Thursday, July 29, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Silent Wife (Will Trent, #10) by Karin Slaughter

The Silent Wife by Karin Slaughter is the tenth book in the Will Trent/Sara Linton series. These are best-selling crime thrillers set in the Atlanta metro area. Will Trent is a GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) agent and Sara Linton is a medical doctor who often works as a coroner/medical examiner consultant for the GBI. This is the sixteenth of Slaughter’s books that Sara has appeared in but for some reason neither of the Slaughter-written series have her name on them. Prior to the Will Trent series, Sara was one of the three main characters in the Grant County series which is set in a rural Georgia county that Sara is from and where her parents still live. That series revolved around a love/hate triangle of Sara, Lena Adams and Jeffrey Tolliver. Tolliver and Adams were police officers and Sara was the pediatrician in town who sometimes moonlighted as the Grant County medical examiner.

Slaughter is a master at suspense and her books are packed with gory, violent crimes (almost always against women) and include complicated situations that lead to moral dilemmas and heightened emotional tensions. She also does an excellent job of incorporating just enough romantic intrigue that even a gay skeptic like me is very interested and invested in the Will-Sara bond despite a profound disinterest in romance books generally.

In addition to Sara and Will, who by the 10th book in the series are in a serious (but often complicated) romantic relationship, the books feature Faith Mitchell, Will’s GBI partner (and one of Sara’s closest friends) and Amanda Wagner, GBI Deputy Director who is Faith and Will’s boss. Another important character in the series is Angie Polaski, Will’s manipulative ex-wife. Both Angie and Will were sexually, physically and emotionally abused as children and thus grew up in state-run group homes and foster care. It’s the resonant back stories of many of the supporting (and primary) characters that increases the salience of the books as the series gets longer and readers become more accustomed to the style and format.

The Silent Wife is an unusual read because it is told in two time frames, one of which is set in the Grant County series and the other is in the Will Trent series. It is the first time Slaughter has done this and for anyone who has read both series it is devastatingly effective. The ostensible reason for the parallel storytelling is that there’s a guy attacking, drugging, immobilizing, and sexually assaulting women in both time lines and it appears that must mean the person who was identified as the perpetrator (by Lena and Jeffrey) in the earlier time frame can’t be doing the later crimes (since that guy is still in prison). But really, it is clear that Slaughter still loves writing the Grant County characters and this was an opportunity to do so, especially in a way that makes life and love more complicated for Sara and Will. So, does this mean that the Grant County folks got the wrong guy back then and some rapist/murderer has been free to stalk and damage women this entire time? (Sadly, the answer is yes.)

As I’ve said before, almost all the time I read mysteries I never figure out who the perpetrator is. However, this time I had an early suspicion that turned out to be correct. But it didn’t lessen my enjoyment of The Silent Wife in any way. All it did is let me see how Slaughter leaves clues for the reader and it seemed to me that knowing whodunnit early in the book makes one even more invested in the crime fighters solving the case.

Overall, The Silent Wife was another strong entry in the Will Trent series. (There’s a reason Slaughter is a best-selling author: all of the books of hers that I have read have been of extremely high quality.) Happily, the author promises that she will be writing more books featuring Will and Sara, and I will look forward to reading them!

Title: The Silent Wife (Will Trent, #10).
Karin Slaughter.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 498 pages.
Publisher: William Morrow.
Date Published: September 10, 2021.
Date Read: July 17, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★½☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).


Thursday, July 22, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Catalyst Gate (The Protectorate, #3) by Megan O'Keefe

Catalyst Gate by Megan O’Keefe is the third book in The Protectorate trilogy, following Velocity Weapon and Chaos Vector. The entire trilogy is an amazing, action-packed, space opera story featuring a diverse set of multifaceted characters that populate a complicated, engaging story that provokes thoughts about the nature of intelligent life, the possible future trajectories of human civilization and the emotional stakes of personal attachments.

The central characters in the Protectorate series are Biran Greeve and Sanda Greeve, brother and sister, who are both citizens of Prime, a galaxy-spanning human civilization. Sanda is in the military and is also the captain of one of the most amazing spaceships known to mankind, inhabited by an artificial intelligence named The Light of Berossus (more commonly known as Bero). Biran is a Keeper of Prime, which means that he contains a chip in his head which contains access to Prime’s greatest secret: the technology to the Gates which facilitate interstellar travel between various Prime star systems.

