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Amber's Thoughts

Reviews and updates from Amber Foxx, author of the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series

 

 

L.A. Cops, Murder, and Reality TV

 I enjoyed the fast pace, the working friendships, the portrait of a marriage that thrives despite the police careers of both partners—or maybe even because of the shared stresses and the way they understand each other. The in-depth details of police work are fascinating, and the story engages with the issue of conflicted police-community relations without taking sides or preaching. It’s part of the realistic setting. And it relates to the apparent motive behind a vigilante reality TV show that makes cops look bad.

 

I loved the way Hitchens and Scully cracked the case through attention to subtle clues. Hitchens is more likeable and interesting than Scully, but that’s partly an effect of point of view. The narrator, Scully, is more observant of others than he is self-revealing, so he is harder to get to know even though he’s telling the story. The first person POV blunts a certain amount of the tension, because obviously the narrator survives, but there’s enough tension to go around that this seldom weakens the suspense.

 

I suspect the author consciously chose to build a scene around a certain old-fashioned form of peril that was used in a number of late nineteenth century plays and satirized in several popular silent comedies. It doesn’t seem possible that he wrote this particular scene without awareness of its historical antecedents, and I bet he had fun plotting it. I would have fun saying what it is, but that would be a spoiler. (No, the protagonist does not hang from a cliff.)

 

The Science of Psi

Supernormal: Science, Yoga, and the Evidence for Extraordinary Psychic Abilities - Dean Radin

Some people approach the topic of psychic phenomena from a standpoint of immoveable conviction. There are those who believe psi events happen, and no science or statistics would convince them otherwise. On the other side are those who believe such things do not happen, and no evidence from even the best quality research could convince them otherwise. It’s like politics. Minds seldom change. But that doesn’t mean they never do. Science progresses through study and replication and further studies, and the word “proof” is seldom used outside of mathematics. This book should interest readers who would like to assess the evidence with an open mind.

 

Having said that, I think it may be useful to preface this review with the author’s credentials:

 

Dean Radin, PhD, is Chief Scientist at the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS). Before joining the research staff at IONS in 2001, he held appointments at AT&T Bell Labs, Princeton University, University of Edinburgh, and SRI International. He is author or coauthor of over 250 technical and popular articles, three dozen book chapters, and three books including the award-winning The Conscious Universe (HarperOne, 1997), Entangled Minds (Simon & Schuster, 2006), and the 2014 Silver Nautilus Book Award winner, Supernormal (Random House, 2013).

                                                                     Taken from http://www.deanradin.com/NewWeb/bio.html

 

 

The author works hard to make statistical analysis and research methodology accessible to a reader without a background in those fields. Having spent the last ten years of my academic career helping first-year college students learn to comprehend the language of scholarly journals, I have mixed feelings about this “translation.” Would it have been better to teach his readers the terminology, or was paraphrasing it the right choice? I don’t know. Sometimes he tries too hard to funny, like a professor who attempts to lighten up his lectures with strained jokes, but that’s a minor issue. Overall, I found the book well-structured and thoroughly researched. (384 sources are listed in the back, exceeding the number of pages in the book.)

 

Supernormal is primarily about how scientists study psychic abilities, not about spectacular events, so anyone wanting to read amazing, colorful anecdotes won’t find them here. It’s not essentially about yoga, either, though it will have more meaning to a reader who has studied yoga philosophy, and Radin has some good quotations on that subject. In yoga, the siddhis are not, as I understand it, as important as simply achieving awareness and quieting the cravings and cluttered noise of the mind. The siddhis can happen, but they are not the purpose or goal of practicing yoga. Nonetheless, in Radin’s research and in studies by other scientists, subjects with a regular meditation practice performed significantly better in experiments testing clairvoyance, precognition, and other psi abilities, so there appears to be a correlation between meditation and being psychic. An impressive number of well-designed studies support this. (My own experience fits the pattern. When I began yoga and meditation at age twelve, I began to have precognitive intuitions and dreams.)

