Thursday Bag o’ Normalization

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I linked to this article yesterday, and a friend on Facebook responded with a plea for civility. More accurately, she wanted to know what’s wrong with the media being civil in its reporting on Trump. The article is a straightforward description of how American media (NPR in this case, though they’re all guilty of it) normalizes Trump by glossing over many of the things he does and says, trying to appear neutral and balanced by reporting on him as if he’s just another in a long line of normal presidents … when he is anything but.

From his birtherism to his documented history as a sexual predator, from his chants of “Lock her up!” to accusing the press of being an enemy of the people, from his open violations of the constitutional prohibition against using his office to enrich himself to withholding aid to a US ally in exchange for dirt to use against his likely opponent in the next election (for which he was actually impeached, becoming only the third president to bear that distinction), there is nothing normal about this guy, and what I want to know is what’s right about the media being civil in its reporting on Trump. But I’ll settle for not normalizing his actions and behavior.

And now this Lev Parnas guy comes forward with texts, emails, and personal notes from March 2019 that show him and a thuggish US congressional candidate named Robert Hyde discussing the stalking and possible killing of the US ambassador to Ukraine, Maria Yovanovitch, a person the administration wanted out of the way of a deal it was cooking up with Ukraine’s president (in fact, Trump fired Yovanovitch a month later, in April 2019).

The congressional candidate, Hyde, is known to have rubbed elbows with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Parnas was working for Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney (and the man leading the effort to get the president of Ukraine to publicly announce a corruption investigation of Hunter Biden, son of the man most likely to face Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election). Parnas, too, has rubbed elbows with Trump … not just at Mar-a-Lago but also at the White House. It’s going to be hard to gloss over the obvious conclusion that if Parnas was discussing offing Yovanovitch with Hyde, Giuliani knew about it, and that if Giuliani knew about it then so did Trump. As I commented in an earlier post, “The fish rots from the head. It’s right in front of us, and we just don’t want to smell it or think about it, but we can’t ignore it much longer.”

But I’m sure NPR, CNN, and the New York Times will find a way. Maybe they’ll describe stalking and talking about offing a US ambassador as one of a number of personnel actions that were on the table. Both sides. Civility. And what about Hillary’s emails?

In a related thought, I remember asking what was up with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo back when Trump was smearing Ambassador Yovanovitch, and why he didn’t come to her defense. I had only recently realized Pompeo was a West Point graduate and former Army officer. The concept of standing up for your troops is a central tenet of military leadership, and Pompeo’s refusal to do so was striking. At the time, I figured the answer was that he’d turned his back on quaint military ideas like honor in order to suck up to Trump, but now I’m wondering if he was in on the assassination discussion as well.

I swear, it’s like biting into a sandwich and discovering it’s full of writhing maggots. How is any of this normal? What is wrong with us that we want to pretend it is?


Tuesday Bag o’ Scandal

Screen Shot 2020-01-14 at 10.32.34 AMI saw Rick Wilson on TV last night. I remember Wilson as a Republican Party dirty tricks operative from John McCain’s presidential campaign. These days he’s the tame conservative guest who has displaced former RNC Chairman Michael Steele on MSNBC. Chris Hayes had him on last night to say something provocative Hayes could pretend to be scandalized over; namely, that if the Democratic Party nominates Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump would win a 45-state victory in November.

Rick Wilson’s prediction almost got lost in yesterday’s even louder cable news/social media brouhaha over Bernie Sanders telling Elizabeth Warren, in a private conversation later recounted by Warren, that he didn’t think a woman could be elected president. Horrors! You can’t say these things!

Wilson is the enemy, but I happen to think he’s right that Sanders would lose to Trump. Sanders is wrong about Americans not being ready for a woman president, though. Lest we forget, Hillary Clinton won nearly three million more votes than Donald Trump. American voters were ready for a woman president in 2016. I would say we’re even more ready in 2020 than we were in 2016 (but I think we’re going to get Joe Biden).

