The Final Diagnosis by Arthur Hailey

The Final DiagnosisThe Final Diagnosis by Arthur Hailey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hailey was a popular author for many years with hits like Hotel and Airport, both of which were made into major films. This is one of his earliest, having been published in 1959. Like his other works, it is based on an enterprise of some sort, a hospital in this case, and is thoroughly researched. Despite its age, it is still riveting, with one crisis after another cropping up. Some of it is literally life or death and not everyone lives. In addition to all the medical plots, there are romances going on, perhaps presaging television series more familiar to modern audiences.

In places it seems dated, even cringe-worthy, but that’s likely because it is dated. For example the sole black woman mentioned in it is referred to as a Negress and speaks like a “sho’ ’nuff” Amos and Andy character. The doctors all smoke throughout the hospital, mostly cigars and pipes, and the adult women are all called girls. The romances are all love at first sight with the women calling the man darling on the first date and the man proposing on the second. Still, Hailey was probably not a bigoted person. It was a pretty accurate portrayal of what it was actually like back then. I’m old enough to remember. At least he includes one female doctor, a surgeon, no less. Chalk that up to the passage of time and enjoy the drama and good writing.

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Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Rutherford

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern WorldGenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not a fan of history or history books but I found this one interesting. The author describes a Mongol empire I knew almost nothing about, one of wealth, a democratic, intellectual, and commercial mecca during the reign of Genghis Khan (GK). He sets forth Khan’s childhood and rise to power and his subsequent reformation of the Mongol lands from a bunch of squabbling and brutal tribes to a true nation with a vast government, schools, paper money, and extensive trade with foreigners where religious tolerance was practiced. It is clear the author admires GK’s achievements and his personal intelligence and abilities.

Having said that, he tends to minimize or excuse away GK’s brutality toward non-Mongols whom he viewed as barely human like herd animals, and whose main value was in their wealth, which he looted without mercy or compunction. Oddly, brutal as they were at times, the Mongols despised or feared the sight of blood, which they thought contained the human soul, so they often used bloodless, and exceptionally cruel, ways of killing rivals even within their own Mongol nation, like tying them up, wrapping them in blankets and stomping or crushing them to death with horses or even dancing on them. There was more of that in the book than I cared to read about. I’m not naive enough to believe Europeans of the age were any better, but I did not come away with an admiration for Genghis Khan’s benevolence. His vengefulness and egotism reminded me of an ex-president in the news, the main differences being that Genghis Khan was intelligent and honest in trade.

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The Knife Slipped by Erle Stanley Gardner writing as A.A. Fair

The Knife Slipped (Cool and Lam #1.5)The Knife Slipped by A.A. Fair
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I checked out this book as part of exploring the Hard Case Crime series since I’d read another one of those. I thought this would be a hard-boiled noir detective story like Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain used to write. The other Hard Case book I read was in that mold. Instead, it turned out this one is a spoof of that genre. It’s written by Erle Stanley Gardner under a pseudonym.

When I realized it was a satire, I was a tad miffed at first, but I found it silly enough to be mildly entertaining. There is a murder mystery buried in there, but 90% of the appeal is the completely ridiculous comic character of private eye Donald Lam and his boss Bertha Cool.

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The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

The Stranger Diaries (Harbinder Kaur, #1)The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This combination murder mystery and horror story isn’t really very scary or even very gory, but it is quite clever. The main character Clare is a tall, beautiful, blonde teacher at a British high school. She keeps a diary. Her best friend Ella is a similar beautiful blonde English teacher at the school. Both have been hit on by their boss, a married man. Clare is a divorcee with a teenage daughter, Georgie, who is secretly into witchy type stuff with a bunch of her friends and who also keeps a diary. Soon Ella is killed, murdered with a knife. A detective sergeant named Harbinder Kaur leads the investigation. Then there’s another death. Throughout this we are fed excerpts from a short story called The Stranger (hence the title) by an author named Holland, who, coincidentally used to live in the house that is now one of the buildings of the high school. Clare teaches that short story in her class. Quotes from it begin to appear in odd places.

