Nowhere to Run

[Amazon Link]

Let's see now … this is the fifth C. J. Box book I've read this year. Adding in ones read in previous years, that makes thirteen. Eventually, I'll catch up.

Mr. Box continues to put his series hero, Joe Pickett, through the physical and emotional wringer. He's winding up his game warden stint in Baggs, Wyoming, looking to return to his family in his beloved Saddlestring. But first he needs to track down allegations of mysterious shenanigans in the Sierra Madre mountains: hunters harrassed, game stolen, petty vandalism. He quickly runs into two dangerous brothers with unconventional views on government. As in: they don't think it should apply to them. I sympathize. But things take a violent turn and Joe barely escapes with his life.

Things get more complex when Joe returns to civilization. (That's kind of a spoiler, but come on, you knew they weren't going to kill off Joe.) After a search, the local law enforcement can't find any evidence to support Joe's story. Did he just make it up? Do the brothers have anything to do with the recent disappearance of an Olympic athlete in the same area? What's the story with the FBI's interest in Joe's tale? And what's with the skinny dude who claims to be with the Wyoming Department of Criminal Investigation, who has a lot of questions? Who proceeds to vanish, and the DCI claims doesn't work for them?

Everybody wants Joe to just wash his hands of the mess and return to Saddlestring. You know that's not going to happen, though.


The Three-Body Problem

[Amazon Link]

I heard nice things about The Three-Body Problem recently. Specifically, I participated in a blog comment thread discussing the novel Decoded by the Chinese writer Mai Jia, which I'd read a couple years back. Somebody else in the thread mentioned this book as a better example of recent Chinese literature, and it did win the 2015 Hugo award for Best Novel. And (best of all) I still have borrowing privileges at Dimond Library of the University Near Here, it was available there, so…

It's a mind-blowing tale of interstellar chicanery, but first there's a horrifying tale of how China essentially went insane during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s. This was also a plot point in Decoded—apparently it's allowed for current Chinese writers to honestly examine that period. (Don't get your hopes up; the censorship in China is still pretty bad. Tianmen Square? Fahgettaboudit.)

The Cultural Revolution smashes apart the family of Ye Wenjie. Her physicist father is killed when he refuses to renounce relativity, quantum mechanics, and the big bang theory. One of his denouncers is his wife, Ye Wenjie's mother. Ye Wenjie is an astrophysicist by training, but, politically suspect, she's banished to Mongolia to harvest timber. She gets into even more trouble there, involving a copy of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring.

Eventually, however, she's rescued, recruited into working on the mysterious "Radar Peak" military installation. Which turns out to be a Chinese effort to communicate with extraterrestrial civilizations.

Jumping ahead to the (roughly) present day, Wang Miao is a researcher working on nanotech. He gets unexpectedly recruited by a police investigation into a wave of suicides among physicists. He is led into playing the immersive virtual-reality game "Three Body", the origin of which is mysterious. The game itself is set in a nightmarish world continually thrown into chaos by its unpredictable orbital path around its three suns. In related news, it seems that the very underpinnings of physics are being ripped asunder. (I hate it when that happens.)

The book is not without humor. One of the other "Three Body" players is described: "The strangely dressed woman was a famous writer, one of those rare novelists who wrote in an avant-garde style but still had many readers. Your could start one of her books on any page."

I laughed out loud at that one.

Bad news: The Three-Body Problem is part one of a trilogy, and it ends in kind of a cliffhanger.


Last Modified 2016-08-22 8:57 AM EDT

The Cobweb

[Amazon Link]

Back in the mid-1990s, writer Neal Stephenson teamed up with his uncle, George Jewsbury, to write a couple of books. (The pseudonym they used at the time was "Stephen Bury". Recent editions de-pseudonymize Mr. Stephenson, while inventing a new pseudonym, J. Frederick George, for Mr. Jewsbury. I don't know why.) I read the first book, Interface, back in 2012. I liked it fine, but I enjoyed The Cobweb even more. Ostensibly a thriller, with heavy comic overtones. Think Carl Hiaasen, without Hiaasen's mean-spiritedness.

