Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily


July 2017


Replay, by Ken Grimwood

The late Ken Grimwood (1944-2003) wrote just a handful of books, but this unique look at a life repeated won him the World Fantasy Award in 1988.

Set in 1988, Jeff Winston is a radio journalist who, while talking to his wife on the phone, suddenly drops dead of a heart attack at his desk. Almost instantly he wakes up in 1963, back in college at Emory. Once he’s adjusted to the change he decides this is an opportunity to make a better life, and in this life he wants to be wealthy. Selling everything and cashing out his savings, he and his best friend place bets on the Triple Crown and the 1963 World Series. They are millionaires and begin an investment company.

Some things in this life are the same, some are different, many are disappointing. His life carries on until 1988 when, at the same date and time, he drops dead of a heart attack. He wakes up again in 1963, but a few weeks later than the last replay.

His life loops through its repeats with a wide variety of changes. He even finds a woman who is also repeating at almost the same time cycle and they build a relationship that repeats, for good or bad, over several lifetimes. But for both of them the start date comes later and later, on different dates, while they die at nearly the same time.

In one life they decide to try to find scientists who might explain what’s happening. To get their attention they post an ad with several predictions over a year that all come true. But instead of interest by scientists they end up attracting the CIA, which begins a campaign to try to assassinate several world leaders and start revolutions which grossly distorts the timeline.

In each life they keep looking for a meaning or a cause without finding it. Marriage changes, attempts to save John F Kennedy from assassination, seclusion, or lives filled with drinking and sex never seem to change the pattern or give their lives a sense of meaning.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but it’s an emotional book that leads the reader to share the frustrations and loves that the characters experience through lives that, near the end, last just seconds as the pattern continues to shrink.

Sadly Grimwood’s estate and publishers haven’t put his books in electronic formats. One novel, Elise, now sells in hardback on Amazon starting at nearly $200.00 with no recent reprints. This book is the only one available at Audible, his book Into the Deep is available from used dealers for more reasonable prices (under $5) in hardback and paperback.



Days Without End

Days Without End: A Novel, by Sebastian Barry

This is a funny, touching, and surprising book. I knew it was about an Irish immigrant before and during the Civil War. Beyond that I jumped in without knowing what to expect.

Young, small-framed Thomas McNulty comes to America, escaping the great famine in Ireland. The book is narrated through his perspective. Starving his way west he links up with the equally impoverished John Cole while hiding under shrub in a storm. The first work they find together is as “dancing girls” in a mining town saloon. As boys they still have a feminine look, and a saloon owner can’t find women in the remote town to dance with the miners. Cleaned up in dresses and wigs they offer a touch of romance and home to lonely miners.

When they begin to grow too big to fit into their dresses they leave the town to sign up with the US Cavalry in the pre-civil war years. Between appalling genocidal raids on Indian camps it soon becomes clear that Thomas and John have more than a friendship. They’ve fallen in love. Following one attack they meet a native girl named Winona who has been taught in an Indian school. When they leave the cavalry they take her with them as a daughter.

The story takes them through other phases. A return to the saloon owner who now wants Thomas to dress as a woman being courted by John in a stage tableau for more female-starved miners. They leave Winona in care of an elderly friend when they join up to fight on the Union side in the Civil War, and after the war they all move to Tennessee to try their hands as farmers.

The author manages an amazing blend of humor, romance, and horror describing the war against native Americans and the Confederacy. Thomas makes one last trip west to assist the officer who led them both in the Indian war and Civil War. He ends up shooting a sergeant who tries to kill an Indian girl who was raised in the fort. When he returns he’s put on trial for desertion and murder.

In all it’s a wonderful book about friendships, a love affair, and an alternative family at an unexpected time and place. There is violence sprinkled throughout the book, and those who haven’t adjusted to modern LGBT ideas would probably be put off … or learn something, who knows? For anyone looking for a well-written book with charm and surprising turns this one is a standout.


Count Zero

Count Zero (Swarm Trilogy, Book 2), by William Gibson

Book two of the Swarm Trilogy was published two years after Neuromancer, though the plot takes place nearly a decade after that book. Two AIs, Neuromancer and Wintermute, have blended together and now interact with humans on the matrix (which contains all the world’s data) as Haitian voodoo gods.

