Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainThe Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you liked Gone Girl you’ll love this one, too. A young woman goes missing. Is she dead? You think you know who the bad guys and good guys are, but then you’re not so sure. The story is told through multiple characters’ viewpoints. The suspense is ratcheted to unbearable levels. You have to read the next chapter, then the next.

The primary narrator of the tale is Rachel, a self-deluding alcoholic divorcee. Although she was fired and is now jobless, she continues to ride the train into London every day so her flatmate/landlady won’t find out. Tom, her ex-husband, is now married to Anna, the beautiful blond estate agent who has given him the child Rachel couldn’t.

Rachel fantasizes over a lovely young couple she sees from the train every day, Scott and Bridget (although she has her own fantasy names for them). She wishes her life was perfect like theirs. They live very close to her old house, the same neighborhood as Tom and Anna. Bridget, in fact, used to babysit for Tom and Anna. But then Rachel sees something that shatters her illusions about the young couple. A tall dark stranger kisses Bridget, who then goes missing. Tension builds and builds.

As we hear from Tom and Anna and all the other characters, we find that all is not as it seems. The story is written with panache and acted superbly by the voice actors, especially the one playing Rachel. I devoured it. It’s great to be able to give five stars to a number one best-seller. Sometimes they actually deserve it.

I haven’t read any other reviews, but I imagine a few will complain that the ending is too convenient and predictable. It is that, but by that time you will just be so anxious to find out for sure who dunnit (and what happens once it’s revealed) that you won’t care.

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Five Minutes Late by Rich Amooi

Five Minutes LateFive Minutes Late by Rich Amooi
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Boy, if you eliminated all the reviews that weren’t in exchange for a free copy, the star rating would drop by about three full stars. I was very disappointed in this book. The author happens to be local to me, and I always like giving good reviews to other writers in my area, but I can’t with this one. The romance is at junior high level, as is the maturity of the characters. The author keeps putting up artificial barriers between the two characters.

Much of the dialog was witty and fun, but then it would be spoiled by excessively crude language. When it wasn’t gross crude it was gross mushy. None of the characters remotely resembles a real person. The lead characters were impossibly perfect – beautiful, handsome, rich, brilliant, yet the woman, a 10, dates nothing but zeroes. The guy doesn’t date anyone until he meets her. The gay buddy in the library is an offensive stereotype. The vindictive cop ex-boyfriend of the woman is an offensive stereotype. About all you can say for the author is that at least he didn’t have any black characters or he’d probably show them shuckin’ and jivin’ or worse.

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Three men in a bar …

A Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishmen are in a bar…

“As good as this bar is,” said the Scotsman, “I still prefer the pubs back home.  In Glasgow, there’s a wee place called McTavish’s. The landlord goes out of his way for the locals. When you buy four drinks, he’ll buy the fifth drink.”

“Well, Angus,” said the Englishman, “At my local in London , the Red Lion, the barman will buy you your third drink after you buy the first two.”

“Ahhh, dat’s nothin’,” said Patty Sheehan, the Irishman. “Back home in me favorite pub in Galway, the moment you set foot in the place, they’ll buy you a drink, then another, all the drinks you like, actually. Then, when you’ve had enough drinks, they’ll take you upstairs and see dat you get laid, all on the house!”

The Englishman and Scotsman were suspicious of the claims.

“Did this actually happen to you?”

“Not to meself, personally, no,” admitted the Irishman, “but it did happen to me sister quite a few times.”

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Meh. Science fiction without the science.

This was hyped as a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel and award winner. I found it rambling, pointless, and barely adequate as entertainment. The author used a large number of characters, with no obvious connection to each other, and proceeded to flip from pre-, post- and mid-apocalypse as she told their unconnected stories. It was extremely hard to follow. Time jumping like this is very fashionable right now, in movies as well as novels, but it makes for an unpleasant experience for the reader/viewer. Please just tell the story in chronological order.

I got the distinct impression that the author wanted to write some deep, philosophical novel but got shut down by her agent or publisher who told her that what sells is post-apocalyptic sci-fi, so she rewrote her novel to fit into that mold.

First, let’s talk about the science. There is none. There’s a flu pandemic that kills almost everyone. Okay, that’s a decent start. The classic Earth Abides and many other books have used that. But this happens in the modern day. After that, there is no electricity or gasoline. Why not? Hook a portable generator to a bicycle or a waterwheel and you have reliable electrical power. How about solar panels, windmills? You don’t need the whole grid. People could refine gasoline long before electricity, too. Survivors are mostly using crossbows. There would be thousands of times more guns left around than crossbows and they’re more effective. There would be plenty of ammunition left over, too. It’s a lot easier to make a bullet than a crossbow or arrow. None of the post-apocalyptic world makes any sense technologically. Okay, so the author wasn’t going for plausibility, but her intellectual laziness to do any science or technology research spoils the whole sci-fi part of it. It’s mostly a novel about actors and show business. The story lines collide rather than merge at the end.

This would be acceptable if the story itself was enrapturing or the character development and writing style were riveting, or even if the author had some deep insight to impart about the nature of human existence and civilization. These were all lacking or clunky and unimpressive in my opinion. This book is now on the best seller lists and I am befuddled as to why.

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Ice Shear by M.P. Cooley

Ice ShearIce Shear by M.P. Cooley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pardon the length of this review, but this book deserves a serious critique. Don’t worry, it’s almost all good. I had a lot of fun with Ice Shear in part because of its intrinsically good writing and in part because of happy happenstance.

The author paints word pictures brilliantly. Every scene and setting comes to life – a room, a building, a neighborhood. You feel like you’re right there. The tiny quirks and foibles a character displays are given just the right amount of detail so they seem real, too. Put another way, the author just plain knows how to write!

The story takes place in upstate New York in winter in a small town, once a thriving mill town but now a deteriorating shell subsisting on a meager summer tourist trade. For a Silicon Valley native like me, it seemed rather exotic. I have been there once long ago and it struck me as Deliverance with snow. The author is from there, it seems, and did a great job of conveying the look and feel of the place. It’s also very well edited, with almost no errors of any kind.

Now for the happenstance part. I checked this book out from the Campbell library, a small town bordering San Jose. I saw the author used initials rather than a first name, which to me with mysteries signifies a female author trying to hide her sex. In that genre macho male names sell better. I thought, “Oh no, another chick lit mystery.” So I turned to the back cover to check, and imagine my surprise when I read that not only was I right, but that she lives in … Campbell, She could be in the library standing right next to me. I actually looked around to see if I could spot her. But wait! There’s more! I also noticed that the main character, a woman, is a former FBI agent. So am I. (Former FBI agent, that is, not a woman). So of course I had to turn to the acknowledgments to see who her law enforcement advisers were. One I know to be a former officer with a large agency I worked closely with for years. The other I didn’t recognize. If either had been an FBI agent, I would have known him. That explains why the local police work stuff was very well done and FBI stuff, not so much. (FYI, the proper acronym is ASAC, not ASAIC). Oh, and one last thing: I write mystery novels too. I hope Ms. Cooley continues this series, but she needs an FBI consultant if she’s going to. Maybe she’ll ask me if she can find me.

To be clear, I don’t know the author, those officers, or anyone else associated with this book, directly or indirectly, but this inside connection made the book more fun. There are some “Easter eggs” hidden in there. For example, one major character is an FBI agent named Hale Bascom. The San Jose FBI Office (actually located a few blocks over the city line into Campbell) is located on Bascom Ave.! I used to work there when it was at the earlier location farther north on Bascom. I also liked the “breast fed” line. I hadn’t heard that one before.

Okay, so I had fun with it and no doubt that fifth star comes from my personal connection, but it is a good read. It has its flaws. The plot and characters are quite formulaic, but it is a tried and true formula that seems to work. Don’t look for originality here. The beat cop heroine is a single mom who had to move back to her home town so her lovable but curmudgeonly father can care for her adorable and precociously bright daughter while she makes a living. The slick and smarmy FBI agent “suit” comes barreling into town trying to horn in on the locals’ murder case. You have your outlaw biker gang, the overbearing congresswoman (victim’s mother), the very rich (and therefore total jerk) father, your stolid local cop partner, the District Attorney trying to take all the credit. The plot isn’t much better.

In my view, a good murder mystery is written in such a way that one of two things happens as one gets near the end. Either I figure out from the clues who did it and why and get to feel smug and victorious or I don’t, but the big reveal at the end has me smacking my forehead saying to myself “Why didn’t I see that one coming.” This did neither. The ending had the definite feel of almost a random selection. It’s as though the author and editor got together as the book was almost done and said, “Who shall we make the murderer?” There were no clues that suggested the actual murderer any more than any of the other characters, or perhaps more accurately, there were equal clues pointing to all the possible characters. Of course Agatha Christie did this all the time, too, and look where that got her.

