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Thursday, January 28, 2016

Business of Dying by Simon Kernicke (Dennis Milne #1)

“Three murders and now we got a witness.” Dennis and Danny have just finished shooting three hoodlums behind a house. Dennis is Detective Sergeant Milne and he kills criminals. In this case at the behest of criminals.

DS Milne is also a very tenacious cop and is in the midst of an investigation into the death of Miriam Fox. He has reason to suspect that the pimp all the evidence points to may not be the actual killer; something just doesn’t seem right, especially as another runaway has disappeared and is presumed to have been killed. Everyone else is just thrilled to close out the case.

But things are beginning to spiral out of control as the witness to his killing (the supposed bad guys turn out to be Customs officers) has managed to produce an ID-drawing that remarkably resembles Milne and Raymond, the guy who ordered and paid for the hit, now wants to tie up loose ends.

Excellent novel. I will definitely read more from this author.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016


James Surowiecki has an interesting piece in the New Yorker ( that discusses the history of land ownership in the Northwest. The Bundy folks in their quaint cowboy hats have the spirit right, but the history and economics all wrong, in my opinion.

To suggest as they do that federal land be returned to private ownership is being disingenuous since the and was never in private hands. It was taken from the Northern Paiute Indians. When settlers began encroaching and using Paiute reservation land, the reservation was closed and the Indians forcibly removed to a different reservation in Washington. If the land were to be taken away from the feds it should be given back to the Paiute Indians. Land that did move into private hands was because the Homestead Act permitted the federal government to give land to settlers. Technically, it was never in private hands so land, if anything, should be reverting to the federal government, not the other way around.

But these guys are not really interested in that. They want the land for themselves, no one else. Surowieki points out that if the land were given to the states, it would raise taxes in those states because state land use fees are higher than federal and the states would have to pay for upkeep they avoid now. The states currently benefit from tourism on those lands.

"The libertarian appeal of the “take back the land” rhetoric masks a fundamental contradiction: the West has flourished because of the federal government’s help, not in spite of it. No region’s economy has depended more on subsidies and taxpayer-funded investment. In the nineteenth century, the Homestead Act handed out free land to settlers, and the transcontinental railroad was built thanks to cheap land grants and huge government outlays. The federal government has played a vital role in managing the Western watershed, while investing billions of dollars in dams and other public infrastructure. As the historian Gerald Nash has shown, the West’s postwar boom was jump-started by money the government poured into the region during the Second World War."

Another good source: and

Review: Cache of Corpses by Henry Kisor

I do enjoy the Martinez series. Steve, the half Lakota deputy, is running for Sheriff at the behest of Alex, his state trooper friend, and several others in the county. He’s been quite successful in clearing some murder cases and has developed a reputation. Someone is now leaving headless and handless cadavers in assorted places. It’s a bizarre scheme involving geocaching. A bit weird.

There really isn’t much of a mystery, it’s more of a police procedural, and it’s quite clear who the bad guys are. What appeals to me about this series is the landscape, the Upper Peninsula, and the characters. The relationship between Steve and Ginny is real. You just get to like the people. I like them. In addition you can feel Kisor’s love of flying as Steve is the pilot of the sheriff department’s Skylane. (Kisor’s two non-fiction books that I have read, Flight of the Gin Fizz and Zephyr, should be on your list.) The first three volumes are available as a set from Amazon. A very pleasant read.

While this book stands alone, I recommend reading the series in order to understand the development of the relationships.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Review: Blood Moon Rising by Mark Dawson

Continuing her quest for vengeance, Beatrix is now after Duffy who is ensconced in Iraq with some other mercenaries and working for a company called “Manage Risk” (clearly meant to be like Blackwater.) Control has gone into hiding and Michael Pope is now the new leader of Group Fifteen. He is surreptitiously helping Beatrix with her search as Britain’s interests in the oil fields just happen to coincide with Beatrix’s plans.

