Friday, December 31, 2010

2010 Best of Lists

Only five books made it on to my best of the year list for 2010.   Have I gotten really picky, or have I not picked the right books to read?

Best fiction of the year:

* The Last Jew, by Noah Gordon
* The Passage, by Justin Cronin
* Sabbath Queen, by Shlomi Harif

(This last one requires a footnote:  I've read several of Harif's short stories, a proof edition of one of his novels, and a draft edition of another.   Pretty much everything he writes is worth reading, most of it is fantastic.  Unfortunately, though, you'll have to wait a bit to read his work because he's not yet published much of it.  Keep looking though.)
Best non-fiction of the year:

* The Essence of Buddhism, by Traleg Kyabgon
* Arguing with Idiots, by Glenn Beck (yes, I'm surprised to find this on my list also!)
The 2010 year-end numbers are in and I've picked up the pace over 2009 with 123 books read, 59 non-fiction and 64 fiction.    In the non-fiction area, I read 13 business books, 10 conservation -related books, and 10 woodworking or home project books.   How does the distribution of fiction and non-fiction reading look over a four year horizon?   Looks like non-fiction is catching up!

Workshop Idea Book, by Andy Rae

I read this after Landis' book on the topic, and my expectations were set pretty low as a consequence.   But to my delight, Mr Rae delivered pretty much what I was hoping for.    His book isn't about the details of how to do things, but rather an informed and well presented view of how folks have approached workshops that, true to the title, stimulate ideas.  Of the two, there's no comparison:  this is the book to read on workshops -- if you're looking for some ideas of what you might do yourself, or just to be amused.

Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, by Heather Smith Thomas

There's a reason why this is the definitive book on the topic:  it is clear, well written, and seems pretty comprehensive to my layman's eye.    It is also practical, which means that some of the photos, drawings and instructions address the realities of cattle that aren't covered in Disney films.   Personally, the section on sewing up a prolapsed cow bothered me more than the details of turning a bull calf into a steer.   Well, mostly.

The Workshop Book, by Scott Landis

I was disappointed in this book:  I'm not sure what I expected, but this wasn't it.   Mr Landis interviewed a number of woodworkers, and took some photos of their set ups, with some rudimentary advice.

Once I read Andy Rae's far better book on the topic, I realized what it was that I had expected, because his book got quite a bit closer to the mark.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Country Life, by Paul Heiney

Now this is quite the collectors item:  out of print, it fetches hundreds of dollars.   (Unless, like my enterprising spouse, quite the eBay expert, you find one being retired by a library that didn't realize this is a volume most libraries should keep in their collection!)

It is a classic of homesteading.   Everything about it is warm, welcoming and informative.    To expensive to recommend purchasing, it absolutely is worth a library request if you have any interest in homesteading or farming.

On the homesteading topic, think of Seymour's book as a reference, but Heiney's book for day dreaming.

The Self-sufficient Life, by John Seymour

This is a comprehensive reference for the homesteader.   The best parts, to me, are the detailed description of many vegetables and how best to grow them.   At times, though, I feel as though the coverage of a topic is so cursory as to be completely unhelpful.   And, there's a considerable and bitter anti-business tone; think radical green.

Still worth having for the great reference.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Fences, Gates, and Bridges, by George Martin

This was first published in 1892 and is available now through Forgotten Books (and others).   At first the poor quality of the (presumably authentic) type was off-putting, but I got used to it as I read.   The information seems quite reasonably to guide hand-cut fence making today (although one would use some modern labor saving techniques).   Actually, it would be difficult to imagine someone reading this without, like me, a strong urge to go cut some fence wood and try out some gate designs!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, by Nassim Taleb

A colleague, Deidre Paknad of PSS Systems, lent me this book, and I'm pleased that she did.   It is a breath of fresh air compared to the typical investment analysis text.   I'll net it out by quoting from Mr Taleb's prologue:
"This book is about luck disguised and perceived as nonluck (that is, skills) and, more generally, randomness disguised and perceived as non-randomness (that is, determinism).   It manifests itself in the shape of the lucky fool, defined as a person who benefited from a disproportionate share of luck but attributes his success to some other, generally very precise, reason."

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Dead or Alive, by Tom Clancy

The first Clancy book I read was in 1985, on an airplane en route to Nice, France.  It was so compelling that I violated my travel rule (sleep when flying east) and arrived tired.

