Saturday, June 25, 2016

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (1991)

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

                If I were thrown back two hundred years in time, with none of my modern conveniences, well aware of the future that was coming I’m pretty sure I would lose my mind. Claire Randall is in that particular situation and seems to be handling it pretty well. The year is 1945 when the story begins. Claire and her husband Frank are in the Scottish Highlands on vacation. World War II is over. The two have reunited after only seeing each other six times in almost as many years, when she is ripped from this here and now and placed in 1740’s. Still in the Highlands but centuries before her birth. Attacked almost upon arrival and rescued by clansmen who then think her an English spy, her life is a state of constant peril. Then there’s Jamie the young clansmen wanted for murder hiding with the Mackenzie clan that rescued Claire. And this is where the story and the romance really get started.
                Let me start by checking off a few boxes: Character development, check; World development, check; Extremely interesting narrator full of wit, charm, and humor, double check. I’m not sure how much I would have liked this story if it hadn’t been for Claire. If this had been told in the third person it wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting or fun as it is now. Claire is a great character. She is put in an unfathomable situation of traveling two hundred years in the past. She is falling in love with a man she originally thought was a heathen, while missing the husband she is still in love with. The bad guy in this story, who you really grow to hate, is her husband Frank’s (however many times great) grandfather. It is a smorgasbord of crazy and yet day to day she makes it through. She was just so well done. A strong character that made mistakes and owned up to them, and did what she had to do to survive. I really grew to like Jamie too. He was passionate, tender and yet rough and combative at the same time. Gabaldon managed to create a believable balance that I found rather enjoyable. The cast of characters varied and yet many were interesting, captivating and well developed.
                Now I know absolutely nothing of Scottish history so I am taking Gabaldon at her word for what is supposed to happen in this story. Mind you I didn’t mind because she made everything seem so damn believable. Gabaldon successfully takes readers from post-war Scotland to 1740’s Highland. I felt as shocked as Claire with each new development, probably more so because of how unfamiliar the history is to me. I stayed invested in the here and now that was 1740’s Highland and part of me never wanted Claire to go back.

                My rating varied from 4 stars to 3.5 stars because I felt like there were times when this novel got repetitive. I don’t know if I should even say repetitive, but there were moments when the story felt like nothing was happening or they were doing the same things over and over again. I didn’t get bored, but I wanted to start skimming when this started happening. I didn’t but I felt myself wondering why we were back in the same situation. Now, this is a series. A long series with each book close to if not more than 1,000 pages each. I’m not sure if I am ready to make that kind of investment. If I do read the next book I will post that review as well. But as of right now, I am content with this book and its ending.  In the end this gets a rating of 3.5 stars. It was enjoyable but again I’m not rushing to pick up the next one. 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution by Jonathan Abrams

Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution by Jonathan Abrams

                I am a basketball fan. I was raised a Lakers fan (still am to this day even with the horrible record) and I remember Kobe being drafted. I was at the Staples Center when the Lakers brought home the NBA Championship in 2000. I enjoy the game, always have, and always will. Now I enjoy watching a lot of college basketball and the phrase you hear thrown around often is the “one and done.” I never understood what made the NBA create the age limit of 19 and one year removed from high school. I just recognized Lebron James as one of the last stars to enter the draft straight out of high school. So much has changed in the decade since this rule has been introduced. That’s why I found the idea of this book and this topic so intriguing. It’s also why I was so anxious to get my hands on it.
                Abrams wrote this book with the intention of educating the reader. He wanted to inform you of the history of the NBA and the legacy behind players. Not just the legacy of players who had succeeded in the NBA but those who failed miserably as well. There are quite a few players mentioned throughout this book. Many I recognized like Garnett, Bryant, McGrady and Howard. Others I weren’t as familiar with like Leon Cooke and Korleone Young. Each player he introduced was an opportunity to observe how the NBA, the work ethic and the lifestyle may not be suitable for many players straight out of high school. Abrams wasn’t biased either way and that was one thing I really appreciated about this novel. He made it a point to emphasize that each player is different and their circumstances and their determination will have the biggest effect on how they do in the league. The implementation of the age restriction will benefit many and hurt others and the NCAA will undoubtedly profit because more players opt to go to college then play overseas.

