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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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Authors & publishers:
I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them. The blog, however, will continue, and if you've got a good first line to share for TwitterLit please do so here.

From a random review:


May 2016: Book notices

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Jonah Berger, Contagious: Why Things Catch On

In Contagious Jonah Berger writes about the six factors that can contribute to making a product or idea viral:

"These are the six principles of contagiousness: products or ideas that contain Social Currency and are Triggered, Emotional, Public, Practically Valuable, and wrapped into Stories."

The book is organized around these six principles. Contagious is a quick, easy read, similar in style to the popularizing books of Dan Ariely or Malcolm Gladwell. I did feel that the information Berger relates could easily be boiled down into a couple pages of bullet points, but I suppose if it were I wouldn't have read it. The most interesting part of the book for me was the chapter on stories. Wrap an idea in a compelling narrative and the story becomes a Trojan horse, a vehicle for delivering your message--provided that the message is integral to your plot.

Jonathan Stone, The Teller

I enjoyed this book, which tells the story of a bank teller--an obedient Catholic girl who's been tending her sick mother for years--who does something impulsive in one dramatic moment and utterly upends her life. That one act introduces her to the dangerous and ugly world that lies just below the surface of her bank's gleaming lobby. I've read one other book by Jonathan Stone, Moving Day, which I also enjoyed. The plots are different, but both books explore some of the same issues--the intersection of the respectable and unrespectable worlds, what happens to ordinary people when they're forced into the darkness, uncomfortable manifestations of power. Both books wed a compelling hook with reflections on such topics. Honestly, I'm all about the hook, the superficial story, the gripping plot. I could do without too much pondering in my pleasure reads, as it tends to slow things down. But what I find a bit tedious may be what makes someone else keep reading. In the case of these two novels, the slow part doesn't interfere significantly with my enjoyment of the story.

Felice Cohen, 90 Lessons for Living Large in 90 Square Feet (...or more)

Felice Cohen opens this short, self-published book with a chapter explaining how she came to live--and thrive--in a tiny apartment in New York. She intended to stay there just one year, saving money while living in the middle of a burgeoning metropolis. But it turns out she liked the minimalistic life more than she'd anticipated. She stayed in the apartment for five years, and only left because she was evicted (long story). (You can see the apartment on YouTube here.) This chapter is followed up by the author's "90 Lessons for Living Large," as the title says. These are short--sometimes a page long, sometimes a sentence--pieces of advice about organization, minimalism, and life in general. Some of it is common sense; some is cool practical advice (store sheet sets in their own pillowcases! Brilliant); some could probably have been excised, but does no harm. I came away liking the author, and I remain intrigued by the idea of living small--even if I'm unlikely to find myself in quarters anywhere near as cramped as hers. And you don't have to live in a tiny apartment to appreciate her advice about decluttering your home and mind.

April 2016: Book notices

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Kevin O'Brien, No One Needs to Know

Laurie Trotter is a widowed mother who's being harassed by an old flame's scary, cult-leader-type brother. In escaping from him--while also pursuing her culinary career--she gets wrapped up in another dangerous situation, a double homicide apparently inspired by a decades-old Manson-style slaying in Seattle. And Laurie's new boss, whose job offer looked like it would be Laurie's salvation, may not be as innocent as she seems.

This book took me an unconscionably long time to read because I've been busy with other things. Usually when this happens I have a hard time remembering what's been going on in a book, and I lose interest. But this time I always managed to slip right back into the story, without having to refresh my memory. I think this "stickiness" must be a positive quality, a sign that something's right with the book's plot. I was never really worried for Laurie's safety while reading, so it wasn't an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but I did enjoy it and will be on the lookout for more by the author.

February 2016: Book notices

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Gregg Hurwitz, The Tower

This early thriller by Gregg Hurwitz succeeds in part. It is exciting at times, but I had a number of issues with it. For example, too much time is spent at the beginning of the book detailing the crimes of a bunch of prison inmates whose histories don't ultimately matter to the story. The lead character (i.e., the good guy) is not appealing. There's some secretive spy guy who seems to have authority over the investigation but whose role in the plot is not at all clear. He could have been excised from the text completely with nothing lost. With all that said, though, the book also gets a lot right.

