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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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By Debra Hamel

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I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them.

From a random review:


August 2018: Book notices

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Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up

Marie Kondo is an enthusiastic declutterer--enthusiastic, perhaps, to the point of madness, but charmingly so. I have long been trying to achieve the kind of serenity she seems to live in, my things reduced to a minimum, and I periodically make great strides toward that end. This time, I read Kondo's book by way of further inspiring myself. I cannot follow her approach in all its particulars. As I said, she's a little bonkers, but she is most certainly inspirational. This most recent bout of decluttering, over the last few weeks, has left my kitchen cabinets and drawers and my bedroom closet all much emptier, so it's easier to access the important things that remain. I've also parted with perhaps 75 books and counting. (I was able to get rid of a five-shelf bookcase.) The less stuff I have, the better I feel. I'd recommend Kondo's book to all would-be declutters. Armed with her advice about how to part with things, you'll be able to get rid of more than you might think. Besides, the author is a pleasant coach to have in your head as you work.


July 2018: Book notices

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Tim Tigner, The Lies of Spies

The Lies of Spies is the second full-length novel in Tim Tigner's Kyle Achilles series. The fate of the world is at stake again, and Achilles is just the right larger-than-life guy to set things right, this time with the help of Katya, his dead brother's Russian-born fiancée, whom he's been kind of shacking up with.... It's complicated. The bad guys have a super couple doing their dirty work, too, an Achilles-like he-man and his gorgeous Russian girlfriend. We kind of like them, as it turns out, which is good, because we read a lot about them: They could have a series of their own. Tigner's books are fun if a little forgettable. I had some trouble remembering what had happened in book one in the series, which I wanted to do so as to orient myself in this story. I guess I'd recommend binge reading these like you would a good TV show to keep things fresh in your mind. At any rate, this is a good escapist read.


June 2018: Book notices

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Lee Goldberg, True Fiction

TV writer and novelist Ian Ludlow is in Seattle plugging his latest Clint Straker thriller when he discovers that a terrorism plot he once conjured up has been turned into horrific reality, an attack on American soil that leaves hundreds dead. Ian soon realizes that he's a target, since he knows who's behind the attack, and that he has in fact been one for some time: he's dodged a few bullets already out of sheer dumb luck. The story that follows is a fun one, with Ian teaming up with his publisher's book tour guide, Margo, in an attempt to survive further attempts on his life. But can our everyman protagonist summon his inner Clint Straker and prevail against the professional assassins his nemesis throws at him?

A few months ago, I described Lee Goldberg and Janet Evanovich's novel The Heist as "a fun mix of light comedy and crime and likeable protagonists. It's the literary equivalent of watching a feel-good TV crime show." The same can be said of True Fiction. I enjoy Goldberg's style, his nods to classic TV, his light, entertaining plots. He's got, I don't know, maybe a zillion novels under his belt (a few less, maybe: http://leegoldberg.com/books/) in addition to TV writing credits, and that competence shows on the page. I'm just glad we're going to be seeing Ian Ludlow again. Book two in the series, Killer Thriller, is coming in 2019.

Ellie Monago, Neighborly

Kat and Doug have just moved into a small house in Aurora Village, a seemingly perfect community where kids can roam unattended and the neighbors have your back. But from the get-go things seem off. There's a Stepford vibe to the place, and soon Kat is being harassed by an anonymous note leaver. The neighbors, it turns out, have secrets, but Kat has secrets too, and at least one neighbor seems privy to them. The story is told mostly from Kat's perspective, with conversations with a therapist interjected between the narrative chapters. Since Kat's telling the story, there's room to wonder whether her perception is skewed, which adds to the book's interest. I found this a compelling read, with a couple of caveats: (1) It's very hard to keep the secondary characters straight, as most of them don't have defined personalities. And (2) toward the end of the book there's a bit of an information dump, when all is revealed. Apart from that, I enjoyed the read.

