Wednesday 29 May 2013

A Little History of Science

Finished May 29
A Little History of Science by William Bynum

This book consists of short chapters (around 6 pages each) taking us from the beginnings of science to the present. Bynum shows how science and religion often went together in the past, with the first people doing science being priests. He shows that science can be both simple observation and complex laboratory work or complicated formulas. He shows the development over time and how each new advance built on work done earlier. The writing assumes no prior knowledge of the different aspects of science, with all technical terms explained in words even a child can understand. Bynum makes science both interesting and approachable and shows how science has influenced humans and the world we live in over time. From astronomy to zoology, chemistry to physics, medicine to technology, genetics to geology, he shows the progress over time and the interrelationships between different branches of science. A great introduction to the subject that leaves the reader with many avenues for future investigation.

The Shallows

Finished May 28
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr, read by Paul Michael Garcia

I found this book fascinating. It isn't just about the internet and its influence on our physical brains and the way we think, although it is about that. It begins with a history of human communication, from oral storytelling, through the introduction of writing and reading, to the invention of the printing press, through newer media like movies, radio and television, showing how each change in communication resulted in changes to the way we think, and how we use our brains. It also has discussions around philosophy and how thought processes have changed. It looks at the science of research on the brain and the different viewpoints of what makes us human. It talks about the trend to refer to human functions in a machine-related way, and how machines replacing human functions affects us physically and mentally. Carr talks about his own experiences having difficulty in reading and writing with depth as he used the internet more, and how hard he found it to limit the time he spent online. Backed up by many different research studies that took place over many years, his arguments offer both hope and warning for the future. Highly recommended.

Check out this video about it.

Friday 24 May 2013

Scent of Darkness

Finished May 24
Scent of Darkness by Margot Berwin

This novel follows Evangeline, a young woman who is very close to her grandmother, not so much to her mother. She travels from her home in New York City to her grandmother's home in the nearby mountains whenever she isn't in school. Her grandmother is a creator of perfumes and when she passes she leaves Evangeline not only her home, but the gift of a scent created just for her. The scent is a powerful one, driving everyone who sees it to want her, and while it brings Evangeline the man she desires, it also attracts a man who is very dangerous to her. As Evangeline searches for the secrets of the scent she is drawn to her fate, and to a woman who assists her in unravelling it and giving her a new responsibility.
This was an interesting book, but Evangeline seemed older than her years and experience would make her for me. Remembering that the events here only happened within a few months following her eighteenth birthday, her thoughts and comments seem too mature at times. Also I didn't connect with her emotionally, as she always seemed too analytical even in her intense relationships.

A Cold and Lonely Place

Finished May 24
A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry

This novel follows the freelance journalist Tory Chance. Tory lives in Lake Placid, renting rooms in a large old house to other young single people. She is covering the annual building of the ice palace on Lake Saranac and is present when the ice harvesting is halted as a body is discovered frozen in the lake. Tory and others there recognize the young man frozen in the ice as Tobin Winslow. Tobin is the boyfriend of one of Tory's roommates, Jessamyn, and she wants to be sure Jessamyn doesn't hear it from idle talk. When a young reporter oversteps his bounds on the story and writes about rumours, he is fired and Tory is asked to assist by writing a series of articles on Tobin. She ends up making new friendships, finding out that she must guard against her own preconceptions about people, and coming into her own as a writer.
I really liked Tory, her independence, her caring about others, and her quickness in understanding situations. This was an interesting mystery, where you learned more and more about the victim and his life as you went along. The other characters like Jessamyn, and Tobin's sister Win, also grow as the story progresses. I'll definitely be recommending this one.

Monday 20 May 2013

Coyote v. Acme

Finished May 20
Coyote v. Acme by Ian Frazier

This collection of humorous essays made me immediately think of my brother as he has the same quirky sense of humour. The book jacket has praise describing the author as "a genius at the tough representation of idiocy, which is everywhere, and flourishing as, perhaps, never before." and I would agree.
From Saturday morning cartoons, to classic television to classic novels, Frazier pulls his material from many sources, remaking it in ways I would never have thought of. An interesting quirky take on modern culture.


