Friday, March 11, 2011

Special Ops

Special Ops (Brotherhood of War, Book 9)

"Special Ops" could easily have been the eighth book of the series and "The Aviators" could have been skipped altogether. In fact, Special Ops picks up almost immediately where "The New Breed" left off. Jack Portet had just finished helping the Belgian paratroopers liberate his family from Stanleyville in the Congo and was being reunited with Marjorie Bellmon. However, just because one crisis in the Congo was averted it doesn't mean everything had settled down. In fact new international intrigue is just about to start with the arrival of Che Guevara from Cuba in a hope to drive the fascist, imperialist, pigs out and bring communism to the people.

Honestly this book isn't really about Guevara much either - except as a way to document his overall ineptitude at being a guerrilla leader. Instead, I think, it is more of an opportunity to introduce Argentina, of all places, to W.E.B. Griffin's fans - a locale he revisits in some of the books in his other series dealing with the O.S.S. and the German's in WW2. About 1/5 of this story takes place in Argentina presumably to show the US intelligence gathering techniques which are used to track Guevara. Overall this book didn't really have much of a purpose in relation to the initial "Brotherhood of War Series" and I found it a general letdown as a sequel to "The New Breed."

The worst part of this book was the end of it. A huge portion of the story is told via memo's between the Special Forces detachment (17) in the Congo and Stanford Felter in Washington DC. It was as if even Griffin realized he didn't have a story to tell so he just gave up on it, went to the bank, and cashed his royalty check. Some people may appreciate the memorandum style but, for me, it was off-putting. Typically, in the series, when I saw the memo format I would just gloss over it. However, in this story you can't or you'll actually miss a large part of the story.

In other words this couldn't have been a much worse book to finish the series with (though, "The Aviators" would have been an even worse final book - I'll discuss that in it's own review). I realize he left a few things hanging at the end of "The New Breed" but the series would have been better off had he just stopped there.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood

This is the first book I've read on my Kindle. I was able to download it for free from Google Books and I'm glad I did. To tell the truth I didn't even know this was a book until I stumbled across it. I guess I should have known better but it just never showed up on my radar before now.

The title of the book is The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood for a reason; it is more of a series of short stories featuring Robin and his band of Merry men than one long story about Robin. If you've seen any of the Robin hood movies you've seen a couple of the short stories merged into one longer whole but, for the most part, there are a lot of Robin's tales you haven't' experienced yet.

My favorite Robin Hood movie is the animated Disney classic. It incorporates a couple of the merry adventures, such as the archery tournament; but, interestingly Prince John (the phony king of England) isn't really a problem for Robin most of the time. Instead, the Sheriff of Nottingham is. However, even the Sheriff isn't really all that evil and instead is just incompetent and a bit afraid of Robin.

Interestingly I'm glad I had just finished Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth" before reading this as I had a better understanding of the roles of various religious figures as well as what it meant to be the Sheriff.

The language, while often archaic, is pretty easy to read and understand and the book, as a whole, was fun. I recommend it.

Monday, February 28, 2011

The New Breed

The New Breed (Brotherhood of War, Book 7)

It is difficult to write reviews for the books in this series because I am reading them so quickly. I bought all of them at one time and have been going non-stop so that as soon as I finish one I just start the next leaving me no time to pause and write a review.

However, I felt this book deserved a little bit of individual attention simply because, so far, it was the best of the bunch in not only this series but also of "The Corps" series which I read immediately before "The Brotherhood of War."

This book doesn't stand out because Griffin suddenly changed his formula either; it still features extraordinary soldiers and the women they love or lust after. This is the first book in the series that doesn't focus on Craig Lowell - instead it is really about the young private Portet drafted into the US Army from his expat home in the Congo where he fly's for his fathers fledgling airline. Portet, much like the rest of Griffin's characters, has an unusual ability to absorb languages - plus he is fairly well off financially though he isn't, as Lowell would say, "Comfortable." Portet, much like Lowell, however, isn't very pleased to find himself in the military and is just counting down the days until his obligation is fulfilled and he can return home. Home is the crux of his problem.

Griffin has changed the playing field, and the normal flow of time in the series, by focusing on the chaos that took place in the Congo during the mid 1960's. "The Generals", the book that precedes "The New Breed" in the series actually takes place later in the 60's, after the events of "The New Breed." Furthermore, the other books in the series focus on the Asian Pacific theater so being thrust into the Congo rebellion is a little bit jarring; but in a good way.

