Category Archives: Uncategorized

Songbird by Peter Grainger

Songbird (Kings Lake #1)Songbird by Peter Grainger
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A woman is found murdered along a trail on the coast in England. Det. Sergeant Chris Waters is the lead character investigating, although the storyline is populated with dozens more. This is promoted as a police procedural, and it is that – too much of that in my view. It starts slow and doesn’t unbog itself much after that. There is very little detecting going on and a whole lot of process and office politics. Perhaps as a Yank I expect something different, something more like Bosch. The first half of the book dawdled with issues like who stood where during the crime scene search, who reports to whom, which detective should do an interview – the more experienced one or the woman with the softer touch, and so on.

I found the obsession with hierarchy to be annoying and mystifying. Do the Brits really have five distinct ranks investigating every murder: Detective Constable, Detective Sergeant, Detective Inspector, Detective Chief Inspector, and Detective Chief Superintendent? And each one reports directly to the one rank above? To top that off, there are two different units competing for the same case, so double that. In the U.S. bigger local departments, it’s one detective, probably assigned with a partner, and a lieutenant who runs a desk but doesn’t do interviews, searches, etc. In the FBI where I served every case agent is on his or her own except when help is needed and a supervisor will assign others for surveillance, tech work, etc. if the case agent can’t rustle up volunteers.

The investigation gets off on a wrong track halfway through, but I thought it was obvious how and why that was wrong. The book mostly spent time fleshing out the relationships between the different detectives and setting up personalities for what was intended to be a new series, rather than following the logical leads. The book would have been twenty-five pages if the author had stuck to the plot. The culprit was equally obvious early on … or early days as the Brits say.

Which brings me to what I liked about the book. It’s so thoroughly British that it had lots of new stuff for me – names of cars and products and locations, zillions of police acronyms I’d never seen before, and the different legal rules in effect. I found that fascinating much of the time even though the underlying murder mystery was rather ho-hum. If you’re looking for action, this isn’t the book for you.

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George Floyd = drives.last.lives

I decided to see for myself what the location of George Floyd’s murder looked like. It’s reported to be to be across the street from Cup Foods near the corner of E38th St. and Chicago Ave., Minneapolis. I found the spot and ran it through What3Words.com. As near as I can tell, the exact spot is designated, ironically, drives.last.lives. The knee driven into his neck resulted in the last of his life.

Without a crime scene photo, I can’t be certain of the exact spot, but other locations within a few feet have similarly ominous names when viewed in retrospect:

that.dangerously.brief
monday.fear.plenty

Upload vs. Space Force

Are you sick of all the news about the pandemic and the riots over the George Floyd killing? I am. I thought I’d make a recommendation for a couple of television series I’m enjoying these days: Upload, on Amazon Prime and Space Force, on Netflix. In case you’re not familiar with one or both, both are science fiction comedies. Maybe you should just relax and enjoy these.

In Upload the main character Nathan is near death so his girlfriend buys him a spot in a ritzy digital afterlife, a heaven of sorts, where his personality, memory, and soul(?) are uploaded right before death. They can still communicate through a digital medium. Nathan has a real life “angel,” an employee of the company that manages the digital afterlife who tends to his needs, and romantic sparks fly between them, but he is totally dependent on his shallow girlfriend to keep paying the bills. It’s kind of creepy/funny and pushes the envelope on sexual content, but has a sweet side, too.

Space Force is more of a wacky comedy starring Steve Carell as a four-star general put in charge of the new military branch Space Force. I’ve only watched two episodes of this one. The first episode was only mediocre, but the second episode was really funny, I thought. John Malkovich is an unlikely co-star.

On a lark I thought I’d check out the Google Trends on these two shows. I had to adjust the time frame to get a balanced view. Prior to May 28 Upload dominated Google searches since Space Force hadn’t debuted. After May 28 Space Force dominated since Netflix promoted it heavily. I also had to add the phrase “TV show” after the titles when I did the comparison to avoid confusion with non-TV meanings. Here’s the graph. I don’t see any significance to the spread, but it’s fun to speculate. The grey area didn’t have enough data (i.e. searches) to compare.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro

The Art ForgerThe Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a confession to make. I liked this book more than I think it deserved. Maybe I’m just a sucker. The characters are stereotypical and not believable, nor is the plot credible. Still, the author was skilled enough to draw me in with the story of the protagonist, a beautiful young woman and talented artist who was wronged early in her career by a lover who betrayed her. I’ll admit I wanted to see her right that wrong. There was also a touch of the perfect scam being pulled off – the typical heist movie appeal, or the TV series Sneaky Pete.

There’s lots of gushing over art, the colors, the techniques, the depth of emotion, the absolute lust collectors have for such classic pieces, yada, yada. I always thought that was baloney, and still do, but I suppose it was necessary for plot purposes to have characters who felt that way. That did rankle a bit. On the good side, it’s a mystery of an original type and it kept me guessing to the end. After all, it’s about finding entertainment during this pandemic lockdown, and this filled that bill.

Here’s how I judge it, though. I checked out two books at the same time and ended up ignoring the other one so I could finish this one, so it has something going for it. It helped that the narrator (it was an audiobook) was an excellent reader. Now I can get back to other one, a police procedural.

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What3Words news game – Pandemic edition

It’s time for another What3Words name game. See the link for an explanation of the company and how it assigns word triplets to every spot on earth. I’ve found it to be amusing to use the site to construct commentary on current events. I recommend switching to map view in the upper left corner rather than grid view if you click on the links. You can select the map you use or zoom out to get a better view. Here goes:

There are those who think the coronavirus pandemic is a deep.state.hoax originating from Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada. They say the U.S. Government is trying to quarantine.entire.families in the Gobi Desert. Other people are more responsible and keep.social.distancing on a farm in Dundy County, Nebraska. Even in Khartoum, Sudan people.sport.masks. Don’t worry, you can avoid the virus by following the president’s advice to drink.disinfectant.daily in the Gulf of Thailand. I don’t know about any of this, but I have just one wish and that is for you to stay.healthy.friends in Medora, Kansas.

88 Names by Matt Ruff

88 Names88 Names by Matt Ruff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

All the reviews compare this book to the iconic Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and I’ll fall in line. It is themed around online gaming, in particular MMORPG, massively multiplayer online role-playing games, although Cline’s book used a broader range of computer games as its theme, and was much more family friendly.

Here John Chu is a paid “sherpa” who leads newbie MMORPG players through the games so they can survive and level up without too much pain. His mother is some sort of nebulous federal paramilitary NSA-Air Force type computer badass. His father is a Sony executive with access to special effects, helicopters, and whatever else the ridiculous plot requires. His sherpa crew consists of a bunch of characters whose real names, locations, and backgrounds aren’t clear and turn out to be important parts of the plot. As you might expect, plenty of carnage occurs online and some pretty scary and rough situations develop in real life, too. I won’t say more in order to avoid spoilers.

If you’re sensitive to gore, gross sexual stuff, and foul language, be warned: this one gets pretty raunchy and bloody at times – needlessly in my opinion. The online trolls or “griefers” are perhaps the worst, but it happens even with the so-called good guys. The book is weak on plot. Way too much time is spent on fanciful descriptions of imagined gaming events and characters. The author manages to turn me off totally to the idea of ever participating in one of those games. Based on this depiction, no one but sociopaths plays them. The bottom line is that if you think this genre might appeal to you, read Ready Player One and stop there.

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A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin

A Kiss Before DyingA Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Levin, perhaps best known for Rosemary’s Baby wrote this in 1953 when crime novels, and life, had a very different style. I consider this one a solid three and a half stars, but I’m rounding up to four stars since goodreads doesn’t allow halfsies. It starts out with action, which got me into the plot right off. The narrator has gotten his girlfriend pregnant and she doesn’t want to get an abortion. He begins to think about killing her. There is tension and suspense right away – will he or won’t he? If so how? Will he get caught? And who is he? We don’t have a name. Mystery, mystery, mystery. Then she dies … but is it a suicide or a murder? You get the answer very quickly.

A suspect is identified, but is he a murderer? Did he drive her to suicide? Is he even the right man? So the book is full of action and suspense. I’ll give it that. But much of it seems forced and implausible. On the stylistic side, I like that the author didn’t try to get too artistic or literary. It’s good old murder mystery stuff, not fancy-schmancy. It’s very plot driven and I was always looking forward to the next chapter. In the end, though, I can’t give it a full four or five stars because of what I call the Hokey Factor, especially the ending. It was contrived, predictable, and unbelievable. Once the final scene’s setting was made known, you knew what was going to happen there. The author drew it out way too long. You’ll roll your eyes and mutter “really?” Even so, I enjoyed the read and think the typical mystery fan will, too.

It was interesting from another viewpoint, too, and this is as a time capsule. Everybody smoked. Women didn’t have careers. They were just looking for a man to support them and give them babies. Men were judged on whether their suits had shoulder pads and they had “prospects.” This was just the natural order of things, not some sort of plot device to show how sexist the men were. I lived through that era as a kid and remember it well. There was no sociological point being made here.

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Ngram story: Pandemic

For those who haven’t seen these before, Google Ngram viewer is a site that takes input of up to 4 words and, based on the millions of books, magazines, academic papers, etc. it has scanned, predicts the next word. I have inputted the italicized phrases and then recorded the next words as predicted by Ngram from the preceding ones. The results can be amusing – or not. If it can’t find enough of a 4-word phrase to predict, it may be necessary to reduce the input to one or two words. Bear in mind the Ngram AI has no memory of any part of the sentence/story earlier than four words so the grammar and content often turn wonky, which is the whole point. So here’s the story:

The pandemic is a global phenomenon that has been observed in the case of the latter two. The virus is transmitted by the bite of a mad dog. Social distancing of the neglectful family environment and the people in the world who could have done it. Stay at home and do not have to be a little more careful. Doctors agree that the first step in the process of being made into a movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in the movie Rain Man was not created to be a helper. Politics and medicine are sufficiently disagreeable to quarrel upon Christmas.

A Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer

A Prisoner of BirthA Prisoner of Birth by Jeffrey Archer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Danny is a poor boy from the East End of London (a poor, Cockney area for my fellow Yanks) who is set to marry his pregnant love Beth when he is involved in a bar fight. His friend is killed by some rich Etonian toffs. When the police arrive the toffs claim Danny did it. He goes to jail for murder. His cellmate Nick is a toff, too, but a true gentleman convicted unjustly somehow as an officer in the army for failing to properly lead his men in battle. Nick and Danny become close friends. The story revolves around Danny finding a way to get out and get revenge on the murderous toffs.

The story line is hokey beyond belief, but if you can indulge in the ridiculous fantasy of it, it’s entertaining enough. The characters are all stereotyped. Danny is poor but hard-working, the rich toffs greedy and dishonest, the police incompetent and biased against the poor, the lawyers are split 50-50 between venal cads (on the toff side) and kindhearted strategic geniuses who work for years for no pay (on Danny’s side). None of it is remotely believable.

I was struck by the seeming anachronism throughout the book. The overwhelming class disparity and much of the language made me think the action was taking place in the Edwardian era until mention was made of the 9-11 attack. Is there really that much class disparity in modern-day England?

The book was a choice by my book club, so mandatory reading, but I am not inclined to read more Jeffrey Archer.

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Flounting, Disconcerning

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided newspeople with many new opportunities to misinform and mispronounce. One frequently heard gaffe is using flaunt when they mean flout. “Protesters at the Target flaunted the stay-at-home order …”

Today my wife told me she heard yet a new take on it. The reporter said the shop owner was “flounting” the order by opening her shop. That’s an interesting approach and admirable in a way. If you’re too dumb to know which word is right, and too lazy to look it up, just make up a new word that can be mistaken for either word. It does show imagination.

Then later I heard a news anchor say that something the White House said or did was disconcerning. That’s not a word, although you could call it a portmanteau of concerning and disconcerting. Those two words have very similar meanings, but, oddly, disconcerning suggests almost an opposite meaning. The dis- prefix usually means a negative, like not or un-, as in disallowed or disbelieve.

Google Trends: Limbaugh vs. Fauci

Here’s a graph showing which person’s name had more searches on Google for the last 30 days, broken down by state. I suppose it’s possible a search may mean the searcher is not familiar with the person whose name they are searching, but I suspect it is more likely that it indicates the searcher wants to get advice from or hear the opinion of the search target. The graph is remarkably instructive, if that is so. Natural selection, I’m rooting for you.

The Body Double by Emily Beyda

The Body DoubleThe Body Double by Emily Beyda
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“It was ok” is the text equivalent of two stars on Goodreads, and that is about all I can say for this book. In this take on the unreliable narrator fad in novels the story is told in the first person by a young woman whose name we never learn. She is snatched from behind the snack bar in a small town somewhere because she bears an uncanny resemblance to a famous “influencer” – one of those social media stars followed online pushing clothes, makeup, etc. The star, Rosanna, has been out of the limelight for some months and needs a body double to make some appearances she is not ready for. Max, Rosanna’s assistant, sets about turning our girl into Rosanna’s double, promising big bucks.

That much of a plot is a reasonable start, although it’s not original. (Google “doppelgangers in movies” to get a few dozen examples.) That much we learn in the first twenty pages or so. The book then drags with virtually nothing happening other than the narrator blathering about her thoughts, her dedication to becoming Rosanna and preparing to meet the real Rosanna, until after the midpoint of the book. I recommend reading two pages, skipping 20, then read 2, skip 20, etc. until then. After that the body double is out in society as Rosanna and things get weird and a bit more interesting. Still, it’s way too slow moving. You can read 2, skip 6, until the end where the twist comes, although it really isn’t much of a twist since it was predictable from early on.

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Open plan? NO!

When my wife and I bought our first house, the first remodel we did was to put in more walls. We didn’t like the open plan with living, dining, and family rooms all separated only by one pass-through counter. We wanted privacy between the rooms. Our son could practice his trombone in his bedroom while our daughter practiced the piano in the living room while the dishwasher and kitchen fan ran, and while my wife and I watched TV in the family room without anyone bothering anyone else. It worked great.

When we were considering another remodel years later the several architects and designers who came to bid looked askance at the design and recommended opening up the walls for aesthetic or stylistic reasons. Apparently we weren’t cool. Or maybe we’re just tasteless clods. We said no.

My wife just heard a podcast about changes the Covid-19 stay-at-home orders have caused. It seems designers and contractors are getting a lot of calls for sticking in walls to close off those cool open plan designs once construction can start up again. Six or eight weeks cooped up in the house with the kids 24 hours a day (or maybe just with the spouse) changes your outlook. I feel vindicated and can’t help crowing just a bit. We were just ahead of our time.

The Bastard Brigade by Sam Kean

The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic BombThe Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb by Sam Kean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a big fan of science books, but not so much of history, so I was a bit skeptical when I started this book. I found it very enjoyable as I went along, largely due to the author’s very novel-like style. It’s told as a tipsy raconteur might tell war stories to regale the crowd. The author uses humor and slang liberally. Once he wrote that when one of the physicists commandeered a colonel’s Jeep, “a big swinging dick was royally pissed off.” Beers were brewskis and an assassination attempt might be described as trying to bump someone off. When a spy fell for a female physicist, the author observed that “cupid is a perverse little imp.”

He spent more time on the personalities than I would have liked, especially on Joe Kennedy, JFK’s older brother. He was a WWII pilot, and apparently not a very good one, whose only motivation was to become a war hero so that he could win the presidency someday. He was reckless, self-centered, obscenely ambitious, and had almost nothing to do with the central topic of the Nazi atomic bomb. He did, however, give his life on a volunteer mission to blow up what was thought to be a new Nazi superweapon. One aspect revealed in the book that was more troubling than entertaining was how many of scientists who worked for Germany rationalized their continuing to help the Nazi regime, even while claiming they hated the Nazis. Virtually none of the “renegade scientists” in the title were German; those people continued to try to defeat the Allies. It was Dutch, Russian, French, and American scientists who fit that description. That was illuminating, however, and helped solidify the serious side of the book. All in all, it’s a worthwhile read.

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Google Trends – Remdesivir v. Hydroxychloroquine, 10th Amendment v. 2nd Amendment

The searches for the 10th Amendment spiked on April 14, after Donald Trump claimed he had absolute power to reopen the country. The 10th Amendment is the part of the Constitution that says powers not mentioned in the Constitution are reserved for the states or the people. The 2nd Amendment searches spiked after Trump tweeted on 4/17 “Liberate Virginia, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” It is unclear whether he was encouraging gun rigthts activists, which is what the 2nd Amendment is about, or if he mistook the 1st Amendment for the 2nd, since freedom of speech and assembly are located there.

Hydroxychloroquine is the drug Trump has been touting to treat the coronavirus. Remdesivir is the one doctors have been cautiously enthusiastic about due to early results. The map is surprisingly close to the political red-blue maps of 2016. This pandemic is turning out to be fulfilling my prediction as a real-life experiment in natural selection.

The Dutch House by Ann Patchett

The Dutch HouseThe Dutch House by Ann Patchett
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This elegantly written story is about a grand house and its pull – and push – on two families. The narrator is Danny, a young boy at the beginning living in the Dutch House, a middle-aged man at the end, a skilled surgeon who never practiced medicine. It’s about ambition, betrayal, love and hatred, grudges and forgiveness. It’s not a beautiful story, but it is beautifully written. Neither is it a sad story, but more of a prism looking obliquely into how different people see things very differently and how that is inevitable and shouldn’t stop people from loving each other or from being happy.

I usually review mysteries and non-fiction books, especially about science or technical matters, so this is a bit of a change for me. There is no deep dark family secret to be uncovered, yet there are a number of plot surprises, and a number of answers to questions that unfold to mysteries that you didn’t realize were mysteries. Although this may not be in my usual wheelhouse, I enjoyed it very much.

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If You Tell by Gregg Olsen

If You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of SisterhoodIf You Tell: A True Story of Murder, Family Secrets, and the Unbreakable Bond of Sisterhood by Gregg Olsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hated the story, but the author produced what he intended to write in a workmanlike fashion. It’s the horrific story of a sadistic woman who manipulated and tortured others and eventually killed them or drove her weak-willed third husband to do so. The book is much like the many true crime stories on tabloid TV. It is worth knowing that such people exist and that something needs to be done about them. You may be on a jury someday. Still, it was awful to read about, worse than anything I saw as an FBI agent, even the child porn. After about a third of the way through I had to start skipping until I found out how her crimes were uncovered. The sheriff or his deputies in this case failed in their duty shamefully. I could easily have rated this a 1-star, but I think that would be misleading. It gives readers who like that sort of story what they are looking for.

The book was an important lesson for me in one way. I recently joined Amazon Prime largely because the library is now closed and it’s harder to get books. I thought I could get one free book a month, which I can, but only books the author or publisher chooses to be on Kindle Unlimited. None of the books on my reading list are there. After many unproductive searches I decided to “settle” and downloaded this one. It was not a good choice. I have expanded my television viewing choices, though, with Prime video.

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