Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Book Review: Sitrep Negative, A Year in Vietnam by G.J. Lau

If you're looking for the usual Vietnam memoir filled with dope-smoking draftees, necklaces of ears, guys running around tripping on LSD while shooting up their base camps with M16s, and all the other negative stereotypes of Vietnam, you're looking at the wrong book review.  G.J. Lau's memoir has some of the usual stories about bad food, awful heat and rain, nervous short-timers, foolish cherries, and the like, but it is not another bitter, disillusioned rant against The Military-Industrial Complex.

My grandfather was in WW2, serving aboard a battlecruiser in the Pacific.  A few years before he died, he worked with his sons and grandsons to compile a memoir of his time before, during, and after the war.  Some time down the line, I'd like to see that book published as an e-book, and reading Sitrep Negative, I saw a lot of similarities between G.J. Lau's work and my grandfather's.

Lau wasn't a soldier "in the trenches", although he came under fire and found himself in dangerous situations on a regular basis (Lau was a Radio Operator in a base camp).  There is a lot of conversation about how he observed military operations, both in positive and negative terms, and while there is some wry commentary about "the Army way" of doing things, Lau doesn't come off as a vehement anti-war fanatic, although he has some strong, well-formed opinions about the war.

It is also clear that he was deeply affected by the war, but he tempers his commentary with a lot of intelligent thought.  Some time is spent at the end of the book discussing the public's reception to Vietnam, and how Lau feels soldiers were and are treated post-war.  One might casually dismiss his opinions as that of a "REMF", but I imagine when you're huddled in a slit trench in the middle of a nighttime monsoon, listening to mortar rounds exploding all around you, the war seems pretty damn close.

Sitrep Negative isn't particularly long - I think I finished it all in one extended evening's reading.  But it is definitely worth the paltry 99 cents, and I think if you want a truly balanced account of the war, it should be required reading.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Book Review: Across the Fence by John Stryker Meyer

I read this book within a couple of days - it is a short (but not too short) and engaging story about the author's experiences as a SOG commando in Vietnam.  It is an interesting counterpart to the other book I read on the same topic, SOG: The Secret Wars of America's Commandos in Vietnam by John L. Plaster.

Plaster's book is much larger in terms of the scope of the story he tells - the exploits of many SOG Recon Teams and Hatchet Forces are covered, and the time frame extends throughout SOG's involvement in Vietnam.  Meyer's story is much more personal; it starts with his arrival in Vietnam and follows him for several months.  Only a few side stories involving other friends and Teams are discussed, but these are also engaging and informative.

One of the more interesting aspects of Meyer's story is that he's coming into the SOG experience rather late in the game.  The Studies and Observation Group had been established for several years by the time Meyer fought during late 1968 to early 1969.  From what I've gleaned reading Plaster's book, Meyer's tour put him in-country during the word period of SOG's operations, the point where almost every team was being ambushed as it was reaching the LZ, and SOG was regularly losing whole teams, never to be heard from again.

Meyer's story is well worth the read.  It is very personal, very raw at times, and it is interesting to read about many of his Recon Team (or as they were called in his AO, Spike Teams) missions.  Particularly grueling is one mission where Meyer's team has to flee enemy search teams by climbing a mountain under bad weather, pursued by dogs and sapper teams.  The team was carrying so much ammunition for its experimental pump-action grenade launcher (which is a cool bit in the story in and of itself) that the team had to bury and booby-trap ammo left behind.

If I have one complaint about Across the Fence, it is that this memoir seems to end rather suddenly.  I didn't really feel a sense of closure, and there is no real discussion of the end of his tour, or his opinion of the war or the effect his missions had on the war effort.  Meyer is a good writer, with a lot of heart, and I would have enjoyed reading more about his impressions of the war.  As it is though, this is well worth the money, without unnecessary vitriol, ego, or anger.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Borders #1 Shuts Its Doors Today

I just read this story on  Looks like today is the day the first-ever Borders bookstore closes down for good. 

Talk about depressing.  I hate bookstore going out of business sales.  A few years ago, a Barnes & Noble near me closed down after being there ever since I lived in the area.  I ransacked it for Christmas presents, for random gift ideas, for books I *might* someday read.  I felt like someone trying to save irreplaceable treasures aboard a sinking ship or from a burning house before they were gone forever.  Silly of course, since everything you'd find there would be in stock online or in another big bookstore.

I had a similar experience a few years before that.  A famous Boston used book store, Victor Hugo's, closed its doors on Newbury Street.  I found a treasure trove of old pulpy novels, and I regret not buying some of the books I saw there but passed up.  Again, I felt like I was trying to salvage lost treasures before they disappeared forever.  Now I realize that any of those books I bought or didn't buy I can find for a song on Amazon's used book offerings.

E-books and Amazon's vast network of sellers and affiliates give a degree of availability to content like never before.  But there is something just plain wonderful about walking through a store filled with books, and people who love books.  Conversations, friendships, even love can be found there.  And nothing beats wandering the shelves of a well-stocked bookstore when you don't know what you want to read, and then coming across a new title that starts a lasting relationship with you, or you find a new work from an author you hadn't read in ages.  I can, and have, spent hours at a time in bookstores.  None of it is time I would ever consider wasted.

So while this is the painful part of progress, and eBooks and indie e-publishing is the wave of the future (and one I am taking advantage of, natch), it still makes me sad to see any bookstore close its doors, no matter how "big box" or commercial it might be.  Hopefully this environmental disaster, like the death of the dinosaurs, will bring about a flurry of bookstore evolution, as the indie brick & mortar stores reinvent themselves and continue to pull in new customers.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Book Review: The Forbidden City - Rogue Angel #5 by Alex Archer

While I was a little disappointed with Book #4, this next title really stepped up its game.  The Forbidden City starts off with Annja helping a young Chinese man try to find the remains of one of his ancestors, who came to America during the gold rush years of the mid 19th century.  But the man's true motives are revealed in a hail of gunfire, and Annja finds herself on the run (once again) with an ancient belt plaque, possibly the key to a lost city of thieves and an immense fortune that has been lost for over a thousand years.

This book features both Garin and Roux in prominent secondary roles, and of course, their interests are diametrically opposed to one another.  It turns out that there is a mysterious artifact of great power hidden in this lost city; Garin wants the artifact for the power it contains, while Roux wants the artifact to keep it out of the hands of people like Garin.  This book goes a long way to deepen the mystery of Roux's past (just how old is he, anyway?), and it reveals to Annja a little more of the mysterious, magical shadow world that she is now involved with since re-forming Joan's sword. 

We also find ourselves meeting a bunch of new secondary characters.  Some of them make it through to the end of the book and some don't, but I would like to see a couple of them re-appear in later books if at all possible.  One of the great things about a series like RA is that secondary characters can come and go from book to book and help enrich the feel of the RA-verse as much more complex and interactive.  Whether that happens or not remains for me to discover, but I have my fingers crossed.

All in all, this was a very solid offering, and it is clear that the Rogue Angel series has come into its maturity.  If you like history, mythology, and a healthy dose of action-adventure, this series is for you.  Fans of adventure games like D&D will especially enjoy this book, I think, because of the "treasure hunt" aspects of the plot and the journey into the subterranean "forbidden city", filled with traps and treasures, will be enjoyably familiar to any veteran dungeon-crawler.  Where's a ten foot pole when you really need one?