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Duffbert's Random Musings is a blog where I talk about whatever happens to be running through my head at any given moment... I'm Thomas Duff, and you can find out more about me here...

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11/30/2012

Book Review - Victory at Yorktown by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

Category Book Review Newt Gingrich William R. Forstchen Victory at Yorktown
Victory at Yorktown: A Novel

I recently received a copy of the final installment in Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen's Revolutionary War trilogy... Victory at Yorktown.  While I'll never end up reading any of Gingrich's non-fiction material (due to philosophical differences), I do enjoy his historical novels when he teams up with Forstchen.  Having said that, I think that Victory at Yorktown is the weakest of the Revolutionary War trilogy, as the rawness of the wartime conditions was missing.  It was more focused on strategy, individuals, and loyalties, and I didn't get drawn in as much as I have with earlier works.

From the perspective of adding flesh to a historical event, Victory at Yorktown does that.  Gingrich and Forstchen put color and depth into an event that often only occupies a few paragraphs (if that) in history books.  For those of us who aren't overly adept at weaving our own imaginary motion pictures of events, Victory makes things more "real."  But it doesn't measure up to what they accomplished with the previous installment, Valley Forge.  Valley Forge had me feeling the cold, the hunger, and the desperation of the troops and leaders as they fought for their independence.  Soldiers sacrificed absolutely everything for a cause, and did so in conditions that were deplorable.  Much of that is absent in Victory at Yorktown, and it turns the novel into a story based more on strategy and chance rather than one that captures the spirit of freedom.

Victory at Yorktown isn't a bad novel.  If I had read it as a stand-alone book, I probably would have thought it was pretty good.  But the bar was set quite high with Valley Forge, and I had a hard time avoiding the comparison.  

Now it's a matter of waiting to see what Gingrich and Forstchen tackle next...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

08/19/2011

Book Review - Battle of the Crater by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

Category Book Review Newt Gingrich William R. Forstchen Battle of the Crater
A picture named M2

When it comes to adding "color" to a historical event, I don't do a great job in my mind.  I can read a paragraph spanning weeks or months of history, and that's as far as my mind takes it.  I miss the pain, suffering, glory, and everything else that actually occurred.  It's for this reason that a good historical fiction novel can open my eyes and help me understand some event on a much deeper emotional level.  Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen are masters of the historical fiction genre, and they once again hit a home run with their new novel Battle of the Crater.  I was offered an advance reader copy of the book, and was blown away by the raw emotion that Gingrich and Forstchen add to the Civil War battle also referred to as the Battle of the Mine Explosion (depending on what side of the conflict you were on).

Battle of the Crater focuses on a battle that occurred on July 30th, 1864 during the Civil War.  Northern and Southern troops were faced off  outside of Petersburg, Virginia.  The South had to hold the line, as a break there would likely allow the North to take Petersburg and Richmond and end the war.  They were dug into trenches and had a fortress (Fort Pegram) that was well situated to hold their position and break the siege.  A plan was devised and presented to Major General Burnside that was audacious in its effort and scope.  A group of soldiers who were also miners would tunnel under the open battlefield, ending up under the fort.  They would pack the mine full of explosives and blow a hole in the Confederate line, followed by an immediate charge of black soldiers who would be trained especially for this operation.  In the course of a few short hours, they could take Petersburg and Richmond and deal the death blow to Lee's army.  

Of course, what is planned and what happens are two different stories.

Crater tells the story of this battle from the primary perspective of one James O'Reilly, an Irish sketch artist who works for Esquire to report on the war.  He's also very close friends with Lincoln, as Lincoln gave him a job in his law office when O'Reilly first came over to the States.  Lincoln trusts him deeply, and asks O'Reilly to report back to him on what he sees on the battlefront, free of any political slant or agenda.  O'Reilly sees it all... the suicide charges by the North, killing thousands of soldiers in minutes... the death of his brother... the dedication of the black soldiers who have the need to prove that they are worthy of full citizenship in the US.  Most importantly, he is there as the political gamesmanship and egotism between Burnside and Major General Meade turn the battle plan into chaos, leading to the massacre of thousands of troops and the devastating defeat of the Union army in that battle.  Even though Meade changed all the plans and caused the attack to fail, Burnside is held responsible for not taking charge, disregarding orders, and responding to the evolving situation.  Burnside is relieved of his command in an inquiry after the events, and it's apparent that the decision on who to blame has already been made.  Even with O'Reilly making a plea to Lincoln to correct what is a miscarriage of justice, the decision stands as it's the most politically efficient way to deal with the loss.