January 2016: Book notices

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John Rector Out of the Black

Desperation and an iffy scheme lead inevitably to worse problems for widowed father Matt Caine, the protagonist of John Rector's Out of the Black. Caine never really grew on me as a character, but the book is a decent page-turner. It's fast and holds your interest, even if it's ultimately forgettable. That's fine with me: it serves it's purpose. What I found hard to forgive, though, was the stupidity of the people involved in the kidnapping plot that starts things rolling. As far as I could tell, they made no effort to conceal their identities from their victim, whom they intended to release rather than kill. Everyone knows you don't use your names and you don't show your faces if you intend to release your hostage. I like my criminals a little smarter. 

Douglas E. Richards Split Second

I had a somewhat mixed reaction to Douglas Richard's Split Second. On the one hand, the writing sometimes struck me as subpar, particularly because of some stilted dialogue. But that said, I really enjoyed the story, which continued to surprise me to the very end of the book. I'm not up on all the various ways the subject of time travel has been treated in fiction, but Richards' take on it seemed to me, at least, to be novel. Certainly the ramifications of time travel as it's envisioned in this book are interesting and even thought provoking. I also liked the characters, even if their conversations sometimes seemed forced. In the end, I'll take story over dialogue: I'd definitely read another by the author.

December 2015: Book notices

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Phil Hogan A Pleasure and a Calling

William Heming is a real estate agent who likes to keep an eye on the people he's sold houses to. To that end, he keeps copies of their keys and, well, I won't ruin the plot. But Heming is an intriguing character whom I want to see more of. He reminds me a bit of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley--a likable sociopath who is sometimes driven to extreme behaviors by his circumstances. Heming is likable too, and his behavior could certainly be described as extreme. I enjoyed his life as a small-town real estate agent--more than the flashbacks to his earlier life, although those early stories helped complete the author's profile of his character. I'd like to read more. And now that I think about it, I don't see why this couldn't be the first book in a series. Heming could continue getting into scrapes and wriggling his way out of them just like Tom Ripley does in sequels to The Talented Mr. Ripley. Do it, Phil Hogan! We need more.

Kevin Wignall A Death in Sweden

Dan Hendricks is a sort of freelance bounty hunter/assassin kind of guy, a one-time operative with the CIA who's now being hunted by his former employers. To save himself--it's a long story--he winds up hunting down information about an enigmatic loner who died in a bus crash in Sweden. And it turns out that the reason he was an enigmatic loner is pretty interesting. A very readable book, which I picked up as a Kindle First freebie a few weeks ago. I can see this one being the start of a series too (as above), with Dan being dragged back into old job every now and again for a new adventure.

John Rector, Ruthless

Nick White plays along when a woman at a bar mistakes him for someone else, and things go downhill from there. Nick finds himself involved in a complex conspiracy that's centered for reasons that aren't clear on killing a young woman named Abigail. Nick's decision to try and save her puts him in danger. A decent, fast read, but I likely won't remember much about it in a week. And the ending was somehow odd...I guess because the author introduced a new character at the very end of the book, Teddy, who doesn't seem to need to be there.

Daniel Palmer, Desperate

I think I've found a new author to watch. Daniel Palmer's Desperate is a very gripping read. Gage Dekker's life takes a dramatic turn when he and his wife meet a distraught woman at a bus stop. The tension builds deliciously in the first part of the story, when Gage has misgivings about how things are playing out but no way to prove that his concerns are based on anything realistic. The book then pivots into more of an action story--equally good but less cerebral. There's a complex scheme or two and a twist that I, at least, didn't see coming, and it was hard to put this one down. My only complaint was some hokey dialogue, particularly in the first part of the book, that struck me as unrealistic, but it certainly wasn't a deal breaker.

November 2015: Book notices

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Andy Weir The Martian

This was a fun read. Mark Watney is an astronaut who gets left behind on Mars, presumed dead. But he winds up surviving (not much of a spoiler there) because he's very smart and very resourceful. He describes what he's up to in audio logs, which is what we're reading. These alternate later on with third-person narratives of what's going on back on Earth. The story is filled with a lot of scientific explanations that I, at least, didn't always follow, or if I followed it I forgot the details. But that doesn't matter. They're there mostly to provide verisimilitude, and it works. But Watney isn't just a techno-babbling scientist with serious MacGyver skills, he's also likable and funny. We definitely root for him. A feel good book, then, that's been made into what I assume is a feel good movie: I've yet to see it, but it's on my list.

