Saturday, September 29, 2012

Two More Reviews

Last August, I did a blog about W.E.B. Griffin.  At that time, I had read 38 of his books.  Now, 13 months later, I have just finished #40.  The Spymaster is book #7 of the Men at War series.  When I was describing all of his series, I referred to this one as a confection.  It's lighter, less involved, shorter in length (that shouldn't be a factor but oftentimes is), and not as well written as the other military series (I only read 1 book in the police series - and didn't care for it).  Now that I've read book #7, I agree with everything I said about Men at War from last August.  It was okay.

The series takes place during WWII and centers on the OSS, which was the precursor to the CIA.  The OSS was formed to be the intelligence agency during the war.  It was led by Will Bill Donovan at the personal behest (fancy, eh?) of FDR.  There are a lot of OSS agents and station chiefs during the war, but, basically, the hero of the series is Dick Canidy, a 26-year old very effective and very loose cannon.  He always gets behind enemy lines and wreaks havoc while, at the same time, rescuing his guys and spiriting away scientists, and the like, for USA purposes.  He hasn't lost anybody yet!

I can't enthusiastically endorse this series although the other 4 military series (The Corps, The Brotherhood of War, Presidential Agent, and Honor Bound) are all fantastic.  Even with that lukewarm approval rating, it's still entertaining reading.  And Griffin not only knows a whole lot about the military but also respects its traditions and its people.  I applaud him for that.

I just finished Mitch Albom's latest, the time keeper (his lower case, not mine - you know how anal I am about spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.).  Let's get my biggest pet peeve out of the way first.  The book is very small (typical for him) and has 222 short pages.  It takes about 2 hours to read.  And it's $24.99!  That's a lot of money - if you pay sticker price (which I don't).  Of course, all of his books are wildly popular so he gets away with it.  Who am I to knock it - especially when James Patterson is putting out 6-8 poorly written books a year (I can't resist throwing his name in there once in a while) and raking in the money.  Okay, I have now officially vented.

Albom has written 3 novels and 2 non-fiction.  Tuesdays with Morrie is still the best-selling memoir of all time.  That's darn impressive.  His 2nd non-fiction is Have a Little Faith.  The 2 other novels, besides this one, are The Five People You Meet in Heaven and For One More Day.  I've liked all 4 of his other books better than this one.  The story in the time keeper (see line 1 of the paragraph above) is about Father Time, the first person to measure time.  FT (I know, pretty ridiculous) is holed up in a cave for about 6 millennia because he had the audacity to measure one of God's greatest gifts:  (say it altogether now) Time.  During his imprisonment, he hears every voice around the world (he understands all languages!) that is complaining about time - either too much or too little.  Finally, he is released back to earth and finds himself drawn to 2 people - an 80+ year-old billionaire who is trying to cheat death even though he has terminal cancer and a teenage girl whose love life has put her in the doldrums.

Although I enjoyed the ending and definitely felt connected to the central characters, the story itself didn't really do it for me.  If I didn't have my normal teary-eyed reaction at the end, I might even have given it a non-recommend.  Obviously the message is good - enjoy the time you have and try not to wish for more or less.  I say good for him for that.  But all of the stuff with FT I found to be a bit boring and a little confusing.  I know that I'm no mental giant (I refuse to read the "classics"for fear of uttering "huh" at the end of the book), but I do like my books to flow a bit better than this one did.  Should you read it?  If you like Albom, I would say yes.  Just revise your expectations a bit.  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Keith Raffel Hearkens Back to JFK and 1962

Keith Raffel's latest, A Fine and Dangerous Season, has one of the most unique premises that I've seen.  The story takes place in October of 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Nathan Michaels, who is a business executive at Hewlett Packard (yes, HP has been around for awhile), gets a call from Bobby Kennedy that JFK wants to see him right away.  How does JFK know Nathan, who is from Palo Alto and has always lived in the Palo Alto area?  Well, there's a little-known fact about JFK; namely, he went to Stanford in the fall quarter of 1940 and was enrolled in the business school.  Raffel uses that information to create a story centered on their brief relationship.  Pretty clever, eh?

While JFK was at Stanford, he was introduced to Nathan by Nathan's girlfriend, Miriam.  Nathan and JFK become pretty close - until JFK makes a bad judgment call, in Nathan's estimation, and their relationship ends.  Now, 22 years later, Bobby calls Nathan and says that his brother needs Nathan to fly to D.C. immediately.  Well, when the leader of the free world asks you to come see him, there's only 1 response that you can make - Nathan tells Bobby that he has no interest in seeing JFK, and the answer is no.  Obviously, Bobby convinces Nathan of the error of his thinking (otherwise there would be no story!), and Nathan ends up catching the next flight out to Washington.

What could Nathan possibly do to help JFK resolve the Cuban Missile Crisis, you ask?  It turns out that a Russian diplomat, Maxim Volkov, who the U.S. knows is a KGB honcho, has recently come to D.C. and is staying at the Russian consulate. Volkov was a close friend of Nathan's father up until 1942 and spent many evenings at the Michaels' house.  Now, 20 years later, even though Nathan's father is dead,  Volkov wants to meet with Nathan.  JFK sees this as an opportunity to find out what the USSR is planning on doing about Cuba and maybe even help reduce the tensions between the 2 countries through Nathan and Volkov.

Of course, things do not go particularly smoothly.  To begin with, Nathan is still feeling very resentful toward JFK.  That makes for some uncomfortable moments.  On top of that, there are people on both sides who do not want to see the 2 countries kiss and make up.  The U.S. military is itching for a fight and wants to use Cuba as the battleground.  At the same time, the USSR, with Kruschev, still has visions of world dominance.  With the Cold War in full swing, it does not look good for a peaceful resolution.

On top of all the diplomacy and behind-the-scenes meetings (Nathan sits in on high-level confabs - both with and without JFK), there is also a lot of action, with attempts on the lives of both Nathan and Volkov.  The book has a number of historical figures in it besides Bobby and JFK - Curtis LeMay and Robert McNamara, among others - and mixes Nathan in with all of them in an extremely effective way. This book is interesting and exciting - a good combination.  For me, I was 13 years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis (you can probably do the math, if you care one way or the other).  I really enjoyed learning more intimate details of what went on during those few days.  Having majored in history at UC Berkeley (that certainly led to a lot of job opportunities - just kidding), and loving historical fiction, this book appealed to me on a number of different levels - including the fact that it's very well-written.  Without that, the rest of it doesn't really matter.

This is Keith's 4th book.  The first 2, Dot Dead and Smasher, take place in Palo Alto,  The 3rd, Drop by Drop, comes from Washington D.C. and modern-day.  And now, A Fine and Dangerous Season is also in D.C., just 50 years earlier.  As I mentioned when I reviewed Drop by Drop a few months ago, Keith's writing gets better with each book.  This is definitely my favorite of his 4, for all of the aforementioned (I like that word) reasons.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Julie Dart Writes a Children's Book for All Ages

It’s not often that I review a children’s book, but I have one for you now.  It’s Julie Dart’s Ellie Stands Up To The Bully.  This is a book for everybody, children and adults alike.  It teaches some (and reminds us all) what it’s like to be bullied.  We’ve all been subjected to a bully at one time or another – and it can be a life-altering experience, in a bad way.

In Julie’s book, Ellie is a 2nd grader at a new school.  Right away, she makes friends and loves her new school – until Nick calls her Smelly Ellie and is very mean to her.  Ellie is so distraught that by the 2nd day she pretends to be sick so that she can go home.  Her mother and her grandmother both help her understand that Nick must be very sad to be so mean.  Happy people don’t bully other people.  (SPOILER ALERT!)  When Ellie stands up to Nick at the end of the book, I teared up.  Although this is not so unusual for me, I didn’t expect it to happen with a “children’s” book.

The book has excellent drawings, but it’s not a “picture” book.   There are 61 total pages (large print,), including title pages and drawings.  Most importantly, it is suitable for 2nd graders to read.  And every 2nd grader (and 3rd grader, and 4th grader, and 8th grader…) should read it.