 

I’d recommend this book to a reader who wants to get “down in the weeds” in the labs where these studies are done and examine the designs, the methods, and the analyses without going to the original scholarly journals. It’s a solid summary of what’s been found so far. The questions raised about the nature of reality and the nature of mind and consciousness are intriguing. How did the future find a crack into my dream and appear in perfect detail? Some of Radin’s studies address the emotional aspect of psychic material. He set up one study using long-term couples with one partner who was ill as subjects, and included the emotional bond and loving intentions as part of the design. Why does this matter? As with any other sense, we may be constantly filtering out irrelevant information and focusing on what is salient. It’s only when we dream that a friend is about to die or hear a voice warning us of something dire for a loved one that we let the psi phenomena take central focus. Otherwise, our psychic sense’s input can be ignored as background noise, the way unimportant input from our hearing often is. Perhaps if we learned to tune into this sense and trusted that it was real, we might act with more awareness and wisdom.

Much of what happens in psi is small—a sense that something is about to happen, or that one is being stared at—so we pay no attention. Radin studies all of these phenomena in minute detail, even documenting patterns of brain activity. I could go on, but that would be a spoiler, if there can be such a thing in science.

 

Radin almost pulls the rug out from under himself when he drifts off into a page or two of speculation on unrelated phenomena such as UFOs and crop circles that the skeptics and debunkers (some who rail against his studies) have actually already done good job explaining. Even though he doesn’t say he believes in these things, and uses them as a take-off point for ruminations about reality, they have no natural connection with psi ability and probably don’t belong in in a book on that subject. (I suspect that editors sometimes don’t tell famous authors—whether they are novelists or established scientists—to “kill your darlings.”) Nonetheless, as a yoga teacher, a long-time consumer of the scholarly literature on psi research, an individual who has occasional psychic experiences, and of course as the author of a mystery series featuring a psychic, I found this to be a worthwhile read.

Many-Layered Mystery

One Good Turn - Kate Atkinson

Though he makes his living writing crime novels, Martin Canning is a shy, gentle man. But when he witnesses a road rage incident at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, he steps in to save a stranger from being beaten to death. The story begins in the point of view of the beaten man, and he does something for hire that’s on the shady side of the law, though the reader knows not what. The book also ends in his POV in a neat frame for the narrative, with a twist that ties up his role and reveals his trade, but also opens up a whole new set of questions as to who was chasing whom from the beginning.

 

Martin’s one good turn takes him into a labyrinth of troubles. Other witnesses to the same incident become the other major players in the story. The plot weaves their stories together, using all of their points of view. The incident is like an impact point of a meteor crash and or the center of a starburst pattern, and it’s also like the outer doll in the Russian nesting dolls that are a repeating image throughout the book. Each of these witnesses is a fascinating character drawn with depth and humor, especially Gloria, the resourceful and disillusioned wife of a corrupt tycoon. Jackson Brodie is sort of a part-time protagonist; it’s not uniquely his story. And it’s not a conventional murder mystery. The nested dolls of time and memory are part of the unusual structure. Sometimes this flashback technique works and sometimes it doesn’t. As Jackson muses on his relationship’s past joys and present difficulties, it works. When he thinks at length about the swimming pool at his house in France while trying to haul a dead body out of the sea at risk to his life, it’s not only implausible but kills the scene with loss of continuity and tension. As Gloria’s memories are gradually revealed, it seems contrived, because she’s not discovering insights. Although she encounters many new externals, as far as her internals go, she’s known all along exactly what drives her. The challenge for a writer using so many points of view is to keep secrets from the reader without making the reader aware of the author withholding information that is known to the POV character. Martin’s recollection of his trip to Russia is parceled out bit by bit, as if it were a new story in the background, a narrative with installments embedded into his ongoing experiences. Is it even a flashback? Realistically, it seems that every time something reminds him of the worst part of that trip, he would think directly about the specific event, not build up to it in a reconstruction of the entire journey. His fantasy life, however, is a wonderful creation, a revelation of his character, his self-image, and his psychological evolution.

 

There are two murders, but the instigating event is not the murder, and the plot doesn’t turn on finding out whodunit. There are layers of motives and connections to puzzle out, but it’s pretty obvious, after a while, who the killer is. That’s not a weakness in the story, in my opinion (though there are others).

 

The role of Tatiana, the Russian woman is ambiguous, and figuring her out might take a full rereading. I’m left wondering if the author knew everything this character was up to behind the scenes and thought the reader would get it, or if she simply found it convenient to have a character who remains mysterious, her actions and knowledge and connections not fully revealed. This is the second time I’ve read a book by this author that made me think she wrapped up loose ends offstage because she either ran out of space in her projected word count, didn’t have a solid solution and wanted to hide it, or wanted to leave the reader trying to figure out a lot she didn’t put in the story.

 

The endings of all the personal-life subplots are given the right degree of partial closure. There are implications of what could happen for Martin, for Jackson, for Gloria, and others, though no certainties. Again, Atkinson delivers characters who carry the story, brilliant writing, natural humor, and a complex but vaguely unsatisfactory plot. Once again, five-star characters, setting, and language and three-star story-telling and plot=four stars.

 

The Bad Luck Club

When Will There Be Good News? - Kate Atkinson

Some people have all the luck—the bad luck. And in this book, they find each other. The writing is so good and the characters so engaging, it didn’t matter in the long run that I occasionally wondered if that many bad things could really happen to people in close proximity with each other. Oddly enough, in such a feast of disasters, there’s also humor—not funny incidents, but perspectives on life and events as seen through the characters’ eyes. I loved teenaged Regina (Reggie) Chase, the ultimate plucky, spunky kid, but not a stereotype. I’d have followed her anywhere, no matter what the plot.

 

A couple of aspects of the mystery felt a little loose or not quite realistic. There was the matter of one man having another's driver’s license and not his own after nearly dying in a train crash. No one follows up on his missing credit cards or license for a long time. I kept thinking, “What about his credit cards?” and felt relieved when someone finally thought of it. A final twist in one of the layers of the romantic subplot struck me as impossible to pull off in the 21st century, though it probably could have been done fifty years ago, and an aspect of the mystery plot was deliberately left unexplained, something for the reader to figure out, with only a hint as to how it might have happened. Figuring it out would have meant going back through the book and piecing together the timelines of events and clarifying where the affected characters were at various times. The book was due back at the library, so I didn’t do this. (Maybe I’m dense and other readers got the explanation right away.) I wonder if the author felt the book was getting too long and decided the only way to tie up this thread was to dangle a hint about it, or if the unfinished, unexplained aspect was intentional, a secret one of the characters successfully kept from the police.

 

A narrative device that I had mixed feelings about was showing a scene in one character’s point of view, ending it, and then switching to a short recap from another POV as the transition to the next scene. I understand the urge to do that, but there are ways to suggest conflicting perceptions without retelling. I don’t mean omniscient head hopping, but choosing the POV of the person with the most at stake and then letting subtle details of expression or behavior on the part of the non-POV character imply what they might be thinking and feeling. This transition technique was not done too often, but it jumped out at me as something a writer would have to be famous and well-established to get away with. Others would be advised to pick up the pace.

 

Five stars for characters, dialogue and setting and three stars for plot=four.

Multi-Author Mystery and Thriller Sale (My rare promotional post)

The Calling (Mae Martin Mysteries Book 1) - Amber Foxx

Since a  lot of the people who follow this review blog are mystery fans, I thought you might like to know where you can find  some mystery and thriller bargains this weekend. Book One in the Mae Martin Psychic Mystery Series, The Calling, is on sale for 99 cents along with many others, spanning all aspects of the mystery and thriller genres.

 

For my fellow Nook owners and others who read on something other than a Kindle, my books are on all e-book retail sites, never just Amazon.

