Sunday, September 21, 2014

Stone Cold by C. J. Box

Stone Cold
by C. J. Box
4 stars - a very satisfying mystery series
ALR Green - happy yellow lab as sidekick

Hard to believe, but this is already the 14th Joe Pickett mystery. It isn't easy to keep a series going that long without things going off the rails, but Mr. Box has the touch. 

Joe Pickett, Wyoming game warden, and special troubleshooter for the governor is assigned to find out what's up on a ranch in the Black Hills. Some super rich fat cat has inexplicably selected one of the most impoverished counties of Wyoming to build his grotesquely huge ranch. Nobody is sure where his money comes from, but rumor has it that it just might be from brokering hits on unsavory characters. Uh oh. 

Joe is supposed to go for a couple of days, have a look around, and report back home. No biggie. Except, well, Joe just isn't the kind of guy who can look and not act and before long he's embroiled in some pretty nasty business that appears to involve the entire county. Yikes!

There are a couple of things which keep this series fresh for me. Primarily, that there is more going on than the mystery itself. Joe's family members have always been important characters in the book and this time around is no exception. In addition to trying to stay a step ahead of the bad guys, he's got one daughter worried about a creepy character in her college dorm and another daughter hell bent on taking off with a shady rodeo champion. 

Then of course there is the setting itself. Wyoming, big country, wild, lots to see. Mr. Box does a great job describing the western territory, the climate, the wildlife, and the way of life. 

So while I have lost interest in some mystery series that got off to a good start, I'm still scanning the new release shelves at the library for the next Joe Pickett adventure.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Book of Chameleons by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

The Book of Chameleons
by Jose Eduardo Agualusa
translated by Daniel Hahn
3 stars - um, not sure about this one
ALR Green - talking (or at least thinking) gecko

I would have loved reading this in college and spending long hours chatting with my pals about hidden meanings and deep revelations. 

What we have here is a narration by a gecko who lives in Angola with his albino (human) companion, Felix Ventura.

Felix's profession is to create new lives for people. Given Angola's troubled history, there is no dearth of people who need or simply want to assume new identities. Perhaps to recreate themselves as persons who did not commit atrocities, perhaps to forget the horrors brought to bear on them.

The tag line on his business card is "Felix Ventura. Guarantee your children a better past."

So when clients come to call, Felix sends them away with a new genealogy. Place of birth, generations of family, stories for each family member and, of course, a new take on their own lives. Enter client. He's about to be recast as Jose Buchman, native of Chibia, professional photographer, son of Mateus the famous hunter and guide for South Africans and Englishmen who come to Angola in search of thrills.


Then there's the gecko. He's not a fun loving guy, but something of a philosopher. Plus when he dreams, he takes human form and has meaningful encounters with the people who come and go from Felix's home, as well as Felix himself.

Things grow progressively curious as Jose Buchman returns to Felix repeatedly with more and more documentation that supports the notion that his contrived past is actually real. From there on, well, I just can't explain. There are more characters, more mystery, and the book drifts to its conclusion.

Not a story as much as a sensation. The writing is dreamy and seductive, rendering the content less important than the weird state my mind wandered into as I read. Am I making sense? I can't give more stars as this didn't really qualify as entertainment. I would love, however, to meet the author. Anybody who can make prose more like being drugged than telling a tale is cool beans in my book. 

Stick this one on your list for when you need to drift off someplace else. In this case, it's the drifting, not the story, that matters.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Heat Stroke by Rachel Caine

Heat Stroke
by Rachel Caine
4 stars - lots of action and cool magical stuff
ALR Blue - no animals at all really

Joanne Baldwin is back for the second adventure in the Weather Warden series. This time with a difference. Because if you missed the first book in the series, you'll need to know that at the end she was turned into a Djinn (or genie). 

Life as a newly minted djinn isn't easy. There's a lot to learn. Like how to turn into mist and then back into human form and do zoomies out past the no fly zone of the Earth's stratosphere. No worries. Luckily for Jo, she's got her hunky boyfriend / mentor djinn to help her with the transition.

But all is not happy go lucky smoochie face because on one of their trips into outer space, they encounter creepy blue sparkly stuff. Oh no! Not blue sparkly stuff! Now what? It would appear that something is terribly wrong in the universe. Something seeping through that is causing cataclysmic storms that even the weather wardens can't control (don't tell me you didn't know that the only reason the earth isn't consumed by wind, rain, and fire is thanks to weather wardens keeping things to a dull roar). For real.

