winterbadger: (Default)
The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor (3)
Raiders of the Nile
by Steven Saylor (4)
Wrath of the Furies by Steven Saylor (5)

One of Saylor's first series, The Venus Throw details the intrigues surrounding an Egyptian delegation to Rome and the growing unrest between the Populares and Optimates factions in Rome. Gordianus spends a good deal of time working for the beautiful but (allegedly) debauched Clodia and hobnobbing with her rejected lover Catullus. The denoument is a trial that demonstrates how Roman courts, even more than American or British courts today, were merely another realm for the exposition of politics.

Raiders of the Nile and Wrath of the Furies are two more of the prequel series about Gordianus's early life, set mostly in and around Egypt when he was a young man. In ROTN, he gets invovled in Egyptian banditry and politics (of course) while trying to rescue his beloved Bethesda from kidnappers. In WOTF, he tries to save his old tutor, Antipater of Sidon, from the court of Mithradates the Great, and witnesses a horrific genocide.

I enjoy Saylor's books. I know I can count on him to do his research and to teach me things I didn't know, and while his characters don't have the depth that, say Dorothy Dunnett's do, the stories are still engaging .

A Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whalen Turner (6) I have to dole out MWT's novels to myself carefully, as the first reading of oneen is a scarce resource to be treasured. This one was no exception. Takign up a character that has appeared before, but only in a supporting role, this book promotes him to protagonist and weaves his colourful thread into the tapestry of geopolitics in the lands of Sounis, Eddis, and Attolia. Another unassuming figure, full of doubt, becomes a strong person in his own right. We see more of the Lymond-like Eugenides and the stark, multilayered, complex Irene. The Magus returns, as does Helen, though we see less of her than I might wish.

The Oath of the Five Lords
by Yves Sente and André Juillard (7) A bit of a potboiler cloak and dagger graphic novel, continuing characters created by Edgar P. Jacobs. I picked it because I wanted to try more graphic novels using the ligne claire technique made famous by Hergé. A friend gave me this for my birthday, and I quite enjoyed it; it's on the level of a Tintin novel for depth and complexity.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré. (8) Surely one of the great classic spy novels, perhaps the classic of the Cold War era. The book that introduced the word "mole" (in its espionage meaning) to the Western media. Though some of le Carré's books may be more famous (The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, perhaps), it is only a matter of degree. I love this book not just for its thriller quality but for the true feeling that it gives all of its many characters. These don't feel like characters in a plot fulfilling their roles in an obedient manner, but real people, unidealized, faulty and (sometimes consciously) broken, reacting in realistic ways.

In process:
With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
The Philadelphia Campaign: Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia by Thomas J. McGuire
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Little, Big by John Crowley
Eastward to Tartary by Robert B. Kaplan
Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid
winterbadger: (books)
Recently completed:

Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby (1). A charming account of the author's initial captivity as a British officer in an Italian POW "camp" (a repurposed orphanage) and his wanderings in central Italy after the Fascist government surrendered. He recounts several months spent among the rough and poor, but amazingly kindly peasants of the region, who risked a tremendous amount to shelter and support escaped POWs like him. His descriptions of the people, the landscape, the lives of wartime farmers and herders, and his unsparing portrait of himself are fascinating and tremendously readable.

The Seven Wonders by Steven Saylor (2). The author of the acclaimed Gordianus the Finder mysteries was begged by hs fans to write prequles, tellign some of the oft-referred to experiences of his protagonist as a young man. This is (chronologically) the first, a series of short mysteries solved by the newly adult Gordianus as he follows his former tutor on a tour of the Seven Wonders of the World, from Greece to Asia Minor to Babylon and finally to Egypt. Bite-sized mysteries tied together with a "road trip" narrative and a little extra meta-story besides. Very enjoyable.

In process:
The Venus Throw by Steven Saylor
With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
The Philadelphia Campaign: Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia by Thomas J. McGuire
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Little, Big by John Crowley
Eastward to Tartary by Robert B. Kaplan
Borderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
It seems hard to believe that I haven't updated this list since October. I'm fairly sure I'll have missed out some titles as a result. But it also seems likely that I've not come close to matching last year's total of 48, let alone my goal of 50. But looking back over the years since I started keeping track here (in 2008), I've only once hit 50 and many years not reached 40, so 42 or so seems adequate. I don't know whether it's because I pick long books, or read slowly, or what. I certainly have a lamentably short attention span, so I flit back and forth between things.

The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon by John Ferling (36) This really deserves an entry of its own. Let's just say that Ferling does a great job of pulling off the heaps of laurel and waving off the clouds of incense and letting the very human Washington stand out.

John Macnab by James Buchan (37) An adventure tale by an accomplished tale-spinner, this story of three "gents" roughing it to play a prank on landlords in the Highlands is entertaining for its story, for its loving view of the geography of the Highlands, and for its portrayal of Scots and English (and some dreadful American) 'types' seen through the eyes of a Scots minister's son who rocketed upwards through Oxford and the diplomatic service to the governor-generalship of Canada.

Dodger (38) and The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett (39) One non-Discworld and one (final) Discworld volume by the master. Entertaining and educational in equal measure.

The Complete Rainbow Orchid by Garen Ewing (40): A graphic novel of pulp adventure in the style (artistically and literarily) of Herge's Tintin. I'd read sections for free online and eventually treated myself to a hard copy of the entire book. It's very fun if you don't take it seriously.

