Saturday, February 27, 2021

Dark Canyon, Louis L'Amour

Dark Canyon, first published in 1963, comes well into Louis L'Amour's career and has all of his usual moving parts, but not so far along to have some of the perfunctive qualities that hamper his books going into the 1970s.

Gaylord Riley fell in with outlaw Jim Colburn when he helped Colburn out of a scrape in a saloon, but he never really became the outlaw type during his two years with the gang. Colburn and his gang may not have had their hearts totally in the game either, because they recognize Riley's unsuitability for the lifestyle and talk him into taking money and starting a ranch. Riley had spent his life wandering the west, searching for the men who had wounded him and killed his father, but at the gang's urging he takes their stake and begins to build with it in the Dark Canyon Wilderness of southern Utah.

He's a later entry to the area, centered on the small town of Rimrock and the ranch of Dan Shattuck. Saloon keeper and brothel owner Martin Hardcastle is the main man of Rimrock and has eyes for Dan's niece Marie, but Dan makes it clear a brothel owner is not fit for his niece's company and stirs a deep hatred in Hardcastle. Riley's arrival offers him a chance to create a scheme for revenge and Riley's slightly shady reputation provides an excellent way to be rid of him once his task is done. But Gaylord Riley is nobody's fool, and Marie Shattuck is no shrinking flower...and she loves Riley, not Hardcastle.

On the one hand it's easy to say that Canyon needs to be a little bit longer, so we can see some of Hardastle's machinations at work. His plans are a little too opaque for top narrative smoothness and his endgame moves seem to make all of the earlier plans unnecessary. The gaps also leave L'Amour in a position of having to tell us some of the things that are happening rather than show them, and that choice rarely does a story much good.

But on the other hand, being kept partly in the dark puts us in the same boat as Riley -- we know like he does that something is going on and that it's not good, but we can't quite sense what it is. The knowledge gap means Riley's toughness, speed and honor can't be brought to bear on his enemies...because he doesn't know who they are or what they're planning.

Dark Canyon is full of the touches that show why Louis L'Amour reigned as the king of the Western novel for so long (and why, in the minds of certain middle-aged grump types he still does). The opening sentence sets a hook that keeps an iffy reader going long enough that even when he or she runs into some of the less clear or less well-drawn passages the result is a shrug and commitment to finish out and see how the book ends. With a quick paragraph he lets us know that Dan Shattuck and Martin Hardcastle will have business with each other before we're done. Characters that a lot of writers would use as nameless cannon-fodder get real story arcs before leaving the stage. with an economy of words that seems to come so easily to the old pulp-era writers. And of course there's the descriptions of the magnificent wilderness where L'Amour chooses to work.

This may not have been one of L'Amour's front-rank works like Hondo or The Daybreakers, but the reader who doesn't particularly care for it will only be troubled for 120 pages or so before finishing it and reaching for one of the hundred-plus other novels he produced and finding one that better suits.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Up Front There Oughtta Be

Today has been the birthday of the late, great Johnny Cash. Wearing black was, of course, encouraged but need not be carried over until tomorrow. Being reminded of the ones who are held back, on the other hand, is a recommended ongoing activity.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

She Don't Lie, She Don't Lie, She Don't Lie...They'rrrre Grrreat!

(With apologies to J.J. Cale.)

Make your play, most important meal of the day...cocaine

Sugar frosting is nice, but take my advice...cocaine

She don't lie, she don't lie, she don't lie...cocaine

Add to your Cap'n Crunch, you'll be flyin' till lunch...cocaine

It's smooth as silk, it's better without the milk...cocaine

She don't lie, she don't lie, she don't lie...cocaine

Protect your nose, just dust your Cheerios...cocaine

Put some more on your flakes, and you bet they're great...cocaine

She don't lie, she don't lie, she don't lie

She don't lie, she don't lie, she don't lie

And if you look at the picture at the link you'll see what actual cocaine-dusted cornflakes look like and they are not at all appetizing.

Monday, February 22, 2021

The Next Generation

Over at Bored Panda, an entry shows what artificial intelligence suggests the offspring of famous TV or movie couples might have looked like if they had been real and had children.

