Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front

Book Review: All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

We open on a good day for Paul Bäumer and the men of the Second Company.  The sun is shining, there’s a light breeze to cool them, and they’re getting double rations.  The reason the men are getting double rations is that half their company was killed in the last action at the front lines, and the supplies were ordered before that was known.  But hey, at least their bellies are full for a change.

All Quiet on the Western Front

A few months ago, Paul and his classmates were idealistic young patriots, who signed up for the army en masse at the urging of their schoolmaster.  War seemed a glorious adventure then, and they wanted to serve their country.  Too late, Paul has realized that old men start the wars that young men die in.

This novel was published in 1928 as Im Westen  Nicht Neues (“Nothing New in the West”).  It’s based in large part on the actual experiences Mr. Remarque had during his service for Germany in World War One.  (Compare Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, which I have previously reviewed.)  It quickly became a bestseller, not only in Germany but around the world for its gut-wrenching picture of the lives of ordinary soldiers.  About the only people who didn’t appreciate it were the Nazis, who banned the book when they came to power.

Although there are small moments of individual heroism (and cowardice) in battle, this is not a book where the main characters contribute to a major victory or have the influence to come up with brilliant tactics.  At best, they gain a few feet to another set of trenches, and more often, they die to no purpose.

Gritty realism is the main focus here, detailing how the soldiers become desensitized to body modesty, sexual mores and lice.  The extreme violence of war can still get to them, though.  One of the most memorable scenes is when Paul is trapped in a shellhole with a French soldier who’s taken a mortal wound, but doesn’t die for hours, and how Paul’s emotions change over those hours.

On Paul’s rare leaves, he feels detached from the civilians he’s fighting for, who do not understand the horror of the front lines.  But the civilians are suffering too; the bread made from actual bread ingredients Paul brings home is much appreciated, and his mother is dying of cancer.  Paul and his fellow soldiers realize well ahead of the civilians that the war is being lost; the leaders are still talking about victory even as the Americans enter the fray.

Although there are deaths in the first part of the novel, the last third increases the pace of mortality as the Second Company falls one by one.  The breaking point for Paul is the death of old veteran Katczinsky, who mentored him and the other new recruits in the arts of survival and scrounging.  And then comes the end; the book has been told from Paul’s viewpoint until the final page, which is an anonymous postscript telling us Paul is dead.

There are bits of dark humor scattered throughout; one of the more amusing scenes from a schadenfreude perspective is when the schoolmaster who talked Paul and his classmates into enlisting is himself drafted into the Territorial Reserves.  His drill master is one of his old students, who delights in throwing the teacher’s motivational speeches back at him.

As one might expect, there’s a certain amount of crude speech from the soldiers, and the usual disturbing events that surround war.

This book is indeed one of the classics, particularly in the field of war literature, and is worth reading at least once, preferably before signing up to go off to war.

Here’s a scene from the 1930 movie version:

 

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

Manga Review: Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989 by Shigeru Mizuki

This is the final volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s history of Japan and his personal life during the Showa Era.  It mixes events that affected the entire country with stories of his struggles as a man and an artist.

Showa: A History of Japan 1953-1989

As noted in the introduction by Frederik L. Schodt, this volume covers more time than the previous three put together.  It covers Japan’s transition from a militarized country reeling from utter defeat, to a nation that was all about business.  Many of the events covered will be new to American readers (though manga and anime fans may see the roots of certain storylines in real life happenings.)

The book also chronicles the long years of poverty Mizuki endured as he struggled to earn a living as an artist.  Again, this is a warts and all portrayal, so we learn that his arranged marriage was by no means a love match, but something his parents insisted on.  Even when Mizuki finally makes it big with a hit manga, he learns that success is its own trap.  Now that people want his product, he has to keep putting it out on strict deadlines bang bang bang.

I learned a lot.  For example, while it’s been retrofitted into many historical dramas, kidnapping for ransom was a new crime in 1963, made possible by rising prosperity meaning rich people had enough cash to pay ransom.  The “paradox of prosperity” is discussed:  As rising prosperity made the inside of people’s houses more comfortable, the associated pollution made the outside of their houses less comfortable.

As Mizuki’s personal star rose, he had to take on assistants to help him produce all the work he was now obligated to put out.  Some of these assistants, like Ryoichi Ikegami, went on to become famous manga creators in their own right.  Others…did not.  A subplot in one chapter has an assistant vainly attempt to get his original work published to impress a potential marriage partner.