The California Voodoo Game by Larry Niven and Steven Barnes (41) A re-reading, and another of those where one sees the imperfections of a book one loved blindly at the time. Niven and Barnes sexism is off-putting, almost repellent, in a way that is clearly still popular among the Gamergate/Sad Puppy crowd. That said, it's an entertaining story combining RPG, sci-fi, and detective genres.

Penric's Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (42) An entertaining tale (really a novella) of a young man in a medievalesque fantasy setting. I'll certainly read the others of its ilk.

Still in progress:

With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
The Philadelphia Campaign: Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia by Thomas J. McGuire
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Little, Big by John Crowley
Eastward to Tartary by Robert B. Kaplan
Boderland: A Journey Through the History of Ukraine by Anna Reid
Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
The Far Side of the World and The Reverse of the Medal by Patrick O'Brian (32, 33) I do love O'Brian's novels, and I've managed to read and re-read about half of them and left the other half deiciously undiscovered. The Reverse of the Medal marks my first step into that undiscovered country.

The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (34) I keep doling these out sparingly to myself because they're so wonderful, and I can read each of them for the first time only once. This came with a lovely prequel short story that was full of character and charm despite it's brevity. The novel itself was worthy of Dunnett in its complexity and "headology". And, like Dunnett's books, I love some of these characters and appreciate others without liking them, but I find all of them fascinating.

A Sort of Samurai by James Melville (35) A re-read, a case early in the reader's acquaintance with Inspector Tetsuo Otani of the Hyogo Prefectural Police. I wish more of Melville's enjoyable Otani novels were available as e-books; at the moment, only the first three are.

In process:
With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
The Philadelphia Campaign: Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia by Thomas J. McGuire
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
The Ascent of George Washington: The Hidden Political Genius of an American Icon by John Ferling
John Macnab by James Buchan
Dodger by Terry Pratchett
Little, Big by John Crowley
winterbadger: (books)
ISIS: The State of Terror by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger (27) I would recommend this as a good starter in understanding what ISIL (and Salafist terrorism in general) is, where it came from, and where it's heading.
The Ionian Mission and Treason's Harbour by Patrick O'Brian (28, 29) More intelligence operations and Mediterranean travelogue than brillian ship-to-ship action, but entertaining and characterful.
Coraline by Neil Gaiman (30) The graphic-novel version of this creepy tale.
InterWorld by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves (31) Entertaining young adult fiction from Gaiman and a collaborator.

In process:
With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
The Philadelphia Campaign: Brandywine and the Fall of Philadelphia by Thomas J. McGuire
The Far Side of the World by Patrick O'Brian
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
winterbadger: (bed)
Recently read:

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman (24) More of Gaiman's excellent short fiction and poetry. Some striking horror, comedy, and of course comedic horror in this collection of short tales from the inimitable tale-spinner.

Lincoln's Spymaster: Thomas Haines Dudley and the Liverpool Network by David Hepburn Milton (25) A counterpoint to Our Man in Chalreston, an account of the Quaker lawyer from New Jersey who served for ten years as US consul in Liverpool, documenting and trying to thwart the Confederate use of the neutral UK as a base for building and equipping its small by very modern fleet of commerce raiders. This book, among other things, provides clear evidence of how heavily some factions in the UK supported the Confederate states, to Britain's eternal shame.

The Surgeon's Mate by Patrick O'Brian (26) More sailing war stories, glimpses of Regency domestic life and finances, and intelligence web-spinning, as Lucky Jack Aubrey and Dr Stephen Maturin travel from Nova Scotia to Britain, to the Baltic, to Paris, and all the stormy seas in between.


In process:
ISIS: The State of Terror
by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger
The Ionian Mission by Patrick O'Brian
With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
winterbadger: (coffee cup)
The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne (19)
Brilliance of the Moon by Lian Hearn (20)
Blood of Victory by Alan Furst (21)
The Thief and The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (22 and 23)

I want to record these before I forget to do so, but they need more time to properly review than I have right now.

In Progress:
With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
winterbadger: (coffee cup)
Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South by Christopher Dickey (15) I quite enjopyed this book, despite not being generally that interested in 19th century American history, to include that of the Civil War. This book describes the person and activities of Robert Bunch while he held the position of British Consul in the city of Charleston, South Carolina, from 1853 to 1864. It's quite a fascinating read, the story of a man with ardent anti-slavery beliefs forced to live and cultivate relationships with soime of the most ferocious advocates of slavery in the American South. At one point I hoped to have a career as a foreign service officer, so I find accounts of the realities of the diplomatic life provide an interesting glimspe of a world I trained to live in but missed out on. Bunch took many risks in his role--somewhere between a proper diplomat, an intelligence officer, and a commercial representative of the Crown. He forged unique relationships with some highly placed mambers of Britain's foreign policy elite The book also gives us insights into the background of the issues and contorversies Bunch was responsible for reporting on, including the attempts to subvert and then defy the US government's committment to end the slave trade. Some characters that pass through these pages are familiar from other books I've read (which seem to have fallen between the cracks of my reporting)--including Sen. Charles Sumner from The Greater Journey and Charleston Harbor itself from War on the Waters.

