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Thursday, July 31, 2014

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Edge of Nowhere

In this novella, Boston Homicide detective Magnus has just finished a six-month stint in the Icelandic Police College to learn Icelandic police procedures. He’s on extended loan to the Iceland police forces as an experienced investigator and probably the only one in Boston who speaks fluent Icelandic.

His first case after finishing his training is the death of a construction worker, killed by a landslide while repairing a road.  The man was unpopular and the local constable thinks the death is suspicious. It happened in Bolungarvik, otherwise known as at the edge of nowhere.  (N.B. It’s a real place.)  The locals think the man was killed by the “hidden people,” i.e. elves.

It’s a good story and a nice introduction to Magnus. Ridpath conveys a real sense of place.  I suspected who the killer was fairly early on, if not the motivation, and knew it had to be tragic. After all, it did take place at the edge of nowhere.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Fiddle Game: A Herman Jackson Mystery

I read Thompson’s Big Wheat a while back from NetGalley and liked it, so I purchased two audiobooks in Thompson’s Herman Jackson series.  Jackson is a bail bondsman in Minnesota.  Approached by a woman needed to bail out her reprobate brother, she offers a priceless Amati violin as security. After working out a deal with a nearby pawn shop so she can have an instrument to play in the orchestra,  she is hit and then run over again and killed by a car as she leaves his establishment.

Then things get complicated as Herman is sought by the real police, fake police and, he learns quickly, the woman had no brother, nor did she provide a real name. And why does everyone want this violin?

Several reviewers have commented on the gypsy presence, one even arguing that it’s an anti-Rom book.  While I would not go that far, it did seem overly dominated by stereotypic Gypsy behavior. It was certainly a weak plot device and what saves the book is the Herman repartee with other characters.  Not as polished as The Big Wheat, but a fun audiobook, nevertheless.

Lots of interesting detail about violin making.

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Monday, July 14, 2014

SHEER GALL (Rachel Gold Mystery) by Michael Kahn | LibraryThing

Another in the fine Rachel Gold series featuring the very fat and obscene but extremely bright and loyal Benny.  Rachel is hired by Sally to handle her divorce, something Rachel has sworn not to do. But Sally displays the marks of having been beaten and turns up dead the next day. As her last attorney of record, Rachel is hired to handle the trust and reassign Sally’s clients

I love some of the word play. For example:
I gave him a cynical look. “Are you planning to impress her with the size of your epistemology?”
“Hey, woman, as Manny Kant once said, it’s not the length of your metaphysics, it’s the quality of your categorical imperatives.”
“I love when you philosophy guys talk dirty.”

I won’t say more but to note the title is a pun and gall stones play a role.   3.5 stars, but only because I don’t think it’s quite as good as the preceding titles.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Goodreads | Eric_W Welch (Forreston, IL)'s review of Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong

I remember sitting in school in 7th grade, counting down the seconds to the execution of Caryl Chessman. I was not one of those who cheered when the clock struck the hour. I think even at that age, I was uncomfortable with the whole idea of the state killing someone. Today I’m against capital punishment for most situations, partly because I’m come to realize how incompetent the state and justice system usually are and that most punishment in this country, at least, has less to do with justice than it does with getting revenge.

This book has  two stories:  one the history of capital punishment in the United States; the second, the railroading of a minimal IQ black man in Greenwood, S.C. (why is it always South Carolina?) who was charged with the murder and rape of an elderly woman.  The trial included perjury, incompetence and withheld evidence.

Charges for which capital punishment could be applied have changed drastically over the centuries.  It used to be you could be put to death for stealing a loaf of bread or even marrying a Jew. Hangings were still public entertainment in the colonies and the Founding Fathers approved of it conceptually (Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin being opposed to it,) the eighth amendment provides interesting latitude in its application by the states.  There is a movement in the legal community now to regard capital punishment as not so much cruel as “unusual” and therefore should be declared unconstitutional.   Certainly, it’s become more rare, fewer and fewer states glorying in their toughness and celebrating their “frontier justice.”  Michigan was the earliest to abolish it (1846) followed shortly thereafter by Wisconsin (1853,) Maryland being the latest (2013.)

The background of Elmore’s innocence project lawyers makes a fascinating story in itself.  Diana Holt, for example, had been sexually abused by her stepfather, involved with drugs, done poorly in school, generally a mess, when she had something of an epiphany.  She went to community college** where she got straight A’s followed by continued academic achievement at Texas A&M and then also in law school while raising children. According to her colleagues she was a tenacious investigator and brilliant at getting people to talk.  She discovered all sorts of malfeasance in the prosecution of Elmore.  For example, pubic hair samples linked to Elmore had been collected *after* he was arrested rather than from the crime scene.  Exculpatory hairs, one being from a Caucasian collected at the scene, was never presented and later found in the back of a drawer.  Holt worked on his case for 20 years, beginning first as an intern at the Center for Capital Litigation in South Carolina.

It should be noted that innocence is not grounds for overturning a conviction. Appellate courts look not at fact, but at errors of law. The dissent in Elmore v Ozmint reiterates that sad state. Justice Wilkinson writes that Elmore had been tried three times and been convicted each time. <i>My distinguished colleagues in the majority respond to the dissent with rhetoric and a protestation that they are not doing what in fact they are doing—overturning factual findings and credibility determinations of the state system that painstak­ingly heard the evidence in this case. But at the end of the day, our system is indeed grounded on facts and evidence. If the state courts had defaulted in their job, that would be one thing, but it is hard to find a case that received a more thor­ough review under the well-settled Strickland standard than this one did.  Now, I suppose Wilkerson  may be right aqs a matter of law. </i>  Or, as Justice Scalia put it in  Re Troy Anthony Davis, a writ for habeas corpus:     <i>This Court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who has had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is “actually” innocent.  Quite to the contrary, we have repeatedly left that question unresolved, while expressing considerable doubt that any claim based on alleged “actual innocence” is constitutionally cognizable.</i>  (  Yet, it seems to me that innocence should trump just about everything and when trial courts engage in malfeasance, no matter how many trials someone has, shouldn’t exculpatory evidence best all else?

