The Man in the High Castle

When I joined Amazon Prime a couple of years ago, I was mostly in it for the fast free shipping, but I did plan to take advantage of the access to videos and music. Good plan, but not much came of it. Then Amazon announced it was producing an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s classic SF parable The Man in the High Castle, and my interest in the video side jumped.

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I’ve always been a fan of alternate history tales, and I’d read High Castle back around 1980, so I downloaded a copy to my Kindle (later discovering that I still had an old Science Fiction Book Club edition on a high shelf) and read it last November. That convinced me that an adaptation was going to take a lot of work.

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The Man in the High Castle

New cover, based on adaptation, sure to confuse unsuspecting readers

The Man in the High Castle is a very cerebral novel, based on the premise that the U.S. and its allies lost World War Two. The eastern half of the country is now part of the Greater German Reich, the west coast is ruled by the Japanese, and a strip just east of the Rockies is a Neutral Zone. In the novel, an array of (not particularly sympathetic) characters spends an inordinate amount of time consulting the I Ching and discussing the probable political fall out from Hitler’s eventual death. Interesting enough to read, but not the stuff of great cinematic drama. The action, such as there was, took place in the Pacific States (where Dick was interested in the problems of Americans trying to adapt to the very different basics of Japanese culture) and the Neutral Zone (where the Man in the High Castle, who appears only in the last few pages, lived).

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Turning this relatively short philosophical novel into a ten-hour (and more—the third ten-episode season is currently in production) was clearly going to take a great deal of expansion. When I finally begin watching the series (on my new WiFi powered tablet), I quickly began piling up “I don’t remember that” moments.

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For good reason. Much has been added, much has been changed, and much has been improved. The basic premise remains, of course—the United States is no more. It is 1962, and the Reich rules the East, the Japanese the West, and the Neutral Zone is essentially lawless. The main characters, Juliana, Frank, and Joe, are younger, more interesting, and far more active, and relationships between them have changed. Major characters have been added, as have important motivations.

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One change at the core of the adaptation involves the McGuffin of the story, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. In Dick’s novel, this was an alternate history novel, written by Hawthorne Abendsen, the Man in the High Castle, banned in the Reich, available in an under the table sort of way in the Pacific States, and sold openly in the Neutral Zone. In the adaptation, it is a collection of newsreel films showing alternate time lines, sought by both the Reich and the Japanese, extremely dangerous for the Resistance members attempting to smuggle the reels to Abendsen, who may be responsible for them or merely collecting them. The films provide danger, conflict, and mystery to propel the action.

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Major new characters include Chief Inspector Kido of the Japanese Kempeitai in San Francisco, terrifying and ruthless in pursuit of his duties and the newsreels, and Obergruppenfuhrer John Smith, the American head of the SS in New York, a man with a home in the suburbs (where neighbors wave at one another with a cheerful “Sieg Heil”), a family he loves dearly, and the ability to push a disloyal subordinate off a building ledge without wrinkling his uniform.

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I could go on and on. As a lover of alternate histories, I’m totally engrossed by the story, the characters, and the production values. As a reader and writer I’m fascinated by the changes and expansions made to bring the novel to the screen. And I’ve lost so much sleep staying up late watching it that I’ve promised myself that I’ll wait until August (after I return from the RWA conference in Orlando next week) before I start on Season Two. Then, alas, I’ll have to wait with everyone else for the release of Season Three, probably late this year.

Nazi Times Square

Mystery Roundup

I seem to be reading a lot of cozy mysteries lately (when I’m not solving logic problems on my new tablet and telling myself it’s good mental exercise). Here are the three latest offerings in series I enjoy a lot.

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Ivy Get Your GunIvy Get Your Gun is the fourth installment in Cindy Brown’s mystery series set in and around Phoenix and featuring Ivy Meadows (nee Olive Ziegwart), a working actress who moonlights with her private investigator uncle to make ends meet. But it’s one of her theatrical friends who asks her to check out the situation at a newly opened Wild West tourist attraction, where she finds herself in a two-actor, four-character melodrama, and in the middle of trouble. Meanwhile, she’s auditioning for the lead in Annie Get Your Gun, researching the real Annie Oakley, and tracking a pack of feral chihuahuas across the golf courses in pursuit of a missing (male) pug named Lassie. And then there’s her sort of secret relationship with her boyfriend Matt.