May 2018: Book notices

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Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

Station Eleven is a thought-provoking book about the end of the world—and the beginning of a new world. It follows the mostly separate stories of a handful of characters who are all loosely connected through their relationships, in the old world, with a famous actor, Arthur Leander. Arthur’s death on stage at the beginning of the story feels pivotal, as though it's the thing that sets the apocalypse in motion, but it is only coincident with the beginning of the end. A virulent flu, unprecedented in its deadliness, kills off most of the world's population. 

The characters’ stories are woven together skillfully, with jumps between the past and present that are never jarring. Remarkably, the post-apocalyptic world described in the book, where electric lights and air conditioning are unthinkable, feels as real as the more familiar world of the characters' past. The author has created a completely credible dystopian future. Most books, even most good books, aren’t particularly memorable, but I believe I'll be thinking about this one for some time. 

February 2018: Book notices

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Joseph Finder, The Switch

This is one of those stories where an average-ish Joe winds up in incredible circumstances that he has to deal with without any specialized training. Our average Joe is Michael Tanner, the CEO of a Boston-based coffee company, who accidentally picks up the wrong laptop at an airport. This lands him in a load of trouble because the laptop just happens to have top-secret intel on it. So what do you do when you're privy to state secrets and your knowledge of them is a threat to some high-ranking officials? That's what Tanner has to figure out. I really enjoyed this book and thought it was close to perfect for much of the story. Certainly the first half flew by. But I had two main issues. (1) I think that Tanner made life much more difficult for himself than he had to by not immediately handing over the laptop. And there were other occasions too when he seemed to me to make some stupid decisions. (2) The story began to sound preachy on the subject of government surveillance. When one character in particular (Earle) talked about it, it sounded like we were listening to the author's rant on the subject and not his character's. That took me out of the narrative on a couple of occasions. (Similarly, I was jarred out of the narrative by this sentence: "He stopped at a red light, even though the intersection was empty in all directions." Note that this isn't an extraordinary situation, where he might be expected not to stop. So this was just weird for me.)

Renee Shafransky, Tips for Living

Nora used to be married to a big name artist, but that fell apart a few years before this book begins: Hugh got another woman pregnant and left Nora, and now he's back to make her life miserable again. He's moved with his new family to the small town where Nora's been piecing her life back together. Worse yet, the other woman has joined Nora's yoga class. Even worse, the irritating couple winds up getting themselves murdered on a night when Nora can't exactly account for her whereabouts. You see the problem. I really enjoyed this book. The main characters are likable. The story holds together very well. And I was totally hooked on the mystery and wondering who done it until the big reveal came. If I had to criticize something about this book, I'd say that it takes too long to wind down once the murderer is revealed. I didn't exactly dislike spending that extra time with the protagonist, but the book was a little slow after that.

January 2018: Book notices

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Gregg Hurwitz, The Nowhere Man

Evan Smoak is back in this follow-up to Orphan X. Evan is a government-trained black ops guy who uses his formidable skills to help the helpless, one job at a time. His life is necessarily secretive because he’s made a lot of enemies over the years. When Evan is captured in this outing by a freakish Bond villain type, many of his foes will have an opportunity to extract their revenge. The Nowhere Man is as exciting as Orphan X was, and it also furthers the story of Evan’s personal life. A great read, and the good news is that book three in the series is due out later this month.

Jeremy Bates, White Lies

Katrina Burton picks up a hitchhiker one night while driving through a storm to her new home in small-town Washington state. This sounds like a really bad idea, of course, and things do go horribly wrong, but not in the way we might expect. To get the creepy guy she's picked up out of her passenger seat and off her scent—the scene in her car is realistically scary—she lies about where she lives. Pretty soon, her white lie spirals horribly out of control. Katrina is caught up in a series of ever worsening crises, making perhaps flawed but not unreasonable decisions—like lying to the hitchhiker—at each step. Eventually, things escalate very quickly, maybe too quickly to be quite believable. The ending is a little over the top and probably not necessary, but White Lies is nonetheless a quick nail-biter and a fun read. 

