Friday, February 28, 2014

Series That I'm Currently Reading - and Enjoying

As I recently mentioned, I’ve got a few series that I would recommend.  Some of them started a while ago and some are pretty new.  Today, I will only list the ones that are still current.  And they’re listed in the order that they came to my head (I know, scary).  Tomorrow I’ll list some series that I really liked but that have ended.  It doesn’t mean you can’t read them just because they’re done!

1.  Jeffrey Archer’s The Clifton Chronicles.  Next month will be the 4th book (of 5, I think) in this series.  Archer started it in 2011 and has written 1 book each year.  It centers on Harry Clifton, the son (allegedly) of a dockworker in England.  #1 takes place between 1920-1940.  Succeeding books follow his life and the life of his family.

2.  Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy.  He wrote the 1st one in 2010, 2nd one in 2012, and the 3rd one will be coming out in September.  Book 2, Winter of the World, has made my top 12 all-time.  The 1st one, Fall of Giants, also very good, follows 5 families from different parts of the world and how they interact during WWI.  Book 2 takes those 5 families through WWII.  Can’t wait for #3.

3.  Sheldon Siegel’s Mike Daley, with his law partner, ex-wife Rosie.  Every one of these books is a murder mystery with the courtroom thrown in.  And, as a bonus, all of the action takes place in San Francisco.  (Sheldon has also written his 1st book about David Gold, Chicago detective.  It looks like it will be another good series) 

4.  Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon series stays strong each and every time.  His latest novel, from last year, The English Girl, got a 3.5 from me.  Everybody knows who Allon is. 

5.  W.E.B. Griffin’s Presidential Agent, his latest military series, is as good as his others.  And even though the one I just finished and reviewed, Hazardous Duty, had a couple of flaws, I will still snatch up all subsequent books in this series.

6.  Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon.  Just because everybody on the planet reads Brown’s books doesn’t mean they aren’t really good.  Confession:  I haven’t read #4, Inferno, yet.  But I have it in my TBR pile.  I definitely enjoyed 1-3.

8.  David Baldacci’s Will Robie, government hit man.  Even though Baldacci has only written 2 books in this series, I really like the character.  Book 1, where the hit man collaborates with a 14-year old female runaway, was genius.  Book 2 was not as good but still every enjoyable.

9.  Barry Eisler’s John Rain is one of my all-time favorite series.  Speaking of hit men, Rain is a half-American, half-Japanese hit man who is hired by international companies to assassinate opponents.  His methods are very creative.

10. Sam Eastland's Inspector Pekkala series is extremely entertaining.  Eastland has written 5 books, and I've only read 3.  I have no explanation, except that it somehow got away from me.  The stories center on an  ex-secret agent for the tsar who is banished to Siberia in 1918 during the Bolshevik Revolution.  His subsequent assignments are very cool.

Here’s a list of a few others that I don’t like as well but still read:

Alex Berenson – John Wells
Terry Brooks – Landover (fantasy)
David Rosenfelt – Andy Carpenter
James Grippando – Jack Swytek
Greg Iles – Penn Cage  
Steve Berry - Cotton Malone
W.E.B. Griffin (yes, the same) – Cletus Frade
Nelson DeMille - John Corey

PROGRAM NOTE:  After I post those that have ended, I will have a 3rd post that lists series that I stopped reading, for 1 reason or another.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Hazardous Duty, the 41st Book I Have Read by W.E.B. Griffin

On August 20, 2011, I wrote a blog about W.E.B. Griffin.  At that time, I had read 38 of his books.  With Hazardous Duty, it's up to 41.  I won't rehash what I said back then.  You can always take a look, if you're interested.  But I've got a couple of things to say about this one, the 8th in his Presidential Agent series.  1st the positives:

1.  Reading the names of the main protagonist, Carlos (Charley) Castillo, and all of the other characters (and there are a ton of them), makes me feel like I'm seeing old friends.
2.  The fact that Charley doesn't even make an appearance until P. 69 (out of 404) does not take away anything from my enjoyment of the story.  That's how strong the other characters are.
3.  When Charley's childhood was discussed on pages 96-97, I found that to be very emotional.  I really do care about this guy.
4.  I enjoy the history lesson that I get in each book.

Now the negatives:

1.  Piggybacking onto #4 in the positives, the history got to be a little too detailed for me. My mind wandered a bit with some of it.  I'm not sorry he did it.  I'm just sorry he went as far as he did.
2.  The last 25 pages are just plain silly.  He gives an explanation at the end of the book, in the Afterword, and cites MASH as his muse.  I don't buy it.  It doesn't fit with the rest of the book or the series itself.

Even with the negatives, Hazardous Duty is still a 3/4 for me.  It's just that most of his books are a 3.5.  A bit of drop but not a fall from grace.  I'll be right on the next book he comes out with (unless it's the police series - I'm not a fan of that one), and he usually puts out 2 each year.

P.S.  I didn't put a summary of the book in this post because it doesn't matter.  It's just a different episode from the other 7.

COMING ATTRACTIONS:  Back on April 5, 2011, I posted a few series that I liked.  I'm going to update that in the next day or 2.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

James Grippando's Latest Jack Swytek - Another Winner

James Grippando is one of my solid authors.  I always look forward to reading his books, and I'm never disappointed.  He's written 21, and I've read them all.  Black Horizon, which comes out March 4, is the 11th in the Jack Swytek series.  These are my favorite.  Jack is a Miami attorney with an Hispanic grandmother, an ex-governor of Florida father, and a trusted sidekick (okay, I added the trusted part).  His escapades always include murder, intrigue, legal action, and humor.  Here's what Goodreads has to say about Black Horizon.

Miami attorney Jack Swyteck finds himself in the middle of an international legal battle over a Cuban oil spill that sets him on a deadly mission.

Three summers after the Deepwater Horizon environmental catastrophe, oil is spewing into the ocean again, this time from a drilling explosion in Cuban waters just fifty miles from the Florida Keys. The slick is headed straight for the United States, but the Cubans refuse American offers to assist with the cleanup, and threaten to fire on "hostile" U.S. vessels entering their waters. Backstopping the Cubans is the powerful consortium that owned and operated the rig, and is tied to the Chinese, Russian, and Venezuelan governments, who stonewall all inquiries and relief efforts.

Jack and his new wife, Andie Henning, an undercover agent for the FBI, are honeymooning in the Keys when Andie is called away on an assignment shrouded in secrecy. Jack, too, is soon back at work, representing an American woman whose Cuban husband was killed in the rig explosion. Though the spill occurred in foreign waters, Jack draws on all his legal know-how to file a wrongful death suit in a U.S. court and hopefully bring the young widow a semblance of closure.

Jack's pursuit of the unimaginably complicated international case plunges him into a dangerous world filled with treacherous twists that lead him—and Andie—to the same shocking realization . . . that the looming environmental disaster may have been no "accident" at all.

You know, we all read authors that are hit and miss.  But we're pretty sure that every Harlan Coben, Greg Iles, Daniel Silva, and Richard North Patterson will be good.  We'll like some more than others, but there won't be any we dislike.  James Grippando, for me, is in this category.  He is extremely consistent.  Do you want a 3 out of 4 every time?  With maybe a 2.5 or 3.5 thrown in for good measure?  Grippando is your man.  This one is a 3/4.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Amazon Picks 100 Books That Everybody Needs to Read

Amazon's book editors have picked a 100 books for everybody to read.  I'm attaching the link.  It's actually pretty interesting.  Some of the usual suspects are there, of course, but there are surprises.  For example, Where the Wild Things Are, A Wrinkle in Time, Charlotte's Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Are You There, God? It's Me Margaret.

I will say, though, that none of my top 12 are there.  So, really, how much do they actually know?  In case you have forgotten what those 12 are (do you really care?), here's the list:

Baldacci, David - Wish You Well
Clavell, James - Shogun (top 3)
Conroy, Pat - My Losing Season (non-fiction)
Conroy, Pat - South of Broad (the only book I've ever read where I felt personal loss with
   the death of a main character)
Follett, Ken - Pillars of the Earth (top 3)
Follett, Ken - Winter of the World (book 2 of the Century trilogy - book 3 in September,
Haley, Alex - Roots
King, Stephen - 11/22/63
McMurtry, Larry - Lonesome Dove
Michener, James - The Source (top 3)
Walls, Jeanette - The Glass Castle

Despite the fact that the Amazon book editors are a little out of touch(!), it's still a fascinating list.  I have read (I think - the memory is shaky) 32 of the 100, including, of course, the children's books.  Here's the link.

Friday, February 21, 2014

I'm Now Going to Stop Picking on James Patterson!

You all know that I haven't been very kind to James Patterson in previous posts.  Well, that all changes now.  Patterson is giving away a total of $1M to independent bookstores across the country.  The locals that are receiving grants are:

Bookshop Santa Cruz
Book Passage, Corte Madera
Hicklebee's, San Jose

In addition to that, he is supporting California Bookstore Day, which is May 3 and which features 93 bookstores.  If you want more information about that, go to

So, having said all that, here's a link to the article which explains what Patterson is doing. This is very cool.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A GREAT Night at VHOB Book Club with Amy Franklin-Willis, Author of The Lost Saints of Tennessee

Tuesday night was our 2nd meeting of the VHOB Book Club.  And it was a great night. 1st of all, not counting the author and the store's owners, we had 15 people there.  10 of them were already signed-up members of the book club, and a couple of the other 5 asked to be put on the list.  That brings our current membership up to 21!  We're growing, sports fans.

So back to Tuesday.  We met at 6:30.  Amy arrived at 7:00 and immediately came into our circle (I use the term loosely.  It was more like a snake.  We will be reconfiguring the layout for our next meeting).  And for the next 50 minutes, she answered questions.  It was way cool.  Shortly before 8:00, Amy signed books and chatted with people.  One of the most satisfying parts of the night for me was all of the post-event buzz.  People were outside drinking and eating (Joni put out another great spread).  They were inside in small groups, schmoozing.  The whole bookstore had great energy (and books were purchased).

Amy gave us a couple of interesting tidbits.  First of all, it took her 8 years to write.  In 2007, she got a grant from the Elizabeth George Foundation, which enabled her to finish the book.  When she put it out there for literary agents to take a look, she got 15 rejections before 2 agents said they wanted it.  And then, when it went to editors, she got 15 more rejections before 2 editors said yes. After reading Saints, it's hard to imagine any rejections.

She also told us a little bit about the book she's working on now.  I can't say much on pain of dismemberment, but it does pick up a few of the characters from Saints (23 years later - shhhh).
There's no timetable, but all of us there will be at the front of the line (in fact, one very pushy Author Liaison/Booking Agent tried to pin her down on when she's coming back!).

A really fun night was had by all.  And if you didn't see my review of Amy's book from September 20 of last year, here it is.  Aren't you excited?

Let's start by quoting Pat Conroy, that literary god, on the front cover of The Lost Saints of Tennessee, shall we?

A riveting, hardscrabble book on the rough, hardscrabble south, which has rarely been written about with such grace and compassion. It reminded me of the time I read Dorothy Allison's classic, Bastard Out of Carolina.

