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Some of It Was Real by Nan Fischer

book cover

Today an image slips through the carefully constructed peace . . .
Pale sand beneath my feet, a blue-green ocean, foam nibbling at my bare toes. Behind me, a castle—ornate turrets dotted with pale pink shells, a drawbridge made from delicately curved driftwood, beneath it, a moat where tiny paper boats rock in the breeze. A wave gathers on the horizon. It grows taller and white horses gallop across its face. When the wall of salt water strikes, the castle will be destroyed and with it a treasure, something precious . . .
The vision disintegrates. Ghostly lips brush my cheek. I know what’s coming next. A whisper I’ve heard intermittently my entire life.

“It’s important you understand that I don’t have a clear definition for what I do. Psychics use their intuition or spiritual guides to gain information about the past, present, or future. Mediums are channels that deliver messages from those who have passed over. I’ve been called a psychic-medium, and that’s as good a definition as any. But the truth is that I’m not sure why I hear voices, see images, sing at times, or scribble notes—it just happens and I can’t tell you how because I truly don’t understand it.”

Sylvie Young has just gotten a TV deal, the product of a successful run of live stage performances and a top-tier agent. Life is good, and about to get better. Sylvie’s shows are of the psychic sort. Select audience members, offer a connection to a lost one, solve some riddles, answer some unanswered questions, and mostly, offer comfort. Syl is very good at this. But not all of her connections are of the psychic sort.

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Nan Fischer – image from her site

Thomas Holmes is a cynical reporter on a mission. For personal reasons, Holmes believes that all psychics are fakers. It is elementary. His current project is to profile several psychic-mediums, intending to expose their chicanery and, if at all possible, destroy their careers. Which is something he knows a bit about. His own career in journalism has suffered some major blows, to the point where this major takedown piece may be his last chance to salvage his own career.

Both are struggling to deal with their origin stories (Sylvie even opens her shows by telling hers, at least what she knows of it) and their self doubts. Sylvie’s arc is a quest to find out what really happened to her biological parents, explain why she is beset by nightmares of a particular sort, and maybe discover where she acquired her very real personal talent. But is it real, really? Thomas suffered a trauma in his youth that has defined his life. Until he can confront that, the life he has made for himself will never be a proper fit. This is the true core of what Nan Fischer is writing about.

One of the seeds that started this novel with my fascination with imposter syndrome—the inability to believe one’s success has been legitimately achieved or deserved. I wanted to create a character, Sylvie, on the cusp of achieving great success but who doesn’t quite believe she deserves it. I made Sylvie a psychic as that gift is controversial—the perfect job for someone doubting her abilities due to all the critics! – from Hey It’s Carly Rae interview

Thomas has run into some dead ends digging into her past. There are no records of her parents’ supposed plane crash deaths when she was four. He wants her help to dig into this further. She has an interest, as it is a mystery to her as well. And if she can prove to him that she is not a grief vampire, he will drop her from his story. Of course, he expects he will never have to make good on that, as psychic powers are all BS, right? And the game is afoot.

the stories we tell from childhood that have shaped who we are – are based on old and sometimes faulty memories. It’s up to each of us to decide what to accept or discard from our origin stories and to decide who we ultimately want to be in life. – from the Jean Book Nerd interview

Many of the curtains Sylvie needs to part were placed there by others. Thomas erected his barriers to self-knowledge himself. Part of their interaction is Syl challenging Thomas to look deeper into the sources of his own demons, as Thomas challenges Sylvie to examine the ethics of how she is making her living. (“What was the fair lady’s game? What did she really want?” – Sherlock Holmes in The Second Stain)

As one might expect from a book categorized as romance, these two develop an attraction. That complicates matters. How can a journalist write an objective piece about someone with whom he is romantically engaged? He may be trying to take her down, but she is also looking for ways to manipulate him into a more benign view of her and her work. The cynic vs psychic dynamic is entertaining for a while, but Thomas’s relentless disregard of evidence gets a bit old. Really, dude? Still?

Fischer gives us a particularly interesting look at the profession of psychic-medium, offering a perspective that elevates it beyond being merely a connection to another side, whether real or faked. She connects it to something greater.

The structure is alternating chapters, his and hers, both first-person narratives. The voices are effectively different. It is a cat-and-mouse competition, although it could easily be a cat-and-dog one. Sylvie’s constant companion is a very large Great Dane, and Thomas travels with an elderly feline. (Fischer even manages to give her own dog, Boone, a cameo) He keeps trying to find holes in her schtick. She keeps trying to move him beyond the purely factual. Another Holmes might say when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth, but Thomas clings to his biases tenaciously.

I was not all that taken in by their supposed attraction, never quite bought it, and wanted the sex scenes to be over quickly. But I did enjoy their mutual interest in helping each other out. I also had trouble with Sylvie’s relationship with her parents, who seemed far more reluctant to share information with their daughter than seemed reasonable, particularly considering that she is a grown-ass woman when she is pleading for intel about her past, intel that they have. Their rejection of her seemed unnatural, very un-parental.

What keeps the story moving along is a steady stream of interesting clues and the pair’s ingenuity on following up on them. There are some pretty nifty twists. It is fun tagging along on the procedural, mystery-solving element of the story. Overall, Some of It May Be Real is an engaging story, a mystery, wrapped in a bit of fantasy, a quest of self-discovery featuring an ongoing cynic-psychic battle, as both Sylvie and Thomas dig into their origins as a way to confront their demons and feelings of inauthenticity. It offers some intrigue, some chills and some very real tears. It is authentically entertaining.

What surprised me most about writing Some Of It Was Real was that I thought my research would lead me to a conclusion about what I believe. I watched documentaries, movies, and TV shows about psychics, clairvoyants and mediums and read studies and articles written by individuals whose goals are to prove the supernatural is a hoax. But in the end, the only real conclusion I drew was that some of it might be real. – from Thoughts From a Page Podcast

Review posted – August 26, 2022

Publication date – July 28, 2022

I received an ARE of Some of It Was Real from Berkley in return for a fair review. Wait, does the number four have any particular meaning for you? I am also seeing something shiny. Sparkles, maybe? No, stars. Yes, definitely stars. Thanks, folks.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

Links to the author’s personal,
Instagram, GR, and Twitter pages
Profile – from her site

Nan Fischer is the author of Some Of It Was Real (July 2022, Berkley Publishing), and the young adult novels, When Elephants Fly and The Speed of Falling Objects. Additional author credits include Junior Jedi Knights, a middle grade Star Wars trilogy for LucasFilm, and co-authored sport autobiographies for elite athletes including #1 ranked tennis superstar Monica Seles, Triple Crown race winning jockey Julie Krone, Olympic gold medal speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, legendary gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi, and Olympic gold medal gymnasts Nadia Comaneci and Shannon Miller.

Her prior work was published under the names Nancy Richardson Fischer, Nancy Richardson, and Nancy Ann Richardson. Some of it was Real is her first book under the name Nan Fischer.

Interviews
—–Jean Book Nerd – Nan Fischer Interview – Some of It Was Real
—–Hey, It’s Carly Rae – Author Interview with Nan Fischer
—–Writers Digest – Nan Fischer: On Overcoming Imposter Syndrome by Robert Lee Brewer
—–Thoughts from a Page – Q & A with Nan Fischer, Author of SOME OF IT WAS REAL by Cindy Burnett
—–BookBrowse – An interview with Nan Fischer
with Katie Noah Gibson

Items of Interest
—–Gutenberg – full text of The Man Without a Country by Edward E. Hale – referenced in Chapter 19
—–The Poe Museum – full text of The Cask of Amontillado – by Edgar Allan Poe – referenced in Chapter 21

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Mystery, Suspense, Thriller

They Want To Kill Americans by Malcolm Nance

book cover

There is only one way out of this. The only way out of this outcome is that the November midterms are the final referendum on whether America truly stays America and a democracy or if it becomes a fascist dictatorship. If the Democrats lose the House and the Senate, then it is all over. There may never be another free and fair election in America. If the Republicans take control, we may be teetering on the edge of an American dictatorship. – from The Guardian interview

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call “The Twilight Zone.” – One of several introductions used for the show

It does not take a lot of imagination to see what is happening in America today. They are coming for you. They are coming for your voting rights, your right to have your vote counted, your right not to be gerrymandered into a Jackson-Pollock-designed district that renders your vote moot, your right to be able to vote without having to stand on line for hours, your right to vote without having armed men and women watching you, intimidating you, your right to vote by mail, by drop box, your right to have someone bring your ballot to the election board if you are unable to do it yourself. They are coming for your right to privacy. An extremist religious SCOTUS whose members lied when they swore they would uphold precedent, reversed that very precedent and removed your right to do what you need, what you want, with your own body, blithely leaving hungry state foxes in charge of the abortion hen-house.

They are coming for your money. Trump could not seem to do much to improve infrastructure, get us out of Afghanistan, deal with global warming or COVID, or seriously address any real public policy issues, but he managed to pass a massive tax cut for the wealthy and corporations. One guess who is supposed to make up that lost revenue. They are coming for the safety net programs that vast numbers of Americans rely on, while raising taxes on the middle class, on the working class and the poor.

