Thursday, September 25, 2008

Light of the Moon by Luanne Rice

Saint Sarah is not a Catholic saint, but a saint of the Romani, the Gypsies. Light of the Moon by Luann Rice is a romance centered around the shrine of Saint Sarah in Saintes-Maries de la Mer in the Camargue region of France - salt marshes on the Mediterranean coast..

Susannah is a 42-year-old professor of Cultural Anthropology on the verge of realizing that the man who has be pursuing her for years needs to be sent away. Many years ago Grey married Maria, against the wishes of how Romani clan. Five years ago, Maria deserted Grey and their daughter Sari, to perform riding a circus horse in Las Vegas. Now Grey and Sari have retreated to their horse ranch outside of Saintes-Maries de la Mer.

Only a Saint Sarah miracle of love can bring happiness to these rejected souls.

Luann Rice braids a poetic tale of Romani matriarchs, universal sisterhood, and femine intuition spanning generations and continents. In the dramatic conclusion love overcomes all obstacles and everyone find their true, eternal love.

As much as I like a love story (I cry at the end of all romantic comedies), the kissing seemed a bit too much for me.
Her eyes drank him in, as if searching for an explanation. But then she cupped the back of his head in her hand, softly kissed him again, their eyes still open, as if they couldn't bear to let go or look away. They floated together, unanchored in the ancient space, as though they were suspended in time.
She'd been kissed before, but never like this, even by him. She felt the primal power of the wetland, and the fierce strength of the man she'd fallen in love with, and his lips were hot and his chest hotter, and both of them were soaking wet and slick, and she had absolutely no idea where she ended and he began.
I just can't help imagining the author laughing as she writes this. (Sorry.)

Sunday, September 21, 2008

T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton

What a great book! Sue Grafton creates a truly evil villain - a sociopath who preys on old people. And unlike some writers with more literary pretension, soundly defeats and destroys the bad guy (a lady in this case) at the end. Good overcomes evil in a thoroughly captivating story, that does double service as a cautionary tale for anyone responsible for the care of elder friends or relatives.

The book, a pleasant mixture of the food, fashion and feeling genre and a detective mystery, succeeds where others have failed. Sue Grafton hits just the right balance between cooking and clothing critiques, and investigations and jeopardy. The protagonist, Kinsey Millhone, can go on at length about her cravings for QPs (McDonald's Quarter Pounders) or how she discovered the loctaion of a photographer from the angle of a single picture.

On a more serious note, the story involves sexual predators and elder abuse. If you have parents too far away to visit regularly or expect to get old yourself, this is truly a frightening book.

T is for Trespassby Sue Grafton is certainly one of the best books this month.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Keeper of the Keys by Perri O'Shaughnessy

Keeper of the Keysby Perri O'Shaughnessy is yet another of the food, fashion and feelings genre. The triangle is Ray Jackson, a successful Los Angeles architect, Kat Tinsley, a real estate appraiser (before the housing crash, of course), and Leigh Hubbel Jackson who is missing. Leigh is Ray's wife who left after a fight about her affair with Ray's partner. When she met Ray, she broke up with Kat's bother (the sensitive actor); Tom committed suicide. Leigh and Kat were BFF from before high school until the suicide. Other characters include various parents and grandparents, all interested in either discovering the whereabouts of Leigh or accusing someone of murdering her.

This story tries for a more serious note than other food, fashion and feelings novels: A Book for Today: Poisoned Tarts by G A McKevett and A Book for Today: Poisoned Tarts by G A McKevett, but misses as a successful novel because the both main characters (Tom and Kat) are low energy and flat affect. They float through the story with little emotional involvement or commitment (see Asperger Syndrome). Of course, novels do not have to be about characters with Type-A Personalities (consider Anna in Anna Karenina, and Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment). However, this is very difficult, and this book doesn't have enough in it to involve the reader once it becomes clear that main characters don't give a damn.

In addition to the disappearence of Leigh (wife, lover, daughter, best friend of various characters), the book delivers a fascinating and intriguing study of Los Angeles architectural history and emotional connections to childhood houses. This is the most engaging part of the book. I imagine this was the the seed idea. Anyone who has spent decades in Los Angeles can enjoy the book for the real estate analysis and history alone.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Poisoned Tarts by G A McKevett

Daisy O'Neil has it all: good grades, a close relationship with her mother, a nerdy boyfriend, and a part in a TV sitcom. She's also friends with Tiffany Dante, an anorexic, spoiled teenage party girl who is regularly featured on those covers stacked up at the supermarkets checkouts. The day before Daisy's TV debut, she disappears.

