Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion

Graeme Simsion. The Rosie Project. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013. 295 pages. ISBN 9781476729091.

Finding a romantic partner has been particularly difficult for Don Tillman, a university genetics professor and research scientist with Asperger's Syndrome. He decides to use a questionnaire to weed out any potential prospects that might be unsuitable because of one factor or another (smoking, drinking too much, chronic lateness, etc.) Through this effort he meets Rosie, a barmaid who enlists his help finding her "real" father, who has never been a part of her life. Although Rosie is completely unsuitable as a potential future wife, he enjoys her company as they work together to solve the mystery. As Rosie becomes a fixed part of his life, Don finds himself questioning his beliefs about what would make him happy, and is challenged to stretch his people skills and ability to empathize with others.

The Rosie Project is most easily described as a romantic comedy, and is in fact being developed as a movie. It's funny, touching, and a bit sad in parts, but mostly funny. Don describes his daily routine which he has scheduled down to the minute so as not to waste any time. Any deviation from his schedule requires adjusting other elements of his schedule so when Rosie begins to drop by unannounced, or change plans without advance notice, Don struggles to keep up. Rosie stretches Don's ability to enjoy himself in the moment, and Rosie learns to appreciate Don's approach to life and its challenges. I liked Don's acceptance of others' personalities, as well as his growing ability to understand others' perspectives, such as the Dean's challenges running his college. The plot is amusing and moves along at a good pace, and the dialog is truly hilarious. I'm looking forward to seeing this as a movie.

We picked The Rosie Project for our December book club read. Once again we were working from a list of Great Group Reads compiled by the Women's National Book Association. So far, from this list, we've read Burial Rites by Hannah Kent and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry; and I've read (outside the book club) Neverhome, by Laird Hunt.

In other news:

I've been enjoying Pink's The Truth About Love lately. So many good songs: "Are We All We Are," "Blow Me (One Last Kiss)," "Try," "Just Give Me a Reason," "True Love," and many more.

I've also been re-watching The 25th Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts (2009); there are some really great performances on it. Some of my favorites are "Because the Night" with Bruce Springsteen, Patti Smith, and U2; "Gimme Shelter" with Mick Jagger, Fergie,, and U2; and Metallica's "Enter Sandman."

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Bowl of Olives, by Sara Midda

Sara Midda. A Bowl of Olives: On Food and Memory. New York: Workman Publishing, 2014. 125 pages. ISBN 9780761145264.

A Bowl of Olives is a collection of reminiscences about food and shopping for food in various markets around the world. It's a small book with an attractive binding and colorful book jacket. It's illustrated with whimsical watercolor paintings by the author, along with some selected color photography. Each chapter addresses a food-related topic: markets, packaging, eggs, table settings, eating outdoors, salads, seasonal foods, food memories, olives, fruit, vegetables, seasonings, and "food wishes." The chapter on table settings starts off with illustrations of placemats, and moves on to napkins, tablecloths, vases with flowers, crockery, cups, and plates. Each page includes dozens of small watercolor paintings; for example, the section on cups has the header "The search for the perfect cup" and includes thirty tiny paintings of different cup and mug styles.

Overall, this is the kind of book that one gives to someone who likes food and cooking. Some of the chapters include recipes, although the total number of recipes probably doesn't exceed a dozen. The book is weighted much more heavily on the illustration side; some pages have no text and others just have a few sentences. It's a thoroughly pleasant book that will in turn stimulate readers to think of their own food and cooking memories.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Nantucket Five-Spot, by Steven Axelrod

Steven Axelrod. Nantucket Five-Spot. Scottsdale, AZ: Poisoned Pen Press, 2015. 283 pages. ISBN 9781464203428.

In the second volume in the "Henry Kennis Mystery" series, Henry is the police chief of Nantucket Island where he deals primarily with locals and visitors during the busy tourist season. His life gets a little more exciting when they begin to receive bomb threats, and they have to call in Homeland Security, which arrives in the persons of former love-interest Frannie Tate, and her boss, Jack Tornovitch. It soon becomes clear to the reader, if not Henry, that the bombing plot is a complicated revenge plot, rather than a terrorist action. Zeke Beaumont, along with a partner, have developed a revenge scenario to implicate someone from their past. The revenge plot is made clear to the reader early on, but the identity of Zeke's partner only becomes obvious nearer the last third of the book.

I found the plot of this book to be a little choppy. In some cases it could have benefited from better transitions and better overall editing. The plot is a little far-fetched, but that can be said of many, if not most, mysteries, so I can't hold that against it. I read this as an uncorrected proof; this book won't be available until January 2015.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Timeline, by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton. Timeline. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1999. 443 pages. ISBN 0679444815.

In Michael Crichton's Timeline, he uses the principles of quantum physics to take characters back in time to key points in human history. Robert Doniger has created a technology that can travel between multiple, almost identical dimensions to bring people to other times in history. His goal is to create theme parks, and he's invested billions in the technology and in archaeological investigations at sites that will become tourist destinations in his grand scheme. Everything begins to fall apart when some of his scientists travel back in time too many times, leaving clues that are found by the modern-day archaeologists. Professor Edward Johnston pays a visit to Doniger to find out what's going on. He's sent back in time to 13th century France so that he can see for himself, but something goes wrong and he's trapped there. His team is recruited by Doniger to go back and rescue him, and they have 37 hours to do so. Of course, everything goes wrong once they travel back in time and it comes down to the last few seconds before we find out if they get back out.

Like many of Mr. Crichton's other books, Timeline takes a topic of contemporary research and creates an alarmist premise around it. Similar to other books about time travel, this one creates situations that just can't be explained away; no amount of logic applied to it makes sense. In spite of that weakness, Timeline is an exciting romp through history that kept me turning the pages to find out how everything was resolved.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Prey, by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton. Prey. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. 363 pages. ISBN 0066214122.

In Michael Crichton's thriller Prey, Jack Forman is an out of work software engineer whose wife works in the nanoscience and technology industry. Jack is beginning to worry about his wife who's been acting strangely and whom he suspects is having an affair. As he tries to find out what she's up to when she's at work, he learns that she's been working on a project to create nano particles that can work together to complete a task. It all begins to unravel when it becomes clear that the scientists have lost control of the nano particles which have begun to turn on them. Jack is recruited to try to capture the nano particles that have escaped and which are reproducing in the Nevada desert, but he has to go up against some of the scientists who don't want to stop the nano particles.

Prey is one of the earliest books in popular fiction to address the development of nanoscience engineering and technology. It's a little bit on the alarmist side, but is nevertheless an engaging work of science fiction.

