You Can’t Read That!

You Can’t Read That! is a periodic column featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.


The Impact of a Book, Jorge Mendez Blake

YCRT! News

The N-word strikes again: Harper Lee and Mark Twain pulled from Minnesota classrooms. Does this mean Duluth students will be left to read lesser literature?

In Missouri, “… a significant uptick in efforts to outlaw books following the 2016 presidential election.” More here.

On the plus side, a proposed Missouri law may shield student journalists from school-imposed censorship.

Ain’t no right to read in prison:

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Remember the attempt in New York to limit book purchases for prisoners to one state-approved vendor? It’s a done deal in Ohio. Click on the graphic for a Twitter thread with details.

Citizens of Orange City, Iowa, accuse public libraries of “pushing an agenda,” want to remove books with LGBTQ content from the shelves. Some call for an outright ban; some call for labeling and restricting LGBTQ material.

“[I]nterference with internet traffic, favoring some sources and limiting others, impedes the free flow of information and profoundly disrupts both the right of individuals to participate in public discourse, and the full functioning of a library.” ALA statement on net neutrality as an intellection freedom issue.

In Wyoming, Cody High School has removed “A Bad Boy Can be Good for a Girl” from the library. “Trustee Scott Weber, who read the book and referred to it as ‘trashy,’ said the board should be prepared for parents to come forward soon with more library books they deem inappropriate for students. ‘There’s more to come,’ he said.” Note to self: future YCRT! banned book review.

Not the Onion, as they say: China bans George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” (and the letter “N”). “Animal Farm” I get; as for the letter “N,” they say it can be taken as a form of dissent. Normally I’d laugh, but I keep hearing rumors copies of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” are disappearing from U.S. book stores and libraries, and there’s talk of shutting down FM radio stations because “FM” can be taken as an abbreviation of “fucking moron.”

Apparently it is now against the law in Canada, if you work in government, to discriminate against transgender persons by referring to them with gendered pronouns. I have some thoughts of my own on that; you can probably guess what they are.

The emboldening continues:

With the movie adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel “A Wrinkle in Time” in theaters, journalists are reminding us of the reasons the famous young adult novel is frequently challenged and sometimes banned. Here’s a line from my own banned book review, written nine years ago: “So why is it that L’Engle’s book is so often challenged? Because, I suppose, a certain kind of Christian hates being reminded that Christ preached love over vengeance and hate. And then there’s the passage where L’Engle gives Ghandi equal billing with Jesus. Hell, I could have told her that was a non-starter.”

Until recently, my banned book newsfeed contained weekly references to Sherman Alexie and his famous novel “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.” Suddenly it’s as if Sherman Alexie never existed. Now I know why. Damnit, Sherman!

YCRT! Banned Book Review

amber spyglassThe Amber Spyglass (His Dark Materials, #3)
by Philip Pullman

I recently read the first installment of “The Book of Dust,” a new Philip Pullman trilogy, and afterward decided to re-read Pullman’s earlier trilogy, “His Dark Materials.” I have now finished the last of those three, “The Amber Spyglass.” The first time I read them, I had not yet begun reviewing books on Goodreads or my blog, so these reviews are new, and concentrate on their status as challenged and banned books.

Pullman published the “His Dark Materials” trilogy in the 1990s, and the books quickly became the subject of challenges and bans, primarily in schools but in some cases bookstores and public libraries as well. Objections to the books centered around a perceived anti-religion theme, as well as the author’s professed atheism. Since the books were written for a younger audience, they were seen as subversive. I was surprised to learn that the entire trilogy still appears on the American Library Association’s 2016 list of the top 100 banned and challenged books (a fact that suggests the new trilogy will join the first on future ALA top 100 lists).

I mentioned in my review of the second “His Dark Materials” novel, “The Subtle Knife,” that parents sometimes object to the darkness of young adult fiction, and that darkness may have been an unspoken reason for some of the opposition to these books, beyond the open opposition to their anti-religion theme and the author’s atheism. I must say, “The Amber Spyglass” is dark indeed, as dark as anything in classical literature.

Here, in the last novel, the anti-religion theme comes to a head with a final battle between the first angel and his forces and Lord Asriel and his, but really between the first angel and the child protagonists, who are fulfilling a strange destiny, unknown to them and only vaguely known to prophets. And there is, thank God, light at the end of their long, dark, twisted journey.

