Monday, December 31, 2018

In the Time of the Butterflies - Julia Alvarez ----------------- 3 Stars

I'm happy I selected and stuck with this book for a couple of reasons. First, it's not a book that I would normally read. While it does have a majestic looking cover (and great title), the subject of historical fiction/non-fiction (I'll explain below) about a group of sisters in mid-twentieth century Dominican Republic is not really my wheelhouse of interest. Second, while the book starts out quite slowly, it does really get rolling and interesting in the last third. Good for me for picking/sticking with it!

In the Time of the Butterflies is a fictional story based on real life events. The book follows the story of the four Mirabal sistes who worked to take down the autocratic ruler, Trujilo, who ruled over the Dominican Republic in the mid-1900s. The book is fictional, in that the dialogue and parts of the story are made up by the author, but much of the plot is based on real life occurrences.

As I referenced, the book really had a slow start. It followed a pattern of each chapter being told by a different sister from their perspective of the events going on as the story progressed. While it was nice to hear and appreciate the voices of the different personalities, it was a slow go for first half of the novel. Much of it was based on the history of the sisters; schooling, marriage, day to day tasks, etc. While it helped round out and get a better sense of each character, it was hard for me to be engaged with the daily life of a teenage/mid-20 year old woman in this different country.

As the novel moved into the final 100 pages, it became more interesting. As the power of the dictator was running out, and the sisters were more active in finding ways to attempt to "free" the country, the drama was heightened. From what I can gather, the author did an excellent job of following the real life events while adding her own descriptions to the likely conversations that would have taken place.

While I would never had chosen this book on my own, I really appreciated reading and learning about an area of world history I was unaware (especially so close to the US). After finishing, I spent even more time learning about these amazing sisters, their inspirational story, and the legacy they have left in the DR and throughout the world. While not the most exciting or engaging book I've read, it did have a certain charm to how it's told and became even more interesting after I learned about how accurate the story. Definitely worth a read if you are interested in learning about a part of lesser known history and/or you want to get out of your comfort zone of reading.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Station Eleven - Emiliy St. John Mandel ------------------- 2.5 Stars

I'm not sure how Station Eleven got on my "to read" list of books. I can imagine it's popularity as it's another post-apocalyptic similar to the uber popular The Handmaid's Tale and the strong reviews on Amazon probably helped. Like The Handmaid's Tale (my review here), I didn't really enjoy the story with both earning only 2.5 stars. Let's find out why.

While the novel has an interesting concept, it's beginning to become so cliche in the modern storytelling concept. I'm sure you've seen it before. It's the common, sometimes well used and sometimes over used, practice of telling a story, in this case with multiple characters, on two different timelines. As you guess from the introduction, the author goes between the pre and post apocalyptic world, taking the characters and showing their lives at different points of time.

Overall, the characters are interesting. They are a varied in background and Mandel does a good job of rounding them out over the course of the novel. I personally did not find much of a connection with any of them, and while she tried to make a couple of them likeable and interesting, I struggled to find a reason to root for them.

The novel has a nice pace, moving backwards and forwards on the timeline with ease. I enjoyed the action scenes and the constant feel that something exciting would occur at any moment. Part of the excitement of the novel was knowing that you didn't quite know where it would end up. Unfortunately, that was also one of the major limitations. I thought that there would be a much greater climax for an ending.

Perhaps my biggest frustration with the novel is what I alluded to above - I couldn't find a reason to care for or connect with the characters. While I really liked the general arc of the book, the characters, though well described, didn't make a mark on me. I presume the other reason I may not like the book, is perhaps the same reason for the low rating of The Handmaind's Tale; I don't enjoy reading sad literature. When the beginning of the book is killing of a significantly large percentage of the world's population, I usually find this type of story harder to engage.

Clearly I did not enjoy this book as many others that have read it. While it has some interesting elements, good action, and a plot that does keep you engaged, it struggles to create characters to root and care for and presents a pessimistic view of a post-apocalyptic. Perhaps it ends up being a more enjoyable read for you!

