Saturday, December 28, 2013

Nameless, Blameless Reproduction by JACH MD *****

"Welcome Baby Hope" is the story of Baby Hope's journey from her mother's death during her birth, through the child services bureaucracy as an HIV orphan, to her glorious victory as a modern medical miracle.

This inexplicably-titled Nameless, Blameless Reproduction by JACH MD is a wonderfully written novel, first in the voice the Hope's new mother who attended her C-section birth, and then the voice of her new uncle who happens to be gay. Much of the narrative is educational --- HIV treatments, adoption procedures, stem cell technology, ... --- but the narrative is so engaging that these long section of explanation do not slow the story or bore the reader.

Whether you are just interested in the plight of Baby Hope or want to know more about adoption and stem cell therapy, this is the book for you. Simply excellent.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on December 1, 2013. I received the book on December 9, 2013. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

THe Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert *****

Modern frogs appeared about 250 million year ago, about the same time as the dinosaurs. However, unlike the dinosaurs, they survived the K-T mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs. With this track record of survival, the fact that frogs are now becoming extinct -- world-wide -- is a surprise. This and more is explained in The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert.

Kolbert is a journalist, world traveler, explorer, and naturalist. With a mix of first-person reports and discussions with scientists, she explores the reason for current wave of extinctions. Historically there have been five major extinction event in the last 500 million year ... certainly not a very common event. These rare events are do not share a common cause. Drivers include: impact of extraterrestrial objects, glaciers/drop in sea level, and volcanic activity.

Similarly, the current, sixth, extinction is also different. While the news is full of stories about climate change and destruction of habitat, the real reason might be the homogenization of global flora and fauna. When there are many niches, many species are supported, but when flora and fauna expand globally, one a few species survive.

If you are interested in a mixture of adventure and science, along with the future of the life on planet Earth, this is the book for you.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on December 3, 2013. I received the book on December 12, 2013.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Cure to Die For by Stephen G Mitchell ****

What happens when you cross "one of the most poisonous plants on earth" from Mongolia with marijuana from the good ole USA? You get pot that cures everything from the common cold to cancer ... all types of cancers. If that science really bothers you, you can stop reading now.

However, if you can suspend disbelief, A Cure to Die For by Stephen G Mitchell could be the book for you. This book is a mash-up of an allegory in support of legalizing marijuana and speculative fiction on the implication of such a miracle drug.

The story travels from Marina del Rey to Indian reservations  in Montana and Arizona to a big estate in Virginia to Rancho Cucamonga to the jungle in Mexico.  People impacted by this miracle drug include the entire medical establishment, but especially pharmaceutical companies which would obviously kill to prevent this drug becoming generally known or available. On the other side is a wide range of folk with various terminal cancers. In the middle are idealistic scientists, just plain nice people, and, of course, crooked politicians and drug dealers.

In a tale with a pleasantly surprising low body count, the fate of this miracle drug twists and turns with one surprising resurrection after another. The book is certainly a fun ride ... a romantic comedy with a subversive political message ... I can't wait for the movie.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on November 11, 2013. I received the book on November 27, 2013. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Drifting Democracy by Pravin Boddu ****

Before you visit India, Drifting Democracy by Pravin Boddu is required reading. India is so different from what you might imagine. Bollywood and high-tech outsourcing is just a tiny fraction of these one an a quarter billion people.

Living in California, I knew many immigrants from India, mostly doctors and engineers. I had also visited many poor countries around the world, and particularly China which I imagined to be similar. China has had a market economy for a similar period (decades). They both have long histories of advanced civilizations and an emphasis on education. In fact, Indians also compare themselves to this neighbor. China is nothing like India! The actual closest point of similarity is the spelling of their names.

When I arrived in India ... I was shocked! Nothing like I expected. Neither China, nor South Africa, nor any other country prepared me for the reality. Pravin Boddu's book might be the best antidote to the shock of seeing India in person. As I said, required reading before any visit, business or pleasure.

As the author points out, India skipped the 20th century. Everyone has wireless devices, but for many reasons: sewers, clean water, reliable electricity, roads, and garbage collection are all missing. The Economist summed the situation up in 2008, "India is a mess."

Without this book, a new visitor will waste time and effort, understanding the depth of the problems and the structural explanations for them. This book explains it all ... in the first four chapters. Non-Indians can safely stop reading after chapter four, and don't let the typos discourage you, this book is well worth your time.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on November 20, 2013. I received the book on November 27, 2013.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Tempest at the Helm by David Hunter ****

Tempest at the Helm by David Hunter is a police procedural set on Knoxville, TN with a couple of murders - the mayor's wife and lover, some crazy people, and generous helpings humor and local color. I found this short novel to be an enjoyable whodunit.

 The characters and the setting were well drawn and engaging. However, three of the men were involved with women exactly 20 years younger than themselves. This seemed a little odd.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, until the end when the author climbed up on a soapbox and got down-right preachy about the problems of veterans.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on October 31, 2013. I received the book on November 7, 2013.

The book starts with a prologue which is confusingly titled foreword.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Hijack in Abstract by Larissa Reinhart ****

Hijack in Abstract by Larissa Reinhart a hybrid of a zany world reminiscent of Carl Hiaasen and a class of spunky heroine like Kinsey Millhone (created by Sue Grafton). Cherry Tucker lives in the small Georgia town of Halo ... where the men are good looking and the women carry shotguns. Where she is an artist with classical aspirations and, as is typical in the genre, an all around busybody with several love interests, but no sex life to speak of.

The current adventure involves hijacking, murder, copper thieves, meth, immigration fraud, lots of different firearms, indentured servitude, blackmail, and small town politics. Cherry is concerned about the welfare of a newly orphaned boy, his destitute grandmother, and the numerous men who maybe or may not be interested in getting into her pants, protecting her, or attacking her, among others. Throughout it all she ignores all the well-meant advice and pushes forward to mess things up ... no ... I meant ... solve the mysteries.

A wonderful light mystery novel, as you might expect from any of the authors mentioned above.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on September 24, 2013. I received the book on October 4, 2013.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Thief of Secrets by Calma Ribeiro ***

The Thief of Secrets by Celma Ribeiro is journey of self discovery written in protagonist Marina's subjective time ... jumping from memories as early as 1979 when she was 12 or 13 to the present the present (1994). Marina is a lost soul, searching herself and the secret of Magellan - as a Brazilian, Magellan is an ancestral hero from a long-lost time of discovery and importance.

Marina's search begins at the most powerful moment of her life when she pulls the trigger on an old rifle and kills her mother's murderer. However, rather than being empowered by this act, she seems to give up her personal agency and, like a message in a bottle at sea (my metaphor), gives herself and her search up to the currents and winds. This search takes across the Atlantic between Brazil and Portugal and back, again and again.

With her mother gone, Marina is raised by her grandmother and the witches net door. These few women in her life offer some comfort, but little support or direction.

Direction in particular is left to a group of men, men who know each other, and appear at unexpected moments and for unknown reasons, during Marina's journey. These men all seems to have unexplainable power over her, both in the physical world directing her movements, and in the mental world, overwhelming her thoughts. Oddly, their direction has more to do with Magellan than with Marina.

Though Marina's voyage is sometimes confusing and often frustrating, I found her to be a sympathetic and engaging character, and in a captivating way, this book was a page turner.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on September 23, 2013. I received the book on September 26, 2013.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Field of Vision by Michael Jarvis ***

Jake Mayfield is an angst-ridden photographer on a small Caribbean island searching for ... well ... I'm not sure what he is looking for.
Every day I go a little farther, working my way up to the cloud forest. Every day I see less sun and spend more time hiking. But the forest is so sublime that I've begun to experience a disorientation ...
The clear focus in Field of Vision by Michael Jarvis is imagery. As Jake Mayfield searches, he voices his photographer's field of vision.
She lies beside me, breaks baked brie over her breasts, flakes of crust litter her skin like confetti and warm cheese drools like blond mud over mounds, drops of apricot almond glaze trickle on the tips and soak nutty-sweet to the skin inside the cloth, quantity far surpassed by flavor, a buttery blob of cheese in my throat and stains of glaze licked from the ends, the sheer lace encasement a barrier now and not to be removed by me the feeder, for I understand my only task.
Jake is hard to pin down. Beyond his photographer's vision, he passes through the rest of his experience without volition or comprehension. This island serves up an ample supply of sex and violence, both of which Jake, like a fantasy explorer, accepts as his due, along with the food and shelter that others provide him along the way

In the end, I found the poetic vision of the tropics more satisfying than Jake's hipste-cool odyssey through a jungle of graphic sex and violence.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on September 7, 2013. I received the book September 11, 2013. 

Friday, October 4, 2013

Miss Anne in Harlem by Clara Kaplan *****

What an extraordinary book! A history of the Harlem Renaissance (1920s and 30s) told through the biographies of courageous white women who supported black civil rights during a time of segregation and lynchings. If you have any interest in the civil rights history of women or African Americans Miss Anne in Harlem by Carla Kaplan, is the book for you.

"Miss Anne" is Harlem slang for any white woman.

