Sunday, June 09, 2019

A great book! Highly recommended!

The Border (Power of the Dog, #3)The Border by Don Winslow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Don Winslow is a great author. At times, his stories can be brutal, but he deals with brutal subjects. In this trilogy, as in The Force, which I recently read, he's dealt with criminals and the drug trade. Brutality is an unfortunate reality of that world, and he doesn't sugar-coat it.

Even so, he manages to keep some glimmers of hope alive in his work. He also builds great characters and makes them relatable, so we're fully invested and along for every bit of the ride. The Border is the best kind of book, in that I didn't want to put it down and plowed through it as quickly as the rest of my life and schedule would allow, and I was sorry to reach the end.


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Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A very well written book

A Gentleman in MoscowA Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm not entirely sure how to describe A Gentleman in Moscow, except to say it's a very well written novel about a member of the Russian aristocracy who manages to survive the Revolution but finds himself confined to a sort of house arrest in perpetuity. Considering the scenes I now know this book to contain, I wouldn't have expected to enjoy it as much as I did. A Gentleman in Moscow is proof, however, that what matters more than the subject matter is the skill of the author. Clearly, Amor Towles knows how to write a novel that moves well, filled with well-developed characters to whom the reader will feel a real connection.


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Friday, April 26, 2019

An entertaining work of science fiction

Leviathan Wakes (The Expanse, #1)Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Leviathan Wakes was very entertaining. I had a number of nights where I stayed up way too late, wanting to keep reading, and that's a sure sign of an entertaining novel. I find too many works of science fiction to be poorly thought out or packed with technical jargon (probably by authors desperate to distinguish themselves from the poorly thought out ones!) or lacking in writing skill, so that the story idea may be interesting but the character development is lacking.

In this case, the authors ("James S.A. Corey" in the nom de plume of the two authors who wrote Leviathan Wakes) have produced an interesting concept, built interesting characters and taken us for quite a ride. I'm off to other genres for the moment, but I feel I'll be back to this series, so I can see what's next!


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Sunday, April 14, 2019

A new standard in arrogance

Viper Pilot: A Memoir of Air CombatViper Pilot: A Memoir of Air Combat by Dan Hampton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Wow. Not, "wow, this is a great book" but "wow, this man is hard to believe." I don't expect examples in humility from a fighter pilot--that doesn't tend to be their nature--but Dan Hampton provides an example in mind-blowing levels of arrogance. And to be clear, I've spoken to fighter pilots who were quite humble and polite. If they felt any superiority, they didn't show it.

Dan Hampton, after spending the entire book declaring how special he is, goes so far as to declare near the end that the military is wrong to declare all of its members "warriors." He says that for every one of him, there are 144 members of the Air Force in supporting roles, and they shouldn't be referred to as warriors.

If that wasn't enough, he then says that front line troops aren't alone in combat the way he is. They have their buddies around them, and they can ride in armored vehicles, while he's participating in solo combat (wingman and squadron notwithstanding, apparently), and he's a special kind of warrior above all others.

I met and got to spend time chatting with Jack Jacobs a while back. Colonel Jacobs wasn't a brave fighter pilot. He was just a foot soldier, which the author apparently doesn't see as such a lofty role as an F-16 pilot. Now, Colonel Jacobs has received the Medal of Honor, two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars and a host of other medals, but despite that, he was as nice, polite and humble as could be. I suppose that's because he wasn't an F-16 pilot like Dan Hampton.

Viper Pilot has some interesting parts. As some other reviewers have noted, a lot of it is commentary built on radio transcripts, but some of that is interesting to review. But then we get to the aforementioned arrogance and the author's contempt for way too many people, from intelligence officers to those in support roles to political leaders to our allies. He's so contemptuous of those who aren't him that I even felt bad when he was trashing Iraqi soldiers he was killing. Yes, I know that was the job, but I've read plenty of memoirs where the author had enough awareness to recognize that the other guys were giving their lives for their country and deserved respect for that.

He adds that, despite his using cluster bombs, he never killed anyone who didn't deserve it. Okay then. I suppose it's better not to know, and he was doing what was expected, but war isn't that clean. That's one of the many reasons it's a thing to be avoided whenever possible.

The parts where the book was radio transcript-supported commentary were interesting, as I mentioned above, so the 2-star "it was ok" rating seems right, but it deserves no more than that. Was this author doing a dangerous job bravely? Yes. But he seems to think he's braver than the rest who serve the country, and that's very off-putting.


