Monthly Archives: July 2016

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

The Three-Body Problem (Remembrance of Earth’s Past, #1)The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Covering decades of Chinese history, this sci-fi novel follows theoretical physicists and other scientists and intellectuals through the Cultural Revolution and Red Guards era to the present day. We are told of a mysterious astronomical facility on a hill and eventually learn it is (or was by the time we learn of it) a SETI facility, one that made contact with an extra-terrestrial civilization. The suspense comes from wondering what comes next.

The history of how intellectuals and scientists were treated in the past and present, told by a Chinese insider/intellectual, was fascinating to me. The story line itself, not so much. Some English speakers may have trouble with the many Chinese names, but there is a list of characters at the beginning to help out with that. The premise is a good one and I enjoyed the first three-quarters of the book, but it went downhill fast at the end. Both the style and the plot stunk, to be frank. The “science” will drive you to eye-rolling or teeth-gnashing at that point. Sure, it’s fiction, but there’s a limit as to how ridiculous it can be even in a novel. There really isn’t even an ending. Now, as I log onto Goodreads, I find that it is the first book in a trilogy. Nothing on the front or back cover or the review I read indicates that (although the inside cover in small print does). If I had known that I wouldn’t have picked it up.

I can give it an “OK” rating for the entertainment value of the first part, but I can’t really recommend it.

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I need movie suggestions!

My Netflix DVD queue is down to only one DVD. The “Saved” list is about a dozen, but those are not available yet. If you have any suggestions for me, please put them in the reply form below. Here’s a list of what my wife and I have seen recently, so you can skip those.  Some we’ve liked, some not, but I’m not going to bother to review them all. Some were pretty bad, actually, so don’t take these all as recommendations. The ones we liked the most were Brooklyn, 10 Cloverfield Lane, and Spotlight. Suggestions for streaming  are also welcome, as are movies you saw in theaters that are not yet available on DVD.

The Finest Hours
10 Cloverfield Lane
The Sting
Howard’s End
Hello, My Name is Doris
Shakespeare in Love


A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of a Tragedy by Sue Klebold

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of TragedyA Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the two Columbine High School shooters, a description she acknowledges will be the first and defining one she must wear for the rest of her life. The title is quite self-explanatory. It’s the story of what it’s like to live with the guilt, shame, public abuse and recovery from what her son did. Intentionally I have not read other reviews of it but I suspect many will be judgmental, calling the book the author’s attempt to shift blame from herself or simply the apologia of a woman who is blind to her own bad parenting. Others will no doubt be very sympathetic and give stories of suicides or violent crimes in their own families or circles and how they had not seen them coming. I will try to avoid falling into either camp. I do not judge Sue Klebold harshly nor do I exonerate her. I did not know her or her son or anyone else connected with the tragedy. I do know from my FBI years that people can lie and conceal their bad (I’ll refrain from using the term evil) thoughts and deeds from others. I never knew when people were lying to me unless I had independent proof one way or another. Children, especially teens, are extremely successful at concealing from their parents whatever they want to conceal. I also know first-hand what it was like to be a hormone-infused teenager, although I certainly never had thoughts of violence. So I withhold judgment of Sue Klebold as a parent.

This is, after all, a book review, and my goal is to let you know whether it is a book worth reading. For me it was. Most of us are interested or even fascinated by horrendous crimes. We want to know why they happened and how to prevent them. We want to learn something that will allow us to feel that it couldn’t have happened to us. I doubt this book will assuage those fears, but it does give us enough history of Dylan and his family and friends to make our own judgment on that. The first third or perhaps half of the book describes Dylan’s upbringing and family life, his personality, with an emphasis on how normal and happy he was, or at least seemed. While the author can never be objective about this, it isn’t difficult for me to find her descriptions to be credible. As she moves through the telling she is quick to acknowledge that Dylan was not innocent by any stretch of the imagination. She realizes she was in denial about this for a long time after the massacre, wanting to believe he was somehow coerced or brainwashed by Eric Harris, his co-shooter, or was in a drug-induced frenzy, or perhaps didn’t actually kill anyone himself. She was disabused of all these notions when confronted with the evidence by the sheriff’s office. It was interesting to me to learn many of the details I did not know about the crime itself and how the family, the investigators, and the lawyers handled it, how Dylan concealed his intentions from his family and friends. That’s a rather short section in the middle. I hesitate to use the word “entertained” in connection with such a horrific event, but ultimately the book had me engaged intensely through most of it.