It is mostly set in the leadup to the 1990/91 Gulf War; the primary action is centered around the fictional twin cities of Nishnabotna and Wapsipinicon, Iowa, home to Eastern Iowa University. (Stephenson lived in Ames, Iowa during some of his Formative Years.) A secondary location is the Washington, D. C. environs; there are also side trips to Kennebunkport and … well, I'd tell you, but it would be a spoiler.

The joint protagonists are Clyde Banks and Betsy Vandeventer. Clyde is a salt-of-the-earth Iowa county policeman, who's married to his formidable childhood sweetheart, Desiree, and who's looking to displace the current sheriff in the upcoming election. Betsy's in the CIA, where her hard work and honesty has begun to attract the attention of her superiors. Which is not an unmitigated blessing, because of the honesty bit.

Coincidentally, Betsy's brother, Kevin, is at Eastern Iowa U, struggling to get his Ph.D. in the massive (but corrupt) agricultural research organization run by Dr. Arthur Larsen. When offered a lucrative opportunity to jump up in the hierarchy—all he has to do is cut some major ethical corners, not ask any inconvenient questions, and not look too closely at some of the Middle Eastern students coming in, or what they're up to—he grabs it. To his eventual regret.

Now if you check out the book cover over there (you may have to disable your ad blocker, which you should, it's just an Amazon ad, nothing obnoxious or clickbaity), you'll see biohazard symbols and a gas mask. And if you remember the Gulf War, you'll recall the concern that Saddam Hussein might be willing to deploy bio-WMDs to avoid a certain loss. Could the mysterious doings in Wapsipinicon have anything to do with that? Hint: yes, but let's not go into details.

There are plot twists and turns, as Clyde and Betsy battle their respective bureaucracies and struggle to uncover the truth. There's a pulse-pounding climax.

A wonderful book, readers, highly recommended if you're into this sort of thing at all.

Without getting too mushy or overanalytical, what I've noticed in Stephenson's work over the years is: his books, through the actions of his characters, seem to champion the same values I hold dear. You'd think that would be more common than it is. It's not. So when it happens, it's worth pointing out.


Why Do Bluebirds Hate Me?

More Answers to Common and Not-So-Common Questions about Birds and Birding

[Amazon Link]

I was given this book as a retirement present by one of my wonderful (but now ex-) co-workers at the University Near Here. She's a knowledgable birder, while I … well, I have a bird feeder. It's about the only remotely interesting thing I do. Our conversation naturally hit on avian topics now and then, mostly her answering my "what the heck was that bird" questions. So this book was appropriate.

The author, Mike O'Connor, runs the Bird Watcher's General Store on Cape Cod This book is a compilation of his columns from The Cape Codder newspaper called "Ask the Bird Folks".

Mike is pretty funny—imagine if Dave Barry ran a bird-watching supply store. And I learned a lot. For example: if you've ever snuck up on Mourning Doves, you'll know they emit a high-pitched whistle when they take off. It turns out that's not their speaking voice—all they can do with that is coo. Instead, the whistle is emitted from their wing feathers when they are in bugout mode. Which is, apparently, different from the sound of a normal takeoff, so it's used as a danger signal.

Now I do have one minor gripe: Diane from Brewster, MA wrote in about a dead Blue Jay in her yard underneath a power line, wondering if the poor thing could have been electrocuted. As it happens, I've noticed that in my own yard. Every so often dead Blue Jays will appear directly underneath the power pole that feeds Pun Salad Manor. (I know: yeesh.) So I was eager to read Mike's response. Funny, but the bottom line is "I doubt your power lines had anything to do with it." Given Diane's and my common experience, I'm thinking that's wrong.

Also, Dave Barry would have pointed out that "Electrocuted Blue Jays" would be a pretty good name for a rock band.


Creole Belle

[Amazon Link]

The (so far) penultimate work in James Lee Burke's series of novels with hero Dave Robicheaux. As I type, Mr. Burke is 79 years of age, and who knows how many more of these he's got in him? Whatever: as long as he keeps 'em coming, I'll be reading them.

