Friday, December 24, 2010

Sizzling Sixteen by Janet Evanovich *****

What is your guilty pleasure? Mine is Janet Evanovich's heroine: Stephanie Plum. Stephanie Plum tracks down FTAs (failure to appear) for Vinnie's Bail Bonds, with office manager Connie, and file clerk, one-person swat team, former ho, and perpetual dieter Lula.

The latest chronicle is Sizzling Sixteen, a story of explosions, fire, gun shots, and kidnapping.

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Jennifer Steil *****

What do you know about Yemen? Nothing? If you follow the news closely and have a good memory, you might remember the USS Cole bombing and Yemen as a safe haven for Al Qaeda. A fundamentalist Muslim society if there ever was one.

Now try to imagine an American woman as editor and manager of a newspaper, directing the men and women reporters, a single woman, a drinker, a New Yorker. This book provides an intimate view of life in Yemen and a small glimpse of a hopeful future where east and west, Christian and Muslim, men and women can live in peace.

Jennifer Steil's book The Woman Who Fell from the Sky chronicles her year in Yemen running the Yemen Observer, an English-language newspaper. As a member of a third sex, not male, not female, she is welcome at qat chews where men meet to share a stimulating drug so popular in Yemen, and at women weddings where you can be "too over-dressed, or too under-dressed."

The picture of Muslim-American relations is positive and in sharp contrast to the nightly news. Steil's observations find many similarities. For example, when she prepares to visit Yemen, she adds more modest clothing to wardrobe, as most tourists to the Middle East are advised. However, when one of her female reporters prepares for a fellowship in the United States, she does exactly the same. The tight jeans and t-shirts she wears beneath her abaya are too revealing for casual wear in Mississippi.

In addition to the many wonderful insights into Yemen, this is a story of women balancing career aspirations with her biological clocks and the various pressures of society both in the East and the West.

The book is good humored and optimistic about the future, both for women and the world. A wonderfully uplifting read.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Hello Kitty Must Die by Angela S Choi *****

Hello Kitty Must Die is a delightful, entertaining and humorous story about about Fiona Yu, lawyer, Yale graduate, still single and living at home in San Francisco. If you like your feminism light and dark, like a drugged latte or a blond corpse, you won't be able to put this book down.

Fiona negotiates pressures at home to get married and at work to put long hours with the help of her serial-killer, high school buddy Sean Killroy. Together they leave a trail of corpses with poignant humor and naive good-will not seen since Bonny and Clyde.

While you might agree with Fiona's view that women should not be "a hole in a mattress" or a Hello Kitty... you might differ with her on some of her logic and methods ... or maybe not.
I hate [Hello Kitty] for not having a mouth or fangs like a proper kitty. She can't eat, bite off a nipple or finger, ... or lick herself. She has no eyebrows, so she can't look angry. She can't even scratch your eyes out. Just clawless, fangless, voiceless, with that placid, blank expression topped by a pink ribbon.
Simply delightful.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

From the Closet to the Courtroom by Carlos A Ball *****

Why come out? The underlying basis of discrimination is invisibility. Discrimination encourages invisibility (some even posit that the goal of discrimination is to promote invisibility) and invisibility allows discrimination. Before civil rights, blacks were substantially invisible. The same can be said of women before feminism ... and sexual minorities before Stonewall.

From the Closet to the Courtroom by Carlos A Ball traces how LGBT lawyers and activist used the courts to increase visibility for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, and conversely how this increased visibility helped in courts.

In a very readable and engaging account, Ball explores the intricate legal subtleties considered by the Supreme Court from due process to rational basis to liberty and equal protection. The author presents these fine legal points in a way that is both clear and exciting.

In reviewing five cases: rent control in New York, student harassment in Wisconsin, discrimination in Colorado, marriage in Hawaii, and sodomy in Texas - this book traces the evolution of LGBT civil rights over the last 25 years. In addition to a civil rights story, an underlying theme is the growing understanding that sex involves more than reproduction; sex involves each person's identity, relationships, and dignity.

An excellent book with a boring title.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot *****

Pink Brain, Blue Brain by Lise Eliot starts off with a math lesson: even if two populations (boy and girls in this case) have statistically significant differences (boys are better at math), a large portion of both populations can be non-stereotypical (40% of girls are better at math than the average boy). Thus, over and over Lise Eliot finds ways to remind the reader, that even when the statistics point to some difference between boys and girls, a number of actual children will not follow the statistic.

