The Craft ~ by John Dickie

Oh this is a wonderful book,.  It’s the history of the Freemasons from the 17th or 18th century to modern times plus some folklore from misty ancient times. It’s easy to read often reading like a novel. Dickie, an expert on the Mafia, takes a light hand to the seriously challenging subject with its many levels and aspects but he gets it covered with the eyes of an historian.

The Craft: How Freemason’s Made the Modern World
By John Dickie
2020 / 490 pages
Read by Simon Slater 16h 35m
Rating: 9.75 / history
(Both read and listened)

It starts off wonderfully well with the 1st chapter including a hook-the-reader tale followed by a general outline of what will be discussed in the book, and a few appropriate line drawings.  Originally, I was just going to listen, but you know me… I started wondering about graphics and footnotes and so on so I HAD to get the Kindle version … loving every minute of it.  Then I was going to take a break at some point and read a quick crime novel.  Oops – I was too immersed in what was happening to the brothers.  

The book covers a wide range of subjects – first Dickie gives the reader a feel for what the Freemasons are, what they stood for in the 17th century at the beginning of their lodge system, where they came from, and their early development, halos, warts and all.

This is about a group which seems to have started in Scotland under King James VI, spread to England and on to France and the US mostly but then all over the world. The original group was from the architects and free-stone masons whose work included Anglican cathedrals.They got a huge boost from various stories reminiscent of the Inquisition.

Masonic Lodges were definitely a mainstream Protestant thing (excepting Lutherans until it got to Norway). Then the narrative slides over to the US from Revoloutionary and pre-Civil War days through the Civil War which was instrumental in their development. There were many Southern slave-owners in their ranks so Blacks had it rough enough without the virulently racist Southern establishment which was elected. (Blacks started their own lodge system of Masons which continues to this day.)

The text follows their history through the post-World War years (which seem made for them) right up to 2019 when the 21st century seems to have caught up with them in spite of their declining numbers. It’s still mainly about making business connections and right living as well as charitable efforts. The “secrets” are not exactly a big deal anymore but they served to hold the groups together in many ways for a long, long time through a lot of animosity and nonsense.

I got the Audible edition of this book on sale about a month ago. It’s been sitting here in my TBR file ever since because I’ve just not been in the mood although I gave it a try a couple times.  Then one day it hit the mark.  My spirit just needed a good history book. And this is one in so many ways.  Unfortunately there are no source notes, but there is an annotated bibliography which is organized by chapter so if someone wants to find sources they are certainly pointed in the direction.  And the book is 490 pages without the sometimes seemingly obligatory hundred+ pages of notes.  

There were some topics I skimmed for info elsewhere:

I highly recommend this to any history-oriented reader – I’m going on to read Dickie’s Cosa Nostra before long.

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Project Hail Mary ~ by Andy Weir

If you liked The Martian by the same author, Project Hail Mary is better – especially if you’re listening.  If you didn’t much care for The Martian you might not like this, although it’s been widely praised. 

Project Hail Mary
by Andy Weir – 2021
read by Ray Porter – 16h 10m
rating: A++ / Sci-Fi


This page-turning tale opens with 1st person Ryland Grace waking up in his space craft and finding himself to be the lone survivor of a three-person mission into the far reaches.  Then the narrative switches to a 1st person teacher in his classroom. We figure out that these two are the same guy and that teaching junior high school science is something Dr. Grace, the astronaut, did in part of his past. His future is in that space craft.

 As the story unfolds in its two parts, we come to understand there are problems in space as well as on earth and, as in The Martian, a lot of the answers are common sense as well as human decency.

How a science teacher got to the point of being the only human on a long term space mission is one story.  His challenges are the second story and include an alien with entirely different everything – almost. 

There are times this novel is funny as all get-out, but there are other times when it’s very, very touching.  Weir knows how to explain the science without ever getting dull.  And this is, after all,  first and foremost, *science* fiction.  Enjoy.

