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Archive for January, 2016

A Review of A Fire Upon The Deep

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 31, 2016

A Fire Upon the Deep (Zones of Thought, #1)A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A Fire Upon The Deep has got to be the most ambitious book I have ever read. Especially so for a book a little over 600 pages long. It’s monster space opera unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, with concepts so “out there,” so advanced and complex that they are mind blowing, consciousness expanding, perhaps even life changing. Yet, this isn’t close to being a perfect book. It has some very serious flaws.

This book was published in 1992 and won the Hugo Award, perhaps deservedly, perhaps not. As I said, very ambitious. In it, there are “Zones of Thought” (The High Beyond, The Transcend, The Middle Beyond, The Low Beyond, The Slow Zone, etc.) in which the galaxy is separated into distinct “zones,” each of which is identified by its relative location to the galactic core and its ability to support various forms of advanced technology and faster-than-light travel. Somewhere in the universe is the Slow Zone, where it’s impossible to create sentient AI computers, and it’s impossible for FTL travel to work. That’s where Earth is located. Outside of that is the Beyond, where all types of alien races with FTL-travel exist and are trading and blabbering on about all sorts of crap via the Net, etc. The Beyond is broken loosely into the Low, Middle, and High Beyond, where gradually more and more advanced technology functions. If one tries to fly a High Beyond spaceship down into the Low Beyond, its more advanced functions will slowly and gradually shut down. Further out is the Transcend, where entities who have ‘transcended’ into god-like Powers dwell. They must remain in the Transcend (for the most part) to function. It’s much more complex that how I’m describing and frankly, at first, it’s a bit of a mind fuck and it took me a long, long time to get used to, but eventually I began to adjust. It’s just a very advanced notion and somewhere a cross between advanced super hard science and complete and total fantasy.

In the book, a group of cutting edge scientists investigating a five billion year-old data archive on a newly discovered planet that is actually quite ancient accidentally unleashes “the Blight,” a malignant super-intelligence/super-virus that ultra-quickly learns how to infiltrate and take control of computer systems and even living species and complete civilizations. These scientists desperately send a couple of spaceships away at the very end of their existence before their destruction at the hands of this Blight, with some of their people and some type of information that may stop the Blight from controlling and destroying potentially all galactic civilization. The last of those two surviving ships lands and is stranded on a planet with a warlike, medieval-level society of intelligent dog-like aliens called Tines. Two of the young human children who survive are taken by opposing forces of Tines, which eventually in time leads to a major conflict. One of these Tines, in control of a nine-year-old boy, gets into contact with a human scientist, convinces her the boy’s in deep trouble, going to be under attack by other Tines, is being helped by this Tine and friends and needs her help and technology, which she strives to provide. Meanwhile, she and others start racing the Blight and its minions through the galaxy to get to the Tines’ planet to rescue the boy and find out if the stranded ship really holds the key to stopping the Blight.

While the children, Johanna and Jefri Olsndot, are struggling to deal with the Tines, the superhuman intelligence/virus awakened at the scientists’ research lab, which has come to be known as the “Blight” or the “Straumli Perversion,” (based on the location and group of people who created it) begins to spread, destroying entire worlds, enslaving populations and civilizations, and killing several other “Powers” (super intelligences that abide in the top Zone that are hard to conceptualize throughout the entire book) in the process. Ravna Bergsndot, the female scientist in touch with Jefri, along with Pham Nuwen, a man from the Slow Zone who was recreated from ancient human parts and inhabited by a Power, and two Skroderiders, intelligent plants that ride on mechanical “skrodes” that support memory and mobility for their riders, take on the task of rescuing Jefri (who they believe is the only surviving human – they don’t know of his sister’s existence; neither does he) and recovering the suspected “countermeasure” to the Blight in Jefri’s ship at the Tines’ world at the bottom of the Beyond.

The book is one third hard science that is SO complex and so difficult and so far “out there” that it simply boggles the mind. The author, after all, is a mathematician and computer scientist, so it makes sense. It’s beyond complex and it made me feel quite stupid. At times, I wanted to give up because the concepts were so hard for me to even grasp that much of it felt like nonsensical babble. This is without doubt, as I already wrote, the most ambitious book I’ve ever read.

However, while it’s one third nearly beyond comprehension, it’s also one third quite a compelling story. If Vinge is capable of making his story remotely believable to the reader, it’s very engaging. An all encompassing super intelligence/virus that destroys entire worlds and is taking over the galaxy racing after a single spaceship crewed by two intelligent plants and two humans, traveling to a medieval planet of warring dogs who have captured two human children and who have in their control the sole potential weapon against this super intelligence in the galaxy in the children’s surviving ship. It’s tension filled. It has action. It has a certain degree of technology, now pathetically outdated, which I’ll get to and which is shocking. It has some form of “science.” The Tines Vinge creates as his primary alien race are quite interesting, very detailed, and described in depth with excellent character development. They are one of the better alien races and societies I have encountered in my sci fi readings over the years. Somewhat.

That said, the final third of my analysis of the book is that it’s total rubbish. My wife, who is an avid reader, scoffs at sci fi due to its “unbelievability.” I have tried to explain to her and differentiate for her sci fi “believability” versus believability before, but it’s a difficult concept to convey. For me, if the science in the book strikes me as potentially realistic and the characters act realistically – even if they are aliens – and the military action, strategy, and tactics – if military sci fi – is sound, then it’s believable sci fi. David Weber and Chris Bunch are two examples of believable military sci fi authors. Jack McDevitt is another example of another good example of a “believable” sci fi writer. Meanwhile, one of my favorite “unbelievable” sci fi writers is Philip K. Dick, who writes so over the top it’s ridiculous, but in my opinion, that’s okay because he knows it and makes no pretense about it. He’s not trying to fool anyone into believing his work is “hard” sci fi and therefore actually realistic and therefore to be taken seriously. So, it’s fine to read and enjoy him because you can take his books with a grain of salt for what they are and that’s that. Vinge, however, takes his work seriously, or at least attempts to make the reader believe so, and tries to write his Blight as believably as possible, all the while while it’s an intangible concept. How, exactly, does it literally destroy entire worlds? We only find out after it has mysteriously done so when it has sent hundreds or even thousands of ships it mysteriously now controls to Ravna’s planet to destroy it, in part because it’s a large “Net” (Internet, millions of years in the future – I’ll get to this) gateway that thousands of civilizations use for constant communication, most recently about the Blight, and it wants to do away with it. More difficult are the Tines. As advanced medieval dogs, they are hive mind-like packs of four to eight dogs who amazingly can do just about anything a single human can do, but even trying to get me to buy that is stretching things pretty far. For instance, how can dogs build stone castles complete with huge thick walls, dungeons, torture chambers, tunnels, etc., as well as entire cities? How can dogs literally get stone blocks big enough to construct castles and their walls into place and do it? How can dogs build and fire crossbows, literally? Vinge tries to describe how one dog holds it in his mouth (That straight? That steady? Honestly?) while another “loads” it with an arrow or bolt and another draws the string back and another shoots it, etc., but even with that attempt at describing their doing so, it doesn’t make it very believable for me. Field hospitals? How do dogs put up tents? Well, maybe their field hospitals don’t have tents. But the rest of the army have tents as living quarters, so literally, how do dogs put up tents? Boats, ships. How do dogs sail ships in the ocean? I’d like to see it. Seriously. I don’t think it can be done, no matter how big the damn pack is or how well it works together. They don’t have fucking opposable thumbs! Damn it Vinge, paws can’t do this shit and you can’t make me believe they can! What about Johanna’s laptop? They figure out the basic password and start using it. Literally. How can paws press keys? Wouldn’t a paw be too big to manipulate a small keyboard key? Literally? It’s not fucking believable! It’s simply not believable and that’s my biggest problem with this book. What about the Skroderiders? Even with the help of their magical skrodes, how exactly do fucking plants fly a spaceship? I know Vinge writes about their fronds, but are we REALLY supposed to buy the notion that plant fronds can fly a spaceship, especially better than their human counterparts? It’s fucking stupid as hell and it’s not remotely believable, therefore this book is utter rubbish.

One other major “issue” I take with Vinge and this book is the so-called technology this is based on. This book was published in 1992, largely pre-Web, but supposedly millions or even billions of years in the future when there are untold zillions of inhabited planets with thousands of species and civilizations. Yet, millions of years in the future, everyone – all of the species – are on the Galactic “Net,” short for Internet I assume, and I assume translated technologically by his “software” so we can all read the messages he relays for us. Because that’s what it is. Everyone, millions of years in the future, uses Newsgroups and posts thousands of messages to tons of Newsgroups an hour. It’s Usenet news, an Internet feature I used to really love back in the 1980s and ‘90s and part of the Internet that comprised its major function (besides email) until the Web came along in the early 1990s. By the mid to late ‘90s, Usenet was largely ignored, and by the 2000s, most people using the Internet had never heard of Usenet news or newsgroups. It’s beyond obsolete now. Indeed, back in the ‘90s, when I got a new ISP, which I did frequently, one of my key questions in signing up was about the existence of their news server, which was important to me. Over the past decade, however, as more and more ISPs are actually cable companies and other types of broadband companies, whenever I have asked a company representative about their news server, I get silence on the other end of the phone before they stumble around, claiming they don’t know anything about what I’m talking about and they don’t have any such thing. And it’s true. These companies no longer have news servers and I don’t even know how to access Usenet newsgroups anymore, although I suppose if I seriously wanted to, I could research it and figure out a way. My point, however, is that the author wants us to seriously believe that he had the scientific and technological foresight to predict that millions or billions of years in the future, thousands of species would be using Usenet newsgroups to post tens of thousands of messages, which he so diligently copies as authentically as he can in this book, when he can’t even predict the fact that about one year after his book’s publication – one year! – the World Wide Web would render Usenet obsolete and 15 years later, Usenet would be a thing of the past and would be largely unknown to most of humanity. Yet millions are years in the future, it’s still so fucking cutting edge, it’s the technological medium of choice for communicating between people/aliens on various worlds/ships throughout the galaxy. He seriously wants us to believe that over millions of years, no civilization or species has come up with a better or at least different method of technology or technological communication than Usenet? Are you fucking kidding me? When the Web, just one year later, obliterates Usenet on its founding planet alone? Oh yeah, and Net access is so insanely expensive that most can’t afford it! Most people/entities can’t afford to watch an important 400 second encrypted video because it’s so expensive. Seriously? Millions of years in the future, bytes are so hard to come by, that it costs more than a spaceship you’re flying in costs to access the Net and check Usenet news messages? OMFG. So, how stupid is Vinge then, really? Is he the most insanely stupid sci fi writer who has ever existed? To make such a bold prediction of future technology when short term facts wipe his book out in one year? He’s a FUCKING IDIOT and I have no idea how the hell this book won a Hugo! This book, while inventive and complex, doesn’t even deserve two stars for this fact alone! It’s fucking technologically obsolete, not only as I write this in 2016, but in 1993, and certainly millions of years from now. Can’t anyone see that? Holy shit!

So, final thoughts. Big book, not in length, but in ambition and thought. It’s an interesting story, at times well told, at times complete and utter bullshit. It’s inventive and complex. I felt like I was either on or needed LSD to survive it at times. I’ve never read anything like it. And while, at times, I largely enjoyed it, I was so put off by the Usenet news obsolete technology DISASTER Vinge wrote and by the total unbelievability of the book that I’ve got to mark this down from, at best, a four star book to perhaps a two star book. It deserves more in one way, but its mistakes and errors deserve one star, to be perfectly honest, so I’m compromising. Even though I normally wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone and certainly not to anyone not well versed in sci fi literature, if you are a sci fi vet and want a unique experience, I would probably try this book out. It’s that unusual. But on the whole, I just can’t recommend it because it has too many problems. Therefore, not recommended.

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My Emancipation From American Christianity | john pavlovitz

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 30, 2016

Source: My Emancipation From American Christianity | john pavlovitz

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A Review of Bill, The Galactic Hero

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 28, 2016

Bill, the Galactic Hero (Bill, #1)Bill, the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This Starship Troopers/Catch-22 anti-military, anti-war satire is one of the most depressing, bleakest books I have ever read in my life. When I started reading it, I thought, how amusing. How over the top. How funny. Poor Bill. Poor hick. Drugged and forced to enlist as an imperial trooper. Forced to fight in a stupid war he knows nothing about, doing nothing, eating crap, doing useless crap, training for nothing, when in action accidentally saving his ship from obliteration, becoming a hero, getting a hollow medal, getting robbed, going AWOL accidentally, on the run, finding help, becoming an informer, everyone is, how fun, off to prison, on trial to be shot to death, off to prison camp, is there any point, is there any future, is there any hope, oh holy shit, there’s not, holy fucking shit, he’s a fucking monster, damn!!!

I know this book was published in 1965 when the Vietnam “conflict” was becoming an actual war, following on the heels of the failed Korean War and when men were being drafted, perhaps not too unlike in this book, as Harrison sees it. And perhaps it’s all too similar, per Harrison’s viewpoint. I won’t dispute that. And as Eager Beager, the Chigger spy says, we can’t be civilized if all we like to do is fight wars. True dat. But crap, to have Bill end up like he does is fucking cruel to him and the reader. It’s brutal. I guess that’s carrying things through to the logical viciously satirical conclusion though. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it. At some point in the book, I found I enjoyed the humor a great deal less than I once did and therefore enjoyed the book a great deal less than I once did. It became more of an effort to read. It became a chore I had to get through. It became a tasteless task and I didn’t like that. Some people rave about this book. I guess I can see why some people might. These are the same people who like Catch-22, etc. I won’t deny the genius of Catch-22, but I can’t put this on the same level as that book for some reason. I just don’t think it matches up, but then it’s been so long since I’ve read that book, I really can’t remember. Perhaps I now have to reread it.

This book isn’t bad, per se. It’s certainly unique. There are funny moments, especially early on, like when all of the recruits have to stand and wait hours in the ship’s fuse room, ready to lift and replace 90 pound fuses in case of action, only to feel virtually nothing before being informed they’ve been in action and have destroyed the enemy with atomic torpedoes and they’re getting medals. They get medals for everything. It’s sad that Bill ultimately realizes that suicide is really the only way out. Sad because it seems to be the solution realized by so many of our current military servicemen and women, as well as our vets. It’s truly tragic. I wonder how much foresight Harrison truly had. He’s so over the top in skewering the military and makes the leaders out to be such blithering idiots, but how far from the truth is he? And the grunts just follow the orders upon pain of death. Yeah, it’s funny, but like I said, at some point, the humor wears thin and then it just becomes painful. During Bill’s trial, when the court just wants him shot regardless of evidence. When he’s sent to the prison camp, the second one, where no one escapes and everyone dies. And he does what he has to do. It’s fucking gruesome and damned depressing. I’m sorry, but that’s not funny. So, as much as I’ve enjoyed some of Harrison’s books and as interesting and unique and at times, funny, as I think this book is, I don’t think I can’t recommend it. Sorry to all the fans out there. Not recommended.

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A Review of The Excalibur Alternative

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 25, 2016

The Excalibur Alternative (Earth Legions, #3)The Excalibur Alternative by David Weber
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Honestly, I initially had a hard time getting into this book. It was a struggle. But it was Weber and he’s usually quite good, so I kept slogging on and am I ever glad I did. By the time I was halfway through, I knew it was pretty good. By the time I was 75% of the way through, I was convinced it was damn brilliant. By the time I finished late last night, I was convinced I had just finished one of the best military sci fi novels I had ever read and I’m deeply disappointed there is apparently no sequel. I actually feel honored to have read such a masterpiece! This was a true work of art. Weber can tell a story like no other and while he can get bogged down in infodumps and can drive readers nutty with irritating habits, such as using stupid names and titles and reusing the same words over and over again (people “nod” and “shrug” and “bare their teeth” and “pinch the bridge of their nose” in most of his novels), it’s less frequent in this book than in most of his other books, for which I was grateful.

The synopsis of this book lies in a small fleet of 14th Century English knights and their army on their way to fight in France, fighting for their lives in a bad storm and losing the battle. With half the fleet having been lost and the remaining ships about to go down, an alien spacecraft from the Galactic Federation rescues Sir George Wincaster and his army of knights and longbowmen from certain death at sea and forces the Englishmen to act as slave/mercenaries to fight intergalactic battles against other “primitive” species throughout the universe on various planets where advanced weapons are banned. Sir George is a master tactician and is told by his “Commander” that he and his people will die if they lose a battle, so they have an incentive to win – every time – and they do. Over and over again. And they and their families go into “stasis” sleep during flights between planets, thus living hundreds of years while aging merely several years at a time, all the while hating their “demon-jester” Commander who kills their fellows as “object lessons” and has other alien species as guards and a godlike colleague named “Computer” who can monitor the humans’ conversations and converse with them virtually anywhere, but ensures that they must watch what they say at all times.

Apparently, there are 22 “civilized” races or I guess civilizations in the Federation overseeing hundreds of barbaric protectorics or other types of planets, all of which are subject to complete annihilation at the hands of the Federation with no qualms whatsoever, as the inhabitants of these planets, as barbaric uncivilized nonentities, are fortunate to even be allowed to live at the pleasure of the Federation. Earth, however presents a problem because it has and can develop technologically faster than most other civilizations and represents a long term potential threat.

Sir George and his people desperately want their freedom, desperately want to kill their ruthless and thoughtless and brutal Commander and to their surprise, some 350 years into their adventures, one of the alien species acting as guards on the gigantic ship they are on present a tiny possible way to do this, but they have to act quickly and decisively and if they fail, they all die. Additionally, Earth will almost certainly die and they will have to join this “dragon-man” species in finding a new planet to colonize and create a new human colony for the race to begin over again. It’s a very tense moment in the book.

I won’t describe what happens next, but it’s climactic, to a certain degree. But there’s more. Jump ahead hundreds of years. To Earth, which has been in contact with the Federation for over 100 years and which has been using antiquated Federation technology to build its own Navy as quickly as possible, knowing they can never match the Federation’s military capability. Fast forward to a Federation ultimatum put to Earth’s government which they are willing to meet, only to be told, off the record, by the local Federation fleet admiral that nothing they do will be acceptable, that they are to be exterminated. The human admiral is devastated, knowing the human race is literally about to be wiped out forever and ever, within hours. Can anything possibly save humanity? Can anyone or anything stand against the Federation?

It’s a quick, climactic ending to the book after a long, drawn out build up to this point, and that’s a little disappointing, but the duel ending, while short and sweet, does not at all disappoint and it’s pretty damn awesome. Could the Federation actually be in trouble and not even know it? Pretty awesome if that’s true. A lot of stuff is explained at the end of the book, classic Weber infodump which I actually didn’t mind for once, but what it amounted to was hope for the future and a personal hope and desire for a damn sequel, which I’m not getting. So that blows. But suffice it to say that the ending, again, while rushed, was eminently satisfying and partially mind blowing. No, completely mind blowing. I loved it! This isn’t Weber’s best book at all, but quite good, very good. But as a stand alone, especially, it’s quite excellent and very enjoyable and, for me, it’s a strong five star book and well worth the read. Definitely recommended!

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A Review of I Am Malala

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 24, 2016

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the TalibanI Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I finished I Am Malala a few weeks ago and have put off writing a review for it for quite awhile because I was so overwhelmed by it. It had so much information, was so well written, was so emotional. Malala herself was so impressive, had so much incredible courage, as did her father, both of whom are lucky to be alive, is such a wonderful ambassador of Islam, is such an incredible ambassador of women’s/girl’s rights’ to education the world over, particularly in Pakistan. And she wrote this book at age 15, right before she won the Nobel Peace Prize. She’s frankly a most stunningly impressive person, a person destined for a lifetime of greatness, someone who has already accomplished more in her short years than most people do in their entire lives. This book was an amazing read. It was all encompassing. It was stunning. It was revealing. It was damning and indicting. It was amazing. And I’m again stunned that both she and her father remain alive. Her whole family is very lucky. I wanted to write a comprehensive plot synopsis and review, but I found one on Goodreads that does as good a job as any I myself could write, so I’m going to post it here myself, giving full credit to the author, one “Jean,” written December 30, 2015, and say it’s a darn good synopsis and the only disagreement I have with the author is she only gives the book four stars. For me, it’s easily a five star book. Easily. I would give it six stars if I could. Hell, ten. Twenty. It’s one of the best biographies I’ve ever read and I think one of the most important contemporary biographies one could hope to read. This is a book I’ve already purchased and given to others and my wife is giving a copy to her mother this week. Hopefully, she too will pass it on to another when she is done with it. Malala is a most impressive person, one of the most impressive people I’ve ever encountered. We saw her interviewed on a show a couple of years ago and that’s how we first came across her. We were impressed with her then and only now finally read her book. It’s a shame we waited so long. I hope she continues to make a global impact on young womens’ education rights and anything else she can influence. I wish her continued luck and success. And I hope to read another book by her in the future. It can only be excellent if it continues in this tradition she has established here. I can’t recommend this book more strongly. Most highly recommended. Five stars easily.

 

 

 

Dec 30, 2015 Jean rated it really liked it
Recommended to Jean by: Angela M
Shelves: non-fiction, auto-and-biography, religion-and-beliefs

A few days prior to her 18th birthday, Malala Yousafzai has returned to Oslo, to attend the Oslo Education Summit, insisting that all children worldwide have a right to education. Her defiant slogan claims, “Books not Bullets!”

Malala claims, “I measure the world in hope, not doubt” and “Pens and books are the weapons that defeat terrorism”. Last year in Oslo, Malala was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with another child rights activist, Kailash Satyarthi. They were honoured “for their struggle against the suppression of children and young people and for the right of all children to education”. At 17, Malala was the youngest person ever to receive this award; Malala Yousafzai is indeed a determined and remarkable person. In this book, I am Malala: the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban, she tells her incredible story.

The book is an absorbing read, an amalgam of Malala’s own memoir, plus a history of the troubled country of Pakistan. Most readers will have lived through some – if not all – of the times described, unlike the author, startlingly only 15 herself when she wrote it. To many of us this is not “history” but merely remembrance of current events happening elsewhere in the world during our lifetimes. Could she have a proper grasp of such complex issues of current affairs?