To tell the truth I was a little tired of Craig Lowell and his playboy lifestyle. I had tired of him a couple books prior; he never seemed to learn his lesson about screwing around. Craig's nephew, Geoff who is also featured in this book, is a more likable guy because he is both married and faithful to his wife Ursula. Furthermore, Private Portet, who was a bit of a ladies man before entering the Army, isn't simply a rich kid with an unusually successful love life. Instead he seems to have a little more depth than Lowell.

I have also really enjoyed learning more about the circumstances of the strife in the Congo. It is one of those engagements I haven't read much about even though I'm somewhat familiar with Joseph Mobutu and Moise Tshombe. One of my favorite aspects of Historic Fiction is that it provides me with a launching pad to learn more about the actual history behind the story. I am anxious to learn more about the people and the events that took place around the Congo in the 1960s' thanks to this book.

You can pick up any of Griffin's book and read them out of order because he does a pretty good job of providing the back story filler for each main character in each book. This is a little bit annoying when you read the books back to back - but it provides a casual reader with the perfect excuse to skip straight to "The New Breed" for an interesting and compelling story about the Cold War and our efforts to stop the spread of Communism through the world.

Monday, January 31, 2011

My Kindle is a Paperweight

Almost two years ago I wrote the article "A Better Kindle Still Isn't Great" where I identified, what was for me, the largest problem with the Kindle - DRM.  About 2 months ago I was given a Kindle as a gift and, now that I have one, I felt I should reevaluate my prior opinion and share it with you dear reader.

I was given the newest 3rd Generation Kindle with Wi-Fi.  (It does not include wireless 3G access but that is OK I'm rarely out of WiFi coverage).  It's a pretty simple little device and the screen is very nice.  In fact, the screen really caught me off guard it was so crisp and clear; it is much better than the 1st generation Kindle screen.  As an example, when I first opened the package there was a plastic overlay on the screen as a protector.  It appeared to have a drawing on it and an arrow pointing at the bottom of the device telling me where the power switch was.  I peeled off the plastic protector and the impressive grayscale artwork was still on the screen.  It truly looked like something that had been printed and not something being rendered by an electronic screen.

Once I finished marveling at the screen I decided I should download a book or two to try out on it.  However, I knew I didn't want to buy a book yet so I headed to Google Books and grabbed a copy of "The Autobiography Of Benjamin Franklin" and "The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood."   Both books were DRM free but in the epub format which the Kindle doesn't support.  Thus I had to also grab a copy of Calibre - a free tool that will convert epub files into mobi files and thus make them compatible with the Kindle.  The conversion process was pretty quick and I was able to push them directly to the Kindle from within Calibre.  It was at this point that I began to have problems with ebooks.

Firstly the table of contents isn't necessarily useful from within each book and sometimes it just doesn't exist.  Whoever makes the ebook file has to link the stuff in the Table to the actual digital position within the book.  Page numbers no longer have meaning since the amount of text on each page can be changed on the fly by the user.  Thus, if you want to use your Kindle while in a reading group you may have trouble figuring out where everyone else is at.   Instead of page numbers the kindle books have "positions" and there are a ton of them in each book.  In fact, when you create a digital bookmark it bookmarks the nearest position.  It's pretty slick but it is also confusing especially when the table of contents doesn't really mention "positions".

Additionally, it is hard to figure out where best to hold the device.  The page turning buttons are fairly large on each side of the screen (a good thing in general) but there isn't much space on the device to put your fingers when holding the device where you won't be touching buttons.  I finally decided to let my fingers rest on the amazing fingerprint resistant screen.  However, because the device is so small and my hands are sort of large it is uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time.  On the flip side since there are no physical pages it is easy to just lay the device down and read it (such as when laying on your side in bed).

Neither of those problems, really, will stop me from using the device.  The size and convenience are both pretty awesome.  However, since the date I was given the Kindle I have bought twenty books and not one of them was in the ebook format and this is where the real problems with ebooks begin for me.

They are too expensive for what you get.  I purchased the entire Brotherhood of War series and the entire "The Corps" series by W.E.B. Griffin in mixed formats (paperback and hardback) as used books via Amazon.  They were all delivered for free and the total cost for all 19 books was apx $75.  Each of the books is actually available as Kindle ebooks, but, had I bought them the total cost would have been over $160.  Plus, when I'm done reading them I can give them to my Dad to read and he can then give them to one of my brothers who can pass them on to another of my brothers etc, etc, until we have each read them and then I can resell them on Amazon or Ebay and  probably get back about $20 per series of books.

