Thursday, November 19, 2015

Recent reads

Here are some recent reads:

The girl in the spider's web, by David Lagercrantz. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015. 399 pages. ISBN 9780385354288. Fourth installment in Stieg Larsson's Millennium series. Different writing style, but once past that, a worthy successor.

Redshirts, by John Scalzi. Tor, 2012. 317 pages. ISBN 9780765334794. Mind-bending sci fi with a good dose of humor.

Clearing the clutter for good feng shui, by Mary Lambert. Fall River Press, 2001. 96 pages. ISBN 9780760722039. Great advice for improving one's environment.


The age of speed: a new perspective for thriving in a more-faster-now world, by Vince Poscente. Bard Press, 2007. 215 pages. ISBN 9781885167675. Most books are telling us all to slow down; this one advises us to embrace the speed. Not convincing...


The Martha rules: 10 essentials for achieving success as you start, build, or manage a business, by Martha Stewart. Rodale, 2005. 195 pages. ISBN 1594864705. Good business advice from Martha, inspired by her time in prison where she met a lot of women who aspired to starting their own businesses after incarceration. Well-written, and includes a lot of relevant anecdotes from Martha's own career.

Friday, October 30, 2015

What do you listen to on road trips?

Music is the only thing that will help me stay alert on solo road trips. Many of my friends and colleagues swear by them for entertainment and making the time fly by on long trips. One friend missed not just one exit, but three on a long trip home to State College from Illinois while she was listening to one of the Harry Potter books (I forget which one). I've tried listening to audio books, which I have enjoyed while walking, but they haven't worked for me when driving. Maybe I haven't tried the right ones, but listening to an audio book for more than 10 minutes in the car makes me drowsy.

So that leaves music to keep me awake for long drives. And not just any music will do; it has to be something that I can sing along with. No classical or jazz, and nothing that's slow; it has to be upbeat. Any music in the rock and roll genre from the 1950s through the present is a candidate for me, although when my husband's along I have to eliminate rap and heavy metal, both of which he passionately dislikes. On a recent solo trip to Fairport, New York, this was my playlist:

Pink. The Truth about Love. Almost every song on this 2012 album is good; these are my favorites:
  • Are we all we are
  • Blow me (one last kiss)
  • Try
  • Just give me a reason
  • True love
  • Slut like you
  • The truth about love
  • Beam me up
  • Walk of shame
Leonard Cohen. I'm Your Man (Soundtrack). I had never listened to Leonard Cohen before 2009 when I watched the documentary about him called I'm Your Man. It's an excellent film and features a lot of well-known and lesser-known artists singing his songs and speaking eloquently about how much they were influenced by his songwriting. I love the whole album but my favorite songs are:
  • Tower of song, sung by Martha Wainwright
  • Tonight will be fine, sung by Teddy Thompson
  • I'm your man, sung by Nick Cave
  • Chelsea Hotel #2, sung by Rufus Wainwright
  • Everybody knows, sung by Rufus Wainwright
  • The Future, sung by Teddy Thompson
The Killers. Sam's Town. Every song on this album is excellent.

Lenny Kravitz. Greatest hits. All good songs, but my favorites are:
  • Are you gonna go my way?
  • Fly away
  • It ain't over til it's over
  • Can't get you off of my mind
  • American woman (I might even like this version better than the original by The Guess Who)
Mark Ronson. Uptown Special. This is one that I can't listen to with Mike in the car, but it's really growing on me. It first came to my notice when I saw the video for "Uptown Funk" which features Bruno Mars. Then I read an article about the album and learned that one of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon, co-authored some of the lyrics (although not the lyrics to "Uptown Funk"). That was enough to convince me to give it a try.

King Crimson. In the Court of the Crimson King. I love this album but I had to switch to something else after listening to the first song "21st Century Schizoid Man." The rest of the album can be slow and melancholy and just not good for the car.

Imagine Dragons. Night Visions. I like every song on this album, especially "Radioactive" and "Demons." I'm astonished that a band's first album could have such a stellar lineup of songs. I've listened to this one so much that Mike's a little sick of it.

Metallica. Metallica (i.e., The Black Album). This is another one that I can't listen to when driving with Mike, but it's one of my favorites. When this album came out 24 years ago, I was working at the University of Pittsburgh, doing copy cataloging. I listened to this cassette on my Walkman and sometimes attribute my high statistics to listening to thrash metal while working. Just listening to this is like drinking three cups of coffee!

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. The Heist. Another album that's only for my solo drives. I first became aware of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis during the 2014 Grammy Awards show when they performed "Same Love" with Queen Latifa and Madonna and staged a group wedding for dozens of couples, most but not all of them same-sex. You can see the video of that performance here. Here are some of my favorite songs:
  • Ten thousand hours. Perhaps the only song ever inspired by Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers?
  • Can't hold us
  • Thrift shop. As a big fan of thrift shops, I particularly enjoy this one. Check out the video here.
  • Thin line
  • Same love
  • Make the money
What do you like to listen to when you're driving?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

These Shallow Graves, by Jennifer Donnelly

In this historical mystery, aspiring writer Jo Montfort investigates the circumstances surrounding her father's death, first determined to be an accident, then suicide. But was it really suicide? It's not really adding up for Jo. Set in 1890s New York, These Shallow Graves manages to be a riveting mystery while it shows us what life was like for both rich and poor at that time.

Jo is a young woman in her final year of finishing school, destined to marry the son of wealthy family friends. She's fond of the young man but her greatest desire is to be a journalist like Nelly Bly and write stories about the plight of women and children in poverty. Her father's death throws all of this into jeopardy and her family makes sure that the cause of death is reported as an accident. Jo just can't believe this, knowing her father to be especially knowledgeable and skilled with his guns. As she begins to dig into his death, details emerge that show her father's business partners to have been involved in unethical and potentially illegal activities decades prior. Could someone from the past be blackmailing them?

In the meantime, Jo has befriended a young reporter at the newspaper that her family owns. Eddie is a writer who grew up in poverty; he's completely inappropriate as a companion for Jo and her reputation could be ruined if she's discovered spending time alone with him. At first she and Eddie work together to help solve what's looking more and more like a murder. Eddie introduces Jo to his contacts and friends from his past and they play key roles in Jo's search for the truth. As the deaths pile up and it begins to look like Jo's uncle might be involved, Jo doesn't know whom to trust.

These Shallow Graves was impossible to put down. Jennifer Donnelly is a good writer; she brings 1890s New York to life and makes even implausible plot turns believable. Anyone who enjoys mystery and detective stories will enjoy this adventure.

Jennifer Donnelly. These Shallow Graves. New York: Delacorte Press, 2015. Advance Reader's Copy. 482 pages. ISBN 9781101916247.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen is a twenty-four year old misfit who lives with her father, a dysfunctional, alcoholic, former policeman. She works in a home for delinquent boys in 1960s Massachusetts. Abuse and neglect are rampant, and Eileen observes everything from her position as a receptionist. She narrates the story many years after the events in Eileen have passed.

Eileen's life is going nowhere, and she spends her free time drinking with her father or at the local pub, and fantasizing about disappearing and leaving everyone behind. Everything changes when a new staff member shows up at work. Rebecca is beautiful and fascinating, and Eileen instantly develops a girl-crush on her. She's intrigued as she sees Rebecca taking an interest in one particular boy's story, and finds herself getting caught up in a violent crime as Rebecca confronts and accuses the boy's mother of horrific abuse.