Dublin Noir

Beautifully written. The language and the depth of interiority have the quality of literary fiction, while the plot is a solid mystery, and the ending is original, avoiding the clichés of the genre. Brilliant though it was, I was relieved to be done with it. My soul craved light and joy after immersion in so much unsavory gloom. This is a dark book, populated by masterfully drawn characters each with his or her special kind of unhappiness. I will need a long break from this author and his Dublin of drinkers and smokers and sinners, but he writes so well I still recommend the book, misery and all.

 

A Good Highway Audiobook

Deadline - Sandra Brown

I listened to this as an audiobook, and it delivered what I want from that medium: it kept me wildly alert on long drives (except during one of the sex scenes, which ran on so long I found myself thinking, “No, I don’t want to hear about a third orgasm; get on with the story.”)

 

Just when you think the mystery is solved and there’s nothing left reveal, there’s more. (Kind of like that sex scene, only more exciting.) Brown accomplishes this layered process of revelation through police procedure, an investigative journalist’s persistence, and authorial sleight of hand. The first two are done well, but I’m not a fan of authors overtly withholding from readers. In this case, it makes a certain big discovery feel like a trick rather than part of the growth of an organic plot and I was thrown out of the story for a while. Having the protagonist suddenly share a stunning secret that he has known all along, while effective in making me sit up and say “Whoa!” didn’t work for me otherwise. If he knew this truth, and more than half the book is in his point of view, and he never once thinks about this secret in his private ruminations or during interactions with affected people, especially with a close friend who knows the secret, it’s out of character for such a deep and introspective man. Aside from that and the over-long sex scene, however, this is a great book, masterfully crafted, with intense and believable relationships. Brown waits until the antagonists’ biggest secret has been revealed before showing their points of view. She uses diary excerpts effectively to get yet another point of view and a glimpse of the past. While Deadline isn’t perfect, I still recommend it for fast-paced listening, an excellent audiobook for long stretches of highway. You won’t get close to falling asleep at the wheel.

 

This next comment is more of a footnote than part of the review—food for thought. The book is set in the South and yet everyone is apparently white. Maybe some authors don’t think they should mention race or skin color in a description, but if hair color and eye color are worth noting, why not skin color? In the points of view of a white protagonist, white love interest, and white close friend and ally, it seems that other races and ethnicities would be noticed as a matter of observing appearances, not judging or categorizing. Without any mention of race at all, I got the image of a hundred-percent white cast of characters, and I have never gone a day in the South or the Southwest without interacting with diverse people. (Am I the only reader who ever has this thought? Do other readers have auto-diversity imaginations?)

An Intimate Look at the Tuscarora Tribe during the American Revolution

The Smoke: Tales From a Revolution - New-York - Lars D. H. Hedbor

At first, I thought I was reading the parallel stories of two leaders in two different cultures during the American Revolution, Tanarou, a Tuscarora elder and Sgt. Howe of the Colonial New York militia, since the first two chapters open in these men’s points of view. The plot at first appeared to be about the progress of the war and the conflicts among the Iroquois confederacy, the Colonials, and the British. Then it became the stories of two younger warriors, Ginawo, a promising leader in his tribe, and Private Joseph Killeen, and the unwelcome alliances Native tribes were obliged to make when caught between two sides. Finally, it evolved into Joseph’s story, with the broad view of the war narrowing down to focus an intense light on one young man and his cross between two cultures. Though the dialogue is sometimes forced and in one instance becomes a clunky “I did my research” display as one character unrealistically tells another things she already knows, the writing otherwise flows well and the relationships are portrayed with affecting depth. I would have liked the book to be longer, a fully fleshed out novel. There was potential in it for a big story. However, it was still worth reading, and once it found its focus on the protagonist and I realized what the arc of the plot was about, I was totally immersed in it. My interests in Native American history and eighteenth century history led me to this book, and Hedbor didn’t disappoint me at all in the depth and quality of his understanding of the cultures and setting. Since I’ve already acquired another book in the series, which explores the Revolutionary War in various locales, I’ll probably read it, but I don’t think I’ll get hooked on the series as a whole. History buffs who like short books, however—it was only 167 pages on my Nook—may well become whole-series fans.

