Book Review Catch-Up – Spring 2008

Boy, am I behind on recording what I’ve read. I’ve had this post in progress forever trying to summarize some of these books, and I kept tacking new titles onto the end. I finally stole enough free time to get it finished.

The Geographer’s Library
by Jon Fasman
A literary history suspense novel, along the lines of The Davinci Code. it follows two separate threads – one of a rather lazy young reporter at a sleepy small-town paper investigating the death of a college professor from his alma mater, and the other thread the fate of a collection of various alchemical objects put together by a court librarian/philosopher in 10th century Sicily. It takes a rather long time for the two threads to come together, and when they finally did, I was too impatient to care much about what happened.

Locked Rooms (Mary Russell Novels)
by Laurie R. King
I’d forgotten how much I like this series of mystery novels until I picked up the latest. King’s Mary Russell series is a continuation of/homage to Sherlock Holmes, but unlike some I’ve read, this series is well done. Holmes purists tend to sniff at them — but if you think about that for a minute, the idea of there even being Holmes purists to begin with is rather silly. Conan Doyle wasn’t exactly a literary lion, and King’s novels have some weight to them in terms of character voice and plot. The series is based on a Sherlock Holmes that has “retired” from London investigations and fallen in love with the titular Mary Russell, a brilliant young woman half his age but completely his equal.

This particular novel is set in San Francisco, where Holmes and Russell have traveled to wrap up her family’s estate and to stumble into what really happened when her parents met their deaths in a long-ago automobile accident. It’s a nice picture of early San Francisco history during and post the great fire. The mystery comes together decently at the end, but I enjoyed the ride so much I wasn’t all that hung up on whether it did or not.

The Art of Detection
by Laurie R. King
The fifth book in King’s Kate Martinelli series. I haven’t read the first four (somehow I got a bit mixed up when I was buying this) but it didn’t impede my enjoyment of this book. Martinelli’s a San Franciso cop and lesbian mom with a toddler who gets a strange case indeed. A man who enjoys dressing up like victorian detective Sherlock Holmes is killed in an unusual fashion, over what turns out to be an original, lost story of Sherlock Holmes, set in San Francisco. (Yep, the book had some subtle references to the “Locked Rooms” book I read just before this. Not necessary to read both, but I love neat continuity stuff like this.)

Standard Hero Behavior
by John David Anderson
Standard Hero Behavior is a funny teen fantasy novel written by one of Stephanie’s former co-workers. Mason Quayle is a bard in in the small town of Darlington (formerly Highsmith) whose hero father went off 10 years ago with the rest of the town heroes on a mysterious quest, never to return. Now the town is threatened, and only Mason and his friend/sidekick Cowel can save the day – by locating the lost heroes and brining them home to defend the town.

I really like that Anderson wrapped up the novel completely, but there are some tiny signs of where he could go with a sequel. I’ve mentioned before that leaving fantasy fiction novels wide open at the end is one of my pet peeves, this is one satisfying example where that doesn’t happen.

I have to say there was a character in the novel I have concerns about because the character could be interpreted a couple different ways, and I could see where some folks I know might take offense. That’s a question I’ll have to ask Dave next time I run into him, though, about what he was trying to convey.

The Best of MAKE (Make)
by Mark Frauenfelder and Gareth Branwyn
I read this entire book when we were stuck on the plane for six hours on the way to SXSW. Some of the electronics stuff is way over my head, but with some specific instructions and possibly some help from Steph’s dad, those projects aren’t beyond my reach.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Volume 1: The Long Way Home
by Joss Whedon, Andy Owens, Georges Jeanty, and Jo Chen
The first volume of the comic book version of Season 8 of the show – it doesn’t go back and recap for new people, so you’ll want to start reading the Omnibus comics from the beginning or pick up the DVDs. Volume 1 is great – if you’re a Buffy fan, you’ll definitely want to own this.

Marvel 1602
by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert
Neil Gaiman writes a graphic novel where Marvel’s classic characters (X-Men, Fantastic Four, Peter Parker, Nick Fury, Daredevil) come to life in Elizabethan Age. Nicely done!

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The Thirteenth Tale

The Thirteenth Tale
The Thirteenth Tale
Unfortunately, I don’t have time to write a synopsis of The Thirteenth Tale – (I’ve been meaning to since I finished this fun, enjoyable book three weeks ago!) so I’ll have to cheat and give you Amazon’s instead:

Settle down to enjoy a rousing good ghost story with Diane Setterfield’s debut novel, The Thirteenth Tale. Setterfield has rejuvenated the genre with this closely plotted, clever foray into a world of secrets, confused identities, lies, and half-truths. She never cheats by pulling a rabbit out of a hat; this atmospheric story hangs together perfectly.

