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.