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Sunday, February 10, 2019

The Shotgun Lawyer--A School Shooting Transforms An Attorney

The F2F mystery group that I attend selected The Shotgun Lawyer by Victor Methos to discuss at their upcoming meeting in March.  I wanted to make sure I read it on time.  So I started this legal thriller at my first opportunity, when I had free time between review commitments, in February. I purchased it on Amazon, and this is my review.


   I saw a review from someone on Goodreads who raked this author over the coals. He read the bio included with the book which stated that he practiced law in Utah. That Goodreads reviewer said that he couldn't find a lawyer in Utah named Victor Methos.  There's a simple explanation.  Victor Methos is a pseudonym.  That's the first thing that occurred to me when I saw the name.  In fact, I'm convinced that it's a shout out to fans of  Highlander: The Series where Methos is the oldest Immortal.  The name of the protagonist in The Shotgun Lawyer, Peter Game, could also be associated with the Methos character on the Highlander series.  Methos was played by Peter Wingfield.  The Highlander Immortals fight one another in what is called The Game.  Of course Methos fans expect him to be the victor in The Game. Am I imagining these Highlander connections because I myself am a Highlander fan?  That could be, but it does seem to me that a character named  Peter Game in a novel by Victor Methos can't be a coincidence. 

For much of the novel I felt like I needed to have a great deal of patience with Peter Game.  I had expected him to be ethically challenged considering the type of law that he originally practiced, but he also made dangerous mistakes that showed a total lack of judgment, and he committed the same errors repetitively.  Around the time when I was considering that he was truly TSTL (Too Stupid To Live), I came to the realization that he had no sense of his own value as a human being.  Peter Game would only change when he became convinced that he was worthwhile.  His school shooting case did provide him with an opportunity to achieve self-respect.  He only needed to grab hold of the gold ring on the legal merry-go-round.

Characterization in The Shotgun Lawyer was nuanced and believable.   Victor Methos brought us into the experience of  Peter Game's client, Melissa, a mother who had lost her seven year old son in the school shooting.  Peter's former fiancee, Kelly, and Craig, the law school intern who became Peter's clerk, were also well-developed.  The author gave Peter even more dimension by showing us Peter's painful regrets about his conflicted relationship with his son.  I was blown away by the number of deeply honest and powerful scenes throughout this novel.

The Shotgun Lawyer is one of the best legal thrillers I have ever read.   I expect it to be in my top ten reads at the end of 2019.




Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Braided Dimensions: A 21st Century Wiccan in Medieval Wales

I agreed to review Braided Dimensions by Marie Judson because I like to read books containing spirituality, magic and history.   It deals with a Wiccan former academic who time travels magically. So I requested the book from the author and this is my honest review.


There were things I really liked about this book, and they were at the heart and soul of the novel.  Braided Dimensions is steeped in magic and Pagan spirituality.  The protagonist meditates, chants spells and has a more than surface understanding of  Norse runes and Tarot.   She is also a visionary who is able to trance deeply.   I was pleased with Judson's depictions of these magical and spiritual phenomena.

The character development of protagonist Kay Halefin was also a strong aspect of the novel.  At the opening, Kay has lost her position at a university due to false rumors about her research into shamanism.  She drifted into a non-academic job that ended up being routine and uninspiring.  Her life was ripe for change, and major transformation was exactly what she got.  We never learn why she was drawn to Kyna in 10th century Wales.  She could have been a distant ancestor, but Kyna was definitely a catalyst for the change that Kay needed.

Almost all my problems with Braided Dimensions had to do with the choices that Marie Judson made for the historical aspect of her book.   We are told that the historical characters spoke Middle Welsh.  Actual Middle Welsh dialogue would have been incomprehensible to modern readers.  I would have preferred an occasional flavoring of Middle Welsh or Gaelic words here and there.  Instead Judson gave us characters speaking Scots.  I listened to tapes of Welsh author Dylan Thomas reciting from Under Milkwood when I was involved in a production of that play, and I studied Scots for a theatre class.  So I know that the Scots and the Welsh sound very different from one another.

