Zero Day by David Baldacci

August 23, 2015

zero-day Plot summary (from the publisher): John Puller is a combat veteran and the best military investigator in the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. His father was an Army fighting legend, and his brother is serving a life sentence for treason in a federal military prison. Puller has an indomitable spirit and an unstoppable drive to find the truth.

Now, Puller is called out on a case in a remote, rural area in West Virginia coal country far from any military outpost. Someone has stumbled onto a brutal crime scene, a family slaughtered. The local homicide detective, a headstrong woman with personal demons of her own, joins forces with Puller in the investigation. As Puller digs through deception after deception, he realizes that absolutely nothing he’s seen in this small town, and no one in it, are what they seem. Facing a potential conspiracy that reaches far beyond the hills of West Virginia, he is one man on the hunt for justice against an overwhelming force.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The first murder scene was very grisly and intriguing. I was pulled into the story almost immediately after the description of that crime scene.
  • The pacing in this novel was mostly good. I can’t think of any truly boring stretches anywhere along the way.
  • I didn’t mind that Baldacci had Sam die in the explosion. I think there are never enough “good guy” casualties in these kinds of books, so I appreciate the author’s choice here.
  • I liked that Puller has a cat named AWOL. Keeping a pet shows a bit of a human side to him.

Disliked:

  • Since Puller was CID, I was hoping for a much bigger Army angle to the plot. But most of the investigation proceeded in a very ordinary/civilian way. Puller could have been a member of any law enforcement agency for this case.
  • Baldacci twice invoked a huge pet peeve of mine: when characters awkwardly call a sibling “Bro” or “Sis” just for the sake of exposition. This was done with Puller’s brother and Sam’s sister, and only done the first time the siblings were introduced. This bugs me so much!
  • This isn’t the fault of the author, but is nevertheless something I personally didn’t like about the book. I’m tired of these “lone wolf” LEOs like Harry Bosch, Jack Reacher, etc. who don’t play nice with others and irk their superiors, but are left to their own devices because they get results. Puller would be so much better (and more believable) if he had a partner (a CID partner, not Sam).
  • The case went way off the rails, IMO. As I said, it started out well enough, but when it devolved into some outlandish nuclear weapons plot with the “mastermind” being some 30-year Army vet who thought the military didn’t show him enough appreciation for his services…meh, I immediately lost any interest I might have had.
  • So Puller’s going to be another perfect, kick-ass, smart, and irresistible-to-the-opposite-sex protagonist, huh? Great.

Rating:

As far as thrillers go, Zero Day was an average book for the genre. The plot and characters were very familiar, which is not to Baldacci’s credit, but because Puller is CID, there’s the potential for some far more intriguing cases in the future. I’ll probably go ahead and read the next book in the series if/when I come across it, but I won’t go out of my way to get it. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

August 16, 2015

nightingale Plot summary (from the publisher): In the quiet village of Carriveau, Vianne Mauriac says goodbye to her husband, Antoine, as he heads for the Front. She doesn’t believe that the Nazis will invade France…but invade they do, in droves of marching soldiers, in caravans of trucks and tanks, in planes that fill the skies and drop bombs upon the innocent. When a German captain requisitions Vianne’s home, she and her daughter must live with the enemy or lose everything. Without food or money or hope, as danger escalates all around them, she is forced to make one impossible choice after another to keep her family alive.

Vianne’s sister, Isabelle, is a rebellious eighteen-year-old girl, searching for purpose with all the reckless passion of youth. While thousands of Parisians march into the unknown terrors of war, she meets Gaetan, a partisan who believes the French can fight the Nazis from within France, and she falls in love as only the young can…completely. But when he betrays her, Isabelle joins the Resistance and never looks back, risking her life time and again to save others.

Warning: Major spoilers below!

My Reaction:

To be honest, large portions of this book were a slog to get through. I kept checking ratings on GoodReads and Amazon to make sure I had the right title and to try to figure out (without reading spoilers) what everyone was raving about. I just didn’t understand the hype.

The characters were difficult to relate to, and there was something about the narrative style that kept me at arm’s length from them. I definitely liked Isabelle better than Vianne, but not to the point where I was dying to get back to her story whenever the author shifted to Vianne. Neither sister’s plight was all that…compelling.

