KitchenOS Development Blog: Choosing Dynamo DB

Not having to wake up in the middle of the night to feed a bottle to a baby has given me more time to continue to work on my side projects.  I also realized that now paying full price for a nanny here in New York is getting expensive, so I should be focusing on ways to cut expenses.  One of those ways for me is to actually plan out my breakfasts and lunches and bring them to work instead of spending about $30 a day on food.  Combine these things, and it makes me want to get KitchenOS working even more.

Last night I started to look at what I had and had not done.  Simple answer: I haven't done much.  I have a quick recipe parser done for the Food Network sites.  But of course when I went to use it, they changed their site and I had to update it.  

After that, I needed to persist it somewhere to access it from everywhere else.  Since I don't know the full structure of every recipe I will see, I decided to make sure that I can change the structure if needed and decided to use a document based database, specifically Amazon's DynamoDB versus leveraging a SQL-based database.  The only hiccup I sort of had was understanding the new API for DynamoDB, but it was relatively straightforward even though building the value map seems a little bit verbose.

As an example, here is creating a simple String attribute

itemValues.put("title", AttributeValue.builder().s(title).build());

I know there are some benefits to this, but this seems excessive.  I would have liked to be able to just put a String in here.  But then when I went to needing to add in the ingredient list, it made more sense when I could combine the different builders and get the AttributeValue object which would have been much more difficult without this structure in place.

itemValues.put("ingredients", AttributeValue.builder().l(
                        .map(ingredient -> AttributeValue.builder().s(ingredient.fullText()).build())
Now, all I had to do to push this content to the database was building a simple request and executing it.

The one thing I am still looking at with this is if I have the code structured in the way I want to have it.  Right now, I have a save() method on the Recipe class which allows me to simply call to save this current recipe instead of invoking a whole other data access layer.  But what if I need that in the future?  Though last night I decided that if I needed that in the future I can change.  That is the joy of not having to plan everything out.

Open Question from Last Night

  • How will I structure my shared code across my different modules?  Right now, that is future John's problem.  I can pull things out of the recipe scraper when I need them in a different application.

Book Review: Buttermilk Graffiti

When I first saw Buttermilk Graffiti on Amazon, I was thinking that it would be another cookbook from Ed Lee. Not like that is a bad thing, as it would have been a purchase as I loved his previous cookbook Smoke & Pickles. But I was pleasantly surprised to see it was more of a book version of Anthony Bourdain's show with Lee going to different parts of the United States and seeing how their regional cuisine came into be with recipes at the end of the chapters. This discovery made this book the next one I would purchase, and allowed me to do so on the Kindle which meant I would definitely read it more.

As Lee travels across the country to learn more about the different regional cuisines in America, the reader is brought into his head in much the same way the viewer of Ugly Delicious is brought into David Chang's head. I found the parallels to each story interesting in that they were both less focused on the fine dining aspects of cuisine and more on what people were eating day in and day out. Lee didn't go to a famous soul food restaurant, he went to two places that were sort of just women cooking from their houses that became restaurants. He didn't hit up Milwaukee's best restaurants, he went to the places that time has passed and were still serving the same thing from the early 1900s, but very few people were coming to outside of an older clientele.

The theme running through the entire book is that food itself is a journey, and that every one goes on a different food journey. Lee was trying to learn everyone's food journeys to help him understand his own, and force the reader to understand their own. All of this talk on people's food journeys and history really made me think: what has been my food journey?

What I discovered is that I don't have a family cuisine. Sure, there are things that my mom cooked that I really liked and I asked her for the recipes (Swedish meatballs, stronganoff, etc.), but we didn't have a culture of food in our house. There wasn't something in place that I knew every Sunday our family would sit down and have a large meal that was a tradition. There wasn't one group of food that we had more than any other. Why was this? I don't really know. Food just wasn't and still really isn't in our family's DNA. Sure we all love going out for nice meals, but sitting down and just cooking something together was never a thing we did. In fact, I would say the biggest food memories I have are of my dad burning things well cooking them on the grill.

I grew up believing that it was only my dad who had such lousy taste in food, but a lot of my parents' generation ate poorly regardless of nationality or wealth. Much has been written about the ills of the commercial food industry and the rise of fast food that dominated the 1960s and '70s in America. My dad was a part of that generation, and for him, eating at McDonald's was what you did if you wanted to assimilate into American culture.

Of course, neither of my parents had to assimilate into American culture. They were born here, but this passage resonated with me as a way to sort of describe our family's food background. Treats as a kid were going to your TGI Friday's, Chili's, McDonald's, etc. These were Friday night family meals and I have fond memories of them and still crave these places from time to time. I mean who can pass up the Chili's queso dip?

With this background, it really wasn't until a little over ten years ago that food even became a big thing for me. It was on a bachelor party to Las Vegas where I sat down and ate at Mesa Grill for the first time that I discovered how good food could be. It took me on a journey that led me first into hitting up as much fine dining as I could and then to cooking more and more. Now, cooking is something that I do both because I like to do it, and also now I hope that my family can have a food tradition.

But what is the basis of that food tradition?

