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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 3, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Murderer's Daughter, Fellowship, Time Zones

One of the pleasures of a new novel from Jonathan Kellerman is that I get to listen to John Rubinstein narrate it on the audiobook. There are many good audiobook narrators, but when John Rubinstein reads alone, it's like a full-cast Tony-Award-quality play.

However, Jonathan Kellerman's newest mystery, The Murderer's Daughter, is not about Alex Delaware, the child-psychologist police consultant who has starred in thirty novels. Delaware is in it, but only in a very minor role, and his police detective friend, Milo Sturgis, isn't even mentioned.

Instead, the entire story is centered on Dr. Grace Blades, a clinical psychologist who specializes in helping crime victims, or those who have lost close relatives to criminal action, recover some sense of peace and control over their lives.

Blades is the "murderer's daughter" of the title -- we get some serious flashback time, seeing how, as a young child, she witnessed her parents' murder-suicide. But that wasn't the center of her childhood. Instead, lost in the foster-care system, she was looked out for by some conscientious people who recognized that she had an astonishing intellect and helped her get started on a productive life.

However, one of the people who helped her most was murdered when she was a child. It was an indirect murder -- there was no evidence, no way to prove anything. But now, as an adult, the killer of that loving foster parent is back in her life.

I've been so careful not to tell you anything that will spoil any surprises -- except that I probably have anyway, and there's no way to tell you more without just telling you the whole story. So I won't.

Let me just say that Jonathan Kellerman can create terrific characters and solve compelling mysteries without Alex Delaware. Grace Blades is not a mentally healthy person, but she's coping, more or less; until, that is, something happens that is so wrong that she's incapable of standing by and doing nothing.

I can't say that Kellerman is in completely new territory here. Blades is a shrink, like Alex Delaware -- and this makes sense because Kellerman himself was a practicing clinical psychologist before launching his novel-writing career. And, from someone who knew him, at least by reputation, back in his days as a practicing shrink, he was one of the best.

He knows how things work. He knows how people work. He knows why they do things, and why they think they do those things, and as a result we readers get a guided tour of human minds as they're peeled back, layer by layer -- and still have secrets hidden away.

Because the viewpoint character is a woman, the audiobook producers brought in Kathe Mazur, one of the most accomplished narrators in the business, to read The Murderer's Daughter.

Now, I don't believe that a novel with a male viewpoint character always has to have a male narrator, or a female character a female reader; and I think that a brilliant actor like John Rubinstein could have done a bang-up job of narrating The Murderer's Daughter. That's not the choice they made -- and Kathe Mazur does a great job, too.

Fans of the Alex Delaware series might fear that they won't like this book as well. I'm telling you that you'll like it at least as well as any of the Delaware novels. And if you have never read a Kellerman mystery, this is a very good starting point.

You do have to be prepared for Grace Blades to make choices that you would hope your mother, sister, or daughter would never make -- but you'll eventually have some idea of why she does what she does, even though she remains clue-free.

I know that Sue Grafton's new Kinsey Millhone novel, X, has just come out, so I don't dare say that The Murderer's Daughter is the best new mystery novel this summer.

But X is going to have to be very, very good even to tie with The Murderer's Daughter. If Kellerman decides that it's time for Alex Delaware to give up sleuthing and go off into the sunset with his guitar-making lady, Grace Blades would make a great new consulting-shrink partner for Milo Sturgis.

In fact, it's almost obvious that this is what Kellerman is planning. Blades has a great car, like Delaware -- but it's a sports car, not a luxury sedan. Sturgis will be happy to let her drive -- until she closes her eyes at high speed. She has tons of money, at least as much as Delaware, so she can afford to take time off and travel wherever she must to help on a case. And even though she's way crazier than Delaware, she's just as smart and just as capable.

So if the Alex Delaware series stops at volume 30, and it becomes the Grace Blades series thereafter, or if there are a few transitional novels where both characters are involved, I'm happy. The key ingredient here is Jonathan Kellerman.

*

Just one quibble about downloading books from Audible.com. I had pre-ordered Sue Grafton's X. When it became available, I was notified by an email telling me that the novel was now available in my library.

Since I had prepaid, no further action on my part was needed. Except for one tiny problem. When I got to my library on Audible.com, the new novel wasn't there.

Nor was it in my pre-order list. It was just ... gone.

For the first time, I used Audible's online help system. It took about three seconds for somebody to join me in a live chat. Very quickly they were inside my membership and telling me that ... I was crazy, because there was the book, right in my library.

No it wasn't!

Oh, wait. Yes it was.

Audible.com arranges your library with your most recent purchase at the top of the list of books. So, since the book had come out on the day I went to download it, I expected it to be the first item in my library.

But no. For reasons passing understanding, Audible.com doesn't arrange books in the order that you actually acquired them in your library -- it arranges them in the order in which you purchased them. So the earlier you pre-order a book, the farther down the list it is when it gets added to your library.

