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Archive for December, 2013

2013 in review

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 31, 2013

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 6,900 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

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A Review of The Cosmic Puppets

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 27, 2013

The Cosmic PuppetsThe Cosmic Puppets by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Well, The Cosmic Puppets certainly isn’t Philip K Dick’s best work, but it’s among his earliest, so perhaps he was just getting his feet wet and hadn’t established the maturity he displays in later works. The book is a story about a 27 year old man named Ted Barton who takes off on a side trip (while on a vacation with his wife) to his hometown of Millgate, VA. He moved away from there at age nine and hasn’t been back since, living in New York. He seems strangely driven to get there, anxious to see his old haunts. His wife is none too pleased. However, when Ted arrives, the town has changed — radically. In fact, nothing is the same! Street names are different, stores are gone, others have appeared, the town park is now comprised of dilapidated buildings. It has a dingy feel to it and Ted is overwhelmed with curiosity. He asks people where Central Street is, only to find there is none. He’s advised to go to the newspaper’s office to research Millgate of years gone by. There he finds reference to his birth … and his death of scarlet fever at age nine, precisely at the same time he moved away. He sends his wife to a motel in a neighboring town and returns to find out what the heck happened. So far, so good. Typical PKD alternate reality. But it has a toned down feel to it. It’s not as fleshed out as some of his later works.

We’re introduced to Mary and Peter, two children who mold clay figures and have strange powers (and habits). Ted takes a room in Peter’s mother’s boarding house and Peter tells him he knows who Ted really is before running off. We then see him with his collection of spiders, rats, and snakes in his barn, as well as “golems,” clay figures who are miniature people. He uses this collection to spy on people, particularly Mary, who uses bees. While Ted is sitting at the boarding house, he spots two ethereal beings come up and walk through the walls of the house. He asks if others saw that, and to his surprise, everyone had seen it. It’s common. They’re called Wanderers and they’re taken for granted in town.

Out drinking the next day, Ted meets the town drunk, Christopher, who confides in Ted that he, too, remembers the town of 18 years ago before “the Change” took place. That he had a business. He remembered many of the same things that Ted did. Together, they somehow magically start recreating parts of town out of thin air, starting with the park, just by sheer concentration. Apparently, everything in the town, including the people, are artificial. The town was buried by this fake Millgate 18 years ago and the Wanderers are some of the original inhabitants.

Things start to get crazier here as we discover there is a battle between good and evil taking place on a universal level, starring Millgate. The rats, spiders, and snakes come for Ted, Christopher, and the Wanderers, while Mary is killed. However, she had created a golem of herself, so she essentially survives.

I’m not going to give away the end of the story, but I guess it was okay. I’ve seen better PKD endings. I guess he was doing the best he could with what he had written himself into. This book really predates his quality work of later, in my opinion, but it’s a short read — I read it in easily less than a day — and if you like Dick, you might want to try this book out. However, I’ve got to say that I can’t recommend it for the average reader. Oh, by the way, this isn’t sci fi. It’s fantasy/horror. Just in case you were wondering….

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New Issue of Ray’s Road Review

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 21, 2013

I’m pleased to announce that the Winter 2014 issue of Ray’s Road Review has been published today. Read some quality fiction, nonfiction, and poetry at http://raysroadreview.com.

The poets we’ve published are John Harper, Lark Beltran, Kenneth Pobo, Brad Garber, KG Newman, and Marilyn Kallet. Quite a good lineup. Feel free to read and submit. Cheers!

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A Review of The Electric Church

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 20, 2013

The Electric Church (Avery Cates, #1)The Electric Church by Jeff Somers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read a lot of mixed reviews of The Electric Church, which surprised me because I thought it was really good. Some of the reviewers out there really hated it, thought of it as unoriginal, thought it was stereotypical cyberpunk, were bored, thought it was predictable. I thought it was none of those things. Indeed, it was such an action packed thriller that each page seemed to have something integral to the plot and I was so intrigued, I read it in less than a day.

Avery Cates is a Gunner, a killer in a dystopian world. He’s old at 27 and has killed some 26 people for money, and during this book, he really adds to his kill total. The seemingly super human cops (The SSF) are after him for cop killing and now he’s on the bad side of the Electric Church, a growing religion whose adherents are cyborgs who were once human and whose brains have been transplanted from murdered people to their new cyborg bodies. It’s quite creepy. The head of the SSF cops hires him to kill the leader of the church in their heavily guarded headquarters, so he assembles a team of transport, tech, and other people to help him out.

