Friday, March 29, 2013

Finding Ultra, by Rich Roll

I have quite mixed emotions about this book which is both inspiring and annoying.  I'll summarize this autobiography:
  • Mr. Roll has a privileged youth, going to a prep school, accepted to Ivy League schools, ending up at Stanford. 
  • He is an alcoholic, and a barely functioning one at that. 
  • He gets sober. 
  • He finds true love. 
  • He notices he is not fit nor healthy. 
  • He addresses this with a mix of narcissism and the zeal of a true addict to participate in Ironman and Ultra-marathon events, and finally a sequence of five ironman -type events in just a few days
  • He discovers the benefits of a vegan diet. He pushes his own brand of vegan supplements. 
  • He runs crazy long distances, prioritizing this obsession over time with his family and over running his law practice.
So what's inspiring? That someone at middle age (39) can so dramatically reshape their health through diet and exercise. So what's annoying? Pretty much every single page of the book - except for appendix I which discusses the effectiveness of not using animal -based protein even while training for strenuous events.  (And even that section annoyed me when it became blatant advertising for Mr. Roll's supplement business -- where a 20 serving container of protein supplement sells for $75, not including shipping.  Yikes.)

Monday, March 25, 2013

The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking, by Ed Burger and Michael Starbird

This is a useful little book.  Its thesis is that anyone can become a better thinker using five specific strategies.  The authors had my complete attention from the first page where they point out that brilliant students are not necessarily born brilliant.   Do you imagine, they ask, that "Einstein teases his hair and relativity falls out" -- this tickled me.

As a memory aid, the authors relate each of their five strategies to a corresponding classical element.  So we have:
  •  Earth, to remind us to deeply understand the material.   In other words, if I'm confused by the basic building blocks of how to do something, I'm unlikely to grasp more complex materials.
  • Fire, to remind us that making mistakes is not only okay, it is necessary as we grapple with complex problems.  At this particular strategy I feel rather over-qualified.
  • Air, to remind us to raise questions.  Conventional wisdom is not necessarily correct (or we'd still be thinking that the sun revolves around the earth, which is flat, held on the back of a turtle).  Plus, it is by asking questions that we can learn more deeply and discover more possibilities.
  • Water, to remind us to follow the flow of ideas.  As folks start with a fundamental insight they begin to develop it, to extend it, learn more about it.  The auto of today is quite different from the 1896 Duryea.
  • The quintessential element, both to fit in a fifth concept (!) and to remind us that change is essential to good thinking.   The authors make a very important point when they notice that politicians engaged in discussion or debate never say, "That's a better idea, I'm going to change my mind." [p130]   They correctly add, "The unchangeable mind is a closed mind.  The result in politics is a calcified lack of innovation and flexibility -- gridlock."
A good test of advice is that once you've read it, you realize that it is obvious.  Of course, not quite as obvious before you read it.   That's this book in a nutshell:  it makes perfect sense, and it is useful to have folks point a strategy out clearly and memorably so that we can remember to actually follow the advice.

Fun & Games, by Duane Swierczynski

Wow.  This is an outstanding novel.  How to classify it?  The cover claims it is an "explosive pulp thriller."   Hmmm.   It is suspenseful, quirky, clever.   Amusing, interesting.   Plot turns galore.  Character development is brilliant.  But "pulp?"

Find out for yourself.   Mr. Swierczynski's book is worth the read.

And oh, did I mention, this is the first in a trilogy featuring the same main character, Charlie Hardie?  The next one up is "Hell and Gone ."

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

The sub-title of this collection of essays is "Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar."    Sugar is Ms. Strayed pseudonym for the advice column she writes for The Rumpus website, aptly titled, "Dear Sugar."   The book is a collection of her responses to emails from readers.

The beauty and brilliance of Ms. Strayed is that Sugar's responses to the typical collection of confused and troubled letters are far, far different than anything you may have read in a newspaper.   Each response is simply lovely:  it is loving yet brutally crisp, it is supportive yet direct, and on the more difficult or complex topics, Sugar shares her personal experiences and difficulties as a way of setting context or explaining that the writer isn't alone in his or her problem.

Two caveats:  brace yourself for profane language if that's not something to which you're accustomed, and also, as you might expect, many of the letters seeking advice describe harsh situations involving abuse, sexual habits, and the like.   So all in all, it is an "R -rated" book.   But that's not a criticism, simply a note that it might be a bit much for, say, your precocious nine year old early reader.

I confess that I did feel a bit fatigued at the end.  Maybe this isn't the sort of material one should read in a single sitting.   So I can't tell if it is a critique (too long, or poor selection choices at the end) or not.   So I'm going with "highly recommended" as my net-net.

Defender, by Chris Allen

Mr. Allen hopes to publish a series of suspense / spy novels featuring the "Intrepid" organization of action oriented operators within Interpol.  The hero of this first in the bunch is Alex Morgan.

The novel followed the predictable outline for the genre, from the nature and placement of the bad guys, to the inevitable love interest.   In that context, it was okay.   If you're looking for something less hackneyed or more interesting than the baseline, then this won't do the trick.

While the novel was okay, and moderately entertaining, I don't plan on reading more of Mr. Allen's writing.

