Monday, December 31, 2012

2012 Best of List

In 2012 only four books made it on to my best of the year list, and unusually, they all are fiction.   Even more unusual:  four books from just two authors.  Does that make the list a pair of twins?   These authors are really great.  Michael Gruber also was on my 2011 Best of List for his novel "Tropic of Night."

Best fiction of the year:

Table of Contents

You may sort by title (look for "Title Sort" at the bottom of the scrollable box) as well as by author (look for "Author Sort").    Then just use the search box on the left to find the blog entry that interests you.

Alternatively, use the blog date field in the table along with the archive list on the left side of the screen to get to the year and month of the entry that you seek.

Note:  the index will be updated as frequently as new posts are published (unless I goof up in which case I should catch up within a few weeks), through the power of Google Docs.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Callie's Last Dance, by John Locke

This is such a trashy novel that it is almost embarrassing to admit that I read it to the end.   Mr. Locke apparently turns out low end action / assassin fiction by the bucket full, self publishing on Kindle.   Folks like me buy one of his books when the price drops to 99 cents figuring, "hey, why not?"

Here's why not:  it is unrealistic, there is choppy plot progression, it is written as a serial in that if you haven't read the prior work you may not have context for the current work, and because even within the book there are unresolved plot lines that are clearly set ups for more books.

Having said that, it isn't that Mr. Locke's writing is terrible.  And unrealistic plots are hardly a surprise in this genre.   It just feels ... well like whatever the opposite of literature is.

So I really don't recommend it.  But if you want to read this, I believe the best way is to find all of Mr. Locke's books in a theme (e.g., this theme is about an implausible assassin named Donovan and his colleague Callie), buy them all, and read them as though they were a single work.   The book reads so quickly that it would hardly be a chore.   It isn't clear to me how many volumes comprise the whole, but probably it would add up to the price of a single paperback book.

Jet IV - Reckoning, by Russell Blake

This is the fourth (and perhaps the last that I'll read) in a serious of silly spy thrillers featuring the assassin named Jet.   I felt compelled to finish off the set but looking back, I probably could have used my time better.

Not that this is a bad novel, it isn't.  It is true to itself as an over the top, unrealistic, yet fun and fast reading thriller.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Let's Pretend This Never Happened: (A Mostly True Memoir), by Jenny Lawson

My spouse was reading this book and laughed aloud.  So I borrowed it to read, and just part way through it decided at all our kids needed to have a copy of this book in their holiday stockings.  

Then I finished it.  It was a bit uneven, there was an entire chapter during which I didn't laugh out loud at all.   But still worth it.

An extremely funny book.   Worth reading.   Be forewarned though, lots of foul language and what some (many?) might consider inappropriate discussions about body parts.  If you're one of those people, don't read it.   Or read it, and laugh through your disapproval and horror.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Mysteries of the World, by Herbert Genzmer

If you're the sort of person who prefers that questions be clearly answered, or that there is at least enough of a logic trail to enable you to come up with potential answers, then you are not going to like this book.

Some of the topics, like the megalithic temples of Malta, Stonehenge, or the spirals at Newgrange, are real mysteries.   It would have been great if the book had provided considerably more information about them.

Some of the topics are at a completely different end of the spectrum of interest: levitation, stigmata, UFOs, and sea monsters.  Yikes.

Sadly, this isn't a keeper.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Games Criminals Play, by Bud Allen

The target audience for this text is a corrections officer or jailer -- someone who is regularly exposed to criminals and thus targeted in a range of psychological ploys to advantage the criminal.    For someone who doesn't work in that realm, it is still a very interesting book.  The underlying notions of how people can be gamed into inappropriate behavior are applicable to business settings (albeit with much different stakes).

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Complete Dovetail, by Ian Kirby

This is a terrific little reference guide.   Although I've hand cut quite a few dovetails, I don't use them constantly.  So when I have a new project, it is helpful for me to skim through a quite refresher of how I want to lay things out.  And the ideas on how to lay out dovetails to look attractive are really useful, and I suspect will change the design of the next project I build.

For any woodworker who wants to hand cut dovetails, this is a wonderful guide.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Annabel Scheme, by Robin Sloan

I enjoyed "Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" so much that I was eager to read other of Mr. Sloan's books.  Yet I almost didn't read this book because I didn't like the first sentence.   But I persevered and by the third page all my doubts were gone.   This is an outstanding, albeit weird book. The narrator is a computer server, sort of.  The hero, the mysterious Annabel Scheme is, well, mysterious.  The book is far too short.

It is a best books of the year candidate in spite of its awkward start.   This is a great read.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Collected, by Brett Battles

This is another in Mr. Battles' series featuring the main character, Quinn, a cleaner:  someone who follows an assassination and cleans the scene of incriminating evidence.   That he is the hero is a bit odd, but let's assume the folks getting killed are entirely bad guys who deserve it, and deserve to not enjoy due process.

I've mostly enjoyed the series, and this book is better than the last.  This particular novel features Quinn's assistant, Nate, whose character is defined nicely here.

I'll keep reading this entertaining series.

Pines, by Blake Crouch

I really enjoyed another of Mr. Crouch's novels, so I had high hopes for this one.   Oops.   This wasn't bad, but it is really more of an episode of the The Twilight Zone than anything else.   The author notes that his book was inspired by the television series, "Twin Peaks ."   That was a great show, but it was more entertaining and less tense than this book.

King of Swords, by Russell Blake

I'm on a bit of a Russell Blake run, having just finished reading the latest in Mr. Blake's "Jet" series, I thought I'd try out another of his novels.   This one looks at Mexico's drug cartels, with Mexican policeman Captain Cruz as the honest cop trying to stop an assassination by El Rey (the king of swords of the title).

