Thursday, October 27, 2011

Dead Zero by Stephen Hunter **

Dead Zero by Stephen Hunter is another novel in the continuing saga of Bob Lee Swagger, USMC sniper. However, it seems that, by his own confession in the acknowledgements, Hunter has run out of ideas. This plot is borrowed from Death of a Thin-Skinned Animal by Patrick Alexander (out of print, 1976), updated and made very silly.


The plot, full of Hunter's standard fare: macho Marines, catalogues of armaments and accessories, and violent fire fights, all builds to a bizarre climax with a Rube Goldberg device to target a missile at the Rose Garden, a location certainly well known within the accuracy required for the available kill zone. A wonderful example of the unbelievable motivated by the unnecessary, but this is what happens when a popular author is out of ideas.

Still , if you are a fan of USMC sniper Bob Lee Swagger, this is probably the next must read in the series.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

D is for Deadbeat by Sue Grafton ****

"D" is for Deadbeatby Sue Grafton is another murder in Santa Teresa solved by Kinsey Millhone. As usual, a pleasant read.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr ****

Set in the desert of southwest New Mexico and western Texas, near Carlsbad Caverns (where the book was purchased), Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr opens as Anna Pidgeon, National Park Service (NPS) ranger, discovers the corpse of another NPS ranger, apparently killed by a mountain lion. While the NPS, the FBI, and local law enforcement all accept this at face value, Anna finds many of the details suspicious.

First, the corpse was found in the midst of an area of saw grass, yet the corpse was free of scratches. Even more suspicious, the experienced ranger had packed for hiking in the back country, but didn't pack any water. This sets the tone for the story that follows. Anna is a careful observer of life in the desert. This is a murder where the clues are delivered by the unique environment of the southwestern desert: climate, terrain, flora and fauna, making this book as much an enjoyable excursion into the desert as a whodunit.

The only flaw (certainly unavoidable and forgivable) is the obsolete technological plots points from 1993. This includes the limited pictures on a roll of film and the delays required for them to be developed. Also the challenges of finding a public telephone.

Overall a fine nature book and western yarn.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Dinosaur Hunters by Homer Hickam ***

You remember Homer Hickam, the author of the memoir Rocket Boys, which was made into the movie October Sky. His latest novel is The Dinosaur Hunter. Mike Wire is a former LAPD Homicide Detective (stop me if you heard this before), now living as a ranch hand in eastern Montana. As you might have guessed to setting and characters are comfortable and familiar: taciturn, tough, independent ranchers, mistrusted outsiders, survivalists concerned about black helicopters, guns, rodeo, two-stepping, ...

The new wrinkle is Dr Pickford, a paleontologist, with his two sexy lady assistants. Indeed, much of the book is dedicated to the details of paleontological field work, theories about the life of T Rex, of course, the famous K-T extinction - incidentally not caused by the meteor this time.

This is a book with written with Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park etc.) in mind, but I felt that thriller/mystery part of the formula was patched on with rather flimsy plotting and resolved in a deus ex machina way.

In this end, this is a pleasant read of comfortable cliches about modern cowboys and the idyllic life of the untamed west. If you expect no more than a pleasant few hours of reading, you will not be disappointed.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Home for Broken Hearts by Rowan Coleman ***

The Home for Broken Hearts by Rowan Coleman chronicles Ellen Wood and her son Charlie a year after the tragic death of her husband Nick. In order to balance her budget she takes in three boarders: Sabine, on trial separation from her husband, Allegra, septuagenarian writer of hot romance novels, and Matt, a writer for a sleazy men's magazine. Into this mix is added, Hannah, Ellen's much younger sister.

Amid much angst and introspection, Ellen works through her grief and resulting agoraphobia, Matt struggles with his life as a exploiter of women, and everyone else does their best to play their unsurprising, stereotypical roles.

From the Book Club Guide:
Ellen's pivotal moment of power, confidence, and clarity occurs when she dons her green dress and sexy undergarments. Go to your book club meeting dressed up in the outfit that make you feel your most self-assured.
Aside from the obvious, my biggest disappointment was the lack of resolution around the dead husband Nick. Nick was a possessive, controlling, demanding, and cheating husband. He isolated Ellen from all outside contact and interests and then abandoned her emotionally. Her agoraphobia was much in place before he died. As the poster child for an abusive husband, he got off very lightly. Much more was said about the emotional risks of sexual fantasies and consensual sex.

