by Nathan H. Lents

Human Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken GenesHuman Errors: A Panorama of Our Glitches, from Pointless Bones to Broken Genes by Nathan H. Lents
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This fascinating book lists and explains many of the human body’s flaws from structural to genetic to psychological. The author is a biologist with a detailed knowledge of how the body works – or doesn’t. For example, he explains why mammals’ retinas are installed backward and why humans are one of the very few animals that don’t make their own vitamin C and thus must eat fresh fruits and vegetables regularly to avoid scurvy. His predictions, or perhaps speculations, as to the future of human evolution are especially riveting and very plausible to me. I found his section on human brains a bit too pop-culturish. The fact the people’s memories are not accurate is old hat as proven many times. Yes, people gamble even knowing they’re going to lose and they smoke cigarettes even though they know that they taste terrible, make them sick, and will eventually give them cancer, but these are not errors of the brain, they are results of risk-taking mate-attracting behavior that has, or at least had, an evolutionary advantage. Aside from that one chapter, I thought the book was chock full of fun, good stuff.

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Death Report by Eric Racker

Death Report (The Sergeant Braun Series, #1)Death Report by Erik Racker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This classic police procedural features major crimes detective sergeant Brad Braun, a big fellow with a beard. The pun on “brawn” is intended by the author; he even sticks in a joke about looking like the Brawny Paper Towels guy. It takes place in and around Pasco County, Florida. The serial killer, Troy, is a recently fired TV news anchor now scraping by as a field reporter at a down-market station. This is revealed right at the beginning, so it’s no spoiler. He likes to strangle young women and then freeze them and saw them up with a hacksaw. He does this in order to be first on the scene with a camera crew and make a name for himself in the newsroom. Hacksaw becomes his nickname in the press since he leaves notes with the bags of body parts.

There are things to like and things not to like about the book. As former law enforcement, I appreciated that Braun was polite and professional at all times, not one of these wacko antihero cops. He even lives near his parents and sees them regularly like a good son. The investigation was also straightforward and credible, exactly as I believe a homicide detective would proceed. That allowed me to get into the story. The flip side of that, though, is that the investigation itself was rather boring. It consisted mostly of responding to crime scenes, interviewing people who didn’t see anything, and reviewing camera footage that didn’t show anything useful. There were no “aha!” moments or great insights from Braun or any other cop. No Sherlock Holmes here.

All the action was driven by Troy, who, unfortunately, is not a credible character. To insert some action the author described the murders and dismemberments in some detail, which I found distasteful. The other downside to this style is that there just wasn’t much of a plot, so the author filled up a lot of pages with irrelevant descriptions. He describes every building Braun enters in detail, telling us how many left and right turns it took to get wherever, what was in the offices or the hallways, the decor of every restaurant, what Braun ate. It was obvious to me as a writer that he was just trying build up enough pages to fit the publishers’ required minimum. Still, I liked that he didn’t do that with sex or romance. There’s a hint of a romance for Braun in the story line but it doesn’t distract as in some other novels in the genre. The bottom line is that this is not a mystery – we know who the killer is from the beginning – it’s just a step by step description of police response until the good guys catch up with the bad guy. The writing was journeyman quality.  There’s enough action to satisfy people who require that but I would have preferred more of a plot. This is the first in a series. I doubt I’ll read more of them.

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What3Words name game

What3Words is a company that provides a unique service. It has named every spot (3 meters square) on the globe using a set of three words. I invented a name game using this site and a while back posted a few fun examples Here.  It’s time to play again. Tip: it’s usually more fun to view the W3W links in satellite view; click on the icon in the upper left.

The 2020 presidential race is already underway. I learned that the Louisiana demo.party.primary is taking place in a swamp near Lake Salvador. I guess that’s better than Trumps.party.primary in the Andes of Argentina. If you’re surprised to learn that extreme.liberal.politics are to be found in rural Utah, then prepare to be amazed that there are extremely.liberal.politics in the mountains near Cody, Wyoming.

