Category Archives: Reviews

Russian Information Warfare by Bilyana Lilly

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As the head of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, Colonel-general A.V. Kartopolov remarked on April 15, 2015, “if in the past war was 80 percent combat operations, and propaganda was 20 percent, then in wars today 90 percent of activities consist of information warfare.”

Russia’s information warfare is sustained and unceasing, and, therefore, so should be our defenses.

In George Orwell’s 1984 there are three super-states, Oceania (North and South America, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa), Eurasia (The Soviet Union and Europe), and Eastasia (China, Japan, Korea, northern India). While the boundaries of the superstates have not come to pass quite as Orwell imagined, one could easily see similarities in the power centers of 2021, with China atop Eastasia, Russia atop Eurasia (without Western Europe, of course, although that is becoming a bit squishy), and the USA atop Oceania. One of the elements of Orwell’s if-this-goes-on imagined dystopia was a state of perpetual war.

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Bilyana Lily – image from Warsaw Security Forum

There is plenty of incentive for those in charge of societies to sustain a war-based economy, whether or not actual wars are fought. War has always been pretty lucrative for some business interests, and offers cover for those in power to attack dissenters as unpatriotic. It has been the case for as long as there have been nations that countries will spy on and seek to manipulate other countries for their own benefit and/or protection. The tools for doing this are diverse, including spying, diplomacy, seeking to impact elections, and the more kinetic special ops, targeted assassinations, and actual tanks-and-planes attacks. But the range of available tools has grown considerably in the last generation. The means for gaining insight into,and of manipulating, the leaders and populations of other countries have become widely available. One result of this is the realization of one of Orwell’s dark visions, albeit in a different form. Russia, under Vladimir Putin, has been engaged in a ceaseless war on other nations for a long time. This warfare does not always entail the use of heavy machinery. It was not tanks that impacted the 2016 presidential election in the USA. It was new, diabolical, and effective weapons of mass communication. The internet, with its social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and countless lesser applications, has made everyone accessible, and vulnerable.

Moscow’s attempts to sow popular distrust in governance would not stop after the elections, which are only one event, but would continue after the elections when Russia may attempt to exploit socially divisive themes that could increase suspicion in democratic institutions. And drive communities further apart.

Dr. Bilyana Lily has been looking at this for some time. Born in Bulgaria, she has seen Russian actions from a perspective shared by few general readers. She earned a Masters degree from Geneva Graduate School, in International Relations and Affairs, got another MA at Oxford University, specializing in Russian, Central European, East European and Eurasian Studies, and her PhD from Pardee RAND Graduate School. She has worked at the Bulgarian mission to the United Nations, led DoD research efforts out of RAND, designing analytical tools to predict cyber incidents, and worked on RAND’s election cybersecurity project. Oh, yeah, and she’s a paramedic. Probably has an invisible plane tucked away somewhere, too.

She defines her terms. Just what is considered Information Warfare? How does it fit within Russia’s military planning program? What are each of the actions intended to accomplish? What are the tools the Russians use? Lily selected seven attacks that met her criteria. She limited her study to publicly available information. So, no state secrets are in any danger of being revealed here. She took out of play some attacks that any reasonable person would deem to be at least partly Russia-based, but which lacked publicly accessible confirmations. She looks at what prompts Russia to act and considers differences in how it goes about its operations.

Several chapters of the book are about process. Here is what I am doing. Here are the things I am looking at and the things I am ignoring. Part of this is to talk about a tool she has developed for presenting the gathered information in a graphical format. It could come in handy if you need to update your boss, who is averse to reading. I know, hard to imagine. It may be of considerable use to Intelligence Community (IC) workers, but really, for the rest of us, that element of the book is skippable. It makes for slow, tough reading.

Chapter 1, however, on how Russia sees the world, and thus justifies their actions, is fascinating. It explains a lot. Russian leaders tend to the paranoid and are blind to their own crimes, and the legitimate security concerns of other nations. They see, for example, the bombing of Yugoslavia, the Afghanistan invasion by NATO, the Iraq wars and the operations in Libya as all illegitimate US led attempts at regime change. But Libya was not US-led. If anything, the USA was dragged into that. Afghanistan was the result of 9/11. The first Gulf war came about after Iraq invaded its neighbors, and the West got involved in the former Yugoslavia to prevent Serbian genocide of its neighbors. I guess everything the West does is bad and everything Russia does is ok. They do feel outgunned by the West, though, so feel justified in utilizing asymmetric tactics against their perceived enemies.

Lily uses seven case studies of Russian info warfare. Therein lies the strength of this book. Bet you recognize in the actions taken against other nations many of the actions taken by Russia against the USA. And it will make you very suspicious about the behavior of many on the far right as to exactly what relationships they have with Putin’s Russia. Who is “Q” for example? Personally, I would bet that Q is either a Russian him or herself, was paid for by Russia, or at the bare minimum, was trained and/or advised by Russia. Moscow seeks to foment discord in states it wants to impact. This does not cease when agreements are arrived at over this or that. It does not cease when guns are put down in a conflict here or there. Warfare for Russia is a permanent state. They are always trying to pit group against group, whether in the USA, France, Germany, or any other nation which has interests that clash with Russia’s.

…this book analyzes under what conditions, in what contexts, and in what combinations with other nonmilitary and military measures Russia has employed certain types of cyber operations. In particular, this book explores what conditions have been associated with the employment of various types of Russian state-sponsored cyber operations against political IT infrastructure of NATO countries and invited members.

Lily arrives at some conclusions about what the parameters are that define what Russia will do, and how far it will go. For some countries, this and then that. For other countries, only this. And it looks at what Russia hopes to accomplish with various actions. In some cases, there is hardcore spying involved, assassinations, bombings, concerted attempts to disrupt electoral systems, for example. But in others, Russia acts merely to undermine people’s confidence in electoral systems, or the viability of target governments.

If we had paid more attention to Russian military doctrine, we could have been better prepared for what happened in 2016. [in Russia’s attack on the USA election] – from the JSOU presentation

Gripes – When I was in graduate school, a professor once said that the standard format for reports to be submitted, not only in his class, but in the jobs we were training for, was 1) Say what it is you are going to say 2) Say it, and then 3) Say what it is you have just said. Lily follows this formula not only for the overall book, but within each chapter. It makes life particularly easy for those looking to speed read their way through this, but for those of us who insist on reading every word, that element was a bit of a chore. It reads as a very academic paper. No problem for folks in the field, but off-putting to the more casual reader. While it is understandable that Lilly restricts her case studies to those with publicly provable Russian connections, I was yearning for her to go a bit beyond, and incorporate looks at instances in which it is plain what is going on, despite there not being public proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

Not gripes – Clearly explaining Russia’s motivation and world view. Read these case studies and you will recognize much that is going on all around us, get a sense of how Russia goes about manipulating populations. Breaking down the methods, aims, and impacts lets one talk about information warfare in specific, rather than general terms, and thereby consider actions that target individual elements for ways to defend.

It is often the case that analytical books that delve into political or social problems offer excellent insight, but fall short when it comes to offering real-world solutions. One can look at successes that targeted nations have had in beating back or preventing Russian Info attacks, and seek to apply those best practices across the board, for NATO nations in particular. Thankfully, some of Lilly’s advice seems doable.

She recommends that states should make public more of the information on cyber operations and actors directed against them, to help understand Russia’s playbook. There are benefits to be had beyond that as we saw recently, when President Biden publicly outed Russia’s plan to fake attacks on Russians and blame Ukraine, as a justification for their invasion. She also recommends transparency in political party funding sources. This really is a no-brainer, but the reality is that it is currently, and for the foreseeable future will remain, a non-starter federally in the USA where so many of those in charge of making the laws benefit directly from that very secrecy. She also recommends federal funding of cyber-awareness training for state and local campaigns. I can certainly see this meeting resistance from those legislators who might benefit from external interference in our elections. It might have a chance in individual states as a state program. There are more. It is a mixed bag, containing no silver bullet. The inherent conflicts of interest will keep the USA vulnerable. At this point we have to rely on the IC and the Department of Defense to fend off the gravest attacks. Clearly, relying on the moral concerns of companies like Facebook and Twitter (now owned by dodgy-human Elon Musk) is a sure cure for any feeling of security.

Lilly may not have all the solutions, but she has gone a very long way in identifying the problems, at least as far as Russia goes, pointing out what is likely, and under what circumstances, and letting us know where such attacks have failed and why. In the larger sense, she has made it very clear that Russian military policy contains a drive to ongoing information warfare. If you want to understand how Russia seeks to undermine Western democracies, see the techniques they use, and understand their fondness for using local allies, or puppets, Russian Information Warfare is a must read.

For Russia a particularly useful way to keep the West, or Russia’s enemies in general at bay, is to wage an information-based assault on them all, constantly. Why take casualties when you can achieve your objectives by conducting daily operations on the sly. Orwell would recognize the notion. For Russia, permanent War is Peace.

Information warfare is applied through strategic media messaging disseminated through all media channels that reach the population of the targeted country. The aggressive party uses information technologies to engage public institutions in the targeted country, such as mass media, religions institutions, NGOs, cultural institutions, and public movements receiving foreign financing. To further help the demoralization of the population and ensure chaos, the adversary targets the disillusioned population and infiltrates these groups with provocateurs. Disinformation, or deliberate falsification of events, can also be considered among the principal information warfare components.

Review posted – April 15, 2022

Publication date – September 15, 2022

I received an EPUB ARE of Russian Information Warfare from The U.S. Naval Institute in return for a fair review and agreeing not to give away any state secrets. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

An aside: I received a NetGalley EPUB ARE of this book in March, 2022. As noted above it is not due for publication until September, 2022. In the normal course of events, I would have waited to read and review it until much nearer the pub date. But given Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it seemed important to push this one to the head of the line. It may not yet be available for sale, but if you are interested, I suggest checking NetGalley for a possible early look.

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Lilly’s FB and Twitter pages

From the U.S. Naval Institute:

Denounced by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,  Dr. Bilyana Lilly  managed projects on ransomware, cyber threat intelligence,  AI,  disinformation, and information warfare. She was a cyber expert for the RAND Corporation and has spoken at DefCon,  CyCon, the Executive Women’s Forum and the Warsaw Security Forum. Dr. Lilly is the author of over a dozen peer-reviewed publications and has been cited in the Wall Street Journal,  Foreign Policy  and ZDNet.

Interview
—–The Office of Strategic Engagement – Think JSOU – Interview with Dr. Bilyana Lilly by Lieutenant Colonel Mitch Wander – this is really more of a staged Q/A to enable Lilly to talk about her material. It is very informative, but with a particularly stiff question-reading by Wander. – This is the only one you will need.

Item of Interest from the author
—–International Committee of the Red Cross – Intercross – THE RISE AND FALL OF THE ABM TREATY: MISSILE DEFENSE AND THE U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONSHIP – 1:20:42 – Lilly is a panel member discussing James Cameron’s book The Double Game

Items of Interest
—–NY times – 3/4/2022 – I’ve Dealt With Foreign Cyberattacks. America Isn’t Ready for What’s Coming. By Glenn S. Gerstell
—–NY Times – 11/12/2018 – Operation InfeKtion – Russian disinformation: From Cold War to Kanye by Adam B. Ellick and Adam Westbrook – a three-part video series
—–The Guardian – 3/5/20922 – Ukrainians around the world aren’t just protesting –we’re fighting an information war by Jane Lytvynenko
—–Lockheed Martin – Cyber Kill Chain
—–National Technical Reports Library – 2017 – Defense Science Board (DSB) Task Force on Cyber Deterrence -you can download the report

Although progress is being made to reduce the pervasive cyber vulnerabilities of U.S. critical infrastructure, the unfortunate reality is that, for at least the next decade, the offensive cyber capabilities of our most capable adversaries are likely to far exceed the United States’ ability to defend key critical infrastructures. The U.S. military itself has a deep and extensive dependence on information technology as well, creating a massive attack surface.

…due to our extreme dependencies on vulnerable information systems, the United States today lives in a virtual “glass house.” Hardening and increasing the resilience of the most vital critical infrastructure systems – including electricity, water, and waste water – is urgently needed to bolster deterrence by denial and by cost imposition.

—–NY Times – 3/18/22 – Why You Haven’t Heard About the Secret Cyberwar in Ukraine by Thomas Rid
—–AP – April 2, 2022 – Ukraine says potent Russian hack against power grid thwarted by Frank Bajak
—–NY Times – April 13, 2022 – U.S. and Ukrainian Groups Pierce Putin’s Propaganda Bubble By Julian E. Barnes and Edward Wong

During the Cold War, the U.S. government, and the C.I.A. specifically, helped found and fund independent media organizations with the mission to penetrate the Iron Curtain with fact-based news. With the invasion of Ukraine, the organizations are once again operating with a sense of urgency as they push to get accurate information inside an authoritarian state.

—–NY Times – April 15, 2022 – How Russia Media Uses Fox News to Make Its Case by Stuart A. Thompson
—–AP – April 28, 2022 – A chilling Russian cyber aim in Ukraine: Digital dossiers by Frank Bajak
—–NY Times – May 6, 2022 – The War in Ukraine, as Seen on Russian TV by Stuart A. Thompson

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Filed under American history, History, Non-fiction, Public policy

The King’s Shadow by Edmund Richardson

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As he left Agra behind, Lewis had no way of knowing that he was walking into one of history’s most incredible stories. He would beg by the roadside and take tea with kings. He would travel with holy men and become the master of a hundred disguises. He would see things no westerner had ever seen before, and few have glimpsed since. And, little by little, he would transform himself from an ordinary soldier into one of the greatest archaeologists of the age. He would devote his life to a quest for Alexander the Great.

There’s an old Afghan proverb: ‘First comes one Englishman as a traveller; then come two and make a map; then comes an army and takes the country. Therefore it is better to kill the first Englishman.’ He did not know it yet, but Masson is the reason that proverb exists. He was the first Englishman.

You have probably never heard of Charles Masson. At the time of his creation in 1827, no one else had either. Nor had his creator. For six long years, Private James Lewis had endured soldiering in the military force of the East India Company (EIC) in sundry nations and city-states, in what is now India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. He had hoped for a life better than what was possible in a squalid London. Dire economic times had driven large numbers of people into bankruptcy and poverty. And if they were already poor, it drove them to desperation. The government’s response was to threaten to kill those protesting because of their inability to pay their debts. There had to be a better option somewhere, anywhere. But it had turned out not to be the better life that he had hoped for.

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Edmund Richardson– image from RNZ

Lewis suffered from the multiple curses of curiosity and intelligence. He had tired of the often corrupt, ignorant, mean-spirited officers and officials above him, and knew he would not be allowed to leave any time soon. When opportunity presented, Lewis and another disgruntled employee took off, went AWOL, strangers in a strange land. And in the sands of the Indian subcontinent, having fled across a vast no man’s land, feverish, desperate, and terrified of being apprehended by the EIC or its agents, Lewis happened across an American, Josiah Harlan, leading a small mercenary force in support of restoring the king of Afghanistan, and the adventure begins. Lewis vanished into the sands and Charles Masson was born into Lewis’s skin.

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Josiah Harlan, The Man Who Would be King – image from Wiki

A ripping yarn, The King’s Shadow (Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City in the UK) tells of the peregrinations and travails of Lewis/Masson from the time of his desertion in 1827 to his death in 1853. It will remind you of Rudyard Kipling tales, particularly The Man who Would Be King. The real life characters on whom that story is based appear in these pages.

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Dost Mohammad Khan. – considered a wise ruler by many, he was devilishly dishonest – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

It certainly sounds as if the world James Lewis thought he was leaving in London, a fetid swamp of human corruption, cruelty, and depravity, had followed him to the East. There is an impressive quantity of backstabbing going on. Richardson presents us with a sub-continental panorama of rogues. Con-men, narcissists, spies, the power-hungry, the deluded, the pompous, the vain, the ignorant, and the bigoted all set up tents here, and all tried to get the best of each other. There are political leaders who show us a bit of wisdom. More who know nothing of leadership except the perks. They all traipse across a land that Alexander the Great had travelled centuries before.

His quest would take him across snow-covered mountains, into hidden chambers filled with jewels, and to a lost city buried beneath the plains of Afghanistan. He would unearth priceless treasures and witness unspeakable atrocities. He would unravel a language which had been forgotten for over a thousand years. He would be blackmailed and hunted by the most powerful empire on earth. He would be imprisoned for treason and offered his own kingdom. He would change the world – and the world would destroy him.

The American mercenary with whom Lewis/Masson joined forces was a fanatic about Alexander, seeing himself as a modern day version. He taught Masson about his idol and in time Masson took the obsession on as his own, albeit without the desire for a throne that drove his American pal, reading up on histories of Alexander.

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Shah Shujah-al-Moolk, circa 1835 – the restored king of Afghanistan who served as a British puppet) – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

You will learn a bit about Alexander, of whom stories are still told. He may not seem so great once you learn of his atrocities. The British government and the East India company tried to keep up, demonstrating a capacity for grandiosity, cruelty and inhumanity, whilst also armed with alarming volumes of incompetence and unmerited venality

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Alexander Burnes – image from Wiki

In his travels, aka invasions, conquests, and or large-scale slaughter, Alexander established a pearl necklace of cities along his route. Some were grander than others. One, in Egypt, is still a thriving metropolis. Most vanished beneath the drifts of time, whether they had been cities, towns, villages, or mere outposts. But Charles Masson was convinced that one of Alexander’s cities could be found the general area in which he was living. The evidence on which he based this view was cultural, appearing in stories, legends, and local lore, but then more concrete evidence began to appear (coins) and appear, and appear.

Time and again, Masson is dragged away from his work, and time and again he finds his way back, his passion for unearthing the lost Alexandria becoming the driving force in his life. Surely, if his own survival were his highest priority, he would have sailed for home a long, long time before he finally did. His work was hugely successful, all the more remarkable because he was a rank amateur. Much of Lewis’s work, thousands of objects and drawings, is still on display at the British Museum. He was a gifted archaeologist, and made several world-class advances. These include discovering a long-lost Alexandrian city and using ancient coins he had discovered, that contained Greek on one side, and an unknown language on the other, to decipher that language. And significantly modify the historical view of Alexander’s era.

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Ranjit Singh, maharajah of the Punjab – image from Genealogy Adventures Live

The King’s Shadow is an adventure-tale biography, which focuses on Masson’s life and experiences more than on Alexander. Sure, there is enough in the book to justify the UK title, but barely. There is a lot more in here about him trying to secure the connection between his head and his shoulders, threatened by a seemingly ceaseless flood of enemies. He is a remarkably interesting character, which is what holds our interest. He has dealings with a large cast of likewise remarkably interesting characters, all of which serves to keep us interested, while passing something along about what life in this part of the world was like in the early 19th century. (Remarkably like it is today in many respects)

There are few downsides here. One is that there is a sizeable cast, so it might be a bit tough keep track of who’s who. That said, I was reading an ARE, so there might be a roster offered in the final version. I keep lists of names when I read, so managed, but that it seemed needed should prepare you for that. Second was that there were times when events went from A to D without necessarily explaining the B and C parts. For example, there is an episode in which Masson is sent along with a subordinate of Dost Mohammad Khan’s, Haji Khan, to extract taxes from a recalcitrant community. But Haji has no intention of returning, yet somehow Masson is back in Kabul in the following chapter. Really, did he escape? Did he get permission to leave? How did the move from place A to place B take place? In another, a military attack fails, yet there is no mention of why the fleeing army was not pursued. Things like that.

There are multiple LOL moments to be enjoyed. Not saying that there is any chance of passing this off as a comedy book, but Richardson’s sense of humor is very much appreciated. You may or may not find the same things amusing. His descriptions are sometimes pure delight. An itinerant Christian preacher arrives at the palace of Dost Mohammad Khan, intent on converting him. The preacher had encountered serial misfortunes in his travels and had arrived in Kabul stark naked. Richardson refers to him at one point as “the well ventilated Mr Wolff.” He also describes Masson arriving late at night at the home of Rajit Singh, the local maharaja, only to find an American in attendance, singing Yankee Doodle Dandy. Another tells of a message Masson left for future explorers at what was then an incredibly remote site. LOL time. As much as you will frown at the miseries depicted in these pages, you will smile, maybe even laugh, a fair number of times as well. I noted five LOLs in my notes. There are more than that.

Charles Masson, despite the lack of appreciation and recognition he received, made major contributions to our knowledge of the Alexandrian era. Edmund Richardson fills us in on those, while also offering a biography that reads like an Indiana Jones adventure. Richardson has a novelist’s talent for story-telling. His tale shows not only the power of singlemindedness and passion, but the dark side of far too many men, and some unfortunate forms of governance. It is both entertaining and richly informative. Bottom line is that The King’s Shadow darkens nothing while illuminating much. Jolly Good!

This is a story about following your dreams to the ends of the earth – and what happens when you get there.
Had he known what was coming, Lewis might have stayed in bed.

Review posted – April 8, 2022

Publication date – April 5, 2022

I received an ARE of The King’s Shadow from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review and a couple of those very special coins. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

From Hazlitt

Edmund Richardson writes about the strangest sides of history. The Victorian con-artist who discovered a lost city. The child prodigy turned opium addict. Several homicidal headmasters. A clutch of Spiritualists. A prophet who couldn’t get the end of the world right. And Alexander the Great. He’s currently Lecturer in Classics at Durham University. Cambridge University Press recently published his first book, Classical Victorians: Scholars, Scoundrels and Generals in Pursuit of the Ancient World.

The King’s Shadow is Richardson’s third book.

Interviews
—–Travels Through Time – Interview with Edmund Richardson on Charles Masson and the search for Alexandria with Violet Mueller – re prior book
Tttpodcast.com
—–Travels Through Time – Interview with Edmund Richardson on Charles Masson and the search for Alexandria – audio – 48:03
—–Listen Notes – Edmund Richardson, “Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City Beneath the Mountains” (Bloomsbury, 2021) – with David Chaffetz and Nicholas Gordon – audio – 36:14
—– Alexandria: The Quest for the Lost City | JLF London 2021 – Edmund Richardson with Taran N. Khan – video – 45:32 – begin about 3:00
—–ABC – Deserter, archaeologist and spy – the extraordinary adventures of Charles Masson – audio – 55:28 – with Sarah Kanowski

Item of Interest from the author
—–A pawn in the Great Game: the sad story of Charles Masson

Items of Interest
—–Wiki on Charles Masson
—–Encyclopedia Iranica – Charles Masson – a nice history of his life and accomplishments
—–Josiah Harlan
—–Alexander Burnes
—–Gutenberg – The Man Who Would Be King by Rudyard Kipling – full text
—–Wiki on the story – The Man Who Would Be King

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Filed under Afghanistan, Archaeology, Bio/Autobio/Memoir, England, History, Reviews, World History

Insanity Defense by Jane Harman

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In 2020, after trillions of dollars in military expenditures and multiple wars, a virus originating in a Chinese “wet market” would inflict even more economic and human damage. Overcoming the most lethal threats of the twenty-first century—at least those threats that pose the greatest risk to the health and well-being of the average citizen—will require staying the itchy trigger finger of militarized statecraft. Ultimately, achieving true security will require embracing a broader “whole of government” and “whole of nation” set of tools that reflect the full strength of America.

If Jane Harman had been on stage at the Oscars instead of Chris Rock, an out of control actor with anger issues would have failed to land the slap heard round the world. Harman would have ducked. It is clear from reading Insanity Defense that she has mastered the pugilistic art of the bob and weave. And as she does so, and despite her legislative career as a Democrat, it appears that her sweet science strategy has her tending to circle to the right.

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Jane Harman – image from Politico

Jane Harman was a United States Representative from California’s 38th District from 1993 to 1999, and from 2001 to 2011. Security was her primary beat. She chaired the Homeland Security Committee’s Intelligence Subcommittee from 2007 to 2011 and was the ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee from 2002 to 2006. She moved on to head the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in 2011, where she remained until retiring in 2021. So, she has been there and done that for matters concerning national security for quite some time. She is a Democrat, regarded as liberal by some and a centrist by others. The liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave her a 95% rating, while Politico refers to her as one of the leading centrist voices in the Democratic Party on intelligence and national security.

During her time in office, she was able to work with some Republicans to revamp the organization of American spy agencies. It has been reported that she took the Wilson Center gig because it offered an opportunity to continue working on issues of interest in a bipartisan manner, something that was no longer possible as a representative, given the GOP’s scorched-earth partisanship. It is also possible that she left Congress when the Democrats’ minority status would have left her with little effective influence for at least two years.

Insanity Defense is not so much a memoir as it is a critique of the changes that have not been made to American defense policy since the end of the Cold War.

My work in the defense and intelligence space spans more than three decades, and I am vexed by the fact that policies designed to protect America are actually making us less safe. I call this “insanity defense”: doing the same thing again and again and expecting it to enhance our security.

Her look at the last thirty years includes five administrations, Bush 41, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, and Trump, pointing out how she believes they failed on foreign policy, taking on several security issues that she believes have not been adequately addressed. Trump is mentioned more than once, and not positively, but is given less attention than his predecessors. More attention to his impact on US military and intelligence policy would have been most welcome. The memoirish bits have to do with her work on committees and other positions she has held dealing with military and intelligence issues. There is nothing in here about her personal life other than events relating to her runs for office and other policy-related jobs she has held.

Harman’s basic point is valid. She makes a strong case for the need to be flexible in a variety of ways in order to address ever-changing security needs, cope with new threats, in diverse forms, and not spend every penny we have as nation on new hardware designed to win World War II. Of course that would require that Representatives and Senators with considerable defense industry constituencies step back from advocating for government spending that benefits their industries at the cost of less expensive, and potentially more effective alternate approaches. Good luck with that.

There is not a lot that will be news to you in this book. I appreciate that Harman offers some specifics on proposals that were made that could help provide needed coverage of defense needs (like drone subs that could track whatever needed tracking, running for months at a time) without requiring megabucks being spent on traditional tech, such as aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and ever more complicated and expensive fighter jets. (That means you, F-35) Some of the interactions she reports with decision-makers will only reinforce your take on them. Nothing to see here, move along.

A major point in the book is that Congress has been marginalized by the White House on matters of military action and intelligence, that power has become far too concentrated in an increasingly unitary executive. She refers to Dick Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington.

As far as Addington was concerned, when Article II said that “the executive Power shall be vested in a President,” well, that was the end of it—all power, not some power or whatever power Congress provided or allowed. The concept of the “unitary executive,” once an obscure theory at the right fringe of legal thinking, would become the operating manual for the Bush presidency when it came to security policy. I called this a “bloodless coup”—a dramatic power shift in government that occurred almost entirely out of view at the time. Addington was always courtly and polite with me personally. But when it came to any role for Congress, his answer was always a very firm no.

Harman’s solutions for future improvement rely on somehow finding again the holy grail of bipartisanship. I believe that she was blinded to the extant political realities by her prior experience of meaningful bi-partisanship. Newt Gingrich killed it, and Mitch McConnell incinerated the body. Harman appears to be living in a bit of a time warp, in which she does not recognize that the civil bipartisanship that allowed Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill to be friends has taken a hard uppercut to the chin and is lying unconscious on the mat. She certainly should be aware. It was that partisanship that some say drove her from Congress in 2011. And yet…

The greater Obama’s frustration with recalcitrant Republican majorities—first the Tea Party–dominated House, then the Mitch McConnell–led Senate—the more he would exercise executive action on a range of issues.

As if it were Obama’s frustration and not Republican intransigence that was at fault. McConnell left him no option, having publicly declared that he would oppose all bills favored by the White House. It takes two for bipartisanship, and Obama certainly tried, but Harman is blaming the victim here. (duck)

I look at what went wrong—and could go right again—through the lens of my own experience: how political moderates became first hunted and then an endangered species, caught in the crossfire between the far left and the far right. The punishment for bipartisanship became harsh and immediate. The business model shifted from working together to solve urgent problems facing the country to blaming the other side for not solving the urgent problems.

Yet more worthless both-sidism from Harman. Just look at the range of opinions in the Democratic party and then look at the Republicans. Only one party is purging moderates. (sucker punch)

This is not to say that she saves all her barbs for Dems. Harman has plenty to say about the Bush (43) administration wasting the opportunity offered by 9/11 and the sympathy the USA gained from the world from that event, pivoting to a “war on terror” that cost trillions of dollars, tens of thousands of lives, and accomplished not a lot. A classic case of using old tech against a new problem. Winston Churchill famously said “Generals are always prepared to fight the last war.” It appears that politicians share that malady. She strongly decries the Bush (43) administration’s embrace of secrecy and a unitary executive view of presidential power, as noted above. She rightly points out instances in which both Republican and Democratic presidents have played fast and loose with restrictions on their executive activities, particularly in matters of war and intelligence. But her tendency to pull her punches on Republicans while not offering the same consideration to Dems made the book feel off balance.

One of many mysteries about Cheney is how someone who had risen to House minority whip while a congressman from Wyoming could become so contemptuous of the institution he once helped lead.

This is not at all a mystery. Cheney was hungry for power, by any means possible. That the author fails to see or admit this speaks to either a surprising naivete or a willful ignorance. She cites her early experience of him as gracious but then cites a far cry from the obsessive almost maniacal figure he would be portrayed as, not that he was, but as he was portrayed as. (bob) She goes on to tell of asking VP Cheney directly to expand from two the list of Representatives currently kept informed about a spy project called Stellar Wind (a domestic spying program with a very shaky legal foundation) and his one word answer, “No.” She does a similar thing with Jeremy Bremer re the disastrous de-Baathification program he signed off on in Iraq, trying to lay blame on higher-ups. So what? Even if they ordered him to do it, he still did it. The man could have resigned if he opposed the order. (weave)

Do we need to change in our approaches to military thought and intelligence gathering? Sure. This presumes, of course, that the change has not already taken place, and we just don’t know about it. I am not saying that this is the case, just that it is difficult to ascertain where the truth lies in such policy areas. Do we need to pare back the unitary presidency? Absolutely, or else the nation becomes an autocracy. Do we need Congress to regain oversight, and influence on policy issued? Definitely, with the caveat that this access isn’t used solely to undermine the administration, whichever party holds the White House, but to interact with the administration to make sure the stated goals and methods are kosher.

Do we need to read Jane Harman’s Insanity Defense? There is merit in the raising of important issues of national importance and value in imparting the benefit of her experience over three decades of public service. As a refresher, this book makes some sense, offering one a chance to brush up on some meaningful legislative history, some war policy history. But this is not at all a must read. So, the final bell rings and the referee checks with the judges. The result? Split Decision.

One of the least known yet most consequential documents filed immediately after 9/11 was a memorandum of notification to Congress, commonly referred to as a “finding,” which announced that the CIA would be conducting operations that would not be acknowledged. At the time, this notification, submitted on September 17, 2001, seemed pro forma; we all took it as a given that aggressive covert activity would—indeed, must—be part of our response to the horrific attacks. Yet this same finding would cover the CIA black sites, enhanced interrogations, and targeted killings abroad for nearly two decades.

Review posted – April 1, 2022

Publication date – May 18, 2021

I received an ARE of Insanity Defense from Saint Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and a few bits of classified intel Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Interviews
—–Woodrow Wilson Center – Insanity Defense: Why Our Failure to Confront Hard National Security Problems Makes Us Less Safe with David Sanger – video – 57:31
—– Jane Harman Steps Down: A Look Back on a Decade of Leadership and Achievement by John Milewski – on her stepping down as director of the Wilson Center, and about her book – video – 30:02

Items of Interest from the author
—–Foreign Affairs – A Crisis of Confidence – How Biden Can Restore Faith in U.S. Spy Agencies
—–The Common Good – Combating Misinformation with Clint Watts and Jane Harman – video – 1:11:56

Items of Interest
—–Stellar Wind
—–Youngstown Sheet and Tube vs Sawyer re presidential power
—–Sweet Science

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Filed under American history, Public policy, Reviews

The Impossible Us by Sarah Lotz

book cover

I now understand why desperate people find religion, or end up believing in aliens or conspiracy theories. Because sometimes the rational answer doesn’t cut it. Sometimes you have to look outside the box. And my hope-desperation twofer had led me way outside the box, all the way to a Willow Green allotment in fact, where, God help me, I was waiting to meet a bunch of people who even the most charitable among us would label “raging nut-job weirdos.”

You think your relationship is complicated? You have no idea what complicated is. Nick and Bee, now that is a truly complicated pairing. Guy sends a flaming message, raging about (and to) a client who has not paid for editing/ghost-writing services, and it somehow gets misdirected. Woman checking her e-mail receives said message and responds with great, subdued humor. And we have achieved our rom-com meet cute.

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Sarah Lotz – image from A.M. Heath

Obviously the pair hit it off, as messages go zooming back and forth across the wires, ether, or whatever, and we get to the big Deborah Kerr/Cary Grant rendezvous scene. As this is London instead of New York, it is set under the large clock at Euston Station instead of at the top of the Empire State Building. And, well, as one might expect, it does not come off as planned, putting a huge dent in the “rom.” Pissed, Bee is about to write it all off when her bff convinces her to keep an open mind, and a good thing too. Turns out, her correspondent had indeed shown up, well, in his London, anyway. The two have somehow been the beneficiaries of a first-order MacGuffin, well a variant on one, anyway. Nick and Bee, while they may be able to exchange messages, are actually living in parallel universes. So I guess that makes their connection more of a meet moot?

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Big Clock at Euston Station image from AllAboard.eu

Still, the connection, divided as they are, is real. They try to figure out what to do. And that is where the next literary angle comes into play. Sarah Lotz adds into the mix references to Patricia Highsmith’s (and Alfred Hitchcock’s) Strangers on a Train. But not for the purpose of knocking off each other’s unwanted spouse. (Although now that you mention it…) If they can’t be together, maybe they can use their insider knowledge to find their side’s version of each other. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries for very similar girl? I mean really, what would you do if you found the one, but were precluded by the laws of physics from realizing your dream?

Lotz has fun with literary/cinematic references, even beyond the two noted above. There is a Rebeccan mad mate, chapters with titles like Love Actually and One Wedding and a Funeral, and on. This is one of the many joys of this book. Catching the references, the easter eggs deftly scattered all about. Cary Grant’s Nickie in An Affair… is Nick here. Rebecca of the story of that name is Bee in one world, Rebecca in another.

There are lovely secondary characters, Bee’s bff, Leila, is the sort of strong supporting sort a fraught leading lady needs. Nick engages with a group of oddballs who have some off-the-grid notions about space-time, and what rules should apply when contact is achieved. There is a grade-A baddie in dire need of removal, a harsh landlady, some adorable pooches, and a very sweet young man.

Another bit of fun is the repeated presence of David Bowie references, including an album you have never heard of.

There is some peripheral social commentary as Nick and Bee compare the worlds in which they live, what programs have been enacted, which politicians have gained office, or not, where the world stands with global warming, things of that nature. These offer food for thought, actually more like dessert to go with the main course of the romance.

