Tag Archives: Marko Kloos

My Five Books of 2021

I am still running an bit behind on my usual end of the year posts, though this time I am going to blame Good Reads because the email reminding me about my year in reading review failed to show up in my inbox.

2020 plus 1

It got lost somewhere along the way, but the report itself was generated and available to view off of my profile page on the site once I realized it had gone missing and went to go find it.   You can look at it yourself if you so desire, of just look at the summary below if you prefer.

My summary for 2021

At this point, like so many other annual posts, I have started to build a history that you can go back and look at for comparison.

But, generally speaking, I read about the same number of books and the same number of pages as I have done in previous years, which kind of surprised me because there were stretches of 2021 where I really wasn’t in the mood.

But I did have a burst of reading at the end of the year that probably made up for the slow points along the way.

The other thing about 2021 was that it involved a lot of returns to books I had already read.  The year started off with the final book of The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, which always feels deceptively short after the first two books, and not just because it is padded out with more than 100 pages of appendices.  The main thread of the story, the fate of the one ring, wraps up fairly quickly and then, in a turn that few authors would bother with (or maybe few publishers would allow), we spend about half of the book with everybody wrapping things up, going home, and getting back to their daily lives.

So now I have to set about picking out my five favorites of the year, which has become the custom around here, and the choices are not easy.  I could very easily list ten or a dozen that I enjoyed, but picking just five makes me consider my choices and juggle often conflicting criteria.

This is all complicated a bit by the fact that, as with the academy awards, more recent titles figure more prominently in my memory than things I read last February or March.  Though, to counter that, anything that I do recall from ten or eleven months back must have been pretty good to still be in my head.  Then again, as I mentioned above, I went through a spate of comfort re-reading of titles for which I had fond memories, so they also loom larger in my brain.

In the end, I picked five, as the title suggested.  But I vacillated on which five a few times before finally landing on this five… though, given another day I might have swapped out four of them for something else.  It has been that sort of year.

The winners in advance

Crete 1941: The Battle and the Resistance

Not the first time Anthony Beevor has come up here on the blog.  As I have said in the past he writes with such a deft combination of depth and accessibility, looking at both individual stories and the overall picture that it is quite easy to become engrossed in the tales he recounts.  As usual, he starts in with how Crete become a focus of the war, the personalities who guided the battle, the pasts that shaped them, and the lead in as to how they came into conflict.  The campaign in the Mediterranean was a British fiasco and a strange cast of characters, from the classical gifted amateurs to the bumbling professionals, wander in and out of the drama.  And then there are the residents of the island itself who resisted the Germans during and after the battle and who paid a price for their stubborn determination.  Crete doesn’t rank up with Stalingrad, Berlin, Normandy, or Arnhem, other battles Beevor has covered, in scope or scale.  But his work is of such quality that tale itself outweighs the significance of the struggle.

De Gaulle

Unlike Anthony Beevor, Julian T. Jackson was unknown to me until I picked up him biography of Charles De Gaulle.  The book is long, detailed, and occasionally a bit frustrating to read, though that is more the fault of the subject than the author.  Charles De Gaulle was a difficult man and, as such, the tale of his life must include him being difficult… difficult, proud, haughty, and more than a bit antagonistic at times towards people you might see as his only allies.  Noted mostly in retrospect for being a proponent or armored warfare before the war broke out, he fled to England when France capitulated to the Germans in 1940, refusing to give up the fight.  Starting with almost nothing in London, where the British government didn’t quite know what to do with him, complicated relations with the Vichy government of France as he did, he became the living epitome of the French nation and its redemption after its humiliation, carried on by ego and determination as much as anything.  He shaped post-war France and his influence is felt even today.  The book charts his career, his many ups and downs, his difficult relationships with others, and his strongly held beliefs that guided him when things were darkest for France.

Bored of the Rings

I am clearly past the serious titles now.  Written by Henry Beard and Douglas Kenney of the Harvard Lampoon in 1969, it is a parody of The Lord of the Rings that derives its humor from more angles than you might think.  The names of most every thing, the attitudes, the flow of the tale, even the forward are all send ups of the original that are both humorous and yet betray an affection for the original work that is hard to describe.  There is even a parody of the map of Middle-earth in the same style as the original.  And, in an odd parallel to the work it parodies, it has remained in print since it was first published.  You can buy a new copy from Amazon today, though I still have two copies of sitting on my bookshelf.

It is also hard to describe the influence this silly book has had on my sense of humor and personality.  It along with Mad Magazine and Catch-22 no doubt combined to give me the rather cynical eye which I posses along with the ability to laugh at the absurdities of life.  The book is also something of a test.  People who get upset about this book because they feel it tarnishes the original on which it was based are clearly too self-serious to be around.

In 2021 I picked up the audiobook version, which has been updated and annotated because some of the humor in the book depends on consumer brand names that were popular when the book was written, many of which have fallen by the wayside.  But even the annotations cannot take themselves seriously and the both educate and add to the humor.

Bill the Galactic Hero

Another oldie, though this one was more difficult to find.  My well worn copy of this Harry Harrison classic is no longer legible after all of these years and it has been out of print for ages.  In addition, a series of very poor follow on titles in the series “co-authored” by other writers (which is to say written by somebody else) are still hanging around, all with Bill the Galactic Hero in the title.  Accept no substitutes, no Planet of the Robot Slaves, which is at times listed as Book 1 (and was the only one Harrison was involved with), or other entries in the series.  Only the original will do.

After quite a bit of digging I was eventually able to find an ebook version of it, and it was worth the effort.  Bill the Galactic Hero is a parody of the then popular jingoistic nationalism that was being portrayed in titles like Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, the pretension of SciFi coming out of its golden age, as well as the general attitude of the US government as it blundered its way into the 1960s.

The tale follows Bill (later reduced to Bil, because only officers get two Ls in their name) who is shanghaied from his life on the farm and inducted into the military of the empire, another body to be expended in the empires war against the Chiggers, a four armed reptilian species that is in a life and death struggle with humanity.  He is fed through the system, manages to show some minor competence in a battle, is decorated, gets lost on the capital planet, is declared AWOL, gets caught, punished, and put through the wringer, discovering the truth about the war along the way.

The Frontlines Series

In a bit of a cop out, my last entry is seven books (and a short story), all of which I read towards the end of the year.  In an age of binge watching I did a bit of binge reading.  The series by Marko Kloos follows Andrew Grayson, who grows up in the welfare complexes of the North American Confederation, the political entity that rules the US, Canada, and at least part of Mexico in the future.  With no hope of work, he applies to the military, which is extremely selective about the candidates it accepts.  Those who are allowed in must pass a rigorous training cycle, from which they can be washed out for any reason.  But the benefits include real food, rather than the soy based rations of the welfare complexes, an enlistment bonus payable if they complete their term of service, and a sense of purpose in their lives.  Grayson makes the cut… he’s the main character, so duh… and ends up in the armed forces of the NAC, which primarily fights against the Sino-Russian alliance or their own citizens when they rise up in protest.

And then aliens show up.  Incomprehensible, huge, and technologically advanced beyond humanity, they start taking human off world colonies one by one as Earth tries to come to grips with this mortal peril.  There is no communications, these aliens just land on the colonies, gas the settler concentrations, then setup terraformers that quickly change the atmosphere into a carbon monoxide mix that is unbreathable by humans.  And, of course, they are heading towards Earth eventually.

The series follow Grayson and his time in service, fighting human as well as alien enemies.  I mentioned in the first book in a post back in 2014 about titles that were kicking off series.  As I said back then, it isn’t hard scifi and it doesn’t get too bogged down in the how or why of technology.  It is, like a lot of good scifi, an exploration of society, trends, and how humans behave under extreme circumstances.  And the series is compelling and an easy read.

