Monday, December 26, 2016

read: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (4 stars)

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and LifeBird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a great little book to set on the shelf beside King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft or Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing. It's not so much a book about how to write as about how to be a writer. Why do you write? Why should you write? Who are you writing for (or to)? These are all questions that need to be answered. Anne Lamont doesn't try to answer them for you. But she gives you a little bit of insight into her answers and why the questions may be more important than the answers.

If it's too cold and stormy to get out and have coffee with your writing buddy and you can't get them on the phone, read a chapter or two in Bird by Bird. It may be just what you need to get writing again.

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Thursday, December 22, 2016

read: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (3 stars)

Harry Potter and the Order of the PhoenixHarry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I know I'm in the minority for only giving this three stars. But I don't know how I can give it more. The world-building is still first rate. There is enough story and character development here for a five-star read. The problem is that it's well hidden inside of an overblown, over-sized book where nothing much happens for pages and pages. Yes, it's often fascinating and I did make it to the end. And the end is where it all becomes worth the while. But it was a bit of a slog.

Knock off a half a star just for being so long. Editing, people, editing. Knock off another half star for quite a few clinks and clunks in the writing. Adverbs, he said, disapprovingly. These are the same issues that started creeping in with the previous volume.

Now knock off a full star for story-killing character traits. Harry is just too much of a dunderhead in this. I understand that one of the main themes is his growing teenage angst. It just was not done well. He was argumentative for the sake of being argumentative, often just because that would move the story forward. Not because it fit his character. Umbridge was evil just for the sake of being evil. We never found out what she was truly up to. Again, I felt cheated because it seemed that everything she did to make Harry's life harder was done merely because the story need her to do it. And what the heck is up with Dumbledore? He was just too aloof in this, swooping in at the odd moment to save the day in an odd way. At least he explains it all in the end.

Only two more books to go. I hope they don't feel like five.

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

read: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders (4 stars)

Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden WondersAtlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders by Joshua Foer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An interesting book that I browsed, rather than read. It seems more like an encyclopedia than an atlas, listing and describing various locations with enough photos included to tantalize the curious traveler. It's organized by continent/country/city with some small maps to keep the reader oriented. The trick is that these are obscure attractions. So by definition, the reader/traveler will need to travel a little afield to get to many of the more interesting places.

I'm a browser by nature, which makes this an ideal book for me to spend days perusing. But I dared not spend days in it, only dipping my toes to get a feel. Perhaps I'll return and drink more deeply. For now, I'll just recommend it to the curious and to my future self.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

NaNoWriMo 2016

I'm doing it again: National Novel Writing Month. 30 days. 50,000 words. This is my twelfth year in a row of trying to write a novel. I've only come up short twice (although calling any of the 'successes' a novel is generous beyond words).

Why do I do it? Why do I get up early and try to stay up late, staring at my computer screen, pounding out my 1,667 words a day? Why do I go into panic mode during last few days, sometimes forcing my self to crank out up to 6,000 words in a day?

Why?

Because I love it. Because when I finally push aside the distractions and focus on the page and get into the flow, the characters speak to me. They tell me their story and I try to get it down as fast as I can. Some days they are quiet and I have to coax and cajole the stories out of them and only get a few hundred words. Other days I simply neglect them and feel rotten about it. But that's just too bad because I have a life, too. This isn't just about them.

I told myself that this year I would have an outline.

I don't.

I told myself that I would be ready.

I'm not.

I had to spend part of my writing time getting my tools ready: 
  • a brand new OneNote notebook to capture my words and my research and my notes. I love OneNote because I can access it from anywhere, keep everything in one spot and (most importantly) keep all my work automatically backed up.
  • copy notes from the first novel in this series to the new notebook so that I can keep them as consistent as possible.
  • connect my Surface 3 to the network at work so that it has all that latest stuff and I can work on my new novel just about anywhere.
  • update the NaNoWriMo site, all my social networking sites, and this blog, just in case someone besides my family and close friends is keeping tabs on my progress. I don't want it to look like I'm neglecting any channel.
As a result, I am about 300 words short of my goal. But my eyes are starting to slam shut. Time to get to bed so that I will get a few more minutes of sleep before my stupid author brain wakes me up at 0-dark-it's-way-too-early with ideas on how to change around all the words that I've already committed to bits today.

