Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray

Review: Two Storm Wood by Philip GrayTwo Storm Wood by Philip Gray
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, historical mystery, thriller
Pages: 352
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 29, 2022
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In this thriller set on the battlefields of the Somme after the end of World War I, a woman investigates the disappearance of her fiancé.
The Great War has ended, but for Amy Vanneck there is no peace. Her fiancé, Edward Haslam, a lieutenant in the 7th Manchesters, is missing, presumed dead. Amy travels to the desolate battlefields of northern France to learn his fate and recover his body.
She’s warned that this open-air morgue is no place for a civilian, much less a woman, but Amy is willing to brave the barbed wire, the putrid water, and the rat-infested tunnels that dot the landscape. Her search is upended when she discovers the scene of a gruesome mass murder. What does it signify? Soon Amy begins to have suspicions that Edward might not really be dead. Disquieting and yet compulsively readable, Two Storm Wood builds to an ending that is both thrilling and emotionally riveting.

My Review:

“The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones.” Honestly, Shakespeare pretty much said everything best. This particular quote is from Julius Caesar, but it’s relevant to Two Storm Wood because the mystery in this historical thriller revolves around an attempt to attach the evil that one man did to another man’s bones – even if the man’s actual bones can never be found.

The story begins with a mystery. Two soldiers in a convalescent hospital for men with facial disfigurements back home in England after the Armistice that ended World War I. One kills the other, after stealing the victim’s uniform and identity papers. The reader knows nothing about them, not their names, not their real identities. Only that they are officers and that one is impersonating the other – whoever either or both might be.

Then the focus shifts to Amy Vanneck, whose name we definitely DO know, as she escapes from the smothering confines of her status conscious, social climbing, upper middle class family to sneak away to France with a friend. The war may be over for many, but not for Amy or the tens of thousands of others whose loved ones were listed as “missing, presumed dead.”

So Amy heads for France, to the former battlefields of the Great War, now turned into vast, disturbed – and disturbing – fields of unmarked graves, filled with bodies that may never be identified. She’s certain that her fiancée is one of those bodies, and that the responsibility for his fate can be laid at her door – whether she knew it or not.

She’s also promised him she’d find him after the war, and bring him home. Even if all she has to bring back is a corpse. But the more she digs into his fate, the less certain she is – not just about what happened to him, but about who the man she loved really was.

Or who he became in that hellscape of war.

Her search takes her from one mass grave to another, from one putrid processing station for the dead to the few and frequently shell-shocked men who served with Lieutenant Edward Haslam, teacher, choirmaster, officer, and as she discovers along her hellish journey, assassin.

There are two things she does not find. She does not find his body. And she does not find the truth – a truth which seems to be drifting further out of reach the longer and further she searches.

Along with evidence that someone is dogging her trail, determined to stop her from finding anything or anyone at all.

Escape Rating B+: I picked this up expecting it to remind me of Charles Todd’s historical mysteries. With its focus on Amy Vanneck as the protagonist, I thought I’d be catching glimpses of nurse Bess Crawford, but as the story progressed I got just as many hints of Todd’s other investigator, Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard.

Little did I know that I had just swallowed a red herring.

More than either of those series, the book that Two Storm Wood resembled the most strongly was The Poppy Wife by Caroline Scott, which also focuses on the search for closure after World War I for so many whose loved ones were declared missing during the war. In some ways, Two Storm Wood is even more haunting that The Poppy Wife, as Amy’s search takes place much closer to the Armistice, when the situation was in even more flux as the ground was still literally settling over the shallowly buried dead.

Amy goes to France expecting to find closure. She honestly hopes to find and identify her fiancée’s corpse. Instead, she finds a place where no one expects her – or any other “gently bred” woman to be as she travels alone through a world that belongs more to the dead than to the living. She’s in way over her head with no idea how impossible the task she has set herself truly is.

