Wedge’s Gamble, by Michael Stackpole

July 31, 2010 at 17:03 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , , )

8/10

Michael Stackpole is one of the more able writers in the Star Wars universe, and this is one of the better books he wrote before he began to run out of ideas. It is the success of this book that allowed Stackpole (and Aaron Allston, which might have been a mistake) to build the juggernaut series that eventually succumbed to the terminal illness of Star Wars authors; falling in love with their own characters, and assuming that everyone else has, too.

Nevertheless, when reading a book based on a book based on a video game based on a movie, expectations are low – and Wedge’s Gamble manages to acquit itself brilliantly. The characters are nicely developed, but already there are impressive views to building a franchise, with villains and heroes alike created with a long-term view rather than rather disappointing flashes in the metaphorical pan. In short, Stackpole is in no hurry, and is content to allow his corner of the universe to develop organically and with feeling.

The plot is interesting, and a refreshing departure from the repeated (and for a while successful) gambit of throwing a superweapon and a dark jedi into the mix and letting things sort themselves out. Isard is an unappealing but interesting foil for the hearty Rogues, and many peripheral characters actually have a surprising amount of depth. Stackpole’s only failure (and it is a dismal failure) is his attempt to write romance. Inevitably it leads to characters musing and monologuing, and turns several chapters into a horrific blend of sticky fanfiction and the worst psychiatric book ever written. A good space adventure, and one of the high water marks of the Star Wars expanded universe.

Related reviews:
The Krytos Trap
Solo Command
Starfighters of Adumar
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Apostolic Foundations, by Art Katz

July 30, 2010 at 20:44 (Book Reviews, Poorly Rated Books, Theology) (, , , )

4/10

One could make several mistakes while reading this book. One might end up thinking that Katz was a generally cantankerous and unpleasant fellow (he was brusque, but certainly not a miser!), one might end up considering him to be a poor and amateur writer (a riffle through Israel And The Church will swiftly disabuse anybody of this notion!), and one might think that he has very little of value to say about apostlehood.

Much of this book seems like a lengthy rant without any focus. Katz might be condemning licentiousness and spiritual pride, and then suddenly he begins a diatribe against earrings, or music, or the Lutheran church, or any of a hundred other things that take even the most patient reader on a bizarre and rather stressful ride through some painfully misspelled, disjointed and confusing chapters.

One gets the feeling in reading Apostolic Foundations that Katz does not actually like the gentile church much at all; a painful proposition, and hardly appropriate for an ‘apostle’. It is deeply unfortunate, because despite the ridiculous tangents and the muddled paragraphs, Art Katz delivers some of his starkest and most badly-needed instructions to Christianity at large. Many of his points are certainly valid – even inspired – but thanks to a dreadfully written book with some unclear priorities, his prophetic unction takes back seat. What is in the front seat is a little unclear. Perhaps a mad ghostwriter. Read this book, but don’t expect to enjoy it.

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Breakdown, by Bill Gertz

July 29, 2010 at 20:31 (Book Reviews, Historical, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , , )

2/10

One cannot really fault Gertz too much. It is a reporter’s job to say “it will all be fine if you listen to me,” and, “it’s all the fault of the guy at the top.” Which is really all that he does. Repeatedly. For two-hundred bloated pages. This is no page-turner packed with corruption and smoking guns, but a rather sad trip through the crummy motel rooms and apartments of people who have a grudge against the CIA and over-inflated views of their own importance.

Almost all of the purported evidence in this book is simply the cobbled-together accounts of former employees of this agency or that bureau. It makes for bitter reading, that is for sure. And yes, Gertz is right that somewhere a ball was dropped. But his bizzare assertion that we just need some good ol’ boys to dress like foreigners and get us some good old fashioned human intelligence can sound a little naïf after a while. One rather gets the impression that if we just placed our hope (and the reins, don’t forget) in the hands of Joe-the-honest-hardworking-cop, we’d be raking terrorists from the streets faster than anything. At the end of the day, we’ve heard everything in this book before. Clinton, bureaucrats, agency directors and Commies were to blame; Reagan, cops, soldiers and American know-how will save us. And al Qaeda will be gone in five years. Why do I keep reading books by journalists?

