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By Debra Hamel

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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:


October 2016: Book notices

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Victoria Helen Stone, Evelyn, After

Evelyn, After is a romantic suspense novel that explores what happens after 40-something Evelyn Tester is woken in the middle of the night by a phone call. It turns out she has to stumble out of bed and meet her husband on an old deserted highway. What happens that night turns Evelyn's life upside down. The narrative skips around in time, alternating between "before" and "after" chapters, a device that does help build suspense. In the middle of the book it seems like the story has turned into pure romance, but happily that honeymoon doesn't last forever, and things get complicated again for the protagonist. I feel like the author has done a particularly good job portraying Evelyn's emotions, the ambivalence of her relationship with her husband. What she feels throughout this crisis seems real and honest to me. All in all, an enjoyable read.

Barry Eisler, The God's Eye View

Barry Eisler's stand-alone thriller The God's Eye feeds on modern fears of government overreach and privacy concerns in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations. Evelyn Gallagher is an NSA analyst who winds up in serious trouble after she connects some dots her boss--the NSA director--would rather remain unconnected. Somehow she has to keep herself and her son safe, but what's the best way to do that when you're being watched...and listened to? Definitely a page turner, with a likable protagonist or two.

September 2016: Book notices

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Tim Tigner, Chasing Ivan

Kyle Achilles is a former Olympic biathlete turned CIA operative. In this novella, which I scored for free from the author's website, he's tracking down an elusive Russian bad guy they call Ivan, a man who's so careful to keep in the shadows that he's got contingency plans for his contingency plans. He seems to be set on influencing the outcome of the London mayoral election by getting his hands on the daughter of one of the candidates. Achilles and a colleague--an agent who's just completed training at The Farm--follow the girl to Monaco, and there are some very cool reconnaissance and action scenes on both their parts. I liked this one enough that I've purchased the first full novel in Tigner's Achilles series, Pushing Brilliance. (Wow. I just realized that Chasing Ivan and Pushing Brilliance are both self-published through Amazon. Now, I'm not really a snob when it comes to this--I've self-published myself--but you can usually tell when a manuscript hasn't been through the rigors of traditional publishing, even if it's just from the quality of the cover. Not in this case. I had no idea until now. Very impressed.)

T.H. White, The Once and Future King

I spent the summer reading this along with my daughter, who had been assigned it for summer homework prior to her freshman year in high school. This volume is actually a composite of four books that were initially published separately between 1938 and 1958. The first is rather different from the others. It is about the future King Arthur's experiences as a boy while he was being tutored by Merlyn. It's a series of adventures in which Arthur is turned into various animals by way of educating him about governance. It is the most like a children's story of the four books, and it is very, very dull for the most part--though King Pellinore and his Questing Beast are delightful. The second book tells the story of Arthur's nephews, who are destined to cause problems in the future. They're raised by a witch who--and this is almost the only thing I remember from the book--boils a cat alive for purposes of magic. It's a horrific but superbly written scene. But things actually get good in the third book, when Lancelot is introduced. His relationship with Arthur and Arthur's wife Guenever form the spine of books three and four. Their love triangle--for they all love one another--is tragic and nuanced. The book is over-long, if one can criticize a classic such as this: so much detail; and those tiresome animal stories at the beginning would turn off many a reader. It's as if White wanted to weed out the chaff among his readers and save the better stuff for the hardy few. But ultimately it is worth the read, and it ends well, with the final chapter of book four summing things up well.

Bill Bryson, Notes From a Small Island

Bill Bryson grew up in Iowa and moved to England in 1973. After twenty years there, he moved back to the U.S., but before he did took a tour of the U.K., mostly by public transport and with a view to writing about his adventures. Hence this book, which is the first I've read from the author (though I did see the Robert Redford movie that resulted from his Appalachian Trail book, A Walk in the Woods). Bryson likes to walk. He admires good architecture. He loves England--its people, its oddities, its land. He's a clever, often outright funny writer, and I now understand why he's had such success as a travel writer. He's curmudgeonly, and every now and again come off as an arrogant jerk, but it's possible that he exaggerates when describing those incidents and isn't in real life as obnoxious as he portrays himself. Reading this book, one feels something of his admiration for England, though I'm prone to that to begin with (albeit having never been there). I do wish that the book included photos of the places he describes, and lots of them, but there are none. Also maps. There are no maps! I very much wanted to follow along with Bryson's journey in some handy way. I think it would also have been a bit more interesting to me if I were familiar with the areas he describes. I'd sign up for a book detailing his jaunts through Connecticut, for example--though I suspect knowing the place would also make a reader more likely to find Bryson's observations annoying, as they are so often negative!

Dudman, Clare: 98 Reasons for Being

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Penguin © 2006, 352 pages [amazon]
5 stars

I wrote of Clare Dudman's novel One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead that it is "equal parts science and poetry." Something similar could be said of her book 98 Reasons for Being, which tells the story of the historical Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann. He was the author of Struwwelpeter, or Shockheaded Peter, a German children's book of rhymed stories about, usually, naughty children and the horrible consequences of their misbehavior. Struwwelpeter was a big deal, wildly popular and much translated, but the Hoffmann on these pages, at least, was more concerned with his true calling in life: he served as doctor at Frankfurt's lunatic asylum in the mid-19th century. Dudman brings Hoffmann to life in these pages as he becomes obsessed with curing a new arrival at the asylum, a young Jewish woman, Hannah, who does not speak initially and seems mired in an overwhelming sadness. After the usual cures prove ineffective—and here the horrors of pre-modern psychiatric treatment are on display—Hoffmann adopts a radical approach: talking. His story, and then hers, slowly drip out during their sessions, so that the source of her misery is finally revealed while his trials and character are likewise laid bare. At the same time, the lives of the other residents of the asylum are explored, both the inmates and the attendants, who live on-site for extended periods. These are all fleshed out characters, very real in their faults and sorrows. It's all deeply moving and sad, in large part, and beautifully written throughout. Every time I opened the book I was spellbound by it. It is an added treat that some of Hoffmann's stories are featured in the book, fit between the chapters, and they are surprisingly relevant to the surrounding story.

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.

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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