Tuesday, December 27, 2011

New Mysteries for 2011

Before the year closes out, I wanted to share some short thoughts on four recent mystery novels.

The Drop by Michael Connelly is part of the Harry Bosch series.  This is a must read for mystery fans.  Bosch is an LAPD detective, with three years left until retirement.  He takes up a twenty year old murder case in which a DNA match was just found to a convicted rapist.  The problem is that when the murder was committed the killer was only eight years old.  Meanwhile, Bosch is called on to investigate the suspicious death of the son of a powerful city councilman, who, not coincidentally, is a nemesis of Bosch.  In this fast-paced, page turner, Bosch hunts down two mysteries, is enmeshed in the dark depths of political conspiracy and even finds time for a romantic relationship.  I simply could not put this book down. The book was one of Connelly's better ones and was one of my favorites of the year.  Highly recommended.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff is Lawrence Block's most recent mystery involving his detective Matthew Scudder.  Scudder tells this tale from his younger years after he was forced out of the NYPD.  Like so many fictional detectives, Scudder faces his problems of alcoholism.    Scudder enrolls in Alcoholics Anonymous.  As he approaches is one year anniversary of staying on the wagon, Scudder reconnects with a childhood friend who followed a route into a life of crime.  Based on the AA 12-step program, the friend has tried to "make amends" for the harms he caused to others.  Along the way, he is murdered.  Without the resources of the police department, Scudder hunts down a killer.  This was a very well crafted mystery set in a grittier New York City than we live in today.  The use of AA as a backdrop worked very well.  This is a worthwhile read.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows: A Flavia de Luce Novel is the fourth Flavia de Luce mystery by Alan Bradley.  As Christmas arrives at Buckshaw, the de Luce family estate, the cash strapped Colonial (Flavia's father) has rented out the mansion to a movie company to generate cash.  In the middle of a charity performance for the local church by the movie stars, a blizzard hits, and the characters are trapped in the mansion.  Suddenly, there is a murder.  Classic British cozy murder set up.  Flavia sets out to solve the murder.  While I have enjoyed this series immensely and love Flavia, this one came up short.  After the murder, the plot stalled out.  The characters were not particularly well developed.  I am afraid that Bradley is responding to the success of his series by pushing out product.  Also, while I love the setting, there have been a lot of murders in the house in a very short period of time.  Bradley needs to move his detective out of the mansion to other locations if this series is going to hold together.  Pass on this mystery but read any of the previous ones for a unique and wonderful character and mystery.  Sorry, Flavia.

The Leopard by Jo Nesbo is the second Nesbo mystery I read and reviewed this year (Snowman was the first; review here).  While intricate, well written and well plotted, I found this novel less compelling than Snowman, even more gruesome (seemingly for shock value only, and a bit too long.  Two women are brutally murdered by an apple like device which is jammed in their mouths and shoots out 24 knives.  Gruesome.  From there, Nesbo's broken detective, Harry Hole, is running across the globe to solve a murder.  The ending was overly dramatic (a long confession explaining everything).  Everyone is looking to be the next Stieg Larsson.  This novel even employs a mildly crazed hacker.  This isn't it.  I'd give Nesbo another chance but I would recommend passing on this one.

Happy reading!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Best Books of 2011

After nearly a year of reading and posting comes to a close, I wanted to share my favorite books of the year from among those that I have read (whether I've posted about them or not).  Year end lists are a great way to select books to read and gifts to give.  Titles of the books below link to my review and images to the particular book on Amazon.

Before diving into the list, if you are looking for a gift for a reader (or yourself), get an e-reader.  I'm often asked what I use to read.  Sometimes I use my Kindle, which links to my phone and tablet.  Sometimes I read paper.  E-readers are ubiquitous and a very convenient way to read books.  They have finally matured and become very affordable (Kindle $79; Nook $99).  I strongly suggest one.  By getting one, you are not committing to an "e-reader lifestyle of reading."  But, consider that it is a easier to carry a Kindle full of books rather than a stack on vacation, on the train or anywhere else.  You can download samples to check out whether you want to read a book.  And as for the reading experience, it is just like reading on paper except the device slips into a pocket easily.

