Unsurprisingly, I am behind in my book reviews. WAAAAYYYYY behind. So, here’s a barrage of commentary on books I’ve read recently.
For those wanting to avoid spoilers, here’s what I’m going to review with my star rating:
- Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space by Margot Lee Shetterly (5 of 5 stars)
- Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance (4 of 5 stars)
- The Finisher (Vega Jane, #1) by David Baldacci (4 of 5 stars)
- The Keeper (Vega Jane, #2) by David Baldacci (2 of 5 stars)
- The Scorch Trials (The Maze Runner, #2) by James Dashner (3 of 5 stars)
- The Heist (Fox and O’Hare, #1) by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg (3 of 5 stars)
- The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis (5 of 5 stars)
- The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life by Bernard Roth (4 of 5 stars)
- The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2) by Robert Galbraith (5 of 5 stars)
- Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike, #3) by Robert Galbraith (7 of 5 stars)
You can also, of course, check out what I said on GoodReads as well. I don’t post spoilers in those reviews, so you should be OK.
ONE ADDITIONAL NOTE: After this post, I’m going to stop commenting on every single book I read. There are a number of reasons for this.
First, thanks to the Overdrive app and Audible, I am consuming books far more quickly than I ever have in my life and it’s hard to keep up. This post is a perfect example of what happens. I feel lazy one weekend or I go on a trip somewhere and suddenly I have a huge backlog of books to review.
Second, these reviews aren’t that great. They’re too brief. They lack structure and clarity. If I’m going to write a review, I need to focus and get better at it. So, I’d like to slow down and do more deliberate and thoughtful reviews instead of these slap-dash efforts.
Third, I worry that my reviews are not helpful or constructive. As someone who might fancy being a published writer some day, I have been thinking a lot about how the author might perceive and react to what I’m writing. And I don’t think I’ve been thoughtful enough about that. I certainly don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings if it can be avoided. And if I’m critical of a book, I’d like my criticism to be clear and constructive and delivered in the spirit of helping the author.
SPOILER WARNING: From this point forward, I’m going to discuss these books without any concern about spoilers. So, if you don’t like spoilers you should stop reading now. That’s not to say I’ll say deliberately spoilery things, but I’m not going to be worried about NOT saying spoilery things. You get me.
Hidden Figures: The Untold True Story of Four African-American Women Who Helped Launch Our Nation into Space by Margot Lee Shetterly (5 of 5 stars)
I still haven’t seen this movie and shame on me for that. This book tells the story of a handful of African-American women who worked on the early space program. A handful out of many. And after reading the book, I definitely want to see it when I get a chance.
This is a non-fiction book, so it doesn’t have a real “narrative arc” such as I am sure is featured in the movie. But these women led pretty amazing lives. They were not only crazy smart, they were deeply driven and had to fight to overcome both sexism and racism.
It’s a fascinating read. Highly recommended.
Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance (4 of 5 stars)
Elon Musk is an odd figure to me in the contemporary landscape. I really just didn’t know what to make of him and I was in the mood for some non-fiction, so I decided to pick this book up in hopes of trying to come to a more firm assessment of this guy. Unfortunately, it was only marginally helpful toward that goal.
Musk is undoubtedly very intelligent and has the ability to direct incredible amounts of focus and drive toward a particular goal. I’m not convinced that his goals are chosen with the vast vision that so many people, including the author of this book, like to attribute to him.
This book does also make it clear that he’s a mixed bag. He’s smart, but he’s an asshole. He’s an idealist in his unflagging pursuit of his broad objectives, but he’s a pragmatist when it comes to deciding how to pursue them.
I learned a lot of odd facts about Musk’s life. I didn’t realize that he’s not a “true” founder of Tesla. He was an early investor and took over the business from the founders pretty quickly. There’s stuff about his first marriage and his childhood. You know, the usual biographical information.
It’s a solid book and it’s an interesting topic. The reason I didn’t give it five stars was because I really hated the first few chapters. I’m not sure if it was the intended tone of the text or the tone the reader of the audiobook gave it, but it was so snotty to me. Also, I just felt like the book overall was somewhat shallow. It was good, though. Just not GREAT.