The setting is suitably spooky and the various characters are all just suspicious enough that any could be the killer. The violence isn’t yet over and all of it centers around Clare. There’s a student who had a crush on Ella, a weird woman leading a class with him and Georgie, Clare’s ex-husband, Georgie’s boyfriend, a Mr. Sweetman who is head of the school, a professor who has a thing for Clare. The author does a good job of making them all seem plausible as suspects, but they all seem to have alibis or lack of motive, or both.

As an American I had some fun and some frustration with all the Britishness of the story. The educational system seems so different with a 6th form college (?), GCSE’s (?). It seems quaint that the nation is so London-centric and people still travel by train. In the U.S. anywhere but the east coast, Washington, D.C. and New York are irrelevancies to most people, almost as esoteric as London and Paris. And we drive our cars everywhere. I thought I knew most British terms for things due to a lot of reading British mysteries and working the Guardian Cryptic Crossword every night, but I had to look up quite a few, including more than a few geographic locations. I enjoy that sort of thing, but where it got to be a pain is when cultural references were made such as product names or when television shows or radio stations were referenced. These were even important for establishing alibis, but I had no idea when they came on. Another British ambience thing I’m used to is the prevalence of Indian culture and frequent mention of getting curries over there. I’d never had curry until I studied in Japan and I grew to hate it. Here there are a growing number of Indians in the high-tech field and Indian restaurants are popping up, although it certainly isn’t treated as a fast food option the way it is there.

I liked Harbinder Kaur, a rather angry and dark bulldog of a character, largely for the contrast with the snooty school atmosphere. She had a partner who was irrelevant to everything. I have a quibble, though, in that the story switches from Clare’s first-person voice to Harbinder’s at several points (and to Georgie’s, too) for no purpose. I generally enjoy hearing the story told from two or three different perspectives, e.g. The Embezzler, but only when it it sheds a different light on things. Here, Harbinder mostly either repeats what Clare has already related, or just continues the story narrative in a way that could have been told equally by Clare or an anonymous narrator. The same is true for Georgie, although to a lesser extent. It almost felt like padding to get to 300 pages. I really enjoyed the original idea of teasing us with the short story throughout and then finishing it in the epilogue. It’s a great, creepy story. Much of it, like the main story, takes place on Halloween. Overall, the book kept me in perpetual suspense and eager to read the next chapter. The ending was somewhat predictable but hidden to very near the end and, importantly for a mystery, “fair.”

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An Honest Man by Michael Koryta

An Honest ManAn Honest Man by Michael Koryta
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book started rather normally for a murder mystery, introducing Israel, the main character, a convicted murderer in Maine now out on parole; he’s also serving as an informant or source for Jenn Salazar, a state police agent, but we are not clued in as to what she is investigating or how he’s helping. We meet his uncle, a corrupt local cop who hates him. It all went downhill from there. Israel finds a yacht floating with seven dead bodies in it, including rival U.S. Senate candidates. (Eye roll) I only made it halfway through, but if a book hasn’t garnered my attention by then, I rarely see fit to spend further time on it. The characters became both cliched and unbelievable. Israel is a trite overused unreliable narrator although he is supposedly the honest man of the title. Salazar seems out of her depth and on some sort of a vendetta. Worse of all, though, Israel’s father (the one he murdered years earlier) and his uncle are unspeakably evil and equally ridiculous, almost comic book villains. There is another character, Lyman, introduced early, who hides from his equally cruel, abusive father and is confronted by a hatchet-wielding girl. Apparently no one in the state of Maine is a decent human being. Halfway through the book we still don’t know how Lyman and all these characters relate to each other. I’m retired law enforcement and nothing in the police actions (or non-action) made sense. The murders were on a boat in navigable waters and the victims were candidates for national office; the FBI would have swarmed all over this case and pushed all the locals aside including Salazar and the uncle, but they’re nowhere to be seen. I got bored and found the subject matter borderline offensive so I stopped reading.