Friday, December 12, 2014

One Kick, by Chelsea Cain

Chelsea Cain. One Kick. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. 306 pages. ISBN 9781476749758.

Author Chelsea Cain has had a successful run with her Archie Sheridan/Gretchen Lowell thriller series. With One Kick, Ms. Cain introduces a series heroine who will be sure to attract new readers. Kick Lannigan was kidnapped at the age of six and found again five years later. She's gone through years of therapy but what's helped her most is her study of martial arts and other self-defense programs. At 21 Kick is recruited by a man named Bishop who's trying to find another missing child. He thinks the same people behind Kick's kidnapping are behind this new set of kidnappings, and he believes that Kick holds clues to their location. Reluctantly, Kick is drawn into the search for the missing children in a fast-moving thriller that keeps the reader glued to the pages of the book.

While I have no doubt that this is the beginning of a successful new series for Ms. Cain, the characters seemed cartoonish to me, a little like caricatures of themselves. It reminded me of characters that are based on comic books, rather than on characters developed in a novel. The book seems a little rushed. Perhaps in Ms. Cain's efforts to create a fast-reading thriller with high stakes, she neglected some of the character development that would have given this book a little more substance. Nevertheless, I found One Kick intriguing and it left me wanting to learn more of the story, which is sure to continue over many more volumes.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Take Command, by Jake Wood

Jake Wood. Take Command: Lessons in Leadership: How to Be a First Responder in Business. New York: Crown Business, 2014. 242 pages. ISBN 9780804138383.
Author Jake Wood has turned his experience as a Marine sniper in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars into a management book that tells readers how to apply military leadership principles to their work in business. After he left military service, Mr. Wood and fellow veteran William McNulty formed a non-profit organization, Team Rubicon, which provides emergency relief to regions hit by natural disasters, such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, or Hurricane Sandy. Their experiences building and running Team Rubicon as well as Mr. Wood's experience as a sniper inform his perspective on leadership.
Take Command is organized into eight "lessons" in four sections: Prepare, Analyze, Decide, and Act. Each chapter, or lesson, introduces a principle and provides examples from either Mr. Wood's military experience or Team Rubicon to illustrate it. The lessons themselves aren't original: build a high-impact team, maintain transparency, demand accountability, prioritize goals, gather information, understand and accept your risks, don't wait until you have 100% of the information you need (i.e., you can move forward with 80%), overcome set-backs. Mr. Wood concludes with advice to be relentless in executing your plans.
I can't quibble with the principles outlined here; in fact, I found Mr. Wood's discussion of the 80% solution particularly compelling. His military experience certainly informed his work at Team Rubicon, which deploys veterans and medical personnel into potentially dangerous situations to provide emergency relief and medical aid. However, I don't think Take Command connects these experiences closely enough to most business environments. The promise of this book is that we can apply the principles learned in the military to real life business challenges, but because Mr. Wood's experience is primarily in the military and now with Team Rubicon, he has a hard time making those connections to business.
Because the leadership principles are not original and not tied very closely to actual business examples, I can't believe that this book would be a significant help to anyone hoping to learn leadership skills. Nevertheless, Mr. Wood's anecdotes about his military experience and Team Rubicon activities are interesting. I would have preferred a book strictly about Team Rubicon's challenges and achievements while providing emergency relief. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Fruits Basket, Ultimate Edition, v.1-2, by Natsuki Takaya

Natsuki Takaya. Fruits Basket, Ultimate Edition, v. 1-2 (in one volume). Los Angeles: TOKYOPOP, 2007. Unnumbered. ISBN 9781427806895.

While I've read a handful of graphic novels and comics (Maus 1 and 2, Persepolis, Fun Home, The Umbrella Academy, and a few others), I haven't dipped very much into Japanese manga (Barefoot Gen is the only title that I can think of). A few years ago I was given a copy of Fruits Basket, volumes 1 and 2, bound together in its first English translation and published by TOKYOPOP. Immensely popular in Japan, Fruits Basket is an example of what's called shojo manga; that is, manga that's written for young girls between the ages of 10 and 18, and often addressing family dynamics and other relationships.

Fruits Basket tells the story of Tohru Honda, a young girl who has been recently orphaned. She was living with her grandfather, but when he decides to move in with another relative while his home's being renovated, Tohru decides to live on her own in a tent. She attends a good high school, but also takes a job to make ends meet. One day she meets up with the family that owns the land where she's set up her tent. They're three young men, one of whom she knows from school, who live together in a secluded house. They offer to let her live with them during her grandfather's renovation project if she takes care of the house and kitchen.

As Tohru becomes a fixture in their home, she brings order into their chaos, and they become the family that she no longer has. But as she gets to know them she learns that they have a secret: when they're hugged by someone of the opposite sex, they turn into an animal in the Chinese Zodiak. Yuki turns into a rat, while Shigure turns into a dog. Outsider Kyo turns into a cat, and resents that there's no cat in the Zodiac. Will Tohru be able to stay with her new family? Will she keep their secret? This is the plot of the first volume; the second takes readers further into the extended family and we meet other members and their alternate shapes.

I found these first two volumes of Fruits Basket utterly charming. So much so that I'm really curious about how the story develops beyond volume 2, but I'm not sure I want to delve into further volumes, since they go up to volume 23 so far! Either way, this story has a lot to recommend it. The characters are interesting and amusing; the themes are perhaps typical for a YA book, but there's nothing wrong with that since teen issues are perennial. The artwork is really good; I particularly liked her drawings of animal figures. I recommend this to anyone who likes Japanese manga in this genre.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Wonderstruck, by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick. Wonderstruck. New York: Scholastic Press, 2011. 637 pages. ISBN 9780545027892.

I read Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret a few years ago and loved the way Mr. Selznick combined both written and drawn storytelling. His newer book, Wonderstruck, is no less impressive. It tells the story of Ben, a young boy whose mother was killed in an accident a few months ago. He's living with his aunt, uncle, and two cousins when he is hurt in an accident. Either permanently or temporarily (we're not sure) made deaf by a lightning strike, Ben takes off for New York City where he hopes to find his father. His only clue is a book, Wonderstruck, with a bookmark from a bookstore on the Upper West Side, but when he gets there he finds the store has long been closed. Despondent, he sneaks into the American Museum of Natural History where he befriends another young boy, Jamie, whose father works at the museum.

While Mr. Selznick tells Ben's story through short prose passages of just a few pages each, he intersperses Ben's story with Rose's, which he tells solely through black and white pencil drawings. While Ben's story is set in 1977, Rose's is set in 1927. She's also deaf, and lives a lonely existence in Hoboken with an absentee mother (a famous actress). One day Rose takes off to try to find her mother at a theater in the city. Angry, her mother is ready to send her home, but Rose runs off and hides in the same museum that Ben hides in 50 years later. She's found there by her older brother Walter, who works at the museum. Walter takes her to his home and gives her a copy of Wonderstruck.

Near the end of the book Ben's and Rose's stories converge and we learn about how the two are connected. The story continues to be told in alternating sections of prose and pencil drawings.

This book has mystery and suspense, and a great deal of heart. The drawings are intricate and really wonderful. It's amazing how much of the story can be told just through drawings. I really loved this book; I like the characters, the plot, the writing, and the illustrations. Intended for ages 9 and up, I think this would be of interest to anyone who likes good storytelling and illustrated books.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Nothing Left Over, by Toinette Lippe

Toinette Lippe. Nothing Left Over: A Plain and Simple Life. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc., 2002. 257 pages. ISBN 158542160X.

I found Toinette Lippe's book, Nothing Left Over, at the 2014 AAUW State College Branch Annual Used Book Sale. Its simple yet attractive book jacket appealed to me, and the blurb promised a thoughtful exploration of what it means to have just enough.

I'm always interested in ways to simplify my life and manage it more effectively, so I picked up this book thinking that I might find some good advice for doing so. While the book didn't provide exactly what I was looking for, I nevertheless enjoyed Ms. Lippe's memoir about how she came to be an editor for a major publisher in New York City, and her personal philosophy of minimalism (although she doesn't use that term in her book).

Ms. Lippe spent many years working at publishing houses such as Andre Deutsch, Simon and Schuster, and Alfred A. Knopf. While there she founded her own imprint, called Bell Tower Books, which published books about spirituality. Ms. Lippe's deep interest in many spiritual traditions is reflected in her ruminations in Nothing Left Over. She writes about being present and focusing on what you're doing. She advises readers to be open to ideas and to try to say "yes" rather than "no" to new experiences and opportunities.

Ms. Lippe has retired from the publishing business, but maintains a website through which she sells not only her artwork (she's a painter), but also newer editions of both Nothing Left Over and her second book, Caught in the Act: Reflections on Being, Knowing, and Doing. While I haven't read the second book, I would recommend Nothing Left Over to anyone who enjoys books about simplicity and living a thoughtful or spiritual life.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

Gabrielle Zevin. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2014. 258 pages. ISBN 9781616203214.

My book club selected The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry for its November read, and it was a hit with all of us. We picked it out from a list: National Reading Group Month: Great Group Reads, which turned out to be absolutely correct in this case.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry tells the story of A.J. Fikry, a bookstore owner who lost his wife to a car accident a year ago. He's letting the bookstore's management crumble and is slowly drinking himself to death. One night he passes out at the kitchen table, not an unusual occurrence for him, but finds himself tucked into bed when he wakes up in the morning. His kitchen's been tidied up, and his rare and valuable edition of Edgar Allen Poe's Tamerlane is missing. A.J. reports the theft, but the trail is cold. Not long after, he returns from a jog and finds that someone has left a two-year old child in his store. He decides to foster the girl, Maya, and ultimately adopts her.

This short novel covers the next 16 years as Maya develops into a young woman and changes A.J.'s life for the better. Will A.J. ever find love again? Will A.J.'s sister-in-law make peace with her cheating husband? Whatever happened to A.J.'s copy of Tamerlane?

I really enjoyed this book. Gabrielle Zevin's writing is lucid and amusing. There are no wasted words, and she manages to find the humor in even dire situations. The characters are warm and caring. I particularly liked the Police Chief, Lambiase, and his Chief's Choice Book Club. A.J.'s love interest and later wife, Amy, is an eccentric but lovable character. My favorite character, however, is Maya, the young girl who changed everything for A.J.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Three Books on Personal Finance

Emily Chantiri. The Savvy Girl's Guide to Money: Take Charge and Get the Life You Want. San Diego: Thunder Bay Press, 2007. 227 pages. ISBN 9781592237449.

Suze Orman. Suze Orman's Financial Guidebook: Put the 9 Steps to Work, 2nd ed. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006. 177 pages. ISBN 9780307347305.

Suze Orman. Women & Money: Owning the Power to Control Your Destiny. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2007. 253 pages. ISBN 9780385519311.

Like the three books on Feng Shui that I reviewed recently, I found these three books on personal finance at the annual AAUW used book sale held in State College, PA this past May. I found all three books to offer useful advice for anyone trying to get their financial affairs in order.

The first book, Emily Chantiri's The Savvy Girl's Guide to Money: Take Charge and Get the Life You Want is clearly aimed at younger women in their 20s and early 30s. It offers good advice for figuring out where your money is going right now, and getting on track to spending wisely, saving, and planning for retirement. It's very readable and illustrates each chapter with numerous anecdotes about real women facing the same challenges as the readers might. For younger women, the most useful parts of the book are the chapters on budgeting and the use of credit cards. Least useful is the chapter on your personal money characteristics based on your horoscope.

Suze Orman's Financial Guidebook: Put the 9 Steps to Work is intended to be a companion to her The 9 Steps to Financial Freedom, which I did not buy at the AAUW book sale and which I haven't read. However, she states in the preface that it is "a crash course" to that book, and can be read independently (p. v). It's really a workbook, and readers are supposed to complete all exercises before advancing to the next section. Of course, I didn't do that myself; I just wanted to plow through the book the first time, but I found it to have a lot of good advice, so I do plan to go back and work my way through the exercises. Like similar books, Ms. Orman discusses how you spend your money, how to get out of debt, and how to begin thinking about investing and retirement. She also discusses how you would start making a will or a revocable living trust, if you don't have one already, and how to think about life insurance. One of the chapters that I found most interesting had to do with being respectful of yourself and your money. Throughout the book she states a number of "laws." For example, the "Second Law of Financial Freedom" is "Power and Respect Attract Money, Powerlessness and Disrespect Repel Money" (p. 83). In this chapter she discusses spending, debt, and the shame associated with it. I believe that anyone who worked their way through this book would find themselves in much better financial shape than before.

In Women & Money, Ms. Orman covers much of the same ground as in the Financial Guidebook, but with a focus on women's issues. It's organized a little differently, with five chapters representing what's intended to be a five month-long exercise in getting your affairs in order. Again, I found this book very useful. Ms. Orman discusses budgeting, debt, investing, life insurance, retirement planning, wills, and more. Although the content is very similar to her other books, what makes this interesting is the perspective in women and their roles in the workforce and family.

All three of these books offer useful advice for anyone trying to get their finances in better shape. Even if readers just adopted a few of the suggestions in any of these books they would be better off than before. Of the three, I liked the approach taken in Suze Orman's Financial Guidebook: Put the 9 Steps to Work the best. The simple assignments that Ms. Orman prescribes would help the reader move forward to a better financial position.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo

Marie Kondo. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2014. 213 pages. ISBN 9781607747307.

