Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Return of Captain John Emmett, by Elizabeth Speller--Review

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, ISBN 9780547511696, 384pp., July 5, 2011

Laurence Bartram is a veteran of the Great War. He's emotionally wounded not just by his war experiences, but even more, by the death of his wife and child in childbirth, at the very moment he was caught up in the worst of the battles he survived. He's living in London, ostensibly working on a book about London's churches, but in reality merely existing.

Then he receives a letter from Mary Emmett, the sister of a school friend. The friend, John Emmett, had returned home more mentally and emotionally wounded by his war than Laurence had, and while being treated in what is for the time a very modern mental hospital, he escaped and committed suicide. John did not leave a note, and Mary wants to understand why he died. Laurence wasn't as close to John as Mary had hoped, but he agrees--partly because Mary herself strikes the first spark of interest and life that he's felt since he learned of his wife's death--to look into John's war and post-war experiences, and see if he can find an answer for her. The problem catches the interest of his friend Charles Carfax, also--and if truth be told Charles, who is a great reader of mystery and detective novels, fears Laurence may not quite know how to go on with an investigation on his own.

Together, they gather the pieces of John's war.  Some unexplained bequests to apparent strangers in his will lead them to a tragic, and botched, execution of a young officer for desertion; a trench collapse which John is only barely rescued alive by a soldier he thinks is guilty of rape and murder; the time he spent being treated for injuries and illness by a nurse who is now married to one of the men who helped get him out of the collapsed trench. Speller skillfully and delicately paints us a picture of a courageous, moral, kind man who was killed by the war as surely as any of the battlefield casualties. At the same time, we get to know Laurence and Mary as they come back to life, as well as other survivors of the war. As we get closer and closer to the hidden cause of John's death, we care more and more, and at the same time, find compassion for nearly everyone involved.

This is a thoughtful and moving study of the aftermath of the Great War for those who survived it and had to learn to live with the consequences.

Highly recommended.

I received a free electronic galley from the publisher via NetGalley.

Friday, February 25, 2011

E-Books, Libraries, and HarperCollins' Anti-Library Announcement

Today the word spread through the library community that HarperCollins has declared war on library lending of e-books. Initially librarians had a letter from Overdrive, cast in relentlessly positive terms, that nevertheless contained the shocking information that "some publishers" had demanded a new restriction on e-book lending: In addition to treating each e-book as a single physical copy, that can be loaned to only one person at a time, e-books will now also "wear out"; after twenty-six loans, the copy goes poof, and if the library wishes to continue to lend that book, they must buy it again.

Physical copies don't wear out and fall apart after only twenty-six lendings. When they do start to wear out, libraries can repair them. When the library does decide to deaccession those books, they can put them in the book sale. And libraries normally purchase physical copies at a small discount, or they pay extra for library binding, which means the book will be more physically durable.

Libraries don't get that discount on e-books. They pay more for them than the individual buyer does. And when they decide they no longer need a particular title, they can't resell it in the library book sale. The one advantage is that it's not going to wear out, that it can keep circulating, without repair, for as long as the library needs it to.

Now HarperCollins is saying no, that e-book is going to "wear out" faster and more catastrophically than any normal physical copy. It's no longer selling e-books to libraries; it's renting them, and it's a very expensive rental. One has to wonder what the Powers That Be at HarperCollins think about all those physical copies circulating for as long as they physically last, or used book stores, buying and selling physical copies after the original purchaser no longer wants them.

I believe that the fundamental problem here is that the publishing industry has largely been swallowed up by the entertainment industry. Publishing has never had the profit margins that the movies and television consider normal, and the entertainment conglomerates are frustrated by this. They're also deeply committed to achieving, as far as possible, a pay-per-view world. Everyone expects to pay to see a movie every time they go to the theater to see it, even if they do that a hundred times. You can't legally record it for your own use. TV is still mostly free-to-watch; even if you pay for cable, you mostly don't pay extra for each show--but that's because the advertisers are paying for it. And with pay-per-view movies and specials, you do pay for one or a limited number of viewings or a limited time period of access; you don't get to "keep" that show forever, for the most part. Movies and television bitterly resisted the VCR; they've made their peace with it and its descendants now, but remember they get a kickback for each blank media you purchase.

The entertainment conglomerates now own most of the publishing industry, and they're attempting to impose this model on publishing. In this frame, libraries look like an outrage. The experiences of publishers (as different as National Academies Press and Baen Books) that free or cheap access to e-books actually boosts the sales of print copies is irrelevant, in fact incomprehensible to them.

Libraries, as they always have, are moving forward with the new technology, attempting to make all kinds and formats of information and reading material available to the users despite terrible budget crunches. HarperCollins, with the rest of the publishing industry likely following close behind, is choosing to make that harder, and cripple libraries' ability to serve the needs of their users. But libraries are where young readers and new readers, who don't yet have the money and the commitment to reading to go out and buy their books, develop that taste and that need. Write off the young readers and the new readers, and the publishers will lose them not for a few years, but forever, as they take themselves off to other kinds of entertainment.

This unfortunate development is going to affect my willingness to review or purchase HarperCollins titles. I hope and trust it will also affect the willingness of libraries to purchase HarperCollins titles. This is an anti-library and anti-reader stance, and it deserves to be punished in the marketplace.

Update: A message from OverDrive on HarperCollins' new eBook licensing terms

Some links for further reading on the subject:
HarperCollins Puts 26 Loan Cap on Ebook Circulations
Publishing Industry Forces OverDrive and Other Library eBook Vendors to Take a Giant Step Back
The Publisher of Tolkien Has Taken a Business Lesson From Sauron
Let's Play Rent-A-Book!
Friday Alert: HarperCollins in cagematch with Macmillan to see who can alienate readers better

Friday, February 18, 2011

Diagnosis Death, by Richard L. Mabry, M.D.--Review

  Abingdon Press/United Methodist Publishing House, ISBN 9781426710216, 288 pp., April 2011

Elena Gardner is a young doctor, just finishing her residency in a distinguished Dallas hospital. She's also a young widow, whose husband Mark suffered an aneurysm that caused brain death. After struggling with the decision for weeks, Elena violates protocol by writing a Do Not Resuscitate order on his chart herself--and shortly thereafter, someone turns off Mark's respirator.

Elena thinks she may have done it herself, but she doesn't remember doing so. This is merely a private grief and mystery, however, until another patient, whose care she was involved in, dies in remarkably similar circumstances. Hospital officials conclude that, since both patients were brain-dead, what happened was possibly unethical but not a crime. With her residency just a few weeks from its end, though, and a senior hospital official up for a promotion, they're suddenly eager to have her out of Dallas so that, if an embarrassing pattern is developing, it won't be associated with their institution.

And so Elena finds herself signing on as the temporary, and hopefully permanent, associate of Dr. Cathy Sewell, in the alarmingly named city of Dainger, Texas. Dr. Sewell's pregnancy is near term, and whose practice is growing enough to support a second doctor even after she returns to work. Elena quickly finds she has not left her troubles behind her. The troubling weekly midnight phone calls that started after her husband's death continue. She gets anonymous notes that appear to be from the same source. She's making new friends and new enemies, and it's by no means clear who is who. Sheriff's deputy Frank Perrin seems friendly, pleasant, and helpful--but Cathy doesn't like him, and he seems almost disturbingly persistent. Dr. Marcus Bell is also a widower, and is interested in more than just friendship. A senior nurse at the local hospital has something painful in common with Elena: her husband is brain-dead and being kept alive on a respirator. The hospital administrator, Dr. Norman Godwin, is arrogant, abrupt, focused on the bottom line--and unexpectedly hostile.

Then another patient with brain damage, less severe and seemingly on the slow road to recovery, dies in frighteningly familiar circumstances. Elena has to sort out friend from foe, find out how her husband and the other patient in Dallas really died, and whether she really has killed three patients--or whether she has a dangerous enemy who has followed her from Dallas.

Elena and the other major characters are very nicely developed, interesting, and worth spending the time with. Some of the lesser but still important characters are a bit more two-dimensional, but not enough to detract from a well-plotted and solid mystery. It's also worth mentioning that the publisher bills this as Christian fiction. The Christian faith and beliefs of the characters flow naturally from who they are as people, and should be satisfying to those for whom this is a plus, and not intrusive or grafted on in a way that would be off-putting to those simply looking for a good mystery to engage the brain and the heart, and while away a few enjoyable hours.


I receive a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Outside In, by Maria V. Snyder--Review

Harlequin TEEN, ISBN 9780373210114, Publication Date 2/22/2011

This is the second book in a series, and so I had to pick up clues to the backstory  while reading this one. There was enough there that it wasn't a serious problem.

The setting is a generational colony ship headed from parts unknown to parts unknown. The original, or at least the previous, governing structure had been overthrown generations earlier, and the population of the ship divided into Uppers and Scrubs. The tensions in that society came to a head in the previous book, Inside Out, the ruling class dominated by the Trava family was overthrown, and a new government and social structure, intended to be more egalitarian, was created.

