THE RELUCTANT MATADOR: Can you have too many good things in one novel? – #mystery #bookreview

 

The Reluctant Matador

A Hugo Marston Mystery

Mark Pryor

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

I have been a steady Hugo Marston fan since the debut novel for the series, The Bookseller, appeared in 2012. But I will be honest about this fifth book. As much as I like and admire Mark Pryor’s mystery fiction, I am a bit reluctant to recommend The Reluctant Matador as your first encounter with his excellent investigator, Hugo Marston, head of security at the U.S. embassy in Paris. The Reluctant Matador moves at a slower pace and with more subplot distractions than I prefer in stories where the good guy supposedly is racing against the clock as he (or she) chases down the bad guys.

If you are looking for a new investigator series to take up, I heartily endorse Mark Pryor’s Hugo Marston. Thus, get The Reluctant Matador and keep it handy. But start reading earlier in the series first. The Bookseller and The Button Man remain my two Hugo Marston favorites. And there is plenty to like in The Crypt Thief and The Blood Promise, as well. (Actually, “start at the beginning” often is a good approach for taking up any mystery series).

It is always possible, of course, to have too much of a good thing. And this is what I think slows The Reluctant Matador down a bit, at least for me: Too many interesting characters and too much interesting detail within a very interesting and apparently very laid-back city: Barcelona. (And why, really, are we in Spain now? Isn’t Hugo supposed to be helping keep our Paris embassy secure?)

In The Reluctant Matador, the 19-year-old daughter of an old friend has gone missing in Paris, so Hugo Marston agrees to try to help find her. The sparse clues left behind soon lead him to Barcelona and the realization that the young woman’s life definitely is in danger and the clock is ticking. But there also is a murder and other terrifying issues to complicate the plot and the urgent quest. And the young woman’s father, meanwhile, has taken things into his own hands and gotten himself jailed in Spain. And the Barcelona police and underworld have some interesting characters. And Hugo Marston’s investigator buddy, Tom Green, an ex-CIA agent, is supposedly helping out but also being a bit of a drunken, obnoxious lout. And several women want to sleep with Hugo. And…

And, inexplicably, I began thinking about The Canterbury Tales and The Pilgrim’s Progress about two-thirds of the way through The Reluctant Matador. We keep ambling forward in our quest, picking up more and more characters and their stories as we go.

Many readers, of course, likely will be charmed by Mark Pryor’s mini-portraits of Barcelona. It  does comes across as a very appealing locale. But, is there really time for some sightseeing and a siesta and some bantering with the locals when the hours and minutes rapidly are running out on a life held in deadly captivity?

If you are already a Mark Pryor fan, definitely read The Reluctant Matador. There is much to like in this book, and the writer clearly has put plenty of effort, creativity, research and talent into producing it. On the other hand, if you are new to Hugo Marston and want a fast-paced mystery thriller, you might think this one moves too slowly and decide to ignore the four other books in Pryor’s series. Don’t do that. Read the others and read this one. But read at least one of his earlier works first.

Si Dunn

 

BIG DATA: A well-written look at principles & best practices of scalable real-time data systems – #bookreview

 

 

Big Data

Principles and best practices of scalable real-time data systems

Nathan Marz, with James Warren

Manning – paperback

Get this book, whether you are new to working with Big Data or now an old hand at dealing with Big Data’s seemingly never-ending (and steadily expanding) complexities.

You may not agree with all that the authors offer or contend in this well-written “theory” text. But Nathan Marz’s Lambda Architecture is well worth serious consideration, especially if you are now trying to come up with more reliable and more efficient approaches to processing and mining Big Data. The writers’ explanations of some of the power, problems, and possibilities of Big Data are among the clearest and best I have read.

“More than 30,000 gigabytes of data are generated every second, and the rate of data creation is only accelerating,” Marz and Warren point out.

Thus, previous “solutions” for working with Big Data are now getting overwhelmed, not only by the sheer volume of information pouring in but by greater system complexities and failures of overworked hardware that now plague many outmoded systems.

