hankrules2011

Book reviews, health, hockey, publishing, music

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

A Review of Brother Number One

Posted by Scott Holstad on February 18, 2016

Brother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol PotBrother Number One: A Political Biography of Pol Pot by David P. Chandler
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first “review” I read when I came across reviews for Brother Number One was one by “Annie,” which stated, “More objective, non-sensational and honest than than ‘Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare’.” Funny, having finished both books now, I couldn’t agree with that statement less. I’ll get to the Nightmare book in another review (I think it’s an excellent book), but Brother Number One is for this one. It’s an interesting book. Since this is the “political biography of Pol Pot,” a mysterious man who I have wanted to know something of for quite some time, I thought this book would help me. And in a way, it did. But only in a way. For this book was published in 1992, five years before Pol’s death in 1997. It’s therefore an incomplete work. Moreover, and more importantly by far, the author claims that the subject is so very mysterious and so little is known about him and he has hidden himself in shrouds of mystery, at times for many years at a time, that it’s impossible to know anything of his whereabouts for years at a time. So that gives the author free reign to speculate as much as he wants, and boy, does he do that. First, he includes everything he possibly can about Pol’s, or Saloth Sar – as he was known most of his life – upbringing, including his childhood in a country village, to his upbringing with a brother and other relatives in the king’s palace, essentially, to his French education, first in Cambodia, then later as an elite student, in Paris where he became a communist, most likely around 1951. We learn of his return to Cambodia in the mid-50s, his rise in the Indochinese Communist Party, his helping to form the Cambodian Communist Party in 1960, his dealings with the Vietnamese, whom he needed yet always resented, his dealings with the Chinese, his resentment toward the French, toward the Cambodian monarchy, toward the US, his paranoia, his marriage, etc. But whole years are eliminated in this book. His whereabouts are claimed to be unknown. But that doesn’t stop the author, who begins numerous sentences with things such as, “It would be interesting to suppose,” or “One might assume,” or “It might be possible to guess,” etc, et al. If I had a dollar for every time the author speculates about Pol’s thoughts, feelings, or motives, I would be a wealthy man. Because that is all the author can do. He can only guess. There is very little recorded documentation at all, anywhere. The Vietnamese have some. The Chinese have some. Pol conducted some interviews in the late 1970s. Other than that, little accounts for the 1950s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s.

The author relies on numerous interviews for this book, but I’m assuming, as he often does, as Pol was still alive while the book was being written, that so many interviewees were aware of that fact and were scared to death of him, that few of them were willing to share many details of him or say many negative things about him. For instance, many of his secondary and college classmates were interviewed. He was known as a mediocre student, at best, but seemed to be liked by most. He had a pleasant smile, a decent laugh, and people differ on his effect on people and groups. Some say he had no influence on the Parisian communist groups, while others say he played a leading role. As a teacher in the 1950s, even though he never came close to completing his degree, he was known as a wise and good teacher, patient, well spoken, thoughtful, etc. The image doesn’t jibe with the genocidal maniac of the 1970s.

In fact, it’s hard to reconcile any image of him, pre-1970 or so, until 1975 really, when he started coming out of the woodworks and into the public eye. When he became public circa 1976, it was a shocker. No one knew who he was. He was alleged to have been a rubber plantation worked named “Pol Pot,” but when former colleagues saw him on TV making speeches, they knew at once he was Saloth Sar, the former teacher, childhood friend of the king and themselves, and they were shocked. How could this kind, good man be their new revolutionary prime minister, responsible for the deaths of a half a million people in the civil war which had just ended in 1975, and unbeknownst to anyone, about to become responsible for the deaths of one and a half million people in a probable genocide of epic proportions over the next three years? That’s over one fifth of the country’s population. Yes, Mao and Stalin killed many more people, but there were many, many more people to kill from. They didn’t kill one fifth of their country’s population. So, this was unlike anything anyone had ever seen before.