In the last book, The Glass Rainbow, we almost lost Dave, as he took an unexpected bullet in his back. But as this one opens, he's recovering from his wound, with a morphine drip. Which is dangerous enough on its own, but it's also giving him a tenuous grip on reality. Creole singer Tee Jolie Melton comes to visit, and tells him a story of she and her sister being held captive by folks who had something to do with the oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. And she gives him an iPod, with some of her songs but—funny thing, this—only Dave can hear the songs she's put on it. Was Tee Jolie really there at all?

Well, Dave has had dealings with the supernatural before, so this is no real big deal. His home, southern Louisiana, is infested with the ghosts and spirits of those who have come to bad ends, many at the hands of evildoers, some at the hands of Dave and his buddy, Clete Purcel.

We are soon in the thick of it: some minor hoodlums try to scam Clete out of his office/apartment using a bogus bourré marker from years back. That doesn't work out for them: surprisingly quickly, they wind up dead. Whodunit? Suspicion falls on a new character who has a never-before-thought-possible relation with Clete.

As always, Mr. Burke's prose is painfully beautiful, his plots very confusing (but with a political-left context, which I just have to live with). His characters are invariably damaged (physically and psychically) beyond any point a human should bear. There is a slam-bang finish, the outcome in doubt until the very end.


Last Modified 2016-08-15 6:34 AM EDT

Bourgeois Equality

How Ideas, Not Capital or Institutions, Enriched the World

[Amazon Link]

This is the concluding volume of Deirdre McCloskey's trilogy on the near-miraculous enrichment of the world in the last few hundred years. My takes on the first volume, The Bourgeois Virtues, is here; on the second, Bourgeois Dignity, here.

To recap somewhat: the enrichment is something that needs explaining. Humankind muddled around for millennia, stuck in a rut of poverty and oppression, the majority of lives cut short by violence, disease, or some other symptom of deprivation. But starting around the 16th century or so, a hockey-stick increase began in northwest Europe and Great Britain, giving rise to the once-unthinkable widespread prosperity we live in today. Why there, and not somewhere else? And why then, instead of before, after, or never?

McCloskey's plausible and compelling argument … well, it's right up there in the subtitle, isn't it? It was a revolution of ideas, primarily ones that gave respect and legal protection to what McCloskey terms "trade-tested betterment". (That's kind of a clunky phrase, but it's less likely to be misinterpreted than the venerable terms "capitalism" and "entrepreneurship".) McCloskey presents her evidence in streams both wide and deep: how the political and religious climate changed; how the bourgeoisie were depicted in literature, painting, opera, plays, and so on. Alternative explanations for the great enrichment are considered and debunked.

Opposed to the bourgeoisie, since around the mid-19th century, are what McCloskey dubs the "clerisy". Think Sinclair Lewis, and his contempt of George F. Babbitt, multiplied in time and space. (Or think Nancy Pelosi, who rhapsodized that Obamacare would allow people to shuck their stupid day jobs and become "a photographer or a writer or a musician, whatever".)

This could be as boring as mud, but McCloskey's prose is witty and playful, with plenty of fun references (Mae West quoted on page 113; a Monty Python reference on page 628; and many more).

My standard disclaimer: this is a scholarly work, on a matter of ongoing academic controversy. I think McCloskey makes a pretty good case for her side, but (admittedly) I'm only seeing the one side. That said, there are (to my mind) irrefutable insights on just about every page here; even if you don't buy the whole enchilada, you'll come out smarter than you went in.


The Gentlemen's Hour

[Amazon Link]

I read Don Winslow's Savages, a tale of the California drug trade, back in 2012; I didn't care for it all that much, and went back to read his older stuff, the "Neal Carey" series, after that. But now I'm all caught up with Carey, so returning to more recent stuff…

Whew! The Gentlmen's Hour shows Winslow is as strong as ever. He returns here to the characters of The Dawn Patrol, (which I liked a lot) a diverse group held together mainly by their love of surfing off Pacific Beach, a neighborhood of San Diego. The main character is Boone Daniels, an ex-cop private investigator. On the strength of the events in the previous book, Boone is hired by the defense team of one Corey Blasingame, who's been charged with the murder of a beloved local surfing icon. This is against Boone's better judgment: the kid has confessed, the kid is also a total slimeball, witnesses back up the prosecution's case. And worst of all: one of the detectives that investigated the death is Boone's Dawn Patrol comrade, Johnny Banzai (aka John Kodani); any exculpatory evidence Boone digs up would reflect poorly on his friend.