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The Last ~ by Hanna Jameson

While Jon Keller is in Switzerland at an academic convention the world’s cities explode in nuclear warfare.  Meanwhile Jon’s wife and children are in San Francisco, probably one of the bombed cities.  John is staying at an upscale hotel/resort which was left unscathed but they know thanks to the media and the internet.  And most folks leave but there are no planes out and nowhere to land so that ends that.  

The Last
by Hanna Jameson
Read by Anthony Starke 12h 16m
Rating: C; dystopian crime / thriller

While Jon Keller is in Switzerland at an academic convention the world’s cities explode in nuclear warfare.  Meanwhile Jon’s wife and children are in San Francisco, probably now in chaos.  John is staying at an upscale hotel/ resort which was left unscathed itself, but the staff and guests know what’s happening thanks to the media and the internet.  So most folks leave but there are no planes out and nowhere to land so that ends that.  So about 20 remain. Jon begins to take interviews for a book.

Two months pass and Jon and a couple friends find a dead child in the hotel’s water tank – she did not die from drowning. Then they find guns. Then basic supplies run low and a search party is sent to the nearest city to scavenge for food and supplies. This is a very scary expedition. Tempers fray while suspicious activities are observed. More time passes, food runs low again. Jon wants to hear from his wife.

It’s a flawed novel in some serious ways but it’s certainly entertaining.  This is in large part because the narrator is excellent however, there are some things even a great narrator can’t overcome.  There are parts which are just not believable even within the context of the novel.  Jameson gets unnecessarily wordy.  And finally,  there’s too much romance in the book for me.

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Some Choose Darkness ~ by Charlie Donlea

I don’t know what I expected but this was a bit more on the rough side than I readily enjoy.  I’m not fond of anonymous serial killer books with fictional ones more objectionable.  That said, I got hooked into it because it’s a lot more than chases and shootouts.  The plot develops very nicely, twistedly. The character development is good. The structure works well with the story. The writing is adequate.  And everything pretty much works together to masterfully build the tension.  

Some Choose Darkness
By Charlie Doniea
Read by Nina Alvamar 
Rating B+ / crime 

What helps and makes everything worse at the same time, is that the prisoner was Rory’s father’s client and when he died suddenly she said she’d take some of his work and distribute it. But because he is also getting out of prison she agrees to help the police. 

 Rory Moore is a “forensic reconstructionist” which means she takes cold cases and resolves them using details and knowledge plus some intuition.  She’s very good at it because of her almost photographic memory and keen cognitive skills. Technically she’s a licensed attorney but doesn’t practice except for working with the police department from time to time.  

In 2019 there’s a man due to be released from prison but it’s not a good idea because he’s guilty of a lot more than he was actually charged with.  Back in the summer of 1979 there was a spate of murders in Chicago and only by way of a really rather odd but young autistic woman,  was the murderer captured – but only charged with the death of one.  He’s now being released on parole identified.  Angela Mitchell, the woman involved, might still be around somewhere, but she’s been missing for several decades – since 1980? She and Rory have a similar psychology.  

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When She Was Helen ~ by Caroline B. Cooney

At first this feels like a cozy but there’s another side – there are several threads and they only start kind of sweet and funny.  They turn suspenseful and bloody with a strongly sad and criminally serious side.  Cooney wrote Young Adult novels for a long time, but made a deliberate break last year and won an Edgar Award for her efforts.  It’s mostly fun but there’s a tension riddled underside. The protagonist is a kick.  

When She Was Helen
by Caroline B. Cooney
2021 /
Read by Kimberly Farr 11h 13m
Rating: A / crime

At first this feels like a cozy but there’s another side – there are several threads and they only start kind of sweet and funny.  They turn suspenseful and bloody with a strongly sad and criminally serious side.  Cooney wrote Young Adult novels for a long time, but made a deliberate break last year and won an Edgar Award for her efforts.  It’s mostly fun but there’s a tension riddled underside. The protagonist is a kick.  

Clemmie Lakefield is a 70-something retired Latin teacher who currently lives alone in Sun City, South Carolina where she now works at playing cards, pottery and visiting neighbors.  One day she checks in on her unpleasant neighbor, Dom,  because she hasn’t heard from him for awhile and she keeps his spare keys. So she goes to see about him and finds he’s gone but she while investigating she sees a strange shortcut through his garage to his other neighbor’s home.  And there she finds a seriously beautiful and mysterious object.  

She takes a photo of the object and using her smartphone sends it to a niece and nephew and it gets passed on.  Word spreads and that spells trouble and eventually a body shows up. 

Besides – people have pasts. Even people in senior parks have pasts.

There is a fair amount of material dealing with life in the 1950s and early ‘60s when Clemmie was in school.  It’s done pretty much the way I remember it although there are a few things which stretch credulity. It might be eye-opening for young people today.  The narrative switches back to Clemmie’s younger days to get her from then to now.   

Cooney does a really good job with foreshadowing.  It’s light but parts have a solid impact.  

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Tyll ~ by Daniel Kehlmann

I read this for the Booker Prize group.  It was interesting but confusing for my brain.  It’s a “magical realism” take on the Thirty-Years War as it played out in Germany and Central Europe. The lead character, Tyll, is based on the mythological character of Till Eulenspiegel who was a popular fiction in 16th century Germany.  The result is a kind of Mason & Dixon  (Thomas Pynchon) taking place about a century earlier and in a different part of the world. Tyll and his friend, Nell have adventures as the war plays out in different ways around them with fiction and non- mixed in great ways.

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann
2017 – 344 pages 
Translation by Ross Benjamin 2020
Read by Firdus Bamji – 11h 57m
Rating – 8.5 / contemp fict.
(Both read and listened)

This book is not putting the basis for the war on religious freedoms or denominations,  but rather on old family ties, feuds and land grabs.  

As I said it was interesting and fun and it’s not too long. I think you don’t really need any background in the Thirty Years War itself, but there are a lot of characters and episodes.  I’m sure my response to the book would improve with a second reading which I’ll probably do but not right now.

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Underland: ~ by Robert Macfarlane

Reading this the first time I wasn’t too sure what to think. It seemed like science with a lot of literary aspirations – aka creative nonfiction. But the second time round I realized that this is a travelogue!  Macfarlane is describing his world travels and emphasizing 11 journeys. The focus of these trips is to explore the “underland” of the title.  This means he goes to caves and tunnels and under the ocean.  He explores and investigates these places taking time to meditate and reflect on them. 

Underland: A Deep Time Journey
By Robert Macfarlane 
Read by Matthew Waterson 12h 3m
Rating: 8.75 / travelogue 

Different places have categorized this book differently – sometimes science/engineering and sometimes science/nature and I saw adventure but I also saw travelogue. Personally I’d call it a travelogue – travelogues can be meditative. And it’s creative nonfiction.

Macfarlane wanders around the world, finding assistants and going for adventures in the hidden tunnels of Paris etc. He spends a lot of time in places around England including Epping Forest and the Mendips. Then there’s Slovenia and Finland and Greenland and that’s only maybe half of the places he describes.  

And he talks about burying things (like people) and hiding things (from jewels to radioactive materials) and finding things (like oil and treasure) and burying more things like bodies and, again, treasures.  He talks about a lot of danger and great hiking buddies.  

And there’s the “Deep Time” part. He goes from Neanderthals to the far future when we understand that the safe-keeping of dangerous materials for great sans of time is vital. But he sticks to this moment when he describes a sunset.

I enjoyed it for the most part. Sometimes he got a bit too detailed in the mechanics but there were times he got too drifty in the poetry of his responses.

This is a book I would never have read without a reading group – go join one.