My plan, as usual, is to shoot for at least 1,000 words a day on work days and 3,500 words on each weekend day. That averages out to the 1,667 per day that gets me to 50,000 words by the end of the month. Of course, as usual, there are complications. I don't just mean Thanksgiving. I mean extra commitments on top of Thanksgiving that will make it nigh impossible to get much writing done for four or five days. So that word count has to get added into the other days of the month. And then there are those unforeseen unproductive days.

Why?

Why do I do this to myself?

Because I love it.

Words written today: 1,354
Monthly total: 1,354

#amwriting

Monday, October 10, 2016

read: IQ (4 stars)

IQIQ by Joe Ide
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How does a bright kid from the bad part of town get involved in helping a successful rap singer figure out who is out to kill him? That's actually two different stories and we get both of them told in alternating chapters in this book. This is a neat trick to pull off. And it is extra remarkable in those moments in the earlier timeline that remain suspenseful even though you know the main character survives.

IQ is a thoroughly original version of Sherlock Holmes for a modern generation.

Disclosure: Thank you to Netgalley and Mulholland Books for providing a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.

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Saturday, September 17, 2016

read: A Whole Latte Murder (4 of 5 stars)

A Whole Latte MurderA Whole Latte Murder by Caroline Fardig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm three books into this entertaining series and still not regretting it, even though I'm a guy. The writing is light and airy and smooth. The characters are likable, the situations are mostly believable and the mysteries are intriguing. This time around there is a higher body count and fewer clues and suspects than ever before. There is also more trouble for the first-person narrator, Juliet, and more complications to her love life.

It's not rewarding to overthink the motivations and actions of amateur sleuths in this sort of book. You have to suspend your disbelief and you want them to get involved and push the story along. In retrospect, though, Juliet might go a step too far in a couple of cases, including breaking and entering a crime scene and interrogating suspects. It wasn't enough to knock me out of the story, though. I did struggle a bit with the plethora of characters and names to keep track of. And the extended sequences of searching for a missing person could have had a better payoff in how it explored the City of Nashville.

On the whole, I can recommend this book to fans of cozy mysteries.


Disclosure: Thank you to Netgalley and Alibi/Random House for providing a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.

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Monday, September 12, 2016

read: The Family Plot (4 of 5 stars)

The Family PlotThe Family Plot by Cherie Priest
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wouldn't typically seek out a straight up haunted house story like this, except it was written by Cherie Priest. I'm a fan of her Clockwork Century series and I knew this would be good. She strikes just the right note of HGTV spiced up with a little Southern Gothic mystery and charm.

The story begins, as it should, with an innocent enough situation. An proposal is offered to salvage the fixtures of an old family home. Questions should be asked, but aren't. A decision is made in haste. The need is too great to be postponed. The offer has too much upside potential to worry too much about the downside. Besides, it's just an old house. What could go wrong?

At first, everything seems to go well. There are only minor obstacles to overcome. But the story is still interesting enough to keep the pages turning. Then the mysteries start piling up. Standard haunted house stuff. Is the house itself trying to communicate? Was there another presence in the attic, in the woods? Is that a graveyard where one was not expected? What's the deal with this family?

This could have been a stereotypical story of incompetents who are completely unaware that they might be dealing with the paranormal before it's too late and it completely consumes them. Or the reader could have been inflicted with characters so obsessed with the paranormal that it warps their perception of even normal events, turning them into screaming idiots jumping at every unexpected noise. Instead, the author creates a much more interesting world of competent, fairly intelligent human beings who talk to each other, consider the evidence, investigate the situation and react fairly reasonably. It makes sense that the team decides to stick with the job, despite the growing evidence of the weird. They need the money and things are manageable. Until they aren't.

This is a good book for anyone interested in old houses and old Southern families.

Disclosure: Thank you to Netgalley and Tor Books for providing a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.


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Sunday, September 4, 2016

read: The 7th Canon (4 of 5 stars)

The 7th CanonThe 7th Canon by Robert Dugoni
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Robert Dugoni can flat out write. I have no idea how good this book was when he wrote the first draft in 1996. But he's had twenty years to polish his craft and it shows here. The plot is intricate. The setting, characters and mystery are all intriguing and troubling. The prose is crisp and clear and engaging. There is a lot going on. But nothing is extraneous.

The setting is a seedy neighborhood in San Francisco thirty years ago. A boy is murdered in a flophouse run by a priest with a shady past. The priest discovers the body and the police immediately charge him with the crime. The evidence seems overwhelming. Almost as quickly, Peter Donley, a young lawyer working for his uncle, finds himself drafted as the priest's defense attorney, dropped into the deep end of the pool on his first criminal case when his uncle is sidelined with a heart attack. It would not be a wise career move for Donley to keep the case. But he finds himself drawn in and we are off on a harrowing ride.

