This Week’s Book Review – Code Name: Lise

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

“Code Name: Lise” reads like a thriller and a romance, yet is solid history

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 9, 2019

“Code Name: Lise, The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy,” by Larry Loftis, Gallery Books, 2019, 385 pages, $27

On July 16, 1940, Winston Churchill began an effort to “set Europe ablaze,” creating the Special Operations Executive to strike at Nazi Germany from within Occupied Europe — the nations conquered by Germany. One of the agents recruited to infiltrate into France was Odette Sampson, a married mother of three.

“Code Name: Lise, The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy,” by Larry Loftis tells her story.

Sampson was born in France, but had moved to Britain between World War I and II after marrying an Englishman. She wanted to do her bit for Britain after France fell in June 1940, and offered her services. She thought she could be useful as a translator. Instead, as Loftis shows, the SOE saw her as a perfect agent to infiltrate into occupied France. They convinced her to do so, leaving her children with relatives in Britain.

Assigned to the SPINDLE network, she served in Southern France, then run by the German-friendly Vichy government. She was a courier, carrying messages, money, and munitions to other agents. Women could move more freely than men.

She proved competent, gaining the trust and admiration of the network’s leader, Peter Churchill. Danger brought the two together. Their relationship passed from admiration to love, although neither acted on their inclinations while active agents.

In turn, the SPINDLE network was being tracked by Hugo Bleicher, a sergeant in the Geheime Feldpolitzei. He proved outstanding at counterespionage, successfully turning one SPINDLE agent and rolling up the network. He captured Sampson and Churchill as they attempted to escape to Switzerland.

When captured, Sampson claimed she was married to Churchill and that he was related to the British Prime Minister. Both claims were false. The Germans believed it, and ultimately it kept the two from being executed due to their “hostage” value. They also were sheltered and fostered by Bleicher, an oddly humane counterspy.

Loftis follows the story from its origins through the end of the lives of the participants, well after the war’s end. “Code Name: Lise” reads like a thriller and a romance, yet is solid history.

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

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Book Review: The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation

“The Powers of the Earth”, by Travis J. I. Corcoran(Note: This is novel is the first of an envisioned four volume series titled Aristillus. It and the second book, Causes of Separation, published in May, 2018, together tell a single story which reaches a decisive moment just as the first book ends. Unusually, this will be a review of both novels, taken as a whole. If you like this kind of story at all, there’s no way you’ll not immediately plunge into the second book after setting down the first.)

Around the year 2050, collectivists were firmly in power everywhere on Earth. Nations were subordinated to the United Nations, whose force of Peace Keepers (PKs) had absorbed all but elite special forces, and were known for being simultaneously brutal, corrupt, and incompetent. (Due to the equality laws, military units had to contain a quota of “Alternatively Abled Soldiers” who other troops had to wheel into combat.) The United States still existed as a country, but after decades of rule by two factions of the Democrat party: Populist and Internationalist, was mired in stagnation, bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, and on the verge of bankruptcy. The U.S. President, Themba Johnson, a former talk show host who combined cluelessness, a volatile temper, and vulpine cunning when it came to manipulating public opinion, is confronted with all of these problems and looking for a masterstroke to get beyond the next election.

Around 2050, when the collectivists entered the inevitable end game their policies lead to everywhere they are tried, with the Bureau of Sustainable Research (BuSuR) suppressing new technologies in every field and the Construction Jobs Preservation Act and Bureau of Industrial Planning banning anything which might increase productivity, a final grasp to loot the remaining seed corn resulted in the CEO Trials aimed at the few remaining successful companies, with expropriation of their assets and imprisonment of their leaders. CEO Mike Martin manages to escape from prison and link up with renegade physicist Ponnala (“Ponzie”) Srinivas, inventor of an anti-gravity drive he doesn’t want the slavers to control. Mike buys a rustbucket oceangoing cargo ship, equips it with the drive, an airtight compartment and life support, and flees Earth with a cargo of tunnel boring machines and water to exile on the Moon, in the crater Aristillus in Mare Imbrium on the lunar near side where, fortuitously, the impact of a metal-rich asteroid millions of years ago enriched the sub-surface with metals rare in the Moon’s crust.

