Friday, October 25, 2013

Book 40 of 52: Her Dearest Sin by Gayle Wilson

I don't have too much to say about Her Dearest Sin (Harlequin Historical). This is another Collingswood Book Festival buy, though instead of $.50 I paid $.25.

Her Dearest Sin is a historical action romance that's pretty typical of the genre: woman in distress, soldier who saves her, they fall in love, happily ever after ensues (and I'm not giving away the ending here - it's a romance, and they're all supposed to end that way). The "sin" in the title doesn't come from something naughty the heroine does - it's not that kind of book - but from the last name of the hero, Sinclair.

Why did I pick it up? Because $.25 is a cheap way to try a new author. I tend to read everything in a romance writer's backlog if I really like her work, but it takes a leap for me to try someone new. Even though I'm not going to make that leap with Wilson here, I don't think it was a waster of that quarter.

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book 39 of 52: The Help by Kathryn Stockett

The Helpby Kathryn Stockett is one of those books where I'm not sure I can add anything else to the pile of criticism. It was a wild success and turned into an Oscar-winning film (in an acting category).

So I will say only this: the book made me angry. Not just because of what the book portrayed or that Stockett is a white woman who wrote in three difference voices here, two of them black (which she addressed in an afterword to the book), but that while so much has changed since 1962, so much has stayed the same.

I didn't need to go back too far to illustrate why - I didn't even need to leave this week.

On Tuesday, Antonin Scalia, a Supreme Court Justice, said that the 14th amendment was for all, not "only the blacks." Last night, Cory Booker became fourth black person to be elected to the U.S. senate, the first from New Jersey, and will be one of two black senators in the current senate.

Oh and then there was the incident of flying a Confederate flag in front of the White House. Not only is the flag incredibly offensive and representative of reprehensible period in our country's history, but it is even more wrong - and threatening - when waved in front of a black family's home, which is what the White House is.

So if you haven't read this yet - and a lot of you probably have - be prepared to have feelings about it other than what you're reading on the page.

P.S. I bought this for $.50 at the Collingswood Book Festival. One good thing about waiting to read big blockbuster books is that you can usually get them on the cheap a few years later (The Help was first published in 2009).

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Saturday, October 12, 2013

Book 38 of 52: Ingenious by Jason Fagone

I'm not a car person. I drive a 2002 Honda Civic that I won't replace when it either dies or fails inspection. I do, however, spend more than a fair amount of time on Bring a Trailer, a fascinating blog that aggregates cool cars for sale, and provides commentary on why they're cool.

Jason Fagone says he's the same thing. "I'm not a car person," he writes in the introduction to Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America. You can argue that Ingenious is about cars, and it is, but what makes this book accessible to everyone is that it's more about the people trying to reach a crazy dream. They just happen to be dreaming about cars.

In 2007, the X Prize Foundation said it would give $10 million to someone who could create a safe car, mass produceable car that was more efficient than what's on the road now. The terms and the rules of the competition changed, but the key point was that cars needed to travel 100 miles on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gasoline.

The idea was that money would spur anyone with a good idea and sweat equity to create a better car than anything that the entrenched big car makers would actually produce, and make car production more like it was before the big three dominated the market. "But the U.S. auto market was awesomely chaotic once: a weird and colorful splay of small-time tinkerers, strivers, blacksmiths, bakers, bicycle-makers, tricycle-makers, thieves and playboys," he writes.

And that's what happened. Fagone follows a handful of groups who submit cars to the X Prize, from the well funded companies to a high school in West Philadelphia (whose kids had already beaten MIT in similar competitions) to a guy who built a car by hand in a shop in a corn field.

That car is featured in the Ingenious book trailer

It's a wonderful, fascinating read, with the plot tension of a thriller when the cars get to the actual testing grounds (WHO IS GOING TO MAKE IT? WHO IS GOING TO WIN?). I thought about the book as I drove my Civic today, especially when I was stuck behind a monstrosity of a car called a Sequoia. Why anyone would want to drive a car associated with a giant tree is beyond me. I'm still pissed that the new Civic looks like a tank compared to my 12-year old ride. The dreamers in Ingenious feel the same way, and the book is about them trying to do something about it.

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Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book 37 of 52: Hotel Babylon by Anonymous and Imogen Edwards-Jones

When I do my taxes, I spend a lot of time organizing and tallying up receipts, so I pick a random show streaming on Netflix, and watch that while I work. A few years ago, that choice was Hotel Babylon, a BBC show that ran from 2006 to 2009. When I re-subscribed to Netflix, I found that I still had two more seasons to watch. And I loved every minute of it.

I didn't know until after I'd finished with the series that the TV show was based on the book Hotel Babylon: Inside the Extravagance and Mayhem of a Luxury Five-Star Hotelby an anonymous reception desk clerk and Imogen Edwards-Jones. Hotel Babylon is a cover, and it's pretty obviously why Anonymous chose that name - he names names, and even though the book was published in 2004, some are still big like Kate Moss, Johnny Depp, Princess Diana and even the Queen Mum.

Those stories, however, are far from the most interesting in the book, which has as many "OMG that happens in hotels?" stories into one book as it can. I imagine that the structure was a challenge for Edwards-Jones. How to pack it all in? The solution is have Anonymous pull a double shift and tell the story of the hotel in 24 hours. It's pretty brilliant. Between the ticking clock and flashbacks, Anonymous can share stories of the drunk guy who smashes his teeth in the urinal, people having sex outside the elevator, the big spenders from all countries and what they order, and requests for "extra pillows" i.e. prostitutes.

At first, I thought too much was being jammed into the book, but the pace evened out, and I was disappointed when the book ended, much like I was that the show was cancelled with no resolution to its cliff hanger (and that happened with my favorite American soapy guilty pleasure of Las Vegas). But all good things must come to an end, and at the end of Anonymous' night, I'm relieved for him. Even if I really don't know his name.

Here's a sample from the show. The characters aren't really the same from book to show, but the flavor is the same.

P.S. This book is also a good reminder about fast technology changes. Here's how Hotel Babylon handled email: "Ewan is often too busy dealing with the faxes and telephone calls to check the email five or six times a day in case anything important comes in." I remember in 2004 when I didn't always have my email open, and I still got faxes at work. Inconceivable now.

P.S.S. I started to read another great book before this one arrived, but given the douses of bad news happening right now, dishy was exactly what I needed. I'm glad I found a copy of this book, at exactly the right time.

P.S.S.S. (Sorry but it's late and I've had a lot to write today) I did like this more than the previous hotel-related book I read and wrote about on this blog. Both are still good, but Hotel Babylon has the leg up here.

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