Thursday, January 24, 2013

2 Reviews - One Veteran and One Newbie - Extremely Different Books

David Baldacci’s last book, The Innocent, was excellent.  It made my top 11 for 2012.  His latest, The Forgotten, is not quite as good – but good, nonetheless.  Just like I recently said about Vince Flynn and Daniel Silva, Baldacci’s craft continues to improve.  Since I’m committed to reading all of his books (this one makes 25), I’m glad that he’s writing so well.  Unlike other #1 authors (hello Mr. Patterson), Baldacci doesn’t phone it in.  He actually tries to write a good story.  Mission accomplished.

To begin with, the hero of the story is John Puller, who is a U.S. Army investigator on vacation.  His aunt’s mysterious death, in Paradise, Florida, sends him down there.  He is not in any official capacity because it’s not an Army matter.  While he’s there, though, he connects with one of the local police officers, an attractive woman, that leads to some chemistry.  They work the case together.

If I said that Puller could be Jack Reacher’s brother, I wouldn’t be exaggerating.  They are almost identical in their demeanor, size, and competence.  I don’t mind if Baldacci starts a new series with this guy, especially since I stopped reading Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series after about 4 books – not because I didn’t like them but just because.  So, go ahead David; give me more John Puller, and The Camel Club, and the protagonists from The Innocent (sorry, forgot their names).  I can do without the ex-secret service guy and his girl.  Those books are just fair.

The Forgotten (did you think I had – get ready for it – forgotten?) actually has a pretty interesting story line.  The focus is on the procuring and selling of human labor.  The bad guys ensure that the affected people don’t complain or blow the whistle by threatening bodily harm to their families.  That does the trick. 

Besides the storyline being interesting, it’s also well-written, as I mentioned above.  I’m giving it a 3.0 – pretty good, I say.

The 2nd book in this blog is called The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, who is an Alaskan native that worked as a reporter for the Frontiersman newspaper and is now a bookseller for an independent bookstore.  I read this only because it was the selection for the Books, Inc. February Book Club meeting (which we had 2 days ago – another fun and interesting evening).  Did I like it?  I did.  I gave it a 2.5 – not stellar but solid.  I’m certainly not sorry I read it.  Here’s what it’s about.

It’s 1920, and a long-time married couple, Jack and Mabel, that has lost the only child they ever conceived (right after birth), decide they need to move from the U.S. Midwest to Alaska and start a new life.  After they have been there for about a year, they decide one night to make a snow child (get it? – The Snow Child? – you guys are quick).  They make it as realistic as they can, including mittens, scarf, and coat.  The next morning, when they wake up, the snow child is gone, along with all of the clothing.  Hmmmm.  Shortly after that, a young girl, wearing these same clothes, starts showing up around the old homestead.  Is it a real girl?  Or not?  Add to this an old Russian fairy tale that Mabel read as a little girl, with the exact same scenario, and you can see why Jack and Mabel are constantly worried that the little girl, Faina, will soon disappear, never to return.

The book takes place over about a 10-year period.  Their neighbors, the Benson’s, add a fair amount of humor, and their youngest son, Garrett, becomes VERY involved in the lives of Jack, Mabel and Faina.  

This is a fairy tale couched in reality.  If you accept it for what it is, you will be fine.  If your expectations are too high, or if your stories need to make sense, then this probably isn’t for you (it wasn’t for Joni).  Be warned.  It’s not for everybody.       

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - A Sweet (not Bitter) Read

Wow, did I like this book (notice that I didn’t use a question mark).  This is already my 2nd 3.5 of the year – and it’s only January 18.  Are you kidding me?  This is another recommendation from my most recent muse, Phil.  He led me to Gone Girl last year, which was in my top 11, along with Baldacci’s The Innocent (top 11), and Defending Jacob (not top 11 but darn good). 

This is not only well done, it’s also a really interesting snapshot of a dark historical period in our history.  The story rotates (which I always like) between 1942 and 1986, in Seattle.  The narrator of the story is a 56-year old Chinese man, Henry Lee, who has lived in Seattle all of his life.  His wife has recently passed away, and Henry took an early retirement after spending all of his working life at Boeing.  Henry has one son, Marty, who is finishing up his college career at Seattle University.  The 2 of them have never communicated that well, but Ethel, Henry’s wife, always mediated.  Now, with Ethel gone, the 2 men find that they don’t have very much in common.