One Christmas in Washington by David J. Bercuson and Holger H. Herwig (16) A rather mediocre history of the Arcadia Conference (the first meeting between FDR and Churchill and their staffs to plan war strategy after America's entry into World War II), this book may have suffred from having two authors. I don't know what their work process was, but if they wrote separate portions and then tried to knit them together, it might help explain some of the work's idiosyncracies, like revisiting a topic already described as if it were being raised for the first time. Other problems are more mysterious, like describing events completely out of their correct time (at one point during the narrative, the fall of Signapore is discuseed as if it happened during Churchill's trip to Washington, even though it took place a month later). Some of the authors' descriptions of the relevant characters are thorough and well put together. Others are mere caricatures, lacking depth or understanding of their subjects. In particular, their focus on making Eleanor Roosevelt out to be a petty, catty housewife, more concerned with scoring personal snubs than policy or principle is nothing short of regrettable. They seem overly attached to describing Churchill's eccentricities, instead of getting a closer look at his personality. And it is only fitfully that one glimpses FDR's personality and strategy through the constant barrage anecdotes about his dog and his propensity for making cocktails. While it seems to provide the basic facts of the conference, this rather scattershot and ditzy account of Arcadia could surely be improved upon. One cause for celebration: I notice that the overblown and inaccurate subtitle of the recorded edition--"the secret meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill that changed the world"--appears to have been replaced with a less grandiose and more accurate one--"Churchill and Roosevelt Forge the Grand Alliance"--in subsequent editions.

Snuff by Terry Pratchett (17) Another excellent adventure for Sam Grimes, his family, the police force of Ankh-Morpork, and a host of new and familiar Discworld characters. Pratcheet at his best, combining well developed characters with exciting stories and thoughtful moral commentary.

I seem to have forgotten to report on

War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865 by James M. McPherson (18?) and
The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough (19?)

both excellent books that I greatly enjoyed (though I hear only an abridged version of the latter). I've got to figure out where my reviews of them went to, and if I missed any others.

In Progress:

The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne
Brilliance of the Moon by Lian Hearn
With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
Blood of Victory by Alan Furst
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy

Also waiting are a whole slew of new books on the American Revolutiuon, especially a coupel of books on the campaign of 1777 in Pennsylvania and environs.
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
I finally finished Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by Julian Thompson (13) I found it both interesting (the detailed accounts of the fighting that the BEF engaged in) and frustrating (the paucity of maps)> The introduction promised to explain in detail the author's perspective that the British forces, far from being crushed by their rapid and chaotic defeat and loss of most of their materiel

Sourcery by Terry Pratchett (14) This struck me as being of the part of Pratchett's oeuvre tastes of which always made me reluctant to read his work. There is a lot of rather feeble joking and a large handful of the recurring characters which I'm sure delight Pratchett fans just by appearing. What it's missing is the thoughfulness that went into his later books, the well developed characters, and a plot amounting to more than "something turns up with no warning that proceeds to nearly destroy the world, and then doesn't". C-

In progress:

Brilliance of the Moon by Lian Hearn
With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne
Blood of Victory by Alan Furst
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
winterbadger: (DCUme)
Since I haven't managed to decide between GoodReads and LibraryThing yet, I'll stach another list of books read here for the moment.

Read:
A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett (1)
Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett (2)
Holes by Louis Sachar (3)
Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett (4)
Night Watch by Terry Pratchett (5)
Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett (6)
Going Postal by Terry Pratchett (7)
Making Money by Terry Pratchett (8)
Thud! by Terry Pratchett (9)
The Philadelphia Campaign: June 1777-July 1778 by David G. Martin (10)
Storm Front by Jim Butcher (11)
Fool Moon by Jim Butcher (12)

In progress:

With Zeal and Bayonets Only by Matthew Spring
The Price of Glory: Verdun 1916 by Alistair Horne
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by Julian Thompson
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
winterbadger: (books)
Goodness heavens, no post since Nov. 2nd? I'll probably miss out a title or two.

Wyrd Sisters (45), Raising Steam (46), Hogfather (47), and The Wee Free Men (48) by Terry Pratchett. I think Pratchett is all I've been reading this winter, with the exception of work and class stuff. Of these four, I'd characterize the first three as being among TP's more polemical works--fun stories of magic and adventure, but also Trying To Make A Point, sometimes a bit heavy handedly. The Wee Free Men says some interesting things about how magic works that could, at a stretch, be interprpeted as having broader meaning, but mostly IMO it's just a fun romp of an adventure.

I'm still working on Thompson's Dunkirk and a few other titles, but I'm going to trim the "working" list down until it can be a bit more accurate reflection of what I'm actively reading. I didn't quite manage to get to fifty books this year, but I put that down to being busy with my class for the better part of four months.

Livejournal seems to continue it's slow decline. Live formatting features seem to have disappeared from the posting screen. This is the only thing I really use LJ for now, and I rarely get comments, so I may stop posting even on books here in 2016 and look for another forum.

In Progress:
A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by Julian Thompson
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
winterbadger: (coffee cup)
Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett (44)
Guards, Guards by Terry Pratchett (45)

I'm quite enjoying Terry Pratchett, now that JMR got me started on him. Some of the things that held me back from reading him all these years (the 'just a bit too clever' cleverness, the slight air of smugness) are still there and occasionally irritate, but when I look back at authors I was quite fond of in the past, I see faults as or more egregious. And often those old favourites, on being revisted, don't have the wit and charm that I find in Pratchett. He's like a slightly sharper, slightly more bitter, but also slightly less predictable P.G. Wodehouse.

JMR suggested I read Men at Arms first, and I did, then picked Guards, Guards to follow it with as it seemed to be where the characters I had already met had been introduced. The "message" in M@A was heavy-handed and obvious, but it didn't intrude too much into the story, and the characters were entertaining and interesting enough that they occupied my attention thoroughly. Likewise, what seemed to be the thrust of G**2 was...there...but he didn't seem to feel the need to prose on about it forever, and the story itself was fun to read and the characters (again) entertaining.

