Some Really Weird Ideas

False Steps: The Space Race as It Might Have BeenFalse Steps: The Space Race as It Might Have Been by Paul Drye

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Nazis had a plan to put a huge mirror in orbit that could focus sunlight on military targets and boil ocean water to generate electricity in peaceful times. During the war, the Nazis also had plans for a space plane that they intended to use to bomb New York. In the fifties, the British had a space program that they abandoned. The US Army planned to build a base on the moon and keep a permanent detachment of soldiers there. Their launch site was to be on Christmas Island. The Soviets’ premier rocket designers worked from a forced labor camp. The Japanese had a space program. There was an American proposal to create a spacesuit that would allow stricken astronauts to parachute from orbit. As a precautionary measure for the Apollo moon landing, a design was proposed for stranded astronauts to blast off the moon’s surface in a rocket-powered chair.

Paul Drye recounts over fifty space flight schemes that worked, failed, or were laughed off the drawing board. All of the spacefaring nations and some that you never expected to fall into that category are represented here. False Steps is an intriguing collection of space trivia that will fascinate space enthusiasts, engineers, and nerds in general. The remarkable depth of research the author has done is nothing less than astounding. I was delighted to learn that on a proposed long-term mission to Venus, astronauts were to be allowed to take two kilograms of movies and one and a half kilograms of recorded music. Using kilos as a unit of measure for music and movies had not previously occurred to me; although, in retrospect, I can think of plenty of music that ought to be judged in kilograms. Mr. Drye’s writing style is crisp and clear if necessarily burdened by acronyms and initials—he is, after all, recounting military and governmental jargon. False Steps captivated me from start to finish. Anyone interested in space and technology will love it.

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Decisions; and They’re All Bad

Decisions (Family Forever Book 5)Decisions by Tamara Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Franny’s husband, Harry, died a slow, miserable death from cancer. Then her mother, Isla, sank into the sad morass of dementia and had to be put into an assisted living center. It was not a happy task. At the same time, the lives of Franny’s twin daughters, Emma and Jani, are upset by a flurry of troubling pregnancies. Jani is expecting her third child and fears complications. Jenny, a distant acquaintance, arrives at Emma’s house and announces that she and her husband of two days need a place to stay. He splits before she knows that she is expecting. Alice, Jani’s nanny, realizes that she is pregnant and doesn’t know where the father is. While all these stressful events are unfolding, Fanny is being courted, maybe seduced is a better word, by her boss, Bryan. Emma and Jani are aghast, but none of them know that Bryan is damaged goods. Could it possibly end well?

Tamara Miller is the queen of family drama. She brilliantly draws the reader into the landscape and time period of her stories, and, of course, into the joy and heartaches of her characters’ lives—Decisions having more heartaches than joys. Ms. Miller’s prose is clean and flowing. She illustrates her scenes with slices of real-life—kids squealing around the Christmas tree, the thrill of an illicit kiss, or the terror of contemplating an illegal abortion. Decisions is the fifth volume in her Family Forever series. She says it’s the last. We can hope that’s not true.

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A Long Strange Trip

The Lost Years of Billy Battles (Finding Billy Battles Trilogy #3)The Lost Years of Billy Battles by Ronald E. Yates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As Europe plunges toward war, German agents manipulate competing political factions in Mexico to draw Washington’s attention to its southern border. Kansas sand cutter, William Fitzroy Raglan Battles, who spent the first half century of his life fighting outlaws in the American west, rebels in the Philippines and in Vietnam, settled into a life of peace and harmony in Chicago with his second wife, Katharina. However, in Billy Battles’ life, adversity always arises. A phone call from his old friend and commanding officer, General Funston, lured him and Katharina to Veracruz on a mission to mingle with the German community in the hope of gaining intelligence regarding Germany’s meddling. The pair, being both German speakers, soon had knowledge of the Kaiser’s plan to arm the Mexican rebels in the north under Carranza, Villa, Zapata, and Obregón. They also unwittingly thwarted the delivery of a submarine load of gold and silver bars.

Villa’s incursions into the United States drew Billy back to the border, and he even joined Pershing’s expedition into Mexico in search of the rebel general. In the meantime, war erupted in Europe, and the neutral U.S. was unable to return the interdicted gold and silver to its rightful owner. General Funston entrusted Billy with the task of stashing it in a secret bunker on a nascent military base in New Mexico. Only Funston and Billy had a key.

Billy’s gallivanting around Mexico did not sit well with Katharina. To placate her, the pair made some trips around the country, since Europe was off limits. They renewed acquaintances with the likes of Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp. Remember that I said adversity always arises? On a short idyll to Michigan, Billy’s lifelong nemesis, the notorious Bledsoe clan, made a play for vengeance that had a life-shattering impact on Billy. His retaliation forced him to flee to Southeast Asia once again where he spent many years putting his life back together.

Ron Yates did me the great honor of allowing me to do a pre-release read of this final chapter in the incredible life of Billy Battles. Mr. Yates does extensive research, has a keen grasp of history, and is a world-class storyteller. He is also a professor of Kansas-speak. The colloquialisms and Kansas jargon Ron Yates puts into the mouths of his characters will amaze and delight. The Lost Years is a stand-alone book. There is plenty of backstory to keep the first-time reader current on how we got to where we are; however, I would urge readers approaching this book to go back and buy volumes one and two as well. This trilogy is a long strange trip, and you don’t want to miss any of it.