I enjoyed all of the chapters that take place in 1986.  But the 1942 story is totally fascinating.  Henry is 12 years old and has just been placed by his parents in an all-caucasian  school, instead of the Chinese school.  The only other student who doesn’t fit the school’s mold is a 12-year old Japanese girl, Keiko.  They become good friends, partly out of a common bond and partly because they really like each other.

Remember that this is 1942.  I’m not really giving anything away when I tell you that Seattle was a prime area for Japanese internment camps (except that they actually took sick people out of the hospitals!).  Enough said about that.  Just know that the historical sections of this book ring true.  I believe that the author did his research in order to make this as realistic as possible.  And he succeeded – in a big way.  Of course, it didn’t hurt that Jamie Ford, himself, is half-Chinese and has access to resources from that time period.

There are a number of interesting characters in the book, besides Henry and Keiko.  There’s Sheldon, who is a jazz player, and whose career gives us insight into the whole jazz scene of that era.  There’s Henry’s parents, who came from China and who are very traditional.  There’s Keiko’s parents, who were born in America and, yet, are still part of the round-up.  There’s Ethel, of course, and a number of school bullies that do what you would expect school bullies to do.

But with all of that, the relationship between Henry and Keiko totally stands out.  I loved every page that had the 2 of them in it.  I won’t give away the ending, but I will say that it is enormously satisfying.  This is a darn good read and one that I think just about everybody would like.  Go for it. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The String of Good Books by Local Authors Continues

Virna DePaul's Shades of Desire is a very good book.  It's part of the Harlequin Romantic Suspense line.  I like that because I enjoy a good romance, but I usually need a decent story to go with it.  This has both.  The sexual tension between the main characters does not diminish the suspense part.  Natalie Jones is a renowned photojournalist.  She also happens to be only recently legally blind.  Liam "Mac" McKenzie is a top homicide detective for the California Department of Justice's Special Investigations Group (SIG).  Both of them have had disastrous romantic relationships.  When Mac starts investigating a serial killer, and Natalie escapes an attack from said killer, he comes in direct contact (no pun intended) with Natalie.  Words and fur fly.  They are attracted to each other while, at the same time, they try to maintain an investigator-victim professional relationship.

That's all I'm going to tell you about the story.  But I have other things to say.  First of all, this book reminds me of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (I'm going to see her at the JCC in San Francisco on April 23 - looking forward to that).  I liked the 1st half, but I really liked the 2nd half.  Just when the Natalie and Mac story was starting to get a little bit tiring, Virna brought in the church's involvement and a bunch of new characters.  It went from a bit plodding to compelling.  Nicely done.

Secondly, how many of you have read Lie Down With Lions by Ken Follett?  It's an older book but a good one.  There is a sex scene in there that is really well done.  In fact, there are many of us (old) hetero males that still refer to it (don't worry, it's always in context!).  Why do I bring this up?  Because the 1st sex between Mac and Natalie (you know there has to be sex between them) is reminiscent of the scene from Lie Down With Lions.  It's very graphic but sensual at the same time.  Jasmine Haynes (our beloved erotic romance author) would be proud (E.L. James, eat your heart out).

Thirdly, Virna does a great job of making us care about the 2 main characters (and some of the other characters, too).  You all know that this is a big deal to me.  If I don't care a lot, then it will impact my enjoyment of the book.  I really cared about Mac and Natalie.  I felt their pain, their hopes, their desires (wow, pretty good, eh - I'm thinking about writing jacket covers for Harlequin!).

Lastly, I came across something in this book that I don't think I've ever seen before (if you don't want to know what that is, stop reading this paragraph immediately).  The book ends with another sex scene.  As surprised as I was, I was not disappointed (that's not what I meant!).  It is appropriate to the story.  Very cool.

There's only one thing that keeps me from giving this a 3.5 instead of a 3.0.  There are a few instances in the book where I have a little trouble following the writing (it could be me, couldn't it?).  For some reason, there are moments when I am a little confused as to what she is saying.  It doesn't happen often, but it is frequent enough that the final grade is a 3.0.  That's still pretty darn good, and I strongly recommend Shades of Desire.

