Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Happiness Advantage (Self-Help/Business Book)

Most self-help authors don’t bother to mention the fact that they did not actually steal a police car. But for Shawn Achor that personal fact becomes a vivid teaching point. His stories and metaphors make The Happiness Advantage memorable. His life experiences and academic credentials make the book credible. On top of that, The Happiness Advantage is very, very practical.

I have evidently been reading articles by Achor for years – O Magazine, Success, Live Happy – but, I did not really pay attention to him until I recently watched an episode of Super Soul Sunday. To me the idea of happiness seemed like so much fluff. Achor has a way of making us look at happiness in a new way, as a key ingredient to our personal and professional success. His credential are impressive. He has practical experience. He worked as a proctor in the dorms at Yale for twelve years and has consulted all over the world. Yet, he also has a degree from Yale and can draw on scientific studies associated with happiness. He has a knack for creating vivid images, describing such principles as “The Tetris Effect” and the “Zorro Circle.” In The Happiness Advantage he also gives easy to follow steps that we can take to be happier.

It is so easy to read self-help book after self-help book, feeling good for a time and changing nothing in or lives. The Happiness Advantage is filled with great ideas, but it is just another book unless the ideas are integrated into our daily lives. I think The Happiness Advantage, well, has an advantage over other books because it is so memorable.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The White Magic Five and Dime (Mystery)

I needed a break from all the power struggles and politics (Imaginer’s series) that I had been reading about lately. A trip to the New Book section at my local library netted me a fun and well-crafted novel, The White Magic Five and Dime by Steve Hockensmith with Lisa Falco. In some ways it reads like the breezy, guilty pleasures mysteries that I have come to love, yet The White Magic Five and Dime is a bit more. A solid backstory is woven into the book, giving perspective to the characters and their motives. Also woven into the story is a sarcastic interpretation of Tarot cards.

Briefly, Alanis, a very successful telemarketer, learns that her estranged mother is dead, actually murdered. The mother has left her some money, a car, and The White Magic Five and Dime, out of which her mother had been giving Tarot readings. Alanis takes some time off from work to go to the small town near Sedona where her mother lived and to settle matters. Despite her feelings towards her mother, Alanis feels compelled to solve the mystery of her mother’s murder. She finds plenty of suspects, including people whom her mother had conned and her mother’s teenage housemate, Clarice. In order to catch the murderer, Alanis decides to pose as a Tarot reader herself, which requires her to actually learn about the Tarot. Luckily, she finds an informative book, Miss Chance’s Infinite Road’s to Knowing.

The plotline involves more than a woman solving a murder. Slowly we learn why and how Alanis and her mother became estranged. As Alanis reads the Tarot cards and interacts with the townsfolks, we see a gentler side to the snarky, cynical Alanis. Near the end of the novel, Alanis wonders whether her mother gave her the money and store as a gift of kindness or as a long-con, an ultimate revenge. The ending has some wonderful little twists, and, of course, foreshadows new novels in the series. I may have found a new series to love.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Paw and Order (Mystery Novel)

When I fall in love with a series, I am disappointed when I finish a book in it and say that “I liked it a lot.” I expected more from Spencer Quinn’s Paw and Order, the seventh book in the Chet and Bernie Series. (See my reactions to The Sound and the FurryA Fistful of CollarsThe Dog Who Knew Too Much and To Fetch a Thief.)  I enjoyed the fact that the novel branched out from the earlier books. The setting is Washington D.C., and the mystery to be solved involves politics and has some international intrigue. I liked that the climax of the plot did not follow the same formula as some of the earlier books. I’m glad that Quinn turned his attention to the relationship between Suzy and Bernie. Some of my favorite moments were when Chet professes his love for Suzy, but at the same time resents giving up the “shotgun seat.”

What I did not like about Paw and Order is that it did not totally feel like a Chet and Bernie book. (I will allow that the year since I read the last novel may have clouded my memory a bit.) Chet is not an integral part of solving the mystery. While the story is told from his point of view, I felt that it could have happened without him. And, the story contained too many instances where Chet is hyper and Bernie tells him to calm down. While Bernie has always been a very macho character, he seemed much more violent than I remembered him. He has been known to have a soft side, but it didn’t seem to come out until almost the end of the novel.

I’m not giving up on Chet and Bernie (and Suzy). Paw and Order was still a good story. But, my anticipation for the next novel is not as high as it has been in the past.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café (Mystery Novel)

Kindness. What are books in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series by Alexander McCall Smith about? Why have I read all fifteen books in the series and look forward to reading more? Kindness. In my darkest moments, I need to know that there is kindness in the world. When I am tempted to act sarcastically or snap at someone, I need to be reminded to take a deep, deep breath and to do my very best to be kind. The books in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Series remind me to do just that. The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café, the latest novel, continues on the path of kindness.

The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café is really Grace Matekoni’s novel. While Precious Ramotswe remains the main character, Grace is the one who truly grows in the novel. She decides to open a Café that caters to “handsome men,” which reveals so much about her character. She ignores the warning of her shoes, which almost ends in disaster. But the real story is the kindnesses that Grace bestows to the every wayward Charlie and to the daughter of a man working on the café. After fifteen novels, Grace faces her 97% and acts with incredible poise and generosity. (The moment was so beautiful that I was almost in tears.) Grace must also swallow her pride and take the help offered her by a woman who has irritated her in the past.

Yes, Precious has a mystery. She takes on a case where the client claims that an unknown woman, who has no memory of who she is, appeared at his door. He asks Precious to uncover her identity. In the meantime, Precious and her husband try to do what is best for Charlie.

