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The setting is England. The first novel, River of Darkness, takes place soon after World War I, where a serial killer is charging into rural homes and slaughtering entire families. The second novel, The Blood-Dimmed Tide, takes place a decade later, in the depths of the Great Depression, and a homicidal maniac is targeting young girls for rape and murder. The third novel, The Dead of Winter (love that title), takes place in 1944, after D-Day but before the Battle of the Bulge, and an assassin for hire laying low in England during the war stumbles across a witness to one of his jobs who got away and leaves a trail of dead bodies behind him in a bloody search for the one person living who can testify against him.

The central figure of these novels is John Madden, first a detective inspector for Scotland Yard and then a farmer who in spite of himself is drawn back into the two subsequent cases. There are other great characters, too, Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair, John's boss, Billy Styles the boot constable, Helen Blackwell, the local doctor (love that name, too, Airth's done his homework) and many others, and part of the genius of these novels is that we get to see how things turn out for everyone because we are dropped into their lives at ten-year intervals.

Another reason I love these books is that Airth doesn't force us inside the minds of the killers (I am so sick of that). No, we learn about the villains one tiny piece of information at a time, just like the detectives do. These are police procedurals every bit as good as and maybe even better than Ed McBain's 87th Precinct series, and I never ever thought I'd say that about any novels.

Instead, Airth takes us into the lives of the victims, fully fleshed characters who are practically neighbors by the time he's done with them, and by then you're so worried about whether the good guys are going to get there in time that you're on the edge of your seat.

The setting is a you-are-there trip back to England in the 20's, 30's and 40's, and again, because we get to drop in once a decade we get to see how things turn out. The first novel is all about the cost of war, to John and to the nation. If you teach a natural born killer how to kill in war, what do you think he's going to get up to when you declare peace? The second novel is about what the powers that be will do to maintain that peace, and you will be every bit as disgusted as Angus is when you find out what they are willing to sacrifice in the name of national security. (Fuckers.) The third novel makes full use of world war as a plot device (there is a harrowing scene where the cops are about to make a raid and get blown up by a doodlebug instead), with fascinating detail of what it was like to live in London as well as the countryside during that time.

I just made a friend with a new iPad download River of Darkness, so they're available as e-books, too. Go get 'em.

You know why I picked up the first of these books? Because many years ago, I stumbled across a paperback copy of another book Rennie Airth wrote, called Snatch.

It's sort of a modern day Ransom of Red Chief, and it is hilarious. It isn't on Kindle yet and you can't have my copy, but there are a bunch of used copies on Bookfinder.com.

# Permanent link to The Return of Rennie Airth

Iliasik Pass

[from the stabenow.com vaults, first posted February 6, 2004] Hello again from sunny (so far) southwest Alaska. We started the day with snow on the deck and fog. In the middle of the Unga Strait we came across a fishing vessel pulling cod pots, guys out on deck working the gear. “That there?” I said…

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This Friday the film based on Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games opens, and we can only hope it is even half as good as the book. My review on Goodreads [SPOILER ALERT]:

This is a horrifyingly good book, so much so that I had to put it down twice and walk away before I could continue for fear of what would happen next. In a dystopian future US, there is no bread and only one circus, the Hunger Games, in which 24 "tributes" (forced volunteers) duel to the death on camera with the whole world watching whether they want to or not.

The narrator is a 16-year old girl, Katniss, the sole support of her mother and 10-year old sister back home. Her sister is chosen in the reaping and Katniss volunteers to take her place in the Games. The plot is like American Idol crossed with Survivor, only in this case children are killing children as a national spectator sport. By the last page you know what it was like at the Coliseum, from both the cheap seats and the floor of the arena. A riveting read.

And this is what I wrote about the third book in the trilogy, Mockingjay:

This is what Collins means these books to be about, right here

...Something is significantly wrong with a creature that sacrifices its children's lives to settle its differences...The truth is, it benefits no one to live in a world where these things happen.

It sure doesn't. These three books work on several levels. First and foremost, they're a riveting read, an action/adventure tale that sweeps you along from first page to last. Katniss is a wonderful character, smart, strong, stubborn, taught by a hard life to have exactly the right skills she needs to survive the Games. Collins made an inspired choice to let Katniss tell her own story in first person present tense, which lends just that much more verisimilitude and immediacy to every event, without any assurance that anyone, Katniss included, is going to survive those events. You're on the edge of your seat for the whole narrative. Taken simply as pure, breathless entertainment, these books totally rock.

