Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel *****

The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel opens with the interesting observation that if a preschooler can wait 20 minutes for two marshmallows instead of grabbing one marshmallow now, psychologists can predict more success in life (by almost any measure) decades later.

This observation is the basis of this excellent parenting manual based on the latest research.  Fortunately, evolution moves very slowly and human nature has changed very little in the last hundred (or thousand for that matter) years, so this advice is compatible with previous research-based parenting books. The one my wife and I used decades ago offers similar advice with reference to different research: Children: The Challenge - now celebrating its golden anniversary, though still readily available in reprint.

I can highly recommend Mischel's book for its sound advice and up-to-date review of the current research. The title not withstanding, this book offers a broad survey of current research. If parents want to focus their parenting, either of these boos will provide an excellent basis for the personal style that parents must synthesize to provide a consistent and supportive environment for their children.

With the recent progress in neurobiology and the results of many new longitudinal studies, does this research based on the Marshmallow Test offer unique new insights into child development?

Recall the story of the blind men and the elephant -- so many different answers (like a snake, wall, tree trunk, ...) -- all partial and all correct. Parenting is the same. The child never changes, but the blind observers see many differences.

Fortunately, in the case of children, correlation gives us a hint to the underlying truths. Many different experiments give the same results. Methods that focus on teaching academic skills, reducing stress, improving nutrition, setting goals, improving self-worth, increasing need for achievement, aiding social skills, etc. all can be shown to deliver positive results. Looking at any of these individually will show positive correlation with a wide variety of positive outcomes.

So once again the deductive trap of correlation rears its ugly head. Each correlation is just part of a larger story. However, fortunately for parents, they do not need to see the full picture, they only need an approach that works. Ignoring the hype, this book delivers advice that works.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Top Secret Twenty-One by Janet Evanovich ****

Top Secret Twenty-One by Janet Evanovich is actually the 25th book about Stephanie Plum and her two love interests police detective Joe Morelli and security expert Ranger. As expected by the millions of readers, this book is long on clever, wise-cracking and short on character risk.

Writers, and others, might wonder how a plot that includes multiple rocket attacks might maintain its light tone. One technique author Evanovich uses is her vocabulary, including the ever-popular preschool peepee, along with dookey and boink. One Evanovich specialty is doo-dah, as in
... a poison green skirt that came just a few inches below her doo-dah.
A character with dialogue like this
Stanley said, "The make you take your clothes off and they look up your poopoo hole."
can never be in real jeopardy.

 This current episode of Stephanie Plum's love life, mostly cerebral, leaves her single - not really a spoiler. There is something about some bad guys jumping bail and some other bad guys killing each others, but reading Plum novels are about fun, and this one is no disappointment.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin *****

The beauty of Science Fiction is the inclusive nature of the genre. Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin is SF based on linguistics. Much of the novel hinges on language relativity or the Whorf-Sapir Hypothesis or the idea that language affect the speakers world view and cognitive process. That is: different languages cause their speakers to think differently.

The is a attractive, popular and seductive idea. Certainly the various language police and PC have this principle as one of their core beliefs. Much research continues to be done in this area, mostly concluding minor or no actual effects. However, the siren song of this idea continues regardless.

Native Tongue examines two linguist issues. The first is language relativity and the impact on society by the invention of a new language ... in this case one invented for women. The second is language acquisition, especially early acquisition by infants and later acquisition by adults. Both topics add the the narrative.

Even though the book is 30 year old, it is rightfully still available.

Native Tongue (published in 1984) is a 1984 for feminists. It presents a dystopian extrapolation of women's rights where women ultimately have none. The men are arrogant, self-confident and in control, while the women are subversives.

While this premise might sound ludicrous (at least I hope it does), the world created by Elgin is so realistically constructed, the result is more frightening and insightful, than hyperbolic or unbelieveable.

An excellent book for anyone interested in SciFi by and about women, and after 30 years it is still available - a recommendation in itself.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Woman with a Gun by Philip Margolin *****

Megan Cahill's husband is shot on her wedding night. Kathy Moran takes a photo of her on the beach holding the murder weapon. Ten years later, Stacey Kim sees the picture and solves the murder.