What’s also very cool is that at the end of the book, Julie cites resources for those who are being bullied.  She gives specific advice to children and parents and lists phone numbers and websites.  That is a great public service.

As of now, Julie has self-published Ellie.  If you want to purchase it, you can go to Amazon to get it.  Julie is hoping that it will be picked up by a publisher so that it will have a wider audience.  Of course every author wants to sell more books.  But in this case, and knowing Julie as I do, she is equally concerned about getting a very important message across.  She relies on painful personal experience to craft a story for all generations.  So, go to Amazon right now and buy this book.  I’m certainly glad I did.     

Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern

I just finished The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.  Let me tell you what led up to me reading it.  It's a fascinating story (not really).  About 6 weeks ago, I interviewed Meg Waite Clayton up in Palo Alto at the Town and Country Shopping Center.  She told me that the last Tuesday of every month, Books, Inc., located in the same center, has a book group.  Now, I've always avoided book groups.  I typically don't want to read a potentially bad book just because each book group member gets to pick when it's her turn (yes, I deliberately used the female gender - am I trying to be politically correct? - nope - it's just that when I went to my first Books, Inc. session, I was the only guy there).  So when Meg told me that one of the Books, Inc. head honchos, Margie Scott Tucker, moderates the sessions, and that they discuss the latest books, I thought I would give it a try.  On the last Tuesday of August, Joni and went up there for that month's get- together.  Only, I misunderstood what Meg said.  Margie picks a book each month, and everybody reads it.  I thought it was a more general confab about the latest books (whoops, my bad).  Since we were already there, Joni and I sat through the discussion about a book that we hadn't read.  It was still pretty interesting.  Margie will ask a question, then go on to the next question when she thinks it's time.  We don't get bogged down, and no one person gets to dominate the conversation/monologue.  It works.  Anybody is welcome, and people come one month and not the next.  I will post the book each month.  That way, you can either attend the group or at least have the option of reading something that an insider has selected.

Okay, so what is The Night Circus about?  As the 3rd nun said to Gabriel at the gates to heaven (I'll tell you the joke someday), "That's a hard one."  I can tell you the story starts out in 1873.  I can also tell you that The Night Circus is only open from sundown to dawn, and that it travels mysteriously around the world.  One minute there's an open field, and the next there is a whole circus full of tents of all sizes and shapes.  Excitement builds in each city during the day, and then the circus opens that night. It normally hangs around for a few nights.

What else can I tell you?  There is a ton of magic (actual magic, not the David Copperfield kind) in each tent.  They have contortionists, illusionists, and mediums, along with your basic acrobats, animal tamers, and fire-eaters.  Some tents have just magic and no performers.  Some tents change from one visit to the next.  Are there any relationships in the book?  The answer to that is yes.  Let me mention a few.

There are the 2 young magicians who, since they were children, have been pitted against each other by their mentors.  What they don't know is that the loser actually dies.  The competition manifests itself in the design of new tents/features for the circus.  There is Chandresh Christophe Levebre, who is the founder/funder of the circus.  Then there are 4 very unique people who help him get the circus up and running.  There is the German clockmaker, Friedrich Thiessen, who builds a unique clock that stands at the entrance to the circus.  And then there's my favorite, Bailey, who first visits the circus when he is 10 years old on a dare from his 13-year old sister.

I have to say that I didn't really get emotionally invested in the characters, with the exception of Bailey and the Murray twins, who are the same age as Bailey, and who were born on the first night of the circus, in 1887.  They are the equivalent of circus rug rats.  Having just told you that I didn't care about the characters in The Cutting Season, I find that I feel pretty much the same about these characters, with the 3 exceptions.  However, I liked the book.  I didn't love it, but I liked it.  I wasn't bored but was not sorry when it ended.  It reminds me of  several books that I have read that garnered great reviews and buzz, but that I thought were not as good as what I had heard about them.  Cutting for Stone (there's that word "Cutting" again) by Abraham Verghese, Life of Pi (the movie is coming out soon) by Yan Martel, and The Time Traveler's Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, to name 3.  Then there are those that lived up to the hype:  11/22/63 by Steven King,  Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larssen.

If you like your books to be mainstream, then I'm going to recommend that you pass on The Night Circus.  If you're willing to read something that's a little bit (or a lot) different than Coben, Silva, Flynn, et al, then go ahead and give this a try.  I could see where there are people who would think this is a great book.  If you guess wrong, though, then you're in for some tough reading.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

1st Author Interview! - Oh Wait - More Reviews

Yeah, yeah, I know.  I have lost all credibility when it comes to the author interviews.  But fear not (actually, does anybody even care?), these author interviews WILL be coming.  Enough of the mea culpa (AKA "my bad").  I've got 2 reviews for your reading pleasure.  Let's get to it.

1.  Leader of the Pack by David Rosenfelt.  This guy is a solid B-lister (yes, I know, I'm not supposed to call the B-listers B-listers - but he's no Follett, Silva, Flynn, Coben, Iles, et al).  This is his 10th Andy Carpenter book to go along with 4-standalones, and I have liked them all.  Andy is an attorney in New Jersey who doesn't need to work.  He's got enough money to easily last him the rest of his life.  He only takes on cases in which he has a personal interest.  The stories are all legal murder mysteries (similar to Sheldon Siegel's Mike and Rosie books) and very entertaining.  There is a lot of laugh-out-loud stuff, which I alway enjoy.  And for you dog-lovers (I know you're out there), Andy's dog, Tara, has a central role in all of Rosenfelt's Andy Carpenter books.  I like his stuff despite that!

This one centers on a case that Andy lost 6 years earlier, which led to his client being convicted of murder with a lifetime prison sentence.  Andy comes across new evidence which gets his client a new trial.  Andy, of course, irritates dangerous people who don't want the case re-opened.  This leads to Andy encountering life-threatening situations and who then has to rely on his cohorts/bodyguards - Marcus, a bodyguard par excellence, Laurie, his live-in love interest and private investigator who is also an ex-police officer, and Willie, a convicted killer who Andy got off of death row and back on the streets.  Then there's Sam, who is his accountant/computer expert, Hike, who is another attorney that helps Andy with his court cases, Cindy, who is an FBI agent and friend of Laurie's, and Edna, who is Andy's assistant in the office and excellent cruciverbalist (let's see you look that one up!).  Finally, there are his 2 drinking buddies, Vince, who is the editor of the Bergen News, and Pete, who is a police lieutenant in Paterson.  All of the characters are true characters and provide humor and support in roughly equal doses.  There really is nothing not to like about Rosenfelt's Andy Carpenter books.  Plus, if you don't want to start at book 1, you can read them in any order.  Go for it - lots of fun.

2.  Dark Magic by James Swain.  I have never blogged about Swain (continuing a theme, he is another solid B-lister).  He has written 11 books, which I have read, and 3 ebooks, which I haven't read (I like the book in my hands, whenever possible).  Of the 11 "real" books, the first 7 are about Tony Valentine, an ex-cop whose specialty was the New Jersey casinos.  What he does now is work in Vegas as a consultant and help the casinos uncover scams.  Swain, himself, has a special interest in gambling and gambling schemes.  These books are all interesting and fun to read.  I learned a lot about gambling which comes in handy when I'm at the casinos.  Oh, wait, I don't gamble.  Oh well.

The other 3 books are centered on Jack Carpenter, another ex-cop, who was removed from the force for using excessive force against someone who actually deserved it.  He is now a private investigator who handles cases involving kids.  As much as I enjoyed the Valentine books, I think the Carpenter books are better-written.  But I would recommend all of them.

So what is Dark Magic about, you ask (and why did it take me so long to get to the review? - an excellent, unanswerable question!)?  I don't know if this is a standalone or the first in a series.  Either way, it's a solid read.  Peter Warlock is a young, professional magician in New York City.  He's also a psychic.  In fact, he's part of a group of 7 psychics that have regular Friday night seances.  Pooling their psychic abilities, they are able to summon the spirits and see what widespread criminal activity is going to take place.  They then alert the police anonymously.  They never expose themselves because one of Peter's psychic friends had been discovered by the CIA and was then sequestered against his will on The Farm in Virginia.