Robert Galbraith, Career of Evil

I'm liking this series more and more all the time. Cormoran Strike is a one-legged private eye. Robin Ellacott is his temp turned secretary turned associate who, in this outing, receives a severed leg in the mail--clearly a message for her boss. It turns out that there's a lengthy short list of people in Strike's life with the mindset and motive to post a leg, and the investigation is on. The mystery is all very good, but more importantly, there is further development on the personal front--because I'm mostly in it for the developing relationship between Robin and Cormoran. The only negative here is that the book ended, and there won't be another available for some time. I am bereft.

Jenny Lawson, Let's Pretend This Never Happened

This book was a birthday present, and I might not have picked it up otherwise. But I'm glad I read it. The author is quirky and irreverent. She writes about her strange childhood as the daughter of a taxidermist whose idea of fun was sticking his hand up roadkill and waking his daughters for a puppet show. The author herself appreciates the odd taxidermied item, provided that the animal who gave its life for the project did not do so under duress, and that he or she is dressed to kill in a pirate outfit vel sim. But it's not all about stuffed animals. There's a lot about vaginas as well, and about life with her constantly exasperated husband Victor. Lawson also writes about her anxieties and insecurities and oddities. It's a very funny book, although sometimes it can be a bit much. Lawson is essentially saying, "Look at how weird I am!" throughout the book, but sometimes this can feel...maybe affected is the right word. Or is it disingenuous? "I'm so weird that I do X, but secretly I think it's pretty awesome that I'm weird enough to do X" is the message I'm getting. Right. Anyway, it's still pretty damn funny.

October 2015: Book notices

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Alexander McCall Smith, The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine

In Alexander McCall Smith's latest No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novel, Mma Ramotswe is talked into taking a vacation, and leaving the agency in the hands of her sometimes difficult colleague, Mma Makutsi. But it's difficult to let go, and Mma Ramotswe finds herself almost as busy on vacation as she is at work. There's a case to solve, a young man to save, and a curiously-named new business in town that needs to be investigated. Mma Ramotswe approaches everything with her trademark grace and wisdom. Readers of McCall Smith's Botswana novels will enjoy this installment in the series as much as his previous books.

The leisurely pace of McCall Smith's stories can make one feel as if nothing much is happening in the books. However busy Mma Ramotswe may be, she still has time to contemplate the broad Botswana sky, to enjoy conversations over cake and tea, and and to mull over the remembered wisdom of her beloved late father, Obed Ramotswe. As slow as the books may seem, however, we have watched the series' main characters grow and change quite a lot over the course of 16 books, perhaps none so much as Mma Makutsi, whose circumstances have changed dramatically since she first came to work in the agency. In this latest novel, we see something new emerge in Mma Makutsi, and so does her boss. It's a pleasure to witness.

Tony Parsons, The Murder Man

The first chapter of this book is an adrenaline rush of a read and it sucked me in. Things calm down after that, which is a little disappointing, because it wasn't what I'd expected. But the book is still quite good. It's the first in a series featuring detective Max Wolfe, who's newly transferred to homicide after the events of the first chapter. This is in London, mind. Pretty soon he becomes involved in the investigation of an unusually gruesome murder, which ultimately leads to the grounds of an exclusive boarding school. Max is a single father with a five-year-old daughter, irritatingly named Scout. And a new dog, whom we hear a lot about. And Max likes to box. Clearly we'll be hearing a lot about that as well in upcoming installments. I liked the story and Max himself well enough to read another, but I probably won't go out of my way to keep tabs on the series.

Elizabeth Edmondson, A Man of Some Repute

A Man of Some Repute is the first book in a new series set in 1950s England. Hugo Hawksworth is a young intelligence officer whose lame leg--damaged under mysterious circumstances--means he can't work in the field anymore. Instead, he's sent to work in the Government Statistics Department in the small town of Selchester. The job turns out to be more interesting than Hugo anticipated--the Department is not what it seems--as is life at Selchester Castle, where Hugo is put up upon his arrival. It turns out there's a mystery to solve: the earl of the castle went missing seven years earlier, and he wasn't what he seemed either. I enjoyed this book. It's not edge-of-your-seat exciting, but it was a pleasant mystery with characters I'd be interested in reading more about. My one criticism is--SPOILER here--the equus ex machina toward the end of the book: having the damsel in distress saved more by her horse than by our strapping hero somehow diminished things for me. But the next book in the series is due out in a few weeks, and I intend to get my hands on it.