Savannah Reid, retired/fired police detective, and her friend Dirk Coulter, still employed by the police, race against the clock to find Daisy, regularly reminding themselves that children not found in the first 24 hours are rarely found (alive). Further complications include adultery and murder.

While this might sound like traditional detective novel, it is not. Poisoned Tarts by G A McKevett, much like War and Peas by Jill Churchill from August, is Chick Lit - heavy on food, fashion and feelings. Well written, with plenty of comic relief, and fast paced, this is a fun book to read and I'd recommend it over the Jill Churchill series.

The story of kidnapping and murder is lightened by Savannah Ried's Granny who is constantly saying things like:
Twasn't a very windy day when that apple fell from the tree.
Sanannah and Detective Coulter banter back and forth:
"Coulter, there isn't one single solitary group of people under the sun you trust, respect, or like"
"That isn't true."
"Is, too."
"Is not. I like dogs."
The cats don't fare much better as demonstrated by Savannah's observation:
Cats were, after all, fickle creatures who loved you more than anything in the world ... except food, pets, and sunshine.
A very relaxing enjoyable read.

Friday, September 12, 2008

The Appeal by John Grisham

Forget Playing for Pizzaand A Painted House, The Appeal is exactly the page turning, legal thriller John Grisham's fans expect and love. Even though I'm still a slow reader (see my profile), I finished the 358 pages in two days.

However, the book breaks some new ground and offers a few surprises. For starters, as the title promises, the story opens at the end of the trial. I doubt John Grisham has ever presented such a black and white case.

The plaintiffs are poor folks from a small Mississippi town where a large pesticide company illegally dumped pesticides into the aquifer until the city pipes delivered a "stream of grayish water" and the city "prohibited the drinking of its own water." When they put in sprinklers at the city park, "the grass turned brown and died."

The plaintiff lawyers were a local husband and wife team, with small children, who cared for these poor people, many of whom were dead and over a hundred still suffered with cancer and might die soon. They lawyers sold everything they had and more to finance the trial.

The defendent, a large chemical company owed by an egotistical billionaire, had cut corners, lied, bought off the regulators, and ultimately moved the entire operation to Mexico when the regulators could not be stopped any longer.

As I said, black and white. As expected the jury found for the plaintiffs with damages and punitive penalties. Here we are at page 12!

The thriller revolves around a effort by the defendants to elect a friendly judge to replace one of the nine Supreme Court judges, and thus guarantee the appeal will be found in their favor. As might expected, the campaign is anything but friendly.

Without spoiling the ending, Grisham's many fans and new readers alike will find the ending to be a real surprise. One of the hallmarks of many Grisham novels has been the ambiguous endings. He seems to be saying that legal cases are never black and white, and the job of great lawyers and judges is to find the compromise that recognizes the issues on both sides. This ambiguity and ability to bring both sides to the table has been one of the thing that separated Grisham for other authors of thrillers. That, and his excellent characters.

This book breaks that trend. This book has an opinion. As the book jacket says
The Appeal ... will leave readers unable to think about our electoral process or judicial system in quite the same way ever again.
In this important election year, this is a good book to read as you observe the 21st century election process.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover

The year is 1598. Abraham is a young Jew from the ghetto of Venice sent by his uncle to Pegu to trade for jewels. Mya is a young bride from a small village many days from Pegu sent by her father to marry. Through his letters to his cousin Joseph interspersed with her retelling of her story to (no spoiler here), the reader follows the adventures of these two outsiders in what is both a tender love story and a commentary on the lives of outsiders in the 15th century and time immorial before and after.

In one sense this is an historical novel with its details of 16th century antisemitism and of life in the famous Venetian ghetto - the word ghetto derives from this original ghetto - the old ghetto (Ghetto Vecchio) can still be visited in Venice today. The politics and daily life in Pegu offer a similarly vivid picture of life in south east Asia.

Another facet of the story is the conflicts and agreements among Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism. Much (perhaps too much for someone looking for more action) of the story focusses on Abraham's self-examination of his Judaism compared to Mya's Buddhism. In the end Abraham makes a personal commitment against prejudgment (aka prejudice) summing up the novel's theme.
I have dropped "I was told" from my vocabulary. Until I had traveled from from the narrow streets and small squares of [Venice], I hadn't noticed ... how much we take on faith from ... those who have neither seen nor heard what they claim to know. Their opinions are cold dishes served distant from the kitchen where others have prepared them.
The Jewel Trader of Pegu, though a bit cerebral and pedantic at times, unfolds an historical picture of 16th Venice and the world of its traders tied up the timeless story of "star-crossed lovers."


Godown: In India and East Asia, a warehouse, especially one at a dockside.

Mitzvoth (Plural of Mitzvah): A worthy deed.

Pegu: A town and former capital of Lower Myanmar (Burma), giving its name to a district and a division.

Tzaddik: A righteous man.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Making Money by Terry Pratchett

If you are a fan of the Discworld novels, you have no reason to read this review, you've already read the book.

If you have not heard of Discworld (36 published novels (plus or minus) as of 2008), you are missing something. In Making Money - humorous fiction reminiscent of Douglas Adams or Monty Python - Moist von Lipwig, a reformed confidence man, jumps from his success as Postmaster General reforming the Central Post Office to be chairman of the Royal Mint of Ankh-Moorpork. Well, not actually chairman. The chairman is Mr. Fusspot, a small dog that carries in its mouth something that's definitely not an old rubber bone, but rather something that escaped from a "museum of inventive erotica." Mr. Fusspot owns 51% of the stock and Moist is just the guardian.

This is how Adora Belle Dearheart, LipWig's fiancee sums it up: "So ... a mad old lady - all right, a very astute mad old lady - died and gave you her dog, which sort of wears this bank on its collar, and you've told everyone that gold is worth less than potatoes, and you broke a dastardly criminal out of your actual death row, he's in the cellar designing "bank notes" for you, you've upset the nastiest family in the city, people are queuing to join the bank because you make them laugh ... what am I missing?"

She missed the the Golem Trust and the 4,000 golems she recent excavated, the Department of Postmortem Communications at the Unseen University, Commander Vimes and the Watch peopled by werewolves and trolls, and the economic model of Anhk-Moorpork built of glass tubes and water.

The smartest character in the book is a mad scientist's (an Economist in this case) assistant, an Igor who speaks with the traditional lisp, unless he gets excited and forgets.
"You're putting lightning right into his head!" said Moist. "That's barbaric!"
"No, thur. Barbarianth don't have the capabilitieth," said Igor smoothly.
If you missed the Discworld novels and you're not a barbarian, this is as good a place to start as any.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Mongolian Folktales and Legends

How far to you need to travel to find a book without an ISBN?

I found mine at the bookshop of the National Museum of Mongolian History in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Mongolian Folktales and Legends, translated by D Altangerel and illustrated by D Boldgarav, is an mixture of pourquoi stories, stories of clever people, and other folktales and legends.

Whenever I travel, I look for local legends. This collection had some old favorites retold and a selection of new ones.

Why the Bat Lives in the Dark

A long time ago a terrible war broke out between the birds and the beasts of the land. When the birds seemed to be winning the bats joined them, saying "I am a bird too!" But when the tide turned and the beasts of the land seemed to be winning the bats joined them, saying "I am a mouse!" When the fighting ended no one trusted the bats and they had to live alone in the dark.

The Fox, the Lion and the Old Lady

Two variants of the this story were included. The old lady fooled the lion that she is stronger and would eat him. This was accomplished by the trick of squeezing a white stone until water came out of it. (The old lady used an egg instead of a stone.) Eventually the fox showed up to take advantage of the situation. He explained how the old lady fooled the lion and enlisted the lion's aid to eat the old lady. However, when the old lady saw the fox approach with the lion, she said, "Good work fox, I see you've brought me another lion to eat."

Did the Khan Have a Head?

When Khan (king) died, the servants couldn't find his head. They interviewed everyone asking, "Did the Khan have a head?" But no one had ever seen his head. The palace servants remembered a crown with a big ruby, but never dared look at his face. His wife remembered his mustache, but never dared to open her eyes when she kissed him. The story ends with, "What do you think?"

What do you think?

Friday, September 5, 2008

Geology Field Guides

Have you ever found yourself visiting the sand dunes in the Gobi desert or Machu Picchu in the Andes mountains, or even just driving I-5 in San Diego county or up the Pacific Coast Highway, and wondering about the origin and composition of the mountains, hills, canyons or arroyos?

I have.

I've found two books that are small enough to carry traveling and detailed enough to answer most geology questions on the road: The Field Guide to Geology(by David Lambert) and A Field Manual for the Amateur Geologist(by Alan M Cvancara).