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I really love this series. Jump on board now and read them in order: MacDeath, The Sound of Murder, and Oliver Twisted. Great fun.

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Murder, Curlers & Canes is Arlene McFarlane’s second Valentine Beaumont mystery, and it’s just as much fun as the first (Murder, Curlers & Cream). This time around, Valentine’s salon is doing well, thanks in part to the sexy new stylist she’s hired. He’s not only Murder, Curlers & Canesdrawing in a bevy of clients who look like supermodels even before he does their hair, but he’s almost enough to take Valentine’s mind off Detective Romero, who’s been missing with no explanation for a couple of months.

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But then Phyllis, the world’s worst salon employee, marches back in, and Valentine finds one of her retirement home clients, Sister Madeline, dead in a plate of lasagna. The police are ready to call that natural causes, but Valentine suspects something else. But who would want to murder a retired nun?

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Everyone has a secret: the dead nun, the sexy stylist, the returning Romero, and practically everybody at the retirement home. Only one of them is threatening Valentine as she gets too close to the truth, but who is it?

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Add to that a series of disastrous blind dates (engineered by Valentine’s mother), a car chase through the mountains, and Valentine’s improvisational skills with the tools of her trade and whatever else she can lay her hands on, and you have a fast paced and funny mystery with more than a dash of romance.

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Lowcountry Bonfire is the sixth entry in Susan M. Boyer’s series about private investigator Liz Talbot, her husband and partner Nate Andrews, and Liz’s long-dead friend Colleen. Yes, Colleen is the guardian spirit assigned to protect Stella Maris, Liz’s island home off the South Carolina coast near Charleston.

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Lowcountry BonfireThis case stays close to home on the island, when its small community is disrupted by the discovery of a body in the trunk of a burning 1969 Mustang convertible, right across the street from Liz’s parents’ house. The victim (and owner of the classic car), Zeke Lyerly, had clearly not committed suicide. Although Zeke was a Stella Maris native, much of his life was a blank filled with grandiose stories most of his friends took for imaginative fables. But Liz, who doesn’t believe Zeke’s wife knew he was in the trunk (or even that he was dead) when she set the car (filled with Zeke’s clothing) on fire, digs for the truth.

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As Liz hunts through Zeke’s mysterious past, she comes to suspect that the answer to this mystery may lie closer to home, but long in the past.

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Boyer’s Lowcountry series features a great cast of characters and well developed mysteries, but a big part of their charm is the setting. The island community of Stella Maris, which Colleen works to protect from both disaster and development plays an important role in the series, as does the nearby city of Charleston. Very entertaining, and almost as good as an island vacation.

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And a short story bonus, Big Foot Stole My Wife, and other stories: I’ve been a Joan Hess fan forever, and have all the Claire Malloy and Maggody books on my keeper shelf, so I grabbed this collection of short stories when I saw it. The stories were all written in the 90s, but they were new to me. Two are Claire Malloy shorts, two Maggody stories (one with Arly and one with only Ruby Bee and Estelle). The other seven are funny in a very dark and sometimes rather twisted way, most of them rooted in domestic tension. Let’s just say no one in these stories is happily married. I enjoyed them all.

Star Trek and Red Shirts

I watched Star Trek Beyond last night. No, I’m not the most up-to-date movie fan. I did manage to see the first Star Trek reboot film in a theater (where it was breathtaking). I watched Star Trek Into Darkness on TV. I watched Star Trek Beyond on my Fire, because it’s just come available on Amazon Prime. (I also have all the original series and Next Gen movies on my DVD shelf).

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I enjoyed Beyond. The movie had some humor, LOTS of action and explosions, people in red uniforms lying dead in corridors, fabulous CGI and special effects. Exactly, I suspect, what the movie makers were aiming for and what the audience wanted. There was even a sweet tribute to the late (and so very much lamented) Leonard Nimoy (Spock was always my favorite). Early in the movie, young Spock is disturbed by the news of Ambassador Spock’s death. Near the end, young Spock receives a box of Ambassador Spock’s belongings; he opens one intricate container to find a picture of the bridge crew from the original timeline.

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As much fun as the reboot movies have been, I still can’t quite see Chris Pine as Kirk. Karl Urban comes a little closer with McCoy—he has the acerbic wit and says what he thinks. Zachary Quinto comes closest as Spock—he does the mannerisms well, and he’s physically believable.

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But as much as I love a good alternate timeline story, as much as I’ve enjoyed the reboot movies as visually stunning space opera, I still have a hard time seeing them as “real” Star Trek.

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And now back to books: If you’ve ever been a Star Trek fan, the title of John Scalzi’s RedshirtsRedshirts says it all. Well, maybe not all, because the minute you (and the five newest crew members on the good ship Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, or Dub U) think you have it figured out, the story takes off in some new direction. I’m not going to give away much, because I love being surprised by a story, and this one bounced me around but good.

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The Trek universe redshirts were the extras who went on away missions with the regular cast. Guess who got killed. Often for no apparent reason, except to lead into a commercial break. No matter how much you enjoyed the Trek franchise, didn’t you ever suspect that the “science” side of the science fiction equation made no sense at all? And what about all those other people on the ship (three hundred or so on the original series, over a thousand on Picard’s Enterprise, at least 150 on Voyager)? What the heck were they doing in all those labs and on all those decks that we never saw?

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Redshirts is full of the most surprising answers to questions like that, sending up the whole SF TV genre from the inside (and with great love and respect). It won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 2013, and it’s one of the most entertaining (and funniest) books I’ve read in a long time. My appreciation for John Scalzi rises another notch.

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It’s been fifty years now, hasn’t it? I still love Star Trek, old and new. Bring it on.

Bosch: Season One

Last night I finished watching the first season of Bosch. Wow!

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I joined Amazon Prime way back when, partly to access the video collection, but mostly for the fast free delivery of books and other random goodies. I was never really comfortable watching video on my computer monitor (although I have a good one), but until the nice tech from Frontier replaced my antique modem with one that supports WiFi (he was here to fix an actual phone line problem) I didn’t have much choice.

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With the WiFi up and running, I bought a little Amazon Fire HD8 tablet (on which I spend way too much time playing games), telling myself it would be great for videos and music. (Self, you don’t have to make excuses.) I watched the first episode of The Man in the High Castle (very impressive, and I will get back to it), and then I watched the first episode of Bosch. And I was hooked.

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I have not read any of Michael Connelly’s novels about LAPD Detective Harry Bosch, so I can’t talk about how well (or not) Amazon’s adaptation reflects the books, but from the reviews I’ve read, Connelly’s fans seem pleased (and Connelly himself is a producer of the show, whatever that actually means).

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Bosch posterAs a viewer—well, I’ve watched all ten chapters of the first season in the last week and a half, and I’m not a binge watcher, so that tells you something. The acting is excellent (of course, I’d happily watch Titus Welliver, who plays Bosch, in just about anything, including Comcast commercials), as are the writing and production values. Los Angeles is almost as much a character as any of the people. The serial killer Bosch is chasing is absolutely chilling (an amazing performance by Jason Gedrick). The mysteries (woven together from elements of three of Connelly’s novels) are intricate and take the whole season to play out.

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Bosch is not episodic, crime-of-the-week television. As I mentioned above, the sections are listed as chapters rather than episodes, and the season is, indeed, one long filmed novel. That feeling was emphasized by the way I watched it—in bed at night, with the tablet on my chest, almost more like reading a book than watching video. It is a much more intimate experience than watching something on the TV set across the room.

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Two more seasons of Bosch are already available, and the fourth will be out next spring. But I think I’ll wait a bit and savor the first season before I dive into the second (which many reviewers claim is even better). In the meantime, I believe I’ll go back to The Man in the High Castle, and that’s barely scratching the surface of the Prime library.

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And I bought four books on Friday, two on paper, two on Kindle. Maybe I’ll go read a while . . .

