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review 2018-10-19 17:42
Review: “Cupcakes and Casualties” (Peridale Cafe Mystery, #11) by Agatha Frost
Cupcakes and Casualties - Agatha Frost

 

~ 3 stars ~

 

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review 2018-10-17 22:01
Sentinel of Darkness (Darkness Series #8) by Katie Reus
Sentinel of Darkness - Katie Reus

Sentinel of Darkness (Darkness Series #8) - Katie Reus 

 

Sweet, cute novella and as usual by this author, full of romance, sexy heroes, and shifters shenanigans.

 

Dagen meets Keva in the most imperfect way but the moment he meets her, his dragon knows she is IT for him. The way he protected Keva (and actually all shifters in this series) is sweet and romantic. What I liked the most about the two was how in spite of having both gone through hell (one of them literally) they were still warriors and didn’t shy away from love. I would have loved for this story to be longer and read more about the other members of the pack, and specially that very pregnant shifter. But overall it was an enjoyable read that reminded me how much I like dragon shifters and this series.

 

*I received this book at no cost to me and I volunteered to read it; this is my honest opinion and given without any influence by the author or publisher*

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review 2018-10-17 01:45
Squeezed by Alissa Quart
Squeezed: Why Our Families Can't Afford America - Alissa Quart

I looked forward to reading this book, because income inequality has become an important topic in America. I see firsthand the deterioration of the middle class, with professionals often working second jobs in the evening; families with two working parents struggling to pay for day care or patch together a network of relatives and friends to provide it because they can’t afford it at all; and people in their 20s and 30s held hostage to student debt or living with parents or roommates due to housing prices. Wages haven’t kept up with inflation, while the price of education and medical care is skyrocketing and the price of housing is climbing steeply as well. The current generation of young people is expected, overall, to earn less than their parents, and people with respectable jobs will tell you they can’t afford to have kids. This is a mess that certainly deserves a book.

Sadly, this is not a good book. It’s overly focused on the very expensive New York City and San Francisco, which the author discusses as if they were representative of the rest of the country. The human-interest segments are lacking, spending too little time with any individual to tell their story or get readers invested; instead the author summarizes their financial situation and feelings about it and then moves on, generally never to revisit the same person again. It’s poorly organized and feels rushed to press, with egregious copyediting errors like random words stranded between sentences, repetitive figurative language (she describes parents and day-care providers as “like nesting dolls” twice in two pages, and then again at the end), and poor word choice (stating, for instance, that a law “argues” something – a statute mandates, prohibits or permits something, it doesn’t argue).

Meanwhile the factual portions are marked by generalizations, odd tangents, questionable leaps of logic, and conclusions with no factual basis provided. She’ll call something a “racket” or a “myth” when first introducing a situation, rather than leading readers to draw conclusions ourselves. And it’s hard to take her word for it when she uses overheated language: “As of 2004, nearly 40 percent of Americans had experienced nonstandard work lives, if by ‘standard’ is meant the (now semi-mythical) eight-hour daily shift of the past.” What’s “semi-mythical” about a schedule that’s all that 60% of Americans have ever known? She also does a poor job of bringing her own emotions home to the reader; for instance, she meets an overnight day care child “two years older than my daughter” who feels she can’t rely on parents. Okay, so how old is Quart’s daughter? And she feels like she needs to pay rent to go for a walk – wait, what? Why?

But let me summarize the book for you; I read it so you don’t have to!

Chapter 1: “Inconceivable: Pregnant and Squeezed”

Employment discrimination against pregnant women is on the rise; some pregnant employees are fired, while those looking for a job hide their pregnancies in interviews. The author believes this is because employers want to deny human biology.

Chapter 2: “Hyper-Educated and Poor”

Adjunct professors are only paid about as much as grade-school teachers, and may have to patch together classes at several different colleges to make ends meet. This chapter focuses almost exclusively on adjunct professors, even discussing a charity set up to help them with bills.

Chapter 3: “Extreme Day Care: The Deep Cost of American Work”

Employers increasingly expect employees to work unusual hours, so some day cares are now open round-the-clock. Day care is incredibly expensive while at the same time day care workers are poorly-paid; I wish she had delved into this apparent contradiction.

Chapter 4: “Outclassed: Life at the Bottom of the Top”

This chapter makes reference to “keeping up with the Joneses” but then, perhaps realizing that’s a common and not terribly sympathetic phenomenon, shifts gears to talk about how many more lawyers there are these days than actual legal jobs, due to the proliferation of law schools and the assumption that a law degree equals financial security. Seems like this belongs in Chapter 2, since underemployed lawyers aren’t exactly almost-rich. It’s hard to tell from the book how many people are actually affected though, because she gives random statistics like “56% of lawyers in Alaska don’t work in law!” Okay, so why are you talking about Alaska rather than giving nationwide statistics? And this is meaningless anyway without stats on how many lawyers worked in other fields pre-recession; law has always been a gateway to other fields, whether in business, politics, government administration, nonprofit management, or more unusual choices from police chief to novelist.

Chapter 5: “The Nanny’s Struggle”

There’s a decent story in here about a Paraguayan immigrant working as a nanny/cleaner and trying to raise her son, though I’m not sure why it’s here as she’s working poor, not middle class. This chapter segues into discussing the complexity of the educational system in New York, spending a full 12 pages on the difficulty of figuring out which New York public school to request, and the fact that middle- and upper-class folk pay educational consultants for this. As a solution, the author suggests providing free educational consultants to all parents. This seems minimally helpful as presumably there are schools virtually all parents would prefer to avoid, and anyway, I doubt it’s that difficult to choose a high school in most of the country, if you have any choice at all.

Chapter 6: “Uber Dads: Moonlighting in the Gig Economy”

This chapter is focused on Uber, and in particular Uber’s pitch to teachers, and the fact that teachers feel they need to moonlight at a second job at all. This is a real problem, but there’s a lot more to the gig economy than ridesharing, though you don’t see that here. Quart even theorizes that men are more likely to drive for Uber because they constantly have to prove their masculinity, so feel more threatened by loss of class status. No doubt this is a factor in some men’s decision to moonlight, and it seems appropriate to say something about issues affecting men in a book that’s generally much more focused on women’s issues, but Quart overlooks the fact that women typically don’t work as taxi or rideshare drivers due to fear of sexual assault or robbery, and that the demographics of Uber drivers aren’t representative of the gig economy overall. Look at second jobs in retail, hospitality, child care, or pet care, for instance, and you’ll see different demographics.

Chapter 7: “The Second Act Industry: Or the Midlife Do-Over Myth”

A lot of for-profit colleges are scams, making money on students’ federal loans, but not providing good education and landing their students with debt. The author doesn’t really support her assertion that a mid-life career change is a “myth,” though she writes about a lot of people making money off of others’ desire to start over.

Chapter 8: “Squeezed Houses”

This is where I thought we’d get more on housing prices, but this chapter mostly talks about the fact that some parents have decided to move in with other parents and “coparent” their kids together although they’re not related or romantically involved.

Chapter 9: “The Rise of 1 Percent Television”

Quart wants to tie people’s love of watching TV featuring the rich into her narrative somehow. She doesn’t really make the case that this is a new phenomenon, though, and her analysis of the shows in question is doubtful. (She points out that in Downton Abbey the rich Crawleys are mostly good while a couple of servants are the villains, neglecting to mention that the servants Anna and Bates are portrayed as practically angels in comparison to everybody else.) She also claims that people posting pictures of “adventurous vacations” and even attractive spouses on social media are doing so to advertise their class status.