I am completely charmed by this guide to organizing your home. Marie Kondo's recommendations for getting rid of excess clothing, books, papers, and other possessions are not for the faint of heart. She recommends going through your whole house, one category of item at a time, and discarding what's no longer needed. For example, if you were to start with clothing, you would bring all your clothing to one room and pile it all on the floor. You would then go through your clothing one item at a time, physically handling every item, and choosing what to keep. She emphasizes that you are to choose what to keep, not choose what to discard; the distinction makes it easier to decide.

After you have gone through your whole house, discarding what you can, you can turn your attention to how you want to organize what's left. She recommends organizing by category, and keeping like things together. For example, all your books should be together, all your clothing and shoes in one place. She makes the point that many people keep things in certain places because they're handy when needed. But what helps keep your house tidy is having things in places that make it easy for them to be put away. Ms. Kondo gives a lot of good advice about low-cost or no-cost storage solutions, and recommends against purchasing expensive storage systems. She shares innovative ways of folding and storing shirts, sweaters, socks, and other clothing that makes them easier to find when needed.

One of the things that I found charming about this book is Ms. Kondo's attitude toward inanimate objects. She believes that objects care about how they're treated and we should treat them with respect and care. Objects that are treated considerably will hold up much longer and serve us well. For example, Ms. Kondo empties her purse every evening when she returns home, thanking each object as she takes it out of her purse and puts it into its spot for the night. This allows her purse to relax and rest overnight before being used again. While this sounds a little eccentric, her point is well taken: if we treat everything in our environment with respect and thoughtfulness, they will serve us better.

I recommend this book to anyone who would like to make their world a little more organized, peaceful, and happy.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Three books on Feng Shui

Darrin Zeer. Office Feng Shui: Creating Harmony in Your Work Space. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2004. 102 pages. ISBN 9780811842150.

Belinda Henwood. Feng Shui: How to Create Harmony and Balance in Your Living and Working Environment. Pownal, Vermont: Storey Books, 1999. 79 pages. ISBN 1580171702.

Denise Linn. Feng Shui for the Soul: How to Create a Harmonious Environment That Will Nurture and Sustain You. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 1999. 256 pages. ISBN 9781561707317.

OK, I admit it; I'm on a bit of a streak. I found these three titles at the AAUW book sale in State College in May 2014, when I visited with my sister and spent parts of three days picking out fun books to read. I had read a few other books on feng shui when I worked at my previous institution, and thought it would be fun to brush up a little bit on feng shui principles now. We're almost finished with the interior renovations to our house and I was looking for aesthetic and organizational suggestions to make improvements on how we've arranged everything. I'm also always looking for ideas for how to organize my office better.

I found the Zeer book, Office Feng Shui, to have the most practical suggestions for organization and other improvements to my work area. Zeer offers many ideas for reducing clutter, weeding files, and arranging your work space. There are a lot of good suggestions there, although most of them aren't new for readers who do a lot of reading in this area. Nevertheless, the book is a fun way to assess your office and see what improvements can be made that will make you more organized and will also make the environment more peaceful.

The Henwood book, Feng Shui, offers many suggestions for arranging your home to be peaceful and harmonious. Many of the suggestions make sense, such as not placing the head of your bed near the bedroom door, because this will cause you to be restless. That makes perfect sense, especially in a home with multiple adults or children in it. Other suggestions are just outrageous, such as placing a small mirror near the toilet so that energy and money don't go flowing down the toilet every time it's flushed. Nevertheless, this is a very short book with many illustrations, and may be interesting to folks who want to learn more about feng shui concepts.

The third book that I read, Feng Shui for the Soul, by Denise Linn, was the most substantive. Whereas the other two books were very short and heavily illustrated, this book is primarily text, although there are a few illustrations. The book is organized into three parts: "A Home for the Soul," "Awakening Natural Forces," and "Medicine Wheel Feng Shui." I only fully read the first part of the book; the latter two I just skimmed and selectively read a few sections. I found the first part of the book compelling, although it suffers from some of the same outrageousness as the previous book. The most important thing that I gleaned from this book is that in order to have a peaceful home, you have to love it; treat it well; keep it clean and clutter free; think about the messages you send with your décor, color schemes, and how you place your photographs and other items. There's a lot of good advice in this section of the book, and anyone interested in feng shui principles would find this useful. The other two sections of the book delve into areas that I just don't buy into, but others might enjoy them.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Neverhome, by Laird Hunt

Laird Hunt. Neverhome. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. 247 pages. ISBN 9780316370134

I really loved the first few pages, but as I read along I enjoyed the book less and less. It came with great blurbs by Paul Auster and Kevin Powers, so I had high hopes for this novel, but it just didn't feel right to me. The book is about a woman, Constance, who leaves home to fight for the union cause in the civil war. She takes on another name, Ash, and leaves her husband behind; being severely short sighted, he wouldn't have been able to shoot. She describes her experiences in battle, when she and two fellow soldiers are kidnapped and how they make their escape, her eventual exposure as a woman, and the accusations against her as a spy. Ash is locked up in an insane asylum, but eventually escapes and makes her way home.

I found the depiction of war to be as compelling as The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane, a book that I read in junior high school and then again later in college. The questions that I had throughout the book, such as why Ash felt that she had to go to war are never answered. The ending comes as a shock and is so abrupt that it just left me hanging, with no resolution and no answers about what really happened to her and why. I am very dissatisfied with this ending! The best part of this book is the depiction of war and its horrors; that alone makes Neverhome worth reading.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown

Greg McKeown. Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. New York: Crown Business, 2014. 260 pages. ISBN 9780804137386.

As I've written on the blog before, I enjoy books that are intended to help me manage better, whether it's managing my home, my time, my things, or my job. Greg McKeown's Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less provides a useful way of looking at the commitments that we take on, whether at home or at work. By trying to be all things to all people we end up weakening and diluting our own contributions. McKeown shares techniques to help readers say no to requests that would divert us from our main purpose, whether that's in life or at work.

The book is organized into four sections, addressing the core mind-set of people that McKeown calls "Essentialists," how to discern the trivial from the vital, strategies for cutting out the trivial, and ways to make this new approach more effortless. It will provide readers with the strategies and tools they need to identify what's most important to them and focus on those things only.

There are two minor elements of the book that I was less fond of. First of all, McKeown uses a monstrous size font when he's trying to make a significant point, to the extent that a short sentence takes up half a page. I found this unnecessary and slightly obnoxious. Secondly, during the transition from one section to another, black paper with white print is used. I suppose it's intended to make the book snazzy and hip, but I didn't like reading those pages; it was distracting and harder to read than the traditional black on white print. But these are minor points.