The authors have structured their book to show “how to approach building a solution to any Big Data problem. The principles you’ll learn hold true regardless of the tooling in the current landscape, and you can use these principles to rigorously choose what tools are appropriate for your application.” In other words, they write, you will “learn how to fish, not just how to use a particular fishing rod.”

Marz’s Lambda Architecture also is at the heart of Big Data, the book. It is, the two authors explain, “an architecture that takes advantage of clustered hardware along with new tools designed specifically to capture and analyze web-scale data. It describes a scalable, easy-to-understand approach to Big Data systems that can be built and run by a small team.”

The Lambda Architecture has three layers: the batch layer, the serving layer, and the speed layer.

Not surprisingly, the book likewise is divided into three parts, each focusing on one of the layers:

  • In Part 1, chapters 4 through 9 deal with various aspects of the batch layer, such as building a batch layer from end to end and implementing an example batch layer.
  • Part 2 has two chapters that zero in on the serving layer. “The serving layer consists of databases that index and serve the results of the batch layer,” the writers explain. “Part 2 is short because databases that don’t require random writes are extraordinarily simple.”
  • In Part 3, chapters 12 through 17 explore and explain the Lambda Architecture’s speed layer, which “compensates for the high latency of the batch layer to enable up-to-date results for queries.”

Marz and Warren contend that “[t]he benefits of data systems built using the Lambda Architecture go beyond just scaling. Because your system will be able to handle much larger amounts of data, you’ll be able to collect even more data and get more value out of it. Increasing the amount and types of data you store will lead to more opportunities to mine your data, produce analytics, and build new applications.”

This book requires no previous experience with large-scale data analysis, nor with NoSQL tools. However, it helps to be somewhat familiar with traditional databases. Nathan Marz is the creator of Apache Storm and originator of the Lambda Architecture. James Warren is an analytics architect with a background in machine learning and scientific computing.

If you think the Big Data world already is too much with us, just stick around a while. Soon, it may involve almost every aspect of our lives.

Si Dunn

STONE COLD DEAD: In this third Ellie Stone mystery, the ‘girl reporter’ digs deeply into a dark case – #mystery #bookreview

 

Stone Cold Dead

An Ellie Stone Mystery

James W. Ziskin 

Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle

 

Ellie Stone is a skilled investigator at a time when women are still expected to mainly stay home and take care of their families. The year is 1961, and local citizens call Ellie as “that girl reporter.”She works for a small newspaper in a mill town in Upstate New York.

When someone is murdered or disappears, Ellie often is sought out by relatives of the dead or missing, especially when they think the local police may not be giving their loved one’s case enough attention.

Indeed, in the first two novels of the Ellie Stone series, the “girl reporter” has been gaining a reputation as a good investigative reporter and crime reporter, as well as amateur detective. That story line continues in Stone Cold Dead, James W. Ziskin’s well-written third Ellie Stone mystery.

Despite her local fame, however, Ellie remains a clear victim of gender discrimination in the news room. Her editors keep trying to assign her to stories involving bake sales, society happenings, Scout meetings, weddings and other “women’s news” events. And Ellie keeps pushing back against the long-traditional male dominance of “hard news” reporting. Sometimes she resists to the point that her job is put in jeopardy.

Of course, job attitudes hardly matter at all when you have asked one too many questions and suddenly talked your way into a life-threating situation. Ellie is good at this. Her curiosity, her probing and her desire to keep showing she can compete with the guys sometimes gets her too far out in front of safety and common sense.

James W. Ziskin is an excellent storyteller who offers up more detail and dialogue than many other mystery writers provide. He also lets his “I” character have more time for introspection and internal debate than is common in investigator stories. This lets us see more deeply into process of how Ellie solves a case.

Ziskin also writes convincingly about what life was like in the newsroom of a 1960s newspaper and out on the small-town streets. I worked as a young reporter for several small-town newspapers in the mid-1960s. And there was a very clear gender divide. Women covered “women’s news,” while guys got to cover the “cop shop” and sheriff’s department, prominent murder trials, fatal car wrecks, plane crashes, shootings, fires, and other “big”news events.

