Thursday, August 31, 2017

61 Hours by Lee Child: A review

Continuing with my Summer of Reading Mysteries, I picked up a Jack Reacher novel. As one who is dedicated to reading series books in order, I thought I was doing that, reading the fourth book in the series. Turns out this is actually the fourteenth book. Oops!

Oh, well. It didn't really seem to matter. The plot of this one did not depend on having read previous books. In fact, Lee Child managed to reprise information about Reacher's past and why he's on the road as a part of the plot, so no harm, no foul.

Reacher has paid the driver of a tour bus, out of Seattle, to come aboard with a church group of elderly citizens who have unaccountably decided to visit South Dakota in the dead of winter. That fact alone may be the most far-fetched part of this plot.

Before they can reach their destination, their bus swerves to miss a car in a fierce blizzard outside the little town of Bolton, and leaves the road, ending up in a ditch. There is no other traffic and no help in sight. In below zero temperatures and facing the possibility of freezing to death, they are able to get through to the police department in Bolton, but the police there are preoccupied with a murder that has just occurred. 

One car with the deputy chief is sent to assess the situation. He takes the most severely injured back to town and sends a Department of Corrections bus for the others.

In Bolton, there is no room at any inn, so the citizens agree to take the elderly passengers and the bus driver in, while the deputy chief takes Reacher to his house for the night.

It turns out that Bolton is home to a prison and also to an old and mysterious government installation where a group of bikers have set up camp and apparently have a meth lab going. The police have recently arrested the head of the bikers group and a local retired teacher has agreed to be a witness against him - if they can keep her alive long enough. It seems that a diminutive Mexican drug lord who goes by the name Plato is sending a cold-blooded assassin to see that she never makes it to court.

Jack Reacher, of course, becomes involved in all of this and becomes a volunteer to help guard the woman who is to testify. At the same time, he calls on sources from the Army to try to find out more about the mysterious federal installation and ends up helping the Army find a fugitive. This part of the plot was truly beyond belief. Reacher made a few too many incredibly lucky guesses about the location of the fugitive.

Child manages to provide a little insight into Reacher's history through his introspective conversations with the witness he is guarding and with the Army major back in Virginia, the one who assists him and whom he assists in finding her fugitive. But he doesn't provide answers to the burning questions of why Reacher travels with no possessions, not even a toothbrush. 

Really? Why aren't his teeth falling out by now? Why does he insist on throwing away his old possessions and buying new ones every few days? It all seems very wasteful and a bit sociopathic but a useful plot device, I suppose.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars    

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

My Harvey

The worst hurricane event that I have personally experienced was Hurricane Ike in 2008. What made it so bad was that we got the devastating hurricane winds in addition to the flooding. Actually, the flooding wasn't so bad, but the winds were terrifying. The night that it hit was the longest night of my life as I listened to the howling winds and the groans of the live oaks in my front yard as they bent with the wind to let it pass. I wondered if the live oaks would survive and if our roof would survive.

When the wet gray dawn came, the trees were still there; my roof was still more or less intact. Our electricity was out and would stay out for a few days, and one tree had lost one large limb, but the trees still stood tall and proud and so did we, not quite as tall or proud but still upright.

The worst flooding event I've personally experienced was in 1994 from a storm that didn't even have a name. It was caused by a confluence of different meteorological events that combined to dump nearly 30 inches of rain over a huge part of Southeast Texas during a five day period in October. We live about a mile from Spring Creek, which is on most days a lazy and somewhat picturesque waterway. But in mid-October 1994 Spring Creek left its banks and ravaged the landscape and communities around it.

After four days of incessant rain, Spring Creek looked more like the Mississippi River. Its waters spread nearly halfway up our mile-long dead-end street, flooding our unfortunate neighbors at the south end of the street which is closest to the creek. They had as much as four feet of water in their houses. Our house is closer to the north end of the street which is higher ground and we escaped any significant damage, but it was a scary time, not least of which because I was stranded with my two daughters. My husband was at work when all the streets became flooded and he wasn't able to get home that night.

But then the rain ended and the sun came out and we started drying out and cleaning up. Thirty-eight counties were declared disaster areas that time.  

Since Ike, we've been very lucky. Nine years without a hurricane, but then our luck ran out. Harvey came calling.

There's no point in my recounting the horror and devastation visited on the Texas coast by that storm. You can read all about it in your newspapers or online and watch the terrible images on your television. Once again, just like with Ike, it will take years to clean up and rebuild, but it will be done. In the case of Ike, after three years you would hardly know there had been a hurricane. It may take longer this time.