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The Shadow of the Wind - Carlos Ruiz Zafon ---------------------- 4.5 Stars

I can't remember how The Shadow of the Wind got on my list of books to read, but I'm certainly happy it did! It's only about ten years old, but it's a superb read.

Quick synopsis -it's a book about a book. Cool, right? Even cooler, this book, The Shadow of the Wind, is about a young boy who turns in to a young man but reads a book, in this book, titled The Shadow of the Wind by a different author (one of the most mysterious characters in this book). It then follows him as he works through the remainder of the novel (the novel sometimes going backwards historically) to figure out the mystery of this book and those surrounded by it.

I really fell in love with this novel. It was one of those, that as I was nearing the end, felt regretful for not having taken it in more slowly. I wish I would have taken more care of each page. It's odd how I got to that place. I certainly felt confused for parts of the novel; other parts, a bit bored or under engaged. But, I realized upon finishing, that I was really in the midst of the piece of art that was being finished. It was not a finished piece, and I was only looking at the pieces individually, which made less sense than seeing them (as I did at the end) as a whole.

So, why did I love it so much? Well, there were many aspects. First, the setting -- mid-19th century Barcelona. Both a place and time that I was a bit unfamiliar. By the end, the author had me thinking about planning a trip to Spain to see so many places that he detailed so delicately (and, from what I can tell, accurately). Second, the book was such a lovely mix of different ideas/themes. It was part coming of age novel, part love story, and part mystery. What was cool, was that each of these areas, shined at different parts. As I got to the last 100 pages, all three of these story lines came into focus. And, as I progressed through the last quarter of the book, each of these themes began pulling stronger and stronger as being the predominant idea of the novel. Beautifully, there was no winner.

What I think was most remarkable about this book was that it simply was an incredibly well told, original, and thoughtful story. It really felt like it was part fantasy or magic, yet all of it was based in reality (though fictional). Really, one of the most enjoyable books I've read of late. I highly recommend!

Saturday, October 6, 2018

Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow ------------------ 3.5 Stars

I would assume that I am part of a majority of people that have read this book in the past three years for one reason - I went and saw Hamilton the musical and became much more interested about Hamilton's life and learning more about the star of the show. As Miranda used this book as the basis for the musical, I figured it would be similar to the musical in enjoyment and entertainment. I was a bit wrong.

Chernow's Hamilton is a book. This is obvious, but really, the key difference. Further, it's a really academic book. By that I mean, it comes in over 800 pages, is beyond detailed in its inclusion of material, is well sourced, and written with more than a few words that made me grab my dictionary. It's also a fascinating tale about, perhaps, the most impressive and unknown of the Founding Fathers.

I don't think this book would be nearly as interesting and well read if not for the musical. I'm sure I would have never picked it up without having a background, provided by the musical, but one that is not full or as detailed as my inquiring mind was hoping. One major difference is the lack of focus on Burr in the novel. Really a side character until the duel at the end, he was such a large part of the musical production. Similarly, I was hoping there would be more about Hamilton's relationship with his sister-in-law; who Miranda presents as a type of love interest in the musical. In real life, it wasn't quite as intense as the musical made it.

One thing that really is quite amazing is how detailed and, from what I can tell, accurate Chernow's book is. Although he primarily only utilized letters and documents left from that time, it must have been a painstaking and timely process to find (no easy task) and go through all of these writings. One element in his favor is the voluminous writing style of Hamilton. Luckily, by the time he is living in America, he is a prolific writer than describes most elements of his life. I believe Chernow's biggest challenge was trying to learn about Hamilton's life until 18. Growing up in Nevis, in the Caribbean, there was little information written about him or that he wrote. Nonetheless, he does a fine job painting a clear portrait of Hamilton's early life.

As a whole, the book is as clear and detailed about Hamilton as one could hope. Really, every important episode of his life is clearly explained (and some less important too). Certainly, all the interesting parts of the musical are provided depth too. However, the book simply can't compare the musical; and nor should it. However, as a person who subconsciously or not was hoping for something similar, the book just couldn't entertain me in the same way. It's still a log, trudging read but necessary for anyone truly interested in learning all about Hamilton's life.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Woman in the Window - A.J. Finn ---------------------------- 3.5 Stars

The Woman in the Window was being marketed as your next Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train. While it certainly follows a similar blueprint - mystery novel with some death mixed in and not sure who's for real or not - it didn't live up to the standard set by either.

Interestingly, I read Gone Girl first, then The Girl on the Train, and now this. And after each, the rating has gone down a half point. It started at 4.5, then 4, and now 3.5. Perhaps they are all equally good and I am tiring of the story line or genre? Or, perhaps, much more likely, the books aren't as good as the original Gone Girl (which was Gone Girl).

Quick synopsis - really drunk lady in New York looks out her windows a lot because she doesn't ever leave her house (due to mysteries you'll need to read to find out) and sees stuff in other apartments, including, wait for it, a murder!

So, seems like a pretty interesting premise and it is actually. The book had a great start and kept me enamored for at least the first 150 (of 400) pages. The problem with the book, is that it's not nearly enough action. Unlike the other two mysteries mentioned above, the action is limited. Really, this book is much more about anxiety and the challenges of the main character (drunk lady). While there was a pretty good OMG ending, the book could never really get me fully invested or excited like the other two did. Please don't get me wrong, its a solid, entertaining read with some great twists that I did not see coming but if you are looking for then next Gone Girl, probably best to keep looking... but read this if you are bored.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Foundation - Isaac Asimov ------------------------- 4.5 Stars

As you can probably tell from most of the books I read, I'm not a big fan of science faction (or worst yet, fantasy). In fact, I've only read a few in the nearly decade I've blogged about books. In that time, one of the best books I ever read was science fiction,  the 5 star Childhood's End. Nonetheless, I avoid most of these types of books knowing I don't love the genre and know that most will not be nearly as good as Childhood's End. However, I had heard for a while that Asimov's Foundation was on the same level. And, for about 3/4ths of this book, it was, then things turned a bit south.

To begin, this book has lots of similarities to Childhood's End. Both were written many years ago (Foundation was 1951), both take place in the future, both are relatively short, both have great dialogue and interesting characters, both jump over large chunks of time, and both are really political dramas mixed with science fiction. Actually, that last element is probably what I like most about both books. While they do describe a future society that is certainly "fictional", this book is really a struggle about world domination and political power.

As I alluded to in the first paragraph, I found the first 75% of this book phenomenal, 5 star level. It was a crisp and exhilarating read that I could not put down. The premise was fantastic and maybe the most influential character only lasted for a few pages, though his legacy seemed to last a millennium.  As the book continued after its fast start, it was a pleasure to try to keep up with. Asimov also did a superb job bringing up a new story line right as the previous one was getting stale; truly, his timing was perfect.

Then, as the novel was getting to it's close, things slowed down. The text wasn't as crisp. The new characters didn't make quite as much sense. The connections and lines from the beginning of the novel weren't tied as closely and the reader began to get a bit more confused and bored. Don't get me wrong, the last quarter still shines and the story line is nearly as good as the majority of the story just not quite as good. As I finished up, I actually wonder if Asimov knew at that point that this would be a trilogy (that eventually turned in 7 books, I believe) and slowed the story down.

Overall, this is a great read. Other than the slow down a bit at the end, it's an exciting and exhilarating story told be a master storyteller. If you have any interest in classic (or modern) science fiction and/or liked Childhood's End, I strongly urge you to read this novel. There is a good chance you will not regret your decision.

Friday, August 3, 2018

A Man Called Ove - Fredrik Backman --------------------- 1.5 Stars

Apparently, A Man Called Ove is one of the more beloved books in the last few years. I mean, just check out that impressive 4.5 star rating with over 16,000 views. People love this thing! So, what's wrong with all of them and what is right  with my 1.5 star rating? 😊 Read further to find out.