The book is wrought with the tension between two ideas ... essentialism: race is in the blood and immutable ... culturalism: race is a cultural construct and changeable. Essentialist support race pride, race power, and race unity, while culturalists support fundamental equality. In today's context, affirmative action is an essentialist or racist policy.

These white women were split between these two ideas, as was/is everyone else.

Essentialists wanted to help, especially through writing. Plays and memoirs were written by white women authors from black points of views. Within Harlem, culturalists (an idea in ascendancy during this period) lauded these excellent tellings of black cultural experience, while the essentialists (sometimes the same people) decried whites presuming to speak for blacks.

Culturalists wanted to became. The called themselves volunteer blacks, often at personal risk and forfeiting their white privileges and social positions. This approach also received mixed responses from the Harlem inhabitants. The Harlem culturalists supported these women, while essentialists resented their interference.

This tension caries forward to this present volume. How does the author justify telling a black history story through the lives of white woman ... is this the black history co-opted to telling a feminism story?

In the end, the stories of woman rights and black right benefit from documenting the intertwined history.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Time of Myths by Chris Blamires **

DISCLOSURE I have a congenital bias for novels with obviously happy endings SPOILER ALERT this was not one of those.

A Time of Myths by Chris Blamires takes place at Woodstock and in London and Greece seventeen years later. Six young people meet at Woodstock and, in the language of the book, "set off half a degree out" from where they should be. When we meet them again in 1986, "the difference to where you should be" is enormous. But more then just six lives are lost. The world is also "also half a degree out" and the mythical promise of Woodstock, showcased as a series of near/potential disasters that are averted by love and good well, is also lost. By 1986, the world is, if not evil, at least brutal and heartless.
So little of this world makes any sense that there's a sadistic need to savor the moment when someone actually gets what's coming to them.
So many myths back then - so useful. You'll find we've killed them with progress, spring cleaning away the magic.
Beyond the glum world view of predetermination of the road to perdition, as a reader, I felt that the style was cryptic and the plot difficult to follow. It seemed to me that the narrative jumped around around in point-of-view and setting.

I was certainly not the ideal reader for this novel which attempts to address some of the most basic questions of life.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on August 26, 2013. I received the book September 10, 2013. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Brazil by Errol Lincoln Uys ***

One of the things I find extremely interesting about Brazil is that the different races (indigenous natives, European colonizers, and African slaves) seem to get along better then the corresponding groups in North America - United States and Caribbean islands are obvious examples with significant African slave populations.

Brazil by Errol Lincoln Uys, a massive historical novel (almost 800 pages of small font) begins to answer the question ... why such different outcomes in similar plantation-based economies? Even though I only made it half-way through the book to the mid-18 century, I believe the those first two-and-a-half centuries lay the foundation for the future, and this saga of the second biggest country in the western hemisphere brings the history to life.

Three factors play play a role in this happy outcome: Population, Priests, and Politics.

From the first, the Portuguese colonies had limited in population and resources. These small colonies couldn't complete dominate the native populations, and successful colonizers had to form  alliances with the indigenous groups. These alliances led to early intermarriages and acceptance of mamelucos  (children of European and native parents), and eventually any mestizo (children of mixed parents).

Second were the Jesuits who came in early and protected the native populations. The Jesuits probably deserve credit for the preventing the genocides that were seen in North America.

Finally, the politics in Europe kept tiny Portugal (and by proxy Brazil) constantly under threat.

Together, whether native to Brazil, or immigrant, either voluntary or involuntary, all inhabitants had to stick together to keep Brazilian society alive. Everyone counted, no one ruled.

An interesting story for sure.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on August 16, 2013. I received the book August 21, 2013. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Endangered Species by Vaulte Kamish ****

Are you missing Terry Pratchett since his unfortunate health challenges have slowed the wonderful stream of Discworld Novels? Well you might enjoy Endangered Species by Vaulte Kamish with a similar mixture of off-beat humor, unreality, and topical satire.

The book is full of unexpected turns,
He tried anything to buck her off - twisting, flapping, dropping to the ground, the Marcarena.
and surprises,
... he bit her in the crotch. She squealed and let go.

But what is the excuse for this chaos and mayhem? A global cooking contest with fame, fortune, and the future of the planet at stake. The cooks all searching for exotic tastes from endangered animals like ...
Two velocarabbits, a snaggle-toothed platypus, a vulture penguin, albino air leeches, and an Anaerobic Tiger-tailed Viper!