A few weeks ago, in response to some pictures and links that Alexander McCall Smith posted on his Facebook page, I thought “I would love a t-shirt that reads ‘My favorite author wears a skirt’ (kilt).” Maybe those of us who are fans need to wear pins shaped like kilts to signify that we do our best, day by day, to be kind.  In truth, AMS somehow wraps up kindness and finds a way of putting it in a novel.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Imager (Fantasy Novel)

I was searching for a book about imagination when I came across Imager by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. I almost forgot what a joy it is to start reading a new series, watching how the various conflicts and storylines are set into motion. There are so many little presents to unwrap in the novels to come. My dominant feeling was curiosity as I turned the pages.

Imager starts out with Rhennthyl choosing not to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a wool merchant. Instead he apprentices with a portrait artist. While Rhenn has some differences with his master and the Guild, he is a very good artist and is almost ready to earn the title of master when tragedy strikes. His master is killed in a mysterious fire. Rhenn wonders whether he unknowingly contributed to the fire because moments earlier, in a moment of frustration, he had imagined the explosion. Unable to find another master to allow him to complete his training, Rhenn explores his ability to manifest things using his imagination. --While an apprentice he had been able to move areas of paintings with his thoughts. – Satisfied that he has talent, Rhenn goes to study with the imaginers, people trained to manifest object with their minds. They are both valued and feared. He quickly advances through the levels, but not without incident. In self-defense, he kills one man and seriously disables another, the son of a powerful man. Rhenn soon is the object of assassination attempts. In addition, other young imagers are being murdered. By the end of the first novel, Rhenn has collected more than his share of enemies. The plotline contains a changing political situation that could lead to war. But, no series is complete without a good love story. Rhenn’s family pressures him to find a suitable wife. He meets Seliora while he is still an artist’s apprentice. She saves his life early on in his career as an imager. While her family embraces him and his calling, it becomes obvious that they have ulterior motives.

The world of Imager feels very real. While it is clearly fictional –it has two moons– it has elements of the Victorian era. The apprentice systems are well thought-out. The actions of the characters are consistent with their environment. So far, I think that I have found a nice series to follow. I have had just enough ponderable moments to fulfill my intellectual needs. I like the characters. The plot is not overly demanding for quick before bedtime reading, yet it is still interesting. As we approach a potentially long winter, I always feel better having a series to set some sort of rhythm through my weeks.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Things a Little Bird Told Me (Non-fiction)

Some of Biz Stone’s words of wisdom from Things a Little Bird Told Me:
If you take an idea and just hold it in your head, you unconsciously start to do things that advance you toward that goal. It kinda works. It did for me.
Real opportunities in the world aren’t listed on job boards, and they don’t pop up in your in-box with the subject line: Great Opportunity Could Be Yours. Inventing your dream is the first and biggest step toward making it come true. Once you realize this simple truth, a whole new world of possibilities opens for you.
Rose-colored glasses tint the world with false beauty. But an open, curious, optimistic mind yields solutions, and has a better time along the way.
Creativity is a renewable resource. Challenge yourself every day. Be as creative as you like, as often as you want, because you can never run out. Experience and curiosity drive us to make unexpected, offbeat connections. It is these nonlinear steps that often lead to greatest works.
I haven’t used Twitter in years. So, when I recently received a tweet, I was a bit clueless. When I went to my local library, instead of finding a book on how to use Twitter, I managed to bring home a book on one of the co-founders of Twitter. I swear I enter an alternate reality every time I go to the Library. When I get home, I often just stare at the contents of my backpack. After five weeks of ignoring Things a Little Bird Told Me by Biz Stone, I finally read the book in a long afternoon. Why did I wait? It is a delight.

Things a Little Bird Told Me is a first person account of Biz Stone’s life leading up to the creation of Twitter, during his time at Twitter, and after leaving Twitter. Biz Stone is somewhat of a free spirit. He has been fond of breaking rules that don’t work for him, yet he has a strong moral compass. He understands that technology is really about people. His book is wise, witty, fun, and inspiring.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Novel)

Books. A Mystery. A Secret Society. A Font. Technology. The Singularity. Friends.

Yesterday was my official “be nice to Kata day.” I drank a white chocolate latte, ate a chocolate croissant, and read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Life was very, very good: long, contented sigh. Mr. Penumbra was the perfect book for the day. It falls into many of my favorite categories: “I get by with a little help from my friends,” “Helps you forget your troubles for an afternoon.” “Quirky but likeable characters,” “Down on his luck rises to the occasion,” and “Some things to make you think.” It is a novel with a mystery element to it. The juxtaposition of 15th Century printing with 21st Century technology makes the novel fresh and interesting. It is a novel that was easy to fall into, but when I was done I wasn’t hyper from an adrenaline rush.

Clay is a down on his luck geek who takes a job at a 24-hour bookstore, where he works the nightshift. His job has some odd responsibilities. He is required to keep a detailed log with descriptions of the bookstore visitors. He waits on odd visitors, members of a secret organization to which Mr. Penumbra belongs, who check out books that are written in code. The bookstore has very few actual customers. Clay decides to enlist the help of technology savvy friends to find out what is really going on. His actions change the lives of his friends, Mr. Penumbra, and members of the secret club, as well as Clay himself.

I feel like Goldilocks in the Three Bears: this novel is just right. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is thought-provoking without being too deep. It is interesting without making me pine for a sequel. The book is quirky without being overly silly or being “adult-rated.” It contains a bit of menace without having any real violence. It contains images that dance in my head but don’t haunt me. I guess the big drawback for me is that I don’t know a lot of people who share the same quirky set of interests that I do, who would share my delight in the book. Maybe I need to add still another category for novels, “technology with a big a heart,” so that some geeks can more easily find this book