Saturday, July 18, 2015

Finished (E-Reader) - "Joyland" - Stephen King

I just finished Stephen King's "Joyland".  I read King when I was younger (maybe in my teens and '20s) and stopped for a while.  I must say that I like the cover art - a throwback to the pulp magazines and comics of the '50's.

I read "1963" which I though was excellent, and got back into reading a few Kings.  Unlike the earlier books (or my memory of them, anyway), the newer King books don't rely as much on the horror/shock as on telling a story that contains an element of the supernatural.

Joyland fit that bill - the story was basically a story told retrospectively of a summer spent as an amusement part worker, dumped by first girlfriend, making new friends for the summer, eveyone leaving the following fall for various homes and campuses.
That story works, and is a nice simple read.  The "supernatural" element is that the park had a murder a few years before and the victim has been seen in ghostly form on the ride that she was killed on (not really a spoiler yet, that is 1st chapter setup up for the book).

The main character meets some interesting folks and learns a little of carnival life - the handing off of running speeding machines to untrained summer help with a "here you go" training session, having to perform in the heat of the summer, having to treat sometimes rude and abusive customers with decency...

The story does end with some action - running around in the rain, firearms, etc. but is doesn't fall into the horror category - the action is more along the lines of a typical spy or detective novel shootout - the supernatural elements just give it a Stephen King touch.

Not a bad book to spend a few hours reading.


The supernatural appears in a number of places - the ghost of the murder vicitm, the palm reader of the carnival who seems to have some real ability along with the showmanship, and a young boy with muscular dystrophy who also has some psychic ability.

Finished (E-Reader) - "Under Fire" - Tom Clancy (written by Grant Blackwood)

I've been a big Clancy fan (the Jack Ryan series anyway) for a long time.  I've liked the "insider" feeling of the stories - I know (kinda') what it feels like to be in a nuclear submarine from "Hunt for Red October" and understand the motivations for both the defecting Soviet crew and the Americans.  I got a feel for the world of espionage from "Cardinal of the Kremlin", and doses of action from a number of different sources.
It seemed that post-911 the novels became a little more one-sided - there didn't seem to be an attempt to understand the motivation(s) of the terrorists that showed up in the books - not that you had to agree, or that the motivations had to be legitimate to an impartial observer, but the books seemed to lose something when the villains became stereotypic.

Unfortunately, Tom Clancy died in 2013, though his books exist in various series being written by partners.

As Clancy's Jack Ryan series was a serial story - each story referenced earlier stories and the characters had a consistent history - he ran into the same problem facing comic-books - what do you do with an "old" spy?  Clancy handled this by having Jack (Sr.), his original character, age and progress in his career, eventually becoming VP (on paper anyway) and President.  He kept the "Jack Ryan - spy" idea going by having Ryan (Sr.)'s son Jack become an intelligence analyst and field operator as his dad had before him.
I haven't been quite as enamoured with Jr.'s stores.  The latest being "Under Fire".  The book has action, but it doesn't seem to have the heart and soul of the Jack Ryan (Sr.) books a generation before.  I haven't re-read those older books, so it may certainly be me, not Jack Ryan who's aged out of the category.

I don't find myself immersed in the intelligence underground with these Jr. books, and the "narrow escapes" seem to be too frequent, too farfetched and too lucky - it tends to make the stories a little too one-dimensional action stores, not a rich expose of clandestine activities taking place under our noses, erupting into action periodically as a result of the investigations.

Anyway, it is what it is.  If you're stuck, the book is OK, but you can probably find something else to take up your time this summer.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Finished (E-Reader): "The Wright Brothers" - David McCullough

As with the Erik Larson's "Dead Wake" (about the Lusitania), the basic outline of the Wright Brothers story is well know. (I mention the Lusitania as I was concurrently reading "Dead Wake" - Erik Larson about the Lusitania;  it was odd to see that when the Wrights flew a demonstration in New York, the flew around the Statue of Liberty and right over the decks of a loaded Lusitania).

McCullough's book is good, and covers the story, but I didn't find that the story had enough drama to make the book as compelling as I might have liked for a summer read.  A the turn of the century (19th to 20th century) a debate raged about whether or not "heavier than air" travel was even possible.  Balloons, Dirigibles and Zepplins flew using hydrogen (and later helium) and hot air to make the craft ascend, but powered aircraft were an unknown.

There were no lack of inventors - France, in particular, hosted many, and the U.S. had several of their own.  I suspect that knowing the outcome, the drama of the "race" was somewhat lost.

The Wrights were cycle mechanics, and generally well rounded mechanics and engineers.  They set about studying birds and how their wings worked, and researched all that was to be found on attempts with gliders and other craft.  They were surprised at the lack of detailed understanding of the science and the engineering that was known at the time.

My image of their first flight was on a beach in North Carolina, likely near a town, with a crowd watching off-frame from the famous photograph.  I was very surprised to find Kitty Hawk was very isolated and took days to reach by boat and hiking, and was a very small settlement of fishermen.  Impressively, the Wrights had to build a shop at Kitty Hawk, and survive pretty fierce storms, heat, cold and mosquitoes depending on the month, with only the help of a few locals.  What Kitty Hawk had going for it was reliable winds running pretty much constantly, small hills to provide a launch opportunity, and sand to provide a less deadly landing environment.
It is pretty clear that the Wrights did fly, and did beat other American and European competitors, there is little doubt about that, even their contemporaries admitted such.  The Wright's plane flew much better than I imagined, capable of flying for an hour or more and running circuits (e.g. figure 8's, to the next town and back, back and forth across a field), and later versions could take a passenger.

When the Wright's created a plane that worked, they used it to get money for invention - the primary sources were contests (e.g. anyone who can fly for 10 minutes wins $10,000 type events) and military contracts.  The first to express interest were the French, who were worried about their German/Austrian neighbours.  The Wrights were to receive money if they successfully demonstrated their invention.  Thus, Wilbur went overseas to demonstrate the aircraft.

Both brothers had crashes, though neither died from them (I had always though Wilbur died in a crash for some reason).  Wilbur died of Yellow Fever in his 40's, and Orville lived into his '70s, having seen what his invention was capable of doing in wartime.  Though Orville didn't like the destruction his invention could cause, and the blurring of what are wartime targets that came along with it, he never regretted the invention itself.

Finished (E-Reader): "Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania" by Erik Larson

Erik Larson's "Dead Wake"

David Butler's "Lusitania- a Novel"
I had heard the tale of the Titanic since before I can remember, but I discovered the Lusitania story about the time I started at the University of Windsor.  At that time, I was really looking around for procrastination items, and found the Fantastic Four comics from Marvel and found a large novel, "Lusitania - A Novel" by David Butler, which served my need for something time consuming and "needed to be read".

I can't remember too many details, but the basic storyline that a passenger carrying ocean liner was struck by torpedo(s) from a German U-boat in WWI.

I found "Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania" by Erik Larson much more recently, and gave it a read.

Even though I knew the basic outline (which I don't think are "spoilers" in a 100 year old tragedy), I found the book a really compelling read.  Larson wove material he gained from letters, postcards, survivor interviews and war records into a narrative outlining the voyage from both the Lusitania and the U-20 perspectives.  Larson also does a good job of setting the world political scene - Wilson (the U.S. president mourning his lost wife and becoming interested in a new love, wanting to keep the U.S. out of the European conflict), the goals of the Germans, to end the war quickly by stopping all supplies to England (similar rationale to the U.S. decision to use the atom bomb in WWII - a faster end to the war saves lives on both sides - at least, that's how the rationalization goes), and the English realism that a sea disaster involving U.S. passengers may be what would be required to get America into the war.

There appears to have been some real dissension in the German government re. the sinking of passenger liners, with different rules of engagement playing at different periods of the war.  U-boat commanders did retain a very high degree of autonomy, and their key performance measure was not necessarily kills, but tonnage - Lusitania was a single kill, but a very large tonnage win for the U-20 commander.  The "stop all incoming traffic" strategy adopted by the Germans was a promise to end the war in 6 months - it was very nearly successful, as the U.S. entered the war likely months before it would have ended with a German victory.

The angst felt by mariners on both sides, with respect to sinking non-military targets, and whether or not to assist with the rescue of survivors was well expressed.  The U-boat commanders took various forms, some assisting and some leaving the scent - their main concern was maintaining concealment - the U-boats were pretty fragile and any collision typically favoured the surface ship - on the English side, there was concern that attempting rescue with valuable ships (e.g. military vessels) would allow easy traps to be set by U-boats (sink a ship, hide, shoot the rescuers when they are sitting, or slow to assist).

All in all, a very good read which does a good job of personalizing the disaster.