Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs

by Ellen Galinsky

The author, a long-time author and researcher on parenting and child development, outlines seven skills that are necessary for children (and adults) to be engaged learners and critical thinkers.  They are: (1) focus and self-control; (2) perspective taking – being flexible and reflecting about others’ feelings; (3) communicating; (4) making connections between things learned; (5) critical thinking – learning what sources of information to trust; (6) taking on challenges – overcoming stress factors; and (7) self-directed learning.  With a plethora of interesting studies on infant attention, language development, memory, parent connections, object sense, and so on, Galinsky shows how the developing brain has the potential to grasp these complex concepts.  Each chapter also has a list of suggestions parents and teachers can apply to help their children along: be the guide, not the arbiter of pretend play; teach deep ideas and explore them, not a shallow overview of a subject; give kids a degree of control over the things that scare them; let kids’ passions guide them through stress and challenges; let children remember by teaching what they’ve learned; make a point of talking about others’ feelings aloud; focus on quality and attitude and open questions rather than the quantity of books or ideas; etc.

It’s written in an easy, approachable style, with not too much of the repetition that this kind of book often has.  I enjoyed reading about the studies, though many of them (such as those that deal with language acquisition or object sense in infants) are not really applicable to my work.  There’s definitely value in these pages, but I have the same complaint (it’s not even a criticism, really, since this is an inherent quality of the genre) about this that I do with nearly every other parenting or self-help book I read: the great majority of the advice given is so basic, so common-sense and obvious, that I wonder who exactly needs it.  Obviously, there are low-income, low-education families out there who might need to be told such nuggets as, “Create an environment at home where reading is important,” or “Create a bond of trust with your child,” or “Select computer games that promote paying attention” – but are those families really reading this book?  Who is it that selects this book and reads it with purpose, and yet also needs to be told to “Talk about shapes, numbers, and quantities with your kids”?  Perhaps many people do; I find that depressing.

three stars

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Children Of Green Knowe

by L.M. Boston

Toseland, called Tolly, goes to stay with his great-great-grandmother for his holiday from boarding school.  Mrs. Oldknow lives at Green Noah, a grand old manor with beguiling decorations and strange visual effects made by mirrors and shadows.  But there are forces beyond the ordinary there, as well.  It soon becomes apparent that there are unusual presences in the house – three children, whom Tolly at first cannot see, until they get used to him and show themselves.  They are ghosts of siblings who died in the Plague centuries ago, and they take a liking to Tolly.  He explores the house and the grounds, with its magic living topiary, and finds items the children loved most in life.

I found this to be a quaint, light children’s fantasy.  It’s somewhat dreamlike in tone, with several scenes, such as Tolly’s first sight of the house and its flooded grounds, approaching by boat, that are especially otherworldly.  It’s heavy on mood, but not on plot.  Mrs. Oldknow tells a few vignettes about the children’s deeds when they were alive, but other than these, there is no conflict to speak of.  An ancient curse on one tree on the grounds provides a sort of boogeyman, but the most suspenseful, dangerous scene concerning this is an actual dream of Tolly’s.  It’s an evocative, just slightly spooky atmosphere, but without a mystery or conflict or obstacle, this is a setting in search of a plot.

three stars

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Right As Rain

by George Pelecanos

The first Derek Strange novel.  Strange, an ex-MPD cop getting into the PI business, is approached by the mother of a fellow black police officer who was shot during an arrest by a white cop, now off the force also.  The shooting was cleared, but the mother wants to clear her own son’s name, to counteract the popular image of him raving and pointing a gun at police officers.  Strange questions the shooter, a wiry bundle of rage named Terry Quinn, now working at a bookstore.  They get along, despite Quinn’s reputation and the very real racial divide.  Convinced that there is more to the shooting than appears, Strange and Quinn track the original perp in the incident and discover a connection to drug dealers both white and black, crooked cops, and maybe the dead officer’s estranged, drug-addled sister.

This is a powerful, exciting, and visceral novel.  Pelecanos knows DC streets, restaurant culture, the way criminals move and talk, types of weapons, and all the other little details that bring characters and plots to life.  He gives motivations and dreams to minor characters, dwells on the kinds of cars that a man likes only to have him killed a page later, and so on.  And of course, as with his other work, he doesn’t shy away from race.  Quinn is a good guy, but he did shoot the officer because a black man – not simply a man – was screaming at him with a gun; and everyone around him knows this.  Sure, Pelecanos writes his own interests into his characters as well – this is a world where all the women are hot and sensual and always interested and there is no foreplay; everyone worth knowing likes Western music or college rock; everyone eats oysters and spicy food and reads quality fiction.  (And also I wonder whether he meant to set this in the past, with the answering machines and tape decks – in 2001?)  But those are minor authorial quirks.  Strange and Quinn are memorable characters and serve as interesting foils; and the snappy, taut dialogue, along with a fascinating plot, kept me avidly turning the pages and rooting for the good guys, whoever they are.

