Monday, December 30, 2019

Funny how we touch lives along the way

Today, I grabbed lunch with an old friend from my government days. We worked in the county attorney's office together. Then I was promoted to head HR, and he moved on to work as an attorney in one of the other county departments.

We ran into each other a few weeks ago at the train station, and that's when we said we should get lunch and catch up. So today we did.

When the waiter brought the check, he grabbed it and said it was a thank you that was 20 years overdue. I said, "a thank you for what?"

Apparently, when he was looking at two different job possibilities, I looked into them and advised him on what I thought was the better choice, and my advice panned out well. That was nothing special. I'd do that--and did that--for anyone who wanted the advice. But it seems it helped him get on a great career path that has worked well for 20+ years now.

It's nice to know a small gesture made such a difference!

Saturday, December 14, 2019

What's that smell?

There's a part of Savannah about 8 miles from our house here where we do a lot of shopping. From supermarkets to department stores, there's a lot out there. But sometimes when we go out that way, we find ourselves wondering about a not-too-pleasant smell in the air.

I've never been able to figure it out, but it was quite noticeable when we went out there yesterday, so we started talking about it. Jeff and Marc have plenty of Midwest experience, where there are more plants, slaughterhouses, etc., that created some noteworthy smells.

So these two college buddies started kicking it around. Jeff landed on his best guess pretty quickly. "Smells like a paper mill to me."

As a suburban New York boy, I had no frame of reference, but Marc thought that seemed right. So I asked Google to tell me the nearest paper mill. It said,
"International Paper 1.6mi"

Well, whaddya know! Good call, Jeff!

They also discussed some old non-favorites, like slaughterhouses and sugar cane processing plants. Sugar cane? Really? But yes, apparently they're quite stinky, despite the sweetness of their product.

I actually enjoyed the whole discussion, as I learned new things.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Blue Moon (Jack Reacher, #24)Blue Moon by Lee Child
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I went back and forth about a rating for this book. On the one hand, Lee Child's Blue Moon is well written and moves quickly, but on the other hand, I feel like he's out of ideas. This certainly isn't the first Reacher book that doesn't hold up to critical thinking. Just starting with the odds of one man, even a very perceptive one, always wandering into these major criminal happenings is enough to make the stories ridiculous.

Add to that the fact that whatever compunction Reacher had about killing seems to have disappeared, and it's really too much. Yes, Reacher always was very dangerous when provoked, but now it feels like the killing is what he wants. Not an "I kill if I have no choice" hero but a "come on, give me an excuse to kill" vigilante. There's a big difference. In this book, he even kills an unarmed man who, while repulsive in his actions, isn't a violent criminal. He just executes him. Is this where we've wound up?

I didn't go with one star, because, as I said at the start, it moves quickly and is well written. But I can't go more than two stars, because we've gone from a thoughtful righter of wrongs to the Terminator, set loose in unnamed towns where he magically stumbles upon huge organized crime syndicates that he, with the help of a few friends, is going to annihilate.

Maybe Lee Child needs to do some prequel work. Go back and let a younger Reacher be an MP officer again and investigate military crimes. At least that wouldn't be so far-fetched.

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The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - CityThe Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World's Most Glorious - and Perplexing - City by David Lebovitz
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I grabbed this book, because I love baking and love Paris. So what could be wrong?

Well, the author doesn't say much about his work as a pastry chef, except for keeping some Parisians happy with American-style brownies. (He does share recipes, but that's not the same.) Regarding Paris, wow, he loves to complain! More specifically, about Parisians.

My experience, over the course of all our trips to Paris, has been that the turnover of generations (my first trip there was 38 years ago) has mellowed the Parisian demeanor. In 1981, I found Parisians to be as unfriendly as they were reputed to be. During more recent visits, however, I found them to be much more friendly and helpful. You wouldn't know it from this book.

Perhaps it's the author's own approach to them, or perhaps it's the more nuanced perspective of someone who's there full-time, but his description of life in Paris wouldn't have encouraged me to visit the City of Light if I hadn't been there already.

Two fun subjects, baking and one of the world's greatest, most beautiful cities, and still this book was hard to get through.

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Tuesday, August 06, 2019

A war story to rival the best of Tom Clancy

Red MetalRed Metal by Mark Greaney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Red Metal is one of the most entertaining books I've read in quite some time. If you're not interested in reading about battles, then it's not for you, but if you like books like Tom Clancy's better works from his early days, such as The Hunt for Red October or Red Storm Rising, then you'll like this. In fact, speaking of Red Storm Rising, I'd even say Red Metal is similar but an even better novel. The battle and technical details are on par with that book, and the plot moves even better, with a more satisfying conclusion, even though it also creates a bit of a cliffhanger.