My recommendation is the simple Kindle.  For $79, you get a Wi-Fi only device (no touch screen). You really can't go wrong.  If you have questions about e-readers, email me.  I'm happy to discuss.

Now, on to the 2011 favorites list:
Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht


The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

The Snowman by Jo Nesbo

The Drop by Michael Connelly (I never got to post a review but it is fantastic)


Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

The Prime Ministers by Yehuda Avner

Honorable Mention

The Game of Thrones Series by George R.R. Martin (a modern day J.R.R. Tolkien)

Happy reading!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Onward by Howard Schultz

Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul by Howard Schultz is a good enough book but should only be on the reading list of those who are passionate about coffee or are interested in business turnarounds.  Beyond that, this book has limited appeal. This is Schultz's second book.  His first was Pour Your Heart Into It: How Starbucks Built a Company One Cup at a Time.

Howard Schultz is the passionate CEO of Starbucks.  He loves coffee.  He loves the company that he grew into the ubiquitous purveyor of coffee worldwide.  Sometimes, his company even makes a good cup of coffee.  As a business, it is hard to argue with their success.  Until 2007, Starbucks was a consistent growth company, which kept expanding and expanding.  In 2007/2008, they hit a wall.  Quality declined.  Customer satisfaction declined.  Revenues didn't grow.  After retiring as CEO earlier in the decade, Schultz convinced himself and his board that he should be brought back to reinvigorate the company.  In dramatic fashion, he shutdown all of the stores for a day to retrain the staff (i.e., "partners") on how to make coffee; he disposed of the hot sandwiches that were stinking up the stores; and, he closed many unprofitable locations.  What he wouldn't do is cut back on the quality of the coffee or benefits for employees.  Those were values near and dear to him.  The turnaround succeeded and the company found its groove again.

The results for the company were impressive.  The boldness of Schultz's moves are noteworthy.  Shutting an entire chain of retail stores for a day was a bold move.  There is a lot to learn from him as a turnaround operator--have a defined mission and set of goals; know the values  you cannot compromise on; act decisively; be willing to consider all options, even very difficult ones.

So what's wrong with a great turnaround story?  Nothing.  It is the book itself that has flaws.  The book tends to repeat itself (lots of material about how well employees are treated and how even part-time employees get benefits).  Also, the book at times becomes an advertisement for the company.  It occasionally reads like an infomercial.  Finally, Schultz seems to preach at times rather than tell his story.  It is a fine line but it comes across to the reader.  What is great about the book is the honesty and Schultz's openness.

Two elements of his turnaround are worth mentioning.  Schultz swears the best cup of coffee comes from a French Press.  I tend to agree.  He found a small company in Seattle that invented an inverted press system called Clover.  It is used to brew coffee.  The results are fantastic.  (I had a cup of coffee from the Clover system on 86th and Columbus Ave.  What a cup of coffee!).  Second, I was a bit surprised to learn that Starbucks' web-presence was so anemic in 2007/2008.  But, I guess if you are focused on the coffee, you can miss a few things.

By way of contrast, I am going to re-up my recommendation to read Steve Jobs.  While Schultz comes off as a far nicer human being, Jobs also had to turn around himself and his company and did the latter at least with dramatic success.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson is a compelling and haunting novella.  Originally published in The Paris Review in 2002 and then in the O'Henry prize recipient in 2003, the novella has been issued as a standalone hardcover this year.  Like several other compact novellas I have read this year, this one is worthy of reading.

In 1920, Robert Grainier, the story's main character, returns home from working on the railroad to find that the cabin he built and his wife and child were victims to a massive forest fire.  In simple and direct prose, Johnson decimates the reader.  Grainier grew up in the West in a natural world and lives his life attached to the rails.   After finding the devastation of the fire, Grainier, a decent and lonely man, suffers.  Without bemoaning his woes, Grainier brings to mind the story of Job and his suffering.  His quiet acceptance and the mild delirium he suffers as a result of the tragedy are beautifully portrayed by Johnson.

The novella was listed by the New York Times as one of the best books of the year.  It is a well deserved distinction.  You will be able to read this moving novella in a single sitting.  It is worth the time. 

Johnson reading from one of his other works:

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

NY Times 10 Best Books of the Year

The New York Times has published its list of ten best books of the year (5 fiction and 5 non-fiction).  I've read three of the five fiction pieces and all of them are worthwhile.  The list of the 100 notable books of the year can be found here.

