• Burn Book by Kara Swisher ** (of 4)

    You can take my review with a grain of salt: everyone else loves this book. Swisher has been reporting on advances in technology since the first personal computers hit the market. She has spent considerable time with Jobs, Gates, Zuckerberg, and Musk. She predicted that everything, everywhere, would be digitized, and then monetized. Burn Book is a history of the PC, iPod, iPad, iPhone, Google, and so on. She also reminds us of all the epic failures. Anyone recall My Space? Netscape? Vonage? Are Snapchat and Twitter going to be around a lot longer?

    The point of her book seems to be to make sure that readers are fully aware that all the tech bros are awkward, juvenile, and male. She also wants us to know that she is, and always has been, smarter than all of them. The one distinction seems to be that she knows she is arrogant and condescending, unlike most of her subjects. It is a little bit fun to relive the ups and downs of tech throughout our lifetime, but Swisher doesn’t offer any insight. So who cares if she tells us how smart she is and how socially inept the bros are?

  • The Maid by Nita Prose ** (of 4)

    Molly the Maid is what we used to call “on-the-spectrum.” She does not read body language or comprehend social cues. She is 25 years old and very smart. Repeatedly, she asks herself if a smile is genuine or not; are people laughing at her or with her. Like in a fairy tale, she has no mother but is raised by a fairy godmother of a grandmother. Molly loves being a maid, “May I bring your room to a state of perfection?” she asks as she rolls her trolly into a client’s room in the archetypal Regency Hotel.

    Above all else, Molly is an exceedingly decent person, which is why it is supposed to feel so bad when she discovers a wealthy hotel client dead in his bed. When questioned by police, Molly’s proclivity to perceive all inquiries literally–even snarky and sarcastic asides–quickly land her in hot water. The mystery of how the dead man died is eventually worked out. Unfortunately, the trope of a maid who takes everything literally (unless, somehow, her insight is helpful to the investigation) begins to feel like a grown-up version of the children’s book series about Amelia Bedelia. When Amelia Bedelia is asked to pick up her feet when she walks, she uses her hands to pick up her feet. Molly does just about the same, which after a while starts to outweigh her essential goodness.

  • Down the River Unto the Sea by Walter Mosley *** (of 4)

    Joe King Oliver is, no, was, a NYC cop. He was sent to Rikers after being framed for molesting a perp. Now, a dozen years later, still suffering flashbacks and PTSD from his time in the hole, he is trying to put his life back together. He is working as a private investigator when a client asks him to take on the case of a cop-killer on death row. Cop-killers don’t get let off, especially those who admit to doing the shooting. Except, the man on death row is an African American who worked hard to lift up NYC’s most down and out. Now calling himself A Free Man (formerly Leonard Compton), A Free Man ran up against a crooked ring of police who were extorting junkies and prostitutes. The cops hunted down our do-gooders associates and came after A Free Man, guns blazing.

    Joe Oliver now has two cases involving unknown crooked cops: A Free Man and his own hunt for the guys who framed him. He prowls the streets of the city expounding the philosophy of a well-read, self-taught, working class Black man making him one of the most interesting characters to ever interrogate the line between right and wrong. Race and class are given the attention they deserve. New Yorkers, who are honest with themselves, are always measuring and assessing. At times the circuities of Oliver’s attempts to uncover the bad cops who framed him and the bad cops that went after A Free Man are too tangled to follow, but stick with Oliver. His observational skills about life in the city, and about life in general, are magnificent.

  • Area 51 by Annie Jacobsen *** (of 4)

    This is Annie Jacobsen’s first book in a series of investigative journalism pieces into top-secret practices of the U.S. government. Using the Freedom of Information Act, access to unclassified documents, and interviews with old-timers willing to talk on the record, Jacobsen does her best to describe goings-on at Area 51. Located in the Nevada desert, its existence is not acknowledged by the government nor is it located on maps. It is adjacent to Nevada’s nuclear testing sites, but entrance by land or air is only permitted to those with top level security clearances.

    According to Jacobsen, Area 51 was created soon after the Manhattan Project at the end of WW II. It has been used by the CIA, the Air Force, and other military operations. Nuclear weapons have been developed and tested. Spy aircraft like the U-2, Stealth airplanes that could avoid radar, drones, and planes capable of flying faster than Mach 3 were part of Cold War competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. They were operational for decades before the public came to know of them and have been in use in conflict zones around the world. Radiation tests were probably performed on human subjects without their consent to determine the impact of nuclear fallout and the use of dirty bombs.