X was three pages in -- with books that I had already listened to many weeks before. This is kind of like a public library shelving books, not in alphabetical order, but in the order they were most recently returned to the library. How can you find what you're looking for?

Yeah, I know, there's a search-my-library function. But I shouldn't have to use that to find a book that was added to my library today. In my crabby-old-man opinion.

*

Why would anyone want to read a book about a subject they already know a lot about?

I teach a class in the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Why would I need to read The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, by Philip and Carol Zaleski?

In this case, my original reason was because I didn't know that much about Owen Barfield and Charles Williams, so ... why not fill in the cracks?

But the Zaleskis have done such an excellent job of telling the stories of all the Inklings -- a group of Christian intellectuals and writers at Oxford in the 1930s and 1940s -- that I have decided that the next time I teach about Tolkien and Lewis, I will make The Fellowship required reading for the whole class.

The book doesn't include all the details you get in a full biography of any of the men in the Inklings -- but the Zaleskis do a superb job of giving a better-than-adequate summary of the lives of the key players.

I really do know a lot about Tolkien's and Lewis's lives by now, and yet I didn't feel as if The Fellowship left out any vital information about either of them. And even though nothing about Barfield's and Williams's lives made me wish I had known either man, I still felt as if their lives were fully and fairly presented.

Most important, I got a strong sense of the dynamic of the Inklings and how they supported each other -- and, toward the end, got rather sick of each other.

While the backstories of all the major participants were well covered, the Zaleskis kept their focus on the period when the Inklings were active. A few incidents from after their last Thursday-night meeting were mentioned, but when the Inklings stopped influencing each other, the book was pretty much over -- and the Zaleskis were wise enough to stop.

What makes the book most valuable, though, is the literary analysis. They examine all the works of all the major inklings. Where I knew the novels or poems, I felt the authors did a fair job of analyzing and summarizing them, along with the critical reception they received. When I didn't know the works, I still felt as if I had now a sense of what each Inkling produced and what role it played in the literary life of England at that time.

The overwhelming impression I got was that, in the years between the world wars, the English literary community was about a large as a small high school. Everybody knew, or knew of, everybody else. Everybody was submitting work to the same editors; everybody was being reviewed by the same critics; and as often as not, the critics, editors, and writers were each other.

So even though they were never Inklings, Dorothy Sayers and T.S. Eliot both loom large in the story. They didn't all agree -- but then, the Inklings didn't agree with each other.

If you've enjoyed either Lewis or Tolkien -- or both -- and you want to know about their lives, I would suggest that this is the best book to start with. It's very well written, it's quite accurate (including correcting errors in some of the earlier books I had read), and it deals with almost all the important works by the major members of the group.

One thing for sure, though. It did not make me wish I had been one of the Inklings. You had to be a polyglot to really belong -- it especially helped if you spoke Latin, Greek, and Old English, since there were more than a few conversations and readings in those languages.

And they all read everything. Who has time to read that much and still do your day job and have a life?

Oh ... well ... that's another thing about the Inklings. You get the strong impression that this was their life. Tolkien was the odd one because he really was a devoted husband and father. Yet even he felt that he hadn't spent enough time with his children as they were growing up. (One of the happiest days of his life had to be when his youngest son, Christopher, joined the Inklings in his own right -- fully qualified, as I am not, to be one of them.)

And these men were so often miserably unhappy precisely because their literary and/or academic careers were not working out as they might have wished. Lewis was famous and rich before he finally got a decent faculty appointment -- at Cambridge instead of Oxford -- and by then it was hard for a university department to want him because The Screwtape Letters was so popular it would embarrass his colleagues to have this Christian apologist among them.

But some of the others were deeply hurt by their inability to get the kind of following that came, eventually, to Tolkien and Lewis. And the book has enough information about all of them and their work for readers to be able to speculate reasonably about what made the difference between their levels of success.

You can be sure my students and I will have some interesting discussions on exactly that point, the next time I teach that course.

But The Fellowship wasn't the only book I read about a subject I'm already quite familiar with. Robin Prior's book When Britain Saved the West: The Story of 1940 is an excellent addition to the literature of World War II. I've read so many books about Churchill, about World War II, even about the Battle of Britain and the evacuation at Dunkirk, that I really didn't expect to finish listening to this audiobook.

I'm so familiar with that war year in England and on the continent that I don't even need a map to know exactly where every town and river they referred to is located.

Yet Prior's perspective is fresh -- both wider and narrower than any other history I've read.

Churchill looms large in the story, of course -- he was easily the greatest statesman of the twentieth century, and also one of the most annoying politicians ever. I adore the man. However, Prior's focus is on all the decision-makers, and the result is that by the end of the book, you realize just how close-fought the matter was.