                I enjoyed this novel. Abrams brought up some very valid points as to why the changes were made. Abrams knows this will be an ongoing discussion for years to come but he emphasizes why it works right now and why the option to go to the NBA straight from high school worked for some before. I was grateful to see so much information produced in an easy form, that was informative and enjoyable to read. I finished reading this with a better understanding for why the change was made, the effect it has on the NBA now and the player’s affected as well. If you are a fan of the NBA then this is definitely a book I would recommend. Many aspects of the game, like recruiting and endorsements are observed as well and it makes this book a very fascinating read.  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley (1990)

Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley

                Set in 1940’s Los Angeles, California, Devil in a Blue Dress is the story of Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins. He is a black World War II veteran who has just been fired from his job and offered the chance to make some money. All he has to do is find a white girl by the name of Daphne Monet. A very important man is looking for her and willing to pay for information. Easy, who just bought a home and has a mortgage hanging over his head, needs the money. And what’s the harm in asking a few questions while he makes his way around the neighborhood.
                There is a subtlety to this novel that I really enjoyed. The story is uncomplicated and simple but so well told that is captivating and enjoyable. The story starts and ends with Easy who is a great, well fleshed out character. I recognize Easy in people that I have come across throughout my life. He is genuine and he was such a great narrator. No bull shit. Straight to the point. He isn’t lost in idealized visions of grandeur. He knows and recognizes exactly where he stands and what he needs to do to get by in life. Such a great and honest character who kept the story flowing beautifully.
                Devil in a Blue Dress is such a quick and easy read. The feel of the 1940’s pervades through the pages. The tone of the novel was mysterious, a little gritty and slightly dangerous. I was intrigued from the beginning and well aware of the risk Easy was taking. I enjoyed it and would easily recommend it. I give this 4 out of 5 stars. If you enjoy subtly mysteries with an unexpected but relevant twist then this is something you would enjoy.  


Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1989)

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

                Sometimes I find it difficult to write reviews about books that I really enjoyed reading. How can I convince anyone that this book is really as good as I think it is? It’s an impossible task and yet I am going to try because this book deserves to be read. It deserves to be enjoyed. I started reading this book simply because of word of mouth. I have heard great things about this book. Someone even mentioned it to my husband and I figured I would give it a shot as part of this year’s theme to read a book from every year that I have been alive. This book is my “1989” but seriously it is a behemoth of a novel with close to 1000 pages and it’s about the building of a cathedral. In my mind I was thinking this would be as interesting as watching paint dry. I was wrong.
                Set in the 12th century and spanning over three decades this historical fiction starts with the hanging of a man and the curse the woman he loves places on the town. We then jump ten years and meet Tom Builder, a mason who is currently working on the home of a young William who is soon to be wed. Tom dreams of building a cathedral. It is the key to his family’s security, riches and it would be an incredible feat. That dream is shattered when William orders Tom to stop working on the home because his proposal has been rejected by Aleina, the Earl’s daughter. This would be the beginning of Tom and his family’s wandering and poverty. They would eventually end up at the Kingsbridge Priory, the place where the young man was hung a decade earlier and where now a new prior, Phillip is leading the monks. Would this be the place where Tom could build his cathedral? If only things were ever that simple.
                That is about the only way I can describe this plot. All of the characters mentioned in my blurb becomes essential to the plot as do many more. The plot was so intricately detailed that I would need to draw a map to lay out how everything is connected and honestly I don’t want to give any spoilers. I do however want to praise Follett for his storytelling abilities. For this plot to be as wide ranging as it was all of his characters are extremely well developed. I hated some of these characters and grew emotionally attached to others. I believed in their decision making process and more so than anything they felt real. So many different character beautifully brought to life on the page. The world building was just as well done. I felt like I was looking at the lives of peasants, serfs, monks, and nobility. I felt like this was really what life could have been like. Whenever I have anxiety over character’s well-being I know the author has done a great job in making his environment feel real.
                I know you’re wondering how much action this story could possibly have. You’re wondering how this plot moves forward. It’s just the building of the cathedral! But the amount of scheming and dealing that went on behind the scenes. The plotting and the trickery and the heartbreak! Oh my! These characters were in many instances out for blood because of greed, vengeance, jealousy and power. The motivations of these characters was something to behold. Follett mastered what I will call the art of slow suspense. Events would happen in this story, you’d get your hopes up and the walls would come tumbling down (that literally happened in this book). The characters never felt safe. You were constantly waiting for the next thing to happen and when it did it was something totally unexpected and usually heartbreaking.

