Sunday, May 05, 2019

Forever and a Day by Anthony Horowitz

Forever and a DayForever and a Day by Anthony Horowitz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Forever and a Day is a nice entry into the Bond legend, serving as a prequel and showing Bond receiving his 007 designation. It's a typical James Bond story, with hidden laboratories, double crosses, sinister henchmen, and a femme fatale. The only thing missing is Q and his creative devices to aid Bond in an ingenuous escape. I had a few nits to pick, but none worth going into. So enjoy the story, appreciate a thriller that's not 500 pages long, and put your favorite movie Bond into the role. I did all three.

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Monday, April 15, 2019

One Small Sacrifice by Hilary Davidson

One Small SacrificeOne Small Sacrifice by Hilary Davidson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One Small Sacrifice by Hilary Davidson *

Alex Traynor had been a war photojournalist and worked in the world’s most dangerous environments. After being shot during one of his battlefield forays, he came home with a damaged leg, a case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a drug addiction, and a fiancĂ©, Dr. Emily Teare, Emily operated on his wound in the field and gave him his single purpose he has to go on living.

It wasn’t always so cut and dried, though. A year earlier, at a low point in his life, a close friend, Cori Stanton, had fallen off the roof of Alex’s building and the circumstances were never clear. Alex blamed himself for not preventing it. Cori’s father and Sheryn Sterling, the investigating detective on the case, believed Alex had a more direct role in Cori’s death.

Now, a year later, Emily has disappeared, leaving behind a type-written note and many questions. Detective Sterling believes that once again Alex is the prime suspect in a woman’s disappearance, and she’s determined not to let him slip through her hands this time.

In One Small Sacrifice, Hilary Davidson has combined the best aspects of a police procedural with a suspense novel. As the reader we follow both Alex and Detective Sterling as they try to solve the puzzle of what’s happened to Emily and who is responsible. We see things that each of them sees that the other doesn’t, but never everything, and that helps ramp up the narrative tension.

Davidson’s plot is tightly written, but nuanced, the story seeded with enough alternatives to keep the reader guessing throughout. Characters are complex and interesting, with each of the main characters being given a suitable backstory that drives their actions. Davidson writes with a confidence and assuredness that will convince you that every line was written with extreme care. One Small Sacrifice is a novel written by a writer at the top of her game.

* I received a complimentary copy of this novel to provide a review.

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Saturday, March 02, 2019

Italian. Bella Lingua!

Learning the Lingo

American tourists traveling to Europe today hardly need trouble themselves about a language barrier, at least in the major cities or on organized tours outside of the cities. Many Europeans, especially in the major cities, speak English as a matter of course. In airports, major rail stations, and city retail shops, you’re sure to have little problem making yourself understood and finding answers to most common questions. Whether you have need of knowing the unique hand gestures of Italia (or wherever you're going) probably depends on whether you’re renting a car or not (just kidding).

However, you may want to know a little of the lingo for the country you’re visiting. When you visit on your own outside the major tourist areas you’re not as likely to find most people speaking English. Also, native people generally appreciate when you try to communicate in their language. For whatever reason you choose to learn a language, there are numerous methods for pursuing your language education. Let’s ignore the hand gestures for the time being.

My trip to Italy is going to take me to Rome, Florence, and Venice, but also outside those major cities to the smaller cities of the Tuscany and Umbria provinces.

I decided I wanted to learn enough Italian to speak a bit and also to understand what people around me were saying. This, I think, is the most difficult part of learning a new language, absorbing what you're hearing and making sense of it.

Years ago, I bought a package called “Just Listen and Learn Italian.” I now have more incentive to delve into it.

It came with three 60-minute CDs and a book with dialogues, vocabulary, and illustrations. What I like best about it are the recorded dialogues. When you hear the segments about rail arrivals and departures, you hear the background noises of a rail station, exactly the types of noises you’ll have to filter the real announcements through when you’re traveling. I’ve started using the package lately and I really enjoy the way it is structured. Early on the book shows present-tense verb conjugations, talks about cultural issues, shows signs that you’re likely to see as you travel, and gives a brief overview of Italian geography. It has the written dialogues to follow that are on the CDs. It’s helping me a great deal. Alas, this package is no longer available for retail sale, but there are quite a few alternative packages for sale on Amazon and you can find one that you believe suits you best.