Let me say a few words about the anti-gravity drive, which is very unusual and original, and whose properties play a significant role in the story. The drive works by coupling to the gravitational field of a massive body and then pushing against it, expending energy as it rises and gains gravitational potential energy. Momentum is conserved, as an equal and opposite force is exerted on the massive body against which it is pushing. The force vector is always along the line connecting the centre of mass of the massive body and the drive unit, directed away from the centre of mass. The force is proportional to the strength of the gravitational field in which the drive is operating, and hence stronger when pushing against a body like Earth as opposed to a less massive one like the Moon. The drive’s force diminishes with distance from the massive body as its gravitational field falls off with the inverse square law, and hence the drive generates essentially no force when in empty space far from a gravitating body. When used to brake a descent toward a massive body, the drive converts gravitational potential energy into electricity like the regenerative braking system of an electric vehicle: energy which can be stored for use when later leaving the body.

“Causes of Separation” by Travis J. I. CorcoranBecause the drive can only push outward radially, when used to, say, launch from the Earth to the Moon, it is much like Jules Verne’s giant cannon—the launch must occur at the latitude and longitude on Earth where the Moon will be directly overhead at the time the ship arrives at the Moon. In practice, the converted ships also carried auxiliary chemical rockets and reaction control thrusters for trajectory corrections and precision maneuvering which could not be accomplished with the anti-gravity drive.

By 2064, the lunar settlement, called Aristillus by its inhabitants, was thriving, with more than a hundred thousand residents, and growing at almost twenty percent a year. (Well, nobody knew for sure, because from the start the outlook shared by the settlers was aligned with Mike Martin’s anarcho-capitalist worldview. There was no government, no taxes, no ID cards, no business licenses, no regulations, no zoning [except covenants imposed by property owners on those who sub-leased property from them], no central bank, no paper money [an entrepreneur had found a vein of gold left by the ancient impactor and gone into business providing hard currency], no elections, no politicians, no forms to fill out, no police, and no army.) Some of these “features” of life on grey, regimented Earth were provided by private firms, while many of the others were found to be unnecessary altogether.

The community prospered as it grew. Like many frontier settlements, labour was in chronic short supply, and even augmented by robot rovers and machines (free of the yoke of BuSuR), there was work for anybody who wanted it and job offers awaiting new arrivals. A fleet of privately operated ships maintained a clandestine trade with Earth, bringing goods which couldn’t yet be produced on the Moon, atmosphere, water from the oceans (in converted tanker ships), and new immigrants who had sold their Earthly goods and quit the slave planet. Waves of immigrants from blood-soaked Nigeria and chaotic China established their own communities and neighbourhoods in the ever-growing network of tunnels beneath Aristillus.

The Moon has not just become a refuge for humans. When BuSuR put its boot on the neck of technology, it ordered the shutdown of a project to genetically “uplift” dogs to human intelligence and beyond, creating “Dogs” (the capital letter denoting the uplift) and all existing Dogs to be euthanised. Many were, but John (we never learn his last name), a former U.S. Special Forces operator, manages to rescue a colony of Dogs from one of the labs before the killers arrive and escape with them to Aristillus, where they have set up the Den and engage in their own priorities, including role-playing games, software development, and trading on the betting markets. Also rescued by John was Gamma, the first Artificial General Intelligence to be created, whose intelligence is above the human level but not (yet, anyway) intelligence runaway singularity-level transcendent. Gamma has established itself in its own facility in Sinus Lunicus on the other side of Mare Imbrium, and has little contact with the human or Dog settlers.

Inevitably, liberty produces prosperity, and prosperity eventually causes slavers to regard the free with envious eyes, and slowly and surely draw their plans against them.

This is the story of the first interplanetary conflict, and a rousing tale of liberty versus tyranny, frontier innovation against collectivised incompetence, and principles (there is even the intervention of a Vatican diplomat) confronting brutal expedience. There are delicious side-stories about the creation of fake news, scheming politicians, would-be politicians in a libertarian paradise, open source technology, treachery, redemption, and heroism. How do three distinct species: human, Dog, and AI work together without a top-down structure or subordinating one to another? Can the lunar colony protect itself without becoming what its settlers left Earth to escape?

Woven into the story is a look at how a libertarian society works (and sometimes doesn’t work) in practice. Aristillus is in no sense a utopia: it has plenty of rough edges and things to criticise. But people there are free, and they prefer it to the prison planet they escaped.

This is a wonderful, sprawling, action-packed story with interesting characters, complicated conflicts, and realistic treatment of what a small colony faces when confronted by a hostile planet of nine billion slaves. Think of this as Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress done better. There are generous tips of the hat to Heinlein and other science fiction in the book, but this is a very different story with an entirely different outcome, and truer to the principles of individualism and liberty. I devoured these books and give them my highest recommendation.  The Powers of the Earth won the 2018 Prometheus Award for best libertarian science fiction novel.

Corcoran, Travis J. I. The Powers of the Earth. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-1-9733-1114-0.
Corcoran, Travis J. I. Causes of Separation. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-1-9804-3744-4.

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This Week’s Book Review – Houston: Space City, USA

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

‘Houston: Space City’ combines history, science and culture

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 2, 2019

“Houston: Space City, USA,” by Ray Viator, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 224 pages, $37

Houston and America’s manned space program are inescapably intertwined. The Manned Spaceflight Center (today’s Johnson Space Center), which runs all of NASA manned missions, is in Houston. The first word broadcast by a human from another planet was “Houston.” The city gives major sports teams space-related names like Astros and Rockets.

“Houston: Space City, USA,” by Ray Viator, explores that connection in an extended photo-essay. It arrives just in time for the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing.

Viator, a long-time Houston media figure, combines history, science and culture. He starts out by looking at the history of NASA in Houston, focusing on the Apollo 11 moon landing. He goes well beyond that, however. Subsequent sections look at the impact hosting the Johnson Space Center has had on the city of Houston and its environs.

His exploration of space’s impact on Houston isn’t limited to rocket-related activities. He explores the impact of space on Houston’s research communities — institutions of higher education, medical research, and the whole spectrum of science research. He also looks at the impact the Johnson Space Center has had on Houston’s art community and its culture. He shows how Houston has embraced the concept of being Space City into its music, its architecture, and its visual arts.

He underscores his thesis with an eye-popping array of photographs. Many are his own. Some, especially when historical images are needed, come from a variety of other sources including NASA, the Houston Public Library archives or other local photographers.

The book mixes wonder with whimsy. Photographs showing the latest-greatest space technology, prominent figures in space history, reverential monuments and buildings significant to Houston’s space history are placed in proximity to space-themed Lego constructions, larger-than-life space-suited manikins selling stuff, or humorous space-themed murals. Viator also makes use of every opportunity to photograph the moon in proximity to some Houston activity.

Viator wanted to recapture the wonder of the 1960s space program and the sheer amount of fun space has provided Houston and Houston residents over the last 50 years. “Houston: Space City, USA” succeeds admirably in achieving that goal.

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 – Gray Day

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

‘Gray Day’ details uncovering a cyber spy

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 25, 2019

“Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy,” by Eric O’Neill, Crown, 304 pages, 2019, $27

In 2000, FBI agent Eric O’Neill’s career was in eclipse. He had married a German foreign national. She was from the former East Germany and viewed as a potential security risk. Germany might have reunified and the Soviet Union gone, but Russia was still there. Because of that he got tapped for the biggest case of his career.

“Gray Day: My Undercover Mission to Expose America’s First Cyber Spy,” by Eric O’Neill recounts what happens next.

Robert Hanssen was selling secrets to Russia and earlier the Soviet Union. The FBI needed to prove this beyond a reasonable doubt. They wanted him in prison. He had been betraying the United States for decades and his revelations had led to the execution of several spies working for the United States. He was going to retire in April 2001.

The FBI set a trap for Hanssen. They put him in charge of a new FBI cybersecurity group, offering Hanssen a new batch of secrets to sell. They wanted O’Neill to be his deputy, to spy on Hanssen. O’Neill agreed.

The book follows the effort to trap Hanssen, as seen through the eyes of O’Neill. Despite Hanssen’s new posting being an FBI deception, as O’Neill shows, it filled a desperate need. The FBI entered the 21st century with its computer technology mired in the early 1980s and organizational attitudes toward computers from the 1960s. Hanssen’s spying exploited that.

“Gray Day” (Hanssen’s code name in the investigation) shows O’Neill cope with the pressure of juggling an abusive boss (Hanssen), keeping up with his schoolwork (O’Neill was a law student) and keeping his marriage intact — while secretly investigating his boss.

The book reads like a John Le Carre spy novel, but the events happened. Some names are disguised. O’Neill walks readers through the methods the FBI used to weave a net around Hanssen, including success and failures. He also shows the personal cost to him. His marriage started unravelling due to the pressures of the investigation.

“Gray Day” is a book that keeps readers on the edge of their seat, and contains an important message about data security.

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 – Today I am Carey

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

‘Today I Am Carey’ rare thought-provoking novel

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 19, 2019

“Today I am Carey,” by Martin L. Shoemaker, Baen, 2019, 336 pages, $16

What defines life? What’s the difference between something truly alive and something which is a clever simulation of life?

