Dune Messiah

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To be sung to the tune of "This Old Man":

Kwisatz Haderach
Give a worm a bone
Paul Muad'dib is going home

So anyway: two down on my Dune reading project. (Frank Herbert novels only.)

This installment is pretty grim. Paul defeated the evil Harkonnens in the first book, but now it's twelve years later. He's become the emperor of the known galaxy, but this has only caused him grief. Jihadists operating under his name have killed about sixty billion folks; he is not consoled by the (apparent) fact that his visions say that this is probably the best outcome that could have been expected.

Worse, he's opposed by a coalition of enemies: the spice-addicted Spacing Guild, the shape-shifting Tleilaxu, the Bene Gesserit (represented by the crone Gaius Helen Mohiam, who caused Paul a lot of grief in the first book), and Princess Irulan, Paul's loveless wife. The key is a ghola of the dead mentat Duncan Idaho, reanimated and reprogrammed for an evil purpose.

Paul's allies are only semi-reliable: consort Chani (who'd like to bear his child, but is being fed contraceptives secretly by Irulan) and sister Alia (who's even wackier than Paul).

So there's a lot going on, and (if anything) Herbert's portentious, gassy prose from the first book is even more pronounced here. Still, it's short.

The Night Fire

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While I was reading this, I had a meta-thought run through my head: There's nobody better than Michael Connelly at getting me to turn book pages. (C. J. Box comes pretty close, maybe a tie.)

I'm still a skinflint, though: I bought my hardcover copy for $7.63, a very well-treated book originally purchased by the library in Bellevue, Nebraska. (Which is, not that it matters, under 13 crow-flies miles from the house where I used to live.) Congratulations, Bellevue Library patrons for your gentle book manners!

Anyway, there's a lot going on here. It is a collaboration between old retired police detective Harry Bosch and young active LAPD detective Renée Ballard. Case 1 develops when Harry's old mentor on the force passes away; at the post-funeral gathering, the widow bequeaths Harry with a stolen "murder book" her husband has (illegally) squirreled away in his study for years. Leaving Harry with two puzzles: who killed the drug-addicted ex-con young man in a Hollywood alleyway thirty years ago, and why did Harry's mentor abscond with the murder book?

Meanwhile, Renée is looking at the burned corpse of a homeless man, who has perished when a kerosene heater was knocked over and set fire to his tent and sleeping bag. Accident? Or … well, come on. It's only a matter of time until Renée figures out that it's foul play.

But wait, there's more. Harry's also called in by his half-brother, Mickey Haller. Who is defending a seemingly hopeless case: the schizophrenic defendant confessed to knifing a judge in a public park, and his DNA was found on the judges post-mortem fingernails. Mickey's just interested in getting his client off the hook, but Harry's wondering: if not the schizo, whodunnit?

It all winds up pretty neatly, with a few plot threads available for the next installment. Note to evildoers: if Bosch and Ballard get on your case, just confess. It will save everyone a lot of hassle (unfortunately it wouldn't make a great book).

The Last Policeman

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I can't quite remember what caused me to put Ben H. Winters' "Last Policeman" trilogy into my things-to-read system, but I'm glad I did. This first book in the series was really, surprisingly, good.

Better still: it's set in New Hampshire, mostly Concord.

The narrator is Henry Palace, a newly-minted detective with the Concord Police. The book opens on a grim scene, an apparent suicide in a McDonalds restroom. The victim is a drab actuary with a local insurance office. But he's a little bruised up, and Palace is suspicious.

Although every other cop on the force is dismissive. Suicides are common. As is drug abuse, vandalism, economic disruption, … all the stuff that signals large-scale societal fracturing. Because overshadowing all this is the imminent arrival of the massive asteroid Maia, on a certain collision course with Earth in a few months.

Palace is driven and diligent, and he's up against seemingly insurmountable barriers. Everybody's lying to him, for one thing. His superiors want him to move on to more pressing matters, for another. And there's also the whole imminent end of the world as we know it. That blows up your societal norms real good.

Only one glitch, near the end, when Palace visits New Castle, on the seacoast. I don't get there often, but it seems the description is totally wrong; visitors in the non-fictional world will not find the described quarter-mile boardwalk, souvenir shops, beach dunes, …

The good (and very well-off) citizens of New Castle would freak at a large influx of hoi polloi tourists those things tend to attract.

Palace also reports that he rides his bike back to Concord after visiting New Castle, taking "highway 90", riding "down the middle of I-90 ... right along the double yellow lines".

Ben, I-90 goes through Massachusetts. And it doesn't have double yellow lines, it's a normal divided Interstate. Probably Palace is taking US-4.

This mild divergence from reality didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book. The remaining two volumes are in the TTR system.

The Beginning of Infinity

Explanations That Transform the World

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Executive summary: a big, deep, dense book that I almost certainly didn't spend enough time on to appreciate fully. My excuse: I got it from the Portsmouth Public Library, and only allowed myself two weeks to read it. In an ideal world, I'd probably have to spend much more time working through it. This report will be unfocused and choppy, apologies in advance.

It's by David Deutsch, a well-known physicist, and I kind of expected the book would be about (y'know) physics. Well, there is a lot of physics, but there's even more philosophy and speculation. And additional topics, like AI, government, and the nature of beauty. He never says "Did I just blow your mind, reader?" But he could have.

Among the things I did not expect: a long chapter with a scripted discussion about knowledge between Socrates, the Greek god Hermes, with a late appearance by the flawed scribe Plato.

Back in my University days, I studied (superficially) the philosophy of science: Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend, et. al. I really wish I'd had this book then.

Deutsch is a fan of the Enlightenment (properly understood). In that, he's the physics-side version of Deirdre McCloskey, observing that the new Enlightened attitude toward science (specifically) and knowledge and creativity (generally) has opened up an unbounded possible future for humanity. (Worried that we'll run out of calcium, or something? Pshaw! We'll figure out how to transmute the vast quantities of intergalactic hydrogen eventually into whatever we want.)

He's a fan of the quantum multiverse, and his explication is (as near as I can tell) unique. He's scornful of the "shut up and calculate" Copenhagen-interpretation folks. (Although, admittedly, they get the right answers.)

He's also highly critical of neo-Malthusians and their concepts of "sustainability" (e.g., Jared Diamond). In my case, he's pushing on an unlocked door.

But he's not always pushing on an unlocked door. I have (in the past) expressed worries about the finite intellectual powers of humans setting an impenetrable ceiling on knowledge and progress. Deutsch is the only author I've seen who deals with this straightforwardly, and he debunks my notion pretty convincingly. I will re-evaluate my position! And not be so glib about it in the future.

The Cuckoo's Calling

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So everybody knows that "Robert Galbraith" is the pseudonym of J. K. Harry Potter Rowling. That was revealed, like, a decade ago, and it's even admitted on the back flyleaf of this book.

That being said, I'm totally amazed at how easily J. K. moved from the "magical fantasy wizard kids" genre into the "semi-hard boiled private eye" genre. I wouldn't have expected that skill to translate well.

The private eye is "Cormoran Strike", kind of a silly name. He's back in London from Afghanistan, minus one lower leg. He's just been dumped by his beautiful girlfriend Charlotte; as Charlotte storms out, she encounters Robin, a young woman coming to fill in temporarily as Strike's secretary. He's also been hired by John Bristow to investigate the death of his adopted sister, wealthy/beautiful supermodel Lula Landry. Lula died by falling from the balcony of her luxury flat, but the question is (as usual) did she jump, or was she pushed?

The cops think she jumped, and they initially seem to have the evidence on their side. But Strike's in arrears, so he takes the case. This is one of those mysteries with plenty of characters, mostly hiding dark secrets, with troubled family/romantic relationships, all with complex histories going back decades. This includes Strike.

Cormoran is an excellent detective, however. Robin also is revealed to have buried talents, not just secretarial, but also improvisational investigative techniques.

Current volumes in the Strike series picture (I assume) the stars of the TV show based on the books. Consumer note: the guy playing Strike on the tube is kind of a hunk, while the book's version has him as not that attractive. (His nickname in school: "Pubehead".)

So, not bad. I'll be putting the Strike novels on the get-at-library list.

Methuselah's Children

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Yes, I actually own this Signet paperback, Second Printing, September 1962. (Although the cover price is 50¢ instead of the pictured 35¢.) Clicking on the image will take you to the Amazon page where (as I type) you can grab this edition for $33.30! Advertised in "Acceptable" condition. (I assume this means it's pretty beat up, but has all its pages, and is still technically legible. Like mine.)

So anyway: it's another book down on the "Reread Heinlein" project; only 19 to go! The Wikipedia page tells us that its origins are from a three-part serialization in Astounding in 1941. (And there are links that will take you to that version!) It was pasted up into its novel form in 1958.

The main character is Lazarus Long, member of the long-lived Howard Families. Who are the product of selective breeding for longevity. Most of their members are masqueraded from society at large, inventing new identities as needed to hide their eternal youth. But some are out of the closet, and "society at large" has become convinced that they are hiding their actual secret. And the clamps are about to come down! Extermination of the Howards seems likely.

But Lazarus and his comrades come up with an audacious scheme: to swipe a convenient starship, load the Howards into it, and take off for a likely G2 star. Assisting is a fellow Howard, Andrew Jackson Libby. Who's had an interesting idea for a near-lightspeed space drive…

That's about the first 60% of the book; the remainder describes the Howards' wanderings to a couple planets, both inhabited by (seemingly) friendly, intelligent species. But each has its drawbacks.

Not too shabby for an 80-year-old yarn.

The Sentinel

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So the big news here is that Lee Child (real name James Grant) has taken on a co-author for this book: Andrew Child (real name Andrew Grant, James' brother). And apparently the next book too, Better Off Dead, out in October, but available for pre-order at Amazon.

I'm sure the explanation is out there somewhere. I'm not that interested in finding out. The relevant question is: are there any noticeble changes to the tried-and-true formula?

Nothing major I could detect. Maybe Reacher is a little more verbal in his exchanges with friends and foes. Especially foes: Reacher is given to explaining to his opponents exactly why they should just give up instead of pushing Reacher into beating the snot of them. I'm not sure that would work well in a real-life situation. Why would a bad guy patiently wait for Reacher to finish his speech?

Anyway, Reacher (yet again) is just wandering around when he notices trouble a'brewing for an apparent innocent victim, Rusty Rutherford, who's being set up for a kidnapping by a team of four agents. They are, of course, no match for Reacher. After the rescue, Rusty seems clueless about why anyone would want to snatch him. He was, until recently, the IT guy for the local town government. Despite his best efforts, the town fell victim to a nasty ransomware hack. Rusty was fired and vilified. Still, kidnapping seems a little extreme.

Of course, Reacher suggests that Rusty simply leave town. That turns out to not be in the cards. So Reacher sticks around, investigating the hack, the kidnappers, and other mysterious goings on. And (as usual) there's a lot of violence, chicanery, and conspiracy. And (dude) even I picked up on the symbolism of the double-sided portrait at the end of the book. It's pretty heavy-handed.

Stillness Is the Key

[Amazon Link]

I heard good things! Specifically, a 2019 episode of Russ Roberts' Econtalk podcast with the author, Ryan Holiday. It took awhile for the book to become available at Portsmouth Public Library; apparently it's quite popular in that city. And deservedly so.

Apparently (reader alert) it's the third book in a trilogy, so if you're anal about such things, you'll want to read The Obstacle is the Way and Ego Is the Enemy first. But (frankly) you don't need to: the book stands completely well on its own.

I think an alternate title might be Secular Stoic Sermons. There are over thirty short chapters, each containing a little concentrated advice on how to live your life, heavily influenced by Stoic philosophy. But the sermonizing part… it put me in mind of sitting in the pew as a young 'un, listening to the pastor. But don't get me wrong: Holiday is a very good sermonizer. He relies heavily on anecdotes, with examples ancient and modern. There are good examples (Winston Churchill, Mr. Rogers, Marcus Aurelius) and bad (Johnny Cash, Michael Jordan, Dov Charney).

