Monday, May 22, 2017

Extreme Prey

Extreme Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

In this 26th of (to date) 27 "Lucas Davenport" novels, Lucas visits Davenport - the city in Iowa - among other points of interest in the big, corn-and-soybean-growing state south of his usual Minnesota stomping grounds. Although he no longer works for the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension - sorry about the spoiler, if you didn't read Book 25, Gathering Prey - Davenport is still at the beck and call of Minnesota Gov. Elmer Henderson1, who is now running for (ahem) vice president. So when Henderson, out on the campaign trail for the Iowa Caucuses, picks up on hints that someone is planning a deadly misadventure for another candidate, Davenport comes to Davenport, etc.

He comes, to start, hoping he will find out there's nothing to it. But first a consultation with a (mostly) retired cybercriminal named Kidd, then another with a shrink named Sister Mary Joseph, convince him the threat is serious. Soon Lucas is working more or less with the cooperation of Iowa's equivalent of the BCA, trying to narrow down a long list of members of fringe political groups in search of a white-haired woman and her gray-eyed son matching Henderson's description of the fanatics to approached him.

The two would-be killers soon escalate to actual killing, yet in spite of their crude methods, remain remarkably elusive. Part of this has to do with another political radical having her own reasons to cover up past shenanigans, including a bombing that wasn't meant to kill three people, but did. Davenport isn't helped by the fact that he is soon chasing two entirely separate killers, or groups of killers, with overlapping agendas and motives; solving one crime won't necessarily lead him to the other killers. But time is running out before the big event - the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines - where the candidate with the most to lose will be most vulnerable to losing it, and where even two well-identified suspects may be hard to pick out of the crowd.

Writing at the top of the form that has made this series, as far as I've followed it, unputdownable, John Sandford (an alias of sometime newspaper writer John Camp) packs a lot of scenic detail, character insight, tight dialogue, and gee-whiz investigative techniques into a steadily accelerating thrill-ride of fun, action, and suspense. I make no promises that if you read this book, you will be experiencing literature for the ages. But I guarantee it will provide an engaging diversion from whatever you want to be diverted from, while exercising all kinds of nerves and brain connections that may not get shaken down often enough. I'm at the end of the series for now (until the next book, Golden Prey, comes out in paperback), but I might go back to the beginning and enjoy it all the way through from Book 1.

1 It's a great name for a fictional politician from a state that has had three governors named Elmer (a Benson, an Anderson, and an Andersen). This is why, when my Dad had a friend named Elmer Anderson and teasingly called him "Governor," the joke worked.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Seven Stupid Reasons to Lose Your Mind

Let me begin with a disclaimer: This list doesn’t go into political or religious issues. If it did, the list could go on indefinitely, and its delicate balance between funniness and offensiveness would probably tip in the wrong direction.

Also, I could have added an eighth item to the list, but I’ve already done the Oxford comma, so let’s consider that subject closed. So, without any further throat-clearing...

7. When someone puts a double-space after a period. I don’t do it, and I don’t allow it to stand when another writer does it and I’m editing their work for the newspaper. But I’ve seen some columns on the internet about this, columns that go way over-the-top in condemning the practice of typing a double space after every period, which many people remember being told to do when they were learning to type.

OK, so those double spaces are unnecessary, wasteful, and, when you’re typesetting a publication, downright disruptive. But here’s the deal. In a matter of seconds, with fewer than 10 keystrokes, you can run a global find-and-replace routine on your document that changes all double-spaces to single-spaces.

You may even be able to create an automation (depending on your software and your programming savvy) that does this at the pressing of shortcut key.

You might also be able to program an autotext subroutine that does this replacement while you type, requiring no keyboard shortcuts at all.

When the problem is that easy to solve, it is totally not worth losing your cool.

6. When someone says “can” instead of “may.” Some people find this grammatical slip especially irksome when they hear it committed by someone who should know better. Instead of overlooking the so-small-it’s-almost-invisible usage mistake, they reply to casual (and sometimes rather serious) inquiries with snarky comebacks like, “I don’t know. Can you go to the bathroom?”

After it’s said and done, they haven’t taught the other person a valuable lesson, other than “Try harder next time not to let them see you call them an asshole with your eyes.”

You see, the distinction between “can” and “may” seems to be vanishing in casual American speech. Using “may” when most people would instinctively say “can” has practically become a social-class shibboleth.

So, when someone gives enough thought to the may/can distinction to be conspicuously precise in their usage, Joe Average begins to suspect they are either an uppity snob or a pedantic bore. And if they correct him, he knows they’re the latter.

Another thing to understand about the American mindset is that people don’t like it when someone seems to look down on them or think himself superior to them. All it takes to move from a warm embrace to a cold shoulder is to act like, in your mind, you don’t belong or fit in.

My advice would be to let it go when you hear someone use “can” instead of “may,” and try not to let the thought “What an ignorant yokel” show in your eyes. You might fool them into thinking you’re all right.

5. When someone says “I could care less.” This old chestnut has been roasted on many a tweeter’s or Facebooker’s news feed, in a thousand variations on “Top 10 Grammatical Errors Everyone Needs to Stop Making Yesterday, or Die Screaming!”

What’s particularly lame about this one is that it isn’t even grammatically incorrect.

I mean, the subject agrees with the verb; it has all the parts of speech necessary to make a complete sentence; it’s spelled and punctuated correctly. So why is this wrong?