Fast forward to 2010, when I optimistically imagined that this latest novel would be worth reading.   Sigh.   Save your time and money.   It was boring and not very well written; it lacked energy and pacing and suspense (save perhaps for the first couple of chapters, which sucked me in from reading the Kindle sample to wasting my money, I mean buying, the full novel).   And the characters weren't interesting and seemed overly artificial.  Which also describes the plot.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Watchlist, by Jeffrey Deaver, et al

It turns out that mystery and suspense writers talk with each other.   In particular, through the association called International Thriller Writers.   In this book, 15 writers (such as Lee Child, Joseph Finder, Lisa Scottoline, and Jeffery Deaver) collaborated to build a double-novel set around the same main character (hero Harry Middleton).

This turned out to be a very successful venture.   The book is very good -- absolutely perfect for a couple of airplane trips.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Road to Bedlam, by Mike Shevdon

Well, I'm admittedly not all that comfortable reading book about feyre, whatever that even means.   But is it my fault that Mr Shevdon's excellent writing, compelling plot advancement and character development happen to take place in the context of this fantasy tripe?


Anyway, this was easily as good as his prior volume; wish it had been a longer story though.   That's awfully high praise for an author; hope I'm not getting soft.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sixty-One Nails, by Mike Shevdon

As is typical for me lately, I downloaded this free novel for Kindle because -- well, because it was free from the limited time offers page.   I was immediately pulled in to the story:   a Neil Gaiman-ish approach, but more upbeat.   Even when I learned this was a "fantasy genre, see fey / faires" I kept going because it had a "real novel" beat to it.

As much as the fairy stuff might attract readers of that genre, I suspect that Mr Shevdon is doing himself a dis-service by not marketing his novel to a more mainstream audience of fiction readers.

I've already picked up the sequel, and will see if I feel the same way after reading it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

One Hit Wonder, by Charlie Carillo

I stuck with this book even though I was occasionally annoyed by redundancy or by more flashback detail than mattered to me.   Glad that I did; in total it is a good, interesting novel with very good plot advancement.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chinatown Beat, by Henry Chang

This is a good airplane book, in that my standards for a good read are relaxed a bit on flights as I feel trapped anyway, and a mediocre novel is better than no novel at all.    It is not very well written, the hero isn't endearing, and it has an overall noir feel.   Written in 2007, it has a 1960s feel to it.   But, there was a plot, and it did move forward.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Wow -- just in time, a novel that jumps to the top of my top ten list for the year.   In fact, it is the only entry on the 2010 top ten list, and I'd just about given up hope of finding truly extraordinary books this year.   But that's what this novel is:  extraordinary.

Here's the net-net on this novel:   read it.

The longer view requires I remove a potential obstacle:   if you've heard that this is a vampire novel, forget it -- it is not, at least not in any way with which you are familiar.    It is a story, in the best sense of the word, about people and their relationships and personalities, and about things that happen over a long period.   The writing is captivating as is the character development.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Turtle Feet, by Nikolai Grozni

Grozni's memoir of his years spent as a Tibetan Buddhist monk was like a very good slice of pecan pie:  it was really interesting to read, but afterwards, I can't identify any meaningful moments.   Still a fun book.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Decentering International Relations, by Meghana Nayak & Eric Selbin

This is a thought provoking and worthwhile read.   The fundamental concept is that we tend to view International Relations (IR) through the lens of USA or Western European perspective, and that if one re-centers focus to other groups, things that seems obvious become -- well, less so.

The book isn't without flaws.   In particular, I was very disappointed with the section on globalization, because I couldn't discern the point that the authors were making even though it felt as though they thought they were (smugly) making some point.

Still I'd recommend this especially to folks doing business in emerging (economically) nations -- if you can avoid being put off by the academic tone of a text targeted to the classroom and not packaged for pleasant business reading.

The Truth About Public Speaking, by James O'Rourke

Far too basic to be worth the trouble for even the least experienced speaker; surely there's better free advice to be found through a simple internet search.

Empowered, by Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler

Guess what:   the interaction between a firm's employees and its clients matters!  

Being helpful is a good thing; being rude is bad for business.   The prevalence of Twitter, Facebook and the like make it easy for bad press about your crummy client service to become well known quickly.  

So the economic impact of lousy service is now so great you really do need to think about it.  

Oh, and there's an obligatory (albeit clumsy) acronym.   (Turn your head slightly away from your computer so that you don't get vomit on the keyboard.)   HEROes: highly empowered and resourceful operatives.

The full title is, "Empowered: Unleash Your Employees, Energize Your Customers, and Transform Your Business."

