Category Archives: Books

Defender of the Realm

The Last Lion - Defender of the Realm

I just finished listening to the audiobook (via Audible) of “The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Defender of the Realm, 1940-1965” by William Manchester and Paul Reid.  I had not read the book.

Very sad that it had to end!  A wonderful, fittingly magnificent effort.  My dog was also quite pleased to be getting in some extra walks lately while I listened along.

At approximately 3,200 minutes, I can say that not a single boring minute passes by; each one contains at least one interesting part of the great story, a story that is wonderfully told.  Manchester/Reid do an excellent job at presenting Churchill himself, and I felt that the book left me with a greater understanding of what drove him in politics and statecraft.  The challenges and objectives of the many other players involved in the story are also well described.  The book works very well as a history of the Second World War and its aftermath.

If I didn’t “laugh out loud”, I did at least chuckle aloud more than once.  I admit that I was brought to tears during the description surrounding VE Day – the end of the war, the crowds, the speeches, the imagery of people all over the British Isles lighting victory fires on high hills as they had done since ancient days.  Thankfully, I was sitting at home during this part of the book and not out walking the dog.  😎

One aspect of the book that I particularly enjoyed with the discussion of the various technologies of the day; how they developed, what they could and could not do, and how they were used.  I found “DotR” to be a useful resource in this respect.

Clive Chafer does a wonderful job with the reading.  I particularly enjoyed when he drops down into his ‘Winston’ voice.  I can’t say how accurate the voice is, but you definitely know when he is quoting WSC and, of course, what is said is often quite interesting and entertaining.  Although I am relatively new to the audio-book experience (I think this was my third one), it occurred to me that there must be ‘star’ readers developing in the industry, and Mr. Chafer must be among them.  When looking at listening options in future, seeing Clive Chafer’s name on an audiobook will help make the choice for me.

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Filed under Books, Britain, Churchill, History

The Hugo Winners (Sci-Fi Web-Cred)


Reading goal accomplished.

About eight years ago, when I was 40, thinking myself something of a science-fiction fan, I took a look at the list of Hugo Award winners in the best science-fiction novel category.  To my chagrin, I saw that I had read only five of them, and this award dated back to 1950s publications.  So, I set a reading goal to read them all before I turned 50.  At age 48, I am pleased to announce that I have read all 65 of them.  Here are my thoughts…

Before I started, the only ones that I’d read were: Frank Herbert’s “Dune” (of course!), Philip K. Dick’s “The Man In the High Castle”, Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” books (here, part of “Foundation and Empire” and “Foundation’s Edge”), and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” (thx Danny Almon!),  Clearly, I was missing something in terms of context, scope and background.  Clearly, I had no sci-fi cred.  So, off I read.

Starting out

The first book I tackled on this reading project was Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness”.  Really glad I chose this one; it was sort of the perfect way to start off.  She’s an awesome writer and thinker, and I loved the imagery in this one.  An ice age world; cities with deep snow covering them and people going from steep-roofed building to steep-roofed building via underground passage; some beautiful myths and stories told by the people of this world. Very interesting gender politics and issues.  Highly recommended.

Then, I think it was “A Canticle for Leibowitz” by Walter M. Miller Jr.  This 1961 novel is a bit piece-meal (based on how it was published in parts) and deals with a post-nuclear holocaust Earth, centuries down the line, just starting to eek its way back out of the new Dark Ages.  I liked it.

I think another early one in my reading was “Stranger In A Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein.  Now, I liked other Heinlein, including “Starship Troopers” and “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” but I didn’t like this one.  It’s a classic, sure.  It involves an alien who comes to Earth and has to deal with us stupid humans.  Of course, he’s challenging social mores, but I really can’t stand that kind of storyline that goes “oh, your people do things this way? How curious. Well, in the sophisticated culture and advanced society where I’m from, we do things this way.  You can see how much more sense that makes?, etc.”  I grokked, but I didn’t like very much.

