Review: The Devil’s Dictum by Frederick Gero Heimbach

The Devil’s Dictum by Frederick Gero Heimbach (2015)

I enjoy books that defy easy categorization, that don’t “slot in” to a genre and revisit tropes that the experienced reader has seen before. The Devil’s Dictum doesn’t do that, oh no. This is one of the most unusual, original and creative books I’ve read in a long, long time.

The Amazon description refers to “original and mind-blowing alternate history,” but I don’t know if that’s even big and expansive enough: This is a world where Hitler is the President of the United States (for a while, anyway), where the “Pilgrims” were driven away from Plymouth Rock and established Haiti as their nation, where pirates and Satanists are the “Founding Fathers.” I wouldn’t exactly call it alternative history, to me it was a fantastic, strange alternative Universe, that shouldn’t even work, but does, through the author’s intimate knowledge of the human heart and its foibles, and I suppose, sheer force of authorial will.

The Devil’s Dictum is listed under Steampunk Fiction, Steampunk Science Fiction and “Colonization Science Fiction” as its genres, but that’s way too confining and doesn’t do it full justice. I think new categories should probably been invented for this book: Comedic Dystopian Steampunk Political Satire, perhaps. Like I said, it defies easy categorization, and I loved that.

Since the above doesn’t completely highlight the sheer audacity of this work, a brief plot summary is needed: In a 1946 United States that truly is a nation of immigrants because it has no women, and thus no babies, the Special Master to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (a de facto dictator) is essentially an assassin and enforcer, The House of Representatives is locked inside of its chamber in total darkness and insanity, and the Elite of the Nation’s Capital get around by raven taxi, that is, taxis lifted into the air by squads of literal ravens.

I don’t know how many writers could conceive of any of this, much less pull it off, but Heimbach makes it work, to the extent that after a few pages my disbelief was quite suspended, thank you, and the internal logic of the strange world these people live in became–logical and believable.

I’m not going to describe in detail the events that ensue, but they all fit together nicely, in the end.

And indeed, in the end I think of this book especially as a brilliant satire, of our politicians and elites and of pretense and Will to Power. Brilliant in many ways, in its vivid descriptive language, the characters that exhibit various degrees of evil but also the feelings and urges of all human beings, and in the satisfying way it all comes out in the end.

If you had described the situation and the circumstances and the world of The Devil’s Dictum to me beforehand, I would have doubted that the author could pull such a thing off.

Yet, he did. Highly recommended.

(Addendum: Heimbach recently published a new book, Ronald Reagan’s Brilliant Bullet, which I certainly plan to read. “The setting is the Cold War and Ronald Reagan has a shiny new toy to play with: a rocket powered suit. He’ll need it to battle the terrifying monstrosity Leonid Brezhnev is building on a secret base in Siberia.” What’s not to like?)

Review: Te Kererū Book 2 – Shaking the Nest by S.G. Smith

(My previous review of Te Kererū Book 1 – The Nest is here).

 Te Kererū Book 2 – Shaking the Nest is available at GumRoad

“Te Kererū” is the Māori name for the native New Zealand wood pigeon, a beautiful and tasty bird. When three-year-old Katherine Taylor, a “Pākehā” (white person) is orphaned by a massive landslide, she is adopted by the regional Māori chief–and by the village and its people. Given the nickname Te Kererū, little Kate is different, quiet, mysterious, apparently the proverbial “old soul.” But the book subtly hints she’s something more than this, something bigger…”

I was notably enthusiastic about S.G. Smith’s first novel, part one of what promises to be a long and fascinating journey. In Book 2, we follow Kate during her transition from girl to the edge of womanhood, learn a lot more about New Zealand society and Māori culture and life, and get deeply into the fascinating world that the author has created from the elements of the real New Zealand and her imagination

The world of Te Kererū is, as the author refers to it, “speculative fiction,” with the Māori group/clan and its village and the nearby city and lands specifically not closely based on any real life example. It seems to me to be a sort of idealized depiction, what could, and may, be in the future. I began to realize more as I read this second book that Kate is an archetype, a Stranger in a Strange Land who becomes embedded in a different culture and (perhaps?) brings new perspectives and a new integration of different worlds.

But this book is a sort of serial, bearing a resemblance to the great old movie houses where the audience come back every Saturday and watched another episode, with new revelations and resolution of some issues, followed by new complications.

In this installment the big complication is Kate’s budding womanhood, but with surprising and important differences from the usual and well-worn tropes we’ve seen in a hundred Hollywood movies. Kate is exceptional, in some ways brilliant, wise beyond her years, but also very introverted and some might even say mildly “autistic.”

