Sunday, November 14, 2010

Book Review: WW III By Ian Slater

By Ian Slater

Written in 1990, Slater's epic novel tells the story of a full-scale conventional war between the forces of the Soviet Union and the USA and its allies. The war begins in Korea and spreads to Europe.

The story, set in a vague but near future (a few references to aging celebrities who were young at the time of publication are used to establish the setting), follows a variety of characters. Among the cast are a woman who enlists as a nurse aboard a hospital ship, a South Korean officer captured in the initial attack, a pair of brothers who are captains of US naval vessels, and a US general with a reputation for risky tactics. The US president is depicted as a pacifist who reluctantly embraces his role as wartime leader, and who seems to have been modeled after President Carter. The author makes his positions on military budget cuts clear as he depicts US forces initially woefully unprepared to face the Communist onslaught.

In terms of tactics and descriptions of the action on the battlefield, Slater does a competent job. He includes a good mix of ground, air, naval, and submarine engagements in his fictional war. Although his background is in naval intelligence, he handles ground battle sequences well.

With twenty years and several wars since the publication of this novel, it's interesting to compare our present circumstances with the future that the author envisioned. He completely missed on the explosive growth of technology on the battlefield, displaying considerable skepticism for "smart" munitions and depicting a world lacking cell phones and other advances in communications technology that we take for granted.

Slater also relies on a variety of deceptive tactics by the Communist forces. Some of these make sense, others such as an amphibious assault launched from a disguised oil tanker stretch credibility a bit.

The characters are good, although the book takes a somewhat sexist tone in places. Slater event attempts to address that with the rather old-fashioned American general scoffing at the idea of female combat troops and then having to rely on a woman pilot to fly his personal chopper into the climactic raid. This would almost have saved the treatment of female characters in the story except for the fact that the woman pilot then gets no actual speaking parts for the entirety of the raid sequence.

Slater also displays a tendency to add and drop characters rather arbitrarily. Several major characters are not introduced until over halfway through the book, and others are dropped without much in the way of resolution.

The threat of nuclear war looms over the entire story, although it's only barely mentioned until the second climactic plot begins to resolve itself with a submarine that has lost communication with its command and might have to fire its nuclear missiles. The resolution of that plot point provides the book's best suspense.

In the end, this is an entertaining and suspenseful book with some great action sequences, but it lacks the logical flow and coherence of Clancy's Red Storm Rising or Bond's Red Phoenix, which both deal with similar scenarios.

WW III was book #20 in my goal of reading 50 books in 2010.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Book Review: ttyl by Lauren Myracle

And now for something completely different...

By Lauren Myracle

This book serves as a great example of the speed at which technology changes. Published in 2004 and written entirely in instant messenger conversations, it embraces a technology now largely abandoned by the teenagers who made up the audience for ttyl.

The story is essentially a high school soap opera, told through the conversations between three tenth grade girls. Angela is the flirty one who's obsessed with making sure she has a boyfriend and willing to interpret the signals from the guy she's set her sights on in the most optimistic possible interpretation. Maddie is a world-wise tough girl who suddenly finds herself faced with the chance to hang with the "popular" kids. Zoe is the "smart one" who is coming to terms with her interest in Christianity while she has become the subject of a lecherous teacher's attention.

The instant-message format of the story serves both to enhance and limit the narrative. Since most of the conversations take place between only two of the three lead characters, the author is able to build tension as the reader is privy to information that the characters are unaware of or are holding back.

At the same time, almost all of the conversations are reacting to events that have already occurred, which can be a bit limiting. The format also limits the supporting cast. I found myself wanting to know more about a number of characters who are only shown through the filter of the three lead characters. Especially interesting was the "Queen Bee" character. There were a few hints that there was more to her than just the generic villain, but the hints were never quite fleshed out.

The tone and flow of the conversations was fun, and the characters are fairly complex. There were lots of little details that came across in the small talk between the girls that kept the story personal and believable. The "chat speak" isn't particularly difficult to follow. I thought there were a few moments when the characters lost the feel of "authentic" teenagers, usually because there was plot that needed to be advanced, but for the most part the language flows naturally.