And as a seemingly unrelated matter: the group of older surfers that show up after the Dawn Patrol includes Dan Nichols, a rich entrepreneur. He hires Boone (again, against Boone's better judgment) to check if his wife has been sleeping around. A more conventional, and also sleazier, thing for a PI to do.

Boone starts unravelling the twisted threads of the nasty plot. Of course putting his life, friendships, and career at risk. As in the previous book, colorful characters abound, the San Diego area is described with a combination of world-weary cynicism and deep infatuation, and it really keep you turning the page. (On my new Kindle: tapping the screen.)

Advice: keep track of the various flavors of bad guys, because things will get confusing otherwise at the big climax.


Below Zero

[Amazon Link]

Another entry in C. J. Box's Joe Pickett series, a fine job as usual.

In between special missions for Wyoming's eccentric governor, Joe is relegated to his normal game warden duties, specifically chasing down a poaching archer who isn't very particular about what kind of animals he shoots. For example, Joe's dog, Tube. (Tube survived, but sheesh, what kind of asshole shoots a dog for fun?)

In the meantime, back in the Black Hills of South Dakota, a man and his son are apparently on a semi-random killing spree, targeting those with large carbon footprints. They're accompanied by a 14-year-old girl who's shocked by the killings, and she reaches out to the Pickett family via burner phone for help. Why? Well, she claims to be someone from the Picketts' past, someone we thought was carelessly blown up in a previous book. Whoa, didn't see that coming.

Joe goes in pursuit of the murderous pair, hoping to rescue the girl. Along for the ride is his daughter Sheridan; Joe's dangerous buddy and Federal fugitive Nate Romanowski; and the weaselly FBI Agent Portman. Lots of action and plot twists.


Dirty Money

[Amazon Link]

Amazon reminds me how long it can take for books to percolate up to the top of the to-be-read pile: "You purchased this item on November 1, 2010."

And it gets worse: Dirty Money (© 2008) is the continuation of a tale beginning two books previous: Nobody Runs Forever (© 2004, I read it in 2005) and Ask the Parrot (© 2006, I read it in 2010). It's hard to appreciate plot continuity over a span that long.

Nevertheless…

Stark's perennial antihero, FNU Parker has (finally) made a semi-clean getaway from the armored car heist in the first book. And he's got some clean cash from the racetrack heist in the second book. But the $2.2 million from the armored car, stashed in an abandoned Massachusetts church, poses a problem, as does one of his former partners, a cop-killer on the lam. Also: a female bounty hunter with a deceased partner. Also: lotsa cops, a pleasantly ditzy innkeeper, a third-rate true-crime writer, a colorful money launderer, …

Through it all, Parker is slightly more honorable than his fellow criminals, unflappable in the face of betrayal, close calls with the law, and botched plans. And very, very violent.

This looks like the last Parker novel, as "Richard Stark" (aka Donald Westlake) passed away shortly after finishing it, and there are apparently no plans to pick up the series under a different writer.


The Affair

[Amazon Link]

It has been too long since I read my last Lee Child/Jack Reacher novel. As with a number of authors, I'm playing catchup with Mr. Child. As usual, I'm in awe of his skill in rendering a page-turner. (Well, I read it with the iOS Kindle app, so: screen-swiper.)

This is an origin tale of sorts, the sort of thing they do with superheroes. It's set in 1997, just before the events of Reacher #1, Killing Floor. Reacher is still in the Army, still (sort of) an MP, and he's sent undercover by his superiors to the small Mississippi town of Carter's Crossing, where the grisly murder of a beautiful young woman may be connected to the nearby Army base, inhabited by a secret team of Rangers flying in and out of Kosovo. (Why the secrecy? One of the Rangers is the son of a powerful US Senator.)

As always: Reacher has detective skills to rival Sherlock Holmes. He not only has to figure out the crime, he also has to deduce the motives of the various members of the military bureaucracy that sent him there. There's also a beautiful but mysterious lady cop who seems way out of place in Carter's Crossing. Eventually, rough justice is delivered. But as we know, it's life-changing for Reacher.