And the sweeping changes. Doing away with money. I mean, what the hell??? Emptying the cities? Seriously? Driving everyone out into the countryside, no matter where you were from or where your relatives were. Who cared if you lived or died? No one. Least of all the 12 and 13-year old Khmer Rouge soldiers. Illiterate peasant boys who couldn’t even read passports that were expected to be presented at all times. It was insane. Doing away with virtually all exports except for rice, and then if/when the rice crop fell through, what the hell happens to your country then? And the “base” people versus the “new” people. If you weren’t fighting with the revolutionaries when they “liberated” Cambodia in 1975, you were a “new” person, meaning you weren’t one of them, meaning you were an enemy combatant. Even if you were a peasant refugee who had merely fled to the city to escape the countryside fighting and had no irons in the fire one way or the other. You were the enemy.

S-21. It was the torture/interrogation center. Every communist regime has one, right? Hell, every regime of any sort has one. We have Guantanamo. The French had theirs too. S-21 was a former school. Over 20,000 people were processed through there in the three plus years it existed. Unless my facts have gotten jumbled up, and they may have, only about a half dozen people survived. All were tortured extensively, confessions of up to thousands of pages extracted, and all were killed, most brutally. The confessions typically said the person was a CIA agent, a KGB agent, and a Vietnamese agent. That the likelihood of one Cambodian person being all three, let alone any of these, was absurd as hell appeared to not have sunk in to Pol Pot and his colleagues. It made perfect sense to them that the Russians, their Vietnamese protégés, and the US, whom the Khmer Rouge believed they had defeated militarily in 1975 and who they thought had it out for them and was willing to work with its adversaries, would all be working together. Insanity sees reason everywhere.

This book is only 250 pages long, less than half as long as Nightmare is. It’s not nearly as detailed or in depth. It’s not nearly as well researched nor as well written. It relies far too extensively on speculation; at least 70% of the book is nothing but speculation. But as an introduction to Pol Pot, it’s an interesting book. I would suggest that, if it’s read, it’s read with this information in mind and then one would immediately read something more recent, ideally written after Pol’s death, such as Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare, which as I said, I think is an excellent book and which I hope to review soon. It relies on speculation almost not at all. One of the things that struck me most about Pol, the man, was that in one of these books, and I can’t remember which, sorry, he was asked if he knew how many people his administration was responsible for killing after he had been deposed. His answer was somewhere between several hundred and several thousand and that was because he had been kept out of the loop, or it would have been fewer than that. Stunning, really. Interesting to know if he really believed that or not. Somehow I doubt it. But there does seem to be evidence that he was actually kept out of the loop on a lot of the executions and that many of the “zones” were self sufficient and didn’t really report much back to headquarters and communications were so bad that it could take weeks or more to communicate by messenger, so by that time, things would have happened with or without permission. So things happened. How much was due to Pol? I guess we’ll never know. Of course, since Pol set the tone, ultimately it was all his responsibility. Everything and everyone was ultimately under his control. Anyone who displeased him was purged. He had complete control. Virtually all of his old communist colleagues from Paris and the old days in early communist Cambodia were purged to ensure his power. So, if he thought anyone were abusing their authority by acting genocidal without his permission, he could have done something about it. And he didn’t. So, obviously, the buck stopped with him.

So, I could go on and on, obviously. But I won’t. I’ve got to save some stuff to say for my next Pol Pot book. I learned a lot about a bizarre, incredibly secretive, insane man, responsible for the deaths of millions of people. It was surreal to read about, because this occurred during my lifetime and I remember a great deal of this, although of course not personally, obviously. The book itself is interesting, but for reasons already mentioned, not very good. Even though the author probably tried hard, he didn’t try hard enough. It’s probably a two star book at best, but I believe I’m going to give it three stars for effort because it’s one of the early Pol Pot books and it did make an impact of Pol Pot research, so that’s worth something. Still, it can’t be relied upon on its own. It’s not that trustworthy. It’s got to be supplemented by something more current in its research, so keep that in mind. I’m really not sure that I can recommend it. I can suggest reading it if interested in the subject matter, but only if you intend to read more than one source on the subject. If you intend to read only one book on Pol Pot, don’t let this be that source. It’s not reliable enough.

View all my reviews

Posted in Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.”

 

View all my reviews

Posted in Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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.

View all my reviews

Posted in Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

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.

View all my reviews

Posted in Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

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.

View all my reviews

Posted in Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Review of Star Corps

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 7, 2016

Star Corps (The Legacy Trilogy, #1)Star Corps by Ian Douglas
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m not sure what it was about this book, but I just couldn’t get into it. I tried for several days, reading 20-30 pages a day and just being bored and frustrated. Frankly, I thought the premise was dumb. I guess that’s the basic problem for me. Somehow, somewhere along the way, humanity has discovered an alien species called the Ahanu that predates humanity and that came to Earth centuries ago, built the pyramids, possibly genetically coded humans and then took thousands of them off to their distant planet to serve and breed as slaves, for 10,000 years or more. How we discovered this and them is not mentioned, at least as far as I ever got in the book, because after 187 dreary pages, I’ve given up. Somehow, humans have made it to their planet and have been there for some years, archaeologists, scientists, diplomats, Marines, businessmen, etc., and these reptile-like creatures go insane at one point and attack the humans and apparently wipe them out, although most of their technology is prehistoric, except for one gigantic weapon that blows starships out of the sky. Earth has discovered this and is putting together a Marine task force of some 1300 Marines to go rescue any surviving humans and put down the alien rebellion and hopefully save the human slaves, as well as to stabilize the world for another starship of multinationals coming to form businesses and governments, etc. The catch? It’s a 10 year trip — one way. So each Marine has to make a 20 year commitment, not counting the two to four or more years they’ll be on the alien planet. Okay, shoot me, but how frigging stupid is that??? Virtually all sci fi writers deal with FTL drives, hyperspace, interstellar drives, etc. Basically, it’s possible to get to your destination light years away, in some cases, hundreds of light years away, in hours/days/weeks, not a freaking decade! Where’s the science? If mankind has colonized the moon and Mars and can somehow already travel to this alien planet so that they’ve been there for five years working on stuff, that means that A) they went there 15 years ago and B) they should have the technology to invent FTL drives. Indeed, when the government is getting important Marines and scientists off Mars back to Earth, instead of it taking numerous weeks and months, they take special flights that take a few days, so they do have some technology available. So, what the hell? Is Douglas just a dumbshit writer? Can he not think of normal sci fi standards? Why make such an extreme scenario, one that’s so outrageously unbelievable? It boggles the mind. And then to cap it off, for some reason, one American company is given a monopoly on everything on this alien planet and tells its potential partners it plans on shipping the slaves back to Earth to sell … as slaves for a return on its investment. WTF? I bought this book cheap at a used bookstore, thank goodness, but because it had a pretty good rating and excellent reviews. Indeed, the reviews were so good, I bought the entire trilogy! Now I find that I don’t want to read any of them. And I doubt I will. At least I didn’t spend much on them. Stupid premise. And too many points of view, too many characters. Additionally, in terms of military sci fi, Douglas not only can’t touch David Weber at all, he can’t even touch Chris Bunch. Not recommended.

View all my reviews

Posted in Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

A Review of Forward The Foundation

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 5, 2016

Forward the Foundation (Foundation: Prequel, #2)Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Forward the Foundation is the second prequel to the Foundation Trilogy, yet the seventh and last book written in the series, literally right before Asimov’s death decades after he wrote the original trilogy. And I think it’s genius. Let me provide some perspective. I had heard of the Foundation trilogy for some time, of course, but when I finally read it, I was unimpressed. In fact, I thought the first two books were so poorly written, that the man clearly showed he had no clue of basic grammatical concepts, such as transitions, and writing devices, such as plot and character development. And his dialogue was atrocious! Since then, I’ve read a lot of Asimov, including many of his later works and have concluded that he grew and matured as a writer. He learned how to use transitions. He learned a little bit about plot and character development. He never did learn how to write dialogue that wasn’t wooden, stilted, overly formal, inauthentic, and just plain stupid, but no one’s perfect. When I picked up his fourth book, I loved it. Thought it was brilliant. So I bought the “last one,” the fifth, and hated it because of the nonstop sniping and bitching between two of the characters on every page of the book. I didn’t even finish it.