It’s “wrong,” apparently, because the person objecting to it doesn’t understand why the sentence “I could care less” makes perfect sense, as it stands.

Believe me, and I speak from experience, you can point out to them that redacting this idiomatic expression to read “I couldn’t care less” is a classic example of over-correction, and all you will achieve is to bring down on yourself a column of Internet vitriol that, if matched in physical reality, would melt the flesh off your bones.

I submit that people who are offended by the imprecision of the statement “I could care less” are afflicted by a grammatical form of OCD. Either that, or they just have a blind spot to the clear meaning of a saying that has been in use for generations.

The crowning irony is that the “corrected” version, “I couldn’t care less,” actually doesn’t hold up under cross-examination. What, really? You couldn’t care less? So, it isn’t at all possible that a subject could exist about which you care less than the given one? How about that!

“I could care less,” on the other hand, actually can be understood in at least a couple ways.

For one: Have you ever heard of straight-up sarcasm? Similar remarks include, “Big deal!” and “Wow,” and “Isn’t that special?” and “Thanks for sharing,” and “Like I give a rat’s ass.”

For another, there’s the related technique of murder by understatement, in which a outwardly positive remark is so insultingly bland, it isn’t necessary to say the intended put-down aloud. For example: “That’s a unique point of view” (but don’t expect me to take it seriously), and “I’ll give that all the consideration it deserves” (which isn’t much).

In the same vein, I like to think of “I could care less” as being followed by an unspoken clause like, “but that would take more effort than it’s worth,” or “but that might be dangerous.”

On a literal level, however, you have to hand it to whatever it is you don’t care about: you could care less, hypothetically speaking, even if at the moment you can’t think of anything that you would care less about.

4. Pineapple on pizza. Gordon Ramsay, the chef with the filthiest mouth on cable TV, and the president of Iceland are dead set against it; but I could care less, and the sentiment seems to be widespread.

As long as enough people like the ham-and-pineapple, or Canadian-bacon-and-pineapple, combination of pizza toppings, it’s going to be worth pizza restaurants’ while to violate these elitist jerks’ canons of good taste.

It is apparent from the internet backlash that a siginficant slice of the population pie likes theirs with pineapple on it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that combo; at times, I rather crave it.

I think I first encountered something like it in Germany, in the form of a tomato, pineapple, cheese, and ham sandwich served on an English muffin, which my hosts called a Hawaiian-style something or other. It seemed like a great idea, and the crowd who seems to agree should be allowed to hold this opinion in peace. The world is big enough for that, isn’t it? Wouldn’t it be sad if someone actually could (like the Icelandic president joked about doing) lay down a law against even a trivial, grammatically dubious belief like “pineapple goes good on pizza”? What kind of world are we building for the next generation if we’re willing to pick public fights over ludicrously subjective opinions such as “Pineapple pizza is wrong?”

Anchovies, however, are another story. It’s not so much that I hate anchovies; I really don’t. I just know, from experience, that whatever else you put on a pizza, if it has anchovies on it, it’s an anchovy pizza, period.

People should have the right to order an anchovy pizza, but they shouldn’t expect anybody who wants a pepperoni pizza (for exmaple) to compromise with them by sharing an anchovy-and-pepperoni pizza, because there’s no such thing. There may be a measurable quantity of pepperoni on the pie, but the only thing these two guys will taste in each bite is anchovy, to an overpowering degree.

Anchovy a-fish-ionados (heh) should take a cue from some people I know who can’t or won’t eat cheese in any form; rather than trying to get others to split a cheeseless pizza with them, they just order a separate pizza with no cheese. A separate anchovy pizza may be worth the expense, even if it does make the whole room stink. But I digress.

3. Ketchup on a hot dog. I’ve actually allowed myself to be drawn into an argument about this in a Facebook comment thread. It’s not that I’m against people being allowed to disagree about this. I am just basically, instinctively honked off by the intolerance of the largely Chicago-centric culture of saying, “If you put ketchup on hot dogs, you’re wrong,” or “This hot dog stand reserves the right to refuse service to anyone who asks for ketchup,” etc.

I don’t personally consider ketchup to be an essential hot dog condiment, but I do find it complements certain other combinations of hot dog toppings.

Also, just as an added dig, I think the “Chicago dog” is stupid. If a wedge of pickle bigger than the sausage link is essential for its appreciation, you might want to look at improving the taste of your sausage.

Me, I’m a Sonic “New York dog” man: sauerkraut, brown mustard, and grilled onions all the way, baby! But I do wish the clerks at Sonic would act a little more like they believe in their product. The last two times I’ve ordered this, the cashier has asked me two different ways (each time!) whether I understood I was getting a hot dog with sauerkraut, brown mustard, and caramelized onions on it. Are you sure you want all that, mister? Yes, yes, that’s why I’m ordering it!

2. Whether the end of the toilet paper (or paper towel) goes under or over the roll. Come on, folks. Why are you still bitching at your loved ones about this? The roller works either way. If you’re so concerned about it, try to make sure you’re always the one who puts the new roll of paper on the rack.

For the sake of world peace, learn to co-exist about something as stupid and trivial as whether the end hangs down toward you or away from you. Or let the rule be like the one that has solved many a debate over which radio station to tune in while riding together in a car: let the driver choose. This doesn’t necessarily pre-suppose that the vehicle’s occupants take turns driving. Maybe it’s an incentive to not always be a passenger in somebody else’s car, and to get your own before your regular driver’s taste in music drives you nuts.