I think that's what this book brought out in me. There doesn't need to be centuries of history for something, though it helps. There just has to be a tradition of what we do as a family that will end up having a huge impact on Jack and George as they grow older and continue to grow on what we are starting now.

the best cooking is not about perfection, but rather the flawed process of how we aim for a desired flavor.

Sure Lee here was talking about the different ways people ended up making cornbread, but this should end up being the way I think both about cooking and setting up traditions at home. It's not about being perfect, it's about aiming for a flavor or just something as simple as a nightly dinner with Steph, Jack, and George that turns into something more.

Quick Review: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Standard Deviation

Picking out what book to read next for me is always one of those things that depends on the mood I am in when I finish reading the last book. This of course normally happens when I am tired as I read either on the subway or before I fall asleep every night. In this instance, I was looking for a more traditional fiction novel. Something that was a character study on modern living, and had added Standard Deviation to my Amazon Wish List, aka the queue of books I think I may want to read at one point.

The "book jacket" had this as on some Best of 2017 lists like The Skimm, NPR, The Washington Post, and Minnesota Public Radio. It's summary also seemed interesting:

> When Graham Cavanaugh divorced his first wife it was to marry his girlfriend, Audra, a woman as irrepressible as she is spontaneous and fun. But, Graham learns, life with Audra can also be exhausting, constantly interrupted by chatty phone calls, picky-eater houseguests, and invitations to weddings of people he’s never met. Audra firmly believes that through the sheer force of her personality she can overcome the most socially challenging interactions, shepherding her son through awkward playdates and origami club, and even deciding to establish a friendship with Graham’s first wife, Elspeth. Graham isn't sure he understands why Audra longs to be friends with the woman he divorced. After all, former spouses are hard to categorize—are they enemies, old flames, or just people you know really, really well? And as Graham and Audra share dinners, holidays, and late glasses of wine with his first wife he starts to wonder: How can anyone love two such different women? Did I make the right choice? Is there a right choice? A hilarious and rueful debut novel of love, marriage, infidelity, and origami, Standard Deviation never deviates from the superb.

So going in, this seemed like it was going to be an interesting book, and not very plot-driven. That is exactly what the book was, interesting and not really plot-driven. The plot of the book is more or less the story of Graham Cavanaugh and it jumps through what is happening in his life with his wife, his son, his ex-wife, his work, and their friends.

His wife, Audra, is an interesting character who doesn't seem like she could be a real person, at least any real person I have never met. She brings in house guests on a whim, is gregarious, and will find the interesting part of any one. Whereas Graham is more like people I know, reserved, and wonders at times just what his wife is doing.

The part of the book that I wasn't expecting was the relationship between Graham and Audra with their son, Matthew. Matthew is on the Aspergers' Spectrum, and has a huge love of origami. This leads them to finding an origami club and overly detailed discussions of the different folds that could be done. You can tell that Graham wishes his son was more "normal", but then there are times that just how much he loves his son is shown in his actions like cooking him specific foods, taking him to origami conventions, and later taking him fishing. As a parent, these parts of the book were the most heart-wrenching to me as they hit home.

The rest of the book hit home the questions of why do you love someone and what does it mean to love them. The book highlighted the differences between Audra and Graham and showed the jealousy between them, but also the mutual respect. While of course a lot of the story was driven by Graham's relationship with his ex-wife (whom he cheated on with Audra), I felt that part of the story was less about Graham and what he was going through, but more about Elspeth and how she seemed to be a woman that was in love with her job and just preferred to be alone.

Quick Review: 3 out of 5 stars

Book Review: The Soul of Basketball

If you jumped into a time machine to the Summer of 2010 and then the ensuing basketball season, there would be about three things you'd notice about me:

  1. I was always at The Gingerman (yes I know it's the GMan now, but it will always be The Gingerman to me)

  2. Basketball, specifically LeBron's free agency and the Chicago Bulls, were a constant topic of conversation both when I was sober and when I was not.

  3. I was working too much on a project in the Northern Suburbs of Chicago, so my outlet was basketball and alcohol. Two solid outlets based on points 1 and 2.

With those three things, it was a no-brainer that I was going to pick up and read The Soul of Basketball: The Epic Showdown Between LeBron, Kobe, Doc, and Dirk That Saved the NBA by Ian Thomsen. The book was about what I expected, which was that I wouldn't learn much new since I was one of those people that consistently refreshed Twitter for every morsel of information from July 1 2010 until that fateful day that LeBron James announced he would be taking his talents to South Beach.

But this book was able to tell me some new things. I didn't know much of Dirk Nowitzki outside of what he did on the basketball court, so a lot of the new information I learned was about him. The history of his training regiment, his internal anguish and how much he took his team's losses on him even though outwardly he always kept that same demeanor, and how he always felt like an outside. The one thing that shocked me the most is that during the Summer of 2010, not one team besides the Mavericks went and contacted Nowitzki. They were all chasing LeBron, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade. But not one reached out to him. I don't think it was because they didn't think he was worth it, but because they assumed he was re-signing in Dallas no matter what. I can't count number of times I said while discussing NBA Free Agency while drunk with friends that the Bulls should just reach out and point Dirk to Huettenbar as a rectuiting pitch and see what happened. We knew he was staying there, but the fact no one called is just crazy. I mean why not try?

