Monday, November 26, 2007

What If? (Book #116)

What If? (Robert Cowley, ed., 1999) is a collection of essays postulating counterfactuals--i.e. speculations on how the world would've turned out if just one small detail was changed. What if the Greeks lost at Salamis? What if Publius Quinctilius Varus never lost those legions? What if the Union hadn't found Lee's famous "Lost Order"? Etc.

They're fun reads, though some are far more plausible than others (e.g. I'm pretty sure if Athenian democracy had been nipped in the bud, someone else would've thought of it eventually). The whole exercise is of particular interest to me now, since my WIP is an alternate history, and one that's more a lengthy counterfactual speculation with action and character development than a fantastical alternate history like Naomi Novik's Temeraire series or Orson Scott Card's Alvin Maker books.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Mask of Command (Book #115)

The Mask of Command (John Keegan, 1987) examines the command styles of Alexander the Great, Wellington, Grant...and Hitler. That fourth section was a weird read for me, because insofar as I'd compare Hitler to Wellington or Grant at all, the labels I would've chosen are Evil and Not Evil. Keegan doesn't deny Hitler's evil, but that's not his point--the focus of that section of the book is on what made him an ineffective commander compared to the other leaders analyzed. And once I got past my aversion to thinking of Hitler as something other than a demon in human form, I decided that was a useful approach, given that Hitler was actually as much a human being as Wellington, or me, or anyone else, and I think we need to be reminded that as a species we have that capacity for evil just as much as we're capable of greatness or ordinariness.

Anyway...that issue aside, this is an informative look at how the nature of military command has changed over time and what makes an effective commander given the changing constraints of military technology. He confirms my high opinion of Wellington and has made me rethink my low opinion of Grant. His conclusion focuses on how nuclear war changes the nature of command by adding unavoidable layers of secrecy and giving the people with the most protection from danger the power to pull the nuclear trigger that they alone won't suffer from. I'd love to see what he says about the post-Cold War, post-9/11 world, and since Wikipedia assures me he's still alive and writing, I might get some of his recent works to do just that.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sharpe's Waterloo (Book #114)

We're down in Tulsa for Thanksgiving week with my in-laws, and my airplane book yesterday was Sharpe's Waterloo (Bernard Cornwell, 1987). It's a damn good read, maybe even good enough to go into a three-way tie with Triumph and Trafalgar as my favorite in the whole series. And if you allow for Cornwell inserting Sharpe and other fictional characters into various key moments and for a certain amount of British homerism, it's an excellent book on the battle itself, probably tied with another favorite of mine, Alessandro Barbero's The Battle. (And I don't have a problem with the homerism, since I tend to agree with Cornwell that Wellington is an underrated general who won the battle fair and square. Waterloo was the ultimate goal line stand, and the British held against long, long odds. Yes, the Prussians' arrival was important, but it was the British who held off the best Napoleon could throw at them all day, and it was the redcoats who carried the day against the supposedly irresistible force of the Imperial Guard. Picture me waving a Union Jack here for proper effect.)

Friday, November 16, 2007

Voices from the World of Jane Austen (Book #113)

I have mixed feelings about Voices from the World of Jane Austen (Malcolm Day, 2006). It does provide a decent overview of all aspects of late Georgian and Regency England, and, as the title suggests, is packed with quotations from primary sources. While it focuses most heavily on everyday life in the gentry and middle classes--i.e. Jane Austen's stratum of society--it includes a decent amount of info on the aristocracy and working classes as well. And it includes chapters on war, politics, technological advances, and the like. To me, that's a plus because it's easy as a writer to get so focused on your own narrow area of interest--for me, the military, for many romance writers, aristocratic society--that you forget just how much was going on in the era.

But on the downside, I noticed numerous small errors on the topics I'm most familiar with, errors that weren't so much outright falsehood as oversimplifying to the point of incorrectness. E.g, the book perpetrates the popular myth that almost all army officers were scions of the aristocracy who purchased their commissions. (Some were, but the demand for officers was so high during the Napoleonic Wars that pretty much any tolerably genteel man could get a commission by recommendation without purchase as long as he didn't want an ultra-prestigious Guards or cavalry regiment.) Knowing that, I don't know how much to trust the book on topics like technological advances where I'm not so expert. It's a useful overview, but I wouldn't use it as a sole source on any make-or-break detail in my writing.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

From Where the Sun Now Stands (Book #112)

From Where the Sun Now Stands (Will Henry, 1959) is a beautiful but heartbreaking novel that through the eyes of a young kinsman of Chief Joseph tells the story of the Nez Perce's attempt to escape to Canada. I wanted to go back in time and fix the world to give them a better ending--the doomed gallantry of the thing had me crying at the end.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Voice of Crow (Book #111)

Voice of Crow (Jeri Smith-Ready, 2007) is the second book in the fantasy trilogy that began last year with Eyes of Crow. They're part of a genre I'm coming to think of as "village fantasy"--think Sharon Shinn's YA fantasy or Lois McMaster Bujold's Sharing Knife series. There's a rustic, pastoral feel, and magic is woven into the fabric of life. In this case, the heroine's peaceful world is being threatened by a neighboring city-state with imperial ambitions. It's a good read, though it took me awhile to catch on to remember enough of what had happened in the previous book to follow the action.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Ha'penny (Book #110)

Ha'penny (Jo Walton, 2007) is the second volume of a chillingly dark alternate history set in an England that made peace with Germany after Dunkirk and has a few years later been taken over by fascist forces in a coup of sorts. Basically, the British traded liberty for safety, and as Benjamin Franklin once said, those who are willing to make that trade deserve neither.

This is a dark, dark book, the more so because it's obviously an exaggerated reflection of America post-9/11. (The key word here is exaggerated. I am not remotely claiming that 2007 America is a fascist state. We're just not cherishing and protecting our liberties and those of others quite as we ought.) When fear rules, it's too easy to let all you hold dear, all the best of who you are as a nation, slip through your fingers. There's supposed to be a third volume in this series next year, and I hope Walton will end it on a optimistic note--and I hope America will choose liberty over fear in 2008, too!

(I try not to be political, I really do. But it's hard sometimes when I have such strong opinions.)

Thursday, November 1, 2007

How I Live Now (Book #109)

How I Live Now (Meg Rosoff, 2004) is an unusual YA novel and yet another example of how YA fiction is more interesting and varied than it ever was half my lifetime ago when I was in the proper demographic to read it. It's about a girl who's sent from New York to live with cousins in England because of problems with her new stepmother...only while she's there a war breaks out. Rosoff writes tightly in the POV of her narrator, who was already troubled before the war starts, and there's no tidy conclusion. I found it a different, compelling read.