Category Archives: On the subject of books

Book Review: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

I read Small Great Things during a time when racial animus seemed to be causing so much harm in America. I did some research before choosing to read it. I needed the book to have value to me, for the time and effort I planned to commit. I wanted the book to make me better somehow. If it could do that, then perhaps I could recommend it to others for similar reasons.

What I liked.

This is a book about consequences. I call it a picture book. For it depicts how we can take people, make negative assumptions about them, hinder them from having prosperous lives, limit their educational potential, send them countless messages to convince them they are inferior, and create a system that severely punishes them, whether they deserve it or not.

By depicting this, the book allows us to ask ourselves why does this happen? How could it be tolerated? The author tells the story from points of view that enable us to think about ourselves, critically, and determine if we are part of the problem, part of the solution, or both.

The first person POV forces you to engage in the story, doesn’t allow you to remain on the sidelines as a bystander, watching others passively. It makes you uncomfortable, forces you to feel the emotions, the guilt, the pain, anger and frustration of being lost in a world that appears to provide little more than wrong answers. Choices between lesser evils.

What is the message? Somethings are very wrong here. This should not be. This need not continue. It will, unless.

The 3 main POV characters are very real, well fleshed out human beings whose thoughts and beliefs are given great attention. Their family and friends are well developed and multidimensional too. This is a world you will recognize, as all too familiar. Just as much attention is paid to the thoughts as it is to the words that are spoken and the actions taken by the victim’s family, the accused, and the legal professionals handling the case.

I believe this is a courageous piece of fiction by Jodi Picoult. My hope is that more talented authors have the desire and willingness to do something like this. Make a real contribution to the reading community of something that they can use to improve their knowledge, their understanding, and their ability to grow morally. To find the difference between right and wrong, and choose justly.

What I didn’t like.

I have personally seen many people stand up and defend others who have been mistreated. So I know first hand what good things we are capable of. Yet why does it seem that the world around us is getting worse? Why do things appear so hopeless? Small Great Things is stuck in a world doomed to repeat its failures, with the resulting damage to our culture, our economy, and our future. Not good. Yet I can’t so much blame the book as much as I can recognize that the fault lies with the society that the book explores. If this is an accurate reflection of the world we live in, maybe the best thing to do is for us face the reality that our ship is taking on water. So let’s figure out how best to bail while we form a plan to plug the leak.

What you should know.

Jodi Picoult has mastered her craft. She is famous for the research she does into each novel. You will learn something. Will you like it? Will it entertain you? Should these be your main considerations? If the hardest things in life require the most effort, if they can only be achieved by having all available gifts and talents working together in a cohesive team with a common objective, what is your role? What are you doing about it? How much damage is your inaction causing? This book may help you find these answers.

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Book Review: The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

Book Review: The President is Missing by Bill Clinton and James Patterson

What I liked.

This is a smart story. It’s action packed for those who like the genre. It is also suspenseful and stuffed with dramatic confrontations. It isn’t just smartly told. The prose is easy to follow with a good bit of humor for such a serious subject, an act of cyber warfare on the United States. This is one of the highly charged current topics up for debate as the modern world becomes more and more dependent on artificial intelligence and we realize how much of the essentials we take for granted are interconnected in an invisible cyberspace that has little, if any, existence in a tangible form.

Why is this an important issue all of us should think about? Here are some reasons. How much money do you have? What is the source of your income? Your savings? Your investments? Your health benefits? What physical proof of them exists? How much of our basic needs, water, electricity, communication, depend on the electronic grids that help facilitate them? How vulnerable are we individually and collectively as a society if we do not protect them well enough from potential enemies?

All of these ideas and more are addressed in this novel. But it’s all done in a very entertaining fashion. It doesn’t preach, lecture, or promote an ideologically biased point of view. It delivers the news. Then lets you, the reader figure things out for yourself.

On a deeper level the story is strong in the way it touches on key themes such as trust, integrity, political animosity, and prejudice. I applaud that effort because I think it’s true that if we don’t work on removing stereotypes and establish priorities that put the common interests of most people first so that we avoid trying to create winners and losers in every important area, we may wake up to find out that we have already lost what few other nations have ever had, a secure republic that works for every American who is willing to work hard to live with liberty and pursue what makes them happy.

What I didn’t like.

