Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily


August 2017

The Shark

The Shark (Forgotten Files), by Mary Burton

Virginia state trooper Riley Tatum lived an unusual life. She ran away from her New Orleans home as a teen. After a strange night that she lost all memory of, she landed in Richmond, Virginia, with a bus ticket and some playing cards in her pocket. She was taken in by Duke and his wife, given direction, and she made her way into a job as a state trooper. She also does searches with her dog Cooper.

When the body of a strangled girl shows up in her patrol area it initiates an investigation that begins to open up memories of the night that sent her on the way to Richmond. Working with detectives and a former FBI agent who she shared a night with a few years earlier Riley begins to track down a sinister poker game where the loser is forced to commit murder.

This is an interesting and tense mystery and Tatum is easy to like. It’s also a sexy kind of book that veers off into its sexiness in a frank way but in a way that was squirm-free for me, a male heterosexual reader. After trying out a few Sandra Brown mysteries at the urging of my late wife I swore off her completely. Not only were the stories repetitive but the sex scenes were almost identical, with every male lust-match described with the same terms.  I run into similar books written in the same pattern, and tend to blame the Sandra Brown success for serving as a model for aspiring writers.

Burton writes passion in a way that’s clearly from a woman’s perspective, and there are “plunged into her moistness” moments, but Burton writes in a different way. Perhaps it’s because this is not Tatum’s focus through the entire book. Further, the male lead has his flaws, and the relationship is tentative because of an earlier falling out. Sandra Brown wishes she wrote this well, and if book sales were based on fairness Burton would be on the NYT bestseller list and Brown would be self-publishing for Kindle readers.

A scan of scenarios for the other Forgotten books lists new characters and interesting story ideas. I won’t race out to buy one but if I see one in the store I’ll be happy to take one home.


The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke

The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, by Arthur C. Clarke

This is a near chronological collection of the stories of the late Sir Arthur C. Clarke (1917-2008). Clarke was considered one of the “big three” of science fiction writers during the golden age of the genre, the other two were Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. He’s credited with inspiring the idea of using satellites to relay information and, of course, wrote the screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I tried to read this book last summer and just wasn’t in the right mental place for it. Part of the problem is that before WWII Clarke was in his teens and writing fan fiction for small British sci-fi venues. They’re definitely not his best work, but going through them this time I was better able to pay attention to his growth as a writer.

So in these stories you’ll often find nuggets of later works. There is an early version of Childhood’s End, the novel in which earth gives control to an alien race that remains hidden for years, only their voices available, because they know their appearance is similar to depictions of Satan. There is also a story that he recycled into the extended version of 2001. These are interesting looks at his development and process.

It’s also easy to spot some of the odd tricks he would use. Many of the early stories, and a few later ones, turn to O. Henry type surprise endings. He was especially fond of a kind of context switch where “I’m telling the story so you think it’s about A when it’s actually about B.” One example is a story about a discussion on the odd behaviors of aliens on a newly discovered planet. In the last few lines it’s clear these are aliens talking about us.

Clarke was fond of humorous stories, and this book includes his Tales of the White Hart stories in which a group of friends gathers in a pub called The White Hart and tell long, convoluted stories on one theme or another. Or there’s the story of alien beings who try to send a psychic message to humanity warning that the sun will soon go nova but that the aliens can save us. It’s unfortunate that the only person they can connect with psychically is a depressed drunk who forgets the message the next morning.

Many of the stories are also very much of their time. Until we were able to send probes to various planets, or were able to take more sensitive telescopic measurements of the chemical makeup of planetary atmosphere, we could only guess what was in our own solar system. Thus there was the regular thought that Venus was a place of constant rain with possible alien life forms … not the superheated rock surrounded by poison gases we know it to be now. There was also the assumption that Mars either supported or had supported in the past more aliens. It took our own science to inform us how alone we really are in the light of our sun.

But then there’s a really brilliant story about Jupiter being explored in a craft piloted by a man who had been injured and is now half mechanical and half human. He lowers his craft into the stormy clouds of Jupiter to find creatures made of bubbles and as large as three football fields, these chased by manta-like creatures that glide through the storms. As he leaves the planet the man runs through the thought that he is half machine and half human, a halfway point between humanity and what humanity will become.

Not overtly political Clarke is still a humanist and generally an optimist. There are only a few dystopian futures in these stories. Most are sometimes flawed humans continuing their push to explore space. Even Russians are treated as decent people, this from a cold war era author.

This is the kind of book you can take on in small bites. I’m all for using short story volumes to fill time on bus rides and coffee breaks. This, however, is really a book that should be plowed through to get a sense of the life work of an influential author. It’s especially interesting to read some of Clarke’s own notes on what inspired the stories or why they were solicited from publishers in his later years. Science fiction writers and fans will see the seed ideas for later tropes used throughout the genre, as well as his eventual understanding that character drives good fiction and the rest is just decoration. Important and thrilling decoration but decoration all the same. They are also informed by his education in mathematics and physics, while they’re fed by his own love of the science fiction genre.


The Night Bird

The Night Bird (Frost Easton Mystery), by Brian Freeman

This is the first of two books by Brian Freeman featuring San Francisco detective Frost Easton, a smart and generally gentle policeman.

In this first book a woman leaves a party with her roommate. They both are caught in a traffic jam on the Golden Gate Bridge. The passenger has a phobia about bridges and the driver is calm but suddenly starts scratching at her skin and screaming. Within seconds she leaves the car, runs to the bridge railing, and throws herself off the bridge.

Easton is called to the scene and thinks the suicide is suspiciously similar to another woman who went berserk in a similar way in a bar and shot herself. As he investigates what they have in common he meets psychiatrist Francesca Stein (yes, Frankie Stein is noted in the book) who has developed a controversial phobia treatment in which she helps people by erasing and changing memories of the incident that first initiated the phobia. She also does work as an expert witness in criminal trials. Here she explains to juries the fragility of memory and how it can be influenced to change with improper interview techniques.

Working together they learn that Stein may be a target of whoever is causing these people to suddenly end their own lives.

Easton is a likeable detective, often traveling with a cat that is part of a back story of how he can live in one of the most upscale districts in the city. He was allowed to live in the house as part of a legacy from an old woman who said that whoever took care of her cat after her death could also live there.

Beyond the mystery, which had a very good reveal, the book is interesting in the discussions of memory … its value and its fragility. It paraphrases quite a bit of recent research into things like false memories and how different questions can lead to altered answers.

It’s not Freeman’s first book or series. He’s also written two other series, one featuring Jonathan Stride and another featuring Cab Bolton. The book is available in Kindle (free on Kindle Unlimited), hard and soft cover, and both an Audible and CD versions.




Will Save the Galaxy for Food

Will Save the Galaxy for Food, by Yahtzee Croshaw

Humor is subjective, and I’m sorry I subjected myself to this book.



The Winter Over

The Winter Over, by Matthew Iden

The Shackleton South Pole Research Facility has been privatized. Winter is coming to the facility, meaning the summer researchers are leaving. The team chosen to “winter over” for the six months of night is an unusual mix, and every one of them seems to have had some emotional problems.

Just before the last plane leaves one of the researchers is found dead after wandering out in a snow storm. Cass Jennings, the mechanical engineer for the facility, thinks the brief investigation of the death is strange. Then, once the crew is generally stranded for the winter, problems begin to pop up in the station equipment. After that, one of the team disappears and others start showing up dead.

Cass suddenly finds herself in a bizarre situation where no one can be trusted and she may end up being the last one alive … or the last one to die.

It’s a fun concept and there’s tons of information about living and working in the antarctic, everything from fuel deliveries to how sewage is handled. All this while a killer lurks somewhere on the station.

As a mystery I found it a bit weak. Sometimes a writer lets the most likeable and least suspicious person end up being the murderer, and Iden let this happen early in the book. Even with reaching the end and getting to yell “I knew it!” and making the dogs jump, the motives were interesting.

As a mystery with an unusual setting the book is solid. As a brain twister of a mystery not so much, but there’s plenty of action and suspense to keep the story flowing all the same.



True Grit

True Grit: A Novel, by Charles Portis

I was 14 when the John Wayne version of True Grit was released and I saw the movie before I read it the first time. John Wayne, in his only Oscar performance, will probably always be glued to any reading.

While the book was amazingly faithful to the plot and language of the book, there are some broad differences, especially in the characters. Rooster Cogburn was only in his late 40s, with a broad moustache. John Wayne was too old and too cleancut. Mattie Ross was only 14 going on 41. Kim Darby was too soft and too old. “Le Beef” the Texas Ranger. Well, Glenn Campbell was pretty but no actor and wasn’t built to handle the stiff dialogue of the book.

Mattie, at 14, is probably the smartest, shrewdest, and most ardent Methodist of her family, if not the whole west. She manages to out bargain everyone in the book, saving her attorney as the final weight in her favor. She arrives in Fort Smith, Arkansas, after her father is killed by a man who worked for him. Wanting justice for her father she hires Cogburn to find him with the provision that she ride along. She wants to see justice done and will deal it out herself if no one else does. She learns that the killer is also wanted in Texas, under another name, for killing a senator, which brings the Texas Ranger into the story.

The trio heads across the river to chase the killer, who is now riding with Lucky Ned Pepper’s gang.

Cogburn is kind of an enigma. Mattie hires him because he has the reputation of being the toughest of the local marshalls, which comes out in court testimony early when he admits to killing about six outlaws a year and is suspected of tampering with evidence. He was part of Quantrill’s Rangers during the Civil War, a pretty evil group that was disavowed by the Confederate government. He also came into his current line of work because it was available after spending off the takings in a robbery. Still, he does the right thing for Mattie over his own doubts and saves her life at the end.

He’s a “one-eyed fat man” with a drinking problem and a past he’d rather not talk about. Portis still manages to pull a hero out of him.

Filled with funny and memorable dialogue, heart-thumping action sequences, and a final shootout unlike any other it’s one of the only western books I’ve read and loved. So every few years it needs to come back off the shelf to amaze me one more time.



The Book of Etta

The Book of Etta (The Road to Nowhere), by Meg Elison

It is generations after The Book of the Unknown Midwife and that book is treated with near religious veneration by the people of Nowhere. The plague that killed so many is beginning to subside, but the treatment of women is still bizarre or evil in many places. There are some live births, more with each generation, as immunity increases.

Etta lives in Nowhere, the army base turned community of the first book. She is in her teens. In summer months she leaves to comb the countryside to retrieve metals and other valuable items. She shaves her head, binds her breasts, and travels as Eddy. When she can, she also saves women and girls from the rampant sex slavery in the world.

While she travels she trades drugs and potions made by friend and lover Alice who has taught herself chemistry and herb lore.

In her travels she meets a beautiful “horse woman” in a village. A small girl in that village has also been stolen in a raid by men from S-T-L (the once-city of St. Louis) which is ruled by a leader called The Lion. Eddy decides to travel to S-T-L to see if he can trade something for the girl. The horse woman follows chases after him in a vehicle and they manage to trade  one of Alice’s opium poppy potions for the girl with an offer to trade more women for more of the drug. The Lion likes opium because it makes the women easier to “train”.

Eddy and the horse woman go back to Nowhere, but Eddy becomes jealous when Alice immediately becomes attracted to the horse woman. Eddy leaves to go west to the ocean and runs across a strange group headed by a very fertile woman prophet. After an attack from S-T-L slavers he leads the men of the town to use a hidden cache of military weapons to attack the slavers but this mission fails.

Returning home Etta learns that Nowhere has been attacked with nearly everyone she knew and loved either enslaved or killed. As Eddy she strikes out to S-T-L on her own with a vow to kill The Lion and reclaim the ones she loves.

As in the first volume The Book of Etta has a strong feminist message. It also takes a powerful look at identity. Etta is barely able to separate herself from her Eddy persona. It’s clear that this is more than a costume change and the two identities are nearly at war with each other. Etta disappoints her mother by not wanting to try to have children. Eventually, in a crisis moment, an earlier trauma is revealed that pushed Etta into the Eddy personality when traveling.