This was a good enough fast read, but I found myself rooting for the assassin more than I'd have expected.   For a forgettable distraction, this is worth reading at a Kindle discount price.

Monday, December 3, 2012

JET III - Vengeance, by Russell Blake

To Mr. Blake's credit, he does note in his author's note that the novel is "an over-the-top romp with an unstoppable female protagonist.  If you're looking for reality, or Sophie's Choice , this ain't it."

And, since this is the third in the series that I've read, you can assume it is fun.  Unlike the prior volumes in the series though, there were several sections that bored me; I found myself skimming several pages of uninteresting narrative.

But with three of the books under my belt, I suppose I'm invested enough in the characters to go for a fourth.   Stay tuned.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Jet II - Betrayal, by Russell Blake

In spite of some bumpiness in Mr. Blake's writing in the previous volume, I've read the second in the "Jet" series.   No complaints this time about his writing.   It is a good action / adventure novel.

Having said that, it is guilty of the typical sins of this genre:  a seemingly invincible super-hero protagonist and complex leaps of reality.   This is so much the norm though.  

I liked this enough that I'm certain to read the next volume in the series.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

When the opportunity arises to comment on a book that is actually breath-takingly delightful to read, I'm full of good cheer.   Mr. Sloan's novel is simply outstanding.  Okay, I'm gushing.

To describe it though, is not so simple.   A quest for great treasure, weaving a sense of history with the capabilities of modern-day technology, heroes and a villain (but not a scary one).

If you enjoy Neal Stephenson's books, you're apt to enjoy this.  (If you aren't familiar with Mr. Stephenson, start with the amazing Cryptonomicon , but if the sheer volume of that book is daunting, go with Reamde.)

Read this book.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Jet, by Russell Blake

The good news is that this spy / suspense novel has an interesting plot and good character development.  The bad news is that you have to make it through some clunky opening prose.   It isn't bad, it is just that Mr. Blake feels as though he's trying a bit too hard to start.  Fortunately, he used up most of his adjectives in the first few pages, which allowed things - for the most part - to run cleanly thereafter.

There's a section late in the book that has the same stilted feel as the opening.  Or worse.  But aside from those two speed bumps, things do move well.   This is the first in a series, and my plan is to read the next volume.   So not great literature, but a good book for a cold evening, and a bargain on Kindle.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, by A. J. Jacobs

Mr. Jacobs' books all describe his quest to achieve something; his "Year of Living Biblically" is my favorite to date.   In this book, Mr. Jacobs aspires to achieve optimal health.

It is a disappointment.

Yes, it is amusing.  It is a bit more autobiographical than his other books, occasionally leaving the core topic.   But I wanted it to be more seriously useful.   He briefly mentioned the landmark "China Study," but didn't delve at all into the body of research around vegan eating.   I'd have expected Mr. Jacobs to have referred to folks like Dr. Ornish or Dr. McDougall.   Nope.

If you can get this book at the discount table of your local bookstore (if such brick and mortar anachronisms still exist), or through a good Kindle deal, do so.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Inquisitor, by Mark Allen Smith

This is a very strong mystery / thriller.  But it can be difficult to read, as the protagonist is a professional at "information retrieval" - which is a euphemism for torturer.   The graphic scenes weren't over the line horrible, but they were disturbing enough that I'd want to post the warning.

This is a bit of a psychological thriller, as the hero slowly understands more about himself and his childhood.   All the characters are well developed and interesting.

Mr. Smith wrote one of those novels that leave me anticipating a sequel.   I recommend this fine book

What Doesn't Kill You, by Iris Johansen

This last time I read a book by Ms. Johansen, back in 2008, I didn't care for it much but considered it well written.  Since then either my taste in writing has become more refined, Ms. Johansen's writing has severely declined in quality.   Either way, I would not recommend this book.

Important message to readers:  this experience confirms my suspicion (which I mentioned recently in another review) that you can not trust five star reviews on Amazon!   The one star reviews, however, seem quite trustworthy.    At the date of writing this blog post, there are 31 Amazon five star reviews out of 68.   48 are either five or four star.   Only seven are one star reviews.  So 46% say excellent, 71% say great, and only 10% say trash.

Yet this book clearly deserves no more than one star.   I'll quote from the first one star review I come upon, titled "Save your money," the reviewer continues, "The story line is weak, the dialogue is repetitive and the characters are one dimensional. I started reading and by page 50 was scanning, halfway through I was just reading every other paragraph just to get it done."    This is dead on accurate.

In contrast, the first four of the five star reviews all feel fake.  Or perhaps written by folks whose sense of good fiction differs rather dramatically from mine. 

It was a chore to keep reading beyond even the first few pages; I did so out of pure stubbornness.  And perhaps masochism or self loathing.  Really, it would take psychoanalysis to determine why I didn't return this book to the library after just four or five pages.

You probably want some specifics to support my rantings.   The hero is rude, self focused, and addresses every topic with repetitive whining.   Consequently the dialog is stilted, unnatural, and annoying.   The plot holes are massive and while generally forgivable in a spy thriller, in this book they are just irritating.  

You also might be wondering:  for such an unsatisfactory read, why so much effort panning the book?  Why not just say how bad it is and move on?    The reason is simple:  I was pleasant in 2008 and ended up wasting time four years later.   Venting this way should keep me clear of Ms. Johansen's writing forever.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Black List, by Brad Thor

All of Mr. Thor's novels share a style:  there is political ranting (i.e., tea party style) that is sometimes a speed bump amidst the plot, there are good guys who have to moral or ethical compass other than doing what they imagine as appropriate to defend the nation, all exposed with writing and character development at the C to C+ level.

Since the last book of Mr. Thor's that I read (two years ago), his writing hasn't changed sufficiently to make me a big fan.

