Thursday, March 22, 2018

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich

Not everyone is a fan of twentieth century classical music.  I happen to be one, at least of the first half of the century before it became a "naked Emperor".  Here is a piano sonata by Henri Detilleux, Op. 1.  It was written in 1947 and is here performed by Francois Killian.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the SovietsSecondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of the most heart wrenching narratives I've ever read. Svetlana Alexievich spent almost twenty years compiling the stories of men and women of all ages during and after the Soviet government ruled and then collapsed.

The unbelievable cruelty and hardship that many endured under the Soviet Regime has, in many eyes, been replaced by an unbridled chaos and greed. They hate the old years but despise the new.

The first people Alexievich talked to were former members of the Communist Party. They hate the new way and loved the old. Even if it was oppressive, it was epic and they were great. Millions of people starved to death? Necessary for greatness!

Some of these former Soviets speak for the first time of how they betrayed their own families to advance their careers. One man turned in his uncle for hiding crops from the Soviet who were confiscating farmers' produce. His uncle was beaten to death. Afterwards his mother gave him a sack of food and told him to leave and never come back. His grand sons mock his reminiscing of Soviet greatness and when he died he left them nothing but gave all his money to the Soviet Government, even though it no longer existed. He could not shed his Communist identity. It was his god.

Even those who were sent to the Gulag and tortured often saw it as necessary because the Soviet Regime must operate even if sacrifices are made. Not all took it so stoically, however.

One woman was living with her daughter in a house with several other families. This was common; most houses were divided up to house many families, each family getting one or two rooms at the most. This woman was carried off because someone had reported her to be an enemy of the state. As the police were leading her away she begged her neighbor, another woman, to look after her daughter, which she did. Years later, after the woman was released and the records were opened, this woman found out that it was the other woman who turned her in. Why? She wanted her rooms. The woman, even though she endured years of torture in the Gulag, could not endure this; she hanged herself.

There are many such heart breaking stories like this. One man spoke of his engagement to a beautiful woman, but then he got to know her father. Her father was an ancient, unassuming man; he seemed nice and harmless. But then he shared his experiences as an army officer. His job was to execute "enemies of the state", not even people from other countries. The enemies would kneel before him and he shot them in the back of the head. Hundreds of "enemies" every day. His gun hand would badly cramp so a massage therapist was hired to massage the soldiers hands at the end of each day.

The father spoke openly of this with no regret. The man ran away. He could not marry this monster's daughter. He said, "They are everywhere; men like that. They look normal. You can't tell them from anyone else." It made him feel leery because he did not know who was walking next to him on the side walk; sitting next to him on the bus. They looked normal, were they also mass killers?

So many children orphaned, it's a wonder they survived to adulthood. And marriage is wholly unstable. Countless women interviewed speak of leaving their husbands for no other reason than they no longer wanted to live with them. The effect on the children was not considered.

It is unbelievable how a society can be so extensively dehumanized; yet they still have emotion. All of the stories are told in an deeply emotional tone; perhaps it is how Russians express themselves. It reminded me of Dostoevsky's characters.

The language in which each person tells their story is colorful and rich. The reader is sucked into their life for a brief moment. Maybe some people would not like to read their stories because they are so painful, but I think everyone needs to read this oral history of a people who have not only experienced hell but are still trying to climb out.

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Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Department of Dead Ends: 14 Detective Stories by Roy Vickers

Here's one of my favorites:  The Raindrop Prelude by Chopin performed here by Vladimir Horowitz.

I have found the most wonderful murder writer.  He really is my new favorite.  We all love Roy Vickers.

Me kissing Roy Vickers

 Hercule kissing Roy Vickers

Percy kissing Roy Vickers

See?  We all love him.  I cannot wait to find everything he has written.

Department of Dead Ends: 14 StoriesDepartment of Dead Ends: 14 Stories by Roy Vickers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have found a new favorite murder author. I can't call his stories mysteries because he informs us of who the murderer is, as well as the murdered, in the first paragraph. His stories would be more accurately described as psychological drama.