You notice I referenced God. The books are anti-religion. I never thought they were anti-God. In fact, and this is not meant as a spoiler, “His Dark Materials” ends with the creation of a new Heaven, a Heaven on Earth.

This will seem a bit of a detour, but the Harry Potter saga wore me out as the story reached the drawn-out climax of the war between Harry and Lord Voldemort. It was just too bloody much. Not only that, the story became ever more fantastical, and really the only thing that kept me going was my affection for Harry and his band of close friends.

That’s how I feel about the second two volumes of “His Dark Materials,” “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass.” My affection for Lyra is what kept me going; indeed, that affection is what draws me to the new trilogy, and I can’t wait for Pullman to write and publish the rest of it. That he can create such a character is his particular genius.

One last observation: although the books are categorized as young adult science fiction and fantasy, I want to point out that I am now in my 70s, and that I find myself profoundly affected by them, maybe even more so on a second reading. I can only imagine what their impact might be on teenaged readers. It must be profound indeed. Parents and authority figures who don’t want children to question what they’re told must be mighty nervous about books like these. Subversive? Boy, are they ever!


Éirinn go Tirim

0171A friend sent a link to a New York Times Magazine article titled “Does Recovery Kill Great Writing?” Alas, I’ve used up my free clicks for the month and can’t read it; I include the link here in case you still have some and want to read it.

If I had to guess, I’d say it’s the work of a writer who recently quit drinking, and that it cites cases of famous authors whose output slowed to a trickle after they turned their backs on Demon Rum.

Now you can say I’m not a writer (far less a great one) because I haven’t had a book published and am thus not qualified to comment, but I’ll turn around and ask what do you think this blog is? It’s my book, a work in progress, and if it’s self-published, so what? Have you heard of Hugh Howey? I’m getting there.

I’ve always loved writing. It occurred to me I might have trouble writing once I quit drinking, but in my case at least, I didn’t. I probably write more now than I did when I was drinking, and I don’t think my writing is any different. Maybe better. It’s tempting to say, to those who claim they can’t write sober, that they’re making excuses for their addiction, but I know better. I’ve been around a lot of alcoholics, and it’s different for everyone.

I was drunk a lot of the time back in the day. Now I’m not drunk any of the time, ever. I wrote then and I write now. A lot of writers and artists struggle without alcohol and I’m thankful that didn’t happen to me. I thank my lucky stars. Every day.

Some things are different, of course. I don’t hang around in bars and I don’t like being around drunks. I used to do a lot of that. I don’t tell many jokes these days, and I no longer sing or collect bawdy songs, once one of my favorite hobbies.

It didn’t dawn on me until just now that I quit drinking in March, 2007, right around Saint Patrick’s Day. I played around with the famous St. Patrick’s Day toast, Éirinn go Brách, to come up with a title for this post (Google tells me “tirim” is “dry” in Irish).

I wonder, did my friend know I mark the anniversary on this blog every March when he sent me that link? Whether he did or not, I appreciate the reminder!


Sunday Bag o’ Photographic Evidence

Donna tells me the household budget is tight, so I’ve been staying home. As long as I avoid Amazon, it’s the best way to not spend money. Yesterday, though, I decided to get out on the scooter and do some window shopping. I wanted to see the redesigned 2018 Goldwing, so I rode to a local dealership and sat on one. I like everything about it save its smallness. The dealership had old and new models sitting side by side, and the difference is striking:


2017 Goldwing on left, 2018 on right

While out & about I looked at Bluetooth motorcycle helmet intercom systems and dropped by a car show at a local H-D dealership, where I saw two things I really liked:

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Oh, okay, four things. Top left is an overhead-valve Chevrolet four-cylinder engine introduced in the late 1920s. I’ve seen lots of old Chevys with OHV sixes, but this was my first four. I didn’t even realize they offered a four-banger, but it only makes sense they did, with the Depression and all. Top right is one of the timeless Raymond Loewy Studebaker Champions from the early 1950s. I recently wrote about Loewy, who designed the famous Air Force One paint scheme.

Bottom left is a perennial favorite of ours, the classic VW bus, and these 21-window jobs were the top of the line. Donna and I owned a few VW buses in our day, though never one as nice as this. Bottom right is a 1946 Harley-Davidson ES, a sidecar model with a 61 cubic-inch knucklehead engine. Apart from the sidecar, it was very like the 1948 FL I learned to ride as a teenager in Laramie, Wyoming. But when I looked at the shift gate on the left side of the tank, I noticed it had three forward speeds and a reverse gear (which you can see if you view the original full sized photo on Flickr). The owner explained that only sidecar models came with three speeds and a reverse. The one I rode as a kid had the same side shifter and foot clutch, but with four forward gears and no reverse.

