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One’s Company: A Journey to China by Peter Fleming

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When a book opens with the author reading the London Time’s Agony Column, and the author is English I am pretty sure I am going to enjoy it. The Agony column, a favorite of Sherlock Holmes, was a sort of advice column mixed with miscellaneous random or statements

That is how Peter Fleming starts out One’s Company: A Journey to China, a journal of his trip to China in 1933 as a special correspondent of the London Times. The book is basically dividend into two segments. The first is about his departure from England, travel through Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway and his time in Japanese occupied Manchuria.

On his way to Manchuria he stops and visits his brother Ian Fleming, a reporter at that time just returning from Moscow where he was covering the Metro-Vickers Trial and who later working for the British Secret service and then authoring the James Bond books. His train trip is interrupted with a derailment but is relatively uneventful.

In Manchuria he visits cities and goes out on an anti-guerilla campaign with Japanese and local forces. I picked up a good deal of history from that era. It was an era of warlords and he meets people that served with or against many and drops names such as One-Arm Sutton, Chan Tso-Lin (Zhang Zuolin), Henry Pu Yi, the last Emperor of China and Feng Yu-hsiang (Feng Yuxiang) among others.

Leaving Northern China he heads south to where the Nationalists and Communists are at each other’s throats. He manages to get to the front lines twice, but just misses any action. He does however meet Chiang Kai-Shek, who was one of the few officials or officers to impress him.

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Chiang Kai-shek

I love Fleming’s writing style and his ability to frame a scene. He does not go in for flashy language or overheated prose. Overall it is rather droll. He is constantly wishing for excitement, a fight with bandits, and battle with the Red Army, or anything. His one brush with danger is with a bounding boulder. His travels take him to areas in China that were at that time so remote and rarely visited by non-Chinese that in one case he is mistaken for being Japanese.

The book is just an enjoyable snapshot of a time prior to World War II where a huge part of the world was already at war and the West simply was not paying much attention.

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Years ago I had read a previous book by Fleming, Brazilian Adventure, about his joining an expedition to find the lost explorer Percy Fawcett. The Lost City of Z is a recent movie about Fawcett. The trip failed but I loved the book. Sadly all I can really recall about the book is that I enjoyed it. An interesting note is that he is discussing the adventure with a fellow traveler in One’s Company when they find a scrap of newspaper that mentions another expedition has returned in failure after searching for the lost explorer.

Fleming was quite a traveler in his youth and it is interesting that he notes in the book that he dislikes sightseeing, does not describe scenes well and dislikes traveling with others, hence the title.

There are some odd things that I enjoyed about this specific version of the book. Inside was a cutout picture of the author from what appears to be a French magazine. He is looking over his shoulder wearing a fur lined parka and smoking his pipe, somewhere in the Far East. The cover has him playing what appears to be solitaire on a small trunk while also smoking his pipe. He looks very engrossed in the game.

On the inside of the cover is a bookplate that says “Ex Libris Mach and Mike Heimlich.” The version I have was printed in the U.K. and this has made me wonder who owned the book previously. I gave a quick attempt to track down the owners on line. A couple of hits but nothing I would hang my hat on. Then the book has a note written in red ink in the back saying to copy some pages for Judah B.

Two minor things I disliked about the book. The lack of maps is first and foremost. He visits a lot of small villages and towns and it is very hard to trace his steps. The second is the lack of photos. He talks a bit about taking numerous pictures; it would have been nice to see them.

One’s Company is a nice addition to my collection of travel books. I think I have always enjoyed this genre ever since I read a children’s version of Robinson Caruso as a young child. I know that technically it is not a real travel book but it is what ignited the flame.

 

Dancer’s Lament by Ian Esslemont

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Dancer’s Lament (Path to Ascendancy #1)

 

After reading Deadhouse Landing a few months ago I decided to reread Dancer’s Lament. It took me a month to locate the book in my (small) house, and then I had to finish the annual holiday magazine deluge before I could start.

I really enjoyed the second reading more than the first as I caught a good deal on the second reading that I missed the first time. Names and events that are just mentioned once often loom much larger in later books by both Esslemont and his partner in the Malazan universe Steve Erikson. The same with how people develop into friends and foes.  Just as Dancer and Kellanved undergo name changes as they mature and their roles alter so to do the names and identities of people that they interact with in this book as they emerge as allies or enemies.

Overall, just as Kellanved emerges as a more fully developed character in Deadhouse Landing, Dancer is filled out in this book. Originally named Dorin he was the last pupil of the last practitioner of a legendary school of assassins. He has big ambitions, but they are relatively undefined. He has all of the arrogance of someone who is young and inexperienced but very talented.

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Just as so many do when they are young some of his actions puzzle him, as they go against what he desires, or thinks that he desires. Even his eventual partnership with Kellanved, named Wu in this book, is mostly involuntary and he cannot quite understand how it comes about. Eventually he gives up and just starts following where Wu leads.

The basic plot is that the two are traveling on the continent of Quon Tali and both end up in the city of Li Heng, which has been shielded from outside conflicts for ages by a might wizardess called the Protectress, who is aided by a cadre of mages in guarding the city.

Close behind the two travelers is a young man sworn to Hood, the god of death and further behind is an invading army from Quon Tali that has been slowly subjugating half of the continent.  After the two arrive, separately, they get involved in everything from petty crime to helping to deal with the invaders. We also see Wu’s first steps into Shadow, and a hint at some of the forces behind him leading him there and the potential forces that will seek to thwart him.

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I was interested in the degrees of potency that the different mages had, as compared to some of the other characters that inhabit the pages namely the elder races and elder gods. It is much clearer here than in any opf the other books in the series and helped me understand the balance of power between different forces in later books.

Overall once again the one trend that really leaped out at me and greatly impressed me is how well the overall Malazan universe is knitted together. With the huge existing body of work split between two authors I would expect some gaping holes in plot lines and character motivation, and yet if there are any, aside from no doubt some very minor ones, I did not find them.

Originally this series was set to be a trilogy but it now looks like it might go longer, something I hope it does. Here is an interesting read on the creative process from the author given to Fantasy Book Review. If you are a fan of the Malazan novels this is a great read and if you are new to it, it’s also a great place to start.

The Bread of Pompeii

 

One of the many hobbies I practice, as opposed to ones such as chess that I only wish I practiced, is baking. The smell of bread first rising and then baking is a wonderful aroma, and since there are a number of breaks in the process I can actually accomplish a number of tasks while baking bread. Well I theoretically could.

I have baked a wide range of bread types and styles and have more than a dozen types of flour and flour substitutes in my pantry ranging from almond, rice and potato to just about every variation of wheat.  When I see a new or interesting variation of an old recipe I almost always save it and then try and bake it- only about 50 loaves behind, so better than my reading list.

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So with that said I found this foodies journey on Atlas Obscura about baking a unique loaf of bread to be very interesting. Farrell Monaco, who has a blog that covers her research in ancient food called Tavola Mediterranae, decided to take on an interesting challenge from the ancient world, she is recreating bread as it is believed to have come from the bakeries of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii.

Over the years many have gone on to duplicate recipes from ancient times with Marcus Gavius Apicius, an ancient gourmand who reputedly wrote De Re Coquinaria (On the Subject of Cooking) being a good place to start. To see some of his recipes converted to modern food go to PBS. If you are interested in ancient Chinese cuisine, at least from one region, you might try and find Dongjing Meng Hua Lu (Dreaming of Splendor of the Eastern Capitol) by Meng Yuanlao, from around A.D. 1187.

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A bit of background on Pompeii. It was a Roman city, on the side of Mt. Etna, near modern Naples. In AD 79 the volcano erupted covering the city of approximately 11,000, along with neighboring Herculaneum, under up to 20 feet of ash and pumice.

Back to the bread. Monaco got a job with the Pompeii Food and Drink project, which covered a great deal more than just baking such as restaurants and what animals were sacrificed to the gods. She has been developing recipes based on ancient writings for some time but admits that this seems to have a special place in her heart.

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Panis Quadratus

She is going to recreate bread called Panis Quadratus, which has no recorded recipe, although we know what it looks like from examples from Pompeii. If you are interested in how it turns out, and what other ancient foods might look and taste, she along with Ken Albala, a professor of history at the University of the Pacific, will be having demonstrations and lectures on this topic in Italy this summer.

