Old mysteries and thrillers gathering dust and adding to your clutter? Donate them to the Burrito Boyz and they'll distribute to the homeless of San Diego.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline is a very different kind of adventure novel, recommended to me by my daughter Jenna, a different kind of book for her, too. This is an adventure, race, love, and life-and-death story about geeks in their geek paradise. According to the novel’s setting in the year 2044, the real world is a miserable and desperate place to be. The best escape for all humans is to the game OASIS, invented by James Donovan Halliday. OASIS is far more than just a game which has caught the attention of everyone in the world. OASIS is now synonymous with the Internet and it has become the source of all knowledge and most of education. In the course of making this game, Halliday has amassed an untold fortune of megabillions, and upon his death, he created the ultimate challenge, the prize being control of OASIS and the totality of his wealth.

Wade Watts is an 18-year-old high school senior who has studied the game and Halliday. He’s become an expert at all video games and in the details of Halliday’s life. As Watts (avatar named Parzival) begins the challenge to solve Halliday’s final challenge, he realizes that he is competing with nearly everyone on earth, including some very bad people who are willing to kill in order to come in first. Ultimately, this is story a gladiator-like fight to the death.

The book is incredibly clever, a New York Times bestseller. There’s a comic book like quality to the story line which I found endearing. It’s scheduled for a movie release in two years from now, December 2017, directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. Given that so much of this story is in the form of fantasy and videogames, the special effects should be incredible. The enchanting Olivia Cook will play the female lead, Art3mis. I read the book over the Thanksgiving break, and it was a wonderful holiday read.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Concussion by Jeanne Marie Laskas

I think I'd be safe in saying that you've never heard of this book, but if you watch TV, you know about the Will Smith movie of the same name due to open on Christmas. This is the source material for the movie and it is a true story.

Bennet Omalu is a Nigerian  physician who never really wanted to follow in the family footsteps. He had no interested in village politics or farming or sports or schmoozing with the local residents. He wanted more and managed to work out a move to the US to continue his medical studies.

After a few years as a medical vagabond, taking graduate degrees from various universities, he began to realize that his destiny wasn't in treating patients. He preferred to study the dead, thus his desire to practice forensic pathology and he would become Board Certified in a number of pathology subspecialties including neuropathology-his favorite. So he applied for and was accepted into the pathology fellowship at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. The Alleghany County Medical Examiner was the very high profile Cyril Wecht who, apart from his County duties was also the coroner for some high-profile cases across the country (e.g., Jon Benet Ramsey, OJ, Vincent Foster, and dozens of others). Wecht is a profane, bombastic, self-promoter and the perfect mentor for the withdrawn Omalu.

Omalu was one of a number of junior pathologists in the rotation. In 2002, Omalu was next up to do the autopsy on what he assumed was a homeless man. One of the techs said, 'so you got the winning ticket.'

The patient was Mike Webster. To Omalu, Webster was a nobody, a street person. To Steeler Nation though, Mike Webster was a God (and if you are a football fan and don't know who Mike Webster was . . . well, you better do some research on the Pittsburgh Steelers of the 1970s and 1980s).

While Omalu did a routine autopsy on Webster, the paperwork described significant behavioral issues in his later years, which he thought were curious given that Webster was only 50 years old and an ex-professional athlete (the litany of Webster's issues will really open your eyes). He asked Dr. Wecht if it would be OK if he kept Webster's brain for further study.

The brain was preserved and Omalu kept it in his condo because any further study would have to be off the books; the Webster case was officially closed (the eventual legal case would soon be heating up). After a few weeks, he took samples of the brain to histology for a battery of stains to look at a wide range of neuropathology issues.

What he found startled him. Webster's brain looked grossly normal, but there were tissue sections that appeared to come from someone decades older with advanced dementia or Alzheimer's disease. As Omalu dug a bit deeper into Webster's medical history and his post-NFL life, Omalu began to believe that Webster's brain and behavior were the results of a lifetime of head trauma.

