Sunday, July 31, 2022

Review: Portrait of an Unknown Woman

Portrait of an Unknown Woman (Gabriel Allon #22)Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Daniel Silva
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It's good to have Gabriel back! Silva uses a creative hook to get the retired Allon back into the game. He's not hunting terrorists this time around, but with the help of a few of his old friends he executes a private op that brings some justice to a few criminals. This isn't going to be my favorite Allon book, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I love the way Silva tells his stories, and there are always fun and surprising twists along the way. I'm curious how Silva will continue to pull Allon out of retirement in the future.

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Friday, July 29, 2022

Review: The Gray Man

The Gray Man (Gray Man, #1)The Gray Man by Mark Greaney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Action packed thriller. Greaney does a good job of keeping you engrossed at every stage. He has does a good job of keeping the wildly unrealistic skill set of Court Gentry seem realistic. There is little surprising here, but it is a well-executed example action thriller.

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Review: Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization

Ancient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of CivilizationAncient Mesopotamia: Life in the Cradle of Civilization by Amanda H. Podany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an excellent course. Podany is a wonderful teacher; she has great enthusiasm for the subject that matter and that comes through in every lecture. She really makes the era come alive and I learned a lot. The information is fascinating. Podany does a great job of balancing the overall picture with the nit and gritty details. She makes it relatable and digestible. There is so much focus on the Greeks and the Egyptians, and sometimes the Persians, but the Mesopotamians were their precursors in almost every way. This course helps to fill that void.

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Wednesday, July 06, 2022

Review: Known to Evil

Known to EvilKnown to Evil by Walter Mosley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first book in the McGill mystery series introduced us to Mosley's newest hard-boiled detective. The second book builds off the first: McGill is still finding himself as he tries to set himself straight. His connections to the criminal element threaten to overwhelm him. His inner demons, too, stand ready to take over. But McGill has an that inner core, that hard-won integrity that all hard-boiled detectives from Sam Spade to Spenser have. It's buried a little deeper with McGill, but it is there and growing. Few detectives in this genre have a family; most are singular creatures. Spenser broke the mold with Susan; and Mosley gives McGill a family. A family that reflects McGill's own personality and character in many ways.

Like the first book in the series, the plot is a bit convoluted at times and has made strings to weave together. Though it can be hard to keep track, it helps to give you a sense of the mildly chaotic nature of McGill's life.



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Thursday, June 23, 2022

Review: Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy

Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy (Book II: Greater Good)Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy by Timothy Zahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This continues, almost without a break, the story from book 1. Presumably Book 3 will pick right up where book 2 leaves off. In other words, these is less a trilogy and more one book broken into three parts. Thrawn is great, though there is less of him here than in the previous novel. There is more focus and development of some of the other characters. As with the first, there is a lot focused on the political intrigue between families (which I am not all that invested in). Also like the first, there is little that makes this Star Wars as such. There are some interesting things Zahn seems to be doing with the Force and the way other species connect to it (without it being the Force as it is in Republic/Empire space). I hope the third book continues to develop that theme. The book is at its best when it is Thrawn faced with a problem that he is able to read and solve in his unique ways. Even with these flaws, I do enjoy it. Zahn's stories tend to start slow but build to a satisfying climax.

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Friday, June 10, 2022

Review: Lost Light

Lost Light (Harry Bosch, #9; Harry Bosch Universe, #11)Lost Light by Michael Connelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the first Bosch novel after Bosch's retirement from the LAPD. It is interesting to see Bosch struggle with his new life and the changes in his relationships and investigation tactics it has created, though it is not overly done. The case takes most of the focus, as it should. The case is a good one, intricate and complicated. There is a great shout out to Robert Crais and his Elvis Cole character; I love that these guys live in the same universe.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2022

Review: The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life

The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday LifeThe Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life by Kevin Simler
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was underwhelmed by this book. Many have praised it, but I found it somewhat banal. There were certainly some interesting aspects. The general idea, that we have often have motives for our actions other than what we explicitly state or tell ourselves, seems obviously true. Yet, the authors took this as something remarkable, needing detailed analysis. It's worth exploring for sure and seeing how it might explain certain puzzles of human psychology and institutions could prove useful. But the authors find hidden motives everywhere and for everything and gave these motives the primary role. (It seems just as possible that in some cases the hidden motive isn't the prime mover or explainer.) They leaned heavily into evolutionary biology having to explain all human behavior; and while that is part of the story, it seems under-determinative. In short, they overgeneralized their thesis and overextended their analysis/application.


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Monday, May 30, 2022

Review: The Face-Changers

The Face-Changers (Jane Whitefield, #4)The Face-Changers by Thomas Perry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are elements I really like about this series. Jane is a great character. Brutally honest; courageous; and intelligent. While she’s obviously meant to be attractive as well; she rarely gets by on her “feminine wiles”. It’s always by outsmarting her opposition ( and a little luck).

The plot of this novel is quite intricate: there are several moving parts but they are handled well and there are a few switchbacks to keep you on your toes. I do wish there was more at the end that unwound some of the elements. The denouement was a bit too quick. I have questions!!

I liked the FBI a character introduced here. He’s a good antagonist for Jane. Good vs good always creates a great tension. I hope this is not the last of him.

I still don’t like Jane’s husband and their relationship; it remains for me the weakest element of this series.

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Sunday, April 24, 2022

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Wayfarers, #1)The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. The characters and world are very interesting, and have a lot of potential. The plot was a bit all over the place. A lot happens and things moved very quick at times, and it was too much for the size of the book. The book could have been one of those 6, 700 pagers to do justice to the story Chambers is telling. So it feels very rushed and story lines are not adequately developed. Still, the main characters are endearing and compelling. I would read the next novel to see if Chambers' plotting gets better.

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Review: Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19

Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19Viral: The Search for the Origin of COVID-19 by Alina Chan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a really interesting book. Ridley and Chan dive into as much available evidence as they can to try to get to the bottom of the origins of COVID-19. In the end, they don't get an answer. But they present and evaluate the case for the two main theories: natural spillover from animals and a lab-related accident or escape. I am not sure it really matters which turns out to be true, though I think it is important to do the research and find out. There are three main walk away conclusions for me.

(1) The Chinese government actively worked to conceal and cover up almost everything related to COVID-19 and from the get go. This does make them look guilty, but it also is just the way the CCP seems to operate with everything. In any case, it is just more evidence to be wary of the CCP and authoritarian regimes.

(2) No matter if it was natural spillover or a lab leak, we need to do much more in terms of biosecurity. Maybe COVID-19 came from the wild, but the probability of a virus getting out of research labs is dangerously too high. The research is important, but the levels of biosecurity need to be improved.

(3) The politicization of COVID that lead to the quick dismissal of the possibility of lab-leak hypothesis was dangerous--and continues to be. Politics and science is a dangerous mix that undermines free society and good science.

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Monday, April 18, 2022

Review: 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War

1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War by Benny Morris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An in-depth, detailed account of the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1948. Starting with the historical background of the Zionist movement and immigration into the area, Morris then moves to the UN and the steps taken towards partition. The conflict is broken into two main parts. First what Morris calls the civil war. This is the small-scale battles and skirmishes between the Yishuv (the Jewish community) and the Arab community in Palestine/Israel-to-be. The Yishuv was relatively well-organized and prepared, while the Arabs were divided, unprepared, and lacking any kind of strategy or direction. The leadership was divided and various quarters squabbled with each other for control. As a result, this part of the war was decisively won by the Yishuv and the Palestinian Arab society more or less collapsed and many, with the means, left the country at this point. The state of Israel was declared and the Yishuv institutions transitioned into state agencies.

The second part of the conflict begins with the invasion by Arab armies from without: mainly Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq. Through his analysis, Morris shows that, at first, the Israeli goal was purely defensive: to hold the land it controlled and prevent the Arab armies from penetrating. As the Israeli forces proved effective and the Arab armies less so, Israel shifted towards a more offensive mindset and looked to gain strategic ground around Jerusalem and in the north.

For their part, the Arab armies were shockingly incompetent. Except for the Jordanian Arab Legion (which was trained and armed by the British), the armies lacked resources, training, and direction. The various countries, while sharing similar rhetoric about “saving Palestine,” all had their own divergent agendas. There was little cooperation or coordination between the invading armies. The soldiers were not training or prepared. There was a view that the fight would be quick and easy. Instead, they faced fierce resistance from a well-trained, highly motivated opponent who was fighting for its very existence.

The UN repeatedly tried to step into to stop the fighting and seek some kind of settlement. The main result, according to Morris, of this seemed to be avoiding a total rout of the Arab armies, in particular Egypt. Whether a more total and decisive victory by the Israelis would have avoided future wars and the refugee problem is impossible to say, but Morris doesn’t think it would have. There was far too much animosity towards the Jewish state. The so-called Arab Street would likely have continued the pressure to attack Israel.

Most of this was not new to me. But there were several interesting parts of the book that were new.
First, the insight that Morris gives into the mindset of the British and Arab leaders was fascinating. I didn’t realize the extent to which the Arab leaders (especially Jordan’s King) understood their weakness relative to Israel and that the war was unlikely to yield the stated public aims. And yet all felt the pressure of the street and felt compelled by this to move forward. I also didn’t realize the extent to which the British were more or less active against Israel—even threatening to attack at certain points.

Second, Morris disabused me of the idea of Israeli “purity of arms.” The Israel army at times acted like every army ever has in the field of battle. There were killings of civilians and POWS, rapes, and other abuses. This was hard to swallow, but also not surprising that such things happen in war. It is tragic, awful, unnecessary, but such is the awfulness of war. This doesn’t excuse or justify, but it does contextualize it. Nevertheless, Morris is quick to point out that these sorts of horrors occurred less than in other wars in the 20th century. Both sides were relatively constrained in terms of such atrocities.

Related to this second point, is the extent to which Israel took active measures to push out the local Arab populations. While I understood that some of this happened, I didn’t appreciate the extent to which there were direct expulsions made by the Israeli army. Still, contrary to the harsh critics of Israel, Morris explains that this was not a concerted effort at mass population movement, but as the facts on the ground shifted, the Israel army and command were more than willing to help things along. Militarily it makes sense: leaving a hostile population behind your lines is a bad idea. And as the Israelis pushed forward to push back the invading armies, they felt compelled to expel local populations that were hostile. For the most part, Morris showed that when villages quickly surrendered and didn’t have a history of attacking nearby Jewish communities or convoys, these were not expelled. Such people become the Israeli-Arabs of today. Still it happened more than I realized, and that too is an unpleasant truth to process.

I found the book strongest when getting into the discussion of strategies, policies, and ideas. His evaluation and digestion of the evidence was clear and carefully presented. Where I found myself drifting away was the detailed descriptions of battles. There was a lot of taking this hill or attacking that hill; this division moved here and there. It was hard to keep track of and to follow; or to see how meaningful that level of detail was to the overall through line of the work. The best I can say about it was that it did allow you to experience the war at a bit more of a fine-grained perspective, than the grand sweep that one might otherwise get.

If one is interested in military history or the history of the Arab-Israeli, I think this is an important work to read. Still, it can be a bit of slog at times, but only because of how in-depth it is.


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Sunday, April 17, 2022

Review: Taken

Taken (Elvis Cole, #13 / Joe Pike, #4)Taken by Robert Crais
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Crais continues to evolve this series in interesting ways. The narrative structure switches point of view chapter to chapter to help create the suspense and tension that drives the novel. It's first person with Cole, and third person with Pike, Stone, and some of the other characters. This gives the reader different perspectives and insight into the action that one wouldn't have been able to get with just Cole's first person.

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Wednesday, April 06, 2022

Review: Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome (Cicero, #1)Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I found it hard to get into this book. It's hard to put my figure on it, since there parts of it I really liked. But maybe it was just too passive. The pretense is that this is memoir of Cicero's political life written years later by Cicero's slave/secretary. I think that made the story telling too passive; a bit of this happened and then this happened. So rather than feeling like I was in Rome or in the Senate, it often felt distant. There were exciting and interesting moments but overall the book fell sort of flat for me. There is a lot of political machinations (which makes sense given the story, but still), but I would have liked more philosophy from Cicero. You do get a some sense of how Roman politics work, from the inside, and that was interesting.

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Friday, March 25, 2022

Review: One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Togethr

One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town TogethrOne Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game That Brought a Divided Town Togethr by Amy Bass
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The subtitle of One Goal: A Coach, a Team, and the Game that Brought a Divided Town Together is “A coach, a team, and the game that brought a divided town together” and that’s a most apt description. Amy Bass tells the story of biology teacher and soccer coach Mike McGraw, a high school team made up mostly of Somali refugees, and how the game of soccer helped to unite a community.

In the early 2000s, thousands of Somali refugees in the USA found their way to Maine, with many of them settling in Lewiston. According to Bass, the town’s response was mixed. They were welcomed by many but also the target of anti-immigrant and racist backlashes. But soccer became a conduit for moving beyond all that. Many in the Somali community where fanatic about soccer. And Lewiston had a good team with a storied coach. But it took more than that. Bass brings focus to the many elements that helped to connect the Somali kids to the high school team; how the various cultural hurdles were overcome by the openness and responsiveness of several people in Lewiston. One of the key figures of course was the coach, Mike McGraw. We see how McGraw adapts to these new student-athletes and how he endears himself to them. And in many ways, this is the best aspect of Bass’s book: the respect and love that McGraw and his students have for each other comes through on every page.

More than just a story of soccer games, Bass also draws interesting parallels to Lewiston’s history with French-Canadian immigration in the 19th century and the similar challenges that population faced. She gives us background on the town, its history, and how it become a magnet for Somali immigrants. She profiles each of the main players, how they got to the US and how they were adjusting.

The final third of the book, as the team moves towards the championship game, might be the best part. The tension builds, the details of the games become more salient as the reader gets closer and closer to the final game and its outcome. Bass does a great job of building the tension and releasing it.

Overall, it’s a moving and powerful story. Like most American immigrant stories, it highlights what is great, powerful, and wonderful about the US. American is not perfect but at its core it’s a place for anyone to come and to succeed, for all to live peacefully according to their own lights. And, as the Lewiston Blue Devils showed, when we are able to do that, we can and do achieve great things.


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Sunday, March 13, 2022

Review: Nightmare in Pink

Nightmare in Pink (Travis McGee, #2)Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Quick, fun pulpy read. The language and dialog is classic noir. There is much that is dated, but once beyond some of that, the story and characters are really engaging. It takes a surprising and interesting twist towards the end.

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Friday, March 11, 2022

Review: Nemesis Games

Nemesis Games (The Expanse, #5)Nemesis Games by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

One of the things that makes this series great is that each book has a somewhat different feel and focus. Here we see the crew of the Rocinante go their separate ways while the ship is in dock getting repaired. As things go in these books, all hell quickly breaks out. But with the crew far flung through the system, we get different perspectives on the events happening. With each crew member out on their own, we get a deeper insight into their characters as they try to survive and get back to each other. A lot more backstory for each as well. Unlike the previous books, this book directly leads into and sets up the next one. (It takes some discipline not to just right into the next book! But I've got other series to read too!)

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