All of this has inspired me to bake some this weekend, although of a slightly more modern take. I plan to create Multigrain  Dakota Bread from a Cooks Country, although I am substituting Bob’s 10-grain hot cereal mix for the 8-grain, which I could not find.

Outlaw Tales of Oregon by Jim Yuskavitch

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Over the holidays a friend gave me book entitled Outlaw Tales of Oregon: True Stories of the Beaver State’s most Famous Infamous Crooks, Culprits and Cutthroats by Jim Yuskavitch. I must say I looked at it with a jaundiced eye since it looked like one of the books that you give children that has a sterile, sanitized version of history, somewhere between Paul Bunyon and George Washington cutting down an apple tree.

I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised. The stories were interesting, well researched and well written. They covered the nitty gritty of what the criminals did and made no excuses or whitewashing their actions for them.

The 12 stories covered a wide range of topics from vigilante gangs, range wars, mass murders, train and stagecoach hold ups and more. There are criminals that even the most casual reader wandering through the pages would recognize such as Black Bart and Butch Cassidy, as well as many that would only be familiar to a fan or Oregon history.

One of the stories that I really enjoyed was entitled Dave Tucker: From Bank Robbery to Redemption. It was about an embittered young man who robbed a bank, was captured and did time. But when he was released he reformed his life to such an extent that decades later he was made president of the bank that he had once tried to rob.

The author mentions some myths, such as one robber was reputed to be the first to say “Hands Up” during the commission of his crime, and then usually dismisses the myth. He has a fine eye for detaiuil noting one criminal was jailed three years for stealing $8, that Oregon had one of the first State Penitentiarys and that one character later committed the first train robbery in Canada, at the relative late date of 1904.

Another nice feature for me was that it mentioned so many cities, counties and areas that I was pretty unfamiliar with I got my map out and followed along to see where much of the action took place. Some of the town names are near where I live in Portland, and yet I had never heard of places such as Goble.

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It is interesting to see that it appears that there is an entire Outlaw series covering a range of states and I might get a few others to see what happened in a few other states, Alaska seems to be one that could be ripe with interesting crime, as does Montana. Interesting that the Montana cover closely resembles the Oregon cover.

The World of Tiers by Philip Jose Farmer

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The basic premise of The World of Tiers  series is that there is a very powerful and immortal race called The Lords who have created a series of worlds as their own personal playgrounds, and populated them as they wish. Some have humans, some creatures with human brains (such as giant eagles) and some just mythical creatures. Also creatures and near humans from other places in space and time.

The world that is central to the first novella in the book is built like a Tower of Babel  with independent levels each with distinct societies taken from Earth including Native Americans, Teutonic Knights, Mycenaean Greece and many others, and mostly populated with people from those eras, although in some cases human brains are transplanted into creatures of the Lord’s creation such as harpies, merpeople and beings, many with transplanted human brains.

The first book is broken into three novellas. The first Maker of Universes introduces you to the basic construct of the Planet of Tiers as well as to a pair of the leading characters, Robert Wolff and Kickaha the Trickster. Wolff receives a magical horn from Kickaha and when he later uses it he is transported to a world that seems a veritable Eden. Then the adventures with and without Kickaha begin.

I did not really enjoy thestory that much. I did not connect with Wolff, and to a degree viewed his adventures as the day dream of an old man. Wolff is initially portrayed as an aged college professor looking for a new home for himself and his wife as he heads into retirement. While old he is still intellectually and physically active and wants to see the world. The wife is now an aged shrewish woman who seems to be the type that sits on the sofa and eats bon bons all day (See Peter Sellers’ great Waltz of the Toreadors for a perfect stereotype). Wolff blows the horn, is transported to a new world and viola, he grows young and fit living in a land of beautiful people and easy sex. I want that to happen to me!

Not only does he become young again but also more powerful than the locals. He defeats a mounted, armored knight while afoot and basically unarmed, defeats another in a fight with broadswords, basically hitting the knights sword so hard that the knight cannot use his arm. Learns languages immediately. Travels huge distances in an area that he has never traveled and yet unerringly finds his way, and finds lost companions and people he is following. And so on.

 

I did not find the writing terrible compelling and the book was pretty predictable.  The first novella’s big secret is pretty obvious and may of the plot devices are corny. I was so bored that I could not bring myself to read the second or third novellas, The Gates of Creation and A Private Cosmos and will not give the synopsis from the book cover since that has a few details that are slowly unveiled in the first novella.

