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review 2018-04-26 12:02
The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA
The Not-Quite States of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA - Doug Mack

Quick: name the 4 American territories that aren't Puerto Rico.

 

I'm betting my BookLikes friends are the most likely to know some of them, but probably not all of them.  Of the 5 populated territories, I knew of 4, although I couldn't have reeled them off on command; 1 (Northern Mariana Islands) was completely new to me.

 

Now, how many of us could speak knowledgeably about what it means to be a territory of the US?  Are they citizens?  Can they vote?  Do they pay taxes?  Does the US Constitution apply to them?  Answers: Yes, except American Somoa. Not for president, although they can vote in presidential primaries.  No.  Yes, but only some of it - the parts that Congress arbitrarily decides to apply.

 

Sounds all kinds of screwed up, doesn't it?  What's more screwed up though is that I knew almost none of this, and most Americans don't either.  That's what prompted me to buy this book - it's embarrassing not to know this stuff about my own country, especially living overseas and being asked by people: what's the deal with Guam? and having to respond um... it's an island?

 

Doug Mack is a travel writer with a degree in American Studies, and he didn't know either, but he decided to dig into the issues that make the territories not states and try to find out why they've so completely fallen off the radar of almost all Americans, including our politicians (a congressman introduced the American Samoan representative as being from American Samolia - and massacred the man's name).  Mack visited each of the 5 territories himself, talking to whomever he could, researching their cultures and searching out the very little written about them over the decades, and speaking to the two (2!) people in the country well versed enough in the legalities to answer constitutional questions.

 

The results are enlightening, horrifying, and eye-opening.  Most Americans probably know about Puerto Rico's seesaw to-be-or-not-to-be-a-state, but the other territories are quite happy not being a state.  Further, American Samoans - the only territory where the residents are not US citizens (they're residents, but without the green card) - are, for the most part, happy not being citizens.  That's not to say there aren't extreme disadvantages and challenges for the territories, but Mack does a brilliant job illustrating just how difficult it is for them to balance being American with preserving their distinctive cultures and identities.  Mack also outlines brief histories of each territory, and some of the legal precedence for why they are set up the way they are, and why it's so hard to define their place in the US.  Or, you know, remember they exist.

 

This is a huge task and though he does it entertainingly, he does not pretend to do it comprehensively.  Every part of this subject is a quagmire of questions that have no easy answers and no good solutions.  But Mack's willing to give it a try, and he does it in a very readable, balanced narrative.  The talking points are innumerable - MT and I have discussed this book's points until we're both hoarse - and for that alone, the author gets 4.5 stars from me.  MT felt like a few questions went unanswered, and he's less than thrilled about my new enthusiasm for an American Samoa holiday (it's a seafood thing), but he's not reviewing this book, I am, and I say if you have any interest in the part of America that isn't often thought of as being part of America, this would definitely be a great place to start.

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review 2018-04-24 06:39
the Awkward Squad
The Awkward Squad - Sam Gordon,Sophie Hénaff

I can't remember where I heard about this book (best bet is here on BL) but it was described as a new mystery series similar to the old tv show Leverage*.  The premise of the show was a group of misfits coming together to right the wrongs big business perpetrated against the people.  The Awkward Squad's misfits are police officers unfit for regular duty but can't be fired, banded together and stuffed away in a remote location with the ostensible task of investigating cold cases.  I loved Leverage, so bought this directly after it came out.

 

It's not quite Leverage - the misfits here aren't conmen, toughs or savants; these misfits are all broken by their jobs in one way or another, but it's close enough.  For a first novel, I thought the story was excellent and well plotted too, although with definite room for improvement.  It was written well enough that I only had vague suspicions about the solution, but not done so well that the author was able to lead me down the blind alley she'd constructed.  The characters were the kind you cheer on, even if some of them aren't always likeable.

 

I didn't know when I bought the book that it was originally published in France a few years ago, under the name Poulets grillés.  This leaves me with a lingering suspicion that it might have been an even better book in the original French.  Not that the translation is bad - as far as I can tell it's flawless - but some of the marketing I've seen raves about the book humor. I can see how it's meant to be amusing, and one scene was definitely shooting for hilarity, but either something was lost in translation or it's a cultural difference of what defines funny.  