My faves

My favourites from this reading are:

“Hyperion” by Dan Simmons.  A very unique spin on The Canterbury Tales.  I loved Simmons’ language from the first page or two and knew I’d love the whole thing.  I did.  The Shrike is one of the most kickass characters you’ll come across, and some of the ‘tales’ are chilling and heart-wrenching.  The sequel, “The Fall of Hyperion” – a Hugo nominee – was also excellent, but a very different style of book.

“A Fire Upon The Deep” and “A Deepness In the Sky” by Vernor Vinge.  These are only loosely related novels, but both of the same distant-future setting in Vinge’s “Zones of Thought” universe.  Both very intriguing looks at future societies, technologies, and non-humanoid intelligence.  The resolution to the first one blew my mind.

“The City & The City” by China Mieville.  This was a co-winner in 2010.  Don’t read anything about this book before you start reading it.  Don’t even read the back cover.  It is very inventive and very cool.

“Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” by Susannah Clarke.  Not sci-fi, but a tale about ‘the return of magick to England’.  I found myself almost believing it as a true story/history.  Loved the language and imagery here, couldn’t get enough of it, and sorry it ended.  “I reached out my hand; England’s rivers turned and flowed the other way. I reached out my hand; my enemies’ blood stopt in their veins… the rain made a door for me and i went through it, the stones made a throne for me and I sat upon it…”

Other Pretty Great Stuff

Maybe not quite cracking the very top, but Kim Stanley Robinson’s ‘Mars’ trilogy (“Red Mars” nominee, and “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars” as winners) was pretty stunning.  They follow the settling and terraforming of Mars over a few centuries.  Interesting stories, good characters, and the planet itself really becomes a character of sorts – its history, topography, its awesome features.  Very detailed and long, so tough to recommend, but you won’t be disappointed if you carry on through it.  I am very interested now in what happens with Mars exploration, and interested even to see what areas of the planet are explored.

The classics of military science-fiction are classics for great reason.  Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” and Joe Haldeman’s “The Forever War” are something of a piece and should both be read.  Forget the film, “Starship Troopers” is full of stuff like citizenship, heroism, and the details of platoon life in the MI (mechanized infantry; we’ll always need the MI).  Some great science considerations like time dilation and background radiation come into play in these books.  Your best friend is in another unit?  Well, he’s shipping out tomorrow to hit a battle site many light years away.  You are staying put.  You’ll never see him again, because time for him will slow down in transit while it will carry on for you normally, until you move out.  Haldeman’s follow-up, “Forever Peace” is worth reading, too.

Connie Willis has won three Hugo awards for her books that feature time travel — the scenario is the history department at Oxford around the 2030s and they have a time machine.  There are aspects of the method of time travel that (we hope) don’t allow time travelers to alter the flow/events of time.  So, as it doesn’t profit anyone to travel back in time to try to alter events in their favour, what is left is for the curious historians at Oxford to do the time traveling, to observe what life was really like way back whenever.  In “Doomsday Book”, my favourite of the three, the researchers travel back in England to the time of the Black Death.  As you can guess, the life then encounter is very hard; but do they bring the plague back to the present with them??  “To Say Nothing of the Dog” is some mostly 19th century fun, as light as “Doomsday” is dark.  And her double novels “Blackout/All Clear” deal with the Second World War in England.  As a Churchill buff, it was great to have this ‘immersion’ in the time period.  I enjoyed these ones, although they could probably have been a single, shorter novel.

I enjoyed all four of the Lois McMaster Bujold winners.  Three were from her Vorkossigan saga books, and one from her ‘Chalion’ series.  LMB can write ’em.

I generally enjoyed the science and premise for (Canadian) Robert J. Sawyer’s “Hominids”.  The setting is a parallel universe where we were the humans who died out and the Neanderthal continued on and populated the planet.  There is an opening between universes and someone from the parallel world comes through.  Cool, etc., but I found it a bit like the “Stranger In A Strange Land” syndrome of ‘oh, you do it that way? how curious, we do it this way, you can see how much more reasonable our way is … you stupid idiotic human’.  That last bit is implied.  So, I dislike the (really un-) subtle preachy-ness of this kind of storytelling.

Vernor Vinge’s “Rainbows End” won in 2007.  Vinge teaches math and computer science.  In this one, he envisions a near future where the Singularity is upon us, and the world is a very dangerous place.  Pretty good story; awesome ‘sci’.  He envisions a lot of stuff that looks like it is coming to be.

Neil Gaiman.  He’s awesome and I’ve loved everything of his that I’ve read.  This project got me reading him.  Also, JK Rowling.

I liked David Brin’s ‘Uplift’ universe books, and may continue along with those.

As for the cyberpunk, William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” was good.  I liked Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” better.  Shades of Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game” (I thought Ender’s computer training game/companion was the best part of that book); the quite unrelated sequel, “Speaker For The Dead” was a better book.

With recent winners, I did like Jo Walton’s “Among Others”, and John Scalzi’s “Redshirts” was among the funniest books I’ve read (and some great genre reading).  I generally liked the stories and writing of Paolo Bacigalupi (“The Windup Girl”, Bladerunner-ish or something) and Michael Chabon (“The Yiddish Policemen’s Union”).  These are all writers I’d go back to.

The Big Object Books

There was a period in the 60s and 70s where ‘the big object’ was kind of the star of the book.  Examples are Fritz Leiber’s “The Wanderer” from 1965, Larry Niven’s “Ringworld” from 1971, Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rendezvous With Rama” from 1974. and perhaps Clarke’s “The Fountains of Paradise” from 1980.  These objects – a spaceship/planetoid, a Dyson-sphere type ring that rotates around a star, a giant spaceship, and a space elevator – all pose challenges to the people involved, and they have to work around them.  The science is heavy and cool.  “Rama” is probably the only book that’s given me vertigo from just reading.  I thought “Fountains” was pretty beautiful, mainly due to its cultural/geological locale for the base of the space elevator, a Sri Lanka-type mountainous island.  Anyway, cool to read about such sublime subjects.

Classics, but not for me

There were a few that others seem to quite revere, but I didn’t really enjoy, had a hard time getting through.  Maybe it was just reading at the wrong time or in the wrong frame of mind; or maybe they just weren’t for me.  One was John Brunner’s 1969 winner “Stand On Zanzibar”, about a (then) near-future dystopia where societies are pressured by over-population.  This was certainly one of the alarmisms of the day, and it just didn’t work for me.  A precursor to cyberpunk, perhaps.  Another was C.J. Cherryh’s “Cyteen” which dealt with clones.  I found it overly long and didn’t really embrace the characters.  But, like I said, others seem to really love it and view it as a classic.  I did like the other Cherryh on the list (“Downbelow Station”).

Others seemed fairly light-weight but were fine.

Some others I just thought were kind of lame.  “The Snow Queen” by Joan Vinge.  Vonda McIntyre’s “Dreamsnake”.  Stories and characters, but nothing to really appeal to me.  Certainly not much ‘sci’.

So, I’m done and will  keep reading Hugo winners (my son’s gift to me each Christmas) and nominees, and past Nebula winners and nominees.  But with less of a goal in mind.  I got my sci-fi (web-) cred.

Up next, Shakespeare.  From start to finish.

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Jupiter, bringer of jollity



Among the most lasting imagery from all of the science-fiction that I’ve read is from Heinlein’s ‘juvenile sic-fi’ novel “Farmer In The Sky”.  A boy and his family settle on Jupiter’s moon, Ganymede.  It’s a good little story with some solid ‘sci’ but the image of the planet Jupiter just dominating the sky of their new world really struck me.

The Flea links to some cool imagery of what the planets of our Solar System would look like in the sky if they were the same distance from us as the Moon.  (I would have expected Jupiter to be larger.)

Here, you can listen to Holst while you view.  😎


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Filed under Books, Sci-Fi Web-Cred, Space

Iron Curtain – The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956


So how did the Soviets create the Eastern Bloc?  It wasn’t just by ‘being there’ when the war ended.  The presence of tanks and soldiers?  Granted, that was how their reach and influence was extended, but it was the utter destruction of civil society – Soviet style – that really was behind the Soviet ‘success’ ~ the immediate presence of secret police and the breaking down of all opposition, including any independent organization within the civil societies of these countries.  Applebaum’s use of the 1944 date in her book title is key; these, and many other steps, which led to the post-war Soviet-led horror show in Eastern Europe, were all very orchestrated by the Soviets.  I thought the title was also very apt: the ‘crushing’ of Eastern Europe.  This is what happened, insomuch as the Soviets (and domestic true-believers, fellow travellers and power-seekers) could accomplish ~ the independent vestiges of civil society, the things that make up ‘life’, were purposefully crushed.