The Rules of Work, by Richard Templar

Some of this book is simply exhausting, but it has enough morsels of very useful thinking to be valuable to someone perhaps just entering the workforce.    The challenge for that person would be to distinguish between the great advice and the dangerous or unimportant.

And in case you're curious:   yes, anything that is a free promotional download to my Kindle is fair game for me to read on an airplane these days!

Focus, by Leo Babauta

This e-book is available through Amazon (with additional content) or as a free download with just Mr Babauta's core materials.

The notion, in a nutshell:   spend less time on-line lest it be an addition that leads you and your family to suffer and gets in the way of your ability to think.

Some of this material makes great sense to me; some is what you'd expect from someone who's business model is simplicity.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Just Listen, by Mark Goulston

I really enjoyed this book and expect that I will read it again several times.   Dr Goulston is a psychiatrist who specializes in consulting on how to interact more successfully with others in the workforce. 

(Note:  he does tend a bit toward self promotion, but it isn't all that annoying in the big scheme of things.)

Friday, October 22, 2010

Velocity, by Alan Jacobson

It turns out that occasionally Amazon will post a new novel on their Kindle store's "limited time offer" promotional section for free.   Which is how I ended up reading this book.

So that was the good news:  only pixels were sacrificed on this novel.    The bad news:  yuck.

Clearly this was written for (whatever few) readers of the series, because it jumped in assuming I had a clue of what was going on with FBI profiler Karen Vail (the main character and individual least suited to be in law enforcement by quality of character, anger management, or insight).

Oh, one more good news item:  it may have been a poorly written and not very interesting book, but it was fast reading for a brief flight.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Sabbath Queen, by Shlomi Harif

You'll want to look for this short story on Amazon in the coming weeks.   I was fortunate to get a PDF of it directly from the author.   Not usually a short story fan, I sat on it for a while.  But when I finally got around to reading it, I couldn't put it down.   Captivating, interesting, just fantastic.   I'd mentioned previously that Harif is a author worth watching, and this short story absolutely proves the point.

Worth Dying For, by Lee Child

I found this to be one of the best of the "Jack Reacher" novels in the series.   My flight flew by while I was reading.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Lucene in Action, by Michael McCandless, et al

This is a terrific guide book to the Lucene open source high-performance search engine.    One of the things I like most about it is how pragmatic it is:   for example, want to know how to write custom collectors -- and why?  There's an excellent explanation and helpful example code.

My only dissatisfaction is that I lack the spare time to play more with Lucene and try out some queries on my own.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Workbench Design Book, by Christopher Schwarz

In this follow up to his "Workbenches" book, Mr Schwarz explains how his real-life use of different workbenches led to tuning up his thinking; he also added some plans. 

As usual from Mr Schwarz, the value of his instructions varies hugely:  sometimes his words are completely cryptic, sometimes clear as could be for any beginner. 

But overall this was a fun book to read, and will guide my thinking about that new workbench I've been wanting to build for some time now...

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Through the Language Glass, by Guy Deutscher

The sub-title is, "Why the world looks different in other languages."   In it, Mr Deutscher discusses linguistics in the context of cultures.

By page 77 it occurred to me that my prior decisions to not study linguistics were well founded.  By page 146 I became convinced that most introductory linguistic texts are rampant with pseudo-science, again confirming the good decision to have avoided the topic this long. 

By the end, page 232, I knew that I deserved a stiff drink but that a coffee might be preferable given how sleepy I was.   And I wasn't looking forward to either the epilogue or the appendix.

Earth, A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race, by Jon Stewart

The running joke of this book is that it is written for aliens to read after the demise of humanity.   It started out strong, with some great lines.  Like this one in the section on natural disasters:
"A number of Earth's natural processes had the unfortunate side effect of destroying everything we'd ever worked for.  Events like those listed here not only decimated us; they also deeply tested our faith in God (more on Him later).  We optimistically chose to see these disasters not as signs that God didn't love us, but that He loved us so much, He would unexpectedly smite us with His mighty wrath for our own good."
I also enjoyed the section on evolution; here's the introduction:
"The manner by which life originated and developed on Earth was a matter of some debate for us.  Scientists believed it required a long, slow process of natural genetic change called evolution.  As evidence, they pointed to every bit of relevant data ever gathered.  Many others rejected the notion that man descended from monkeys as distasteful, believing instead that life -- and the cosmos itself -- was created by one or more gods.  As evidence, they pointed to themselves believing it.  You will probably end up just teaching the controversy."
 Unfortunately, as the book continued, the jokes got tired and juvenile, and the book got boring.   Worth reading the first 30 to 50 pages, but that's about it.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

What We Believe, by Blair Adams

This brief book -- perhaps better described as a long pamphlet -- explains the background of the beliefs of the Heritage Ministries Christian congregation.   These folks live a largely agrarian community existence, but don't isolate themselves from technology (they embrace the web, and cell phones).

