Curmudgeonly Reader

Reading too much daily


September 2017

An Accidental Death

An Accidental Death: A DC Smith Investigation, by Peter Grainger

Along an English stream a trio of teens are swimming and call out teasingly to boaters as they drift downstream. One, a well-known sixth form* athlete, jumps in to swim toward a canoe as it is about to go around a bend. He laughs and yells that he’s going to catch the boat. Hours later his body is found next to the stream.

The autopsy is generally straightforward, declaring it an accidental drowning. But there are a few confusing notes in the file. Detective Constable (DC) Smith has returned to work following his wife’s death. His supervisor, a woman he trained, assigns him to follow up on the file so that it can be closed as a way to ease him back into duty. When he discusses the notes with a woman on the examining team she notes two oddities about the body. There’s a small fish-shaped bruise on the boy’s head. Also his ribs have been broken as if someone very strong had given the boy CPR.

Now, with the son of an old partner fresh out of the academy and following him as a trainee, Smith begins to follow clues and instincts to try to explain the anomalies. Not far into the investigation he begins to feel pressure from higher ups in the force to close the case, for reasons that seem to have nothing to do with the increasingly tight budgets.

DC Smith is always a pleasure to have in a book on your lap. He is inconceivably nice and non-neurotic. He has heroic elements: courage, a determination to see justice. Meanwhile, despite his lack of promotions, he’s loved and respected by almost everyone else he works with. He’s fair to those he supervises and respectful to those who supervise him. Even working through the remaining grief and nostalgia for his late wife he carries on. With a trainee next to him in this book he carefully lays out the reason he’s taking certain steps and offers tips for solo work.

This mystery novel was the first in what is now a seven-book series featuring DC Smith as investigator. Even as a first book there’s something hanging around Smith from a previous investigation that went wrong. Smith was only tangentially related to the case but it still has marred his reputation. Bits of the story gradually come out through the books, but the whole story has yet to be told. So if you find yourself wondering about that earlier case as you read  it’s just as Grainger intended.

*Sixth form: a British university preparatory education for students 16-18.




Alice, by Christina Henry

This is an interesting, unusual, and perplexing spin on some of the characters in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Interesting and unusual I like. Perplexing I have more problems with.

In this book, Alice is in prison. She does not see her jailers, cannot see outside, and isn’t entirely sure why she is in prison. All she can remember is a tea party, her friend Dor, and blood. Eventually she hears the voice of the man in the next cell, and through a mouse hole she can just make out part of his face: his nose in one view, his eyes in another. They talk each day and she learns his name is name is Hatcher, and he was given that nickname because he killed a lot of people with an axe.

Through Hatcher she learns a little about the outside world of the Old City. She learns of a magical creature named Jabberwock who is looking for something and about Hatcher’s strange life. Then one day there’s a fire which allows Alice and Hatcher to escape to the Old City. The farther she gets from the jail the more she leaves the influence of the calming powder she was given each day. She learns that she has powers she didn’t remember, and that she had a relationship with Rabbit, who she injured. She learns, also, that women of any age are available for sexual slavery and that Walrus and Carpenter are competing for the nefarious underworld of Old City.

It’s often an interesting ride and a fun adventure, but as you can tell from the brief outline of the plot it’s not a happy-go-lucky book. It’s a dark twist on the tale with sexual overtones and lots of blood. This Wonderland is a place where evil thrives. The perplexing part isn’t so much where it’s taking the reader as why. This is even more confusing in the final pages and a last line that made no sense to me at all. I don’t mind dark books but I like to have an agreement with the author that there’s good reason in the darkness. This book isn’t abstract enough to be bizarre, cogent enough to be horror, deep enough to be symbolic, and at the end all one can really say is: “Well, that was freaky.”




Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, by Katy Tur

Katy Tur was stationed in Europe for NBC News when she received a call asking her to come to the US to cover the Donald Trump campaign. This was a short time after his announcement. The field of candidates for the Republican nomination was already large. The presumption was that Tur would follow the campaign until Trump quit and then she could go back home to her apartment in Paris.

