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Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
by Adam M. Grant Ph.D.
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.20
49 used & new from $12.15

56 of 70 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Well written and entertaining, but fails to communicate any whole beyond the sum of its parts, February 5, 2016
If you're looking for a series of anecdotes about successful people along with some pop treatments of academic research on creativity, this is a three or four star book. It's well written and entertaining. If you're looking for more depth, I think you will be disappointed. The book does not hang together logically, in fact it's never clear even what the topic is.

The author considers some people to be "originals," but he doesn't discuss what he means by that. They are all successful people, but not the most successful in their fields. Of course, all of them have some unusual traits and novel ideas, but so does everyone else. Why Jerry Seinfeld, for example? Yes, he's a funny guy, who makes a lot of money in comedy. But even among 20th century American comics, I can think of dozens who were more successful, and dozens who were more innovative and influential. Think Gracie Allen who was a star for 70 years in vaudeville, plays, radio, television, movies, stand up and as an author; compare that to a successful but not exceptional stand up career with one #1 television show for two years--two years during which network television was fading from relevance. How about Charlie Chaplin, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, Andy Kaufman? J. K. Rowling is the world's richest author, but the most original? George Lucas made a lot of very popular movies, but he's not the most successful filmmaker, nor the most innovative. Steve Jobs was successful both as a start-up entrepreneur and a big company CEO, but why is he more "original" than dozens of other people who have done both?

Moreover, in all these cases, we're just comparing the individuals to the most successful people in their fields. Surely most of the really original people remain obscure--creating for their own satisfaction or an appreciative niche. Or maybe their original choice was not to be creative at all, dedicating themselves to contemplation or honor or satisfaction rather than trying to make something bigger than themselves.

I'm not trying to be too literal here. Clearly what the author means by "original" is closer to "creative and successful" than the dictionary definition. So you might think this is a book about how to find unique paths to success. Unfortunately the logical problem here is that you can't find unique paths by following other people who found unique paths. The Office (American version) is one of the author's examples of original success, but it was a near word-for-word copy of the British series of the same name; and a bunch of zany people working together has been done in hundreds of previous sitcoms. Sure the actors and writers of the American Office displayed lots of originality, but more original than Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or more successful and influential than I Love Lucy?

The reminder of the book consists of quotes from people the author considers originals, and summaries of academic work. The first suffers from the same objections as above, we have no idea what criteria the author uses for declaring people to be originals, and doing what an original person says is not original. The academic work is mostly behavioral studies concerning creativity (and also evaluation of creative works), and observational studies of successful people. There's a lot of interesting stuff here, and it is supported by good notes. But the accounts in the book are not precise or extended enough to really understand the work. You can go to the references, but in that case the only value the book adds is tying the studies together into some larger picture. Unfortunately, there is no larger picture here. I think the author has some kind of idea that creativity + success = original, but it's never expressed clearly. Creativity is one virtue among many that can lead to success (and one of the trickier virtues as it probably prevents more success than it causes). Success is nice, but it's not the only thing, and it's not particularly original. Perhaps there is some kind of creative success that's different from creativity and success in general, but I have no idea what it is. If creativity + success just = creative success, then there's no reason to mash together research and quotes about creativity and success.

My final complaint is the book makes extensive use of the pop science trick of telling you that you believe something, and then refuting it. By picking foolish beliefs, the most ordinary observations can seem incisive. You are supposed to fail to notice that you never believed the straw man in the first place, or notice it and think smugly about how much smarter than everyone else you and the author are. For example, the author assured me that I believe that entrepreneurs who kept their day jobs were less likely to be successful than those who quit to work on their ideas full time. What in fact is pretty obvious is that keeping your day job allows you to survive longer in your entrepreneurial idea, because you don't need it for money to live on, and therefore increases your chance of success. You may take longer to succeed than the full-time entrepreneur, and you may not be as successful because you were slower to seize opportunities when they arose. So keeping your job would be expected to give you a higher chance of a slower and smaller success, compared to the entrepreneur who quits and is more likely to succeed or fail big and fast.

Another example is you are supposed to be surprised that most people would rather have a business with a 80% chance of making $1.25 million than one with a 20% chance of making $5 million. But that's just stupid. Ask people instead, "If you had a business with an 80% chance of making $1.25 million, and it succeeded, would you then choose to flip a coin twice, double or nothing each time, in hopes of getting the $1.25 million up to $5 million?" Only a few thrill seekers would even consider that bet.