    Jacobsen, strongly implies, that far more nefarious activities have been undertaken–actions so uncomfortable that they are protected against Freedom of Information inquiries. Some secret actions were so clandestine they were kept from Presidents. Jacobsen makes you wonder about the power of democracies to administer their militaries. She also makes you ponder what secret tests are underway today, tests we won’t know about for decades.

  • Essex Dogs by Dan Jones **** (of 4)

    In July of 1346, King Edward crossed the English Channel to reclaim territory taken by his independently-minded cousin, King Phillipe. Thousands of troops land on the beaches of Normandy, but we follow 10 peasants who fight together and call themselves the Essex Dogs. They have made their livings as soldiers-for-hire during summer fighting season and have gotten good at their craft. They are a Band of Brothers.

    The ten men are real people. The de facto leader of the Dogs, Loveday FitzTalbot, is questioning whether he still has the drive to kill and pillage indiscriminately. After many seasons in the field, his belly is bigger than it is used to be, running uphill winds him, and he recognizes the villagers he is terrorizing as being not unlike himself. It is hard to swing an axe effectively when your mind is questioning your motives. Their youngest recruit, Romford, overcomes hazing because what he has left behind is worse than becoming a warrior. He also has an appetite for drugs and during the heat of battle disappears to ransack apothecaries. There are a pair of expert archers from Wales who speak no English, but can shoot an arrow through the peak of your hat from a galloping horse, and a former priest, called Father, who has become a bloodthirsty madman.

    Then there are the film-clear descriptions of life on the march. Soldiers wait in long lines in the French sun while engineers repair river crossings destroyed by retreating Frenchmen. Insects swarm them. They have not washed in weeks. The food is wretched. Their leather shoes have holes. Water is often unpalatable. They get the runs. Small cuts get infected. They have been promised pay only if they complete the campaign. And they can all see that not only are knights and lords sleeping on soft beds in tents attended to by servants and squires, but that other soldiers appear to be receiving special treatment. There is a lot of well-earned grumbling.

    If you have a chance, listen to the audiobook. Not only does the reader keep all the accents straight, but he sings the abusive curses of captains handing out orders with alacrity and minces the words of King Edward’s teenage brat of a son with comedic perfection.

  • Murder in Old Bombay by Nev March *** (of 4)

    It is 1892. India is a British colony and Indians, at least upper class Indians, aspire to move up the British hierarchy. Two young women in the wealthy Framji family fall to their deaths from the university clock tower. The official ruling is suicide, but Captain Jim Agnihotri, recovering from a battle injuries suffered as a Dragoon fighting in Afghanistan cannot abide the ruling. He suspects murder.Captain Jim is hired by the Framji family to investigate.

    Captain Jim provides us with an insider’s view of British colonization, Indian opposition to British rule, and Victorian longing (think incessant pining for Lady Diana Framji, daughter of the patriarch, who is devilishly alluring, but above his station in life). Murder in Old Bombay burrows into the trains, villages, markets, and homes of turn-of-the-century India making the book a worthwhile adventure.

  • The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto *** (of 4)

    Shorto’s hypothesis is concise and convincing. His book is long and detailed. As the ages of Enlightenment and Exploration dawned on Europe, Holland was the most wide open and accepting of all the European powers in the 1500s. It was home to the most progressive artists, scientists, and philosophers. It welcomed traders from around the globe and in sharp contrast to its European competitors–Spain and Great Britain–it opened its doors to foreigners. Spain tossed out Jews and Muslims, many of whom found safety in the Netherlands. England was fighting wars over religion leaving even fundamentalist Christians who felt England was not religious enough to find sanctuary in Leiden, Holland.

    As the oceanic powers sent “explorers” to conquer territories around the world, Holland settled New Amsterdam. Its central holdings were in Manhattan and up the Hudson River to present day Albany. Henry Hudson, a Britisher, who also claimed Hudson’s Bay and surrounding territory in Canada, was actually hired by the Dutch to be their explorer.

    Those religious fundamentalists from Great Britain left Leiden because they found Holland to be too liberal for their tastes. They became the Puritan settlers of New England. To this day, suggests Shorto, New York City, formerly New Amsterdam, has maintained its Dutch character: accepting, entrepreneurial, and a haven for all immigrants and faiths.