But then the ending came and made up for nearly everything that went before it. Call me clueless, but when I realized the old woman narrator from the beginning was Vianne, not Isabelle (as I had presumed), I was caught completely off guard. When Vianne explained what happened, how Isabelle had died shortly after reuniting with her sister and Gaetan, I lost it. I very rarely cry over books, but I was shedding real tears here — for characters that I didn’t even think I cared about. That was the biggest shock of the reading experience by far.

Rating:

I doubt that The Nightingale is a book that I will be revisiting in the future. The plot simply failed to grab me, and the book was so long that I can’t envision plodding through the whole thing again. In that respect, this was a 3-star read for me. But the cumulative effect of the story and its characters, as well as the emotions produced by the ending must be taken into consideration here, which bumps the rating up to 4 stars out of 5.

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Book holder/stand

August 10, 2015

I spend most of my day at a standing workstation. This is great for my computer, but doesn’t translate so well for reading books. So now I’m in search of a separate stand to prop up my books.

The stand doesn’t have to be anything fancy. I just want something basic, preferably in all black to match the rest of my home office furniture. This cs67 digital piano stand is exactly the kind of thing I’m looking for… except smaller. Like the cs67, I want my bookstand to be sturdy and easy to assemble. It should also be affordable.

Now, off to search some other sites!

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Go Set a Watchman

July 23, 2015

GoSetAWatchman Plot summary (from the publisher): Maycomb, Alabama. Twenty-six-year-old Jean Louise Finch—”Scout”—returns home from New York City to visit her aging father, Atticus. Set against the backdrop of the civil rights tensions and political turmoil that were transforming the South, Jean Louise’s homecoming turns bittersweet when she learns disturbing truths about her close-knit family, the town, and the people dearest to her. Memories from her childhood flood back, and her values and assumptions are thrown into doubt. Featuring many of the iconic characters from To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman perfectly captures a young woman, and a world, in painful yet necessary transition out of the illusions of the past—a journey that can only be guided by one’s own conscience.

Written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman imparts a fuller, richer understanding and appreciation of Harper Lee. Here is an unforgettable novel of wisdom, humanity, passion, humor, and effortless precision—a profoundly affecting work of art that is both wonderfully evocative of another era and relevant to our own times. It not only confirms the enduring brilliance of To Kill a Mockingbird, but also serves as its essential companion, adding depth, context, and new meaning to an American classic.

Warning: Spoilers below!

My Reaction:

Go Set a Watchman is easily the most-hyped book of the past few years, so it was impossible to avoid all mention of it before the release. As a result, I knew the reception was mostly lukewarm at best, and didn’t have unrealistic expectations going in. Moreover, although I liked To Kill a Mockingbird when I read it in high school, I am not a rabid fan with multiple readings under my belt.

So…my feelings towards Go Set a Watchman turned out to be rather positive. Sure, I have the same problem with Atticus Finch’s characterization that everyone else does, but what can I do? He’s not my creation.

Besides Atticus, I really liked everything else about the book. Scout was recognizable despite being all grown up and dating. I was sad to learn that Jem died, but enjoyed Scout’s reminiscences about playing with him and Dill(!) as children. I also liked the scene with Calpurnia, even though it saddened me to see her treating Scout with such distance and coldness.

There wasn’t much “plot” to speak of, certainly no edge-of-your-seat courtroom scenes like in TKAM, so I chose to look at this simply as a character study. Scout’s childhood idol falls and she has to process this shocking information and decide how to reshape her own values. Would it have been as compelling if I’d never heard of TKAM? Of course not. But this work, despite being neither prequel nor sequel, is not a standalone either.

Rating:

While I can understand the low ratings and poor reviews Go Set a Watchman has received, I am opting not to judge it so harshly. I just felt lucky to have been given a glimpse of Harper Lee’s early vision of Scout’s story and to compare it to the more familiar–and more beloved–end result. Call me easy to please, but I enjoyed this one and give it 4 stars out of 5.

