Random Friday: What We Have Read 7

From our reading journal:

Jo Walton

Inspector Carmichael was blackmailed into protecting Mark Normanby in the previous book, and Normanby is now Prime Minister. A bomb explodes in a London suburb, and Carmichael and Royston are assigned the case. Viola Lark is acting in a production of Hamlet, and becomes involved in a conspiracy to assassinate political leaders. Meanwhile Britain slides further into a fascist state, with terror laws, scapegoating of Jews, and a fearful populace.

Blue Shoes and Happiness
Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi at the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency solve cases involving advice columnist Aunty Emang, something troubling in the village of Mokolodi, and pills that are not right. Mma Makutsi must negotiate ideas of feminism with newly acquired fiancé Phuti Radiphuti. And we hear the familiar repetition of phrases from old friends.

The Rejection Collection
Matthew Diffee, editor

Diffee selects cartoons rejected by New Yorker editor Robert Mankoff for various reasons, most often taste and propriety. Each week 500 cartoons are submitted by regular contributors for 20 slots in the magazine, so Diffee has plenty of source material available. Chapters are divided into each regular cartoonist, with a photo and survey creatively filled, and about 10 choice cartoons, one per page.

The Merchants’ War
Charles Stross

In Gruinmarkt Creon (the Pervert) planted a bomb which assassinated his brother and the King and many Clan members, assumed the throne and wars against the Clan. While the Clan has access to advanced military technology, Creon is rather Clever, and makes rapid advances using asymmetric warfare in his own kingdom. Meanwhile on our Earth the secretive government Family Trade Organization has discovered a nuke left by Matthias, and is preparing their own attack against the Clan. Meanwhile in New Britain Miriam finds her operations shut down by the polis, herself a fugitive with few resources, fleeing cross country, carrying a little Surprise of which she is unaware. Zelazny-esque

Eyeing the Flash
Peter Fenton

Fenton is a bright student on course for college, but fast-talking Jackie takes him on as protégé, as they run an underground casino, operate a traveling elephant show, and eventually work at Jackie’s Party Time Shows carnival. Fenton works his way up the hierarchy of the carnival, starting at the kiddie games, moving to the rigged alibi games, and ultimately a Flattie. Full of outrageous yarns.

My Father’s Secret War
Lucinda Franks

While trying to salvage a relationship with her father Thomas, journalist Lucinda Franks gradually becomes aware that her father was involved in secret missions during WW2. Thomas is highly secretive and still feels bound to an oath of secrecy, but Lucinda meticulously gathers clues and assembles a picture of her father’s extraordinary spy missions during the war.

Listening to episodes of the Radio Reader, I am struck by how (the Reader) is able to capture the nuance of expression in dialog much better than my inner reading voice.

Raven’s Strike
Patricia Briggs

In this sequel to Raven’s Shadow, the emperor Phoran is attached to a ghost-like Memory. Emperors must not be touched by magic, so he must rid himself of this creature before enemies learn of it. Phoran and a few trusted aides join Tier and his Traveller family on a journey to the hidden city of Colossae, and struggle against a Shadowed.

Oddly Normal Volume 1 (graphic novel youth)
Otis Frampton

Oddly, a misfit, is accidentally transported to her mother’s land of Fignation and go to school with witches, zombies, werewolves, and other odd beings at Menagerie Middle School. Guess what– she’s still a misfit.

Good clean character design. I liked the running gags: brains!

Raven’s Shadow
Patricia Briggs

Returning from years as soldier, Tier befriends young Traveler Seraph, and brings her back to his village. Some travelers have magical abilities, belonging to one of six orders: Raven (mage), Eagle (guardian), lark (healer), falcon (hunter), owl (bard), and cormorant (weather witch). Seraph is Raven, and all Travelers are now persecuted and mistrusted in the empire, and Tier end up marrying Seraph to protect her.

A new Shadowed afflicts the lands, and Traveler groups are systematically being destroyed. A new religion appears, strangely connected to the orders of the Travelers. Tier and Seraph grow a family, but when the Shadowed captures one of them, events will affect the entire empire.