Time travel romances have made an impressive dent in our overall reading time. The Outlander, and The Time Traveler’s Wife pop immediately to mind. Other stories have been written about people communicating over time, but this is the first use I am aware of that makes use of parallel universes as an impediment to true love. You do not want to look too closely at the explanation for the whole parallel universe thing. Just go with it. suspend your disbelief. In fact, send it off for a long weekend to someplace nice.

Lotz has done an impressive job of delivering LOLs and tears all in the same book. I noted seven specific LOLs in my notes, and I expect there were more that I failed to jot down. On top of that, we can report that copious tears were shed. No count on that one. So Lotz certainly delivers on the feelz front.

Bee and Nick’s relationship may be insanely complicated, but there should be nothing complicated about your decision to check this one out. The Impossible Us is not only very possible, but practically mandatory. This is a super fun read that you should find a way to make happen for you, whether or not you have a tweed suit, a red coat, a rail station with a large clock, or a dodgy internet connection.

Review posted – March 18, 2022

Publication date – March 22, 2022

I received an ARE of The Impossible Us from Ace in return for a fair review in this universe. My much more successful self in that other place will have to handle the review on his side. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Lotz’s’s personal, FB, Instagram, and GR pages

Sarah Lotz writes under various names. Impossible Us (Impossible in the UK), is her eighth book under that name. Then there are four books written with her daughter, Savannah, as Lily Herne, five with Louis Greenburg as S.L. Grey, three with Helen Moffatt and Paige Nick as Helena S. Paige, and that does not even count screenplays.

Items of Interest
—–Parallel Universes in Fiction
—–MacGuffin
—–Rebecca
—–An Affair to Remember
—–Strangers on a Train

Reminds Me Of
—–Meet Me in Another Life
—–The Midnight Library

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Romantic Comedy, Sci-fi, Science Fiction, Science Fiction

Secret Identity by Alex Segura

book cover

The comics business was messy—a slapdash sprint to meet immovable deadlines, a blur of pages flowing from production to editorial and back before being jettisoned out the door to the printer. Carmen loved it.

Miami was a city, too, Carmen knew—but New York was something else. A disease that bubbled and expanded and multiplied and morphed, like some kind of magical, mystical being that seemed from another world.

Carmen Valdez, late of Miami, is where she wants to be. She may not be exactly doing what she wants, but she is trying to get there. A New Yorker for the last year, Carmen is 28. She works at Triumph Comics, a third-tier publisher of such things, and is living the dream, if the dream is to be working as a secretary to a boss who cannot see past her gender, cannot even imagine a woman, let alone a Hispanic woman, actually writing stories for his press. But the stories are there, the ideas filling notebooks. She gives him some, but even if he bothers to read them, he dismisses the work out of hand. All she needs is a chance. And then one appears.

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Alex Segura – image from Comicsbeat

Harvey Stern is a junior editor there, young, friendly. They bond over a shared love of the medium (a love she had acquired from her father taking her out for father-daughter bonding that included the buying of comics). They are friendly without being quite friends. The house has a sudden need for a new character; Harvey is given the job of coming up with one, a female hero who will get a rise out of young male Triumph readers. Carmen sees her opportunity and offers to “help.” Their work together goes well. The story is mostly hers, of course, but Harvey has some skills. They produce a pretty good book. It does well. Problem is that no one other than she and Harvey knows the truth about how it came to be. Then Harvey suffers a BLAM! BLAM! leaving him with even less conscious corporeality than an invisible six-foot pooka. Guess who finds the body? And the noir gets dark.

I’ve always been fascinated with Megan Abbott’s work and her ability to bring the tenets of noir to areas where you wouldn’t expect noir to exist—gymnastics, cheerleading, science, and so on. She crafts these narratives that are tense, fraught, and loaded with style outside of the typical noir settings. I remember reading Dare Me and just thinking, huh, wouldn’t it be cool to write a comic book noir? – from The Big Thrill interview

Segura had recently finished writing his Pete Fernandez Miami Mysteries, so has the chops to produce a pretty good whodunit. Carmen sees, in short order, that the police are not up to the task. She also knows that unless she can figure out why Harvey was killed, and by whom, she will never be able to get recognition for her work, or maybe sleep at night. Harvey is not the last person attacked by a mysterious villain.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

Secret identities abound here. Carmen hides her true author self from the boss because of the sexism of the age. Everyone seems to have a secret. Harvey certainly does did. Are all the names that we are given really the characters’ true names? Might there be an alias or two creeping around, for dark purposes?

she had to become someone else to survive

Segura has been busy in the comic book industry for many years, working on Archie Comics, while living in Miami, then moving to New York to work for DC. He has written detective novels, and a Star Wars book, stand-alone mysteries, short stories, a crime podcast, and probably an encyclopedia. He is married with kids, and I imagine that he must sleep some…time. Maybe he is one of the characters he writes about and his secret power is eternal wakefulness. Captain Insomnia takes on every request for writerly product, and satisfies them all.

He has a particular soft spot for the 1970s in the comics industry, when the industry’s body was laid out on the street, bleeding money and readers. Who would come to its rescue?

Well the comic book industry was really struggling at that time after the glory years of the 50s and 60s. Comics were struggling. It wasn’t like today, where we have shows about Peacemaker or obscure characters – it was considered a dying industry. So I wanted to use her passion for the medium and contrast it with comics at its lowest point, and then show her fighting to control this one thing she loves. – from the Three Rooms Press interview

This was a time when comic books were sold only on newsstands or in small stores, before there were comic book conventions, before the steady drumbeat of blockbuster films based on comic book characters. There was plenty wrong with the industry at the time (there probably still is), with notorious cases of people stealing credit for the work of others. Some of those are noted here. In fact, there are many references made to well-known names in the comic book industry. I am sorry to say that most just slipped past me, as I am not the maven for such things that Segura and no doubt many readers of this book are. I can report, though, that not knowing all the references did not at all detract from my overall enjoyment, and recognizing the ones I did enhanced the fun. He even tosses in a nod to a character of his from another project, as that character’s story was set in the same time period.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

There was plenty wrong with NYC at the time. I know. I remember. Fun City, originally a tossed-off line by a 1960s mayor facing multiple municipal crises (“It’s still a fun city.”) had not completed the shift to The Big Apple, itself a reconstitution of a city logo from the 1920s. The city, a political creation of the state, was starved by the state for the funds needed to provide the services it was required to offer, then was looked down on for that inability. It was a time when graffiti was ubiquitous, crime was up, and gentrification was beginning, as landlords were torching their properties to drive out residents so they could transform their buildings into co-ops. It was a time of white flight and a time when a local tabloid featured the infamous headline: Ford to City: Drop Dead, after NYC had turned to the federal government for aid. We get a taste with Carmen’s arrival.

the drab, claustrophobic walls of the Port Authority giving her the most honest first impression of New York she could expect. As she wandered the cavernous transport hub, a concrete behemoth at the tail end of the Lincoln Tunnel, she got a heavy dose of what she’d only imagined. A city in disrepair, boiled down into this one sprawling bus terminal. Leaky ceilings, shadowy conversations, blaring horns, and unidentifiable smells all coalesced into an unbridled fear that gripped Carmen as she stepped out into the New York sunlight.

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The Legendary Lynx – from the book – image from The Firewire Blog

Carmen’s mission is to solve the crime of course (When a man’s woman’s partner is killed he’s she’s supposed to do something about it. It doesn’t make any difference what you thought of him. He was your partner and you’re supposed to do something about it.”), but it would not be a noir if Carmen did not have some personal struggles going on as she struggles to figure out whodunit. There are parental issues, which might not be quite noir-ish, but a dark episode from her past stalks her, which certainly is. And there are some romantic bits as well, which definitely fit. She may have been raised Catholic, but Carmen is no nun. All this serves to make for a rounded character, one we can cheer for. Part of that rounding involves some flaws as well, and not the sort we are used to in our primary investigators.

For example, did Carmen really believe that the boss would disbelieve her if she told him the truth about authorship of The Legendary Lynx? There is a scene in which Harvey gets weird and take off after a working-together session. Holy Tunnel Vision, Batman! No freaking out over that? And she lets Harvey take her notebooks, her primary and unbacked up material? Even the Daredevil wasn’t that blind. There was something else, of no real consequence, that really bothered me. There is a scene which entails Carmen walking from the East Side to the West Side of Manhattan without any mention of passing through Central Park, which is directly in the path, or walking around it. That just seemed odd, particularly coming from a guy who lives in New York. Not really a spoiler, just wanted to spare most folks this aside.
I used to live on the West side of Manhattan, for most of the 1970s, West 81st Street, then West 76th Street, and walked across the park to my grad school on the East Side. Walked back, too, so, speaking from experience. Like I said, no consequence.

One thing you will definitely enjoy is the inclusion in the book of seventeen pages from The Legendary Lynx. They presage events in the chapters that follow. It is a perfect addition to the book.

Music permeates, including nods to the venues of the day, The Village Vanguard, CBGBs, The Bottom Line, et al. Her roommate, Molly, is a musician, rubbing shoulders with rising stars, like Springsteen and Patti Smith.

Secret identity covers a fair bit of territory, an homage to a beloved industry in a dire time, a noir mystery, a look at the city where he now lives, when it was on its knees, while saluting the music of the time and the creators of the comic book industry, warts and all. And he tosses in a comic book for good measure. This is a fun read of the first order, even for those, like me, who may not be comic nerds. In producing this very entertaining novel, Alex Segura has revealed his true identity, at least for those who did not already know. Clearly, Seguro really arrived on this planet not in a Miami hospital ward, but probably somewhere in the Everglades, his ship originating in a galaxy far, far away. He may or may not be able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but he clearly wields otherworldly power as a writer. POW!

If it got published, I’d be ghostwriting it. . . . I mean, I’d get a shot, and if it did well we’d reveal my involvement, but. . . .”
“You’d be anonymous at first? Like his secret partner?”
Carmen waited a beat, letting her mind skim over what she already knew to be true. She nodded at Molly, hoping her friend couldn’t see her resigned expression in the dark.
“Is that what you want?” Molly asked. “To live your dream—in secret?”
Carmen felt her stomach twist into a painful, aching knot.

Review posted – March 11, 2022

Publication date – March 15, 2022

I received an ARE of Secret Identity from, well, I can‘t tell you, in return for a fair review. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating an e-galley copy.

This review has been cross-posted on Goodreads. Stop by and say Hi!

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Interviews
—–Crime Reads – SHOP TALK: ALEX SEGURA IS ALWAYS WRITING, EVEN WHEN HE’S NOT by Eli Cranor
Mostly on Segura’s process and insane productivity
—–The Big Thrill – Up Close: Alex Segura by April Snellings
—–Three Rooms Press – Stand Up Comix:> An Interview with Author Alex Segura

Item of Interest from the author
—–Segura’s Sub-stack

Items of Interest
—–When a man’s partner is killed…
—–pooka

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Filed under Fiction, Historical Fiction, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James

book cover

On the lawn, something moved across the surface of the grass. The touch of a footprint. Inside the house, one of the cupboard doors opened in the dark kitchen, groaning softly into the silence.
In a bedroom window a shape appeared, shadowy and indistinct. The blur, perhaps, of a face. A handprint touched the bedroom window, the palm pressing into the glass. For a second, it was there, pale and white, though there was no one to see.
The wind groaned in the eaves. The handprint faded. The figure moved back into the darkness. And the house was still once more.

“Being a girl is the best,” she said, “because no one ever believes you’d do something bad. People think you’ll do nothing, which means you can do anything. I’ll show you.”

1977 – Claire Lake, Oregon. Two men have been brutally murdered in separate incidents, roadside, no obvious motive. But a witness did see someone leaving the scene of one of the crimes. The description matches a local, a young woman generally regarded as odd. Beth Greer is standoffish, young, attractive, and rich. Parents both dead, Mom from an auto accident in a tree, Dad from a close encounter with fired round, in the kitchen. She has a taste for alcohol and keeping human connections ephemeral. When she is not out at bars and clubs, she is mostly at home, Greer House, not the happiest place on Earth. The bullets that did in the two randos just happen to match the one that laid Julian Greer out on the kitchen floor, a murder, BTW, that was never solved. You can see why the police might be a tad suspicious.

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Simone St. James – image from her site – credit: Lauren Perry

2017 – Shea Collins is 29, newly (ok, almost a year) divorced. Has worked reception in a doctor’s office in downtown Claire Lake for five years. But her real self is invested in her website, The Book of Cold Cases. Shea is a true crime blogger, been at it for ten years, is certainly up on local crime legends, so she notices when one walks into the office, Beth Greer, forty years after she was believed to be The Lady Killer of tabloid fame, forty years after she was acquitted of the murders, which were never solved. Most think she was guilty. Beth pursues Greer, who, to her great shock, agrees to be interviewed.

And the game is afoot. There are two timelines at work, contemporary and back-then. In the 2017 line, Shea interviews Beth at Greer House, even though the place creeps her out. The décor is from the era of Beth’s parents, which is off-putting enough, but there is clearly a lot more going on there. Objects move without obvious cause. A mysterious girl appears outside a window. Shea does not feel safe there, but the lure of getting the whole story from Beth is too much to resist so she keeps coming back. Also, she and Beth seem to be forming a friendship. Beth may or may not be a killer, but Shea likes her, is fascinated by her. In the earlier time, we follow Beth’s childhood, stretching back to 1960, as events that lead up to the killings are revealed, bit by bit.

The alternate perspectives, Shea’s in first person and Beth’s in third, are not evenly divided. We get more Shea than Beth (26 chapters to 18, if you must know), with a few Others tossed in. They do not alternate in a steady format, but streak at times for one or the other.

Shea has some dark visions from her own past she has had to deal with for the last twenty years. At age nine she was abducted, but managed to escape with her life. The next girl her abductor took was not so lucky. Helps explain why she takes the bus and is reluctant to get into cars. Helps explain why she is way security conscious. Also, helps explain why she is reluctant to date again.

“Do you know how many serial killers dated lonely women in their everyday lives? Some divorcée who just wants companionship from a nice man? She thinks she’s won the dating lottery, and meanwhile he’s out there on a Sunday afternoon, dumping bodies. And now we’re supposed to use internet apps, where someone’s picture might not even be real. People are lying about their faces.”

It took a long time after we met on Match for me to discover my now wife’s history of serial criminal activity, so I get that.

There are mysteries to be solved and in the best True Crime fashion, Shea, along with her sort-of partner-in-crime-solving, PI Michael De Vos, dig into each of the questions as they arise. Very cozy mystery style. There is even a retired detective who offers a bit of help, continuing the cozy format. Of course, there are other elements that make this less of a cozy, the supernatural, for one, and a little more on-screen violence than might fit in that format. In fact The Book of Cold Cases crosses many genre lines, could be gothic, thriller, horror, suspense, or mystery, with a bit of romance tossed in for good measure. This particular mix of genre-salad was not always the Simone St. James brand.

I wrote five books set in 1920’s England, and while I loved writing them, I never intended to write about one period for the rest of my life. I wanted to flex my writing muscles and write something set in the USA—something that had two timelines, one of them contemporary. Creatively, I wanted a new goal and a new challenge while still writing a Simone St. James book. I got my wish! – from the Criminal Element interview

St James has stuck with that. Her first America-set thriller, The Broken Girls (2018), offers a split timeline, 1950/2014, the story centering on a deserted and reputedly haunted school for girls, and a journalist looking into the death of her sister twenty years before. The Sun Down Motel (2020) takes on a haunted establishment in upstate New York, splits between 1982 and 2017, and includes a 35-years-ago missing aunt, a niece eager to dig up the truth, and a slew of killings and disappearances that really need looking into. Keeping the string going, The Book of Cold Cases splits between 1977 and 2017, includes an amateur investigator (a blogger this time), some contemporary frights, some historical killings, and a haunted house. (I did ask her what she was planning to haunt next, but St. James declined to spill)

Strong primary characters can carry a book if the plot is well-thought out, and that would have been enough here. But St. James’ secondary characters were quite good, although we could have used even more of some of them. Detective Black, retired now, but involved in the 1977 investigations, was a strong presence. Shea’s PI, Michael De Vos, was off screen too much, as he was quite engaging when he was in view. I enjoyed the parallelism of relationships, Beth with Black and Shea with Michael.

Gripes – The only real blogging work we see Shea do (yes, there is a session or two noted, but only very much in passing) is on Beth’s case. Might have been a good thing to get a stronger, more fleshed out, look at how Shea has been spending her nights, which would have included a lot more on-line than live and in person investigations. Claire Lake, the town, did not feel strongly realized. This was more than made up for, however, by the seriously creepy haunted house, and the powerful presence of Beth Greer.

Lest you suspect there is some actual true crime in this true crime tale, I asked SSJ that question on her FB page, and she replied, “the cases in the book were all entirely fictional.” So you True Crime obsessives can stop looking for real-world sparks for this one. And as for ghosts in the real world, she has never had a spectral experience. St. James likes putting literary Easter eggs in her work, so keep an eye out for those.

Bottom line is that The Book of Cold Cases is a fun page-turner that delivers what it promises, murder mysteries, an intrepid investigator, some fascinating characters, a taste of the 70s, and a large dollop of the other-worldly. It is even a bit scary. I have a pretty high bar for such things, but there was one moment in which I got chills and the hair on my arms stood up at attention. That is one more than usually occurs, so, kudos. It sustains tension throughout, making you want to either blast through ASAP, or, my preferred approach, savor the fun in relatively low-dose portions night after night. In either case this is a fun, spooky, engaging read that is well worth your time, and should provide most readers with some chills.

some places hold you so that you can’t get free. They squeeze you like a fist.

Review posted – March 4, 2022

Publication date – March 15, 2022

I received an ARE of The Book of Cold Cases from Berkley in return for a fair review, and keeping quiet about a few things. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Simone St. James is the nom de plume of Simone Seguin, of Toronto. She worked for many years in TV, for a Canadian sports network, but not as a writer. She worked on budgets. She says she knows nothing about sports, despite the gig. It was only after she had had multiple novels published that she ditched budgeting to become a full-time writer. She had endured six years of rejections before her first book was published. The Book of Cold Cases is her eighth novel.

Interviews
—–Criminal Element – 2018 – Q&A with Simone St. James, Author of The Broken Girls for The Broken Girls by Angie Barry
—–The Inside Flap – 2020 – Ep. 98 How To Spy On People With Simone St. James by Dave Medicus, Andrew Dowd, and Laura Medicus – 1:36:48 – begins about 30:00 – to 58:00

Item of Interest from the author
—–Indigo – Sample – 1st four chapters

Music
—–George Thorogood – Bad to the Bone

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Filed under Fiction, Horror, Mystery, psycho killer, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Treeline by Ben Rawlence

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Big changes are taking place across the vast plain stippled by spruce and striated with water that unfolds below the aircraft at 10,000 feet. The skin of the earth is melting, microbial life waking after thousands, possibly millions, of frozen years. The soil is transpiring—perspiring one could say since more moisture is being released than absorbed—and animals and plants are taking note. It is a new world, and intelligent life—the smart genes—is sniffing it out, sending out suckers, seeds and scouts, ranging north, getting ready.

The Treeline is a mind-blowing piece of work that will teach you many, many things you never suspected, while feeding your sense of awe and your sense of dread. We look to the margins for evidence of large changes in the world, tell-tale signs like rising levels along water frontages, expanding desert edges, changes in growing seasons, changes in wildlife. The treeline was the edge Ben Rawlence chose.

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Ben Rawlence – Image from 5 x 15

He had spent years writing human rights reports and trying to get the UN and governments to address refugee issues, but when he started writing through the eyes of the refugees themselves, in several books, many more people began to listen.

Understanding that the conflict and the displacement that was going on was driven by climate change I began to look for other examples, other parts of the world where we could see this process in action, where we could see climate breakdown as history already, and we could catch a glimpse of the future that awaits the rest of us. So I began digging around and doing research and came across this very arresting image of the trees and the forest moving north towards the pole. I discovered that the forest was on the move and the trees were turning the white arctic green. They shouldn’t be on the move. That’s not supposed to happen. And this sinister fact has huge consequences for all life on earth. – from the 5×15 piece

So, what exactly is the treeline? Generically, it is the latitude above which there are no trees, roughly the Arctic Circle. Another measure is the rippled line around the globe south of which the average July temperature is ten degrees centigrade or higher. (The Arctic Squiggle?) Discovering that the Arctic treeline consisted of mostly six types of trees, he set about to look at each of these.

Scots pine in Scotland, birch in Scandinavia, larch in Siberia, spruce in Alaska and, to a lesser extent, poplar in Canada and rowan in Greenland. I decided to visit each tree in its native territory, to see how the different species were faring in response to warming, and what their stories might mean for the other inhabitants of the forest, including us.

The Arctic treeline is actually fairly squishy, not so much a line as an area of transition, an ecotone, where tree presence diminishes rather than ceases. Rawlence begins with a look at where he lives, in Wales, at the yew, struggling to persist in a world that is no longer conducive to its needs. But that may be changing. Then, it is off to the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, the Scandinavian interior, Siberia (larch), Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, looking at the role the boreal plays in our environment, and at the impact of global warming on these borderlands.

More than the Amazon rainforest, the boreal is truly the lung of the world. Covering one fifth of the globe, and containing one third of all the trees on earth, the boreal is the second largest biome, or living system, after the ocean. Planetary systems—cycles of water and oxygen, atmospheric circulation, the albedo effect, ocean currents and polar winds—are shaped and directed by the position of the treeline and the functioning of the forest.

One of the things that most impressed me, among the many fascinating nuggets to be found here were descriptions of the structures underlying forests.

Wherever there are mushrooms, ferns, bracken and particular kinds of woodland plants like violets there was once forest. Rings of mushrooms are usually the outline, the long-ago earthwork of a tree stump. There are between fifteen and nineteen ecto-mycorrhizal fungi (fungi growing around the roots) in a mature pine forest, and they play a role in everything from carbon and nutrient transport to lichen cover, taking sugar from the tree and providing it with minerals in exchange. Planting trees without regard for the essential symbiotic “other half” of the forest below ground may be far less effective than allowing the ground to evolve into woodland at its own pace. Oliver Rackham describes a planted oak wood in Essex that even after 750 years still does not possess the orchids, plants and mushrooms that you would expect of a natural wood.

I was reminded of what it might look like to see a city like New York or London from above and believe it to be constructed entirely of the visible structures, not appreciating that there are vast underground networks, water lines, sewer lines, gas lines, electrical lines, communication cables, transit tubes, and the like that provide the lifeblood which allows the above-ground, visible city to survive. Globally, these threads of mycorrhizal fungi make up between a third and a half of the living mass of soils. Soil is in fact a huge, fragile tangle of tiny connected threads. Having done some digging in our back yard, I can very much appreciate that.

Another impressive feat is Rawlence’s strength in communicating how local populations interact with the trees among which they live. There are many surprises to be found here, in the range of specific benefits trees provide for one, which includes the fact that they transmit aerosols carrying chemicals that help maintain health in humans, that their leaves, berries, bark and other parts providing medicine for a wide range of illnesses, that they provide materials that oceans need to sustain life, that they drive planetary weather. Did you know that there are birch trees with things called trichomal hairs on the underside of their leaves, that capture particulates from the air, natural air filters that then allow the materials to be dropped to the ground, and washed away with the next rain? They also act like a fur coat for the leaves. The list goes on. You will be surprised by many of the uses that Arctic peoples have devised to make use of their local trees.

Will it be possible to continue such a positive relationship as the land becomes less supportive of human endeavors? The Sami people, for example, are finding it increasingly difficult to manage their reindeer herds. Snowmobiles are less than ideal when there is no snow. Substituting four-wheel All Terrain Vehicles may allow them to herd their critters, but using them damages the landscape even more. At what point will it be impossible to continue at all?

There are plenty of dark tidings. In this ring of melting ice global warming is taking place at a rate far in excess of what we experience in the more temperate zones. And then this unnerving bit; with more Co2 in the air, trees do not need to work so hard to get what they need, thus will produce less oxygen. Uh oh. As the forests of the northern hemisphere migrate north (race actually, at a rate of hundreds of feet a year in some places instead of inches per century) they are pursued on their southern end by increasingly fire-prone conditions. How much of our forest land will be consumed by a Langolier-like army of drought and flames before finding more welcoming climes? And then there is methane, pretty pearl-like bubbles when seen through clear Arctic ice, but how about this cheery nugget as permafrost becoming permaslush?

Some studies have suggested that an unstable seabed could release a methane “burp” of 500–5000 gigatonnes, equivalent to decades of greenhouse gas emissions, contributing to an abrupt jump in temperature that humans will be powerless to arrest.

In pop science books, the author acts as a guide to the subject matter, introducing us to the places he visits, and the experts he consults. Rawlence is an engaging and informative teacher with a gift for extracting local cultural lore and area-specific histories, as well as reporting the science in accessible terms. He seems like someone you would want to hang out with. You would certainly like to sign up for any class he teaches. You will learn a lot. He is also a lyrical writer, able to offer not only straight-ahead exposition, but poetical, sometimes emotion-filled reactions to the places he visits and the experiences he has on this journey.

The brilliant sun on the pinkish cliffs and the starched blue of the sky, which has been mostly hidden all week, make the morning sing. The scent of a meadow is so heady it should be bottled. The hay has been freshly cut: huge plastic-covered bales guide the eye to a combine harvester abandoned mid-job, its windows covered in sparkling dew. Beyond, the path crosses the meadow to a wide bend that the flooding river has worked into a series of interlinked channels. The little bridges have been overwhelmed and carefully placed stepping-stones lie visible in the clear stream, half a meter underwater. Feet have cut a higher path along the edge of the valley, around drowned shrubs, riparian willow now floating midstream. The roar of the main river is all around. Gray water cradling slabs of dirty ice meanders around a cliff and then widens into a foaming skirt over even-sized white granite boulders that snag the ice and make it dance and nod until it falls apart and joins the sea-ward torrent.

Rawlence a not a fan of western capitalism, and it would be difficult to argue that the short-term profit motive is not at variance with the long-term health of the planet, but places that were at least nominally socialist did a pretty good job of devastating their environments too. Maybe the problem is a human one first, and a economic-political one second. Maybe if we lived as long as some trees (not all are long-lived) we might have a more long-term view of what matters, and not keep rushing to use everything as fast as we possibly can before someone else does. Rawlence keeps his eyes on the scientific and anthropological issues at hand. How is warming impacting these trees, the landscapes in which they exist, the societies that have lived with them for centuries, and the wider world? What can we learn from the changes that have already taken place? What can we look forward to? What can we do about it?

Despite the growth of electric car usage and renewable power generation, we have arrived at this party too late, and relatively empty-handed. Attempts to mitigate global warming cannot change the fact that there is warming to come that is already baked in. We can do nothing to change that. It will continue, even were we to cease all carbon usage tomorrow. Not that we should abandon attempts to reduce emissions. But we should know that we will not see the benefits of those actions. The mitigation work we do today may impact future generations, but the planet will continue heating up for quite some time regardless. The most we can hope for in the short term is to slow the rate somewhat.

The Treeline is a must read for anyone interested in environmental issues, global warming in particular. Who doesn’t love trees? After reading this you will love them ever more. As Rawlence points out, we are at our core tree people, having evolved thumbs to get around in an arboreal world, and having lived among or near trees for all of human history. We have evolved together, and will continue to do so. But we will have to adapt to the new Anthropocene world rather than attempting to force it back into its prior form.

In the future, when the ice is gone, there may be no such thing as a treeline at all.

Review posted – February 18, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of The Treeline from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review, and a promise to plant a few saplings. Thanks, folks. And thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s Twitter page

Lizzie Harper, a Welsh illustrator, provided many images for the book. Sadly, there were none in the e-galley I read. But you can see some on her site. Here are links to Harper’s personal, FB, LinkedIn, PInterest, and Twitter pages

Interview
—InterMultiversal – An Interview with Ben Rawlence by Simon Morden

Items of Interest from the author
—–Video trailer for the book – 1:09
—–5 x 15 – Ben Rawlence on The Treeline – video
—–The Big Issue – ‘As the planet warms, the forest is on the move’ by Rawlence

Items of Interest
—–Patagonia Films – Treeline (Full Film) | The Secret Life of Trees – video 40:16
—–Cairngorms Connect – 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the 600 square kilometer Cairngorms National Park.
—–NY Times – Feb. 4, 2022 – Seen From Space: Huge Methane Leaks by Henry Fountain

You Might Also Want To Check Out
—–Land by Simon Winchester
—–Being a Human by Charles Foster
—–The Earth’s Wild Music by Kathleen Dean Moore
—–Road of Bones – not in form, obviously. But this one offers a fictional horror-story take on the great north rebelling against the outrages of humanity

Music
—–George Winston – Forest
—–Sondheim – Into the Woods

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Filed under Non-fiction, Public policy, Science and Nature

Anatomy: A Love Story by Dana Schwartz

book cover

While Davey tugged the rope, Munro, still in the grave, helped to guide the body out of the small hole in the coffin and back toward the surface world, a strange reverse birth for a body past death. Munro successfully removed the body’s shoes off as it left its coffin, but it was up to Davey to strip off the rest of its clothes and throw them back in the grave. Stealing a body was against the law, but if they actually took any property from the grave, that would make it a felony.

It’s the lesson young girls everywhere were taught their entire lives—don’t be seduced by the men you meet, protect your virtue—until, of course, their entire lives depended on, seduction by the right man. It was an impossible situation, a trick of society as a whole: force women to live at the mercy of whichever man wants them but shame them for anything they might do to get a man to want them. Passivity was the ultimate virtue…Be patient, be silent, be beautiful and untouched as an orchid, and then and only then will your reward come: a bell jar to keep you safe.

Ok, so I screwed up. First off, I thought the pub date was 2/22/22 and scheduled my reading and review accordingly. Uh, sorry. Actual pub date was 1/18/22, so I am coming at this one a bit late. Second, I did not do a very thorough job of reading about the book when it was offered. I somehow managed to overlook the fact that it is a YA novel. I have nothing against YA novels. Some of my favorite books are YA novels, but I usually pass on YA books these days unless there is a compelling reason to take them on. Had I seen that it was a YA, I would probably have skipped this one. Finally, yet another failing on my part. I somehow managed to overlook the romance element in the promotional copy. Again, I have nothing against romance elements in books which are mostly of another sort. Quite enjoy them when they are well done. But did not have my expectations primed for the presence of quite as much as there is here, which is not to say that it is huge. It is not. So, multiple failings, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. The product of impatience. Won’t happen again. I know the drill, Three Hail Marys and a couple of Our Fathers. Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest ands offered fair warning…on to the book itself.

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Dana Schwartz – image from her site

Hazel Sinnett is seventeen. She has always lived in a castle an hour outside Edinburgh. It is 1817. She very much wants to study medicine, has read all the books in the family library on the subject, but lacks actual school-based tuition and hands-on experience. When the grandson of a famous doctor is in town to deliver a lecture, she finds a way to attend. Gender attitudes being what they were at the time, people of her sort were not welcome. Still, she finds a way, with some help, and when the doctor announces he will be offering an anatomy class she is desperate to attend.

Medicine is making some advances but the study of the human body requires actual human bodies, preferably lately late. Executions not providing sufficient resources to fill the need, a profession has arisen to satisfy that demand, resurrectionists, who, for a fee, relieve nearby graves of their residents, and deliver same to their clients with the utmost of discretion. Jack Currer, also seventeen, counts that among his several jobs. He happens to be hanging about near the Anatomists’ Society when Hazel is locked out. Meet Cute as Jack shows this clearly well-to-do young lady a secret way in. Think these two might just cross paths again? Of course, there are impediments.

Hazel is not in line to inherit anything, regardless of her parents’ wealth, bypassed in favor of the male heir. The female thing again. The usual way for a young lady from a god family to secure a future is to secure a husband of means. As it happens, she has a first cousin living not too far away, Bernard. They have known reach other forever, played together since early childhood, and it has been presumed that it was only a matter of time before Bernard would propose. He is not a bad sort, but rather dull and a bit too concerned with his appearance. Hazel recognizes that there are problems with her being allowed to make her own way in the world, so more or less anesthetizes herself to the likelihood that Bernard is her likeliest way out of a life of penury. God knows that is what her mother keeps telling her, and telling her, and telling her.

She manages to attend some of Doctor Beecham’s lectures, and is the star pupil, but the female thing again. Guys, catch up, C’Mon! Beecham at least recognizes her intelligence and they come to an agreement. If she can pass the medical exam at the end of the term, she will be able to get real medical training. Unfortunately, there’s that hands-on thing. Books alone will simply not do. But wait! It just so happens she has made the acquaintance of someone who might be able to help her out, and a beautiful friendship blossoms.

I really thought I was going to go be a doctor,” Dana Schwartz says about her time as a pre-med student in college. “Then I had this panicked moment of realizing I was so fundamentally unhappy. My dream was always to be a writer, but I never thought I could make a living that way.” – from the Forbes interview

But it is not all raw sexism and Hallmark moments. There are dark doings in Edinburgh. A plague has struck, a return of the so-called “Roman fever” which had killed over five thousand the last time it hit, two years before. It had even killed Hazel’s beloved brother, George. She had caught it as well, but managed to survive. Is it really Roman
Fever that is boosting the mortality rate? Jack is aware of far too many acquaintances vanishing, and there are strange doings in the local graveyards as a trio of heavies are haunting such areas, terrorizing the poor resurrection men. Then Hazel begins to see some very strange medical problems when she starts getting to study specimens obtained by Jack, and treating some locals. There is also something decidedly off about Doctor Beecham, who never seems to remove his dark gloves, and demonstrates a mind-numbing drug as a road to pain-free surgery. Then there is Doctor Straine, one eye, nasty skin and a worse attitude, a surgeon working with Doctor Beecham. Seems like a nogoodnik from the build-a-creep shop.

It was the gothic elements that had drawn me to the story. And they are indeed present. But Schwartz has had some fun with them. (For the following I used some of a list from Elif Notes.) Usually gothic novels feature a Desolate, haunted Setting, typically a very creepy castle or equivalent. Here, Hazel lives in a castle, which is a pretty benign home for her. Other sites must serve this purpose. Graveyards work, and certainly provide some chills, and any place where human bodies are being cut up, for purposes educational or malign, will also serve, so, check. Dark and Mysterious Atmosphere? You betcha, plenty of suspect characters and unexplained deaths and disappearances. Something supernatural? Well, I do not want to give anything away, so will say only that there is an element here that qualifies the story as fantasy. Emotional Extremes? Fuh shoo-uh. Although the emotional extremes are as much about Hazel’s lot in life as they are about the actual life-and-death shenanigans that are going on. Women as Victims – absolutely, but in the wider, sexism-conscious sense as well as in the way of a damsels being put upon by dastardly males. Curses and Portents – not so much, except what we all might wish upon some of the baddies. Visions and Nightmares – Hazel has some of the latter, but nothing mystical about them, just recollections of horrors she had seen in real life. Frightening Tone – most definitely. There is clearly something sinister going on in Edinburgh. Frightening Weather – not really. There is a fun early bit in which we are waiting for an incoming storm to deliver some life-generating lightning, but mostly, weather is not that big a deal here. Religious Concerns – social mores are more the thing in this one. Good versus Evil – there is some serious evil going on here. And Hazel is definitely a force for good. A Touch of Romance – yes. Well, more than a touch. Hey, Laddy, you’d better keep those hands to yersel ef ya wan ter keep ‘em on the ends uh yer arms.”

There is Romance and then there is Love. The title even highlights it, Anatomy: A Love Story. There is clearly some romance going on here. Hazel and Jack give off sparks which brings their obvious connection to life. But Hazel’s true love may be more the passion she has for learning, for science, for medicine, for anatomy, for surgery. If she were really faced with a choice between being a doctor or being with Jack, and the two were exclusive, are you confident what choice she would make? Is it possible to have your cake and dissect it too? Not so easy in 1817 Scotland.

The real horrors here are the treatment of women as a subordinate level of human and the joys of the class system in early 19th Century Scotland. Even coming from a family of means, Hazel is refused entry into a profession for which she has passion, and a clear capability, simply because of her gender. She must endure belittling by men, in power and not, who are her intellectual and moral inferiors, as she struggles to find a way forward. Contemplating her life options, Hazel sees her future as a life under a bell jar, whatever that may be referring to. The experience of being poor in the Georgian era is shown not only in the life of Jack, but in the ways the poor and working class are held in their place no less than if they were confined to a castle dungeon, and in the depraved indifference the wealthy show to the lives of those less fortunate than themselves.

“The main mystery I wanted to pick at and unravel is who gets forgotten in society and for what purpose,” Schwartz says. “Obviously today, there is a huge wealth gap that continues to grow, but in the 1800s, the aristocracy made that wealth gap explicit. There was a social and cultural line, so I wanted to explore in a way that doesn’t necessarily label the characters as heroes or villains.” – from the San Diego Tribune interview

There are some comedic elements, one of which focuses on a man-eater and is hilarious. There a lovely bit of a secondary romantic sub plot, and some fun references. Hazel is all excited to hear about a lecture/demonstration put on by someone named Galvini. This is a clear reference to the actual Luigi Galvani who was putting on shows in which dead things were animated with electricity from a battery. He provided some of the inspiration for a young writer of that era. The epigraph of the novel is a quote from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose creation has near universal familiarity. A mention of Mary Wollstonecraft, her mom, serves double duty as a reference to a leading light for women’s rights in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and as a reminder that the novel deals with matters of life and death, and maybe life again. Hazel’s younger brother is named Percy, which again reminds one of Mary Shelley. A recollection of Walter Scott reciting his Lady of the Lake epic at her Uncle and Aunt’s house is also reminiscent of the Wollstonecraft/Godwin household, in which Coleridge read his Rime of the Ancient Mariner. So, there are many Frankensteinian parts gathered together to help animate the story.

Some parts did not quite fit, however. It was sooo convenient that her father was away on a prolonged naval mission, and that Mum decides to head out of town for an extended period with her other, much more valuable, male child, Hazel’s younger brother. So, Risky Business time for the entire season at Hawthornden Castle. (Although maybe Summer at Bernie’s might be a bit closer, given the issues with dead people.) AND, really? none of the staff rats Hazel out to her mother, the one paying their salary, for running a clinic at the family residence? Maybe we should consider this part of the fantasy element. Re my intro, I was not much excited by the squishy romance bits, but I already told you about that. No biggie, ultimately. It is mostly adorable.

Dana Schwartz has written a strong, literary, YA novel that offers some chills, an historical look at a place and time, and a look at the challenges faced by the poor and by those of the female persuasion, when it was still the rule to treat women as servants, eye candy, or brood mares. It shows a powerful approach and makes me eager to see what she comes up with when she writes a full-on adult novel, but that may not be next up on her board.

…right now, I have an idea for a sequel that I really want to tell and I think will be really fun. I thought this was going to be a one-off, but when I reached the ending, and I sat with that for a few months, I thought that there’s something else here.” – from the San Diego Tribune interview

Review posted – February 11, 2022

Publication date – January 18, 2022

I received an ARE of Anatomy: A Love Story from Wednesday Books in return for a fair review and some help dealing with an uncomfortable neck growth. Thanks, folks, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter pages

Schwartz came to public notice when she was still in the employ of the New York Observer and Tweeted a criticism of Donald Trump for using anti-Semitic imagery in an anti-Hillary ad. She got viciously trolled by his minions, and wanted to write about that experience. Her boss gave her a green light, but did not really proof the piece, an open letter, which called out Jared Kushner, who owned The Observer, for not interceding with his father-in-law to prevent such things. As an undergrad, she established the “GuyInYourMFA” and “Dystopian YA” parody Twitter profiles. She had internships with Conan and Colbert, and was later was a staff writer for Disney’s She-Hulk, then created and hosted the Noble Blood podcast. Anatomy is her fourth book.

Interviews
—–Time Magazine – Dana Schwartz Wrote the YA Romance She Always Wanted to Read by Simmone Shah
—–Bustle – How My Chemical Romance Inspired Dana Schwartz’s Latest Novel – By Samantha Leach
—–Forbes – 26-Year-Old Dana Schwartz Doesn’t Need To Stick To A Genre by Rosa Escandon
—–San Diego Union Tribune – Dana Schwartz gets skin deep in ‘Anatomy: A Love Story’ by Seth Combs
—–Barnes & Noble – Poured Over: Dana Schwartz on Anatomy by BN Editors

Items of Interest from the author
—–Discussion Questions

Items of Interest
—–Edith Wharton – Roman fever – a short story
—–This very nice bio of Mary Shelley, from The Poetry Foundation, has considerable information about her other works.
—–A nifty web-site on Resurrectionists. Can you dig it?
—–Frankie for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg
—–3/17/18 – MIT Press has produced an annotated version (Print and on-Line) of Mary Shelley’s classic novel. It is intended for use by STEM students, raising scientific and ethical questions from the original work. The comments are joined from diverse sources, particularly in the on-line version, with some by scientists, and some by students. The print version sticks to annotation articles by professionals. A fun way to approach this book if you have not yet had the pleasure, or a nice pathway back if you are returning for a visit. It is called, appropriately, Frankenbook. You can find the digital version here
—–NY Times – Reporter Calls Out Publisher (Donald Trump’s Son-in-Law) Over Anti-Semitism By Jonathan Mahler
—–My review of The Lady and her Monsters – This is a must-read book for anyone interested in Mary Shelley and the writing of Frankenstein

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Horror, Literary Fiction, Reviews, Thriller, Thriller, YA and kids

How to Find Your Way Home by Katy Regan

book cover

…here begins one of the last evenings I remember of my old life. The life I had constructed like the tough, prickled outer shell of a horse chestnut around me, before it was cracked open and the truth of my life was laid bare, as frighteningly untouched and uncharted as that shiny conker hidden inside.

Do we choose our homes? Physically, sure. As adults we can move here or there. Does a chick choose its nest? We are not necessarily bolted to our birthplaces, but they are our first homes, and that initial setting is a very powerful thing, rich with association, memory, and attachment, particularly if we remain there more than just a few years. Many, maybe most people move away, significantly away. We may return annually to see family, or not. Maybe the places to which we relocate become truer homes for us. I shudder, for example, at the thought of ever again living in the neighborhood where I was raised. While I love the city, that particular part of it holds no attraction for me. I got out as fast as I could, and never wanted to be back there again. But for many, like Dorothy Gale, there is a primal bond with that ground. There’s no place like home for Stephen Nelson, as well, as he carries deep ties to the place where he was raised. He has been away from it for a very long time.

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Katy Regan – from her Facebook pages

Emily Nelson has different rootedness issues. A connection to her brother is where home is for Emily. Stephen was an amazing big brother, about five years older. Delighted to have her there, eager to teach her about what excited him in the world, which was mostly birds, an interest his father shared and nurtured in his children. And she was always thrilled to be with “Deebie.” They found a particular Eden-ic magic in the avian-rich marshlands very near their home on Canvey Island, (Essex’s answer to the Mississippi Delta) even camping out there sometimes. She is concerned about his survival.

Their allegiance gained significance when their mother, unhappy with her exurban experience, ditched their father for what she’d hoped would be a more satisfying life. Sadly, her new mate seemed to have a bug up his bum about Stephen, always criticizing him, never recognizing Stephen’s strengths, and generally being a total horse’s ass of a stepfather. The sibs really needed to stick together when they were with Mum and Mitch. But something happened when they were still kids. Mitch was severely injured, and Stephen was jailed, from his teens into his twenties. Once out, things did not go well. He has been living rough for the last fifteen years.

We meet Emily in the today of the novel, 2018. She is 31, living in London, a housing officer in the council’s homeless department. She has had a series of relationships, (failure to nest?) the latest of which is with an architect, but:

She realizes that James will not last, no one will until she can resolve the huge hole in her from the loss of Stephen.

They have been out of touch since shortly after his release from prison. She has been desperate to find him for some time. When she hears his voice in her office one day, the chase is on. She invites him to move in with her.

The story moves along two time tracks. First is the contemporary, as Emily searches for Stephen, wanting to reconnect with him, wanting to help him, wanting to get her brother back after a very long absence. This current-day look is split between Emily’s first-person and Stephen’s third-person POVs. The second time track is a slow unraveling of the past, from Emily’s birth to the tragic event that defines the story. What happened in their lives as kids? What forged their bond? What ultimately caused Stephen to be sent to jail? Why has Stephen been homeless for so long? This is told in ten chapters, named for birds, telling stories from their childhood involving specific birds, or breeds, or just using bird imagery. Stork, for example, is about Emily’s arrival. Mother Duck tells of a Make Way for Ducklings event. Cockatoo refers to someone’s hairstyle.

Stephen struggles with hope, whether to keep on or to fly the coop on possibility. Lord knows, he has had plenty of reasons to. His father has been willing to keep lines of communication open, if with less than total warmth. But his mother, unhappily, stuck with caring for the husband whose tetraplegia is the reason Stephen was imprisoned, is not so eager. Stephen has learned to survive on the streets, kept going by his love of birds. He has artistic ability, and picks up some money selling drawings of them.

Regan first volunteered at a soup kitchen for the homeless when she was 17.

My favorite bit of the shift was to sit down after we’d served breakfast and chat. What surprised me then, besides the sheer resilience these people possessed, was how little there was between my life—a “normal life”—and theirs. A few wrong turns, a relationship breakup, some bad luck was all it seemed to take for you to wind up sleeping on the streets and relying on charity to eat. Most of all, what I learned there (as well as from my research for How to Find Your Way Home) was that the difference between those who managed to dodge homelessness and those who slipped through the net was just that: too-big holes in the net. If you’d burned the bridges of your support network or had been abandoned by the people in it, you were out of luck. When I became a writer, I promised myself I would one day write a book telling the story of a homeless person. – from the Bok Club kit

Bird imagery permeates the novel. In fact, there is enough avian material here to fill a king-size comforter. It is as lovely as one of those too, the feathered supporting cast bolstering the issues among the feather-free characters. A skein of geese, for example, is explained as group members taking turns bearing the brunt of the migratory lead. Swifts faithfully return to the same nesting site every year, maintaining their pair-bond for life. Although birds permeate the novel, the bird-title chapters focus on this imagery most pointedly.

Another motif to keep an eye on is windows. Stephen is an outsider from childhood. Emily feels like one as well. Windows always mark a separation, and what you see through them may not tell a true or a full tale.

That’s what you’d see, if you looked through the window: four thirty-something friends, “upwardly mobile” themselves I suppose, having dinner, chatting, having fun on a Saturday night, me in the middle in my orange top that says “Happy Days” on it. But I’m not happy.

Sometimes, windows offer frightening views.

A dark, tall shadow flashed across the kitchen window and I jumped half out of my skin.

Stephen and Emily have some serious issues between them to contend with, in addition to the challenges that both face with the wider universe. Stephen has good reason to be cautious about the world. He may have been sent to prison for a crime as a teen but he seems a pretty decent sort as a served-his-time thirty-something. Emily may have cut herself off from the world of love emotionally, if not physically, but we come to see that this originates in pain. She seems to have a good heart. So, rooting for these two is easy. And there is a very satisfying twist toward the end. HTFYWH was moving enough that my notes include three instances of TEARS!. There is also some exquisite, lyrical writing here.

I suppose there a few loose feathers that might make one sneeze a bit. Stephen seemed to spend an extreme number of years living on the street. Really? No social service types managed to coral him into a rehab program, maybe got him set up with a social worker. Possible? Oh, sure. But, still. Could Emily really have afforded a London flat in a nice neighborhood on a public employee’s income? Also, the wrap-up seemed a bit speedy. Without spoiling anything, situations were presented that seemed lacking in sufficient preparatory support. And yes, there was certainly a large volume of feathery references. Some might find that a downer. I rather liked it. I will spare you the Emily Dickinson quote, but it is certainly an undercurrent here as Stephen’s ability to carry on is bolstered by his love of birds and birding.

Louise Erdrich this ain’t, but it is a lovely, warm-hearted novel. That said, I found myself always very eager to return to my bedtime book home for the week and a half for which I was able to stretch this out. Dorothy Gale was right. There’s no place like it.

Stephen loved the sounds as much as he loved the space out here: the wind, creeping through the grasses, that reminded Stephen of rain, when it first, softly, begins to fall; the hum of traffic coming from the A130; and the occasional train, slicing through the countryside with its ghostly sigh. Stephen liked these reminders that the town was nearby. It was as if England and all it had to offer was right here, at the edge-lands—a world within a world. And it had been rolled out like a map, for him to run free over.

Review posted – February 4, 2022

Publication date – February 15, 2022

I received an ARE of How To Find Your Way Home from Berkley in return for directions. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

============================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, FB, Instagram, and Twitter pages

Katy Regan was brought up in a seaside town in northern England. She studied at the University of Leeds before moving to London, where she worked as a journalist and as a commissioning editor at Marie Claire magazine. How To Find Your Way Home is her fifth book.

Items of Interest from the author
—–A map of locations in the novel
—–Book Club Kit

Songs/Music
—–The Hollies – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – chapter 6
—–Robin S – Show Me Love – chapter 13

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews

System Error by Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami,  Jeremy M. Weinstein,  

book cover

Technologists have no unique skill in governing, weighing competing values, or assessing evidence. Their expertise is in designing and building technology. What they bring to expert rule is actually a set of values masquerading as expertise—values that emerge from the marriage of the optimization mindset and the profit motive.

Like a famine, the effects of technology on society are a man-made disaster: we create the technologies, we set the rules, and what happens is ultimately the result of our collective choices.

Yeah, but what if the choices are not being made collectively?

What’s the bottom line on the bottom line? The digital revolution has made many things in our lives better, but changes have come at considerable cost. There have been plenty of winners from the digitization of content, the spread of the internet, the growth of wireless communication, and the growth of AI. But there have been battlefields full of casualties as well. Unlike actual battlefields, like those at Gettysburg, many of the casualties in the battles of the digital revolution did not enlist, and did not have a chance to vote for or against those waging the war, a war that has been going on for decades. But we, citizens, do not get a say in how that war is waged, what goals are targeted, or how the spoils or the costs of that war are distributed.

description
Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein – image from Stanford University

In 2018, the authors of System Error, all professors at Stanford, developed a considerable course on Technology, Policy, and Ethics. Many Technical and Engineering programs require that Ethics be taught in order to gain accreditation. But usually those are stand-alone classes, taught by non-techies. Reich, Sahami, and Weinstein wanted something more meaningful, more a part of the education of budding computer scientists than a ticking-off-the-box required course. They wanted the teaching of the ethics of programming to become a full part of their students’ experience at Stanford. That was the source for what became this book.

They look at the unintended consequences of technological innovation, focusing on the notions of optimization and agency. It is almost a religion in Silicon Valley, the worship of optimization uber alles. Faster, cleaner, more efficient, cheaper, lighter. But what is it that is being optimized? To what purpose? At what cost, to whom? Decided on by whom?

…there are times when inefficiency is preferable: putting speed bumps or speed limits onto roads near schools in order to protect children; encouraging juries to take ample time to deliberate before rendering a verdict; having the media hold off on calling an election until all the polls have closed…Everything depends on the goal or end result. The real worry is that giving priority to optimization can lead to focusing more on the methods than on the goals in question.

Often blind allegiance to the golden calf of optimization yields predictable results. One genius decided to optimize eating, so that people could spend more time at work, I guess. He came up with a product that delivered a range of needed nutrients, in a quickly digestible form, and expected to conquer the world. This laser focus managed to ignore vast swaths of human experience. Eating is not just about consuming needed nutrients. There are social aspects to eating that somehow escaped the guy’s notice. We do not all prefer to consume product at our desks, alone. Also, that eating should be pleasurable. This clueless individual used soy beans and lentils as the core ingredients of his concoction. You can guess what he named it. Needless to say, it was not exactly a marketing triumph, given the cultural associations with the name. And yes, they knew, and did it anyway.

There are many less entertaining examples to be found in the world. How about a social media giant programming its app to encourage the spread of the most controversial opinions, regardless of their basis in fact? The outcome is actual physical damage in the world, people dead as a result, democracy itself in jeopardy. And yet, there is no meaningful requirement that programmers adhere to a code of ethics. Optimization, in corporate America, is on profits. Everything else is secondary, and if there are negative results in the world as a result of this singular focus, not their problem.

How about optimization that relies on faulty (and self-serving) definitions. Do the things we measure actually measure the information we want? For example, there were some who measured happiness with their product by counting the number of minutes users spent on it. Was that really happiness being measured, or maybe addictiveness?

Algorithms are notorious for picking up the biases of their designers. In an example of a business using testing smartly, a major company sought to develop an algorithm it could use to evaluate employment candidates. They gave it a pretty good shot, too, making revision after revision. But no matter how they massaged the model the results were still hugely sexist. Thankfully they scrapped it and returned to a less automated system. One wonders, though, how many algorithmic projects were implemented when those in charge opted to ignore the down-side results.

So, what is to be done? There are a few layers here. Certainly, a professional code of ethics is called for. Other professions have them and have not collapsed into non-existence, doctors, lawyers, engineers, for example. Why not programmers? At present there is not a single, recognized organization, like the AMA, that could gain universal accedence to such a requirement. Organizations that accredit university computer science programs could demand more robust inclusion of ethical course material across course-work.

But the only real way we as a society have to hold companies accountable for the harm already inflicted, and the potential harm new products might cause, is via regulation. As individuals, we have virtually no power to influence major corporations. It is only when we join our voices together through democratic processes that there is any hope of reining in the worst excesses of the tech world, or working with technology companies to come to workable solutions to real-world problems. It is one thing for Facebook to set up a panel to review the ethics of this or that element of its offerings. But if the CEO can simply ignore the group’s findings, such panels are meaningless. I think we have all seen how effective review boards controlled by police departments have been. Self-regulation rarely works.

There need not be an oppositional relationship between tech corporations and government, despite the howling by CEOs that they will melt into puddles should the wet of regulation ever touch their precious selves. What a world: what a world! A model the authors cite is transportation. There needs to be some entity responsible for roads, for standardizing them, taking care of them, seeing that rules of the road are established and enforced. It is the role of government to make sure the space is safe for everyone. As our annual death rate on the roads attests, one can only aim for perfection without ever really expecting to achieve it. But, overall, it is a system in which the government has seen to the creation and maintenance of a relatively safe communal space. We should not leave to the CEOs of Facebook and Twitter decisions about how much human and civic roadkill is acceptable on the Information Highway.

The authors offer some suggestions about what might be done. One I liked was the resurrection of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment. We do not expect our elected representatives to be techies. But we should not put them into a position of having to rely on lobbyists for technical expertise on subjects under legislative consideration. The OTA provided that objective expertise for many years before Republicans killed it. This is doable and desirable. Another interesting notion:

“Right now, the human worker who does, say $50,000 worth of work in. factory, that income is taxed and you get an income tax, social security tax, all those things.
It a robot comes in to do the same thing, you’d think we’d tax the robot at a similar level.”

Some of their advice, while not necessarily wrong, seems either bromitic or unlikely to have any chance of happening. This is a typical thing for books on social policy.

…democracies, which welcome a clash of competing interests and permit the revisiting and revising of questions of policy, will respond by updating rules when it is obvious that current conditions produce harm…

Have the authors ever actually visited America outside the walls of Stanford? In America, those being harmed are blamed for the damage, not the evil-doers who are actually foisting it on them.

What System Error will give you is a pretty good scan of the issues pertaining to tech vs the rest of us, and how to think about them. It offers a look at some of the ways in which the problems identified here might be addressed. Some entail government regulation. Many do not. You can find some guidance as to what questions to ask when algorithmic systems are being proposed, challenged, or implemented. And you can also get some historical context re how the major tech changes of the past impacted the wider society, and how they were wrangled.

The book does an excellent job of pointing out many of the ethical problems with the impact of high tech, on our individual agency and on our democracy. It correctly points out that decisions with global import are currently in the hands of CEOs of large corporations, and are not subject to limitation by democratic nations. Consider the single issue of allowing lies to be spread across social media, whether by enemies foreign or domestic, dark-minded individuals, profit-seekers, or lunatics. That needs to change. If reasonable limitations can be devised and implemented, then there may be hope for a brighter day ahead, else all may be lost, and our nation will descend into a Babel of screaming hatreds and kinetic carnage.

For Facebook, with more than 2.8 billion active users, Mark Zuckerberg is the effective governor of the informational environment of a population nearly double the size of China, the largest country in the world.

Review posted – January 28, 2022

Publication date – September 21,2021

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the Rob Reich’s (pronounced Reesh) Stanford profile and Twitter pages
Reich is a professor of Political science at Stanford, and co-director of Stanford’s McCoy Center for Ethics, and associate director of Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered Artificial intelligence

Links to Mehran Sahami’s Stanford profile and Twitter pages
Sahami is a Stanford professor in the School of Engineering and professor and associate Chair for Education in the Computer Science Department. Prior to Stanford he was a senior research scientist at Google. He conducts research in computer science education, AI and ethics.

Jeremy M. Weinstein’s Stanford profile

JEREMY M. WEINSTEIN went to Washington with President Obama in 2009. A key staffer in the White House, he foresaw how new technologies might remake the relationship between governments and citizens, and launched Obama’s Open Government Partnership. When Samantha Power was appointed US Ambassador to the United Nations, she brought Jeremy to New York, first as her chief of staff and then as her deputy. He returned to Stanford in 2015 as a professor of political science, where he now leads Stanford Impact Labs.

Interviews
—–Computer History Museum – CHM Live | System Error: Rebooting Our Tech Future – with Marietje Schaake – 1:30:22
This is outstanding, in depth
—–Politics and Prose – Rob Reich, Mehran Sahami & Jeremy Weinstein SYSTEM ERROR with Julián Castro with Julian Castro and Bradley Graham – video – 1:02:51

Items of Interest
—–Washington Post – Former Google scientist says the computers that run our lives exploit us — and he has a way to stop them
—–The Nation – Fixing Tech’s Ethics Problem Starts in the Classroom By Stephanie Wykstra
—–NY Times – Tech’s Ethical ‘Dark Side’: Harvard, Stanford and Others Want to Address It
—–Brookings Institution – It Is Time to Restore the US Office of Technology Assessment by Darrell M. West

Makes Me Think Of
—–Automating Inequality by Virginia Eubanks
—–Chaos Monkeys by Antonio Garcia Martinez
—–Machines of Loving Grace by John Markoff

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Filed under AI, Artificial Intelligence, computers, Non-fiction, programming, Public policy