Monthly Archives: October 2023

Whalefall by Daniel Kraus

WhalefallWhalefall by Daniel Kraus
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The cover of the book tells you all you need to know: a fictional diver gets swallowed by a sperm whale. The writer somehow got a publisher to accept a 300-page [more on that in a bit] book about it. I originally requested the audiobook from the library, but that was taking a while to come in, so I then requested the print book. Both came in at the same time. I started listening to the audiobook, but gave up on that because the reader had a wimpy teen-like voice. To be fair, the book’s narrator is a wimpy teen.

So how do you make an entire book about being swallowed by a whale? You don’t; and the author didn’t. There are many pages with a single word on them, others with just one short sentence. That’s why the 300 pages is misleading, presumably stretched with mucho white space for commercial purposes. Much of the “dialogue” consists of whale noises. The whole concept is preposterous and the writing pedestrian at best. If I had any other book to read, I wouldn’t have finished this, but with plenty of skimming, it was easy to complete in a few hours, although I did spread those out over a few days since I still didn’t have another book in at the library. Since I did at least read to the end, I’ll give it two stars, but I don’t recommend this to anyone.

View all my reviews

The Last House Guest by Megan Miranda

The Last House GuestThe Last House Guest by Megan Miranda
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was slow to get hooked into this book, but in the end, I enjoyed it. The author is good at setting the scene and making the reader feel he is there. In this case, the scene is the coast of Maine in a tiny town appropriately called Littleport. The undisputed ruler of the town, Grant Loman, owns a vast real estate empire. In addition to his own monstrous house he rents out the many surrounding cabins, cottages and other properties to summer vacationers. His two children, Parker and Sadie, rich and beautiful, were raised in private schools in Boston but are now the heirs apparent to the empire. Our protagonist, however, is Sadie’s best friend, Avery, an orphaned teenager at one time, but now employed by the Lomans to manage the Littleport rentals. Despite the loss of her parents in a car accident, the death of her grandmother, and a rebellious period, she has made her way in life and become Sadie’s bestie.

There is an end-of-season party and a death. Was it a suicide? A murder? Avery is both a suspect and a self-appointed, obsessed investigator. The suspense builds slowly as more and more information is revealed to the reader. This is done in a way that is trendy but which I find irritating: a constant barrage of time switches from the current day to an earlier time, usually the day of the party, but sometimes even earlier as Avery relates bits of history she is remembering. Whatever happened to telling a story in chronological order? In any event, the reader is not told important events and facts until near the very end making it impossible to make a logical guess to solve the mystery until then. The denouement is a little too pat and predictable; at least, it’s predictable once you are told all the necessary stuff in the final chapters. The storytelling maintains a slightly creepy noirish feel throughout while conveying the isolation and grandeur of the Maine coast (which I can imagine but have never seen). Enjoy it more for the atmosphere and the characters than the plot.

View all my reviews

A Tribute to Rancho San Antonio Open Space Preserve

I want to take this opportunity to pay my own tribute to Rancho San Antonio County Park and Open Space Preserve (RSA). RSA is both a county park (one part) and the rest an open space preserve owned and managed by the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSD), a separate governmental entity that spans San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. The whole thing is administered by MROSD. It has been a favorite place of mine since I moved back to the valley in 1980 and today was a somewhat special day.

I went on my regular out and back run today from Lot 1 (formerly called the horse trailer lot) to the far western point on the Rogue Valley Trail (N37 19.772 W122 05.139 to N37 20.332 W122 07.638 for you geocachers) and three unusual things happened. On the road to the farm next to the Lower Meadow Trail I saw a buck with an impressive set of antlers just to the left of the trail. The deer there are used to people, although they will usually avoid us and the bucks are shyer than the does. This one stayed put and eyed me, then as I got close it lowered its antlers and started toward me. This startled me for a second, but it immediately became clear he was heading to cross the road behind me. He trotted briskly across the road  and I turned to watch as he leapt over the wire fence (at approximately N37 19.913 W122 5.848). The fence isn’t very high, but it was a magnificent display nonetheless. There was only one other person who saw this, a man coming the opposite way. He stopped in his tracks and said “Wow! Amazing!” I told him we got to see a nature show.

That was on the way up. On the way back I was nearing the parking areas and two old men (by that, I mean about my age) were walking ahead of me when we all saw a dust devil whirl up some dirt from the trail directly ahead of us, It formed a violent funnel for a few seconds then disappeared just as quickly as it had formed. As I passed, one man said to the other, laughing, “I guess we can tell people we saw a tornado today.” It was no tornado, but it was unusual.

Finally, on the very last leg, on the Permanente Creek Trail I saw a lone coyote standing right in the middle of the trail about a hundred yards ahead of me. It didn’t seem to notice me as it was facing the other way. I kept running, expecting it to run off. Instead, it started trotting slowly away from me, toward the PG&E Trailhead. I wasn’t gaining on it at first, but after twenty yards or so it spotted some hikers on that trail where it crosses the trail we were on and it slowed, then stopped. I kept going and got to about fifty yards away when it turned and noticed me. It then dodged into the bushes to my left. I never saw it after that. Behind me was another jogger gaining on me (almost everyone is faster than me now) so I turned to him and asked if he’d seen it, too. He confirmed he had and gave me a big grin.

Where else in a busy high-tech hub like Silicon Valley can you see such a fun nature display? I’m not even including the everyday attractions of the place like the cute baby goats at Deer Hollow Farm, flocks of wild turkeys and quail, bunnies, and the hikers talking a myriad of foreign languages. I hear Mandarin and Spanish nearly every time I go there and have often heard German, Japanese, Italian, Greek, Hebrew, and various Indian or other Asian subcontinent languages I don’t know. If I want the place all to myself I can go early on a cold, rainy winter morning. The nature show is often great those days. So RSA, my hat (or running cap) is off to you. Thank you for the many years of enjoyment.

The Johnstown Flood by David McCullough

The Johnstown FloodThe Johnstown Flood by David McCullough
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’m no history buff. I only read this because my book club chose it. But I loved it. From page 1 it’s a thriller. You know in general what happened. The title tells you that if you didn’t already know anything about it. But you don’t know exactly why or how it happened and you certainly don’t know who will survive and who won’t. The author personalizes the victims and the parties who may or may not have been responsible for this tragedy.

I learned a great deal about dams and spillways. There’s a lot more to them than I thought. In our valley there are some reservoirs that aren’t allowed to fill up even during heavy rains. I’ve always thought that was a near-criminal waste of capacity in this drought-prone region. Now I understand why engineers take the cautious approach they do. The author sneaked in lessons in history and engineering while foolish me thought it was just an exciting suspense story. He also taught us valuable lessons in human nature, like how people become inured to warnings and pretty much anything they don’t want to believe. Everyone knew the dam was dangerous, but nobody did anything about it. It’s always someone else’s responsibility. It’s the chicken little or the boy who cried wolf. Only after the worst happens did people accept it was real this time.

I listened to the audiobook and I can affirm that the reader did a perfect job – not too maudlin, not too casual. There was just enough drama in his voice without undue histrionics. I highly recommend this book.

View all my reviews

A Flaw in the Design by Nathan Oates

A Flaw in the DesignA Flaw in the Design by Nathan Oates
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this umpteenth take on the unreliable narrator shtick we hear the voice of Gil, a professor of creative writing at a not-so-prestigious Vermont college. Gil and his wife Molly are struggling financially and his writing career is going nowhere. Suddenly Gil’s obscenely rich sister and her husband are killed in a car crash and the will names Gil as the guardian of their son Matthew, at that point 17 years old and finishing his senior year at a prep school. Gil despises Matthew for reasons hinted at but not immediately revealed, but he feels a duty to his sister and the job comes with a healthy stipend for expenses, so he and Molly agree.

Matthew was, when Gil last knew him, a foul-mouthed, spoiled, selfish little brat. There was a dark incident that is finally explained about page 50. Note to author: why wait? Either tell it right up front or save as a big reveal at the end. Why hint at something you’re about to reveal in a few pages? But I digress. When we learn of it, it is not clear whether Matthew did something evil or was otherwise at fault. Gil may even have been more responsible, especially since the story is told from his viewpoint with his assumptions and conclusions about what happened.

Now, years after that incident, Matthew settles in with Gil and Molly and Gil becomes increasingly paranoid about having him in the house. Every time Matthew smiles, Gil sees an evil smirk. Every time Matthew helps Gil’s daughters, his cousins, Gil sees it as an attempt to weasel his way into their confidence in order to set up some nefarious deed later. Molly and the girls think Matthew is nice and Gil is overreacting, judging him based on a childhood incident. The money he brings is certainly welcome. Then there’s a police investigation into the fatal crash, but we’re not told much about it. Matthew also manages to gain entrance to Gil’s creative writing class. The stories he writes Gil finds disturbing, taunting, while other students and Molly think they’re harmless fiction. Gil becomes increasingly unhinged. The story becomes a psychological mystery. Is Gil going crazy and persecuting his innocent nephew? Is Matthew secretly building a plot against Gil?

I like the basic plot setup to this point, although I’m tired of the unreliable narrator hook. I did keep reading to the end and enjoyed it enough to give it the three stars, but I found Gil to be too unreliable through the latter pages. In plain language, the author overdid it. Gil just seemed wacko, even though Matthew clearly showed himself to still be a foul-mouthed entitled brat at times. Neither garners our sympathy, which means it’s easy to lose interest in the outcome. Still, it was cleverly written with enough suspense building after the slow beginning. I did foresee the twist at the very end, which usually gives me triumphant satisfaction with the ending, but in this case I did not find it fulfilling.

View all my reviews