So, actually, we're all right. I mean, its a book and people all have their own opinion of what is enjoyable and entertaining to them. Clearly, this one was neither for me. I knew the premise before I started, curmudgeonly old man melts your heart with his external rudeness but internal kindness. I think I liked it better when I saw it the first time in Disney's Up!

I really did have to check myself after finishing. How is it possible that this book is so well liked by others and so disliked by me? Did I not get that under Ove's tough exterior is this super sweet guy who cares for others? No, I got that. Perhaps I missed this books message that no matter how tough life is, you can still find meaning, and yes, even love later on. Figured that as well. So what is it about this book that others find so mesmerizing? I really do think it's Ove.

But here is where they are wrong; everyone's overthinking it. Everyone is looking so deeply into his character and drawing conclusions that you have to work to get to and missing what is right in front your face - this guy is a huge JERK! I mean, really, he is a miserable, awful human being who enforces rules, is incredibly rude to others, and has unbelievably pessimistic view about the world and people! He is not endearing; he is just an a&*hole!

What I think also did this book in, at least to me, as that the story really is quite boring. The events that occur are so menial; his past so expected. Yes, I get it, it's real life; but guess what, real life is boring. I read for entertainment and excitement. This book had neither.

I also think I just have a philosophical disposition that is opposite Ove.  He seems to not enjoy life; he seems angry with most people; he seems to be frustrated a lot... you get the idea. Why live life that way? Worst, why spend time in real life (like I did) reading about a person with this view of life for 300 pages? Well, my recommendation to you is don't do that. Sure, 16,000 people might be right. However, if you want to be entertained with an awesome and exciting story about a well-rounded and optimistic character this is NOT the book for you. If you want the exact opposite, read ahead!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Sing, Unburied, Sing - Jesmyn Ward ------------------------ 4 Stars

I don't necessarily read a lot of new releases or "hot" books, but I simply saw too many out of the universe reviews about Sing, Unburied, Sing to avoid. While not a captivating read, the symbolism and poetic nature of this novel made it shine in many ways.

I remember in an 11th grade English class a teacher and I were talking about what kind of books I liked to read. At that time I had the naive thought that I wanted to be a lawyer and was reading a number of John Grisham novels. After mentioning those, the teacher quickly called them "airport trash" and looked down upon me for reading those types of books. As I pressed him, he gave a fairly snobbish view that I should be reading Literature (think nice English accent). Hundred of books later, I totally understand the difference. Now I don't have the same pretense that some books that are not "literature" are trash. In fact, many of the highly reviewed books I have blogged about would fall into the latter category (because, trash or not, they are highly entertaining!). His point, though, is that books that are Literature have a bit more to them. Well, this book certainly falls in the Literature category.

As I alluded to, this book is getting great press right now, and deservedly so. It is an incredibly well written, poem like novel about a young black boy and his multi-generational family during a short period in their lives in Mississippi. The boy, who's father is in jail, has a drug abusing mother, is being raised by his grandparents, and takes care of his younger sister. The story jumps chapters, and time periods, and first person characters, throughout the novel.

While I enjoyed many elements of the story, I'm not sure I could say it was my favorite book of recent memory. First, the good. The story is fascinating and the plot interesting. I also loved the character development; each of them was unique and full in so many ways. She also is a genuinely great writer with details so vivid it was easy to picture the poor house in rural Mississippi that much of the story takes place. Although I'll go into my challenges in a second, I did love the imagery and poetic nature of the story. So much symbolism and foreshadowing, and though I couldn't keep up (see below), I did appreciate the writing and did what I could with my Poli. Sci. degree.

So, my challenges mostly include that it was written almost too well. Does that make sense? As a true piece of "Literature" (that should be taught in high school classrooms, btw), this book included many literary elements that, while I did my best to keep up with, were beyond me in some cases. I appreciated the creativity but the symbolism, biblical references, ghost like persons, etc. were just too much for me. And, as the novel moved on, they occurred more and more. Some were fascinating though too often, I had to question my own reading of the novel to check for understanding (maybe a good thing?!?).

Overall, I do highly recommend this book. First, my high school English teacher would be proud of you for reading Literature and not airport trash. Second, if you are are like me, you read too many books that are not diverse (check your author list - lot of white dude/gals?). Third, this is a great story with great characters. Finally, don't let my limited/challenged read of the book affect you. You will get out of if what you will, and you'll go online to have smarter people explain to you if you don't 😉.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Chicago Cubs - Story of a Curse - Rich Cohen -------------------- 4.5 Stars

I'm familiar with Rich Cohen as I read one of his other books and blogged about it here. As you can see, this was about the Chicago Bears. Similarly, both books tell the history of each franchise while going into interesting anecdotes and stories about the many individuals that helped form these great organizations. While I liked the Bears book a lot, I found this one even better!

I really enjoyed this book. From the beginning pages, talking about the start of baseball and what the game was like in the 19th century, through Cohen's vivid and excellent recounting of the 2016 Cubs World Series win, Cohen treats each story, person, and page in the book with humor and care. Perhaps because I knew less about the early times of baseball (compared to football) and it goes back much further, I found the start of the book riveting. Learning about the early "mudball" pitchers, the real Babe Ruth, the early Cubs teams that actually won championships, it was a great walk through history.

Later, he goes through all the "lovable losers" Cubs team that my father's generation knew more intimately. He also posits that part of the reason for the beautification of Wrigley was because the owners knew the team was no good and were hoping fans would come out for a day at the beautiful ball park and enjoy the "friendly confines" (interestingly, he said a Yankee friend had their own way of finding beauty with their team... it was called winning).

Near the end, he goes through the lead up to the World Series championship and had a great interview with Theo Epstein that I found fascinating in helping to understand and explain how the Cubs went from being so bad to so good (hint: you have to the former to get to the latter).  Of course, the summary of each individual World Series game (yes, all 7), were probably my favorite pages of the book. I could so vividly remember each of the big plays, the highlights and the heartaches of one of the greatest World Series in baseball history. And, yes, even a few tears were shed again upon "seeing" them win again in my mind.

Perhaps the most unexpected and enjoyable part of the book was Cohen's take on the whole thing. While he delivered the facts and history with great fashion, much of the book was about his own life growing up around Chicago and the life of being a Cubs fan (his father urged him not to be and for part of his life he truly did give up on the team). And that really is the recurring theme of the book; what it was like to be a grown adult while still trying to be a Cubs fan. In my life, it took 35 years to see them win; but for many other Cubs fan, it took a century or never happened. Was there a curse for those 100 years, was there not? All part of the great narrative of his wonderful story!

Friday, June 29, 2018

Ordinary Grace - William Kent Krueger ---------------------- 3 Stars

Ordinary Grace had been on my to read list for a while now after seeing excellent reviews about this book when it was released a few years ago. While I did enjoy many aspects of it, I found the entertainment value lacking leading to an average, 3 star rating.

It's a very slow novel. That's really it's biggest problem. The characters are fairly interesting, and the plot is actually quite fascinating. I also liked that it was told from the beginning of the events all the way through the final part of the main characters' lives (who were children at the beginning of the story). The story, which centered around three deaths in a small town during one summer, really had legs to it. The challenge I found was that the author drew out too many parts, slowing down far too often and filling large parts of the novel with inconsequential, though occasionally interesting scenes.

When I started the novel, I really appreciated the authors style and pace. It was a like a slow, beautiful walk. The scenery was described in great detail, and I could picture the town and environment as well as any novel I've read. As the drama of the story began to rise, I would have thought the speed of the story would have quickened with it. Instead, the author continued to slow play the action, perhaps hoping the reader would appreciate the slowed pace and continue to want more. While I certainly wanted to know what happened with the mystery of the various deaths, I would have preferred to have it done in a quicker way.

Overall, Ordinary Grace is not a bad novel at all, and I can certainly understand why it has received such strong endorsements and reviews from many critics. The story is great and the author has a great hand for storytelling...just know that it's going to take a while for that full story to be delivered.

