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Friday, April 26, 2013


Let me fill you in on a little-known fact: I am not - let me repeat that, not - a history buff. Back when I finished the first of what would be three basic history classes in college, in fact, I changed my major simply so I could avoid taking the other two. Honest.

So when I saw the period setting of this book, the fifth in Clive Cussler's series featuring early 1900s detective Isaac Bell, I was more than a little reluctant to start reading. Then I learned that it takes place in and around the coal mines of West Virginia and Pennsylvania not far from my home at a time when labor unions were trying to gain a foothold. Vilified by mine owners, union organizers were targeted, roughed up and even killed as they  attempted to win higher pay and safer working conditions for workers in this extremely hazardous, but exceedingly profitable, industry.

This is the fourth in the Bell series written in collaboration with author Justin Scott, an established writer of several novels under his own name and the pen name Paul Garrison - for whatever that is worth. I've read and enjoyed other books by Cussler, but not any in this series; that, too, gave me pause until I found out it's really a prequel to the other four - the book in which Bell proves his bones as a private investigator. 

Bell, who is relatively fresh out of an apprenticeship at the Van Dorn Detective Agency, is hired to find unionist saboteurs in the coal mines. In the process, he witnesses an accident that he believes wasn't an accident at all - and sets off to get to the truth. Doing so pits him against very ruthless and powerful people who, especially in the days of crooked politicians and coal industry magnates, will stop at nothing to keep the "working man" in his place and keep racking up enormous profits to fund their private yachts, elegant mansions, steamboats and special railroad cars.

I admit reading was a bit of a slogfest for me, but only because the dialogue is in keeping with the times (and yes, a bit of my aversion to history). But it was totally fascinating and expertly crafted; I'm sure a great deal of research went into the writing and many of the happenings are based - though perhaps loosely - on real events. There really was a Henry Clay Frick (a bad guy in this book has a similar name) who was a major American industrialist and financier during the coal-coke-steel industry's early years, for instance - at one time he was considered the most hated man in America.

It was also quite interesting to see names of places very familiar to me: Pittsburgh's Golden Triangle, the Monongehela and Ohio rivers on which barges tote coal to big cities like Cincinnati (perhaps stopping for water in Steubenville, Ohio). 

Heck, I even got a chuckle or two, such as when a powerful judge pronounced, "Nothing becomes Pittsburgh like the leaving of it!"

All in all, it's an excellent read - and for those who love history and whodunits, it's ideal. I know I'll take a break by reading a couple of other books in present-day settings, but this one was interesting enough that I'm actually considering giving the rest of this series a try.

The Striker by Clive Cussler (Putnam Adult, March 2013); 384 pp.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013


4 stars (out of 5)

Partly because my undergraduate degree is in psychology, partly because I'm a classic Type A personality and partly because I'm a want-to-know-it-all Aries, I've always had an interest in self-help books - or at least that was the case back when I had full-time jobs and always looking at the next rung up on the career ladder. Zig Ziglar, Steven R. Covey, John Maxwell, Ken Blanchard and their ilk always had a place on my bookshelves.

And once, I read one by Stedman Graham, chairman and CEO  of S. Graham & Associates perhaps more universally known as Oprah Winfrey's significant other. In fact, he's penned something like 10 books including this one. Although I'm far less inclined to read books like this now that I'm mostly retired and my legs are a bit too old to try that ladder, I enjoyed the one I read so many years ago, and this one sounded like a good bet as well (and it didn't hurt that I was able to snag the Kindle version free at Amazon).

Actually, there's another reason for my interest in self-help books: For several years, I conducted what I'd call motivational/employee development workshops, and I was always looking for tidbits I could use in an attempt to get folks to become "internal" thinkers - taking charge of their own lives instead of wasting away blaming everyone else for their problems. "There are two ways to get to the top of an oak tree," was one of my favorites (from Ziglar, if I recall correctly). "You can go out and climb it or sit on an acorn and wait for it to grow."

Graham's latest book emphasizes that same theme; it's your life, and if you want to get anywhere (however you choose to define "anywhere"), you've got to take charge of yourself. As such, he's developed a Nine-Step Success Process - sort of a variation on the "Conceive, Believe, Achieve" espoused by another biggie in the motivational market, Napoleon Hill.

And therein lies one of the first truths about motivation: There's nothing really new in the world or on the horizon. The difference between any two of these well-known speakers and writers is mostly in the packaging: You might say each has developed an "identity." In this book, Graham encourages readers to do the same - and that's not a bad thing.