Reviews of Eileen have been generally positive. Those reviews include adjectives such as "black," "dark," "funny," "shocking," "bleak," "creepy," "satisfying," and "bizarre." I agree with many of those descriptions, but I have to admit that I didn't particularly enjoy reading it. In addition to the terms mentioned above, I would also describe the book as gross, disgusting, and repulsive. There are no characters, including Eileen, who have any redeeming value whatsoever. Everyone is mean, stingy, uncaring, and nasty. Nevertheless, Ms. Moshfegh's writing is very good. Part of what makes this book funny is the deadpan way that Eileen narrates her life, from her bathroom habits to the drinking and violence that made up her home life growing up. I will be very interested to see what Ms. Moshfegh comes up with next.

Ottessa Moshfegh. Eileen. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Advance uncorrected proofs. 260 pages. ISBN 9781594206627.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Chess Queen Enigma, by Colleen Gleason

The Chess Queen Enigma is the third in a series of steampunk mysteries starring Evaline Stoker (sister of Bram) and Mina Holmes (daughter of Mycroft and niece of Sherlock). Evaline is a vampire hunter and Mina is a budding sleuth who practices Sherlock's methods of deduction. An important diplomatic mission from the Kingdom of Betrovia is visiting London, and the two friends are asked to keep the Princess Lurelia company for the duration of the visit. The mission is intended to repair relations between the two countries by delivering a letter that had been written by Queen Elizabeth and recently found in Betrovia. However, during the ceremony when the letter was to be handed over, the lights go out and chaos ensues. When the lights come back on, the letter is missing.

Mina and Evaline decide to solve the mystery of the stolen letter. They learn that the letter contains a clue that was to reveal the location of a missing chess queen which itself is the key to a lost treasure from Betrovia hidden inside a locked chess table that only the missing chess queen can open. In the adventure that follows, Mina and Evaline partner with Lurelia and learn that their nemesis "The Ankh" is somehow involved. Along the way they battle a small vampire invasion and work with their friends Inspector Grayling (from Scotland Yard) and Dylan Eckhert (from the future).

Not having read the first two books in the series I found it hard to get into the book at first. Characters are introduced without much background context. I think the writing is a little messy and could have used a more thorough edit to smooth over some of the transitions. However, I found the characters and story to be engaging and amusing. Fans of Sherlock Holmes may enjoy this take on the characters and setting of the original series. Fans of contemporary young adult fiction will enjoy this mash-up of steampunk, detective, and paranormal fiction.

Colleen Gleason. The Chess Queen Enigma. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015. 354 pages. ISBN 9781452143170.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Lake House, by Kate Morton

Police detective Sadie Sparrow has been forced to take four weeks vacation by her senior partner in order to try to salvage her career after she leaks information about a case to a reporter. Sadie has gotten too close to the case and can't believe that the missing woman she's been trying to find had abandoned her young toddler. Sadie's trying to forget the case while she's in the Cornwall countryside. She's staying with her grandfather Bertie who's recently retired after the death of Sadie's grandmother Ruth.

While in Cornwall, Sadie spends her time running through the woods and fields with Bertie's two hounds. On one such run she discovers an abandoned house near a lake; the house is completely furnished, and it appears that its occupants simply walked away from it. As Sadie inquires about the house in town, she learns that the family left after the youngest son Theo disappeared in 1933. Sadie begins to investigate what happened on the estate so long ago, using the resources of the public library and its helpful librarian for her research.

Sadie tracks down the last remaining daughter of the family who lived on the Cornwall estate and persuades her to help with her research. As Sadie cycles through one theory after another, she finds that her recent case in London continues to intrude on her thoughts. The missing woman's mother persists in calling her with clues and evidence that she believes proves her daughter hasn't run off, and Sadie finds her very convincing. While a long book (598 pages) this novel kept me turning the pages. It's well-written and lively, with authentic dialog and interesting characters. Anyone who enjoys detective fiction would like this book.

Kate Morton. The Lake House. New York: Atria Books, 2015. Advance uncorrected proof. 598 pages. ISBN 9781451649321.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Dragonfish, by Vu Tran

Oakland cop Robert has been blackmailed by his ex-wife's new husband Sonny to track her down. She's gone missing and as Robert begins his investigations he finds that she's also taken $100,000 from her husband's safe. Suzy emigrated from Vietnam when she was a young woman, enduring difficult circumstances on the boat leaving Vietnam as well as in the camp where the emigrants waited for someone in the U.S. or elsewhere to sponsor them. As Robert tries to find Suzy in the Las Vegas casinos and hotels that she frequented, he learns more about her past and the many secrets that she kept from his all these years.

Dragonfish alternates between first person accounts narrated by Robert and letters that Suzy wrote to her daughter Mai, abandoned with other family members not long after they settled in Los Angeles. As Suzy recounts her story to Mai through the letters, we learn about the death of her first husband, the violence they experienced in the camps, and her desire to be alone to start over again once they arrived in America. Present day events narrated by Robert are full of violence and anger, both Robert's anger over Sonny's abuse of Suzy, but Sonny's anger over Suzy's abandonment and theft of his money. Both Sonny and his son Junior are members of a Vietnamese underground crime world in Las Vegas where violence is common and expected.

However, parts of this book didn't ring true for me. All of Robert's actions are motivated by his unending love for Suzy, but nowhere does he explain what it was about her that was lovable. His memories about her are all based on her emotional ups and downs, her anger and violence. It's simply not convincing. I suppose the noir genre requires the man to make bad decisions in order to save a woman in danger, but Robert's a police officer and I expected him to be a little more sensible. In spite of all the twists and turns, the violence and action, I found Dragonfish to be a little slow moving. Nevertheless, it would probably be a good choice for fans of noir and it's getting some decent reviews on Amazon (although the average rating is 3.7 out of 5 stars).

Vu Tran. Dragonfish. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015. Advance reading copy. 296 pages. ISBN 9780393077803.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Best Boy, by Eli Gottlieb

Todd is a fifty-something resident of a living community for people with brain injuries. His parents are deceased and his younger brother isn't able to care for him at home. Todd has autism that is managed with medication and a routine that makes him feel comfortable. His world is upended when some changes take place in his community, the Payton Living Center. A new staff member has been hired who reminds Todd of his abusive father. Martine is a new resident who encourages Todd to stop taking some of his medication. Finally, Todd has a new roommate whose behavior is aggressive and frightening to Todd. All of these disturbances lead Todd to begin a journey home to be with his brother.

Best Boy has been marketed to people who enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and I agree that those who like The Curious Incident would like Best Boy. However, I think this book will have broader appeal. The issues that Best Boy raises go beyond an exploration of an autistic mind and how someone with autism thinks. It addresses the institutionalization of people with disabilities, their vulnerability, the abandonment by family members, the frustration that people have when they're powerless to help another, and the difficulty of communicating with each other. The characters are well-drawn, including the scary new staff member, Mike, and Todd's brother and sister-in-law. I really enjoyed this book; it deserves a wide audience.

Eli Gottlieb. Best Boy. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation/W.W. Norton, 2015. Advance reading copy. 246 pages. ISBN 9781631490477.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Paper Towns, by John Green

As with yesterdays' post, my review of Rainbow Rowell's Landline, I read John Green's Paper Towns because I'd been hearing so much about him and the success of The Fault in our Stars. I resolved to read one of his books and I found Paper Towns on my shelves at home. It's about Quentin, who's been secretly in love with Margo all his life. As they grew up she became one of the cool kids while he's remained with his nerdy pack of smart kids. All along they remain friendly, however, and one day Margo shows up at his door to take him on a night of adventure after which she disappears. Quentin sets out to track down the clues and find Margo, learning a lot about himself and the world in the process.

Although I've recently resolved to read less YA fiction (too much drama), I really enjoyed Paper Towns. The characters are interesting and believable: Quentin's psychologist parents, Margo's little sister Ruthie and her uncaring parents, his friends Ben and Radar. The writing is good and keeps you reading. The mystery of what happened to Margo is intriguing and unpredictable; the reader is kept guessing as to whether she's  abandoned everyone in her life or something worse. Paper Towns is also very funny. This book would be good for both teens and adults. I look forward to reading more from John Green.

John Green. Paper Towns. New York: Dutton Books, 2008. Advance uncorrected proof. 305 pages. ISBN 9780525478188.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell is the author of six novels, for both young adults and adults. I've been hearing so much about her lately that I decided it was time to read one of her books myself. I checked my shelves and found Landline, a book for adults about a woman who is struggling to balance her career and family. She backs out of a Christmas visit to her in-laws and instead stays home to work on a new project at work. Her husband Neal surprises her by packing up the two kids in the car and leaving her behind.

The rest of the novel consists of Georgie ruminating about her decision and delving into the past to figure out what went wrong. Her husband is avoiding her calls, although she gets to speak to her kids every day. We learn about Georgie's backstory, including her long-time friendship with her colleague, a friendship that never blossomed into romance, but which is nevertheless charged with potential. It's clear that this relationship has been an unwelcome presence in Georgie's marriage all along.

Balancing life and career is challenging for just about everyone. Rowell raises good points about our values, how we treat each other, and how we take our closest friends and family for granted in Landline. While the choices Georgie faces seem clear (of course she should put her family first!) they're easy because she's a comedy writer for a TV series she doesn't even like. What if she were a heart surgeon? The right decision might not be so obvious. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this light take on relationships and what makes them successful. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys family drama and contemporary fiction. I look forward to reading more books by Rainbow Rowell.

Rainbow Rowell. Landline. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2014. 308 pages. ISBN 9781250049377.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Seven Sins, by Jon Land

One of the side effects of attending BEA every year is a rapid accumulation of books, more books than I can read in any given year. Sometimes I acquire more than one book by a given author before I am able to read and review any of them, so one of my ways to trim down the books on my shelves is to focus on authors with multiple books on my shelves. Jon Land is one such author, and I've been eyeing his books up for a while. Recently I picked up The Seven Sins, named after a casino in Las Vegas where much of the action takes place.

The main character of The Seven Sins, Michael Tiranno, is a ruthless immigrant who rose from poverty to become the wealthy owner of the most spectacular casino in Las Vegas. This casino is so grand that its central feature is a humongous aquarium with multiple great white sharks swimming around in it. The story includes intrigues from the past, revenge, Islamic terrorists, and more. Michael is so powerful that he can even track down and kill terrorists on the streets and in the caves of Pakistan. I enjoy the occasional thriller, most of which strain readers' ability to suspend disbelief, but I have to admit that I found myself scoffing as the plot of The Seven Sins twisted and turned. The main character has no redeeming value whatsoever, and the story was so ludicrous I found it hard to care about it at all.

I decided to take a pass on the second book in my collection by Jon Land! Both books will go into the box headed for the State College branch of the AAUW Annual Used Book Sale. I know someone else will like them, as evidenced by the fact that Jon Land has published 38 books!

Jon Land. The Seven Sins. New York: Forge Books, 2007. 364 pages. ISBN 9780765315342.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Letters from Skye, by Jessica Brockmole

Letters from Skye is an epistolary novel set in Scotland during both the first and second world wars. During the earlier time period a young married poet is corresponding with an even younger American college student who admires her poetry. They fall in love but are separated when he enlists early in the war in France, as has her husband. Thirty years later, Elspeth's daughter Margaret is trying to unravel the mystery of her parents, although her mother refuses to tell her anything. When Elspeth disappears during the height of the London Blitz, Margaret panics and begins to track down distant relatives to learn the truth.

I enjoy epistolary novels, although I always get to the point of thinking that no one actually writes letters in the descriptive way necessary to tell a story like this. I found the characters and the plot compelling, although the choices the characters made (for "honor") don't always ring true. In general, I found Letters from Skye to be a well-written, easy to read, slightly overdramatic, but entirely enjoyable work. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys light historical fiction or epistolary novels.

Jessica Brockmole. Letters from Skye. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013. 287 pages. ISBN 9780345542601.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Agent 6, by Tom Rob Smith

This is Smith's third book in a series of detective stories set during the Soviet period in Russia. The first in the series, Child 44, was a strong first novel: very suspenseful, interesting characters and setting. I didn't read the second in the series: The Secret Speech, and Smith's fourth book is the stand-alone The Farm. I don't usually read series out of order but I received Agent 6 at BEA and decided to go ahead with it, finding that it's not necessary to read them in order to understand the backstory. This was a good story that spans decades and continents. It addresses communism in the U.S. as well as the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It has good pacing and memorable characters. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys suspenseful detective stories.

Tom Rob Smith. Agent 6. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2012. 467 pages. ISBN 9780446550765.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict, by Kelly Kittel

Author Kittel lost her young son in a terrible accident in which he was run over by her niece who was backing a car up in their driveway. A year later she loses a baby to miscarriage. This memoir tells her heartbreaking story as she deals with family members who are uncaring and cruel.

This was the third book that I read for the Independent Publishers of New England Award Jury. Of the three that I reviewed for them it's the only one that was not self-published, and that's apparent in the professional look and feel of the book. It was well-edited, and the cover and front matter are very well-done. It's not something that I would normally pick up to read, but I found it impossible to put down.

Kelly Kittel. Breathe: A Memoir of Motherhood, Grief, and Family Conflict. Berkeley, CA: She Writes Press, 2014. 369 pages. ISBN 9781938314780.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Navy SEAL Art of War, by Rob Roy

After 22 years as a Navy SEAL, author Rob Roy formed a company that provides training in leadership skills to corporate executives and young professionals. The training is based on the methods that the Navy uses to train new SEALs. Mr. Roy tells us in the introduction to The Navy SEAL Art of War that he has long been a fan of Sun Tzu's Art of War, and has subsequently decided to share his philosophy on leadership in a similar manner. In 57 short chapters, Mr. Roy conveys what he thinks makes a good leader. While this is an easy book to read, and I don't have any quibbles about the leadership traits that Mr. Roy espouses (e.g., work as a team, be humble, communicate clearly, and so on), the book has three main weaknesses.

The first is that Mr. Roy describes many of the traits and abilities of a Navy SEAL, but doesn't make the connection to the corporate or work world. For example, in the chapter "Festina Lente: Make Haste Slowly" he describes a war simulation exercise in which he participated and had the most kills of any of the players. He claims "While SEALs are usually faster, smarter, and more adaptable than their adversaries, we're also more elegant in how we operate. That elegance translates into lethal accuracy when it matters most." (p. 29). He goes on to describe a quarterback who maintains calm under pressure, and another simulation in which he "killed" 30 targets in 34 seconds. He wraps up by telling the reader that leaders need to remain calm under pressure and "carry yourself with elegance." (p. 31). While his anecdotes are interesting, his lesson appears to be "SEALs remain calm and elegant under pressure, and you should too." I'm not sure how helpful that will be to most readers.

Another weakness of The Navy SEAL Art of War is that most women will not see themselves reflected in its page. Many of the anecdotes that Mr. Roy uses to illustrate his principles involve war operations. Most of the non-war-related anecdotes come from Mr. Roy's company SOT-G (Special Operations Training Group) and its special training programs. He described one 10-day program in which the participants had to swim 2 miles, do a number of exercises in small groups such as squats while holding large logs, and participate in simulation war exercises. I have no doubt that this kind of training and exercise can be life-changing for the men who participate, but when I look at the photos on his website, out of dozens of pictures of groups of men exercising together I only saw one woman among them. Throughout his book Mr. Roy consistently referred to leaders as men; I only saw the pronoun "she" used once. In addition to the complete disregard of women as leaders, Mr. Roy's program would leave out anyone with a disability or any kind of weakness. In the end, while I appreciate that physical adversity can be character-building, I don't think it's a critical requirement to build and lead teams in the workplace.

Finally, while I acknowledge that Mr. Roy modelled The Navy SEAL Art of War after Sun Tzu's Art of War, and he specifically mentioned that he admired Sun Tzu's pithiness, I think he may have taken the brevity too far. I don't have an issue with short chapters in general (with 57 chapters in 199 pages, they're all pretty short), I do think he could have put a little effort into some of the chapters which are basically just a short list of bullet points. There are eight such chapters. For example, "Performance Expectations" (p. 167) consists of this list:
  • Give at least 100 percent, 100 percent of the time.
  • If your leaders are failing the team, remove them quickly and replace them with someone who can get the job done.
  • Get it right every single time ... there is no tolerance for error.
  • In the SEALs, if someone screws up in our line of work, people may die.
This is the kind of list that you can find anywhere, with the exception of the last point, which is pointless in this context. How does that statement help someone learning how to be a better leader in the work world? One of these chapters "Commit to Commitment" consists of only three sentences: "There's nothing that frustrates me more than someone who fails to give 100 percent effort, 100 percent of the time. If you're going to show up, show up. If you're not going to show up, don't show up." (p. 153). Aside from the fact that this statement is repeated 14 pages later, I don't think it's worthy of its own chapter in a book on leadership. Since many of these bullet-point chapters appear in the last quarter of the book, I wonder if Mr. Roy was simply running out of steam.

Overall, I would describe The Navy SEAL Art of War as leadership-lite: an example of empty-calorie management literature that can be popular with readers. It reminds me a lot of Take Command: Lessons in Leadership by Jake Wood, a management book based on Mr. Wood's experience as a Marine sniper in Iraq and Afghanistan, reviewed on this blog here.

Rob Roy, with Chris Lawson. The Navy SEAL Art of War: Leadership Lessons from the World's Most Elite Fighting Force. New York: Crown Business, 2015. 203 pages. ISBN 9780804137751.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances, by R.W. Bacon

Using humor and amusing examples, author R.W. Bacon provides an introduction to graphic design, page layout, and typography in The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances. He explains in his introduction "Read This Stuff First: The Cranky Typographer's Ground Rules" that the reason he's cranky is because he's upset about the decline in his craft over the years due to the ability of anyone with a computer to make an attempt at graphic design. He tells us that it's clear that the many manuals with helpful advice for the "do-it-yourselfers" out there have not been successful, so he's going to try the cranky approach.

Chapter 2 of The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances provides his short list of what he terms major annoyances and his suggestions for improvement. The annoyances include errors in typography, body text, display type, spacing, style, design, layout, and more. Subsequent chapters are devoted to each of these blunders and explore them and their remedies in much more depth. Bacon provides examples of both good and bad design, and uses two characters throughout them: "Sharp Sally" and "Sloppy Joe."

The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances contains a lot of useful information. Anyone interested in typography, style, and graphic design will find much to ponder in these pages. But if I had to use one word to describe this book, I would use "dense." The pages are stuffed full of dense prose, examples are crowded together, and every page is overly busy. It's ironic in a book about graphic design, but the book is not well-designed. The cover is extremely busy, with too many words. Perhaps that's the author's intent, to demonstrate the things that annoy him, but it doesn't serve his purpose well. The header of each page contains both the author's name and the title of the book, whereas in most book designs, the author's name is in the header of one page and the title of the book is in the header of the opposite page. There are horizontal lines framing every page, increasing the busy look. The examples are jam-packed with information, including captions at the top and the bottom of each example as well as text balloons pointing out specific things.

The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances was published by Variety Arts Press, which, according to its web site has been "since 1983 the publisher of books by the journalist/editor, historian, museum professional, and performing artist Reginald W. Bacon." This is further proof that no matter how talented a writer may be, all books benefit from the oversight of a professional editor who is not the author.

R.W. Bacon. The Cranky Typographer's Book of Major Annoyances and the Most Masterful Mitigations: Helpful Graphics Tips for Do-It-Yourself Designers. Newburyport, Massachusetts: Variety Arts Press, 2014. 240 pages. ISBN 9780981794570.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

No! Maybe? Yes! Living My Truth, by Grace Anne Stevens

No! Maybe? Yes! Living My Truth tells the story of Grace Anne Stevens, née Larnie Steven Rabinowitz, who transitioned from a man to a woman in her fifties. This heartfelt memoir is an honest portrayal of how Larnie felt growing up, going to college, getting married, and raising three children. As his marriage deteriorated, he began to explore cross-dressing, and met friends with whom he could truly be himself. It took years before he admitted to himself that he really was a woman inside, and began to explore transitioning.
Grace describes her relationships with family and friends, and the many people who helped her along the way. Having worked for decades in the information technology industry, she began to explore psychology and earned an MA in Counseling Psychology from Lesley University. She shares many of the exercises and writing that she created as part of her journey. I found her story to be uplifting and heartwarming. The only downside to this book is that it would have benefited from a good editor. Nevertheless, I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about the transgender community.

If you're interested in learning more about Grace Anne Stevens, you can check out her website here.

Grace Anne Stevens. No! Maybe? Yes! Living My Truth. Lexington: Graceful Change Press. 239 pages. ISBN 9780986300301.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Hidden Child, by Camilla Läckberg

After I read Camilla Läckberg’s The Drowning, I was reading a little bit about her online. I noticed another of her books with a dust jacket that looked familiar, so I checked my shelves and found The Hidden Child there. The Hidden Child was published a year before The Drowning, and is the book just before it in the series about Erica Falck, an author of true crime fiction, and her husband Patrick Hedström, a homicide detective. Set in a small town in Sweden, Erica and Patrick solve crimes.

In The Hidden Child, Erica is going through her mother’s belongings and finds some objects that raise questions about her mother’s life as a teenager during the Second World War. She finds a series of journals that reveal her mother to be very different from the cold, unfeeling woman she knew. She also finds an infant’s dress covered in blood, and wrapped around a Nazi medal. The intrigue begins when the man whom Erica asked about the medal turns up dead. When another of her mother’s childhood friends is found murdered, Erica realizes that she has uncovered a mystery that someone wants to stay buried. Her investigation into her mother’s childhood and Patrick’s investigation into the murders cause them to work together at times, and at other times at cross purposes.

As with The Drowning, the cast of characters in The Hidden Child is rich with a variety of personalities that reflect modern cultural and political values. Nazi sympathizers from both the past and present focus the reader on anti-immigrant sentiments that exist throughout Europe. Another character is afraid to reveal her relationship with another woman, and only reluctantly opens up to her co-workers. The plot is compelling, and the writing (and translation) excellent. Anyone who enjoys crime fiction will appreciate The Hidden Child. Camilla Läckberg deserves to be read and will hopefully find an appreciative audience in the U.S.

Camilla Läckberg. The Hidden Child. New York: Pegasus Crime, 2014. 526 pages. ISBN 9781605985534.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Drowning, by Camilla Läckberg

Camilla Läckberg is another excellent import for anyone who enjoys well-written crime novels set in Sweden. Her books are centered on Erica Falck, an author of true crime non-fiction, and her husband Patrick Hedström, a homicide detective. In The Drowning, Erica’s friend Christian Thydell has published his first book, a literary work called The Mermaid. As his book is launched and he begins to participate in promotional events, it’s revealed that he has been receiving threatening letters for 18 months. Frightening personal attacks follow the letters, and others from his past are targeted as well.

Erica is working on her own book, but can’t help being drawn into the drama surrounding Christian. She convinces Patrick to help investigate, which he does reluctantly until it becomes apparent that there are connections between Christian’s background and a recent murder nearby.
The pacing of The Drowning is good; it kept me turning the pages and although it’s a long book (476 pages) I was able to finish in just a few days. In addition to the main characters, the book explores the relationships between Patrick’s co-workers and Erica’s sister as well as their children. Ms. Läckberg has a light touch of humor in how she treats some of the characters, like Patrick’s boss who is incompetent in his job but endearing in his treatment of his girlfriend’s grandchild to whom he’s grown attached. The Drowning is 6th in a series of 12 books featuring Erica Falck and Patrick Hedström, so I’m late to the game, but it’s good enough to leave me wanting to read the rest of the series.

Camilla Läckberg. The Drowning. New York: Perseus Crime, 2015. 476 pages. ISBN 9781605988566.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Departure, by A.G. Riddle

Departure begins with the crash of an airliner that was heading to London. When the survivors escape the plane they find themselves in a region with no cell service and no rescue in sight. How can a plane go down over England but no one comes to rescue them? It doesn't take long before the survivors begin to suspect that time travel is involved.
Departure cover image

Two of the passengers immediately form a bond: Harper Lane, a writer, and Nick Stone, a venture capitalist. Other passengers seem to know something about what's going on, but they're soon separated into two camps. I don't want to give away any major plot points, but the secret behind what's going on includes a secret society, a virus that's killed off most of the world's population, and a decision that needs to be made that could correct what's happened, or leave the status quo intact. The survivors are pitted against each other, leading to a battle in which many of them die.

While Departure's narrative moved along at a steady pace, and the story was entertaining, it suffers from all of the other books that exist which rely on time travel as a plot device. If you think about it too hard, nothing at all makes sense, and you can go around and around in circles trying to think of all the ways that the story doesn't actually work. It can be a little frustrating, but if you don't think too hard about the logic behind the story, it's a nice weekend diversion. I read this while I was feeling stressed about something, and it was a good distraction. Although the main characters are adults, this book has a decided YA feel, so it might be appealing to that audience.

I received my copy as an advance reader's edition at the 2015 ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco, CA. It won't be available for purchase until October, and there are already 2,979 reviews on Amazon (with a rating of 4.2 out of 5 stars), so HarperCollins has clearly been promoting this book pretty heavily.

A.G. Riddle. Departure. New York: Harper Voyager, 2015. unpaged. Advance reader's edition ISBN 9780062434746.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Healthy Joints for Life, by Richard Diana

With arthritis in the family, having been a runner through my mid-40s, (OK, a jogger), and having not too long ago passed the halfway mark (i.e., my 50th birthday) this book offered me a wealth of information about staying in good shape for a long time. Author Richard Diana was a professional football player who experienced significant trauma to his knees and body. As an orthopedic surgeon, he regularly treats people with severe arthritis. He wrote this book to share what he's learned about the best way to treat arthritis to maintain healthy joints.

Written in terms that a layman can understand, Dr. Diana describes the root causes of arthritis, particularly the role of inflammation. He outlines the basics of inflammation, how joints work and what can go wrong with them, the foods that help or hinder inflammation, the role of supplements, and how exercise helps. He follows this with an eight-week plan to reduce inflammation and reduce pain, providing different approaches for people with mild, moderate, or severe arthritis. The appendix provides more in-depth information about the cell science behind inflammation and pain.

I found Dr. Diana's recommendations to be helpful, but not all that surprising. Suggestions about diet and exercise are consistent with many other resources on health. What I found particularly useful were the discussions about the types of food that either cause or reduce inflammation (hint: carbohydrates are not so great). I was surprised by the lengthy list of supplements that Dr. Diana recommends, many but not all of which have strong evidence to support them.

This book would be useful to not only people who already have arthritis, but also to anyone who wants to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Even folks who already eat a healthy diet and exercise could glean more tips from this book about what foods to add to their diet and which ones to cut back on. I'm not a big fan of supplements, so I'll withhold judgment on that chapter.

Richard Diana, M.D. Healthy Joints for Life: An Orthopedic Surgeon's Proven Plan to Reduce Pain and Inflammation, Avoid Surgery, and Get Moving Again. New York: Harlequin, 2013.336 pages. ISBN 9780373892709.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Rejection Proof, by Jia Jiang

In 2012 author Jia Jiang quit his job to pursue his dream of becoming an entrepreneur. Four months into his first project, he suffered a crushing rejection when his proposal was not funded. Realizing that fear of rejection was preventing him from achieving the success he desired, he decided to embark on a project to immunize himself from the feelings of despair and unworthiness that he experienced when rejected. His new project was called "100 Days of Rejection" and was documented through video and essay in a blog that rapidly became popular.

During the 100 Days of Rejection project, Mr. Jiang tried to come up with creative and amusing proposals or requests that would be guaranteed to garner a "no" response. Early requests included asking a stranger if he could borrow $100, asking for a burger "refill" at a restaurant that only offered soda refills, and asking if he could deliver pizzas as a volunteer deliveryman. One of his early requests, asking if Krispy Kreme could make him a customized donut in the shape of the Olympic rings symbol, actually received a positive response. This video was reposted to reddit and catapulted him to fame. All of a sudden his project began to get media attention and Mr. Jiang was interviewed on national television.

Having recently experienced a rejection that left me feeling sad and disappointed, I appreciated Mr. Jiang's thoughts about the meaning of rejection and how we can recover from it. In many cases a rejection says more about the person doing the rejection than the person being rejected. Often, to be successful, you have to experience many rejections before being accepted. Many famous authors, for example, were rejected dozens or hundreds of times before getting a book accepted for publication. Using humor or explaining why you're requesting something can also help encourage a positive response. Mr. Jiang also offers advice to those who have to say "no," encouraging them to be direct and offer alternatives.

Rejection Proof is a fun and quick read, but it is also a thoughtful meditation on the meaning of rejection and how it should be perceived and addressed. I can't think of anyone who would not benefit from reading it.

Jia Jiang. Rejection Proof: How I Beat Fear and Became Invincible through 100 Days of Rejection. New York: Harmony, 2015. 226 pages. ISBN 9780804141383.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Mrs. Kimble, by Jennifer Haigh

Mrs. Kimble is the story of three women, all of whom fall in love with the same horrible man, Ken Kimble. We never learn what's caused Ken to behave the way he does, but his whole life is a series of cons. He makes people believe that he cares about them, but they're really just scenery and background to his self-absorption. He's drawn to young, beautiful women, and simply drops them when they are no longer of use to him.

A chaplain at a Bible college, Ken married one of his students, Birdie, when she was eighteen, then abandons his family when he runs off with yet another student. He then dumps her when he meets Joan, a vulnerable, yet wealthy, woman, and ingratiates himself with Joan's family, passing himself off as Jewish so that they embrace him and bring him into the family business. After she dies from cancer a few years later, Ken inherits everything from her and moves back to the Washington, D.C. area to run a real estate business. Meeting up with Dinah, a young woman who babysat the children from his first marriage, he marries yet again. The facade Ken built crumbles when it becomes clear that he had been committing fraud for years, and Ken runs away once again, only to die alone.

Jennifer Haigh's writing is crisp and unsentimental, yet she clearly evokes the emotional wreckage that Ken leaves behind in each of his marriages. I found the ending satisfying as it's clear that Ken's children, though scarred, have formed a sort of blended family and will survive. I suppose it's intentional on the author's part, but we never learn what caused Ken to become so narcissistic. Ken dies alone (this isn't a spoiler, because the book opens with his death), but we don't have the satisfaction of thinking this is a punishment for him. In the end, I felt that he didn't even care about that. Alone, and on the run from the FBI, he continued to live the way he was accustomed. He ran every day, he watched his cholesterol, he wore good suits and his Rolex watch, and he had his stash of money in the bank.

Mrs. Kimble is Jennifer Haigh's first book. I've also read The Condition and Faith, the latter reviewed here on this blog. I loved both books, and look forward to reading Baker Towers, the only book of hers that I haven't read yet, as well as any future books. 

Sunday, June 28, 2015

ALA Annual 2015 Book-A-Licious Breakfast

The ALA Annual 2015 Book-A-Licious Breakfast was another fun event sponsored by the Association of American Publishers and LibraryReads. Held on Saturday, June 27th at the Marriott Marquis San Francisco Hotel, it featured six authors and their latest books. Attendees were treated to a full breakfast while each of the authors talked about how libraries and librarians were important to their development at authors, and discussed their books. I was amazed at what good speakers each of the authors were. They were at times earnest, passionate, and funny. I attend this event at every conference, and I'm never disappointed. As a bonus, all attendees are given a tote bag filled with each of the books that are discussed. The authors and books that were spotlighted were:

Charles Belfoure. House of Thieves. Mr. Belfoure is an architect who writes books with architecture as the backdrop. His first book was the best-selling The Paris Architect so there is a lot of anticipation for his second effort.

Anthony Marra
Anthony Marra
Anthony Marra. The Tsar of Love and Techno. Mr. Marra's first book was the best-selling and prize-winning A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, which I have at home but haven't read yet. Mr. Marra began his talk by telling us that his father worked as a young man collecting late fines door-to-door for a public library in Brooklyn and wanted Anthony to tell the room full of librarians that he never let him return books late to the library when he was a child.

Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng. Everything I Never Told You. This is Ms. Ng's first novel, although she has published short stories previously. Her book is set in 1977, and was meticulously researched at the library. Ms. Ng reports that she obsessively read both books and newspapers about the time period to get the details right.

Nnedi Okorafor

Nnedi Okorafor. Lagoon. Ms. Okorafor writes science fiction and fantasy for children, young adults, and adults. Her latest, Lagoon, was inspired by the movie District 9, which she felt got so much wrong about Africa. I really liked District 9, and I'm not sure what she was getting at there, so I'll have to watch it again and read her book to see what she means.

Stacy Schiff
Stacy Schiff. The Witches. Ms. Schiff is the only one of the six authors presenting whose work I had previously read (Cleopatra: A Life, which I loved). Her new book is an examination of the Salem witch trials, and sounds fascinating.

Brigid Schulte

 Brigid Schulte. Overwhelmed. Ms. Schulte is a reporter for the The Washington Post who writes about work-life issues. Overwhelmed explores how and why women often feel so overwhelmed by all of their obligations and responsibilities. How did this happen, and what can we do about it?

Friday, June 26, 2015

Book Buzz San Francisco 2015

Book Buzz San Francisco was an all-day event held at the San Francisco Public Library on June 25, 2015. This event is sponsored by the Association of American Publishers (AAP), which very generously presents an opportunity for member publishers to share their upcoming books with librarians. The morning is devoted to children's and young adult books, and the afternoon to adult fiction and non-fiction.

AAP also provides a lunch for all who attend, and at the end of each session, attendees are given a bag full of advance reader's copies of many of the books discussed throughout the day. I was flying to San Francisco on Thursday morning, so I missed the morning session, but I was able to get there just in time for lunch and the afternoon session.

Here are some of the publishers and books that I'm excited about:

Simon & Schuster. Esther: A Novel, by Rebecca Kanner (about Queen Esther).
Perseus Books Group. First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, by Bee Wilson (who also wrote Consider the Fork).
New York Review Books. The House of Twenty Thousand Books, by Sasha Abramsky (about his grandfather who loved learning).
Sterling. House Beautiful Pink, by Lisa Cregan (how to decorate with pink).
WW.Norton. S.P.Q.R: A History of Rome, by Mary Beard.
HarperCollins. Art in the Blood: A Sherlock Holmes Adventure, by Bonnie MacBird (I got this in the bag of ARCs they distributed).
Workman. This is Your Life, Harriet Chance, by Jonathan Evison (I really liked his The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving).
Sourcebooks. Until We Meet Again, by Renee Collins (marketed at The Time Traveler's Wife for teens).
Soho Crime. Burning Down George Orwell's House, by Andrew Ervin.
National Geographic. Pope Francis & the New Vatican (first time ever photos of any pope in the Vatican;  the cover photo is embargoed and we were the first ever to see it (we were asked not to take any pictures)).
Melville House. The Dog Walker: An Anarchist's Encounters with the Good, the Bad, and the Canine, by Joshua Stevens (he spends his free time protesting against the 1%, but it's their dogs that he walks for a living).
Hachette. Drinking in America, by Susan Cheever.
Penguin Random House. The Swans of Fifth Avenue, by Melanie Benjamin (about Truman Capote).


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Catching up: June 2015

Once again I've gotten behind on writing reviews for my leisure reading, so I will list the missing books here along with just a few words about each one.

Alice Hoffman's Local Girls. I read this book (published in 1999) for my book club. Originally not very enthusiastic about it because it is a collection of short stories, I ended up enjoying it because the stories and characters were all related. The stories mostly follow Greta through her teenage years as her father leaves them for a new wife and her best friend gets pregnant and drops out of school.

Alice Hoffman's Nightbird. Twig is a young girl who lives with her mother and brother in a small town. Her life is defined by the secrets they keep; her family was cursed by a witch many generations ago and her brother is the last in a long line of men in the family who have to hide from public view. Everything changes when a new family comes to town; they're descendants of the witch who cursed the family so long ago. Including elements of magic and fantasy, Alice Hoffman's writing is simple and charming.

Joseph Kanon's Stardust. I absolutely loved this historical mystery/thriller. Set at the end of 1945, it explores the hunt for communists in the film industry. Ben Collier's brother has committed suicide and Ben's investigation into his death brings many intrigues to light. Its fast-paced and fascinating look at this period of history will make this book interesting to thriller lovers as well as historical fiction buffs.

Joseph Kanon's Istanbul Passage. This book explores yet another aspect of the five-year period after World War II. Neutral during WWII, Turkey was a central point for U.S., Russian, and other spies trying to get information and make deals throughout the war. Businessman Leon Bauer works on the fringe of the spy community, delivering messages and packages when needed. Hired to pick up a former Romanian military officer, he has to hide him away when they're ambushed. Leon has to navigate between the two nation's interests when it becomes clear that there's a traitor in the U.S. embassy who may be working for the Russians. This is a good thriller but has a little less of the historical context than the other two Kanon's that I've read.

Tiffany Baker's The Little Giant of Aberdeen County. Truly was born big and grows to be exceedingly tall and heavy. After her parents both die, Truly and her sister Serena Jane are split up and sent to different families for fostering. Because of her size and refusal to wear girls clothing, Truly is sent to live with a farming family whereas Serena Jane is brought up in a home in town. This book describes their lives growing up apart, Serena Jane's marriage and then disappearance, and Truly's service as a caretaker for Serena Jane's husband and surrogate mother to their son Bobbie. This is a strong first book; I'm looking forward to Tiffany Baker's next one.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Good German, by Joseph Kanon

The Good German takes place during the Potsdam Conference near the end of World War II. Jake Geismar is a reporter who's come to Berlin to write for Collier's magazine. He tags along with his photographer friend Liz as she visits the scene of the conference and he witnesses the discovery of a body floating in the lake nearby. Jake recognizes the dead man from his plane ride from Frankfurt to Berlin, and begins to investigate his murder. It turns out that the dead man (Tully) was operating on the black market, and had the equivalent of $10,000 on him.