Some of the characters were not developed well at all. They were primarily present to move the plot along without delving deep enough into their motives or moral dilemmas. I’m not sure they even had any! So the problems a world power like the U.S. faces from external threats aren’t going to be fixed by such a simplistic worldview that is barely defined. I will admit that we have to figure out our internal problems before we can best understand foreign threats. So I hope the next novel following this, if there is one, makes an effort to look at where our enemies come from and what we can do to mitigate their creation.

What you should know.

This is a book for the average everyday reader. It isn’t full of technical, high level complexity. Although it has a message that everyone should consider. There is nothing wrong with simplifying things in order to make the story more enjoyable for most. If you are looking for the intricate details found in some of the more intellectual offerings from other authors, try not to be too disappointed. Think of it as a fun summer read.

Recommendation: Must Read

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Excerpt from The President is Missing

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Why you want to read The President is Missing:

Participation in our democracy seems to be driven by the instant-gratification worlds of Twitter, Snapchat, Facebook, and the  twenty-four-hour news cycle. We’re using modern technology to revert to primitive kinds of human relations. The media knows what sells—conflict and division. It’s also quick and easy. All too often anger works better than answers; resentment better than reason; emotion trumps evidence. A sanctimonious, sneering one-liner, no matter how bogus, is seen as straight talk, while a calm, well-argued response is seen as canned and phony. It reminds me of the old political joke: Why do you take such an instant dislike to people? It saves a lot of time.

What happened to factual, down-the-middle reporting? That’s hard to even define anymore, as the lines between fact and fiction, between truth and lies, gets murkier every day.

We can’t survive without a free press, dedicated to preserving that fine line and secure enough to follow the facts where they lead. But the current environment imposes serious pressures on our journalists, at least those who cover politics, to do just the reverse—to exercise their own power and to, in the words of one wise columnist, “abnormalize” all politicians, even honest, able ones, often because of relatively insignificant issues.

Scholars call this a false equivalency. It means that when you find a mountain to expose in one person or party, you have to pick a molehill on the other side and make it into a mountain to avoid being accused of bias. The built-up molehills also have large benefits: increased coverage on the evening news, millions of retweets, and more talk-show fodder. When the mountains and molehills all looks the same, campaigns and governments devote too little time and energy debating the issues that matter most to our people. Even when we try to do that, we’re often drowned out by the passion of the day.

There’s a real cost to this. It breeds more frustration, polarization, paralysis, bad decisions, and missed opportunities. But with no incentive to actually accomplish something, more and more politicians just go with the flow, fanning the flames of anger and resentment, when they should be acting as the fire brigade. Everybody knows it’s wrong, but the immediate rewards are so great we stagger on, just assuming that our Constitution, our public institutions, and the rule of law can endure each new assault without doing permanent damage to our freedoms and way of life.

I’d say this novel is a must read.

From Chapter 8 The President is Missing (Bill Clinton and James Patterson) © Little, Brown and Company

10 Rules for Writing from Jesus, the author and finisher of my faith.

‘looking to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…’ Hebrews 12:2

Here are some tips that you can choose to apply to your writing. Decide for yourself.

Write so that your product will provide consumers with joy. 
Galatians 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Write what is in your heart. Don’t write what you think people will like or to please other people. Follow your heart when you write and be true to who you are and what you want to say. 
Luke 6:45 A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart. An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart.

Believe in your vision for what you want to write. 
The Apostle John was directed in writing the book of Revelation to “Therefore write what you have seen, what is, and what will take place after this.” Revelation 1:19

Learn the art of writing. Practice the discipline of writing. 
Proverbs 23:12 Apply yourself to discipline and listen to words of knowledge.

To communicate a message understand what you are saying. Be sincere, have a clear conscience, and seek to find the purist form in your words. Avoid abstract, vague, confusing language. The Apostle Paul uses this advice when sharing with Timothy how he should stay true to the message they are supposed to be teaching. 
1 Timothy 1:5-7 Now the goal of our instruction is love that comes from a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith. 6 Some have deviated from these and turned aside to fruitless discussion. 7 They want to be teachers of the law, although they don’t understand what they are saying or what they are insisting on.

Think of your writing as a sacrificial gift to others, and expect to be paid what it is worth. 
Acts 20:35 includes part of the Apostle Paul’s direction to the church elders in Ephesus. In it he states “In every way I’ve shown you that by laboring like this, it is necessary to help the weak and to keep in mind the words of the Lord Jesus, for He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ ”. 
Likewise when Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia he advised them similarly “For each person will have to carry his own load. 6 The one who is taught the message must share all his good things with the teacher. 7 Don’t be deceived: God is not mocked. For whatever a man sows he will also reap,” Galatians 6:5-7a.

