Sep. 3rd, 2017

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  I"m way behind on reviews of the stuff I've been reading lately so let's try to fix that up.   

  To start with, I finished off the audiobook of Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome.  This is the last in his Swallows and Amazons series of books about plucky British children having adventures in various English countryside locations.  I've now read/listened to all the books in the series except for Peter Duck and Missy Lee because those books are stories the children made up about wild adventures they'd like to have (so sort of an in-series fan fiction?).  I was more interested in their "real" adventures over their imaginary ones.

  So in this book, the Walkers, the Blacketts, and the Callums are in the North Sea along with Uncle Jim who's borrowed the boat they're sailing around in (and providing a modicum of adult supervision).  Near the end of the trip, they put into a small cove on an island in order to scrub and paint the hull before returning the boat to its owner.  While the older kids work on that, the younger ones go exploring on the island and Dick makes an interesting discovery, a nesting pair of Great Northerns (loons) which aren't supposed to be found in that part of the world.

  That information falls into the hands of a Mr. Jemmeling who collects birds and their eggs and is most interested in acquiring such a rare set of specimens for his collection.  Horrified, Dick and the rest of the kids put a desperate plan into play to allow Dick to get photographic proof of the birds and to throw Mr. Jemmerling off the scent.  Scottish highlanders also make an appearance.

  The book gets a bit of flack because Mr. Jemmerling has a gun and firearms are pretty unusual in these books.  But the gun is for hunting birds and no one is ever threatened by a weapon so I'm not sure how it ranks as a bigger problem than casual English racism that crops up in the books.  Overall, I thought the book was pretty good, but there were far too many adults involved.  These books work best for me, when it's mostly the children deciding what they want to do and then going to do it.  Too many adults (or "natives") tends to disrupt the kids' natural inquisitiveness.

  On balance, I really enjoy the Swallows and Amazon series.  As I mentioned earlier, casual English racism is probably the biggest stumbling block for recommending the series to young readers.  It's not a constant thing, but every so often it really flares up (notably in Secret Waters where smearing yourself with black mud to camouflage people).  It's really too bad because in a lot of other respects, the books are well ahead of their times.  There's almost always an even split between boys and girls and the girls have at least as much agency as the boys.  The interactions between various groups of kids (especially when they first meet) is handled quite well as is the internal life of various characters when they are focused on in the story.

  I really enjoyed the series and had a lot of fun with it.  It's a product of it's times but it's also probably one of the best products of it's time and worth looking into if you want some classic YA.


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  OK, let's knock out reviews of the books I've read lately:

  First up, Fifth Ward: First Watch by Dale Lucas.  This is a fantasy police procedural.  Rem wakes up in the drunk tank of Fifth Ward in the city of Yenara.  Assisting the watch in a jailhouse brawl gets Rem a spot on the Watch and a grumpy Dwarven partner named Torval.    As Rem learns how to walk the beat, the Watch starts investigating a series of disappearance and murders.

  The book makes for good beach reading. It's not terribly complex or deep and tends to tick off the boxes versus something innovating but for the most part it's well done and the characters are interesting.  The only real nit I have to pick is that there are a number of screamingly obvious Checkovian guns lying around which makes the ending a tad less unpredictable than you'd like.  Good filler reading.

  Next up we have Lincoln in the Bardo by George Suanders.  This was the ad hoc book club book for people who went out to visit my folks for the summer eclipse.  The historical fact is that after young Willie Lincoln died, Lincoln made return visits to the grave.  In Buddhist traditions the idea of the Bardo is a kind of limbo or purgatory where spirits are between this life and the next.  Together that forms the basis for this novel in which the inhabitants of Willie's graveyard try to help Willie move on and come to terms with their own existence (or non-existence).

  Fair warning -- the back half (back third?) of this book is amazing, but there is an unnecessarily steep climb to get their.  Saunders uses a formatting trick where everything is an excerpt.  This is fine when he's taking (what I believe are) actual excerpts from letters/books/diaries to discuss actual historical events but that carries through into the rest of the story.  Rather than having a block of dialog or a omniscient third-person narrator, the books builds on excerpts from each character's first person narrative.  If you've read Burroughs or DeLaney it's not nearly as bad as that, but it's not easy for most people to get into and will probably discourage a lot of casual readers. 

