Friday, September 20, 2019

Tropical Storm Imelda: The 2019 Annual 500-Year Flood - and lots of Books and Reading Time

Here we go again.
People here are jokingly referring to Tropical Storm Imelda as Houston's "2019 Annual 500-Year Flood" because we have had so many of these once-every-500-years floods in recent years. The fact is we are getting kind of used to them now and they don't pack the emotional impact of previous major floods - and that can be dangerous because that's exactly when people die from taking silly risks. We have severe flooding 20 miles north of us, 20 miles east of us, and 20 miles south of us but we seem to have been in some kind of pocket yesterday that only received about six inches of rain during the heaviest downpours. The areas that flooded had somewhere between 25 and 30 inches of rain during that same 24-hour period. And 100 miles southeast of us, something over 40 inches of rain was delivered. So plenty of people suffered flooded homes, business, and cars - and loss of livestock and pets. But we were lucky in my part of Harris County. 

Anyway, I ventured in to the library this morning to return some books and pick up a few others. While there I wandered the stacks just to see what would catch my eye, and this is what I found:

Broadchurch by Erin Kelly

I didn't check this one out but I was really tempted. Broadchurch is a series set in England that I watched on Netflix a few months ago, and this book is based on what, if I remember correctly, was the show's second season. I liked everything about the series and really enjoyed it. But here's the rub: this is a novel "based on the story by series creator Chris Chibnall." Like I said, this is a great story and quite a fine mystery, but I have a distinct prejudice against books based on TV or movies rather than the other way around. I probably don't give the book authors enough credit, but it seems kind of lazy simply to put some flesh on the bones of a screenplay and call it a novel. Maybe it's just me, but I always feel like I'm wasting my time when I read one of these.

Charles Todd Books on the Shelf Today

I always stop when I spot a bunch of books by a single author I've never heard of, and that happened today with this group of Charles Todd novels featuring Inspector Ian Rutledge, a World War I era Scotland Yard detective. When I see this many books from a series, I have to believe that they are popular and selling very well. But this time around, I learned that the Charles Todd writing the books is actually the mother-son team of Caroline and Charles Todd. One of them lives in North Carolina and the other in Delaware (not sure which is in which state). It appears that the series is over twenty books long and that a new one is already scheduled to be released early next year. But that's not all "Charles Todd" is writing. The pair started the eleven-book Bess Crawford series in 2009, and they have also written two standalone novels. Now, this is another of my bookish prejudices. I usually avoid fiction written by multiple authors, especially parent-sibling or married teams. Does anyone out there have any experience with the Charles Todd books?

The Deborah Crombie Novels on the Shelf

Deborah Crombie novels are not new to me, and I have in fact read three of the novels pictured here, but seeing several of them clumped together today reminds me that as much as I've enjoyed the four of hers I've already read I really need to read the others. But I really, really don't need to add another fifteen books to my TBR list...but you know I just did.

The rains are falling again as I finish this up, hard and steady, so it looks like we will get another inch or two this afternoon and into the night. I hope the folks already underwater are not experiencing the same because they really don't need that to happen to them after yesterday.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Machines Like Me - Ian McEwan

Machines Like Me is Ian McEwan’s cautionary tale about a future that we just may not be ready for when it finally arrives. Synthetic humans (robots) are coming and they may be far smarter than we are when they get here. That may not sound like much of a problem, but what happens when the robots figure that out and become bored with us and our human limitations. Will they have the patience to put up with us or will they decide to take over for our own good?  

McEwan ventures into the alternate history genre here to explore some of the what-ifs of the accelerating pace at which we are introducing artificial intelligence and robotics into our everyday world. The novel is set in a 1980s version of the world very different from the one recorded by the history books. Margaret Thatcher is driven from office in disgrace after badly losing the Falklands War; John Lennon is alive and well and the Beatles are still a band; and the Brighton hotel bombing this time does manage to kill a British prime minister (Thatcher’s successor). Oh, and Jimmy Carter wins a second term, John Kennedy survives his trip to Dallas, and novelist Joseph Heller finds fame with a book he titles Catch-18. You get the idea.

Charlie Friend, thirty-two years old and single, takes great pride in the fact that he doesn’t have to answer to any boss. Charlie lives alone in a London apartment where he sits in front of his computer all day long buying and selling stocks, earning just enough to cover his day-to-day needs. He is not the most ambitious guy in the world, and when he learns that what he earns from day-trading stocks is just below the wage of the average Londoner, Charlie is proud that he is doing that well without having to answer to anyone. He is not the type to worry much about his future. Now, though, Charlie is falling in love with Miranda, the student who lives in the flat above his - even though she does not seem to feel the same way about him. But after blowing all the money his recently deceased mother left him on one of the world’s first synthetic humans, Charlie may have just stumbled onto a way of binding Miranda to him. He lets her help him design the personality of Adam, the near-perfect physical specimen who will now be sharing Charlie’s flat. 