The scandal that’s sucking the oxygen out of the atmosphere, on both sides of the Atlantic, is Prince Harry and Meghan Markle pulling back from their duties with the royal family. I get why the British would be scandalized, but us? The carrying-ons of British royalty always seem to trump (oops, sorry about that) other scandals in American media (and from what I see on social media, the imaginations of everyday Americans). Shame on us for being so infatuated with these parasites (remember how our founding fathers fought a revolution to break free from their grasp?), but I have to admit I feel sympathetic toward Meghan Markle, who has seen first-hand just how racist the British can be:

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God damn. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words. Just because I believe racism to be a universal human affliction, common to all nationalities and cultures, doesn’t mean I can’t hate it. And for those of you who follow me on Facebook, and who wondered what was behind this post, now you know where I was coming from.


Air-Minded: Walk My Elephant, Airman

Last I checked, the generic term for US Air Force personnel is airman, regardless of gender. When I write about my time in the cockpit of fighter aircraft, I usually describe myself as an aviator, but I’ll make more of an effort to use airman … I’m Air Force, after all, proud of it, and really should be using the right word.

There are many who feel the USAF should acknowledge gender by using airman and airwoman, but so far the service is sticking with airman, and with its enlisted rank titles of airman basic and airman. By the way, the FAA also uses airman. The Army has soldiers and the Navy has sailors, nice unisex terms, but the USAF (and the FAA) has airmen. Frankly, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more of a to-do over this, but I’m content to remain a neutral observer. And an airman.

A couple of days after Iranian general Qassem Suleimani was killed by a USAF drone strike in Iraq, this appeared in several media outlets:

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Fifty-two F-35s. Get it? Coupled with Trump’s earlier threat to attack 52 Iranian sites “important to Iran & the Iranian culture,” this bit of sword-brandishing was clearly symbolic. Fifty-two: one for each American hostage taken by Iran and held for 444 days between November 1979 and January 1981.

Thousands of airmen worked hard to stage this elephant walk: mechanics, weapons loaders, fuels personnel, schedulers, crew chiefs, egress specialists, pilots … I’m leaving out a lot of other specialties. Like, for example, the airman in the cherry picker they parked in front to take the photo. And what purpose did all this effort serve?

Far be it from me to question the training and readiness benefits of recalling personnel, generating aircraft, loading weapons, breaking out the frag, scheduling and briefing missions, and staging a mass launch. That’s a wartime scenario, one we constantly practice for with operational readiness exercises and inspections.

Except OREs and ORIs generally do not include lining up combat assets in orderly rows for publicity photos. Oh, well, at least one Air Force general thought this was worth the enormous expenditure of taxpayer dollars and effort, and maybe he’ll get another star out of it.


Sunday Bag o’ Minimums

Screen Shot 2020-01-05 at 8.34.54 AMAnyone who’s ever had a flight cancelled for weather knows what a huge inconvenience it is, but for safety reasons that have been apparent since the Wright Brothers, we also know it’s not safe to fly when the pilot can’t see down the runway for takeoff or see the ground when trying to land. Or when visibility is good but the runway’s coated in ice and anyone trying to land on it is going to slide off the end. Or any combination of the above. We bitch about missed connections and ruined vacations, but we don’t want to die in a crash either.

Isn’t it about time we impose visibility and braking action limits on drivers? Or at a minimum, on drivers of large commercial vehicles? There’s a stretch of Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix I dread having to travel on, primarily because of the number of huge, heavy semi-trailer trucks hurtling along in all lanes. And that’s when the visibility is good! When dust storms kick up and no one can see more than a car-length ahead, it turns deadly, and the big trucks make it more so. They never stop and they never slow down, and you’re squeezed in between them—front to back and side to side—in your little metal and plastic crumple death pod.

Because commercial drivers will go broke if they stop to wait it out. Because they’ll go broke if they don’t show up at the destination warehouse before closing and have to sit there overnight when they could be driving the next leg instead and making money. Because the way commercial drivers are paid forces them to keep going in insanely dangerous conditions. Because they have to cheat on mandatory rest requirements to avoid finishing trips in the red, owing more for fuel and upkeep than they made, so they’re falling asleep at the wheel in good weather and bad.

I’m convinced the trucking industry and the media collude to minimize news of traffic fatalities where commercial truck and bus drivers are to blame. Sure, we read about some of these accidents, at least the egregious ones that cause major disruptions and where there are too many witnesses to ignore, but even then, news reports shy away from stating the obvious: heavy trucks and buses were driving way too fast, and many more people were maimed or killed then if giant 40-ton vehicles hadn’t come plowing into them from behind. Moreover, I think the feds are in on it too. The highway division of the NTSB knows the scope of the problem, but they don’t want to panic the driving public.