                The Pillars of the Earth is an epic historical fiction novel that looks at human nature and all of its flaws. It takes the humble builder and transforms this into that of the plight of man. I was taken back by how much I enjoyed this novel. I am easily giving this 4.5 out of 5 stars. If it hadn’t gotten repetitive at times it would have received a solid 5 stars. Such a great read. Definitely recommended by me. 

Players First: Coaching From the Inside Out by John Calipari and Michael Sokolove

Players First: Coaching From the Inside Out by John Calipari and Michael Sokolove

                Well, before I even get into the review of this memoir I have to say that I am a huge University of Kentucky Basketball fan so I am immediately biased. I remember when I first really got into watching College Basketball, being at a UK football game against University of Alabama and out walked Coach John Calipari and the 2009-2010 squad, which included John Wall, Demarcus Cousin, Eric Bledsoe and Darius Miller. I am one of those crazy fans that yell at the tv, jump up and down, pace the room and I have even shed tears. I always, always, always look at the bench and watch Coach Cal and judged if my crazy matches his attitude. If I’m mad and he is mad then I know I’m in the right. I have even been known to say “Just let me coach one day!” screaming at the top of my lungs. I am that fan and I make no apologies. Coach Cal is a great coach and I wanted to take this opportunity to really dig into his thoughts as a coach at the University of Kentucky. I was not disappointed.
                Self-reflection takes a lot of courage. To look at yourself and recognize your flaws and be able to admit to them says a lot about your character. I feel like this memoir is an exercise in self-reflection. Calipari reveals a lot about himself in this book. I was surprised by how much he was willing to share, about his coaching style, how he recruits, his relationships with the players. It is all so candid that at moments my mouth drop. This is a man who talks about how his players come back to the house and take naps because they are exhausted. He talked about his faith and trips to Dunkin Donuts and being around the fans. Every aspect of his life as it relates to basketball and coaching was explored. He talked about his family but that wasn’t the focus of this book. The focus was his players, their careers and the game.
                One thing I must commend Calipari on is his fearlessness. Kentucky is known for the “one and done” and I am sure some people thought Cal might try to skirt around that issue. If you have ever heard Calipari talk to anyone about the “one and done” you would know that he would take that issue on head first. And he does. He talks about all the different aspects of it and why it’s a problem. But it’s the current situation. He is embracing for his players and helping them make the best decision. I’m heartbroken every time players leave the school but I love watching them play in the NBA. I get it. I understand. He also though decided to take on the NCAA as a whole and the problems associated with college athletics. He has MANY genuine concerns that need to be addressed and I am glad that he addressed them.

                Coach Cal accomplished a lot of things with this memoir, most importantly he shared with his fans a very intimate look into his life. I appreciate that. The writing in this memoir is very simple, relatable and enjoyable. IF you are a College Basketball fan and you don’t hate John Calipari or the University of Kentucky then you will enjoy it for what it is: a look at a very successful school and coach. I get it 5 out of 5 stars. Well worth the read.