Saturday, November 30, 2019

Christmas in Vermont (Anita Hughes)

When you find yourself meandering over to the bookstore's holiday section, you usually know what you're going to be getting. There are no surprises in a holiday novel, but readers love them precisely for their predictability so they can escape from the real world. All that being said, it's important that a holiday book have at least some whimsy and warmth and for any book to keep the reader's attention. Even with a title like Christmas in Vermont, I didn't really find either of these in this book.

Emma is a Manhattan copywriter who visits a pawn shop on Christmas Eve. She finds her ex-boyfriend's engraved watch and wonders whatever became of him. Her best friend, Bronwyn, discovers that Fletcher, the ex-boyfriend, is staying in a snowy Vermont inn and sends Emma there. What Bronwyn doesn't know is that Fletcher has a fiance and a daughter.

Christmas, a Vermont Inn, snow -- sounds magical, right? It is in theory, but while holiday novels do require the reader to suspend disbelief at times, this one had way too may "coincidences" to be believed. Hughes calls it "synchronicity" in the book, but it just came off as annoying. Finding ex-boyfriend's engraved watch in a pawn shop? Check. Best friend sends me to the same middle-of-nowhere inn as my ex-boyfriend? Check. I become close with my ex-boyfriend's ten-year-old daughter? Check. Ex-boyfriend has a fight with his fiance and the fiance leaves? Check. You can only guess how it ends.

There are better holiday books out there.


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Messengers: Who We Listen To, Who We Don't, and Why (Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks)

Messengers by Stephen Martin and Joseph Marks makes the argument that we often are basing our opinions and decision-making not by the facts being argued but by whom is doing the persuading.  These "messengers" are influencers within business, politics, and our broader way of life, and we arguably live in an Instagram Influencer world.

Martin and Marks do a very thorough job exposing the traits that create these powerful messengers. Dominance, trustworthiness, warmth, and socioeconomic positions are four of the traits and characteristics that are given extensive discussion. The reader learns how and why one video may get many more views than another, how one person's tweet may get a lot more traction compared to someone else’s, and how political candidates are perceived by the public at large.  Some of these reasons, regardless of truth, are pretty sobering.

Understanding these traits and the associated reasons for people thinking and acting the way they do is important. What this book lacks is coming up with steps to deflate the messenger’s influence and how we can better arm ourselves against being swayed by that tweet in the echo chamber, that piece of fake or questionable news, or that click-bait headline. However, Messengers is a good study of our psychology and, for anyone in a position of leadership, a book that is worth a read.


Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Immortalists (Chloe Benjamin)

Chloe Benjamin's The Immortalists confronts the reader with a common question: Would you want to know the date you are going to die, and if you did, how would you live your life differently knowing it?

In 1969, four young siblings sneak away to see a fortune teller who claims to know everyone's date of death. For some of the children, the date they hear is devastating and so much sooner than they ever expected. Subsequent sections follow each of the Gold siblings as they try to live their life with the prophecy in their minds. All four are very different but connected by what they know...or believe to be true.

The Immortalists has a very original premise, and Benjamin set the narrative up in a way that each brother or sister must deal with their siblings' deaths as they come. For me, though, the execution wasn't entirely successful because I didn't feel that the characters were fleshed out as much as they could have been.

Still a worthwhile read and one that makes you think about your own life.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

The Turn of the Key (Ruth Ware)

I've read and reviewed everything Ruth Ware has written, and she is definitely one of my go-to authors, mystery or otherwise. During my bookstore days, The Woman in Cabin 10 was the book I most often recommended when customers asked for a suggestion. I am a very slow reader, but I stated in my review that I read the whole thing in a 24-hour period and raced to the end to see how Ware would wrap it up. The same thing happened to me with her latest, The Turn of the Key.

This is your classic "All alone in a big haunted house in the middle of nowhere" story; however, Rowan Caine is not "quite" alone. She answers an ad to become a live-in nanny to four children (well, three and a teenager in boarding school), a job which pays a suspiciously outrageous sum but has lost all the other nannies over the years. The house feels like it is constantly watching, and that's because it has cameras everywhere.

But this isn't where the story begins -- it starts with Rowan in prison after her stint as the nanny. She is writing letters begging Mr. Wrexham to become her new solicitor and adamantly proclaiming that she did not kill that child. So before we even get into the main gist of the novel, Ware sucks us in
with the knowledge that one of the children will end up dead and Rowan will be arrested for the murder.

From the intriguing beginning to the final twist on the last two pages (literally), Ware has created another fascinating page-turner. I may even go all the way in saying that The Turn of the Key is now my favorite Ruth Ware novel, beating out finally The Woman in Cabin 10.


Friday, November 22, 2019

More from Less (Andrew McAfee)

More from Less is a rather optimistic view of the 21st Century globally. Author Andrew McAfee chronicles how, despite challenges from climate change, environmental pollution and other man-influenced and man-made causes, parts of the world are showing signs of producing more by using less of the world’s resources. It’s a fair take and a reasonable argument to make, and McAfee provides a lot of charts and data to back up his assertions. 

McAfee’s message is both incredibly optimistic and also a bit muddled. Optimistic in the sense that he is a bit of a progress champion, saying technology and capitalism will continue to push us forward provided there’s reasonable government regulation in place. The message becomes muddled when he wanders into the weeds of some of the negative sides of globalization. While it makes sense to touch on these, some of his suggestions to address problems that are the side effect of globalization run counter to earlier arguments made within his book. Even within that inconsistency in message, however, his points on social capital are certainly worth further discussion. That, perhaps, could have been its own book.

More from Less on the whole makes a number of good points about how technology will help us use less of our natural resources in the coming decades. What could have been a stronger argument for innovation and progress, however, gets muddled in some inconsistency in message.


Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Cottingley Secret (Hazel Gaynor)

Usually, a book about a fairy hoax wouldn't attract me that much, but for some reason, I was drawn to Hazel Gaynor's The Cottingley Secret. This is the perfect read for it's just starting to get chilly outside and all you want to do is cozy up under a warm blanket.

The year is 1917 and the world is at war. While her father is one of those fighting, Frances and her mother make their way from South Africa to Cottingley, England, where they have family. One day, Frances and her cousin, Elsie, claim to have captured photographs of fairies at the beck, only the "fairies" are really paper cutouts that Elsie has drawn. Soon, they draw the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who insists that the photos are authentic and writes a piece about it in a magazine. The girls become a national sensation for those who desperately need something good to believe in in uncertain times.

You may be surprised to learn that all of this actually happened, but Gaynor weaves fictional characters, like Olivia Kavanagh, into her narrative to tell the girls' story. Olivia learns the story in modern days while she is taking over her late grandfather's bookshop. Soon, the timelines converge into a satisfying, hopeful conclusion.

While most of the Cottingley fairy pictures are a hoax, Frances has always insisted that she really did see fairies at the beck and that the fifth photograph is real. Gaynor does a wonderful job of telling the girls' story and reminding us that we could all use a little magic "fairy dust" now and then to help us get through hard times.


Saturday, November 9, 2019

Summer of '69 (Elin Hilderbrand)

Sometimes I'm a little strange about my reading habits. While many people are curling up by the fireplace with a cozy mystery in November, I am picking up a book by the beach read queen herself, Elin Hilderbrand. That's my way of warding off the chill.

As usual, Summer of '69 is set in Hilderbrand's beloved Nantucket. But what is quite unusual about this one is that it is set in a different time -- a time that included Senator Ted Kennedy and the scandal of Chappaquiddick, a music festival known as Woodstock, and the thrilling landing on the moon. Hilderbrand states in her author's note that she and her twin brother were born the day before the Apollo 11 mission launched, and so this is a very personal book for her.

Each year, the entire Levin family summers in Nantucket, but in 1969, there is trouble on the horizon. Kate is terrified about her son's safety while he is deployed to Vietnam. Kate's eldest, Blair, is in a tumultuous marriage, pregnant with twins, and stuck in Boston. The middle daughter, Kirby, decides to spend her summer on Martha's Vineyard instead where she becomes involved in an interracial relationship, scandalous for the times. The youngest, Jessie, is living in a world of first love and tennis lessons at her grandmother's country club. There are many characters to keep straight, but they are all well developed enough so that we come to care about them as readers.

There is nothing Earth shattering here, but there never is with Hilderbrand's novels. Her books  are reliable reads, but filled with heart. I thought I knew the direction she was taking certain characters at the end, but I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't. That is the hallmark of a good novelist.


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Brilliant Maps for Curious Minds (Ian Wright)

Brilliant Maps for Curious Minds is a graphic book of 100 maps that Ian Wright created. The maps are used to highlight demographic, political, social, and other statistical information in a visual way.

Wright, the operator of, has over 350 maps on his website and has put many of those into this book. This includes “fun maps” like “Why you can’t dig to China from the US”, “All roads lead to Rome”, and “Map of the entire internet in 1969”.  There are more serious maps included as well, all of which provide a breadth and depth of visual context that often times tells a more effective story than merely seeing or hearing facts and figures.

This book’s only text section is the introduction, where Wright talks about the reasons he put this collection of maps together in a book and reflects that while maps can inform, sometimes they can mislead. He stresses the importance of context as part of explaining the story behind the map. Wright’s book is geared towards the geographically inclined and those who dive into the rabbit hole of Google Maps or any map-oriented sites. It’s an informative, descriptive look into the world from a mapmaker’s perspective.