There are various language-learning Apps available to assist learning a language for your tablet  and/or smartphone and the ones I looked at present lessons on vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, and listening skills. I’ve been using two: Duolingo and Babbel. I intentionally stayed away from the more expensive ones: Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur.

Duolingo is a free app, with plenty of frustrating ads, and plenty of opportunities to buy your way out of them. I choose not to.  Duolingo seems a little scattershot to me and doesn’t provide as much guidance around grammar issues, nor does it introduce new words in a structured manner as I’d like. One nice feature it does have is a random vocabulary match quiz that includes words from past lessons, so they stay fresh in your mind. The App provides groups you can join if you’d like to converse in writing with fellow students.

Babbel charges a nominal fee of $45 for six months (if I remember correctly), with 50% off for initial signup. I like the way Babbel is structured and presents new information. It follows a precise method for presenting new material and important grammar areas are emphasized with a popup. It also has a nice review function so you can go over the words and terms you’ve learned without repeating the full lessons. The structured lessons can seem a bit repetitive, but because the lesson subjects are more targeted, I didn’t mind that.

Learning to speak with proper pronunciation is important to advance in both apps. Babbel provides a greater opportunity to listen to the spoken language and interpret what you’re hearing. I think with a diligent effort, either of the Apps would be helpful in teaching you the language fundamentals.

My latest tool to learn Italian is a course at my local community college. Although the counselor told me that “Italian Grammar 1” meant that it was more a reading and writing course, my teacher tries to ensure each class session includes a routine of listening and speaking the language. She is native Italian, born in Brindisi, Puglia at the heel of the boot, and although sometimes she doesn’t hear correctly what we’re asking her in English, her perspective is helpful. The immediate feedback in a live class makes the learning process more efficient. Although the book we're using is "Italian in 10 Minutes a Day", I can tell you it takes significantly more time than that to master the lessons. Our teacher helps students understand the principles and then the shortcuts one can take. For instance, when we answer a question in English, we don’t always formally repeat the full question in our answer. That’s true in Italian too, and her tips on how to do that are appreciated. 

I've found plenty of additional tools to help me learn Italian in my local Barnes and Noble. It takes a little help from all of them to feel confident that a lesson is adequately covered. Your experience may vary. 


I’m really looking forward to trying out my new language skills on my trip to Italy. I’m sure I’ll have many opportunities to embarrass myself as I try, for instance, to ask for a beer and find I’m given butter. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!

Bella lingua! Bella Italia!
David, but not The David

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Temporary Perfections by Giancarlo Carofiglio

Temporary PerfectionsTemporary Perfections by Gianrico Carofiglio
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Temporary Perfections is the fourth book in the Guido Guerrieri series written by Giancarlo Carofiglio, a former Italian prosecutor. Carolfiglio worked in Bari, Puglia, and that is where he bases his series character, Guerrieri.

Guerrieri is an introspective loner who works out his problems or puzzles conversing with his big punching bag, both with his fists and in one-sided conversations. Occasionally the swinging bag’s release of momentum will provide a bit of insight for the intellectual detective, at least as he sees it.

In Temporary Perfections, an attorney friend, Sabino Fornelli, asks Guerrieri to review the police report for the disappearance of a young woman, Manuela Ferraro. The police had been investigating for six months and with no new evidence were preparing to close the case. Fornelli was asking Guerrieri to look at the investigative file with fresh eyes.

The girl had bought a ticket to return from Bari to Rome but never arrived. An ex-boyfriend with violent tendencies is suspected initially, but his cell phone records showed that he was out of the country.

Even though, like Fornelli, Guerrieri is an attorney, not an investigator, he agrees to at least review the file. As he reviews it, he realizes that to do a complete job he is going to have to reinterview the friends of Manuela who were the most likely people to see her last.

He interviews Manuela’s closest friends, her roommate Nicoletta, her best friend Caterina, and Anita, a girl who gave her a ride to the train station. He makes some mistakes, like having one witness be present as he interviews another and becoming too close with a witness. There were no thrills or spills, no shots fired, no knife work, and no blood flow.

Still, I enjoyed the story. Carofiglio has a good voice. His characters are well-developed and speak realistic lines. The cozy plot has plenty of empathy and interesting side stories. Guerrieri is an interesting man who often gets overwhelmed with his inner dialog. An interesting side story where he befriends a former prostitute who he defended once and now has opened a gay bar near Guerrieri’s home really shows his heart…and his loneliness.

If you need a nice palate cleanser after a particularly dark novel, Temporary Perfections would be a good choice.

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Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Library Book by Susan Orlean

<b>The Library Book</b>The Library Book by Susan Orlean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you're an occasional reader or you've ever thought about a library, you need to read The Library Book by Susan Orlean. However, if you are an ardent reader, a person passionate about fine writing, a person captivated by a writer's ability to take dry information and turn it into magical prose, then you also need to read The Library Book. The Library Book could have been a simple and straightforward nonfiction account of a fire, possibly arson, that severely damage the Los Angeles Central Library building, the Goodhue Building, but in the hands of Susan Orlean it becomes something special.

Orlean doesn't just lay out the facts of the fire, the people and processes of the investigation, and the years long ramifications that crippled the system's operations. She delves into the history of a library system as it built through fits and starts from a system supporting a small western city of 12,000 to one of the largest library systems supporting one of the country's largest cities. Orlean introduces readers to the leaders and many of the staff who, through a myriad of duties and hearts full of empathy, support everyone from Hollywood producers, to children, to the homeless community. Orlean informs readers about library science in general and we see how it has progressed over the decades.

If you've ever wondered how librarians keep busy and how valuable their duties are to readers and the broader community, after reading The Library Book you won't fail to give every librarian you encounter a smile and a thank you. They are special people and in Susan Orlean's hands, we see why.

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Sunday, February 03, 2019

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the EndBeing Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Spoiler Alert: We’re all going to die.

For the majority of us that will come via the afflictions of old age or of some disease. How we, our families, our social framework, and the medical community deal with that inevitability is the basis of BEING MORTAL by Atul Gawande.

Gawande is a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and a professor at Harvard Medical School and the Harvard School of Public Health. He is a director of Ariadne Labs, a joint center for health systems innovation, and chairman of LifeBox, a nonprofit organization making surgery safer globally.

Gawande walks his readers through the changing demographics influencing the landscape of care for the aged and the terminally ill. He covers the growth of secondary housing (nursing homes and assisted living centers) and the social aspects of who controls how residents interact with the world around them, how much autonomy residents have, and what is more important, safety or quality of life, for instance. He covers the development of advanced therapies for fighting cancers and how doctors must learn to decide when the best thing to do is nothing and how to communicate with families about those choices.

Gawande uses examples from the patients of other medical professionals, his own patients, and even his own father to illustrate the problems facing society today. How do you tell a patient that entering a nursing home is necessary for their safety when they are used to being independent? How do you encourage patients to consider end-of-life issues when they want to keep fighting a terminal disease in its later stages? Gawande is careful to relate that he struggles with these issues too, and the right solution is probably different for every patient and their family.

I lost my father to pancreatic cancer in 1988 and my wife to appendiceal cancer in 2015. Neither was a good experience, but the availability of hospice made having my wife at home in her last days of such value to her and our family. My wife’s passing was peaceful. My father spent the last three or more weeks of his life in a hospital bed and it was anything but peaceful.

BEING MORTAL is an important book that everyone should read. Gawande doesn’t purport to have all the answers, but he does lay out a pathway for each of us to follow in trying to do what’s right for ourselves or our family members. It is an essential tool for all of us.

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Monday, January 21, 2019

The Reluctant Tuscan by Phil Doran

The Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner ItalianThe Reluctant Tuscan: How I Discovered My Inner Italian by Phil Doran
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Part of my planning for a spring trip to Italy has me inhaling almost anything I can find to read related to Italy, especially Tuscany and Umbria. Fiction or nonfiction, I'm reading it all. Including travel guides, this is my tenth book on Italy and one of my favorites.

While much of the earlier parts revolve around the author's wife trying to convince him to give up the helter-skelter life of an L.A. TV writer, eventually he moves on to describing the Tuscan people, places and customs around the town of Cambione, and it is here where the book shines. Just from descriptions of the food I think I gained ten pounds.

The Italian life is a slower-paced one (as long as you're off the highways) than almost anywhere in America. Following the author's transition from a frantic writer straniero (foreigner) to a calm (unless he's driving), accepted resident of this wonderful slice of Italy was delightful.

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