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Book Review - "Woman with a Secret" by Sophie Hannah

The following book review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper.  You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link on the right side bar.

9780062388261_p0_v2_s192x300Woman With A Secret, Sophie Hannah’s latest book, delves into the online world.  Parts of the story are told through email correspondence, gossip columnist’s entries, the main character’s narration, and a police investigation.  The deception, lies and secrets, are what makes up a great deal of this novel.

The best description of the story comes from country singer Brad Paisley’s lyrics to the song Online, “I'm a sci-fi fanatic.  Mild asthmatic.  Never been to 2nd base.  But there's a whole another me.  That you need to see.  Go check out Myspace… I'm so much cooler online.” The main character Nicki Clements through her on-line life portrays herself as someone different than she actually is.  She leads a double life, on the surface respectable, while on-line just the opposite with her unsavory Internet connections.

The plot has Nicki, a stay at home mom, repeatedly engaging in reckless behavior.  Although she lives a comfortable existence, she is not satisfied with it.  Nicki is driven to live on the edge, exchanging clandestine and lustful emails with men who share her fondness for the thrill of the forbidden.  One of those she corresponded with is the well-known journalist Damon Blundy, found murdered in a bizarre manner.  This is when Hannah’s main characters, detectives Simon Waterhouse, Charlotte (Charlie) Zailer, and the rest of the team enter the story.  Through their investigation they suspect Nicki of being the killer.  The rest of the story has the police trying to find evidence that will lead them to the murderer.

Nicki is nothing like the protagonist of Hannah’s last novel.  The author noted to blackfive.net, “Gabby, was an admirable character while Nicki is a flawed character who has desperate, ridiculous behavior with a life based on lies.  Her parents always made her feel bad, naughty, and excessively punitive. She is not strong willed like Gabby.  But I am hoping that a flawed character can be sympathetic.” 

Unfortunately, while readers rooted for Gabby they will have a hard time doing so with Nicki.  She is high-strung, self-centered, and seems incapable of telling the truth for twenty-four hours at a stretch. Her attitude can best be summed up from a quote in the book, “Being bad and getting away with it; there’s no feeling like it.”

Woman With A Secret has compelling themes of Internet bullying, hypocritical people, and a dysfunctional relationship. As with all her books, Hannah allows readers to get into the thoughts of the protagonist and the police, by having each alternately narrate the chapters. 

The author also gave a heads up about her next books.  In May a stand-alone will be released about a woman who moves her family from London to Devon.  She is faced with someone wanting to kill her family and persecuting them with menacing experiences. In the summer The Narrow Bed, a Simon and Charlie novel, will be released.  Its plot has a serial killer murdering best friends.  The protagonist is a comedian a la Joan Rivers who is prickly, contrary, and says deliberately annoying comments.  In both books the main character is a heroine that has a strong willed personality and will aggressively pursue justice.

Photo - Through the Wire

150909-N-HV319-007A U.S. soldier uses his body to create an opening in a wire obstacle so his team can assault a position during Exercise Grizzly Defender in Alberta, Aug. 21, 2015. Grizzly Defender is a joint training exercise with the Canadian Army Reserve that focuses on offensive tasks including patrols, convoys, raids, information operations, traffic control points and company-level group attacks. The soldiers are members of the Washington National Guard. Washington National Guard photo by Army Sgt. Matthew Sissel 

Book Review - "The Jazz Palace"

The following book review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper.  You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category in the right side bar.

9780385539739_p0_v1_s192x300The Jazz Palace by Mary Morris is part historical novel, part mystery, and is filled with cultural heritage.  She writes how poverty, race relations, romance, immigrants, migrants, and gangsters shaped the city of Chicago.  The mystery comes into play as readers wonder what will happen to those struggling “outsiders” as they face triumphs and tribulations. Although the primary story is fictional the many historical details and characters add to the plot’s authenticity.