So, if you want to read an action adventure novel that you don't have to invest much energy into, although you might skim a bit on the boring parts, then this isn't bad.

The fundamental plot line of this book is government monitoring of its citizens.   This topic could be a very interesting skeleton for a well written novel.   Unfortunately here the exposition of the idea is boring and not very well linked to the action.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Risk Agent, by Ridley Pearson

This is a suspense novel set in Shanghai.   A private security firm, Rutherford Risk, works with a multinational doing business in China whose employee was kidnapped (along with an employee of the security firm).   The two heroes are Knox, a stereotypical action hero, and Chu, who has skills in forensic accounting as well as in spy craft; they both work for Rutherford.

This novel has enough plot movement to keep me interested to the end and reasonable character development.  Mr. Pearson signaled his intent to make this a series featuring the two main characters.   I'll probably read another one of these if I can borrow it from a free library or buy from Kindle at a deep discount.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire

This is one of the wackier paperbacks I've read.   The hero maintains balance between humans and non-human creatures.  (By non-human I mean:  ghouls, werewolves, bogeymen, et al.)  An opposing cult seeks to exterminate all the non-human creatures.   A dragon may be in hibernation near a New York City sewer line.

Yes, in my world this qualifies as wacky.  The good news:  Ms. McGuire has a sense of humor and writes with good plot pacing and character development.   So it was (mostly) very fun to read.

Apparently this novel is part of a series.   I don't expect to read more of these, but that's more a statement of personal preference than a critique of the book.  

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Oath of Office, by Michael Palmer

The good news:  good character development and strong writing that held my interest right to the end. 

The bad news:  the plot has credibility and reasonableness gaps the size of the Grand Canyon.

Still, all in all, an entertaining novel.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Assassin's Code, by Jonathan Maberry

When I picked this book up at the library I thought it was a spy thriller.   I didn't realize it was the fourth in a series featuring hero Joe Ledger.   In the first few pages, it seemed as though this would be a pretty typical book of the genre:  a smart mouthed hero, commands multiple languages, the introduction of what was sure to be a beautiful women into his life.   Wow, was I wrong.

Before I was done, there were genetically modified vampires, the devil (maybe), a conspiracy over a thousand years old between the Catholic Church and Islamic leaders.   Need I say more?

I'm not sure what I think of this book.  On the one hand it was a fast and amusing read.  On the other hand, the typical spy novel doesn't include vampires.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Colonel's Mistake, by Dan Mayland

I don't read most of the books that Amazon's algorithms suggest for me, usually because I check out the reviews and find comments that turn me off on the novel.   But today I went with the recommendation, and very pleased by it.

Mr. Mayland wrote a fast paced, exciting thriller.   It is worth pointing out that unlike so many authors who strain credibility with the absurd feats of their heroes, Mr. Mayland stuck to a plot that, for the most part, seemed reasonable.

This is a great airplane read:  the time will pass quickly while you're engaged in the novel.

Night of the Jaguar, by Michael Gruber

Just having read Mr. Gruber's "Valley of Bones," I figured I'd keep up the theme and read the next novel in this series featuring reluctant weirdness detective Paz.    It was as entertaining as every other book of Mr. Gruber's, which is to say, it was difficult to put the book down.

Another highly recommended read.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Valley of Bones, by Michael Gruber

I have become a huge fan of Mr. Gruber's work!    If I had not previously read "Tropic of Night," which featured the same hero in Jimmy Paz, I'd have given this one five stars out of five.   Because that earlier novel was just so extremely good, I'll mark this one down to four and three quarter stars.   Still, as you can see, quite impressive!

(Mr. Gruber has a very different group of characters and setting here than in his excellent novel, "The Good Son.")

Our hero once again gets involved with mysterious spiritualism en route to solving a murder.  In this case, around a nun's order of the Catholic church, mostly.

Absolutely worth reading.

Building Chicken Coops For Dummies, by Todd Brock et al

I've been trying to decide on a design for a chicken coop for our garden for quite some time.   This book has been really helpful.   Other books addressed the needs of the chickens, but this one addresses the pragmatics of building.

BTW, my plan now is pretty far afield from anything in this book, but getting to it was helped immeasurably by reading this.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Good Son: A Novel, by Michael Gruber

To come across a book like this, especially after reading mediocre genre fiction, is a delight.   This is literature.

From the first few sentences Mr. Gruber's writing sucked me in.   The plot is complex and subtle.   The characters very interesting and extremely well drawn.

The book's description on Amazon is accurate but is a small aspect of this novel;  the book is far wider than it seems.  So what is it about?   A complex intelligent woman who lives in both the western and eastern, Muslim worlds.   Her family.   A soldier.   An exposition of the culture of the east.   Thoughts about what Americans worship most compared to what, say, Pashtunwali.    It is about Jung, about Sufis, about spirituality.

Throughout though it is an interesting narrative that compels the reader forward.    I read a review calling it an espionage thriller.  I guess it is that, but again it is also so much more than that.  This is one of the best books I've read this year; you should read it.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Pocket-47, by Jude Hardin

This novel feels as though it has two distinct parts, two related stories.   The first one introduces a cliche -ridden private detective.   The second continues the story at a more violent and action oriented pace, which was welcome up to the point of the graphic violence.

Much to my surprise, the preponderance of Amazon reviews are positive; this makes no sense to me at all.   There's an extremely accurate (negative) review though, with which I completely agree.

Lucky Man: A Memoir, by Michael J. Fox

I don't much enjoy biographies, and certainly not celebrity biographies.    I read Mr. Fox's book in spite of his celebrity, because of his work raising awareness of and money to combat Parkinson's disease.

