The Forgotten by David Baldacci

August 29, 2014

The Forgotten David Baldacci Plot summary (from the publisher): Army Special Agent John Puller is the best there is. A combat veteran, Puller is the man the U.S. Army relies on to investigate the toughest crimes facing the nation. Now he has a new case–but this time, the crime is personal: His aunt has been found dead in Paradise, Florida.

A picture-perfect town on Florida’s Gulf Coast, Paradise thrives on the wealthy tourists and retirees drawn to its gorgeous weather and beaches. The local police have ruled his aunt’s death an unfortunate, tragic accident. But just before she died, she mailed a letter to Puller’s father, telling him that beneath its beautiful veneer, Paradise is not all it seems to be.

What Puller finds convinces him that his aunt’s death was no accident . . . and that the palm trees and sandy beaches of Paradise may hide a conspiracy so shocking that some will go to unthinkable lengths to make sure the truth is never revealed.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The pacing was pretty good in this one. Some Baldacci novels have a tendency to include boring, unnecessary scenes, but everything here served to move the plot along nicely.
  • I’m glad Julie Carson survived. I’m beginning to like her more than I like Puller, and hope she appears more frequently in subsequent installments.
  • I have to admit I didn’t see the twist about the female cop (I already forgot her name) being Lambert’s conspirator. I assumed (as I’m sure Baldacci intended) that it was the incompetent op or the police chief, so give the author points for that one.

Disliked:

  • I hated the whole trope about not using names for characters so that they come off as more “mysterious” or something. We didn’t learn Mecho’s name until near the end of the book, and instead had to read about him as “the man” or “the big man.” That is so dumb!
  • What is the deal with Baldacci’s physical descriptions?? For the men, they all consist of height and weight only! Sorry, that’s not enough to help me picture a character in my head. Would a little more effort here be too much to ask?
  • Ugh, more females throwing themselves at Puller. Is this going to happen in every single book of the series? Let’s just hope the Carson thing lasts a while so we don’t have to endure Baldacci’s attempts at writing “sexual tension.”
  • The action scenes at the end felt way over the top. They were long, drawn-out, and of course featured the good guys overcoming crazy odds. Puller, as usual, was a superman whose fighting and shooting performance didn’t suffer at all despite taking a bullet along the way. Instead, it was a woman (Julie) who ended up in the hospital at the end. Oh, please.
  • The author didn’t do much to put a human identity on the victims of the trafficking operation. That part of the story was very vague and had no sense of urgency about it. There was no ticking bomb here.

Rating:

Well, at first I was interested in this series because the lead character is an Army CID officer. But now it doesn’t even look like his investigations will involve the army, soldiers, or anything else related to the military, so what’s the point of bringing up Puller’s rank and credentials all the time? This book, while a quick read, wasn’t particularly entertaining, which is why I give it just 2 stars out of 5.

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Mr. Monk Gets on Board by Hy Conrad

August 17, 2014

monk gets on board Plot summary (from the publisher): Of all the things that make Adrian Monk uneasy, change ranks high on the list. So when Natalie completes her P.I. license—and technically becomes Monk’s boss—it’s not easy for him to accept. Nor can he accept Natalie attending a business seminar at sea without him, even if it means spending a week with her on a cruise ship.

Between choppy waters and obnoxious kids, Monk finds himself in a perfect storm of anxiety. Luckily, Mariah, the cruise director, is always able to smooth things over…until someone pulls the man overboard alarm, the ship drops anchor—and the crew fishes Mariah’s dead body out of the water.

Finding alcohol in Mariah’s system, the ship’s doctor declares her death an accident, but Monk isn’t convinced. He knows that Mariah and the captain were having an affair. Could someone have pushed her overboard?

When the captain hires Monk and Natalie to look into a mysterious rash of vandalism on board, Monk steers the investigation toward murder…

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • I think out of all the books in the series (that I’ve read, I mean), this is the one that feels closest to the TV show in terms of characterization. Monk and Natalie in this book spoke and acted like the Monk and Natalie from the USA series, which greatly enhanced my enjoyment of the story. I know the previous author of the book series was also involved with the TV show, but honestly, he wrote, what, like three or four episodes? No disrespect intended, but that just cannot compare to someone who was in the writers room for eight years!
  • The Natalie-as-alcoholic subplot was fantastic! I thought Monk and Natalie crashing the AA meeting the first time was hysterical, and I loved how Natalie kept getting disapproving looks from other attendees for the duration of the cruise. Ha! There’s always a danger that a running joke will wear out its welcome, but this one never did.
  • Can Ellen be gone for good? Pretty please?! I never liked that character and thought her poop store crossed the line into the absurd (yes, even for the “Monk” universe). I don’t object to Monk moving on from Trudy, but it should at least be with someone plausible — and sorry, but poop store proprietor just doesn’t fit that bill.
  • I liked how the author referred to several of Monk’s previous cases (from the TV show) in this book. It’s always fun for longtime fans to be able to recall random episodes like that and understand exactly what’s being alluded to.
  • The final scene with Monk and Natalie not being able to resist taking a new case was wonderful. It captured the essence of those characters so well and just felt right. Plus, it reminded me a little bit of the end of the 100th episode of the TV series, with the two of them huddled over a newspaper in Monk’s kitchen trying to find another case to solve.

Disliked:

  • When Natalie is reminiscing about her family reunions, she says something to the effect that they would have been better if she didn’t “run into a Teeger around every corner.” But of course the Teegers are Mitch’s family, not hers! Surely the author meant to write “Davenport” here.
  • Maybe this was spelled out in the last book, but why did Natalie keep saying she was Monk’s boss? I thought they were supposed to be equal partners now? Plus, their agency is called “Monk and Teeger,” which seems to imply that if anyone has senior status, it’s him. I know this is just a minor detail, but the boss thing was mentioned on several occasions and threw me for a loop each time.
  • I didn’t really care for the subplot involving the four professional women (including a lawyer and an ex-judge) trying to kill the plastic surgeon who was responsible for their friend’s death. Obviously they would have other means of legal recourse and wouldn’t have to stoop to attempted murder to mete out justice, right??

Rating:

Mr. Monk Gets on Board was a fun, quick read that allowed me to spend time with some familiar characters. The main mystery was interesting, there was plenty of humor along the way, and the Natalie-Monk interaction was spot-on. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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NY Times Bestsellers 080314

August 3, 2014

Here are the current New York Times bestsellers in a handful of the more popular categories:

Combined Print & E-Book Fiction:
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, by E. L. James
A PERFECT LIFE, by Danielle Steel
THE HEIST, by Daniel Silva
GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn
TOM CLANCY: SUPPORT AND DEFEND, by Mark Greaney

Combined Print & E-Book Nonfiction:
UNBROKEN, by Laura Hillenbrand
AMERICA, by Dinesh D’Souza
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT, by Daniel James Brown
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, by Piper Kerman

Hardcover Fiction:
THE HEIST, by Daniel Silva
THE BOOK OF LIFE, by Deborah Harkness
TOM CLANCY: SUPPORT AND DEFEND, by Mark Greaney
A PERFECT LIFE, by Danielle Steel
THE GOLDFINCH, by Donna Tartt

Hardcover Nonfiction:
AMERICA, by Dinesh D’Souza
UNBROKEN, by Laura Hillenbrand
BLOOD FEUD, by Edward Klein
ONE NATION, by Ben Carson with Candy Carson
HARD CHOICES, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Paperback Mass-Market Fiction:
ROSE HARBOR IN BLOOM, by Debbie Macomber
A GAME OF THRONES, by George R. R. Martin
TAKEDOWN TWENTY, by Janet Evanovich
INFERNO, by Dan Brown
A DANCE WITH DRAGONS, by George R. R. Martin

Paperback Trade Fiction:
GONE GIRL, by Gillian Flynn
FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, by E. L. James
ORPHAN TRAIN, by Christina Baker Kline
THE ALCHEMIST, by Paulo Coelho
THE VALLEY OF AMAZEMENT, by Amy Tan

Paperback Nonfiction:
HEAVEN IS FOR REAL, by Todd Burpo with Lynn Vincent
THE BOYS IN THE BOAT, by Daniel James Brown
ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK, by Piper Kerman
OUTLIERS, by Malcolm Gladwell
THE GLASS CASTLE, by Jeannette Walls

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Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

July 24, 2014

Mr. Mercedes Plot summary (from the publisher): In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.