I've had mixed feelings about Mark Greaney's prior work. Some I've liked a lot while others were just okay, but this hits it out of the park. I'm really anxious to see what comes next! One thing I found amusing is the prominence of Lieutenant Colonels in this novel, considering that Mr. Greaney's co-author is one. The US Marines also take a lead role here, but I couldn't help but notice the importance that particular rank played in the different theaters of operation. I will also give them credit for having respect for members of the service from other countries. Too many novels of this genre treat allies and enemies like their armed forces are comprised of cowardly idiots. Here, there's respect for the skills and sacrifices of fighting men and women in general, and that's something I was very happy to see.

This really is a terrific novel, and even at roughly 650 pages, I tore through it in no time, doing all the things I shouldn't, like staying up way too late to see what happens next. Well done, gentlemen!

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Saturday, July 27, 2019

Too Much Is Not EnoughToo Much Is Not Enough by Andrew  Rannells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've enjoyed Andrew Rannells' work on TV and the stage. Most recently, we saw him on Broadway in The Boys in the Band, and I was very impressed with his performance. He's clearly very talented.

Having enjoyed his acting, I was hoping to enjoy this book. Happily, I wasn't disappointed! So many memoirs by people I've liked on stage or screen turn out to be either boring or way too self-absorbed. Not so in this case. Rather, Mr. Rannells shows a lot of introspection and honesty as he takes us from his childhood up to his first time in a Broadway show.

I liked his insights on what it means to struggle to find your way in the acting world, as well as his discussion about growing up gay and trying to find his way to some semblance of sanity in dating. Many of us know these struggles, and his memories ring true, even if some are sad to relive with him.

My respect for Andrew Rannells grew with the reading of this book, and the book itself was interesting and enjoyable to read!

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Monday, July 22, 2019

Total Mayhem (Jonathan Grave #11)Total Mayhem by John Gilstrap
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Total Mayhem certainly kept me riveted, and that's the main point with a book read for entertainment. I went through its over 400 pages in a day and a half. I started reading Saturday evening and finished at 3am Monday morning. That's another sign--that I stayed up way too late reading.

I was just a little disappointed in this particular book. I've read plenty of Mr. Gilstrap's work before, so I pretty well know what to expect, but authors in this genre can get a little too cavalier with human life and I feel like he turned that corner here. That may sound silly, since the whole concept is that Jonathan Grave runs a company that, among other things, deals with violent criminals bent on hurting innocent people. It just felt like this particular installment was looking for ways to take innocents and bring them to horrible ends, whereas the other installments generally had a feel, at least as I remember them, of saving innocents from wanton destruction.

That disappointment aside, I tore through this book. So if you want a good guys versus bad guys type of novel, go for it.

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Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Ship of the Line (Star Trek: The Next Generation)Ship of the Line by Diane Carey
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Wow, there are some harsh reviews of this book, and I really think they're uncalled for. Was this the best Star Trek novel I've ever read? No. It wasn't even the best Diane Carey Star Trek novel I've ever read. There were some little pieces that were strangely out of place and personal to the author--you'll see if you read it--and parts could have fit together better, but those weren't fatal flaws.

This book followed the interactions of the crew of the Enterprise after the destruction of the Enterprise-D, as seen in the movie Star Trek Generations, as well as a major part of the book following Captain Morgan Bateson, first encountered in the ST:TNG episode Cause and Effect.

Granted, it's hard not to read the book and be hearing and picturing Captain Frasier Crane--not the author's doing, of course--but I actually found the character rather well developed. He's a man out of place and time, trying to take his experience as a Starfleet captain and make it work decades after his time. He's dealing with a difficult situation largely of his own creation, but he's also a man of integrity who admits his mistakes and respects those around him, even those who disagree with him strongly. I actually found his character admirable if frustrating at times.

We also have a crossover between other characters from the different generations of Star Trek, and that was enjoyable, too. With that said, I saw two major flaws to this book. One is that it rehashed too much of the original series, literally reciting some scenes word for word. Most people who would read a Star Trek novel are serious fans, so I'd think most, like me, know those scenes intimately. No need to rehash them line by line to make the connection to other, relevant observations being made by Captain Picard.

The second thing is that the biggest turning points of the novel, including the final big battle, felt rushed as compared to the rest of the book. This key part got short shrift and was resolved a bit too easily.

For all of that, I enjoyed this book. Not perfect, but it was an enjoyable read. I was tempted to give it a higher star rating, because I think some of those 1-star rants of prior reviewers are borderline malicious. But that's not what this site is supposed to be about, so I won't weight my rating. Goodreads says 3 stars means I "Liked It" so that's what I selected, because I liked it!

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Friday, July 05, 2019

Swift Vengeance (Roland Ford #2)Swift Vengeance by T. Jefferson Parker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So many crime procedural/detective novels have twists that might make a reader roll his/her eyes. The bad guys magically escape a well-planned effort to corner them and take them into custody--or take them out--or the real bad guy would turn out to be someone you never suspected. That can build suspense or provide an interesting surprise, but it rarely looks like real life.

Happily, Swift Vengeance unwinds logically and without any silly twists. I won't say too much, so you can enjoy the book, but I found the reality of it refreshing. I'll definitely be looking for the next novel in the series!

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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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