1. Related to that: Whether the toilet seat stays up or down. Again, why the backbiting and recrimination about this? If she falls into the bowl because she didn’t look to see which way the seat was angled, she could take some responsibility for looking before she, um, leaps. If he whizzes all over the seat because his aim is only precise to an opening the size of the bowl with the seat flipped up, he could take some responsibility for wiping the seat off with TP before he washes his hands. (And let’s be honest, he probably needs to wipe the rim after going with the seat up, anyway).

As for me, I think the simplest solution to this dilemma is to keep the lid closed on the toilet when not in use. But I speak as a pet owner who has, more than once, had to fish a kitten out of the (ugh) drink. Dog owners might have their own icky reasons for deliberately leaving the lid up, so Fido can always find a fresh(?) supply of drinking water. But apart from that and worrying about sewer rats crawling out into your home (a phobia my late, beloved grandmother had, after feeling whiskers tickling her keister one time during a visit to the basement john), there’s no reason everybody shouldn’t be able to leave the seat up or down, for the next potty-goer to adjust to his or her own requirements.

Again, co-exist, people. Save your intolerant tirades for things that really matter, such as whether to drive 15 mph below the speed limit or 15 mph above it.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Ms. Bixby's Last Day

Ms. Bixby's Last Day
by John David Anderson
Recommended Ages: 10+

When Ms. Bixby announces to her sixth-grade class that, due to her cancer diagnosis, she cannot finish the school year with them, the kids plan a party to send her off. But her health deteriorates faster than expected, and that means they won't have a chance to say goodbye. That's when best friends Topher, Brand, and Steve decide to take matters into their own hands, skipping school the day before Ms. Bixby is due to be transported to Boston for more advanced treatment. All they have to do is negotiate a few bus rides, make a few purchases, and get into their teacher's hospital room. What could go wrong?

During a day of misadventures and discoveries, each of the boys reveals - secretly, between himself and the reader - his own unique reason for needing a teacher like Ms. Bixby, and for caring about that Good One in particular. The upshot is a heart-warming, tears-and-laughter journey of a book, shifting between three narrators' points of view, and ending with an out-of-chronology chapter that explains all. It's a surprise, don't-read-without-a-box-of-Kleenex middle-school boys' book from an author previously known for his off-the-wall tales of superheroes and villains.

John David Anderson is also the author of Standard Hero Behavior, Sidekicked, Minion, The Dungeoneers, Insert Coin to Continue, and most recently, another middle-school-themed story about the issue of bullying, titled Posted.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Pilfer Academy

Pilfer Academy
by Lauren Magaziner
Recommended Ages: 10+

In her second novel, the author of The Only Thing Worse Than Witches takes the popular idea of a secret boarding school that teaches unusual kids to do unusual things, and gives it an especially goofy twist. Described as "a school so bad it's criminal," Pilfer Academy doesn't just recruit its students; it kidnaps them. That's what happens to George Beckett, the naughtiest of his parents' six children, at the beginning of this book - snatched off the street by a daffy pair of teachers who subscribe to such dark arts as pasting together ransom notes, practicing stealth, picking locks, and perfecting the art of disguise. Yes, kids, it's a school for thieves.

The teachers aren't just criminal; they're criminally insane, like the pasta-scarfing headmaster, Dean Dean Deanbugle, who maintains order by threatening his students with a mysterious punishment called the Whirlyblerg. The school isn't just a museum of stolen artifacts; the whole manor house, grounds and all, was stolen from the Duke of Valois while he and his wife went out for coffee. The school's motto is "Finders Keepers, Losers Weepers." Try to sneak into the kitchen at night, and you might spend your detention brushing the teeth of a tankful of piranha. Try to sneak into the faculty lounge, and you may face even fiercer safeguards, such as a flock of man-eating chickens. Try to escape, and... let's not even talk about that. It's just too horrible. (So whirly. So blerggggg!)

But after acing his midterm exam, George finds himself wrestling with his conscience. Also, he misses his family, including the brother who is always putting him in a headlock. He decides he just has to escape. And while his roommate Milo would probably like nothing better than to see George gone, the only help he's going to get is from his best friend Tabitha, who is just so good at thieving that she doesn't feel challenged any more. Picture Hermione Granger storming out of Trelawney's class at Hogwarts, and extend it over all her subjects. The trouble is, the only way to escape from the school... is to steal it.

This is my first taste of Lauren Magaziner's writing. Though I am interested to want to read her previous book, it did bear some of the hallmarks of inexperience. Its goofiness was so over-the-top that the story almost couldn't hold together; which might actually work for some hyperactive children. I was interested to find a blog post by Magaziner, listing her favorite so-silly-they're-scary children's-book villains, in whose company Dean Dean Deanbugle really does fit in. I think she shows promise as a children's author, but still has room to grow. Also, her book had the bad luck to come out at about the same time as the similarly school-for-young-criminals-themed Munchem Academy book by Commander S.T. Bolivar III, The Boy Who Knew Too Much. But this specific branch off the Hogwarts family tree is budding in all directions, as evidenced by Soman Chainani's The School for Good and Evil, Victoria Forester's The Girl Who Could Fly, Catherine Jinks' Evil Genius, Stuart Gibbs' Spy School, Gitty Daneshvari's School of Fear and The League of Unexceptional Children, and all their sequels. I don't know if this book is going to have a sequel; but in spite of losing a few points by being just a little too harmlessly silly, it still made me laugh; for that alone, I'll be interested in seeing whatever else Magaziner puts out.

