Monday, June 29, 2015

This Is Your Brain on Beer

Review: The Barmaid’s Brain, And Other Strange Tales from Science by Jay Ingram

Jay Ingram has collected in The Barmaid’s Brain 21 essays concerning human behavior, curiosities of life, science and history, natural battles and how things work. Each of them approaches a topic with the same left-field perspective. 

For example, the barmaid of the title is able to remember 95% to 100% of a 15-drink order given to her out of sequence in the noisy environment of a busy bar. The essay The Barmaid’s Brain explores not only that we evidence these feats of memory, but why and how.

The Invention of Thievery looks at the way a learned behaviorin this case, birds removing foil caps from milk bottles to get at the cream—can spread through a population. The Vinland Map examines how we decide that a contended datum has been proved, especially when there is a strong belief structure in place to dispute it. An Uneasy Bargain probes the relationship between gene mapping (knowledge gathering) and genetic engineering, and asks the potent question, “Once we know that a mutant gene is the cause of a disease or condition, do we have a responsibility to eliminate it?"

The essays are written in an easy, approachable style, with a minimum of jargon, statistics or abstruse footnotes. If they lack some of the weight they might otherwise bring to some very weighty subjects, at least they may lead you to do the research on the questions you find intriguing. This is a great bathroom or coffee-table book—pick it up, read a few pages, put it down.

Even if one day scientists completely understand the wiring and chemistry of the human brain, it will still be difficult not to be amazed by an organ that can memorize the lyrics to all the Spice Girls’ songs after one hearing or conjure up the equations describing the origin of the universe. Even more amazing is that the same brain can do both…

If you enjoy reading The Barmaid’s Brain, you’ll want the second book in Ingram’s series, The Velocity of Honey. Sadly, neither is available for Kindle.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Clay (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

John Everett Millais: The Widow's Mite (1870)
I read the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge yesterday, and began to set up the blog post for a lighthearted piece about the minerals in a pinch of dirt:

June 24, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about dirt. You can go with the idea of digging into the dirt as an analogy, or you can be realistic. Maybe a character has “the dirt” on someone or another has “dirty laundry” to hide. Dirt can be rich soil or barren. Get dirty, but not shockingly dirty!

Suddenly, the power goes off. Hottest day of the summer so far, I think, so of course we get brownouts from the surge of air-conditioning. I pick up my Kindle (fortunately, fully-charged) and go off into the sunny living room to read until the power comes back on.

3 PM: I get a call from the power company informing me that a crew is "in my area" addressing the problem, and they expect to restore service by 6 PM.

6:15 PM: Still no power. I call PG&E, and discover that an update from 20 minutes before has moved the restoration of power out to 8 PM. Annoyingly, they tell me I can go online to get updates from their Web site. Dude! If I could go online, I wouldn't be calling about a power outage!

8:15 PM: I feed the cats early so I can move to the still-sunlit bedroom and keep reading. Call PG&E and find that again I've missed the update; restoration is now predicted for 10 PM.

9:25 PM: Just about ready to put down the Kindle for sleep when the lights come on. I pull out of bed and trudge around shutting off what had been switched on when the power went out. With gratitude I turn on the bedroom fan and lie back down.

3:25 AM: Wake sweating from a nightmare about watching a grieving spouse at graveside. As I order my thoughts to calm my pulse so I can get back to sleep, I realize my "dirt" flash will not be lighthearted at all. No, indeed.



Fingernails dig into my palm around the handful of dirt. All except the grave is hazed with tears, but the box below me is sharp-focused despite them.

Sam! Even so many years is too few! I knew I would lose you. Each stroke brought a clearer recognition of the coming loss, but even so, I never really believed I would remain, bereft, and you would perish.

I still see you, immobile beneath the closed lid. A calm voice says, "That is not Sam, it is only clay, Mamaw." A gentle hand unclasps my fingers to let the dirt fall.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Spaghetti Toast (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

Growing up in a house full of younger siblings gave me a useful perspective on the value of family routines. Sometimes called "family jokes" or more formally, "in-group rituals", these are the touchstones of behavior that collectively signal "we belong together." 

On a larger scale, such routines pin communities together, and help to bar outsiders from the full life of the group. Think of the complex gestures and genuflections that dot the Catholic Mass. Watch a couple of homies greet each other on the street: no narc can hope to imitate the precise body and verbal language to achieve that street cred. Observe the stylized way in which a formal dinner is served and eaten. In-group and out-group are both identified by these behaviors.