As for my personal experience with Harvey, it's been an inconvenience, hardly more than that. We are about thirty miles outside of the Houston city limits and at our house we received two feet of rain, less than half what the hardest hit areas got. We remained high and mostly dry, although we were stranded for a couple of days by flooded roads. Today the sun is out and the stores are open and traffic is heavy. Life returns to normal. May it do so for the victims of the flooding sooner rather than later.

One more thing: Some are criticizing the mayor and other local officials because they didn't urge widespread evacuations before the storm hit. For those clueless people, I have one word: Rita. When 6 million panicked people try to leave an area at the same time, you get a disaster like Hurricane Rita. Highways and freeways and backroads become parking lots where families are trapped in their cars, running out of gas and out of water with no toilet facilities as the dirty flood waters rise around them. 

The mantra that we hear so often during hurricane season is "Hide from the wind, run from the water." The wind may do terrible damage but the implacable waters will flat out kill you. But often running from the water means running to some place close at hand, not Austin or Dallas. That was, in most cases, the wisest option this time.

***

If you have the urge to help those in need because of the storm, The Houston Chronicle has put together a list of groups and agencies that are assisting, along with links where you can contribute to them. I would urge you to contribute to some of these local entities, rather than the Red Cross. Your contribution is more likely to actually get to the Harvey victims. 

And on behalf of my neighbors in need, thank you.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Confound the science

Sitting here at my computer, watching the rain from Hurricane (now Tropical Storm) Harvey come down for the fourth day in a row and remembering that just days before our president had rolled back President Obama's flood standards for infrastructures, I can only wonder at the long-term effects of his spiteful acts. 

Then I saw this parody that my daughter posted on Facebook. Bitter humor, but it expresses perfectly what is happening. It may be Houston that is drowning today, but tomorrow, without laws to protect us, it could be anywhere in America. 

Monday, August 28, 2017

Y is for Yesterday by Sue Grafton: A review

We're coming to the end of Sue Grafton's alphabet mystery series; only Z to go after this one.

I've been reading these books since the start, way back in the early '80s, and it's been an uneven ride as it often is with long-running series, but I've stuck with it because that's what I do and because I have a vast reservoir of affection for Grafton's Kinsey Millhone.

In this one, Grafton again takes us back to the '80s when Kinsey was in her 30s. She gives us a two-pronged mystery. One prong involves the psychopathic serial killer from the last book and the other takes us back ten years to 1979 and a group of the most obnoxious and unlikable teenagers you are ever likely to encounter.

The psychopathic killer from the X book is still on the loose and is a threat to society and to Kinsey who tried to put him away, as well as to two women who were formerly in his life. He's come back to Santa Teresa to try to tie up all those dangling loose ends, one of which is named Kinsey Millhone.

Meanwhile, while worrying over her own safety, Kinsey is hired to look into an extortion scheme. Back in 1979, that unsavory group of teenagers had been involved in some truly awful stuff - bullying, sexual assault, a porn tape of a drugged girl being assaulted by three boys, and finally murder. Two of them had served time in prison for the murder, but they were juveniles when convicted and both are now out in 1989, the second one, Fritz, only recently released. 

It's Fritz's mother who has hired Kinsey, because someone is trying to extort $25,000 from them, threatening to take the porn tape, in which Fritz is prominently featured, to the D.A. He could easily land back in prison once again.

Kinsey goes about her investigation in her usual organized and workmanlike fashion, while also keeping an eye out for the psychopath and trying to negotiate tricky social interactions involving her cousin Anna who is now living in Santa Teresa and two of her former lovers, as well as two street people and a giant dog camping out in her landlord's backyard. It's enough to make the hardiest private investigator tired.

This plot made me a bit tired as well. As the series winds down, it has lost a bit of its oomph. There are few surprises anymore. Moreover, the book seemed unnecessarily long with a lot of repetitious padding. I think it could have been substantially improved by more rigorous editing.

All that being said, I do love Kinsey Millhone and I will follow her in her adventures right up to the end of the alphabet.

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

    

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Poetry Sunday: The Hurricane

I guess it is pretty evident what is on my mind this week! As the rain buckets down outside, reminding us that Hurricane Harvey isn't finished with us yet, I went looking for something that would express the experience. After all, is there anything that poets will not turn into poetry? 

The Hurricane

by William Cullen Bryant

Lord of the winds! I feel thee nigh,
I know thy breath in the burning sky!
And I wait, with a thrill in every vein,
For the coming of the hurricane!

  And lo! on the wing of the heavy gales,
Through the boundless arch of heaven he sails;
Silent and slow, and terribly strong,
The mighty shadow is borne along,
Like the dark eternity to come;
While the world below, dismayed and dumb,
Through the calm of the thick hot atmosphere
Looks up at its gloomy folds with fear.