Ian McEwan
Miranda, as it turns out, has secrets of her own, secrets that she can’t hide from someone like Adam who never sleeps and spends all of his spare time researching and learning about the world into which he has so suddenly been thrust. And after Adam warns Charlie that Miranda is not really who she seems to be, things begin to get tricky – especially after Adam declares his own love for Miranda.

Machines Like Me explores whether or not artificial intelligence can ever understand human emotions, motivations, and reasoning. Will it be possible for such a created consciousness to grow beyond the black and white rules it has initially been designed to follow? And if not, how will the inevitable conflict be resolved? What is to be done when our synthetic humans decide that they know what’s good for us better than we do. Which of us crosses the line first?

This quote (page 370 of the Large Print edition) should give all of us, researchers included, something to think about: “They couldn’t understand us, because we couldn’t understand ourselves. Their learning programs couldn’t accommodate us. If we didn’t know our own minds, how could we design theirs and expect them to be happy alongside us?”

Bottom Line: Machines Like Me is a bit frustrating at times because of the long, detailed digressions that McEwan strays into that do not always do much to advance the “discussion” of the potential conflict between artificial intelligence and human intelligence - but the patient reader will be well rewarded for his patience. I suppose that Machines Like Me will be most easily appreciated by science fiction and alternate reality fans, but it is a thought provoking philosophical novel as well.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

There's Still Something in the Water

I wonder what everyone is looking at.

I got to chatting with the guy working the Target book section this afternoon about all the similar book covers I've been noticing and was surprised at how quickly he agreed. Well, after I told him that I had posted a few pictures of the books last week, he got this great idea to display them together. As I was leaving the store, I saw him begin the process of moving all the tags so that they would match the new Mystery & Suspense display he had created. 

And there are more like this...many, many more.

(Click on the image for a larger version.)

Monday, September 16, 2019

Justice Gone - N. Lombardi Jr.

We seem to be living in a world in which few of us really trust anyone in authority anymore – we are all cynics. Elected officials, law enforcement officers, news media employees, and federal and state bureaucrats have all been accused of pushing personal agendas with little fear of being held accountable for their unethical actions. Those of who grew up in what we want to believe were simpler times are probably more upset by this noxious atmosphere than those born into it during the last couple of decades. They have, after all, known no other world. 

Nick Lombardi has been around long enough to see the world for what it is – and having spent half of his life living outside the United States, he has seen it at its worst and at its best. Lombardi’s Justice Gonetakes a questioning look at what we call justicethese days, a concept that is not nearly as black and white as we naively used to believe that it was. The novel tackles several front-page issues that trouble this country: homelessness, the huge number of broken men and women being produced by America’s endless wars, the perception of racially motivated police brutality, government cover-ups, and out-of-control and unethical government prosecutors and investigators. But don’t let that scare you away because Justice Gone manages to do all of that within the framework of an intriguing legal thriller.

Justice Gone is book one in what Lombardi plans as a series featuring Dr. Tessa Thorpe, a veteran’s counselor in charge of a clinic specializing in helping damaged veterans put their lives back together before it is too late. Tragedy strikes when cops decide to arrest one of Tessa’s patients on the streets for a crime he knows nothing about. Not recognizing the veteran’s confusion and panic for what it really is, the cops viciously beat him to death right in front of a bus station surveillance camera. And when that tape is leaked to YouTube all hell breaks loose. 

Another of Tessa’s patients, Iraqi war veteran Donald Darfield, was the dead man’s best friend and because of something that happened in Iraq, he feels responsible for his friend’s life. Donald, though, has plenty of war-related problems of his own, and after viewing the YouTube video he disappears. When three of the policemen responsible for beating his friend to death are themselves murdered, it is inevitable that Donald be charged with the crimes. And this is when Justice Gone becomes a legal thriller.

Nicholas Lombardi Jr.
Lombardi takes his readers through the whole legal process, all the way from jury selection, to evidence and witness gathering, to the legal strategies of both sides. In the process, he creates one of the most interesting defense teams that I’ve run across in a while: a colorful father-daughter team that manages to turn Nathanial Bodine’s physical handicap into a distinct advantage. Mr. Bodine is blind but that doesn’t mean the man can’t see. He has developed his other senses so acutely that he always knows exactly where he is in the courtroom – unless he wants to pretend otherwise for his own reasons. He and Emily have been working together long enough to have their routine so perfectly choreographed that it appears spontaneous to jurors. And it works every time. Any prosecutor underestimating the skills of Nathanial and Emily Bodine is making the mistake of his life.

Bottom Line: Justice Gone is a beautifully set-up legal thriller, and fans of the genre are certain to be entertained by the efforts of the Bodine legal team. While I am curious about what the second Tessa Thorpe novel will offer, I am just as caught up by a wish to see the Bodines in action again. My only quibble with this one is that the book’s “big reveal” seems a little sudden in appearance and resolution considering the length of its buildup. 

Review Copy provided by publisher

Book Number 3,439

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Beatles from A to Zed: An Alphabetical Mystery Tour - Peter Asher

No doubt about it. Peter Asher’s The Beatles from A to Zed: An Alphabetical Mystery Tour is a wonderfully comprehensive reminder of what made the Beatles such a unique and influential band, a book to be appreciated by younger and older fans alike. But this is a very special book for those fans who were there to buy the singles and albums as they were being delivered in what we then believed would be a string of never-ending hits. As it turned out, “never-ending” would only last from 1964 to 1970, but that doesn’t mean that the Beatles have ever been in any danger of being forgotten or surpassed by any of the bands that followed them. 

Thanks in large part to the Beatles Channel on SiriusXM radio, Beatlemania is still alive and well. Some Beatle fans (and perhaps especially non-fans) may have wondered how long a 24-7 radio station devoted to nothing but the music of one group could possibly remain fresh – even if it was the music of the Beatles. If so, they underestimated both the Beatles and those, like Peter Asher, who contribute their own knowledge and memories of that era to the channel’s programming. It is Asher’s Beatle’s Channel program “From Me to You” that in fact serves as the basis for The Beatles from A to Zed (this is more obvious in some of the book’s 26 chapters than in others). 

Asher’s approach is to devote a separate chapter to each letter of the alphabet in which he discusses whatever aspect of the Beatles work the letter suggests to him (he did struggle a bit with the “X” and “Z” chapters but managed somewhat creatively to tie in both letters). Asher goes wherever each letter leads him, be it a discussion of Beatles-related songs beginning with that particular letter or instruments, friends, locations, cowriters, producers, studios, etc. beginning with that letter. It is almost like sitting across the table from Asher and hearing him reminisce about his old friends and the decades of friendship that he shared with them. The man has stories to tell and he tells them well.

Peter Asher
Peter Asher was there from the relatively early days of the Beatles. He was particularly close to Paul McCartney who lived for a time in the Asher family home and composed some of his most famous songs there, meaning that Asher and his family were often the first to hear the songs that would later become classic Beatles recordings (Lennon and McCartney sometimes worked on songs together in the Asher home). Asher, of course, would find his own fame both as a member of the popular recording duo Peter and Gordon and as producer for some of the most famous recording artists of his day. 

The best way to read The Beatles from A to Zed is to read it while listening to the songs being discussed. Asher has a way of dissecting a song that only a world-class musician is capable of, and better yet, he explains it all in a way that it makes sense even to less musically inclined readers. Listening to a song while having an expert like Asher explain in some detail how (and why) it was all put together the way it was is a unique experience. I didn’t think there was anything that could make me love and appreciate the songs of the Beatles any more than I already did. I was wrong; The Beatles from A to Zed did exactly that.

Review Copy provided by Henry Holt and Co. 

(Book number 3,438)

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

There Must Be Something in the Water

There must be something in the water.

I keep stumbling upon books featuring the World War II experiences of women: books about Jewish women trying to escape occupied Europe, books about female resistance fighters, books about female spies who worked behind enemy lines, etc. There is even one slightly different book about the inspiration a female Afghanistan War veteran finds by reading about a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to fight for the Union during the American Civil War. The plots are so similar that it's becoming harder and harder to keep track of which title goes with which plot.

But publishers aren't satisfied just to flood the market with plots I can barely keep straight. Take a look at the covers of these same books. Does anyone really believe that it's a coincidence that even the covers are hard to keep straight? My theory is that publishers realize there is probably a good market for two or three of these books at the same time at most so they are counting on the confusion to sell a few thousand copies of the also-rans at the same time.

And these are only the ones I've seen in the past couple of weeks; I spotted four of them at Target just this afternoon, in fact - and Target has a very limited number of books on their store shelves. The problem is that I find the plot lines generally appealing but  only have time to work one or two of them into my reading schedule. How do I choose? Any recommendations? 

(The only one of these I've already read and reviewed is The Lost Girls of Paris and I found that one somewhat disappointing.)

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Smoky the Cow Horse (Scribner's Illustrated Classics Edition) - Will James

Smoky the Cow Horse (1929)
Will James intended Smokey the Cow Horse to be a book for adults, so imagine the man's pleasant surprise when the book won the 1927 Newbery Medal as the year's best addition to American literature for children.