Honorable Mentions

Here is where I try and do an end run around picking just five titles, and I am going to pick out two… though which two?  I had a hard time with even that.  But here is what I have.

The first is The World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918 by G. J. Meyer.

I have read a lot of books about WWI.  It was such a seminal event at the opening of the 20th century that at times it seems like every historian feels the need to take a crack at some aspect of it.  But it is difficult to walk the line between too abstract from the horrors of the war and being too mired in the details of battle in crafting a general history of the war.  But, of the attempts I have read, this one threads the needle between the two extremes… managing to get into enough detail, keeping abreast of all fronts, and discussing the politics behind and around the war… better than anything I can recall.

And my other pick, which is also from the military history pile, is Rising Sun, Falling Skies: The Disastrous Java Sea Campaign of World War II by Jeffrey R. Cox.

This is the opposite of The World Undone, mired in detail about what has become something of an obscure campaign at the start of the war in the Pacific.  Lots of facts and tactics and equipment along with an exploration of the personalities and the politics that motivated them.

How good was this book?  Well, on my bookshelf I also have a copy of The Fleet the Gods Forgot: The U.S. Asiatic Fleet in World War II by W.G. Winslow, which is a solid telling of the campaign already, though focused more on the US aspect of it specifically.  I felt like both books together gave depth to the tale the way that two speakers spaced just right give you stereo sound.  They overlap significantly, diverge occasionally, but provide something akin to a stereoscopic view of events.

There is one person who might read this for whom that second honorable mention was for.

And that was it for 2021.  Now we’re in 2022 and I am off and looking for the next title to read.

Three Science Fiction Series Starters

I do love me a good science fiction series… or even a not-so-good one as long as it knows how to keep my attentions… as I have written in the past.

I tend to try them out in audio book form as they are especially good for passing the time in the car during the commute to and from work.  Because of my ancient, grandfathered, pre-Amazon acquisition Audible.com subscription, I get two audiobook titles a month as part of a “use it or lose it” plan.  Sometimes I have my purchases planned out months in advance, sometimes I just grab something that looks shiny.

Over the summer I decided to try out a few new series from authors I did not know.  So I picked out the starter book from three different science fiction series that were available.

ThreeSciFiSeriesStartersThis is my report on what I found.

Steel World by B.V. Larson (2013)

Summary: Earth is small part of a giant galactic empire.  The empire expects planets to provide something and grants each one a franchise on what they do best, and woe be to those who don’t have something worthwhile or who impinge on the franchise of another planet.

Earth, being backward and savage, provides mercenaries for use in conflicts within the empire, which the empire allows because… I don’t know, maybe they think it keeps people busy.  These mercenaries, which are organized as Roman legions… because… Romans are cool I guess… make Earth a respectable part of the empire and earns Earth credits so they can buy fancy space technology.

One of the technologies Earth buys lets them backup and restore dead mercenaries, within certain parameters. (Very EVE Online)  You have to be confirmed dead before you are restored, which becomes a plot point the way transporter malfunctions do in Star Trek.

Anyway, this means that Earth’s legions have an practically endless supply of soldiers.  Meanwhile, Earth is overcrowded and if something bad happens and you lose your job, you are in bad shape.

Such is the case of James McGill, who due to family issues loses his ability to pay for college.  He was a huge gamer, so he sells his elaborate console and goes off to join one of Earth’s legions, something akin to somebody today selling their XBox One and running off to join the army because they were really good at Call of Duty.  Hilarity ensues.

Highs: The tech, the galactic situation, and the way the legions operate were enough to keep me engaged throughout the story.

Lows: Owes a lot to 50’s Heinlein, very “Johnnie Rico” at times.  Too cute by half McGill escapes from impossible situations.  Plot complications telegraphed well in advance.  Galactic situation, and the situation on Earth not very well fleshed out.  Only available on Kindle or through Audible.

Follow on Books: Dust World, Tech World.

