The Great Alone ~ by Kristin Hannah

I was drawn to The Great Alone because the theme of survival in Alaska, especially off the grid, is intriguing to me. The theme of PTSD related to the War in Vietnam not so interesting but not bad.  

Ernt Albright is a veteran and POW who returned home with PTSD.  His wife, Cora accommodated him as best she could but it was very rough going and they decided to “homestead” in Alaska.  The novel opens with with their child, Leonora, who at the opening of the novel is age 12. 

The Great Alone
By Kristin Hannah

2018 / 440 pages
Read by Julia Whelan  15h 3mR
Rating: 6 / general fiction 
(from the library)

Unfortunately, the theme of survival from the natural elements; freezing winters, black bears, enormous moose, hunger and poverty for exemple, disappears during a long middle section when it morphs into the tangled and twisted plots of survival of Dad’s abuse and soap-opera-type romance with one upheaval on the heels of another.  What are the boundaries of love?  

But Part 1 involves a fairly interesting story and another good tale unfolds in Part 3 (I don’t now if they’re called Parts in the book).  I suppose it’s half a good book so I gave it a rating of 6 meaning “mixed” review.  (The narrator is very good.)  
Parts of the final section feel a bit more “tell” the story rather than “show,” although it’s hugely emotional.  My opinion is that it’s okay to do that if there’s a lot of things to be told in just few pages.  

There are interesting plot and theme twists later in the book, too.  A lot of compassion is shown for a woman who is battered but doesn’t leave; what drives women to accept seriously abusive situations?  (And some of these thematic points might make for interesting reading group discussions.)  Mother-daughter relationships are important here, too.  
The characters really grow on the reader, especially in the audio version. They develop strong identities, 

That said, the themes could really have been  developed more deeply so it’s basically a young adult novel – for women ages 16 – 22 (?)  This novel may be a case of too many highly charged conflicts stretched over the course of one story.

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The Sentence is Death ~ by Anthony Horowitz

I’m not a huge fan of Anthony Horowitz but I have enjoyed three of his prior mysteries, each from a different series.  The Magpie Murders ,The Word Is Murder, and Moonflower Murders  These are in two short but different series (out of five). 

The Sentence is Death
by Anthony Horowitz
 2017 / 
Read by Rory Kinnear 8h 56m
Rating:  B+/ mystery  

The Sentence is Death is the second book in The Word is Murder series featuring author Horowitz and PI Hawthorne.  

 Horowitz, a writer by trade,  is hired by Hawthorne, a private investigator,  to write about Hawthorne’s investigation into the death of Richard Pryce, a celebrity divorce lawyer.  Yes, Horowitz plays Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock.  (I love Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson as written by AC Doyle. Fearing disaster, I was very late coming to this show but I don’t read any other Sherlock Holmes spins and there are dozens.  But I really enjoyed The Magpie Murders which features Susan Ryeland, an editor, as the protagonist so I opened myself up to The Word Is Murder, the first in this series.  

I have yet to read the two books which actually are Sherlock Holmes spins using the great detective himself.  
So — back to The Sentence is Death, who killed Richard Price?  Hawthorne is called and he calls Horowitz to help with the investigation and write a book. 
For the most part, this is an old-fashioned mystery so the clues start dropping in Chapter 2.  An expensive but broken bottle of wine next to the victim who was a tee-totaler, numbers painted in green on the wall, and a nasty note apparently from a noted feminist writer.
Hawthorne and Horowitz go out interviewing and putting clues together with Horowitz’s 1st person account.  

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State of Terror ~ by Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny

I wish I could write up a better reveiw for this one. I basically loved it but due to some personal issues wasn’t able to give it the attention it deserved because my mind kept wandering and it ended up taking me 4 days to finish a spy thriller

By Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny

2021 / (511 pages) 
Read by Joan Allen 15h 41m
Rating A+ / espionage-thriller 

Remember The President is Missing, the book Bill Clinton wrote with James Patterson? That was pretty good,  or rather I should say “I enjoyed it” because I do know the difference. I gave it an A-.  