James, whose real name was Joseph Ernest Nephtali Dufault, was born in Quebec in 1892 to French-speaking parents but he left home as a fourteen-year-old to move west and turn himself into a cowboy. By all accounts, he became a top hand who was particularly adept at turning wild horses into dependable cow horses. James, however, also had a couple of hidden talents not so common in the cowboy population: he was good at drawing animals and he could write. Those talents would not be enough to keep him from spending time in the Nevada State Prison in 1916 for cattle rustling, but the prison sentence seems to have been a wake-up call for James because it was while incarcerated that he vowed to turn his artistic talents into a profession. 

Front End Papers (not sure of the term)
James wrote and illustrated Smoky the Cow Horse, his most famous and most successful book, in 1926, and it was immediately so popular that it was reprinted ten more times between its September release and Christmas. The cowboy-author had twenty-seven of his self-illustrated books published during the Great Depression and almost all of them became bestsellers. Will James died in 1942. (1)

Smoky the Cow Horse is the only one of his books that I've read, and I still remember how intrigued I was that the story is told largely from the horse's point of view. The copy I purchased last Sunday for ten dollars is the Illustrated Classics Edition published by Scribner's in October, 1929, and all the photos attached here are from that book (explaining why they are so poorly cropped). I find it interesting that Smoky was published in the very month of the greatest Stock Market crash in American history, the crash said to have signaled the twelve-year-long Great Depression. Despite the economic hardships of the times, James enjoyed his greatest sales during the 1930s. 

Will James illustration between pages 100 and 101
Will James illustration between pages 16 and 17

Will James illustration between pages 72 and 73

(1) source: 

Monday, September 09, 2019

Dreyer's English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style - Benjamin Dreyer

As copy chief of Random House, Benjamin Dreyer has pretty much seen it all – over and over again. A substantial portion of Dreyer’s new writing guide, Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, even reads like a “Greatest Hits” list of the writing errors he has seen repeated most often during his two decades with the publisher. Anyone who writes, and with today’s technology all of us write all day long whether or not we realize it, will learn something from Dreyer’s English. That’s the good news; the bad news is that I can’t imagine a book more difficult to review than “An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style.” If that chore doesn’t bring all your grammatical insecurities to the forefront, nothing will.

I knew I still had a lot to learn when the book’s first chapter, “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose),” began with a challenge not to use for a week what turned out to be five of my favorite words: “very,” “rather,” “really,” “quite,” and “in fact.” And my apprehension only increased when Dreyer went on to add “just,” “pretty,” “surely,” “of course,” “so,” “that said,” and “actually” to the list. Dreyer is not saying never to use these words, only that they should be used sparingly if they are to have much of an impact on the reader.

Dreyer, though, is not as strict as this may make him sound because the second chapter of Dreyer’s English is an explanation of why we should ignore some of the written (and unwritten) writing rules we grew up with. (God bless him). Among other things, Dreyer gives us his blessing to:
·     Begin a sentence with “And” or “But,”
·     Split an Infinitive,
·     End a Sentence with a Preposition (see the first sentence of this paragraph),
·     Use Contractions in Formal Writing,
·     Actively Use the Passive Voice, and
·     Use Sentence Fragments (for effect).

Benjamin Dreyer
Dreyer’s English is broken into two distinct parts, “The Stuff in the Front” and “The Stuff at the Back,” with the second part being largely a series of lists (with explanations and tips) of things such as easily misspelled words, the author’s pet peeves, words easily confused by the writer (or spell check) with other words, notes on confusing proper names, and words that should never be used in connection with other words. Part One focuses as much on grammar as it does on style but proves to be as much fun to read as it is instructive because Dreyer so often uses his keen sense of humor to make his points. This section includes my favorite part of the book, a chapter entitled “67 Assorted Things to Do (and Not to Do) with Punctuation.” Somehow, the chapter managed to clarify some of my longtime uncertainties about punctuation at the same time it was making me feel that my grammar might not be as hopeless as I had feared. (So, of course, it is my favorite part of the book.)

Bottom Line: Dreyer’s English is an excellent style and grammar guide, and it is written in such humorous fashion that it is fun to read – what may be a first in the history of books on English grammar. My one quibble with the book, and it is a big one, is the author’s insistence on so often using President Trump in disparaging or negative terms to illustrate poor grammar or his simple dislike of the man and his policies. It was kind of funny the first two or three times, but the first third of Dreyer’s English is so heavily littered with the remarks and examples that they soon become little more than an irritating distraction. Why turn a book on grammar and style into a personal political statement? Thankfully, there are far fewer of these little throwaways in the final two-thirds of the book.