So it was with some trepidation that I picked up the first prequel a few weeks ago, the sixth book, Prelude to Foundation, where we meet Hari Seldon and his companions and learn about the beginnings of psychohistory and I was struck by how good it was. I loved it! And I thought the ending was spectacular. So I picked this book up, the seventh and last book – but the alleged “second” in the series – that is meant to be read last and just finished reading it a few days ago. I’m only now getting around to writing this review because I’ve had to let thoughts percolate for a few days.

Forward the Foundation covers a hell of a lot of ground and it has to if it wants to tie in with the first Foundation novel. Because of that, the book is divided into five parts, each concerned with a major character – and Hari – and each taking us one decade further in Hari’s life. These parts are of Eto Demerzel, Cleon I, Dors Venabili, Wanda Seldon, and an epilogue.

The first part of the book starts when Hari is turning 40 – 40! – and he and his colleague, Yugo Amaryl, are working to improve psychohistory so that one day it can help foretell future probabilities and create a second Galactic Empire after the fall of the Empire they currently live in. Demerzel is the emperor’s First Minister and a very interesting individual. We meet him in the previous novel and he turns out to be Hari’s champion. Unfortunately, there’s an opposition leader who’s gathering populist support in an effort to unseat him and take his position and Demerzel can see his days are numbered. Even as Demerzel defeats this challenger, saving his position, he gives it up by turning in his notice to the emperor and naming Hari as his successor, much to Hari’s horror. Demerzel then disappears.

The second part of the book has to deal with Hari at age 50 and as acting First Minister to the emperor. An early attempt is made on his life and Dors, his wife and protector, saves his life. She doesn’t have the most pleasant personality and is kind of a little too focused, but she’s extremely devoted. Meanwhile, Hari continues to devote time to the research and pursuit of psychohistory. During this time, it seems the empire is crumbling. Infrastructure is decaying, money is disappearing, fringe planets are fleeing the empire, rebellions are fomenting, and the opposition party from the first part still exists. Hari hears rumors of this and, rather stupidly, convinces his now grown son, Raych, to go to Wye to infiltrate and report back. What he doesn’t expect is for his son to be recognized and to be used as an assassin to kill Hari. At the section’s climactic end, two things happen. Raych raises his gun and points it at Hari, as does as second assassin, and a female undercover agent who Raych took as a lover blows the other assassin away, saving Hari’s life while Raych is overcome. However, shots are heard and elsewhere on the property, the emperor lies dead at the hands of the new chief gardener, who didn’t want his promotion. The empire is about to disintegrate.

In the next chapter, titled Dors, Hari and Yugo and a huge team of scientists and historians have made substantial progress in psychohistory. But Hari is getting old. He’s now 60 and feels it. The government is run by a military junta and things have fallen apart. Hari has landed back at the old university he used to teach at. Raych has married that agent and has had a young daughter, Wanda, now eight, and another small child. Wanda has had a bad dream just in time for a three day birthday party celebration thrown in Hari’s honor. She’s dreamed he’s going to die, be killed. She overhears two men talking about it. No one takes her seriously. Except for Dors. Who starts questioning people. And questions a new, young supergenius mathematician, who has been instrumental in bringing psychohistory along. She confronts him and he levels some accusations against her, and attempts to kill her, weakening her greatly before she somehow kills him first. She reaches Hari, tells him the story and dies in his arms. It’s tragic.

In the Wanda section, Hari is now 70. His friend, Yugo, has died at a young age from overwork. His friend Demerzel is no longer with him. Dors is dead. Psychohistory is in danger of dying out due to lack of funding. The empire is nearly dead. Crime and anarchy are everywhere. Hari is attacked multiple times. On one occasion, Raych saves him. On another, a young researcher named Palver saves him and becomes his bodyguard. Wanda is growing up and is obsessed with psychohistory. And it appears she has some interesting mental powers. These intrigue Hari. See, he has some ideas about something he calls a Foundation. Or rather, two Foundations. To save the galaxy. With Wanda’s help, they encounter more mentalists, including Palver, and these people form the foundation of the people who will become the Second Foundationers. But Raych and his family, minus Wanda, move to another planet, saying goodbye to Hari forever. Now Hari has been abandoned by virtually everyone he has ever cared for in his life at this stage in his life. He feels old and helpless. Yet he must plug on. However, by the end of this section, Wanda and Palver leave Hari too, to go in search of others like them, to form a Foundation for the future of psychohistory and the galaxy. Hari is now truly alone.

The epilogue is quite short, just a couple of pages. Hari is 81. He has recorded his holograms for the First Foundation crises he foresees. Psychohistory has done all it can do and he has too. Everyone has been taken from him. The last thing we see is his seeing his life’s work, Foundation, Dors! And he is found slumped dead over his desk. It’s so fucking sad, I literally cried. I know there’s hope in Wanda and the two Foundations, but this book was so bleak and so sad, and yet so essential to the creation of the Foundation Trilogy, it was impossible not to read and understand and engage. But, damn, was it depressing! But, well done. Well done. Of course, the big secret about Dors comes as no surprise to anyone, but that’s okay. And not only was it sad to see Raych and his family leave, but to find that he is killed in a rebellion on his new planet while his wife and youngest child are lost forever on a starship that is never found. Hari’s tragedies. He dedicates his whole life to psychohistory and his fellow man and loses everything in the process. It’s a fucking tragedy. As is the case with all Asimov books, I’m not sure this merits five stars, due in part to poor dialogue, at a minimum. But I think I can overlook that in this case. It was an excellent book. Five stars. Recommended, but not as the second prequel. Instead, read it as the seventh and last book of the Foundation series to gain the greatest understanding as to what’s going on. Most definitely recommended.

View all my reviews

Posted in Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

A Review of The Shadow of Saganami

Posted by Scott Holstad on January 2, 2016

The Shadow of Saganami (Honorverse: Saganami, #1)The Shadow of Saganami by David Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Shadow of Saganami is an Honorverse spinoff of the brilliant Honor Harrington series that I really didn’t want to start reading, but I had been reading so much about the several sub-series’ spinoffs and how they elaborate on key plot elements, that I decided to go ahead. And I’m glad I did. Of course, the book didn’t feature Honor and I missed her, and it’s a whole new cast of characters, but you quickly get to know them and care about them and, as it’s a long, long, comprehensive David Weber book, you end up feeling a connection with a number of them by the end of the book.

Saganami Island is Mantictore’s version of the US Naval Academy and this book follows the careers of several recent graduates, most in their first post-graduate assignments as midshipmen. They are assigned to the heavy cruiser HMS Hexapuma, headed by Captain Aivars Terekhov, a mysterious, intense man who is suffering from PTSD due to a terrible battle he survived with a Haven fleet some time before. No one knows if he’s recovered and everyone wonders how he’ll react under pressure.

They are assigned to the Talbot Cluster, a cluster of planetary systems on the verge of the Solarian League near Manticore’s newly discovered Lynx Junction. The planets of the Talbot Cluster have just overwhelming voted in favor of being annexed by the Star Kingdom of Manticore and are drafting a constitution. However, there are some dissidents and some Solly-related planets and corporations willing to arm and aid these dissidents in rebellion in attempts to destabilize their governments and destroy the constitutional convention and the annexation. Of course, if this happens, the Solarian Frontier Security will move in and take over the Cluster and those worlds will be doomed.