Cates is a bad guy, but he’s a likeable bad guy because he plays by a certain set of rules. He’s also cooler than the evil police or the Monks of the Electric Church, all of whom are certifiably evil and probably insane.

Some reviewers thought character development was lacking in this book, but I was really taken with how the author captured and then let us get to know a Monk. The author really delves into good descriptions here and I had a great vision in my head of how the scene was taking place.

There’s a whole lot of gun fighting in this book, so if you’re into that, you won’t be disappointed. A reason I’m marking it down from five stars to four, however, is the excessive swearing. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a prude. I’ve got a mouth of my own. But this was gratuitous swearing, dropping the F bomb every third word. It got old and felt forced. Additionally, the author constantly has to let us know that Cates is a hardass and is putting on his macho, hardass face to scare other people away. That got old too.

Still, the book is non-stop action and it’s enthralling. I wasn’t prepared for the end and thought it was quite good. Apparently, this is the first in a series (of course), so I might read the second one soon, although I’m of the opinion that sequels rarely live up to the original. This book is highly recommended!

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Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby lead Penguins to 6th straight win

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 20, 2013

Chris Kunitz, Sidney Crosby lead Penguins to 6th straight win

via Minnesota Wild vs. Pittsburgh Penguins – Recap – December 19, 2013 – ESPN.

Way to go, Pens!!!

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A Review of Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam’s Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 17, 2013

Victory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam's Gen. Vo Nguyen GiapVictory at Any Cost: The Genius of Viet Nam’s Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap by Cecil B. Currey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Cecil B. Currey’s book on Vo Nguyen Giap is an utterly excellent book! It’s gripping, engaging, provides historical context, contains essential quotes, and shows Giap to be the logistical, tactical, and strategic genius he was as a general leading North Vietnam to defeat the Japanese, the French, the US, the South Vietnamese, the Cambodians, and the Chinese. No one else has done so much with so little. I’m going to reprint my review for Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam by James A. Warren (a book I read a few months ago…) in its entirety here, because I think many of the same things can be said about this book. Read on.

Giap: The General Who Defeated America in Vietnam by James A. Warren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

General Vo Nguyen Giap was the North Vietnamese mastermind who defeated the French and American superpowers over 30 years in what was previously an unthinkable possibility — that countries with so so much more military and economic power could lose to an underdeveloped third world country. And yet it happened. (Also, Giap had to battle the Japanese toward the end of World War Two.)

Giap came from humble beginnings — a history professor turned professional solider from the Quang Binh Province of Vietnam. He was self taught. Aside from Hi Chi Minh, Giap was probably North Vietnam’s most important figure. He learned communism from Ho and never strayed. He learned how to battle from the Chinese and adapted what he learned to the Vietnamese battlefield. When the Vietminh defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu to end the French colonial war with what was then Indochina, he showed that he had mastered guerrilla tactics as well as conventional war strategies, and these carried over to the American war. He was also a master at logistics. It took months for the Vietminh to carry broken down parts of artillery pieces up into the mountains surrounding Dien Bien Phu, where they were then assembled and used with devastating success. Another strength Giap possessed was learning that the political counted as much as the military. He indoctrinated his soldiers, the Vietnamese peasants, and won a war of attrition against both France and America — both countries, he knew, that wouldn’t have the stomach for a protracted war. He was right. Now he took horrifying losses throughout both wars. When all was said and done, the NVA and Vietminh lost over a million soldiers (to America’s 56,000), but he knew that a country united in revolution against colonialism was destined for victory. He never lacked in confidence. The Tet offensive was, of course, the turning point in the Vietnam war with America. Looked at it militarily, the US won, giving the NVA and Viet Cong horrifying casualties, but strategically, North Vietnam won because America now wanted out and started the process of withdrawing troops and halting the bombing of North Vietnam in an effort to get to the negotiating table — a place where America had no leverage.

The author makes some good points in his final chapter in this excellent book.

