hankrules2011

Just trying to make it, a day at a time…

A Review of The Odessa File

Posted by Scott Holstad on August 26, 2014

The Odessa FileThe Odessa File by Frederick Forsyth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book by Frederick Forsyth, following on the heels on the Day of the Jackal, which I also really enjoyed. I’ve waited several days to write anything about it because for some reason I don’t feel like I have anything of value to say about it. For some reason, words escape me. But I guess I’ll mention a few things. The book is about a German journalist named Peter Miller who, on the day of JFK’s death, discovers the suicide of a Jewish death camp survivor. He doesn’t think much of it until his detective friend gives him the man’s diary to read and he finds it both compelling and horrifying. The man had been at Riga, in Latvia, one of just a few hundred survivors out of over 80,000 Jews who were killed there. The camp commander was one Captain Eduard Roschmann, aka the Butcher of Riga. He was a horrible murderer. The concentration camp survivor had stayed alive long enough to see this man brought to justice, but when it became apparent 20 years later that he wouldn’t, he killed himself.

Miller made it his mission to find Roschmann. He found the old man’s friend, who confirmed he saw Roschmann leaving the opera just a few weeks previously. Miller started making inquiries and was warned off. He finds out about a secret organization called Odessa comprised of ex-SS men that exists to shepard endangered SS men to safety, to give them new identities, to defend them in court, etc, etc. Miller is contacted by the Mossad, although he doesn’t realize it’s them. They want him to infiltrate Odessa, though they warn him it’ll be very dangerous. They’d already had two men killed who’d tried to do this. He wants to do it though, so they set him up as a fake ex SS man with documents and a fake story that he’s trained on and he’s interviewed and sent to get new ID papers. He does all of this so he can get to Roschmann, who is still alive and living as someone else, rich, and in charge of a factory with scientists helping Egypt discover the means to send rockets to destroy Israel, a side story to the real story. The ending of the book is pretty climactic, although I’m knocking it down from five to four stars because the stated motivation for Miller’s obsessive search for Roschmann hangs on just too much blind luck, in my opinion, and just wasn’t very believable. This book allegedly merges fact with fiction, which makes it all the more fascinating, but this was one instance in which it had to be fiction.

The book had a pretty good pace to it. You got a good feel for Miller and got to know his girlfriend too. You didn’t really get a good look at the other characters, but that’s alright. It’s an exciting book to read with an interesting premise and even though it’s a little dated, it didn’t feel too dated. By the way, they made a movie of the book several years ago and I watched it yesterday. It’s pretty good too. It stars Jon Voight. If you’re interested, you might want to check it out. Recommended.

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A Review of Small Gods

Posted by Scott Holstad on August 17, 2014

Small Gods (Discworld, #13)Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Small Gods is an excellent book, a great stand alone Discworld novel that is hard to put down. It’s a great satirical take on organized religion and it has a lot to say about it. Pratchett handles it as deftly as he handles other serious subject matter, with humor and grace. The man’s a genius!

Brutha is a novice in service of the Great God Om in the land of Omnia. With all of the priests and bishops and forced devotion to Om, along with the evil Quisition, it’s meant to be a satire of Catholicism, as well as probably some other religions too. One day Brutha is gardening when he hears a voice. No one else can seem to hear it, but hear it he does. Where is it coming from? A tortoise. What is the tortoise? The Great God Om. Yep. Everyone thought that when Om presented himself to humanity, it would be in the form of a bull or lion or other fierce creature, since there’s a lot of smiting in Omnia, but nope, he’s a tortoise and none too happy about it. And so an adventure begins. Brutha is the only person who can hear Om and also the only person who actually believes in him, as it’s become second nature to everyone else and they no longer truly BELIEVE. And then there’s Vorbis. Vorbis is the leader of the Quisition and as such is dreaded and feared by all. He truly loves torture. He sends an Omnian “brother” to a neighboring country, gets him killed, and uses it as an excuse to go attack said neighboring country. He takes along Brutha for his fantastic memory. Things don’t go as planned and Brutha is forced to flee along with the other Omnians. He and Om wander through the desert with Vorbis, who knocks Brutha out and carries him into Omnia, where he’s going to be crowned the eighth Prophet while declaring Brutha a bishop. Meanwhile, there’s an underground movement ready to attack, and all of the neighboring countries are sailing to Omnia to wipe it out once and for all. Justice is served when Vorbis dies, but Brutha convinces everyone else to lay down their arms and seek peace. One of the classic scenes in the novel occurs when the dead Vorbis “awakes” to see Death and the following exchange takes place:

Death paused. “YOU HAVE PERHAPS HEARD THE PHRASE, he said, THAT HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE?

Yes. Yes, of course.

Death nodded. IN TIME, he said, YOU WILL LEARN THAT IT IS WRONG.

Classic. Vorbis can’t stand to be alone and now he’s in a deserted desert for eternity. Very funny. There are lots of other funny parts too. One of the songs Brutha sings early in the book is called “He is Trampling the Unrighteous with Hooves of Hot Iron.” Hahahaha! Also, lots of instances of things happening in church history and of certain writings. To wit, “In the Year of the Lenient Vegetable the Bishop Kreeblephor converted a demon by the power of reason alone.” “There was the crusade against the Hodgsonites….” “And the Subjugation of the Melchiorites. And the Resolving of the false prophet Zeb. And the Correction of the Ashelians, and the Shriving –” — well, you get the picture. Utterly hilarious. Makes Christianity look completely absurd, but in a fun way.

There’s a lot about belief in this book, and a lot about God and gods. The more people believe, the greater the god. Brutha finds that his devoted belief is shaken, by his god, no less, as well as other so-called believers. And it does him a world of good. So I guess the lesson is we shouldn’t take everything we’re fed too literally or at face value. The philosophers in this book are the true thinkers and yet they are doubters. Pratchett’s good. This book is both serious and hilarious at the same time. It’s a great Discworld novel and I strongly recommend it.

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A Review of The Third Bullet

Posted by Scott Holstad on August 6, 2014

The Third Bullet (Bob Lee Swagger, #8)The Third Bullet by Stephen Hunter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this book. It was a real adventure to read and even though it plodded along at times (I wouldn’t call it a “thriller.”), I guess it was kind of a suspense novel. Bob Lee Swagger is a former Marine sniper who gained fame in Vietnam. Now, he’s approached by the widow of a writer who was murdered in DC, potentially because he was on to something new with JFK’s assassination. So Bob takes this on, goes to Dallas, and starts snooping around. And almost immediately is the target of an assassination attempt, which he thwarts through some good shooting. Ah, the author is a gun man. He’s knows his guns and even though at times it feels like he’s nearly arrogant about his knowledge, he does make things seem realistic. Since the dead assassin is Russian, Swagger goes to Russia to look into some things and is attacked there. He escapes through some good shooting and the help of a colleague, a fellow sniper. At this point in the book, the author does something odd. He starts narrating chapters through the “diary” of the mastermind behind JFK’s assassination and it adds and takes away from the story. It adds, because we find out how it was actually accomplished and it’s fascinating reading. It takes away because it’s not entirely believable. As we go through the course of the story and Swagger gets closer to the truth, the diarist starts writing in “real time,” which obviously can’t be happening in real time. It stretches the imagination. Oh, there was indeed a second shooter, in a neighboring building. And there was a support team. And Oswald was a puppet. And the author is good. This really reads like nonfiction. Every tiny little detail is laid out for inspection, and then related to the reader as plausible, and it really works. While Swagger is debunking conspiracy theories, the author essentially creates a new one which is the best one I’ve heard/read yet. It’s really possible, or so you’re led to think. Of course, our hero — Swagger — has to track down the culprit and the final pages are action packed, so perhaps it’s a bit of a thriller, but the book has a largely satisfying ending, so that’s good. I’ve read a lot of reviews that say this book doesn’t stack up to other books by Hunter and some that have problems with the mastermind’s diary, like me, but I’m able to overlook that and enjoy, for the most part. Still, I’ve got to knock it down from five to four stars for that. However, it was a very detailed, well thought out book and I heartily recommend it.

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Sports Update

Posted by Scott Holstad on August 2, 2014

I grew up a huge baseball fan. Specifically a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates, as I lived there during the 1970s. I enjoyed seeing the team win two World Series during that decade. I followed the team religiously until the early 1990s, when they broke up a great team led by MVP Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla, and Andy Van Slyke. They stopped winning circa 1992 and went into a 20 year losing streak unseen in any sport. They gave away all of their best players every year and didn’t even try to win. It was disgusting and it really turned me off to the team and the sport. However, last year, the Pirates fielded a competitive team and had their first winning season in over 20 years and made the playoffs — and I suddenly discovered my enjoyment of watching baseball. And I’ve been watching a lot of baseball this year. Currently the Pirates are 57-51 and three and a half games out of first, behind Milwaukee. However, I also enjoy watching the Orioles play, mainly because that’s my wife’s team. When we were in Baltimore in April, we went to a home game there and it was very enjoyable. The stadium’s nice and the fans are great. So I’ve now been to baseball games in Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Atlanta, St Louis, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. And I’ve been to minor league games in Knoxville and Chattanooga. Baseball, for me, is still kind of boring, especially compared to hockey and football, but it’s still nice to be getting back to liking it.

Meanwhile, football season is coming up and I’m excited! I’m actually probably more excited about the NFL season than I am college football, which never happens to me. But I’m a Steelers fan and we’ve made a lot of personnel moves during the offseason and had a good draft, so I’m hoping we can improve on last year’s 8-8 record and I think we will. I think we’ll make the playoffs again, which is where the Steelers belong. My college team is the Tennessee Volunteers, as I’m a UT alum. We’ve been down the past few years, which has been tough, especially after seeing a spectacular 1990s decade with Peyton Manning and a national championship. However, second year coach Butch Jones had a good recruiting class and I’m hoping we will be better. Actually, I think we’ll be better, but we won’t have a better record because our schedule’s so brutal. We have to go to #3 Oklahoma for the second game and we’ll get creamed. We have to play Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, etc., etc., and we’ll be lucky to win one or two of those games. So even though we should be better, I think we’ll still have a pretty rough record…. It doesn’t help that we don’t have any decent quarterbacks.

And of course I’m really excited about the upcoming hockey season. I love hockey. I think hockey players are the best athletes there are. They have to be strong, tough, fast, graceful, durable — they’re amazing. And they often play into their 40s. I don’t know how they do it. My team is the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. We’ve been making the playoffs every year, but ever since we won our last Stanely Cup in 2009, we’ve had great regular seasons and have tanked in the playoffs, so the team fired the general manager and coach and hired new ones. Hopefully this will help. We also got rid of 11 players, including several very good ones I had hoped we would hold on to, and have imported a number of new players, although none that are great, like I had been hoping for. We need a top line goalie, as our goalie is good, but not great. However, we signed a backup goalie, which really ticks me off. We need someone better than that. You can only go as far as your goalie takes you and I’m not convinced with can win with Fleury in the playoffs anymore. Oh well. Still, I’m stoked about hockey season and can’t wait for it to start. Even my wife has gotten into watching it with me, which is very cool.

I guess that’s it for today’s post. Just thought I’d share my excitement with the world. Cheers!

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A Review of Clans of the Alphane Moon

Posted by Scott Holstad on July 30, 2014

Clans of the Alphane MoonClans of the Alphane Moon by Philip K. Dick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book had some good ideas, but PKD asks the reader to make too many leaps of logic to be able to give this book a decent score.

CIA agent Chuck Rittersdorf splits from his psychiatrist wife, Mary, who’s a marriage counselor. She prompts this and she’s really portrayed as an evil bitch, so I have no idea why he was so intent to get back together with her later in the book. Meanwhile, Chuck picks up a writing gig with famous TV comedian Bunny Hentman, and starts taking uppers to hold both jobs down at the same time. These drugs are supplied by an alien slime mold who has telepathic powers and apparently wants to help Chuck as he orients himself to a new lifestyle in a downgraded conapt (apartment). He even sets Chuck up with a love interest, of sorts.

