Book Review: Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace

Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace returns us to the world of Young Centurions and to the adventures of Sally Slick and Jet Black, first seen in Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate. This time around we get right into the action as Sally fumes over being shut out of the local tractor races. With the circus in town, Sally decides to race “unofficially”; of course, Sally leaves everyone else in the dust. After showing up the local bullies and drawing the attention of the circus owner, Sally’s prized tractor goes missing!

Author Carrie Harris turns out prose with precision and clarity, aimed at a teen audience with an adult reading level. Her action scenes left me breathless and her description of Sally’s and Jet’s perspective on their adventures plunged me back through time to the days when 100 yards worth of woods around the neighborhood drainage ditch sheltered ninjas and monsters aplenty. Add in a dash of the exotic by having the two of them literally running away to join the circus and this story becomes exactly the kind of adventure I always wanted as a kid. From my current perspective, many years and much hair removed, it’s an adventure well suited to the abilities and station of the characters. It’s only an evening’s read for an adult but I consider it time well spent.

“Miniature Menace” deftly sidesteps most of the issues I complained about in “Steel Syndicate”. The opposition is well suited to the characters; even the mysterious bad guys deal with the teens at their own level, and can be effectively fought in that way. My sole complaint of any substance is that Sally and Jet seem to have been shoehorned into this book when it really should have been a Mack Silver adventure. Their motivations for getting involved with the circus are painfully contrived but quickly superseded by Mack’s part in the story.

Much is made of Sally’s conflict with the local bullies, who don’t want a girl competing in their tractor racing. The Young Centurions series attempts to recreate the atmosphere of the 1910s, but both historical records and the literature of the time depict women and teenage girls as starkly independent and broadly capable, especially in the American Midwest. The emphasis placed on her unsuitability as a mechanic and racer because she’s a girl is oddly misplaced for the time period. The idea that the bullies are objecting to her participation because she’s a girl feels awkwardly forced.

Sally’s mechanical tendencies also create tension between Sally and her father in the early part of the novel, contributing to Sally’s decision to defy her parents and undertake the search for her tractor. Again, I found the basis for the conflict to be awkward and forced, as Midwest farm girls of the era were expected to contribute to the family and run every part of the house. On the other hand, I completely empathize with Mr. Slick’s inability to understand the thoughts and actions of his teenage daughter! It’s a tribute to Harris’ ability to involve me in the story that I felt truly concerned about whether or not Sally would be able to heal her relationship with her father. The denouement scene between father and daughter alone is reason enough to put this book on any parent’s or preteen’s reading list.

While it’s also an engaging adventure novel, Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace serves as a superior introduction to the world of Young Centurions. We get introduced to several of the main characters, a circus that provides a natural springboard for adventure, the idea of the Century Club, and a wealth of suitable opposition. The structure of the story breaks down seamlessly into scenes and encounters that form a bang-on model for a game outline. This is so good that I found myself wishing the text of the novel had been incorporated into the Young Centurions RPG book instead of being published separately. The RPG desperately needed something to tie it together, and dropping chapters of the novel in between portions of the RPG text would have a been a perfect fit. As a companion piece it goes from merely a satisfying read to an essential addition to the game book.

I really liked this book. It’s a great introduction to Young Centurions, involving far more of the cast than just Sally and Jet. I really don’t feel the title does the story justice, as this is predominantly Mack Silver’s adventure. The threat of the miniature menace seems tacked on as well, but by the time it became a factor I gleefully hand-waved my concerns away in order to keep turning pages. If you are a fan of any of the Spirit of the Century products, pulp fiction in particular, or YA novels in general then I expect you will enjoy this book every bit as much as I did.

Evil Hat’s Magic 8-Ball selected me as a reviewer for Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace and provided me with a digital copy of the book. I’m very much afraid that only motivated me to go ahead and pick up the print copy from my FLGS and spend a few bucks on DriveThruRPG to add it to my mobile shelf. When Sally and Jet pick up their next adventure, hopefully exploring yet another corner of the Young Centurions world, I’ll be waiting in the wings.

