Book Review: “Six Frigates” by Ian W. Toll

Living in the year 2023 AD, it’s hard to believe that, once upon a time, the American military was the laughingstock of the world. There was a time when the United States couldn’t even defend their own coastline, let alone project military power to another region of the world.

It was the turn of the 19th century. The 1700’s were coming to a close and a new nation entered the 1800’s with nothing but hope for the future. The mighty Atlantic Ocean kept America safe from Napoleon’s bloodthirsty wars of expansion, wars that in turn put goods from the neutral Americans in high demand. Money from its lucrative trade deals flowed into the infant nation and the good times rolled.

But war with Europe was on the horizon, and Moroccan pirates patrolled the Mediterranean, plundering American ships without fear of reprisal. Though many Americans objected, a certain few statesmen realized a basic truth: to survive, the United States needed a Navy.

Six Frigates is a fantastic historic account of the beginnings of the United States Navy, a force that began with six unique frigates, one of which is still in service today. These frigates were bigger than their European equivalents, but faster and more maneuverable, too. They carried more cannons and were made with some of the strongest wood in the world. This wood came from the Southern Live Oak, a species of tree that grows only in the Deep South of America and contributed to one of the six frigates, the USS Constitution earning the nickname ‘Old Ironsides’.

As a matter of fact, the United States Navy to this day maintains its own forest of these trees so as to be able to continuously repair the USS Constitution with its original wood.

The other five of the original frigates were named the Chesapeake, President, United States, Congress, and Constellation. These names were chosen off a list of ten names presented to then-president George Washington. However, his interest in a Navy was minimal, so his method of selecting the names was picking the first six on the list.

All in all, I really enjoyed this book and its historical account of the origins of the United States Navy. The author pumped it full of good information and also included some sardonic humor here and there, such as the below passage:

As Rodgers came up over the side to take possession of the captured ship, he was privately thrilled by the sight of the carnage the enemy had suffered. “Although I would not have you think me bloody minded,” the bloody-minded lieutenant wrote Stoddert, “yet I must confess the most gratifying sight my eyes ever held.”

I highly recommend this one to those of you with an interest in US history, and it’s available for free on the Internet Archive!

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When to Say Goodbye

The year 2022 has seen the end of two long-running TV shows: The Walking Dead and Grey’s Anatomy. Technically, Grey’s Anatomy is still going but with the departure of the titular character how much longer can it really play? You can’t have The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air without Will Smith.

I never watched Grey’s Anatomy growing up, but I did watch the first three seasons of The Walking Dead. Long enough to first become fully invested in the protagonists and then completely over the use of essentially the same, recycled storylines. I honestly forgot either show was still playing until the major announcements came this year.

Anyway, these shows got me thinking about an old blog post of mine that asked the question: have we forgotten how (or when) to say goodbye? Is that why we allow these television shows to run on and on years after they last commanded national attention, like a bad party guest lingering well into the post-party cleanup?

Maybe it has something to do with the advent of texting, because there’s never really a ‘goodbye’ in a text conversation. Eventually, one person sends a text that is clearly meant to be the end of the conversation, and the receiver is supposed to understand that. There’s no Alright Fred, have a Merry Christmas and I’ll see you next week. Bye now!

It seems a great disservice to fans of popular media, to the characters, and even to the actors and actresses that portray these beloved characters to simply allow them to wither away in relative irrelevance. Where’s the closure? You can’t bid a proper farewell to a friend if you’re simultaneously begging them to leave.

Seinfeld had the right idea. The final season was the #1 ranked show and could have gone on for years longer, but Jerry Seinfeld turned down an extension deal. Much as the fictional version of himself advised George Costanza, he felt it was best to end the show on a high note.

That’s where I find myself when it comes to writing books. I probably could have given Zach and Abby several more zombie adventures, but I stopped with three books. Hell, I didn’t even intend to write more than one book for them at first. Throughout the entire series, I felt like I owed it to the characters to tell their story faithfully, and then to let them leave when the time was right. It pained me to do it, but I said goodbye to my first two protagonists. I felt that both were able to go out with their heads held high.

In my new Ethan Chase series, it would be even easier to carry on ad infinitum, given the more open-ended nature of the genre. But I’m not going to turn it into a cash cow. When the time is right, the series will end, and we’ll have to give Ethan a proper goodbye. It will end on a high note.

This post has become a bit rambling and is getting long, so I’ll take my own advice and end it before I get too sanctimonious. The point of it all is to say that authors, filmmakers, TV producers, should all figure out how they want their story to end and then stick to it within reason. People who fall in love with artistic creations deserve the very best from beginning to end, and that includes a proper goodbye.

Book Review: ‘The Andromeda Strain’ by Michael Crichton

A deadly new virus that kills infected people within seconds is discovered in a remote desert town. A team of scientists are now working around the clock to figure out what it is, how it works, and, most importantly, if they can stop it.

A friend of mine at work lent me his copy of Sphere by Michael Crichton, and I really enjoyed it! So when I was done with that he let me borrow Crichton’s first novel The Andromeda Strain. I read it in a single day.

I’ve only read two Michael Crichton books, but I noticed some striking similarities between Sphere and The Andromeda Strain. First, the protagonists are a group of scientists assembled by the government to investigate something strange from outer space. Second, the protagonists are set in an environment in which they cannot operate as they normally would (in Sphere they are in an underwater station, and in the other they’re in a sterile lab environment working with a virus they don’t dare go near without full hazmat suits).

Lastly, and most oddly, in each book there’s one scientist who, for one reason or another, does not actually partake in the mission. In Sphere, one of them had a panic attack in the submarine that would have taken him far below the ocean, and so remained on a ship, and in this book one of the scientists was in a hospital recovering from a surgery.