Gathering Prey

Gathering Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

This 25th book in the Lucas Davenport mystery-thrillers stretches the franchise's Minnesota-based outlook. It begins with Letty, daughter of Bureau of Criminal Apprehension Agent Lucas Davenport, befriending a pair of "travelers" during her freshman year at Stanford University in California. It follows the pair to South Dakota, where cute, apple-cheeked Henry disappears, leaving tough young Skye shaken. Convinced there may be something to her ravings about the "devil" getting Henry - understanding "devil" to mean a Charles Manson-like villain named Pilate, who comes complete with a band of insane groupies - Lucas helps Letty bring Skye to St. Paul with an offer to help her find her friend. Henry actually does turn up, murdered in pretty much exactly the way Skye suspected, which makes her seem a bit less crazy. Meanwhile, Pilate and his groupies continue their drug-fueled crime wave across northern Minnesota, northern Wisconsin, and into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Ah, the UP: a place I have never visited, but that I know feel I have experienced with vivid impressions on most of my senses (maybe not taste, so much). I've come to trust John Sandford's descriptions of cities, small towns, and countryside in the Upper Midwest, after reading his account of places I've been and finding them as I remembered them. I wouldn't mind seeing the UP in person, sometime, if I could do so at the wheel of the Mercedes SUV Davenport drives. But I'll pass on some of his gruesome and heartbreaking discoveries, such as a northwoods "underground railroad" for undocumented Somali refugees sneaking across the Canadian border, or the murdered body of a drug dealer found inside the melted remains of a Winnebago Minnie RV, or the innocent folks who pay with their lives for getting in the way of the Pilate juggernaut. For most of Pilate's crew, the rampage ends in an armed standoff in a small, Upper Michigan town where the cops have set up a roadblock. But there is still blood to be shed, bodies to drop, and traps to snap shut before Lucas, Letty, and the wider public can breathe safely.

There's a bit more to this book than a by-the-numbers, police-procedural murder investigation. Lucas, for example, stretches his jurisdiction a bit, sticking his once-broken nose into investigations in three or four other states, getting deputized in Michigan, and moving from a favor to his college-age daughter to a bloodbath on the streets of a tiny Michigan town. He learns more than you ever thought there was to know about the Insane Clown Posse and their fan subculture, known as the Juggalos. He also faces political and bureaucratic consequences for this case that will change the course of this series - and not too soon. I'm already reading Book 26, Extreme Prey. After that, I might have to dig back to Book 1, Rules of Prey.

John Sandford is a pseudonym for John Camp, a now New Mexico-based writer who won two Pulitzers during the 1980s while writing for the St. Paul Pioneer-Press. I guess that answers my question, posed in a previous review, about how a guy from N.M. got to be so good at describing places in MN. His other novels, besides the Lucas Davenport/Prey series, include four now very dated "Kidd" novels, featuring a cyber-criminal; 10 "Virgil Flowers" novels, a spinoff series featuring a Davenport protégé; a young adult trilogy co-written with Michelle Cook; a few stand-alone thrillers and non-fiction books, and even a sci-fi thriller.

Field of Prey

Field of Prey
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

I usually like to start reading a series of books at the beginning and go straight through it in order. But the opportunity to get into John Sandford's "Lucas Davenport" thrillers fell into my lap in the form of books 24 and 25 of the popular series, which stretches back to 1989's Rules of Prey and is due to add a 27th title later this year. I got them, along with the first two books of the spinoff "Virgil Flowers" series, for a total of $2 at a garage sale. I call that a reasonable inducement to start reading a series at any point in its progress. And while some pieces of main character Lucas Davenport's backstory remain somewhat vague to me - like how he became super-rich while also serving as an ethically clean state homicide detective - this 24th installment in the series is enough of a stand-alone mystery to keep me hooked from beginning to end.

Lucas Davenport is a high-fashion clotheshorse, a high-speed driver of either a Porsche or a Mercedes SUV, and a politically well-connected agent in Minnesota's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He has approximately four detectives working under him - the thuggish Jenkins and Shrake, who would rather be golfing; the laid-back, and frequently laid, Virgil Flowers, who would rather be fishing; and my favorite, Del Capslock, a character whose name the author obviously made up while staring blankly at his computer keyboard. When Del gets shot in this book, one wonders if he might die to make way for a new character named Tab Backspace.

One fine week, when all his subordinates are working on other cases, Lucas gets pulled into a serial killer investigation that started when a couple of horny teenagers paused for a pee, while parking on an abandoned farmstead near the city of Red Wing in southeastern Minnesota. The kids smelled something so bad that one of them brought a cop back with him the next day, and the two of them found an abandoned cistern full of decomposing bodies. Some of the remains in this grisly burial turn out to have been grave-robbed, but most of them appear to be the work of a serial rapist and strangler, who may have caused the disappearances of as many as 20 women in about as many years.

At first, Lucas isn't heavily involved in this case. Then the agent in charge of the investigation turns up murdered, apparently after having a sudden insight into the case that puts him at the loud end of the killer's gun before he knows what he's found. Lucas, one of the last people to see BCA Agent Bob Shaffer alive, has to identify the body, and a short time later, finds a text on his phone from Shaffer's widow, saying, "Find him and kill him." And so, even though he still isn't the agent in charge of the case, finding the guy who put all those bodies in the cistern becomes a personal matter. Unfortunately, trying to make the connection Shaffer made, that led to his death, doesn't work. Doing the same investigation that Shaffer had already documented, also seems like wasted time. Solving the case becomes an exercise in looking at the evidence in a way it hasn't been looked at before. And the pressure is on, with the press hounding the BCA about why the creep hasn't been caught yet, an eyewitness spreading suspicion about an innocent suspect, and a female county investigator slowly accepting the grim reality that someone in her community is a murderer.