Chapter 10: “Squeezed by the Robots”

The final chapter has some legitimate points about jobs being lost to automation, but Quart takes it to an extreme and spends most of the chapter creating a false dichotomy where robots shuttling linens about the hospital means that future patients’ post-op care will somehow be done entirely by machines, with no “human touch.” She romanticizes care work here – I’ll bet a lot of patients would find more dignity in being lifted by a machine they can control than by a busy, tired low-wage worker – while championing what she admits is an apocalyptic view of robots. Then she advocates for a universal basic income, which she doesn’t really seem to have thought through because, first, why pay people not to work when there’s all-important care work to be done, and second, she suggests both that it would probably be set at the poverty level and that it could replace programs like Medicare. As if any elderly person at the poverty level could afford health care out-of-pocket.

There – now you’ve as good as read the book. I went in expecting to agree with the author, and still thought it was bad; hopefully someone else will tackle this topic with more intellectual rigor and emotional depth, and with a better editor and copyeditor.

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review 2018-10-15 18:48
Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies - Jared Diamond

This is an interesting and influential book that in its broad conclusions makes a lot of sense, though I have doubts about Diamond’s reasoning on some of his smaller points. It’s longer than it needs to be, but largely because it is thorough and takes the time to break down academic subjects to be accessible to intelligent but non-specialist readers.

First published in 1997, this book sets out to explain why Europe was able to colonize such a large part of the world in the last few centuries. Europeans’ possession of “guns, germs and steel” was an immediate cause, but why did they have these things when people on many other continents did not? Diamond’s answer comes down to the environment in different parts of the world. In essence, all of these advantages come down to agriculture. In a hunter-gatherer society, population is kept relatively small, people have to focus on acquiring food, and (unless they live in an especially bountiful area), small groups typically need to move from place to place, such that they can’t have too many belongings, especially if they have no domestic animals to carry them. A society built on farming, however, tends to be much more populous, can support a class of people who do something other than farm (an elite class of nobles, but also specialized trades), and can accumulate belongings, which makes developing new technology more worthwhile. So, parts of the world that had a head start on farming also had a head start on developing technology, such as metallurgy.

Meanwhile, European germs played probably the most decisive role in their conquest of the Americas, as well as some other parts of the world; given the size of the native population (an early European visitor to the east coast of the modern U.S. wrote that there didn’t really seem to be room for colonies because the area was so heavily populated) and the difficulty of getting even small numbers of people across the ocean on wooden ships, one can imagine that this could have turned out much more like the English conquest of India, or might not have happened at all, if not for the epidemics that killed some 90% of the population. Why were the Europeans the ones with the germs? Well, human epidemics have come from domestic animals (think swine flu and avian flu today), and epidemics need a large population to stay alive; otherwise they will simply kill everyone they can kill and then die out with no new hosts. Therefore, epidemics evolved in places where people lived in close quarters with domestic animals, and stuck around in populations large enough to produce a new crop of children before the epidemic died out (this is why diseases like measles were once considered “childhood diseases” – not because children were more susceptible, but because the diseases were so prevalent that children would almost inevitably catch them before growing up). Both individuals and populations exposed to these germs would eventually develop immunity if they survived.

But the opportunity to domesticate animals wasn’t spread evenly around the world. Asia and Europe (referred to throughout the book as “Eurasia” since it’s really one landmass, considered two continents for political rather than geographic reasons) had lots of options, including horses, cows, water buffalo, sheep, pigs, and goats. As far as domesticable large mammals go, the Americas had only the llama (which didn’t spread beyond the Andes), while sub-Saharan Africa had none. It isn’t that people didn’t try – people will keep almost anything as a pet – but numerous factors influence whether a large mammal is a good candidate for domestication. It needs to live in herds, to tolerate its own herd’s territory overlapping with others (or you’d never be able to bring in a new cow that wasn’t related to your current cows), to not be overly or unpredictably aggressive toward humans (this is why the zebra has never worked out), to not panic, bolt and throw itself against the fence until it dies, and more. Eurasia had a couple of major advantages here. Being the largest landmass, it had the most animal diversity. And, as modern humans evolved in Africa and Eurasia, animals evolved alongside them, presumably learning how to deal with human hunters’ increasing skills; on the other hand, most large mammals went extinct in the Americas and Australia shortly after people arrived.

With agriculture, too, Eurasia had an advantage, causing it to kick off there early. Again, there was a greater diversity of plants, only some of which make sense to domesticate and begin to grow. The Fertile Crescent (roughly modern-day Iraq and Turkey), perhaps the first site of agriculture in the world, had it particularly easy: wheat already existed in a form quite similar to its modern equivalent, and grew bountifully, so the idea of taking it home and growing it wasn’t much of a leap. On the other hand, with corn – a staple crop of Mexico and eventually the eastern U.S. – there isn’t even agreement on what the wild ancestor was; the plant that might have been the original corn produced husks only about an inch long with tiny kernels and other disadvantages. People had to work on it for a really long time before it became a suitable staple crop for large swathes of the continent.

And then too, you wouldn’t switch from hunting and gathering to farming for just one crop. While hunting and gathering seems like a precarious lifestyle to us, it can actually be better than subsistence farming. Farmers worked harder – which makes sense, since they had to nurture their food every step of the way rather than simply finding it and bringing it home – and based on their skeletons, early farmers’ nutrition was worse than that of hunter-gatherers. So it’s the total package that counts; in areas that provided a nutritionally-balanced diet of domesticable plants, plus domesticable animals to supplement that diet and also provide labor and fertilizer, farming made a lot more sense than it did in areas without such a bounty. Essentially, the sort of lifestyle people had depended on the food options available, and some places supported agriculture much more than others. Nobody’s building a densely-populated empire from a desert like the Australian outback.

There is a lot more to the book of course, but I think it’s the central thesis that’s the most convincing. Many of Diamond’s other points – ancillary to his main argument – don’t work so well. For instance, he’s very interested in how a Spanish force of about 150 managed to defeat and capture the Inca emperor Atahualpa, who was supported by thousands of troops. Certainly the Spanish weaponry played a decisive role, particularly since it was the first time the Inca had encountered guns or cavalry. But Diamond claims that we know well what happened based on the (likely self-serving) accounts of several Spaniards, without apparently realizing that the Inca would probably have told a different story, and then makes a big deal of the fact the Inca lacked writing, arguing this is why they weren’t aware of prior Spanish conquests in Central America and therefore walked into a trap. But this ignores the fact that people who can’t depend on storing information in written form tend to have far better memorization skills than people who write everything down (Homer was not unusual in being able to recite epic poems from memory), and the fact that “they’re going to try to kill you with terrible weapons” is a simple message that could certainly have been transmitted intact had the Inca had envoys in Central America, all while assuming that Atahualpa didn’t know it was a trap. Without contemporary Inca sources, we have no idea whether perhaps he did know, but being new to the throne of an empire destabilized by epidemics, had to go anyway or risk looking weak to his subjects and promptly being overthrown.

There’s some other questionable reasoning here: that it makes sense that the wheel, while invented in Mexico, wasn’t actually used for transportation because there were no animals capable of pulling carts. (So what? People too can transport far more weight on wheels than they can carry.) That New Guineans are probably smarter than Europeans because their society has a higher homicide rate. (A society with lots of murder and warfare would select for strength, skill with weapons, and ability to maintain strong social ties far more than it would select for abstract, creative, or analytical thinking. Plus, an anthropological study of a New Guinea tribe found that those typically targeted for murder were the elderly, who would have already passed on their genes regardless.) And the 2003 epilogue, attempting to apply principles of societal development to how corporations should organize themselves to best promote innovation – apparently inspired by business leaders writing to Diamond about the book – even if true, has nothing to do with the contents of this already-long book.

Obviously there’s a lot to chew on here, hence the long review. I do think the book is worth reading, though it’s unfortunate that Diamond doesn’t cite sources for individual facts, and only includes generalized “further reading” lists. The book has some repetition that makes it a little longer than it needs to be, but overall I think it does a sound job of explaining some of the broad strokes of human history.

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review 2018-10-15 17:01
Review: “Gingerbread and Ghosts” (Peridale Cafe Mystery, #10) by Agatha Frost
Gingerbread and Ghosts - Agatha Frost

 

~ 3 stars ~

 

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