I had the radio on during my ride, alternating between rock stations whenever ads came on, wondering how people in the 1960s and 70s would have reacted to music from the 80s and 90s if through some space/time wormhole FM broadcasts from the future had started coming out of their radios. In William Gibson’s “The Peripheral,” people 70 to 80 years in the future find a way to communicate with people in the early 21st Century through a child’s electronic robot toy. So something like that, is what I was thinking. Some of that future music would have gone over huge back then, but we’d have hated some of it, and if we could have figured out who would become those future artists, we’d have gone and killed their parents to keep them from being born.

Our son Gregory turned 52 yesterday. Our daughter Polly turns 43 next Saturday. Greg has some use-or-lose air miles, so he’s flying down Friday. We’ll celebrate both birthdays that night, and Saturday Greg and I will ride to Bisbee and back (he’s renting a bike locally for the trip). Donna may come with us.

They’re all good dogs, but these two are the best:


Mr. B & Maxie, hoping for a treat


Whatever Happened to “It”?

Screen Shot 2018-03-09 at 11.22.13 AMThe other night Jimmy Kimmel described Meryl Streep as an actor, and everyone carried on as if it was some kind of big whoop moment. But why should it have been? Every year I ask myself why we still call woman actors actresses, when feminine labels have vanished from other professions. When’s the last time anyone talked about aviatrixes or girl reporters? (Don’t ask me about waitresses, because I don’t have a snappy comeback for that.)

I posted a sarcastic question on Facebook: “If we quit making a distinction between actors and actresses, won’t there be fewer awards? Asking for a friend who thinks this might be a good thing.” This prompted some of my friends to start a discussion on personal pronouns, like the ones in this table put together by the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual Resource Center:

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I get a headache looking at that. I think I know why: the translation key, the three lines starting with the pronouns we all use daily, he/she/they, is in the middle when it should be at the top. No doubt the good youmyns at LGBTQIARC thought if they put the real pronouns first it would imply rank. Thus, “co” is equal to “he” or “she.” Or “ze.” Dear god.

My default mode is to snark on stuff like this (“Thanks, Obama!” or “This is the world liberals want”), but I’m not a total caveman. I no longer use “he” or “mankind” to refer to men and women collectively. I use “they” and “humanity” (and I’m increasingly suspicious of the “man” in “humanity”). But when it comes to made-up pronouns like “ze” and “ey,” I call BS.

A lot of the BS is driven by the transgender community, which keeps moving the goalposts around. If a man or boy decides to live as a woman or girl, I have no problem calling her that. Or vice-versa. But subsets in the community demand increasingly specialized pronouns to reflect their self-proclaimed status as transsexual, non-binary, gender fluid, and genderqueer. I’m too old to keep up with it, I guess, and in any case, just how many “zes” and “zirs” are we talking about here? According to this study, 1,397,150 people, or 0.58% of the U.S. population.

I suppose if I knew anyone who was transgender, or had a family member in transition, I’d give more of a shit about their feelings. Perhaps if I worked on a college campus with a small but vocal genderqueer community, I’d try harder to respect their wishes. But I don’t. Most of us don’t. We’re doing better than we used to in terms of regarding women as equal to men, and it’s reflected in our evolving language. Still, gender remains the first thing we see in others, absolutely fundamental in human relations and our perception of one another. It’s going to be a damn long while before regular people give up on he/she/they.


Cold Dead Hands

From a New York Times op-ed titled “I Wanted to Be a Good Mom. So I Got a Gun“:

A few months after my father left our family home for good, my mother heard me screaming in the middle of the night. It was the kind of scream that made her grab her rifle in one hand and some ammo in another.

It was a spring night and I was sleeping with my window open, which was right above my bed; I loved breathing in the fresh air. That night, in that open window, I heard the banging of a ladder, and by the time my mother made it into the room and began loading her gun, a man was about to climb in.

She said something along the lines of: “Bethany, come over here. I don’t want you to get his brain matter on your face.” I backed up behind her and my mother raised her gun. The would-be intruder slowly backed down the ladder. As he climbed down, my mother approached. The barrel of her rifle was inches away from his face and she told him, “Next time you come here, I won’t hesitate.” She had her gun pointed at him through the window on his way down, and as he went down the ladder she grabbed the top and shook it, just to put the fear of God into him one last time before he fled.