In addition, these Welsh people seemed to be culturally influenced by the Vikings. Although I learned from the Viking Answer Lady  that the village of Llanbadarn Fawr ,where most of the historical characters lived, was raided by Vikings late in the 10th century, there was no Viking settlement there.  In fact, there was relatively little Viking colonization in Wales as compared to Scotland where Viking colonization was extensive.  Many current day Scots are partly descended from Vikings.  So you could expect that some 10th century Scots might know all about Norse runes and ancient Norse deities.  Welsh Druids  who speak Scots, and do a bind rune spell using Norse runes just didn't sit right with me.  This cultural presence of Scotland in a Welsh village made me feel that Kay wasn't the only character who'd been displaced.

Late in the novel, a 10th century Welsh healer read Tarot cards for Kay.   Since I am a student of Tarot history,  this didn't seem at all possible to me.  While the concepts symbolized through Tarot images are ancient ones, the idea of making them concrete through a deck of cards requires the existence of playing cards.    According to a Wikipedia article on the history of playing cards, they were probably invented in 10th century China, but the Welsh of that century had no contact with China.  Playing cards came to Europe in the 14th century via Egypt.  So I find it too improbable that even handmade Tarot decks could have existed in early medieval Wales.

Many readers may not notice the irregularities that I've been discussing in this review.  They  could be considered quibbles, yet I also found the historical portion of the novel somewhat repetitive and predictable.  Similar incidents occurred over and over.  The narrative  could have arrived at its climax sooner if some of this repetition had been eliminated.

I wanted to enjoy Braided Dimensions a great deal more than I did.  I did like Kay, and the magical/spiritual elements were wonderful.


Saturday, February 2, 2019

Algorithms of Oppression--Lack of Neutrality in Search Engines

I subscribe to the list for the Progressive Librarians Guild  which recently established a group on Goodreads.  They decided to select Algorithms of Oppression by Safiya Omoja Noble as their first book for discussion.  I downloaded a copy for review from Net Galley last year.  So I prioritized it and started reading it as soon as I could.  I finished it toward the end of January, and this is my review.


 Safiya Umoja Noble is described in About The Author as an instructor in the University of California at Los Angeles School of Education and Information Studies.  So UCLA combined their library school with the education department.   Since librarians are educators, this does make a certain amount of sense.  I should note that UCLA still does have a Masters of Library Information Science degree program.

The foundation of Noble's argument is her discussion of how search works.  This was an eye opener for me.  It shouldn't have been, but I hadn't examined the topic critically. She states that citation analysis is the basis for page ranking in search.

Citation analysis is used by scholars to determine the significance of  a book or article in a particular field.  Noble then  tells us that the problem with citation analysis is that there is no consideration of whether the material in question is being cited approvingly or negatively.  So the number of citations doesn't indicate whether other scholars thought it was well written or valid.  Similarly, search is supposed to give us the most popular results first.  The most obvious problem is that the most popular websites aren't necessarily the most relevant for any particular user.  I was taught in library school  that librarians need to be search professionals who know how to elicit relevant results with the most specific search terms.

 Is this perception of search as a neutral process really an accurate description?  Users of search tend to assume that the top results are indeed the most popular.  Noble interrogates our assumptions about search.  What is search engine optimization?  It means that some have found ways to game the system. Advertising is also a factor.  After all, users don't pay for their searches.  Search engines need to be profitable in order to survive.  So the top results in many cases are advertisers.  As users, most of us would say that we are willing to tolerate advertising in return for free services.  Are there limits to this tolerance?  What if the advertisers are offensive to users?  What if they promote racist or sexist attitudes?

Noble shows us numerous examples of  racist and sexist top search results.  She does admit that Google is eventually responsive to complaints, and makes changes to ameliorate the situation.  This means that activist users must be vigilant, and refuse to allow advertisers or gamers of the system to demean entire groups of people.