Very rich world-building.

Ellen Kushner

Richard St Vier is now the top swordsman in the city, hired by nobles on the hill to fight duels as a licensed form of political assassination. Living with Alec the scholar in Riverside, far from the machinations of the nobles in the Hill, but not far enough. The Duke of Karleigh, Duchess Tremontaine, and Lord Horn are involved in a complex power struggle, and machinations ensue.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (youth)
Sherman Alexie

How do you leave the rez and go to the white-man’s high school and stay true to yourself?

Art brilliantly interjected by Ellen Forney.

Life Happens
Connie Schultz

Pulitzer Prize columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer writes with uncommon insight and wisdom in this collection of twice-weekly essays. The only drawback is that sand was blowing in the air several times while reading, causing apparent irritation to the eyes.

Scott Westerfeld

Tally Youngblood will soon turn 16, and along with all uglies on their sixteenth birthday will undergo operations to turn into pretties and leave Uglyville for New Pretty Town, and live the party life, and never have anything to do with uglies again.

Shortly before turning, Tally’s friend Shay introduces her to an outsider at the Rusty Ruins. She is surprised to find that a few outsiders live outside the cities in secret, and actually choose not to be Pretties.

Follow Tally as she makes a big decision, and try to live with a terrible secret and try not to betray her new friends.

Making Money
Terry Pratchett

In Going Postal Moist von Lipwig uses his big ideas and golden tongue to get the post office working smoothly, and now Lord Vetinari has another assignment in mind: The Royal Mint and Royal Bank of Ankh-Morpork.

Moist notices that people are already using stamps for money, and wonders if paper currency might be more convenient than all that gold, or rather, goldish. Big ideas engender big enemies.

Meanwhile, Moist’s true-love is working with the Golem Trust to unearth some ancient golems, rumored to be made of gold. Throw in Glooper and his economic analogy machine, assisted by an Igor, and necromancy at Unseen University, and bring it all to a rolling boil.

Pratchett gives another master lesson in comic dialog.

Super Crunchers
Ian Ayres

Freakonomics focused on how economists could answer difficult questions by clever sampling and massaging of data. This book shows how widely regression analysis and neural networks are being used in our everyday life. Those credit card offers you get in the mail have been tested to see which ad gets the best response. That web-ad might be tested in real time to choose for the best click-through rate.

We learn that crunching will often beat experts. A simple model developed to predict Supreme Court votes outscored a group of experts. We find that experts tend to be overconfident about predictions and slow to change models based on evidence.

Some problems in data crunching are also discussed. We learn how Florida screened for felons on voting rolls by loosely matching names (allowing flipping and near hits) but strictly matching for race. We learn how lending companies can discriminate for race on applications where race is omitted, by choosing variables strongly correlated with race. Sometimes crunching the data gives results that seem highly counter-intuitive Direct Instruction outscores other teaching methods, but I would be highly concerned if local schools adopted this program.

The author gives a few ideas how we can use these techniques ourselves, such as using Google-ad feature to rotate ads and then automatically favor the one with best click-through. Lulu has an application that predicts successful book names. (Could something similar be used for software titles?) Ayres used Google ads to test potential titles for his book. We might wish for further info for laymen crunching their own data sets without an economics degree– idea for another book?

Halting State
Charles Stross

You are reading a novel written completely in second person, and in alternate chapters you are Sargeant Sue Smith of the Edinburgh constabulary, forensic accountant Elaine , or MMORPG game developer and hacker Jack. A massive robbery has taken place in an on-line game, mistakenly reported to police. But in 2018, with so much of the nation dependent on computer networks, what happens when the bad guys can gain root?

The Technology of Orgasm
Rachel P Maines

Hysteria appears in medical literature in 2000BC Egypt, and perpetuated in Western medicine. Symptoms included fainting, nervousness, insomnia, water retention, muscle spasms, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, and a disagreeable personality. Treatment involved marriage, mild exercise such as horseback riding, massage until “hysterical paroxysm”, not recognized or admitted as orgasm. Masturbation was discouraged as harmful.