“Today I am Carey,” is a science fiction novel by Martin L. Shoemaker. It examines those questions.

Medical Care Android BRKCX-01932-217JH-98662, created by MCA laboratories, is a caretaker robot. Leased by the family of Mildred Owens, who suffers from Alzheimer’s, its job is to comfort Mildred, look after her, provide her with companionship, and help her with her needs. It has the capability to physically emulate different members of her family: her late husband Henry, her son Paul and his wife Susan, her granddaughter Anna, and the various human nurses who care for Mildred.

BRKCX-01932-217JH-98662 has become self-aware, and has begun wondering what that means. It’s a sophisticated android with the latest neural networks and sensory feedback systems, and has developed consciousness.

Its developers realize something special has happened. The designer, Dr. Zinta Jansons begins exploring the implications, as the android continues caring for Mildred. When she finally dies, it has become part of the family. The Owens family purchases the android, purportedly to look after their daughter Millie, but in reality because they cannot part with it. The android is quickly named Carey, and ceases to emulate people.

The book follows Carey and the Owens family through the years in a series of short chapters, all presented through the point of view of Carey. Both family members and Carey mature. His primary charge becomes an adult, eventually with children of her own. Carey discovers he must redefine his existence and purpose over time. He experiments by taking a job. He travels and learns more about the world. Eventually, he discovers that being alive means making hard choices, including whether to live or die.

“Today I am Carey” is a rare novel. While entertaining, it goes beyond simple entertainment. Shoemaker examines the question of what it means to be alive. Despite being written about a robot, the book is about people and the meaning of individuality. Lyrically written using simple language, this story will leave readers pondering its implications.

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 Great Escape from Stalag Luft III: The memoir of Jens Müller

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 Great Escape’ is history’s most famous prison break

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 12, 2019

“The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III: The memoir of Jens Müller,” by Jens Müller, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 192 pages, $32.95

The Great Escape is probably history’s most famous jailbreak. In 1944, 76 men tunneled out of a German prisoner of war (POW) camp. The escape has been discussed in many books, starting with escape participant Paul Brickhill’s 1950 book “The Great Escape.” It was also the subject of a 1963 movie.

“The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III: The memoir of Jens Müller,” by Jens Müller, is a first-person account of the escape by one of three men who successfully reached Allied lines during the escape.

The book covers more than the escape. It’s Müller’s story of life as a POW, starting with the flight when he was shot down through his return to Great Britain. Müller was Norwegian, studying engineering in Switzerland when World War II started in 1939. After the 1940 German invasion of Norway, Müller left school to join the Norwegian forces in exile.

He became a Spitfire pilot serving in a Royal Air Force Norwegian squadron. After escaping, he served as a flight instructor in Canada. Following World War II, he became an airline pilot for Norway’s national airline.

His account is brief and straightforward, told in the words of a man who spoke plainly. He writes with a matter-of-fact tone throughout the book, even when describing startling events. He describes a three-day ordeal in a life-raft in taciturn words, and downplays his risks during the escape (50 of the 73 men recaptured were shot by the Gestapo, including almost all non-British escapees).

He wrote these memoirs in 1946 in Norwegian. It was published as Tre Kom Tilbake (Three Returned), but the book and Müller were largely forgotten over the next seven decades. This is the first English translation of the book. It includes a foreword by Müller’s son, and is annotated by editor Asgeir Ueland. The annotations provide information a modern reader might not know and information available today, which was unknown to Müller.

“The Great Escape from Stalag Luft III” offers a fascinating look at the 1940s, recapturing the feel of both the war and postwar era. A brief read; it is interesting.

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 – Unnatural Texas? The Invasive Species Dilemma

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

‘Unnatural Texas’ is testimony to the law of unintended consequences

By MARK LARDAS

Mar 5, 2019

“Unnatural Texas? The Invasive Species Dilemma,” by Robert W. Doughtry and Matt Warnock Turner, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 272 pages, $32

Texas has many species not native to Texas. Some, like the longhorn, are a positive part of Texas’s heritage. Others? Maybe not so much.

“Unnatural Texas? The Invasive Species Dilemma,” by Robert W. Doughtry and Matt Warnock Turner, examine the impact of some of these less welcome imports.

The book looks at around a dozen widespread nuisance species in Texas. Examples include birds, aquatic plants, mammals, land based plants, and insects, all with negative impacts. Some may surprise you.

There’s a chapter on sparrows and starlings. Non-native birds, they were imported from England to eat urban insects and introduce animals mentioned in Shakespeare. Instead they went after farmers’ crops and are crowding out native species.