The results are interesting, although a couple of the prospective kids look more like each other than they do the fictional parents. The AI program worked on the photos themselves; I can't imagine we're that far off from the same kinds of programs working on the actual genomes of the people involved and creating an image that might result from the combined DNA. Of course, that would involve obtaining DNA from the principals and that might not be such a welcome request from a random stranger creating an Instagram post.

And, you know, sort of creepy.

Sunday, February 21, 2021


In today's Sherman's Lagoon, Sherman the shark discovers that a swordfish makes a somewhat painful -- albeit ultimately successful -- motivator.

I have in mind some for whom I would if possible procure one. For both reasons: the success and the painful method.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Arctic Gambit, Larry Bond

His exemplary service and daring have brought Jerry Mitchell to the one place few military officers want to go: A desk job. The submarine commander's record has meant promotion, so it's now others who command the sleek deep-diving guardians of the United States Navy. Jerry, back at the base, coordinates their efforts and directs a squadron of submarines from his office. But in 2018's Arctic Gambit, Jerry will board a vessel once more as it hunts for a secret base where Russia seeks to develop and deploy a deadly first-strike weapon meant to hamstring U.S. response to its aggressive moves. Jerry has a personal stake, too -- one of the first victims of the developing weapon was his old friend Lenny Berg and Berg's submarine.

Unlike some military thriller writers, Larry Bond treats Jerry's career with some realism. After a certain amount of time in grade, promotion is a part of the picture. Officers who turn down the chance to advance are shuffled to the side and so it would be unrealistic to expect Jerry to still be commanding a single sub at this point of his career and life. This situation gives Bond a little bit of a problem, as he has to connive a way to get Jerry where he's supposed to be, which is under the water. It also means that the tough decisions required by an individual boat commander are left to a character with whom we have less investment than the series lead, which can make the overall book a little less interesting. Bond mostly manages to work past these slowdowns, but not perfectly and not entirely satisfyingly.

He does make up for it a bit by some good detail work and plausible scenarios in his wider theater, from the ambitious ex-KGB agent running Russia to the military commanders who may be facing a shooting war to the national leaders dealing with the reality that facing down Russian aggression could cost the U.S. civilian population immense losses from the secret weapon.

The Jerry Mitchell series has always been about the way Guys Who Do the Right Thing manage to think their way through to that Right Thing and pull it off with daring and competence. In that Arctic Gambit may be a lot like a Tom Clancy thriller, but Bond avoids Clancy's excesses and frequent silliness. And it's that toning down that gives the Mitchell books staying power that some of the Jack Ryan doorstops couldn't manage.

Friday, February 19, 2021

Spanning the Globe

When I first saw this globe-based device for checking out web radio stations from around the world at Neatorama, I thought it was pretty cool, so I went to the original link and found out it was even cooler, because the original link includes directions on how to make one.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Endeavor to Persevere

Bucking the 2020 curse, NASA's Perseverence probe launched in July and landed safely on Mars today, preparing to explore an ancient crater that once upon a time was a lakebed.

Jezero Crater is one of the sites on the Red Planet that where signs of ancient life could be most easily found, and Perseverance will explore it and hunt to see what it was like back in the day when water covered it. Although it may seem like Mars is so full of rovers and probes that they would bump into each other and their findings become routine this is a new area of exploration and even if no life signs are found should be a lot of fun to watch.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Appalachian League Baseball, Allen LaMountain

Major League baseball recently reorganized many of its relationships with minor league teams, eliminating some and repurposing others. The new version of the Appalachian League will focus on college freshman and sophomores, acquainting them with the version of the game played with wooden bats. Most college and high school players are still using aluminum bats and if they want to make the jump to the Show, they will need to learn the nuances of the different tool.

But as Allen LaMountain outlines in his 2014 history Appalachian League Baseball the teams of this region are used to training young players, serving as the Advanced Rookie circuit since organizing in the 1950s. The teams of "Appy League" have crafted and fed their best to the more advanced levels of play.

Managers as well have moved from working the Appy League to the majors, and LaMountain sketches the league history of a few along with the players. The book is organized into sections, beginning with three- and four-page histories of the current league teams as well as those which have closed over its tenure. The next section works with the managers and then, divided by chronology, we learn what some 90 players accomplished while playing for their different Appy League teams.