Finished May 20
Snapper by Brian Kimberling

This novel has the author reaching back into his childhood in Indiana. The main character, Nathan Lochmueller studied philosophy at university and got a job gathering primary bird research for universities and government use. It doesn't pay that well, but he enjoys the independent nature of the work and being outdoors. He drives a battered truck named Gypsy Moth and loves a woman named Lola that he met just after high school. The characters of his family and friends come alive here from Shane, his best friend growing up who became a family man and children's librarian, to Kia, the German shepherd who loves to sing along to bad country songs and once found a bone Nate doesn't know what to do with.
Above all are the birds, including his favourite, the woodthrush. His least favourite are the raptors, although he comes to work with them closely. This is a book that invokes place, the cities, the small towns, the sense of community, the prejudices that make settings come alive.

The Wild Beasts of Wuhan

Finished May 20
The Wild Beasts of Wuhan by Ian Hamilton

This is the third book in the series featuring Ava Lee, forensic accountant. Here the book begins as she is on a cruise with her family. There is discord, and when Uncle calls with an urgent new case, Ava is easily persuaded to fly to Hong Kong on her way to Wuhan where the potential clients live. They are wanting to recover the money spent on paintings they have discovered to be fakes, all Fauvists, a group often know as Wild Beasts. Ava doesn't like the feeling she gets from Wong Changxing as she prefers a straightforward financial problem and he seems too emotional. But after a direct appeal from his wife, she agrees to do a little investigating to see what she can learn. The trail leads her to London, Ireland, Denmark, the Faroe Islands, and New York City. She finds evidence of more fake paintings, and buys some lovely clothes, meets some people she might hope to see again, and finds that she was right to trust her initial misgivings about these clients. I like Ava. She gets the job done, but on her own terms. She is proud of her skills, and will do what she can to get to the bottom of a puzzle.

Regulated for Murder

Finished May 19
Regulated for Murder by Suzanne Adair

This mystery thriller is set in 1781 in North Carolina. Michael Stoddard is a lieutenant for the king who has been asked to investigate a questionable land deal in Wilmington, the city he is stationed in. He finds traps and a missing man, but is quickly pulled off the case to courier an urgent message inland to Lord Cornwallis. He heads for the town of Hillsborough dressed as a civilian to meet his contact, but he arrives on the doorstep just after said contact has been murdered, in time to see the supposed perpetrator disappear into the woods. The law in town is a questionable bunch of men, that Stoddard himself suspects the origins of, and they insist on his staying and not only cooperating in the investigation, but doing some of the investigating. Michael is in luck that an acquaintance from Wilmington is also in town, and is willing to assist in passing him off as a civilian and giving him shelter. As he continues to investigate he finds himself more and more suspicious of the law in town and worried about his own safety and those who have helped him.
With a little romance, a lot of suspense, and interesting characters galore, this is a mystery that will keep you glued to the page. I liked the main character of Michael who comes off as an upright member of society, with a slightly secretive past back in England. The widow Kate Duncan is an intelligent business woman who had an unhappy marriage and may be interested in Michael. Her aunt Rachel is another intelligent business woman who has tried to hide her trials from her family, but recognizes when it is time to be forthright. The young man Noah, who everyone has dismissed an an idiot because of his deafness is a gem of a character with hidden depths. Definitely interested in reading more. Wondering how Michael will fare when the English retreat from the United States.

Open Heart

Finished May 19
Open Heart by Elie Wiesel

This short memoir is from June 2011 to around a year later. In June 2011, Wiesel went to his doctor complaining of pain and was told it was his heart. He had had numerous health problems, but never anything to do with his heart, and was surprised. He was even more surprised when the urgency of needing more tests and surgery was impressed upon him. This memoir describes his reaction, the surgery and his impressions of that, his feelings during his recovery and his reflections on the experience.

The Cold Dish

Finished May 15
The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson

I heard an interview with this author on CBC a few weeks ago and became intrigued. I decided to start with the first book in the series, which is this one. The setting is Wyoming, and Walt Longmire is the local sheriff. Walt is a Vietnam vet, in his fifties, a widower with a daughter who has moved away. He is a bit stuck in his grief since his wife died two years ago. His friends are trying to get him to move on, to finish the house his wife and him were building, and to maybe start a new relationship.
When he is notified of a man killed out in a field he sends his deputy, but the case looks like it might be linked to a case a while back where four young white men convinced a mentally handicapped young native woman to come with them and then sexually abused her. The dead man is one of the four men.
As the case progresses, Walt must depend on his friend Henry, and Henry must depend on Walt. The two of them fight to find the truth, against nature, against deceit, and with the help of the ancients. There is an emphasis on the type of gun used to commit the crime, and one gun like this comes into Walt's possession, the Cheyenne Death Rifle, with it's own story and interesting history. There are lots of interesting characters here, including Walt's deputy a young woman previously working for the Philadelphia police. Definitely a series I'd like to read more of.

Wednesday 15 May 2013

Catherine the Great

Finished May 15
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K Massie, read by Mark Deakins

This biography is extensive and covers many aspects of Catherine's life and reign. She was born a minor Prussian princess and was named Sophie. She was born in 1729, and brought to Russia by the Empress Elizabeth as the potential bride for her nephew Peter (later Peter III). She was only 14, and was expected to marry as she was told. She had to convert to the Orthodox religion, against her father's wishes. Her husband Peter III, was a immature and many believe the marriage was never consummated. Catherine did have three children, but they are all believed to be illegitimate. She came to power in 1762 as a result of a coup d'etat, and what is believed to be an assassination of her husband Peter III. She was definitely more knowledgeable about politics, foreign affairs, and culture than Peter, although he was fascinated by the military, playing with toy soldiers even after their marriage.
This book covers her early life, her betrothal and marriage to Peter and how she gained the love and respect of the Russian people. Her lovers, her political maneuverings, the wars she was involved in, are all covered here. We see how she became Europe's biggest art collector, beginning a collection that eventually became that of the Hermitage Museum. We discover her interest in the enlightenment and her high goals for change in the country. Some of these she found she could not accomplish, such as the abolishment of serfdom, others took longer than she anticipated. Ruling until her death in 1796, she is still known along with Peter the Great, as one of Russia's best rulers. She expanded the Russian empire to the Crimea, into Poland, and the far east. She initiated lengthy correspondences with Voltaire, Diderot, and other members of the Enlightenment. She was an early adopter of inoculations against disease and was herself inoculated against smallpox as an example to her people. She was also a strong proponent of education for the people.
I found this book fascinating. Catherine was an extremely interesting woman.

Monday 13 May 2013

The Lion Seeker

Finished May 13
The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonert

This novel is set in South Africa, and follows a family of Jews who immigrated there from Lithuania between the wars. The father, Abel, came first and established a business repairing clocks and watches, and the mother, Gitelle and two children Rively and Isaac followed a couple of years later.
Some of the story is from Gitelle, but the main part of the story is from Isaac. Gitelle has a secret, but we don't find out the full extent of it until the very end of the book. She longs to be able to bring the rest of her family to South Africa from Lithuania, but first finance stands in the way, and later the laws enacted agains such immigration. Her hope is for a better home in a nicer area with her entire family and she instills this drive in Isaac.
First she discourages Isaac from playing with the black children near them, and encourages him to find ways to earn money, whether legitimate or not. This drive sometimes leads to success by Isaac, but more often his actions lead to him losing jobs or opportunities. His Jewishness is always a factor in his success or failure. Even when he defies his mother to take a job working for someone else, his hard work there doesn't overcome the issue of race.
Bonert's South African roots make the story come alive through the use of language throughout the book, and one really gets a sense of place from this. I read this book in only a couple of days, not being able to put it down once I got into it.

Sunday 12 May 2013

The Ghost Riders of Ordebec

Finished May 11
The Ghost Riders of Ordebec by Fred Vargas

This is the 9th book in the series featuring Commissaire Adamsberg and it is as unusual as all the others. There are three cases here. One is a case of animal cruelty against a pigeon that Adamsberg himself discovers and won't let go.
Another is a case of a car set on fire with someone inside. The immediate suspect is a young man known for setting cars on fire with a grudge against the establishment, but Adamsberg is convinced that he wouldn't have done such a thing with someone inside. With pressure to wrap the case up quickly, Adamsberg takes things into his own hands to gain time to investigate the men he suspects.
The third case is the most complex, and it takes Adamsberg and several members of his team to a small village in Normandy. A young woman has seen the Furious Army aka the Ghost Riders and recognized three of the four men riding with them. One of the men is missing, and the case intrigues Adamsberg enough to have him make an unofficial visit. When someone else is attacked, the local police are seen as incompetent and Adamsberg's team is given the case. With more deaths, a family of odd individuals, and Adamsberg's newly found son playing a key role, this one keeps you glued to your chair.