Malala is fluent in Pashto, English, and Urdu. She is articulate, brave, compassionate, informed, driven – and very focused. Growing up at the heart of an area targeted by the Taliban, she had a unique experience living under a developing regime of terror. When Osama Bin Laden was eventually discovered in hiding, it was, to everyone’s shock, just a few miles away from where Malala herself lived. Along with the guidance and influence Malala’s activist father has had on her, perhaps she was destined to become the person she is.

The book starts with a prologue, briefly describing the day when she was shot, from Malala’s point of view. The name “Malala” means “grief-stricken”. Malala was named after Malalai of Maiwand, a famous Pashtun poetess and warrior woman from southern Afghanistan. It was an unusual name, which many thought to be unlucky or inappropriate.

Reading her account, it is clear that her father knew from the start that there would be something different about this child. Malala was allowed to stay up at night and listen to all his political conversations with his friends, long after her two brothers had been sent to bed. She was encouraged to read and think; to have a mind of her own.

The Yousafzai family were part of a large Pashtun tribe in the Swat Valley in Pakistan. Her family consisted of her father Ziauddin and her mother and two younger brothers. They were very poor, but part of a strong community in Mingora. There were comparatively few modern amenities such as running water and electricity; waste disposal and disease were a big problem, but the valley itself was lush and beautiful, and Malala thought her home was wonderful.

This first part of Malala’s story is entitled “Before the Taliban”. Malala describes her grandparents and parents’ history, how events had shaped each generation in her family. There was her father, an outspoken poet and education activist, who overcame his chronic shyness to learn public speaking to impress his own father. There was her more traditional, uneducated mother, who too began school at the age of six – but stopped before the term was over. Malala includes many family anecdotes, explaining the varying cultural mores as she does so, and interspersing the account with the troubled political history.

The section has 8 chapters, and is over a third of the book. It takes the reader carefully though all the difficulties Pakistan has faced since its creation on 14th August 1947. Malala relates the views of her people, who regretted the loss of Swat’s identity when it joined Pakistan. Additionally, the creation of a “home for Muslims” within Pakistan’s boundaries was established too hastily, inevitably resulting in other faiths such as Hindus fleeing across the border to India. Economic chaos ensued, and peace has never yet come about.

Since then, Pakistan has suffered under various regimes. There have been three Indo-Pakistan wars, several military coups, and numerous unsuccessful attempts at a military coup. The regime has lurched between military rule and democracy, between dictatorships and brief periods when a Prime Minister such as Benazir Bhutto was in power. She served two terms, but was eventually killed, clearly assassinated, although Malala carefully chronicles the muddled events. Pakistan has had varying degrees of both political and police corruption and is in constant turmoil.

It is remarkable that any normal life can survive such conditions, but the life Malala describes is a happy one. Her father’s greatest love apart from his family was the Khushal Public School which he established. The values of education ring clear and true throughout, having been instilled in Malala from a very early age. She also begins to develop her own opinions, drawing from her experience.

One shocking episode helped to crystallise her views. Malala came across some scavenger children, who lived inside a huge mountain of rubbish. They had matted filthy hair, were dirty, diseased and covered with sores and lice. Picking out cans, bottle tops, glass and paper from the rotting pile of rubbish, they would sell them to a garbage shop for a few rupees, barely enough to live on. Malala begged her father to take a couple of these starving children into his school without pay, and inwardly vowed that she would work as hard as she could towards a time when every one of those children would have an education by right. In the meantime she wrote a letter to God, and sent it down the Swat river.

Towards the end of this first section, it is apparent that the Taliban’s influence had begun to be felt in the Swat valley. Across the border in Afghanistan, the Taliban had enforced a very strict interpretation of Sharia, or Islamic law. In horror folk learned of the massacres, the brutality towards women, the denial of food to ordinary people, the burning of homes, crops and land.

Malala explains that the majority of the Taliban were made up of Afghan Pashtun tribesmen, simple ignorant people who had always been looked down on by many educated people, including those poor themselves, such as Malala’s family. Recruits were resentful of any who had advantages, such as good jobs, and easily influenced by a fundamentalist idea of Islam. Seeing an opportunity to seize power, with weapons in their hands, they took it. There were many variations of interpretation of Islam present in Pakistan, not to mention other religions, but Malala’s people could see others fleeing for their very lives as the regime continued. They were equally suspicious of the US, thinking that they inflamed the situation, causing innocent casualties.

The local “Mufti”, a religious leader, was making decisions for the whole community. He was very critical of Malala’s father’s school; the girls should not be seen, they must be segregated. They should not learn certain inappropriate subjects. He made increasingly outrageous statements, such as that Ziauddin was running a “harem” in his school. Purdah was insisted upon for younger girls, and more strictly. The Mufti was determined to enforce his own brand of Islam; individual interpretation was quashed.

The section ends in 2005, when a massive earthquake in Pakistan killed over 70,000 people. Fundamentalists seized on this as a sort of punishment, a seal of approval on all their edicts.

The second part is entitled, “The Valley of Death. Malala is now 10 years old, and she describes the arrival of the Taliban in her village. A self-proclaimed Taliban leader named Maulan Fazlullah had risen to power, through a popular local radio station in Swat, appealing mostly to the ignorant and uneducated. In his radio broadcasts he offered instruction on how to obey the Quran. He soon had many followers – including Malala’s own mother. His demands became more strident and fanatical, calling for an end to televisions, DVDs, and other modern technology. The public humiliations began of anyone who didn’t obey his interpretation of the law, including women who did any work outside the home.

The 7 chapters in this section are primarily about the suppression of the people of Swat, and the growth of Taliban influences. Some of the episodes referred to – the beatings, the beheadings – are harrowing, despite this being seen through the eyes of a young girl. Malala’s education continues, but the reader is wondering for how long this can continue. Many girls have been taken away from the school and sometimes Malala is the only girl in her class. Very competitive, she has two close friends, equally clever.

As time passes it becomes increasingly difficult for Malala to study. Military tanks are in evidence everywhere. On one occasion, travelling in a relative’s car, the driver panicked, asking her to hide a CD of music in her clothes. Malala often began to feel afraid when on the streets, imagining that every man she met was a member of the Taliban. She and her friends stopped wearing their school uniforms and hid their books as they travelled to and from school. The beatings and beheadings continued. A nearby school was bombed during a prayer service in honour of a fallen police officer.

When Malala is 11, she is approached by the BBC who feel that a child’s viewpoint would be very significant. She is asked to write an anonymous blog about her life, and chooses the pseudonym “Gul Makai”. People she knows, including some of the girls at school discover it but she wisely keeps it secret. The Taliban’s powers are increasing. They have instructed families to send them the names of marriageable women, so that marriages can be arranged for them. They have announced a date in 2009, by which all girls’ schools must be closed, yet Malala keeps hoping that something will prevent this. She becomes bolder and more confident, being taken in 2008 by her father to Peshawar to speak at the local press club. She has written a clear and passionate speech, “How dare the Taliban take away my basic right to education?”

Inevitably though, the final day of school arrives. Malala cannot believe it; her books are her proudest possessions. She is followed around by a camera crew from the New York Times, making a documentary. Her life seems empty without school, and increasingly the family are living in fear of their very lives. Malala compares their existence to a family of which she has just read, in “Anne Frank’s Diary”. Deciding they will have to leave their home, Malala’s family, like many others, flee to relatives. Others flee to friends, even though this means that in some homes the males have to leave. The Pashtun tradition of hospitality conflicts with the belief that an unmarried female should not reside in the same home as a male who is not her relative, but they respect both principles. Malala goes to school again with a cousin. She is now 12 years old, although everybody is living in too much turmoil to mark her birthday in the way they always had.

