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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:


August 2016: Book notices

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Reinhard Engels, The No S Diet

Reinhard Engels is a librarian turned computer programmer turned diet book author—an unlikely career trajectory. Some years ago, I guess in the mid-2000s, he put the system he'd devised for gaining control of his weight on the internet (check out everydaysystems.com), and it gained adherents. Ultimately the website resulted in this book, which codifies the information available online. You don't need this book to get the info. Indeed, the whole of the diet can be simply stated: No snacks, no sweets, no seconds, except (sometimes) on days that start with "S." But you'll want to read more, because Engels is a brilliant guy who approaches questions from an unusual perspective and offers workable solutions to real-life problems (not only about diet, by the way). This really isn't your average diet book. It's largely about habit building, training yourself to adopt habits that will make your life simpler, your diet better, and your food more pleasurable. I'm reading it now for the second time just because it's motivating reading. (See also the author's podcasts, which are a great resource.) Even if you don't wind up losing weight by No S'ing, adopting the habit of eating as Engels suggests is beneficial because you'll come to have a better relationship with food.

Kate White, The Wrong Man

Kit Finn, an interior designer, gets caught up in a deadly situation when she meets a charming stranger on vacation in Florida. But it turns out the stranger may not be who he says he is, and he may be trying to kill her, and at any rate all sorts of bad things happen once she returns to New York. The plot line is promising, and the story is okay, but it was something less than riveting. Kit is rather boring, and her job is rather boring, and her colleague's name is Baby, which annoys the hell out of me. Plus, the dialogue strikes me as unnatural and stilted. So, sort of so-so, I guess, though I apparently really liked an earlier book by the author.

Miloszewski, Zygmunt: Rage

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AmazonCrossing © 2016, 426 pages [amazon]
5 stars

Teodor Szacki is a prosecutor in the Polish city of Olsztyn, a dreary, drizzly place beloved by locals and growing on Szacki, a transplant from Warsaw. Evidently prosecutors in Poland have investigative duties that in the U.S. would be the work of the police. Szacki's case in this outing involves a skeleton that's been found in an old cellar. Initially it seems routine: it's some old German, a John Doe, whose bones will soon be off to the medical school to be prodded by students—except that the bones proves to be anything but routine upon examination. 

Rage is the third and final book in a trilogy featuring Prosecutor Szacki. I regret not having read the others first: it's a failing I'll soon correct. But in my defense I didn't realize until I was well into it that this wasn't a stand-alone novel. Usually there are giveaways, often clunky exposition summarizing previous exploits. But there's nothing at all clunky here. Miloszewski tells an absorbing story, and the book is written very well. (Kudos also to translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones.) Szacki is a complex and, to the author's credit, not entirely likable character, impatient and imperfect. His faults can get him into trouble. Rage is also a book in which setting plays an important role—not that the events couldn't play out in some other city, but the weather and architecture of Olsztyn are very important to the book's feel. Honestly, I'd like to see the books adapted into a BBC mystery à la Wallander, another great, atmospheric series. I'd call it Warmia, after the region of Poland in which the books is set.

July 2016: Book notices

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Blake Crouch, Pines

I read several books by Blake Crouch a number of years ago. (I've just realized with some shock that it's been 12 years since I read Desert Places.) They were very good, but I ultimately stopped because they were also very gory, and I decided it was just too much for me. (I still think about one particular scene from Locked Doors frequently when I wake up in the middle of the night.) Time passed, and I was aware that Crouch was publishing more books, in particular the Wayward Pines series. When I learned that the trilogy had spawned a TV series, it occurred to me that the books' broad popularity might mean they weren't as gory as Crouch's earlier work. I gave Wayward Pines a shot, and I'm glad I did. It's been a long time since I was as riveted by a piece of fiction as I've been over the last few days. Secret Service agent Ethan Burke winds up in Wayward Pines while investigating the disappearance of his colleagues. He's injured from a car accident, not thinking clearly, but there's something off about the bucolic town, which sits nestled between towering cliffs somewhere in Idaho. Readers are left scratching their heads over the strangeness along with Ethan--we've actually got more to be confused by than he does--and I, at least, did not anticipate the big reveal at the end. Really looking forward to book two--and then I guess I've got some viewing to do!

Joseph Finder, Plan B

Plan B is a short story featuring Nick Heller, the protagonist of several full-length novels by Joseph Finder. In this quick, enjoyable read, Heller is tasked with retrieving a kidnapped teenager. She's being kept under tight security, so the job requires more brains than brute force. Heller's up to the task, but it still throws him some curves.

Blake Crouch, Wayward

Wayward is the second book in Blake Crouch's Wayward Pines series. It's as readable as the first, if less mysterious: we learn the truth about the town in book one. In this outing Ethan Burke becomes integrated into Wayward Pines and learns more about the resistance movement, locals who aren't happy with the way things are run by the powers that be. The book ends on a cliffhanger, and I've already started reading book three.