With the ebook I can't lend the books really. Sure Amazon has started a lending program but it only lets me lend each book one time and the length of the loan is no more than 14 days.  Thus my Dad might finish some of them (assuming he commits some time to reading them during the 14 days and nothing comes up) but then none of my brothers could.  And, to make matters worse, I can't resell them and thus I can't recoup any of the purchase price.

Granted, at the moment I have a huge stack of books on my desk.  However, as I read them the pile is diminishing (and trickling through my family) and I have hopes of some more book money in the future when I sell these.  Meanwhile, my Kindle sits on an end table collecting dust.  I did finish reading "The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood" but I can't see myself buying any books for it until the price comes down and the DRM is removed.  Until then I'll use it to augment my library with classics that I haven't had the chance to read yet.   Moby Dick, here I come.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Rogue Warrior

Badass. That's about the only way to describe Richard Marcinko a retired Navy Seal and founder of the most elite team of Seal, 6. Well, badass, reckless, and full of himself. However, I can forgive him his insanely high opinion of himself considering some of the stuff he accomplished during his long, but often troubled, military career.

When I was in the Army I really, really, wanted to join the Special Forces which is sort of like the Army's version of Seals. However, I didn't and that alone is a big difference between myself and Marcinko. When he wanted to do something in he went after it full bore and nothing would get in his way; including regulations and/or his chain of command. In fact, his utter disregard for his chain of command turned out to be his downfall.

This book was full of hoorah stories that really pumped me up and, quite honestly, inspired me to be a bit more kickass myself. Mr. Marcinko really does have something postive to teach everyone even if his approach to doing it may turn off many readers. He writes much as he talks; like a sailor so if rough language is a problem for you get over it. He worked in a world where death was a constant possibility; a few fucks scattered around really isn't too bad in comparision. No matter your background you should read this book simply to experience the raw power of a personality as strong as Marcinkos.

As bad ass as he came across he is also extremely selfish and, at times, deluded into thinking everything that happened to him, or his troops, was someone else's fault. First and foremost he was a horrendous husband. He sort of admits to it but at the same time he also doesn't seem to have any remorse for his overall neglect of his family. In fact, he seems proud of it. He also tended to act with his own sense of glory in mind rather than the welfare of his troops. Now, it may be that this is just a part of the SEAL psyche I can't understand; but, when his decisions as a leader led to his troops being in unnecessary and extreme harms way he just blames others for not supporting him. He never seems to realize it was his decision that put his boys up against 100 north Vietnamese on the night of the Tet Offensive for example. Instead he blames an incompetent and drunk Special Forces commander.

Marcinko does give good credit where it is due however and he frequently cites soldiers he served with who helped him or made him a better soldier. However, no matter how much those other guys tried to teach him there were some things, like tact, that Marcinko never learned; and it was this lack of tact; along with his disregard for the chain of command, that ultimately killed his career.

A prime example of his lack of tact comes late in the book when he is leading the super secret, bad ass team called Red Cell. These guys have what, to me, seems like the greatest job on earth. They are tasked with testing and breaking the security of naval installations around the world so that those bases can learn and improve. However, in his reports to the base commander's Marcinko doesn't care how he tells the commander that his post is screwed. Instead he just slams the guy regardless of the ego he is dealing with. I would think that in 30 years of naval service he would have learned he wasn't the only proud sailor around. I'm not saying that he should have softened his message but he certainly could have delivered them in a much more convincing manner. Instead he was an ass.

The ends may justify the means; but by delivering his message like a jerk he hurt not only himself but he undermined Red Cell's mission. Sure, the base's security flaws were illuminated but they certainly weren't addressed because the post commander had his feathers ruffled and he would turtle up and attack Marcinko instead of accepting the evaluation as a critique of the post and not of the commander. I don't know if I could have handled it any better but, considering the job he had, I certainly would have tried.

In the end Marcinko was still an excellent soldier who did his job, taking out the enemy, well and I'm going to try to take away some of his strengths from reading it. From now on, when I'm faced with a difficult obstacle that I think is too great to overcome, I might even ask myself, "What would Marcinko Do" - then I'll run through the damn thing and kick it's ass.

Even with all his failings and the books often awkward writing I enjoyed it and give it a 3.5 out of 5 star review.