Thursday, March 31, 2011

Tournament of Books: The Finals Are Coming

What a week of ups and downs. 

In the first knock down semifinal match, Freedom defeated Goon Squad., my pick to win the whole tournament.  I thought my many NCAA bracket losses exemplified my lack of basketball knowledge.  It seems that I'm just not good at tournament picks (or else I don't know as much about books as I thought I did). So it goes.  Franzen's Freedom is a formidable foe and a worthy opponent.

In the second semifinal match up, Lemon Cake beat Next.  While I thought Lemon Cake was a fine book, there was no way it could withstand the blows Freedom has been dealing out to its foes.

Then came the Zombie round.  In the zombie round, the winner of each semi-final round squares off with another contestant that lost earlier in the contest.  The zombies were Room and Goon Squad.  Freedom dealt a decisive blow to Room to enter the finals and Good Squad squarely defeated Lemon Cake. My pick is back!

On Monday, the finals are played out with a rematch of Freedom and Goon Squad.  I'm still hoping for Goon Squad to pull off an upset of the seemingly unstoppable Freedom.  What makes this round different than the earlier match up between these titans is that every judge votes in the finals.  In earlier rounds, it is a single judge making the call.  While I enjoyed Freedom a lot, I'm sticking with Egan's Goon Squad to win it all.  Stay tuned.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tournament of Books - Round 2 Recap

Round 2 is now complete.  In the biggest match up of the Tournament so far, Freedom beat Room.  Although I enjoyed both books, I thought Room was far more compelling and original.  The judge disagreed, finding Room's five year old narrator confining and narrow.  That was the point of the book, wasn't it?  The story is about confinement and creating a world within that tight space.  I guess we disagree.

In the other three quarterfinal rounds, Goon Squad beat Finkler, Next beat Nox and Lemon Cake beat Model Home.  I'm surprised Lemon Cake made it this far.  It was a very good book but was not as strong as Super Sad True Love Story or Lord of Misrule.  Perhaps one of those books (or Skippy Dies) will make a run for it in the zombie round.  (For those unfamiliar with the Tournament, the winners of the semifinal rounds must face off the two most popular books that were eliminated in the Tournament before advancing to the finals.)

The semifinals are set -- Freedom versus Goon Squad and Next versus Lemon Cake.  I'm sticking with Goon Squad to win the whole Tournament.  While I enjoyed Freedom, Goon Squad is original, diverse and beautifully executed.  The semifinal and the zombie rounds start on Monday.  Stay tuned!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Start-up Nation by Den Senor & Saul Singer

Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle, by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, attempts to answer the question: how did a small, besieged country without natural resources or local trading partners become a world player in high-tech?  Israel is a country of about 7 million people and just over 60 years old; yet, it produces more start-up companies than countries like Japan, China and India.  It attracts, per capita, more than twice the venture capital investments than the US and thirty times more than Europe.  Aside from the US, Israel has more companies listed on NASDAQ than any other country.  What explains Israel's success?

Senor and Singer argue that the Israeli military is one key to Israel's success. In Israel, military service is mandatory. Young conscripted soldiers are empowered quickly to make hard decisions and improvise in difficult, unpredictable situations. The soldiers that stand out are selected by the elite military units for intensive training. The military also demands thoughtful and thorough debriefings of failed and successful missions alike.  Outcomes alone are not sufficient.  Every exercise and engagement is treated as a learning opportunity.  In the debriefs, senior soldiers challenge junior soldiers and vice-versa.  Hierarchy, tradition and the status quo are not accepted as roadblocks to finding the best solution.

The military's values help create a culture that empowers and nurtures entrepreneurism.  A failed venture is not a failure; it is an opportunity to learn for the next one.  Challenging existing technologies and business models is endorsed. 

Israel also creates breeding grounds for ideas--tight clusters of universities, firms and start-ups, coupled with strategic government support.  Together, these clusters foster innovation.  (See Steven Johnson's book, Where Good Ideas Come From for why clusters matter--video clip below.)

The strength of the book is the examples Senor and Singer share.  Whether it is the story of Shimon Peres and a young entrepreneur approaching senior auto executives about the electric grid for cars or the story of the unwillingness of one plant to allow the 1991 Persian Gulf War to interfere with its on-time shipments, it becomes clear why Israel is a unique story.

Recommendation: For the business person, there are lessons to be learned about how to run an organization successfully.  For the supporters of Israel, the book generates a sense of pride that Warren Buffet (who never buys non-US companies), Google, Cisco, Intel and many other high-tech companies look to Israel for innovative development.

Author interview:

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Tournament of Books 2011 - Round 1 Recap

Round 1 of the Tournament of Books is now complete.  The results from the last three match ups were:

So Much For That lost to Next
Super Sad True Love Story lost to Model Home
Lemon Cake beat Bloodroot

I didn't read Model Home but I'm really surprised that it beat Super Sad, which was a fantastic book and one of my favorites for 2010.

I went five for eight on correct calls.  The next round, which starts next week, should be fun.  The left bracket (Freedom vs Room and Finkler vs Goon) are huge battles.  The right bracket has a lot of wild cards (Nox, Next, Model Home and Lemon Cake). 

I'm sticking with my original call that Room beats Freedom and Goon beats Finkler and then wins the whole thing.  The left half of my bracket is in disarray.