The book is a competent page turner, but I’ve downgraded it a little for some obvious miscues on the part of the author, or, perhaps inadequate proofing. In one situation, Beatrix’s helper uses the thunder and downpour of a rainstorm to cover two sniper shots, yet moments later Beatrix remarks about all the dust from gate she has just knocked down with her car. You can’t have both a downpour and dust, even in Iraq. Another obvious one is when she dials a phone number she has committed to memory yet not a few pages later calls “the only number” she has in her memory and guess what; it’s not the same one. She’s also in the final stages of cancer, often in extreme pain, yet manages to pull off stunts that would test someone in the prime of health. Finally, here’s a tall, striking, blonde woman, in a Muslim country, using only a Hijab to hide her blonde hair and manages to walk around ignored. And what else? A long dress? Pantsuit? Skin color issues? Can’t see her running around wiping out the bad guys in Arab garb and in western clothes she would stand out worse than the proverbial sore thumb. My crap detector was screaming for mercy.

As I have noted earlier, the books are all in sequence and should be read in order. A good action story, but this one had too many holes.

P.S. I saw a Blood Moon last time it came around and have to admit it’s spectacular.

Review: Pursuit and Sinking of the Bismarck

Audiobook: I remember seeing the classic movie Sink the Bismarck when I was a teenager and it was one of those formative things that changed my mind about joining the Navy. It was based on the eponymic book by C.S. Forester written in the fifties (the movie came out in 1960, I believe. Wikipedia reports Forester wrote it as a the screenplay before the book.)

Kennedy’s book, published in 1974, is a clear, page-turning, recounting of the actions of the British and Germans in a rather astonishing game of hide-and-seek as the Bismarck and the Prince Eugen tried to break out into the Atlantic where they could easily overwhelm convoys to England. The Bismarck was the biggest and best battleship ever constructed and the irony of its being taken out of action leading up to its sinking by a WW I Swordfish biplane dropping a torpedo was not lost on navies after WW II. Pearl Harbor and the Bismarck's sinking ended the reign of the dreadnought. (Not to mention the two-minute destruction of the HMS Hood, pride of the British navy.)

The assumption is that the British admiral running the show turned the Hood in such a way that the vulnerable upper decks were presented to the German guns. I'm skeptical they gave it much thought but perhaps they did. In any case no one was left after the explosion of the Hood who could say one way or the other. Whether a few more inches on the deck would have saved it from the direct hit it took from a 15 inch shell is problematic. Lots of luck was present on both sides, both good and bad showing how, in war, happenstance is always present. Lots of “if” we had done this, of “if” we had done that, perhaps the outcome would have been very different.

Lots of heroes, if you can call following orders under extreme conditions, heroism. The captains of the Suffolk and Norfolk, the two British cruisers who located the Bismarck (of course, if they had not had the new longer range radar that would not have happened) and shadowed her for days getting almost no sleep for the crew, is worth a citation. Not to mention the inexperienced pilots of the rickety old Swordfish biplanes who flew off the carrier Victorious, knowing they might not have enough fuel to make it back and that they would have to make a carrier landing at night, something they had never done before. In spite of very heavy anti-aircraft fire from the Bismarck all made it back safely, even the pilots of two aircraft that ran out of fuel and had to ditch.

Note that the book was published before the 1975 revelations of the role of Bletchley Park and the Enigma machine. (The Luftwaffe enigma code had been broken early in the war; the naval version not until later.) In a delicious irony, it was revealed only after the war, that the Catalina, which located the Bismarck after it cleverly turned back across the wakes of the two British cruisers and headed toward France (and unknowingly towards the Ark Royal , was flown by an American on patrol. That fact could not be revealed at the time because the United States had yet to enter the war, Pearl Harbor being yet six months in the future.

Excellent read (listen).

Monday, January 18, 2016

Review: Mozart in the Jungle by Blair Tindall

I couldn’t wait to read this memoir after beginning to watch the eponymic series on Amazon.

Tindall began playing the oboe, a difficult but hauntingly beautiful instrument when played well, almost by mistake. When they were handing out instruments alphabetically by last name in band, by the time they got to T there was only a bassoon and oboe to chose from. The oboe being smaller she chose that.

Somewhat intimidated by her academically overachieving brother who went to Exeter and with poor grades not to mention a boyfriend who would be closer, she opted to attend NCSA a new (founded in 1960) school devoted to teaching professional musicians and ballet dancers. Regretfully, she focuses more on the unwanted (sometimes) sexual attentions of her teachers (this was a time when sexual harassment was more than prevalent and teachers would use the subjectiveness of musical grading to get what they wanted) and boys, not to mention drinking and drugs, than on the intricacies of the oboe. As someone who has played the piano, organ and french horn, I have no knowledge of woodwinds and would have liked to learn more. But, nevermind.

