Goodreads: Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway

Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway
Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway by Jonathan Parshall

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For 50 years, the story of Midway has been mistold in the English speaking world. The account of the Japanese plans and actions in the battle were based on a single source, which in the intervening years has been somewhat discredited in Japan. But this account remained, until this book, the definitive story of the Battle of Midway.

That’s the selling point, that’s why you should read this book. But maybe the idea of reading hundreds of pages describing a single naval battle in the less-popular theater of a 70 year old war seems quaint, like reading a book about Trafalgar. I know my wife can’t imagine anything less interesting. The fact of the matter is that this book, and the dozens like it, are simply fascinating. The Japanese Navy spent the whole war trying to arrange a decisive battle, to win a single crushing victory and bring the U.S. to the bargaining table. That’s the story of Leyte Gulf, certainly, but it was their plan here, three years earlier, at Midway, and at every battle in between. Their battle plans were always convoluted and obscure, relying on timing and surprise and racial superiority and the will of the gods. They were comical, and sometimes, as happened when Bull Halsey went chasing after empty aircraft carriers at Leyte, they came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding. It makes for a fundamentally interesting read.

And this was Midway. The Japanese were very near the height of their power, and the U.S. Navy very near its low point, and (spoilers, I guess) through better intelligence and a whole lot of luck, Spruance and the U.S. Navy sent four Japanese carriers, their first two divisions, to the bottom of the Pacific ocean. It was a huge disaster for the Japanese, and one they were in no position to recover from. So of course the Japanese account of the battle is wonderfully compelling.

That’s the focus of this book: the Japanese view of events. We never visit the deck of an American flat top, or follow torpedo bombers on their search for the Imperial fleet. We’re with Akagi when the waves of aircraft from Midway arrive, and we’re with Hiryu when she sinks. We see the frustration of every plan and we feel the shame of the final retreat.

And it’s a good read. It’s narrative where it needs to, it’s technical where it needs to be. It addresses deficits in our historical understanding of the battle.

One note. though: give the Kindle version a miss. The accented characters don’t come through well, and there are a couple of places where it seems an entire line has been dropped. That’s not a Kindle limitation, it looks like the result of a bad file preparation. There are charts and maps, too, so get a paper copy.

Goodreads: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (and the Millennium trilogy)

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Continuing the trend of being last to the party, I finished the Millennium series this week. It’s an odd little series, two stories told across three books, about an investigative journalist and an antisocial computer hacker who bring down some awful men through the power of the press and also some violence. Either exposé or guns. It’s kind of odd.

The books were written by Stieg Larsson, (the main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is an obvious author insertion)himself an investigative reporter and journalist, and were published posthumously. Supposedly most of a fourth novel exists, which will give everyone a chance to cry about how bad it is when it’s eventually finished by someone else.

So no summary here. There are movies, and there will be more movies, and everyone’s read these anyway. But here are some things I liked:

I really liked the overall optimism of the books. They cover some dark subjects, and the second and third books especially get into some conspiracies and government misdeeds, but in fact the stories never become the-heroes-against-the-world, and in most cases, the cadre of good, trustworthy people outnumber the bad guys. Mikael and Lisbeth always have allies, and their allies never betray them. The fundamental threat the protagonists pose to the bad guys is exposure in the press, whereupon an indignant public and hardworking, honest politicians will spring into action. When the bad guys turn out to be a group of policemen, another group steps up to help. At no point is Larsson using overwhelming opposition to manipulate the reader’s emotions, and the overall setting of the book is one in which people are good and reliable on the whole, even if many many individuals are flawed.

I liked the writing. Of course I read them in translation, by Reg Keeland, so the credit here may not devolve to Larsson entirely, but some of the odd, clipped details must be in the original, because I cannot believe any translator would add them. Every discussion of computer software and hardware is oddly specific. We’re told on several occasions what the screen size and hard drive capacity are for computers that appear. We’re told every make of mobile phone that appears. We’re even given a little lesson in PGP encryption. It can be a little distracting, especially in the first book, but across the trilogy it establishes itself as a style, and I feel like the exactness of the description works to establish the reliability of the narrator.

The style is very matter-of-fact, and very little ink is wasted on descriptions of scenery or decoration. It works out wonderfully in the chapters describing Lisbeth Salander, who reads like a person with Asperger’s, but it also works when describing the life of an honest investigative journalist, because nothing feels embellished. The flipside is that there’s no poetry in it.

And that’s where I’m going to leave the praise for a moment to discuss the major disappointment of the series. It covers some weighty and important areas, and it can be grim reading at times, but it frankly wasn’t a series that made me think. The bad guys are bad, and there really isn’t a lot of opportunity to engage with them and come to understand how someone could become bad. So when I read it, I felt like those guys sucked, these misogynists and criminals, but hey, that’s not me, so I don’t need to feel bad. And I didn’t.

And what’s weird about that is that it’s clear that in some cases, it seems like Mikael Blomkvist does sort of understand and empathize, specifically with the main villain in the first book. It’s as if a halfhearted attempt to humanize certain of the villains has been made, and has fallen flat. That’s a failure of the writing, but I haven’t decided if it’s a failure of style or a failure of vision.

But read them.

GoodReads: A Dance With Dragons (and the rest of Ice and Fire)

A Dance With Dragons
A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve been tempted, as I made my way through the extant books, to stop and write about them, but the idea of reviewing ten year old novels is always a little off-putting, so I’ve saved all my thoughts for the end. This is more of a gloss on the whole Song of Ice and Fire series, and not a blow by blow review of book 5.