Overall, this is an amusing book with some interesting insights, but too muddled to support any serious thinking. The unstated premise is that creativity and success are a magical amalgam more valuable than the constituent parts, and that you can achieve it by copying others. While creative success is certainly a wonderful goal, I think it makes more sense to pursue them as two goals rather than assuming original ideas will make you rich, or that getting rich will satisfy your creative urges. In any case, the author never addresses that issue at all. And I'm pretty sure that you can only find originality inside yourself, not by acting like successful creative people and hoping the appearance will become the reality.
Comment Comments (11) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 8, 2016 11:17 AM PST

Humanity in a Creative Universe
Humanity in a Creative Universe
Price: $19.49

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Hard to read with a lot of chaff but a few seeds of wisdom scattered here and there, February 1, 2016
Stuart Kauffman is a very smart guy, who can write clearly when he wants to, see for example, The Origins of Order or any number of essays available on-line. Or consider his well known, easy to understand, quote, “Deep in the chaotic regime, slight changes in structure almost always cause vast changes in behavior. Complex controllable behavior seems precluded.” This was one of the inspirations for Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park, which explores some of the same issues as Humanity in a Creative Universe, and is tons more fun to read.

This book is nearly impenetrable. The author's favorite work is "unprestateably," which he he made up himself and uses 96 times (including variants). A typical sentence is, "Swimming toward food or away from toxin feeds or saves the protocell so is a function of the Kantian whole in its world so is a DOING." I'm not picking unfairly, and there's no context that makes this any easier to follow. Or, "We will find a living world that is a world of unprestatable becomings, a Status Nascendi, of co-creation beyond our knowing beforehand." That one actually makes sense when you think about it, roughly translated he's saying "life breaks free" (in Michael Crichton's phrase, which make it into the movie as "life will find a way.").

Instead of writing, "I am sometimes surprised," he has to put it, "We really cannot always KNOW even what Can happen." That particular sentence illustrates his random capitalizations (sometimes initial caps, sometimes whole word); he also throws around quotation marks and Latin; without obvious information to convey to the reader. "We" or "us" are used every few sentences. They have many meanings from "all the stupid people" ("we" are always doing or thinking things he disapproves of) to every conscious being plus some unconscious and non-living entities.

There is a lot of repetition in the book. The history of civilization from the invention of agriculture through the Axial Age through the recovery of De Rerum Naturum through Newton, the Enlightenment to the present day is repeated in almost exactly the same words five times. The six separate rants against the 2008 financial crisis are more varied, but still tiresome, and nearly knowledge-free. These things pop up randomly, along with a few other hobby horses--Citizens United (which he seems to think is a law passed by the Supreme Court rather than a decision in a case), people more concerned about wealth than poetry, lobbyists, rich people--they have little to do with whatever else he happens to be discussing at the time. What's weird is that he's constantly claiming that his book is "civilizational," meaning it will transform not just human civilization in a new Axial Age but the entire meaning of the universe, but he can't stop himself harping on stuff that irritates him from newspapers over the last ten years, and that he never bothered to learn much about.

If you can tolerate all that reader abuse, you'll find some interesting stuff in here. I didn't find anything that I hadn't seen covered better in other works by the author, but there was a certain energy and rhythm to having them all in one place. I think it's about equal parts true stuff that most people who read this book will already know, interesting new stuff some of which might be true, and pompous mystical nuttiness.

If you're not familiar with Kauffman's work, I don't think you'll understand word one of this book. If you are familiar with it, I don't think you'll learn much, but you may pick up some additional color or intersections. I can't really recommend this book to anyone, but personally I found it interesting enough to finish, despite everything the author could do to discourage me.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 6, 2016 11:27 AM PST

An Invisible Client
An Invisible Client
by Victor Methos
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.04
28 used & new from $8.06

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Unthrilling but competent legal thriller, January 31, 2016
This review is from: An Invisible Client (Paperback)
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This is a competent, by the numbers legal thriller. If you've read the excellent non-fiction A Civil Action and the best-seller The Rainmaker you know the drill. If you haven't, read both of those books (especially A Civil Action) first. If you love them, and want more, then this book could while away an airplane ride without offense. But it doesn't break any new ground, nor does it deliver more than the minimal demands of this genre.