There are two heroines here: Vida Winter, a famous author, whose life story is coming to an end, and Margaret Lea, a young, unworldly, bookish girl who is a bookseller in her father’s shop. Vida has been confounding her biographers and fans for years by giving everybody a different version of her life, each time swearing it’s the truth. Because of a biography that Margaret has written about brothers, Vida chooses Margaret to tell her story, all of it, for the first time. At their initial meeting, the conversation begins:

“You have given nineteen different versions of your life story to journalists in the last two years alone.”

She [Vida] shrugged. “It’s my profession. I’m a storyteller.”

“I am a biographer, I work with facts.”

The game is afoot and Margaret must spend some time sorting out whether or not Vida is actually ready to tell the whole truth. There is more here of Margaret discovering than of Vida cooperating wholeheartedly, but that is part of Vida’s plan.

I give the book a thumbs up; it was a quite good homage to victorian gothic tales or those of the Brontë sisters. The book has a promotional website that’s also quite fun to peruse as well.

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The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

Glass Books of the Dream Eaters
Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

A strange Victorian Steampunk novel that I enjoyed, despite its length and rather confusing cast of villains. Celeste Temple is a young English woman raised in the West Indies and residing in London awaiting a future wedding to her fiancé, Roger Bascombe. When he sends her a curt note breaking their engagement, she decides to find out why – following him to a mysterious party in an English country manor. After infiltrating the gathering, Miss Temple witnesses a bizarre set of “scientific” experiments and narrowly escapes capture after killing one of her homicidal pursuers.

The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters
by Gordon Dahlquist

Her escape to London is short-lived, as the alchemical experimenters begin searching the city for her. She is soon joined by some unlikely allies – military doctor Abelard Svenson looks after his addle-pated foreign prince who is caught up with the sinister cabal pursing Miss Temple, and Cardinal Chang, a paid assassin who’s true love has been indoctrinated into the strange cult.

The trio soon find themselves in grave danger as they investigate the strange blue glass books produced by the villains, and try to unravel their sinister plot of world domination.

The book runs 700+ pages, and the cast of villains is huge, and difficult to follow. Some of them seem little more than cardboard cutouts, especially many of the minions and hangers-on to the cabal. Unfortunately, there’s quite a bit of exposition near the end, also, as the villains are forced to explain their dastardly plot – but it’s handled rather well and doesn’t seem overly heavy handed.

But there is a mysterious house with bizarre secret passageways and hidden rooms, and the final battle takes place on a zeppelin, so there’s plenty of fun involved.

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The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime

The Big Over Easy
The Big Over Easy
A new series by the author of the bestselling “Tuesday Next” novels. A thoroughly enjoyable read; I polished it off in a weekend. Fforde’s novels are funny and full of literary cleverness. Jack Spratt is a like-able and entertaining protagonist and I look forward to reading the entire series.

The Big Over Easy: A Nursery Crime
by Jasper Fforde

From the Publisher’s Weekly review: “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, and, well, you know the rest. But was Humpty’s fall an accident, or was it murder? It’s up to giant killer Jack Spratt of the Nursery Crime Division to get to the bottom of it. Humpty was quite a ladies’ man, but a few people thought him a bad egg. Jack has a number of suspects, a new partner to break in and gloryhound/antagonist Detective Inspector Chimes to deal with.”

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Book Review – The Boy Detective Fails

Boy Detective Fails
Boy Detective Fails
Yeah, this book comes with a decoder ring on the back flap. You don’t discover this until a chapter or two into the book when you have to decode a secret message, but I’m telling you right up front because, well, that’s so frackin’ cool.

Joe Meno’s The Boy Detective Fails is a loving homage and send up of classic kid detective stories like Encyclopedia Brown, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys, but the mysteries it explores in this funny, scary, sweet, and surreal book are the grown-up mysteries of life. Billy Argo is the famous boy detective, who with his handy Junior Detective Kit and his sister Caroline and stalwart friend Fenton, rids the town of crooks and bad guys, hitting the front pages of the papers regularly. But growing up is a mystery all three children have trouble with, and ultimately, Billy must solve the mysterious death of his sister to save his own life.

The Boy Detective Fails
by Joe Meno

I highly recommend reading this book.

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Book Review – Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Fun Home
Fun Home
I keep putting off writing a review of Fun Home because I feel a sense of obligation to the book — one so well written deserves a well-written review, and I haven’t had it in me lately to try to write one. Here is my poor attempt to do justice to this fantastic book.

Alison Bechdel has been a popular, well-known cartoonist for over 20 years, penning the witty and and enjoyable “Dykes to Watch Out For” series, which is serialized in a number of publications and collected in book format over a dozen times.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is Bechdel’s extraordinary, resonant memoir, told in graphic novel form. But don’t think when you pick this up that you’d be reading a comic book – this is a piece of gorgeously-illustrated, lyrically-written literature.