By Election Day 2020, the Trump-dominated Republican Party solidified itself for what it perceived was a battle to change the soul of America permanently. Trump’s financial backers saw endless opportunity for tax cuts and limitless, tax-free profits. The stock market saw a president who would ruin nearly a century of regulation and allow them unimaginable capital gains that they could pass on to their children without paying taxes. The party investors saw a middle and lower class that would pay for virtually everything Republicans wanted and divest from virtually every social program liberals wanted. In their eyes, the average American would see none of the profits of America but literally pay for the wealth and prosperity of the richest of the rich. In fact, Trump and his lieutenants managed to do precisely that in his first four years. By the end of his administration, money allocated for education, childcare, and mental health would pay for mega yachts. In Trump’s America, executive jet purchases were tax free.

They are coming for your right to remain alive. Republicans have fought every attempt to enact sane gun control, untouched by the daily slaughter from these weapons. They are apparently just not that into you. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of the rights and benefits that they want to take from you, from us. The right to marry, to love who you want, the right to define for yourself, and not allow the government to define your gender. Yes, they are coming for inter-racial marriage. They are coming for your right to use birth control. And they will not stop there. You have not just woken from a dream in an episode of The Twilight Zone (TZ). This is the terrifying reality of America today. Forget the reality you know, or thought you knew. You have been dragged, or maybe you ran into it. (Some superstitions, kept alive by the long night of ignorance, have their own special power. You’ll hear of it through a jungle grapevine in a remote corner of the Twilight Zone. – from episode 3.12 – The Jungle)

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Malcolm Nance – image from Macmillan

Malcolm Nance is an intelligence professional, who has been dealing with foreign enemies for decades. What he has seen in analyzing terrorism and insurgencies abroad has given him a unique insight into what is now an ongoing domestic insurgency, an insurgency that is the means by which the fascist Republican right will take what it wants from you. They will try to win elections, and will win many, some fairly. But they will try to win by cheating, wherever playing fair will not get the job done. Once in office they will steal your rights, and legislate permanence to their position. What they cannot win at the ballot box, they will try to seize at the end of a gun. He calls this movement TITUS, for the Trump Insurgency in the United States. If you are among the remaining sane Republicans you might feel like the guy in TZ episode 1, who finds himself all alone in an abandoned town.

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Earl Holliman as Mike Ferris in TZ episode 1, Where is Everybody – image from Do You Remember

Nance presents a group-by-group look at the organizations involved in promoting and perpetuating chaos in our country, with the goal of seizing power. Many of these will be familiar. (Proud Boys, Three-Percenters, Oath Keepers Boogaloo Bois) Some were news to me. (e.g. Atomwaffen, the Base, Panzerfaust) He offers some history, showing how the bigotries of the past have persisted, albeit with some costume changes. He shows how the unspeakable monsters of the far right have gained increasing publicity from the right-wing media echo machine, and the main-stream media. And sadly, how the views expressed have found a home in a large portion of American households. He notes Trump’s rapid transition from distancing himself from the crazies to fully embracing them. No, this is not a Rod-Serling-generated fantasy land. The Proud Boys really are the khaki’d descendants of the skinheads.

TITUS is a pre-rebellion political-paramilitary alliance that intends to use politics, instability, and violence to meet its goals. The number one goal is reestablishing the Trump dynasty as the primary operating system for America. Then they will use the power of the government to punish their enemies. The political wing of TITUS, the Trump-dominated Republican Party, has already initiated a dangerous plan to embrace the launch of protracted political warfare in America.

Recent reports are that Trump even dreamed of having generals as loyal to him as Hitler’s were to Der Fuhrer, not realizing, because he is an ignoramus, that Hitler’s generals had tried to kill him on multiple occasions. It is pretty clear that this is not the only thing about Hitler that Trump envies.

What we are looking at is a world in which there are people hoping to put Anthony Fremont into the Oval Office, again. You don’t remember Anthony? If you are a Twilight Zone fan you might. He was a monster, the star of one of TZ’s most famous, and chilling episodes. He was six years old, and lived in Peakesville, Ohio. But he was born with an unusual talent. He could make things vanish or rearrange them in horrible ways. He has already made all the world around Mar-a-Lago, sorry, Peakesville, disappear, and if you harbor any unhappy (UnMAGA?) thoughts he will do terrible things to you. The episode was called It’s a Good Life, taking its title from the ironic statement of an adult who knows it is anything but.

Discussing the impeachment of President Trump on Meet the Press, Representative Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado, said most members of the GOP are “paralyzed with fear.” He continued: “I had a lot of conversations with my Republican colleagues. . . . A couple of them broke down in tears . . . saying that they are afraid for their lives if they vote for this impeachment.

This is what TITUS wants.

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Billy Mumy as Anthony Fremont in It’s a Good Life, TZ season 3, episode 8 – image from NY Post

Nance goes through what he calls the Psychodynamics of Radicalization, pointing out characteristics that well describe many on the right. They all see themselves as victims, are emotionally reactive, internalize negative stimuli until they burst, embrace conspiracy theories, have flexible ideological identifications (meaning there is no there there, any excuse will do to back up whatever it is they want, or are being told to do.) It goes on, but offers a fair description of many of the TITUS horde. There is certainly a lot of thinking inside the bubble going on, which leaves them with reduced capacity to think critically about the propaganda they mass-consume from the likes of Fox and Breitbart.

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TZ Season 1, episode 22, The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street – image from Noblemania – two aliens are amazed that simply by fiddling with a local electricity grid, they can cause the residents of this place to reveal their inner monsters and destroy each other

One thing that I hoped would be addressed is the role Russia might have played, or is still playing in organizing or supporting some of these nut farms. Personally, I believe that Russia was instrumental in the creation of Q-Anon, but do not claim that to be a fact. It would be consistent with Russian cyber-war attacks against the West over the last few decades. There is a strong connection between Putin and disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who has been rumored to be “Q.” Nance might be in a position to have an actual informed opinion about who Q is. He does, however, offer a provocative scenario in which Q-Anon evolved from a live-action-role-playing game.

An even more provocative scenario depicts a theoretical nation-wide assault on governments by the armed right. It is chilling.

The violence of today’s right has been bubbling for a while. He reports on increasing white-nationalism in the police and military. The significance of this is that instead of bumbling amateurs trying to storm governors’ mansions, many of the assaulters will be combat trained, able to organize assaults, and comfortable using weapons. Military-style training camps have been increasing in number. Insurrectionist-oriented organizations joining together, or coordinating, can form a serious threat to the nation. Another huge threat is the propagation of lone-wolf terrorists, fooled by right-wing media lies into taking action against non-existent crimes. Remember Pizzagate? In its ability to inspire low-information followers to commit mortal acts of violence TITUS very much resembles ISIS.

Violent extremists in the United States and terrorists in the Middle East have remarkably similar pathways to radicalization. Both are motivated by devotion to a charismatic leader, are successful at smashing political norms, and are promised a future racially homogeneous paradise. Modern American terrorists are much more akin to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) than they are to the old Ku Klux Klan. Though they take offense at that comparison, the similarities are quite remarkable. Most American extremists are not professional terrorists on par with their international counterparts. They lack operational proficiency and weapons. But they do not lack in ruthlessness, targets, or ideology. However, the overwhelming number of white nationalist extremists operate as lone wolves. Like McVeigh in the 1990s and others from the 1980s, they hope their acts will motivate the masses to follow in their footsteps.

He also points out that the right has an advantage in camouflage. The January 6 insurrectionists were able to get as close as they did to the Capitol largely because they were white. Had a black mob of comparable size been breaking down barriers in DC that day, the response would have been very different. The whiteness of the assaulters allowed them to get close. Will that work in state capitols too, or again in DC?

You will pick up some of the terminology used by the right, terms like accelerationism, ZOG, The Storm, zombies, sovereign citizen, constitutional sheriff, and plenty more.

You will also learn about some of the books that inspire these folks. You may have heard of The Turner Diaries, but maybe not about The Great Replacement, by Renaud Camus, or Siege, by James Mason (no, not that one).

They Want to Kill Americans is Malcolm Nance, with his hair on fire, trying to get everyone to see what is coming, pleading with us to take measures to forestall a bloody American insurgency. The book works in two ways, both as a warning of imminent peril, and as a resource. Use this book to learn who the relevant right-wing groups are, what they are about, who their leaders are, what their goals and methods are. There are many names named in this book. It would be good to learn as many of them as possible.

Sadly, we are not in a dimension beyond time and space. We are in the dark place in which millions around the world find themselves facing hordes of fascists determined to destroy democracy as we have known it, substituting authoritarian rule. The threat is real, and unless we can fend it off we may never be able to find our way out of The Twilight of Democracy Zone. (with apologies to Anne Applebaum)

…several Republican legislatures including in Florida, Oklahoma, and Missouri have made the murder of protesters by running them over in a vehicle legal.

