Monthly Archives: May 2019

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.

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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The Antiquities Hunter by Maya Bohnhoff

The Antiquities Hunter (A Gina Miyoko Mystery #1)The Antiquities Hunter by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This book kept me occupied while waiting as my optometrist’s as it was slightly more interesting than the eye chart. It began behind the eight ball with the choice of the protagonist’s name, Gina Miyoko. Miyoko is a girl’s given name, not a surname. Nowhere in my year in Japan, or on Google, Bing, Wikipedia, or Facebook was I ever able to find a person with that surname. So right off I knew the author was writing about stuff she didn’t know. The main character was also given a ridiculous heritage, wacky family, and implausible abilities (tiny woman with a black belt in kung fu, knowledge of guns, former SFPD cop). I know some former SFPD cops and I guarantee you, she wouldn’t have made the cut.

The story centers around a ring of crooks who deal in stolen, i.e. looted, antiquities, especially from Mexico. Gina, our heroine, who was hired as a bodyguard for a National Park Service agent, is turned into a vamp to seduce the big crook (or is he?) The NPS agent gets shot while under Gina’s stellar protection. Later Gina answers that she isn’t sure she would be able to shoot the gun-toting bad guy who is coming to kill her (an answer that would have caused her to fail the first interview for SFPD cop). She’s constantly being rescued by the big, brave man. Her kung fu is nowhere to be seen when needed. Some bodyguard. Some former cop. The whole thing seemed like total fantasy that belonged in a comic book or maybe romance section.

Then there were the grammar and vocabulary errors, e.g. “I” vs. “me” (hint: for the object of a preposition use “me”) and “staunch” vs. “stanch.” The bottom line is that it filled some time and wasn’t offensive.

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Goat kids butting heads

I went running at Rancho San Antonio County Park today and the baby goats at Deer Hollow Farm were too cute to resist so I stopped and took a short video. Music credit: The Double Eagle by The Country Gentlemen. Cliff Knowles fans will notice that I got a double plug in for my books.

Security certificate (https)

This site and all my other sites on the domain, including my cipher analysis page, crosswords, and Recreational Cryptanalysis site are now and always were encrypted and safe. However, some browsers issued warnings that the site was not secure because the security certificate for the host ( named only that domain, not those domains hosted on the server. The URL was thus previously prefixed only as an http site. I have now obtained a security certificate for my individual domain and subdomains so that browsers do not issue a security warning. You can change the URL for this site and any others on this domain to include the https prefix now. If you encounter any issues with security warnings, please notify me by email or contact form.