 

Mystery with Meaning

A bomb goes off outside a high school basketball game in Shiprock, and the “wrong” man dies …

 

Set partly in New Mexico, partly in Arizona, and entirely within the Navajo Nation, this is Anne Hillerman’s best yet. Again, her strengths are character, setting and relationships, as well as a solid plot. A good mystery is not only a case to be solved, but a story about people the reader cares about. Hillerman integrates police work with family and friendships, Navajo culture, and a sense of the sacred.

 

Bernadette Manuelito is again a strong and engaging central character, with Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn in supporting roles. It was wonderful to read a few chapters in Leaphorn’s point of view, and I admired how the author tuned into his thinking and personality, with explorations of his inner life as well as his process as he solves a puzzle. The new characters are unique and original personalities, including, as Anne Hillerman always does so well, genuine, natural humor. The bombing victim’s story is sad and true to life, making this one of the most emotionally moving mysteries I’ve read, and the man who was the real target of the attempt is developed with depth and complexity.

 

The various Native cultures linked to the Grand Canyon region have meaningful moments in the telling of the story, and the canyon itself comes to life as a setting. The red herrings are believable and the final solution to the mystery makes sense without a single forced bend in the trail to get there.

 

This is the twenty-first book in the series. A reader could begin here and not be lost, but I recommend reading all of them, the three by Anne Hillerman and the ones by her father Tony Hillerman that preceded them. When I moved, I gave away most of my paperback mysteries, but I kept these.

 

Click here for my interview with Anne Hillerman, done when Rock with Wings came out.

Love Letter to Syria

Never can I write of Damascus

without my fingers becoming

a trellis for her jasmine.

Nor can my mouth speak that name

without savoring the juices of her apricot,

pomegranate, mulberry and quince.

 

                                          Poem by Nizar Qabbani.

                                         Translated by students in the Iraqi Student Project

 

Never Can I Write of Damascus: When Syria Became our Home, by Theresa Kubasak and Gabe Huck is a memoir of the couple’s years with the Iraqi Student Project, preparing Iraqi refugees in Syria in to attend college in the U.S. Huck and Kubasak chose the work of creating educational opportunities for Iraqi young adults as their way of compensating in some small way for the damage done to Iraq by the U.S. invasion. They chose Syria because it had welcomed such large numbers of Iraqi refugees. Little did they know that in seven years they would be leaving Syria themselves, and that this country they came to love would be flooding the world with its own desperate refugees.

 

If I were not about to retire from education, I might use this book in a first-year seminar, teaching college students how to explore intellectually, do critical thinking, engage in civil discourse, and appreciate learning, language and culture for their own sake. The model of highly motivated learning in the ISP groups is fascinating, as they discovered world literature and poetry in discussion groups and worked together in writing workshops, to a large extent self-directed with guidance from Kubasak.

 

Through this book, I’ve learned more about Syria than I have ever learned from the news. I got a clear feeling for what it must be like to leave your home and your possessions because your life is in danger and your country at war within itself, and also for how Syria made room for refugees, first from Iraq and then from its own disrupted society. Though they make occasional references to politics, most of all Huck and Kubasak have written a love letter to Damascus: its language, its architecture, its food, its artisans, its spirituality, and its people. Damascus as it was. The city in this memoir is full of music, dancing, fresh fruit juices, family, prayers, creativity, and most of all friendliness and generosity.

 

The authors use excerpts from student writings, interviews with local residents, and quotations from books and poetry to illustrate the themes of each chapter. One moving story is from an Iraqi refugee. She tells about stopping in Mosul on a cold night as one of many escaping to Syria, taking shelter in a mosque. The travelers didn’t know each other, but little by little they drew closer to each other for conversation and for warmth, and thus they spent the night, comforted by each other’s human presence and warmth. They were Shia, Sunni and Christian in that group, and it no longer mattered at all.

Well-Orchestrated Mystery

Author Nupur Tustin casts composer Franz Joseph Haydn in the role of amateur sleuth, and does so with believable realism, creating a situation in which Haydn has no choice but to take on the role. Not only has his principal violinist disappeared, but the missing man has stolen some of Haydn’s unpublished new music. The plot grows more complex, entangled in political unrest and a love affair.

 

The working life and the social standing of musicians and their place in a royal court is a fascinating part of the historical setting. The book is full of original and intriguing characters, especially Haydn’s observant and difficult wife. Though she’s hard to live with, she provides valuable insight into the mystery. Finding her to be such a strong character, I would have enjoyed a little more description of her kitchen and her clothes (since she seems fonder of cooking and shopping than of her husband). I want to know her better, and hope to see more of her in future books in the series.

 

The author’s musical background—she is a composer herself—gives authenticity to the book. She strikes a good balance between the elements of a historical novel and a cozy mystery. The plot is unpredictable. Every time I thought I had the mystery figured out, along came another surprise, right up until the end. And the end is excellent. One of the best final lines I’ve read lately.

 

Beauty, Revenge, Redemption

The Painter: A novel - Peter Heller

While this is a novel about crime at one level, a nerve-stretching, page-turning suspense story, it’s also the story of a man’s soul, his deepest loves, his darkest corners, his inner light, his passions, and his art. Heller gets inside the process of Jim Stegner’s whole being. When you read this book, you, feel as if you are Jim. You wade into his favorite fishing streams with him, experience his blinding rages with him, fall into the flow of creative inspiration with him, and feel every twist and turn in the road with him, as he navigates his grief over his teenaged daughter’s death, his fame, and his conflict with a dangerous man whose family doesn’t forgive or forget. Ever.

 

Jim is no saint, but he stands up for the weak, and he does it with fists. When he sees a man beating a horse, Jim fights with him in front of witnesses, breaks the man’s nose and liberates the horse. And so begins Jim’s trip to hell. There are stops in brief but intense heavens of love, painting and fishing, but this time Jim’s inner demons have pulled in some real ones, and they won’t leave him alone.

 

The landscape of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado is so alive as seen through this painter and fisherman’s eyes that it’s virtually a character in the book, it. The people in Jim’s life—his model Sofia, his friends, his oft-remembered late daughter, the police who question him—are vivid and multi-dimensional, and even the passing minor characters are so finely portrayed they seem to have lives beyond the story. The scenes revolving around art in Santa Fe are drawn from life: the wealthy collectors, the galleries, and the lionizing of the famous man. As scandal and suspicion grow around Jim, so does the value of his art. The confluence of the public pressure for pictures and interviews with the inner pressure from his emotions and the sense of being hunted like prey come together in an explosive and unexpected conclusion.

 

For an interview with the author about this book, go to

http://www.peterheller.net/media/peter-in-the-media/

and click on the video for The Painter. The story behind the book is as fascinating as the book itself.

 

Historical yet Current: The Widow's Guild

Francis Bacon is appointed to a disturbing and unwelcome job, as a member of a commission involved in the interrogation of Catholics. This is regarded as service to his country, with Catholic Spain being England’s enemy and religion and politics being intertwined. Meanwhile, Lady Alice Trumpington, looking forward to the eventual privileges and property of widowhood, marries a very old man. The book opens with her wedding night—both a comedy scene and a love scene—and then a murder. Someone kills her husband while she is not in bed with him. This plot thread weaves into Francis’s unpleasant assignment when the murder is connected to others—all the victims men suspected of Catholic sympathies.

 

A group of intelligent, purposeful widows engage Francis to investigate and become Lady Alice’s advisors in her new role. The complexity of the law as it applied to women and religion is integrated into the story without the slightest hitch in the action. (Should anyone need a reminder why the separation of church and state was a wise innovation in the development of democratic government, or why women’s rights have been such a long work in progress, a trip back in time to Elizabethan England will provide it.)