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Automatic Null cipher generator

A Null cipher, at least in American Cryptogram Association (ACA) usage, is a type of concealment cipher. The idea is to write normal sounding text but use a secret key or “rule” that tells the recipient how to extract the true message hidden inside. The rules used can be imaginative and, ironically, there are no real rules about what the rule can be. As a simple example, if the key is 123, the word ‘jog’ could be enciphered as ‘just too big” taking the first letter of just, second letter of too, etc. The key repeats throughout the length of the plaintext.

Just for fun I decided to try to write a program that would generate a null cipher given a plaintext and a numeric key like the example. My first attempt was to load in a large list of English words and then randomly choose words that fit the rule, followed by several rounds of substituting words that fit more naturally with its neighbors. When I tested it, the first step worked instantly, but it produced a meaningless jumble of words. It tended to choose long words simply because there are more long words than short, but in natural speech or writing we use many more short words. This method might produce ‘justification polemic signatory’ to encipher the above example. The subsequent rounds did tend to make it replace these words with shorter, more common, words, but it took forever because testing pairs of words for how frequent they are is a very time-consuming computing task. I never let it run to the end and the intermediate ciphertext was still not natural-sounding.

So I changed my strategy. Instead of using word lists, I sought a source that already had common words in a natural sounding order: literature. I had a large file of plaintext books, mostly classic novels downloaded from Project Gutenberg. This file had already been processed to have no punctuation, exactly one space between words, and be all lower case to facilitate computer searches and comparisons. This second version of my program reads a few dozen lines at a time and scan them to find N words in a row that met the criteria. I found that it was usually easy to find passages that would satisfy a four-word stretch at a time, and often a five-word stretch, but no more. Keys using smaller digits were more productive than  keys with eights or nines in them.

For example, when I enciphered ‘hail to the chief’ with the key 2141 my program produced, “What a delightful lazy stream of that history we could gather if we focused.” This is actually a patch of three 5-word outputs and I had to modify a couple of the words. It’s quite normal-sounding, but doesn’t make much sense. If I were to submit it, I’d be looking for better words, most likely for “lazy stream”. The program produced 13 passages for the first five letters ‘hailt’. I extended one of those to “The average individual likes stories of what he….” The program runs very fast and can be modified to fit other rules, not just numeric keys.

I don’t plan to submit any Null ciphers from this program, but I wanted to share it to show how ciphers in general and especially the ACA are a rich playground for recreational computing. I invite others to write a better null cipher generator and share their results here.

Five Decembers by James Kestrel

Five DecembersFive Decembers by James Kestrel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Joe is a detective for the Honolulu PD right before Pearl Harbor. He’s assigned to a double murder; the victims are a Japanese girl and an American man, the nephew of the local admiral, in fact. The trail of the murderer leads him on a chase through the Pacific until he reaches Hong Kong. Then December 7 happens. The story follows him through the war years and after. It’s replete with blood and romance and some very unlikely scenarios.

The book is published by Hard Case Crime and that tells you something. Expect fists, guns, and knives. I like the throwback noir style. The pacing is good, constantly tempting me to read a few more pages. It kept me hooked to the end, but I wasn’t entirely thrilled with it. The characters and events were so overdone that they were almost more like a superhero comic book than a novel. The bad guys aren’t just bad, they’re nazis of superhuman size or sadistic cruelty or both. Joe is inhumanly resourceful and intelligent, learning a foreign language fluently almost overnight and winning every gunfight. The women are all young and beautiful and Joe can have any of them – but will he? The final scene is both predictable and ridiculous. Still, it’s action-packed and a fun read.

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Praise for Residential Heating and A/C, Inc.