What if there were visibility and braking action limits, and federally-licensed CDL drivers were prohibited from driving when the highway patrol determines conditions on any highway or road have gone below those limits? Sure, you’d need some infrastructure to make it work … some way states and local authorities could shut down sections of roads and highways to commercial traffic, warning signals and the like, some way for drivers of commercial vehicles to be notified, a change in the way drivers are compensated so they don’t suffer financially … but, as with aviation, it could be done. Just imagine.

Then remember that there’s a trucking lobby with a long (and generally successful) history of opposing any and all safety restrictions, and relentless commercial pressure to squeeze more mileage out of drivers for less pay. But hey, once the trucking industry eliminates drivers altogether, maybe the radar sensors on self-driving trucks will register slowing and stopped traffic ahead and apply the brakes in time. Maybe that’ll be better than the current status quo. Well, we’ll see.

When Iranian students took American diplomats and embassy staff hostage in 1979 and the Ayatollah did nothing to stop them, I hoped President Carter would make a strong threat and back it up if the Iranians didn’t release the hostages. Something on the order of hey, Ayatollah, there’ll be a USAF C-5 Galaxy landing at Tehran International at 2300 hours, and if the hostages aren’t delivered and on board by 2330, the carpet-bombing of the holy city of Qom will commence at 2345, and how do you like them apples? I believe to this day that’s what Carter should have done.

Obviously, though, Carter’s intelligence, military, and diplomatic advisers didn’t think so, and no threat was issued. Despite our disastrous rescue attempt in 1980, the Iranians got clean away with holding our people hostage for 444 days, and some of those revolutionary students are members of Iran’s ruling class today.

What’s happening now is all about the hostage crisis. We never kicked Iran’s ass for its actions then, and the hatred and resentment has been simmering on the back burner ever since. It’s unfinished business, especially in Republican and conservative circles. Trump’s tweet from yesterday, in which he says “we have targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago)” makes his motivations perfectly clear. And, with Trump, it’s not just about the hostages. It’s about repudiating President Carter for wimping out in 1979, and about repudiating President Obama for negotiating a treaty with Iran in 2015 (a treaty Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018).

Remembering how I felt in 1979 helps me understand what’s going on today. But those feelings have changed considerably over the years. I don’t want revenge. I think we should withdraw military forces from the entire Mideast region and conduct our business there through commercial contracts and diplomacy. We can’t undo what happened in 1979. We can move on. But I’m not driving this heavy truck that’s about to plow into reality, and all I can do is vote the War Party out of office in November. Perhaps you’ll join me? That would be nice.

Donna and I have had time displacement issues the past couple of weeks, what with Christmas and New Year’s falling on Wednesdays. Today, Sunday, is the first day since December 25th I’ve woken up knowing what day it is … and having the calendar confirm it. The outside decorations are down, thanks to me (who also put them up); I’m waiting now for Donna and Polly to box up the inside stuff so I can stow everything back on the shelves in the garage and make room to work on the motorcycle … it needs an oil change to start 2020 off right.

You might remember me talking about buying a motorcycle lift to help me with tasks like oil changes, but now, after consulting with my friend and maintenance guru Ed, I’ve talked myself out of it. I’ll just have to figure out a way to get up again after I lay down on the garage floor to do what needs to be done.

My sisters and cousins are starting to talk about another Woodford family reunion, probably in the fall of 2021, this one in NE Nebraska where my father’s family is from and some of the cousins still reside. Donna and I are thinking about it. It’s close to 1,500 miles each way, but maybe it’ll be time for a new truck by then … a big heavy bastard that’ll offer at least some protection from hurtling out-of-control semis on icy Nebraska roads.


Air-Minded: A Matter of Some Gravity

This is an encore presentation of an Air-Minded post I wrote 13 years ago. I read a brief news report this morning about an Oregon Air National Guard F-15 pilot who experienced GLOC, fortunately recovered in time to save the jet and himself, but unfortunately grossly over-G’ed the airplane in the process (it’s unlikely that particular Eagle will ever fly again). The article mentioned anti-GLOC techniques fighter pilots use, but didn’t mention centrifuge training at all, so I decided it was time to dust this post off and air it again.