Gingrich and Forstchen take the factual details of what happened at Petersburg and add the color, emotion, and horror of war.  They paint a vivid picture of the squalor behind the lines, the agony of battle injuries, and the hopelessness of the soldiers rushing into what they know to be suicide.  The arrogance of the leaders is also apparent, from how many commanded their troops from a distance, to how each step was often considered more from a political angle than a battle strategy.  Most importantly, they highlight the role of the black soldiers in the North, how they had to overcome the discrimination and racial barriers to be considered the equal of their fellow soldiers on the battlefield, and how regardless of how well they did, they still ended up unfairly shouldering a significant amount of blame for the loss.  This additional color and nuance are what I miss when I read the stark details of the battle on a site like Wikipedia.  There, I learn about the event.  In Battle of the Crater, I live the battle.

I'm not a Civil War historian or scholar, so I can't tell you whether the small details of the book are completely accurate.  With the passing of time, history is interpreted and shaped, and everyone has theories as to what exactly happened and who was to blame.  You may not agree with particular motivations or how things supposedly happened behind the scenes.  But for me, Battle of the Crater is an outstanding book, both for historical detail and bringing to life what it was like to be a soldier in the Civil War.  Perhaps if more people would take the time to read books like this, we as a society would be far more reluctant to rush off to battle and sacrifice our youth in wars that are not fought to be won, but to make generals look good.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publicist
Payment: Free

08/28/2010

Book Review - Valley Forge: George Washington and the Crucible of Victory by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

Category Book Review Valley Forge: George Washington and the Crucible of Victory Newt Gingrich William R. Forstchen
A picture named M2

Courtesy of the publishers, I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of Valley Forge: George Washington and the Crucible of Victory by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen.  This is the follow-on to their collaboration on their book To Try Men's Souls, and again Gingrich and Forstchen put flesh on the ordinarily dry depictions of what went on during the Revolutionary War after the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  The authors go beyond events and dive into the characters, emotions, and physical hardships that comprised the day-to-day existence of those fighting for their lives and the newly found freedom of America.

The novel (based on historical fact) starts out at the Battle of Paoli on September 10, 1777.  The American troops were defeated by the British, but it went beyond that.  Rather than just claim victory and take prisoners, the bloodlust of the British troops led to a massacre using rifles, pistols, and bayonets.  For those who escaped and fled, humiliation and anger fed their desire to regroup and avenge that loss.  But before that could happen, Washington's troops had to regroup and spend the winter at Valley Forge, waiting for the spring when battles could begin again in earnest.  

The harsh conditions usually depicted at Valley Forge don't begin to cover the reality.  They arrived to find no supplies, no material, and no support promised by Congress.  Tens of thousands of troops, literally clinging to life, had to endure freezing temperatures with little shelter and virtually no food.  Slowly, Washington was able to start getting food from scavenging runs, as well as supplies to build cabins, but not before thousands either deserted or died of various diseases.  And even if they survived the winter, there was no guarantee that they'd have the skills to battle and defeat the British in their depleted state.  Washington gambled on the skills of Baron von Steuben to turn the ragtag band of soldiers into a disciplined fighting force capable of standing up to the Lobsterbacks regardless of the type of battle.

von Steuben had three months to accomplish what takes Prussian soldiers three years to achieve, and it all came down to the Battle of Monmouth on July 28, 1778.  It was there that the Revolutionary and British forces met on an open field, with temperatures reaching over 100 degrees.  For the first time, the American forces were able to face and defeat the British using the tactics taught to them by von Steuben.  While Washington was hoping for a decisive win that would end the war right there, it didn't happen.  The British were able to withdraw and get a significant number of troops over to New York, which was their plan all along.  But Monmouth was the turning point, when it became clear that the tide had turned, and no longer would the British be the superior force and have the support of the people of the land.

