Monday, December 23, 2013

Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn ---------------------- 2.5 Stars

It was not long ago I finished Gillian Flynn's smash hit Gone Girl, which earned a very solid review from me back in August.  It only seemed like a natural to check out her earlier book Sharp Objects when a friend recommended.  I don't if my expectations were so high after reading Gone Girl, or if the book is just not good, but I was not a big fan.

If you had the pleasure of reading Gone Girl (which, if you haven't, you really should stop reading this right now and go pick that up) you know how great a gruesome mystery novel can be. Riddled with great plot elements, crazy characters, and a side of yuckiness that worked perfectly together, it was a great novel.  I think Flynn tried to do the same with this book, but it just didn't work as well.  (Side note: this actually came first so I probably shouldn't compare them that way; maybe this book helped her get to Gone Girl :) ). 

Basic plot -- newspaper writer who follows the crime beat, goes back to small town in Missouri she grew up in to cover the story of two murders of young kids.  Shocking, she gets woven into the craziness of the town and has something to do with the killer/killings.  So, not a bad set up, but we have some problems.

1. I never bought into the character as she just never seemed real to me.
2. Some of the story lines were so ridiculous especially those of her 13 year old sister and crazy mother
3.  I never bought into some of the workings of the police and cops
4.  There was minimal action and the "mystery" was so slow to develop
5.  Some of it was just gross

There were some good parts though.  It WAS fairly entertaining and an easy read.  It had a lot of dialogue, which I like and the story was pretty scary so it kept me interested for the most part (just slow).

Overall, do yourself a favor and check out Gone Girl if you haven't yet.  If you love it, and are okay with a second best novel with similar theme and set up, then read Sharp Objects, otherwise, I say it's a skip.

Monday, December 9, 2013

How Children Succeed -- Paul Tough ------------------------ 4 Stars

I try not to read too many education books during my free reading time.  As I do it for a living, it's nice to have a get a way sometimes as I spend time with it all day long.  So, when I do read education focused books, those that are written in a 'non-academic' way, are the easiest to get through.  Those that are also quite interesting are a big bonus.  So, Paul Tough's How Children Succeed was a pleasure it was an easy and fascinating text. 

The subtitle of this book is "Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character", you can probably gather that the main focus of the book is the author's claim that how much effort a students put into school is the most important element of success.  This goes counter to what many believe, as most think student's IQ and intelligence is the main determinant of future well being.  Needless to say, I truly enjoyed the idea behind his premise and believe in it fully.

The book is a quick, easy read and he does a fine job of relating a variety of anecdotal and data drive information to prove a variety of points.  Written in a "Gladwellesque" style, the reader goes from chapter to chapter being told interesting story after interesting story all to make certain points clearer and more easy to believe. 

While I think Tough's major push in the book was to get a wide audience to read the book in a bigger context of looking at students in a whole in our educational system, he really does a bait and switch as his true goal is to make the reader aware of his biggest area of interest: poor students in under performing schools.  Don't get me wrong, I still think it's a great book and well argued, but the major case he is making are for specific ways we could change the system to make massive saves of a consistently under performing, and often forget about, group.  He reminds me a lot of Jonathan Kozol, for you fans of him.

No real drawbacks besides the fact that the book does not fully deliver on the expectation of the title.  Additionally, it does kind of get bogged down in some areas and I don't think he hammers home his points as well as possible.  Also, as I judge mostly on entertainment value, this book does pretty well but it's still a book about education, albeit, an awfully good one that I urge you to read even if you are not an educator as it gives you great insights into why people are successful.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Walden on Wheels - Ken Ilgunas ----------------------- 2.5 Stars

Lately, I have been reading far more books on my Kindle than on paper.  Usually, I borrow them from Arlington or Montgomery County.  You can't get new releases very easily but any older books, it is a quick and FREE download.  So, when I saw the newly released Walden on Wheels  on Kindle for only $4, I thought it was certainly worth the download.  I now know why it's only $4... at best, that's its value. 

You should understand the premise: some kid in graduate school decides he can't stand having any student debt so he decides to live in a van during his time in school.  There is an implicit and explicit kinship with Thoreau's Walden, hence the name of the book. 

