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: