Sunday, August 26, 2012

Well, Color Me Grey On 11/22/63

I know I'm supposed to be doing the author interviews - and I will - soon.  But, first, I have tell you about Fifty Shades of Grey and 11/22/63.  They couldn't be more different, but they have one thing in common for me - I liked them both.  Actually, I LOVED 11/22/63 and liked Fifty Shades.

11/22/63, by Steven King.  This makes my top 100 all-time list.  This book is just excellent.  Everybody knows what it's about, but I will recap anyway.  Jake Epping, a 35-year old teacher in Lisbon Falls, Maine, is told of a portal to the past by the local diner owner, Al.  This portal is located in Al's storeroom at his diner and always takes him to the same day in 1958.  When Al gets too sick to go, he enlists Jake to take over for him.  Al's mission - prevent JFK's assassination.

The book does an amazing job of blending the present and the past.  Everything that happens to Jake (aka George Amberson in 1958) is very plausible.  I've had a few people tell me that they are not Steven King fans.  Neither am I.  The only King book I've read in the last 20 years was The Stand (again courtesy of Phil), and I liked it.  But this is not typical Steven King.  As I said in my very brief post earlier this week, READ THIS BOOK!

That brings me to Fifty Shades of Grey, by E.L. James.  Where do I begin?  I brought a lot of pre-conceived notions into reading this.  I thought that it was going to be poorly written and that the whole book was basically about BDSM (look it up - I did).  Well, I was wrong.  I liked this book.  I did not think it was poorly written at all.  In fact, she uses a couple of tricks that I thought were particularly clever.  I'll get to those in a minute.

Do I really need to go over the "plot?"  I don't think so.  The Aborigines in the Outback of Australia know what the story is about.  But just in case you've been in a coma for the last year - or were kidnapped by aliens and only recently returned to Mother Earth - let me give a (very) brief synopsis.  A 21-year old Washington State University student, Anastasia Steele, who is almost graduating, interviews a 27-year old wunderkind/genius, Christian Grey, CEO of a large local company.  She is doing this only because her roommate, the editor of the school newspaper, is sick and unable to conduct the interview.  What ensues is a whole bunch of fireworks.

The back cover of the book tells us that the website Good Reads had this as a finalist for romance of the year.  I concur.  I think the book is very romantic.  Yes there's quite a bit of graphic sex in it (but not until page 113), but the book is much more about their relationship than it is about the sex.  And as for the "tricks" E.L. James employs, there are a couple that worked well for me.  One was how Anastasia constantly refers to her subconscious and her inner goddess and how they react in any given situation.  I thought that was really clever and oftentimes very funny.  I also liked when Anastasia and Christian exchanged emails.  Those were also clever and humorous.  These are definitely not the gimmicks of an author who is just going through the motions and using throw-away dialogue to get to the next sex scene.

Here's the most important aspect of the book (in my humble opinion).  This is the first time that women have been given permission to read erotica.  Before this book, erotica was always the province of men. I think it's great that everybody can now read a mainstream erotic book (even if I did carry the book with me with the back cover facing out!).  I think that this is great.

I haven't really addressed the sex scenes.  I thought they were okay, but Jasmine Haynes' were more graphic and more titillating (good choice of words, eh?).  If you read Past Midnight as a comparison, you'll see the difference.  But that doesn't change the fact that millions of people now have the okay to read erotica in public settings.  How can that not be a good thing?

QUESTION:  When James writes "There's a hint of pity hidden in the depths of his eyes," is that even possible?  Most authors attribute multiple emotions (at the same time!) to eyes.  Does that really happen? Can someone see "...pity hidden in the depths..." of a person's eyes?  Just asking.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Steven King's 11/22/63

I told you I was done with reviews for awhile.  And I meant it.  So this is NOT a review.  But I'm telling you all this - read Steven King's 11/22/63 - NOW.  This is a book for the ages.  It is definitely one of the best books I've read in quite some time.  I'm not kidding.  READ THIS BOOK!

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Final 3 (for now)

All right, book fans.  Here are the last of the reviews for now.  I will intersperse others along the way, but after these 3, it's time for author interviews.  So what are the last 3, you ask?  They are all local authors - and all part of the upcoming blog series.

Jasmine Haynes - Dead to the Max
Adina Senft - The Hidden Life
Hannah Jayne - Under Attack

I met all 3 of these authors at Barnes & Noble in The Pruneyard.  They all write in genres that I normally would not read (Haynes - erotic romance, Senft - religious fiction, and Jayne - paranormal).  I have now read 2 books by each of them and have enjoyed all 6.  Here is a bit about each:

The first book that I read by Jasmine was Past Midnight.  The review for that was posted on November 19, 2011.  It's 1 of 2 blogs that I've written (the other being the authors' night at my granddaughter's school, written on May 26 of this year) that I felt like I was channelling somebody else.  The book and the event had so much impact on me that the blogs basically wrote themselves.  Out of the 98 blogs that I have written, these 2 stand out from the rest.  It's not that I like them better than the others; it's just that they affected me in a different way.

Okay, that was a really long-winded introduction.  This book is called Dead to the Max.  It's about an accountant whose life has fallen apart after her husband was killed in a robbery at 7-11 2 years earlier.  She has basically removed herself from her former life and is doing temp work.  The only problem is that she is a psychic and tends to be possessed by the spirits of murdered women.  In order to exorcise these spirits, she has to find their killer.  Dead to the Max is book 1 of her Max Starr series.  In it, she takes a temp job as an accountant in order to find the killer of the woman who previously worked there.

Keeping in mind that Jasmine writes erotic romance, you would expect that there would be some graphic sex in this book.  And there is.  Only, it's not quite what you might envision for yourself - assuming you ever think about those things.  I liked Max to the Dead.  Speaking of envisioning, I envision reading book 2.

Next is Adina Senft's The Hidden Life.  This is book 2 of her Amish trilogy called An Amish Quilt Novel, so named because 3 women get together once every week to make a quilt.  Each of these books focuses on 1 of 3 of the very close friends.  The first one is about Amelia, a widow with 2 children who (SPOILER ALERT!) finds love a 2nd time.  This one is all about Emma, who is 30 and has never been married.  In Amish-land, this is the equivalent of a hopeless spinster.  Will Emma every find love?  I'm not saying.  I enjoyed book 1, the The Wounded Heart.  It was pleasant.  Would I have read The Hidden Life if I didn't know Adina personally?  Perhaps, but unsure.  So how did I like #2?  I didn't...(the suspense builds) - I LOVED it.  I thought it was absolutely terrific.  And it has nothing to do with knowing Adina.  I highly recommend it.

The 3rd review from one of our local authors is Hannah Jayne's Under Attack.  This is book 2 of her Underworld Detection Agency Chronicles.  Sophie Lawson is a human who is immune to magic.  She works 37 floors underneath the San Francisco Police Department for the UDA.  Her job is to help all manner of magic creatures (e.g. fairies, hobgoblins, vampires, etc.) assimilate into everyday life.  This is not an easy task, as you might imagine.  Both of Hannah's books that I've read mix murder, mystery, romance, and humor very deftly (maybe not exactly the common (wo)man's choice of words).  In fact, let me give you a couple of examples of her humor.  This is the first line in the book:

"It's nearly impossible to get hobgoblin slobber out of raw silk."

Here's another example, on page 43:

"How do you lose an ancient artifact stuffed with human souls?  Did you leave it at the donut shop?  Maybe trade it for a couple of maple glazed?"

I am chuckling out loud often when I read Hannah's books.  She is darn funny.  But besides the humor, the stories are interesting.  You forget that (most likely!) there aren't hobgoblins and fairies that we have to deal with on a daily basis.  I've already got Hannah's 3rd book and will be reading that in the near future.

ON DECK:  My next blog will be my first author interview.  So far, I've interviewed 9 of the 11 authors who agreed to meet with me.  I will blog in the order that I interviewed them:  Jasmine Haynes, Keith Raffel, Hannah Jayne, Adina Senft, Sheldon Siegel, Michael David Lukas, Alice La Plante, Meg Waite Clayton, and Peter Adler.  I'm still hoping to interview Victoria Sweet and Juliet Blackwell but don't have times set up yet.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Alex Kava Redeems Herself - And 2 More

Well, Alex Kava has redeemed herself.  Her 10th Maggie O'Dell (she also has 2 stand-alones), Fireproof, is a good, solid book.  Her 2 previous O'Dell's, Hotwire and Damaged, were really mediocre.  In fact, they were so mediocre (how mediocre were they, you ask?) that I made a vow to stop reading Kava's novels (perish the thought!) completely if her next one (Fireproof) wasn't decent.  I'll give any of my established authors a pass or 2, but 3? - nope.  So she saved herself (I'm sure she is thrilled to know this!).

This one centers around an arsonist in the D.C. area, a big shot, award-winning journalist, and his camera(wo)man.  You also have the usual cast of characters - R. J. Tully, her ex-partner, Julia Racine, a D.C. detective, Patrick, her recently discovered younger half-brother, and Benjamin Platt, an army medico and sometime boyfriend.  When an arson reveals a dead body, Maggie is brought in.  She is an FBI profiler and has helped discover and put away many serial killers.  Along the way, she has been captured, tortured, and left for dead.  She comes with a lot of psychological baggage that she has to deal with (or not) on an ongoing basis.  This all makes her an interesting protagonist.  She is skilled but definitely flawed.

Keith Raffel's 3rd book, Drop by Drop, A Thriller, is in digital form only (I don't know how much it costs on Amazon, but I know it's not too expensive).  His first 2, Dot Dead and Smasher, take place exclusively in the Bay Area (Palo Alto, mostly).  This one starts in the Bay Area but spends most of its time in Washington D.C. (it's just a coincidence that both this novel and Fireproof take place there - the next one being reviewed today definitely does not).  Sam and Rachel are very happily married.  She's an up-and-coming investment banker, and he's an associate professor of history at Stanford.  Plus, they have recently found out that she's pregnant with their first child.  Everything is great.  Of course, if everything stayed great, then it wouldn't be a thriller, and I probably wouldn't have had much reason to write this review!

Sam drives Rachel to the SF airport where she is heading out to visit several hot companies as possible investment targets.  When they drive up to the curb at SFO and get out, they run across Sam's graduate school roommate, Doug.  While they're talking, a woman drives in behind Sam's car and blows herself up.  Rachel and Doug are killed, and Sam is left completely bereft (cool word, eh?).

A month later, he gets a call from Senator Marty Vincent, who is the senior member of his minority party on the Intelligence Committee.  He offers Sam a job as his staff director.  He tells Sam that this is an opportunity to get back at the people who killed Rachel (Sam worked for Senator Vincent for 3 years as a legislative assistant a number of years earlier when he was preparing his Ph.D.).  After much angst and consideration, Sam consents to re-join the senator's staff.  The rest of the book takes place in D.C.  There are a number of  characters that greatly enhance Drop by Drop:  Jessie, who was Sam's professor at Stanford and who is now Director of the National Security Agency; Cecilia, who is the staff director for the majority party's senator on the Intelligence Committee; George, who was Rachel's boss and who comes to D.C. out of an alleged love of patriotism; and, of course, Senator Vincent.  Throw in your usual supporting cast of D.C. politicos and hangers-on, and you've got a fast-paced thriller.  I think that Keith has improved with each of his 3 books, and this one is definitely the best.  I liked both Dot Dead (#1) and Smasher (#2), but Drop by Drop elevates his game.  I also really liked the fact that he took his story out of Silicon Valley.  Keith is a local author (and another one of my interviewees), and I will be looking forward to reading all of his future books.