The memoir is good:  readable, interesting, it moves along.   Mostly it points out that disease is equal opportunity, and that sometimes the best thing for average folks suffering from an ailment is for a public figure to publicly share the problem.

Mr. Fox lobbied the former Bush administration to allow the use of stem cells in research.   This wasn't to ask for additional fetuses to be harmed, but rather to use the cells of fetuses that otherwise would simply be discarded.    He got some lukewarm success.    Not until Mr. Obama took office did things turn a bit in terms of government restriction on research.   You can count the eight years of Mr. Bush's presidency as having delayed the possibility of cure or advanced treatment of Parkinson's for over a million Americans, some of whom won't now live to see the result.

Mr. Fox spends very little time on this topic; he doesn't portray a political point of view, just a pragmatic approach towards wanting to see progress against the disease.   And very little of that too, just at the end of his memoir, the bulk of it tilted towards his childhood, family and his alcoholism.

This is a short, fast, interesting read.    As was his earlier book , which I enjoyed even more.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Innocent, by David Baldacci

This is one of those books that convinces me to stay up to late so that I could finish it even though it was rather late at night.   Things move along so well that I didn't have a chance to complain about the absurdity of the plot or some of the situations.   Those details didn't even matter.

As a suspense novel that keeps you going to the end, Mr. Baldacci wrote a winner.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Texas Bug Book, by Howard Garrett & Malcolm Beck

This is an essential reference text for anyone who lives in Texas and not in a city apartment.   In fact, there's no particular need to limit the readership to Texas residents, because there are two very appealing aspects to this book.    First, there is a encyclopedic list of Texas bugs, their impact (are they beneficial to gardens or trees, or dangerous) and how to control them (without chemical poisons!).   Second, the book is full of terrific anecdotes about experiences with bugs, plantings, trees and what not.   It is that latter part that will amuse and inform no matter where you live.

A theme running through this book is the avoidance of chemical treatments for plants, trees or insects.   Instead, natural, organic treatments are proposed (with instructions for mixing them). 

This is a good example of the value of all the side bar stories in the book.   If you just paged through to find a currently annoying bug, and saw instructions to leave it alone or for an organic control approach (which often is introducing yet another bug!), you might be skeptical.   But once you get a feel for the incredible long term value of an organic and holistic approach to managing pests, the advice makes much more sense.

This book is just plain fun, whether you're looking up that bug you saw on the porch, or trying to figure out if the wasps near the tomatoes are a problem (they are not!), or even if you skip the bug photos and descriptions and just read the stories.

Conquering Any Disease, by Jeff Primack

This excellent book was a gift from Steve (Thanks!), and it is full of useful information.   So full that it took me about three passes through the book before I realized that the only was that I could effectively use it was to fold down the corners on about a dozen pages and just start with those.

Let me get a big negative out of the way:   the author did a very poor job on references.  Admittedly, my bar is set high; as a member of the ACM and IEEE, and reader of peer reviewed engineering journals, I expect clear attribution and clear reference of assertion.   Mr. Primack didn't do this in any meaningful way.   So if this will be horribly off putting for you, don't read the book.

On the other hand, for the open minded reader who's already seen tons of evidence for plant based eating as a means for avoiding or overcoming many diseases common to the 21st century, this may be a very useful reference book.   (See, for example:  Esselstyn, McDougall, Campbell, or the PCRM.)

Lest you be concerned about how to purchase some esoteric vegetables or what have you, Mr. Primack points to a web site from which you can easily order any of the items he discusses.

Friday, July 27, 2012

The Golden Lane, by Sam Pfiester

Kudos to Mr. Pfiester for an excellent book, one I could not put down.    Written in the Simon Schama -style of fictionalized history texts, "The Golden Lane" tells the story of the identification of a highly productive range of oil wells (near Tampico, Mexico) in the early 20th century. 

He does this by focusing on Everette DeGolyer's work for El Aguila (oil company).   Because this is a history, and not a fiction, the character development is really the additional and immensely interesting biographical discussion of key players in both the oil arena and Mexican politics of the time.

DeGolyer became a big time player in the oil business, and his spouse, Nell DeGolyer, was a founding member of both Dallas Planned Parenthood and the Dallas League of Women Voters; the DeGolyer home is the site of the Dallas Arboretum.

If you're interested in Mexican history and particularly its politics, or in the oil business's start off the Gulf of Mexico, this book's for you.

If, on the other hand, you have no interest in such things, but do enjoy a fast paced and well written novel, then this book's for you as well.

That's a unusual coupling, but this is an unusually good book.    One peeve though:  Mr. Pfiester should have included a couple of good maps of the region to put it into perspective for those not so familiar with Mexican or Gulf geography.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Force of Nature, by C. J. Box

This suspense / mystery novel continues Mr. Box's series featuring game warden Joe Pickett and his mysterious friend Nate.   The plot isn't as strong as another Joe Pickett novel I read a few years ago, but the writing was sufficient to be entertaining. 

This is exactly the novel you want if you're waiting in line somewhere, or hanging out in a coffee shop waiting for someone else to finish shopping or what not. 

And my lukewarm reaction seems to be an anomaly; Amazon reviews indicate most readers really loved this book.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Feynman, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

I'm feeling pretty positive about the day; having stumbled upon this book at the local public library this morning, I'm celebrating my good fortune.    Because this is one of the most interesting biographies I've come across.

Now any biography about Richard Feynman is apt to be interesting:  Nobel Prize winner, somewhat of a whack job, he was famous for probing questions in directions no one else considered.   If you're interested in physics, Feynman is a hero.

What makes this biography stand out is the approach:  it is in graphic novel format.   (As my spouse said, "you're reading a comic book?")    This really works.  It works incredibly well.

