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Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Gathering Prey by John Sandford

Gathering Prey is John Sandford’s twenty fifth novel featuring Lucas Davenport, the handsome well-dressed investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension with a spectacular case solved rate and a history of pissing off his superiors. In this latest book all of Lucas’ deep seated misgivings with the agency seem to fester as he quarrels with his boss over case assignments and side steps bureaucracy to join the multi-state manhunt for his latest prey, a murderous traveler calling himself Pilate.

While in college at Stamford, Lucas’ adopted daughter, Letty befriends Henry and Skye, a young man and woman who call themselves travelers.  Free in spirit, they travel around the country with a larger group in broken down old cars, panhandling for food and peddling dope for gas money. Now home in Minneapolis for the summer, Letty gets a distress call from Skye.  She is in Sturgis, North Dakota at the annual motorcycle rally and is terrified.  Henry has disappeared and Skye thinks the traveler’s leader, Pilate has murdered him.  Letty advises Skye to board a bus for Minneapolis and gets Lucas involved.  He contacts the Sturgis authorities and learns that Henry has indeed been murdered and through additional networking discovers this Pilate is wanted in connection with a similar murder in L.A. 

Skye thinks the travelers are headed to a Juggalo gathering (a festival for fans of the Insane Clown Posse) in Wisconsin so she hitches a ride to the event and Letty follows. Before Lucas can arrive to save the day, Pilate manages to kidnap Skye, beat up Letty, and kill another victim.  Pilate orders his troop to scatter and rendezvous in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at another Juggalo gathering the following week.
Lucas is out of his jurisdiction and his boss tells him to back off. But Lucas is personally invested now.  Through cell phone use monitoring, he anticipates where the travelers are headed.  He arrives at the isolated town near Sault Ste. Marie in time to organize the local law enforcement.  He finds a competent sheriff but with mostly volunteer deputies. Can they outwit and overpower the elusive and now desperate Pilate before he kills again?  Even if Lucas is successful, what will be the consequences of his insubordination when he returns to Minneapolis?

Gathering Prey is classic Lucas Davenport.  He can play by the rules until they get in the way of protecting his family or getting his man... then they just don’t matter.  But how much longer can Lucas survive in a bureaucracy when he has this attitude?  We see a transition taking form in Gathering Prey.  Lucas is evolving.  He’s getting too old to chase down criminals… the part of the job he loves… and has nearly had his fill of the politics and the paperwork. So what’s next for this maverick?  I can hardly wait to see. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Eric Larson has done it again, this time with Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. This is a nonfiction work in which he has carefully documented lots of information about all of the main players in the story of the sinking of this British vessel in May 1915, with many Americans on board, which was a crucial event in America’s entry into World War I in April 1917. The Lusitania was a magnificent ship which had already completed 201 crossings of the Atlantic before it was sunk. Larson also captured the details of the geopolitical era that helped explain why this was such an important event.

The career of Captain William Turner was well documented, both before and after the sinking of the Lusitania, but it was not the last vessel that sunk under Turner during the war. The Captain of the submarine that fired the one torpedo that sunk the Lusitania was Kptlt. Walther Schwieger, and his career was also thoroughly detailed, before and after this event. He was a hero in Germany for this action, was put in charge of an even bigger submarine, and continued to sink ships until he was chased into a mine field where everyone aboard his ship was killed. Churchill played an important role throughout the book since he was First Lord of the Admiralty during WWI, and for reasons that were never explained, he tried to blame this disaster on Turner, who successfully was found to have been competent by the Admiralty’s investigation. Woodrow Wilson also played an important role in the story as he worked to keep America out of the war. During this same time, as he mourned the passing of his first wife, Wilson began dating Edith Galt who turned down his first proposal of marriage until she relented to Wilson’s persistence.

Larson captured the action of the day-to-day movements of the Lusitania and U-20 until they met just off the coast of Ireland. It was fateful – so many things could have kept this encounter from happening. Interestingly, the day before the Lusitania sailed from New York, The Germany Embassy published a warning in the New York Times that all ships that entered the war zone around England, including passenger vessels were at risk. But, no one believed the Germans would actually do it, and they thought the Lusitania would easily outrun any attempt by a U-boat to sink it. Did Churchill purposely leave the Lusitania unprotected because he was so eager for America to officially enter the war?

