Sunday, February 24, 2013

Brian Castner - The Long Walk - A Story of War and the Life That Follows

This is a very difficult book to review.  The Long Walk is the other book being featured by Silicon Valley Reads this year for their "Invisible Wounds of War" theme.  As you know, I love Sue Diaz's Minefields of the Heart.  This one I don't love.  Why?  I'm not sure.  Let me see if I can explain my feelings for this book.

First of all, this is, of course, the true story of Brian Castner's 3 tours of duty in Iraq, 2 of them as a bomb demolition expert and the commander of an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit.  It's a harrowing account of his time there - the daily missions, the constant danger, and the loss of lives, both his people as well as the Iraqis.  Along with the terror, though, he talks of the excitement surrounding what he did.  He also gives us insight about his time at home, in between deployments as well as after he leaves the service (he was actually in the Air Force - all 4 of the military services had soldiers in Iraq who specialized in bomb demolition).

This is one of the reasons why the book is so hard to review.  Here we have page after page of Brian talking about the risk he faced on a daily basis - on many occasions multiple times in the same day.  It is unimaginable what he went through.  And, yet, I thought the repeated descriptions of the missions got to be a bit tedious.  He does talk about being home and constantly being assaulted by the Crazy.  The only time he doesn't feel like that is when he is running, which he does once or twice every day.  He talks about his Old Shrink and his New Shrink.  He tells us about yoga.  I think that is helpful to him, but I'm not sure.  In fact, I'm not sure if any of it has helped.  It's very tough to tell.

So here's my problem.  I feel like a heel because I can't rave about a book that I want to rave about.  Maybe if I hadn't read Sue's outstanding book first, The Long Walk would resonate better with me.  But I did read it first.  And although it's very hard to follow a 4 (out of 4), I think my feelings about Brian's book are not based on Minefields.  I really feel that reading about the missions got tiresome.  And I really am confused about whether or not the counseling he gets back home, along with the yoga, helps him.  I love what Brian has done for the country, and I feel badly for what he has gone (and still goes) through.  But do I love the book?  Sadly, I don't.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Couple of Random Reviews

I've got a couple of reviews for books that came to me in similar fashion.  One is Haven's Wake, by Ladette Randolph, and the other is The Missing File, by D.A. Mishani.

I got Haven's Wake from Mary Bisbee-Beek, who is the publicist for Rayme Waters.  She sent me 2 books.  This is the 2nd one.  The 1st one, The Tree of Forgetfulness, was one I would just as soon have forgotten.  But Mary assured me that I would like Haven's Wake better.  Is she right?  Actually, she is.  I do like this book.  It's not great, but it's a solid 2.5.

The story is not very complicated.  Haven and Elsa Grebel, in their early 80's, live on a farm in a Mennonite community in rural Nebraska.  At the beginning of the story (no spoiler alert here), Haven has an accident and is killed by a tractor.  The rest of the book, which takes place over 4 days, basically centers on Haven's and Elsa's family.  Their kids, grandkids, and siblings all come for the funeral, of course, and bring their dysfunction, quirks, and oddities with them.

Various authors have recommended Haven's Wake.  They have said it's a "tale of love and loyalty;" "...the story of the restorative power of family and tradition;" it "traces the finest of lines between what counts as betrayal and what counts as fidelity in a family;" and "A song of a story - uplifting, tender, heart-shattering."  Call me an insensitive troglodyte (if you don't know this word, look it up - it's a very cool word), but I don't really get any of that.  For me, it is a nicely written story about the death of a patriarch and the odd assortment of family members that every family has.  But would I recommend it?  Yes, I would - and do.

As for D.A. Mishani's book, it came to me from HarperCollins.  Every few months, HC (I hope I don't get in trouble for using an illegal acronym!) sends out a short list of ARC's, both fiction and non-, for bloggers to choose from.  It's up to us to pick what looks interesting.  In this case, I thought The Missing File would be interesting.  I was only half right (2 out of 4).  The book was written in Hebrew and translated into English (obviously).  The book is about a policeman in a city outside of Tel Aviv called Holon.  A 16-year old boy turns up missing, and the police investigator in charge of the investigation, Avraham Avraham (I'm not making this up), starts working on the  case.

I wasn't bored, but I wasn't engaged either.  I didn't really care very much.  The auxiliary characters - the boy's parents, Avi's boss and 2 co-detectives, the weird neighbor downstairs from the family - are just not very interesting.  In fact, the book really picks up in the last 2 pages! - I kid you not!  I will say that I find it interesting that the last 3 words in the book are TO BE CONTINUED.  You don't see that very often.  Normally, it's just understood that the next in the series (The Missing File is book one in the Detective Avraham series - in fact, this is Mishani'a 1st book, period) picks up where the previous one leaves off.  Maybe it's more honest to actually state that.