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The Transformation of Virginia ~ by Rhys Isaac

I finally finished The Transformation of Virginia by Rhys Isaac.  Whew!  (I started this back in October, 2019 – put it down, picked it up, started again, and just kept going as long as I could on each sitting. I first only had the Kindle, but when I saw it didn’t have the graphics I got the paperback, too.  But I can’t read paperback font as it’s too small so I used that for the gorgeous line drawings. (Yes, it was worth it.)

The Transformation of Virginia by Rhys Isaac
1982 /
Kindle / paperback
Rating: 10 – US history


This is a really unorganized review! I very much enjoyed/appreciated the book -it took me a long time to read it because it’s not easy going and parts were just downright fascinating. I can’t quite believe I finished the whole thing.

Fwiw:  Issac was “a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Early American History at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. So he won the Pulitzer Prize in History even as a citizen of Australia – a first.

The narrative details the major societal changes in a small section of Virginia between 1740 and 1790.  Isaac calls it an “ethnographic-dramaturgic” narrative. Much of the text is straight from the diaries and letters and sermons and other primary source material and then reading that closely for actual meaning at the time.

Critics over the years have found fault with the “dramaturgic” element of Isaac’s ideas.  And there have been other issues as well. How widespread these critical ideas were is unknown by me. Dramaturgic is often used in sociology – not much in history (only the Melbourne group?)   See

“…Isaac’s treatment of causality in Virginia history remains The Transformation of Virginia’s central weakness, one which stems both from his focus on dramaturgy as the interpretive key to history and from his implicitly progressive narrative framework.”

It works from very local events to a larger stage and never does more than mention the American War of Independence.  The Great Awakening (1740s) is covered far more thoroughly. Nevertheless, the “transformation” of Virginia society is definitely shown in ways which were new to me.  The War of Independence was indeed a Revolution in many ways and as others have shown, it didn’t start with the Boston Tea Party or the Battle of Lexington and Concord. (Thinking of Fred Anderson’s books on the French and Indian War which I have yet to read.)  
What happened, according to Isaac, is that the Chesapeake area of Virginia (at least) went from a hierarchical communitarian society (Virginia to 1740 or so) to a more individualistic communitarian society (1790 or so).  

The methodology is hugely important so there’s a big section at the end of the book which goes through that ad nauseam. I’m not sure I fully understand the details of Isaac’s so-called anthropological or ethnological-drama approach, but I have an almost working knowledge about it because Inga Clendinnen used it with her a couple of her books, “Dancing with Strangers: Europeans and Australians at First Contact “ and “Aztecs: An Interpretation” and I “got it” at that simpler level.  (What were those First Fleeters thinking about the Australians?) 

Basically it’s social history at the level of a close reading of primary source material – I think.

And this is kind of weird, where Isaac’s book deals with the 2nd half of the 18th century,  Clendinnen’s book deals with 1788 (give or take a couple years) – smack in the middle of it.  But that’s when the documentation they worked from became abundant.  They used a close reading of an abundant supply of 1st person primary sources such as diaries and journals and speeches and letters and sermons and an occasional newspaper article.  A goodly portion of the narratives from the books of Clendinnen and Isaac consist of passages from those types of documents.   He gives credit to Clendinnen as well as Greg Denning for working with him in  the use and development of these methods but admits that ethnographic history took off without him. (See the Preface to the Paperback/Kindle edition)  

At this point the ethnographic/dramaturgical method which seemed to be so highly regarded back in 1998 (see the Preface)  has not produced a lot of results in the study of history (better in ethnography), but it was never a very big movement anyway (4, or maybe 5, historians working out of La Trobe University – Melbourne).  This is where the criticism in the review at comes from. Social history of all kinds has made huge inroads since the 1970s.


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Amy: My Search for Her Killer – by James Renner

On October 22, 1989 10-year old Amy Mihaljevic was abducted from a shopping mall in Ohio. Her decomposing body was found by the side of a road February 8, of 1990, 3 1/2 months later. James Renner, a child at the time but living in Ohio, heard about the story almost immediately and could not help himself, became interested.  He grew up to be a noted crime journalist with several books to his name. 