Two Tudor Plots

Steve Berry’s The Tudor Plot is a novella, and a prequel to The King’s Deception, short and entertaining. It almost slides over to the science fiction shelf, because its alternate timeline is so clear. Berry’s American set thrillers have fictional Presidents and Senators The Tudor Plot(which sounds to me like a pretty good idea right now), but we expect that in a political suspense novel. In fact, that’s pretty much a necessity. But the contemporary thriller story line in The Tudor Plot features an entirely alternate British Royal Family, headed by Victoria II, the fourth monarch of the Saxe-Coburg line, who succeeded her father, Edward VIII (who never abdicated, apparently willing and able to rule without the support of his American divorcee). Her Duke of Edinburgh, James, is an actual Scot, and they have tempted fate, unhappily, by naming their children Richard and Eleanor (poor choices on Victoria’s part, good ones on Berry’s). All four of these people are important characters in the story. A plot to disrupt and replace the succession echoes the Tudor replacement of the Plantagenet rulers (which I probably wouldn’t have appreciated as much if I hadn’t just read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time), while the historical story line follows attempts to establish the real existence (and resting place) of the legendary King Arthur in hopes of strengthening the modern monarchy. The connection between contemporary and historical is a little more tenuous than is usual in Berry’s full-length novels, but I enjoyed it.

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I’m sure I read all of Josephine Tey’s mysteries (not that she wrote many) decades ago. When I saw The Daughter of Time on one of the ebook sale emails recently I decided to see if it was as good as its reputation (and as I vaguely remembered). It is, especially for a history geek like me.

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Tey’s detective, Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, is facing weeks in hospital, flat on his back, The Daughter of Timewith a broken leg and a back injury of some unspecified sort (apparently this was possible back around 1950, with no worries about the resulting bill, either). A visiting friend brings him a stack of pictures, including one of Richard III, and Grant whiles away the rest of his stay investigating (with the help of a young American researcher in need of an excuse for hanging out at the British Museum) a very old cold case, the fate of the Princes in the Tower.

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I found the book, and the investigation, fascinating. Tey makes a very good case for Grant’s eventual theories, but what really struck a chord with me was his discussions of various historical “events” that actually never happened, at least not in the form that everyone thinks they did. His examples are largely from bits of English history I know little about (a riot in Wales, remembered as a massacre, in which no one was killed; “martyrs” who not only didn’t die for their faith, but didn’t die at all; vicious religious zealots remembered as heroes). Aha, I thought: Alternative Facts! Not a new concept at all.

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The Daughter of Time was voted Number One of the Best Crime Novels of All Time by the British Crime Writers Association in 1990, rather remarkable for such a non-traditional mystery. Very much worth reading. I may have to rediscover more of Tey’s work.

Suspense!

What’s a novel without suspense? Well, probably boring. All fiction, and for that matter the more readable sorts of non-fiction, need suspense. But not all novels are marketed with suspense as a main sales point. Here are two romantic suspense novels and one thriller that I’ve enjoyed recently.

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Years ago, when New York publishers ruled the romance world, we were told never to Tinderboxwrite stories about archaeologists. Turns out that’s no longer true, as Rachel Grant has proved with her romantic suspense novels featuring archaeologist heroines. The latest of these is Tinderbox (the first in a new Flashpoint series), set in the desert heat of Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Dr. Morgan Adler has made an immensely important find while surveying possible routes for a railroad that will allow a U.S. Naval Base to expand, but someone clearly doesn’t want her dig to continue. Sgt. Pax Blanchard is the Special Forces man assigned to protect her after someone rigs her car with a bomb. The two fall hard, against their better judgment. Morgan is the rebellious daughter of a general, and Pax is just the sort of son-in-law Daddy would want, making him off limits to Morgan. And Pax was once married to an officer’s daughter—never again! As the action and the dangers heat up, so does the attraction between Morgan and Pax, until their romance is almost as dangerous as the threats to Morgan.

