Saturday, December 26, 2009

Rage - by Jonathan Kellerman

For those familiar with Jonathan Kellerman's Alex Delaware novels, "Rage" is the 19th installment of that series. If you enjoy the team of psychologist Delaware's and his friend LAPD Lieutenant Milo Sturgis's often unorthodox approach to solving criminal mysteries with some surprising and unexpected outcomes, you won't be disappointed with this story.

Eight years earlier, Alex was called upon to evaluate two young boys, barely teenagers, who had kidnapped two-year old Kristal Malley from a mall and murdered her. The two boys were Troy Turner, who seemed an intelligent child psychopath, and Rand Duchay, who appeared to be an easily led and slow-witted accomplice. The boys were sent away to California's troubled youth correctional system without any real understanding of why these children would do such a terrible thing to an innocent two-year-old girl. Troy Turner was, himself, brutally murdered in prison. Rand Duchay, however, survived, and at age 21 was released.

Out of the blue, Alex Delaware gets a phone call from the recently freed Duchay asking to meet and talk, but is murdered before they have they have the chance. Was it simple fate that a child-killer himself met a violent end? Did someone try to get revenge for Rand's horrible crime? Barnett Malley, Kristal's father, is an obvious suspect. A young couple who served as "religious advisors" for the boys, however, also seem to be curiously linked in unexpected ways. Alex and Milo are determined to sort it all out. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride and, hence, highly recommend this book.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Promise Me - by Harlan Coben

"Promise Me" is another installment of Harlan Coben's basketball star turned sports/talent agent with "extra" skills, Myron Bolitar. At a party, Myron overhears part of a conversation with two teenaged girls. In an effort to prevent them ever from riding in a car with friends (or others) who have been drinking, he ends up asking them to call him, if ever in trouble, and he will come and get them with no strings (or questions) attached. When, at a later date, one of the girls, Aimee Biel, takes him up on his offer, Bolitar picks her up as he said he would. After dropping her off, though, supposedly at her friend's house, she disappears. Although Myron's friends have cautioned him against trying to save people, he must jump into this mystery with both feet. He feels a duty to Aimee, her parents, and himself to find out what happened and make sure she's okay.

Harlan Coben does a skillful job of weaving a suspenseful thriller by methodically uncovering a set of intriguing clues that Myron eventually pieces together to uncover the truth. He utilizes and further develops a cast of characters in this novel with real complexity and depth. From his best friend, Windsor Horne Lockwood III (Win), to his business partner and friend Esperanza, to his quirky parents whom he aspires to become, to his former and current love interests (Jessica and Ali respectively), to county investigator Lauren Mews from other Coben tales, to unorthodox friend Big Cyndi, and to all of the Livingston, New Jersey area based personalities Myron encounters in pursuit of this case, they all are quintessentially human with strengths and weaknesses, talents and faults, and non-trivial backgrounds. One some plane, Myron (and hence the reader) empathizes with all of them. Much of the appeal of this book is experiencing Myron's internal conflict with issues that have no easy answers.

On Harlan Coben's web-page for this book (, the author says, "I wanted to have my cake and eat it too. I wanted to write a gut-wrenching suspense thriller that would top all of my stand-alones. And I wanted to write a book that would be uniquely Myron. I think I did that with Promise Me." Well, I agree. This was indeed a very good book.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Predictably Irrational - by Dan Ariely

This book is about behavioral economics. While the subject alone may convince many would be readers to move onto another title, I would highly recommend otherwise.

Dan Ariely describes, in a very entertaining and informative style, why the assumption of rational behavior, which underlies most classic economic theory, is not always valid. Don’t be concerned, however, that the reader will be forced to interpret a traditional scientific dissertation on this topic. Instead, he or she will be treated to explanations of his concepts and findings in terms of everyday, common human behavior which everyone can easily understand and relate to. Further, he backs his concepts with descriptions of real-life experiments with some very enlightening and somewhat surprising results. By reading this book, I think you will gain some personal insight into how we all make real-life decisions. The result is not only the presentation of fascinating information (although I was certainly engaged by it and truly didn’t want to put the book down), but also the demonstration of how these findings might potentially be applied in ingenious manners to improve our lives in personal or societal ways.

