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Reading Diary for 2008

  and earlier
"I So Don't Do Mysteries"
by Barrie Summy
I So Don't Do MysteriesSet in San Diego, this teen mystery by Santee author Barrie Summy mostly gets it right in a fun, summery read. Seventh-grader Sherry is sent from Phoenix to her great-aunt's in Coronado while her widowed dad heads off on his honeymoon with her new step-mom – only her own mother is still hanging around as a ghost, trying to solve a pending rhino killing at the Wild Animal Park. Sherry has to convince herself she's not crazy, convince her best friend to go to San Diego with her, and solve the crime to keep her mom in the ghost council's good graces. From the hectic worldview of young teens to the local landscape of San Diego, Summy does a good job of keeping things real while keeping the story moving along. Likable characters, a fresh story and San Diego's sunny locale combine for a winning, winsome mystery that should appeal both to young readers and their parents. (Read full review.)

"Beat the Reaper"
by Josh Bazell
Beat the ReaperNot only a great read with a truly original story (a mob hitman in the witness protection program finishes medical school, and inadvertently runs into an old adversary while working at the emergency room of an inner-city hospital), but a unique voice from first-time author Josh Bazell. How many novels have footnotes explaining medical terminology or mafia cultural references? Hopefully the first of many novels to come from Bazell. (Read my interview with Josh Bazell.)

"The Purpose of Christmas"
by Rick Warren
The Purpose of ChristmasAmong the new Christmas books for 2008, best-selling author Rick Warren has penned an exploration of Christian faith under the title "The Purpose of Christmas." Warren (founder/pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County), whose "The Purpose Driven Life" has moved from mere best-seller status to cultural phenomenon, tackles the issue of Christmas' meaning from a devoutly Christian perspective. Warren explores what Jesus' mortal existence means within Christian teaching, and what Christians can gain from the knowledge. (Read full review.)

"The Paper Bag Christmas"
by Kevin Alan Milne
The Paper Bag ChristmasSet in a children's hospital ward during the holidays, and narrated by a 9-year-old boy who is recruited to volunteer in the ward, the story here is pretty predictable from the first few passages. Like Nicholas Sparks, Milne's storyline hurtles along by sheer force of inertia – once he puts it in motion, it follows Newton's Laws and continues apace.(Read full review.)

"Alive in Africa: My Journeys on Foot in the Sahara, Rift Valley, and Rain Forest"
by William F. Wheeler
Alive in AfricaOld-school adventure travelogue by San Diego-area doctor who gave up his practice to travel across Africa. From a camel-back ride across the Sahara to a horseback caravan down the Great Rift Valley to his first trip among the Irturi Forest pygmies, Wheeler clearly found himself in his travels. (Read full profile.)

"The Peter Yarrow Songbook: Sleepytime Songs"
by Peter Yarrow
The Peter Yarrow Songbook: Sleepytime SongsSecond half of Yarrow's first two entries in his new Songbook series of singalong books. The "Sleepytime" collection features obvious choices like "All Through the Night" and "Hush, Little Baby," by also lesser-known gems like "The Water is Wide" and "Who's Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Foot." And their reading of Brahms' "Lullaby" is just lovely. (Read full review.)

"The Peter Yarrow Songbook: Favorite Folk Songs"
by Peter Yarrow
The Peter Yarrow Songbook: Favorite Folk SongsPeter Yarrow, one-third of '60s folk music icons Peter, Paul & Mary, has written a couple of children's books with a unique twist: They're lovingly illustrated books for the younger set to read to themselves, and they're also sing-along books with not only the lyrics, but chord changes and audio CDs. Yarrow has impeccable taste in selecting folk songs and he scored when he enlisted artist Terry Widener. Widener is a veteran children's book illustrator, with several dozen titles to his name. Bright colors and bold shapes give the books a friendly, warm ambience. (Read full review.)