On the plus side, the writing is smooth and professional, and the author knows his law and his lawyers. He's done some good research and has some interesting descriptions of Salt Lake City. So that puts this above the bad and mediocre books. It's not just a John Grisham copycat, the author has some of his own ideas and style.

On the negative side, the entire thing is completely predictable, both the case and the protagonist's development. The bad guys are really bad, no nuance or interesting aspects. The good guys are the other extreme. The protagonist keeps boasting about how cynical and money-hungry he is, but he immediately topples like the sappiest bleeding heart when confronted with a military widow and a sick kid, not to mention an idealistic, clever and pretty assistant. There's no hard exterior to burrow through, he's as soft as ice cream on a summer day. The storytelling is completely straightforward, no foreshadowing or flashback or subplots to make things interesting. On the other hand, it's padded with lots of pages of the protagonist wandering around his house or office, or sitting around other places. Every minor character is inserted for exactly one purpose, he or she does the job, and disappears into the ether.

I have one final complaint. There is a lot of sloppiness. The protagonist asks another character if she grew up poor, when he learned her background earlier. At another point a lawyer yells that a tactic is the worst he's ever seen in any defense counsel he worked with, but he's yelling about the plaintiff's counsel, who's working against him. The protagonists asks for $100,000 for a "special project," and we never learn what it is. There's little rhyme or reason for events, when the trial is supposed to go against the protagonist, something unlikely happens to cause it, and when a success is called for, lightning strikes on cue. Now these kinds of things don't ruin the story, but they do give the impression that the author isn't paying attention to his own work.

If you're looking for a book to pass a little time, learn a few things, and not be surprised or forced to think, this is an okay choice. But there are much better books out there that will repay your effort better.

video door bell with camera door peephole camera records Doorbell 418-02c
video door bell with camera door peephole camera records Doorbell 418-02c

5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent value and easy to install, January 29, 2016
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I looked at a large number of these doorbell/viewers and this one seemed to be the best combination of features and quality. What's nice is that it was also the cheapest. I did have a problem with the first unit shipped, everything worked fine except that the inside monitor unit didn't recognize the exterior camera. But I got a prompt replacement, and the new unit worked perfectly.

The device is easy to install, the hardest part is drilling a hole in your door. Once you do that, you insert the camera (the circular piece with a rod out the back) from the outside of the door and use the peel-off stickers to hold it on the door (I glued it as well for extra security). A metal plate screws on to the back of the camera unit on the inside of your door, and you can then screw the metal plate on to your door (screws are included, but I used a longer wood screw). The interior unit (the one with the video screen) fits on the metal plate. There is a wire from the camera unit that you plug into the back of the monitor unit, and you're done.

The unit fits doors about 1.75 inches thick.If your door is wider, it's no problem, except that you won't be able to screw the metal plate onto the camera unit, so you'll have to screw it or glue it to the inside of your door (I screwed the metal plate in anyway, but I didn't really have to). Also you'll need to glue the camera unit to the outside of your door (again, I did this anyway) because the stickers aren't strong enough to hold the camera securely without the metal plate attached.

If your door is narrower, it will work fine, except that either the monitor unit or the camera will stick out a bit from the door. This only matters for appearance, the unit will work fine. My door was a little thinner, so my monitor sticks out a bit, but I never notice that.

Once it's installed, if anyone pushes the doorbell button on the camera unit (it has a little bell picture on it so people know to press it), four things happen. A chime sounds (you have 16 choices of chime including one doorbell and 15 short musical pieces; you can also set the volume), two bright LEDs on the camera unit blind your visitor (you cannot change the brightness), a picture is taken of the visitor an stored so if he murders you the police can identify him and the picture is displayed on the interior monitor (you can pan and zoom if he's trying to duck the camera). It has a rechargeable battery that comes with a charger. There are easy to understand menu options to set date and time, ring tone, volume, brightness (of the interior unit, the exterior is not adjustable as I mentioned) and a few other things. All of these are self-explanatory, there is no need to read the manual (which is good because it's in tiny, blurry type and mediocre English, there's also a Chinese version which I am not qualified to review).