Well, Mary is hired by the feds to go to Alpha III M2, a moon of some type, to start therapy on groups of former psychiatric patients who were abandoned many years ago by Terra (Earth) during their war with Alphane, now over. These former patients have set up clans on the moon, made up of various psychiatric types — ie, Deps (depressives), Mans (manics), Paras (paranoid schizophrenics), etc. However, the CIA is interested in this venture, so they create a simulcra to go to the moon with Mary and others on this mission, and Chuck will be controlling it from Terra. So he decides to kill his ex-wife through this android-type being.

Crazy, yes? Well, that’s standard PKD fare. It starts getting out of control when Benny, his new employer, has a brainstorming session with the writers — and Chuck — during which time they decide to write a new act about a CIA agent who is going to kill his ex-wife through a simulcra on another planet. Just like Chuck has planned. Bizarre coincidence, or is it?

The CIA finds out about Chuck’s drugs and fires him. As soon as he’s fired, so does Benny, presumably because he no longer has Chuck as a CIA insider to work with. However, the CIA goes after Benny for his doings with Alphanes, and he escapes on his own rocket. Chuck finds himself on the moon, where Mary is. Coincidence? Easily done? Yes. Here’s one area that was really too hard to buy — the Para leader is given an ultimatum by Mary (with all of the clan leaders) to return to their former lives or face military action by Terra within four hours. So of all of the alternatives they come up with, the ONLY one is for him to *obviously* go to Mary’s spaceship and seduce her and talk her out of it. Huh? Excuse me? WTF??? What kind of warped idea is that? But that’s the obvious choice, and I’ll be damned if he doesn’t go and seduce her on her ship. But she turns out to be more than he bargained for and turns into a sexual beast who nearly kills him in her passion. Only Dick can write this stuff. When he wakes up from his sex-induced coma, she’s gone and Terra is on the attack.

I’m not going to give away the ending, but it’s surprisingly upbeat. Maybe that’s because Dick was probably struggling with all of these issues in his own life — his marriage woes, job and finance woes, his worries of mental illness — so he wrote a good ending so he could expect one in his own life. That’s my two cents, anyway. It’s not a bad book, but it just leaps to conclusions that no rational person would draw too many times and I just can’t eagerly recommend it. If you’re a fan, you’ll probably like it. If you’re new to the author, I wouldn’t start with this one.

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It’s Been a Year

Posted by Scott Holstad on July 30, 2014

My father died one year ago today. He died unexpectedly, mowing my grass. He collapsed and died, just like that. It was a huge shock. And it’s been difficult to get over. I can still see him rolling around on the ground, can still sense the futility I felt as I tried to aid him. I still remember his funeral several days later back home in Knoxville. A lot of people came to that. My wife says it feels like it just happened yesterday for her, but it actually feels a lot longer to me. Like it’s been two or three years. So much has happened between now and then. Our former house was broken into and robbed. Our beloved cat Toby died. We looked for a new house, moved into in, and put ours on the market. Mom decided to move back to Knoxville, so we put her house on the market and helped her find a new condo. It’s been very time consuming. And I’ve gone back and forth between Chattanooga and Knoxville probably 60 times over the past year, virtually all to help Mom out. It’s been draining. So it’s been a year, but if feels like several lifetimes ago to me. I wish Dad could have been around to help out with our moves. I wish he was still there for Mom’s sake — she really misses him. Of course, we’d like him around for our sakes too. Sad. Tragic. Mom got some flowers today and put them at Dad’s grave. I wish we could have gone up to see that. I sometimes still talk to him. I enjoy thinking of him up in Heaven, if there is such a place. I hope he’d be pleased with how we’re all coping without him, how we’ve moved on. I hope he would approve. I really miss him. RIP Dad.

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A Review of The Faithful Spy

Posted by Scott Holstad on July 25, 2014

The Faithful Spy (John Wells, #1)The Faithful Spy by Alex Berenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Faithful Spy was a very exciting book to read. I like spy/thriller novels, although I actually don’t read that many of them, and this was among the best I have read.