* * *

Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

Book Review: Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate

Sally Slick and the Steel Syndicate visits a 14-year-old Sally Slick in the years before she grows into her role as a Spirit Centurion. It introduces us to Sally’s fellow Centurion Jet Black and a host of supporting characters, both villainous and otherwise. The novel sets the stage for the Young Centurions RPG, from 1910-1916. The first time I read this book I was charmed and very impressed; the second time I was still charmed but more aware of the story’s flaws. It’s a good book, the content aimed solidly at a teen and pre-teen audience with high-school reading skills.

The story: The title promises a story centered around Sally’s conflict with the Steel Syndicate, but I think a more accurate title would be “Sally Slick and Her Marvelous Racing Tractor”. Sally’s older brother has gotten involved with the organized crime ring known as the Steel Syndicate, and when he falls into their clutches it’s up to Sally to rescue him. It’s the kind of adventure that every kid dreams of having, the one where you become invaluable to the people you look up to the most and they begin to see you in new ways.

The charm: The story evokes the feel of the classic Tom Swift novels, in which the teenage heroes are the only ones in the right place at the right time with the right technology to defeat the villains. Sally hasn’t really discovered romance, a boyfriend is someone who makes you feel funny when you hold his hand. The stakes of the adventure are serious, and Sally takes them on in a manner appropriate to both her age and her time period. It compares very well to The 39 Clues, another series about extraordinary young people. It’s the kind of book I consumed voraciously as a kid.

The writing: I blew through this book in an evening; it’s not really meant for adults. The writing is aimed at elementary and middle-school kids with a high-school reading level. The story construction is straightforward, moving from plot point to plot point with direction and clarity. Author Carrie Harris keeps things moving at a good pace, not skimping on the action but still giving the reader an opportunity to catch his breath. Kids with good reading skills will enjoy this book and kids with lower-level reading skills will find it both challenging and engaging.

The content: When I read this the first time, I was really impressed by the content of the book. The characters deal with situations in a manner appropriate to their youth and to the time-period of the setting. The violence has not been sugar-coated, but neither is it graphic. The language is mostly inoffensive, with one or two curses you won’t find on a kid’s TV show; I’d still be willing to read it out loud to my mother’s grandkids. Harris avoids any kind of awkward preteen romance, opting instead for a very naturally awkward interaction when Sally suddenly realizes her best friend is a boy! This is an adventure story, accept no substitutes.

Upon reflection: I spent a little more time on my second reading and still came away favorably impressed with the story despite a few flaws. The story lacks the agency of the Tom Swift novels. Sally spends most of the novel reacting to her circumstances instead of reaching out and changing things. It leaves the reader with the impression that this character is someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen. If the Tom Swift novels predicate action on the improbable, “Steel Syndicate” is built around the implausible. It’s easier to suspend disbelief in the Swift Repellatron than to believe an organized crime syndicate led by the ego-maniacal Steel Don would first pursue their quarry to the Slick farm over a grudge and then abandon their assault without suffering a single casualty.

The story also lacks the educational value of The 39 Clues. With the story so tightly focused on Sally and her problems, it leaves the reader no time to explore the world before the advent of the Great War. The world of 1910s America was radically different from what we know today. Kids had a great deal more freedom to come and go, but going long distances was much harder. Social attitudes varied dramatically according to geography, with huge differences between urban and rural areas. The close of the previous century and advent of the new one has seen an explosion of immigration to all parts of the United States, with a corresponding culture shock for Americans both new and old. The lack of modern refrigeration, widespread electricity, or portable communication presents challenges to modern thinking that were a part of daily life at the time. There is a missed opportunity here to challenge young readers with unfamiliar ideas and situations.

