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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Programming for Musicians and Digital Artists: Creating Music with ChucK – #music #programming #bookreview

 

 

Programming for Musicians and Digital Artists

Creating Music with ChucK

Ajay Kapur, Perry Cook, Spencer Salazar and Ge Wang

Manning – paperback

Manning’s Programming for Musicians and Digital Artists is enjoyable, informative reading, particularly if you like music and programming and are motivated to combine them in some way.

The book offers plenty of clear how-to content for those who want to take their first deep dives into the techniques needed to make, modify and perform music using computers.

Indeed, this excellent guide can help take you from generating  “Hello, World” and “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to linking up with MIDI devices and creating sophisticated music and sounds that can be used in live performances and elsewhere.

Don’t be scared by the word “Programming” in the title. Yes, it can help–but it is not required–to have a little bit of programming experience. As you start working with the audio-centric programming language ChucK, you will simply type a few brief lines of code or paste them from downloaded files into a simple on-screen tool known as the “miniAudicle.” With this tool, you can then make changes and hear the results “instantly without interrupting other sounds being synthesized and heard,” the authors point out. You also can save your files, load different files and do other tasks quickly.

The free, open-source ChucK programming language, the authors’ emphasize, “is designed specifically for real-time sound synthesis and music creation.” Their book provides numerous short code examples to tinker with, as well as a few basic physics, math and music pointers that illustrate features and help support the authors’ descriptions.

Note: If your goal is to sit down at a keyboard and immediately start creating digital music, you may want to skip this book and look for other options. The authors concede that “many artists are happy with over-the-counter software systems and controllers for real-time performance work. And there are many who only want to use computers to produce static final products in the form of .wav/.mp3 files, CDs or collections of songs, sound tracks for videos, and more. A large number of those artists are happy to learn and use the packages and tools from commercial or free sources.

“But there are many, and we’re betting you’re one, who want more,” they add. “Maybe you’re coming to this book with a big idea (or many big ideas) and want the tools to help you realize it/them. Maybe you’re looking to shift directions in your art making. Or perhaps you already know how to program in a language such as Java, but you find it doesn’t do what you want.”

ChucK gives you “greater under-the-hood access” than some of the other popular music/sound languages and systems, such as Csound, SuperCollider, JSyn, Max/MSP and PD (Pure Data). And Chuck, the authors note, “is generally more succinct, requiring much less code (lines of typed text) than these other languages in order to accomplish a particular task.”

You learn how to work with many different tools, ranging from oscillators, to filters, to delay generators, reverberators and other audio effects, and MIDI (even without a MIDI interface and cable). You also learn how to generate the sounds of several different musical instruments.

ChucK has a key emphasis on ease of controlling time: for example, how long a tone or sounds occurs, how often it occurs within a set time period, and how long are the silences between tones or sounds.

I have not yet tried all of the code examples in the book, but the ones I have tried in several chapters have worked very well on a Windows laptop and are easily modified and tested in real time using the miniAudicle. (The book also shows how to install ChucK on Mac OS X and Ubuntu Linux systems).

Thus far, I have encountered only one typo in the printed book’s code examples. In Listing 1.8, “Playing notes with integer values,” there is a mistake in the line that is supposed to multiply the frequency of a tone pitch by 2. However, the line is printed “1 *=> myPitch;” — which simply repeats previous pitch. Changing the line to “2 *=> myPitch;” fixes the problem and takes only a couple of seconds to implement in the miniAudicle.

Si Dunn

 

JavaScript Application Design: A book you likely need if you are working with, or still learning, JavaScript – #programming #bookreview

JavaScript Application Design

A Build First Approach

Nicolas Bevacqua

Manning – paperback

 

I didn’t know how much I needed this book until I started reading it and exploring its code examples.

Many of us who have worked with JavaScript started our connections to the language in very haphazard fashions. We learned some of it on the job, under deadline pressure to fix or update somebody else’s code. Or we took an introductory class or two and then started picking up whatever else we could on the fly, including the bad habits of others around us who seemed to know a bit more about JavaScript than we knew at the moment.

Unfortunately, JavaScript is a big, messy programming language, and it offers numerous opportunities to crash and burn if you really don’t know what you are doing.

In his new book, JavaScript Application Design, Nicolas Bevacqua makes a compelling case for using “the Build First philosophy of designing for clean, well-structured, and testable applications before you write a single line of code.”

He writes: “You’ll learn about process automation, which will mitigate the odds of human error…. Build First is the foundation that will empower you to design clean, well-structured, and testable applications, which are easy to maintain and refactor. Those are the two fundamental aspects of Build First: process automation and design.”

In his well-written text, he argues: “Front-end development requires as much dedication to architecture planning and design as back-end development does. Long gone are the days when we’d copy a few snippets of code off the internet, paste them in our page, and call it a day. Mashing together JavaScript code as an afterthought no longer holds up to modern standards. JavaScript is now front and center.”

He continues: “We have many frameworks and libraries to choose from, which can help you organize your code by allowing you to write small components rather than a monolithic application. Maintainability isn’t something you can tack onto a code base whenever you’d like; it’s something you have to build into the application, and the philosophy under which the application is designed, from the beginning. Writing an application that isn’t designed to be maintainable translates into stacking feature after feature in an ever-so-slightly tilting Jenga tower.”

Bevacqua divides his nine-chapter book into just two parts: build processes and managing complexity. Here is how the chapters are organized:

  • PART 1: BUILD PROCESSES
    1 – Introduction to Build First
    2 – Composing build tasks and flows
    3 – Mastering environments and the development workflow
    4 – Release, deployment, and monitoring
  • PART 2: MANAGING COMPLEXITY
  • 5 – Embracing modularity and dependency management
    6 – Understanding asynchronous flow control methods in JavaScript
    7 – Leveraging the Model-View-Controller
    8 – Testing JavaScript components
    9 – REST API design and layered service architectures

Bevaqua notes that “Linting is often referred to as the first test you should set up when writing JavaScript. Where linters fail, unit tests come in.” He strongly pushes testing and automation right from the start.

Linting soon leads to Grunt, which Bevaqua uses as a task runner and key build tool (with selected modules) in this book. “Grunt is a tool that allows you to write, configure, and automate tasks–such as minifying a JavaScript file or compiling a LESS style sheet–for your application,” he states. (It also works well on Windows machines, which I find handy.)

Grunt leads to running a bit of Node.js on the command line. And if you’ve never worked with Node.js, Bevacqua takes the reader smoothly through the process of installing it and using it in linting exercises. Indeed, he devotes an entire appendix (B) to installing and running Grunt and picking the right plugins for the right tasks and targets.

One of the best parts of this book, to me, is how the author uses short code examples to introduce a concept, and  then builds upon the examples with helpful descriptions and more short but expanded code samples.

Nicolas Bevacqua offers his readers plenty of helpful how-to and why information. Using his book, I have begun applying the Build First approach to some new projects and learning to how test and automate more of my work. I feel as if I now have a good shot at getting a lot better at JavaScript.

There is one small but important glitch to note: At two points in my preview copy of the book from Manning, Bevacqua shows what he calls a simple way to create bare-minimum JSON manifest files. For example, echo “{}” > package.json. Creating a blank, starting-point manifest file did not work this way for me. Instead, I had to use echo {“name: ” “project-name”} > package.json. The empty package.json issue apparently is somehow related to certain versions of Node’s npm.

Si Dunn