The Department of Dead Ends is Scotland Yard's name for what we in the U.S. would call "Cold Cases". These are unsolved murders that go dormant or "cold" because not enough evidence was garnered and too much time has passed. Vickers' detectives who work in the Department of Dead Ends usually by chance uncover clues that come together to solve a dead end case.

The stories are told mostly in third person narrator, limited. We read the thoughts and motives of the murderer shortly after we are introduced to him or her.

Sometimes we are listening to the reasoning of a psychopath, sometimes someone who, out of despair and perhaps temporary insanity killed someone but never meant to. Sometimes you are glad the murderer gets hanged (they all get hanged and you know that before you start the story), other times you wish it had turned out otherwise. Or rather, you wish they had not thrown their life away on someone who wasn't worth hanging for.

Sometimes the murders occur in a moment of passion; sometimes the plans are carefully set out. Even when the murder is impulsive, the cover up is still methodically planned. One finds oneself following the murderers steps and holding our breath as we wait to see how the Detectives (it's always Inspector Rason and Chief Inspector Karslake) put random facts together to discover by luck (usually) the incriminating evidence that convicts the guilty.

Sometimes the putting together of facts is a little too "lucky" or Inspector Rason's reasoning is a little stretching, but what makes these stories unique and worthwhile is the psychological study of the personality of the murderer. Vickers' insight is truly perspicacious.

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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

 Here is a piano transcription of Jean-Pillippe Rameau's Nouvelle Suites performed by Alexandre Tharaud.

We have had some rain, which I like, but what I don't like is the small moat that develops on our walkway between the mailbox and the house.

Absalom, Absalom!Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don't know if I'm just getting the hang of William Faulkner's style of expression, but so far I have enjoyed this novel the best of all of the ones I have read so far (which only includes As I Lay Dying and The Sound and The Fury).

Even so, this novel is written far differently than the others. As I Lay Dying was written from inside of each character's mind, thinking as they would think to themselves without explaining anything to a third party. Each chapter is narrated by a different character and putting all the narrators' thoughts together, the reader is able to come to a conclusion as to what is happening.

The same is true for The Sound and The Fury. The entire book has four chapters which take place over two consecutive days, interrupted by an incident that happened twenty years prior in a chapter in between. Each chapter is narrated by a different person. The first chapter by a mentally retarded thirty year old man. Faulkner enjoys toying with his reader; two characters have the same nickname. They are siblings but different genders. We only gather clues as to what the heck is happening by reading the narrators thoughts and they don't try to clear anything up, since naturally they are only thinking to themselves.

Absalom, Absalom! is different from the previous two in that, while there are different narrators (about four, I think) they are telling their stories, or rather they are telling the same story, to other people in the book which makes for a clearer rendition of the telling for the reader.

Faulkner still likes to hint and suggest and one has to read the entire story to put the pieces together and discover what has happened. I do not want to spoil the story for other people because the ending is rather startling (to me, anyway) but here is a bit of what is going on.

A stranger, Thomas Sutpen comes to Yoknapatawpha County, Mississippi. This is the fictitious place that Faulkner created that bares no small resemblance to his own home town area in and around Oxford, Mississippi. Like many writers- me, for instance- he wrote characters based on people he knew. Which is why I hope only strangers read my books.

Although God help anyone who actually resembles Faulkner's characters because some of them are formidable.

Thomas Sutpen arrives much to the consternation of the old families. This is before the Civil War when a well-defined Southern Aristocracy existed. He buys up property and calls it Sutpen's Hundred. He marries a local girl from a wealthy family. Everyone is shocked and refuses to come to the wedding.

Sutpen and his wife have a couple of children and pretty much stay hidden on Sutpen's hundred. As various narrators describe life there, we also get a slow but eventually complete picture of Sutpen and the sort of person he is. Without revealing anything, he is a dark, complicated person and so is his progeny.

In the meantime, we get a look at the South before, during and after the Civil War. We see what honor means to a Southern person and how it can become twisted and dark. We see how important it was for a poor, white man to achieve his own family dynasty and how he succeeded and also how he failed.