Jake has another goal in Berlin: to track down his former lover, a German woman named Lena. Married to Emil, a brilliant scientist who has disappeared, she's been on her own for some time. Raped by one of the invading Russian soldiers, she's had an abortion and nearly died from an ensuing infection. Believing that Emil tried to come back for her, she convinces Jake to help her look for him. As Jake digs into the mystery of what happened to Emil, he realizes that Emil's story is intertwined with the murder that he's investigating.

The Good German is filled with fascinating characters who typify all of the competing interests that descended on Germany after the war. One man is gathering documentation to try Nazis for war crimes. Another is trying to identify scientists who can be exonerated of their crimes and brought to America to work for the government. Gunther is a former German policeman whose Jewish wife was betrayed and shipped off to her death. Sikorsky is a Russian military officer who's also looking for Emil. Dr. Rosen was held in a camp during the war and now serves as the doctor for a brothel. Erich is a young boy whom Jake promises to care for. As Jake investigates both of his mysteries, he unlocks a maelstrom of interlocking motives and interests that only come together at the end to reveal why Tully was killed.

Joseph Kanon has published seven historical mysteries, all set in the post-World War II period. All of his books were written after Mr. Kanon has devoted many years to a career in publishing, as both editor and president of publishing houses Houghton Mifflin and E.P. Dutton. His writing is excellent; there wasn't a dull moment in The Good German. This book was made into a 2006 film starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchett. I remember enjoying the movie, but apparently it didn't do very well, getting only a 33% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 6/10 score on IMDB.

Joseph Kanon. The Good German. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001. 482 pages. ISBN 0805064222.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

The Camel Bookmobile, by Masha Hamilton

The Camel Bookmobile describes a culture clash between a do-gooder librarian from the U.S. and a nomadic African tribe. Fiona Sweeney is a librarian who wants to do something worthwhile with her life. She signs on with an organization that brings books to Kenyan villages, some of them traditionally nomadic, on camels. Mr. Abasi is a librarian who was content with his stationary library and who resents being forced along on these daily excursions into the Kenyan countryside. This novel focuses on the village of Mididima, and shows how the incursion of Westerners and their values receives mixed responses from the villagers.

Some of the villagers welcome Fi and her books, in spite of the fact the some of the books are wildly inappropriate. Others are concerned that she's disrupting their way of life in ways that will bring harm to the community. When a boy in the village refuses to return the two books he borrowed, he threatens the whole village with both the loss of the camel bookmobile, and by bringing dishonor onto the village and villagers. Although this is the central drama of the book, there are many other conflicts in the village. The village schoolteacher Matani tries to bridge the emotional gap between him and his wife, Jwahir. She has become infatuated with Abayomi, an older man in the village whose son Taban was maimed by a hyena as a toddler. Taban is friends with Kanika, a girl who has been caught up in the spell of the books delivered by the camel bookmobile, and who dreams of going off to the Distant City (Nairobi). Taban, who refuses to return the two books, threatens all of Kanika's plans, which rely on the continuing visits of the bookmobile.

I enjoyed this exploration of the clash of two very different cultures. The book is written from many different perspectives, and each character's motivations are revealed over time. It is tender, kind, and not at all judgmental about any of the perspectives, but raises a lot of questions about what we value and why. Fi's relationships with each of the characters brings out show how she has grown and benefited from her adventure, and how they have changed and learned from her as well. This book would be good for anyone who enjoys thoughtful, contemporary fiction.

Masha Hamilton. The Camel Bookmobile. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. 308 pages. ISBN 9780061173486.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Accused, by Lisa Scottoline

Lawyer and amateur detective Mary DiNunzio's new client is a 13-year-old girl who believes the wrong man was convicted for her sister's murder. Allegra has known for six years that Lonnie is innocent, and she's finally able to hire a lawyer to help him, thanks to an inheritance from her grandfather that allows her to spend part of her income as she sees fit. As Mary digs into the case, she finds that there is a lot more to the story than appeared obvious at the time, and it seems clear that the police seized the first likely suspect and did no further investigations.

As with others in the Rosato and Associates novels, Mary's family becomes involved in the investigation, and she finds help from the three Tony's, octogenarian friends of her father's, as well as from others. She's struggling with her new roles as a partner in the firm (to be renamed Rosato and DiNunzio), as well as fiancé to Anthony Rotunno. Balancing her mother's and her soon-to-be mother-in-law's demands about the wedding are also a challenge.

This is a fast-paced, funny mystery with a lot of action. Like her other novels, Accused is set in Philadelphia and the surrounding area. I'm particularly fond of Ms. Scottoline because of her strong support for libraries; she's been a regular speaker at Pennsylvania Library Association events. Anyone who enjoys mysteries with a strong female protagonist would enjoy Accused.

Lisa Scottoline. Accused. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2013. 354 pages. ISBN 9781250027658.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Reputation Economy, by Michael Fertik

According to Michael Fertik, the founder and CEO of, our digital lives will be used to create reputation scores, similar to our credit ratings, that will be used in all manner of ways, both in our favor and against us. Citing studies that indicate that a person is more likely to declare bankruptcy if one of his or her friends declares bankruptcy, Fertik predicts that even our friends' online reputation will be used to create these future scores.

Fertik begins by describing how big data and data analysis make all of this possible. The development of inexpensive storage has created a situation in which it's cheaper to simply store all information rather than take the time to delete what's no longer needed, an effort that often requires human intervention. Everything that you do online: searching, downloading, viewing, buying, clicking likes, commenting, reviewing, sharing, friending, connecting, etc. is being collected and stored somewhere.

Fertik goes on to talk about the power of the internet to draw attention to you and your strengths, using the example of Arnel Pineda, who was the lead in a cover band in the Philippines and was hired as the new lead singer for Journey based on a video he posted to YouTube. Of course, most of Fertik's readers won't be hired by huge rock bands, but his tips are useful, if predictable: 1) post positive content widely, 2) post your resume online, 3) establish digital profiles, by buying your own domain name and updating it with, for example, professional information about yourself, 4) make sure all public information about you is consistent, 5) use social media wisely, 6) show growth over time. All of this is helpful, if unoriginal, advice for anyone who's concerned about their online profile.

The Reputation Economy is full of interesting anecdotes and predictions about how your online information will affect not only your hiring potential, but also how you might be treated as a customer at hotels or restaurants. Fertik's vision of a future in which the food you order at a restaurant is later used by an employer to determine whether you might be worth hiring is a little scary. We can only hope that some privacy will remain in our future (or we'll all have to go back to paying for everything in cash). The Reputation Economy provides a lot of food for thought.

Michael Fertik and David C. Thompson. The Reputation Economy: How to Optimize your Digital Footprint in a World Where your Reputation is your Most Valuable Asset. New York: Crown Business, 2015. 244 pages. ISBN 9780385347594.

I received this book for review from Blogging for Books.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Help for the Haunted, by John Searles

Sylvie is a young girl who's lost both her parents to violence. She's living in their house, under the care of her older sister, and trying to make sense of her life. Sylvie's parents were famous for helping people who were haunted by their dead loved ones. Sylvie lied about what happened the night they died because she's trying to protect her sister; while she doesn't believe her sister is guilty, she's afraid to ask her for the truth. She continues to pursue clues and leads in an attempt to understand what happened and who's responsible for their deaths. Did it have to do with one of their clients who was unhappy with their inability to help him? Or is the truth more mundane than that?

I absolutely loved this combination ghost story and mystery. The writing is truly excellent and it was impossible to put the book down. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes mysteries and suspense stories.

I heard Mr. Searles speak about this book at the 2013 BEA. He also wrote Strange but True, another excellent book. 