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Tuesday, March 26, 2019

A very well written "cop novel"

The ForceThe Force by Don Winslow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Don Winslow is a very good writer. If you've read some of his other books, such as The Power of the Dog, you know that already. You also know that his writing can be of the not-for-the-squeamish variety. He doesn't sugar-coat things, and he isn't shy about showing some very brutal scenes. That's not to say he does so gratuitously. When he does so, it fits with both the story and the apparent reality in some of the terrible settings he's dealing with.

With that preface, I can say that The Force is the kind of book you don't want to put down, and you're sorry when it ends. I stayed up way too late last night (or rather, early this morning) before finally coming to my senses and putting it down, and I took the first opportunity this evening to finish reading this well-written, engrossing tale.

Denny Malone is someone we can condemn for his corruption and brutality while admiring how he's trying to protect the people in his area. He really hates how the drug dealers, violent criminals, and those who profit from them, hurt people who otherwise are just trying to get by and live their lives. But Denny also can't resist the pull of corruption all around him. He and his brother officers are very damaged characters, being both part of the solution and part of the problem.

Don Winslow's writing is so good that you find yourself rooting for Denny and his guys, even when you know they don't deserve to catch a break because they're so far over the line. A good author can take you there.

If you're looking for an uplifting novel that will renew your faith in humanity, this isn't it. Go find something else. But if you want a compelling story of law enforcement, good guys versus bad guys, and lost souls who long ago wandered off the straight and narrow, so that "good guys" and "bad guys" will be hard to define, I suspect you'll love this book!


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Sunday, March 24, 2019

A great story of Cold War spycraft and betrayal

The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold WarThe Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I could do half stars, I'd probably go 4.5, since I usually reserve a 5-star rating for books that had me so completely enthralled that I truly couldn't put them down and ached with disappointment when I reached the end. I wouldn't say The Spy and the Traitor was quite there, but still, it was quite good.

This is a well-researched, well-written book, telling a Cold War story of life and death, betrayal and intrigue. Both of the men who are the main subjects of The Spy and the Traitor betrayed their countries, but there's a clear distinction in the reasons each did what he did.

Ben Macintyre is a skillful author who builds a feeling of connection with the more heroic--at least as seen from a western point of view--of these two, and that's what makes for some great suspense and tension as the story unfolds. I would have liked to have known a bit more of the details of the kind of information Mr. Gordievsky shared with MI6, but it's possible such details still can't be shared, even so many years later. In any case, the book remains interesting and an entertaining story!


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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A disappointing read

The Trident Deception (Trident Deception #1)The Trident Deception by Rick   Campbell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As others have noted--with good reason--The Trident Deception reads very much like a mashup of The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide, and that's a bit of a problem, since this story has already been done. Yes, there's a bit of a twist to the underlying plot, but it's just a twist instead of being anything original.

Also, as others have noted, there are a fair number of eyeroll-inducing moments. One heroic figure is asked to put love for country above love for family. I won't say more than that, and while that may be possible for someone to do, although I'd find it pretty rare, it's ridiculous to envision any commanding officer deliberately and knowingly asking that of a subordinate as happens here. It was such a contrived stress point that it didn't add to the story; rather, it made that part of the plot ridiculous.

Worse than all of this is that the author doesn't really build characters in a way that will help us connect with them. He's just not a good enough writer. At one point, a key character (who we're clear is a very attractive woman, because Mr. Campbell seems too focused on that) is put very seriously in harm's way, and while I wanted her to overcome the threat, I didn't feel the kind of tension a reader should feel with a key character who has been developed the right way so we feel a connection.

This book was okay, but really not more than that (hence the 2-star "it was ok" rating).


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Thursday, February 28, 2019

A book worth skipping!

The First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George WashingtonThe First Conspiracy: The Secret Plot to Kill George Washington by Brad Meltzer
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This book was poorly researched, poorly supported by actual evidence, and an exercise in melodrama. It was severely lacking in evidence or the kind of research that would make it worthwhile, and it was full of supposition and speculation.

I often enjoy a work of history that's written by a novelist. When properly researched, the skills of a good novelist can bring history to life in ways that more academic writers aren't equipped to do. There have been some excellent books of this type. Then there's this dreck.