Blake Crouch, The Last Town

The Last Town makes an excellent ending to Crouch's trilogy. Ethan Burke and the rest of the population of Wayward Pines are faced with a seemingly impossible situation as the book opens. We see how they deal with it, but Crouch also leaps around in the timeline and lets us know how certain events in the past had unraveled. The conclusion of the book is very satisfying, particularly as it incorporates a character whom most readers probably didn't think much about in the previous two books. I really enjoyed this series, which I think is clear from the speed with which I tore through it. I also gave audible copies of all three books to a friend. I'm hoping she enjoys them as much as I did.

D.W. Ulsterman, The Writer

Adele Plank is a college student who writes for her school paper. She's managed to land an interview with her favorite author, Decklan Stone, who never wrote a second book after his bestselling Mantitoba. He's a recluse who's been holed up in the San Juan Islands since his wife died 27 years earlier. Adele gets on the scene and goes about investigating her death and, well, the mystery is solved by the end of the book. The Writer started out with promise. The core idea of a mystery surrounding Stone's wife was compelling, but there were a lot of problems with the novel as well:

  • The prologue, while gripping, had virtually nothing to do with the rest of the book.
  • There were a bunch of long ass sentences that seriously needed some trimming, including the first sentence of chapter one: "The water was especially calm during twenty-two-year-old Adele Plank’s quarter-mile voyage from Deer Harbor to the private island of her interview subject for the college newspaper assignment she hoped might lead to her much-desired future as a journalist."
  • There's also a fair amount of stilted dialogue, for example: "Sometimes we would talk of things great and small, while other times we said very little and simply enjoyed the moment to ourselves. If I was particularly quiet, Calista would tease me that the world would shake its head if it were to learn that someone who so many perceived to be a man of great words was in fact such a mute."
  • Adele's whole story was hard to swallow. She dove into her investigation, doing dangerous and illegal things that it was hard to believe she'd do. 
  • Basically the entire resolution of the story was difficult to believe, and didn't seem to fit with the first part of the book. And in particular--SPOILER ALERT HERE--it's incredible that a woman kept in a dark, rat-infested, dirt-floored basement for 27 years would bounce back to health and sanity as quickly as she does in this book--or even at all.

So, an odd mix. The author's work shows a lot of promise, but I'd say this book isn't quite there yet.

Jessie Newburn, Uber Chronicles: Field Notes from the Front Seat

Jessie Newburn's Uber Chronicles is a collection of vignettes of some of the rides she's given as an Uber driver in the Baltimore area. It's a quick read, and entertaining enough. It's an interesting idea for a book, and one that every Uber driver could write a version of (assuming they could write reasonably well, of course; Newburn writes pretty well). As the author describes, Uber rides offer drivers a brief window into the lives of their passengers, who come with all manner of different back stories. They are polite or withdrawn or rude (but rarely, in my experience), comfortable to be with or not, and they hold down jobs of all sorts--the tuxedo fitter, the nail art specialist, the wine salesman, the guy who works at Subway. Mostly they're nice people. At any rate, Newburn has collected her vignettes, and along with them she provides her takeaway from each encounter. She's a little more airy--or maybe spiritual--than I would be were I to write the book, and she has a weird penchant for starting rides before riders get in her car--that's a no-no. But one interesting thing about Uber is that the drivers can be as different as their passengers. Vive la différence.

June 2016: Book notices

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A.J. Jacobs, Drop Dead Healthy

I enjoyed A.J. Jacobs' survey of various health regimens, probably more than I expected to. The author is likeable, and I didn't find his approach to the material at all annoying (as a number of Amazon reviewers appear to). He writes a lot in the book about two family members, his grandfather and an eccentric aunt. While the aunt's stories are relevant--she's a somewhat wacko health nut--the grandfather stuff is tangential and could be omitted (though I understand why it's in there, given its importance to the author). The Kindle version includes a lengthy index that amounts to an enormous percentage of the book--perhaps 30%. This gave the impression that the book was endless. I read and read and there was still a huge percentage left. I think the index should be omitted from the digital version. There's really no need for it, and I didn't like having the percentage of text remaining so skewed.

Gary Corby, The Pericles Commission

I very much like the idea of this series, a detective series set in 5th-century B.C. Athens. Nicolaos, the son of Sophroniscus, is a young man with political ambitions who becomes a sort of detective after he's the first on the scene of a murder. The murdered man turns out to be Ephialtes, a democratic reformer who really was murdered back in the day. In the book, the victim's colleague Pericles (yes, THAT Pericles) commissions Nicolaos to find Ephialtes' killer. Other personalities from the ancient world walk across Corby's pages--the priestess Diotima, Lysimachus, and Callias, for example. We'll also likely be hearing a lot more in the series from Nicolaos' little brother, a short and squat, precocious kid with the face of a satyr: Socrates. Yes, that Socrates. For those of you keeping track, Socrates and his dad are historical; Nicolaos is not. The book was well done, I thought. MY only reservation is that I got a little confused when it came to the resolution of the mystery. Perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention. There was a lot of intrigue, and lots of names bandied about, and I wouldn't be able to tell you at the moment exactly who was responsible for Ephialties' death. Still, I like Nicolaos as a protagonist, and I enjoyed the world Corby created.

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.

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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