I don't blame HarperCollins for this.  I was the one who chose the book.  And as my 8-year old (as of yesterday) granddaughter says:  "You made a bad choice."  It's better than bad, but not good enough to recommend or read book 2.

NOTE OF BEFUDDLEMENT:  There are about a dozen places in Haven's Wake that substitute 2 or 3 overlapping capital letters, in boldface, for words.  Could they be typos?  The book, after all, is an ARC.  If that's not the case, then I have no idea what they mean.  I guess I could have tried to find out before writing the blog - but I didn't.  So, sue me.  I will ask Mary and try to remember to let you all know in a future blog.  No promises, though.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Harlan Coben's Latest - As Usual, It's Darn Good

Reading a Harlan Coben novel is like reconnecting with an old friend.  His books are always good and always grab you from page one.  The new one, Six Years, will be published on March 19.  As I mentioned on my Book Sage Facebook page, I received this ARC in the mail a couple of weeks ago.  Here's the kicker - it came from Dutton, which is an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), which (who) dumped me as a blogger back in May of last year.  I don't know what happened to get me off the do-not-send-to list, but I'm glad they did.  Because I'm buying any Coben that comes out.

So enough about my reinstatement (is it permanent or is it a one shot deal? only time will tell).  In Six Years, Jake Fisher, a poly sci (that's political science for those of you not in the know) professor at Lanford College in Massachusetts, falls madly in love with an artist, Natalie, that he meets at a retreat in Vermont.  It appears that they were made for each other.  A few months later, Natalie breaks up with Jake, without any warning, and marries a man named Todd.  Jake goes to the wedding and still can't believe that she is not with him anymore.  After the wedding, Natalie comes up to Jake and says:  "Promise me you'll leave us alone.  Promise me you won't follow us or call or even e-mail.  Promise me, Jake.  Promise me that you'll leave us alone."  Jake promises.

6 years go by, and Jake has lived up to his promise.  But he has never gotten over Natalie.  He still loves her now as much as he did 6 years earlier.  He's had some 1-night stands but has never really connected with any other woman.  Then, one day, he sees an obituary on Lanford's website that Natalie's husband has passed away in North Carolina.  He can't help himself.  He goes to the funeral, and when Todd's wife comes out of the chapel, Jake sees that it's not Natalie.

Thus starts his search for Natalie.  This is a very intricate story line.  It's extremely clever and has the usual Coben trademarks - threats, warnings, fights, deaths and, very important to me, humor.  There is tons of smart-aleck humor, which is my favorite kind.  In one scene, Jake is taken into custody and says to the arresting officer:  "I'd like to call my attorney."  Then the next line, which he says as the narrator, is:  "I don't have an attorney."  He has the ability to throw in humor even while people are dying around him.  It sounds a bit macabre but does, in fact, work.

After Jake gets into a fight and is beat up pretty good, he's called into the university president's office.  When the president says:  "You look like hell, Jacob," Jake resists the temptation to say:  "You should see the other guy."  I got a big kick out of this because my father-in-law, later in life, used to always say that exact same thing whenever he fell, or banged some part of his body on a hard surface, or had a ton of blood work done.  It was nice to have a memory of him surface from reading a novel.

Six Years is solid.  It's not one of Coben's best, but it doesn't have to be.  It's still going to get to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.  And it's still entertaining as heck.  If you're already a Coben fan, then you will automatically read it.  If you're not yet a fan, then read it and you will become one.  What else can you ask for from an author?

SIDE NOTE:  I know I've already told you this.  But if you get a chance to see Coben at an author's event, make sure you go.  He is very funny and a real mensch (if you don't know Yiddish, look it up - it's a great word).  You'll be glad you made the effort.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Wow! What a Book!

I just finished my 1st 4.0 of the year.  This is really an amazing book.  It's one of the books featured by Silicon Valley Reads this year.  Sue Diaz's Minefields of the Heart:  A Mother's Stories of a Son at War is a non-fiction account of being the mother of a son who has 2 one-year tours of duty in Iraq.  It is extremely poignant and certainly gives this reader an inside view of what it must be like for families who have sons and daughters in war zones.  I am from the Vietnam War era but joined the Army Reserve (in Oakland, CA) in order to avoid being drafted (and probably sent overseas).  In fact, my draft number, 152, was called that year (remember that they had stopped giving deferments to college students in 1969).  I would have been drafted.  So, fortunately, my parents were able to avoid the angst and anxiety that Sue and her husband, Roman Sr., had to go through.  I feel fortunate about that.  And as far as my own children are concerned, by the time my oldest, Josh (who's now 36), was of draft age, they had eliminated the draft and gone to an all-volunteer army.  That makes Sue's book all the more amazing; that it can bring out such empathy for an experience that I (and my parents) didn't have.

