Monthly Archives: November 2013

Book Review: Intangible (Piercing the Veil #1)

Intangible (Piercing the Veil #1)

Intangible (Piercing the Veil #1) by C. A. Gray is the integration of modern science into fantasy novel. Gray has a degree is a Naturopathic Medical Doctor who, in her spare time, teaches college level chemistry, sings, takes part in theater, and writes. 

Peter is that geeky kid who can’t seem to escape the wrath of the jocks in high school, and unlike most geeky kids, he seems to get into more than his share of trouble. He is also short on friends and counts his math teacher as one of his two friends. Peter is smart and is very easily bored in school and that gets him into trouble. He likes math and science but the classes are below his level. His father, Bruce, is a physicist at the local university and has been teaching Peter science. The experiment in chemistry class is something Peter did when he was seven years old. Bored, he tries an alternative experiment of his own that goes awry. The unexpected and dramatic results land him in the headmaster’s office for what may be the last time. Tired of his antics the headmaster wants to move him, at fourteen, to the university. Peter tells his father, and his father agrees to talk to the headmaster and try to work out a compromise. On the way to meeting with the headmaster, Peter, and his father, meet Lily who sees things that others can’t. She immediately notices something different about Peter. 

Here is where the story really begins. Gray manages to take fantasy, and the magic that is associated with it, and combine it with science. String theory, dark matter, multiple universes are used to help explain some of the “fantasy”. Gray also bases the story on Arthurian legend. She uses the modern city of Norwich and links it to Carlion the region where Camelot was located. Peter, his friend Cole, Lily, and Peter’s antagonist Brock, who also happens to be Cole’s older brother all find themselves in Camelot by way of an accident. Camelot is a magical place and the science minded and skeptical Peter finds himself in conflict with what he believes and what he experiences. 

The characters are easily believable and act as expected when put into a very unexpected situation. The plot is well presented and contains all the elements needed for a great story. It gives the reader an opportunity to watch as the lead characters develop and watch the story grow into what will be a nice trilogy. The book gives closure, but it also opens exciting new doors. 

Gray does a great job of combining modern science with the traditional fantasy story. The science is simplified because the book is written for the Young Adult market. Even with a university education and an understanding of modern science, I enjoyed the mix of science and fantasy. Thirty years ago, when I was a young adult, I devoured fantasy novels. Fantasy novels tended to be very popular in the Marine barracks where I lived. Intangible took me back to those simpler times when I read for fun and escape. I found Intangible to be an exciting and worthwhile read and recommend it to anyone who like fantasy, regardless of age. 

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Book Review: Catching the Torch: Contemporary Canadian Literary Response to World War I

Catching the Torch: Contemporary Canadian Literary Response to World War I by Neta Gordon is a critical look at contemporary war literature. She earned a PhD from Queen’s University publishing a dissertation on Canadian women writing genealogical narratives. She currently chairs the Department of English Language and Literature at Brock University. Gordon is well published in both journals and books. 

2014 will be the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. The war is all but forgotten in the United States. If it is mentioned at all, it’s by Marines celebrating their birthday (10 November) mentioning the battle at Bealleau Woods. In Canada and Australia the war is a much bigger part of their culture and heritage. Although becoming self governing and its own country in 1867, Canada was still part of the British Empire and when Britain declared war in 1914, Canada was pulled into the war. While the US and Europe viewed the war as the destruction of innocence one of the more romantic myths in popular culture is that Canada, as a nation, was born in the trenches of WWI. According to author Joseph Boyden, Canada was “an army to be reckoned with, no longer colonials.” 

Gordon writes what can only be called a scholarly study of contemporary literature with WWI as the theme. In the US and Europe, WWI literature centers around loss such as T.S. Elliott’s “The Wasteland” or Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms and finally to the extreme Johnny Got His Gun. By examining Canadian fiction at different periods after the war, she tracks notable changes. There seems to be several noticeable changes in the tone of writing war fiction. Early on there is a kind of romanticized, call to duty outlook, followed by the horrors of the war and assigning blame. The officer class takes a beating in some novels their poor leadership. With time, the war comes back and there is a redeeming value and then heroism is previous wars is used to call up new soldiers for next war.
Catching the torch refers the final stanza of Flanders’s Field :

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from falling hands we throw
The torch

