Friday, February 25, 2011

Pleasant Surprises

I want to give you the names of some authors, and their books, that were pleasant surprises for me.  I either had no expectations or had my expectations exceeded.  Whichever way it went, I would recommend these books.  They're all very good or really good (I'm making a distinction between the two, but I'm not sure what that distinction is).  Some of these authors have been in other blogs.

Billie Letts - She has written some very entertaining books:  Where the Heart Is and Made in the USA.  But the best one is The Honk and Holler, Opening Soon.  Bob and I read it probably 5 or 6 years ago, and we both rated it as the biggest surprise of the year.  We loved it.

Deborah Wolf - She's written 2 books - With You and Without You and When I'm Not Myself - These are relationship books that were very well done and appeal to both women and men.  I only read her because her mother was someone that worked for Rich.

Keith Thomson - He wrote Once A Spy.  It's about a 30-year old gambler with no direction who ends up on an escapade with his father, an ex-CIA guy who is in the beginning stages of Alzheimers.  His next book, Twice A Spy, is coming out next month.  He will also be appearing at Keplers on March 18 at 7:00.

Tom Rob Smith - I know he's been on a bunch of lists, but I bought his first book, Child 44, because I liked the cover.  And it took me almost a year to pull the trigger.  This is so good, about an up and coming KGB officer who gets a conscience, that I'm going to try and get it on every list.  P.S.  His second one, The Secret Speech, was just as good.

Lolly Winston - This is another relationship author who has written 2 very good novels:  Good Grief and Happiness Sold Separately.  Joni saw her at the Saratoga Library and bought me a signed book.  Otherwise, I would never have read it.  Then I ate up the second one.

Sam Eastland - The Eye of the Red Tsar.  Yep, you guessed it.  It's another novel that takes place in The Soviet Union.  It was really entertaining.  And he just came out with a sequel that I will be starting tomorrow.  I think I found this one from a USA Today review.

David Benioff - City of Thieves.  This takes place in...THE SOVIET UNION!  I actually don't have a fixation with The Soviet Union.  These are just really good books that happen to take place there.  This one was handed to me by Tim.  I don't always love his suggestions (he's much more intellectual than me - but, then again, so are most people over the age of 3), but he was right on the money with this one.  After I read this one, I went right to his first novel, which was written 5 years earlier, called The 25th Hour.  It was good, not great.  It was made into a movie, starring Edward Norton.

Garth Stein - The Art of Racing in the Rain.  But you already know about this one.

Nicole Mones - The Last Chinese Chef - I didn't expect to care for this one very much, but I did.  It was a very good story about a Chinese Chef (no great surprise there) who goes back to mainland China from the US to cook in a competition.  He lives with, and learns from, his elderly relatives.  Mones does a good job of explaining Chinese culture, especially on the culinary side, and spends a lot of time on cooking procedures.  There's also some romance that is not too overdone or sappy.  She also wrote Lost in Translation that was made into a movie starring Bill Murray and directed by Sophia Coppola (who was oscar-nominated).  I haven't read that one or the other one she wrote - A Cup of Light.

Christopher Reich (of "just then" fame) - Joni went to a writers' conference in Salinas a few years ago.  Reich was one of the speakers.  He talked about how he had something like 60 rejections before a publisher finally picked up one of his novels.  She got me a signed copy of The Patriots' Club.  I read it, just like Winston, because she got it for me.  I really enjoyed his first 5 books, which all had a finance guy as the hero and were all standalones.  His last 3, which have been about the same character, not nearly as much.

Anybody want to share their pleasant surprises?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Wait A Minute!

Okay, I recently published my B-Listers.  And, yet, I have just read two books from authors on that list that were darn good.  The first is from Michael Palmer.  It's called A Heartbeat Away, and it is A-List material.  It begins with the president giving his state of the union address at the start of his second term.  An extremely virile biochemical is released by terrorists in the same room as the president and 700 other people.  The president, who knows what it is, immediately shuts off the capitol building and doesn't let anybody in or out.  It's up to a biologist, who is currently serving a sentence in a maximum prison across the countr, to save the president and the others.  It is really exciting with great characters, both heroes and villains.  I strongly recommend it - to everybody.

The second is from Dean Koontz.  He's written almost 50 novels, and, as I mentioned in the other blog, some of his early stuff was definitely A-List material.  It's probably been 40 books ago that he wrote something that belonged on the A-List.  This new one is close.  It's not as good as the very early stuff, but it's better than most of the other 40 that's followed.  I won't go into the story line because you either like horror or you don't.  If you do, then it's not so critical as to what the exact plot it.  Suffice it to say that I was definitely rapt reading it.  That says a lot because my "raptness" is often in question.  If this makes any difference, and it may or may not, Josh is reading it now and likes it a lot.

Although I'm not prepared to elevate Brad Meltzer's latest, The Inner Circle, to A-List stature, it's a good solid B+/A-.  It's definitely one of his better ones.  The protagonist/hero is an archivist in DC.  It's a very good story and gives some good insight into how the archives in Washington DC operate.  I recommend it to everybody.

That's it for any movement on the B-List.  A-Listers are coming soon.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Testing notification

Fiction for Non-Fiction Readers

I know there are many of you who prefer non-fiction or who don't really like to read.  This is a list of fiction  for you.  These are books (some new, some old) that you will like even if you don't typically read fiction - or read at all.  This came about from a conversation I had with John.  He hasn't read fiction in many years but ended up reading the Stieg Larsson trilogy - The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest.  He really enjoyed them.  So, in addition to those three, which I would also highly recommend, here is a baker's dozen to add to Larsson.

Tom Rob Smith - Child 44 ( and the sequel, The Secret Speech) - excellent book about a KGB officer in the 1950's who develops a conscience.
Richard North Patterson - Exile - he's written a number of very good books (Protect and Defend could be on this list too), but this one is superb about an American Jewish attorney (Jewish American attorney?) who defends a Palestinian woman who (whom? - Jen, Roseann, which one is it?) he once had an affair with.
Jodi Picoult - My Sister's Keeper - I've liked most of her books a lot, but this is the best - about a girl who was conceived in order to provide the means to keep her older sister alive - spoiler alert (for Donna's benefit) - the ending is not too happy.
Alex Berenson - The Faithful Spy - this is the first in a series, and this one is the best - about a CIA employee who spends ten years undercover with Al Queda.
Daniel Silva - The Unlikely Spy - he is mostly known for his series about Gabriel Allon, an Israeli Mossad agent who is also a world-class art restorer - but this book, his first, is about how Germany embedded spies in England a number of years before WWII and how England went about exposing them.
Nelson DeMille - The Charm School - a great concept for a book - an American prisoner camp in the Soviet Union where the Soviets learn how to be American so they can infiltrate American government, military, and society.
Jeannette Walls - The Glass Castle - even though this is non-fiction, I had to throw it in - the account of a woman as a child growing up in her highly dysfunctional family - almost too unbelievable to be non-fiction.
Pat Conroy - South of Broad - his latest (they're all really good) - a group of childhood friends through the years.
Ken Follett - Pillars of the Earth - one of the greats (the sequel, World Without End, is up there too) - 1100's England and the building of a church - it was a mini-series on HBO last summer.
James Clavell - Shogun - another all-time great - an Englishman in 1500's Japan - maybe one of the first books of fiction to explore Japanese culture.
James Michener - The Source - still another all-time classic - a re-creation of ancient Israel through the different layers exposed during an archeological dig - a truly amazing book.
David Benioff - City of Thieves - this was a total surprise - takes place in Stalingrad during WWII when the Nazis sieged that city - a Soviet colonel sends two young Russians - one a civilian and one in the military - into the countryside to get fresh eggs for his daughter's wedding.
Kathryn Stockett - The Help - a young white woman tells the stories of black maids in 1960's Mississippi - a seemingly accurate depiction of that time in that state.

P.S.  If there are any of you fiction readers who haven't read one or more of these, please do.  You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, February 13, 2011


Before I give you B-listers, I want to ask for a favor.  Joni had a very good idea.  She made the suggestion that everybody send me a list of their 3 favorite books of all time.  This is a variation on what Josh did last year.  He asked a number of people for their favorite all-time book.  Then he read only those books for the entire year.  This time, I'll compile the list from everybody's choices and get that list to all of you.  What the heck.  This seems like a great way to promote top-notch books.  I'll post the list in a couple of weeks.

Now, on to the B-listers (an A-list will be the subject of a future blog).  These are authors that I read and like but don't love.  I still pick up and read all of their books, and I enjoy them.  They're good reads.  It's just that I don't wait for them like I do the A-listers.  If you want to know about a specific author, please let me know which one it is.  I will be happy to synopsize their work for you.  I have no doubt that some of you will want to weigh in on my selections.  There could well be a bunch of disagreement on this one.  So be it.  What fun would it be if everybody agreed with my list.  That's right - no fun at all (I'm not looking for sycophants).

As they say on Dancing with the Stars, these are in no particular order:

Michael Palmer
Philip Margolin
James Grippando
Christopher Moore
James Swain
Robert Harris
Tami Hoag (except for Night Sins and Guilty As Sin - both excellent)
John Lescroart
David Rosenfelt
John Dunning
Larry McMurtry (except for Lonesome Dove - one of my all-time favorites)
David Robbins (not the rabbi from San Jose)
Brad Meltzer (his latest one is very close to A-list)
David Baldacci (other than The Camel Club series)
Christopher Buckley
John Case
Dean Koontz (his earliest books - Lightning, Strangers, Watchers, Midnight - were horror classics - now, not so much)
Dan Jenkins
Robert Morris
John Darnton

That's all folks.

