Monday, December 11, 2017

Kindness Goes Unpunished by Craig Johnson: A review

Maybe there is time to sneak in another guilty pleasure book before the end of 2017. After all, it's not like I have a queue full of award-winning current literary books that I need to finish. Oh. Wait.

Well, anyway, I also had this third Craig Johnson book in my queue, so I might as well tick that box, right? Problem is, this one turned out to be more guilty than pleasure.

The premise is that Sheriff Walt Longmire and his best friend, Henry Standing Bear, along with Dog, take a road trip in Henry's baby blue classic Thunderbird convertible. They head out to Philadelphia where Henry is to exhibit some of his historical photographs at a museum and Walt is to visit his daughter, Cady, the Philadelphia lawyer, and Dog is to, well, be a dog.

They arrive in the big city, where Walt is met at Cady's apartment by his deputy, Victoria Moretti's mother, Lena. (Vic, you see, is originally a Philadelphia girl and all of her male relatives - her father and various brothers - are in the police force there.) Before Walt even gets to see Cady, she is assaulted and suffers serious injuries that result in a subdural hematoma that leaves her in a coma and with an uncertain future. 

The rest of the book is spent with Walt waiting for Cady to wake up and trying to determine the motive for the attack on her and who did it. In this endeavor, he is assisted by the Philadelphia police, particularly the Moretti boys, and, of course, Henry.

The reason for the attack and for subsequent deaths, as bodies start dropping all over the place, turns out to be quite complicated and the logic not that easy to follow. Moreover, the things that I really like about this series - the humor, the description of the Wyoming setting and the relationships between the regular cast of characters there - are mostly missing from this entry. Vic does eventually show up in Philadelphia but it would have been better if she'd stayed in Wyoming.

Plus, it just seemed very unbelievable to me that the Philadelphia police would simply defer to this unknown sheriff from Wyoming in the investigation, even if the Morettis do vouch for him. And Walt and Henry charge around the city like natives, finding their way with no difficulty. That hasn't been my experience with unfamiliar cities. 

About halfway through this book, the whole thing just went off the rails for me. It started reading like a romance novel instead of a mystery/thriller. It was extremely awkward and offputting and felt wrong, and the plot never recovered as far as I was concerned. 

This was definitely my least favorite of the Walt Longmire books I've read so far. I know Johnson is capable of better than this. Let's hope he achieves it with the next book.

My rating: 2 of 5 stars   

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Poetry Sunday: The History of Red by Linda Hogan

This past week I was inspired to look at poetry written by Native Americans and that is how I came to meet Linda Hogan.

Hogan is an award-winning, much-honored Chickasaw essayist, novelist, poet, environmentalist and eco-feminist. Her writings reflect her political and spiritual concerns and often deal with the environment, with historical narratives including oral histories, and with the relocation of Native Americans.

I came across this poem of hers which I particularly liked. It resonated with me, I think, because I grew up in the red clay hills of Northeast Mississippi, part of the ancestral home of the Chickasaws. Red clay like "the human clay whose blood we still carry." I hope you will find it meaningful, too.  

The History of Red

by Linda Hogan

there was some other order of things
never spoken
but in dreams of darkest creation.

Then there was black earth,
lake, the face of light on water.
Then the thick forest all around
that light,
and then the human clay
whose blood we still carry
rose up in us
who remember caves with red bison
painted in their own blood,
after their kind.

A wildness
swam inside our mothers,
desire through closed eyes,
a new child
wearing the red, wet mask of birth,
delivered into this land
already wounded,
stolen and burned
beyond reckoning.

Red is this yielding land
turned inside out
by a country of hunters
with iron, flint and fire.
Red is the fear
that turns a knife back
against men, holds it at their throats,
and they cannot see the claw on the handle,
the animal hand
that haunts them
from some place inside their blood.

So that is hunting, birth,
and one kind of death.
Then there was medicine, the healing of wounds.
Red was the infinite fruit
of stolen bodies.
The doctors wanted to know
what invented disease
how wounds healed
from inside themselves
how life stands up in skin,
if not by magic.

They divined the red shadows of leeches
that swam in white bowls of water:
they believed stars
in the cup of sky.
They cut the wall of skin
to let
what was bad escape
but they were reading the story of fire
gone out
and that was a science.

As for the animal hand on death’s knife,
knives have as many sides
as the red father of war
who signs his name
in the blood of other men.

And red was the soldier
who crawled
through a ditch
of human blood in order to live.
It was the canal of his deliverance.
It is his son who lives near me.
Red is the thunder in our ears
when we meet.
Love, like creation,
is some other order of things.

Red is the share of fire
I have stolen
from root, hoof, fallen fruit.
And this was hunger.

Red is the human house
I come back to at night
swimming inside the cave of skin
that remembers bison.
In that round nation
of blood
we are all burning,
red, inseparable fires
the living have crawled
and climbed through 
in order to live
so nothing will be left
for death at the end.

