Posts tagged with: book review

Civilian Warriors by Erik Prince: A Book Review

Read this book to understand how our government works.  Politicians will say one thing on television and then do just the opposite in private, and sometimes that’s a good thing.  If we made it easy to go to war we’d be doing it all the time.  Nobody wants that, so our elected officials cut the military budget, debate hotly any movement of our boys overseas, and then when something absolutely positively has to be done they hire a contractor.  That’s Blackwater.

The whole title of Prince’s book is Civilian Warriors:  The Inside Story of Blackwater and the Unsung Heroes of the War on Terror.  Prince is the founder and former CEO of the security contractor Blackwater that protected American diplomats and performed many other duties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  After doing exactly what they’d been paid to do Blackwater and Erik Prince were later vilified in the media and congressional hearings by the same people who hired them.  Forced by contractual obligations to be silent about Blackwater’s activities, Prince is now opening up with both barrels, and he’s dishing some dirt.

I write international thriller fiction based on reality, and books like Civilian Warriors supplement my own experience in creating stories.  I’m working on a geopolitical thriller now, The  Fourth Domain, and there is a civilian contractor deeply involved.

Continue Reading →

Book Review: “The Center Cannot Hold,” a story of schizophrenia by Elyn Saks

If you have a schizophrenic family member, or one with bipolar illness, read this book.  Your first impression will be, “yeah, they’re like that.”  Then you’ll be fascinated as Elyn and her illness grapple.  Elyn Saks is a successful law school professor who tells the story of her schizophrenia from her first hallucinations as a teenager through her education, multiple hospitalizations and eventual academic career.    But, she’s also a stubborn narcissist who insists on having things her way, and some of her tribulations were her own fault.  Pharmaceuticals for schizophrenia improved since she was first medicated, but she fought them all the way.  Finally, near the end of the book she admits that only with medication can a schizophrenic control their illness.  We physicians have known that since the 1950’s, but Elyn had to learn it for herself.  Elyn, like most schizophrenics, doesn’t feel herself when she’s on medications, yet the hallucinations and paranoia off of meds makes her life miserable; so, her story is of life on and off meds.

We now know that an excess of the neurotransmitter dopamine is what causes all that unwanted brain activity.  I’ve heard schizophrenics talk about “looking through that window” at another world; the schizophrenic’s world.  Elyn gives us a glimpse through the window.  It’s fascinating.

As a physician who treats schizophrenics, and a novelist looking for characters, I wondered if a genius schizophrenic could solve a highly complex problem.  I brought the subject up at a psychiatric conference and the consensus was no, their organization skills are too impaired.  Elyn Saks answered it in the affirmative, and demonstrated that a schizophrenic can organize and deal with highly complex problems.

There are flaws.  Elyn comes from a wealthy family and was allowed to change physicians until she found one who wouldn’t put her on medication.  Her favorite was a French psychoanalyst who just let Elyn talk and took no action.  Psychoanalysis doesn’t work for schizophrenia, and it didn’t work for Elyn, yet she gives the impression that doctor shopping is beneficial for the mentally ill.  It isn’t.  Most of her psychiatric breakdowns were because she was off her meds.  Still, it’s the only book of its kind and I recommend it.  

Continue Reading →

Book Review: Pacific Glory: A Novel

P.T. Deutermann is a Naval Academy grad who commanded a destroyer and has written several successful thriller novels, so when he writes of the surface navy in the Pacific during World War II, you expect a lot. This is a thrilling story about three Annapolis grads from the Class of ’32, and Glory, the navy nurse they all loved. That may sound like the setup for a romance novel, and there is some personal drama, but this is war as real as you can get from the printed page.

Told as a flashback by a retired officer to his stepson, the tale begins with the changing of the Officer of the Deck at the beginning of the midwatch on a heavy cruiser off Guadalcanal in August, 1942. If you know your history you get goosebumps right there. Within minutes that ship is sinking, and our primary protagonist, Lieutenant Marsh Vincent barely escapes going down with her. The details, from a personal perspective, as Japanese cruisers and destroyers clobber the ship, and the sights and sounds of her sinking remain with me yet.

One of the friends, husband of Glory, the navy nurse, has gone down with the Arizona before the story starts. The third friend is a dive bomber pilot; brash, fearless, and flawed, who sinks a Japanese carrier at Midway. We live through Guadalcanal, Midway, and the savage but little known naval battle at Samar. Marsh and McCarty are there when the Yamato, the largest battleship ever built, attacks a group of small escort carriers providing air support for the American landing in the Philippines.