Here’s a way to think about pulling Gs and why it hurts: if you weigh 200 pounds, at 9 Gs you’ll weigh 1,800 pounds. Consider that for a moment. Ready for your centrifuge ride?

(apologies for using a non-USAF centrifuge video, but
honestly this is the best one I could find on YouTube)

Fighter pilots have been battling GLOC—G-induced loss of consciousness—since at least WWII, when airplanes began to be capable of pulling more Gs than their human operators. With training, experience, and the right equipment, pilots can withstand high G forces, so long as they anticipate and prepare for them. With rapid G onset (going from 1 to 9 Gs in a second or less, a feat well within the capabilities of modern fighters), even trained and experienced pilots can suffer GLOC.

What happens with GLOC? Basically, the downward force on your body exceeds the ability of your heart to pump blood to the brain. As Gs increase and less blood flows to your brain, you experience tunnel vision, then loss of vision. You’re still conscious, you just can’t see. As Gs continue to increase, though, blood flow stops and you suddenly lose consciousness. As you lose consciousness your body relaxes: you involuntarily quit pulling back on the stick, the Gs go away, and you start to come to.

Your “nap” typically lasts 10 seconds or so. But you don’t come to instantly—after your 10 seconds of unconsciousness, you spend the next 10 to 12 seconds “waking up”—flailing around, unaware of who you are or what you’re doing. Aviators call the waking up phase of GLOC “doing the chicken.” Here’s the downside: if you’re in a dive when you experience GLOC, you may not fully wake up in time to avoid hitting the ground.

How many aircraft and crewmembers have we lost to GLOC? No one really knows, because we didn’t start accurately tracking GLOC incidents and accidents until the 1980s. A good guess, though, is “plenty,” and GLOC continues to be a killer.

We always knew GLOC was a serious problem, and pilots have always trained to combat it. We began using G-suits (inflatable leggings that squeeze against gut, thigh, and calf muscles) and practicing anti-G straining maneuvers (clenching leg, buttock, and stomach muscles while taking short breaths against a closed glottis) shortly after WWII. When I came into the US Air Force in the mid-1970s, this was still the state of GLOC-prevention training.

In the mid-1980s, the USAF started sending new fighter pilots to centrifuge training. Before long they decided to send experienced fighter pilots as well. It was advertised as a training program, but one with a built-in gotcha. If you experienced GLOC in the ‘fuge, you’d be grounded for a few weeks, during which you’d have to exercise daily to increase your anaerobic strength, then sent to the ‘fuge again. If you failed a second time, your fighter days were over. If you failed egregiously, your flying days might be over. What could be worse than that?

I’ll tell you what’s worse: they videotape you in the ‘fuge. If you GLOC and do a spectacular chicken, every pilot in the USAF will get to see you in a training tape. And they will laugh at you.

I got into the F-15 in 1978, back before mandatory centrifuge training. When the USAF started sending new fighter pilots to the ‘fuge, I was in Alaska serving my second F-15 tour, and had more than 1,000 hours in the aircraft. I was safe. A couple of years later, when they started rounding up experienced pilots for centrifuge training, I was serving a joint staff tour at US Special Operations Command—not flying, so still safe. In 1988 I got a third F-15 assignment, to Kadena Air Base in Japan. I expected to be sent to the ‘fuge during requalification training, but it didn’t happen. After flying for a year at Kadena with no apparent centrifuge threat, I figured I’d slipped between the cracks, and damned if I was going to remind anyone I’d never had the training!

I’ve pulled a lot of Gs, but have blessedly never experienced GLOC. Like all experienced pilots, when my vision started to tunnel I’d ease off on the stick and lower the Gs. As long as I controlled the G-onset rate, I could pull 9 Gs with the best of them.

In the centrifuge, however, you can’t ease off on the stick to reduce Gs, and you can’t control onset rate. Technicians control the ‘fuge, and you get whatever they lay on you. A typical centrifuge training run goes like this: 4 Gs for 15 seconds, 5 Gs for 30 seconds, 6 Gs for 30 seconds, 7 Gs for 15 seconds, 8 Gs for 10 seconds, and 9 Gs for 10 seconds, during which time you have to track a simulated MiG on a head-up display by controlling a stick with your hand. Not only do you pull a lot of Gs in the ‘fuge, you pull a lot of Gs for a long time (you try weighing 1,800 pounds for 10 seconds!), and the onset rate is almost instantaneous. You’d never do anything like this in an actual airplane—if you did, you’d GLOC yourself to death! But in the ‘fuge, you have to do it, and you don’t dare lose consciousness.

So there I was, starting my second year at Kadena, when my commander was summoned to a conference at Pacific Air Forces headquarters in Honolulu. And there, they put up a slide showing every centrifuge-delinquent pilot in PACAF. There were only two: Lt. Col. Paul Woodford and Lt. Col. John B______, both at Kadena. The very next day our embarrassed boss had John and I on a C-12 to Yokota Air Base in Tokyo. The day after that we were at the USAF/Japanese Air Self Defense Force centrifuge at Tachikawa.

I was in my mid-40s and John was, I’ll guess, just turning 40. By fighter pilot standards we were old men. Joining us at Tachikawa for our day of training was a 22-year-old F-16 pilot from Misawa Air Base in northern Japan. John and I decided then and there we weren’t going to take a nap no matter how tough it got or how many Gs they laid on us. Not in front of that punk-ass kid, we weren’t. No effing way.

The way it works is you spend the morning in academics, taking refresher training in effective anti-G straining maneuver techniques. Then you go into the ‘fuge, one at a time, while the pilots waiting their turn watch you on closed circuit TV as you spin through the profile. John went first and did fine. I went second. Damn, it was punishing—probably the hardest physical straining I’ve done in my life—but I didn’t pass out either, and in fact I tracked my MiG better than John did. The kid went last, and GLOC’ed between 7 and 8 Gs. John and I watched him come to and do the chicken. We laughed and laughed.

We had the night off in Tokyo, so John and I went out on the town, exhausted though we were. We took a taxi to a hole in the wall place in the Ginza, where two beers and two plates of gyoza, plus the taxi ride, cost a month’s worth of flight pay. As I reached out for my beer I noticed the underside of my arm covered with little red spots. John held up his arm and he had spots too. Later that night, back in my room at Yokota, I undressed and discovered the same spots all over my butt and down the backs of my legs. The technical name is petechia, but pilots call ’em G-measles—they’re what happens when you pull so many Gs your capillaries rupture.

Am I glad I took my turn in the centrifuge after all? Yes, I guess I am. Would I ever want to do it again? Hell, no!

p.s. About the kid: John and I didn’t think about it as it was happening at Tachikawa, but over beer and gyoza that night realized we’d just watched a young man wash out of fighters. The kid would have had to pass centrifuge training before he ever got to fly an F-16, so for him to be at the ‘fuge with us meant he must have GLOC’ed on a training flight at Misawa and been sent to Tachikawa for evaluation and retraining. May god forgive us for laughing at him earlier in the day … although in the long run, it’s likely the young man would have killed himself in an F-16, so in a way the experience saved his life.


Liberals with Guns (Say What?)


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It’s a disturbing thought, but 2020 makes me think of guns. Well, duh (see fig. 1). Except I won’t be around in 3030, so 2020 will have to do. I hope the new year won’t be too shooty, but my impression is that every year lately is more full of shootings than the one before.

Speaking of guns and ammo, I’m letting my Arizona concealed carry permit lapse. The state wants $43 for a two-year renewal, which seems reasonable until you read the fine print: you can only pay with a certified or cashier’s check. You can’t use your credit or debit card, as you can for auto registration. No. I’m not going to jump through a 1950s-style payment hoop to please an obscure state agency that refuses to move into the 21st century. Anyway, thanks to the NRA anyone can now carry concealed firearms in Arizona, with or without a permit, so the only reason to renew is to legally carry in states that have reciprocity agreements with Arizona. Since I no longer pack on trips to neighboring states, it’s not an issue with me. And why do I no longer pack? Because, c’mon, the only person likely to get shot with my gun is me.

My Arizona driver’s license expires on my birthday in October. Coincidentally, October 2020 is when all Americans will need Real ID-compliant licenses to travel by air. I expect long lines at the MVD as October approaches, so I’ll try to get a new Real ID license sometime within the next couple of months … that is if I’m allowed to renew early. After all, if the Concealed Carry Unit of the Arizona Department of Public Safety can demand I wait in line at Mister Potter’s bank in Bedford Falls to get a cashier’s check, the Motor Vehicle Division of the Arizona Department of Transportation might very well demand I wait until my birthday to renew my driver’s license.

