Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Goddess Test, by Aimee Carter--Review

HarlequinTEEN, ISBN 9780373210268, April 2011

Kate Winters' mother is dying, and wants to return from New York City, where Kate has lived her whole life, to her tiny home town of Eden. Kate, completely dedicated to her mother's welfare and having as much time with her as possible, takes her back.

Immediately, odd things start to happen. Some of them are "normal odd"; it's a small town, Kate's Mom is remembered, and surrounded by strangers, she finds everyone asking about her mother. She enrolls in the local high school for her senior year, and is quickly befriended by James, the local nerd, and earns the enmity of one of the very popular girls, Ava, by attracting the interest of her boyfriend Dylan, the school's football star.

Other oddities aren't quite so normal. On the way into town, Kate nearly hits a cow who simply appears in the road, and then has to swerve again to avoid a young man standing in the road--and then they are both gone. And then Ava tricks Kate into coming with her to an isolated estate, Eden Manor, and tries to abandon her there. When Ava jumps into the stream to swim out through a small gap in the hedge. she hits her head on a rock, and Kate, who is terrified of the water, nevertheless goes in and thankfully finds the stream shallow enough that she can reach her and pull her out. Unfortunately, Ava's skull has been crushed, and she's dead.

The young man that Kate thought she saw on road coming to Eden turns up while she's still dealing with the shock. His name is Henry, he owns Eden Manor, and he offers to save Ava's life, if Kate will give him what he wants. She hastily agrees to do whatever he wants, if Ava lives--and suddenly Ava is reviving. astonished and grateful that despite her nasty trick, Kate braved the water to save her.

What does Henry want? He tells Kate to read the story of Demeter, and she'll understand. She has until the fall equinox to decide.

Henry is Hades, God of the Dead, and his Queen, Persephone, chose to give up her immortality for a mortal lover, and has died. He can't rule alone, and needs a new Queen, or his fellow Olympians will replace him and he will fade.

But it's not as simple as Kate merely saying yes. There are seven tests, and she has to pass all of them. Henry has been looking for a new queen for a century, and every girl chosen has either failed one of the seven tests very quickly, or has been dead by Christmas. When Kate agrees, she's taking her life in her hands. Henry promises her more time with her dying mother, though, and she decides it's worth it.

And so Kate embarks on a very challenging and confusing experience, living in a not-this-world version of Eden Manor, surrounded by the Dead who are Hades' staff and servants, studying, not knowing when tests are coming or what they'll be like, and not knowing who is friend or foe. She enjoys dream-time with her mother in Central Park, and struggles in her waking hours with inexplicable hostility and suspect friendship, as well as mastering all the knowledge she'll need and the uncomfortable idea of, at the age of eighteen, becoming the wife of Hades for eternity. There are layers of deception she hasn't guessed at, and she has to peel them all back to pass the tests, survive attempts on her life, and have a chance of building a future.

This is a good, solid story, with interesting characters who are more complex than they appear at first, and all in all this book should please not only its intended young adult audience, but adults who don't require "adult" content in a story. Fair warning, though, it's the first of at least a trilogy, and while there's a complete story here, there's also a larger story arc to be continued in later books.


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

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better, by Tyler Cowen--Review

Penguin Group/Dutton, ISBN 9781101502242, February 2011

This is a long essay about what Tyler Cowen considers to be the real roots of our current economic and political frustrations: a stagnation in technological advances that started around 1970. This sounds counter-intuitive, but Cowen makes a good case for his approach.

Up until that point, America always had a great deal of what Cowen refers to as "low-hanging fruit": first, and for a very long time, land so abundant it was practically free. Europeans could come to America, stake their claim, work hard, and be substantially better off than they'd been in Europe. Next, the enormous technological advances of the 19th and first half of the 20th century--steam engines, trains, the telegraph, electricity, the telephone, the car, the airplane. Thirdly, large numbers of smart, uneducated people who could be educated and add tremendously to productivity. Technological advances and the expansion of education continued to make huge differences in the lives of nearly everyone, raising the standard of living and the available wealth dramatically in each generation.

But by the late sixties, there were fewer opportunities to continue making those dramatic advances. Most Americans are now being educated, and the gains to be made are incremental gains amongst the most challenged learners--students with language barriers, or learning disabilities, or who are from families that are economically disadvantaged, or broken or disrupted in ways that make the parents less available or less able to give the students a stable basis. Overcoming those obstacles and educating these students is important  and will benefit the economy as a whole as well as the individuals affected--but not nearly as dramatically as previous, more general advances in education. Technology also has had mostly incremental gains--better cars or better planes, medical gains now concentrated in care for the elderly and other marginal-gain areas. We'll all be glad for those advances when we are old, and they're important, but, again, not making dramatic changes in most people's everyday lives. There's no room for the dramatic advances in medicine and hygiene that took place through the first half of the 20th century.

Moreover, the largest parts of our economy now are government expenditures, medicine, and education, and two of the three should be very dynamic parts of our modern economy. They are, unfortunately, areas where real value, quality, and productivity are hard to measure effectively, and the market forces that control food prices or electronics prices simply aren't effective because of this.

As a result of all these trends, we have slow or stagnant growth, and a political system hampered by the frustrations of a population that is barely keeping even rather than experiencing the steadily rising standard of living of their parents and grandparents.

The one exception to this general picture of technological stagnation is the internet. Cowen discusses with great enthusiasm the advances connected to the internet, the ways in which they have dramatically changed and enhanced the lives of much of the population. By way of the internet, for the cost of a connection and the minor cost of electricity, we have access to information, education, entertainment, and contacts and friendships all over the world. It gives us access to opportunities to be happier, smarter, more fulfilled, without expenses we can't afford in the midst of our Great Stagnation.

And that in turn means that, while easing the pain of the economic slowdown, the internet also paradoxically makes it worse, because we're not spending the money to generate the more externally productive economic activity that's a vital part of reviving the economy.

All this sounds pretty grim, but in fact Cowen sees real prospects for a path out of our stagnation, for the creation of new "low-hanging fruit" that will make possible a return to dynamic growth, development, and human progress. If you have political opinions at all, whatever they are, you will disagree with some of what he says, but this is an essay grounded in fact and reality. Even if you don't in the end agree with Cowen's approach to a solution, you'll find yourself challenged to think by his discussion and analysis.


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

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Turn in the Road, by Debbie Macomber--Review

Harlequin/Mira Books, ISBN 9780778329831, April 2011

It's been six years since Bethanne Hamlin's husband Grant divorced her to marry the younger, prettier, very ambitious Tiffany. To support herself and keep her two children in the house they'd grown up in, Bethanne started a party-planning business called Parties, and is now a successful businesswoman in her own right. When she learns that Grant, with his brief marriage to Tiffany long over, wants a reconciliation, she's thrown into turmoil.

Bethanne is still close to her ex-mother-in-law, Ruth, and when she learns Ruth is planning to drive cross-country from Seattle to Florida to attend her high school reunion, and is facing opposition from Grant and his sister Robin, she decides to join Ruth, and use the three weeks away from home (they will rent a car and fly back from Florida) to think over her relationship with Grant and what she wants for the future. When Bethanne's daughter Annie has a painful breakup with her boyfriend and decides to join them, the three women set off to see America.

Along the way, we learn that Ruth, also, has "man trouble." She's been a widow for several years, and has been thinking more and more about her high school sweetheart, whom she dumped in a painful manner almost fifty years ago. He's widowed too, and will be at the reunion...

The three women quickly abandon Ruth's carefully planned route with easy stages in favor of side trips and adventure. They work for a day in a diner run by an old friend of Ruth's, have their car break down, are rescued by a group of bikers, and spend a few days in Vegas--where Annie meets a cute new guy, and Bethanne finds herself attracted to Max, one of the bikers who rescued them. It's a development Ruth finds shocking and outrageous until she spends a lovely day with Max's friend, Rooster.

They all have a lot to learn about each other and themselves, Americana to see, and big decisions to make about their lives. This is a fun, warm, emotionally satisfying read.


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

Unearthed: A Blackpool Mystery, by Jordan Gray--Review

Harlequin/Mystery Case Files, ISBN 9780373837540, April 2011

This is apparently the fourth of four books, the adventures of Michael Graham, an English videogame designer, and his American wife Molly, in the small English coastal town of Blackpool. The backstory includes Molly having successfully campaigned to get redevelopment funds for Blackpool, and she's managing the project much more closely than she'd hoped to. They've also, unintentionally and not entirely happily, gotten involved in investigating some crime related to a local mystery, the missing treasure supposedly hidden somewhere in the area by Charles Crowe, a local businessman and illegal slave trader of the early 19th century. This has involved them with the local head of the police, Chief Inspector Paddington--and also, unfortunately, brought them to the attention of a very rough and violent gypsy clan currently in the area, the Draghicis, as well as Aleister Crowe, descendant of Charles, current owner of the Crowe estate, the Crowe's Nest, and quite a formidable and dangerous character in his own right.

As Unearthed opens, Michael is standing watch over the hospital bedside of his friend Rohan Wallace, who broke into the Crowe's Nest for unknown reasons, and was shot by Aleister. Molly has gone to pick up Rohan's grandmother, Nanny Myrie, who is coming in by float plane.

This is a moment of peace and reflection compared to what will happen over the next few days.

A stranger turns up and tries to talk to the unconscious Rohan, and when Michael pursues him through the hospital parking lot to try to question him, a sniper shoots the stranger dead. The gypsy Dragheci clan, convinced that Charles Crowe stole their ancestors' gold, threaten Molly and Michael in an attempt to force them to help recover it. Nanny Myrie has brought with her the journal of one of her ancestors, with a trove of information about Charles Crowe and his slave trading and smuggling, as well as sketches of West African artifacts stolen by Crowe. As Michael puzzles over the model of Blackpool that folds into a secret map of the tunnels under the town and scours Youtube for more information on the dead stranger, and Paddington pursues a more conventional investigation, Molly and Aleister's sister are kidnapped by the Draghicis, and tension ramps up to the breaking point.

This is an exciting mystery with engaging characters, and enough background detail included that the longer story arc encompassing the three previous books is not an obstacle to enjoying this one.


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

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Here on Earth: A Natural History of the Planet, by Tim Flannery

Grove/Atlantic, ISBN 9780802119766, April 2011

Flannery gives us an overview of life on our planet and of our species, with an eye to making us see the importance of being a cooperative part of our planet's ecosystem (the Gaia hypothesis) rather than the rulers and exploiters of the ecosystem (the Medea hypothesis.) There's a useful and interesting review of the different paths and perspectives of the two creators of the theory of evolution--Charles Darwin and the less-remembered Alfred Russel Wallace. Darwin held off on publishing for years, in part because he was disturbed by some of the moral implications of his theory. Wallace, in contrast, saw in evolution the beginnings of something like the Gaia hypothesis--that Earth's ecosystem is ultimately an interdependent whole, and the picture of nature as "red in tooth and claw" is at best half the picture.

Over the intervening century and a half these competing visions have played out, with the harsher Medean viewpoint more often prevailing. Now, though, we have reached a point where we potentially endanger the survival of the ecosystem we depend on for our own survival. Flannery makes the case that we both must, and can, become in effect the brain and nervous system of a Gaia that will nurture us along with all the other diversity of life on Earth.

Along the way, he tells some fascinating and illuminating stories. I was enthralled by the account of how mammoths made the Russian steppes more productive and life-diverse by acting as an ecological "banker," controlling vegetation, returning nutrients to the soil, and making it possible for the steppes to be far more productive than they are today--and how their extinction, at least in part due to human over-hunting, ecologically impoverished the steppes. Even more fascinating is his account of how the Australian aborigines first eliminated much of the diversity they found on arriving in Australia, hunting to extinction most of the megafauna of the continent, and then, struggling to survive in the impoverished landscape, effectively took their place as "ecological bankers." Carefully controlled firestick farming took the place of the large grazers; strict cultural rules on when, where, and how to hunt, along with restriction of hunting rights to the clans resident in particular areas, allowed Australia to be preserve much of the productivity the elimination of the megafauna would otherwise have eliminated. European colonists, on their arrival, began pushing the aborigines off their lands and exploiting the land in  ways based on their experiences in Europe, and once again severely damaged the productivity of the land. Now, Australians are once again attempting to modify their behavior to preserve their environment and unique fauna, and restore the productivity of the land.

All of this is in support of a discussion of how humans worldwide are now, on the one hand, exploiting the world in ways dangerous to our survival, and groping towards more sustainable practices. Some of the discussion is specifically about political systems: it's easier for democracies to start to lessen their environmental impact, because everyone has some degree of a say in what happens, and everyone has something to lose, making a "take the money and run" approach less attractive. Likewise, modern views of equality of rights and opportunity means that women, who bear most of the biological burden of reproduction, can and do choose to limit their child-bearing in favor of devoting more of their lives to professional, artistic, and volunteer activities. The spread of these rights and opportunities creates the possibility of escaping the Malthusian trap of outrunning our resources by limiting our reproduction to a sustainable level and even reducing the total human population a bit without resorting to China's harsh and oppressive measures.

Unfortunately, while I like the information and the viewpoint of the book, and learned some useful and interesting things from it, I do think that too much of it is preaching to the choir. In some of the chapters where I would most like him to be making a convincing case, Flannery is in fact offering arguments and examples that  I fear will convince no one who does not already agree with him. And the final, summary chapter waivers between hope and gloom in a repetitive and uncompelling manner.

An interesting book, but I can't recommend it if you're not already sympathetic to the Gaia hypothesis.

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

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The new "Kindle with Special Offers" is a terrible "bargain"

Amazon is offering a Wonderful New Bargain in Kindle e-readers: the lower-end, $139 wi-fi-enabled Kindle for  $114, a $25 price break, in exchange for ads and special offers popping up while you're reading, as well as "sponsored" screensavers--more ads.

Until now, the promise of e-ink e-readers has been a reading experience as close as possible to the experience of reading a print book, with some "improvements" only possible with digital technology: adjustable font size, the ability to carry dozens of books as easily as one (or more easily than one good-sized hardcover), and the ability to download a new book in moments. The "Kindle with Special Offers" is a departure from that: treating the e-reader like the net, where we have long accepted ads as the price of reading sites for "free." Except, of course, that the "Kindle with Special Offers" isn't "free" in any sense. There's a $25 saving on the purchase of the device itself. Books purchased from Amazon will cost the same--except perhaps where some of those "special offers" apply.

There might be an argument for this if it were truly making the Kindle more accessible to a much wider audience. But realistically, for how many people will a $25 savings on a device that will still cost over $100 really be the difference in affordability? Some, surely, but many? I'm skeptical. And in exchange, the reading experience itself is compromised. Whether you're reading the latest light romance or the latest literary masterpiece, a rousing adventure, an intriguing mystery, or an enlightening work of popular science, ads will be popping up, intruding on your immersion in the world of the book. And unlike the ads that used to be bound into the middle of cheaper paperbacks in my younger days, you won't even be able to rip them out and dump them in the trash.

This is not a good development.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Phoenix Rising: A Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences Novel, by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

HarperCollins/Voyager, ISBN 9780062049766, May 2011

It's sometime in the late 1890s--late Victorian London, and Wellington Thornhill Books, Archivist for the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences is kidnapped, whisked away to an Antarctic stronghold for, ahem, questioning, and is rescued by Ministry field agent Eliza D. Braun. (Yes, Books and Braun, but really, you have to forgive the authors for it, or at least I do!) Alas, Eliza is a bit free with her use of explosives in the process, and blowing up the headquarters of the House of Usher without actually eliminating the organization was not included in her instructions. Upon returning to London, she is assigned to assist Books in the Archives. This is Ministry director Dr. Sound's version of killing two birds with one stone: Eliza Braun is too unpredictable and resistant to orders in the field, and Books is starting to think of the Archives as his.

If the existence of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, combined with the dirigible that carried Books and Braun away from Antarctica, were not enough evidence, we quickly encounter proof that this Victorian England is not our Victorian England. Books has a working Difference Engine that he built himself, and has programmed for all manner of useful tasks. The Archives are filled not just with accounts of solves and unsolved cases, but artifacts--a map to the city of El Dorado, and a Zulu amulet that does truly dangerous things, among others. The agents, including Books, wear rings that can be tracked by the Emergency Tracking System.

Braun is not really cut out to be an archivist, and she's haunted by one of the first cases she worked on after arriving in England from New Zealand. Known as the Rag and Bone Murders, the case revolved around bodies found dead and mutilated in a variety of gruesome ways: one drained of all blood, another with all bones removed, yet another with the skin completely removed. She and her first partner, Harrison Thorne, found no solution and the investigation became increasingly dangerous, until they were ordered to stop, and the unsolved case consigned to the Archives. But Harry didn't drop the case, and eventually disappeared for a week, only to turn up near a factory, completely mad.

Braun can't let the case go, either, and inevitably sucks the very staid, very proper, very not-a-field-agent Books into the case with her. And that's when things really get dangerous, as they clash with a secret society with its own plans for England, agents of the House of Usher still intent upon questioning Books, a deadly female assassin, and the mad genius who's behind everything--maybe! They repeatedly escape by the skin of their teeth, due to Braun's way with weapons and explosives, or Books' way with machinery and codes. And when the final showdown comes, if they want to survive, they have to get over their mutual friction and incomprehension, and start trusting each other.

This is a great romp through a Victorian England that's just off enough to be intriguing, and I found Books and Braun rapidly growing on me. The pace is lively, and the authors keep the reader guessing.

A minor detail that will amuse those who remember a certain tv show: At a very dangerous and shocking house party, Books and Braun meet a couple named Collins. Barnabus and Angelique Collins. This doesn't appear to have any significance beyond the private amusement of the authors, although since this appears to be the start of a series, who knows? Maybe we'll find out the Collinses have relatives in Maine.

Recommended for a good, light-hearted, adventurous romp.

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