Thomsen obviously had great access throughout for this book and it showed in his reporting with all four of the major characters in the title. But I think he missed an opportunity to tell the full story of the 2010-2011 NBA Season by completely ignoring the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls were less than a supporting character in this novel, they were a two sentence piece during free agency and just a one sentence entry between Miami beating the Celtics and then getting to the NBA Finals against Dallas. I mean Derrick Rose was named the MVP that season pretty much because he wasn't LeBron, and that aspect of the season needed some attention on it. Also treated sort of like a by product of the season and not a real story was the Oklahoma City Thunder. They were a bit player in the Dallas run to the NBA Finals, but it would have been good to build them up more with their young core of Durant, Harden, and Westbrook that would be vanquished by Miami's Big Three. I felt both of these were storylines Thomsen could have and should have explored if he wanted to really talk about the soul of basketball and the "saving of the NBA".

Quick Review: 3 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: This Could Hurt

The older I get, the more I enjoy a good novel on workplaces and what goes on in them. I really enjoyed Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris when I read it a while ago. And the book jacket for my next book claimed this was a similar book:

> A razor-sharp and deeply felt novel that illuminates the pivotal role of work in our lives—a riveting fusion of The Nest, Up in the Air, and Then We Came to the End that captures the emotional complexities of five HR colleagues trying to balance ambition, hope, and fear as their small company is buffeted by economic forces that threaten to upend them.

Just that paragraph alone had the book in my Wish List on Amazon (aka the place I put books I want to eventually read). So when I was looking for my next book and not wanting it to be another mystery or thriller, I went for This Could Hurt by Jilian Medoff, and it didn't disappoint.

This Could Hurt used a Human Resources department at a small research firm to tell the story of about five different archetypes you see in the business industry: the aging executive, the wanna be executive with an Ivy League pedigree, the stuck in a job he hates father, the woman in love with a co-worker, and the depressed gay man. Sure, all of these archetypes are pretty standard, but Medoff was able to bring something new into each of them. Medoff was able to bring both weaknesses and strengths into the characters to highlight that they were more similar than they let on, and they were all going through something that impacted their life at work.

Initally the story jumped between each of the characters as you saw how they all reacted to the economic downturn of 2008 and 2009 and its impact on them and their careers. Each were saved during multiple rounds of layoffs at their organization and were asked to take on more work, with some succeeding and some floundering at it for various reasons. Each character was shown to be oblivious to the struggles of the others and some more conniving than others about getting ahead.

But as the story moved on and the team dealt with adversity, it showed that different people were making moves behind the scenes to move ahead and stab people in the back than you would have expected. Those that made the blatant moves in line with their personality ended up not faring well, and all at the same time having a change in their heads as to what they believe is important in life, family. Those scenes in which a hard-driving Ivy League graduate learn that his goal at becoming the best having the best title is not enough in life really hit home for me, not because I chase titles (though I do think they are important), but because I know I would give up any title in the world just to spend more time with my family if they needed me.

Quick Review: 4 out of 5 stars

Book Review: The Jefferson Key

The weaving of historical fact with some fiction and conspiracy theories are always good choices for me to read in novels. I know they aren't true, but they could be and that makes them even more interesting. So when I ended up seeing on Amazon a link that I should read The Bishop's Pawn, I saw that it was a part of a series, the Cotton Malone Series. Of course, I didn't even realize that I had read another one of the books at the time, The Lincoln Myth. Since I remembered liking that one, I looked through the series order and decided to start at Book Seven, The Jefferson Key. I mean who wouldn't want to read a story that links together every assassination of a United States President to a group of pirates called The Commonwealth.

Four United States presidents have been assassinated—in 1865, 1881, 1901, and 1963—each murder seemingly unrelated and separated by time.

But what if those presidents were all killed for the same reason: a clause in the United States Constitution—contained within Article 1, Section 8—that would shock Americans?

While I normally try to pick up a series at the beginning, I decided not to at this time. I was wondering what I would end up missing, and it didn't seem like I missed too much. Though there was a character Jonathan Wyatt who seemed to have a history with Malone. I went back and looked after, and that history was actually filled out in a short story that was attached to the end of the book in my purchase on a Kindle. So I hadn't missed anything.

The Jefferson Key started with action almost right away. The book jumped right in on the attempted assassination of the President, Danny Daniels. Cotton Malone was asked to a hotel room by who he thought was his former boss of the Magellan Billet, a fictional agency within the Justice Department, sending him a letter that she needed help. But it turns out he was lured there by Jonathan Wyatt, who held a vendetta against Malone, to both stop the assassination attempt and hopefully get killed in the process.

The rest of the novel intertwines the perspectives of four different major characters: (1) Cotton Malone, (2) Jonathan Wyatt, (3) Cassiopea Vitt, Malone's "girlfriend", and (4) Alexander Hale, the head of the Commonwealth. While there are some other charcters involved including the other three leaders of The Commonwealth and a head of another major intelligence agency in the government, these four characters are involved directly in the plot moving the book forward.

Without going a bit more into the plot, I will say the book itself is paced extremely well. I am a fan of quick chapters (less than five minutes on the Kindle timings) in novels like this, and this book provided me with those. It just makes it easier to pick up and read on the train and to end up getting a quick chapter or two completed before I end up falling asleep. I realize I haven't spoken much of the writing or plot, but these books aren't about the writing, and discussing the plot can be too much at times.

