Book Review: Ready Player One

Book Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Wade Watts is a gunter.  That’s short for “Easter egg hunter,” which has nothing to do with the holiday.  Born into grinding poverty as the child of refugees in the energy-starved dystopian future, Wade was orphaned at an early age and put into the hands of a neglectful aunt living in a skyscraper trailer park/junk heap.  Gifted at repairing discarded and broken hardware, Wade’s one chance at getting out of this hardscrabble life is winning a contest.

Ready Player One

It seems that the billionaire creator of OASIS, the virtual reality that nearly everyone in the world uses for games, business and school, set up a game before his death.  James Donovan Halliday (Anorak on the internet) had a massive obsession with the pop culture of the 1980s, the decade he’d been a teen in.  The first person to solve a series of puzzles and complete tasks based on Eighties trivia, movies, games and music will inherit Halliday’s company and all its wealth.

Thus it is that Wade and his fellow gunters have also developed an obsession with the Eighties, as they scramble to be the first to find the Easter egg that will make its owner incredibly rich.  However, in five years no one has managed to pass the first gate.  Until, of course,  Wade stumbles across an obvious in retrospect clue.

In a bit of a surprise twist, he’s not the first to do so, but manages to be the first to accomplish the associated challenge.  The game shifts into overdrive as Wade (or rather his OASIS codename Parzival) becomes an overnight celebrity and target.  To win the contest he’s going to need more than a command of Monty Python jokes!  He may even need to go…outside.

This book reads like a young adult cyberpunk novel…written for geeky forty-somethings.  I’m a bit older than that, but still managed to get most of the references due to having been very geeky during the 1980s.  One of the notes that makes it obvious this is a book for grownups is that our protagonist gets a day job to pay his bills so he can devote time to being a gunter.

The main villains of the story are the IOI corporation and its Oology Division.  IOI wants the cash cow that is OASIS, and to make it “pay to play”, shutting out poor people like Wade and the others who live in the Stacks.  (They’ve already managed to get laws passed to legalize indentured servitude.)  IOI is fully willing to use its monetary and manpower resources to gain unfair advantage over ordinary gunters, and Wade soon discovers just how far the corporation will go to have its way.

Wade starts the story already gifted in the skills and knowledge he’ll need to accomplish his goal…except interpersonal relationship skills.  His background has made Parzival a paranoid solo operator, and over the course of the novel he must learn to build bonds of friendship with the other elite gunters he meets.  A common theme is that all of these people only know each other from virtual reality, and their avatars conceal (or reveal) important information about their true selves.

Though we wouldn’t have a story without it, I can’t help feeling that if Mr. Halliday had found some way of getting people to work on solving the “real world” problems of the dystopian future as hard as they were trying to perfectly recreate the 1980s in cyberspace, things wouldn’t be nearly as bad for Wade and others.  At least one of the gunters, Art3mis, does intend to use the money to try to fix things.

Apparently future society has stagnated or regressed on certain civil issues, back to the Nineties or so.  There’s also references to offpage sex.  It should be okay for junior high readers on up, but the heavy emphasis on things that were cool back in their parents’ time might be off-putting.

Recommended primarily to geeky forty-somethings, with some overlap for geeks on either side of “80s kids”.

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt

Book Review: The Book of Van Vogt by A.E. van Vogt

In 1972, DAW Books was a brand new publishing company started by noted speculative fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim.  Its mission statement was to publish quality science fiction books that had not previously appeared in paperback.  (As opposed to reprinting old books with a new title, as often happened in the paperback market.)  For their fourth publication, Mr. Wollheim reached out to A.E. van Vogt for a collection of old and new stories, trusting to name recognition to sell the book.  I mention this because the inside front page is devoted to this information rather than a teaser for the contents.

The Book of Van Vogt

There are seven stories in this collection, starting with a brand new one, “The Timed Clock.”  It’s set at a dinner party, and the host tells the tale of how he became his own grandfather.  Is he playing a joke on his guests, or does the clock in the hall have special powers?

“The Confession” is a weird story about a man who can’t quite remember why he doesn’t meet his girlfriend any more, or why he took a menial job sweeping floors when he used to be quite wealthy.  And he has visions of a future where things are better, but it’s impossible to see how he got from here to there.  Could it have anything to do with the hypnotist whose stage act he participated in?  An ambiguous ending.  Content note: attempted rape.

