Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Review: Lady in the Lake

Lady in the Lake Lady in the Lake by Laura Lippman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Baltimore 1966 – a/k/a “The good ole days.” (For some people.)

Madeline Schwartz has been a wife and mother for almost two decades when she suddenly decides to turn her back on the boring comforts of the upper middle class. It isn’t easy for a woman in her late ‘30s to start over, but she begins pulling together a new life, including a secret relationship with an African-American cop. When Maddie discovers the body of a murder victim she manages to eventually leverage that into an entry level job at one of the local newspapers. She wants to become a real reporter, and when the body of Cleo Sherwood is found in a lake Maddie begins to research Cleo’s life and death even though everyone tells her that nobody cares about the story of a black party girl who met a bad end.

What Laura Lippman has written here is a character driven crime novel that smoothly shifts through a variety of viewpoints. Not only do we get the ghostly voice of Cleo who expresses dismay at how Maddie’s investigation is only stirring up trouble, but there are many short first-person interludes from the different people that Maddie interacts with. Sometimes these encounters make a big impact on her, like a dinner party with an old high school friend, and sometimes it’s a person that Maddie barely registers, like a waitress who serves her lunch. All of these characters have their own stories going on, and some of them are important to Maddie’s and some have no direct bearing on her at all. When you put them all together you get vivid picture of a bygone era as well as the full story of what happened to Cleo.

Lippman trusts the reader to remember what they’ve read in these parts so that very often we don’t see key events, and you have to infer what’s happened based on what we know about these other characters. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, but it all fits the tone and structure of the book so that the reader comes to feel like just one of these flies on the wall that knows far more about Maddie’s business than she realizes.

The center of all this is Maddie, and again Lippman delivers with a detailed story about a complex woman whose old secrets put her on a path that she is now desperately trying to change. Her courage and determination are admirable, and yet there’s also a sense of entitlement to Maddie. Yes, she’s a woman struggling against sexism, but she also blithely assumes she can do a job that she’s had no experience or training for. She’s also willing to do some shady things to get what she wants, and she has little regard what damage she might do other people. Sometimes she comes across as the sympathetic hero of the story, but there are points where she seems like the villain of it. I didn’t always like Maddie, but I was always interested in her.

This also acts as kind of low key tribute to the newspaper business even if watching the sausage get made isn’t always pretty, and Lippman, a former journalist herself, ends the book with a moving tribute to the five employees of the Capital Gazette who were killed during a mass shooting at their office.

Top notch writing, great character work, and a unique structure all make for one compelling book.


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Friday, August 9, 2019

Review: Evil Has A Name: The Untold Story of the Golden State Killer Investigation

Evil Has A Name: The Untold Story of the Golden State Killer Investigation Evil Has A Name: The Untold Story of the Golden State Killer Investigation by Paul Holes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This isn’t really a book. It’s a podcast.

I’m not saying that’s a good thing or a bad thing because I like podcasts. In fact, I’ve listened to several hours of them about the Golden State Killer already. The difference is that those I downloaded for free while I used one of my monthly credits for this Audible Original so I’m feeling a little cheated. Plus, I already had read or heard about 99% of the information in here already so calling it 'the untold story' isn't exactly true either.

In fairness, it’s pretty well done as far as giving an account of GSK, and the story of how cold case detective Paul Holes helped identify him by using genealogical DNA information which ultimately led to the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo is fascinating. I could have lived without the spooky musical cues which reminded me of a trashy tabloid TV show, but with multiple interviews of victims, cops, and others involved in the case it does make for a good summary of the whole complicated story. If you don’t know much about it, and you have a spare Audible credit then you could do a lot worse.

However, if you’ve really want to do deeper dive into this terrifying story then I’d highly recommend starting with the late Michelle McNamara’s brilliant book I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK. (One of the parts I very much liked was Paul Holes emotionally talking about McNamara as he tells the story of how she came to feel like his investigative partner before her untimely death.) The true crime podcast Casefile also did an in-depth multi-part account of the history of GSK before he was caught that is very informative about his crimes. The HLN podcast Unmasking A Killer came out shortly before GSK was arrested, and then it added several episodes about the arrest and what we learned about DeAngelo after that. A lot of the info I heard there first is repeated here.