Many children's rhymes may have started as this same kind of validating routine: I belong here. Kids pick them up so easily, remember them all their lives. My ten younger brothers and sisters and I had one that was singular to our family. Every summer, my Dad would pump up the enormous inner-tube he stored in the garage, and drop it in the front yard for bouncing games. The eleven of us had a Macarena-like complex series of knee-drops and sits, belly-flops and hand-claps that I could probably repeat today, fifty-plus years later.

All the while we chanted: Ah-SOO-dumm bahk-ah-wah-dee-onn, KEH-d'm kehdee. Ahh! Ahh! Ahh! Ahh! AH-soo-dumm bahk-ah-WAH-dee-onn, kehd'm kehdee. It was an African round we older kids had learned years before at summer camp, or possibly at the nuns' Summer Catechism School. As other non-family kids came by and wanted to join in, we would drop the ritual song and bounce pattern, welcoming them to the game without quite letting them in on the secret.

Thinking of this, and prompted by the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge this week,

June 17, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that involves a children’s game or rhyme. You can create something new or go with something traditional. You can write with a twist, humor, menace or glee. Hop, skip or jump wherever the prompt leads you.

I remembered another ritual that occurred whenever my Dad made Spaghetti sauce. Dad's sauce was a complex brew containing meat, tomatoes, green olives with pimiento, and a generous dollop of Chianti. My parents had their serving of spaghetti—sauce liberally topped with Parmesan cheese—with a side of Chianti as well. For us kids, it was grape juice in place of wine.


Spaghetti Toast

The once-full platter of spaghetti, glistening strands coated and over-topped with Dad's wonderful sauce, lay abandoned in the middle of the table as we said grace. 

The bottle of juice passed, and each of us had a full plate and glass in front of us. The Parmesan cheese shaker went around the table, and we sprinkled our spaghetti with that pungent dust.

Mom and Dad began eating, but we youngsters waited to begin. First, we must toast. We raised our baby-wine together three times.

To the King!
To the Queen!
To the stinky-feet Cheese!

Only then would we eat.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

B-Girls and South Beach Lawyers

Review: Bum Rap by Paul Levine

Even at the height of its popularity, I never got into Miami Vice. Crockett's and Tubbs' fashion for men, so popular at the time, left me cold. No, my sense of life in southern Florida came largely from the wonderful Richard Powell novel, Pioneer, Go Home! 

As I read Bum Rap, I kept hearing echoes of that earlier story. These were faint echoes, though; Levine's characters are fully realized as themselves. Perhaps it was the combination of folksy humor, gangsters, and legal battles that woke the memories!

Jake Lassiter is an ex-football lineman turned lawyer who features in a series of Levine's legal thrillers based in Miami. He gets called in to help rescue Steve Solomon from the bum rap of the title; Solomon has been arrested and jailed without bail for shooting a Russian Mafioso named Nikolai Gorev. Lassiter will need to work closely with Victoria Lord, Solomon's "law and life-partner", to get him freed.

If you're a fan of Paul Levine's work, you've also met Solomon and Lord already. They feature as adversaries in the courtroom and partners everywhere else, in the Solomon vs. Lord legal thrillers. Having Solomon behind barred doors, and Lord partnered with Lassiter, is a neat way to sweep their different legal techniques under the same blanket to see what transpires. Predictably, Lassiter falls for Lord, who is drawn but not lost to his charms. 

Add in a luscious Russian B-girl (the only other person who knows what truly happened in the locked room with Gorev and Solomon), and you have all the elements of a totally South Beach crime. Despite blackened eyes, bullet-creased sleeves, and a couple of dead Russians, the level of physical violence is surprisingly low. It's mostly mental violence that drives this story: no exploding cars, lots of exploding theories.

Unanimous. All nine justices. Cops need a warrant to search your cell phone.
“Surprising outcome, don’t you think?”
“Not at all. The justices don’t have bags of cocaine in the trunks of their cars, so the drug seizure cases usually go the government’s way. But every justice has a cell phone.”

A neat twist at the end and a couple of true-love stories to sweeten the deal make this novel a delight. The B-girls' seduction scenes don't hurt either!

I enjoyed the Lassiter, Solomon & Lord combo very muchso much, that I have now assigned myself the pleasant task of reading the previous novels in both series. And I love finding a new author to follow!