Overall I found the book readable and a useful contribution to the self-management literature. I would recommend it to those who want to make more effective and meaningful contributions to work or other areas of their lives.

Note: I received this book for free from Blogging for Books for this review.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Three Movie Reviews: Kill Your Darlings, Wadjda, and For No Good Reason

I haven't been watching nearly as many movies as I used to this past year or two, so I was really happy to be able to catch three movies recently that I really enjoyed. I got all of these from Netflix on DVD; I still have a DVD plan (along with the streaming option) because lots of movies are still unavailable through streaming.

The first movie in the queue was Kill Your Darlings, directed by John Krokidas and starring Daniel Radcliffe. It tells the story of young Allen Ginsberg's freshman year at Columbia University when he met and befriended Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs. His relationship with Lucien was complicated by the presence of David Kammerer, an older man who was obsessed with Lucien. When David is murdered and Lucien accused of the crime, Allen has to decide whether and how to help his friend defend himself.

Rotten Tomatoes' critics gave Kill Your Darlings a 76% rating, and the audience rating was even lower, at 60%. However, I really enjoyed the movie. The acting was very good, and I appreciated seeing how these fascinating characters were portrayed on the screen. I would recommend this movie to anyone interested in the early days of the Beat Generation.

Wadjda was the second movie that I watched recently. Written and directed by Haifaa Al-Mansour, it tells the story of a young girl (Wadjda) who yearns to buy a bicycle so that she can ride with and race alongside her friend. She makes and sells macramé bracelets and runs errands to save money for the bicycle, but it's taking too much time for her to reach her goal. When she finds out that the first prize for the annual Koran contest would be enough to purchase the bike, she joins the religious club and begins studying the Koran. The movie shows the challenges she faces, including the school principal who doesn't trust her; Wadjda's mother, who discourages her from wanting a bike; and others who are skeptical about the prospect of a girl riding a bike. Her mother goes so far as to tell her that if she rides a bike she won't be able to have children.

Wadjda was a popular movie according to Rotten Tomatoes, with 99% of the critics and 89% of the audiences liking it. I agree with their assessment; I really enjoyed the movie and appreciated seeing the Saudi Arabian culture and setting (although seeing the injustices against women made me angry). The movie is serious, yet funny and charming. I would recommend this movie to anyone who likes foreign films (i.e., subtitles) and films about someone overcoming adversity.

The third film that I watched recently was a documentary called For No Good Reason. Directed by Charlie Paul, it tells the story of Ralph Steadman's work, primarily alongside Hunter S. Thompson. Johnny Depp visits Steadman at his home and studio, and Steadman talks about his work and shows Depp (and us viewers) how he goes about his creative process. Steadman began working with Hunter S. Thompson in the 1960s when he accompanied him to the Kentucky Derby. Thompson was developing a style of journalism now known as gonzo journalism, in which the writer immerses himself in the story to the extent the he becomes part of the story. Their project resulted in a story published in Rolling Stone called "The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved," and resulted in a real partnership between the two that lasted many years.

For No Good Reason fared poorly on Rotten Tomatoes, getting only a 62% approval rating from critics and 57% by viewers. I disagree with their low ratings, finding that the documentary was very revealing about Steadman's creative process and how he came to participate in some fascinating cultural events. When I was a college student in the early 1980s, Hunter S. Thompson was a staple of my recreational reading activities. I started with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and moved on to Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (which I didn't finish; I guess I ran out of steam). Having been so interested in their collaborations in the past, I found the documentary interesting and thought-provoking. However, it might have been a stronger documentary if it had been a more traditional documentary about Steadman and his career. It's basically a collection of anecdotes, but it just left me wanting more. And yet I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in the subject matter.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Less Doing, More Living, by Ari Meisel

Ari Meisel. Less Doing, More Living: Make Everything in Life Easier. New York: Tarcher/Penguin, 2014. 123 pages. ISBN 9780399168529.

Less Doing, More Living is a brief compilation of a bunch of time saving strategies that are intended to make the reader's life easier to manage. It's organized into nine chapters that recommend creating an "external brain," customization, choosing your own workweek, stop running errands, batching your work, and more. It focuses not only on your paid work, but also wellness and your finances.

This is a quick read, and has the feel of a compilation of blog posts. It feels a little like The Four Hour Work Week-Lite, and Meisel does in fact mention Timothy Ferriss' book. Many of the recommendations include the use of apps or other software that seem at first glance like they would be more of a pain to start using than they're worth, but that may be a prejudice on my part. And not fair, since I haven't actually given them a try yet. Meisel, like Ferriss, is a strong proponent of outsourcing your work. This appeals to me to a certain extent, as I've gone from a job in which I had someone to help me with my travel, calendar, and other critical activities to a job in which I have to manage all of those detailed projects myself.

Overall, Less Doing, More Living has a lot of tips that readers might find useful. As I re-read the book and try to implement some of the recommendations, I may continue to write about it on this blog.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland

Amy Rowland. The Transcriptionist. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2014. 246 pages. ISBN 9781616202545.

First time novelist Amy Rowland has written a compelling book about a woman's loneliness and lack of a sense of self. Transcriptionist Lena is afraid that she's becoming subsumed by her job, transcribing news stories for a prominent newspaper. When she sees a story about a blind woman who committed suicide by climbing into the lion's den at the zoo, she realizes that she had met the woman on the bus only a few days prior. Feeling a connection to the dead woman, Arlene, Lena begins to investigate the woman and her death, following leads and misrepresenting herself to Arlene's family as a newspaper reporter. As Lena learns more about Arlene, she comes closer to learning the truth about herself, and finally gains the strength to break from her circumstances and make a change in her own life.

I found the writing in this novel to be very good. The characters are interesting, although not all of them are likable. Lena's obsession is curious, but it shows how one incident can cause someone to rethink her whole life.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A Fistful of Collars, by Spencer Quinn

Spencer Quinn. A Fistful of Collars. New York: Atria Books, 2012. 309 pages. ISBN 9781451665161.

A Fistful of Collars is another winner in this series of detective stories starring Bernie (a human detective) and his canine partner, Chet. The books are narrated by Chet, who is a little bit unreliable given how easily he's distracted by food, flies, cats, and many other things. One of the charming plot devices that Quinn uses is to have Chet describe what's going on with Bernie and another character, get distracted, and miss a key part of the discussion. This allows the author to keep some details secret until the end of the story, when all (or at least, most) is revealed.

I really enjoy Quinn's writing. His depiction of dog behavior is spot on. His cluelessness about Chet's intelligence is amusing, as he totally misunderstands what Chet's trying to show him again and again. But things always seem to turn out right in the end. I would recommend these books to anyone who enjoys a good mystery or loves dogs.

Other books in the series include:
  • Dog on It
  • Thereby Hangs a Tail
  • To Fetch a Thief
  • The Dog Who Knew Too Much
  • A Cat Was Involved
  • The Sound and the Furry
  • Paw and Order
I've read Thereby Hangs a Tail and To Fetch a Thief, and found them just as enjoyable as this book. I especially enjoy the clever and slightly corny titles.

Monday, November 3, 2014

The Mutts Diaries, by Patrick McDonnell

Patrick McDonnell. The Mutts Diaries. Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2014. 222 pages. ISBN 9781449458706.

I've always been a big fan of newspaper comic strips, and Mutts is absolutely one of my favorites. Patrick McDonnell has been a frequent visitor to the BEA convention, and I was lucky enough to get an uncorrected proof of The Mutts Diaries. This book is geared towards middle-grade readers, and I found it charming and funny. It focuses on all of the recurring characters in the comic strip, with separate sections dedicated to Mooch (the cat), Earl (the dog), Sour Puss (a cat, obviously), Chickpea and Chickpea's brother (kitten twins), Crabby (the crab), Guard Dog, Bip and Bop (two squirrels), and Shtinky (a cat). Most of the drawings are in black and white, but every few pages there's a panel in color. McDonnell returns many times to the theme of animal cruelty and neglect (for example, through the sad treatment of Guard Dog who's tied outside all the time and very lonely), and the plight of unwanted animals, such as Chickpea and Chickpea's brother, who are hoping to be adopted.

This is an excellent book for anyone who enjoys comic strips, and has the added benefit of encouraging a thoughtful approach to the humane treatment of animals.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Three books by Brad Thor

Brad Thor. Blowback. New York: Atria Books, 2005. 440 pages. ISBN 0743271157.
Brad Thor. Foreign Intelligence. New York: Atria Books, 2010. 376 pages. ISBN 9781416586593.
Brad Thor. The Athena Project. New York: Atria Books, 2010. 324 pages. ISBN 978143919255.

For a week or so during the past month I was in the mood to read thrillers, so I decided to polish off my small collection of three as-yet unread Brad Thor novels. I picked up all three books at either BEA conventions or through book review list that I belong to. Blowback is signed "To Rebecca -- Best Wishes, Brad Thor" so I definitely got that one at BEA.

Two of the books focus primarily on one of Thor's recurring characters, Scott McGrath. He's a former ATF agent who was hired to work for the U.S. President in various capacities. In Blowback, he's caught on tape pummeling a man whom he thinks is a terrorist but who turns out to be a fruit vendor. Persona non grata, he has to investigate the real terrorist to clear his own name. Foreign Influence has McGrath trying to catch a group of terrorists who bombed a bus full of young American tourists. He's assisted by a team of female operatives called the Athena Project. The team is composed of former college athletes, all very intelligent and beautiful (of course).

Both Blowback and Foreign Influence were well-written examples of their particular genre of political thriller. The third book that I read was The Athena Project, published the same year as Foreign Influence. The all-women team has been assigned to track down the arms dealer who provided the bombs that killed the American tourists in the Foreign Influence. This book felt shallower to me than the other two; perhaps Mr. Thor rushed a little too much to get both books out around the same time. Overall, though, I enjoyed all of the books and would recommend them to anyone who likes this genre.

In other news:

I watched my first TED Talk today: Jeff Iliff's One More Reason to Get a Good Night's Sleep. Those who know me probably know that I'm an early to bed, early to rise kind of person, so they won't be surprised that I found Mr. Iliff's talk completely convincing. He reported on brain research that shows that the brain uses the time when you're sleeping to clean the brain's waste products out. The rest of the body uses the lymphatic system to do this, but the brain doesn't have enough room. Instead, it uses the cerebrospinal fluid to clean out waste products, but again, this only happens when you're sleeping. He posits that there might be a connection between Alzheimer's disease and the inability to sleep well, since Alzheimer's is characterized by a buildup of such waste products. Again, it convinced me!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Faith, by Jennifer Haigh

Jennifer Haigh. Faith. New York: Harper Perennial, 2011. 318 pages. ISBN 9780060755812.

After reading and completely enjoying Jennifer Haigh's The Condition a few years ago, I was excited that my book club selected Faith for our October read. Set during the aftermath of the child abuse scandals in the Boston Catholic Church, Faith focuses on the effects of an accusation of a priest who may, in fact, be innocent.

The book is narrated by Sheila years after her brother's death. Art was a priest who had a long and relatively happy, although perhaps lonely, career in the Boston Catholic Church. Art is Sheila's half-brother; his own father disappeared when he was young, and Art and Sheila's mother remarried when Art was a preteen. Sheila's younger brother Mike is a former police officer with a wife and two children. When Art is accused, Sheila wants to believe in his innocence, but Mike and his wife automatically believe the accusation.

Art's loneliness has led him to befriend the young daughter (Kath) of the parish housekeeper and Kath's son Aidan. He allows Aidan to spend time in his office until Kath can pick him up when she gets out of work. He also takes them on short day trips, including one trip to the beach after which Kath accuses him of inappropriately touching Aidan. Abandoned by the Church hierarchy which would prefer to settle out of court than defend him against the accusation, Art never has a chance to prove his innocence.

Faith is a wonderfully written depiction of the distances between family members and the complexities of the characters' lives. The personal dynamics are all too real and believable. It makes one wonder what would happen if someone were falsely accused. Would anyone be able to ever overcome such a disaster? In spite of the serious matter and the sad characters (no one comes off looking very good in this book), I really enjoyed reading it and found it impossible to put down.

In other news:

I had a lot of desk work to do at home today: processing junk mail, paying bills, filing stuff, and more. This is the music that I listened to while I worked:

1. NeatNeatNeat. This is a compilation CD distributed by Uncut magazine in 2002 (it's numbered 2002 07). My brother David used to buy lots of music magazines, and when they came with CDs he often gave them to me. I enjoy them since they include music and bands I would never have heard of otherwise.
2. The Best of the Moody Blues: 20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection.
3. Soundgarden. Badmotorfinger. This includes some great songs, such as Rusty Cage, Outshined, Jesus Christ Pose, Mind Riot, and Holy Water.
4. Stone Temple Pilots. Shangri-La Dee Da.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Polish Boxer, by Eduardo Halfon

Eduardo Halfon. The Polish Boxer. New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2012. 188 pages. ISBN 9781934137536.