Algorithms of Oppression is a significant book.  Information professionals and students in the field should definitely read it, but I  think it's also illuminating to anyone who uses search engines.




Tuesday, January 29, 2019

One If By Land, Two If By Submarine: A Middle Grade Time Travel Novel

I read books because their central concepts interest me.  One If By Land, Two If By Submarine by Eileen Schnabel isn't the first children's book that I've reviewed.  The most recent was Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes which I reviewed here.
I requested a free copy of Schnabel's historical science fiction novel from the publisher.

In the case of One If By Land, Two If By Submarine, I was interested in finding out why children would have been sent back in time to oppose an effort to prevent the American Revolution.  Schnabel does have a credible explanation based on her ideas about how time travel works.  So I thought my readers would want to know about this book.


Initially, this novel reminded me of the TV time travel series, Timeless.  Yet the effort to change history in Timeless was much more extensive and didn't involve children.

When I started reading, I thought that  thirteen year old Kep Wearguard had been selected as the protagonist because he's an athlete who knows very little about history and needed to have everything explained to him.    Over the course of the narrative, I came to respect Kep.  He's courageous, loyal and resourceful.

The characters that immediately captured my interest were Kep's fellow time travelers, T.J. and Tela.   T. J. is a young African American who wonders if support for the American Revolution is extending slavery.  Tela is a vegan and an animal activist. I would love to see future books in the series that focus more centrally on T.J. or Tela.


Sunday, January 20, 2019

Cloud Warriors: A Lost Tribe in Peru

Cloud Warriors is a thriller dealing with the results of an anthropological expedition to the jungles of Peru. It's also the debut novel of author Rob Jung.  I was interested in the anthropology aspect which included shamanism and plant lore.  So I requested a free review copy in advance of publication from the publisher via Net Galley.


The  anthropology expedition to the Peruvian jungle that interested me was facilitated by funding from a pharmaceutical company helmed by a  CEO who was rather improbably portrayed as a saintly idealist in an industry that is widely considered the most shameful example of corporate greed.   Naturally, he had a stereotypically villainous employee who was conspiring against him.   This employee is the one who provides the conflict that makes The Cloud Warriors a thriller. 

I thought this improbable CEO was a great character even though I didn't believe that he could exist in the real world.  He cared more about people than profits.  That's a lovely idea.

Other readers might consider the medium Carrie Waters just as improbable because she isn't a fake practitioner.   Since most mediums in novels turn out to be fake, I often avoid books that contain mediums. Those fake mediums are a predictable plot element.  Carrie had some predictable traits, but she was also honest, loyal and caring.  I enjoyed Carrie's gift. It allowed her to be in contact with both the spirits of the dead, and living characters who were in a shamanic trance.

These characters were shamans of a fictional indigenous people who were lighter skinned than other indigenous groups in Peru.   They were referred to as a "lost white tribe".  Adam Starling, the head of the anthropology department at the university involved in the Peru expedition, was apparently obsessed with light skinned indigenous peoples in parts of the world where the majority of the population are non-Caucasian.  I found this disturbing because his focus on finding these "lost white tribes" seemed likely to be based on an unconscious belief in white supremacy.  I do need to point out that Adam Starling is not portrayed as a sympathetic character.  He is described as being motivated by fame rather than expanding our knowledge of human cultures.   He is considered unsavory, but I think he may also have been a racist.

Cloud Warriors is a novel intended for adults.  There are some explicit sex scenes included.   There was one that bothered me because it was a breach of professional ethics, but that scene illustrated the immaturity of  the male character involved.  He goes through a process of growth during the course of the narrative.

This fusion of anthropology and the paranormal with a somewhat standard thriller plot kept Cloud Warriors engaging and suspenseful.   This is a very credible debut novel for Rob Jung.  I will enjoy finding out what he does next.