Enough politics. Let’s take it easy. I went to Waikiki where I found on the beach in this very diverse city families.races.relaxing. What surprised me was that here were galleries.strictly.managed, while at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York were plenty.limp.punks with modest.sailor.shorts. I would have thought it would be the other way around.

Switching to food, the finest.fried.chicken is to be found in Datong, China, but closer to home many.tasty.foods are located in Navesink, New Jersey. Gourmets will go around the world for fine meals.

Use the link at the beginning of the post to make your own.

FBI Myths and Misconceptions by Jerri Williams

FBI Myths and MisconceptionsFBI Myths and Misconceptions by Jerri Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The author characterizes this book as a reference book, “A Manual for Armchair Detectives,” and it is that, but it is much more. It’s also a fun, entertaining read. Williams is both a retired FBI Special Agent and a crime novelist. She understands the need to tell a good story or make a good movie and the resulting necessity of condensing, conflating, and exaggerating. She also shares a certain dismay with me and other FBI retirees over the gross inaccuracies that crop up in the entertainment world about the FBI. One of the reasons I wrote my crime novels was to correct some of those misconceptions, but I admit to falling prey to some of the same cliches and shortcuts that a good narrative requires.

What Williams has done that makes this book work so well is to include specific examples from the movies and television to illustrate her points. Then she shares the real life story as told by guests on her podcast, and lastly she provides a cracking good review of the show. She not only writes great reviews, and includes whether she enjoyed the movie, but then she applies her own rating scale as to how accurate it is. She throws her shoes at the worst offenders, so we hear a lot about her footwear. I got a kick out of that, no pun intended.

The bottom line is that she educates as what is false and what is true, but also refrains from criticizing or ranting. She’s not trying to spoil our fun. I do hope this book helps to prevent a few people from falling prey to the CSI effect.

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Mystery Novels

There are many ways to categorize mystery novels. Amazon, for example, has categories for serial murderers and British detectives among many others. I have my own system and I thought I’d share it with you here, both as a Venn diagram and a table. I’ll explain more after the images.

All mystery novels have some things in common – there’s a mystery, for one thing – and they have characters which they develop to some extent or another. I find that the best mysteries have one overweening characteristic that sets them apart. I’ve listed 20 mystery series or individual books that illustrate these features. I’ve shown them as four main subgenres: Procedural, Setting, Humor, and Action. Here’s how I define those:

1. Procedural – often called Police Procedural even though it applies to private detectives and amateurs as well, these emphasize the detailed, professional way the main investigator goes about the task of solving the case. The intelligence and inside knowledge of the investigator is the key feature. Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch is the quintessential example. Sherlock Holmes fits here, but actually has a large action element, too.

2. Setting – These feature the setting, especially the geographic locale, but also the time frame or even vehicle/structure like a cruise ship or palace. Historical mysteries fall in this category, although I haven’t featured any on my chart. All stories have a setting, but I’ve chosen books where it is the predominate attraction of the book or series. You may quibble over Nancy Drew, but I include those here because many of her books were set in interesting places like the Crocodile Island one. Of course, how interesting or exotic a locale is depends heavily on the reader’s education and life experience.

3. Humor – These are characterized by a light, witty tone, or a black humor. Cozy mysteries always fit here although they have other elements. However, many regular, i.e. non-cozy mysteries also share this characteristic. Snappy dialogue is a typical trait of these. The delightful No. 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency series falls equally into Humor and Setting.

4. Action – These are typified by gunfights, fistfights, car chases, animal attacks, explosions or crashes, or to a lesser extent, suspense, such as whether a character will escape or survive a dangerous situation or pursuer. Virtually all mysteries have at least a bit of this, but only some have it as the main stylistic element for a series. I don’t like the Spenser books, but I’ve used them as an example of this type since that’s pretty much all they are – kick-ass action thrillers more than mysteries. Some LEO characters like Bosch and Pickett have substantial action elements, but the over-the-top stuff usually is confined to the private side because of the illegality of much of it.

