- The Saxon Tales (Bernard Cornwell) - fans of historical fiction know Cornwell mostly for his Richard Sharpe series (turned into great TV movies in Britain), but with Sharpe having fought his way from the plains of India to Waterloo, vanquishing Napoleon and showing up in some rather unlikely places - like Trafalgar - in the process, that ship had pretty much sailed and Cornwell turned elsewhere. He's written some other short series about the Civil War and Arthurian Britain, but his latest is set in a dark time period I knew little about. Thus, along with his typically bloody but riveting battle narratives, I've picked up some knowledge about the birth pangs of the nation the world came to know as the United Kingdom. Following the trials of Uthred, a pagan Briton who, in the aftermath of the Vikings invasions of the 9th century, finds himself in the service of the Christian king Alfred, we follow the Norsemen as they overrun most of the island, leaving only Alfred's Wessex as the last English kingdom in the realm. Book by book, Alfred manages to cling to power and slowly turn back the Viking tide with the help of Uthred's sword. Due to the paucity of written records from the time, some events are heavily fictionalized, but as always Cornwell paints a scene that makes one feel that if things didn't actually happen this way, they should have. Quite readable, though those without a strong hankering for historical fiction in general might find working through the various Old English place-names rather trying.
- History of the English-Speaking Peoples: Vol 1, The Birth of Britain (Winston Churchill) - Cornwell's Saxon Tales dovetailed into my picking up the first volume of this series, which I'd ordered a mere three years and three deployments ago. Churchill has a lot of ground to cover, however, so there wasn't quite as much detail on King Alfred the Great's reign as I'd hoped (he's a small blip in between the Romans and William the Conqueror). As such, my pace of reading the first volume has slowed in direct relationship to the farther away from King Alfred it got. At this rate, I'll probably finish volume one in time for my next deployment a year from now.
- Sharpe's (fill in the blank) (Bernard Cornwell again) - reading Cornwell's new stuff make me hanker for some of his old stuff, so I decided to pick up the Sharpe chronicles again and go through them in chronological order (I've read them all before, but Cornwell first inserted a book here and there in between those from his original pantheon, and then he rewound time twenty years and went all the way back to India for several books). The Sharpe series is one of only a few by modern authors that I followed expectantly for years, from start to finish. Sharpe's a one-trick pony throughout - gets in a scrape which quickly requires vengeance against an old or new enemy, finds a girl along the way, and has his vengeance requited during a large, bloody battle - but Cornwell is at least as good a historian as he is a writer, and has a detailed and generally quite accurate backdrop behind each tale. Sometimes Sharpe takes the place of an actual historical figure who played a critical role in various battles during the Napoleonic period, but otherwise the battle descriptions are true and vivid, and one can learn a great deal about the clashes, big and small, that made Arthur Wellesley the preeminent general of his time. There's also something delicious in watching Sharpe, born and bred in the gutters of London, continually prove himself a better officer and warrior than the aristocrats who paid for their commissions rather than earn them.
- Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the Fall of the Taliban (Stephen Tanner) - on the relatively good chance that Afghanistan is my next deployment destination, I figured a little background knowledge would be useful. Tanner's history claims to be the only military history of a nation that's known little else but warfare for over 2,500 years. Some curious notes: generally Afghanistan has only garnered the interest of warlords as a prize to be kept from someone else, not as something intrinsically valuable on its own; this trend accelerated with the growth of ocean-going trade by European powers which bypassed the old Silk Road. Also, Genghis Khan's conquest of that area almost a thousand years ago may have done more to contribute to its poverty and backwardness than any other single event. He annihilated powerful urban centers and large populations so thoroughly that they never recovered. Tanner writes well up until the American intervention in 2001; the last two chapters covering 9/11 and the last several years of counterinsurgency are much choppier, with obnoxious editorializing and non-sequiters popping up frequently (like so many, Tanner seems taken in by the fallacious notion that the Israel-Palestine issue is the cause of unrest throughout southwestern Asia; it's mentioned on almost every page in the last two chapters with virtually no attempt to tie it in to the larger narrative, not to mention that most Afghanis have lived in such isolation from the wider world that the conflict is meaningless to them). Perhaps another revised edition later down the road will allow time to provide a better perspective on our actions there now; but overall, despite the weak ending, it was a decent one-volume overview of the history of the graveyard of empires.
- A Song of Ice and Fire - A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast of Crows (George R.R. Martin) - there's a funny story on how I started reading this series (not funny "ha ha", but it certainly illuminates the dark and twisted alleys of the mental labyrinth I call my thought process). I saw some promos for a new HBO series starring Sean Bean, of the British Sharpe TV special-Boromir in LOTR-Irish terrorist from Patriot Games-general baddass fame. I cared less about the series than the fact that he was in it. However, I did not, at the time, subscribe to HBO, so I started reading the books instead. After getting through the first two, I bought HBO and slowly started watching the series (which is based on the first book), already knowing what's going to happen throughout the entire season. So because of one promo poster, I now have four new books and ten new channels, and have spent more time watching How to Train Your Dragon on HBO than the series that was the inspiration for the whole thing. So don't get lost in my mind; it's scary up there. Anyway, I don't read modern fantasy since - in my opinion, founded on nothing specific - it's generally a poor derivation of Lord of the Rings or the computer game Warcraft; in the former case, I think once you've immersed yourself in LOTR you'll never be satisified with anything less, and the latter, computer games don't make for good books. But I've been pleasantly surprised; Martin's cycle cares less about magic and mystical creatures and more about the political and military machinations of the various noble houses in his fictional world. It reminded me greatly of Dune (the first three books, before Frank Herbert got really weird and his son spoiled the franchise for all time), with intrigue, betrayals, plots-within-plots, and outright war between different powers seeking the might of the crown for themselves. Unlike Dune, LOTR, and, I suspect, most other fantasy books, Martin also presents the reader with the gritty realities of medieval warfare, where princes, kings and knights fight according to aristocratic notions of virtue while making the lives of the baseborn utterly miserable. A knight can expect some quarter during a battle, and be ransomed later for the proper fee; the king's levies, however, simply die, their lands sacked and scorched as royal armies march back and forth across them. There IS fantastical mystery, however, and it's teased out at a pace sufficient to keep the reader engaged. Martin doesn't reveal the boundaries of his created world, as Tolkien did not; there are little-known lands over the horizon, holding mysterious powers and peoples, and wild places where unknown evils lurk. Readers looking for a gentle frolic through a peaceful fairyland should probably give this series a pass - the bloody violence and sexual escapades of the nobility are not for the faint of heart - but if you can handle that, it's a captivating journey.
- Game of Thrones - no need to repeat everything I just said above. Given the constraints of television, many little details from the books have been omitted from the show, but overall it remains true to Martin's vision (helped, in no small part, by having Martin on board as a co-producer). Strong actors like Sean Bean tie it all together. I'd read the books first.
- The Pacific - watched it after coming back from my own tour of the Pacific. Many reviews I'd read about it were mixed, with a common criticism being that it was too depressing and less noble than events portrayed in its sister series about the Western front, Band of Brothers. Well, having visited many of the islands where Marines fought these battles, and studied the memoirs of those who fought them, The Pacific is not too far off the mark. The Marines in that theater fought brutal, unforgiving battles against a vicious enemy under the worst possible physical conditions. Comeraderie and the occasional light moment are shown, but the misery and violence of the island-hopping campaign simply can't be white-washed without diminishing what those Marines went through. Island by island, the Marines ground away at the Japanese, taking horrific casualties in the process. The weakest point in the series wasn't the constant darkness of the story but the attempt to tie several different war stories together into a cohesive narrative. Band of Brothers had the luxury of following one small group of people who were in the same unit the entire time; The Pacific follows three different Marines whose experiences barely overlap. The producers did about as well as they could, and I admire their attempt to ensure that as many stories as possible were heard. But it's choppy.
- Cars 2 - I had high hopes for this. By and large, everything Pixar touches turns to gold. But they went badly off the rails on this one. As I said on Facebook, we all know that Hollywood types cling to certain trendy beliefs. Sometimes, they put those beliefs aside and focus on making good movies; Pixar generally does this. Sometimes, those beliefs slip through a little bit, but the movie itself doesn't suffer; Pixar got in its shots about big-box stores and pollution in Wall-E, but then went on to tell a cute story about a robot with puppy-dog eyes and the triumph of humanity over machinery. With Cars 2, the mask came completely off. Apparently John Lasseter, Pixar's creative genius, thought really really hard about who would make a good 'bad guy' in a spy movie starring cars, and in a flash of inspiration came up with: Big Oil (you could literally hear the capital B and capital O as the bad guys plotted their dastardly deeds). Never mind that gas is the life-blood of all the characters; never mind that Dinoco, the Big Oil of the first Cars, was nobly portrayed by the venerable The King race car; never mind that there were a half-dozen storylines introduced and then abandoned during the course of the movie, all of which would have made for better antagonists (lemon cars taking over the world would have been amusing and more in line with the Cars world overall). Hollywood had to make its point, and as a result the movie fails. Pixar would have our children believe that oil companies will literally murder to prevent "alternative fuels" from getting their due (for those parents who haven't seen it already, this is by far the most violent movie Pixar has made; and while the Incredibles had its share of explosions and baddies getting thrown around, race cars are, no kidding, assassinated and tortured throughout the film). I think I'm going to pass on the merchandising for Pixar's latest offering (except for the Legos Aaron got before we saw the movie...) and see if they can do better next time. They could hardly do worse.