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Sunday, June 24, 2018

The Lost Pilots--Aviation History Marred By True Crime

I won The Lost Pilots by Corey Mead from Goodreads giveaways.  It was published last month, so I'm about a month late with my review.  I admit that I've been a good deal later than that, but I do wish I could manage to be more timely.  I read giveaway books in the order that I receive them rather than the order that I won them.  So the next book on the giveaway pile was actually a 2017 win that arrived very late due to a mix up.  I hope to review it some time in July.

I wanted to read The Lost Pilots because the history of women's aviation is one of my abiding interests.  See the very first review that appeared on this blog of a book dealing with the female Russian WWII ace, Lilia Litvyak here.  So I hoped to find out about the female Australian aviator, Jessie Miller, by reading The Lost Pilots.

                                


The aviation history aspect of this book was fascinating.  I enjoyed reading about Jessie Miller's aviation accomplishments.  I even liked reading about the discrimination against women that held her back because it gave me a clearer picture of the experience of woman pilots during this period.  I felt that the speed limitations on women in the Women's Air Derby were the aviation equivalent of footbinding because they hobbled women probably due to a mistaken belief that women were incapable of flying safely at greater speed.   I considered this ironic because it seemed to me that it was William Lancaster who was incapable of flying safely.  He had a pattern of poor decisions that resulted in accidents which ruined his flying career.   He was continually being given opportunities and wrecking planes.  This caused potential employers to lose confidence in him.   Honestly, I don't know why anyone was impressed with Lancaster.

As much as I admired Jessie, she sure did have bad judgement about men. Over the course of the narrative, I kept on changing my mind about which of the men involved in the true crime sequence was worse. 
 
In the title of this review I state that The Lost Pilots was "marred" by true crime since this is a genre that makes me uncomfortable.  Because I tend to avoid true crime, I've never really thought about why I have problems with it.  In my entire past history on Goodreads, I've only shelved one of my reads as true crime.  It was Murder in the High Himalaya which I didn't review on a blog, but only on Goodreads.  I remember feeling that it was sordid with no redeeming value.  I love fictional crime novels for their clever plots, important themes, memorable protagonists and witty dialogue.   All of these are products of a novel's artistry.   True crime lacks these characteristics.  So all that's left is the facts of what occurred which can feel rather sordid.

I have friends who love true crime.  So they are likely to feel that The Lost Pilots was enlivened by true crime, rather than marred by it.   I will say that the true crime aspect of this book did affect me powerfully.  I was very conscious of the fact that these were real people and I cared very much about Jessie Miller. When I became fully aware of the personal consequences of these events for Jessie, I felt sick to my stomach and couldn't continue reading until the following day.  It seemed to me that she was more of a victim than the dead man, Haden Clarke, because she had to live with the repercussions for the rest of her life.

Since I can't imagine writing about the lives of Jesse Miller and William Lancaster without introducing Haden Clarke into the mix,  I suppose it was inevitable that this book was destined to include the true crime element, and that I would enjoy reading it less.  Yet Corey Mead's writing, organization and research are first rate.  So I would recommend The Lost Pilots from a historical perspective.

                              


                                

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Yes, We Do Need Better Science About Women

 I received a review copy of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong from Edelweiss last year. I admit that I should have gotten to it sooner. I finally read it because it was the Book of the Month on a Goodreads group.  I've posted some comments to the group's discussion thread, but I know that isn't sufficient.  When I request books from Edelweiss, I commit to reviewing them on my blog.  My review is rather late, but I still feel that I owe the publisher and Edelweiss a blog review.  So let's see if I can generate one. 

                                




 I consider Inferior a survey on the subject of science written about women which has actually been dealt with in more depth in narrower books dealing with women in particular fields of science.  

Nevertheless, Saini points things out that I hadn't realized before.  For example,  I hadn't known that androgen increases risk-taking behavior, not aggression.   It occurred to me that there are both pros and cons to being risk-takers.  Saini doesn't really discuss the implications of androgen and risk-taking very much.  Since women's hormone balance changes as we become older, does science show that post-menopausal women do in general take more risks than younger women?  I am skeptical about this possibility.