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On the Reliability of the Old Testament, by K.A. Kitchen

July 28, 2010 at 16:13 (Ancient, Book Reviews, Bronze Age, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Theology) (, , , , , , )

10/10

Kenneth Kitchen is an excellent scholar, and has a startling ability to lay out points, facts, ideas and theories in a way that is at once honest and yet utterly comprehensive and compelling. Every paragraph, every section builds throughout the book to create a strikingly plain and forceful image of Kitchen’s worldview, and the corroboration of that worldview in archaeology. As an egyptologist and philologist, there is a heavy slant towards that ancient nation, and towards written and grammatical evidence in favour of the Old Testament’s legitimacy. As an egyptologist and philologist, there is also an utterly unyielding harshness towards those that would abuse those sciences for their own gain.

Much has been said regarding his aggressive stance and unscholarly language towards those who happen to disagree with him. This is not a theme that will occur readily to those not under attack, and the vast majority of the book treats other writers and historians fairly and politely. His final address to specific schools or doctrinaires is certainly a no-holds-barred tirade, and he is crushing in his criticism, like a pamphleteer of old. He is also responding to scientists who are his inferiors in the profession, and who have blithely ignored his – and others’ – archaeological evidence and publications in favour of irresponsible a priori theorising.

Kitchen is scientifically focused in his attention to the Old Testament itself. He spends a remarkably short amount of time on the major prophets and none at all on the minor prophets or post-exilic books, precisely because these are more solidly dated, and under less attack than earlier books. A comprehensive commentary this is not. Unsurprisingly, Kitchen spends the most time where he is most comfortable: Egypt and those things that rub up against it. Consequently, wherever there is contact with Egypt, there we shall find him. The Exile, Judges, United Monarchy and Kings are where he shines, and where his most convincing arguments are displayed.

Throughout the work, Kitchen remains (perhaps wisely) aloof from matters of faith. He offers a few half-hearted explanations for supernatural subject matters or attributions to deity, and throws up his hands at books such as Daniel, preferring not to address that which he cannot dig out of the ground or deconstruct on a stele. His most valuable contributions on theis subject are his efforts to prove that there is nothing absurd about a nation believing in its God, and that to discount their histories because of supernatural accounts is the height of stupid and irresponsible scholarship. So too with the creation. He acknowledges that there was, as Genesis says, “a beginning” – but does not attempt to go further than nail a few definitions in place linguistically and take a hearty hammer to the so-called Documentary Hypothesis. An incomplete work, then, for a comprehensive survey of the entire Old Testament, but a book that will remain the first stop for any serious scholar of the Bible.

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Danny the Champion of the World, by Roald Dahl

July 27, 2010 at 18:51 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

10/10

This is Roald Dahl’s best work. It could easily be titled after the final chapter; “My Father” – and yet the title reflects the warmth and affection of Danny’s dad towards him, for it is Danny who is declared to be the champion. This is a book about a widower raising a child under trying circumstances and loving his son well, and unconditionally.

The questionable life of Danny’s dad and the induction of Danny into the world of poaching is not a postmodern message of liberal and subjective morality, but rather Roald Dahl’s recurring conceit that rules are to apply for most of the time, and that when the occasion arises to break them, honesty and selflessness and truthfulness remain cardinal. The loss of the fruits of their poaching is no setback, but simply the end of one adventure and the beginning of the next; Danny is not thrilled and excited because of the pheasants, but because of his quite wonderful father.

The story is elegant and precise, and Dahl is not afraid to leave its track for a while and pursue quite irrelevant incidentals, while fleshing out the abiding impression that Danny’s life is simple, poor and utterly wonderful. Even the disastrous episode at school is a story about loyalty and fearlessness in the face of bullying and aggression.

Through his compendium of marvellous stories, Roald Dahl shows children wild and fabulous places where they can escape. In Danny the Champion of the World, he shows children a picture of honest and powerful fatherly love. Danny needs neither giants nor peaches; neither magic nor mysterious worlds. The world he inhabits is wonderful enough, and his father more fantastic than any magical benefactor.

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Roosevelt’s Road to Russia, by George N. Crocker

July 25, 2010 at 17:40 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical, Second World War) (, , , , , )

8/10

This book can best be likened to a lynch mob howling and screaming unintelligibly, each laying hands on the prisoner at the centre and pulling this way and that, and trying rather fruitlessly to string him up. To an observer, it might be fairly plain that the subject of the mob’s fury deserves something, but such is the utter bedlam and torrent of emotion, it ends up being as clear as mud what exactly the problem is.

In a clear case of some extremely brave revisionism, Crocker sets out to pillory his nation’s longest serving and beloved former president. He is merciless, and reserves some choice epithets to use against Roosevelt. Not once does he excuse him or even bring himself to admit that Roosevelt might have done a single thing right. Quite simply, he is rabid.

The book’s publication date of 1959 might serve to explain partly this unbridled vitriol. So too might the barrage of venom reserved for the only man Crocker hates more than Roosevelt, the “hard shell…Tartar whose flinty eyes hinted the Mongolian admixture in his blood, this tyrant…” – none other than “Joe Stalin” (as Crocker chooses to spitefully call him). It is difficult to gain the unequivocal impression that an author is literally spitting a name from pursed lips whenever he mentions it. Crocker gives that impression amply.

Why is this a good book? It is certainly a piece of Cold War propaganda, whose sole aim is to blacken the name of Roosevelt as the sole antagonist (working, of course, with communist spies!) whose folly, mealymouthedness and – dare we say? – outright treason singlehandedly spawned the genesis of global communism. Despite these manifold failings as an unbiased piece of historical research, Crocker does manage to blind himself to the attrocities and ugliness of the Nazi state, such is his venom reserved for his red enemies. He allows himself to take a step back from anti-Nazi rhetoric and ask some legitimate questions about the United States’ entry into the war; the reasons for it, the manipulation of Japan and of the American people, and the decisions that were put down in black and white on treaty papers between the Big Three.

As a compendium of Roosevelt’s actions as a machiavellian communist traitor, this book is worthless. But as a compendium of Roosevelt’s errors, perjuries, betrayals and bewildering altruism unsullied by the mistake of believing that Hitler was the only evil man in the world in 1941, this book is priceless. It is also incredibly entertaining.

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The Mandalorian Armor (sic), by K.W. Jeter

July 24, 2010 at 20:57 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Poorly Rated Books, Star Wars Saturday!) (, , , )

2/10

The most noticeable thing about Jeter’s writing is that he thinks this book is on his time, not the reader’s. His audience have nothing better to do than lean into his bottomless prose and immerse themselves in his exquisitely-crafted characters. Here comes the first snag. Usually with well-crafted characters – even those described in morbid and drudging detail over the breadth of entire chapters – just about everything is explained about them, from their harrowing school experiences to the shapes of their noses and the various faces they pull. Usually the writer does his reader the courtesy of at least interesting us in his creation before plunging us into their morose jungian monologues, and often the reader has already made an emotional investment before consenting to be led by the nose into a black hole of reflection on…oh, financial dealing and economic exigencies?

Not a problem, according to K.W. Jeter. Why, you are reading about Boba Fett! That means if you’ve reached this point, you’re already sold on the character, and willing to swallow whatever he spoons in your direction. The stormclouds of sloppy writing are already gathering, and they conceal the thunderous cacaphony of writing more selfish and self-obsessed than anything since at least Atlas Shrugged. The stage is set for Jeter’s supervillain, stroking a cat and musing endlessly on the machiavellian web he has been weaving since some undefined point in the distant past.

Perhaps this has all been too harsh. After all, the action is there, with all the insipid characters and poorly-imagined alien creatures that third-rate Star Wars writers usually manage to wrangle together. Most of it takes place as a series of flashbacks connected by monologues, which means between Kuat of Kuat thinking evil thoughts about evil we are treated to characters thinking about the action that happened many years ago in a galaxy far, far away.

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The Last Kingdom, by Bernard Cornwell

July 23, 2010 at 17:24 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , , )

2/10

Cornwell is a master in his genre, and a superb writer. It is a shame that The Last Kingdom manages to seem so tired and strained when it is the first book in a new series. It might well be dreadful to imagine what the later additions to the Saxon Chronicles are like. Uhtred is a thoroughly unlikeable little squit, managing to combine willful ignorance, pigheaded arrogance, ridiculous pride, physical incompetence and bare-faced treason in one rather unappealing character. It is understandable that Cornwell wanted to create something other than an everyman. It is excusable that he wished to give his character a little grime to go with the gleam, but he ended up with a caricature of Falstaff without the redeeming buffoonery.

Cornwell’s dislike of Christianity is a recurring theme in his books, but in The Last Kingdom it is transformed from his expressed opinion into a club with which to beat both the reader and some of his potentially more interesting characters. It is easy to see that he feared turning Alfred into a sad carbon copy of his brilliant portrayal of Arthur in the Warlord Chronicles, but turning him into a gibbering idiot simply because of his faith makes for tiresome reading.

His description of dark ages warfare, of naval tactics and of the political climate are all, of course, his usual riveting and highly intelligent work; his penchant to describe his characters’ wenching activities in grisly detail is thankfully toned down a little from what he doled out in Sharpe and Stonehenge. Despite these successes, this is a poorly chosen direction for a terrific writer, and not worth reading unless you have already read and reread his better works.

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By the Bog of Cats, by Marina Carr

July 21, 2010 at 14:44 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Theatrical Plays) (, , , , )

7/10

Certainly a very eerie and dark play, depicting a much closer and more detailed look at the Medea story, which makes it much more personable than the original legend. Rather than a handful of heroes without discernible motives we are treated to a little backstory and some characters who are considerably more relatable than a mad queen and a quasi-divine adventurer. The death of “Medea” at the end was a bold choice…and may have been the wrong choice. Her escape in Euripides contributes to the impotence and emasculation of Jason, and in itself is a curious paradox of utter resolution and an utter lack of the same; her escape being her ultimate exit from Jason’s life and world, yet without blood to cleanse his unsatisfied retribution.

“…there’s two Hester Swanes, one that is decent and very fond of ya despite your callow treatment of me. And the other Hester, well, she could slide a knife down your face, carve ya up and not bat an eyelid.”

-By the Bog of Cats

Carthage was a much more sympathetic character than I was prepared to believe in, but his murderous backstory, delivered subtly a few acts in was both jarring and a nice tie-in to Jason’s own hidden sins. In spite of the long shadow that the original Greek casts over this play, it certainly stands alone as a serious and respectable work of literature with the recasting expertly done.

Perhaps this play rattled a little fast towards its end, but with the outcome almost a foregone conclusion this may have been just as well, and enough time was certainly given for the reader to linger on the dazzlingly iconic scenes of Hester bursting in with her wedding dress, or screaming defiance beside her burning house. A thrilling read.

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Citizens, by Simon Schama

July 20, 2010 at 01:59 (Book Reviews, Highly Rated Books, Historical) (, , , , , )

8/10

Schama is an excellent historian, and even when he wears his bias and his elemental distaste on his sleeve, he still has great insight into his subject matter, with an especial eye towards irony, hypocrisy and the absurd, subjects that are unsurprisingly abundant in this chronicle.

His penchant towards entirely omitting vastly important events simply because he personally disdains them is refreshingly limited in this book, and if his stubborn literality leads him to break off his account where he deems the revolution to have ended, then at least he tells his readers in no uncertain terms when France (in his opinion) went from being a failed experiment in representative anarchy to squaring with itself and honestly admitting to being a dictatorship.

Schama’s obsession with telling historical stories solely from the viewpoint of a few “typical” yet insignificant bystanders survives into this book, but is much less invasive than in his History of Britain, which cannot but be a good thing. Above all, readers will choose Simon Schama for his easy style and adventurous prose, which is fresh and exciting without pretending to be a novel, and describing “every flake of frost on the morning of 9 Thermidor”, or “every vulture in the sky watching the guillotine”. That sort of thing can get tiresome, and Schama avoids it while still managing to be witty and enjoyable.

To accusations of undue revisionism, it seems that Schama’s intention is not to demonise the Jacobins, but rather to draw the Revolution itself out of the black and white starkness in which it has typically been caricatured, pointing out the evidence of reformation in the government of Louis XVI in contrast to the incredible participation of aristocrats and clergy in the Revolution itself, and even in the midst of the Terror.

His central precept then, buried as it might be beneath lurid accounts of Jacobin excess, seems to be to describe the Revolution as primarily an economic affair, with all the veneer of class warfare serving to disguise the fact of legions of subsistence farmers led to the guillotine by their formal feudal lords. An interesting premise well laid out, and perhaps why his account faces so much abuse from today’s so-called social historians.

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