In news unrelated to books, I'm growing my beard back, it being the end of the reenacting season (limited as it was for us this year).

In Progress

Wyrd Sisters by Terry Pratchett
Blood of Victory by Alan Furst
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by Julian Thompson
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
1914: The Days of Hope by Lyn MacDonald
Learn Python the Hard Way by Zed A. Shaw
Think Python: How To Think Like a Computer Scientist by Allen B. Downey
The Somme by Robin Prior and Trevor Williams
What Color Is Your Parachute? 2015: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard N. Bolles
Crisis on the Danube: Napoleon's Austrian Campaign of 1809 by James R. Arnold
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Other New York: The American Revolution Beyond New York City Ed. by Joseph S. Tiedemann and Eugene R. Fingerhut
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid by Jimmy Carter (26) Carter has always struck me as the best president in my lifetime. Not the "nicest" president or the "best person"--the best *president*. While I think he is a very *good* person, and a true Christian (as I was brought up to understand Christ's message), those are usually ways people diminish him, damning him with faint praise. "Oh, he was too honest to be president" or "oh, he was so much better as an ex-president". But, by implication, "he was an awful *president*." Nonsense. Far too many people have bought into the mythology of the Reagan era and the GOP fiction spinners who have run the White House for more than half the time I've been alive. This book (the recorded version of which, to my delight, is read by the President himself) chronicles one of his greatest achievements--the Camp David Peace Accords--but also the failure of subsequent US presidents to put the sort of pressure on all parties that Carter did, and the subsequent growth of unilateral, imperialist policy in Israel, scuttling the peace process because it can simply take whatever it wants, with the supine acceptance of the United States and the rest of the western powers. Carter is unsparing of his own naivete and ignorance, his optimism in hoping that Israeli and Arab leaders could be convinced of the benefits to be gained by working together to achieve stability. His conclusion is that, as much as Israel thinks it can simply create stability with guns and bulldozers, concrete and barbed wire, it will only continue to stoke the frustration and determination of Palestinians to resist occupation and tyranny. Both sides need to come together with honest intent before peace can be achieved; Carter is much more hopeful than I am that this will eventually happen.

Berlin Diary by William Shirer (27) Literally, Shirer's diaries of his time as foreign correspondent in Berlin from 1933 to 1940. Shirer concealed some names of persons and places to protect friends, peers, and sources in case his journals were seized by the Nazi government, but the names that remain include Edward R. Murrow (his co-worker and boss at ABC) and Joseph Harsch (an alumnus of Williams College I met briefly, who like Murrow and Shirer is one of the legends of wartime reporting from World War Two) as well as all the famous figures of European politics of the 1930s and 40s, large and small, whose deeds and words Shirer reports with unflinching candor and much insight and humour. Having read so much of went on in these days as dry history, I found it fascinating to hear the perspective of a reporter working in the middle of the events, recording day by day his perceptions of the events unfolding around him. Equally interesting, in a geeky way, were the insights one gets from his adventures about the technical side of radio broadcasting and the often remarkable lengths to which reporters had to go to get their stories on air (and the lengths that the German government would go to to control what news went out, both sly tricks--like using studio microphones that reduced background noise, so listeners couldn't hear the sounds of an air raid going on during the broadcast--to heavy-handed censorship.) Shirer saw daily life in Germany and neighboring countries before and during the war, from political riots in Paris to head of state visits in Italy, covering the Nazi seizure of Austria, traveling to Poland to see the fighting firsthand and to to France and the Low Countries to see the aftermath of the 1940 blitzkrieg. For much of the war, Shirer's wife and daughter lived in nearby, neutral Switzerland, and the contrast he observed in his visits to them between wartime Germany (literally darkened and under sever rationing) and the bright, bustling nightlife of Berne and Zurich was quite remarkable. I was glad that I had recently read Lynne Olson's Those Angry Days, as a number of personalities of the time get mentions here which I would not have understood as well if I hadn't been introduced to them already.

Dragonsong and Dragonsinger by Anne McCaffrey (28 and 29) Re-reading some YA books I enjoyed in S. Still enjoyable light reading.

Mistress Masham's Repose by T.H. White (30) An old family favourite, this was one of Melissa's picks when we were scavenging an awesome used bookstore in Sidney, BC. I re-read it after she was done, and found it agreeable, but a little tiresome in its heavy-handed humour. Taking some ideas and situations from classic literature and re-applying them to a YA adventure: A+. Attempted satire: C-.

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan (31) A fascinating story of the first great forest fire after the creation of the national forest system in the United States. This revisits several characters whom I met in Edmund Morris's three-volume biography of Theodore Roosevelt, like Roosevelt himself and his successor in the presidency, the hapless and feeble William Howard Taft. It even mentions William Allen White, who I'm sure was mentioned in Morris but who served as a central character in (again) Lynne Olson's Those Angry Days, given his role in pushing America out of isolation and towards participation in World War Two. But most of all, this book gives gives me a broader picture of Gifford Pinchot, advisor to TR and FDR and sometime governor of Pennsylvania, but first and foremost the architect of the National Forest system and the first head of the US Forest Service. This tale conveys his passion for forestry and conservation, stoked by his ealry mentor, John Muir. Much of the story deals with Pinchot's battles with the timber and railroad barons who wanted to exploit public lands for their resources and turn them into a vast patchwork of mines, factories, towns, and cities. Pinchot (under TR and, for a while, Taft) fought a losing battle against these predatory corporate trusts and their congressional allies, trying to preserve the wild beauty of the West for future generations. While the great fire of 1910 was a disaster of epic proportions for the western forests and the homesteaders and towns that lay in its path, Pinchot used the heroic deeds of the outmatched forest rangers who tried to fight it. With an astute sense of politics and public relations, Pinchot turned the tide of public opinion and forced through reforms that allowed the Forest Service to grow and assume a more powerful role. Ironically, however, the men who went on to lead the service worked hand in glove with the timber barons in a way that horrified Pinchot. And the lessons that the Forest Service chose to learn from the fire, that all fires, no matter how small, had to be fought to extinction, actually worked against the health of the forests, as it brought to a halt the cycle of cleaning and revitalizing burns that had kept the forest ecosystems healthy.