Lest you think that this book only dwells on the war and its ramifications for the family back home, let me tell you that there's a lot more to it.  And thank goodness for that.  I don't know if I could read 156 pages of war reporting.  I think that would be really tough.  So how does Sue get around that?  Well, she uses several clever devices for turning the attention in a slightly different direction.

My favorite trick of hers is having Roman Jr.'s pet tortoise, SpongeBob, send letters to Roman.  There are 5 of them.  They are very fun and funny.  SpongeBob starts his letters with "Hey Dude," and "Yo Bro," and "Yo, Spc. D."  He ends his letters with "Lates," and "Peace Out," and "You Da Man, I Da Turtle."  I am impressed that Sue, a 50-something, knows all this teenage lingo.  Good stuff.

Another one of Sue's devices is to have a Mr. Hyde to her Dr. Jekyll.  Lucinda, Sue's alter ego, is with Sue at various outings and argues with her about what to buy and who to talk to and what to say.  I enjoyed the back-and-forth that Sue established with Lucinda.

And I enjoyed seeing what Sue wrote in their Christmas card craftings.  She photoshopped pictures of the family on small, stick figures.  So there's a big head on a little body.  Then she would give the news of the year.  Obviously, the years when Roman Jr. is gone are interesting news years.  But the letters are never maudlin or depressing.  She always gives a positive report, no matter how she is feeling at the time.  I enjoyed reading those letters too.

Despite all of these diversions, there's no way to avoid what went on in Iraq.  Every day in their local paper (in San Diego), there was a listing of dead and wounded from that area.  Sue talks about how it felt every time there was a knock on the door, where she worried that it would be 2 Army officers to give them notification of Roman Jr. being killed in Iraq.  She talks about what it felt like to drive home and fear that an official-looking vehicle was sitting at the curb.  She tells us how hard it was to encounter peers from their community and have chats about the other person's son or daughter in college, at work, having babies, while Roman Jr. was fighting for his life every day.  You, as the reader, get a glimpse of what Sue went through.  It's really unimaginable.

There's one story I will tell you that reminds me of a situation that my family and I went through.  At one point, the building that Roman Jr. and about 120 other soldiers were living in caught fire.  There were no injuries, but the soldiers lost all of their private possessions.  There just wasn't time to grab their foot lockers.  Because they had already gone through so much, they all treated this as just another bump in the road.  One of the soldiers said:  "Gee, I wonder what I'm going to write in my journal today - oh, wait, my journal burned up."  When my house caught on fire back in May of 1996 (we were nomads for 2.5 years), Josh put a message on our voicemail that said:  "We are not here to take your call - because our house burned down."  I'm certainly not comparing Iraq to Los Gatos, but there is a commonality in finding humor in a non-life threatening situation.

As I mentioned earlier, this book is only 156 pages.  And quite a few of those have pictures on them.  This makes it all the more amazing that Sue Diaz's book packs such a wallop.  If you want to know, or need to know, or should know, what it's like to be the parent, especially the mother, of a soldier at war, please read this book.  I promise that you will be glad you did.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Silicon Valley Reads - A Pretty Cool Organization

My son, Josh, has been after me for a couple of years now, ever since I started my blog (January, 2011), to get involved with Silicon Valley Reads.  I didn't do it last year, and I was prepared to ignore it this year too.  But, wait.  The stars lined up so that I could attend the kick-off event.  On Wednesday night, our family celebrated my daughter Lauren's 29th birthday at Blue Line Pizza, which is at the end of Campbell Avenue (on the way to The Pruneyard).  Before dinner, Josh told me that he was going to walk over to the Heritage Theater, in the Campbell Community Center complex, after dinner to attend the kick-off event for Silicon Valley Reads 2013.  When I found out that Josh is on the Community Advisory Board, I said I would go.

That's a long build-up to the event, and the organization, itself.  So here's what it's about.  Each year, SVReads (is this a legal abbreviation?) picks a topic to explore.  Then it picks a book to be the focal point for a discussion on that topic.  This year, the theme is the "Invisible Wounds of War."  There are over 100 free public events all designed to have a non-political community dialogue about the "after effects of war on soldiers and their families."