In fact, I’m as fascinated by Kate as by any character I’ve read in fiction for a long time. We learn a lot about her, but somehow most of it seems external, the keen observations of others. There is internal dialogue and descriptions of Kate’s thinking, and yet even after two books Kate is still something of a mystery to me, and I like that. She seems destined for something big–but what?

The author has skillfully built a a truly interesting world, and a woman, that I want to find out much more about. And that’s my definition of a good book.

Te Kererū Book 2 – Shaking the Nest on GumRoad includes Book 1 as a package deal, so you don’t need to worry if you haven’t read the first volume. Highly recommended.

Review: The Gentleman Farmers by Loretta Malakie

(My review of Loretta Malakie’s previous novel Love in the Age of Dispossession is here).

I’ve become very interested in “second novels,” having published my own in January. After reading and enjoying Loretta Malakie’s Love in the Age of Dispossession I was thus very interested when I heard some months ago she was writing a second book, The Gentleman Farmers.

Maggie Kingsbury, single middle-aged alcoholic lawyer, joins her in-laws Molly and Kevin on a homestead in the mountains of North Carolina, where their trustafarian college frenemies Brock and Sandra have just bought their third home. Molly commissions Brock to renovate an old Appalachian tobacco barn on their property. But when maverick hillbilly throwback Uncle Billy shows up to live in their field in a camper van, power struggles ensue. Meanwhile, Kevin has become dangerously obsessed with breeding heritage livestock. When Maggie’s beloved niece Juliet asks her to take on a mysterious client, Maggie becomes implicated in a national political furor.

A second novel should be better than the first in a lot of ways–after all,  the author has experience, the author has practice. Even more important, at least in my experience the author has confidence, that he or she can get the job done. Even in the times I was struggling the most with my second book, I felt like if I just kept pushing words out it would all work together. And it did.

Meanwhile Ms. Malakie was working on The Gentlemen Farmers, and as much as I liked Love in the Age of Dispossession, in some ways this second novel is a better book, a little smoother, a little better edited, and quite a bit funnier. There are more “laugh out loud” moments here, but Malakie hasn’t lost her touch when it comes to illustrating, and mourning, the gradual degradation of Normal America, small town America, where people got along, had children, where children knew their grandparents and aunts and uncles. That’s gone now, in much of America, but Maggie Kingsbury is old enough to remember it and describe it to us, and how it was lost, or taken away, by our so-called “elites,” through immigration and “offshoring,” all of it to fatten the bottom lines of multinational corporations.

The characters in The Gentleman Farmers only come to realize this gradually, as their small New York town becomes unlivable, and as their new North Carolina area begins to show the cracks, as well. It’s the teenager Juliet that points out that becoming gentleman farmers, cultivating heirloom tomatoes and heritage breeds, has become a substitute for  cultivating our own culture and heritage. The author connects the current “statue wars” to the same situation in a neat package, and it becomes clear, how all of it’s connected.

Comedy, tragedy, love, life and death, Malakie deftly handles them all in The Gentleman Farmers. As “second novels” or any novels go, it’s terrific and highly recommended.

Love in the Age of Dispossession on Amazon

The Gentleman Farmers on Amazon

 

Review: The Dream of the Iron Dragon by Robert Kroese

The Dream of the Iron Dragon (Saga of the Iron Dragon, Volume 1) by Robert Kroese

The essence of a good book, a good story, is the right mix of the familiar and the surprising. Robert Heinlein was a master of this: Boy Scouts on Ganymede, the Chamber of Commerce on the Moon, that sort of thing.

Robert Kroese also seems to be a master of it:

In the 23rd century, humanity has been hunted to the verge of extinction by an alien race. When an exploratory ship accidentally travels back in time to Viking-age Scandinavia, the human race is given a second chance.

We have interstellar travel (through wormholes), war with an alien race, time travel and…Vikings.

While the first is familiar from various books and films going back 80 years or more, and the next two going back all the way to H. G. Wells, Kroese manages to bring a fresh perspective and make his universe both logical and plausible. It turns out that while both humans and their rival race, the Cho-ta’an, can use the wormholes for interstellar travel, nobody understands exactly how they work. Like all good science fiction, after a certain point in the book the reader doesn’t think about these things any more, just enjoys the events and story, because the universe of the book is plausible and accepted in his or her mind.