And I mean harrowing. Dugoni is not kind to his characters. They come with complicated backstories and are weighed down with emotional baggage. The good guys make bad decisions. And the bad guys are the heroes of their own stories. There is cost for everything and the piper is always paid in full. This book is not for the squeamish. But I recommend it for readers that can handle it.

Disclosure: Thank you to Netgalley and Thomas & Mercer for providing a free copy of this book in return for my honest review.

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Saturday, August 27, 2016

read: Mata Hari's Last Dance (4 of 5 stars)

Mata Hari's Last DanceMata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found this to be a very enjoyable, light summer read. It is definitely more of a fictionalized account of a historical life than a revealing study of a historical figure. Situations are invented. Complications are glossed over. But the author does an admirable job of finding a winsome voice for Mata Hari and setting the scene in pre-World War I Paris.

Readers seeking a complete biography of Mata Hari and an deep introspection into her life will not find that here. This novelized memoir catches up with the exotic dancer just as she bursts onto the Paris social scene around 1904. It follows her life, as if she were telling it to a trusted friend, through her execution for espionage in 1917. In between, her dance career waxes and wanes, her assignations with various sponsors and lovers are vaguely documented and dispatched dispassionately, and her desire to rejoin her daughter and take her to America becomes her mantra.

Despite the light tone and lack of historical rigor, I found Margaretha's story to be fascinating. The tiny insights into the European social scene and pre-war history were intriguing. Before reading this book, I only knew the stereotypical popular myths about Mata Hari and her exotic reputation as a spy. I now feel like I have a greater empathy for this well-known, yet little understood, historical figure. Her life remains as veiled in mystery as the characters she portrayed in her dance.

This would be an easy book for a reading group to consume and discuss over a short period of time. There are even discussion questions provided. Four stars for being a good, entertaining read.

[Disclaimer: Thanks to Courtney Brach and Touchstone / Simon & Schuster for providing me a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.]

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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

read: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (3 stars)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Harry Potter, #4)Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There's not much I can add to a discussion of this book other than my own reaction. I enjoyed it. The storytelling and world-building is still very strong. The characters and their adventures are still engaging. If the book was 20%-25% shorter, it might get 5 stars. But I have to knock off a star for just plain being too long--twice as long as the first book in the series.

I'm also taking off another star for the writing. It's not bad. It's just indefinably and adverbially not up to the quality I was expecting. But onward to books 5 to 7.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

read: Delusion in Death (4 stars)

Delusion in Death (In Death, #35)Delusion in Death by J.D. Robb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very thrilling and interesting first half, with mass carnage in a bar and a cafe and no good leads. Then the story sagged for a bit, with a lot of police work and explaining and very little mystery. I thought for sure I was going to be disappointed in the ending. Everything seemed to have been too pat. Then came the twist I had hoped would rescue the story and it did.

This is my first Eve Dallas story and I won't say no to another one. It's also another Audible book that I had to listen to at 1.25 speed in order to keep from dying of impatience.

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Thursday, June 30, 2016

read: Never Go Back (3 stars)

Never Go Back (Jack Reacher, #18)Never Go Back by Lee Child
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a perfectly adequate Jack Reacher story. It has a mystery. Or two. Jack kicks ass. Several times. He escapes from jail and goes on the run and is apparently in danger. The situations are tense and the writing keeps us turning pages. As a bonus, Reacher has a female companion who is basically his equal. She has his old job. His old office. And she's just as competent.

On the downside, the pace is a bit leisurely and the threat is never extreme. They have cell phones. They have lawyers doing research for them. They make a deal with the MP sent to get them. Once they've broken the fingers and arms of the goons sent to get them, the story is basically over. The end is just cleaning up. It's a bit of a letdown.

At least I've read the book before the movie comes out.

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Friday, May 20, 2016

read: Warped Factors (3 stars)

Warped FactorsWarped Factors by Walter Koenig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is probably only of interest to Star Trek completists. There are a few interesting observations about the life of an actor and creativity and what he says about the Star Trek cast (even Shatner) is pretty tolerant and non-controversial and occasionally humorous. Walter's storytelling skills are pretty decent and I did not find his voice on the audiobook unpleasant.

