Sweet Taste of Liberty ~ by W. Caleb McDaniel

My first thought upon reading the opening pages of this incredible book: Huh?  It won the Pulitzer Prize because of the increased attention given Blacks  since the death of George Floyd in May.  WRONG-O.  The Pulitzers were awarded and announced prior to Floyd’s horrendous death and the ensuing increase in Black Lives Matter activity.  Good show! 

Sweet Taste of Liberty: A True Story of Slavery and Restitution in America
By W. Caleb McDaniel
2019 / 340 pages 
Read by Paul Heitsch 9h 51m Rating: 10 / US slave history 
(Both read and listened) 

My second thought: I feel like I’m reading a young adult narrative history.  –  WRONG AGAIN!  This is a masterfully researched tome written to give maximum clarity to the complex subject and issues involved.  The Notes bear this out,  the maps and photos are wonderful additions to the book. 

Third thought:  The Pulitzer for history has done it again!   Yay!  

The story itself is so complex that the apparent “simplicity” of the first pages of narrative is deceiving.  This is not an easy-read history.  It recreates the era in ways I never imagined.  McDaniel has thoroughly sourced his material and lets us know how he found and chose his material and he has put much of it on the web, fwiw.




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Forgotten Evidence ~ by Al Macy

Garrett Goodlove is a lawyer who lives and runs a small office in a fictional city in Humboldt County California (home of a lot of redwoods and marijuana agriculture).   He and Jen his lawyer-wife, Nicole his lawyer-daughter, and Carly his brilliant but deaf twin sister, run the office along with their older and eccentric investigator, Luella Davis and a secretary.  They’ve dealt with various cases over the course of 3 prior books and I’ve been delighted with every one. The books are smart and funny and not heavy-handed in any way, but they have good mysteries and great characters  Imo, they should be read in order as there’s an entertaining over-arching plot line which develops as they go.  

Forgotten Evidence
By Al Macy 2020
Read by Nick Sullivan – 6h 54m
Rating: A+ / legal crime
(#4 Goodlove and Strech series)

This time Arthur Toll, an older scientist at a local lab working on a special formula, goes missing. But before he does he leaves an envelope in the care of Garrett Goodlove with instructions telling him it should NOT be opened unless something happens to him. Goodlove puts it away but a few days later the man goes missing.

Toll is found but it appears he has profound amnesia and remembers nothing about his life except the intellectual material.  In the meantime, his rather sexy co-worker has been found dead and Toll is the prime suspect.    

It’s a good book!   The thing I like about a good series is that it gives the author time and space to develop both the plots and the characters. Good mysteries whether they’re legal crime or not need creative plots – actually, this is the basic thing in a good mystery novel. And so quality character development often gets lost, think Agatha Christie mysteries or even Elmore Leonard.  But with a series where the lead detective and his close people are the same characters over the course of several books then they can come unto their own and you get hooked into them – the reader wants to know what happens in their lives.  

I really enjoy the Goodlove and Shek series for the setting, the excellent puzzlers, the legal play and courtroom action as well as more of the company of Garrett Goodlove and his crew. 

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The Testaments by Margaret Atwood x2

This was a second read because it was a reading group selection.  My first review is here:

My opinion: I really don’t think this book should have tied for the Booker Prize this year.  It’s not THAT good but it’s the sequel.  I figure The Handmaid’s Tale, the first book in this series of two, surpassed expectations in becoming an extraordinarlily popular tome, a phenomenon (in its own way) and although it made the Booker Short List back in 1985,  it likely should have won the biggie that year. Or so we think 15 years later following a successful movie and television series.  But the powers-that-be missed it at the time. Okay fine. But giving Atwood the top prize for the sequel?  No, no, no…. in so many ways, no!  

