Thursday, July 26, 2012

Aunt Dimity & the Village Witch by Nancy Atherton *****

Finch is a idyllic village in the English countryside with a 350-year-old mystery. Aunt Dimity and the Village Witch by Nancy Atherton (the 17th in the series) is a delightful mystery/treasure hunt with only loud voices for violence and courting rituals (that would be recognizable to Austen) for sex.

When the Sunday church services are invaded the by a horde of undesirables,  the minister dispatches them with a long boring sermon. Unruly boys are scolded for peeing in an inappropriate place - quite a scandal. Priorities include getting enough sleep, regular meals, and tea (this is the English countryside), and most important: good gossip.

Lori Shepard, our protagonist, is aided in her quest for the the pages of a 350-year-old manuscript by Reginald - a stuffed rabbit with a pink nose and black button eyes, who is a good listener and always keeps secrets - and by Aunt Dimity - who is long gone from this world, but who communicates by writing in an enchanted journal.

If you like you mysteries without murder, this is one of the best.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Kill Me If You Can by James Patterson et al

Matthew Brannon is the perfect James Patterson protagonist: struggling artist and ex-Marine. In Kill Me If You Can by James Patterson, the living master of the action thriller genre, Matt provides just the right combination of professional solider and sensitive human being ... the killing machine for the 21st century: deadly and sensitive.

What can I say about James Patterson that hasn't been written? Probably nothing, but just to remind you: this book is fast paced with significant plot resolutions throughout, each followed quickly by the next major plot twist. The book is a short novel in 104 very short chapters. But to maintain the "can't put the book down" pacing, the book is divided into smaller stories with their own rising action, climax and resolution.

As might be expected, the bad guy are very bad, and they each receive their well-deserved punishment. Nothing ambiguous, metaphorical, or symbolic here. Dead is dead and well deserved.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje ****

Mynah is an eleven-year-old from a small town in Ceylon, (now Sri Lanka) on the ship Oronsay to England to live with his mother who he hasn't seen in 3-4 years. It's the early 1950s and he and two other young boys (Cassius and Ramadhin) are seated at the The Cat's Table, the antithesis of the Captain's Table, a collection of the passengers with the lowest status.

In Michael Ondaaje's novel of lost innocence, the ship's cargo of strange passengers and cargo slowly unfold. Deep in the hold is a kennel of valuable dogs, and a garden of exotic (and possibly dangerous) plants, and a mural of naked women. The ship is a metaphor for the adult passengers who also reveal strange (and possibly dangerous) depths as the voyage progresses.

The book is written as Mynah's memoir, written years later, and future events are interspersed with the main narrative. By the end, the journey is revealed to be a war between the children (the young boys and several teenage girls) and the adults (crooks, predators, and deceivers; some strangers and some relatives).

This is a literary novel full of excellent characterization and description; each small (unnumbered) chapter is a work of art, but the whole lacks a compelling plot line or any satisfactory resolution. If you enjoy this genre, this is a excellent choice.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google by William Poundstone *****

Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? by William Poundstone is two books in one. I think of it as a puzzle book. With clever puzzles like:
You're handed a deck of cards with N of the cards face-up ... You can't see the cards. How would you split the cards into two piles, with the same number of face-up cards in each pile?
Solution is at the end of this post.

The suggested cataloging is HF5549.5 - Personnel Management. This is the second book: a tutorial on the types of questions popular in Silicon Valley  and other places looking for highly creative and/or intelligent employees. Though the Google connection offers some updated information, most of the advice and puzzles are decades or even centuries old. Since the interviewing advice ends before the middle of the book ... the remainder is puzzles solutions ... I would have cataloged under QA95 - Mathematical Recreations. Though if you are new to the job market for scientists and mathematicians with advanced degrees, it is a good review.

Before the solution of the puzzle, I have a personal note. Arthur C Clarke said,
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Practically this means that the more you know, the less magic there is in the world - sometimes a sad result. In grad school, I had the privilege of taking a problem solving course from Ivan Sutherland. One question that impressed me was the puzzle of why all jumping animals (crickets, rabbits, kangaroos, people, ...) pretty much jump the same height. I've remember this problem for for over 40 years and have always associated it with Ivan. In this book I learned this observation originated in the 17th century by a contemporary of Galileo. My world now has a little less magic.