 

Either way, I didn't like it less because I suspect I'm missing something, I just wonder if, had those 2.5 years of French lessons stuck at all, and I were able to read it in the original, I'd have liked it even more.  Ce n'est pas grave, if Hēnaff writes another one, I'll happily be on board for reading it (in translation). 

 

* - Has also been compared to Jussi Adler-Olsen’s tales about Copenhagen’s equally marginal Department Q.  I cannot comment on how accurate this is, as I've not read Adler-Olsen.  Yet?

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-04-23 09:37
Murder Off Miami
Murder Off Miami - J.G. Links,Dennis Wheatley

Well, after a day preparing for having friends around for dinner yesterday, I wasn't able to get back to this until today.  

 

(Full disclosure: I'm not all that concerned about spoilers here, given the unique nature of the tome and the knowledge that the only other person I know to have a copy of it has already read it - and taken way better notes.)

 

The good news is I was right - I guessed the killer.  The not as good news is that I did it almost immediately.  The entire thing hinged on a false assumption made at the start, around page 15 or so.  If the reader picks up on that false assumption, the rest of the file is really rather extraneous.  In fact, I was more than a little nervous about looking at the solution because I felt like I had to be missing something.  It turns out I was, but only a handful of smaller clues that supported the answer.  I'd have really liked having to rely on those clues; solving the mystery would have been a lot more fun if I'd had to search them out.  As it was, I was so certain about the twist, I didn't look very hard at the evidence.

 

There's one caveat to my gripes though; if I'm being objective (and I try to be), I have to say that this mystery file probably suffers to a greater degree because I've read another - one written later and by another author - first.  That one, File on Fenton and Farr, was far more intricately plotted, and strung the actual clues out far longer, than Murder Off Miami, leaving me tossing theories around until almost the very end.  I got that one right too, but I had to really work for it, and if anything, that's what disappointed me about this one.

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review 2018-04-23 06:39
A Tale of Two Kitties (Magical Cats, #9)
A Tale of Two Kitties - Sofie Kelly

A solid mystery in a solid series.  Nothing spectacular but a setting and characters you can  lose yourself in and amongst for a quick read when you're looking for a light mystery that's rife with strong friendships and small town charm.

 

The mystery plotting is solid, or maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention; in retrospect I should have seen straight away what went over my head while I was reading.  

 

Oddly, though I (of course) really like the cats, Owen and Hercules, I find myself more enchanted by their everyday cat antics (Owen's love for Fred the Funky Chicken catnip treats and his hatred of Barry Manilow music, for example), than any of their magical feats.  I don't think cats need the supernatural leg up to make them the stars, although I do wish Kelly would delve more into their origins and what's going on at Wisteria Hill.

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review 2018-04-21 10:06
The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search the World's Rarest Species
The Plant Messiah: Adventures in Search of the World's Rarest Species - Carlos Magdalena

This book is mostly what it says on the tin, anecdotes about Magdalena's travels seeking out the world's most endangered plants, and his subsequent conservation efforts to stave off their extinction.

 

It starts off a little rocky, as my first impression of Magdalena was more evangelical than messianic, and the mini-biography at the start sometimes ventured into very self-satisfied prose.  The biographical information was helpful, though probably could have been edited a bit.

 

Once chapter 2 begins though, all of that is quickly forgotten.  As someone who is deeply interested in conservation of both plants and animals (except roaches), I was enthralled as I read about efforts to save species plants on Mauritius and Rodrigues Islands, in Bolivia, and Australia (water lilies!).  As the daughter of an orchid grower who very often had to MacGyver solutions for tricky breeding problems, I genuinely enjoyed the parts where he had to think on his feet, or think outside the box to overcome perceived roadblocks to cultivation.

 

There's no denying his enthusiasm and his passion for his work; neither is there any denying the need for it, in a world where 2000 unknown plants can be identified in a given year, only to have many of them go extinct before they can even be named.  I learned a great deal reading this, and hesitated to put it down, always wanting to know where he was going next and what he'd find when he got there.

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