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Book Review: The Dysfunctional Conspiracy

Book Review: The Dysfunctional Conspiracy

The Dysfunctional Conspiracy CoverHere is where I make some disclaimers. I tend to, absent facts to the contrary, default to believing the police, prosecutors, etc. in matters of criminal law and so forth. So, when presented with a book whose very premise is that those same individuals not only broke the law, but did so for no material gain, only to salvage a reputation after some errors of stupidity, well, it takes some doing to win me over. This book does that, but not without some serious problems along the way.

Some background. This is tagged on the publisher’s site as both ‘Biographical’ and ‘Literary Fiction’. The cover lists ‘Based on a True Story’. This is all correct. It is indeed based on a true story. Specifically, I use that term because the first listed author is in fact the man convicted of, then found not guilty of, “matricide…also found guilty on twenty eight counts of mail and wire fraud based on insurance claims arising from Elizabeth Veltmann’s death and fire damage to the family home.”16 F.3d 1483 – 38 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 377 – UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Carl VELTMANN and Christopher Veltmann, Defendants-Appellants. – No. 92-2762.  http://openjurist.org/6/f3d/1483 This is his memoir and story of exoneration.

The basic facts are: in 1990 a fire damaged the author’s parent’s home, and as a result, his mother, Elizabeth, was killed. The father and son defendants were convicted in that, and wire fraud, and sentenced to life without parole in a federal penitentiary (United States Penitentiary, Lewisburg to be specific).

That seems to be where the simple part ends. According to the book, the Veltmanns were convicted of arson and mail/wire fraud, and sentenced to life without parole. Despite his claims in the book and blurb, the appeal document states that Christopher & Carl Veltmann were convicted of murder as well (Defendants Chris Veltmann and Carl Veltmann were convicted of matricide and uxoricide respectively.26 F.3d 1483 – 38 Fed. R. Evid. Serv. 377 – UNITED STATES of America, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Carl VELTMANN and Christopher Veltmann, Defendants-Appellants. – No. 92-2762.  http://openjurist.org/6/f3d/1483). The Bureau of Prisons lists no inmates since 1982 by those names. There is nothing on the internet that I could find in a week of infrequent but intense searches about the trial – only the appeal. Nothing about the second trial. Nothing, in fact, but the appeal, a dismissed lawsuit, and an article about an SEC action against their company in 1997.

Do you see what I did there? I called the truth of the whole thing into question by listing facts that suggest a conclusion, without drawing the lines myself. ‘Dysfunctional Conspiracy’ does a lot of that. It presents events as fact, and then other events as fact, and lets the reader draw a line that may not be real, but leads you to the desired conclusion.

BOP not listing the names – well, that can be explained with the outcome of the book. Although the BOP site does state clearly that the inmate database may have people released before trial, material witnesses, and so on listed – that listing does not mean conviction, only that they were housed in a BOP facility3Bureau of Prisons website https://www.bop.gov/inmateloc/about_records.jsp.

The internet having nothing…it may seem odd to the younger reader, but getting news articles off the general internet from 1992 can be harder than getting articles from 1045. The internet existed then, but was mainly AOL, Prodigy, and Compuserv…with some bulletin board sites hosted on people’s home systems. So no news outside something like a Lexis-Nexus subscription isn’t a shock – and ditto for the legal documents. Hell, I would have moved to have them sealed were I the Veltmanns.

So, back to the book as a book. As you may suspect, I have some issues with the whole thing. Among those issues is not how it is written – that is excellent. Matthew Cox takes the story from Chris Veltmann and makes it coherent, readable, and much more linear that I suspect it was handed to him (knowing how I tell stories to people and all). As a novel, this would be a fine job, if too far-fetched to be believed.

And there is the rub. I have encountered so many things in my life that are ‘too far-fetched to be believed’ to easily dismiss someone else’s, but I just keep running into that with this book. I find the story believable – petty motivations often do lead to actions that are inexplicable to the observer. And yes, I can believe that a local official wanted to cover up dropping the ball on, in that area and time, a huge case. Where I kept loosing it was in the number of people we need to believe were rank incompetents in close proximity. And blisteringly stupid to boot. And that a US Attorney with no skin in the local game would assist in this. And that not one of the people involved ever experienced enough guilt or remorse to recant or apologize.

That is just too much in one place. Further, Veltmann makes it clear he sees this as some kind of conspiracy against him and his father. I don’t see anything put forth as motive beyond covering one’s own errors. Certainly nothing that suggests a conspiracy to ‘get them’. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof, and I don’t see it.

I do see a lot of whitewashing in the Veltmann camp. And some outright…untruths. I believe a lie requires intent, and I am not willing to go there with this. But the book repeatedly makes the point that if Elizabeth Veltmann were to be killed via arson for money, why not just take the $1.3 million offer on the house, since the insurance payout was only $600,000(ish). Well…yes but also no. The homeowner’s policy was about $600,000 (and huh? who insures their home for half the value?), but there were also four life insurance policies on her, bringing the total up to about $1.2 million. Making this a far more likely motive than just  the home’s insurance value. The suicide note is also not mentioned. Wait, what? Yes, a note. Carl Veltmann found a note behind a picture frame in his study some 18 months after the fire4The note reads: “I so loved you, and I know you loved me. It has been so very hard the last years for both you and me. Life I have enjoyed with you. I am so–I am so sorry we didn’t quite make it all the way. Take good care of the rest of our family, Patricia and Christopher, and please don’t hate me for this. If God ever blessed someone, it was you. As your mom has always said to you, she was so right. You, my loved one, have always been right. Be strong. Don’t let the world tell the Veltmanns they were not the very best. See you again in heaven or hell, more like heaven, my love, Your Elizabeth.” –http://openjurist.org/6/f3d/1483#fn9. The note was a problem, as Carl added a date on the note. But still, it would help the story about suicide make more sense from the outset.

So what did I think? I think this was a decent story, if too much from the ‘every man the hero of his own story’ perspective. Some interjections from a third person view, providing more than just the Veltmann viewpoint, would have been very welcomed. Give the reader some context. Make it easier to relate to the story, and make it less of a personal middle finger to those who wronged the author.

There is a lot here – and a lot I didn’t cover. I would strongly suggest this as a read, just take with a fairly healthy dose of skepticism and remember that this is not intended to be even-handed or objective. And in that, it succeeds.

 

Book Review: Static Mayhem

Book Review: Static Mayhem

Static Mayhem CoverThis is the sequel to Prelude To Mayhem, and while some things in the world have changed, my mental block that insists that ‘mayhem’ is spelled ‘meyham’ persists. I blame the [spoiler] that broke the world. Neener.

Really, though, this is a good follow-up to ‘Prelude’. It expands the world without making things complicated, adds layers without going too far overboard, and generally is a good addition to the canon. Characters develop nicely, and we get a lot more background on what happened and why.

Despite all that, however, I found I was just not as into the book as the first. I suspect is is because the protagonist was portrayed as much more of an insensitive jerk than originally. In ‘Prelude’, Harrison came off as a well-meaning, if terminally clueless, introvert thrust into a world even less understandable than the real one. Here, we get him portrayed as less clueless and more cruel – not a bully, just so amazingly unaware that ir crosses from cute to insensitive to outright mean in the course of the first half of the book. And that bugged me a lot. It seemed fairly out of character for the Harrison in my memory, and a needless addition to his personality. In short, it didn’t have a cause, wasn’t a setup for redemption (although he is redeemed), it just seemed like the author was told to make the guy a jerk – readers like jerks.

We don’t, by the way.

Otherwise, there was a lot to like. We got a ton of background on the world and not only what happened, but why and even how. And who caused it. That was interesting, if a bit drawn out. Several sections were like that – interesting, but too long. Oddly, this doesn’t have the feel of an author bulking up the page count. It feels a lot more like there is something I am missing in the extended passages. These could be connected to future books, important to the author personally, or just me ascribing motive where the is none. However it works, the pacing suffers from these bits.

Now, one thing I did like had to do with the characters with powers. If you recall, Harrison can open locks. It seems our voice on the radio () is using a power as well (being heard over distances), and we meet several others. Without going into spoiler territory, there is a really interesting use of the concept of magical sympathy here. That was impressive, and a good way to bring a old idea into a new format, and possibly introduce it to a new readership. What really makes this work is the touch of non-static reality that enables the sympathy. To those who remember Mage: The Ascension, this is the idea that perception creates reality. So, if enough of us believe in X, X becomes possible. See also Neil Gaiman’s ‘A Dream Of A Thousand Cats’ from the Sandman series. Very cool stuff.

So, while I found this to be far less fun than Prelude, there is no reason to not check it out. The world building is pretty amazing, and there is a lot of hooks to get caught on.

Book Review: Organic

Book Review: Organic

Organic, Book 2 of the Kepler FilesAh, the sequel. This is the part of a series that is tricky – balancing the need to bridge the introduction to the climax. There is a reason that one assumes a sequel will just not be as good as the original. It’s hard to get that lightning in the bottle twice, after all.

Organic is the follow-up to Jadah McCoy’s debut novel ‘Artificial’, and has a case of the sophomore slump, that is undeniable. That is not to say this is a bad novel – because it isn’t. Since I have my guess as to where this is going, this book had to be what it is. That is to say, it needed to move the timeline forward, not kill anyone important, and establish a conflict that had to be overcome in the finale.

And it does all that fairly well. I wasn’t overjoyed to see the course it took, but I understand why it went where it did. The author, we are told, pitched the book as “Bladerunner meets Pitch Black”. I see that, and the parallels to Pitch Black are solidly there. Bladerunner…less so to me, but then I never much liked Bladerunner (gasp!). I did like the source material, so my geek cred isn’t totally shot. I think the idea of that being used in the pitch was to highlight the conflict between humans and androids, but here is just doesn’t work (didn’t in Bladerunner either – the replicants just wanted to invade Earth, and be left alone). The inter-personal conflicts are much more interesting than the inter-species(?) conflict. Especially as the androids have all the advantages here – literally.

On the interpersonal conflict front, we get Syl and Bastion trying to save her people from destruction at the hands of the androids. And deal with Syl’s unexpected transition to being an android herself. That was interesting – from her horror at the fact that she needs to power off (and the nightmares it inspires) to the challenge of dealing with vastly improved strength, without the inherited understanding that comes with normal android manufacture. These segments alone make this a good book – and had we been trekking across the world exploring this, I would have been a happy camper.

But we aren’t. We are saving the humans too, and that part is all over the place. From the hesitant acceptance of some to the outright hostility of others, the humans are…human. I just found the human villains to be nearly comic book level of over the top. They were all about the grandiose plans, but executed by morons. And that hurt the narrative – they never felt like a threat. The other androids didn’t factor in much, so no threat there either.

In fact, the main source of conflict was Syl herself. Whipsawing between emotional states, she alternately clings to and shoves away her only real friend in the world, Bastion.

I am not a woman, and I cannot (and do not) claim to understand how another person processes emotional states, much less someone (or a whole population) whose neurochemistry is so radically different from mine. I just have read too many of these sorts of books where the female lead is all over the place in regards to a male character. This is not a ‘he’s cute, but a jerk…I want to be with him, but not deal with the personality’…that I get. It is more of the ‘he is devoted and loyal, and I have to attack that quality, then demand it, then attack, then push away, then demand it again, and he can never say a word’. And the male characters in these tend to be…well, not all over the place. Either they are dedicated and devoted, or not. And that seems to never change. It just doesn’t click for me.

Despite that annoying interpersonal thing, this is still a decently good book. Like I opened with, I get why Organic has to be what it is. I expect the third in the series will redeem this wholly, and also be a lot more ‘Pitch Black’, and a lot less ‘Bladerunner’. After all, the dark is coming…

Book Review: The Last Death Worm of the Apocalypse

Book Review: The Last Death Worm of the Apocalypse

Last Death Worm of the ApocalypseWith a title like that who can resist? I somewhat wish I did, but not much – this was a fun series, and a good capstone. If not satisfying.

So, this is the third book in the Kelly Driscoll Series. I honestly think that Amenity Tower Series would be more accurate, as the tower is more the focus than she is. Kelly is merely the protagonist. In the first two books (The Last Condo Board of the Apocalypse & The Last Donut Shop of the Apocalypse) we meet Kelly Driscoll, and the weird reflection of Chicago that is Pothole City. Bit on the nose there. The basic plot of all three books can be summed up as:

As the fallen angels take over the condo board, argue over who’s handling pizza delivery, and begin planning for a little shindig otherwise known as the apocalypse, Kelly must team up with an unlikely group of allies to find her target and keep the fallen angels at bay. In the process, she befriends a reluctant Angel of Destruction, gets tips from a persistent ferret, uncovers the mysteries behind Pothole City’s hottest snack food empire, and tries to prevent the end of the world.

Oddly, that is the best description for the books. Fallen angels try to leave Amenity Tower, where they are bound, and chaos ensues. Along with snack foods.

In this installment, the plot involves a new, competing, tower with more amenities, death worm pools, and a quest to figure out what exactly is happening. As with the previous books, an apocalypse does indeed begin, and…

You know, this is just weird enough that I can’t really describe it. So I’ll dance around it some. I loved the Pothole City concept. I completely get the tower itself, having contracted to a real estate office in Chicago’s Gold Coast (studio condos starting at $130.000. Studio…no bedroom). If anything, this downplays the way people in that part of the city act. The book is timely – with references to the airbag settlements among other things. That may work against the book in the long run, as in five years no one will remember the name of the company (Takata).

Where I truly found enjoyment was the concept of Single Purpose Angels – those celestial beings in charge of / responsible for a single thing. Like returning small birds to their owners. Or the 3AM hour. Or HVAC systems. That is an inspired bit of lunacy there. And the fact that they rely on Cluck Snack Products, in all their improbable variety, for life is equally inspired. Just the Cluck Snack names earn this a star. Not so much for the names themselves (P’nut Butt’r Koffee Eggs, Sparkling En’rgee Drink, with All-Natural Maple Syrup, Cheezy Flats Nacho Flav’r), but the parentheticals after the names. Like ‘Not For Hamsters or Chinchillas’, ‘For Kelly Driscoll, Not For Ferrets’, and so on. That was comic gold.

Overall, I expect that if you liked the first two books, you’ll enjoy this one. If you found the Cluck Snack segments to be your fav’rite, then I expect you’ll love this book.