Review posted – August 12, 2022

Publication date – July 12, 2022

I received an eARE of They Want to Kill Americans from St. Martin’s Press in return for a fair review. Thanks, Sara Beth and Michelle.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

The focus on his personal site at present is Ukraine, where Nance is working with the government to fend off the Russian invaders.

Interviews
—– The Mary Trump Show – Malcolm Nance & Mary Trump: They Want To Kill Americans – VIDEO – 41:21
—–Malcolm Nance: ”The Republican Party is an insurgent party” – By David Smith
—–Salon – Malcolm Nance on the Trump insurgency: Jan. 6 was a “template to do it correctly next time” by Chauncey Devega
—– The Commonwealth Club – MALCOLM NANCE: BEHIND THE IDEOLOGY OF THE TRUMP INSURGENCY – video – with Pat Thurston – 1:16:52

My review of another book by the author
—–2018 – The Plot to Destroy Democracy

Item of Interest
—–University of Ohio – Twilight Zone Introduction

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Filed under American history, Non-fiction, Public policy

Upgrade by Blake Crouch

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My mother had tried to edit a few rice paddies and ended up killing two hundred million people. What havoc could she wreak—intentionally or through unintended consequences—by attempting to change something as fundamental as how Homo sapiens think?

We were a bunch of primates who had gotten together and, against all odds, built a wondrous civilization. But paradoxically—tragically—our creation’s complexity had now far outstripped our brains’ ability to manage it.

OK, so if you had the chance to upgrade yourself, would you do it? I know I would. There are so many things about me that could be better. But, as we all know from the constant barrage of upgrades offered by the makers of every bloody piece of software, some have downsides. Such as new, bloated code slowing down your app. A feature you liked has been removed. You now have to endure ads. Are the benefits of greater value than the costs? Sometimes, but usually, we won’t actually know until the new version is installed, which can take anywhere from minutes to “really, this fu#%ing thing is still processing?” Sometimes, you have no choice, the app updates whether you want it to or not.

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Blake Crouch – image from his site

I suppose agent Logan Ramsay could tell us something about that last case. On a raid, he walks into a planned trap, which goes boom, and Ramsay is infused with version 1.0 of something, which gets busy rewriting his internal code to produce version 2.0 of Logan. There are upsides and downsides. This is no steroidal enhancement, trading zits and rage for increased muscle mass. A nifty bit of tech called a gene driver, (can’t help but see a tiny Uber with double-helix treads) is busy re-writing his actual DNA. (For a new you, no really, a totally, completely new you, call…1 800 FIX-THIS. Of course, we have a la carte if there are only some minor changes you would like. Operators are standing by.)

Logan already had a complicated life. Mom was a geneticist trying to improve crop yields in China when there was a slight bit of collateral damage. Her altered-DNA material went where it was not supposed to. Oopsy. It was known as The Great Starvation. As noted in the quote at top, over two hundred million dead. Junior, who had been working with Mom, dead in the ensuing mess, wound up taking undeserved legal heat in her place, spent time in prison, but was sprung three years in. Now he works as an agent for the federal GPA, or Gene Protection Agency, (too late for Wilder) fiddling with genetic code having become a serious, felonious no-no, and Junior wanting to make amends for his family’s role in the global debacle. He is a geneticist like Mom, now dedicated to seeing that it never happens again.

So, what happens in every single film and book in which our hero is altered by some weird outside force? They are dragged into enforced isolation for relentless study. Or base their subsequent actions (FLEE!!!) on the presumption that this is what the powers that be have planned for them.

Of course among the changes that have been implanted into Logan is a significant increase in IQ. His perceptions have been enhanced as well, giving him a wider bandwidth for incoming sensory information and a much improved ability to process that new flow.

This is both a chase and a pursuit story, as Logan must stay out of the clutches of the government, while searching for a dangerous geneticist, trying to stave off another potential global disaster. His personal upgrades make both running and chasing less of a challenge for him than it might be for an unaugmented person.

Crouch offers a steady, if light, sprinkling of tech changes, letting us know we are in the future, if not necessarily the far distant future. Some seem more distant than others. Hyperloop, for example, is a widespread viable transportation mode. There is a mile-high building in Las Vegas.

The book is set slightly in the future, because I wanted to accelerate where some of the climate change and more in-the-weeds technology was heading, but it’s a mirror of where we might be five minutes from now. – Time interview

Some of the alignments seemed out of kilter. The story takes place in the 2060s. But delivery drones and driverless taxis hardly seem much of an advance for forty years. Ditto electric cars with greater range. Mention is made of a Google Roadster. Google producing its own car has been a project in the works since 2009. So, maybe only five minutes into the future for a lot of the tech Crouch employs. The five-minutes vs forty-years lookahead was jarringly inconsistent at times, which pulled me out of the story.

He also reminds us, with a steady stream of examples, that the underlying issue is humans having screwed up the Earth to the point where the continued viability of Homo Sap is called into question. Lower Manhattan and most of Miami are under water. Glacier National Park no longer features glaciers. Many wildlife species are only memories. It is raining in the Rockies instead of snowing. There are now seven hurricane categories.

There are some things about this book that I would change. There is an escape scene in which I found the means of egress a bit far-fetched, given the year in which it takes place. Surely there is better tech available? I kept wondering who got Logan sprung from prison. If it was revealed, I missed it. I wondered, during a flight from hostile forces, at how little pursuit of the runner there was by the pursuing forces. Really? That easy to get away? I don’t think so. A couple of lost family members merited a bit more attention. And there is a decided absence of humor.

Expected questions are raised. Things like what is it that makes us human? There are those who believe that enhancing, upgrading humanity’s intelligence-related genes to stave off the potential extinction of our species is the only solution, regardless of what collateral damage that might entail. If we are smarter, goes the theory, we will see that what we are doing is madness, and find more sustainable ways of living. While that notion is appealing, it seems pretty glaring that an intelligence boost alone will not cut it. I mean, so you make people smarter. What could possibly go wrong? Logan addresses this:

What if you create a bunch of people who are just drastically better at what they already were. Soldiers. Criminals. Politicians. Capitalists?

The notion has been done a fair bit. Forbidden Planet is the classic of this sort. That most of the genetic manipulators in this tale ignore this suggests that maybe they were not so smart as they thought they were, enhanced or not.

Might it enhance one’s appreciation of Upgrade if one had read his prior sci-fi thrillers? No idea. Have not read them. Cannot say. My unaugmented research capacities tell me, though, that this is a stand-alone, so at least there is no direct story or character connection to his prior work.

Upgrade is a fast-paced thriller that keeps the action charging ahead. I often found myself continuing to read beyond where I had planned to stop. Logan is a decent guy who struggles with moral decisions in a very believable way. There are reasons to relate to him as an everyman, regardless of who his mother may have been. Crouch offers character depth enough for this genre. The tech never gets extreme, a beautiful thing. The concerns raised are very serious. Hopefully, it will boost, if not your muscle mass and speed in the forty, your interest level in the world of genetic manipulation, which, albeit with the best of intentions, could wind up degrading us all.

TIME: You did a ton of research on gene editing for Upgrade. Was there anything you learned that stood out?
Blake Crouch: The big thing I came away with is how afraid scientists are of this research and this technology. I didn’t realize how unnerved everyone was about both the optimistic potential of this technology—but also the pitfalls that await us.

Review posted – August 5, 2022

Publication date – July 19, 2022

I received an ARE of Upgrade from Penguin Random House in return for a fair review, and not trying to change too much. Thanks, KQ, and thanks to NetGalley for facilitating.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

From the book
BLAKE CROUCH is a bestselling novelist and screenwriter. His novels include Upgrade, Recursion, Dark Matter, and the Wayward Pines trilogy, which was adapted into a television series for FOX. Crouch also co-created the TNT show Good Behavior, based on his Letty Dobesh novellas. He lives in Colorado.

Interviews
—–Time – Blake Crouch No Longer Believes in Science Fiction – by Anabel Gutterman
—–Paulsemel.com – Exclusive Interview: “Upgrade” Author Blake Crouch

Songs/Music
—–“Träumerei,” from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood – Noted in chapter 6 as Logan’s favorite tune – if he says so
—–Bowie – Changes – a live version from 1999 – just because
—– Yamer Yapchulay – playing a violin cover of Tonight from West Side Story – one was played in Chapter 15
—–Kyla – I Am Changing – you can thank me later

Items of Interest
—–Carson National Forest – a hideout
—–Quantum annealing computing – mentioned in chapter 7
—–LifeCode is mentioned in chapter 9

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Filed under Cli-Fi, Fiction, Sci-fi, Science Fiction, Thriller

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

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.

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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

True-Crime Family – The Family Plot by Megan Collins

book cover

My parents named me Dahlia, after the Black Dahlia—that actress whose body was cleaved in half, left in grass as sharp as scalpels, a permanent smile sliced onto her face—and when I first learned her story at four years old I assumed a knife would one day carve me up.

I’m not looking for evil. I’m looking for answers.

You know straight away that this one will be told with tongue firmly attached to cheek. The four siblings are all named after famous murder victims. The Lighthouse family has seen quite a few lives dashed on the rocks, well, not personally, or well, maybe personally. That is the crux of the mystery. There is a never-caught serial murderer on the island, The Blackburn Killer, responsible, so people think, for the murders of seven women over two decades. The family is gathered on this wind-swept, rocky isle when father dies, mostly unlamented, a heart attack,

”Dad’s heart was a real bastard about it. took him out in two seconds flat. Pushed him face down in his venison stew…Mom had to wipe the meat off his cheeks before the paramedics came. It’s poetic really. Dad hunted so many deer in his lifetime, and in the end, he died on top of one. Seems almost…intentional, doesn’t it? Like his heart knew what he’d been up to and murdered him for it.”

summoning the now-grown children (well, three out of four, anyway, as the fourth had left a note ten years back announcing he was leaving for good) back from their definitely-NOT-on-this island homes for his funeral and burial. But when the caretaker of the considerable grounds digs up dad’s assigned plot, he is surprised to find that it is already occupied. The missing brother, Andy, gone ten years, has been found. Oh, dear.

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Megan Collins – image from Wheaton College

The whole thing stems from the title, which is not how I usually do my books at all. The title usually comes last, and I agonize over it. But I was working on something else, and I was trying to title that, and I asked my husband for some suggestions. And I said I want something that speaks to the family aspect of the book and he just threw out, “I don’t know, The Family Plot?” And I was like, no, that doesn’t work for this, but that is amazing as a title…that just rattled around in my head for a few days, until it was like a burst, that came to me, of a family that came together to bury one family member, only to find another member of the family in that grave. So then from there I thought well, what family would it be most interesting to see in that kind of story? It would be really interesting to see someone who, a family who was so interested in true crime that they built a library. And now they’re in the center of true crime story. – from the World of the Write interview

Interested understates it a bit, as the Lighthouse family, stemming from mom, is obsessed with true crime, so much so that the kids, who were home-schooled, studied famous murders. In place of the usual book reports they were charged with producing murder reports. There is a room in their large, creepy home, that is designated the Victim Room, as it holds the considerable collection of books and reports the family has amassed on the most notorious serial killers, and greatest murders, solved and unsolved, of all time. No wonder the locals refer to it as Murder Mansion.

Our docent in this odd place is Dahlia, 26, returned (Dead leaves skitter around my feet as if welcoming me home – Yikes!) from the mainland where she has been living since she moved out at age 19, obsessed with finding her lost twin, Andy (named for Lizzie Borden’s father).

The trust fund is how I manage the way I do—jobless, hunched over my laptop, scouring photos of any crowd on social media, looking for crinkly eyes, for the cowlick on the back of Andy’s head.

She has always felt that she and Andy had a special twins bond and that, if he were dead, she would know it. Her older sibs have been holed up in New York City since they fled the island, as soon as they could. Charlie (named for the Lindbergh baby) is an actor who appears in off-Broadway, off-off-Broadway, and nowhere-at-all-near-Broadway productions, when he can get cast, and when he is sober. Tate (named for Sharon Tate) has an on-line following of 57,000 for her site @Die-orama, on which she produces miniature reproductions of famous crimes. We all do what we’ve gotta do to cope with what came before in our lives. Am I wrong? Tate continues coping by making a diorama of the finding of her brother’s body. Charlie plans to turn the house into a temporary display, The Lighthouse Memorial Museum, to show the Blackburn island residents that the Lighthouses are actual people, not some homicidal, Addams family knockoff. Even Mom (Lorraine) Lighthouse deflects actual emotional dealing into consistently failed attempts to bake cookies, a running joke.

I just went and threw everything into it that I am obsessed with and that I love. I love true crime. Threw that in. I love secluded, dark little islands. Threw that in. I love mini things, so I had this diorama thing. I love these creepy mansions, so I had that. I went wild with all the things that excite me in the hope that if I am excited about them, hopefully it makes a good story, and other people will be into it. But yes, atmosphere, definitely tons of atmosphere… – from the World of the Write interview

There is a fun supporting cast. A mysterious local girl (Ruby Decker) used to spy on the Lighthouse manse at night when Andy was still around. The local detective on the case is Elijah Kraft, who just happens to be the son of the detective who was in charge of the Blackburn Killer investigation back in the day. He had always been convinced that Daniel Lighthouse (the recently deceased dad) was the killer and junior seems determined to pin Andy’s killing on him as well. At the very least, pin it on some member of the family. We see him mostly while sparring with Dahlia. Fitz, the lifelong caretaker, does not always make it to the ferry for his nightly trip back to the mainland. Why is that? Greta, a friend, runs a café below Dahlia’s apartment, and shares the Lighthouse obsession with true crime, if not the family history. She stands in for the more typically obsessed true-crime aficionados in the world.

I’ve never written plays, but it kinda felt like writing a play sometimes, thinking of like almost every scene in the book takes place in the house except for a few of them, so there is a kind of claustrophobic sense. And so the house really felt like a set to me that I was moving the characters around and now they’re the living room and what’s happening in there, and now they’re in the room that they call the victim room because it has all their books about true crime. – from the World of the Write interview

She also gives us a taste of backwater mentality, and eagerness to believe the worst of people who are different. And the separation from humanity of many true-crime enthusiasts, fixated on details of murders to the exclusion of pain and suffering, the human experience of those personally impacted.

Dahlia is an honest broker, well, mostly. She truly wants to find out who killed her beloved brother, and who the Blackburn Killer might be, even if it turns out to be family. There are twists aplenty, and swaths of atmospherics. Collins clearly had a lot of fun writing this book and it comes across.

I did have one gripe. Are we really expected to believe that a family would construct an entire home-schooling curriculum around murders? It was a bit much to swallow. But if you are willing to suspend belief, and, yes, your honor, I confess to doing just that, The Family Plot is a delicious bit of mystery fluff, a fun, roller-coaster ride of a yarn. If you pick up The Family Plot looking for a very entertaining Summer read, you will be dead on.

…the fact that their bodies were returned to our shore, spit onto sand instead of carried to another coast, is proof that the ocean wants us here, contained to Blackburn Island.

Review posted – August 20, 2021

Publication date – August 17, 2021

I received an ARE of The Family Plot in return for crucial intel on an unsolved case. Thanks to Maudee at Atria.

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

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

Interviews
—–World of the Write Review – – video – 30:09 – by Kerry Schafer – if you have to choose only interview to check out, it would be this one.
—–Player FM – A murderous chat with CT Author Megan Collins! – Renee DeNino – Audio – 16:30
—–Dead Darlings – Interview with Megan Collins, Author of Behind The Red Door by Susan Bernhard – 8/6/20 – this interview was done long before The Family Plot came along, but still has some interesting intel, such as

My instincts as a storyteller are to begin as close to the inciting incident as possible. By the end of the first chapter, I want some sort of bomb—big or small—to have been dropped on my characters, so that the reader has a sense of the stakes right away.

—–Megan Collins: Author of The Winter Sister – also done before Collins’ latest book, but of value nonetheless

Items of Interest from the author
—–Crime Reads – What Scares a Thriller Writer – 8/4/20
—–Collins’ site – links to 22 other pieces

The book site for The Family Plot lists gothic among its genres. It felt like it was close to that on reading, but not quite, so I resorted to this scorecard, which I used a bit more grandly in my review of While You Sleep. So, is it or isn’t it?

Gothic Novel Scorecard

Ticking off the gothic criteria
1 – setting – old mansion – check – secret passages – yep, and more
2 – atmosphere of mystery or suspense – you betcha
3 – ancient prophecy or legend – nothing supernatural here
4 – omens, portents, visions – well, portents maybe (no good tents, though)
5 – supernatural or otherwise inexplicable events – the deaths on the island – Andy’s demise
6 – high, overwrought emotion – for sure
7 – woman in distress – Dahlia – yep
8 – Women threatened by powerful, tyrannical male – murder vics, presumably – there is no living tyrannical male in this telling – and while The Blackburn Killer is assumed to be male, there is no certainty of the killer’s gender for most of the book.

Frequent Gothic Elements
Wind – always
Rain – don’t really recall, so if it was there, it was not particularly memorable
Doors on rusty hinges – I don’t think so, but maybe
Eerie sounds – not really
Character strapped in a room – no
Approaching footsteps – yep
Ruins of buildings – not really

It may not tick off ALL the boxes that define Gothic novels, but it marks enough of them to matter. It is clear that while Collins worked from her notions and was not trying to craft a classic gothic novel, The Family Plot is certainly gothic enough to count.

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Re-wilding the Highlands – Once there Were Wolves by Charlotte McConoughy

book cover

I had always known there was something different about me, but that was the day I first recognized it to be dangerous. It was also the day, as I stumbled out of the shed into a long violet dusk, that I looked to the trees’ edge and saw my first wolf, and it saw me.

They’re more dangerous than we are.”
“Are they?” I ask. “They are wilder, certainly.”
“Isn’t it the same?”
“I don’t think so. I think it’s civilization makes us violent. We infect each other.”