Into the Black by Evan Currie (2012)

Summary: In the not-so-distant future, after a conflict that divided the world into two armed camps and pushed the US and Canada to form the North American Confederation, various technological breakthroughs have put mankind into space.  We follow Captain Eric Weston, former commander of the elite Archagels squadron and now captain of the newly launched NACS Odyssey as he takes Earth’s first faster than light capable ship on its shakedown cruise to likely nearby stars.

And, at their very first stop at another star, they detect tachyon emission that leads them to the site of a space battle where they rescue and alien from a life support pod.  From there, difficult questions ensue and the Odyssey ends up involved in the war, taking sides without really checking back to see if this is okay with Earth.

Highs: The tech is not the easy standards of the genre.  Book attempts to, if not fully explain, at least explain well the parameters of the tech.  That is some FTL drive!  Asymmetrical tech ideas work.

Lows: Owes a bit to David Webber.  Considering how much time is spent on how cool and elite the Archangels are, they really do not add that much to the whole story.  The early plot depends on a lot of really low probability events.  Would we just let our first FTL capable ship just go swanning about where the solar winds blow like this?  Boy, them friendly aliens sure put all their eggs in one basket.  Another “lost tribe” story.  Tachyon emissions.

Follow on Books:  The Heart of the Matter, Homeworld, Out of the Black

Terms of Enlistment by Marko Kloos (2014)

Summary: In the not-so-distant future the world is divided into two armed camps with the US and Canada forming the North American Commonwealth, and various technological breakthroughs have put mankind into space.  Hrmm… that sounds familiar.

Earth is a mess, over populated, with the greater underclass confined to crowded, walled off cities.  If you don’t have a job, or lose yours, well you are stuck subsisting off of government handouts in a dirty, crime plagued corner of what passes for life for most people.  This too, sounds familiar.

The only way out is to win a lottery to a life on a colony world or join the military.  The story’s protagonist, Andrew Grayson, opts for the latter.  Insert somewhat standard boot camp scenario.  He has dreams of getting into space, but when he makes it through training but ends up in the Territorial Army, whose job it is to keep the peace here on Earth rather than head to space or garrison colony worlds.  He ends up back in cities again, this time fighting the masses of which he was once a part.

Still, where there is a will, there is a way, and Andrew really wants to get into space.  Meanwhile, aliens are on the move.

Highs:  Well paced, author knows when to skip the story ahead without feeling like you’ve missed something.  Doesn’t dwell on the tech beyond what is necessary for the plot. Really alien aliens.

Lows: Owes something to Heinlein, Haldeman, Harrison, and probably John Ringo as well, and it is hard not to draw the comparisons as you read.  Why is our future always a dystopian, over crowded, welfare state?  Detroit cannot catch a break.

Follow on Books: Lines of Departure, Angles of Attack (Due April 21, 2015)

What to Pick?

None of these titles were bad. I listened to all three to the very end, even putting the headphones on at home to continue listening to the stories outside of commute time.  Mentioning that a given story owes something to a past author’s work means that the desire to compare the two became a distraction, but that may be just a product of my own mind and having read far too much science fiction over the years.  Do not read too much into that.

l listed the titles in the order in which I listened to them, so Terms of Enlistment gets a couple of unfair “sounds familiar” mentions in its summery because it was the third in the queue.

But when I got to the end of the three books, I immediately went back to Audible.com and put Lines of Departure on my wish list.  I’ve already finished that, too, and am now impatient for Angles of Attack.

That said, at least it gives me time to pick up The Heart of the Matter.  While Into the Black didn’t thrill me as much as Terms of Enlistment, it still sunk a hook in me and I want to find out what happens next.  Maybe the Archangels will live up to their hype.

Which leaves me with Steel World.  As I said, it wasn’t bad, but it also didn’t leave me looking for a sequel either.  On the other hand, if you look at B.V. Larson’s Wikipedia page (the only one of the three authors apparently notable enough to have one), he has a whole slew of other titles, so there are some avenues worth exploring.

Anybody else on board with these authors?