Sunday, March 24, 2019

The Book of Mistakes: 9 Secrets to Creating a Successful Future

By Skip Prichard

Center Street     2018
178 pages     Self-Help

I was with my oldest grandson last weekend. He is struggling to understand what he should be doing with his life. His parents are incredibly patient with him while he is slowly coming to some decisions about his future.  He told me that he was developing a plan—a major step toward maturity, I thought.

The Book of Mistakes is a self-help book disguised as a parable. As a person who has reviewed many self-help books over the course of my career as a book reviewer, I found this to be a refreshing change of pace. Two stories are being told. One is of Aria, a young woman in Revolutionary times who is entrusted with a book of wisdom—wisdom for the ages. The other is of David, a young man just beginning his career in the current era and questioning if it is what he should be doing. He receives the wisdom from the book in small batches from a variety of people and finds that this wisdom is changing his life. Following each of the episodes, David finds wisdom in the form of lists of mistakes while Aria learns three laws or life lessons to guide future behavior and achievement.

Prichard, who is a successful businessman, relates his lessons for life success in a unique format. I believe that The Book of Mistakes would be a valuable gift for a recent graduate or someone, like my grandson, who is floundering a bit to find his place in the world. It is straightforward in the lessons it is teaching, but disguised as fiction to make it easy to read. Prichard says that after reading thousands of books, “I’ve condensed all the information, all of the books, all the stories, all of my own experience into a simple story that will help guide you along your success path.”

Thanks to the publicist for sharing it with me. Prichard’s website is

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Hate U Give

by Angie Thomas
 Balzer + Bray     2017
444 pages     YA

I was driving a young African American woman who is on the periphery of our family to a play we were going to see together. She is currently living with grandparents as she goes to community college. On our way, she told me that she had been at a party the night before at a Motel 6. Apparently there had been a lot of drugs, alcohol and sex. One of her "friends" had accused her of making out with the friend's boyfriend. A fight broke out. and at 4:00 a.m., she placed an emergency call to her grandpa who came to rescue her. She said, "I was scared that someone might have a gun or someone might call the police." I said to her, "Are these your friends?" She responded that no, just the girl she went to the party with--the one that caused the fight. I told her that I wasn't sure she needed friends like this. She agreed that she had been too scared to let that happen again. We'll see.

This story was fresh in my mind when I began reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, one of the most devastating and powerful books I have ever read. The book begins with Starr at a party, very similar to the one I just described. She is not sure how or why she got to the party. When shots ring out, she escapes the party with her childhood friend, Khalil. On the way home from the party, Khalil is stopped by the police, shot, and killed. It is horrible and breathtaking. Even more devastating, this is not the first killing that Star has witnessed.

Starr is 16, Black, a member of an intact family, living in an African American neighborhood of an unnamed city. Her parents are living the best lives they can--the mother a nurse and the father, the owner of a convenience store. One of the first teenaged things the children are taught is how to react if they are stopped by police. The parents' concern for their children extends to sending them to a mostly white private school in the suburbs. Starr's mother wants to move away from the ghetto neighborhood, but Starr's father feels that they can do more for the neighborhood if they stay and work hard at the store to upgrade the neighborhood. Here is a remarkable quote from Starr about living in one world and going to school in another. When she has to speak to the police following the shooting of Khalil, she muses, "My voice is changing already. It always happens around 'other' people, whether I'm at Williamson (her school) or not. I don't talk like me or sound like me. I choose every word carefully and make sure I pronounce them well. I can never, ever let anyone think I'm ghetto."

The plot following the shooting concerns Starr's response to being the eye-witness. It exposes the entire Black Lives Matter movement, police brutality, moral and ethical choices, and how young African American teenagers negotiate a world filled with fear, violence, and bad choices. One of the most remarkable aspects of the book is the fierceness with which Starr's parents and the extended family protect her and her siblings. One of her greatest advocates is her Uncle Carlos, who is a police detective.

My writing about this book and its plot cannot possibly serve it justice. I have to lead two discussions of the book over the next several weeks, and I am not sure how to proceed with the discussion. I asked an African American friend to help me with one of the discussions, and I had to laugh when Starr talks about being the "official representative of the black race." I guess that is what I am asking my friend to be.

The Hate U Give is the Kalamazoo community read for 2019, and Angie Thomas will be speaking in Kalamazoo on April 18. I noticed that in the lead up to the event, several high school classes are reading the book. I am sure that the discussion that night will be incredible and revealing. I would not have read the book if it had not been chosen for this event, but it is a book that will stay with me forever. One reviewer said that it has entered the lexicon of great young adult books. A movie of the same name came out in 2018, which I intend to see before the Reading Together events.

Here are some comments from the reviewer in The Guardian: "The Hate U Give is an outstanding debut novel and says more about the contemporary black experience in America than any book I have read for years, whether fiction or non-fiction. It’s a stark reminder that, instead of seeking enemies at its international airports, America should open its eyes and look within if it’s really serious about keeping all its citizens safe."

