This Week’s Book Review – Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Monster Hunter’ trilogy comes to entertaining conclusion

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 15, 2018

“Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints,” by Larry Correia and John Ringo, Baen Books, 2018, 288 pages, $25

Fanfic gets written when a fan of a writer writes their own story in that author’s world. It is especially popular in fantasy and science fiction. What happens when an established science fiction author gets so enthusiastic they create fanfic?

“Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints,” by Larry Correia and John Ringo happens.

Ringo, well-established when Correia’s first novel, “Monster Hunter International,” appeared liked the series so much he wrote three novels set in Correia’s urban fantasy universe. He showed the novels to Correia. The two decided they were worth publishing. They rewrote the books together to make the plots fit better into Correia’s canon. The result was the “Monster Hunter Memoirs” trilogy. “Saints” is the final book. It was preceded by “Grunge” and “Sinners.”

The story involves Monster Hunter International, but is set in the 1980s and 1990s with a monster hunter who died before the events of “Monster Hunter International.”

The central character, Chad Gardenier, is literally on mission from God. A Marine, in the Beirut barracks when a suicide bomber attacked it in 1983, Chad was given a choice in the anteroom to heaven: go to heaven or return to earth to save the world. Chad was a Marine. Of course he accepted the mission to save the world.

He hooked up with Monster Hunter International shortly after his medical discharge from the Marines. Stumbling into an outbreak of zombies, he killed a bunch, saved folks and got a job offer from MHI. By the start of “Saints,” Chad is an experienced monster hunter leading the team in New Orleans. New Orleans is filled with all sorts of nasty monsters needing killing. After all, it is a voodoo kind of place.

It turns out there is a reason New Orleans attracts such creatures buried way under the city; and it threatens to destroy the world. Chad Gardinier finally confronts the mission for which he has been sent.

“Monster Hunter Memoirs: Saints” ends up a fusion of Correia’s and Ringo’s writing styles, blending both their humor and their fascination with firearms. Fans of either writer will find this entertaining.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – Turncoat

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Turncoat’ offers a fresh look at Benedict Arnold

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 7, 2018

“Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty,” by Stephen Brumwell, Yale University Press, 2018, 384 pages, $30

Benedict Arnold has become synonymous with treason. Yet few today know his story.

“Turncoat: Benedict Arnold and the Crisis of American Liberty,” by Stephen Brumwell is a fresh look at the man and his times.

Arnold was a brilliant general, probably only second to George Washington in talent. Next to Washington, he may be most responsible for the survival of the patriot cause. His dogged defense on Lake Champlain in 1776, and his spirited attacks in the Saratoga campaign in 1777, defeated Britain’s northern offensive and led France to enter the revolution on the American side. Absent Arnold, Britain would likely have won by 1778. Three years later, he tried to give Britain the war by betraying West Point to them.

Brumwell traces what led Arnold to switch sides. It was more complicated than many believe.

Arnold was prickly and always protective of his honor. Washington and many of the other Revolutionary generals also were. Yet Arnold combined this with a personality that created jealous enemies.

Badly wounded at Saratoga, Arnold’s wound denied him the active battlefield command he desired. As a substitute, Washington appointed the injured Arnold military governor of freshly-recaptured Philadelphia in 1778. It proved a poisoned command.

Arnold quickly quarreled with Philadelphia’s civilian government. The ruling Philadelphia radicals attacked Arnold with a flurry of meaningless or trivial charges. They should have been dismissed. Instead, to placate this politically powerful faction led Arnold to be court martialed.

Additionally, the French alliance upset Arnold. The revolution began as a political party fight. This is why loyalists were called Tories. Many viewed the French alliance as inviting a stranger into a family quarrel.

This and disillusionment with the Colonial government led Arnold to switch sides. Viewing himself as a new General Monk (who dumped the Parliamentarians to restore Britain’s monarchy after the English Civil War) Arnold sought to end the war by reunifying colonies with Britain.

Arnold misjudged the moment. Instead his actions increased colonial resolve and made him a synonym for treason.