A couple of chapters are dedicated to daydreams Mizuki had, one where he takes a vacation to the afterlife, and another where he contemplates a company that facilitates extra-marital affairs (and admits that his long-suffering wife might also appreciate the idea.)  In real life, he reconnects with the New Guinea natives that had befriended him decades before.

The volume ends with a completely transformed Japan, and Mizuki’s wish that while the future is yet unwritten, the new generations will learn from the mistakes and suffering of the past.  Mizuki lived on into the second decade of the 21st Century, still working up until the end.

Once again, the primary narrator is Nezumi Otoko (Rat Man), and we meet the real life person who inspired his personality.  One chapter is instead narrated by a traditional storyteller who mentored Mizuki for a while.  Readers who are unused to manga conventions may find the art shifts uncomfortable.

In addition to the standard footnotes and endnotes, this volume ends with a number of color plates that demonstrate Mizuki’s art at its most detailed.  this is great stuff.

There’s some uncomfortable bits, including rape, cannibalism and suicide.  There’s also some toilet humor (which at one point turns dramatic.)

Like the other volumes in the series, a must have for manga and anime fans who want to know more about Japan’s recent history.  It would also be good for more general history students seeking a new viewpoint.  Highly recommended.

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD #2020-24

Comic Book Review: 2000 AD #2020-24 Edited by Tharg

As I’ve mentioned before, 2000 AD is a weekly comic paper with a speculative fiction bent that’s been published in Britain for over forty years.  It keeps up the schedule by featuring several short stories in each issue, most of them serialized.  A while back I c came into possession of the March 2017 issues, which seems like a good chunk to look over.

2000 AD #2020

“Judge Dredd” has been a headliner in the magazine since the second issue, and stories set in the dystopian future of Mega-City One are in almost every issue.  We start with a two-parter titled “Thick Skin” written by T.C. Eglington with art by Boo Cook.  Two vid stars have their skin slough off on camera in separate instances.  Coincidence?  Plague?  Terrorist plot?  It’s up to lawman Judge Dredd to investigate.

This is followed up by “The Grundy Bunch” by Arthur Wyatt and Tom Foster.  A family/cult that worships “Grud and Guns” has taken over one of the few remaining green spots in the city.  Despite the topical overtones, the story turns out to be a setup for a terrible pun.

“Get Jerry Sing” is by classic Judge Dredd team John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.  The title phrase is a bit of graffiti that’s been appearing all over the city.  What it means is a mystery, but pop star Jerry Sing isn’t happy about being a target.  This one has a karmic twist ending that brought a dark chuckle from me.

Lastly, there’s the first part of a longer story, “Harvey” by John Wagner and John McCrea.  The Day of Chaos and subsequent disasters have left the Judges severely understaffed, and it will be a while before they can train new human ones.  So there’s a renewed interest in the robot Judge program, Mechanismo.  Previous experiments with the artificial intelligences have proved disastrous, but this time, the Tek-Judges think they’ve cracked the problems with earlier models.  Judge Dredd is asked to take on “Judge Harvey” as a trainee, to see if this time robot cops are finally viable.

2000 AD #2021

The “Sinister Dexter” series is about Ramone Dexter and Finnegan Sinister, a pair of gunsharks (hitmen) who live in the city of Downlode.  Due to shenanigans involving alternate Earths, the pair have managed to get themselves erased from human and computer memory, and are slowly re-establishing their reputations without the baggage of the past.  They’re inspired by the hitmen from Pulp Fiction, but now bear little resemblance to them.

We have three stories in this group by Dan Abnett and Steve Yeowell.  First, the robotic security system for their new apartment building decides that Sinister and Dexter are a threat to the tenants.  A threat that must be eliminated.  The second story is from the point of view of the bartender at their favorite watering hole.  He doesn’t remember their previous interactions, but does know there’s something odd about the pair.  And finally, there’s a new hitman in town, who calls himself “the Devil.”  And his killing skills do seem…supernatural.

I find these characters smarmy and unlikable, but this sort of “not quite as bad guys” protagonist is popular with a segment of the readership.

2000 AD #2022

“Kingmaker” by Ian Edginton and Leigh Gallagher is a newer serial.  A fantasy world was having its own problems dealing with a wraith king, when suddenly technologically advanced aliens invaded.  An elderly wizard, a dryad, and an orkish warrior riding dragons are beset by alien pursuers.  When they finally defeat this batch of invaders by seeming divine intervention, the trio realizes they may already have found the chosen one.