This is one of those mysteries in which the reader is privileged to know whodunit from the beginning, though there is a twist connected with the killer's identity - or rather, a twistedness in his state of mind that you might or might not see coming - which ensures that Lucas' final race to save his female colleague from becoming the Black Hole Killer's next victim will make you a nervous wreck.

John Sandford is the pen-name of John Camp, an award-winning journalist who, I am surprised to learn, lives not in Minnesota but in New Mexico, in spite of the bulk of his fiction being set in the Land of 10,000 lakes. He writes with a level of geographical and cultural accuracy that seems convincing to me, a longtime former resident of Minnesota who still visits family there from time to time. His writing is also well stocked with laughs, sexiness, and grit in its depiction of believable good guys trying to catch believable bad guys. The back-cover blurbs by reviewers and other authors often describe Sandford's novels as great "summer reads." I don't think I could stretch a book out over a whole summer. But 27 of these would make a nice dent in my next two or three weeks of vacation.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Heat Lightning

Heat Lightning
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

I found this second of 10 "Virgil Flowers novels" together with its predecessor, Dark of the Moon, at a local garage sale last week, and was kept up late several nights in a row by the addictive pleasure of reading them. I suppose one reason I get a kick out of them is that they're set in Minnesota, where I lived many years and where most of my family still lives. It keeps mentioning places I'm familiar with; the main character even lives in the town where I went to college. Settings and characters I recognize come recognizably to life in their pages. But also, they're just fun books. They have a fascinatingly cool, laid-back, skirt-chasing, joke-cracking, outdoorsy, smarter-and-tougher-than-he-looks crime solver in the main-character slot - a guy who can be described roughly as a 30-something cross between a surfer dude and a cowboy, and who gets out ahead of a coordinated team of serial killers when they've written him off as a harmless hick.

Virgil Flowers works the southern Minnesota range of the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, under the command of Lucas Davenport (hero of his own 27-novel series by the same author), who once memorably promised to give him "the hard stuff." His involvement in the case featured in this book began with the execution-style murder of a New Ulm, Minn. title company owner, found propped up against a veterans' memorial with a lemon stuck in his mouth. Bodies continue to drop, looking exactly like that, but spread out all over the state - including one victim, a former St. Paul cop, left practically on the state capitol lawn. Stopping these crimes is especially urgent, as the Republican National Convention is coming to the Twin Cities in a week or two. But as Flowers pieces together the connections between the victims, he realizes there's a hit list, and the guy in charge of the RNC's security is either on the list, or he's the one calling the hits.

Time is running out, especially after Flowers himself unwittingly leads the killers to one of the victims. He enjoys the unusual (for him) sensation of realizing he's been played for a fool, but only for a moment, before beginning a race toward a deadly showdown with a team of killers whose motives and methods are full of disturbing implications. It's a mystery married to a spy thriller married to a tale of political intrigue, with elements of tragedy and a spark of romance thrown in for fun, and the guy who breaks it all open is going to be a dude who wears rock band T-shirts under his sport coat and, now and then, takes a break from chasing killers to go fishing. How very Minnesota.

Besides the aforementioned 37 novels featuring either Virgil or Lucas, John Sandford is the author of four Kidd novels, the recent "Singular Menace" trilogy co-authored by Michelle Cook, the "Lincoln Rhyme vs. Lucas Davenport" novella Rhymes with Prey co-written with Jeffery Deaver, the recent science-fiction novel Saturn Run co-authored with Ctein, and the novels The Night Crew and Dead Watch.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Dark of the Moon

Dark of the Moon
by John Sandford
Recommended Ages: 14+

Although this is the first of what will soon be 10 Virgil Flowers mysteries, I had the feeling I was arriving late for the party as I read this book. The reason for that feeling is that this series, as a whole, is a sequel to the (at latest count) 27-book Lucas Davenport series, each of which has the word "Prey" in its title, from 1989's Rules of Prey to Golden Prey, published only weeks ago as I write this. Lucas Davenport, I am finding out, is a crack solver of homicides for the Minnesota-based Bureau of Criminal Apprehension; Flowers, known to everyone who loves him as "that f***ing Flowers," is his protégé. They both have the charm of being phenomenally successful case closers, in spite of (in Flowers' case, at least) being super laid-back, cool, easy-going, and not consciously aware of what makes him so good at the job.

Flowers is a supremely entertaining character. He wears his hair long, sports rock-band T-shirts under his sport coat, walks around in cowboy boots (except when he doesn't), sneaks away to go hunting and fishing whenever he can manage it, and moonlights as an outdoors writer and photographer, with a number of magazine credits to his name. He has given up religion, but (being a pastor's son) can't get to sleep at night without thinking about God. He turns his case over in his dreams and, now and then, in brief pieces of fiction writing. He is sexed to the max, with three ex-wives, and he develops a more-or-less casual romance in record time. He hates carrying his gun, and even after doing a tour in the military, he has never killed anyone before this case. But he is also, as this book shows, a tough customer, tough and shrewd, catching up quickly from several steps behind the killer to a step or two ahead.