“The Rat and the Snake” is set on the homefront during World War Three.  Mark Grey loves feeding rats to his pet python, especially hearing their tiny screams.  But the availability of rats has dried up due to rat-catchers being drafted and pet stores put on rationing.  Mark finds a government research station filled with lab rats, and doesn’t question how easy it is to get inside and steal some.  Poetic justice ensues.

“The Barbarian” is a reprint from the 1940s.  In the far future, the Linn Empire rules Earth, and has successfully conquered Mars and Venus.  But now a new threat arises from Europa, a barbarian horde that looks as though it will sweep aside the decadent empire.  Clane Linn, a priest-scientist and acting leader of Linn, is the only hope of dealing with Czinczar.  Czinczar is far more intelligent than the title of “barbarian” would imply.  Clane is despised by many in the empire (including his late uncle, the former leader) for being a “mutant.”  We never learn the extent of his mutation, except that his clothing is designed to conceal the shape of his shoulders.  He is, by 21st Century standards, the nicest guy in his government.

“Ersatz Eternal” concerns three men who have crashlanded on an alien world.  One of them is insane, but that may make him the best suited to survive in this new environment.

“The Sound of Wild Laughter” concerns Marie Hazzard, a physicist who has been in a loveless (and sexless on her part) marriage with the philandering and maniacally jealous Carl Hazzard for over a decade.  She is briefly relieved when Carl dies, only to learn that his brain has been kept alive and able to communicate.  The situation winds tighter and tighter, as Dr. Marie must deal not only with her semi-deceased husband, but three greedy men who think they know what really happened.

That story is heavy on the misogyny, most directly from the noxious Carl, but also from the other men trying to manipulate Marie–and she has some internalized misogyny to deal with as well.  There’s some dubious consent sex.

And we wrap up with “Lost: Fifty Suns”, reprinted from the 1950s.  In the very far future, descendants of humans who fled to the Magellanic Cloud centuries past learn that the government of Earth has now reached their galaxy.  While the representatives of Earth claim now to be more inclusive of genetic minorities, they will not stand for there being an independent star nation anywhere in the universe.

The Earth ship issues an ultimatum:  Either the civilization of the Magellanic Cloud reveals itself and surrenders, or the Star Cluster will come looking for them with planet-destroying weapons.

This is especially relevant to Captain Maltby, as he is secretly the hereditary ruler of the “Mixed Men”, a new genetic minority that arose from crossbreeding different strains of humanity.  Gifted with strange powers, the Mixed Men tried to take over their galaxy’s civilization, only to be beaten back by force of numbers.  Some of the Mixed Men think this is a golden opportunity to make a deal with the Earthlings to become local satraps, while many others want to use the ultimatum to pressure their own civilization into giving them back civil rights.  Captain Maltby must try to decide what is best for his people, and convince them to accept it.

We also get to see the viewpoint of Lady Laurr, commander of the Earth ship.  Her crew has already been on this mission of mapping the Magellanic Cloud for ten years, and was looking forward to going home when they stumbled on evidence of the Magellanic civilization.  While their technology is highly advanced, they’re still looking for maybe fifty inhabited star systems out of millions of suns; it could take another decade to locate the Magellanic civilization provided this ultimatum doesn’t flush them out.  Lady Laurr faces legal mutiny if she doesn’t get results quickly.

The ending has one side’s efforts and infighting go all for naught.  Somewhat surprisingly, this story passes the Bechdel Test.

Of the stories, I liked “The Rat and the Snake” best; to the point with no faffing about.  “The Sound of Wild Laughter” goes on too long and has too much misogyny that isn’t challenged for my tastes.

If you like van Vogt’s stuff, this isn’t his most famous work, but is pretty representative.  Those who are new to him might want to try Slan or The Voyage of the Space Beagle nstead.

Book Review: The Great Quake

Book Review: The Great Quake by Henry Fountain

Disclaimer:  I received this uncorrected proof through a Goodreads Giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.  As an uncorrected proof, many changes will be made in the final product, due out August 2017, including an index and bibliography, and possibly more illustrations.