We see the relations between white and black people and the wheels within wheels that formed those relationships. Nothing is simple in life and neither is it in a Faulkner novel.

One interesting aspect about this book is that every narrator, male or female has the same ponderous, Gothic voice. It doesn't matter who is talking.

Reading Faulkner in some way reminds me of the chanting of a Greek chorus. It is without emotion while it describes highly emotional situations. As a reader I found myself compelled to enter and be swallowed.

I will be interested in seeing how future Faulkner novels compare to the ones I've read so far.

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Sunday, March 11, 2018

Reports from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France 1925-1939

Please enjoy Faure's Pavane while reading today's post.

Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France, 1925-1939 by Joseph Roth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As with Roth's book on Berlin, this book is a collection of vignettes, little essays on Roth's thoughts and feelings about his time in France, which were the years in the 1930s up to his death in May 1939.

The first several chapters, Roth is once again describing the landscape of different Parisian neighborhoods, small French towns, the people he encounters and their customs. It is like he is trying to take snapshots of each place and person, to record the pleasure of remembering. Some people will like this approach, others will consider it a little sentimental. But in the context of what was transpiring in Europe in the decade that led up to the Second World War, we realize that Roth is clinging to an era that he knows is about to disappear for good.

In his final chapters he deals more with the looming Nazi threat. An essay he wrote on Jewish children refugees was particularly illuminating and the determined ignorance of people in France and England as to what sort of person Hitler and his henchmen really were.

He also writes about writers from the early part of the century who were already setting the stage with their anti-Semitic writing. There's an interesting study done by an author who I can't remember that asserted that Hitler did not start anti-semitism. He fanned a flame that had already been ignited because he knew it would make him popular. He told the masses what they wanted to hear.

These final chapters alone are worth the price of the book.

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Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Case of the Careless Cupid by Erle Stanley Gardner

A little fun to start the weekend:

Brahms Drei Intermezzi op 117 is playing while I write. The artist is Radu Lupu.  Radu Lupu is a Romanian born pianist who has the distinction of winning three major piano competitions:  the George Enescu International Piano Competition, Van Cliburn Piano Competition and Leeds International Pianoforte Competition. I heard him perform in Chicago at Orchestra Hall (I think it's called Symphony Center now) back in the nineties when I was studying music at Roosevelt University.  

Back then I was a poor college student and could only afford canceled tickets which were offered for ten dollars a couple of hours before the concert.  I bought one for Radu Lupu.  This is often a gamble.  The ticket can be for a seat behind a pole.  This time I hit the jackpot.  I got the front row center seat.  I was so close I could hear Lupu humming while he played. 

Lupu is known for his interpretation of the late Romantic composers like Brahms, Liszt and Shumann.  I hope you enjoy this contemplative piece.
The Case Of The Careless CupidThe Case Of The Careless Cupid by Erle Stanley Gardner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another great Perry Mason. I gobble these up so rapidly it's a wonder I don't get heartburn. Luckily, books don't give you heartburn and Mason novels aren't Jane Austin to be savored and contemplated. They are that bowl of Hershey chocolates that you really shouldn't be scarfing down but can't stop, which is why I was able to run through this story in one sitting.  Jane Austin, on the other hand is French chocolate that you let slowly melt in your mouth.  Am I taking the chocolate/reading analogy too far?  I also compare reading to fine coffee.  Coffee that you grind yourself and make using a French press...I think I am getting off track...

The plot: A distressed woman comes to Mason (aren't they always distressed woman?) because of a complicated situation. She is in love with and engaged to be married to man who is wealthy and also has a gaggle of nieces and nephews who are jealously guarding their Uncle against any gold diggers.

Mrs. Anson is a widow, wealthy in her own right, and is not a gold digger but that has not stopped at least one niece and her fiance from attempting to sabotage Mrs. Anson's plans to marry the Uncle whose name is Mr. Anderson.