September 2015: Book notices

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Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm

Just finished Robert Galbraith's compulsively readable second Cormoran Strike novel only to find out that the books are being turned into a BBC miniseries! This is great news, though one worries what their choice of actors will be. Unusually, perhaps unprecedentedly, I've had a very particular person in mind while reading The Silkworm, Israeli actor Oded Fehr. Ditch the accent and he'd be perfect for the part, I think. At any rate, I think I enjoyed The Silkworm even more than The Cuckoo's Calling. I was completely blindsided at Strike's resolution of the whodunit--the "it" being the particularly gruesome murder of an egotistical author. But what I really love about the series is the relationship between Strike and his secretary/helpmate Robin. She's engaged; he still thinks about his ex; it's complicated. But their courtship, if one can call it that, is exquisite.

August 2015: Book notices

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Joe Finder, The Fixer

Joseph Finder's latest thriller, The Fixer, is about a former investigative reporter, Rick Hoffman, who winds up living in his father's abandoned house when he loses his job. But it turns out the house has secrets, and so does his father, who's been vegetating in a nursing home for some 20 years after a stroke. Of course Rick starts looking into things and winds up in trouble with various unpleasant characters who want him to mind his own business.

The Fixer is a decent enough read, and it certainly helped pass the time on a train ride recently. But there are two things that bug me about the story. One is in fact something one of the bad guys says to Rick in the course of the story: the 20-year-old mystery he's trying to solve just doesn't seem worth risking his life for. It's not even particularly interesting. So that failing kind of undermines the whole story. The second--and here's a spoiler--is that there's a fair amount of attention given in the book to Rick's father's treatment. It turns out that there may be a way to get him to talk, and we anticipate that he'll have something very important to say as soon as he can. Maybe he'll ID the bad guys, or maybe the bad guys will find out about his treatment and make sure he's never able to say anything. But no. He dies, of natural causes of all things, and that part of the story simply evaporates. So the story is not as tight as it could be. Still, it's not the worst way to spend a few hours of your time.

Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore, The Tomb

Retired OSI agent Maxine Decker continues to grow on me. In her third outing--after The Blade and The Shield--she finds out about a long submerged, corroded Nazi device that's recently surfaced in Mexico. Whatever the thing is, and despite its condition, it's worth killing for. And as you might guess, Maxine and her former husband, OSI Special Agent Kenny Gates, are on the short list of potential victims.

The book follows Maxine and Kenny as they try to figure out what's going on: it turns out that the Nazi relic is tied to a very real threat in the present day, and thousands of American lives are at stake. The main story is interrupted periodically by excerpts from an old diary. A woman named Magda Scarlet provides a riveting account of a personal tragedy. Her story seems at first to be completely unrelated to the modern-day drama that's keeping Maxine busy, but of course it's not. Eventually the two storylines merge, and it's a bit of a surprise when they do. (My one complaint about the book is that Magda Scarlet's transformation is so dramatic that it perhaps strains credibility.)

The Tomb is a quick read with short chapters that keep you turning the pages. An entertaining plot, but I'm increasingly in it for the characters. I really like the relationship between Maxine and Kenny: it's a sweet romance that somehow keeps you hooked despite their history. Their happily ever after didn't take the first time, but we're hoping they'll give it a second shot.

[Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from the authors.]

April 2015: Book notices

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Joe Finder, Zero Hour

In this standalone thriller by Joe Finder, terrorist-for-hire Henrik Baumann is unleashed on the United States with instructions to bring down the world's financial markets. FBI Special Agent Sarah Cahill is the one we're rooting for on the other side. She's a veteran of the Lockerbie investigation and the mother of a young son, with a problematic ex-husband who causes trouble along the way. I always love reading about smart criminals, and Baumann is supposed to be the best, but he makes an awful lot of mistakes for all of his vaunted prowess. That he didn't shine as a criminal made this book fall short for me. The story also gets bogged down in too much detail. Still a decent read, but not edge-of-your-seat exciting.

About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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