 I also hadn't known that in addition to human women only female killer whales survive past menopause. This is interesting, but then the book lets me down with obvious ideas about elders having something to contribute which is very inter-cultural.

So while I do agree that we need better science about women, I didn't find that Saini provided much in the way of fresh insight on the subject.

                          






                      

Nyira and the Invisible Boy--Slavery and Child Separation in a Historical Fantasy

While I was thinking about an approach to this review of Nyira and the Invisible Boy by K. M. Harrell, I realized that the opening of this novel related to current events.  Thousands of children have recently been separated from their parents who were seeking asylum in the United States.  I saw mention on social media of separation of families happening in the 18th and 19th century before the abolition of slavery. This timely reminder of shameful history became noteworthy for me because Harrell's historical fantasy contains an example.  It showed the young protagonist being tragically parted from her only parent.

After reading the description and seeing the extraordinary cover on Goodreads giveaways, I purchased a copy of Nyira and the Invisible Boy.  I considered it a must read and buying it was my best option.  Somewhat later, the author contacted me and requested a review.   I voluntarily agreed to provide one.

                             


Regarding the cover, I had already started writing this review when I came across a discussion  of the racist association of African Americans with primates on the blog Reading While White posted by Elisa Gall.  I think that African American author  K. M. Harrell is conscious of this association and was deliberately subverting that racist stereotype by showing gorillas to be superior to humans involved with slavery in his book. It's important to state that this intention is not visible to those whose only contact with this novel is viewing the cover. Yet it seems to me that associating a human being with an animal is only racist, if you accept that animals are inferior to humans.  I have never accepted the idea that humans are the culmination of the process of evolution.  On the scale of evolution, humans are recent.   Human dominance may also be very temporary. Sadly, some key dominant humans seem intent on committing species suicide by ignoring climate change.                      

 But let's get back to Nyira and the Invisible Boy.  The  female central character, Nyira , was a small child when she was  permanently separated from her father. Her village in the Congo during the 18th century, was attacked and destroyed by slavers.  Nyira fled the slavers, and encountered wild animals who were more humane than those humans who were most invested in maintaining slavery.  For a powerful book which focuses on wild animals parenting human children, see my review of the Australian novel Into That Forest here.

Nyira is eventually enslaved and is later transported to what is now known as Haiti where we meet the male protagonist, Enriquillo.

Enriquillo is a Taino.  Wikipedia and numerous other sources will tell you that the Taino were extinct by the  18th century, but Taino genes certainly survive in contemporary Haiti and Puerto Rico.  There are also numerous Taino cultural survivals.  So could there have been secret villages of Taino hiding in the mountains, as we see in Harrell's book?  We don't know for certain.  This is also a fantasy novel that involves paranormal gifts.   I am willing to suspend disbelief for the sake of a good story, and this is a humdinger of a tale.  There is some cultural verisimilitude. Harell includes a bibliography of books that he consulted on Taino society and customs.  Yet he doesn't claim to be completely authentic.

I believe that the cooperation of Africans and Taino symbolized by the relationship of Nyira and Enriquillo is laying the ground for the future revolution in Haiti.  This is Haiti as I've never seen it before. Despite the horrors and degradations of slavery, I found Nyira and the Invisible Boy inspiring.   I consider it the best indie book that I've read in the first half of 2018.

                         


Friday, June 15, 2018

Illegal Holdings: UN Investigator Fights Corporate Plot In Mozambique

I  once took a MOOC  (Massive Open Online Course) on the Hague's international courts.  So I know that there is investigation of international crime.  I didn't know anything about U.N. investigation of fraudulent misuse of U.N. funds. It certainly makes sense that they would investigate if they received a report of possible fraud.  A brief search confirmed that there are such investigators.

Author Michael Niemann has been writing a thriller series about the cases of  fictional U.N. fraud investigator Valentin Vermeulen.  Publicist Wiley Saichek asked me to review Illegal Holdings, the third novel in this series which takes place in Mozambique.  This sounded like an unusual focus for a thriller, so I accepted a free copy from the publisher via Wiley Saichek.

                       

Vermeulen had been sent to Mozambique to determine whether a non-profit NGO (non-governmental organization) had fraudulently misappropriated $5 million of the U.N.'s funds.  This sounds like a routine case that is unlikely to generate much suspense.  Yet someone who has committed $5 million worth of fraud would be willing to do some pretty awful things to cover his or her tracks.

There  also turns out to be some underlying motivations for the fraud that involve agricultural and land use policy which are controversial and have tremendous impact.   Which is the best way to feed the world?  Should farming be family based and small scale with a large variety of crops, or should farms be large industrial single crop operations?  What happens when large corporations who are mainly concerned with their bottom line are pitted against the interests of local communities?  This is the central conflict in Illegal Holdings.

I admired Vermeulen for his commitment to justice and his willingness to take risks on behalf of marginalized people who need someone to advocate for them.   I also very much liked his relationship with investigative journalist Tessa Bishonga whose work overlapped with Vermeulen's and helped to bring about a successful resolution of the case.


Since I believe that the issues that Vermeulen faces in Illegal Holdings are crucial ones that will decide the future of humanity as a whole, I was very much invested in this story line.   I considered the underlying conspiracy behind these events completely believable and extremely chilling.   Michael Niemann has written an immensely powerful thriller.  I can't imagine what he'll do for an encore in his next Vermeulen book.

                           

                              

                         

Friday, June 8, 2018

The White Mirror (Li Du #2) --Review of Mystery in 18th Century Tibet Plus Giveaway

So I said at the beginning of this year that I probably wasn't going to hold a giveaway, but I decided that I wanted to commemorate the 200th post on this blog.  It seemed appropriate somehow to do a giveaway of the second book of the Li Du series by Elsa Hart since my first giveaway was a copy of her first Li Du novel, Jade Dragon Mountain. See that review and giveaway here. Scroll down below my review to find out how to enter this giveaway and win the hardcover copy.

The copy I am giving away comes from the F2F mystery group that I attend.  The facilitator of that group receives many more review copies from publishers than she has the time to review.  So members get the opportunity to claim review copies for themselves.

A digital ARC of City of Ink (Li Du #3) recently arrived on my Kindle as a result of a review request from the publisher who sent it to me via Net Galley.  So I prioritized The White Mirror in order to catch up on the series.  I should have reviewed it some time ago, but late is certainly better than never.

                           


Tibet is a setting that particularly interests me.  I have read a number of Eliot Pattison's  Inspector Shan series which take place in contemporary occupied Tibet.  I have never read any book dealing with 18th century Tibet.  So this sets The White Mirror apart.

Before starting this book,  I knew relatively little about the pre-20th century history of Tibet or the history of the Dalai Lama.   Let me say that there were some eye openers in White Mirror.  I wasn't aware that the Fifth Dalai Lama  (1617-1682) was the first to rule all of Tibet.  Elsa Hart portrays a Tibet that was enmired in a ferment of factions.  The young sixth Dalai Lama and his regent had been overthrown by Lhazang Khan also known as  Lha-bzang Khan who had allied himself with China.  See his article on Wikipedia.   Some Tibetans still supported the Dalai Lama, and others supported neither ruler.

Into this chaotic situation comes the protagonist Imperial Librarian Li Du who is traveling to Lhasa with a caravan.   There is an atmosphere of fear and suspicion at the manor where the caravan takes shelter from a storm. As the caravan arrives, an apparent suicide of a visionary painter is discovered.  Li Du becomes convinced that the painter was murdered.  His investigation uncovers more than one secret conspiracy.

I have always been intrigued by the concept that Tibetan Buddhist lamas are tulkus.  What is a tulku?  Each lama is supposed to be a single reincarnated spirit that has been reborn for centuries and must be re-discovered as a child who will then become the next lama.  The process of discovering a tulku is a significant plot element in The White Mirror. 