The Testaments
by Margatet Atwood

2020 / 421 pages
read by Derek Jacobi – 15h 18m
rating: 8.5 / literary sci-fi

(read and listened)

But it’s happened before. For instance, my favorite example is Tim Winton winning the Booker Prize in 1994 for a so-so book called The Riders which is NOT one of his best.  He should have won the prize four years earlier, in 1990, for Cloudstreet – a masterpiece of literature and the book he’s famous for – his magum opus, imo.

I totally understand missing a book’s importance within a year of publication, but I do NOT understand giving the prize to that author for a mediocre subsequent book 15 years later! That feels like a consolation prize.  

Oh bother.  

The Testaments is a very good science fiction type book – part ideas, part thriller – set in the future, with some science bits – mostly a social science emphasis.  It’s like Atwood’s sci-fi trilogy, the Oryx and Crake books, in some ways.   She claims she’s NOT a sci-fi author but that’s malarkey – a different definition of sci-fi.

Atwood truly created a world when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale. Creating a world is often the most important part of a good sci-fi book.  In The Testaments she continues working with that same world by developing a structure in which several characters alternate in the telling of a complex tale. The main characters are kind of flat which is common in sci-fi. They have multiple names and are easily conflated.  I think that device used here helps build tension as the reader doesn’t quite know what’s happening to whom or which character knows what.  

Read The Handmaid’s Tale first then read The Testaments. And read Girl, Woman Other by Bernardine Evaristo whenever you want – soon.  (That’s the book which tied with The Testaments – it’s great.) 

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A Time For Mercy ~ by John Grisham

This is the third in Grisham’s old Jake Brigance series.  It was preceded by “A Time to Kill” (2011)  and “A Time for Justice” (2013).   Now comes “A Time for Mercy.”  Jake is a lawyer in the small, fictional Mississippi town Grisham is known for, Clanton.   Grisham is also known for being seriously anti-death penalty.  

A Time for Mercy
by John Grisham – 2020
Read by Michael Beck – 19h 59m
Rating:  A+ / legal crime 

Josie Gamble and her two children, 16-year old Drew and 14-year old Kiera, are living with Stuart Kofer, a really despicable human being who happens to be a cop, a drunk and abusive cop.  One night he comes home drunk and beats Josie almost to death. This night the children were upstairs and heard it. Thinking Kofer had killed his mother, the 16-year old boy, shot Kofer and called 911. 

Now what?  The local sheriff is Ozzie Walls (from A Time to Kill), a black man who is very popular in most circles.  And Jake Brigance gets the case.  

Grisham takes his time.  His firm has another case they’re working and it involves a great deal of money.  He develops characters and their interactions from various 3rd person scenarios.  The plot twists and turns and tugs the heart.  The end result is a 465 page (or 20-hour) treat for those seeking immersion.   It’s not usually page-turning but the trials and the last 100 pages are the stuff midnight oil was invented for.   If you’re a fan – enjoy! 

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Perfume ~ by Patrick Suskind

This is a very strange book, but it comes up on the lists of All-time Best Mystery Novels and it’s closing in on Halloween.  I suppose the book comes up a lot more on literary type lists than on thriller lists.   Anyway, okay fine.  I enjoy reading a book or two to match the season between October and Valentine’s Day.  A second book this month might be Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier – we’ll see. I’ve read it before but it’s a good book.  

Perfume: The Story of a MurdererB
y Patrick Suskind – 1985 Translated by John E. Woods
Read by Nigel Patterson – 9h
Rating – 6 / literary crime 

Anyway, as I said, this is a strange book concerning a young man whose olfactory senses are extraordinary but everything else about him seems rather pathetic.  Jean-Baptiste Grenouille is born in Paris in the 18th century and immediately orphaned, abandoned to foster care.  He is profoundly influenced by the smells around him.  One day he becomes obsessed with an adolescent girl and murders her for the smell. (Yes.) 

 Life goes on and he works at tanning and then a perfume making apprenticeship for a wealthy businessman.  The story kind of curls around and around like smoke and I’ll not get into spoilers.  I suppose it’s a good story for Halloween, but I didn’t particularly care for it because of the content.  

