Your House Will Pay

[Amazon Link]

This book, obtained from the Portsmouth Public Library, was on Tom Nolan's WSJ list of the Best Mystery Books of 2019. Two down, eight to go.

But this isn't really much of a mystery (he whined).

Back in 1991, the Matthews are an African-American family living in LA, mostly happy, save for their occasional dipping into violence and crime. It's OK, though, justified by the cancellation of a showing of New Jack City in "white people territory", Westwood. But soon enough their world will be shattered by an altercation where the family's teenage daughter is shot and killed by a Korean lady shopkeeper. The verdict: involuntary manslaughter, no time served.

Jump forward to roughly present day, where the Korean lady, who's changed her name to Park and moved out of LA, gets shot herself, in a drive-by. This devastates her daughters, Grace and Miriam. Grace in particular, because she was previously unaware of what Mom did back in 1991.

The rest of the book alternates between the Matthews and the Parks. It's pretty clear that the present-day crime is connected to the distant past, but whodunit? Well, eventually we find out.

Writing is good, and (I assume) an honest, earnest, look at the tension in SoCal between Koreans and African-Americans.

Let It Burn

[Amazon Link]

Another book down in my Steve Hamilton catch-up project. This one's from 2013, and it's in his "Alex McKnight" series. Recent entries have strained credulity, as Alex has long wished to stop getting involved in the sorts of scrapes in which crime fiction deals; yet he keeps getting dragged back in to intrigue and danger.

Guess what? I found this one more believable!

Back in the day, Alex was a Detroit cop, and found himself involved in a gruesome murder. Thanks in part to his good cop skills, they nabbed a suspect, got a confession, and the city went on its slow pathway to hell, while Alex eventually retired to Michigan's scenic Upper Peninsula. But he gets a phone call from his old Sergeant (also now retired): the guy's getting out of jail.

This causes Alex to relate how the case went down back then, and (of course) there's a niggling little detail: they might have accused and convicted the wrong guy.

Kept me guessing (incorrectly) until the end. And a great page-turner.

Vicious Circle

[Amazon Link]

Continuing my project of catching up with my C. J. Box reading. This one's from 2017, so only three years behind!

Consumer note one: you can save a lot of money by waiting to buy. C. J. sells a lot of books, but they eventually wind up on the Barnes and Noble remainder table.

Consumer note two: this (#17 in the Joe Pickett series) should probably not be the first C. J. Box book you read. It depends heavily on events described in Endangered (#15 in the series).

Specifically, the surviving members of the Cates family are out for revenge here. The sociopathic Dallas has been released from the slammer after less than two years; he had a knack for avoiding evil deeds that could easily be proved.

And it seems he's got things working the same way here: having picked up some homicidal friends in the pen, they work to bedevil Joe Pickett and his family. Every decent person wants to see Dallas back behind bars. And one law enforcement official, not Joe, seems to want that a little too much. Which comes back to bite everyone in the ass.

Something Deeply Hidden

Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime

[Amazon Link]

When Virginia Postrel asked her Facebook followers for science writer recommendations, I immediately suggested Sean Carroll, Caltech research professor in physics. And that was when I was only part way through the second book I've ever read from him. He's a very good writer at the dilettante level (which is where I am these days, even though I was a physics major), writing with insight and wit.

Richard Feynman, in his day, famously said that he was confident that nobody really understood quantum mechanics. It's just weird. And it hasn't gotten any less weird since then. Part of the problem is that a key feature in QM's standard "Copenhagen" interpretation is kind of loosey-goosey: the act of observing a quantum state causes its Schrödinger wave function to "collapse" to some definite value. But unless that state is (somehow) measured, asking what it "really" is is nonsensical: it's in a superposition of its possible states. This gives rise to the good old half-dead Schrödinger cat, the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen "paradox", and other oddities. And there's a lot of handwaving about the nature of wave function collapse; when does it "really" happen, how long does it take, etc.

That doesn't sit well with some scientists, even though decades of experiments don't contradict it, and much modern technology relies on it being correct down to many decimal places. There have been alternate explanations offered. One of the most thought-provoking was offered by Hugh Everett back in the 1950s: quantum events spawn, literally, multiple universes, one for each possible outcome. That's the version of QM Carroll prefers and he explicates it well.

So, for example, Schrödinger's cat isn't half-dead. He's alive in one universe, dead in another. (Carroll, being a more humane physicist, dinks the experiment so the cat is asleep/awake instead of dead/alive.)

The book made me aware of the Universe Splitter©, an iPhone app you can get for a mere $1.99. Need to make a binary decision? Well, just fire up the app and…

Universe Splitter© will immediately contact a laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, and connect to a Quantis brand quantum device, which releases single photons into a partially-silvered mirror. Each photon will simultaneously bounce off the mirror and pass through it — but in separate universes.*

Good news: if you use the app to make all your decisions (and you can always break down complex decisions into binary ones), then there will be a universe out there where you've made all the right decisions!

And, unfortunately, there will also be a universe where you've made all the wrong ones.

Anyway, I've babbled enough. The book is a lot of fun, and Carroll goes into other areas as well, like (see subtitle) where time and space "come from". He argues that they may not be fundamental, but emergent properties of "something deeply hidden". Fine. His argument is (unfortunately) at the layman level, so there's a lot of handwaving over what in actuality is some pretty, very serious math. Still, the book is full of "did I just blow your mind?" arguments and descriptions.


Last Modified 2020-01-11 7:00 AM EST

The Darwin Affair

[Amazon Link]

The WSJ's Tom Nolan did a Best Mystery Books of 2019 compilation in mid-December, and I pushed the books therein onto my get-at-library list. This is the first, so far so good.

It's set in 1860s London, and the hero is Charles Field, an Inspector on the local police force. Field was an actual person, and Charles Dickens based the character of Inspector Bucket in Bleak House on him. In this book's universe, this causes a certain amount of consternation for Field, as everyone refers to him as "Mr. Bucket".

Things are set in motion by an apparent assassination attempt on Queen Victoria. Or was it aimed at Prince Albert instead? Participants wind up dead, making investigation inconvenient. And their left ears have been sliced off! Ew!

As it quickly develops, the attempt was part of a massive conspiracy set to deny Charles Darwin the knighthood he so richly deserved. At the top level are fictionalized actual people: Samuel Wilberforce, Sir Richard Owen, and Robert Fitzroy, who captained the Beagle decades earlier. But they've chosen a psycho, Decimus Cobb, to carry out the plot—he's the ear-slicing one. The psycho is nevertheless brilliant and talented, and he assembles a gang to assist his evil deeds, over which he rules by terror and intimidation.

Field gets onto him soon enough, but Cobb always seems to stay a couple steps ahead. Amusingly, Field is one of those loose-cannon, plays-by-his-own-rules detectives, always running afoul of his superiors. And a brief interaction with Karl Marx, he mouths off enough to the boss to lose his job. (For a while.)

It's great fun. My comments while reading enticed Mrs. Salad, so we renewed the book so she can read it.

The Guilty Dead

[Amazon Link]

I started this series on a recommendation from my sister, and it's been OK. She mainly liked the Minnesota-based locale. But this one … eh. Not so much Minnesota (could have been in Anytown, Anystate), and it is a slog at 336 pages (according to the Amazon). It maybe should have been half that.

The dedicated detectives of the Minneapolis PD are out to solve a couple murders, one of a rich guy, the other of a paparazzi sent to cover him. The prime suspect is a ne'er-do-well drug dealer. Who we've seen, in a prologue, intentionally overdose the rich guy's wastrel son. The motives behind all this are hidden in the remote past, it turns out.

But wait, there's more: the FBI has gotten wind of a terrorist plot against an unknown Minneapolis target. One of the desperate agents asks a favor from the Monkeewrench group to hack into the underground to find out what they can. It turns out there are disturbing connections!

Gripe: 48% of the way through, the detectives are in a slovenly trailer, where they observe

… curling posters of biker babes suggestively straddling Harleys in bikinis …

How do you put a bikini on a Harley, anyhow?

Oh yeah, there's a pregnancy subplot, and of course the baby comes at the most inconvenient time.

Romance of the Rails

Why the Passenger Trains We Love Are Not the Transportation We Need

[Amazon Link]

Randal O'Toole loves railroads, but he's not blindly in love. As the subtitle implies, there's very little case to be made for thinking that passenger rail is a good solution at any level: intra-city, commuter, cable car, light-rail, whatever: it almost never makes a lot of economic sense.

The first part of the book is an interesting history of American "mass" transportation, how it evolved to its state today. Then it looks at the current sad state of affairs: rail service propped up by hefty taxpayer subsidies; proposals that overpromise ridership, underestimate costs (and often get greenlighted anyway); deferred maintenance; aging infrastructure. Even the hyped "Northeast Corridor" (Boston-Washington) doesn't survive O'Toole's analysis.

