August 15th, 2015

Dead Dog Cat

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Earlier this week I burned through a new book by Charles Stross, next in The Laundry series of SF/Horror novels, The Annihilation Score. Now, I've really loved this series of novels and short stories. They deal with a very modern take on Lovecraftian horror and a technical look at magic, and they're delicious reads. The earlier books and stories are written from the viewpoint of Bob, a programmer, but this latest one is from his wife's viewpoint as it happens. It's a nice change of pace/twist and it reads very well. I give this a very high rating, but it only really works well if you've been reading the whole series, something that I'd urge if you like the genre at all.
smirk by geekilicious

Book 88

Second Street Station: A Mary Handley MysterySecond Street Station: A Mary Handley Mystery by Lawrence H. Levy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I won this from goodreads in exchange for a review and it doesn't affect my review. In fact, I wish I hadn't won this one. If you look at my reviews they're generally 3 stars and up because I don't waste time on bad books. I'll be honest the second star is me being generous. This book wasn't very good. Yes Mr. Levy has a great writing track record but Emmy nominated sit-com writing in the late 80s and 90s did not translate well to historical novel writing.

And it's not just a matter of me not being the right audience. I'm a huge fan of historical mysteries. It makes up a good third of all my mystery reading if not me. Where Mr. Levy's script writing comes through is the dialog. That is decent enough but the rest is flat as three day old Coke, which incidentally plays a role in this. I think that's what bothers me most. I never once connected with Mary Handley and she often comes across as emotionless and not-quite-believable.

If you hate books that head hop, you can stop now. The point of view characters can whip back and forth fast enough to give you whiplash in some scenes.

The author talks about the research used in this and how he chose to show parts of history people might not know and I think this is another place that it went askew. I'm a Tesla fan. Yes, he made bad choices, yes he and Edison hated each other but in this Tesla comes across as a childish, socially inept, occasionally drunken idiot. Yeah, probably not.

Anyhow we have Mary whose mother hates she's not the typical later 1880s woman out to get a man. Mary had a Chinese girlfriend growing up and her friend, Tina's dad taught her Jujitsu. Mary's brother is cop. And at age 12 Mary saw a dead man on a train and saw a man known only as Bowler Hat through the novel, leaving and guesses he hung the man. It didn't feel at all like a young girl finding a dead body (and oddly I buy that in the Flavia de Luce books because Flavia is a more well rounded character with emotions). In fact there is no emotional impact on Mary, no more than we'll see later when she's shot at, stabbed, beaten etc.

Mary is hired on to be the first woman detective in Brooklyn (about 25 years before that really happened) mostly because she happened to be at the right place at the right time and it's done merely to satisfy the press it's being done. Everyone but Chief Campbell wants her to fail. Naturally the male cops turn their back on her and her case isn't going to be an easy one, the murder of Charles Goodrich, the brother of a wealthy politican who was shot in his apartment and he might have had a journal incriminating Thomas Edison in shady business deals.

Charles was the fiancee of Mary's friend,Kate so Mary has even more reason to work the case. However all her suspects are insanely powerful. Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, JP Morgan, Goodrich himself. The book is one long name dropping session.

Mary does take several good beatings but the only one that seems to make an emotional impact is when someone knocks her out and makes it appear she's drunk. We also have a few unrealistic scenes, like Mary shimmying out of her petticoats to run after a bad guy as if that wouldn't give him time to run off. And really petticoats aren't that binding. Her bustle and corset would be the things that would keep her from running though I don't think she wears those. I did nearly stop reading when Mary saw bullets richoceting in time to avoid them. Yes richocets travel slower than a fired bullet but often only 10=20% less fast. It seems very unlikely she could see them and dodge them.

And I felt like Bowler Hat added nothing. His scenes were long, mostly to show he's a bad ass and his employer is ruthless. But if you took him out much wouldn't have been lost. I felt much the same with Mary's love story with the makers of Coca-Cola. maybe it would have been better if this didn't depend so heavily on telling instead of showing.

Spoilers here after

Even Mary solving the case felt contrived. She's sent on a wild goose chase and by mere accident she stops in a store than solves the case and only because someone there tells her things no one would probably tell a stranger with no prompting.

Mary's naivete doesn't play well either and in some cases not that believable. Surely even then a nearly penniless former seamstress turned detective would know she couldn't take down someone as powerful as Edison or Morgan as the cheats they were.

I believe Mary's story is a series but Second street Station is my stop. I'm getting off the train.

View all my reviews

Book 75: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

Book 75: Cryptonomicon.
Author: Neal Stephenson, 1999.
Genre: Computers and Cryptology. Period Fiction. War. Conspiracy.
Other Details: ebook. 931 pages. Unabridged Audiobook (42 hrs 53 mins) Read by William Dufris

In 1942, Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse—mathematical genius and young Captain in the U.S. Navy—is assigned to detachment 2702. It is an outfit so secret that only a handful of people know it exists, and some of those people have names like Churchill and Roosevelt. The mission of Waterhouse and Detachment 2702—commanded by Marine Raider Bobby Shaftoe-is to keep the Nazis ignorant of the fact that Allied Intelligence has cracked the enemy's fabled Enigma code. It is a game, a cryptographic chess match between Waterhouse and his German counterpart, translated into action by the gung-ho Shaftoe and his forces.

Fast-forward to the present, where Waterhouse's crypto-hacker grandson, Randy, is attempting to create a "data haven" in Southeast Asia—a place where encrypted data can be stored and exchanged free of repression and scrutiny. As governments and multinationals attack the endeavor, Randy joins forces with Shaftoe's tough-as-nails granddaughter, Amy, to secretly salvage a sunken Nazi submarine that holds the key to keeping the dream of a data haven afloat. But soon their scheme brings to light a massive conspiracy with its roots in Detachment 2702 linked to an unbreakable Nazi code called Arethusa. And it will represent the path to unimaginable riches and a future of personal and digital liberty...or to universal totalitarianism reborn.
- synopsis from UK publisher's website.

I have wanted to read Stephenson's Baroque Cycle for some time along with this novel that while not part of that trilogy is considered best to read before the Cycle. Obviously any novel about computers written a few years back is bound to be a little dated and yet I felt it held up well and I kept in mind the date of publication.

Stephenson's style is very cerebral and the narrative jumps between the 1940s and 1990s slowly building its connections between the past and present. It took me a considerable amount of time to read this novel mainly because I did it as a dual read and listen and so my pace was determined by how long I was able to listen to the audio edition each week.

It is a fascinating novel while focused on a relatively small group of characters yet still an epic in its scope. As 'Catch-22' did in its day Cryptonomicon examines the absurdities of war and politics alongside the horrors of the former. I was very impressed with it and after a short break will start on the Cycle.

Books 31 and 32

31. The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan. I really didn't know much about the Dust Bowl, which coincided with and exacerbated the Great Depression in the 1930s. I had always had the impression that this weather/environmental event was part bad luck, part human ignorance and that it was a miserable time for those living through it. After reading Egan's book, the Dust Bowl was about 10 percent bad luck in the form of a drought, and 90 percent humanity's hubris. And that's being generous to humanity. Also, from the pictures throughout and the first-account descriptions, this was not just uncomfortable, but deadly. One vet, who saw World War II, said the Dust Bowl was worse than combat. Children and the elderly died of dust pneumonia, where the fine particles would so line and inflame the lungs that it became perilous. One of the more heartbreaking accounts was a woman's description of losing her infant daughter to dust pneumonia. It didn't spare even the healthy - in another segment, a doctor bluntly tells an otherwise healthy man that he is stuffed with dust. That man died shortly afterwards. Livestock died, were autopsied and found with their insides so crammed with dirt that even if there was grass to eat, it could not have been absorbed into their bodies. On two occasions, the dust and dirt from the midwest blew into and coated the east coast, including New York and Washington. A Black Sunday account- the worst dust storm- an aviator who encountered it tried to fly over it. At 23,000 feet, she realized that would be impossible so she turned back around and sped as fast as she could towards safety. On this day, people reported not even being able to see their hands in front of their faces.
The whole phenomenon, as did most of the woes of the Great Depression, had its roots in the optimistic 1920s (and even before that, with The Great War). People were encouraged to migrate west to settle the now more or less empty lands and take up farming- the government even offered free train rides. Land was cheap and, with the Europe fighting (and later recovering from) the War, wheat was in high demand and wheat prices were high. A wheat farmer could make a huge profit for about a decade or so. The minority of voices that cautioned against the wholesale attempts at farming the arid grassland areas were ignored (it's a common theme- voices of reason always get muzzled when there is a buck to be made, and long history and the multitudes of lessons have not changed that). Combined with the bad luck of an unusually rainy decade (and yes, I mean bad luck- bad luck masquerading as good fortune), people flocked to the west to seek a new life. They tore up millions and millions of acres of grazing land and planted wheat and other crops. Due to the unusual amount of rain, some people even planted and had success with fruit trees.
Things started going sour at the end of the 1920s, when wheat prices started to plummet. To maintain their profits - or just to break even - farmers tore up more ground and planted even more crops. Then the rainy decade changed to that area's more typical dry nature. The Buffalo grasses and other native flora, which was used to such variations and could withstand drought, was pretty much gone. Left in its place was the more fragile wheat and food crops, which withered away, leaving only enormous tracts of uncovered and depleted land. The author states at the end that the area, even today, hasn't fully recovered. And thus the worst ecological disaster of this country's history was born.
There's a lot of good history and research; what makes this account come to life are the personal accounts, the stories of the people who lived through this time. It should be required reading -- not only in the schools, but among lawmakers as well.

32. The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough. Another example of hubris in action. In 1889, a dam containing a large artificial lake- a lake created by a group of millionaires for fishing and boating- failed, sending huge amounts of water careening through the lower towns, killing more than 2,000 people (the exact total will never be known). From the first-hand accounts, it is amazing more didn't die, either from the flooding, the fire that raged afterwards in Johnstown, or from exposure or disease. The book includes maps (a bit fuzzy), illustrations from that time and many pictures that show the extent of the damage, which wiped out whole areas. I think one of the more haunting accounts (told by a couple people) was that there was so much debris being swept away, people couldn't even see the water at first, just the roofs, buildings, trees and other items swept up in that massive wall of water. McCullough's book outlines the history of the hunt club and the dam, the day before the flood and the aftermath. While there was some bad behavior, help efforts and rebuilding were far more prevalent. All in all, a good read, very educational.

Currently reading: The Last Empress, by Anchee Min, and Pioneer Girl by Laura Ingalls Wilder.