Overall, the book is, OK.  It's not awful, but is also not very good.  It starts with a very exciting entry of this dude in his van about to potentially be found out by the cops while on campus.  The book then sprawls in to the next couple hundred pages of the back story that brought him to that point.  I remember this specifically as I was at the 66% notification on my Kindle when the book finally got back to the point at which it started.  That first 66% of the book is a bit rough.  Stories about this guy's lust for the wilderness, living differently, and issues with society litter most of the novel.  While you might appreciate his view on life, it gets old after a while and his constant stories about returning to Alaska (which I think he did for, what felt like, every summer of his life) wore after a while.

The good parts were the last third of the book for sure, along with a fairly informal and enjoyable writing style.  You do, sort of, feel for the protagonist and friend's plight as many had a similar one.  Go to college with no real goal, go into massive debt, finish college and have no real way to pay off debt or utilize degree earned.  Unlike the author and buddy though, I never felt the need to 'fight' society for all of it's ills and assure I go against the system.  While I appreciate freedom (truly, the ultimate goal of the author), it's not worth the cost of security and assurance of safety. 

In general, the book is probably worth the $4 price tag.  It's sort of a novel idea, fairly interesting, and not the worst piece of writing.  However, it's certainly not a great read and you have to really enjoy the philosophies put forth of the author as they are fairly pervasive and make up the large amount of the novel whenever the reader begins to question why in god's name does he live in a van?  Enjoy!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

The Twelve -- Justin Cronin ----------------- 3 Stars

You may remember a few months ago when I raved about Justin Cronin's The Passage.  It was one of the few books that I have reviewed to ever garner 5 stars.  Well, lo and behold, I found it is a trilogy (which really makes me feel better about the ending of the first book :)).  The second book in the trilogy is The Twelve.  As I had finished the previous book less than 4 months ago, I was very excited about reading the you can guess from my rating, it did not impress like the first.

One of the things that made me so excited about reading this book was to find out what happened to some of the characters of the other book.  Well, I did found out what happened to them, unfortunately, it took about 250 pages to get to that point.  To say this book started 'slow' is a massive understatement.  In fact, I'm not sure if I would have kept going if this was a book I just picked up for the first time and had no history with the author or story.  But, I kept going and the book slowly got better.

The good -- The book does keep you up about the favorite characters from the last story.
The book is still well written, and if you can keep with the story after the slow start, is quite good
The book had an ending, of sorts, while still making you excited about the final book in the trilogy
The book is still a great story about good vs. evil

The bad -- Like I said earlier, really slow start
The book is all over the place and jumps around far more often than the previous book
The book seems to not connect some events until much, much later
The books focus is on many of the smaller characters from the last book or on new characters.  While this is nice in some ways, it is a shame to get away from some of the characters that were so well established and love from the previous book.

Overall, it is a must read if you read The Passage and were a fan of it.  Although not a great book, it is still quite good if you liked the first book and is a book you have to read if you are going to continue the trilogy.  I am really excited about finishing the trilogy with Justin Cronin's next book that comes out next year. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Dream Team -- Jack McCallum ------------------- 3 Stars

I don't really have a lot to write about today.  Partly it's because school starts very soon and time is not nearly as plentiful as it is earlier in the summer, and the book Dream Team by Jack McCallum really does not inspire me to write a great deal.

The book, as you can probably guess from title and cover picture, is about the 1992 Dream Team that won gold in basketball in Barcelona.  I love basketball and I loved this team (back at the ripe old age of 12) at the time so I thought this book would bring back great memories, have great insights, and be a real page turner... it was all of those things but only in some very small quantaties.

The good --
It's an easy read and I breezed through in about a week
It did have some great insights about how the team was originally created (sorry, Isiah Thomas), how they interacted with each other, and what life was like for some of the greatest players to ever play the game
The best part were the stories about the guys and their personal lives that I was never aware (a few: Stockton was so unrecognizable he would walk around Spain asking people about himself, Barkely would go out all night, Jordan was obsessed with beating everyone at everything, Laetner's best ability might be his ping pong skills (he beat Jordan)).  There were a few others about a great scrimmage within the squad a well.

The bad --
You just got most of the highlights above... I mean obviously there is more but I really felt like I was reading a book that could have been condensed to about 100 pages from 300.
It became really annoying how often the author had to talk about himself.  I assume Jack McCallum has been around for a while and is some big shot for SI, but does every chapter have to include some reference to his own part in this?  Jeez.
Much of the book I was already aware of or knew about so it was a bit repetitive for me
I didn't love his style of writing.  Although easy to read it was told in a very boiler plate kind of way and had little excitement.  

So, overall, I would pick this up if you are a die hard b-ball fan or love the Dream Team otherwise I would avoid.  While a few of the nuggets from this made the press (i.e. Isiah was left off cause MJ didn't want him), you can just check the old news and learn that stuff. 


Thursday, August 1, 2013

Gone Girl -- Gillian Flynn --------------- 4.5 Stars

Not long ago I wrote about the phenomenon where something is such a big hit, that I almost feel stupid to not check it out.  Almost always, when I do then check it out, it invariably is quite awesome and there is a reason that everyone loves it (I'm to lazy to find the old post but I had a few examples to prove).  That's kind of the reason I eventually decided to read Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl.  While I knew the book was incredibly popular and saw the cover everywhere, I thought it was your average (excuse the awful upcoming stereotype) "chick" novel.  You know, the Nicholas Sparks, they love each other so much that I have to throw up in my mouth now; but, oh no, this book was quite different.  This was, oh my god these people hate each other and maybe have murdered one another... so yeah, it was awesome.

So the basic premise that had me finally pick up the book was the realization that this book was really about a quite dysfunctional marriage that eventually leads to the wife going missing (hence the title).  What's so great about the book though, is the story that goes with it.

There were a number of things I loved about the book.  First, the actual story is awesome.  I mean, it is a great mystery, it constantly keeps you guessing, you can't wait to read the next chapter or entry.  It's great.  Second, I love the way it is told.  Basically, you have a sort of 'present' day version of the events told by the husband and then every other chapter is a 'past' version of events told by the wife.  At some point the two entries catch up with each other and you basically then get the same version of events from a very different point of view.  The book also has three distinct parts that make the actual story and how it's told even more interesting.  Great format.  Third, she is a very good writer.  Not in the, 'wow, I can't believe how beautiful that sentence was', but more of the 'wow, this lady is pretty cool and really understands people and the modern society we live in' writing.  She kind of reminds me of how Jonathan Franzen writes some things.  Major note though, the book is quite vulgar in both language and lewdness.

Small drawbacks: as I just said, pretty raunchy.  More of an issue though, the ending.  In some ways the ending was set up to be a disappointment.  The book is so exciting and mid to late chapters so interesting, that in many ways the climax of the book happens far before the end and the ending then is almost the tying of up loose ends.  I guess the book is really so good and interesting that it could not keep up its inertia all the way through.  Most books have a plot that moves forward, climax right before the end and then the sort of outcome or finalization of the climax (I think this is called denouement, if it is my high school english teacher did a nice job).  Anyway, this book did that but the rising action finished with like a quarter of the novel left... odd.

Big picture -- this book earned 4.5 stars.  It's very, very entertaining.  An easy and enjoyable read.  One of the few books I read recently where I actually slowed down because I wanted to revel in it and enjoy it longer.  No 5 stars just because it's not epic and the writing is quite crude (along with many of themes around sex and violence).  I still urge you to pick it up.  It's quite popular and there is a definite reason for that.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Inferno -- Dan Brown ------------------ 3.5 Stars

On occasion, I read a book and I really want to give it a better rating but usually it lacks excitement or 'entertainment value' and I do not.  As I have been doing since the start, I tend to do my ratings based on how entertaining the book is.  In the case of Dan Brown's Inferno, it's the opposite.  This is a book that should have received a lower rating for a variety of reasons, but wouldn't you know, it was a really fun, interesting read that I felt obligated to give a decent rating.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past 10 years, you probably read/saw/or heard about Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.  It was a great, repeat, GREAT book.  Inferno was not, repeat, NOT a great book... it wasn't even a good book.  I am not sure what happened; it's hard to tell how much is the book and how much is me.  A really similar thing happened a few years ago when I read a John Grisham book for the first time in a while.  It was called The Appeal and the review is here, but bottom line is, things that seem really cool when you are younger, aren't as cool nowadays.  As a case in point, Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code was soooo cool.  It was interesting, and educational, and fun, and seemed accurate in a good way while Inferno, while interesting, does not seem that educational, was not nearly as fun, and while possibly accurate, far less of usefulness and consequence.  Overall, just not nearly as good a book.

I guess it's just hard to NOT compare it to Da Vinci Code, but I probably shouldn't.  It still has Dan Brown's signature ability to captivate the reader at the ends of chapters to keep reading, puts fairly interesting main character Robert Langdon in fascinating positions, makes tons of connections to geographic history (this time it's Italy) and connects lots of what the 'bad guy' is doing to an ancient text (in this case Dante's Inferno).  Obviously, there is plenty to like and the constant action and continuous mystery of what will happen next is what makes this book as good as it is.... but...

But, you just don't care that much as you do in his other books.  It all seemed to unreal.  First, I found the connection to the Inferno not nearly as captivating as you know, the stuff about Jesus in the last book.  Second, the major point of this book is about population growth, besides being something that I don't find all that interesting and controversial, Dan Brown's rather obvious, 'I'll hit you over the head with what my views are' way of writing, bothered me to no end.  Third, the ending was fairly lame and really did not 'conclude' the story.  Fourth, although the mysteries that Langdon figures out are interesting, they seem like Brown is trying way too hard to make them cool.  In many ways, it was like Brown went out of his way to try to make another Da Vinci Code, just basing it in Italy and about Dante's Inferno.  The problem is you can't make another Da Vinci Code; I wonder if he would have had more luck just writing a great book that wasn't trying to be an obvious rip off of a former book.

So, you can probably tell I had some real issues with this book, but as I said before, it really is a nice, easy to read, fun novel that you can fly through and still find exciting and interesting.  But just don't be surprised when you get to the end and you think it's a very poor excuse and replication of the original Da Vinci Code. 

Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Passage -- Justin Cronin ----------------- 5 Stars

This is a very special blog.  Today, Justin Cronin's The Passage enters into some very elite company as it garners my highest rating: 5 stars.  It is a rare feat to enter into this club, but this book, with it's amazing mix of fantasy, great dialogue, wonderful action, and interesting question marks throughout make it an easy A and earn it admission into the 5 star club.

A  quick summary - some scientists work with the government to create people that have been given some special viruses to make them hopefully last forever and perhaps cure cancer.  This goes wildly wrong (shocking, I know) and they become really bad, sort of zombie like people which sort of leads to the end of the U.S.  Some people survive and this is their story about how it happened and the future of this new world. 

I wanted to start off with something bad to say about it, but doing so would just be picking nits.  Perhaps its too long at around 800 pages, or it jumps a bit too much from story or time in history (yeah, it's one of those), or it is a bit slow to get started and the reader truly hooked, but again, these are small issue.

In the end, the Passage is just phenomenal.  The Passage reminds me of a mix of Lonesome Dove (my review here) and The Stand (my review here).  While both of those books were very good, if you put them together, you get the masterpiece that is The Passage.  As I said briefly in the first paragraph, the book is a bit fantastic.  It's not really a story that could happen (at least we hope not) as it's a bit apocalyptic and about future societies but at the same time it's not so fantastic that you couldn't think it could happen.  For me, this is just the right amount of science fiction; still based in reality but not very likely.  What's perhaps most outstanding about this book is the writing.  This might seem obvious but Cronin has a great ability to switch styles and gears (which he did often to great effect) throughout the book.  There are pieces that written like poems and are quite lyrical, while the next chapter might describe an epic battle in great detail and with all the gore and action, while the next might include dialogue from key characters that you give great insights into who they are.  The beautiful writing really gives this book a huge boost. 

So, why did it get 5 stars?  Well, if you remember the well conceived rating system I originally created, I base my ratings on how captivating and interesting it is; basically, was it entertaining?  This book is a home run for that.  It is a truly great story, wonderful and well rounded characters, very good dialogue that keeps you on the edge of your seat (or bed), superb action that truly puts the reader in the middle of events and a great philosophical fight between good and evil.  I really wish I could add more to detail how fantastic this book really is but I am not sure what else to say.  But please, do trust me.  It's a long read, and you kind of have to be okay with the whole zombie thing (but again, nothing like Twilight... it's not really zombies just, sort of, other 'beings'), and the ending is kind of vague (hence the sequel called "The Twelve" (can't wait to read that)) but it beats anything I have read in a long time.  

As I said, this books joins elite company -- do yourself a favor and read it if you have not; you will not regret a single page.  

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars -- John Green ------------------ 3.5 Stars

First, let me say, that The Fault In Our Stars by John Green is Young
Adult or YA.  I don't read many (check: any?) YA but I gave this book a try.  It is, of course,  a New York time bestseller (what isn't nowadays?).  Overall, it's a not a bad read and might be worth your time but I just want to make sure you know what you are getting into before you start.

Well, first off, this is written (I guess) for a younger group of readers.  This make sense on a number of levels.  First, most of the main characters are teenagers.  Second, the book is written through the eyes of a teenager and Green does a great job of really portraying what a 16 year old girl really does think/say.  It's also a book that puts a lot of effort into making the characters seem 'too cool' for many things.  In my opinion, this starts to get really annoying after a while, though probably typical of a teenager in many ways.

So, probably the most important thing to know about this book is what it's about.  Cancer...well, and love.  Quick premise:  teenage girl with terminal cancer gets through life and meets another boy with terminal cancer and they fall in love.  I guess that's kind of important to know and probably a big reason why I did not enjoy this book as much I could have.  See, it's really quite sad.  First, it's cancer.  Second, it's kids with cancer.  Third, it's kids very sick, who might die, with cancer.  So, for some people this probably might be a great theme though Green does a great job of not making it sadder than it has to be, but the story is still a bit of a downer.

Ok, let's get to the positives because it really has some great aspects.  First, it's wildly entertaining. It's funny, and cute, and creative and a really nice read.  Second, the characters, though 'too cool for everything and everything is ironic', are really nicely shaped and it's hard not to like them.  Third, the story does have some great points to make about life and what's important/what's not.  Fourth, because it's YA it's a very easy to read and I think I finished it in a week, so not a big commitment.

Overall, it's worth picking up if you like a good novel (even if YA).  Like I said, easy read, fun to learn about the characters, just remember the book is focused around cancer and even if it's got some humorous parts, it can still be a tough one to get through.  

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Why Don't Students Like School -- Daniel Willingham ---------------------- 4.5 Stars

So, this is kind of a hard rating to explain.  Basically, on a personal
level, I thought Daniel Willingham's Why Don't Students Like School was incredible.  I found it interesting and entertaining and pretty much all the things that I usually judge a book by when making a rating.  YOU, however, may not like this book at all.  In fact, unless you are a teacher, I really doubt that would you get much from this (or perhaps you would, dear reader... what do I know about you?).

 Since you are probably not a cool educator like myself and in 'the know', a bit of background: Willingham is a cognitive scientist and professor at UVA and wrote this book to try to explain how people think, what intelligence is, and mostly, how this all relates to the classroom.  He's a pretty smart guy and his research seems pretty well vetted so most of what he is saying seems to be the Truth.  What's so interesting about it though, is how little of his assertions I was aware of prior to the read.

Now, again, I am not sure if you would enjoy the material if you don't teach or are not into this stuff.  I am really into this sort of thing right now, and this book hit the sweet spot.  In the book, he focuses each of the nine chapters on a major educational question.  Things like: "Is Drilling Worth It"?  and "How Can I Help Slow Learners" and, of course "Why Don't Students Like School" (the answer: it's either too easy or too hard.. the trick: you need to find the perfect middle ground). 

Perhaps why I liked the book so much is that I found myself agreeing with much of what he argued.  Although many ideas were not taught through many of my education courses, what he states often goes inline with what I have observed during the last nine years of teaching.  Of course, a few things seem to me a bit hard to believe (i.e. there is no such thing as learning style), but most of his ideas fly with me and I think should be utilized more by teachers as they would be effectuate change and helping students.

So, perhaps I tantalized you with my positive comments and maybe you want to pick it up.  If you do, it would probably be worth it.  It's a short, easy read and he does a great job of explaining the research and the 'whys' of what he is trying to explain.  Perhaps if you do read it, you might want to go into education (if not already there).  School could always use good teachers and you'd have a good start!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Enduring Love -- Ian McEwan --------------------------- 2 Stars

I don't think I can ever recall a prior time that I have finished a book and been so frustrated.  I mean, really annoyed.  But somehow that managed to occur after I finished reading Ian McEwan's Enduring Love.

I'll try to do my best to explain but first some background on the selection of text.  I was in love with Ian McEwan.  I read his best book, Atonement about two years ago (review here), and more recently, the pretty good Amsterdam.  So, I thought I'd give Enduring Love a try as it had decent reviews and many considered it a very strong book of his.

The premise sounded fairly interesting, a guy out with his girl about to have a picnic witnesses a 'runaway' balloon about to hit power lines and he, along with 3 others, all run to try to save it.  As they do, someone dies in the process but the major story line is a bizarre obsession another person starts with the main character that is pervasive throughout the rest of the novel.  Obviously, its gets dramatic, there is a major climax and typical resolution.

So, back to the frustration.  I am frustrated with many aspects.   First, the story starts out in a very weird way (as described above) and never really gets momentum.  It is an odd story and not much more.  Second, the actual plot is incredibly frustrating.  I mean, I know it's a story, but it was so ridiculous the way it played out and what people decided to do.  Third, the ending is frustrating.  In typical McEwan fashion there are twists and major surprises but unlike earlier novels, the twists don't add to the story, just to my FRUSTRATION!  Sorry, I am a bit annoyed if you can't tell.  Fourth, I might be frustrated with myself for not liking it more.  By all accounts, it is fairly well liked by others and it is very well written.  It's not boring per se, but it is slow for long parts.  It lacks dialogue which bothers me.  I did appreciate alot of the various points he was raising about god vs. science and the individual vs. the community and all that stuff.  So, some of the frustration was with myself as well.

Overall, I actually recommend this book to check out as I think it may have been my various frustrations that prevented the novel from getting a higher rating.  It's a fast read and short, has some beautiful writing and well detailed scenes, and has a fairly interesting plot with good twists at the end.  If you do decide to read and do not enjoy, please do not get frustrated with me; I certainly gave you plenty of other reasons to be annoyed. 

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Social Animal -- David Brooks ---------- 3 Stars

Some books I read I can't even remember how they got on my list or why I ended up deciding to read them.  The Social Animal by David Brooks belongs in that category.   I think I have had this on my list for a couple years now and I finally got to it recently.  I have a feeling the blog I am about to write is going to mimic this book; not bad, but not too good either.

David Brooks is a pretty great columnist for the NY Times who does mostly political stuff...I enjoy him and he is smart.  The book's main premise, as you may guess from the title on the right, is that the real reason people are happy is not from material wealth or intelligence but rather a variety of social abilities that mostly have to do with your character and how you relate to others. 

The good -- the book is nicely written and starts out very strongly.  After an interesting introduction, I was excited to read about the ways in which a person's social skills and things things that are not considered part of 'intellect' really equate to happiness and true success.  Following, the ideas of multiple intelligences and other ways of determine true 'ability', this book focuses on similar ideas.  So, it's a pretty cool premise and some of the studies and statistics that Brooks offers are fascinating.

The bad -- its sort of a long read and it gets progressively less interesting as it continues.  As the story does not really build upon itself, you don't really appreciate it as you continue to read.  It also has some parts where he over writes and continues on for far too long with his point or his viewpoint.

The good and bad -- all of the points he is trying to make in it and items he is trying to make you understand, he does through the telling of a fictional story of two characters.   While I appreciated part of the stories and could get into them for periods of a time, in the end, it just seemed kind of hokey as each characters story would introduce his idea, then he would abandon the fictional story so he could explain his point, then he would get back again.  It was a bit odd. In some cases you could appreciate the tale about the person that sets up his argument while in others it seems forced.

Overall, its a pretty good book.  I would just recommend only reading the first half or 3/4ths as he really makes his major points early on and just (poorly) continues to try to add on or enhance those points as the story continues.  I really do believe that the premise of the book is important and needs to be better understood by people but the way he does it makes it a bit challenging.