So again, this isn’t bad, but if you’ve already spent time following this whole case you won’t find out anything you haven’t read or heard before.


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Thursday, August 8, 2019

Review: The Hanged Man's Song

The Hanged Man's Song The Hanged Man's Song by John Sandford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Remember the good old days when media revelations about illegal or unethical behavior by politicians would cause a scandal that could remove them from office? Me neither at this point, but that’s when this book is set. Way back during the mid-00s when the internet was still growing, but social media hadn’t yet turned the world into a screaming hellscape devoid of decency and hope. (Sorry. It’s been a long couple of years.)

Anyhow…. Professional artist/hacker/saboteur Kidd has gone mostly legit with his paintings selling well, and he is even doing a favor for a politician that involves playing slot machines as part of a statistical investigation into potential casino skimming. His occasional snuggle bunny, the professional thief LuEllen, is helping out with this when they get word that Kidd’s infamous hacker buddy Bobby has gone offline in such a way that it’s raised an alarm, and Kidd is geographically close enough to help check on him.

What Kidd finds is Bobby murdered, and his laptop filled with hacked data is missing. Then someone claiming to be Bobby starts feeding bombshells to the media about government secrets as well as political corruption. With scandal after scandal setting cable news ablaze, Kidd and his friends are sweating what information about them might be in Bobby’s files and who has them. They have to perform a delicate balancing act of trying to get Bobby’s murder investigated without tipping off the feds to his true identity as a wanted hacker until they can get the laptop and make sure they won’t get burned in the process.

Like the other Kidd & LuEllen novels this one involves a lot of hacking, breaking & entering, a fair amount of detective work, and some fairly devious scheming. All four of the novels are at a comparable level of enjoyment and quality, and the only real knock I can put on this one is that it’s just a little too close to the previous book in which Kidd also got pulled into a bad situation when a hacker friend gets killed.

It’s interesting to note that while the series ran from the late-80s until 2003 and always had a lot about computer tech that they never feel horribly dated in the way that many of ‘90s net-crazy books did. The hacking is also portrayed with a sense of practical authenticity that feels believable, unlike the near magic that computer hacking is regularly shown to be like in most fiction anymore.

However, this last one feels the most dated in some ways. Like there’s a scene in which Kidd cobbles together a WiFi antenna from parts bought a Radio Shack, and then explains what WiFi is and how it’s becoming very popular. (Although he also wryly notes that it might be obsolete tomorrow.) That all seems very quaint now, but maybe the thing that seems really old fashioned is the idea that a political scandal revealed in the media might actually get that person removed from office at the very least. Since a lot of the plot hinges on that concept it seems hilariously out of touch these days.

Still, those are minor gripes, and as always Sandford is a master of plotting to build tension and momentum. Like a good heist movie there is a lot of planning and cleverness to the things that Kidd and Lu-Ellen need to pull off, and that’s probably the aspect I enjoy most. This also has one of my favorite sequences in the series when LuEllen gets into trouble, and Kidd quickly goes to extreme lengths in an effort to pull her out of the soup. The growing closeness of the relationship between two professional criminals who are so paranoid that Kidd doesn’t even know her real name is another interesting aspect of the series.

Like a lot of fans, I wish that Sandford had done more of these. Unfortunately, the FAQ on his official website states that he probably won’t simply because they don’t sell well enough compared to his other series although he doesn’t completely rule it out. And we do get to see more of Kidd & LuEllen now and then in the Prey novels, including a big subplot in Silken Prey that seems almost like a final curtain call for them. Still, with the way this one wraps up it seems like a shame we never got more because it opened the door to a lot of interesting possibilities.

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Saturday, August 3, 2019

Review: The Chain

The Chain The Chain by Adrian McKinty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fleetwood Mac warned us about this.

Rachel O’Neil has had a rough time after a divorce and surviving a battle with cancer, but things are looking up with being in remission and a new teaching job. The promise of this next phase of her life is instantly shattered when she receives a phone call telling her that her young daughter Kylie has been kidnapped, and that Rachel is now the newest link in The Chain.

Not only does Rachel have to quickly come up with a cash ransom to save Kylie, but she also has to identify and kidnap another kid, just like the people who have Kylie did. When Rachel pays up and snatches the next victim, the kidnappers of Kylie will have their child released. Then once Rachel has gotten the parents of the kid she’s taken to kidnap another child, Kylie will be released. And so on and so on.