"Long Rifle: A Sniper's Story in Iraq and Afghanistan"
by Joe LeBleu
Long RifleAn insightful look into the world of top-echelon snipers in the U.S. military. Ex-Ranger Joe LeBleu, who writes that he also was on some missions with Delta Force teams, tells his first-person story of his tour in Fallujah, Iraq, before the Army turned it over to the Marines and a vicious firefight broke out. Full of admiration for his fellow Army troopers on the front lines, LeBleu has little use for senior brass or the administration that sent our troops into Iraq. A bit too short in its tale, but still a neat snapshot of what at least some of our troops went through in Iraq and also Afghanistan.

"Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life"
by Bishop Charles J. Chaput
Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political LifeIn an election season when volatile policy issues like teen-age abortion and same-sex marriage are on California's ballot, the intersection of faith and politics is once again on the country's radar. Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, the leader of the Roman Catholic diocese in Denver, has written "Render Unto Caesar" (Doubleday), a book that takes a look at public attitudes toward the faithful – specifically, the Catholics – and how they cast their votes at election time. Those who are fundamentally opposed to religious believers voting their values will not have their minds changed by this book; those who are unsure of the proper role of faith in the public square, or Catholics unsure of their church's teachings, however, should find much to chew on in these pages. In the logical coherence of his arguments and the compelling case he makes that Catholics only truly fulfill their patriotism when they vote with their whole being, Chaput presents a solid contribution to the ongoing discussion about religion in the United States. (Read full review.)

"Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird Flight"
by Pat Shipman
Taking Wing: Archaeopteryx and the Evolution of Bird FlightA well-written, accessible tale of the discovery of archaeopteryx, and where this early winger, feathered creature fits into the evolutionary lineage of birds. Shipman lays out the early discovery of the archaeopteryx fossils, and then takes us through how scientists have theorized about archaeopteryx. The book was written in the late '90s, and so recent discoveries may have left the conclusion (archaeopteryx was capable of flight, including taking off from the ground) obsolete, but it's still a fascinating look at how scientists try to decipher the past through the incomplete fossil record.

"1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die"
by Tom Moon
1,000 Recordings to Hear Before You DieAny music guide is going to be, by its very definition, subjective. It's the nature of the beast. So to criticize a book like Tom Moon's new guide by arguing that this record shouldn't be here when this other one isn't is pretty petty - and if that argument were to be adhered to, we'd simply not have any music-buying guides. But if one claims to be offering a basic guide to the best recordings in history, to be creating, as the book's cover itself says, "A Listener's Life List," then there ought to be some sort of adherence to offering at least a foundation of what are generally considered to be the most influential and best recordings. And on that score, Moon's book comes awfully close to failing. While the majority of albums on his list are worthy, and he shows an admirable willingness to list lesser-known albums that are wonderful listens, a series of blind spots in his selections are so egregious and so utterly misrepresent the history of 20th century music, that ultimately they leave this a deeply flawed book. (Read full review.)

"Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your Life"
by Wynton Marsalis with Geoffrey C. Ward
Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz Can Change Your LifeWynton Marsalis is one of the most influential musicians in the United States today. Through his role as leader of the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, through his numerous recordings and constant touring and lectures, Marsalis is leading much of our ongoing discussion about the role of art in our culture. A new book, written with Geoffrey C. Ward, is written in such a way that its main purpose seems to be as a jumping-off point for the next round of that discussion. Marsalis argues persuasively and passionately that jazz is unique among musical styles for its blend of improvisation and structure, with swing at the heart of it all. (Read full review.)

"Jazz Idiom: Blueprints, Stills and Frames"
Photographs by Charles L. Robinson; poetry by Al Young
Jazz Idiom: Blueprints, Stills and FramesCharles Robinson doesn't have the name recognition of a William Claxton, William Gottlieb or Chuck Stewart. But like his better-known associates, the California-based Robinson has spent his adult life taking photographs of jazz musicians. Some of his best are collected in a new book from Heyday, "Jazz Idiom: Blueprints, Stills and Frames." It's an intriguing collection presented here, a mix of performance shots and more relaxed, backstage candids. Robinson clearly had access – the multiple photographs of a recording session with saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and pianist John Lewis shows both men relaxed and utterly indifferent to the camera; that's the mark of a good photog, there. (Read full review.)

"One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost"
Edited by Peter K. Austin
One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered, and Lost"One Thousand Languages: Living, Endangered and Lost," edited by Peter K. Austin, is a new reference book from the University of California Press that takes a look at about 1,000 of the nearly 7,000 languages that are spoken on Earth, and does so in a fun, highly illustrated manner reminiscent of the old Time-Life book series on aviation and World War II. There are charts and photos and comparisons of counting from one to 10 in different languages; samples of writing; and a quick overview of a language: where it is spoken, by whom, and to what other languages it is related. (Read full review.)

"Eat What You Want and Die Like a Man: The World's Unhealthiest Cookbook"
by Steve Graham
Eat What You Want and Die Like a Man: The World's Unhealthiest CookbookThe funniest book on cooking you'll ever read, Steve Graham's latest is a laugh-out-loud funny skewering of political correctness, especially as it relates to healthy-eating fanatics. (Read full review.)

"Icon of Evil: Hitler's Mufti and the Rise of Radical Islam"
by David G. Dalin and John F. Rothmann
Icon of Evil: Hitler's Mufti and the Rise of Radical IslamA biography from a major publishing house about the life of one of the most overlooked figures in recent Middle East history ought to be cause for celebrating a major contribution to 20th-century history. But while "Icon of Evil" (Random House, $26) is an important book in the topic it tackles, and deserves credit for documenting the evidence of Nazi complicity by former Jerusalem mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, it is so poorly written that it ultimately contributes little understanding of the lessons of al-Husseini's life. In fact, it accomplishes little other than tying together numerous sources regarding the ties between some Islamic fundamentalists and Nazi Germany. (Read full review.)

"Bliss to You: Trixie's Guide to a Happy Life"
by Trixie Koontz, as told to Dean Koontz
Bliss to You: Trixie's Guide to a Happy LifeA cute little collection of observations made from the point of view of the dog of Dean Koontz. Mostly common-sense advice on how to step back and enjoy life. Clearly, Koontz spent considerable time watching how Trixie lived her life. (Read my interview with Dean Koontz.)

"The Grift"
by Debra Ginsberg
The GriftA really neat mystery about a scam-artist fortune teller who ends up gaining the gift of truly seeing the future. Believable characters, clever twists of plot, and an ending that doesn't reveal itself ahead of time. Set in San Diego County, too! (Read my interview with Debra Ginsberg.)

"Rules of Deception"
by Christopher Reich
Rules of DeceptionA tight little thriller in the mold of Robert Ludlum or Len Deighton. A doctor and his wife are skiing in Switzerland, when she dies after an avalance – and he finds after she's gone that she was, in fact, a spy. As he tries to find out who she really was, and whether their marriage was a sham, he also has to quickly adapt to living on the run as he tries to stay one step ahead of the folks trying to get their hands on his wife's belongings. (Read my interview with Christopher Reich.)

"Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox"
by Eoin Colfer
The Time ParadoxIn order to save his mother's life, Artemis has to lean on his fairy friends to manage some time travel – so he can go back in time and do battle with his younger self. Yet another classic entry in this series from Ireland. (Read my interview with Colfer.)