The Vikings are…real. The author has obviously done a lot of work and study to get the details of his Vikings right (they’re Norwegian, by the way, and really don’t like the Danes). Viking weapons, tactics, ships, social organization and customs all seem solid, and fit together to make a holistic picture of the society the 23rd century spacers find themselves dropped into.

So the plot and setting are well done, but wait, there’s more! Something I noticed when I read Kroese’s Schrödinger’s Gat a couple of years ago was his mastery of character, the human details and short, vivid bits of dialogue that make his characters memorable and real. This is on display again in The Dream of the Iron Dragon and is a big part of why I like this book so much–the people in it. That includes the ship’s crew, the Vikings and also the Cho-ta’an, the “aliens” who appear in person extensively and who Kroese makes into believable “people,” too.

The Dream of the Iron Dragon reminds me of  Niven and Pournelle’s The Mote in God’s Eye, which those with some knowledge of classic science fiction will recognize as high praise. But Kroese’s work is not derivative in any way, instead it’s original, well-written and it satisfies.

I’m happy that it’s Part One of a series; I’ve already purchased The Dawn of the Iron Dragon and I’m certain I’ll be buying and reading The Voyage of the Iron Dragon.

Highly recommended.

(I discovered Robert Kroese through Twitter (@robkroese) and he’s got more than 20 titles out–I have a feeling I’ll be enjoying a lot more of them in the future).

Repost: Occam and Me on JFK and 9/11

(My first piece ever at that grand old group blog The Mitrailleuse, November 2014. With an intellectual background like the one below, no wonder I wrote a novel titled Sanity…)

The first reference to Occam’s Razor I ever saw, age 12, was in Robert Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel, which sent me to the encyclopedia (and yes, I’m that old), because who could read the mysterious words “Occam’s Razor” and not be dying to know what it was?

I began reading about the assassination of President  Kennedy when I was 14, my interest sparked by Josiah Thompson‘s book Six Seconds in Dallas, which I found through the proven technique of a random walk through the public library stacks, scanning spines for anything that caught my eye and grabbing it. Who knows why or how these fascinations begin, but by the time I finished Thompson’s well-written and reasonable book I was hooked, leaning toward the “second gun” theory, and on the prowl for more of the seemingly endless supply of fact (and especially, fancy) on the events of November 22, 1963. Continue reading

Review: [Think] Like a Mind Reader by Jonathan Pritchard

[Think] Like a Mind Reader by Jonathan Pritchard (2017, paperback only)

A while back a smart friend and I were discussing the characteristics of a good self-help or self-improvement book. There’s a limited amount of “new” information that can be transmitted by now, mostly based on “new” scientific studies, which nearly always confirm the basic premises first espoused by Dale Carnegie, Norman Vincent Peale, or…Aristotle. So to be good, to be really useful, a book needs a new synthesis. By coming at, combining, mostly old, sound materials in a new way, a way that stimulates action, a book can make itself valuable.

Jonathan Pritchard has succeeded in making [Think] Like a Mind Reader a valuable book. His new approach is coming at it as a “mind reader,” a mentalist. In practice, he was able to take his skills beyond the his stage show (though he still does that) and leverage them into a consulting business and corporate training.

His new synthesis here isn’t about mind reading techniques. It’s about deepening understanding of thought, and our understanding of limits. Most of the limits there are, we place upon ourselves. As he points out in the introduction, after a childhood of strictures and “no-nos” and being taught to suppress our “badness,”  “[W]e learn there are thoughts we are not allowed to think.”

As I went through the first few sections of the book, I was nodding in agreement, but also, for an old dog like me, there was a certain familiarity–enthusiasm, interest, positive thinking, logic…but gradually, I sensed a fresh approach. There is some “mind reading” technique material, but more than anything mind reading takes focus, an intense awareness of the moment. Thinking like a mind reader takes, first, desire, a giving of oneself rather than an “extraction” of information.

This is what the author brings to the table that’s different than most. There are a lot of great self-improvement books available. I’ve studied many of them, and even taken action on some of their ideas. Anthony Robbins’s Unlimited Power was one that I picked up at the right time in my life, for the right reasons, that made a big difference. Strangely enough, the actions have produced the results.

[Think] Like a Mind Reader is a book that can make a difference. If you’re a younger person with less experience there may be a lot that’s new here, but anyone of any age may find a gem in the book that makes a difference in their life. The material is presented in a breezy, entertaining style that should hold your interest, anyway.

I first encountered Jonathan Pritchard on Twitter (the_pritchard). That platform has introduced me to many fascinating people and their books and writings. Now I’m looking at Pritchard’s book on Wing Chun Kung Fu and thinking about trying it out.