Quick Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: The Quantum Spy

When I saw that David Ignatius had a new book out, being a fan of the spy genre and his previous novels, especially The Director, I knew that I was going to eventually pick this one up. But when I saw that the title was The Quantum Spy and the book jacket (ok the Amazon description) read:

A hyper-fast quantum computer is the digital equivalent of a nuclear bomb; whoever possesses one will be able to shred any encryption and break any code in existence. The winner of the race to build the world’s first quantum machine will attain global dominance for generations to come. The question is, who will cross the finish line first: the U.S. or China?

I made sure that I picked it up and read it when I was next in the mood for a spy novel.

Like all of Ignatius' previous novels that I have read, he completely delved into the details of spy craft proving to the reader that all of this was definitely plausible. But my disappointment was in the fact that the topic of quantum computing was nothing more than a MacGuffin for the rest of the spy craft to move forward. Quantum computing itself was a periphery topic and not even one that was the driving factor in this story of a traitor within the CIA and how they were being handled by the Chinese.

The story starts out well enough with some good old fashioned spy craft as Harris Chang works a Chinese PhD inside the MSS (China's version of the CIA) and gets out the information he needs including that the Chinese MSS has a mole, known as Rukuo within the CIA that has been feeding them secrets on the United States' efforts in quantum computing. We soon learn that this PhD commits suicide in his hotel room instead of working as a CIA informant. This is what sets up the action of the novel as the CIA fights a two-pronged battle: one to find the model inside the CIA and the other to discredit the work of the MSS.

The novel does a great job of playing out the views of each major character in the story from the CIA Agent Harris Chang to the mole within the CIA and back to John Vandel who is running this all for the CIA and Ling Ma, the head of the Chinese MSS. The way each mind thinks throughout the novel is great and by jumping between the individual characters Ignatius was able to move the story forward while not having to show one person having more knowledge than they really should have. The way Ignatius had every one questioning every one else's motivation was done really well, but I do think they laid it on a bit too heavy on the Chinese ancestry of Harris Chang and how that could impact what he thought (but this is also coming from someone who doesn't really look back at their own ancestry in any way whatsoever and never has understood that topic).

Quick Review: 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: The Forgotten Girls (Stevens & Windermere #6)

It took me a while to get to the latest release in Owen Laukkanen's Stevens & Windermere series, The Forgotten Girls. The last one in the series, book, was very good but as I said in my review last year, it was very dark. And based off the name of _The Forgotten Girls_ I was thinking this book was going to be another dark book. I was right, it was.

The prologue opens up with a young woman, actually a girl, who is train jumping attempting to get to Washington state in order to see one of her friends before they pass away from cancer. She takes the risky northern pass which is way too cold for any one to be outside on a train in the winter. She then goes into the middle of a heated train car and runs into a man that she struggles with, but is eventually killed.

Now there is a quick jump to a man picking up a woman at a bar and bringing her back to his apartment. As he is getting ready, she unlocks his phone and starts to look at both his Facebook profile and pictures on his phone. As she is flipping through the pictures, she ends up seeing a picture of a dead girl and flips out calling the police. It turns out that the man had his phone stolen a while ago, and the pictures are being uploaded to the cloud by the stolen phone, not the man. But this is when Stevens and Windermere end up getting involved and starts the main action of the book.

Without describing much of the action, Stevens and Windermere end up heading out west near the northern pass and discover there is a serial killer on the loose killing people who won't be missed by others: runaways, prostitutes, etc. The book moves between the view of Stevens & Windermere, the serial killer himself, the friend of the young woman murdered in the prologue who is looking for the man who murdered her best fried, and Mathers (Windermere's boyfriend, and fellow FBI agent). The book has a solid pacing throughout and has my favorite thing for commute reading: bite-sized chapters. But it was dark, and at times I thought too dark.

Quick Review: 3 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Brotopia

After reading the Vanity Fair Brotopia exerpt, I was definitely curious what was else in this book that I didn't know about. So when I was looking for another book to read, I picked it up. I was hoping it would be able to shed some light on things I didn't know about as someone both in the tech industry, but not Silicon Valley and as an avid reader of technology news. Unfortunately, a quick summary of this book would be that if you have followed Silicon Valley in any real fashion since the turn of the century, there is nothing really new here, but it is a great summary to remind everyone just what the struggles for women and minorities in Silicon Valley are and how pervasive they are.

Brotopia itself was well-written, and needed at a time like this. The new things that were brought to my attention were not anything recent (though obviously I didn't know of the details of each piece of harrassment) but more the history of how we got to where we are today in the industry. Last year I watched Hidden Figures one Saturday night, and I didn't know of that story until the movie. There are many historical stories like that which Change alludes to in Brotopia. But to me the two anecdotes that still hit me after reading the novel were:

  1. The first image popularized and used widely as image compression algorithms were created was that from a Playboy centerfold. Yes, the image itself was cropped, but that didn't stop every one from knowing where it came from and for many young men to have it on their walls. I can definitely see how this would be off-putting to women in the industry and how they would not feel welcome from the early days and thus ended up leaving.