One Friday night, during a seance, Peter sees a vision of an unspeakable tragedy, affecting tens of thousands of New Yorkers, occurring in the next 4 days.  Peter ends up connecting with an FBI agent, and the 2 of them work on uncovering the perpetrator before the doomsday scenario takes place.  Peter also learns that his parents, who were killed when he was 7, were members of the Order of Astrum, which practices dark magic and has a central role in the plot.  If you can accept that there are psychics, witches, and warlords (which I do), then for you this book is very plausible.  P.S.  Swain is also a magician and has written 3 non-fiction books about magic.

The story takes place exclusively in NYC and in the present.  There are obviously magical elements to it, but much of the book revolves around relationships.  And although I don't need to beat this into the ground (when did that ever stop me!), I cared about these people - all of them (Attica Locke, take note).

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My 2nd HarperCollins ARC (advanced reading copy)

I just finished another ARC from HarperCollins.  This one is The Cutting Season by Attica Locke.  This is her 2nd book (due in stores September 18).  Her first one, Black Water Rising, which I didn't read (and hadn't heard of), was nominated for a number of prizes.  HarperCollins handles bloggers a little differently than PenguinGroup did.  Here, I get to choose which book, out of 5 or 6, I want to read.  With PenguinGroup, they just sent me what they wanted me to have.  The Cutting Season seemed the most interesting out of the choices they gave me.

The book has a very cool storyline.  Caren Gray is a 37-year old black woman who manages Belle Vie (for the past 4 years), a plantation in Louisiana located between Baton Rouge and New Orleans.  Caren's own great-great-great-grandfather was a slave on the plantation and then continued to work there as a free man (due to the love of a woman) after the Emancipation.  Caren's mother was the plantation's cook until she passed away a number of years earlier (a death that Caren is still trying to deal with).  The plantation is an historical landmark that has regularly scheduled re-enactments of the Civil War era.  Tourists come to walk the property and see the shows.

Then a murder takes place on the property, and everything turns upside down (I guess that's stating the obvious, isn't it?).  Is it one of the plantation employees?  Is it the foreman for the sugar cane fields in the next property over, a man who has been tied to deaths and beatings in other areas while working for the Groveland Corporation?  Throw in a visit from her ex-boyfriend, Eric Ellis, who is the father of her 9-year old daughter; throw in the re-appearance of Bobby Clancy, who is 1 of 2 sons of the owner of the property and who Caren used to play with as a child (before he grew up and felt the need to treat her as beneath him); throw in a newspaper reporter from the Times-Picayune, out of New Orleans.  Add in Nestor Lang, a local detective, investigating the murder; Hunter Abrams, the aforementioned supervisor next door acting on behalf of Groveland; and a host of others, and you have a very eclectic mix of characters.

Attica is a very good writer.  She does descriptions and dialogue equally well.  Here is an example of her prose:

"They were, each of them, connected across time, across the rolling land of a place called Belle Vie, each navigating a life that had been shaped by the raw power of labor, but also love, their relationships built, seemingly, on river silt, thin and shape-shifting, their family lives a work of improvisational art, crafted from whatever was at hand, like the glistening bottles of Akerele's bottle tree."

Isn't that beautifully written?  Okay, here's my problem.  The book didn't grab me.  There were no characters that I emotionally connected to.  As well-developed as the characters were, and as well-written as the story was, I just didn't care much.  It wasn't until page 317 that I got the least bit teary-eyed (for those who know me, I'm usually crying in the first 5 minutes of Drop Dead Diva!), and that's only because there was a scene with the 9-year old daughter that resonated a bit (I'm a sucker for kids).  Does this make the book bad?  Certainly not.  Is there anything wrong with not having an emotional tie-in to the characters of a book?  Maybe not.  I guess it depends on what your expectations are when you read a book.  Finally, is there something wrong with me?  Quite possibly.  But be that as it may, I would have enjoyed it more if I had cared more.