The op-ed was written by a conservative activist who says her outspoken hostility to Trump has led to death threats from the alt-right. After the Daily Stormer published her home address, she decided to arm herself in order to protect her children, as her mother did before her.

As with almost every pro-gun argument I see, this one is based on a “good guy with a gun” anecdote that beggars belief. But I’m willing to overlook that, because the author has a valid point to make, that point being that while she recognizes the dangers of owning guns, and (along with most Americans) wants stricter gun controls, she and people like her are going to continue to buy and own guns. They’ll do it for a reason that’s impervious to data and argument: to protect families and homes. And to that I’ll add that they’ll do it because they can: owning guns is a choice available to Americans.

I have guns, and for the same reason. I know it’s dumb, that my guns are more likely to be used against me than against home invaders, but I’m not going to give them up. At the same time, I want to see far stricter controls on their ownership, to include criminal background checks at all points of sale, plus mandatory training, licensing, and registration. Moreover, I want to see a nationwide ban on military-style weapons (a broad category that includes AR-15s and similar semiautomatic rifles), including the confiscation of such weapons already in the hands of gun owners. I don’t see any conflict there: not with the 2nd Amendment, not with internal logic.

If I were your king, I’d send jack-booted agents out into the land to round them all up. In my benevolence, though, I’d allow you to keep your pistols, shotguns, and hunting rifles, more than enough to defend hearth and home.

In real life, I’ll have to settle for whatever small steps toward sanity our society is capable of. The kids, bless them, are contributing to a groundswell of opinion and activism, putting heat on the NRA and politicians, and I hope we can keep up the pressure.


Air-Minded: Air Force One Folklore & Fact

I’m a docent at Pima Air & Space Museum, where I conduct hour-long tram tours of 150 outdoor display aircraft. When welcoming visitors at the start of the tour, I ask if anyone wants to know more about a particular airplane. Nine times out of ten, the one people want to hear about is our former Air Force One, a VC-118 (Douglas DC-6) used by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.

I wrote about the museum’s presidential fleet aircraft in an earlier post, describing their history and that of other Air Force One aircraft. Since then I’ve learned more about these famous planes, in the process clarifying (and sometimes correcting) what I knew before.

I’ll share that knowledge in this and future posts, but frankly, I’m mostly doing it for me. With so many airplanes to talk about in just one hour, I can only give a few seconds to each. When it comes to the Air Force One, I simplify the story and skip over details. Every now and then, though, a visitor will want to know the details, and I need to be sure I’m able to give the correct answer.

This is Pima Air & Space Museum’s Air Force One:

VC-118A Liftmaster

VC-118 Liftmaster used as Air Force One by JFK & LBJ

Folklore has it this was JFK’s favorite plane, despite having jet Air Force Ones at his disposal. I don’t know if it really was. I do know the early presidential jets used by JFK and later LBJ needed long runways. The piston & prop powered VC-118 didn’t, so it got a lot of use, not only for visits to American cities with small airports, but also for weekend trips home: Hyannisport for the Kennedys, Austin for the Johnsons.

Prior to the Kennedys, there was no standard paint scheme for presidential aircraft. Roosevelt’s C-54, the Sacred Cow, was polished aluminum. Truman’s VC-118, a plane similar to the one at Pima Air & Spece, had a fancy paint job with an eagle motif. Eisenhower went back to polished aluminum with his two VC-121 Lockheed Constellations, Columbine II and III.

VC-54 Sacred Cow

FDR’s Sacred Cow

VC-118 Independence

Truman’s Independence

VC-121 Columbine III

Ike’s Columbine III

In the last year of Eisenhower’s presidency, 1959, the USAF purchased three new Boeing 707-120s for what I’ll call the presidential fleet (properly described as the USAF’s 89th Special Airlift Wing, which provides airlift for the president, vice president, combat commanders, and other senior government officials). These three aircraft, designated VC-137As, were called Special Air Mission (SAM) 970, 971, and 972 (as a side note, SAM 971 is also on display at Pima Air & Space).

They were the first aircraft to wear this new USAF VIP livery:


VC-137A SAM 970 with original paint & markings as used by Eisenhower, 1959-60

Certainly, this was a substantially different look from the Air Force Ones we know today, which was introduced by the Kennedys in 1962.