Rachel Caine, Killman Creek

The second book in Rachel Caine’s Stillhouse Lake series picks up where the first left off (see my review). Gwen Proctor is the ex-wife of a serial killer who mutilated women in the family’s garage without her knowledge. Now that he’s escaped from prison, Gwen goes on the offensive, desperately trying to protect her children from their father and the crazed minions who support him and copycat his crimes. The book is sometimes reminiscent of the TV series The Following, in which Kevin Bacon plays an FBI agent who’s after a serial killer: that killer is likewise charismatic enough to attract sick acolytes, and the show also features the killer’s ex-wife, although the focus is primarily on Kevin Bacon’s character. At any rate, Killman Creek is absorbing and exciting, definitely a good read. I thought I’d seen somewhere that there would be three books in this series, but I suspect that’s wrong: the story seems to be well tied up by the end of book two.

Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, The Heist

Kate O'Hare is an FBI agent who's married to her job, and Nick Fox is her nemesis turned partner in this fun series by two very practiced authors. I'm more familiar with Lee Goldberg's books than his co-author's, and this story seems to me very much in his style: a fun mix of light comedy and crime and likeable protagonists. It's the literary equivalent of watching a feel-good TV crime show. Remington Steele, maybe. In this outing, the alliance between Nick and a not quite willing Kate is formed, and the two put together an unlikely team to bring down a con man who's absconded with half a billion dollars. My only complaint about the book—and I don't really know how to phrase what I'm thinking—is that the action somehow seems too removed, too distant. The reader isn't allowed to see the nitty gritty of the preparation that goes on behind the action: getaway transports are simply available; elaborate plans are laid and put into action across the globe without anyone breaking a sweat. I definitely wouldn't want the story to be bogged down by too much detail, but I would like some. Otherwise it's as if you're reading the story through gauze. (I told you I didn't know how to express my thoughtsn here.) Apart from that, I really enjoyed this first book in the series and will certainly read more. 

December 2017: Book notices

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Nancy Boyarsky, The Swap

This book has a promising premise. An American couple, Nicole and Brad, swap houses with a couple from London for the summer, and unpleasantness ensues--Nicole is followed and threatened and soon swept up in an alarming bunch of illegal stuff while her marriage to Brad falls apart. It sounds good, but it just didn't work for me. I didn't care about any of the characters or feel at all excited or interested in what Nicole was getting involved in. And, honestly, I kind of disliked her, in part because she kept ordering expensive food and then finding herself too upset to touch a bite of it. If you're too upset to eat, don't order $100 breakfasts, Nicole! Plus the incident with the vase and the box (sure, order a really expensive vase just to get the packing box, you idiot). The story just wasn't plausible or interesting. By the end, I didn't really care what the explanation for the whole mess was. I just wanted the book to be about a hundred pages shorter. 

Gregg Hurwitz, Orphan X

Orphan X introduces Evan Smoak, a guy with gadgets and a particular skill set who's using his government-sponsored black ops training to help the helpless, one case at a time. Evan was part of a secret program that turned promising orphans into lethal machines, but that period of Evan's life ended, rather dramatically. Now he's a modern Equalizer, waiting for calls on his secret phone while trying to avoid condo association meetings. I loved pretty much everything about this book. There are two more books out or soon to be out in the series, The Nowhere Man and Hellbent. There's also a short story, Buy a Bullet (but be warned that it is very short: most of what you get for your $1.99 at Amazon is a sample of The Nowhere Man. I wasn't happy about that.)

November 2017: Book notices

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Joseph Finder, Extraordinary Powers

I've read a number of Joseph Finder's novels, and normally I'm hooked on them. He writes very good page turners, often weaving in technical or spycraft-y details in just the right measure. This early novel was not as successful. There were exciting parts, and I liked the story overall, but periodically it became bogged down in details that were boring to wade through. There were other issues: the newspaper reports strewn throughout the text were tedious and didn't add much. (The ones at the end were particularly painful to get through. I'd finished the narrative, and now I have to read an article from the New York Times?!) The protagonist seems to be able to do too much after burning his hands. His wife is kind of annoying, whining about being left in the dark about a major reveal toward the end. Anyway, little things, and again, it's an early novel. It won't stop me from reading more by the author.