But she is also free, free from social expectations, free from her mother’s social climbing snobbery, and free to learn just how strong a person she can be when she has no one to rely on but herself. She doesn’t thrive, because no one in these circumstances is even in the same country as “thriving”, but she does persevere.

Even as two men who both claim to be working for the Graves Commission try to dissuade her or redirect her from her self-appointed course. Yet both their involvement and Amy’s own investigations lead her inexorably to Two Storm Wood, and to a crime so heinous that the Army has already begun covering it up.

Whatever and however many other books Two Storm Wood reminded me of, at its center it felt like three stories. One is the story of Amy’s journey through the haunted battlefields, mass graveyards and half-ruined towns and villages that haven’t even begun to recover from the war. It’s not just that war is hell, but that its aftermath is every bit as hellish as the actual fighting – if not worse because it’s supposed to be over but it really isn’t.

The second story was Amy’s search for who Edward Haslam really was, and who he became in that no man’s land of trenches and raids and death on every side. We see the beginning of their relationship through Amy’s memories, and their wartime separation through the letters that Edward sent. The most chilling bit of this part of the story is the way that the more she learns, the less she feels she knows – as though everything she thought was true is slipping away from her.

The third part of the story was the mystery of what really happened at Two Storm Wood. In the end, the actions themselves become clear, but the motives behind them didn’t feel like they were as interwoven with the rest of the story as they should have been for a reveal that turned out to be so fundamental. That bit felt kind of tacked on to a story that had been both chilling and affecting as it followed Amy’s journey. They did tie together at the end, but that tie didn’t feel as tight as it should have been.

But Amy’s journey is a compelling and heartrending read about the way that the horrors of war are inflicted not just on those who fight but on those who are left behind. And that the scars war leaves behind are just as deep on all sides.

One final note, the Graves Commission whose work Amy follows in this story is not yet done. It’s successor organization, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, is still finding and identifying the dead of the First World War at the rate of one per week more than a century after the Armistice.

Review: Reality and Other Stories by John Lanchester

Review: Reality and Other Stories by John LanchesterReality and Other Stories by John Lanchester
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Genres: horror, short stories
Pages: 192
on March 9, 2021
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Ghost stories for the digital age by the Booker Prize–longlisted author of The Wall.
In 2017, inspired in part by Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, the acclaimed English novelist John Lanchester published a ghost story in The New Yorker. "Signal," an eerie story of contemporary life and the perils of technology, was a sensation among readers—and since then Lanchester has written several more.
Reality and Other Stories gathers the best of these, taking readers to an uncanny world familiar to fans of The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror. Household gizmos with a mind of their own. Mysterious cell-phone calls from unknown numbers. Reality TV shows and the creeping suspicion that none of this is real…
Reality and Other Stories is a book of disquiet that captures the severe disconnection and distraction of our time.

My Review:

If you like the kind of horror that is featured in The Twilight Zone, those stories where it doesn’t exactly feel like horror until that sudden twist at the end – “It’s…it’s a cookbook!”

So rather than being in your face – or in your roiling stomach – this is a collection where the stories kind of sidle up to their horror aspects, give it a nod, nod, wink, wink, and then wham just before you turn the page to the next story.

And a couple lay an egg. But then that’s true for any collection where even when the concept as a whole has a lot of appeal to a lot of readers, one or two stories don’t work for everyone. And usually not the same one or two stories either.

The first story, “Signal”, was one of my favorites in the set. It’s kind of a haunted house story, and it manages to be both creepy and sad at the same time. The ending was kind of Sixth Sense in more ways than one, and also, I just love stories where it seems like it’s going one way but then the sadness just slaps you at the end, as it does here.

“Charity”, the last story in the collection, was the one that contained the most outright horror aspects, and also felt like it threw itself back to some of the classics like Lovecraft. At the same time, it’s a bit more like revenge on Lovecraft rather than homage, as the cursed object that forms the center of the story is an instrument of revenge by people who Lovecraft would never have given the time of day. “Charity” is also a story whose plot is fairly easy to predict from the opening but still manages to chill the reader at the end.