Justice is a concept everyone wants but is all too often defined as revenge rather than fairness. As of May 2014, 14,000 people have been executed in the United States and 3,000 remain on death row.  It has been estimated that 4% of those executed were innocent. and more information at

Highly recommended supplementary reading is the decision of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals which could be found at and this story in the Atlantic regarding the death penalty and Diana Holt:

** This is another example of why I am such an advocate of community colleges.  They provide second chances for many people who would otherwise  be lost to society.  I know personally of several cases of women, divorced or deserted by their husbands, married too early, who held down as many as three jobs while raising two or more children AND taking a full load and making the Dean’s List beside.  I had one student who got up at 3 a.m. to milk cows, took care of the kids, went to class, and then had an evening job as well.  First rate student in her thirties.  

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Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed by John McPhee | LibraryThing

I remember when, years ago, long before I retired, a guy came into the library and wanted some really obscure information on Ferris Wheels.  I got to talking with him and over the years we became friends.  He had some kind of menial job, working at KFC or something, but he was absolutely obsessed with Ferris Wheels and knew just about everything you can imagine about their history and how they work.  He was thrilled when we managed to dig up the arcane material he sought.

I've always secretly admired people like that.  They have a singular, driven purpose and interest that I lack. I’m interested in many, many things, but rarely obsessed with one item alone at that depth, so I've had a bazillion hobbies.

I like John McPhee who so engagingly writes about these personalities.  We have William Miller, a theology maven, who has sunk all his money and time into the development of a bizarre little craft, neither airship nor airplane;  John Kukon, model builder extraodinaire who had won a ridiculous number of model plane speed records, one using a fuel of his own design that was so powerful it broke the world speed record and couldn't be shut off, the plane flew for six miles; and how Aereon, the company they built,  fell apart.  

Why not use lighter-than-air to revolutionize missionary aviation? Why not create a Faith Fleet, a Christian Freight Line marked with the insignia of the National Council of Churches, to carry food, goods, and Bibles to people in what the church called the opportunity countries? Fifty transformers to the Voltaic Republic, a hundred thousand Bibles to Nigeria, a million peaches to the Haut-Katanga.

For whatever reason, the obsession with airships resurfaces every few years. Just read Popular Mechanics for a periodic revival of interest as a way to haul huge loads cheaply over undeveloped wilderness.   For Drew and Miller, the interest was tinged with religious fervor, but they sacrificed a great deal for their dream.

Wonderful story, laced with history, (the story of Andrew Solomons parallels that in John Toland’s The Great Dirigibles.)  McPhee always manages to take something apparently mundane and turn it into a fascinating essay about people and their relationship to the world around them.

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Friday, July 04, 2014

The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons by Lawrence Block | LibraryThing

“Every passion is interesting to him who suffers from it. And one sometimes feels impelled to inflict it on others.”  That could be the motto of this book.  I suspect, that in addition to stamps, of which we learn a great deal in the Keller series, Block is enamored of political buttons and hoards of historical trivia.  Did you know that Vermont had been a republic that had issued its own coinage?  From 1777 to 1791, it was, when it split off from New York, when the colonies revolted and Vermont decide to revolt against New York.   Its independence was recognized by New York in 1791 when it then decided to join the United States as the Fourteenth. State, especially after it was not permitted to join Quebec.

I mention this only because there are substantial passages in the book where the man who hires Bernie to steal a couple of things related to buttons, goes on at some length about various things.  Now, it so happens, that I enjoy learning about stamps and buttons and other little arcane facts such as William Howard Taft being known as Billy Possum and Eugene Debs running for office while being incarcerated for his opposition to WW I so his buttons had imprinted on them, “For President: Convict No. 9563.”  Fascinating.  Not to mention the Apostles spoons.

We all love the Bernie Rhodenbarr series of books. Bernie, you may remember, owns a used book store, but steals things on the side.  It’s quite interesting.  I’ve listened to Block read his books, and there is a certain rhythm and cadence that I feel when I’m reading them, not unpleasant, just uniquely his style.

There’s one passage that I just have to quote. Bernie has been approached by a customer and they  begin discussing first editions of Gatsby.  They conclude precisely what I feel about the book.

<i>“The Great American novel? No, hardly that. The puzzle of Gatsby is how so many otherwise perceptive people can find so much to admire in it. Do you know why Jay Gatsby is such an enigma? It’s because Fitzgerald himself never had a clue who the fellow was. An arriviste, a parvenu, an upstart if you will, a man who made big money in a hurry and got his hands just a little dirty in the process. Hardly a rarity at the time, and there was a fellow in Boston with a similar story who got his son elected to the White House. Fitzgerald didn’t know what to make of Gatsby, and the literary establishment has responded by enshrining his bafflement. So no, I don’t think much of Gatsby, or your Mr. Fitzgerald.” </i>

The plot revolves around a short story written by Alexander Roda Roda (not to mention puns on Doran Doran and Meyer Meyer not to be confused with Meyer Meyers) and published several years before Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” appeared in Collier’s magazine yet the premise of the story was the same, an individual is born old and then gets gradually younger.  But the key is on his name.

Bibliophiles and trivialists will certainly enjoy this book especially.  Five stars for a great story with lots of trivia.  Two stars for those people who will get bogged down by the detailed information.  So 3.5 stars rounded off to 4.

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