Hillary, not to be outdone (or maybe they both personally enjoy popular crime novels), teamed up with the highly popular Louise Penny to write State of Terror.  

In The President is Missing it feels like Bill Clinton provided the info on presidential security while the very popular Patterson was on board for the actual writing. And maybe they collaborated on the plot.   

With State of Terror Hillary shows her stuff about spies, defense, terror, and the workings of the State Department. Louise Penny is a top-notch writer of traditional mystery novels.

Mostly State of Terror is a thriller/spy novel with political aspects – some quite strong toward the end. It starts out as a thinly veiled poke at the “stable genius” who is now a prior. I didn’t really catch the political tones for the first third or so, but it’s there – lightly but pointedly. After the 1/2-way pont it gets more and more real.

But this is a book which might be better in print format than audio. There are a lot of scene and chapter breaks for which there no pause or notice in the narration.  When you realize the action has gone from Germany to the White House it feels like there should be asterisks or something – and there are little lines in the print versions. That said the narration is excellent.  

The twice-widowed Ellen Adams, a highly-rated journalist, has been named by the two-month old administration as Secretary of State.  She’s already had problems with North Korea and Pakistan is a serious hot-spot where scientists are expanding the nuclear programs. Suddenly bombs go off on crowded buses in European cities and it’s suspected that this terrorist activity will repeat very soon in US cities.There are spies and counter spies and diplomacy and secrets along with a few shoot-up. But the bomb scare is always underneath.  So it gets tense and then it gets bloody.  It’s impossible to read this book without “seeing” Hillary Clinton as the Secretary of State.  I don’t remember if that was as described or not.

The book is quite long and needs the reader’s attention. I started out terrific and then got lost and then bored but after that the tale got riveting I burned the midnight oil. Bottom line, this is a very good and enjoyable novel and I recommend it unless you’re allergic to hearing the rhetoric of divisive politics these days – but that’s really only at the end.

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Parrot Talk ~ by David B. Seaburn

Oh my.  Recommended by a friend and it’s hard when you don’t much care for something a friend recommended. That said,  I have a strong feeling the book might be 100% better in print format because it felt to me like it was the narrator who affected me so adversely. There were parts which really were quite funny and I did keep going in spite of the narrator.

Parrot Talk
by David B. Seaburn

Read by Sean Lenhart 8h 3m
Rating: 7 (narration – 3) / gen fic

Like a prologue but Chapter 1, Milly  is an older woman who dies alone in Pittsburgh. She has left behind a few friends, a few possessions and an African grey parrot named Paul. One of her most special possessions was a picture of two boys.

So in Chapter 2,  Lukie and Grinder are middle-aged brothers who live a road-trip away. Luke is married but Grinder is alone. They haven’t heard from their mother in over 30 years. Milly abandoned them and their drunken, abusive father about 30+ years ago and they really know nothing about her.

But they are contacted about her death by Jackie, one of Millie’s friends, and asked to come fetch “Paul.” What they don’t know is that Paul is a valuable talking, grey African parrot.  With some time for a bit of road-trip adventure as well as reader background, the pair gets to Pittsburgh where the actual story continues.  

There is a definite heart-warming aspect to the tale but for me, the narration almost ruined the whole thing.

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There Is Nothing For You Here ~ by Fiona Hill 

I first actually viewed Fiona Hill when she testified at Trump’s first impeachment hearing and I was just so impressed.  Then I realized I’d already read a book by her – Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin was published in 2020 and I read it then as I was fascinated by Putin.  

There Is Nothing For You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century
By Fiona Hill
Oct 2021 / (432 pages) 
Read by Fiona Hill 
Rating: 7.5  / memoir – economics 

I first actually saw Fiona Hill when she testified at Trump’s first impeachment hearing and I was just so impressed.  That book is also read by Hill and yes, her accent was challenging until I got used to it. Then I realized I’d already read a book by her – Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremliwas published in 2020 and I read it then because I was fascinated by Putin.

Hill grew up in the mainly coal town of Bishop Auckland in the 1970s. Those were the Thatcher years and Hill was a poor girl in a hard-pressed post-industrial part of England.  Her father told her to get out of there if she wanted opportunity. She followed his advice –  hence the title.  