Amy: My Search for Her Killer
By James Renner. 2006 
Read by the author 7h 26m
Rating:  7 / true crime

This book is several years out of date, but it’s good in terms of what all the law enforcement agencies (local, state, FBI) were up against at the time and for 15 years afterwards.  Actually, the case is still open and the latest leads came in 2020 and 2021.

Renner started out as a true crime fan and became the author of several books in the genre.  I read True Crime Addict, his first book about how he got interested and went on to forge a career. Renner’s work has won several awards – he’s very active to this day. 

“Amy: My Search for Her Killer: Secrets and Suspects in the Unsolved Murder of Amy Mihaljevic” (That’s what’s on the front cover.)  is the story of the murdered 10-year old girl who stimulated Renner’s life-long interest in true crime.  Journalists have different approaches, different rights, different methods than official investigators and Renner knows his own job and he sometimes goes overboard, imo.  He investigates what he wants to and the way he wants to do it. Whatever will get results or at least further speculation.  He interviews the various people as well as the investigators who will let him.  He can usually get into any and all public records.  He wins the trust of people involved by assuming he has the right to all information.  (Does he? – Maybe … very few of them are required to tell him anything – only documents under freedom of information acts.)  

His writing reveals some little tricks like getting the speaker to slow down because a person deeply involved in a thing usually starts in the middle.  And Renner gets himself as involved as possible, affecting his family.  But solving the mystery will not bring Amy back.  

So moving through the book for awhile Renner narrows the long list of suspects using a few clues, some revealing interviews and a lot of common sense.  Then the list of suspects widens to include some really weird people and the digressions of this investigation are mind-bending, even by the author’s own admission.  

With most true crime novels the reader usually knows who eventually gets arrested and tried.  Not so with this book as the killer has not even yet (2021) been caught although it’s possible that with new leads there might be something coming.  That said, the murderer in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (Michelle McNamara – 2018) wasn’t captured until about 2 months after that book was released which was 2 years after the author’s death and 32 years after the last murder. 

The Wikipedia article on Amy Mihaljevic doesn’t use Renner’s book as the source of information but does list it as further reading and it updates the information – it also weeds out the digressions.

Renner is okay as his own narrator so it’s not distracting but the reading could have been better.

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The Reunion ~ by Guillaume Musso

Translated from the French whose authors I usually enjoy – like Patrick Modiano or Michel Houellebecq but still,  so much French in this one. There are French names and places and things like food – lots of pop-culture.  It makes it a bit difficult to listen to.  

The Reunion 
By Guillaume Musso
2017 / 
Read by Samuel West and others 8h 3m
Rating:  8, A / literary crime 

Musso has been very popular in France and many other countries for years, but this is his debut novel in English. Why?  Probably because it’s not your usual American thriller.   

Twenty-five years prior the class of 1992 graduated high school and Thomas, Maxime, Fanny and Vinca’s were best friends.  But Vinca disappeared with her philosophy teacher that night and they’ve not been seen since. Meanwhile, during all that time,  the others haven’t spoken. Then comes the invitation and they know they must go back one final time because there’s a body buried in the gymnasium which is being torn down.  

 At the time he and Maxime were his good friends and Fanny was in love with Thomas.  This threesome has not seen each other since the fateful night –  until now, at the reunion.  And now the gymnasium is going to be demolished and unbeknownst to all but a very few people a body is going to turn up.  

The narrative very nicely alternates between Thomas in the present day and in 1992. The writing is great without interfering with the increasing tension which is masterfully built.   The main characters are very skillfully drawn.  