The plot of this book is too detailed and far too complex to go into in a significant review of this type. The Hexapuma joins the few Manticoran ships in the area for patrol and support of the cluster’s systems and meanwhile terrorists are blowing up people and planets, aided by mysterious strangers with modern weapons. Terekhov ultimately discovers the secret behind the plot and moves a squad he has called together against a star system to engage in a typical Weber space battle, which is handled pretty well, if a little subdued for Weber. There’s a great deal of tension in this novel and that makes it engaging and interesting. Some of the interesting new characters include Lt Abigail Hearns and Midshipwoman Helen Zilwicki, among others. We’ll see them again in other Honorverse books.

Even though this is a good book and rather enjoyable, I do have a complaint and it’s not unique to Weber. There are, per usual with this author, way too many characters to keep up with. Not only are there a ton of naval officers to try and remember, but there are a ton of system politicians to try and keep track of and it’s virtually impossible to do so. To make matters worse, the Talbot Cluster is larger than I ever imagined and we’re introduced to what seems like a ton of planetary systems. Somehow, we’re supposed to keep track of worlds like Spindle, Pontifex, Split, San Miguel, Montana, Rembrandt, Kornatia, Nuncio, Mesa, Dresden, Monica, Torch, and of course, Grayson and Manticore, among others, and there are also scenes featuring Manpower, the Jessyk Combine, and Technodyne Corp., the “evil” corporations behind all that’s wrong with the picture in this puzzle. It’s just too much. And of course, all of these planets and corporations have presidents, vice presidents, admirals, boards of directors, police chiefs, various naval ships, most of which are obsolete by Manticoran standards, and so on. It’s damned annoying and stupid!

Whatever the case, this is a good book. It’s got a good plot, introduces an interesting new cast of characters, has a couple of decent naval battles, has some ground battles, has some political intrigue, if that’s your game, and fills in a lot that’s left out in the main Honor books. However, it’s typically long, at times it drags, the plot can be a little convoluted and somewhat scattered, the names of characters and planets are just too much and too many to make the book enjoyable, and it’s a little galling to think that this is the first book in an Honor sub-series, one of several, information that can’t actually be told in a real Honor book, which is annoying. Worthy of five stars? Not quite. But certainly worthy of four stars. A solid four star effort. And definitely recommended.

View all my reviews

Posted in Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Review of The Doublecross Program

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 31, 2015

The Doublecross Program (Star Risk, #3)The Doublecross Program by Chris Bunch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was somewhat disappointed with this book and that surprised me. I really like Chris Bunch and I really liked the first two books of this Star Risk, Ltd. series, so when this one seemed to be sub-standard, it was a real surprise and, as I said, a disappointment. Basically, M’chel Riss and the Star Risk, Ltd. mercenary team are hired by one planetary system to train and lead its armed forces against a neighboring planetary system, only to double cross them and go to the other system for the same deal. And back again. And so on. It’s an entire book of double crossing. And it doesn’t really endear the group to me, I’ve got to say. I mean, I know they’re mercenaries, but still, have some ethics in how you do business. If you have a contract, do your damn job! I thought better of these people.

The thing that makes Chris Bunch books good is not only are they action packed military sci fi novels, but they’ve got intrigue, and plenty of it. There’s a mystery and it’s a good one. And there are plot twists and you wonder how the heck the protagonists of his series’ are going to escape whatever predicament they’re in. That was the case in the first two books of this series, as well as all of the Last Legion books. Not so with this book. It’s plenty action packed. A lot of tension, I suppose. Perhaps. Maybe not. I mean, you know your heroes probably aren’t going to be killed off, so really, how much tension is there? So, in this case, the book seems to be mostly a straight ahead military action novel. No real intrigue, no real mystery. No wondering who did what, who’s going to do what. No real wondering how they’re going to escape, other than how they’re going to either end this war or get away from it, which is frankly anti-climactic and when it does “end,” it is anti-climactic. And for once, they actually don’t conclude their job, technically. It’s a fairly dissatisfying ending to a dissatisfying book. I’ll be starting the fourth book in the series in a little while. I have hopes that it will be an improvement and will return the series to its normal status of excellence. Because this is not typical Chris Bunch. If you’re reading this series, I guess you might want to read this, but it’s not essential. I don’t think you’ll be missing a lot by not reading it. And frankly, if you’re not reading the series, I see little point in reading it, although it can be read as a stand alone book. Whatever the case, not recommended, sadly.