Liner Notes:

  • The Elvis Presley movie made in 1962 from Richard Powell's 1959 Pioneer, Go Home! was called Follow That Dream.
  • The 1963 Herman Raucher play Pioneer, Go Home! was written from Raucher's notes for his rejected screenplay for Follow That Dream. The studio rejected the screenplay because Raucher's dialog gave the Southern-gypsy Kimper family's conversations a Brooklyn Jewish flavor. He tells the story of writing the screenplay, and its rejection, in There Should Have Been Castles.
  • The paperback cover on Amazon for Herman Raucher's play Pioneer, Go Home! clearly illustrates the Richard Powell novel. It is the only one of the four books cited in this review that is not available for Kindle.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Dragon and (Very) Dark Woods

Review: Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I know Naomi Novik from the Temeraire dragon novels, so I had no hesitation in diving into Uprooted. No British Imperial Navy dragon flights here; this is more of a swords-and-sorcery story. Novik is totally up-front; the novel opens with it:

Our Dragon doesn't eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that's not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he's still a man...

The Dragon of this tale makes his ten-year selection and carries her off to his tower to serve him for a decade. The girls he takes might as well be eaten, however, they may be released from the tower in ten years, but they don't return home. They go off to live in the city instead, dowered by the Dragon into marriage or business as they choose. 

Agnieszka isn't like the girls he usually selects, though. She had been the village gleaner, expert at foraging through the forest (never the Woods!) for whatever she could find that might be edible or useful. She's used to always having her hair straggling, her face smutched and her clothing torn ragged by twigs. 

Not expecting to be chosen, she has never really thought about how she should react to a wizard master. She's fearful and cocky by turns, and totally unprepared for the almost-OCD reaction of the Dragon to her stubborn untidiness. 

The Dragon is different, worse, than she had feared. He is aloof and commanding, of course, that was expected. Agnieszka hadn't dreamed of the horrible lessons he drags her through each day. 

Her new home is unexpected, as well. For a start, there's the magical painting on her wall, a simplistic map of the Valley overseen by the Dragon, with a really-flowing river running through it, and stars to mark the villages between the mountains and the Woods. There are the immense front doors that Agnieszka cannot open, and the walls and piles of books in the Dragon's library.

She can only console herself that hundreds of other ten-year girls had survived their decade serving the Dragon, and so she can as well.

Novik dives unerringly to the heart of the tale, introducing magicians as adept as any in the Harry Potter tales, fighters for right as brave as Hobbits, and an enemy as dark and old as the iron mortar that Baba Yaga rides. There is a Grimm quality to this novel that comes straight from a racial memory of Woods that hold dark mysteries and certain death. 

Excellent and unexpected, just like Agnieszka and the Dragon!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

This Too-Mortal Clay, and This, Too

Review: Kiln People by David Brin

After a decade spent exploring his Uplift Saga (with detours for The Postman and his contribution to the Second Foundation prequel trilogy, Foundation's Triumph), David Brin has written another stellar entry in original, thought-provoking science fiction.
"More than any writer I know, David Brin can take scary, important problems and turn them sideways, revealing wonderful opportunities. This talent shows strongly in Kiln People..."  ——Vernor Vinge
In Brin's novel Kiln People, the home computer and home FAX machine have been joined by another widely-distributed technology: the home copier. It's not for copying documents onto paper, though, it's to copy your soul's "Standing Wave" onto a clay "ditto." People have become used to living multiple lives, sending their duplicates out into the world to clean their toilets, mow their lawns, work at their boring jobs——and also dance (and brawl) in their night-clubs, walk their streets and star in their porn movies, kill their enemies (in duplicate only, of course); even go home to a boring wife and bratty kids.

In the best sense of hard science fiction, Brin has explored all the implications of this technology. To start, if your soul is what is impressed on the blank clay ditto, what does that imply about people who are unable to duplicate themselves? In this society, they are shunned as "soulless." And what happens when the original, "real" person dies before his duplicate expires? His "ghost" is still embodied in the duplicate, able to revenge his murder or mourn his natural death, but unable to be copied into another ditto blank or load its memories into another person.

The soul is seen as separate from the personality, as well; people routinely create "ebony" duplicates capable of great focus and dedication to a single intellectual task, then "inload" the memories (and information) gleaned from that ditto's efforts. It is also separate from sensuality; the "ivory" ditto carries a full sensorium to allow sexual contact at one remove—you can't catch an STD if the only thing you take from an encounter is the memory! One character is so capable at imbuing her ivories with her own "smoldering sensuality" that her ivory dittos are routinely "ditnapped" by the criminal Beta.

Ditto tech has implications for warfare, too—armies are composed of thousands of duplicates of a few highly-trained and capable warriors, who set their souls into the quiescent clay, which can then be frozen and stored ready to fight when required. In a bizarre mirror of Robot Wars, would-be warriors create fighting ditto shapes and contend in an arena to "try out" for the ranks of soldiery.