“Turncoat” is a book with surprising resonance today. It shows what happens when the political gets too personal.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – Seven at Santa Cruz

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Biography offers intimate look at WWII fighter pilot

By MARK LARDAS

Aug 1, 2018

”Seven at Santa Cruz: The Life of Fighter Ace Stanley ‘Swede’ Vejtasa,” by Ted Edwards, Naval Institute Press, 2018, 304 pages, $29.95

Living World War II veterans are fewer each day. First person accounts or histories written using personal interviews of surviving veterans are shrinking.

“Seven at Santa Cruz: The Life of Fighter Ace Stanley ‘Swede’ Vejtasa,” by Ted Edwards is a new biography of Vejtasa that bucks this trend. Edwards used extended interviews with Vejtasa and other World War II veterans researching it.

Nicknamed “Swede” for reasons comprehensible to only mid-20th century naval aviators, Stanley Vejtasa was of Bohemian and Norwegian stock, the first generation born in the United States after his father came here from what today is the Czech Republic and mother from Norway.

He grew up in rural Montana when most children, including him, were fascinated by all things aircraft. He joined the Navy to learn to fly.

He flew a lot and in combat, graduating from flight school just before the United States entered World War II. He flew dive bombers from the aircraft carrier Yorktown as part of the Atlantic “Neutrality Patrol” before Pearl Harbor. After Dec. 7, 1941, he accompanied Yorktown into the Pacific. There, in the action leading up to and including the Battle of the Coral Sea, he hit a Japanese transport off Tulagi, helped sink the Japanese aircraft carrier Shoho, and shot down three Japanese Zero fighters flying combat air patrol over Yorktown. He shot down the Zeros using a Dauntless dive bomber.

That earned him a Navy Cross and a transfer to fighters. Flying an F4F Wildcat from the carrier Enterprise at the battle of Santa Cruz, he shot down seven Japanese aircraft in one day. He saved the Enterprise and got a Navy Cross for that, too.

Edwards’ book follows these battles, but also looks at the totality of Vejtasa’s life, including life growing up in Montana, through Vejtasa’s later career in the Navy, which reached an apex with command of the aircraft carrier Constellation in 1962-63.

Vejtasa died in 2014, but Edwards interviewed him extensively before his death. “Seven at Santa Cruz” provides an intimate look at a man who played a small yet critical role in the Pacific War.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Rave Review: James Michener’s “Hawaii”

One of the few benefits of the (so far) gentle intellectual decline I am experiencing at age 74 is that I can re-read books seemingly de novo. I read “Hawaii” many years ago; I don’t remember in what period of my life that was and recalled virtually nothing of the story as it unfolded this time.

I just came to the end a few minutes ago and am awash with ambivalent feelings consisting of nostalgia, longing, sadness, wonder and more. Michener had an almost “God’s-eye” view of humanity and the ability to set it forth in clear, eminently-readable and inviting prose. I am grieving the end of the story.

Since I was a kid studying history, I have wanted to understand any historical moment through the eyes of those living at the time. This abiding innocent impulse, I believe, has stood me in good stead to withstand today’s  reflex historical revisionism, which insists on judging all peoples from all times by todays “elevated” standards. While “Hawaii” is a novel, Michener is known for his thorough research. I have the strongest sense that his fictional characters are accurate exemplars of people who actually lived, thought, felt and acted in the times portrayed.

In “Hawaii,” those times really do begin at the beginning: Michener describes the birth and death of volcanic islands in the Pacific. He describes the geography of this small chain of islands which become Hawaii and especially the absence of flora and fauna which are absolutely necessary for human existence. Then told is how some Polynesians living on Bora Bora decide to leave as a result of religious strife (to attain power, one group demands fealty by all to a new god – a god which is a 5 inch diameter red rock). Although not emphasized in the story, it does seem that some human traits as to power over others by any means at hand are enduring.

Although these Polynesian adventurers do not know whether their hoped-for destination even exists, they wisely anticipate its barrenness and bring with them the requisite animals and plants. They brought only women capable of bearing children; leader’s wife is left behind because she is thought to be barren. In this fictional tale of a long journey north, the navigator sees a new fixed star come into view on the horizon. By it, he can now judge latitude; such important discoveries – driven by necessity – punctuate much of Michener’s work. This imagined 8th century voyage of a few dozen individuals in a double-hulled sailing canoe with animals and carefully-stored plants succeeds (barely). These, then are the native Hawaiians, whose numbers achieve about 400,000 by the time New England missionaries arrive in the mid 1800’s. By the early 20th century, as a result of disease and hardship, the number of Hawaiians of Polynesian ancestry fell to only about 40,000.

The remainder of this long, complex, yet very readable book describes the lives of the descendants of the Bora Borans, the missionaries and various subsequent immigrants. Described as well is the intentional importation of first Chinese and later Japanese workers needed to work the sugar and later pineapple industries. The history of each of these groups is laid out in depth, also going back many generations, so as to provide profound insight into each culture. Tales of intermarriage, alliances, conflicts, politics and war pervade the complex story. In other words, it describes life on the Hawaiian Islands over a period of about 1200 years. An appendix sets forth – over multiple pages – the genealogy of every family described in the book. Its extent is remarkable.

While the setting is particular to Hawaii, its peoples and history, in my estimation, the lessons of this novel and its well-sculpted characters can be construed more generally. The psychological, interpersonal, cultural, social and political interactions which occur in this fictional parallax view of actual history paint an accurate landscape of human ontology, applicable to most any thread of history, anywhere. Universal human nature, from its basest, through mundane, to its most noble attributes, is on vivid display in this truly epic work.

Having also read Michener’s “The Source,” I find the power of Michener’s writing unparalleled. In examining my own life, I long to both live it rightly in the moment and at the same time to understand the context, meaning and moral import of my thoughts words and actions. Both of these books allowed me to do that for the characters, whose inner and outer lives were made artfully visible. Because the author gave me knowledge of the ethnic, cultural and family histories of the characters, I was able to briefly and intimately “live” their lives through their consciousness and soon afterward (in the course of the book) observe the consequences, meaning and moral calculus of their choices. Would I might be able to do that with my own life!

To see the entire import of having lived from roots to descendants. That is what I mean by a “God’s-eye” view of life – something I deeply long for yet know I can never achieve. Vicariously, then, Michener offers this awesome simulacrum: upon his characters I can conform elements of my own life, my own humanity and try-fit them to the playing out of entire lives portrayed over historic time in this marvelous book.

Setting “Hawaii” down at the end imparts mainly a sense of loss, sadness, at leaving “beloved (though not always admirable) friends” whose lives I feel as though I intimately observed (In real life, I find it a privilege to merely know someone who is willing to honestly reveal his/her true self; this is rare, I find). The sadness also derives from returning to the less clear realm of knowledge of my own life and letting go of any hope that I can know its import over time  – as I could so clearly do for many of the characters in “Hawaii.” Only the greatest authors – like Michener – allow us to briefly imagine we can escape the limited, Earthbound, time bound, knowledge of our own human existence.

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This Week’s Book Review – Shale Boom: The Barnett Shale Play and Fort Worth

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Shale Boom’ an even-handed look at fracking

By MARK LARDAS

July 24, 2018

“Shale Boom: The Barnett Shale Play and Fort Worth,” by Diana Davids Hinton, Texas Christian University Press, 2018, 192 pages, $30

Twenty years ago, the United States was running out of oil and gas. Fracking changed everything. Today, the United States is the world’s largest producer of petroleum products.

“Shale Boom: The Barnett Shale Play and Fort Worth,” by Diana Davids Hinton tells the history of a key part of that transformation. It examines how the Barnett Shale helped trigger the fracking revolution, and explores its consequences.

Hinton puts fracking in its historical context. It was not new. Some form of fracturing was done as early as the 1920s. This included injecting liquids into wells under high pressure — hydraulic fracturing. Hinton reveals what was new. The Barnett Shale is a large but narrow layer of oil bearing rock beneath Fort Worth and the area west of it. Fracking techniques of the 1980s and 1990s meant wells failed to yield economic levels of gas and oil.

George Mitchell owned lease rights in the area. Hinton shows how the Galveston-born Mitchell financed new fracking techniques. The new technology unlocked the Barnett Shale, producing unprecedented levels of natural gas. Directional drilling techniques developed during this century’s first decade multiplied yields.

It kick-started a shale gas boom around Fort Worth. Much of the best yield area was under Fort Worth, complicating things. What followed included some craziness of the type accompanying every oil boom. Hinton traces the action.

Hinton looks at the impact urban drilling had on both drillers and residents. She also examines the bust inevitably following a boom, the backlash against drilling, and the impact of environmental concerns fueled by fear of fracking.