"Consistently Opposing Killing: From Abortion to Assisted Suicide, the Death Penalty, and War"
edited by Rachel M. MacNair and Stephen Zunes
Consistently Opposing KillingThey are some of the most intransigent issues we grapple with today: the death penalty, abortion, war. A new collection of essays touching on the above issues makes a clear, cogent case that opposing any of these practices ultimately rests on respecting the value of human life – and that, therefore, opponents of one ought to be opponents of all. While Nat Hentoff is the best-known of the contributors, and his essay on the interconnectedness of the issues at hand is illuminating, perhaps the more interesting entry is a transcription of a taped conversation between activists who spent the '60s and '70s marching for civil rights and women's equality and against the war in Vietnam and nuclear energy – then found themselves branded as "right-wingers" when they also protested abortion. (Read full review.)

"Humphrey Bogart"
Edited by Paul Duncan
Humphrey BogartA fun, movie-by-movie history of Humphrey Bogart's career, with lots of photos. Not much text, and what is there is in German and French, too. The hardcover is on nice, heavy stock paper. Part of the "Movie Icons" series from the Taschen publishing house.

"Gandhi & Churchill: The Epic Rivalry that Destroyed an Empire and Forged Our Age"
by Arthur Herman
Gandhi & ChurchillArthur Herman's new dual biography of Mohandas Gandhi and Winston Churchill, and their fractious relationship over England's rule over India and its ultimate ending, is one of those old-fashioned in-depth (and hefty!) bios that history junkies just love. Well-written, minutely detailed and generally informative, "Gandhi & Churchill" flirts with being a great book, but ultimately settles for mere competence. (Read full review.)

"Killing Rommel"
by Steven Pressfield
Killing RommelIt's not a simple matter to deffine exactly what Steven Pressfield's latest historical war adventure is. "Killing Rommel" isn't literature, but it is literary. While definitely a military book, it is surely more – much more – than just another war tale destined for paperback best-seller status in a year's time. There is philosophy galore to be found in these pages, and loads of real history, both wrapped around what one of Pressfield's characters might have called a cracking good yarn. But Pressfield's most impressive achievement here isn't crafting a story of British desert rats in early World War II trying to sneak behind enemy lines to assassinate Germany's most effective general; rather, it's in creating characters of true substance, characters who, though fictional, in these pages are as real as the historical figures with whom they mingle. By the time you're into the second chapter, R. Lawrence "Chappie" Chapman will seem as flesh-and-blood in the reader's mind as Erwin Rommel himself. (Read full review.)

"The Pentagon"
by Steve Vogel
The PentagonSubtitled "The Untold Story of the Wartime Race to Build the Pentagon – and to Restore it Sixty Years Later," Steve Vogel's history is about the design and construction of the Pentagon more than its history. Centered on the initial need to provide vast new supplies of office space for the Army on the eve of World War II, the book then takes us through those moments in time when the building's design came back into play: notably a riot during the Vietnam War and, of course, the terrorism attack of Sept. 11, 2001. It's a well-written narrative, with lots of quotes from people involved in both the original construction and the (ongoing) rebuilding. Vogel does a nice job of capturing the personalities behind the world's largest office building.

"Nothing to Lose"
by Lee Child
Nothing to LoseAnother Jack Reacher novel, again sent by the publisher for review, and utterly nonsensical in its moralizing. Apparently author Lee Child is no longer content churning out second-rate paperback thrillers and now wants to instruct us on how to vote and why the war in Iraq is immoral. Of course, having Reacher tell us who to vote for and why we should forgive military deserters might go down easier if he wasn't bedding down the wife of a disabled soldier – part of her healing, don't you know – and setting off low-grade nuclear weapons. I suppose it will still go to the top of the best-sellers list, but it's a bit hard to see why.

"Bad Luck and Trouble"
by Lee Child
Bad Luck and TroubleEven for a dime-store summer read, this one was a bit over the top. The latest in a series of books featuring Jack Reacher, this installment finds Reacher and his former Army buddies the target of a rogue defense contractor. Even if an Army MP unit really could be considered elite, wouldn't an elite team notice they were being tailed by the same car? Be suspicious of the local cop's too-generous offers of help? Maybe sign into the hotel under assumed names, or stay in a cash-only joint that doesn't check ID? The lead character come off as uncommonly indifferent to basic security, which leaves you wondering how they pull off the happy ending.

