Monthly Archives: January 2023

Behind Her Lives by Briana Cole

Behind Her Lives (Pseudo)Behind Her Lives by Briana Cole
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What I liked most about this book was the clever plot. There were enough twists and turns to keep me guessing to the very end. That said, in the end I felt disappointed with this book. The writing was very uneven – quite good at the beginning but deteriorating as it continued. This included the proofreading, which allowed numerous errors such as wrong word (off for of), mixed tenses, omitted words, and commas scattered in random, odd places.

The story is a mystery. The main character, Deven, is called upon to identify a body as her half sister Kennedy, but she doesn’t think it is her sister. Deven is black, something I didn’t pick up on at first since there was no physical description given of her. The cover picture is the profile of a black woman, but is obscured by two such images overlaid on each other and the title print over that. With straight hair, her race was not obvious at a quick glance, but perhaps I was just unobservant. In any event, the cover picture was of Kennedy, not Deven, and with different fathers, they could have been of different races. Her race shouldn’t matter, but as the story went on, it seemed rather important. At one point Deven mused that she couldn’t marry outside her race. That made me assume she was white and thinking about a black man, when in fact, it was the opposite. The dialog became “blacker” as it went on, or at least it seemed that way to me; e.g. I had to look up the word “locs.” The characters became rougher. At the beginning, it was nurse, doctor, hospital setting, but then some shady characters fell into the mix and everyone, even Deven, developed a filthy mouth toward the end.

Deven often did not behave in remotely logical ways. She decided to try to find her sister by herself, often withholding critical information not only from the police, but from others trying to help her. She would run off to confront someone, even after being told to let the police do it, and as she arrived, wished she had called the police instead, then even when confronting someone who could be dangerous, had no plan as to what she would say or do. She would get important calls or texts and not read or listen to them until much later. She also spent no time at work for days and days. There was a pregnancy inserted into the plot for no reason I could determine as it disappeared from the plot line as quickly as it appeared. Though I can’t recommend it, the mystery itself was intriguing enough to keep me reading, and it was logically resolved in the end.

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The Divider by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser

The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021 by Peter Baker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Husband and wife team Baker (New York Times) and Glasser (The New Yorker) have written a massive tome documenting the Trump presidency based on years of personal reporting and interviews of key insiders. I won’t bother to analyze or bash Trump since everyone pretty much knows what he is. Those who need to hear the truth about him won’t listen anyway. What I found interesting and important about the book is how it portrays the people around him in the White House or other key government positions. I hadn’t realized how much they almost all hated each other. They fell into two general categories: those true pro-Trumpers and those who took positions primarily to prevent Trump from doing something horrible. The former didn’t really like or respect Trump, nor he them, but they saw him as a vehicle for their own agenda. These include people like Jared Kushner (Israel), Jeff Sessions (immigration), John Bolton (Venezuela), Betsy DeVos (charter schools), and many others. The latter included the generals such as Mattis, McMaster, and Kelly, (but notably did not include Flynn, who was a true Trumper with an agenda of his own), Tillerson and many others. None of them was very effective either at their own agendas or at controlling Trump. Even within the second category, the in-fighting was fierce.

My takeaway from the book is how blessed we are to have a civil service system. Our governments and federal, state and local level chug along doing what needs to be done, whether protecting us , providing sanitation, education, social services, foreign relations, and a myriad of other things, all despite, not because of, the elected politicians. They are also protected by the civil service system which makes it hard to fire rank and file employees, and easy for arbitrators or boards to reinstate them. The same is true in the military. It leads to incompetent people staying in positions and plenty of the inefficiency for which government is known, but it is also the safeguard that keeps people like Trump from replacing knowledgeable career people with partisan incompetents or worse. It was our inexorable government machinery that kept our allies on our side, our military within the law, our court system running, and our economy working.

The book itself is too long and ponderous to be an enjoyable read. It is really written as a historical source document. People who follow the news closely won’t find much surprising, although I skipped liberally through the second half and may have missed something. The book is over 700 pages.

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Desert Star by Michael Connelly

Desert Star (Renée Ballard, #5; Harry Bosch Universe, #36)Desert Star by Michael Connelly
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a big Harry Bosch fan, so take that into account in the rating. If you’ve read his earlier stuff, you know the good and the bad of the style. Harry is a rule-breaking, abrasive, now ex-LAPD detective who still burns with a fury over injustices in the world. He is here working cold cases, called back to assist the force in a squad of volunteers led by Renee Ballard, the only sworn officer. The plot suffers from too much predictability, but the detail of how Harry works is pure joy to read. Connelly gets into the cop nitty-gritty – where Harry parks to get the best view, how he positions his body to look old and decrepit, the lies he tells to get people to tell him what he wants, and all the people and resources in the LAPD he knows how to use and clues only he is sharp enough to spot. There’s a big reveal in the epilogue, but there’s enough telegraphing of it throughout the book that I can’t call it a surprise. The bottom line: if you’re a Harry Bosch fan, read it and enjoy it; if not, avoid it, or if this is your first one, go back to the earlier ones. Don’t start here.

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The Ransomware Hunting Team by Renee Dudley and Daniel Golden

The Ransomware Hunting TeamThe Ransomware Hunting Team by Renee Dudley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book, but it may be largely due to my experience and interests. I was an FBI agent on the very first high-tech squad in Silicon Valley in the 1990s and I have a longtime interest in cryptography and computers. I was dismayed at the unflattering (but accurate) portrayal of the FBI and its response (or non-response) in the middle of the book. But I was pleased to see by the end that the FBI has upped its game and works well with the private sector to combat this scourge of ransomware.

