Book Review: The Unusual Second Life of Thomas Weaver – by Shawn Inmon

In 1976, Thomas Weaver is a sophomore student at Middle Falls High School. He is a socially awkward kid with mediocre grades. His father abandoned the family several years before. His mother raises him and his brother Zack, a senior, as a single mom working as a nurse. Zack is a star of the high school athletic team and one of the most popular kids in school.

One day Zack invites his younger brother to a party. There is heavy drinking going on, and Zack passes out cold. Thomas drags him into the passenger seat of Zack’s Camaro. Even though he only has a learner’s permit, he decides to drive the two of them home. Due to Thomas’ inexperience as a driver, the car spins out of control, flips a few times and when it’s all over, Thomas walks away and his brother, who was flung out of the car during the flips, is dead.

Neither Thomas nor his mother ever get over the loss. He ends up an alcoholic without a job at age 54 and decides to end it all by a massive overdose of pain pills.

And then – he wakes up in his 15-year-old body in the spring of 1976 in his old bedroom. After the initial shock, he realizes that he has a chance to do it all over again, and his most important goal is not to kill Zack this time around. But the business of changing history is not that simple.

I enjoyed reading this story. When I was done, I realized that the author has made a series out of this concept of people reliving their lives, and there are 18 standalone books, all part of the Middle Falls series, apparently all based on this premise. I am sure many of them will be quite entertaining. But one is enough for me.

Book Review: The Sheep Queen – by Thomas Savage

I recently watched the movie The Power of the Dog, which was based on the novel by Thomas Savage, an author I had never heard about before. A friend saw that post and commented that Thomas Savage was one of her favorite authors and that The Sheep Queen was one of the greatest novels she had read. Enough reasons for me to read The Sheep Queen.

The Sheep Queen is the matriarch of a family of ranchers and the story spans the time from the late 1800s into about the mid 1960s. We learn about mining, ranching, the economics of sheep ranching and life in the American West through the points of view of some of the ancestors of the family and, of course, her children and grandchildren.

Savage’s style of storytelling is discontinuous. Sometimes the story plays in the present, sometimes long ago, and it’s up to the reader to figure out what’s going on and who is talking. This is one of those novels where you realize, about 30 percent in, that you might have to read it again to figure out all that is really going on. Some critics call that part of a literary style, and that may well be true. For me, who has little extra time, I don’t usually have the patience to read books twice, so I resign myself to not fully understanding all the connections and details, and I miss some of the plot.

I am not sure whether I like Savage’s style, or if it’s too pretentious for me. I can definitely say it’s different from anything else I have read.

The fact that the book is titled The Sheep Queen is a bit misleading. She is not really actually the main character in the book, if there is a main character at all. She does connect all the characters, but the story is less about her than it is about her children and grandchildren. And that is the whole plot. This is a family saga about life in Idaho and Montana, and the pleasures and pains that make up the essence of human existence.

It’s a book about people.

 

Book Review: Fairy Tale – by Stephen King

Charlie Reade and his parents lived in a small town in Illinois. When he was just eight years old he lost his mother in a horrific accident in the winter when a plumber’s truck lost control on an icy bridge that she was walking across. Charlie and his father called it the goddam bridge after that, and neither of them quite recovered. His father was taken over by alcoholism, and Charlie not only had to deal with the tragic death of his mother, but also the loss of his father to the stupor and catastrophe of drinking.

Adversity caused a lot of trouble for the young boy, but it also made him strong. Against the odds, he helped his father overcome the drink. He became a popular kid in high school and he was a star athlete in several sports. One day when he was 17, walking in his neighborhood, he heard the pained howl of an old dog behind a dilapidated old Victorian house. Old Mr. Bowditch, a recluse, had fallen off his ladder when cleaning his gutters and broken his leg. His old German Shepard Radar was trying to get him help.

Charlie called emergency services and thus saved Mr. Bowditch’s life. He also volunteered to take care of Radar while she would be alone when her master was in the hospital. Boy and dog became friends.

Then Charlie noticed strange and frightening mewling sounds coming out of the locked shed behind the old house. Thus started Charlie’s adventure in a completely different world of magic and gruesome fairy tales.