P.S.  Virna is the 7th of the 10 authors that I saw and met and Barnes & Noble back in October (I think) that I have now read.  I will get to the other 3 - sooner rather than later.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Grippando and Flynn - 2 Old Reliables

Blood Money, which came out Tuesday, is James Grippando's 10th Jack Swyteck novel and 19th overall.  Grippando is a solid author.  All of his books (and I've read all 19, not counting one for young adults) are entertaining and well-written.  But I'm a sucker for a good series.  Swyteck is a Miami trial attorney (as was Grippando, for 12 years).  He always gets embroiled in a trial that revolves around a murder.  And, of course, he's always working for the underdog defendant.  In this case, he is defending a nightclub waitress who is accused of killing her 2-year old daughter for crimping her partying (ouch).   What follows is the most famous murder trial since that guy in the white Bronco.  Add to that a look-alike contest gone bad, a CNN-like TV station that has sensationalized the trial and has fueled the public's hatred for the waitress, and a cast of behind-the-scenes villains, and you have your typical Jack Swyteck story.

Reading Grippando is like coming home.  It's like comfort food.  I'm not sure what else you can ask for from an author.  If you want "literature," then get your books from a college reading list.  If you want to be entertained and have a fun read, then, by all means, pick up (or download) Blood Money.  And when you're done with that, go back and read some more Grippando, either Swyteck or a standalone.  It's good stuff.

Vince Flynn's latest, The Last Man, is his 14th book.  Again, I have read all of them (33 between the 2 - pretty impressive, eh?).  This is the 12th in the Mitch Rapp series and is the first one to return to the present after 2 that explained how he got his start with the CIA.  I liked the last 2 well enough, but I really like Mitch in the here and now.  Let me add that Vince is improving with age.  This book is a 3.5.  He and Daniel Silva, even with double-digit books in their series, are getting better, it seems, with each book.  I really respect that.

Let me give you the plot.  The head of CIA Clandestine Services in Afghanistan, Joe Rickman, is kidnapped, and his 4 bodyguards are murdered.  Thus begins the search.  But, wait, the FBI is looking for Rickman too.  And they have their own reasons for trying to find him.  The Director of the CIA, Irene Kennedy, dispatches her right-hand super spy, Mitch Rapp, to find Rickman before he is tortured into revealing the names of CIA agents who are embedded in sensitive areas around the world.  It would probably take the CIA 10 years to replace a bunch of agents if they have to be recalled.  Fortunately, Mitch Rapp is THE MAN.  He is the machoist (not Maoist) man in the literary world - a very cool, testosterone-laden guy.  To quote an old school rhyme:  Mitch, Mitch, he's our man.  If he can't do it, nobody can!"

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Books of 2012

Just like last January, I will list the books in the order that I read them.  And, again, I will list author, book, pages, and rating.  At the end, I will list my top 11 (huh?) along with 1 book that gets a special mention in my new category:  "The Community Service Award."  This award will be near the bottom of the post, right before a New Year's Contest.  Now, on to the list:

Koontz, Dean - 77 Shadow Street - 451 - 3.0
Palmer, Michael - Oath of Office - 374 - 2.5
Griffin, W.E.B. - Covert Warriors - 372 - 3.0
Hoag, Tami - Down the Darkest road - 432 - 2.5
Taylor, Brad - All Necessary Force - 380 - 1.5
Gardner, Lisa - Catch Me - 385 - 2.5
Coben, Harlan - Stay Close - 387 - 3.0
Smith, Tom Rob - Agent 6 - 467 - 3.0
Rosenfelt, David - Heart of a Killer - 298 - 2.5
Johnson, Craig - As the Crow Flies - 2.5
Wallentin, Jan - Strindberg's Star - 447 - 2.0
Kerr, Philip - Prague Fatale - 397 - 3.0
Sweet, Victoria - God's Hotel - 347 - 2.5
Raffel, Keith - Smasher - 300 - 2.5
Collins, Suzanne - Hunger Games - 374 - 3.0
Lukas, Michael David - Oracle of Stambol - 294 - 3.5
Flynn, Vince - Kill Shot - 385 - 2.5
Lamott, Ann - Some Assembly Required - 272 - 2.0
Picoult, Jodi - Lone Wolf - 421 - 3.0
Gardiner, Meg - Ransom River - 357 - 2.5
Patterson, Richard North - Fall from Gracee - 276 - 2.5
Gutcheon, Beth - Gossip - 278 - 2.5
Archer, Jeffrey - The Sins of the Father - 339 - 3.5
Berry, Steve - The Columbus Affair - 419 - 3.0
Balmanno, Robert - September Snow -N/A (only read 60 pages)
Berenson, Alex - The Shadow Patrol - 389 - 2.5
Coes, Ben - The Last Refuge - 387 - 2.5
Grippando, James - Need You Now - 357 - 2.5
Haynes, Jasmine - Dead to the Max - 241 - 2.0
Baldacci, David - The Innocent - 422 - 3.5
Landay, William - Defending Jacob - 421 - 3.0
Hamilton, Steve - The Lock Artist - 304 - 2.5
Raffel, Keith - Drop by Drop - 320 - 2.5
Jayne, Hannah - Under Attack - 322 - 2.5
Eastland, Sam - Archive 17 - 250 - 2.5
Senft, Adina - The Hidden Life - 301 - 3.5
Buckley, Christopher - They Eat Puppies, Don't They? - 334 - 2.5
Margolin, Philip - Capitol Murder - 340 - 2.5
Harris, Robert - The Fear Index - 286 - 2.5
Zafon, Carlos Ruiz - The Prisoner of Heaven - 278 - 2.5
Harback, Chad - The Art of Fielding - 512 -3.0
Silva, Daniel - The Fallen Angel - 393 - 3.0
Kava, Alex - Fireproof - 307 - 2.5
King, Steven - 11/22/63 - 849 - 4.0
James, E.L. - Fifty Shades of Grey - 514 - 2.5
Raffel, Keith - A Fine and Dangerous Season - 338 - 3.0
Locke, Attica - The Cutting Season - 382 - 2.0
Rosenfelt, David - Leader of the Pack - 360 - 2.5
Swain, James - Dark Magic - 352 - 2.5
Morgenstern, Erin - The Night Circus - 512 - 2.5
Griffin, W.E.B. - The Spymaster - 381 - 2.0
Weiner, Jennifer - Good in Bed - 375 - 3.0
Albom, Mitch - The Time Keeper - 222 - 2.0
Flynn, Gillian - Gone Girl - 415 - 3.5
Towles, Amor - Rules of Civility - 324 - 2.5
Chandler, Raymond - The Big Sleep - 231 - 1.5
Swan, Joan - Fever - 342 - 3.5
Kingsolver, Barbara - Flight Behavior - 433 - 3.0
Barrett, Elisabeth - Deep Autumn Heat - 284 - 3.0
Koontz, Dean - Odd Apocalypse - 355 - 1.5
Alexander, Cassie - Nightshifted - 331 - 2.0
Eugenides, Jeffrey - The Marriage Plot - 406 - 2.5
Follett, Ken - Winter of the World - 940 - 4.0
Palmer, Michael - Political Suicide - 355 - 2.5
Zadoorian, Michael - The Leisure Seeker - 272 - 3.5
Waters, Rayme - The Angels' Share - 276 - 4.0
Grippando, James - Blood Money - 342 - 2.5
Durban, Pam - The Tree of Forgetfulness - 169 - 2.0
Moehringer, J.R. - The Tender Bar - 368 - 3.5
Sussman, Ellen - French Lessons - 236 - 3.0
Michel, Deborah - Prosper in Love - 326

71 books

Top 11 - in order (these are all of the 3.5's and 4.0's):
Follett - Winter of the World
King - 11/22/63
Waters - The Angels' Share
Baldacci - The Innocent
Moehringer - The Tender Bar
Zadoorian - The Leisure Seeker
Archer - The Sins of the Father
Swan - Fever
Lukas - Oracle of Stamboul
Senft - The Hidden Life
Flynn - Gone Girl
(There were also 16 3.0's - what a year!)

The Community Service Award:
Julie Dart - Ellie Stands Up to the Bully.  I reviewed this on 9/21/12, so I won't go through that again. Suffice it to say that Julie wrote a book that everybody, from grade school kids to adults, should read.  We all want to eliminate bullying, but Julie actually does something about it.  She not only has written a story that tells children how to stand up to a bully, she also has resources in the back of the book for kids and parents.  Way to go, Julie!

That's it for 2012.  I'm looking forward to 2013 with all of you.  Go readers.

NEW YEAR'S CONTEST:  Give me your top book of 2012 in the "Comment" section of this post.  At the end of the week, I will have a drawing.  The winner gets his or her pick of any book on my year-end list.  The winner will also have a choice of hard copy or digital.