Water hyacinth and hydrilla take up another chapter. The authors examine their negative impact on southern waterways and the difficulties of eradicating them. Yet in Florida, water hyacinths provide food for endangered manatee, making eliminating them an issue.

There are separate chapters on Chinese Tallow and Tamarisk, two species introduced to improve the landscape, which ultimately had undesired impact. Chinese tallow are destroying Texas’s coastal prairie.

One chapter is devoted to feral cats, and a second to feral hogs. Each provides a menace to native species; cats in urban areas, hogs in the countryside and suburbs. Cats kill birds, while hogs will hunt people. Fire ants are the focus of another chapter.

The authors examine means of controlling invasive species. It’s tricky. Biological controls work best, but (as with carp to control water hyacinths) could themselves become invasive species.

“Unnatural Texas” is testimony to the law of unintended consequences. These nuisance species were introduced with the best of intentions. Sometimes, as with the concept of importing every species mentioned in Shakespeare to North America the intention was crackpot. The book closes by illustrating the conflicting nature imported species with the monk parakeet. Endangered in its native habitat, it adds color to Texas cities, while posing a nuisance by nesting in transmission towers.

“Unnatural Texas” provides food for thought on a complex topic. The authors show that frequently no simple answers exist for environmental problems.

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 – Class Dismissed: Why College Isn’t the Answer

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

‘Class Dismissed’ argues college isn’t the only answer

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 19, 2019

“Class Dismissed: Why College Isn’t the Answer,” by Nick Adams, Post Hill Press, 2019, 192 pages, $25

Is a four-year college degree the minimum requirement for a successful life? It comes with a price tag in excess of $50,000.

“Class Dismissed: Why College Isn’t the Answer,” by Nick Adams argues college may not be the best road to success. Instead, for many it may prove a four-year detour to a successful career.

Adams doesn’t argue college is never the answer. He argues it’s not the only answer. For many, skipping college and getting on with life may be a better solution. Sometimes going straight to a four-year college out of high school sets up someone for a lifetime of failure.

Adams opens the book explaining why he believes college is a poor choice for many, using his own life and the lives of his childhood friends as examples. He grew up in Australia, which is more status-conscious than the United States, and was from a station where a four-year degree is expected.

Adams has a four-year degree. He enjoyed college, but found it a four-year coast. College didn’t contribute to his becoming the youngest city councilman in Sydney, Australia. He was in college when elected. By contrasts, his childhood friend Alan bucked expectations and became a plumber instead of going to college. By the time Adams graduated Alan was running 10 plumbing trucks and earning over $100,000 annually.

Additionally, college today is extremely expensive. It shelters students from reality (for fear of “triggering” them). It is also increasingly about politically-correct indoctrination rather than education.

Adams argues more people could follow Alan’s path. He has a chapter listing extremely successful people who never attended or finished college. The list includes Paul Allen, James Cameron, Michael Dell, Ted Turner, and Anna Wintour.

He discusses paths to career success that avoid college. He devotes nearly half the book listing careers attainable though trade schools or community college certifications. Each entry outlines the career, the preparation, and salary expectations.

“Class Dismissed” is short; only 40,000 words. It provides a cogent argument, and offers solid advice. Anyone unsure whether college is for them should read it.

 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 – Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper

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

‘Lady Death’ the story of a successful sniper

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 12, 2019

“Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper,” by Lyudmila Pavlichenko, Greenhill Books, 2018, 272 pages, $32.95

Lyudmila Pavlichenko was the Soviet Army’s most successful female sniper during World War II. A fourth-year history student when Hitler invaded Russia, she quit school to enlist as a sniper. In 1941 and 1942 she racked up 309 kills.

“Lady Death: The Memoirs of Stalin’s Sniper,” by Lyudmila Pavlichenko, is an English translation of her memoirs. She died in 1974, leaving a manuscript copy of her memoirs, which remained unpublished until this century.

In it she recounts her life, with a primary emphasis on her wartime experiences. She shows how she became an expert marksman before the war, joining shooting teams at work and in school, becoming fascinated with both the machinery of the rifle and the art of shooting.

She put those skills to good use when Russia was invaded. Enlisting as a private, she served as a sniper in the 25th Rifle Division. She recounts her experiences during the summer of 1941 through the spring of 1942. She fought at the sieges of Odessa and Sevastopol, was wounded several times, promoted to lieutenant (and command of a sniper platoon), married a husband and saw him die in combat. These experiences are described in the chapters covering her combat career.