Te Kererū Book 1 – The Nest by Susan Smith

Te Kererū Book 1 available at GumRoad

The best thing about being on Twitter has been discovering new authors. I also love the humor, but good books > funny .gifs.

I’ll do another post with the (long) list of fine writers and their books I’ve discovered there, but today we focus on one delightful little book (or Part I of a delightful long book) Te Kererū by Susan G. Smith.

“Te Kererū” is the Māori name for the native New Zealand wood pigeon, a beautiful and tasty bird. When three-year-old Katherine Taylor, a “Pākehā” (white person) is orphaned by a massive landslide, she is adopted by the regional Māori chief–and by the village and its people. Given the nickname Te Kererū, little Kate is different, quiet, mysterious, apparently the proverbial “old soul.” But the book subtly hints she’s something more than this, something bigger…

Without trying hard in any way, we’re educated about the New Zealand Māori culture and society, something I had only a slight knowledge of before reading Te Kererū. The author obviously loves her country and its people and the book opened up a new piece of the world for me, as I believe it will for most readers.

Her style is clear, limpid is the old-fashioned word, mostly short declarative sentences, but skillfully layered one upon another, sips not gulps, and very satisfying, in the long run.

The story is developed through a series of scenes or vignettes, glimpses of events and pieces of conversations, a technique I also use and can appreciate. Each chapter is a facet of a gem, and gradually we begin to see something taking shape, a mission or a destiny, and…end of Book 1.

Like the wonderful old movie serials, the present volume leaves the reader wanting more. This isn’t so common these days, but I’m all right with it. I understand the next book will be available soon, which I hope is true.

Because the only thing I didn’t like about this book was that it ended.

Te Kererū, Book 1 by Susan G. Smith

The Iron Way: A Narrative of Crisis by John Solomon Bain

Some books entertain, and some make you think about something in a new way.

Some resonate, inject the mind with a bit of the truth that you never would have been gifted with, had you not read that book. And this is a very individual thing; a given book might be life-changing for me, but leave you wondering what the fuss is all about.

John Solomon Bain’s The Iron Way: A Narrative of Crisis resonated with me. Before I get into it, it’s important to note that Bain has recently read my book Sanity, and engaged with it at Man With a Purpose. As he said there:

Note: this is not a review. I don’t write reviews. This is a response. I don’t bother writing about books that aren’t worth reading.

I like the way he puts it. This, too, is not a review, but a response.

The Iron Way depicts a man, today, here in Current Year America, a man with the proverbial Wonderful Life. Material abundance, a good and loving wife, children, health. Yet, like many of us (for this is me, too) he has the feeling that:

[T]hings are not quite how they ought to be. But ultimately I am powerless to change the cosmic tide. The world is broken, and has been since the days of our sire. Even in ancient times you had writers like Hesiod who thought he lived in a fallen time, and looked back into the mists of legend and dreamt of a time when mortals lived freely with the gods.

It is a feeling, then, that men have had for a very long time, perhaps since they became men, as such. And yet, with universal literacy and technological change and the “easy life” we know now, the feeling only seems to have gotten stronger. When necessity and duty and tradition were the powerful principles governing human action there was little time for worry about whether things were as they ought be be, except for aristocratic intellectuals who could read and had time on their hands.

We are all, in effect, intellectuals now.

The narrator of The Iron Way “weep[s] for the stupidity of my existence” even as he drives to his beautiful home and his patient, loving wife, or to his professorship at the university, the work that he desired and strove for so many hours and years to obtain. Yet, at work he cannot really be himself, concealing his truths in conversations with politically correct colleagues. When and where can a man “be himself,” now, hunter, warrior, conqueror, killer? Not at university, almost nowhere in our unisex, equality-obsessed society.

But a man can write. There is one place, still, we’re truly, totally free; in our minds and in the words we write. Perhaps those words are not all for publication, but some of us burn to let the words out, and burn to share some of them, the right ones, with the world. The Iron Way is a book of the banality of modernity, of being a man in a feminizing culture, but at the root it’s a book about writing, the agony and the ecstasy of it.

I sit there, staring numbly at the cursor in the blank document for several minutes, My mind keeps wandering to the game I want to play. I wish I was more driven. I feel and overwhelming need to write that haunts me day and night, and has my entire life. I wake up in the middle of the night with fear of things left unwritten.

I feel the Dionysian spirit for a moment. The room begins to fade from consciousness as I write in a state of feverish madness. Time slips away. As I slide into the act of creation, I approach the Real.