For instance, the author explains that humans make decisions in a “relative” context. When carrying out our attempts at rational comparison, however, many factors can affect us irrationally. For example, he demonstrates how we are insensibly biased towards something that is free. He shows that, in our minds, the cost of an item affects its value (e.g., an aspirin costing fifty cents cures headaches more effectively than the same aspirin priced at only 5 cents). He explains that ownership can tremendously skew our valuation of items (e.g., in a pool of loyal Duke basketball fans competing in a lottery for hard to get tickets, those actually awarded tickets valued them at roughly ten times the value of those who were offered a chance at purchasing the tickets after
losing the lottery). He illustrates how nonsensical price associations (e.g. Social Security digits) can even affect human valuation decisions.

The book documents similar results for moral decision-making. For example, Ariely describes an experiment which demonstrates radical shifts between results during “cold” and “passionate” mental states (he used arousal for his experiment, but pointed out that anger, fear, or any other such criteria would likely produce similar results). He provides data to show that people are more honest when cash is directly involved. Likewise, he shows that moral reminders (e.g., honor codes or recalling the ten commandments) actually reduce dishonesty. He points out the differences between business and social norms and some unanticipated results of trying to blend the two.

In summary, I found this to be a great book. I thoroughly enjoyed it, learned much, and highly recommend it. I hope you read it and have a similar experience.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

You've Been Warned - by James Patterson & Howard Roughan

Although thoroughly engaging and enjoyable, this book was a little bit on the "weird" side.  After finishing this book, I'm still not exactly sure what happened. While reading it, however, I was thoroughly captivated.

Kristin Burns is a young aspiring photographer living in New York and on the cusp of a successful career. Her current day job is nanny for Michael and Penley Turnbull's two young children. Kristin is very personable and likable.  Her boss, Penley, is not so much. As her boyfriend is Penley's husband Michael, however, she is not completely objective on the matter.

Although Kristin considers herself one of the sanest people she knows, her life has become a succession of very strange and scary episodes. She is haunted by a recurring nightmare of murder and death. The line between her dreams and reality become increasingly blurred. Some of her pictures exhibit a peculiar transparency. She sees people from her past, who have been dead. Hostilities between herself and her neighbor intensify. Other unexplained weird and frightening things happen to her. In summary, she is losing her grip on the life she has chosen and is being warned to abandon it.

The ending of this book is probably its most controversial part. Some may find it ingenious. Some may find it deep and meaningful. Some may find it disappointing. Personally, I find it a little of all of these things. As I mentioned up front, I'm still not sure exactly what happened at the very end. This did not ruin the story for me, however. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride up to and through the end of this story. Although it may or may not have been the author's intent, I have obtained closure by applying my own interpretation.

In summary, I highly recommend this book. If you regularly read James Patterson, however, "you've been warned." This book is unlike any other James Patterson novel I have read. In my opinion, though, that is a great reason to read it.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Dead Time - by Stephen White

This was not one of my favorite reads. I didn't hate the book and don't regret my time spent with it, but I was somewhat distracted by what I perceived as a jumble of many simultaneous tales.  In addition, it is told from the viewpoint of both  Colorado psychologist Alan Gregory and his ex-wife Meredith.  My first reaction to this was a little bit of annoyance of sitting through the same story twice from multiple viewpoints.  After finding out more about the author and the series, however, I softened significantly on these initial reactions.

The primary storyline ties the disappearance of a young woman, pregnant as a surrogate for Meredith and her fiance, to a yet unsolved series of events from a Grand Canyon camping trip, during a record-breaking heatwave, many years earlier.  Meredith asks for Alan's help with this while a lot of other things are going on in his life.  Prior to this, their friend Adrienne, has just died and Alan and his wife Lauren, were granted custody of her son.  As a background to the main plot, Alan has taken his stepson to New York, to re-unite with his mother's family and Lauren and their daughter have flown to Holland to reconnect with a daughter she gave up long ago.  With Alan's help, Meredith hires Sam Purdy, Alan's detective friend with his own troubled past.  Alan ends up in Los Angeles, to question his friend's daughter about the Grand Canyon camping trip.  In addition to unraveling the secrets from the past, he confronts potential cracks in his own relationships.

As I indicated at the beginning of this review I thought that the book was, in general, quite captivating, but, at times seemed somewhat unfocused.  I think part of my problem, however, was that I jumped, completely uninitiated, into the sixteenth novel of Stephen White's Dr. Alan Gregory series.  When I started this book, I was not even aware that it was part of a series, let alone such a well developed one.  The fifteen earlier series thrillers, ranging from Privileged Information (1991) to  Dry Ice (2007) probably provide a lot of history and background that would probably make many of the things that I found distracting much more meaningful.  I did find the characters in this book very complex and interesting.  For the most part, I like the author's writing style.  I will definitely try another book in this series.

As a final, somewhat trivial, note, I expected the title "Dead Time", in the traditional murder mystery mindset, to refer to some event of murder or death.  While that might be part of an intended "double meaning," I was kind of surprised at the numerous references throughout the book to "dead time" in a conversational sense.  There were also several references to cleavage (the other kind) and on Stephen White's web site, he indicates that Cleavage was a working title that didn't survive the publishing process.  Not sure why I find this kind of stuff so interesting -- I just do.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Words That Work - by Dr. Frank Luntz

Now I'm not a very political person. When I picked up this book from my library, it wasn't because I knew who Frank Luntz is. Well, I quickly learned that he helped develop the language for the Republican Contract with America that led to an election of the first Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in forty years. Dr. Luntz also worked for Republican mayor Rudy Giuliani and seems to be identified by most as a Republican pollster. From the stories in this book, however, he seems to have consulted an extensive but quite diverse set of political and corporate clients on winning word choices. Luntz's fundamental advice is the subtitle of this book: "It's not what you say, it's what people hear."

This book does deliver on its promise to deliver useful guidelines for crafting "words that work." It also contains examples to illustrate his points which are interesting, often insightful, and even entertaining. In some ways, the topic of this book and its examples seem manipulative -- the same message delivered with a different set of words can have much different results. In reality, though, the use of language to impart the desired meaning is a powerful tool that we all should learn to better utilize. It is encouraging to me that, as this book shows, the simpler and more direct approach usually wins out over attempts to utilize an impressive vocabulary or unnecessary eloquence. I enjoyed this book and learned some things. I am skeptical, however, that I would be able to easily spot and recognize such significant perception differences between, say, "estate tax" and "death tax". This book was, hopefully, a good first start though.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Woods - by Harlen Coben

From the beginning of this novel, you quickly understand that Paul Copeland, a New Jersey prosecutor, was forever scarred from a tragic and traumatic past.  The story opens with the death of his father, and Paul's reflection of how, as a youth, he had followed him repeatedly into the woods to witness him grieving over and "digging for" his sister.  Twenty years earlier, four teenagers at a summer camp were victims in the woods.  Two were found murdered and two had disappeared.  Paul had been at that camp and his sister had been one of the teens that was never found.  The lives of the teens from that summer and their families had been significantly changed and deeply affected by the events of that night.  Just a few months after burying his father, however, Paul is dragged back into the search for his sister and the truth about what happened that night, when a seemingly unrelated homicide connects back to the horror of those woods.

Harlen Coben does a skillful job of parceling out details of Paul's history, the events of that night, and how those attached to the tragedy were deeply affected by it.  He completes the picture at a pace that keeps the story intriguing but suspenseful.  Paul is warned to leave the past alone, but he persists and uncovers secrets that neither he nor the reader expect to find.

Paul's journey back into his past is accompanied by his current efforts to prosecute a group of fraternity boys for the rape of a poor young black stripper.  He seeks justice and must battle the attempts by a rich and powerful father to protect his son.  Paul's black and white perspective of right and wrong in this case is contrasted against what the father of his teenage friend, the father of his girlfriend from summer camp, his own father, and ultimately himself are willing to do for their children.

I very much enjoyed this book.  The storyline was interesting and engaging and the plot twists kept surprising me until the very end.  I highly recommend this novel.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Why We Want You to Be Rich -- by Donald J. Trump and Robert T. Kiyosaki

Donald Trump is an icon -- I think that I have watched every season of "The Apprentice" and likely read and hear about him elsewhere from various news or American pop culture sources. Several years ago, I read one of Robert Kiyosaki's Rich Dad books.  Therefore, I consider myself somewhat familiar with these two authors and what they stand for.  Nonetheless, I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. Billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump partnering with millionaire and top personal finance author Robert Kiyosaki on a book about being rich.  It certainly isn't a "how-to" book, but I didn't expect that.  It discusses their shared passion for real estate, but it doesn't really offer any advice specific to that field.  They both share personal stories about family, friends, and their own experiences (failures and successes), but it is not auto-biographical.  While there is much in this book that is inspirational, I wouldn't say that is the focus of the book either.  Instead, I would categorize this book as "applied philosophy" discussions in which Donald and Robert share their viewpoints on core values and principles that make people wealthy, successful, and happy.  As you might expect from these two, this book thinks big.  They discuss their viewpoints on the global economy, America's financial problems, and how by becoming rich, people can become part of the solution.  Donald and Robert both point out that the world of today is not what the typical baby-boomer, say, was educated to achieve in.  They both seem truly committed to financial education and I sensed a genuine desire to help others through teaching.
If you are looking for a blueprint for becoming rich, this is not your book.  If you are expecting a business textbook, you will likewise be disappointed.  If you want some insight into Trump's and Kiyosaki's guiding principles and values, as well as how and why they differ from commonly understood and practiced financial approaches, then I think you will be glad you read this book.  In the end, this book educated me, it helped me try to think bigger, it forced me to reflect introspectively, it inspired me, it scared me, and it encouraged me.  Above all, it reinforced that, in the end, I am the one ultimately responsible for my financial (and other) success and failure.  I found this book a "page-turner" just as I might a good novel.  I now want to dedicate more energy towards the types of financial and business education and experiences discussed in this book.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The Whole Truth - by David Baldacci

I am a fan of David Baldacci's novels.  I have read many from his Camel Club series, his Sean King and Michelle Maxwell series, and others.  I picked up this book, then, with a well defined set of expectations.

In many ways, this book was indeed what I expected.  This was a political thriller pitting a powerful man, and his abuse of power, against an exceptionally skilled hero with a very complex past.  Nicholas Creel, heading the world's largest defense contractor, is a very wealthy man with very grand financial and socio-political goals.  His ambitions lead him to work with a perception management firm to manipulate world events.  Shaw is in many ways an indentured servant, who has been railroaded into helping con, trap, capture, or kill very bad terrorists, drug dealers, international weapons dealers, and the like.  His life is a series of dangerous assignments that help keep the world safe.  As he is incredibly good at what he does, he has somehow managed to survive situations that few (maybe no) others could.  Shaw's girlfriend, Anna, is a genius mind, working in a political think-tank, who somewhat inadvertently involves herself within Creel's sinister plot.  Katie James, a journalist with a complex past of her own crosses paths with first Shaw and then an unexpected chance at a story that could rejuvenate her career.

In other ways, this book surprised me.  Shaw is deeply in love with Anna and gets engaged.  He wants to retire, but that may not be allowed.  After the engagement, Anna and her parents learn much more about his secret life.  Can their relationship survive?  I didn't expect this type of emotional depth.

This setup leads to a very interesting and page-turning storyline evoking a wide range of emotions.  Many of the plot twists were predictable, but some were truly surprising.  The characters were complex and interesting.  The bad guys weren't pure evil and the good guys weren't unblemished.  I found it a captivating and truly enjoyable story.  As I probably enjoy the thriller and murder mystery genres most, I may be somewhat biased, but I would recommend this novel.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

True Believer -- by Nicholas Sparks

I typically do not read Nicholas Sparks' books.  He is a talented story teller, but the tragedies inherent in his novels are not the genre that I typically like to read.  I'm not sure why I picked this one up, but with a much lighter beginning, telling of Jeremy Marsh, a scientific journalist, uncovering the fraud and deception of a psychic "mind reader" and getting a big career break by reporting it on a prime-time TV news magazine show, I decided to stick with it.  For his next story, Jeremy travels to a small North Carolina town to investigate unexplained lights observed by many at a nearby cemetery.   Although the reader follows Jeremy through his research of the intriguing legend associated with the "haunted" cemetery and his work to solve the mystery behind the ghostly lights, this is really a book about impossible love.  Jeremy, the New Yorker, and Lexie, the small town girl needing to look after her grandmother, fall in love, but it seems they will not be able to follow that love and be together.  Each have been deeply hurt in the past.

This is indeed a romance story and not one I would typically select.  It kept me interested and reading, however, and, in the end, I found it quite enjoyable.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Traffic -- by Tom Vanderbilt

This book promised to explore "why we drive the way we do (and what it says about us)."  I was a little skeptical about how a book of this length about traffic could remain interesting and my kids even teased me about getting another "geek book."  I was pleasantly surprised, however.  In college, I actually studied queueing theory (from a mathematical perspective).  For me then, I found the discussion in this book on the psychology of queues (a traffic jam is after all just a type of queue) quite interesting.  If, like me, you've ever wondered about things like why we drive on the right side of the road and some countries drive on the left side of the road, what traffic is like outside of America, and what is the impact of new automotive safety technology on death and injury rates, then this book will offer you some insight.  This book addresses how drivers interact (and don't interact) with their vehicles, other drivers, bikers, and pedestrians.  The book talks about intersections, roundabouts, road markings, signs (and the lack of signs), late and early merging, ramp metering, traffic enforcement, and much more.  In the vein of a Malcolm Gladwell book, this book references and cites a wide range of interesting facts and studies in an organized and coherent way.  I enjoyed this book so much, that I even checked out the author's blog on this subject: in search of more information on the topic.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Sail -- by James Patterson

So I decided to read back-to-back  James Patterson stories.  This book was very enjoyable and, as I do most of his books, I recommend it.  When reading it, however, I must admit to feeling somewhat conflicted about it.  At times it felt too predictable, but then something unexpected would happen to pull me back in.

The story is about a wealthy widow, who with a career as a doctor, does not have the relationship with her children that she wants.  They are taking a sailing vacation, with her brother-in-law Jake, as a desperate attempt to save the family.  She has the seemingly perfect and supportive husband, who is not taking the trip with them.  After embarking on the trip, seemingly terrible luck puts the family in precarious situations but ultimately draws them closer together.  There is more than coincidence, however, behind all of their misfortune.

For me, this was an enjoyable read.  This type of story is probably my favorite genre.  While I might not consider this book one of my all time favorites, I certainly don't regret spending the time to read it.  In some sense, however, I appreciated it more retrospectively, after completing it, than while in the middle of it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cross Country -- by James Patterson

I'm a fan of Alex Cross.  This story was not my favorite in the series, but in my biased opinion, a worthwhile read.  Alex trys to track a vicious killer and his gang into his home turf in Africa.  He quickly discovers that policework by an American cop in these foreign nations has many different challenges than he has faced in his previous cases.  This book is more about Alex's survival than his investigative skills.  Somehow, though, he persists in Africa and discovers some powerful secrets.  When he is finally forced back home, he arrives just in time to face some horrible consequences.  In true Alex Cross fashion, when others would let it go, he follows the case through to the end.  For Alex Cross, however, "the end" is relative.  His cases always weave a complicated web.