This is a book by a scientist for scientists (40 pages of notes, over 40 pages of bibliography), but also for parents - explaining the fallacy of drawing conclusions based on "statistical differences," and/or top-performers. However, if you aren't interested in all the math and research, each chapter ends with practical tips for parents and teachers.

I don't recommend the "read the chapter summary approach" approach, as the research is very interesting and interspersed with enlightening anecdotes. For example, to illustrate the gender stereotypes of 5-year-olds, a boy is quoted: "Everyone has a penis; only girls wear barrettes."

To demonstrate that gender stereotypes and attitudes can change, she points that Veterinary students have increased from around 9% in the early 1970s to 74% today.

And some of the best tips are buried in the text: "video games are actually good for kids, especially girls."

On the other hand, the author is both a scientist and a parent, and sometimes she uses the same statistical fallacies that she mocks to make some point based on observation of her children rather than scientific research.

Over all EXCELLENT. If your children are still in school, buy this and read it all.

Monday, November 15, 2010

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson ****

What makes Cinderella such a universal story? Many might discuss the popularity of the stepmother as a villain, but I believe the key to Cinderella is the Fairy Godmother! No matter your domestic circumstances, everyone dreams of a unknown relative or benefactor that suddenly appears and fixes everything, be it a magical fairy godmother or a suddenly discovered (dead) rich uncle.

13 Little Blue Envelopes by Maureen Johnson is a charming story of a suddenly dead aunt who sends Ginny Blackstone on the adventure of her teenage life, from her uneventful suburban home to wander throughout Europe. Each step of the adventure begins with a letter that must be completed before the next can be opened.

In a story with generous helpings of travelogue (London, Paris, Amsterdam, Corfu, ...) and coming of age (yes, there is a "boyfriend"), Ginny learns about her artist aunt and herself and life. I can recommend this to anyone planning student travel (hostels, rails) or growing up. However, as someone who is past staying in hostels and growing up - I've done both - I still found the adventures enjoyable and entertaining.

A delightful read.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Wolf at the Door by Jack Higgins **

What was the biggest terrorist story ... before 9/11? Irish Republican Army? Russian Mafia? Algerian arms dealers? The Russian secret service? Why bother to decide, just throw them all together in a plot that is both transparent and confused ... and you have The Wolf at the Door - the latest novel by Jack Higgins, who I suspect is stuck in the twentieth century, as suggested by his publicity photo sitting in front of a typewriter - and a manual one at that!

The story - not actually a thriller as there is no suspense or tension - follows an aborted assassination plot from several points of view, none of which I found particularly engaging. This is certainly a case where the synopsis far exceeds the reading. Lots better is available, unless you've read everything else about the cold war and miss it terribly.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Lost Art of Gratitude by Alexander McCall Smith ***

The books by Alexander McCall Smith are steeped in profession and place, as exemplified by the successful series set in Botswana: No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency: A Book for Today: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith. While the author's fascination with Botswana adds to the charm of that series, his familiarity with his home country and profession, Scotland and philosophy respectively, leave the series of Isabel Dalhousie, a Scottish philosopher, flat. The author's many descriptions of Scotland and observations on philosophers seem mechanical and strained - descriptions by a native either modestly bragging or trying to imagine what might interest a visitor.

The Lost Art of Gratitude is a travelogue by a local guide full of pride and inside observations, and without the life and excitement of a genuine visitor seeing everything for the first time. This, together with a plot centered on philosophical introspection, left me disappointed, especially since I so enjoyed the Botswana series.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Homer & Langley by E L Doctorow ****

Homer & Langley by E L Doctorow is ostensibly the story of two brothers born around the beginning of the twentieth century, following them through WWI, the roaring 20s, the depression, WWII, the hippies of the 60s, and beyond. If this is what you expected, you would not be disappointed, for Doctorow packs the book with vignettes from all these periods with observations on technology, politics, and urban culture. But Homer & Langley is not historical fiction.

The two brothers, independently wealthy, live in a large home on Fifth Avenue facing Central Park. But this is not a story of wealth and advantage. The brothers are recluses and protesters, taking on the water company, Con Edison, and the police. They are more comfortable with hippies than their neighbors. But this is not a story of counter-culture.