By the time we get to the third book in the series, Catalyst Gate, the plot has developed to a point where Sanda and Biran are in two very different places, both literally and figuratively. Biran has been named Speaker of Prime and is a member of the High Protectorate, a body akin to an Executive Committee of Keepers who run the government of Prime. In that capacity Biran is dealing with the aftermath of the discovery that Prime’s Casimir gates were not invented by the revered founder of Prime Inventive, Alexandra Halston, a few centuries before, but were basically reverse engineered from alien technology. Because of a flaw Halston made when she initially engineered the Casimir gates on their initial startup use the gates have been releasing deadly radiation into the star systems they facilitate human travel to, basically sterilizing them of all multi-cellular organisms, which explains why in hundreds of years humans have never encountered any other intelligent alien life. What’s a little weird (and frankly a little unbelievable) is that humans have not been finding any Earth-like planets either in the star systems that they have colonized to date. All of Prime’s citizens live below huge pressurized domes, generally on large asteroids or rocky, geologically stable planets which for some reason work best with the Gates. The entire subject of how the gates work and any science or technology associated with space travel in any way is highly classified and only Keepers are allowed to have any access to it. O’Keefe does an excellent job of depicting this and other cultural aspects of Prime society in convincing fashion. Her worldbuilding is on par with the very best in SFF.

Sanda, who is a Commander in the Prime military and due to the events in Velocity Weapon and Chaos Vector has control of the most advanced ship in the known Universe. She and her crew, which consists of a motley but capable group of folks that are trying to locate Rainier Lavaux, the person responsible for a heinous and deadly biowarfare attack on Prime citizens who has openly stated her genocidal intentions towards humanity. Sanda’s crew includes Tomas Cepko, the double (or triple?) agent who loves her; Arden Wyke, the non-binary computer super-hacker; and Nox, an ex-soldier cum mercenary who used to date one of Sanda’s dads; Min Liao, a scientist/medical doctor who inadvertently helped Lavaux accomplish her attack; and two other people who help maintain the ship. If this seems like a large cast, it is. But O’Keefe skillfully deploys them and I never felt confused or overwhelmed.

O’Keefe’s writing has numerous strengths: she describes action well, and she also uses it to forward the plot effectively. Additionally, she does an exceptional job of incorporating diverse characteristics and identities into her characters which makes them interesting and relatable without being precious. The Protectorate trilogy is an excellent example of how she’s able to do all this while maintaining within the genre conventions of military space opera, which is quite an impressive feat. Although this series is complete and I am sad to not spend any more time with Sanda and Biran Greeve I am very curious and interested to read what O’Keefe will write in the future.

Title: Catalyst Gate (The Protectorate, #3).
Megan O'Keefe.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 544 pages.
Publisher: Mullholland Books.
Date Published: June 22, 2021.
Date Read: July 1, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A (4.0/4.0).


Thursday, July 08, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Poems that Solve Puzzles by Chris Bleakley

Poems that Solve Puzzles: The History and Science of Algorithms by Chris Bleakley is a book that is built around a stunning insight: that an algorithm, “a process or set of rules to be followed in calculations or other problem-solving operations, especially by a computer,” (Oxford Dictionary of English, 2010) when written down as a step-by-step list of instructions can also be viewed as a poem. This interesting device is used multiple times as the author converts problem-solving into poetry for various scenarios. Bleakley says his book is intended for people who don’t “know what algorithms are, how they work, or where they come from” but this is a book that can (and should) also be enjoyed by people who regularly use algorithms. Additionally, if you believe that anyone who teaches and learns mathematics (or any subject, really) should be exposed to the historical context of the subject they are teaching and learning, then it is clear that anyone who teaches, learns. or uses algorithms will benefit from knowing more about the history of algorithms as presented in Poems that Solve Puzzles.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, there’s a fair amount of overlap between the history of algorithms and the history of mathematics. For example, the source of the word we know now in English as “algorithm” comes from the name Al-Khwārizmī which was later latinized as “algoritmi.”  People familiar with the history of mathematics may recognize ''Al-Khwārizmī'' since he is known as the author of the booal-Kitāb al-Mukhtaṣar  Ḥisāb al-Jabr wal-uqābalah (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing), one of the most famous ancient mathematics texts written in Arabic from which the term “algebra” comes from.
Similar to the self-evident truth that the history of mathematics is too large and wide-ranging a subject to be encompassed comprehensively in one book, the history of algorithms is also a very extensive topic. In Poems that Solve PuzzlesBleakley addresses this problem by selecting for inclusion in the book just some of the most famous algorithms that the general public are most likely to have heard of or involve topics or buzzwords present in the zeitgeist of 2020. This is a reasonable choice to make in order to reduce the scope of a book on the history and science of algorithms to be more easily digestible, and a good one since it makes the book quite effective and affecting because the algorithms included in are thus more likely to be interesting to the casual reader.
This is not to say that everything in the book will be familiar to most readers. Even someone like myself who has taught multiple courses in the history of mathematics and conducts research in numerical analysis learned many fascinating nuggets of information about certain algorithms. In particular, I now have a much better understanding of the up-and-down (or up-and-down-and-up-and-down-and-up!) nature of the academic reputation of artificial intelligence after reading Chapter 11 (“Mimicking the Brain”), the longest chapter in this compact but engrossing volume.
Of course, considering the increasing prominence of networks and networking play in modern society, Poems that Solve Puzzles devotes considerable time to discussing the Internet, search engines and social media by recounting the history of how each of these phenomena developed along with describing the underlying algorithms involved at a level non-experts can understand.  Although there are no equations in the book which may have made the text more salient to more informed readers I view the efficacy of the book despite their absence an impressive feat of clear exposition by the author.
Overall, Poems that Solve Puzzles: The History and Science of Algorithms is an informative and entertaining book. It is appropriate for a wide swath of readers, from people who are interested in learning about what “blockchain” is without having to do any math to students and instructors in the mathematical sciences who need more examples of how these academic topics make important contributions to the technologically complex world we live in.