How do they go about this? Mrs. Anson's husband died the previous year from food poisoning at a party given by Mr. Anderson due to a crab salad that had been left out all afternoon in warm weather. All the party got food poisoning, which included Mr. Anderson, Mrs. Anson and the nieces and nephews, but only Mrs. Anson's husband died from it.

Or did he? The niece and her fiance say they believe that Mrs. Anson killed her husband and demand that the body be exhumed and examined for poisoning. Because the insurance company would get back the sizeable settlement received by Mrs. Anson, they are more than willing to pursue an investigation. The body is exhumed and sure enough, traces of arsenic are found.

Did Mrs. Anson kill her husband? Perry Mason is going to find out. What follows is an interesting thread on how detectives work through shadowing and what the actual purpose of lie detectors are for as well as how a crime trial is operated through prosecution and defense.

While Mason's mysteries might be a little formulaic, they are certainly satisfying and the best part is how Gardner describes the legal system and function of each player in that system.

Finally I can gobble as much Mason as I want and never get fat.

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Sunday, March 4, 2018

Andrew Jackson by Robert V. Remini; American Lion by Jon Meacham

Here are two biographies of one of our most controversial presidents.  No, not you-know-who, but Old Hickory.  Each book has valuable information of one of America's most pivotal leaders.  and while you're reading listen to this beautiful rendition of Mahler's Symphony no. 5, the slow movement, arranged for the piano and performed by Alexandre Tharaud.

The Life of Andrew JacksonThe Life of Andrew Jackson by Robert V. Remini

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Love Andrew Jackson or hate him, and there's good reason for doing both, one thing you can never do is yawn at him.

The important thing about history is to realize that nothing new is happening. Andrew Jackson could give Donald Trump a run for his money as far as colorful personalities go.

Raised from humble beginnings, a veteran of the Revolutionary War, Jackson brought himself up by his own boot straps and worked his way into politics.

He fought in the 1812 War and lead his troops into New Orleans where they defeated the British, thus securing his reputation as a formidable military leader.

Later he became president and an ardent federalist. He destroyed the National Bank because he believed that private business exploited the under-privileged while promoting elitism. Jackson believed that only a large government represented everyone's interests and had fail-safe locks in the structure to keep corruption and self-interested individuals out. A rather naive assumption on his part, but to his dying day he fought those like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster who believed in limited government.

It is easy to see the origins of the Democratic platforms. In fact, the Democratic party was developed under Jackson. They use the same rhetoric about being for the common man as they do today. How much of that is believable depends on each person.

The book did help develop an understanding to the Trail of Tears which is a sad mark in our nation's history. It was also more complicated than I realize. Americans kept moving westward and the Indians retaliated by butchering people in newly erected towns. Who was right and who was wrong is an academic point today. Our energies now would be better spent in trying to solve the poverty and drug and alcohol abuse common on Native Reservations rather than pointing fingers at people long dead or their descendants who had nothing to do with it.

Prone to duels of honor and defending the "Sacred name" of his wife. Politics in the Jacksonian era could just as ugly as today. Smears of sex scandals, corrupt dealings and lies to defame each other's character was just as prevalent then as today.

I highly recommend this book as it will increase your appreciation of today's political landscape from reading our past's.

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American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White HouseAmerican Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"History has been ransacked to find examples of tyrants sufficiently odious to illustrate him by comparison. Language has been tortured to find epithets sufficiently strong to paint him in description. Imagination has been exhausted in her efforts to deck him with revolting and inhuman attributes. tyrant, despot, usurper; destroyer of the liberties of his country; rash ignorant, imbecile; endangering the public peace with all foreign nations; destroying domestic prosperity at home..."

While some of you may be assuming I have quoted a contemporary political commentator, and our current political climate has certainly taken on the dizzying aspects of a three ringed circus, I am in fact quoting Thomas Hart Benton, a devoted partisan to Andrew Jackson who is describing "Old Hickory's" enemies, of which there was no shortage.

Surprisingly, thirty years earlier, during the War of 1812, Benton was one of those enemies who got into such a fierce altercation with then General Jackson, that they tried to kill each other in a duel.