LaMountain has been a sports writer for a Tennessee newspaper and operates with an extensive knowledge of the league and its teams. That experience also colors his writing; the different entries are straightforward short summaries of wins, losses, statistics and such. Appalachian League reads as much like an encyclopedia or reference work as anything else; different players, managers and teams might have some color in their stories but any such daubs are small and scattered. The thoroughness of the research and completeness of the detail mean serious baseball historians problably need a copy of Appalachian League on their shelves, but it's sometimes a little dry for the average fan or follower in any but medium-sized doses.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Did You Ever Hear a Wailin' Sax?

I missed this article when it first came out and only found it because of the random assortment of suggested reads that pops up when I open a new browser tab.

In 2017, writer Kelsey McKinney published a piece in The Outline that asks, "Where did all the saxophones go?" in pop music. The thesis is that the sax was a pretty common feature of Top 40 music up to and into the 1980s but has fallen into disfavor, to the point that the Top 40 songs the week she wrote had nary a hint of a honk.

Now, the article's premise is not untrue, as far as I could tell. I had to look up close to three-quarters of the modern songs that McKinney mentions, but that's not bad for a middle-aged guy considering top 40 music. And when I sampled them, she is indeed correct that they didn't have saxophones playing. As to why, McKinney aims higher than she hits, muddling around until eventually deciding that computer-generated sounds provide the tone that older bands used the saxophone to add. The extensive audio processing that affects every aspect of a top pop song leaves acoustic-based instruments like the sax flattened into unrecognizability. That could be true, but it doesn't necessarily follow from the sketchy history of the instrument she gives in the article. A lot more likely explanation comes from a music professor she talks to, who thinks that it may simply be the way that musical fads run these days.

I also have trouble taking this treatment of the situation seriously when it names "Rockin' Robin" and "The Pink Panther" as "two of America's biggest songs." The former peaked at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and held the top slot of the Billboard R&B chart for only a week. The latter managed three weeks on Billboard's Adult Contemporary chart back when it was released in 1964 and although it's certainly easily recognizable it would have to go a long way to become one "of America's biggest songs."

Even more fatal to the article's credibility is this: McKinney wrote an entire article about the saxophone being everywhere in 1980s pop music and never...mentioned...Clarence...Clemons. The Big Man may not be among the ranks of the top saxophone players in recorded music -- the average jazz reed man has to be at least twice as fluid for dozens of measures at a time. But omitting the E Street Band's prime blower from a story of the saxophone in popular music means inserting so many caveats in the article that it becomes mostly useless. It's hard to trust conclusions derived from a fatally flawed presentation of the problem.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Old School Tunes

And by "old," I mean sometime in the year 16,000 BC or so. In this Ars Technica piece by Kiona Smith, we can read how archeologists figured out that a broken conch shell found in 1931 was not a drinking cup as they first thought. 

The tip of the shell was broken off and scientists through the years thought that was something that had just happened as an accident or as a product of existing for 18,000 years. But biologists pointed out that the tip is a pretty strong part of the shell and would not be prone to breakage unless the force involved might break the rest of the shell too. The conical spiral of conch shells helps produce more than one note when played correctly so they are often used as musical instruments by hunter-gatherer people. 

The presence of some kind of residue around the broken end suggested that the shell was played with a mouthpiece, since the cut edge could injure a musician's lips. The story contains a sound file of the three notes that were played when a trumpet-like mouthpiece was inserted in the opening. Other clues suggest that the shell may have been decorated with paint or other attachments.

Since it was found in a cave near Toulouse, France, about 50 miles from a coastline, archaeologists think that it may help them understand trading relationships between people who lived in that part of Europe and other groups that lived nearer the coast.

Given all of the potential information that could be unlocked by realizing the shell was in fact a musical instrument, it would be interesting to get a peek at what archaeologists in the year 20,000 AD, if any exist, make of a kazoo.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Bone Canyon, Lee Goldberg

Lee Goldberg began his book-author career with a number of tie-in novels for the television series he helped produce, such as Diagnosis Murder. Eventually he created novels unrelated to his broadcast work and has several series written and co-authored. In 2019, he opened the career of Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department homicide detective Eve Ronin, a woman who capitalized on her viral video arrest of an action star to leverage herself into plainclothes assignments.

