Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The Last Amateurs (John Feinstein)

John Feinstein’s The Last Amateurs is a timeless look at small-time college basketball as it plays for its one shot at big-time glory. The Patriot League may not be well known to many outside of college basketball circles, but at the time of the book's release, it was one of the few leagues in the top division of college basketball where some of the teams did not have athletic scholarships and played for the love of the game.

Feinstein’s recap of the 2000 Patriot League season and conference tournament weaves through each of the seven colleges and service academies as they play for one invitation to the NCAA tournament, also profiling the coaches and players as they struggled to balance life, basketball, and school (in the case of the players). The culmination of the book is the conference tournament, where each of the schools tries to win up to three games in order to get into the NCAA tournament, and where one loss means the end of their basketball season.

The Patriot League certainly doesn’t feature the huge schools that grab your attention, but it does have kids and coaches who love the sport. The Last Amateurs is a gripping, entertaining, fun read that will remind you about the best of college sports in an era where many times its uglier side can be brought to light elsewhere.

MY RATING - 4.5

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Our Kind of Cruelty (Araminta Hall)

Gillian Flynn, otherwise known as the Gone Girl priestess, wrote a blurb for Araminta Hall's Our Kind of Cruelty.  In it, she stated that the novel was disturbing but that she loved every minute of it. It seems every dark and twisted thriller nowadays is judged on how it compares to GG, but I will put myself out there to say that this outranks it in the need to "feel like you must take a shower afterwards."

That's not to say it's not a great read -- I couldn't put it down!  Our narrator is Mike Hayes, who is totally, completely, and blissfully in love with Verity Metcalf.  Mike and Verity do a sick and twisted role play game called the Crave.  While they were once together as a couple, Verity breaks it off over Mike's one night stand and rebounds quickly into a happy marriage with Angus.  But Mike sees Verity's new stage of life as just a part of their "game," and eventually goes deep into stalking her, with things taking a very dangerous turn.

You won't find the twists in Our Kind of Cruelty that you found in GG, but the suspense is the real "killer" here.  From the very first page, the reader knows that Mike and Verity's story will not end well.  It's getting to that point that keeps you turning the pages fast.

MY RATING - 4


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Finding Jake (Bryan Reardon)

I picked up Bryan Reardon's moving Finding Jake after a recommendation from a trusted colleague.  I'm so glad I did because this is one novel that keeps you guessing -- you're never quite sure what to expect, which is a trait that the best books present to their readers.

Reardon makes us guess ourselves by asking us to confront a simple question -- as parents, do we really know everything about our children?  The main character Simon Connolly loves his family -- wife Rachel, son Jake, and daughter Laney.  One ordinary day, he receives the devastating news that there has been a shooting at his children's school.  One by one, each parent is reunited with their child until Simon is one of the few left waiting for news. What really happened to Jake? Did he ever really know his own son?

Finding Jake is simply heart wrenching, and Reardon wisely alternates time periods so we learn about the family's past as well. The post climax goes on a little long so as to take me out of the zone a bit, but that doesn't take away from the fact that Finding Jake really packs a punch.

MY RATING - 4

Monday, January 29, 2018

Patrick Henry (Jon Kukla)

Jon Kukla’s Patrick Henry: Champion of Liberty devotes nearly 400 pages to the life of one of the unsung heroes of the independence movement in America. Henry, known primarily for the quote “Give me liberty or give me death," never held federal office and spent the vast majority of his life in Virginia, serving his home colony and state in many different capacities. Kukla’s book documents Henry’s long and winding road as patriot, moderate, and devotee to his ideals of liberty.

This account is arguably one of the strongest biographies on this founding father, bringing to light how much leadership Henry brought throughout a several decade career in service as legislator, governor, attorney, and champion for the colonies as they struggled to break free of British rule. Kukla shows Henry’s leadership through the embryonic phase of America’s independence, both in his strength of moderation (such as in advocating for a strong bill of rights being attached to the Constitution despite his initial opposition to the document as it was written) and his occasional weakness in dealing with issues that would continue to plague the new country for decades to come (such as slavery and the divide between northern and southern states around economic policy and the role of the federal government in addressing issues).

Kukla brings out Henry’s eloquence of speech at various points throughout the book, whether addressing the issues of his day or addressing his opponents as they took challenge to what he would say. That eloquence shaped a man who was passionate about liberty and freedom, helping to spark the independence movement in this country beyond mere tavern talk. This thoroughly researched book is well worth reading, especially given Henry’s moderation and relative “maverick” spirit in comparison to much of our modern politics.

MY RATING - 4

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Hunger (Alma Katsu)

The doomed Donner Party mixed with elements from The Walking Dead -- what could go wrong? Be sure you don't have a fresh manicure as you're reading Alma Katsu's The Hunger because you're sure not to have any nails left by the end.

Most readers will already know the horrible story of the ill-fated Donner Party, so I won't rehash it here. Katsu's characters include those people that are historically accurate, as well as a few fictional characters to flesh her story out. The Donners' dreams of going West are dashed as they must survive brutal weather and diminishing rations. Before long, things begin to happen that are unexplained, and their party has an uneasy feeling that they are being stalked. But by whom? And how will this contribute to what is known as one of the most horrific episodes in American history?

Katsu builds almost unbearable suspense, and it is almost made worse by the fact that as readers, we know at least part of what is going to happen. The middle of The Hunger was a little slow for me, but once things started to happen, I raced through each page to get to the ending, which included one terrible event after another. A truly original read!

MY RATING - 4

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Bunk (Kevin Young)

In Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Phonies, Plagiarists, Post-Facts, and Fake News, author Kevin Young dives headfirst into the rich tradition of American fascination with everything fake. Covering 200 years of history, from Barnum to Trump, Dolezal to The Bearded Lady, forged works to forged “reality”,  Young’s thoughtful, candid research into the history of carnival-barking phonies and fraudsters is a fascinating read.

Not getting into too much detail, Bunk provides a candid timeline of the weaving of race, class, gender, and occasional criminality of several case examples.  Given our current environment in politics, news, and entertainment, Young delivers a reminder that America’s “been here, done that” many times before when it comes to putting show before substance, hype above honesty, and chicanery in front of correctness.

Young’s perspective and African American roots are woven effectively for context at key moments throughout the book and provide additional sources of perspective for students of history and of current events. I found myself captivated, yet shaking my head at the number of examples throughout history where we the people have truly been duped by sensationalism and outright fraudsters. My only wish is for Young to have crafted some sort of argument for us to get out of our sucker mentality; however, there’s enough history there for us to be able to realize that it may ultimately be on all of us to be more effective filters of “bunk” in the future.

MY RATING - 4.5

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing (Daniel H. Pink)

Daniel H. Pink's latest book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, captures the circle of life, our decision-making, and our daily routines as a course of habit. Our days, our jobs, and our lives all have ebb and flow to them, and the author argues that these forces are not necessarily of our own doing.

In his discussion of timing as a science, Pink pulls research from biology, economics, and psychology to illustrate how humans work and go about their day to day. He also talks about the perfect time TO make an important decision, whether it be leaving a job, getting married or divorced, or when to schedule an appointment to get elective surgery performed.

Given life is a series of decisions, some much more important than others, Pink makes a convincing case that timing those decisions wisely makes all the difference between whether the decision is successful or doesn't pay off. When is a short, breezy read that will not necessarily
challenge you to think…but may challenge you to wait a bit before making the next critical resolution in your life.

MY RATING - 3.5