The USAF didn’t see the first three jets as presidential aircraft. They were meant to be general-purpose VIP transports. While they had executive seating and sophisticated communications equipment, they lacked other features the USAF wanted in its first jet age Air Force One. That airplane, an extended-range Boeing 707-353B, had been contracted for and was under construction, but would not be delivered until late 1962.

Regardless of USAF intentions, the first of the three 1959 VC-137s, SAM 970 (nicknamed “Queenie”), became the de facto “first jet Air Force One” when Eisenhower flew on it in August 1959. Ike used Queenie from then until he left office, and JFK used it up until October 1962, when the new 707-353B, the famous VC-137C known as SAM 26000, was delivered. At that point SAM 26000 became the official Air Force One aircraft and SAM 970 became a backup, remaining in the presidential fleet until 1996, transporting vice presidents and other high-ranking officials.

I love to tell museum visitors about the origin of the distinctive and universally-recognizable blue & white livery worn by Air Force One, starting with the story of the red & white paint on Queenie and its sister ships. This story too is a mixture of folklore and fact, but I’m getting closer to the facts. Every time a visitor asks me a question about the paint I do a little more research in order to give a better answer to the next visitor, and I’m at the point now where I think I have it pretty much straight.

Eisenhower was fine with Queenie’s original livery and markings. Kennedy, though, was unhappy with its appearance (some historians say he thought the colors were “too imperial”). Jackie, presumably, didn’t like it either. Nor did the new first family like its “U.S. Air Force” and “Military Air Transport Service” markings. Even before going to work on the exterior design of the new Air Force One to be delivered in 1962, they had the old markings removed from Queenie and its sister ships, replaced with a “United States of America” logo on the top of the fuselage and a prominent American flag on the tail, the better to represent the nation, not just the USAF.


Queenie (SAM 970) with modified markings as used by JFK, 1961-62 (Boeing file photo)

Air Force One’s blue & white livery, the distinctive design we know today, was created by American industrial designer Raymond Loewy (famous for the Studebaker Champion and Avanti, the Coca-Cola bottle, the paint scheme of the Greyhound Bus Scenicruiser, and the Lucky Strike logo). Some say Jackie hired Loewy, some say Loewy approached the White House on his own. From all I can put together, while Jackie was nominally in charge of designing the new Air Force One, and both the president and first lady were involved at all stages of the process, it was Loewy who created the exterior design. Jackie, to give her her due, did the creative work on the new jet’s interior design.

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Early Raymond Loewy design submission

You can see that Loewy retained some red in his initial design. The USAF, fearful of potential mid-air collisions, wanted red markings to make the aircraft more visible in the air. It was JFK himself who insisted on getting rid of the red altogether. It was also JFK who suggested the font for the prominent United States of America lettering on top, one closely resembling that used in the header of the Declaration of Independence.


Original printing of the Declaration, printed July 4, 1776

Loewy’s design, first seen on the new Air Force One delivered in October 1962, featured polished aluminum on the wings and lower fuselage; slate blue under the nose and on the engine nacelles; a gold stripe below the cabin windows; a darker shade of blue (cyan) above the cockpit, down the middle of the fuselage, and on the tail; white on top of the fuselage; and presidential seals on both sides of the nose.

SAM 26000 AF1

SAM 26000, the most famous Air Force One of them all

After the new Air Force One, SAM 26000, was fielded in October 1962, the older Air Force Ones—the VC-118 and Queenie—were repainted in the new livery. Loewy’s design became the standard for subsequent Air Force Ones, including the VC-25 Boeing 747s in use today.


VC-25 SAM 28000

Although presidents can and do fly on other presidential fleet aircraft as the need arises, only those aircraft specifically designated for presidential travel wear the full Air Force One livery. Other aircraft in the presidential fleet, the ones used for general VIP travel, have similar but different paint, minus the two-tone blue and presidential seals.

SAM 26000

SAM 26000 in its post-Air Force One days, wearing a VIP transport paint scheme

No matter what airplane the president flies in, its call sign is Air Force One. There’s a story there too, which I share with museum visitors. Back in the day, presidential aircraft used standard USAF call signs, an “Air Force” prefix followed by the aircraft tail number. Eisenhower’s Columbine II, the Lockheed Connie he used during his first term in office, flew under the call sign “Air Force 8610.” This was fine, so the story goes, until the day Ike and Air Force 8610 entered the same airspace as United Flight 8610, and an air traffic controller came up on the radio to ask which was which. A Secret Service officer flying with the president heard the radio call and became concerned. He shared his concern with Eisenhower’s staff, and thus was born “Air Force One,” a call sign that cannot be confused with any other.

Some kind of incident involving Air Force 8610 and United Flight 8610 did occur, and everyone agrees it led to the creation of the Air Force One callsign. Folklore comes in with the details. It either happened in the airspace over New York City, or somewhere over Florida, or over Virginia while Ike was flying to North Carolina to give a speech. It either happened in 1953 or 1954. The truth is out there somewhere. And I will eventually root it out!

I’ll close with a bonus photo of the Kennedys disembarking from Queenie, the first jet Air Force One, in happier times, May of 1962.


VC-137B SAM 970, May 1962


Paul’s Book Reviews: Fiction, Thrillers, Mysteries, Space Opera, Duds

“One thing was certain: Rose had been wrong about the world becoming small again. Or at least it would not be the same small world it had been. Too much had changed. And amid those shifts and realignments, Anna had slipped through a crack and escaped.”
— Jennifer Egan, Manhattan Beach

manhattan beachManhattan Beach
by Jennifer Egan

Reading “Manhattan Beach,” I couldn’t stop thinking of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Both novels evoke a past era in New York City. Both feature a strong, engaging female protagonist.

“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” was an icon of American culture when I was growing up. “Manhattan Beach” may well become one, and should: it is by far the stronger of the two novels. I was fascinated by Francie in “Tree”; I’d follow the Anna of “Manhattan” anywhere she chooses to go. I loved the turn-of-the-20th-Century New York City of “Tree”; I wanted to dive even deeper into the bustling WWII-era City of “Manhattan.” “Tree” is largely a story about growing up and domestic life; “Manhattan,” in the tradition of the Great American Novel, a story about everything: domestic life, growing up, women stepping into non-traditional roles and careers, love, poverty, wealth, crime, war, life and death adventures on and under the sea … and I found it impossible to put down.

Dare I mention Jonathan Franzen and Jennifer Egan in the same sentence? There are similarities there, too. Both are great storytellers, both are very close to some popular novelistic ideal. I loved Egan’s earlier “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” but I did not see a Great American Novelist behind that work. I see one behind “Manhattan Beach.”

I believed in Anna. I know women like her and admire them. Some may think Egan putting Anna in a diving suit is a stretch; I was happy to read in Egan’s afterword that she had in fact modeled some of Anna on women who mastered those daring skills during WWII … and I’ll mention that I myself know several woman fighter pilots, women who once saw military jets flying overhead and said to themselves, “I want to do that too.” Anna’s reactions to the twists and turns of her life … all of which will have you turning pages … are equally decisive.

I mentioned Egan’s research, which shows on every page, though never in an intrusive or showing-off manner. It is what makes everything believable.

Reviews of books I love are the hardest ones to write. I’ll stop here by saying “Manhattan Beach: is a brilliant novel, one you can be assured I’ll push on all my friends.

61 Hours
61 Hours (Jack Reacher #14)
by Lee Child
worth dying for
Worth Dying For (Jack Reacher, #15)
by Lee Child

Yes, I’m still reading the Jack Reacher novels in order. “61 Hours” stands out for three reasons, one or all of which may be considered spoilers by some. You may consider that a warning.

The first is reflected in the novel’s title: there’s a countdown at the end of each short chapter: 55 hours to go; 38 hours to go; 20 hours to go; etc.

The second is Jack’s celibacy. In each of the previous 13 novels, Jack has sex with one or another of the attractive, intelligent women characters he encounters. In this one, he doesn’t. There’s a bit of flirting over the telephone, strongly hinting at future consummation, but that’s it.

The third is the ending, where Lee Child leaves Reacher’s fate up in the air. But hey, we’re all grownups here: there are at least a dozen Jack Reacher novels after this one, so give me a break … of COURSE he survives.

The countdown clock left me cold. Lee Child’s intent is to keep the suspense high as zero hour approaches, but by the time we’re halfway there we pretty much know what’s going to go down, and it becomes superfluous. The lack of sex was a novelty, and I was happy to see a break in the formula. The ending bothered me not a bit.

In “Worth Dying For,” the 15th in the series, we find Jack Reacher being dropped off at small-town crossroads in Nebraska, just a few days after surviving the underground bunker explosion that ended the 14th novel, “61 hours.” He’s stiff and sore but mending fast, as evidenced four pages in by the beating he administers to a man he suspects of battering a helpless wife.

