Recent Reads: June + July ’17

Warm weather, vacation, beaches, Cape trips all meant that I was on a fiction trip these past two months. I did keep plugging away at my non-fiction goal for the year with one non-fiction book (and it was a big one!), but it was mostly genre fiction along with a great new pizza cookbook that I added to my collection. 


Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Everything you might have heard about Lehane’s latest novel are pretty much true. It feels very much like two books melded together after the fact. The first part, the majority of the book, is about Rachel Childs, her career, her breakdown, her search for father and, ultimately, her identity. The second part of the book is more a traditional thriller. Neither is bad by themselves, Lehane is just too good a writer to completely fall on his face, but they do make awkward bedfellows.

If you’ve never tried Lehane, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this book. If you are a fan, you will find a lot to like and will find his turn to a female lead possibly interesting. Since We Fell doesn’t have the weight (literally) or heft of his recent run of historical books, but it does feel less perfunctory than Moonlight Mile. It could certainly set up an interesting new chapter for one of my favorite writers.


Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

This book has been on my TBR-list for probably ten years. I finally made it our book club pick at work (where we alternate months between fiction and non-fiction) to force myself to pick it up. Of course, I was soon kicking myself for waiting those 10 years. Despite it’s length and density, I found the book very readable with a clear narrative. It doesn’t read like a science journal article (most of the time). And has room for digressions to explain where Diamond’s thoughts and theories are both coming from and heading toward.

Having no background in the subject, I found many of his arguments very convincing on why certain societies flourished over time and others floundered, stagnated or died out. In short, why did the West rise to dominate human culture. Diamond’s answer, explored and extrapolated throughout the book is geography, demography, and ecological happenstance. A challenging but worthwhile read. I won’t wait 10 years to pick up Diamond’s Collapse


Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong

More than you probably need to know about Seinfeld. Or maybe not. This quick, but not lacking in depth, read might be perfect for the pool or beach. Told almost like a long form oral history that appear to be the hot journalistic take of the moment, this book is an engaging and insightful look at how Seinfeld ultimately made it on the air and then succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination almost despite itself.

Armstrong gets a lot of people, mostly writers and producers on record and the behind the scenes anecdotes and war stories about some of the, now iconic, episodes are the standout parts of the book. A good read for someone that’s seen all the episodes, but also not so arcane that the person that’s only seen the re-runs won’t find interesting, too.


The Forgotten Girls by Owen Laukkanen

Laukkanen’s debut, The Professionals, got a lot of well deserved hype and praise. It was a well-plotted story with a fresh angle on the crime genre and some well characterized police leads, along with the bad guys. I was excited. I thought I had found a new series to look forward to each year. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. The sophomore effort was not as well received. Not at all. I skipped it the reviews were so unanimous.

I did dip back in for a few more entries in the series, but with diminishing returns. All the freshness seemed to have boiled away leaving just the cliches of the genre. On a whim and looking for a thriller, I tried the latest in the series. It will likely be my last. This serial killer yarn offers few surprises, actually, no surprises and the writing isn’t crisp or compelling enough to sustain a straight ahead chase plot for 300 pages. 


Revenger by Alastair Reynolds

If your book blurb includes a reference to Firefly, I will read it. Maybe more out of love and dedication to Whedon’s late series, but in this case my faith was rewarded. Revenger was a fun, engaging space opera/revenge tale that had lots of action and sci-fi speculation without sacrificing the characters. It takes a bit of time to for the ship’s crew to come into focus but the core sister characters jump off the page from the start.

If anything it was almost too fun, too superficial. Reynolds seeds his narrative with lots of alluring hints and asides that there is much more to this world. More history, more intrigue, more of everything. At times, I felt like I had jumped into the middle of a longer series and was playing catch up. Nope. I hope he returns to this world, if not these characters, for more. I would definitely read more.