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I had read some of the Farmer’s Riverworld novels years ago and enjoyed them at the time, but also became bored with the series and never finished, so perhaps I am just not the target market for Farmer’s works. It seems much more of a Young Adult book and maybe that is its target audience. I think that from some one that has won multiple Hugo awards as well as a World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement could have better held my interest. But I guess that is what makes literature so great, there is such a wide spread of opinions on any author.

Deadhouse Landing by Ian C. Esslemont

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Deadhouse Landing: Path to Ascendancy Book 2 is the second installment in the prequel trilogy being written by Esslemont that will serve as a prelude to Steven Erikson’s ten volume Malazan Book of the Fallen. While Erikson’s name is the byline for all ten books, he and Esslemont are partners in this universe, codeveloping the ideas and now splitting writing duties on different offshoots from the main story.

I did not review the first of this series, Dancer’s Lament: Path to Ascendancy Book 1, but may at some future point. I did greatly enjoy it, which is hardly surprising since the Fallen series is probably my second favorite fantasy series. The focus of the newest trilogy is on how two of the main characters amass their original core of people who help conquer a good deal of the known world and create the Malazan Empire.

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I said that I enjoyed Dancer’s Lament but Deadhouse is even better. Esslemont started building momentum in introducing the cast of characters that will play both important and minor roles in the Fallen series in Dancer’s Lament but quickens the pace considerably. It had been some time since I had finished the Fallen series and needed to keep notes to remind me who some of the players were.

The first book revolved around how Dancer and (the soon to be named) Kellanved met and their first moves towards empire and first steps to ascendancy. In hind sight it is interesting that two of the central characters in a ten volume series have rather minor appearances in the series, and yet all revolves around them. Very little information about their back story is provided. This trilogy fills in the gap.

One of the things I have enjoyed about the original Malazan series and in this trilogy as well is that there is no information dump. No long interludes that gives the background of events or people. Starting with Gardens of the Moon you are almost instantly thrust into action with a cast of characters you know nothing about, and little idea what their motives and plans are. I have always hated the info dump in many books because not only do they rehash previous events in case you had started in the middle of the series, but may do it in each volume of a series. Ugh.

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In Deadhouse Landing the two have reached Malaz Island and proceed with developing a crew to take over the island and much more. At the same time the two are in search of clues as to how to enter the Deadhouse, and start the path to ascendancy, or godhood. The book jumps around to multiple characters and starts to bring the different threads together.

I think that Esslemont does an excellent job filling in the motives and back story to many of the people involved in the main series, and in doing so answers a number of questions that I have always had about the series. Just one instance is that Kellanved is always portrayed as a powerful mage in the Fallen series, but does little compared to a number of others mages in the Fallen series. In Deadhouse Landing you see why he is considered powerful.

What I have always found amazing is how Esslemont and Erikson keep track of all of the people, places, races, gods, powers etc…and how they all interact. They provide a Dramatis Personae at the start of the books but you really need to reference the excellent Malazan Wiki page to stay abreast. Minor events in one book can have a major impact later so focus is required.

I think that this is the best off shoot book yet in the growing number of books in the Malazan Empire series. If you are new to the series I think starting here would be best, the problem being that you would have to wait until the third volume is available before starting the Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Of course that would give you time to read the Kharkanas Trilogy that covers other important events prior to the Fallen series. The trouble with that strategy is that only the first two books have been written, this time by Erikson, and he is delaying finishing the third to start on a different, but related series called the Karsa Orlong Trilogy, with the first book tentatively entitled The God is not Willing. So good luck picking a starting point.

How Many Points is “Cheat?”

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For some reason I have always loved Scrabble. The reason it is odd is that I am spelling impaired. I can remember odd and useless information I heard two decades ago but struggle with “i” before “e”.

I did not get captured in the “Words With Friends” trend simply because I like to play games face to face and just dislike staring at a screen all day. But for years I played Scrabble, and was beaten like a drum. I can only remember one game that I won by any margin and I did so my playing “zygotes” on a triple word score on my last play.

Even liking Scrabble I was surprised to see that there is a national Scrabble league, and more so that one of its top players was caught cheating. I guess in hindsight a league is sort of natural, but cheating, really? What did he do, sneak a peak at a dictionary?