Sunday, January 6, 2019

Dumpstermancer 2: Duplicity--The Homeless Mage As A Detective

Duplicity is the second in the Dumpstermancer series.  Discarded,which begins this set of urban fantasy adventures, was my first encounter with the work of  Dumpstermancer's creator Michael J. Allen.  I reviewed it here.   I had initially requested  a free copy of Duplicity for review, but I needed the background from Discarded in order to review it properly.  If you were considering reading Duplicity first because of the cool cover, I definitely don't advise it. These books aren't standalones.  That's why Allen generously gifted me with both novels.


  So I was introduced to homeless mage Eli Graham in Discarded.  In Duplicity readers learn about the events in Eli's past that made him so accustomed to false accusations, but the main plot focus of this book is a common trope in urban fantasy.  Eli becomes an investigator of a series of supernatural crimes.  There appears to be a killer using magic to eliminate the homeless, but the situation is more complex than that.  I don't want to be more specific to avoid spoilers.

Since I read mysteries regularly, I am accustomed to following clues.  I figured out the solution to this murder case quite early in the novel.  Eli did have to deal with constant new developments, and other distractions due to the difficulties of surviving on the street.  So I understood why he didn't figure out what was happening as soon as I did, but I did wonder if he might be slow on the uptake because he never did solve the case.  There was a big reveal at the end, but it didn't astonish me at all.

I appreciated Eli's creativity with spells even though he wasn't much of a detective.  After all, designing spells had been his profession.  He never claimed that sleuthing was his forte, and  he was essentially drafted into the investigation.  I also respected Eli's honesty about his own flaws.

Razcolm, the spirit who inhabited Eli's magical origami creations, was as snarky as he'd been in Discarded.  I was glad to see from the preview appended after the end of this book, that Razcolm would be practicing the art of snarkiness  in Dumpstermancer 3: Disrupted.

I liked Duplicity, but didn't love it.  I admit that I preferred Discarded.  Since my priority is always on original concepts, the second book in a series often feels less fresh than the first.   I am hoping that Michael J. Allen will throw in some really surprising magical innovations in Disrupted.


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The Kizuna Coast--Japanese Come Together in Post-Earthquake Mystery

After reading The Widows of Malabar Hill, the first in a 1920's India mystery series by Sujata Massey, which I reviewed here , I discovered that there was a novel from her Rei Shimura mystery series that I hadn't known about called The Kizuna Coast. It also deals with significant events in recent Japanese history, the Great Eastern Kanto Earthquake of 2011 and the tsunami in its aftermath.  I decided that this novel would be my last read of 2018.


There was so much to like about this book.  Most notably, the concept of kizuna. From what is said about it in this book, I would call it a combination of compassion and generosity particularly in an emergency situation.  So New Yorkers could be said to have shown kizuna toward each other post 9-11.  Kizuna was definitely on display in the context of the earthquake and tsunami that occurred in Japan just before the events of this novel.  Rei Shimura, who was living in Hawaii at that point, returned to Japan to join a party of volunteers who were going to aid tsunami survivors in the Tohoku region.  One of them was Ishida, Rei's elderly mentor who had phoned asking for her help.

 I was intrigued to learn from the acknowledgements that mystery author Naomi Hirahara, a friend of Sujata Massey, had been a volunteer in Tohoku and provided Massey with background information for The Kizuna Coast.   

Like Rei, I  initially disliked Ishida's new apprentice, Mayumi, who died in suspicious circumstances.  Mayumi lacked an ethical compass, but she did become more sympathetic as we discovered more about her.  She turned out to be a very interesting character.

Dog lovers will be delighted by Hachiko, Ishida's dog.  Rei took Hachiko along to Tohoku because she couldn't be left alone in Ishida's Tokyo apartment.  I learned that there was an actual Japanese dog named Hachiko who was famous for being loyal.  There is a Wikipedia article about the real Hachiko here.  

Despite all the positive aspects that I've pointed out in this review, I couldn't give The Kizuna Coast five stars because the perpetrator became obvious before the big reveal.  Nevertheless, I was glad to have read it.  I think it's one of the better Rei Shimura novels.