Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Tears of Pearl

Genre fiction doesn't get enough respect.  While we've all come across mysteries, romances, and fantasies which weren't good novels but "ticked the boxes," more often the authors write good books within the limitations of the genre.  When an author only succeeds on one front, I prefer that the result be a good novel with a fair mystery than the other way around.  Tears of Pearl is an enjoyable novel, but not much of a mystery.

Lady Emily and Colin Hargraves have eloped and endured a month-long visit with her parents.  En route to Constantinople on the Orient Express, they meet Sir Richard Clare, a diplomat who makes an impression on them by losing important papers and then taking an accidental overdose of chloral hydrate during dinner.  Since this is a mystery, there must be a body and Emily stumbles across one after attending an opera at the Sultan's castle.  The dead woman was one of the Sultan's concubines - and also Sir Richard's long lost daughter, and (as usually happens in mysteries), one death leads to another.  As Colin investigates through diplomatic channels, Emily gets permission to play sleuth in the harem, solving the mystery as she walks in the footsteps of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu.

I found the mystery rather unsatisfying - I figured out the killer's identity about 40 pages too early, and the motive seemed far-fetched.  Lady Emily, though, is a wonderful character - adventuress, autodidact, fashion plate, devoted friend, and madly in love with a man who loves her even more.  She's someone I'd like to be, and Tears of Pearl succeeds as a romance and a travelogue through late-19th Century Constantinople.  I guess it's best described as an upper-level beach book - well-written but escapist - in which there just happens to be a crime.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Notorious Nineteen

Janet Evanovich still makes me laugh, but she's in a rut.  Sometimes it feels like she's started writing her Stephanie Plum novels with a checklist.  Grandma Mazur talks about her (desire for a) sex life?  Check.   Car death?  Check.  Proposition from Ranger?  Check.  Family dinner (during which Steph's mom chugs "iced tea")?  Check.  Bob the dog?  Check.  Appearance by one or more colorful recurring characters?  Check (in the person of Randy Briggs, little person and IT-guy-turned-security-guard).  Outrageous outfits on Grandma Mazur and/or Lula?  You had to ask?

Notorious Nineteen ticks off all the boxes, and arrays them around a reasonable mystery.  Geoffrey Cubbin disappeared from a local hospital after an emergency appendectomy, but before his court date.  He'd embezzled from the retirement community he ran, and since her cousin Vinnie bonded him out, Stephanie has to find him, dead or alive.  It turns out that Cubbin isn't the first person to disappear from Central Hospital in the past few months, and one of the nurses on duty seems to be living far above her income.  It's a pretty well-constructed plot, but it's also about 75 pages short of a novel, so Evanovich pads it out with a homeless man trying to retrieve his magic statue from Uncle Sandor's Buick and/or Steph's apartment and Ranger's friend's wedding - in which Steph has somehow ended up as a bridesmaid.  It's Jersey, so I don't have to tell you the dress is...unique.  These subplots collide with only a tiny bit more coincidence than I like, and Grandma Mazur's costume when she goes undercover at the retirement home is a classic, but the series hasn't managed to combine the kind of humor that makes it a bad idea to read the book in public with a tight plot since about 9 or 10.  Evanovich now writes several series.  Perhaps it's time for her to slow down a bit so she can string together the set pieces with a little more plot.  Then again, I'll keep reading the Plum mysteries because they still make me laugh out loud.

Wobble to Death

Professional sports started oddly - a mix of mill teams with "ringers" and individual competitions set up for the benefit of gamblers.  Wobble to Death takes place at a wobble - a week-long footrace, with a belt and 500 pounds going to the man who walks and runs the most laps without collapsing.  The race starts out well, with the two favorites - Captain Chadwick and Charles Darnell - circling a shorter, inner track, away from the elbows of the pack of also rans, but on Tuesday, Darnell collapses and dies.  Was it tetanus (from walking barefoot with blistered feet)?  Just bad luck?  Or was he murdered?

Well, this is a mystery novel so of course he was murdered - but by whom?  Sergeant Cribb has a few suspects, including a threatened champ, an unfaithful wife, a crooked promoter, a "doctor"/competitor, and a drunken manager.  Lovesey's mystery is neatly crafted, but a bit too lightweight to last.  Like The Detective Wore Silk Drawers, I enjoyed it more for the glimpse into Victorian sports than for the enjoyable but essentially forgettable mystery.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks

I started reading Ben Goldacre's columns in The Guardian a few weeks before he suspended it to write his second book.  I decided to look for his first book, and promptly forgot until I saw the last few minutes of a talk Goldacre gave promoting Bad Pharma.  Since I'm still on the Book Diet, I took Bad Science out of the library, which was probably a wise decision.  I really enjoyed this book, but I'm also unlikely to read it again.

Goldacre is an Oxford-educated doctor, so his writing focuses on health-related topics.  He has an engaging style, and after a few pedantic (and by his own admission condescending) background chapters, he alternates between exposing "treatments" with no scientific support and more nuanced articles which explain how fairly simple statistical principles and concepts like confirmation bias lead us to believe lies wrapped up in technobabble.

Some of Goldacre's targets, like homeopathy, Brain Gym (a set of breathing and self-massage exercises that allegedly improves brain function - who falls for this?), and 'scientific' makeup get off fairly lightly.  They're mostly harmless, usually damaging only the consumer's checking account.  He's much harsher on targets whom he believes have done real harm.  Vitamin pusher Matthais Rath claimed that HIV does not cause AIDS and, by encouraging South Africans to give up antiretroviral drugs in favor of his supplements, probably caused tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of excess transmissions.  This truly horrifying chapter did not appear in the original edition of Bad Science because Rath sued Goldacre and The Guardian; in a just world, the survivors of those who died after exchanging HIV drugs for useless pills would sue him for wrongful death.  He rightfully faults Andrew Wakefield for the MMR scare which returned deadly but preventable diseases to endemic status in the United Kingdom, but he also blames the gullible and lazy science press and the Blairs for fanning the "controversy."

Nutritionists seem to fall between the two poles.  I don't see how they're as harmful to their 'patients' as charlatans like Rath and Wakefield, but he treats them much more harshly than homeopaths and cosmetics companies.  I think he's offended by the abuse of science - most of his examples feature Gillian McKeath, host of You Are What You Eat.  McKeath took something sensible (and not particularly marketable) - eat smaller portions, focus on greens and grains, and get some exercise - and wrapped it in pseudo-scientific explanations that would leave a scientifically-inclinded high school student giggling uncontrollably.  Instead of saying that darker greens have high levels of phytochemicals, she says they "oxygenate the blood" because they "have so much chlorophyll."  Seriously?  As Goldacre points out, you have no light in your large intestine, and even if you did, you have no gills with which to absorb oxygen.  McKeath and her ilk are just making it up and they don't care that they are.  That deeply offends Goldacre.

As I said above, I enjoyed Bad Science, but he didn't cover anything new to me.  I've got a science degree and have spent the past decade doing document review for large pharmaceutical litigations.  Bad Science was confirmation bias - it told me what I already knew, and gave me a chance to shake my head at the gullibility of my species.  I'll read his new book and his columns, but I won't regret returning this volume to the library.