Monday, December 28, 2009

The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald ***

Writers constantly remind themselves that real life is rarely good fiction. The Informant: A True Story aptly demonstrates this truth presenting the reader with a day-by-day journal of Mark Whitacre, a brilliantly crazy embezzler. Some sections, I particularly remember the FBI raid on ADM, are page turners, while others, the lengthy period of taping illegal price-fixing meetings for example, are tedious and repetitive.

However, if you've seen the movie or heard the This American Life podcast - they are both representative and faithful to the book and thus the actual events - and want to know more: this is the book for you. The Informant: A True Story is the unexpurgated, unabridged source for the life and crimes of Mark Whitacre.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly *****

The Brass Verdict opens with "Everyone lies." Michael Haller, attorney and alcoholic, leads with this caveat emptor as he returns to work as a defense attorney with a high-profile case: the head of a movie studio accused of murdering his wife and her lover just weeks after her prenup vested and she had a right to half his substantial assets. Michael Connelly delivers up a fast moving mystery with plenty of twists and turns, a few more murders, and everything neatly resolved at the end, but not the way you might have suspected. This is all done the lazy deus ex machina employed by many lesser writers.

The only slow part was in the middle where too much time was spent on trial and legal mechanics which will certainly be tedious and cliched to any regular reader of legal thrillers, and something that's been done so well by John Grisham that all other writers should be cautioned before they attempt it.

In the end, with everything resolved, we see: "Everybody lies."

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Worst Written, Best Book of the 60s *****

New Think, published in 1967, is an example of an idea succeeding in spite of terrible writing. In New Think, Edward de Bono introduces Lateral Thinking, a concept so prevalent today that few people can imagine a world without it. But here it is. This is the book that lead the way to thinking outside the box, brain storming, and a multitude of popular approaches to creativity and problem solving.

The book is over written and wordy, and occasionally embarrassingly simplistic. Even trying to recall when I read it for the first time in the 60s, I can't decide whether the book reflects the difficulty of presenting ideas that are common today, or whether the book is just terrible.

Regardless, if you can locate a copy, I'd highly recommend it to anyone involved in art or research or life. Skim it just to remember the importance of finding another way to look at daily and cosmic problems.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Judge by Karen Traviss ***

Judge by Karen Traviss is the sixth and final book in the Wess'har Wars series. The story and the series centers around two huge philosophical issues: the ethics of ecology and immortality. The ethic of ecology is explored by comparing human to the Wess'har and Eqbas who believe that all animals are equal and motivation is irrelevant - only results matter.
Shan wondered whether humans on Earth had yet grasped the full implications of highly militarized vegans.
Immortality is explored by giving characters the choice of individual immortality or immortality through children.

As with the best science fiction, Judge raises important questions and suggests novel solutions. As with the worst science fiction too many words are expended on back story, exposition, and philosophical discussions. As an example, one to the biggest actions in this novel is the forced reduction of human population to sustainable levels (i.e. the removal of billions of people). This happens entirely outside of the story and is merely reported.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Contagion by Robin Cook ****

Contagion by Robin Cook is one of the best in his long series of medical thrillers. This 1995 novel introduces Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery - two Medical Examiners in New York City who appear in many later novels. While some of his books tend to be long on pedantic lectures and short on character development, Contagion combines characterization and action to provide a very enjoyable thriller about nosocomial infections - a perennial Robin Cook favorite.

One warning however: Do no invest any thought in discovering the ending because the resolution is only tenuously related the the story that precedes it. While reading just keep repeating the mindless, escapist reader's mantra: It's the journey, not the destination.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Slipping into Paradise by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson ****

Slipping into Paradise: Why I Live in New Zealand is a wonderful, contemporary introduction to New Zealand. I found the NZ history chapter (Fifty Important Dates in NZ History) very readable and interesting, as was the chapter on the Maori which walked the fine line between PC and full disclosure.

At the end of the day, the author (Holocaust-obsessed, vegetarian, academic, married to a lady 30 year younger) is so wildly enthusiastic about his recently adopted home, that the book, for all its obvious attempts for balance and impartiality, comes across like tourism propaganda. In spite of the unabashed cheer leading, the book is the best introduction to New Zealand available and I'd recommend to anyone with an interest in this small island country on the other side of the world.

If you're interested in a more comprehensive history of New Zealand, check out The Oxford Illustrated History of New Zealand.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Bone People by Keri Hulme **

The Bone People by Keri Hulme is mystery by a Maori author rich in characterization and Maori culture. Kerewin Holmes, like much of New Zealand is a mixture of European and Moari ancestry. She is an artist, omnivorous reader, self-educated on a wide range of topics, but also spent a year in Japan to study Akido, not the spiritual stuff, but to learn to kick ass. Joe Gillayley is Maori and full of contradictions - the most central to the plot is his tender care and affection for Joe, a boy who washed ashore as the only survivor of a ship wreck, combined with his abusive discipline of Joe who is only six or eight at the most. That leaves Joe, the third player in this odd triangle. Joe has nightmares and phobias (doctors, French language) and periodic violent out bursts.

Throughout the story, the three share cigarettes, gambling, and great quantities of alcohol in their search to discover what drives each of them towards self-destruction.

A deep character study of alienation and an introduction to contemporary Maori culture, but a slow read.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Dictionary of Cultural Literacy by E D Hirsch et al ***

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know is excellent bathroom reading with lots of general knowledge and a smattering cultural bias and propaganda. I kept the 1988 edition in my bathroom for months (the most recent is 2002), so the two decade retrospective made the point-of-views obvious, anachronisms revealing, and inaccuracies laughable ... especially recalling that E D Hirsch et al have set themselves up as the arbiters of the timeless knowledge "every American needs to know."
Radioactive waste: Present practice calls for encasing the waste ... and burying the containers deep underground in geologically stable locations.
Times Square: Known for its high levels of crime, including drug dealing, prostitution, and the sale of pornography.
The U S automobile industry, with only three major producers, has sometimes been cited as an example of an oligopoly.
IBM produced the first mechanical calculating machine in 1941 [ROFL].
Mainframe: A large, powerful computer system. A typical mainframe computer will fill a good-sized room.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo ***

Stop me if you've heard this one. When they discover Charlie Bone has magical powers, they send him to a special school where he champions the good and frees the sleeping princess (oh I mean girl). Regardless of the familiarity of the plot, Midnight for Charlie Bone by Jenny Nimmo is a charming YA novel, with magical cats, good and evil grandmothers, an antique bookstore, a boy with talks to animals and another who listens to photographs.

This series (Children of the Red King) is a excellent choice for fantasy readers that are beyond Roald Dahl, but not quite ready for J K Rowling, perhaps on the same level as the C S Lewis's Narnia series, but without the heavy Christian allegory. (Even more deja vu: this book by a British author is published in the US by Scholastic.)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly ****

Reprising their roles in The Poet, LA Times Reporter Jack McEvoy and FBI agent Rachel Walling pursue The Scarecrow, a combination genius computer hacker from MIT and sadistic serial killer. Mirroring current events, Jack has been laid-off due to competition from the Internet. When he uncovers this serial-killer story, he sees it as his best and final chance for a Pulitzer Prize. However events conspire against him, as he repeatedly becomes part of the story and thus disqualified from being the reporter.

While Michael Connelly delivers modicum of jeopardy and action, the story is basically whodunit, where much of the narrative revolves around the back and forth as Jack and Rachel try to figure out the Scarecrow, and he, in turn, leads them astray.

This is a cat-and-mouse mystery with considerable less violence than the subject of sexually-motivated torture and murder might suggest. All the worst violence discussed post facto and not shown.

Final note: As a supporter of MIT, I'm always glad to see the school's graduates portrayed as extraordinary intellects, though I regret the evil genius role. However, I recall the PR adage: "There is no such thing as bad publicity."

Monday, October 26, 2009

Just Take My Heart by Mary Higgins Clark ***

Why do people read novels? Following the formula perfected by Dickens, Just Take My Heart by Mary Higgins Clark unfolds a world both exotic and orderly. Unlike real-life, all the pieces fit together. Think how comforting it is to know that all the players have supporting roles, unlike the real world where most people enter and leave our lives with no impact, either positive or negative - how boring and pointless.

Thus when the actress Natalie Raines is murdered and her estranged husband, ex-agent Gregg Aldrich is fingered by petty thief Jimmy Easton, the reader knows that Prosecutor Ted Wesley gives our protagonist Emily Wallace the case for a good reason. The reader can also be confident that the creepy, serial killer who moved in next door to Emily Wallace has a part in the tale.

I found the plotting interesting, but I found the characters difficult to care for and thus the novel slow going.

Also, although the jacket promises some mystical personality transfer from a dead person from a heart transplant, this idea has little to do with the plot or the resolution. I think this is a case where art transcends or abandons the artist's inspiration.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Bretz Flood by John Soennichsen **

500,000,000,000,000 gallons of water setup one of the two biggest debates in geology in the 20th century. One is plate tectonics and the other is told in Bretz's Flood. Almost 100 years ago, a single geologist, J Harlen Bretz, examined the strange geology of eastern Washington, south of Spokane, and decided only a cataclysmic flood could have cause the structures. Of course, he was correct, but it took the other geologists 50 years to come around. This biography covers the academic battle in full detail while also giving insight into the man and his times.

One interesting anecdote J Harlen Bretz's on teaching style:
He scheduled a two-day exam. We came in the first day and there were ten subjects written on the blackboard with the instructions: "Write on any five." Naturally we chose to write on the five that we knew best. ... When we came back the next day ... "Write on the other five."
During the 30s and 40s Bretz took his University of Chicago students on numerous field course, many requiring camping for weeks. These trips "were not without their share of misfortunes." On one trip a student drown, on another two were killed by lightening, and yet again, two student were killed by a freight train. I can't imagine such activities continuing today after the first student fatality.

I found the book an interesting mix of geology, history, and academic infighting. My appreciation was built on my visit to the area and reading in geology. This book is not for the geology novice.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Just Another Judgement Day by Simon R Green ****

In Just Another Judgement Day, Simon R Green delivers a urban, punk Discworld. Like Terry Prachett's fantastic Discworld, Simon R Green's Nightside is a place where imagination and irony usually upstage the plot, and woe be to any character or scene that tries to take itself too seriously.
Though it does help if you've got a set of skeleton keys made from real human bones. Personally, I've always attributed Suzie's skills with locks to the fact that they're as scared of her as everyone else is.
How am I supposed to stop the wrath of God?" [John Taylor] said. Not unreasonably, I felt.
You've got to be a little weird, not to mention certifiably strange, to want to spread the good word in a place like [Darkside].
I tore the packet open and spilled salt on the tentacle as it reached for me. The metallic flesh shrivelled and blackened as it fell apart, the way salt affects a slug.
Never leave home without condiments.
Urban fantasy in a class by itself, and a treat for Discworld fans.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Smoke Screen by Sandra Brown ***

In Smoke Screen Sandra Brown starts with the basic murder-to-cover-up-murder, but with a steady stream of twists, reveals, and surprises unravels a fascinating story of ambition, secrets, and deceits. The story starts with the fire at the police headquarters, where Jay Burgess, charismatic ladies-man, Cobb Fordyce, now attorney general, George McGowen, now successful contractor, and Patrick Wickham, Sr, now dead, rescue all but 7 people. The cause of the fire leads to a long string of cover-up murders, until an idealistic fire fighter, Raley Gannon, and a tough newscaster, Britt Shelley, determine to solve the mystery ... or die trying.

A well-constructed mystery, guaranteed not to disappoint Sandra Brown fans, or any mystery readers.

BUT (spoilers ahead)

First, in the 21st century, I find it unconvincing for murder and mayhem to be motivated by the desire of a gay person to stay in the closet, even in Charleston, SC. The people of Charleston should be offended that anyone would suggest otherwise.

Second, valve caps are not required to keep tires inflated.
Even if they try, their tires will go flat before they can catch us. ... She opened her fist ... on it lay four valve caps.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Piano Teacher by Janice Y K Lee ***

So many books have been written on the moral compromises of World War II in Europe, the suffering, the courage, and the atrocities. The Piano Teacher by Janice Y K Lee, explores these issues on the other side of the world: Hong Kong.

The stories are told from the point-of-view of two women. During the war we follow Trudy Liang, a Eurasian (Chinese and Portugese) who attempts to survive separate from the conflict being neither Japanese nor British/American. After the war, we follow Claire Pendleton who has moved to Hong Kong, along with her husband's job, and also wishes to survive separate from Hong Kong. In their own time and place, each woman addresses the moral conflicts she encounters.

Spanning the time spans and playing important roles in both threads are a powerful Chinese family: Victor and Melody Chen, and the fascinating bachelor: Will Truesdale. Just to add another twist, Melody, Trudy, and the resourceful Dominick are all cousins.

The book is fascinating on two levels. First is the history of Hong Kong before, during, and after the war. Second is the different ways the characters deal with the issues of survival and morality, loyalty and friendship, under extraordinary circumstances. A great choice for the historical novel fan.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Night of Thunder by Stephen Hunter ****

A well-written guilty pleasure: The plot might be cliched, but who can resist when a gray-haired father, with a replacement hip and a limp bests the bad guys and protects his daughter. Bob Lee Swagger is a Vietnam vet, an expert with firearms, and the fastest, smartest, toughest senior citizen attending NASCAR. This is no small feat as other attendees include: Detective Thelma Fielding, three time USPSA (quick draw) champion, Brother Richard, a assassin specializing a staged car accidents, and a whole family of inbred criminals - Reverend Alton Grumley can never figure out whether his dozens of children are sibling or cousins.

In Night of Thunder, Stephen Hunter unfolds an exciting story with suspense and action in every chapter. My only complaint is that the book is short and lasted little over 24 hours. The book is exploding for a film version with planty of car chases and explosions, and a relatively low body count.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Given Day by Dennis Lehane ****

1919: Boston, the hub of the universe, where paths crossed for MA governor Calvin Coolidge, DoJ lawyer John E Hoover, NAACP founder WEB DuBois, and Babe Ruth. With echoes of today, the news was about terrorists and civil rights, traditions and change, immigrants and Americans.

Against this dynamic backdrop, Dennis Lehane weaves a very human story of a family of Irish policemen and a black family from Oklahoma in The Given Day. While the echoes of current events add interest, it the the lives of a young black man and young white man and how they address the personal and societal injustice they experience that keep the pages turning. This is a narrative so well told that I could easily forgive when the 1919 police called from paramedics (a word invented in 1967) and when the hospitals delivered pain killers in IV drips well before their time.

This is a historical novel heavier on the novel, but with plenty of good historical musings.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Look Me in the Eye by John Elder Robinson ****

Aspberger's syndrome might be the formal designation for nerd. In Look Me in the Eye, John Elder Robinson's memoir unfolds both the best and worst of nerdom. While occasionally tedious or even embarrassing, John Elder's biography is fascinating from dropping out of high school, to designing sound systems for Pink Floyd, special effects for KISS, and electronic toys for Milton Bradley.

One of my many favorite scenes was the time John Elder and some of his teen-aged friends built a tub of circulating gasoline to clean auto parts. Unfortunately the whole thing caught on fire. Imagine the scene as the fire department started unrolling hoses with John Elder's friend Jim shouting:
No! I'm telling you, water is dangerous on a magnesium fire! You need foam!
As you might imagine, the firemen felt no reason to listen to a couple of teenagers who started the fire in the first place. After the burning gasoline and magnesium exploded spreading the fire everywhere,
Jim politely reminded them it was their fault. "You should have listened to me. Look at the mess you idiots made!" [The actual dialogue was probably worse, since I read the paperback edition which has had its language cleaned up for use in the schools.]
I find myself retelling many of the stories in this book, drawn to the mixture of insensitivity and brilliance, compulsivity and creativity. It is a wonderful reminder of the triumphs and defeats in the life of a nerd.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland ****

1348 - The Black Plague has reached England and nine outcasts must band together to escape the pestilence as it chases them from village to village - this is the Company of Liars by Karen Maitland - musicians, an expecting couple, a healer, fortune teller, story teller, seller of relics, and traveling side show. Reminiscent of Decameron and The Canterbury Tales, the book mixes the lives of the travelers with stories and history. A wonderfully written and researched historical novel of the plague on a very human scale.