Ron Meacham's excellent biography of one of our most controversial presidents does not record Jackson's life before becoming the seventh president of the United States but starts with his first years after becoming president. This is perhaps a pity because those years are quite spectacular and give valuable context to how Jackson became the sort of president he was, but one will have to go to Robert Remini's more thorough Life of Andrew Jackson.

But we see the drama, the color, and Jackson's legacy. We also see how nullification and secession was broiling in the South back in the 1830s. We also are given clearer understanding as to what caused those feelings of succession. Slavery was not actually on the table then since only a few Christian missionaries and abolitionists (also Christian) were the only outspoken opponents of slavery.

What the South decried was they considered to be unfair taxation of their produce. This may or may not be valid, but one will have to go to another source of information because neither Meacham nor Remini provide enough to allow the reader to form a conclusion as to whether the taxes on Southern goods was fair or not.

We do know, according to Meacham that Jackson made some concessions and partially lowered the tax rate but not to the satisfaction of the South, nor John C. Calhoun, Jackson's former vice president.

Yes, Jackson had two vice presidents because the first, Calhoun, turned on him and decided to run a bid for the presidency against him. Van Buren became Jackson's second president and also the nation's succeeding president.

What is one to make of Andrew Jackson? We know about the Trail of Tears enforced by him. His documents show that he saw clear incompatibility with the Native and American cultures but insisted that if the American Indians conformed to American society they could keep their land and stay. This was a false promise. The Indians that chose to stay and conform soon found themselves thrust on to the Trail to the West. Certainly a blot on our history.

Yet Jackson adopted an Indian boy and raised him for many years (until the boy in teenage years became ill and died).

Jackson was not against slavery. He had slaves and he did not free them when he died. But he was vehemently against secession. He passionately believed in the Federation.

In fact he firmly believed so much in the Federation and that as president he was the Federation. The people had elected him. He represented their interests and nothing was going to interfere with that. He apparently did not believe that members of the House or Senate represented the people because he made a record number of executive orders, setting the ground work for later presidents.

He destroyed the National Bank for this reason. He believed that a private bank was corrupt and would exploit the people. As the people's spokesman he acted believing that everything he did was in the American citizen's interest. How he possessed this special knowledge of the will of the people he never explained and often it seemed as though he confused his personal will with the people's will. As a result he had the habit of ram-rodding over anyone that conflicted with his intentions.

The main legacy Jackson left was the groundwork for the Democratic Party as we know it today. He firmly believed it was the government's job to provide for and protect the people.

It was under Jackson's presidency that Texas became encouraged to join the Union. Stephen F. Austin pleaded with Jackson to send in troops and protect the U.S. citizens living inside the Texas territory from the marauding Mexican gangs that were over running American cattle farms and General Santa Ana who was determined to make Texas a part of Mexico. Jackson inexorably reminded Austin that Texas was not a part of the United States and therefore was not entitled to U.S. protection. The Battle of the Alamo was a pivotal moment in Texas history that led to Texas becoming a member of the United States of America.

Towards the end of his life, Jackson experienced a kind of conversion. He had always considered himself a Christian, although he refused to join a church because he thought the leader of the country should be religiously neutral. However, there was a radical change in his attitude and beliefs towards the end of his life. He joined a church and on his death bed gathered his family and slaves around them.

"'God will take of you for me.' He was speaking not only to his relations and the children, but to the slaves who had gathered in the room to mark the end. Jackson said: 'Do not cry; I hope to meet you all in Heaven- yes, all in Heaven, white and black.'.

Near death, Jackson sought comfort in the promises of the faith he had embraced in retirement. 'My conversation is for you all,' he said and then renewed his talk of the world to come. ' Christ has no respect to color,' Jackson said. 'I am in God and God is in me....'"

As are most people, Jackson was a complicated person, but, love him or hate him, one cannot deny that he set in motion significant events that propelled us to the country as we know it today.

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Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Case of the Worried Waitress and Cut Thin to Win by Erle Stanley Gardner

Josh and I spent this last weekend in Oklahoma inside the Choctaw Nation at a Bed and Breakfast.  As we drove the two hours north to our destination, we were doing our best to out run the torrential rain.  Flash flood warnings accompanied us most of the day.