We all see plenty of complaints about various business we deal with. Today I’d like to cite one for excellent service and integrity. Residential Heating and A/C of Campbell deserves kudos. Here’s the story:

Residential replaced our aging gas furnace in December last year, right before the new emissions standards were to take effect. This saved us a lot of money since California’s new (2024) rules would have required a different furnace type that is more expensive to install and has high maintenance and repairs. I would not have known this unless they had pointed it out to me during a routine repair earlier in the year, a repair that was fast, efficient, and low cost. Unfortunately, when they did the replacement, which was in the attic, they cut or dislodged the wire to our doorbell. We did not notice this at first, but several days later someone pointed out our bell wasn’t working. I wasn’t sure it was related to the furnace replacement and I had some other work that needed to be done, so I hired a contractor to take care of all of it. He discovered what had happened during the furnace replacement; he had to saw up some of the base plywood the furnace was on and replace the wires and transformer for the doorbell. It wasn’t cheap to fix. I made a claim against Residential for the cost. I fully expected pushback because most contractors don’t admit fault in my experience. They sent out one of the workers who had done the install; he verified what the contractor had told me and took pictures. His manager approved the claim on the spot, although it took a few days to provide documentation, including checks, correspondence from the contractor, etc., but they sent a check for the full amount. Thank you for being honest. The furnace works perfectly; so does the doorbell now.

From a Far and Lovely Country by Alexander McCall Smith

From a Far and Lovely Country (No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, #24)From a Far and Lovely Country by Alexander McCall Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is at least my fourth No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency book. I’ve enjoyed them all but you have to be the right mood for them. I’m going to repeat my review of the last one I read because it fits this one equally well:

This is yet another charming addition to the #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series. Nominally mysteries, they are in reality musings on life and human foibles, written with humor and keen insight to human nature. The author has an obvious love of Botswana and depicts it as an easy living bucolic place where the simple things in life still dominate. Farming. Family. Friends. Not the hellhole where everyone lives in mud huts and has AIDS as one high U.S. government official has declared.

Those who are expecting action or even a real plot will be disappointed, but if this is read with the right mindset it can be enjoyed by anyone. It helps to be familiar with the characters. I believe the first few books in the series were better, with more of a plot line. This is not the best one to introduce yourself to the characters. The BBC/PBS series starring Jill Scott was absolutely wonderful. Hearing the accent and speech curiosities of Botswana sets the mood. Reading them on the page can seem a bit odd.

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Purified: How Recycled Sewage is Transforming Our Water by Peter Annin

Purified: How Recycled Sewage Is Transforming Our WaterPurified: How Recycled Sewage Is Transforming Our Water by Peter Annin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Toilet to Tap. That’s how opponents have characterized the process of recycling sewage into drinking water. That yuck factor has killed many such projects from San Diego to Tampa. But the reality is that purification is effective, safe, and cheaper than most other ways of augmenting drinking water supplies. This book explains the science only briefly and in layman’s terms. Instead it focuses on the politics behind it, and there are plenty. As droughts increased, aquifers dropped to record lows, and rivers dried up, opponents stopped finding the idea so repulsive. It became a lifeline in some places. There were politicians who supported it, then opposed it, then supported it again, all depending on the public attitudes. In reality we’ve all been drinking reclaimed sewage all our lives. Where do you think all that sewage goes from people uphill from you? And all the birds and beasts – yes they do it in the woods and that ends up in the rivers, reservoirs and groundwater that feeds our wells and systems. With climate change and overpopulation threatening our water supplies in so many places now, purifying sewage to augment drinking water just makes sense and is really the option for many places, at least until a low-energy, reliable, cheap, desalinization process is invented.

The book educated me to the different methods used to purify (West Coast and East Coast) and their advantages and disadvantages. Reverse osmosis (WC) uses a lot of energy and produces brine waste, but Southern California has lots of solar energy and an ocean to absorb the brine. Activated charcoal (EC) avoids those, but produces greenhouse gases and ash and is not quite as pure. Sanitation districts find resistance not only from the public but also from water districts who see them nosing in on their turf. There’s more to it, so read the book to find out. It does become a bit bureaucratic at time and spends a lot of time on identifying the people involved and their backgrounds.

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2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman and James Stavridis

2034: A Novel of the Next World War2034: A Novel of the Next World War by Elliot Ackerman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The title tells you most of what you want to know. Stavridis is a retired Admiral who has imagined a conflict in the year 2034 beginning with an operation by China to destroy the U.S. fleet in the South China Sea in preparation for an invasion of Taiwan. A Commodore named Sarah Hunt becomes the lead characters for that phase. At the same time a plucky U.S. pilot named Wedge is doing a recon mission along the border of the airspace with Iran. In both cases the allied Chinese and Irani forces use cyber warfare to disable the U.S. “smart” weapons and are successful in destroying the fleet and capturing Wedge. As things escalate we are introduced to important political characters, especially a deputy National Security Advisor named Sandy Chowdhury, his uncle, a high-level Indian diplomat, a Chinese military leader, Lin Bao, and an Iranian Revolutionary Guard named Farshad.

