Thursday, December 31, 2015

Secrets of a Side B**ch by Jessica Watkins ****

In a novel where f**k appears on almost every page, mostly in the literal sense, three women are interested on Omani. Secrets of a Side B**ch by Jessica Watkins tells these stories from the point of view of the eager women and the reluctant, well not that reluctant, Omani.

The three woman are Aeysha, Simone, and Eboni. Aeysha is Omani's true love. He stays with her to spite her lack of education and job, weight problems, and inability to conceive. Simone has it all, looks, job, money, car, everything except a man. She wants Omani, but underestimates Aeysha's competition. Eboni? Eboni wants Omani.

This book is well written and delivers what it promises ... except there was no resolution at the end, just a "too be continued."

Monday, December 28, 2015

Grim Crush by S L Bynum *****

Xia is a teenager and she has more than an ordinary share of teenage angst. Xia died when she was very young. She is a grim reaper. She meets soul when they leave their body and guides them to forward. If it wasn't for grim reapers, soul might wander aimless around the world.

Xia is not alive, spends much of her time in the company of death, dresses in black, and can not speak to or be seen by living people. Needless to say, she doesn't have any normal friends and is completely clueless about normal teenagers. She doesn't know about dating, proms, or love. In this way she is much like other teenagers, lost between being a child and an adult.

Grim Crush by S L Bynum is about Xia's first crush, her journey to navigate the challenges of young love. She does this with the help of her friends, both reapers and regular people, young and old, male and female. In her case, she has a few extra challenges, since Shilah is not another grim reaper, but a live boy. Not unreasonably, such relationships are forbidden.

In this YA novel Xia unravels to mysteries of young love and the reader discovers she is not that much different from other teenagers. A pleasant read.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Chemist's Shop by Richard Brumer *****

The Chemist's Shop by Richard Brumer is about the holocaust and morality. In 1970 Michael Ross, a holocaust survivor, meets Harry Sanders. Michael Ross (Miklos Rosen while a prisoner at Auschwitz) recognizes Harry Sanders to be the SS major Hans Stern who murdered his three little girls and raped his wife.

With a mixture of history and fantasy the author explores the morality of murder through the parallel lives of these two men. Using a device infamously known in Sci Fi circles ( as an info dump, the author injects great quantities of World War II history showing parallels between the Axis and Allied powers. Through the parallel combatants and these two parallel characters, the distinction between the typical good us versus evil Nazis is blurred.

While the book tends to blurs guilt and innocence, the guilty still tend to be shown with realism and historical detail in counterpoint to showing Michael Ross's life before the war as an ideal romance with his wife and the beautiful innocence of his three little daughters. I found this contrast to be heavy handed and distracting.

The narrative is in two parts: his plan for revenge on Hans Stern and his legal defense of his actions.

I found the topic of the holocaust incompatible in places with the idealistic and fantastic style of much of the book. The holocaust, as shown, defies neat conclusions, while the fairy-tale style seems to demand it. Regardless, the writing is excellent and it is a fast, interesting read.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Scientist by Jay Deb *****

Janco is a nuclear physicist with more allegiance to money than any particular country, culture, or creed. As a result, he has been incarcerated in Nevada for treason.

Max Doerr, the protagonist of this series, is a freelance spy who usually works for the CIA. Omar is Doerr's counterpart working for the other side.

Ariella is a Mossad assassin.

The game is set off when Ariella assassinates the head of the Iranian nuclear program and the CIA inadvertently releases Janco, the obvious replacement.

The CIA enlists Doerr to locate and recover Janco. The Iranians enlist Omar to locate and recruit Janco. As these things happen, Doerr and Omar have a long history and their own reasons to go after each other. While both Doerr and Omar are evenly matched as skilled fighters and planners, Janco is a deliberate scientist.

Janco is the perfect low-energy counterpoint to these two men of action. Everyone underestimates Janco. While he is generally passive, he occasionally analyzes his situation and finds a way to exploit his advantage and foil the plans of whoever is currently holding him captive.