In Progress

Dark Star by Alan Furst
Wilson by A. Scott Berg
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by Julian Thompson
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Master and God by Lindsey Davis
1914: The Days of Hope by Lyn MacDonald
Learn Python the Hard Way by Zed A. Shaw
The Somme by Robin Prior and Trevor Williams
What Color Is Your Parachute? 2015: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard N. Bolles
Crisis on the Danube: Napoleon’s Austrian Campaign of 1809 by James R. Arnold
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
The Other New York: The American Revolution Beyond New York City Ed. by Joseph S. Tiedemann and Eugene R. Fingerhut
winterbadger: (books)
Shinju by Laura Joh Rowland (24) Though this author's work is a cut above I.J. Parker's (there seems at least a modicum of recognition of Shogunate Japan being a different place and time, with a different culture and sensibility), there seem still a woodenness of character and an overabundance of exposition and explicit internal dialogue than I would say characterizes good fiction. If I'm conscious that I'm sitting outside the character, watching him or her declaim their impressions and reactions, rather than be immersed in the character feeling and seeing those reactions from the inside, something is wrong, to my way of thinking. The plot was fairly predictable, the characters believable but not overly engaging. I'm not going to pursue these authors.

Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst (25). This is the fourth of Furst's novels that I've read (unless I'm losing count), and it's as enjoyable as ever other has been. It describes the events before and after the entry of Greece into World War Two, as seen through the eyes of a Greek police officer in the city of Salonika. What I find compelling about Furst's writing includes his characters, his settings, his narrative and structural style, and the overall air he imbues his stories with. His characters are usually sketched out in what looks on the surface like a rough, superficial way; but the author conveys a great deal about his people by their reactions to events, their interactions with each other, and the way they live in the world. Instead of telling you about them, he shows you them. Though they are sometimes introspective, their internal thoughts sound convincingly like the thoughts any one of us might have, rather than being self-consciously dramatic monologues, rehearsed and broadcast clumsy soliloquies. His settings are perfect; I'm not a student of the physical and social culture of mid-20th century Europe, but these convey a sense of place and time that gives every appearance of being both genuine and not overdone. Sights, smells, sounds flow into you from the page; you absorb the sentiments and attitudes of the people and cultures the characters wander through.

And all of Furst's novels that I've read so far have something of the air of "a day in the life"; they do not usually begin with a dramatic event or end with the finality of a completed epic. They introduce you to a protagonist well along in their life, established with a past, traveling toward a future. And while the events of the story that the book involves are generally wrapped up within its pages, there is no feeling that those characters are done. They have the rest of their lives (long or short) to go on with; you have walked together this far, and now it is time to part. But not an ending.

And I wish I could describe better what it is that I find so perfect about his stories, but the best I can do is this: they are fiction, but they feel true. They're stories, but you feel almost as if these characters were doing, have done, will do all these things whether you pick up the book and open it or not. They're your glimpse into someone else's life. I wish I could write so well.

In Progress

Dark Star by Alan Furst
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by Julian Thompson
Berlin Diary by William Shirer
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid by Jimmy Carter
Master and God by Lindsey Davis
1914: The Days of Hope by Lyn MacDonald
winterbadger: (books)
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olson (18) I need to come back and give this a proper review later, but it's another excellent book about America in the 1930s, which has broadened my appreciation of the politics and society of that period and provided more material for my ever-changing impressions of FDR. Like Blackett's War, this is not truly centered exclusively on its titular protagonists, as the action covers a much wider sweep of American and European personalities than even these two larger than life men constitute. As have many books I've encountered in the last few years, it gives me a pang of longing for something now long-dead, the liberal, progressive wing of the Republican Party, featuring as it does the few remaining hangers-on to the ideals of Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, among whom I think Wendell Wilkie (a man I knew almost nothing about before encountering him in this book) should be numbered.

Wobble to Death and The Detective Wore Silk Drawers by Peter Lovesey (19) and (20) Two of a series of novels about a police detective in Victorian London. I remember seeing several of these stories televised in the 1980s. They're all right, but not great; they feature murders set in two of the popular sports of the time: long-distance competitive walking and (illegal) bare-knuckle boxing. I'm still trying to drag out of memory what the other detective series by a modern author set in the Victorian era was, since this wasn't it.

The Dragon Scroll by I.J. Parker (22) A detective novel of Heian-era (11th century) Japan. I'd read a selection of one story online and bought up a couple of copies of Parker's series cheaply on the strength of it. I'm glad that they were very cheap, as I find from closer acquaintance that not only is her style heavily dependent on that of Robert van Gulik (who she credits as her inspiration), but her writing is not very good and (this novel, at least) filled with attitudes, behaviours, and physical culture that seem entirely out of place in Japan, let alone medieval Japan. Most of her characters sound and act very much like modern Western people, which is highly disappointing.