My interest in the Black Plague has always been in how Europe changed after the death of 30-60% of the population. The balance between land and labor changed dramatically: land became plentiful and labor became scarce. This was the death of feudalism and the rise of the middle class. Company of Liars is about the experience of the Black Plague with little reflection on the longer-term effects. However, even here, the future can be glimpsed.
Who'd have thought it? This time last year you couldn't piss without the blessing of a priest; now any Tom, Dick, or Harry, even a woman, can baptize you, marry you, shrive you, and bury you. And there's the bishop saying, Go ahead, do it yourselves, you don't need a priest.
A wonderful novel of human failing and mystery.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Long Lost by Harlan Coben *****

Myron Bolitar returns in Harlan Coden's latest installment: Long Lost. In this story Harlan is targeted by terrorists and interrogated (tortured) by an unidentified government organization. All this in response to his considerate search for an ex-girl friend's lost daughter, who died in a auto accident ten years ago, but she may be still alive, and maybe it wasn't an accident anyway.

As usual, he is accompanied by the wealthy and deadly Windsor Horne Lockwood III (aka Win) and the retired lady-wrestling, tag-team of Big Cyndi and Little Pocahontas. Big Cyndi is still Big Cyndi, by Little Pocahontas now has a law degree and a family and goes by Esperanza.

In the vocabulary of Netflix this is an action comedy in the mold of Jackie Chan, Bad Boys, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, and Indiana Jones. While the plot is has many twists and turns and involves every fertility issue imaginable, the tone in light and the reading very enjoyable. Harlan Corben is my new favorite author.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Serena by Ron Rash ***

In the midst of the Great Depression, George Pemberton prospered clear cutting old-growth hardwood forests in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina. During a rare trip to Boston, he met and wed the mysterious Serena, rumored to have been raised in a rich lumbering family in Colorado, and when all her relatives died, she burned down the family home and moved to an New England finishing school. Immediately on the couple's return to North Carolina, George murdered the father of the teenager girl who carried his child - self defense.

Thus starts the story of Serena by Ron Rash. When introduced the the lumberjacks, Serena humiliates and fires the first man who fails to give her the respect she demands. Among supporters of a new National Park, timid partners, rattlesnakes, George's child by his mistress, carnival barkers, and disloyal employees, Serena find many enemies and many ways to get rid of them.

The excellent writing, especially the rich characterization, kept me turning pages waiting for the answer to two questions: Who is Serena? and Who will stop her?

In the end, the first question is never answered, and I found the second answer unsatisfying.

The novel offers a wonderful picture of depression life in Appalachia, well worth the trip even if told from the point of view of the devil herself.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Texas! Lucky by Sandra Brown ****

Even with stock characters, telegraphed action and silly sex, Texas! Lucky by Sandra Brown is an enjoyable recreational read. This short novel (75,000 words) follows Lucky Tyler
And his mother expected him to treat every woman chivalrously, no matter how trashy she was.
from when he met Devon Haines (passionate, feminist, newspaper columnist)
There was going to be trouble, and, hell, he just wasn't in the mood for it.
through their first tumble
Then her fingertips grazed his turgid nipple, and his analysis ended.
through the inevitable happy ending. In between there are plenty plot surprises to keep the story moving. A pleasant way to spend a couple of evenings.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Dancing Universe by Marcelo Gleiser **

Kepler "was known to have taken only one bath in his whole life." Newton, "as far as we know, died a virgin." In The Dancing Universe, Marcelo Gleiser unfolds the history of Physics and Creation, showing how beliefs about creation effected the evolution of physics, and how the evolution of physics effected beliefs about creation. These fundamental scientific questions (physics, cosmology) are ultimately intertwined with basic religious questions (creation).

The book mixes enough anecdotes and biographies maintain readability while presenting basic physics (gravity, electromagnetism, relativity, quantum mechanics, big bang). Physics was not one of my big successes in college - squeaking by with a C in the fourth (required) semester of Physics in college - but I found the book very readable (considering the material), except for the chapter on relativity.

I highly recommend the book to anyone with a passing interest in science history, especially an science teachers.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Zeroville by Steve Erickson **

It's the 1970s and Ike Jerome so loves The Movies, he takes the long bus ride from Pennsylvania, only to discover that people in Hollywood are ignorant of the The Movies; they're into The Sound: Punk Rock. Ike Jerome, aka Vikar, has Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, in a scene from A Place in the Sun tattooed on his shaved head. Zeroville by Steve Erickson, written by an LA film critic for film geeks, is full of Hollywood inside gossip and fantasy with mentions for dozens of films, actors, and directors over the entire history of film making.
I'm more a Huston/Hawks/Ford/Walsh/Kurosawa man.
The main character is this barbarian-type in animal furs with horns on his head as played by this preposterous Austrian body-builder so muscle-bound he literally can't hold the sword, but his is getting blown on a semi-regular basis by one of the Kennedy women, rumor has it.
All this real and imagined trivia enhances the story. The story is presented like a screenplay in 454 fast-cut shots numbered by one to 227 and then from 226 back down to zero. Vikar is a film editor who believes that films exist outside of time and has a favorite expression: "F-ck continuity."

Two themes about art appreciation intertwine throughout the story. First: new, creative works initially elicit hate, but after many exposures, you learn to love them. And the second, sounding like the author's explanation to his novel approach to a novel:
He said the first ten minutes he thought you were completely incompetent but by the time he got to the end he knew that wasn't it. He said he has no idea whether the picture is working or any good but that every decision you're making is original as best and counterintuitive at the least. [Note: this is the original punctuation]
Certain not a book for the faint hearted, but if you'd like to read something different ...