For many people, ditto technology means they have no place in the working world. Instead, vast numbers are paid a "purple wage," and left to rely on their dittos for entertainment. So large parts of the city are given over to the recreation of re-creation, in which the copies of ordinary citizens can pretend to be Montagues and Capulets, or Ozzie and Harriet.

Albert Morris is lucky. His dittos rarely go "frankie," running off to live their own short-lived lives as they please. They all come supplied with his overwhelming curiosity and desire to get to the bottom of things, so he has a thriving business as a private eye. And while not all of his gray dittos get home in one piece, they manage to get back often enough that he is one of the best in the business. It's why Geneen Wannamaker, the porn ditto queen, and Aeneas Kaolin, the owner of Universal Kilns (monopoly maker of ditto blanks) have both hired copies of Morris to help them solve their problems.

Brin tells the story from the multiple first-person perspective required by this technology, weaving the disparate tales of the two gray dittos Morris has assigned to work for Wannamaker and Kaolin; plus his very first frankie, a green ditMorris that did not want to clean toilets that day, as well as realMorris. A witty line at the beginning of each chapter tells us which of the Morris avatars is speaking, and Brin has warped the language in believable ways to incorporate personal duplication.

I loved this story, and especially liked the clever way Brin named his characters. Two (Kaolin and Montmorillin) are named for types of clay. Two more (to tell would be a spoiler) share names with people in the golem myths. Several others bear the names of dolls or puppets. Brin has also borrowed behaviors observed in the explosions of social media, Internet-surfing and blogging, and then applied them to his fictional technology in ways that make sense.

This is a mystery story wrapped in a roller-coaster of punning energy and technology gone right in unexpected ways. I recommend it highly.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Deeply Mystical, And Obviously Not Science

Review: Crossroads to Cure by Nicola Henriques

I don’t have any argument with one basic premise of homeopathy. Complementary Medicine, the treatment of a whole system of patient and body rather than treating a symptom in isolation, makes sense to me. But as Nicola Henriques makes clear in Crossroads to Cure, homeopathy goes far beyond this foundation, drifting into areas that cannot be supported by the science.

Henriques is a former journalist from Britain, with other nominally health-related books (Menopause, The Woman’s View and Hysterectomy, The Woman’s View) to her credit. She has been a teaching professor of homeopathy, and a practitioner in California. 

This book is the first of a proposed series of three books aimed at consumers and practitioners of homeopathy. (Two and Three are still not available even 17 years after the first was published.) One would expect her to be a valid source of information about the practice of homeopathy and its underlying philosophy.

When she explains that homeopathy rejects the germ theory of disease, and instead ascribes illness to “miasms,” an individualized reaction to the environment described by homeopathy’s founding guru, Samuel Hahnemann, I begin to cringe. The practice of naming these miasms after recognized diseases (typhus, cancer, syphilis, leprosy) is even more disturbing—a cancer miasm, for example, might be cited, and treated, as the cause of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, or even of “ambition,” as much as for a malignant tumor.

It should be noted that not every homeopathic practitioner subscribes to the miasm theory. Henriques does, however. She also re-words Hahnemann’s highly-controversial process of compounding homeopathic remedies—the materia medica—from Succussion and Dilution to “Dynamicization and Attenuation.” Apparently Henriques feels (like many practitioners today) that the central controversy between homeopathic treatment and conventional pharmaceuticals can be dismissed by this sleight-of-word.

Naturally, her text does not discuss the attenuation of homeopathic materia medica beyond the point where any material ingredient might still exist in the materia. The whole concept of “potentisation” relies on something non-material being released to “dynamicize” the materia.

Once I got past this background in Chapter 1, her presentation appeared less deeply mystical. Couched in the most-clinical phraseology, Henriques gives advice to the practitioner on such topics as “The Second Prescription” (the correct response to the patient’s altered condition after the initial remedy), “What to Look for at the Follow-Up,” and “The Golden Rules.” The meat of the book, though is “Crossroads to Cure,” a text flowchart to guide the practitioner to the correct response.

Unfortunately, Henriques had lost me at the beginning. By failing to step away from “preaching to the choir,” she lost an opportunity to present a reasoned argument for the fundamentals of homeopathy. I had hoped for a discussion of the basics. Instead, the assumptions go unchallenged and largely unstated, as the author launches into a guidebook for the converted.

Unless you are already a member of this particular congregation, I cannot recommend the book.

Liner Notes:
  • “DrPat” is just a nickname. I am neither a medical doctor nor associated in any way with the pharmaceutical industry.
  • The linked reference page for Homeopathy in Wikipedia contains disputed information.
  • I am still looking for a reasoned argument for the basic premises of homeopathy. Recommendations are welcome.