There are a number of similar units available, mostly more expensive, that seem to be generally worse quality: smaller or lower resolution picture, more complicated installation and set up. Some lack the doorbell or the exterior lights. If you are really security conscious, you can pay up and get ones that send the picture wirelessly so (a) if the visitor murders you and destroys the unit, the police can still find his picture in the Cloud or wherever you send it, (b) you can view the visitor from anywhere within wireless range or even have it relayed to your smart phone away from home, (c) the NSA will know when you have pizza delivered. At an even higher price, you can get units that allow you to place the monitor far away from the door and unlock the door from the monitor. This lets you lie in bed and screen visitors at your gatehouse down the road, if you are fortunate enough to have a mansion on a large estate. Most of these units require a cable between monitor and camera, but some work wirelessly. Also most come with two cameras (so you can screen at the gatehouse and again at the front door, and some can handle even more cameras). Generally these require you to plug the monitor in, and the wireless ones require a separate battery for each camera.

This is an excellent quality simple version. It gives a far better view than even good optical peepholes, and it stores the pictures. I recommend it for people with basic security needs who don't want to pay a lot or deal with complicated installations.

Snakes of the Southeast (Wormsloe Foundation Nature Book Ser.)
Snakes of the Southeast (Wormsloe Foundation Nature Book Ser.)
by J. Whitfield Gibbons
Edition: Paperback
Price: $23.13
48 used & new from $18.37

5.0 out of 5 stars Spectacular photographs and informative text, January 25, 2016
The photographs are the star attraction in this book. Most species are illustrated with white background shots, several beautiful natural settings and held by a human (which is valuable for scale). In many cases juvenile and adult specimens are included. The authors accompany these delightful pictures with two to four pages of clear and comprehensive information about each snake (including identification checklist and both continental US and Southeast range maps). The authors stick in some interesting and amusing observations in sidebars.

If you have the 2005 edition, my guess is you won't find it worthwhile to upgrade. This book does add the newly discovered (2012) Kirtland's Snake, but it has been found only in one small area of northern Kentucky (it is much more common in Ohio and Indiana). Oddly enough, both books claim 53 snakes (you can get anywhere from 51 to 56 depending on how you count, but whatever method you use, the new edition has one more snake). The Eastern Garter Snake has been replaced by the closely-related Common Gartersnake, although I think two of the pictures are actually Easterns, and some of the description applies better to Easterns as well. The list for further reading has been only slightly updated, despite some excellent candidate books in the last ten years.

I could wish for a few improvements. The index covers only snake names (both common and scientific) so you cannot look up a topic, or even look up a snake by a common name other than the one chosen by the authors. There is no identification hierarchy or checklist that would allow you to identify a snake seen in the wild or in a picture. You have to guess the snake, look it up, and see if it matches the identification attributes listed. All measurements are in English units, I prefer metric in scientific books.

But these are minor gripes in a book that manages to be beautiful, clear, interesting, precise and accurate.

The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
The Path: What Chinese Philosophers Can Teach Us About the Good Life
by Michael Puett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.74

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance, January 23, 2016
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I have seldom been as disappointed in a book as I was in The Path. I felt like giving it one star, but in fairness, its no worse than the average self-help book, and better than many of them. There's nothing in here wrong or dangerous, and some of it is correct and helpful. Nevertheless, it's far less than a reader is entitled to expect from a Harvard professor and Harvard PhD, and it's unfathomable that this kind of pretentious fluff underlies one of the most popular undergraduate courses at that university.

The most irritating feature is every page or two, the authors tell the reader what he or she believes, invariably something so unconsidered and foolish or ignorant that there is no difficulty in refuting it. This is a standard tactic in mediocre self-help books as it saves the authors from having to address serious objections to their ideas. But The Path stands out in this regard. I don't know anyone who believes the things they assume. I'm tempted to conjecture the book is written for a James Bond villain who learned about Chinese culture from reading fortune cookies. Who else would agree that strength always wins, that the purpose of life is to impose your will on the universe in a god-like way, that your nature is something for you to discover rather than something to choose and nurture and that Chinese people are mindless automatons following meaningless rituals prescribed by tradition with no relevance to modern life? Another irritating style borrowed from mediocre self-help books is Random Capitalization and italicization supposed to convey that There are <i>hidden</i> profundities.

A related defect is constant references to "we" with no discussion of who "we" are. It's clear that "we" are not Chinese, and for that matter, cannot have been exposed to any major cultural or religious tradition. "We" seem to get our ideas from one of those Protestant denominations usually described as "dour"; but without the religion, the discipline or the intellectual underpinnings. "We" seem to be some amalgam of a melancholy Dane and an unusually stupid Victorian muscular Christian. To give the authors the benefit of the doubt, I can accept that they have observed all of the characteristics and beliefs they describe in some callow undergraduate or other; but it is certainly not common to find all of them in anyone.

Okay, all that is just style. In terms of content, the book reviews the thought of the big six ancient Chinese philosophers, Confucius, Mozi, Mencius, Laozi, Zhuangzi and Xunzi (actually, Laozi was probably not a person, and all of these authors are known through canonical texts, some of which were compiled posthumously and perhaps represent a school or tradition rather than the works an individual). Excellent summaries of these thinkers are available in several Internet encyclopedias of philosophy, and their works are widely available in on-line accessible translations. The Path does not attempt either of these things. Instead it seizes on a single aspect of each philosophy and tries to explain it for the imagined reader.

This fails completely as a way to teach traditional Chinese thought. For one reason, the thinkers themselves express their ideas far better and more elegantly (even in translation) than the authors of The Path manage. People of all cultures have been inspired by these writings for 2,500 years, the authors' pale summaries are neither inspiring nor likely to be read next year. For another reason, the aspects the authors emphasize are not distinctively Chinese. For example, the discussion of Confucius concerns mainly virtue ethics (loosely that you should concentrate on becoming a good and honorable person and trust that good people act in ethical ways, rather than following rules (duty ethics like "thou shalt not kill") or predicting consequences (consequential ethics like "the end justifies the means"). It's true that Confucius argued for virtue ethics, but so did many thinkers in Western and other traditions.

The treatment works somewhat better as a book of life advice that the authors choose to illustrate with selective accounts drawn from traditional Chinese philosophic writings. I think it's pretty good advice in general, especially if taken as ideas to broaden your outlook rather than specific prescriptions. And you'll learn a little about ancient Chinese thought, almost as much as you could from reading the Wikipedia article on the subject. The danger is that you will think you have read a comprehensive or authoritative summary, rather than a few musings from a couple of experts in the field tailored for an undemanding audience.

To illustrate the material, here is a more or less random paragraph:

"We often think of creativity as emanating from a single source, a grand Creator, a Shakespeare, a Picasso, a Steve Jobs. But Zhuangzi would have found such a notion terribly limiting. Instead, he would say that we should think of creativity as emerging when we move beyond the confines of a single great 'self' and open ourselves up to the larger cosmos. He would urge us to remember that each of the creatives we revere gained inspiration from opening themselves up to the world, to the Muses, and to boundless curiosity about all that exists. They were opening themselves up to a river of creativity, to what Zhuangzi would contend was the Way."

It starts by telling you what "we" think and then claiming Zhuangai would have disagreed (a remarkable feat since he died more than 1,800 years before the first of those people lived, yet he "remembers" how they got their ideas). But notice that there is no support for the claims, just repetitions of it. We are told to "remember" stuff that I at least have no idea about one way or the other, as if the authors have already proved the point they are asserting.

Worse, I really have no idea whether this means a literal mystical belief in some Force (perhaps an energy field created by all living things) external to individual human minds, that contains all ideas, and that we can connect with for inspiration. It could equally well be a metaphor for the idea that top creators do not craft their works with methodical efforts, but free their unconscious minds to make connections that cannot be discovered through rational thought. The first claim is pretentious drivel, the second is a debatable proposition that needs support (and is almost certainly true in some respects for some creators, and false in other respects for other creators).

Worst of all, examined closely it's not consistent. "Boundless curiosity" suggests directed efforts to learn while "opening up" suggests a passive receptivity. In the phrase "single great 'self'," "single great" suggests something unique and bigger than the individual, humanity or God or something, while "self" suggests something limited to the individual in question. Whatever facts someone introduced about the actual creative processes of Shakespeare, Picasso or Steve Jobs, the authors could stretch their paragraph to claim agreement. It communicates everything, so it communicates nothing. They're not trying to convey information, or even opinion, just to write things that might sound profound to uncritical readers.

Definitely avoid this book if you want to learn about traditional Chinese philosophy. If you're looking to apply the lessons of that philosophy to improve your life, I guess this could be an okay choice, assuming you trust the authors to have chosen the right passages and interpretations, and you don't mind the irritating style and contradictions. Personally, I think you'd have more fun watching some classic Yun-Fat Chow movies or reading the booklet that comes with the "Yoda: Bring You Wisdom, I Will" Statue--and get a clearer, if less academically respectable, treatment of the ideas.

The Quality of Silence: A Novel
The Quality of Silence: A Novel
by Rosamund Lupton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.89

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A waste of some fine ingredients, January 21, 2016
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There are a lot of good things in this book, especially for a two-star novel, but they don't work together to produce a satisfying result. One of the two main characters is fascinating and complex and there are some poetic descriptions of both natural wonders and everyday feelings. There is a strong setting and interesting set up. Accurate, interesting geographic and scientific information is inserted painlessly into the narrative.

My first impression is that this is a book intended for young teenage readers with a simple linear plot, stock characters and predictable twists. But it moves far too slowly to retain much juvenile interest. Moreover the language and ideas seem pitched at a middle-school audience, but most readers in that age group would find the book condescending and saccharine, with a forced and unsubtle political message. A kiss figures too prominently in the plot for anything other than Sleeping Beauty. The book might work best for a sheltered younger child who reads well beyond his or her age group. If you're considering this book for a child however, you should be aware of some extreme and graphic violence.

Considered as an adult novel, it doesn't work as a thriller. The biggest problem is the author's clumsiness with action scenes. The situation is never made clear enough to the reader to follow, and the pacing of the writing does not match the action. It also suffers from a simple and formulaic plot, and completely inexplicable actions. I don't just mean the insanity of stealing a truck you don't know how to drive, with a 10-year old child, in order to drive on a frozen river through a winter storm to the Arctic Ocean to find someone you have no reason to think is alive and have no means of finding and no way of helping if you do find him. I mean that given this the heroine doesn't think to do things like unhooking the load from the truck, emailing her position to police (she doesn't want to announce it on the CB radio because she's being pursued and shot at by another trucker, and wants him to think she is dead). This is an astrophysicist married to a wildlife photographer, who thinks her husband is running away from her by going to Alaska, because there can't be any wildlife there (when she arrives, she is pleasantly surprised to find out she was wrong and begins to trust her husband). A guy stranded in the winter Arctic wilderness who has discovered a massive crime and ecological disaster needs to communicate in order to be rescued and to expose the crime. He has Internet access, but no keyboard. Instead of writing and photographing a note with his location and the story (among other possible solutions), he emails cryptic photographs and numbers from an unrecognizable email account.

The problem isn't that the characters do unexplainable things, after all people in real life act in unexpected ways even without the stress of crisis. The problem is the irrationalities are so pervasive and unexplained that the plot stops making sense. The reader has no idea why characters are acting as they do. It's like one of those movies in which explosions and car chases take place for no other reason than the director wanted to film them. Another issue is the book never comes near to conveying the true rigors of the situation, it makes 50 degrees F below zero in an Alaskan North Slope hurricane seem like a zero-degree windy day in Wisconsin.

The book works better as a dreamy romance. There are extended impressionistic scenes of a PG-rated love story that will make some readers gag but that others will enjoy. These third-person accounts about the parents are intercut with first-person accounts from the 10-year-old, who is a wonderful character, although also more sugary-sweet than is common in adult books. It's very hard to mix first and third person well, especially when it's an omniscient third person who knows every thought and mood of the characters, and also when the cuts are frequent and not signaled.

Despite its impressive virtues, I can't rate this book higher than two stars, because I can't recommend it to any reader. It's too juvenile for most adults, and too condescending for most juveniles. Despite a plot that sounds thrilling, there is little excitement. The book could use more humor, original and nuanced characters, plot surprises; and less preaching and mawkish sentiment.

The Good Liar: A Novel
The Good Liar: A Novel
by Nicholas Searle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.32
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Semi-successful combination of literature and mystery novel, January 13, 2016
This review is from: The Good Liar: A Novel (Hardcover)
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I find myself halfway between Bill Sanders' review and Paul Cassel's. Like Sanders, I was reminded of some great confidence man novels, including Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man and Jim Thomson's The Grifters, also Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels (a rare instance of a publisher's blurb making an accurate comparison). Those are great works of literature, and compelling stories that work well as mysteries, and fascinating takes on some philosophic and social issues. I think that's what Nicholas Searle aspires to, and he comes close, but doesn't quite make it.

I agree with Paul Cassel on the reasons this book falls short. The writing is affectedly indirect with jagged pacing, and there is a lot of unpleasantness that adds nothing to the novel (a particularly painful attack of diarrhea, for one example, or a gruesome description of a mutilated face). Virtually everything is described as either cruel corruption or banal worthlessness, there is no positive human feeling or worthwhile effort. Perhaps uncharitably, I think this is adopted to make the book seem more serious and literary. It does set a mood, but an inappropriate mood for the story, and a painful one to read.

This can sometimes be done to good effect in literary mysteries such as those by Peter Lovesey or P. D. James. But those authors use the indirectness, uneven pace and unpleasantness for important reasons, and also deliver satisfying stories.

As literature, this book requires a stronger core, a reason to wade through the complexities and ugliness the author sets out. That could be someone or something to care about, or a philosophical or social point, or an aspect that seems relevant outside the novel itself. As a mystery, the novel could be simplified and the trick ending could be less obviously telegraphed. Moreover, the author should play by the rules and not describe the thoughts of characters misleadingly.

There is enough good writing to make this a worthwhile book, and the character deconstruction (it would be character development, except it is done in reverse chronology) is masterful. If it had a point, it could be a first-rate novel. If it were smoothed and prettied up a bit to be more entertaining, it could be a first-rate mystery. As it is, it's a pretty good tweener.

Bone Maker: Will Finch Mystery Thriller Series Book 1
Bone Maker: Will Finch Mystery Thriller Series Book 1
Price: $0.00

4.0 out of 5 stars A great crime novella with the set up of a novel and the resolution of a short story, January 10, 2016
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I have not read the second and third books in this "crime trilogy," I am reviewing this as a stand alone work. It is beautifully written, with compelling major and minor characters who develop in satisfying ways. It has a great set-up with intriguing original ideas and wonderful local color. But it rates only four stars because it is unbalanced. It has the foundation, backstory and plot set-up of a novel, but only resolves a short story worth of those elements. It has the length of a novella, but it is not a self-contained episode of a larger story. On the other hand, it's too self-contained to be Act I of a three act drama.

I'm not criticizing the book for having an unusual format, I'm saying that it is somewhat unsatisfying to read. The author is a real novelist, and he creates some compelling threads. The protagonist has an intense personal history embedded in profound changes in both the business and meaning of journalism. This is not the throwaway, "they killed my wife so I'm out for revenge," or "corporate greedheads are destroying my profession but I'll prove them wrong," of lesser thrillers; it's thoughtful, deep and sincere; it makes you think and care. But this book only describes a step or two of the protagonist's development. There are other strong threads as well: financial technology, entrenched corruption masquerading as sunny virtue, secret war horrors, nature with both a beautiful and a corrupting face. A lot of pages and reader involvement are demanded to introduce these ideas, but they are left dangling.

One of the major plot threads is resolved in this book, but too abruptly for a satisfying mystery novella. The story builds smoothly for most of the book, but then a rapid cascade of events ties up one major subplot completely. The book does not end there, however, there are a few more chapters to set up some of the future action of subsequent books.

The reader is left with the annoying feeling of having invested too much time, curiosity and empathy for a partial resolution. But it also doesn't feel like having read one third of a long novel, because the parts that were resolved were resolved too completely. A novel would not spend the first third of its pages resolving only one plot thread while setting up all the others, there would be more balance with some threads only alluded to, some partially developed and some mostly resolved.

The closest comparison I can make is a television series in which each episode has three plot lines, one resolved in the episode, one set up in one episode and resolved in the next, and one that is maintained for the entire season. A more complementary analogy is some of Charles Dickens' early serial novels. The format makes economic sense because each portion can be read on its own, but each one sets up an incentive to purchase the next one, and after that the reader may be hooked for the entire bundle. Unfortunately it rarely makes for great literature, even Dickens struggled with its limitations.

My guess is the author is experimenting. He seems to have written the equivalent of about two novels, but split them into three parts. The first is given away free, the next two sold for $2.99 each. That allows readers to try it out with no monetary risk. I can see the appeal of this for a great writer who is not a commercial powerhouse. A lot of readers might try the free book, and they will generally be impressed with the characters, plot and writing; moreover they will be motivated to get the next two books. Perhaps this is the future of novels in the electronic age, the replacement for traditional publishing and reviews as gatekeepers. On that basis, I applaud the attempt, and will be interested to see how it works out. But it does come at some cost to the literary quality.