Homer is blind and Langley is OCD. This is a story of two brothers and their long decline into disability and death. If there is some universal truth here, it is not presented in bright, flashing banners like some prurient web site. The truth is more traditional, before pop-up and animated GIFs: an intricate story of people, simultaneously unique and universal.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Evidence by Jonathan Kellerman ****

Evidence by Jonathan Kellerman begins with the murder of a couple apparently in the midst of making love on the top floor of an unfinished mansion in the exclusive Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles. From there, like a chaotic fractal, the plot branches and expands, with each vector revealing more directions for further investigation. Each sub-plot expands into further sub-sub-plots, seemingly recursively without end. Just a sampling: the rumored, long-ago disappearance of a blond girl seen in the company of an oil-rich playboy from south-east Asia, the fruitless FBI investigation of eco-terrorism in the pacific northwest, a high-school romance gone bad, the murder of a part-timer in the Medical Examiner's office, and another murder of a crazy old man who believed the unfinished mansion rightfully belonged to him.

But, in a wonderfully Dickensian fashion, none of these are feints or red-herrings. For in the end all is revealed to be part of a single unified story!

A fine tale of relationships and Los Angeles.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimanada Ngozi Adichie *****

The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie populates the interface between Africa and the United States with a pride of characters who are simultaneously innocents and sophisticates. This volume of short stories includes: an arranged marriage between an Afro-American doctor and the village girl sent from Nigeria to be his wife, the victim of tribal violence who refuses to use her murdered son's story to support her request for asylum in the United States, and the attendee at an African-writers' workshop being told her stories were not "real stories about real people."

Ms. Adichie delivers universal characters in a rich and informative African setting. While the stories come from the contemporary African experience, they certainly will resonate for immigrants of other times and other places.

I am reminded of working in Silicon Valley in the 1980s when my company hired Asian immigrants, and the first thing Human Resources did was assign new hires "American" names; Tran became Tom, etc. The same incident is repeated in a missionary school in Africa in this book. The right of the powerful to name to weak goes all the way back to Genesis and Adam naming the animals.

Ms. Adichie is an insightful and accomplished writer. This small book is both poignant and pleasurable and I recommend it highly.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall ****

With the liberation and independence of its colonies, the British Empire is a thing of the past. However the Empire still lives in the exploitation of former colonies by a contemporary club of British ex-pat authors. The newest member of the club is Tarquin Hall, author of The Case of the Missing Servant. He joins Alexander McCall Smith of the successful series on the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency: A Book for Today: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith.

The similarity between these two series, the former in India and the latter in Botswana, are too numerous to tabulate. Most noticeable is the exploitation of the native cultures and customs of these two former victims of British dominance. The books are rife with generalizations and stereotypes put in the mouths of native protagonists.
Jadugoda was virtually indistinguishable from tens of thousands of other little roadside settlements to be found across the length and breadth of India.
Aside from the caricatures of local people and practices with the implied insults, both books are delightful light-weight detective novels, quick reads, and pleasantly upbeat. If you enjoyed No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, you'll enjoy this new series.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger *****

Two twin girls, 20 and irresponsible, receive a thick envelope from a London solicitor; they've inherited the estate of their mother's twin sister, who they've never met, but the inheritance comes with conditions. Thus starts a story of compulsive relationships, relationships that span time and space and even death. In this tale of love and ghosts, we're constantly asking the question: How important is this relationships and what psychic lengths should be taken to maintain it? Or is this a relationship better off destroyed?

In Her Fearful Symmetry, Audrey Niffenegger (Time Traveler's Wife), precipitates compelling characters out of a mixture insecurity, deceit, and innocence. From the OCD husband who can not leave his apartment to the procrastinating lover who will not complete his thesis, the men in this story provide stage dressing for the intertwined lives of two set of twin sisters.

The result is
one of those rare moments when understanding of the world alters and a previously impossible thing is admitted, if not understood.
A fantastic story with characters so human and engaging that the fantasy materialized and fades without notice ... over and over until fantasy seems as real as ...

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt *****

The king is dead; long live the king. Since Terry Patchett was diagnosed with dementia, I've wonder what will come after Discworld? Well I sure many of you will not be surprised by the answer, but I just discovered it more than a decade late: Tom Holt. In a style reminiscent of Terry Pratchett, but simultaneously unique and closer to hard science fiction, Tom Holt writes comedies of intergalactic proportions. The latest of which is: Blonde Bombshell.

This is a delightful story of hyper- but artificial - intelligent bombs, panspermia, intergalactic love. As with Terry Pratchett the fun is as much in the language and details as in the wacky characters and plots.
Another thing she'd gathered, from archival data and personal observation, was that a man in love would infinitely rather dismantle and repair the cylinder-head gaskets on his beloved's car just to earn a fleeting smile than talk for five minutes about the true nature of his feelings.
Of course, I'm not the right person to ask. When I was at school, you could do astrometaphysics or you could learn ballroom dancing. I'm quite a good dancer, as it happens.
So if you're an astrometaphysician or a ballroom dancer, this is just the book for you.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Winds of War by Herman Wouk ****

The great mystery on World War II is how so many missed seeing Hitler as a serious threat. In Herman Wouk's great historical novel The Winds of War, we see this most human blindness through the eyes of a German General (Roon), an American Navy family (Henrys), and a Jewish family living in Europe (Jastrows). Each within the context of their society explains the actions of Nazi Germany to minimize the threat to the status quo and the importance of the breaking news.

The Winds of War starts with the 1940 invasion of Poland and ends with the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. At each turn these characters explain events in a way to maintain their own group's integrity and perspective. General Roon admires the prosperity Hilter has brought to Germany. The Henrys comfort themselves with the great distances that separate the US from Europe. And finally, the Jastrows take the historical perspective of how the Jew have survived in Europe over the centuries.

I don't know what was more frustrating: when the embassy staff in Moscow ignored reports of genocide because the reports might be British propaganda to force the US into the war or because they feared the American public would oppose fighting Hilter if the goal was to protect Jews. In either case well-meaning and knowledgeable officials did nothing.

With its narrow focus on 1940-41 and US decision to support the Allies, The Winds of War provides a rich view of the people and the politics that lead the US into World War II. This is historical fiction are its best.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A History of Private Life II by Philippe Aries et al ****

I'm looking for a new house in southern California where wood-burning fireplaces are outlawed because of air quality concerns. Yet most houses boast at least one fireplace. What ancient instinct requires an open flame in the great room, formerly called living room or family room or den? The answer can be found in History of Private Life, Volume II: Revelations of the Medieval World by Philippe Aries et al.

I personally find the history of private life fascinating. These chronicles ignore the kings and tyrants, politicians and generals, scientists and explorers. The private life historians research the day-to-day life. A couple of good examples are: A Book for Today: Ho for California edited by Sandra L Myers and the excellent Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times.

The current volume (spanning 1100-1500) explores the changing balance between private and public power, the emergence of the individual, and the use of private space. The final topic sheds light on the archaic fireplace in my new house.

We don't have to go back to the cave and the fire to ward of beast to understand this anomaly. Back in the middle ages, taxes were based on hearths; that is how important the fireplace was. The hearths were the very definition of a home. Even the poorest peasant hovel had a hearth, but the noble homes had several. When one moved up the economic and status ladder more rooms were heated as fireplaces moved beyond the kitchen to halls (living/dining rooms) and chambers (bedrooms). Thus, to show your success in the world your house needed more fireplaces on the inside and more chimneys on the outside.

As we all aspire to be lords of manors, we want that fireplace to differentiate our hearth from the lesser folk who can not afford one. Thus, the fireplace is a status symbol from 500 years ago.

This fascinating book is full of many other details from medieval life. Any excellent source for fantasy writers and anyone else interested in what life was really like long ago.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Quants by Scott Patterson ****

What caused our recent financial difficulties? Greed? Stupidity? Wall Street? The Government? The Quants by Wall Street Journal reporter Scott Patterson places the blame squarely on PhD Mathematicians. PhD Mathematicians!

There have been other theories about the causes of our economics woes, equally convincing, but this is particularly interesting for its emphasis on mathematics and mathematicians.

I found two points surprising. First, how did the financial powers put trillions (12 zeros!) of dollars in the hand of mathematicians? Second, how did the mathematicians make a mistake when the flaw in their models was published almost 50 years ago by none other than Benoit Mandelbroit. Don't be too concerned if you've never heard of Mandelbroit, ALL the mathematicians certainly had.

Do you think you might be able to understand when fooled all these PhD mathematicians? Certainly you can! Consider the distributions of sequences of heads and tails from flipping a coin. Most often the sequence is HTHTHT, but rarely you might see HHHHHH or if you kept flipping for a very long time you might see 100 heads in a row. This is called a Normal Distribution and this is the distribution all these PhD mathematicians used to model the financial system. The important characteristic of this distribution is: if you flip the coin one more time, nothing much can change over all.