There’s a delightfully Shakespearean flavor to Lady Alice’s and her maidservant’s adventures in disguise, as well as an illustration of the limits on a woman’s freedom. Castle's writing style is polished, her research thorough, her mastery of the idiom of the times excellent, and her characters are irresistible. The relationships established in the previous books continue to develop, especially the connection between Tom Clarady and Trumpet (Lady Alice).

 

A sailor from Tom’s father’s ship is an original new character, and I liked seeing England through his eyes. However, he delivers a plot turn so strong its emotional impact overshadows everything else. I never guessed whodunit, but I was so taken up with the new events that I forgot to try to figure it out. There is also a bit of wordplay-based misunderstanding relating to this sailor that I found somewhat stretched. Until this point, the balance between serious and comic material felt exactly right, and I was thinking that the book was the best in the series. After that, however, the transitions seemed too close together, so the impact of each was, to my mind, blunted. I would have preferred to have the new story line come at the beginning of the next book. And I will read the next book. Though I didn’t find this one to be quite perfect, I most definitely enjoyed it.

 

Less Than Expected

Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries - Benjamin Radford, Lisa Jong-Soon Goodlin

Author Benjamin Radford obviously enjoys his work and enjoys telling his success stories. In many ways, he is thorough and scientific, such as when he investigates lake monster sightings or crop circles, and the claims of showman-type psychic who do tricks on TV. He does good detective work on ghosts as well, though I’m not sure he has proven they don’t exist, only that the methods of most investigators are poor and that the ghosts he has investigated don’t exist.

 

He falls short in his investigation of a “psychic detective” who was consulted by police. All the information she came up with was correct, but it was not as specific as she and others said it was when asked about it long after the event. Thus he shows the fallibility of memory over time, but not that she was initially incorrect. Her information given at the time of the crime (less detailed than that which was misremembered years later) was not specific enough that the police could have found the killer using it, but it was detailed enough that claiming she got it right by chance strikes me as a stretch. Radford says that her identification of the killer as an ethnically Eastern European man with hard K sound in his name and having a connection with a mechanic or being one, and having served prison time in the South are all just random guesses with good odds of being right. He didn’t do a statistical analysis of these factors to see if her odds of being right on this combination of traits were in fact as good as her odds of being wrong. The murder took place in New Jersey. He writes that 7% of the population of New Jersey at the time was Eastern European and therefore the odds of an accurate guess were good. But were they? 93% percent of people in New Jersey were not Eastern European. She had a much greater chance of being wrong. Of that Eastern European 7%, one can assume half were male. How many of that 3.5% of the state’s population had worked in a gas station or had relatives who did? Perhaps many. Jersey has a lot of gas stations. I’ll make that 2.5% of the New Jersey population just to lean in Radford’s favor. And of that 2.5% of the population, how many had a hard K sound in their names? It’s common in Eastern European names, so I’ll barely shave anything off and get this down to 2% of the population of New Jersey at the time. And of that 2% how many had served prison time in the South? (I have no idea, but if all of them had it would be remarkable.) Radford’s error in logic is assuming that because he can dispute the accuracy of various people’s memories years after the fact that he can prove she isn’t psychic. In another section, he showed that a performing card-guessing “psychic” was doing a magician’s card tricks, but this case isn’t the same. Nonetheless, he expresses dismay that the woman is still working as a psychic and refers to her customers as “victims.” He doesn’t notice the errors in his reasoning, and yet he critiques others for faulty thinking. A true skeptic has an open mind and looks carefully at what comes into it. Once in a great while, there may be a real psychic even if the majority are frauds.

 

Radford tells readers that he shows respect and compassion for people who believe in paranormal events. He investigated a house in which a couple perceived a scary haunting and he successfully explained the normal nature of the various events that taken together were misinterpreted as a ghost. This was a real service. But he tends to describe the couple in terms that make them look bad to the reader, by emphasizing, for example, that there was no ghostly emanation other than the cloud from the couple’s chain-smoking. The mockery is subtle, but it’s still mockery. He also uses as many disparaging adjectives as he can for other, less skeptical investigators.