It has been many years since I read a critique of literature, maybe sophomore year in college. It was not a happy experience. Times changes and tastes mature and I can look at this critique with a better perspective. The book is very well researched and covers a range of Canadian literature. With the exception of “Flanders’s Field”, I am unfamiliar the literature used in the study, but the historian in me is adding new books to my reading list. I will re-read this book after reading the source novels. Gordon choice of source material supports thesis well. Canadians hate the horror of war, but the is a productive effect of war to national identity character. Views change to reflect what society wants to see. I imagine the horrors of the war will be replaced with respect for the fallen and pride in the nation next year. Canada lost 67,000 lives in WWI and twice that number were wounded. I can only be hoped that their sacrifice, no matter what the cause, will be remembered, especially today, Remembrance Day. 

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Book Review: First Victory 1914: The Hunt for the German Raider Emden

First Victory by Mike Carlton

First Victory 1914: The Hunt for the German Raider Emden by Mike Carlton is a history of WWI in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean. Carlton is a forty year veteran of radio and television news and current events reporting. He was an Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC) Vietnam correspondent during the war. He later served in London, Jakarta, and New York. A long time naval historian this is his fifth book and second on the Australian navy. 

I think of myself as fairly well read and educated on WWI . I have a pile of WWI books and remember most of my history classes in college and grad school. One thing I remember clearly from 20th Century History was about WWI. Dr. Smith covered the class and said although there was a huge naval race between Britain and Germany, the Battle of Jutland was the only real naval activity (aside from submarine warfare) in the war and it wasn’t worth putting too much time into because it was essentially fought to a draw. Living in both the Northern and Western hemisphere seems to have a dramatic effect on our world view. I do recall Australia’s efforts in WWI, but it seemed those efforts were to be filler for the British lines along with troops from Canada, India, and other countries in the empire and commonwealth. Little did I realize there was quite some activity outside of the European theater. 

Australia was ready to do its part in providing its own protection at the turn of the 20th century. This proved to be a benefit for Britain and its Two Power Rule. Britain’s fleet would remain the combined size or greater than the next two most powerful navies in Europe. The German naval race was putting pressure on Britain’s superiority. The British decided it was better not to send ships to Australia because they would be put to better use in protecting Britain. If Britain should fall what good would a few ships do to protect all of Australia. If Australia falls and Britain eventually wins, Australia would be free at the end of the hostilities. Although Britain valued the almost £ 23 million of wool and nearly £ 15 million in gold from Australia, protecting it at the expense of the British homeland was not in the plans. 

Australia did have fears of it’s own. Germany, looking to expand its small Empire, was moving into the South Pacific looking for territory. Australia was also worried about Japanese interests in the area. Britain chose to nullify the powerful Japanese naval threat with a treaty. German New Guinea and particularly the German port of Tsingtao, China remained threats for Australia. The outbreak of war put Germany a difficult spot in the Pacific. Having only a small fleet in the area, the German plan was to head East to Chile for supplies and a friendly port as there were no longer a safe port for the German fleet in the Indian or Western Pacific Oceans. Von Spee, said that one ship should stay behind and fight. There was no way a fleet in Chile would be able to respond or effectively fight. The plan was approved, knowing the ship left behind would probably not last the war before running out of supplies or meeting the British fleet. It was decided Von Spee and the Emden would remain behind. 

The Emden very quickly made a reputation as a raider. Carlton calls it piracy legalized by war. Ships carrying contraband to belligerent nations were open prey for riding and sinking. Von Spee followed the rules of war and no one from the ships he raided or captured complained about their treatment. In fact he was well known for taking care of crews and passengers of ships he captured. He had quite a reputation as a gentleman until the end. The Emden, nonetheless, became the target of the Australian Royal Navy. 

Although initially opposed to Australia taking any action against German holdings, Britain eventually reversed it decision with the stipulation that any territory captured would belong to Britain and not Australia. Britain saw the need for possible bargaining chips at the war’s end. Australia would man its navy and build an army for the benefit of Britain. Although many would find that position rather subservient, Australia was at a transition point. Many of the people considered themselves as members of the British Empire, more so than Australians. The six Australian colonies became a federation became a Commonwealth in 1901. Independence from British rule was still new. There was still loyalty to the mother country but a sense of pride as a nation and a need to prove itself. 