Not only blue sparkly things, but some wicked bad humans as well. Bad as in "never trust a beautiful woman" bad. 

"But maybe there's something I can do for you," he said.

Her eyes raked him up and down. Blatantly. "I'm sure that's perfectly true." She giggled.

He laughed. I hadn't heard Lewis laugh in - well I don't think I'd ever heard him laugh. Not a yuk-it-up kind of guy, generally. His humor was quiet, his sexuality - well, until now, I would have thought it was kind of subdued.

"Nothing I can do to change your mind?" she asked, and looked up at him from under thick lashes. Moved closer. "You look like you'd drive a hard... bargain."

I rolled my eyes, thought about picking up the phone. Hello? Central Casting? Are you missing your Seducto-Bitch stereotype? Surely he could see it was an act.

There's humor, even when the fate of the world is teetering on the edge. Love it.

After warming up for a while, the book really gets rolling and from there on it's non-stop action. Djinn's going in bottles, coming out of bottles, big honking weather events, discorporation, treachery, you name it. 

Does our plucky heroine make it through? Does she save the world? Well, given that there are more books in the series, I'd say the answers are pretty clear. But that makes no matter. It's not the destination, it's the journey, and Rachel Caine sure knows how to make a journey worth taking.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Crashing Through by Robert Kurson

Crashing Through
by Robert Kurson
4 stars - fascinating stuff
ALR Green - nice guide dog in minor role

Suppose you'd been blind since the age of three and were offered, in your forties, the opportunity to regain your vision. Go for it, right? Well, what if I told you that the chance of success of the procedure was about 50/50 and that even if it worked your vision could reverse without warning and you'd be taking drugs with scary side effects, possibly for life. Still game? Allow me to add that the small handful of people in all recorded time who had vision restored suffered from depression and confusion? Getting cold feet yet?

Mike May was blinded by a chemical explosion when he was three years old. One eye was completely destroyed, the other retained only the ability to distinguish light and dark. But that never slowed him down and his mother always supported Mike in his quest to do everything normally. He ran, he played ball, rode a bike, even took a spin around in the block in his sister's car. No doubt social services would be all over Mrs. May nowadays for the constant bruising and battering her son took, but fortunately, he grew up in the sixties, with a mother who encouraged him and swallowed her own misgivings as he dashed around his world.

Mr. Kurson doesn't pull his punches. May is depicted in what feels to be an honest way. So we see a child grow up into a man who isn't always a nice guy. His fearless forays into activities like downhill skiing are laudable, but we also see his roguish treatment of women and obsessiveness with work. So while he's a flawed character, he is certainly remarkable for his determination to do whatever he wants and blindness be damned.

The first half of the book deals with May's life leading up to his surgery. The second half with the aftermath of surgery. The second half was the more fascinating to me. The child brain is a mushy compound of neurons waiting to form the intricate connections required to function in the world. Deprived of visual stimulation, the forty year old brain has re-allocated the visual processing neurons to other tasks. Subsequently, restoration of the ability to see does not imply restoration of the ability to process visual input. 

While May's surgery was fundamentally a success, his struggles to make sense out of visual input were monumental. How does one suddenly learn to distinguish shadow from step? And faces, ish. Complex tangles of subtle motions that are impossible to decipher. Well, thank goodness for May's guide dog to help him with the former. Even when May was sure he knew a step from a shadow, his dog knew differently and was by his side the whole way, doing his best to remind his master that he knew better, at least for now. 

The writing is above average for this sort of book. Thank you, Mr. Kurson. Highly readable, not maudlin, and not afraid to get too technical. 

And at the end, one is still left with questions. Always a good thing. Questions about what would I do. Questions about whether for many people, the gift of sight after a lifetime of blindness would be a gift at all.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Dark Place by Aaron J. Elkins

The Dark Place
by Aaron J. Elkins
3 stars - nice and cozy
ALR Blue

What do you do when you find a nice cozy series? Go back to the beginning of course. Since I couldn't find the first Gideon Oliver mystery in the library network, I figured starting with volume 2 was good enough.

Here we have a younger Gideon Oliver off on another adventure in forensic anthropology. This time he's in the rain forest of Washington's Olympic National Park where an odd assortment of bones have been discovered and it's up to him to determine if any of them belong to a couple of hikers who went missing several years prior.