Monday, May 28, 2018

The Great Alone - Kristin Hannah ------------------ 4 Stars

Kristin Hannah is most well known for the wonderful novel, The Nightingale (review here). So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I decided to take on her newest book, The Great Alone. This was not a book I was particularly looking forward to and, knowing how strong her last novel was, I was worried she couldn't match. But as I couldn't find another book to take on at the moment, I gave it a try. And, for the most part, I'm pretty glad I did.

The story follows a family of a Vietnam vet venturing to a remote part of Alaska to set up a new life. The family includes a caring wife and open minded daughter. The book starts off slow and continues to be real slow. In fact, nearly the whole first half is told in a very meandering, placid style. I'm quite convinced that the author does so partly to build interest, but more so, to have the reader better appreciate and get a sense of the pace of living in Alaska. One of the most enjoyable, and frightening parts of the novel, is how well Hannah describes and makes you, almost viscerally, understand what it's like living in Alaska. Her descriptions of this amazing state is one of the reason I enjoyed the novel as I did. To be clear, I would never want to live there and appreciate more now than ever before, the great challenge those living in Alaska year round face.

After a lot of set up and a couple of quick time changes, the novel started to really take off. Actually, for a little while, I thought it took off too quickly. It was odd to go from no real action to an avalanche of wild things taking place so quickly. I was beginning to think the author blew it and took this carefully told story and went full on action movie. But, with great care, she turned it back to the tender love story from the beginning and brought the reader back to where she began. I really think she did a phenomenal job of returning to ome of the original story lines while making sure that they fit with the movement forward of the story.

Overall, this is a well told story about life in Alaska, young love, and the unpredictable challenges life provides. Although I doubted the book before I even began, about half way into, and again as the story neared the end, I should not have. Hannah did a great job of taking the reader on an interesting and enjoyable adventure into Alaska and beyond.

Friday, May 11, 2018

The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood --------------------- 2.5 Stars

You'd probably have to be under a pretty large size stone to not know about or heard of The Handmaid's Tale. While the book has been around since the 80's, it's become much more well known since Hulu made a television series about that earned a Golden Globe. While I did have this book on my "to read" list well before the series, I did feel the push to read after hearing how  great the show was. And, the book is always better than the movie/show, right?

Well, to answer my own question, I am not sure. I actually haven't seen the show, but based on my dislike of the book, it may not turn out to be accurate in this case. So, what gives, right? How can this phenomenal tv series and beloved book only earn 2.5 stars? Well, it's mostly because it made me angry and sad. If you're totally unaware of plot, this is a dystopian novel about a future that is a monotheocracy (yeah, I had to look that word up too), that more or less enslaves woman (and many men).

What's really quite astonishing about the novel is Atwood's amazing ability to make the reader, almost viscerally, feel what the protagonist is going through. Written from a first person perspective, it's powerfully penned. I truly felt much of the anxieties and fear of the main character which actually led me to have displeasure about the book. So, in many ways, this book is quite incredible. It's one of the few books I've read lately that had me thinking about the themes and characters while not reading. It's also not a coincidence that Hulu took a risk on making this into a show in our current politically charged environment. In fact, one could not help but make the connections and have fear about the "fictional" future from this book and the actual future we are making for ourselves right now.

The book has many positive qualities. Besides the great descriptions of the main character and her thoughts described above, it's a fascinating description of this dystopian world. In some ways the book is a mystery, because it's written as first person, and it jumps timelines, so its never quite clear to the reader what is going on. Even the epilogue, which takes place centuries after the time setting of the novel, does make clear exactly how the country changed or who was ruling.

Overall, I grade the novels on how entertaining they are to me. While occasionally interesting, I did not feel a constant need to finish this book; in fact, there were times, mostly due to anxiety, that I almost wished I didn't have to keep reading. While this is a testament to the great writing skills of the author, it did not make want to continue the book. Perhaps you might feel different, but know that you have been warned (poor offering of me trying to be ominous like many parts of this book).

