Saturday, January 16, 2010

Under the Dome

Microcosm. I turned the last page of Stephen King’s Under the Dome with satisfaction and pleasure in completing a huge story very well-told. Few contemporary writers match King’s imagination and ability to construct a situation in which the behavior of individuals and groups reveal character, leaving readers pondering how one might act in similar situations. The town of Chester’s Mill, Maine finds itself isolated after a dome of mysterious origin covers and seals it. King presents readers with a huge cast of characters, from the ordinary men, women, children and dogs of the town, to unlikely heroes and troubled villains. After the dome descends on the town, the best and worst behavior of individuals emerges. Under the Dome is a morality tale for our time, and provides hours of engaging entertainment for readers.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Pirate Latitudes

Escape. Thanks to the discovery of a completed manuscript, fans of the late Michael Crichton have another novel of his to read: Pirate Latitudes. Set in the late 17th century, this novel is an action-packed romp around the Caribbean as protagonist Charles Hunter overcomes all odds, escapes peril at every turn, and makes friends as easily as he vanquishes enemies. The action is non-stop, the gore plentiful, and the plot twists frequent enough to keep the pages turning briskly. Any reader looking for entertaining escape fiction will find lots of pleasure in Pirate Latitudes.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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How the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In

Stages. I’ve liked the fact-based research approach that Jim Collins takes in writing his business books, specifically Good to Great and Built to Last. His latest book, How the Mighty Fall, examines the research on how companies decline, and what might be done to avert disaster. Collins structures decline into five stages, and provides brief examples of companies in each stage. Steps can be taken through four stages to overcome setbacks. Collins makes the point toward the end of the book, “… success is falling down, and getting up one more time, without end.” Any manager reading How the Mighty Fall will come away from the book with thoughts about how success can be achieved and disaster averted.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis

I skimmed this, and read the captions for many illustrations. The whole book was too textbook-like for my liking, so I decided to take a pass.

Rating: Ennui
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Too Much Happiness

Alive. Alice Munro uses great skill to bring characters to life quickly within the constraints of the short story genre. Her latest collection of ten stories titled, Too Much Happiness, displays that skill. No two stories are quite alike, and yet each one describes relationships and behavior that every reader will recognize as being alive and real. I recommend reading one story at a time and setting the book aside for a while. The title story is quite different from the others, and is taken from a true historical figure.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Death Message: A Novel of Suspense

Learning. No matter how much he already knows, Detective Inspector Tom Thorne continues to learn, and continues to make mistakes as he learns again. The latest thriller featuring Thorne is titled, Death Message, in which Thorne is receiving photos and messages from a killer. The ensemble cast of characters help and prod Thorne who acts both within and outside the constraints of proper procedure. Death Message is entertaining especially for those readers who like British detective fiction.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Monster in the Box

Obsession. Ruth Rendell has said that the 22nd Inspector Wexford novel, The Monster in the Box, will be the last. If that’s so, it’s a worthy finale. Reginald Wexford is one of the most finely developed fictional detectives, who exudes confidence and professionalism, all the while absorbed with coming to terms with the lives of others and why they do what they do. The monster in the title is Eric Targo, whom Wexford encountered early in his police career. Convinced then and now that Targo is a murderer, Wexford narrows his focus to come to terms with Targo. Rendell does a great job in moving the action forward as she also provides a look to the past to understand the context of current activities of both Wexford and Targo. Any mystery fan will love the fine writing in The Monster in the Box.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Plum Pudding Murder

Salivating. The mystery in Joanne Fluke’s latest novel, Plum Pudding Murder, was quite easy to solve. The pleasure in reading the entire book with one’s mystery appetite sated comes from the delight in the many recipes included, the descriptions of which led me to salivate on occasion. Readers looking for light and pleasant reading, alongside calorie-rich sweets will find lots of pleasure on these pages.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Stephen Fry in America

Homage. Humorist Stephen Fry has published an interesting book and TV series as a homage to the United States titled, Stephen Fry in America: Fifty States and the Man Who Set Out to See Them All. I ended up watching the television version of this and enjoyed it. The book version looked interesting, but I lost interest in reading it, and just turned the pages, looking at some of the pictures and remembering the TV version. Either medium presents a lively and engaging view of the creative Fry, who but for a twist of fate, might have grown up in the USA.

Rating: Shelf of Ennui
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The Farmer's Daughter

Desires. Jim Harrison’s new book The Farmer’s Daughter contains three novellas, each of which contains a reference to Patsy Cline’s “The Last Word in Lonesome Is Me.” The novella form is a perfect vehicle for Harrison’s spare writing style. He covers a lot of ground with few words. In each novella, characters are developed clearly and a tight plot brings readers into lives that are both dark and lively. The strong desires of key characters are exploited by Harrison with humor and poignancy. I read each novella in a single setting, and marveled at the way in which The Farmer’s Daughter presents our human condition with great insight and skill.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Saturday, January 2, 2010

Your Next Move: The Leader's Guide to Successfully Navigating Major Career Transitions