  They darken fast; and the golden blaze
Of the sun is quenched in the lurid haze,
And he sends through the shade a funeral ray--
A glare that is neither night nor day,
A beam that touches, with hues of death,
The clouds above and the earth beneath.
To its covert glides the silent bird,
While the hurricane's distant voice is heard,
Uplifted among the mountains round,
And the forests hear and answer the sound.

  He is come! he is come! do ye not behold
His ample robes on the wind unrolled?
Giant of air! we bid thee hail!--
How his gray skirts toss in the whirling gale;
How his huge and writhing arms are bent,
To clasp the zone of the firmament,
And fold at length, in their dark embrace,
From mountain to mountain the visible space.

  Darker--still darker! the whirlwinds bear
The dust of the plains to the middle air:
And hark to the crashing, long and loud,
Of the chariot of God in the thunder-cloud!
You may trace its path by the flashes that start
From the rapid wheels where'er they dart,
As the fire-bolts leap to the world below,
And flood the skies with a lurid glow.

  What roar is that?--'tis the rain that breaks
In torrents away from the airy lakes,
Heavily poured on the shuddering ground,
And shedding a nameless horror round.
Ah! well known woods, and mountains, and skies,
With the very clouds!--ye are lost to my eyes.
I seek ye vainly, and see in your place
The shadowy tempest that sweeps through space,
A whirling ocean that fills the wall
Of the crystal heaven, and buries all.
And I, cut off from the world, remain
Alone with the terrible hurricane.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

This week in birds - #269

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



These White Ibises were searching for a meal in a swampy area at Brazos Bend State Park. That swampy area most likely has a lot more water in it today.

*~*~*~*

The biggest environmental story of the week is happening all around me as I type. Hurricane Harvey made landfall as a category 4 near Rockport yesterday evening and dumped rain over a wide area of Southeast Texas overnight. The flooding and devastation caused by the storm is expected to be substantial, but of course we won't know the full extent for several days. Harvey is projected to stall and sit over our heads for a few days. Our rain gauge showed that we got 3.25" of rain overnight, but some areas of Houston got as much as six, while areas farther south probably got even more.

Migration is well underway and there has been a steady stream of hummingbirds through my yard this week. Gulf hurricanes are just one of the challenges that fall migrating birds, including the tiniest ones, face on their way south. At least the endangered Whooping Cranes are not in the storm's path. They will be arriving in the Rockport area beginning in October and are likely to find a somewhat changed landscape.

On a personal note, we and our family are all fine. We saw the storm coming and prepared as best we could. If the projections turn out to be correct, we'll all be all right. I appreciate the expressions of concern that I've received here and on social media. 

*~*~*~*

The big celestial event this week was, of course, the solar eclipse and birders were out and about not only to watch the moon blot out the sun but to see what birds did in response. They reported their findings on eBird.

*~*~*~*

Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke this week recommended shrinking 27 national monument sites. There is considerable legal doubt over the power of the executive branch to do this and any effort to change the sites will undoubtedly be challenged in court.

*~*~*~*

Thousands of Atlantic salmon have escaped from a fish farm in the state of Washington, raising fears of an environmental disaster if the fish survive and reproduce. They could compete with the native fish of the area and become another invasive species. 

*~*~*~*

The president of Brazil has abolished a huge Amazonian reserve covering an area the size of Denmark in what critics term the biggest attack on the Amazon in fifty years. The species-rich forest will be opened up to mineral companies, road builders, and other development activities.

*~*~*~*

A 40-acre brush fire in Montana was started when a hawk swooped down to snatch a snake and, as it flew back up, the wriggling snake touched a power line causing the two animals to be electrocuted and creating a spark which set the grass and undergrowth alight.

*~*~*~*

A commercial Russian LNG tanker has traversed the Arctic route from Europe to Asia without the protection of an ice-breaker for the first time in history. Rising Arctic temperatures are melting the ice and making the passage possible. The passage took six-and-a-half days.

*~*~*~*

The U.S. Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia has ruled that U.S. regulators assessing new gas pipelines must try to analyze their potential to increase greenhouse gas emissions before giving them the go-ahead. The decision could have far-reaching effects on infrastructure projects, according to industry representatives and environmentalists. 

*~*~*~*

The idea of building a border wall is not popular with most residents along the Texas border and, last weekend, a broad coalition of environmental and immigrant-rights organizations staged a weekend of protests in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley in response to recently released maps outlining planned border wall locations. Organizers believe the events represented the largest grassroots movement to date in opposition to one of the president's most divisive policy priorities. 

*~*~*~*

The seabird colonies of the UK, especially those in northern Scotland, have suffered precipitous declines over the years. The theory is that warming waters have driven their prey to other areas of the ocean and so the birds have had to move, adjust, or die. That's the theory, but environmentalists say a thorough study is needed in order to assess the situation and determine its causes. They blame the government for failing to institute such a study.

*~*~*~*

The effects of climate change in the United States are expected to fall most heavily on the southeastern states, an area where there are a high percentage of climate change deniers.

*~*~*~*

The fourth National Climate Assessment, a federal synthesis of climate science required every four years by law, says temperatures have risen rapidly since the last report was published in 2014. After setting a record that year, global temperatures shot to a new record by a wide margin in 2015 followed by another record last year. The report predicts that U.S. temperatures will rise at least 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades, with cities experiencing much hotter temperatures. The East will get wetter, and the Southwest drier. 

*~*~*~*

Alaska's permafrost is no longer permanent. It is thawing due to the effects of global warming. It is both an effect of the warming and will be a cause of future warming as more carbon dioxide is released by the melting.

*~*~*~*

A researcher at the University of California is studying bumblebees to figure out what role climate change, poor nutrition, and vulnerability to pesticides and parasites play in bee declines. The information they gain could help people working to save bees.




Long may you buzz, Bumble.

  

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Late Show by Michael Connelly: A review

Harry Bosch is now well into his second - and mandatory - retirement from the LAPD. How will Michael Connelly continue his writing of police procedurals about that flawed agency without his main man? The answer, of course, is to create a new and younger detective whose exploits we can follow, maybe for many years to come.

Enter Renée Ballard. 

Ballard is a thirty-something veteran detective with the LAPD. She is from Hawaii originally, but had been brought to California to live with her grandmother after the death of her father in a surfing accident and the abdication of parenthood by her mother. She has a degree in journalism and worked briefly as a journalist before finding her calling with the police. She's had a checkered career with the LAPD, not because of a lack of ability, dedication, and character, but because she is a rocker of the boat.

Five years before, while she was working in Homicide, Ballard filed a sexual harassment complaint against her lieutenant, Robert Olivas. Her partner at the time, Kenny Chastain, had witnessed the harassment and could have backed up her complaint, but for whatever reason - possibly fear of harming his career - he failed to do so. Ballard's complaint was found to be invalid and she was kicked off the elite homicide team and relegated to the late shift, 11:00 pm to 7:00 am. The late show.

Detectives assigned to the late show do the initial write-up on cases that come in during their shift, but then they pass off to one of the day teams, robbery, homicide, sex crimes, etc. They never get to follow through on an investigation. This rankles Ballard considerably, because, like that other now-retired LAPD detective that we know so well, she is dedicated to "her" victims, dedicated to bringing justice for them.

On the night when we meet her, Ballard and her partner, Jenkins, catch three cases. There is a robbery by credit card that eventually turns out to be quite a bit more complicated than it seems at first. Then there is a case involving a brutal assault on a transgender which lands the victim in the hospital near death. Finally, a mass shooting at a club leaves five people dead, including two employees at the bar. Jenkins and Ballard are supposed to write up their initial findings to be passed on to the appropriate unit, but Ballard just can't bring herself to let these cases go, particularly the one with the transgender victim. She manages to stall and delay so that she can continue to work on the case. In the end, that almost costs her her life.

At the scene of the club shooting, she observes her old partner, Chastain, whose skill she respects, doing something odd and secretive. Later, Chastain is shot dead in his own driveway and Ballard finds that he has left a message for her, evidence in the club shooting that he could not trust to anyone else. Ballard ends up working practically around the clock following up on the cases that she was supposed to let go, even though her superiors keep warning her off.

I think a lot of women readers will be nodding their heads in recognition as Ballard faces the effects of the departmental shunning that resulted from her failed sexual harassment complaint. Her career has stalled but she is determined to make the best of it and to continue to take pride in her work and to do it to the best of her ability. Renée Ballard is a very stubborn woman.

Moreover, she has an interesting lifestyle which mostly seems to involve living on the beach with her dog and paddleboarding to clear her head and center herself. I think this new detective has distinct possibilities.

Incidentally, one of the things that I always look for in a Connelly novel are his little "inside baseball" asides. In this instance, one of the "ancillary" victims at the club shooting was a waitress who was a wannabe actress. She had had bit parts in some shows. One of her bit parts was as a waitress on a television show called Bosch about an LAPD detective who is now retired! Fun stuff.

Who knows? There may some day be a television show about a kick-ass female LAPD detective called Ballard.   

  

Monday, August 21, 2017

The darkening of 2017

There have been many dark days so far in 2017, but today is the day when the firmament finally aligns with human experience and even the sun will hide its face in shame.

This map shows where the eclipse will be total and where it will be only partial in the United States. I'm in that lower 50% area so my sun will not go completely dark. Even at 50% though it should be an impressive event.


Image from The Guardian

Yes, that is what you think it is - the "moon" is covering the sun. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Poetry Sunday: That Sacred Closet When You Sweep

I've spent the past week clearing out closets, sorting things to donate or pass on to others and filling trash bags with items which no longer have any use to me, if they ever did. It's a task that I try to do once a year and it always surprises me that, even though I cleaned that closet a few months ago, here it is filled to the rafters once again.

So, closets have been much on my mind, and when I went looking for a poem to feature this week, what should I find but this weird little verse by Emily Dickinson.

It seems that she is speaking metaphorically, not of an actual closet but of the closet of "Memory" and she urges us to sweep carefully, reverentially. One can see that it might not be such a good idea to toss memories in the trash like so much refuse.

I tried to be a lot more ruthless in my sorting of the closets, but there, too, I found lots of memories - pictures, mementoes of my daughters' childhoods, and of my own and my husband's and even of our parents and other ancestors. Memories that invite reverence and reflection and made me slow down and sweep carefully because august is the dust of that domain.


That Sacred Closet When You Sweep

by Emily Dickinson

That sacred Closet when you sweep —
Entitled "Memory" —
Select a reverential Broom —
And do it silently.

'Twill be a Labor of surprise —
Besides Identity
Of other Interlocutors
A probability —

August the Dust of that Domain —
Unchallenged — let it lie —
You cannot supersede itself
But it can silence you —

Saturday, August 19, 2017

This week in birds - #268

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


Rock Wren, photographed at Big Bend National Park.

*~*~*~*

Here's a somewhat unexpected story: It seems that birding is becoming more popular among millennials! That is a hopeful sign for the future.

*~*~*~*

In a less hopeful vein, The Guardian has a story about how college-educated young conservationists are having a hard time finding paying jobs and many are giving up and turning to other professions.

*~*~*~*

The average temperature of the contiguous 48 United States in July was the 10th warmest in 123 years of record-keeping. In addition, the year-to-date (January - July) is the second warmest on record. In July, there were significant climate events in some parts of the country, with much above average temperatures in parts of the West, Mid-Atlantic, and Southeast and above average precipitation in the Southwest, Midwest, and Northeast.

*~*~*~*

The Eurasian Curlew, native to Ireland, has been declining for decades in that country due to the loss of habitat in the uplands. The steady deterioration in population means that this species, storied in Irish literature, could be extirpated in Ireland. It is an avoidable tragedy and Irish conservationists are trying to make sure it does not happen.

*~*~*~*

The original purpose of that bizarre presidential news conference this week was to boast about the fact that the president was signing another executive order repealing an action by President Obama to protect the environment. This one required that bridges, schools, fire stations, roads, and other public infrastructures be built to standards that would take into account rising flood risks. Contractors will no longer have to build structures to withstand the rising waters caused by climate change.

*~*~*~*

In related news, a series of emails shows that staff of the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been told to avoid the use of the term "climate change". Instead, they are supposed to refer to "weather extremes". Problem solved!

*~*~*~*

A coalition of business leaders from western states is lobbying the Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to keep his hands off the boundaries of national monuments. These federal lands are a significant tourist draw that pump millions of dollars into the area each year. Shrinking them or rescinding protections for the lands, which Zinke and his boss are eager to do, could cost local governments and businesses much-needed cash.

*~*~*~*

A study of the effect on grassland birds of developing wind energy facilities on the prairies indicates that such facilities have little effect on the birds and are less detrimental to them than the construction of roads and the grazing of cattle on their nesting grounds.

*~*~*~*

Cities along our coasts, even where governments deny that climate change is happening, are already having to deal with rising tides and the damage they can cause. The traditional solution has been to build a seawall, but such walls can be breached and they are very disruptive to native habitats. Environmental engineers offer more natural, greener alternatives that can use the qualities of the landscape to provide protection.

*~*~*~*

A new study shows that bird populations flourish in stable environments. Thus, environments with less variability in their climates - i.e., tropics - are more likely to have a larger diversity of species.

*~*~*~*

Birders and others who are concerned about the environment continue to be appalled by the possibility that a wall will be built through Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas-Mexico border. The 10,000 Birds blog discusses the options for stopping the project and determines that, sadly, environmental laws will probably not save the refuge since those laws can be so easily ignored or rescinded by a hostile government. The key to saving the refuge - if it can be done - will be political. 

*~*~*~*

The population of the Monarch butterfly of North America has plummeted from a billion to 33 million in two decades. Now, a plan to help the butterfly proposes using the interstate highway system, namely I-35. This highway cuts through the heart of the country and the eastern Monarch's migratory path. Restoring habitat along the highway, planting it with milkweed for caterpillar nurseries and other plants for nectar could go a long way toward aiding a comeback for the butterfly.

*~*~*~*

The increasing heat in the desert Southwest presents a significant challenge to the continued survival of songbirds there. They must struggle to find enough moisture to stave off dehydration in an increasingly hostile environment.

*~*~*~*

The wonderfully-named Pepper Trail is an ornithologist, essayist, and poet living in Oregon. He makes the case for the importance of learning the proper names of plants and animals. It is only by knowing their true names that we can begin to know them and to appreciate the habitat of which they are a part.

*~*~*~*

The Environmental Protection Agency, under the direction of Scott Pruitt, is scrapping a measure instituted by the Obama Administration that limited the water pollution that could be released by coal-fired power plants. Now, those plants will be able to pollute away, content in the knowledge that the agency that is supposed to protect the environment is protecting them instead.


Thursday, August 17, 2017

The English Assassin by Daniel Silva: A review

Summer seems the perfect time for reading mysteries and thrillers. As the summer doldrums set in - as they definitely have in my neck of the woods - we need something to stir the blood a bit and make the heart race. Thriller/mysteries seem just the ticket for that.

With that thought in mind, I turned to the second book in Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon series. I had read the first book in that series, The Kill Artistlast summer, just over a year ago. I was impressed enough to put the series on my reading list and so here I sit, The English Assassin in hand.

Gabriel Allon, for those who may be unaware, is an Israeli art restorer who lives in Cornwall, England. Restoring art is his day job but he also has a second and secret life as an agent of the Israeli government. As such, he is, from time to time, called into service on special assignments.

His secret life has cost him much. Most notably, it cost him the life of his baby son whose body was blown to bits by a car bomb set by a Palestinian agent in Venice several years ago. In that same attack, his beloved wife was horribly injured. She lived but is terribly scarred both physically and emotionally and does not communicate with Gabriel. She lives in a nursing home in England.

Gabriel Allon is a very reluctant agent. He maintains a respect/hate relationship with his handler but it seems he is incapable of refusing an assignment, so when he is asked to go to Zurich to visit a private banker who has information to share, potentially about art or treasure stolen by the Nazis during World War II, he is soon on his way.

His cover for the trip is that he is being asked to restore a Raphael owned by the banker. He arrives at the banker's villa and enters using the codes he has been given. He goes to the room where the Raphael hangs and finds himself standing in blood - the blood of the dead Swiss banker whose body is on the floor.

Realizing his vulnerability and that he may be framed for murder, he leaves but is soon stopped by the Zurich police and arrested. He is soon released but is warned never to return to Zurich.

The thriller unfolds from this event. It turns out that the dead banker has a beautiful blonde daughter who is a famous violinist and Gabriel is assigned to work with her to try to discover what it was that her father wanted to share with the Israelis. Since father and daughter were estranged and she had not been in communication with him, that might prove difficult.

The plot revolves around the art treasures that were stolen from Jews during the Holocaust and the effort to track them down, recover them, and return them to their rightful owners. It's a complicated effort made more difficult by the fact that so many of them are held in private "banks" in Switzerland which seem to be untouched by the rule of international law.

I was fascinated by this exposition of the insular culture of Switzerland and the secretive world of banking there. As one of the characters expostulates at one point, "the whole country is a bank!" I'm not sure that is entirely fair and accurate, but, making allowances for hyperbole, it does seem to go to the heart of explaining how the Swiss see themselves.

Though there was a fair amount of intellectual exposition in the book, there were enough shootings, stabbings, kidnappings, beatings, and torture to keep the most bloodthirsty thriller fan happy. On the whole, it was a good mix and made for a compelling read.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars   

   

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Monday, August 14, 2017

Dead I Well May Be by Adrian McKinty: A review

So Michael Forsythe is an Irish bad boy in the time of "The Troubles". He joined the British army essentially to get out of Northern Ireland but he couldn't stay within the lines prescribed by that estimable organization and kept getting into trouble until finally the army kicked him to the curb.  

Back home in Belfast, he continues his bad boy ways and is constantly getting into more trouble until finally he's used up all his chances. With no further prospects in sight, he takes what's on offer - a ticket to America and work with the Irish mafia there. New York here he comes.