Bureaucracy. Enough already.

It seemed like everyone was posting collages of their favorite 2019 social media photos yesterday. I thought Instagram and Facebook had tools for making them, but no. You need a third party app. I downloaded one that promised to make a nine-photo collage of my most liked Instagram photos from 2019. Well, it did, but the collage came with the app’s name and link stamped all over it, removable only if I forked over $2.95. To boot, the photos my Instagram followers liked most were not my most liked. So I made a collage with the photo program on my iMac, making sure it included the high points of the year I wish my Instagram followers had favorited.


I stay up to observe the new year, if only to comfort the dogs when it gets noisy. Maxie had already gone to bed with Donna last night, but Mister B was by my side. Just before midnight I gently laid my hand on his back, but then the time came and nothing happened. No fireworks, no gunfire. Until about three minutes after midnight, that is. BOOM BOOM BOOM! I don’t know what the neighbors were setting off, but it sounded like the SWAT team was using a battering ram on our back door. Mister B’s head shot up and he flew off the couch, barking his head off. So much for comforting the dogs! Why the delay? Who knows? Maybe the neighbor’s matches were wet. Hey, at least they didn’t get out their pistols and assault rifles and start firing them into the air, a New Year’s Eve tradition I didn’t fully appreciate until we moved to Tucson.

Mister B is avoiding me this morning. Not because of last night, but because he knows it’s cold outside, just a few degrees above freezing. I know it too, so we’ve agreed to postpone our walk.

My Facebook news feed is flooded with ads for doggie ramps, no doubt because of all the dachshund photos I post. Actually, I’m in the market for a ramp. I made a carpet-covered plank ramp years ago for our first dachshund, Schatzi, so she could get on and off the couch without hurting her back; Maxie and Mister B use it today (Maxie always, Mister B reluctantly but he’s slowly coming around). It would be nice to have a taller ramp at the foot of our bed, though. They make them, but we don’t want to spend the money just yet. For now, we lift the pups on and off the bed.

On-on to 2020, dear friends, and another decade of blogging at Paul’s Thing!


On-On, Short & Sweet!

If you know me you know I’m a Hash House Harrier. And I always figured that if you couldn’t explain hashing in 30 seconds or less, you were saying way too much. As much as I hate to endorse a commercial product, this Michelob ad is spot on!



Paul’s Book Reviews

“Yes, the secret commonwealth …you don’t hear much talk about that these days. When I was young, there wasn’t a single bush, not a single flower nor a stone, that didn’t have its own proper spirit. You had to have a mind to your manners around them, to ask for pardon, or for permission, or give thanks….Just to acknowledge that they were there, them spirits, and they had their proper rights to recognition and courtesy.”

—Philip Pullman, The Secret Commonwealth

secret commonwealthThe Secret Commonwealth (The Book of Dust #2)
by Philip Pullman

I suppose every book in the “His Dark Materials” saga ends this way, but this one ends with a doozy of a cliffhanger. I’m literally panting to find out what Lyra discovers in the Blue City, and Philip Pullman hasn’t even announced what the title of the final novel will be! All I can do is wish him continued health and a long life, and hope for a swift resolution to the suspense.

Turns out the adult Lyra is as beguiling a character as she was as a young girl, but devoted readers will be upset by the estrangement between her and Pantalaimon. I was. The single most attractive element of Lyra’s world, at least to me, is the attachment between humans and their dæmons, and the separation of Lyra and Pan is what drives the tension and suspense of this novel. Well, that and the machinations of the Magisterium, of course.

Almost anything I say about the plot will be a spoiler for some. Some readers will no doubt want to stay in the world of the first three books, where Lyra is a young girl. I know some readers were left cold by the first novel in “The Book of Dust” series (I’ll start calling it a trilogy when the third novel is published), “La Belle Sauvage,” where Lyra, an infant, is a secondary character and a young boy, Malcolm Polstead, has the lead; they will have similar objections to “The Secret Commonwealth,” where Lyra is in her early 20s. Well, they’re a bunch of poopheads.

The element of fantasy, here expressed by the idea of the “secret commonwealth,” is present, mostly in the background but occasionally in the foreground, as is fantasy in the preceding novels, but overall the world of the adult Lyra is gritty and real, full of disturbing echoes or our own world and the horrific events unfolding around us: fleeing refugees from the Middle East and Africa, the rise of fascism in formerly democratic societies.