Rachel quickly learns that the people running The Chain have come up with a fiendishly clever and self-sustaining process. If you try to go to the police, even after the return of your own child, you’d be confessing to kidnapping. Plus, they warn that once a member of The Chain you’re never really free of it, and they may call upon you to do some other horrible task for them or risk you and your family being killed.

Essentially normal law-abiding people are turned into instant criminals. Rachel quickly realizes that appealing to the decency or humanity of the people holding Kylie is pointless once she realizes just how far she’s willing to go herself.

I’d been hearing a lot about this one even before it released thanks to authors like Don Winslow singing its praises, but I was a little leery. The whole parent with a child in peril thing has been tired for me even before Liam Neeson murdered most of Europe to protect his precious baby girl. However, I do recognize that it keeps coming up as a theme because it’s universal and effective when done well.

And it is done very well here. At least for the first two-thirds of the book. I was less happy with the origin story of those behind The Chain, and the ultimate resolution seems just a little too convenient. There’s also one plot turn that I found very hard to buy into, and irritated me even more because it seems like there was a better way to do it sitting right there. That’s what takes this from a 4 star thriller to a very satisfied 3 stars. (I’d go 3 and a half, but….you know. Thanks, Goodreads.)

Because despite my disappointment with the last act I still gotta say that it has incredible momentum for the first half. It starts with a great first line, and just absolutely cooks right along from there for a good long while before petering out just a bit at the end. I particularly enjoyed how quickly Rachel grasps the situation and how she jumps into the mode of acquiring cash and working on her own child kidnapping scheme. That idea of a parent being absolutely willing to inflict the same kind of fear and pain they’re going through on someone else to save their own child is what gives the book some more heft than just being an entertaining page-turner.

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Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Review: Wanderers

Wanderers Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this form NetGalley for review.

I’m generally rooting for the end of humanity most days anymore, but if the apocalypse is gonna involve this much walking then I’ll be pretty angry about it because I’d much rather sit on my ass while the asteroid hits or the nukes fly or the zombies start gnawing on me.

A small group of people in rural Pennsylvania start walking in a trance like state one day. They can’t be snapped out of it, needles for sedatives won’t penetrate their skin, and if you try to physically stop one of them things get awfully messy. They don’t need food or water, and they absolutely will not stop. As they move across the country more and more people start joining them.

The public gets increasingly freaked out by these walkers, and a variety of people get pulled into the situation. A tough teenager frantically tries to take care of her younger sister who was the first to start walking. A former CDC doctor who trashed his career for a noble lie tries to learn the cause of the sleepwalking. An aging rock star runs away from his messy life to join the people shepherding the walkers. A preacher begins publicly painting the walkers as harbingers of the apocalypse, and he’s handsomely rewarded for his efforts by a pack of right wing conspiracy theorists who are backing a lying sack of shit for president. Behind it all is a secret that is either the salvation of humanity or its dooooooomm!!

I’ve got mixed very feelings on this one. There’s a lot of stuff I liked, particularly some of the core idea of what’s behind the sleepwalkers once it all gets revealed. There was a pretty cool and clever story to all of that. Wendig also has a readable style that keeps you turning pages, and he’s built up an intriguing scenario here that really held my interest for the first couple of hundred pages. But then the problems started creeping in.

First off, this is way too long. I’m glad I got an e-copy because it’s gotta be a real kitten squisher in print form. And it just doesn’t seem that necessary. There are big swaths of the story where not that much happens. Yeah, some of that was trying to develop characters, but it really doesn’t matter though because for the most part these people are still exactly who I thought they were the entire time. Unfortunately, that means that they’re all jerks or pushovers from start to finish.

Even the ones you’re supposed to sympathize with the most I found irritating and weak. Shana, the older sister of one of the first walkers, is supposed to the tough teenager with a chip on her shoulder, but it all seems like posturing because all she ever really does is be snarky to people. Benjy, the disgraced CDC doctor, should be our hero, but he seems so na├»ve, helpless, and completely overwhelmed at all times that there’s nothing there to root for. And some of that would make sense in a book like this where people would feel insignificant when faced with something like this, but the structure of the scenario leaves them so little to actually do that they feel completely pointless.