The Cobra Strategy (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

South African Rinkhals (spitting) cobra
Animals in South Africa are the topic of another teaser from Ken Cummings' memoir Meant to Be Here (which I am helping him write.) 

When we moved from Evander to Marievale in 1975, we moved into a kleinholding on the edge of the South African mining community. Our small house with its huge lot was designed to be land enough for a vegetable garden, a small maize field, a chicken house, or some other small agricultural venture.

A four-foot back fence separated our land from the vlei, a wild space that was home to ground-dwelling bats, multitudes of rodents, meerkats, and snakes. Lots of snakes.

Our Great Danes, Larl and Bortan, and our grey tabby pair, Mubi and Vala, were soon joined by a trio of Muscovy ducks who ate weeds and bugs from the enormous lawn and laid their eggs—three to five a weeknear the pond by the back fence. 

We converted a barn-sized garage at the back to a rabbit ranch, and began producing meat and skins for sale to the Zulu and Xhosa working on the mine. The mine workers relished the additional meat, but they really desired the skins. These were used to make dressy anklets and wristlets for the mine dancer performances.

Our breeding pair had names (Ferdinand and Isabella), but the litters they produced were just meat. The ducks had names when we got them, but they were so identical that in the end, we simply referred to them as "the Sachas." 

These domestic animals lived together in harmony. The cats tolerated the clumsy galloping Danes, and eyed Ferdinand from a respectful distance when he was allowed to graze the lawn. but their hunting instincts were galvanized by scents that blew in from the vlei. At least once a month, we would come into the kitchen for breakfast and find a flopping bat expiring on the tile floor. 

Vala was the worst offender for bringing her game in from the vlei. I believe the male Mubi simply ate his catch in the grass behind the fence. Vala wanted to "provide" for us...

This week's Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge plays right into this reminiscence. I'm not entirely sure which way this rescue goes—I know the cats were not pleased when we stole their thunder!

June 10, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about an animal rescue. It can be a typical dog or cat rescue from the pound, or helping a critter less fortunate. Go where the prompt leads you.

This flash is not fiction; it really happened just this way.


The Cobra Strategy

Tense bodies stressed the grass on either side of the cobra curve. A step, and the Rinkhals snapped right to Mubi's movement. While the venomous glare was directed at him, Vala took a single step from the left.

Turn about, the pair stalked closer to the spitting cobra. He couldn't "see" them; every time his eyes fell on a cat, it was frozen in place, and the cat behind him stepped closer.

Any moment it could spew airborne venom at my cats. At last, an opening! My push-broom pinned it, and I severed its head with a kitchen knife.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Light Chinese Meal

Review: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie

The princess of Phoenix mountain wore pale pink canvas shoes, which were both sturdy and supple and through which you could see her flexing her toes as she worked the treadle of her sewing machine. There was nothing ordinary about the cheap, homemade shoes, and yet, in a place where nearly everyone went barefoot, they caught the eye, seeming delicate and sophisticated…

Thus Dai Sijie introduces the pivot of the eternal triangle in Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. Her sewing machine (which the narrator breathlessly informs us, was Made in Shanghai) is equal to her capable feet in their pink shoes in attracting Luo and the narrator, two young men who occupy the other points of the triangle.

References to shoes and feet are everywhere in the book. Luo convinces the little seamstress in their first meeting to remove a shoe, revealing that, like his, her second toe is longer than the first. At one point, the seamstress suddenly changes her footwear from pink canvas to tennis shoes, “white as chalk.” A suitcase which turns out to contain the treasure of banned books is described as “soft, supple, and smooth to the touch… [making] me think at once of a lady’s doeskin shoe.

Luo and his narrator friend have been exiled from the world of books and education which they have just begun to taste. Maoist reeducation sent thousands of high school graduates and university students to live in peasant villages, forbidding them books other than the little red book of Mao’s sayings. As they struggle to adapt to the bleak life of work, they yearn for the freer life of the imagination.

The young intellectuals are not the only Chinese with these yearnings. When the village headmaster discovers Luo’s ability to relate a story, he decides to send the two each month to the cinema, so that they can bring the stories back and perform them for the village. The narrator can play the violin, and even convinces revolutionary inspectors that Mozart was a fine revolutionary thinker, suitable for village ears.

But eventually, in their rivalry for the little seamstress, they woo her with stories gleaned from the pages of Balzac and Dumas. They believe they are seducing the seamstress to accept one of them. The poignant result of this effort is both delightful and unexpected.

At 184 pages, the book is a novella in length, entirely suitable for a long evening by the fire, or to while away time on a plane or train trip. I recommend it to anyone who is horrified at the idea of exile in a desert of no books.

Power Hitters

Review: The Lost Tribe by Matthew Caldwell

With the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, sports became a precursive metaphor for the conflict of armies and philosophies that was to come in WWII. Ever since, the matching of sports teams has been used to illustrate the differences between one side and the other. 

From Victoire, the iconic soccer movie pitting Allied POWs against German ballers in Cologne, to American Pastime, an "inside baseball" film matching Japanese-Americans in internment camps against the hostile, sometimes bigoted local team, the image of the overmatched yet victorious underdog serves to underscore other victories.

Google "America's Pastime Sport" and the top reference is a definition of baseball. Baseball was an exhibition sport in 1936 Berlin; both teams who competed in that exhibition were supplied by the US.

Caldwell asks the question, "What if, after the Berlin Olympics, the Nazis had challenged us to a baseball series, one in which an American team was pitted against German players?" The answer to this question is The Lost Tribe. Harry Pike is a zamler, but not the simple collector you learn about if you look up the Yiddish expression. What he collects is luck, or perhaps the power that is derived from pain. With that power, he can then push luck outward, benefitting someone or some group.

Pike knows he has a calling to do something with this ability. Perhaps, as he initially believes, he is meant to save his buddy Abner, a minor-league ball player who has been shunned by his Jewish community for his decision to play on Rosh Hashana. Maybe he is supposed to rescue his employer, who publishes a small newspaper struggling to survive in the blasted economy of the Depression.

When he receives a substantial inheritance with the proviso that he use it to do good, Pike decides the best he can do for all those he may be intended to help is to field a baseball team in response to the Nazi challenge, and give the exclusive coverage to his paper. The players will be those rejected by major league teams for various reasons: One has a missing hand. One is black. One is a woman. And one, of course, is his friend Abner.

They don't expect the Nazis to play fair; in fact, Harry Pike does his best to winnow out players who will not be able to withstand the heat of scorn and derision they expect for their "mixed-race" team. The rest of the novel is about the way the team comes together as a family, a tribe. Along the way, Pike uses his tribe to do a wider good than he had planned at the start.

We don't need the supernatural ability of the zamler to drive this story. Its greatest power comes from the mystical appeal of baseball, and the power of the underdog to inspire us. And of course, from the implicit expectation that the metaphor will reflect real history, and the Allies will win.

On every level, The Lost Tribe satisfies our expectations.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Black Rose and Red (Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge)

There is an awful obsession that overtakes some people when they gamble. An initial win provides a flush of triumph that even subsequent losses cannot wholly erase. Winnings are inflated in memory, losses diminished. It becomes an addiction that cannot be satisfied.

Not everyone is susceptible, of course. And some who are, recognize that nascent obsession, and back away, avoiding thereafter all gambling of any kindeven the mild lottery ticket purchase.

In 1982, I went with a startup medical-records server company called Univers to Las Vegas for COMDEX. The annual computer show was only a few years old at that time, and was still largely a venue for dealers and computer entreprenuers. My host, the founder of Univers, made no secret of the fact that he was really going to scope out new equipment (translation: buy toys) for his medical databank computer service.

He told us to take the luggage up to our suite while he dropped into the game room, saying, "Meet you at the ZD booth in an hour." When the first day closing sounded, he still hadn't arrived on the show floor. We assumed he'd been diverted on the way to the booth by some particularly tasty blade rack or punch cabinet.

In fact, he had never made it out of the casino.

Three days later, we loaded into the van for the drive back to Denver. No new equipment had been purchased; in fact, we hadn't seen our host, except for odd hours asleep in an armchair in the suite. Somewhere around Colorado Springs he dropped the bomb: Univers was closing down. 

I heard later from his wife that once he was back in the city, he sold the company van and all the other Univers assetsincluding his client listthen flew back to Las Vegas with the proceeds. She didn't go with him; she divorced him instead.

COMDEX 1982 was the first time he'd ever been to Las Vegas.

When I read the Carrot Ranch Flash Fiction Challenge prompt this week, I thought at first of a tale including a barite rose:

June 3, 2015 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that includes a rose. It can be straight-forward, romantic, funny. What is your rose today and what is its story? Who craves the rose or shrinks away? Why? Let the prompt fully bloom in your imagination.

In the middle of the night, however, I woke with the following flash spinning behind my eyelids. I saw the growth of obsession on the bridegroom's flushed face, saw the desperation of the bride who hoped to rescue her new husband. Hence this tale of a different desert rose than the mineral, which might be set anywhere that gamblers and newlyweds foregather, but which I saw in my mind's eye as Las Vegas.