Inti Flynn had always had a feel for nature. Her father had been a woodsman, first working for a lumber company, then, later, living a mostly solo subsistence life, in Canada, trying his best not to contribute to the global demise. He taught Inti and her twin, Aggie, about how to live in and with the wild. Their mother, a detective in Australia, was more concerned with teaching them how to contend with the wild in civilization. There is a lot in here about parents, of both the human and lupine persuasion, teaching children or pups how to cope in the world, how to defend against predators. The human sorts offer different approaches, some counseling firm defenses, others advising understanding, and some resorting to extreme kinetic measures. There are plenty of parents teaching questionable lessons.

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Charlotte McConoughy – image from If.com.au

Dad used to tell me that my greatest gift was that I could get inside the skin of another human. That I could feel what nobody else could, the life of another, really feel it and roll around in it. That the body knows a great deal and I have the miraculous ability to know more than one body. The astonishing cleverness of nature. He also taught us that compassion was the most important thing we could learn. If someone hurt us, we needed only empathy, and forgiveness would be easy.

Inti’s gift is not metaphorical. Her ability to experience what others feel, gives her a unique advantage in understanding both wildlife and people. It also makes her very vulnerable.

I am unlike most people. I move through life in a different way, with an entirely unique understanding of touch. Before I knew its name I knew this. To make sense of it, it is called a neurological condition. Mirror-touch synesthesia. My brain re-creates the sensory experiences of living creatures, of all people and even sometimes animals; if I see it I feel it, and for just a moment I am them, we are one and their pain or pleasure is my own. It can seem like magic and for a long time I thought it was, but really it’s not so far removed from how other brains behave: the physiological response to witnessing someone’s pain is a cringe, a recoil, a wince. We are hardwired for empathy. Once upon a time I took delight in feeling what others felt. Now the constant stream of sensory information exhausts me. Now I’d give anything to be cut free.

McConaghy’s prior novel, Migrations, looked at the demise of wildlife (birds in particular, and even more particularly terns) in a slightly future world. In this one, she continues her interest in the impact of people on the natural environment. Officially, the last wolf in Scotland was killed in 1680. There are reports of wolves being seen as late as 1888, but Scotland has been essentially wolf-free for well over three centuries. Sadly for Scottish woodlands, it has not been farmer, sheep, or climate-change-free. Part of the problem is that the local deer population tends to linger in place long enough to lay waste to new shoots. A great way to keep them moving is to reintroduce wolves. Good for the goal of restoring natural forest, re-wilding at least part of Scotland is good for the health of the deer population as well. Thus, Inti’s presence. She is leading a team charged with re-introducing a small population of wolves to a remote part of Scotland, near the Cairngorms, a mountainous area in the highlands.

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The Cairngorms – Image from The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

As one might imagine, there is considerable resistance among farmers concerned about the potential loss of livestock. The minimal-to-non-existent actual danger to humans is played up by those opposed to the reintroduction. Battle lines are drawn. The program has official sanction, but the locals have guns, and itchy fingers. And then someone goes missing. Inti’s primary concern is with the danger to the program, as she expects her wolves to be blamed.

The mystery for us is why, and how this person vanished. After a meet-cute early in the book, Inti and the local sheriff, Duncan MacTavish, team up, in a way, to try figuring out what happened. There are other mysteries as well, albeit of a different sort. What happened to Inti’s sister that had left her so damaged? Is Duncan trustworthy? The book alternates between the present and looking back at two periods in Inti’s and Aggie’s lives, with their father in British Columbia, where they learned how to live off the land, and as adults, when Inti was working on a wolf project in Alaska.

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Red deer are Scotland’s largest surviving, native, wild land mammal. It’s estimated that there are 400,000 of them in the Scottish Highlands – image and text from Good Nature Travel

Inti struggles with her desire to protect her wolves, and her need to engage with the locals as something other than as a know-it-all outsider. The complexity of the town’s social relations is quite fascinating. Duncan is our eyes on this, and a big help to Inti, knowing so well the people in the community in which he had grown up, understanding motivations, relationships, and local history much better than any outsider could.

Abuse is a central issue, in both the Old and the New World, whether at the hands of the distraught, the damaged, or the downright evil. Multiple characters in Scotland come from homes in which there was violence, whether against spouses, children, or both. It is clear that one of the locals has beaten his wife. Other instances of family violence are important to the story. The abuse that does take place is mostly done off-screen, reported, but not seen first-hand. Inti’s attempt at restoring the Scottish landscape, of giving new opportunities to a much-reviled species mirrors her attempt to heal, to restore the vitality of her own family.

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A wealthy landowner in Scotland is hoping to bring wolves from Sweden to the Scottish Highlands to thin the herd of red deer. – image and text from Good Nature Travel

One can probably make too much of it (I am sure I did), but I found it fun to look at the wolves for indications of comparison to the human characters. Was Inti like Six (the wolves are given numbers not names, for the most part). Who might be lone wolves? Who is fiercest in protecting their pack/family? Who are the alphas?

There is much resonance with Migrations. Both leads are working far from home. Both are trying to do something to help in a world that seems set against accepting any. Although she has her sister with her in Wolves, Inti is primarily a solo actor. She finds a family of a sort with charming, and not-so-charming locals, in the way that Franny Stone in Migrations teamed up with the fishing boat crew. Like Franny, Inti bears the burden of deep, traumatic family secrets. Like Franny, she is trying to find her true home, whether that be in Scotland, Canada, Australia, or maybe wherever the wolves are. Inti has a near-magical power of sensitivity. Franny had special abilities in the water. Like Franny, Inti teams up with a guy in a position of some power. In Migrations it was Ennis Malone, captain of a fishing boat. Here it is Duncan McTavish, the local sheriff. In both novels McConaghy shows the concerns of those imperiled by the front lines of attempts to correct a bad ecological situation. Of the two, this novel struck me as a bit more optimistic about the possibilities of making meaningful change.

In the real world, wolves have not been officially introduced back into Scotland, but there is one wealthy individual who is looking at doing so in a limited way. Who knows? Maybe the re-wilding of Scotland is not entirely a pipe dream.

Once There Were Wolves offers a close look at the issues involved in programs of this sort. The locals are accorded plenty of respect for and insight into their legitimate concerns, as we get to see past the rejectionist veneer. Very hard choices must be made, and the decision-making is very adult. Inti is a tough young woman with a challenging responsibility. It is easy to care about what happens to her. McConaghy keeps the action flowing, so there is no danger of losing interest. The main mystery is very intriguing and the final explanation is twisty and wonderful, with Inti finding her inner Miss Marple to sleuth her way to the truth. Once you sink your canines into this one, you will not want to let go. There are hankie moments as well. Tears will be shed. Set in a wintry place, it seems an ideal book to cool off with in the hot summer months. (Of course, if you read this in cooler months, it is distinctly possible that you will be wearing some wool, and thus will be reading a book about wolves while in sheep’s clothing. Just sayin’.) It seems appropriate to keep a modest supply of whiskey near to hand, just for ambience, of course. Or for those of the teetotaler persuasion, maybe some Irn-Bru. As for the best place in which to read this book, and read it you should, that should be obvious, in a den.

There is violence in me, in my hands, which vibrate with the need to exert some kind of control, some defiance, and if it is revenge for the things that have been taken from me then fine, I will have that too. I am done with falling prey. I will be predator, at last. I will forget the walls and the self-protection and I will become the thing I hunt and feel it all.

Review posted – July 9, 2021

Publication date – August 3, 2021

I received an E-ARE of OTWW in return for a fair review. Thanks to Amelia at Flatiron, to NetGalley for hosting the book and to MC for facilitating.

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

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

Interviews
Interviews with CM re this book have been as tough to find as Scottish wolves, but I did unearth an oldie, from 2014. I am sure after the book is released there will be more interviews available. There are several interview links in my review of Migrations
—–AusRom Today – AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Charlotte McConaghy – from 2014 – this relates to her very early, romantic fantasy writing

My review of McConaghy’s previous book
—–2020 – Migrations

Items of Interest
—–Sea Wolves – Panthalassa.Org – mentioned in Chapter 8
—–Good Nature Travel – Bringing Wolves Back to Scotland by Candace Gaukel Andrews
—–The Guardian – Stories to save the world: the new wave of climate fiction by Claire Armitstead
—–Wiki on mirror touch synesthesia – yes, this is a real thing
—–Travel Medium – Why Are There No Trees in Scotland? by Paul McDougal – this is a wonderful overview of how Scotland lost so much of its woodlands over the last 6,000 years
—–Public Domain Review – Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours – Inti’s father kept a copy for use in his work – Chapter 3
—–The Guardian – Rewilding: should we bring the lynx back to Britain? by Phoebe Weston – 8/16/21 – One proposed re-wilding site is the same one used in this book

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Filed under Cli-Fi, Reviews

When the Stars Go Dark by Paula McLain

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A town like this feels so safe and apart from the outside world. You start to wonder if it’s dangerous.”
“The fairy tale of it, you mean?”
“Right. False security. You stop looking over your shoulder, because the picture feels real. Nothing bad can happen when there’s a moat around the whole town, right? Battlements. Guards at the gate. But the dragon shows up anyway.”