  2. The study Chang references that IBM paid for to determine the ideal personality of the computer programmer which found that the ideal programmer should be a loner who can solely focus just on programming. And from there, the stereotype of the loner computer nerd who lives in his mom's basement began.

  3. The Stanford school paper's article (or column) that said Marissa Mayer was a campus celebrity because she was the hot girl that was taking computer programming classes.

To me these were the anecdotes that I kept coming back to as I read the rest of the book. They were what stuck with me, not the stories of harassment, or the sex parties, or the lack of women in Silicon Valley, or the fact that people often times just went to and at their friends when they were trying to fill out their companies. But the explanations at just how hard it has been for them to get into the industry and once they are in stay within the industry.

As someone who has had responsibilities to hire technical resources at various points in my career, I can say that hiring people different than me is one thing that I have always tried to focus on. I was very proud that the development team at my previous company was diverse, but of course I would have liked it more diverse than it was. I also didn't realize just how the brain teaser aspect of some interviews caused issues for different people, and while I quit asking those quite a while ago, I didn't know they were something that has also impacted the ability for some people to get their foot into the technology industry.

The time I spent reading this book was for me a time to reflect on myself and where I sit in the larger technology industry and what I can do to change things, even so small. I think the biggest thing is that I can help to provide mentorship to all and focus on women and minorities, continue to push the idea that not all great technology companies need to be based in Silicon Valley, and even work to push hires for candidates that may not meet all of the criteria, but we know can do the work.

Quick Review: 3 out of 5 stars

Book Review: Grocery

I picked up Michael Ruhlman's Grocery quite a while ago, but after the first night I was just not into reading it, so I put it on my Kindle "bookshelf" and read a bunch of other books first. But the time was right for me to come back to the book this time. I have been thinking more about what I am buying from the grocery store and where I am shopping, and I thought a history of the grocery store would be interesting.

I must admit I was a little shocked as to the topic of the book, I was thinking it would be more of a grocery store history, but admittedly I probably should have read the book jacket a bit closer as it stated exactly what it was going to be:

Using the human story of the family-run Midwestern chain Heinen’s as an anchor to this journalistic narrative, he dives into the mysterious world of supermarkets and the ways in which we produce, consume, and distribute food.

This sentence from the book jack was exactly what the book was. I just wasn't expecting it, but I still devoured it like it was a home cooked meal.

Grocery did what I think a good book should do, it made me think. As a consumer, am I doing the right thing for my health and the health of my family and the broader world? Can I drive change with my own purchasing habits? What can I do to improve what my family eats? I saw all of it and throughout it thought to myself abotu what I can do as a family purchaser in a grocery market in New York.

Questions I am now asking myself:

  • Is it better to go to Whole Foods or Fairway?

  • What should I get organic versus standard?

  • Should I focus on getting better meat (beef, pork, veal, and chicken) for my meals, or stay with the standards?

Now, I think the answer to all of these questions are obvious, but there is a cost / benefit analysis that I do in my head. Part of adjusting to that is realizing that what I put in my body (and as the primary cook in the house, my family's) matters. It matters where the food comes from, and that my purchasing power can drive changes to the food system. Changes that need to happen.

But while *Grocery* was highlighted as a story about the grocery store and the food system, it was also a story of a father and son and thei relationship. Obviously, I have started to look through all stories like this through a different lens. I don't think that I could put together a story like this that Ruhlman did about his memories of his dad and one of his favorite things, the grocery store. I don't know what my dad's favorite things are, nor do I know what really makes him tick. My hope is that one day, Jack will be able to look back at all of the things we have done together and know what made me tick, and have fond memories of all of our trips to the grocery store, reading books, and even just goofing off. I don't have those, and books like this that play up a father / son relationship have started to trigger those emotions within me as a new father.

Quick Review: 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Need to Know

The premise of Need to Know from Karen Cleveland was one that jumped out at me almost immediately. I was browsing the Books of the Month from Amazon, and this one was there. It hit a few things that immediately make me intrigued in a book: spy craft and family life. But the hook with this one was the woman was the CIA agent, and her husband has been a Russian covert agent since before they met.

Taking this premise, Cleveland weaved a great story that was tough to put down. She started with an Epigraph that hooked me. It brought up the idea of the family and asking what a wife was going to do about the man she loved and the father of her children. Her internal quandry was simple: country or family? "But was it a real family?" was the thought that consistently went through her head. She would do anything for her children and to keep them safe, but did that include turning her husband into the CIA (her employer) as a member of a sleeper cell of Russian spies that have been in the United States for decades.

The questions brought up throughout this book from the first sentence to the very last sentence are common in spy novels, but I had never really seen the hook brought in to connect it to a marriage, too. Cleveland did this and how she did it with flashbacks that connect directly to the current timeline was perfect. The protagonsit, Vivian, went through her whole life with her husband and now things that seemed innocuous were seen through the lens of him being a Russian sleeper agent.

Was the "chance" meeting of him bumping into her on the street as she moved into her apartment before her first day at the CIA a coincidence as she thought, or was she targeted by the Russian government as a young agent in the CIA?