The tale jumps between action in the Pacific and recovery back at Pearl Harbor. I stayed up way past my bedtime to finish the last 100 pages. You will too.

Continue Reading →

Fighter Pilot: A Book Review of the Memoirs of Legendary Ace Robin Olds

Every fighter pilot after Robin Olds is a wannabe. The game is changed. America only has a thousand fighters in operation, and the new ones cost $200 Million. They will fly themselves if the pilot asks them to. Olds came along when we lost more planes and pilots from mechanical failure, weather, or pilot error than combat.

Fighters are very hard to fly, and only a lucky SOB could have survived what Robin Olds survived. He bridged the gap from the World War II piston engine fighters through the jets of Viet Nam. His father was Lieutenant General Robert Olds, a WW I fighter pilot and friend of the greats of early aviation; Billy Mitchell, Hap Arnold, Tooey Spaatz, Ira Eaker, and Eddie Rickenbacker.

Robin Olds got some breaks. Family ties got him into West Point at the beginning of World War II, where his size and athletic ability allowed him to excel on the football field. His brash ways pissed off some people who would have derailed the average pilot into bombers or transports; contacts got him into fighters. He was a natural. He came into the European theater after most of the really tough German pilots were already gone. He became a double ace after the Normandy invasion. Olds was commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base in Thailand during the early period of the Viet Nam war when Russian pilots flew the Migs protecting North Viet Nam. That was the last of the real dogfights; and Olds was the big dog. He was Commandant of the Air Force Academy; leaving a legacy that persists today.

The strength of this book is not Olds’ exploits, which are extraordinary, but his passionate descriptions of the conflicts of the times. He’s fighting something from his first application to West Point through his retirement, and it’s a journey through history, military life and culture. If you’re a fighter pilot wannabe, like me, or you’re just curious what it’s all about; this is the book.

This is a well written book, ostensibly written by his daughter Christina and a ghost writer, Ed Rasimus, but the narrator is Robin Olds; you can feel his passion. Christina gathered his memoirs and worked with Robin during his final months. He was adamant that he would tell his story, and he did.

Continue Reading →

Islands of Destiny, by John Prados: Book Review

This is a strong book. Written by an accomplished and experienced historian after exhaustive research of source material not available to previous authors on World War II in the Pacific, Islands of Destiny is an entertaining read; if you like history. If you’re looking for a summer beach book, this isn’t it. I bought it for research for a historical novel I might write one day, and I wanted someone else to read the volumes of memoirs and histories published in English since WW II, then wade through the recently translated diaries and journals of the Imperial Japanese Navy and their sailors and airmen, screen through the inflated after action reports each side produced after battles to count how many planes and ships were actually lost, lay out in reasonably concise terms the perspective of the various combatants, and tie it all together with maps, technical analysis of ships, planes, radar, secret codes and Japanese and American doctrine. Here it is. Other reviewers have criticized author Prados as providing excessive detail and not enough personal drama; get a romance novel, I say! This is the best chance we arm chair admirals will have to understand how it all went down.

The Solomons form the eastern edge of the Coral Sea, which borders Australia. At the beginning of WW II the Japanese took Rabaul, in the Bismarck Archipelago, which is just to the north of the Coral Sea. When they landed on Guadalcanal and began building an airfield, they threatened to encircle Australia and cut her supply route to the US. In July, 1942 American Marines landed on Guadalcanal. Thus begins this story of two mighty nations locked in mortal combat at the end of their supply chains. It went on for a year.

Every book review needs some quibbling. John Prados is positively toxic on the subject of General George Kenney and the Army Air Corps’ contribution to the Solomons Campaign. True, the Solomons was a Navy show, and the Navy did the bulk of the fighting and dying there, but the Army Air Corps held the eastern flank while protecting Australia from imminent invasion through New Guinea, and they did it on a shoestring compared with the firepower the Navy could muster. There are a lot of Japanese names in this book and I couldn’t keep them straight. The addition of their source material is critical to this document, but it made for some tough cross checking. Perhaps a graphic with the Japanese hierarchy could have been added.

Contrary to some reviewers, author Prados gives us many personal vignettes and human profiles drawn from diaries and published memoirs to personalize this tale. I don’t fault him a bit for being too dry. Insights I gained from this story include how our cracking of the Japanese code affected virtually every battle. It wasn’t just the strategic movements but the actual routes and timing of ship movements, and the fact that we maintained that secret until 1978! Both American and Japanese dive bomber pilots experienced 80% attrition during major battles; put yourself in that cockpit as the engine warms up.