Valley Forge is one of those books that stays with you for a long time, and makes you ponder what sacrifices have been made to give us the freedom we enjoy today.  I think you have to be a little careful to not take this as absolute truth as to the motivations and personalities of each major character.  For instance, Washington is portrayed as a troubled leader who is all-consumed with the agonies and hardships his forces are enduring, losing sleep night after night over his ability to provide for them.  While that may well be a significant part of his personality, I'm a bit cynical as to him being as perfect and selfless as he's painted here.  Given Gingrich's political leanings, I can understand where patriotism might cause one to portray Washington in a very favorable light.  But even taking that into account, Valley Forge still does an excellent job in adding the real blood, sweat, and tears to events that were pivotal to the formation of our country.  This was a very good read, and well worth the time spent.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

07/01/2010

Book Review - One Second After by William R. Forstchen

Category Book Review William R. Forstchen One Second After
A picture named M2

Imagine that one day, just like any other day, you're driving down the highway and your car dies for no reason... as do the thousands of other cars around you.  Electricity? Out.  Radio broadcast? Nothing there but static (provided the radio even works).  Cell phones? No signal, same as the landlines.  It doesn't *look* like a storm took out power, but how do you explain the utter failure of everything that you depend on in your life?  It could be an EMP... an electromagnetic pulse generated by a nuclear detonation high in the atmosphere that creates an electrical surge that destroys electrical devices as it races along.  This is the premise of William R. Forstchen's book One Second After.  The book can easily be thrown into the apocalyptic genre, but not so deeply that it loses its touch to people like you and me.  I found myself emotionally spent after reading this book, having experienced a few "wet eye" moments along the way due to some similarities between the lead character's situation and my own should that ever happen to me.  I really couldn't put the book down.

After the pulse renders much of modern civilization in the United States inoperable, the small town of Black Mountain, North Carolina starts to come together to try and make sense of it all.  John Matherson, a history professor with a military background, quickly figures out that an EMP is the most likely cause of the situation, and people start to look to him for leadership and moral guidance.  And the testing starts early... People stranded on the freeway wander into the town looking for food and lodging.  Stores begin to run out of food, and people start reverting to looting.  Most importantly for Matherson, medical supplies dwindle, and he has a daughter who is a type 1 diabetic, dependent on insulin for her survival.  He himself needs to tread a very thin line between playing by the rules or getting the extra insulin by force if necessary.  His wife has already died of breast cancer, and he is not going to let another family member die if he can help it.  

As the days unfold, the news only continues to get worse.  Asheville is demanding that Black Mountain take 5000 refugees.  They refuse the request as they don't have enough supplies for their own survival.  Food continues to dwindle, and severe rationing is put in place.  Martial law is imposed with death penalties for actions that endanger the survival of others.  As more and more people die off due to existing medical conditions, disease starts to decimate the community given the lack of sanitary conditions.  And the US government, the hope of survival for everyone in the town, is seemingly non-existent.  The townspeople start to come up with "old-time" methods for doing things we take for granted, but it still doesn't solve the problems related to no food and no medical supplies, as Matherson soon finds out as his daughter's insulin supply continues to shrink with no chance to obtain any more.

One Second After is definitely not a story with a happy or "feel good" ending.  Life has forever changed, sacrifice and duty are hard but necessary, and death is a daily companion, either for yourself or someone close to you.  Reading Matherson's frustration and despair when it comes to his daughter's diabetes was especially hard, as I have a son with the same condition.  I would end up in the same position as Matherson, with the same outcome in all likelihood.  The scenes of battle against superior forces attacking the town were also emotional, knowing that kids who had weeks before been attending college were now spread out on the front line with rifles, ready to die to protect their fellow townspeople.  It was hard not to get choked up over the heroic and selflessness displayed.

This is an excellent book on many different levels.  It shows our vulnerability to a weapon such as an EMP attack.  It exposes the true nature of human beings when societal controls are removed.  It also shows how people can come together and sacrifice for the common good if they have a leader who is strong enough to make the hard decisions.  This is definitely worth reading.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

09/29/2009

Book Review - To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

Category Book Review Newt Gingrich William R. Forstchen To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom
A picture named M2

I *still* have a hard time associating Newt Gingrich with books instead of with government, but I'm getting over it after having read many of his historical novels.  The latest one he's produced is titled To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom, written along with William R. Forstchen.  The American Revolution is not my normal reading fare, but sometimes you go with a book just because of the author's past work.  That's what happened here, and I'm glad I did.  Gingrich and Forstchen put real flesh, blood, pain, and emotions behind a pivotal battle for our independence, in a way that puts the history books to shame.