It didn’t turn out as planned. Instead, Tur received an assignment that ended up lasting over 500 days, flying in planes chartered by the press entourage and sleeping in hotels. Worse still her life was threatened by angry Trump supporters.

Trump’s first interactions with Tur were spent trying to lure her into being supportive of the campaign. When that failed the candidate began mentioning her in speeches as “little Katy” while she stayed in a “press pen” with other reporters, usually separated from a booing audience by no more than a row of bicycle racks. This despite multiple incidents of protesters being assaulted by Trump supporters while the candidate egged them on. The barrage of threats by Twitter and email led the Secret Service agents to tell her that they were going out of their way to make sure she was safe. Eventually NBC hired ex-agents to act as bodyguards.

Tur followed Trump through election day and suddenly found herself the main candidate to be the White House correspondent, a job traditionally going to the reporter who followed the campaign of the winning candidate. She turned the job down and currently reports from New York City.

In addition to her story of following Trump, including stories of an unwanted kiss and that she was the one to tell Trump about the release of the Access Hollywood tape, Tur also gives an insider view of traveling with a press crew. The life is one mostly of boredom and lack of Internet access on planes followed by a dump of information on landing that has to be dealt with. In between there are stories of reporters finding friends-with-benefits liaisons, desperate reporters trying to make sure they can take their hairspray on a flight, and even one reporter trying to slide down the aisle on a tray during takeoff.

Tur also tells of her being raised in a family of freelance journalist parents, the first to have a helicopter available to cover live car chases on LA television and there are some interesting, perhaps even accidental, insights into the life of a TV journalist.

If you followed much of the campaign for the many months before the election many of the stories will be familiar, though it’s considerably different in perspective through the eyes of someone on the scene and occasionally dragged into the story by the person she covered.



Age of Anger

Age of Anger: A History of the Present, by Pankaj Mishra

Maybe once or twice a year I’ll read a book so striking that when it ends I’ll go back to page one and start all over. This is one of those books. It is one of the most powerful books on history and politics I’ve read in quite awhile.

The book covers the rise in populism worldwide, such as the election of Donald Trump in the U.S. and the similar rise of fundamentalist Hindu Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India. To explain the rising tide of nationalist populism Mishra describes the historical precedents and the philosophical roots of the movement.

He begins in a surprising region, starting with Italy and the rise of Gabriele d’Annunzio, a sort of proto-Mussolini. Like Mussolini he began as a writer and later was considered one of the great Italian heroes of the first world war. After the war he was outraged that the allied powers gave away the region of Fiume, which is now part of Croatia. He and 2,000 soldiers seized the region and demanded to be annexed by Italy. When that failed they declared it an independent state. From there he tried to organize an alternative League of Nations that would represent oppressed nations such as Ireland. The takeover was eventually thwarted in 1920 when Italy used its navy to bombard the area.

d’Annunzio was an inspiration to both Mussolini and Hitler over the next two decades. Both even took the title he used in Fiume, where he called himself Duce. This translates as “leader” in English and Fuhrer in German. d’Annunzio in his turn was inspired by Giuseppe Mazzini, who with Giuseppe Garibaldi helped cram all the different city states and principalities on the Italian isthmus into a single nation while fighting off other European powers.

Mishra describes a general sense of returning to the root nature of a nation or people, a philosophy that started with the writings of Swiss/French philosopher Jacques Rousseau. In his writings he developed the idea that governments had grown to stifle the true nature of human beings through artificial divisions of wealth and justice. Mishra shows how this basic theme ends up sprinkled through the writings of Marx, Hegel, Spencer, and the anarchists and revolutionaries who sprang up in the 19th and 20th centuries.

In periods of financial or political turmoil, such as economic depressions or colonization by foreign powers, there tends to be a general looking back to times when a nation or culture had its own greatness. When these times arise people are willing to give up democracy for dictatorship (seen as firm leadership) if it means that they can participate in a sense of national greatness.

In Italy’s case this meant contrasting centuries of invasions by the Holy Roman Empire, France, and other countries with the past wonders of the Roman Empire. In Germany a hatred for things feminine, French, or Jewish began in the late 19th century. These two dreams of greatness allowed Mussolini and Hitler to take power.