In this case - not his first, but our first following him around - Flowers is on his way to a small town in southwestern Minnesota to work on the murder of an elderly couple when, in the middle of a violent thunderstorm, the home of the most hated rich man in Bluestem, Minn. goes up in a pillar of fire. He is soon convinced the two crimes are connected, and then a couple more bodies drop. The victims all seem to have known their killer. It seems some deeply disturbed individual is taking revenge for a wrong buried deep in the small town's past. The most unnerving thing about it is knowing the killer is probably within a half-mile of you, could be someone you see every day. Flowers himself wonders whether it might not be the woman he is sleeping with, or her brother, the town sheriff, with whom he played high school baseball.

Other suspects emerge, of course. There's an ex-convict preacher who leads a heavily-armed cult of race-baiting followers, for one. That possibility leads to a bloodbath involving a convoy of federal agents. There are the hated rich guy's heirs, starting with one legitimate son and multiplying from there, as the fruits of sexual indiscretions start coming out of the corn. There is anybody who was hurt by a Ponzi scheme the old creep pulled back in the 1980s, including the family of one man who committed suicide over it. There is, according to one demented old lady, anyone connected with something horrible that happened to "the man in the moon," whoever that is. As Flowers focuses his investigation on a narrower range of suspects, using rumor and personal manipulation to work the evidence for him, his own life becomes increasingly imperiled. Obviously, he must be getting close to something that somebody doesn't want to be revealed.

I found this book and its immediate successor, Heat Lightning, along with two of the more recent Lucas Davenport novels, all together at a garage sale last week and couldn't wait to read them. I've enjoyed every funny, sexy, gruesome, suspenseful, puzzling, exciting page, and I plan to go on reading John Sandford titles as often as I can.

Enchanters' End Game

Enchanters' End Game
by David Eddings
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the fifth and final book of "The Belgariad," a young king named Belgarion (just Garion to his friends) and his betrothed queen Ce'Nedra (you can call her, like, Ce'Nedra) make an interesting detour on the way to getting married. Actually the detour started in the previous book, Castle of Wizardry, when Garion and two companions sneaked out of their royal castle at the western end of civilization and began a long, perilous journey all the way to the eastern end. Armed with a sword that has an orb juiced up by the good god Aldur in its pommel, and propelled by a prophecy that says he must, Garion is heading toward the ruined city of Cthol Mishrak, where the evil god Torak lies maimed and comatose, awaiting a confrontation in which one of them must die. Meanwhile, Ce'Nedra has gathered up an army from all the nations of the west, and is starting a war with the eastern nations, where Torak is worshiped with horrible sacrifices. She's basically trying to distract the Angaraks (those eastern folks) from what Garion is up to. But the prophecy has a plan for her, too, and three of the people with her, ensuring all the people who need to be present when Torak awakes will do what they have to do so that the right prophecy comes true.

You see, destiny has been divided since Torak used Aldur's orb to split the world in two. His followers, the priest-wizard caste known as Grolims, are following a parallel prophecy that ends quite differently. They have committed themselves to making it come true on a really ghastly scale, enduring such things as a city of steel towers melting into puddles of rust under a huge, unmoving cloud that keeps them in permanent night. Some of them have even accepted transformation into non-human beasts, guarding the city of endless night with vicious brutality. You would think being a sorcerer, as are both Garion and his "grandfather," the eternal man Belgarath, would be an advantage, but no: sorcery makes noise that the Grolims can hear, and they can't risk anything that would lead the enemy to them. If they get caught, if the crisis that will unite two destinies into one tips the wrong way, Garion's beloved Aunt Pol will become the love-slave of a being full of hatred and deception. Half the universe will be destroyed, and the other half enslaved to Torak's will. And that's the nice part.

At her end of the double adventure, Ce'Nedra struggles to cope with the responsibility for a war that is killing more of her soldiers than she expected. She must face a Mallorean king who, like Voldemort of Harry Potter fame, believes in nothing but power - gaining it and using it. Aunt Pol is in for a heartbreaking loss and a temptation over which the fate of worlds will pivot. And many of the other characters who have been Garion's companions since Book 1 will come up against death, love, and other terrible forces.

The overall shape of this story will ring familiar to those, like me, who are fans of fantasy, myth, legend, and folklore. The details are what make it a special book: dialogue that sparks, characters who breathe, settings that overwhelm the mind's senses, and a grimly accelerating pace of action and tension. This is the book in which, for example, David Eddings conjures up a full-blown war. But it isn't all serious, either. It's funny, romantic, at times deeply sad, and at certain moments, just plain mindblowingly powerful. The image of a 7,000-year-old sorcerer raising his arms and crying, "It is finished!" is one that will probably stick with me. The narrative conceit of compressing a long series of anticlimactic events into scenes in a half-memory, half-dream is one I'll be tempted to steal, if I can think of a way to conceal the theft. And now that I've witnessed the almost completely satisfying resolution of The Belgariad, I'm on the hook to read the five-book sequel series known as The Malloreon, starting with Guardians of the West.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Roll Your Own

I've got one of these things. According to the website where I found this picture, it's called an MMF Industries Compact Coin Organizer. I just call it "that coin rolling thingy in my top-left desk drawer." Combined with a supply of paper tubes designed to hold standard rolls of U.S. metal money, this thingy helps me control the tendency of really hard currency to form drifts in the lee of high-traffic areas around my house. It also gives me a wonderful feeling of unexpected wealth when, once in a great while, I am able to roll enough coins to, say, top off the gas tank in my car, or buy a half-price milkshake after 8 p.m. at Sonic. Finally, it provides me with endless fun at the expense of the air-headed, entry-level cashier whose eyes show white around the edges when I hand them a paper tube of coins in exchange for a McDonald's value meal. "What am I supposed to do with this?" they routinely ask. "I'm going to have to ask my manager for help." If I dared, I would try spending some of my $2 bills. But I'm not in any particular hurry to be arrested on suspicion of counterfeiting.

