What I’m reading – the New Year’s edition

It’s been several months since I’ve last listed what I’m reading.  I’ve read many good pages in that time, though, so let’s catch up with a special year’s-end edition.

The Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.  A huge fantasy series, four books and counting, each book running from 800-1000 pages.  My kids love them, which pretty much make them required reading for me, if only so that I understand the dinner conversation.  I’ve read all four: A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, and A Feast for Crows.  The books center around a massive civil war set in a fantasy world that is a rough analog of England in the high medieval period, with some clear overtones of the War of the Roses, but with magic, undead, and dragons thrown in for good measure.

I’ve got a love-hate relationship with these books.  They are entertaining, with a vast array of generally interesting characters.  But they often lack narrative drive, they bludgeon the reader with ugly war scenes (please, George – I’ve read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror (which I highly recommend, by the way) – I get that medieval warfare is an ugly thing, one village full of raped and mutilated peasants is enough), and much of the plot is driven by characters doing truly stupid things, which always annoys me.  Most of all, we’re already at around 4000 pages, the story shows no sign of nearing a close.

I’m a fan of large sprawling novels: I don’t believe a book really gets going until around page 800.  But Tolkien and Tolstoy both managed to tell their war stories in around 1200 pages – does Martin’s war really require an order of magnitude more?

So tentatively recommended, but there are definitely some caveats here.  Most of all, Martin, who says there’s still at least three more volumes to go, is already three years late on volume 5, and is getting a little long in the tooth.  Commit to these, and you may be committing to a series that will never reach its end.

– No such caveats for The Graveyard Book, by Neal Gaiman.  Published as a young-adult novel, I found this to be an absolute delight.

The book opens with a dark stranger called “the man Jack” stalking through a dark house with knife in hand.  Having just killed the parents and older child, the man Jack is in search of one last victim, a toddler.  But the unnamed child slips away to a nearby graveyard where he is taken in by the Owenses, a couple of ghosts, who, after arguing about who he looks like, conclude that he looks “like nobody but himself.”  Thus, they name him Nobody Owens, or Bod for short.

The book recounts Bod’s childhood raised in the cemetery by the various ghosts who “live” within, with each chapter taking place two years after the last one.  Young Bod learns much from the ghosts, including how to fade into invisibility, how to instill a frightful chill, and to avoid the ghouls and the less reputable residents.  Finally, when the man Jack returns to take care of unfinished business, Bod is ready, and the final confrontation is a delight that ties together many of the threads that sprang up in the various chapters.

I always love Gaiman’s work, and I particularly loved this one – recommended for anyone.

Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway, by Jonathan Parshall and Anthony Tully.  I was talking with a friend recently about the battle of Midway, the turning point in WWII in the Pacific, when the American navy, after being dominated by the Japanese for the six months following Pearl Harbor, finally struck back, sinking four Japanese carriers and seizing the initiative for the remainder of the Pacific war.  (Yeah, I know.  I’m a geek, with lots of geeky friends.  So?)  I mentioned a couple of the standard points told about that battle, how the American torpedo bombers came in low and were shot up by the Japanese fighters, but that put the fighters out of position when the American dive bombers came swooping down from on high to sink the carriers, and how the carriers blew up quickly because their decks were crammed with aircraft getting ready to go attack the Americans.  He gave me a knowing look and said that I really needed to read Shattered Sword, how it would change everything I thought I knew about the battle.  And so I did.

I’m happy to report that the book is excellent, and showed how wrong I was.  Shattered Sword is a revisionist history of the battle of Midway, told largely from the point of view of the Japanese forces, that challenges much of the common wisdom about the battle.  (Those two points I mention above, for example, don’t survive Parshall and Tully’s analysis.)  Apparently, much of the common wisdom was based on the writings of Fuchida Mitsuo, a Japanese officer at the battle, who wrote an early self-serving account of the battle, one that has shaped much of the American understanding of what was the Japanese experienced during the battle.  But Fuchida’s account has been largely debunked in Japan for the past 20 years, though that news hasn’t reached American historians until recently.

The book does an excellent job of describing Japanese naval doctrine, the political maneuvering in their naval command that led to the Midway plan, and the tactics and operational approaches that the Japanese navy used.  That is coupled by a detailed recounting of the day of the battle, one that covers both the military actions, the efforts of the crews of the damaged ships to save them, and detailed descriptions of what it was like to escape from the burning hanger deck of a bombed aircraft carrier.  If you enjoy military history, and thought you knew what happened at Midway, I strongly recommend this book.

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