Hinton is refreshingly even-handed. She looks at both the benefits and costs (societal and environmental as well as financial) of drilling and the hydrocarbon industry. She also explores both the benefits and excesses of environmental opposition to fracking. Hinton is unafraid to expose the follies and dodgy activities of individuals in both drilling and the environmental movement.

Hinton closes with an examination of the impacts of fracking — long and short term — around Fort Worth, and its global implications. “Shale Boom” a fascinating and balanced look at what technology revolutions yield.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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Review: Une Fantaisie du Docteur Ox

“Une fantasie du docteur Ox" par Jules Verne (1874)After reading and reviewing Jules Verne’s Hector Servadac last year, I stumbled upon a phenomenal bargain: a Kindle edition of the complete works of Jules Verne—160 titles, with 5400 illustrations—for US$ 2.51 at this writing, published by Arvensa. This is not a cheap public domain knock-off, but a thoroughly professional publication with very few errors. For less than the price of a paperback book, you get just about everything Jules Verne ever wrote in Kindle format which, if you download the free Kindle French dictionary, allows you to quickly look up the obscure terms and jargon of which Verne is so fond without flipping through the Little Bob. That’s how I read this work, although I have cited a print edition in the header for those who prefer such.

The strange story of Doctor Ox would be considered a novella in modern publishing terms, coming in at 19,240 words. It is divided into 17 chapters and is written in much the same style as the author’s Voyages extraordinaires, with his customary huge vocabulary, fondness for lengthy enumerations, and witty parody of the national character of foreigners.

Here, the foreigners in question are the Flemish, speakers of dialects of the Dutch language who live in the northern part of Belgium. The Flemish are known for being phlegmatic, and nowhere is this more in evidence than the small city of Quiquendone. Its 2,393 residents and their ancestors have lived there since the city was founded in 1197, and very little has happened to disturb their placid lives; they like it that way. Its major industries are the manufacture of whipped cream and barley sugar. Its inhabitants are taciturn and, when they speak, do so slowly. For centuries, what little government they require has been provided by generations of the van Tricasse family, son succeeding father as burgomaster. There is little for the burgomaster to do, and one of the few items on his agenda, inherited from his father twenty years ago, is whether the city should dispense with the services of its sole policeman, who hasn’t had anything to do for decades.

Burgomaster van Tricasse exemplifies the moderation in all things of the residents of his city. I cannot resist quoting this quintessentially Jules Verne description in full.

Le bourgmestre était un personnage de cinquante ans, ni gras ni maigre, ni petit ni grand, ni vieux ni jeune, ni coloré ni pâle, ni gai ni triste, ni content ni ennuyé, ni énergique ni mou, ni fier ni humble, ni bon ni méchant, ni généreux ni avare, ni brave ni poltron, ni trop ni trop peu, — ne quid nimis, — un homme modéré en tout ; mais à la lenteur invariable de ses mouvements, à sa mâchoire inférieure un peu pendante, à sa paupière supérieure immuablement relevée, à son front uni comme une plaque de cuivre jaune et sans une ride, à ses muscles peu salliants, un physionomiste eût sans peine reconnu que le bourgomestre van Tricasse était le flegme personnifié.

Imagine how startled this paragon of moderation and peace must have been when the city’s policeman—he whose job has been at risk for decades—pounds on the door and, when admitted, reports that the city’s doctor and lawyer, visiting the house of scientist Doctor Ox, had gotten into an argument. They had been talking politics! Such a thing had not happened in Quiquendone in over a century. Words were exchanged that might lead to a duel!

Who is this Doctor Ox? A recent arrival in Quiquendone, he is a celebrated scientist, considered a leader in the field of physiology. He stands out against the other inhabitants of the city. Of no well-defined nationality, he is a genuine eccentric, self-confident, ambitious, and known even to smile in public. He and his laboratory assistant Gédéon Ygène work on their experiments and never speak of them to others.

Shortly after arriving in Quiquendone, Dr Ox approached the burgomaster and city council with a proposal: to illuminate the city and its buildings, not with the new-fangled electric lights which other cities were adopting, but with a new invention of his own, oxy-hydric gas. Using powerful electric batteries he invented, water would be decomposed into hydrogen and oxygen gas, stored separately, then delivered in parallel pipes to individual taps where they would be combined and burned, producing a light much brighter and pure than electric lights, not to mention conventional gaslights burning natural or manufactured gas. In storage and distribution, hydrogen and oxygen would be strictly segregated, as any mixing prior to the point of use ran the risk of an explosion. Dr Ox offered to pay all of the expenses of building the gas production plant, storage facilities, and installation of the underground pipes and light fixtures in public buildings and private residences. After a demonstration of oxy-hydric lighting, city fathers gave the go-ahead for the installation, presuming Dr Ox was willing to assume all the costs in order to demonstrate his invention to other potential customers.

Over succeeding days and weeks, things before unimagined, indeed, unimaginable begin to occur. On a visit to Dr Ox, the burgomaster himself and his best friend city council president Niklausse find themselves in—dare it be said—a political argument. At the opera house, where musicians and singers usually so moderate the tempo that works are performed over multiple days, one act per night, a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Hugenots becomes frenetic and incites the audience to what can only be described as a riot. A ball at the house of the banker becomes a whirlwind of sound and motion. And yet, each time, after people go home, they return to normal and find it difficult to believe what they did the night before.

Over time, the phenomenon, at first only seen in large public gatherings, begins to spread into individual homes and private lives. You would think the placid Flemish had been transformed into the hotter tempered denizens of countries to the south. Twenty newspapers spring up, each advocating its own radical agenda. Even plants start growing to enormous size, and cats and dogs, previously as reserved as their masters, begin to bare fangs and claws. Finally, a mass movement rises to avenge the honour of Quiquendone for an injury committed in the year 1185 by a cow from the neighbouring town of Virgamen.

What was happening? Whence the madness? What would be the result when the citizens of Quiquendone, armed with everything they could lay their hands on, marched upon their neighbours?

This is a classic “puzzle story”, seasoned with a mad scientist of whom the author allows us occasional candid glimpses as the story unfolds. You’ll probably solve the puzzle yourself long before the big reveal at the end. Jules Verne, always anticipating the future, foresaw this: the penultimate chapter is titled (my translation), “Where the intelligent reader sees that he guessed correctly, despite every precaution by the author”. The enjoyment here is not so much the puzzle but rather Verne’s language and delicious description of characters and events, which are up to the standard of his better-known works.

This is “minor Verne”, written originally for a public reading and then published in a newspaper in Amiens, his adopted home. Many believed that in Quiquendone he was satirising Amiens and his placid neighbours.

Doctor Ox would reappear in the work of Jules Verne in his 1882 play Voyage à travers l’impossible (Journey Through the Impossible), a work which, after 97 performances in Paris, was believed lost until a single handwritten manuscript was found in 1978. Dr Ox reprises his role as mad scientist, joining other characters from Verne’s novels on their own extraordinary voyages. After that work, Doctor Ox disappears from the world. But when I regard the frenzied serial madness loose today, from “bathroom equality”, tearing down Civil War monuments, masked “Antifa” blackshirts beating up people in the streets, the “refugee” racket, and Russians under every bed, I sometimes wonder if he’s taken up residence in today’s United States.

An English translation is available. Verne’s reputation has often suffered due to poor English translations of his work; I have not read this edition and don’t know how good it is. Warning: the description of this book at Amazon contains a huge spoiler for the central puzzle of the story.

Verne, Jules. Une Fantaisie du Docteur Ox. Seattle: CreateSpace, [1874] 2017. ISBN 978-1-5470-6408-3.


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Book Review: Sanity

“Sanity” by Neovictorian [pseud.]Have you sometimes felt, since an early age, that you were an alien, somehow placed on Earth and observing the antics of humans as if they were a different species? Why do they believe such stupid things? Why do they do such dumb things? Any why do they keep doing them over and over again seemingly incapable of learning from the bad outcomes of all the previous attempts?

That is how Cal Adler felt since childhood and, like most people with such feelings, kept them quiet and bottled up while trying to get ahead in a game whose rules often seemed absurd. In his senior year in high school, he encounters a substitute guidance counsellor who tells him, without any preliminary conversation, precisely how he feels. He’s assured he is not alone, and that over time he will meet others. He is given an enigmatic contact in case of emergency. He is advised, as any alien in a strange land, to blend in while observing and developing his own talents. And that’s the last he sees of the counsellor.