“The power of the US military machine posted immense challenges to Giap as a commander. He knew that the conflict would result in horrific losses, but he also realized that those causalities were the inevitable cost of victory, and neither the reality of those casualties, as regrettable as they were, nor the destructive capacity of American forces, would prove to be decisive factors in the war’s outcome…. Giap was first and foremost a revolutionary war strategist, which is to say he conceived of war primarily as a social struggle by people committed to breaking down the status quo and replacing it with a new set of power relationships and institutions, not as a strictly military activity carried out by full-time soldiers and guerrillas…. the work of building a powerful political infrastructure that could challenge French and American efforts was far more important than achieving victory in a series of conventional military battles and campaigns…. He also believed that he could instill a sense of futility and exhaustion in the French and American armies by avoiding large-scale combat engagements in favor of harassing tactics, including ambushes, booby traps, and luring the enemy into patrolling forbidding mountainous terrain and steamy jungles where his own troops were more at home.”

“Giap never doubted that the power of his soldiers’ and citizen’s commitment to the Vietnamese revolutionary vision would compensate for the inferiority of their military forces. It was only necessary to instill the same level of belief and determination he himself possessed for the cause into the Revolution as a whole, and to direct that energy toward victory…. When all is said and done, Giap’s enduring importance lies in recognizing that he was a successful general largely because he could see with extraordinary clarity all the factors and forces that shaped the trajectory of the wars in which he fought, and how each element related to all the others.”

Giap then, who might still be alive at over 100 years old, was the instrumental commander that foresaw victory and instilled that vision in his troops and citizens. He was Ho’s second, and as such, wielded great power. He built his army up from a tiny platoon in 1945 to hundreds of thousands of hardened troops by war’s end. When the NVA rolled into Saigon in 1975, the revolution was complete and Vietnam was reunited. Communist, yes, but under no colonial authority for the first time in over a century. It was a mighty struggle, and even though I’m an American, I’ve studied this war for decades and have seen how American stupidity lost us the war — which we could have won with the right strategies and leadership, I believe. Giap’s commitment never wavered. He should be looked at as one of the greatest military leaders of all time. I can’t think of a single instance in which a tiny, impoverished, technically backwards country defeated two of the world’s superpowers within two to three decades of each other. His legacy will live on for a long time. This was an excellent book to read and I certainly recommend it to any military buff or historian, or to anyone interested in the Vietnam war. Great book!

______________________________________________________

Well, that’s what I wrote about the previous book, and the same holds true for this one. The thing that separates them, I think, is Currey actually got to interview Giap for this book. It made it more compelling. There was more narrative and a lot more on actual thought patterns and secrets behind North Vietnam’s successes. I also didn’t know that Giap whipped China when China invaded in 1979. Truly amazing. After Ho died, though, the Politburo demoted him several times over the years, and that was disgraceful for the founder of that country’s army and leader of victorious military campaigns. Still, he handled himself with grace and dignity and while he wasn’t always the most likeable person in the world, you can’t come away from this book without some sort of admiration for the man. Truly one of the greatest generals in history. Recommended.

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Hi! I’m Toby! | SouthernHon

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 11, 2013

Hi! I’m Toby! | SouthernHon.

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A Review of The Zap Gun

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 9, 2013

The Zap GunThe Zap Gun by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was another crazy book (in a good way) by Philip K. Dick. It’s more lucid and centered than many of his other (later) books. This was written in 1965, but is set in 2004. In this book, the Cold War still exists, seemingly, between Wes-bloc (us) and Peep-East (the Soviets). There is a weapons race between the two sides, and each employs “weapons fashion designers” to design their new weapons. The thing is, a peace treaty had been agreed upon years ago between the sides and these weapons don’t and won’t work. They’re not designed to. After the designs are made, they go into production and fake weapons are then filmed doing significant damage to the other side so that society, the “pursaps” (pure saps), will continue to think they’re being protected by their respective governments in an evil world.

The protagonist for this book is Lars Powderdry (another great Dick name), the western weapons fashion designer. His eastern counterpart is an attractive young “cog” named Lilo Topchev, and does Lars have a thing for her. Even though he has a mistress in Paris. Yep. Dick and his cluttered relationships are at work again. Heh.

Both weapons fashion designers use hard core secretive drugs to induce a trance state during which time they sketch their weapon ideas. Upon waking, they see what they’ve sketched and the sketches are off to the lab. This situation works out well for everyone — until alien satellites appear in the sky and apparently start to take entire cities (starting with New Orleans) captive for slave labor in the Sirius system. It’s at this point the weapon fashion designers are brought together (in Iceland, I believe) to pool their resources in the hopes of making a real weapon to defeat the aliens.