As the new book opens, the rebels against the previous regime are finding out that sometimes governing is harder than it looks, and overthrowing a bad government doesn't automatically mean that the new system will work. Trella, the seventeen-year-old leader of the Force of Sheep that spear-headed the rebellion, thinks she's too young and inexperienced to take a leading role in the new government, and insists on deferring to older and presumably wiser heads. She has accepted only an advisory seat on the ruling Committee, and then resigns even that, since she thinks she's more useful exploring the world they now know is a ship, and much larger than they previously thought.

But some of her fellow Scrubs resent the fact that the Uppers still mostly do the relatively soft jobs, while Scrubs still do the heavy, filthy, and sometimes dangerous work. The Trava family is mostly locked up in the brig, and wants out--and they have the greatest technical knowledge of the ship, including knowledge of the Transmission, the ship's drive and power plant.

And then some party identifying itself simply as the Controllers starts taking control of various critical ship's systems. Trella and some of her friends and allies think it's the Travas. Some of the Scrubs, the ones who have kept working but are not happy with the new system, think it's, in essence, the ancestors, the forces that are supposed to be the ultimate governing force in their world, which have been ignored by both the Committee and the Travas before them. And they start cooperating with the Controllers.

Trella finds herself unwillingly drawn back into politics, espionage, and eventually rebellion again, trying to figure out who are her allies and who are her enemies--and then finding out that she has to cooperate with her enemies, as they all confront the alarming fact that, if their world is a spaceship, then there are people outside the ship.

This is an exciting, entertaining story with lots of plot twists to keep you guessing what will happen on the next page, and engaging characters to help you care.


I received a free electronic galley of this book via NetGalley.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The 4-Percent Universe: Dark Matter, Dark Energy, and the Race to Discover the Rest of Reality, by Richard Panek--Book Review

Mariner Books, ISBN 9780547577579, 288 pp., Pub. Date 11/1/2011

This a highly readable history of the transformation of cosmology from metaphysics to physics, from philosophy and speculation to hard science, and in the process, the discovery of most of the universe.

Historically, astronomy and physics didn't have a great deal to do with each other. Astronomers studied the stars by observation, very patient and detailed observation and record-keeping. Theoretical physicists theorized and calculated, and experimental physicists experimented, and they fed each other's work, very occasionally coming up with something, most notably gravity, that made a real difference to astronomy. Then Einstein gave us general relativity, and began a century of ever-deeper entanglement of physics and astronomy, and the transformation of cosmology--the study of the nature and origins of the entire universe--from something utterly beyond the scope of physics into its core. The questions of how big the universe is, whether it is eternal in space and time or had a beginning and might have an end, became real questions.

Edwin Hubble, early in the century, discovered that the universe is expanding, but also that there are other galaxies beyond our own, and that they're all moving away from us. This was a major, exciting, and initially controversial change in our conception of the universe. In the 1960s, Vera Rubin, looking for a research project she could do within the constraints of raising two young children, studied other astronomers' observations and discovered that the galaxies were rotating as well as moving away from us. Also in the mid-1960s, Robert Dicke, Jim Peebles, and a small group of theoretical physicists had a prediction for which they had no supporting data: If the Big Bang theory of the history of the universe were correct, there should be low-level cosmic microwave radiation, at a temperature of about 3 degrees Kelvin. Then two astronomers at Bell Labs, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, had data for which they had no explanation: While trying to calibrate the Bell Labs' Crawford Hill antenna to study radio waves from the fringes of the Milky Way, they found they had a tiny background hiss which no amount of calibration would eliminate. They'd found the background cosmic radiation, echo of the Big Bang.

That's one small step along the way, from Einstein to the discovery that most of our universe is invisible. As the back and forth played out between the theoretical physicists and the experimental and observational scientists, increasingly astronomers, each theoretical question drew forth an observation, a find, a discovery that answered that question, and raised another. The most startling of these was the discovery that visible, directly detectable matter is just over 4% of the total make-up of a universe far larger and more complex than ever suspected at the start of the 20th century. If what we see were all there were, the galaxies would not be, could not be, relatively compact, stable spirals (or their other shapes), but should be torn apart by the speed of their rotation. Outside, among, around, the visible matter of the galaxies was dark matter.

Dark matter was soon joined by the even more mysterious dark energy.

The largest part of Panek's book is devoted to the research to detect and identify dark matter and dark energy,  He takes us through not only the science, fascinating enough in itself, but also the human drama as two teams, one primarily physicists and the other primarily astronomers, raced against each other to gather enough observations of sufficiently distant (and therefore ancient) supernovae to answer essential questions about the conditions of the early universe. In the answers to those questions, and questions about changes since that early time, would lie the answers to the reality of dark energy, dark matter, and maybe the ultimate fate of the universe.

Highly recommended.

The hardcover edition of this book is available from Amazon or Barnes & Noble. A paperback edition will be released in November 2011.

I received a free electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.