As for the book:  a bit long winded on the genealogy of socio-political conditions in Scotland and Ireland.   And it didn't tell me how this group made it from a small church on the lower east side of New York City to 500+ acres in Elm Mott Texas.   But then again, it didn't advertise itself as a history of the group.

You can download this (and some other books by the Heritage Ministries folks) from their web site

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Rebel Without a Crew, by Robert Rodriguez

This is a fascinating fast paced diary about the making of El Mariachi, the small film that propelled Mr Rodriguez's career as a film maker.   (His films include Grindhouse, Machete, From Dusk to Dawn.)

I have particular interest in film making; I like sitting on the other side of the deal, watching the final version.  And I never bother with the "director's commentary" on DVDs.    Yet I was completely engrossed in this book.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Don't Blink, by James Patterson

This was a great mystery novel.   Fast paced, interesting.   Not too deep, didn't require effort to read it -- more like an action adventure movie.

Shut Eye, by Shlomi Harif

This is a Kindle -only short story.    In spite of a shaky start -- Harif opted to jump right into the story without any set up (presumably to keep it short) -- and a few editing glitches, this was very enjoyable. 

By the third screen it pulled me in; I was eager to see where the plot would take us, and started to be interested in the main character.

I can't tell if this short story is a chapter from a full-sized novel or stand-alone. I hope it is part of a novel, because there is lots to fill in around the plot that would be very interesting to learn about.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Deception, by Eleanor Cooney & Daniel Altieri

This long, twisted mystery is set in 7th century China.   Magistrate Dee is the detective and Madame Wu and her mother are the evil doers, Wu becoming Empress of China.   A form of Buddhism with deep ties to magic and superstition is at the end silenced by the practical Confucianism of Dee.

I schlepped this 640 page (hard cover version) book on several flights before finishing it, and it never lost my interest.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Rembrandt Affair, by Daniel Silva

This 10th in Mr Silva's spy series featuring the hero Gabriel Allon is quite welcome as a dramatic improvement in writing over his prior, disappointing, novel.    Although the lecturing was occasionally tedious, the plot, action and character development were solid, and this was an interesting book.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Millennium Rising, by Jane Jensen

This was a very engaging novel; it kept my interest across two flights.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Watchmen, by Brian Freemantle

Only because this book was in my hands already on the airplane, my next book in my carryon bag, already stowed above me, and that I didn't want to remove my seat belt in turbulence, that I read beyond the first couple of pages.    Those pages were not well written nor well edited.    I am glad that I kept with it:  either the writing improved or my tolerance did.   It kept me occupied for much of the flight and I cheerfully left it behind for the next traveler.   I wouldn't recommend it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Cabal, by David Hagberg

This was an interesting novel.  But it has two flaws.   For the first half of the book, the plot was too complex; had a tough time navigating it, and it felt as though there were references to a prior novel.   Only now do I see that it is the 14th in a series featuring the same main character.

The second flaw was that far too many innocent people were killed off.   Yes, it is fiction, but that doesn't mean it has to flow like a bad Hollywood shoot 'em up movie.   A reader relies on the author to not arbitrarily kill off near -key characters willy nilly, especially in the absence of meaningful plot advancement.   Mr Hagberg lacks art.

Betrayed, by Robert Tanenbaum

This was an adequate suspense novel.   The author, a trial lawyer, makes the courtroom scenes seem realistic.  Unlike the rest of the book.   What ever happened to suspense thrillers that reeked of realism?   And, while I'm at it, what ever happened to character development, plot advancement, and interesting dialog?   I fear Mr Tanenbaum just phoned this one in.

Five Lessons, by Ben Hogan

This brief text represents golf great Ben Hogan's simple and clear advice for good golfing.   It covers grip, stance, and the swing broken into two parts.   The problem, though, is that I need far more than a next generation Kindle to make good use of this book:  I need a device that feeds the lessons direction into my body and mind.   Because until then, successfully executing the excellent advice is not coming so easily.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

101 Things You Need to Know, by Tracey Turner & Richard Horne

This book, I didn't realize until I picked it up from the library and started reading it, is optimized for middle -schoolers.   With chapters like, "what makes farts so smelly."   That said, it was still fun for me to read; mostly science facts presented in a light hearted way.