If you have any interest in science (especially physics) and in getting a sense of the personality of one of the 20th century's top American physicists, read this book.   You're going to want to follow up by reading Feynman's "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) "   And, if you have the scientific background (or stamina), the first six chapters of his "The Feynman Lectures on Physics " is available as "Six easy pieces:  essentials of  physics explained by its most brilliant teacher."

By the way, in case you're curious about the other American scientists honored on the US postage stamp besides Feynman, they are:   Barbara McClintock, an early geneticist (whose work on maize makes me wonder if she was the innovative mind that inadvertently led to GMO crops, just as Feyman and others working on the atomic bomb with reservations afterwards about the long lived impact of their efforts);  Joshiah Gibbs, who received the first doctorate in engineering (1863) in the USA and invented vector calculus (a painful topic for some folks who struggled through differential equations);  and John von Neumann, (born in Budapest but the US takes credit for him!) who did so much breakthrough work in math, statistics, physics and computer science that I wouldn't know where to begin to describe him .

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Seeking Wisdom, by Peter Bevelin

Everyone should read this book.  Certainly it is a great gift for any college students who've not yet entered the workforce -- or those who have.   The only concern I have about handing this book to someone is, will they read it.

You might recognize the old joke:  how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?

Only one, but she has to want to change.

And so it is with this compilation of wisdom and systems of thinking.   Advice on how to evaluate information, think critically, avoid having business decisions overly swayed by emotional or wishful thinking, and build check lists to help avoid mishap.    It is not a difficult read!   But you have to want to read it.

My take on it is that almost all of it is common sense.  But then again, that would be the point.

Mr. Bevelin quotes from a number of authorities, and much to my delight, heavily from Charlie Munger and to a lesser extent Warren Buffet, both of Berkshire Hathaway fame.  (Speaking of Mr. Munger, his book, "Poor Charlie's Almanack" is awesome.)

It is a fast read.  Be sure to get the 3rd edition (2007).

Monday, July 9, 2012

An End to Suffering, by Pankaj Mishra

Don't be confused by the title or subtitle, "the Buddha in the world;" this book is nothing like what you think it is.   The first third or so of the book is auto-biographical.   Then, some historical material on the Buddha but also on Alexander the Great and others.  Finally, a retrospective of sorts, again auto-biographical, that asks how Buddhist thinking plays out in the 21st century -- but doesn't go very far in terms of an answer.

So is it worth the read?   Well, maybe.  If you want to read about the life of a modern Indian -born writer, then sure.  But, and no offense to Mr. Misra, but his life isn't really all that interesting.

If you're very interested in Buddhism, or in how Buddhism might relate to modern 21st century life, then you won't be satisfied with this book at all.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Silenced, by Brett Battles

I can't tell:  have I made a mistake in reading several of Mr. Battle's "Cleaner" novels one after the other?   Or is it that the plots are just getting less and less believable?   The first book in the series seemed grounded in believability, as did, more or less, the last one I read.   But now?

Maybe I wouldn't have this reaction, this criticism, had I spaced out my reading.   So I'm going to take a break from Mr. Battles' novels for a bit.

Don't get me wrong though:  for what it is, this is still a well written and interesting novel.

Shadow of Betrayal, by Brett Battles

Enamored of the first book in the series, I decided to read more of these suspense novels featuring "cleaner" Jonathan Quinn. 

I liked this novel also.   It is interesting to me that there often seems to be a secondary character in this sort of book, the hero's assistant, who has amazing (albeit unexplained) capabilities in one or more areas.   In this case, it isn't Quinn's apprentice who is the mover behind the man, but rather his friend Orlando whom the author may summon any time he needs magic to happen behind the scenes.  Assigned to her, tools are acquired, accounts hacked and general mayhem executed.

Not a problem.  Just saying it is amusing.

The Cleaner, by Brett Battles

This is the first novel in a series of espionage / adventure novels featuring Jonathan Quinn.   Quinn is a "cleaner," the person who follows, for example, an assassin, and cleans up the bodies and traces.

The book is well written, and it is interesting to have a hero who's on the B team as it were (the typical lead character in the espionage genre is more likely to be the killer than the cleaner).

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell

I'm of two minds in critiquing this book:  it is extremely interesting and introduces a powerful topic in a clear and well written fashion.   But it also feels as though it is a collection of say three or four magazine articles, and I'd probably have gotten 85% of the value by reading just one of those articles.

Yet, if the tradeoff for you, dear reader, is to read this or miss out on the information, then by all means read it.    It is a fast book, and held my interest on almost every page.

Oh, so what's the key message:   much like the key message of Galvin De Becker's "Gift of Fear,"  Mr. Gladwell points out the importance of immediate, gut feel impressions.   Importantly, Mr. Gladwell explains why this is so.

The Shaker Legacy, by Christian Becksvoort

The subtitle is "Perspectives on an enduring furniture style."   And that's precisely what Mr. Becksvoort delivers, in an interesting and informative book with outstanding photographs.

What this is not:  a book of plans for Shaker style furniture.   It is though a lens to the Shaker philosophy and history that puts their style of building into context. 

Even though it isn't a design plan book, there were several pages I folded over because of quite lovely pieces that I could see myself making.

The Expats, by Chris Pavone

It is fun to read a first novel that is this good because now I'm anticipated many more great books to come from this author.

This novel is hard to characterize:  is it a spy novel, a thriller, or a drama?   Any way you look at it, it is quite well written, with plot twists aplenty, and difficult to put down.

By the way, the story is told in the lead character's voice, a woman, and I was surprised to see at the end from the book jacket that the author is a male, not female, "Chris."    I suppose that's a proof point of a job well done.

