The Beast

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail
© 2014
224 pages

This is the third of three reviews I needed to publish before the English material can roll. And now, Rule Britannia!


The news cycle of  late spring 2018 was marked, in the United States, by constant discussion of The Migrant Caravan,    which judging by the nightly news consisted of an invading column of Central Americans intent on shoving their way into the United States, toppling fences and frustrating policy through sheer bulk of numbers.  They were fleeing the violence of their homes, the newscasters explained, and joining together for safety in numbers.   Not until reading The Beast did I appreciate the motives driving such clumping together. Although ‘la bestia refers to the trains that migrants often ride atop of on their northward journey,  after reading Oscar Martinez’ book one might as well regard the beast as human nature itself.    This is a story of constant cruelty, treachery, and violence,   filled with such human misery that I paused my reading of it for a few weeks to avoid.   

Although Martinez’ stories range all over Mexico and Central America —  in crowded cities, open plazas, hidden trails in densely wooded hills, through fields and factories —  the reader is never far from the drug trade.  The narcos’ hold on  not just cities but whole areas of the region is pervasive and inescapable.  The strongest of the cartels are not merely interested in monopolizing the trade of drugs in their area;  they dominate the entire spectrum of criminal activity,  from theft and prostitution to  off-the-books cabs, and demand  ‘taxes’ from much of the population.  The penalty for defying the cartels are as you might expect: beatings, torture, and death.   Little wonder people flee their realm. 

Those who journey northward, however,  exchange one trouble for a sea of others. Migrants can be expected to be kidnapped (used as ransom or slave labor), raped,  and robbed of virtually everything.  There is no relief from the authorities, as even those who are not directly in the pocket of one cartel or another are corrupt in their own rights, happy to use their power to get a little something for themselves – whether that be a few hundred pesos or use of a woman for a few minutes.  There are many who try to genuinely help migrants,  offering them food and advice on the least dangerous routes —  but  there are also those who are thieves in Samaritan’s clothing, who offer to guide migrants to safety but instead deliver them into the hands of narcos – for use as slave labor,  ransom,etc.   The trains, which are inherently dangerous to access – frequently destroying life and limb of those who jump aboard and misjudge their leaps —   are also attacked by narcos, their passengers shaken down or kidnapped.   As the ‘war on terror’ and the drug war continue to tighten US border security,  more and more migrants are funneled into fewer paths – and all those paths are controlled by the cartels. 

The Beast makes for harrowing reading. Those of us in the United States need to know what’s happening south of us, so that our response – be it humanitarian or security-minded  —  is at least informed by something other than the borderline hysteria ginned up by the media.     Martinez’ A History of Violence focuses on the violence itself being fled, but the abuse visited on migrants at their every step,  only occasionally  tempered by charitable people and individuals,  suggests that we should at the very least not treat them worse than those they flee.



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Bonaparte’s Sons

Bonaparte’s Sons
© 1998 Richard Howard
400 pages

This is the second (of three) posts published during Read of England which have nothing to do with England. I’m trying to get them out of the way before the English stuff starts rolling in!


“‘We will win’, Bonaparte said. […] ‘Do you not feel it, Bessieres? Destiny. I know we will win as surely as if God Himself had told me.'”

France trembles on the edge of an abyss. Her society has been thrown into complete disarray by the mass violence of the revolution;  a new cabal of rulers has merely replaced the Bourbons,  both in power and in the contempt the public holds for them; and her armies are ever-smaller, penniless, and starving.   Even the dregs of the prisons are being scraped up and put into service for the defense of the nation.   But from Corsica comes a shot in the arm – a man who knows how to lead,  and better still – how to win.  With Bonaparte at the helm,  and rapists and thieves in the ranks, the French army sets out to  deliver a blow against the Hapsburgs in Italy.   One man in Napoleon’s army, Alain Lausard, has lost everything to the ‘republic’  — and yet  still he fights, and will make his mark. 

Having greedily devoured so many tales of Horatio Hornblower and Richard Sharpe,   I was excited to learn of another series of Napoleonic fiction. This one has the added interest of telling the stories of the French cavalry,  and author Richard Howard sweetens the pot by making his main characters a controversial bunch. They’re all prisoners;  Lausard is merely  a political captive, the last survivor of an aristocratic family butchered by the revolution – but among his new brothers in arms he can count criminals of far worse repute,  and their infighting is constant. Howard takes us through their training before skirmishes with the Austrians  erupt, and from there we hear rumors of a gold-laden baggage train that will keep Lausard and his men on the run even after they rout the Austrian army.   It wasn’t until the ending, however – where one despicable act of treachery is gloriously turned against its Judas – that I really warmed to Lausard, whose personality is overwhelmed by his need to hide his aristocratic past from the rest of his troop. Lausard especially shines when his commanding officer is injured after one skirmish and replaced by a man so odious his name might as well be Frag-Me-Now.  Rather than risk a court-martial by directly  opposing him,   Lausaurd  broadcasts his contempt  with veiled put-downs.   Imagine an officer worse than Sir Henry Simmerson from the Sharpe movies.

Although I can’t continue in this series immediately (April being my month for English lit and history, after all),  I look forward to the next book, which sees Napoleon invade Egypt.  


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Drastic Measures

Star Trek Discovery: Drastic Measures
© 2018 Dayton Ward
400 pages




The deliberate murder of four thousand people, half the colony’s population, began with an act of mercy.   Refugees were given a new home in the sparsely settled world of Tarsus IV, more than doubling its population….but their arrival inadvertently introduced a toxic fungus to the ecosystem,  utterly destroying  all agriculture and corrupting most unsealed foodstuffs. The worst was yet to come. Commander Gabriel Lorca,  chief of the small Starfleet outpost on the colony,  had his very faith in humanity shaken by Governor Kodos’  cold-blooded decision  to kill four thousand people in order to allow the remaining four thousand to survive on half-rations until help could arrive. The slaughter was made still worse by its pointlessness: early relief came with a mission led by Captain Phillipa Georgiou.   Starfleet’s officers and a few colonial survivors, under active attack as the villainous governor tries to make his escape,   have their work cut out for them. Dayton Ward’s own work,  creating a  Discovery  story that links to the original series, was similarly challenging – but both he and his creations prevail.

Although I was slow to warm to Star Trek Discovery,  by the end of its first season  I was binging episodes,  taken in by its characters and the connections being made to the regular Trekverse.   For similar reasons Drastic Measures  drew my attention: not only was it by one of the authors of the teriffic Vanguard series, Dayton Ward, but it starred two of my favorite DSC characters (Captains Lorca and Georgiou) and featured a connection to one of the first TOS episodes I ever watched, “The Conscience of the King”, in which a Shakespearean actor is exposed as the infamous tyrant, Kodos the Executioner – and Kirk’s life is at risk as one of the few people who could positively identify him.  Although Ward’s connections to the original episode are firm (Kirk supplies the security team hunting Kodos with digital imagery),   the DSC characters take center place here.

Lorca’s character in DSC has a bit of a secret, as those who’ve watched it know,  so this book offers a special treat in giving us a a glimpse at the…’other’ Lorca, shall we say?  I don’t want to spoil anything for future viewers of DSC, but  he’s recognizable here  —    absolutely driven, this time by having lost a loved one to Kodos, and having unwittingly viewed her execution on colonial broadcasts live.  He struggles between a desire for justice and one of revenge, and at some points his colleague Georgiou —   commanding a relief ship sent to the colony —  serves as his conscience.  Speaking of, considering how quickly she perishes in DSC’s run, I was glad to see her ‘return’ — and in a happier way than spotting her mirror-universe counterpart at the end of DSC-1.   The novel is chiefly one of combat fiction, as Kodos’s followers  execute crippling attacks against the city and the first responders or Starfleet, and are then hunted into the mountains by Lorca and company as Georgiou and her cohorts prevent an aerial escape.  The dynamic between Lorca and Georgiou, and the tension in their approaches – pragmatism and idealism – is developed throughout.

Although I have plenty of real Trek books to finish before I start any more DSC novels, I will probably try The Enterprise War, which follows Captain Pike and the Enterprise during the events of DSC-1.

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We’ll Meet Again


“While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time, we join with all nations, across the globe, in a common endeavor — using the great advances of science, and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed, and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return. We will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again. We will meet again.”

I’m not one to be interested in the social goings-on of the royal family,   but with the British PM hospitalized and the entire world in the grasps of  the pandemic,   I had to give an hear to what the Queen had to say.   Worth a listen!

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Corona Diary #4

Although we in the United States are still steaming into the darkest part of this tunnel,  I’m bouyed by little flickers of hope abroad.  In Iran, for instance,  over half  of active corona cases are listed as recovered. The same is true in the Italian province of Lombardy,  and in Spain the growth rate of the virus is slowing. In the United States,  we are closer and closer to a uniform stay-at-home order:  to date, 41 of the 50 states have imposed them, Alabama being the latest.  The unfun starts tomorrow at five p.m.