The action restarts next week.  Stay tuned.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Heresy by S.J. Parris

Heresy, An Historical Thriller, by S.J. Parris, is the first novel in a new mystery series set in 1583 in Oxford, England.  At the center of the novel is Giordano Bruno, an Italian monk excommunicated by the Roman Catholic church.  Bruno, a street smart philosopher, finds his way to England and seeks refuge there to spread his more tolerant religious thinking.  Bruno is invited to speak at Oxford.  En route, he is recruited as a spy by Protestant Queen Elizabeth's secretary of state to report on underground Catholic activities in Oxford.  As an excommunicated Catholic, the Queen can trust him; but as a Catholic, he has access to people and meetings that Protestants will never manage.  At Oxford, several people die and Bruno, the outsider, is thrust into the role of detective. Parris loosely bases her protagonist on the real monk and philosopher, Giordano Bruno

The historical novelist faces two challenges: creating a believable setting and telling a good story in that setting.  Parris succeeded at creating a realistic and detailed back drop with characters that have real flaws.  Although the story shows terrific promise and generates intrigue and tension, it ends a too melodramatically and fizzes out by the end.

Recommendation:  If you want the very best in historical thrillers, I'd first recommend CJ Sansom and David Liss.  Parris is an up-and-comer with good potential.  Her newest novel, Prophecy, is due out in the U.S. in early May.

Other reviews: From the TBR Pile and S Krishna's Books.  Both are lukewarm.  
Author interview:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Tournament of Books 2011 Update

Round 1 of the Tournament of Books started last week and continues through this week.  One upset so far.  The summary to date:

Freedom vs. Kapitol -- Freedom, a favorite and 2010 heavyweight won .

Room vs. Bad Marie -- Room, another fan and critic favorite won decisively.  Room takes on Freedom in the next round.  Expect a titanic clash.

Savages vs. Finkler Question -- Finkler (the Man Booker winner) won.

A Visit from the Goon Squad vs. Skippy Dies -- close, but Goon Squad won and next faces off with Finkler

The winner of today's match up, Lord of Misrule vs. Nox, was announced this morning.  In a dramatic upset, Nox won.

Three match ups left this week to close out the opening round.  My calls for those are So Much For That beats out Next; Super Sad True Love Story defeats Model Home and even odds on Lemon Cake versus Bloodroot.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Book Review - The Fates Will Find Their Way by Hannah Pittard

Hannah Pittard's first novel, The Fates Will Find Their Way, is a fascinating concept novel.  Pittard is an accomplished short story writer.  In this novel, she creates a well-paced narrative and effectively uses interesting storytelling techniques.

On Halloween night in a mid-Atlantic state, sixteen-year-old Nora Lindell disappears.  This is how the novel assertively opens: "Some things were certain; they were undeniable, inarguable.  Nora Lindell was gone, for one thing.  There was no doubt about it."

The story then develops into a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, spinning out possible narratives of what might have happened to Nora.  (She probably did this, she might have done that.)  The possibilities of what might have happened to Nora are told and then retold, carrying the novel forward.  While the grammatical form is a little unfamiliar in a novel, Pittard manages it very well.  In parallel, Pittard tells the story of what actually did happen to Nora's sister and father and the community in which they all lived. 

What makes the novel even more interesting is that it is written in the first person plural.  The narrator is a group of boys who were Nora's classmates.  The "we" are intrigued by Nora's teenage sexuality and, for the rest of their lives, the boys wander aimlessly through marriages, divorces, crimes and death still in the clutches of Nora and what might have been.  Pittard nailed the group voice.  If the first person plural is of interest to you, you should also read  Joshua Ferris' hysterical (and yet sad) examination of office life in Then We Came to the End.

Recommendation: The mix of the first person plural voice and the choose-your-own-adventure approach to the novel makes it a refreshing and inventive book.  Pittard expertly develops the story like a carefully crafted kaleidoscope.

Other reviews: Book Lady's Blog, Devourer of Books, Shelf Love and Book Sake.

Interview with Pittard here.

The publisher's discussion of the book:

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Red Herring Without Mustard: A Flavia de Luce Novel by Alan Bradley

A Red Herring Without Mustard, by Alan Bradley, is the third installment of Bradley's award winning Flavia de Luce series.   In 2007, Bradley won the Debut Dagger Award for the first novel in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, and thereafter won more than a dozen awards for the book.  The second installment was The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag.

The series is set in 1950 in an ancient manor house on the English countryside.  The stories are told by an eleven year old narrator, Flavia de Luce, a precocious, chatty child, who is an accomplished chemist and a fantastic story teller.  Flavia lives with her emotionally vacant father, her two teenage sisters (Feely and Daffy), the cook, Mrs. Mullet, Dogger, a war veteran/gardener/handyman, and Gladys, her bicycle.  Flavia also lives with the memory of her ancestors, particularly her deceased mother.  The cast is further supported by the local librarian, the inspector, the vicar and others.

In A Red Herring Without Mustard, a gypsy fortune-teller is savagely attacked, a local thief is murdered, a baby is missing and there is a fishy smell in the air.  Flavia sets out to solve it all, matching her skills against the local constabulary.

What makes this series enjoyable is Flavia.  Bradley, a 70 year old Sherlock Holmes scholar (in his book Ms. Holmes of Baker Street, he argued that Sherlock Holmes was really a woman), creates a fun and intelligent character. She is a mix of the sharp brilliance of Sherlock Holmes, the tenacity of Colombo and the cuteness of Punky Brewster.

Some have categorized this series as one for young adults.  The violence aside, Harry Potter was supposed to be for young adults too and millions of adults read and enjoyed him.

Recommendation: The Flavia series is fun and entertaining and will be enjoyed by Agatha Christie lovers. Of the three books, Sweetness is the best. It is hard to beat a great first encounter with such a memorable character.

The book trailer for Sweetness:
An interview with Bradley: