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. 


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.)



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Animation showing Earth heating up

This is mesmerizing and rather frightening. The animation shows how temperatures in various countries and continents have heated up since 1900. By the time we get to the present day, all of the lines are some shade of red.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Wednesday in the garden: Before the rains came

I was doing some tidy-up pruning in the garden today before an afternoon shower drove me inside. But before the pruning, I documented with my camera some of the things I saw around the garden.

There was a bit of activity at the bird feeders. These Blue Jays were checking out what was on offer at the table. They look a little disheveled because they are beginning their molt. They'll be losing all their old worn feathers and growing bright new ones.

This juvenile Red-bellied Woodpecker hasn't got his distinctive red head and belly feathers yet, but he's learned where he can find a tasty meal.

In the goldfish pond, the water lilies are flourishing.

This Giant Swallowtail butterfly was very busy on the blooms of the 'Pride of Barbados'. 

These flowers are favorites of many butterflies.

The Sulphurs seem to prefer the flame acanthus (Anisacanthus wrightii) blossoms.

Sulphurs are numerous in my garden in late summer and fall.

And the Gulf Fritillaries are numerous throughout the year.

They like the flame acanthus blooms as well.

A red skimmer dragonfly came calling.

And in the pond, the newest resident decided to show himself. I think I'll call him Jeremiah.

I've been trying to get a decent picture of this bullfrog for several days, but he's never bothered to cooperate. At least today he showed me his back, and I was surprised to see the colorful pattern that the camera revealed. From a distance of ten to fifteen feet and with my naked eye, the frog just looked gray-brown.

He decided to take a stroll into the variegated lirope that borders the pond.

But he no sooner made it into the grass when his visit was cut short by Rudy, the Mighty Hunter, and he had to jump back into the pond.

And then the rains came and Rudy and I had to take cover, too.