Stephen King is a master story teller, as I have said many times. He also likes to create alternative worlds parallel to our own, like he did in the book he authored with Peter Straub called The Talisman. There is a world called “the Territories,” a strange fantasy land parallel to the American heartland where there are equivalent characters to our world, and some of them can cross over.

In Fairy Tale, most of the story takes place in such an alternative universe where magic is commonplace, and where the struggle between good and deep evil consumes the people. Of course, Charlie stumbles into this struggle and finds himself in the role of “the Prince” whose mission is to save the world and restore its beauty.

This book is not for everyone. The Fairy Tale world is pretty whacky and I admit that you had better be a Stephen King fan, otherwise you might fade about 30% into the book. But out of this world as it was, I stuck with it. I wanted to find out what would happen next, and whether Charlie and Radar would ever return back to Illinois.

Fairy Tale is partly a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and there are concepts of illness, disease and societal destruction that take place that clearly influenced King’s thoughts. It is not his best book, but it is truly a Stephen King book and therefore entertainment through and through.

 

Book Review: Unidentified – by Douglas E. Richards

Jason Ramsey is a science fiction writer who becomes obsessed with UFOs, particularly in light of the huge media activity about UFOs in the years between 2017 and 2021. He is on a quest to find out what UFOs really are, why they are here, and what their intentions are.

In his quest for the truth, he discovers realities upon realities that none of us are aware of, right in front of our faces, as he unravels not just the role of humanity on this planet, but the role of humanity on a galactic scale.

Of course, no good science fiction story would be complete without a heroine who is exceedingly smart, superbly attractive, trained as a lethal combatant, and of course in love with the hero.

Unidentified tries to grapple with what UFOs are and what role aliens play in our lives. It speculates extensively about alien technology and alien motives. The book is extremely well researched and documented with literature references.

It is definitely a page-turner, and it had me interested to find out what is going on. There is a lot that got me thinking, but there were also many areas that I felt were over the top, particularly where it concerns alien invasion of human minds, implanting memories, and controlling human actions.

I liked the fact that the author made this a stand-alone book. He could have easily made it a setup for a series, but he chose to finish the story.

I enjoyed it enough to pick up another book by the author right away which I am reading now.

 

 

Movie Review: The Rose Maker (2021)

Eve Vernet is one of France’s pre-eminent horticulturalist. She creates and cultivates roses. It’s been the family business for generations.

Now, however, the business is on the verge on bankruptcy. While she knows how to create roses, she does not have much business sense. The only employee she has left is her secretary and helper Véra, who shows more loyalty to Eve and the business than is probably warranted. To help out, Véra contracts with a rehabilitation agency and signs up three ex-convicts as employees to get the business back on its feet. However, none of them have any gardening experience, let alone know about roses.

Through creativity, hard work, and a little bending of the rules, they come up with a plan to rescue the farm.

The Rose Maker is a French comedy with subtitles. Due to that, I am sure I missed a lot of subtleties in the culture and the language that probably diminished my experience of the film. Nevertheless, I learned a lot about roses, and I have looked at my own roses in front of my house with new appreciation. The Rose Maker is a fun movie, and so non-Hollywood it’s refreshing.

Movie Review: Death on the Nile

Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is a Belgian veteran of World War I. He is on vacation in Egypt in the company of an elite group of travelers. When a murder takes place on their boat, he makes it his mission to investigate the case and hopefully solve it. It was not clear to me why a fellow traveler can just appoint himself to law enforcement, but that’s just a fine point. It’s a movie, right?

Of course, the cinematography is amazing. Who is not impressed with the backdrop of the pyramids of Giza? There are even some pictures of people climbing the pyramids. Everyone is always impeccably dressed in white suits and colorful, elaborate dresses and hats. If I traveled in Egypt, I’d be wearing a T-shirt, khakis and sandals or hiking boots. The movie makes a strong impression of the period which is sometime after WW I.

While the story is sometimes cheesy and stilted, the glamor makes up for it, and the plot is very carefully constructed, as is almost always the case with a murder mystery. We have seen hundreds of whodunnit movies, and this is just another one. It follows all the tricks and the playbook.

Still, it’s a great movie and an adventure to watch.