The third part is entitled, “Three Bullets, Three Girls”. We know what this section is going to be about, but now we also feel we know the girl herself; her history, and how her individual experience slots into the mess and bloodshed that is Pakistan’s inheritance.

It is three months later, and Malala’s family return home to find much of their village destroyed during the battles. The Taliban has gone, the Pakistani Prime Minister promises, but many people don’t believe it. Some return and eventually school resumes, but many stay away. During these 5 chapters, Malala’s beliefs become more fully formed. She wonders what it would be like to leave school at 13 to be married, just as one of her classmates has.

The climate of opinion changes. There are still tanks on every street corner, machine guns posted on rooftops, checkpoints all along a route, but now people blame the US. Why were they still there, 3 years later? There was even outrage at the American raid that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. The details were unclear. Why had the US conducted the raid on their own, without telling the Pakistanis or seeking help from them? Conspiracy theories abound. Had the Americans perhaps even actually killed bin Laden years earlier?

Clearly the Taliban are still present, carrying out atrocities very close to their home. On Malala’s 14th birthday, when she is officially considered to be an adult, the family learn that one of Ziauddin’s outspoken friends has been attacked. Malala agrees to follow her mother’s advice, and even though the school is so close, she takes a rickshaw to school, and the bus home.

The section ends with the shooting which made world headlines. On 9th October 2012, a Taliban gunman shot Malala through the head, neck, and shoulder as she rode home from school on the bus after taking an exam. Although Malala can remember very little about it, being preoccupied with her own thoughts, the masked gunman apparently shouted, “Which one of you is Malala? Speak up, otherwise I will shoot you all”. Her identity became obvious, at which point he shot at her. Two of her friends, Kainat Riaz and Shazia Ramzan, were also wounded, but survived.

Part four is entitled, “Between Life and Death”. It contains just 2 chapters, about a time of which Malala can remember very little. Immediately following the attack, she was rushed to Swat Central Hospital. There she remained unconscious, in a critical condition. The political machinations behind the scenes continued. The chapters give clinical details, and credit one doctor, “Dr Fiona”, for preventing Malala’s death when staff neglected to follow specialist procedures necessary for the brain and body to recover. She insisted that Malala be sent to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, UK for intensive rehabilitation. Her parents were not able to travel to see their daughter, due to protocol. What comes across to the reader is the ignorance apparent at every level, but also a sense that it is possible for individuals to overcome this, even when the odds seem stacked against them.

The final, fifth part “A Second Life” also consists of 2 chapters. Malala now tells of her recovery more from her personal experience. By 17th October, she had come out of her coma and begun to repond. She was terribly worried about the cost of her treatment, thinking that her father would have to sell his land. She still had not been able to see her father. Eventually everything progressed to the point where the Pakistani government paid for her treatment, she was able to be visited by her family, and best of all, she had no lasting brain damage, only nerve damage.

On 3 January 2013, Malala was discharged from the hospital to continue rehabilitation at her family’s temporary home. On 2nd February she had a five-hour operation to reconstruct her skull and restore her hearing. Since March 2013, she has been a pupil at the all-girls’ Edgbaston High School in Birmingham. Although happy there, she evidently misses her old life, and would love to go home some day. She realises that her new classmates regard her as a children’s rights activisit, but sometimes longs to just be the normal simple Pashtun girl of old, in Minora …

The co-author of this book is Christina Lamb, a British journalist who is currently Foreign Correspondent for the Sunday Times. Her credentials for helping to write this particular book are impeccable. She first interviewed Pakistan’s Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto in London in 1987. She then continued her work as foreign correspondent in Pakistan, journeying through Kashmir and along the frontiers of neighbouring Afghanistan. She has interviewed the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Always working in war-torn countries, she was even once deported back home. Commenting on the worsening devastation and destruction by the president Robert Mugabe and the Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front since she started reporting from Zimbabwe in 1994, she maintains that this has been her most harrowing experience.

In 2006, Lamb was reporting from Southern Afghanistan, meeting with town elders. The team were then supposedly directed to a safe route out, but soon after they had left, the British were attacked by Taliban fighters. Anyone who experienced running through irrigation trenches, with Kalashnikov rifles and mortar firing from all directions, for two and a half hours, is well qualified to co-author this book. Immediately after this book she wrote another about her many years in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She is critical of many missed opportunities by the US, to help resolve the long war, blaming the poor relationship US has with Pakistan for many of the continuing problems of terrorism.

Interestingly it is possible to see the seeds of that book within this one. Often the voice of Malala seems critical of the US, and their inability to be effective, even a mistrust of American troops. But whose is the underlying voice? It is impossible to really know.

Other parts of the book suggest the hand of an experienced foreign affairs correspondent. The indepth knowledge of both contemporary issues and the country’s history and political situation, as well as of the many different tribes, languages and customs within each region, is so very extensive. The issues are complex and quite difficult for the general reader, only aware of the basic schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims, to assimilate.

The roots of the split are ancient, originating in a dispute soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. Sunni Muslims such as Malala’s family follow the orthodox and traditionalist branch of Islam, which takes as its precedent the actions of the Prophet Muhammad. Shia Muslims are followers of Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, whom they claim as Muhammad’s successor, believing that only God has the prerogative to appoint the successor to his prophet. But there are massively complex distinctions between all the different factions within both Sunni and Shia. Could the complicated issues explored all be Malala’s work?

However Malala is an erudite speaker and writer. I have no doubt that the views, anecdotes, and probably the structure of the book are hers, and that the passion with which she explains her views is hers alone. It is well balanced, her own experience set within the ongoing political situation. But perhaps there is slightly too much input from history to make the memoir flow easily. Malala is a courageous, intelligent, indefatigable person. I would have loved to say this book merits 5 stars. It very nearly does, and I have a sneaky feeling that if she is ever inspired by events in her life to write a book again, it probably will.

The subtitle of the book is, “the girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban.” Malala insists that surviving being shot in the head is not what she wants people to focus on, but the issues of children’s rights, women’s education and world peace. Surely that is what we should take away from reading this book.

“Our people have become misguided. They think their greatest concern is defending Islam and are being led astray by those like the Taliban who deliberately misinterpret the Quran … We have so many people in our country who are illiterate. And many women have no education at all. We live in a place where schools are blown up. We have no reliable electricity supply. Not a single day passes without the killing of at least one Pakistani.”

 

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A Review of Edge

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 22, 2016

Edge (Josh Cumberland, #1)Edge by Thomas Blackthorne
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

In a word: stupid. The book. And myself. Let me tell you how insipid I am. I got sucked in by the cool book cover. As did a ton of other people, apparently. As Eh?Eh! said in their Goodreads review of 2/14/11, “knives!, duel!, blood!, hell!, legalised (because we’re in Britain) knife fights!, blood!, black!, endless winter!, two people!, save!, this is their story!” Yep, that’s pretty good. Someone named “Megan” wrote in her Goodreads review of 10/16/11, “I’m not going to lie, I bought this book for the cover. I didn’t read the blurb, I didn’t read the first page, all of the little steps that bridge the gap between a book and my bookshelves flew out the window in the face of that cover. Knife fights! Blood! Duels! Sounds most excellent to me. When the book arrived I dared to think I had been rewarded for my rash purchase. The back blurb promised a dystopic future Britain where knife fighting had been legalised and where a giant wall had been erected around the city. Sounds very awesome, yes? At the very least it sounds finishable, and yet I barely made it half way through.”