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Blind Faith ~ by Joe McGuinness

This is an oldie but I do enjoy good True Crime and it was on sale (or free with membership!) I fell in love with the whole genre after I tried to read the completely fictional Silence of the Lambs (Thomas Harris 1988) and was so put off I thought, “Who cares what people can make up?”  And, annoyed, I hit the nonfiction shelves and found Ann Rule among others.  That was back in 1989 or so and I followed her writings for several years.  I also enjoyed a couple of Joe McGuinness books back then,  but not Blind Faith (that I remember but it’s been over 20 years).  I still read a good true crime book if it grabs my attention but I don’t look for them now. 

Blind Faith 
by Joe McGuinness
Read by Gibson Frazier 13h 1m
Rating:  7 / true crime 

This book was very controversial after it came out. McGuinness used many pseudonyms and has admitted having to wind his way through conflicting evidence and reports and choosing the most likely.   I think I picked up on that as I read.  Marshall late wrote a rebuttal book (like O.J. Simpson did.) 

There are lots of kinds of True Crime books.  There are the books which focus on the procedural aspects of one crime or how the cops got their guy.  There are family and psychological thrillers which focus on the killer and his issues (this is Ann Rule) especially concerning one particularly heinous crime.  There are serial killer chases which I can stand only sometimes but a few have been excellent.  I’ve kept following the genre for years but lately really only reading the ones which get a lot of press – I don’t go hunting them down anymore.
In this book the beautiful wife of the socially prominent and apparently rich Rob Marshall, an insurance salesman, is killed in a brutal roadside murder made to look like a robbery.  The couple has three sons who try their level best to remain true to their father’s story but they don’t all succeed. (And this is a major focus of the book.).  Rob Marshall, their father, has a number of strikes against him –  adultery with plans for marriage, insurance on his wife’s life, what look like payments to supposed hit men – it goes on.  

It gets convoluted because of the lies on the part of Marshall and his contacts and their contacts – everyone had lies and then they contradict themselves so  It’s pretty confusing for awhile.

But spoilers in True Crime are like most any other nonfiction – they don’t bother me a bit because this incident might be in the media or history books or anything.  In fact if I know stuff in advance it helps me to better understand the thrust of the book and get into it more deeply.

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The Shotgun Lawyer ~ by Victor Methos

I read this crime book before!!!! Methos is not my favorite author of legal thrillers,  but he’s up there and getting better.  He often writes about social issues rather than murders which too often turn into standard who-done-its or chase stories.  For several chapters I thought I’d read the book before due to some plot similarities, but as it progressed I decided that I hadn’t. But then toward the end I realized I was right – yes – I had read it before!   Omg. I’m not usually big on rereading genre crime novels – heh.

The Shotgun Lawyer
By Victor Methos
2018 /
Read by Will Damron 9h 35m
Rating:  A+ / legal thriller 

Oh well … I wasn’t remembering most of it at all – and I didn’t quite remember the ending.  I’m thinking I must have read it about 3 years ago, when it came out.  ???  But there’s no record of my reading it anywhere. 

Whatever … The Shotgun Lawyer opens (as usual) with a chapter or two showing the reader that although the protagonist, Peter Game, our 1st person narrator, likes to defend the good guys, he doesn’t always play by the rules of the courtroom. Then there is a chapter or two about his home and office life. After that comes the main case which is going to be played out across the remaining chapters.  (And therein lies the problem with the book – I’ve heard the arguments over and over and there’s nothing new here.) 

A shotgun lawyer is one who takes the cases, among others,  which the big lawyers don’t take (or keep) and which scatter out like buckshot. Peter Game is one such lawyer with his own tiny office in Salt Lake City.  He is also divorced with a teenage son and he has bills to pay.  

Then Melissa Bell walks into the somewhat unethical lawyer’s office with a case she wants him to take.  Her 7-year old son was one of several victims in a recent school shooting. She wants to sue the gun manufacturer.  

Okay? Fine.  Good book.  Good writing.  Good dialogue. Good plot although sometimes a bit heavy on the political issues (even if I do agree).  

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