If it's good enough for Conroy, it should be good enough for me.  But, actually, it's not. Neither Conroy nor anybody else is going to tell me what book to like.  And, in fact, I didn't like The Lost Saints of Tennessee - I LOVED IT!  Amy Franklin-Willis's debut novel is a humdinger.  About 2/3 of the way through, I was ready to give it a 3.5, still pretty darn good.  But from that point on, especially the last 50 pages, it was simply outstanding.  In fact, I basically cried through those entire 50 pages.  Yes, I'm a bit of a softy (a euphemism for a blubbering baby).  But I believe that everybody would like this book. And some of you, yea, maybe quite a few of you, would shed a tear or 10 in the final pages.

What's it about, you ask?  Zeke is a 42-year old who has lost his way.  He's got 3 sisters, a mother, an ex-wife, 2 daughters - and a deceased brother, a twin, who still, 10 years later, has a major presence in Zeke's life.  His relationship with all of them is just so well portrayed and so poignant (an overused word, yes, but appropriate in this case).  Other than his youngest sister, they all live in or around the small town in Tennessee (did you already figure the state out?) Zeke grew up in.

When I'm reviewing a book about relationships, like Beth Hoffman's Saving CeeCee Honeycutt and Looking for Me, it's tough to give much detail.  Suffice it to say that each and every one of the people mentioned above, plus a few others as well, has a major role in the man he has become.  These, then, are the big questions:

Will he find romance again?
Will he (re)connect with his 2 daughters, ages 15 and 12?
Will he ever get over the death of his brother?

And, most important:

Is life still worth living?

People, don't take my word for it.  Go to Amazon's ratings.  70 out of 84 people gave the book either 4 stars or 5 (I'm about the only one I know who rates on a 4-star basis; what a rebel I am!).  You can't do much better than that.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Recycle Bookstore in Campbell - A Heck of a Good Place to Go

You all know that I spend a couple of hours most Sunday mornings in front of Recycle Bookstore, in Campbell.  I hang my shingle (actually a framed sheet of paper that sits on my table) that says The Book Sage is recommending books.  What you may not know, unless you've been there, is what an absolutely cool bookstore this is.  Everybody understands that they sell used books.  But a lot of people may not know that they also make sure to have new copies of the hottest books available - The Hunger Games, 50 Shades, Divergent - as well as a whole bunch of other talked-about books.  And they even discount them!

Stacy, the manager, and a veteran of book world, does a fantastic job of keeping the store stocked.  You want travel books?  There's a section for that.  Do you want metaphysical?  There's a bunch of those.  How about children's books - in foreign languages?  Yep.  And academia?  Definitely.  Since they are primarily a used book store, they may not always have the book you're looking for.  But, if not, then their knowledgeable staff - Nate, Kevin, Jason, Sarah, Lauren, Mark, to name the ones I know - will direct you to something comparable.

Stacy also makes sure that special requests are honored.  In fact, she's always got 1 or 2 copies of my top 12 on hand.  And if I tell them about another book that I think will sell well, they'll pick up a couple just to have in the store.  I know I'm special (my mother always told me so), but they will accommodate all of their customers.

What do you do if you have a bunch of books that you want to get rid of?  That's right. Take them to Recycle.  They will buy back books (either for cash or, in a larger amount, store credit) as long as they want/need them in the store.  They all know what books the store needs and how much cash/credit to give the customer.  If that sounds appealing to you, then you can bring your books in Tuesday-Saturday, from 11:00-5:00.  And store hours are Monday-Saturday, 11-9, and Sunday, 10-5.

Get on over there.  You'll be happy you did.  Oh, and if you come on Sunday anywhere between about 10:30 and 12:30, stop by and say hello.  I'll be the one in front of the store dying to talk books with you.

Bob, the cat, is actually the boss.  He sleeps wherever he wants, including just inside the window, with the sun shining on him.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Tuesday Night, Feb. 18 - VHOB Book Club Will Meet/Greet Amy Franklin-Willis

We are all very excited to see Amy Franklin-Willis tomorrow night.  The VHOB Book Club will 1st meet from 6:30-7:15 to discuss The Lost Saints of Tennessee.  Then, at 7:15, Amy will come to Village House of Books to answer questions.  Here are several details about the event.

1.  Food and beverage will be available as early as 6:15.
2.  Since our 1st meeting on January 7, our book club has grown from 8 to 18.  There is no ceiling on membership.  Everybody is welcome.
3.  You don't need to be a member of the book club to see Amy at 7:15.  If you have read the book, then you will want to see her.  If you haven't, you will want to after seeing her.

Really looking forward to tomorrow night.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Volume VI of Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader

As you can pretty easily tell from the title, this is the 6th installment of Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader.  It’s been 15 days short of one year since I posted #5.  Did you miss it?  Did you even notice?!

Vanessa Diffenbaugh – The Language of Flowers.  I have really blogged about this ad nauseum (that means you’re sick and tired of hearing about this book from me!).  Just read it.

Jodi Picoult – The Storyteller.  I have read all of Jodi’s books (except her 2 YA’s).  This is one of the top 3, maybe the very top.  The other 2, My Sister’s Keeper and The Pact, are already on my FFTNFR lists.  This one is present day with flashbacks to Nazi Germany.  It’s mesmerizing.

Beth Hoffman – Saving CeeCee Honeycutt (feel free to read Beth’s other book too – Looking for Me – you won’t be disappointed).  It’s 1967, and 12-year CeeCee Honeycutt lives in Ohio with her mother.  In fact, her mother is a bit “disoriented,” and CeeCee has been taking care of her.  When circumstances dictate that CeeCee goes to live with her aunt in the deep South, it’s a real treat to see how she adjusts.   