Churchill's appointment as Prime Minister in 1940 seems inevitable now, but it was very much in doubt among the decision-makers. France's capitulation to the Nazis seems likewise inevitable, but they held out -- heroically, I must point out -- long enough for a significant number of French and British soldiers to be evacuated at Dunkirk. Many of the French soldiers immediately returned to France to continue to fight until the new Petain government gave in to Hitler. But it's easy to overlook how well the French soldiers performed.

Naturally, in a book entitled When Britain Saved the West, there's going to be a lot of time spent on Britain. But by no means does Prior paint the British as unalloyed heroes. They made bad mistakes, and their (and France's) failure to open up a second front during the invasion of Poland in September 1939 is a mark of shame. Especially because it probably would have ended Hitler and Nazism in a few weeks.

The heart of the book is the way German bombing affected Britain, and how German mistakes were as responsible as anything the British did for the way it all turned out. Yet I also got the strong impression that even if the Germans had been smarter, the Brits would still have outlasted them and, eventually, beaten them back.

It's worth remembering that there was no Eastern Front when the Brits were fighting for their survival -- Stalin was still the Germans' ally, supplying them with oil and other vital supplies. But Britain wasn't completely alone -- because Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other nations and colonies in the Empire and Commonwealth stood by them, sometimes at heroic levels.

Even if you've never studied World War II, this relatively thin book (compared to, say, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich) is an excellent starting point. In fact, I believe that you can't possibly understand the world today without understanding World War II, and if you have never studied that war (which, if you attended American public schools, you pretty much never have), then When Britain Saved the West will give you a very clear picture of why Great Britain deserves its status as a major power in the world ...

And why one of the most shameful things Obama ever did was to insult Britain and show his ignorance of history by returning to the British the bust of Churchill that stood in the White House. It wasn't just an insult. It was a repudiation of the British contribution to the freedom and prosperity of the West. But Obama, so committed to political correctness, could not see past the "imperialist" label.

Obama didn't (and doesn't) want a "special relationship" with Great Britain. But they have stood with us when nobody else would. And when nobody would stand with them, they stood alone. That's character; that's national character; and the Brits had it and, I believe, still have it.

When Britain Saved the West is a good start to understanding our immediate past, and why the world is shaped the way it is today.

*

Here's why a friend of mine missed her flight from Los Angeles a few weeks ago. She relies on her iPhone to keep track of her calendar, giving her alarms and notifications, and while in Utah she carefully entered the departure time of her flight home from LA.

Then, as we all do once we've entered the data in our handy dandy electronic auxiliary brain, she forgot the actual flight time completely. Why should she remember it? The iPhone had her back.

The night before she's supposed to leave, she checks the flight time on her iPhone. She arranges for the car service to pick her up in plenty of time. Traffic is thick -- because it's daytime in Los Angeles, and she's getting over the mountain on the 405. So she reaches her drop-off point at Delta Airlines with only about an hour to check her bag, get her boarding pass, and get to the gate. Do-able.

Except for one tiny snag. Her flight had just left. An hour earlier than the time her iPhone was saying.

It seems that her software, detecting that she had moved from Mountain Daylight Time to Pacific Daylight Time, changed all her appointments to reflect the time zone change. That is, since the appointment had been made in Utah, when she traveled to California it was now marked as an hour later.

I can't imagine any circumstance in which this would be a useful feature. People mark their appointments at the time they will take place in the time zone that's local to where the appointment will be kept. Why would she ever have entered her Los Angeles flight in Utah time, so that it would need correction?

But no, the software she was using apparently thought: This appointment was entered while she was on Utah time. Now she's on California time, so Utah time is an hour later.

If the app had then "corrected" by changing Utah time to California time, it would have shown her departure time as an hour earlier -- so she would have arrived at the airport with an hour to spare.

That would have been too easy. Instead the software acted as if she had entered the data in California, and now it needed to be changed to the hour-later Utah time. When would that ever make sense?

She still got home, though it involved squeezing a new flight time out of Delta (which gets easier and easier, since Delta seems to have entered the computer age), and then changing her car-service pickup time at the Salt Lake airport. She got a chance to schlep her carry-on from Terminal 5 to Terminal 6 at LAX. (Please, Delta: Get better signage to guide people on that Long March, and install a slidewalk to help old coots like me to cover the distance without a heart attack.)

She still can't figure out why her software, which had never done this before, changed all her appointments this time. Maybe there was some control that she inadvertently altered. Maybe in the latest update there was a "feature" that she blindly OKed because we all grant all the permissions our apps ask for without even checking. Or maybe something reset the software to an absurd default setting.

Maybe it was cosmic radiation altering a bit in that exact spot in her iPhone's memory.

But ... when I travel, I carry a paper itinerary carefully prepared by my flawless travel agent (aka my beloved, brilliant, and efficient wife). There are no software updates to paper itineraries. I'm just saying.


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