This is another excellent history from Anne Applebaum; her “Gulag” is also recommended.  I had previously read Solzhenitsyn’s “Gulag Archipelago”.  That was the toughest, darkest thing I have ever read; it was literally disturbing to me during the time that I read it.  I’m glad I did read it, but Anne Applebaum’s review of that system was also excellent to read.  Solzhenitsyn’s style could be so angry and intimate at times, I appreciated reading a more objective summary.  I would recommend reading both, although “Gulag Archipelago” is a steep investment.

In terms of both books, really, it is tough to believe that such a system dominated so much of the globe for so long, and so recently.  And it continues today in some jurisdictions.  For me personally, it makes me all the more appreciative of what we have in the West.  Freedom baby.


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Filed under Books, History, Liberty

A Moveable Feast (Restored Edition), Audiobook


I’ve been listening to this audiobook, mostly while walking the dog, and am enjoying it immensely.  I’d never read the book, and really can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying this restored edition.  Hemingway’s life in Paris in the mid-20s; Paris, that ‘moveable feast’.  Gertrude Stein. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Ezra Pound.  James Joyce. Oh, and Ernest Hemingway.

That period between the wars.  They didn’t have much, but got enough money to eat and drink well on occasion; to bet on the horses, before moving on to watching bicycle racing; to walk through the streets of Paris; to mingle with other writers and try to learn from them; to encounter people who were just living through that ‘lost generation’, mostly ‘tight’; they compared war medals and war wounds; to borrow books and read and read; to sit at street-side cafes, and just write.

In reading reviews about this edition, there are discussions about how it improves Hemingway’s portrayal of Fitzgerald.  I’m not so sure it was ever really a bad review anyway.  That he might have gotten hammered sometimes?  That he might have adjusted his stories for the market?  Wow, shocking.

I’m enjoying the narrator’s voice, as well; he’s got a Michael Enright thing going.  I’m probably half way through it, but am loving it.  Give it a try.  I will pick up the restored print edition once I’ve listened through.


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Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic

Just finished this very good Russian science-fiction novel by brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, first published in 1972.  I had only recently learned of the book via io9’s piece updated upon the November 2012 death of Boris at age 79 (Arkady died in 1991).

The plot follows the life of a ‘stalker’ who keeps entering a very dangerous and mysterious Zone.  The Zone is the area surrounding the spot where an alien ship had landed on Earth and long-since departed, leaving behind artifacts and dangerous conditions.  Stalkers head in to retrieve the artifacts; not that many of them come out again.  This is a wonderfully-written book, very effectively setting the mood for the effects that the Visit and the Zone conditions have put on the adjacent town.  Some good philosophical considerations/discussions in the book, as well, including a discussion of Science itself.

Add to your list.

PS – I will have to track down the 1979 Andrei Tarkovsky film “Stalker” which is based on “Roadside Picnic” (with the Strugatsky brothers writing the screenplay).  I quite enjoyed Tarkovsky’s “Solaris”.


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Churchill and Sea Power


Finished reading this book last weekend and am recommending it.  Received as a Christmas gift from my wife, it was good to get back to some Churchill ~ it’s been a while really.  Disclosure: I know the author, who teaches history at Dalhousie University here in Halifax.  😎

Professor Bell does a great job here presenting an objective look at Churchill and his involvement with sea power throughout his long career in and out of government.  From the Dardanelles, to the very tricky business of between-the-wars naval estimates, to Force Z (sunk off of Singapore in the Second World War), and many other aspects of naval history, management and operations during the first half of the 20th century.

I didn’t come away with any concerns or criticisms of the book.  Each major area is addressed, and the author does a good job summarizing each chapter.

And the author keeps a fair bit of powder dry for the epilogue which was nice.


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Filed under Books, Churchill, History