Thursday, April 28, 2016

Book Review: Richard III

Richard III: A Ruler and His Reputation
David Horspool
History, Biography

The unavoidable twin poles of King Richard III are William Shakespeare and Josephine Tey. Shakespeare casts him as a kind of medieval Grand Moff Tarkin, monstrous and subtle and without any redeeming features. Tey, in her classic detective story The Daughter of Time, pictures him as the victim of a merciless posthumous image-blackening campaign, chiefly by his successors on the throne.

David Horspool's book is a reasoned attempt to navigate between them. It's neither excessively condemnatory nor fawningly exculpatory. I wouldn't call it a riveting read, but it's decent and thorough. It does assume that the reader is already familiar with the subject matter; it spends a lot of its page count supporting or debunking various claims by various factions, which is not likely to interest you if you hadn't heard the claims in the first place.

Also, the period of the Wars of the Roses is a hard one to render into narrative. There are too many betrayals, too many families, and too many characters. The same few first names, surnames, titles, and offices recur in dizzying combinations. I've read worse. Indeed, I've read much worse. But it would take a master storyteller to keep track of them all, and David Horspool is not that man. His failure to include a Who's Who is regrettable; the lack of maps is inexplicable; but the absence of any family trees is criminal. Good luck keeping the players sorted out without them.

So: eh. Richard III the book is judicious, scholarly, readable, and mainly aimed at those who are substantially interested in Richard III the person. If that's you, go ahead and read it. If not, start somewhere else.

Do read The Daughter of Time if you haven't already done so. Do remember that it's a story and not a scholarly tract, though.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Book Review: Breaking the Chains of Gravity

Breaking the Chains of Gravity: The Story of Spaceflight Before NASA
Amy Shira Teitel

This book covers some of the same ground as Tom Wolfe's unforgettable The Right Stuff. Amy Shira Teitel starts much earlier--with the emergence of German rocketry in the 1920s. She's no Tom Wolfe, but that's no crime; most people aren't. Unfortunately, she's not particularly anything else either. Breaking the Chains of Gravity is shallow: not much new, not much analysis, not much insight, not much narrative. It reads like a series of blog posts.

That's not to say that it's bad, particularly. It's serviceable. It conveys information. It doesn't go beyond the surface; for example, Teitel doesn't really dig into what Wernher von Braun's actual role in the Nazi rocket program was, or what it meant. ("A war is a war, and when my country is at war, my duty is to help win that war", von Braun is quoted as saying. Well, when your country is NAZI FRICKING GERMANY, maybe you should be, you know, thinking a little more broadly.) She has some interesting pieces, though they aren't novel, and they don't really form a story arc. 

In other words, Breaking the Chains of Gravity is a decent enough introduction. It might work well for a YA reader. It won't engage anyone who's not interested in the subject, and it won't surprise anyone who is.

If you haven't read The Right Stuff, what the hell are you doing wasting your time on the Internet? Go read it.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Book Review: Bloodline

Felix Francis

The late Dick Francis was one of the great thriller writers of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Most of his books were set in and around the world of British horse racing. Many of them also featured some interesting tangent, usually as the protagonist's job or hobby: photography (Reflex), wine (Proof), merchant banking (Banker), gems (Straight), and so forth. His last few books he coauthored with his son Felix.

Now Felix is on his own. Felix is not, to be honest, one of the great thriller writers. He's getting better, though. At this point, most of his issues are technical ones. In Bloodline, for example, he waits until well into the book to introduce the character who becomes the first murder victim; his father, I'm sure, would have brought him into the first chapter. He's got too many minor players, and he doesn't differentiate among them well by either physical or character description. However, his pacing is pretty good, and the surprise ending is satisfying, and that's kind of the bar for your basic thriller.

I wouldn't particularly recommend this for general readers, nor even for general thriller readers. It's a decent quick read for Dick Francis aficionados, though.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Book Review: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen

Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen
Lois McMaster Bujold
Science fiction, Vorkosigan saga

I didn't have high expectations for this one. The previous entry in the series, Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, was objectively pretty bad. Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is the first Vorkosigan book that I deliberately chose not to buy. I anticipated that I'd have to say something like: "Well, if you're a Vorkosigan fan, this one's worth reading if you get it from the library."

I was wrong. This one isn't worth reading under any circumstances. In fact, the more of a Vorkosigan fan you are, the less you should read this one. It's a flaccid, self-indulgent mess. Here's how it breaks down.