Mandelbroit discovered another distribution than looks a lot like the Normal Distribution, except things like 100 heads in a row are more common. This distribution is not like flipping coins, but more like asking people their annual earnings or net worth. Imagine we walk down the street in Seattle and asking people how much money they have. After thousands of people we might find the average to be $200,000. After a thousand more, it might still be close to the same number. As opposed to the coin flipping where one more flip can make little difference, if this case, if the next person we meet is Bill Gates, the average will jump to over $10,000,000. This process is most certainly not a Normal Distribution, and more closely models financial systems.

Certainly a big OOPS.

The story is fascinating for anyone with an interest in numbers and dollars.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

One Day at a Time by Danielle Steel ****

One Day at a Time by Danielle Steel is a character driven story with a minimum of description. In Florence they visited The Uffizi Gallery and ate at a restaurant recommended by the hotel. None of the lengthly and flowery descriptions I'd expect in a romance. The sex is similarly terse and only mentioned at the few appropriate occasions. I found both of these attribute pleasant.

One Day at a Time follows Colette Barrington aka Coco, her 11-year senior, lesbian, pregnant sister Jane, and her 62-year-old mother Florence who has a 38-year-old boyfriend. The characters, their lives and interactions keep the story moving along.

Two small writerly things interrupted my enjoyment. First, while not written from an omniscient POV, the POV changed erratically whenever the author felt like jumping into one character's head or another's. This occasionally happened mid-paragraph and I found it jarring.

The other thing was Coco's love interest. It was Hugh Grant's movie persona! I suppose if you need to write a lot of books to keep your millions of fans happy, you need to take inspiration from anyplace. Still it seemed a bit lazy to me.

A pleasant summer read.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

La's Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith ****

In England, primary school children are taught their island is shaped like a man riding a pig. East Anglia (Norfolk and Suffolk counties) is the back end of the pig and given little respect throughout Great Britain. Years ago I worked in East Anglia, flat farming country, in a small market town called Saxmundham for more than a millennium. Change comes slow to this part of the world; their website shows the same town I recall from two decades ago.

This agrarian setting is perfect for Alexander McCall Smith author of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series set in a similar milieu half-way around the world in Botswana. La's Orchestra Saves the World takes place during World War II and follows Lavender Stone, newly widowed, in her efforts to fit into life in East Anglia and adjust to the war.

As with the Botswana books the simple folks separated but aware of the bigger world provide a backdrop to the individual micro-crises for a wonderful variety of ordinary characters. The attraction of these books is the juxtaposition of the ordinary course of life against the larger picture that tries to exert itself, but somehow fails.

A most enjoyable read.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Abigail Adams by Woody Holton ****

Coverture is the legal principle that husband and wife are one person - the husband. In Abigail Adams by Woody Holton we see a detailed example of a 18th century woman who believed coverture was unfair and successfully worked around it for herself and her female relatives.

There is undoubtedly more documentation on Abigail Adam's life two centuries ago than there is for yours or mine. Two factors contributed to the treasure trove of over 1,200 letters documenting her life. First, she lived in a time of written communications: letters, not the ephemeral verbal and electronic communication of today. But more important, and specific to Adams, for much of her life she was separated from her husband John Adams as he worked on the Declaration of Independence, United States Constitution, international negotiations with France and England, and the job of Vice President and President of the United States. The geographical separation of husband and wife, in a time before telephones and Internet, yielded a extensive volume of letters.

Most interesting, these letters revealed how Abigail amassed a large personal (contrary to the principle of coverture) fortune and used these resources during her life-time and managed to pass it on to her female relatives.

The book provides a unique view of the founding of the United States from the female point-of-view. Perhaps of more interest is Adams life-long drive to provide education and financial resources to all women.

The extensive source material is a two-edge sword: one the positive side, much is known about the life of Abigail Adams. One the negative side, so much detail slows the narrative, as much of daily life is reported in repetitive detail.

An excellent choice for history buffs.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Night and Day by Robert B Parker ****

Did you ever notice that most hardback novels are the same size? 9 1/2 " x 6" and 1 1/4" How does this work? It's done with font size, line spacing, and margins - all tricks students now learn in junior high when writing 5 page essays. Publishers can also fudge the paper thickness. Compare Night and Day by Robert B Parker with under 300 pages and 50,000 words (hardly a novel at all, maybe a novella) with Handle with Care by Jodi Picoult with over 400 pages and 150,00 words - both virtually the same physical size.

Night and Day is the eighth novel (novella?) featuring Jesse Stone, a Jimmy Stewart-like character who's clipped sentences make me imagine the author is being charged by the word. He's certainly no Dickens, who was paid by the word.

