can’t even decide if I like.

Ex-heroes

Boy, oh boy, I am loving not having school work to do.  I’m reading books like they’re going out of style.

In that regard, my Nook is doing yeoman’s work.  I think of it as the little engine that could.  It doesn’t have apps.  I can’t make phone calls with it.  But it handles books quite well.

And if you’re looking for books to fill your eReader, may I recommend Smashwords.  Smashwords is (according to their website):

…an ebook publishing and distribution platform for ebook authors, publishers and readers. [They] offer multi-format, DRM-free ebooks, ready for immediate sampling and purchase, and readable on any e-reading device.

I really enjoy the site, not the least because it lowers the barrier between the artist and reader.  The parasitic (and increasingly irrelevant) middle-man, whether publishing house or recording company, gets squeezed out and the artist gets a lion’s share of the price for the work.  In the case of Smashwords, that means the authors can lower their prices dramatically and still make about what they’d make if they had a publishing deal.  This makes it much more easy to ‘experiment’ and try out new authors since your purchase doesn’t feel so much like an investment.

While there’s a lot of flotsam and jetsam in there (everyone trying their hand at the Great American Novel or just writing an endless stream of romance and porn books) there are some hidden gems.  I just finished a book titled ‘Ex-heroes‘ by Peter Clines (this one was comparatively expensive at $9.99).

You don’t have to be a rabid fan of TwShiloh to know I’m a bit overboard on the zombie thing (I liked ‘em before they were cool!  I swear!) and this is in that genre.  The short summary:  Zombies vs. super-heroes.

The premise is (as you might have guessed) a zombie apocalypse and a number of super-heroes have gathered some survivors in the L.A. area in a compound they built in one of the Hollywood studios.  The book centers around conflict of the heroes and their band of survivors with a street gang that has gathered it’s own community and wants all of the city for themselves.

It’s a fun book but not phenomenal.  It doesn’t break new ground or make you think about any deeper issues but I’m not sure it was intended to.  There are some uneven bits and the characters are a bit flat but you could see the hints of something really good with some more development.  In any case if you think of it as a bit of mental junk food (not really good for you but enjoyable) that only leaves you with a slight feeling of guilt akin to realizing you just finished off that whole bag of chips.

Naples ’44

Yet another book that I can’t believe I waited so long to read.  Naples ’44 is the account of Norman Lewis and his year in newly (allied) occupied Naples.  Lewis was an intelligence NCO and the book grabbed me in the first page.

…trainees considered to show promise were interviewed by the Selection Officer, who went through a pretense of discussing with them their future.  What the trainee did not realize was that however encouraging the report on the major’s desk, or promising the dialogue that ensued, his fate had been instantly settled from the moment of the officer’s first quick scrutiny of his face.  The Selection Officer believed that blue was the colour of Truth.   To the blue-eyed trainees, therefore, went the responsible and sometimes glamorous jobs, while the rest were tipped into the dustbin of what was called the Field Security Police.  In this they were confronted with the drudgery of delivering army-style, pay-attention-you-fuckers lectures, of snooping, detested by all…in the hope of…discovering significant scraps of paper not properly disposed of by burning, and of making up alarming rumours with which to fill in the emptiness of the weekly report.

It just gets better from there.

And from the files of ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’, there are whole passages here that I felt could have been lifted from my experiences in Afghanistan.  The corrupt officials, bumbling operations, vague yet (usually distant) danger, and an imperative to win hearts and minds.

The next time you hear about supplies intended for coalition forces in Afghanistan getting waylaid by local forces, check out the passage about the wholesale theft and black-marketeering  of Allied equipment that Lewis observed.

It is amazing to see how pessimistically Lewis wrote about Italy then and the challenges the Allies faced (Does Berlusconi and Bunga Bunga parties really count as progress?).  In fact, reading this, I can see how the pro and anti COIN camps could find fodder for their arguments.

The book is slim but packed with fascinating observations and encounters.  The eruption of Vesuvius (compare and contrast with Pliny’s account), the description of the unofficial power structure of the area, the subsidization of organized crime by the Allies are all worth your time.

De Bello Lemures

As I was returning from a trip to America’s heartland I opened up my Nook and started working my way through my digital backlog.  I picked the short book (perhaps more aptly described as a novella) De Bello Lemures by Thomas Brookside and recommend it highly.

The book takes the form of a translation of a Latin text written in the late second century A.D.  The book’s author, a Roman military commander, describes the events of a day or two in the wake of a crushed rebellion when the dead returned to life.

In short…Romans vs. zombies.

The author took the conceit one further by formatting it as an academic translation (complete with over 100 footnotes), translator’s forward and afterword.  I’m not sure this treatment could have survived as a full length novel but coming in around 70 pages it works quite well.  In fact, I finished the book both wanting to read more but also knowing that more would probably be both repetitive and ruin the whole thing.

At $2.99 the thing is a steal  and I can only hope the author (Thomas Brookside), who describes himself as an author interested in ‘historical fiction/horror mashups’ is just beginning a long and prolific career.

Bitter Seeds

I just finished Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis (really cool website, btw) and recommend it highly.  I’m usually not much for WWII stories, let alone fictional ones but add in some occult elements and psychic abilities and I’m there.

The story revolves around the existence of a secret german program which creates a small unit of people who can tap into a mysterious power in order to to extraordinary things.  One person can become insubstantial for short periods of time, another can harness (and create) heat, another can predict the future and a few others.

Beginning during the Spanish Civil War (another plus, after all, how many books get a setting there) the unit is integrated into the Nazi war machine and facilitates early German victories (Think you know how those pesky Krauts made it through the Ardennes in 1940?  Think again.)

The group, called the Gotterelektrongruppe (and allow me to thank the German language for having such a cool system of mashing words together to make new ones), gives the Germans such an advantage that it’s quickly clear that England is about to be overrun.

I’ll end there as anymore will start to get into spoiler territory but the whole thing is an interesting idea, well executed.  Plus, it’s got one characteristic I seem to love in books:  tons of moral ambiguity.  Everyone has blood on their hands and does terrible things yet, do they really have a choice?  The book is also intended to be the first of a trilogy so if you like this one, buckle up because there’s more on the way.

It’s not perfect however.  Having just completed some mammoth length works of fiction, at 292 pages this book came across as little more than a short story and felt rushed at times.  Character development (and therefore identification) suffers a bit which is a shame because there are some really interesting characters.  In fact, the character they set up as the primary British protagonist isn’t nearly as interesting as his friend who’s put in a supporting role.  The story also moved faster than it needed to with the book covering roughly 2 years (1939-1941) but, let’s face it, a lot happened in those two years and there was a lot of opportunity to explore some of those events, both large and small, in some more detail.  Besides, they’re already committing to getting a story told so why skimp now?

Still this book has a LOT to recommend it.  The whole book is worth it just for Gretel who, it has just occurred to me, may share a few characteristics with Steig Larrson’s Lisbeth Salander in terms of how the reader might relate to her.  Hmmm….I’ll need to think about that a bit more.