View all my reviews

Posted in Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

A Review of The Watchman

Posted by Scott Holstad on December 29, 2015

The Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin PoulsenThe Watchman: The Twisted Life and Crimes of Serial Hacker Kevin Poulsen by Jonathan Littman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve long heard about Kevin Poulsen, but didn’t know as much about him as I did about another early hacker, Kevin Mitnick, and I wanted to learn more, so this book was great. And it just so happened that it was by one of my favorite technology nonfiction authors, Jonathan Littman, who also wrote a book on Mitnick that is also quite good. Mitnick may be more infamous, but Poulsen was possibly better. It’s debatable, but regardless, Poulsen was one of the early old school hackers to take complete control of the phone system and change the way America and law enforcement looked at hackers.

Poulsen started out, like so many of the early ones, phone phreaking in his early teens and graduated into hacking. He early on learned the innards of Pac Bell, first by dumpster diving, then by social engineering, then by phreaking. By his late teens, he probably knew more about the phone system than any non-phone employee in the world, and more than many phone employees themselves. Unfortunately, he of course, got into legal trouble and had to get a “real” job, so ironically, he got a job with SRI, a major defense contractor, where he got a security clearance and worked with top secret military information. Also, ironically, his young boss was another (former) phreaker who started to encourage Kevin to resume phreaking and hacking and together they started engaging in criminal activity, going to Pac Bell switching centers and picking locks and breaking in, stealing manuals, passwords, souvenirs, phones, accessories, switches, and everything else. Kevin eventually got COSMOS manuals, which gave him total access to everything in Pac Bell’s systems, so that he could create new phone lines, new switches, could wiretap anyone he wanted from anywhere, could place calls from dozens or hundreds of untraceable locations, etc. He broken into TRW to scam credit reports, the DVM, the FBI, Pac Bell Security, etc. His buddy Ron, who’d already been busted for hacking/phreaking, grudgingly helped him at times. However, he started spending so much time at night out doing criminal activity that he was neglecting his really important defense job, that they fired him. However, he landed at Sun Microsystems, which would have been really cool if he could have stayed there. Except he got arrested. And released on bail. And went from Northern California to L.A. There, he and Ron met a strange so-called hacker named Eric Heinz, among many other names (Justin Peterson was another). He figures prominently in the Mitnick book. He was an older hacker who looked and acted like a celebrity rocker, hanging out in Hollywood clubs, driving a Porsche, having sex with different girls, usually strippers, every night, recording the acts, usually bondage, and he was a violent criminal – who also knew how to hack, to a certain degree. He wasn’t as good as Kevin, but he wanted to learn and he was eager to help Kevin, so they formed an uneasy partnership and off they went breaking into Pac Bell switches at night. By this point, Kevin was so brazen that he made himself Pac Bell IDs, uniforms, stole a Pac Bell van, drove to their headquarters in LA, walked in, knowing he was wanted, signed himself in, walked to the Security department after hours, broke in, and made copies of all of the memos and documents about him and his partners, hundreds of pages, and walked back out. When the Pac Bell security personnel finally tracked him down with the police and the FBI some time later, they were shocked at finding their own “secure” documents in his place. He also found out who they were wiretapping and wiretapped them back.