Rumors abound once Gideon determines that the wounds inflicted had to be made by a creature of "super human strength." Aha! Bigfoot! Right?

It's all a delightful cozy with a good puzzle, likable characters, some education, and minimal mushy stuff. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Paw and Order by Spencer Quinn

Paw and Order
by Spencer Quinn
5 stars - It's a Chet and Bernie book!
ALR Green - some tense moments, but don't worry

Yeah, I knew there was another Chet and Bernie due out this summer, but I told myself I would wait until the library had it, save a few bucks. Who was I kidding? Yup, ordered it in glorious hardcover from Amazon. Woo hoo!

Best dog narrated series ever! 

Bernie filled my portable water bowl at the sink, set it down beside me. I wasn't thirsty at all, but what with Bernie being so nice, I lapped up a little sip, just to be nice back. The next thing I knew I was thirstier than I'd ever been in my life! I slurped my way right down to the bottom of the bowl absolutely nonstop - even sprayed a bit! And by my very own self! What a life!

Yup, they're back. Chet and Bernie, the partners in charge of the Little Detective Agency. Chet being the dog (and narrator), Bernie being the human. This time, adventure awaits in Washington DC after Bernie makes a spur of the moment decision to drive there to visit his girlfriend, Suzie (who relocated to Washington at the end of the last story).

But, well, you know, it's always something. Pretty soon there are dead bodies, strange smells, shady characters, and all the other stuff that makes these books delightful. Of course the actual mystery is beside the point (at least for me), the point being that Mr. Quinn has captured the delight of being a well loved dog exquisitly. Chet rides in the car, eats steak, snuffles, barks, wags his tail, and sometimes finds a perp's leg in his jaws. What fun!

They exchanged a look. Friendly? No. Unfriendly? Not that either. Too complicated for me, whatever it was. It made me uneasy, let's leave it at that. I considered a quick chew of the end of my tail, something I hardly ever do, but that was one of Bernie's no-nos, so I put a lid on it.

They looked away from each other, Bernie's gaze happening to fall on me. "Chet - knock that off."

What was this? Somehow the end of my tail had gotten into my mouth, completely without my knowledge or cooperation? And was I chewing on it? Put yourself in my place, assuming your own tail had gotten itself into your mouth, wouldn't you... Too confusing? Probably. How about we leave it right there, or perhaps even earlier? Whatever I may or may not have been doing, I knocked it off, and pronto.

One of the magical things about the Chet and Bernie books is that every time I read one, it reminds me of how my dog helps me live a better life. Our dogs love their family without reservation, live in the moment, take pleasure in what life has to offer, and usually are stoic when things get dicy. See the world through your dog's eyes and you'll be tip top.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mr. Penumbra's 24 - Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24 - Hour Bookstore
by Robin Sloan
3 stars - fun and quirky
ALR Blue - no animals

I belong to the data scientist community at work. Yeah, they let me in, even though I'm still in the kindergarten stage of my data scientist training. Mr. Penumbra's 24 - Hour Bookstore received a mention and several reviews from others in the group. Why? Well, because early in the book, there are scenes involving data visualization and a few instances where large scale data analytics provide very interesting clues central to the ultimate secret of the novel.

The book is a first person narrative by Clay Jannon, a web designer who finds himself unemployed. While wandering about San Francisco he stumbles across Mr. Penumbra's 24 - Hour bookstore, complete with "Help Wanted" sign in the window. A 24 hour bookstore? Indeed. Clay is assigned the overnight shift, from 10PM until 6AM. The store has only three employees, one per shift. Not many visitors. Yet it does feature three uninterrupted stories of gigantic, unheard of books. Yes, there are a few more modern novels up front, but most of the customers (and they are few and far between) come to borrow books from the Wayback portion of the store.

Well, our hero, Clay, is a bit befuddled about the whole setup, and with lots of time on his hands, he sets out to explore what's really going on. Along the way he meets a Google employee who readily harnesses the power of Hadoop to do large data analysis of the comings and goings at the store over time. 

The closer they look, the more confounding things become and soon Clay is uncovering ancient mysteries and secret societies.

It's all good fun and a delightful read, but I can't give it more than three stars. It's a tad superficial and the technology scenes, while fun, are a bit heavy handed. The mystery itself is not nearly as fascinating as the earlier bits about the bookstore and the books themselves.