Meanwhile, in the meatworld, a corporate mercenary is hired to assist Christopher Mitchell to move from one of the two large megacorporations in the world to the other one. This is illegal and ends up in a disaster, but Turner escapes with Mitchell’s daughter Angie who has had the plans of a revolutionary device invented by her father implanted in her brain. Extremely rich Josef Virek wants these plans, seeing them as opening the door to both immortality and omniscience.

The story is intricate and multi-layered, as with all Gibson books, filled with detail, odd innovations, and tons of cultural references. As a prose stylist Gibson ranks among the best in post-Bradbury sci-fi as he describes hooking up to the matrix (“jacking in”) through implants and traveling through mountains of data as an ecstatic experience. Gradually hackers around the world realize, or at least get hints, that the matrix has become the home of a sentient being, setting up the trilogy finale in Mona Lisa Overdrive.

The trilogy is worth revisiting every few years, in part to absorb the writing and in part for a measurement against what is happening in the Internet and world compared with Gibson’s visions from three decades earlier.


Beneath the Skin

Beneath the Skin: The Sam Hunter Case Files, by Jonathan Maberry

Sam Hunter is a detective in the great noir style. A former cop who was too rough on citizens he’s now a detective in Philadelphia, a city he likes for its general lack of snow. He is also a werewolf. But Jonathan Maberry, author of dozens of books on horror and other genres, joyfully rewrites werewolf lore as well as new twists on vampires and other horror favorites. Hunter, for example, can change on command with no waiting for a full moon. When he’s not being a werewolf he still has a keen sense of smell and hearing, things it can be nice to have when you’re a detective.

Hunter works his way through some of the staple tropes of noir fiction such as women threatened by ex-husbands, but also takes on more supernatural cases like a woman whose son comes out of his room with bruises and scratches every six days. Sometimes he solves his cases with intelligence and finesse. At other times nothing will do but that he transform himself to kick some bad-guy butt.

The eight stories in the book have a wide variety of bad guys and brings in characters from other books by Maberry just to liven things up. Maberry has won five Bram Stoker awards for his horror books and is listed as one of the top ten writers in the genre.

These noir stories don’t have the full gravitas of a Hammett or a Chander story but they capture the atmosphere and are fun to read. It’s one of those books where I hit the last story and thought “That’s it?” There’s at least one other book with Sam Hunter and I’ll be digging into that and other books from Maberry as soon as I can.



Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling, by Søren Kierkegaard

With modern philosophy filled to choking with materialism and epistemology it’s almost startling to pick up a book that wants to confront ideas like faith, existence, and ethics.

Kierkegaard wrote this book under a pseudonym (Johannes de Silentio or John of the Silence) as he did with many of his books. The title is taken from a line in Philippians 2:12 “… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”

To analyse this anxiety of faith, Kierkegaard uses several stories to work through his ideas. First and foremost is the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Was Abraham simply a murderer or what Kierkegaard will call later in the book a “knight of faith”? Was he ethical in not telling anyone about the goal of the four-day trip? He gathered animals, wood, a knife, and headed out with Isaac to the wilderness without telling Isaac or wife Sarah anything about the purpose of the trip. Was it unethical or was a certain level of blindness necessary?

He takes the idea further with the Greek tragedy of Agamemnon and his daughter Iphigenia. Here’s a similar story to Abraham and Isaac. Agamemnon wants to sail his armies to Troy to begin the Trojan war but the winds have been still. He has offended the goddess Artemis who commands him to sacrifice Iphigenia. Agamemnon coaxes his daughter to the island of Aulis, telling her that she will be going there to marry Achilles. In some versions (the one Kierkegaard uses) Agamemnon hands the sacrificial knife to another warrior who kills her. In other versions Artemis steps in and rescues Iphigenia, not unlike the Abraham story. Again, a person of determined faith keeping his planned actions internalized until the moment of action.

It’s not always easy reading, especially in a bad translation. Ludwig Wittgenstein, not an uncomplicated thinker, read it in German and said it was beyond him at times. Still, Kierkegaard, after Immanuel Kant, ranks as one of the most influential philosophers of that era between 1750 and 1850. His works influenced several 20th century schools of philosophy, most notably the existentialists. The book is fairly brief and there are several helpful guides on the internet and in book form. The books tend to be pricey and you can get as much guidance without going too deep into the woods on Wikipedia. The book linked here is $0.99 in the Kindle version and less than $5 in the paperback. A good translation.



A Merciful Death

A Merciful Death (Mercy Kilpatrick, Book 1), by Kendra Elliot

This book is the opener to a series featuring FBI Agent Mercy Kilpatrick, stationed at the Portland, Oregon, field office. Kendra Elliot has written a few other serial mysteries, including a series featuring Callahan & McLane. She’s also authored some romance novels. This series with Kilpatrick already has a volume 2 and a third is scheduled for publication in January.

Kilpatrick and another agent are assigned to investigate a series of murders in a small rural town called Eagle’s Nest in the Deschutes region near Bend, Oregon. Several “preppers” have been killed in the area in their cabins. The murderer seems to be most interested in the cache of guns each of the men had hidden away,  but none for their food stores for the coming … whatever. Apocalypse, civil war, police state …. What Mercy hasn’t told the local sheriff in the town or the agent working with her is that she was born and raised in the town and left at age 18 never to return. There seems to be bad blood of some kind between Mercy and the other Kilpatricks. As she investigates the crimes the sheriff begins trying to understand Mercy’s reluctance to talk about her past. Meanwhile, Mercy notices a clue that reminds her of murders that took place in the area when she was still in her teens.

Mercy and the sheriff end up creating a close bond as they work the investigation together and she reveals more of her past and an interesting tie she still has to the area.

Elliot brings out an interesting group of preppers and survivalists along with town locals for whom Mercy still holds affection. Mercy is a fun character on her own, tough but feminine and with some unusual tics from her small town upbringing by prepper/survivalist parents. She has a certain vulnerability but manages to keep it buried deep as she works the case.

The reveal of the mystery works well and Elliot seems to know the area, having camped and fished there for many years myself. I’ll be interested if future books keep her in the same location or move her around the Pacific Northwest.


Hell Divers II

Hell Divers II: Ghosts (Hell Divers Trilogy, Book 2), by Nicholas Sansbury Smith

It’s nearly impossible to describe this book without a major spoiler for the first book in the series. If you’d like to keep that a surprise before you read it, here’s the place to stop.

When book one of the Hill Divers trilogy ended, X (Xavier Rodriguez) was floating in space having missed his rendezvous with the main ship. He had fought off the hideous siren monsters that had followed him up into the stratosphere. Wounded and bound to fall back to earth it was pretty clear that he was dead.

Book two opens with the surprising information that X survived. He’s now alone back on an earth that is a nuclear wasteland with massive storms sweeping through and monsters everywhere.

Making his way around the area where he fell back to earth he’s found weapons, a cache of food, and, in a cryogenics lab, found frozen people and one frozen dog. He thawed out the dog, made protective clothing for it and now has a companion. He also found a way to send radio signals.

The story jumps to eight years later. There have been major changes in the ship. Captain Ashe retired and, shortly after, died of cancer … a common disease for many on the ship now circling the globe. The new captain is Leon Jordan, who has developed a relationship with X’s love interest Katrina. Captain Jordan is overcautious. He’ll barely let the Hell Divers make worthwhile dives for replacement equipment. He’s also become a paranoid leader. Worse yet, he has received information that a message has been received from survivors on earth. He also knows that X survived and has been signalling the ship, but he’s determined to “protect” Katrina from the information.

With the growing intrigue on the ship some of the Hell Divers discover information about the survivor’s message along with information that the monsters on earth were part of a genetics project before the bombs hit.

As with the last book, Smith writes top-notch heroes and great action sequences. The new generation of Hell Divers has a great collection of men and women willing to risk their lives to keep the ship working. But now they need to go against orders on a drop to earth, and into one of the dangerous “red zones”, to look for survivors and also to investigate a secret plan that the previous captain had to move the population of the ship down to earth and underground, sure that this last ship can’t stay in the sky forever.

Other than X only being part of the beginning and ending of the book, this second volume reads much the same as the first one in the trilogy.  If you read and liked that one, as I did, this one will not be a disappointment other than the need to adjust to a new cast of characters.