The Whistler by John Grisham

I’ll be honest, I picked this one up thinking it was a different Grisham book. I had read a review about his latest, which turned out to be Camino Island, and found the heist set-up premise interesting enough to seek out. When I saw The Whistler on the quick read shelf at the library, I thought it was Camino Island. Turns out, this is the book before that one. I burned myself out on Grisham and court room thrillers in general back in the nineties, but have come around again recently as he stretched out beyond the typical big case, overmatched lawyer plot. I enjoyed The Racketeer. The man knows how to get you turning pages.

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All that said, I was a bit disappointed in this one. There is a lot of set-up about a casino, some shady mob-types, a judge and a group wanting to bring it all down. I kept expecting more twists, any twists, really, but nothing ever materialized. Loose ends were left hanging. Side plots and seeming red herring clues were never re-visited. Maybe that is more realistic to real life, but I am not looking for real life with a thriller or a John Grisham book. 


The Force by Don Winslow

The elevator pitch for this must have been The Wire crossed with The Shield. This is a big sprawling cop (though the cops are hardly all beacons of virtue) story with a big cast. Despite a great opening scene, it takes a little while to find its feet. I almost bailed, I’ll be honest, but was glad I pushed on as all sorts of mayhem and chaos ensure once the plot starts slamming the cops, the drug runners, the Feds and innocent bystanders together in the blender. Some of the headnotes say it’s based on years of research, which makes me terrified if this is how the sausage gets made in big cities. For those that have read Winslow in the past, this is closer in style and writing to The Cartel or The Power of the Dog, rather than Savages. 


Camino Island by John Grisham

Ok, so this is the Grisham I mean to pick it first. Despite being more excited to read it, I basically had the same reaction to it as I did to The Whistler. The writing is clean and sparse, though Grisham does have a tendency to tell, rather than show. The opening chapters showing the burglary are described without almost any dialogue.

It keeps everything at arm’s length, which ultimately tells a clear story, but perhaps not the most engaging one. None of the characters really leaped off the page. And ultimately, despite a kick-bang start, neither does the plot. It hums along fine, keeps you turning the page and then glides in for a landing. I kept waiting for something, anything, to throw a wrench in the works. I might need to take a break from Grisham.


The Late Show by Michael Connelly

The showing versus telling that frustrated me in Camino Island came into clearer focus while reading Connelly’s latest right. The Late Show introduces Renee Ballard, a new character (perhaps series), as a female detective working the overnight shift in Hollywood. For my money, Connelly is still the best writer today doing police procedural, detective stories and departmental politics.

Even though she’s not carrying the (series) history of Bosch, Connelly quickly and ably orients us in her world and her psyche without simply stating it. He show us and demonstrates through actions and conversations what this woman is about.

Like a few of his recent Bosch books, he’s not content with one plot, though one mostly dominates, but uses multiple cases, some intertwine, some don’t, to show us what it’s like to work the late show. When the cases are solved and Ballard is presented with a big decision, it’s no surprise which way she goes. Connelly has had ample time to show us who Ballard is. I hope there are more stories from the late show.


Pizza Camp by Joe Beddia

Pizzeria Beddia is in Philly and was named the best pizzeria in the US a few years ago by Bon Appetit. Beddia makes all the pies each day and when he uses up the dough, that’s it. There are long lines. I’ve never been (and if rumors are that’s closing it up soon are true, probably never will), but I’m glad to have this cookbook to add to my collection.

Let me get this out of the way upfront. I hate the font used in this book. The book’s aesthetic follows the late (lamented despite our design differences) Lucky Peach look and feel: great photos, humor, well laid out, but man, that font. I just found it distracting and hard to read. Other than that, I loved this book’s recipes. I’m pretty happy with my personal dough recipe and prep, so I skipped right to recipes. The most eye opening ones for me are the many white pizza recipes. I’m not a traditionalist on pizza, but I hadn’t tried many white sauced pizzas. I have now and many will be added to my pizza recipe rotation. If you are looking to shake up your usual pizza routine, this is a great book to push you out of your comfort zone. Or maybe you’d just enjoy the great photos of Philly. Or the hoagie recipes at the back.


A few up next from the great teetering TBR pile:


Memory Man

Valiant Ambition (still trying to finish!)

Change Agent