Book Review: Dark Sacred Night

The Harry Bosch books have always held a special place in my heart. It was Concrete Blonde which was the book that I think got me back into reading on long plane flights when I was travelling almost every day for work a little over ten years ago. From there, I think I spent time reading every Bosch book and the rest of the Michael Connelly novels as quickly as they came out, often times putting down another book to pick up the most recent. And that is exactly what I did with Dark Sacred Night.

Sure, I am not able to knock a book out on a weekend like I used to be, and I have far fewer train rides to sit down and read, but this was a book I wanted to read and spent some late nights reading it on vacations and at home. This book was the second in the Renee Ballard series and was a crossover with Harry Bosch really continuing the saga / storyline from the previous Bosch book over Daisy and Elizabeth Clayton.

In the previous book Elizabeth Clayton was a secondary story, someone Bosch felt for and tried to and did save from an opiod addiction. At the start of this book, Bosch was working her daughter's murder case as his pet project while he was also working on a cold case involving a gang hit with the San Fernando PD. The stage is set for him to interact with Ballard when he comes into her precinct late at night and she sees him and wonders what he is working on. After Ballard has checked up on who exactly this Bosch is, they start to work the Daisy Clayton case together, sort of a hobby project for Ballard, but a mission for Bosch.

It is in this mission and how it weaves together with the gang hit job that I think the story ends up lacking. To me, the gang hit story ended up feeling like a way to give Bosch some conflict, both with his job and in his personal life. I don't think that storyline was really fleshed out and it seemed to follow along with some traditional tropes: (1) Cop finds source, (2) Source is murdered, (3) Cop finds the leak, (4) Leaker attempts to kill himself, and (5) Gang puts the cop and his family in danger.

Yes, he gets out of that danger. And no, I never really felt that he wouldn't. I never really contemplated him not getting out of it. I guess this could have been the book in which Bosch died and handed the reigns of finding justice for all ("everyone matters or no one matters") to Ballard, but I don't expect that to happen with the TV show in place and more seasons coming even though I know there are plenty of stories still available from the previous novels even without introducing Mickey Hallar.

The Daisy Clayton case is where this book shines, but it is also held back by the fact that Connelly didn't do a good job making you care for Elizabeth or Daisy Clayton. Sure, I have never lost a child so there is no way I would know what Elizabeth Clayton is thinking, but her character didn't resonate with me, especially in this book. Her coming to live with Bosch, sleeping with him, and then leaving abruptly didn't register with me as something I cared about and wanted to see through, so it made the whole storyline more of a whodunit, and that part was especially weak in this book.

Ballard and Bosch went through a standard investigation, but we didn't really get to know the ups and downs of it. We didn't know why they would move a card to the side for follow up, or why they wouldn't. We weren't really with them when they were making moves, and didn't get into their heads. The closest we get into their heads is in the climax of the story. But by then I just wasn't emotionally hooked. Sure both Ballard & Bosch ended up doing a few illegal things to catch the final guy, but then the father-like figure that Ballard has been looking for in Bosch came out and he protected her.

I must say the final hook in the epilogue just seems like the easy way to keep the Harry Bosch character in books and novels, and at the same time sort of diminishes the Renee Ballard character down to a Harry Bosch side kick. I liked her introduction as a full-fledged character in the Harry Bosch Universe, and I hope that doesn't change and she has as much of a "solo career" as Mickey Haller because she's an interesting character and one that can be built up over a whole book series without the crutch of Harry Bosch by her side.

Quick Review: 3 out of 5 stars

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 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: 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.

Book Review: The Watcher in the Wall (Stevens and Windermere #5)

I started reading this series before I even knew that it was a series. I found the premise of the first novel (The Professionals) to be very interesting so I picked up the book just over a month after it was released. Then I followed quickly with each of the others. But getting to this one took me a while, not because of a dwindling interest, but because things changed and I wasn't reading as much as I was in the past. But once I realized this was out, I picked it up and wanted to power through it.

The first thing that I got from this book was that it was going to end up even darker than the previous book which dealt with the topic of sex trafficking. Laukkanen seemed to think that wasn't dark enough, and has now jumped into the topic of teen suicide and the places on the Internet that they go. As a new father, this is definitely something that freaks me out, but it is something that I also know happens and is sad. Combine this with Dear Evan Hansen (an absolutely amazing show, fwiw, but I would say see it with the Broadway cast if you can), and you have some modern entertainment for me revolving around this topic. While Dear Evan Hansen brought me and my wife to tears, this used the topic to drive some additional character development in the series while also having great pacing and action.

The novel starts with a suicide at Stevens' daughter's high school. And with that there is a police investigation which leads Stevens and Windermere into the seedy underbelly of the Internet. And that is when we learn the antagonist of this story, a man named Randall Gruber who spends his time on these forums pushing these teens into suicide in order to sell the footage to make money. Gruber does all of this because he was abused as a teen and this is how he takes control of his life.

After discovering this, Stevens and Windermere end up able to convince their boss that this is a federal crime. There was a lot of questions as to whether this is something they could even investigate given that it may be considered free speech under, but given the nature of the beast as Windermere's drive to solve this, their boss let them investigate this case deeply. Why is Windermere so driven to solve this? We find out that she feels responsible for not stopping one of her friends from committing suicide in high school. This drive pushes the team through many times when they could have just stopped and it takes Windermere up to the edge and maybe over it in the pursuit of Gruber.

From a non-plot line perspective, I loved the pacing of this book. Quick, bite sized chapters that lasted probaly at the most five minutes. Laukkanen's ability to write this way is great for a subway reader as I never have to leave the story in the middle, and I appreciate that. It also has me on the "just one more chapter" mindset at night that keeps me reading and pushing through a novel.

Quick Review: 4 stars out of 5

Book Review: The Innocent (Will Robie #1)

I have been on a kick of reading mystery and thriller novels recently. I have found that I am able to get into the stories that much more and actually want to continue to read them. Since I read mostly on the subway and before bed, one of the big things I want to be able to do is finish my reading section on a hard chapter block. It makes me feel like I accomplished something and that I am not thinking about what is coming next as I am doing something else. When it comes to mysteries, I think David Baldacci is one of the best at a quick and simple chapter block. His chapters are normally between 1 and 6 minutes (per Kindle read time) and they let me finish in a subway ride or just pull down a chapter or two as I wind down at night. This led me to The Innocent.

The Innocent starts out simply enough by introducing us to a new character, United States Government assassin Will Robie. It takes us through a prologue assassination mission and then one more mission with a great set piece involving an aircraft hanger. *(I think that would end up looking really cool in a well-done movie).* These set pieces introduce us to how Will performs his job as one of the best and how he always has an exit plan in place even if things do not go his way initially. Character building in short, quick action-packed chapters which I always like. If you can build character and keep the action moving, I can guarantee I will not be putting down the book.

With the character building done, Will gets his next assignment. This kicks off the course of events in the novel. He is assigned to kill a government worker, but when he gets into her room Will discovers that she has a child in bed with her and is unable to shoot her. BUT then a sniper from across the way ends up putting a bullet through her and her young child, starting into action one of the novel's main mysteries: Who killed this woman?

On his escape route, Will ends up in a bus terminal and ready to take that to New York. One of the last passengers to get on the bus is a teenage girl who we already know from some previous chapters as a foster child who ran away from her foster parents after getting a note from her parents. She then witnessed them killed right in front of her with her mom saying at the end: "She doesn't know anything". She was followed onto the bus by a man who attempts to kill her and she is saved by Robie. They get off the bus, and soon after it explodes, intertwining their lives together.

From here the story takes us on an interesting weave through Robie not trusting any one, even the teenager (Julie), and working with the FBI to solve the crime he was meant to carry out. The interplay between Robie, Agent Vance of the FBI, and Julie highlighted well-written characters whose motivation you understood and questioned at the same time.

A great quick read, but a great introduction to a character I know is the start of a series.

Quick Review: 5 stars out of 5.

Book Review: House of Secrets

One of the nice things that adding a commute back into my life has provided is the ability to read about thirty minutes a day, fifteen minutes each way. This has brought me back to reading, and I am thankful for it. It even has me reading at night before going to bed again which had slowed to a crawl as I was doing more and more work on my side project.

The reason I picked up House of Secrets is that I had read Brad Thor's book series the Culper Ring, and this seemed like it had an interesting premise: the search for Benedict Arnold's Bibles.

The book started with Jack Nash telling his daughter, Hazel, a riddle about a dead man with a bible in his chest. Then after the prologue quickly jumping into modern day where we are introduced once again to Jack and Hazel in modern day with a quick introduction to her brother Skip, too. As their father is talking to them, a car accident occurs and he passes, and Hazel is injured and loses her memories. Hazel becomes the main protagonist in the story as she is trying to remember the mysteries that she followed as an anthropologist and what she was like as a person. Each interaction brought her more rememberance of something new. I liked this mechanism from Thor to keep the reader as in the dark as his protagonist.

I always find writing these reviews a bit tough as I don't like giving away any of the plots. In this instance, to me what made this book was it's pacing -- quick chapters which could be consumed on a train ride, and an interesting hook with Benedict Arnold's Bibles, and consistent flash backs into Jack Nash's TV show about conspiracy theories.

Final Summary: If you're a fan of quick paced mysteries using historical conspiracies, this will be a fun book for you to read. If you read the Culper Ring Series, you will also get a nice cameo at one point in the novel.