Friday, April 20, 2018

Fatal Vision - Joe McGinniss --------------------- 5 Stars

Fatal Vision has been on my "to read" list for a number of years. It's one of the best true crime books ever written, some saying on the same level of Capote's In True Blood. While it is a bit dated, and certainly has lead to some controversies, the book was enthralling and I couldn't put it down. As you can see above, it is one of only a few books I've ever read to earn a 5 star rating.

Quick premise if you are unaware about what it covers: Jeffrey MacDonald, a Princeton educated, Green Beret doctor is accused of killing his wife and two young daughters. Although the murders occurred in 1970, he was not put on trail and found guilty until 1979. Why? Well, that's what much of the book covers. Actually, the book goes back well before 1970, tracing MacDonald's early life, through the murders, and much afterwards. What's fascinating is that McGinniss became quite close for a number of years to MacDonald while working on the book (which led to some of the controversies noted earlier). McGinniss does an amazing job of weaving the varying timelines throughout the novel. So, while you are moving forward from the murders through the various evidence gatherings and trial, he also is going back in time to reveal more and more about MacDonald's life and history. In fact, the first quarter of the book vacillates between a love story between MacDonald and his wife (at least from MacDonald's vantage point) and a gritty crime story.

So, why did the book earn an elusive 5 star rating? Because it's undeniably fascinating and addicting! While close to a 1,000 pages, I flew through this book in only a few weeks (aided by lots of free time during Spring Break). I really struggled to put it down. As much as many have questioned and derided McGinniss' work, I found his writing simple, yet exhilarating. His way of slowly raising small issues, detail by detail, and then letting it grow until it overtakes your thoughts is simply amazing! While I have read my share of true crime novels before, this was the most awesome in scope, story and mystery. And that truly is what this book is all about - mystery! Did he do it? Could he have done it? If so, how? If so, why? If not, why is the evidence and stories (yes, stories, they all change often) so confounding?

In fact, that was another remarkable piece about the book - how much I still wanted to read and learn about after finishing. While this book came out in the early 1980s, McGinniss wrote two epilogues,  the last in 1989 to directly address other staying that he tricked MacDonald and got too close to him. Since, then, of course, there has been more "evidence" and statements brought about. This includes a 2012 book offering a different viewpoint about what really happened.

In the end, I'm left a bit like I am with the JFK assassination (an area of deep immersement of mine for a few years); while I think I know what happened, there is about 15% doubt in my head. And this 15% doubt is really tough for me. I want so much to know what happened on that night. Who is lying and why? But, alas, like many great crime mysteries that will likely never be solved, and, instead, I'll have to continue thinking back to the vivid experience of reading Fatal Vision and continuing to guess at what might of happened to the MacDonald family that evening.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Classic Krakauer: Mark Foo's Last Ride, After the Fall, and Other Essays from the Vault -- Jon Krakauer --------------------- 4 Stars

So, Classic Krakauer is actually a newly released book though it is a collection of essays he's done over the past 20 years. Nearly all are focused on nature, or some connection to nature, but his classic straightforward and pure writing style is a commonality of each essay.

I must profess that I am a big fan of Jon Karkauer's writing. He has written some great non-fiction books. Among my favorites are: Under the Banner of Heaven, Missoula, Where Men Win Glory, and probably his best, Into Thin Air. It's odd, because I often don't realize how much I like his writing until I finish one of his books and realize just how engaging and well he tells stories; it was no different  with this one.

Classic Krakauer is a collection of about a dozen essays he wrote in various publications over the last few decades (Smithsonian magazine, Outside magazine, etc.). Only about 150 pages, the varying subject matter and classic succinct language, makes this an easy but thoroughly enjoyable read. Many of the essays cover climbing; be it going downwards, into deep New Mexican caves, or more often, going high up, either at Everest, the Cascades and everywhere in between. My favorite two essays included a fascinating exploration of Mark Foo's (a famous surfer from Hawaii) final wave and a look at the terrifying wilderness programs that teens are sent to and, far too often, die while part of the programs.

