Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Child by Fiona Barton

The Child (Kate Waters, #2)The Child by Fiona Barton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This British mystery involves a body, but it’s not clear whether or not it’s a murder. The body is that of a child buried many years earlier that is unearthed during construction. The lead investigator is Kate Waters, a reporter, which makes this a bit different from the usual police procedural. We are introduced to two different women each of whom thinks the baby must be hers. The DNA matches the first one who comes forward, but the date and location match the timeline of the other woman’s experience. She buried her baby in that exact location, but is not connected to the women whose DNA matches. Neither knows of the other. It becomes Kate’s job to put it all together.

I liked Kate’s character and the plot is cleverly written. This is book 2 in what is a fairly lengthy series, I believe. I can recommend this book, but I do have one warning. Do NOT get the audiobook. There are five different readers, and this turned out to be a bad decision on the part of the producers. For starters, the actress who played one of the younger characters sounded much older than her character and another character who was supposed to be older, sounded younger. Since timelines are important in this story, this became very confusing right up to the end. Secondly, there is a lot of dialogue, which means the actress who is portraying character A is doing the voice of character B and C as well as A, but then it switches to another scene where another actress is doing the voices of A and C but sounds very different. The personality of a character changes, or seems to, based on who is reading that character’s lines in that chapter. One minute a character sounds posh, then a minute later sounds almost Cockney, feminine, then masculine, etc. It really became difficult to keep track of who was who, a complaint I’ve seen in other reviews, even those who read the book.

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Don’t Let Go by Michel Bussi

Don't Let GoDon’t Let Go by Michel Bussi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My wife read the French version, but my French isn’t that good, so I followed her recommendation and got the English version. The translation is excellent. Martial and Liane Bellion are lying about the pool at a resort on Réunion Island, a department of France. Liane goes up to the room and is not seen again. Martial has a friend watch his young daughter while he goes looking for her. He reports her missing to the police. When the police arrive, they find signs of a struggle and blood in the Bellions’ room. Martial confesses to having borrowed a laundry cart from a maid and having wheeled it down to the car park. A knife is missing from his barbecue kit, a knife that shows up in another body nearby. Then he flees with his daughter. Open and shut case, right? Well, maybe.

Aja, a mixed race Creole captain and Christos, a lusty, pot-smoking forensic-trained second lieutenant are on the case. The setting is exotic, the characters interesting, the mystery deep. There is the suspense of the chase as the police try to find Martial and Sopha and a plot you won’t figure out. The twists fooled me almost to the end. The people who die and those who live aren’t who you expect. I spent more than a little time looking up Réunion, Mauritius, and the Seychelles, which were mere names I’d heard before this, as well as dodo birds and papangues. This is the most entertaining book I’ve read in quite some time.

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Time Traveler

I’ve created an interactive adventure/puzzle game for cryptography/cryptogram fans. You can make your way through it by trial and error, but it is intended to provide an opportunity to work several cipher problems in order to progress to the end. Click on the link to get started.

Time Traveler

Freefall by Jessica Barry

FreefallFreefall by Jessica Barry
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Freefall is so much like The Wife Between Us and The Last Mrs. Parrish that I can’t give it a higher rating, although it is slightly better than either one. The author has a knack with words and I think she could write something worth reading if she would just apply her talents to something with a decent plot. This is not such a book. The plot is hackneyed, and, as I said, a familiar formula.

The main character, Allison, is a beautiful young woman in a bad place emotionally and financially. A rich, handsome man “saves” her, but a vacuous life of Prada dresses and supercilious “friends” who look down their noses at her turns out not to be the salvation she had hoped for. Prince Charming isn’t what she thought, either. The story begins with a plane crash. Allison survives a crash in the Rocky Mountains. We don’t know the back story at that point, but it slowly unfolds, largely through the narration of Ally’s mother. Mother and daughter have been estranged for years. Each blames herself for the estrangement. From there it becomes sappier and soapier than a week’s worth of daytime TV. One of my chief gripes is present here, too, and that is the totally inaccurate portrayal of law enforcement. Police ignore and dismiss every piece of compelling evidence and they, and their coroners, are all incapable of determining that someone was murdered. The author at least has a mastery of grammar and a good vocabulary, one that appeals to the reader’s intelligence, even though the plot does not. The language descends into the gutter toward the end, too, making the main characters unlikable.

I listened to this on audiobook, and that was a mistake. The multiple readers all overact terribly. The director should be fired. The good people and bad people are instantly recognizable by their venom-dripping sneers and sarcasm or kind words and friendly voices, so there is no suspense. They are all the most implausible stereotypes imaginable.

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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.

Here’s a final humorous related note:

Varsity Blues update

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 ackgame.com 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 (ICDsoft.com) 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.

Peters Creek Falls

I went geocaching today with a friend. We got to see Peters Creek Falls in the Long Ridge Open Space District in the Santa Cruz Mountains. We did not find the geocache here but it was a treat to see the falls. I’m posting a very short video. It’s difficult to get a sense of scale here. I’d say the overall drop was about 70 feet. It’s quite a hike to get here and very steep at the end, so I don’t recommend it unless you are used to that kind of terrain.

A Higher Loyalty by James Comey

A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and LeadershipA Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Every review of this book will be read through a political lens, so I’ll first tell you that my bias is pro-FBI. I am a 25-year FBI Special Agent retiree and attorney. I was a Legal advisor for the FBI and had a successful legal career post-FBI. Most of my FBI career was doing national security investigations. So I know what I’m talking about with regard to the subject matter of this book. I was a lifelong Republican until about 10 years ago when the worst elements of the party seemed to gain control and I left. I could not become a Democrat, though, since that party does not represent my views, either. I registered as an independent and consider myself conservative. I hold President Trump in low regard and do not like Hillary Clinton.

The beginning of this book talks about Comey’s early life and career. I give him credit for being an effective crime-busting prosecutor for his many years at DOJ, but that’s not what readers are interested in. They, like me, want to hear his take on the 2016 election through his firing. I found this book to be self-serving, unconvincing, and a bit sanctimonious. I believe he is honestly telling it like he thinks it is, but there are a number of major problems with his account.

The biggest question I had going into this book was why the investigation of Clinton’s email was ever started. It’s not illegal to own a computer, whether a server or not, and the physical location of a server, at least between Clinton’s house and the USDS, is not relevant to its security risk. Comey provides only a single sentence on this which said simply it was a referral from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) because there were indications she was discussing “classified topics” in her unclassified email. He does not clarify which OIG, since both DOJ and USDS have one, but it must have been the USDS OIG since that is the agency responsible for seeing that State Department employees follow proper procedures. But this raises several questions that are unaddressed in the book. The USDS IG position was vacant during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. She was in effect the head of that agency as she was over the rest of the USDS. Did she refer herself to the FBI? It had to be an underling making the referral. If so, why didn’t he or she go directly to Clinton, the boss, and advise her that this may be (more on that in a moment) a violation of law or simply give her a security briefing? It looks suspiciously like someone resentful at not being promoted to the IG position or feeling the agency was dissed by leaving the IG spot vacant. Even if it was the DOJ OIG, the same is true.

More importantly, the use of the term “classified topics” is problematic. Every mishandling of classified information case I saw in my 25 years involved classified documents or classified information (i.e. an excerpt from a classified document), not “topics” which is essentially meaningless for prosecutorial purposes. Everything the Secretary of State does or says relates to a classified topic. It’s America’s foreign policy. A classified topic is not classified information until it is reduced to writing with a header and a footer specifying the classifying authority and the date and the level of classification. The Secretary of State is by law a classifying authority. She had the power to decide what is classified and what is not, at least for USDS matters. She did not have the authority to disregard or declassify classification by other authorities such as the FBI and CIA Directors, but there was no indication in the book that was the case. For practical purposes of a criminal mishandling investigation, unless she wrote an email with a heading, footer and proper classification marking on it, it was unclassified. She in theory could have forwarded a classified document or an excerpt from her classified USDS system to her personal system, which would be improper, but there’s no indication in the book or in Comey’s subsequent Congressional testimony that either of those things occurred, or was even alleged to begin the investigation. He repeated the term “classified topics” as being present on Clinton’s server later in the book, yet during testimony before Congress said they had not found classified information or documents on the server. Even if you disagree with my legal view, the fact remains that everyone who corresponded with Clinton on that server had the necessary clearances for the “topics” so there was no real security threat. I’m dubious that there was any justification for initiating the investigation beyond bias against her because she was a Democratic nominee for President or for internal USDS politics.