This is a five star novel; I strongly recommend it.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Starch Solution: Eat the Foods You Love, Regain Your Health, and Lose the Weight for Good!, by John McDougall

If you want to improve your odds of living without the symptoms of chronic disease, presented from a honest, fact and research based, non profit -oriented perspective that is focused only on your health, then read this book.

The punchline is in the title:  humans can optimize their health through a starch -based diet.  For example, rice based (as in many Asian cultures) or root vegetable based (e.g., potato) (as in some Latin American cultures).   So instead of saying:  "don't eat animal proteins for health reasons and here's your unsatisfying salad," Dr. McDougall might say "don't eat animal proteins for health reasons and here's your quite satisfying bowl of rice decorated with an assortment of vegetables."

Throughout the book Dr. McDougall posits a simple question:   is there truth in what we hear about healthy eating from advertisements (like "milk makes bones healthy") or from the USDA (the food pyramid)?   Finding the answer requires wading through an enormous number of research papers published internationally.   Finally, once he identified fact based positions, how could he present this information to the general public who would not be inclined to read medical research papers?    This book is the outcome (with tons of references for those of us who actually like to read the research reports).

Probably most folks would be surprised by the facts, and even more folks wouldn't like the facts because they're not fun.   (Just like smokers who'd rather not hear the facts about smoking and lung cancer, for folks who've spent their lives enjoying cheese products, they'd probably prefer to just not listen to the facts about them.)

Here's a sample (the editorializing tone is more mine than Dr. McDougall's, although I doubt he'd change much):

  • Milk does not "do a body good."   It is really bad for you (unless you're a calf).   As for the calcium scare, you don't need milk (nor supplements) for calcium.  In spite of all the advertising (which also influences our physicians, if like most they are not nutritionists). 

    Calcium is a mineral; it is not generated by the cow.   The cow eats vegetation, and picks up its minerals through its food, which then make their way to its milk.    Bottom line:  the bad that milk does outweighs any good, and calcium isn't an issue if you eat even a small amount of healthy vegetables.

    Why does this seem so unbelievable?   Because the dairy industry spends tens of millions of dollars each year on advertising, which then enters the popular belief system.   Advertising from folks who make a profit on a product should not be assumed to be accurate.   Ask the Marlboro man.

  • The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) publishes the food pyramid (renamed the food plate recently); how could we doubt that the government has our best interests in mind?    The USDA serves the agriculture industry.   Many decades ago, when family farms were a norm in America, they served a large portion of our population.   Today, when agribusiness's massive firms control the bulk of American agricultural production, the USDA leadership (not the helpful employees; our local USDA guys provide excellent assistance to small farmers and ranchers) largely serve big business.  

    You might be surprised that lawsuits filed against the USDA have been won, pointing out the hidden connection between lobbyists and USDA decision makers (or the revolving doors between big business and the USDA appointments).

    Bottom line:  the USDA dietary advice is neither accurate nor helpful.

  • Supplements, from vitamins to flax seed to Omega acids, are largely unnecessary.  But they're profitable.
You can see the many problems that Dr. McDougall faces.   He's trying to use facts to fight the misinformation generated by huge advertising and lobbying budgets.  The medical establishment, either through the profit motive of current practice and pharmacology or through the ignorance of the body of research, is at best disinterested in the topic.   And worst, he's telling us the facts, which aren't particularly fun for folks who've invested a lifetime of enjoyment of cheeseburgers, yogurt, or mac and cheese!

In spite of these obstacles, Dr. McDougall does an excellent job of minimizing the ranting, maximizing the clear and straightforward presentation of facts, and providing impeccable scientific references.

His publisher probably figured out the orienting this book towards weight loss would help sell more copies.  But it is really about extending quality of life without chronic illness.   That's probably why folks like Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn (whose famous work at the Cleveland Clinic includes showing that diet can reverse heart disease) and Dr. Neal Barnard (of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine) are supporters.

I'll diverge to say more about Dr. Esselstyn.  Because while Dr. Barnard does outstanding work, sometimes his association with people who avoid animal products on an ethical basis can cause folks to ignore his strong, research -based and anti -big business efforts.   In contrast, publically Dr. Esselstyn is all and only about providing beneficial, fact based health care to his patients.

Consider his 2010 editorial in The American Journal of Cardiology,106-6, , was titled "Is the Present Therapy for Coronary Artery Disease the Radical Mastectomy of the Twenty-First Century?" It is a scientific attack on the profitable and neo-traditional approach of surgery for heart disease.   The American Journal of Cardiology charges a hefty fee for a reprint, but you can read the article for free, here.   Here are some of his opening paragraphs, footnotes removed, and emphasis mine:

"To fully grasp how so many smart, right-minded people could get it so wrong, it might help to start with a quick review of medical history. Take the radical mastectomy, conceived by William Halsted in the late 19th century. The procedure was intended to remove all cancer cells of the breast, the overlying skin, the underlying muscle, and regional lymph nodes (Figure 1). It was mutilating, permanently disfiguring, and no more effective than less radical, less disfiguring procedures.
Still, because of the prestige and respect Halsted commanded as a teacher of surgeons, his disciples defended and taught the radical mastectomy at the most revered medical colleges. His extreme surgery was perpetuated for almost a century, until challenges by courageous physicians in Europe and America, along with a prospective randomized study by Dr. Bernard Fisher, finally sounded the death knell of this standardized surgical error of the century.
The 21st century analogue to this unfortunate chapter is the interventional and pharmaceutical treatment of coronary artery disease. This approach results in significant mortality, morbidity, and unsustainable expense. Neither the procedures nor the drugs that accompany them treat the cause. Standard care for coronary artery disease is nothing more than palliative. The purveyors of this treatment acknowledge that it is but a stopgap therapy.
And as in the case of the radical mastectomy, there is a far more effective, cost-effective, and sustainable treatment. It’s simple: advocate a lifestyle of plant- based nutrition, make a bold leap toward a world free of heart disease, and lessen our use of scalpels and drugs."