"Smoke & Mirrors"
by John Ramsey Miller
Smoke & MirrorsJohn Ramsey Miller's latest thriller isn't particularly well-written, and yet it's a very solid story and one that's hard to put down. The seeming contradiction comes down to the fact that while Miller has crafted a heck of a story, he's just not told it as well as we're used to from our other top-rank writers. The storyline is believable (a former U.S. marshal being targeted by an old adversary), the plot twists and turns impossible to put down. But the character development is pretty thin – let's just say that Winter Massey is no Joe Leaphorn or Sam Spade. (Read full review.)

"An American Journey: My Life on the Field, In the Air, and On the Air"
by Jerry Coleman with Richard Goldstein
An American Journey: My Life on the Field, In the Air, and On the AirA warm, conversational reminiscence from the longtime San Diego Padres radio broadcaster – and one-time rookie of the year and World Series MVP for the Yankees! But what makes this book as touching as it is is Coleman's attention to his two combat tours with the Marines, seeing combat in both World War II and Korea. (Read my interview with Coleman.)

"Distant Islands: Travels Across Indonesia"
by Charles Corn
Distant Islands: Travels Across IndonesiaA mostly interesting travelogue from the late 1980s by an American author who tramped across Indonesia for a few months. Corn is a good observer of local culture and mores, and seems to have had an easy affability that allowed him to get to know the locals. But he never stayed more than a day or two, and bounced all over the vast archipelago that is Indonesia, so his observations tend to be of the surface only. And while he dips into local history on the different islands, he doesn't ever create the kind of completel, overarching sense of place that, say, James Michener did in "Iberia."

"Arctic Mood"
by Eva Alvey Richards
Arctic MoodOn the even of World War II, Eva Alvey Richards signed up to go teach at an eskimo school on the north shore of Alaska. This book is a combination of journal and memoir. When Eva Alvey Richards arrived in northern Alaska, the local natives were still mostly living by their traditional means, but with some concessions to the newly arrived Westerners. A good book, and a nice companion to "Kabloona" and the books by Peter Freuchen in learning about the traditional Eskimo culture.

"Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets"
by J.K. Rowling
Harry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsRe-reading with the younger kids, and the world of Hogwarts holds up very well the second time through. Nice sense of both place and suspense.

"Black Hats"
by Patrick Culhane
Black HatsI don't normally go for historical fiction, but the "what-if" premise of pitting Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson against Al Capone in early 1920s Manhattan was too delicious to pass up. And author Culhane (nom de plume of Max Allan Collins) does a nice job of blending history and fantasy. Earp really was a private dick in LA in the 1920s, toward the end of his life; Capone really did start out his criminal endeavors as hired muscle in New York before migrating to Chicago. The story moves along well, perhaps a touch too breezily, but it leaves you wanting more at the end, and that's good for this type of book. It also seems like it was written to be made into a movie, and that's a film that would have as much promise as this book delivered on.

"Pale Blue Dot"
by Carl Sagan
Pale Blue DotA tremendously disappointing book from one of my favorite authors. Sagan is in high dudgeon here about all sorts of people he apparently disliked, but particularly people of faith and Republicans. Subtitled "A Vision of the Human Future in Space," Sagan instead spends most of the book either attacking religious believers and political conservatives or arguing why we should not go into space! At the end, he changes direction and sort of says he had just been playing devil's advocate in his earlier arguments against manned exploration, but his defense of manned space missions are so weak one wonders where his sympathies really lay. And the fact that he accepts as legitimate that tired old argument that it's immoral to spend a single penny on space exploration as long as one child is hungry is contemptible – in one sentence he could have quickly and efficiently exposed the false dichotomy the anti-exploration movement is based on. And easily. That he didn't in one of his last books is a crying shame.