The narrator talks elsewhere about his efforts to live the hard life, living in the woods like Thoreau, lifting heavy weights, but the real hard life, and his purpose, is to write.

There have been many good novels that explore the idiocies of modernity, the cancer of feminism, the crisis of “manhood,” but few have explored the writer, the writing life and why we do what we must do, as well as The Iron Way. There are other themes and nuances that I’ve not touched on here, but enough of writing about a man writing about writing. I invite you to read for yourself.

Book Review: A Moon Full of Stars by Jon Mollison

A Moon Full of Stars (2017)

Good works of art always contain some combination of the expected, and the surprising. Too little of one or the other and the work becomes boring, or incoherent.

One of the charms of Jon Mollison’s novel A Moon Full of Stars is the use of some familiar post-apocalyptic science fiction tropes in the opening, followed by some unexpected twists that show the reader things were not as they seemed. When marauders raid a small, peaceful farming village, two of the young men, Rome and Warsaw, are out hunting and avoid capture–and events are set in motion that will radically change the future history of Earth, and the Moon.

This is the kind of book where much more description of the plot would certainly spoil the surprises, so I’ll leave it at that; but I especially enjoyed the mental power or “psi” aspects of the book, something that I weave into my own fiction.

The fighting/combat scenes are well-done, and the descriptions of “mental combat” are, too. As an admirer of the great E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series I felt like the author hit just the right notes here.

A Moon Full of Stars is fun, and it satisfies. It contains a few typos which detracted from my reading not at all. It takes a place of honor in the “PulpRev” movement (note: Mollison is included in this PulpRev Sampler) and I heartily recommend it to readers who like action, adventure and pleasant surprises.

Review: Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves by Fenton Wood

This is the kind of book that having read it makes you feel like you have a fun, exciting secret, and saying too much would give it away and spoil it for those who follow after…

Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves by Fenton Wood

This is the story of Philo Hergenschmidt. By now, the whole world knows what he did, although many people don’t believe it. This is the story of how he did it. It was compiled from original research, contemporary news accounts, and interviews with the man himself. It ranges from the apocryphal, to the questionable, to the impossible. But every word of it is true.

Sometimes you admire a book for its complexity, its artistry, its craft. Sometimes a book just speaks to you on a deeper level and you hardly notice these things as you’re transported into and through its world.

Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves transported me, to the days of my boyhood and before, the “Golden Age” and before the Golden Age; the early magazine science fiction, all the way to Hugo Gernsback and Amazing Stories. There are bright young go-getting boys, amateur radio, gadgets and outdoor adventure. Over it all lays a sense of immense freedom, of a mostly distant government and mostly free range parents and a mostly bright, beneficent world.

The world Wood has built at first seems to lie on an alt-history timeline, where elements of the 1950s and 60s (broadcast television, transistor radios, airplanes, mainframe computers) combine with an aesthetic that is more 1920s and 30s: the look, the music, the attitudes. The reader might come to believe that this is because most of the action is set in a town of 20,000 or so in the Virginia mountains, where the people are extremely independent and self-reliant. Yet, when Philo and friends bicycle all the way to the big city, a trip that takes several days, to get parts for the “pirate” radio station that Philo has envisioned, there’s a certain aesthetic there, too. This is not the United States of some slightly altered future past. This is the Yankee Republic.

The plot of Pirates seems simple, on the surface. The  town can’t get FM radio because it’s in a deep mountain valley. Philo loves radio. Philo decides to build a station on a nearby peak so he can broadcast to the whole town. Philo and friends have adventures and learning experiences gathering the parts, building structures and electronic devices and running a station. A prototypical Amazing Story. And yet…by the time we finish this short book we discover there’s much, much more, a whole ‘nother layer, or many, to the history and future of Philo’s world.

Any explicit description of the ending would spoil the surprise, so I’ll say no more about it, but one other intriguing and rather surprising touch in the book is that unlike most Science Boy Scout adventures, in Philo’s world there are events that are, or seem, explicitly “supernatural.” I won’t describe these in detail either. This is the kind of book that having read it makes you feel like you have a fun, exciting secret, and saying too much would give it away and spoil it for those who follow after.

Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves is imaginative, enjoyable and original. It somehow manages to take the classic plot and tropes of American boyhood amateur radio fiction and Make it Great Again. And I’m happy as hell to report that a sequel titled Five Million Watts is due in a few months. [Edited: Mr. Wood informs me Five Million Watts is due out in two weeks. Splendid!]

Suitable for all humans from eight to 118, and unreservedly recommended!