The Great Quake

March 27, 1964, Good Friday by the Catholic calendar, was the date of the largest earthquake in North American history, magnitude 9.2 on the revised Richter scale.  Loss of life was limited due to Alaska’s sparse population at the time, but property damage in the city of Anchorage was severe, and the town of Valdez and Native Alaskan village of Chenega were devastated, requiring the entire communities to move elsewhere.

This book is a detailed examination of that earthquake, with a special focus on George Plafker, a geologist whose research in the aftermath led him to produce evidence for the plate tectonics theory of geophysics.

The opening chapter deals with Mr. Plafker and his colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey being recalled early to Alaska to assess the damage after the quake.  The military was glad to see them, as not only were communications and transportation disrupted, but the network of early warning systems protecting America from nuclear attack was at risk.

Then there are a series of backstory chapters about the communities that were affected and their inhabitants, Mr. Plafker’s decision to become a geologist and early career, and the science of earthquakes and continental drift theory.

This is followed by chapters on the earthquake itself, taken primarily from eyewitness accounts.  Then back to the aftermath, rescue measures, reconstruction and the scientific examination of the evidence.  Considerable space is devoted to Mr. Plafker’s analysis of the geology, and the formulation of his hypothesis as to the cause.

There’s a chapter on the acceptance of this idea and the advancement of plate tectonics, then an epilogue that details where everyone still alive ended up.  The end notes are good, with some extra detail.

The writing is okay, and the events of the earthquake are exciting and horrifying, but I didn’t find the style compelling.  (Keep in mind, again, that this is an uncorrected proof; the author may be able to punch it up a bit.)  It should be suitable for high school students on up.

Primarily recommended for those interested in Alaskan history, geophysics buffs and those who like to read about earthquakes.

 

 

 

Book Review: Jefferson’s America

Book Review: Jefferson’s America by Julie M. Fenster

In 1803, many people in the fledgling United States expected a Louisiana War, as the Spanish had forbidden American shipping from passing down the Mississippi and through the port of New Orleans.  That didn’t happen, as the Spanish were induced to yield the Louisiana Territory to their allies the French.  France’s then-leader, Emperor Napoleon, said he would “never relinquish” the territory.  But when European troubles drew his attention, the French offered to sell Louisiana to the Americans for a cool fifteen million dollars.

Jefferson's America

President Thomas Jefferson got the U.S. to pay the money, but other than the important ports of New Orleans and St. Louis, it wasn’t clear what all was included in  the Louisiana Purchase.  Someone had to be sent out posthaste to learn river routes through the territory, and apply some scientific curiosity to what might be found there.  And so he chose the men of Jefferson.

This book is primarily about six men who led expeditions into the West, and the outcomes of those adventures.  Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson’s personal secretary and a man who suffered bouts of depression. William Clark, younger brother of a Revolutionary War hero who had been cast aside by his country.  William Dunbar, slaveholder and scientist.  George Hunter, a chemist bent on making his fortune.  Thomas Freeman, one of the surveyors that laid out Washington, D,C,  And Zebulon Pike, an United States Army lieutenant who was intrepid beyond all reason.

It’s emphasized that other than Lewis, most of these men were not Jefferson’s first choices.  Many better trained people simply didn’t want to risk their lives on perilous journeys, or couldn’t get away from previous commitments.

Of course, they are not the only people covered in this history text.  We also meet the legendary Sacajawea, without whom Lewis & Clark might well not have made it past the Shoshone.  Aaron Burr, who you may remember from that recent musical.  Blackbird of the Omaha, whose dinner invitations you should find a way to politely refuse.  And many others.

The story is primarily chronological, and skips back and forth between expeditions happening at the same time.  But it’s not all “this happened, then that happened.”  There is room for a certain amount of editorial opinion, and oddball moments.  The book begins with a visit to New Orleans in 1820 by John James Audubon, who was later to gain fame painting birds.  At the time, he was seeking wealthy patrons who needed their portraits done, to fund his passion.  He met one of the famous Jeffersonian explorers, who alas had not aged well.