The Finisher (Vega Jane, #1) by David Baldacci (4 of 5 stars)
The Keeper (Vega Jane, #2) by David Baldacci (2 of 5 stars)
Ugh. These books.
I thought I was in the mood for a new fantasy series and the library had these available for download immediately. So, I decided to check it out.
The first book is really strong. The characters are unique and interesting. There are some enjoyable heist-novel aspects to the story. It’s pretty tropey, but I thought it was overall fun and there was an interesting mystery afoot. Also, I believe this is a middle grade book, so that’s important to keep in mind when reading it as well.
Vega Jane was always told no one could leave the town of Wormwood. She was told there was nothing outside but a forest filled with danger and death. And she always believed it — until the night she saw Quentin Herms run away.
Vega knows Quentin didn’t just leave — he was chased. And he left behind a trail of clues that point to a dark conspiracy at the heart of Wormwood. To follow the clues will attract the attention of influential people willing to kill to keep their secrets. If Vega wants to stay safe, she just needs to keep her head down and her mouth shut. There’s only one problem — Vega Jane never walks away from a fight.
The basic structure of the book is such that Vega Jane sees her friend run off into the wilderness called The Quag that surrounds the village and then suddenly becomes very curious about all the unanswered questions around the village. She discovers several magical items that give her opportunities and advantages. And eventually, as you should have guessed, she leaves the village to try to find her friend in The Quag.
The one aspect of this novel that I found notable — and I don’t know what I really think about it — is the way the book seems to consist of two parts. The first part is about Vega Jane playing detective and trying to solve the mystery of her friend’s disappearance. The second part is about Vega Jane fighting her way through a tournament and mastering her new tools and skills. The two stories actually overlap a fair amount, but I experienced them almost as two separate books that were just quickly tied together at the very end of the first and the beginning of the second.
Remember this is a middle grade book. So, while I was frustrated by the conflicts that could/should have been resolved by a five minute conversation and I rolled my eyes at the way Vega Jane almost always stumbles right across the exact tool she needs, the strength of this book is actually in the combination of a very standard story structure with creative and fun specific elements with which that story is driven.
So, it ends up being a very fun, youthful jaunt.
The second book is something else.
In the second book, Vega Jane is making her way across the Quag. This book also has that crazy two-part structure. In the first part of the book, she is kidnapped by “The Keeper” a sorceress who is trying to make sure no one gets through the Quag, but who ends up training Vega Jane in how to do magic and how to get across the Quag. And the second part is about Vega Jane going through the various trials of the Quag.
I didn’t like this book. Vega Jane becomes a total Mary Sue for most of the book. And this book is less narrowly tropey, so without the benefit of a more familiar story pattern thing happen in the book that seem acausal or unmotivated.
So, after reading this one, I decided I didn’t really need to read the rest of the series.
The Scorch Trials (The Maze Runner, #2) by James Dashner (3 of 5 stars)
I do remember now that I felt the same way about the first book. It was fine.
So, Thomas and his friends have escaped the maze and now they’re in a new maze/challenge. They have to escape a weird facility full of deadly traps and then make a journey of 100 miles across a desert inhabited by plague victims and zombies. Oh, and there’s a second team of people who escaped the maze and they’re trying to kill Thomas.
If you were hoping to learn something about why they’ve all had their memories removed and are being forced through these deadly challenges, you will be disappointed. It’s still just a crazy, terrible thing that they’re doing to allegedly save the world.
It’s sort of like the boy version of The Divergent Series.
I don’t really have a lot to say about this book. Like I said, it’s fine.
The Heist (Fox and O’Hare, #1) by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg (3 of 5 stars)
Kate O’Hare is a tough, smart FBI agent with a singular goal: to put Nicholas Fox, world-infamous thief, conman, and cutie-pie behind bars. She finally captures him, but her bosses at the FBI have other plans. They want to use the con man to capture other thieves and bring them to justice. Kate is conflicted, but ultimately agrees to be his FBI handler. While pretending to hunt him down, she’s actually going to help him pull off his heists to bring in other bad guys. Expect lots of jokes and sexual tension and you will get what you expect.