The last book in this troika (a Russian word meaning three of a kind - see, I have culture), which only calls for a very short review, is by Ann Lamott and her son, Sam.  It's called Some Assembly Required, A Journal of My Son's First Son.  Not surprisingly, it's about Ann's first grandchild.  Joni and I went to see them at Kepler's way back in April.  Ann, of course, has written a bunch of books - 5 non-fiction (including Some Assembly Required) and 7 fiction.  I had never read any of her stuff until this one.  I have to say that I enjoyed it.  It is mostly written by Ann, but Sam interjects quite a few quotes and also writes the forward.  The book mostly chronicle's the baby's (Jax) first year of life.  It has poignant moments and a lot of humor.  Would I recommend it?  I think so.  I didn't like it as much as I liked Regis's memoir from late last year, but I still liked it.  If you are an Ann Lamott fan, then I'm sure this book is for you.  If you haven't read her before, then I would definitely wait until it comes out in paperback and/or is reduced in price at Amazon.

NOTE:  I have one more blog with reviews to write, and then I will hit the author interviews.  So far, I have interviewed 8 of the 11 authors who have said yes with #9 coming this week.

NOTE #2:  When I reviewed Robert Harris's The Fear Index, I told you that the story is about an investment company that develops a computer that uses algorithms to determine what investments to make.  It seemed very space-age, science fictiony to me.  Well, last week I was reading the business section of the Mercury News and came across a company called Knight Investments (or something like that) that had a computer that used algorithms.  And, just like the book, the computer went haywire which led to the company having a major problem with it's investments.  A friend of mine, who is a many-decades stockbroker, said that having computers determine investments by using algorithms is common, and that institutional investors and large individual investors (just like in the book) are the usual clients.  Who the heck knew?

Friday, August 10, 2012

Keep Those Reviews Rolling In

I'd like to say that I'm on a roll.  But since I've done 2 straight blogs about 1 book each, I can't really say that.  This time, though, I mean it.  I'm doing 3 reviews no matter what.  And heeeeere they are:

Daniel Silva - The Fallen Angel
Brad Harbach - The Art of Fielding
Christopher Buckley - They Eat Puppies, Don't They?

These 3 books are as different from each other as you could imagine.  One's the 12th in a series about an Israeli art restorer/spy-assassin; one's about a kid who turns himself into a major league prospect with the help of his new best friend; and one's about...well, Buckley's satires are very hard to categorize.  Just take it on faith that they're all very different.

First up is Silva's The Fallen Angel.  This is one of my favorite series.  And it seems that Silva's writing gets better with each book.  This was really well done.  I've got Silva's The Unlikely Spy (NOT part of the series) in FFTNFR, Volume I, but any one of his 12 books about Gabriel Allon could easily be on one of those lists.  Gabriel's age is tough to determine, but I would think he is in his mid- to late-fifties.  All of the books combine his world-class skill in restoring painting masterpieces with his relentless pursuit of terrorists and unfriendlies.  In this edition, he is at the Vatican restoring a painting by Caravaggio (Gabriel is actually a confidant to the pope and the pope's right hand man - go figure).  He finds himself trying to solve a murder that takes place in the Vatican.  This brings him back in contact with his long-time mentor, Ari Shamron (a great literary figure), Uzi Navot, the head of Israeli intelligence, and Gabriel's crew who get together each book to plan how they are going to prevent terrorists from destroying Israel.  In this case, Iran is the bad guy.  That's all the information you need.  It follows a standard pattern and is very, very good.

Next is Brad Harbach's The Art of Fielding.  This has become somewhat of a sensation (even Recycle Bookstore in Campbell has multiple copies!).  The story centers on a young scrawny kid, Henry Skrimshander, who plays baseball and never makes an error.  I mean never.  He can't hit, but his fielding is amazing.  A famous shortstop, who played in the major leagues for many years, has written a book called The Art of Fielding, and it is Henry's bible.

While playing in a tournament as a high school senior, Henry comes to the attention of Mike Schwartz who is a major stud.  Mike, who had never seen or heard of Henry before this tournament, convinces Henry to attend Westish College in Wisconsin, a division III school (small college) where Mike has just finished his first year.  Mike mentors Henry and helps him become an amazing star, one who ultimately catches the attention of major league scouts.  Everything is going great for Henry - until he makes his first error.  Then everything turns upside down.