Clearly, if you don't like a good adventure story, hate nature or find  Earth an uninteresting place, these will not be for you. If, however, you are in awe of our beautiful world and the amazing places on it and man's continued push of himself to conquer this planet, than this book is for you!

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Hate U Give - Angie Thomas ---------------- 4 Stars

One of the pleasures of my job, is working with people who put me onto things that I might not otherwise encounter or check out. This is the case of The Hate U Give.

This book was certainly not on my radar for a couple reasons. Primarily, it a YA (Young Adult) novel and I don't usually read much YA as I'm often not a huge fun of how those types of books are written/stories told (though I did give a shot with Wonder a few years ago). Second, the protagonist is not someone I would have a lot of connections with; she is an African-American high school student from a low socioeconomic area.

Thankfully, these two reasons why I might not have checked out this book were outweighed by the excellent reviews by those who have checked this out. And, as I learned more about the plot, I realized it was certainly worth my time. As for that plot -- the book begins with the main character witnessing a childhood friend (black) killed by a police officer (white). The book then follows the struggle of the protagonist as she was the only witness to this; to complicate, she attends a very white, independent school (with white boyfriend). All of this challenges her as she often feels pulled between two different cultures and parts of her life.

My only real complaint with the book is that it's written as YA fiction. While there is nothing inherently wrong with that, I did find that author would often over explain and/or hit the reader over the head with whatever point she was attempting to make. Additionally, as it's a first person novel written from the place of a 15 year old girl, much of the specifics about her life were hard to me to relate (it's hard being an old white guy!).

Reading diverse books is a great goal for any reader. While I'm open to doing so, I still want to read books of great interest and entertainment to me. With the Hate U Give, I was so pleased it was able to meet both goals. Although it may not have been quite as captivating/interesting as some of the other books I read (mostly due to the YA writing style), it did provide much more awareness into ideas, cultures, and thoughts that are often not common to me. I do recommend this book for any interested reader!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

World Without End - Ken Follett ------------------- 4.5 Stars

It has been almost 9 years ago to the day since I reviewed Follett's masterpiece Pillars of the Earth. What a great book, and one of the very few that has earned 5 stars on this blog! While I'm not sure why it took me nearly a decade to read the sequel, World Without End, I am quite happy it did come back in front of me (literally, it was being given away on a table as I was putting together my lunch!).  Did it equal it's predecessor? Not quite, but pretty darn close.

If you are not aware of these two books, you should be. While they are dated over a half a millennium ago, the stories are simply fascinating. I'm not a huge fan of this historical time (knights, castles, religious leaders, church building, plague, etc.), but due to Follett's excellent character development and story telling, one can't help but be intrigued and entertained by these books. A word of caution, both come in over a thousand pages, but due to the addicting nature of the story, they are easy to connect with and push through.

What I also enjoy about both of these stories is the varied timing of people's story arc. Both of these books are really about individuals. Often, very "normal" people who were not necessarily born into privilege who make great things of their lives, while battling others (who, are more or less "evil" (yeah, it's a pretty typical good guy/gal vs. bad guy/gal narrative - but it works!)). I really am fascinated by what goes in people's total lives, and Follett does a great job of telling each person's story from their childhood through middle/old age or death. It makes for a fulfilling read.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the book, hence the 4.5 star rating, it was still not quite as strong as the original. First, the story was pretty much a straight copy of the first in many directions. And while this is great, as the first was awesome, it certainly loses some originality points. Second, while the characters are still very well rounded and easy to root for, they were not quite as compelling as those in the first book. Third, this book had a couple of dry spots that went on a bit too long and were harder to push through than the first.

Overall, this book was still incredibly compelling and very entertaining to read. I couldn't put it down for long periods of time and nearly always looked forward to getting back to it. And not just near the end, there are many cliffhangers throughout that kept me engaged while reading. Again, if you have not read either of these, clearly you should start with the first (and slightly better), Pillars of the Earth. If you haven't read the sequel, I strongly urge you to do so as well. While it was worth the wait, I wish I would have read sooner than a decade later!