Michael assures us that he didn't want to go to America and he didn't want to work for Darkey White, the memorably named mafia chieftain, but he had not yet seen his twentieth birthday and what other choices did he have? He had entered the country illegally and so his job options were limited.

He settles into his routine with the Darkey White crew. He's a kind of enforcer and it is sometimes violent work. Unfortunately for Michael, even here he finds it difficult to toe the line, especially when it comes to women. He has a wandering eye for the female sex and when his eye settles onto Darkey White's mistress, the reader knows that this is not going to end well. 

Michael Forsythe is the sole narrator of this very noir story, told with a strong Irish lilt in the voice. He gives us a strictly straightforward narration; first this happened, then this. But we are also privy to his dreams and his memories, all of which occasionally makes for some dark reading. 

It seems that people tended to underestimate Michael's toughness and resilience. Certainly Darkey White did, much to his dismay. The retribution he planned for his employee as payback for his having seduced his mistress does not quite work out as intended. Michael is a survivor. After all, this is the first book in a trilogy, so how could it be otherwise?

I had never read any of Adrian McKinty's work, but he certainly has a flair for storytelling. The plot rolls along relentlessly, only stalling a bit during an interlude in Mexico. And his main character is an interesting chap of the "bad boy with a heart of gold" genre. Moreover, during his travels, Michael relies very heavily on the kindness of strangers. Fortuitously, there always seems to be another stranger willing to help him out. 

What does the future hold for young Michael? Two more volumes hold the answers.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Friday, August 11, 2017

Taking a breather

I'm taking a brief respite from blogging in honor of my birthday which happened on Wednesday of this week. This Week in Birds and Poetry Sunday will return next weekend and all my other usual stuff will be back here in a few days.  

Monday, August 7, 2017

The Water Room by Christopher Fowler: A review

The Peculiar Crimes Unit of London's Metropolitan Police handles some very peculiar crimes indeed. For example, in The Water Room, we have the case of an elderly woman who drowns in river water in her basement, but there is no water in the room and no evidence that the body had been moved. How did the woman's dead body, dressed to go out shopping and seated on a chair in her basement,  end up with filthy river water in her throat? That's just the kind of question for which Arthur Bryant and John May thrive on finding answers.

Bryant and May are the two cranky, quirky detectives who have been partners for fifty years and who are the very heart and soul of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. It seems only fair since they are very peculiar detectives.

In this instance, Bryant intuits that Ruth Singh, the dead woman in the basement, did not die a natural death, and so he and May and other members of their unit set out to prove that a murder has occurred, even though there is no apparent motive, no forensics, and no clues. They interview neighbors, investigate the history of the neighborhood, and search for the thread that will lead them to the solution to what they are convinced is a crime.

In the midst of their investigation, another death occurs in the neighborhood. A workman is buried in mud and suffocates, in what seems like an obvious accident, but once again Bryant and May are convinced that there is more here than meets the eye and that the cave-in of mud that was the instrument of death actually was caused by human intervention. But how to ever prove it?

Then a third death occurs on the street and this time there is no question that it is murder. The victim dies in his bed with clingfilm wrapped several times around his head. Three suffocations, each by different methods. Surely they are somehow related. 

All the while, the rain keeps pouring down and the street where the deaths occurred is threatened with inundation as London's secret underground and forgotten rivers fill up and overflow.

Bryant, who is the instinctual member of the team, consults with witches and psychics, and equally unconventional sources to come up with a theory of what has happened. His investigative method is eccentric, but even though he is rude to everyone with whom he interacts, he does accumulate information and does begin to understand what might have happened.

May, on the other hand, follows a somewhat more conventional path but still wanders into weird territory as he seeks a solution to the crimes. 

London, itself, seems a character in this story. There is abundant information about the topography and history of the city and particularly about the underground rivers that play such a central part in the mystery of the deaths and in their solution. Bryant and May follow the winding course of the subterranean tributaries that lead them eventually to the answers they seek. Answers that will allow the Peculiar Crimes Unit, always one major mistake away from being dissolved, to exist for another day. 

This was an enjoyable read. Christopher Fowler seems really fond of his two ancient detectives and writes of them with empathy and humor. He also writes lovingly of London, its culture, and its people. I found myself invested in the characters and wanting to see them succeed. In that, Fowler did not disappoint.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Poetry Sunday: The New Colossus

I've featured it here before, but this poem has been in the news over the past week, the controversy over its meaning exposing a particularly nasty and hate-filled attitude toward immigrants that is red meat to a certain segment of right-wing America. 

