Paul’s Book Reviews

“It seems like the good guys turned out to be the bad guys, and the bad guys weren’t all that bad.”

— C.J. Box, Winterkill

winterkillWinterkill (Joe Pickett #3)
by C.J. Box

I’m reading C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett novels, which are set in a mountainous, sparsely-populated corner of Wyoming and feature a fish & game warden who finds himself and his family threatened by bad men intent on raping the West. They’re great reads, engrossing and impossible to put down, and I’m devouring the series.

It’s difficult to write meaningful reviews of individual novels in a series. Unless I have something urgent to say about individual Joe Pickett novels, I’ll repeat what I said about “Open Season,” the first novel in the series:

As much as I enjoy reading Lee Childs’ Jack Reacher stories, Jack is a superhero, a figure of fantasy. When Jack Reacher gets even, people die … but not before a righteous ass-kicking. While C.J. Box brings on Reacheresque tension and villainy, when it comes to his human and relatable hero Joe Pickett, it’s more a matter of luck. Joe prevails, a believable form of getting even. But don’t worry. Asses do get kicked, in satisfying ways. I really like this Pickett guy. He makes mistakes, and plenty of them. He worries about money. He trusts people he shouldn’t. He’s a regular Joe. I really like the depictions of Wyoming, a state I lived in as a teenager and remember fondly. Joe, at least in this first novel, has an almost-too-perfect family, but there are tensions, and I sense troubled teenage years ahead for his daughter Sheridan. Granted that everything in this novel is fiction, it feels real and true.

In the case of “Winterkill,” the third Joe Pickett novel, I do have something else to pass on to potential readers: do not expect conventional happy endings. I was going to say this applies particularly to this novel, but looking back it’s true of the first two as well: Joe Pickett and his family take some awful hard knocks. One doesn’t normally think of mysteries and thrillers as adult reading, but the Joe Pickett novels are, and then some.

radium girlsThe Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women
by Kate Moore

My book club’s selection for April 2020. “Radium Girls” is an interesting history of the American victims of radium poisoning in the first half of the 20th century: the young women who painted radium on clock and instrument faces, and their fight for recognition, compensation, and justice.

My overwhelming sense, while reading this overlong history, was of changelessness. What happened with radium is basically identical to what happened with tobacco, toxic chemicals, nuclear waste, PCBs, climate change … and whatever is coming next. The stories unfold in familiar ways, with unexplained sickness, corporate denial, rigged legal proceedings, betrayals, and a largely indifferent public … so long as it could continue to enjoy the poisoned fruit of others’ suffering. We will always be victims of this process, so long as we are driven by selfishness and greed. I’m certain I’m not the only reader who kept getting mental images of the mayor of Amity Island trying to wish away the shark.

I wish Kate Moore had put some big-picture chapters in between the many short chapters describing individual women suffering the medical consequences of working with radium and the blow by blow recounting of lawsuits brought against the radium industry, because after a while the women and the courtroom scenes began to blend together. I think it would have helped me focus better, and perhaps other readers as well, not that the women who suffered don’t deserve to be memorialized.

For example: Ms Moore mentions early on that European radium workers knew of the dangers and used glass rods, not brushes, to apply radium paint. She barely mentions Madame Curie, famous for poisoning herself with her own discovery, but in fairness, Curie didn’t die of radium poisoning until the late 1930s, long after the first American cases in the early 1920s. I found myself, between chapters of “The Radium Girls,” checking Wikipedia for the sort of information I craved but which Ms Moore wasn’t providing. I wish she’d have cut back a little on the individual bios and court transcriptions and added some broader-brush academic history on radium and its dangers, to include developments outside the United States.

p.s. I read the Kindle edition, which does not include the photos contained in the hardbound edition. Additionally, hyperlinked footnotes, of which there are many, are easy to inadvertently touch while swiping pages, abruptly taking the reader to the annotation pages at the end of the book. Minor irritants, but enough to make me wish I had read the hardbound version instead.

ice ghostsIce Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition
by Paul Watson

How odd. I distinctly remember reading and reviewing Dan Simmon’s novel about the Franklin Expedition’s failure and the last days of its crew, “The Terror,” yet I cannot find the review on Goodreads or in my own records.