The Scientist by Jay Deb is a well-plotted action adventure with a exciting mixture bureaucratic incompetence and tactical genius with Janus as the pawn and the prize in a chase throughout Europe. A fast-moving spy thriller.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Toymaker by Melissa Jenson *****

Ashima Nayar's childhood encouraged her to be curious and independent.
Ashima's parents had always made it a point to get the whole story, to understand why, and what.
 Her upbringing became important when the goblins and their beasts attacked her village. Her parents were shipped off to the mines and she went to a city which resembled a prison. When the mean kids through her doll Asha down the garbage chute, she dove in to rescue her. There she meet Ren.

This is the start of The Toymaker by Melissa Jenson and the beginning of Ashima's quest with Ren, the toymaker, and the golems he brings to life from bits of stuff in this post-apocalyptic world.

Ren and Ashima search for Ren's grandfather and Ashima's parents. Ashima perseveres against Ren's better judgement.
Are to. You have to. This is way, way, way too dangerous for someone your age. So turn around and go back, now.
In the course of this epic journey, they join a circus, discover a space ship, meet up with the resistance, and in a action packed climax, fight the battle of Goblin City.

The message of this exciting YA quest can be summed up...
Well... no. It's not a matter of life being hard, it's a matter off... a matter of life being tricky, I guess.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

In Search of a Revolution by Fischer & Lawlor ****

Ansgar and Zacharias were too young for World War I and too old for World War II. They were Danish, but moved to Finland. In Search of A Revolution by Fischer and Lawlor follows them through the turmoil in Europe between the two great wars and through WWII.

The Scandinavian view of Europe is presented as a mixture of neutral aloofness, intellectual curiosity, terror. The attack Russians attack Finland and the Germans attack Denmark, but most of the time Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland are above the fray.

Zacharias came from a upper/middle class family, and politically tended towards communism, while Ansgar came from the working class, so tended to conservatives and fascists. As a couple of guys generally one step removed from war, they were able to accept each other, and Russian domination of the continental Baltic states, and German persecutioin of the Jews.

As time went by, they equalted the German and the Russians as a pair of evils, so as WWII progressed they had little care for either side. If they represented intellectual apathy, they demonstrated the same disinterest in their personal lives, avoiding committed relationships with either their families or the women they met, lived with, or married.

I found this to be an interesting view of  Europe 1918 to 1948 from a novel point of view. However, I found the two men and the two countries to be so novel as to be difficult to identify with and maintain interest in.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Nascent Decay by Charles Hash ****

Like much classic science fiction Nascent Decay by Charles Hash is a mixture of philosophy and conflict, first exploring the psychology and stress of solitary confinement with the SciFi twist that Rhylie is imprisoned in a Chamber which is capable of reading Rhylie thoughts and augmenting them with complex and realistic hallucinations. Even with physical pain, psychological torment, and the destruction of her loved ones, Rhylie survives to be rescued.

For the rest of the book, Rhylie's human body is replaced with a cyberbionic skeleton and an atomorphic body. Ultimately comes the prophesy:
She is the one that is going to change things, and help us bring about peace and equality in the galaxy.
In summary, like much classic science fiction Nascent Decay is a mix of philosophy and conflict. The book opens with our protagonist Rhylie trapped in solitary confinement where the distinction between reality and imagination is blurred ... an experience reminiscent of Samuel Beckett. Eventually Rhylie escapes and the cosmic intergalactic battle ensues matching the scope and complexity of classic tales of say E E Smith or Harry Harrison. A must read for hard core SF readers.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Screen Conspiracy by by Maxwell Black ****

Inside the Beltway conspiracy and Internet porn combine in this political thriller.

Jack Halprin is a corporate executive at Worldcomb. He is one of those adequate bureaucrat made famous by the landmark management book: Peter Principle by Lawrence J Peter over 40 years ago ( . Jack has been promoted his "level of incompetence." Regardless, his seniority, compensation, and experience prevent anyone, Jack included, from addressing the problem.

The Screen Conspiracy by Maxwell Black tracks Jack Halprin's personal crisis and redemption.

When Jack is receives yet another lateral transfer, he finds himself lost in a high-tech Internet division. Everyone, including Jack, his tech-savvy son, his disappointed wife, his arrogant father-in-law, and all the people at the new division, recognize that he is in over his head. Everyone plays Jack for a dupe and patsy.

For example, he is sent to testify before Congress about Internet porn. He has no idea what he is talking about and lies to Congress. This farce is quickly uncovered and he is publicly embarrassed. Eventually he realizes he is a pawn in a vast conspiracy.

His only friends are the guys at the local gun club. Against all odds, as kind of an "over-the-hill gang," Jack teams with Lieutenant John Tibbs, his partner Detective Jean Masters, and a rag-tag amateur militia to take on the CIA, corrupt Worldcomb corporate management, and even more corrupt senators.

In a climax of mid-life crisis wish fulfillment, the book ends with a satisfying culmination of the many plot twists and turns with justice and vengeance meted out to all appropriate parties and with everyone else realizing that they underestimated the redeemed Jack.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Armoires and Arsenic by Cassie Page ****

Darling Valley is a fictional enclave (on the Marin Peninsula across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and Silicon Valley) popular with venture capital billionaires. Readers from the area might think of Sausalito.

Olivia Granville is a transplanted architect and antiques dealer from Los Angeles who, as might be expected from someone from LA, was attracted by the money, specifically the potential for ultra-rich clients. While Olivia crosses paths with a client interested in building a garage cum museum for their 100+ automobile collection, most of the people she meets are shopkeepers and millionaires. True to the SF Bay Area, millionaires are ordinary in every way, interested in their quotidian lives, and their petty jealousies and conflicts.

Armoires and Arsenic by Cassie Page  is a murder mystery which opens with Olivia taking delivery of a restored armoire, only to find it contains the restorer inside and very dead.

Since Olivia is on the brink of bankruptcy and the number-one suspect, she is forced to solve the murder herself before she is out of business. In between the long list of potential suspects, possible romances, and rumors of a newcomer's curse, this is a food and fashion mystery with ample mentions Christian Louboutins, Jimmy Choos, House of Graff baubles, and little Chloe numbers, along with delicious descriptions of pastry shops, food stores, and restaurants.

In the end, there are enough plots twists and turns (leading to a surprising climax and resolution) to satisfy any cozy mystery reader.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

With Every Letter by Sarah Sundin *****

Set during WWII, With Every Letter by Sarah Sundin is about Lieutenant Philomela Blake (Millie) - an Army nurse - and Lieutenant Tom MacGilliver - an Army engineer - and their  anonymous pen-pal correspondence which results in identity confusions worthy of a Shakespearean comedy. This is an historical romance about the introduction of women nurses into the combat theater for aerial evacuations and the role of engineers in the north African and Sicily campaigns.

Millie was raised by her father, a research botanist, so she was comfortable in primitive surroundings and around men. Tom was raised by his mother, so he uncomfortable around men, especially violent ones. So neither was well suited socially for Army life, even though they both had the specialized skills required for their jobs. This is the modern geek/nerd dilemma: "I'd be fine if I can work by myself," but set in World War II.

The challenges of being the first women into combat operations included uniforms. Millie, who had no problem speaking up, interrupted the General with, "We want to wear trousers. The initial uniforms of skirts and heels, were shortly replaced by trousers and oxfords.

 Like a good 21st century romance, the two POV characters, Millie and Tom, have mirrored feelings and challenges, with just the minimal gender stereotyping as required by the historical context. If you like historical romance, this is your book. Not a pot boiler: not so much as kiss between them until the end.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Dubious Crime by Gerald Kubicki ****

A Dubious Crime by Gerald Kubicki is an action, adventure, alternate history, paranormal mystery. The main character Colton Banyon is reminiscent of Indiana Jones. While he is the guy you want on your side in a fight with guns or knives or anything else or nothing, he also has that omniscient strategic view that makes him a natural leader.

Colt comes to his omniscient point-of-view in a straight forward way. He has a Wolf, a spiritual guide that can see what is happening anywhere. For example, if you were going to take down a warehouse of bad guys, Wolf could see where everyone was hiding and all their weapons. This can be convenient. In addition, if you want to investigate something, Wolf can look back in time at the amazing rate of two years every hour.

Following the Bond tradition, Colt is accompanied by a number of beautiful women, including one retired porn star, who are always ready for recreation or business, such as distracting the bad guys. Pink panties seems to be the distraction of choice, but not the only one.

In summary: here is an adventure with everything: World War II atrocities, global legal conspiracies, international gangs, and military actions. In addition to the action, the supernatural is represented with ancient artifacts stored in Area 51, spiritual omniscient beings, and 8,000 year old transmitters. Throw in some macho leading men and hot, barely dressed women and you have an action adventure that never stops and rarely slows.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Lake House Secret by Debra Burroughs ****

One of the great injustices of the world is that the best written books are read the fastest, and the worst written books the slowest. The result is that, on average, more time is spent reading books we don't enjoy that much, while flying through the enjoyable ones. The Lake House Secret by Debra Burroughs is one of the good ones.

Jenessa Jones was already laid off from her reporter's job in Sacramento when her  father died. She left the big city to return to the small town of Hidden Valley, the place where she'd grown up. There she reestablishes relationships with rich, bad boy Logan Alexander (who got her pregnant in high school), and sweet Michael Baxter who has blossomed into hot young man after a stint in the military.

On the girlfriend side, her relationship with old friend Ramey St. John picks up where it left off over a decade ago, until Ramey's mother's murdered body is discovered to have been buried long ago out by the Lake House. As Jenessa uncovers the mystery, her relationship with Ramey is strained by the secrets she is afraid to share.

This is a excellently written book and a pleasure to read. As a hybrid mystery-romance, both the mystery and the romance seem suffer from the combination. The mystery is missing the plot twists and reveals that a mystery reader might expect. Alternately, the romance lacks to passion that a romance reader might desire. Regardless, the book is a page turner and fun read.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Robots Like Blue by Anthony Deeney *****

If you are a reader of both fiction and nonfiction, Robots Like Blue by Anthony Deeney is the book for you. The book switches back and forth between exposition on theory and philosophy and the narrative story line of super-intelligent robots. Both aspects are well written and enjoyable. 

Deeney brings the robot to life with insights into the their internal perceptions.
Humans cannot know how bewildering it is to burst into existence ... Disorientation is normal at startup. Please be calm. ... It is necessary to avoid startling and upsetting your owner.
In between philosophical discussions of Turing tests, Leibniz's mill analogy, and John Searle's Chinese Room, the plot unfolds around whether robots are self-aware and whether sufficiently intelligent robots still need the Robot Laws made famous by Asimov.

For an updated view on robot ethics, this is the book.

Highly recommended to intelligent readers ... and don't we all fall into this category?

Monday, August 31, 2015

Code Breakers: Alpha by Colin F. Barnes ****

Code Breakers: Alpha by Colin Barnes is post-apocalypse, cyberpunk novel about super coder Gerry whose privileged position as an elite coder in the single domed city that remains after the Cataclysm suddenly comes to an end when the Death-lottery marks him for execution. Prior to that moment Gerry believed he and his family were exempt from the lottery and he gave little thought of the lottery or what existed beyond the confines of the domed city.

With this betrayal Gerry leaves the protection of the domed city and meets the beings living outside. Those who survive outside the dome are a mixture of human and code. One of the best part of Gerry's journey is the imaginative world where humans and AIs are integrated. The descriptions of thought as code and visa-versa are well done. The battles between human and code entities are both exciting and technically satisfying. 

SPOILER. the novel is more of a teaser than a novel without a resolution or conclusion.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Ghost Track: Melissa by David Graffman ****

Detective Sergeant Leyland Francis and Chief Inspector Phil Mercer were old friends when Melissa Marshall turned up dead. Unfortunately for their friendship, but fortunately for their internal affairs nemesis Petunia Ferdinand, Leyland appears to have spoken to Melissa after the time forensics declared her to have been dead.

Ghost Track: Melissa by David Graffham is a buddy cop mystery full of familiar intrigues, including Melissa's very alive sister Felicity, internal police politics, and the Russian mob headed by Viktor Petrov.

In good mystery form, all these myriad plot line are tied together in the end.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Germ Warriors by Clint Willis ****

Germ Warriors edited by Clint Willis is an anthology of stories about epidemiology and diagnosis. If it was a TV series, it might be named: CDC: The deadly cases.

For example, the chapter on food-borne pathogens explored the ubiquitous nature (30-50% incidence in some cases) of e coli and salmonella with emphasis on the dual challenges of today's large-scale and international food market.

First, with food items, both fresh and packaged, being sourced internationally, it is impossible for the USDA to monitor quality. However, this is a bit of a red herring, as the USDA doesn't even have resources to monitor domestic food production.

The second point is that  the scale of operations magnifies problems and makes tracking difficult.
A single patty may mingle meat of a hundred different animals from four different countries. ... a single contaminated carcass ... can pollute eight tons of finished ground beef.
The chapter on the challenge of diagnosing rare diseases was one of the best. The example was a case of necrotizing fasciitis that "kills up to 70 percent of the people that get it."

This chapter introduces the Zebra problem:
an old saying taught in medical school: if you hear hoofbeats in Texas, think horses not zebras [Actually the phrase was coined by Dr. Theodore Woodward, professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, with no reference to Texas.]
For every case of necrotizing fasciitis, there are 3,000 cases of cellulitis with very similar symptoms.

In addition to necrotizing fasciitis, e coli and salmonella, the book covers ebola, plague, malaria, AIDS, Lassa virus, and mad cow disease. The anthology contains a diverse collection of (sometimes scary) stories of brave and dedicated medical scientists working to identify, prevent, and treat a wide collection of (fortunately) rare diseases.

Don't read it if you have unidentified symptoms or tendencies towards hypochondria.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe *****

Economic Draft. Think about that. Economic Draft. The economic draft, prevalent during the Bush years, sent millions, yes millions, of soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan. If you do not know anyone personally who was deployed, it is because the "volunteers" tended to be those with few other economic opportunities, and evidently your friends had other opportunities. That is the economic draft.

Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe tells the stories from three women of the Indiana National Guard. Michelle Fischer was young and single. Debbie Fischer was over 40. Desma had three small children. They all found the military to be the best opportunity open to them.

All three women were in Afghanistan together and they managed to have some fun amid the violence and boredom.

One time Desma tried to order a Clydesdale to go with a big party. She also requisitioned hamburgers, hot dogs, and ten kegs of beer. That didn't work: no Clydesdale or beer, but they got the hamburgers and hot dogs, and a funny story to tell.

Another time, when the guys were arguing as guys do, two women when back to their quarters and
got this big old dildo ... They came back and slammed that thing down on the table. "Mine's bigger than all of your, so shut the f*$k up."
But is was not all fun. I found especially moving the discussions the mental impacts of being in combat, which seem to be similar to symptoms of aging. For example, having to keep notes of things that once could be simply remembered. However, these women were in their 20s and 30s, not their 60s and 70s.

Their stories are the stories of all soldiers: death, elation, boredom, PSTD, isolation, and close friendships. Thrope brings their stories to life with no judgement of the women or the country that sent them to war. This is a terrific history of a period that many people know too little about. If you never considered volunteering for the economic draft, you should at least read this to better appreciate those who did.