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Tripwire by Lee Child

July 14, 2015

tripwire Plot summary (from the publisher): Reacher’s anonymity in Florida is shattered by an investigator who’s come looking for him. But hours after his arrival, the stranger is murdered. Retracing the PI’s trail back to New York, Reacher’s compelled to find out who was looking for him and why. He never expected the reasons to be so personal–and twisted.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • The reveal about Hook Hobie — that he actually died in a chopper crash in Nam and had his dog tags (and thus his identity) stolen by a fellow soldier — was a good one. Throughout the whole novel, I kept thinking if he didn’t want anyone to know he was still alive, why would he go back to New York (his home state) and keep his same name??? I guess Child answered those questions rather neatly.
  • I liked learning a bit more about Reacher’s background. The tidbits Child dropped about his French mother, childhood, and forensic anthropology classes in the Army are really helping me form a more complete picture of the guy.
  • As with Holly Johnson in Die Trying, I liked the female lead in this installment of the Reacher series. Jodie Garber, while not a bad-ass federal agent, was smart and capable in her own way, and — as a standalone character — did not detract from the story.

Disliked:

  • Is it just me, or does Child too frequently break the golden rule of “show, don’t tell”? Almost everything we learned about Reacher’s time in the Keys was presented as straight-up exposition, as was most of what was learned about Hobie. It became tedious after a while.
  • Is Reacher going to have a different love interest in every book? Because that too is getting tedious. As I said before, I liked Jodie well enough as a standalone character, but did not enjoy the love story/sex scenes between her and Reacher.
  • Reacher barely seemed engaged in the case at all. He treated it as a chore rather than something he wanted to do, and thus there was no sense of urgency along the way.
  • Although I mostly like Jack Reacher as a character, he’s on the precipice of becoming a cartoonish superhero. He takes a nail to the skull and a .38 to the chest, but survives both potentially fatal injuries because of his perfect physique????? Now that is just fucking ridiculous. And Child compounded the nonsense by having the doctor gush about how if a computer were to spit out a human specimen capable of surviving a close-range gun shot, Reacher would be the blueprint. *Eyeroll*

Rating:

Tripwire delivered pretty much what I expected from a Jack Reacher book: Jack was back with another woman and another chance to play the reluctant hero. The story this time around interested me a bit more than the main plots of the first two books, but there seemed to be a few more slow spots in this one as well. And Reacher’s ability to survive all manner of assault with deadly weapons is threatening to become a detriment to the series. I give this one 3 stars out of 5.

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C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alistair McGrath

July 2, 2015

c.s.lewis a life Summary (from the publisher): Fifty years after his death, C. S. Lewis continues to inspire and fascinate millions. His legacy remains varied and vast. He was a towering intellectual figure, a popular fiction author who inspired a global movie franchise around the world of Narnia, and an atheist-turned-Christian thinker.

In C.S. Lewis—A Life, Alister McGrath, prolific author and respected professor at King’s College of London, paints a definitive portrait of the life of C. S. Lewis. After thoroughly examining recently published Lewis correspondence, Alister challenges some of the previously held beliefs about the exact timing of Lewis’s shift from atheism to theism and then to Christianity. He paints a portrait of an eccentric thinker who became an inspiring, though reluctant, prophet for our times.

Reaction:

I had never read a biography of C.S. Lewis before, so I have no choice but to approach McGrath’s book as a standalone work. In this regard, I was completely satisfied with the breadth and scope of the information, as well as with the documentary evidence cited.

McGrath tells the story of Lewis’ life chronologically, beginnning with his childhood in Ireland (thankfully, he didn’t feel the need to start with Lewis’ parents’ or grandparents’ lives, as so many biographers do with their subjects) and progressing through Lewis’ schooldays in England, university days at Oxford, wartime experience, and post-war lecturing/writing. All parts were clearly distinguishable from each other, and when woven together, yielded a cohesive tapestry of Lewis’ life.

What I especially enjoyed about this book was how McGrath provided some analysis of each of Lweis’ major writings. When available, McGrath revealed what Lewis himself had to say about a particular work; failing that, McGrath provides the reader with some critical responses from Lewis’ day. This analysis was short enough to make the biography as a whole manageable, yet detailed enough to allow me to read Lewis with some new insight.

Another thing I appreciated here was the way the author didn’t lionize Lewis. Yes, the biography was mostly positive in tone, but McGrath took Lewis to task when warranted.

In thinking back over what I read, I wish that McGrath had delved a bit more into Lewis’ relationship with Mrs. Moore. Not from any desire for salacious gossip, but rather because there seemed some legitimate lines of questioning that McGrath didn’t follow up with. For example, I read in the C.S. Lewis Wikipedia entry (not a great source, I know) that the bedroom layout at the Kilns (the house Lewis shared with Moore and his brother) was such that a friend of Lewis’ at the time thought that the relationship was almost certainly sexual in nature. McGrath hinted as much, but didn’t really explore the issue.