Cyrano de Bergerac is the narrator of “The Order” by Kek-W and John Burns.  On his deathbed, the boastful writer tells of his experiences with the title organization, which does battle with beings known as the Wyrm.  Time has come unglued due to the latest Wyrm incursion, and a mechanical man from a possible future might or might not be the key to victory.  The Wyrm are driven back, but at a cost.

“Kingdom” by Dan Abnett and Richard Elson is set on a future Earth where humanity as we know it has been all but wiped out by giant insects known as Them.  The genetically-engineered dog soldier Gene the Hackman has finally found the “Kingdom”, haven of the last humans.  Unfortunately, there are dark secrets in this supposed sanctuary, so Gene and his allies must strike even against the Masters.

2000 AD #2023

“Brink” by Dan Abnett and INJ Culbard takes place in the late 21st Century after Earth had to be abandoned due to ecosystem collapse.  Bridget Kurtis is an inspector for the Habitat Security Division.  After the horrific death of her partner on the last case, Bridget is assigned to investigate mysterious suicides on a new habitat that’s reputed to be haunted…even though it’s still under construction.

The latest installment of “Scarlet Traces”, set in a world where H.G. Wells’  War of the Worlds took place is by Ian Edginton & D’Israeli.  Humanity’s history has been twisted by access to Martian technology.  It’s now 1965, and the Martians are doing something to the sun.  It may require allying with the Venusian refugees to thwart them.  This is fascinating alternate Earth stuff.

“Cursed: The Fall of Deadworld” by Kek-W & Dave Kendall is set in the backstory of Judge Death, the lawman from an Earth where life is a crime and the penalty is death.  Sydney D’eath has put himself in charge, twisting the world to fit his vision of a crime-free paradise.  We follow Judge Fairfax, his sentient vehicle Byke, and the orphan Jess as they search for a haven.  Doesn’t look good for them, frankly.

2000 AD #2024

There’s also two “Future Shocks”, stand-alone shorts.  “The Best Brain in the Galaxy” by Andrew Williamson & Tilen Javornik features a descendant of Horatio Hornblower who will do anything to win a competition to become captain of the most important starship voyage ever.  Anything.  “Family time” by Rory McConville and Nick Dyer is a parody of a certain Hollywood couple who like adopting children from around the world.  Except that this version is adopting orphans from across time.  The Child Protective Services are concerned that these children may not be orphans in the usual sense.  I liked the first story better.

There’s also the short humor strip “Droid Life” by Cat Sullivan  in a couple of issues, depicting life for the robotic staffers of 2000 AD.  Plus Tharg’s editorials, and actual letters pages.

2000 AD stories tend to be on the violent side, and sometimes get quite gory.  I didn’t see any nudity in these particular issues, but the comic doesn’t shy away from toplessness.  Parents of preteens may want to vet these comics before giving them to their kids.

As always, it’s a mixed bag for quality, but the very nature of the magazine means that there’s always something different to look at if the current story displeases, and serials are rotated frequently.  worth looking into if you can afford it.

 

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6

Comic Book Review: Essential Defenders Vol. 6 written (mostly) by J.M. DeMatteis, Pencils by Don Perlin

The Defenders are one of Marvel Comics’ more oddball teams, beginning with a line-up of Doctor Strange, Hulk, Silver Surfer and the Sub-Mariner, four of Marvel’s most powerful characters who did not belong to other teams.  After a couple of pilot stories, the “non-team” first assembled in Marvel Feature #1 in 1971 to battle the alien Scientist Supreme Yandroth, and shortly thereafter got their own continuing series.

Essential Defenders Vol. 6

With four such volatile personalities, it was difficult to justify them staying together very long, and the warrior woman Valkyrie was added to the group to give them “texture” and a reason to cooperate.  Other members soon followed, either long-term or temporarily, and the Defenders got a reputation for being whoever happened to show up when danger struck, with Dr. Strange being the linchpin of the group.

This volume covers Defenders issues #107-125, and a couple of extras from 1982-83.  We open in the aftermath of a major plotline involving a group of self-proclaimed super-patriots trying to take over America with a group of powerful telepaths.  These telepaths and Kyle “Nighthawk” Richmond combined their mental powers to blow up the bad guys’ base, apparently dying in the process.  As the assembled heroes reel in shock during the aftermath, a stray minion of the super-patriots manages to get the drop on Valkyrie, killing her.

