Friday, June 30, 2006

Redding author cooks up hard-boiled murder mystery


It didn't start with murders.

San Francisco-based DelaTek, a software company that employed some 400 people, was poised to hit the big time with a new computer game, a breakthrough in the industry. In the words of DelaTek's chief executive officer, David LaCosta, "We're going after the girls."

The game is called "Whipsaw" and, according to LaCosta, "the main character ... is a young woman named Delilah. She's a spy, and the player can outfit her with different weapons and send her on more than 300 missions. But there's also a full wardrobe to choose from and the player can construct a social life for her. Send her out on dates. It's like James Bond meets Barbie."

The stakes were high for DelaTek. The game, soon to be released, had created considerable buzz. And then came the ransom demand. Turn over $3 million in cash or the source code would be uploaded to the Internet, putting the game in the public domain and DelaTek's stock in a downward spiral from which it might not recover.

Thus begins the newest thriller from Redding's Steve Brewer. "Whipsaw" ($24 in hardcover from Intrigue Press) makes ideal beach reading. The action never falters, the killings pile up and the hero is someone worth rooting for. He's 42-year-old Matt Donohue, ex-Marine, ex-DelaTek employee. He had been in charge of the company's security, but that was before LaCosta had stolen Matt's wife. The divorce was nasty, and Donohue had left the company with lots of stock options and a bad taste in his mouth.

But Matt is drawn back into DelaTek's orbit when a CD arrives at the company and Whipsaw's "Delilah" appears on the computer screen demanding that Matt deliver the ransom in person. Despite his distaste for LaCosta, Donohue is persuaded to make the drop (mostly out of his good guy nature and partly because he wants to protect his portfolio). But things go awry (who would have guessed?) and Matt takes a pounding from the mysterious thieves who get away with the money before DelaTek security can move in.

From there the story gets nicely complicated. Matt meets Kate Allison, head of the DelaTek's network security. "She was tall and slender. ... She looked to be in her 30s, and something about the way she moved made me think she was an athlete. A swimmer, maybe, or a basketball player. I glanced at her hand. No wedding ring."

Then there's Roger Tunney, head of physical security, and Matt's oldest friend, Duke, also ex-Marine, who works for Tunney. "Duke served in the first Gulf War while I was off protecting diplomats" at various embassies, Matt tells the reader. But then Donohue himself is kidnapped by Columbian guerillas. His escape is harrowing. Soon after, Matt musters out and joins DelaTek.

"Whipsaw" features rapid-fire dialogue, a plethora of naughty words, chases, shoot-outs and astute observations: "The two homicide detectives assigned to the death couldn't have looked more different. Frank Kelton was a study in straight lines, mostly vertical. A tall man with a face full of furrows and creases, he wore a narrow black suit that made me think of undertakers. His partner, Lawrence Chin, was roly-poly and friendly, all parabolas and parentheses and pleasant smiles, a happy Buddha in a blue Brooks Brothers suit." Hear the sounds? Straight and tall f's, roly-poly b's. I love it.

Plot twists? Put it this way: If you want sinister set-ups, Steve Brewer is the brew-meister.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

They're not just rocks, they're history -- A guide to the Sierra Nevada's geology


Three decades ago geologist Mary Hill wrote a handbook to the Sierra Nevada's geologic history and it became the standard guide. The aptly named author has now extensively revised her book. It's an armchair traveler's delight and remains an authoritative guide that will well serve a new generation of hikers, campers, and explorers.

"Geology of the Sierra Nevada: Revised Edition" ($19.95 in full-color paperback from University of California Press) contains almost 200 illustrations, including photographs of rock forms and maps showing where to find them. Hill thanks Bill Guyton, professor emeritus of geosciences at Chico State University, "for his careful reading" of the new manuscript and draws on the research he published in "Glaciers of California" (1998). Guyton distinguished between glaciers and smaller "glacierets" and counted 99 glaciers in the Sierra Nevada and 398 glacierets. Hill notes that "the Sierra Nevada has a lot of glaciers, all of them small. If you are looking for the giants of the Great Ice Age, you will have to be content with their spoor."

The book is divided into two sections. The first offers a "do-it-yourself rock identification key." A series of maps divides the Sierra Nevada into regions and shows where to find prominent rock formations in each area. The first map, mostly of eastern Butte County, locates "conglomerate" ("rock ... made up of grains 2 mm or more in diameter, together with coarser fragments") along Big Chico Creek. You can see shale in the Dry Creek area and lava flow and basalt on Table Mountain.

The second part is the narrative, which takes new research into account. In the last few years, she writes, "the Sierra has been put through the plate tectonics intellectual filter, which has told us how the mountains might have been created, and why they are where they are."

The book also expands its coverage of "human exploration of the Sierra Nevada, not just by geologists" but by others as well.

Here you'll find the story of "the first overland party of settlers to attempt to cross the Sierra. ... The group came to be known as the Bartleson-Bidwell party, as it included two men of leadership mold, John Bartleson and John Bidwell, destined to become eminent in what was to be the 31st U.S. state." Here also is the story of "Snowshoe" Thompson, a Norwegian who for two decades, "beginning in 1856, ... carried the mail across the Sierra Nevada from Placerville, California, to Genoa, Nevada (then called Mormon Station), using long skis (then called 'snowshoes') of his own making."

But Hill's great love is the land itself, the "nervous" Sierra, and her account of the devastating Owens Valley earthquake in 1872 tells not only of human destruction but notes that "the Sierra Nevada itself was severely wracked." She quotes John Muir's eyewitness account: "Shortly after sunrise a low, blunt, muffled rumbling, like a distant thunder, was followed by another series of shocks, which ... made the cliffs and domes tremble like jelly, and the big pines and oaks thrill and swish and wave their branches with startling effect."

At the end of the book, a "coda" reflects on geologic time and human time. "Time is all we have," she writes, "and it behooves us to spend it wisely. Some say that the time spent in the mountains is not subtracted from our allotted three-score-and-ten. So cherish the Sierra, and it will generously reward you."

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Redding author's first novel is a page-turning murder mystery with a nice twist of ESP


High schooler Murray Kiefer and Sierra County sheriff's deputy Roman Gates, based out of Riverton, near Whiskeytown Lake, are both trying to solve the same murder. The two are not working together -- they don't even know each other -- but they are working in concert.

On Oct. 17, Nikki Parker, a 16-year-old cheerleader at Canyon High in Riverton, Murray's school, disappeared from the parking lot after practice. Weeks later there are still no clues to her whereabouts. For Gates, a gambling addict now in recovery, the answer must be out there if only a sufficient number of leads can be followed up. For Murray, outsider and son of a prostitute mother, his best leads come from the town cemetery. He is convinced he hears voices from the dearly departed and he considers himself a "friend to the deceased." But then he hears sobbing, something in his mind that sounds like "please help me." And therein lies the tale.

"Dead Connection" ($16.95 in hardcover from Roaring Brook Press) is Charlie Price's first novel, but you wouldn't know it. The Redding-based author writes with consummate skill, creating and interweaving the lives of multiple characters who are far from cardboard cutouts. Price is an organizational consultant and "executive coach"; he writes me that he spent 35 years in education and mental health. His wife, Joan Pechanec, is a psychotherapist with practices in Redding and Mount Shasta.

Price and fellow Redding novelist Steve Brewer ("Bank Job," "Boost") will do a mutual book signing at the Chico Barnes and Noble at 2 p.m. Saturday. The public is invited.

The book earned starred reviews in both Publishers Weekly and Booklist and has been nominated, he writes, for Best Book Young Adults and Quick Picks for Reluctant Young Adult Readers. (A word of caution: There are adult themes and some foul language.)

Murray is the emotional center of the book. A fixture at Forest Grove cemetery ("Don't call it a graveyard!") he hears the voices of "Dearly" (that would be "Dearly Beloved, Born 1944, Died 1969" in a car wreck), "Blessed," "Edwin" and more. They are his friends. "I don't spend much time with the older people," Murray tells us. "I figure they deserved it. Not deserved it, really, but what could they expect? After 40, you're going to die. The ones my age and the children, they almost all need someone to talk to. I comfort them the best I can. They weren't ready. ... Everybody needs a friend."

Enter ninth-grader Pearl (daughter of the kind cemetery caretaker Janochek), who at first sees Murray as some kind of weirdo but later makes alliance with him. Then there's 22-year-old Robert Barry Compton who can just barely hold a job. "His ears were red and pockmarked from several piercings, but he had lost his studs when he was picked up for disturbing the peace in Chico." He is now on strong meds and has trouble remembering. Yet there was something he saw the night of Oct. 17, something terribly important.

Vern Billup is a drunk given to blackouts. Public affairs officer for local law enforcement, Billup has it out for Murray ever since the kid walked in on him and Murray's mother at her home, where she entertained her "dates."

Misfits all.

Plot surprises abound, "dead connection" takes on several meanings, and in the end hope visits the most unlikely of clients. I couldn't put it down.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A novel approach to science asks if a researcher was cooking the books


The new novel by Massachusetts-based author Allegra Goodman is nothing to sneeze at. It's a carefully crafted exploration of the social side of science with a central question at its core: Did researcher Cliff Bannaker alter his notes to make it seem that a virus variant he developed, R-7, dramatically shrank tumors in mice?

A former love interest, and lab-co-worker, Robin Decker, is fed up with Cliff receiving all the limelight. She begins to suspect something is amiss and makes her suspicions public. Cliff, furious, wants to deck her for robin him of his glory. Instead, with both parties lawyered up, and Cliff's notes at issue, there is no summary judgment for the reader but instead some intriguing questions about how science works and whether Robin's intuition is based on evidence or is just a matter of a pinion.

Though "Intuition" ($25 in hardcover from The Dial Press) eschews the silly wordplay that burdens this review (Allegra is great for all that eschewing, by the way), her serious novel does not take itself too seriously. Some of its material suggests the author having a great time at the top of her game. When two characters talk about the director of the Office for Research Integrity at NIH, Alan Hackett, he is called an "ambulance-chaser" and a "hack." Names are significant in Goodman's novels.

It is 1985. Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn are co-directors of a lab at the prestigious Philpott Institute near Harvard, and they are both desperate for a "win" in order to keep the grant money flowing. Sandy is a doctor with a consummate bedside manner, self-assured, "a force of nature." Marion is a careful and compassionate scientist, a detail person, suspicious of Cliff's too-good-to-be-true results. Yet now Marion "had been infected by Sandy's hype. ... She had not entirely forgotten the pursuit of truth, but she had begun, like Sandy, to think that she possessed it."

Sandy's youngest daughter is memorizing some of the work of John Donne, who wrote "about how complex and how vast man is. ... And how small and susceptible at the same time." "Susceptible to what?" her father asks. "To sin" is Kate's reply. Donne, of course, is famous for his own wordplay: "When thou hast Donne" (when God has Donne's heart) "thou has not Donne" (there are more sins yet to enumerate).

Goodman evokes life among the postdocs at the lab, toiling away, writing up results, running into dead ends. Until now. After the New York Times runs an article on R-7, People magazine shows up but focuses its attention on Cliff's fellow postdoc (and a partner in the research on R-7), Xiang Feng. Cliff becomes jealous of Feng's media attention. But then they publish an article in the scientific journal Nature and Cliff's reputation seems unassailable.

Then it all goes wrong. Robin files a formal complaint with the NIH. Other labs, ones at Cornell and elsewhere, are unable to duplicate Cliff's results. Maybe their version of R-7 has been contaminated. Maybe Robin is creating a flap to get back at Cliff. Maybe Cliff has cooked the books.

In the end the story is not so much about who did what (there is a satisfying ambiguity here) but what Cliff might be capable of doing. In science, as in any human endeavor, there is enough sin to go around. People who live in Glass houses shouldn't throw lab mice.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Former Chicoans bicycle all the way from Chico to South Carolina in 55 days


Michael F. Foley, who now lives in the Bay Area, joined a group of five other guys in the summer of 1992 as they embarked on a bicycle trip from Chico to South Carolina.

Part of Chico's cycling community, Foley would join other riders for the Fast Fifty, which begins "Wednesday evening at 'One Mile' in Bidwell Park. ... It was on these rides that I met Ken, Jeff, Jon and Gary." That would be Ken Husband, Jeff Cantarutti, Jon Wynacht and Gary Thompson. Add to the mix Dario Frederick, and you have "Team USA '92."

The cross-country trek, which began June 1 pretty much on a whim, is detailed in "Bicycling Beyond City Limits: A Journal of Endurance, Friendship and Discovery" ($17.95 in paperback from LUF Enterprises, available from ). There are more than two dozen black-and-white photographs, a map, and a list of Foley's gear.

Foley captures each stage in 55 short chapters. On just the second leg, from Quincy to Reno (85 miles), "I start to feel nauseous, bad enough to want to throw up, as we make our way into Border Town, 20 miles short of Reno. Gary stands up on his pedals, coasting, leaning back on one bar end. 'Hey, Mike, you okay?' I force a smile, telling myself to keep moving—push through it! My glycogen levels are way too low—a condition known as 'bonking' among endurance athletes."

Most all of the team members have their difficult days and on occasion humor wears thin. Money is thin, too, so the cyclists spend a lot of time sleeping in tents in fields, tennis courts, RV parks. Here and there some friendly folks take them in for the night, like Lou Jones in Arkansas, the "Dulcimer Lady." Later Foley remarks on "the kindness of the American people," but that is before the little band passes into Tennessee and Georgia.

"It almost feels like we've entered a foreign country," Foley writes. "From ... racial remarks (to) the little kid yesterday who waggled his middle finger at us. ..." And then there's the fried foods. "Fried chicken, fried chicken fingers, fried steak, hush puppies, french fries, and fried potatoes. Oh yeah, and white bread." One waitress responds to their complaints: "But it's fried in real grease!"

Georgia is not much better. "People in this part of the country, especially the young men in their pickups, carry firearms. We remind each other—more so, the guys remind me—to keep our mouths shut and our middle fingers on the handlebars."

Foley excels at describing the natural world. Earlier on the trip, during the hundred-mile stretch from Cimarron to Clayton, N.M, storm clouds chase the riders. "As we continue east on Highway 56 into the early evening, the sky beings to clear. Lavender, blues, reds and oranges mirror off the still water in a cattle trough below the barbed wire running alongside the road. In the field, the skeletal remains of a barn lean to one side. The walls have folded inward and the roof has caved in. Across the crest of the hill, cows follow each other's tails."

And then the trip is over. "A pervasive sense of fulfillment slides under my skin while a deep and complicated sadness sits stubbornly in my gut." But the friends, scattered now from Chico, still meet for the Wildflower Century and to reminisce about that summer of '92.

Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.