I’m not sure why Crichton does this, and I’m not sure if he does it in other books, but I thought it was odd at first to include a character that abruptly exits (for a reason that has nothing to do with the plot, nor does their absence end up effecting the plot) and then it happened again in another book. Just odd.

Anyway, the story itself was thrilling. As I said above, I shot through the entire thing in one day. I did find the ending to be a tad abrupt, however, and a little messy. I don’t think Crichton tied up all his loose ends in a satisfactory way as he did in Sphere.

Also throughout the book it is mentioned by the narrator that the scientists were asking the wrong questions, ignoring valuable data, headed the wrong way, etc. But when the big reveal about the virus is made… it didn’t seem like it was something they could have ever deduced until the moment of the reveal. It just felt weirdly anticlimactic to me.

But it wasn’t a terrible ending by any means. This was still an exciting thriller that I was happy to read, and I would highly recommend it if you haven’t read it already!

Book Review: “The Directorate” by Berthold Gambrel

This is a repost of a book review I did on my old blog, so I figured I’d bring this one back and remind everyone about this gem! Fellow blogger and author Berthold Gambrel’s sci-fi adventure can be read here for just 99 cents. You can give it a download, then come back and read my review!

In the 23rd century humans have not only colonized Mars and the Moon but built thriving civilizations. As one may predict, the peoples from each planet start to get a little nationalistic in their pride for their home-world. A war breaks out, the conclusion of which spawns an overarching government called The Directorate. They oversee the goings-on of Mars, Earth, and the Moon and, in an effort to avoid future wars between the planets, push an agenda of sameness between the worlds. And that holds up for a while…

Until one extremist with a bomb decides to make a statement.

This story is told in 3rd person and follows Lt. Theresa Gannon, a low-level officer in the Directorate’s military/law enforcement branch. While on the Moon, she is witness to a terrorist attack on a famous library and this sets her on a collision course with destiny.

I really want to talk more about the plot but I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll bite my tongue. I will say that the story is fairly straightforward, even for a guy like me who is easily bamboozled in books and movies, but that’s not a knock on the story at all. I’ve written before about predictability in fiction and how it’s not necessarily a bad thing. To me, reading is about the journey, not the destination. And if the journey is beautiful and pleasant and delightful, then who the hell cares if you end up exactly where you expected to be?

The dialogue was good, never clunky. Gannon was a believable, relatable character. A military woman trying to do her duty while battling an underlying premonition that not everything she’s seeing is on the up and up. She has to make some hard choices, and it’s not always the best choice.

For a military character, she was really well done. As a military man myself, it is so easy for authors to get this completely wrong and end up with a cheesy caricature. Not Gannon. I felt like I could relate to her struggles, to her thought processes and the way she dealt with trauma.

The only thing about her character that disappointed me was that, when she finally kills someone in combat, the moment is just glossed over. In previous chapters she’d made a point to mention how she’d never yet been in direct combat and so wasn’t sure if she’d be able to handle it; after all, merely seeing the aftermath of combat had left her shaken.

I knew a ‘first kill’ would be coming and I thought it might have some profound meaning to Gannon, but it seemed to be just business as usual for her. I didn’t want a scene where time stops as she reflected on the gravity of the act of killing; that’s one of those cheesy cliches I hate. But I would have liked just a touch of reflection in the eerie calm that follows combat. Even a passing mention, now that the danger has passed and her mind can relax, that she had ended a life would have been, I thought, appropriate.

And then the ending was a little too abrupt/untidy for my taste. A lot is left undecided in the aftermath of the plot’s resolution. Again, without spoiling anything, I would have liked to get at least some inkling of the Directorate’s next move or Gannon’s role in the military, all events considered. But that’s just a personal preference.

I wanted to give this 5-stars. It was a real page turner and I read nearly the entire thing in two days. But it lacked that extra oomph a 5-star read needs. I was very pleased with the story, but not thoroughly blown away. 4 or 4.5 stars is what I’ll give it, and a strong recommendation to fans of sci-fi!

Book Review: “Sphere” by Michael Crichton

Deep in the Pacific Ocean, a spaceship is discovered. A spaceship that is older than the Declaration of Independence. But how? And where did it come from?

A friend at work loaned me his copy of Sphere, and being in a bit of a reading funk, I gave it a go. I read it over Thanksgiving break and came away impressed! I’m not usually a fan of sci-fi but I really enjoyed this one.

Norman Johnson, the main protagonist, is a psychologist flown out to a top-secret location in the Pacific Ocean. He believes he’s there to speak to survivors of a plane crash but soon realizes the truth: the government has brought him to the site of a possible alien spaceship.

The reason given was that Norman had once written a report for the government on what to expect and how to proceed in case of alien contact, a report he never took seriously but for which he was paid handsomely. And so the team of experts he had proposed to be on site if aliens ever visited, which included himself, has been dutifully assembled.

I was never crazy about the validity of this. I know the government is the undeniable king of wasteful spending and longshot projects, but even this felt like a stretch. It felt forced on me in order to move the story along. But hey, I was enjoying the story so I kept reading.

The characters were expertly done. What at first felt like obnoxious personalities in some of the characters ended up being pivotal to the plot during the climactic scenes, which surprised me. The first sixty pages or so is mostly setting and character development, but going forward Crichton kicks the tension into high gear and never comes back down. I kept finding myself saying One more chapter, just one more chapter and then I’ll go to bed.

I won’t speak to the plot any further than I have already because a story like this is best enjoyed fresh. But, just like the last book I read, the ending was exactly how I had hoped it would be, and I really enjoyed it. I highly recommend this one if you haven’t read it already!

After reading the book, I learned there was a movie made in 1997 with Dustin Hoffman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Sharon Stone, so I watched that, too. I’ll give a review of the movie next week, so stay tuned!