SPOILERS AHOY FROM THIS POINT!

It turns out that due to her convoluted backstory, involving the Asgardian goddess Amora the Enchantress, Valkyrie isn’t quite dead yet.  The heroes split into two groups when Amora offers a deal to restore Valkyrie to full life.  This plotline ends with Valkyrie restored to her true form of Brunnhilda, and no longer with the curse of being unable to fight women.  (She also loses some of her disdain of men in the process.)

Several members of the Defenders are lost in transit back from Asgard, but before that plotline bears fruit, there are solo issues focusing on Eric Simon “Devil-Slayer” Payne and Patsy “Hellcat” Walker.  Then there’s Avengers Annual #11. which features the return of perennial Defenders villain Nebulon.  He and his wife Supernalia clash, pitting the Avengers and Defenders against each other.

This is followed by Marvel Team-Up #119, which features Spider-Man and Isaac “Gargoyle” Christians in a story about aging and the acceptance of same.  Isaac has some insight into these matters as he was already a senior citizen when he made the Faustian bargain that made him a living gargoyle.

The missing Defenders turn out to have been transported to Earth-S, a parallel universe where the main hero group is the Squadron Supreme, a parody of/homage to the Justice League.  On their earth, Kyle Richmond is President of the United States.  Which would be great if he weren’t under the mental control of the alien known as Overmind.  As is most of the Squadron, saving only Hyperion (their version of Superman), who is suffering from lethal radiation poisoning.

And Nighthawk, “our” Kyle Richmond, is helping him out, having been transported to this Earth by the group mind that were once human telepaths.  He brought in the missing Defenders, who now summon the rest of the team for a moon mission to keep the Overmind from conquering the rest of the universe.

Except it turns out that “our” Kyle Richmond is actually “their” Kyle Richmond, given Nighthawk’s memories by the group mind.  But wait, then who’s the President?  It’s actually Null the Living Darkness, which has been puppeteering the Overmind to draw attention away from its protective shell.  The climax is kind of disappointing as it’s the group mind’s show, co-opting everyone else for a battle of wills with the ultimate darkness, only to have Null destroy itself with its own inner light.

So in the aftermath, “our” Kyle Richmond is as really dead as a Marvel superhero gets (not coming back from the dead until 1998!); Earth-S’ Kyle Richmond regains his true memories and reunites with his old teammates (who would go on to the Squadron Supreme miniseries, one of the best superhero stories ever); the group mind inhabits the currently vacant body of the Overmind; and the Defenders return to their own Earth.  (With a slight detour for some of them in a Dr. Seuss-inspired adventure.)

The next few issues weave together the resolution of the Patsy Walker/Daimon “Son of Satan” Hellstrom romance, Hank “Beast” McCoy’s growing irritation with the Defender’s “non-team” ethos… and the return of the Elf with a Gun.  This last had been a subplot during the Steve Gerber run, involving an elf with a gun popping up and seemingly murdering random people.  It was abandoned when Gerber left the book with the apparent death of the elf in an accident.

Mr. DeMatteis wanted to change the direction of the book, so revived the elf (now revealed to be multiple identical beings) as the agent of a time tribunal that was attempting to prevent the destruction of Earth.  Removing random Earthlings had not done the trick, so the tribunal had to convince the four original Defenders that they must never all be in the same room together again.  Unfortunately, the elf took over the narration for a couple of issues, and he was written as a very annoying character.

The resignation of the four founders gave Beast the opportunity to reconfigure the group as the New Defenders (complete with title change as of #125).  He roped in his old X-Men teammates Iceman and Angel, holdovers Valkyrie and Gargoyle, and new member Heather “Moondragon” Douglas.  A powerful telepath who had a revolving door hero/villain history, she had been released into the custody of the Valkyrie to re-learn human values.  (The Overmind simply disappeared between issues; this would become a plot point later.)

This began a period in which the New Defenders were an official team, with rules and such.  But that’s for Volume Seven.

Overall, a decent run with consistent art, and some good character focus stories.  Some of the writing is a bit heavy-handed with the morals; there’s a consistent theme of learning to have hope even in a world full of loss and pain.  The Dr. Seuss inspired story will either be laugh out loud funny or a total miss depending on your tastes.

Recommended to fans of the characters or 1970s Marvel storytelling.

