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What I'm Reading Now: 12 June 25

The virtual self: how our digital lives are altering the world around us-- Nora Young (non-fiction, technology)
Tuesdays at the castle-- Jessica Day George (fantasy)
Catch me-- Lisa Gardner

Why do we track ourselves, noting down where we are and what we ate for lunch in status updates and tweets? Can any good come of the masses of personal data that we create and allow to be collected about ourselves? Nora Young asks some of these questions in The virtual self. She looks at the self-tracking phenomenon, where  people keep track of all kinds of data about themselves, from meals to exercise minutes to incidences of non-moral behavior. It's not new-- people have often kept diaries and journals that include this information-- but now it's often electronic and available to the world. There are dangers, but there are some emerging benefits as well, and Young discusses these and the steps we need to take to protect our data and our virtual selves. I found it interesting reading, but sadly, I didn't retain much of the information.

"Whenever Castle Glower became bored, it would grow a new room or two." In Tuesdays at the Castle, Castle Glower is alive, and it chooses the heir to the kingdom, as well as expressing its opinion of any visitors by increasing or decreasing the size of their guest rooms. Celie is the youngest princess of Glower, busy mapping the castle, when her parents disappear and royalty from neighboring countries descend to "assist" Celie and her two older siblings. This assistance becomes more and more sinister, and the three children will need all the help they can get from a living, opinionated Castle and some unlikely allies. I've enjoyed two other of Jessica Day George's fantasy novels. Tuesdays at the Castle  is geared for a younger audience, but even so, I found it quite enjoyable. Definitely recommended for the younger set, and the young at heart.

What would you do if you knew that, in four days, someone was going to kill you? Charlene Grant has spent the last year preparing for four days from now, and one of those preparations is to find the right person to investigate her murder. Detective DD Warren has met a lot of people, but never someone looking for the right homicide detective. She's drawn to believe Charlene, but her plate is full with a series of pedophile murders-- not murders by pedophiles, but pedophiles who have been murdered-- and an ambitious colleague is pushing her way into the investigation. Some items of Charlene's past surface, and suddenly DD is wondering if Charlene was at the scene for a more direct and bloody reason. The plot twists are fast and unexpected, the final scenes are tense, and the final identity of the killer and the question of Charlene's survival are neatly and unexpectedly resolved. Catch me was an excellent book, and several characters from Gardner's other books make an appearance as well.

What I'm Reading Now: 12 Jun 19

The innocent-- David Baldacci
Spinsters in jeopardy -- Ngaio Marsh

The plot of The Innocent sounds a lot like the movie The Professional (Leon): professional hitman takes responsibility for young teenage girl after her parents are killed. At least, that's what I thought, and since I had some problems with the movie, I was a little reluctant to read the book. Only Baldacci's reputation persuaded me to give it a chance... and I'm glad I did. Will Robie is an assassin employed by the US government, and he's feeling his age creeping up on him. On a routine assignment, he has qualms and refuses to kill his target - and a sniper from another building promptly  does it for him. Robie goes to his escape route, taking a bus out of town, and spots a teen who is obviously also running away. When the bus they've just left explodes, Robie takes her with him, and the game kicks into high gear. Robie has to find out who's playing him and who the real target is while protecting the girl, and up until now, the only person he's ever protected is himself. It's a very good read, and one that I finished in a sitting.

In Spinsters in jeopardy (yet another Roderick Alleyn mystery by Ngaio Marsh), Alleyn takes a working holiday to France with his wife and young son. Troy and Ricky aren't supposed to get involved in Alleyn's investigation of a drug ring, but when Alleyn gets too close, Ricky vanishes. There's a bizarre cult in the chateau on the cliff, a murder witnessed from the window of a train, a ghost that illuminates himself, and locals Theresa and Raoul who get themselves thoroughly involved in the investigation. As always, I enjoyed Marsh's writing, although I will gently point out that writing child characters is not precisely her strong suit.

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What I'm Reading Now: 12 June 06

It's been a while, and I can't remember everything I've read during this time. I know there was a bunch of Ann Rule, which was enjoyable but not overly noteworthy. I read some Ngaio Marsh (probably Dead water and Death at the Dolphin). There's probably something else I'm forgetting, but there were also these four:
On second thought: outsmarting your mind's hard-wired habits -- Wray Herbert (non-fiction)
Subliminal: how your unconscious mind rules your behavior -- Leonard Mlodinow (non-fiction)
The disciple of Las Vegas -- Ian Hamilton
The day of the Jackal -- Frederick Forsyth

The way the brain works is devious and fascinating. Both On second thought and Subliminal look at human behaviour through the lens of neuroscience (which is increasingly being called "brain science" for reasons of simplicity). On second thought looks at thought patterns and heuristics: mental shortcuts your mind takes to make decisions, rather than weighing all the options every time. (If it did, every time you went to buy yogurt, it would take you an hour to decide which container to pick off the shelf.) Heuristics are instinctive, and mostly they serve us well, but sometimes they mislead, sometimes they handicap, and sometimes they're downright dangerous. It was an interesting read. Subliminal covers some of the same ground, but in a different way. It, too, talks about gut reactions, but from the perspective of the unconscious mind, the vast majority of data-processing that happens without your knowledge. That's what enables you to pick up on social cues or predisposes you to buy French wine when French music is playing on the store's sound system. It's also what enables a patient whose visual-interpretation part of the brain is nonfunctional, making him blind, be able to successfully navigate a hallway filled with obstacles without any assistance whatsoever, because another, unconscious, part of the brain is still active and using the data his conscious mind cannot. There was a lot of interesting material in here, and Mlodinow is a remarkably entertaining writer. I plan on finding more of his books another time.

Ava Lee is still assessing her wounds from her last complicated debt-collection assignment when she is launched on another one, and this promises to be even messier. In The disciple of Las Vegas, Ava's business partner in Hong Kong, known respectfully as Uncle, is called on to recover $50 million from a land swindle in BC. Ava follows the money from Canada to San Francisco to Costa Rica to Las Vegas, harassed by her powerful and menacing employers for immediate results all the way along. To make things more complicated, an old enemy of Ava's has come into enough money to contract a hitman on Ava... This is the second Ava Lee, and it's as enjoyable as the first. Ava is skilled in lethal levels of martial arts, and she's wealthy and attractive, but she is still human, making mistakes and struggling to recover from them.

I re-read The day of the Jackal on Sunday backstage at the Back 40. I wasn't planning to, but it was there, and I read the first few pages... and then I was hooked. French President Charles de Gaulle has enemies, people who want to see him dead. When their most recent assassination attempt fails, the top three leaders of the movement hire an outsider, a paid killer, to do the job for him. His code name: the Jackal. The first part of the book follows the Jackal as he makes preparations. The second follows the policeman who must find him and stop him. The third part cuts between the two storylines as the moment chosen for the kill comes ever closer. This setup has an odd effect: by the time the first part (Anatomy of a Plot) has finished, you've spent so much time with the Jackal and the resistance movement that you feel a certain appalled liking for the Jackal, and you're almost rooting for him. Then in Anatomy of a Manhunt, you meet Commissaire Lebel, the policeman heading the manhunt, and after a little while, you start cheering for him, too. The ending, when it comes, is everything you would want. It's been made into a movie twice (1973 and 1997), and both are good, although the 1997 version has been updated and is considerably more violent. One note as far as the book goes: it's mostly reserved and proper, almost scholarly, but it can occasionally be crude.