Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Review: T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us

T: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides UsT: The Story of Testosterone, the Hormone that Dominates and Divides Us by Carole Hooven
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I heard Dr. Carole Hooven on Bari Weiss’s excellent podcast, Honestly, discussing aspects of this book and immediately downloaded it from Audible. Dr. Hooven does a masterful job of explaining the science of testosterone. Employing evolutionary biology, endocrinology, and good storytelling, Hooven lays out how testosterone works, why it works as it does it, and what the consequences are of all this. She does not eschew controversial subjects (and there are many when it comes to testosterone!) and is intellectually honest and confident enough to include discussion of the criticisms of, counters to, and gaps in her account.

The book is not too technical; though there is complex material here. Hooven’s style is more conversational and informal. This is not a medical treatise. There are lots of interesting anecdotes and stories; some personal drawn from Hooven’s own life, but this is not memoir either. She includes the stories of many other people (and animals too). All these serve to concretized the more abstract scientific theories.

In the end, Hooven’s goal is to present the best case for the best current science. Where a careful reading and understanding of the best evidence leads, Hooven follows—even if the conclusions are uncomfortable or not popular. She emphasizes, frequently, that it is only through an honest understanding of how testosterone works, that we can understand ourselves, our interactions with each other, and work to build a better society for all people.

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Review: Angels Flight

Angels Flight (Harry Bosch, #6; Harry Bosch Universe, #7)Angels Flight by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For fans of the Bosch TV show, this story is very familiar. The basic plot structure and idea where adapted for the fourth season. There are several important changes for the TV show to fit in with some of the overarching plot lines of the series, as well as to fit in with established characters on the TV series. In any case, the book is excellent.

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Sunday, September 05, 2021

Review: Cibola Burn

Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4)Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I wrote about the last book in the series, the series continues to be exciting and thrilling. The story telling is compelling, with just the right balance of world-building and action.

One of things that is great with this series is that each book introduces a net set of characters that drive the story. Holden and crew are important and still central of course, but Elvi, Basia, and Havelock are the protagonists here. They are the characters that grow and develop; the characters that have an arc the plot resolves. If the story always focused on Holden et al it wouldn't have held the readers attention for this long.

So book 4 is, like the whole series so far, a fun, thrilling sci-fi that explores questions about humanity, relationships, and existence. Highly recommend.

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Sunday, August 22, 2021

Review: Another Man's Moccasins

Another Man's Moccasins (Walt Longmire, #4)Another Man's Moccasins by Craig Johnson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another great Longmire mystery. The interjections of Longmire's Vietnam backstory were interesting, though at first it made the book a bit disjointed. But as things started to come together, it worked well as a story telling technique.

It's a bit strange reading these while also watching the series. There are many incongruities between the books and the TV; so it is just something I have to keep in mind.

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Friday, August 13, 2021

Review: The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern WorldThe Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I came to this book through The History of English podcast, hosted by Kevin Stroud. Stroud starts his history thousands of years before English appears one the scene by starting with the history of Proto-Indo-European. One of his main sources was David Anthony’s The Horse, The Wheel, and Language. Those episodes fascinated me so I got Anthony’s book to dive deeper into it. And deeper it is! Anthony’s book, though quite readable, is a scholarly work of archaeology. There are dozens of dozens of pages detailing archaeology sites and finds, including pottery and burial descriptions. This is important material for grounding the argument he is making, but it wasn’t what I was ultimately reading the book for (I admit to skimming through the more detailed descriptions of pottery and their dating).

The overarching theme of the book is that the Eurasian Steppes (roughly the areas of modern-day Ukraine and Kazakhstan near the Black and Caspian Seas) is the source for not just the languages that large portions of the world speaks, but also of important aspects of European and Asian cultures. At the very least cultures from the US to India to China to Iran and Russia can trace concepts and words back to these people living on the steppes 6000 years ago.

So first the language: appealing to historical linguistics, Anthony discusses how Proto-Indo-European has been reconstructed. He explains the history of how this work came to be and what its major findings are. He explains the research that shows how the various language groups, Italic, Germanic, Iranian, and so on grew out of this earlier (reconstructed) language. This is interesting in itself, but Anthony also ties this into archaeology. Using evidence from the history of various material cultures in this region, he’s able to piece together the connections between where these cultures were and how they lived with aspects of the historical linguistics. This provides a lot of support to the idea that Proto-Indo-European language (and culture) originated here in the steppes.