It's all good advice, as near as I can tell. (Get a decent night's sleep; get a hobby; take walks; be virtuous; be brave; …) Maybe a little too self-helpy in my case. I don't want to brag, but a lot of the book describes how to solve problems I don't have.

I do tend to procrastinate. I didn't see any advice on how to deal with that, Ryan.

The Second Sleep

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Back in the mists of ancient time, I read Fatherland by Robert Harris, an alternate history where Germany won World War II. That was his first novel, wildly successful, and he's been prolific since then. I can't quite remember how this book got on my things-to-read list, but…

The book opens with a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, travelling on horseback through the bleak and muddy English countryside, on his way to Addicott St. George, a small village with its share of dark secrets. He's gone to bury the town's priest, who's died mysteriously. The book is set (Chapter One, Sentence One) in the "Year of the Risen Lord 1468". Hm, what's with the "Year of the Risen Lord" stuff?

Well, never mind, because things certainly seem medieval. When Fairfax arrives in town, he meets a bizarre array of characters. The dead priest's corpse is much the worse for wear, pointing to an unpeaceful demise. And he seems to have a stash of heretical texts and objects! Before you know it, Father Fairfax is being sorely tempted by passions of the flesh and mind.

Suggestion: don't read reviews, since they tend to reveal too much. You don't want to know about the (heh) insanely great plot twist at the end of Chapter Three.

The Border

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Well, I wish I liked it better.

It's the concluding volume (apparently) in Don Winslow's series centering on American Drug Warrior Art Keller. I read the first book, The Power of the Dog, back in 2007; the second, The Cartel, in 2018. All books in the series are notable for unremitting violence, no-honor-among-thieves betrayal, corruption, and dozens of supporting characters with complex interrelationships that are very difficult to keep straight. (I managed many, but not all.)

The book opens with a 2018 prologue where Art is visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with wife Mari. An assassin opens up on him with (of course) an "assault rifle". What's Art done to inspire such hostility?

Quite a bit, actually. We flash back to 2012, where Keller is walking out of the Guatemalan jungle after having murdered his onetime friend, drug kingpin Adán Barrera. He's broken rules along the way, and if there's any lesson he's learned from the first two books, it's that America's War on Drugs is a colossal, deadly, failure.

So naturally he walks into a new role: head of the Drug Enforcement Administration. The rest of the book describes what happens then: more of the same, pretty much. Art hatches schemes that he thinks will take down the heroin trade. He succeeds in the book about as well as we have in reality. After the first two books, he should have known better.

Except there's a new political element. The book is set in a slightly-parallel universe where the winning presidential candidate in 2016 is a Trumplike character. I mean, exactly like Trump. Except his name is John Dennison. And Dennison's son-in-law (not named Jared Kushner) gets a failing real estate project, "Park Tower", propped up via heroin money. That's bad.

Winslow is a leftie, and not particularly sophisticated in his political hatreds. He goes on about the "Tea Party", but (in reality) it was essentially moribund in the book's timeframe. The "alt-right" comes in for slagging, so does Fox News, etc. The political angle of the book is cartoonish enough to wreck things. I kept expecting at least one of the corrupt pols to twirl his mustache…

Also spoiling things is a couple of melodramatic subplots, constructed from every cliché in the playbook: one telling the tale of a young girl, Jacqui, falling into heroin addiction; the other about a young Guatemalan refugee, Rico, escaping the violence in his country by hopping a train to El Norte. The former subplot features Jacqui's fellow junkie, Travis, ODing on that new hot thing, Fentanyl-laced heroin. As he croaks, Jacqui exclaims:

"Travis!!!!! Nooooooooo!!!!!!"

Yes, that's 11 exclamation points. And 9 o's in No. Sheesh.

Winslow does taut, cynical, violent thrillers very well. Adding in social commentary, politics, and sentiment doesn't work for me.