The novel opens with the sinking of the SS Eastland in 1915 where hundreds drowned in a capsized Lake Michigan ferry. Through this tragedy the author introduces two of the main characters, Benny Lehrman and Pearl Chimbrova. As the story unfolds it becomes apparent there are three main protagonists with a major supporting character, the music of jazz, which is inseparable from the character’s lives. 

Benny is a Jewish teenager growing up on the North side of Chicago in the early twentieth century. His father wants him to participate in the family business of making hats, but Benny’s real passion is playing piano, especially jazz.  At night he sneaks down to the South Side, slipping into predominantly black clubs to hear jazz groups play, until one night when he plays an improvisational piece.  It is here that he is befriended by a black trumpeter, Napoleon, who resembles the famous Louis Armstrong. 

Morris commented to blackfive.net, “During that era in Chicago there were migration, immigration, Anti-Semitism, and racism.  Jews and blacks have felt a certain connection.  Louis Armstrong wore a Jewish star around his neck.  He talked about a Jewish family giving him the money to buy his first instrument.”

Napoleon Hill brings together Benny and Pearl. She runs a saloon, offering drinks and jazz to its customers. Recognizing the talents of Benny and Napoleon, she invites them to start playing at her family's saloon, which Napoleon dubs "The Jazz Palace." But, Napoleon must contend with mob bosses who see him as their property, including the real life gangster Al Capone, a lover of the music.  A powerful quote in the book emphasizes this point, “The Stroll (the center of urban black entertainment) is a big plantation.  The musicians had their jazz slave masters, just like in the old days.”

She noted, “Nothing was better for live music in Chicago than prohibition.  Al Capone said people want booze and music so that is what I am giving them.  Even though alcohol was illegal throughout the US, in Chicago it was a thriving business.  It was like a toxic soup that fed into the music.  People would go from club to club to drink, dance, and hang out.  But, the gangsters owned the musicians.  They were not free to go from place to place, and were at risk if they tried to play at a different club.  Blacks were exploited, but in subtle ways.  If they tried to leave they faced horrific cruelty.” 

Readers are spell bound as they wonder what will happen to the characters while they can picture the music playing in the background.  The action ratchets up like a jazz crescendo with the ending a triumphant climax. As Morris wrote about Benny, “He was inside a globe like a paperweight and around him the music swirled, shaking, and what had been outside was inside of him now.” (http://bit.ly/1ugLZd1)

The Jazz Palace brings to life the jazz era of the 1920s. Readers will feel they are actually in the saloons with Al Capone, Louis Armstrong, and those who ignored the prohibition laws.  They will be transported to another place and time with the well-developed characters, historical plot, and mysterious story.

American Exceptionalism -- Book Review

It is a pleasure to introduce you to Daniel Burton, who will be doing a series of guest posts reviewing fiction and non-fiction works.  He lives in Salt Lake County, Utah, where he practices law by day and everything else by night.  You can also find him on Twitter at @publiusdb.  


American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History by Charles Murray

American Exceptionalism: An Experiment in History weighs in at a little under fifty, four-by-six pages (not including notes and citations). It's pretty light weight, especially as it goes for books on politics or history. And yet, Charles Murray does not disappoint. He packs in a lot of interesting ideas in a short amount of time.

Murray opens by looking at misconceptions about what American exceptionalism means. Rather than using the definition of "exceptional" that means "wonderful," Murray notes that at the founding of the country, and indeed for most of the first century of US history, most of the world saw what was happening in America as exceptional. There are four arguments Murray makes to demonstrate exceptionalism:

Continue reading "American Exceptionalism -- Book Review" »

Book Review - "Dance of the Bones" by J.A. Jance

The following book review is  special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper.  You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.

9780062297686_p0_v5_s192x300Dance Of The Bones by J. A. Jance is an action packed mystery infused with the legends and culture of the Tohono O’odham Indian tribe. Before each chapter there is an Indian story/folklore based on this tribe’s traditions. Jance readers know that with any of her books they will be treated to a riveting mystery with twists and turns. 

