Sunday, November 14, 2010

Private - by James Patterson & Maxine Paetro

This is the first novel in a new series for James Patterson and Maxine Paetro.  A former Marine helicopter pilot, Jack Morgan, is the protagonist.  In this initial installment, we learn that Jack suffers nightmares and struggles to re-create the missing memory from a military conflict where most of the soldiers on his helicopter were killed, but he survived and was decorated as a hero.  We learn that Private Investigations, the successful detective agency of his father, was recently reopened by Jack when his imprisoned father gave him the resources to do so.  We also find that Jack has a strained relationship with his twin brother, a romantic relationship with his assistant Colleen, and a romantic history with Justine, one of the key investigators in his detective agency.  He also works with good friend, Rick Del Rio, who served with him in Afghanistan.

Private Investigations takes on cases involving Jack’s best friend (who’s suspected of murdering his wife), possible game tampering in the NFL (through his uncle), and a series of  series of brutal murders of young girls in the LA area that they are helping the local police solve in a pro bono status.

I liked this book and found it a very enjoyable read.  I found the characters very interesting and the storyline fast paced.  If anything, there was too much going on, however.  Rather than focusing on a single investigation, or for that matter, one or two of Jack's personal relationships or difficulties, this book covered a lot of different issues and switched constantly between them.  Nonetheless, "Private" held my interest and made me want to keep reading it.  When the next episode of this series is published, I plan to read it.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Cut to the Chase: and 99 Other Rules to Liberate Yourself and Gain Back the Gift of Time - by Stuart R. Levine

I tend to read a fair number of self-improvment, time management, and/or personal organization books. This book represents one of my recent forays into this subject. From my experience, many of these guides expand common sense principles into strategies that work for the author. I personally believe, however, that not every one of these strategies "connects" or "strikes a chord" with every reader. For this reason the quality of advice within some of these "how-tos" is very subjective. Also, across the genre, suggestions may range from very high-level guidance to extremely specific techniques. One approach is not necessarily better than the others, but it makes comparisons sometimes difficult.

Given this experience, expectations, and outlook, I found Cut to the Chase to be somewhat middle of the road. In my opinion, the guidance was solid, practical, easy to understand, and potentially useful. On the other hand, many of the points seemed little more than fairly obvious and common sense principles. This fact may not lessen their importance, however.

In summary, if you are looking for a quick read that provides a solid treatment of fundamental time management concepts, then, this is a book that might be worth a look.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Accidental Billionaires - by Ben Mezrich

There is a good chance you have seen the trailer from, an advertisement for, or a story about the upcoming Facebook movie "The Social Network". That movie is based upon this book. In it, Ben Mezrich presents a story about the very beginnings of Facebook, the the social networking giant that, today, has over 500 million active users.

This is the tale of how Mark Zuckerberg, as a Harvard undergraduate, envisioned and created Facebook. It is equally a story, however, about how several others with an early affiliation to Zuckerberg and Facebook were left behind. For example, Eduardo Saverin was a good friend and founding business partner who was eventually pushed aside. Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, who approached Zuckerberg to help them with a social networking site of their own, believe he stole their idea. Sean Parker, the cofounder Napster advised Mark helped Facebook get a foothold in Silicon Valley, but also was forced to leave after being arrested for drug possession.

Mr. Mezrich, himself a Harvard graduate, does a very good job of depicting college life and traditions at this Ivy League campus. He also stresses the message that the social acceptance and sex were key incentives and drivers for the college aged male developers of Facebook.

In an Author's Note, Mr. Mezrich describes this book as a dramatic, narrative account. I am paraphrasing, but he explains that he did a lot of research and portrayed the history and timeline as correctly as possible. In the case of discrepencies, however, he used his best judgement. He also imagined some details of settings or descriptions where they were missing information and similarly changed details about some of the people to protect their privacy. He employs the technique of recreated dialogue. Mark Zuckerberg refused his requests to contibute to the content of this book. This reminded me of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, (a very good book) which employed similar techniques. In that case, however, as John Berendt was writing about many of his own conversations and interactions, it seemed more credible. My biggest doubts with The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayalstem from the fact that, in this book, Mezrich is documenting implications about Mark Zuckerburg's thoughts, motives, and intentions, without ever even talking to him about it.

When I picked up the book, I thought, with a title like Accidental Billionaires, that this would be a story of nerds triumphing over the cooler social crowd. After reading it, though, I not sure what I think. One interpretation is that Mark Zuckerberg was a manipulative nerd. Another is that he had a brilliant vision for a social networking site and the necessary commitment and skill to make it such a dominant commercial product. I would not consider this a great read, but I don't regret the time I have spent on it either. Now I will definitely have the see the movie.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Worst Case - by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge

Michael Bennett is a New York City cop and single father with a non-traditional clan of ten adopted kids; an Irish priest (Seamus) as his grandfather; and a "god-send" of an au pair (Mary Catherine) to help him keep everyone happy, healthy, and where they need to be. Detective Bennett was first introduced in Step On a Crack, where he was forced to simultaneously deal with a diabolical high-profile hostage situation and his wife's final days, dying of terminal cancer. In Run for Your Life, he matches wits with The Teacher, a twisted but smart and skillful murderer committing violent crimes with no apparent link. In this third installment of the series, Worst Case, Mike is pitted against a frustrated social activist driven to the kidnapping and murder of some of New York's wealthiest children. His activity seems to have a religious (Ash Wednesday) tie and his motivation appears to be an attempt to bring focus and awareness upon the injustices and environmental impacts that occurred as a by-product of the wealth and fortune they had amassed.

The more I read of this series, the more familiar I become with Michael Bennett, his ability to juggle his vastly different family and professional lives, his complicated human emotions, and his quick wit. He is a competent but human protagonist that I genuinely empathize with and appreciate his perspective. On the other hand, this Irish American cop is also a very likable guy. In this novel he works closely with Agent Emily Parker, a beautiful abduction specialist from the FBI. His relationships with both Parker and his nanny, Mary Catherine, evolve to the point of some romantic tension.

As you can probably tell, James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge have certainly drawn me in as a bona-fide fan of this series. I do believe, however, that this book also stands well on its own. While it is obvious that I am not fully objective, I found this a very engaging and enjoyable read and highly recommend it.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Brass Verdict - by Michael Connelly

In this legal thriller, Michael Connelly brings back Mickey Haller. Since we left him, in "The Lincoln Lawyer," Mickey has struggled. Confronted with addition, he has critically damaged and jeopordized the relationships with and respect of his daughter and her mother (his ex-wife) that he so values. In this book, we find him putting his life back together.

The story begins with some background about a long-ago case where Mickey, as a young public defender, crosses paths with a rising prosecutor named Jerry Vincent. His loss to Mickey on this case forces Vincent into private practice, something Jerry thanks Haller for. Fast forward a number of years and Jerry Vincent is murdered. It turns out, however, that his contracts contain clauses naming Haller as the person with first shot to take over his cases, should he be unable to represent them himself. Suddenly, Mickey's recovery, going well and including plans to ease back into litigation, is greatly accelerated. Among his "inheritance" from Vincent is is a high profile murder case involving a prominent Hollywood producer, Walter Elliot, who is accused of killing his much younger wife and her lover. The client wants to go to trial on schedule, so Mickey must scramble to keep this case.

Harry Bosch, the lead in many of Connelly's novels, is the detective assigned to the Vincent murder. Harry, the cop, and Mickey, the defense attorney, are somewhat strange allies, but Mickey agrees to be used as bait to draw out the killer. If you are familiar with some of Connelly's other stories, you may already know that Haller and Bosch have a family link. In this novel, more information about that is revealed.

I really like Mickey Haller. He is bright, intelligent, and an excellent lawyer. On the other hand, he has his demons, weaknesses, and flaws. His relationships are somewhat non-traditional. His case manager is an ex-wife and his lead investigator is dating her. The mother of his daughter, Maggie, another ex-wife, is a prosecutor. He genuinely cares for all of them. He adores his daughter, Hayley. In this book, he tries to help out Patrick, a new client he also inherits from Jerry Vincent. He sometimes struggles with the ethics of being a defense attorney, but with good reason. He tries to do the right thing. I really enjoyed seeing this story through his eyes.

Connelly's use of twists and turns in this book, in my opinion, was near perfect. There were enough surprises to keep me engaged and interested, but they were not forced. Many of the events were unexpected, but after reading them, they made sense and fit. All in all, I thought that this was a very good read and I highly recommend it.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Associate - by John Grisham

John Grisham is one of my favorite authors. As "The Associate" came out a little over a year ago (January, 2009), I'm not sure what took me so long to get around to it. If you liked Grisham's earlier legal fiction thrillers, this one is of a similar mold.

Kyle McAvoy is editor of the Yale Law Journal and has a very bright future. He is being recruited by top law firms, including Scully & Pershing of Wall Street, with whom he had a summer internship. As the well grounded son of a small town (York, Pennsylvania), main street lawyer, though, he has more idealistic goals for his prospective legal career. When ambushed with a newly surfaced video of an episode from his past, all of that quickly changes, however. Years earlier, while at Duquesne University, Kyle an his roomates wound up drunk in a room with a young girl. Two of the boys (not Kyle) had sex with the girl while she may have been passed out. At the time, allegations of rape were quietly dismissed. Now, however, the emergence of a video changes things. It threatens not only Kyle's bright future, but also places his old college roommates and friends at risk. Because of this, he is forced to succumb to blackmail.

A mysterious man with the alias, Bennie Wright, becomes his handler and forces him to work as his spy, towards the goal of obtaining highly classified information associated with a multibillion-dollar lawsuit between two defense industry giants. Kyle must, against his will, turn his life over to a New York firm and assume the highly competitive and stressful, but well-paid position of a first-year associate. Although he continually struggles to achieve an acceptable balance between keeping Bennie happy and avoiding the slippery slope of ethical and/or criminal behavior, events are quickly pushing him towards a point of no return, where he will eventually be forced to provide unauthorized and confidential client information. Constantly under surveillance, his life is no longer his own. Who is Bennie and who is he working for? Can Kyle survive this and find a way out?

In my opinion, the true strength of Grisham's novels lies in his characterization. Almost everyone in the story is interesting for one reason or another. In "The Associate," that is just as true as ever. His college buddies are Joey Bernardo, the newly responsible Pittsburgh stock-broker with a fiance and a baby on the way, and Baxter Tate, an alcholic and addict from a wealthy family who is going through a last chance detox and finds religion. Kyle himself comes from a somewhat broken but functional family. His father is a decent man who has dedicated his life to the practice of law within and on behalf of the small town community that he lives in. Although divorced from Kyle's mother, he looks after her. On her meds, she is an untalented, but contented artisan. Off of her meds, her life is much more depressing. Through Kyle's new career, we are exposed to many interesting associates and partners. His friend and love interest, Dale, for example, is a rather quiet, former math teacher turned lawyer. Above all, Mr. Grisham is a consummate storyteller and, personally, I find his characters to have depth.

I found "The Associate" fast paced and a very enjoyable read. Many may not appreciate the ending. Given my previously noted bias, you may want to take this with a slightly skeptical view, but I recommend this book. In the end, I found it an interesting story that I wanted to keep reading all the way through. Those are the kind of books I like to read.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Richistan - by Robert Frank

"Richistan" is a book that provides some insight into the lifestyles of the rich (some may not really be considered famous). The author, Robert Frank, maintains a blog for the Wall Street Journal entitled The Wealth Report. On June 5, 2007, his post, "Why Richistan? Why Now?" was about the release of this book on that day. In this article, he points out that "the wealthy weren’t just getting wealthier — they were forming their own virtual country. They were wealthier than most nations, with the top 1% controlling $17 trillion in wealth. And they were increasingly building a self-contained world, with its own health-care system (concierge doctors), travel system (private jets, destination clubs) and language. ... They had created their own breakaway republic — one I called Richistan. ... The real story behind all this wealth, however, isn’t in the numbers. It’s in the people, and how they’re changing the culture and character of wealth in America. Richistan is largely about a country in flux — one in which Old Money is being shoved aside by self-made entrepreneurs, philanthropy is changing from passive check-writing to “high-engagement philanthropy" ... Most of all, Richistan is about the entertaining way that today’s rich are making, spending, donating and living with their wealth."

Although Richistan's population is less than 10 million today, they control more than 90% of America's wealth. Even in Richistan, however, there is a hierarchy. Lower Richistan with its members having only $1 million to $10 million in net worth are considered by many to be simply affluent, rather than true Richistanis. The world of personal jets, amazing yachts, and corporation sized house staffs, are found in Middle and Upper Richistan, as well as Billionaireville. Just as the gap between the most wealthy and the poor is ever widening, so is a similar gap between the wealthiest and entry-level Richistanis. In case you are too jealous of those in Richistan, however, apparently, having all of that money brings its own set of problems. Improving (or even just maintaining) ones lifestyle can be stressful. For example, Richistan is faced with a much higher inflation rate.

Although this book is only a few years old, it precedes most of the recent and dramatic economic downturn. As such, a recurring thought to me throughout the book, was what impact, if any, that the recent economic crisis had on Richistan. In a March 18, 2009 blog post entitled "Help, I’ve Been Deported From Richistan", Frank somewhat addreses just this question. He explains that, "now, the Richistan border is jammed–with people getting deported. It turns out that many of these immigrants acted like they belonged but were really illegal aliens who got into Richistan with tourist visas and fake passports, also known as borrowed money. Others lost their right to citizenship through their investments: The number of millionaires dropped by a quarter last year and is likely to drop again this year." I would expect, however, that the things have probably turned around more quickly for Richistan than the rest of us. In reality, recent events have probably only accelerated even further separation of Richistan, and its wealth, from the rest of society.

As a former foreign correspondent, Robert Frank states his intent and goal to "cover Richistan just as I would cover another country. I wouldn’t judge the rich as heroes or villains, any more than I would judge Indonesians when covering Indonesia. My job would simply be to tell the reader what their world is like and what’s happening there." I think he did an admirable job of achieving this goal. I found the book both informative and entertaining, but always objective.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar - by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

Philosophy is normally "not my thing." In general, I am not a "big thinker" and my interests lie more in the details of how things work rather than in questions such as "why do they exist?" or "what is the greater purpose or meaning?." I do enjoy humor, however, and to me, even a corny joke can be quite enjoyable. This offering, then, which frames philosophical concepts in terms of jokes, is my kind of philosophy book. The authors present philosophy and comedy in a manner they term "philogagging." From Aristotle to Augustine, Nietzsche, Descartes, and Sartre, the concepts of many philosophers are illustrated in a lighthearted and amazingly comprehensible manner through jokes. If you're not into deep philosphical thinking, this book offers some exposure to some weighty thoughts in a very light manner.

There are a number of reasons one may want to read this book. The authors are real philosophy majors with a Harvard academic pedigree. This book could be used as a tool to help one learn and better understand philosophy. The presentation of concepts in the context of jokes was, for my simple brain, very helpful to better understanding and comprehension. While I certainly learned from this book, however, I did not treat it as a textbook. Enjoyment and entertainment was my objective and I was a satisfied customer. While stand-up comics would probably be hard pressed to find material in this book, I found it quite humorous. While what is funny and what is not can be a very subjective opinion, I found this book funny enough to keep me hooked and wanting to read more. I enjoyed this book in both its concept and its organization. I recommend it. Cathcart and Klein also have a new book: Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between
which looks to be in a similar vein. If you enjoy politics, you may consider Aristotle and an Aardvark Go to Washington. Look for either or both of these in a future review. I intend to check them out when I get the chance.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Winner - by David Baldacci

LuAnn Tyler is a very poor young mother in Georgia with movie star looks, little education, and a loser boyfriend. Responding to a potential job interview, she is offered a chance to become the guaranteed winner of the national lottery. LuAnn, a good and moral person, struggles with any involvement in something illegal like cheating to win the lottery, but in an unexpected and unfortunate turn of events is forced into accepting the deal, winning the money, and then disappearing from sight.

After ten years of living like a fugitive, LuAnn sneaks back into the United States under her new name. When a reporter stumbles across an unexpected anomaly and the man behind the lottery fix gets wind of her return against his will, however, LuAnn has a serious problem. I don't want to give too much of the story away, but LuAnn is not the only person who is hiding behind a different identity. In fact, it is a fairly common theme throughout the novel. Baldacci does a great job at intertwining deception and truth to keep the reader guessing.

I found "The Winner" to be very enjoyable and a great read. I was hooked throughout. As you might expect in a thriller, most of the characters are quite extraordinary - none of your run of the mill or average types. All are very well developed, however, and very human. I was able to relate to, on some level, each of the characters on this book. Don't get me wrong, I was behind LuAnn throughout the book, but Baldacci does a great job of incorporating shades of morality throughout the book to make me think about what is right, what is wrong, and what would I do. How could I not recommend it.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

After the Stroke: My Journey Back to Life - by Mark McEwen

The version I read of this book was actually titled "Change in the Weather." As the same book (to my understanding) is currently being marketed and sold as "After the Stroke," I am using the current title and cover image for this review.

While I was never a regular viewer of CBS morning news shows, I do know who Mark McEwen is and find him to be a very likable and talented celebrity. In 2005, after having moved to Orlando, where he was news anchor for a local station there, Mark suffered a stroke during a visit to Baltimore. This was mis-diagnosed, and on his trip home, he subsequently suffered a massive stroke. This book provides a sketch of Mark's life both before and after the stroke. This narrative about his life not only bolstered my positive opinion of him as an on-air personality, but also showed him to be courageous, hard-working, and caring, while at the same time very human.

A stated purpose of the book is to educate about stroke and stroke prevention. By sharing his first hand experience, McEwen does this quite effectively. Although I have had some personal exposure to friends and family who have experienced relatively minor strokes, reading this book made me acutely aware of how little I really knew. Whether this information will be of use to you in stroke prevention, early detection of possible stroke in you or someone around you, or in understanding the implications and possibilities of stroke recovery, this is information we all should know. Stroke is the third leading cause of death in America and the leading cause of adult disability. According to the National Stroke Association, up to 80% of all strokes are preventable.