    Among the fine points raised by Shorto’s research is his careful assessment of relations between Dutch settlers and Native Americans. By his accounting the Indians were genetically speaking, 99.99% identical to their European counterparts. Which is to say they were smart, pleasant, calculating, jealous, envious, devious, intellectual, mechanical, curious, political, and so on. The story of the Dutch selling Manhattan to Indians for $24 proves not only laughably false, but also a fabrication contrived by English historians, who as victors in the New World, got to write the continent’s history.

  • The Secret Hours by Mick Herron *** (of 4)

    This is Herron’s prequel to his successful Slow Horses series, which is one of those rare compilations that is better on screen (Apple +) than it is to read. The spies in this book (a couple of whom will appear in previous books for which this is the recently published prequel) are working in Berlin just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. Espionage is in chaos as old countries disintegrate, new ones are formed, and spies no longer protected by an Iron Curtain seek to settle old scores.

    MI5’s lead operative is laying a Berlin trap for a former Stasi agent who killed one of his best East German sources. Details of his operation emerge in front of a present day tribunal ordered by Great Britain’s PM. The Prime Minister has established a task force to search for historical illegalities perpetrated by MI5. It’s a publicity stunt that is accurately and hysterically recounted. Griselda Fleet and Malcolm Kyle, lifelong bureaucrats, trudge through the tedium of hearings everyone knows are never going to amount to anthill of dirt.

    The spycraft is slow, and the hearings slower, but the office dialogue and repartee among spies who feel like they are punching a clock, and occasionally punching one another, is priceless.

  • The Kingdom, The Power, and The Glory by Tim Alberta **** (of 4)

    Tim Alberta is a Christian evangelical and an accomplished journalist describing what he sees as a growing division inside America’s evangelical churches. He visits and describes events within congregations of numerous mega-churches across the country. A vocal minority (he describes them as a minority, but I’m not sure anyone is counting) of right-wing nationalists have transferred their faith from Jesus Christ to Donald Trump. They are led by like-minded Republicans and by pastors praying for their presidential protector of beleaguered and oppressed Christians in America.

    Alberta does not challenge evangelism’s core conservative principles: opposition to abortion, anti-LGBQTIA+ sentiments, Christianity’s promise of a heavenly Kingdom to come, and the necessity of bringing the word of Christ to unbelievers. But he is unstinting in his questioning of how personal conservative beliefs have become militant rallying cries that, in his words, violate the spirit of Christ.

    Yet he wonders, how have Christ’s teachings to love your enemies, to welcome the stranger, and to care for the downtrodden turned into a winner-take-all political battle? Why have evangelicals been among the country’s leaders in turning away immigrants, trolling public health advocates promoting Covid vaccines, and on the front lines of the January 6th uprising?

    Enthusiastic supporters greet Donald Trump at a rally of more than 30,000 in Mobile, Ala., in August.

    The book suggests that the problem is misguided spirituality and he does his best to quote scripture back at those he perceives to be fanatics. But he also describes a movement that is constructed to absorb what it is told on faith. So when congregants get all of their information from charismatic preachers and an endless supply of right-wing, and deeply conspiratorial news sources — Covid was created by cabals to control churches; elections are fixed by “woke” Democrats and the Deep State — there is not much congregational initiative to question.

    Alberta points an enraged finger at the Falwells, the Moral Majority, Liberty University, The Southern Baptist Convention, scores of preachers who have sexually abused their congregants, and hucksters who raised millions of dollars preaching hatred to evangelicals terrified that they are losing their God-anointed Christian country.

    Near the end of his book, he does his best to point to a resurgence of what he considers sane-minded evangelical Christians. He predicts a forthcoming split of nationalistic churches from those who are Jesus-centered. A schism is the most optimistic outcome he can point to.

  • Red Queen by Juan Gomez-Jurado ** (of 4)

    Antonia Scott is a genius at penetrating the minds of dastardly criminals. She is also a morbid recluse with no sense of smell (is this important for us to know?), gorgeous, and without social skills. John Guiterrez is assigned to be her partner by an unseen handler called MENTOR. John is overweight, or just strong, gay, a good guy, without a partner, and disgraced by the police department for a dubious infraction. And the criminals they pursue are unspeakably heinous.

    Which is to say the book (apparently well-loved around the world) is tolerable if it is read as a comic book without pictures. Antonia Scott is the smartest person in all of Europe. Mentor works for a shadowy European consortium of crime-fighters who operate outside of and above the law. Criminals slink through shadowy underground tunnels. Confrontations appear in word-panels that burst with gore and the equivalent of starburst “POWS” and “OOFS.” For the full (not so pleasant experience) listen to the audiobook. The reader has only two distinct voices: angry and angrier.