Tag: Review

“Black Cross” by Greg Iles Review

Black Cross

Black Cross

Author:  Greg Iles

Published:  1995

This was another book I was loaned by a fellow reader I work with. I’ve only read a few war books in the last few years, but it’s a genre I tend to enjoy (one of my favorite books in particular is The Hunters by James Salter). The story is set in 1944, and the Germans are at war with the English and Russians. With an allied invasion seemingly imminent, Nazi scientists have put more focus on developing chemical weapons as a means to devastate the opposing forces. Because they are Nazis and this is during the holocaust, much of the chemical weapon testing is being done at concentration camps. After the allies become aware of the newest poison gases, they develop a plan to prevent the Nazis from using them. Two non-British subjects will sneak into the concentration camp producing the deadly gas, and complete a mission that wipes out everybody in the camp. The two men include an American pacifist chemist, and a German Jewish Israeli resistance fighter.

I enjoyed this book, but the further into it I got the more it reminded me of the 1996 film “The Rock.” In that film, a non-threat scientist and a total badass have to go rescue hostages from armed forces that possess deadly chemical gas. If you take that movie and put it in a Nazi German concentration camp setting, you’d got a pretty good idea of most of the plot beats in this book. You know the pacifist scientist will have to be contribute to the survival effort by the end of it, just like you have a pretty good idea of what outcome the insurance bombing run will have if their mission goes down to the wire. Likewise it’s not a spoiler to say that the two main characters, McConnell the scientist and Stern the muscle, will initially not like each other and come to a deep respect for one another.

While I enjoyed a lot of the main story, overall its predictability in character notes would have me giving this book a three overall. However, the book also has a separate subplot running through it from the perspective of a woman stuck in the concentration camp. When we first encounter Rachel, her husband is being shot and she and her two children under the age of 4 are stuck in a camp where children’s purpose is as test subjects for dangerous medical testing and women’s purpose seems to be as pawns for the Nazi soldiers to use as they see fit. I’ve found that since I’ve become a father a few years ago that stories involving children have a much stronger impact on me than they did before I had rugrats. Here the story of a woman doing anything possible to keep her two children safe in one of the deadliest situations in world history really got to me.

Also in the concentration camp are interesting figures like the Shoemaker and Ariel Weitz. The Shoemaker is one of the longest surviving prisoners at the camp, a man able to stay alive by blending in when needed, and fixing shoes for the soldiers on the side. Ariel Weitz is the Jewish prisoner willing to do anything the Nazis ask, even pulling the switch on the gas chambers and then prying gold teeth from the deceased, in exchange for more freedom throughout the camp. Iles does a great job of taking these two characters in surprising directions, making the stakes of Stern and McConnell’s mission feel much higher because of the stories within the camp.

There’s a saying that Nazis make the best movie villains, and here they are as evil as anything imaginable. The atrocities described in this book are such that there’s no person that could read them and sympathize with their actions and not be a monster his or her self. The main Nazi bad guys are a one eyed officer and a jealous sergeant who have a rivalry with each other for power within the camp. As the officer has an interest in Rachel, the sergeant uses her as his method for tormenting the officer. The top ranking official, a scientist named Brandt, is practically a ghost in the story just showing up as somebody that does terrible things to little children.

If you’re a reader that finds depictions of violent or deadly acts to women and children difficult to read, this is not the book for you. Although Iles doesn’t linger on any descriptions for too long, there are still dozens of scenes of despicable acts that occur or are remembered throughout the plot. The subject matter of the book seems to require it, and besides making me emotional a few times I thought if anything it added to the impact of the book. I was also loaned Iles other WWII book, which I’ll probably check out next, so that’s as good an indicator as any that I enjoyed this as 1200 pages in a row by any author is usually not my style.

4-star

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“Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny” by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger Review

Andrew JAckson Battle

Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans:  The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny

Authors:  Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger

Published:  2017

I’d read a biography on Andrew Jackson last year (Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands), but was given this one as a recommendation by another reader, who gave the glowing recommendation that it was interesting and could be finished in two nights. As a result, I already had a pretty good knowledge of most of what was in this book prior to reading it. Overall though this was still an interesting read because Andrew Jackson’s early exploits are fascinating enough to visit twice.

Although the title of this book makes it sound as though it’s entirely about the Battle of New Orleans, out of the 230ish pages I’d say just about half or less focuses on the actual battle (buildup, battle and immediate aftermath). The rest of the book gives some good background on Jackson’s early years, the other key figures in New Orleans during the battle, and some political background to make the context of the war understandable. This is a very quick read though, and a book I’d recommend for somebody that just wants the exciting parts of Jackson’s pre-presidential biography.

More than any other president (at least through Lincoln… I’m still working my way up from him), Jackson came from nothing and had exciting moments throughout his life. From the early encounter with the British (and loss of his entire family), to duels with future powerful politicians and battles with Native Americans, Jackson lived the type of life that created a frontier folk hero. Having read several biographies of presidents after Jackson, I enjoyed the refresher on how important moments occurred with guys like Henry Clay and Thomas Hart Benton, who obviously both went on to have massive political careers of their own.

The description of what occurred in the Battle of New Orleans was what you’d hope for in a book like this, providing drama that reminds me of the stuff I find in Bernard Cornwell’s Napoleonic War books. The stories of dying Generals and ships unable to escape cannon fire provided both memorable moments and emotional resonance usually lacking in biographical material. More than any other moment, I’ll remember the heartbreaking story of a man trying to warn the Americans about the arrival of the British and his loyal dog that followed him along the way. Because I prefer my biographies more complete and detailed than this, it definitely doesn’t crack my favorites, but I think this is a book many fans of history could really enjoy.

4-star

“Ain’t Got Time to Bleed” by Andrew Shaffer, Illustrated by Steven Lefcourt Review

Ain't Got Time to Bleed

Ain’t Got Time To Bleed

Writer:  Andrew Shaffer

Illustrator:  Steven Lefcourt

Published:  2017

The premise of “Ain’t Got Time to Bleed” is 29 action movie characters are examined by medical professionals to determine what effect the various injuries they sustain throughout the movie would have on them, and if they would survive or not. The characters include several individuals who are in more than one movie (Luke Skywalker, James Bond, John McClane etc.), however the author just selected one film for those characters to review (The Emperor Strikes Back, Skyfall, Die Hard). Along with each page recapping the injuries sustained during the movie, there are also “additional observations” which often include psychological diagnoses, and a prognosis section for recovery time (or permanent or fatal injuries). Finally, there are pictures by Steven Lefcourt of each character with the injured areas highlighted.

This book delivered fairly well on what was promised. It’s definitely a book you can finish in one sitting, coming in at less than 70 pages with half of those being illustrations. The best portions were the less obvious injuries I’d never considered before. My favorite was Major Alan “Dutch” Schaefer from Predator (also the film the book takes its title from) whose additional observations section stated”Patient covered himself with mud to avoid detection… however, this could have caused his open wounds to become infected. Teanus, anthrax and necrotizing fasciitis (flesh-eating bacteria) are just a few of the main soil-related bacterial, fungal and viral infection possible.”

On the negative side, the idea can get a bit redundant, especially regarding the multiple fist fights (“Multiple fistfights. Superficial lacerations on face. Bruised knuckles possible.”), many of which are generalized. I think by stopping at one movie per character, the author missed a fun opportunity to see how some characters would survive over multiple films (Rambo, John McClane, James Bond, Bryan Mills, Ethan Hunt and others would lend themselves well for this). Still, for a 30 minute read this is good for several chuckles.

3-star

“Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness” by Peter Godfrey-Smith Review

Other MindsOther Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Author:  Peter Godfrey-Smith

Released:  2017

Octopuses have an ability to adapt to the special circumstances of captivity and their interaction with human keepers…In New Zealand, an octopus took a dislike to one member of the lab staff, for no obvious reason, and whenever that person passed by on the walkway behind the tank she received a jet of half a gallon of water in the back of her neck. Shelly Adamo, of Dalhousie University, had one cuttlefish who reliably squirted streams of water at all new visitors to the lab, and not at people who were often around. In 2010, an experiment confirmed that giant Pacific octopuses can indeed recognize individual humans, and can do this even when the humans are wearing identical uniforms.

