**** Four out of Five Stars.
Review by Mark Palm.
Right off of the bat I have to tell you that I am wary of the siren song of Nostalgia. It’s been said that that the music you listened to as a teeenager will always have a special hold over you, and that the way you dressed in high school is more or less the way that you will dress the rest of your life. ( I kind of hope not on both fronts, but I understand the sentiment.)
The reason I bring this up is not to just continue blathering about myself, but because The Impossible Fortress, by Jason Rekulak, is not just a novel set in the past, the 1980’s to be exact, but it is a novel about nostalgia. Since I was a teenager in the 1980’s the nostalgia angle has a bit more significance for me than it might have for others.
It’s 1987 and 14-year old Billy Marvin and his best friends, Alf and Clark are living in Westbridge New Jersey and spend all of their time revelling in the pop-cultural tropes of the time. They are three happy nerds that seem to have stepped right from a Steven Spielberg movie, and everything seems just fine, until Playboy magazine publishes its famous issue with nude photos of Wheel of Fortune hostess Vanna White. The boys decide they absolutely must have this magazine. Unfortunately, and rather improbably, only one store in town sells Playboy; Zelinsky’s Typewriters and Office Supplies. After several bumbling attempts to secure the magazine fail, they believe that they have finally found a plan that will work. Billy spends all his spare time creating video games on his Commodore 64, and it turns out that Mary Zelinsky, the daughter of the owner who works in the store, is also a computer nerd who is a better coder than Billy. So the three decide that Billy will woo Mary, who think call “chubby” until she gives him the information that they will need to procure their Holy Grail. So Billy, who is developing a Game called The Impossible Fortress for a contest judged by one of Billy’s video game developer heroes. Goes to Mary and the two decide to work together to bring The Impossible Fortress to life. Without divulging any spoilers I can tell you what happens next. Most of the rest of the story is about the tension between Billy and Mary’s relationship, and the pressure he faces from his friends to continue his undercover job. As you would expect this becomes difficult for Billy because as he comes to know Mary he discovers a kindred spirit and this distances him from his friends. I won’t drop any spoilers, but there are a bunch of twists and turns that eventually leads to a ending that is satisfying and happy without being too sweet. Here and there along the way some characters behave in ways that make them seem like they were being shoe-horned into place to advance the plot, but Mr.Rekulak’s assured prose mainly smooths those problems over. The author is equally as skillful when it comes to his characters. Billy and Mary are wonder apart and together, and they, with most of the other major characters always seem real and true, and this more than anything is what gives this story such warmth and heart. And here I thought that I was too cynical to enjoy a story that makes you really want to stand up and cheer.
PS: my wife Stacy, who knows about programming tells me that the pages of programming, which are used to introduce each chapter, are exceptionally clever in the way they work with the story. I’ll take her word for it.