I’ll give Comey the benefit of the doubt that the OIG information justified opening the case, but if so, she should have been interviewed very soon after the case was opened, or at least once the server itself was obtained. A flat-out wrong statement he makes to justify waiting till much later is that it is standard procedure in white collar crime cases until you “have the goods” on the perpetrator to confront them during interview. This is sometimes true in Ponzi schemes or mail fraud, but rarely in national security investigations involving mishandling. You want to know the defense before you look at the evidence so you know what to look for that supports or refutes it. Otherwise, after you interview, you have to go back and look at it again. Once the server was in FBI hands where she couldn’t alter it, they should have interviewed her. Her explanation that she talked around classified information in her email on that account, used the classified system at USDS for classified information, and had the server for personal convenience so that she could use her Blackberry proved to be true in the end as Comey admits. As mentioned, everyone who used it had proper clearances anyway. The FBI could have determined this within the first month and referred the case to DOJ for a quick declination, thus not affecting the 2016 election.

Another falsehood Comey repeats several times in the book is that there is no DOJ rule to avoid any investigation that would interfere with the presidential election process. He says there is no law or written rule, which may very well be true, but it is long-standing policy and practice at the DOJ and FBI to stay out of investigations on major candidates leading up to the election and he had to have known this. This was later cited by the DOJ OIG as one of the reasons for firing Comey. While Trump admitted he fired Comey for the Russia investigation, nevertheless, Comey’s policy violations probably did justify his firing. My uncle, also an FBI agent, served under Hoover as Deputy Assistant Director and I am somewhat familiar with how Hoover operated. Despite Hoover’s reputation as having a secret file of dirt on politicians, whether true or false, he never used them against a presidential candidate. He hated Kennedy, a known philanderer, and could easily have done so but never did. Any such investigation will only be used by the opposing party, as it was against Clinton, and will inevitably have the effect of making the FBI look partisan and causing the public to lose faith in the integrity of the FBI. Many people are unaware that Hoover was put in to clean up the FBI and rid it of political hacks and nepotism. It has stayed politically neutral ever since and I’m confident no other Director would have done what Comey did.

Comey’s decision to end the Clinton investigation with a public announcement of his opinion was not only in violation of this policy and unprecedented in history, it seemingly usurped the authority of the DOJ to decide what’s prosecutable. It was meaningless legally, so I believe could only have a political purpose. The alt-right wing of the GOP was outraged that he “cleared” Clinton and the Democrats were outraged that he spent many minutes berating her for something that wasn’t illegal. His explanation that he did it to make sure the public’s faith in the FBI as independent would remain untarnished is laughable; it had the predictable exact opposite effect. He didn’t clear Clinton. Her actions, whether negligent or not, were not illegal, so there was nothing to clear. He should have just referred it to DOJ for a declination as every other case of this sort has been handled. I can find no reasonable explanation for going public but to try to hurt Clinton’s chances at the election as much as possible or at least weaken her presidency. He is a lifelong Republican, although I understand he registered as an Independent when he became Director. Whether his bias was conscious or not, I believe he was biased against her and it shows in the writing of the book.

As for the Russia thing, I can assure everyone that Putin and the Russian government, at least in its current form, is pure evil and bent on hurting America and the American people. Russia is the enemy of our country and the FBI should be investigating them. I’m not going to get into the Steele report, golden shower, and the post-election stuff in the book because it’s beyond my area of expertise. The bottom line on the book is that I found it an unsatisfying failed attempt at self-justification. Comey was no victim.