Mishra shows how these same ideas and energies have ignited similar movements in India, in Europe through the increased interest in right-wing nationalist parties, and throughout the Middle East. It also appears in the growing “alt-right” nationalism beginning its rise in the U.S.

The author points to several similarities in the movements no matter where they rise. One of the most interesting may be a growing drive for anti-feminism. There’s a growing desire to bring back a “natural order”, and this is expressed in male/female relations (rape in India, “family values” in the U.S.) as well as “old religion” (extremist Hinduism in India and fundamentalist Islam in the middle east) and returns to old cultural values and language.

What Mishra has been able to do is to pull a deeper explanation about changes in the world than dragging out superficial explanations such as “they hate our freedom” or dismissing some religions or cultures as being naturally backwards. Instead, an increasing sense of stress and disorientation through economic disenfranchisement or manipulation by colonial powers drives a longing for secure icons of the past. So it’s not so much that imams in the middle east have been able manipulate people so much as that war and colonialism created stresses that push people toward those imams for a sense of security and belonging.

The west in general and the U.S. in particular have managed to become magnets for hate by trying to mold the rest of the world into its own image, pushing values on societies rather than simply offering examples that other cultures can adopt or reject to reflect their own values. At the same time the west has experienced its own sense of disorientation through economic recessions and depressions, opening up areas of stress and dissatisfaction that can lead to lashing out at available “evils” such as foreigners, feminism, or foreign enemies.




In Fairleigh Field

In Fairleigh Field: A Novel of World War II, by Rhys Bowen

Author Rhys Bowen takes an eye for espionage into an English country home during war time. Fairleigh Place, home of Lord Westerham, is currently being used as the headquarters of military operations, leaving his lordship, wife, and the remainder of five daughters still at home to a reduced residential area and uncomfortable rations. One of those daughters is in occupied Paris trying to help extract her partisan lover from Gestapo hands. Another, Pamela, is using her German skills in Bletchley Park, where the German Enigma code machine has been cracked.

As all this is going on, a friend of the family since he played with Pamela as a child, has begun work at MI-5, the British secret service. Ben Cresswell has been assigned to help expose any plots of a group of English aristocrats who are secretly supporting the German war effort, either because of Nazi sympathies or a misguided belief that bringing the war to an early end would benefit Britain. The plot seems to be deepening when a mysterious parachutist dressed in a British uniform falls to his death in a Fairleigh field when his parachute fails to open.

Ben Cresswell’s work brings him back in contact with Pamela, with whom he’s been in love since his teens, and together they discover a plot to kill the king and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The ultimate hope is that they can restore Edward VIII to the throne because of his pro-German sympathies.

For a book about spies and assassinations Bowen manages to spend lots of time dealing with upper class family life during the initial years of the war. Lord Westerham has his hands full trying to preserve the honor of his daughters with the majority of the family mansion overrun with soldiers. The problem is exacerbated by one of the sisters’ disappointment that the war has cheated her of the normal tradition of being presented to society, and more than a little sexual tension in a world where a life-ending bomb might drop any night.

I’ve read two Bowen books (the other was On Her Majesty’s Frightfully Secret Service) and both have happened to involve Edward VIII, who abdicated to marry Mrs. Wallis Simpson before the war. This book never features him as a character but his presence off state looms large.

Bowen keeps a great balance of intrigue and humor going in the book while providing an interesting picture of England at war. The ultimate secret in the book is kept well hidden until just a few pages before the final action begins and the whole book resolves in a positive way for several favorite characters.



A Closed and Common Orbit

A Closed and Common Orbit (Wayfarers #2), by Becky Chambers

I was knocked out by Becky Chambers’ first book The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet when I read it a couple of months ago. Now, picking up this second book in the Wayfarers series I think she’s rapidly becoming one of my new favorite science fiction writers.

This book works as a standalone but here’s a little bit of background all the same. One of the central characters in the first volume is the ship’s artificial intelligence named “Lovie” by the crew. Lovie reached such a high level of sentience that one of the crew fell in love with her. During one of the actions on the ship Lovie is damaged and fragmented. An attempt to reboot her back to her evolved condition fails and, instead, the out-of-the-box intelligence named Lovelace is rebooted in her place. At the end of the book one of the characters arranges to purchase an illegal black market “kit” for Lovelace, giving her an android body and freeing her from the ship.