This year, 2 books are featured:  The Long Walk:  A Story of War and the Life That Follows, by Brian Castner, and Minefields of the Heart:  A Mother's Stories of a Son at War, by Sue Diaz.  Both of the authors were at the Heritage Theater on Wednesday night and were interviewed by Mike Cassidy, a columnist for the Mercury News.  Each author will attend 17 local events from January 30-April 14.  And, in addition to all of the appearances by Brian and Sue, who will be going to libraries, bookstores, colleges, and, of course, community centers, there are also 4 books for children and teens that are singled out:

Night Catch - by Brenda Ehrmantraut
Nubs:  The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine and a Miracle - by Brian Dennis, Kirby Larson, and Mary Nethery
Back Home - by Julia Keller
Purple Heart - by Patricia Mccormick

Brian was in Iraq and chronicles his time there and his reintegration when he comes home.  Sue's son was in Iraq (for 2 tours), and Sue talks about what it's like from the perspective of the loved ones who stay behind - especially when the loved one is a mother.  Will I read these 2 books?  Absolutely.  In fact, I finished Sue's book.  And let me say this - it is excellent (I will be reviewing Minefields of the Heart in a separate blog).

I'm now hooked.  I will read and blog about both books and try to attend some of the events.  I will find out how I can support this organization (I have an inside source to give me tips!) now and in future years.  Even with that commitment of support, I'm still really glad that my 1st SVReads book is so darn good.

If you are interested in looking into this great program, here's the link:                                             http:/

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Love and War - Themes for the Next Two Reviews

Let’s start with love.  Marina Adair (a local author) wrote Kissing Under the Mistletoe.  To begin with, I was very concerned that I missed my window for reading this book.  I mean, the Christmas season just ended, and how interested was I going to be to read a book in January that takes place in December?  An excellent question, I would say.  Well, it turns out that I was worried for no good reason.  I really enjoyed this book.  The protagonist is Regan Martin who falls for a guy, Richard, that, unbeknownst to her, is married to Abigail DeLuca, the only sister (and a baby one at that) among 5 siblings from a prominent wine family in St. Helena.  The oldest son, Gabe, who is the family patriarch with both of his parents tragically deceased, is determined to make sure that Regan, whose reputation as a wine marketer is growing, never works anywhere near where his sister is. 

To make matters more complicated, Regan has a 5-year old daughter, Holly, whose father is Richard.  Regan gets a job opportunity to work for a winery in St. Helena.  She figures that a move into St. Helena is just the thing to get her away from the DeLuca family in Oregon.  Only, it turns out that St. Helena is where the DeLuca’s actually live.  It’s been 6 years since the break-up with Richard and the initial trouble with Gabe.  And when she gets to St. Helena and finds out that the job is not available, thanks, again, to Gabe, she decides that she’s done running. 

What ensues has very few surprises.  But so what?  It’s a very cool romance with an adorable 5-year old and some really entertaining ancillary characters.  It even has a “dirty jar” that Holly monitors.  Every time Regan uses a bad word or acts rude, she has to put a quarter into the jar.  As you might imagine, the jar has a lot of money in it.  There are several scenes in the book where the “dirty jar” provides some lightheartedness to the story.

If you want complex, read Mailer or Irving or one of those other old guys.  If you want something light, well-written, and entertaining, then read Marina Adair’s Kissing Under the Mistletoe.  And you don’t even have to wait until next December!

Let’s finish up this blog post with war.  It’s W.E.B. Griffin’s 7th Honor Bound book.  I have mentioned before that Griffin has written 6 series.  5 are military-themed and one (Badge of Honor) is a police series.  I read book 1 of Badge of Honor and didn’t like it.  As for the other 5, I absolutely loved Brotherhood of War and The Corps (he’s done with those 2 series, hence the past tense) and absolutely love (notice the present tense) Presidential Agent.  Men at War is okay.  It’s a bit of a throwaway – it’s not that well-written and doesn’t have the same compelling characters that the other series have.  But here’s the interesting part of this whole thing.  Honor Bound was always my 2nd least favorite.  I read it because I was reading all of Griffin’s military series.  Voila, this is no longer the case.  I liked book 6 quite a bit, and I love (there’s that word again) book 7.  Not only does he have the same characters as he’s had before, but he brilliantly brings in a new character that rivals the main protagonist in terms of importance to the story and literary appeal.  That’s tough to do in a book 7!

Empire and Honor makes #41 for me (that’s quite a lot, don’t you agree?).  I’ll keep reading all of his military stuff as long as he (along with his son, William Butterworth IV, who has co-authored 11 of W.E.B.’s books) keeps writing them.

P.S.  What’s the story line in Empire and Honor?  It doesn’t matter.  Just know that, as usual, it takes place in Argentina and involves Nazis who have left Germany toward the end of the war to take up residence in Argentina.  If you like Griffin, you’ll like this one