While the book is matter-of-fact about the issue of slavery, including some of the worst consequences of the system, it very carefully does not mention Jefferson’s own slaves, even when talking about his time at Monticello.  I have to wonder if the author felt she’d have to put in another chapter just to explain President Jefferson’s complicated relationship with slavery and felt it best to avoid the issue.

The treatment of Native Americans is more directly dealt with, as they occupied parts of the lands the explorers were moving through.  There’s quite a bit of politics involved, both between tribes, and their relationships with the various nations who wanted their goods or land.  Zebulon Pike is mentioned as having noticed that the introduction of strong liquor as a trade good was distorting tribal life.

There are many direct quotes from letters and journals, and these are sourced in the extensive endnotes.  There’s also a bibliography and index, several maps, and a thin section of illustrations in the center.

The age of Jeffersonian exploration lasted only a few years, but established the workability of scientific expeditions into the wilderness, rather than just cash and land grabs.  It’s briefly mentioned that unlike the slapdash American expeditions, the Spanish science explorers under Carlos III were well-trained and equipped for their journeys–it’s just that they’d never gotten around to the Louisiana Territory.  (I would like to read more about those expeditions, please.)

I found this book a pleasure to read, and recommend it for senior high students on up (there’s some frank talk about sex) who are interested in this period of history.

Disclaimer:  I received this volume through Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, more about Sacajawea:

 

Book Review: Merton of the Movies

Book Review: Merton of the Movies by Harry Leon Wilson

Simsbury, Illinois might just be a wide spot in the road, but twice a week, the Bijou Palace shows movies made in far-off Hollywood.  Perhaps the most fanatical attendee of these showings is young Merton Gill, assistant shopkeeper at Gashwiler’s Emporium (general store.)  Merton has studied these film stories carefully, subscribes to several photoplay magazines, and has taken a correspondence course in acting.  (With a specialization in face journeys.)  While ordinary folks only idly think of going to Hollywood to be in movies, Merton (aka Clifford Armytage) is going to actually do it!

Merton of the Movies

This comedic novel is by the author of Ruggles of Red Gap and was originally serialized in the Saturday Evening Post in 1919.  It was rapidly turned into a hit play, then released as a book in 1922.  There have been three movie versions, the 1947 one starring Red Skelton.

Merton arrives in California at the height of the silent era, woefully unprepared for the realities of the movie business.  He only wants to work for one studio, the ones that put out a Perils of Pauline style adventure serial starring his favorite actress, Beulah Baxter.  An idealist, he hasn’t noticed how sanitized the magazine articles about the stars of Hollywood are.  (One of the running gags is the stock phrases used in every interview.)  For quite some time, he doesn’t even make it past the casting office’s waiting room.

While cooling his heels day after day, Merton becomes acquainted with (quite against his will) “Flips” Montague, a sassy, irreverent young woman who’s been in show business all her life.  She’s not exactly film-heroine pretty, and far too familiar in her manner.  Merton can’t quite fathom why she insists on acting as though they were warm acquaintances.

I should mention here that Merton has no sense of humor; he recognizes that such a thing as comedy exists, but doesn’t grok it.  Slapstick, insults, wordplay, none of them seem funny to him, and he goes through life entirely seriously.

Finally, just as his monetary situation was looking grim, Merton gets a chance to be an extra in a cabaret scene.  He’s supposed to be suffering from ennui due to the Blight of Broadway.  As it happens, Merton is very uncomfortable in the scene, especially as he’s being forced to smoke cigarettes even though he detests the habit.  This makes him look perfect for that scene, and Miss Montague takes notice.

After that, there’s a long dry spell until a day’s extra work gives Merton just enough money to choose between paying rent and eating.  He chooses eating, then ingeniously uses the studio’s backlot resources to have shelter for the next week.   Down to his last nickel, Merton is stunned to run into Flips again at her part-time job as stunt double for Beulah Baxter.  (Ms. Baxter had claimed to do all her own stunts.)  He’s even more stunned to learn that Beulah is married…for the third time.

Flips (who prefers not to use her given name of Sarah Nevada Montague) treats Merton to breakfast and learns his life story…and realizes she’s found a gold mine.  She stakes Merton a couple of weeks rent, then contacts a director friend of hers.  She and Mr. Baird agree on a plan.  Merton will star in a movie, being told he’s playing a straight role, and not being allowed on the set for any scenes not involving his character.