Operator, by David Vinjamuri

This novel features hero Mike Herne, a former special ops guy who's now an intelligence analyst.  Herne gets caught up in a mystery in his home town, and brings his skills to bear in a reasoned and nuanced way.   Mr. Vinjamuri's given us an interesting and likable hero who actions are sufficiently modest and nearly credible enough to bring this novel to the top of the genre.

Highly recommended.  I'm eager for Mr. Vinjamuri to publish another novel.

Cloud Cover, by David Iseminger

Luke Durant is an undercover agent placed in a cloud computing firm to monitor suspicious activity.  He gets caught up in a complex scheme to pull information from the cloud and use it to manipulate public figures.  There is plenty of action and adventure - and surprisingly little meaningful or credible information technology discussion.  But that's forgiven in this interesting novel.

Assassin Trilogy, by Derek Haas

This set includes the novels "The Silver Bear," "Columbus," and "Dark Men," a series featuring the assassin named Columbus.   (I guess the last assassin story I read put me in the mood.)

Columbus is not a nice man.  And he is, after all, a paid killer.   There is little about him that is sympathetic, perhaps until the very end of "Dark Men."

But the writing is good, the story is interesting, and as a set this forms an enjoyable long suspenseful novel.

Night of the Assassin, by Russell Blake

This novel is a prequel to King of Swords, providing the back story for "El Rey" (the assassin).   It was entertaining and interesting.   Although it feels odd to root for the bad guy, since El Rey's targets are exclusively drug kingpins in Mexico, being sympathetic to the killer was easy.

This isn't great literature, but if you can get it at a discounted Kindle edition price, it is worth the read.

The Night Ranger, by Alex Berenson

This novel continues the series around espionage hero John Wells.   He's retired now, but takes on a hostage situation in Africa as a favor to his son.   The book was well written and interesting, but annoyed me because it needed a wrap-up chapter at the end.  There was a lack of symmetry: plenty of background at the beginning to set the context for the story, but far too little closure at the end in terms of the main characters and how things tied out for them.

Utopia, Texas, by Michael Glasscock

This novel asks, "What happens when men of principle become men of violence?"   The hero is a game warden, former veterinarian, who is working on overcoming his own sadness.   The plot and character development are good.   The writing still is unusually stilted:  short descriptive sentences that are perfect for business memos but lack texture for a novel.   Still, I recommend the book.

Friday, March 8, 2013

The Racketeer, by John Grisham

This is a very enjoyable book.   Great plot, solid writing.  A pleasure to read.

I can't give away too much because I want to avoid spoiling the complex story.   The hero, Malcolm, is an attorney, unjustly convicted of a white collar crime that he didn't commit, and in prison.   In a seemingly unrelated event, a federal judge is murdered, and Malcolm knows who did it.

From that point forward, fasten your seatbelt and cancel your appointments as you'll be reading this until the end.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Last Man, by Vince Flynn

This is the 9th in Mr. Flynn's series of spy novels featuring the heroic Mitch Rapp.   Just yesterday I told someone I'd grade this novel C+.   Why so low?

An A grade in this genre would have compelling character development, terrific writing, and a great plot.   This book has an okay plot.   There's a significant surprise midway through (don't worry, I won't spoil it), and yet Mr. Flynn did nothing to develop the character and explain his decisions.   This left a big gap in understanding the plot progression.

Similarly, (a minor spoiler now) when Rapp has a head injury, there was a great opportunity to use his recovery to really develop the character beyond the comic book hero.  Instead, he passed on this, leaving us with a paper cutout main character who, let me yawn as this is so trite, is violent (but only to bad guys), and has no patience for discussion (especially with liberals or people who want to think things through, both of whom are always shown to be either corrupt or extraordinarily incompetent).

So many missed opportunities for great writing!

Still, it is an okay grade.  Partly because the competition in this genre is typically no better, and partly because it was a slightly enjoyable read (albeit maddening at times).

Bottom line: if you're into this kind of thing, and have invested in reading the prior books in the series, you'd might as well read this one.  But I'd go to the library or used book store rather than shelling out full price for this novel.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Storm Front, by Jim Butcher

This is Mr. Butcher's first in his series of Dresden Files novels.  The hero, Harry Dresden, is a wizard.  He's a good guy, works with the police, and tries to help people.   Unfortunately, it seems to be in vogue for the hero to have flaws, and Dresden's flaws are numerous.  So much so that they go, at least for me, beyond the line of cute and fully into the sphere of annoying.

The plot was interesting.  The character set was rather hackneyed.  And my continued lack of empathy for the main character is what leads to my so-so review of the book, and my decision to not bother reading the rest of Mr. Butcher's series.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Devil You Know, by Mike Carey

Apparently Mr. Carey has a successful series of books featuring this novel's hero, Fix Castor, who is an exorcist in London.   (His day job is writing comic books for Marvel, such as X-Men .)  Perhaps if I was really excited about the ghostly genre I'd too be a fan.  But I'm neither a fan of the genre nor of this book.

In fact, I found it quite difficult to read.  The hero is not easy to like, but worse, the writing is a challenge because it did not draw me in at all.   On the plus side, it is a mystery, and I was almost interested in who did it.