In this meta mystery about a woman in a photograph, Stacey Kim sees the photograph and is inspired to write a novel about the woman in the photograph, which the author confesses to be how the novel was written in the first place.

While this is a contemporary story, the author nods to earlier mysteries with reference to Perry Mason and more (gratuitous) smoking than I'd expect from a contemporary story.

Woman with a Gun by Phillip Margolin is a delightful whodunit with enough twists and turns for any mystery aficionado.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on November 2, 2014. I received my copy November 8, 2014. 

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy ****

So many stories with black protagonists chronicle poor, defeated, powerless, dependent victims.
Afterword from Citizens Creek by Lalita Tademy

Citizens Creek is an historical novel that chronicles the family of a black slave of a Creek Indian chief: pre-Civil War during the years of Indian removals, and through post-Civil War reconstruction.

The pre-Civil War period protagonist is Cow Tom, who uses his multilingual skills to assist the US Army removing Seminole from Florida, guide his family on their journey to Indian Territory, and finally to survive the chaos of the Civil War.

The reconstruction protagonist is his grand-daughter Rose Simmons who grows and runs her family ranch in Oklahoma while raising a large family  threatened by infidelity and the changing culture.

As the author points out in the afterword, this is a story of strong black protagonists. Through the eyes of black members of the Creek Nation, the author presents the 19th century in a positive human light, not denying the civil rights horrors, but focusing more on the successes and victories of those who lived through them.

For anyone interested in the lives of minorities in this time period, this is an excellent read - appropriate for mature middle-schoolers and all students beyond.

This book was received in a goody bag at the Canary Challenge bike race in Palo Alto on September 27, 2014 benefiting the Canary Center at Stanford University.

Monday, November 10, 2014

There Were Many Horses by Luiz Ruffato **

There Were Many Horses by Luiz Ruffato is an experimental literary novel of life in Sao Paulo Brazil. It consists of 68 observations of city life on a "typical day." The style of these observations might be in a familiar narrative form, but might also be lists, dialogues, or blank verse. Even the traditional narrative might be interrupted with long enumerations.

Each of the individual observation is interesting in itself , though some required more effort to process than others. However, I found I was not able to see the whole picture. I would have preferred this book as a movie where the director could blend and integrated the scenes with visual cues and music.

This is an English translation of a Portuguese work, but still as the observation were of Sao Paulo, I frequently felt I was missing to local cultural references, which were necessarily used throughout.
The interview's at 2 p.m., corner of Ipiranga and Consolacao, There's time, so be browses the store at the Rock Gallery, some wicked stuff, a temptation, but not a cent in his pocket, except the bus fare home, a bummer, so he spills back out, Conselheiro Xavier do Toledo, Braulio Gomes, Dom Jose Gasper Square, Sao Luis and Ipirange Avenues.
Over all, I felt something was lost in the translation from Brazilian culture to mine.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on October 10, 2014. I received my copy on October 14, 2014.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis ***

Life is what happens while we're doing something else. Lost & Found by Brooke Davis is a book written in this style. The plot develops and the characters evolve in the background while the action seems to be an, often surrealistic, but beautifully written, distraction.

The main character, prepubescent Millie Bird is on her own, joining the many juvenile orphans in literature.  Her father is dead, and her mother has deserted her. She is obsessed with death and her search for her mother.
Everyone knows everything abut being born, and no one know anything about being dead.
The other two POV characters are Agatha Pantha and Karl the Touch Typist, and pair of octogenarians, lost in memories of past adventures and deceased spouses.
When did I stop doing things and start remembering them instead?
These three lost souls wander through the Nullarbor Plain, a part of Australia, south of the middle-of-nowhere and half-way between Perth and Melbourne. As befitting of a dissertation in creative writing, the language and descriptions are exquisite, but in the end, I found the wonderful writing  not quite enough for compensate for the lack of narrative flow and story arc.
... as long as you're alive, people you know, people you love, will die ... How do you tell you child that this is how life works?
Life yes, but novels, not so much.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on October 10, 2014. I received my copy on October 14, 2014. 

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Delta by Tony Park ****

Sonja Kurtz shot her first terr (terrorist) at age twelve, and is now an assassin and a mercenary, and more lethal than anyone else. Virtually all of the other characters in the novel of global (Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, and mostly southern Africa) violence are men, except for small parts played by Sonja's daughter Emma, and her father's child bride Miriam, and a producer named Cheryl-Ann. Three stereotypical female roles: angry teenage daughter, devoted younger wife, and career bitch.

The Delta by Tony Park is about Sonja. She has the highest body count. She escapes multiple ambushes and double-crosses, usually leaving her attackers dead from explosions, gun fire, or hand-to-hand combat. Truly a Jason Bourne for the 21st century.

This book is thriller with continuous action from one crisis to another. I expect we will hear more about Sonja Kurtz from Australian author Tony Park in the future. The novel ends with the following sequel-demanding scene.
Sonja frowned, "I should have killed the pair of them. ... I don't suppose you kept a gun?"
... [Sam] hefted [the bag] ... Inside was the AK-47, two spare magazines of ammunition and a pair of hand grenades.
"Good," Sonja said, "I feel better already."
Sam sighed, "You're going to love America."
But, this book is not only a thriller. It is also a romance. True to the romance genre, Sonja spends plenty of time either thinking about her relationships, weighing one romantic interest against another, reliving and/or regretting past sexual encounters, and, of course, have new sexual encounters.

While many thriller protagonists might have casual sex, romance protagonists spend those quiet hours that could be used to plan murder and mayhem anticipating and regretting relationships with potential and past partners. Sonja seems to be preoccupied with her relationships, and engaging in casual murder and mayhem.

While Sonja has extreme agency in a fire fight, in relationships she is often the victim.
She had flirted only a little with Roberts, but she hated Martin for making her feel like a whore, and hated herself for falling for his lines every time.
This from the baddest assassin and mercenary in the territory.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on October 1, 2014. I received my copy on October 14, 2014. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson ***

Why Homer Matters by Adam Nicolson is a comprehensive tome on the analysis of Homer. I imagine every student with a Homer writing assignment will now simply choose a chapter from this book and have their research done. Topics include: linguistic analysis, archeological analysis, origins of the Greeks, Mediterranean influences, nomadic steppe influences, etc. This must be the most up-to-date comprehensive compendium of research related to The Illiad and The Odyssey.

The book includes many fascinating details. For example one of the oldest copies is the Hawara Homer from AD 150. These papyrus scrolls, discovered in 1888, were found in an unmarked grave, a papyrus pillow. What was even more surprising, the text was very close to the text compiled by Byzantine scholars 800 years later, and thus the text we depend on today.

My only disappointment is the title. The title question is addressed on the last page, and this felt to me like an after thought. As Greek history through Homer, the book is a great read.

 I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on September 20, 2014. I received my copy on September 30, 2014.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Runaway Bride by Carl Weber ****

In a plot reminiscent of a Shakespearean romantic comedy, with mistaken identities and misunderstandings, Runaway Bride by Carl Weber starts with domestic chaos. Tia leaves Choir Director Aaron Mackie at the alter. Bishop TK Wilson is jealous of his wife First Lady Monique and she is running around behind his back hoping to become a movie star. Aaron think his life-long friend and manager Ross is double crossing him. The mysterious new church secretary Tia seem torn between sweet Pippie, church handyman, and military girlfriend.

But soon enough this strife among friend and spouses becomes dark, very dark ... rape and murder dark. The scenes with blissful sex are replaced with mystery and death.

In the end this is a murder mystery where the long line of corpses keeps the reader and everyone else lost among the possible motives and suspects. A fast read with enough twists and turns to satisfy any mystery reader.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on August 29, 2014. I received my copy on September 9, 2014.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hope for Film by Ted Hope ****

What is a film producer? Who is a film producer?

You understand actors. Can you name 3? Easy! Jolie, Willis, Bullock,  and on and on...

How about directors? No problem! Tarantino, Kurosawa, Scott.

Now what about producers? What do they do anyway? Ted Hope is a producer. His book Hope for Film by Ted Hope is a manifesto for producers and an inspiration for aspiring producers.

What does a producer do?
... creative guidance and management ... sourcing the material--script, book, idea ... acquiring the participants and talent ... put together the money, find the distribution partners ... financial modeling and marketing plans ... being a community organizer ...
No wonder no one has a clear idea of what a producer is/does!

Hope illustrates the myriad producer roles with examples from his extensive filmograghy, interspersed with his wry observations...
No one ever says, "I wish it had been longer," when they leave the theater.
I had to fire Kurosawa ... which was akin to firing God.
But flies are living creatures ... you have to work with the [ASPCA] ... require flies go unharmed and returned to their prior habitat
For the [NY] indie-file scene, if you're not wearing a black T-shirt, you're dressed professionally.
if your spouse consistently chastises you for not putting the toothpaste cap back on, you know the relationship is over.
Anyone with an interest in film, and especially the changes brought about by the Internet, social networking, and streaming, should read this book.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on August 27, 2014. I received my copy on September 9, 2014.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A World Elsewhere by Sigrid MacRae ****

A World Elsewhere by Sigrid MacRae and the recently reviewed The Underground Girls of Kabul are both non-fiction about strong women in extraordinarily difficult situations. The current book is about the author's mother Aimee living in Germany during World War II.

I want to start with the most obvious difficulty the author faced, which was echoed by an American officer when Aimee, along with her US passport, requested help at the end of the war,
Tell this woman that she and her kind are worse that the Nazis.
Aimee was an American heiress with resources and connections. She spent most of the war on her farm far away from the cities targeted by Allied bombers, and, as a WASP, away from the concentration camps. Certainly her family and six children suffered, so MacRae's challenge was to chronicle Aimee's tribulations without making her sound like a whiner. (see First World Problems) In this the author mostly successful, but it helps to forget everything you know about the holocaust.

One interesting incident reflected on  The Underground Girls of Kabul which examined the practice of dressing girls as boys in Afghanistan, asking how prevalent this practice was in other places.
Aimee had heard enough about Russians raping anything female to make her consider cutting the child's glorious hair and putting her in boy's clothes.

We need more history books that are not about politicians and generals, both that chronicle the lives of families, parents, and children. This is an excellent addition to the canon.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on August 6, 2014. I received my copy on August 13, 2014.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Blind Spot by Reed Farrel Coleman ****

The copyright for Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot (A Jesse Stone Novel) by Reed Farrel Coleman belongs to The Estate of Robert B Parker, but more on that later.

 Jesse Stone, formerly of the LAPD, is a Chief of Police of a quaint Massachusetts coastal town named Paradise. The story opens with a murder and an abduction, but after it gets complicated. In an intricately plot mystery, at least a half-dozen intertwined plots interact and ultimately come together at the end.

The men are swimming in testosterone, and women sexy and responsive. Everyone drinks, mostly too much. The body count is in the single digits, and violence is limited.

In eighty-four four-page chapters Coleman keeps the story moving forward and the pages turning. Enjoyable light reading.

As promised ... what does it mean if the copyright date is four year after the copyright owner's death. The choices are endless, I guess, but consider 1) the completed work was discovered in the author's papers, 2) an incomplete work was discovered, or 3) this work is derivative of the author's published work.

I discard (1) because we have an author shown on the cover. Since there have been seven other similarly titled books published, I also discard (2). I imagine this book is work-for-hire and based on the style and charcters created by Robert B Parker during his lifetime (3).

Given the constraints of a deceased author and estate administration, I feel we get an interesting product. The plot is intricate, but the characters are flat. The main plot lines are nice tied up at the end, but several subplots are left open. Much like a super-hero comic book, one significant villain is allowed to escape to fight another day. I imagine the estate's hand in the managing the product development.

A good read, none the less.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on July 16, 2014. I received my copy on August 1, 2014.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg *****

Taliban. Women. Pakistan. Malala. Afghanistan. Fantasy.

As with any complex issue, the story is more complex then presented by the media and fund raisers. The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg goes so much deeper with a minimum of violence and maximum of hope, hope based on parents, the girls themselves, and not foreign intervention. This might be both the most realistic and optimistic book on women's rights in the middle east, ever.

Jenny Nordberg puts a human face on patriarchy and the women trapped within it. She finds reasons to hope and reasons to believe that progress will occur, without ignoring the violence against women so rampant in this culture and society.