I would have to re-read a couple of the earlier novels to make sure, but “Worth Dying For” is definitely one of the best Reacher novels. The villains, four men named Duncan, are particularly vile, the townspeople thoroughly beaten down and in thrall to them. It’s a situation Reacher can’t ignore, particularly when he hears about a murder the Duncans are believed to have committed 25 years ago. This cannot stand. And it doesn’t.

As always, Reacher is way ahead of the reader when it comes to figuring out what the bad guys are really up to; I couldn’t even guess what they were smuggling into the USA from Canada until Reacher shared his ideas with the band of downtrodden townspeople he’d befriended.

But back to the beatings. Reacher administers a record number of them, each new beating more gratifying than the last. I didn’t realize I was so vengeful and bloodthirsty … until, that is, Jack Reacher brought it out.

This is the second novel in a row with no sex. Jack must be getting pretty horny by now. I hope he manages to hook up with Susan in Virginia real soon, or there’s gonna be more beatings (and you know what I’m talking about).

Damn, this was an engrossing and fun read. It would make a hell of a movie.

full dark houseFull Dark House (Bryant and May #1)
by Christopher Fowler

A friend recommended Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May mysteries. Now, friends recommend books all the time, but this friend went one step further: she “gifted” the first two novels in the series to me through Amazon, which in turn made them materialize on my Kindle. How could I ignore a recommendation like that?

I’ve just finished the first one, “Full Dark House,” a great introduction to Bryant & May, set partly in present-day London at the end of their long career together, and partly (actually mostly) in the London of the Blitz, when they worked their first case, a series of murders at the Palace Theater.

My friend loves these books for their descriptions of London, a city she knows well. I mostly know London through fiction. Christoper Fowler, knows its every hidden part and revels in describing its nooks, crannies, circuses, tube stations, and grand old structures, of which the Palace Theater is one, a fabulous setting for a murder mystery.

Fowler is known for his black humor. I enjoyed his matter-of-fact references to the criminality that descended upon London during the Blitz, his showing up of Londoners as something less than the doughty home front warriors the government of the day wished Britons and the world to see. Why would I think rape and looting funny? Because all the other mystery novels set in WWII London work so hard not to mention the reality of human behavior, I guess. Thank you, Mr. Fowler!

Along the way I learned a lot about the theater; the communities of actors, stagehands, and “front of house” workers. I learned a lot about stagecraft and the popular entertainment trends of the early 1940s: the actors who drew crowds, opera bouffe, the movies people loved, censorship.

Bryant and May are a great pair, as opposite as can be, perfectly suited for the Peculiar Crimes Unit, which may well have been created to capitalize on their talents.

I admit having to adjust to the Britishness of this mystery novel, and was about forty pages in before I started to really enjoy reading it; past that point I couldn’t put it down. Great fun, memorable characters, the requisite amount of suspense, the aforementioned intimate feel for the great city of London and its recent history.

Thanks, dear friend, for your generous gift (I hope you loved the Paolo Bacigalupi novel I gifted you in return). Now on-on to number two in the Bryant & May series, “The Water Room.”

by Joe Hart

Disclosure: I was offered a pre-publication copy of “Obscura” in exchange for a review.

I read this one quickly. It’s a whodunit with a science fiction backdrop featuring space travel and teleportation. The protagonist, Gillian Ryan, is a medical researcher looking for a way to stop a mind-wasting disease that has already claimed her husband and is now beginning to affect her daughter. On the promise that NASA will fund her research if she spends six months in orbit helping solve a similar problem affecting astronauts on a space station, she agrees to go.

What’s happening up in space is sinister indeed, but most readers, as I did, will figure out what’s going on long before Gillian does. Still, the climactic scenes, where everything comes to a head, are worth the wait.

I didn’t like Gillian much. She spends most of her time feeding an addiction to opioids and crying over her dead husband and suffering daughter. I mean, yeah, the situation she finds herself in sucks, but enough with the pill-popping and crying already. I like my female protagonists to show a little pluck, although I will admit that later in the novel, she comes through when the going gets tough.

The plot moves along and keeps you turning pages, but apart from Gillian, there isn’t a lot of character development, and I had questions about the science behind teleportation … but I knew from the beginning Hart’s novel would be more of a mystery thriller than a serious attempt at speculative fiction, and was willing to overlook my objections.

