Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Psychopath Whisperer: The Science of Those without Conscience, by Kent Kiehl, PhD

This book wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. The name is misleading; I picture a “whatever whisperer” as being someone who understands the mind of the subject in depth and who can easily and painlessly convince the subject to do what the whisperer wants. While Kiehl did groundbreaking work on what happens in a psychopath’s brain, he didn’t find any way to change their brains or their behaviors. What he found, by using cutting edge fMRIs, was that psychopathology is hardwired in the brain; there is a deficit of activity in certain areas of their brains when faced with situations that evoke emotional responses in most people. By going into prisons with his work he was able to find a wealth of psychopaths (as indicated by their histories and scores on the Hare Psychopathy Checklist) to put in the MRI machines. The correlation between areas of deficit and their behavior traits was irrefutable. What he didn’t find was any way to help them change; the only part of the book that deals with this possibility is near the back, where he talks about a treatment program in Wisconsin, the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center. This program takes juvenile offenders and treats their good behaviors- no matter how rare they are at first- and positively reinforces them. Acting in socially acceptable ways brings rewards, and teaches them to try these ways first. The treatment lowered repeat offenses by 34 percent compared with untreated juvenile criminals. Sadly, this program suffered budget cutbacks and cannot treat as many teens as it was doing. This seems counterproductive when the program is actually a money saver over imprisoning people repeatedly, not to mention the damage to victims of psychopaths.

The book is interesting but not riveting. I was hoping for more science and less anecdote.

Shadowplay, by Laura Lam. Strange Chemistry, 2014

‘Shadowplay’ returns us to the world of Ellada that the author created in ‘Pantomime’. Micah Grey and Drystan, having escaped from the circus after the multiple deaths, need to hide out. Drystan takes them to the home (and former theater) of master magician Jasper Mask, who has been retired for many years after losing a bet with a rival magician. Mask takes them in and agrees to teach them magic while they hide from the people who are hunting for both the young man Micah and the young woman Iphigenia, not knowing they are one and the same, both genders in one body. They manage to find one of the people who are hunting them, but there is second one, who is much shrewder and better at hiding their identity. And it’s getting harder to hide as another bet of the master magician’s pulls them into the limelight.

Ellada is like a far future Earth, where extremely sophisticated technology exists only as relics, curiosities, and shards, while the people live rather like we did sometime between the Middle Ages and the Victorian age; a post apocalyptic Renaissance Faire. The world is very interesting and appealing, as are the characters. There are so many unknowns, from what Micah might mean to the whole planet to what the blue glass domes that are strewn through the city are. I am dying to know how this trilogy turns out!

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Fiddlehead, by Cherie Priest. Tor Books, 2013

‘Fiddlehead’- a computing machine bright enough to ‘fiddle with a man’s head’- brings the story arc started in ‘Boneshaker’(still my favorite of the series, especially now that there is a huge digging machine stuck under Seattle)to a close; hopefully it’s not the end of Priest’s steampunk, alternative history Clockwork Century world as well. The zombies that we first saw in ‘Boneshaker’ are explained and sorted, and the prolonged (20 years) American Civil War brought to a close. The characters we’ve been introduced to through the series have a chance of peace at last.

The story had multiple story lines, including that of Gideon Bardsley, inventor of the Fiddlehead and former slave, as he is attacked in an attempt to destroy his calculating machine. He finds himself running for his life, right to the home of retired President Lincoln, who survived the assassination attempt but now uses a motorized wheelchair. Meanwhile, President Grant finds a traitor in his government whose actions may not just keep the war going but cause the end of civilization on the American continents. There is a lot at stake, and only a few people- including a former Confederate spy and a man with a warrant out on him-and very little time to try and stop a zombie apocalypse from occurring.

It’s a good story; the story line following Maria Boyd (the former spy) has a tremendous amount of action in it right up to the climax. The line that follows Grant, Bardsley and Lincoln is very tense but there is a siege that goes on far too long- the one flaw I felt the book had. All in all, a satisfying read.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Broken Homes, by Ben Aaronovitch. Daw Books, 2013

Constable Peter Grant, his mentor Nightingale, and fellow wizard in training and police officer Lesley May are in search of the rogue wizard the Faceless Man and kept busy with magical training and new cases of supernatural crime. When clues lead them to a run down low income apartment building designed by a famous architect, a long stake out ensues. The building is a bone of contention: developers want to take it down to build new, profitable things but it’s on the list of protected sites. Peter finds that the landscaping is a bit unusual- in the magical sense- and that, for a run down, nearly empty building, a lot of concrete work has been done very recently.

I’m a huge fan of Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series, but this one, book four, disappointed me a little. It started out with a bang, and ended with a huge bang –literally- (including a twist that I had a feeling might be coming) but the middle seemed to drag- there was a long stretch with not a whole lot happening. It’s still great fun, but just not up there with the first three. Peter Grant makes a great narrator, with a lot of dark humor, even in the stretches where there was not a lot of action. I love how characters introduced in previous books reappear rather than just go away because they aren’t part of the main plot this go around. It’s a police procedural with magic, supernatural characters, and a lot of snarkiness. 

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, by Francine Prose. Harper Collins 2014

Prolific author Prose has written a complex and stirring historical novel based on real events and people. She weaves together six narrative strands to make a complete picture of not just the main subject of the story- Lou Villars, athlete, auto racer, mechanic, lesbian, Gestapo spy and informant- but of the people, rich and poor, around her and Paris itself just prior to the German occupation and during it. The characters and the city come alive in her tale of a French patriot- maltreated by her own country and seduced by false promises from Hitler- who, by leaking the location of the end of the Maginot line, quite possibly, single handedly, made the occupation of France possible.

Lou Villars is based on Violette Morris, who did all the things that Lou does in the story, including having an elective double mastectomy that made it easier for her to steer a race car.  She lived openly as gay and dressed in male clothing. She could have gone down in history as a great athlete instead of as the torturing monster she became. Why did someone who claimed to love France betray her country? Prose has come up with a pretty convincing possibility. Many of the other characters, artists and writers, are based on real people as well.

The story is not just a fictionalized biography, though. The scope is wide and includes love, art, courage, and how the truth is seen from different perspectives. The writing is excellent and, despite the grim subjects, very engaging. I stayed up late trying to finish it and got up again in the middle of the night because I couldn’t sleep without knowing how it would end.  It was worth being sleepy today. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Mount Terminus, by David Grand. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

Set in the early years of the 20th century, ‘Mount Terminus’ chronicles the rise of the film industry and the growth of Los Angeles through the eyes of Joseph Rosenbloom, most often referred to as ‘Bloom’. Bloom’s father is a millionaire due to his invention, a device that allowed the smooth projection of film.
When Bloom’s mother dies, his father takes him to Mount Terminus, California, to raise Bloom in isolation on the house on the hill. The elder Rosenbloom feels that his money has created a world where his son will always be taken care of, but he hasn’t counted on the fact that no matter how hard you try, the world will always find its way in and pain will enter every life.

The prose is dense but not slow reading. The story has epic proportions and reads like a grim fairy tale: sibling betrayals in two generations, a stolen birthright (and more), good and evil twins, a quest. Bloom is the innocent to whom things happen rather than a person who makes things happen; he is a puer who takes forever to mature. Bloom is not, in fact, a particularly interesting character, but enough adventures happen to and around him that the story kept my interest. The story is not just about Bloom; it’s about love and art and unwise grandiosity. It reads like a long dream that you don’t really want to have end. 

 I received this book from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a fair review. This in no way affected my opinion of the book.