Baird fibs to Merton that he wants to move up from comedy to serious films, and our hero buys it.  Clifford Armytage is on the rise at last!  Before the first film is released, Baird has Merton in a second movie with the same conditions.  Merton does have some suspicions…if this is a serious movie, why is the notorious funnyman with the crossed eyes involved?  But he puts them aside, after all he’s still a rookie and the director surely knows what he’s doing.

Shooting wrapped up, Baird signs Merton to a three-year exclusive contract (carefully looked over by Miss Montague.)  Merton realizes he’s fallen in love with Flips, and she likes him a whole bunch too…but the first movie with Clifford Armytage as straight man in a slapstick comedy is about to hit theaters.  Will this make Merton a star, or break his heart?

Good stuff:  There are many genuinely funny bits, and it’s fascinating to have a window into the Hollywood of the silent era.  There are things that are very much the same: Merton overhears as a worthy film idea is watered down and butchered to match what the moneymen think the audience wants, until the final product is unrecognizable.  There’s also bewailing the intelligent movies that don’t get made because there’s no money in them.

Not so good:  Period racism, sexism and ethnic prejudice.  One of the standout lines here is “He knows all about money, even if he doesn’t keep Yom Kippur.”  Flips is kind of an early version of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope some folks are tired of.  And there’s animal abuse by a film crew, true to the period.

Recommended to movie fans, especially those interested in the silent era.

And now, the trailer for the 1947 film:

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Martin J. Dougherty

The Arthurian mythos is a familiar one to just about everyone in some form or another.  But unless you’re a scholar of the subject, you might not know where all the pieces came from and how they got put together.  This “coffee table” book gives an overview of basic information about King Arthur and his knights.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

This generously illustrated tome begins with a look at what we know of early British history, and historical figures that might have inspired the tales of Arthur, even if no actual King Arthur ever existed.

Then it moves on to the major sources of the Arthurian stories.  The first written account we still have is that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Arthur is just one in  a line of probably fictional rulers.  The book also covers the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (who was big on graphic violence and courtly love), the Grail Quest (heavy on the preachiness and religious allegory), and of course Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which pulled material together from multiple sources and added some of his own touches.

A final chapter touches on modern retellings of the Arthur cycle, from Mark Twain’s satirical proto-science fiction work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, through the musical Camelot to the recent television series Merlin.  The author also talks a bit about what might be called tertiary Arthuriana, where a character could say, “this bell was enchanted by Merlin” with no other references to King Arthur, yet the audience will immediately know what’s being talked about.

This book is for the layman, and should be suitable for tweens on up.  (Parents of younger readers might want to discuss the theme of marital infidelity that comes up in the relationship of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, as well as other places in the Arthurian cycle, not least Arthur’s own birth.)  There is an index, but no bibliography, so serious scholars will want something more advanced to work with.

The author also talks a bit about the enduring appeal of King Arthur and his stories.  Heroic knights and chivalry, a struggle of good against evil, a kingdom where right is more important than might, even if it is doomed to fall and be followed by a darker age.  “A moment so bright it will be seen on the far side of that darkness.”

This book would make a good gift for the casual fan of things King Arthur, especially bright teenagers.  Did they like the recent movie?

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful

Book Review: Life Is Beautiful by Sarah M. Johnson

In 2008, an airplane carrying humanitarian workers to a remote village in Guatemala, where they were to build a school, crashed and burned.  The crew and most of the passengers were killed; one young woman survived relatively unharmed, though she had lost half her family, and her mother was severely injured.  This is her story.

Life Is Beautiful

Sarah’s life had not been an easy one for some time before the crash.  Raised outside a small town in rural Wisconsin, Sarah’s family was socially and emotionally isolated.  Her father was a recovering meth addict, they’d recently lost a close relative to cancer, and what little social life Sarah had revolved around heavy drinking with her friends.

At college, Sarah met Jacob, a young man who introduced her to a stronger belief in God, but was dangerously flawed; in particular he reinforced her drinking habits.  A combination of alcoholism and depression made Sarah’s  college career a bust, and Jacob cheated on her, so she had to come home feeling a failure.  The Guatemala trip was meant to help mend the family’s fences.