First Victory contains a wealth of information not only a very important part of Australian history, but world history. In the northern hemisphere, not many people are aware of the war in the Southern hemisphere and Indian Ocean. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I and it is quite an important anniversary for the people of Australia. As a veteran myself, I take time and honor Remembrance Day or as it is called in America Veteran’s Day. We tend to forget in America. Veterans Day is no longer a holiday for most Americans, veterans included. While people in other country’s remember, their service members, Americans would rather put a Chinese made “We Support the Troops” magnets on their foreign SUVs, powered by imported petroleum than make a serious effort to remember. We are very much symbolism over substance here. This is a very enlightening book and a history that reads like an action/adventure story. Truly a remarkable read and recommended for anyone interested in naval or WWI history. 

When the last shot was fired on Monday 11 November 1918, 418,809 Australians had enlisted, 331,781 of them serving overseas. This was from a population of four million, or 38.7 per cent of all men between the age of 18 to 44. 

The Australian War Memorial in Canberra records that 61,720 died and 137,013 were wounded or gassed. 

I would like to thank Random House Australia for making an advance copy of this book available for review in the United States. For Americans reading this, Veterans Day is two days away and please take a moment to member all those serving and all those who have served.

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November 7, 2013 · 20:10

Book Review: Inner Tube

Inner Tube by Hob Broun was his second novel. Broun was born in Manhattan and a graduate of the Dalston school. He attended Reed College in Portland. After the publication of his first novel Odditorium he underwent surgery to remove a spinal tumor. The operation left him paralyzed from the neck down. Using a keyboard operated by expelling air he wrote Inner Tube and a collection of short stories. Twenty-five years ago this December he died at home when his respirator failed. 

Inner Tube is listed a novel, but not so much in the traditional sense. I would put it somewhere between a novel and Naked Lunch. It is a series of short chapters all by an unidentified narrator. They tell a story, but not exactly in any special order. It seems more like a stream of consciousness that has been shuffled a bit. 

What I like about the book is the incredible use of language. Some of the descriptions took me back. I knew exactly what meant and had a vivid image the television with the “wood cabinet and the golden speaker cloth.” I know this television. We had it in our living room in the 1970s. I remember the weave and the irregular thread of the cloth that made that cover. I even remember the Zenith logo affixed to the cloth. His mention of a small cactus spine that worked its way into his hand had me searching my hands. The spines that are so small and transparent that you cannot see them, but only feel the in it is irritation in a general area. I lived through that feeling much more often than I would have liked to. Other simple sentences bring a wealth of imagery: “The sunset, laced with hydrocarbons, was a deep purple.” or the more crude, “Breakfast cereal arrived in my duodenum like bark chips.” His longer sentences can also bring that imagery to almost art: 

A boiling mass of ocean miniaturized, tightened in a square. Color-coded, like the iodopsin-secreting cone cells of the human retina, 900,000 phosphor dots twitch and fluoresce on the aluminized screen. And I watch, under siege. Electron guns, red, blue, and green, fire information particles, their inexhaustible ammunition, at 167 miles an hour. Weaponry controls and commands. So I watch.

Although the story seems a bit jumbled, I was intrigued by the short chapters and they all held my interest and obliged me to read on. Perhaps I was too caught up in the details to see the big picture. Nonetheless, I was mesmerized by the book. I have read some other reviews and yes, there is a story that can be followed. Perhaps it is like a painting where you are caught up in the shading, use of color, and perspective and forget the subject of the painting because it is just the means to showcase the true art. I am not usually one to rain praises on contemporary fiction as something that has potential to live on or as something that will still be considered great in twenty or fifty years, but I think Inner Tube will make that cut. Sometimes it nice not seeing the forest for the trees. 


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Book Review: When Soldiers Fall:How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan

“As casualties mount, support decreases.”
– John Mueller

When Soldiers Fall by Steven Casey

When Soldiers Fall:How Americans Have Confronted Combat Losses from World War I to Afghanistan by Steven Casey is a study of the actions and behavior of the US government and its people to its own war dead. Casey earned his undergraduate degree from the University of East Anglia. Both his masters and doctorate were earned from Oxford. He was a junior Research Fellow and Tutor in Politics at Trinity College. For over the last decade he has been at the London School of Economics. Casey has published articles and books on the Korean War, Cold War, and casualty reporting. 