I’ve also broken the diagram into black boxes to show the type of main character, usually the lead investigator. I don’t think that trait matters much to a mystery, not as much as the above subgenre anyway, but some people consider it important. There is also usually a lot of overlap. Amateurs and private eyes almost always have someone in the law enforcement world as a resource so that they can obtain police reports or other inside information not generally available to the public. Amateur is rather self-explanatory but may include some rather sophisticated investigators such as reporters. Police and Law Enforcement Officers (LEO) includes FBI, forest rangers, etc. Private Eye/Pro includes non-governmental professional investigators like Sue Grafton’s insurance investigator Kinsey Millhone and defense lawyers like Connelly’s Mickey Haller character (not on the chart). Many private eye protagonists are former LEO or may transition from one class to another during a series (e.g. Cliff Knowles). Making the main character a non-LEO provides the author a lot more freedom of action for the main character, but poses other problems.

It’s impossible to list all possible distinguishing traits of a book. Other factors some consider important or interesting are first person/third person; single/multiple narrators; unreliable narrator; age of the investigator; nature of the crime; amount of gore or bad language. I hope what I’ve chosen here is of use to you in evaluating a book.

 

The Captured by Scott Zesch

The Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas FrontierThe Captured: A True Story of Abduction by Indians on the Texas Frontier by Scott Zesch
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Describing a book as educational can be the kiss of death, but this book is educational as well as enjoyable reading. Perhaps informative is a better word. It is a non-fiction history of white children captured in Texas, mostly by Comanches, but also by Apaches, and who were returned to white society. It’s quite remarkable how quickly young children adapt to the Indian ways and even lose the ability to speak English. Some readjusted well after returning to their white families, but many others, especially the boys, always considered themselves Indians and preferred that way of life until their death, even those who watched their captors brutally slaughter their family members. I was surprised at how spoiled the children, especially the boys, were by their adoptive families. The Comanches had long raided other tribes or Mexicans to acquire more warriors to build up their tribe, even before the white Texans moved into Indian territory. They were equal opportunity employers and the captives became full-fledged warriors with all the rights and privileges thereof. Even those who readjusted to white society defended the Indians and their way of life. The biggest knock I had with the book is that it’s history, which is not a favorite subject of mine, and it becomes a bit repetitive.

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The Suspect by Fiona Barton

The Suspect (Kate Waters, #3)The Suspect by Fiona Barton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read The Child and enjoyed it so I tried this 3rd installment in the series. I liked this one even more. Barton has a real knack for clever dialogue, especially when the main character Kate is in a give-and-take with her fellow journalists. The plot is well done as well, keeping me guessing until near the end. There’s a bit more mother-son relationship stuff in there than I would have liked, but it didn’t distract from the main story line. Barton is a newspaper journalist, which no doubt makes the insider feel of the reporter’s life feel very real. It’s much the same appeal as Michael Connelly’s insider detail in his Bosch novels that brings it to nitty gritty life.

Although it may be a bit exaggerated in the book, the horrors of an exotic vacation gone wrong can serve as a warning to any young people planning to go off to Thailand or any other second or third world country for an adventure or to find themselves. It’s not as much fun as you think, at least, not unless you plan well and stay vigilant.

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Night Passage by Robert B. Parker

Night Passage (Jesse Stone, #1)Night Passage by Robert B. Parker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three stars is a stretch, but it’s an easy read and filled a few hours. Jesse Stone is a burnt-out, failed LAPD detective with an ex-wife and a drinking problem. He gets hired to be the new police chief of a small Massachusetts town because the selectmen want a lush they can control. The leading man of the town, Hasty Hastings, is corrupt and also leads a group of paranoid neo-nazi types. Jesse is the classic anti-hero cop. The plot doesn’t really exist. Jesse just exists there while the bad guys implode around him. If you’re looking for clever detecting or a police procedural, this isn’t it.