Anyway what is this mystery about: Sex - preadolescent sex. A junior high principal who checks the girls for appropriate underwear, a peeping tom, a swinger's club, and, of course, Jesse's ex-wife who sleeps with whomever might advance her career. Given the contents, don't be surprised that much of the other dialogue concerns immature sexual innuendos and much sophomoric tittering.

Maybe, my best recommendation is that it is short and without surprises.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

This Time is Different by Carmen M Reinhart & Kenneth S Rogoff ***

This Time Is Different is a heavy Economics book, full of dense text and graphs. What could possibly be learned from this academic tome? Three things: First, the financial crisis of 2007 and on-going is just more of the same as demonstrated from 800 years of data from 66 countries around the world. Second, that same crisis is on the large end of the scale and there is no reason to think recovery will arrive this year or next. Third, I was an Economics major in college because I find this stuff fascinating, something I have denied since graduation.

If you didn't just love the Economics courses you took in college, or if you didn't take any Economics courses in college, you can safely skip this one ... otherwise the graphs were scintillating and the time lines can keep you up at night. ROFL.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

9 Dragon by Michael Connelly *****

What's your least favorite plot device? As a father of two daughters and two granddaughters, mine is kidnapping daughters. I can see its recent popularity as a recognition of the increased value of daughters in the modern world. Daughters are no longer burdens or second-class progeny. Also, these story lines tend to have more competent fathers than the usual insensitive bumblers. However, regardless of these pluses, I still prefer not to see daughters threatened in any way. It seems like such a gross demand for emotions, up there with killing babies (baby animals included).

With that caveat, Nine Dragons is another wonderful novel by Michael Connelly. In a mystery centered around a liquor store murder in South LA and the already mentioned kidnapping of Harry Bosch's daughter in Hong Kong, the action is fast, investigation detailed, and the plot refreshingly logical. Also, the kidnapping, while ever present, is not over played and the daughter's jeopardy is mostly off page.

Michael Connelly is a brave writer who is not afraid to kill off supporting characters and an economical one who resolves subplots sooner rather than later. Both these keep the tension and pace moving quickly. Don't start this book if you have a lot of commitments over the next few days - perfect of a down weekend.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Pride and Avarice by Nicholas Coleridge ****

Have you ever read a book where you just wanted to shake the characters and scream, "No! Don't do it!" Certainly Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is one of the most popular and well-done of this genre. Pride and Avarice by Nicholas Coleridge is another, though beyond the character's inability to see the consequences of their action, nothing else seems to support the similarity of the titles.

Pride and Avarice tells the story of two very rich men, one evil and the other good, and their wives and children. This is a book of middle-school emotions and Sunday school morals. In the end, the good are rewarded and the evil are punished, and unfortunately, justice is meted out by the chance and circumstance, rarely by the direct actions of the characters, with accidents and illnesses playing a major role.

However, don't let the flat characters and transparent plotting deprive you of the joy of this fast moving and entertaining read. Anyone can enjoy the voyeuristic thrill of the rich as they compete in fashion, parties, recreation, and business. When the author is describing shooting parties, holidays in the Mediterranean, fancy dress, or boardroom intrigue, his eye for detail is precise and fascinating.

I also found a (guilty) superior pleasure being so much smarter than these ultra-rich. Well-written and fast, this is a summer read than can be enjoyed by all.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall Smith ****

Botswana. What do you know about Botswana? Did you answer "Botswana? It's in Africa, isn't it?" I'm certain the answer would be more confident for the Kalahari Desert, which comprises the majority of the land in Botswana and featured prominently in the popular The God's Must Be Crazy. Recently Botswana was also popularized by an HBO special based on the charming books by Alexander McCall Smith.

From the first book: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency to the tenth: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, this series unfolds the tales of Mma Precious Ramotswe (a traditionally-build pillar of wisdom and tranquility) and Mma Grace Makutsi (a cyclone of perfection and innocent prejudice) as they solve the human mysteries in their corner of Botswana.

The books combine the charm of Botswana, with low-key, non-violent investigations into suspected infidelities, petty theft, and misunderstandings. Without the body count so prevalent in today's mysteries, the adventures of these two ladies hold the reader's interest while intertwining the culture of Botswana.

A pleasant read for all ages and a reason to visit Botswana as soon as possible, before it becomes like Kenya - a tourist trap of staged culture and high-pressure sales.