Monday 6 May 2013

Nine Minutes on Monday

Finished May 5
Nine Minutes on Monday: the quick and easy way to go from manager to leader by James Robbins

This book lays out an interesting method to increase your leadership skills. Because leadership is, in essence, focused on people, so is this book. It lays out a system that you look at weekly, Robbins suggests Monday morning. Each of your nine minutes is focused on one of nine aspects of how you relate to your direct reports. Robbins warns against trying to do too much too soon, an easy trap to fall into when you go to a good conference or workshop or read an inspiring book like this one. While he lays out nine areas, each with a question to ask yourself once a week, he encourages the reader to start with the basic four and work on those before adding more. He also shows through a couple of case studies how each question doesn't have to be addressed every week, but should respond to your individual circumstances. As the subtitle suggests, the process is easy and doesn't take a lot of time. He also addresses those with staff working remotely. Added to the book is a website with follow-up tools and resources that will assist at putting this plan into action.
I finished this Sunday, perfect timing to get me started for Monday morning.

Sunday 5 May 2013

The Paradise Guest House

Finished May 4
The Paradise Guest House by Ellen Sussman

I enjoyed her earlier novel French Lessons, and found some of the same elements in this book.
Jamie is an American working as a guide for an adventure tourism company. She first went to Bali in 2002 to scout out a new tour for the area. She was caught up in the bombing that happened there. As the book begins, it is a year later and Jamie has returned to Bali as a guest of the government to commemorate the bombing and its victims and to assist the country in moving forward. She is being hosted by the family of a local victim. Jamie is having trouble psychologically coming back, but also has a private mission to reconnect with Gabe, the man who assisted her after the bombing.
The second part of the book takes us back to 2002, and has both Jamie and Gabe describing their experiences from the day of the bombing, to a few days later. The two met when trying to rescue others, and   Gabe provided Jamie with a refuge as well as assistance in the aftermath.
The third part continues the story of 2003, with Jamie facing up to her fears, learning more about this country and what it has to offer, and letting herself heal.
This has romance, but because of the circumstances offers a more complex story of a difficult time for this area that relies heavily on tourism. I found it a quick engaging read, that I truly enjoyed.

Friday 3 May 2013

Two Pints

Finished May 2
Two Pints by Roddy Doyle

This short novel is an ongoing conversation beginning in May 2011 and ending in April 2012 between two male friends in a pub. With commentary on current events in politics, entertainment, sports, and other topics of interest, the two men show humour, wit, and emotion. There are also elements of the absurd, as in the antics and interests of the one man's grandson Damien and his interest in animals. This book had me laughing out loud. Doyle makes his characters come alive as usual, and his comedic timing is spot on.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

Bristol House

Finished April 30
Bristol House by Beverly Swerling

This novel is set in London in the present day, but there are also commentaries from two speakers from sixteenth century, one a Carthusian monk and the other a Lombard Jew.
Annie Kendall has come to London to do research. She was hired very suddenly by a Jewish organization to look into the existence of a Jewish man known as The Jew of Holborn who sent ancient Jewish artifacts to various Jewish communities in 1735. This was a time that no one lived openly as Jewish, and the monasteries were under attack by Henry VIII. Annie is a recovering alcoholic, who has much in her past that she isn't happy with. She has snatched at this chance of a research job as it offers an opportunity to take back the academic career she lost hold of several years ago. Her doctoral dissertation had been titled The Effect of Protestant Iconoclasm on Sacred Doorway Decoration in Tudor England, 1537-1559, so the research she has been asked to do is relevant to the time period she is familiar with. Her new employer has set her up with the loan of a third-floor apartment in Bristol House, not far from the British Museum, one of her research locations. The apartment is well-kept, but seems to have something she hadn't bargained for, a ghost. When Annie meets a man, Geoff Harris, that is the spitting image of the ghost, she is amazed, and when she is drawn into Geoff's life, she is sure that there is a connection to her ghost and possibly her research.
A novel involving history, romance, and danger, this is a story you won't want to put down.