JoJo Moyes – Me Before You.  I read this one only because I was browbeat(en?) by friends of mine.  I’m sure glad they insisted.  The protagonist in this one loses her job at a diner and ends up caretaking a quadriplegic (all of this happens early on).  If you read this, and you think you know what’s going to happen, you probably don’t.  (Warning:  The book takes place in England, in case you’re an Anglophobe).

Amy Franklin-Willis – The Lost Saints of Tennessee.  It centers on a Southern family, with a 42-year old son and father as the main narrator.  But the other characters are critical to the story, and you will care about all of them.  This is our February selection for the VHOB Book Club (Feb. 18).  Early comments from book club members are extremely positive.

Sue Diaz – Minefields of the Heart.  This is my only non-fiction on the list.  It’s about a 3-tour of duty U.S. soldier in Afghanistan, told from his mother’s perspective.  It not only gives the reader a glimpse of what it’s like to be deployed in the Middle East, and it’s not only very well-written, but Sue also mixes in some humor so that we don’t all feel like taking hemlock.

Jamie Ford – Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet (as well as his 2nd one, Songs of Willow Frost).  Jamie tells a great story about Seattle in the mid- to late-‘80’s and a Chinese man and his son.  Just like The Storyteller, there are flashbacks.  In Hotel, we’re transported back to WWII and how the Japanese in Seattle were sent to internment camps.  The story centers on the Chinese man as a boy and his relationship with a Japanese girl. 

Harlan Coben – Missing You.  This is Coben’s latest.  In fact, it doesn’t even hit the stores until March 18.  But it’s one of his best.  And I’ve read them all (except, again, for his YA’s).  In this one, a female detective comes across an old flame on a dating service.  But is it really him?  And what about the crazy conspiracy that underlies the whole website?  Darn good. 

Mitch Albom – The First Phone Call from Heaven.  This is Mitch’s 6th book.  Of course, he’s most well-known for Tuesdays with Morrie.  And, again, I’ve read them all (he doesn’t have any YA’s, thank goodness).  This is far and away my favorite.  In a small town on Lake Michigan, people are getting calls from deceased loved ones.  The events lead to world-wide coverage.  Interesting storyline, yes?  Definitely yes.

Jeffrey Archer – Only Time Will Tell (book 1 of the Clifton Chronicles – books 2 and 3 are equally good).  This is a great series.  I happen to love historical fiction, especially when it’s done as well as Archer does it.  Book 1 takes place between 1920-1940.  Memorable characters.  Book 4 comes out next month.  Can’t wait.

Richard North Patterson – Loss of Innocence.  I read this book very recently.  In fact, I finished it 2 days ago!  I’m a big fan of RNP.  I’ve liked all of the ones I’ve read (not all of his, but most).  2 of his earlier books, Exile and Protect and Defend, have previously made FFTNFR.  In his latest (which is a prequel to Fall from Grace), a 21-year old daughter of a very privileged East Coast family finds reason to question who she is.  It’s a coming-of-age store, and a lot more.

That’s the latest.  These 11 now make a total of 72.  I would imagine that you won’t agree with me on all 72.  But I’ll bet that you like most of them.  Since you’ve all read the previous 61(!), go ahead and get started on these 11.  And let me know what you think.

P.S.  If you want to see my other 5 lists, here are dates on the blog;


Friday, February 14, 2014

A Review of Loss of Innocence, by One of the Heavyweights of Fiction

Let me start by saying that Loss of Innocence is one of Richard North Patterson's better books.  He's written over 20 novels.  And, although I haven't read them all, I have read most.  This one is not as good as Exile and Protect and Defend, which both made my Fiction for the Non-Fiction Reader (FFTNFR) lists.  But it's a worthy companion.  What's Loss of Innocence about?  It's actually a prequel to his last book, Fall from Grace (which, I have to admit, I didn't remember - my bad).

America is in a state of turbulence, engulfed in civil unrest and uncertainty. Yet for Whitney Dane- spending the summer of her twenty-second year on Martha’s Vineyard--life could not be safer, nor the future more certain. Educated at Wheaton, soon to be married, and the youngest daughter of the all-American Dane family, Whitney has everything she has ever wanted, and is everything her all-powerful and doting father, Charles Dane, wants her to be. But the Vineyard’s still waters are disturbed by the appearance of Benjamin Blaine. An underprivileged, yet fiercely ambitious and charismatic figure, Blaine is a force of nature neither Whitney nor her family could have prepared for.

Although it's clearly not autobiographical, it is true that RNP graduated from college the same year as our protagonist, Whitney.  In the Afterword and Acknowledgements, this is what he says about 1968, the year the book takes place:  "Nineteen sixty-eight, the time of my graduation from college, was the most consequential year of my life, and I would argue, in the recent history of our country."  That's pretty strong language.  We, the readers, benefit from the importance that RNP places on this particular year.  Why? Because he goes into great detail about Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.  All of these sections are particularly gripping, especially for those of us who lived during that period of time (I'm 3 years younger than RNP).  But you young whippersnappers will also enjoy reading about these iconic historical figures.

This is a coming-of-age story.  Whitney's well-ordered privileged life takes a serious hit when she meets Ben, the son of a lobsterman.  Everything she's learned from her parents comes into question.  And the scenes that include Ben are more compelling, riveting, and emotionally charged than the ones without him.  RNP has created a character that jumps out at us.  Not to mention that on page 284 (out of 349), something happens that I absolutely did not see coming.  I know that I'm not the most perceptive guy, but this development really took me by surprise.

It's interesting that RNP's protagonist is a female.  No less a women's libber (that's what we called them in the '60's) than Gloria Steinem says of Loss of Innocence:  "Like male novelists of the nineteenth century, Richard North Patterson actually looks at the world through a woman's eyes...In one life of the 1960's, he symbolizes a movement that keeps changing all our lives."  Pretty heady stuff, I would say.

Well, as a (very) frequent reader of books written by female authors, I would agree with Gloria.  In fact, it was so natural that it never occurred to me that it was written by a man. That's how right-on it came across.  And I have to say something else about this book. At about the half-way point, I couldn't put it down.  I have read many books that I enjoyed a lot.  But that doesn't mean that I couldn't put them down.  I think that this is a fairly rare occurrence.  In fact, it makes my FFTNFR, Volume VI (which comes out in the next day or 2).  I'm giving it a 3.5 and strongly recommending it.

P.S.  The 3rd book in the trilogy, Eden in Winter, will be published in early July.

ONE SOUR NOTE:  There is one complaint I have to register.  There are a ton of mistakes.  I just don't understand how an author of RNP's status does not have decent copyeditors.  I'm talking obvious stuff - "so" instead of "do," "mest" instead of "meet," "haven" instead of "have."  Really?  I'll bet you I saw 25-30 errors of this type.  That should never happen.  Okay, I'll get off my soapbox now.  Fortunately, it did not diminish my enjoyment of it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Marian Szczepanski Visits VHOB

Last night, Marian Szczepanski came to Village House of Books.  She read 4 passages from her book, Playing St. Barbara, one for each female member of the Sweeney family. Then she answered a ton of questions, mostly from a contingent of Notre Dame University alumni, the same school that Marian graduated from.  The evening flew by.

As you might know by now, the book takes place between 1929-1941 in a small mining town in Pennsylvania.  While doing research, it turns out that the area in the book is nearby where her grandmother grew up.  Needless to say, her story has a strong feeling of being accurate - what with the big mining bosses, the dangers of mining, the KKK (yes, they weren't only in the South), and the enormous popularity of baseball.  And, it turns out, based on what we all heard last night, it actually is an accurate depiction.  Realism is a good thing for historical fiction.

Here are a few pictures from the evening.  In the last one, the 2 people you see on the stools are VHOB's owners, Cheryl and Steve Hare.  They, obviously, didn't know they were being photographed (I'm going to get in trouble for that one, I suspect).

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Anna Quindlen's 7th Novel, A Disappointment for Me

I am a big fan of Anna Quindlen's.  I've now read all of her novels, counting her latest, Still Life with Bread Crumbs.  I loved the 1st 5 I read:

Black and Blue
Every Last One
Object Lessons
One True Thing

The 6th one, Rise and Shine, about a morning news anchor, kind of like Katie Couric, I liked but didn't love.  This one, Still Life, I liked the least of all.  I still liked it (2.5/4) but not tons.  Here's what it's about:

Still Life with Bread Crumbs begins with an imagined gunshot and ends with a new tin roof. Between the two is a wry and knowing portrait of Rebecca Winter, a photographer whose work made her an unlikely heroine for many women. Her career is now descendent, her bank balance shaky, and she has fled the city for the middle of nowhere. There she discovers, in a tree stand with a roofer named Jim Bates, that what she sees through a camera lens is not all there is to life.
Brilliantly written, powerfully observed, Still Life with Bread Crumbs is a deeply moving and often very funny story of unexpected love, and a stunningly crafted journey into the life of a woman, her heart, her mind, her days, as she discovers that life is a story with many levels, a story that is longer and more exciting than she ever imagined.

I'm not sure how to explain why I didn't like it that much.  The 1st 75 pages (out of 250) were simply boring.  There was actually a section in which we see what a dog is thinking. That's not just an issue about liking dogs.  It's more an issue of being kind of a silly plotline.  In The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, a dog narrates the whole book. It was very clever, and I was easily able to accept the premise.  But, here, when the book is mostly told in the voice of Rebecca, it's odd to hear what a (at that time) random dog is thinking.  Joni once read a Michener.  On page 700 (out of 900), the chapter was about geese.  She put the book down.  I don't know, it needs to be consistent.

I don't mean to focus on extraneous stuff, but it's hard to ignore.  What else can I tell you? One of the book bloggers I follow, Mary at Bookfan, loved it.  She thought that it is a book that a woman might like more than a man.  I really like a lot of so-called "women's fiction." And you know that I'm a big fan of romance, especially romantic suspense.  So I don't think Mary is right.  But I'm passing it on so that you can factor it in.

Anna Quindlen is a very good writer.  Nobody needs me to tell them that.  And because I liked the 1st 5 so much, and even #6 quite a bit, I think I'm in a good position to render an informed opinion about this one.  I'm not saying don't read it.  I'm just saying not to expect great things from it.  But at 252 pages, it's not much of a gamble.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Jennifer Ryan, Another Top-Notch Bay Area Romance Writer

Over these past 3+ years that I've been writing this blog, I have come across a number of very talented romance writers in the Bay Area.  I have given 3.5's to Joan Swan, Virna DePaul, Elisabeth Barrett, Marina Adair, and Jasmine Haynes.  Let's add Jennifer Ryan to that list.  Jennifer came to VHOB in late October as part of the Grand Opening week.  She had just found out that she was a brand new New York Times bestselling author.  Her book, Saved by the Rancher, book 1 in The Hunted series, has been sitting in my TBR (to be read) pile for over 3 months.  I finally decided to read it (thanks to Rich telling me how much he liked it).  Wow, am I glad I did.  It was excellent.  Let me start by giving you a quick rundown.

From the moment rancher Jack Turner rescues Jenna Caldwell Merrick, he is determined to help her. Soon, he is doing more than tend her wounds; he is mending her heart. Jenna is a woman on the run—hunted down by her ex-husband, David Merrick, from the day she left him, taking part of his company with her, to the second she finds herself in the safety of Jack's ranch. More than just a haven, Jack's offering the love, family, and home she thought were out of reach.

Jack's support will give Jenna the strength she needs to reclaim her life. The hunted will become the hunter, while David gets what he deserves, when they have an explosive confrontation in the boardroom of Merrick International. But not before Jack and Jenna enter into a fight … for their lives.

From a genre standpoint, I would say that Saved by the Rancher is romantic suspense. This happens to be my favorite kind of romance.  You're obviously caught up in the guy-girl thing, and you certainly expect that they will end up together.  But there's enough suspense that you're just not sure.  In fact, on page 388 out of 438, I got nervous that this book might not end happy.  I was not pleased.

What makes this book so much better than many others of its type is the emotional connection Jennifer creates with the ancillary characters.  Of course I cared about Jenna and Jack (and David, the bad guy).  But I loved Jack's niece, Lilly, and cared a lot about Lilly's parents (Jack's sister and brother-in-law).  I had emotional moments that involved Jack's dog, Sally!  I know, hard to believe (since I'm not exactly a dog guy).

There's also a moment late in the book where Jenna meets her lawyer for the 1st time (not really a spoiler alert).  It was a very cool moment.  It reminded me of the movie Die Hard, where Bruce Willis' character, John McClane, meets the police dispatcher, Sgt. Al Powell (played by Reginald VelJohnson) in person.  Al kind of kept John going throughout the escapade with just his voice and his words of encouragement.

So, I liked the story, the characters, the suspense, and the romance.  Can't ask for much more than that.  Jennifer gets a solid 3.5 from me.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Robin Sloan Signs Books at Recycle Bookstore in Campbell

Robin Sloan signed books for 2 hours yesterday at Recycle Bookstore.  Robin is part of Silicon Valley Reads this year and is making appearances all through the South Bay in January, February, and March.  Here are some pictures from yesterday's signing.

This is my review of Robin's book from June 11 of last year.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore - Neat Title, Yes?

First, let me say that I only read this book because Nate, who works at Recycle Bookstore in Campbell, harassed me.  He's recommended a few books, but this is the 1st one that he sorta insisted that I read.  So, I did.  And I'm glad.  This is very entertaining.  Robin Sloan, who lives in the East Bay, has written a book about a very old used bookstore in San Francisco.  It's open (obviously) 24 hours a day and has a very unusual clientele.  More about that in a minute.

Clay Jannon, who is in his mid-'20's, gets a job working graveyard at Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore.  There are a couple of shelves in the front with novels, biographies, and classics.  And in the back, on shelves up to the ceiling, is something called the Waybacklist.  These are very fancy tomes with bunches of letters inside in no recognizable order.  Sometimes days go by with no clients.  And then somebody will come in, give Clay their ID, a combination of a number and 5 letters (e.g. 6WNJHY), and Clay has to climb a sliding ladder to get a specific book from the Waybacklist.  There is a handful of people who come in periodically to get one of these books.

What the heck are these books supposed to accomplish?  Well, you'll have to read it to see.  But I can tell you that there is a secret society (with black robes), called the Unbroken Spine, that is tied into typesetters from the 15th and 16th centuries.  I can also tell you that Google's Mt. View headquarters and a number of its employees have a large part in this.  And let's not forget the fantasy trilogy, The Dragon-Song Chronicles, that Clay is addicted to.  Who knew that a fantasy series could possibly have historical significance?  Throw in some very unique characters, and I can say with some degree of certitude that you will enjoy Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore.

Besides being a good story with good characters, Robin is extremely funny and clever.  I enjoy books with humor.  2 of my favorites are Brian Haig, with his JAG lawyer, Sean Drummond, and David Rosenfelt, with his lawyer, Andy Carpenter (is it a coincidence that attorneys make for good humor?  you decide).  What makes them funny is that the humorous moments are interwoven into the story.  They don't feel forced.  Robin goes a step further.  He makes a bunch of comparisons that are laugh-out-loud funny.  Here are a couple of them:

"Why do organizations need to mark everything with their insignia?  It's like a dog peeing on every tree."

"It's right there - I found it - but suddenly it feels too intimate, like I'm about to look through Penumbra's tax returns or his underwear drawer."

He also has some lines that are not funny but that are very clever:

"His gray hair rises up around his head like a cloud of stray thoughts."

"Our friendship is a nebula."

I love the scenes that take place in the bookstore.  I really like the scenes that take place in other parts of the Bay Area.  And I like the scenes that take place out of the area.  Overall, though - a solid 3 out of 4.  I will look forward to anything that Robin Sloan writes.

AUTHOR SHOUT-OUT:  I have emailed with Robin several times over the last few days.  He is always quick to respond.  I really appreciate that in an author (or anybody else, for that matter).

Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Book That Makes All of Us Dads "Glad to Be Dads"

Tim J. Myers has written a book about the joys of fatherhood.  It's called:  glad to be dad  A CALL TO FATHERHOOD.  Here's a short summary:

"Glad to Be Dad" is a funny, honest, realistic, and warm-hearted look at parenting, marriage, and family life, especially for men as their domestic roles are changing. It's full of stories, practical advice, and realism about the up's and down's of raising children -- and it's for wives as well as husbands.