Primeval, by David Golemon

The good news:  this novel was interesting enough that I read it to the end.   The bad news:  well, just don't bother with this book if reality is important to you.   Oh, I can live with the usual spy novel problem:  how is it the President seems to know every master spy by name and personally involve himself in their work?

Realistically, I just don't see President Obama worrying himself this way (unless he was outing the agent to the NY Times).    But what really has me cranked up is not this problem, nor the abundance of Yeti living in north west Canada, nor the secret life of Amelia Earhart - it is, rather, the factual errors.  

In particular, the narrative that has someone using the safety on a Glock pistol.   These are so easily avoided by a bit of research!   (Glock handguns have three safety mechanisms -- trigger safety, firing pin safety, and drop safety -- but no external safety latch.)  

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Tao: the Pathless Path, by Osho

Let's get the author's bio out of the way first:  yes he was a nut, yes he was deported from the USA for trying to poison an entire city, yes he made a living as a controversial guru -- whose collection of Rolls Royce cars would hardly mark him as a Taoist.

But that shouldn't reflect on his writing.   And it doesn't -- you'd never know the author's capitalist preferences from this text.

But, you might conclude that the best route to success at Taoism is to be homeless.   I can't figure out if that's an accurate notion or a side-effect of the author's -- well, let's call it perspective.    The literary critique is straightforward:  it is a great idea to teach Taoism through parables, but Osho uses each parable as an argument against Confucianism.   So rather than building up Taoism, he exerts energy tearing down Confucius.   This is both exhausting and annoying.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain

This book is food porn.  And I'm really not in the target demographic:  I like to eat, sure, but I'm not into cooking in any meaningful way, and I don't care about chefs one way or the other.

Two fun little chapters, though, are worth mentioning.   It seems Mr Bourdain works hard to convince his young daughter that Ronald McDonald is a bad person who abducts children, to program her to avoid the fast food restaurant.  He even suggests wrapping horrible food in McDonalds' wrappers to get the message through.  Yikes, but funny.

In another chapter, he describes his frustration with factory provided meat, particularly hamburger, and bemoans the model that allows all sorts of horrible  e-coli -friendly junk to make it into the pre-made burger patties at the local grocery.

Is the book worth reading for these two amuse-bouches?  Nah.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Man From Beijing, by Henning Mankell

This was a long meandering confusion of a mystery / political novel. Much of it was well written, some of it was a confusing political statement. But what bugged me was the plot. Even at the end, I couldn't get it to tie together.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Stieg Larsson

I wasn't a fan of the second book in the trilogy, but this final novel is simply excellent. It held my attention throughout. How unfortunate that we won't be able to read more of Mr Larsson's writing.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Prayers for the Assassin, by Robert Ferrigno

This novel has a really interesting plot line: after a series of nuclear explosions around the world, blamed on Israel, the USA has become a splintered nation. The bible belt (Texas through South Carolina) is a Christian stronghold, and most of the rest of the country is an Islamic republic.

The book's hero is a retired Fedayeen who helps his girl friend to tell the world the truth about the explosions and their real source. The book depicts the good parts -- and (to a free thinking -minded American) the very bad of this imagined future, but is not a position paper.

It turns out that there is a predecessor book to this one, and a follow-on, making this a trilogy. Credit to the author's writing skills that I didn't know there was a prior book until after completing this one and doing some research on Amazon.

The few love scenes were awkward, and the author would have been better off omitting them. But other than that this novel kept my attention throughout and I recommend it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Think of a Numb3r, by John Verdon

This is an unusual twist on a murder mystery: the hero is a retired police detective. That he's haunted by person demons isn't a new concept, but the book is far more melancholy than most. The book lingered in my thinking long after I put it down. I recommend it.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Whiplash, by Catherine Coulter

For much of this book I was annoyed at the poor writing, particularly the dialog. Then I got a bit annoyed at the ridiculous plot stretches, but compared to some other books I've read recently, maybe I was overreacting. The plot, though, wasn't half bad, and it is what kept my interest to the end.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Prophecy, by Chris Kuzneski

The good news: things move along fast in this suspense novel. The less good news: the writing is a touch sophomoric, and I suppose it isn't even reasonable to have expected any credibility to the plot.

Absolutely an acceptable airplane book though.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Rules of Betrayal, by Chrisopher Reich

This is better written than its predecessor in the series, but shares the problem of stretching plausibility. Having said that, it too meet the criteria for a good airplane book: it kept me engaged throughout the flight.