The musical education at NCSA was apparently quite good if at the expense of other academics and when they went to take the SATs some students had to ask was the SAT was. A test given on Saturdays? They were prepared for little else. “The noble intentions of NCSA encapsulated what would later plague classical music in America: explosive growth without a realistic mission, few accessible resources, and the simultaneous isolation and elevation of a foreign art form above the comprehension of those who were expected to support it.”

Unfortunately, while in her early twenties in NY she was having affairs with several other oboists and being the principal players they controlled hiring of oboe subs and arranging for other gigs. When those affairs fell apart (inevitably as they were married and everything was always supposed to be kept secret) the jealous reactions would lead to her lack of employment. Coupled with many of her friends and acquaintances dying from AIDS (this was the early eighties and at one time the list of dead friends topped one hundred when she quit keeping track) it was a discouraging time.

Much of the book details the trials and tribulations of the orchestral world in general and orchestral musicians in specific. Orchestras had proliferated during the sixties and seventies as federal grants provided the seed money, but soon it became apparent, especially during economic upturns and downswings, that paying musicians from revenue derived from ticket sales was often oxymoronic. Another problem was too many musicians, often uneducated except for their instrument, were chasing too few gigs. Those privileged few who made it through the auditions to get a position in an orchestra were usually life-tenured so few positions ever opened up. Positions that did pay well like those on Broadway could be mind-numbingly boring, playing the same music over and over and over again; some players could read a book while playing the music. As stages became larger and more front row seating was added to sell more tickets, orchestral pits became hellish holes, dark and removed from the performance and audience, almost an afterthought, as the music was piped out through speakers. For long-running shows (she played for Les Miserables and Miss Saigon among others) it was at least a dependable source of income, health and pension benefits.

Eventually, by her mid-thirties, Tindall realized she had to make a change having been unable to find a long-term relationship and becoming totally bored. A job satisfaction study revealed that Orchestral musicians were near the bottom, scoring lower in job satisfaction and overall happiness than airline flight attendants, mental health treatment teams, beer salesmen, government economic analysts, and even federal prison guards. Only operating room nurses and semiconductor fabrication teams scored lower than these musicians…. It took a couple of strange men who didn’t know anything about classical music to make me realize I wasn’t nuts after all. I was in a narcissistic industry that was stuck in the nineteenth century. At that moment, I gave myself permission to escape.

One rather dispiriting piece of information she writes of was a study done “in 2001, [in which] Harvard researchers would challenge this assertion [that studying music helped academic performance], combing 188 studies published between 1950 and 1999 to evaluate the effect of arts education on general learning. Their results were shocking: No reliable causal relationship was found between music education and academic performance (except for spatial reasoning). Creative thinking, verbal scores, and math grades were all unaffected by studying music.”

The movie is sooo different from the book. About the only common thread is the oboe. This is a book that probably won’t be of interest unless you play an instrument or love classical music. I liked it, but the movie is better.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Review: Sword of God by Mark Dawson

Milton is walking from Ohio to points west as the result of almost taking a drink (he tries to attend regular meetings of AA) beset as he is by demons from his past hits. Walking in the rainstorm in the Upper Peninsula, he’s given a lift to a campsite by the local sheriff who sees him as just another drifter waiting to cause trouble. Being a contrary person, Milton walks back to town and walks into the local hotel to clean up and then to the local bar and grill for dinner. There, he is seen taking down a couple of very large tourists by himself, by Mallory and two FBI agents. (He’s also seen by the sheriff leading to some momentary unpleasantness that we need not go into here.) The FBI and Mallory are both seeking a group of modern-day outlaws they think might be hold up somewhere in the UP; Mallory only because she believes her “simple” brother may have hooked up with them.

To make a long introduction short, Mallory and one of the FBI agents (Ellie), follow Milton (who agrees to lead them reluctantly) into the back-country to look for Mallory’s brother and the gang. Turns out to be a Christian militia determined to attack the federal government.

Sound like a Reacher story? It certainly has much of the same flavor although personally I like Milton better than Reacher, but both Lee Child and Mark Dawson write more than competently. A very good story until the ending which is ridiculously over-the-top. 3.5 rounded up to 4.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Review: Real Men Don't Rehearse by Justin Locke

Watch the short video of Justin Locke talking about one of the episodes from the book on his Amazon author page. Very funny. Also at

A very charming book filled with short anecdotes and stories of events and behind-the-scenes activities in a famous orchestra. Hard to write a review. I’ll just say if you are a musician or love classical music, these little stories will charm you.