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich ****

Plum Spooky by Janet Evanovich is of the fashion, food and friends genre. In this installment bounty hunter Stephanie Plum is after a mad scientist (think of a nerdy James Bond villain in New Jersey barrens) will plans to conquer the world by controlling the weather (seriously, well, not really, nothing is very serious in these books).
Diesel opened the back door and pushed [Stephanie] through. "Very funny. Keep in mind not everything I say is bullsh-t."
"What would you say is the bullsh-t percentage? Twenty? Thirty?" [she asked.]
"Thirty might be low."
[Lula] was wearing a pink sweater suit and sneakers. ... She didn't have any makeup on, and her hair was somewhere between rat's nest and exploded canary.
[Barium] is commonly used in X-ray imaging. And it's useful in making certain kinds of superconductors.
[Barium's] a heavy metal. Hard to find in pure form because it oxidizes when it's exposed to air.
[Stephanie] blew up a fuel depot, stole twelve rockets and made off with them in a stolen van, got kidnapped by a maniac, and had dinner with a guy who farted fire.
There it is: the sure-fire formula to enjoyable light reading: irreverent humor, odd characters, a little education, and a wild plot. These novels never disappoint.

See also:A Book for Today: Fearless Fourteen by Janet Evanovich

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven **

The Ringworld Engineers by Larry Niven is science fiction at its best and worst. The plot (of this squeal to the fantastic award-winning Ringworld - that I still remember as one of the great SF novels of the 1970s and all time) is based on the analysis of real engineers of the original Ringworld. (That's the kind of novel the original Ringworld was; it inspired real engineers to take out their slide rules - this was before Pickett dumped their made-worthless-by-cheap-calculators inventory into a land fill - to calculate forces and error margins.) The Ringworld Engineers plot revolves (pun intended) around the need for (previously omitted) attitude adjustment rockets to maintain the Ringworld's stable revolution around its sun.

However, combined with this detailed and accurate analysis are transport discs (ala Startrek) and enough other magical science to serve the needs of the plot. The resulting book combines tutorial sections on real physics with interesting sections of inter-species plot. Did I mention that most of the plot is the musings and analysis of inter-species conflict and cooperation, and don't forget rishathra - inter-species sex - which might have been titillating in those pre-Internet days. For the 21st century, the science is slow and the plot slower. If you're interestied in classic, do not miss Ringworld, but feel free to ignore this sequel.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Samuel Johnson by Jeffrey Meyers *

Samuel Johnson: The Struggleby Jeffrey Meyers, published for 300th anniversary of Samuel Johnson's birth, itself struggles between research and relaxation. In the author's own critique of earlier Johnson biographies he observes:
James Clifford's first two volumes ... are heavily academic .. Walter Jackson Bate's biography is also academic ... John Wain's life is more readable, but he confessed "there is no research in the book."
Unfortunately for Jeffrey Meyers and his readers, significant source material has been uncovered since these earlier biographies, so maybe the author can be forgiven for filling with including so much primary source material. However, the narrative of Samuel Johnson's life is buries and the resulting volume is tedious, confusing and sleep inducing.

If you're interested in a biography of Samuel Johnson, I recommend The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell. Even though it was written over two centuries ago, it still out sells all the other Samuel Johnson biographies on Amazon!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke **

An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England by Brock Clarke places the author in the small group of quirky writers of odd-comedy-cum-mysteries, full of word play, that defy classification such as: Jasper Fforde, Douglas Adams, and
Terry Pratchett. With this odd, vaguely-literary mystery, I am most reminded of Jasper Fforde. Here is a snippet from the Arsonist's Guide:
I knew from Mr. Frost that the birch was supposed to be the most New England of trees, and if that was so, then I couldn't help thinking that New England was a very bad idea.
Similarly, I found An Arsonist's Guide to Writers' Homes in New England also to be a bad idea. If you are a serious reader in search of a light diversion, I highly recommend any of Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next or Nursery Crime novels before exploring An Arsonist's Guide.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz ***

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz is really two books in one; an inside look at the world of college admissions and the story of Portia Nathan, a story that revolves around her job in the Admission Office of Princeton University and the few (bad) decisions she'd made in her life. If your interest is college admissions, the author recommends: The Gatekeepers: Inside the Admissions Process of a Premier College.

The story of Portia Nathan is a challenge as Portia suffers from depression and like Raskolnikov is more prone to introspection than action, though, also like Raskolnikov, has brief episodes of decisive action. Depressed protagonists (is that an oxymoron?) rarely make for compelling reading.
She had no particular talents, no extraordinary intelligence, no burning desire to excel in some academic field or profession, and that in absence of a life plan or goal, her intention was to wait until something happened to her.
A year of lying-awake torment in which imagined touching alternated with imagined conversation, invented smells and tastes, and great insights, reached with the catalyst of his undoubted brilliance. But nothing actually happened.
Portia had abruptly found herself without a destination and taken on the general demeanor of a pillar of salt.
Lead by this passive protagonist, the reader wanders though the Princeton admission cycle and Portia's life of missed opportunities to a surprisingly satisfactory resolution. I must warn readers that Portia's story, though full of poignancy and pathos, is insufficient to maintain interest and involvement throughout. The admission process delivers much of the conflict and plot motivation, so if you are not interested in this facet, skip this book and read War and Peace

Thursday, August 20, 2009

G is for Gumshoe by Sue Grafton ** 1/2

In G is for Gumshoe by Sue Grafton, private investigator Kinsey Millhone finds herself on a hired killer's short list and puzzling over the mystery of a crazy old lady's ravings of murders decades in the past. Eventually, after traveling across the Southern California deserts and through caches of old documents and microfilm at the Santa Teresa library, newspaper, and city hall, the persistent Kinsey Millhone unravels this mystery. The romantic interest is Robert Dietz, a soon-to-be-retired PI, brought in to protect Kinsey from the killer. Together, the two PIs defend themselves from a psychopathic killer who has his 5-year-old son accompany him on hits. They also take advantage of the communal quarters required by his bodyguard assignment.