But here is some magic for your world. Count N cards from the deck and turn that stack over. The proof is left to the reader.

Victory Conditions by Elizabeth Moon ****

Even though Victory Conditions by ex-Marine Elizabeth Moon is the fifth and final installment of her Vatta's War series, it stands alone very nicely ... readers can even (should) skip the chapter one summary. The very young Admiral Ky Vatta has recovered from being kicked out of the Academy to being put in change of the joint forces to defend the free world from the forces of Turek who has been destroying and enslaving planets one system at a time. Space opera at its best ... battle tactics with FTL drives, micro jumps, energy beams, shields, ... updated and well done.

Elizabeth. Elizabeth. Elizabeth. This is space opera for girls and women. In this world, Ky Vatta is the Admiral, her cousin Stella is in line to take over the Vatta commercial interests from her Aunt Grace. When love interest Rafe Dunbarger retires from the head of ISC, his sister Penny will be in charge. Not only are women everywhere, but the subplots are more feminine: teenage lovers, Aunt Grace's relationship with a younger man, and the challenges between career and family life.

A macho genre rewritten for the 21-century.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

MetroGirl by Janet Evanovich *****

Janet Evanovich is the author of the popular series of Stephanie Plum novels - the ones conveniently numbered in their titles (e.g.Sizzling Sixteen). Metro Girl is the first novel in a new series about Alexandra Barnaby (aka Barney). Barney is a auto mechanic. In this first novel of the series, she is on leave from her insurance job (don't ask) trying to rescue her brother (Wild Bill) in a plot that involves smuggling gold and poison gas bombs --- the back story starts with the Cuban Missile Crisis --- from Russia to Cuba to Miami ... and involves both mobsters and federal agencies.

The comic relief/love interest is a NASCAR driver named Hooker. As with other Evanovich books, the possibility of sex and/or violence is always on the verge of the action, but never seems to block the humor.

A pleasant summer read if your idea of action is more along the lines of Bad Boys and Lethal Weapon and not Quentin Tarantino or even Michael Bay.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

I am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley *****

Flavia de Luce is a precocious eleven-year-old girl with interests in poisons (aka Chemistry) and solving murders. She excels at both. In I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley, Flavia solves the murder of an aging movie star, strangled with a length of movie film while demonstrating her knowledge of Chemistry (mustard oil is C4H6NS) and first aid (P-A-D: pressure, antiseptic, dressing). She also learns about the value of a Shakespeare first quarto.

Flavia is a delightful preteen, the sole child in an adult world, equally ignorant of her older sister's boyfriends and adult affairs. However, this innocence doesn't stop her from careful observations and logical deductions. Simply delightful and a must buy for any precocious child in elementary school who can read a 290-page chapter book.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Connectome by Sebastian Seung *

The way your neurons are connected is important. If you find this idea non-obvious,  you might love Connectome by MIT Professor of Computational Neuroscience and Physics Sebastian Seung. On the other hand, if you think this idea is (as they say at MIT): intuitively obvious to the most casual observer, you might find this book hyperbolic, repetitive, and narcissistic.

Before casting any judgement, lets start with the positive. Professor Seung is at the forefront of brain research and his book reviews the current state of affairs covering experiments (researchers have identified a neuron that fires when the observer sees Jennifer Aniston), technology (50 nm microtomes), and breakthroughs (all connections in C elegans have been mapped). The book also place today,s science in context, reviewing all relevant history from both philosophical (what is the soul?) and scientific (history of microscopes) points of view.

If the book had stopped there, it might have been a nice little volume, but for unknown reasons, that wasn't enough. The book goes well beyond science and history. "With great passion and authority," the book pontificates on subjects are varied as mid reading, immortality, and computer intelligence, demonstrating what I think of as the Nobel fallacy --- the idea that winning a Nobel Prize qualifies one to speak on any subject "with great passion and authority."

While much of this volume is fascinating and informative, this is balanced by the remainder that seems redundant (the index lists 10 entries for Jennifer Aniston), pedantic (medial is defined as "close to the plane dividing the left and right ..."), or silly (Is there a God?). There must be better book on the state of neuroscience, if not, wait.