Don't Turn Around

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I really liked the previous Harry Dolan books I read (The Good Killer; Bad Things Happen; Very Bad Men; The Last Dead Girl; The Man in the Crooked Hat). I was kind of disappointed in this one. Not bad, but not up to his usual standards. I didn't find the main character very interesting or sympathetic. The wry humor Dolan injected into his previous books is missing here. Everyone's sort of flat and glum.

Worse, there's a not-all-is-what-it-seems teaser on page 14 that's not resolved until the end of the book, around page 362 or so. Kind of a cheap gimmick, Harry.

That said, the plot is twisty, and there are a couple pulse-pounding thrilling action scenes along the way where the protagonist faces off against someone who wants to do her harm.

Plot: As an 11-year-old out for a midnight stroll, Kate Summerlin stumbles across a female murder victim in the woods outside her house. Scrawled on the victim's bare stomach: "MERKURY". Worse, the murderer is still hanging around, and utters the three titular words to Kate, scaring the bejeezus out of her, and (I think) kind of giving her psychological problems that persist into her later life.

That later life is where most of the novel occurs: over the years, "MERKURY" has persisted in killing people without getting caught. Kate has become a true-crime writer, and (it turns out) has some pretty good detective skills. She gets involved with finding a missing girl and also investigating the murder of one of the actors in a horror film made by a student at the local college. There are a lot of characters introduced, with names like "Devin", and "Bryan", and "Todd".

I have to say (spoiler free) that the book takes a very dark view of humanity. Read it, you'll see what I mean.

The Conservative Futurist

How to Create the Sci-Fi World We Were Promised

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I'm kind of a sucker for this sort of book, I guess. In the past few years, I've devoured Soonish by Kelly and Zach Weinersmith; Where Is My Flying Car? by J. Storrs Hall; The Skeptics' Guide to the Future by Dr. Steven Novella; Innovation and Its Enemies by Calestous Juma.

James Pethokoukis's book (I'll just call him JP from here on out) is disappointed with (approximately) the last half-century. It seemed, back then, that America would lead the world in bringing about innovative technological process. We'd have nuclear fusion, longer lifespans, routine space travel, and better household robots than the Roomba. I know: we got the Internet, smartphones, SpaceX, CRISPR, AI, etc. But JP says: we could have done better, and we could have done it faster.

And, above all, we'd have those flying cars. As someone who's lived through every one of those fifty years, I agree: it's difficult not to be disappointed.

JP sidesteps the left/right political spectrum, instead going with "up wing" and "down wing" attitudes. Up-wingers are optimistic about progress, economic growth, innovation; down-wingers… not so much. He makes a convincing argument that there have been too many down-wing victories over the years, stifling progress through onerous regulation, protectionism, and overall pessimism.

So what's "conservative" about JP's futurism? Good news: he's an unabashed fan of free markets and individual liberty. Exceptions: he does grant government some room to encourage R&D spending on blue-sky research, infrastructure, and space stuff; also "smart" industrial policy to (for example) ensure that we're not totally reliant on Taiwan for chip manufacture. And he's a fan of immigration, especially high-skilled workers.

But, overall, we need a cultural shift toward optimism, confidence, openness, and growth. I'm not sure how we get there, even after reading JP..

Secrets Typed in Blood

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This is the third entry in Stephen Spotswood's "Pentecost and Parker" series. It's set in 1947 New York City, "Pentecost" being Lillian Pentecost, famous private detective, and "Parker", being Willowjean Parker, her intrepid assistant, handy with guns, knives, and wisecracks. Willowjean narrates, alternating between jaded cynicism and … um, less jaded cynicism.

If that reminds you of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin books, I think it's supposed to. Out of the four blurbs on the back cover, two mention this similarity. (Another similarity: Archie liked the ladies, and … so does Willowjean.)

The primary plot concerns Holly, who, under a pseudonym, writes of pulp detective stories published in Strange Crime magazine. She notices that three actual recent murders have been staged to follow the garish scenes in three of her fictional stories. What's going on with that? Holly has an addiction to Chesterfields, and is attempting to keep a deep secret of her own under wraps.

There's also a continuing plot from the first book: the Professor Moriarty of the series, criminal mastermind Olivia Waterhouse, is discovered to have been employed as a secretary in a law office. Willowjean is tasked with posing as a secretary herself, wangling a temp job at the same office. Her goal is to find out why Waterhouse was working there, what she did, and (hopefully) that will assist in bringing her to justice.