Traditional intercourse was often ineffective, and physicians might need to treat with (ahem) internal massage. Since such treatment required training and a certain touch, and required perhaps an hour session, doctors welcomed technology. Hydrotherapy, the “douche”, became available at spas and some doctor offices, followed by mechanical and electrical vibrating machines. One of the earlier electrical appliance was a vibrator, invented well before the electric iron, sold via mail order.

Finally, in the 1970s the Freud view of two female orgasms, vaginal and clitoral, with only the former appropriate, was set aside. With the Hite Report overturning the sampling bias of Masters and Johnson, we finally understand the small fraction of women that regularly achieve orgasm during penetrative intercourse, and a wave of feminism bring the vibrator as a cultural totem.

The author started researching this subject when noticing discreet ads in women’s magazines of the 1900s found during scholarly research in textiles, and wondered if they were really about you-know-what. She gradually obtained more information and began giving talks and papers, at some professional cost due to the prurient aspect.

And His Lovely Wife: A Memoir From the Woman Beside the Man
Connie Schultz

A Pulitzer-winner newspaper columnist, newly married to Congressman Sherrod Brown writes an intimate memoir of life on the campaign trial/trail for US Senate for Ohio against an experienced incumbent. Schultz, a successful professional and feminist, now finds herself introduced as “his lovely wife”. She must find her own place and own voice in the campaign, while still maintaining relationships with spouse, family, and friends. Gives a fascinating behind-the-scenes view of a modern political race, where Brown averages 200 fundraising calls a week. Schedules must balance multiple appearances with avoiding exhaustion of the candidate, which lead to mistakes. The reader is exposed to strategy sessions discussing negative TV ads, and when to run them, which explains why they are so often used. The writer is now on the receiving side of journalism, observing jaded political reporters discussing the horse-race instead of issues, and editorial boards amplifying the views of wealthy owners instead of working reporters.

Schultz writes in the voice of a daily columnist, at her best in describing the stories of people she meets during appearances, and the stories of friends who pitch in to help the candidate. Inspiring.

Radio Freefall
Matthew Jarpe

Walter Cheeseman, head of WebCense, is quietly taking over the world by controlling computers and knocking down national boundaries. The Digital Carnivore is a rogue AI that evolves, and Quin used to study DC for WebCense, and is now dedicated to bringing Cheeseman to justice, assisted by Molly, his secret helper. Out of the desert walks Aqualung, persuasive hacker with hidden pasts, somehow connected to Digital Carnivore, who starts the rock band Snake Vendors, beginning a wild ride which changes the world.

With AIs, a Gatesian villian, rock bands, space habitats, here is a spicy gumbo of a debut novel. Another promising New Mexico SF writer– it there something in the water here?

Black Holes: A Travelers’ Guide
Clifford A Pickover

We are introduced to properties of (idealized) black holes, such as Schwarzschild Radius, inner structure of spinning and charged black holes, temperature (very low), evaporation. Most chapters include an equation, with a program (in the appendix) used to plug in example numbers. Each chapter is introduced with a dialog between captain of an intergalactic ship, and crewman Mr. Plex, conveniently of diamond space-hardened body.

Queen of Candesce
Karl Schroeder

This second book of the Virga series focusses on the struggles of Venera Fanning, thrown to the large spinning habitat Spyre after a desperate attempt to save her husband Admiral Chaisson’s fleet and now believing said huz dead. V is a particularly strong character, Machiavellian, following a strong personal code of vengeance, now struggles from poverty to step by step gaining power with ultimate aim of regaining a powerful object, rejoining her people, and, of course, vengeance. Spyre is a strange society full of ancient pocket nations, full of secrets and deception, fertile ground for supreme plotter V. During her upward rise she encounters some key individuals worthy of friendship and honor, and upon gaining power must ultimately choose between revenge and reform.

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