 

Book Review: A Feast for Crows

Book Review: A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first three volumes in the “A Song of Ice and Fire” series.  If you have not read those, you may want to consult my reviews of those books instead.

A Feast for Crows

While war still ravages the land of Westeros, for the moment it is contained to a handful of trouble spots.  In King’s Landing, King Tommen is the puppet of his mother, Queen Cersei as she schemes to gain complete power over the realm.  In sunny Dorne, daughters seek vengeance.  In the Riverlands, the last castles are yet to be taken, and outlaws and soldiers alike despoil what little remains of the smallfolk.  In the Vale, there is no war, but their lord’s castle, the Eyrie, feels the effects of winter early.  Across the Narrow Sea in Braavos, a girl has lost much and stands to lose more.  On the other side of Westeros, the Iron Islands must choose a new leader.  And in Oldtown, there are sinister doings at the Citadel of the Maesters.

And everywhere, the crows are feasting on carrion.

When Mr. Martin realized that this book was getting way too long, he could have taken the Wheel of Time route and split the story in half by time.  But that would mean checking in with about thirty viewpoint characters, most of whom would accomplish relatively little in that timespan.  Instead, he chose to split this and the next volume, A Dance with Dragons, up by location.

The good news is that this allows the characters that do appear to advance the plotlines considerably.  The bad news is that if your favorite characters were in the other territories, you won’t see them until the next book.  And back in the day, that would be another five years!

There are a bunch of new viewpoint characters, and Mr. Martin gets “cute” with the chapter headings, naming them “The Soiled Knight” or “The Kraken’s Daughter” instead of the character’s name.  He even uses different nicknames for different chapters!

With their numbers dwindling and scattered, the Stark family is down to two viewpoint characters.  Sansa Stark is now going by “Alayne Stone”, supposed daughter of the cunning Littlefinger.  With the death of her aunt Lysa and her cousin Robert being less than mentally sound, Littlefinger has free reign as the Lord Protector.  This does not make him or Alayne loved by the people of the Vale, however.

Arya Stark has arrived in Braavos, the city of secrets, and seeks shelter in the temple of the Many-Faced God.  She is learning to serve death, but can she make the final sacrifice of her own identity?

Brienne of Tarth goes back to the Riverlands in search of Sansa.  What she finds instead is outlaws, many of whom have a grudge against her specifically.  Her sections have some of the best writing in the book.

Samwell Tarly is sent south from the Wall to Oldtown to learn maester skills that the Night Watch desperately needs…and for more secretive purposes.  He has an encounter with Arya during a stayover in Braavos, though they don’t realize at the time how they’re connected.

Jaime Lannister quarrels with his sister Cersei and is relatively happy to get the order to end the siege at Riverrun.  He’s still trying to adjust to the loss of his hand, and attempts to navigate the contradictory oaths he’s taken.  Jaime may have no honor as far as most other people are concerned, but he wants to keep what honor he has.

Queen Cersei becomes a viewpoint character for the first time, and we see how the patriarchal nature of Westeros society has contributed to her personality.  If she’d been properly trained in leadership and statecraft from the beginning, things would be better.  But instead she’s always been told her job is to pump out babies, and barred from anything but backstairs scheming.  And scheming is not the only thing needed to run a country.  Possibly worse, a certain prophecy has made her essentially the Wicked Queen from Snow White, right down to dwarfs thwarting her will.  It’s no surprise when her own plots backfire, leaving Cersei in a nearly inescapable bind.

(Indeed, one of the minor subthemes here is “The Patriarchy ruins everything, even for patriarchs.”)

Over in the Iron Islands, we see things from the viewpoints of Asha Greyjoy, daughter of the late King Balon and sister to Theon (who does not appear in this book but is probably still alive); her uncle Aeron, a fanatical priest of the Drowned God, and her uncle Victarion, leader of the Iron Fleet.  None of them like the other uncle Euron Crow’s Eye, who is just outright evil, but at the Kingsmoot Euron reveals a plan to conquer Westeros that most of the Ironmen like.  And with Westeros in the shape it’s in, now is definitely the time to attack.

Asha is the smartest of the lot, but her uncles don’t listen to her because she’s a woman.

Down in Dorne, the viewpoint characters are Areoh Hotah, captain of Prince Doran’s guards; Arianne Martel, Doran’s daughter and heir; and Arys Oakheart, a knight of the Kingsguard who is protecting Princess Myrcella Baratheon.