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Shadow Catcher: A U.S. Agent Infiltrates Mexico's Deadly Crime Cartels, by Hipolito Acosta

Mr. Acosta shares some of the cases he worked as an undercover officer of the US Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).   The stories are interested and I could not help but feel for the poor who simply seek a better life for themselves and their families and are preyed upon by the criminals and corrupt.   No one who reads this will come away satisfied with the US's inconsistent and ineffective immigration policies.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Devil's Gate, by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown

I'm not a fan of Mr. Cussler's writing:  to me it is like a low budget TV movie.   You can predict so much of it.   There will be a steely jawed hero who achieves seemingly impossible exploits in spite of circumstance or injury.   There will be a brilliant and beautiful female scientist and / or spy for another nation.   A romantically involved pair of characters will be stressed by the potential loss of one or both of them.   There will be a nearly indestructible head bad guy with some sort of odd weapons fetish.   A senior level government bureaucrat will risk mission failure and the lives of many because of an inappropriately intense political or personal ambition.

Well there you go.   So why did I read this novel?   The last time I tried one of Mr. Cussler's books was July of 2008.   Two Sunday's ago I met someone who mentioned in passing his like of Mr. Cussler's books.  So when I saw this title on the rack at the public library, I thought, "why not?"

There are good reasons why not.   But the good news is, a library read is a free read.   And the time spent wasn't entirely wasted because, even though I'm not a fan and the writing is formulaic, there was a notion of dramatic tension and the plot did advance.

Do I recommend this?   Since I am guilty of enjoying predictable and formulaic novels myself, how can I throw (too many) stones?   It is a fast read, and marginally entertaining.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline

Kudos to Mr. Cline on an absolutely wonderful, genre-busting novel.    The concept is a future where things are bleak, everyone engages in an online virtual experience, and online geeks are motivated by a contest spanning years that awards extraordinary wealth to whomever can solve a puzzle hidden in cyber space.

If this sounds to you like Mr. Cline is the Neal Stephenson of his time, and in his first novel no less, well that's probably close.    Not to go overboard:  what Mr. Stephenson uses as background in science, mathematics and cryptography corresponds to 1980's references to music, TV shows and especially video games!    So Mr. Cline still has a ways to go...

Thank you to the blog reader who pointed me to this novel in a recent comment!

The Small-Scale Poultry Flock, by Harvey Ussery

This is a useful complement to the excellent book on this topic by Gail Damerow.  Mr. Ussery's book emphasizes poultry as part of a homestead eco-system.  As such, there's lots about using birds to aid in composting, how to minimize store bought feed (either through fielding the poultry or making your own feed).   There is also a very detailed guide to plucking and cleaning a meat chicken complete with step by step photographs.   (Yes, some of you might prefer to skip that chapter.)

All in all this is a useful book, and one to keep on the reference shelf.  My only criticism is that Mr. Ussery doesn't seem to appreciate that folks might live in warmer climates than he.   There's lots of talk about winter weather and keeping chickens warm enough, but far too little about summer weather and keeping poultry cool for folks who live in hot southern climates.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power, by Steve Coll

The good news:  this is a fascinating book.   Mr. Coll provides the character development and dramatic tension of a novel in this non-fiction "biography" of a massive public company.

The bad news:  no matter how interesting the writing and compelling the, well let's call it plot development, the fact of the matter is that I'm not sufficiently excited to invest my time in 624 pages about ExxonMobil in modern times.   I made it a bit past half-way and selectively skimmed the rest.

This makes my recommendation dicey.    On the one hand, I can enthusiastically recommend this for anyone who gets excited about a business biography, is particularly interested in the oil industry or in Exxon, and for the large population of readers who are far more patient than I.    On the other hand, it wasn't so fabulous, even after all the great characteristics I'm eager to share, as to get me to the finish line.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The Games, by Ted Kosmatka

An unspecified time in the future.   An Olympic game of gladiators fighting to the death is a bit hit.   The twist is, geneticists manufacture the contestants, and the key rule is that no human DNA may be used.   So disposable living creatures are built to fight in an arena.

Here's where things go bad because of poor writing and plot development:  a genius builds a computer which then designs the genetic blueprint for the US entry to these events.   It is deadly.

Much confusion.   Massive gaps in character development too.

Bottom line: I read through this so that you don't need to.  Instead, take my advice and pass.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Kill Shot, by Vince Flynn

It must be that I'm in the mood for predictable reading this week.   Not that the specific plot of Mr. Flynn's novel is predictable.  Rather in the sense of wanting a reliably interesting espionage thriller.   Sometimes you want to stay at a small local hotel, and sometimes you want the predictable service of a Four Seasons.   This novel provides, in effect, the latter.

So with that long preamble:   same hero (Mitch Rapp), same supporting characters, some new villains, surprises only in how things come to closure but no doubt that they would.   An excellent book of the genre.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Full Black, by Brad Thor

Mr. Thor's books deliver very consistently:   spy adventure, a Fox News -style of thinking to save the world from socialism slowing worming its way into American life as illustrated by government handouts and an entitlement point of view.    Many of the negative reviews of his novel focus on the political statements.   But I don't share in that criticism:  you get what you get from Mr. Thor, and either the plot and thrills are worth the political context setting or not.  (Or, a third choice:  you agree with him.)

In my case, I'm after the thrills, so to speak.  And that, Mr. Thor delivers undeniably reliably.   This isn't a fantastic example of the spy thriller genre, but it is a solidly good example.

