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review 2018-03-28 04:43
Forcefully revises misconceptions about Britain in World War II
Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources, and Experts in the Second World War - David Edgerton

When it comes to the Second World War, the British historical imagination is defined by the image of 1940: a plucky little island, standing alone against the Nazi juggernaut that had just rolled over western Europe.  The underdog status suggested by this image magnified both the heroism of the Battle of Britain and the subsequent victory scored over Germany five years later. Yet such a view, as David Edgerton stresses, is wildly inaccurate. Contrary to the popular myth, Britain stood at the head of an empire of nearly half a billion people, with the resources to wage war quite easily. Moreover, it was a war waged with an advanced and heavily mechanized military effort, one even more so than that possessed by their enemy.  Edgerton details all of this in his revisionist analysis of the war, one that takes a bulldozer to many longstanding misconceptions to give readers a better understanding of how the British waged, and won, the war.

 

Edgerton begins by describing the considerable economic resources Britain possessed during the war. Theirs was an imperial economy capable of tapping a range of resources from foodstuffs to oil, as well as the manufactures and skills provided by the colonies. This was connected to the home country by a merchant fleet which also gave Britain access to the economic might of the United States and which actually grew over the course of the conflict.  Edgerton describes the good use to which these goods were put, noting the improvements in diet for millions and arguing, again contrary to the popular myth, that the war materiel produced was of equal or even superior quality to that of their enemies and often of their allies as well.  All of this was managed by a state that gave considerable support to its scientists and technicians, many of whom developed the advanced weaponry which Britain used to win the war.

 

Forcefully argued and backed by a wealth of statistics, Edgerton’s book provides a powerful corrective to many misconceptions about Britain’s war effort.  Yet in some respects Edgerton deploys his arguments too broadly, often glossing over or ignoring the flaws that served as the basis of contemporary criticisms about the quality of British weapons (such as in naval air, which is mentioned only once and in passing). Moreover, his analysis raises an interesting question that is left unaddressed: if the British war machine outclassed that of the Germans in both quality and quantity, then why did the war last as long as it did?  Edgerton suggest Japan’s entry (which deprived Britain of the resources of her east Asian colonies) as a key factor, but this is only a partial example and begs further analysis.  Such an examination would have added greatly to the value of this already important book, which should be read by anyone with an interest in British history or the Second World War.

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review 2017-10-16 17:27
Use of Weapons / Iain M. Banks
Use of Weapons - Iain M. Banks

Cheradenine is an ex-special circumstance agent who had been raised to eminence by a woman named Diziet. Skaffen-Amtiskaw, the drone, had saved her life and it believes Cheradenine to be a burnt-out case. But not even its machine intelligence can see the horrors in his past.

 

Somehow, I had come to think of Iain M. Banks’ Culture as a pretty ideal society. This book shattered that somewhat for me, as it contains a lot of war & violence, plus a really cruel twist as the end of the novel. What can you do if you live in the Culture, but you’re not an easily entertained, peace-loving guy? Well, you can sign up for Special Circumstances and become a sort of super-soldier, getting horrifically injured, revived, regenerated, and going off to fight another battle. Even some of the Machine Minds in this one seem to be destructive and cruel.

But Banks accomplished what I think he wanted to—making his readers rethink what the Culture is all about (and maybe rethinking some the assumptions about their own culture). I look forward to tackling State of the Art next.

Book 265 of my Science Fiction & Fantasy Reading Project.

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review 2017-07-19 23:01
Recommended to those who enjoy action novels, spy novels, thrillers, and definitely to Baldacci fans.
Zero Day - David Baldacci

Thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher, MacMillan, for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

David Baldacci is one of these authors whose names a reader (and even a non-reader) cannot escape. His books are widely distributed and he always seems to have a volume or two in the bestsellers list (no, not the Amazon one on a little-known genre, but the real thing). Despite all that (or perhaps because of it, as sometimes some names seem so familiar that I feel as if I had already read/watched or whatever it is they do, them before) I had never read any of his books. I saw that coinciding with a book launch, NetGalley was offering a copy of the first book in the John Puller series, and I decided perhaps it was time I read him. (I don’t have any specific opinions on best sellers as such and I don’t necessarily avoid them as a matter of principle but I do prefer to discover them early on, so I can make my own mind up).

The story, narrated in the third person, mostly follows John Puller, a military investigator that is all you probably would wish for in such a character. He has complex family relations (including a genius brother imprisoned for life for treason), he has seen his share of combat and has the medals and the scars to prove them, he is as skilled at fighting as he is at investigating, and although usually he works as part of a team, he can be a one-man-band when required (as is the case here).  There are some moments (like the first chapter) when we follow other characters, but this is for a very good reason, and we, by and far, experience the events from Puller’s perspective. Of course, that does not mean we know everything he knows, because the book hides information at times and that means there are some surprises (the number of surprises might depend on how close your attention and on how many books of the genre you have read).  The story is a combination of a spy story with highly skilled military investigator/hero in charge, and a more standard police procedural, with big secrets, conspiracies, and environmental issues thrown in for good measure. There are hints of a possible romance, but nobody is up to the task, and the time frame is very tight for such developments.