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Saturday, May 14, 2016

read: Curious Minds (2 stars)

Curious Minds (Knight and Moon, #1)Curious Minds by Janet Evanovich
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I am confused by this book. I know that Janet Evanovich can write funny, compelling characters. I'm not a big Stephanie Plum fan, but my wife is and I enjoyed a couple of those books. I've also enjoyed a couple of books in her Fox and O'Hare series with Lee Goldberg. They were predictable. But they were also funny and entertaining and adventurous. Imagine my surprise when I started reading this book and felt… nothing. No humor. No heart. Nothing.

I never felt engaged by either of the main characters and I never felt any chemistry between them. The stakes of the plot were never made clear, so I could not understand why anyone was doing anything. They were simply jet-setting from place to place because they could. The writing is dull, dull, dull. And the dialog is so filled with zingers and one-liners as to make it feel like the characters were writers for a 1970s sit-com. Knight was supposed to be some sort of genius. He is just a pompous ass, with even less social skills than Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory. And Moon is simply along for the ride, no matter what.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.

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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

read: The Fifth Assassin (4 stars)

The Fifth Assassin (Culper Ring, #2)The Fifth Assassin by Brad Meltzer


An amazing labyrinth of a plot that still held together to the end.

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Wednesday, April 27, 2016

read: In The Clearing (4 stars)

In the Clearing (Tracy Crosswhite, #3)In the Clearing by Robert Dugoni
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of my favorite things about Robert Dugoni is that he never writes the same book twice when he's writing a series. Another thing I love is that the characters and situations he writes are so vivid and captivating that you can't put the book down until you've reached the end. He's done it again with the third book in the Tracy Crosswhite series, In The Clearing. The first book was deeply personal to Tracy as she literally dug through the past and put herself in the crosshairs. The second book was more suspenseful because she was dealing with an active killer who seemed to be hunting her.

This is another cold case, like her sister's murder from the first book. Yet, it's completely different. This time, the small town is unfamiliar and there's the added tension involving football heroes and Native Americans. Dugoni weaves a fascinating tale of patient detective work as Tracy digs through forensic evidence, brings in experts and talks to witnesses with bad memories and personal agendas. She's not jumping to conclusions. But she eventually digs deep enough to get the killer's attention and put herself in danger.

There's a secondary murder investigation back in Seattle involving a domestic dispute. Of course, something that Tracy learns on the cold case will help her unravel the other mystery. Thankfully, it's not too distracting and it's fun to see the author, and Tracy, stay on top of two separate cases.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

read: Zoe's Tale (4 stars)

Zoe's Tale (Old Man's War, #4)Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Interesting and fun story re-telling the events of The Last Colony using the first-person perspective of Zoe. Her perspective, as a young woman, is based more on relationships (not emotions, as other reviewers are fond of writing) than politics (as was her father's in The Last Colony). This, along with her unique position as a revered figure for the Obin, gives the author a chance to explore life in the colony and the culture of alien races a bit deeper, though probably not deep enough.

The book clocks in as the longest entry to date in the Old Man's War series, probably due to Zoe's rambly, snarky (like her father), teenage, angsty take on things. Mr. Scalzi does an admirable job of capturing just enough of that attitude to carry the story, without sending it over the edge into unbearableness.

I can understand, but disagree with, the view that there's nothing new here, that everything was wrapped up quite nicely in previous book. But I'll grant the author his reasoning and opportunity to pull back the curtain a bit and add depth to the story. Plus, I'm pretty sure he's correct in how difficult it was to write this.

Recommended if you are a Scalzi completist or a YA-enthusiast.

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

read: Star Wars: Before the Awakening (4 stars)

Star Wars: Before the AwakeningStar Wars: Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anyone aching for more details about the new Star Wars characters will enjoy this book of three separate stories. You must know, going in, that these aren't so much profiles as vignettes. This is light reading, even for something marketed as young adult (almost middle grade). We get personalities, not details; attitudes, not deep history. But they are nicely written and well plotted, with only a couple of flaws (every old ship seems to be 'venerable'). Recommended.

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Wednesday, March 2, 2016

read: The Handmaid's Tale (4 stars)

The Handmaid's TaleThe Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those books that everyone is supposed to have read, but there's a good chance you haven't. But you think you know the story. This is bleaker than that--a haunting tale of subjection and powerlessness that seems without end.

If you have the opportunity, the audio book read by Claire Danes is the way to do this. It's a first-person narrative and she does an exquisite (Audie Award-winning) job of bringing it to life.

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Monday, February 29, 2016

read: Mug Shot (4 stars)

Mug ShotMug Shot by Caroline Fardig
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked the first book in this series, but liked this even more. The characters and plot are engaging and the writing is smooth. The first-person narrator is plenty funny and likable and concerned about the stuff a real person would be concerned about. She is not a Stephanie Plum clone.

I can easily recommend this book to anyone in it's intended audience.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.

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Saturday, February 20, 2016

read: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (3 stars)

Star Wars: The Force AwakensStar Wars: The Force Awakens by Alan Dean Foster
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have a real soft spot for books associated with movies and TV shows. I like to read novels made into film (usually before seeing the film). I like novelizations of films. I like tie-in books. This goes back at least as far as 1977 when, after going to the theatre to see Star Wars the first two times, I bought, devoured and enjoyed the novelization of it, attributed to George Lucas, but actually written by Alan Dean Foster.

Flash forward (mumble) years and there's a new Star Wars movie and a new novelization by Mr. Foster. I had to read it. I had to get it as soon as it came out. But something's wrong here. Everything from the screen is on the page, but not much more. And it's written so clumsily and sloppily that it's almost a chore to get through. Granted, the author was not working from the final cut of the movie and probably didn't have a lot of time. But he has some experience with tie-in novels of all sorts. I expected much more.

I also expected a bit more editing. Consider this gem, which is definitely not even the most egregious: "Hurrying to the cockpit as BB-8 rolled into the copiloting position, he hurriedly activated the controls." That's a lot of hurrying. There's also a lot of "as so-and-so does this, such-and-such does the other thing." Also, a lot of fancified language used for both narrative and dialog that does nothing to enhance the story, but often knocks the reader out of it. Why "aural receptors" or "bipedal shapes"? Is "raptorish" a word?

But the biggest gripe I have with the writing is the uninhibited head-hopping and viewpoint jumping that takes place. This is third-person omniscient at its worst. We are inside Finn's head, even when he is supposed to be the anonymous "trooper". In the next sentence, we are inside Kylo Ren's head, behind "preternaturally intense" eyes (hidden by the mask) considering "the trooper". It's just too much.

All in all, I am disappointed. If you've seen the film, skip the book. You already know everything. The one, tiny tidbit that I got from the book that was hinted at even more lightly in the film is the barest insinuation that other characters begin to recognize that Rei might be someone they have heard of before. Consider, '"It is you" Ren murmured.' (when Rei takes up the light saber). Otherwise, you have been warned. 3 stars. Because… Star Wars.

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Monday, January 25, 2016

read: Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology (4 stars)

Shadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses AnthologyShadows Beneath: The Writing Excuses Anthology by Brandon Sanderson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

These are some pretty good stories. Be aware, though, that there are only four of them. The bulk of the book is for writers - first drafts, transcripts or brainstorming and critique and the like.

I haven't yet read through the supplementary material, though I've listened to a bunch of it on the Writing Excuses Podcast. Good stuff.

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Saturday, January 16, 2016

read: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (5 stars)

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour BookstoreMr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm giving this book 5 stars, not because it's so perfect, but just because it's so fun. Also, the audio book voice performance is sensational. The story follows the misadventures of down-on-his-luck, recently laid off tech-drone Clay, who finds a job to tide him over at an odd little bookstore in San Francisco.

He doesn't understand any of the owner's weird rules for 'selling' books, nor the few odd customers that occasionally appear during his graveyard shift (and they are about the only customers). And how does the store even stay in business? Then things get mysterious and weirder and some sort of secret society is involved. Clay is thankful that he at least finally meets a girl and she's relatively sane, despite working for Google. What follows is an suspenseful adventure exploring the collision of the old knowledge of the printed word and the new digitized world and a search for balance between the two.

If you like books and stories and mysteries, you should find this one utterly charming.

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Monday, January 4, 2016

read: Last of the Independents (4 stars)

Last of the Independents (Vancouver Noir)Last of the Independents by Sam Wiebe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very solid, very hardboiled, modern detective story told in classic first-person. The author does a fine job of laying out a couple of compelling mysteries and showing the dogged determination and sometimes inventiveness of a young private eye in solving them. The detective does come across as a little too experienced and world-weary for his stated age and background. But I just visualized him as older. This is one of several rough edges exhibited by this first novel, but none detracted from the story. Very enjoyable, if you like your stories dark and gritty and your detectives morally ambiguous.

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