It's all good, murderous, fun.

Material World

The Six Raw Materials That Shape Modern Civilization

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Spoiler: Author Ed Conway's "six raw materials that shape modern civilization" are: sand, salt, iron, copper, oil, and lithium. (Well, not much of a spoiler: they are named and pictured right on the front cover.)

I was somewhat surprised by how much I liked this book. Conway's enthusiasm for his topic is infectious, his research diligent, his prose punchy and accessible. His eyes are wide open for interesting details and good yarns, and he passes them along. His travels take him to all sorts of interesting sites, which are colorfully described. It's a crash course in history, politics, geography, chemistry, economics, you name it.

Material World reminded me of a multipart PBS documentary—one of the good ones! Narrated by Richard Attenborough as he waves his arms and walks through refineries, mines, factories, … Conway is a Brit, and there are a number of British spellings and terms throughout, so Attenborough is a good fit.

A couple of items on Conway's list might seem a little mundane at first glance. Sand? Ah, but without sand, there's no glass. No fiber optics. No cement. No sand means no silicon, so no computer chips, …

Things I noted with post-its:

Why did Britain and Germany make a deal to supply the other with vital war material during WWI? (Page 49)

What happens to chip supply if China invades Taiwan? (Page 120)

What's the earliest likely evidence of manufacture and trade? (Page 129)

How did the Haber-Bosch process for fixing nitrates lengthen WWI? (Page 174)

What site inspired Aldous Huxley's dystopic view in Brave New World? (Page 188)

Why is there demand for steel pirated from sunken warships in the Scapa Flow? (Page 231)

Why does Conway claim that the tasty tomato you're enjoying is "made of fossil fuels"? (Page 349)

Why was that guy in The Graduate movie totally correct to encourage Benjamin to go into plastics? (Page 351)

Is Andean garlic, grown with mineral-laden water, therapeutic or a form of torture? (Page 388)

If there's a flaw in the book, it's that Conway seems to buy into climate alarmism, and kind of handwaves his way through remediation scenarios that smell of central government planning. This, after approvingly quoting Leonard Reed's famous essay, "I, Pencil".

But: As a mostly-libertarian guy who generally despises "industrial policy" as corporate welfare, I was perturbed by Conway's description of the worldwide supply chains involved in moving selected materials out of the ground and putting them into miraculous products you can buy amazingly cheaply. Disruption of any of those myriad long supply chains can bring chaos, shortages, and privation. Might I have to walk back my religious principles against government interference if it turns out that we can't get computers?

The First Rule

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I have the hardcover, which I devoured when it came out back in 2010. But now it's one more feat accomplished on my "Reread Robert Crais" project. For better or worse, my memory for plot details tend to fade to zero with time, so it's like reading a brand new book! What I said back then still applies, slightly edited:

This novel concentrates on one of Crais's continuing characters: Joe Pike. Crais introduced Pike years back as the sidekick to Elvis Cole, the World's Greatest Detective. (That's what he calls himself, but it's arguably true.) Pike was the stoic but deadly yang to Elvis's chatty, wise-cracking yin; he'd be called in when Elvis needed stealthy backup and massive amounts of well-aimed firepower. Recently, Pike has come into his own; in this novel, Elvis is the sidekick. And doesn't do any wisecracking here, it's a pretty serious mission.

Specifically: The premise is a truly horrific crime: a home invasion where (seemingly) all inhabitants are brutally murdered. Unfortunately for the bad guys, the head of household was once a member of Pike's "team": a semi-mercenary group of consultants tasked with security in various world hot spots. And (worse) one of the victims is a kid who had been named after Pike.

What follows is a pretty good detective novel, interlaced with episodes of quick action and a few dizzying plot twists. You don't want to mess with Pike, or his friends.

Also appearing here: Jon Stone, who's on the side of the good guys, but clearly damaged goods.

The Possibility of Life

Science, Imagination, and Our Quest for Kinship in the Cosmos

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Back in ancient times, the speaker at my college graduation (1973) was the school's president (and kind of a real-life Sheldon Cooper), Harold Brown. No offense, but he was a less-than-stellar speaker.

If only I had flunked a few courses, I could have graduated a year later, and the speaker at that ceremony was Richard Feynman. The topic of his speech was "Cargo Cult Science". And it is the source of one of his more famous quotes about science:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.

(Twelve years later, he wrote "Personal Observations on Reliability of Shuttle" as an appendix to the Rogers Commission Report on the Challenger disaster. His overall theme was that NASA had, indeed, fooled itself.)