(This review was also published at MAA Reviews.)

Title: Poems that Solve Puzzles: The History and Science of Algorithms.
Chris Bleakley.
Format: Hardcover.
Length: 320 pages.
Publisher: Oxford University Press.
Date Published: October 31, 2020.
Date Read: June 13, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★½☆  (4.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A- (3.67/4.0).

Thursday, July 01, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Only The Innocent (DCI Tom Douglas, #1) by Rachel Abbott

Only The Innocent is my first book by Rachel Abbott and it’s a doozy of a psychological thriller. The main character is DCI Tom Douglas but the meat of the story is sourced in the sadomasochistic relationship between Laura Fletcher and Lord Hugo Fletcher. Lord Fletcher is murdered in the very first chapter and the rest of the book is about finding out whodunnit as well as why and how. The answers are riveting, repulsive and really surprising.

Only The Innocent is the first book in the "DCI Tom Douglas Thriller series" which would seem to indicate that it is a police procedural. And to some extent it is, with the main plot fueled by following DCI Tom Douglas as he tries to solve the case of who killed Lord Fletcher. But there's also no question that a significant fraction of the content of the book is centered around the internal thoughts of Laura Fletcher, in the form of letter she wrote to her best friend Imogen Dubois who was previously married to Laura's brother.

Lord Hugo Fletcher was a celebrity well-known for running a non-profit that combated sex trafficking of young women. Through Laura's letters we discover that the benevolent, patrician face Hugo shows to the world is very different from the face Laura saw when they were alone.

We slowly learn what a controlling person Hugo was (he took care of every single detail of their wedding, kept the location of their honeymoon a complete secret, claiming that he was doing this all for Laura's benefit). We also learn that he has some truly bizarre views about sexuality, although we don't get a full sense of the full extent of his depravity until near the end of the book.

For most of Only The Innocent, one reads the book with one's mouth agape in horror as the depths of Hugo's perfidy are slowly exposed through Laura's letters. In fact, this is where the book goes a bit off the rails because it's hard to believe that any sane person wouldn't figure out a way to flee the situation that Laura was in at the time. Instead she ends up being institutionalized (twice!) in the years before Hugo is eventually killed.

Another main theme of Only The Innocent is the inclusion of family drama. In addition to the marital strife between Hugo and Laura, we also find out more about Hugo's relationship with his previous wife (and mother of his young daughter, Alexa, who Laura dotes on). There are multiple years-long estrangements that are revealed as the story unspools: Imogen and Laura's brother Will, Imogen and Laura, and Hugo and his sister Beatrice.

Overall I enjoyed Only The Innocent and I was actually surprised by the identity of the perpetrator (although in hindsight it was really quite obvious who it had to be). We get good insight into how DCI Tom Douglas operates and I am definitely interested in spending more time with him and loo forward to reading the next book in the series The Back Road.

Title: Only The Innocent.
Rachel Abbott.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 459 pages.
Publisher: Thomas & Mercer.
Date Published: February 5, 2013.
Date Read: June 22, 2021.

GOODREADS RATING: ½☆ (4.5/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A-/B+ (3.5/4.0).



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