Besides Henry and Mike, there is Guert Affenlight, who is the president of the college, Pella Affenlight, who is (not surprisingly) the president's daughter, and Own Dunne, a baseball player who reads when he's sitting on the bench during games, who is gay, and who is Henry's roommate.  For those of you who don't like sports, don't worry.  The relationships among all of these people are more interesting than the baseball.  And for those of you who like sports, don't worry.  There's enough baseball to keep you interested.  My buddy Bob, who has been exchanging books with me for over a decade now, told me to read this one.  He never does that.  He was right.  This is darn good.

The 3rd book, Christopher Buckley's They Eat Puppies, Don't They, is a bit difficult to explain.  It's not that I can't give you the story line.  It's rather that all of his books are tongue-in-cheek.  Let me give you some of the titles of his previous works:  Florence of Arabia, No Way to Treat A First Lady, Little Green Men, Wry Martinis, Boomsday, and, his one book that was made into a movie, Thank You for Smoking.  See what I mean?  He has been called a "political novelist," a "humor novelist," and "America's greatest living political satirist."

I can still give you the plot, although it pretty much doesn't matter.  The plot just gives Buckley a chance to skewer Washington D.C. politics (his father was William F. Buckley).  In Puppies, Bird McIntyre is a lobbyist who teams up with the chairperson of the Institute for Continuing Conflict, Angel Templeton.  She is very outspoken and very sexy.  They team up to convince the American public that the Chinese are plotting to assassinate the Dalai Lama.  There are chapters with Bird, and there are chapters with the president of the People's Republic of China/general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Fa Mengyao.  Throw in Bird's wife Myndi, who is a world-class equestrian, Lo Guowei, Minister of State Security, and the scariest person (out of 1.3 billion people) in China, and Chick Devlin, President of aerospace giant Groepping-Sprunt, and you have a wide variety of very interesting characters.

Can I recommend this book?  Maybe but not necessarily.  I would suggest that if you want to try a Buckley that you start with Thank You For Smoking.  If you like that, then you can give this one a shot.

This weekend, I will review Alex Kava's latest and Keith Raffel's (a Bay Area guy and one of my interviewees) 3rd book.

NOTE:  I just started Steven King's 11/22/63.  Since it's 842 pages, I should actually be able, this time, to catch up on the reviews.  Then I will start blogging about the author interviews.  BTW, I have 3 more authors to interview.  That will make a total of 11.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

And Here Is Another Review

As I mentioned 2 blogs ago, I want to catch up on my book reviews before I start the author interview series.  So I was going to do 3 today.  But as I worked on The Columbus Affair by Steve Berry, I simply couldn't do it justice if I combined it with 1 or 2 others.  Here, then, is a review of just The Columbus Affair.

The Columbus Affair is Berry's 11th book.  His first 3 were stand-alones, and they were good - The Amber Room, The Romanov Prophecy (it's in FFTNFR, Volume IV), and The Third Secret.  His next 7 books centered on Cotton Malone, an ex-Justice Department operative who deals in rare books in, of all places, Denmark.  Now Berry's 11th book takes a break from Cotton Malone.  I like the Malone series, but I'm glad to have a stand-alone to sink my teeth into.  And sink my teeth into it I did.

The Columbus Affair asks the question:  Why did Columbus hurry to leave before midnight on his journey to the New World?  The author posits the theory that he was Jewish and had to leave before the start of the day when all Jews would be expelled from Spain.  Haven't heard that one before!  It is definitely a unique approach to all things Columbus.

The story, as with all Berry books, takes place in the present.  Tom Sagan is a long-time, award-winning investigative reporter.  He is at the top of his field - until he files a report about a war-torn nation that proves to be very inaccurate.  He is certain that someone has deliberately fed him wrong information in order ruin his career.  And, in fact, his career does come crashing down.  On top of that, he is divorced and is estranged from his only child, a daughter.  8 years after his ill-fated report, he has decided to kill himself.  He is ready to do that, with a gun to his head, when somebody appears at his window and holds up a picture of his daughter bound and gagged.  This leads Sagan to places around the world including Jamaica, where Columbus allegedly settled.

There are a number of very interesting characters including a Jewish zealot, Zachariah Simon, hoping to instigate an Arab-Israeli war and bring about the building of a Third Temple in Jerusalem, a Jamaican don, Bene, whose legitimate business is a world-class coffee company, and a mysterious stranger, Brian, who is trying to convince Tom's daughter, Alle, that Simon is not who he says he is.  Add in the fact that Tom's deceased Jewish grandfather appeared to have information that could lead to treasure hidden by Columbus 500 years earlier, and you have a very intricately plotted story.

Although Steve Berry doesn't need me to tout his books, I think this is his best one yet.  I really enjoyed the mystery surrounding the hidden treasure and all of the flashbacks to Columbus and his right-hand man, Luis de Torres, who was the first Jewish inhabitant of the New World.  Berry uses his research to take us to the time Columbus arrived in the Caribbean along with the succeeding years.  He writes mostly in the present but intersperses it with flashbacks to Columbus and de Torres.  This is fascinating stuff.  Read it.  You'll like it.


Thursday, August 2, 2012

My First Review for HarperCollins

This is a review of The Prisoner of Heaven, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and is my first book with HarperCollins (as you can see from the title of the blog, I believe that you can never say the same thing too many times!).  Although it's not an ARC (Prisoner came out in early July), HarperCollins is trying to build a buzz.  And I am happy to help with that buzz.  This is a very good book.  It's the 3rd book in the same series but is advertised as not being in any particular order.  I haven't read either of the first 2 (The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel's Game), but I never felt like I was missing any vital background.  I have not heard of many of the authors that HarperCollins makes available to us bloggers.  But if this one is any indicator, then I will be reading many more.

Daniel Sempere works in the bookstore in Barcelona that was started by his great-grandfather in 1888. He has a wife and young son, and they live above the shop.  He and his father have one employee, Fermin Romero de Torres (there's supposed to be an accent ague over the "i"), who is in his '40's and who is very close to both Daniel and Daniel's father.  Adding to the activity surrounding the bookstore, Fermin is planning on being married in a couple of months.  The story begins around Christmastime, 1957.  The store is on the brink of disaster from a cash flow standpoint.  One afternoon, Daniel's father and Fermin both have occasion to leave the store.  While they're gone, a strange old man, who appears homeless, comes in and buys a very expensive book and pays with way too much cash.  He leaves a cryptic message for Fermin - and so it begins.

As Fermin's story unfolds, we head back to 1939 and pick up Fermin's history.  It switches from 1939 to 1957.  I loved the back-and-forth.  In fact, one of my favorite books, Back Bay by William Martin (this reminds me that I forgot to put that in Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader - that will go into #5), goes from the present (1992) back-and-forth to Revolutionary times.  It's the story of a lost tea set made by Paul Revere (do we all remember that Revere was a silversmith - hm, do we?).  Back Bay, which is in the greater Boston area, is the backdrop for this novel.  It's darn good.

But I digress.  Fermin's story is told in detail, but Zafon keeps us guessing (at least me, although I'm quite often a little slow to catch on) as to how it relates to both the old man that Daniel met in the shop and Fermin himself.  Both stories, the one in 1939 and the one in 1957, are interesting and kept me engaged throughout.  By the time I figured it out, it's late in the book, and everything comes together.  I thought it was very well done, and I would definitely read his books moving forward.  In fact, I might be tempted to read his first 2 as well, although trying to fit those in might be too daunting a task.

2 other notes about the book:  First, the title of the book refers to David Martin (another accent ague over the "i"), who is in prison with Fermin and who is a renowned author.  There's a fairly good-sized sub-plot surrounding Martin and the warden.  And, second, all 3 books (a trilogy? - I'm not sure since the books can be read independently - what's the definition of a trilogy, anyway?) center on the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  This is a place where the most famous books of the region are stored and made available only to a chosen few.  Unfortunately, this repository comes into the picture very late in the book, so I still don't know how it fits into the other 2.

Having said all of that (in my typical overblown way), I say go for The Prisoner of Heaven.

SHOUT-OUT TO TRANSLATOR:  Zafon writes his books in Spanish.  Lucia Graves translated this one.  I don't know if she did the first 2, but I think she did a heckuva job with this one.