This is certainly a book where a great education helps produce a great book. What also separates and elevates this book above most is that Casey is on the outside looking into American politics and foreign policy. Although, not advanced, as Casey’s I do share his education background and was anxious to read his insight into this sensitive and current issue in America. 

A few key points were made in the book. Casualty reporting, by the government, was a 20th century creation. For example during the Civil War, commanders kept track of causalities, not for reporting, but rather to keep track of empty spots in their ranks. World War I brought in the first casualty reporting, but with it came a problem. With the massive scale of offensives, the casualty counts were prime intelligence material. If the enemy knew the number of dead caused by their offensive action, they could first judge the effectiveness of the attack and secondly, with other casualty reports determine weak spots in allied defenses. Delays in transatlantic communications also contributed to problems in reporting. It could be weeks after a major offensive before any casualties were reported. 

Perhaps one of the greatest problems with America is politics and political perception. In the opening of the book, Casey compares Bush and Obama. Bush prevented the media from photographing the returning caskets from Iraq and Afghanistan. He was criticized for hiding the war dead from the public to prevent a popular backlash against the war. Obama allowed the press and was present for the return of the dead at Dover Air Force Base. He was criticized for using the dead for a photo op and his own personal gain. America politicizes everything and the vast majority of politics falls into only two camps. The American public treats politics like a major sporting event. No matter how alike the two teams are, people expand on the minor points until they believe victory by the other side would be a catastrophe. 

Accuracy of reporting even in the most recent times can be called in question. The Jessica Lynch story is a prime example. Ambushed by the Iraqis, Lynch returned fire, and was shot/stabbed/raped in the conflict before taken prisoner and tortured. In reality, her convoy had gotten lost and her vehicle was hit by a rocket propelled grenade, her rifle jammed, and she fell unconscious. She was taken prisoner and hospitalized, by her own testimony, she was treated well. Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman was reported to be killed in a firefight and awarded the Silver Star in a nationally televised memorial service. Later, it was found Tillman died from friendly fire and it was covered up. Another problem remains the difference in definitions causality. Causality means different things to different government agencies: Killed, wounded and evacuated, wounded and not evacuated, minor wounds, missing in action. Accuracy of information is a problem even today. The media is competing for the breaking story. The military is competing for need for security. The politicians are competing for their popularity. The mission of the three rarely intersect. 

War is a complex issue for America. We like the idea of fighting for what is (or we are lead to believe is) right, but quickly become weary of war when we learn that American’s are dying. Support for the second war in Iraq was high at the start when we believed the that there were weapons of mass destruction or Saddam Hussein played a part in 9/11. As the we lost faith in the reason and the body count rose, opinion changed. After WWI, it took Pearl Harbor to persuade America to pick up arms and fight on foreign shores again. Even then as the war went on, it was not popular, but seen as necessary. Korea became a war where soldiers “die for a tie.” Even as the war was being fought, it earned the nickname of the “Forgotten War.” Vietnam brought a major change America both politically and socially. No matter how many people supported going to war with the Japanese or more recently the Taliban or Iraq, the casualty count changed people’s minds.

Technology plays an increasing role in America’s war planning. Technology saves lives and makes great press. America loved the smart bomb footage from the First Gulf War; it made great television. So much so Roger Waters even commented on in the song “The Bravery of Being Out of Range”

Hey bartender over here
Two more shots
And two more beers
Sir turn up the TV sound
The war has started on the ground
Just love those laser guided bombs
They’re really great
For righting wrongs
You hit the target
And win the game
From bars 3,000 miles away

Obama likes drone strikes. Clinton liked cruise missile attacks. Under Obama some 2,000 to 2,500 people have been killed with drone attacks while sparing any threat to American military. Clinton’s motives were the same. Maximum damage with minimal risk to American lives. 

America likes its wars short, high tech, and low casualty. Perhaps the only president in the 20th century to become more popular by a war in his own presidency was G.H.W. Bush. He had a 89% approval rating at the end of the war, but failed to win re-election. Casey does an outstanding job of dissecting what would seem like the process of reporting war casualties. He puts each war in its historical and domestic political perspective. The work is well documented and very well written. As controversial as the subject can be, I can find little fault in his work. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the politics and reporting in war time and the complexities of the reporting America’s war dead.

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