Brady Hartsfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again. Only Bill Hodges, with a couple of highly unlikely allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

Mr. Mercedes is a war between good and evil, from the master of suspense whose insight into the mind of this obsessed, insane killer is chilling and unforgettable.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • All in all, this was a pretty gripping story. King is a master of the page-turner, and this skill translates well to the crime genre. Count me in among those fans that loved the departure from horror and the supernatural!
  • I enjoyed the little shoutouts to Christine and It. An author of King’s stature should be allowed to reference his past work, shouldn’t he?
  • Bill Hodges was a fairly likable character. Nothing in this first book (King has indicated that Mr. Mercedes is the first of a trilogy) irked me too much or put me off from ever wanting to read about him again. I especially appreciated that he wasn’t a supercop and that his being out-of-shape/retired hampered his investigation at a few points.
  • The disdain for boy bands was funny and well-placed.

Disliked:

  • There’s no way in hell some fat shlub like Bill would get a halfway decent looking woman, 20 years younger than him, into bed. I hate these ridiculous hookups in books!
  • Speaking of ridiculous hookups…Brady and his mother were…just…ewwww!!!! I will never be able to listen to a mother talking about taking care of a child’s headache in quite the same way again :(
  • What caused Brady to suddenly reach out to Bill? Usually there is some kind of triggering event, but here it just seemed like one day Brady decided he was tired of only peeping and wanted to get involved for real. I didn’t get it.
  • Another alcoholic character. Really? I know King is a friend of Bill W., but come on.

Rating:

Mr. Mercedes was an engrossing, straightforward crime novel that was a refreshing departure from typical Stephen King fare. Though some elements of the plot and actions of the characters bugged a bit, I found this to be a mostly enjoyable experience. I give the book 4 stars out of 5.

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A Look at Kindle Unlimited

July 20, 2014

So Amazon has just announced their new Kindle Unlimited program. Descibed as a “Netflix for books,” Kindle Unlimited allows subscribers free access to a library of 600,000+ titles from Amazon.com. A fraction of the titles, maybe around 10% (that’s not a hard figure; just a guestimate using the “Whispersync” search limiter), are also available with audio tracks. The price of the service is $9.99/mo, with the first month free.

As someone who reads more than 150 books per year (on average), it seems that Kindle Unlimited would be perfect for me. And yes, I have already downloaded and/or queued up more than 10 books that I want to get through in the trial period. But honestly, after spending several hours browsing through the Unlimited catalog in the past couple of days, I don’t think the membership would end up being “worth it.” Most of the books I want to read are already available for free through my library or Project Gutenberg.

Then again, when you consider that many of the “popular” Kindle books range in price from $7.99 to $12.99, all it would take is two books per month to get my money’s worth from the Unlimited program. That would be easy enough to achieve, but the selection is what’s holding me back.

Some people might also balk at the fact that Kindle Unlimited books are merely borrowed and don’t remain in your library once you end your membership. This isn’t a big deal for me, though, because I’m not interested in amassing a massive collection of e-titles.

Anyway, I’ll get the most out of this month-long free trial. After that, I’ll probably cancel until the monthly price drops down to something more reasonable (<$6.99).

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The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

July 19, 2014

the painted girls Plot summary (from the publisher): 1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde.

Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The author did a wonderful job of setting the scene throughout the book. “Atmospheric” is the word that immediately springs to mind. I was instantly immersed in 19th-century Paris, and loved it.
  • I enjoyed the bits about Degas. I’m not a big art buff or anything and probably couldn’t identify a Degas with a roadmap, but found his appearances in this book oddly compelling. I want to learn more about his life, and will likely end up reading a biography soon.
  • The characters felt very real to me. Antoinette, at just 19, had already lost her innocence and naiveté about how the world works. Marie, at 14, was straddling the line between that childhood innocence and stark reality. And Charlotte was mostly just plodding along as the child she was, completely oblivious to the darker struggles of her sisters.
  • Even for someone not at all interested in art or dance, I found this book very engrossing. That’s not to say I’m now inspired to run out and find the best salsa classes Santa Monica has to offer; but I did enjoy most of it and found only a few spots to be a slog.

Disliked:

  • I didn’t care much for the shifting viewpoints. I liked Marie’s storyline (and character) far more than Antoinette, and became exasperated at times when the author broke away from Marie. This was especially true at the end, where the POV kept going back and forth after just a couple of paragraphs. Annoying!
  • Antoinette’s stubbornness regarding the boyfriend (I already forgot his name) was hard to endure. I didn’t really understand her “love” for him, and found her total devotion hard to believe. It got to the point where I was rolling my eyes and skimming whenever her dreams of New Caledonia came up.
  • I thought the character of the mother was woefully underdeveloped. I felt there was a lot more potential for conflict and interesting storylines in that direction, and was disappointed that she remained largely in the background.

Rating:

I was pleasantly surprised by The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan. I’d never heard of this author before, and not being particularly interested in any of the over themes (Paris, ballet, art), I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy this one. But the characters were great, their struggles were realistic, and the atmosphere was alluring. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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Liza of Lambeth by W. Somerset Maugham

July 16, 2014

liza of lambeth Plot summary (from the publisher): Maugham completed the writing of LIZA OF LAMBETH during his final year of medical school. The publication of this novel brought him enough money and notoriety that he decided to abandon thoughts of a career as a doctor (he qualified but never practiced) and instead make his way as a full-time writer. The novel itself is the story of a young girl, Liza, living in the Lambeth slums of London. The details of the novel are rich and evocative, much of the material inspired by the people and events Maugham encountered while he was a medical student practicing mid-wifery in the same area.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Well, it’s always interesting to me to read a well-regarded author’s earliest works to see if I can detect some of the greatness that lies ahead. (Note: I could not in this case.)
  • The descriptions of London’s slums and lower classes were certainly evocative. That aspect of the book reminded me of Dickens.

Disliked:

  • While I’m not ordinarily opposed to grim, depressing stories, Liza of Lambeth took this to a new level when Liza’s mother, instead of being torn up that Liza was dying, thought of the insurance money she would get. I know family members often have mercenary motives like this, but Liza and her mother weren’t even particularly adversarial up to that point, so the mother’s reaction was jarring.
  • The dialogue as written was very difficult to read. Obviously Maugham was striving for authenticity, but it became rather a trial having to decipher all the oddly contracted words.

Rating:

As W. Somerset Maugham’s very first published novel(la), Liza of Lambeth is worth reading because of the author’s pedigree. However, it’s not much as a standalone work and probably shouldn’t serve as any reader’s introduction to Maugham. I give this one 2 stars out of 5.

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Listening to Audiobooks

July 14, 2014

I find that the busier I get, the more I turn to audiobooks instead of paperbacks or e-books. Obviously, hands-free listening has its advantages, particularly when it comes to commuting or exercising.

But the problem is that I hate the standard earbuds that come with Apple products. They don’t fit well and are thus very uncomfortable for me. So now I’m looking for the lowest price, highest quality headphones I can find. I figure if I spend a bit of money to make my listening experience better, then I’ll benefit in the long run.

Off for more research now!

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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey

July 4, 2014

7 habits covey Summary (from the publisher): In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, author Stephen R. Covey presents a holistic, integrated, principle-centered approach for solving personal and professional problems. With penetrating insights and pointed anecdotes, Covey reveals a step-by-step pathway for living with fairness, integrity, honesty, and human dignity — principles that give us the security to adapt to change and the wisdom and power to take advantage of the opportunities that change creates.

