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Aaron C. Brown RSS Feed (New York, New York United States)

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The Perfect Game
The Perfect Game
by Leslie Kirby
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.05
42 used & new from $13.59

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Realistically boring, February 20, 2015
This review is from: The Perfect Game (Hardcover)
Judged as a mystery, I think this book will disappoint most fans.The crimes are not compelling, and the investigation is realistically slow and dull. The murderer is realistically stupid and uninteresting. The heroine spends more time wondering about which underwear to put on than who killed her sister. There are no action scenes, no crisp dialog, no surprises (there are three twists, but they are telegraphed and unconvincing). Even her emergency room internship seems to be a vehicle for sophomoric innuendo more than a job to heal people. For that reason, the book is more successful as a romance novel for readers who care more about who kisses whom than they do about forensics, gunplay or deduction. However only the most patient romance fans will put up with the heroine's glacial approach to relationships and life decisions in general.

What sets this book apart from other two-star mysteries or three-star romance novels is an extremely detailed and realistic account of the experience of a murder trial, from the perspective of the victim's next of kin. It would be unendurably boring, except for the stakes involved. In some ways this book resembles a sober true-crime courtroom account than a conventional fictional legal thriller. In fact, I was reminded strongly of Seymour Wishman's excellent Anatomy of a Jury (not to be confused with the book or movie Anatomy of a Murder). If you're looking for an in-depth, expert insider's account of a criminal jury trial, that's the place to go.

The writing is smooth and professional, but not stylish. The book gets high marks for realism, but is otherwise below average judged as a mystery and about average judged as a romance.

Executive: A Thriller
Executive: A Thriller
Price: $0.99

0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Promising beginning fizzles into weak middle and disappointing climax, February 14, 2015
I really wanted to like this book. The beginning consisted of short sketches of apparently unrelated incidents that kept me guessing. Was this going to be a military thriller? Or plucky everygal stumbles onto evil conspiracy? Or a corporate slugfest fought with memos, press leaks and stock options as well as human lives? Or the account of a shadowy team of experts who use the techniques of criminals to defend truth, justice and the American way? There are innumerable versions of all four of these genres, mostly hackneyed and forgettable. This seemed to be a skillful fresh take that juxtaposed familiar elements into an exciting mélange.

Unfortunately, after a fast-paced beginning, the middle of the story slows, then stalls. The heroine pokes around energetically but learns little of value, and takes long breaks from investigation. The author seems more interested in her consumerism and immature emotionalism than in resolving the many plot threads. New characters come and go without connection to the story. The important characters other than the heroine appear to be on vacation, at least they do little to influence things. The relentless tension driving events forward is lost, which kills the book as a thriller.

For example, one of the biggest puzzles is why the military is refusing to release even basic information about some disasters. We have scenes of the military investigators telling each other how hard they will work to uncover the truth quickly, but no truth comes out. Only at the end of the book do we learn the simple facts that would have been uncovered within minutes of the events, and that no one would have had a reason to conceal. Instead of the protagonist unraveling a genuine mystery, we have an artificial mystery created for unexplained reasons, no unraveling, and then at the end of the book we are told the unsurprising solution by the omniscient narrator. That makes the middle of the book irrelevant.

Another type of example is a scene in which the heroine is kidnapped at gunpoint, tied up, her clothes ripped off by a guy who threatens to rape and then kill her. A homeless guy appears out of nowhere and bothers the killer so he wanders off, apparently out of mild annoyance. The heroine promises to pay the homeless guy if he unties her and goes to her car. She gets in her car and drives away. She does not report the crime to the police or to her partners. She does not think it is an important clue, perhaps if she could locate the kidnapper and have him arrested, he would trade information about his employers for a reduced sentence and help solve the mystery. She does not pay the homeless guy what she promised, even though he apparently saved her life, nor does she even pump him for information. She does not press her panic alarm she has been given to summon immediate help. She does not take precautions afterwards like avoiding dark parking lots or buying mace or a Taser (much less a gun). We never learn who either of the men are, or what they have to do with the story. In a movie, this would be an obvious example of gratuitous violence and sex, an excuse to show the leading actress tied up and naked, with no connection to the story. My theory is the author intended to link the kidnapper to the bad guys, and the homeless guy to a disguised protector (his behavior is otherwise inexplicable), but then forgot about both of them. The heroine also seems remarkably unscarred by the encounter.

One or two loose threads can be overlooked, but in this book the majority of the story is left unexplained. We do learn about one set of bad guys who are responsible for some of the less puzzling and less serious crimes, but that's it. Even that is explained only by the hackneyed device of one of the bad guys making a detailed confession to the heroine while setting up a pointlessly elaborate and far from foolproof execution. The reader learns nothing about the main bad guys, nothing about any of the good guys. The impression I get is the author had a much bigger story to tell and selected random scenes from it.

The plot, with all its problems, is the strongest part of this book. The research is interesting but inserted too obviously and repetitiously. I lost count of how many times the reader is reminded that surveillance drones do not carry weapons, but attack drones have missiles, and that even a unarmed drone can cause a lot of damage in a crash due to the fuel it carries, but a missile causes a much bigger explosion. Apparently, all the people involved in drone manufacture or use spend much of their time telling each other these facts.

The dialog is wooden, clearly inserted to inform the reader rather than represent realistic conversations or reveal character insights or set mood. The author does not trust the readers to understand what is going on, she is constantly explaining what remarks are funny or why people said things. As other reviewers noted, there are some odd usage errors. Non-native English speakers are apt to make errors in prepositions or word order, which are difficult in English. This book has none of that. Some of the errors are near homonyms, like "full proof" for "fool proof". One might be a typo, but a consistent pattern suggests the words were learned by listening rather than reading and that the book was not edited. The other common errors involve big words that either sound like the word the author intended or mean something slightly but significantly different from what the context implies. This error is usually caused by an author using words she is not familiar with from either reading or conversation, perhaps words she came across doing research.

Overall, I can't recommend the book, but I do respect the author's inventiveness and research. I much prefer a book like this that tries something original to a conventional book with fewer flaws but no ambitions. With good ideas, the execution can be improved. With no ideas, better writing is wasted.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent for bath oil, February 12, 2015
I enjoy taking lot, hot baths but I can't stand the perfumed junk that's usually sold for bath oils or bath salts, even the expensive spa stuff. I like some Epsom salt and tea oil for a cleansing, skin healing, muscle relaxing soak. Tea oil heated in hot bath water is aromatic, it's a clean, acerbic scent that I kind of like, but might remind some people of hot tub disinfecting chemicals or manufacturing clean rooms.

Just three drops of this oil in a full tub of hot water will do more for your soak than four ounces of standard bath oil.

Chinese Turkestan: A Photographic Journey Through an Ancient Civilization
Chinese Turkestan: A Photographic Journey Through an Ancient Civilization
by Ryan Pyle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $29.49
27 used & new from $18.81

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars People at work, February 11, 2015
People. People at work. Or when not at work, going to work or in ordered activity like praying or ritual dancing. Maybe half a dozen pictures at the end with no people in them. People mostly in motion, a few posed faces. People engaged, seemingly healthy and reasonably happy, but mostly working. A few smiles, mostly posed.

Bricks. Lots of bricks, modern, ancient and casual. Walls in general.

Food. Not cooking or eating, but cutting and selling. Food transported by animals. Not one car in the book. Not much place where you could drive a car. But there must be some, and construction equipment for the large buildings and power tools. But not in this book. Only a few shots with electric wires or electric lights.

Natural light. Only black-and-white photographs illuminated by the sun. No flash, no artificial lights.

Empty space. Even the interior photographs or crowded streets are imbued with a sense of vast emptiness. But not desolation, this is no forgotten backwater. No one seems to have gotten stuck here on the way to someplace else. Everyone, everything is going somewhere.

Caught between the ancient and modern worlds, but that's misleading. The ancient roots are cosmopolitan and innovative. Not unchanging centuries but a potpourri of dynamism from a hundred ancient realms, perhaps preserved better here than where the cultures were born. The modern world is not encroaching, but seems to be sucked in by the energy of the place, and seems tamed, subordinated to the land.

A fascinating place that few people will be able to visit. Captured in a brilliant series of photographs with a strong editorial view. Not to be missed.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 12, 2015 3:44 PM PST

The Utopia Experiment
The Utopia Experiment
by Dylan Evans
Edition: Paperback
20 used & new from $8.80

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An extraordinary personal journey, with global implications, February 7, 2015
This review is from: The Utopia Experiment (Paperback)
In 2006, polymath Dylan Evans resolved to explore an ancient question with a fresh perspective. As long as there has been civilization, I have no doubt people have toyed with the question of what happens if it goes away. The first Arabic novel Hayy ibn Yaqdhan was written on the topic nearly 1,000 years ago, famous European examples are Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson. Moreover there is a tremendous variety of survivalist projects and communities, as well as some serious scientific investigation on the subject.

In 2006, when Dr. Evans--who is a philosopher, psychologist and robotics engineer among other accomplishments--decided to run his own survivalist experiment, he started not with a location, plan or philosophy, he started with a story of a possible future. It was a compelling account that concentrated on a richly imagined social reaction to an environmental disaster that dissolves the fabric of civilization. Then he sold his house and relocated to a remote location in Scotland with a small band of untrained volunteers to see how the story ends. Could they survive with their bare hands and some minimal supplies in the wilderness, without outside contact or help? And of more interest to Evans, what kind of society would develop when the pressures of civilization were suddenly replaced with the pressures of survival?

Despite the isolated nature of the experiment, some weird details leaked out into the press, with even stranger rumors swirling around the Internet. I expect many people will pick up this book to satisfy their curiosity about the lurid stories. If so, they will be rewarded by a tale even more surprising than the partial and distorted accounts, and that sheds light on some fascinating questions of social and individual psychology. It's fair to say that what actually happened would have been predicted by nobody, but the extraordinary thing about this book is it makes sense of everything and ends up with an entirely unexpected inspiring message.

The Utopia Experiment would have no trouble attracting readers as a novel. It's skillfully written and tells delightfully twisted stories of a fascinating, offbeat cast of characters. The author morphs from the font of civilized rationality to perhaps the most offbeat character of them all, and then undergoes a psychological metamorphosis that fuses both aspects of his personality. Some of the best passages in the book are his reflections on that experience, the madness that drove his creativity, then drove him literally mad.

The book is also a fine contribution to popular social psychology literature. Dr. Evans learned quite a lot about small group interactions in the absence of civilized strictures, probably more than he wished to know. At the same time, there is a brilliantly described appreciation for some overlooked aspects of technology--such as a priceless meditation on the joys of having a shelf. Of course there are also deeply felt reactions to nature.

You will certainly get your money's worth with this book on either of the two grounds above, but I think it is actually most interesting and valuable as a personal journey. Evans discovers as much about himself as about other people and nature. The lessons are not purely personal, however, they capture elements that apply to almost everyone and are particularly important for thinking about what kind of world, and what kind of life, we want.

I recommend this book highly for entertainment, education and, ultimately, a fair dash of enlightenment.

SABRE RED Pepper Gel - Police Strength Pepper Spray - Pink Flip Top Key Case with Finger Grip
SABRE RED Pepper Gel - Police Strength Pepper Spray - Pink Flip Top Key Case with Finger Grip
Price: $11.99
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5.0 out of 5 stars What I can say is that I found the product well-designed and easy to use in test situations, February 3, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
First an important disclaimer, I have not actually used this product. Obviously you should weight reviews more heavily than mine if they are by people who have, or who have the experience and infrastructure to do realistic testing.

What I can say is that I found the product well-designed and easy to use in test situations. The mechanism is secure against accidental discharge, and quick and easy to use, even blindfolded and left-handed. The device slips naturally into your hand in the correct orientation, it's impossible to fire it in the wrong orientation, and it requires a firm trigger pull but not significant strength.

I can't say exactly how powerful the spray is, but firing outdoors at a target ten feet away left an acrid mist in the air for at least a minute: more powerful than chopping onions, but not enough to cause serious irritation to anyone other than the target. I have to believe it would be at least highly discouraging if not incapacitating if it hit anywhere on or near a target's face.

Smashed (Las Vegas Mystery)
Smashed (Las Vegas Mystery)
by Rex Kusler
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.54
28 used & new from $6.18

4.0 out of 5 stars Pretty good mystery, better on plot and color than style, January 28, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Smashed is a workmanlike entry in a familiar mystery formula, romantically-involved private detective partners work through a puzzling case using standard procedures. On the negative side, the author sometimes seems to be going through the motions. The banter is moderately clever, but it switches on and off, and never relates to the plot. It has a paint-by-the-numbers feel. Of course, the male half of the detective team likes beer, sports, unhealthful food, silly risks and easy women; while the female half is more mature and sensible, half indulgent/half exasperated.

Another problem is the author doesn't trust the reader to get the jokes. Characters can't utter a good line without explaining it, or having the author label it as "clever" or "funny." When lines aren't explicitly described, characters will "roll their eyes" or "arch an eyebrow" to cue the slower readers not to take the quote literally.

Making up for these stylistic defects is a clever plot and some good color. The innovative plot element is a client who may have dissociative identity disorder (more commonly known as multiple personality disorder), which obviously complicates the investigation. The condition is described in reasonably authentic terms, including the difficulty of diagnosing it and distinguishing it from factitious behavior and other disorders. Aside from that, the investigation is a straightforward, linear account. Of course there are buried secrets from the past, sexual elements and shocking revelations, but there are no wild coincidences or logical lapses. The private eyes stick reasonably closely to what they were hired to do, within the law, although they bend it a bit. All of this conforms to convention, and is handled well by the author.

The other nice feature of this book is authentic-feeling Las Vegas color, and not only in casinos and tourist traps. There is some nice detail on horse race advantage betting, not enough to satisfy someone interested in the strategy and mathematics of profitable betting, but a lot closer to reality than most fictional or even nominally non-fictional accounts. There's even a connection to the plot. Both of the horse players featured are late-money bettors (big smart money comes in early, to induce other bettors to offset it, while small smart money comes in late, immediately before the race, in order to take advantage of moving odds). One of them is qualitative and focuses on favorites, the other is quantitative and will bet longer-odds horses. The personality differences that often accompany these different approaches are realistic, as are the challenges of each system. These personalities and challenges play directly into the plot, they're not just color for the sake of color.

I think most mystery fans will find this an acceptable book, but not a great one. It is part of a series, and it seems from other reviews that the readers who like it best appreciate the ongoing saga across the books. I am not a series fan myself, but if you are, this could be a good one to try.

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5.0 out of 5 stars A versatile herb, January 19, 2015
Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
I enjoy these nibs for a variety of uses. I will chew them directly, they have a pleasantly bitter flavor, not at all like unsweetened chocolate, more like an aperitif. They give a nonsweet chocolaty taste to smoothies. I cook with them as well, they add a smoky flavor to mole sauces and chili, and bring out the spiciness in peppers.

If you soak them in vodka for a couple of days, you'll have a great chocolate martini--not the sweet chocolate-milky nonsense but a crisp, dry martini with an elegant dash of non-sweet chocolate flavor. Of course, that may undo some of the health benefits.

Roasted and processed cacao has a completely different flavor, the raw stuff is a versatile herb.

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5.0 out of 5 stars A tweener brush that is distinguished by top quality elements, January 19, 2015
This is a small cleaning brush with three elements: a scraper, a wire brush and a hard scrubbing pad. It's too small to be convenient for a large outdoor gas or charcoal grill, and the handle is too close to the brushes to be used when the grill is hot (when cleaning works best). However, it is perfectly adapted for smaller grills (say a hibachi or an indoor stove top grill) as well as sturdy pots and pans.

What sets this apart from most small scrubbers is the high quality of its construction. It is light but absolutely rigid. You can bear down with all your strength without worrying about it bending or breaking. This is important for stubborn, baked-on grit. The scraper thick, straight and well-shaped; it can smoothly remove charred chunks that will bend or snap flimsier scrapers. The cleaning brush wires are strong and flexible, they will bend around grime to scour it from all angles, rather than skating along on top of it or caressing it gently and leaving it in peace. The scrubber pad is much thicker than is usual, and is composed of a fine woven wire that whisks things clean. Finally, the handle is cleverly designed so you use any of the three tools comfortably and naturally.

The one minor issue is it was just barely big enough to be comfortable in my hands. I do have large hands (XL gloves), I think about 90% of people will find this brush well sized. It worked fine for me, but if my hands had been any bigger, the grip would not have been natural. So if you have XXL hands, you might look for a larger product.

It's Not Elementary:  The Mistakes of Sherlock Holmes (Kindle Single)
It's Not Elementary: The Mistakes of Sherlock Holmes (Kindle Single)
Price: $1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent book about reasoning, not really about mistakes or Sherlock Holmes, January 19, 2015
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Early in this interesting series of essays, the author tells us that he did not read Holmesian criticism in depth before writing his work. On the plus side this allows him to take an original slant on things rather than chiming in on the very extensive, 125-year-old-and-still-going-strong, often-hair-splitting debates. On the negative side, it makes this work too naïve about Sherlock Holmes to have much bearing that character.

Sherlock Holmes is not a consistent character. He differs significantly in abilities, personality and motivations in different stories (this is one of the reasons he can inspire such a wide variety of successful interpretations in subsequent books and dramatizations by different authors). In none of the stories is he the superhuman, infallible, objective reasoner with altruistic and responsible goals that the author is debunking. Holmes often errs in matters of fact, and his decisions are often criticized by Watson as irresponsible or dishonest; and Watson is Holmes' best (only?) friend. The reader often will take a harsher view than Watson.

More to the point for this work, Watson is not an objective or infallible reporter (a few Holmes stories include stretches of omniscient narration, but none of these are discussed in this book). He tells us that he conceals and distorts aspects of the stories, and Holmes sometimes accuses him of that as well. Watson's account often relies on Holmes' reports, and we know Holmes can be deceptive and mistaken, particularly in being overconfident of his insight. Watson is a fierce Holmes partisan with a strong sense of propriety, and he is writing for commercial success rather than historical accuracy.

It's Not Elementary is not precise about what constitutes a mistake. In some places, it is an error by the author of the stories, Arthur Conan Doyle: for example an obvious minor editing error in dates in The Red Headed League. An even pettier example is the snake in The Speckled Band. This is a short story, not a herpetology text. It is well within conventions of popular fiction for Doyle to posit a snake with plausible properties, even if it does not match up precisely with any species known today. Fortunately, there is very little of this kind of nit-picking.

Another type of mistake is one that is acknowledged in the stories. It's Not Elementary describes a few of these. These will be news only to people who have not read the stories, but could only be of interest to people who have read the stories. So I don't see the point of republishing them. While these get more attention than the nit-picking in the previous paragraph, they are not a major focus of the book.

Where this book gets interesting is discussing an intermediate type of error, where given the story as presented, Watson and Holmes were mistaken in their interpretation of events by the end, and perhaps took actions that were ill-advised in the true circumstances. These could be errors by Doyle in plot construction, or Doyle could have written a story that deliberately leaves the reader with plausible alternative interpretations.

It's Not Elementary takes the first view, treating these as defects in the story, then patronizingly praising other aspects of the stories as making up for these lapses. But I have far more respect both for Doyle as an author, and the stories themselves. A broader reading of Doyle's work reveals many examples where the reader is clearly intended to take an interpretation conflicting with the account presented by the narrator. An extreme example is the Etienne Gerard stories, but there are many others. There is a dash of Gerard in Holmes, perhaps through his French grandmother. Moreover, Doyle was a careful thinker and a subtle writer whose stories often reveal many layers of meaning through repeated readings.

This book is at its best when its author gets through the rather rickety framing and analyzes some Sherlock Holmes stories the way Doyle wrote them, as accounts of a partisan, fallible and only sometimes direct witness. If the story is the prosecution's case, where can the defense start looking for reasonable doubt? Most of the people who have tried this argue for alternative solutions, and that is usually unsatisfactory. These alternative solutions usually require assuming lots of things not mentioned in the story, they are really rewritings of Doyle rather than investigations of the facts as presented. One of the best things about It's Not Elementary is the author occasionally finds that despite some implausible elements, Holmes was probably right; and in other cases the author finds no completely satisfying resolution, and he never assets certainty about an alternative account of events.

The author is incisive and thorough in his deconstructions, and they add considerably to enjoyment of the stories. You should read Doyle's stories yourself first, with a skeptical attitude, then see how your reasoning matches up with It's Not Elementary. You may not agree, but you will find it a stimulating exercise. One area in which Doyle, Holmes, the author and I agree is that the important think is to reason about things, not to take them as received wisdom or at face value. The prosecution's case will always seem sound if you don't think hard.

This book has ambitions beyond second-guessing Sherlock Holmes. The author devotes a lot of attention to discussing the nature of reasoning. Holmes relies primarily on probabilistic deduction (what the author and some others call “abductive,” a term I dislike). There is some pure deduction (“when you have eliminated the impossible”) to reduce the scope of inquiry, then you select among the possible according to likelihood (“whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”). However, in that formulation the word “must” hints at Holmes' logical weakness. He is certain of his judgment in the face of implausible elements. A more careful thinker, a lawyer rather than an aggressive detective, would say, “whatever remains should be considered in descending order of probability”.

I recommend this book for fans of Sherlock Holmes puzzles. If you have only literary interests in the stories, you won't find much here. Students of reasoning will also find a lot of good stuff here.

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