Overall, I recommend you try this book as the author is a great talent, and the story and characters are compelling.

The Silence of Stones: A Crispin Guest medieval noir (A Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Mystery)
The Silence of Stones: A Crispin Guest medieval noir (A Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Mystery)
by Jeri Westerson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $24.94
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Mildly entertaining comic costumer with some good historical research, January 5, 2016
This is the seventh book in a series, and I have not read any of the earlier books. If you are a fan of the series, you should rely on other reviews.

Coming to these characters fresh I enjoyed the detailed and mostly accurate historical research behind the story. The book is livened with many historical words appropriate to the place and era (1388 London/Westminster) and the author gets the clothing, food, historical characters and other details right, with a few exceptions. Sheriffs and coroners act more like the officials with these titles today than the entirely different roles they had in late medieval London, magistrates and bailiffs are not mentioned when they should be, and there is not enough attention paid to Church versus secular law. The protagonist cites Occam's Razor, nearly 500 years before the term was invented, and in an inappropriate context (in fact, there is a much more appropriate quote from Aristotle, who is the protagonist's main authority). Coins are used to an extent that would not be common for a few centuries (coins were used in ordinary transactions in London in 1388, but accounts with periodic settlement were far more common, there just weren't enough coins to cover every pint of ale or loaf of bread). But I understand these are just minor carpings, most people don't care at all about such things, and even nit-pickers like me will enjoy the general high level of detailed accuracy. If an author can teach a little bit of history and vocabulary without getting in the way of an enjoyable story, it's a free benefit.

One minor stylistic choice bothered me, but other readers may find it appropriate. The author uses archaic words with their historical meanings, and mixes them with modern slang; she also sometimes inserts the older words into modern expressions. This grates on my ear, and sometimes makes it hard to guess whether she is using a word in its current or older meaning. Moreover she indicates Scottish accents by rendering dialog in a phonetic approximation to a modern exaggerated Scottish accent. This is required for the plot, but it seems silly to me, like those English language movies with French people speaking to other French people in France, in English with exaggerated French accents. In fact, both London and Scottish English speakers in 1388 would sound heavily accented--if understandable at all--to modern people, and my guess speech varied far more by location and rank, and was affected far more by the slow travel of the time, to the point that the average Londoner would not have much idea of what the the average Scottish person sounded like when speaking English.

The author makes no attempt to match her characters, whether historical or fictional, to the era. They think and act like modern people with a few constraints of the time. I consider this book to be a costume drama, with a present-day plot dressed up in historical clothes, rather than an historical novel. The main focus on the book is on personal relationships and feelings. These were complex and interesting, but often turned cloying. Personally, I felt there was too much repetitive allusion to earlier books in the series, and someone who has read some of those earlier books would find it even less necessary.

There is little attention paid to the mystery. The bad guys' plot is insanely convoluted and idiotic, and the protagonist does no actual investigation. In most cases people seek him out to tell him things, or he stumbles across plotters at random or overhears them telling other bad guys things they both already know (in one memorable scene important to the plot, a bad guy throws his written orders down on a table, for no reason at all, and the protagonist is able to read them). His only interrogation technique is to threaten to torture or murder the subject. He never follows through, but that seems to be circumstance more than inclination. He frequently considers drawing his sword or dagger to avenge minor slights, but usually forbears. Given that the protagonist has three days to solve the crime or his beloved sidekick will die, and he has to walk everywhere to find a stone that could be anywhere in the British Isles, he spends an awful lot of time waiting around, drinking, engaging in activities unrelated to the investigation and sleeping. When he does get a lead, he doesn't follow up quickly, which delays his investigation even further (and occasionally derails it entirely).

The characters are what make this book enjoyable. The protagonist is complex and interesting, and the historical figures are depicting in interesting and plausible ways. The villains are comically exaggerated, which is effective in a light mystery. I found the fictional secondary good guys to be too worshipful of the protagonist to be all that interesting, especially given his tortured nature, awkward manner and thuggishly violent inclinations. There were way too many broad jokes about the female impersonator, and the one-eyed old guy who trains birds to steal was forced into the story for no good reason. Several characters were clearly included in cameo roles, I assume to retain their place in the series for future books.

This is a mildly entertaining comic costumer, with some educational value. If you're looking for a good mystery or an historical novel look elsewhere, but if you want to read about some roguish good guys battling cartoon bad guys in late medieval London, this is your book.
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