The Sociopath Next Door

The Sociopath Next Door, by Martha Stout, PhD

Psychologist Martha Stout has treated a few sociopaths during her career. But she has spent more time treating the people who fell into their orbit at one time or another. That’s more likely than you might think. She says that 4 in 100 people are sociopaths. Some may be successes, some may intentionally avoid work, some are professionals, some rule countries, some turn into killers, most do not. It’s a population as mixed as the general population with two particular things in common: They feel no guilt for their actions and they do not share your feelings.

This emotionless life can make them charming manipulators, vicious ladder-climbers who love nothing more than making up a lie to move someone out of the path of what they want. It gives them the ability to lie easily and draw the sympathies of others. It also creates a life where risk-taking behaviors is the only satisfaction which often leads to their downfall. From Hitler and Pol Pot to your cranky neighbor their chances of continuing without consequences is nearly nil, but they may harm a lot of people and relationships along the way.

Stout discusses a full range of aspects surrounding sociopathy. From her case files she has developed fictionalized portraits of people who married a sociopath, worked for one, or had one for a parent or neighbor. She talks about some of the current theories about what causes sociopathy, from genetics to family influence. She also lists many of the signs of identifying a sociopath so that you can short-circuit interactions before being sucked into one’s vortex.

One of the most startling examples is a woman working as a psychotherapist in a hospital, harming patients in order to ruin lives of co-workers for whom she has no respect, sleeping with managers to protect her job, and working on false credentials,

The book was published in 2005 but little if any of the science in this area has changed in the past dozen years. It’s jargon free with rich stories to offer examples for people with no background in psychology. Stout has a teacher’s knack for getting ideas across and was a professor in the Harvard School of Psychiatry.

It’s a worthwhile book to pick up if you’re wondering about the motivations of a cheating spouse, backstabbing co-worker, or abusive boss. Once you know what to look for you may be surprised at what you identify in people you know.

July 31, 2017:

There was interest in this post that suggested more information w would be worthwhile, so here are a couple TED talks you may find interesting.

A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven Killings: A Novel, by Marlon James

In December of 1976 Bob Marley was preparing for a benefit concert called Smile, Jamaica, when gunmen raided his house. Marley received two bullet wounds (others were more seriously injured but recovered later) and went on to perform at the concert two days later.

Jamaica had been increasing in violence at the time and this novel offers perspective on what was happening and why. Using various voices, a kind of Jamaican Rashomon, the book tells the story from different perspectives. We never hear from Marley, who’s referred to through the book as The Singer. We do hear from gangsters raised in horrible poverty, heads of different posses, a CIA agent, a gay hitman, a Rolling Stone reporter, and a woman who saw the shooters and hides out in Jamaica until she can escape to New York. And the violence follows her as the Jamaican gangs, armed with the help of the CIA to prevent Cuban influence, jump on the crack train to Miami and then New York as some of the most feared and violent drug gangs in memory.

Some of the narrators speak in Jamaican creole (“he come hunting for we”) that grows on the reader quickly. I can’t say it’s unnoticed but the grammar begins to make more sense.

Some of the narrators are beyond callous, carrying a bloodthirsty hatred for some of their victims often fueled by cocaine and made much easier with the arrival of automatic weapons and explosives that arrive marked as music equipment and are discretely stolen off the docks. The Jamaican police are equally sanguinary and it’s often hard to say whether people have more to fear from the gangs or the police.

The island nation was led at the time by Prime Minister Michael Manley, a Democratic Socialist that the US feared (and the Cubans hoped) was going to nationalize the few industries on the island and turn to Communism. The CIA and Cubans both tried to work with opposing gangs, neither of which cared anything about politics, to ramp up violence that would make the next election go their way. It’s thought that Marley was attacked because his participation in the concert gave the impression that he was supporting Manley.

It’s a broad and often breathtaking book, looking at the daily lives of Jamaicans with their relationship to each other, tourists, and the gangs. The timeline spans from a few years before the shooting to the day Marley died in 1981 of melanoma.

Published in 2014, it won both the Man Booker Prize in 2015 and was listed as one of the best books of the year by dozens of lists. It’s an excellent book and a tough book between the heartbreaking poverty and empty violence. As a portrait of a population and a time it has few equals.


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