Emma Lazarus wrote her poem as a contribution to the fund-raising effort for construction of a base for the Statue of Liberty. She wrote the poem on November 2, 1883. The statue was dedicated on October 28, 1886 and Lazarus' poem was later engraved on its base. For generations of Americans since, the two have been symbolic of the country's status as a nation of immigrants and of a welcoming attitude toward those immigrants. This is not a popular concept with our current president and his administration and his avid followers.

Just to remind us about what all the fuss is about, here is the simple sonnet that causes such apoplexy among some of our fellow citizens. 

The New Colossus
by Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Saturday, August 5, 2017

This week in birds - #267

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



Black-crowned Night Heron fishing from a log at Brazos Bend State Park. These birds are fairly common in wetlands around Southeast Texas, but this year they were recorded breeding in the UK for the first time. Conservationists believe they have been pushed northward by climate change, but also they may have been attracted by the successful restoration of wetlands. 

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The annual State of the Birds report focuses on the benefits to birds from the Farm Bill. While providing a crucial safety net for farmers and ranchers, the bill also secures important habitat for more than 100 bird species and is the largest source for funding of conservation on private lands.

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What did the first flower on Earth look like? A study suggests that all living flowers ultimately descended from one single ancestor that lived about 140 million years ago. And what did that flower look like? Well, perhaps it was something like this:


3D model of ancestral flower.


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A company called Cadiz Inc. has plans to pump groundwater from the Mojave Desert and sell it to Southern California cities. Conservation groups, as well as the Los Angeles water utility board, oppose the plans on grounds of potential damage to the environment.

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Scott Egan, a Rice University biology expert, decries plans for a contiguous wall along the border with Mexico. He says it would put area wildlife at risk, including more than 100 endangered species. This is already happening at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas. Without notifying anyone of their presence or intentions, a work crew contracted by U.S. Customs and Border Protection entered the private property of the center and began cutting and clearing trees. The land serves as habitat for more than 400 endemic and migratory butterflies, land that could now be lost to accommodate the obnoxious and unnecessary wall.

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There has been a rash of at least ten deaths of North Atlantic right whales off the coast of Canada this summer. This is an unprecedented number of deaths that represents 2.5% of the population of this endangered species. Necropsies are being performed to determine the cause of the deaths to see if there is any common denominator.

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Foxes and other predators of small animals may be a first line of defense against the ticks that carry Lyme disease. They kill the animals that are hosts to the ticks and germs that spread the disease.

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From completely unsurprising research, we learn that animals that rely on camouflage are experts at finding the best places to conceal themselves based on their individual appearance. For example, can you find the Nightjar in this picture? (Hint: It's a bird and it is smack dab in the middle.)

  

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The Kingsland Landfill in the Meadowlands in New Jersey, like many landfills, produces an invisible methane flame that can injure or kill birds that fly through it. But now officials are doing something about it with simple technology that could be a blueprint for other such sites. They are building a giant 75 feet tall cage around the flame that will keep most birds out.

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Buried in the recently proposed congressional budget for 2018 is approval for oil and gas drilling in one of North America’s last truly wild environments: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. If passed, the budget would allow the House Natural Resources Committee to permit fossil fuel development in an untamed, 20-million-acre wildlife sanctuary that’s historically been off limits to human activity. Conservationists say this would be a serious threat to the biodiversity of the region.

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A federal appeals court has ruled against the Interior Department's decision to delist the gray wolf from the Endangered Species Act. The delisting covered Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, as well as parts of North and South Dakota, Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio. A bipartisan group in Congress is working to undo the court's decision.

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The Great Salt Lake is only about one-half of its natural size, which reduces the amount of important habitat for migrating shorebirds. The Audubon Society is working to ensure that the lake gets sufficient water to return it to its normal size.

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Everyone knows that bats use echolocation as a means of finding their way around, but did you know that there is a bird that uses the same highly developed sense? The Oilbird excels in having keen all-around senses, but echolocation in one that they rely on.

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The Whooping Crane restoration project at Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, which raised captive bred chicks to be released in the wild, will be terminated according to the proposed budget of the current administration in Washington. 

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Parrots along the clay cliffs of Southeastern Peru's Tambopata River are known to consume clay from those cliffs. Why do they do that? There are two main theories: One, that clay soils help protect the birds from food toxins when ideal food sources are scarce, and, two, that clay soils provide necessary minerals not available in the parrots' regular diet. The latest research gives credence to theory number two, noting that most consumption of soil occurs during the birds' breeding season.

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It is expected that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will this week announce the largest ever recorded dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It is expected to be larger than the nearly 8,200 square-mile area that was forecast for July – an expanse of water roughly the size of New Jersey. Toxins from manure and fertilizer pouring into waterways are exacerbating huge, harmful algal blooms that create oxygen-deprived stretches of the gulf.