Nor did I quite understand the significance of McGrath’s claim that Lewis’ conversion to Christianity actually happened a year or so later than everyone (including Lewis himself) claimed. Sure, McGrath makes a good case and was sharp to have spotted the inconsistencies in Lewis’ correspondence and actions, but so what? What difference does Lewis’ conversion date make in the grand scheme of things? Is this something that needed to be treated as a major discovery? Perhaps my unfamiliarity with Lewis scholarship in general is obscuring the importance of this tidbit.

Rating:

On the whole, I found C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alistair McGrath to be a highly engrossing and engaging read. The author was able to paint a full picture of Lewis’ life without getting bogged down in minutiae or overstaying his welcome. I came away from my time with the book knowing a heck of a lot more about Lewis than when I started, which is, after all, the point of reading a biography. I give this one 4 stars out of 5.

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Contemporary Cowboys

June 23, 2015

cowboy shirt I don’t read too many novels from the Western genre, but when I do, I tend to imagine the main characters as old-school John Wayne types. That works well enough for Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour; however, when reading something more contemporary, I need to update my image of what these cowboys might look like.

So to do this, I started browsing around some Western clothing sites to check out how today’s cowboys dress. Let me tell you, I was pleasantly surprised at how good the clothes look! For example, check out the shirt in the picture here. Does that fit the stereotypical image of Western wear? Not for me!

And this isn’t just true for men’s apparel. I found a bunch of great western clothing at Eli’s for girls, boys, and women too — and am very, VERY tempted to buy something for myself.

Anyway, the next time I read a Western, I will have a vastly different mental image of what a contemporary cowboy looks like!

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Stone Cold by David Baldacci

May 24, 2015

Stone_Cold_Book Plot summary (from the publisher): Oliver Stone, the leader of the mysterious group that calls itself the Camel Club, is both feared and respected by those who’ve crossed his path. Keeping a vigilant watch over our leaders in Washington D.C., the Camel Club has won over some allies, but it has also earned formidable enemies-including those in power who will do anything to prevent Stone and his friends from uncovering the hidden, secret work of the government.

Annabelle Conroy, an honorary member of the Camel Club, is also the greatest con artist of her generation. She has swindled forty million dollars from casino king Jerry Bagger, the man who murdered her mother. Now he’s hot on her trail with only one goal in mind: Annabelle’s death. But as Stone and the Camel Club circle the wagons to protect Annabelle, a new opponent, who makes Bagger’s menace pale by comparison, suddenly arises.

One by one, men from Stone’s shadowy past are turning up dead. Behind this slaughter stands one man: Harry Finn. To almost all who know him, Finn is a doting father and loving husband who uses his skills behind the scenes to keep our nation safe. But the other face of Harry Finn is that of an unstoppable killer who inevitably sets his lethal bull’s-eye on Oliver Stone. And with Finn, Stone may well have met his match.

As Annabelle and the Camel Club fight for their lives, the twists and turns whipsaw, leading to a finale that is as explosive as it is shattering. And when buried secrets
are at last violently resurrected, the members of the Camel Club left standing will be changed forever.

Warning: Spoilers below!

Liked:

  • Yay, Annabelle is back! I still liked this character by the end of the book and hope that even though her real business with the Camel Club is done, she’ll drop by from time to time. Heck, I don’t even mind that there were hints at some kind of romance developing between her and Alex Ford. I usually hate that kind of thing, but am willing to accept it here if it means Annabelle can stay.
  • I enjoyed the parts of the story that showed how easy it was for Harry Finn to breach all kinds of supposedly secure/impenetrable locations. People really are lax about security on a day-to-day basis, and it’s true that as long as you look/act like you belong, few will question you.
  • I loved seeing Oliver Stone go all badass at the end! His killing of Simpson and Carter Gray cannot simply be overlooked, even by Alex Ford. And Oliver knows this, which is why he immediately went into hiding.