Under Dornish law, Myrcella would have precedence over her younger brother Tommen for the Iron Throne.  Arianne, who is worried that her father is scheming to have her put aside in favor of her own brother to match mainstream Westeros culture, comes up with a plan to crown Myrcella queen and stir up war with the Lannisters.  Certain facts have been hidden from Arianne, so her plan has disastrous consequences.

Lots of plot twists and interesting developments this time, but I sorely missed favorite characters.  There are maps at the front, and an ever-growing character guide in the back.

As always, there’s tons of violence, talk of rape, and strong language.  Torture is on-page this volume, and worse implied.

Because of the largely-new cast, this volume reads differently than the earlier ones  The reader should probably have the next volume ready by the time they finish this one, as I am told they read better as a set.

 

 

Book Review: Army Wives

Book Review: Army Wives by Midge Gillies

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book through a Goodreads giveaway for the purpose of writing this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

Army Wives

The life of a soldier is hard and often dangerous, but the life of a soldier’s spouse has its hardships and hazards as well.  This book collects the stories of various British Army wives from the Crimean War (where wives sometimes shared tents near the front lines with their husbands) to the modern day, when social media allows spouses (now including husbands) to worry about the servicemember’s safety in “real time.”

After chapters on spousal travel and accommodations, the remainder of the book is in roughly chronological order.  There tends to be more information on officers’ wives than those of enlisted men, as especially in the early days they were more likely to be literate and thus leave behind letters, journals and memoirs.  Most of the women covered are ordinary people who rose to the occasion, but there’s also Lady Elizabeth Butler, who was a famous painter even before marrying a famous soldier.

The epilogue is about life after the army, both in the general sense, and the fates of the specific women used as examples in the book.  There’s a nice center section of pictures, many in color, plus a bibliography, end notes and an index.

As always, learning about the lives of people in unusual circumstances is fascinating, and there is quite a variety of women and outcomes represented.  The writing is decent, and some sections are emotionally affecting.

On the other hand, covering so many different stories means that some feel as though they’ve gotten short shrift.  Edith Tolkien, for example, gets two pages, mostly about the codes her husband (J.R.R.) slipped into his letters to let her know where he was.  And the section on soldiers who came home from World War One with facial disfigurements has no direct testimony from wives at all.

That said, this book should be of interest to those interested in military history (especially about women in military history) and those considering being the spouse of a military person.

And now, a video of the British Army Wives’ Chorus:

 

Book Review: A Storm of Swords

Book Review: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

Note:  This review will contain SPOILERS for the first two volumes in the A Song of Ice and Fire series.

A Storm of Swords

The Battle of King’s Landing is over, and the forces loyal to King Joffrey are triumphant.  But the War of Five Kings rages on, with no part of Westeros left untouched.  Lord Tywin Lannister returns to power as the King’s Hand after many years and his iron grip is soon felt both by the people of the land and his own family.

The various factions scheme and negotiate and betray, but all of this may soon be pointless as the Others gain strength and seek to slay all who live.

This is the third and largest volume so far in George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series.  In a foreword, the author explains that the chapters from different points of view do not immediately follow each other chronologically.  Indeed, the first few chapters of A Storm of Swords take place before the last few chapters of A Clash of Kings, catching us up on some characters who were not at the Battle of King’s Landing.

The members of the Stark family remain a plurality of the viewpoint chapters, but other folks are catching up.

Catelyn Stark takes a calculated risk in freeing Jaime Lannister to exchange for her daughters, which angers some of her son’s bannermen.  Thus she has little room to talk when King Robb himself makes a major diplomatic faux pas.  (Robb still doesn’t get a viewpoint chapter.)  With their alliance falling apart, will the King in the North be able to mend fences before his enemies regroup?

Jon Snow infiltrates the Northern Wildlings as he was ordered, in order to learn what Mance Rayder, the King Beyond the Wall, is up to.  Like many spies before him, Jon learns that the Free Folk are people not so different from those he has loved and sworn to protect, despite their odd customs and desire to invade his homeland.  It is a bitter pill to swallow, but realizing that you know nothing is the beginning of wisdom.

Sansa Stark, trapped at King Joffrey’s court, continues to be a political pawn, valued primarily as a possible claim on the lands surrounding Winterfell, and if rebuilt, the castle itself.  She’s forced into a political marriage which she will need all her courtesy and will to survive.  The wolf may be caged, but she has not forgotten how to wait.