THE ART OF FIELDING By Chad Harbach (get the book here)
11/22/63 By Stephen King (get the book here)
SWAMPLANDIA! By Karen Russell (get the book here)
TEN THOUSAND SAINTS By Eleanor Henderson (get the book here)
THE TIGER’S WIFE By Téa Obreht (get the book here)

Non-fiction (NYT summaries below)
By Christopher Hitchens
Our intellectual omnivore’s latest collection could be his last (he’s dying of esophageal cancer). The book is almost 800 pages, contains more than 100 essays and addresses a ridiculously wide range of topics, including Afghanistan, Harry Potter, Thomas Jefferson, waterboarding, Henry VIII, Saul Bellow and the Ten Commandments, which Hitchens helpfully revises.

By Ian Brown
A feature writer at The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Brown combines a reporter’s curiosity with a novelist’s instinctive feel for the unknowable in this exquisite book, an account — at once tender, pained and unexpectedly funny — of his son, Walker, who was born with a rare genetic mutation that has deprived him of even the most rudimentary capacities.

A Life of Reinvention.
By Manning Marable
From petty criminal to drug user to prisoner to minister to separatist to humanist to martyr. Marable, who worked for more than a decade on the book and died earlier this year, offers a more complete and unvarnished portrait of Malcolm X than the one found in his autobiography. The story remains inspiring.

By Daniel Kahneman
We overestimate the importance of whatever it is we’re thinking about. We misremember the past and misjudge what will make us happy. In this comprehensive presentation of a life’s work, the world’s most influential psychologist demonstrates that irrationality is in our bones, and we are not necessarily the worse for it.

Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War.
By Amanda Foreman
Which side would Great Britain support during the Civil War? Foreman gives us an enormous cast of characters and a wealth of vivid description in her lavish examination of a second battle between North and South, the trans-Atlantic one waged for British hearts and minds.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

The hottest book this fall is Walter Isaacon's biography of Steve Jobs, entitled Steve Jobs.  It has been at the top of the best seller list since Jobs' untimely death in October 2011.  For anyone interested in technology, product development, business, the seismic changes in the music or movie industries or entrepreneurship generally, this is a must read.

The basic contours of Jobs' story are well known.  Steve Jobs, the college-dropout, hippie, Zen-oriented, whiz kid, created the personal computer with his friend in his parent's garage.  The computer, the Apple, becomes a runaway hit, evolved into the Macintosh (and the mouse and user interface that most of us currently use), and created an entire industry.  On the heels of his success, Jobs was fired by the company he created.  He created a new computer company, Next, which flopped.  After finding some humility, Jobs found his way back into Apple, reinvigorated the company, learned from his mistakes and then revolutionized the PC industry, the animation/movie industry (by creating Pixar, which made megahits such as Cars, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Toy Story etc.), the mobile phone industry (the iPhone) and mass-marketed touch computing.  He then created the tablet category of computers with the runaway hit, the iPad.  Jobs did not market test his ideas; he believed that consumers did not always know what they wanted.  He designed a closed ecosystem of computing that allowed him to create and control an optimal and complete computing experience.  For years, his approach was derided as Microsoft grew and grew.  Finally, with the iPod, the iPhone and iPad, the rationale for the closed eco-system took off, making Apple one of the most valuable companies in the world.  As a marketing genius, entrepreneur and visionary, Jobs was incredible.  Jobs demanded perfection from himself and those who worked for him.  As a business leader, there is a lot to learn from him.

As a person, Jobs was a flawed (i.e., normal) human being.  He made mistakes and often learned from them.  Jobs was adopted as a baby and well cared for by his adopted-parents.  Yet, as a young man, Jobs fathered a child and essentially abandoned her.  Later in life, he brought her back into his life.  This is surprising behavior from a man who presumably should be most sensitive to the damage caused by abandonment.  As a boss, he could be demeaning  and unnurturing.  His ability to warp reality (what those around him called the "reality distortion field") was not only a powerful business tool, it also carried into his personal life with negative consequences.  When Jobs was first diagnosed with cancer, the man who was at the forefront of technology and possessed contacts and money chose to ignore his cancer, essentially trying to will it away and ignore it.  About nine months later, he finally began to come to terms with it and started treating it by more traditional means.