If you haven't studied Geology, The Field Guide to Geology is the one for you. It is profusely illustrated and starting from the basics covers a wide range of topics, including a great chapter (The Last 540 Million Years) on plate tectonics and geologic history. For world travelers, it also includes global geological highlights from Algeria to Zimbabwe. This could be an international checklist for the serious geological tourist.

However, if you have studied Geology, A Field Guide for the Amateur Geologist might be more to your liking. With fewer pictures and less introductory material, this book is packed with a detailed section on the identification of landforms (over 100 page ) and another on the identification of rocks (almost 100 pages). This is the book to settle arguments and answer the hard questions.

Both books are available as small-format paperbacks for convenient packing and will fit nicely in your knapsack and day pack.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

The Ghost Map by Steven Johnson

What do you imagine has been the most important advance in health and medicine?

The microscope? The theory of germs? Vaccinations? The discovery of DNA and genetics? Antiseptics? Anesthesia? Prenatal care? Birth control? Health insurance?

No, all of these are (pardon the expression) mice nuts. The bat balls award (Bat testes be 8.5 percent of body mass) in the health game goes to clean water. Life expectancy around the globe has be boosted more by clean water than any other contribution to public health. Clean water started in London in 1854.

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic--and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson narrates the story of how a Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead solved the mystery of the Cholera epidemic in Soho, London in August 1854. This is Victorian England, the time of Dickens and Engels. The dominant theories of disease are bad air (miasma in Greek, malaria in Italian), weak constitutions, poor housekeeping, and loose morals. When disease struck a poor neighborhood, or a poor country (Cholera originated in India), the good citizens of Victorian London took this as an indicator of the superiority of English breeding and society.

Steven Johnson intertwines the biographies of the principal characters, 18th century politics, and the evolution of cities and science into a fascinating and informative narrative. The story line follows the the critical week from the first Cholera death to the climatic removal of the handle from the fatal public water pump a week later.

The book is fulled with details about the origins of epidemiology (The London Epidemiology Society was founded in 1850), anesthesiology (Dr. Snow administered chloroform to Queen Victoria during the birth of her 8th child using protocols and equipment he designed and developed), and mapping (the maps of the Cholera outbreak were cartographic milestones). This mixture of detail, narrative, and history makes The Ghost Map a great read.

Following the mystery, the author appends a Conclusion, Epilogue, Author's Note, Acknowledgments, Notes on Further Reading, Page by Page Notes (Footnotes), Bibliography, and Index. Unfortunately, halfway through the "conclusion," the story is completely abandoned and the author moves to his pulpit to editorialize and pontificate on human nature, the future of technology, and anything that strikes his fancy. I recommend the first 200 pages - the remaining 90 can easily be ignored.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He's got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his thrid mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off his arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of phone books.
This paragraphs opens Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson's novel about computers, viruses, and the rise and fall of civilization over the last 5,000 years. The Deliverator is Hiro Protagonist, half-Nipponese and half-Black, "last of the freelance hackers, [and] greatest sword fighter in the world." Together with Y. T., a 15-year-old teenage girl and thrasher Kourier, they combat L. Bob Rife and his evil plan to take over the world. Hiro, of course, is armed with his twin Japanese swords: a Katana and a Wakizashi. Y. T. sports a collection of high-tech self-defense devices.

In a intricately constructed, near-future, dystopic world, the action jumps back and forth between Reality and the Metaverse, a virtual reality world. The enemies are armed with neurolinguistic viruses that infect the minds of religious converts and hackers.
This Snow Crash thing - is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?
What's the difference?
The story unfolds and enfolds along the west coast of the United States with a collection of strange characters and organizations, such a Raven, a deadly, scary Aleut, the Mafia (employer of the Deliverator mentioned above), and Sushi K, a Nipponese rapper.

All together, the plot, setting and characters combine to a deliver an stimulating and exciting read, ... except for a few chapters in the middle where the author feel obligated to present his research on ancient civilizations, Sumerians, Babel, the Bible, and western religions, complete with citations. Slogging through this lecture is worth the effort as the story picks up on the other side and comes to an excellent finish.

Snow Crash Acronyms

Each acronym is defined exactly once, but if you miss any, the most important ones are here.

BIOS Built-in Operating System
Bathroom Tissue Distribution Unit
Central Intelligence Corporation
Executive Branch General Operational Command
FOQNE Franchise-Organized Quasi-National Entity
Suspected Perpetrator Apprehension Code
STDs Severe Tire Damage devices
TMAWH The Mews at Windsor Heights
TROKK Temporary Republic of Kenai and Kodiak