Emergency stay at home stockpile. I think I’m prepared.

The library has continued its curbside service, and by the numbers we’re doing well:  the number of recorded services in the last five days is nearly equal the amount we served in the first ten days!   Of course, that may be change with the stay-at-home order. I don’t think much of our current traffic is discretionary, but  only time will tell.  We’ve implemented more hygienic precautions, restricting the number of librarians who do the curbside deliveries, and wearing masks when we’re outside.    I have a newfound appreciation for surgeons!


Personally, I’ve finished watching the first season of Star Trek Discovery (!), which…well, took me by surprise.  I wasn’t excited to learn about its creation, in part because I view the Abrams movies as little more than Marvel superhero movies with the addition of Trek jokes, colorful uniforms, and space lasers.  They’re not Star Trek in spirit, and I expected STD to be more of the same.   The first two times I started watching STD I gave up a few episodes in.   This time, however….well, I got attached. I was fascinated by Captain Lorca’s dark energy, Commander Burnham’s struggle to reconcile logic and humanity,  the promise of the spore drive, even Commander Suru’s attempts to grow beyond his scared-beast-of-prey genes.  Discovery centers itself on one character far more than the other shows, which were either ensembles (TNG, DS9) or ruled by a power trio (TOS, VOY), but over time I grew to appreciate how much the character in question (Commander Michael Burnham, the woman  in the shot above) had grown. If only they’d stop making me watch those Klingon-things, those offenses to the eyes and ears!      I found much to appreciate in the latter half of the first season, from Rainn Wilson doing a wonderful Harry Mudd to the intriguing Mirror Universe arc.  And now that Captain Pike is entering the scene in season 2, I’m hopeful about its future prospects. I’ve even……. bought a ST-D book.  Sure, it was only $0.99, but considering my salient attachment to the ‘real’ Trek’s extended bookverse, it’s a bit of shocker.    In time I may even stop calling ST-D by that name, and call it ST-DSC instead.  God willing I will not start referring to it as “Disco” the way so many fans do.(You may place your bets as to when I’ll start doing that. It’s…catchy.  Like…disco fever.)    When the first season ended with Burnham giving a tear-jerking speech about Starfleet not compromising on Federal ideals,  I texted a friend: “Now THIS is Trek!”

I will most likely not be watching Star Trek Picard, however.   I would love to just to see Jeri Ryan on screen again  (loved Seven of Nine!), but I prefer my Picard urbane, and from clips I’ve seen the show has as much language as your average hip-hop track.   Picard only swears in French, thank you. I’ll never accept the Abramsverse as a legitimate continuation of the Trek I love, and Picard is rooted in that red matter nonsense. Unfortunately, Pike and company are going on about ‘red clouds’ in season 2, so I fear that  the infection is everywhere.

I’ve a couple of reviews lined up, with another book with a review that needs to be written, so….stay safe and keep reading!



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Sean Bean on Waterloo




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Read of England 2020

Oyez! Oyez! It being the first of April, I declare Read of England 2020 to be officially begun!    I was concerned that the ongoing pandemic would disrupt my planning, but between stuff I bought well in advance, ebooks, and the library, I’ve got a solid set lined up.  Our starting course is history, naturally, and literature will follow.  No English biscuits this year, unfortunately, but I do have plenty of Earl Grey.

So, what shall we look forward to?

The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great.  Lars Brownworth’s book on the Vikings got me really interested in Alfred, far more than Cornwell’s fictional depiction of him in the Saxon Stories.


The Warrior Queen: The Life and Legend of Aethelflaed, Daughter of Alfred the Great.     Bernard Cornwell introduced me to Aethelflaed, of course, and to my amusement  the author (Joanne Arman) cites Cornwell as being responsible for stirring up modern interest in her.


Any Approaching Enemy,  a new-to-me naval novel set during the Napoleonic Wars.  Other titles in the series have similarly evocative titles.


The True Soldier, a Jack Lark novel. This time Jack’s found himself involved in the American Civil War. But he’s English, so….good enough!  This one I read early.


A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: Scenes from the Town and Countryside of Medieval England.    This may prove to be a little too much Ian Mortimer’s travel guide to medieval England,  but social histories are always my favorites.


Tommy: The British Soldier on the Western Front,  Richard Holmes.    I previously read Holmes’ Redcoats, on the life of British soldiers in the days of horses and muskets.


There will be a few others, too:  expect Wodehouse to leg in at some point (wouldn’t be April without Bertie), I’d still like to try one of Dorothy Sayer’s mysteries, and I’ve been meaning to read a Tennyson poem for years.



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