Monday, April 30, 2012

In Pursuit of the Unknown, by Ian Stewart

The sub-title is "17 equations that changed the world."  I was very optimistic about Professor Stewart's book and really wanted it to be great.   Sadly, that was not to be.

Why not?   With few exceptions, Stewart failed to make the complex equations understandable.   It is pretty easy to explain Pythagora's theorem.   Logarithms too, although the author didn't do a great job.  By the time we got to Euler's formula for polyhedra, things were going downhill at an alarming rate.

In fairness, it isn't easy to explain all these equations in lay terms.   But also in fairness, that was Stewart's mission; the job he took on and he failed at it.

The good news:  some interesting commentary about the figures behind the equations.

Don't waste your time, though, unless you're extremely well grounded in mathematics.

ISBN 0465029736

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Professionals, by Owen Laukkanen

Mr. Laukkanen, in his first novel, has taken the title of top notch mystery writer.    It is clear that the two main characters of this book, FBI agent Carla Windemere and Minnesota state police investigator Kirk Stevens, will be the basis for a long series to come.

To avoid spoilers, I won't say much about the plot.   A group of young college grads, unable or unwilling to find "normal" jobs, take on small scale kidnapping as a career.   Things go wrong.   Police, and other bad guys, get involved.

The writing is great, plot is great, pacing is great.  I'm a big fan.

If you like mysteries, you'll want to read this book.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens, by Gail Damerow

This is the go to book on the topic.   Its breadth is amazing:  from understanding how chickens communicate (and differentiating between different sounds) to how best to kill and pluck a meat bird.  It is a phenomenal reference.

If anything, it provides a bit too much information:  if you're considering some egg layers but read this book first, you might reconsider, just because you'll learn about all the little details.   In that regard, it is like reading too much about what might happen during pregnancy:  at some point, you get a head ache.

Having said that, this is worth having as a reference for anyone with chickens, and is an interesting read even if you're fowl-free.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Keeping a Family Cow, by Joann Grohman

If you have any interest in having your own dairy cow, this is the go to book.   You will have to endure a bit of proselytizing for the concept of humans drinking cow milk up front.   By the way, I don't drink milk.   Mostly because I stopped nursing a very long time ago and continuing to do so, even with another species' milk -- or especially with another species' milk -- would at best make no sense and at worst be just gross.

But I am interested in homesteading and in the general topic of having a household cow.   For that, this book is superb.   It covers everything from nutrition to behavior, and the author just drips with credibility from her personal experiences.

Certainly if you do drink cow's milk, and you want to avoid steroids, chemicals and who knows what sort of living conditions your source experiences, having your own dairy cow seems a great alternative.

You will, however, have to wake up to milk every single morning.  Even if it is raining, you had a bit to drink the night before, and you just want to stay in bed.   That laziness, that lack of discipline, is perhaps the most significant reason for me to forgo home grown dairy products.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Hitman's Guide to Housecleaning, by Hallgrimur Helgason

This is not a great book.   I got it at deep discount and would have been ahead on my savings had I not bothered to complete the read.

The plot:  an assassin leaves New York, ends up in Iceland, finds love and reforms.

The writing is not great; were the author American and not Icelandic, I'd say dreadful but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt and the ability to blame it all on a poor translator.   Realistically though, I believe the problems are far beyond translation issues.

Oddly enough, the last several pages were the best written in the book.   Still, it would be cruel of me to recommend this.

Even on discount.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Vulture Peak, by John Burdett

It has been nearly two years since I read a John Burdett novel, and the last one didn't impress me as being up to his level of quality.   In this, his latest mystery featuring the unlikely hero Sonchai Jitpleecheep, devout Buddhist, pimp and police detective, Mr. Burdett has more than redeemed himself.

An excellent novel!   But to try to summarize the plot -- well, it is complicated, at the edge of convoluted. Worth reading though.

As an aside:  this is the first book I've read in Adobe Digital Editions; I borrowed the novel electronically from my public library.   It worked quite well, and was very readable.   Would have been more convenient to read on a Kindle though.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Asylum, by Claude Bouchard

One review (unfortunately read after I'd finished this novel) used the word "unreadable."   That's pretty close to my view.  Sadly, I'm so obstinate, I wasted my time reading this to the end.   The ending was almost predictable.  That I'd look back on this as a theft of my time was also predictable after the 10th page or so.   Oh well.

Just say no to this novel.

Sick, by Brett Battles

The concept of this novel is a massive conspiracy theory:   evil forces, attached to the government, seek to introduce a fatal illness into the world population.   This leads to a military officer (and our hero), Ash, and his family to become unwitting participants in a test.   Ash is extracted by a mysterious group of do-gooders.

There's very little resolution at the end of the novel.   It was at that point that I noticed the colon in the title: "A Project Eden Thriller."   Oh my, that explains it.   The novel was just an initial installment.

It was interesting enough to keep me reading.   And, if I happen upon a sequel while browsing the library stacks, I would borrow it to read.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Zero Day, by David Baldacci

This is a great novel.    But let me get one thing out of the way up front:  there's no question that Mr. Baldacci's book is a complete rip off of Lee Child's Reacher character.   I don't know if it was accidental, and I don't care, because it is a great book.

Of course, I have that view because I've also been a fan of Mr. Child, so the similarities don't cause any negative fall out to me.   Reviewers on Amazon aren't as kind.   So if you see negative reviews, I suspect they're more due to annoyance about the similarities in character and plot arcs, and less about this as a fun read.

If you like Mr. Child's work, you'll probably like this book too.   If you're not familiar with Mr. Child's work, you might even enjoy this book even more.

Okay, details:  the hero is an Army investigator.   A lovely woman deputy helps him.   He's a loner who makes unorthodox career decisions.   There are more plot twists than I anticipated.    The book is quite well written.