And yet, to continue quoting Megan, “Let’s start with the book’s main conceit: Knife fighting: it’s legal! Why? Pfft, we don’t need to know a silly little thing like that, do we? And honestly, I would have been happy with minimal explanation of why knife fighting (to the death, mind you) was legal, if we actually got to see some, you know, knife fighting. As I said, I made it to the midway point, and not once had anyone actually had a fight involving knives. There was a lot of posturing and ‘why sir, you have offended me! I demand satisfaction!’ going on, but actual knife fighting? Not so much. I’m not saying that nothing happened, but it did feel like Blackthorne (I vaguely recall that this is a well known author’s alias, but can’t for the life of me remember who…) completely wasted the potential of his world. Here’s this big brotherish dystopic future London, but not one of the events of the first half of the book couldn’t have taken place in a book set in current day London. What’s the point of cool futuristic setting if you don’t make the most of it? Or at least something of it?”

So, this book is supposed to be a sci fi book, I guess of a dystopian near-future Britain where knife fighting/dueling to the death has been legalized, although I have no idea why. Apparently, there is a giant wall surrounding either the entire island of Britain or London, it’s hard to tell. There’s really no mention of it in the book either than on the back cover. And one of the key characters is some type of therapist we meet early on, Suzanne, I believe. She has a unique ability to hypnotize anyone within seconds and cure them of practically anything and even improve them through this process. The author does this thing where she talks to her patients and somehow her words simply fix whatever is wrong with them, or make them think in a whole new way, seemingly like magic. She’ll say something like “you are no longer shy, etc.” and suddenly, no more shyness for that character. It’s completely unbelievable. Since Blackthorne has taken great pains to set this book in the “real” world, given the dystopian unreality of things, this strikes me as odd and hard to believe. Superhuman traits. Doesn’t make sense.

But then there’s the superhuman ex-soldier, Josh Cumberland, who is hired by a rich dolt to track down his missing son, Richard. Richard is “hoplophobic,” meaning he’s afraid of knives, which isn’t very helpful if you’re living in a society where people can challenge you to a knife duel at any moment. He goes missing after his first therapy session with Suzanne, who was hired by Richard’s father to rid him of his phobia. Suzanne and Josh team up to find Richard and things progress from there just like any romance/action movie.

A lot of people complain that Josh is simply a Jason Bourne clone. I don’t know. I don’t know because I gave up before I got far enough in the book to find out. I just thought the book was too stupid to continue. There weren’t any knife fights. Suzanne’s powers were too Justice League. Josh was an action figure. Britain was 1984. What was the point? I didn’t derive any satisfaction out of reading any of this. I thought the author was somewhat clumsy at writing this, as though his scenes were written hastily, going for shock value in lieu of something more solid. It’s hard to describe, but it felt a little amateurish to me. The cover looked so cool and the blurbs on the front and back made it sound so cool and I got sucked in by them and I feel like an idiot, because that’s not usually what happens to me. Oh well. Live and learn. I won’t be buying anything by this author again. Stupid premise, stupid book. Not recommended.

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A Review of The Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 21, 2016

The Life and Times of Grigorii RasputinThe Life and Times of Grigorii Rasputin by Alex De Jonge
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Grigorii Rasputin was a real enigma. Was he a true holy man? Was he a mere charlatan? Was he the “mad monk?” Was he a con man? Did he indeed have supernatural powers? Was he merely a sex fiend who used his position to take advantage of women throughout imperial Russia?

This biography attempts to answer these questions and more. Unfortunately, it bogs down somewhere in the middle and gets repetitive and somewhat dull, so it’s relatively hard to slog all the way through, honestly, but it’s an honest look at an infamous character from history who I always wanted to learn about, so that’s a good thing.

Rasputin was born a poor peasant in Siberia, where he always gravitated back to, and gravitated toward the spiritual, like so many of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Russians. Some were Orthodox. Many were sects that had split off and were frankly doing their own thing, some quite odd. Many seemed quite insane. Most had ardent disciples as that period of Russia had a great deal of people undergoing spiritual searches and there were many people going on pilgrimages throughout the country and there were many monasteries where people would stop for spiritual retreats. Rasputin, though married with children, engaged in this behavior, and went on years-long pilgrimages, traveling throughout the country, as well as to the Holy Land, and he came to be viewed as a holy man who prayed frequently and who had supernatural powers, including the power of healing and the power of prescience. The author does not make too many attempts to confirm or deny these powers, but does acknowledge that apparently there were many witnesses to confirm his abilities in these areas, so it’s difficult to deny them.

Rasputin made his way to the capital with the help of influential friends he made over time, people who became benefactors and disciples, most of whom were women. He had power over women which was to manifest itself through his entire life. He had powerful, hypnotic eyes with which he could force people – women – to do whatever he wanted them to do, typically engage in sexual acts with him. He was a sex maniac. He would have parties at his place, dinner parties, although he didn’t eat meat, or wine parties, and would take women back to his bedroom one at a time and have sex with them although everyone could hear him/them and everyone would talk about what a great man he was, about how spiritual he was, about what a great healer he was, about how wise he was, about how he should be sainted by the church (???), all the while, while he was persuading women both single and married to have sex of all types with him whether they wanted to or not, and if they did not, he would often simply rape them. Sometimes he would tell them they had to sin in order to be forgiven by God. He could excuse everything using God; he was mentally quick.

He somehow came to the attention of the tsar and tsarina through very complicated and complex ways and met them finally, he a simple peasant “holy man” who refused to change his ways for anyone, royal or not. He ate with his fingers, for God’s sake, and felt his beard eliminated the need for a napkin. He spoke with the Romanavs and they came away impressed. They had several children, the youngest one, a small boy, was quite ill with a disease that made his leg bleed to the point where it could kill him if not treated quickly and even then, it only stopped the bleeding, it didn’t cure it. The tsarina was beside herself.

She had heard of Rasputin’s alleged healing powers and asked him about it. Her son was suffering. Rasputin laid his hand on the boy, prayed, told her the boy would be fine, and he got better overnight. That did it. Rasputin was part of the inner circle. And that automatically pissed off the aristocrats of the city and country.

The royal family started having Rasputin over on a semi-regular basis, when he wasn’t traveling back to Siberia, and the chief of the secret police put a dossier together of his dalliances and presented it to Tsar Nicholas, only to be rebuffed. The tsar wasn’t thrilled with Rasputin’s behavior, but he wasn’t about to risk his wife’s wrath by doing anything with her favorite person and his son’s savior, so he buried the information and did nothing. This happened several times. Meanwhile, Rasputin both continued to gain disciples as his fame grew, especially as he came to be known as the peasant who had made it in court, and his original religious backers started to back away from him, horrified of his sins of the flesh, which he barely hid, if at all.

Something else happened a little later that cemented his position even more. The tsar and his family traveled to Germany while Rasputin was in Siberia. Their son became seriously ill and they attempted to travel back to Russia for medical aid, but couldn’t make it home. They were forced to stop prematurely and it appeared their son would die. He was given last rites and out of desperation, the tsarina called Rasputin in Siberia and pleaded with him to heal her son. He asked for a couple of hours and said he’d call her back. He prayed diligently, by all accounts, called her back and told her that her son would be healed and live and hung up. Her son recovered, lived, was healed, they returned home, and from that point on, Rasputin could never again do any wrong in her eyes, nor even in the eyes of the tsar, no matter how much “evidence” of wrong doing was laid in front of his eyes by jealous competitors, security personnel, and religious personalities.

All of this is interesting to a certain degree, but at the same time, there’s a certain degree of redundancy in the book leading up to this point. The author goes on and on about the women, the parties, the travels, the sects, Siberia, the Russian political system, etc. Frankly, it got a little boring. I made it to page 214 out of 341 pages before deciding I had gotten a good enough picture of Rasputin. After all, he never was given an actual title. He had by this time gotten nearly as much power as he would ever have. I know he would be assassinated and by whom. What would the final 125 pages have to say that would keep me riveted? I had had a hard enough time getting to page 214, reading five other books, some longer, while reading these 200+ pages, simply due to boredom. Maybe if another author had tackled the subject, it would have been more interesting, I don’t know. Or perhaps Rasputin isn’t, after all, all that interesting of a historical personage. I don’t know. I’m a little disappointed. I’m not sure what to think. He was interesting, certainly. But I feel like he was lucky, a pervert, a fraud, a possessor of potential minor supernatural powers that he made occasional use of, and in the end, someone who helped bring about the downfall of the empire through his excesses, which is really bizarre when you think about it. After how he started out, how could this happen?

This isn’t a bad book, nor is it necessarily poorly written. It just didn’t really connect with me and it’s not overly scintillating. Somewhat interesting subject matter. Another biography might be better, I don’t know. I’m not sure if I’d recommend this book over another biography of the same person. Three stars max. Simply for the extensive research. Otherwise, it’s a two star book.

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A Review of The Dog from Hell

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 18, 2016

The Dog From Hell (Star Risk, #4)The Dog From Hell by Chris Bunch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This fourth Star Risk, Ltd. novel is pretty good, much better than the previous one. The mercenary group is back, but this time, their nemesis, Cerebus Systems, a huge “security” firm with thousands of operatives spread out on hundreds, perhaps thousands of worlds, with a huge fleet and massive armies, has decided they’ve had enough of the five person Star Risk group and decides to do away with them. And they ruthlessly do. It’s ugly and painful to see and, decimated, the group disbands while they’re still alive. Unfortunately, things are so bad, that even when they go their separate ways and are trying to make livings on their own or are even at home relaxing, Cerebus attacks them still and in Riss’s case, demolishes her beloved home, almost killing her in the process.

Slowly and secretly, the group gets back together, hearing about a possible job that involves Cerebus, and decides to try and act on it, both with the idea of replenishing their decimated funds and sticking it to Cerebus. The job in question involves a politically unstable system with armed rebels and a pirate problem. They’ve hired Cerebus to quell the disturbances, but so far, things haven’t gone well. The Star Risk group, no longer calling themselves that, decide to infiltrate the main planet’s capital city and see what sort of mischief they can get into.

And mischief they find. They befriend the rebels and both deliver them goods and materials, help train them, and ultimately lead them into combat. They find a decent armed ship and become pirates themselves, which frankly is a little disturbing, but they do this to make some money in order to fund their efforts. They eventually enlist the aid of their former pilot buddy and some more pilot mercenaries and their ships and ultimately quite a few more. They assassinate the leading Cerebus official there and we see the Cerebus board get ticked at their problems there, not realizing Star Risk is the cause. Star Risk ultimately assassinates the next high ranking Cerebus official sent there, and the system’s president, causing great political upheaval, and things unravel quickly. Soon, their identity is given away by a mercenary traitor and Cerebus is out to get them. A mini-war happens and, well of course you have to know who comes out on top, but I won’t tell you what happens or how it happens as I want you, dear reader, to read the book for yourself. Ideally, you’ll read the series, but this can be read as a standalone book with no problem whatsoever. You don’t need to have read the previous books in the series to understand what is going on.

This is the author’s final Star Risk book before he died shortly after. A fifth was written by Steve Perry and his son. I have it and will read it soon, but I doubt it will be as good as Bunch’s. Bunch has a unique talent that I doubt can be duplicated. This isn’t the best Star Risk book, but it’s not bad. There’s a lot of action, as always. It’s good military sci fi, which you can always expect from Bunch. Recommended.

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A Review of Mussolini: A Biography

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 17, 2016

Mussolini: A BiographyMussolini: A Biography by Denis Mack Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve read numerous books over the years on infamous people like Hitler, Himmler, Ho Chi Mihn, Mao, and more, but I’ve never learned anything about Mussolini and I’ve always wanted to because I’ve heard so much about him, but really no details. So I happened upon this book recently and was thrilled. Just finished it and was really impressed. It’s well researched and well written. Details Mussolini’s life in a chronological fashion from birth to death in fairly good detail and in really sheds light on his mind and thinking and fascism and Italy’s role in World War Two. Fascinating.

To put it bluntly, Mussolini was completely insane. He was quite possibly the most delusional person who ever lived. He had no concept of reality. He insulated himself entirely, hired only yes men dunces for major posts, fired and/or executed anyone who criticized or disagreed with him, shut down any presses that weren’t ardently pro-Mussolini, made it impossible to obtain foreign journalism in Italy, was a master at propaganda so that his people believed the world feared and respected him and his country like no other. He had total command of the military during the war, even though he had no training and was a journalist by trade. He destroyed the military by not listening to his generals, even firing them for disagreeing with him, by making serious decisions about battles, etc., and not telling anyone at all, thus destroying logistics, supply lines, none of which were prepared. He bragged of having a ten million man army when he didn’t even have one million and even then, he didn’t even have enough uniforms for them, nor enough weapons. He bragged about his extensive modern weapons and he apparently fought the war with weapons from World War One. He bragged about his heavy tank battalions, when he had no tanks whatsoever. The only “armor” he had were armored cars. It’s literally stunning. And it’s impossible to know if he actually believed his lies or if he was just trying to impress Hitler and bluff the rest of the world. Unreal. He bragged about having the biggest and best air force in Europe. He had perhaps 400 serviceable planes, most of which were shot down. He bragged about his grand navy, most of which was destroyed by the British. He bragged about invading the great military country of Ethiopia. He had such a hard time, he had to send 300,000 troops and even then had to bribe the Ethiopian leaders to surrender after months of fighting. After he joined Hitler in forming the Axis, and of course Mussolini thought Hitler was a dolt while Hitler thought Mussolini was a fraud, Mussolini didn’t want to fight, just wanted Germany to fight and wanted to come in at the end of the battles to get “booty.” Hitler pressured him to do … something, anything, so he decided to attack Greece, without telling his generals. He said the war would be over in days. Within days, his army had been pushed out of Greece back to Albania where they remained in retreat for six months getting their asses kicked by a much smaller force before Germany intervened. Hitler pressured Mussolini to take North Africa from the British, particularly Egypt and Malta. Italy had a chance to take Malta and passed it up. They already had control of Libya and were poised to march on Egypt, but Mussolini didn’t understand the need for motorized vehicles for his army in the desert, thought they could march hundreds of miles in the heat with minimal supplies. His generals and he kept putting it off, so Hitler sent Rommel and German troops who promptly attacked the British and drove them back, kicking their ass, infuriating Mussolini, who was supposed to be in charge of the North African campaign and wanted all the glory for himself. Rommel did whatever he wanted and Mussolini finally sent his troops forward. They accomplished nothing. Mussolini kept bragging about his ten million troops. Of course, Hitler knew he didn’t have them, but he asked Mussolini to send 25 divisions to Germany to help with the war effort there. Mussolini didn’t have 25 divisions, only 10, so he ignored the request and pretended he never got it. Which was his normal course of action. He was the most indecisive man who ever lived. He changed his mind some 50 times a day or more. He gave people conflicting orders. He told people what he wanted them to hear and what he thought they wanted to hear. One moment, he decided he wanted to help Germany fight Russia. Ten minutes later, he thought that was insane and wanted no part of it. This was every day of his life. Of course, he ended up helping fight Russia, sending 100,000 men. The Russians slaughtered them. For some reason, he especially hated the British and looked down on the Americans. As the British and Americans moved up Italy after invading the country, he told the world that Churchill and Roosevelt were going to be tried as war criminals when they shortly lost the war. His country was embroiled in civil war with half the Italians helping the Allies, numerous people looking for the Duce, a price on his head, his already having been deposed once, his power and army shrunk, Germany losing the war, Russia at Berlin’s door. He was insanely delusional, although no one will ever know if this kind of stuff was mere bravado or if he insanely believed this shit. I think he actually believed it because no one told him the truth about anything, just what he wanted to hear. Only “good” stuff. He had no clue. He was a narcissistic, insecure, psychopathic, sociopathic, moron of the tenth degree. When it became apparent he was about to be captured, he took off with his few remaining fascist friends to try to cross over into Switzerland in disguise, but his own border guards recognized him, captured him, executed him and his colleagues, and sent their bodies to the capital for display. He had gone from being possibly the most beloved Italian leader in some time 15 years earlier to the most hated Italian leader in centuries, if not of all time.