Perhaps most interesting to me, and something mentioned almost in passing in the book, is how Dylan had a crush on a girl who was totally unaware of his devotion or obsession or however you wish to characterize it. Apparently he never approached her or told her of his feelings. Personally I think this was a huge factor whether conscious or subconscious in his decision to do what he did. I remember the intense yearning mixed with fear of rejection of those days and how those emotions can override logic. The author puts more stock in the violent video games Dylan played and the bullying he experienced (and which she had no idea of until after the shooting). To Dylan “life was unfair” and it fueled a rage in him that led to the deaths of a dozen and the maiming of dozens more.

The author writes well even if you don’t buy everything she says. The final third of the book is largely about ways to cope and efforts to reduce violence. She has been active in organizations meant to prevent suicide or help survivors deal with it. There is a great deal of material from psychologists or other researchers or professionals and links and citations the interested reader can follow. No doubt there is much that is insightful and worth being aware of, but I also felt there was a lot of psychobabble and buzz words (like “brain illness,” a term the author overuses). The wheat and chaff weren’t easy to tell apart, which makes it all rather useless in my book. Although it may seem cold and heartless to say so, my personal view is that we are like computer chips. This sort of mental aberration is simply defective circuitry. We are all, after all, bags of molecules like rocks, trees, computer chips, and animals. Whether our behavior is governed by Newton’s laws, our DNA, or some circuit designer’s photomask, if there is a defect, the bag of molecules doesn’t work right. Chip makers don’t try to fix bad chips. They produce them by the thousands, test them, and then crush to smithereens the ones that don’t pass. It used to work that way with humans, too. Before effective birth control, many women would bear ten, fifteen, even twenty children if they lived long enough. Two or three babies might die in childbirth or soon thereafter. Another one or two would die of measles, or scarlet fever, or get killed by a kick from a cow. Survival of the fittest wasn’t a theory, it was the way of life. Now we try to keep everyone alive no matter how screwed up and whatever the cost to society. I’m not arguing against that, but I believe in the long run it is an unsustainable model. I don’t believe Dylan Klebold could have been detected as seriously mentally or otherwise defective before the shooting, but many dangerous people can be before the tragic event happens. For them the only real solution is isolation from society whether it be by imprisonment, execution, exile, or any other method that effectively separates them from the mainstream. I think we need to return to the concept of insane asylums. Of course abuses have occurred and will always be possible when we lock people away, but the alternative is an indeterminable number of Columbines. Mass shootings (and bombings and plowing trucks into crowds) are on the increase and they are virtually all done by crazy people. I believe many are preventable.

As a former FBI agent and lawyer I would have liked to have seen more about the crime details, the investigation, and the civil lawsuits. In that I was disappointed. But the book does not misrepresent or sensationalize what it is. It simply tells what it is like to live as the mother of a mass murderer. If that interests you, this is a well-written and frank account of one woman’s experience.

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Defender by Graham McNamee

DefenderDefender by Graham McNamee
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goodreads 2 stars = “It was ok” which is just how I felt about this one. Tyne (“Tiny”), the main character, is a six foot six inch high school girl living in a low-rent apartment building in a sleazy area of Toronto. She and her skinny little boyfriend Stick find a body in a sealed up shaft in the basement. That’s enough of the plot. The characters were all comic-book implausible one-dimensional caricatures you might see on Saturday morning TV. Tiny is a massive protector, Stick is a computer genius, Vega is the female hood with ‘tude who can hot wire cars. Even the parents are former drug runners or have similar unsavory pasts. It’s hard to believe this author won an Edgar award. He writes like his target audience is eleven years old. The guilty party is so easy to spot I knew “who dunnit” the instant he was introduced. This is a short, quick read but not very satisfying. Goodreads 2 is the same as Amazon 3, so I’ll boost the two stars to three on my blog.

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Less is fewer

On the news last night I heard both newscasters and interviewees complain about Oakland’s new policy of two-man police cars which will have the effect of reducing the number of cars on patrol. They all said there would be “less police” on the street, or “less patrol cars.” No, there will be fewer cars, not less. As for police, there will be just as many, but they will be in fewer cars. The rule is simple: if what you are talking about is in discrete, countable units, use the word fewer. If it’s not, use the word less. Less police presence is okay because “presence” is not countable. Fewer cars. Less poverty. Fewer poor people. Less suffering. In the opposite direction it’s easier: it’s always “more.” More cars, more poverty, more suffering. Less/fewer parallels the use of “much” and “many”. If you would ask the question “How much” about something, then less is the right word. If you would ask “how many” then use fewer.

It can be tricky for some words like money. Money comes in countable units, but it is the individual units that are countable, not the concept of money in general. You wouldn’t ask “how many money do you have?” So you should say “less money,” not “fewer money” or “fewer monies.” You would say “How many dollar bills do you have?” so it is proper to say “fewer dollar bills.” The units are countable, but the generalization is not.