I’ve always found the pre-WWI and WWI period of history to be fascinating, so I’m glad I read this one. At times, the book was a bit tedious, especially with regard to information about the passengers, but this is a definitive work about the Lusitania, and it’s a must read for any fan of the era.

Friday, May 8, 2015

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough is a delightful story of two self-educated, industrious brothers from Dayton Ohio who at the turn of the twentieth century changed life as we know it by inventing, building, and flying the first airplane.  McCullough is fastidious about publishing only the facts which primarily are based on hand written correspondence by Wilbur and Orville Wright to and from their father, their sister, each other and numerous parties they found interested in their quest… this was the age of avid letter writing.

Wilbur and Orville Wright grew up in Dayton, Ohio in a modest six room house with no indoor plumbing or electricity.  Their father was a bishop in the Church of the United Brethren and traveled widely on church business.  The bishop’s only splurge in life was his vast book collection which he strongly encouraged his five children to read.  His collection was diverse for its time and included many classics as well as history, travel, birds, and encyclopedias.  Wilbur and Orville read everything.

Upon graduation from high school, the boys briefly dabbled in the printing and publishing business before opening a bicycle shop near their home in 1893.  Cycling was popular at the time and the boys designed some new models (both wheels the same size), constructed them in their shop and soon were selling about 150 bikes each year.  But the notion of flight intrigued them. They learned much by reading about the German glider enthusiast, Otto Lilienthal who studied birds for clues on how to fly.  Wilbur wrote to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and requested all that was published about flying machines.  After intense study the boys concluded that controlling the equilibrium of lift, yaw, pitch and roll were essential to safe flying.  

So in 1899 they constructed their first glider to learn first-hand how to put into practice what they had learned in books.  But they needed a better setting to conduct their experiments… someplace isolated with steady winds and sand to soften the landing.  After extensive research, they concluded the outer banks of North Carolina best fit their needs.  So in August of 1900, the brothers built a full sized glider with an eighteen foot wing span and packed and shipped it to the then nearly uninhabited Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  They built a small workshop where they also lived and from there conducted numerous flights with their glider.  They returned to Dayton in October to tend to their bicycle business and to prepare for subsequent fall visits to Kitty Hawk.  

By the end of 1902 after three trips to the Outer Banks, they felt they had developed the knowledge and flying skill to add a motor to their glider.  After a search for the proper small engine to power their flyer, the boys asked Charlie Taylor, their only employee at the bicycle shop to build an engine.  That fall they made a fourth journey to Kitty Hawk to assemble yet another new and improved flyer complete with the engine.  This machine like all the others was solely financed by the Wrights from proceeds of their bicycle business.  On December 17, 1903 Orville won the toss for piloting the flyer and made the first manned flight of 120 feet in twelve seconds.  Wilbur and Orville took turns and made three more flights that day, the longest being 852 feet in 59 seconds.  Only five people, all local residents witnessed history in the making that day.

So did the newspapers explode with the news and crowds of people turn out to congratulate the Wright Brothers?  No.  Most were skeptical and simply didn’t believe flight was possible.  Even the U.S. government did not seem interested since the war department had spent thousands of dollars in public money to develop flight only to fail.  So after a couple years of demonstrations at Huffman Prairie, an open meadow near Dayton, the Wrights took their invention to France.  A group of French investors were willing to pay $200,000 for one of the Wright Brother’s flyers if some performance criteria could be met and some pilots trained.  Wilbur set off for France where he was met with open arms.  He found a setting near Lemans, built a flyer and held several demonstration flights.  Crowds turned out to watch including kings and military generals from all over Europe.  Much to Wilbur’s dismay, he became a celebrity and all the news media wanted to interview him and write about him.
Meanwhile, back in the states, the U.S. government finally offered the Wrights a similar deal as France.  Orville set off to Washington, D.C. and established an air field at Fort Myer just west of Arlington National Cemetery.  Orville flew his flyer numerous times setting many aviation records with crowds of government officials and the general public in attendance.  Orville proved once and for all the Wright Brother’s flyer was the real deal.  It was here during one of his demonstrations that Orville’s plane crashed with a passenger on board who was killed in the accident.  Orville survived but suffered a broken leg and several broken ribs.  His sister Katherine devoted herself to his recovery which took more than a year.  In the meantime, Wilbur took the lead in forming an aviation company and spent precious time defending their patents.  Now everyone wanted credit for what they had accomplished.  Amazingly, the Wrights were not changed by their success and celebrity.  They remained the same mild mannered, hard-working, humble gentlemen they had always been.

I love this story as it resonates with me on so many levels.  I grew up in Ohio about sixty miles from Dayton and the culture of the time is so similar to that of my own ancestors, right down to the work ethic.  The Wright home from 7 Hawthorn Street in Dayton is now on display to the public in Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.  It is like so many other houses from that area in that time, humble and unremarkable.  While I was growing up, so much of what the Wright Brothers inspired was taken for granted.  The Dayton ‘Flyers’ basketball team, Wright-Patterson Air Force base, and Wright State University are all examples of the Wright Brother’s legacy.  Yet they were inspiring… proof the American dream was possible.  Success was not achieved by who you knew or inherited from your family but by hard-work, self-confidence, and unyielding resolve.  When another Ohio native, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon in 1969, he carried with him a swatch of muslin from the wing of the Wright’s 1903 flyer, a tribute to what the Wright Brothers had begun only seven decades earlier.  

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Missile Game by Glenn Shepard

You'd think that the best drone pilots would be some hot shot pilot with a thing for video games. At least it'd be someone in the military or with military training. What if (to steal a line from Top Gun), "the best of the best" was first identified after winning some major video game competition. Who was then contracted by the CIA to work out of Afghanistan and Iraq. Once his tour was up and he returned to the US, the Army hired him as an independent contractor where was paid by the kill and proportional to the target's importance. A cool million dollars for a few hours work was the norm. One problem is that our drone pilot wants to work remotely from the US despite claims from the current administration that no such thing is happening. The drone pilot's code name: Alpha Charlie.

But, there is an ISIS cell coming together with the intention of finding Alpha Charlie's new command center and killing him with a barrage of Silkworm missiles. Sleepers are called in and the hunt is on.

Dr.  Scott James is a plastic surgeon outside the major population centers of NC somewhere between Chapel Hill and Charlotte. Son of a tobacco farmer who got off the farm, but came home to practice and set up his own outpatient surgicenter. He and his anesthesiologist are doing the last case of the day. A little nip and tuck on his office manager. No issues other than she's quite slow to wake up, so he goes down the hall while his partner sits tight until the patient awakens. 

A loud thud and trays fall. Dr. James beats feet down the hall into the OR where he finds his partner with 9mm in his forehead. Cops come and promptly put Scott under arrest despite the lack of real evidence. News gets out and the local paper declares Scott to be The Killer Doc. And his wife now has a restraining order to keep Scott from his kids while she pursues a divorce. Bail is set at $2 million. Scott's not going anywhere.

To make things worse, in the previous months, the local hospital administrator (Herb) has bullied the Board to revise its charter to allow him to take over all decision making. His goal is to sell the hospital to a for-profit group. Dr. James feels this is not in the community's best interest, does some digging, and sends a commentary to the local paper effectively stalling most negotiations for purchase. So Scott and Herb, once friends through high school, are now at each other's throat. And you can guess the company that Scott's wife has been keeping.

A silent benefactors posts Scott's bail. Once out, he confronts Herb, the ISIS cell is gearing up for the strike on Alpha Charlie, and his office manager turns out to have skills Scott was unaware of, getting him out of more than one jam.

What appears to be three unrelated stories starts to come together about halfway through this relatively short, but intense tale of a good guy wrongly accused. Glenn Shepard is himself a plastic surgeon based in Virginia and The Missile Game is his first book (a January 2015 release) and a 2nd is also out (a February 2015 release). For a rookie at the thriller game, Shepard displays some real story telling chops. The book opens with a murder and a few drone strikes and then accelerates from there. Shepard skillfully weaves divergent storylines into a coherent, and utterly believable tale of the first attempt by ISIS to bring their jihad to US soil. A rip roaring thriller full of plot twists, skillful and lucky escapes, double and triple crosses, shifting loyalties and still manages to sneak in a quick romp between the sheets.

Don't worry too much about convoluted back story, or in depth character development. With a little massaging, this could be developed into a season on 24; it's that fast. Starts off running, then speeds up, before ending with a sprint to the finish. Could easily be read in one or two sittings - it's that engrossing.

East Coast Don

Friday, May 1, 2015

A Long Reach by Michael Stone

Frank Dazzler lives and runs a Denver bail/bonds business out of an old church in LoDo (Denver-ese for the lower downtown district). He shares the church with his skip tracer Street, goes by Streeter. No first name. Streeter's not known for his choices when it comes to women; divorced 4 times and he's just in his 40s. He was once engaged to Carol Irwin, a criminal lawyer who turned to taxes when she learned she wasn't that great of a litigator. But the relationship went south when Streeter messed around with one of Carol's girlfriends.

A lowlife that Carol represented (poorly) is Kevin Swallow who got sent to prison for murder (car bombs. likes to work remotely). But Carol mucked up the defense and Kevin's been released on a technicality and is looking to settle some scores. Those who worked for the good guys on Swallow's case are being picked off one by one. Some dead, others maimed pretty bad. Carol is spooked and asks for Streeter's help. Swallow's been sending Carol some cryptic poetry and she thinks the best and safest thing to do is stay at the church as Streeter was not connected with the Swallow's original case.

As might be expected, Swallow manages to track Carol forcing Denver PD to assign a uniform 24/7 for protection while Streeter tries to track down what he can find about Swallow by looking into his personal history, the trial, and his time in prison. Not much shows up. The guy seemed to be protected while in jail, no visitors to speak of. No family. He's scum. How does this guy always seem to be a step ahead? Impossible that he could get in an out of places without notice and know who's after him.

Stone weaves a pretty clever piece of noir (if Denver can be consider a locale for a noir mystery) that takes a couple interesting, if not too subtle, twists in the last third of the book. This is part of a series featuring Streeter and Dazzler, even thought Dazzler is a bit player in this story. Assuming the others are presented in a unique combination of noir and humor, I foresee a return to Denver in my future.


The Fall by John Lescoart

The Fall is John Lescroart’s latest in his Dismas Hardy/ Abe Glitsky legal thriller series.  The series has been so successful for so long that Diz and Abe are now in their sixties and the second generation is coming on board.  Hardy’s adopted daughter Rebecca, aka The Beck, has graduated from law school and has joined Hardy’s law firm.  The Beck’s first big murder trial falls in her lap soon after she passes the bar.  Anlya Paulson, a seventeen year old African American foster child falls to her death from a pedestrian bridge in downtown San Francisco.  A mayoral want-to-be has been vocal about the disproportionately high unsolved murder rate of African American victims, placing the blame on the police department and the district attorney.  So Devin Juhle, Chief of Homicide and Wes Farrell, District Attorney are keen to solve Anlya’s murder posthaste.
Greg Treadway, an all around do-gooder, teaches seventh grade in an underprivileged San Francisco neighborhood for Teach for America and volunteers at CASA, court-appointed special advocate program for foster kids.  Anlya’s twin brother, Max is an advocate of Greg’s under the CASA program.  Greg knows Anlya through Max.  Treadway coincidently is in the Little Shamrock, a bar co-owned by Hardy when news of Anlya’s violent death comes on the TV.  Greg appears shocked and tells Hardy and The Beck that he knows the girl and had seen her the night of her death.  The lawyers counsel Greg to call the police and two detectives meet him at the bar for an interview.  Treadway describes his involvement with Anlya as platonic and as a friend and mentor.  In his interview he fails to mention the argument he and Anlya had at the restaurant that night and quickly is pegged as the primary suspect in her murder.