So that’s the “language” part of the book’s title. The "Horse" and the "Wheel" come in to it in really interesting ways. Anthony explains his work on piecing together the evidence for the domestication of horses. Wild horses were native to this steppe region and at first, as he argues, were probably domesticated for food and only later used for riding. He examines how the domestication of horses fit in with the further growth of the herding of cattle and sheep. The mutual growth of these features leads to increases in wealth, resources, and populations. And this leads to outward movement and trade.

This opens up more contact with the other cultures around them: in particular the Mesopotamian cities that were also growing in power in this period (the bronze age). With this contact there is trade and technology sharing. The steppes cultures appear to have adapted the wheel from somewhere further south and developed what might have been the first chariots (which then spread back to the south and east to China). This led to a broad but loose culture of related languages and kin groups spreading from eastern European to China and into areas around modern-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. It became, as Anthony says, “a single interacting system.” This corridor became a conduit for transcontinental trade and technology, predating the Silk Road by a millennium or more.

This was a fascinating book. It is readable, but gets pretty detailed at times. I learned a lot of pre-ancient history I had no idea about; the amount we can know of people living 6000 years is incredible (though we know so very little). It leaves me with the thought that history is so very full.

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Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Review: Romeo's Rules

Romeo's Rules (Mike Romeo, #1)Romeo's Rules by James Scott Bell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An exciting introduction to this series. Mike Romeo is an intriguing protagonist. He's part Spenser, part Mike Hammer, with some Jack Reacher thrown in. I really enjoyed the quotations and references to philosophy and literature. I also like Ira and Mike's relationship to him. I thought some of the plotting was a bit contrived and convoluted at times; there were aspects overall that felt a bit unpolished. I would have preferred the denouement was more played out rather than explained explicitly. But I enjoyed it and will be back!

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Friday, July 30, 2021

Review: The Cellist

The Cellist (Gabriel Allon, #21)The Cellist by Daniel Silva
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Daniel Silva's Allon series is one of my favorite series. The newest addition, The Cellist, is good but might be one of the weaker installments. That's more due to how good most of the other books are rather than The Cellist not being good. But there are a few things that are worth noting. Allon is more passive than usual. The art world/art restoration elements continue to be reduced. For all the returning characters, there is a little too much reliance on the characterizations developed in earlier novels. The plot itself follows, for the most part, Silva's seemingly standard formula with Allon. The ending -- which Silva acknowledges in the Author's Note was something he rewrote in light of current events -- felt like an afterthought and add-on. And even though it really was an add-on, it could have been better integrated and foreshadowed earlier.

All that, I still thorough enjoyed reading it. Silva is a good story teller, and Allon is a great character. So even when it is not up to par; it is still good.

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Friday, July 23, 2021

Review: The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values

The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational ValuesThe Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values by James L. Shulman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Though a bit dated, this is an essential book for understanding college sports. The authors analyze datasets of colleges and universities from the 50s, 70s, and 80s to get a sense of the impact, costs, and benefits of college sports on college and beyond. Though they don’t go beyond the late 80s/early 90s in their data, much of what they find is still relevant today, probably more so. There is little reason to think that the trends they see in the data would have reversed.

Their focus is on selective colleges and universities. They compare data from Division 1A, both public and private, institutions, Ivy League schools, and coed liberal arts colleges. They look across the spectrum of sports: not just football and men’s basketball. The first several chapters focus on men’s athletics and then they shift to women’s athletics. They look at admissions, academic outcomes, and impacts on later careers and earnings. They also examine how participation in athletics affects the kind of leadership roles students take on as well as the impact on charity and public service. Their analysis ends with a look at the financial costs of athletic programs. They close the book with a discussion of “propositions” that the authors hope might guide reform attempts.

There are many interesting findings. Some not at all surprising: academic outcomes for most athletes is worse than the average student at their respective institutions; almost no athletics program is profitable. Others are more surprising (at least to me). For example, one of the things they trace through the data is that as women’s athletics, in particular basketball and softball, become bigger (more money, more recruiting, etc), they start to mirror their male counterparts in terms of outcomes and impacts (for good and ill). In retrospect, it’s kind of obvious that this would be the case, but seeing the data that, for example, as recruitment of women athletes intensifies, the academic outcomes start to look more and more like the outcomes of recruited male athletes was eye-opening nonetheless.