Her family is presented as being rather typical of the times and place. And typical also of parts of the US for the last couple decades where jobs have disappeared and there’s not much “opportunity” to be had.  J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Tara Westover’s Educated are memoirs with this theme – coming up out of working class areas where the work part has disappeared.  

Hill’s focus is the economics of the area and her own family and that works into advice to others as well as the health and education necessary to make use of any possible opportunity to be found.  Her mother worked in health care, her father in various fields so Hill aimed toward gaining an education where, in the 1970s,  changes were occurring in both the US and UK enabling the poor to gain access to the middle class.  

One thing which was different about Hill’s situation is that her parents scrimped and were lucky enough to be able to purchase and keep a home. She won a scholarship to a local high school, but didn’t have the money for the uniforms. “Even when opportunity presented itself it took resources to seize it.”   Instead she went to the local public school where weren’t enough text books to go around and other difficulties.   

She then made use of all opportunities as they come along with some room for choosing and a lot of room for luck.  She sought out small grants and scholarships at the library and through volunteering and tips from others including her local political representatives, churches and unions – almost anywhere.  She ended up getting a PhD, moving to the US and getting a job at the US State Department.  This has to be persistent and personally driven – there was no one program for opportunity and success.
One problem Hill faced at almost all levels of advancement was her accent which spoke of her northeast working class background. It became a stigma whenever she met British people who knew immediately where she was from and she never “fixed” her accent.   

Trump is discussed as being particularly bad about prejudice and stereotyping women and experts.  Hill faced it all. And she wrote a book about how to find opportunity when it seems entirely stacked against you.  

And she has a multitude of suggestions for how individuals, communities and countries can do this.  The book is mostly about the sub-title: “Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century.”  

It’s a pretty good book but I got bored when the talk turned too much to specific opportunities other than hers. The last third seems to drag on and on.  I most enjoyed the memoir and the parts about life in the US with Trump.  

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The Viking Heart: by Arthur Herman

This is a wonderful book if you read it for the history, but I had problems with the political and social commentary – the author’s assumptions, if you will.

The Viking Heart: How Scandinavia Conquered the World 
By Arthur Herman 
2021 / 512 pages
Read by Kiff VandenHeuvel 18h 50m
Rating: 9.5  / history
(Both read and listened)

Herman is careful to steer away from any actual  “racial” slant, but some ethnic thing is certainly there because “Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland seem to have discovered some secret about how to live and thrive together that has eluded most of the modern world.”  And this is apparent in “the Nordic countries today – where the direct descendants of the Vikings still live…” (Conclusion). 

Viking Voyages – great map!

Not to say he ignores Quisling because he doesn’t, but I think Herman might have cherry-picked much of his evidence.  He included the Finns for their fierce fighting, but then he excluded Knut Hamsun for embracing the Germans.  And that’s a shame because the Finns really are different and wonderful in their own right, while Hamsun wrote directly about the solid good people of Norway prior to WWI.  Rolvaag is only mentioned as the author of a novel referred to in a source note – Rolvaag’s book did not glorify Norwegians! Neither of Hamsun nor Rolvaag were impressed with America, though. He works with Lindberg’s politics (and Ihave no issue with that.) Herman is a true USA patriot in the red sense of the term.   

From the Wall Street Journal:  “An absorbing and humane account . . . Mr. Herman is at pains to remind us that the Viking world was never just a stage for mayhem. It was, he says, ‘about daring to reach for more than the universe had gifted you, no matter the odds and the obstacles.’ In short: We might all take our own life’s cue from the Viking heart.”—The Wall Street Journal

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The Lions of 5th Avenue ~ by Fiona Davis

If you like what I like, don’t bother with this one. I’m not sure why I thought it looked good enough to check out.  I’m not big on books about libraries because they seem too specifically targeted at one audience – the women who identified with Jo March in Little Women and with Nancy Drew in those books. And when you throw in historical fiction and a bit too much romance, it gets soppy.  