four stars

Friday, June 15, 2012

Buck Fever

by Ben Rehder

Texas game warden John Marlin is called in about a strange-acting deer.  It legally belongs to crooked mogul Roy Swank, but it’s his friend’s old pet deer, so he takes it for the night.  When the deer is stolen back and his friend sent to the hospital, Marlin knows Swank is hiding something out in his ranch.  With the first day of hunting season and a big hunting party approaching, Marlin tries to find out what Swank is up to, but runs up against two greedy hillbillies and a handful of Colombian assassins and is himself held prisoner.  Swank is using the deer as drug mules, with a crooked drug-addled vet to get the cocaine out of the deer.  But the Colombians are growing impatient, and with only one honest deputy in Blanco County, Marlin has to figure a way out on his own.

This is a fun read, an almost surreal thrill ride in the style of Tim Dorsey and Carl Hiaasen, more interested in humor and mayhem than logic.  The idiot hillbilly mercenaries (whose hilarious backstory is given in a late chapter) are shot and bitten by a rattlesnake; corpses are put in trunks and forgotten; an insane ex-husband stalks the Colombian drug lord, sure he is Antonio Banderas; and so on.  This is another series worth continuing.

four stars

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Think Of a Number

by John Verson

Recently retired NYPD detective Dave Gurney, known for his serial killer collars, is approached by Mark, a college friend, now running a behavioral modification institute for the wealthy.  Mark, a Joel Osteen-type, has gotten some bizarre threatening notes, in one of which the writer has apparently guessed what number he was thinking of and written it down.  Gurney, chafing at retirement and the quietly judgmental presence of his wife, applies his obsessively analytical mind to the puzzle.  He’s inclined to dismiss the letters as the work of a crank, but then Mark is murdered in the most baffling manner, with the only clues being the careful, cunning killer’s own mocking obfuscations, such as backward footprints and wordplay.  Then, other bodies are found, killed in the same trademark fashion; and the killer leaves notice that he’s going to go after the police as well.

Overall, I enjoyed this book.  Gurney, burdened with guilt, living to work, and analytical in the extreme, is a great character, and Verdon does a terrific job showing his skills through early conversations with Mark and his wife.  The mystery is, of course, beguiling and baffling, and Verdon misdirects the reader in a lot of clever ways, with red herrings and the old “Psycho” trick of dwelling a long time on the motives and life of a character who ends up just being one of several deaths.  Indeed, I suspected Mark himself at first, and then a cop who seemed not to have proper credentials.  But the mystery is too great in scope, and Verdon drops a few balls at the end.  With the climax yet to come, it becomes very clear that a certain relatively unnoticed character is the killer, and it doesn’t jibe with Verdon’s crack team of Gurney, another dogged detective, and a forensic psychologist who are so very clever, but don’t stop to ask about what might happen to all those letters the killer sent that didn’t lead to victims.  That is to say that (1) if the killer sent out hundreds of letters, someone, probably many people, would have called the police about it, and this person would be investigated; and (2) or at the very least, they’d be indignant and contact the person at the return address.  So logically and practically, it all falls apart.  Still, though, I admire Verdon’s ambition for a first novel (and why are so many first novels about fathers with son issues or vice-versa?), and I would read a second Gurney novel.

three stars

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Long Fall

by Walter Mosley

Leonid McGill is a P.I. with a shady past, a lot of guilt, a wife he doesn’t love whom he stands by anyway, a lot of powerful friends in low places, a devastating punch, and a need for money.  So when he’s asked to track down some kids who got in trouble years ago, he reluctantly agrees, even though he knows all isn’t what it appears to be.  The same is true of hunting down a mob accountant – he wants no more death on his hands, but he’s hardly in a position to refuse powerful gangsters.  A short, overweight black man with education and a funny name, McGill is looked down on and underestimated a lot, but he often uses that to his advantage.

This book is a mixed bag, but its pros outweigh its weak points.  I’ve read three previous Mosley books, and while McGill doesn’t have the straight-shooting approachability of Socrates Fortlow, he’s a great character.  Unfortunately, though this is the first McGill novel, he’s appeared in earlier stories that are referenced here, which gave me the feeling of being lost at first, or that Mosley was trying to artificially inflate his character’s past.  There are a few scenes that don’t quite work, either – the police are presented as stupid straw men for the most part; hit men are glorified in rather juvenile fashion; and at one point McGill’s lawyer is present at his being picked up by the police for attempted murder, but he is not present at the questioning, which is utterly absurd.  Still, though, this adventure – which is heavily redolent of Hammett’s Continental Op, from the short portly strong protagonist to the baffling array of characters, motives and family secrets – has gravitas and suspense.  First, the mystery is complex and rewarding.  Secondly, McGill is a man wrestling with guilt, love, and lust.  He’s a man with few options and a lot of pressure.  In that way, it’s a very relatable, human story, not an action adventure.

four stars