He published his case study in the journal Neurosurgery (that links to the paper's abstract) because it had a history of publishing papers on traumatic brain injury. And that's when Omalu's life went into a professional tailspin. The Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee of the NFL wrote the journal and wanted the article retracted and to never consider any future submissions of his. Omalu's life would never be the same.

[For those not familiar with medicine, when an unusual patient is encountered, it is routine to write up a 'case study,' which is little more than a brief article that describes what was unique about the patient, what was done, the outcome, and some comments. Medicine is all about 'evidence' and medical evidence is ranked from Level 1 (the highest and most convincing) to Level 5 (the lowest class that is dominated by case studies). Webster's case was unique so Omalu had to come up with a diagnosis; an easily remembered term and initialism for future use. He called it CTE: Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy.  He had come up with a medical term that had previously been termed the 'punch drunk syndrome' in boxers. The book says that the NFLs retraction request was longer than Omalu's published case report.]

This book is an extension of an article Laskas wrote for GQ in 2009 called 'Game Brain.' In the book, she goes into some detail of Omalu's childhood in Nigeria, his relationship with his father and family, Omalu's medical journey in the US, his developing relationship with Prema, a nursing student (and later, his wife), and the death of his father. All that is fine as it gives us some context to the man Omalu becomes.

But the story begins in earnest with Mike Webster's death. Once he published that case study, the full weight of the NFL comes down on Omalu in the time-honored tradition of character assassination and belittling someone from outside the game who had the audacity to challenge an entity that, for all intents and purposes, owns a day of the week. That Omalu is also Nigerian and not a part of the NFL machine makes this a David vs. Goliath on the first order. Some say there was/is a racial component, which seems odd considering that the NFL is something like 65% black. But that's the players. Ownership, league management (and physicians) are overwhelmingly white. Laskas shows us once again how the NFL can't seem to get out of its own way when it comes to crises management (the recent domestic violence issues come to mind). In multiple instances, Laskas shows how the NFL's stance on concussions parallels Big Tobacco's stance on smoking, addiction, and life-limiting diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Some disclosure here. I have read Omalu's papers (and he didn't challenge the NFL. He just said that CTE needed to be studied further, a common conclusion in dang near every medical paper written-I'm a medical editor so I should know). I've also read the series of papers by the NFL's MTBI committee that make a mockery of concussion as an academic endeavor worthy of study. And I personally know some of the people mentioned in the book. My game is soccer and I've had 2 concussions that I can recall. I have also published a few papers on concussion so I have more than a passing interest in this book and the coming movie.

Despite the NFLs (and FIFAs, but at least FIFA never said that head injury wasn't a problem like the NFL did) stance that they are devoted to player safety, no organization has done it 'right' yet because no one really knows what's going on inside the head during sport (within the past month US Soccer told the American soccer community that no child 10y or younger is to be taught how to head a ball. Some think the age should be 14y).

Concussions are THE hot topic in sports medicine and that means lots of people are studying it in order to find a way to make (insert your favorite sport here) safer. We see news reports of players who have willed their brain to the project underway at Boston University (another political issue discussed in the book: what wasn't/isn't Omalu involved? He discovered CTE, for crying out loud). Currently, there have been something like 79 brains donated and 77 show evidence of CTE. What they really need are some 'control' brains (players with no documented concussions. This is particularly important in soccer to determine if purposeful, successful heading can be implicated in CTE). That's when this issue will really heat up. A few years ago, I was asked about CTE and football. My response included a comment that CTE had the potential to destroy the game of football. Probably not in our lifetime, but sometime in the future.  If parents continue to steer their sons away from football, the player pool will eventually dry up. Stay tuned. This issue is far from resolved, no matter what the governing body of any sport says.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Promise by Robert Crais

Amy Breslyn tried to do the best she could. Single mom raising a son, Jacob, who goes on to become a journalist. But he was killed by a suicide bomber while on assignment in Nigeria,  about a year and a half ago. Amy has disappeared. Just walked away.  And has been gone for going on two weeks.