Was the proposal at the airport meant to distract her from seeing his family which didn't really exist since they were also Russian spies, or was it romantic to have flight plans changed from Seattle to Hawaii for a surprise proposal?

Was her husband's pushing of her to get onto the Russian account something he had to do to get more information from her, or was it a husband that wanted his wife to excel in her career?

Was her husband's continued pushing to state that she should not take time off to stay with the kids a a husband worried about the money they needed to pay for everything, or was it a Russian spy that didn't want her to leave the CIA and the Russian account?

All of these decisions when looked back now changed how Vivian looked at Matt, but one thing she could never deny was her husband's love of their children. And how he would do everything in his power to make sure they were always safe. But given all of this she continually questioned if that was the case. Was he a Russian spy first, or was he a father?

While to me, the personal story here carried the novel, the integrated spy craft was also very well done. It allowed the personal drama to correctly carry the story while not overwhelming it.

Quick Review: 5 out of 5 stars

Book Review: Wonder Valley

Wonder Valley was on many Best of 2017 lists, and had some high praise on it's book jacket from Michael Connelly saying it was "destined to be a classic L.A. novel." Since I pretty much have read every book Connelly has written, I decided that I would pick this up without knowing much about it. I thought going in the story would end up being a mystery / thriller novel since it was recommended by Connelly, but it wasn't. It was more of a character study.

The book jumped between 2006 and 2010 and did so on chapter cuts. When I read novels, I try to jump ahead in my mind to see how they are going to tie things together, but I could never tie together what was happening in 2006 and 2010 until Pochada did it for me. I liked that since it kept me wondering what was coming next. Pochada did a great job weaving between four major plot lines and making sure they were all connected.

Plot Line 1: Tony, the suburban husband who isn't quite sure where his life is going. (2010)

Plot Line 2: Blake and Sam, two lifelong criminals that are on the run in the California desert.

Plot Line 3: The Twentynine Palms commune, a group of "interns" who are following the teachings of a preacher, Patrick. Patrick's wife and twin sons also live there, but they are not part of the commune.

Plot Line 4: Ren, a young man out of juvenile detention, trying to get to Los Angeles to find his mom and bring her back home to New York.

The plot weaves in and out of these four stories, and brings them all together in a cohesive manner. But what the story was really about was character and personal growth and how each character changed or didn't given the circumstances surrounding what occurred.

Unfortunately for me, I thought the way the book ended was a little bit of a weakspot.

Spoiler Warning!!

The book ended with a focus on the character it started with, Tony. But Tony wasn't the focus of the book. The book focused on the interns, Ren, and Blake & Sam. These were the characters I was actually interested in. And yes, the ending did give Ren his trip to the ocean and highlighted his ability to find peace in the ocean and his art. But it used that as a way to make peace in Tony's mind. It felt like this conclusion was weak, and that Tony shouldn't be able to get peace this easy when he wasn't involved in the actual plot of the story. He was just someone latching on to what he saw was the freedom of mind from a naked man running down the 101.

Quick Review: 3 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Night School

In looking for what book I am going to read next, I go through a process that includes browsing Amazon's books of the month and then my Wish List. If nothing catches my eyes, I go back to series and authors that I love. This list of authors and series that I love includes Lee Child's Jack Reacher series. After catching up on the series, I hadn't gone back for the two latest novels, so it was a perfect time to pick up Night School.

Night School was an interesting move in the series as it brought us back to the past with a prequel to the entire series instead of picking up where Child left off at the end of Make Me with a question as to whether or not Jack Reacher's injuries would persist into the future. While I will have to wait a little bit longer to see how Child handles that scenario, I think this novel couldn't have been written in 1997 when it takes place. It required some knowledge of what has happened since then to correctly write a thriller that could have taken place in that time period.

Night School starts with Reacher being assigned to a 'night school', or that is what his colleagues are told. Reacher is actually assigned to a clandestine organization that reports directly to the National Security Advisor and is with a team that includes the miltary (Reacher), CIA, and FBI. Their task is to figure out what is going on with a sleeper cell in Hamburg, Germany. They have a mole within the cell, but he isn't sure what is happening just that they housed a messenger that had a meeting in Hamburg with someone there.

The investigation takes Reacher to Hamburg, back to the United States, and then back to Hamburg again. As part of the investigation into Islamic terrorism (though they don't call it that), Reacher runs into / needs the help of a Detective on the Hamburg police force and a neo-nazi group that has its tentacles throughout the city and its power structure. Child does a great job intricately weaving between the various points of view in the story (the detective, Reacher, the neo-nazi group, and 'The American') to make it all connect into a cohesive story.

As with all of these books, the question is not whether or not Reacher will solve the case, but how. The how in this case is pretty interesting and the story brought me to the point where I didn't want to put it down. I ended up only putting it down when the train ride was over, or I couldn't keep my eyes open while laying in bed.

Quick Review: 4 out of 5 stars

Book Review: Super Con

I stumbled onto the Billy Cunningham series by accident just browsing on and trying to find a book that caught my eye. The first book in the series said it was about a group of people that were trying to pull off elaborate cons on the Las Vegas casinos. Sounded like fun, so I picked it up. It was fun, and so was the second book. These weren't what I would call actual high level literature, but they were quick reads and entertaining. The third book was going to tie in a "Super Con" against Las Vegas, and then the fixing of the Super Bowl being driven by a Chinese gangster. I couldn't pass this one up.