Eduardo Halfon's The Polish Boxer is a collection of short stories with the same main character throughout (also named Eduardo Halfon) that together form a short novel. The character Eduardo Halfon, like the author Eduardo Halfon, is a college professor of literature who lives in Guatemala, studied in the United States, and teaches in a Guatemalan University called Universidad Francisco Marroquin.

In "Distant" Halfon tracks down his star student, the only one who really gets literature, only to find that he had to drop out to support his family when his father died. "Twaining" describes Halfon's experiences at a small interdisciplinary conference on the topic of Mark Twain. In "Epistrophy" Halfon and his girlfriend meet a Serbian pianist named Milan Rakic who describes his half-gypsy parentage and deep-seated desire to be a gypsy musician. "White Smoke" describes his experience meeting two Israeli women in a bar in Guatemala. In "The Polish Boxer" Halfon shares his grandfather's story about his time in Auschwitz and how a man helped him to survive his "trial" by telling him what to say when he was interrogated. "Postcards" is a summary of the postcards sent to Halfon by the Serbian pianist Milan Rakic who writes repeatedly about gypsies and their culture. In "Ghosts" we see the beginnings of an obsession with Rakic, who has stopped sending postcards to Halfon. "The Pirouette" is an account of Halfon's trip to Belgrade to search unsuccessfully for Rakic. In "A Speech at Povoa" Halfon describes the conference in Portugal that he attended and from which he began his adventure searching for Rakic in Belgrade. The theme of the conference is "Literature Tears Through Reality," and this it seems is the theme of this collection of stories. "Sunsets" is about the death of Halfon's grandfather.

What is the reality as presented by Halfon? Are the stories real? What really happened and what didn't? Within the stories reality shifts as well. When he was a child Halfon's grandfather tells him that his tattooed identification number was his phone number, so he wouldn't forget it. Later he's told that the Polish boxer helped him survive Auschwitz. Even later he hears a different version of events.

I found Halfon's stories engaging and many-layered. In "Distant" he writes about the multiple meanings of short stories and that the reader must go beyond the surface meaning and search for additional meaning. Halfon's own stories seem to have many meanings and interpretations. Although I didn't appreciate each story in the collection equally ("Postcards" in particular was a little tedious), there is a lot to think about here, and this book would be especially good for a group discussion or a book club.

Monday, October 6, 2014

The Drop, by Dennis Lehane

Dennis Lehane. The Drop. New York: William Morrow/HarperCollins, 2014. 207 pages. ISBN 9780062365446.

In Dennis Lehane's The Drop, a shy and lonely bartender named Bob finds an abused puppy in a trash barrel and decides to adopt it. He befriends Nadia, a woman from the neighborhood, who teaches him how to take care of the puppy. Bob lives by himself in the home he inherited from his parents. He works with his cousin Marv in a bar that Marv used to own but which has been taken over by Chechen mafia gangsters. One night the bar is robbed by two neighborhood losers, and it sets in motion a series of events that threaten Bob and Marv. On top of all of this, the original owner of the puppy is a sociopath who begins to stalk and harass Bob and Nadia.

All of this plays out very quickly in this short novel. Mr. Lehane packs a lot into just a few pages, and it left me wanting more. More character, more plot development, more description. I don't know if this spare treatment was intentional or just a byproduct of turning a screenplay into a novel, rather than vice versa. I enjoyed The Drop, but I read it in just a few hours. I hope that Mr. Lehane's next effort is a little more substantial.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Liesl & Po, by Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver. Liesl & Po. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. 307 pages. ISBN 9780062014511.

Liesl is an orphan who's been locked up in the attic by her evil stepmother who wants Liesl's substantial inheritance. Will is an alchemist's apprentice who makes a fateful mistake by delivering a box of magic to Liesl's home instead of the ashes of Liesl's father. The box of magic draws Po, a ghost, who helps Liesl escape the attic with the box of magic, which she believes contains her father's ashes, and which she intends to bury in the home they lived in when Liesl's mother was still alive.

Along the way they encounter and evade many obstructions, including a thief, the alchemist, the Lady Premiere (who wants the box of magic that was intended for her), the Lady Premiere's guard (who only wants to help Will, although Will doesn't know this), a policeman, and an interfering old lady.

Written for  younger readers, Liesl & Po is an enjoyable fantasy with amusing characters. It deals with serious themes, including murder, greed, child abuse, hunger, loss, and sadness. It's illustrated throughout with pencil drawings that reminded me of The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I recommend Liesl & Po to anyone who enjoys ghost stories and adventures.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Paranoia, by Joseph Finder

Joseph Finder. Paranoia. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2004. 424 pages. ISBN 0312319142.

In Joseph Finder's Paranoia, Adam Cassidy gets himself in a jam by authorizing a catered party for a friend's retirement. Using authorization codes that he wasn't authorized to use, he ends up costing the firm where he works $78,000. When he's called before his bosses the next morning, he expects to be fired, and he isn't unhappy with the prospects of being jobless. He's so unenthusiastic about working for a living that he makes an effort every day to do as little as possible.

Instead of being fired, though, he's first threatened with prosecution and imprisonment. After he's thoroughly frightened, he's offered a deal. He will apply for a job at his firm's biggest competitor, and then use his position to work as an industrial spy. Adam applies himself to a crash course in spy craft, gets the job, and begins to seek information that will help his original employer. Before long, however, he begins to be torn by his competing loyalties. He forms relationships at his new job with another employee, as well as with the owner, who becomes a father figure. He decides to break his connection with his former employers, but try to maintain his new status.

As much as I wanted to like this book, I was put off from the start. All thrillers rely on the reader to suspend disbelief, but this book's plot was so outrageous that I found it impossible to enjoy. Adam's quick rise in the new firm, his mastery of all the technology needed to conduct corporate espionage, and his manipulation of everyone around him were ridiculous.

I've enjoyed other books by Joseph Finder, but I can't recommend this one.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

Lauren Oliver. Rooms. New York: Ecco/HarperCollins, 2014. 303 pages. ISBN 9780062354426.

I love a good ghost story, and Rooms doesn't disappoint. The Walkers, mother Caroline, daughter Minna, son Trenton, and Minna's daughter Amy return to their home for the first time after Caroline's ex-husband Richard died, 10 years after they divorced. They're an unhappy bunch; Caroline is an alcoholic; Minnie will sleep with any man who crosses her path, and 15-year old Trenton is contemplating suicide and still recovering from a car accident in which he almost died. Amy is the only one who seems content, although it's clear that in spite of their unhappiness, they still care about each other.