The story that is sticking with me is “We Happy Few” because it honestly scared me twice, once in its implications and then again in its result. Howsomever, from other reviews of this book it seems that this story did not resonate with a lot of readers, and I kind of understand why. The characters in the story are extremely unlikeable. At the surface level, this is about a bunch of junior academics sitting in a coffee shop complaining about absolutely everyone around them. Their observations are, for the most part, no deeper than a teaspoon. And yet, when one of them posits that the reason that the world seems to be getting crazier – and it really is if you consider things like Trump, Brexit and the COVID mask deniers and the anti-vaxxers – is that social media is designed as a system to appeal to the worst part of human nature and to ultimately make people less clear thinking and less intelligent. Which is a very scary thought in real life. In the story, the implications were instantaneous. And kind of awful.

While on the one hand it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving bunch of people, on the other, it’s more than a bit chilling.

Escape Rating C: Out of a collection of eight stories, the three listed above were the ones that I either enjoyed or that stuck with me or a bit of both. Of the other five, I thought that “Coffin Liquor”, “The Kit” and the title story “Reality” were okay but not more than that. Also “Reality” absolutely confirmed my conviction that reality TV shows are one of the circles of Hell.

I think that a lot of people are going to find “Cold Call” really chilling, but I got annoyed with it, or with the actions of the characters in it, at the very beginning and just couldn’t stick with it. “Which of These Would You Like?” didn’t have enough setup or enough detail to work for me. It’s weird rather than horrifying and there just wasn’t enough there, there.

Everyone’s reading mileage is going to vary on this one, so if you like Twilight Zone-esq horror, give this a try.

Last but not least, the UK cover at left has a completely different vibe from the US cover. The US cover feels like it touches more on the SFnal aspects of the stories, while the UK cover has more of a horror feel to it. And your mileage may vary about that as well.

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil GaimanNorse Mythology by Neil Gaiman
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 293
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on February 7th 2017
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Introducing an instant classic—master storyteller Neil Gaiman presents a dazzling version of the great Norse myths.
Neil Gaiman has long been inspired by ancient mythology in creating the fantastical realms of his fiction. Now he turns his attention back to the source, presenting a bravura rendition of the great northern tales.
In Norse Mythology, Gaiman stays true to the myths in envisioning the major Norse pantheon: Odin, the highest of the high, wise, daring, and cunning; Thor, Odin’s son, incredibly strong yet not the wisest of gods; and Loki, son of a giant, blood brother to Odin and a trickster and unsurpassable manipulator.
Gaiman fashions these primeval stories into a novelistic arc that begins with the genesis of the legendary nine worlds and delves into the exploits of deities, dwarfs, and giants. Once, when Thor’s hammer is stolen, Thor must disguise himself as a woman, difficult with his beard and huge appetite, to steal it back. More poignant is the tale in which the blood of Kvasir, the most sagacious of gods, is turned into a mead that infuses drinkers with poetry. The work culminates in Ragnarok, the twilight of the gods and rebirth of a new time and people.
Through Gaiman’s deft and witty prose emerge these gods with their fiercely competitive natures, their susceptibility to being duped and to duping others, and their tendency to let passion ignite their actions, making these long-ago myths breathe pungent life again.

My Review:

Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths should be required reading for anyone whose primary visions of Odin, Thor and Loki, derived primarily from Marvel Comics and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just as the author’s once were.

Thor wasn’t half that bright, and Loki wasn’t nearly so handsome, although he was every bit as tricksy, and as compelling.

On the one hand, these stories of ancient gods from a world long gone seem like they might have little relevance for the 21st century. At the same time, there’s Marvel Comics, which mined these myths for pure gold. As has every fantasy writer of the 20th and 21st centuries, from J.R.R. Tolkien to Neil Gaiman himself.

These are the stories on which so much of modern literature (and TV and movies) are based, along with opera and many other forms of storytelling. These are the stories behind the stories.

Or at least what’s left of them. What we have, what the author has here to work with, are the written records of what was an oral tradition – stories told around the fire during the very long nights of almost endless winter, passed from skald to skald and mouth to ear, until they were finally compiled into the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda in the 13th century, long after the Viking Age whose tales they tell.

At least in this rendition, what we have is a loose connection of short stories, that the author has strung together, like pearls on a string, into an episodic narrative from the beginnings of Yggdrasil to the end at Ragnarok.

And while they no longer invoke the awe that they once did, the Norse gods are still fantastic.

Escape Rating B+: This collection, or retelling, or reintroduction to the Norse myths should become a classic, right alongside Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. It makes what often seemed like a conflicting collection of tales into a somewhat coherent whole, admittedly a whole like a slice of Swiss cheese, where some parts are missing, deliberately or otherwise.

But readers looking for Neil Gaiman’s particular voice in this collection will only find hints and snippets of it. These aren’t his stories, and that shows. But they are, undoubtedly, the inspiration for many of his best.

If you read American Gods and instantly recognized Mr. Wednesday, then you have already been exposed to these foundational tales, but this version is still definitely worth a read. If you didn’t see through Mr. Wednesday’s rather thin disguise, then you need to read this book before you dive into the upcoming series.

Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In 'American Gods' TV Series
Ian McShane Starring As Mr. Wednesday In ‘American Gods’ TV Series

Review: The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Review: The Throwback Special by Chris BachelderThe Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 213
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 14th 2016
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Finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction
A slyly profound and startlingly original novel about the psyche of the American male, The Throwback Special marks the return of one of the most acclaimed literary voices of his generation.
Here is the absorbing story of twenty-two men who gather every fall to painstakingly reenact what ESPN called “the most shocking play in NFL history” and the Washington Redskins dubbed the “Throwback Special”: the November 1985 play in which the Redskins’ Joe Theismann had his leg horribly broken by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants live on Monday Night Football.
With wit and great empathy, Chris Bachelder introduces us to Charles, a psychologist whose expertise is in high demand; George, a garrulous public librarian; Fat Michael, envied and despised by the others for being exquisitely fit; Jeff, a recently divorced man who has become a theorist of marriage; and many more. Over the course of a weekend, the men reveal their secret hopes, fears, and passions as they choose roles, spend a long night of the soul preparing for the play, and finally enact their bizarre ritual for what may be the last time. Along the way, mishaps, misunderstandings, and grievances pile up, and the comforting traditions holding the group together threaten to give way.
The Throwback Special is a moving and comic tale filled with pitch-perfect observations about manhood, marriage, middle age, and the rituals we all enact as part of being alive.

My Review:

To paraphrase Thoreau, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.”

This is the story of a group of 22 middle-aged men who get together, once a year, to re-enact a single, disastrous football play, and let that song out, just for a brief moment of their lives.

The idea behind this story almost seems a bit absurd. This group of men has created a fairly elaborate ritual where they spend a weekend together in a very middling hotel and replay one memorable football scrimmage from 1985. The night that quarterback Joe Theismann of the Washington Redskins suffered a career-ending compound fracture while being sacked by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. In the replays, you can hear the bones snap, and it’s still enough to make you sick to your stomach.

And this bunch of guys replays that tape over and over, so that they can get their parts just right for their actual replay on the field.

It’s a gathering of men who otherwise would have nothing in common. We don’t know how they originally came together, or why. All we know is that this is their one moment, every year, to be someone else, and to experience a little piece of the world through someone else’s eyes playing someone else’s part.

And through the rituals of the weekend, they reconnect with each other, and with themselves.

Escape Rating B: I found this book quietly interesting, but I’m not the intended audience. Although the friend who recommended it certainly is. I do remember that play, it was during a period of my life when I used to regularly watch football. I don’t anymore, and for the reasons why, take a look at my review of Monsters. I just can’t get past the cost.

The Throwback Special is, as I said, a very quiet story. We don’t know how these men originally got together. We also don’t see any more of their regular lives than they choose to reveal to each other over the course of the weekend.

What we do see, and what is fascinating, is the way that they each interpret and reinterpret every single event and every word that is said to them, or that they say to one another. Every moment is evaluated and reevaluated for threats, implications, and inevitably misunderstandings. Every man seems to be worried every second about how they perceive and are perceived by the others. Every interaction is analyzed for its possibilities of one-upsmanship and being set one-down in response. No matter how successful and in control any of them appear to be, the reality is that they are all insecure and uncertain every minute.

And they hide all their humanity behind a borrowed uniform and a worn helmet, while letting just a tiny bit out.

As a woman, I don’t know whether this portrayal of the men’s thoughts and fears is real or imaginary. But if there is a partial reality hidden there, it makes me sad. And it does what literary fiction is supposed to do. It makes me think.

Review: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach

Review: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary RoachGrunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 276
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on June 7th 2016
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Best-selling author Mary Roach explores the science of keeping human beings intact, awake, sane, uninfected, and uninfested in the bizarre and extreme circumstances of war.
Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier's most challenging adversaries—panic, exhaustion, heat, noise—and introduces us to the scientists who seek to conquer them. Mary Roach dodges hostile fire with the U.S. Marine Corps Paintball Team as part of a study on hearing loss and survivability in combat. She visits the fashion design studio of U.S. Army Natick Labs and learns why a zipper is a problem for a sniper. She visits a repurposed movie studio where amputee actors help prepare Marine Corps medics for the shock and gore of combat wounds. At Camp Lemmonier, Djibouti, in east Africa, we learn how diarrhea can be a threat to national security. Roach samples caffeinated meat, sniffs an archival sample of a World War II stink bomb, and stays up all night with the crew tending the missiles on the nuclear submarine USS Tennessee. She answers questions not found in any other book on the military: Why is DARPA interested in ducks? How is a wedding gown like a bomb suit? Why are shrimp more dangerous to sailors than sharks? Take a tour of duty with Roach, and you’ll never see our nation’s defenders in the same way again.

My Review:

This review will be posted on Veterans Day 2016. Some years I write something about the holiday and the history behind it. My post for 2012, titled Remembrance Day, – Veterans Day, is still one of the most read items that I have ever posted.

This year I’ve chosen to review a book about the unsung heroes, scientists and researchers, who do the unglamorous and often stinky work that helps more soldiers come back as live veterans instead of dead heroes. It is research that delves into some of the odder corners of science and technology, and comes with not just a necessary dose of gallows humor, but often with a bit of slapstick as well.

Mary Roach’s latest work of nonfiction, Grunt, is all about the crazy ideas that help soldiers survive, whether on the battlefields or off. The problems and conditions that the author investigated are usually not remotely glamorous. They often delve much too deeply into realms that most of us would rather not think or talk about.

Reading the chapter about research into the causes and prevention of diarrhea over dinner was probably a mistake on my part. But she does manage to make the most mundane, and occasionally odoriferous, topics utterly fascinating.

So many of the issues explored in this book, from sleep deprivation among submariners to the potential for loss of life on SEAL teams because one member has dysentery at an inopportune moment all do impact on not just combat readiness but also on combat survivability.

Pilots in World War II were afraid of being shot down into shark-infested waters. Really. There was a lot of research into developing shark repellent – all of which failed fairly miserably. And turned out to be unnecessary. Sharks seem to be interested in prey that won’t fight back. They went after lots of dead pilots and dead or dying shipwreck victims, but healthy pilots swam for hours in shark infested waters with very few casualties. Sharks are capricious – there were a few.

The research on terrible smells was much funnier, but still had a deadly purpose. Trying to determine both which smells would completely distract enemy combatants and developing ways to deliver the stench without getting it on the messenger was hilarious. And often wrong headed in multiple ways. And yet, if an enemy could be so overcome by “Stench Soup” or the hilariously named “U.S. Government Standard Bathroom Malodor” that they can’t manage to draw their weapons, they could be disarmed and captured with much lower loss of life – at least as long as the “good guys” were wearing gas masks.

The scenarios that the author investigated ranged from the nearly sublime, uniform materials that can survive fire but not cook their wearer in the desert – to those ridiculous possibilities of stench warfare. But there is plenty of seriousness here as well, for example as she delves into the problem of making a vehicle that will keep its passengers alive if it drives over an IED. The chapters on genital transplants are medically interesting, psychologically fascinating, heartbreaking and slightly crazy making all at the same time.

But every investigation covered in this book, from the stink to the sharks to the maggots, all serve one goal. Bringing more soldiers back alive, and finding ways for them to return to civilian life with the best quality of life possible.

Reality Reading A-: This is a great read. The chapters are all compelling reading, and generally short and sweet (or stinky). There’s just enough detail not just to whet the reader’s appetite (or occasionally kill it) but also to show why the seemingly mundane is so important and worthy of government funding.

All in all, a fascinating read for the day.

Review: Then Comes Marriage by Roberta Kaplan

Review: Then Comes Marriage by Roberta KaplanThen Comes Marriage: United States v. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA by Roberta Kaplan, Lisa Dickey, Edie Windsor
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 336
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on October 5th 2015
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Roberta Kaplan’s gripping story of her defeat of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) before the Supreme Court.
Renowned litigator Roberta Kaplan knew from the beginning that it was the perfect case to bring down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer had been together as a couple, in sickness and in health, for more than forty years—enduring society’s homophobia as well as Spyer’s near total paralysis from multiple sclerosis. Although the couple was finally able to marry, when Spyer died the federal government refused to recognize their marriage, forcing Windsor to pay a huge estate tax bill.
In this gripping, definitive account of one of our nation’s most significant civil rights victories, Kaplan describes meeting Windsor and their journey together to defeat DOMA. She shares the behind-the-scenes highs and lows, the excitement and the worries, and provides intriguing insights into her historic argument before the Supreme Court. A critical and previously untold part of the narrative is Kaplan’s own personal story, including her struggle for self-acceptance in order to create a loving family of her own.
Then Comes Marriage tells this quintessentially American story with honesty, humor, and heart. It is the momentous yet intimate account of a thrilling victory for equality under the law for all Americans, gay or straight.

My Review:

This book, like yesterday’s review book, Grant Park, is about a day when the universe changed.

That book centered around the election of Barack Obama. This one concerns events that took place after Obama was elected, events that probably would have taken a lot longer under a different administration.

On March 27, 2013, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments concerning the case of United States V. Windsor, the case that struck down DOMA, the Federal Defense of Marriage Act, as unconstitutional. Windsor became the precedent that enabled courts across the U.S. to strike down state statutes that attempted to restrict marriage. This past summer, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, marriage equality became the law of the land.

forcing the spring by jo beckerThen Comes Marriage is the third book that I have read about this case and its aftermath. Last year’s Forcing the Spring (reviewed here) is an account of the other marriage equality case that came before the Supreme Court in 2013, the case against California’s Prop 8. In some ways, Then Comes Marriage feels like the other side of that story, as the reporter who wrote Forcing the Spring was embedded in the other legal team. And though she interviewed the principals in Windsor after the fact, her coverage of the Windsor case is naturally not as complete as it is for the case that she was personally involved with.

Speak Now by Kenji Yoshino (reviewed earlier this year) also covers the Prop. 8 case, but from the perspective of a married gay lawyer who was not professionally involved in the case but would be impacted by the result.

I found it interesting that both the Yoshino book and this one take their titles from ages old references to marriage and being married. The other title is a play on the part of the marriage ceremony where the officiant addresses the audience regarding whether anyone can show just cause to stop the impending marriage with the phrase “speak now or forever hold your peace”.

Then Comes Marriage is part of a childhood taunting rhyme, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes someone with a baby carriage.” Because after the recent rulings that someone could be a man and woman, two women, or two men. Love is love and marriage is finally marriage.

