The Promise

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It has been over two years since Robert Crais's last novel (Suspect), and over three years since we have heard from the World's Greatest Detective, Elvis Cole (Taken). I put in my order for this one back in April, and it magically appeared on my Kindle last Tuesday. And, gobble, gobble, gobble, it's all done. Hope I won't have to wait another couple years for the next one.

Yes, I'm kind of a Crais fanboy.

We are introduced to a very shady character, "Mr. Rollins", who's in the business of selling stolen goods to the highest bidder. He is dealing with Amy and Charles; Amy has produced something he really, really wants to buy.

But things get complicated for Rollins when a lowlife courier for one of his associates leads the cops to the house he's using, including the heroes of Suspect, Scott James and the World's Greatest K-9 German Shepard, Maggie. Also—Dickensian coincidence—Elvis is on the scene: Meryl Lawrence, Amy's boss, has hired Elvis to track down Amy, which has taken him to Rollins's doorstep too.

The result is a murderous mess. Elvis becomes a suspect for the cops merely for being in the area. Scott and Maggie are targeted, because they've seen the mysterious Rollins. Amy, it becomes apparent, has reasons of her own for falling in with a criminal crowd. And (this is pretty standard for Crais books) there are more than zero dirty folks working for the ostensible good guys. And generally, other people Are Not Who They Seem.

People who find Joe Pike, Elvis's deadly sidekick, the best thing about this series will be disappointed; he's here, but doesn't do much. Elvis is also not as much of a wisecracking laff riot as he used to be. A relative newcomer to the books, Jon Stone, displays surprising depth of character.

I wouldn't recommend reading this as someone's first Crais book; read his previous 19 novels first.

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Online chatter about the genesis of this book a few years back caused me to stick it into the to-be-read pile. It's an amateur author's fantasy: write a book, publish it yourself (via Amazon), fall into fame and fortune.

Frankly, I didn't expect it to be as good as it was. But the author, Hugh Howey, writes well and knows how to grab the reader's interest with intriguing plot and sympathetic characters.

It is set in an imaginative dystopia: thousands of people inhabiting a "silo" set deep into the earth. (But is it Earth?) Going outside is deadly. (Or is it?) Yet, every so often someone is sentenced to go outside and clean the sensors with specially designed… wool.

But "wool" also refers to the stuff that is proverbially pulled over one's eyes. As it turns out, like most fictional dystopias, the masses are social-engineered to believe a lot of stuff that isn't true. Will a few brave souls manage to uncover the truth?

My only quibble: there are villains, and they are way too obvious. Might as well twirl their mustaches while cackling evilly.

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Inventing Freedom

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A swell nonfiction book from Daniel Hannan, who is (according to the book flap) a writer, blogger, and a "member of the European Parliament representing South East England for the Conservative Party since 1999." (He blogs here.)

Hannan's subtitle: How the English-Speaking Peoples Made the Modern World. (If you can't see it over there on the right for yourself, you are probably blocking ads, and you shouldn't, because they are very non-obtrusive on this site, my friend.) We talk a lot about "American exceptionalism" here in the US; Hannan's argument is that it's really Anglospheric exceptionalism. The roots of our uniqueness date back (at least) to the dim history of England's inhabitants, left behind when the Romans decided to pull out. Hannan notes that English destiny was already diverging from the European continent even then. Geography helped:

The Anglosphere is a "more or less" alliance of shared language, ideals, and religion. These commonalities gave rise to limited government, personal liberty, the rule of law, and strong property rights.

Along the way, there is a lot of history. Much of it over my head: I'm regrettably forgetful of my English history (last seen formally in high school, and it was a weak subject for me even then). Hannan is telling history as it relates to his overall thesis, though, so it's best to be skeptical. I would love to see a discussion on the general topic between Hannan and Deirdre McCloskey.

Unfortunately, as Hannan points out, we are drifting away from Anglospheric ideals. Great Britain's sovereignty is being eroded by its European Union membership. The current US President has a long record of minor and major snubs to England, preferring instead to cozy up to random dictators.

Hannan's book closes with a plea, originally made by American revolutionist Joseph Warren, in the context of our historic membership in the liberty-loving Anglosphere: Act worthy of yourselves. One hopes.

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Bad Monkey

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I came a little late to Carl Hiaasen fandom, but since then I've been a loyal reader. I just no longer buy the hardcovers on publication day. In fact, I picked this up from our local Barnes&Noble remainder display and saved a couple bucks over both paperback and Kindle editions.

Things kick off when a tourist on a fishing expedition off the Florida coast reels in a grisly discovery: a human arm, middle finger outstretched. Local law enforcement treats it like a hot potato: nobody wants to deal with this obvious unfortunate accident. Disgraced ex-cop Andrew Yates is tasked with passing off the arm to someone, anyone, who'll take it off his hands.

Andrew is your typical flawed Hiaasen hero: honest, but quick-tempered with poor impulse control. He's been demoted to restaurant-inspection duty because—see if you can follow this—the husband of the woman Andrew had been involved insulted her honor, and Andrew sodomized him with a vacuum cleaner in front of a few hundred witnesses.

Anyway, Andrew sees the arm as a possible tool to get his job back. (Restaurant inspection is a dreadful, disgusting job as paragraphs of Hiaasenian prose make clear.) Identifying the person to which the arm used to be attached is pretty easy. The widow, however, is suspiciously non-grieving. Then people start dying. Of course, not all is as it seems.

Oh yeah: there's a monkey. And he's not well-behaved. It turns out that show-biz (Pirates of the Caribbean, specifically) can burn out animals the same way it does humans.

Not a bad read, but I found myself bemused at the pacing. There's a big climactic showdown/rescue/revelation … and then the book goes on for eighty more pages.

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The New School

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I noticed that the Dimond Library at the University Near Here owned this slim volume from Glenn Harlan Reynolds, aka Instapundit. I very much enjoyed his book An Army of Davids way back in 2006. It's not often you get a chance to read Glenn in a format longer than his typical blog post.

The book, short as it is, adapts two previous works: one on the higher education crisis, the other on K-12 problems. In both cases, there is a theme of unsustainability, and not the mushy kind that environmentalists prattle about. Glenn's favorite saying is (Herbert) Stein's Law: "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."

There are any number of trends in the US education "system" that can't go on forever. At the college level, costs keep increasing, along with the debts incurred by victims students. Yet the outcomes remain mediocre, with graduates moving on to unemployment and underemployment. (The problem is especially bad in law schools, apparently: they produce far more graduates than the market can bear.)

At the K-12 level, things are similar: ever-increasing costs, never-improving actual education. The stranglehold of government on schooling at this level is greater, and (hence) the problems are less tractable. Still: Stein's Law. It's hard to see how things can continue this way.

So, what's predicted for the "new" school? Glenn's outlook is kind of hazy. It would be nice if we got away from the Procrustean ideal: one size fits all, all students moving through the same curriculum in the same time in the same way. To a certain extent, technology offers a (partial) way out: cheap courses that can be taken on your own schedule. If one course (say) in Python programming doesn't fit your learning style, you can move on to a different one.

Glenn is an engaging writer, but the book doesn't offer much in the way of new observations. At least for insights about the future of college education, I'd recommend Kevin Carey's The End of College instead.

Last Modified 2015-10-14 5:27 AM EDT
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The Fifth Witness

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Another Kindlized Michael Connelly book read during the ordeal that is modern air travel. (It was $2.99 when I got it at Amazon a few years back, a deal that is no longer available.)

Defense lawyer Mickey Haller has fallen on tough times. Prosecutors have become much more successful at avoiding expensive criminal trials, his usual bread and butter. So he has altered his professional course, shifting into defending underwater homeowners against foreclosure on their homes. It's the Little Guy™ against greedy, sleazy banks! Never mind that Haller bills almost as much money from his clients than they owe their creditors!

But one of Haller's clients, Lisa Trammel, is accused of the grisly murder of a executive of the bank holding her mortgage. Mickey immediately shifts back to criminal defense mode; in addition, he gets Lisa to assign him representational rights to whatever eventual TV movies or best selling books are produced by this lurid ripped-from-the-headlines case. (Mickey is all about getting paid, and he's very unsentimental about it.)

Lisa is dreadful: self-promotional, self-regarding, self-dramatic and generally whiny. But did she do the deed? Mickey keeps telling himself and his co-workers that it doesn't matter: he just has to find a credible alternate hypothesis of the crime to instill a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.

It's another fine page-turner (or Kindle button-pusher) from Mr. Connelly. The outcome of the case causes Mickey to make a life-changing decision at the end. Will it work out? I guess we'll see in the next book!

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The Reversal

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I picked up the Kindle version of this book a couple years back for the sweet price of $2.99, but it languished in my cybernetic to-be-read pile. It turned out to be ideal reading on my recent trip to Nashville. (The Kindle is a godsend to easily-bored travellers.)

A heinous murder committed a quarter-century ago put Jason Jessup in the slammer. But modern technology allows DNA analysis of evidence from back then, and—oops!—it tends to exonerate Jessup. Instead of letting Jessup go free, the state decides to go for a new trial. And they manage to wangle defense lawyer Mickey Haller over to their side to lead the prosecution.

In a welcome development, Mickey demands the state provide an investigator of his choice: half-brother Harry Bosch. (This is nearly a 50/50 Bosch/Haller book, a gimmick that worked for me. FBI profiler Rachel Walling also makes a significant appearance.)

The case has plenty of dramatic twists and mysteries. But there is never any doubt that the Bosch/Haller combination will eventually reveal the actual murderer.

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Apparently the antepenultimate entry in Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone series. Assuming I'm not forgetting how the alphabet works and haven't missed some announcement from Ms. Grafton about her post-Z plans.

And the title is, simply, X, not X is for Xenophobia or X is for Xanthan Gum. That would have been silly. But "X" does crop up in a couple places here.

Kinsey is multitasking: (a) an (apparently) wealthy woman hires her to track down a son given up for adoption long ago, who turned to a life of safecracking and bank jobs, and has been recently released from prison; (b) the widow of a shady private eye (bumped off in the previous book) has asked Kinsey to search his leftover files to help with an IRS audit, but Kinsey discovers some mysterious memorabilia and an encrypted document; (c) Kinsey's landlord, Henry, gets concerned with water conservation during a California drought, and new neighbors move in next door—Henry's his usual friendly self to them, but something about them raises Kinsey's suspicions.

After 23 entries in the series, I am by now used to Ms. Grafton's quirks. Most notable is the extreme prose-padding; Kinsey's first-person narration is full of irrelevant detail. (Example: she reports feeding a Wilshire Boulevard parking meter four quarters, two dimes, and a nickel for 15 minutes of time.) I suspect—I've probably said this before—that Ms. Grafton's publishing contract called for at least a 400-page manuscript, and she just adds stuff here and there until it meets requirements.

Not that this is a big deal, I love Kinsey despite her wordiness. Can't wait to see what happens in Y and Z.

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The End of Doom

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Despite my expectations this was not a Fantastic Four comic book recounting their final defeat of Dr. Doom. Instead the subtitle is "Environmental Renewal in the Twenty-first Century". It is written by the estimable science correspondent for Reason magazine, Ronald Bailey. And thanks to the stunningly good efforts of the Interlibrary Loan department of the University Near Here, who worked a copy out of the clutches of Northeastern University.

Bailey's book is an antidote to the various predictions of near-term ecological disaster. Those have been with us since Malthus, I guess, but Bailey is more concerned with more recent Jeremiahs: e.g., Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich, the Club of Rome, Bill McKibben, etc. Wolf-crying continues to be a popular and profitable undertaking to this day.

Most chapters deal with a subcategory of possibile global disaster: overpopulation; resource exhaustion; genetic manipulation; epidemic levels of cancer; anthropogenic climate change; mass species extinction. And there's an excellent chapter on the "precautionary principle" used by those who would thwart technological progress; its clever title: "Never Do Anything For the First Time".

Unlike a number of folks on this side of the libertarian/conservative divide, Bailey has been persuaded to believe in the reality of anthropogenic global warming. His chapter on the topic, however, gives plenty of respect to the skeptics, and no support at all to the notion that it's an excuse to hand worldwide governments extraordinary new powers of regulation, subsidy, taxation, and mandate. He argues, convincingly, that a lot of good would be done by elimination of existing fossil fuel subsidies without making the same subsidization mistake for "renewables".

If I had to quibble: the book at times seems to be stitched together from old Reason columns and various op-eds. Which is fine, but I'd welcome just reprinting those works, updating as necessary to reflect recent events.

Bailey's prose is OK, but he sometimes makes regrettable choices in what to include in the main text of the book. Endless studies are summarized, and sometimes no detail seems too small to omit. ("In Cartagena, Columbia, privatization boosted the number of people receiving piped water by 27 percent.")

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The Conservative Heart

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This book's author, Arthur C. Brooks, was one of the speakers at the "New Hampshire Freedom Summit" I attended last year; I thought he gave the best speech of the day, better than the host of professional pols that also attended. So I was favorably inclined to check out his new book.

This book's breezy, informal, accessible style reminded me of something… but what? Oh, I know: self-help books. Back when I used to read self-help books, this is exactly what they sounded like.

(Nowadays, I figure I'm beyond help.)

But that impression is pretty much on target: Brooks has written a self-help book for conservatives, libertarians, and the GOP. Brooks' thesis: For too long, these groups been satisfied with being right. Shouldn't that be enough? Brooks says no, instead they (we) have the responsibility of packaging their (our) ideas in ways accessible and acceptable to those who can be persuaded by them.

Would it work? Maybe. Among Brooks' suggestions, the one I liked best is for conservatives (et al.) to "fight for people, not against things". I.e., don't be satisfied with an abstract, reactionary response to progressive/socialst proposals: show how your ideas and values act to make peoples' lives better.

Quibble: Much of Brooks' argument involves alleviating American poverty. He (convincingly) argues that the best methods to help the poor is to wean them off government dependence, involve them with private-sector work, provide their children with school choice, and remove the barriers to entrepreneurship they encounter.

He's right. But to what extent is this the politically winning strategy he says it is? I have my doubts. The economic issues in recent campaigns (to the extent I've paid attention to them) seem to be aimed squarely at middle-class pocketbook issues, not poverty issues. Remember the "Life of Julia", a 2012 Obama campaign web presentation, designed to show how an imaginary woman was "helped" throughout her life by various Federal programs (and how Mitt Romney would gut those programs)? Well, there was no pretense that Julia was mired in poverty.

Surveys also indicate—sorry, Arthur!—that people don't consider poverty per se to be a major issue. Check Gallup; the "poverty/hunger/homelessness" issue is nowhere near the top of the list of concerns.

All in all, however, The Conservative Heart is a fine book, written by an insightful and entertaining thinker.

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