Welcome to my bookshelf

I am a voracious reader who is constantly found with her nose in a good (although sometimes not so good) book. I felt the need to share my experiences and suggestions, so here it is. Recommendations and comments are most definitely desired.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tales From the Crypt

Currently Reading: Dissecting Death: Secrets of a Medical Examiner

The current project we are working on at work has inspired a bit of morbid reading including Dissecting Death and The Bone Lady: Life as a Forensic Anthropologist. I know what you must be thinking. Why such a dark subject? In actuality, I have found myself completely engaged in both books, dog-earring pages containing topics just begging for further research and opening my mind to new and enlightening methods used by these professionals. Both books are written by actual practitioners and are first person narratives outlining not only the basics behind each vocation, but highlighting memorable cases throughout their careers.

I'll do these in order of reading, starting with The Bone Lady. Mary Manhein lives and works in the South, mainly around Louisiana, but as her profession is a unique one, she is often called to neighboring states to consult as well. In fact, Manhein's expertise is so renown that she is referred to as "The Bone Lady" by those seeking her advice. Manhein is a forensic anthropologist. So what does that actually mean? Well, basically if there are bones involved, be they really old or fairly new, a forensic anthropologist is needed to help examine those remains and determine facts about the victim and sometimes even the cause of death. As the job title alludes to, often times these bones are quite ancient and Manhein has taken part in many digs involving Civil War sites or old, unsolved cases. Basically, if you stumble upon some bones while digging for a new septic tank, Mary Manhein is the one the police call to help find out if it was the former resident or the dearly departed family pet. A cool project that Manhein and her team have been working on involves the NCMEC (National Center for Missing and Exploited Children) and MAPS (Model Age Progression Sites). Mary and her team use the software program, FACES, to help reunite families with their loved ones by creating age progression images of missing children in an effort to determine what fate befell them. Some super cool stuff is happening in the world of forensics and their efforts have already helped to provide closure for several families.

So bones are actually the nice side of forensics. In Dissecting Death, we delve into the biological world of decaying tissue, swarming maggots and pooling blood in an effort to not only discover who the victim is, but also find clues that point to the perpetrator. When I first started this little reading adventure, I expected gruesome tales and The Bone Lady seemed a lot tamer than I anticipated. But of course, I got my fill in this one because it seems the really messy work falls into the hands of a medical examiner, or forensic pathologist to be precise. Dr. Frederick Zugibe has been medical examiner for Rockland County, New York for well over 35 years now and he imparts several choice tales throughout this book. I was ever so grateful for Chapter 1 in which he not only shares an incredibly unique case, but also slowly introduces readers to terms and techniques often used in his profession. Zugibe does an excellent job of relaying the facts, balancing commentary with official reports and thoroughly engages even us lay readers in the actual cases he shares. As a math junky, I found myself especially intrigued by the innovative techniques he used to investigate things as varied as insect larvae found in a body and trajectories of bullets fired from various distances.

Yes, these books were both departures from my tried and true literary fiction choices, but ones that I am glad to add to my ever expanding spreadsheet aptly titled "Some of the Books I Have Read" (I started my list well into my literary years and felt the need to point this out). I also feel we have some strong candidates for accompanying titles to our crime scene investigation project. I'm excited to see how it all works out!

Now I am off to do some investigation of my own involving the mathy stuff these books imparted. And while the nonfiction path was fun for a bit, my brain needs some made up fiction for a bit.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Lots of Books!!

Currently Reading: Shades of Earth

This past week was Spring Break and so I spent all my idle time wisely. Gathered some stars, started a circle skirt and of course, devoured copious amounts of books. The main focus of my reading was working on several young adult series recommended to me by my friendly neighborhood librarian.

The first one was Homeland, the book that warranted its own post because it was that awesome. This is the sequel to Cory Doctorow's acclaimed Little Brother and did not disappoint in the least. I don't think this was ever intended to be a series, but I was oh so glad it ended up being one. In fact, I wouldn't mind catching up with Marcus again sometime soon.

Next, I started a new trilogy. I know! Enough with the trilogies folks! Julie Cross' Tempest trio starts with the aptly named Tempest, a novel that follows, uniquely enough these days, a young man as he becomes more familiar with his ability to time travel. For the most part, Jackson is in charge of his comings and goings, but occasionally, things go awry. He witnesses his girlfriend's potentially fatal injury at the hands of evil agents and is immediately pulled back in time to another place in his life. Jackson's troubles stem from the fact that he and his young sister were, for all intents and purposes, bred to become time travelers. His adopted father works for a secret department of the CIA whose existence is know only to a few chosen agents and of course the nefarious evildoers who want to harness time travel for their own dastardly deeds. When we leave Jackson at the end of Tempest, he has convinced his father to train him as an agent as well, hoping to undo the events of the future. One thing to note about this one is that it actually takes place mostly in the past. Yes, 2009 isn't that far past, but it makes for an interesting change to the latest fad of dystopian future trilogies out there. Speaking of which...

I continued my journey through these serial tales by picking up the second offering in the Ashes trilogy, Shadows. In this set, we are following the journey of Alex, a young lady who has remarkably survived "changing", something that happened to most people between the ages of about 13 and 50 after an unknown event utterly changed the world. Reminding me strongly of The Road, this series speaks of a future where people are forced to revert back to more primal needs while at the same time avoiding The Changed, or Chuckies, as some call them. These rabid teenagers and young adults have become cannibals, feasting on whatever or whomever crosses their path. The first book left things very up in the air and this second one does not disappoint in that arena either. At the end of Ashes, Alex and her friend Tom had been separated and both fear the worst about their counterpart. Shadows ends with them having just rediscovered each other only to be separated yet again. Alas, I have to wait until September for Monsters, book three, to reach us eager readers and help out our minds to rest. And yet again, speaking of which...

My last selection, Shades of Earth, was the coda of the Across the Universe trilogy by Beth Revis. Finally I found some closure!! Shades of Earth picks up right where the last novel ended. Seriously. The shipborn, residing on the Godspeed, a ship sent by Earth centuries prior to help populate a new planet, have split into those willing to risk landing on said planet and those who desire to stay on the ship. The ship is of course in dire straights and survival is not guaranteed in either case. Amy and Elder, the protagonists of this trilogy, are among those heading down to the planet and what they find there completely catches them off guard. Throughout the novel, Revis continues to impress readers with her seamless switching between narrators for each chapter. This technique is fitting for several reasons, most important being that it gives both a male and female perspective on the action. Male protagonists are too rare these days it seems. I felt satisfied with the final installment of this series, getting questions answered while also having a new and unique plot to follow. I'm a bit sad to leave Amy and Elder, but glad to know that their future is ensured. At least for as long as I am willing to believe so. Revis ends on a positive note, yet still leaves room for the reader to imagine whatever he or she wishes. I'm all for hoping all goes well and all that sappiness ;)

So that ends my recap of the week's offerings. Next in the queue is The Sandcastle Girls, something that promises to be all too adult, sad and heart wrenching. Ah well, I do need to grow up sometimes...

Friday, March 15, 2013

(Not) Queen For A Day

Currently Reading: Mrs. Queen Takes the Train

This first fictional offering by William Kuhn, a noted biographer, is a delightful little romp across the UK, following the queen, oops! excuse me, The Queen as she decides to take charge of her life for a day. Along the way, her royal highness inadvertently involves several other parties in this veer from the norm, not only affecting their daily activities, but touching their hearts as well.

Sigh... sounds so idyllic and whatnot, don't it? Of course, now it begs to consider, how real was this little tale? Reminding me strongly of The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, the story that Kuhn relates is one of an idealized old lady, plodding along on her way towards irrelevancy. The Queen is reduced from an epic fairly tale character to someone who the everyman could relate to. She takes the train (in addition to a taxi cab and then eventually helicopter) as any person would do, buying a quick bite in the dining car, making small talk with her fellow passengers. When faced with the need to purchase some cheese, she heads over to the shop and inquires the young cheesemonger about his wares. Obviously this is a work of fiction and despite the inclusion of some very real photographs, Kuhn provides no details as to his legwork when writing this novel. One thing that is clear though is that he is truly knowledgeable about the inner workings of palace life, most likely picked up as he researched for his non-fiction biographies.

In addition to her majesty, we are introduced to her dresser, or ladies' maid, a senior butler, the current equerry, an honest to goodness lady in waiting and a young woman who works in the Mews (that's where they keep the horses). These poor folks are kept running in circles as they attempt to find The Queen after her sneaky escape from the palace off on a whimsical journey to visit her former yacht. Some of the "staff" are nostalgic and passionate about their charge. Others are simply doing their jobs, trying not to get in the way or arouse too much attention. And of course, in the case of the lady in waiting, is resentfully ruing the demise of her own family's titles. While each are approaching their occupation from a different angle, the shared quest brings together incredibly disparate people, giving them a common cause and a chance to learn more about their peers. In a way, they are the more enjoyable part of the story, even more so than The Queen. Kuhn does an excellent job of relating their personas in a realistic light and has me wanting to learn more about the going ons in palace life.

As there are bits and pieces of factual information throughout the book, it is difficult to remember that it is merely fiction at times. Where this becomes especially challenging is when The Queen reminisces about past events such as the tunnel bombing and the death of Princess Diana. Kuhn most certainly can only be guessing as to her true emotions, but you do get the feeling that he portrays her majesty in an extremely optimistic light and does not necessarily speak of actual musings. One quirky characteristic that he does capture quite well though is The Queen's common practice of doing yoga. I have yet to actually find proof of it, but I am going to go ahead and assume he got this one right. The Queen doing yoga... hee hee...

Monday, March 11, 2013

It's Not Paranoia When It's True

Currently Reading: Homeland

Pg 171: "I stared into the beady glass eye of the webcam, thinking of the unknown party or parties who may or may not be watching on the other end. I wondered how the bug worked. Did it phone home every time I signed onto a network, telling the snoops that I was online and available for watching and spying? Did it store up pictures of me and logs of my keystrokes when I was offline, waiting for an opportune moment to dump all this stuff?"

Yet another sequel to a young adult novel, Little Brother, but this time the wait was totally worth it. I'm not saying the others I have blogged about have been bad, but seriously, Cory Doctorow gets it. What kept amazing me throughout the book was not only Doctorow's remarkable knowledge about any and everything geek, but also the way he understands teenagers. The way he related to how they think. What goes through their minds every minute of every day. And the most impressive bit is how remarkably hopeful and generous he is when giving this group of young adults a voice in his writing.

I mean, I thought I had a pretty good grasp on what makes teenagers tick, and was fairly positive about leaving our future in their hands, but really, Cory takes the cake in this regard. He is so in tune with their preferences, noting on page 82, "... email was tedious. People expected you to answer all of it ... When it came to Twitter and Xnet, [one] could just take everything that had come in ... and mark it as read and no one could get pissed off ... but people who sent email took it personally if you didn't reply". See!  This is just one of the many thoughts that Marcus, our hero, has throughout the novel that not only makes him more real, but helps solidify Cory's grasp on this ever inventive group of citizens. They are the future and oh what a future it will be!

I guess I should explain a little about the actual plot and all that. Basically, it centers around a couple of themes ever ubiquitous in Doctorow books, both fiction and non. Personal property and the ever growing ability of governments and other agencies to take possession of it and use it against you. Marcus Yallow, AKA M1k3y in Little Brother, finds himself thrust back into the thick of things when an old friend from the past pops up and puts in his hands some sensitive information in his hands, to be distributed if something should happen to her. Needless to say, chaos ensues. Filled with public demonstrations, crazy network hacks and ingenious plotting, Homeland delivers a fanatic sequel to the oft-lauded Little Brother.

After reading, and really during reading the book, I couldn't help but have the exact same feelings that Marcus expresses in the quote provided above. I seriously looked at my webcam repeatedly while sitting on my couch, hungrily flipping through the pages. The all too real events in the novel have now got me rethinking my password creation as well as enthusiasm for big name cloud servers. Hmmm... do I have need to be worried? The point of the book isn't to cause paranoia, but more about educating the public to the ever decreasing privacy rights of American citizens. I have always figured, heck I've got no secrets. Bring it on! But of course whether or not the information you store is good or bad is not the point. The point is that our information and thoughts should not be freely accessible for others to use for whatever aims. Oh if only we could all just get along and respect each other like adults, but it seems that these admirable teenagers are the only ones who get it. Case in point, I couldn't leave this blog without including the following quote from page 86 (seriously there were dog-ears abound throughout my reading!):

There are important movers and shakers in the RNC who believe that the Earth is five thousand years old. And these are people who make their fortunes pumping sweet crude in Texas! You think they tell their geoengineers to only pump oil in places that accord with the Young Earth theory of creation?

So if you haven't been reading Cory Doctorow, you should. He writes fiction, nonfiction, blogs, is a guest contributor to numerous sites and magazines and well, there is no excuse not to look him up. For a quick peek at his awesome ideas, check out this guest post for Raincoast Books.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

A rose by any other name...

Currently Reading: The Mirage

Pg 251: "You can turn it on its head, write it backwards or forwards, it stays the same."

Pg 308: "His nickname was the Quail Hunter ... Texas humor. The joke is, if you've got an enemy you want to get rid of, you invite him out shooting and mistake him for whatever game you're after. The Quail Hunter actually did that once."

Pg 369: "But the great majority, the body of the faithful, neither angels nor devils, but ordinary sinners: men and women trying to make their way in the world with God's help and forgiveness..."

Imagine a world not so unlike our own. This world has been shaken to its core by terrorist acts by fundamentalists claiming to be purging the globe of evil doers and heathens. They are backed by corrupt leaders in high governmental positions and while have a loyal following, their members do not represent the beliefs of the faithful overall. Do you recognize this story? Probably. But to burst your bubble, The Mirage is not about our world. It is actually an alternative universe in which the roles of major power brokers are reversed. The scariest part of all this is how seamlessly the events, biases and beliefs switch positions. The Mirage causes readers to take a step back and reevaluate their convictions, reaching deep into their hearts and calling them to take a true moral inventory.

The setting of The Mirage is present day Bagdad. This is the capitol city of the UAS (United Arab States). Several years ago, the citizens of Bagdad suffered an attack on two towers in their city by Christian fundamentalists. This has brought about a so called 'War on Terror', pitting the UAS against the CSA (Christian States of America) which represents the largest power holder in the 'Axis of Evil'. We follow along with several Homeland Security agents as they work to eradicate the insurgents and enemies of the state. Residents of the capital spend their nights watching 'Law and Order: Halal' or 'CSI: Damascus', hoping they aren't mistaken for seditious elements and brought in for questioning "in a human-rights vacuum like Texas". It is haunting how this story plays out, completely mirroring actions taken in our own present time by our own government.

In this novel, author Matt Ruff, proves to be a prolific storyteller as well as enlightening guide through an unconscious soul searching by his readers. What is new about his story isn't the plot-line itself, nor even the main characters. You still find yourself face to face with the powerful men in our own War on Terror (recognize the Quail Hunter?), but the roles are reversed. It is the Americans who are put on watch lists, hunted down and brought to task. It is the Arabs who are driven to "protect" themselves from diabolical plots by overzealous fanatics. Freaky but all too possible to the imagination.

I chose the above quotes for a few reasons, but mostly because they sum up the main themes in this book. The first refers to the symmetry of men. We all believe we are right, come at ideas from our own perspective, but even with this dynamic reversal, the innermost motivations remain the same. The second quote refers to an actual event in our own world and pauses one to consider the real motivations behind the event. The third quote brings up the idea of religion and how no matter where we are coming from, we believe our view is the correct one. The important part of this quote is that it could be referring to almost any religion and brings up the very real idea that while most religions have their fanatical adherents, for the most part, members are just trying to faithfully live a moral and happy life.

Please read this book through to the end and do not put it down due to initial bias. Once finished, take a step back and contemplate on our oft used stereotypes and the ever seductive group think. Maybe we aren't as different as we seem on the surface.