This fifth book in the Walker Family novels, the latest series, brings back all the wonderful characters including retired Arizona sheriff Brandon Walker and his adopted daughter Lani.  Although billed as a joint J. P. Beaumont and Brandon Walker novel, Beaumont only makes what can best be described as a cameo appearance.  The one thing these two crime fighters have in common is that both are retired.  Their new duties include solving cold cases: Brandon with the organization The Last Chance while Beaumont is at loose ends when the Washington State Attorney General’s Special Homicide Investigation Team, has been dissolved.

Jance noted to blackfive.net, “I learned J. P. Beaumont does not play well with others.  He kept walking in and taking over the book.  He would not sit down and shut up.  He was supposed to have a much bigger role but I could not get him to blend in.  Sometimes characters just do not cooperate.  People assume authors are in charge of characters but it ain’t necessarily so.  The reason we did this is my editor thought J. P. readers could be brought into the Walker books. This is a way of cross-pollinating the audience. Finally I took his part of the story and turned it into a separate novella called Stand Down. After that I was able to get him under control.” 

The antagonist is the evil character Ava Martin.  She frames an innocent man that was arrested by Walker.  Years later he and his daughter ask the retired Sheriff and The Last Chance organization to find the real killer and clear his name.  It is in the style of a Colombo episode since the reader sees the case unfold, and how the initial crime shapes the present.  As Ava tries to suppress evidence she eliminates witnesses by kidnapping and then killing them.  Walker must find out who is behind all these missing people and murders.

A fascinating character is Dr. Lani Walker.  She is an example of how these Desert People are able to straddle the worlds of traditional Indian customs and modern day America.  She is both a medicine woman and a medical emergency room doctor, a trained physician.  Jance makes people aware of how the Tohono O’odham Indian tribe continues to carve a path between ancient and modern worlds, and she does it with dignity and respect.

Because today’s world must be politically correct, Jance wants to reassure readers she has the utmost admiration for this Indian tribe.  She commented, “The time I spent living on the reservation in the 1970s has so much impact on my life, as the librarian I wanted to write about it.  I was taken to heart by these people. Part of what I want to express in these books is their resilience and how they live in both worlds, in a world that incorporates the old belief system while accepting new belief systems.  I was a guest of honor at the tribal museum where I got a standing ovation. I think it has to do with their understanding that their real stories and legends are in my books.  Now other people know of their rich traditions.”

This latest Walker Family series has very well developed and interesting characters.  Jance has created a very intelligent, entertaining, and suspenseful novel, one that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat as they feel they are part of the plot.

The author also gave a heads up about her next projects.  Published toward the end of the year is a crossover novella, No Honor Among Thieves, which has Ali Reynolds working with Joanna Brady.  Then her new novel, Clawback, featuring Reynolds will be published with the plot based around a Ponzi scheme.

Gag Orders & More

In the comments below that I've not had time to address (yet, working on it), someone noted that we used to be the site where people could find out what the troops were thinking.  That is something Blackfive was (rightly) known for, and in my opinion a lot of good came out of it.  

That was a decade ago, and the times were very, very different.  Social media was new, and traditional communications was changing.  It still is, but...  One of the things that happened was that younger troops had embraced new means to keep in touch with family and friends, and as a result things that would not otherwise be known to the larger world could be, and were, shared.  One aspect was that needs of individual troops and units could be shared with a larger audience, and that resulted in an unprecedented outpouring of support, and "good" supplies/care packages/etc. reached those in need.  Indeed, a number of charities we highlighted and supported stood up to make sure that troops got letters, packages, and more.  