But this book, as written by the lawyer who argued the Windsor case, starts at the very beginning. And in this beginning are Edie Windsor and Thea Spyer, two women who pledged their love to each other in 1967, at a time before the Stonewall Riots when they secretly hoped but never expected that the marriage that Thea proposed to Edie could ever be celebrated in the U.S. Although they were not able to marry in the U.S., Edie and a terminally ill Thea flew to Toronto in 2007 to get married.

The U.S. recognizes marriages conducted in Canada, but DOMA prevented the U.S. from recognizing Edie’s marriage to Thea. So when Thea died in 2009, the Federal government and New York State presented her with a whopping $600,000 bill for inheritance taxes. Taxes that Edie would not have had to pay if Thea had been Theo or Edie had been Eddie. But not, at that time, both.

Edie chose to fight. This was her case. But she won for everyone.

Reality Rating A-: It’s pretty clear to anyone who has read my reviews of Speak Now and Forcing the Spring that I am for marriage equality. So I was predisposed to like this book from the outset.

As a narrative of the case, it reads differently from Forcing the Spring. That was a legal thriller to rival anything by Grisham. It’s also different because the stars in the Prop 8 case were the two lawyers who argued the case.

In Then Comes Marriage, Edie Windsor is the center of the story. Unlike a lot of civil rights legislation, no one went shopping for a perfect set of plaintiffs to represent the spectrum of the case. Edie had a very specific grievance, and she wanted things to be set right. While the money was important, the real issue was that the government said her marriage did not exist, that her 40+ years of living with, loving, and supporting Thea did not count, that they were legally strangers to each other.

When the story of Edie’s life with Thea is portrayed, it is crystal clear to the reader just how wrong that was. Also the legal case was very clear and relatively simple. The marriage was legally conducted in Canada. The U.S. recognizes Canadian marriages as valid. What was the rational basis for treating Edie and Thea’s marriage differently? And the court came to the conclusion that there wasn’t one.

While the story of Edie’s life felt relevant, the book begins with a section on the lawyer’s life, and how and why she ended up arguing this case. While it seemed fitting that the author’s motives, thoughts and feelings were interjected into the story of the progress of the case at frequent intervals, I wasn’t sure that she was the place to start. The back-to-back biographical sections made the beginning of the book drag just a bit.

But once the case starts proceeding through the courts, the narrative tension mounts at a gripping pace. Even though we know how the story ends, the process of getting there still had me opening the book in unlikely places, just to see how things were going. I felt like the protagonists did while waiting to read the rulings, peeking at any interval just to get in a few more words.

The author’s description of the aftermath of the case reads like a victory lap. And so it should. Edie Windsor, and the author, made the universe change.

Review: Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier

Review: Data and Goliath by Bruce SchneierData and Goliath: The Hidden Battles to Collect Your Data and Control Your World by Bruce Schneier
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 400
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 2nd 2015
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Your cell phone provider tracks your location and knows who’s with you. Your online and in-store purchasing patterns are recorded, and reveal if you're unemployed, sick, or pregnant. Your e-mails and texts expose your intimate and casual friends. Google knows what you’re thinking because it saves your private searches. Facebook can determine your sexual orientation without you ever mentioning it.
The powers that surveil us do more than simply store this information. Corporations use surveillance to manipulate not only the news articles and advertisements we each see, but also the prices we’re offered. Governments use surveillance to discriminate, censor, chill free speech, and put people in danger worldwide. And both sides share this information with each other or, even worse, lose it to cybercriminals in huge data breaches.
Much of this is voluntary: we cooperate with corporate surveillance because it promises us convenience, and we submit to government surveillance because it promises us protection. The result is a mass surveillance society of our own making. But have we given up more than we’ve gained? In Data and Goliath, security expert Bruce Schneier offers another path, one that values both security and privacy. He shows us exactly what we can do to reform our government surveillance programs and shake up surveillance-based business models, while also providing tips for you to protect your privacy every day. You'll never look at your phone, your computer, your credit cards, or even your car in the same way again.