Pages 1-122: Nothing happens.
Pages 123-125: The scene you've been plodding along anticipating since page 2.
Pages 126-197: Nothing happens.
Pages 198-200: A man gets a job offer, and he's of two minds whether to accept it.
Pages 200-327: Nothing happens.
Page 328: Man turns down job offer. Cue dramatic music.
Pages 329-340: Would be an epilogue, except that the whole damn book is one big epilogue.

Seriously: other than the job offer, there is literally not one thing that any character wants that is opposed in any way by any other character, circumstance, force of nature, social custom, monster, psychological hangup, or astrological conjunction. This book consists of characters talking to each other about non-controversial subjects. It is, in a word, the one thing that I could never have envisioned a Vorkosigan book being: BORING. Sorry, three words: MIND-NUMBINGLY BORING.

I have a theory that there are two general types of writers: the intuitive and the workmanlike. The intuitive writer is the one who says "the character was telling me that he wanted to do X." The workmanlike writer is the one who says "I needed that scene there to set up scene Y and to establish the motivations of character Z." Lois Bujold, I'm pretty sure, is an intuitive writer. She doesn't analyze. She's been quoted as saying
The rule for finding plots for character-centered novels ... is to ask: "So what's the worst possible thing I can do to this guy?" And then do it.
Which describes, to absolute perfection, what she absolutely, cosmically, totally, and horribly failed to do in GJatRQ. It would be ironic if it weren't so ghastly.

I have another theory, too. Some years ago Bujold wrote a brilliant book called A Civil Campaign, modeled on a Regency romance. This book was so good, and was so successful, that it convinced Bujold that she's a terrific romance writer. She's not. She's a terrible romance writer. (For one thing, she can't write female characters.) What she did in A Civil Campaign was to throw a romantic problem around what she is terrific at, which is the caper-adventure novel. You know: the protagonist gets thrown into a developing situation, and she improvises a plan, and she's executing it when holy shit well that was a monkey wrench, gotta have a new plan, except whoa I didn't see that coming! and she's just getting that under control when, uh-oh, you know that thing that seemed like such a great idea back in Chapter 3, well, the problem is ...

Lois Bujold is a genius at that. You can see it not just in A Civil Campaign but in Ethan of Athos and Memory and all the "Dendarii" novels and Mirror Dance and ... hell, just go read them. Just don't read Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen. Really, I'm serious about this. No matter whether you are a Vorkosigan loyalist or a newbie, a casual follower or an obsessional fanboy, do not read this book. Just because an author has produced some wonderful books, it doesn't follow that everything by that author is wonderful. This isn't.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Book Review: Stiff

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Mary Roach

Mary Roach is an extremely funny writer, especially when she takes on semi-taboo subject. For me, the apotheosis of her oeuvre came with the mylar pants. Stiff is pretty typical of her work. That is, it's a terrific read, informative, thought-provoking, and not for the squeamish. 

Don't read this book during a meal. Also, if you want to discuss it with your non-weird friends, be prepared to find people edging away from you. Seriously, though, this is good stuff. Even if you find the subject off-putting, Stiff is worth a read.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Book Review: Ten Little Wizards

Ten Little Wizards
Michael Kurland
Fantasy, mystery

Randall Garrett's Lord Darcy series is one of the minor classics of Silver Age science fiction/fantasy. Darcy solves crimes in an alternative universe where magic not only works, but has been put on a scientific basis. Darcy's sidekick Sean O Lochlainn is a forensic sorcerer, but the stories themselves are all fair-play whodunits. (If you see a parallel to these guys, you're not alone.)

After Garrett's death, Michael Kurland wrote two pastiche follow-up novels: A Study in Sorcery and Ten Little Wizards. I'd bought and read the first many years ago, but I'd never run across the second. Speaking of magic, though--e-books to the rescue!

I wish I could say, after all that, that Ten Little Wizards is brilliant. It's ... serviceable. Garrett didn't have a terribly distinctive writing style, so there's nothing to complain about on that score. Kurland's description of the setting is reasonably close to Garrett's, but in this one--more than in A Study in Sorcery--it's a trifle unfocused, as if Kurland had a bunch of bits he wanted to throw in but didn't know quite how they all went together. The puzzle is somewhat weak; the murderer is unmasked kind of by accident, and the unmasking isn't very satisfactory.