Cal’s subsequent life is punctuated by singular events: a terrorist incident in which he spontaneously rises to the occasion, encountering extraordinary people, and being initiated into skills he never imagined he’d possess. He begins to put together a picture of a shadowy…something…of which he may or may not be a part, whose goals are unclear, but whose people are extraordinary.

Meanwhile, a pop religion called ReHumanism, founded by a science fiction writer, is gaining adherents among prominent figures in business, entertainment, and technology. Its “scriptures” advocate escape from the tragic cycle of progress and collapse which has characterised the human experience by turning away from the artificial environment in which we have immersed ourselves and rediscovering our inherent human nature which may, to many in the modern world, seem alien. Is there a connection between ReHumanism (which seems like a flaky scam to Cal) and the mysterious people he is encountering?

All of these threads begin to come together when Cal, working as a private investigator in Reno, Nevada, is retained by the daughter of a recently-deceased billionaire industrialist to find her mother, who has disappeared during a tourist visit to Alaska. The mother is revealed have become a convert to and supporter of ReHumanism. Are they involved? And how did the daughter find Cal, who, after previous events, has achieved a level of low observability stealth aircraft designers can only dream of?

An adventure begins in which nothing is as it seems and all of Cal’s formidable talents are tested to their limits.

This is an engaging and provocative mystery/thriller which will resonate with those who identify with the kind of heroic, independent, and inner-directed characters that populate the fiction of Robert A. Heinlein and other writers of the golden age of science fiction. It speaks directly to those sworn to chart their own course through life regardless of what others may think or say. I’m not sure the shadowy organisation we glimpse here actually exists, but I wish it did…and I wish they’d contacted me. There are many tips of the hat here to works and authors of fiction with similar themes, and I’m sure many more I missed.

This is an example of the efflorescence of independent science fiction which the obsolescence of the traditional gatekeeper publishers has engendered. With the advent of low-cost, high-margin self-publishing and customer reviews and ratings to evaluate quality, an entire new cohort of authors whose work would never before have seen the light of day is now enriching the genre and the lives of their enthusiastic readers. The work is not free of typographical and grammatical errors, but I’ve read books from major science fiction publishers with more. The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Neovictorian [pseud.] and Neal Van Wahr. Sanity. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, [2017] 2018. ISBN 978-1-980820-95-6.


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This Week’s Book Review – Blue Collar Space

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Everyday jobs turn wondrous in ‘Blue Collar Space’

By MARK LARDAS

July 18, 2018

“Blue Collar Space,” by Martin Shoemaker, Old Town Books, 2018, 244 pages, $11.99

What will it be like when humans are living and working in space? Ordinary folk, like those who live down your street?

“Blue Collar Space,” by Martin Shoemaker offers one vision. It is a collection of short science fiction stories set on the moon and Mars, and Jupiter orbit.

The settings are exotic. The jobs are ordinary. EMTs, sanitation workers, teachers, doctors, factory workers and miners feature in these stories. A few stories fall into the category of space adventure. “Not Close Enough” deals with a first manned mission to Mars — sort of a first manned mission to Mars. The explorers from NASA, ESA, Roscosmos, JAXA, and space agencies from India, Australia and China are not allowed closer to Mars’ surface than Martian orbit. There is a sort of spy adventure in the short story “Black Orbit,” with smugglers and secret agents.

Yet most deal with life and work of an everyday sort; dirty jobs in a space setting. A rescue team is sent to assist crash survivors in “Scramble.” A young girl must find help for her injured father — on the surface of the moon — in “Father-Daughter Outing.” The complexities of running a sanitation system on a lunar city gets explored in “The Night We Flushed the Old Town.” A children’s survival class instructor on Mars has to figure out how to fix things when something goes wrong in “Snack Break.” A moon prospector grapples with the discovery that starring in a moon-based kiddie show really is significant in “A Sense of Wonder.”

It is not dull. Shoemaker shows the adventure in doing things that on Earth are ordinary when they must be done in a hostile environment like space. Being on a spaceship, a space station, or surface of the moon and Mars changes things. He writes with a crisp and engaging style that draws readers into the tale. The result is fascinating reading.