If you’re like me, that previous paragraph is enough to dig in to read a whole book about the amazing creature that is the octopus. I love the idea of an intelligent creature living on our planet that most people know nothing about, and Peter Godfrey-Smith has written a very well researched book about cephalopods, primarily the octopus but also squids and cuttlefish. Although large portions of the book don’t deal with octopuses, Godfrey-Smith manages to explain why it is important to look at these organisms to learn not only about what they are capable of, but also what we can learn about the evolution of life on Earth and what intelligence and consciousness mean.

Why octopuses though? The primary reason is that scientists believe that we can trace all life on Earth to early organisms hundreds of millions of years ago that branched off into numerous different paths that led to things like plants, animals, bacteria, etc. Of all the living organisms on Earth, advanced nervous systems can be found in three subsets, the first being animals, the second being arthropods, and the third being cephalopods. The cephalopods come from an entire different branch on that evolutionary tree, and are unique in their development of a nervous system on that branch. Considering that, the octopus could be compared to an alien life form, as we can look at an animal whose brain has evolved under an entirely different set of circumstances than the rest of the planet.

I learned a lot about philosophy and evolution while reading this book, and I think most readers would gain similar new knowledge. For instance, all I knew about Pre-Cambrian history prior to reading this was that supposedly the Graboids from Tremors were around then. However, Godfrey-Smith explained that situation that the life forms in this era (the Ediacara) floated around in a pre-predator environment. Quite simply, early life forms were not hunting each other but instead scavenged (Godfrey-Smith refers to this as “the Garden of Ediacara”). The result was an environment allowed mutations to thrive and a giant boom in variation of life forms to follow in the Cambrian era.

In addition to reviewing studies on octopuses and preexisting literature, Godfrey-Smith frequently visits a location called Octopolis, one of the only confirmed habitats for multiple octopuses over several years. Throughout the book, I got a ton of great anecdotes about these amazing creatures both from the author’s personal experience and scientific studies. Some of the interesting stuff I learned included that octopuses have distinct personalities that come out both in the wild and in lab settings. Also, the nervous system of the octopus is spread throughout the both the brain and the arms, meaning that even if you cut an arm off it can continue to function on its own afterward for a lengthy period of time. Godfrey-Smith describes this relationship as the brain being a musical conductor, but the arms are all jazz musicians; the brain sends a command, but the arms have great leeway and creative ability to make decisions and react accordingly.

The color changing aspect of octopuses is discussed extensively. If you haven’t watched video of their camouflage in effect underwater, stop reading this and hop on Youtube because they are natures greatest color changers. Scientists disagree as to if this is used at all for communication between animals; I came away with the impression that at a minimum they are used in expressing dominance or submission to other octopuses. What is amazing though is that octopuses are themselves colorblind, even though their eyes are very similar to human eyes in how they function.

Much of the difficulty in knowing more about octopuses, or limiting how much one can learn, is the short lifespan of the animal. For the most part, they all live for about two years or less, an extremely short time for such an intelligent animal. There are a few exceptions, such as the nautilus (which can live ten times as long but is nowhere near as smart) and the deep sea Octopus which not only lives longer but can spend over four years just nurturing its eggs! This was the longest egg brooding period ever observed for a creature on Earth.

As people become more aware of the intelligence of these creatures, additional studies are being performed. In 2011, it was learned that octopuses can recognize other individual octopuses. Another study seemed to indicate that octopuses can learn by watching others do something and not by doing it once themselves. Humans are able to have episodic memories of a particular event instead of how to do something. Studies show octopuses also have this high functioning capability.

There are some great photos in this book as well (both color and black and white) and some helpful diagrams related to a variety of subjects. When the book gets into more philosophical issues, or discussions about biological evolution, it can get a bit text booky at times, but never for more than about 10 or 15 pages. Godfrey-Smith wisely centers all of his big ideas and conclusions on the octopus. Highly recommended.