This is no chick lit mystery either. There was no description of the heroine’s cute outfits and name brand shoes or how cut the handsome agent was with his shirt off. There was even a good action scene at the end, although it defied credibility in more ways than I would have liked. The bottom line was that I read through it eagerly and enjoyed the whole thing. Give it a try.

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Baby Names III

Have you ever wondered how much, if at all, pop culture, politics, or other publicity influences how parents name their babies? Here are a few graphs, culled from naming data provided by the Social Security Administration that will provide ample proof that it happens. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Aretha Erica Rocky Elsa

For those who are too young or too culturally deprived to recognize the names or the significance of the dates, compare the popularity of the names with dates of: Aretha Franklin’s career; when Erica Kane (the most popular soap opera character of all time) was active on All My Children; the boxing career of Rocky Marciano and the debut of the movie Rocky; and when Frozen became a smash hit (the main character is named Elsa);

The height of each bar represents the popularity of the name for that year as measured by the percentage of male or female babies who were given that name in that year. Popularity varies so much that the different graphs may be scaled differently. The number at the bottom gives the value of the highest bar for any given graph.

Blue Warrior by Mike Maden

Blue Warrior (Troy Pearce #2)Blue Warrior by Mike Maden
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The term purple prose was invented for books like this. Here are a couple of sentences from Chapter 21: “Distant jet engines split the air like rolling thunder, and black smoke smudged the crystalline blue sky.” “…the Pakistani’s throat blossomed in petals of blood and meat.” The plot, if there is one, seems to be nothing more than a loose thread intended to string together violent action scenes designed mainly to display the author’s knowledge of aircraft, weapons, and military stuff in general. The writing and editing are sloppy. He introduces a character called Zhou Yi, then a few paragraphs later he is called Zhao Yi, then back to Zhou briefly, then finally he settles on the name Zhao. Apparently Putnam doesn’t employ competent editors any longer. This book was a disappointment because I owned a “drone,” i.e. personal multirotor aircraft, and thought the premise sounded good, but there’s a limit to what I can stomach. If you’re into drones, try Sting of the Drone: A Novel or Death Row. Both are much better.

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Only one of two . . . well, duh!

I just heard a “financial expert” on KQED newsroom declare that Uber was “only one of two” companies to have reached the $50 billion valuation mark before going to IPO. Well, yeah, of course it was only one of two. How many could it be? Uber is only one company, so it can’t be both of the two. In fact, Facebook is the other. Even if there were fifty or a thousand of them, Uber could still only be one. What he no doubt meant was that it was one of only two. There’s a big difference. The word “only” should be placed directly in front of the number it is meant to modify, which in this case is two. A single company can only be one, of course, so there is no need to mention that it is “only” one, unless, of course, it was the only one to have reached that mark in which case he would have just said that. The item that is newsworthy is the scarcity of companies at that level, in other words, the fact that were only two in all of history. One hears this sloppiness of language all the time and it indicates a sloppiness of thought. Here’s a financial expert who is not very good with numbers, apparently. That’s not auspicious for his career hopes.

So am I just being picky and pedantic? Perhaps, but that’s not the only mistake he made in the two minutes I watched him. He then went on to say that if Uber’s drivers were designated as employees, twenty to forty percent of its costs would increase. So you want to tell us how much those costs will increase? If those costs were to increase only one hundredth of one percent then it wouldn’t be significant or worth mentioning. What he probably meant was that Uber’s costs would increase twenty to forty percent. There is a significant difference between the two. If a company’s overall costs increased by that amount, it would have a huge effect on its stock price and future profitability, not to mention the charges to the customers to offset that cost increase. If only twenty to forty percent of its costs were to increase, and by some unspecified amount, it might not be a significant impact at all. In fact, one might reasonably infer that the other sixty to eighty percent of its costs were expected to decrease, resulting in improved performance. Investor class action lawsuits have been filed and won over such misleading declarations.

People just don’t know how to talk anymore. It’s depressing.

Win a copy of GUT SHOT

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Gut Shot by Russell Atkinson

Gut Shot

by Russell Atkinson

Giveaway ends August 31, 2015.

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