It also highlighted problems in the supply chain, doctrine, and more -- and again charities and individuals stood up in a huge way.  Everything from tools to kevlar blankets reached those in need.  Where there were problems and issues, higher was made aware of them quickly and could deal with those as needed.  Smart commanders (at the time Petraeus, Odierno, and others) embraced it as they could not only deal with issues quickly and smartly, but they could, would, and did seize opportunities.  They encouraged the wise use of new and social media to add flexibility to the system, and got some amazing results.  

This was also the time that the administration and higher command reached out to Blackfive and others to formulate a very friendly policy that worked to prevent issues (and there were indeed a few issues with OPSEC and such) while making the most of the opportunity.  

That has changed.  The politics in the five-sided-puzzle-palace have always had a tendency towards what I will refer to as rear-echelon, and towards suppressing anything that has to do with problems of things potentially embarrassing to higher.  Better to hide it than to deal with it is something of a tradition in my opinion.  That early policy did not sit well with certain quarters, as it did highlight problems, issues, and flat-out failures in the tail that hurt the tooth.  Unsurprisingly to any student of history, the tide changed.  One need look no further than the previous SMA who was obsessed with tattoos, painting rocks, and awarding ARCOMs for trolling SHARP violations instead of focusing on training that could keep soldiers alive in combat as a perfect example of that symptom. I will note that I'm liking the current SMA a lot more.  

Right now is not a good time for troops at ANY level to be speaking out.  The social media policy has changed, and higher is coming down hard on things that used to be encouraged.  

Case in point:  SFC Charles Martland.  His case is more than disturbing (disgusting is one word I can use here given Blackfive's family friendly policy).  Even more disturbing, higher has put in place a 'gag order' and is prepared to hammer flat anyone who comes to his defense.  There is some reason to believe such has already happened, and the word is out that speaking out would be a very bad thing for those who do so.  

Whatever the official policy, the unofficial policy is that troops speaking out is a great way to end a career.  Given the draconian cuts in play (and more on that horrendous, idiotic, and flat-out foolish thing in other posts), it is not a good time for the troops and not a good time for honest and full discussions (IMO).  I know I am going to be very careful about sharing some things, so as to make sure that those sharing can't be identified.  

Personally, I think it is time for the tide to change again.  How to make that happen depends on a lot on things outside the puzzle palace, and not just within.  My hope is that we can share information to encourage that, and be a part of a good solution once again.  

Photo - Well Deck Exit


An amphibious assault vehicle prepares to exit the well deck during a ship-to-shore exercise aboard amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset in the Pacific Ocean, Sept. 3, 2015. The ship is participating in Dawn Blitz 2015, a training exercise to build U.S., Japanese, Mexican and New Zealand amphibious and command and control capabilities. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Vladimir Ramos


Men of Harlech stop your dreaming, Can’t you se their spearpoints gleaming? 

I remember this day. 

 It started like any other day, as I got in early to work at NASA.  Part of my morning duties included checking various newsfeeds and related things, and when the first report of a plane hitting the World Trade Center, I remember wondering if it was a small plane and how such could have happened.  Then came other reports, including an early one of an explosion at the Pentagon, and it was then I knew nothing was an accident, and I made the calls duty required.  

I remember the shock that went through our office, and the building, and my efforts to get any information possible.  I remember the much needed laugh when I confirmed that the President was airborne, and Air Force One was in National Emergency Airborne Command Post mode (that’s not just limited to the E-4s).  My public shorthand called out to my manager that the President was KNEECAPed caused someone who shall remain nameless to think that an attacker had hit the President in the kneecap with a baseball bat… 

I remember watching the news on televisions in various conference rooms, and the horror that ran through all when it was realized that it was not debris falling from the upper floors.  Of learning more about the Pentagon, of tales of planes down elsewhere, and the command to land all planes now.  Of wondering and worrying about people I knew at both locations. 

I remember being ordered to evacuate, and driving home still in shock, angry, sad, and more.  We knew we had been hurt, and that far too many were dead; but, we still didn’t know the true toll.  Our thoughts had turned towards survivors, and I knew that around the country Nightingales were prepping to fly to New York to take survivors to selected burn and trauma centers around the country.  Would to God they had been needed.  