Coins tend to accumulate with me because, when I spend cash, they go straight into a pocket in my pants and, other than once in a while, don't come out again until I get home and have to empty out my pockets. Then the coins get tossed into a jar, or a slot in a desk drawer, or (if I'm really on top of things) into the aforementioned thingy, never to emerge until I'm short on cash and need to dig up a few dollars worth of quarters for a late-night run to Sonic. Leftover quarters from the bill-exchanger at the laundromat tend to even things out after laundry day. Eventually, the jar begins to overflow, or the slot in the drawer becomes too full of money to let me close the drawer anymore, so I have to do some coin rolling. And that's when I start thinking vague thoughts about mathematical ratios.

I find it endlessly interesting, how certain denominations of coins accumulate faster than others, over a longish period of random mercantile transactions. I go through certain sizes of coin-rolling paper faster than others. Much faster, even. So, while I have nothing else to occupy my mind during the tedious chore of rolling coin, I have worked out some mathematical relationships relevant to "rolling your own." And I think these ratios would probably stand up to some scientific testing. To test them, however, would probably be really tedious, if not impossible in the real world. Maybe it's best to leave it up to a thought experiment. It goes like this:

Suppose you made all your retail transactions for a year in cash, using paper money only. Ideally, you're getting back the least number of each type of coin necessary to make your change. Whatever coins you got back, you stashed in a jar at home at the end of each day. You never accepted a cashier's offer of a free penny from the dish next to the till, to round your purchase up to the nearest dollar (or quarter, or nickel, or whatever). Nor do you chuck pennies into said dish.

Frankly, to do this with anything like scientific rigor would require a fanatical devotion to accepting exact change back, and only exact change, but never providing it from your end. The idea would be to get a random number of cents back for your purchases, and to see what all this randomness leads to after a while. This could make riding city buses a really awesome challenge; I don't know how you would deal with a situation where the vendor won't give you change back. Making similar purchases multiple times at the same store might also skew the results. Your cashier's till running short of one denomination of coin, requiring him or her to give you (for example) extra nickels to make up for a lack of dimes, might throw things off, as might an inexperienced doofus at the till, not giving back the correct coins for each number of cents due you; though I imagine even this should even out in the wash. Tipping waiters or waitresses, etc., might require some serious arithmetic skills to ensure they get just the 15 or 20 percent you want to tip them, not a penny more or less. But let's pass over this and look at the results I would anticipate.

Long Story Short
My prediction is that you would end up with approximately 15 quarters : 6 dimes : 4 nickels : 20 pennies, when you reduce the grand total of each type of coin to lowest terms. And because it takes 40 quarters or nickels and 50 dimes or pennies to complete a roll, these proportions would translate (again, in lowest terms) to 75 rolls of quarters : 24 rolls of dimes: 20 rolls of nickels: 80 rolls of pennies. So, allowing the manufacturer to throw in an extra dime-rolling paper for good measure, a well-proportioned bag of rolling papers would have 15 papers of quarters for every 5 of dimes, 4 of nickels, and 16 of pennies. Or, if the manufacturer would prefer to give you one additional paper each for nickels and pennies, he could sell a reasonably well-proportioned bag for making 25 rolls of quarters, 8 of dimes, 7 of nickels, and 27 of pennies.

That sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but watch the coins pile up in real-world practice and it won't seem so far-fetched. To be sure, there will be some error, due to conditions like, say, the fact you stop for coffee and a bagel twice a week at the same shop, and always pay the same amount, etc. But let's drill down into how I got these numbers.

An American quarter is worth 25 cents, or one-fourth of a dollar; hence the name "quarter." Duh. How many quarters should you get back in a year's worth of cash purchases, on average? My thinking goes like this: There are 100 possible numbers of cents after the decimal point in the amount of money you should get back for any cash purchase, from 0 cents to 99 cents. You'll get back exactly one quarter for every number of cents from 25 through 49; two quarters from 50 cents to 74; and three quarters from 75 to 99 cents. That means you'll get exactly one quarter 1:4 times, exactly two quarters 1:4 times, and exactly three quarters 1:4 times. You'll get back at least one quarter 3:4 times, and at least two quarters 2:4 times. Supposing you got each combination of change back, from 0 to 99 cents, exactly once each, you would receive a total of 150 quarters.

The American dime is worth 10 cents, or one-tenth of a dollar. You should get back exactly one dime 2:5 of the time, with 10 to 19, 35 to 44, 60 to 69, and 85 to 94 cents. You should get back exactly two dimes 1:5 of the time, with 20 to 24, 45 to 49, 70 to 74, and 95 to 99 cents. In sum, you should get at least one dime back 3:5 of the time. That's 60 dimes out of every permutation from 0 to 99 cents.