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Dark Blossom

by Neel Mullick

Rupa Publications 2019
214 pages     Fiction

Sam and his therapist Cynthia are each fighting their own demons. Sam has just lost his wife and son in a car accident. Cynthia has divorced her abusive husband and is struggling to maintain a relationship with her uncommunicative teenage daughter, Lily. The relationship between client and therapist is told through the words of the therapist, and early on, it is easy to see that the relationship is going to include some drama. The reader is exposed to what is happening in Cynthia's life, but not so much about Sam's life other than his interactions with Cynthia and Lily.

The mystery of the death of Sam's family develops slowly while the reader becomes enmeshed in the drama between Cynthia and Lily, Cynthia and Sam, and Sam and Lily. We begin to think that Sam is falling for Cynthia and that this book might end up being a romance, even though the reader entered the novel thinking it is going to be a mystery. But oh, just when you think it is a indeed romance, a twist in the plot begins to emerge, and the reader is in for a bit of a shock.

There is an OMG factor to the novel that holds the reader's attention until the conclusion, which, frankly, left me scratching my head and having to go back to reread and refigure the relationships. Dark Blossom sucks you in and holds you fast.

In many ways, it is easy to see that Dark Blossom is the first novel for Neel Mullick, a businessman and entrepreneur. There is a minimum of plot development with few subplots. Additionally, the character Sam is not very well developed. I would have liked a broader definition of Sam's marriage and his career. One little thing that bugged me was that the author used British English spellings even though the book takes place in New York City. Although a small thing, the spelling made the setting lose some of its authenticity.

It will be interesting to see how Mullick's career as a writer develops. He offers a contest for Dark Blossom readers and will donate half of the book's royalties to a children's charity. Here is his website. He calls himself a "geek turned storyteller." Love it! By the way, the title of the book only comes clear at the book's closing. Another aha moment!

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Watching You

by Lisa Jewel
Atria     2019
324 pages     Thriller

One day while I was reading Watching You  by Lisa Jewel, I observed a man drive slowly by our house and then stop and take a picture of the house. I freaked out! I was way involved in Watching You  where everyone is watching or stalking everyone else, and my imagination took over! In fact, it was much more mundane than that--an appraiser, for a refi on our house.

Lisa Jewel does a masterful job of character development and suspense in her creation of a neighborhood full of secrets. Several of the characters take turns leading the plot forward as well as becoming suspects in a murder whose victim is hard to anticipate. The setting is Melville,  a colorful, closeknit, Victorian neighborhood in Briston. Newly married to Alfie, Joey has just arrived iin the community to live with  her brother and his wife, who welcome them into their home. They live a couple of doors down from the Fitzwilliams--Tom, the esteemed principal of the neighborhood high school, Nicola his much younger wife, and Freddy, a voyeur teenaged son, who documents all the neighbors with his photographic binoculars. Jenna and her psychotic mother live nearby. Jenna goes to the school where Fitzwilliams is the principal, but she is enduringly suspicious of the principal.

One of the unique aspects of Watching You is that everyone is a voyeur. Jenna's mother watches everyone because she is sure everyone is out to get her and her daughter. Her Internet conspiricy theorists feed her neuroses and paranoia. Freddy, on the other hand, is trying to chronicle all the events in the lives of the young girls in the neighborhood. The cover illustration of windows is totally appropriate and totally telling.      
The reader is given clues about the victim and the murderer, but the clues are opaque, which causes the suspense to build. We delve into the histories of each of the main characters, but most of the suspicion focuses on Joey, who seems to know something about the murder. Each of the other characters also have their own moments of suspicion, but I was about three-quarters through the book before I put the whole picture together. Great plot development!

Lisa Jewel is the author of several mysteries, so the appearance of Watching You came with great anticipation. It was the first of her mysteries that I had read, but I am eager to read another. Here is her website.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Cyber Smart: Five habits to protect your family, money, and identity from cyber criminals

by Bart. R. McDonough

Wiley     2019
267 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

The rise of powerful mobile phones, fitness trackers, smart appliances and other new technologies over the last decade has vastly improved our lives. Yet every new device, application and online service we use now leaves us vulnerable to a black market of criminals eager to exploit this new landscape by hacking and selling our passwords, bank accounts, personal photos, and, in some cases, our biggest secrets. 

In Cyber Smart, McDonough uses his extensive cybersecurity experience consulting for the FBI, major financial institutions, and his clients to answer the most common question he hears: “How can I protect myself at home, on a personal level, away from the office?” 

McDonough simplifies the process of digital security, identifying five simple habits that will allow you to protect yourself and your family from:
·         Identify fraud
·         Device hacking
·         Financial account theft
·         Breached email and social media accounts
When it comes to cybersecurity and data privacy, the good news is you don’t need to be a tech genius to protect yourself like one. With clear instructions, a friendly tone, and practical strategies, Cyber Smart will help you rest easy, knowing you and your family are protected from cyberattacks.