In fact, this entire novel is incredibly passive, and the people in it really don’t matter that much at the end of the day. There’s a few minor things they try to accomplish here and there, but usually they even screw that up. You could take every single other character out of this book and just make it about the sleepwalkers while eventually revealing what’s behind them, and the entire story pretty much ends up exactly where it eventually does. I also didn’t care for what seems like a sequel set up in the end. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but Wendig left plenty of room to return. I’d be more interested in that if I thought that any characters in the book might actually be able to impact the story.

Overall, I didn’t hate this one, but the potential it had early on seems to just fade away as the book goes on and on.

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Monday, July 29, 2019

Review: The Man Who Knew The Way to the Moon

The Man Who Knew The Way to the Moon The Man Who Knew The Way to the Moon by Todd Zwillich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was reading something about the 50th anniversary of the moon landing recently, and one thing that caught my eye was that apparently over 400,000 people worked on various projects related making that happen. I’d say that out of all them, the contribution of John Houbolt may be the most controversial.

Houbolt was an engineer at NASA who became an advocate for Lunar Orbit Rendezvous. In the early days of trying to get to the moon most everyone thought that the way to do it was to either build an enormous rocket that would make the entire round trip or that a ship would have to be assembled in Earth orbit and then sent to the moon. The thing about LOR was that by taking a light landing craft it would save having to get an enormous amount of weight, mostly fuel, to the moon and back. The problem was that it would mean that two spacecraft would have to rendezvous in lunar orbit, and at a time when nobody had docked in Earth orbit yet that seemed extremely dangerous, maybe even impossible.

So when most of the NASA committees and big wigs were trying to make decisions the idea of LOR was usually quickly crossed off the list. However, Houbolt had done an extensive analysis of the numbers, and to him it was clear that LOR was the only way to get to the moon by the deadline John F. Kennedy had set for the country so he started to relentlessly push the idea even when he was dismissed out of hand. Sometimes he was met with outright hostility like when another engineer angrily declared that Houbolt’s numbers were a lie in a meeting with some of the top NASA people.

Although frequently hurt and frustrated, Houbolt refused to take no for an answer and continued to push LOR, and he even risked his job by skipping the chain of command and sending letters and his report to one of the top men in NASA. Eventually the tide turned and LOR was adopted as the strategy to get to the moon. Yet, Houbolt was almost immediately shut out, and many in NASA began downplaying his role. Houbolt would end up leaving the agency just months after the decision was made, and for the rest of his life he’d insist that he hadn’t received the credit he was due.

The counterpoint to that is that Houbolt didn’t create the idea of LOR, he was just a believer who pushed it. So the NASA attitude was often that while Houbolt was an early advocate for LOR that other people were also studying it too, and that the idea was so logical that it surely would have been used even without Houbolt’s efforts.

The other odd factor is that Houbolt did, in fact, receive a lot of recognition. NASA awarded him a commendation at the time, he was interviewed and profiled in the media including Time magazine, he was invited back to NASA to witness the moon landing from Mission Control where Werner von Braun thanked him personally, and his old hometown gave him a parade and named a street after him. Houbolt and his struggle were even briefly depicted in the HBO mini-series From the Earth to the Moon back in 1998 so it’s not like he’d been completely ignored and forgotten. However, Houbolt was eventually denied a large cash award thanks to a NASA executive downplaying his importance so maybe that’s why he seemed to feel like he wasn’t given his due.

Another interesting aspect explored in this is that while LOR was probably the only way that America could have gotten to the moon by 1970, it might have been a mistake for long term space exploration. Some engineers were envisioning a whole orbital infrastructure that would be used to not just go to the moon, but beyond. By doing it the quickest way possible to make an arbitrary deadline NASA may have inadvertently set manned space exploration back by decades.

I very much enjoyed this as an Audible original I got as one of their freebies. There’s not really enough here for an entire non-fiction book, but the 3 ½ hours audio presentation including interviews and historical clips is just about the perfect way to learn about Houbolt and this story. It seems more like listening to a long NPR feature or podcast episode instead of a book, but it’s an intriguing side story for anyone interested in the Apollo landings.