Apply careful investigation to what you write.
The Gospel attributed to Luke begins with this explanation: “Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. 3 It also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed.” Luke 1:1-4

Have a clear and specific purpose for everything you write.
Joshua 18:4 Provide for yourselves three men from each tribe that I may send them, and that they may arise and walk through the land and write a description of it according to their inheritance; then they shall return to me.

Write when you find yourself most challenged. Write when it seems like it’s the last thing you should do. When in doubt, write. No matter what excuse you have not to write, write anyway.
Here in John 8:6 is an example of what Jesus did: “They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.”

Write for a higher standard. 1 Corinthians 4:3-5 “It is of little importance to me that I should be evaluated by you or by any human court. In fact, I don’t even evaluate myself. 4 For I am not conscious of anything against myself, but I am not justified by this. The One who evaluates me is the Lord.”

REVIEW: FOREIGN AGENT

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Foreign Agent: A Thriller (Scot Harvath) by Brad Thor

What I liked:

The best of the genre is exemplified by a driving force of will.  There you experience a relentless pace of action, conflict, and contest.  The NBA Championship finals just concluded.  LeBron James led the Cleveland Cavaliers over a potentially historic Golden State Warriors team in a Game 7 nail biter that wasn’t settled until a series of dramatic plays in the final moments.  What we sports fans relish about this only pure form of reality television is the back and forth cage match that brings out both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.  Not much else compares.  What Foreign Agent does so well is reproduce like emotions in scripted form.  Kudos.

The adrenaline rush that runs constant throughout the story is a rare treat.  This is a modern war story.  Violent political conflict across the globe is a threat to American safety as the Untied States’ superpower influence becomes a pawn in the chess match that is power politics on steroids.  As is true about most great chess games, this one involves Russians.  Scot Harvath, as a deep cover operative, is the point man for the home team.  A tribute to the superlative quality of this book is in part owed to Harvath’s character.  He isn’t just cunning and highly competent.  He also demonstrates an intellect generally presumed to be possessed by more refined, less violent members of the male species.  So yes, readers get to have their beefcake and eat it too.

In a review of the preceding book in the series (see Code of Conduct), I criticized it’s lack of balance.  Where was the romance in Harvath’s life?  Is he little more than Batman redux?  Well shut my mouth, because Harvath has come home.  The dilemmas he faces, though serious, credible, and not simple to resolve, are none the less dealt with in satisfactory fashion.

What I didn’t like:

Did you ever witness one of the nagging complaints about professional boxing?  How champion fighters too often scheduled miss matches with less than capable opponents in order to pad their paychecks while protecting their posteriors.  I’m talking about patsies.  Well Russia appears to be playing patsy here.  Is Thor paying homage to the dozens of Russian heavy weights over the years who took the dive for the George Foremans, the Joe Fraziers, and the late Muhammad Ali?  As the story proceeds, Russia seems incapable of state of the art technical espionage or classic trade craft, that is until the plot calls for it.  But hey I’m being too picky.  You can’t have it both ways.  Or can you?

What you should know:

The rules of engagement include torture.  Enhanced interrogation techniques are used.  The warning sign reads:  Squeamish individuals will enter at their own risk.  I find that there are distinct messages in Thor prose.  One such message here is that the use of extreme measures are a necessary aspect of winning fights where the alternatives are not palatable.  Brad Thor may or may not be right.  What he does is force readers to consider the issues.  That is one quality I respect in an author.

Recommendation:

A real Good Read

Review: Code of Conduct

Code of conductCode of Conduct: A Thriller (Scot Harvath Book 14) by Brad Thor.  This is a NY Times best seller in the Paperback Mass-Market Fiction Category.  Brad Thor is a well known bestselling author of the Scot Harvath Thriller series.  His next book, entitled Foreign Agent, debuts June 14th.

What I liked.

The thriller genre is not as attractive to me as others I prefer to read more often.  So I tend to be more demanding.  I’ll often judge this type based on whether I feel compelled to skip ahead while reading (a bad sign).  However, some would argue that the death knell for similar stories is when you put the book down and awhile later discover you haven’t picked it back up.  Phrases like ‘page turner’ are key to separating the wheat from the chaff in this regard.  Needless to say, Thor definitely does pass muster with this book.  What need I say?  There is a broad, ambitious story, involving the fate of mankind.  Thor has mastered the art of maintaining tension and interest as characters navigate through conflicts that challenge their morality, their determination, and their intelligence.

Because of an epic scale that spans the globe, multiple groups of characters are introduced and reintroduced.  Thor weaves these stories at a pace that allows you to keep track of who’s who, without bogging down the action. And there is plenty of action.  As is typical of the genre, the violence ramps up towards the final climactic ending, and you will be ready when the time comes.

One perceived weakness of the genre is the balance of substance.  Here we’re found wanting if it appears to be ‘all action, no talk’.  Thor adds meat to the prose by interspersing political philosophy: it isn’t just good verses evil, but government bureaucracy verses individual liberty.  So the conflict between ideas is just as entertaining as the cage fight spectacle.

What I didn’t like.

A story of this scope and style often treads lightly on character development.  While there is enough there to like the good guys, and dislike the bad guys, I was still left wanting.  Scot Harvath is a very well developed protagonist and you’re left with no doubt about his reasons why or raison d’etre, s’il vous plait.  Not so much for the people around him.  They are more or less two dimensional.  For example the two prominent female characters are stereotypical archetypes.  But that probably won’t bother the target demographic.

I had a similar issue with the villain.  He had to be the nicest serial killer you ever met.  What’s up with that!  He leads a great life until he suffers a bad loss.  Then he reads a bad book?  So he goes crazy?  Thor has quite the cautionary tale about being careful with your bedside reading choices!

What you should know.

For thriller and suspense lovers, this is definitely the ticket.  With respect to the amount of violence, think early Schwarzenegger, if you want a movie comparison.  Warning:  know that these series can be highly addictive.  You may find yourself up late at night and suddenly sleep deprived (and neglecting significant others a la Harvath).  Take your time.  There are plenty more where this came from if you haven’t read any of his novels before.  If you have, don’t worry, you can buy a copy of Foreign Agent and get your fix this summer.

Recommendation:  Must Read

 

Book Review: And Sometimes I Wonder About You, by Walter Mosley

What I liked:

I think it pays homage to the best examples of novel writing, because heroism is prevalent throughout. I found strong entertainment value everywhere: humor, poignancy, romance, mystery, suspense, action, and drama. The interwoven social commentary leant substance to the reading without weighing it down.

Our hero meets a lady on a train while returning from saving a client’s marriage.  She turns out to be his dream woman.  This is just the beginning.

There were no ghosts.

Lines like

The police had laid off killing men for selling loosies for the time being-bad publicity.

What I didn’t like:

You could argue that the infidelity experienced by characters in the book are flaws which Mosely deals with respectfully. I wouldn’t, other than to say his approach is artistic with touches of ambiguity.

A man places his wife in a mental health facility to treat her depression. Yet his own behavior is far more destructive, both to himself, and to those around him. Why does he get to roam free?

What you should know about the book:

This is high quality prose with loads of sex and violence. It is a quintessential family drama spanning three generations. Through storytelling we understand the choices the protagonist makes because of his relationships with his parents and his children.

Recommendation: A must read

Book Review: Heaven’s Waiting Room by Clare Wilson

What I liked:

What the author doesn’t try to do is explore what heaven might be like. Instead she creates a version of heaven on earth where relationship is everything. It is a remarkably simple story, and that is a strength. In many ways it raises more questions than it seeks to answer. As the protagonist learns lessons along the way we the readers are educated in an entertaining fashion as we follow in her trail. Can we apply such lessons to our lives before its too late, before our time is up? One would hope. A thoughtful story with a thought provoking premise. This story is yet another reminder that the youth among us have much to teach us, if only we allow ourselves to hear what they have to say.

What I didn’t like:

Having already admitted that I do not do well with ghosts in a novel, are there exceptions?  Well, this is a ghost story!

What you should know:

This is not for children, in my opinion, as it focuses on death and the afterlife in a thoughtful yet frightening way.  It also is very much about family, nuclear, traditional, and non-traditional.

Recommendation: Good Read

Book Review: Loving Day by Mat Johnson

What I liked: the humor.  I found many small sources of laughter throughout the novel.  There were sincerely laugh out loud moments with smart/funny remarks, not just situations.  I was able to laugh at some of the embarrassing scenes as well.

What I didn’t like: the ghosts.  Ghosts never work for me in a novel and that’s probably my fault and not the author’s but there it is.

What you should know about the book:  Synopsis, A divorced man inherits a house from his deceased father and has to confront his emotional past in Philadelphia.  He confronts race and ethinicity issues, professional failure, commitment issues, and a chance to start over with a new family.

Recommendation:  A must read.