The whole thing is put together concisely and well; each chapter offers insights from Graham as well as success stories from well-known people who have made it big, like the late Steve Jobs and Sen. John McCain. The core idea, Graham says, is this: "Your happiness and success in life flow from becoming clear about who you are and establishing your authentic identity - first inside yourself and then externally in the world."

Or, put another way, "I've learned that, for the most part, extraordinary people are simply ordinary people doing extraordinary things that matter to them." 

The point of this book, then, is to show you how to stop thinking of yourself as a victim of your circumstances and become "extraordinary," starting with becoming self-aware. In that regard, it is a bit reminiscent of Pastor Rick Warren's book The Purpose Driven Life.

The nine steps, for the record, are appropriately titled for a journey, such as "Develop Your Travel Plan" and "Master the Rules of the Road." But as you might expect, the devil is in the details;  success stories of Graham and others round out each chapter and are followed at the end with questions to answer that will help you uncover, with the goal of eventually living, your true "identity."

If nothing else, if you walk Graham's talk, you'll learn a lot about yourself. And that's not a bad thing, either.

Identity: Your Passport to Success by Stedman Graham (FT Press February 2012); 222 pp.

Sunday, April 21, 2013


5 stars out of 5

Wish I could remember who got my husband Jack and I started reading books by Les Roberts, but all I know for sure is that it happened many years ago (this latest one, Whiskey Island, is the 16th featuring cop-turned-private detective Milan Jacovich). Initially, our interest was piqued because the P.I. lives and works in Cleveland, Ohio. Since it's a little more than an hour's drive from our home, we're fairly familiar with the city, and it's fun to read about places, and sometimes people, we know about.

Over the years, we've enjoyed many of Roberts's other books (The Strange Death of Father Candy and We'll Always Have Cleveland: A Memoir of a Novelist and a City among them). The latter, by the way, offers an up-close-and-personal look at what brought Roberts from the sunny climes of California to the more dismal Lake Erie shores of northeast Ohio. Out west, among other accomplishments, he was a writer for the TV show "Hollywood Squares," "The Andy Griffith Show" and others and has been a professional actor, jazz musician and teacher. 

It is the books in the Jacovich series that remain our favorites, though, and Whiskey Island doesn't disappoint. The topic of disappointment does crop up in the context of Roberts's books, though, since none are available for the Kindle (if you've got a Nook ebook reader, you're in luck, but we have to settle for a hard copy, and that does not make me a happy camper. The only reason I'm willing to consider that option, in fact, is that so far, at least, I enjoy the books so much that I don't want to miss one. 

Here, Jacovich - who's pushing 60 - takes on a brash young apprentice who's trying to make his bones as a private investigator and maybe even earn a full-time job as well. Sometimes, their relationship mixes no better than oil and water, but for the most part, they get along fairly well. Even before Kevin O'Bannion - known as "K.O." - gets a desk and computer, the firm is hired by a city councilman who's been indicted on many counts of bribery and other deeds unbecoming a public official and is looking at serious jail time. Apparently, or so he claims, someone is trying to murder him - and Jacovich and K.O. take on the job of finding out who that someone is before it becomes mission accomplished.

All that leads the dynamic duo through a maze of dishonest politicians and businessmen, a call girl who turns up dead and hanky-panky on Cleveland's Whiskey Island - hence the name of the book. Along the way, both Jacovich and K.O. get lucky in the female department, although it's hard to tell which of the guys is more surprised.

The chapters alternate from the point of view of Jacovich and K.O., and interestingly (well, to me, anyway), the Jacovich chapters are written in the first person just as in past books, while K.O.'s are written in the third person. I'm not sure what the significance of that is other than to keep things changed up a bit, but the thought certainly occurred to me that perhaps K.O. has a future in a spin-off series - perhaps even taking over when Jacovich decides he's too old for the private eye life and calls it a day.

Whiskey Island: A Milan Jacovich Mystery by Les Roberts; Gray & Co. Publishers (August 2012); 259 pp.


4 stars out of 5

After a couple of not-so-great Kay Scarpetta mysteries, Patricia Cornwell moved back toward her style groove in the 2011 Red Mist. So, I was hoping the trend would continue in her latest, The Bone Bed. And happily, it did.

This one begins as Scarpetta, chief medical examiner at a facility in Boston, receives a mysterious emailed video that suggests a missing paleontologist has been murdered at a "bone bed" archaeological dig a couple of thousand miles away. Then, just as she is forced to testify in the trial of a wealthy man accused of murdering his wife, whose body was never found, Scarpetta is called to help with a woman's body that's become entwined near an old boat in the Charles River - along with a huge, endangered leatherback turtle. Could this unidentified woman be the murdered wife? Are there connections with the woman in the video?

As she tries to follow where the evidence leads, she is mystified by actions of her technologically gifted niece, Lucy, as well as by her FBI profiler husband, Benton Wesley, the latter bringing into question his fidelity and the strength of their marriage. Also coming into question is the loyalty of her old friend and work colleague Pete Marino, who's landed in hot water following an Internet "relationship" gone sour and seems to be heading back down that slippery slope toward alcoholism.

Still an issue for me is Scarpetta's questioning of what's in her own mind (although it's not as noticeable in this book) as well as her near paranoia and over-thinking of every word and action of her husband, Lucy and just about every other character with whom she comes in contact. To be sure, getting older has a way of bringing with it certain insecurities, but somehow that just doesn't quite fit with the Scarpetta I've come to know and love. She's been around the block for too many times, and much too successfully, to question her own abilities, at least to this extent. 

The Bone Bed by Patricia Cornwell (Putnam Adult October 2012); 480 pp.


3 stars (out of 5)

Let me say at the outset that I don't know a lot about Tina Fey except that she's exceptionally talented, and I chuckle every time I even think about her spot-on  impression of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. But I've never watched her popular 30 Rock TV show or, for that matter anything else she's ever been in. But what little I do know was enough to entice me to take a peek at her autobiography - figuring at the very least I'd get a chuckle or two out of it.

And I did, at least at the outset. In fact, I told my husband Jack to be prepared to hear me chortle as I read through this one. But alas, the laugh-out-loud stuff came to a halt rather quickly, and the best I could muster from then on was an occasional smile. Although it was somewhat interesting overall, discovering such life-of-Fey trivia like what she learned from Lorne Michaels (creator and producer of the aforementioned SNL just didn't grab me much.

What I learned isn't much beyond what I already knew: She's exceptionally talented and her Sarah Palin thing was a bit hit, in large part because they look so much alike. New to me was that she has a scar on her face that she got as a child that has helped mold the person she is today (see, I told you I've seen her only on SNL sketches, and most of that time I was half asleep).

That's not to say the book isn't interesting; it's just that it's written much like one of her TV sketches - and sketches work best when they're seen, not read. Still, the book is punctuated with a few real gems. Her observation that "Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience are a virtue," for instance, almost made me snort coffee out my nose. And near the end (when the book starts getting really funny again), her bit on breastfeeding is a hoot. 

I certainly wasn't disappointed after reading her life story as it's happened so far; for such a well-known, public "personality," she's a relatively normal woman with a good head on her shoulders, feet solidly on the ground and a work ethic that would put a Midwesterner to shame -- and in my world, by golly, that's a Martha Stewart good thing. 

Bossypants by Tina Fey (Reagan Arthur Books 2011); 288 pp.


5 stars out of 5

Yes, I know this book isn't for kids; it's J.K. Rowling's first attempt at writing a novel for adults. But as a died-in-the-wool fan of the Hogwarts clan - I've devoured every single page of every single Harry Potter book she's written, seen all the movies and bought all the DVDs - I figured if she can work her magic that superbly on books that appeal to just about all ages, her new one is bound to be pretty good at the very worst.

To be sure, reviews have been mixed; some folks think it's great, and others have given it so-so ratings. So from the git-go, I tried to keep an open mind and, of course, put wizards and Muggles out of my thoughts. That said, after just a few chapters, Rowling's writing style came through. Maybe it was my unconscious mind peeking through, but I could tell who wrote this book right from page one. 

The setting is set in the small English town of Pagford and opens with the unexpected death of one of the town's council members (thus creating the title for the book). From there, it explores the backgrounds of the town and its rival neighboring village of Yarvil and a number of the residents of both - warts and all. All this is tied to the search for a council replacement; the winner, it seems, will have the power to effect changes that will be welcomed by some and not others.

Early on, it's a big of a chore to keep all the characters straight. Rowling does a terrific job of introducing them and providing background information, but perhaps because my aging brain doesn't have the recall ability of my younger years, I tended to be a little foggy on who's who in a until about a third of the way through, when new characters stopped coming and I was comfortable in knowing the good, the bad, and in some cases, the ugly, of each.

Yes, it takes a bit of slogging to get through the book - at 512 pages, it's hardly a piece of fluff (but if you think this is long, try wading through the 739-page Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in her HP series). But just as with the Potter books, it is character development, and using well-crafted words and phrases to show how they're all intertwined, that is Rowling's strong suit here. Described by some as a comedy, this book is not a cliff-hanger that will have you on the edge of your seat; there are no ax murders or kidnappings and nobody falls off a broom during a Quidditch match.  Rather, it's an in-depth look at life that touches the emotions on many levels. Worth reading? Absolutely! 

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (Little, Brown and Co., September 2012); 512 pp.