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I hadn’t read anything by Jayne Ann Krentz (or her alter egos Amanda Quick and Jayne Castle) recently, but when I learned she was coming to Houston for a book signing and dinner with a group of local writers, I picked up her romantic suspense from last year, When All the Girls Have GoneWhen All the Girls Have Gone, which I enjoyed. The two main characters, Charlotte Sawyer and Max Cutler, meet when the murder Max, a one-time profiler now trying to get a P.I. business off the ground, is investigating intersects with the apparent disappearance of Charlotte’s stepsister Jocelyn, the murder victim’s close friend. Charlotte and Max solve the mystery, of course, and, well, it is romantic suspense. Max does have a mystery of his own left unsolved, involving a childhood trauma shared by his two foster brothers, so I wasn’t surprised to discover that the next JAK suspense novel, Promise Not To Tell, will feature one of Max’s brothers and continue that story. I’ll be watching for it in January.

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The book signing was for Jayne’s Amanda Quick persona’s new book, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, a mystery set in southern California in the 1930s, a big change from Victorian London. That one’s waiting on the To Be Read Really Soon shelf above my bed.

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I’ve been a fan of Steve Berry’s novels since his first, The Amber Room. He’s written more than a dozen since then, and I have them all on my shelves, but I’ve fallen way The King's Deceptionbehind, and I’ve just read The King’s Deception, published in 2013. (I will catch up. Somehow. Someday.) Berry is not exactly a prose stylist (although who am I to criticize an author with his track record?) but he is one heck of a story teller, and I find his elaborately constructed and all too plausible historical mysteries/conspiracies irresistable. The historical elements in The King’s Deception date back to the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, at first appearing to be simply the search for a lost treasure, but turning out to be so much more. The modern action also involves the release of the terrorist who blew up Pan Am 103 over Scotland. Cotton Malone is back, as he and his son Gary find themselves in the middle of it all when they stop in London on the way from Gary’s home in Georgia to Cotton’s bookshop in Copenhagen for what was supposed to be a quiet Thanksgiving visit. Not quite how things work out. This one kept me up a couple of nights in a row.

A Country Mouse in London

The fourth installment in Cheryl Bolen’s Brazen Brides series, Miss Hastings’ Excellent London Adventure, begins with Miss Emma Hastings’ arrival in London.

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Miss HastingsEmma has never met her Uncle Simon, but they have corresponded for years, and he wants her to join him in the Ceylon Tea Company, of which he is a proprietor. She’s eager to accept his offer, to escape her sheltered life with an elderly aunt in Upper Barrington, and to see London. In all her twenty years, she’s never had such an adventure.

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But when she steps off the mail coach at the George Tavern, it’s raining, she has no money, she’s burdened with an enormous portmanteau containing all her possessions, and the uncle who has invited her to live with him is nowhere in sight.

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Emma is a very determined young woman, if perhaps not as cautious as she should be, so she sets off on foot to find her uncle’s house on Curzon Street. She arrives, soaking wet and exhausted, in front of a dark, clearly unoccupied house. This adventure is not going well.

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But along comes the neighbor, clearly drunk, but with a kindly air about him, offering help.

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Adam Birmingham has been drowning his sorrows. His mistress, a beautiful opera singer named Maria, has run off with—and married!—an Italian Count. Surely she was The One, and he will never find another woman to love, never have a happy marriage like his brothers, Nicholas (His Golden Ring) and William (Oh What a (Wedding) Night).

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Soused as he is, Adam invites Emma to spend the night in his house. As if that weren’t improper enough, he falls asleep on the chaise in her bed chamber! After hearing her story the next morning, Adam sees a new project for himself: If he’s doomed to be miserable, why not make someone else happy? Why not take care of this poor little country girl he found standing alone in front of the house next door? And since he’s already compromised her reputation, why not offer her a marriage of convenience?

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Emma the country mouse and Adam the wealthy bachelor are an unlikely match, but together they set out to solve the mystery of Uncle Simon’s fate. As they investigate, they also come to suspect that a marriage of convenience might not be so convenient after all.

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As always, Bolen gives the reader a delightful look at Regency London, this time from the wide-eyed viewpoint of a respectable but not at all aristocratic young lady from the countryside. Along the way Emma holds her own, meeting characters from Bolen’s earlier books and making a place for herself in their world.

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