The First Conspiracy was repetitious, speculative and unsupported by actual primary sources. I have a degree in history, but I don't expect books I grab at the bookstore or library to read like my thesis. Rather, I want them to be more entertaining than an academic work. Still, what you get is vague speculation... unconnected pieces... lack of substantial direct quotes... cue ominous music ...George Washington!. That doesn't make for a credible story. (But be sure to hear George Washington's name in your most dramatic internal voice. The authors throw in his name more times than I could count. And yes, I know he's the subject. What I mean is, there are hundreds of filler lines that just mention George Washington to remind you how important all of this is and hope you don't notice that they no evidence to support whatever they're talking about.

Even the title itself is misleading. Other than the fact that the British and their supporters would have loved to have captured Washington or any of the other colonial leaders--and might well have executed them as traitors--there's little to support this being any kind of serious plot. There's just no meat on these bones. Don't waste your time!


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Friday, February 01, 2019

Well, that was a disappointing way to end this trilogy

The Kremlin's Candidate (Red Sparrow Trilogy, #3)The Kremlin's Candidate by Jason  Matthews
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Such a disappointing third book to close out this trilogy. Some will defend the repeated body blows this book delivers to readers who felt invested in these characters, saying it's more realistic than what the author might otherwise have written. I understand that, but this isn't non-fiction. It's fiction, and entertainment is a big part of why we're reading it. So to turn such brutality loose on characters we'd come to know and admire (I won't say which ones, so I don't spoil things) seems unnecessary and cold. As I read the parts I have in mind, I couldn't believe the author would do this.

Yes, people in service to their countries can get hurt and can die. We all know that. But again, this is entertainment. Good guys versus bad guys. Jason Matthews had visited death upon good characters before, but there's almost a sense of betrayal in reading The Kremlin's Candidate, and I'm sorry I didn't stop after the first two books. If you loved Red Sparrow and Palace of Treason, you may want to stop there and hang on to the good memories of those books.


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Monday, January 14, 2019

A great spy novel! One of the best I've read!

Palace of Treason (Red Sparrow Trilogy, #2)Palace of Treason by Jason  Matthews
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you like spy novels, you should read the Red Sparrow books. I enjoyed the first book, Red Sparrow, and Palace of Treason is even better! This is the continuing story of Dominika Egorova, Nate Nash and their colleagues (who themselves are interesting, rich characters). They're both smart and dedicated but also flawed, doing things they know they shouldn't do, but we cheer them on as they fight evil and corruption.

Jason Matthews knows how to build tension and develop his characters. The tension never feels contrived, and there's a real connection to these people we want to see succeed but are so afraid won't be able to overcome the obstacles and enemies in their way.

Palace of Treason is one of those special novels. I wasn't sleeping well anyhow, but it probably didn't help that I was so drawn into this story. It was almost 4am when I put the book down. On top of the quality of the characters and well-developed suspense, there's the fact that the story sounds like non-fiction stories of espionage I've read. Jason Matthews has gone to great lengths to make his stories not only exciting but believable! (His lengthy career with the CIA probably helps.) I'm already grabbing the third book of the trilogy! Can't wait to continue reading!


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Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley StartupBad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John Carreyrou shares the story he worked on for The Wall Street Journal, putting it together in a compelling book about a young woman who was smart but apparently a sociopath. She lied and was willing to hurt pretty much anyone, as long as she got rich and was lauded as a trailblazer. The scariest part wasn't that someone like her exists; it was that she got so many accomplished, powerful people to support her and defend her, even in the face of clear evidence she was lying, cheating and endangering the lives of countless others.

This is the story of the founding, rise and eventual fall to earth of a company known as Theranos. Started and headed by Elizabeth Holmes, with help from her secret boyfriend and now-indicted co-conspirator Sunny Balwani, Theranos promised to be able to replace lab tests that currently require the drawing of blood from a vein with much easier finger sticks. As it became clear the technology for such an approach didn't exist--and the necessary volume of blood for many important tests wasn't there to make them possible from a simple finger stick--rather than admit defeat or change their approach, Holmes and Balwani engaged in repeated deceptions and did their best to destroy the lives and livelihoods of anyone who tried to bring honesty and integrity to what was going on. Happily both Holmes and Balwani now are under indictment, but the trail of destruction they left is sad and should be a cautionary tale.

Bad Blood is an excellent book, both because the underlying story is so extraordinary--mostly in terrible ways--and because John Carreyrou is a good writer, bringing the skills of a reporter who knows how to tell a good story!


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