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PHEV vs. Humvee

Here are two charts from Google Trends:

PHEV (blue)  vs. Humvee (red)

PHEV

These charts represent the number of searches of the listed terms within the last 12 months by state, according to Google Trends. The top one shows that the term Humvee was searched more than PHEV in all but three states. The darker the red, the greater the imbalance. The bottom map shows the highest percentage of searches of the term PHEV without regard to any other terms. For those unfamiliar with cars, a Humvee is a monster of a quasi-military style vehicle, while PHEV stands for Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle.

The Good Nurse by Charles Graeber

The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and MurderThe Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness, and Murder by Charles Graeber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Charlie Cullen is a serial killer, responsible for perhaps as many as 400 deaths. He became known in the press as The Angel of Death when his crimes were finally revealed. He worked as a nurse in several different hospitals in New Jersey and Pennsylvania where he would poison patients by injecting drugs into their IV lines. This fascinating story begins slow. It spends a lot of time detailing how Charlie killed again and again without consequences besides being fired and shuffled off to another hospital to start killing again. The book becomes very frustrating and disappointing until Part II, when the police become involved. The book makes clear how difficult such cases are to investigate and prove, and it clearly identifies some good guys and bad guys. It will make you never want to set foot in a hospital again.

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Before Mars by Emma Newman

Before Mars (Planetfall, #3)Before Mars by Emma Newman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

After finishing this book I am rip-roaring mad. This title appeared on a list of sci-fi books recommended by the local library and the description looked promising so I went for it. There was no warning anywhere – the cover, the library email, reviews, introduction, foreword, that you need to have read the first two books in the series. It did have the phrase A Planetfall Novel on the cover, but I thought that only meant it was to be the first in a series. I write novels, too, with a continuing main character, but each is a standalone, so the fact that a series exists, even one started with an earlier book, doesn’t mean it’s necessary to read the earlier ones. There should have been some warning that this is number 3. So I’m giving you one now: Read the first two before reading this. Not only that, but be prepared to have the story go unfinished because the author clumsily ends by setting up yet another book in the series leaving this story line undone.

The plot was clever enough. Geologist/artist Anna lands on Mars some centuries in a dystopian future and immediately finds things strange. Even though she’s never been there before, she finds a note apparently written to herself in her bunk. It was easy enough to figure out how it got there, although Anna is slow on the uptake with that one. Then a whole lot of time is spent on her relationship with her husband, child, parents, and sister – wasted time in my opinion. The author is imaginative, but the anachronisms, political correctness, and an obvious lack of scientific and technical knowledge by the author crept interrupting the flow of the story as minor annoyances. I can only keep it from one star by the fact that it was interesting enough to keep me reading to the end, even though that disappointing ending was the first place it became clear I needed to have read the first two in the series. And the “ending” was anything but an ending. If you’re enamored of the first two in the series, and want it to go on, then go ahead and start this one, but there was nothing in this one making me think I would have enjoyed the series from the start.

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Cliff Knowles Mysteries are now FREE!

I’ve had it with Amazon. I appreciate that it permitted me to become a published author and develop a fan base, but in recent years their policy toward authors has been increasingly unfair. As the saying goes, they keep the elevator and give us the … short shrift. I realized I also don’t care about the royalty money. I make more from my Amazon capital gains than I do from the books. They treat us shareholders a lot better than us authors. So I’ve made all my books free. No strings attached, no ads, just free in digital form. For now it’s only in PDF form, but I may eventually upload a series of html pages, too, for those who want to read in a browser if I find there’s a demand for that. I’ve left the books on Amazon for now and the links for those versions, including the audiobook of Cached Out and all the paperbacks, but I’m in violation of Amazon’s terms of service for making the digital versions free and will probably be kicked off of that platform eventually. Just click on the link below (or My Books in the menu above) for the Cliff Knowles Mysteries page and download the PDF version of any of my books for free.

Cliff Knowles Mysteries