For the most part, the book is straightforwardly empirical. The authors present and discuss the data (There is an appendix of 30-40 pages that summaries the key points of the data). There’s little pontification, judgment making, or self-righteous criticism. It’s a serious attempt to bring together data to better understand the history and state of college athletics. It is really only in the last chapter that the authors share how they judge the state of things and where they think it ought to go. They self-consciously do not offer a “blueprint,” but they present nine propositions (which are more like aspirations) to guide reform. Personally, I do not think most of these are workable given the considerable impediments to reform that the authors themselves discuss.

The biggest takeaway, I suppose, of the book is that college athletics and the rest of the university are increasingly diverging. The authors see an important role for athletics as part of the overall mission and purpose of the university, and want to find ways to bridge this gap. However, the data they present doesn’t show a way to do anything about this widening gyre.

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Friday, June 11, 2021

Review: Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever

Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and ForeverNine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever by John McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A fascinating book! McWhorter dives into the history and evolution of profanity in English. It is funny but also rich in its exploration of the roots of our contemporary swear words. McWhorter also gets into the why of profanity, what role do these words play in our language and lives? And then how do these roles affect and change the words we treat as profanity. It'll change the way you think about swearing.

I listened to McWhorter read; and I think that's the best way to enjoy this book. The profanity needs to be heard, not read, in order to demonstrate its force and impact. And McWhorter is an excellent reader of his own books.

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Review: The Sentry

The Sentry (Elvis Cole, #12, Joe Pike, #3)The Sentry by Robert Crais
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading this novel; Pike is a great character to play with. However, I don't think it's Crais' best work. There are some great twists to the story here and the action is fun. But I had hard time believing some of it. In particularly, Pike's enduring interest in Dru and then the ease with which Pike and Cole seem to be able shoot and kill without apparent consequences (even if the shooting/killings are justified, this isn't the Old West).

I think he's still trying to find the best way to tell Pike's story. It's a big shift from Cole as the primary and the traditional PI genre. Even with the flaws, it's a good read for fans of Crais and the genre.

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Saturday, June 05, 2021

Review: The Lightning Thief

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As fan of Greek mythology, I've wanted to check out this series for a long time. It is quite fun, and I enjoyed how it played with bringing the gods and mythical creatures into contemporary America. The writing is juvenile and basic; some of the descriptions of things and people were cliché or too much 'telling' rather than 'showing.' In this way (among others) Rowling's Harry Potter is far better. Still, this is a lot of fun, an easy, quick read.

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Review: Philip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors

Philip and Alexander: Kings and ConquerorsPhilip and Alexander: Kings and Conquerors by Adrian Goldsworthy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed the book, but it wasn't ultimately what I was hoping for. There is far too much focus on the particulars of battles and military maneuvers. Of course, that's to be expected in any history of Philip and Alexander. Especially for Alexander, war and battle make up so much of his life. Still I would have liked more focus into the individuals, their relationships, and even more so, on the impact they had on those around them and the ancient world. The book doesn't ignore these, but the spotlight is more on the battles than the influence/impact. I found myself drifting in the battle descriptions, but piqued by the descriptions of the various cities and cultures Alexander encountered (and conquered). In some ways the focus on Philip in the first part of the book was more interesting: in part maybe because it was more novel, but also because there was more focus on how Philip managed his relationships with the surrounding cities and southern Greece.

I appreciated that the author was careful about the claims being made: the sparsity of evidence that supported them and the conflicting interpretations of that evidence.

For those who listen to the book as I did, the reader was excellent. Good pacing, no distracting mannerisms.

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Review: The Fifth Season

The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth, #1)The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Fantasy novels can often get weighted down by the genre's standard tropes, characters, and themes. Jemisin's novel is refreshingly original in how the story is told and the story being told. The world building is slow and careful, revealed little by little and naturally as the story proceeds. It is intriguing and original. The characters did not feel stock--in part because the reader knows so little about them at first. It is a gripping and sad story. I can't say much more without revealing anything, but if you are looking for a really good, original fantasy series, check it out.

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Thursday, May 20, 2021

Review: From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports

From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern SportsFrom Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports by Allen Guttmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(cross posted at The Sports Ethicist)

Guttmann’s classic From Ritual to Record is, in many ways, two books. The first “book” fits the title: it explains modern sport as something that comes out of but differs in essential ways from pre-modern sports. He provides a context and theory that attempts to account for the change. This first part of the book is (has been) the more important one for scholars of sport.