On the positive side, G is for Gumshoe by Sue Grafton delivers two stories (murder mystery with the old lady, romance with a hired killer thrown in for free) for the price of one. On the other hand, neither of these stories benefits from the distraction of the other. If you're a Sue Grafton fan, you've already read this 1990 offering. If not, I'd recommend starting the series some place closer to the end of the alphabet when the series matured, such as: A Book for Today: T is for Trespass by Sue Grafton

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou *****

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a memoir by Maya Angelou about growing up as a black in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s. She lived alternately with her grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas and her separated parents in St. Louis and California.

While her story included the pervasive and institutional prejudice and violence towards blacks, she always rose above it all and succeeded. For instance, during the war she decided she wanted to work on the San Francisco cable cars. Undaunted by the facts that she was only 15 applying for a job that required applicants to be 18, and that the cable car company had never hired a black for the position she wanted, she went after the job anyway. Through polite persistence and clever fabrications, she got the job.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a wonderful mixture of the challenges of be Black and the benefits of being Maya Angelou. A story of tears and cheers.
When the spring classes began, I resumed my commitment to formal education. ... I was sure that I had learned and earned the magic formula that would make me a part of the gay life my contemporaries led. ... Not a bit. ... They were concerned and excited over the approaching football games, but I had in my immediate past raced a car down a dark and foreign Mexican mountain ... I remembered sleeping for a month in a wrecked automobile and conducting a streetcar in the uneven hours of the morning. Without willing it, I had gone from being ignorant or being ignorant to being aware of being aware.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a book that everyone should read and a book that everyone will enjoy.

LGBT Book Watch: Though I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (published in 1970) deals primarily with The Black Experience in America, it also includes (at the end) a sympathetic and humorous recounting of a young girl's thoughts about Lesbianism with references of a 1920's classic on the subject: The Well of Loneliness.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Invasion by Robin Cook ***

Invasion is a first-contact novel and a departure from Robin Cook's normally realistic science-based plots. What can I say about a novel that appears to be a novelization of a made-for-cable movie? At best, Invasion by Robin Cook, is a pop art object like Andy Warhol's soup cans or Marilyn Monroes.

At worse, I can assure fans that Robin Cook maintained his penchant and predilection for large words. This one popularized by Calvin and Hobbes:
Wow, your are transmogrifying into a world-class Casanova.
or these Latinate words from science and medicine:
Inside the locked valuables box the black discform object did the same, particularly one of the eights small domed excrescences arrayed around the object's rim.
I can also assure the many Robin Cook fan's that the writing includes the normal quota of cliches and cliched plot elements.

The disappointment is the science. In an admission of the silly science, Robin Cook omits his normal addendum where he explains the science, while instead he inserts silly errors - At 8:15 AM in Santa Fe, we read:
With the time difference maybe the CDC [in Atlanta] doesn't open for an hour or so.
- and crazy, conspiracy science with a mega-viruses encoded in a highly conserved segment of DNA:
It's in one of those non-coding segments, or so people thought.
Of course, the plot moves along briskly, as expected. As Robin Cook has written many, many novels, I'd suggest reading some of the others first, unless you really love first-contact science fiction.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Disclosure by Michael Crichton *****

Disclosure by Michael Crichton reminds me of the differences between ordinary authors, many who write best sellers, and great authors. Michael Crichton is one of the greats. Disclosure is a cautionary tale about sexual harassment and should be read by any who has a boss or is a boss. If you work in an organization that extends beyond your immediate family, this should be required reading.

Fortunately, the story is excellent and well told. It has enough plot twists to keep the most sophisticated reader involved, and the writing is crystal clear to keep the most basic reader following along. An extremely fast read.

This is a book for working adults, the topic is sexual harassment, and it includes one extended sex scene.

A perfect summer read that still seems current, even though it the story involved high-tech before the Internet. Disclosure was published the same year at Microsoft's CDROM encyclopedia Encarta.
In the future, information was going to be stored on [CDROM] disks, or made available in large databases that users would dial into over telephone lines.
Regular readers of this blog realize that the selections are eclectic and wide ranging. As with many complex appearances, the underlying mechanism is rather straight forward and simple. I take a few recommendations from friends, NPR and my recollection of those books I should have read as part of my formal education. I fill in the remainder with books grabbed from the the new releases section in my local library. When I travel, I stock up on 25c paperbacks from the same library. Today's selection is a travel selection.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Tom Swift and His Giant Robot by Victor Appleton II

Tom Swift and His Giant Robot by Victor Appleton II is from the second series of Tom Swift novel for young boys - certainly not young girls, as the female roles were restricted to sweet and cute. Some of the science is laughably quaint, as when a security officer needed to identify fingerprints.
We'll compare these with the file at the plant. Any unknown ones we'll check with the local police. If they can't help, we'll fly them to Washington at once for identification.
That's it; the best 1955 science fiction way to get fingerprints to Washington was to fly them!

However, before the Bell Labs patent application (1958) and the Nobel prize (1964) and long before any successful popularization and President Reagan's Star Wars aspirations, Tom Swift used a knockout weapon - a monochromatic infrared beamer; essentially a laser!

On another strange note, one the scientists working with Tom Swift was Stan Lee.

This book is a fine tale of crazy scientists, back robbers, and derring do by the brilliant young Tom Swift.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Quiet American by Graham Greene ***

Written in 1955, The Quiet American is a novel of American involvement in Vietnam at time when the war still belonged to the French. It is an indictment of much American policy in the years since World War II. I found it surprising to see the seeds of the invasions of Cuba, Grenada, and Iraq, foreign policies based on innocence and arrogance.
I never knew a man [country] who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.
The Quiet American by Graham Greene is a great novel by a great author of the World War II era. This was a time of high literary style when authors could freely assume that all readers were educated in French; the novel includes French dialogue without translation or apology. My years of high school French, from around the time Graham Greene wrote, were barely sufficient to get the gist of the scattered French.