Stone Cold Dead spans 313 pages in paperback. A 15-year-old girl slips out of her junior-high school bus while it is stopped and disappears. Clues left behind point to the likelihood she has run away to be with a young lover. But as Ellie keeps questioning people and piecing together a trail, she realizes that several darker outcomes are becoming possible. And her own life is in danger, too.

Si Dunn

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes – #biography #bookreview

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman: The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

 

The Obelisk and the Englishman

The Pioneering Discoveries of Egyptologist William Bankes

Dorothy U. Seyler

Prometheus Books – hardback, Kindle

 

Early in the 19th century, a young Englishman repeatedly risked death and overcame numerous dangers as he sailed along the Nile River and journeyed into deserts, discovering and documenting important details about ancient Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

William John Bankes and his various crews dug away tons of sand from ruins, giant statues, and other artifacts of ancient cultures. Photography was still several decades in the future, so Bankes used the best available technologies of his time, including drawings and paintings, to create images of ruins, shrines, temple floor plans, and hieroglyphs found on walls and in pyramids. He sometimes dangled dangerously from ropes, as well, as he worked in high places to document details he could not decipher, yet knew were important.  On occasion, he even hired teams of artists to travel with him so he could record as many images as possible.

Once he returned to Great Britain after a few years of travels, he entered politics as his father had desired. He was elected twice to the House of Commons, and he maintained a friendship–and possibly more–with the poet Lord Byron, whom he had known since school days.

But Bankes soon found himself again facing death, this time at the hands of the English justice system. Homosexuality was punishable by imprisonment and execution in early 19th-century England, and Bankes was arrested twice on “unnatural behavior” charges that could have gotten him hanged. In his first trial, he was acquitted, thanks in part to testimony in his favor by the Duke of Wellington. Bankes’s second arrest, however, left him little choice but to flee England and go to France and then Italy, where he would pass away in 1855 at age 68.

Despite his great Egyptian discoveries, Bankes essentially died an outlaw from English justice. Yet, through an odd quirk in English law in force at the time, he had been able to return to England occasionally, as long as he was there only on a Sunday. Both from Italian exile and on quick trips back to his family home, Kingston Lacy, Bankes managed to add one more fascinating chapter to his life. He had become an expert on Italian art, and he began helping rework and remodel his English home in the style of an Italian villa, complete with many paintings and some works of sculpture. The home eventually was given to the National Trust in 1982 and, after “[s]ignificant conservation efforts,” was opened to the public.

Whether you know much about ancient Egypt or not, The Obelisk and the Englishman is a fascinating book about a fascinating explorer. It details his exploration methods and the lasting significance of the numerous discoveries and illustrations he made in the Nile region. And it takes readers inside his troubled life as he tried to find personal happiness within the very narrow confines of 19th-century British society.

“William lives on through his archeological work in both Egypt and Syria,” Dorothy U. Seyler writes in this well-researched, well-written biography of Bankes. “Of special value to Egyptologists are his drawings and notes on temples south of Aswan, since many of these temples were lost under the sand or the Nile waters. His discovery of the Abydos King List and his copies of the hieroglyphs contributed to the decoding of Egypt’s sacred language.”

Si Dunn

See Also Murder – A fine mystery featuring an unusual investigator in an unusual locale – #bookreview

 

See Also Murder

A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery

Larry D. Sweazy

(Seventh Street Books – paperback, Kindle)

 

I love mystery stories where the investigator is neither a bitter private detective nor a jaded cop, and the setting is somewhere far away from New York, Los Angeles, Paris or other “usual suspect” cities.

Larry D. Sweazy’s new novel features a North Dakota farm wife who freelances as a book indexer while also taking care of her disabled husband and their tenuous hold on their windswept acreage.

When a nearby farm couple is brutally murdered, the local sheriff comes to see Marjorie Trumaine and asks her to help him track down the meaning or identity of a puzzling clue, a strange, Norse copper amulet found clutched in one victim’s hand.

Marjorie is reluctant, at first, to help, creeped out by what has happened to her neighbors and worried about protecting her blind and partially paralyzed husband from danger.