When I started reading A Game of Thrones, I knew essentially nothing about it. I never read fantasy… I may never have read a single fantasy novel into adulthood. Even my science fiction phase ended when I was 14 or 15, and that, sadly, was before the books came out. I work in the tech industry, and there was some buzz in the backchannels when the TV series came out, discussions among fans of the book, but I didn’t dive in and pay attention. I also don’t subscribe to HBO, so I never saw any of the series. I didn’t even intend to start reading the books when I did. I just had a tire that wouldn’t hold its pressure.

The wheel shop I went to was recommended by Yelp, and pretty busy, and I was told it would take around an hour and a half to finish up my car. So I was stuck in Campbell with no car, about a mile from a major shopping center, and I decided to walk over and have some lunch, and maybe browse at the bookstore. I hadn’t been in a physical bookstore in a year or so, and I remembered right away why they are dying. Maybe they have the book you want, maybe they don’t. If they don’t, you can browse, but you have no way of knowing if the book you’re looking at is even half decent, unless you’re two-fisting it with your cellphone reading reviews. They do have a sort of magic, because of all the books everywhere, any of which you could pick up and read and get lost in, but that’s no different than, say, the kindle store… just prettier and… paper-smellier?

Anyway, I walked out of the bookstore with the paperback re-release of A Game of Thrones, and sat down in a cafe and ate a sandwich and read the prologue, in which some magical fantasy shit happens, and had some pretty hard buyer’s remorse. But I had nothing else to do, so when I got back to the tire place, I picked the book up again, and started reading the the book proper, and for a long time, the magical fantasy elements of the prologue are buried beneath a realistic, medieval kingdom, and I found that a lot more to my satisfaction.

I read the rest of the book pretty quickly after that, and generally, I felt the same about the two contrasting environments presented… the politics of the seven kingdoms I enjoyed, the big magical ending, I didn’t. And… boy, I guess there’s no way to avoid this… the only character I liked in the book died 3/4s of the way through. I didn’t like it. But it turns out it’s basically par for the course.

I read the second book on my honeymoon, along with a bundle of all the books found in-game in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. The two are a fantastic complement. Dragons, feudalism, swords and magic. And I enjoyed the second book, but by the end of it, the feeling that would pervade the rest of the series had set in.

As I finished the books, I found myself withdrawing from the characters. As soon as I found myself getting attached to a character, they were hauled up on a noose or impaled on a sword or burned to death. So I stopped caring about the characters. The series became grim, and I started taking longer and longer breaks between sessions. At the end of A Dance With Dragons, when I was within striking distance of the epilogue, I took four days off from it entirely, because I knew that I was in the killing chapters, and more characters were going to lose their lives. But eventually I did power through.

There’s a lot to talk about… the books tell such a convoluted story that there’s no sane way to even summarize what’s happened. There are political conflicts, ideological conflicts, religious conflicts, and one looming magical conflict. All of them are in flight, none near conclusion. In some of them, there’s nothing more than a looming menace. So I think I’m going to leave my thoughts on the story with this: I don’t know how this can be finished up in two more books.

As for the writing, it’s a little easier to find things to say. I’ve been turned off of beloved and imaginative books before by bad writing. Strong ideas and strong plots don’t overcome clumsy language and bad characterization. But I’ve given these all 4 star ratings, clearly that’s not an issue here. The writing itself, the style… it never soars. It’s not inspiring. There’s nothing I wanted to highlight, or repeat, or rephrase. But it’s solid. It never pulls you out of the story or makes you frown. And the characters are varied and three-dimensional, and since the point of view shifts, you find yourself sympathizing with and understanding even some pretty brutal characters.

So when the next one comes out? I’m going to read it. I expect to like it. I also expect to feel a sense of dread for most of the book.

Goodreads: 1Q84

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

1Q84 is a long, sprawling novel by Haruki Murakami that fans of Haruki Murakami will like. That probably sounds like the stupidest sentence ever written, but I will elaborate. If someone says to you “I am reading a novel by Haruki Murakami,” you should immediately have the following thoughts. “There is some girl who has strange abilities, and some boy who loves her, and she will probably go missing. Also: cats. Crazy things will happen in a very normal world, and only the people directly involved will notice that anything has changed.” You are correct in nearly every particular. There aren’t any important cats, just a cat metaphor.

Three Murakami novels have come out since I started reading him: Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, and now 1Q84. 1Q84 definitely has the worst title, and after a few chapters, when you understand the significance of it, you may find yourself in the really tedious position of explaining it. The two protagonists each have a different understanding of the way their world has changed, and one of them uses 1Q84 to describe the new reality. The other refers to it as the Town of Cats, after a story he reads on a train. That would have been a lousy and misleading title, too.

But you guys, it’s amazing. Read it and read it again and never stop reading it. There are some creepy and offputting things, and it’s 900-odd pages long, but it’s fantastic. And then we’ll talk about it. Because I have a lot of things to say but I don’t know anyone who is going to read this.

GoodReads: The Alchemyst

The Alchemyst
The Alchemyst by Michael Scott

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Hey, guess what? Once again, all myths are true.

Ok, so this is a pretty harmless book, I don’t want to harp on it much, but at one point a vampire character scoffs at the idea of not having a reflection, because after all she is a physical being, but move back 50 pages and she’s explaining that she can’t come into a room unless she’s invited in.

I don’t advocate living your life this way, and I understand that it may be evidence of a mental illness, but that was almost enough to make me put the book down.

View all my reviews