As Bone Canyon, Eve's second novel opens, she is about ready to come back to work after the injuries she suffered in Lost Hills. The devastating wildfires that made for the climax of that novel have left a lot of unpleasant surprises for investigators as bodies dumped long ago are discovered in their aftermath. One such set of skeletal remains is assigned to Eve and her partner Duncan Pavone and as they try to learn to whom they belong, the answers open up a past with secrets many people would like left alone. And they would like it strongly enough to put Eve and Duncan directly in danger themselves.

On paper Eve and Duncan seem straight out of central casting: The brave, intelligent but inexperienced rookie and the jaded veteran hanging on as he counts the days until his retirement. And the main features of the narrative follow a TV-pat sequence and fall into place a little too easily. Based on that alone, Bone Canyon would be a bit above average but nothing special. It's better than that, though, because Goldberg has created some fascinating characters with real depth. Eve's fellow detectives resent her for leveraging her fame to get a detective slot ahead of people with more seniority -- and she freely admits she did it. But her reason was not personal fame or notoriety (even though no one believes her) but to give her the chance to solve murders and speak for those who can no longer speak for themselves. This driven character puts her at odds with her department hierarchy, as might be expected. But Goldberg also shows how it sometimes keeps her from making the progress with her case that she wants to make.

A third Eve Ronin book is planned for later this year and Goldberg may have hit on the alchemy that makes for a long-running series. If the stories he tells lose some of their TV sheen and gain some of his lead character's grittiness he might be able to aim for Connelly or Parker status, but even if they don't they're very likely to continue to be at least interesting and entertaining reads.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Cooool Pics

After looking around awhile, it would seem that there are so many groups that have photography contests and award prizes that it's like there's a new one to look at just about every day.


Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Twenty-First Century Can Ruin Anything, Part MCMXVI

Thanks to an ad on Facebook, I have now seen one of the new "Looney Tunes" cartoons produced by Warner Bros. As you may have read, Elmer Fudd was divested of his shotgun in the interests of reducing gun violence in the United States. Below is a screen grab of Elmer after he has attempted to split Bugs Bunny's head with a gigantic axe in the short "Hole Lotta Trouble:"

Clearly the studio has made an important statement about the role firearms play in making our society unsafe.

Over the course of the cartoon, Bugs tricks Elmer into reaching his hand into a box of scorpions, who sting it so much it is impossible to withdraw from the rabbit hole entrance. After a couple of sight gags -- Bugs "milks" Elmer's now udder-like hand, causing him to completely deflate and then reinflates him by blowing into the hand -- the wascally wabbit paints the pathetic hunter's now ginormous floating rear end with a heavily-made up lady bear face, which draws an amorous male bear to appreciatively leer at it. Before we can do more than shudder at where a cartoon on HBO might take that narrative line, the bear hugs Elmer so hard his inflated hindquarters explode, freeing his trapped hand but shooting him so far in the air that when he returns to Earth his head is now stuck underneath the ground. Bugs then coats the hapless hunter's abused hindquarters with glue, attaches a lit stick of dynamite and then drags the soon-to-explode section of Elmer's body around the edge of the screen and underground, where he knots it to Elmer's bugging eyes until the dynamite explodes and Elmer falls through the hole to the bottom of the rabbit warren, his pants shredded and his bare reddened tuckus on display. At that point voice actor Eric Bauza utters Bugs' only words in the short, "Now that's what I call a bare bottom!" 

Almost none of the comments below the ad that I read -- about 20 of the more than 600 at the time -- rated the short as anything other than awful. A couple talked about the way that this new cartoon dishonored the original Bugs and Elmer characters. That, of course, is silly, since they were just animated characters. "Hole Lotta Trouble" doesn't dishonor them. Should Chuck Jones, Friz Freling, Mel Blanc and several other pioneers of the real Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons ever rise from the grave, though, there are a number of current Warner Bros. employees who should start running.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Daylight, David Baldacci

In 2018, the prolific David Baldacci began a series featuring FBI agent Atlee Pine, driven by her own personal history to bring as much justice into an unjust world as she can. At six, Atlee and her twin sister Mercy were terrorized by a kidnapper who took one girl but left the other behind. The crime destroyed her family and she now finds herself with her Arizona FBI field office as much of one as she can manage. In that book, Long Road to Mercy, clues set Atlee on the road that may help her actually find her sister and so far, a sympathetic superior has given her some room to purse the case instead of her normal work load.

2020's Daylight finds Atlee with a lead on the actual kidnapper, a man with mob ties and blood family still living in New Jersey. But when she tries to move in and question him, she finds herself disrupting a military police drug sting run by John Puller, himself the lead character in a Baldacci series. Atlee aids John because she blew his arrest and he aids her by calling in some favors with higher contacts. But both of them find themselves stymied when people at very high levels turn out to be interested in their cases -- and not because they want them solved. The pair have each other's backs and allies here and there, but beyond that there may not be anyone they can trust and the only answer offered to them may be of the final and fatal kind.

Baldacci has a good half-dozen series in his catalogue but he doesn't necessarily write them all at the same time. His most interesting one, the "Camels Club," had its last adventure so far a decade ago, and Sean King and Michelle Maxwell have been dormant since 2013.

Even so, Daylight seems very slapped together and a lot of its narrative reads as though it would have been revised, focused and better written if a deadline had been extended. Atlee's journey to find her sister takes a backseat to John's conspiracy storyline but is by far the most interesting. The long-ago kidnapping may have brought her into law enforcement, but now it drives her away from being able to think about anything else. A paint-by-numbers Conspiracy at the Highest Levels of Goverment pales (and bores) in comparison.

Baldacci is a serviceable stylist who writes action better than anything else even though he has a gift of bringing believable characters to life. Atlee finishes Daylight closer than she has ever been to finding Mercy, so there's reason to keep an eye out for the fourth in the series when it surfaces. But if Baldacci can't figure out a way to give her a longer storyline that stands on its own, then the resolution of her search will be all the reason readers need to let Atlee and friends move on -- on their own.

Monday, February 8, 2021

A Secretary of State

I guess I'll just be all right-wingy today and offer another link to National Review and its item on the passing of Ronald Reagan's second Secretary of State, George Schulz.

I suppose I could be noting this because Schulz represents a professionalism of diplomacy combined with the highest regard for the interests of the United States, something a lot of his successors since 1988 have lacked. And he represented it in a way unlike the ossified self-replicating bureaucracy that so many government agencies and their employees work hard to build.

But really I'm noting it because the former Secretary was the commencement speaker at my college graduation. I was a journalism school graduate and also pretty liberal at the time, so my appreciation of the moment was not what it might have been a little later in life. But I do recall the way Schulz offered a paragraph or so for each school in the university, including my own. He singled us out as having prepared and trained to receive a great trust as the way by which the people's representatives could be kept honest and the people themselves could learn about the world.

Today we might wonder why a Republican Secretary of State would hold the press in such high esteem, but once upon a time we had public officials who understood that they worked for the public and newspeople who understood that a great part of their mission was to serve that same public and make sure our hired employees were doing the jobs for which they were hired.

Not all of the employees thought that way, not even back then (Col. North! Nice to see you again). Nor was the adversarial relationship always comfortable. But the people complaining about the way the newspeople were doing their jobs were pointing out how they were not living up to the standards they'd set for themselves instead of calling them names and herding them around with cordons and rope barricades. And the newspeople themselves saw their jobs as revealing the truth rather than being the Resistance! against an Evil! Dictator! With! Bad! Hair!

It is the way of the middle-aged to remember just enough of their younger years and understand just enough of their current years to draw comparisons unfavorable to the latter. But that way is not always wrong.

Other's Words

Here are some interesting things about a few matters that have shown up in the news recently:

-- Dr. Sabine Hossenfelder, a frequent read for your humble blogger, lays out some of the realistic expectations behind the headlines that promise different quantum technologies to be the next best thing to actual magic. The unrealistic expectations seem to share an inability to realize that while different fantastic breakthroughs have been made in several fields thanks to the principles of quantum mechanics, the breakthrough still eluding most of them is how to make them happen at scales where they might be useful instead of interesting curiosities and plot hooks for sci-fi authors.

-- At National Review's blog The Corner, NR writer Jim Geraghty highlights how a headline that tells the reader a vaccine has been shown to be ineffective against a new strain of the COVID-19 coronavirus might be oversimplifying the matter. He notes the studies showed that one kind of vaccine did not prevent people from being infected by the mutated virus -- but it did make those infections much milder than many cases of COVID  have been. Geraghty quotes a New York Times piece on a similar phenomena which pointed out that of the 32,000 people who received either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, only one developed a severe case of COVID. We live in the ironic time in which people need to spend even more time gathering news reports while phalanxes of news providers keep offering less actual news.

-- Economics professor Tyler Cowen writes at Bloomberg about the way that many of the people involved in the protests of recent months seem oblivious to the fact that saying who they are when interviewed by reporters and allowing their faces and phones to appear on social media puts them squarely in law-enforcement's crosshairs. The person who takes a selfie while rioting produces a case so simple even the Barney-est of Barney Fifes can find them and haul them in between donut runs. Cowen wonders if COVID isolation has bent people's perceptions so much they don't think about how laws apply to them. I agree many many people think this, but I think it was widespread well before COVID. That point of view might have been seen in a more limited fashion when it was the domain of the wealthy and the celebrity but judging by how many people will basically ride in your trunk when you drive the highway speed limit I think it's a longtime phenomena.

Sunday, February 7, 2021


So my preferred team, the Kansas City Chiefs, did not win Super Bowl LV. As far as I can tell from my Facebook news feed, Tom Brady's performance as the quarterback of the victorious Tampa Bay Buccaneers cements his status as the GOAT, the usual acronym meaning Greatest of All Time. We'll talk another day, perhaps, about what a meaningless and impossible-to-determine title GOAT really is, but something else on FB following the game intrigued me.

A couple hours after the game was over I switched my FB cover photo to a picture of Kauffman Stadium, the home of my preferred baseball team, the Kansas City Royals. On it was printed the date for the 2021 season's opening day of April 1, 2021. During the NFL season I'd had the unofficial Chiefs 2020 season motto, "Run It Back" as my photo. A couple of people chuckled at my change and crowed a bit over how quickly I made it following the Chiefs' loss.

But to me it seems perfectly rational. I don't care about football if one of the teams I root for isn't playing. Once my alma mater won its bowl game I didn't watch another snap from a collegiate broadcast. Because of my overall flimsy interest in the sport, if my team didn't win I don't care about any of the postgame (and the presence of Tony Romo on the mike would kill graveyard dead any interest I might have had).

So why not turn my attention to a sport I like a lot better? I really do like the Chiefs; I like a lot of their players and as far as I can tell they're a pretty classy organization. But the business of football bores me without a peg to hang my team logo hat on, so I now turn my focus toward what I enjoy. And I, along with Rogers Hornsby, will now wait at my symbolic window until spring.

The Breaker, Nick Petrie

Following his time in Iceland, Peter Ash is personally in a better place than he has been since leaving active duty as a Marine. As The Breaker opens, he's been managing his PTSD-induced claustrophobia, his relationship with June is in a good place and he has solid and useful work renovating buildings with his friend Lewis. Of course, he's a wanted criminal in two nations and the slightest misstep could get him thrown behind bars for a long, long time, but, you know, things, amirite?

Unfortunately the last condition is going to prove a problem when Peter and Lewis thwart what they think is a potential mass shooting that turns into a mysterious robbery also witnessed by June. The pair may have shown up on security footage -- Lewis has his own reasons to desire anonymity -- and the victim is someone June thinks she recognizes. Initial investigations seem to leave Peter and Lewis off the hook and don't offer much for June to go on, but the theft of material left behind after the robbery, including a pair of internet-wired camera glasses that have Peter's face clearly on them, makes the mystery more than academic. The more they probe, the more the trio find out that very little of what they thought they saw matched first impressions and the deadlier the matter becomes. An appearance from an old acquaintance offers some insight and gives Peter a chance to get out from under the murder charges keeping him off the radar -- but indicates that the game is clearly one they might not want to play anyway.

In 2020's The Wild One, Nick Petrie offered a letdown in his stories about Peter, with a confusing and unconvincing series of violent set pieces in back-country Iceland. Breaker is mostly a bounce-back from that low point, although it crosses into sci-fi techno-thriller territory that jars when paired with the ordinarily more grounded world in which Peter, June and Lewis ordinarily live and work. As Petrie notes in his afterword, none of the tech that he writes about in the book is necessarily beyond current-day possibilities with one or two exceptions. But the combinations in which it is found -- along with the shadowy figure who puts Peter and Lewis on the trail and the organization he represents -- belong to science fiction and 007-esque spy thrillers more than the tough-guy suspense genre in which Peter's been working. The combination isn't as successful as intended.

Some other cracks, such as a little too much time spent on the eventually irrelevant character of June's editor and the tiring yet another journey through the mind of a psychopathic assassin, also hamper Breaker. But the genuine interior reflection, from Peter and June especially about the way that their current life limits what they might want to be as a couple, plus the resolving storyline, helps bring the story over the finish line in a rewarding way. The Wild One may have made Petrie readers wonder if they wanted to continue traveling with Peter, June and Lewis but The Breaker is a welcome reassurance that they're still on a road worth taking.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Missed Opportunity

New York Times columnist Kevin Roose: President Biden needs to "tackle disinformation and domestic extremism" found online, and should probably have some agency or official audit the algorithms used by major social media sites to make sure they do a better job of keeping information the czar decides is fake off social media. He should appoint a "reality czar" for this task.

George Orwell: "'Reality czar?' How did I miss that one?"

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The Wolf Pack, C. J. Box

C. J. Box really does a good job of giving the rural Wyoming setting of his Joe Pickett novels weight and impact. The wide-open spaces, remote areas, reliance of the locals on their hunting, the small-town ambience all contribute to the atmosphere and the lives of the characters. He also does well to weave the vagaries and frequent downright asininity of state politics into the narrative just enough to keep it from being cartoonish and clumsy.

Every so often, though, Box will get the urge to trek into the back story and world of game warden Joe's friend Nate Romanowski. Nate's shadowy history as a government operative and his deep devotion to falconry and the life of the wild raptor birds have made him a good fit for the remote and off-the-grid potential of Joe's neck of the woods. But when he takes on a larger role and drives the narrative himself, Nate pushes the series into the somewhat sillier realm of the modern-day espionage thriller. Box writes just as well and he makes his plot move just as smoothly but one key strength of the Joe Pickett series has been its groundedness and realism. The intrusion of Super Secret Soldiers dilutes that and the fallout of some previous secret squirrel activity drives too much of the story in 2019's Wolf Pack.

Ordinarily, teaming the Nate storyline of him being hunted by a Sinaloa cartel kill squad with a couple other more grounded ones would help settle down the excesses of the more outlandish story. But in Wolf Pack, the ancillary plots lack focus and definition. Joe's investigation into what amounts to drone bullying of wildlife herds runs into the twin obstacles of federal interference and the fact that his daughter Lucy dates the drone jerk's son. The overlap between these two plotlines is minimal and artificial, almost as if either of them could have been a novellete on its own but for some reason someone felt they needed stitched together to be between the same cover.

Again, Box's writing and dialogue remain first rate, but in Wolf Pack that only serves to highlight just how sub-par the story is to begin with.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Imagination or Reality?

So today I had some appointments with people and some errands to run before I met them. I was ready to go at a good time to run the errands and make the appointments, but...

My phone rang twice before I could open the front door to leave. My errand at the bank introduced me to a pair of people who seemed to have rudimentary understanding of how a drive-through worked. The parking lot in front of the first appointment was full so I parked at the side of the building, only to see not one but two cars leave those parking spots.

Batman is fictional and so is Commissioner Gordon's famed "Bat-Signal" to summon him. But I am more and more convinced that there is a "batty-signal" that summons these interesting people to their tasks as soon as I have to go about my day according to any sort of schedule.

And that it was fully operational today.