Mussolini was born in a small village and was a sociopathic, psycho from birth. In elementary school, he was sullen and hostile and as he grew older in school, he was kicked out of a number of schools, several times for stabbing fellow students, among other things. He was constantly getting gangs together and starting fights, was a major bully, although he himself was not physically imposing. He always believed in violence as the answer to everything. He grew up a socialist in a royally screwed up parliamentary country with no good political system whatsoever. However, he seemed to change his mind about his politics on a near daily basis, which was a pattern he would follow in virtually everything for the rest of his life. After school, he became a school teacher and taught in several countries, but was either fired and his contract was not renewed after his first year at each location because of child and parental complaints that he was too cruel and violent and frightening and he then turned to journalism, since he had been writing columns for socialist papers at the time anyway. He eventually rose to the position of editor and eventually became editor of the biggest socialist paper in the country. But his views were changing. He was moving to the right and thought things should be more authoritarian, thought the socialists were too close to communists, which apparently was a bad thing even though he admired Lenin. He developed the idea of fascism, a totalitarian political ideology that would ultimately center around centralized authoritarian control in the form of a dictator – him – based upon violence, getting rid of the socialists, the liberals, intellectuals, and many others in society he disagreed with, by any means necessary, preferably through violence, ideally lethal. He formed roaming gangs of fascist men who used castor oil to torture and kill their opponents, as well as more normal types of weapons, and numerous people were killed and injured. The fascists gained power and eventually, several were voted into parliament, including Mussolini himself. He cozied up to the corporations, got the capitalists and their money behind him, told Italy they needed to toughen up, they needed to obtain greater standing in the world, get theirs, if you will. He promised to bring Italy to the forefront and started making rumblings about attacking France and Britain, as well as Austria and Yugoslavia, among smaller countries. He wanted to mirror some of the other countries in their imperialist ambitions and increase Italy’s empire. Which he did by annexing a couple of tiny neighboring places. BFD. Somehow, someway, the fascists ultimately gained total power as he talked the Italian population into voting for them and into buying into his idea of Italy becoming this great world power, this great military power. This was in the 1920s, long before Hitler and Germany came along to steal his thunder. Finally, at some point in the early 1920s, he was named prime minister by the king and had complete power. But it wasn’t good enough. As he started modifying everything all of the papers and magazines could write and publish, as he started controlling all of the media that went into and out of Italy, as he started trying to build up Italy’s armed forces, he worked hard to decrease Parliament’s power, so that in a few years, he was literally named “Dictator” and Parliament no longer had power, nor did his ministers or generals or anyone else. The only person in the country who could make any decisions was Mussolini. Unreal. So, years later, when he went to Africa to review the military situation and got stuck there for several weeks, everything in Italy literally ground to a complete halt until his return. It was a disaster. He refused to listen to his ministers or generals. His wife and children remained at his country home while he lived in a small apartment in the city and kept a mistress nearby. He kept to himself, virtually completely isolated and refused to take advice from anyone for anything because he knew what was best in every situation. When he had to meet with Hitler, at first, he tried to dominate their meetings, but as time went by and it became apparent he was full of shit and Hitler knew it, Hitler dominated the meetings entirely and lectured him and Mussolini was too proud to bring a translator with him, so he quite often agreed to things he didn’t even understand, thus making himself out to be an even bigger dumbshit than before in Germany’s eyes.

I could go on and on. This book was very revealing, a real eye opener, very educational. I can’t believe what a total dunce and fraud Mussolini was, especially when you consider his fearsome reputation. Italy did nothing in World War Two. I already knew they were Axis failures, but I didn’t know they were THAT bad. I mean, Greece kicked their ass! Mussolini was an insane tyrant who took his beloved country and literally destroyed it in two decades, slaughtering millions of people needlessly just to satisfy his stupid ego. For that alone, he deserves to burn in hell for eternity, if such a place exists. The book is good, a little dry, but that’s to be expected in a historical biography from an Oxford academic. I enjoyed it immensely and thought it was quite good. Is it a five star book? I’m not sure it is. But it’s certainly a four star book, no problem. If you want to learn as much as possible about Mussolini, this is definitely the resource for you. Recommended.

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A Review of A Blink of the Screen

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 16, 2016

A Blink of the Screen: Collected Short FictionA Blink of the Screen: Collected Short Fiction by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Blink of the Screen is a collection of short stories by the late, great Terry Pratchett, which has some wonderful pieces in it and is an absolute must for any Pratchett fan. The book is divided into pieces he wrote as standalone short stories about various topics beginning from the young age of 13 with “The Hades Business,” which was published in 1963. Published. Written at 13. It’s about Hell and its need for good PR. It’s pretty funny. The writing is obviously immature and it’s not a “great” short story, but you can see the beginnings of a good writer there.

The second section is of Discworld-related short stories, involving famous Discworld characters, such as Cohen the Barbarian, Rincewind, Lord Havelock Vetinari, and of course in the longest story in the book (“The Sea and Little Fishes” (1998)), two of the best Discworld characters, in a Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax story. Asked by some younger, snobby witches not to compete in an annual witchery contest because she always wins, Granny Weatherwax decides to “be nice about” the insult. The crux of the problem and, hence, the story is, her neighbors and, most certainly the other witches, aren’t used to her being nice. At all. A delightful, yet at times, quite sad story. Very well written.

Other good stories in this collection include “Final Reward” (1988), where an author kills off his most popular character and is shocked when the character shows up at his doorstep to “meet his maker.” The character is a seven-foot tall barbarian with a monstrous sword. What to do?

Another good one is “Death and What Comes Next” (2004). Death is my favorite Discworld character. Philosophers evidently think they can argue with Death when he comes for them. However, Death can apply some philosophical logic, too.

ASTONISHING, said Death. REALLY ASTONISHING. LET ME PUT FORWARD ANOTHER SUGGESTION: THAT YOU ARE NOTHING MORE THAN A LUCKY SPECIES OF APE THAT IS TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE COMPLEXITIES OF CREATION VIA A LANGUAGE THAT EVOLVED IN ORDER TO TELL ONE ANOTHER WHERE THE RIPE FRUIT WAS.

There’s a story about the game, “Thud,” which I believe may have been a real game in England, based on the Discworld novel. “The Ankh-Morpork National Anthem” (1999) is short, but funny. “#ifdefDEBUG + `world/enough’ + `time'” (1990) is actually a pretty good cyberpunk story. Not William Gibson good, but startling good for an author who doesn’t usually dabble in such things.

Of course, there are some stories that are less interesting, but that’s always the case in any short story collection. Some stand out, some do not. Overall, this is a solid four star collection. And as I said, a must for any Pratchett fan. Definitely recommended.

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