The pre-publication Kindle copy I read carried a notice that it is an “uncorrected proof,” but I found no errors, typos, or formatting problems with the book. If it’s marketed to the mystery/thriller audience, I don’t doubt it’ll do well.

broken placesThe Broken Places (Quinn Colson #3)
by Ace Atkins

I enjoyed the first two Quinn Colson novels. Quinn, fresh out of the Army, is starting a new life as sheriff of his Mississippi home town, and evolving into something more than he was before. Sadly, evolution takes a break in this, the third novel: Quinn is more or less static, as are his relationships with key recurring characters like his deputy Lille, his sister Caddy, and corrupt county kingpin Johnny Stagg.

There are fresh villains in this one, a pair of shitkickers on the run from prison. They’re colorful in a lowlife way and eventually Quinn deals with them, but for most of the book they run riot while Quinn dithers about this and that, and in the end the real villain, Johnny Stagg, stays in power and nothing is really resolved. Which is fine in that it sets the stage for future installments, I guess, but it was a somewhat unsatisfactory read.

I didn’t click through all the pages of reviews on Goodreads but did read the ones on the first page, and can’t believe I’m the only one asking how can it be that bad guy Esau, bleeding to death from a high-powered rifle shot at the end of one chapter, is up and at ’em in the next chapter, the bullet never again mentioned? Could it be Ace Atkins mislaid his plot notes and simply forgot he’d shot one of his characters in the back?

I’m pretty meh on this one. But I’ve been reading the Jack Reacher novels in order at the same time, and a couple of the early ones were duds too, so I’ll give Quinn Colson another chance by reading installment #4.

red risingRed Rising (Red Rising Saga #1)
by Pierce Brown

Did not finish, no rating.

I was short-tempered with my wife the other night. She called me on it and I couldn’t explain what had set me off. Later I realized it was frustration with this crudely-plotted emotionless and flat screenplay of a book.

Sitting next to me on the coffee table was the third volume of Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, the very sort of young adult science fiction adventure I had hoped “Red Rising” would turn out to be. I put the one down, picked up the other, and found my lost equanimity. Life is too short to read bad YA.


Bots and Ads and Pop-Ups, Oh My!

Twitter is purging thousands of bot accounts, automated accounts belonging to troll farms, dedicated to posting destructive memes for human right-wingers to boost through likes and retweets. #MAGA (Make America Great Again) types on Twitter are beginning to react:

Screen Shot 2018-02-21 at 8.45.31 AM

The #MAGAs are going to make a ruckus over this, and the fact that the deleted accounts weren’t human, and were thus in violation of Twitter’s terms of service, may become lost in the din. I pray Twitter doesn’t back down, but it might, as Facebook did in 2016 when right-wingers complained it was suppressing conservative news stories. That wasn’t true either, but Facebook’s reaction was to fire the employees who managed the trending topics news section and things went downhill fast. As we now know, Facebook is under increasing pressure to do what Twitter is doing, closing down malicious bot accounts controlled from Russia and former Soviet states.

Hey, I was affected too, but you don’t hear me bitching. Last night I had 290 followers on Twitter. This morning I have 289. Don’t let the door hit you in the ass, tovarich!

I don’t have a proposal to replace online advertising. You might as well ask me to come up with a substitute for capitalism. Money to pay for things has to come from somewhere, right? But god damn, advertising is ruining the internet. Just look at the proliferation of sponsored posts on social media. Or the horrid banner ads they insert between every second paragraph of articles in second- and third-tier online magazines (and even top-tier online magazines and newspapers are beginning to follow this model).

Ad blockers don’t seem to work on these, but they apparently work on newspaper web sites, since more often than not I can’t get to their articles unless I agree to turn my ad blocker off. That and subscription paywalls. It’s getting to be a real issue, one affects me directly since online news articles are the source for my You Can’t Read That! banned book columns.

If, for example, I follow a link to a story about a school banning “To Kill a Mockingbird” because Harper Lee used the n-word, and I can’t get past pop-ups or paywalls to read the story, well, you can’t either, so I’d be a pretty lousy blogger if I used that link in a YCRT! column. Sometimes I can find a different link to the same story, one that isn’t blocked, but sometimes I can’t. If it gets much worse, I won’t be able to do the column at all. Fortunately, Wikipedia is my primary source for Air-Minded aviation articles. If Wikipedia ever goes the way the rest of the internet is going, we’re doomed.

Who’d a thunk late-stage capitalism would bring on a new Dark Age by restricting access to information to those who can afford to pay for it?

Duh, lots of people, actually. I grew up reading science fiction about exactly this scenario. Trouble is, no one has thought of a way to combat it.