Reaction:

This has been on my To Read list for such a long time, because as far as self-help books go, 7 Habits is one that almost everyone is familiar with. I was looking forward to gleaning lots of useful info out of Covey’s work, but was somewhat disappointed with the result. All of his advice seemed to stem more from common sense than any exclusive insight, so I had to wonder what was the point.

He gives each of the 7 habits a descriptive name, such as “Sharpen the Saw” or “Synergize,” but these actually just mean “take care of yourself” (e.g. exercise, study, etc.) and “teamwork.” In fact, the other habits can similarly be distilled to more familiar concepts like time management, prioritizing, and listening. Well, yeah, no kidding that’s how to be more effective!

To Covey’s credit, he doesn’t claim to have invented or discovered these habits. Instead, he says that he just put them together into a plan aimed at helping people lead more productive lives. Still, I sort of wonder what all the hullabaloo was about.

Rating:

I guess maybe the fact that I’m reading The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People 25 years after its initial publication might have something to do with my perception of Covey’s habits. They seem so commonplace and ingrained that I have a hard time figuring out what new things I’m supposed to take from the book. To me, there was nothing groundbreaking here; however, if you’ve never had any exposure to efficiency training or time-management skills before, this might do you some good. I give the book 3 stars out of 5.

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Zoo by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge

June 17, 2014

zoo Plot summary (from the publisher): All over the world, brutal attacks are crippling entire cities. Jackson Oz, a young biologist, watches the escalating events with an increasing sense of dread. When he witnesses a coordinated lion ambush in Africa, the enormity of the violence to come becomes terrifyingly clear.

With the help of ecologist Chloe Tousignant, Oz races to warn world leaders before it’s too late. The attacks are growing in ferocity, cunning, and planning, and soon there will be no place left for humans to hide.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The book started off well enough, with the idea of a widespread animal uprising against humans. That premise could have made for an excellent thriller — in the hands of different authors.

Disliked:

  • The plot went from intriguing to extremely ridiculous very quickly. Even when hand-waving the pseudoscience away for the sake of fiction, there was just too much else that couldn’t be overlooked, from Oz and his “nympho” girlfriend to the dumb scenes of animal attacks all over the world to the unbelievable “solution” and eventual non-conclusion.
  • I couldn’t stand the various scenes of animals suddenly turning on and attacking humans. While a couple of well chosen and well written ones could have added to the plot, the sheer number of them (and the way they were never referred to again after the initial description) told me that they were included simply for the sake of padding the page count to satisfy publisher demands.
  • Don’t even get me started on Oz and Chloe. Gag. Me.
  • The writing was heavy-handed and terrible, complete with eye-rolling dialogue throughout. And no, Mr. Ledwidge, describing the dawn as “rosy-fingered” (a la Homer) does not elevate your prose at all.
  • If the animals were going batshit crazy due to cell phone signals and petroleum use (or whatever the stupid reasons given in the book), why were the effects being seen in remote places like Africa and Siberia??? Wouldn’t the preponderance of events be confined to big cities where cell phones and petroleum abound?
  • Even assuming for a moment that the “science” were true and that the whole world agreed to the U.S. president’s recommendation to cease all cell phone/power/gasoline usage for two weeks, is it possible that the calming effects on the animals would be so immediate? I mean, come on! It was like flipping a switch. One minute they’re murdering and maiming people, and the next they’re as docile as ever? Yeah, okay.

Rating:

Honestly, I keep saying that I should know better than to read James Patterson + [insert hired hack's name here] books, and yet this is precisely what I keep doing. Why do I insist on torturing myself so? Probably because my damn library only ever has these audiobooks in stock and available for immediate checkout (wonder why). Zoo was probably one of the worst books I’ve EVER read — and we’re talking about a lifetime of reading that encompasses thousands of titles. I give this one 0 stars out of 5.

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