Nevertheless, I knew about the Franklin expedition through fiction, and was excited when my book club suggested this non-fictional account of the search for the Franklin Expedition’s ships and men, “Ice Ghosts.” Books about Arctic exploration excited me as a child; now in my seventies, I’m still drawn to them.

“Ice Ghosts” recounts the dozens of rescue and search attempts, by sea and land, for Franklin and his men, and later for evidence of what happened to them. It’s probably the first account to give credit to the Inuits, the only contemporary witnesses to what happened, the only people to encounter members of the expedition when they were still alive. It’s fitting that a descendent of the Inuits of the mid-1800s played a prominent role in helping find burial sites and other artifacts in the 2000s. If only the British, Americans, and Canadians had been willing to listen to and learn from people they regarded as savages, the entire story might have had a different ending.

I finished the book last night. An hour later, scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a link to a New York Times article about new artifacts salvaged from the wreck of the HMS Erebus, now being systematically plundered … and wondered at both the coincidence and at what Paul Watson might make of this grave-robbing frenzy.

Okay, why a three-star rating? Fascinated as I am with the story of the Franklin Expedition, Watson’s exhaustive recounting of dozens of search and rescue attempts conducted from the 1840s to 2014, the innumerable characters involved, their letters and pamphlets, the politics and infighting of the Admiralty Board and agencies of the American and Canadian governments, capped by setback after setback, near-miss after near-miss … well, it was a slog. I found myself flipping pages toward the end to get to the actual discovery of Franklin’s ships and some of the expedition members’ grave sites.

But this is precisely what Paul Watson’s book is about … the 150-year search for the lost expedition … and it seems hardly fair to complain that there’s so much of it it became a chore to absorb. So shame on me for getting impatient and flipping ahead, but I suspect other readers had the same experience, or will, and that’s why I give it a three-star rating.

trail of lightningTrail of Lightning (The Sixth World #1)
by Rebecca Roanhorse

Are there monsters (and monster hunters) such as the ones described in “Trail of Lightning” in Navajo myth and legend? Can Coyote, the Trickster, be killed by a five-finger mortal? I don’t know, so I’ll take Rebecca Roanhorse’s word for it.

I was pumped to read a novel set in a future Navajo Nation, Dinétah, populated with native American characters, written by a native American author. That it had a post-apocalyptic science fiction/fantasy theme, à la the adult and young adult novels of Paolo Bacigalupi, excited me even more.

In the end, though, I felt somewhat deflated. Apart from a few references to the cataclysmic events that resulted in a walled Diné nation surrounded by flooding and devastation, the novel is far more fantasy than science fiction. Adding to the letdown, the plot is standard girl hero YA, no different than a hundred other such novels. Rebecca Roanhorse works hard to give Maggie Hoskie a strong and independent personality, but in the end Maggie conforms to the girl hero YA mold, and as other reviewers have observed, a girl whose actions and ultimate success are directed and determined by the men in her life.

first encounterFirst Encounter
by Jasper T. Scott

Short fast read. Some interesting ideas are embedded in this first-contact SF story, but there are many unexplained details and concepts, possibly to be fleshed out in future installments. As a stand-alone SF story, it does not approach believability. I had a ton of questions. I’m not willing to stick around to see if the author ever answers them: this is not a series I plan to read more of.

consider phlebasConsider Phlebas (Culture #1)
by Iain M. Banks

Did not finish: no rating.

I had just finished the excellent Expanse novels when I decided to try a Banks Culture SF novel again. I read one a couple of years ago, “Surface Detail,” and wasn’t too impressed, although I did manage to finish it. Not so with this one, the first in the series. The characters in “Consider Phlebas” are entirely lifeless. The action scenes are so drawn out I started flipping pages to get to their resolutions. I made it halfway through. You know what? I’m embarrassed to admit this, but the names Banks gives his humanoid characters are a major irritant to me. Of course all names are ultimately made up, as are all words. But here, the made-upness is so in your face it’s a distraction and a turn-off.

© 2020, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


One thought on “Paul’s Book Reviews

  • 1) There is a new twist in the corporate irresponsibility re the Radium Girls – companies often shift the danger offshore to developing countries, now.
    2) A subtanial percentage of our history course when I was 11 or 12 years old were all the explorers that went out searching for Franklin. I can’t remember if it was then that I learned about the silver service for the officers or not and other unwise decisions. I do remember that the rationalization was that although that expediation was a failure the subsequent explorers discovered much of Northern Canada.

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