I remember the dust still caking the streets and buildings of lower Manhattan, and the smell of baked lime (chemical, not the fruit) and burnt sweet pork.  Of being embarrassed by having an NYPD lieutenant drive me around to a day full of meetings.  Of learning how he had barely survived both collapses, as he ran towards the trouble to help.  Of being taken to Ground Zero, and watching the boots slowly melt off the workers as they searched their search.  Of a young NYPD officer who made sure I saw the Statue of Liberty “while it’s still here” even as we checked out a report of a possible body in the river.  

Today, I remember all that and more.  Today, I remember Rick Rescorla, who’s preparations, quick thinking, and defiance of official orders allowed him to save 2,700 lives.  I remember that he, along with members of the NYFD, died going back in and up, to try to save more.  

Today, I remember the dead.  Please remember and honor the 2,977 killed (no, not including the terrorists in that number, fuck them), and the more than 6,000 injured.  

As for me:  

I have not forgotten

I will not forget

I do not forgive

The war began before 9-11.  It is not over.  It has just barely begun.  

Shaded Intelligence? Shocked, Shocked I Am

News feeds are blowing up with the story about intelligence reports about Daesh (ISIL) being altered by senior leaders before presentation.  I'm shocked, shocked, to find gambling in this establishment.  

For me, the real news is about how many analysts are willing to go on record in this case.  To have fifty (or more) willing to do so on the record is truly unprecedented.  There have been a number of quiet insurrections at various agencies and organizations in the past, but never anything in public like this.  The closest I can remember involved Soviet analysis in the Carter years, and even then most of it was not done in the public, even when reporters came calling.  The most that went public were a small series of leaks and off-the-record interviews.  I will simply note that Reagan was not satisfied with what he was being presented, and took some unofficial steps to get other assessments to use for comparison and evaluation.  Then again, Boss was smart enough to have a "kitchen cabinet" on a variety of topics where he needed expert advice.  

As I've written here (and elsewhere) before, the fact is, there has and is always a tendency to "shape" intelligence and analysis.  Some of this is inherent in the system, and reflects an unconscious effort that is a result of the beliefs of those involved.  There can even be an unconscious tendency to shape things towards the belief of those higher in the chain, and the known biases of the ultimate recipients. 

Where problems arise is when there is a conscious effort to alter or distort the actual intelligence and recommendations of the analysts (who are or should be experts in the area).  At the best, such is because "the boss won't like this" and things are changed so as to present something that won't be rejected out of hand.  At worst, it is a pandering to the beliefs and goals of the prime recipient so as to curry favor, power, and other delights.  If you look at the worst failures of military and diplomatic efforts throughout history, they almost all come back to failures of intelligence and the lack of presentation of accurate intel and analysis to the leaders involved.  

The administrations response to Daesh/ISIL is a best inconsistent, and I personally feel that incoherent may be a better descriptor.  Daesh has gone from being a fringe group to a major power (and I use that term advisedly) largely as a result of a variety of policy blunders going back to our premature departure from Iraq and the response to Libya.  

It is damning that fifty (or more) analysts are going on record.  A small group might have political reasons of their own to cause a problem (and that has happened before).  For such a large group to be willing to go public raises serious questions of competence and intent on those higher in the chain.  At this point, whether any "shading" that may or may not have been done was done to make things more palatable for the President, or more, needs a full and thorough investigation.  My opinion of Congressional investigations is decidedly mixed, with partisan circus a top descriptor.  However, given what is coming out, I think Congressional and other investigations are clearly needed.  

While I've written on intel before, I think that a small series of posts may be needed on the topic, especially in terms of how those impact our intel and planning in regards this and other terrorist groups.  Meantime, sound off in the comments with your thoughts.