There is not much to do at Broken Bow unless you like to hunt and fish.  We, however, planned to walk along the several trails through the woods.

As you can see, our plans were thwarted by the rain which beat us to the punch.  It was the end of the road for us.  We backed up and turned around.

No swinging here today.

Even with the rain and grey skies it was still beautiful.  And, really, what made the trip worth it was the most comfortable Bed and Breakfast we have stayed in to date.

This one was a modern house, but it had a fireplace, love seat, jacuzzi in the bathroom and the best mattress I've ever slept on.  In the evening, after gorging ourselves at the House of Blues Burger restaurant where we feasted on hamburgers to Blues Music (which probably goes without saying), we got comfortable on the love seat in front of the fire place, and watched the Hercule Poirot mystery we brought with us.

Broken Bow is also home to several wineries and we visited them all, tasted their wine, and returned home on Sunday a few bottles the richer.  I'm no Sommelier, but the wines we chose are some of the smoothest I've tasted.

Our room had a porch where I sat and enjoyed the scenery in the bracing cool temperature.  Do you see all the birds?  No?  That's because every time I got my phone out they flew away, but trust me; hundreds of cardinals, tiny birds with cream and black stripes, red-headed wood peckers, doves, and obnoxious blue jays covered the walls while I sat out there.  A large turtle swam by in the pond.

On there way there and back in the car I read out loud to Josh and here are my reviews:

The Case Of The Worried Waitress ([A Perry Mason Mystery])The Case Of The Worried Waitress by Erle Stanley Gardner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is for now my favorite Perry Mason. A young waitress comes to the attorney because she is worried something strange is happening in her aunt's house.

Orphaned and penniless, Katherine Ellis comes to live with her Aunt Sophia. Sophia had been married to a wealthy man and, being also wealthy, handed all of her assets over to her husband. After he died suddenly, Sophia discovered that she was not actually married because he husband had failed to divorce the first wife, an honest mistake because the first wife had claimed to file for divorce but had not actually followed through.

This left the widow with all of the husband's assets as well as Sophia's. Therefore both Sophia and Katherine are scraping by, which is why Katherine took as job as a waitress.

Katherine finds her aunt acting in a strange manner. She searches the papers for grocery bargains and buys the cheapest food available, serving only enough to keep them from starving, but, as Katherine accidentally discovered, her aunt is keeping thousands of dollars in hat boxes in her closet. Why?

To further add to the mystery, it is discovered that her aunt takes a taxi to a manufacturing company where she stands outside posing as a blind woman selling pencils. Again, why?

When the aunt is bludgeoned in her house and left for dead, no one knows the motive, but Katherine is the number one suspect. It is Mason's job to get to the bottom of the aunt's mysterious behavior and exonerate his client.

This story had a lot of hooks because there were so many strange things happening that seemed to have no logical explanation. It does all come together at the end with one of the most unexpected plot twists I've read in a while.

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Cut Thin to Win (Cool & Lam)Cut Thin to Win by Erle Stanley Gardner

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A man, Clayton Dawson, comes to Donald Lam and Bertha Cool to do some investigating work for him. He claims his daughter, who is wild and unmanageable, was involved in a hit and run. She was inebriated and hit an older woman with her car but drove off.

Dawson wants to protect his daughter and his own reputation by seeing if they can keep the episode out of the newspapers and to offer the victim (who survived with minor injuries) a settlement that would keep her from going to court and causing undesired publicity.

Donald Lam promises to find the victim and scope her out.

As is usual in the Lam/Cool mysteries nothing is at it seems. Without giving away the plot, it turns out that Dawson, is not really Dawson, the girl involved is not really his daughter and furthermore, the "victim" isn't actually who she says she is either.

What is going on and why? Lam finds he must uncover a whole lot more than a simple hit and run and his investigation takes him across some states and into unexpected directions. Just who is really the good guy and who is the bad guy? Are there any good guys?

That's what you will find out if you read the book.

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