“Blue Collar Space” captures what life will really be like when we finally get off Earth and move into space. It will be commonplace, yet at the same time it will be wonder filled.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – The Presidents and the Pastime

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Presidents and the Pastime’ perfect summer read

By MARK LARDAS

July 11, 2018

“The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House,” by Curt Smith, University of Nebraska Press, 2018, 504 pages, $29.95

There is nothing so All-American as baseball, except maybe U.S. Presidents. Or maybe it is the other way around.

With “The Presidents and the Pastime: The History of Baseball and the White House,” by Curt Smith, it does not matter. He combines the two to examine how baseball and the presidency have interacted through the life of the republic.

It seems all presidents had some relationship with the game. Washington played a version of stickball. His troops played “rounders” at Valley Forge, and the general played catch with an aide. Smith takes a brief look at baseball’s development into today’s modern game, but his book really takes off with the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, who was in office when the major leagues took their familiar shape. From Roosevelt on, Smith spends a chapter on each president’s relationship with the game, from Taft to Trump.

Some presidents, including Taft, Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt were enthusiasts. No president was a bigger baseball fan than Nixon. He was asked to head the players’ union and to serve as baseball commissioner before becoming president. Some presidents, both Bushes, and Trump, played the game in college. Trump was scouted by the Red Sox.

Teddy Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson were indifferent or hostile to the game but affected warmth for baseball for political reasons. Roosevelt considered it a mollycoddle game. The only game that interested Johnson was politics. A few, notably Jimmy Carter, preferred softball to baseball.

Smith traces the rise and decline of professional baseball as America’s pastime and its rivalry with professional football. Baseball was at its apogee in the middle of the 20th century, the 1950s, when Truman and Eisenhower were president. Since the 1960s it has been supplanted by pro football. Smith, an unabashed baseball partisan, yearns for the days when “the NFL rivaled pro wrestling — except that wrestling had a niche.”

“The Presidents and the Pastime” is a sunny book and a perfect summer read. While acknowledging faults, Smith focuses on the good in baseball, and the presidents covered regardless of party. In today’s hyper-partisan environment, it is a refreshing break.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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This Week’s Book Review – Persian Gulf Command

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

‘Persian Gulf Command’ shows WWII roots of state turmoil

By MARK LARDAS

July 3, 2018

“Persian Gulf Command: A History of the Second World War in Iran and Iraq,” by Ashley Jackson, Yale University Press, 2018, 432 pages, $30

The 1990 Gulf War was not the first time the United States and Great Britain intervened militarily in the Persian Gulf region. Both fought there during World War II.

“Persian Gulf Command: A History of the Second World War in Iran and Iraq,” by Ashley Jackson, tells the story of that often overlooked and frequently forgotten intervention.

Iran and Iraq were one of Britain’s most important sources of petroleum during World War II. They were also strategically located, linking Britain to India (then the jewel of Britain’s imperial crown), and providinga route to the Soviet Union. Iraq was a British protectorate; Iran independent.

Although neutral when World War II began, both were also, as Jackson shows, pro-Nazi. Persia took the name Iran to highlight their Aryan roots. Jackson shows the consequences of this combination the indigenous populations’ fascist sympathies with their nations’ significance to the Allies.

Jackson covers the entire war, from 1939 through 1945. Despite its strategic significance, in the opening stages of World War II, Britain could devote few military resources to Iran and Iraq. After British reverses in 1940, it had few reinforcements available. What few spare military forces Britain had were needed elsewhere.

The opening chapters show the results. A civil war erupted in Iraq, with pro-Nazi forces attempting to overthrow the British-friendly government. Britain and Germany both assembled scratch forces to support their side in that war. Germany sent aircraft. Britain rushed troops and aircraft from Africa and India. Jackson describes how Britain won that race.

He goes on to show how Germany’s invasion of Russia changed the Soviets from a threat to an ally, albeit one dangerous to Britain’s Persian Gulf interests. He shows how Britain and Russia took over the Iranian oilfields, and later, after the United States entered the war, turned Iran into a major conduit to bring supplies to the Soviet Union.

This book is filled with delicate diplomacy and tantalizing “what-ifs.” “Persian Gulf Command” shows how the roots of the turmoil in the Persian Gulf region in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries had its roots in World War II.

 Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.


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