 

 

 

 

3.5 stars

Book Review: Timeline – by Michael Crichton

Timeline was first published in 1999 and, having read most of Crichton’s books, I head read it right away. I remembered it vaguely as a time travel thriller. So I picked it back up again a couple of weeks ago.

In France, a group of archeologists are studying a medieval village, complete with two castles and a monastery. All the buildings are ruins, of course, but they have a rich history dating back to the 14th century, while the Hundred Years’ War was raging, and England was routinely attacking and invading France.

Their research is being funded by a multinational corporation. The company is led by a self-obsessed science tycoon in his mid thirties. It has developed a technology based on quantum science that allows them to travel in time. When one of the archeologists goes back to 1357 and does not come back, the company coerces some of the young scientists to follow him and bring him back.

To avoid anachronisms, they are not allowed to bring any technology, modern weapons or any objects from the future. When they arrive, practically in the middle of a battle, trouble starts quickly and the race to get back home begins.

Timeline is less of a time travel novel, and more a historical novel. The majority of the story takes place during a mere 39 hours starting on April 7, 1357. The protagonists have to battle knights, solve riddles, and play the opposing parties of the war. The whole thing is reminiscent of an episode of the modern television series The Amazing Race: “And now the contestants have to invent gunpowder to impress Lord Oliver. They only have two hours to do it or they’ll be thrown in the dungeon and miss their chance to make it to the next stop.”

Timeline is a historical thriller with a neat plot twist, where scientists get to visit the heyday of the castles, the ruins of which they study in the 21st century.

Book Review: Farnham’s Freehold – by Robert A. Heinlein

It’s the early 1960ies somewhere in Colorado near a military facility.

Hugh Farnham is a fifty-ish former soldier with an alcoholic and self-indulgent wife and two grown children. Like many of his contemporaries during the cold war, he is worried about nuclear war and has built a fully stocked bomb shelter under the ground in his back yard. One evening, when both his children are home, and his daughter brought a girlfriend, they play Bridge when suddenly the alarm is broadcast. There are incoming ballistic missiles. “This is not a test!”

Hugh and his family and friends, along with their negro house employee, move into the bomb shelter just in time to avoid the first nuclear blast right above them. Now Hugh’s planning and survivalist skills come into play.

** Minor Spoilers Follow **

There are several blasts. The last is the most severe, and somehow the bomb shelter along with all its occupants is catapulted some 2,000 years into the future. American (or what’s left of it) society at that time is very, very different. Eventually the Farnhams find themselves taken prisoner and enslaved. In the effort of trying to cope with their hopeless situation, they learn more and more about the local customs, traditions, science and history. Hugh is a free spirit who never gives up hope, and he meticulously plans his escape.

I read Farnham’s Freehold many years ago, but I had forgotten just about everything about it. A friend recommended it as a classic Heinlein with time travel (albeit involuntary) as a central plot construct. We all know that Heinlein was a master of his craft, and Farnham’s Freehold is no exception. In typical Heinlein style, there is very little exposition. The characters talk constantly, and through dialog Heinlein tells the story. Everything comes to life. Of course, there is some nudity and sex – there always seems to be in Heinlein novels. The plot is meticulously crafted.

Have you ever found yourself reading the beginning of a book sort of absentmindedly, because you can’t get into it, but as you progress, you get pulled in? And then, when you get toward the end, you realize you missed something  at the beginning, so you stop where you are and start over again? Well, that’s exactly what happened to me. Once I got to page 322, I just had to check the beginning, and I went back to read the first 40 pages again, and sure enough, there were significant events there that contributed to the story that I had missed. Generally, when that happens to me with a book, it’s a pretty good one.

Farnham’s Freehold is an apocalyptic tome, a survivalist story, a time jump into a distant future with a very alien culture, and a neat plot twist at the end that makes it all worthwhile.

Book Review: Time Tunnel: The Empire – by Richard Todd

Kyle Mason changed world history in Book 1 when he prevented 9/11. His wife Padma, who had died in 9/11, was alive again when he returned. Since Kyle and Padma knew the future between 2001 and 2008, they started a company and became fabulously wealthy by playing the stock market (Apple, for example) and capitalizing on the 2008 market crash. Padma and Kyle were the world’s first and only trillionaires. Padma, the face of their company, essentially “bought” the U.S. government and the country openly called her the Empress of America. She was running things.

That backdrop raised authoritarian opposition, ending in an eventual coup d’etat in America and totalitarian rule. One day emperors, the next day fugitives, Padma and Kyle retrenched to the time tunnel complex in Las Vegas. As government forces chased them down, they hurriedly escaped into time. Without proper navigation, they ended up in 1890 in South Dakota, just before the massacre at Wounded Knee. It was time for Kyle to change the nation’s history again.

Most of the story takes place in Sioux country. The plot, while sometimes contrived, kept me turning the pages. When I was done, I picked up Book 3 right away.

 

 

Book Review: Time Tunnel: The Twin Towers – by Richard Todd

The story starts in the morning of September 10, 2001 in New York City. Kyle Mason, a major in the Special Forces, has just married Padma Mahajan, who works on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. She is an investment banker for Cantor Fitzgerald. They are staying in a hotel in SoHo, and out their window they can see the Twin Towers. Padma leaves to get Starbucks, while Kyle takes a shower. When he gets out, a mysterious figure appears in the mirror behind him.

Vignettes reach back to 1947 when supposedly UFOs crashed in Roswell, New Mexico. There are episodes of the story in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s and through the years, culminating in 2008 when a handful of brilliant scientists, sheltered and covered by the U.S. Army in Area 51, finally develop a working time machine.

Richard Todd is a good story teller and he creates credible characters, with good realistic dialog, and a fast-paced plot. I enjoyed reading this book until the last sentence, at which time I decided to buy Book 2 of the 3-book series.

 

Book Review: Time of Death – by Nathan Van Coops

A young widow hires Greyson Travers, a private detective, to investigate the suicide of her husband. Since she does not believe her husband would commit suicide, she thinks it was murder, but she has no proof. Travers has a great reputation for solving crimes, so she hires him to figure out what happened.

What she does not know, of course, is that Travers is a time traveler. Rather than figuring out what might have happened, he simply goes back to the time and place of the crime and watches it happen. What could be simpler?

He quickly realizes that the crime is much more complicated than it appears, and there are other time-traveling criminals involved.  He quickly finds himself ensnared by the mob and some very dangerous characters who use time travel to commit crimes.

Greyson Travers is the son of Ben and Mym Travers of Van Coops’ In Time Like These series of books, all of which I found highly readable. It is not necessary to read those books before enjoying Time of Death. It stands alone, and the author slowly introduces the concepts of time travel of the In Times Like These universe without it getting in our faces.

I have read all of those books, and if you’re interested, here is a summary of my reviews. You can click on the titles to jump right to them.

Nathan Van Coops Agent of Time Fiction Time Travel 2 Dec 13, 2020
Nathan Van Coops The Warp Clock Fiction Time Travel 3 Oct 9, 2018
Nathan Van Coops The Day after Never Fiction Time Travel 2 Jan 2, 2017
Nathan Van Coops The Chronothon Fiction Time Travel 3 Dec 3, 2016
Nathan Van Coops In Times Like These Fiction Time Travel 3 Oct 31, 2016

Time of Death is basically a murder mystery and it deals with a heist.

There was only one issue I had with the plot. The mob figures in the story have the ability to travel in time, but they organize this weird heist to collect cash from a casino. Seriously, if I were a time traveler, it would be so much easier to get rich, without hurting anyone, without cheating anyone else. Why not go back to 1980 and buy some Apple stock? Then come back to 2022 and enjoy the fruits of that decision. Oh well, there would be no murder mystery then.

I enjoyed all of Nathan Van Coops’ books, and I rated them all between 2 and 3 stars. They are always very readable and fast-paced. Time of Death is a fairly short book and a quick, fun read.

Movie Review: Stillwater (2021)

Bill Baker (Matt Damon) is an oil-rig worker in Stillwater, Oklahoma. Things are not going well for him. He is unemployed and defeated. His college-age estranged daughter Allison is gay. She has already served five years of a nine-year sentence in prison in France for the alleged murder of her girlfriend.

Bill is sure of his daughter’s innocence, and without anything else to do, he travels to France and rents a place in Marseilles. He does not speak any French. When he tries the legal avenues to free his daughter, the language barrier and the complexity of the legal system get in the way. When it becomes obvious to him that the authorities are not going to help re-opening the case, he decides to take matters in his own hands.

Stillwater is a well-crafted tale of a vigilante father trying to make things right for his estranged daughter. The trailer made it seem like another Liam Neeson-esque story with lots of action by a bad-ass father getting even, but it’s not like that. Matt Damon plays Bill Baker like a real roughneck. Supposedly Damon went to spend time in Oklahoma getting to know oil workers to be able to become one.

He did that well, and it carries the movie. The plot has some interesting twists and that makes it worth watching.

 

Book Review: The Light Years – by R.W.W. Greene

The year is 3235. Adem is a trader who has lived the majority of his life on a small starship, named Hajj. After the ruin of Earth, mankind has populated a handful of exoplanets, some more successfully than others. Starships connect the planets traveling at almost the speed of light. To go from one star to another, say a dozen lightyears away, will therefore take a bit more than the 12 years, since we must accommodate time for acceleration and deceleration. Due to the effects of relativity, while such a journey will take 12 years, from the point of view of the occupants of the ship, only a few months go by.

Adem is a young man of marriageable age. It is common for families to arrange marriages. They pick out an eligible couple on a planet, pay them handsomely to have a daughter who will eventually marry into the family. Adem picks his future bride, Hisako, before she is even conceived, let alone born. They make a deal, pay Hisako’s parents a life-changing amount of money, and Adem returns to the ship and embarks on another trading trip to one of the planets. The time spent on that trip, relative to Adem, will be less than two years. By the time he comes back, two years older, his unborn bride will have grown up, gone through school, graduated from university and be ready to join him as his 24-year-old wife.

Needless to say, complications arise.

I love stories about time dilation. Haldeman’s The Forever War is a book I read twice for that reason, as it works the effects very well into the plot. The Light Years is all about the effects of time dilation and it illustrates many fascinating concepts. However, the author is using too much magic science to make it happen. As an example, the starships in The Light Years travel at more than 99% of the speed of light. This is necessary for the plot to have the significant time dilation effects. However, he never even tries to explain how the ships accomplish that. They just do, never mind that it takes infinite energy for an object to reach lightspeed. There is also no attempt to explain where the fuel comes from to generate this energy, or how the ships protect themselves from interstellar dust.

The author tells the story from the viewpoints of the two protagonists, Adem and Hisako, in alternating chapters, each titled with the name of the character. I have seen this done before in other books and it can work well, but it didn’t do that here. Adem’s chapters were written in the third person, just from his viewpoint, while Hisako’s chapters were written in the first person, with Hisako directly telling the story. This threw me off throughout the book, and it was unnecessary. The third person worked a little better – it usually does – so I would have just changed Hisako’s chapters and the result would have been a more readable, better book.

In the end, if you are interested in time dilation, you have to read The Light Years, the non-science parts notwithstanding. We observe human life on several planets. Obviously, traders live thousands of “normal” years as they go on their journeys, and they can never come back “home” to any place, as it will have aged decades.

It’s a fun, speculative read.

Book Review: A Place Called Freedom – by Ken Follett

Twenty-one-year-old Mack McAsh and his twin sister are trapped working in the coal mines in Scotland in 1766. Coal miners work under the harshest possible conditions. The men go to work early in the morning and labor in the mines, picking the coal from assigned spots deep underground. The women and children then haul the coal on their backs up rickety staircases in the shafts. All day long. Every day except Sunday. Miners also have no way out. Often, through complex laws, they become lifelong slaves of the mine owners.

Lizzie Hallim is noble-born and therefore has a very different kind of life. However, while the miner’s oppression is simple, the fate of a noblewoman out of favor can be complex and just as brutal.

Mack escapes this fate and tries to make it on his own, first by escaping to London, then, through circuitous ways to the New World, a plantation in Virginia.

A Place Called Freedom follows these protagonists on their journey to escape injustice during a time of revolution. They are searching for a better life, a simple life, but above all, a life of freedom.

Book Review: Underground Railroad – by Colson Whitehead

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