Feynman's observations kept coming to mind as I read this book, which is about the search for extraterrestrial life. The subtitle refers to "our quest for kinship", which implies (to me) that we're not talking about a dispassionate search for truth. A lot of people really want it to be true; that's a perilous attitude for non-cultish science.

To her great credit, the author, Jaime Green, alludes to this attitude. Example: the hype around the Allan Hills 84001 meteorite. Initially thought to contain evidence of Martian life, then-President Clinton gave a short TV speech, rhapsodizing: "Today, rock 84001 speaks to us across all those billions of years and millions of miles. It speaks of the possibility of life."

Eventually, we all sobered up. 84001 is pretty neat, but not proof of life.

Green's book is wide-ranging. She not only looks at the science involved, but spends a lot of pages on how science fiction deals with the topic. There's Star Trek, of course, Carl Sagan's Contact (book and movie versions), but a lot of more serious, literary SF: Lem, Leguin, L'Engle, … and that's just the L's.

Fiction raises a lot of questions and issues, but so does actual science. Even restricting ourselves to our planet, We don't have a real solid answer for which arrangements of atoms and molecules constitute "life" and which do not. Would we even recognize off-planet life if we saw it?

Green discusses SETI research, and the hurdles involved there. Again, is it likely we'd recognize signals emitted by some alien intelligence? Can we look for Dyson Spheres?

But all in all, the book was significantly more touchy-feely than I would have liked, more about us than them. The Fermi Paradox, for some reason, does not rate an index entry.

Cahokia Jazz

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I didn't pay a lot of attention during US History classes, but I'm pretty sure the teacher didn't tell us about Cahokia; for me, my awareness of this onetime great Native American city had to wait until I read Before the Revolution, a fine history book by Daniel K. Richter. Cahokia was located across the Mississippi from where St. Louis is today; at its 12th-century peak,it might have had more residents than either London or Paris at the same time. It was abandoned pre-1491, and today it's just mounds and archeological digs.

Also: I read Francis Spufford's previous novel, Light Perpetual, and liked it fine. When I saw a WSJ review of this book, it was a must-get.

It's a wonderful combination of speculative alternate history, mystery, and thriller. Spufford doesn't reveal the cause of his novel's alternative timeline until the end, so I won't either. It's set in 1922, and a map at the front of the book reveals a significantly different USA, with a significantly stronger Native presence.

The hero, Joe Barrow, is a detective with the Cahokia police; he is summoned with his partner, Finn Drummond, to a gory scene: atop one of the downtown skyscrapers a corpse has been found on a skylight, throat slashed, and—ick!—chest opened, heart removed. Obsidian flakes in the cavity! How very Aztec! Or is that what we're supposed to think?

It turns out that the murder has much to do with Cahokia's power structure, superstition, the Ku Klux Klan (and other racists), and much more. Barrow (it turns out) is a talented jazz pianist, and his old bandmates really want him to quit his cop job and get back with the group. In addition to this conflict, Barrow undergoes a lot of torment: physical, mental, and (even) romantic.

My report on Light Perpetual called Spufford's prose "beautifully ornate" at times, and that continues here. But there are also a number of pulse-pounding action scenes. There are also some sly nods to figures from our timeline; an archived report of a disastrous US Army mission against the Natives is written by Captain Robert E. Lee. Barrow's investigation takes him across the Mississippi River at one point, landing him in St. Louis; in this timeline, it's a dinky town, merely the proverbial wide-spot-in-the-road.

The New Deal’s War on the Bill of Rights

The Untold Story of FDR’s Concentration Camps, Censorship, and Mass Surveillance

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The author, David T. Beito, is a history professor emeritus at the University of Alabama.

A random thought I had while reading this book: You know how New Hampshire's motto, "Live Free or Die" was borrowed from its French Revolution counterpart, "Vivre Libre ou Mourir"? Maybe the USA's motto should be similarly derived from "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose". Or "the more things change, the more they stay the same."

That would be tough to fit on a penny, though. We'll probably stick with "In God We Trust".

This book is good antidote to more hagiographic depictions of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It's not really a "warts and all" history; it's just warts, concentrating on FDR-era abuses of civil liberties. But (see the subtitle) it's an "untold story" in the sense that none of this is secret, FDR's participation and acquiescence in the abuses is just neglected. And—plus ça change—I was struck by how many of those abuses have their counterparts in more modern controversies.