Once she does go to work on trying to identify the amulet, however, she begins to come across odd, seemingly disconnected clues. But the puzzles start to become clearer to her once she puts her book indexing skills to work. She begins creating an index of clues and suspects. And what she organizes soon leads her right into an unexpected, deadly trap.

Larry D. Sweazy is a well-established Western writer who has been casting a wider fiction net recently. And, like Marjorie Trumaine, he is a professional book indexer. Unlike Marjorie, however, he has compiled more than 800 back-of-the-book indexes for major trade publishers and university presses.

Set in the 1960s, See Also Murder is mystery at some of its engrossing best, with an investigator definitely worth following as the new series grows.

Si Dunn

 

D3.js in Action: A good book packed with data visualization how-to info – #javascript #programming

D3.js in Action

Elijah Meeks

Manning – paperback

 

The D3.js library is very powerful, and it is full of useful choices and possibilities. But, you should not try to tackle Elijah Meeks’s new book if you are a JavaScript newcomer and not also comfortable with HTML, CSS and JSON.

It likewise helps to understand how CSVs (Comma Separated Values) can be used. And you should know how to set up and run local web servers on your computer. Prior knowledge of D3.js and SVG (Scalable Vector Graphics) is not necessary, however.

Some reviewers have remarked on the amount of how-to and technical information packed into DS3.js in Action. It is indeed impressive. And, yes, it really can seem like concepts, details and examples are being squirted at you from a fire hose, particularly if you are attempting to race through the text. As Elijah Meeks writes, “[T]he focus of this book is on a more exhaustive explanation of key principles of the library.”

So plan to take your time. Tackle D3.js in small bites, using the d3js.org website and this text. I am pretty new to learning data visualization, and I definitely had never heard of visualizations such as Voronoi diagrams, nor tools such as TopoJSON, until I started working my way through this book. And those are just a few of the available possibilities.

I have not yet tried all of the code examples. But the ones I have tested have worked very well, and they have gotten me thinking about how I can adapt them to use in some of my work.

I am a bit disappointed that the book takes 40 pages to get to the requisite “Hello, world” examples. And once you arrive, the explanations likely will seem a bit murky and incomplete to some readers.

However, that is a minor complaint. D3.js in Action will get frequent use as I dig deeper into data visualization. D3.js and Elijah Meeks’s new book are keepers for the long-term in the big world of JavaScript.

Si Dunn

A new mystery from Terry Shames: ‘A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge’ – #bookreview #mystery

A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge

Terry Shames

(Seventh Street – paperback, Kindle)

The title may be a bit too folksy and over the top for a few hard-core mystery lovers. But the Samuel Craddock investigative series by Terry Shames does an excellent job of capturing the sights, sounds, speech patterns, customs, mannerisms and values of many people in contemporary East Texas, an area of the state that identifies more closely with the Deep South than with the Wild West. And her central character, Samuel Craddock, is both a retired small-town police chief and someone people still quickly turn to for help when there’s trouble.

Even in bucolic East Texas, trouble is always brewing somewhere nearby. And, despite his age and a bad knee, Samuel Craddock can be counted on to try to help, whether it’s defusing bad-blood tensions between two people or two families or, central to each book, tracking down a killer. He knows many people and knows something of their histories. But he is frequently surprised by what happens within the undercurrents that flow through seemingly tranquil small towns and their surrounding countryside.

A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge is the fourth novel in Ms. Shames’s fast-expanding series. Her previous Samuel Craddock mystery,  Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, was published just six months ago (October, 2014). And it saw Craddock coming out of retirement to take over again, temporarily, as Jarrett Creek’s police chief.

In Deadly Affair, Craddock is still on the job from which he previously retired. And now he is having to go out of his jurisdiction to investigate a complicated case involving a death and a very close friend who isn’t telling him the whole truth about her background.

Terry Shames grew up in East Texas and knows how to make her fictionalized settings and characters come alive.  If you are looking for a new, different and engrossing investigator to follow, slow down, relax a bit and mosey along with Samuel Craddock as he sets out to solve yet another mysterious death.

Si Dunn