Bacha Posh: Dressed up as a boy

In this culture boys are honored and girls are subjugated. Any male is superior to any female. A women without a son dishonors herself and her family. A family without a son is at real risk, but on a more practical level, sons, as young a 6-8, can work in the family business, earn money, run errands, escort his sisters, whereas daughter can not leave the house unescorted.

For these reasons, and others elucidated in the book, a family with a shortage of sons, might dress their daughters as boys and present them to the world as boys. They might also do this for more subversive reasons, such as education and consciousness raising.

This book follows the lives of a handful of Bacha Posh. A most fascinating, instructive, and hopeful read. The most optimistic book about the middle east published since Europe exited the dark ages aided by the science saved in the Middle East.

Taliban. Women. Pakistan. Malala. Afghanistan. Fantasy. If you care, this is the book to read.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on July 18, 2014. I received my copy on August 1, 2014. 

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Panther by Nelson DeMIlle ****

The Panther by Nelson DeMille is a military/black-ops procedural. Aside from a skirmish quickly ended by Predator Drones and Hellfire Missiles, the action is delayed until the last 100 pages of this 800 page tome.

However, do not despair. The narrator and main character (John Corey) has a wonderful sense of humor, delivering more LOL moments than many comedy/humorous books I've read.
He instructed us, "If death or capture seems imminent, destroy the phones and radios." He suggested, "A bullet will do it."
If I have a bullet left, I'm not shooting my phone.
I reminded her, "Aim for the center of mass... Heart is on the right."
"His left, your right, Doctor."
Great. I mean, you know you're bored when you look forward to a visit from Al Qaeda.
Overall and enjoyable read, but if you're looking for action, be prepared to skim great sections of "As you know Bob" info-dumps, but that is the essence of procedures, so don't say you weren't warned.

A comfortable read and ideal companion for a long plane ride (mine was 12 hours).

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb *****

Fitz, slang for bastard, in the bastard son of King-in-waiting Chivalry. As a young boy he is brought to the palace, but rather than this being a turn for the better, his father first abdicates and dies under suspicious circumstances. The question of his father's death is not resolved in this first volume of the Farseer Trilogy.

Fitz is trained in the Skill, power used by the ruler and defenders of the Six Duchies to communicate with each other, and, more powerfully, to enter the minds of enemies to enter confusion, doubt, fear, and misunderstanding. For example, when the Red-Ships attack, Verity, now King-in-waiting, Skills the ships' captains to cause the ships to crash against the rocks. Unfortunately, Fitz's training is a failure.

The Red-Ships terrorize the coastal cities of the Six Duchies by Forging captives. Forged captives are stripped of their humanity and all ability to empathize with others or even care about anything beyond their own animal desires. Families of forged victims consider that death of loved ones might be preferable.

In the midst of the battle between the Six Duchies and the Red-Ships, there is intrigue around new alliances, succession, and a marriage of alliance, while Fitz struggle to discover his fate and destiny.

Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb is written by one of today's best fantasy writers. It has well-developed characters, and an intricately constructed world. Highly recommended to any fantasy reader.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on June 2, 2014. I received my copy on July 30, 2014.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Red Julie by J A Whiting ****

Ogunquit, Maine is too small a town for two questionable deaths in a month not to be connected. The police figured the first to be a heart attack, but Olivia Miller found too much to question with her aunt Aggie's death ... on a bicycle, at night. Olivia found Martin Anderson at the side of the road, shot and his tongue cut out. He slipped a gold cross into her pocket and muttered something like Red Julie before he died. These are the few clues she has as she starts her quest to uncover the truth.

Red Julie by J A Whiting is murder mystery with the juxtaposition of coastal Maine and brutal violence. The story moves from the idyllic life in a quaint tourist town of antiques, books, and cafes and the senseless violence of greedy psychopaths. From the romance of quiet dinners, walks on the beach, and homey decor to the terror of private prisons, torture and mutilation.

This is a mystery driven initially by Olivia Miller's pursuit to solve the mystery, but in the end by her individual face-to-face, hand-to-hand battle with the psychopaths. The is a mystery that moves clue to clue to exciting climax.

On the other hand, seasoned mystery reader might be disappointed by the dearth alternate suspects or explanations.