Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: The Signal and the Noise

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail—But Some Don’t by Nate Silver. Silver is the prediction phenom who successfully called every state in the last presidential election. This book discusses the prediction of many types of events: sports, politics, weather, the stock market, earthquakes, and even terrorist attacks.

Silver’s popular blogging style serves him well here; even in an extended discussion of over 400 pages, I wasn’t bored, and the math was explained well enough that I—or a typical lay reader—could understand it. As Silver explains, the secret to better (not necessarily successful) prediction lies in examining what is known about the event we want to predict and discerning from all the available data which are the patterns that can help with prediction, and which are just noise. Although I’m normally into the humanities, I do enjoy books like this once in a while; if you liked (or might like) Freakonomics, you’d probably like this book. 3.5/5*

Monday, April 14, 2014

Review: Dear Mr. Knightley

Dear Mr. Knightley by Katherine Reay. Sam has had a rough life with parents who nearly killed her, a series of foster homes, and a group home in place of family. A charitable foundation offers to pay her way to graduate school; the only stipulation is that she write to her benefactor under the alias of Mr. Knightley. The letters narrate Sam’s attempts to overcome her bad start and emerge from behind the classic books she quotes whenever she finds herself in over her head.

This was probably my favorite book that I’ve read so far this year. It’s very light, but it was a massively fun read (I read it in a day), and the characters, especially Sam, are drawn sympathetically and realistically. It turns out to be Christian fiction as well, and the faith part of the book is written about as well as any I’ve read in a long time: light-handed and understated. Watching Sam fight through to find her voice, her confidence, and her family really made my day. 5/5*

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Meeting the Dragon Pt.2

A few years ago, I posted about Meeting the Dragon, where I was coming up to a situation that I didn’t want to confront. My primary emotion then was fear, and even fear of my fear. (Because really, who likes to be afraid?) So here we are, three years later, and I’m facing a really similar situation. This time, though, I’m not afraid. I’m not dreading it. And I’m wondering, what’s the difference? Have I changed so much in three years?
Admittedly, the situation is a bit different. Here are some ways it’s not the same:
  • Last time, I was still upset. I felt a personal betrayal that went beyond other circumstances. I’d advise not meeting the dragon until your own emotions have calmed down.
  • Last time, the situation didn’t evolve, it exploded. This time, I’ve seen warning signs for months, and I’ve done my best to influence events in the right direction. I don’t feel like there’s anything left on my part that hasn’t been tried.
  • Finally, I’ve learned that sometimes I have to be the one to make the tough decisions, and I have to be able to live with them. So I’d better be pretty sure of what I’m doing going in. If I have questions about the wisdom of what I’m contemplating, I’d better think about it until those questions have been resolved.

I’m the kind of person who likes to put things behind me. If there’s something unpleasant coming up, I’d just as soon deal with it and rip the bandage off quickly. But sometimes, the bandage isn’t ready to come off, and tearing it off too soon just makes the healing take longer. I’m still working on how to figure out what’s going on under there while the bandage is still on. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Review: Case Histories

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. British detective Jackson Brodie is working on three old cases: the disappearance of a toddler; the slasher murder of a young woman, and the location of a teenage runaway. This book moves between Brodie’s detective work and retelling some of the stories of what happened all those years ago

This is actually the second time I’ve read this book; it was chosen for our book group, so I reread it. All of the cases examine family relationships: parent to child, sibling to sibling. Brodie’s life comes in for some examination too as he struggles to redefine his life as a father after his wife leaves him for another man. These cases are interesting, and Atkinson weaves them together intriguingly, but I was a little unconvinced that all three cases could be so neatly solved after stumping the police for decades, and all within only a couple of hundred pages. The book is a mystery, yet it’s more than your average genre mystery, and people who aren’t big mystery buffs might still find it a worthwhile read. 3.5/5*

p.s. This detective series was made into a TV show a few years ago. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Review: Vienna Nocturne

Vienna Nocturne by Vivien Shotwell. Anna Storace is a talented young English singer, classically trained by an Italian castrato. When she began her career, she quickly rocketed to fame as a beautiful young Englishwoman in Italy; while she was prepared musically, emotionally she wasn’t ready to move into the sophisticated and fickle world of professional musicians. After a disastrous love affair, she moves to Vienna and meets Mozart, already a married father. The attraction between the two is strengthened by their professional relationship, and they soon begin an affair. Shotwell follows historical accounts where they are available, so she is constrained by those outlines; an affair between the two was speculated but never proven.

I had looked forward to reading this book, but it fell short for me. The dialogue always seemed unnatural, people seemed to take actions without adequate motivation, and many characters didn’t seem real. I realize that it’s tough to work within the limits of actual historical events, but in this case, it was the writing style more than the historical situation that I wasn’t taken with. 2.5/5* 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Review: Still Life with Murder

Still Life with Murder by P.B. Ryan. Nell Sweeney takes a job as governess to baby Grace. Although Grace was born to a servant, the servant’s employer adopts the baby and asks Nell to come along as her governess. In Boston, her employer discovers that her son, who she thought was dead, has been arrested for murder. Since her husband refuses to defend their son, Regina Hewitt asks Nell to secretly investigate. The man Nell finds in prison is a Civil War doctor ruined by opium.

This book fed into my fondness for historical mysteries. Nell is an interesting character, observant, artistic, and trained in medicine, but her past is shadowy, and her origins lower class. As her relationship with Will Hewitt grows more complex, Nell comes to believe that he couldn’t have been the murderer. This book, which I downloaded free from kindle, is the first in a series, and I’ll definitely be seeking out the next in the series. 4/5*

Monday, April 7, 2014

Review: The Forgotten Affairs of Youth

The Forgotten Affairs of Youth by Alexander McCall Smith.  Isabel Dalhousie is thriving with her little
family: her toddler Charlie, her fiancĂ© Jamie, and even her housekeeper Grace. She meets a visiting philosopher who enlists her help in finding her birthparents. Meanwhile, the dastardly professor Lettuce appears to have sicced his budding scholar nephew on Isabel. 

As usual, this series is less a mystery than an occasion for Isabel and her circle to ruminate, meditate, and sometimes even act on moral questions, some of which are trickier than others. Isabel’s ethics are always based on her knowledge of human nature gained from her thoughtful interactions with her family and friends. Even with her acute sensitivity to appropriate behavior, Isabel isn’t beyond making mistakes herself sometimes, and needing to deal with the consequences of those errors. The day I give one of his books any less than 5* will be a sad day indeed. 5/5*