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The Searcher ~ by Tana French

The Searcher
by Tana French
2020 / Audible
read by Roger Clark
rating – B+ / crime

Cal Hooper has moved to a piece of land he bought near a small Irish town to find peace and quiet after years in law enforcement in Chicago. He gets acquainted with the locals and a young boy starts watching him work around his place.  They become friendly and Tray comes out with his reason for hanging around – his brother is missing and he knows something of Cal’s background.  Cal is talked into giving it an investigation.   

The story starts slow,  but it picks up around 10% and I became engaged at some point there or a bit later.  I can’t say as this is a page-turner but I’ve been distracted by news.   (I try not to be but the unfolding, real life story of some fool group deciding it’s their patriotic duty to kidnap a governor and start a civil war kinda beats the story of a divorced and retired detective  hunting down a missing boy – and then I’ve been sick with some kind of cold – going through a box of tissues a day.)

The story starts slow,  but it picks up around 10% and I became engaged at some point there or a bit later.  I can’t say as this is a page-turner but I’ve been distracted by news.   (I try not to be but the unfolding, real life story of some fool group deciding it’s their patriotic duty to kidnap a governor and start a civil war kinda beats the story of a divorced and retired detective  hunting down a missing boy – and then I’ve been sick with some kind of cold – going through a box of tissues a day.)

There’s Cal and his friendly neighbor named Mark who spies on him for gossip.  There’s Lena, a very competent and animal loving neighbor, for a bit of possible romance if you’re looking for it.  And of course there’s Trey, age 13? whose brother is missing.   And for the most part the story follows genre form with a few very nice original twists.  

Cal is burdened with his own backstory of difficulties with his own angry wife and daughter back in the States.  Trey has a serious living condition at home.  

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Jack ~ by Marilynne Robinson

This is the 4th in the series of books following Robinson’s award-winning novel Gilead.  These books are definitely connected but it’s not necessarily to read them in order.  I did read them in order of publication and I recommend that but … .  They deal with the lives of an older widowed minister in Iowa, his first two children, his 2nd wife and his son from the first marriage.  The first book, Gilead is basically a journal and a long letter to the son by his 2nd wife, Lila.  

Jack ~ by Marilynne Robinson
 09 2020 /
Read by Adam Vernor 10h 28m Rating:  9.25  / historical fiction – literary  (Book 4 of Gilead series)  

They are mostly set in rural Iowa but St Louis and other rural areas figure into it. They take place between WWI and the 1960s with a long flash back to the Civil War in Gilead.   

 In this book Jack, the minister’s son by his first wife, is found to be living like a semi-bum in St. Louis.  He drinks a lot and although he’s a kind of charmer, tries to stay away from people because of his difficulties with God and his father – he’s such a disappointment, so troubled. He feels he brings trouble.  As with the other books, there are a lot of Biblical references and philosophy.  This is Jack’s story almost entirely from Jack’s point of view but told in 3rd person.  

He meets a young woman named Della and they enjoy talking to each other very much. Over time they become involved on a very discreet level. She’s a black woman and the year is 1946 (post WWII).  So this is not the safest of relationships for either of them.   Jack was 4D for military purposes. He spent 2 years in prison for something minor. He’s very bright and funny but filled with self-loathing.  How can he ever be connected to Della who is also the child of a minister and from a very good, protective family. But they do connect  – they become so in spite of him.  

It’s a good, good book, maybe not as good as the first three in the series, but very compelling, literary, intricate.   

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All the Devils Are Here – Louise Penny

I’ve certainly tried to enjoy Louise Penny but after 6 books (!)  spread apart by years, I now officially give up, convinced that this author is just not for me.  So many of my friend adore what are known as the Three Pines series and these books have had so many raving reviews on the various boards (Amazon, Audible, GoodReads) that I kept trying over the years. If these others liked the books so much what could be wrong?  I told myself that I must have gotten the wrong books. – nope – I don’t think that’s the problem.  

All the Devils are Here
By Louise Penny – 2020
Read by Robert Bathurst – 13h 59m
Rating –  3 (because I finished) / crime series 

This latest one seemed different and many said it was her best yet. Also, I thought it might be a nice escape from 2020 and all that entails.    

From the publisher:   
On their first night in Paris, the Gamaches gather as a family for a bistro dinner with Armand’s godfather, the billionaire Stephen Horowitz. Walking home together after the meal, they watch in horror as Stephen is knocked down and critically injured in what Gamache knows is no accident, but a deliberate attempt on the elderly man’s life. 

When a strange key is found in Stephen’s possession it sends Armand, his wife Reine-Marie, and his former second-in-command at the Sûreté, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, from the top of the Tour d’Eiffel, to the bowels of the Paris Archives, from luxury hotels to odd, coded works of art. 

Yeah –  it’s “Three Pines Goes to Paris” where they find a complex international corporate crime to get into trouble with.  Taking your characters abroad is a common ploy used by the authors of series whose lead “detectives” have already solved too many murders in their small hometowns but the series is still strong

Gamache continues to be morally and intellectually superior even on the international scene.  He is also always loving and sensitive, even in the face of the current case when his beloved son exhibits intense rage, maybe hatred.    

The claustrophobic atmosphere of Three Pines and it’s artsy-quirky characters is gone, but the other characters here are flat. The superior Armand Gamache has brought the whole family and Armand is just as superior as he was in the tiny Three Pines. Reine Marie is okay but the rest of Armand’s doting entourage have not improved – but they’ve not got worse (I wasn’t really familiar with his sons.) 

Like most novels about Paris which are written for Americans/Canadians there are too many Parisian street names, food names, building names. Whatever will give a French atmosphere and it feels fake and very touristy. I love Patrick Modiano, Marion Barbery, and Michel Houellebecq and others who don’t need to do that because there’s a great story underneath the language.  The story here is so-so but it has a good ending.

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Caste ~ by Isabel Wilkerson

I loved Wilkerson’s first book, The Warmth of Other Sons but by the time I got around to reading this book, her second, I was kind of tired of all the depressing news for the last 9 months or so.  It took me awhile to get into it.  

The Origins of our Discontents
By Isabel Wilkerson
2020 / 477 pages
Read by Robin Miles – 14h 26m
Rating: 8 / social science – politics

After I did though, at about Chapter 4, about page 40 when Wilkerson delves into more specific history, it was great and I went along enjoying the book tremendously – until Part 7 and the Epilogue, from page 357 to the end, where it gets more polemic than anything. So my rating is somewhere between a 9 (the meaty middle section) and a 3 (the draggy beginning and ending). But there is more meat than mush so I gave it an 8.   I still had some issues.  

The history was interesting as far as it went,  but mixing the chronology up as much as Wilkerson did eliminated any thought of progress between the earliest days of slavery and mass lynchings to contemporary times when good low caste people are ignored by waiters, almost deliberately (I think) obfuscates that – there’s been no progress in 500 years?   

And Germany’s turn around ignores the fact that Jews were getting upwardly mobile using a variety of methods until WWI which Germany lost and for which the rising Hitler conveniently blamed the Jews (The Pity of it All by Amos Elon – 2002) 

I enjoyed learning about the Indian system but imo, there’s not enough of it in the book to entirely justify the title.  The caste system has been in effect there for thousands of years and although making it illegal – it’s still operative.  This should have been examined more closely because it does absolutely bear on the “race” problem.  

And although race/caste is certainly the basis for a LOT of our difficulties, life would not be utopian had race never have raised its ugly head.  We have plenty of troubles with greed and capitalism on their own – using race is just another means to selfish ends.  

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Troubled Blood ~ by Robert Galbraith

Oh yes!   I did jump at the release of another Cormoran Strike crime novel.  To get this out of the way right now, I had read rumors of the book (and therefore Galbraith) being anti-trans people, but in this book it would seem that horrifically deviant people come in all varieties and Galbraith is an equal opportunity employer of evil.   I do hope that the complainers get further into the book than they apparently have because no category of humanity is exempt in a Cormoran Strike novel.  