At first I thought this book seemed very much like a Tom Clancy novel, especially by how the action is unfolding in multiple spots around the world and its heavy detail-oriented military action descriptions. Like a Clancy book, the plot line slurred into a series of diplomatic issues and fanciful imaginings of how the various governments would respond as things spiral out of control. But as it neared the end, it reminded me much more of Catch-22 and Dr. Strangelove. A combination of misjudgments, ego-driven decisions, technical glitches, and bad or good luck drive the plot to a comically avoidable climax. I had trouble finding any of the characters believable. If there’s any message intended here, it’s that the U.S. particularly and society in general is too dependent on technology, especially software, and we are all vulnerable to cyber warfare or smaller attacks.

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The Measure by Nikki Erlick

The MeasureThe Measure by Nikki Erlick
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was a time filler for me. I listened to the audiobook and the reader was decent, but the story itself was too fanciful to get behind. Boxes show up on everybody’s doorstep, tent, cabin, etc., containing a string that indicated how long they will live. This happens worldwide with no one seeing how these boxes got delivered or why. So this is pure fantasy, not science fiction. It’s really nothing more than a thought experiment for the reader. If you got a box like that, would you open it? If you did and got a short string would you live your life differently? A long string? What if your spouse got one opposite of yours, and so on. The book is populated with characters having all the possible scenarios and all or most of the possible reactions – some with long strings doing reckless things as they feel invulnerable, some dumping their short string fiance, etc. There’s no real plot and the characters were too stereotyped to be credible. Still, it was inoffensive and at times thought-provoking. It was good enough to play solitaire to.

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The Housemaid by Freida McFadden

The Housemaid (The Housemaid, #1)The Housemaid by Freida McFadden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first started reading this I was disappointed since it appeared to be essentially a copy of The Turn of the Key, which was so-so. Here’s an English class assignment: Compare and contrast the two books. The protagonist is an attractive young woman (“Girl”) of limited resources and dodgy background who takes a job as a domestic in a wealthy home. The lady of the house who hires her seems nice at first but once Girl moves in, she becomes a total B-word who unfairly accuses Girl of all kinds of wrongdoing and even sets her up to fail. The man of the house clearly has eyes for Girl. A bratty child of the household hates Girl and undertakes to sabotage her. A hunky outdoorsy worker outside the household is kind and rescues Girl repeatedly. She fantasizes about him. So far the two books are pretty much identical.

Things change drastically after that. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say much more, but I will say that you shouldn’t trust anyone’s motives. There are some real twists in the second half. This book is fairly dull for the first half but it’s worth sticking through that for the twists. I’d give it four and a half stars if I could.

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Airframe by Michael Crichton

AirframeAirframe by Michael Crichton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve always enjoyed Crichton’s books and this one is no exception. He masters the science, or, in this case engineering, thoroughly and weaves it into the plot. Although this one was published in 1996, it could be ripped from today’s headlines about Boeing and American Airlines. This one involves a fatal accident aboard a fictional Norton passenger jet. Casey, the attractive female VP of Quality Assurance is charged with finding out the cause. There’s an ambulance chasing lawyer who claims it is a faulty aircraft, a hostile union workforce that thinks their jobs are being outsourced to China, and a sleazy TV producer trying to do a media hit job all trying nail her hide to the wall. It’s a page-turning mix of suspense and detective work. The ending is delicious.