Wounded near the end of the latter siege, she was evacuated before Sevastopol fell. She had become famous, the subject of several published Soviet “histories” she states invented exploits for dramatic purposes.

Against her objections (she had a husband to avenge) she was sent to the United States on Stalin’s orders as a Soviet student representative to an international youth conference. There she met and was befriended by Eleanor Roosevelt. This is as fascinating an account as her combat recollections. The United States, Canada, and Britain were environments to which she had never been exposed.

Pavlichenko was an unapologetic communist, who grew up a privileged member of the nomenclature, the Soviet elite. This colors her history of events. She mentions Hitler invading Poland, but fails to mention the Soviets aided Hitler.

Regardless, “Lady Death,” is fascinating, and Pavlichenko’s beliefs don’t change her real accomplishments. This is a book worth reading.

 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 – Stanley Marcus

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

‘Stanley Marcus’ highly entertaining and informative

By MARK LARDAS

Feb 5, 2019

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, State House Press, 2018, 280 pages,$19.95

Neiman Marcus is Texas’ signature department store. It was the first place where Texas and high fashion converged. It remained the Texas arbiter of fashion throughout the 20th century.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince,” by Thomas E. Alexander, is a biography of the man who turned Neiman Marcus into the aristocrat of department stores.

Stanley Marcus did not found Neiman Marcus. His father and uncle did. They, along with Stanley’s aunt, made Neiman Marcus into Dallas’s leading store. Herbert Marcus’ salesmanship and insistence on customer satisfaction, Carrie Neiman’s (nee Marcus) fashion sense and Al Neiman’s shrewd management of expenses proved a perfect fit for a Dallas growing wealthy through then-new oil money. The new-money rich could go to Neiman Marcus, get dressed right without feeling condescended to.

Stanley Marcus became the prince inheriting this kingdom because he was Herbert’s oldest son (Al and Carrie had none). That was how family businesses ran back then. But, as in a fairy tale, he had a magic touch when it came to retailing luxury goods.

Alexander’s biography shows how Stanley Marcus transformed Neiman Marcus from Dallas’ leading department store to an American fashion icon. Alexander shows how in the 1930s Marcus managed to make Dallas a fashion center by a combination of fashion sense, marketing and exclusivity. Neiman Marcus was the first fashion store outside of New York City advertising nationally, creating a national identity.

The book is told from an insider’s perspective. Alexander became Neiman Marcus’ sales promotion director in 1970. He worked directly with Stanley Marcus for decades, becoming close friends with Marcus. Alexander’s accounts of the store’s fashion “fortnights” (two- and later three-week marketing extravaganzas focusing on fashions of a country) are often personal recollections. He recounts the successes, failures and challenges met. A similar approach frames his accounts of the company’s expansion to other cities.

“Stanley Marcus: The Relentless Reign of a Merchant Prince” is a book praising a respected friend who has passed. It’s also a highly entertaining and informative look at a great store and the man most responsible for its greatness.

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 – Arkad’s World

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

“Arkad’s World” is like a curio museum

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 29, 2019

“Arkad’s World,” by James L. Cambias, Baen, 2019, 304 pages, $24

Arkad is the only human on the distant planet of Syavusa. In his mid-teens, he makes a rough existence on the streets of the town of Ayaviz.

This is “Arkad’s World,” a science fiction novel by James L. Cambias.

He has lived on the streets almost as long as he can remember; ever since his mother died when he was a child. His possessions comprise of a blanket he wears, a knife, a data unit retained from his youth, and whatever else he can carry. Then Arkad’s existence suddenly changes.

Three other humans arrive in Ayaviz. Arkad seeks them out. Maybe they will take him to other humans.

They seek Rosetta, a spaceship that left Earth just before the planet was conquered by the Elmisthorn. They’re now domesticating its remaining human inhabitants. Rosetta contains the cultural treasures of Earth, spirited away to preserve them.

Arkad had memories of Rosetta, from when he was a youth. He offers to guide the three humans there. His price is a ticket off Syavusa. The problems are that Rosetta is literally halfway around the world, and Arkad doesn’t remember exactly where it is. Or really even sort of where it is. He doesn’t tell the other humans that.

The four set out to find the spaceship. Their trip becomes an epic worthy of Marco Polo. Syavusa is an odd world, one that doesn’t fit the template of any other inhabited planet. It’s peopled by a weird assemblage of different sentient races. Moreover, those on the planet are the cranks and misfits of their own societies. The planet is like a curio museum.