The nickel is worth 5 cents, or a twentieth part of the U.S. dollar. Isn't it crazy that the nickel is bigger than the dime? Yeah, I know. Well, if you get proper change back, you'll only ever get one nickel, at most. There's a 2:5 chance you'll get that one nickel, with combinations of 5 to 9, 15 to 19, 30 to 34, 40 to 44, 55 to 59, 65 to 69, 80 to 84, and 90 to 94 cents. Those add up to 40 nickels out of every permutation from 0 to 99 cents.

The penny is one cent, one hundredth of a dollar. This worthless little coin, which is literally worth less than it costs to make and doesn't have the buying power to buy anything by itself, will accumulate like gangbusters. Your chances are 1:5 of getting either exactly one, exactly two, exactly three, or exactly four of them in any transaction; 4:5 of getting at least one; 3:5 of getting at least two; and 2:5 of getting at least 3. I reckon this adds up to a return of 200 pennies out of every combination from 0 to 99 cents.

From there it's just a matter of reducing the number of coins to the lowest terms. 150 quarters : 60 dimes : 40 nickels : 200 pennies reduces to 15:6:4:20. To translate that into proportions of completed rolls of coins, you then have to account for each roll of quarters being $10 (40 quarters), each roll of dimes $5 (50 dimes), each roll of nickels $2 (40 nickels), and each roll of pennies being 50 cents (50 pennies). To get a common denominator to work with, I multiplied the 15:6:4:20 ratio by 200 (5x4), divided by the number of coins per roll, and got 75 (3,000/40), 24 (1,200/50), 20 (800/40), and 80 (4,000/50).

Whew. Now I can stop thinking about that. Now what will my brain do while I'm performing the mindless chore of rolling spare change?

Well, I've already got an answer to that. It's the question of what we should replace the above coins with, now that the value of the U.S. dollar has shrunk to the point where there's almost no point keeping track of amounts of money this small. But that's a story for another day!

Monday, May 1, 2017

Castle of Wizardry

Castle of Wizardry
by David Eddings
Recommended Ages: 12+

In the fourth of five books in "The Belgariad," the title character Belgarion - known to his friends as Garion - gets the surprise that probably isn't a surprise to the discerning reader who has followed his adventures so far. With a prophecy living inside his head and a group of companions who have been mentioned in oracles since the beginning of time, Garion has already seen the Orb of Aldur reclaimed from the servants of the evil god Torak, who stole it millennia ago and used it to break the world. Now he just has to help his companions return it, and a certain troublesome Imperial Princess, to the throne room of the high king of the west in time for a mysterious event that is supposed to happen on a fast approaching holiday.

There are problems, though. The eternal man Belgarath has done a bit too much sorcery, and has become so desperately ill, it is questionable whether he will recover. Garion, who has only lately accepted that he himself is a sorcerer, has to step up his game to protect his friends, his Aunt Pol, and Errand, the innocent child who bears the orb, from the wrath of the Grolim magicians. The mad king Taur Urgas is hot on the company's heels with the Murgo army. The friends' flight down the Eastern Escarpment, approximately where Torak broke the world, brings them out into the west but not to safety, since their reinforcements are expecting them much farther north. But even bigger problems await Garion at the castle of Riva Iron-Grip, where - spoiler alert! - the sometime scullery boy from a remote farm is revealed to be the heir to Riva's long-broken line of kings.

That spoiler is worth it, because the dramatic revelation - a surprise to few besides Garion himself, I think - comes less than halfway through the book. Most of this book's wizardry, within the castle and without, happens after Garion finds out that he's the king of all the west. For he also finds out that all human life, in his world and beyond, depends on an awful task that remains for him, and him alone, to do. And though he is terrified of doing it, he realizes that he would best go about doing it as soon as possible - even if it means sneaking out of his own castle, against the wishes of Aunt Pol. Then, while Garion and two companions begin a perilous journey to face an enemy he seems hopeless to defeat, the rest of the west gathers its forces to wage an unwinnable war against vastly more numerous enemies, more or less as a diversion.

Some of this generalized description may sound familiar to those of you who have fed, drunk, breathed, and slept on The Lord of the Rings. The quest of Garion looks increasingly like that of Frodo, except that instead of having a ring that needs to be destroyed, he has a sword that might be able to kill a god - if anything can. The sober reality facing him is that there are really two prophecies in motion, and so far they're in a dead heat as to which one will end up ruling the destiny of all. In other words, Garion could kill Torak, or Torak could kill him; neither one can live while the other survives, etc. Oops! That came from Harry Potter! (Mind you, this book was published in 1984, when the fantasy genre was still relatively young and Harry Potter wasn't yet a gleam in J.K. Rowling's eye.) Meantime, the roles played by the other characters in the prophecy - most notably Garion's betrothed queen, the Imperial Princess Ce'Nedra - are just as important in the greater scheme of saving the world.

This book leaves the quest well started up the slope of conflict and danger, toward its climax in Book 5, Enchanters' End Game. Besides the final crisis becoming a more and more serious and immediate undertaking, the whole canvas continues to grow more richly detailed, populated with interesting characters, and interwoven with complex agendas. But in a really engaging way, it distills everything down to a couple of simple, compelling gestures: (1) Boy sets out to destroy the evil god, knowing he has at best a 50/50 chance of victory, but driven by the knowledge everything depends on what he must do; and (2) Girl sets out to lead an army into a war that could destroy thousands of lives, although doing so tests her to the limits of her strength and beyond, because she loves the boy. Put that way, it isn't hard to see exactly what it is that makes this book stand out.