This novel, like the ones before it, was almost too rich to digest in one setting, and demands a second reading. After finishing the “La Belle Sauvage” I re-read the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, cover to cover. When I’ve read the third novel in “The Book of Dust” series, I will certainly give this trilogy a second reading.

I’ve only read one other series, book by book, cover to cover, more than once: the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O’Brian. When I say I’ve re-read one Philip Pullman trilogy … and plan to read his next trilogy more than once, even before the third book has been written, let alone read … you can take that as high praise.

case historiesCase Histories (Jackson Brodie #1)
by Kate Atkinson

I was impressed with Kate Atkinson’s storytelling powers in her earlier novel, “Transcriptions.” My opinion of her writing remains high after reading “Case Histories.”

Jackson Brodie is an engaging character, a former soldier and policeman turned private investigator, still a young man at the height of his powers, most curiously retiring to France at the end of the first novel in a series. I think I can confidently predict he’ll have to come out of retirement, otherwise it won’t be much of a series!

I liked the concept here: Brodie being asked to look into unsolved crimes and murders committed from the 1970s to the 1990s, some of which he knew nothing about (having been a child at the time), some of which he remembers reading about in the papers. The survivors are alive, though, and one by one they become deeply involved with Jackson Brodie. Who gets close to solving the crimes, but as in “Transcriptions,” it is Kate Atkinson who wraps things up in a final chapter, introducing unsuspected twists. Good lord, we humans are awful awful creatures, and Ms. Atkinson … even more than Jackson Brodie … sees right through us.

Great, great fun. Fascinating characters, dry humor, plenty of action. I will certainly follow up on this series!

testamentsThe Testaments (The Handmaid’s Tale #2)
by Margaret Atwood

I can’t help thinking “The Testaments” is part of a packaging effort meant to enhance (or extend, or exploit) the commercial success of HBO’s televised retelling of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” I don’t mean to crash down on it, because I truly enjoyed reading it, but I’m not sure it contributes anything of significance to the original work. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is canon and will be read and taught for generations to come; “The Testaments” will not, I suspect, achieve that status.

Well, Margaret Atwood is a damn fine writer, and there’s enough new information about Gilead (and a few of its main characters) in this second novel to keep anyone who fell under the spell of the earlier novel turning pages. This novel, more so than the original, has cliffhangers and perilous adventures (perhaps written with another TV series in mind?). It’s a solid read, but overall a lesser effort than the original.

In the final chapter, which consists of notes from yet another conference of Gileaden Studies academics held a century or more after Gilead’s fall and the reconstitution of the United States of America, we’re re-introduced to the scholar who spoke at the end of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” As in the first novel, he helps tie a few loose strings into a nice bow, but for some reason, this time around, he strikes me as a misogynistic asshole. I’m certain Margaret Atwood intended readers to have just that reaction. But why? To remind us that as long as we’re human another Gilead is always nearby? As the kids say, “ya think?”

FutureofAnotherTImeline-FlowerClockThe Future of Another Timeline
by Annalee Newitz

The science fiction in “The Future of Another Timeline” is fun but hard to swallow. Imagine a world where trained scholars from the future intermix with and study their forebears. Now imagine that it’s not done in secret: everybody, in all eras of history, knows people from the future walk among them, and accepts it. And then there’s this: scholars not only travel back to study the past … they “edit” it to improve the times they come from.

While Annalee Newitz touches on the potential consequences of altering the present by changing the past, she doesn’t get as deeply into it as I thought she might. Wouldn’t the urge to tinker with the past be irresistible? I can’t believe any society, no matter how educated and disciplined, would be able to restrict time travel to a small class of trained scholars. How would they stop the rest of us, to cite just one well-worn time travel trope, from going back in time to stay and live like kings by cashing in on our historical knowledge of sports scores and hot stocks?

But back to the novel: it’s amusing, as you get into the narratives provided by different travelers (and one young girl living less than happily in her own early-1990s present, certainly the grabbiest part of the novel), to see the ways the two “presents” Annalee Newitz focuses on (roughly the post-Reagan years and the early 2020s) already significantly differ from ours, and observe other momentous changes as travelers continue to muck about in the past.