As promised, a fun adventure in hyperbole and social commentary.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on August 1, 2013.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Source*Forged Armor by Paul J Bartusiak **

Source*Forged Armor by Paul J Bartusiak is an old-fashioned spy thriller with omniscient point-of-view, and omniscient characters. John Angstrom works for DARPA reviewing proposals for an innovative design for a MAV -- Marine Amphibious Vehicle -- and Professor Czolski is a genius professor in St Petersburg  willing to trade superior Russian technology for his freedom.

Throw in a few twists and a couple of beautiful women and the trade is made.

This was a very fast read as the omniscient style meant that much of the writing was redundant since character dialogue was interspersed with  inner dialogue from all participants.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on July 29, 2013. I received the book on August 8, 2013. 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty *****

The women: Tess's husband has fallen in love with her best friend, Rachel's daughter was murdered, and Cecilia's husband has a secret. Actually, as in real life, everyone has secrets ... from their partners, their parents, their children, and themselves. This intricately plotted novel (I think of Dickens) is about introspection, fear and self-discovery.

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty follows the journeys of these three women from (sometimes blissful) ignorance to ambiguous knowledge. Though the book references Pandora, knowing is ambiguous, sometimes leading to understanding and sometimes to resignation.

This is marketed as a "book club favorite," and it is easy to see how this story can lead to interesting sharing and personal discussions.

My only difficulty was that the main character were very similar in very similar situations, so the character names were the main cues as to which one was acting in each situation. Since I am not good with names, I found myself often confused. Regardless, the plot was terrific and I'd recommend the book to anyone wanting to read about contemporary people/parents and their quotidian struggles.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on July 29, 2013. I received the book on August 8, 2013. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Prostate Monologues by Jack McCallum *****

I am a few days away from a prostate biopsy, so I found The Prostate Monologues by Jack McCallum especially timely and relevant.

 As McCallum points out so well, prostate cancer is currently a puzzle, some medical people even want to change the name to prostatic epithelial neoplasia ... like that could help anything. Part of the puzzle is the currently popular screening test: the PSA test. For a favorable test result (say 2.5), some men are close to death, and for a unfavorable result (say 4.5) some men are in no danger. However, if you have a result is like 800, you ARE close to death.

After that there are the treatments. There is no obvious advantage between radiation, regular prostatectomy, and robotic prostatectomy. All offer a chance for incontinence and/or impotence in exchange for chance to fix a problem that might not have existed to begin with ... or not.

McCallum does a great job to provide a balanced view with lots of interviews with doctors and patients. Anyone who knows what a DRE is should read book.

If you can forget your (or your partner's) prostate, the book raises an interesting philosophy of science question. What is the role of anecdote in science? Traditionally anecdote is an anathema  to scientists. This book points out that after the research is delivered to practitioners and patients, anecdote rules.

Consider the current controversy on PSA testing. Urologists who see people die of prostate cancer - their universe of anecdotes - recommend lots of testing and treatment. While general practitioners who see a incontinence and impotency after treatment - their universe of anecdotes - are against testing and treatment. That leaves the poor patient confused in their little universe of anecdotes. The beauty of this book is that it extends the patient's world of anecdotes.

That helps ... or not.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on August 6, 2013. I received the book on August 13, 2013. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Man Who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall ****

Do you like the #1 Ladies Detective Agency? The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall has India's Most Private Investigator. The former has Mma Precious Ramotswe from Botswana, while the latter has Vish Puri from India. After that they are a similar mix of local color, family, and strange crimes.

I read this book for two reasons. First, I am planning to visit India and wanted to the local color. Second, I am a big fan of Alexander McCall Smith (author of #1 Ladies Detective Agency) and appreciate light detective/mystery fiction.

Readers interested in a pleasant journey to India with some light mystery will not be disappointed. However, I found these book less readable that the McCall Smith books. The rant at the end might explain some of this, but not all.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on July 15, 2013. I received the book on July 27, 2013.

Rant alert: This book has glossary of unfamiliar terms. I despise the idea of a glossary in a work of fiction. First, it interrupts the flow of the narrative to stop and page the back of the book to find a word in the glossary. But worse it creates confusion as the the responsibility for readability. In a normal book, the writing is meant to be readable. The is often accomplished by defining foreign or obscure terms as they are used. However, in the case of the glossary, the responsibility is split leaving the reader confused and asking, "Am I supposed to understand this or has this been delegated to the glossary." In the worst case, the reader doesn't understand and interrupts the story to check the glossary and nothing is there. Here are a few examples of worse case words from this book.

Crore: 10 million. This used a lot and not included in the glossary, even though lakh (100 thousand) is included.

Delli Wallah: Also used a lot. It means someone from Dehli.

Peg: Ubiquitous. This is a generic alcoholic drink, maybe similar to shot.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on July 15, 2013. I received the book on July 27, 2013.