This book, in its paper form for the maps, pictures, and reference materials, belongs in the library of all descendants, American and Japanese, of the brave men who fought The Solomons Campaign. They changed the world.

Continue Reading →

Book Review: City of Promises

A story about Mexico, written by an American who lives in Canada; odd, but interesting.  Let me explain.  D. Grant Fitter has studied and worked in Mexico long enough to know and understand that place, which is very different from the United States, as we will learn.  He says he thinks he must have been Mexican in another life.  In his tale Arturo Fuentes, a young businessman moves to Mexico City in 1943 and opens a glass bottle factory using sand from his native region.  In short order he falls in with a famous Mexican dancer and some shady characters from the totally corrupt government of that nation.  The story winds through the headlines of the 1940’s as Perez Prado becomes internationally popular and the rumba sweeps the nation’s dance floors.  In the meantime corrupt politicians deal themselves in on every business transaction of consequence, with Fuentes swept along and becoming wealthy in the process.

This story reads like Gabriel Garcia Marquez was given a stack of old newspapers from 1943-1948 and told to write a mystery/thriller.  It has dreamy descriptions of rich coffee and aged rum served up in restaurants and night clubs of the period, then business deals, the development of Mexico City bus service, the presidential election of Miguel  Aleman, and the development of Acapulco.  It’s told in linear, first person prose eliciting more curiosity than tension or suspense until the end when it finishes up tidy.

So, interesting but not literature.  It’s a primer in how government corruption infects every part of life, and it isn’t unique to Mexico.  It’s happening in Egypt as we speak, and it’s always trying to happen in the United States.  That’s why our two party political system has stood the test of time.  Mexico now has a two party political system, and they’re a better nation for it.

Continue Reading →

Review of “The River War” by Winston Churchill

220px-Churchhill_03The River War:  An Account of the Reconquest of the Sudan was Winston Churchill’s second book, long out of print but brought back by print on demand.  He was a lieutenant in the 21st Lancers, a British cavalry unit with the Egyptian Army at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan on September 2, 1898.  This is history made  more exciting than adventure fiction by one of the best writers the English language has produced.  With a historian’s attention to detail, Churchill relates nearly a century of warfare and political maneuvering as Egypt dominated a land mass three times its size containing a thousand miles of the Nile River.  Egyptian rule was based on slavery as they taxed their Arab subjects to collect slaves from the black population of the southern swamps.  A series of self proclaimed khalifas, or Muslim leaders emerged to challenge Egypt, and in 1896 their rule threatened Egypt itself as jihadists surged north.  Britain had sent a series of military leaders to bring order to the chaos, and finally mobilized an army to back up the Egyptians and they plunged south along the Nile and the Desert Railway.

Even the young Churchill was a consummate writer.  Thoroughly researched, The River War has 22 maps, dozens of tables listing units, staffing, supplies and casualties, dispatches between the various leaders, transcripts of debate in Parliament, newspaper accounts and other background material.  It has no index.  All this background can be used as reference, or ignored.  Churchill’s prose carries this fascinating story along so well I ripped through it in a couple days.

The best part is Churchill’s eye witness account of the Battle of Omdurman.  A cavalry charge with sabers and pistols into the teeming center of the Dervish army; reading it, I was there!

I bought this book as research for my novel The Devil on Chardonnay, which deals partly with war in Sudan.  I have read Churchill’s history of World War II, and consider it one of my favorites; it’s five volumes.  The younger Churchill is wordier than the mature Churchill, and his prose can be a bit flowery.  I skimmed some of the history in the first hundred pages.  I give this book a 4 star rating.

Here’s an excerpt:  “The real Soudan, known to the statesman and the explorer, lies far to the south–moist, undulating, and exuberant.  But there is another Soudan, which some mistake for the true, whose solitudes oppresses the Nile from the Egyptian frontier to Omdurman.  This is the  Soudan of the soldier.  Destitute of wealth or future, it is rich in history.  The names of its squalid villages are familiar to distant and enlightened peoples.  The barrenness of its scenery has been drawn by skillful pen and pencil.  It’s ample deserts have tasted the blood of brave men.  Its hot, black rocks have witnessed famous tragedies.  It is the scene of the war.”



Continue Reading →