The verdict: This story structure has Sally rushing from encounter to encounter, only taking time between action scenes to gear up. It feels very familiar… it feels like a role-playing game session, which I suppose is intentional. RPGs are Evil Hat’s primary product and the Young Centurions RPG in particular has a very counter-intuitive play structure. This book actually describes the structure of a Young Centurions game blow-by-blow, even to the point where the villains “concede the scene” in the climax of the final showdown. New players and Game Masters could do much worse than emulating this story for their own sessions. It makes for a fantastic adventure game for any age group, but doesn’t really hold together as a story meant for adult examination; the less critically demanding young readership ought to be extremely satisfied.

I got my copy of Sally Slick and theSteel Syndicate from the original Fate Core Kickstarter, but when Evil Hat’s Magic 8-Ball selected me to review upcoming products, they also provided me with a digital version. I’ve already reviewed theYoung Centurions RPG; the next Sally Slick novel, Sally Slick and the Miniature Menace, is next on my list. I’ve really enjoyed Carrie Harris’ writing, and I’m looking forward to Sally and Jet’s next adventure. See you then!

***

Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

Welcome to Paradise; Welcome to Hell

Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series postulates the mass awakening of the entire deceased population of the Earth on a paradise planet where a single, massive river separates two shores bounded by impassable mountains. All of those who have died, from all throughout history, inexplicably find themselves once more “in the flesh” and placed within a garden where they do not require shelter and do not need to work for food or drink. Luxuries are provided for them. They are in perfect health and without any kind of physical or mental deformity. Mankind has entered paradise.

Nothing could be more like Hell.

The story centers around the historical figures of Richard Francis Burton and Samuel Clemens. Both men seek to solve the mystery of the Riverworld by reaching the headwaters of the river and confronting the unseen architects that reason, and a Mysterious Stranger, tells them must exist. Their search for purpose provides the framework around which the entire thematic structure of the series revolves.

Farmer wrote primarily in the 60s and 70s. His 1953 Hugo Award winning novella “The Lovers” is credited with breaking the unspoken taboo about depicting sex in science-fiction stories. Much of Farmer’s later work continues to explore sexual themes, though he shows an equal interest in theology. Both themes are heavily explored in the Riverworld series, but they are ancillary to Farmer’s primary drive to define the identity of the individual and discover his reason for being.

Burton can’t accept a world that presents no struggle to survive and forgives the sins of the previous life. He continually comes into contact with Hermann Goering, the Nazi war criminal. The harder Burton struggles against the unseen architects of paradise, the more Goering comes to accept their new life. Burton’s life only has meaning in the face of opposition, either real or imagined.

Clemens is opposed by King John, famous despotic monarch of England. Clemens struggles continually to find an existential meaning on Riverworld that eluded him on Earth. For Clemens, life has no purpose at all. He concludes that hedonism is the only valid pursuit but is unable to find fulfillment in any of the pleasures afforded him.

Farmer made no pretense that his works were anything other than an exploration of his own interests and his own frank opinion about them. Farmer went out of his way to challenge ideas for the sake of challenging them, particularly ideas of religion, social justice, and sexual behavior. Riverworld certainly makes bold and plain statements about society, including:

  • All religion is a human invention and should only be used for peaceful societal governance, for which it is actually the only suitable tool. There is no facet of life beyond the material.
  • Restrictions on human sexuality are a societal construct for the sole purpose of controlling the size of the population, and the only humane method of doing so.
  • Total racial, cultural, and sociological segregation allows like-minded people to live together peaceably, and this is the only way peace can be accomplished.
  • Life has no intrinsic meaning. Mankind cannot be at peace with himself, but can only achieve an acceptable state of discontent.

Significantly, Farmer’s ideas and observations continually challenge my own perceptions and opinions. In this Farmer accomplishes his stated goal for all of his writing, that of exploring transgressive ideas that stay with the reader. His logical constructions proceed virtually perfectly from his central humanistic and materialistic premise and his view of humanity in paradise aligns oddly with Reformed Protestant religion, though Farmer himself was an avowed atheist.

Steve Jackson Games licensed the setting for a 3rd edition GURPS sourcebook. The Sci-Fi Channel adapted the story as a television mini-series twice, neither of which attempts garnered enough attention to justify a series. None of the adaptations explored the issues that Farmer raised in the novels. There is also a PC game inspired by the series, but I’ve never played it.

Farmer’s work earned him a great deal of critical attention during his lifetime. Both Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov praised Farmer’s literary construction and speculative treatments, citing him as an important personal influence. Personally, I find Farmer’s prose to be merely adequate and his story construction borderline unreadable. I read all of the Riverworld material and watched both television productions, but I didn’t really enjoy any of it. The GURPS book on the other hand portrays a fascinating setting in meticulous detail; it will forever be a treasured part of my library.

***

Winston Crutchfield reads far more than is healthy, but is attempting to compensate by foisting his favorite books onto his rebellious teenagers. He’s always open to discussion about books and looking for reading suggestions. He can be found on the Christian Geek Central forums as “MindSpike” or on Goodreads under his own name.

Forward the Foundation

"Isaac Asimov on Throne" by Rowena Morrill
“Isaac Asimov on Throne” by Rowena Morrill

Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series is most well known as the winner of the Hugo Award for “Best All-Time Series” in 1966, the only series to date to which the award has been given. Asimov himself assumed the award had been created to honor J.R.R. Tolkien and was surprised to receive it. The original short stories were published between 1942 and 1950 in the pages of Astounding Magazine. These were later collected, and additional material added to form the novels known as the Foundation Trilogy.

The impact of the Foundation stories has been felt in every form of series fiction written since its time, and most significantly in the fiction written for tabletop and electronic gaming. Until Foundation, attempts to build a cohesive mythology around an entirely fictional setting had been mostly accidental and abortive. It’s possible that Asimov’s work was taken more seriously than E.E. Smith’s Lensman series (with which it shares many similarities) due to Asimov’s emphasis on science and problem-solving rather than action, and his choice of humans as the protagonists instead of Smith’s Arisians. It also seems likely that Asimov’s writing was more approachable than Tolkien’s heavily literary style.

DSCN1965In Foundation, Asimov describes the formation and continuance of a great galactic civilization, as predicted by the discipline of psycho-history and safe-guarded by the twin Foundations. The stories are predicated on the continual development of humans along evolutionary and societal lines. The First Foundation is responsible for preserving the store of galactic knowledge and advancing civilization. The Second Foundation is responsible for locating persons with telepathic ability and ensuring their continued genetic advancement. This combination will eventually bring about a Golden Age of civilization.

Like many of his peers, Asimov was a devout humanist. He viewed religion as antithetical to reason, a harmful force impeding the moral and civilized progress of humanity. Asimov argued that a society based on reason would ultimately work for the betterment of all, that those who acted in accordance with rational thought would choose actions that served others rather than themselves. Asimov also argued that the majority of people chose to act according to their base desires rather than rationally.

Asimov’s viewpoint still reflects the dominant themes of modern science-fiction, that reason and religion are ultimately incompatible. It also holds that a majority of humanity is not rational, and therefore not moral. There is a logical fallacy in this thinking that equates rationality with morality, two separate modes of behavior. Ironically, Asimov acknowledges this fallacy, especially in the character of The Mule, and acknowledges without addressing the problem it poses to his arguments.

Asimov’s literary construction of the Galactic Empire has been continually emulated in the years since, and continues to form the pattern for series fiction that uses empire-style civilizations. Asimov’s characters are likeable and relatable, if not necessarily memorable or extraordinarily iconic. His heroes tend to be scientists and mathematicians, and they overcome difficulty based on their capacity for reason rather than physical prowess.

CGC LogoThe Foundation Trilogy is one of the most influential works of science-fiction ever written. This article and others like it may be found on the blog at Christian Geek Central. I give Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy a Quality score of 9/10 and a Relevance of 10/10.

The God Conspiracy

gc_frontcover_250One e-mail. Five lines. 4,000 dead.  And it is only just beginning…

When a small boy in Iowa forwards a mysterious email from ‘God’ to a small group of friends, he unwittingly releases a trigger that sends blood pouring throughout his farming community.  Thousands more are dead across the country in dozens of simultaneous terror attacks and the government blames fundamentalists who want to trigger the Apocalypse.  FBI Agent Joe Unes reluctantly teams with reclusive Internet radio host Barney Ison (from Sharon K. Gilbert’s The Armageddon Strain) to expose the plot — and discovers that the enemy is not of flesh and blood.

Media Junkie rates it:quill-tinyquill-tinyquill-tiny

The time is near. The great and terrible day of the Lord has come. You are one of the Chosen. Tell no one.
-GOD

Yeah, I’m freaking out too.  Move over Joel Rosenberg, there’s a new quill in the inkwell; The God Conspiracy is Derek Gilbert’s second novel, and first modern day thriller.  Derek and his wife Sharon host P.I.D. Radio, a podcast bringing us news and analysis on demand where they examine political and social headlines and hidden stories from a Biblical perspective.  Gilbert’s knack for bouncing the radar off otherwise overlooked or intentionally concealed agendas really shines through as he cants the landscape we know to a new and terrifying angle that remains far too familiar for comfort.

In the tradition of novelists like Joel Rosenberg and Tom Clancy, Derek Gilbert casts us into an America on lockdown.  Without warning or pattern, ordinary God-fearing people across the nation suddenly erupt into uniform psychosis in a weekend of terror that sends the nation into Threat Level Red.  Abruptly, civil rights become a thing of the past as citizens are seized and silenced with neither probable cause nor due process.  The Shadow Government begins its power play against the most dangerous and diabolical threat our nation has yet faced – conservative, right-wing, middle-America.  Gilbert serves us a threat that hits close to home and a cast that echoes the people we know in a situation beyond their scope of understanding and utterly out of their control.  From the small-town shopkeeper, to the stubborn FBI agent, to the former NFL star, to the Four Nerdsmen of the Apocalypse, the characters of The God Conspiracy rely on their wits, their training, and ultimately their faith to pierce the veil of lies hiding the truth and see beyond the threat against their lives and families to the real supernatural menace hiding just beyond our perceptions.

Gilbert gives us detailed characters and breakneck pacing wrapped up in a tangled plot and dripping with paranoia.  Despite the wealth of characterization, The God Conspiracy is little more than a vehicle for jumpstarting the reader’s own determination to find out the truth about the world in which he lives.  Drawing heavily from the research and information that flows through his news and opinion blog – Weapon of Mass Distraction – Gilbert taps the shoulder of several dozen popular conspiracy theories and drags them screaming into the public arena.  Even as a regular listener to his podcast and irregular participant on the Peering Into Darkness forums, I bookmarked several pages for further research, deleted all the cookies from my internet history, checked my rearview for tails, and put a fresh coat of Brasso ™ on my tin-foil hat.  The reader who does not come away from this novel with more than a few questions about his nation’s direction and the spiritual forces behind the world order has missed the thrust of the novel entirely.

The God Conspiracy is available directly from Gilbert’s blog – Weapon of Mass Distraction – as both a downloadable PDF or as a traditional dead-tree edition.  Both editions are published in partnership with Lulu.com.  Also, readers may purchase a Kindle edtion through Critical Press Amazon for use with the Kindle and many compatible e-book readers, including the iPhone and iPod Touch.  The volume weighs in at a hefty 400 pages, which prices the perfect-bound edition at $24.95, but makes the PDF a steal at only $5.00.  The Kindle version is priced at $7.96, and the dynamic formatting capabilities of the format mean this one is the best value of the bunch.  Whatever your preferred format, the pages fly by with frightening speed.  The God Conspiracy is sure to have you looking over your shoulder and evaluating the durability of your own faith.

<br /> <img src=”http://www.assoc-amazon.com/s/noscript?tag=critpresmedi-20″ mce_src=”http://www.assoc-amazon.com/s/noscript?tag=critpresmedi-20″ alt=”” /><br />