Also, the magic is not credible. Garrett was always careful to give a scientific-sounding explanation whenever Master Sean did his tricks, using (for example) the "Law of Sympathy" and the "Law of Contagion" noted in our world by James Frazer in his book The Golden Bough. There are a couple of bits in Ten Little Wizards that just don't fit the classic mold. It may sound odd to the uninitiated to start complaining "Hey, magic can't do that!", but if nothing else it's a tribute to Garrett's original conception.

I enjoyed reading the book. I'm glad to have finally completed the series. Still, this is more a book for dedicated fans of the original than for general readers.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Book Review: No Man's Land

No Man's Land: 1918--The Last Year of the Great War
John Toland

No Man's Land was published in 1985, and I read it a few years later. I remember liking it very much. Since then, however, I've learned a lot--about World War I, and about other things as well--so I was curious to find out how it held up.

Pretty well, is the answer. There's a nice mix of soldier-level, general-level, and politician-level detail; the grunt's-eye view is particularly effective (and harrowing). There's a large cast of characters, but there's a who's who in the front, and Toland does a good job keeping them separated. Both sides' strategic thinking is clearly laid out. Not least, the writing is first-rate, and good enough to keep the attention of any reader with an interest.

No Man's Land biggest weakness is that it spends too much time on events in the nascent Soviet Union. Important? Sure. Interesting? Mostly. Relevant? Only if you're trying for a global overview of the year, which No Man's Land isn't. The main narrative, quite properly, is the hell of the Western Front. Everything else (Italy, the Middle East, the submarine menace) is handled synoptically; Russia should have been synopsized as well.

I suspect a 21st-century book of this sort would include more social and economic history. It certainly would have included more maps, which would have helped with following the tactical details. What it wouldn't have had was John Toland's one-on-one interviews with Great War veterans. There aren't any. That's reason enough to read No Man's Land.

Two of the best of Toland's rough contemporaries in the military history field are Walter Lord's Incredible Victory and Cornelius Ryan's The Longest Day.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Book Review: The Man Who Knew Infinity

The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan
Robert Kanigel
Biography, Mathematics

There's always a debate about genius. Are there people who just have an inexplicable gift for something? Or is it simply a matter of getting ten thousand hours of practice?

To some extent this is a false dichotomy. To put in 10,000 hours on anything, particularly if you do it as a youth, you've got to be abnormally attracted to that thing. All the same, my personal intuition leans toward the inexplicable-gift side. I thought about that a lot while reading The Man Who Knew Infinity.

I'm not bad at mathematics. I use basic probability and statistics all the time. I have a degree in a science (astronomy) that uses math pretty heavily. I sometimes even do math-oriented puzzles for fun. But numbers don't "speak to me". I don't love mathematics.

Ramanujan--born poor in India in 1887, with little or no formal training, ignored for years by the mathematical establishment--did love mathematics. "Love" may not be a strong enough word. He was a smart young man, who did well in all his classes ... until he got hold of a mathematics book. After that, he wouldn't--maybe couldn't--study anything else. His gift eventually made him famous; by bringing him to England, it may also have killed him.

It's easy to mythologize someone with such an outsized talent and moving life story. The Man Who Knew Infinity does a terrific job of humanizing Ramanujan. It's less successful at conveying the details of his mathematics, but I'm not sure how you could do better. Kanigel chose to assume that his readers don't have even a high-school level of numeracy, which irritated me, but to make any other assumption would probably have irritated a lot of other people. It would have been nice to get the actual details even one of Ramanujan's extraordinary proofs--as things stand, we have to take it on faith that they really were as strange, as beautiful, and as unexpected as other mathematicians say they are--but I don't know that that would be possible.

So the book is, perhaps, as successful as it could be. By focusing on Ramanujan as a person--his religious devotion, his friendship with the English mathematician G. H. Hardy, his sternly vegetarian principles, his homesickness--it makes him accessible. Or maybe it only makes him seem accessible. Ramanujan's torrid love affair with numbers is not something that can be conveyed in text, nor experienced by most mortals.

The Man Who Knew Infinity has a fair amount in common with Andrew Hodges's insightful Alan Turing: The Enigma. The latter was the loose basis for the excellent (though quite inaccurate) film The Imitation Game; and, as it happens, a film based on The Man Who Knew Infinity will be released soon.