I should have saved this book for Halloween. It is possibly the scariest thing I have read in a long time, and all the more frightening because it is true.

Two things keep running through my head about what is outlined in this book. One is a play on this quote from George Orwell’s 1984. It’s not that “Big Brother is watching you”, but that “Big Brother and all of his pesky little brothers are watching US”. All of us. Every single one of us. All the time.

And that the late Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo from the late 1940s until the early 1970s said it best, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

Data and Goliath gives readers a clear picture of just who Big Brother and all his little brothers are, and a good idea of what they are collecting when they watch. We also get to learn all the pesky justifications for why they watch and collect. Also what they do with what they collect, and how secretive and obfuscatory they are about their true purposes and their abuses of our privacy and any attempts at oversight.

Just as fascinating are all the things that are being done in the name of security that actually make us less secure in addition to making us less free. Some of that is truly scary.

The author doesn’t leave us without hope. This book is definitely a call for action, so there are plenty of ideas that can be implemented to address this streaming away of our privacy that claims to, but doesn’t actually make us more secure. The irony is that our increasing lack of privacy makes it easier, in fact downright simple, for those who wish to maintain the status quo to know in advance that we are moving against them, and for them to move against us, with all the power of the state at their backs, first.

Can we manage to get enough watch placed on the watchers in place before they make it impossible?

Reality Rating A-: The text is occasionally a bit dry, but the abuses of technology that it outlines are enough to keep the reader on the edge of their seat in spite of that. Because this is all true, and it’s enough to scare way more than your socks off.

One of the things the author makes abundantly clear is that we are all being watched, as in surveilled, all the time. Having a cell phone is enough to do that. Cell phones tell their carriers, and then anyone who has access to that data, where we are every minute of the day, within a couple dozen feet. From knowing where we are, it can then track who is around us, and from that, it can tell where we work, where we sleep, who we sleep with, where we eat, what we do for fun. Other tracking systems track what we buy and where we buy it, whether online or in real space. Anything we buy with a credit card is tracked. And even if we pay cash, cameras at the store we went to show what we bought and when we bought it.

The descriptions of just how easy it is to diagnose someone’s medical conditions by tracking their movements and their purchases shows just how easily one’s privacy, even about the most private things, can be breached.

And for those who say that there is so much information that no one could be looking for them in particular. Well, that may be true. But, if the government is looking for someone who is in your vicinity, your information will be scooped up and analyzed. And kept. If ten years from now what you bought or wrote today is deemed questionable, it is possible that something you forgot long ago could come back to haunt you.

For those who say that if someone has nothing to hide, they have nothing to fear, the arguments against that logic are pretty easily demolished. We are human, we all have things to hide – from the child who tells their parents they brushed their teeth when they didn’t to the worker who is searching for another job and doesn’t want their employer to know to the spouse who wants to hide a present or a special announcement until the right moment to the people organizing a surprise party. These are all things we want hidden, and none of the them are illegal or even guilty secrets (except maybe the non-toothbrushing child, but didn’t we ALL do that?)

As the author makes very clear, one of the big issues about this push-pull between surveillance and privacy is that we are often not aware how much of our privacy has been stripped away, or how much data is collected about us and how it can and will be used either against us or to sell us stuff that big computers are able to figure out that we might want based on all the tiny details they know about us.

Or to put it another way, we are not the customers of Google or Yahoo or any other search engine, we are the product. We get free search, and those companies collect data about us which they sell. We’re not the shepherd, we’re not even uninvolved bystanders watching as the sheep go by – we ARE the sheep. If you want to learn about all the ways that the sheep are being tagged, and who is looking at all the tagging and tracking data generated by the sheep, this book is a great place to being your search

There is always a question about “who watches the watchers”. In this book, the author provides the answer, and that answer is “no one”. And that makes me very afraid indeed..