The final resolution felt a bit abrupt, but readers who find themselves craving more will be happy to hear that the "Winsome Threesome" return in a sequel that picks up where ttyl left off.

ttyl was book #19 in my goal of reading 50 books in 2010.

Book Review: The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

The Ghost Map
By Steven Johnson

The London cholera outbreak of 1854 was a turning point in medical science. The work of John Snow, aided by the investigations of local clergyman Henry Whitehead provided the first convincing evidence that a disease could be transmitted by contaminated water. Snow's investigation, along with the map that he created from the evidence he and Whitehead collected, would eventually be the downfall of the miasma theory of disease which had been prevalent from the Middle Ages and had its roots in the ancient works of Galen and Hippocrates.

Steven Johnson vividly recounts the conditions of mid 19th Century London and paints a disturbing picture of the progress of an epidemic that struck with horrifying speed and lethality. Untreated cholera can kill within hours, and Johnson recounts the panic as the sickness swept through the Soho neighborhood around the Broad Street pump, which proved to be the source of the outbreak.

Johnson also paints a fascinating and detailed picture of life in the city of London in 1854, a city barely able to sustain its rapidly growing population. The city had become dependent on an entire lower class of scavengers to remove and recycle waste. Johnson extends the discussion to the nature of cities in general, and describes how the mapping techniques pioneered by John Snow have been integrated into technological solutions that are improving life in modern cities.

The Ghost Map is an enjoyable read for pure historical and scientific interest. It also has great relevance to the current growth of cities throughout the world, as well as the ongoing threat of Cholera, most recently in Haiti.

The Ghost Map was book #18 in my goal of reading 50 books in 2010.

Book Review: The Great Influenza By John M. Barry

The Great Influenza
By John M. Barry

The influenza pandemic of 1918 killed more human beings than any single epidemic in history. Even the black death of the Middle Ages, while it killed a greater percentage of the population, did not match the shear number of casualties of the "Spanish Flu".

John M. Barry recounts the terrifying year of the Great Influenza, which struck in the midst of World War I, and devastated military encampments and civilian communities alike. Spreading rapidly in crowded barracks and tenements, and aided and abetted by the politics of wartime censorship, the effects of the influenza pandemic were devasting.

Barry focuses on the medical researchers who bravely fought against the epidemic, beginning his story years before the outbreak with the founding of the Johns Hopkins Medical School and the beginning of the modern science of medicine in the Unites States.

Barry manages to interweave the stories of the researchers with the day-to-day spread of the pandemic, and gives a good overview of the mechanisms by which influenza spreads and kills. He makes the case that this is an event that could easily repeat itself. Our understanding of viruses and vaccines has increased tremendously since 1918, but so has our ability to spread a new virus strain around the world rapidly by means of air travel.

This is important history as well as a cautionary tale of a danger that is still very real.

The Great Influenza was book #17 in my goal of reading 50 books in 2010.

Book Review: Toliet Training: A Practical Guide For Daytime And Nighttime Training By Vicki Lansky

Toilet Training: A Practical Guide to Daytime and Nighttime Training
By Vicki Lansky

This short overview provides a good general guide to a subject that many new parents approach with apprehension, if not outright dread. Lansky does a good job of reassuring parents that whatever their particular toilet training issue, they are almost certainly not alone.

She takes the approach that each child and each set of circumstances is different. So instead of prescribing a single effective method, Lansky gives an overview of the different techniques that have been popularized in other books on child psychology. While her approach is even-handed and inclusive, it is not a very decisive one. The idea that there is no single universal solution is a major part of her point, but some readers may still get frustrated with the lack of specific recommendations beyond "try what works for you".

Still for someone without a clue as to where to start, this book provided a good introduction to the topic and nicely laid out the likely (and less likely but still worrisome) challenges and complications, all while keeping a calm and reassuring tone.

Toilet Training: A Practical Guide For Daytime And Nighttime Training was book #16 in my goal of reading 50 books in 2010