Arya Stark may have escaped the ill-omened castle Harrenhal, but the land is still torn by war, and one thing after another delays her reunion with her mother.  Among other events, Arya falls in with the Bannerless Brotherhood.  Once the enforcers of the king’s law, a change in government has made them outlaws who steal from the rich to give to the poor.  (For certain values of “rich” and “poor.”)  Arya may need to cash in a certain favor if she is to survive on her own terms.

Bran Stark, presumed dead after the fall of Winterfell, is headed north with the faithful Hodor and the Reeds.  (He has parted company with Rickon, who still gets no chapters.)   His link with direwolf Summer continues to grow, and he learns new facets of his powers.

Tyrion Lannister, badly wounded by an assassination attempt during the Battle of King’s Landing, finds himself fallen from power.  His father Lord Tywin grudgingly admits that Tyrion did a decent job as King’s Hand, but is soon back to treating his little person son like dirt, including saddling Tyrion with a cruel arranged marriage.  Queen Cersei and her son King Joffrey also take every opportunity to mock and belittle their relative.  How much can one man take before he snaps?

Daenerys Targaryen has come to realize that while being the Mother of Dragons is way cool, her reptilian wards are not yet big enough to win Westeros for her alone.  She needs an army, but where to get one?  Dani’s also finding that celibacy is becoming a harder stance to hold than when she was newly widowed.  Ser Jorah Mormont loves her, but the queen doesn’t love him that way back.

We don’t get any chapters from Theon Greyjoy’s perspective this time, though he is reportedly still alive and in possession of at least some of his skin.

Davos Seaworth, on the other hand, managed to survive the burning of the Blackwater, and returns to the service of King Stannis Baratheon.  The King of the Narrow Sea has been listening to the counsel of the Red Priestess Melisandre, and is prepared to sacrifice his nephew Edric Storm if that’s what it takes to gain enough power to rule Westeros.  Davos makes what is perhaps the smartest choices in the book when he realizes that Melisandre may be reading her prophetic visions backwards.

New to the list of point of view characters is Jaime Lannister, known as the Kingslayer.  Released in the custody of the female knight Brienne in order to get back to King’s Landing in exchange for the Stark daughters, Jaime must cross a hostile land with almost every hand against him.  We learn the reason he became the Kingslayer, and Jaime has to face up to how his past misdeeds have helped put Westeros in the mess it’s in.  Like Arya Stark, Jaime just keeps getting delayed on his journey until it is perhaps too late.

Finally, we follow Jon Snow’s less combat-effective friend Samwell Tarly, a steward for the Night Watch.  While Jon goes off on his secret mission, Sam assists the other Black Brothers in their scouting mission beyond the Wall.  The Others are deadly, but what may finish off the Night Watch might be treachery in their own ranks.

This is the book that really cemented the series’ reputation for having anyone die at any time, and kills off major and minor characters left and right.  (One character who seemed like they were going to be very important in the second volume dies offhand in a single sentence here.)  But that comes with a caveat that anyone who is only reported as dead may in fact be alive, and being dead doesn’t mean not making any more appearances.

The big theme of the book is marriage; there are multiple weddings, none of which turn out particularly well.  There’s also several songs that recur throughout, most notably the bawdy “The Bear and the Maiden” and “The Rains of Castamere”, which has more sinister connotations.

Parts of the book do become a slog as there are multiple characters trying to get from one place to another and not getting there over and over.  A couple of the Stark family just miss meeting each other, and some plot twists are gratuitously cruel.  (As are some actions taken by the characters.) A few of the mysteries in the first two volumes are solved, for what it is worth.

As always, there is plenty of gory violence, some sex, attempted rape of major characters and off-camera rape of minor characters, and great steaming heaps of rough language.  Torture takes place off-stage as well.  But if you weren’t warned by the first two volumes, there’s not much I can say.

There’s some nifty world-building, and a handful of great scenes.  Primarily recommended to people who liked the earlier books in the series.

And now, a song!

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful by Sarah M. Johnson

In 2008, an airplane carrying humanitarian workers to a remote village in Guatemala, where they were to build a school, crashed and burned.  The crew and most of the passengers were killed; one young woman survived relatively unharmed, though she had lost half her family, and her mother was severely injured.  This is her story.

Life Is Beautiful

Sarah’s life had not been an easy one for some time before the crash.  Raised outside a small town in rural Wisconsin, Sarah’s family was socially and emotionally isolated.  Her father was a recovering meth addict, they’d recently lost a close relative to cancer, and what little social life Sarah had revolved around heavy drinking with her friends.

At college, Sarah met Jacob, a young man who introduced her to a stronger belief in God, but was dangerously flawed; in particular he reinforced her drinking habits.  A combination of alcoholism and depression made Sarah’s  college career a bust, and Jacob cheated on her, so she had to come home feeling a failure.  The Guatemala trip was meant to help mend the family’s fences.

As this book is in the “inspirational” sub-genre, you might expect that Sarah turned her life around after hitting rock bottom, and you would be correct.  When she finally accepted the help of a therapist (it isn’t directly stated, but her father’s apparent ability to quit meth cold turkey may have influenced her to try to handle everything solo), Sarah began to be able to process her grief and make progress on recovery from alcoholism.  (Finding sober friends and a welcoming church group also helped.)

From a writing perspective, this book is a good example of how real people are far more complex and messy than they generally are shown in fiction.  Jacob is a prime example, a fervent believer who introduces Sarah to a personal relationship with her “higher power” but prone to bouts of unwanted preaching and self-righteousness when drunk, and who is a toxic boyfriend for her.

One misstep is Sarah’s breakthrough moment with her therapist, when she can finally tell the story of the crash and its aftermath while allowing herself to feel the emotions associated with it.  While it would be a powerful moment if the facts had been concealed up to that point in the book, on paper it’s mostly a recitation of details already covered in the first chapters.  This is a short book, and a reader with a decent memory will find this bit redundant.

Recommended primarily to fans of inspirational literature, and older young adult readers who like non-fiction stories as Sarah’s life is of interest.  Not necessarily recommended to those currently undergoing the grieving process; Sarah mentions several books that helped her, and those would probably be better choices.

If you would like to purchase the book, please consider getting it new, as part of the proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book to facilitate writing the review; no other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: Tuesdays With Morrie

Book Review: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

In 1995, there was fighting in Bosnia, O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder, and a man named Morrie Schwartz was teaching his last class about life.  It met on Tuesdays, and the student was sportswriter Mitch Albom.  Twenty years before, Mitch had been Morrie’s student in sociology classes at Brandeis University, and now that Morrie was dying of ALS, he reconnected with his old teacher for a series of conversations.

Tuesdays with Morrie

Like many people, Mitch’s life after college hadn’t gone as planned, his musical career not panning out.  After the early death of a beloved relative, his priorities shifted, and he found success in writing about sports.  But when he saw Morrie being interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline (the first of three interviews), Mitch realized he had lost touch with someone important to him, and the wisdom of that man.

Morrie Schwartz had been an unusual man all along, and had dedicated much of his years to learning how to live his own life.  He had developed a set of aphorisms that distilled this philosophy into understandable chunks.  When his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gherig’s disease) began to take away his ability to engage in everyday activities, Morrie sent out his aphorisms into the world to those he thought might be interested.  And they brought the world back to him, notably Ted Koppel, and through him, Mitch Albom.

As it happened, a newspaper strike left Mitch with some spare time to come visit his old professor, and he made more time when they reconnected.  They decided that Mitch would come again and again on Tuesdays, a day that was special to them, and they would discuss subjects like death and marriage.  The plan was for Mitch to write a book the proceeds of which would help pay for Morrie’s substantial medical bills.

This is that book, a bestseller that has spawned a TV movie and stage play, and changed many lives.  A new edition has been released for the twentieth anniversary, with a new afterword catching up with what’s happened with Mr. Albom since the end of the book.

The book intersperses valuable lessons about life and related topics with flashbacks to their relationship in college and biographical information about Morrie that helps explain how he became the teacher so admired by so many people.

It’s very well written; the outcome is known from the beginning, so the journey is the important part.  If what Morrie has to say sometimes seems trite or cliched, that’s because much of it is things we already knew, even if we ignore them in the hustle and pain of everyday existence.

My one caveat is that sometimes this sort of philosophy has been weaponized against people who are suffering systemic poverty and oppression to tell them that they shouldn’t fight back, but simply accept their lot.

The subject matter of death and dying may be a bit heavy for younger readers, but this book has been used in high school classes.

Recommended for people who haven’t gotten around to this book yet who are interested in philosophy and life lessons.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, a video of those Ted Koppel interviews.

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

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