To Try Men's Souls takes place in the month before Christmas of 1776, the time of the infamous river crossing portrayed in paint.  The soldiers of the Revolution (if you could call them that) were frozen, hungry, diseased, and near death.  The English, with assistance from the Hessians, had the war nearly won.  They could have ended America's fledgling democracy had they continued to push forward for only a couple more days.  But they chose to avoid the horrible weather and celebrate Christmas.  General Washington gambled all he had left and marched the troops (or what remained of them) through ice and snow, many barefoot, to have the one last battle at Trenton.  Much to his amazement, they were able to surprise the English troops and took the city with nearly no casualties on their part.  That's not to say that the battle was won without cost...  Many died in the following days from the ravages of disease that overtook them.  But the tide had been turned, and history records what happened from there.

The story in the novel follows General George Washington, Thomas Paine, and a private in the army, Jonathan Van Dorn.  Through their eyes, you see the doubt, the hope, the despair and suffering.  Washington shows compassion for his men, knowing he has little choice but to risk their lives to gain freedom from England.  Paine is looked to as the inspiration for a nation with his words, but he's at a loss to explain how much freedom costs, and how it's killing those around him.  Van Dorn is the young lad who believes in what they are doing, what they stand for, regardless of the personal hell he's going through to fight for those ideals.  These are the stories that get glossed over in the history books.  These are the stories that help you understand and appreciate what we have been given in this country.  Granted, the actual words and thoughts are "historical fiction", but the color and flavor is not.

The only aspect of the book that I though was not great was the pacing at certain points.  Even though the book covers a month of time, much of the action is spent marching in snow and ice... and crossing rivers... and trying to sleep... before more marching in snow and ice...  I still found the overall story riveting, but at times I wanted something more to happen than simply another description of how cold it was and how much the soldiers were suffering.  Even so, To Try Men's Souls: A Novel of George Washington and the Fight for American Freedom is one of those books that gives you a deeper appreciation for a certain historical event, and makes you see everything at a whole new level of understanding.

04/13/2008

Book Review - Days of Infamy by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen

Category Book Review Newt Gingrich William R. Forstchen Days of Infamy

I previously picked up a copy of Pearl Harbor by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen.  Much to my surprise, it was far better than I expected, and gave me a greater appreciation of Pearl when we visited Hawaii last year.  I was recently contacted by the publicist for an advanced reader copy of  their follow-on novel Days of Infamy.  Of course, I accepted.  :)  As with Pearl Harbor, it's a well-written historical novel that looks at how the Japanese/American conflict might have played out if the Japanese had made a few different choices in their strategy.

The novel covers a four day period after the initial two attack waves on Pearl Harbor.  In this alternative history, the Japanese lead a third wave over the islands along with a coastal bombardment with two of their battleships.  This has everyone thinking that an island invasion might be imminent, when in reality it's a ploy to draw out the carriers that fortunately happened not to be docked in Pearl during the attack.  Due to a complete and total destruction of the communication facilities, there is little intel that the US can use to figure out where the Japanese fleet is, how large it is, and what their plans might be.  Likewise, the Japanese don't know where or exactly how many carriers the US has available or where they were if not docked at Pearl.  It's a chess match between Halsey and Yamamoto that involves millions of tons of naval and aerial equipment, tens of thousands of lives, and quite possibly the fate of the free world.  The story also involves James Watson, a cryptographer who lost a hand in an earlier conflict, and is not well-equipped to be part of a battle zone.  His wife and mother-in-law are Japanese, and that brings an additional burden to his work.  The social backlash against *all* people of Japanese descent in the US is starting to whip up, and he can't guarantee that those he loves will be safe from marauding bands of thugs seeking revenge.

Since the timespan covered in this installment of the story is much smaller, there's not as much character development as there was in the first episode.  More of the action is focused on the battle strategy and the actual attacks from both sides.  Still, there is plenty of personal material here to keep you interested in the characters.  Watching people overcome (or be overwhelmed by) their prejudices is a strong theme covered.  I was also struck by how much warfare has changed since then.  It was possible back then to be within 100 miles of each other and still not know what was going on.  Now with satellite imagery and other technology, war is fought at a completely different level.

If you haven't yet read Pearl Harbor by these two authors, do so before this book comes out.  That will lay the groundwork for what continues here.  For fans of alternative historical novels, this is a great read.

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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