Friday, February 11, 2011

2 books and an author

Hello all,

I want to recommend 2 books that I have just read.  The first is called The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein.  It's got a picture of a dog on the cover so, of course, I avoided it (I'm not a big fan of animals).  Joni and I were at an author's event a few weeks ago (Robert Crais) with Rich and Leslie.  They both strongly recommended the book and said that it was a human story told from the perspective of the family dog.  Since I was waiting for my next author to come out with his latest (Alex Berenson and his macho man star, John Wells), I figured I'd give it a try.  I tend to like almost everything Rich likes.  Well, I'm happy to report that it was darn good.  It was very clever and, in some parts, quite poignant.  I would recommend it to anybody and everybody, regardless of what types of books you like.

The second one is a non-fiction called Look Me in the Eye, by John Robison.  It's written by a man (Robison) who has asperger's.  He's now in his early to mid fifties, and he tells the story of growing up with the disease but not knowing that he has the disease.  At that time, people knew about autism but not about the autism spectrum - the fact that many people with autism are high-functioning.  The book is well written and gives us laypeople a really good idea of what asperger's is all about.  Although I'm not a big non-fiction fan, I liked this a lot.  Plus I actually learned something.  Imagine that.  Again, I think this is a pretty good read for everybody.

And now for the big news (drum roll, please) - Harlan Coben is coming to the Bay Area to promote his latest book.  He's going to be at The Book Passage in Corte Madera on Monday, March 28.  Yes, I know it's a Monday night and, yes, I know it's far for many of us, but this guy is great.  If you like murder mysteries, this author is right near the top of the list.  For those of us who read him, it's always exciting when he comes out with a new book.  He started his career by writing 6 or 7 books about a sports agent and his buddy, which were very entertaining, and then switched to stand-alones.  Everything he writes is top notch.  So far, Joni, Rich, Leslie, Alan, Lanie (unconfirmed), and I are going.  If you can get there, assuming you even care, this is a good one.  P.S., we always have dinner after the event.  Does that make a difference?

My next blog will focus on B-listers - i.e. those authors who we read and like but don't love.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Macho Men and Chick Lit

Hello all,

Did you miss me?  Does anybody even know that I haven't posted a blog for 10 days?  Now that you know that, do you care?  Okay, moving on:  I want to cover what I think is a very interesting topic.  How do we get the male gender of our species, who usually only read about macho men (e.g. Mitch Rapp, Gabriel Allon, or John Wells), to read chick lit?  In fact, what exactly is chick lit?  Beats me.  But I can certainly tell you what it's not.  It's not cheesy romances.  There are a number of female authors who have written excellent novels about relationships (with both male and female protagonists) that I have enjoyed immensely.  Yes, perhaps it can be said that I'm a bit girlie.  But I like to think of it as getting in touch with my feminine side (my metrosexualism, if you will).

Here are some recommendations.*  These are all books that I have read.

Lolly Winston (2) - Good Grief and Happiness Sold Separately
Deborah Wolf (the daughter of someone who worked for Rich for many years) (2) - With You and Without You and When I'm Not Myself
Billie Letts (3) - The Honk and Holler, Opening Soon (the sleeper hit of the year a few years back for Bob and me), Made in the U.S.A., Where the Heart Is
Anna Quindlan (4) - Rise and Shine, Black and Blue, Every Last One, and One True Thing
Jodi Picoult (millions) - her books are either good, really good, or excellent
Alice Sebold (1) - The Lovely Bones
Ann Patchett (3) - Bel Canto, The Magician's Assistant, and Run - very good stuff
Kathryn Stockett (1) - The Help
Sara Gruen (1) - Water for Elephants

That should hold you macho man readers for awhile.  In fact, the first man that tells me he's read at least one book from each of these authors will receive a novel of his choice free, from me.  He can have it in hardcover, softcover, or in ereader form.  I have to say that I feel pretty safe on this one but will be happy
to pay up.

*P.S.  Women will like these books too.

Here are a couple of upcoming author events that might be interesting to some of you:

at "M" Is for Mystery, in San Mateo:
3/7 - Randy Wayne White - 7:00
3/17 - Keith Thomson - 7:00 - his book from last year, Once A Spy, was very good - now he's promoting his next book in the series, Twice A Spy
at Keplers, in Menlo Park:
Cara Black - 7:00
at Book Passage - Corte Madera (and the big one):
Jodi Picoult - at Dominican College, San Rafael - 7:00 - Joni and I are going with Donna and Phil - it's a Wednesday night, but we are huge fans of hers - anyone else?