The style was interesting. Parker is obviously a journeyman schlock noir crime novelist. The story flows along with ease despite being content-free. He and the publishers know all the tricks. Almost all of it is dialogue with very short sentences and wide margins. This means almost every page is 96% white space. Chapters are on average three pages long with every new chapter starting halfway down the next page, so there’s an extra load of emptiness. This is a 75-page book stretched to 322 pages. One odd choice was irritating: for some reason every chapter’s first line was in a weird mock handwriting font that was hard to read. Jesse and nearly every other character respond to questions and many other comments with the one word “sure.” Much of the conversation is psycho-babble or other filler. Example:
“Jenn called the other night,” Jesse said.
“Oh?”
“She broke up with Elliott.”
“The producer?”
“Yes.”
“So what does that mean?” Abby said.
“I don’t know.”
“Well, what does it mean to us?” Abby said.
“Us?”
“Us. You know, you and me…”
This riveting dialogue takes up most of a page.

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The Child by Fiona Barton

The Child (Kate Waters, #2)The Child by Fiona Barton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This British mystery involves a body, but it’s not clear whether or not it’s a murder. The body is that of a child buried many years earlier that is unearthed during construction. The lead investigator is Kate Waters, a reporter, which makes this a bit different from the usual police procedural. We are introduced to two different women each of whom thinks the baby must be hers. The DNA matches the first one who comes forward, but the date and location match the timeline of the other woman’s experience. She buried her baby in that exact location, but is not connected to the women whose DNA matches. Neither knows of the other. It becomes Kate’s job to put it all together.

I liked Kate’s character and the plot is cleverly written. This is book 2 in what is a fairly lengthy series, I believe. I can recommend this book, but I do have one warning. Do NOT get the audiobook. There are five different readers, and this turned out to be a bad decision on the part of the producers. For starters, the actress who played one of the younger characters sounded much older than her character and another character who was supposed to be older, sounded younger. Since timelines are important in this story, this became very confusing right up to the end. Secondly, there is a lot of dialogue, which means the actress who is portraying character A is doing the voice of character B and C as well as A, but then it switches to another scene where another actress is doing the voices of A and C but sounds very different. The personality of a character changes, or seems to, based on who is reading that character’s lines in that chapter. One minute a character sounds posh, then a minute later sounds almost Cockney, feminine, then masculine, etc. It really became difficult to keep track of who was who, a complaint I’ve seen in other reviews, even those who read the book.

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Don’t Let Go by Michel Bussi

Don't Let GoDon’t Let Go by Michel Bussi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My wife read the French version, but my French isn’t that good, so I followed her recommendation and got the English version. The translation is excellent. Martial and Liane Bellion are lying about the pool at a resort on Réunion Island, a department of France. Liane goes up to the room and is not seen again. Martial has a friend watch his young daughter while he goes looking for her. He reports her missing to the police. When the police arrive, they find signs of a struggle and blood in the Bellions’ room. Martial confesses to having borrowed a laundry cart from a maid and having wheeled it down to the car park. A knife is missing from his barbecue kit, a knife that shows up in another body nearby. Then he flees with his daughter. Open and shut case, right? Well, maybe.

Aja, a mixed race Creole captain and Christos, a lusty, pot-smoking forensic-trained second lieutenant are on the case. The setting is exotic, the characters interesting, the mystery deep. There is the suspense of the chase as the police try to find Martial and Sopha and a plot you won’t figure out. The twists fooled me almost to the end. The people who die and those who live aren’t who you expect. I spent more than a little time looking up Réunion, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, which were mere names I’d heard before this, as well as dodo birds and papangues. This is the most entertaining book I’ve read in quite some time.

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Time Traveler

I’ve created an interactive adventure/puzzle game for cryptography/cryptogram fans. You can make your way through it by trial and error, but it is intended to provide an opportunity to work several cipher problems in order to progress to the end. Click on the link to get started.

Time Traveler

Freefall by Jessica Barry

FreefallFreefall by Jessica Barry
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Freefall is so much like The Wife Between Us and The Last Mrs. Parrish that I can’t give it a higher rating, although it is slightly better than either one. The author has a knack with words and I think she could write something worth reading if she would just apply her talents to something with a decent plot. This is not such a book. The plot is hackneyed, and, as I said, a familiar formula.

The main character, Allison, is a beautiful young woman in a bad place emotionally and financially. A rich, handsome man “saves” her, but a vacuous life of Prada dresses and supercilious “friends” who look down their noses at her turns out not to be the salvation she had hoped for. Prince Charming isn’t what she thought, either. The story begins with a plane crash. Allison survives a crash in the Rocky Mountains. We don’t know the back story at that point, but it slowly unfolds, largely through the narration of Ally’s mother. Mother and daughter have been estranged for years. Each blames herself for the estrangement. From there it becomes sappier and soapier than a week’s worth of daytime TV. One of my chief gripes is present here, too, and that is the totally inaccurate portrayal of law enforcement. Police ignore and dismiss every piece of compelling evidence and they, and their coroners, are all incapable of determining that someone was murdered. The author at least has a mastery of grammar and a good vocabulary, one that appeals to the reader’s intelligence, even though the plot does not. The language descends into the gutter toward the end, too, making the main characters unlikable.

I listened to this on audiobook, and that was a mistake. The multiple readers all overact terribly. The director should be fired. The good people and bad people are instantly recognizable by their venom-dripping sneers and sarcasm or kind words and friendly voices, so there is no suspense. They are all the most implausible stereotypes imaginable.

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The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart

The Circular StaircaseThe Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

This book, originally serialized in a magazine in 1907 and later published as a book, is a seminal work in American mystery fiction. Rachel Innes, a wealthy spinster, rents a mansion in the countryside for the summer while her house in town is being remodeled. Soon she learns it is haunted by a ghost, or so it seems. Her servants are frightened nearly to death by the nightly thumps and quickly there is a murder in the card room at the foot of the circular staircase. Strangers appear out of the dark and figures are seen lurking outside. Mysteries abound at an alarming rate and there are yet more murders. Rachel is encouraged to leave both by her own servants and by a local doctor. Her niece and nephew, who were raised mostly by her, join her in the house. Both are involved in love affairs which form side plots. Detective Jamieson is on the case. That’s all you need to get started.

The writing is witty and skillful. The suspense grows with almost every page. There is continuous action and Rachel’s indomitable spirit adds pizzazz to this fun read. I have not dared to read other reviews because I’m sure there are a few reviewers who are outraged by some of the sentiments and racial terms displayed about minorities that are now politically incorrect, but those are mere reflections of the times in which they were written. There is no meanness in them. Having a strong female protagonist is actually quite forward-looking of the author. Consider this rating 4.5 stars.

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News of the World by Paulette Jiles

News of the WorldNews of the World by Paulette Jiles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This delightful book is captivating, original, and beautifully written. After the Civil War an elderly man who lost his print shop during the conflict makes his living traveling from town to town in Texas reading the news in public gatherings. At one stop he is tasked with returning a young girl whose parents had been slain by Indians to her aunt and uncle hundreds of miles away. The girl had spent several years as a captive of the Indians and by this time spoke only Kiowa and considered herself an Indian. She is hostile to the man and oblivious to the social customs and niceties of the white man. Eventually they begin to bond. The story is at times thrilling, at other times, cleverly amusing, and often heart-warming. The author has done excellent research into the period and the entire narrative has the ring of authenticity. Its educational value alone is worth the price of the book. The fine writing is sophisticated, but hidden well under a patina of folksiness. It still somehow manages to be a quick and easy read. I listened to the audiobook, and the reader is outstanding.

