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Showing posts from May, 2012

CBR4 #26: War by Sebastian Junger

I've been putting this book off for a while, but decided to finally read it in honor of Memorial Day. It was worth it, and the only reason I give it four stars instead of five is that I have no desire to read it ever again.

There is quite a bit of military in my blood, though I'm a generation removed from it. All three of my grandfathers served in the military--two in the Navy and one in the Army. One of my uncles served briefly, and at least one of my great-grandfathers served in WWI. I have a few friends who either have served or are currently serving in various branches of the armed forces. This book makes me realize that no matter how much I may want to understand their experiences, nothing I can read will ever make that truly possible.

Sebastian Junger spent fifteen months on and off embedded with troops in Afghanistan's Korengal valley, easily the most dangerous and fatal area in all of Afghanistan for American soldiers. He goes on patrols with them, spends time with…

CBR4 #25: The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

On its surface, this book sounded like something I would like. A movie critic/historian sets out to write a book about Tubby Thackeray, a silent-era film star who has been all but forgotten by the modern era. Unfortunately, it turns out that things would have been a lot better if Tubby had stayed forgotten.

The problems I had with this book were probably mostly personal. I didn't like the narrator at all--I found him to be something of a spineless twerp--and none of the other characters appealed to me either. Frankly, I was a bit disappointed that Tubby didn't crawl out of the screen Ring-style and eat everybody in the first 100 pages. Plus, I am very iffy about unreliable narrators. Although sometimes the effect can be used really well, in this one I found it extremely obvious and therefore a bit lame.

Some of the imagery was good, and I did appreciate the tone of ever-rising paranoia and tension, but there were long bits that consisted of the narrator arguing via message boa…

CBR4 #24: The Sword-Edged Blonde by Alex Bledsoe

In some ways, this is a stereo-typical noir parody. The detective, Eddie LaCrosse is an embittered cynic, just trying to get by and deal with his dark past. His office is above a bar people with tough characters and an even tougher barmaid. An old friend (who is now a pretty important guy) drops by with a problem -- it seems that his wife has gone crazy and killed their son. The friend wants Eddie to investigate and see if everything is as it seems to be (hint: it's not.) Eddie has to not only solve the mystery, but also confront some of the demons of his past.

Now take that story, and move it to a time of swords and horses. Eddie's friend is a king, and magic is involved in daily life. Eddie still has to solve the mystery, but now there are sword battles and curses and all the tropes of fantasy.

It's an odd cross between Sam Spade and Lord of the Rings, but it somehow works. The character of Eddie is great, and the mystery was intriguing. It's particularly entertainin…

CBR4 #23: What the Corpse Revealed by Hugh Miller

As you well know, I've read several of these medical examiner books, and frankly, I was least impressed with this one. It's not that it was bad, necessarily. There were several cases laid out wherein forensics were used to find out what had happened to the victims. The writing was clear and relatively easy to read. The main issue was that all the stories were second-hand--the author, unlike the authors of the previous works I've read on this subject, was not personally involved as a forensic professional, but is just documenting the cases of others.

While I don't like TOO much personal stuff intruding into the case histories (see this season of Bones for an example of a perfectly-balanced procedural tipped over into "crappy family drama") there is something to be said for seeing a glimpse of the forensic pathologist behind the mask. The kind of people who seem to get into this profession are often interesting characters, and have a lot to add to any story tha…

CBR4 #22: Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage by Stephen Budiansky

Strangely, this is another book I picked up due to my viewing habits. I am a huge fan of the film Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchett. Although it's obviously very fictitious historical fiction, it's still a tremendous film full of amazing performances. My favorite character in it is definitely Sir Francis Walsingham, played by Geoffrey Rush as a cunning strategist and loyal ally. I figured that while he's obviously been made more interesting for the film, somewhere there must be a grain of truth to his role, and I bought this book to try and find it.

Walsingham was in fact one of Queen Elizabeth's most trusted advisers. He was a devout protestant who had spent a great deal of time outside of England, acting as an ambassador. He was a quiet, frugal person, a devoted family man and conscientious civil servant. He was also a master of strategy; he managed to place double agents, crack codes, use misinformation to achieve his goals, and handle a rather indecisive monarch. A…

CBR4 #21: Soiled Doves: Prostitution in the Early West by Ann Seagraves

I am a big fan of westerns. I love the old ones--anything with Clint Eastwood on a horse will probably make me happy--and I like the newer ones, like Tombstone and the Coen brothers' excellent remake of True Grit. I am especially fond of HBO's (entirely too short-lived) TV show Deadwood. If you haven't seen it, I'd suggest you run out and get seasons one and two immediately (season three is...not as good.) The show is graphic (it's HBO, there are going to be boobs), the language is EXTREMELY salty, and some characters require the use of subtitles to get anything out of their dialogue. However, the acting is top-notch, the plots and dialogue are nearly Shakespearean, and Al Swearengen is about the coolest character to ever grace my television.

I told you that story to tell you this one:

Several of the characters on Deadwood are prostitutes. During the first season, pretty much the only women in the fledgling city are the hookers that were brought in to make money of…

CBR4 #20: San Francisco Is Burning: The Untold Story of the 1906 Earthquake and Fires by Dennis Smith

In 1906, a massive earthquake struck the young city of San Francisco. While still suffering the aftershocks of the quake, fires broke out in several locations. Due to poor preparation and some very poor decision-making by those in authority, the fires would grow and rage out of control for days, destroying large swaths of the coastal city.

This book did a great job of explaining the events that led to the fires, as well as the context of how the city functioned at the time. Corruption in the local government was indirectly responsible for the lack of available water to fight the fire, and an unclear chain of command resulted in an unqualified member of the military taking charge of the fire-fighting process. His decisions to evacuate citizens (instead of allowing them to stay and try to save their homes), authorize the use of dynamite (by unqualified, untrained soldiers) to create firebreaks, and to declare martial law in the city resulted in the death of many people and the destructi…