Troubled Blood
By Robert Galbraith 
2020 / 944 pages
Read by Robert Glenister 31h 51m
Rating: A+++ / crime series private detective
(Both read and listened) 

Also, there’s no serious evidence in the book that this or that particular bad guy (and there are lots of bads) is any kind of real trans. The one character who might be  (depending on your definition) sometimes uses dresses as a disguise to lure women to their rape and seriously ugly death, but he is a brilliant schizophrenic with many tricks.  There are a couple of seriously bad and/or mad women, too.  (I don’t remember any bad gays or lesbians although they are present in the story.) Because of the violence I really don’t think kids under 16 or 18 should be reading it, even if their parents were Harry Potter fans.   

The main plot is a who-done-it concerning the disappearance of Margot Banborough, a London-based physician who went missing and whose body was never found even after 40 years.  Now, in contemporary London, Anna Phipps, Margot’s daughter, wants to find out what happened to her mother. The timing of Margot’s disappearance was such that Dennis Creed, the crazed man convicted of slaying of several other women, was always suspected but it could never be pinned on him.  

So Strike and Robin take the closed case and go about interviewing the people who were involved in the cases at the time.  In doing that they go through the notes of the police who were involved, finding that the main detective went a bit mad himself and ended up studying astrology to solve the crimes. That old detective’s notes are a marvel of drawing included in the Kindle version but not the Audible.  

There are a lot of characters. There is the ongoing staff at the agency, the families of the multitude of victims, the suspects for each victim whose body has not been found and ascribed to the main suspect who has been in custody for decades, the friends and relations of Robin and Strike, the individuals involved in the agency’s other ongoing cases and some assorted old police friends and detectives who knew of the cases.

The relationship between Strike and Robin continues to progress through its ups and downs which started in Book 1 of the series and that relieves the focus on the horrors which can happen to women.  In addition to the developing relationship between Strike and Robin the pair have other detective jobs for their agency to take care of.   

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel although it did get a bit long and it is very gritty.  Galbraith sets a tone and a mood which the narrator, Robert Glenister just carried out to perfection.  I both read and listened to it.  If you’re new to the Cormoran Strike series start with #1 – The Cuckoo’s Calling because the  story-line of Strike and Robin and their lives is overarching and develops throughout. 

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HumanKIND by Rutger Bregman

HumanKIND: A Hopeful History
 By Rutger Bregman
2020  – 463 pages
Read by Thomas Judd 11h 37m
Rating – 8 / behavioral science

(read and listened)

I was thinking this would be a good book to stave off depression in this disastrous year of 2020,  besides that, it was on my reading group’s schedule.  It’s basically about people being basically good rather than evil – basically unselfish rather than acquisitive, basically kind and cooperative rather than competitive and even warlike.  Rousseau vs Hobbes.  

 I must say it started great. But then Bregman and his idea got broader and broader in it’s focus and the author over-generalized using poorly defined words (imo!)  So I started mentally arguing with him.  But then at the end it ended well, or “to my liking,” I probably should say.  

Whatever –  voila –  Bregman says that people are generally kind and he has the evidence and studies to show it in a bunch of areas including pre-historic man, military life and scientific experiments.  He does a lot of experiment debunking because where did we in the 21st century come up with the idea that man is basically selfish and mean?  

 He talks about power and the up and down sides of empathy and there’s a whole chapter on “What the Enlightenment Got Wrong.”  The history is fascinating. I haven’t got much use for social scientists today, and I think that’s probably where my difficulty arose. But the section on prisons was very good.   The section on Nelson Mandela and his election sounded like there was some information missing.  Kitty Genovese?  I guessed Bregman’s response to that and I was right – the scientists/journalist at the time were off.  (Journalists can be sooooo off – see The Death of Expertise – lol.) 