The author, Bart R. McDonough is a cybersecurity service provider. Certainly he is an expert, and the book reflects his expertise. It is pretty easy to read and understand.  I passed Cyber Smart along to my husband, who is in charge of our cyber security.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Bellini and the Sphinx

By Tony Bellotto

Trans. by Clifford E. Landers
Akashic    2019
270 pages     Hard Boiled

Tony Bellotto is a well-known Brazilian author, guitarist, song-writer, and commentator. Bellini and the Sphinx is the first of his series of hard-boiled detective fiction featuring Remo Bellini. It was published in Brazilian Portuguese more than 20 years ago and made into a Portuguese language film in 2002. Bellini is making his debut in an English translation this week.

Bellini is a classic private eye, having fallen into the career from a failed attempt at the law. He works for a woman PI, Dora Lobo, and generally does run-of-the-mill cases like adultery. In this particular case, the firm has been hired by a local doctor to find a missing dancer, Ana Cinta Lopes. But then the doctor turns up murdered. What is going on here? Why doesn’t anyone know Ana? Who is the hulking live-sex performer known as the Indian? What role does he play in the whole mess? Little by little the mystery unravels these questions, leaving both Bellini and the reader with answers but no satisfaction at its conclusion.

Although the case itself is rather mundane, the reader is exposed to the underbelly of the city of Sao Paulo. Also to the bruised psyche of Remo Bellini. Of course, most hard-boiled detective stories expose the bruised psyches of the detective. The reviewer in Publisher’s Weekly says that the book “starts off strong but falls flat in its overly familiar execution.” If a reader were interested in knowing what hard-boiled detective fiction is all about, this would be a good place to start. Bellini chases women, drinks too much, and listens to the blues—all classic PI behaviors.

Here are some things I did like about the book. The theme is expressed in the early pages by a club manager, Khalid. “Take it from me, women are an illusion. Women are like champagne; they seem real but they only exist as long as there’s music in the air.” That theme is repeated again and again throughout the book. Another thing I found appealing was the musical play list that Bellini soothed himself with throughout the book. I had Alexa play Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, and Charlie Patton as I read. Really helped to set the scene. I like the references to Greek and Roman mythology—a fun addition to the story. Finally, I liked the Sao Paulo setting because, most likely, I am not going to get to Brazil and certainly not to the part of Sao Paulo that Bellini frequents.

Tony Belloto is also the editor of two of Akashic’s Noir books—Sao Paulo Noir and Rio Noir. I enjoy these books a lot because each setting brings an entirely new look at a city as well as a new understanding of Noir fiction in its many varieties. I am assuming that more of the Bellini mysteries will be published by the company. I looked for a way to access the 2002 movie, Bellini e a Esfinge, and I did find it in Portuguese on YouTube. The music is amazing.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents

By Pete Souza
Little, Brown     2018
238 pages     Nonfiction

In December, the Gallup organization asked Americans to name a living man and woman whom they admired most. Barack and Michelle Obama topped the survey; Barack for the 11th time and Michelle for the first time. Here is the article in Vogue.  In the current political climate, I imagine this is no surprise.

Pete Souza, the official White House photographer during the Obama years has parlayed his experience into several books that have come out in the years since Obama left office. His newest book Shade compares speeches and tweets of the current president, Donald J. Trump, with pictures and text from the previous president, Barack Obama. The book is a compilation of Instagram postings Souza did over the past two years—documenting all the things that have bothered him.

Some news outlets said that Souza was throwing shade. Frankly, I had to look up what it meant to “throw shade." Webster defines it as “subtle, sneering expression of contempt for or disgust with someone—sometimes verbal, and sometimes not.” And yes, indeed, Souza is throwing shade at the current presidency--brilliantly in the way he does best, with photographs.

Souza says that he took over 2 million photographs over the 8 years of the Obama presidency, so he has more than enough pictures to match anything that President Trump might say or do. One of my favorite pairings is the speech Trump made at a Boy Scout Jamboree where he just praised himself. A lot of the speech is on the Trump side of the page, while on the Obama side of the page, there is a picture of a young African American Cub Scout shaking hands with President Obama, obviously awestruck.

Actually, reading the book made me quite sad, and it is obvious the Souza was filled with sadness as he compiled the book. Of course I am prejudiced. I felt that Obama was a kind, compassionate man who put the people of this country first.

Some of my kids used to live in the neighborhood in Chicago where the Obamas lived. One evening, shortly after he was elected, I went to get supper at a neighborhood Chinese carryout. Displayed proudly on the wall was a picture of Obama with his arm around the owner—who was looking tremendously proud. Right then, I knew this would be a presidency for the ages.

People need to read Shade to get a glimmer of what we have lost. A compassionate man who will be remembered as a great president.