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“Gravity Waves” by Scott Skipper: Another Hilarious Addition to the “Alien Affairs” Series

Marcha Foxe is a great writer and blogger. She is also a rocket scientist who used to work for NASA. Thanks, Marcha, for the great review.

Marcha's Two-Cents Worth


This is one of my very favorite series, ever, and this episode further confirmed that whatever science fiction sub-genre this happens to be, it’s what I’d choose if I had to, over just about anything else. I guess it could be called something like “snarky, politically incorrect, hard sci-fi” and I love it. It has technology and theoretical physics speculations to feed my nerdy, physicist brain; sarcasm that makes me wish I could be as witty; and snarky undertones to evoke hysterical laughter, such that my cat glares at me for disturbing her sleep when I’m reading in bed.

It was so much fun to get a glimpse of half-breed, Terrie Dreshler, now fully grown not only to adulthood, but middle age, to say nothing of her mother, Carrie Player, now an old lady, at least chronologically, and stepping into that role where she admonishes those around her for their…

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A Devious Woman

Blood and BlackmailBlood and Blackmail by Robert Trainor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Justine’s estranged husband raped and tortured her daughter by a previous marriage. Jesse was drawn into the matter through a chance encounter. Trent, the rapist, also took obscene photographs of his victim after the violation. Justine is adamant about recovering the pictures and convinces Jesse to help her break into and search the house. Before beginning the search for the obscene prints, Justine sneaks upstairs to verify that Trent is out of town as he said he would be. She discovers his body.

Blood and Blackmail is a well-crafted and clever mystery. The courtroom scene is especially well done with convincing legal procedures and norms. The characters are the best part of this book. They are superbly developed with unique voices. You are going to love Vanessa, she demonstrates the author’s brilliance. I will qualify that by saying that the characters tend to speak in lengthy monologues rather than the fragments most people use. There are a few other events that stretch credulity, but what is credulity for, if not to be stretched? Mr. Trianor’s prose is strong, smooth flowing, and grammatically accurate. The format of Blood and Blackmail is slightly unorthodox, however. It shifts from first to third person, and the police interview scenes are written like a court report or a script where the speaker is labeled before the dialogue begins. I cannot say that my enjoyment of the book was very much, if at all, diminished by this. I have high praise for Robert Trainor, and I look forward to reading more of his plentiful works.

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A Cautionary Tale

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Environmental contamination has decreased fertility. The fallout from this has spawned a strangely violent cult of morality. Viable ovaries are in high demand; therefore, men with influence are given exclusive access to breeding females who are not wives but handmaids. The handmaids are forced to wear chaste red dresses and white headpieces with modesty wings. They live sheltered lives in the homes of the Commanders with no access to entertainment or diversion except the monthly ritual of being held fast by the Commander’s wife while he attempts to impregnate her. Any violation of the strict code of conduct is dealt with in brutal and often lethal ways.

A Handmaid’s Tale was published in 1986. I read it then and recently reread it as required reading for the La Verne Writers’ Group. I have to say that I enjoyed it more in 1986. Not that it isn’t a great book, but this time through it, I found some parts going on a little excessively. Some scenes seemed repetitious. An element of the plot is a backlash against feminism, which was a more current theme in the eighties. Curiously, during this second reading, I was struck by how much Attwood’s apocalyptic world looked like a sharia zone. I had completely missed it before. Apparently, it wasn’t lost on Ms. Attwood, because she said: “They blamed it on Islamic fanatics, at the time.” Another element that lessened my enjoyment is that as I’ve aged as a reader, and perhaps a writer, I view metaphors with an increasingly jaundiced eye, and Margaret Attwood is nothing if not the queen of metaphors. The edition that I most recently read had an amusing sort of epilogue. It was a scholarly analysis of A Handmaid’s Tale from the viewpoint of academics in the distant future after having discovered it hidden on audio cassettes.

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Revisiting a Classic


From the deck of a yacht anchored on the Thames, while waiting for the tide to turn, Marlow relates a tale from his varied past. After hiring on as the skipper of a steamer bound for the interior of darkest Africa, ostensibly in pursuit of the ivory trade, Marlow finds that he is enmeshed in the drama surrounding an enigmatic officer of the Company, Kurtz. Everyone on the river is in awe of Kurtz who has created a sort of fiefdom among the indigenous tribes. In addition to the profit motive, the Company’s subtext is dragging the savage into the bosom of civilization at any cost to the poor brute. The crew, which is comprised solely of cannibals, vastly outnumbers the white men who are in charge of the dilapidated vessel, and they are, inexplicably, left to find their own food while the masters dine on tinned European delicacies. Word then spreads that Kurtz has fallen victim to the ubiquitous fever, and Marlow is forced to race against the treacherous current to reach him before it is too late.

The Heart of Darkness is, of course, a classic. It is brief, barely more than a novella, and it is told in the voice of Marlow whose narration gives the story a personal feel. Scenes that on their surface appear mundane resonate with subtle mystery. The role of Europeans in Africa is probed and prodded from many angles. It may have been required reading for many of you at an early date in your academic career, and many of you might have slogged through it under protest. The suggestion of this somewhat seasoned reader is: revisit it. It’s a journey worth repeating.