In reading this story, I felt like it was four different storylines that were running simultaneously being brought together by the main character, Billy Cunnignham. The first storyline was the running of the so-called "super con" which involved working with another group of Vegas cheats called the grifters. These grifters knew everything of the "super con" and were working with Billy's crew as they trusted him based on actions from the previous books. The second storyline was the desire of a Chinese gangster, Broken Tooth, to fix the Super Bowl and the leverage he put on Billy to get it done which included kidnapping his driver and turning one member of his crew against him. The third storyline was Billy's relationship with a group of players from a team in the Super Bowl and how he could get them to push some prop bets in the direction Billy needed. The fourth storyline was the ongoing storyline of Billy's one true love, Maggie, and her desire to get out of the con game.

As these stories weaved together through Billy, the book quickly picked up pace pitting Billy against Broken Tooth and his old nemesis on the gaming board. This was a fast-paced book that weaved the story back and forth and over and over and an entertaining read.

Quick Review: 3 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: All Our Wrong Todays

I always look at the best of lists for the different things I like to do: podcasts, reading, watching TV, movies, etc. So at the beginning of December as the Best Books of 2017 lists came out, I watched and added a ton to my Amazon Wish List (aka my books to check out queue). One of those books was All Our Wrong Todays.

I came in not knowing anything about this book besides the book jacket, and that was enough to hook me. I mean who wouldn't want to read this book, especially if you loved Back to the Future as a kid?

It's 2016, and in Tom Barren's world, technology has solved all of humanity's problems—there's no war, no poverty, no under-ripe avocadoes. Unfortunately, Tom isn't happy. He's lost the girl of his dreams. And what do you do when you're heartbroken and have a time machine? Something stupid.

Of course, I cut off some of the jacket text. But you get the point. This is a book that seems like it is going to be fun and deal with the butterfly effect of time travel. Those things are always fun, whether it's going back in time during World War II like the All Clear series, or going back to stop the Kennedy Assassination like in 1963, or just fun time travel like in Back to the Future. This was going to be a good book, or at least it had the potential to be.

So how was it? Damn good. It wasn't quite what I was expecting as it turned more into a character study of the main character and how his life ended up being different in the different times and how that impacted him. Or were the different versions of his life that much different at all? We follow the main author, Tom Barren, but we quickly meet his alter-ego in our present timeline, John Barren, and see just how different they are. This book spends the time to say why all while wondering how Tom is going to bring back what he initially thought was his utopia timeline.

While the science of time travel is discussed, I thought time travel was just the manner in which we were led through a journey for us to think about Tom himself, and what that means for our own personal character.

Quick Review: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: The Cows

I don't remember where I was reading the stories, but there was a listing of celebrities and their favorite items of the year including books. I instantly went to Jason Segel's page, *because who doesn't like him?*, and he had this book as the one he had read in 2017. So of course, I read the description on Amazon and then picked up the book. Here is that description:

Three women. A whole world of judgement.

Tara, Cam and Stella are very different women. Yet in a society that sets the agenda, there’s something about being a woman that ties invisible bonds between us.

When one extraordinary event rockets Tara to online infamy, their three worlds collide in ways they could never imagine – and they discover that one woman’s catastrophe might just be another’s inspiration.

Through friendship and conflict, difference and likeness, they’ll learn to find their own voices.

Because sometimes it’s OK not to follow the herd.

So what is there to say about this book? You will definitely laugh when you read it. There will be times you will cry and / or feel sorry for the three main characters based on what they are going through. There will be times you will be angry with them, too. There will be times that the author makes you think of the situation all three characters are in. This book hits all the Jim Valvano points in his famous ESPY speech:

When people say to me how do you get through life or each day, it’s the same thing. To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day. You do that seven days a week, you’re going to have something special.

So on the days I was able to read this book, I had a full day. That's the sign of a good book.

And honestly, any book that consistently used the term Walthamstow Wank Woman is a book that you need to read. That and it is the best book I have read in 2017.

Quick Review: 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: The Candidate

Before buying a book on Amazon, I normally always read the description. This one hooked me:

Seduction and intrigue are rampant on the campaign trail when a political campaign adviser discovers that Washington's power broker elite have embroiled his presidential candidate in a plot involving an act of terrorism on US soil.

Democratic political campaign consultant Ben Brinker can’t remember the last time he was excited by a candidate’s vision. He feels he’s lost his way, both emotionally and professionally. Worst yet, his show-me-the-money policy seems to have finally caught up with him. Two of his recent clients have been disgraced in one way or another: a senator is caught in lurid sex scandal, and a congressman is indicted in a kickback scheme. In no time at all the political pundits are calling Ben a "candidate cooler." Now Ben is desperate for any campaign gig he can get. As luck would have it, Andrew Harris Mansfield, the charismatic junior senator from North Carolina and former Marine pilot, asks Ben if he wants to run his soon-to-be-announced campaign for president.

Unfortunately, the book didn't live up to this exerpt. It suffered from some poor writing, unrealistic scenarios, some major jump to conclusions mats for the characters, and even some characters that were too much of a caricature.