This life in the fire, I love it.
I want it,
this life.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

This week in birds - #284

A roundup of the week's news of birds and the environment:

Yellow-rumped Warblers have been back in the area for a while now. I hear their cheerful chips whenever I am outside during the day. So, another winter visitor can be ticked on my list. Most have been accounted for by this time.


The big environmental news of the week was the inferno devouring southern California. More than 120,000 people have had to flee their homes. Some ever-cautious scientists acknowledge that the fires this year have likely been exacerbated by the effects of climate change. Is this what our future will be?


The current administration in Washington continued to take a wrecking ball approach to their conservatorship of public lands this week, as the president made his long anticipated announcement about reducing the areas protected in Bear Ears National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante. More such announcements are expected as conservation organizations and affected tribes join forces to fight the moves in court.


And, of course, the tax bill just passed in the Senate contains a provision to allow drilling for oil in the pristine and fragile environment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, something that has been a dream of Republicans and those who whisper in their ears for as long as I can remember. 


The Peregrine Falcon was well on the road to extinction when Rachel Carson wrote her seminal work, Silent Spring, that pointed out the perils of the profligate use of pesticides, especially DDT. Governments acknowledged the danger and took steps to eradicate the problem and save the threatened and endangered birds. The Peregrine responded and has now recovered to the point that Canada is removing it from its list of threatened species.


A group of researchers argues in Biology Letters that a study of bees helps in the understanding of how hummingbirds function, not surprising I guess since they employ similar feeding techniques. The researchers say we could think of hummingbirds as bees with feathers. 

Image from The New York Times.



Journalists are stretched thin and are under attack these days, but more is needed from them on the environmental front. Wildlife and environmental crime, especially trafficking in wild animals and animal products, is vastly underreported.


As the climate changes, songbirds, as has been reported here before, are changing their ranges and their migration patterns. A new study found that California songbirds are now migrating earlier in the spring and later in the fall.


Atlantic Puffins in Ireland are having to travel farther and farther to find food for survival. Consequently, when they return home, they are often too exhausted to breed and the population of the birds is declining as a result.


Just like the birds in California, UK's birds are arriving on their breeding grounds up to 20+ days earlier in the spring and are leaving later in the fall because of climate change.


The millipedes that I occasionally see around here are invariably brownish, but there is one that lives in Virginia's Cumberland Mountains that has more color combinations than any other millipede known to science.

Virginia Tech image.
Apheloria polychroma, the colorful millipede. The colors denote danger; the critter is covered in cyanide.


A weird fossil of a swimming dinosaur smuggled out of Mongolia looks somewhat like a swan and likely behaved something like a cormorant. The fossil is so strange that scientists originally thought it might be a fake but have now accepted it as real.


Birders, especially those trying to get a good picture, risk stressing out sensitive birds, particularly in winter when it may already be difficult for the birds to find food. Such charismatic and popular birds as Snowy Owls are often victims of these birders' and photographers' thoughtless behavior. 10,000 Birds has a blog post about Snowy Owl ethics, how to enjoy the birds without creating problems for them. 


A new app called Frog ID is being used by Australian citizen scientists to record and upload the sounds of frogs that they hear so that they can be studied by researchers.


And over in New Zealand, there is some good news for Kiwis: The status of the Okarito Kiwi and the Northern Brown Kiwi has been upgraded from endangered to vulnerable thanks to success in controlling invasive predators like stoats and cats. 


Extreme heat sometimes forces hummingbirds to seek shade instead of foraging for food, recent research shows. Global warming could test the tiny birds' capacity to adapt. With hearts beating more than 1,000 times a minute, hummingbirds need to feed constantly, which means they can ill afford to spend time dodging sunshine, according to a report in the journal Royal Society Open Science.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Signs of the apocalyse

First, Harvey drowns the city.

Next, the Astros win the World Series.

And now -


Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin: A review

I was captivated by the imagined world created by N.K. Jemisin in this novel, first of a trilogy, as I had not been since I first read Tolkien or Herbert all those many years ago. Jemisin's achievement might even be more remarkable because my imagination has grown somewhat deadened and jaded in the intervening years and it probably takes more to "captivate" it these days. 

Jemisin's world is called Stillness but it is anything but still. It is Earth but an Earth riven by constant earthquakes and volcanoes and apocalyptic events. The world still has the four seasons known to us, but when one of these apocalyptic events occurs, it can trigger a Fifth Season which may last years, centuries, millennia and which is a near-extinction event. Imagine a world where George R.R. Martin's winter has come - to stay.

Jemisin's world-building is amazing in its detail. There is evidence of past civilizations everywhere in ruined cities and in the "stonelore" that is handed down from one generation to the next. There are also strange, unexplained obelisks that float in the atmosphere like satellites. What purpose do they serve? Are they from another world, another civilization?

