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Starbound picks up where Marsbound stopped. Humanity has decided to send a starship to Wolf 25, the home world of The Others.

The starship uses the “free energy” concept provided by The Others through the Martians to create a matter – anti-matter reaction engine. However, for that it needs reaction mass, which it obtains from a large ice asteroid. The asteroid is large enough to provide mass to travel the 25 light years to Wolf 25 and back with mass to spare. The ship accelerates at 1g all the way to the half-way point, at which time it will have reached more than 90% of the speed of light, when it turns around and then decelerates for the second half of the trip. Due to the relativistic speed, the crew will only age 6 years during the more than 25-year journey.

They should be able to meet The Others, and come back, all over the course of a little more than 12 years in their own lives, while more than 50 years will have passed on Earth.

Along the way, unexpected events change their plans and the “meeting” with The Others is not quite what they expected.

While the premise is exciting, and the first journey of a crewed trip to another star could be exciting, the author does not take advantage of the opportunity. There are conceptual problems with the plot, and the story-telling is stilted.

There are some concepts that just don’t make sense. For instance, the ship accelerates at 1g for half the trip. However, anyone studying relativity and doing the pretty simple math will realize that, from Earth’s frame of reference, if you’re accelerating at a constant rate of 1g, then you would reach near the speed of light in about one year. Why keep accelerating after that, particularly when there is a significant plot point about the Martians really suffering in the 1g Earth-standard gravity. They could have turned the engine off after one year, and they would arrive only very marginally later, after turning the engine on for braking again one year out. The whole thing just didn’t add up.

Another massive plot hole is that the entire premise is that the limit of the speed of light affects all races, including The Others. They can’t travel any faster than anyone else. However, somehow they are able to cause terrible destruction to humanity seemingly instantaneously, as the plot of the story will tell.

Yes, you may say this is science fiction, and the author has to right to make up the technology. But this does not work if on one side the author goes to great lengths building a world around the limitations and effects of general relativity, but on the other hand seems to break those rules in deus ex machina fashion all throughout the plot.

Finally, let’s talk about the crew. Humanity sends seven humans and two Martians as the world’s ambassadors to another star to meet a known very hostile race. Leaving the two Martians alone, the human crew consists of two married couples. The first are Carmen Dula and Paul Collier of Marsbound. The other are Meryl and Moonboy, the two xenologists of Marsbound. Then apparently to make things interesting, they add a triad (marriage of three) with two male “spies” and their mutual wife, Elza, who is a medical doctor who also happens to be a nymphomaniac. This causes all sorts of friction as she sleeps her way through the crew within the first few weeks. Why in the world would humanity set up a team of star travelers who would be cooped up in a spaceship tin-can for 12 years and not make sure there will be sexual stability for the journey? I assume it’s for plot purposes, so there is plenty of sex sprinkled into the story. I might add that the sex really does not work in this story.

The author also applies a strange concept of using three different narrators, switching between chapters. One is Carmen, the other in Namir, one of the spies, and the third is Fly-in-Amber, one of the Martians. I don’t see why that was necessary, as it didn’t add anything to the story as far as I could tell. But it was confusing, since I had to figure out who was talking every time a new chapter started with the protagonist speaking in the first person. He could have put the name of the narrator into the chapter title and made it a little more straightforward.

Starbound is a tale with a lot of possibilities, but those are completely wasted. Haldeman is a good story teller, and I enjoy his novels, but this one is just too poorly crafted and constructed, with a far-fetched a plot that I simply was not able to buy into.

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It’s late 21st century on Earth. There is now a space elevator in the Pacific off the Galapagos Islands that allows humans to reach space in a two-week elevator ride, rather than a 12-minute rocket blast. There is a Hilton hotel midway in the balance point of the elevator.

Carmen Dula is a 19-year-old girl traveling to Mars with her family as part of a group of scientist colonists, adding to the 100 or so people already living on Mars.

The story tells about the ride on the space elevator in great detail and much more elaborately than I have read in any other science fiction story. The reader will understand space elevators after this. Then it tells of the months long journey on a spaceship to Mars, the landing there, and the integration of the new colonists with the existing people there.

Carmen is not necessarily an obedient young woman. One night she defies all colony rules, as well as all common sense, and leaves the station in a spacesuit all alone, telling nobody where she went. Sure enough, she has an accident many kilometers away from the base, and believes she is about to die – when she gets rescued – by Martians.

At this point, the story took a completely different turn from what I expected, having read The Martian by Andy Weir recently. Weir stays with current technology in his book and does not venture into a speculative technological future. Haldeman stretches things here.

Moderate Spoiler Below

As it turns out, the Martians in this book are a race artificially created by “The Others” to keep an eye on humanity. Some 30,000 years ago, The Others visited the solar system, found early human hunter gatherers and decided that they could easily evolve into a space-traveling race. They put an outpost on Mars to monitor Earth, which took no effort at all for 30,000 years, until the humans started broadcasting in the early 20th century. Then they got busy and started learning human culture and languages simply from humanity’s broadcasts.