The Lions of 5th Avenue 
by Fiona Davis 
2020 /  (363 pages)
Read by Ellen Bennett, Lisa Flanigan 10h 37m
Rating: 7.5 / historical mystery

In 1913 Laura Lions is a married mother of three and wants something more in her life. She and her family live in an apartment inside the New York City Public Library where her husband Jack is employed as Superintendent while writing a novel. They don’t have much money. Books from the library go missing. Laura wants to try a career in journalism and goes back to school at Columbia University. There is a lot of talk about freedom and women’s rights. Laura feels trapped. 

In 1993 Sadie, age 23 or so, is the granddaughter of Laura Lions and struggles with having achieved the freedom sought by her mother’s mother, but still wanting to be married with children. Sadie works at the library where there have been a series of thefts of old books, some quite valuable. So Sadie investigates and meets Nick Adriano, from a private security firm.  

The chapters alternate between the time frames as the two plot threads catch up with each other and find a satisfactory conclusion. There isn’t much interplay between the stories but they do mirror each other in several ways and that’s quite interesting.  A healthy suspension of disbelief was necessary for me, but the story was apparently compelling enough that I managed.  And Davis gets an A for tension building, especially in the last 15% (?) which is page-turning.  

But the story line is predictable (for me) and holds to today’s standards (not those of 1914) so female readers will be comfortable.  There’s even a typhoid vaccine being pushed in the 1914 story. 

There are lots of ideas and themes to explore but they boil down to women’s choices and duties – motherhood, responsibility, careers, ambitions and husbands.

If this book had been much longer I wouldn’t have bothered to finish. As it is I was glad it came from the library.  The writing is about a 7th grade level (if that) with content at about 11th grade.  I suppose it would make a nice young adult book (ages 15-22).  If there were a high school women’s studies class someplace …

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Forgetting ~ By Scott Small x2

This is a really good book but it gets complicated even in the structure and organization in part because much of it works together.   

Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering 
By Scott Small 
2021 / 211 pages (print) 
Read by Timothy Pabon  5h 49m
Rating:  9 / nonfiction – psychology

1. To Remember, To Forget:  The general benefits of forgetting: “Funes” by Jorge Luis Borges

2. Quiet Minds: Is autism – the need for sameness – parts or pieces more important than the whole (Arcimbaldo paintings) jigsaw puzzles with the box or not?  Deficits in pattern – processing social stimuli – same as processing facial features – Autism results in not remembering the pieces to put them together?   It’s all new every time?  We forget in order to cognitively generalize. (Pg 43) 

Giuseppe Arcimboldo: (Pg 59) 

“Both artificial and natural intelligence depend on forgetting to generalize and reconstruct the whole from the parts in order to categorize and label even when they vary subtly infinite ways.”   (Pg 61)

3. Liberated Minds:  PTSD – remove power of memory – Israeli conflicts – final category of PTSD is relevant to forgetting and is called “extinction” (ability to forget the trauma).  But how to avoid PTSD as the author and buddies did? Also the mechanics and the whole important idea of forgiving.  

4. Fearless Minds: Two personalities – cousins. B is bonobo and C is a chimpanzee – together they are Pan genus.  But should Homo sapiens be there too?  DNA lead to a new taxonomy but the old is not irrelevant.  Humans seem to have some of each, B & C.   Then there’s fight, flight or fright. 

5. Lightening Minds: Dementia and Creativity (de Koonig and Jasper Johns) –  when does dementia begin? What is Alzheimer’s and how different? Does this forgetting affect creativity? recommended sleeping and Francis Crick (Nobel DNA) did studies on consciousness and sleep. 

“We dream in order to forget.”  To clean the spines which collect new memories.  No wonder babies sleep so much – there is so much that is new to them.  

6. Humble Minds: Personal biases – same ideas as “Noise” by Kahneman Doctor friend feels he has a poorer memory than other doctors.  Maybe true – his own dad was like that.  But why very high intelligence if poor memory?  Less hippocampal functions were higher.  Short term memory – pre-frontal cortex is large.  Pieces which act collectively.  Working memory for manipulation and decisions comes later so children have trouble controlling their impulses.  

Metamemory – how well do we assess our own memory.  Alzheimer’s patients sometimes know they are losing their memory but some don’t understand they are losing it.  
Sometimes we are wrong and need to be able to admit it and change our minds – intellectual humility.  His Dr X sounds like a generally humble guy.  
Kahneman and Tversky – Cognitively lazy heuristics humans don’t think through the bat and ball question.  Much here is repetitive of Noise and Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow.  Memory priming – implicit and explicit memories.  Internal indicators in some very mathematical minds – superior pre-frontal cortex will override fast-thinking.  

7: Communal Minds: Dementia – Joan and her daughter.  forgetting names and how that feels to the person to be named, the loved one. Caring depends on memory. Letting go means forgetting – the brain’s emotional forgetting.  Forgiving a nation – Jews.  Civil War and canceling and so on.  “Returning home”  homesickness, extreme nostalgia and a “brain on fire” with too many memories.  The doctor Jonathan Hofer understood in 1688.   PTSD is toxic emotional memory “hypermnesia” – nationalism.  Forgetting – memories overwhelm ethical IQ. In US it’s 9/11. 

8.  Epilogue:  Pathological Forgetting – the cause is defective proteins. It took a long time to  acknowledge Alzheimer’s as a disease of dementia/senility and a very wide-spread one.  It’s the tail end of the aging process although there is a rare early-onset form. People want to know how to fix it.  But then everyone was scared they had it. Small tried to locate earliest stages. Technology had to catch up and show photos of hippocampi.  The medical and pharmaceutical industries continue to research protein pathologies.  

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Death Without Company ~ by Craig Johnson

Death Without Company 
by Craig Johnson 

2007 (271 pages)
Read by George Guidall 9h 48m
Rating: B / western crime 
(Longmire series #2)

Johnson’s Longmire series and the character are quite popular with some reading group friends so I’ve tried, but I think this is just not my cuppa.  It also used to be a very popular TV series but that was cancelled due to demographics (an “old people” show).  Out of 17 books I’ve read 3 and just not been able to really get into them.  Dry Bones was tolerable, but Cold Dish (#1 in the series) and now Death Without Company (#2) were just flat to me.  

Craig Johnson’s books are very similar to those of CJ Box’s Joe Pickett series but for some reason I enjoy the Pickett books a whole lot more. 

The series takes place in north central Wyoming where Sheriff Walt Longmire drives his pick-up truck around the fictional Absaroka County to enforce the law. This is located in the very real Absaroka mountains where the local population includes the Absaroka tribe of Native Americans.  And Longmire has a whole retinue of friends and assistants including Victoria Moretti, Lucian Connally, and Santiago Saizarbitori helping him out. 

 In this book he’s not young and has had some experience in the world. His wife is deceased, though, and he still likes women – to look at.  It comes to Longmire’s attention that an old woman was murdered at the care home where she lives. She was poisoned.  She is a part of the Basque community and then the relationships get more complicated. 

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The Magician ~ by Colm Toibin

Oh what a marvelous book!  As I started it I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to get into it or not, but before long I was hooked.  Thomas Mann can write the reader into a cozy corner of family and ideas and decadence of the 19th and 20th century Europe.  Colm Toibin doesn’t quite get to literary level of Mann, but he definitely knows how it works, like how to do right by ink and paper. 

The Magician
By Colm Toibin
2021 / 
Read by Gunnar Cauthery 16h 37m
Rating:  9.5 / biographical novel  

I think it would be a good idea for readers of The Magician to be familiar with the works of Thomas Mann,  Buddenbrooks, Death in Venice, The Magic Mountain, at least before reading the Toibin book.  And being more familiar with his biography than I was would be helpful.  (I had barely a glossing – if that.) 
Mann wrote those novels (and much more) in the order above, so quite a lot of his life goes along with the novels chronologically.  The book is actually called a “biographical novel” for a reason.  

Toibin had an excellent resource in Mann’s diaries which were published a few years ago and there have been proper biographies, too. But Toibin brings his own sensitivities which work to bring a collection of facts to life. (Oh how cliched of me).  