As this book is in the “inspirational” sub-genre, you might expect that Sarah turned her life around after hitting rock bottom, and you would be correct.  When she finally accepted the help of a therapist (it isn’t directly stated, but her father’s apparent ability to quit meth cold turkey may have influenced her to try to handle everything solo), Sarah began to be able to process her grief and make progress on recovery from alcoholism.  (Finding sober friends and a welcoming church group also helped.)

From a writing perspective, this book is a good example of how real people are far more complex and messy than they generally are shown in fiction.  Jacob is a prime example, a fervent believer who introduces Sarah to a personal relationship with her “higher power” but prone to bouts of unwanted preaching and self-righteousness when drunk, and who is a toxic boyfriend for her.

One misstep is Sarah’s breakthrough moment with her therapist, when she can finally tell the story of the crash and its aftermath while allowing herself to feel the emotions associated with it.  While it would be a powerful moment if the facts had been concealed up to that point in the book, on paper it’s mostly a recitation of details already covered in the first chapters.  This is a short book, and a reader with a decent memory will find this bit redundant.

Recommended primarily to fans of inspirational literature, and older young adult readers who like non-fiction stories as Sarah’s life is of interest.  Not necessarily recommended to those currently undergoing the grieving process; Sarah mentions several books that helped her, and those would probably be better choices.

If you would like to purchase the book, please consider getting it new, as part of the proceeds go to Habitat for Humanity.

Disclaimer:  I received a free copy of this book to facilitate writing the review; no other compensation was offered or requested.

Book Review: Three In One

Book Review: Three In One edited by Leo Margulies

According to the introduction by the editor, this book came about because there were three long science fiction stories in the to-publish pile, too long for short-story collections but too short to be their own paperback.  The cover by Emsh is a good choice with the three intelligent species cooperating in some vacuum-suited endeavor.  It doesn’t precisely match any of the stories inside, but gets across the ideas of “three” and “science fiction” nicely.

Three In One

“There Is No Defense” by Theodore Sturgeon takes place in a far future when the races of the Solar System have devised a weapon so fearsome it is only known as the Death.  This won the war against the Jovians, but so horrified everyone that there is now a complete ban against it, sponsored by the interplanetary Peace organization.

Now an invader ship has entered the system.  It will not communicate.  Its movements are seemingly random, as are its attacks with the power to slag small moons.  Its defenses seem to make it immune to any normal weapon, and it retaliates instantly and overwhelmingly to any attack.  And this is just one ship, presumably a scout for the main invasion.

It appears that there is no choice but to un-ban the Death, regardless of the damage to the Peace movement’s ethical standing.  But what if the invader is immune to the Death?  What then?

The story fudges on the difference between pacifism and passivism (as a lot of stories not written by pacifists do), but does show respect for the pacifist’s point of view.  The invader’s secret will be more easily guessed by modern readers than the characters in the story, I think.

“Galactic Chest” by Clifford D. Simak is contemporary to 1956, when it was published.  A Midwestern reporter chafes at his daily assignment of writing puff pieces for the Community Chest (a charity organization, forerunner of United Way; you may have seen the Monopoly cards.)  He wants to become a foreign correspondent and cover international stories!

The newspaper editor (nicknamed “the Barnacle”) doesn’t seem to be helping, sending our protagonist off on a series of stories that seem to be wild goose chases.  Finally told point-blank by the Barnacle that good reporters find their own stories, the reporter looks again at those and other incidents and notices a pattern.  A pattern reminiscent of brownies (the creatures, not the confections.)

This light-hearted story is closer to fantasy than science fiction, just substituting aliens for elfin creatures.  A couple of the “helpful” things they do come across as disturbing (they are okay with euthansia), but overall it’s a happy ending.  The main characters drink heavily (a bartender supplies a clue to what’s going on), and it’s strongly implied that the reporter and his love interest engage in hanky-panky before marriage.