John Marrs, The Good Samaritan

Laura is ostensibly a perfect soul: she's a loving mother to two daughters and a disabled son, she bakes cookies and fixes zippers for her coworkers, she volunteers--a LOT--at a suicide prevention call center. Indeed, it's this volunteerism that is the highlight of her days. Laura has issues. She's pretty good at hiding them from casual acquaintances, but the darker side of this perfect woman unravels for us in John Marrs' unusual story. It's told primarily from the perspective of two people, Laura and a man who calls the hotline seeking her help. I say the book is unusual because I can't remember rooting against a character as much as I rooted against Laura in this book, and seeing events from her twisted perspective is a little disturbing. The story is dark, so it may turn off some readers, but I'm going to look into more books by this author.

October 2017: Book notices

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Thomas Christopher Greene, The Headmaster's Wife

The book opens with a mystery: Why does the esteemed headmaster of an elite New England boarding school take off his clothes and walk naked through Central Park? Arthur Winthrop's explanation to the police, roughly the first 40 percent of the book, amounts to the story of his life--a walk through the decades of experience that led him to this act--and to a confession. The rest of the book is told from different perspectives and rounds Arthur's story out, so that we arrive at a fuller understanding of the tragedy of this man's fall. It is beautifully written and sad but not crushingly sad and evocative of its setting--crisp leaves crunching underfoot and red brick buildings lining a quadrangle. Really a lovely read.

September 2017: Book notices

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Elizabeth Edmondson, A Question of Inheritance

As I was reading this pleasant, "Very English" cozy set in small-town, post-war England, I found that for the life of me I couldn't remember how the first book in the series--which I reviewed here--was resolved. There were allusions in this one to the unpleasantness of the late Earl of Selchester that that first book revealed, but the details still elude me. It would have been good if readers were reminded a little more strongly (but not too obviously) about the events of the past. This disconnect was worsened by the fact that some events between the first book and this one were skipped here and evidently included in a novella. But who knew? You can kind of piece those events together, but one shouldn't have to. I like the setting and the characters of this series well enough, and it's not as if it's a very complex story being told, so perhaps I wasn't paying close enough attention. But I found that when the mystery of this outing's crime began to be unraveled in the last quarter or so of the book, I was forgetting characters and events that were important to that solution. And I didn't care enough to go back and look very hard. Elizabeth Edmondson died in 2016, after this book was published and while she was at work on a third. That book, A Matter of Loyalty, was completed by Edmondson's son and will be published in October of 2017.

Gregg Hurwitz, You're Next

Contractor Mike Wingate and his family are being targeted by a couple of very scary guys for reasons that Mike cannot fathom. Nor can we, although it seems to be related somehow to Mike's past, a sad childhood spent in a foster home waiting in vain for his father to come back for him. The home hardened Mike, taught him some skills, and earned him just the sort of friend you need when people are gunning for you. Hurwitz's stand-alone thriller is one of the most exciting books I've read in a while. The tension eased up briefly for me maybe 70% of the way through, when we started getting some answers about the mystery of Mike's past, but it picked up again. There's really nothing to complain about here. This was a great read.

John Braddock, A Spy's Guide to Thinking

In his Kindle Single, former CIA case officer John Braddock offers a very brief discussion of the DADA system of thinking: from Data to Analysis to Decision to Action. That sounds boring, maybe, but Braddock is engaging. He discusses the thinking strategy from the perspective of a spy on the ground in a foreign country. In particular, he tells a story about being accosted in a subway about his phone, a would-be mugging. The event unfolded in probably less than a minute in real time, but Braddock unpacks the incident, describing his thought process--his data collection and analysis, the options available to him--at each step. I found this fascinating. My only complaint about the Single is that Braddock has opted to write in very short sentences--which he explicitly says he's determined people like--and indeed in sentence fragments. People do like short sentences, it's true, but not all the time! Overdone, it comes off as very choppy and distracting, and I actually find the style almost burdensome. Tone that down, and this would be a pretty perfect short read. There's not a lot of meat here, but there aren't many pages, and the price was right. The author has a meatier follow-up available, A Spy's Guide to Strategy, which I can see myself buying at some point, though I haven't taken the plunge yet.

Lydia Kang, A Beautiful Poison

I wasn't expecting to like this book. In large part, that's because I really dislike the cover--yes, I am that shallow. Plus, it's a historical mystery, set during a period that doesn't interest me much. It's New York in 1918, which means World War I and the Spanish flu, both of which are winnowing the population with ferocity. I began the book mostly to get it off my shelf, thinking I'd probably delete it from my Kindle after the first chapter. Obviously, I didn't. The story centers on a trio of friends with a complicated history: Allene, the recently engaged socialite, her former ladies' companion Birdie, and Jasper, who's roguishly appealing and ambitious. They live in dangerous times, but for their social circle it's particularly dangerous: people around them are being killed with an assortment of poisons, and our protagonists are the only ones who seem to notice or care about the pattern. It's a good mystery, and I was more intrigued than I expected to be. I liked the relationship among the three principals. I suppose Allene is the main character of the three. My one complaint about the book is that I sometimes found her character hard to believe. On the one hand, she is a pampered aristocrat about whom it is possible to believe that she doesn't know how to open her house's front door by herself. On the other hand, she loves chemistry and is wont to conduct experiments with household supplies, which is rather unladylike. She's also excited by the prospect of solving a murder mystery. I realize that people can surprise with their seemingly opposed characteristics, but still, this was a little hard to believe. Apart from that, which only bothered me at times, I quite liked this story.

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, When to Rob a Bank

This book is a collection of blog posts from the authors of Freakonomics, which is to say that everything in the book is freely available at freakonomics.com. So why buy it? Well, this collection is curated and organized and at $1.99, when I bought it, the price was right. It's a mixed bag of stuff, some of the articles more interesting than others. The authors' schtick is that they tend to surprise with counterintuitive observations. Within 48 hours of finishing this one I did have occasion to refer to their discussion of the ecological impact of wrapping fruit. I linked to it in a Facebook comment in a thread where people were knee-jerkedly condemning a company for packaging apples in plastic tubes. As with the paper or plastic question, the impact of this sort of packaging is not as obvious as Facebook readers may think. It's good to have someone out there pointing things like this out.

Amélie Antoine, Interference

Gabriel and Chloé are a happily married young couple. Emma is a wedding photographer/would-be photojournalist whose life ultimately intersects with theirs, though it's not immediately clear how she fits in. The story is told in alternating sections from each of their perspectives--Chloé's parts in first person, and Gabriel's and Emma's in third. From the beginning, we're perplexed about what's happening. It's no spoiler to tell you that Chloé dies early on in the story--the book's description tells us as much. But still, her narratives continue, and she has access post-death to information that surprises us, so her status is unclear. Is she a ghost? Is it that kind of book? If so, it's a romantic ghost story: Gabriel in his grief hooks up with Emma...but it's definitely not a straight romance either. When the big reveal comes, about 2/3 of the way in, it's definitely a shocker. The solution to the mystery strains credibility, a lot, but the story remains compelling and interesting. I think this could be turned into a decent movie.

Tim Tigner, Flash

It's hard to tell Tim Tigner's novels apart by appearance, as so many of them feature backlit figures running away from the viewer. This one, at any rate, is a stand-alone thriller. It begins with that active couple from the cover waking up in a car with a dead body but without any memory of the last seven-odd years. It remains for them, of course, to figure out what's going on. Flash won't go down in my list of all-time memorable reads, I'm sure, but it was highly entertaining. I'll definitely be reading more from this author.

About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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