The book is not a technical manual. It spends most of its time on the lives of the team members, the mostly young people who selflessly devote their time and talents to breaking ransomware or otherwise helping victims recover their encrypted files without paying ransom, or sometimes by helping to reduce the ransom through negotiation. The team who does this is an informal but real group, many of whom have never met the others, scattered around the western world. Their technical skills are formidable, but they are often socially somewhat inept, the stereotypical computer nerds from TV and movies. The reality is these people are heroes.

The ransomware business is more complicated than I’d imagined, and the book gives fascinating insights about it. I hadn’t realized, for example, that many American businesses profit from it. Insurance companies make money insuring against it and there are unethical companies who claim to help victim companies recover their files through their technical expertise and not pay ransom, but actually just pay the demanded ransom and charge the victim that amount plus a premium. The ransomers vary in geographic locale and in their conscience (e.g. not victimizing hospitals), but the worst of them are in Russia, Iran, or Belarus. Read the book to learn more.

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2022 Timeline map

In case anyone is interested in where I go, here’s my Google timeline map for 2022 for the Bay Area. A couple of visits to the East Bay are out of range, and my road trip to Olympia, Washington doesn’t show here, although it does when I zoom out. The widespread nature of the locations is due mostly to my geocaching. I was surprised to see so many.

Varsity Blues finally over

William Singer, the mastermind behind the college admissions scandal known as Varsity Blues was sentenced yesterday to three and a half years. That’s a reduced sentence because he cooperated with the FBI to ensnare all or most of his clients. His was the last sentencing, because they had to keep him on the string until all the other cases resolved. He might have had to testify at trial for any holdouts.

The Local by Joey Hartstone

The LocalThe Local by Joey Hartstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really liked this book and recommend it. Although this is his first novel, the author is a professional writer (screenplays for movies and TV) and it shows. The plot is suspense-filled, with twists and turns, and he does an excellent job of painting a scene of the east Texas legal scene. As a lawyer and FBI agent who worked in the intellectual property (IP) field, I was impressed with the depth of his research. The basic setup is that the main character, James Euchre, is a patent attorney who serves as the local counsel for patent law firms coming here from out of state. He is representing a client, Amin, who loses a ruling and screams threats in the courtroom. Then the judge who presided is murdered. Amin is charged with the murder and Euchre must represent him even though he’s never been a criminal attorney. Okay, that’s far-fetched. A good-looking female attorney, Layla, formerly a prosecutor, is seconded to the case to help him since it’s a capital case. To add a twist, the victim judge was a dear personal friend and mentor to Euchre. Euchre wants to find the killer, even if it is his own client, so he has in mind that he will screw Amin if he finds out he’s guilty. It is up to him and his quirky investigator, “the Leg,” to find out whodunit.

For a non-lawyer the author got the vast majority of the legal stuff right, like the feds deferring to Texas in order to go for the death penalty, and most of what wasn’t right was probably due to literary license. He lists a slew of lawyers in the acknowledgments section. However I feel compelled to set the record straight on a few issues. There is no FBI lab in Dallas. The only FBI lab is in Quantico, VA. It does assist local cases like this on request, but it is much more likely a local department would use a state lab for several reasons. This trial would surely be moved from the local area; it it wasn’t, any conviction would be overturned on appeal.

Another reason I can’t boost this to five stars is that the characters aren’t very likeable. Amin is a jerk. Euchre is a dissolute hothead. He claims to be a non-smoker but chain smokes Marlboros and throws the butts out on the roadway or sidewalk. He drinks heavily and is obviously impaired from hangovers running up to trial. At trial he cuts down to three stiff drinks a night as though that’s virtuous. He’s sarcastic and insulting to half the people he deals with. I’ve never really understood why authors like to make their lead characters flawed, but I guess it goes back at least to Sherlock Holmes and seems to be popular with some readers. Layla is inserted as a token black and female who should be lead counsel with her experience, but does almost nothing but provide a love interest. The Leg is the only somewhat likeable character, although she also seems like a token lesbian who ultimately doesn’t have much effect on the final resolution. The plot strains credibility even more toward the end, but I found it compelling enough to really enjoy it.

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Misplaced modifying clauses

Last night on the news I heard the newsreader (not really a reporter, alas) say something like “After sitting in her car for four hours at subfreezing temperatures, police officers were able to rescue the woman.” You may wonder why the police were sitting in the woman’s car for hours and why they waited so long to rescue her.

The answer is, of course, that it was the woman, not the police, who sat in the car for hours. This is the only thing that makes sense in the context. But from a grammatical perspective, the initial clause, lacking a subject of its own, is presumed to refer to the subject that immediately follows. You might think this is picky since, after all, the meaning is clear. But that’s not always so. That’s why it’s important to put the modifying clause immediately before or after the thing it modifies.

Take this example: “After winning the match, I asked Joe to buy me a beer.” Who won the match? It makes sense either way. Maybe we had a friendly bet and he owed me the beer since I won. Or maybe he won and I was hoping he’d buy me a beer as gracious consolation prize. The logic applies even if I was the one buying the beer for him. But what did your brain tell you when you read the sentence? You assumed I had won the match. Why? Because you intrinsically know the rule that the thing immediately following the clause is the thing referred to. Of course the best phrasing, at least for purposes of clarity, is to include the subject of the clause in the clause, e.g., “After she had sat in the car for four hours, the police rescued the woman.” The newsreader made three of these misplaced clause errors in a row in that newscast.