Playing in an orchestra is really an extraordinary task that involves getting as many as 90 narcissistic individuals to work together as a group in harmony. (Full disclosure: I have played the French horn in an orchestra.) How that is done involves a lot of hierarchy and tradition, much of which Locke explains quite humorously. The conductor's role is somewhat special often having little to do with setting the tempo (read the part about what happens during the milliseconds between the conductor’s open and down beats.)

Once a piece of music starts, many people believe that the orchestra needs the conductor’s non-stop stick-waving as a sort of visual metronome to keep the orchestra together. However, in hard-core professional orchestras, the beat lies, not within the conductor, but within the orchestra itself. Better conductors know this, and they take great advantage of it by swirling the baton around in very vague artistic ways so as not to interfere with the orchestra’s intrinsic rhythmic sense. This is harder than it sounds; in the midst of all that dancing and swirling, it is very important to avoid doing anything that the orchestra will interpret as an actual instruction for a rhythmic change, as this can really gum up the works.

In a major orchestra, the players are all so skilled and experienced that they aren’t dependent upon the conductor for very much of anything. And they are generally very assertive, if not downright aggressive, in their approach to playing. For the neophyte conductor in this situation, “leading” is not so much like urging a birthday party pony to greater effort as it is like hanging on for dear life while riding Seabiscuit in the back stretch of the Preakness.

You’ll have to read the book to find out about John Williams and the spinning basses in Japan. Great story. And by the way, there’s a reason why conductors always need to be nice to the principal bass player.

I loved this book.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Review: Ghosts (#4 in the John Milton Series) by Mark Dawson

Continuing in my read of the John Milton series, this being #4. As I noted in my review of Beatrix Rose (#1 in that series) one almost has to read the two series concurrently in order to keep the relationships of the characters straight. They are as much about the interactions of the assorted assassins employed by a secret British government agency, in this case one that has been taken over by “Control” and used for his own purposes. That results in the disaffection of several of the best agents including Beatrix, Milton, and Pope. (I’ll try not to reveal too much of the plot in order to not drop any spoilers into the mix.)

In this one Milton is rescued from a Texas jail just ahead of control by a beautiful Russian agent (frankly I found it refreshing they never jumped into the sack; Reacher would have overwhelmed her with his charms within 24 hours - but done it politely even though he might not have showered in a week). A Russian agent whom Control tried to have taken out years before uses his capture of Michael Pope to force Milton into delivering some information that will destroy Control. Milton turns tables and mounts a rescue operation knowing that Control will probably try to have him assassinated along the way.

I like Milton as a character and I like the stories. Lots of good fun reading. On to #5 Sword of God which starts out much like a Reacher novel.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Review: In Cold Blood: Beatrix Rose #1 by Mark Dawson

So I started this book about a year ago, dropped it in the middle for whatever reason, and then recently began reading Ghosts, #4 in the John Milton series, which I enjoy. In that one (see my review) Milton is helped out of a jam by the Russians who want him to locate Beatrix Rose, who had been #1 in “Control’s” British secret organization of assassins. Hence the backstory in the beginning of Ghosts wherein Rose’s husband is killed after she discovers that Control is running his own little personal operation. With me so far?

So now we’re back to Beatrix Rose #1, In Cold Blood, in which she, having discovered she has cancer, has embarked on a journey of revenge to get those operatives who were involved in the killing of her husband and abduction of her daughter. So she proceeds to take on hordes of Somalis bailing out an entire SEAL platoon in order to kill Joyce, #10, who had participated in the killing of her husband. She, in turn, gets rescued by the fortuitous presence of Michael Pope (more later) who is monitoring everything and uses some drones to take out some more bad guys. I never said this would be easy.

Surprisingly, the Milton book, Ghosts, does begin to tie things together. Kind of clever on the author’s part to relate the series together like a mosaic. The two series should probably be read concurrently and in order, starting with the John Milton books. They get better as they go along and the author does have a nice vocabulary. Mine is pretty good but I had to look up about half dozen. Fun, fast, light reading.