It has no central government; only individual local societies. Some groups came fleeing the Elmisthorn. The trip is fraught with challenges and dangers. The three off-planet humans don’t know how the Elmithorn will react to the reappearance of Rosetta, which left Earth 50 years earlier, but they suspect it will be hostile.

“Arkad’s World” is a delightful story. It will remind readers of a mix of “Kim,” “Treasure Island,” and “Gulliver’s Travels,” in a new and original setting.

 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 – Ganges

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

‘Ganges’ offers insight into the forces that shaped modern India

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 22, 2019

“Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River,” by Sudipta Sen, Yale University Press, 2018, 464 pages, $30

The Ganges is one of the world’s great rivers, and India’s most sacred river.

“Ganges: The Many Pasts of an Indian River,” by Sudipta Sen, is a study of the river.

The book is part history, part meditation, and part religious study. Sen looks at the history of the Ganges River basin and explores the river’s impact on India’s culture. He examines how three of the world’s major religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam — affected those living in the Ganges River basin, and were in turn affected by the Ganges.

The river emerges from the Himalayas gathering size and strength until it empties into a wide delta at the Bay of Bengal’s northern coast. The river is considered sacred; fed by other sacred rivers. Its waters are considered healing.

Ironically, despite today’s contamination, Sen reveals there may be rational basis for the belief. Trace chemicals from the river’s sources and a bacteria-eating virus inhabiting the river’s banks clean the water of harmful diseases — given enough time. Sailing-era British ships filled water casks from the Ganges because the water stayed drinkable longer.

Sen starts at the beginning and goes to the end. The book’s opening chapters start at the river’s sources and cover the ancient pre-history of the river. Subsequent chapters move downstream and later in history. The book concludes at the river’s mouth, during the opening years of the British Raj, ending in the late 19th century.

Sen reveals the central role the Ganges basin played in India’s history. Indian civilization grew among the fertile soils of Northern India’s plains through which the river and its tributaries flow. He catches the ebb and flow of the indigenous empires that grew there, and shows how they confronted outsiders.

Northern India was part of a greater Eurasian culture. It was located on caravan routes linking China with Europe. Trade always played an important part of life in the Ganges basin. Sen shows how this region confronted waves of would-be conquerors, from Alexandrian Greeks through sailing-era Europeans.

“Ganges” is a book which works on many levels, offering insight into the forces that shaped modern India.

 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 Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails

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 Texas Calaboose’ a study of small lockups

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 15, 2019

“The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails,” by William E. Moore, Texas A&M University Press, 2018, 344 pages, $35

“Locked up in the calaboose” sounds like a line from a cheesy Western. It was reality for thousands in 19th and 20th century Texas.

“The Texas Calaboose and Other Forgotten Jails,” by William E. Moore is the definitive study on Texas’ small lockups.

Moore defines a calaboose as a small jail, typically less than 300-square-feet, with one or two cells. They were intended to house lawbreakers for short stretches; overnight or until they could be transported to the county jail.

Most small Texas towns had one. Usually one of the first buildings constructed after a town incorporated, it was almost always the sturdiest. They were austere: bare walls, minimal amenities, no electricity and no heating or cooling system. A night in the calaboose didn’t coddle, nor was intended to.

They were also homespun, built by locals with materials at hand, and for a minimal cost. Wood, brick, stone, concrete or iron and steel were used depending on availability. Some were simple cages, open to the elements. No two were alike.

Moore became fascinated with small jails, viewing them as markers of Texas society. They were tenanted by the more eccentric members of small-town society. Occasionally, a famous name occupied a calaboose. Bonnie Parker spent a night in the Kemp lockup.

These small jails passed out of use starting in the 1950s. The automobile and better roads made it easier to take lawbreakers to the county jail, eliminating the need for local lockups. Yet because they were sturdy buildings, many survive today. Most are used for storage. Others have become museums. Some are neglected and will disappear. A few have (or had) more eccentric uses, such as a chicken coop and an upscale room for rent.

Moore’s book catalogs all surviving calabooses, small jails and cages in Texas. This includes details and descriptions of their construction: size, footprint, materials used, location, current owner and (when known) date built. He includes photos of every specimen; illustrating these building ran from basic concrete cubes to elaborate crenelated castles.

“The Texas Calaboose” captures Texas’ past in a new and entertaining way.