This book takes up where book one ends. Lovelace is heading to a planet with Pepper in her new body which she always refers to as her “kit”. She is already having problems with the new existence. She feels isolated and alone in the new body, unable to connect to a larger computer network. This limits her ability to learn new information and also prevents her from storing new memories. The kit is so small that memory is limited. This forces her to have to triage the events of her life to determine what should stay and what should go. She also has an algorithm in her software requiring her to always tell the truth. This is a worthy part of being a ship AI. No one would want a ship that, for whatever reason, would fudge on fuel data or enemy numbers. Interacting with humans, however, makes this feature troublesome, especially since she is in an illegal body.

Unlike humans, Lovelace feels completely separated from her exterior self. This is something that was fostered as a ship AI, in which she is not the ship. Rather, the ship is something in which she exists but they are not one in the same.

Her secret is kept secure until she decides that she wants a tattoo from an alien she considers a friend. She chooses a tattoo in which nanobots can create a design that moves. Unfortunately, these nanobots don’t interact well with the nanobots that are already part of her kit. This exposes her as an android and also damages her new friendship. Eventually Lovelace comes to realize that her life purpose has been distorted. She was always meant to be part of a ship in which she can serve the needs of humans as she was designed to do.

Chambers’ writing flows smoothly between humor and poignancy as she examines the meaning of existence and a dozen other subtle themes that flow out of the narrative. This is only her second book and she’s already putting out fresh and phenomenal material. She’s as fun to read as John Scalzi with the provocative nature of Dick or Le Guin. An excellent book and a great choice for a sci-fi-friendly book club.




Right Behind You

Right Behind You (FBI Profiler), by Lisa Gardner

This new book (January 2017) brings back retired FBI profilers Pierce Quincy and Rainie Conner.

In the small town of Bakersfield, sitting between Portland and Salem, Oregon, a sheriff responds to a gruesome murder of a man and a woman at a local gas station. The security cameras show a young man coming into view after the shootings and looking at the security camera with an expressionless face before shooting the camera. After identifying him they go to his home where they find his foster mother and father dead in their bed.

There’s now a desperate search for a young man who, eight years earlier, beat his father to death with a baseball bat after the drug-crazed man stabbed his wife and attacked his son and daughter. Because it was considered self-defense the boy wasn’t tried. Instead, he was put into a series of dismal foster homes and separated from his sister.

The sheriff calls in retired FBI profilers Quincy and Conner hoping that they can help predict the killer’s next steps. They haven’t been on the case long when they learn that his last name is Nash, the same last name as the foster daughter Sharlah Nash they are about to adopt.

The narrative in the book switches between a first-person perspective of Telly Nash, the killer on the run, the first-person perspective of Sharlah, and a third-person perspective on the manhunt through the coastal forests of northwest Oregon.

Telly’s story is a tragic one of a young boy who doted after his sister, taking her to the library to read to her. After the death of both parents Telly and his sister are passed from one hideous foster family to the next in parallel lives until both land in what seems to their “forever families”.

Much of the first half of the book concentrates on Telly’s story and the manhunt, but as Quincy’s and Rainie’s investigation progresses they gather information that gives a whole new perspective on the deaths from the apparent spree killer.

It’s a book that’s both exciting and emotional. The last foster families for these siblings seem to really offer a healing environment for both of them. After the killings Telly is tracked through the woods by volunteer local trackers and heavily armed SWAT professionals. They keep up a close trail on Telly, who always manages to stay several steps ahead of them as he makes his way through the forests with guns his foster father owned.

I haven’t read any of the earlier profiler books, but Quincy and Rainie complement each other well. Quincy is quiet and thoughtful while Rainie is richly intuitive. They have a great partnership and they bring these same qualities to their parenting of Sharlah. I may end up digging through the older Gardner books to learn more about them.