John Wells is a CIA agent who has successfully penetrated al Qaeda. He’s been with them for years, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, he hasn’t been in touch with his CIA bosses for years and they don’t even know if he’s still alive or if he’s still on their side. See, Wells has converted to Islam and learns to deplore America’s superficiality and arrogance. That said, he makes contact with Special Forces in Afghanistan after 9/11, which he didn’t foresee, and shortly after, he’s plucked from his Pakistani village by al Qaeda leaders to go back home to America for a hugely important mission, one they don’t fill him in on. Meanwhile, the head of al Qaeda’s nuclear “program” is captured in Iraq and, through torture, fills the US in on potential plots in the US and on John Wells.

Wells comes home and goes to the CIA, where he is given a hostile greeting by the director. However, his handler, Jennifer Exley, still believes in him. He’s put in a virtual prison, but escapes because he wants to stop al Qaeda from whatever it is they’re plotting. What follows is an exciting series of challenges, chases, biological warfare, and confrontations, ultimately with Omar Khandri, John’s al Qaeda handler.

When I read reviews of this book, I was shocked to see how many people viewed it as more of the same. They deplored the love story in the book and thought the middle part of it was boring. I couldn’t view it more differently. I thought the love story was great and really enjoyed the ending. I also thought some of the “boring” parts allowed the characters to be flushed out pretty fully, so I had no problem with that. Just because Wells has to wait to be contacted by his handler doesn’t mean it’s boring, sorry. I thought the terrorism scenarios painted by Berenson were horrifyingly realistic and well thought out. I think he did a great job with this book, and even though it shares some similarities with Frederick Forsythe’s The Afghan, it’s a really good book that stands on its own. Strongly recommended.

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A Short Review of Headcrash

Posted by Scott Holstad on July 22, 2014

HeadcrashHeadcrash by Bruce Bethke

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I’m so pissed off I read this book. It took a real stretch of imagination to buy into the virtual reality world the author creates, but then you reach the ending and it’s so insanely stupid, you wonder what the hell you just did and why. I’m never going to get those hours of my life back!

Jack Burroughs is a sysadmin for a large multinational corporation who loses his day job because of a vindictive new boss. However, in his off hours — which he now has a lot of — he resides in cyberspace, in a virtual reality world. He likes to hang out in a virtual bar called Heaven, where he has created a cool version of himself, unlike his mega-nerd reality. He hangs out there with his best friend. Strangely, a hot woman calling herself Amber comes along offering him a million dollars to commit cyberpiracy and steal some files from his former employer, or so he thinks. He takes her up on it, with the support of his buddy, and is shipped some cutting edge virtual reality gear, which includes gloves, footwear, a bra, and yes, an anal dildo. That took some doing on the author’s part. Still, he jacks up, goes in, gets the info, delivers it and is told it was only a test. Now he has to do the hard part — the real job. Well, you would think thievery from a large corporation with strong defenses would be hard, but now he has to go up against — get this — an author. Yep, a big, bad writer. Who works with the Department of Defense on his insipid novels, so he allegedly has all of the cutting edge cyber defenses. That was really hard to believe. Nonetheless, he and his virtual reality buddies storm the place and he gets waxed, waking up — I think — in what’s supposed to be a semi-real courtroom, staffed by a teddy bear judge, a prosecuting doll, and a bird, among others. There he’s sentenced to exile on a deserted island, where he apparently goes, only to wind up a beach boy in Hawaii. And that’s the end. How freakin’ STUPID is that??? It’s like the author wrote himself into a corner with his craziness and decided to go balls to the wall with total insanity to end the book because he couldn’t think of anything better. This was a stupid book and I can’t believe I wasted parts of two otherwise good days on it. Certainly not recommended. Not even good cyberpunk. Oh, and the author claims to have invented the word “cyberpunk,” just as an FYI. Whatever.

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A Review of The Truth

Posted by Scott Holstad on July 21, 2014

The Truth (Discworld, #25)The Truth by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a marvelous Discworld novel, one that I enjoyed immensely. William De Worde, son a a “Lord” (wealth), leaves his family’s fortunes to strike out on his own. He starts a newsletter that goes, mostly, to foreign dignitaries, but at some point happens upon a “real” story and some dwarves with a printing press and his newsletter grows into a daily newspaper — the Ankh-Morpork Times. Soon, he has hired a writer, Sacharissa, and a vampire as a photographer who turns to dust whenever the flash goes off. He needs a drop of blood in his ashes to resurrect himself. (However, he’s a reformed vampire and has sworn off human blood to be accepted in society, instead going for songs and hot chocolate.)