The second “book” is an attempt to try to account for the (somewhat) unique popularity of baseball and (American) football in America. Although this discussion is personally interesting, both because I’m a fan of both sports and because Guttmann makes extensive use of literature and film to provide illustrations and support of his ideas, it ultimately is too out of date to be all that relevant. Writing in the late 70s and appealing to data and sources from even earlier decades, Guttmann identifies some of the origins of some of the trends we see today (e.g. the slower growth of baseball relative to the growing popularity of football). But to be useful in a contemporary discussion of how American sports differ from the sports of other nations (and what that might tell us), we’d have to update most of that data.

Guttmann starts the “main” book with an attempt at a definition of sport. Working through the ideas of various thinkers, including Suits, Huizinga, Callois, Sutton-Smith, and others, Guttmann draws distinctions between play, games, and sport; and defines sport as a playful physical contest. I have several quibbles with his topology of play, games, and sport, in particular in the manner in which he treats play. He follows the line of thought (which I think is mistaken) that treats play as purely autotelic, with no room for the instrumental or the purposive. This leads, I think, to several errors in how Guttmann conceptualizes sport and its role in our lives. That aside, the general thrust of his description of sport are sufficient to make sense of his argument about the shift from pre-modern to modern sport. His discussion examines how sports modernized in terms of seven main characteristics:

• Secularism
• Equality of opportunity to compete and conditions of competition
• Specialization of roles
• Rationalization
• Bureaucratic organization
• Quantification
• Quest for records

While discussing all of these, secularism and quantification seem to be the essential characteristics. These are the ones he focuses on the most, and in many ways they undergird and explain the other characteristics. For example, the quest for records seems to me to be a function of quantification – since the statistics and measures used for the records are things quantified.

Guttmann explains secularism as the long term shift from the origins of many sports and games in terms of the sacred towards sports as secular. In most cultures, athletic contests were, like most things, bound up with religion, the sacred. The games honored the gods or the contests were themselves sacred rituals (not recreation). Most know that the ancient Olympics and other Pan-Hellenic games were (at least in part) sacred religious events.

As he argues, part of the development of the modern world is a process of secularization. By this Guttmann doesn’t mean an outright rejection or eschewing of religion. It is that things that were sacred move in to the mundane. Sport modernize by moving from the sacred realm into the ordinary, everyday world.

Guttmann does briefly touch on the idea that sports have become a kind of secular religion, that it involves many rituals and myths of its own (26). After all, what sports fan hasn’t prayed to the “sports gods” at some point! But Guttmann argues that the point and role of sport in our lives is secular: it’s not about the transcendent or the sacred. It’s about fun, play, and profit.
I think this might dismiss the idea of a sacred secular, if such a thing makes sense. It’s not a transcendence that is mystic or other-worldly; it’s of this world and time but still sacred insofar as it is acknowledged and seen as extraordinary and special. A sacred secular just might be an essential aspect of modern sport. We all, I think, have the need for the sacred and sport might be a secular, non-supernatural way to experience the sacred. Towards the end of chapter 2, Guttmann seems to suggest something like a sacred secular: “Once the gods have vanished from Mount Olympus or from Dante’s paradise, we can no longer run to appease them or to save our souls, but we can set a new record. It is a uniquely modern form of immortality” (55).

The other key element of modern sport is the quantification: the desire to measure and quantify each aspect of sports. Again this is a broad modern trend we see in most aspects of modern life. It deeply impacts sport because there is so much to measure! And these measures become a (or maybe even the) means of comparison and evaluation. How many yards? How many baskets? How many strikes? And this is before we even step in to the age of advance metrics!

Another element of the book is Guttmann’s critique of Marxist (and neo-Marxist) analyses of modern sport. Though he takes pains to point to some positive contributions, he rejects these approaches as the nonsense they are. (In the Afterword, added in 2004, he walks this critique back a little bit and is a bit more accommodating, while still nonetheless rejecting these approaches).

Guttmann’s conclusion about the development of modern sport is best summed up by his claim that: “The emergence of modern sports represents neither the triumph of capitalism nor the rise of Protestantism but rather the slow development of an empirical, experimental, mathematical Weltanschauung[a kind of world-view]” (85). The modernization process, in sport and elsewhere, is a function of this world-view: a view that looks to reason and evidence to understand, make sense of, and organize the world in which one lives. Modern sport is an outgrowth of this process. I’m inclined to think that capitalism (understood as the freedom of consenting adults to produce and freely trade goods and services) is equally a result of the same modernization process. But Guttmann’s point still holds that modern sport is not the result of market economies per se; it is rather a parallel, inherently modern development.

Guttmann’s book is essential reading for anyone interested in the history of sport and how modern sport is different from early forms of sport. Though I am less convinced that modern sport is different in kind from earlier forms (though that may not be Guttmann’s point), I think Guttmann is right about the slow development of the world view that ultimate brings about what we recognize as modern sport.

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Monday, May 17, 2021

Review: The Lincoln Lawyer

The Lincoln Lawyer (Mickey Haller, #1)The Lincoln Lawyer by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As a fan of Connelly's Bosch books (and tv show), I finally got around to starting the Haller series. Very happy I did! Haller is not Bosch; he's younger and more cynical. He's not rudderless; he's got principles and is capable of growth and heroism. A nice hard-boiled mix. It is also interesting to see Connelly's vision of the LA police and courts from the defense lawyer side of things. I know later books crossover with Haller and Bosch and bet those interactions are great.

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Friday, May 07, 2021

Review: Light of the Jedi

Light of the JediLight of the Jedi by Charles Soule
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this opening entry into the new Star Wars era. All new characters and stories, it is wide open. In some ways, maybe too wide-open. By that, I mean it puts the creators in a tough bind. Go too far in a new direction and get criticized for not being 'Star Wars' enough. Stay with the standard tropes and motifs of the Skywalker era and get criticized for not being new. I think Soule's book is probably a bit too much in the latter category--though some of that is because I thought the High Republic era was 1000 years before the Skywalker era. It seemed odd that the technology and lore was so familiar. But it's actually about 200 years earlier, so that makes more sense.

It is exciting to be introduced to a bunch of new Jedi with some different ways of using the Force. On the downside, with so many characters, there isn't a lot of character development. There is a lot of promise with several of the characters.

I won't say much about the antagonists of the novel to avoid spoilers, but I like what Soule is doing with them. It is both different but also not unfamiliar.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Review: Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College CampusesAcademically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses by Richard Arum
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There is interesting material here with lots of data, but in the end it is utterly unsurprising. Students by and large learn very little in college (except good students, they tend to learn a lot). This can vary across some demographics and different institutions, but still not a lot of learning going on. Partly this is because the students come in quite unprepared for academically rigorous college courses, but also because the college teachers are either more concerned with their own research or overwhelmed by larger and larger classes. Add to this administrators who have little incentive to focus on improving undergraduate education (I’d add as well that they also don’t know how to do this) and you get the situation we have: Students pretend to learn and teachers pretend to teach.

The authors offer reform proposals in the last chapter. Most of these amount to calls to teach undergraduates more rigorously and for the institutions to support that. Noble as that sounds, it seems to miss the core issues. (1) There is little incentive for any of the parties to do this. For students, the credential more than learning matters more (See The Case Against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money). For professors, by and large it doesn’t makes sense to engage all that much in improving teaching since the money and prestige is all in publication. And for instructional faculty, there is not a lot of room for career growth so little incentive to invest in improving. And these faculty are teaching such high loads, they have little time or capacity to do so even when they want to. For administration, they have a little to gain from investing in undergraduate education. Like professors, the status and prestige comes from other parts of the university (graduate programs, athletics). As long as students persist and pay tuition, they seem happy. (2) No one really knows how to improve teaching – or to measure how effective teaching is. Each teacher, in each classroom, dealing with different students calls forth many different ways to go about teaching. Each new teaching proposal and technique holds promise and can work--with some teachers, some students, some subjects, some of the time. In many ways, it is a very local problem to solve and no amount of grand reform program is likely to work.

For those really interested in digging into the data, this book could be useful. Otherwise, reading the introduction/summary is all that is really necessary.

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Sunday, April 25, 2021

Review: Trunk Music

Trunk Music (Harry Bosch, #5; Harry Bosch Universe, #6)Trunk Music by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this one. Even though the general plot line was familiar to me since it was adapted for the Bosch TV show, it was interesting to see the changes the show made. Billets and J Edgar are great. In particular, I liked the development of the relationship with Billets. The character of Eleanor strikes me as different from the TV show. Some of that has to do with the different relationship Bosch and she have in the books, but the character herself is somewhat different.

It's hard not to go right onto the next Bosch book!

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