Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Black Stiletto by Raymond Benson ***

Martin Talbot's mother has Alzheimer's, so her lawyer figures it is okay to release her death-or-incapacitated letter to her son. This is how Martin learns that pre-women's liberation, his mother was a masked vigilante - The Black Stiletto.

In this first volume of the series The Black Stiletto  fights petty crooks, mobsters, and commies. First of a series? How can you tell? Well, The Black Stiletto by Raymond Benson, leaves lots of clues. This novel presents the first volume of her found diaries. The promotional material (a tongue-in-cheek newscaster, comic and movie covers, and even a 1950s-style jazz song) indicates a longer period of activity then covered in this premier effort. More annoyingly, Martin's daughter is introduced as a teaser for later volumes.

Beyond these hints, Raymond is the author of "several original James Bond 007 novels," so he certainly understands the value of a franchise, and can't not be faulted for wanting one of his own.

Is The Black Stiletto worthy of becoming a franchise? While this is an interesting read, I found the conceit and setup distracting in a middle-of-the-pack mystery effort. A pleasant read, but unlikely to be the next James Bond or, even, Austin Powers.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty by Dan Ariely ***

In The (Honest)Truth About Dishonesty, Professor of Psychology Dan Ariely recounts dozens of experiments ... mostly, I assume, on unsuspecting undergraduates. It seems that academic psychologists never tire of tricking undergraduates with various games that I imagine the psychologists take much more seriously that their subjects. After all the undergraduates are in it for a few dollars for beer and pizza, but the very livelihood of the academic depends on the papers derived from these activities.

CAVEAT: If you heard about this book on a NPR interview, don't bother to read it. As an avid NPR listener - I listen to many public-radio podcasts when I walk each morning - most of the book was familiar from these interviews.

The most interesting result was that
individuals who were more creative also had higher levels of dishonesty. Intelligence ... wasn't correlated ... with dishonesty.
On the other hand neither the amount to be gained nor the chance of being apprehended had much impact on cheating.

IRONY: One of the quotes of praise on the book jacket is from Jonah Lehrer, who was recently forced to resign from the New Yorker staff for fabricating quotes.

In the end, the author ponders, as academics have a tendency to do, how to stop all this cheating - especially petty theft. He makes an (unconvincing) argument that the cost of petty theft much out weighs the big headlines (e.g., Enron, Mortgage-Backed Securities). Without considering that there is little effort to curb petty theft, he jumps into a modern-day version of self flagellation.

A fine book for voyeurs who enjoy laughing at undergraduates and others who are not as smart as the reader or the author.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Cut by George Pelecanos *****

Spero Lucas is a man of details - food, dress, music, neighborhoods, movies, really nothing goes unnoticed. In these details Spero earns his living as a freelance investigator and George Pelecanos renders a setting more reminiscent of high fantasy that an inner-city thriller.

In the The Cut by George Pelecanos, Spero accepts a simple job to recover some stolen property. Well not that simple as the stolen property consists of several shipments of illegal drugs. Well not that illegal, just marijuana. Well there is also the problem of the two murders ... and the crooked cops ... and Spero two girlfriends ... and the nice inner-city boy who should really be applying to college ... and it just continues like that.

Aside from the excellent descriptions, George Pelecanos has more characters that the reader really cares about than most thrillers ... especially than those by best selling authors (they know who they are), and these characters are on both sides of the good/bad line. The result is a thriller of more depth and complexity than the ordinary tough-guy thriller.

Did I mention that Spero is an ex-marine and leaves a trail of body  wherever he goes for you action junkies?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Fringe-ology by Steve Volk ****

Nobel-winner Albert Szent-Gyorgyi said
Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.
When author Steve Volk slightly mis-quotes Szent-Gyorgyi in Fringe-ology, his point was that while science professes to be rational, logical and, most importantly, explainable; much scientific discovery is mysterious and inexplicable.

Why does science have these two contradictory sides, but only admits to one? The author's answer is that humans do not like to say/think/feel: "I don't know." When you get past all the UFOs, ghosts, and other paranormal anecdotes, this is the bottom line: No one wants to admit "I don't know." This underlies the behavior of rationalists, skeptics, atheists, fundamentalists, and fanatics of all colors and stripes. In this way both the strident rationalists and fundamentalists share a common fervor and close-mindedness.

Volk explains this with reference to the amygdala, fight-or-flight, and evolution, but this explanation seems like more of what the author is so intent on debunking ... nobody really knows why, but nobody (author included) wants to admit "I don't know."

If you don't have a current list of important questions where your answer is "I don't know," you should read this book. It might be helpful, but really, "I don't know."

P.S. Note there are three Steve Volks. The American writer Steve Volk and the British writer Stephen Volk both write about the supernatural. What are the odds? The third Steve Volk is a history professor at Oberlin. Isn't the Internet wonderful?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Cinnamon Roll Murder by Joanne Fluke ****

In the latest cookbook mystery (#16: Cinnamon Roll Murder) by Joanne Fluke, it looks like one of Hannah Swenson's two boyfriends is finally going to get married, and not to Hannah. While detective Mike Kingston is still alive and available, Hannah is distraught that Doctor Bev has convinced dentist Norman Rhodes to tie the knot with her. One might imagine that Hannah might take this as lesson to stop her fickle ways and grab Mike, but instead she and her sisters and mother set about to break up the wedding plans.

Oh yes, there is also a murder that needs to be solved, but all of this is just filler. For this book is really about comfort food. Much of the book centers around cooking and eating the twenty-two (fourteen of them desserts) recipes included. The recipes include chatty advice, like using a silverware-drawer teaspoon (not a measuring teaspoon) to place cookies on the cookie sheet, clever tips like pour leftover coffee into an ice cube tray to use to cool coffee without diluting it.

Definitely recommended for anyone looking for some new dessert ideas along the line of Pucker Up Lemon Cake and Chocolate Avocado Sinco de Cocoa Cookies.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Power Play by Ben Bova ****

Power Play by Ben Bova is a near-future Science Fiction thriller - think of it as a cross between James Paterson and Michael Crichton. This novel of politics and corruption moves quickly as Dr Jake Ross, a junior, nontenured member of the Astronomy faculty at a public University, gets drawn into a world of political sex and violence. However, as with most hybrid forms, it has something to disappoint everyone.

Most Science Fiction readers will be familiar with Ben Bova - winner of six Hugo awards as editor of  Analog Science Fiction and writer a hard science fiction. However, these readers will be disappointed as Power Play is light on science. After imagining MHD (magnetohydrodynamics) as a practical power generation process, there is little more for SF readers, unless you count the ancient SF trope of women as eye candy and casual sex partners. This is certainly not a plus.

On the other hand, a reader coming to Power Play looking from a thriller will be disappointed. In spite of three murders and a kidnapping, no one the reader cares about is ever in jeopardy, so the tension isn't there. For example, consider Monster, a mob enforcer. In spite of being billing as someone who breaks legs, he is also an elementary school buddy of our hapless protagonist Jake Ross - so not much of a threat

So not a thriller, and not Science Fiction, ... maybe a mystery. Maybe ... if you don't bring genre expectations, Power Play is a pleasant light read with a little something for everyone.