  Which is too bad, because once you get into the back half of the book, the plot gets extraordinary.  There's a lot of clever world-building on display and the characters are all well-drawn and interesting.  You're also left with a lot of interesting questions about the book and about topics large and small.  

  In the end, I think this book is too clever by half.  The formatting gimmick mostly seems like a gimmick and makes a great book a lot less readable.  If manage to deal with it, I'd be happy to talk with you about stuff in the book.

  Next we have Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones.  I first heard about this book because I read an interview with Angus Deaton, one half of the team of Deaton-Case who published their study on "deaths of despair" -- economic inequality affecting middle-aged white people who then turn to drugs or suicide  to deal with their loss of the American Dream.  In the interview, Mr. Deaton had a lot of positive remarks on the book so I picked it up.

  Dreamland is two separate, but inter-twined stories.  On one side is the pharmaceutical industry that's interested in treating pain with this new pill called OxyContin and on the other side is a small group of Mexicans who all live in the small town of Xalisco in the state of Nayarit.  In the 90's, the pharma companies spent big bucks convincing doctors that pain was an important and vital part of patient treatment and that opioids weren't nearly as addictive as people claimed.  In Xalisco, young men were fed up with back-breaking, dead-end jobs that left them poorer than when they started so they were looking for new opportunities.  Some of them tried their hand at selling black tar heroin.  It was cheap to grow and make in Mexico and generally much more pure than the stuff being run in from overseas.

  So you wound up with a population being over-prescribed opioid medication and getting hooked on it.  When more Oxy wasn't enough, the Xalisco boys would show up with their black tar heroin which was more pure at a cheaper price.

  And it's all about convenience.  On the pharma side, doctors where encouraged to prescribe more and larger doses of oxy without a lot of thought towards other pain-relieving methods (the pills were cheap, multi-discipline pain-reduction techniques are more effective in the long run but up-front costs were too much for health insurance companies).  Eventually, this lead to the rise of pill mills in states without a lot of good oversight or regulation.  On the dealers' side, it was a series of independent groups from Xalisco who would turn up in a town, run a low-key operation where you called them up and they delivered right to you.  They kept the amount of drugs small, rotated their drivers out every few months, never used their own product, never restored to violence, and never carried weapons.  When their drivers were busted, they only did a short time in jail (if any) and were then kicked back to Mexico.  The whole system was decentralized, customer service oriented and almost completely invisible to most law enforcement agencies.  These two forces collided with each other and produced the opioid epidemic we see today that has gutted towns across the country (although flyover states have been most seriously affected).  

  The book is well written and moves deftly between these two narrative threads without losing the reader.  It was a fascinating look inside the drug industry (legal and illegal).  Strongly recommended if you want a good overview of how we got here with heroin and just a generally good look at how we do or don't deal with drugs.

  Finally, something a bit lighter in You Die When You Die by Angus Watson.  Imagine North American megafauna didn't all die out.  Imagine that a small group of Vikings showed up in North America, but didn't bring along any Old World diseases.  Finally, imagine that a local tribe put them under a sort of "benevolent quarantine" where they provided food and resources to the Vikings as long as they didn't leave a 10 mile perimeter around their landing site.  That's the basic set-up for this book. 

  Of course, you can't stay in that 10-mile perimeter very long and soon the local empress has a dream that the "mushroom people" will destroy the earth.  She dispatches an army to wipe out the Vikings.  A small band of them gets away and the Empress sends the Owlsa after them -- ten magically-enhanced women who will stop at nothing to destroy them.

  For the most part, I liked this book and there's a lot of neat world-building and a fair amount of actual research into the topics the author borrows from.  The real problem is that the main character, Finn, is a painfully stereotypical teenage boy and gratingly unsympathetic as a character.  Also, it very clearly is the start of a trilogy though it does find a halfway decent stopping point without a lot of dangling plot points.  It's not a bad book and if the premise intrigues, you'll probably like it.



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