“West Wind” by Murray Leinster is set in Eastern Europe of the then near future, though country names are very carefully not used.  Igor is a proud citizen of a small, militarily weak country.  They have atomic power plants, true, but their neighbor to the east has actual atomic bombs, enough to turn Igor’s country to glass.  The country to the east is large and militarily powerful, and has already bullied Igor’s country into ceding over one of its provinces to them.

Now the eastern nation has demanded another border province.  The President of Igor’s nation has agreed to cede this province as well, without a shot fired, just all the citizens evacuated.  The President did warn that any soldier entering the province would be doing so at their own risk, but that was a bluff, right?

Igor is incensed.  He knows full well that the aggressor nation will not be satisfied with this bite of territory; they will soon find some excuse to demand more, or even invade outright!  Igor decides to hide from the evacuation teams with a radio transmitter (he’s a news broadcaster by profession) so that he can send messages back to his people to shame them into resisting the invaders.

Igor doesn’t even get one broadcast off before he’s caught by the invaders and arrested as a spy.  As the only living resident of the province, the eastern nation believes he must know something about what the President meant in his speech.  Igor makes up some stories under torture, but he has no clue whether or not the veiled threat was a bluff, or what trap could possibly have been laid.  The only comfort he has is an old nursery rhyme about the West Wind protecting his homeland.

There are some evocative scenes in this one, from the solitude Igor faces in the abandoned province, to a chilling calculus as the eastern dictators decide how many of their own troops need to die to make their planned invasion look like a fair fight.

The reveal itself seems unlikely given advances in our knowledge of that field of science; to quote Morbo, “it does not work like that!”

This is mid-level work by a trio of excellent authors, worth looking up if you are a fan of any of them.  It doesn’t seem to have been reprinted recently so try used book stores and libraries.

 

Book Review: The Play of Death

Book Review: The Play of Death by Oliver Pötzsch

Disclaimer:  I received a Kindle download of this book through a Goodreads giveaway to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

The Play of Death

The year is 1670, and the people of Oberammergau are preparing their every-ten-years Passion Play…though some of them think it might be sacrilegious to be doing so four years early.  When the actor playing Jesus Christ is found actually crucified on the prop cross, the villagers suspect the Devil is afoot.  The deaths of other actors in the manner of the Biblical figures they’re portraying certainly lends credence to that hypothesis.  Or perhaps it’s God’s wrath, and there’s always the slim possibility of less supernatural murderers.

As it happens, medically trained bathhouse operator Simon Fronwieser is in town to enroll his son Peter in grammar school.  The town medicus having recently died, Simon is drafted to examine the crucified body for clues and treat the town’s sick people.  He’s soon joined by his father-in-law Jakob Kuisl, the hangman of Schongau, who has come with the district secretary to investigate the strange goings-on.

But are these murders tied in to the wooden Pharisees?  The little men from Venice?  Ancient pagan sacrifice?  The wrathful quaking of the very mountain under which Oberammergau sits?  As the mysteries mount, can the medicus and hangman survive?

This is the sixth in The Hangman’s Daughter mystery series to be translated into English; I have not read any of the previous volumes.  Naturally, the hangman’s daughters also come into the story.  Magdalena is pregnant with what she hopes will be her and Simon’s third child, and waits anxiously for her husband back in Schongau.  But Barbara has just reached the age where she is flirting with young men, and she attracts the attentions of a lustful doctor.

When Barbara rejects her unwelcome suitor and Jakob backs her up, the doctor vows vengeance and soon he’s using his political connections to have Barbara accused of witchcraft.  (It doesn’t help that the young woman has books containing spells under her bed.)  There’s a conspiracy on the Schongau town council, and Magdalena must make the perilous voyage to Oberammergau to alert her menfolk to the danger.

There’s a lot going on in this book, and much of the solution is figuring out which of the mysterious happenings are directly connected to each other, which are outliers, and which are just coincidence.  There’s some topical material:  Jakob is struggling with his binge drinking, and the Oberammergau villagers both exploit and hate the immigrant laborers who have come to their valley.

Content issues:  In addition to the expected violence (including a suicide), there’s also rape and child abuse in the story.  Torture occurs off-stage; as the hangman, Jakob is a skilled torturer, but prefers to avoid this part of his job whenever possible (he’s okay with torturing people he personally knows to be guilty.)  Other hangmen are not so scrupulous.  Classism is a constant issue.  (This leads me to a translation quibble:  while “dishonorable” might be a direct translation of the German word for despised occupations, the connotations in English make it a bad fit.)