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Review: Fall, or Dodge in Hell

Fall, or Dodge in Hell Fall, or Dodge in Hell by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If I wasn’t hoping that death is just an endless, dreamless slumber before then I sure am now.

Richard ‘Dodge’ Forthrast made billions with the video game company he founded, but money doesn’t help him when a routine medical procedure goes sideways and leaves him braindead. However, Dodge once signed up with a cryonics company to have himself frozen after death, and that old legal agreement becomes the impetus for his friends and family to pour resources into tech that eventually can digitally map Dodge’s mind as part of an uneasy alliance with an ailing billionaire, El Shepherd, who is desperately trying to find a way to cheat death.

Years pass, and eventually Dodge’s consciousness is brought back in a digital realm, but he has no real memories of who he was. Operating mainly on instinct, Dodge starts shaping the world he now inhabits into something approximating his old reality, and eventually the living begin adding more dead mapped minds to that space. Slowly, a community that Dodge oversees begins to grow, but Shepherd doesn’t like the world that Dodge and his people have made so he finds a way to make sure that he’ll be in charge once he dies and gets his brain plugged in.

That’s a lot of plot for one book, but since this is a Neal Stephenson novel there’s all that and more. In addition to the story of Dodge in his digital world there’s the stuff with his friends and family dealing with all the technological and legal issues that arise from starting and maintaining a virtual afterlife. There’s also a long subplot that details how the internet and social media eventually becomes so awash in bullshit that everyone needs a personal editor to weed out the nonsense they don’t want to see, and the trend of people only believing what they choose creates whole reality challenged zones of the United States based on ‘alternative facts’. All of this stuff takes up a good chunk of the first half of the book, and I was enjoying that part quite a bit.

However, in the second half the focus shifts much more to dead Dodge in his computer world, and that’s where it got incredibly tedious. Stephenson does a lot here that draws on various religious creation myths with Dodge essentially becoming a Zeus like figure before the thing shifts into a more Christian style story with Dodge being cast in the Lucifer part by Shepherd. That’s an interesting idea, but the execution of it goes on for so long that I lost patience with the whole thing because it starts reading like someone tossed a Bible and a copy of Lord of the Rings into a blender.

Another part of the problem is that Stephenson also baked in some video game influence here, and as a guy who helped create a huge MMORPG type game it makes sense that Dodge’s approach to building and living in a digital world would feel somewhat like that. However, while it can be fun to play a video game like Civilization yourself, it’s boring to just watch someone else do it, and that’s what reading this book felt like for a good part of it.

Oddly, Stephenson also never really deals with the big questions that the story brings up. Like, are Dodge and the others in the cyber world falling into the rhythms of Greek mythology and Christianity out of some subconscious instinct that recalls those stories, or is it possible that our reality is also just some kind of artificially created existence that and the creation of these kinds of places just plays out in patterns?

Another aspect I didn’t care for was using the characters like Dodge and some of his family and friends who were also in Stephenson’s thriller REAMDE. I really enjoyed that book as one of Stephenson’s more straight ahead stories, and I especially liked Dodge in it. So to just essentially kill him off in the early going here is a bummer that puts a retroactive pall over that book.

Maybe the thing that bugs me most about this is that it’s essentially two rich guys battling to control what happens to people after they die. As the book lays out it would take an enormous amount of resources to develop something like this so it’s just cold hard reality that the first people to be able to live on past death would be wealthy.

However, it seem incredibly unfair that the privilege they enjoyed in life would then carry over to the point where they literally get to shape reality to their view of how things should be. Even good guy Dodge never questions why he gets to choose how things are going to work once everyone who dies starts getting uploaded. We just know that Shepherd was a jerk in life and in death so we’re supposed to root for Dodge, not ask why he gets all the power.

We already live in a world where obscenely rich assholes get to make all the rules. I was really hoping that death would be the end of that so I didn’t much enjoy a long story about how these fucks could maintain control after we all croak. Can you imagine what happens if the Koch brothers were essentially gods who could shape reality to what they want it to be?

If that’s the way it was going to be then I’d take a hard pass on the afterlife and just settle for the comfort of a long dirt nap. Reading about that idea isn’t a lot of fun either even if Stephenson tries mightily to convince us that it’d be cool just so long as the right rich guy is in charge.

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