Different timelines are not alternate universes, one traveler explains to another in a bit of expository dialog, nor can you jump to an alternate universe (as Julia Crane does in “The Man in the High Castle”). You can, though, alter history, then return to a different present (warning: you may not like the migraines that come with it). Okay. Got it. Wait. No I don’t get it. How are these not one and the same thing?

Possibly some spoilers here: the novel posits a near future where American women have only enjoyed the right to vote for a few years and Roe v. Wade never happened, their present far more impacted by Anthony Comstock and other crusading moralists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries than in our own reality. The tension in the novel comes courtesy of Comstock disciples from the future trying to alter the past to put women even more in their place, and a group of woman travelers determined to prevent them from doing so.

My own geeky science fiction quibbles aside, “The Future of Another Timeline” is an inventive and enjoyable science fiction novel with a strong feminist message.

blue moonBlue Moon (Jack Reacher #24)
by Lee Child

I’ve read and reviewed every one of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. Frankly, I’ve said all I have to say about them. If you’re addicted to the character, as I am, you will certainly want to read the latest, “Blue Moon,” number 24 in the series. As I just did.

“Blue Moon” is weaker than some novels in the series, stronger than others. I didn’t really get the feel of the unnamed midwestern city this one is set in … it was truly anonymous. The gangsters were notably weak, easily fooled, and ultimately ineffective. Jack had a far-too-easy time recruiting his own gang of accomplices, as much a deus ex machina as is artificial gravity in made-for-TV science fiction. Real people would have run from him and his unhinged plan to single-handedly defeat two separate armies of entrenched bad guys who had the cops on their payroll, and oh by the way where were those cops? Is this the first Jack Reacher novel where he doesn’t get busted and spend a night or two in jail?

Hey, it’s a Jack Reacher novel. You love Jack Reacher, you take the bad with the good, and no matter how bad these novels get, they’re still pretty goddamn good.

under occupationUnder Occupation (Night Soldiers #15)
by Alan Furst

From my earlier review of “A Hero of France” (Night Soldiers #14):

“The last three Night Soldiers novels read less like novels than outlines of novels, with characterization, world-building, and nuance yet to be added.”

I gave Alan Furst another chance, hoping he’d return to form in “Under Occupation,” the 15th novel in the Night Soldiers series, but no. In fact, this one strikes me as an ever lazier effort than the one before it. It’s a draft, unfleshed, lacking in feel and characterization. I could not believe in Ricard, nor Leila, nor Kasia, nor any of them. Ricard is reluctant to commit to the resistance, yet on the next page he’s all in, with nary a bit of inner struggle or dialog. Leila is an aristocrat with whom Ricard knows he hasn’t a chance; by the next page she’s dragged him into her bed. It’s like that throughout … the bare structure of a plot, waiting to be finished, contradictory twists suddenly introduced with no explanation.

Sorry, Mr. Furst. I loved your older novels but I do not even faintly like your recent ones. Good for you that fans continue to buy your books, but you’ve lost this one.

supernova eraSupernova Era
by Liu Cixin

Did not finish; no rating.

I came to Liu Cixin’s science fiction through the excellent “Three-Body” trilogy, and later enjoyed an earlier novel titled “Ball Lightning.” The difference between the trilogy, hard theoretical SF on a cosmic scale, and the stand-alone “Ball Lightning,” near-contemporary military fiction with a slight SF premise, was stark, but I enjoyed Liu Cixin’s inventiveness, political and social perspectives, and writing.

Which brings me to Liu Cixin’s latest SF novel, “Supernova Era.” But wait … this isn’t his latest, not by a long shot. It’s an early work from 2003, only translated into English this year. As with “Ball Lightning,” originally written in Chinese in 2005, it’s being marketed to American fans as a new novel. To cash in on the author’s popularity with Western readers? I can’t say.

The difference between this novel and ones that made me a Liu Cixin fan needs an adjective stronger than stark.

This time I did not enjoy the writing, not at all. The story is based on a ludicrous premise, with not even a remotely-plausible “scientific” explanation, just some empty hocus-pocus. The characters are cardboard cutouts, and halfway through … once the world’s entire adult population dies en masse … the storyline devolves into one I could neither relate to or buy. That is the point at which I gave it up as a bad job.

The next time they announce a new novel by Liu Cixin, you’d better believe I’ll do some research before buying it, to make sure it really is new.