Several years before his death but after Jobs knew about his cancer, Jobs asked Isaacson to write his biography.  Jobs believed that his legacy was worth chronicling (as it was).  Isaacson had published successful biographies about inventors/geniuses (Benjamin Franklin: An American Life and Einstein: His Life and Universe; both are excellent reads).  Jobs saw himself as the continuation of these stories.  He was probably right.

Isaacson had full access and complete editorial control over the book.  Jobs seemed to have shared everything.  The only criticism of the biography is that Isaacson became to close to his subject.  Occasionally, it shows. Yet, who wouldn't be in awe of the man who created and/or reshaped the technology, movie, music and mobile phone industries.

Two interesting notes for the literary oriented reader.  Jobs dated Jennifer Egan, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad and personally installed a Mac for her.  Jobs' natural sister, Mona Simpson, is a writer, who incorporated her brother and his life into her bestselling books.  The biography is filled with interesting tidbits and should be at the top of everyone's reading list.

[Full disclosure -- this review was written on a Dell.  Soon enough, I'll be on a Mac.]

Many of you will remember this famous 1984 Superbowl commercial that launched the Mac:

The launch of the iPhone in 2007:

Steve Jobs' Stanford Commencement Speech:

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

The Marriage Plot by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jeffrey Eugenides is one of the "big" novels to come out this fall.  Eugenides' previous works include The Virgin Suicides and Middlesex.

The novel is a throwback (a classic love triangle, all about marriage, set in the 1980s) and yet quite modern in its approach.  The story is set in the 1980s.  Madeleine Hanna, an English lit major, graduates from Brown University.  Madeline, a daughter a small university president and part of an upscale family, completes her senior thesis on the "marriage plot" that was the centerpiece of many classic novels (e.g., Jane Austen).  With the descent and decay of the institution of marriage, the import of the novel declined as well.  Madeline becomes deeply involved with Leonard Bankhead, a complicated and brilliant manic depressive.  Meanwhile, Madeline also has a relationship with her admirer, Mitchell Grammaticus, who decides to forgo divinity graduate school for a spiritual search through Europe into India.  The three characters contend with the challenges of coming-of-age, marriage, spiritual searches, mental illness, feminism, parental involvement, divorce and even careers. Eugenides begins the story with the characters' college graduation, constantly back-filling the story as he slowly moves the plot forward.  The story does not move more than a couple of years post-college.

The writing is top notch.  In some ways, stylistically, Eugenides reminds me (positively) of Jonathan Franzen although The Marriage Plot is a more tightly-focused and far less expansive work than Freedom.  One of the treats about this novel for literature lovers is that Eugenides pours literary references liberally throughout the book.  It is quite humbling.

I enjoyed (but did not love) this novel.  Because the novel was so tightly focused, at points, the plot was weighed down by its details, nearly coming to a halt.  I also felt that the placement in the 1980s (cultural references and all) felt a bit forced.  Perhaps dropping the story into the pre-Internet, cellphone, Facebook/Twitter age simplified some of the social interactions; but, it felt unnatural. With all of that said, the novel was not one I found I had to fight to get through.  It was enjoyable, well written and well executed.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz (and more on Sherlock Holmes)

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz is a new Sherlock Holmes novel, which is the first officially sanctioned take-off of Sherlock Holmes by the Arthur Conan Doyle Estate.  This is the second Sherlock Holmes book that I have written about recently (see my review of A Study in Sherlock here).  For the Sherlock Holmes lover, this is a must read.  For everyone else, I'd  highly recommend it.

Anthony Horowitz is a famed writer of young adult action novels (the Alex Rider series) and also an acclaimed writer of the PBS series Foyle's War (a must see for mystery lovers/WWII buffs).  His connections to Sherlock Holmes and the Canon were not as established.

Conan Doyle had a distinct writing style (somewhat sparse on detail of Victorian life but more than enough to fill the canvas) and created vivid and memorable characters.  Although Holmes solved his share of murders, he also solved all kinds of other crimes and mysteries.  Creating the perfect pastiche requires echoing Conan Doyle and remembering that Holmes was not a superhero (as he is portrayed in the Robert Downey, Jr. movies, which I did enjoy (preview for the new movie below)).

