Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Rebel by Bernard Cornwell

Start of a series and a great tale in its own right set during the US civil war. I actually found it hard to warm to Cornwell's main protagonist, a feckless Northerner who somehow ends up fighting for the South. Nevertheless the civil war setting is so beguiling and so well painted that this matters not. Most of the book is actually set in the very early days of the war with civillians North and South working themselves up into patriotic fervor. Their naivity is exquisitely portrayed by Cornwell and the reader winces again and again at their foolishness.

The railway had revolutionised logistics and troop movements. The industrial revolution had revolutionised supply and armament. Technological advances had brought the murdering power of artillery to a new pinnacle and the miniƩ bullet had finally made the rifle a practical infantry weapon rendering both the heroic infantry charge and battlefield cavalry effectively obsolete. Neither the generals nor the populace had yet grasped these new realities but all delusions are harshly swept aside in the climax of the novel at the first battle of Manassas (Bull Run) where the hard reality of modern warfare is brought bloodily home to all protagonists.

Armageddon by Max Hastings

Hasting's excellent portrayal of the fall of Hitler's Germany makes for compulsive reading. The sheer scale of the warfare has never been equaled.

While Hastings endeavours to give a flavour for what it was like for the men women and children caught up in the maelstrom of war he also has plenty to say about the conduct of the politicians, the generals and the armies they commanded. Those addicted to glorious portrayals of the allied landings on Normandy's beaches might be upset at Hasting's dismissal of the Western allies poor soldiering later in the campaign. Nevertheless the lacklustre performance of the American and British armies compared to the Nazis they faced and compared to the unstoppable Red army in the East is widely enough acknowledged to remove the taint of controversy from Hastings work.

It must be said that while he may praise their soldiering Hasting's pulls no punches in highlighting the depravity and brutality of both the Nazis and Stalin's forces. Indeed one of his central themes is that it is the very brutality of their regimes that made them so good at warfare. This brutality allowed Stalin's generals to make bold thrusts heedless of the enormous cost in human life, that inspired German teenagers to fight to the death in the ruins of their cities.

The fact that depraved men make better soldiers is somewhat depressing and suggests that Tyrants will always prosper but some hope can be gained from the fact that the miracles of production in American factories were at least as important as the blood sacrifices of the Red armies in overcoming the evil of Hitler's regime.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Terrific first novel set in a grim future world after the contraction which follows the end of the oil fueled expansion. Not only is this world forced to rely on pre-industrial energy sources it had also been driven to the brink of starvation by genetic experimentation gone wrong. Most of the world relies on US controlled genetically modified produce for survival but the kingdom of Thailand has managed to remain independent with it's own seed bank. There is a host of other good stuff in here and the book is strongly recommended.

I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett.

The continuing adventures of teenage super witch Tiffany Amber sees her pitted against the malevolent spirit of a witchfinder. Not to my mind vintage Pratchett but an enjoyable read none the less.

Silesian Station by David Downing.

The continuing adventures of a British/American reporter trying to survive in Nazi Germany in 1939. As war approaches out hero has swapped his British passport for a US one in order to remain with his German son and girlfriend a little longer. Again he is forced to play one side off against the other in order to survive but he can no longer ignore Nazi evil and takes increasing risks to work against them. I am really enjoying this series.While the hero John Russell's spy story escapades are as implausible as they are entertaining  Downing's portrayal of Nazi Germany is utterly believable and utterly horrifying.