The Beck feels guilty for not specifically advising Greg to tell the whole truth to the detectives, even though he wasn’t her client at the time.  She agrees to represent Greg believing the police would soon find a better suspect… but they never do.  Under political pressure to solve the case quickly, the DA calls the grand jury and Greg is arrested.  Thinking they found the killer, the police stop investigating.  But Anlya lead a troubled life in her short seventeen years and was associated with many dangerous people.  Several of the girls at the foster home where she most recently lived were involved in a prostitution ring.  Anlya had stayed out of the life and encouraged the other girls to stay away much to the ire of a short tempered pimp.  Anlya had also been raped by her mother’s boyfriend when she was fourteen.  This creep had been incarcerated for another crime but managed to escape, change his identity and was currently living on the streets near Anlya.  So as the trial begins, The Beck has several alternative theories but nothing specific enough to free her client.  As the prosecuting attorney presents his case, Wyatt Hunt, the Hardy firm’s PI is still trying to solve Anlya’s murder or at least find some plausible alternative suspect to save Greg Treadway from a conviction.  Abe Glitsky, now an investigator for the DA’s office and Hardy’s best friend, played a role in investigating Anlya’s death but has moved on to other cases supposedly unrelated to Anlya’s murder… supposedly.

Lescroart’s novels are always interestingly complex and The Fall is no exception.  His characters are so intertwined it’s a challenge to tell friend from foe.  Hardy is a defense attorney whose best friend, Abe Glitsky is the former chief of detectives who now works for the DA.  The DA is Hardy’s former partner and Hardy’s wife is the DA’s administrative assistant.  Often on opposing sides, these people’s personal relationships have endured many tests.  It’s fun to witness their personal interactions when they are at odds professionally.  The plot too is multifaceted and complex.  The clients, witnesses, and their acquaintances are often connected in surprising ways and are many times not who they appear to be.  One would expect plausibility to suffer in this environment but Lescroart pulls it off credibly and masterfully.  The Fall is one of his best yet.

Thanks to Net Galley for an advance look at one of my favorite author’s latest work.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Grant of Immunity by Garret Holms

Garret Holms, in real life, is a former prosecuting attorney and is now a judge, and he brings his knowledge of the court system to life. This story, which takes place in Los Angeles, is graphic, brutal, and blunt. Grant of Immunity is a nonstop read. I was drawn into this drama very quickly as an early life mistake haunted Danny Hart for the rest of his life. Lonely and unsure of himself, having grown up in a dysfunctional family and then barely 15 years old, Danny was befriended by a 20-year-old he only knew as Snake. As a kid, he never knew Snake’s real name. Danny, unwittingly, became Snake’s accomplice in the murder of Sarah Collins. Be warned, this is deeply sick stuff that Holms writes about. After the murder, Snake told Danny that for insurance, that he had kept the knife that had Danny’s fingerprints on it, so if he told anyone else about the murder, Danny would go down too. Snake then disappeared from Danny’s life for the next 19 years.

Meanwhile, Danny managed his guilt and self-contempt by dedicating himself to his studies, becoming a young and successful prosecuting attorney, and then finally a well-respected judge. At 35, he was appointed to the Superior Court bench in Los Angeles, and two years later, as he was about to have to run a race for election, he encountered Snake once again. But now, Snake is an LA Patrol Sargent, Jake Babbage. He was the worst of rogue cops, finding people he thought needed to be exterminated, and then he found ways to do that. He seemed to have pulled the wool over the eyes of his colleagues because he was looked on as being a cop’s cop. Babbage had a fixation on the 21-year-old daughter of the woman he killed 19 years earlier, and he made himself known to Judge Hart in an attempt to set her up for a fate like the one her mother suffered. The Judge is stuck between a rock and a hard place, between Charybdis and Scylla.

Holms has been very successful in creating opposing forces. On one side, there is Snake and his defense attorney, the narcissistic and pathologically ambitious Doris Reynolds. They are easy to hate as they attempt to use each other to accomplish their own desired perverted ends. On the other side is Judge Hart, the investigating officer, William Fitzgerald, and the two children of the murdered woman, 24-year-old Sean Collins and his little sister who is Babbage’s new obsession, Erin Collins. It’s a good story with a satisfying end, although it was not an end that I could have predicted. This one gets my highest recommendation – it’s the sort of crime novel that we at Men Reading Books wait for and thrive on. It’s available now on Kindle, in paperback, and in audio format.