The start of this book was able to hook me and it was an easy read. That being said, the struggle to make it realistic and the over description of certain scenes that didn't need it seemed like a waste for me. For a book that was billed for fans of Baldacci, Silva, Flynn, and Thor it dind't deliver in that regards at all.

Quick Review: 2 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: The Last Mile (Amos Decker #2)

I finished this book a few weeks ago (October 9 according to Goodreads), but I haven't had time to write this review. I first picked up this book just because it was the second one in the Amos Decker series, but I was immediately intrigued because it was a case about a former football player who was wrongly convicted and on death row before someone else confessed to the crime he was convicted of, the murder of his parents.

The most interesting thing to me here was how are you going to use Decker's strengths (his inability to forget anything) in a case that happened 20-plus years ago and he didn't have any witness to whatsoever. Baldacci was able to weave it in with current events and then reading of case files and the like.

But where this book really stood up is that it used the wrongful conviction to venture into some other topics that were really poignant given the political environment in the United States today. The book was published in April 2016, so there was definitely a knowledge of the current environment, but not as much as has been evident since Trump received the Republican nomination for President.

Quick Review: 4 out of 5 stars

Start Spoilers

I don't know how to talk through the rest without going into spoilers. So the spoilers start now.

I thought Baldacci's ability to weave into the story the Civil Rights Era of the South into the 1960s and a modern story today was great. He made sure it was played pretty close to the vest on everything, so when you find out that Melvin Mars' dad is still alive and the one that framed him for his and his wife's death. He never thought his son would be executed because he didn't do it, and he made sure of it by paying to have someone confess to the crime to get Melvin out of jail. From there, the ability to weave into the storyline a church bombing from the 1960s to prominant members of today's Southern political, economic, and law enforcement elite was done extremely well and believable, including how people's motivations and thought processes have now changed.

All in all, I felt the book's ability to weave a political message into a thriller was done very well and had me wanting to continue to read more than just on my subway ride or before I go to sleep which doesn't always happen.

Book Review: Make Me

Another book in the Jack Reacher series. Another solid paced mystery / thriller that works with the formula we've already been given, embraces it, and makes a fun fast-paced story. That pretty much sums up this book. I liked it, but there wasn't much new to the formula from Lee Child on this one, but if I had perfected something like he has, I wouldn't change it either. It works.

The most interesting thing to me in this book was this is the second mystery / thriller book in a row that has dealt with the seedy underbelly of the Internet, and specifically suicides. In this instance, the reason the villains had money and killed another private investigator wasn't really important. But I found it just weird that two straight books I read dealt with this topic with this one coming out in summer 2015 and the Windermere and Stevens novel coming out in 2016. I guess I am more curious as to what drove this topic to be something both of these authors wanted to delve into at around the same time?

Quick Review: 4 out of 5 stars

Book Review: Sourdough

I was a huge fan of Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, so when I saw this book was by the same author on Amazon, that jumped this book to the top of the list. Add on to that, the fact that it was set in the world of technology and food (two of my favorite things), that made this book jump right to the top of the queue. And I am glad it did.

The book is well written, was digestible in quick bites and entertaining throughout. If I have one issue with the book it is that the ending seems abrupt. There is a lot of time spent in building up the final act and then when it happens, it sort of ends quickly and the book is over. I felt Sloan could have explored the fall out from the final act instead of wrapping it up so quickly. Maybe just another chapter or two that added in some background and motivations to the way things ended, but unforuntately that wasn't there.

But back to the good stuff:

  • Writing

  • Topic

  • Weaving of technology and food

  • Honest depiction of technology and its workplace environment

It's sort of amazing to me that a book entitled Sourdough was able to capture just how I have felt at different times while working. The "why am I doing this?" feeling and thinking there are other things I could be doing that I would enjoy more. In this novel, the protagonist (Lois) finds a "restaurant" that provides some great bread and spicy soup and starts eating that and feeling better versus eating the slurry drink (think Soylent) that has no flavor but allows her to work more. After that restaurant owners are deported (maybe a political commentary in there, but it wasn't played out heavily and felt more like a way to move the plot forward) they provide Lois with their sourdough starter.

This sourdough starter is the beginning of Lois' journey into learning about how to bake bread. But this sourdough starter is weird, and probably mystic. The bread's crust always ends up with faces on it; sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes neutral. Lois brings this bread into the office where her co-workers love it and even the four-star chef who is now the corporate chef for her tech company. This chef asks Lois how many loaves she can make and offers to buy it from her every morning. Lois now has a bread baking business, and her life takes on a dual role, software developer by day and bread backer by night and morning. She loves it.

Eventually, she tries out for the Ferry Building's Farmers' Market, but isn't selected. Though she is picked for an expirimental market which seems to be pushing the advance in food technology. Lois' bread is great, but the proprieter wants to see how she can integrate her tech work in building out alogorithms and skills for a robotic hands to do every day tasks. The rest of the novel continues in a quick pace as Lois learns more about herself, technology, the sourdough culture, and the people around her leading up to a finale that probably highlights so much of the San Francisco (actually any business) culture it is just a perfect conclusion.

Quick Review: 4 out of 5 stars.