The book is written somewhat like Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family (1901).  It’s a family saga in which grain, banking and the industrial revolution give the family its start. but the children and grandchildren have their own lives to live. This goes further in years than Buddenbrooks because Mann lived through WWII and well into the Cold War.  

In The Magician, Mann marries Katia Pringsheim who was from a large and wealthy Jewish family. Thomas and Katia had six children and the family was very close. Mann won the Nobel Prize for literature relatively early in his career. They moved to Davos in Switzerland for medical treatment of TB but didn’t return to Munich because of the Nazi regime. Instead the Manns managed to move to the US. There he was active in opposing the Nazis while each of his children did their own thing in the world. 

I suppose, and like Buddenbrooks, the 1st generation of Manns did wonderfully well and the second generation (Thomas and his siblings) did well enough to keep things afloat with Thomas “making” the family name, but the third generation fell apart.  That may be the work of a broad brush, so don’t scrutinize too carefully.  (However, if Mann did model Buddenbrooks after his own family and the Buddenbrooks Effect in business is developed from that well … I think it’s important to note.)

This was helpful for genealogy:

Toibin also develops very interesting characters outside the Mann family and they’re historical too.  Alma Mahler for one:

His fiction is quite philosophical (as was Mann’s) with a bit more explicit homo-erotic tones.  Less well-known these days are his activism against Fascism and the Holocaust when he found out. He spoke out as much as possible.  But Thomas and Katia were also suspect because he was German – his wife was Jewish and they hung out with artists.) He was NOT a socialist in spite of the rumors.

Toibin is no Thomas Mann, but he’s quite a good novelist for quite a long time and having been awarded numerous prizes. He did the same kind of thing biographical novel with the life of Henry James in The Master (2004). (1875) (1883) (1905) (1906) (1909) (1910) (1918) (1919) 

In some ways Mann reminds me of America’s William Faulkner.  

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The Wives ~ by Tarryn Fisher

I shouldn’t have even bothered to put this up here.  I don’t usually finish books as stupid as this one and I can’t say as I actually read the whole thing. The reason is that I slept through  close to half of it and when I woke up decided to listen to the ending because I was curious.  That doesn’t count as really reading a book but I did read the first 3 hours and the last hour or so – that’s about half of it.  

The Wives
by Tarryn Fisher
2019 / 
Read by Lauren Fortgang 9h
Rating D and might even be DNF – ?? 

***Massive Spoiler Alert ***

The basics are that the 1st person protagonist has an affair with a married man and gets pregnant. The wife, who is unable to have kids, finds out.  The wife leaves him and our protagonist person loses her baby and is then unable to have children. So the man, who has his own set of lies marries someone else but he can’t quite get rid of the mistress. There’s a lot of lying and story-telling – mostly by the protagonist to herself and on top of that she’s paranoid.  Finally, at the end, there’s a shooting (no one dies), a trial and a mental hospital. 

The narrator is totally unreliable and takes denial to a whole new level. When her troubles mount she creates an alternative reality going so far as creating or destroying physical evidence to prove it. At the end she’s still not well and creates more damage.  Okay fine. Don’t bother.  

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Find You First ~ by Linwood Barclay

Miles Cookson is an unmarried tech billionaire who, at age 40-something, finds out he has Huntington’s disease, an incurable, genetic abnormality of the brain.  He likes to drive fast cars and work. 

Find You First
By Linwood Barclay
2021 / 
Read by George Newburn 11h 8m Rating: B+ / crime

Then, quite suddenly, Miles remembers that he donated sperm to a sperm bank maybe 20 years prior. Those children are grown now and they’re his children.  His next project is to find them so he can let them know about the Huntington’s and to probably disperse his wealth.  But someone is getting to the kids first – they’re dying before Miles can get to them.  

The chapters alternate between various characters including Miles, his brother and sister-in-law, several of Miles’ kids and a few bad guys.  

It’s a pretty good novel, complex and twisty but light almost to the point of humorous. The narrator, George Newburn, does a very good job.  I think I’m going to have to read more of Barclay’s crime novels.  

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