John Searles. Help for the Haunted. New York: William Morrow, 2013.362 pages. ISBN 9780060779634.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Wonder Singer, by George Rabasa

Mark Lockwood is a writer who has spent recent months getting the story of famous opera singer Merce Casals so that he can ghost write her autobiography. When she dies unexpectedly, the publisher decides to drop this project and instead hire a more famous author to write her biography. Mark knows that this is the story of his career and he goes into hiding along with all of his cassettes and notes so he can write her story and publish it first. In the meantime, his obsession with Merce is creating stress in his marriage, and he becomes infatuated with Merce's young, attractive nurse.

I loved this story of obsession, love, and friendship. The writing is wonderful and goes back and forth between Mark's own story and Merce's life and loves. The characters are interesting and well-developed, and I wanted to know what happened to them after the story ended. I highly recommend this book.

George Rabasa. The Wonder Singer. Denver, CO: Unbridled Books, 2008. 322 pages. ISBN 9781932961560.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Black Hour, by Lori Rader-Day

Amelia Emmet is a tenured college professor who was shot a year ago by an undergraduate student. No one has ever been able to determine his motive; he was never in any of her classes and she doesn't remember ever having met him before. The book begins with Amelia coming back to work in the fall after her medical leave. She's in pain and having a difficult time adjusting to the return. Her graduate assistant turns out to be obsessed with her case, and the book follows both of their efforts to figure out what happened.

While I liked the premise, I found Ms. Rader-Day's writing and characterization of Amelia and her graduate student to be a little annoying. Some of the passages, such as Amelia's struggles to climb the stairs, are drawn out entirely too long. Nevertheless, the plot kept me going, as I was curious to see where she was taking us with this story. This is Ms. Rader-Day's first book, and I expect she'll get better at pacing and characterization, but I can't be extremely enthusiastic about this book.

Lori Rader-Day. The Black Hour. Amherst, NY: Seventh Street Books, 2014. 331 pages. ISBN 9781616148850.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Holy Thief, by William Ryan

This is a historical mystery set in Moscow in 1936. A young woman's body has been found in a former church, and her death appears to be related to a market in Orthodox icons. Captain Korolev of the Moscow police has been asked to investigate the murder and to report back daily to an officer in the NKVD. He's faced with the challenge of investigating while important information is being withheld from him, and any misstep could mean his arrest or even death. I really enjoyed the portrayal of Soviet culture, when those in and out of favor change constantly and no one ever really feels safe. This book was really well-written and it kept my interest throughout. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys mystery, suspense, and historical settings. 

William Ryan's website is here; it looks like he has a number of other books in this series. My copy is an advance readers' edition, and it came with an audio excerpt on CD.

William Ryan. The Holy Thief. New York: Minotaur Books, 2010. 345 pages. ISBN 9780312586454.

Friday, April 10, 2015

The Assassin's Gallery, by David L. Robbins

Mikhal Lammeck is an expert on assassination, writing what he believes will be the definitive book on the topic, titled The Assassination's Gallery. Although he's a teacher at a university in Scotland near the end of World War II, he is convinced to come to the United States to investigate what appears to be an assassin on U.S. shores going after President Roosevelt. Working with his former student, now Special Agent Nabbit of the Secret Service, he tries to think like an assassin in order to figure out where she'll strike before it happens. This is a well-written and enjoyable suspense novel. Recommended to all who like the genre.

I picked this up at the 2006 BEA in Washington, D.C.; it's inscribed "For Rebecca, David L. Robbins."

David L. Robbins. The Assassin's Gallery. New York: Bantam Dell, 2006. 413 pages. ISBN 0553804413.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Waxwings, by Jonathan Raban

I occasionally pick up a book because I like the cover, and that was the case with Waxwings, by Jonathan Raban. In this case, I was shopping at the AAUW Used Book Sale in State College, PA, one of the largest such sales in the country, with close to half a million books. Often I attend the sale three or four days in a row; the first two days are full price, the third half price, and the fourth is bag day (all you can fit for $5). I'm especially vulnerable on bag day, and that's when I picked up Waxwings; at that price it doesn't hurt to take a chance on a new book or author.

Waxwings is set in Seattle in 1999-2000, at the height of the dot-com boom. Beth and Tom are a couple whose marriage is slowly disintegrating. Beth is a writer and editor working for an online real estate company; Tom is a literature professor at the University of Washington (UW). Their four-year-old son Finn figures prominently in the story of Beth and Tom's breakup, an ongoing theme being his misbehavior at preschool and his parents' disagreements about what he should eat or watch on television. Another key figure is Chick, an illegal Chinese immigrant who's trying to save enough money to pay off the debt to the men who brought him to the U.S. His path crosses Tom's when he offers to replace the roof on his Queen Anne Victorian home, using a crew of illegal Mexican immigrants.

I was unfamiliar with Mr. Raban's work before reading Waxwings. He's a travel writer and novelist with 18 books to his credit. His writing is very good and the plot drew me along as he developed several subplots. One of the subplots involved a young girl who disappeared from a trail on the same day that Tom was hiking there. After his and Beth's separation he was falling apart, not taking care of himself and smoking. His hike helped him to develop an idea for a new novel, but also put him in the place where a crime was committed, and his disheveled appearance and the fact that he was smoking, made him the most memorable character to everyone hiking that day. He quickly becomes a "person of interest," causing UW to put him on paid leave and his wife to begin to doubt him. As he struggles with this problem as well as his wife's departure and Chick's work on his house, he begins to realize that he can survive these problems and begins to make his way back into a semblance of normalcy.

This book is funny and well-written. The main characters: Tom, Beth, Finn, and Chick are well-developed and believable. Seattle and the dot-com boom around the turn of the 21st century are also very well described. The bust that follows the boom is subtly hinted at, and Beth's new financial "security" due to her stock options is clearly at risk. Not stated explicitly, her new wealthy status was certainly a factor in her decision to leave Tom. The title of the book refers to a species of birds that light upon a bush or tree and eat everything possible before moving on, paralleling the dot-com boom and its impact on Seattle. The book leaves the reader with a feeling that Tom will survive all of his crises and Chick will flourish; Beth's future is really questionable. Recommended.

Jonathan Raban. Waxwings. New York: Pantheon Books, 2003. 282 pages. ISBN 0375410082.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna Quindlen

I've just read Anna Quindlen's first and latest novels, one right after the other. Her first novel was Object Lessons, which I mentioned briefly in this post, and her latest novel is Still Life with Bread Crumbs. It was fun reading them successively and I noted a great improvement in her writing. This latest book is much more polished than her first, although I liked that one quite a bit as well.

Still Life with Bread Crumbs is about Rebecca Winter, sixty years old, who is a well-known photographer, but who has fallen on hard times. She has resorted to renting her New York apartment out so she can use the income to support her mother's retirement home fee and her own, much cheaper, rented home in a small town in upstate New York. Once there, her life takes on a slower pace than she's used to. She begins to make friends in town, and a romance blossoms with Jim Bates, who offers her a weekend job taking photographs of birds for the Wildlife Service. In the meantime, she wanders the woods surrounding her new home, taking pictures of what seem like memorial crosses that someone's been leaving all over the woods.

During the course of the year that Rebecca spends in her new home, she comes to appreciate the slower pace of her new life. She faces many challenges, including her father's death, and a misunderstanding with Jim, and she learns that she is a dog person, adopting a stray named Jack.

One of the things that I like about Anna Quindlen's writing as that she creates realistic characters. They're believable, they make and learn from their mistakes, and they're easy to root for. I have a sense when reading her books that things will always work out somehow for the characters. In that sense maybe they're a little unrealistic, but it's hard not to like that.

Anna Quindlen. Still Life with Bread Crumbs. New York: Random House, 2014. 256 pages. ISBN 9781400065752.