The Stillness civilization that exists as we encounter it is called the Sanze Empire and it has learned to survive by harnessing the power of special humans called orogenes. Orogenes are born with an innate ability to control their environment. They are able to start or stop earthquakes and to save cities. The Empire has developed a caste called Guardians who serve as controls for the orogenes and can neutralize them if they become a threat. 

In spite of their power, orogenes are held in contempt by ordinary humans (called stills) and orogene children, when discovered, are often abused or killed by them. Moreover, the stills have a derogatory name for orogenes. They call them roggas. If the children are discovered or sussed out by the ruling power, they are sent to a place called the Fulcrum (think Hogwarts) to be trained.

We learn all of this through the experiences of three female characters: Damaya, a child who is given to a Guardian and taken to the Fulcrum when she is discovered to be an orogene; Syenite, a powerful Fulcrum-trained orogene; and Essun, an orogene mother in a post-apocalyptic world who is searching for her lost daughter. It took me longer than it should have to figure out that all three of these characters are actually personas of a single individual. (There, I hope I haven't spoiled it for you!)

In my defense, let me say that the three intertwining narratives are confusing at first and they don't match up because they are not told in sequential order. The writer jumps back and forth in time. I can see how this might be irritating and even daunting to some readers but my advice is just to stick with it; after a while it all begins to make sense. Well, a kind of dystopian sense anyway.

The writing is quite visionary and creative and it is not at all surprising that the book was nominated for so many different awards and actually won the Hugo Award for Best Science Fiction Book of 2016. Overall, I found it to be a very rewarding read with a lot to tell us about the darkest human motivations, a story quite applicable to what may be the beginning of our own "Fifth Season."

My rating: 5 of 5 stars 


Monday, December 4, 2017

The Crossing by Michael Connelly: A review

Can we still call it a police procedural if Harry Bosch is no longer with the police? In his last outing, The Burning Room, Harry was suspended from the LAPD on (as usual) a trumped-up complaint. In order to fight that complaint, he would have been tied up in paperwork for months and months and would have had no salary during that time. With a daughter getting ready to start college, that did not seem to be a viable option. So Harry retired. And then filed suit against the LAPD.

We encounter him now, several months later, waiting the resolution of the suit and feeling bored and restless. 

He's into restoring an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle, which takes up a few minutes of each day, but the rest of the time he's rattling around looking for things to keep his active mind occupied. Mickey Haller to the rescue!

Mickey, the Lincoln Lawyer and Harry's half-brother, has a case on which he needs an investigator. His own regular investigator, Dennis "Cisco" Wojciechowski, is out of action after being knocked off of his motorcycle and almost killed in a highly suspicious hit-and-run. Cisco was lucky to be able to crawl away from the accident, but soon others who have a connection to Haller's case start turning up dead.

The case involves a brutal murder and rape (in that order) of Alexandra "Lexie" Parks, an assistant city manager for West Hollywood and the wife of a county sheriff's deputy. The crime looks like a home invasion where the woman was murdered in her own bed. There is no obvious motive.

At first there are no suspects either, but soon the police find DNA evidence that leads them to Da'Quan Foster. Foster had been in trouble with the police once before and so fit the profile as far as they were concerned. Once the DNA was found, they looked no further, even though the suspect insisted he did not know Parks and had no reason to kill her, plus he had an alibi for the time of the killing. Unfortunately, the person who could have given him that alibi is one of the people who have since turned up dead.

Coincidence? Not in a Connelly novel. Harry Bosch doesn't believe in coincidence.

Bored as he is though, Harry resists going to work for the defense. It goes against all of his training and instincts. For him, the accused are always guilty and it's up to him to prove it. Haller is convinced that his client is innocent and has been set up, possibly by the police. Bosch refuses to consider that possibility, but is finally persuaded by a meeting with Da'Quan Foster, in which he senses that he is, in fact, innocent, and the idea that, if Foster is innocent, the real killer is still out there walking around somewhere. For the sake of "his" victim, Harry can never let that stand. 

Soon, Harry finds himself working on what he refers to as "the dark side" and he becomes a pariah to most of his old cronies at the LAPD. He gets obscenity-laden phone calls from some of them excoriating him for working for a defense lawyer. But once Harry commits to the investigation, he follows where the evidence leads and it leads into some very dark and dirty corners.  

Michael Connelly just keeps getting better and better at being a suspense writer. This is a tightly plotted and constructed thriller that is ambitious in scope and is, in my opinion, one of the very best he has ever written - and I've read them all up to this point. I'm gaining on Connelly; two more to go in the Bosch file and I'll catch up to him. 

It's interesting to see Harry, uneasily cast as an investigator for the defense, and employing all of his considerable experience of thirty-plus years with the LAPD to search the files for police errors and coverups that a less experienced investigator might not be able to see. He knows all the tricks of the homicide investigator and he's not going to let them pass. The methods he uses are the ones that he learned in all those years as a homicide detective seeking justice for "his" victims. So, yes, this is still a police procedural.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars