Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pampered to Death by Laura Levine ****

What's not to like about a witty, sarcastic heroine named Jaine Austen and her spoiled cat named Prozac trapped in a weight-loss spa with movie stars, a supermarket checkout clerk, and the diet Nazi? In between her snide judgements on everyone in sight and her escapades to procure snacks for herself and Prozac, she solves the murder mystery.

Pampered to Death by Laura Levine is certainly a guilty pleasure kind of book. Jaine Austen's mixture of self-deprecation, brutal self-honesty, and superiority to everyone else is endearing. When the diet Nazi confiscates her snacks, and even meaner, Prozac's treats, I felt like I should run to cupboard to gobble down a sympathetic treat. When Prozac stole one of the spa's koi, I was rooting for her to dine on her purloined catch.

But in line with Jaine Austen's tolerant attitude, except for the required death to make this a murder mystery, everyone else turns out just fine.

A good book to accompany Ben & Jerry and hot fudge sauce.

Echo by Jack McDevitt **** 2010 370

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Echo by Jack McDevitt ****

Echo by Jack McDevitt is new science fiction in the classic optimistic model (as opposed to the classic dystopic model). This is a novel of space exploration during a time of intergalactic peace. Science and technology have solved most problems except the human kind: hubris, jealousy, greed, and guilt. McDevitt's well-drawn characters demonstrate ample quantities of these qualities and many other of the timeless human foibles.

McDevitt has put together an intricate mystery of first contact - certainly a classic theme. While the characters visit the far reaches of the galaxy, they do it with a minimum of exposition. This is a particularly classic touch, as many of the newer SF writers seems so enamored with their tech that they forget to be storytellers and fall back on stilted textbook exposition.

The mystery is also wrapped up at the end with several clever reveals - making this book a pleasure from beginning to end. If you love SF from the 50s and 60s, you'll love this too.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Wicked River: the Mississippi by Lee Sandlin ****

Wicked River: The Mississippi by Lee Sandlin recounts the history of the Mississippi during the first part of the nineteenth century from before the War of 1812 through the Civil War. Even though Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were a published decades later, this is the period Mark Twain wrote about.

Rather than telling the story chronologically, Sandlin covers the period with chapters on different aspects of the culture and historical events, including pirates, the Madrid earthquake, commerce, the Battle for Vicksburg, slave insurrections, and panoramas.

Panoramas? What was a Mississippi panorama? The panoramas were typically canvas paintings 20 feet high and several hundred yards long. They contained paintings of life and scenery along the river. These were the precursor to movies. People gathered in theaters and watched the panorama scrolled scrolled across the stage to the accompaniment of a narrator and music. The scenes included dramatic wilderness and current events like floods.

I found the book fascinating with its combination of hard history and details from daily life. Sandlin draws on a wide variety of sources from old newspapers and broadsheets to diaries and letters. This is a casual reader with each chapter relatively independent of the others.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Quantum Man by Lawrence M Krauss ****

Like many boomers, I have are morbid fear of acting my age, especially as my age keeps increasing. I constantly strive to join the next generation or the one after that - the generation of my kids and even my grandkids. Some times I succeed, like playing War of Warcraft, but others ... like rock climbing for example ... I am just resigned to be left behind.

One such generational challenge is physics. My generation learned physics (I took two years of the stuff at MIT) before quantum electrodynamics (QED) really took hold. In order to catch up, I try to read a (popular) book on quantum physics every few year in the hope that eventually it will become clear to me.

Quantum Man by Lawrence M Krauss is just such a book. The author follows the discovery and evolution or QED and QCD through the life story of Richard Feynman, one the the great physicists of the 20th century. Unfortunately the book is neither science or biography, but a mixture of both, and left me wanting more science and more biography.

I felt that the author was so close to his subject - he is a physicist and knew Feynman personally - that he assumed too much of his readers. Even with my previous knowledge of QED and Feynman, I found many sections too abbreviated. Many biographical points were touched just briefly, as for example Feynman's long relationship with strip clubs, and many points of quantum physics were described as historical disagreements without ever clearly presenting the ultimate resolution.

The biography and science presented were interesting, even if incomplete.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Choir Director by Carl Weber ****

The Choir Director by Carl Weber opens with the departure of a mega-church's choir director, immediately leading to a decline in attendance (and offerings) and a financial crisis. As might be expected from a fast-moving romance/thriller, things get worse both for the personal lives and the church. The romance centers around the new choir director - the sexy Aaron Mackie - and three women: spoiled rich girl Simon, slutty Porche, and prime and proper Tia. In addition to the ubiquitous "romance," there is plenty of mayhem: murder/suicide, embezzlement, fraud, and blackmail. For the final quarter of the book, I couldn't put it down.

For thriller fans, the plot has many twist and turns and surprising reveals, much from characters (and the reader) making mistaken assumptions leading to detrimental consequences. For the romance fans, a warning: the author is male, thus the women are perpetually in heat and the men in control.

Finally, the book can be easily improved by skipping the prologue, which I imagine was added late in the game to satisfy some aging, out-of-touch editor, and includes much irrelevant and embarrassing gay bashing.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell ****

Eva Bigtree is the youngest daughter of the Bigtree tribe, home schooled and in training to follow in her mother's wake swimming through and wrestling with the alligators at the family business: Swamplandia! - a tourist attraction in Florida. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell is the surrealistic tale of of the aftermath of the death of Hilola Bigtree, Eva's mom and the star of Swamplandia!

When Hilola dies, Swamplandia! attendance decreases until the ferry from the mainland no longer makes the stop at Swamplandia! Grandpa Sawtooth is shipped off to the Out to Sea rest home. Patriarch Chief Bigtree disappears on an extended business trip. Eva's brother Kiwi goes off to seek his fortune at the competition: World of Darkness - a hell-themed amusement park. Her sister Osceola falls in love with a ghost and elopes.

As the last remaining Bigtree at Swamplandia!, Eva sets off to find her sister on a voyage across the swamp reminiscent of Odysseus. In a parallel journey, Kiwi searches for his place among the mainlanders and the Chief. In this upside world of dysfunction, children are responsible to rescue their parents and older siblings.

Russell evocatively mixes poetic writing, all too human emotions and the fantastic for a wonderful tale of a family under stress - an uplifting testament to the strength in all of us.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

How I Killed Pluto by Mike Brown *****

How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming is a wonderful mixture of love, intrigue, and science recounting the events leading up to the demotion of Pluto from planet to dwarf planet - the reduction in the number of planets from nine to eight.

Planets (meaning wanderers) originally included the seven wandering celestial lights commemorated in the seven days of the week: Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. As our view of the solar system changed, the Sun and the Moon were removed from the list, and Earth was added. New discoveries led to additions (Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto) and deletions (when the first asteroids were discovered the were declared to be planets, temporarily bring the total in the neighborhood of a couple of dozen in the 19th century). Ultimately all the asteroids were demoted to ... asteroids.

As Mike Brown discovered more large bodies beyond Neptune (a.k.a. The Kuiper belt), it was deja vu all over again bringing us to our current understand of the solar system (starting are the Sun: four terrestrial planets, the asteroid belt, four giant planets, and the Kuiper belt).

But this book is so much more than the science - during this time Brown courted and married his wife, had a baby, and had one of his discoveries stolen through an Internet hack. In addition, the decision to reclassify Pluto was wrapped up in the politics of the International Astronomical Union - the society of astronomers responsible for keeping track and naming the stuff out there, re-defining Barycentric Dynamical Time (huh?), and other issues generally important to very few people.

If you are interested in science, research, or scientists, this is a book of people and principles. I recommend it especially to anyone with middle school children who might be interested or can be interested in a career in science - any science.