Pleasantville by Attica Locke

PleasantvillePleasantville by Attica Locke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s a decent courtroom drama in this book, but it sure takes a while to get to it. Pleasantville is a primarily black neighborhood in Houston. Jay, the lead character, is a successful civil trial lawyer, single parent, and now verging on burnout. A teenage girl goes missing in Pleasantville the day of a mayoral primary race. We soon learn that she was passing out flyers designed to frighten voters away from one candidate and that there were two other girls who went missing in the same general area recently and ended up dead. Eventually, this third girl turns up dead, too.

That’s a good start, but for the next two hundred pages or so we are subjected to a long narrative about the Hathorne family (one mayoral candidate, Axel Hathorne, is the current police chief), background on a huge cast of characters, and voluminous descriptions of what every female character is wearing every time she makes an appearance, how every man holds his cigarette, the political history of the city and community, and the architectural style of every house and the smells coming from every kitchen. I began to wonder if the author was getting paid by the word. There’s no doubt in my mind she was padding a novelette into a full-length novel.

The community of Pleasantville is portrayed in a favorable and believable light. It’s not simply a black ghetto, nor an idealized Father Knows Best middle America with colorless blacks as some clueless whites might envision. The characters, though nearly all black, are diverse – upper, middle, and lower class, ambitious or plodding, devout Christians or not, and so forth. This story is one of those exemplars of political correctness that you feel guilty putting down without finishing it, but I was desperately close to doing so out of boredom when all of sudden, almost exactly two-thirds of the way through, it turned into a cracking good courtroom drama. Neal Hathorne, Axel’s son and campaign manager) is arrested and charged with the most recent murder. The courtroom scenes, especially the witness examination, objections, and judicial rulings were very realistic, much better than the average crime novel. As a lawyer and retired FBI agent, that’s important to me. There’s also some good action in the last third. I won’t say more about the plot so as to avoid spoilers, but rest assured our hero Jay comes through in the end. I would have liked to have rated it higher, but the long slog at the beginning prevents me from doing so.

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Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

Journey to the Center of the EarthJourney to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a treat! I can’t remember when I last enjoyed a book so much. Most readers are at least vaguely familiar with this work, from the movie versions if not from having read it. It is a true action thriller from start to finish, fraught with peril and excitement on almost every page (or CD track in this case). Verne’s fertile imagination is wonderful. The plot is about a scientist and his nephew who find and translate an obscure Icelandic work revealing that its writer had, centuries earlier, traveled to the center of the earth through a volcanic crater. The party seeks to duplicate the voyage. Of course they meet with every possible danger and setback.

The book was written in French in 1864 and translated into English soon thereafter. It thus has certain characteristics that either charm or dissuade the reader. I’m solidly in the former camp. The language is both quaint and highly literate. Illiteracy was the norm at that time, so the mass market then was the top 10% or so of the populace in terms of education. Its aim, then, is quite high. If you are put off by vocabulary like whither and whence or tenebrous, effulgence, pellucid, antediluvian, abnegnation, and verdure, to cite just a few, then this book is not for you. Perhaps reality TV is your best bet. But if you enjoy the English language’s most expressive and evocative aspects used in a natural and compelling narrative, you will enjoy this book as I did. The high literacy level does not come across as stuffy or snobbish. It’s just the way educated people spoke and wrote at that time. I don’t know how much of the style is properly that of Verne’s and how much that of the translator, but the English version delighted me at every turn.

I listened to the audio-CD version. The reader was excellent, portraying the pedantic professor-uncle and the woebegone nephew admirably. He also handled a great many terms in several foreign languages, including Icelandic. Don’t worry, you don’t need to know any of them, as the narrator-nephew doesn’t either and his uncle translates everything to English for him.

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Cached Out audiobook

Some of you Cliff Knowles fans may not know that Cached Out is available as an audiobook from Not only that but it’s available for FREE! Do you have a long commute and need something to play during those endless hours stuck on the freeway? This is almost 15 hours of listening. Here’s a preview:

Play CachedOut

If you are not already an Audible member, you can click the link above and join Audible, then select Cached Out as your first book. It will be free. If you want to stay an Audible member, then fine, do nothing and you will be charged a monthly fee for subsequent months, but if not, just cancel when prompted after a month and you will be charged nothing.

If you are already an Audible member, you know that you get one free book per month as part of your annual fee. Just select Cached Out as your monthly choice. You pay nothing more than your annual fee.

What if you already bought the book in Kindle form but don’t want to join Audible? For only $3.47 you can get the audio version. Wouldn’t you like to listen to it now? It’s been a while hasn’t it? Remember those heart-stopping chase scenes at the end? Listen to geocacher and professional voice actor Joe Hempel weave the spell.