Elvis Cole has been hired by Meryl Washington, her boss, to find Amy. Meryl says Jacob's boyhood friend Tom, who lives in Echo Park, might be a place to start. Or the mysterious 'Charles' who Meryl thinks Amy met at an online dating service. So Elvis sits outside the Echo Park house waiting. Right up until a whole bunch of cops descend on the house. An occupant runs out and Elvis, being a good citizen, takes off after him.

When the cops enter the house they find a druggie with his head crashed in. They also find RPGs and grenades. But more importantly, they find a tupperware container with a couple pounds of plastic explosives. And it doesn't contain the required ingredient that IDs the manufacturer.

Just what does Amy do for Meryl's company? Amy has a PhD in chemical engineering. She is VP of Production. She produces "double and triple-based composite fuels, slurries, gels, castable propellents, plasticized accelerants." They don't make weapons, but they do make the parts that make the weapon be a weapon. And Meryl wants to keep this quiet to ensure continued funding from the military.

The cops think Elvis is keeping critical info to himself and pursues him as a person of interest. A K9 cop (see Suspect) who was at the Echo Park bust was going to get a commendation, but gets put on leave for reasons he can't comprehend. And every clue that Elvis uncovers ends up a deadend. Not until Elvis calls his partner, Joe Pike, and a former Ranger and now a self-employed merc, Jon Stone, do they scratch out a couple clues that cast an entirely different light on what should have been a routine missing persons job.

I hated reading this book. 400 pages. But it wasn't the book. It was life getting in the way of an absolutely terrific read. I could've read it non-stop. Would've had to be reminded to use the bathroom or eat or sleep or actually do something that might earn a buck or two. Crais isn't our most reviewed author for nothing. Firmly entrenched at or near the top of all of our power rotations, Crais is an expert at relating a single scene from the viewpoints of Elvis, the K9 cop, Jon Stone, the bad guy, the cops, even the Maggie the K9 dog. Marginally different stories of the same situation according to the biases of each. A riveting story told by one of our favorites. We've read and reviewed everything by Crais, so if you are new to Crais, pick up any of his books; you won't be disappointed.

Is this his best? Personally, I think Taken was #1 . . . but this would be #1a.


Murder House by David Ellis and James Patterson

The neglected multi-million-dollar beach front estate in the Hamptons at 7 Ocean Drive has been dubbed the Murder House due to numerous gruesome murders that have occurred there over the years.  The Dahlquist family who built the mansion is responsible for some of the murders as each generation produced a rapist and murderer always named Holden.  Finally Holden VI intends to end this family horror by not procreating and committing suicide… but the murders continue.

Jenna Rose is a NYPD cop who is forced out of her job in Manhattan and is hired by her Uncle Lang who heads the Southampton Town Police Department. As a child, Jenna’s family often visited the Hamptons but abruptly stopped their visits when she was eight years old.  She knew some violent event had happened to keep her parents away but Jenna had suppressed that memory.  Now with her parents both deceased, her uncle is her closest living relative and offers her a job to save her career as a cop.  She no sooner arrives when a Hollywood power broker and his mistress are found dead in the Murder House.  Evidence points to a local handyman, Noah Walker as the lead suspect.  As his trial begins, the police chief, Jenna’s uncle and lead witness for the prosecution is murdered.  Noah Walker is ultimately sent to prison but Jenna continues to investigate and becomes convinced Noah is innocent.  Her testimony frees Noah but the murders continue.  The new police chief bands her from the murder investigations and he fires her for disobeying his orders.  But with the killer still at large, Jenna needs to solve this case for her own peace of mind.  She finds out what really happened to her as a eight year old and who saved her and becomes convinced one more Dahlquist generation is involved.  But who is it and can she find out before he kills her?