The Others are a highly advanced race which lives in a silicon-based environment embedded in liquid nitrogen. Their metabolism is more than a 100 times slower than that of humans, so there is no way for them to communicate with humans directly. However, they have created artificial sentinels that can translate between the thoughts of the others and humans.

The humans aren’t doing too well – being a bellicose race and never trusting others, and within just a few years of learning of The Others humanity does one stupid thing after another to stoke the ire of The Others.

Then they strike.

End of Spoiler

Haldeman likes to tell near-future stories with space travel and relativistic concepts interwoven, and that makes for an interesting read, albeit a far-fetched one. With the story being told by an immature girl at least for the first half of the book, it feels a bit  juvenile at times, and there is a little bit more sex in the story than is necessary to make it succeed. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it and the concepts described, particularly the experience of the space elevator.

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A man wakes up from a coma. He can’t remember who he is, where he is, and why he is there. He is tended to by a robot. He has a scientific mind, and he gradually figures out he must be in a spaceship, since the gravity is 1.5 g, which he determined by timing dropped objects. He is alone. The two companions with him on the ship are long dead and mummified. He figures out he was in an induced coma, probably to escape the boredom of a long journey.

But it gets much worse. After some observations of the stars around him, and the sun, he realizes that the sun is actually not the sun but some other star. Now he knows he is in trouble. The nearest star to the solar system is more than 4 lightyears away, so it must have taken decades to get to where he is. Decades alone in a spaceship.

Gradually, as his memory returns bit by bit, vignette by vignette of flashbacks, he learns his name is Ryland Grace, and he is a scientist sent on a one-way mission to investigate a solution to an existential problem at home: The sun is being drained of energy and the earth is rapidly cooling, Not only does he have to somehow survive alone, lightyears from home, his mission is actually to find a solution to save humanity and transmit his results back via high speed probes. It’s an impossible situation.

Andy Weir, who burst into the science fiction world with his first novel The Martian (which I reviewed here) has done it again. Project Hail Mary is one of the best and most satisfying science fiction stories I have ever read. Andy Weir’s stories play in today’s world, or in the very near future, perhaps just a few years off. All the technology in his stories is our technology today. There is Google and Facebook, there are laptops and iPhones. In near-earth orbit there is the good ol’ ISS. That’s the stuff Andy Weir’s science fiction is made of. He writes as the narrator in the present tense, which gives the story a feeling of rapid action.

Project Hail Mary is a page-turner that kept me riveted to the very end. It gets a solid four stars.

 

 

*** Spoiler Alert ***

I recommend that you do not read beyond this point if you intend to read the book. You should read it first, and then come back here to find out some of the reasons why I think this is one of the best science fiction stories ever, and I’ll also talk about some of the plot holes or flaws of the story (there aren’t many).

By astronomical observations and triangulations he figures out he is at the star Tau Ceti, which is about 12 lightyears from earth. Tau Ceti turns out to be the only star in the local stellar neighborhood that is not afflicted by the energy loss that the sun experiences. All other stars are also dimming. But here it gets interesting. An alien space ship approaches him and starts interacting with him. On board is an alien that is the most interesting, in my opinion realistic and credible alien life. My bone to pick with alien stories is that the aliens are too humanoid, usually about the size of a human, and suited to be in the same atmosphere. This alien comes from a planet in the 40 Eridani star system, which is 16.5 light years from earth. Grace calls them Eridians. The aliens resemble large spiders, the size of a medium-sized dog, with a carapace of about 18 inches in diameter and about 10 inches high. It has five arms, each with “hands” that have three opposing claws. They use the arms or legs interchangeably. They have no eyes and no sense of vision, since their planet is pitch black due to a very thick atmosphere of ammonia. The pressure on their planet is 29 times that of earth. It would crush a human instantly. Their body temperature is 210 degrees Celsius or over 400 degrees Fahrenheit, so extremely hot. Imagine a creature that lives in 29 atmospheres of pressure with a body temperature of twice the boiling point of water, that breathes pure ammonia. There is no way such a creature would be able to survive a minutes in our world. And likewise, we’d burn up within seconds on theirs, and be crushed by the pressure and gravity.

The aliens have no vision, and all communication is via sound and echolocation, similar to whales. When Grace meets the alien, they quickly establish a way to communicate and learn each other’s languages. Over weeks, they build a sufficient mutual vocabulary to actually communicate productively. That done, they get to work on solving the existential problems of both their home worlds.

Some of the problems I had:

The Eridians do not know about radiation. They have no vision. There is no light on the surface of their planet. So how did they ever develop astronomy and space travel?

The technology of the Eridians is described as equivilent to that of earth in the 1950s. They have not yet invented the semiconductor or even the transistor and as a result they don’t have computers. However, their materials science is amazing and they can build just about anything from a simple raw material which is stronger than anything humans can build. They have robots. How can you have robots if you don’t have electronic processors?

There is one short episode back on earth where two brilliant scientists hook up and have a sexual relationship. It’s just a few pages of description, it’s pretty awkward and unrealistic, and it has nothing at all to do with the plot. Weir should have just left that part out.

Then there is the way Weir ended up on the mission. That was too dramatic and unrealistic, and he could have written the story without that twist and it would have been more credible. Yes, the amnesia he initially experienced after waking up would not be there, but so what. The story would have worked just as well.

But that’s all I could find that I had issues with. I like the science in this story, and the plot holes I described above are minor enough that I can accept them.

The description and depiction of the alien, however, is superb. The Eridians are the most realistic, credible, exotic and yet totally plausible aliens I have ever read about.

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The only other Brunner story I ever read was Lungfish, and here is my review.

Brunner wrote A Maze of Stars in 1991.

Somewhere, sometime in the distant future, humanity has left its birth world, Earth, and developed a starship with a mission of seeding new planets with humanity. After initial robotic missions, “the Ship” takes a load of humans and seeds about 600 planets in “the arm of stars” or just called “the Arm.”

There are about six hundred thousand stars visited by man, and sixty thousand have planets hospitable to life, six thousand have developed life and six hundred have been seeded with humanity. Only about 60 of those are fairly successful, and most of them are in some state of devolution.

The Ship is artificially intelligent and has become sentient. It’s been about 500 years since the planets were seeded, and the ship is on an endless loop, visiting the planets clandestinely and observing the outcome. The only problem is, the ship’s jumps through hyperspace, called tachyonic space in this book, result in various jumps in time in addition to space. The ship can’t control the time jumps. So it sometimes “remembers” the future of a planet it is visiting, because it has been there “before” which was far in the future.

Are you confused yet? I certainly was.

A Maze of Stars has a solid and interesting premise, basically observing what happens to humanity in adverse conditions, left to its own devices. Each planet is different. The ship visits the planets undetected, and it has this amazing technology that it can project itself as a realistic human being on the planet itself and interact with the people. It can also “remote view” scenes on the planet and be an observer. Finally, it can show such remote viewings to its passengers, sort of like an immersion movie.

One interesting premise is that most of the planets are hyper-concerned about germs, diseases and viruses that might come from other planets that they have no defense against. Much of the inter-planet trade or exchange is therefore blocked by the various planets, and interaction is severely minimized.

All of this sounds very interesting, but Brunner has made it completely boring and a real slog to read. Nothing happens. The ship simply visits one planet with a weird name after another. We observe pointless vignettes of action by cardboard characters that appear in one chapter only to completely disappear in the next. There is no story, there is no plot, there is no common thread, there is no suspense. And when there is an opportunity to make it interesting, Brunner misses it. For instance, he describes weird mutations but does not “describe” them leaving the reader helpless. He mentions exotic extraterrestrial animals, but does not even attempt to describe what they actually look like. And there are no sentient aliens in this story, even among 600 seeded planets – not one intelligent alien culture that has productively interacted with humanity.

A Maze of Stars is full of interesting concepts, each worth a book of its own, but none of them explored in any detail. The printed edition of the book was 393 pages long. I read the Kindle digital version, and it seemed like two volumes of War and Peace back to back – endless. It slowed down my reading and made me thirst for novels that actually have some plot, some story that keeps turning the pages.

 

 

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Underground Railroad won the Pulitzer Prize and was a Winner of the National Book Award. It’s definitely an acclaimed novel.

The story follows Cora, a slave girl in a Georgia cotton plantation. She is an outcast because her own mother ran away, thus abandoning her, leaving her “a stray.” As Cora grows up she tries to come to terms with her abandonment and she wishes she knew what happened to her mother.

Eventually another slave named Caesar, who came to the plantation from Virginia, asks her to escape with him. She accepts and follows the footsteps of her mother, off the plantation, just to be hunted by posses tasked to bring back “escaped property.” Cora’s journey from one state to the next is harrowing as she tries to stay ahead of one reckless and determined slave hunter.

In Underground Railroad the author does not just use the metaphor of what we know the Underground Railroad was, but rather he depicts it as an actual set of tunnels underground, connecting different cities and states, with concealed depots or stations maintained by station masters. I found this approach strange and unnecessary. The depictions of the antebellum American South, where the institution of slavery was one of the core structures of society, would have been enough in itself. A society where one class of humans was legally entitled to own another class of humans, to the point where they could abuse them sexually, sell off their children, split up families and work them to death without any hope of escape. Born a slave, always a slave.

The Underground Railroad brings that period of darkness in our history to the forefront, and reminds us here and now in 2021 that human rights still have a long way to go in America. We have little right to lecture other nations on human rights.

I have read and reviewed a couple of other books about slavery, and for your quick references they are listed here:

Book Review: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl – by Harriet Jakobs | Norbert Haupt

Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin – by Harriet Beecher Stowe | Norbert Haupt

 

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This story tries to speculate what it would be like to change the past. Quinn Black wakes up one morning, goes to work, and along the way witnesses a terrible accident in which is boss and friend dies in front of his eyes.

The next day, he  wakes up again at the same time, and makes small changes, but can’t avoid the inevitable outcome. Groundhog Day – they made a movie about this decades ago.