Bechdel recounts her childhood, especially her relationship with her closeted and deeply conflicted father, who was both the owner of the local funeral home (the “Fun Home” of the title) and a local English teacher. Bruce Bechdel is a stern and exacting man who looms large in the lives of everyone who knows him, and Alison’s childhood is marked by both her attempts to reach out to him, and to rebel against his ideals and tastes. Bruce’s sexual orientation is an awkward and somewhat ill-kept secret in her childhood, but Alison doesn’t completely put all the pieces together until she comes out herself in college, when her mother fills in the gaps. Bruce Bechdel is killed a few months later in what may have been a suicide, and Alison is left to wonder whether her own coming-out, now overshadowed by the event, may have been a catalyst for it. Ultimately she finds a connection to her father by returning time and again to one of their mutual loves; classic literature.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
by Alison Bechdel

I highly recommend reading this book.

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No Place to Hide

No Place to Hide: Behind the Scenes of Our Emerging Surveillance Society
By Robert O’Harrow, Jr.
NON-FICTION – Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow, Jr. delves into the world of data-collection and surveillance, and puts together a frightening and disheartening portrait of who is gathering personal information about you and why. I started to compile a big list of all the players and how they’re connected, but it was too long and too confusing to be clear without creating a big information flow diagram.

The basics are these: companies you do business with (cell phone companies, grocery stores, banks, internet providers, credit card companies) are gathering vast amounts of information about you, and storing it in databases. The data they’re gathering is far beyond what you’d expect them to keep — where you go, what you purchase, how fast you drive, the digital imprint of your voice, facial recognition, the names of your friends and family, the price of your home, when you deposit your checks and pay your bills, fingerprints, DNA and other bio-data.

These companies are not only using this data to market to you, they’re selling it to other companies that are data brokers, and they’re making the information available to the government at almost every level (state, local, federal). The data brokers in turn sell the information to other companies, or they let the government have access to it — often to look for terrorists, but increasingly to pursue other criminal investigation, and to try to anticipate if you “might” commit a crime — and that speculation might be quite wild in nature.

Decades ago, people used to worry about the FBI having a “file” on them. Now, every single American — from your two-month old child to your eighty-year-old grandmother — has a government file.

Using the vast storehouses of data, the companies and the government have built data-mining software and artificial intelligence software that sifts through the data looking for anomalies and flagging items of interest. There are no laws about how these programs are written, what they look for, or how they tag or label you when they’ve analyzed your data, so you’re basically guilty until proven innocent in the eyes of this software. This was what scared me most — I used to never worry about data collection, because I figured no one would ever have time to sift through the data. It would take a team of five people to keep track of what I do all day. But this software eliminates that need — you have a team of robots following you around. Unfortunately, due to the insufficiencies in their programming, they’re somewhat retarded robots.

The data gathered about you could be riddled with errors — typographic errors, mistaken identities, other people’s inaccurate subjective judgments (I might be labeled a “liberal extremist” for example) and because you have no access to it, or idea what information is being collected, you have no recourse about correcting problems that might later affect you. O’Harrow lists example after example of people who have pursued and tried to correct mistakes about their identities that led to credit problems, flags on no-fly lists, insurance losses, criminal investigations, etc., only to have the bad data pop back up after being corrected again and again, because the information is passed back and forth from so many data collection agencies.

In addition, these data collection centers are extremely porous and insecure — anyone and everyone could have access to them. O’Harrow also recounts list after list of abuse of personal data, by the employees of companies that collect it, by the data brokers selling it, by government officials at all levels. People are accessing the data for personal use — to stalk attractive women, to hunt down ex-partners for revenge, to using in political campaigns, to sell the information on the black market, to commit burglaries and assaults and securities frauds. They’re also using data in ways far beyond what was intended when it was gathered.

The laws regarding data gathering, storage, data-mining and security are decades behind current technology, so there’s no accountability or recourse. There’s very little regulation of who has access to your personal data, what they use it for, and how you can control it. I kept hoping throughout the book for some light at the end of the tunnel — for O’Harrow to provide some examples of organizations who are pursuing laws to regulate all these databases of information, but there was precious little.

After reading “Our Town” and watching An Inconvenient Truth, this book was a bit too much for me to take, frankly. I think that the only real solace I have is that in the next five years Greenland and Antarctica are going to have a catastrophic meltdown, the sea level will rise 20 feet, and 160 million people around the world will die — then the government will have bigger problems to deal with than wondering about where I bought my toothpaste, and if that means I’m a terrorist.

UPDATE: Ironically, as soon as I posted this review, it was datamined. Nice.

Continue ReadingNo Place to Hide