31 July 2022

Books Completed Since July 1

book icon  The Bastard Brigade: The True Story of the Renegade Scientists and Spies Who Sabotaged the Nazi Atomic Bomb, Sam Kean
I really, really loved this book! It combines a varied cast of characters including Moe Berg, a talented baseball player who loved playing spy and whose sorties into Japan provided the only intelligence the US had at the beginning of World War II; Irene Curie (daughter of Marie) and her husband Frederic Joliot, attempting to keep radioactive elements out of the hands of the Nazis; Samuel Goudsmit who was trying to get his Jewish parents out of Europe and his good friend Werner Heisenberg (he of the Uncertainty Principle); Boris Pash, who escaped Europe early and worked for US Army intelligence; and a pilot named Joe Kennedy Jr, whose younger brother eventually ended up capturing all the glory. Jumping from France to Germany to the U.S. and Norway and more, this is the complex tale of the escapades and dangerous lives of the Alsos team, who were determined to keep the secrets of fission from the Nazis. One of the most mind-boggling narratives is about the continued efforts to destroy the Vemork power plant in Norway; it had been captured by the Nazis and was the only place in Europe that made heavy water. The team ran into numerous obstacles in trying to breach the place and the eventual raid was awe-inspiring.

This is a very bad review of a very good book; the chapters are so intertwined that the story is hard to describe, a combination of World War II history and the history of the development of the nuclear bomb. Moe Berg is an especially interesting character; I'd like to read a whole book about Berg, even though I hate baseball!

book icon  The Dead Romantics, Ashley Poston
Florence Day grew up in the family funeral home in the small town of Mairmont, South Carolina, with her parents, her sister Alice, and her brother Carver, and like her loving father, she's always had a special talent: she can talk to ghosts and is not afraid of them. She now lives in New York City, ghostwriting (naturally) for the famous romance author Ann Nichols, and her books are well received. But now, a year after her breakup with fellow author Lee Marlow, who abused her trust, Florence seems incapable of writing the final ghostwritten Ann Nichols book she was hired to pen. But her new editor, the tall and gorgeous Ben Andor, says she needs to finish it.

The final straw is a phone call from her mother, telling her that her father has died, and Florence returns to Mairmont in mourning for both her dad and her career. She's not home a day before she gets the shock of her life when opening the front door: Ben Andor is standing in ghostly form before her.

This was a delightful paranormal romance; I thoroughly enjoyed Florence's home town, the family funeral parlor that to her was a warm loving home, her neighbors, and her efforts to help Ben, whom she believes she is supposed to help to get to "the other side" just as she starts to fall in love with him. The only thing I didn't like was that Lee Marlow didn't get called on the despicable thing he did to Florence. I won't give it away, but it was thoroughly loathsome and he deserves to be horsewhipped.

book icon  Law & Disorder, John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
This was my first "Robert Goren made me do it" (from Law & Order: Criminal Intent) book about John Douglas, an early FBI profiler, the basis for the character Scott Glenn played in the film The Silence of the Lambs, courtesy the remainder shelves at Books-a-Million.

It's kind of a goofy title for the book, I think, and makes it sound not serious, but the contents are dead-on, especially when Douglas talks about the horrifying case of Suzanne Collins, a Marine trainee ready to go out on her first assignment who was brutally beaten and then raped with a tree branch by a sadistic jerk who felt diminished by his Marine wife, who then led the courts a lengthy trail of appeals before he was finally put to death. Douglas also talks about other cases he has personally worked on, plus weighs in on famous cases like the Jon-Benet Ramsey murder and the O.J. Simpson case, the Amanda Knox case in Italy and also a set of murders that were branded as "Satanic" because simply because one of the suspects doodled pentagrams on his notebooks.

If you watch crime series like Criminal Minds, Law & Order: Criminal Intent, and even NCIS, you'll probably like this look behind how real profilers work.

book icon  Re-read: A Valiant Deceit, Stephanie Graves
Read this as an e-book and immediately wanted a "real" copy, the second in Graves' delightful "Olive Bright" series, which I enjoyed much more than the Barnes & Noble-pushed "Poppy Redfern" series, which has a similar theme (young British woman during the second World War who wants to do her bit).

In this entry, Olive must pick out three pigeons to accompany three Belgian informants being smuggled into occupied Europe; the birds will be vital in sending back information about the Belgians' efforts to mislead and sabotage the Nazi war effort. The Belgians are all pigeon fanciers, reassuring Olive that even though the birds will be in danger from enemy fire, they will be well cared for. She also has to cope with the pretend romance she's set up with her superior, Captain Jameson Aldridge, which she feels doesn't look realistic enough. Then one of the officers at the top-secret Station XVII facility is found murdered in a nearby wood. Olive can't help wondering who killed the young man, although Aldridge warns her off sleuthing.

If anything, this is better than the first book because the storyline is now established and the missions involving the pigeons can be begun. There's also an affecting subplot involving RAF officers who have been disfigured in plane crashes undergoing rehabilitation at a nearby estate, one of them who is now living in Miss Husslebee's former home (she was the victim in the first book). Olive befriends one of the pilots and is determined that these men be reintroduced into society without people making unkind comments about their appearance. Even though Olive makes one serious mistake, her instincts are sound, especially about the pigeons and their handlers, and I just love the people around Olive, like her mercurial Seigfried Farnon-like dad (who's even a vet), her stepmother Harriet who has MS, their young evacuee Jonathon, and the active young Girl Guide Henrietta.

book icon  The Hunt of History, Nathan Raab
Nathan Raab's father was an attorney, but his real love was collecting historical memorabilia, especially autographs, letters, and other papers written/signed by figures from American history. Eventually he quit his law practice and instead founded the Raab Collection, a premier collection of historical documents for acquisition or sale. Raab at first had no intention to go into his father's business, but eventually he joined him.

This is a well-narrated tale of Raab's introduction into the collecting world and the fascinating documents that he collects, and just why he collects them, as instructed by his father. That's the most interesting aspect of this book, how Raab's father taught him to distinguish what are the best historical documents to buy at auction. For instance, all autographed items are not the same, some, even from the most famous historical figures, are a dime a dozen, while others are not only autographed, but have special historical significance. One example I remember was of a Charles Darwin letter in which Darwin, unlike other white men of his time, significantly comments on the intelligence of black men and speaks against slavery, unique from his usual letters addressing scientific subjects, so the letter is more significant.

I found this on a remainder shelf, and sometimes they are the best books!

book icon  Bryant & May: London Bridge is Falling Down, Christopher Fowler
Well, dammit, now I'm crying...

I knew what happened in this book and didn't want to read it for months, but finally took the dive. The Peculiar Crimes Unit is officially closed, but the members aren't ready to pull themselves apart yet. Arthur Bryant goes searching for a case that can keep them going sometime longer, and finds the odd death of an elderly woman who suddenly "dropped off the radar" and was found starved and dehydrated in her flat. Ironically, this woman and her friends hold ties to the original formation of the PCU, and this brings them into the orbit of Larry Cranston, who has ties to the United States government, and who was just brought down for running over a young woman while driving under the influence of alcohol.

There are always twists in a Bryant and May mystery, but this one seems to have a triple complement of them as the dead woman's friends, all codebreakers during World War I, struggle to survive against an assassin determined to shake a secret from one of them and kill them all. And what about the ugly model of London Bridge each one of them seems to have; it appears to be tied to the important secret. Not to mention that many of Arthur Bryant's eccentric informants seem to be in danger as well.

The twists and turns turn into a satisfying conclusion...but, oh, that ending!

book icon  Journey Into Darkness, John Douglas and Mark Olshaker
This is the third book by Douglas and Olshaker; Douglas being the former FBI profiler who was the basis for Scott Glenn's character in Silence of the Lambs and who is being portrayed in fictional form in the Netflix series Mindhunter, based on Douglas' first book.

As in Law & Disorder, Douglas tells many different stories about the kinds of serial killers and other criminals he has dealt with. Several of the chapters in this volume talk about pedophiles and how they stalk children (and they don't look sinister or have a "creepy" manner; they generally take the form of friendly neighbors and sometimes even relatives), and several more chapters are devoted to a case which haunted Douglas for years, the murder of a young Marine about to go on her first assignment, Suzanne Collins, who was brutally beaten and then raped with a tree branch by the indolent husband of another Marine. When the man was finally found, he cheated execution for several years by filing appeal after appeal. Douglas also tries to explain how he assembles a profile dossier from the clues left behind at the scene of the crime.

I call this one of my "Robert Goren made me do it" books because I got interested in profiling after watching Law & Order: Criminal Intent. It's certainly not for the fainthearted.

book icon  A Serpent's Tooth, Craig Johnson
In the ninth Walt Longmire mystery, it's Homecoming time at the local high school when Walt learns his number and his best friend Henry Standing Bear's numbers are about to be retired. Just about this time a Mormon boy who's been kicked out of his compound turns up in Durant, accompanied by an elderly man who says he's the youngster's protector and also over 100 years old. This leads Longmire and his deputy Vic Moretti to investigate in the tiny town of Short Drop and a general store that also operates as a library, run by a woman with a lost daughter who may have ties to a rogue Mormon compound in South Dakota. There's a possibility the Mormon boy, Cord, may be her grandson. Longmire at first thinks the daughter's disappearance is the doing of the religious extremists, but soon it becomes obvious something much more sinister is going on.

Another great one from Johnson, with quirky characters, the growing relationship between Walt and Vic, and a corker of an ending that involves the invasion of a compound by Walt, Henry, and Vic. (Did I mention that Henry was in this book? A lot? Yes, indeed!)

book icon  Hard Road West, Keith Heyer Meldahl
When I saw this book's description, I was intrigued. Then when I finally received it, I rejoiced. Someone basically took my favorite episode of Alistair Cooke's America, "Gone West," in which he traced the path of westward travelers to the California gold fields, expanded it using pioneer journals, and then added geological information to explain how the landscape that the wagon trains crossed was formed. Maps and photos are included to explain some of the more scholarly geologic terms, especially having to do with how landmasses and mountains were formed.

If you love history and love earth sciences, this has got to be the book for you, especially if, way back when, you watched America and were fascinated by the "Gone West" episode. The author even opens with the Humboldt Sink, which Cooke talked about in length in the episode. The road was far more difficult than Cooke could describe in one television episode, and it's still amazing to think that due to the makeup of the rock and soil underneath the westward path you can still stop to see grooves in the rock. (I also don't remember passing so close to the Humboldt Sink on our two cross-country trips! It is due south of I-80 in Nevada.)

Please be warned it is very detailed about the geologic features and processes which built the landscape west of the Mississippi. If you're "not a science person," the narrative may prove daunting.