The investigation is very detailed, and we get to know quite a few of the characters in the small West Virginian town of Drake, a coal mining place that has become almost a ghost town due to the environmental and economic consequences of the exploitation and depletion of its resources by the sole industry in the area. Baldacci shares as much loving detail on the way the coal industry works (or at least some far-from-exemplary companies), as he does on everything else: the way the military works, the different roles of the investigating and security agencies and how they interact, the equipment used, the weaponry… This might be too much for some readers, but I am sure it will make others very happy. I did enjoy more the discussions of the environmental issues and the socio-economic effects of the coal-extracting industry than the details about the equipment, but there is plenty of action and intrigue to keep readers of mystery, and also spy novels, entertained.

My favourite character is Sam Cole, the female police officer in charge of the investigation. She has problems of her own and also a difficult relationship with her family, and seems the perfect match for Puller. I would probably have preferred the novel to be about her, but that is not the genre or the focus of it. In many ways, her character is the one that makes us see Puller as something more than a perfect fighting and investigating machine, all professional, and efficient. Yes, he has a cat, some sort of relationships with his father, and an interesting dynamic with his brother, but she is the only person who is not a relative he seems to relate to at a level beyond the casual, and it is not only because it is helpful to his mission.  

I agree with comments that the novel is formulaic in many ways (Puller survives several attempts on his life, has to subvert orders and get inventive to save the day and manages to pull an incredible feat at the end), although as I haven’t read other Baldacci’s books, I cannot comment on how much better or worse Puller is compared to some of his other heroes (Reacher is mentioned often in the reviews, sometimes agreeing he’s as good, others denying it). I imagine once you have such a following as an author, you know what your public wants and expects, so it is perhaps disingenuous to accuse him of writing to a formula. It is not a genre I read often, and I prefer something more distinctive, less heroic, and with a bit of humour.

The book is well paced, the writing supports the story rather than calling attention to itself (as I said, some readers might find there is too much detail, but I doubt his fans will, and after reading the acknowledgements, it is clear that he is well-informed and has had access to first-hand information not many would have), and if you like lone heroes with a conscience, John Puller makes a pretty decent one. Recommended to those who enjoy action novels, spy novels, thrillers, and definitely to Baldacci fans. I am not sure I’d say I’ve become one of them, but I might try another one of his stories at some point.

 

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review 2017-07-12 17:24
Dark Underbelly of Utopia: "Use of Weapons" by Iain M. Banks
Use of Weapons - Iain M. Banks

From the moment I picked up the Culture books eons ago they changed the way I viewed the natural world around me, adding a layer of mysticism to every tree, every rock and every hill; along with a wonderment of what untold stories each has born witness too. think it's often a combination of the book itself and the moment it comes into your life. I was one of those textbook cases - I had read just about everything by Enid Blyton in English as a child, and had never managed to make the jump (and what a jump it was!) to anything else, with a very tiny vocabulary. Then when I was 16, an older friend who I thought was super-cool (and would have done anything to impress) said that I should try Heinlein. I promptly got “Have Space – Will Travel” and read it, not really understanding what I was reading but at the same time fascinated and excited by the twisted tale. It was at that point, I realise now, that I vowed to try and find out what literature was all about. Many years and many hundreds of books later, I'm still on that wonderful journey, and I'm thankful for having come across him at just the right moment in my life. It was this fact that allowed me, many years later, to “discover” Banks. It was just happenstance; without that I wouldn’t be here writing these words.

 

 

If you're into SF, read on.

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review 2017-04-29 02:55
Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
Use of Weapons - Iain M. Banks

Series: Culture #3

 

Well that was disappointing. I was tempted to give it 3 stars overall while reading (before I got to the end) since although the present-day chapters were fairly interesting, the past chapters were duller and sometimes maudlin. Then I got to the “twist” at the end and was disappointed by it. I had caught the references to it earlier and was hoping I was wrong but… nope. If it weren’t Banks, I’d probably drop my rating lower, but I guess I’ll keep it at two stars.

 

The present-day chapters follow Cheradine Zakalwe as he’s recruited by Diziet Sma (I like her first name) to convince this old political to come out of retirement to put off a war. Zakalwe’s skill is winning wars, basically, so the “past” chapters show various scenes from his past, some of them boring and some of them brutal. These interleaved chapters make up the book. There’s also a drone called Skaffen-Amtiskaw who starts off as a bit of a jerk but becomes more interesting as the book goes along. Sma doesn’t have much of a personality, unfortunately, despite her cool name.

 

I read this for the Water Works square in booklikes-opoly since there’s water on the cover. It turns out that it’s a grounded battleship in front of a city on the cover and it seems like it was grounded in drydock in a shipyard so there would be water around it somewhere, so I think the stuff that looks like water is water. Hopefully that clears up some confusing elements of the cover (while opening a whole new can of worms as far as confusing context goes). Anyway, the book is 411 pages, so that’s another $5 for my bank, bringing my total to $48.

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