“These are my obsessions,” Paula McLain said. “How do we survive the unsurvivable? How do we climb off the table as a victim? How did we get there in the first place?” – from the NY Times Personal article

San Francisco Detective Anna Louise Hart has problems of her own. Something terrible has happened to her child. Her husband is not eager to see her. Needing to get away, she heads north to a place she sees as a refuge of sorts, Mendocino, the place where, after a succession of bad experiences, she had finally been taken in as a foster by a warm, supportive couple. Memories abound, marked by the presence of an enigmatic sculpture in the middle of town.

Above the roofline of the Masonic Hall and against a gauzy sky, the figures of Time and the Maiden stand sharp and white, the most iconic thing in the village. A bearded, elderly figure with wings and a scythe, braiding the hair of a girl standing before him. Her head bowed over a book resting on a broken column, an acacia branch in one of her hands, an urn in the other, and an hourglass near her feet—each object an enigmatic symbol in a larger puzzle. The whole carving like a mystery in plain sight.

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Time and the Maiden – image from Serendipity Patchwork

Almost immediately I knew the story had to be set in Mendocino—a small coastal town in Northern California where I spent time in my twenties—and that the time frame of the narrative had to be pre-DNA, pre-cellphone, before the Internet had exploded and CSI had lay people thinking they could solve a murder with their laptop. – from the Author’s Note

Hart’s work in San Francisco had centered on finding lost children. She was in a special unit for this. It’s the sort of work that leads one to sacrifice other aspects of one’s life. I pictured a missing persons expert obsessed with trying to save a missing girl and also struggling to make peace with her past. And straight away, after renting an off-the-grid cabin several miles outside of town, reconnecting with an old friend who is now the sheriff, saying Hi to some other folks and places from her days there as a kid, a local girl, the daughter of a famous actress, vanishes. Having some expertise in the field, Anna offers to help, and the game is afoot.

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Paula McLain – image from Writers Write

…when she started digging into the research, she realized that there had been real-life abductions in California at that time — including the kidnapping of 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her Petaluma bedroom. McLain weaves Klaas’s tragic story into the novel, reminding the reader of yet another young woman who never had a chance to shine. – from the NY Times Personal interview

In addition to Polly, McLain incorporated into her story several real-world disappeared girls, as points of reference. She does not go into their characters much beyond rough descriptions. But this does let us know that the fictional tale she presents has a very real flesh-and-blood basis, the time she portrays presenting more peril than usual. And she does not stop there in paralleling the real and the created.

Sexual abuse of children is a focus, as is coping with being in the foster care system. These are experiences with which McLain is painfully familiar. In the Times article noted in EXTRA STUFF, Why I Took a Vow of Celibacy, she writes about her abuse as a foster kid.

Some nights nothing happened. Other nights I would wake to a shape in the doorway, the husband’s inky silhouette. And then I would disappear inside myself, barely breathing, frozen. I vanished so expertly that I wasn’t actually in my body any longer as he peeled me away from my sister. I didn’t make a sound.

It would have been easy to make this a total downer of a story, but McLain points out some of the bright sides as well. Anna recalls with great love the supportive foster family she had lived with in Mendocino, and shows how a community can come together to try to help each other, in this case reflecting the real-world effort made to find Polly Klaas when she was abducted.

McLain’s descriptions border on the transcendental at times, both lyrically beautiful, and evocative of underlying story content. They reminded me of the poetic magnificence (as well as the issues taken on) of Rene Denfeld. So, it seemed fitting that in the acknowledgments, Denfeld is listed among authors whose work inspired her.

Above the cloud line, an eerie yellow sphere is rising. It’s the moon, gigantic and overstuffed, the color of lemonade. I can’t stop watching it roll higher and higher, saturated with brightness, like a wound. Or like a door lit entirely by pain.

Uh oh. The eeriness of the environment resonates throughout the novel, but it is also clear that Anna has an appreciation for nature, a feeling of connection, gaining a sense of comfort from it, even though it can seem very dark at times.

Firs and pines and Sitka spruce thicken around me, pushing in from all directions, black-tipped fairy-tale trees that knit shadows out of nothing, night out of day—as if they’ve stolen all the light and hidden it somewhere. God, but I’ve missed them.

And building on nature’s challenge, she sees hope in people’s ability to contend with extreme and persistent difficulties.

“Krummholz” is the word for this kind of vegetation I remember from one of Hap’s [her beloved foster father] lessons, a German term that means “bent wood.” Over many decades, hard weather has sculpted the trees into grotesque shapes. The salt-rich north wind kills the tips of the branches, forcing them to dip and twist, swooping toward the ground instead of the sky. They’re a living diagram of adaptation, of nature’s intelligence and resilience. They shouldn’t be able to keep growing this way, and yet they do.

She adds some lovely noir content and cadences, the sort one might expect from a female continental op, substituting a chemical solution for the usual flask, or lower desk drawer fifth. I zipped myself into a dress I couldn’t feel, so high on Ativan it could have been made of knives. Fairy tales come in for several mentions, not in a comforting way. There be monsters here.

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Maps from the book

The story is intriguing and keeps one eager to read more. What happened with Cameron, the primary missing girl, an adoptee? Was she abducted? Had she been lured away? Had she been abused? Given the number of girls gone missing, is there a serial killer working the area? Clues are followed, each bit leading to new suspicions, whether dead-ending or propelling the investigation. There is tension between the investigating partners, as one might expect. The book clicks along at a good pace, and delivers the goods.

There were some elements that interfered at times, though. Anna comes on a seemingly stray pooch who becomes a valued ally. Except it seemed that the dog was in and out, here, then not here, as if the notion of a canine companion appealed (the dog is given the name of McLain’s real-life furry friend), but did not seem fully integrated into the story. More a device than a character. In another instance Anna is going about the business of investigating a possible abduction or worse, with several local suspects, and this San Francisco detective is NOT PACKING! This is like the monster movie scene in which the small child runs back toward the room where the creature was last seen to retrieve a cherished stuffy. Really? If you’re gonna do that, at least offer up a satisfactory preparatory explanation. Did I miss this somewhere? A flashlight goes dark at a critical moment – puh-leez! And a character appears at a particularly opportune moment to offer crucial assistance. Sure, whatever.

But don’t let the occasional eye-roll distract from the overall wonderfulness of the book. In addition to keeping your blood pressure at an unhealthy level, McLain offers up some real-world payload in educating us about the plague of sexual abuse of children, particularly the potential perils of foster care, and how the afflicted are damaged in more than just physical ways. She points out the sometimes complex nature of abductions, and how pain can travel down through generations. You will never think of the bat signal the same way again. The stars may certainly go dark for those on the receiving end of these societal horrors, but in both keeping us entranced and filling us with new intel and perspectives, Paula McLain shines very brightly indeed.

You know, we don’t always understand what we’re living inside of, or how it will matter. We can guess all we want and prepare, too, but we never know how it’s going to turn out.

Review posted – April 9, 2021

Publication dates
———-Hardcover – April 13, 2021
———-Trade paperback – April 5, 2022

I received a digital ARE from Ballantine Books through NetGalley in return for an honest review.

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

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

From the bio on McLain’s site:

Paula McLain was born in Fresno, California in 1965. After being abandoned by both parents, she and her two sisters became wards of the California Court System, moving in and out of various foster homes for the next fourteen years. When she aged out of the system, she supported herself by working as a nurses aid in a convalescent hospital, a pizza delivery girl, an auto-plant worker, a cocktail waitress–before discovering she could (and very much wanted to) write. She received her MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 1996. She is the author of The Paris Wife…an international bestseller…She is also the author of two collections of poetry; a memoir, Like Family, Growing up in Other People’s Houses; and a first novel, A Ticket to Ride. She lives with her family in Cleveland.

Interview
—–NY Times – April 3, 2021 – Paula McLain Wrote a Thriller — and This Time, It’s Personal by Elisabeth Egan

Items of Interest from the author
—– There is a list of links to other writing on her site
—–NY Times – 3/12/2021 – Why I Took a Vow of Celibacy

Items of Interest
—–Book Club Kit
—–Rainer Maria Rilke – I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone – A line from this poem turns up in Chapter 22
—–The Reid Technique – of police interrogation -noted in Chapter 24
—–The Polly Klaas Foundation

Songs/Music
—–Bob Seger – Against the Wind – In chapter 34, Anna hears this on her car radio
—–The Little Mermaid – Under the Sea referenced in chapter 46

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Filed under Fiction, Mystery, Reviews, Suspense, Thriller

The Babysitter by Liza Rodman and Jennifer Jordan

book cover

”Close your eyes and count to ten,” he whispered. I felt his breath on my cheek. The barrel of the gun was hard and cold against my forehead.
I counted, and when I opened my eyes, he was gone.