The house has its own secrets, including the ghosts of two past inhabitants. Trenton can hear bits of their conversations, perhaps because of his own near-death experience. When a third ghost joins them, Trenton is not only able to speak with her, but he can almost see her. As she tempts Trenton with the idea of joining her in death, each member of the family is confronted with their past and forced to view their own actions in a new light. Written in alternating chapters from both the individual ghosts' and family members' viewpoints, the story brings to light the sadness of lost love, unspoken feelings, and hidden secrets.

I like Oliver's writing; there are no wasted words. The plot moves along at a good pace and kept me engaged the whole time. There are a number of mysteries and subplots, but they never overwhelm the narrative. The characters are treated compassionately, and even when they behave badly, it's possible to empathize with them. I recommend Rooms to anyone who likes family, ghost, or mystery stories.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling, by Robert Galbraith

Robert Galbraith. The Cuckoo's Calling. New York: Little, Brown, & Company, 2013. 456 pages. ISBN 9780316206853.

The Cuckoo's Calling is J.K. Rowling's first book under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Having read all of the Harry Potter books, I was curious to see how I would like her adult books. I have to say that I loved this book. It's very well-written and has fascinating characters.

The book begins with a temp services employee starting her first day at a new job: a detective agency run by Cormoran Strike. The temp, Robin Ellacott, is thrilled to be working at a detective agency because it's always been her secret fantasy. However, Cormoran is not doing well financially; he's deeply in debt, newly single and homeless (having been kicked out of the apartment he shared with his ex-fiancee), and having a generally hard time coping with everything. On Robin's first day, however, they are asked to investigate what is an apparent suicide; the victim's brother believes that it was murder and has compiled a lot of information that he deposits with Cormoran. As they begin to investigate, there are many twists and turns to the plot. Working together, Cormoran and Robin find the murderer and forge a working relationship that will take them forward into new adventures.

I liked everything about this book. The characters are well-developed with great skills but also flaws that make the interesting and vulnerable. The plot is intriguing and kept me interested throughout; it's paced well and never gets slow. The who-dunnit factor kept me wondering until near the end when the author dropped some pretty big hints. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys mysteries or thrillers. I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the series, The Silkworm, and I hope Rowling/Galbraith keeps on writing!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Two Trains Running, by Andrew Vachss

Andrew Vachss. Two Trains Running. New York: Pantheon Books, 2005. 448 pages. ISBN 1400043816.

I heard Andrew Vachss give a lecture at a luncheon that I attended in 2005. I was very impressed with his talk; it was about his crime fiction and the types of crimes that he investigated in his "real" jobs, working as an advocate for abused children. I bought his book after the luncheon (signed "Rebecca -- for real -- Andrew Vachss"). Unfortunately, it took me nine years to get around to reading it, and in the end, I was disappointed by this book.

Breaking away from his series fiction, Two Trains Running is a stand-alone novel that is set in a fictional mid-west town in 1959. The main character is named Walker Dett; he's a hit man hired by the local crime syndicate's boss, Royal Beaumont. Royal's crime empire is being threatened by other crime organizations: the Italian mafia, and Irish. Also threats to Royal’s interests are a rising black power organization, rival teenage street gangs (the Hawks, the Gladiators, and the Kings), a neo-Nazi organization, the FBI, and the local police force.

There are too many conflicting groups and subplots in this book. It was impossible to keep up with all of the twists, turns, and back stabbing going on. There are so many characters all trying to screw each other that I ended up not caring about any of them. The story got more fragmented toward the end, to the point where I'm not actually sure what happened, and sadly, I don't care enough to try to figure it out. I wouldn't recommend this book. I don't know what his other books are like, but they must be fairly popular since he's published so many. Either way, I'm not likely to try to find out, based on how disappointed I am with this one.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Think of a Number, by John Verdon

John Verdon. Think of a Number. New York: Crown, 2010. 418 pages. ISBN 9780307588920.

Think of a Number is John Verdon's first mystery thriller. I was immediately hooked by the premise, in which someone gets a letter in the mail, is asked to think of a number, and finds that exact number in a second sealed envelope. The letter writer implies that he or she knows something about the recipient's past, something shameful that they've done. One such recipient contacts retired police detective Dave Gurney for help in finding out who sent the letter and what they want. Mark Mellery is an old classmate of Dave's and hopes he can help him. When Mark turns up dead, Dave is hired as a consultant by the local police department and tries to track down the killer.

I really enjoyed this book. The writing is excellent and the characters are well-developed. The plot is intriguing and the mystery at its core kept me guessing all the way to the end. Dave is torn between the retirement lifestyle sought by his wife and his desire to do something useful other than garden and walk around the lake. I recommend this book to anyone who likes mysteries and thrillers.

I have also read his second book, Shut Your Eyes Tight, which I liked very much, and I look forward to reading the other two in this series: Let the Devil Sleep, and Peter Pan Must Die.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Last Snow, by Eric Van Lustbader

Eric Van Lustbader. Last Snow. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2010. 414 pages. ISBN 9780765325150.

Last Snow is the second book in a series of thrillers based on Jack McClure, a former ATF agent who now works as a close consultant to the President. In Russia with the President and his family to attend a summit with the Russian President, McClure is tasked with investigating the death of a senator on the island of Capri, off the Italian coast. Prior to his trip to Capri, the senator's last stop was an unscheduled trip to Kiev. McClure has the President's plane at his disposal and plans to fly to Kiev to track down the senator's last steps.

While I enjoy a good thriller, sometimes they just go too far. This book has the most ludicrous plot of any that I've ever read. Basically, the senator was killed by a group of exiled Russian oil oligarchs in Ukraine because they knew the President would assign McClure to investigate. This is all to get McClure in their clutches so that he can help them with their goals: to keep Ukraine out of the hands of the Russian President. Apparently, Ukraine (in this scenario) has a secret supply of uranium that will be used for nuclear development by Russia, which is intending to use the new U.S. accord as a cover and defense of their planned invasion of Ukraine. Because McClure is dyslexic, he has the ability to picture all the pieces of this puzzle together and come up with a solution, which is why he was targeted for this operation. Meanwhile there is a group of U.S. businessmen who are also after the uranium, double-crossing military men, and other folks complicating the plot. It was almost impossible to keep everyone straight.

Even more ridiculous is the subplot involving the President's daughter, who stows away on the President's plane and follows McClure to Kiev. She's right smack in the middle of all the action, and much of the plot and dialog addresses her teenage angst about what happened to her in the first book of this series, First Daughter. It's all too much, and I wouldn't recommend this book. In fact, I realized belatedly that I also had First Daughter at home. Embarrassingly, I had Last Snow shelved under V and First Daughter shelved under L in my home library. And I'm a cataloger! Either way, I can't bring myself to read First Daughter and it's going on my donation pile.