 

I’m not sure if he takes himself as seriously as he seems to. Relieving frightened people of the fear their house is haunted is valuable, but most of what he does is merely entertaining. It doesn’t change the quality of lives for the most part. After all, what harm is there in people thinking they saw a Bigfoot? Or doing spooky TV shows hunting for ghosts? Yes, they use unscientific methods, but is entertainment harmful? He shows great concern for the dead who are reputed to be ghosts but less respect for the living who believe in them.

 

The book’s comingling of unrelated paranormal beliefs, ranging from cryptozoology (chupacabras and lake monsters and Bigfoot) to crop circles, to ghost sightings and psychics, and even a non-paranormal investigation into Pokemon cartoon-induced seizures in Japan made it more of a Benjamin Radford trophy case than a how-to book for would-be investigators. Though he does give some basics for how to hunt for ghosts, and also some explanations of how he disproves lake monsters and crop circles, it’s more of a how-I-did-it book than a how-you-can-do-it book.

 

It includes short sections by the same people who blurbed the book. I’m not sure what this means, but I noticed it.

 

The editing and proofreading could have been better. I usually find two or three typos in most books, but this had a few too many, as well as grammatical errors and even oddities like different font sizes on the same page. The title needed better editing. After all, if it’s a mystery, it’s unexplained, and if it’s been explained, it’s not a mystery.

 

Despite all the flaws, I enjoyed reading it. He’s a competent raconteur and I learned some useful material for a novel I’m working on.

Mystery and Mischief

Burglars Can't Be Choosers - Lawrence Block

I read this because a fictional character recommended it. In the Pot Thief mysteries by J. Michael Orenduff, Susannah is a fan of Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr books. I like Susannah and trust her taste in reading, and I believe the Pot Thief series is in some ways a tribute to the burglar series. (The Burglar Who Studied Spinoza, for example.) The law-breaking but nonetheless kind and non-violent protagonist is something the two series have in common, and the witty, quirky first-person narration. In other ways, they are different.

 

Bernie has no legal occupation and as a consequence somewhat limited social circle, since he can’t tell people what he does. He’s a well-behaved burglar, however. He would never carry a gun. All he wants is to steal from the rich and otherwise stay out of trouble, but he ends up framed for murder when he breaks into an apartment with a dead body in it. His attempts to clear himself are clever, devious, illegal, and funny. While the reader doesn't fear for Bernie's life, there’s plenty of suspense with each escapade, while his freedom is on the line.

 

The only flaw I found was the convoluted presentation of the solution to the murder mystery, packed into dialogue without much action. The secondary mystery around Bernie’s romantic interest was wrapped up with more style. (I knew she was up to something, though I didn’t figure out what.) Definitely a fun read.

 

Brilliant Women’s Work

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race - Margot Lee Shetterly

This book taught me aspects of history I hadn't known, and gave me an inside look at NASA and the work that went on there. I lived for a number of years on the Virginia Peninsula, and in reading this learned more about the region’s mid-20th Century history than I did while living there. The stories of the gifted African-American women who became mathematicians and engineers are interwoven with the impact of their work in World War II, the Cold War and the Space Race, and with changes in the society around them through the transition from segregation to Virginia’s appallingly reluctant integration.

 

Anyone who takes education for granted, takes civil rights or women’s right for granted, or underestimates the importance of an engaged and supportive community, should read this. And if you don’t like math or science, you should read this. The narrative makes the work of women who computed equations for a living exciting. It wasn’t that long ago that “computer” was a job description, not a machine. I was impressed by the level of commitment to helping others and being part of a world outside of work that these hard-working professionals demonstrated.  They were—and many no doubt still are—a sisterhood of strength and social engagement as well as mathematical genius.

 

Once in a while the author veers around in the timeline, in a way that is momentarily confusing. There are few clunky sentences in the epilogue, as if it was not edited as well as the rest of the book. An occasional reminder of the roles of the less-frequently mentioned members of the cast would have been helpful, especially since popular first names at the time lacked variety and tend to show up repeatedly. These are small imperfections, though mildly annoying, in a fast and fascinating read.