I sat up quickly in bed, gasping, my body soaked with sweat. What the hell was that?

Thus begins The Babysitter, a telling of growing up unaware that one of the author’s favorite adults was not who she’d thought.

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Liza Rodman – image from Simon & Schuster – Photo by Joel Benjamin

In 2005, Liza Rodman, then in her forties, was working on the thesis for her undergraduate degree when she began having frequent nightmares. It was not her first such experience. She had had these for a long time, but all of a sudden they were happening every night. In one, her husband was trying to kill her with a fireplace poker. Another featured a man killing nurses and eating their hearts. The dreams kept coming, with a faceless man chasing her, always with a weapon. She would wake up as her dream self was about to crash through a window, fleeing for her life.

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Jennifer Jordan – image from her site – photo by Jeff Rhoads

Clearly there was motivation to figure out this puzzle, so she started writing about them, incorporating them into her thesis, over a two year period, drawing out more and more details. One dream-site was The Royal Coachman motel where she, her mother, and sister had lived for a time in Provincetown. Another was Bayberry Bend, a P-town motel her mother had owned.

Slowly the process moved along, six months of regular dreams, more images, months more of nightmares, until she saw the face, a familiar one, someone she hadn’t seen since she was a kid, a handyman hired to work at the motel where her mother was employed. His mother worked at the motel too. He was one of a series of people who took care of her and her sister, a really nice guy, one of the few adults who were kind to them, who never yelled at or hit them, who took them around with him in the motel’s utility truck, on chores, to the dump, to his garden in the woods, but who had disappeared when she was ten. This was not all that unusual for the adult males who scooted through her childhood. Why would she be having dark dreams about that guy? So she decides to ask her mother, then in her 70s, what this might all mean.

“Did something happen to me back then that you’re not telling me?” I said, suddenly wondering if it did.
“What do you mean, happen to you?”
“With Tony Costa.”
“Tony Costa? Why are you still thinking about him?”
“I wasn’t until I had a nightmare about him.”
She was quiet for a moment too long, and I stopped stirring and waited. Mom rarely paused to contemplate her words, so I watched, curious as to what was going to come out of her mouth.
“Well,” she said, watching the gin swirl around the glass. “I remember he turned out to be a serial killer.” She said it calmly, as if she were reading the weather report.

Oh, is that all? Not all that surprising from Betty. Liza’s divorced mom was not exactly the best. While she did manage to keep body and soul together for herself and her two girls, she was frequently cruel to Liza, for no reason that the child could fathom. Mom, in fact is a major focus of the book, as chapters flip back and forth, more or less, between a focus on Tony and a focus on Liza and her relationship with her mother.

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Antone Charles “Tony” Costa, Provincetown handyman and murderer of four young women. (Photo courtesy Barnstable County Identity Bureau) – image from the author’s site

Who was this guy? Tony Costa never got to know his father, who had drowned trying to save a fellow seaman in New Guinea near the end of World War II, when Tony was only eight months old. He would be obsessed with his war hero dad for the rest of his life. There were early signs of trouble with Tony. At age seven he claimed to have been visited regularly by a man in his bedroom at night, an actual intruder? a fantasy? an obsession? He said the man looked like his father. He stood out among his peers during summers in Provincetown, his mother’s birthplace, cooler, smarter, and more “inside himself” than anyone else, according to a kid he hung out with there. Then there was the taxidermy kit. Lots of killing of small animals, neighborhood pets going missing, yet never a successful display of a stuffed animal. There is no mention of bed-wetting in his psychopath Bingo card, but who knows? We know he was raped as a pre-teen, and was probably one of several victims of sexual abuse by a Catholic priest in Provincetown. So his potential for madness certainly had some outside assistance. He was accused of attempting to rape a young girl as a teen.

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Jen and Liza, Northampton, 1979 – image from Rodman’s site

Tony was smart and handsome, but had terrible judgment, a ne’er do well, capable at work but unable to hold onto a job. He became a heavy drug user and local dealer. Clearly this guy had some charisma (as well as a considerable supply of illegal substances) and a way with young teens. A pedophile who married his pregnant fourteen-year-old girlfriend, he kept a crowd of young acolytes around him unable or unwilling to see through his line of distilled, grandiose, narcissistic bullshit. Cult-leader stuff. There is a Manson-like quality to him. And, like most narcissists, he was never willing to accept any responsibility for his own actions, always insisting that people were out to get him, blaming others for things he had done.

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The VW Tony stole after murdering its owner. A local spotted it in the woods and notified the local police, which spelled doom for Tony Costa – image from the author’s FB pages

There is more going on here than personal profiles of the major actors. A lot is made of how different from the mainstream Provincetown was, particularly during the tourist season. The ethos was much more accepting of whatever than most places. With people coming and going so much, it was custom-made for a predator. It was the 60s, man, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n roll, and kids taking off for adventures, whether drug-related or not, and thus not necessarily raising instant alarms when they went missing. In 1971, for example, I bought an old Post Office truck at auction for three hundred bucks, and drove across country with three friends. (well, tried, we never actually made it across the continent) No cellphone, no regular check-ins. We didn’t exactly file a flight plan. If we had come to a bad end, no one would have known, or been alarmed back home for weeks. This is something a lot of people did. Of course, we were not runaways, and we were not female. That would have been a whole other order of business. The cops in Provincetown took a lackadaisical attitude toward worried parents looking for missing progeny. “Don’t worry. I’m sure they will turn up in due time.” And they were probably right, mostly. Except, sometimes they weren’t. It took a lot of pushing from those concerned about the missing young women to get the police to pay much attention. Rodman and Jordan provide a very detailed look at the various police departments that became involved in Tony’s case, both the occasional good police work and the ineptitude of inter-departmental communications. Sound familiar?

The locals were slow to allow for the possibility that there was a killer in their midst. Even today, there is an urge to protect one of their own, despite it being fifty years since the events of the book.

“I got threats when I wrote this book,” Liza says. It’s a loving portrait of the town, but not especially flattering. “I have a comfort level there that I don’t have anywhere else. Even in the face of this book.” – from The Provincetown Independent

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It was her sister’s 8th birthday. At the moment Liza was making a face at the camera, Tony was leading two young women into the Truro woods, where he would murder and bury them. – image from the author’s FB pages

One of the things about true crime books is that there is an element of suspense that is lacking. We know that little Liza will grow up to write this book, so we know that Tony did not kill her. This makes it more like a Columbo episode, knowing that the bad guy will get got, but enjoying seeing how that ultimately happens. That said, this is not a straight-up true crime effort. It is a fusion of true crime with memoir. Half of the book is about Liza’s childhood, her relationship with her mother in particular. It is an interesting look at how someone can survive a bad parent-child relationship. Showing how things were for Liza at home makes her a more sympathetic narrator for the other story. Geez, ya poor kid. I sure hope nothing else bad happens t’ya. And it makes it much more understandable how a kid who was starved for adult affection and attention would be drawn to an adult who was offering kindness and interest.

I did not get the frisson of fear reading this that pervaded in another true crime book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. Maybe because the killer in this one was long ago jailed, whereas the California killer had not yet been arrested when that book came out. But there is a certain vertigo, like walking near a cliff edge, blindfolded, only to realize the danger you were in when you take it off. It is distinctly possible that Liza might have found her way into Tony’s special garden if he had managed to stay out of jail for a few more years. Liza was like the little girl playing with Frankenstein’s monster in the movie, not realizing that he was more than just a large playmate, and seemingly friendly soul. Whew!

Rodman had been working on this project for about thirteen years. It happened that, in 2018, Jordan, a professional writer, was casting about for her next book project (She had previously published four books.) when she thought of her dear friend, Liza, (they had met in college) who was thrilled at the suggestion that they collaborate. So, sixteen years of research in all and here it is. An in depth look at a monstrous series of events, a sick individual, an interesting place in a time of upheaval, a difficult childhood, an odd friendship, and a very close call. The Babysitter is an engaging, informative read that will make you appreciate your sane parents, most likely, and appreciate your luck even more in never having had such a person as Tony in your life. (You haven’t, right?)

His coterie of teenagers, his stash of pills, and his marijuana helped mask his ever-increasing feelings of inferiority; by surrounding himself with idolizing acolytes who needed a hero, he could feel more in control, sophisticated, confident, and, of course, more intelligent.

Review posted – March 5, 2021

Publication date – March 2, 2021

I received an ARE of The Babysitter from Atria in return for an honest review. I did not charge them my usual rate of ten bucks an hour and whatever I want to eat from their fridge.

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

Links to Liza Rodman’s ’s personal, FB, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter pages

Links to Jennifer Jordan’s personal and FB pages

Interviews
—–Red Carpet Crash – February 24, 2021 – Interview: Authors ‘Liza Rodman And Jennifer Jordan’ Talk Their Book The Babysitter: My Summers With A Serial Killer – audio – 17:02 – definitely check this one out
—–New York Post – February 27, 2021 – How I discovered my babysitter Tony Costa was a serial killer by Raquel Laneri
—–The Provincetown Independent – February 24, 2021 – Remembrance of Serial Murders Past by Howard Karren
—–WickedLocal.com – February 23, 2021 – In new memoir, local serial killer Tony Costa babysat two youngsters by Susan Blood

Items of Interest
—–Frankenstein playing with sweet young Maria
—–Columbo – or substituting for whodunit the howchatchem
—–My review of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

Songs/Music
The author’s site provides a link to a considerable list of 39 songs mentioned in the book. But you have to have a membership to hear the full songs on Spotify instead of just the clips that are available on Rodman’s site.

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Filed under American history, biography, History, Non-fiction, psycho killer, Reviews, Thriller

Barracoon by Zora Neale Hurston

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“…I want to ask you many things. I want to know who you are and how you came to be a slave; and to what part of Africa do you belong, and how you fared as a slave, and how you have managed as a free man?”…when he lifted his wet face again he murmured, Thankee Jesus! Somebody come ast about Cudjo! I want tellee somebody who I is, so maybe dey go to tell everybody whut Cudjo says, and how I come to Americky soil since de 1859 and never see my people no mo’. “

Barracoon – An enclosure in which black slaves were confined for a limited period.
-Oxford English Dictionary

Before she was a world-renowned novelist, Alabama-born and Florida-raised Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, an ethnographer, a researcher into the history and folklore of black people in the American South, the Caribbean, and Honduras. She was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance, producing works of fiction in addition to her anthropological work.

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Cudjo at home – from History.com – (Credit: Erik Overbey Collection, The Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama)

It was during this period that she first met the last known black man transported from Africa to America as a slave, Cudjoe Lewis. She interviewed Lewis, then in his 80s, in 1927, producing a 1928 article about his experiences, Cudjoe’s Own Story of the Last American Slaver. There were some issues with that report, including a serious charge of plagiarism. Hurston returned to Lewis in Africatown, Alabama, to interview him at length. It is these interviews that form the bulk of her book, Barracoon, plagiarism no longer being at issue.

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Zora Neale Hurston – image from Smithsonian

Her efforts to publish the book ran into some cultural headwind, publishers refused to proceed so long as her subject’s dialogue was presented in his idiomatic speech. Thurston refused to remove this central element of the story, and so the book languished. But the Zora Neale Trust did not give up, and a propitious series of events seemed to signal that the time was right

Last fall, on the PBS genealogy series Finding Your Roots, the musician Questlove learned that he descends from people brought over on the Clotilda. Then an Alabama reporter named Ben Raines found a wreck that looked to be the scuttled ship; it wasn’t, but the story made national news….[while] Kossola’s relevance goes beyond any headlines, [there are also] noteworthy links there: one of Kossola’s sons is killed by law enforcement, and his story holds a message about recognizing humanity echoed by Black Lives Matter. – from Time Magazine article

Then there is the story itself. Hurston gets out of the way, acting mostly as Cudjoe’s stenographer and editor, reporting his words as he spoke them. It is a harrowing tale. A young village man in 1859, Kossula (his true name) was in training to learn military skills when his community was attacked by a neighboring tribe. His report of the attack is graphic, and gruesome. Many of those who survived the crushing assault were dragged away and sold to white slave traders. (Definitely not their choice, Kanye) We learn of his experiences while awaiting his transportation, his telling of the Middle Passage, arrival in America and his five years as a slave. He tells, as well, of the establishment of Africatown, after the Civil War ended the Peculiar Institution in the United States, and of the travails of his life after that, having and losing children, running up against the so-called legal system, but also surviving to tell his tale, and gaining respect as a storehouse of history and folklore. This is an upsetting read, rage battles grief as we learn of the hardships and unfairness of Kossula’s life.

“Oh Lor’, I know it you call my name. Nobody don’t callee me Kossula, jus’ lak I in de Affica soil!”

The book stands out for many reasons. Among them is that it is one of very few reports of slavery from the perspective of the slave. There are many documents available that recorded the transactions that involved human cargo, and many reports by slavers, but precious little has been heard from the cargo itself. It is also a significant document in teaching us about the establishment of Africatown, a village set up not by African Americans, but by Africans, Cudjoe and his fellow former slaves. The stories Cudjoe tells are often those he learned in his home culture.

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‘The Brookes’ Slave Ship Diagram – from the British Library

Barracoon is a triumph of ethnography, bringing together not only a first-person report on experiences in African slave trading, but reporting on slavery from a subject of that atrocity. In addition Kossula adds his triumphant account of joining with other freed slaves to construct an Africa-like community in America, and offers as well old-world folklore in the stories he recalls from his first nineteen years. It is a moving tale for Hurston’s sensitive efforts to reach across the divide of time to encourage Kossula to relive some of the darkest moments any human can experience, sitting with him, calm, caring, and connecting. And finally, it is a truly remarkable tale Kossula tells. It will raise your blood pressure, horrify you, and encourage bursts of tears. You think you’ve had it tough? And for this man to have endured with such dignity and grace is a triumph all its own.

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Commemorative Marker for Cudjo Lewis – Plateau Cemetery, Africatown, Mobile, AL – image from wiki

The text of the story is short, but Kossula’s tale is epic. Editor Deborah G. Plant has added a wealth of supportive material, including parables and old-world stories Kossula told to his descendants and to residents of Africatown, a description of a children’s game played in his home town in Africa, and background material on Hurston, her professional issues with an earlier piece of work, and her involvement with the Harlem Renaissance, without touching much on Hurston’s unexpected political perspective on segregation. The information adds to our appreciation of the book.

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Cudjo with great-grand-daughters twins Mary and Martha, born in 1923 – image from
Doy Leale McCall Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of South Alabama

The ethnographical research Hurston did bolstered a perspective on African culture that different was not inferior, that African culture had great value, regardless of those who believed only in Western superiority. Long before Jesse Jackson, such research proclaimed “I am somebody.” The research Hurston did in the USA, Caribbean and Central America certainly informed and strengthened the portraits she painted in her fiction writing.

The history of slavery is a dark one, however much light has been shone on it in the last century and a half. This moving, upsetting telling of a life that endured it is a part of that history. That this 80-year-old nugget has been buried under the weight of time is a shame. But there is an upside. The pressure of all those years has created something glistening and wonderful for us today, a diamond of a vision into the past.

Review posted – 5/25/18

Publication dates
———-5/8/2018 – hardcover
———-1/7/20 – Trade paperback

This review has been cross-posted on GoodReads

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

VIDEO
—–A film shot by ZNH – Cudjoe appears in the opening scene
—– On the unveiling of a bust of Cudjoe in Africatown – WKRG in Mobile – it also ncludes an interview with Israel Lewis, one of Kossula’s descendants
—–A contemporary profile of Africatown and the challenges it faces, particularly from hazardous industry nearby

EXTRA READING
—–Emma Langdon Roche’s 1914 book, Historic Sketches of the South, includes much on the Clotilde
—–Wiki on Cudjoe – includes images from E.L. Roche
—–Smithsonian Magazine – May 2, 2018 – Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Tells the Story of the Slave Trade’s Last Survivor – by Anna Diamond
—– History.com piece on ZNH’s work on Barracoon – The Last Slave Ship Survivor Gave an Interview in the 1930s. It just Surfaced by Becky Little – (the interviewing was actually done in the 1920s)
—–Bitfal Entertainment – A pretty nice brief summary of Cudjoe’s experience, with many uncaptioned illustrations
—–Time Magazine – Zora Neale Hurston’s Long-Unpublished Barracoon Finds Its Place After Decades of Delay – by Lily Rothman
—– On the slave ship Clotilda
—–NY Times – May 26, 2019 – ‘Ship of Horror’: Discovery of the Last Slave Ship to America Brings New Hope to an Old Community – By Richard Fausset
—–National Geographic – January, 2020 – America’s last slave ship stole them from home. It couldn’t steal their identities. – much more information about the Clotilda’s criminal mission, and about the lives of the men and women it transported and their descendants
—–Nw York Times – Last Known Slave Ship Is Remarkably Well Preserved, Researchers Say by Michael Levenson

AUDIO
—–NPR’s Lynn Neary talks with Amistad’s editorial director Tracy Sherrod, and Barracoon’s editor Deborah Plant – In Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Barracoon’ Language is the Key to Understanding – Definitely listen to the entire interview. It is under four minutes. One wonderful benefit is to get a sample of the audio reading of the book, which sounds amazing.

Tracy Sherrod is the editorial director of Amistad at Harper Collins, which is now publishing the book. She says Hurston tried to get it published back in the 1930s, but the manuscript was rejected. “They wanted to publish it,” Sherrod says, “but they wanted Zora to change the language so it wasn’t written in dialect and more in standard English. And she refused to do so.”


Hurston refused, says Deborah Plant, because she understood that Lewis’s language was key to understanding him. “We’re talking about a language that he had to fashion for himself in order to negotiate this new terrain he found himself in,” she says. “Embedded in his language is everything of his history. To deny him his language is to deny his history, to deny his experience — which ultimately is to deny him, period. To deny what happened to him.”

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