Saturday, May 24, 2014

Jack of Spies by David Downing *****

Jack McColl of Jack of Spies by David Downing is an agent for British intelligence during the run-up to World War I. The novel opens in China and moves to San Francisco and Dublin. This is a comprehensive pre-WWI historical novel covering the Chinese concessions, post-earthquake San Francisco, Irish home rule, and, of course, the start of WWI.

The history goes well beyond political history. Before Jack is hired as a spy, he sells a British luxury automobile and the narrative is full of observations on the transition from horses to cars and the impact on roads and infrastructure. Jack travels through America give him ample opportunities for comments on that culture compared to Britain, as when he purchases a gun and he is "provided with a cardboard box containing enough ammunition to mount a small war of his own."

There book also covers women's history much better that the history books of my youth. This includes the big issues of women's suffrage and Margaret Sanger's campaign for contraception. In addition other, more obscure, historical women are included, such as Miss Mattie Tyler, postmistress of Courtland, and Henriette Caillaux of France who shot a man to protect her husband's honor. During the US occupation of Vera Cruz (Tampico Affair), Jack remarks that "off-duty troop ... were posing a new threat ... a woman's right to say no." Overall, this is an excellent women's history of the period.

Jack is a delightfully naive and lucky spy who divides his time between fighting the Germans and courting Caitin Hanley, a journalist and supporter of women's cause, and Irish home rule. He is also a keen student of people in general.
Some men follow their hearts, and some go where their minds take them. Most of course just follow their ... Any one of the three can lead your to happiness, but only if you stick to that one alone.
This is a wonderful spy story and a comprehensive historical novel. A delightful read for the either one or the other or both.

One small complaint, Jack listens to the birds in Muir woods, but there are no birds in Muir woods. Redwood tree do not support insects, and from there on up, these forests are devoid of fauna and errily silent.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on March 28, 2014. I received my copy on May 7, 2014.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Mesaerion, Best SF 1800-1849 by Andrew Barger **

A curiosity including obscure Poe, Hawthorne, and more. Mesaerion: The Best SF1800-1849 by Andrew Barger includes stories about the hot science topics of the early 19th century including hot air balloons, mesmerism, perpetual motion, and clockwork automata. Especially interesting is the editor's introduction to the stories placing them in context such as first steam punk story or first SF by a woman.

On the topic of firsts, SF is a genre that suffers from it own special writing problems (SFWA: Turkey City Lexicon) due to the additional requirement to introduce a world foreign to the reader. Many of these errors are first made in the included stories. Glimpses of Others World by Morgan is a "traveler's narration," and maybe the prototype for infodumps.

Many of the stories are prefaced with the endorsement that this volume is the first time the story has been published in over 150 years. For several of these stories the reason seems clear.

I recommend this volume more for scholars interesting in early 19th century literature than those looking for interesting SF reads. A well-read person has certainly seen better by Poe and Hawthorne than the couple of selections by each author in this volume.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on March 28, 2014. I received my copy on May 7, 2014.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Essentials of Genetics by Klug & Cummings

The third edition is classic. I found Essentials of Genetics (3rd Edition) on my book shelf. This edition was published in 1999 on the eve of the successes of the Human Genome Project (HGP). The HGP project and Celera Corporation have significantly changed our study and understanding of genetics. I imagine the current editions of this textbook are much changed.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries the men and women (and there were many women in this field) who studied genetics were part mathematicians and part diligent investigators. Indeed, much of the opening chapters of the 3rd edition read like a math text with discussions of probability, combinatorics, logic, and problem solving. Experiments had to be cleverly designed
so that the genotypes [DNA] of all gametes can be determined accurately by observing the phenotypes [observable characteristics] of the result offspring. This is necessary because the gametes and their genotypes can never be observed directly.
This was the fact of life that made these heroic genetic scientists a close knit group. Every chapter references the many scientists who made slow progress observing generations of bacteria, and famous model organisms such as c elegans (worms) and d melanogaster (flies), which were bred to support slow scientific before genotypes could be observed directly.

While the text is packed with excellent science, one 20th century mythology is also well represented. Before the HGP, it was imagined that homo sapiens sapiens (that is you and I) were somehow special and must therefore had to have many more genes than other living things. The chauvinistic consensus was in the neighborhood of 50,000 to 100,000. The HGP has settled on under 25,000, with the higher numbers belonging to plants like grapes and corn.

As I read through the clever and tedious research required to take us from Mendel to HGP, I wonder where the epic novel of trial and discovery is. A 21st century Michener or Uris should tackle this project.

This edition is out of print, but later editions are available.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Girl Missing by Tess Gerritsen *****

A compact mystery ideal for the beach or the plane. Girl Missing by Tess Gerritsen is a reissue of a delightful shorter mystery after two decades. In the author's introduction, she tells an interesting story about this novel being the transition "romantic suspense" to "thriller." In order to evaluate this transition, I coupled this book with Last to Die by Tess Gerritsen which is a recent "thriller.

The protagonist in Girl Missing is Kat Novak, a Medical Examiner, who we can safely assume grew into Forensic Pathologist Maura Isles in the Rizzoli and Isles series of thrillers. In the Rizzoli and Isles series, Isles is paired with Detective Jane Isles. These two woman make a great team with enough chemistry when needed for tension, but not enough to distract from the main story.

Before the author found this solution, Kat had couple of "romantic" interests: an ex-husband in the District Attorney's office, and the rich Adam Quantrell who alternately served as a possible romantic interest and possible suspect. I found the romance distracting and not a little bit forced. Of course, I already had the author's confession that romance was on the way out here, so I can't be sure how I might have read it without the author's  introduction.

The other major difference was that the early novel was approximately half the length of the more current one. As a fan of tightly written fiction, I really like the early work and felt the later tended to run long and slow in several places.

If you are new to Tess Gerritsen, she writes mysteries with complex plots, relatively high body counts, and children in jeopardy. However the violence, especially the violence to children, is mostly recounted. Definitely recommended for squeamish readers.

Postscript: Tess Gerritsen is a MD who write mysteries with medical professionals as characters, which suggests comparison to Robin Cook.While both fall into sections medical/scientific gobbledygook, Gerritsen does this much, much less and her plots do not center on medical issues. In general I found her novels more enjoyable.

I won a copy of this book in a Goodreads First Reads giveaway on March 7, 2014. I received a copy of this book April 4, 2014.