Good:  The plot is nicely convoluted, providing plenty of cliffhanger moments, while wrapping up nicely with no important threads dangling.

Not so good:  Some of the villains are cardboard cutouts, with no redeeming qualities to explain how they got into the positions they occupy.

Recommended for fans of historical mysteries, especially those who haven’t read a German mystery yet and might enjoy the setting.

Book Review: Minnesota Vice

Book Review: Minnesota Vice by Ellen & Mary Kuhfeld

As I have mentioned before, Minnesota has many fine mystery and crime writers.  Mary Kuhfeld is probably best known under the pen name Monica Ferris, under which she has written nineteen Betsy Devonshire Needlework Mysteries.  (Thus the subtitle “Monica Ferris Presents” for these self-published books.)  Ellen Kuhfeld is also an experienced mystery writer, and they collaborated on several stories for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine in the 1980s.

Minnesota Vice

Of the ten stories in this collection, the first six are collaborations, and the first four are set in Hedeby, Minnesota, a largish town in the fictitious Hedeby County.  The police detective team of Jack Hafner and Thor Nygaard is introduced in “An Ill Wind.”  A sudden blizzard snows in the town, making Hafner and Nygaard the only officers able to respond to a report of murder.  With all the outdoor clues buried under new-fallen snow, how will the detectives figure out which of the obvious suspects is guilty?

“Allergic to Death” takes place in a warmer season, as a man with lethal allergies apparently decides to take a walk in a pollen-laden garden.  Simple enough, but one of the relatives insists on a cremation before an autopsy can be ordered.  Honoring the wishes of the deceased, or covering up something more sinister?

“The Scales of Justice” concerns a traveling salesman who gets caught cheating at poker.  Since the game itself was unlawful, the man can’t be arrested.  Nygaard decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  This story will be funnier if you’re familiar with Norwegian-American customs.

In “Night Light”, there’s a UFO, leading to suspicions that a murder and disappearance may have alien involvement.  This is Hafner and Nygaard’s toughest case yet!

“Timely Psychiatric Intervention” features a government think tank that actually has a counselor handy to head off any of their scientists going mad.  But the nature of McCain’s project may make Dr. Bach’s repeated attempts to help him moot.

In “A Specialist in Dragons”, Baron Halfdan’s daughter has been abducted by a dragon.  He seeks the help of his local wizard, Wulfstan.  Unfortunately, Wulfstan’s not up to the task of tracking a dragon, and a series of increasingly expensive specialists needs to be called in.  Can Halla be rescued before the Baron runs out of gold?

The next four stories are solo efforts by Ellen Kuhfeld.  “The Old Shell Game” concerns a museum curator that notices a valuable fossil has gone missing.  It’s not anywhere on the grounds,  but it’s impossible for this large item to have left the premises without being seen.  How did it vanish?

“Thorolf and the Peacock” stars a Viking merchant (who is also the star of Ellen Kuhfeld’s book, Secret Murder) who is insulted by a flamboyant trader.  Thorolf decides to treat the fellow to some traditional Norwegian hospitality.  (In a slightly different manner than in “The Scales of Justice.”)

The next two stories were printed in speculative fiction magazines in the 2000s.  “Dances with Werewolves” has the investigative team of Scott & Scott hired to determine if a man’s new girlfriend is a Were.  This one contains a twist genre-savvy readers will spot quickly.

“Cycles of Violence” is a sequel to that tale, in which Bjorn the bartender must deal with a Wendigo invasion.  It’s easier to do that when you’re a werebear!

The bane of self-published works, there are a few typos, including an error in the table of contents.

As a hodgepodge of previously un-reprinted stories, this volume may not satisfy mystery purists (even though most of them were printed in a mystery genre magazine.)  That said, these are fun stories of which I liked “Allergic to Death” best.  I felt “Dances with Werewolves” was the weakest, probably because I spotted the twist far too early.

Recommended to Minnesotans (especially mystery fans) and fans of the Monica Ferris books.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the authors to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was requested or offered.

 

 

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