5-star

“Cycle of the Werewolf” by Stephen King and Bernie Wrightson (Artist) Review

Cycle of the Werewolf

Cycle of the Werewolf

Author: Stephen King

Artist:  Bernie Wrightson

Published:  1983

I didn’t realize when I started this that this book is the basis for the 1985 film “Silver Bullet” starring cinema greats Gary Busey and Corey Haim. It’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve seen that movie, but even without reading this book I vividly remember a teenager defending himself from a werewolf with fireworks and the reveal of who the the werewolf was due to an eye patch a short time later. (In the film, the werewolf was played by Everett McGill, aka Big Ed from Twin Peaks, and an actor who one of my favorite podcasts would refer to as a god damned American treasure).

Cycle of the Werewolf is a book that’s difficult to put into a genre. It’s certainly a horror story due to its subject matter. It’s also like a short story collection, as the book is divided into 12 chapters based on the full moon each month, and only about 4 of the twelve chapters really feel connected to the main narrative and the rest seem like vignettes. The book is a very quick read with illustrations mixed in for each chapter (typically a scenery picture to open the chapter, and a werewolf attack or two also illustrated). I wouldn’t classify it as a kids book due to some violence and language, but the pictures and quick read probably make it more juvenile than many adults would want to be seen reading in public (although at 127 pages, and with many of those illustrations or blank title pages this is easily a book one could read in one sitting).

Unfortunately there’s not a lot more to this story than the few iconic moments I remembered from the film as the bulk of the book is just a few paragraphs about a person about to become a werewolf attack victim. The film script that came from this did a much better job of developing characters and telling an interesting story than this book, but as a quick read about werewolves near Bangor this was fairly harmless. The art by Bernie Wrightson was also very fun and added to my enjoyment of the story. I’m also ready to rewatch “Silver Bullet” now, so that’s an added bonus.

3-star

“Shape’s Siege” by Bernard Cornwell Review

Sharpe's Siege

Sharpe’s Siege

Author:  Bernard Cornwell

Published:  1987

Sharpe’s Siege picks up with the English army working their way into France, Sharpe happily married to Jane and Harper the proud father of a two month old. Sharpe’s soldierly duties always come first however, and here he is drafted into helping the Royal Navy on a mission to possibly assist in Bordeaux turning against the French Empire in a stroke that could end the Napoleonic War. Anyone who knows Sharpe (or European history) will know this doesn’t happen, and instead Sharpe will end up being caught in a trap left by the French intelligence officer Ducot, who is making yet another appearance, rivaling Obadiah Hakeswill’s run as a villain.

The title of the book gives away that there will be a siege, though Cornwell pulls out all the stops in making it more intense and creative than similar battles in earlier books. **Spoilers follow** For starters, Sharpe, Harper and Sweet William Frederickson are all on the inside the the structure under siege, and they are vastly outnumbered and outgunned. The limited bullets in particular is unusual in this series, and the tricks that Sharpe and friends pull to even the odds were more similar to those found in the various Sharpe short stories that I’ve reviewed on here.

While Sharpe is worrying about the enemy, he is equally distracted by the possibility of losing his wife Jane to fever, as she has come down with symptoms immediately before he was deployed. Also sick is Major Michael Hogan, who is (along with Harper) as long tenured as an ally to Sharpe as we’ve seen in the series. This installment also introduces the character of Cornelius Killick, an American naval officer or pirate, depending on the moment. Killick provides for many of the surprises in this novel, as both Sharpe and the French are at times forced to depend on him or go after him.

4-star

“Nailbiter, Volume 2: Bloody Hands” by Joshua Williamson and Mike Henderson Review

Nailbiter 2

Nailbiter, Vol. 2: Bloody Hands

Written by: Joshua Williamson

Art by: Mike Henderson

Published:  2015

Volume 2 of Nailbiter was a bit of a letdown from the first volume. The main culprit was story decompression as 2 of the 5 issues included featured what read like stand alone issues (featuring stories about a Beekeeper and a pregnant girl who wants her baby to be a killer). The issues that tied back into the main plot didn’t advance the overarching storyline much, with some further interrogations being teased and the Nailbiter acting creepier but not much else going on besides s religious guy rising as an antagonist. There’s also a weird Brian Michael Bendis cameo shoehorned in and a bus incident that would certainly be national news.

The art continued to be OK, but probably a step below most of the books I read on a month to month basis. The backup story at the end was certainly gross and shocking, but it also felt like a reveal that would have been better earned in the main storyline instead.

3-star