First the league. The organization, based in the United Kingdom is called the Association of British Scrabble Players (ABSP). (Worth 8 points!) Founded in 1987, way before the Words With  Friends wave, it has around 70 events a year and a bi-monthly magazine entitled OnBoard. You can apparently win money at the events, or at least you could in the past since its Money List has not been updated online since 2014.

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This is just the league that had the scandal. According to Wikipedia there has been an English-Language Scrabble World Scrabble Championship since 1991 with more than 30 countries sending players. There is also a Spanish World Scrabble Championship (since 1997), a French World Scrabble Championship (since 1972) and a Catalan World Scrabble Championship (since 2005.) Apparently the game is available in at least 27 languages.

Back to the scandal. Apparently Allan Simmons, a top player, author and commentator on the game was caught cheating. Three witnesses claim that they saw him put freshly drawn letters back into a bag to draw better ones.  He has been banned from the game, per the article in the Guardian.

You always hear about cheating in pro sports from illegally filming opponents in football to stealing signs in baseball. I think most people don’t really relate to cheating in games that are played in social situations,. Yet Bridge has a long history of cheating, and let’s not even go into poker.

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So next time one of your friends coughs check to see if he is sending signals, you can never be too sure!  One interesting note on the article, it uses the word “furore” in the headline. I had never seen it in that spelling and plan to break it out in my next game if I can.

The World’s 11 Most Unique Bookstores?

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Somehow I started receiving e-mails from Fodor’s Travel the other day. I do not recall signing up for its newsletter but then I compulsively sign up for contests without reading the terms so it is probably that I agreed to get the news letter as part of the terms. There are worse fates in life.

Anyway it had an interesting piece entitled “The 11 Most Unique Bookstores in the World” mixed in with what to do in Cabo and similar pieces. I live near Powell’s City of Books, one of the largest independent book stores in the world (according to Powell’s) and was interested in what made the list.

A pair were also bars as well as bookstores, BookBar in Denver and Kramerbooks & Afterwords in Washington D.C. and while that is not a bad thing, I think I would prefer to do my drinking and reading combination in a more secluded environment such as a cozy café or at home after I have purchased a book. I could easily see drinking too many beers while ready some comedy. However they both look very comfy so maybe I should give them a try next time I am in the area.  A third was a champagne bar, Battery Park Book Exchange & Champagne Bar.

A slight variation on this theme is the Brazenhead Books in New York, where after his rent became to high the owner moved the store to his apartment and made it by appointment only. Oh, and he also made the place into a speakeasy as well. Kudos on creativity.

The largest is the Book Garden in Tehran, with 700,000 square feet and a rooftop park where you can go read. It even offers 1,000 free books to read on the roof. The photo supplied has a spacious, open store. I have to admit that I prefer crowded, stuff places that have the interesting book aroma.

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Bart’s Books

It has entries for most colorful in Saraiva Bookstore in Rio de Janeiro, the most outdoorsy in Bart’s Books in Ojai, California, and the most romantic with the aptly named The Ripped Bodice in Culver City, California. None of those really grabbed my interest to be honest. Another unique looking place, La Caverne aux Livres, in a former home of Vincent Van Gogh as well as in a train station and a few rail cars. In Auvers-sur-Oise, France it looks interesting but not sure I would go out of my way for it.

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Livraria Lello

The one that I would really have liked to visit, and had no idea about when I was there was the Livraria Lello, a gorgeous bookstore in Porto, Portugal. Purportedly the inspiration for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books and movies it is a combination of Neo-Gothic and Art Noveau stylings.

So check out the article and see if any appeal to you and if you have a favorite drop me a line and let me know about it. Not that I have anything against drinking and reading but four bars in the top 11? One fun fact is that in reading all of the bookstores’ web sites I found that Fodor had previously run a World’s 20 Most Stunning Bookstores article. I did not check it out but it seems to me that it’s cheating to then run one on 11.

That is no dragon, it is a turtle on the map!

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A’Tuin

It is always fun when what you assume is just a piece of whimsy has an actual basis in reality. That happened for me last week when I opened my daily e-mail from Atlas Obscura, a site I have always enjoyed due to the unique and interesting people, places and things that it discusses.  The site had an article entitled “Why is the World Always on the back of a Turtle?” that instantly rang a bell with me.

Of course many readers will instantly think of Terry Pratchett and his Discworld novels. For the few that are unfamiliar with the stories, they are based on a flat circular planet that travels through space held up by elephants that are standing on the back of a giant space turtle, named A’Tuin. I had always thought that this was a bit odd, but in a series that has walking, and dangerous, furniture, I never really gave it much thought.

According to the article it turns out that the idea of a planet floating through space on a giant member of the Chelonioidea family comes from ancient sources, appearing first in Hindu mythology. According to anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor’s Researches Into the Early History of Mankind and the Development of Civilization, we have it all to blame (or credit) on the god Vishnu’s second avatar for starting the whole idea. Then the same motif developed independently in Native American mythology.

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I had always assumed that Pratchett had just created a funny vision of the world, and he may have come upon the idea independently, but I suspect that he just snuck in another cultural reference that so many of us would miss. Good for him. I was also surprised that when I mentioned this to several people at the local dog park they were apparently all aware of the Hindu tie in but not the Native American one.

Mechanical Failure by Joe Zieja

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I love looking at overstock and discount racks at the local bookstores. The problem is that I buy more than I will ever read- I guess that just gives me a goal to live forever. At Powell’s Books in Portland I noticed a book entitled Mechanical Failure (Epic Failure Trilogy Book 1) by Joe Zieja. I liked the cover art (amazing how much that can influence a decision to look closer) but what got me was the small tag line –Please Restart Your Warship. Humor, when done well is always appreciated

Mechanical Failure follows the trials and travails of one R. Wilson Rogers, an ex-space fleet sergeant mechanic that is forced back into the service due to some very unusual circumstances. Life in the service had been an interesting bore for Rogers, basically one long party, a time in which he sold watered down beer, ran fixed poker games and races and generally idled away his with the fleet as it in turned idled away its time due to the  200 Years’ (and counting) Peace.

Back in the service after a strange battle between pirate fleets in which he is the only survivor, he finds the fleet completely changed. It is now on a war footing as it prepares for an expected incursion by the long time rival Thelicosans. As he returns to a fleet that he barely recognizes, with all of the men and woman serving devoutly believing in the preaching of the inspirational, yet strangely incompetent Admiral Klein, Rogers tries to just serve his time and once again depart. As he says all he wants to do is drink beer and play cards.  But fate has other plans for him- but maybe he can answer the age old question: Do the times make the man of the man make the times?

That is a rough outline of Mechanical failure, an amusing first book by the author who spent a decade in the U.S. Air Force , and his experience obviously peppers the book with  what feels like real life experiences from a career military man. The motivational posters, the transfer of qualified trained personnel into positions that they are unfit for, and so much more has a real world feel. I had the feeling that the scene where Rogers, just seconds after he arrived in his new quarters is subject to an inspection and he is found to fail a number of details has a basis in real life.

The book is a tongue and cheek poke at the military, but I did not get the feeling that it was anti-military, as many are portrayed as dedicated, intelligent and hardworking. Instead Mechanical Failure pokes a finger in the eye of mindless bureaucracy and how connivers can always find the gaps in a system, something our hero excelled at.

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Rogers is basically Sergeant Bilko in space, for those old enough to remember the old Phil Silvers show or the newer Steve Martin movie Sergeant Bilko. After departing the military he sets his eye on bigger scams, seeking to swindle pirates, something that goes strangely and disastrously wrong for everybody involved but himself. Forced to return to the service he manages to advance up the ranks while constantly wondering about the strange going-ons in the ship around him.

I found this to be a very entertaining book, and an excellent first effort. Humorous from end to end, with some jokes starting in the early chapters only to get punch lines much later. Some of the jokes seem to be overly obvious, a few could have been omitted and a couple would make better sight gags than appearing in written form. Also one seems to strongly remind me of a Mel Brooks bit, but I could be wrong.  Overall they did work quite well. If you tend towards serious military space novels this might not be for you, even though it has a semi-serious undertone. However it is a very good lighthearted read and I will certainly get the second book. It takes a bit to get going, at least for me. I was unsure where the plot was heading and initially was not interested in it but about midway you can certainly see a firm direction