Some local higher ups hire two thugs — Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip — to kidnap the city’s Patrician, Lord Vetinari, and frame him for theft and assault. Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip are crazy and violent and soon William is hot on the trail of this mystery, at times crossing the city Watch and Commander Vimes, at times aiding them too. I didn’t really care for Vimes’ portrayal in this novel, however. He’s portrayed as a very angry man, and I’ve really enjoyed his character in other Discworld books, so it threw me off. Someone to be avoided, whereas in other books, he was valiant. Whatever.

The short of it is William uncovers the plot, credits the Watch, Vetinari is freed, and the Times grows and expands to other cities and countries.

I enjoyed seeing what went in the paper. I enjoyed the wordplay. (“The truth will make you fret” as a typo…) I enjoyed seeing a competing paper, the Inquirer, a tabloid full of trash, print absolute hogwash and was mortified to see the people drawn more to it than the Times, a parody of our own world. I don’t know if this is my favorite Discworld novel, but it’s up there. It’s a really good story with a great ending and several layers to an alternating serious and hilarious plot. Definitely recommended.

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A Review of Maskerade

Posted by Scott Holstad on July 18, 2014

Maskerade (Discworld, #18)Maskerade by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Maskerade is a delightful book telling a wonderful tale of intrigue, humor, and female empowerment. Once again, the witches of Lancre are back and I think this is my favorite witch book. Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg feel it must take three witches to make a coven, and since Magrat has left the coven to become royalty, they think Agnes Nitt might be a suitable replacement. The problem is, Agnes and her alter ego, Perdita X. Dream, have gone to Ankh-Morpork and joined the opera. Agnes is a young girl with a rather sturdy build (okay, fat) and she’s not viewed as star material. Instead, her beautiful, skinny, completely untalented roommate Christine gets the leads. Agnes sings in the chorus, but she sings the lead while Christine mouths it and thinks she’s performing beautifully. However, I’m jumping ahead. Agnes has a beautiful voice and she can even harmonize with herself. She doesn’t want to be a witch; she wants to sing. But the opera has a secret — there’s a ghost haunting the opera and when she happens along, people start dying. This ghost appears as the one in the Phantom of the Opera, which this book spoofs. Soon, everyone is terrified of the ghost and wonders just who or what it is.

Meanwhile, Granny and Nanny go to Ankh-Morpork to fetch Agnes and take her back to Lancre where they’ll entice her to join the coven. Their journey is hilarious. I think Nanny is especially funny in this book. When they reach the city, they stay at a house of ill repute, based on one of Nanny’s son’s recommendations. Additionally, Nanny has written a book — a cookbook. An obscene cookbook. And she’s not made any money off of it. So Granny takes her to the publisher and uses their magical skills to induce the publisher to pay her a lot of money. They were given free opera tickets by a fellow traveler who’s in it, so they go and hear about the ghost. They decide they’re going to get to the bottom of things and go spend thousands to get Granny gussied up as a grand dame. They then go to Mr. Bucket, the owner, and “donate” $2,000 to get Box Eight, which is always left free and empty for the ghost. Soon, the ghost appears and a chase ensues with Granny and Nanny cornering the right individual. I had guessed who the ghost was before it was revealed, but there were still delightful plot twists and turns in figuring out who the ghost was. In the end, the two witches save the day and Agnes goes home to join their coven.

Pratchett doesn’t take on the BIG themes he does in other Discworld books (like war and racism), but he does poke fun at opera and theater and I really enjoyed that. In fact, here is a translation of some typical opera-speak from its original foreign language:

This damn door sticks
This damn door sticks
It sticks no matter what the hell I do
It’s marked “Pull” and indeed I am pulling
Perhaps it should be marked “Push”?

Okay, how funny is that? This book is a great Discworld novel and I think just about anybody would enjoy it. Highly recommended.

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