Murder House is a very good mystery, thriller.  The plot is complex with plenty of twists and turns and offers several convincing choices for the ‘who done it.’  But I found I didn’t particularly like the protagonist, Jenna.  First, I found it odd she could not remember a traumatic event as an eight year old.  Second, I found her a little too impulsive, a little too quick to draw conclusions and act based on limited evidence at hand.  Finally, she always haled from a position of moral high ground that I never felt like she earned…. perhaps a little better character development would have helped.

The Lost Codex by Alan Jacobson

FBI profiler Karen Vail and DEA agent Roberto Hernandez are an item. Out for a romantic dinner in DC. On their post-dinner stroll, the unmistakable sound of gunshots echo off nearby buildings. They dash to the victim and a quick pat-down reveals a badge; FBI. They quickly scan the area. They hear someone running fast. They give chase. The runner turns, bringing up a handgun. Robby and Karen both fire and are blown back by a massive concussive blast.

The front of the building he was headed for is heavily damaged, but the runner is no more. Suicide vest. A search of the building finds a bomb factory. A deranged nut? A sleeper cell? The beginning of an organized assault on US soil?

Next day. Another bombing.

Karen is brought into a shadowy OPSIG group, which is a multi-agency cooperative set up to act rapidly with minimal supervision. Hector DeSantos (head of OPSIG), Aaron Uziel (aka 'Uzi,' Israeli, FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force), and Mahmoud El Fahad (Palestinian, CIA clandestine service) are put together. They chase a clue to another safe house, but are a step behind. The master planner for an offshoot of Hamas, al Humat, Kadir Abu Sahmoud taunts the team. The team realizes that this battle is on two fronts. First are the immediate attacks. Second is more political. Muslim families in the West are averaging six children per family while Western families average two. With patience, the Muslims know that Sharia law will come via the vote. In a generation or two, Muslim voters will dominate. And they understand patience. They've been fighting this battle for over 800 years since The Crusades.

Off to NYC where each day is another attack. Some even target the team more than the citizenry. Uzi is naturally suspicious of Fahad because not only does ethnic history come into play, but every time there is an attack, Fahad has disappeared to 'check with some sources.' At issue is a text from Biblical times that could be more important than the Dead Sea Scrolls. Known as the Aleppo Codex. And its been found and its content and prophesies could impact all religions, not just Christianity.

Further clues take the team into England (completely off the books, along the lines of 'the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions' off the books). And of course, London is the next site of attacks. Then it's off to Palestine. as they close in on Sahmoud.  The word is that al Humat not only has a line on a nuclear device, but it has arranged its entrance to the US via the drug tunnels set up by Mexican drug cartels. Now that's a frightening collaboration.

Jacobson presents parallel plots. The at-a-sprint chase of Sahmoud and the underlying question of Fahad's loyalties. The Codex is actually a minor issue. Jacobson delivers at the pace of an Uzi on full auto. It's a hard to put down adventure. OK, there are some issues that stretch credibility. They may be pretty obvious, but if you'll give those a pass Jacobson takes you on a satisfying  thrill ride. Per Jacobson's website, this book is a consolidation of two of his continuing characters: Karen Vail and the OPSIG group. Based on numerous reference to a prior harrowing mission in the UK for both Vail and DeSantos, I think I just might have to check it out.


Friday, November 20, 2015

The Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham

In The Rogue Lawyer, John Grisham continues his tradition of mocking at our imperfect legal system, this time with protagonist, sleazy street lawyer, Sebastian Rudd.  Rudd doesn’t have an office and works out of a customized van complete with driver and armed body guard, Partner, a former client.  (Yes, like Michael Connelly’s Lincoln Lawyer.)  Rudd represents the clients no other lawyer will touch…   murderers, rapists, kidnappers, drug dealers and crime lords who are usually guilty.  Representing these folks has given him an insight of the improprieties in our legal system that are ignored by most… overzealous cops, incompetent prosecutors and judges, and greedy, ambitious politicians.  When Rudd isn’t fighting for (or with) his low life clients, he is fighting his former wife, Judith for visitation rights of their young son, Starcher (named by his mother.)  Judith is now a lesbian and a lawyer who specializes in representing gays against discrimination.  Rudd hopes only to stay relevant in Starcher’s life to give the kid an escape when he can no longer tolerate his overbearing mother and her lover, Ava.