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Varsity Blues update

For those of you who don’t follow the news, Varsity Blues is the FBI code name for a widespread cheating scandal and conspiracy where rich parents paid others either to arrange admission of their children into preferred universities or to take or modify ACT or SAT tests for their children. So far 33 parents and another 17 people (e.g. coaches, test-takers) have been charged federally with fraud or conspiracy. So far ten parents have pled guilty and another four are expected to plead either 5/24/19 or 6/21/19. The other parents have all been indicted and are facing trial unless a plea agreement is reached. The map below shows names and locations of the parents.

As shown in the legend, the names in red are those who paid to have someone cheat on the ACT or SAT tests, those in blue paid to gain admission to a specific school, and purple means both.

The 10 parents who have pled guilty are:

Felicity Huffman
Augustin Huneeus, Jr.
Davina Isackson
Bruce Isackson
Peter Sartorio
Stephen Semprevivo
Devin Sloane
Gordon Caplan
Gregory Abbott
Marcia Abbott

The four who have agreed to plead guilty are:

Jane Buckingham
Robert Flaxman
Marjorie Klapper
Toby MacFarlane

The parents indicted and awaiting trial are:

Diane Blake
Todd Blake
Joey Chen
Amy Colburn
Greg Colburn
Elizabeth Henriquez
Manuel Henriquez
Douglas Hodge
Michelle Janavs
Lori Loughlin
Mossimo Giannulli
Wm. McGlashan
Marci Palatella
Houmayoun Zadeh
Robert Zangrillo
John Wilson
Gamal Abdelaziz
Elisabeth Kimmel

The coaches, test officials and others involved face a variety of charges. Some have pled guilty, others not. You can see a complete list of all defendants and status of their cases here: U.S. Attorney’s Office – Massachusetts. So far there are no students charged in the case. Some have faced discipline, expulsion, or the rescission of admission by the universities. There are many other parents who paid but have not, to date, been charged, but more charges are possible.

Here’s a final humorous related note:

Varsity Blues update

Heavens on Earth by Michael Shermer

Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and UtopiaHeavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia by Michael Shermer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My rating is meaningless because I did not read the book, at least not after the first two or three chapters; I clicked three stars in order to be able to post a review because I think it’s important people know what this book is and is not. I totally misunderstood what it was about. I thought it was literally about what is indicated by the title: people trying to find heaven on earth, i.e. a utopia here, the best place to live, a society where virtually everyone is happy, healthy, satisfied with life, possibly the latest life-extending medical and technical breakthrough to help us reach immortality here on earth. Instead, it’s a philosophical/religious tract exploring what individuals and societies believe about heaven and hell or some other form of afterlife, and why they do or don’t. The topic really is death. Once I realized that’s all it was going be, I stopped reading.

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A Case of Need by Michael Crichton (using pseudonym Jeffery Hudson)

A Case of NeedA Case of Need by Jeffery Hudson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This medical murder mystery is very early Crichton, and thus among his best work. He wrote it under a pseudonym because he expected to practice medicine and didn’t want his patients to think he’d write about them. The story takes place in the 1960s, in the same time frame it was written, and has a dated feel. Black people are Negroes. Abortion is illegal almost everywhere. Doctors and nurses do everything on paper or on the phone. The plot centers around a botched abortion. Dr. Art Lee, a Chinese-American OB-GYN and sometimes abortionist is charged with murder when the woman dies. He claims he never performed the botched abortion. The main character is his friend John Berry, a pathologist, who does all the sleuthing.

The story line is very tech-heavy, i.e. medical tech and procedure. The medical authenticity is there and enhances the story. The police procedure (or lack thereof) and politics, not so much, but just go with it. It loses plausibility towards the end, and it drags a bit, too, but I was fascinated most of the time.

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