Don't waste you time.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury ****

Chocolate Wars by Deborah Cadbury is a dense, comprehensive history of chocolate candy. Comprehensive? Yes! Topics include: development and manufacture of a wide variety of current and historical chocolate products, international aspects of growing and marketing chocolate, political, social, and business history, family histories, and biographies of the major players. The book includes the major chocolate companies: Hershey, Mars, Cadbury, Lindt, Houten, Nestle, and others. So comprehensive that most readers will find some parts of great interest and other parts that are best skimmed over.

As might be imagined by the author's name, the main thread is the cradle to death history of Cadbury. The company was started by Quakers. The beginnings were touch and go as they struggled to find a business and product formula that might be successful. In the 19th century, many companies were struggling to find a chocolate product that could be manufactured consistently, delivered to consumers without spoiling, and tasty.

Once the company was successful, the challenge was to deploy their riches in a way consistent with their Quaker ideals. At the turn of the 20th century, their goals coincided for the growing labor and public welfare movements. In England, the various Quaker businesses had a positive impact on public policy.

However, starting with World War I, the business climate changed with the rise of bigger, profit-oriented businesses. This was the beginning of the decline of Cadbury as moral force and an independent organization. The final demise did not occur until almost 100 years later.

This is an excellent book which can be read as general history, evolution of social policy, condemnation of modern business, or, even, the history of chocolate candy. Truly, something for everyone.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Summer the South by Cathy Houlton *****

Summer in the South by Cathy Houlton opens with Ava Dabrowski, grown daughter of peripatetic, hippie mom Clotilde, struggling to write a novel which writing while working at an ad agency in Chicago. In frustration she quits her job and accepts a room for the summer in rural Tennessee from a friend from school, Will Fraser, with an old southern family. Imagine the child of a live-for-moment hippie in with a family who consider everyone who made their money after the War of 1812 to be new money.

This is a great novel, not because it is yet another obituary for the antebellum south, though it is partially that; nor because it is yet another condemnation of an arrogant aristocracy, though it is partially that also. At its core, Summer in the South, is about finding identity in the 21st century.

The protagonists are struggling to find themselves in a world of overwhelming parents and ancestors. Eva constantly tries to reconcile her life with her mother's and her estranged father's, while Will is saddled with 200 years of family history and secrets. In the end both have to break with the past, and learn to be their own person. The way this unfolds makes this novel compelling and enlightening.

I found the climax and resolution surprising, believable and hopeful.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Proofiness by Charles Seife **

Proofiness by Charles is a goofy, hyperbolic book about other people using math in goofy and hyperbolic ways. Think of as a meta snake oil about the sale of snake oil.

Much of the book is a rehash of old stories about Vietnam War statistics, gerrymandering, interpolation of the census, the Bush-Dole election, capital punishment and other predominantly liberal issues. If you haven't followed these issues from a quantitative point of view, you might find this interesting.

I found the detailed analysis of the Franken election in Minnesota fun reading. I was even able to get past the author's love of cutesy invented vocabulary such as proofiness, fruit packing, and Potemkin numbers.

I found the book more goofy than proofy, but since so much was redundant, it was a very fast read.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Solar by Ian McEwan ****

Popular psychology is littered with theories correlating business success with various conditions from Asperger's to sociopathy. Ian McEwan's latest book, Solar, offers a fictional version of these theories. The protagonist, Nobel laureate Micheal Beard, follows in the tradition of Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov (who my illiterate spell checker wants me to replace with Kalashnikov of AK-47 fame) - intelligent, self-obsessed and amoral.

This book is a cautionary tale, so expect Michael Beard to meet a tragic ending. While the dust jacket advertises this as a "darkly satirical" novel, my experience with entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley found the story to be closer to the truth than the author realized or was willing to admit. Especially revealing is Michael Beard's moral gymnastics balancing his accomplishments against the litter of damaged human lives left in his wake.

Note to Science Fiction readers. This is book is perilously close to being SF with its plot dependence on quantum physics, global warming, and speculative approaches to solar energy. Of course, the publisher prefers 'darkly satirical' to 'science fiction', as the latter severely limits the book's financial potential. Read this one and nominate it for a Hugo.

If you enjoy hyper-intelligent psychopaths, and who doesn't, this is a good choice.