Children of Jihad: A Young American's Travels Among the Youth of the Middle East by Jared Cohen (23) A travelogue by an American postgraduate student wandering through the Middle East, meeting and interviewing young people in Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. Considering that the author had traveled through some pretty hairy parts of central Africa and was a Rhodes Scholar in international relations at Oxford, he seems to have been remarkably, astonishingly naïve and ill-informed about the places he went during the course of researching this book. That he parlayed his experiences into a job on the US State Department's policy planning staff and advisor to two Secretaries of State is even more amazing. Despite his quite remarkable lack of understanding of the places he went and the people he encountered, his book is nonetheless quite interesting and enjoyable, both for the insights it provides into popular culture and political discourse among young people in a pivotal region, but also for the simple human interactions he engages in with ordinary people throughout the region.

In progress:

Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by Julian Thompson
Berlin Diary by William Shirer
Shinju by Laura Joh Rowland
Queen Victoria's Book of Spells Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
winterbadger: (coffee cup)
Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-Boats and Brought Science to the Art of Warfare by Stephen Budiansky (16) This was a fascinating 'read' (another recorded book from the library I enjoyed). It's a bit schizophrenic, as it starts out as if it were intended to be a dual biography of Patrick Blackett (a brilliant British scientist who was instrumental in the development of operational research during World War II, especially in its application to anti-submarine warfare) and Karl Donitz (a German naval officer who rose to command the German submarine forces and eventually the entire Navy during World War II). But, despite that biographical beginning and it's suggestive title, the book is less about Blackett and Donitz and more about the way in which the British (and later) American military recognized and took advantage of the benefits that civilian scientists could bring to military problems. In many cases it took long, hard lobbying or mandates from the services' political masters for Navy and Air Force officers to accept that non-professionals could contribute anything of value to their procedures. (Interestingly, there is almost no mention of the Army; I don't think that is because that service was unaffected; it may be the result of the author's personal interests/bias.)

As always, when I encounter discussions of the theory and implementation of operations research, I'm fascinated by the ideas it tackles, the things it looks at, and the ways it's used to solve military problems. But when I go off to look for ways to learn more about it or find out more about it, I meet such a blank wall of higher mathematics that I give up. At least nowadays, it seems that OR and the related (and to me intriguing) world of modeling and simulation are just not very welcoming to people without advanced maths and engineering training.

The Chrysanthemum Chain by James Melville (17) In this, the second Superintendent Otani novel (apparently I shifted it one place out of order), our self-effacing Japanese police official is confronted with some very tricky situations arising from the murder of a foreign resident. A substantial portion of the novel actually takes place from the point of view of a British consular officer dealing with the murder, as he gets embroiled in the seamy side of Japanese society, where politics and organized crime mingle. The novel also includes one of Inspector Otani's rare victories (small though it is) in his perpetual war with Ambassador Tsunematsu, the Foreign Office official reponsible for dealing with foreign nationals resident in Japan, especially those of interest to the shadowy security services (which, in practice, tends to be most of them, just by virtue of their being foreigners). There's also the first mention in the series of the burakumin, the outcaste people of Japan.

In progress:
The Other New York: The American Revolution Beyond New York City Ed. by Joseph S. Tiedemann and Eugene R. Fingerhut
Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America's Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 by Lynne Olson
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
Crisis on the Danube: Napoleon’s Austrian Campaign of 1809 by James R. Arnold
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz

more books

Mar. 13th, 2015 01:30 pm
winterbadger: (pooh tao)
The Chinese Bell Murders by Robert van Gulik (11) Another interesting set of Chinese mysteries from the Dutch Sinophile and diplomat van Gulik. Judge Dee handles a crime of passion, a gang of smugglers, an ancient feud, and a suspicious monastery with the help of this two trusty lieutenants and his dependable sergeant.

Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman--from World War to Cold War by Michael Dobbs (12) It would take some time to give this book a proper review, but as an opener let me say that I found it much more satisfying then the similar work by Michael Beschloss that I recently listened to. Some of the difference is doubtles due to the latter having been an abridged version (I hate those), but I find Dobbs to be, among other things, simply a better writer. That said, what stands out is the richness of detail and the vivdness of the character portraits he provides, things that might well be compressed in an abridged edition. Likewise, the breadth of the topics touched on is incomparably to the advantage of Dobbs's book. One fair point of comparison, I think, is that while Dobbs introduces a good many of the people invovled in the events of the period, from US Ambassador Averill Harriman and Soviet FM Molotov right the way down to the American and Russian soldiers meeting for the first time along the Elbe River, his focus remains on the principals: FDR (and later Truman), Stalin, and Churchill. Beschloss spends a tremendous amount of time and attention on Henry Morgenthau, Jr. While he was an important advisor to FDR and a major player in the considerations behind Allied treatment of postwar Germany, it makes little sense to pay more attention to him even than to Roosevelt, especially given that his plan for the occupation, though an important chip in the three-power game of poker, wwas never implemented.