One interesting sub-plot occurs when Lars picks up a pulp comic at a magazine stand and recognizes some of his weapons in the comic. Lilo does too, when he shows it to her. The tricky thing is, these are weapons they just concocted this week, while the comic has been on the stands for one or two months. So, are they stealing their ideas from a schizophrenic comic book writer?

Another major part of the plot occurs when some soldiers in DC happen upon a doddering old man talking about a major battle he helped win 60 some years ago — in 2005. He’s from the future. Time travel. Yep. (You also get androids in this novel too. Sci fi all the way, baby!) Klug, the old man, is taken to the authorities where they come to believe his story and set up Lilo and Lars to work with him to try and get a design for the real weapon that defeated the aliens all those years ago. Lilo is ineffective, but Lars “connects” with Klug while in his trance and finds the answers to his questions. The answer lies in a toy. I won’t give it away though.

Yet another sub-plot involves Surley G. Febbs, one of the funniest characters I’ve seen out of Dick. A severe narcissist with a plot to rule the world, he plays a role at the end, after you think the book has been tied up nicely. The thing that makes this work is, this actually ties the ending up nicely. It’s a fresh perspective for me, because one of my major complaints about Dick is that his endings always seem so rushed, so not-quite-finished. This ending works for me.

There’s sex, there’s a suicide, there’s hilarious terms Dick makes up for nearly everything, and underneath it all is the running satire of the real life arms race that people were frightened to death of during the time of the book’s writing. This isn’t Dick’s best book. In fact, some people don’t like it all that much. But I really enjoyed it and finished it in less than a day. It was that gripping. Recommended for all!

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A Review of Brennan’s War

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 6, 2013

Brennan's War: Vietnam 1965-1969: Brennan's War: Vietnam 1965-1969Brennan’s War: Vietnam 1965-1969: Brennan’s War: Vietnam 1965-1969 by Matthew Brennan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This wasn’t a bad book. In fact, it was fairly engrossing. It was fast paced and I read it in a day. The narrative is written so that it’s like a series of very short stories, mostly about the action Brennan encountered in Vietnam, where he served for four years. He signed back up for extended tours of duty twice because he couldn’t readjust to civilian society. Kind of sad.

He was with the 9th Armored Air Cav, in a unit called The Blues, which he paints as some kind of super-macho, better than Special Forces unit, which didn’t sit well with me. He was an artilleryman, an infantryman, and he wasn’t part of Special Forces. Still, he claimed to have taken part in over 419 battles of varying sizes, most recon or rescue missions.

Funny, but he seemed to think we were wiping the NVA/VC off the map until Tet, when he finally seemed to get a minor clue. His unit was near Hue during the fighting, but he didn’t actually engage them too much. Hue seems to be the turning point for him.

When he went back to the States for the second time, he was confronted with hippies and war protestors, which shocked him. Apparently, he wasn’t exposed to what America was going through while he was in the field. When he went back for his third tour, the men had changed to poorly trained, racist, dope smoking losers who he had no respect for, and by the time his tour was up, he’s anxious to get out. Of course, by this time, the NVA had real weapons and was using them to pound the American positions, something that finally got to his nerves.

He details accounts of bravery, but also of atrocities that should have been prosecuted. It’s a good book — it really is. The only reason I’m downgrading it from five stars to four is with the way he described his unit and their fighting prowess, America should have never lost the war. These platoons (platoons!!!) allegedly killed hundreds and thousands of NVA/VC all over the place and the killing never ends until the very end of the book. With soldiers like Brennan and his buddies, how could we have possibly lost this war??? Pretty hard to believe. Perhaps he enjoys taking license with the facts, I don’t know. It was just hard to swallow, knowing what I know. Nonetheless, it’s an interesting read and if you want a perspective from a grunt’s view in Vietnam, this isn’t a bad place to start. Cautiously recommended.

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Pens use 4-goal 2nd period to stop Sharks

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 6, 2013

San Jose Sharks vs. Pittsburgh Penguins – Recap – December 05, 2013 – ESPN.

We never beat San Jose! This is an awesome victory. Now we’re leading the Eastern Conference in points. That’s fantastic! And Sidney Crosby continues to lead the league in scoring with Evgeni Malkin in second place. This is shaping up to be a really good season, injuries permitting.

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