The biggie, of course, is the WWII roundup of west-coast Japanese and their relocation to inland concentration camps. Beito notes the cognitively-dissonant treatment by FDR-sympathetic historians: "Over and over again, they leave the impression of two very distinct Roosevelts. The first was the Roosevelt of the New Deal and World War II foreign policy: decisive, bold, humane, and dedicated to advancing the four freedoms. The second was the Roosevelt of internment: a passive and reactive, and somewhat clueless, prisoner of events." Not a particularly accurate, or even coherent, potrayal, and Beito provides some needed corrections.

Other chapters concentrate on different aspects of how FDR's minions in Congress, regulatory agencies, and local political machines cracked down on opponents of the New Deal, court-packing proposals, and pre-WWII foreign policy. Telegrams were mass-snooped in fishing expeditions. A bill was proposed to felonize newspapers who printed as "fact anything known to the publisher … to be false". (Disinformation! Fake news!) Mailing permits were arbitrarily yanked from publications.

The relatively new technology of broadcast radio had been socialized, unfortunately, by Herbert Hoover, with the permission of Calvin Coolidge; this allowed the Feds to demand that the frequencies be used in the "public interest", i.e., uncritical of the state. (Many broadcasters were, of course, were complaisant.) Administration critics were silenced. (To be fair, one of them was the disgusting lunatic Father Coughlin. Although he didn't get into serious trouble until he turned against FDR.)

Democrat-controlled congressional committees dragged in political dissidents for intrusive and unfair "investigations". (It's clear that Joe McCarthy learned his tricks by observing such Democrats.)

For a lot of these attacks, the ACLU, whose upper ranks were filled with New Dealers, was conspicuous in its reticence; many left-leaning opinion magazines remained quiet, or gave encouragement.

Reader, Beito does not even touch FDR's neglect of European Jewry and his associated anti-Semitism. To be fair, that's a little outside the scope of the book. But, once again, plus ça change

All the Sinners Bleed

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I really liked two previously-read S. A. Cosby novels, Blacktop Wasteland and Razorblade Tears. This is, unsurprisingly, another page turner.

The protagonist is Titus Crown, Black sheriff of a Virginia county where a lot of white residents haven't gotten over the results of the Civil War. He's returned home to his widower father and sorta-criminal brother after a promising FBI career ended in bloody disaster. (We don't get the gory details on that right away.)

Titus's job is tough enough, with all the simmering racial resentment. But then things get very bad, when what starts out as one of those school shootings turns out to be something else entirely: a falling-out between two participants in serial killing, involving the torture and murder of Black children. Those two are dead by page 20, but that leaves the "Lone Wolf", the dangerous evil mastermind behind the killings. Who happens to enjoy taunting Titus, and threatening his loved ones.

So it's pretty good. Cosby's portrayal of the local white racists lacks any complexity or sympathy, and verges on the cartoonish. If they had mustaches, they'd be twirling them. At one point, Titus, while verbally jousting with one of them, refers approvingly to the "white folks who don't carry water for Robert E. Lee or worship at the shrine of Ronald Reagan". Hey, S. A., I liked Reagan a lot, and I don't appreciate being lumped in with Confederacy-lovers.

Orphans of the Sky

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Another one down on my "Reread Heinlein" project. Four left to go!

It was originally published in Astounding, in two parts, five months apart, in 1941. It's a masterpiece of plopping the reader into a bizarre tech/social setting, and only eventually revealing "what's really going on".

But I'll tell you, stop reading if you object:

A slower-than-light starship, designed to travel to a distant star system over a couple generations, has gone horribly wrong. A mutiny has killed most of the crew, leaving the worst in charge. Over the years, the survivors breed, some of them mutated. The cylindrical ship still rotates, providing "gravity" to the inhabitants. "Lower" high-gravity levels are occupied by the non-mutated. The "higher" levels hold the "muties". Conflict is common, and cannibalism is practiced. The origin and purpose of the ship gets lost in mythology. The world is the ship.

Into this comes Hugh, a wannabe "scientist". He's captured by the muties, and one of their clan, a two-headed "twin" named Joe-Jim, takes him to the Captain's Veranda, where he can see the stars. Gasp! And so starts a plan to fulfill the ship's mission. But there's a lot of bloodshed along the way. (This may be Heinlein's most violent book.)

According to the Wikipedia page, Heinlein revealed the ship's ultimate fate in Time Enough for Love. So I'm looking forward to that.