Then Bregman continues with some sense of balance. When we act as though most everyone is generally good and kind, and when we form our institutions around those kinds of principles, then goodness and kindness result.  I think Bregman goes a bit overboard sometimes – he really wants to believe in the goodness of man.  
So the book started wonderfully well and it ended on a good note. It was the middle which proved problematical.  Social science researchers seem to change their minds a lot and every time a new generation of scientists come along the new guys really need to leave their mark – so … we get a new study with new results.  
And then there are the people who pay absolutely no attention to experts and studies and go for the power – (he’s in office now) – 

Bottom line – imo – different people have different ways, different tastes, different motives, different attitudes.  They even have these differences at different times!  People are not pies.  There are evil people in the world as well as saints and it’s probably a bell curve.  

 I had two children who attended the same open-classroom elementary school. The younger child embraced it and took to his lessons like a champ. The other older child didn’t learn to read until 2nd grade because she was so busy chatting and making sure the other children were doing what they were supposed to.  (LOL!).  We moved and the kids went to a regular elementary school with more structured classes. The self-motivated child, who walked early and talked late, started being a troublemaker while the slower one, who talked early and walked late,  found she was “behind” and buckled down.  In non-school activities, the one took to piano lessons and math, the other took to competitive swimming and advanced socializing.  Today they’re both gainfully employed in respectable professions.  Go figure. 

People are not pies – they’re different from each other and even themselves over time, so if the expert opinion is that all people are kind … well –  I’m going to have trouble with that – there are too many bad things and people in the world.  (No one is 100% good OR bad.) 

I probably got off track here … – overall it’s a good book. lol

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An Invisible Client ~ by Victor Methos

Hit the spot!! Yay!!!

An Invisible Client
By Victor Methos
2019 / 256 pages
Read by Alexander Cendese 6h 19m
Rating A / legal crime

Joel Whiting, the 12-year old only child of the widowed Rebecca Whiting, is very ill from cyanide poisoning the result of over-the-counter cough medicine. There have been other cases and a cursory criminal investigation. Rebecca is convinced the pharmaceutical company is responsible, but they’re pushing the idea of a random killer being the culprit.  So she contacts our first person narrator, Noah Byron, a divorced but still young and very ambitious lawyer, one of three partners in a Salt Lake City firm.  His first exploratory interview with the Pharma-K company raises his suspicions.  He takes Rebecca’s case.

Noah then hires and commandeers the brilliant 3rd-year law student Olivia Sinclair to assist him.  It’s when he starts interviewing young Joel, he starts getting emotionally involved with the case.  Without a certain medical treatment which is not going to be made available because he is too far gone, Joel will die.

 It looks like Noah is in for a very ugly and expensive case.  Settlement offers are made but more stuff happens and more evidence is uncovered

 The book is politically correct in all the important ways and that’s been a bit of a complaint in some customer-type reviews but doesn’t bother me except when it goes on a bit too long.   Methos goes after the big-money pharmaceutical industry business in many ways.

There are surprisingly very touching parts and in a couple places that even gets a wee bit mushy but it all works together nicely. This isn’t really a thriller in the murder and car-chase sense of the genre,  but the tension is masterfully built without that. Kudos!  

The plot follows several different threads,  the investigation and court case, the health of young Joel and a maybe-budding relationship for Noah. And then there’s the tension within the firm due to the expense of litigation.  I can’t “love” this book,  but it was just exactly what the doctor ordered for someone who right now is basically only able to follow the plot line of the best books while maintaining reasonable expectations of character development and writing style.

Ok, so it’s basically an average legal mystery which includes some nice courtroom drama and well drawn characters.  As such, it’s not the best on that shelf, However! It’s just what the doctor ordered for my current condition of not being able to focus well enough for complex reading material.  I’ve read three of Methos’ books  and they were all “very good” except for Neon Lawyer which was outstanding – I read that one first.   I’m going to have to stash a couple of these on my Wish List for the next time I need something to boost my mood from time to time.

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