Note that our fair state is about to get into this boondoggle: N.H. Capitol Rail Project Advances to Next Stage. Aieee! Somebody buy copies of this book to spread around Concord!

Lessons From Lucy

The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog

[Amazon Link]

Dave Barry has a dog. A nice girl named Lucy. I have a dog, a (pretty) good boy named Barney. Dave thinks he's learned a lot about how to live a better life from Lucy, and he compiled that learning into seven lessons, each with its own chapter. Spoiler alert, here they are:

  1. Make new friends. (And keep the ones you have.)
  2. Don't stop having fun. (And if you have stopped, start having fun again.)
  3. Pay attention to the people you love. (Not later. Right now.)
  4. Let go of your anger, unless it's about something really important, which it almost never is.
  5. Try not to judge people by their looks, and don't obsess over your own.
  6. Don't let your happiness depend on things; they don't make you truly happy, and you'll never have enough anyway.
  7. Don't lie unless you have a really good reason, which you probably don't.

Good things: Dave is best when he's being funny and observant of both his dog and his own life. There are a number of good yarns: about his awful band, the Rock Bottom Remainders; his work with the World Famous Lawn Rangers, a group whose members parade with a broom in one hand, pushing a lawn mower with the other; the reason he woke up in hung over in a hotel room with "NO SPLEEN" sharpied on his arm. And dog stories, of course.

But I have quibbles: the "lessons" are pretty much the ones you can derive dog-free, and dogs are optimized for dogginess anyway, not humanness. And, truth be told, when Dave is not being funny, he can be … a little preachy.

In fact, while reading, I was thinking: "Dave's a little preachy." When on page 184 I see Dave admitting that he's "maybe even a little preachy in places".

OK, all is forgiven, Dave.

And it turns out there's one last lesson. And this one is moving and pretty agonizing. I read Dave's blog, and he was absent for awhile. Ah, this explains why. Small spoiler: things turn out OK.

The End Is Always Near

Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses

[Amazon Link]

I was inspired to request that the Portsmouth Public Library buy this book by a recent Reason podcast with the author, Dan Carlin. The library gave it a thumbs-up, ordered it, held it for me, and here it is. Anticlimax: I didn't find the book as entertaining as the podcast.

I was expecting something different, probably. There are no end of doomsayers predicting how some new invention, product, lifestyle, philosophy, etc. is gonna destroy civilization as we know it. Yet here we are. The doomsayers are always wrong, QED.

Except, as Dan Carlin points out, they've always been right. At least about those great, century-spanning civilizations that aren't around anymore. You don't see the Assyrian Empire making trouble, do you? Greeks? Romans? Please. And then there's the mysterious Bronze Age collapse.

Within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again.

And nobody really knows why. Carlin offers theories, aka guesses.

So are we really all that different? Maybe. History doesn't always repeat itself ("but it rhymes"). Still, it says the betting odds should be against us.

Carlin looks at other stuff too. The nature of pandemics. The development of nuclear weapons, how we've flirted with using them. The ethics of civilian war casualties. (Killing noncombatants has gone in and out of style, and the method matters. Bombing folks from the air is seen as regrettable; but sending in ground troops to slaughter an equal number would be seen as an atrocity.)

Carlin has a very popular podcast, Hardcore History®. I think this book shows the difficulty in translating your talent in one field to another; Carlin's prose doesn't grab, and the book's diversity of topics seemed more like a lack of focus.

The Birth of Loud

Leo Fender, Les Paul, and the Guitar-Pioneering Rivalry That Shaped Rock 'n' Roll

[Amazon Link]

First a "Geez, I'm really living in the future" note: I got a little Amazon Echo Dot a while back (thanks to an insanely great Amazon offer). And while I'm reading this book rhapsodize about the revolutionary song "Lover" by Les Paul, I gave this a try:

"Alexa, play 'Lover' by Les Paul."

And darned if she didn't do it. This little trick didn't always work, but it worked often enough to enhance the reading experience.

Anyway: this is a history of the electric guitar, specifically it's development through the efforts of (mostly) two people: Leo Fender and Les Paul. The two were initially friends, turned into estranged (but apparently not bitter) rivals. It's also a mini-history of popular music, with a lot of good (sometimes lurid) stories.

I had not previously realized at what a huge deal Les Paul and Mary Ford were. Before (even) my time.

The book seems tailor-made for a Reason review (and, yup, here it is), because it's very much the story of innovation, competition, creating a market where none existed, changing the course of cultural history.