Quinn realizes that he can just will himself to any day or time, generally in the past that he can remember, and relive it. However, when he goes back to his youth to meet up with his best friend, he is not the old Quinn, he is the old Quinn in the young Quinn’s body of that time.

The “rules” of time travel are very nebulous in this story, and it’s not very scientific.

I simply got bored and lost interest. I read 104 out of the 307 pages, stopped at 33%, never to go back.

I usually force myself to finish a book, but some are so bad, I can’t do it. That’s why I have a category “books not finished reading” that you can search and see all the other ones.

Consistent with my own rules for reviews, I do not rate a book I didn’t finish.

As far as time travel stories are concerned, I recommend you skip this book, and its sequel. There is nothing original or even remotely interesting here.

 

 

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Here is the list of books that I have read twice or more, as far as I can recall. I started reviewing every book I have read in 2007. For those listed here, read after that, I have included a link to the review and my rating. The ones without links are books I read even the second time decades ago and I do not have a fresh enough memory of them to enable me to write a review. I’d have to read them again first. But there are so many books, so little time…

 

Le Petit Prince – by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (in French, German and English)

The Stand – by Stephen King (4 stars)

An American Tragedy – by Theodore Dreiser

Fathers and Sons – by Ivan Turgenev

Anna Karenina – by Leo Tolstoy

Sons and Lovers – by D. H. Lawrence (3 stars)

Treasure Box – by Orson Scott Card (2.5 stars)

Vox – by Nicholson Baker

Time Pressure – by Spider Robinson (3 stars)

Illusions – by Richard Bach

Jonathan Livingston Seagull – by Richard Bach

The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger (4 stars)

King Rat – James Clavell (4 stars)

Orphans of the Sky – by Robert A. Heinlein

Forever War – by Joe Haldeman (3 stars)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin – by Harriet Beecher Stowe (4 stars)

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Mankind has discovered the secret to “faster than light travel” or more specifically, teleportation. It is possible for humans to enter a small machine and be transported to distant worlds instantaneously. The technology is called the Levant-Meyer Translation or LMT for short. It consumes an enormous amount of power. In addition, the travelers only stay out a certain amount of time, before they are pulled back to point of origin. This is called the slingshot effect. The machine can calculate how long and how far the travelers will go.

Using this method, there is a special Agency of Extraterrestrial Development that recruits and trains “Tamers,” young people of superior intelligence, technical and military skills, to first visit other worlds, explore them, and then possibly start colonizing them. Jacque Lefavre is such a tamer.

During his first trip they discover a nonsentient alien animal that, when touched, allows reading of other people’s minds. They call them mindbridges or bridges for short. Using those bridges, the humans also encounter the first sentient alien race, called the L’vrai. They are ancient, star-traveling, and apparently extremely hostile to humans. They do not use the LMT technology, but they have star travel at relativistic speed, and humanity discovers that they are encroaching closer to the human home world, currently hanging around Sirius, just 8.6 light years away.

Earth has to move fast to prepare for this threat.

Mindbridge is an entertaining science fiction story, but not in the class of other Haldeman’s books. My favorite was The Accidental Time Traveler, which I read and reviewed over 10 years ago and gave 4 stars. Of course, Haldeman’s most famous book is The Forever War, which I actually read twice. I liked the concepts of Mindbridge, but some of the implementation and plot content seemed awkward and contrived to me.

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Most of my reviews start with a brief overview of the book, perhaps a few sections of quotes, while making sure I don’t include any spoilers. Then I talk about how I felt about the book and why I rated it a certain way. If I can relate it to similar books I have read and reviewed, I might draw the parallels and provide cross references.

I can’t do that with The Three-Body Problem. It is too different from anything I have read before. I have to attack this one from an “out of the box” viewpoint. It is definitely the first time I ever read a book by a Chinese author. It is fairly well translated by Ken Liu, and he even has a section in the book at the end where he talks about his efforts translating it. I have a lot of experience with how language changes your thinking, even the person that you are, from studying multiple languages, English being my third one. I also have several years of Japanese, both writing, reading and speaking under my belt. Although my Japanese is very, very rusty, I have experienced how an eastern language results in very different thinking from that of the Romance and Germanic languages.

I know nothing of Chinese, but reading this book has me inspired to pick up Chinese 101 and see where it leads me.

The Three-Body Problem starts in the early 1960s in the midst of the Chinese cultural revolution, when scientists and other educated people were vilified, persecuted and often publicly executed. It follows a young female scientist who witnesses the brutal killing of her father and is subsequently hauled off into a remote research station where she would presumably spend the rest of her life. Alas, the cultural revolution changed faster than people could age, and quickly modern China arose all within the lifetimes of young people born in the 1940s and 1950s. The book gives an in-depth insight into the Chinese soul, their views on class status and particularly education and science.

But it is a science fiction book. The three-body problem is a mathematical problem that arises from trying to predict the orbital motions of three bodies – three stars. Our sun is a single star, and our eight planets have circled the star now more or less stably for over four billion years. We have a stable solar system. But not all star systems are single stars. Many star systems are binary systems, and there may be planets orbiting one of the stars, or perhaps both, and the second star can have severely destabilizing gravitational influences on the planet. We don’t actually know enough about planets in binary star systems, but we have pretty good mathematical models that can predict what happens.

But things change entirely when you add a third star. The fate of any planets in such a system is what one might call chaotic. And yet, the nearest star system to our own is that of Alpha Centauri, which consists of Alpha Centauri A and B, a binary system, and Proxima Centauri, a third star a bit further away from the other two. As unlikely as it may seem, the premise of The Three-Body Problem is that an intelligent civilization far advanced technologically from our own has developed in the Alpha Centauri system, and humans have made contact.

As that, The Three-Body Problem is a first contact novel.

The book was in my reading library, and I had started working on it some years ago, but abandoned it, finding it hard to read. Then recently a colleague recommended it to me out of the blue, and that motivated me to pick it up again and work through it. It takes some time to get used to the Chinese way of thinking. I found many differences, but I also found many surprising commonalities. Modern Chinese do not appear all that different from modern Americans. The story is complex, there are many side plots, not all of them necessary. That made some of the sections seem bloated and unnecessary to me. There is also no end, it just finishes abruptly, setting up for the sequel.

Overall, The Three-Body Problem is a science-heavy science fiction work, which speculates much about physics at the particle level, and what a vastly advanced scientific society could do to humankind, should it want to do it harm.

Yes, first contact is not pleasant or rewarding with the denizens of Alpha Centauri.

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I just re-read my review of Nov 6, 2010, now more than ten years ago, of the book New York: The Novel – by Edward Rutherford. It is a remarkably good book; obviously I gave it my maximum of four stars, and since it’s been 10 years, and many of my  readers today were not following me 10 years ago, I thought I’d repost the review here – it’s as fresh as ever, and it’s an extraordinary book.

It may not be the same to you if you have never visited New York. But for me, having been there many times over the years, I never looked at the city quite the same way again after reading Rutherfurd’s book.

And while I am thinking about books about New York, the list is not complete without Forever – by Pete Hamill. I reviewed this in 2009, and it’s another delightfully entertaining novel about the history of New York from the point of view of an – shall I say – extraordinary character. Another four stars.

I highly recommend both for your reading lists.

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In the late 1960s, when I was a school boy in Germany, I remember that the evening news, along with what was going on in Vietnam, often covered violence in Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants were always murdering each other in violent clashes, shootings and bombings. As a child, I could never understand why Christians would hate each other so much that they’d kill each other, year after year after year.

As a school boy in Bavaria I witnessed almost all my friends and school mates being Catholic. Everyone was Catholic in Bavaria, except a very few. Those who were not Catholic were called “die Evangelischen” which translates to our overall term “Protestant.” In a classroom of 30 to 40 students, there might be one or two Protestants, often none. We knew that, because there was mandatory religion class, where a religion teacher, usually a priest, would teach about religion. We had no choice but participate, except those kids that were Protestant. They were pulled out and went to some other study room, or had their own consolidated Protestant class, except there were so few of them in school that they would not be able to put  enough together to fill a classroom.

Bavarians were generally Catholic, and Protestants were the children of refugees. Refugees in Germany in the sixties always came from the east and were people who were displaced when the Russians closed in on Hitler in World War II. They spoke a very different dialect, so we could tell who they were, and they were usually Protestant.

As a kid, I never gave it much thought.

The book A Column of Fire deals with the subject of Catholicism and Protestantism in the sixteenth century in Europe and particularly in England. Queen Mary Stuart was a staunch Catholic, and Protestantism was against the law. Protestants were called heretics, and the inquisition, staffed by sadistic priests, had the power to accuse anyone of heresy, try them in “court” and burn them at the stake, if convicted. Accused heretics were tortured, like stretched until all four limbs were completely dislocated. Under such torture, most every accused person confessed to heresy, which ended the torture, but started the brutal execution, like being burned naked and alive while the public watched and the clergy looked on. Queen Mary, sometimes called “Bloody Mary” ordered hundreds of such executions of Protestants.

Reading about tortures, I also remembered that as a school boy, I once took a tour of the Regensburg Rathaus (the old town hall). One of the most memorable sights there was the Folterkammer (torture chamber).

I was in that torture chamber and was able to inspect the various implements. As a kid it didn’t affect me much, and I never thought about it. As it turned out, between the years 1533 and 1770, suspected sinners were asked to confess, and if they didn’t confess, they were shown the torture instruments, which I suspect made many of them change their minds. But the key point is, “freedom of religion” as we know it today, is a very recent invention, and just a few hundred years ago, in Germany, in England, and all over the world, if you lived in a predominantly Catholic country, the laws were such that if you were not Catholic, or if you worked against the church, you were a blasphemer or a heretic, and the punishment could easily be death, depending on the severity of the crime as determined by the inquisitor.

That does not mean only the Catholics were the barbarians.

When Queen Mary Stuart died, Queen Elizabeth I ascended to the throne of England. Elizabeth was a Protestant, and professed herself to be a moderate. She said she didn’t believe that people should be killed for their religion. Yes, the country was Protestant, and Catholicism was outlawed, but at least you weren’t summarily killed for it. However, since the Catholics were obsessed with their right, they felt Elizabeth was illegitimate as queen, and they tried various plots to kill her and give the throne to Mary, Queen of Scots – you guessed it – a Catholic.

The church and politics were completely intertwined, and the pope, his cardinals and bishops had as much power as the nobility and wielded it with a brutal hand.

A Column of Fire plays in the fictional town on Kingsbridge about 200 years after World Without End. It starts in 1558 in Kingsbridge and ends in 1620. It follows the lives of various prominent Kingsbridge residents as they do the bidding of famous historical figures, like Queen Mary Stuart, Mary Queen of Scots, King Filipe in Spain, King Henri in France, Sir Francis Drake, and many other historical figures of the time. A Column of Fire is the third book in the Kingsbridge trilogy, or the “Pillars Trilogy” as I have called it. You can read my other reviews here:

The Evening and the Morning – the prequel

Pillars of the Earth – book one

World Without End – book two

A Column of Fire – book three – this review

This is a historical novel about the Christian religion in its dark days. Reading it I am glad I live today, and I live in a country that prides itself of religious freedom – and I say that somewhat facetiously. Catholics and Protestants in the United States don’t kill each other (anymore), but I am not so sure whether all Jewish people and definitely Muslims in the United States today would agree that we have religious freedom. But if you want to learn first-hand what lack of religious freedom means, you should definitely read A Column of Fire.

I like Follett’s books because they make history come alive. It’s one thing to read in a history book that Martin Luther didn’t like what the Catholics were doing and wanted to reform the church, but the Catholics didn’t approve of that. That’s dry, that’s history lectures in school with no context. It’s another thing to be inside the head of a young woman in Paris who sells copies of the Bible in French or English, which were printed clandestinely, and the penalty for being discovered selling illegal books was death. Yes, the Catholic church banned bibles in languages other than Latin and the penalty for violating that rule was death. The Catholic church has, in all its history, actively worked on keeping the people uneducated, so it could wields its power over them and essentially extract money from them for its own enrichment. I may seem on a rant, and off topic now, against the Catholic church, but not really. A Column of Fire brings the power or the church in the 16th century to life in front of your eyes.

This is a very long book with 919 pages and it takes time to read. But it was time well-spent. I am now going to have to read a biography of Martin Luther, as I am embarrassed to say, I know only very rudimentary facts about him and his life and work. I need to fill in that blank. I have also concluded that I need to find a historical novel that plays during the crusades, another time in history that warrants better understanding, and I suspect I will learn more about atrocities committed by the church.

The third American colony was started in New England by the passengers of the Mayflower in 1620. It was in the context of the political structure in England described in A Column of Fire that these first pilgrims stepped onto the Mayflower in search of religious freedom, and now I understand how and why that happened.

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It’s 1985 in St. Petersburg, Florida. Rookie Special Agent Stella York is one of the first female FBI agents, and she does not have the support of her peers or her superiors. Yet, the case she is put on is completely baffling.

Two dead men are found in a van that crashed into a power pole, yet the power pole does not show any damage, while the van is totaled. The van is a GMC model nobody has ever heard of in 1985. Furthermore, the license plate expiration sticker shows “10.”

One of the dead men’s fingerprints are an exact match with those of a prison guard at a local prison – which is impossible. Then, during a chase on I-275 North, she witnesses the gory death of a suspect in a car accident, yet, she runs into him very much alive a day later. Nothing makes sense, until one of the witnesses opens up to her and tells her that she’s dealing with time travelers. From the chronological point of view, events seem to happen out of order.

Agent York is losing all her professional credibility when she approaches her superiors with her theory.

Agent of Time plays in Nathan Van Coops’ universe of the In Times Like These, a series of books I have read. See the reviews here:

In Times Like These

The Chronothon

The Day After Never

The Warp Clock

More specifically, Agent of Time plays within the In Times Like These story. I have read prequels to successful books before, and they are usually entertaining, because I know the world that comes after the prequel ends. But I have never read a book that plays “within the original story.”

If you have read the hugely famous Harry Potter series of books, you will understand what “Muggles” are. In Harry Potter, the action takes place among people who are involved in magic: wizards, sorcerers, and the like. Everyone knows that magic is real, and understands its rules. Muggles are the regular people, like you and I, who do not have magical talents and in almost all cases do not believe in magic and do not know it’s going on all around us – well – at least in the Harry Potter universe.

In Nathan Van Coops’ books, the action takes place among people who routinely travel in time. They take it for granted, and they use it creatively. But the rest of us, the time-Muggles, have no idea time travel is possible, it’s happening, and it’s routine for some people. Agent of Time plays parallel to the story of In Times Like These, but it is told from the point of view of time-Muggles like Stella York. What would it look like if there were time travelers amongst us, doing their things, and what would it be like if there were time traveling criminals?