A more serious summer read, but very well written and a story well told.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Fire Study by Maria V Snyder ****

Fire Study by Maria V Snyder is the third in her Study series. I hesitate to say trilogy, as even though the conflicts raised in the series are resolved, other issues remain. Fire Study continues the trend towards more intrigue and less misogynistic violence and abuse. The book is a bit longer and slower than the previous volumes, but well worth reading it you enjoyed the first two.

Do not start reading here, even though the author expends ample pages recapping and reiterating the earlier action. Start at the beginning with: A Book for Today: Poison Study by Maria V Snyder *****

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzche [nr]

What can one say about a classic of philosophy? The translator writes:
The point of that title is not that the author considers himself beyond good and evil in the crudest sense, but it is in part that he is beyond saying such silly things as the Jews are good or the Jews are evil. ... Everywhere he introduces distinctions, etching first one type then another - both generally confounded under a single label. He asks us to shift perspectives.
It is a book to reread and live with.
For all this well-meaning advice, I still found Nietzsche to be a man of the 19th century, fundamentally anti-Semitic,
Germany has amply enough Jews.
The Jews, however, are beyond any doubt the strong, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe.
Woman wants to become self reliant ... this is one of the worst developments.
and elitist,
It is the powerful who understand how to honor; this is their art, their realm of invention.
Nietzsche self-published Beyond Good and Evil because he felt his publisher failed him. He hoped to sell 300 copies, but even after distributing 66 free, review copies, he only sold 114! I am not surprised given the anthology structure of the book with sections on free spirit, religion and morals, (A reader might be advised to stop reading after these) followed by tracts on virtues, fatherlands, and nobles (definitely more discussion of races and elites in these latter sections).

This is definitely not light summer reading.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Smart Girls Think Twice by Cathie Linz ****

The smart girl is Emma (Jane Austen anyone?), an assistant professor in Sociology. Emma has returned home to Rock Creek for the marriage of her two older, cooler, and pregnant sisters: Leena and Sue Ellen - one a civic activist and entrepreneur and the other an Internet-certificated interior designer. Thrown into this crazy-making mix is mother Maxie, retired hair stylist.

Emma has also returned to study the revitalization of Rock Creek - she has a grant for this research. Her subjects include extreme sportsman Jake - sexy, strong, secure, sexy, sullen, silent, sexy Jake. Did I mention that all the obvious parts of Emma anatomy become weak, and warm, and wet, and wobbly whenever she is near him? This is pretty much all the time, by one coincidence or another, but don't worry about his absences, as the same result can come from her thought of him. Did I mention that this is a romance?

My favorite couple was Leena, the Goth girl and Oliver, the nerd with a 5.0 at MIT.

A fine summer read with a surprisingly intricate and well-constructed plot with great subplots and everything neatly resolved at the end.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Heart of Stone by C E (Catie) Murphy ***

Margrit Knight, protagonist of Heart of Stone by C E Murphy, is a gutsy, legal-aid lawyer living in Manhattan with two love interests: Anthony (Tony) Pucella, a homicide detective, and Alban Korand, the centuries old, gargoyle. Other preternatural characters include: Daisani the vampire, Janx the dragon, Cara the selkie and Malik the djinn, collectively referred to as the Old Races. On the human side of the cast are her roommates Cole and Cameron.

Margrit finds herself in the middle of interracial rivalries as she struggles to unravel the murders of young women in Central Park before Tony hauls Alban off the jail as the prime suspect or she herself becomes one of the victims. In the end, volume one of The Negotiator Trilogy, solves the mystery and ties off the loose ends.

Though published by Luna Books, an imprint of Harlequin Books, and there is a vampire, this is definitely a fantasy, and not a vampire romance.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell *

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell is a tribute to confirmation bias and other logical fallacies. In the author's second collection of anecdotes, summaries, and unscientific studies ...
In order to find out more about the reasons teenagers smoke, I [Malcolm Gladwell] gave several hundred people a questionnaire, asking them to describe their earliest experiences with cigarettes. This was not a scientific study. (Emphasis added)
... in which he purports to explain the origin and meaning of fads. In between sections where the book simply reiterates and summarizes what has already be repeated multiple times, the reader is presented with uncritical praise for a random selection of marketing stories (about marketing), urban legends, pseudoscience, and pop psychology.
Divorced people who suffer depression and complain of cognitive dysfunction may be expressing the loss of their external memory systems.
Since this anthology draws its chaotic collection from eclectic and historically diverse sources, some of the excerpts are sure to be novel and/or interested, regardless of the otherwise chaos of the general thesis and and sequencing.

This book is a very fast read, but has a very low signal to noise ratio. If you must read Malcom Gladwell, start with Outliers.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Magic Study by Maria V Snyder ****

Magic Study by Maria V Snyder is book 2 in the series started with Poison Study. In this book, Yelana travels south the meet her parents (Perl and Esau Liana Zaltana) and her brother Leif. In the course of her study with the Fourth Magician Irys, she runs up against the sadist Goel, the megalomaniac Cahil, and the sadistic, megalomaniac Ferde. Amid the usual torture and abuse of the female characters, Yelana make friends with a very smart, telepathic horse named Kiki, an entrepreneural street urchin named Fisk, and reunites with Valek, Janco and Ari for the first book.