The Wages of Zen by James Melville (13) and A Sort of Samurai by James Melville (14) I've started rereading Melville's Superintendent Otani mysteries, enjoyable stories about a mid-ranking Japanese police official in the city of Kobe. Otani, who served briefly in World War Two, is in middle age when we meet him in these tales, set in the 1970s. Otani-san is ably assisted by two colorful characters, Kimura-san, who handles the department's contacts with foreigners, and Noguchi-san (informally known as "Ninja"), who deals with Kobe's underworld denizens. Otani's wife, Hanae, often figures as a supporting character, and his radical-turned-solid-middle-class daughter and son-in-law are never too far away. In The Wages of Zen, the police are called in to a Zen temple to investigate drug smuggling that isn't but soon find a murder has taken place. In A Sort of Samurai, Kimura's language skills and debonair charm are required as the police investigate a suspicious death and some related unpleasantness. Melville (real name R.P. Martin), an Englishman, spent many years in Japan in various diplomatic and cultural positions and was well able to give Western readers a glimpse into the world of postwar Japanese culture. I imagine that his Kobe of the 1970s and 1980s might seem almost as foreign to today's younger Japanese as it was to European and American readers when the novels were published. Melville's stories are entertaining and enlightening without being hugely demanding; his characters are genuine and full o f personality, well rounded rather than simple cut-outs.

The Ultimate Battle: Okinawa 1945—The Last Epic Struggle of World War II by Bill Sloan (15) My reading of this follows my reading of Sloan's book on the battle of Peleliu, Brotherhood of Heroes. Since the two campaigns followed each other as well, many of the US Marine Corps men familiar from that book appear here as well, almost like old friends. Reading Brotherhood was wrenching, a tiny glimpse of the horrific conditions of fighting, even living, in the conditions that Marines suffered under in that battle being enough to turn one's stomach. The same can be said for Ultimate Battle, which conveys the brutality, the awfulness, the bitterness of losing friends and comrades, the horror of warfare, the frightful conditions on the ground, the mixture of fear and adrenaline rush of fighting off kamikaze attacks at sea, the stolid determination of the Japanese military (who knew they could not win the battle in any sense of the word) to inflict as much damage as possible on their enemy before they died, and of the destruction and terror of the native Okinawan noncombatant population, truly the shrimp crushed in the battles of the whales. Even the aftermath, in which is detailed the end of the war and the last attempts by fanatics to hold out in Japan, even to the extent of trying to overthrow the wartime government and the emperor in order to keep fighting, is fascinating. And the recounting of the postwar lives of the men who survived the fighting, who have become familiar to the reader, is heart-warming in its assurance that so many were able to find purpose and live on to ripe old age, many of them being interviewed by Sloan for the book, sixty years and more after the war.

In progress:
Blackett's War by Stephen Budiansky
Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
Crisis on the Danube: Napoleon’s Austrian Campaign of 1809 by James R. Arnold
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz
winterbadger: (toy badger)

The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss (10) An abridged version of Beschloss's 377-page book on the US invovlement in World War Two under FDR and Truman. I really dislike abridgements, and if I had realized that was what this was, I would have skipped it. I feel as if I get no good sense of the whole book from listening to little bits and pieces, even if they are chosen (and, in this case, read) by the author.

That said, these had the feel of a workmanlike but not stellar piece of work. Beschloss has doubtless done his research, as he presents the perpectives of a number of different figures, but the writing is stilted and wooden, lacking any colour or style, filled constantly with passages of quotations, often from the same person from the same conversation, which feels odd. By which I mean something like: George said, "I would rather ride than drive." George said, "I do not like driving." George said, "Riding is more agreeable." I'm not sure why one would write this way. The characterizations of the different actors are likewise wooden and bland.

That said, no one comes out of this book very well. FDR seems at his worst: feeble, grasping at straws to appear in control, promising different things to different people and following through on none of it, telling tales behind everyone's backs. Truman appears brisk, capable, and confident by comparison, but also parochial and bigoted. Morgenthau, FDR's Treasury Secretary, long-time friend and NYS neighbour doesn't come off well; at first afraid to press Roosevelt on the Holocaust, he seems finally pushed to do so by friends and supplicants and is transformed into a bitter, angry man, fixed on counterproductive eye-for-an-eye vengeance on Germany. Hnery Stimson, FDR's Secretary of War, seems a very prim, fussy traditionalist, and Cordell Hull, Roosevelt's Secretary of State a feeble, unhealthy man in a comic-opera role, responsible for executing America's foreign policy but shut out of all top-level diplomatic business by a president who didn't seem to trust him. Hull, while out of touch, had intelligence and principle; Stettinius, his replacement, is such a duffer that his staff hoodwink him into signing documents he hasn't read and doesn't suppport.

It will be interesting to contrast this (abridged) book with Michael Dobbs' history of much the same period, which is my next audio selection. It's already proved much more fascinating because it goes into tremendous detail about the preparations for the Yalta conference. Dobbs's portrait of Churchill makes him out to be both impossible, infuriating, and charming--rather like FDR, but with more backbone. It leaves me sorely tempted to try the Manchester bio of Churchill, which comes as a mammoth three-box set of CDs weighing something like five pounds. :-)

In progress:
Six Months in 1945: FDR, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman--from World War to Cold War by Michael Dobbs
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
The Chinese Bell Murders by Robert van Gulik
Crisis on the Danube: Napoleon’s Austrian Campaign of 1809 by James R. Arnold
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz

winterbadger: (pooh tao)
So, January was very busy for me book-wise:

Between Two Worlds: My Life and Captivity in Iran by Roxana Saberi (1) Interesting account of an Iranian-American journalist who was arrested and imprisoned briefly in Tehran on trumped-up espionage charges. Listened to it on CD, read by the author. Because the book is primarily about her experience in the political section of Tehran's notorious Evin Prison, one gets very little perspective on Iranian society in general. But she does paint some interesting and engaging portraits of the interrogators and officials she deals with and, even more, of the other prisoners she encounters after her intitial period of solitary confinement. I read a number of the reviews of this book on Amazon after listenign to it on CD, and I found several good characterizations of it. I certainly agree with one of the commentators who grows restive with Saberi's whiny, self-pitying tone. She never endures any real hardship, and she seems inclined to overdramatize both her shame (after she initially decides to "confess" in hopes that it will get her released) and her heroism (when she subsequently decides to engage in hunger strikes to pressure her captors).

Spies of Warsaw by Alan Furst (2) Another novel by the excellent Furst, who is a great writer of historical thrillers set in the era before and during the Second World War and usually featuring some combination of espoionage and military affairs. This tells the story of the French military attache in Warsaw in the last few years before the outbreak of war, as he runs agents, conducts intelligence gathering himself, and romances a beautiful woman (or two). Mostly mellow (but not boring) with occasional bursts of chilling action, and full of convincing period detail.

The Monkey's Wedding by Joan Aiken (3) I'm always stumbling across new collections of Aiken's short storie, which I have been reading (along with her YA fiction and her novels) since childhood. This is a typical collection of her worK: some of the short stories it contains are whimsical, some gruesome, some mournful, and some simply odd. Lots of magical realism to be found in her stories, and a great del of fun as well.

FDR: The First Hundred Days by Anthony J. Badger (4) An excellent introduction to the subject, but for the novice a bit like drinking from a firehose. The names, dates, associations, and legislative histories come think and fast in this relatively short work (in recorded form it is just five CDs). While it's engaging, it only scrapes the surface of any of its subjects. I learned a great deal about the causes of the banking crisis, some of it quite different to the common conceptions of the origins of the Great Depression. The parallels to the Great Recession are many and startling; the biggest difference is the extensive cooepration that FDR got from his party and the Republicans. He was by no means popular with everyone, and resistance to the New Deal existed and grew during its lifetime, but he was always able to find sufficient legislative support for the policies he pursued. Part of that came from his strong support among Southern Democrats, cultivated over many years. (Blacks were more or less entirely shut out of the New Deal planning and implementation and hardly even considered at all during FDR's administration.) Part of his support came from a group almost unknown today, the Progressive Republicans who had backed his cousin Theodore Roosevelt; though not so much like those who call themselves progressive in today's politics, they were worlds ahead of the current mainstream of Republican thinking, being concerned to constrain business and industry far enough to make life fair and bearable for the working man.

Like Wolves on the Fold: The Defence of Rorke's Drift by Mike Snook (5) The second half of Snook's pair on the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War, this tells of the British victory in the early stage of the campaign that served to leaven the disaster of the battle of Isandhlwana. The small garrison of a two-building supply depot guarding a river crossing managed to hold out against the reserve corps of the Zulu army. Snook examines the events immediately preceeding the "siege", the battle itself, the immediate aftermath, and the remainder of the campaign. Like any good storyteller who has given you deep and interesting portraits of a variety of chacters, Snook provides details of what happened to the major protagonists (and some of the supporting characters) throughout the rest of their lives. The book brings the invaluable perspective of a professional military man to examining the action. Snook has spent a good deal of time in the region, and he served most of his career in the modern descendant of the 24th Foot, the principal Regular Army unit invovled at both Isandhlwana and Rorke's Drift. His officer's eye view gives the reader information and an understanding of the combats (and the campaign overall) that few (possibly none) of the other well known writers on the campaign could supply. On the other hand, he seems (to me) a little too ready to show solidarity with some of the actors and excuse faults or put the best construction on a situation in order to preserve the reputation of his regiment and of the Army as a whole. I'm also inclined to think that a professional historian would manage to supress his inclination to snipe at characters he dislikes a little better than Snook does. But this pair of books remain, in my opinion, both invaluable and long-overdue analyses of the opening stages of the 1879 campaign.

Four by Jonathan Gash. He's a writer of mysteries centered around an antique dealer, Lovejoy, who lives near Colchester in Essex. He's an expert in many fields of the antiques trade, a diviner (able to suss out true antiques, whether he can analyze them or not), perpetually skint, and a cheerfully sexist womanizer. The stories follow a predictable pattern. Someone involves Lovejoy in a hunt for a specific treasured antiqu; he is or becomes invovled with one or more women; violence ensures--usually someone close to him is killed or injured and he goes out looking for revenge and the antique; more violence happens--Lovejoy getting his revenge...and the antique. Curtain. So, formulaic, but the stories are kind of a delivery mechanism for the things that Gash has learned about hunting for--or faking--antiques, which is quite a lot and certainly interesting. There's usually some location that we learn about too, often as part of the climactic events.

The Judas Pair (6): in which we learn about flintlock weapons, especially duelling pistols. No specific location.
Gold From Gemini (7): in which we learn about Roman Britain, especially coins. Location: the Laxey Wheel on the Isle of Man.
The Grail Tree (8): in which we learn about religious relics, especially a cup that may be the True Grail. Location: Colchester Castle.
Spend Game (9): in which we learn about early railways. Location: a fictional failed railway, possibly modeled on the Colne Valley Railway.

In progress:
The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss
Crisis on the Danube: Napoleon’s Austrian Campaign of 1809 by James R. Arnold
McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales edited by Michael Chabon
Dunkirk: Retreat to Victory by MG Julian Thompson
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston
Empire of the Mind: A History of Iran by Michael Axworthy
Boer Commando by Denneys Reitz

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