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Google trends – Taiwan, Japan, China

I always find it interesting how different parts of the country pay attention to news events differently, like the recent major earthquake in Taiwan. The west coast has more Taiwanese immigrants and more earthquakes than other regions, so it’s not surprising that they searched the term Taiwan more than most of the rest of the country. But then why did New Jersey, Massachusetts and Rhode Island have similar search trends? Hawaii is known to have a sizeable number of Japanese residents and visitors, so that explains its red color, but why Arizona, Colorado, and south Dakota? They were more interested in Japan than in China or Taiwan those two days. Trying to impart too much politics or hidden agendas into it is fraught with danger. For all I know, all those China searches were people shopping for china as a wedding gift.

The map is from Google Trends for the period April 3rd and 4th, 2024.

What3Words – solar eclipse

A few days ago I posted a What3Words location for a lunar eclipse (watch.moon.eclipse) in Minnesota. That was accurate, a bit surprisingly, but only a little since that eclipse was visible throughout all of North America. Now that a is imminent I had to check that out, too. That has a much narrower path and any given spot on Earth only sees a total solar eclipse once every 375 years. So I was not surprised that location turned out to be in Northern Nevada, a long distance from the path of this one.

For kicks I decided to see if was in the United States. It turns out it is, but here’s the kicker: it’s right in the path of the total lunar eclipse in upstate New York. Somehow W3W’s predictive powers reversed these two.

The Iliad by Gareth Hinds

The IliadThe Iliad by Gareth Hinds
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a vague idea that the Iliad was about the Trojan War and originally a poem, but not much more. This version in everyday English prose made it much more tractable. The story itself is rather repetitive and unpleasant, but apparently thrilling to readers (or listeners since it was probably based on oral stories) of its day. What’s new about this version is the illustrations, done in comic book style. That’s both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness. They seemed too childish for the material and just not artistic enough. I’ve seen many illustrations in books that are higher quality. On the other hand, this book is classified as a Young Adult book, at least in my local library and perhaps having that familiar style would make it more appealing to young readers.

I did learn quite a bit about the original work, including the fact that it covers only two years of the Trojan War which was a 10-year war, and that Homer himself may have been fictional. Also, the war, as told by Homer, was largely decided by various gods helping or hurting mortals and often at odds with each other. In the end, it was a bit tedious to read with scores of cumbersome Greek and Trojan names in paragraphs like X killed Y and Z, Q killed P and twenty others, etc. At least it was something different. I read it because it is nominated for our book club.

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What3words – lunar eclipse, year of the dragon, Salt Lake City

Since today is a lunar eclipse, I thought I’d check my favorite random prediction site: What3Words. Where should you watch the eclipse?

watch.moon.eclipse – near Ely, Minnesota. It is visible from there, but also in fact, from all of North America.

It’s also the year of the dragon in the Chinese calendar, so it’s fitting that fire.breathing.dragon is in Xiamen, Fujian, China.

I have no idea why the site thinks is in East St. Louis, Ill. I know a couple of people who’ve lived there and it’s about as non-Mormon like as anywhere in America. It’s a rough neighborhood.


The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

The Turn of the KeyThe Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The highlight of this book was the delightful reading by Imogen Church, the voice actor. Not only was she an excellent actor, but she did a marvelous job with the many English and Scottish accents. The plot centers around Rowan, the new nanny at a creepy old haunted(?) house in Scotland which has been totally upgraded electronically with technology so advanced only a 7-year-old can possibly understand it. The pay is incredible because the preceding four nannies have left suddenly and without warning. Why? (Cue ominous music) But the man and lady of the house take off immediately after Rowan arrives and Rowan is left with three young girls who vary from adorable to hateful. There is yet a fourth daughter, a teenager, who is away but who is expected to return. From the first day, weird and frightening things happen – creepy noises at night, the climate system going wrong, locked doors becoming unlocked and vice versa. You get the idea. The story is told in a series of letters from Rowan to a solicitor asking for legal representation as Rowan has been charged with the murder of a child. We don’t know who the victim was or why she’s been charged.

I thought it was going to be a crime mystery, but the murder part is left alone till the very end. The main body of the story is really a haunted house/ghost story, not what I was looking for. The plot suffered from a lack of plausibility and Rowan is a hopelessly inept character, hard to find sympathetic. I was disappointed in the ending, but the story had enough action of the creepy sort to stay somewhat interesting.

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