Friday, September 27, 2013

The English Girl, by Daniel Silva

This is the latest in Mr. Silva's series of spy novels featuring Israeli agent Gabriel Allon.   It was worth the wait, as the plot twists and interesting characters abound.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to give a summary of the story without revealing too much.

I recommend this novel.

The English Girl: A Novel (Gabriel Allon)

Thursday, September 26, 2013

The Bubble Gum Thief, by Jeff Miller

Whew, I really needed this:  a brilliantly written mystery that doesn't resort to trite templates of action novels as an alternative to excellent character development and a magnetic plot.   After the last couple of novels I've read, I was lucky to have found Mr. Miller's book.

His hero is FBI Agent Dagny Gray:  competent and bright, and also dangerously anorexic.  The bad guy sets a sequence of crimes in place when he steals a pack of bubble gum and leaves a note:  "This is my first crime. My next will be bigger."   The unknown suspect rapidly accelerates to murder, but the plot thickens considerably before the end.

Strongly recommended!   If Amazon's looking for a new feature to add to their web site, how about notifying me when Mr. Miller publishes his next novel -- I'll be sure to buy it.

The Bubble Gum Thief (Dagny Gray)

The Cut, by George Pelecanos

Two things differentiate this novel from being just another cookie cutter, template -based mystery slash action story:  the author's rather annoying descriptive prose style, and his attempt to demonstrate relevance and connectivity with the times by making the hero a fan of dub music, e.g.,  Augustus Pablo.  These ploys aren't enough to make the book great, although the plot is interesting enough.

The hero is Spero Lucas who's back in Washington, DC after a decade as a soldier deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan.  He's either unable to find nine to five work, or uninterested in it, so instead Lucas does investigations for a local attorney, and makes his real money by taking a 40% cut for finding things for people (lawfully or not).   Adopted by a Greek family in DC, his brother is an African American school teacher (Lucas is white).

As you'd expect from the template, Lucas has all the Jack Reacher -model of toughness, lives for excitement, but doesn't suffer from an overactive moral compass.  He can, however, simply say hello to an attractive female in order to move to a sexual relationship in a matter of minutes.


The Cut (Spero Lucas)

Monster, by Bernard DeLeo

The fast paced action and interesting plot of this novel almost make up for the hackneyed characters and their predictable if inexplicable behavior.  There's a team of FBI agents who appear to be professional if not overly competent, led by Agent Reskova.  They're joined by an Army colonel, McDaniels, who's an expert tracker (and black ops type assassin).  After dispatching a bad guy and rescuing a little girl, McDaniels does what you'd never expect a Delta Force guy to do:  he loses his cool with the press and is videotaped doing so.  This leads to his nickname, "cold mountain."  Ugh.

Now what's an adventure yarn without sexual tension between a single FBI team leader and a "break all rules" kind of Army Colonel?  Ms. Reskova folds like a house of cards, in scenes that are both laughable and embarrassing, to sensible readers of any gender.  Ugh.

Our hero, McDaniels, is a lone actor.  I don't know if that is typical of colonels, who would usually be in command of a battalion of, say, a few hundred to a thousand soldiers.   This is the least of our concerns though.

McDaniels believes in killing bad guys and the team of FBI agents (reasonably) believe in due process of the law.  So when more and more agents cross over to the dark side, favoring extra-judicial management of perpetrators (i.e., execution) over following the law, I didn't find myself cheering.   Oh it all seems fun and games, until they make a mistake and hurt an innocent person.  Not to mention that the concept of ignoring inconvenient laws does not resonate with me as the right approach for a democracy.  (The unlimited violation of individuals' civil rights provided by the Patriot Act is bad enough for heaven's sake!)

The last line of the book is, therefore, rather ominous to my ear, as a (previously stable) FBI agent acknowledges the addition of another member to their team by saying, "Now we have a full death squad."  Ugh.


Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum

Dr. Arum is a professor of sociology and education at NYU.  Dr. Roksa is a professor of sociology at the University of Virginia.  Their book looks at the question, are undergraduates learning in college?   They specifically look at critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing - skills that are not subject matter specific but which map well to the stated goals of higher education.

Although they analyzed data about 2300 undergrads, only twenty four colleges were considered.  So once critique might be that the sample size of colleges was too small.   Also, they relied on the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), a standardized test built to investigate these topics.   The CLA seems great to me, but I'm not an expert in the field, and presumably some academics challenge it.   But if we can put those issues aside, the findings are quite worrisome.

45% of students demonstrate no significant improvement in the CLA -measured skills in their first two years at college.   And the authors claim that this isn't even surprising to university administrators who know that their students spend far more time socializing than studying.

36% of students showed no improvement even over four years.  (They didn't include drop outs; that would have made the numbers worse.)   And for the 64% who did show improvement, it wasn't much to write home about:  moving from the 50th to the 68th percentile.

I'm sure that there are political factions who aren't even interested in academics per se who want to ignore and discredit these findings:  President Obama has spoken about increasing the number of college graduates dramatically.   If Arum and Roksa are right, then why bother putting more students into the system (and generating more debt for them and their families, and more cost to the taxpayers) without first addressing the shortcomings of this system?

What are those shortcomings?  Lack of academic rigor is the most important.  This manifests both as low levels of required work as well as very few hours spent studying.  Arum and Roksa say the average student spends 12-14 hours studying each week, yet managed to average a GPA of 3.2 - adding grade inflation to the list of problems.

So:  if not many students are learning, and they aren't learning much, then instead of more students choosing college (as opposed to, say, vocational training), then perhaps instead we need much more transparency about how individual colleges are performing against consistent metrics.  Such as the CLA, and graduation rate compared to freshmen enrollment.  

The Trinity Game, by Sean Chercover

The novel features Catholic Priest Daniel Byrne who works for the Vatican's "office of the Devil's advocate" to investigate claims of miracles.   But there are plots afoot at the Vatican, with one group seeking to advance political and evangelical goals at any cost (including faking miracles), and another even more secretive group that might be good guys -- but it isn't clear.   A strong signal that another volume will follow.

In this novel, Father Byrne turns out to be a pretty crummy priest.  But perhaps a solid investigator.   He is called to investigate his long estranged uncle, a televangelist from New Orleans, who suddenly is predicting the future - well, at least some horse races - with troubling accuracy.

By the way:  the office of the Devil's advocate (advocatus diabolus) was formed by Pope Sixtus V in 1587, presumably in reaction to Pope John XVI who developed the model of canonization to be applied to himself on his own death.   The advocate's job was to argue against canonization, to make it more difficult to achieve sainthood.   Pope John Paul II may have had aspirations similar to Pope John XVI, as he abolished the office in 1983.   Some skeptics believe this was to assure Pope John Paul II's own ascent to sainthood, which occurred six years after his death.   Or he may have believed that the Church needed more saints:  after this change, John Paul II was able to canonize ~500 people and beatify >1300.   In contrast, prior to the change, only 98 people were so recognized by John Paul II's predecessors in the 20th century.

The Trinity Game

Beyond Judgement, by Richard Bard

This is the third in Mr. Bard's series "brain rush," featuring super-powered Jake Bronson and his group of underemployed and overfunded cronies.   We find ourselves six years past where "The Enemy of My Enemy" ended, our hero Jake has amnesia and also a child, and the child has some extraordinary powers as well.   Which is odd, since Jake's manifested in an MRI malfunction.  But hey...  The plot is loose in this installment, but there's plenty of fast moving action to try to cover up the weakness in writing.

Beyond Judgment (Brainrush 3)

The Enemy of My Enemy, by Richard Bard

I wasn't planning to read the entire brain rush series, but here I am.  This is the second title featuring Jake Bronson, who was dying of a brain tumor in the first book when a freak MRI incident both cured him and gave him expansive mental and physical powers.

In this volume, the bad guy (Luciano Battista), Jake and his cohort of friends who can seemingly miss endless amounts of work and family time yet purchase literally overnight a variety of weapons and aircraft, end up in Venezuela.   Well, this is, after all, fiction.

I'd might as well read volume three and finish this up.

The Enemy of My Enemy (Brainrush 2)

The Leveling, by Dan Mayland

This is a sequel to "The Colonel's Mistake," featuring the same lead characters: Mark Sava, a former CIA agent, his more-or-less girl friend Daria Buckingham, and former Navy Seal John Decker.  The action takes place in Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran.

One of the things I like about Mr. Mayland's writing is that he doesn't resort to completely bizarre plot twists to move his characters forward.   The bulk of the action seems realistic (although the Decker character has recuperative capabilities that push the limit).

It is not necessary to read these books in sequence, although the background on the main characters is better exposed if you do.

The Leveling (A Mark Sava Thriller)

Friday, September 6, 2013

Bad Monkey, by Carl Hiaasen

This is another fabulous, twisted, funny, and outlandish novels by Mr. Hiaasen.   As usual, his target is what Mr. Hiaasen portrays as a reality -based view of South Florida's rampant greed and corruption, and the incompetence and apathy of its civil servants.  So that can be a bit of a downer - just as you're enjoying another bizarre plot twist it might occur to you, "yikes, but this kind of stuff probably really does happen!"   Still, this novel is entertaining enough to keep you focused on the plot, as wacky as it is.

More details:  the hero is Andrew Yancy, once fired by the Miami Police Department, then by the Monroe County Sherif's office, he becomes a restaurant hygiene inspector but as a hobby project decides to solve a mystery.   Which includes a human arm spending a short time in his freezer, a nasty monkey, and a cast of nutty characters typical of Mr. Hiaasen's writing.

Bad Monkey

The Forgotten, by David Baldacci

This is the second novel in Mr. Baldacci's series featuring Army investigator John Puller.   As I noted in writing about the first, "Zero Day," this is an unabashed rip-off of Lee Child's Jack Reacher character. It is forgivable largely because Mr. Baldacci does it so well.

Mr. Baldacci's success as an author is attributable to good writing, interesting plots, engaging character development, and following a template.  In the case of his John Puller novels, that template is pretty clear:   There's a mystery.  There's an attractive woman interest (or two).  There are the eccentric decisions of a hero not overly subservient to the rules.  And there are the plot twists.

I'm eager to read the next in the series, because this template works really well.

The Forgotten (John Puller)

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Enraged, by Brett Battles

This is the latest in Mr. Battles series featuring Jonathan Quinn.   Quinn was a "cleaner" in that he cleaned up the residue of spy agency assassinations.  That changed in the prior novel, but Mr. Battles has Quinn deep in the action again.   I continue to be a fan.

The Enraged (A Jonathan Quinn Novel 7)

A Touch of Deceit, by Gary Ponzo

This is the first novel in Mr. Ponzo's series featuring hero Nick Bracco, an FBI agent who is focused on counter terrorism.   For a 99 cent Kindle download, it is chock full of action adventure value.

A Touch of Deceit (Nick Bracco Series #1)

College Unbound, by Jeffrey Selingo

The sub-title of Mr. Selingo's book is, "the future of higher education and what it means for students."  It is a broad survey of the topic, focusing on the cost of college for students and their parents, and the potential disruption afforded by online education.

Mr. Selingo touches on the lack of transparency in higher education:  it is difficult for potential enrollees to understand the graduation rates or employment statistics of an particular college program.  Which is kind of like buying a new car with no insight into its fuel economy or safety record.   Except that a four year college costs far more than what the average person would spend on an automobile.

Still, this is only a broad brush view on the topic.  I'm going to try Richard Arum's "Academically Adrift" next, to see if that has more meat on its bones.

College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students

Salt Sugar Fat, by Michael Moss

This is a fabulous book, a must-read.   The sub-title is "How the food giants hooked us," and this is serious journalism.  Mr. Moss won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2010, and was a finalist in 1999 and 2006.  I wouldn't be surprised if this (2013) book made the short list as well.

I know what you're thinking:  b o r i n g !    But that's the beauty of Mr. Moss' writing.   The entire book is told in stories based on his extensive research and personal interviews with key players in the US food industry.   So it is really a fast read.

It also seems to me that the publisher may have been the energy behind the sub-title.  Because Mr. Moss seems pretty careful to not take sides, other than on objective science.  He wasn't on a witch hunt, and in some sense that sub-title is a bad thing if it makes the book seem less of fair journalism than it is.

Strongly recommended.

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us