Let me 1st say that Tim has done tons of research.  He quotes child-rearing experts, psychologists, and a bunch of data.  And all of that is very interesting.  But what really appealed to me was the charts that Tim created, most of them very funny.  The STRESS CHART FOR MEN AT HOME, on pages 74-77, is so funny that I couldn't catch my breath. I was eating lunch at The Garrett (my 4-5 days/week lunch spot) and kept getting looks. We're not talking about The French Laundry here.  It's a sports bar where the noise level approximates Times Square at 11:59PM on December 31.  And, yet, there I was drawing attention to myself (you know how I hate that - oh, wait).

Besides the charts, there is plenty of other humor.  I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have enjoyed the book nearly as much if it had all been serious.  Here are a few examples of Tim's lighthearted approach to fatherhood:

Tim is describing how it feels to be with a 4-year old all day.  The phone rings, and he misses the call.  "I'd so desperately wanted to hear another adult at the end of the line, be it telemarker, survey-questioner, or phone evangelist. Hell, I would have settled for a robo-call."

Another time, Tim is at the shoe store with his 4-year old daughter.  He is not happy with the Disney shoes.  "You people at Disney - what the hell's the matter with you?  Did you have to design these cheap plastic sandals, encrust them with rhinestones, and then slap HER (Princess Jasmine) picture on the side?!  It's like a box of chocolates in the middle of a broccoli farm."

But make no mistake.  There are many sentimental moments that brought tears to my eyes (I know what you're all thinking right now!).  And there are a lot of very serious moments, both with respect to parenting as well as maintaining a romantic relationship with your significant other when the kids are young.  In fact, one of my favorite sections is when Tim uses The Dr. Seuss book, Horton Hatches the Egg (p.s. Joni knows this book by heart) as a great example of fatherhood.

Whether you are a father or mother, you will get a lot out of this book.  I'm now going to turn "glad to be a dad" over to my son and daughter-in-law, parents of 2 children.  It's worthwhile reading for all generations of parents.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Fascinating Look at the Student Protest Era in the '60's.

As you all know by now, Seth Rosenfeld came to VHOB on Thursday night.  His book, Subversives, tracks the FBI's involvement with Cal Berkeley in the early '60's and how it related to the onset of the free speech movement and the student protest era.  I gotta say that it was fascinating.  Here are a couple of facts about the actual writing process.

1.  When Seth was at Cal in the late '70's, he was working for the student newspaper, The Daily Cal.
2.  His editor gave him the assignment of looking into the FBI as it related to the free speech movement.
3.  He filed 5 lawsuits over the years in order to get documents.
4.  He conducted countless interviews, including with 2 FBI agents who met with Ronald Reagan when he was governor and who received instructions on how to sabotage the protests.
5.  He has over 150 pages of sources in the book.
6.  It took him 27 years to write Subversives!

Seth told some truly fascinating stories.  One in particular stands out for me because I was there.  In the late '60's, the university decided to convert a park near campus into a parking lot.  This became a cause celebre for the student government.  The student body president at that time, Dan Siegel, stood on the steps of Sproul plaza, and told hundreds (maybe thousands) of people to stop the construction crews.  Everybody surged toward the park (a couple of blocks away).  Of course, on the way, James Rector, who was standing on a roof, was killed.

What I didn't know was that the police had started out with harmless ammunition and had eventually escalated to real bullets when their other ammunition ran out.  As they were passing buildings, somebody threw a brick from a rooftop.  Rector, who did not throw the brick, was killed when the police sprayed the roof.

Seth had a mess of stories to tell, each one more interesting than the next.  I think this book will appeal to 2 basic groups of people.  1. All of us of a certain age that lived during that time.  2.  Everybody else.  Even the young'uns know about the free speech movement, Mario Savio, student protests, and the like.  Many of the liberties we take for granted today came out of the free speech movement.  Who wouldn't be interested in knowing how that happened?

I haven't read Seth's book yet, but I certainly plan to.  And you?


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Miscellaneous, Musings, and ONE BIG CORRECTION

Okay, let's get to the correction first.

1.  Seth Rosenfeld is coming THURSDAY at 7:00 to VHOB, not Wednesday.  Don't ask me how I got that mixed up.  The 3 places where I keep these dates all said Thursday. There's simply no explanation/excuse for it (except the obvious, and that's just too scary to consider!).

2.  I had a couple of people tell me that they didn't do very well on the 1st line contest. But nobody actually emailed me with answers.  Therefore, there are no winners.  Let's try it again.  I'll give you all another week, from today, to email me answers.  My email address is

3.  Anita Diamant is coming to the JCC, Los Gatos, on Feb. 20, at 7:00.  She is the author of The Red Tent, and she will be in conversation with Rabbi Daniel Pressman.  There is a very good chance that VHOB will be a part of the festivities.

4.  I have recently interviewed Jana McBurney-Lin and will blog about it in the next few days.  Jana is the author of the award-winning My Half of the Sky, along with Blossoms and Bayonets.  The 1st is pure fiction, and the 2nd is fiction based on a true story.

5.  If you missed seeing Nate Jackson, author of Slow Getting Up, when he appeared at VHOB during the holidays, you have another chance coming up.  On February 11, a week from today, he will be at Kepler's, in Menlo Park, at 7:30.  He is definitely worth seeing/hearing, and his book is terrific.

6.  As you all know by now, on Feb. 18, Amy Franklin-Willis, author of The Lost Saints of Tennessee, will be at VHOB at 7:15.  Her book is our VHOB Book Club selection of the month, but everybody is welcome to see her, whether or not you're part of the book club. You've all heard me rave about it.  You all know I gave it a 4.0.  Well, today, one of our very best authors, Beth Hoffman, asked me to tell Amy how much she enjoyed Saints.  Do you believe me now?

7.  We've got a very eclectic schedule of author visits in March.
     March 6 - Rayme Waters and Karen Joy Fowler - both authors' books will be featured
         for the March VHOB Book Club, and both authors will be appearing at the
         bookstore at 7:15.  Of course, we encourage everybody to come see them.
     March 7 - Kathleen Gonzalez has written a walking tour of Venice based on
         Casanova's life.
     March 13 - Betty Auchard will be discussing her memoir about her childhood.
     March 21 - Bill Joyce, author, and Joe Bluhm, illustrator, will be coming to talk about
         their children's book, The Fabulous Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore.  They
         are part of Silicon Valley Reads for 2014.
     The last week of March is author-less because MY DAUGHTER IS GETTING

Okay, I'm done.  You can now go back to your regularly scheduled lives.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Author Events for February at VHOB

My blog titles keep getting more and more creative, don't you think?  Regardless, we've got 4 super events lined up for this month.  Here they are, with a little blurb about each author.

Wednesday, Feb. 5, Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives.  Seth details the FBI's involvement with Cal Berkeley in the early 1960's.  He focuses on Mario Savio, the leader of the free speech movement, Ronald Reagan, in his early political career, and Clark Kerr, the liberal University of California president.  He shows how the FBI's secret involvement with these 3 people helped lead to an entire era of student protest.  For those of us who lived through that time (I went to Cal Berkeley starting in 1967), it sounds like a fascinating look behind the scenes.  For those of you young 'uns, it gives you a chance to learn some important history about the '60's and '70's.  I don't think any of you want to miss this book by a local freelance journalist.

Wednesday, Feb. 12, Marian Szczepanski, Playing St. Barbara.  I have already written a review of this book, on January 23.  I liked it a lot.  It depicts, in great detail, what it was like to live in a small mining town in Pennsylvania in the 1930's.  Marian happens to be visiting the area from Texas, and we feel very fortunate to have her coming to VHOB.

Tuesday, Feb. 18, Amy Franklin-Willis, The Lost Saints of Tennessee.  We're very excited to have Amy coming to VHOB for several reasons.  1st of all, I gave this book a 4.0 when I read it back in September of last year (and a number of people have echoed this sentiment).  Secondly, this book is the subject of our 2nd VHOB Book Club meeting.  So, not only will we meet from 6:30-7:15 to discuss Saints, but Amy will then be coming to the bookstore to meet us.  And, thirdly, even if you're not a VHOB Book Club member, you will still want to come and see Amy.  If you haven't read her book, then you will have the opportunity to meet Amy, buy her book, and have her sign it for you.

Thursday, Feb. 27, Nick Taylor, Father Junipero's Confessor.  Here's a description of the book that I found on Nick's website:

Led by the zealous Fray Junípero Serra, missionaries Francisco Palóu and Juan Crespí vie for their master's fickle favor as a chain of missions creeps north up the fog-enshrouded coast of Alta California.
A master stylist and a meticulous researcher, Nick Taylor vividly captures the atmosphere of early California as he dramatizes the politics of the era: the horrifying and tragic gaps in understanding between priests and natives; the vicious power plays between crown and church; and the fervor, ambition, and desperation that fueled European settlement of the region. This novel’s publication coincides with the celebration of the 300th anniversary of Junípero Serra’s birth.

This is going to be a great month for us.  We hope to see many of you there.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Jamie Ford's 2nd Book - As Good As the 1st

I'm going to start this review of Jamie Ford's Songs of Willow Frost by saying that I'm deeply sorry that I waited so long to read this book.  I should have known by how much I enjoyed Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet that I would like this one too.  Maybe I was afraid that it wouldn't match up.  Regardless, this book is the equal of Hotel.  Man, can Jamie write.

Here is what the book is about:

Set against the backdrop of Depression-era Seattle, Songs of Willow Frost is a powerful tale of two souls—a boy with dreams for his future and a woman escaping her haunted past—both seeking love, hope, and forgiveness.
Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as everybody's birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.

Interesting premise, no?  Hotel took place during WWII.  This one switches back and forth from 1934, when William is 12, to 1921, with some 1929 thrown in.  We see Willow Frost, nee Liu Song, as a teenager and then as a teenage mother.  We get her background and history and that of her parents.  It's just a fascinating portrayal.  With Jamie's books, you connect to all of his characters, both positively, in most cases, and negatively, in a few.

You've seen in my reviews that, rarely, there are moments that make me yell out loud. This certainly happens in Willow Frost.  On page 184 (out of 319), I actually said:  "Oh, no, no, no.  Oh God no."  A little melodramatic perhaps?  Could be.  But I couldn't help myself.  In fact, this development prompted me to email Jamie (I've met him and have had a little bit of correspondence with him) and tell him that I can't believe he did what he did.  I also told him that we're through (I did back off that one a little bit).  His response was basically "Bummer, dude," although he said it in a literary way.

As the backdrop for this book, I learned a ton about the early stages of moviemaking. And how it put live theater into the background.  I certainly never knew that Seattle was one of the cities at the forefront of the whole burgeoning movie industry.  How do I know that this is actually true, you ask?  Well, I went right to the source - Jamie's Author's Note at the end of the book.  Even though it was only 2 pages, it was very fact-filled about not only the early movies, but also about the big part that orphanages played during The Great Depression.  I don't know if there's anything better than reading an excellent book and also get a history lesson.  At least this is true for me.

Bottom line book fans?  Read Songs of Willow Frost.  You will thank me for it.  Solid 3.5.

RANDOM NOTE (aren't they all?):  When I stand in front of Recycle Bookstore on Sunday mornings, I always have Hotel sitting on the table as one of my recommendations.  Now, the pile will include Songs, as long as the store has at least one copy of it.