I picked this book up because I wanted a mystery or crime novel. I thought a heist novel would hit the spot and picked this one up knowing I would be spending a lot of time in airports this week.
Turns out that while I really love this kind of story on television or in a movie, I didn’t really care for it in book format. For some reason, there was very little suspense about the heist and the over-the-top scenarios just struck me as more silly than entertaining.
I think if I’d known what it was and I were looking for a book to listen to while sipping mojitos by a pool somewhere, then I’d really have enjoyed it more.
The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis (5 of 5 stars)
I’ve been generally annoyed by BE book in the past. Dan Arielly, in particular, annoys the hell out of me. I think it’s because so often the observations of BE are presented as proof that human minds are unreliable, that people are irrational, and that people are generally ill-equipped mentally to deal with the world. A tiny step from there gets you to the “paternalistic libertarianism” of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.
But this book presents BE observations in the context of an intellectual journey shared by two friends. They were opposites and also perfect for one another. And what they identified is interesting and useful in understanding human behavior.
That’s about all I have to say about the actual content. Otherwise, it’s an interesting read. I’d definitely recommend it if you’re into this sort of topic.
The Achievement Habit: Stop Wishing, Start Doing, and Take Command of Your Life by Bernard Roth (4 of 5 stars)
I usually really hate books like this. You know: the self-help-woo-woo-touchy-feely-life-hack-your-brain type books. (See my comments on the War of Art as an example.) . But this one is uncommonly good and I would recommend it if you’re looking for a book on motivation and creativity.
Roth basically uses this book to talk about things he taught at the “d.school” at Stanford and it made me REALLY want to take his classes. There are a lot of good, tactical things for sparking creativity and just getting things done. And there are some big ideas for forcing yourself to get up off your butt and getting things done.
I like his approach for several reasons. First of all, it treats creativity and accomplishment as the thing it is: work. It’s not magic or some mystical experience even if you do feel spiritually uplifted by it. It takes hard work, effort, and discipline. And, second, it also approaches achievement and creativity in the same way that Aristotle approached virtue: as a habit. You’ll never whip up the Mona Lisa on a weekend in a fit of inspiration. You have to practice and work at it.
This is a book that I imagine I will come back to and read parts of over again.
The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2) by Robert Galbraith (5 of 5 stars)
Career of Evil (Cormoran Strike, #3) by Robert Galbraith (7 of 5 stars)
Book #2, The Silkworm, is about Strike’s investigation into the death of a writer who managed to annoy pretty much everyone he came into contact with and, as a result, was killed.
As with the first book, there are a lot of colorful characters, wonderful descriptions, and exciting events throughout. The relationship between Cormoran and Robin is interesting and tense.
If I were to complain about anything, it would be about the fact that some of the conflict between the characters seems like the sort that could be resolved by a simple, honest conversation between characters that already trust and respect one another. For instance, it’s not clear to me why Robin hasn’t been upfront with Cormoran about her desire to become an investigator.
Nevertheless, it’s a fun book.
I like the handling of the portions that are told from the serial killer’s perspective. That could have easily turned into something silly and cliche, but Galbraith/Rowling walk a razor’s edge and manage to make it fun, interesting, and still very tense when needed.
I love the say she handles Cormoran and Robin’s relationship. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s really nice. It doesn’t go the way you might think. There’s just so much love and maturity in the way they end up behaving that I wanted to just hug them both at the end.
I like that, if you’re reading carefully, you might actually be able to solve the mystery yourself. If you have a very specific bit of knowledge, you might even work it out the way Cormoran does. There’s no magic solution here and it’s not some accident of fate that brings them the evidence they need. And, unlike in Larsson’s Millenium series, there are no endless descriptions hiding pertinent details from the reader.
So, I highly recommend both of these books, but especially the third one. But don’t just read the third one without reading the first two. There’s a lot of character development in the first two that contribute to the success of the third.