 I wondered if  the history I discovered in this novel was consistent with the idea that the Dalai Lama is actually one reincarnated individual.   The conquering fifth Dalai Lama was certainly nothing like the pacifistic fourteenth Dalai Lama who holds court in contemporary Dharamsala.  Yet it's at least possible that the fourteenth Dalai Lama is the same individual who has evolved spiritually.  After all, spiritual evolution is supposed to be the goal of reincarnation.  Other readers may reach a different conclusion about tulkus.

I felt that The White Mirror had historical and cultural depth which makes it a solid candidate for one of my best reads of 2018.


                                       GIVEAWAY!

If you want to enter  for the giveaway of a hardback copy of The White Mirror, there are two requirements for entry.  You must fulfill both of them.

 1) You must visibly follow this blog which can be found on the right side of the page.  You will need to have a Google account in order to become a visible follower.

2)You will also need to:
a) either comment on this post telling me what interests you about the book with a contact e-mail.
b)or you can private message me on Goodreads.  In order to do this you must be a Goodreads member.  You can then go to my profile which is at the link I've given and click on More. The first menu item is Message.  Use "White Mirror Giveaway" as your subject and include a contact e-mail.

The deadline has passed with no one interested in this book.  Tuesday 6/26 this copy gets donated to the library.

                             




                                













         

                          

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Fairfax Incident: Investigating a Death in Early 1930's New York

My favorite mystery sub-genre is historical mystery, but I haven't had a chance to review any historical crime novel since February when I posted a review of one on Flying High Reviews here .  Now that I think about it, the portrait of  law enforcement corruption in 19th century San Francisco provided in Chinawoman's Chance by James Musgrave, isn't very different from the situation in New York in the early 1930's that I recently saw in The Fairfax Incident by Terrence McCauley. Yet I do need to make a distinction between the harsh lives of 19th century Chinese immigrants described in Musgrave's book, and the glittering privileged lives of the German aristocratic immigrants depicted in McCauley's mystery.

I was asked to review The Fairfax Incident by publicist Wiley Saichek and was provided with a review copy from the publisher via Net Galley.


                       


The PI protagonist Charlie Doherty was very much a part of NYC corruption when he worked for the police.  Mention is made of Teddy Roosevelt's crusade against police corruption in The Fairfax Incident.

This gives me a wonderful pretext for a historical digression. I remembered that Teddy Roosevelt had been a New York Police Commissioner, but it had been many years since I took a class in New York state history as an undergraduate history major.  So I did a search for more information and found a review of a book on the subject called  Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt's Doomed Quest To Clean Up Sin Loving New York by Richard Zacks.  It was reviewed by Krystal Thomas on the blog of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University here .  Although Roosevelt had been a failure, he made a reputation for himself as a reform minded Republican.  Those who like to remind us that the Republican Party had once been very different tend to use Abraham Lincoln as their example.  My favorite example is Teddy Roosevelt who ran for U.S. President as both a Republican and a Progressive.

Back to Charlie Doherty--He is no paragon of virtue, but he is sympathetic.  His wealthy patron, Van Dorn, who pays all his expenses and brings him clients, considers Doherty a hero because he rescued Van Dorn's son from a kidnapper.  Others might consider him a hero because he fought in WWI as a Marine.  Readers who are fans of the Maisie Dobbs mystery series are familiar with the problem of PTSD resulting from combat in WWI. Doherty is not immune to PTSD.  He experiences an instance of WWI flashbacks during the narrative.

The Fairfax Incident is the first book I've read dealing with the consequences of WWI that is set in the U.S.   The impact of Germany's defeat on German-Americans is central to the plot.  The author doesn't excuse the behavior of many of the German-American characters, but he does explain it.

The novel ends as more of an espionage thriller than a mystery.  Readers will learn whodunit, but there is an ongoing national security crisis involving the events leading up to WWII that is not resolved.   Presumably, there will be a sequel in which Doherty will continue to distinguish himself in service to his country.

I consider  The Fairfax Incident a thought provoking and suspenseful novel.