Disliked:

  • Why did Caleb have to die??? What does this mean for the future of the Camel Club? I know there are more books in the series, but what direction will they take?
  • The resolution of the Jerry Bagger plot was wholly unsatisfying. Having him go off the road and plunge into the Potomac wasn’t personal enough. I would have liked to see Annabelle shoot him (in a justifiable situation, not in cold blood).
  • None of the stuff with Harry Finn’s family interested me at all. I know that was inserted to give the character more dimension and show the reader that he wasn’t a truly bad person (and to drum up some sympathy for when his kid gets snatched later on), but man, it was so boring!
  • The whole thing about Jerry Bagger being a “man of his word” was ridiculous to me. There’s no way a guy like Bagger would honor a promise if it meant letting a sworn enemy like Annabelle’s father go free. It’s not like anyone else even knew about the promise, right? And point of pride or not, a guy like Bagger wouldn’t have that much integrity.

Rating:

Overall, I found Stone Cold by David Baldacci to be reasonably entertaining. The book featured some things I liked and some I didn’t, so I think giving it 3 stars out of 5 is warranted here.

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Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath & Dan Heath

May 12, 2015

switch chip heath Summary (from the publisher): Why is it so hard to make lasting changes in our companies, in our communities, and in our own lives?

The primary obstacle is a conflict that’s built into our brains, say Chip and Dan Heath, authors of the critically acclaimed bestseller Made to Stick. Psychologists have discovered that our minds are ruled by two different systems—the rational mind and the emotional mind—that compete for control. The rational mind wants a great beach body; the emotional mind wants that Oreo cookie. The rational mind wants to change something at work; the emotional mind loves the comfort of the existing routine. This tension can doom a change effort—but if it is overcome, change can come quickly.

In Switch, the Heaths show how everyday people—employees and managers, parents and nurses—have united both minds and, as a result, achieved dramatic results:
● The lowly medical interns who managed to defeat an entrenched, decades-old medical practice that was endangering patients.
● The home-organizing guru who developed a simple technique for overcoming the dread of housekeeping.
● The manager who transformed a lackadaisical customer-support team into service zealots by removing a standard tool of customer service

In a compelling, story-driven narrative, the Heaths bring together decades of counterintuitive research in psychology, sociology, and other fields to shed new light on how we can effect transformative change. Switch shows that successful changes follow a pattern, a pattern you can use to make the changes that matter to you, whether your interest is in changing the world or changing your waistline.

Reaction:

I am interested in reading more self-improvement books this year, and thought Switch would be a good one. Its premise sounded similar in a lot of ways to The Power of Habit, which I read several weeks ago, so I was hoping to build on what I learned from that other work. And while some things are different — particularly the language used, as the Heath bros. insist on terms such as “rider” (to represent the rational mind), “elephant” (to represent the emotions), and “path” (to represent the specific context of the change), they’re both about breaking habits, i.e. “changing.”

And maybe because I’d already read The Power of Habit, so much of what was in Switch felt familiar and repetitive to me. The Heath bros. did feature a lot of stories, examples, and case studies that I’d never heard of in order to illustrate their points, but the points themselves were mostly common sense and hardly revolutionary. I suppose some people might find it helpful to put specific terms to the components of change, but on the whole, the information didn’t come off as very useful to someone that has read other books on the same topic.

One thing I did like about Switch was how the authors remind readers to look for the bright spots in our problems. Most people have a strong tendency to want to focus on the problems and figure out how to fix them, but sometimes, as in the case of malnutrition in certain Vietnamese villages, doing that would take years of analysis followed by many more years of planning and implementation. Instead, you should occasionally just have a look at what’s working right now and focus on doing more of the good stuff until more far-reaching solutions can follow.

Rating:

If Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip Heath & Dan Heath is the first book on personal or organizational change you’ve ever read, you’ll probably find lots of informative tips and insight here, and would benefit from following the authors’ outline for making change happen. Otherwise, this book comes off as rather simplistic most of the time, and suffers from highly repetitive (almost condescending) language. I give it 3 stars out of 5.

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The Guitar Amp Handbook

May 9, 2015

guitar amp handbook My cousin is getting better and better at guitar, mostly just from putting in the practice time. But now he’s also interested in learning the whys and wherefores behind what he’s doing, so I’m thinking of getting him a book like this one. It covers a variety of topics related to guitars, amps, and other accessories such as xtune stompboxes and more. It should be a good one — and if it’s not, he can always return/exchange it for something different.

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