You don’t need to have read In Times Like These to understand Agent of Time, but you will enjoy it MUCH more if you have. I would recommend that you read In Times Like These first, then read Agent of Time, and you’ll have the best experience.

Agent of Time is a short book of only 137 pages. It was free on Amazon. I literally read the whole thing in one day, yesterday. The author probably was in a rush to get it out, because it fell kind of short. The ending was somewhat abrupt, probably setting us up for the next Stella York story, the time-Muggle. But it’s a good addition to the series, and Van Coops is still, in my opinion, one of the strongest writers in the genre.

 

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It is the year 997 in England, the end of the Dark Ages. The people live in wooden houses and use primitive tools.

Edgar is an eighteen-year-old youth, the son of a boatbuilder. During a Viking raid, his village is destroyed, his father is killed, and his mother and brothers have to move to a new village and start from scratch, trying to survive.

Ragna is the daughter of a Norman nobleman who falls in love with Wilwulf, the ealdorman (you’ll have to look that up here) of Shiring. She moves to England to marry him, but she has no idea what the customs are in her new world. Quickly her life is all but destroyed.

Aldred is a young monk who wants to turn his monastery into a center of learning and culture. This is in the time when copies of books were written by hand, and when books where hugely expensive and impossible to own.

Wynston is the bishop of Shiring, a cunning, brutal man who will stop at nothing, including fratricide, to get what he wants, more power and more riches.

The lives of these four people are interlinked and connected as we watch them struggle for survival, for love and lust, for power and for enlightenment. But in the end, the story is too simple, the plot predictable, and the characters are one-dimensional and not believable.

I bought this book without bothering to first download the preview to see if I’d like it, based completely on the reputation and caliber of the author. I have read the “Kingsbridge Trilogy” starting with Pillars of the Earth, one of the best historical novel I have ever read. The Evening and the Morning is the fourth book of the Kingsbridge series, written as a prequel to Pillars. It plays about a hundred years before Pillars, when the little hamlet that will once become Kingsbridge consists of just a few hovels in the middle of nowhere.

I have no idea why the title of the book is The Evening and the Morning. Surely, Follett could have spent a little more time thinking of a better title. The book is over 900 pages long and it takes patience to read. I was hoping I’d get more history out of the experience, but I really didn’t. The story is a love story, a tale of utter evil and brutishness, power and abuse, sex (too much of it) and melodrama. Disney could have written the story, and it could have played anywhere and at any time. It just turns out it played in the decade between the years 997 and 1007, during the reign of King Ethelred II.

The Evening and the Morning is a nice attempt at a historical novel that describes life during the Dark Ages, or better, the end of the Dark Ages, but it misses a lot of opportunities. Edgar, one of the protagonists, could have been shown as an old man, jumping forward closer to the 1100 period, where Pillars starts. As it turns out, I learned more about the history of that period in England browsing wikipidia.org for Ethelred, the term “ealdorman,” the Viking raids, and court life during that period than I learned from reading The Evening and the Morning. 

Follett is a great writer, and this book leaves me with the feeling that he just wanted to write something quickly and without much imagination to make some money from his loyal followers. The book really doesn’t have anything to do with the Kingsbridge stories, other than it plays 100 years before John Builder first sets foot into the town of Kingsbridge is search of a job.

That’s when it gets exciting. You will not miss anything if you skip The Evening and the Morning.

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We all know who John Bolton is, we all know how his tenure at the White House started and ended, and we know Bolton’s role, or lack thereof, in the Trump impeachment proceedings.

So I don’t have to tell you what this book is about, but I can rather focus on telling you my experience reading the book, about what I learned, and, most importantly, what conclusions I drew.

John Bolton has been around the United States government, and particularly foreign policy, for decades. I knew little about him, and I would simply have categorized him a “hawk” in line with the generally liberal sentiment in my usual circles. When I first heard that Trump was going to install him as National Security Advisor, I was deeply worried that his hawkishness would get us into new conflicts and would even further endanger our already very dangerous world.

I bought the book the day it first came out on June 23, 2020, and started reading it right away. But it is a long book, with detailed, journal-like narration describing events as they took place with sometimes down to the minute accuracy. It really does put the reader into the room where it happened. The book is very long, and takes a long time to read, so I had to interrupt reading it when Mary Trump’s book came out, so I could read that one right way, and then again I had to lay it aside to make room and time for Michael Cohen’s book. But I kept going back and I forced myself to slog through it, and I finished tonight.

Trump fought vehemently to have the publication of The Room Where it Happened blocked. I expected some type of tell-all book, but that’s not at all what it is. It basically talks about the United States foreign policy from the point of view of a man who deeply understands it and has lived it all his life. Since Trump has no understanding of world affairs and any matters that don’t involve him personally, clearly this book will “make Trump look bad,” not because Bolton says Trump is a fool or anything like it, but because Bolton allows us to sit in the room with him, and Trump, and Mulvaney, and Mattis, and Pompeo, and we can watch Trump make a fool of himself by showing clearly and overtly that he does not know what he is talking about, that he has no interest in governing and certainly not foreign affairs, and that he is as smart as the last person he talked to wants him to be. That was particularly dangerous and ludicrously embarrassing for our country when he “negotiated” with Putin, Kim Jong-un, Erdogan, Xi, and pretty much every other adversary of our national interests.

Bolton does not make Trump look bad. Bolton just shows us how inept Trump is for all of us plain to see. Unlike Trump, where his supporters always are quoted saying “he tells it like it is,” Bolton actually does tell it like it is.

Bolton is definitely a proponent of America carrying a big stick and operating from strength. Trump just thinks of himself being the smartest man in the room, and he tells us that all the time, and he thinks he is the big stick. Yet, Bolton shows us clearly that Trump was and is our most serious security risk, consistent with what we have learned from Mattis, McMaster, Coats and the entire national security establishment. I can see why Trump didn’t want this book published.

I know that a lot of Trump supporters have blasted Bolton as a traitor for writing this. Well, let me tell you this: If 3% of all Trump supporters actually read The Room Where it Happened, I’d be very surprised. To read this, you have to be very patient, persistent, interested in foreign polity, and tenacious. This is NOT AN EASY book to read, and I predict most people who buy the book won’t finish it. So let them blab about Bolton being a traitor, or let the liberals blab about him being a hawk. Neither side knows what it is talking about. They have to read the book first before I would take them seriously.

And here is my probably shocking conclusion: On a scale from 1 to 10, my respect for Bolton, for what I knew about him before reading the book, may have been around 2. It’s now at 9 or so. I actually believe he would be an excellent pick for Biden to choose for Secretary of State. It would ensure that our foreign relations would be rebuilt, corrected, and put on a secure footing. Our adversaries would be on notice and our security would be enhanced. By choosing Bolton for this critical slot, Biden would ensure consistency from the past, a strong presence in the world, and he could focus on the many domestic issues that need attention, without having to lose sleep about what’s going on in the world. I know this opinion of mine will shake up some of my readers, but I stand by it.

Now, of course, there is no chance Biden will do such a thing, and history will continue.

I gained a lot of respect for Bolton by reading his book, and his mustache doesn’t bother me one bit.

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When Disloyal came out I knew I had to read it. Who is this most powerful of Trump’s enablers? Who is this guy that I read about long before Trump’s announcement of his candidacy, the ruthless wolverine who came after Trump’s victims and threatened to ruin them if they even tried to assert their rights?

When the White House found out that Cohen was writing this book, they tried everything they could to stop him from publishing it. It was going to be a sensational tell-all book.

Well, it is.

Cohen was there from the beginning. He knows Trump intimately, and he was his most loyal and effective confidante and protector. To understand Trump, we need to read Disloyal, because it tells what it was like to work for Trump.

Here is an excerpt:

We all flew to Green Bay, Wisconsin for the event titled Trump: The New Owner of WWE Raw. All of us invited were eager to experience what we knew was going to be a wild, fun night. In the dressing room under the stadium, we could hear the mounting noise of the crowd coming in, and it was obvious that the place was going to be sold out, not to mention the huge pay-per-view audience. This was when Don Jr. spoke out of turn, at least in the eyes of his taskmaster father. “Hey, Dad, are you nervous?” he asked. “What did you say?” Trump asked, his face reddening. “I’m going in front of millions of people. What kind of stupid fucking question is that? Get out of here.”

We all stood in awkward silence, staring at our shoes, feeling sorry for the son and his perfectly innocent question.

“God damn it,” Trump said with a heavy sigh, as if his son wasn’t present. “The kid has the worst fucking judgment of anyone I have ever met. What a stupid thing to say—to put that thought in my head.” Don Jr. said nothing, also inspecting his shoes, and no doubt desperate to flee. The hurt was evident in his face and demeanor, even though this was hardly the first time I’d heard Trump insult his son and remark on his supposed lack of intelligence. I often wondered why the son stayed around in the face of the abuse of his father, though I knew the answer, because Don Jr. had told me the story.

— Cohen, Michael. Disloyal: A Memoir: The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J. Trump (pp. 83-84). Skyhorse. Kindle Edition.

Obviously, the White House said that Cohen is a liar – and he is, by his own admission – but when you read his story, it’s obvious that he is not making this stuff up. He just tells it like it was, like a journal entry, and he doesn’t really “blast” Trump either. He just describes, almost soberly, some of his more atrocious deeds. The personality of Trump comes out, similar to how it came out in Mary Trump’s book Too Much and Never Enough.

Most of all I was struck with the realization that Trump USED Cohen, over and over again, until — suddenly — when Cohen fell due to his covering for Trump, he was no longer useful to him. Trump immediately disowned and abandoned him. Cohen is now in prison (at this time serving his sentence under house-arrest) and Trump is — still — in the White House. Trump uses people, everyone, his wife, his children, his best friends, his relatives, his employees, his vendors and contractors, and now the entire population of the United States, to serve him. Cohen’s book shows how he does that.

Michael Cohen’s book is not a “great book” or an exceptional memoir. It is a sober book, well told, revealing, and it shows us what Trump really is: a fraud.

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