Black Rose and Red

Her demurely gloved hand on his, she whispered, "You need to ruin my husband." He had seen the bridegroom winning all night, and now his latest opponent threw down his hand, leaving another fortune behind on the baize.

Rising, he strolled across the room, and drawled at the flushed young man, "Winner takes everythingthe first to draw the black rose."

"Done." There was a flick as the ace of clubs appeared. Her new husband drew next, then pulled his derringer and fired, shouting, "Cheater! I also drew that ace!" 

He fell as a red rose blossomed on his chest.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Questionable Genre: Juvenile Alternate History

Review: Gunpowder Empire by Harry Turtledove

I admit I’m a history reader. I like Harry Turtledove because he writes real science fiction that just happens to incorporate real history. With that said, I have a real problem with the alternate history genre as juvenile fiction. It’s not that it isn’t good, sui generis (because Gunpowder Empire is enjoyable). It’s that it is aimed at readers who do not have the real history solidly under their belts yet.

The story opens on two time-traveling teenagers (Amanda and Jeremy Solter) spending their summer helping their parents with a trade mission in Agrippan Rome, then leaves them stranded without their parents, and follows their efforts to cope. 

There are some interesting interactions between the modern teens and old Romans, and some less-believable encounters with invading barbarians.

What isn’t in the book, however, is any attempt to define or describe a real gunpowder empire.

I could definitely see my children (when they were teenagers) enjoying this book. What I don’t see is the value to them from reading it. Would they learn historical concepts? Definitely not. Would they get any real sense of Agrippan Roman life? I doubt it. 

Would they come away from it with any tips about teenagers being strong in adverse situations? Maybe. But a better choice for that would be Heinlein’s excellent juveniles, The Menace from Earth or Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, or perhaps Sheffield’s Tor Jupiter juveniles, Higher Education or The Billion-Dollar Boy.

So this book misses its mark for me. It was still a pleasure to re-read, and for any adult who has already met Heinlein’s or Sheffield's juveniles (or any juvenile reader acquainted with the novels of Robert Graves or Steven Saylor), would not be a total waste of an afternoon.

Fluff and Fold (Secrets in Silk)

Review of four novels by Michelle Willingham: Undone by the Duke, Unraveled by the Rebel, Undressed by the Earl, and Unlaced by the Outlaw  

You know how Amazon sends out lists of reduced-price novels to tease you on the Kindle? Well, the last list of "30 Under $2" included nothing I wanted to read. Nothing at all.

Except every time I looked at the list, one title kept leaping out at me. Undone by the Duke. What the heck, it's only $1.99, I'll try it, I said. And the cover looked interesting...

Okay, I read it. No, I devoured it, then I ordered the other three in the series and consumed them at one gulp. These are not your soft-core bodice-rippers, with mannered ladies and gentlemen, tea in the parlor and innuendo on the veranda. You will find real sex, real passion, and real hot underwear in these novels!

Undone by the Duke

Victoria is trapped in her rural Scottish home by severe agoraphobia, yet she finds a way to escape by crafting silky corsets. Her "Unmentionables" are a big hit with fashionable women who can afford to wear such filmy garments, yet she must deal with the exclusive shop that sells them through an intermediary. It would never do for a socially-connected woman to be "in trade". Certainly not in such a trade!

With her mother and three sisters away for a London season, and her father away in Spain fighting, Victoria's silken secrets are all that provides an income for the financially-strapped family. The economic burden of displaced Highlanders camping on their property is further complicated by the arrival of a wounded man on her doorstep. 

Will the evil Earl of Strathland who burned out the neighboring crofters succeed in his plan to drive away the Highlanders and Victoria's family? Will fashionable London discover the source of the shocking lingerie? Will the wounded man succeed in drawing Victoria out of her fear of the outdoors? And just who is he? (You know, but you read on, because this is delicious stuff!)

Unraveled by the Rebel

Local Scottish doctor Paul Fraser, introduced in the first book, has long admired Victoria's sister Juliette. While he was at school in Edinburgh, Fraser had carried on a long, friendly correspondence with the girl, until she suddenly stopped replying to his letters.

We gradually learn that the Evil Earl had raped Juliette, made her pregnant, and relied on that ruination to persuade the girl to marry him. Instead, the valiant Juliette fled to her aunt in London, and went to Norway with her to have her child away from the prying eyes of the ton. When she returned, her aunt had a "son" and Juliette had no motive to marry the despised Earl. Sadly, though she yearns for children,she can no longer have them. Juliette feels ruined and unable to love, even the kind and undemanding Paul Fraser.

Will Juliette elude the obsessive Earl long enough to notice the genuine love Paul Fraser offers? If she does, will she be able to convince the Baron her father that although a Highlander, he is eligible? And how would they live as husband and wife without consummating the marriage?

Can the secrets in silk assist them to overcome these barriers?

Undressed by the Earl

Of the four, this is the closest to a conventional historical romance. Young Amelia is focused on the handsome Viscount of her dreams, ignoring the counsel of her older sister, her aunt, and the kindly widower, the Earl of Castledon. In fact, she reacts to Castledon's advice with a challenge of her own. She will draw up a list of young women who will serve his need for a stepmother for his daughter, and he will give her a list of men to pursue and avoid.

Amelia puts her prim sister Margaret's name on the list of prospects for Castledon to consider. Not surprisingly, the Viscount is at the top of Castledon's list to avoid. When the rakish Viscount kidnaps Amelia away to Scotland so they can be married without her parents' consent, Amelia needs to reconsider where her heart (and her passion) lies.

Unlaced by the Outlaw

Sober Margaret is the last of the four Andrews sisters to become enmeshed in the rewards and risks of the trade in silken secrets. Jilted in her engagement to the same Viscount who later kidnapped her young sister Amelia, Margaret finds herself "on the shelf" in this society that disregards older women as marriage prospects. Margaret will not likely find a husband now.

Already ruined, she organizes a pursuit of the Viscount and her sister that throws her into proximity with the uncouth Highlander who has been the go-between for the Andrews
sisters' exotic lingerie business. She knows she can trust Cain Sinclair. But can she trust her own heart?

Despite her prim and proper stance, Margaret will turn out to be the most daring and unconventional of all four!

Bottom Line:

Don't turn down novels just because they're in a genre you don't usually read! Sometimes some sweet fluff is just what you need to cleanse your palate between a couple of heavier reads...

Gone to Fight Indians

Review of The Few (The Return of the Marines 1) by Jonathan P. Brazee

Unrelenting action. Shaky grammar and word choices. Two or three dozen main characters. Jargon-laden prose. Usually, any two of these would be enough to have me put down a book in disgust, yet the quality of the action and the expertise with which Brazee fleshes out his multitude of Marines drew me in early and kept me reading. 

The story hook was compelling, too. In this near-future tale, the Marines have been disbanded as a separate branch of the military. The few who remain as Marines serve almost exclusively as embassy guards or security details. 

The California senator who had presided over the Dismemberment of the Corps (as the Marines refer to it) is now their Commander In Chief.

“Sir, you may have made our jobs into being guards,” he replied, with a slight emphasis on the “you,” “but every Marine is a rifleman. We are warriors, by a long tradition earned in blood. And I’m sorry, but with all due respect, no politician can change that.”

What justified the cost-cutting measure that ended the Marines was an astonishing about-face by the religion of Islam. In a Reformation as profound as that of Luther and Calvin, Islam had transformed itself into a true religion of peace. With this change, the only wars left are economic: outsourcing of jobs and easing of trade restrictions are the strategic maneuvers. This is not the kind of battlefield on which Marines are needed.

And yet they are. The security detail of Marines at the US Embassy in New Delhi is gathered as an honor guard to welcome the POTUS as he arrives for a trade summit that will be held in the adjacent consulate building. The President barely makes it into the grounds before hostilities open. The Marines he despises are all that stand between him and death.

The action of the tale begins as soon as the opening hymn has sounded and the first players have been introduced. Brazee juggles the different character's motivations and voices well, building a complex view of many players that persists through the most heated action scenes. The tone and language is authentic, if laden with typos and grammatial errors. 

And acronyms. Thousands of acronyms: NEO (Noncombatant Evacuation Operation), HEAT ammo (High-Explosive Anti-Tank), DSS (Diplomatic Security Service), pax (passengers), and IOC (Infantry Officers' Course).

It helped that there is an acronym list in the back of the book. It did not help that not all the acronyms Brazee throws around are listed, nor that I didn't find the list until I finished reading. It is not listed in the Contents; you have to get there by paging to it. However, I was reading the novel on my Kindle, and used the Wikipedia lookup to help clarify anything that wasn't obvious from the context.

The power of this story was such that despite the hesitations from unfamiliar jargon and typos, the pace was unrelenting. I had to ignore all such petty problems, because Brazee made me want to know these people, learn how their story turns out. I had to read to the end, and having done so, I had to get the next two books in the series. (The Proud and The Marines, of course!)

Liner Notes:

The flavor of this story reminded me strongly of another Mil SF favorite: Michael Z. Williamson's Freehold series. I suspect Brazee will join Williamson on my "re-read periodically" shelf.