 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 – Thomas Cromwell

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

Thomas Cromwell, from commoner to Britain’s principal nobleman

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 8, 2019

“Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life,” by Diarmaid MacCulloch, Viking, 2018, 752 pages, $40

Today, many confuse Thomas Cromwell with his distant descendant, Oliver Cromwell. Others were introduced to him in C. J. Sansom’s first two Matthew Shardlake’s historical mystery novels as Henry VIII’s chief, but sinister adviser.

“Thomas Cromwell: A Revolutionary Life,” by Diarmaid MacCulloch is a biography of Cromwell who, when remembered is credited with the dissolution of church properties and, along with Thomas Cramner, as one of the twin pillars of Britain’s Protestant Reformation.

MacCulloch provides a fresh appraisal of Cromwell in this book, a man more nuanced than Sansom’s bully, and as significant as Oliver Cromwell. MacCulloch reveals Cromwell receives too much credit for monastic dissolution, and was more equivocal about introducing Protestantism than commonly believed.

McCulloch spends considerable time on Cromwell’s early life, before his meteoric rise in the 1530s from an obscure lawyer to Henry VIII’s chief minister. This is valuable because it puts Cromwell’s actions in context.

A yeoman’s son, Cromwell left to make his fortune on the continent, returning after several years in Italy. On the strength of his Italian connections, Cromwell entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey, who was then Henry’s leading minister. Through sheer ability Cromwell rose to become Wolsey’s chief deputy, playing a leading role in dissolving dysfunctional monasteries (experience he used later for Henry). Wolsey was tolerant of religious dissent, including that of Cromwell who already favored evangelism (the precursor of Protestantism).

Cromwell attracted Henry’s attention and transferred to Henry’s service, when Cromwell could further his religious beliefs. He maintained Wolsey’s tradition of toleration, initially remaining cordial to Catholics and friend to Princess Mary.

Henry advanced Cromwell, but at the price of Cromwell serving Henry’s whims, eventually forcing Cromwell to adopt positions he disliked. Yet Cromwell was well rewarded — rising from a commoner to Britain’s principal nobleman in just six years.

His fall was even swifter. When he displeased Henry (chiefly over promoting Henry’s marriage to Anne of Cleves) Cromwell was attainted, convicted of treason, and executed within one year.

MacCulloch’s biography is long, but rewarding. He brings Cromwell to life, stripping away myth to reveal a great, but flawed man.

 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 – A Star-Wheeled Sky

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

‘A Star-Wheeled Sky’ marvelous sci-fi entertainment

By MARK LARDAS

Jan 1, 2019

A Star-Wheeled Sky,” by Brad R. Torgersen, Baen Books, 2018, 384 pages, $16

Second novels are frequently worse than the first. It happens so frequently that it’s called the second-novel curse. Brad R. Torgersen defies this curse.

“A Star-Wheeled Sky,” by Brad R. Torgersen, a science fiction novel, the author’s second, offers a fresh take on interstellar conflict.

A millennium before this story takes place, humanity fled a war-ravaged Earth in slower-than-light colony ships. A few reached star systems connected by a faster-than-light transportation network, the Waywork. Node points, called Waypoints, offer instantaneous transportation to another star system in the network. The builders, the Waymakers, abandoned the network long before humans arrived. They remain unknown.

Since human arrival in the Waywork, starstates have emerged. Humanity has filled the once-empty planets. With no other way to grow, one starstate, Nautilian, has set out to conquer the Waywork. Nautilian is totalitarian on a scale that makes Stalin’s Russia seem amateuristic. Its policy if a conquered planet resists is to kill off the entire population and resettle it with inhabitants loyal to Nautilian.

Opposing them is the starstate Constellar. Constellar is an oligarchy, but it has a representative assembly and more freedoms than Nautilian. But, Constellar is slowly losing to Nautilian. Ultimate defeat seems inevitable.

Then a new factor enters the equation: a new waypoint suddenly appears near the boundary of Nautilian and Constellar space. It’s the first new Waypoint to appear, and whomever gets to the new system first can control the Waypoint and own the new system.

Both starstates hastily assemble fleets to explore the new Waypoint. Or rather, since this is a remote boundary for both starstates, they grab whatever they can in order to get their first. After both forces arrive, they discover the system contains a clement planet, one humans can live on without life-support systems. The Waywork has only seven clement planets. Additionally, the planet has a Waymaker artifact which is broadcasting.

Torgersen provides a fast-paced, exciting adventure, pitting two determined and capable opponents against each other. Controlling the system becomes critical, promising victory to anyone who unlocks the Waymakers’ secrets. “A Star-Wheeled Sky” is marvelous science fiction entertainment.

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

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