Elison manages a tremendous narrative while still poking at the reader’s conscience and presenting acts by the slavers that press on the heart like a thousand pound weight. There are heroic, loving, and even light moments in the book but the tension of the dangers of the world thread through the entire story. It’s an excellent sequel to an amazing book and leaves room at the end for more to come.


Dead Run

Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West, by Dan Schultz

Near the end of May, 1998, three men stole a water tanker truck near Cortez, Colorado. Cortez policeman Dale Claxton happened to be the first law enforcement officer to spot the truck. The three men inside wore balaclavas and camouflage. They were also armed to the teeth. When Claxton pulled up beside the truck he was shot 20 times before he could fully draw his weapon.

This started a manhunt involving local law enforcement, FBI agents, reservation police, and national guardsman and wasn’t resolved for years. The three men were survivalists familiar with the desert areas around the four corners area where Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico meet.  They were also supporters of a movement exemplified by Timothy McVay. It was their plan to use the water tanker to create an explosion that would have made Oklahoma City seem small.

The three were largely off the radar before the incident. An investigation with unclear leadership eventually identified the three, more from tips from acquaintances than any luck matching fingerprints. One by one they were found dead. One by suicide, though evidence also points to a police assassination. Another either by suicide or from shooting by the third member who went missing for years until a cowboy found his remains.

Dan Schultz’s descriptions of the crime and subsequent manhunt are full of both gory and fascinating detail. In addition to reviewing police reports he interviewed people directly and indirectly involved in the investigation. Most startling are the interviews he did with medical examiners whose findings were sometimes discarded in favor of a more complimentary police version of events. He also delves into the movement that took the men’s natural dislike for police and turned it into a military type assault. Law enforcement was definitely the target, with nearby civilians clearly spared during firefights.

It is vivid reporting, giving the reader a cinema-like reading experience. Using forensic evidence he’s able to trace actions of the killers literally step-by-step. Add that to police interviews and written reports and he’s able to make this an amazingly clear narrative.




The Book of the Unnamed Midwife

The Book of the Unnamed Midwife (Road to Nowhere), by Meg Elison

Once in awhile you find a book that makes you happy to live in the time and place that can generate the writer. This phenomenal and devastating book comes across as a touch of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road with the sensibilities of Margaret Atwood. It takes an ever-so rare look at what a dystopian world would be for women and turns it into one of the strongest statements on feminism for decades.

The book of the unnamed midwife is the journal of an anonymous nurse working in San Francisco at the time of a new plague. It strikes quickly around the world, and hits women particularly hard. The first signs of the disease are an increase in stillborn children or dying shortly after birth. The midwife catches the disease herself, but is one of the rare people to survive and recover. By the time she wakens from the devastating disease the world is radically changed, with men outnumbering women by 10 to 1 and the women who do survive are still delivering stillborn children.

It quickly becomes obvious that it’s a dangerous world for women. She straps down her breasts, lowers her voice, and dresses to accentuate her height. She begins a journey to find a place to survive. On her odyssey he meets and tries to protect other women she meets, all of whom are in danger of being enslaved or raped no matter what their age. Women, or the opportunity for sex with them, become a commodity.

She continues traveling east, always in danger of discovery. She runs into a Mormon settlement still surviving in Colorado. Refusing to join she lives nearby and uses her medical skills for trade. The disease hits here as well, bringing up a new prophet who decides that it’s appropriate for him to wed children. It’s a long and dangerous road until she finally finds a place offering her some peace and protection.

There is an oddity in the book. For some reason Elison has made guns a rarity, especially strange because if you held the USA upside down and shook you’d end up with more guns than people. Perhaps this allows the midwife more advantage in the single pistol she carries. It also puts her in a position of meting out justice in her own unique way.

It’s a book that is frightening, insightful, and conscience provoking. As soon as I’d finished I rushed to get a copy of the sequel, The Book of Etta. This book was awarded the Philip K. Dick Award, given to best new writers in speculative fiction, and it was definitely deserved.



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