In The House of Silk, Horowitz gets it right on all counts.  The tone, the writing, the characters and even the plotting matches up beautifully with Conan Doyle.  Horowitz also brings back other minor characters from the Canon for non-distracting cameo appearances, which is a delight for lovers of the Canon.  Yet, Horowitz makes Sherlock his own, creating a story with a bit more action than Conan Doyle gave us, which will keep you glued to the book.  The story is a classic tale of Holmes and Watson, with Watson as the narrator.  Watson writes the story after Holmes has passed away and seals it away for one hundred years because the story is to explosive to be shared during their lifetimes.  From there, the story unfolds with two unrelated story lines, the action builds and Horowitz captures your imagination. If like mysteries at all, this is one not to miss.  If you love Sherlock Holmes, this is a must read.

On a related note (and to avoid another post in the near future about Sherlock Holmes), there is a great new book about Conan Doyle as a writer, called On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling by Michael Dirda. Besides Sherlock Holmes, Conan Doyle wrote many other books (adventure, historical and supernatural stories).  Dirda, a long time lover of Sherlock Holmes, writes a short piece on Doyle as a writer.  He  not only expands on Conan Doyle the writer but he also shares his own interactions with Sherlock Holmes and the Canon.  While this is a great book, this is best suited for serious students of the Canon or writers looking to learn more about great writers. 

Book Trailer for The House of Silk:

2011 Sherlock Holmes Movie Trailer:

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is one of the finalists for the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction.  It is a compact, powerful novel that I would have missed but for its nomination.  It is excellent and worthy of recognition.

The novel is the tale of Japanese mail-order brides and their experience coming to and in California from the 1920s through WWII.  The obscure nature of the story alone would have made this novel worth reading.  However, Otsuka uses the first person plural to narrate the story of dozens of women into an immense tapestry.  While the chorus sings the story, individuals step forward for a clause, sentence or even  paragraph solo and then seamlessly fade back into the chorus.  The talent it takes to create such a convincing product cannot be underestimated.

This is a story that you will read in just a few hours but one that will stick with you because of its content and form.  It is well worth reading.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A Study in Sherlock

Regular readers of this blog know that I love Sherlock Holmes (see for example, The Sherlockian).  When two of my favorite Sherlock Holmes authors/scholars teamed up to put together a new Sherlock Holmes anthology, I was extremely excited.  The book, A Study in Sherlock: Stories Inspired by the Holmes Canon, edited by Leslie Klinger and Laurie King, is terrific and a must read for Holmes devotees.

Les Klinger is a Sherlock Holmes scholar extraordinaire.  Several years ago, he published  The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Short Stories and The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes: The Novels.  The scholarship is amazing; the books are beautiful.  Laurie King picked up the Sherlock Holmes stories from Holmes' retirement and added a new, smart, spunky partner, Mary Russell, and started a wildly successful series.  The latest installment is The Pirate King.

King and Klinger rounded up some of the best, current mystery writer talents and asked them to write a story that is inspired by the Canon.  (A list of the contributors is below.)  The writers had a lot of license.  Some of the stories are classic pastiches (stories that pattern Doyle's style).  Some of the stories are set in modern times and only loosely (but faithfully) tie to the Canon.  One story is told in the form of a blog.  Another is set in Alaska.  There is even a graphic novel short story.

If you have not read Sherlock Holmes ever, I'd highly recommend that you do.  It is the foundation of all mysteries.  Holmes is the most recognizable character in Western literature (a pipe and a deerstalker, need I say more).  Even if you have not read what Sherlockian's affectionately call the Canon (the original short stories and the novels written by Doyle), this collection is excellent and fun to read.

The contributors (and links to their websites) are as follows:
Alan Bradley
Tony Broadbent
Jan Burke
Lionel Chetwynd
Lee Child
Colin Cotterill
Neil Gaiman
Laura Lippman
Gayle Lynds and John Sheldon
Phillip Margolin and Jerry Margolin
Margaret Maron
Thomas Perry
S. J. Rozan
Dana Stabenow
Charles Todd
Jackie Winspear

A link to the book's blog is here.  Happy reading.