Considerations. Transitions within corporate settings can be dicey, and in his new book, Your Next Move, Michael Watkins helps readers consider how to make transitions more likely to succeed. Any reader facing a new role within an organization will find ways to prepare for that transition after reading this book. Watkins does well in offering approaches to assessments, and to diagnosing a situation prior to taking action. While I was a bit turned off by his buzzword tools like STARS and FOGLAMP, I can see how his templates could be useful. I found the anecdotes or stories he uses to illustrate various transitions will either relate or not to individual readers. At the end of each chapter, Watkins provides questions and a checklist. Your Next Move provides a useful framework and engaging considerations for anyone involved in a work transition.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Nanny Returns

Older. Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus’ sequel to The Nanny Diaries is titled, Nanny Returns. The authors soar in the new novel when they present the ultimate New York City private school: from the heliport to the chandeliers. This school parody also captures the conflicted position of teachers in this context: expected to know everything about each child, whether private or not, and blamed for the child’s behavior, no matter what. A whole motif in the book involves Nan’s travails in trying to get contractors to renovate her old house, while her husband is usually away on business. That motif provided a backdrop, but had less of the humor of the school parody. The return of the X family was packed with sadness, even as the mighty receive a well-earned comeuppance. Unpacking the lives of unappealing characters and opening the shallowness of their lives, especially as children are expected to behave as adults, and as adults shirk all responsibility, became more grating than either funny or enlightening. Nanny Returns has some moments of biting humor, and a few cogent observations of the lives of the wealthy (like the short sellers’ inability to decide on the wall upon which the Chagall he always wanted should hang). Mostly, the book is a collection of episodes held loosely together. I closed the book feeling that I could have spent the time reading it doing almost anything else that would be more enjoyable.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Nine Dragons

Character. Michael Connelly’s fourteenth Harry Bosch novel is titled, Nine Dragons, and is set both in L.A. and Hong Kong. The pacing of this thriller engaged me from the beginning to the end. Harry Bosch is a complex character who works diligently and cares deeply for family. In Nine Dragons, those two elements converge as he works a homicide in L.A. that leads him to rush to Hong Kong to find his daughter who has been abducted. While both plot and character development are finely developed in this novel, the dialogue is often sketchy, and a lot of momentum takes the form of narrative. Fans of Bosch will enjoy this latest installment, and new readers can start here as easily as anyplace and come to enjoy reading exciting stories about an interesting character.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son

Wordcraft. Michael Chabon knows how to turn a phrase. I’ve enjoyed his fiction, and was intrigued by his assembly of a bunch of essays in a collection titled, Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son. Each essay is candid and thoughtful, and for most readers, some element or other will resonate with one’s life experience. Chabon comes across as comfortable with himself and at ease in the disclosure of aspects of his life and behavior that others might withhold. He does this with the perfect choice of words and phrases, and never falling into the kind of disclosures that many readers find icky or uncomfortable. With skill, Chabon finds a balance in his writing, and his wit and wisdom kept me turning the pages of Manhood for Amateurs, occasionally re-reading a paragraph to enjoy how well we writes.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers

Lenses. Cathleen Falsani seems to have had fun writing her latest book, The Dude Abides: The Gospel According to the Coen Brothers. My guess is that she was able to write it over the course of a long weekend or two. In The Dude Abides, Falsani presents the fourteen major Coen brothers films using a three-part structure for each film. She provides a high level summary of the film in the section titled, “The Forest.” The longest section is titled, “The Trees” and in that one she sometimes laboriously provides a more detailed description of what happens in the film. She wraps up each film with her conclusion in the section titled, “The Moral of the Story.” Falsani loves these films, and given her perspective as a journalist who writes about religion, she applies a religious lens to her view of each film. While most filmgoers and readers would agree with Falsani that the Coens tackle some confounding questions in their films, my guess is that a minority would view these films in a way that matches Falsani’s. I kept thinking after reading about a film whether she and I saw the same movie. Nonetheless, her love for the films comes out in The Dude Abides, and each of us brings our own perspective. It’s interesting to read here a perspective that found aspects of these films that I would not have considered in a million years. Any teacher will find something interesting here to stimulate class discussion.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Fierce Leadership

Doubt. Susan Scott’s new book is titled, Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today, and follows her popular Fierce Conversations. I found Scott’s writing and approach refreshing and entertaining, but not particularly insightful. Her recommended practices are rooted in candid and authentic behavior and communication. On every page, she spells out with clarity and specificity what leaders should do and how we should act. I kept asking myself, what is her advice based on? Where does all her certainty come from? When will I find a glimmer of doubt in her approach? I finished the book finding lots of specifics that some leaders may find useful. My gnawing doubt on finishing the book is that while Scott has succeeded in creating her unique brand of advice-giving consulting, those leaders who employ her better be prepared for all the ways in which her approach may be inappropriate for a particular situation. Fierce Leadership is packed with buzzwords, common sense approaches that could have come from the Farmers Almanac, and Scott’s own quirky new-age methods that might in equal doses help or hurt an organization and its effectiveness. Any leader interesting in keeping current on what kind of advice is being offered might find some items of interest in Fierce Leadership. Unless your interest in this subject is strong, I recommend taking a pass on this book.

Rating: One-star (Read only if your interest is strong)
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