Second, not only does Katniss kick serious ass, she instinctively says and does the right thing when everything is on the line. She's a role model I'd be happy for any girl to aspire to. Or any woman, for that matter. I love Harry Potter, I do, but it's always bugged me, just a little, that the books weren't about Hermione. I know, I know, teachers and librarians say you can't get boys to read books about girls, but let me tell you, I've made grown men read these books and they can't put them down. So maybe the Hunger Games books are the beginning of a paradigm shift in reading habits. I so hope so.

Thirdly, Collins has a message. She puts these randomly selected kids into an arena to kill each other on a homicidal version of American Idol, all to serve as an annual object lesson that furthers the political stranglehold of the Capitol on the twelve Districts. By not flinching away from just how brutal those deaths are, she puts us personally on the battlefield. I can still see that spear going through Rue. Man, I can hear it.

How many Rues does the human race sacrifice before we figure out how to live with each other? I think Peeta was onto something, Katniss says, about us destroying one another and letting some decent species take over. Because really, I think Collins is saying, what is the alternative? Children dying.

The best science fiction is more than just a good story, and these books are an exemplar of the "if this goes on" trope. Collins is holding up a mirror and showing us exactly who we are.

I really like the ending, too, and not just because I was a Peeta girl from The Hunger Games on. Again, Katniss did the right thing like she always does and took down the right person. Her way back from everything that has happened to her is long and filled with pain and grief. This isn't a happily ever after, and it shouldn't be.

But, boy, it is a good read.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kij2kzRC_YA&w=640&h=360]

# Permanent link to No Bread and One Circus

The Heir to Andrew Carnegie

From Nicholas Kristof’s 11/5/11 column in the New York Times: ONE of the legendary triumphs of philanthropy was Andrew Carnegie’s construction of more than 2,500 libraries around the world. It’s renowned as a stimulus to learning that can never be matched — except that, numerically, it has already been surpassed several times over by an…

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First Days

[from the stabenow.com vaults, first posted February 5, 2004] Hello from north of the Shumagin Islands! I’m writing from on board the USCGC Alex Haley. We left the dock yesterday morning, so smoothly it looks like we know what we’re doing. I think that would be CPO Ross at the conn, who also brought us…

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[from the Stabenow.com archives, February 22, 2010]

I’m what Barbara Wallraff calls a lexplorer, which means that on the way to looking up occurrence in my Webster’s College Dictionary to see if it’s two c’s or two r’s (both) and an “e” or and “a” (an e) I get sidetracked, first by osmometry (measurement of osmotic pressure), and then of course by osmotic pressure (the force that a dissolved substance exerts on a semipermeable membrane, through which it cannot penetrate), and the result is I misspell occurrence for the seventy-third time, but je ne regrette rien! because the spell checker just doesn’t have quite the same feel of untapped riches as getting lost in a dictionary does.

abierce_1866Like Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, where on the first page the noun absurdity is defined thusly: “A statement of belief manifestly inconsistent with one’s own opinion.” A few pages on we find Australia, “A country lying in the South Sea, whose industrial and commercial development has been unspeakably retarded by an unfortunate dispute among geographers as to whether it is a continent or an island.”

And that’s just the A’s. Bierce wrote his dictionary an entry at a time for a weekly newspaper from 1881 to 1906, and even the curmudgeonliest reader will find something on every page to make them smile.

foreignEnglish is a voracious language, gobbling up any foreign word or phrase and putting it to use in law, medicine, cookery, fashion, slang, you name it. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Foreign Words in English tells us where those words and phrases come from, sometimes with surprising results. See circa, “around” from the Latin, as in circa 300 BC, but also, we discover somewhat to our incredulity, related to the English cerement, a waxed cloth for wrapping a corpse.

samuel_johnson_by_joshua_reynoldsI also enjoy books about dictionaries, most recently Henry Hitchings’ Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary. Did you know that as late as the year 2000, American jurists were consulting the Dictionary to try to figure out what the founders meant by the word declare, as in “declaration of war?” Divided into chapters headed with definitions from the Dictionary in alphabetical order, written with affection, respect and not a little glee, this book is going to make you want to go out and do like Robert Browning did, read the Dictionary from cover to cover in preparation for a life of writing poetry.

# Permanent link to Lexploration

My favorite robber baron.

Andrew Carnegie is my favorite robber baron. Here are some reasons why. From the Carnegie Library wiki: A Carnegie library is a library built with money donated by Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. Two thousand five hundred nine Carnegie libraries were built between 1883 and 1929, including some belonging to public and university library…

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