A fine sequel to Poison Study, still a page turner, but also slightly repeative with similar themes and situations.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Babylon Rolling by Amanda Boyden ***

Babylon Rolling by Amanda Boyden is a novel of the people living in Uptown New Orleans on Orchid Street to year before Hurricane Katrina. The main characters are:
  • Ariel May and Edgar Allen Flank: A married couple from Minnesota, he a Buddhist house husband and she a manager of a hotel in the French Quarter. Their small children are Miles Davis May and Ella Fitzgerald May, also know as Fitzy, though she doesn't like the nickname.
  • Nate and Sharon Harris have five teenage children. The two boys (Daniel, street name: Fearius, and Michael, street name: Muzzle) work for Alphonse, the local drug dealer. The girls Klameisha and Debutante already have their own babies. Angelique is the youngest.
  • Philomena and Joe Beauregard de Bruges: He has colon cancer and she keeps journal on all the activities on Orchid Street. Philomena wants to change her name to Prancie.
  • Cerise (Cherry) and Roy Brown: Long time resident, often visited by their daughter Marie with her husband Thomas and Lil Thomas.
  • Indira and Ganesh Gupta: They are the newest residents. Their children are Elizabeth and William who are the same ages as Miles and Ella.
As might be hinted with all the name changing, this is also a novel of self-discovery as the various characters search to find their place in their relationships, on Orchid Street and in the universe. Each finds a different answer, some leading to a content, though maybe bitter-sweet future, while other come to a dead end.

A pleasant mixture of New Orleans and self-obsessed angst.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Missy by Chris Hannan *

Missy (evidently 19th century slang for laudanum) is set during the Civil War, but as it takes place in the West, it concerns the Gold Rush and the Wild West more than the war in the distant eastern United States. It follows Dol McQueen, a teenage flash-girl (evidently 19th century slang for a prostitute) on her travels from San Francisco (a booming port) through Carson City (during the silver rush) and on to Salt Lake City. It is written with a wry humor and reconstituted dialect.

Before you you pick up this book, you want to ask yourself what you can imagine a 21st century Scottish author can possibly add to the classical genre created and perfected by Mark Twain and Bret Harte? I read much of the book and my answer was: Nothing.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Armor of God by Paul Block and Robert Vaughan ****

Armor of God by Paul Block and Robert Vaughan is a post-9/11 thriller of irony. On one side is the People of the Book, and organization dedicated to establishing peace among Jews, Christians and Muslims. On the other side is a terrorist triumvirate: Benjamin Bishara of Migdal Tzedak (Tower of Justice), Fr. Antonio Sangremano of Via Dei (Way of God), and Mehdi Jahmshidi of Arkaan (The Fundamentals). These three men representing Jews, Christians, and Muslims respectively will stop at nothing to prevent the success of the People of the Book. Thus, in order to prevent cooperation among the religions, the religious terrorists must cooperate themselves.

Introduced into this mix are a brilliant hacker, a mystery of a papyrus scroll of a missing gospel, and the first crusade. The characters are flat and predictable, but the multi-threaded plot mixes the history of the crusades with present day terrorism and technology with a bit of DaVinci Code Catholic conspiracy. The result is readable and engaging.

A quick summer read, if you can't find something better.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Bleedout by Joan Brady *****

Bleedout by Joan Brady follows the life of David Marion, not given his surname until he entered school and someone thought it was most appropriate to name him for a federal penitentiary. David is an intriguing mixture of genius potential and street orphan opportunity. The result is an inviting mixture of cleverness and violence. Though he is a killer, he is also a sympathetic. Even as he murders, it is easy to understand his violence.

In a mixture of David Copperfield and Pygmalion, David's mentor wonders,
Is it punishment for the sin of pride that David the murderer is the only person who could help me now? That what I destroyed is what I need?
Bleedout showcases the extraordinary plotting and characterization of an award-winning novelist in her first foray into the thriller genre.

History rarely records the specific autobiographical details that inspire an author. In a notable exception, Dostoevsky is known to have suffered from gambling debts and malnutrition while writing about Raskolnikov's very similar situation in the opening of Crime and Punishment.

Joan Brady's opening author's note breaks the traditional silence on this topic with the following:
If we get right to the heart of things, the South Hams District Council is responsible for the existence of this book. ... I have named the fictional South Hams State Prison in their honor.
Interestingly, her conflict with the council had to do with poisonous shoe glue and modifications to historic buildings, neither of which appear in this excellent book. Maybe this is why we rarely hear of author's inspirations.

One of the best book of the summer.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Liberty by Garrison Keillor ****

Liberty by Garrison Keillor will not disappoint the many regular listeners of A Prairie Home Companion on NPR. But as a novel, it has more. More rambling:
I did all I could do here. Married, raised kids, buried both my parents, fixed thousands of cars and started cars on cold mornings, flooded the ice rink and got up early in the morning to coach peewee hockey, shoveled old people's sidewalks, cleaned the church, gave money to some who needed it, bought rounds of beer when it was my turn, ate dinner at people's houses and tried to make conversation though I didn't care that much for them, was president of the Boosters Club, and for the past six years I ran the Fourth of July.
Lots more sex:
Her flat, firm abdomen between the expanse of womanly hips and the fine bush of dark hair and the tender lips so delicately pursed and folded and the sweet-salty taste of her and she sang and whimpered and cried out and moaned - her pleasure so generous and elaborate, as if he were the world's greatest lover, which he wasn't, except maybe right at this moment to a woman of combustible imagination - he'd never known a woman who enjoyed being made love to so much - Irene was mostly quiet and businesslike in bed, same as in the kitchen, make pie crust - you didn't moan and whimper as you did it or cry out, "More flour! Flour! Flour!"
But like the short rambling vignettes on A Prairie Home Companion, the humor is mixed with life's truths. Liberty is an excellent expansion of Garrison Keillor's heart-warming sermonettes.