The book is written in a little different format than most.  The first quarter tells a complete story with enough character development to be considered a novelette.  The last three quarters introduces new characters and develops plot lines mostly unrelated to the first section… like the way a TV series is structured… humm.

In the first plot line, Rudd visits the local penitentiary to witness his crime lord client, Link Scanlon’s execution.  A jury of his peers found Scanlon guilty of murder and all the appeals have been filed with Judd representing him all the way.  Miraculously, Scanlon seems to have more power on death row than out in the world.  He manages to escape by helicopter from the prison, hours before his scheduled execution.  He then hounds Rudd from his off shore hideout for a refund of legal fees.

Rudd does represent one law abiding citizen in a criminal suit against the city police department.  Douglas Renfro is retired and lives in quiet suburbia with his wife when the next door neighbor kid hijacks their Wi-Fi to distribute illegal drugs.  The police connect Renfro’s IP address to the illegal activity and send the SWAT team at 3:00 AM to raid Renfro’s home.  Douglas pulls out his hand gun thinking thugs are breaking in and fires at the armed invaders.  The police return fire wounding Douglas and killing his wife then claim their excess use of force was justified.  Rudd is uniquely qualified to thoroughly humiliate the city on behalf of his client.

In another plot line, a low life hires Rudd then tells him under attorney client privilege that he has information about a police captain’s kidnapped daughter.  Unfortunately, the client’s check bounces so Rudd cuts him loose as a client.  The police covertly kidnap Starcher, Rudd’s son and try to extort the information out of Rudd.  The client has lied to Rudd but the lawyer uses what he knows to gain revenge on his low life non-client and the rogue police… all in one clever move.

The Rogue Lawyer is a good read but not one of Grisham’s best.  His borrowing of Connelly’s character idea and structuring the book for an easy edit for TV seems just a bit self-serving.  You have to get over that to enjoy the book.  But his cynicism for our legal system and some of the incompetence it attracts as well as his sarcasm, make for great story telling.  And if it does get picked up by one of the streamers or a cable network, I’ll definitely watch it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Kill All The Lawyers

After reading three of his novels, I moved William Deverell into my top ten list of crime writers, and now after the fourth, Kill All The Lawyers, he solidifies himself somewhere in that renowned (at least in my mind) list. In this novel, he changed his writing style to one that was often tongue-in-cheek. While this was a serious murder mystery, there was a silly/humorous side that was most enjoyable. At times, Deverell showed that he could write in the ribald as well as anyone. If you’re a fan of this crime genre, you will get a kick out of this one.

In fact, this story centers around a series of murders or attempted murders of lawyers, some of whom were mob lawyers, some of whom where defenders of the poor, some of whom were just good attorneys, and some of whom were at the bottom of their class. What could be the connection? One of the lawyers who was nearly killed but survived, Brian Pomeroy, decided to take a prolonged vacation/escape in Costa Rica where he was working on his own crime novel. Pomeroy repeatedly quoted Mr. Widgeon who wrote many crime novels and also wrote a how-to-write-crime-novels book, as Pomeroy developed his own parallel plot to the main plot of this story. Deverell made use of that convention to tease everyone associated with the legal professions (including the readers of crime novels), and he tossed in corrupt cops, unethical judges, and a mafia hit man just for fun. Then, he pulled in a police detective from Costa Rica, Francisco Sierra, to help solve the serial lawyer killings in Vancouver, drawing on the image of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot. When you see the unexpected resolution of this case, just as Mr. Widgeon recommends, you will laugh – good stuff, and it is not the formulaic stuff that we see from some authors in this genre.