Here’s something he did that was a little sleazy. He had always justified his actions as simply innocent old school hacking, harming no one, searching for information and knowledge. However, at some point, he became aware of a group of 50 dead phone lines and voicemail boxes attached to LA escort Yellow Page ads. He went into COSMOS, snagged all the lines for himself, making them untraceable, set up the mailboxes, found a pimp/partner who had the girls, set up an escort ring, and became an digital pimp. He never saw the girls or the pimp. He just liked the challenge and I guess he made a few bucks from it too. However, what he’s most famous for is fixing, not once, but twice two radio station call in competitions with the DJ, Rick Dees, where they were giving away a $50,000 Porsche. He and Ron rented a seedy office, got eight phones, set up eight phone lines attached to the radio station, ran them into his phones, and when the three songs were played in order and the phones started ringing, at some point, the callers all got busy signals and Kevin and Ron were the “right” callers and won their cars. They also won other deals, like $10,000 in cash and trips to Hawaii. Another biggie is when Kevin was featured on the TV show, Unsolved Mysteries, at the request of the FBI. While it was being aired, all 30 phone lines to the show went down for the duration of the show while the FBI sat there and fumed. They knew what had happened and who had done it.

Eventually Kevin and Eric had a bit of a falling out and Eric got especially careless. Kevin was cocky and got a little careless himself. Arrest. He was facing two federal indictments in northern and southern California, one of which would have netted him 100+ years in prison, the other of which would have given him 37 years in prison. The headlines were brutal. The charges were insane. Espionage. Breaking into military computers. Military networks. The implication that he had been wiretapping the Soviet Consulate in San Francisco. Not proven. Classified military documents. Well, he has security clearances and that was part of his job. Idiot prosecutors and FBI were too stupid and too eager to send him to prison for life to actually look at what he had actually done or not done. When it was all said and done, most of the charges were dropped, virtually all of the serious charges, and he served about five years in prison. This was in the early 1990s, even though his hacking career began back in the very early 1980s. I don’t know what happened to him between when he got out of prison and now, but I do know that now he’s a respected security “expert” and journalist. He’s an editor for Wired Magazine and recently wrote a book called Kingpin: How One Hacker Took Over the Billion-Dollar Cybercrime Underground, which I read just a month or two ago. It was well written and quite interesting. So obviously, he’s come a long way and more power to him. He had a lot of growing and maturing to do and he seriously had to pay his debt to society. It appears he has.

For me, this book is probably worthy of five stars, but I’m not certain if it’s outstanding enough to actually merit five stars. It’s a tough call. It’s at least a four star book. It’s interesting, well written, detailed, tension filled, easy to understand (for the most part), and well documented. And I don’t really know how it could have been improved. So to be honest, even though I’m not certain it’s a five star book, I don’t see how I can’t give it five stars. I just don’t see how it could have been better. It was an excellent book. So, five stars and recommended if you like to read histories of old school hackers and hacking.

View all my reviews

Posted in Writing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

 
Cafe Book Bean

Talk Books. Drink Coffee.

Simple Living Over 50

Defining Life's Changes

The Book Review Directory

Over 150 Book Reviewer Bloggers Listed

more than just a country boi

The Strange Happenings of a submissive Daddi's boi

A.D. Martin

writing - novels - film - television - video games - other stuff

In My Words

Life in my own words, my thoughts, my daily happenings, whatever....

Ravings of a Madman

(and other assorted things)

Crumpled Paper Cranes

Fumbling by Leisure, Singing to Cake

My Blog News And Blues Reviews

WHATEVER YOU'RE LOOKING FOR

I Read Encyclopedias for Fun

The official blog of Jay Dee Archer. Exploring new worlds, real and fictional.

Piece of Mind

Everything in my blog is sprinkled with wizard dust.

Kiss My Glass Boston

Wine, cocktails, whatever.

My Preconceived Life

trying to add another person to the planet

Drunken Dragon Reviews

A Fantasy Blog Gone Horribly Wrong.

Lynette Noni

Embrace The Wonder

Chapter TK

Question Everything

Megan Has OCD

About Mental Health, Daily Struggles, and Whatever Else Pops in My Head