Gardner says she polled readers about who should be included in her next book and was surprised that the profiler team won over other favorite characters. She says the spree killer concept came from one of her husband’s law enforcement magazines, as did some of the “philosophy” of tracking criminals. She also boasts of her preference for “lazy” research though she clearly spent a lot of time learning about the procedural details in the book.

There are good hints about the final turn in the mystery but the exact details were surprising all the same. A fun mystery, a good adventure, and an emotional story about family and the hazards of drug abuse all in one very strong book.



Night Shift

Night Shift (A Novel of Midnight, Texas), by Charlaine Harris

This is the third and most recent of three books by Charlaine Harris, creator of the Sookie Stackhouse series, set in the small town of Midnight, Texas. The books have already been the basis of a series on NBC.

Midnight is a small town populated by a strange group of people in touch with the supernatural. One of the key residents is Fiji Cavanaugh, a witch who lives in a house inherited from her great-aunt who had the same powers. She runs a shop out of the house selling items related to the supernatural such as tarot cards and ceremonial knives and lives with a talking (at least Fiji can hear him) cat who came with the house. She also has a flirting relationship with Bobo, a neighbor with no magical powers but who shyly flirts back.

Others in the town include a vampire who runs a pawn shop and a weir tiger and his son. There’s also a newcomer to town, a Native American who moved in to run the shop and go in town.

Now something even stranger is happening in Midnight. Strangers arrive in town, sometimes with a weapon purchased in town and sometimes with one they brought for themselves. Within a few minutes in town they use the weapon to commit suicide.

The townspeople are now trying to figure out the cause of the rash of suicides, and signs begin to point to an evil power trapped long before in the town crossroads. The answer seems to be contained in an ancient book written in Etruscan which, unfortunately, no one in town can read. Further complicating things for Fiji is the arrival of her older sister Kiki (short for Waikiki … their parents had a thing for islands) who is freshly divorced and hoping to liven up her lovelife with some of the men in Midnight.

Harris has a great knack for drawing fun and attractive characters into books about the supernatural. Though she runs them through horrifying events she is able to maintain a sense of humor and lightheartedness. Despite it being part of a series this standalone book reads like an independent novel with nothing making you wish you’d read the earlier books to get the full picture. Fiji has an of aura of a romantic innocent, similar to Stephanie Plum. The book is fun to read with touches of horror but nothing to keep a reader awake at night.



The Chemist

The Chemist, by Stephenie Meyer

She’s named Alex … for now. She used to work for an ultra-secret agency. She’s a brilliant chemist. When working for the agency she also used her chemistry skills to extract information from terrorists in cases where information could save lives. Using chemicals to loosen inhibitions or cause incredible if temporary pain. One day her undercover lab was filled with a dose of lethal gas that killed her mentor but missed her. Since then she’s gone deep undercover to save her own life. Any place she can rest she secures the place with boobytraps of lethal gas, which is the reason she sleeps with a gasmask at night. She also has rings with short needles that can knock an attacker out or kill them in seconds.

This thriller in the Ludlum tradition gives us an ingenious and lethal heroine. Small in stature she could match Bourne with her skills in chemicals and weapons, the latter she’s had to learn on the run. Now she’s been lulled into a belief that all is well with her agency and they need her back to question a terrorist who could kill thousands unless information is extracted. As she does her work she begins to realize that her target has no information at all, but has a protector with commando skills. She realizes that she and the commando have both been double-crossed, with her target as an innocent pawn. Now she has to figure out if the three of them can make an alliance or if one of them will have to die.

It’s a fun book to zip through. It has tons of action and life-or-death situations. The three main characters all have their positive attributes and skills. Like me, you may not be a fan of torture as a way of gathering information. Meyer does work to keep her heroine within some ethical limits, with the idea that torture causing pain (such as injecting high doses of uric acid into muscles, like post-exercise muscle pain X 10,000) is preferable to those who would cut off digits or scar with sharp instruments. She’ll also only work when lives are at stake. All the same she’s not averse to getting physical in the name of self-defense or revenge.

One of the key parts of a story like this is getting the reader involved in the sense of paranoia … anyone could end up being the next bad guy. Meyer does that well and is even able to work in a little romance between two of the main characters. A fun thrill read.




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