Monthly Archives: February 2013

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked UsSalt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us by Michael Moss

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To begin with my by-now rote preamble, I received this book from a GoodReads drawing. Despite that kind and generous and typical consideration I give my candid opinions below.

The premise of this book can be summed up very simply. Food companies are creating products that while not intended to kills us, nevertheless are doing so. By using science and marketing (in some cases derived from research done by that purest of evils, cigarette companies) big foods can manipulate us into eating more and more of their products until we drop dead. While we think the government is trying to protect us from such evils, in fact most of the time the feds are helping and subsidizing the efforts of food companies to shove more and unhealthier food down our throats to line their pockets. I’d say that about covers it.

Michael Moss’s definitive tome on food marketing is exhaustive, at times daunting and the best book on this topic I’ve read since “Fast Food Nation” so many years ago. Moss has covered the basics with a wealth of detail and reasoning that should be abundantly terrifying to those who find themselves putting frozen pizzas and Hot Pockets into their cart at the grocery store. He paints a picture that is stark and, sadly, a bit hopeless. While our author does spend a tiny bit of time on the efforts of food companies to stop killing us softly with salt, sugar and fat, he doesn’t really seem to hold out much hope. He closes with a chunk on liquid foods designed for people after they have bariatric surgery. The image of people tube-feeding themselves from a plastic container is pretty haunting but that seems to be what we’re coming to.

This book is wonderfully researched, eruditely and well written and I hope against hope that it’s somehow unbalanced. Moss’s picture is grim indeed but his arguments are so well constructed that one doesn’t really have the heart to argue with them. As a book it can sometimes be a bit daunting and is best taken, I think, in 1-hour chunks. On one level this lets the argument settle in over the course of several days and make you subconsciously examine what YOU’RE eating. The book is very helpful and specific in the foods and products it chooses to excoriate. A conscientious reader will find themselves at least slightly changed for the better. On another level, taking the book in small pieces dampens a bit the somewhat repetitive cadence of the whole thing. Here’s a type of food. Here’s why it’s bad. Here’s the history of it. Here’s who I talked to about it and what they had to say. Lather, rinse, repeat. Taken in long sittings this is probably much less effective. I stretched this one out over a week and felt myself well served and well-educated.

In summary, this is the sort of book that leaves you changed at a fundamental level. Like books before it, you never quite see the world the same way again. On the whole, I feel pretty good about my diet even before, relative to how Moss describes the typical American diet but there’s always room for improvement and this book is one that gives a not so gentle nudge in the right direction. It’s also the sort of book you want to pass around to everyone you know; it should be subtitled, “Read this before the next time you open your mouth.”

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Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman

Rage Against the DyingRage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On a slight variation on my seemingly unstoppable opening jibber, I did NOT receive this book as part of a GoodReads drawing. However, my delightfully erudite fiancée DID receive it in a drawing and was kind enough to pass it along to me for afters. Despite the generously kind consideration of both my fiancée and the publisher, I give my solemnly sworn opinion below.

To sum up the story without diluting any edge of mystery, our protagonist is a retired FBI agent who never quite caught her man. What should have been the pinnacle of her career ended with rather a whimper a few years ago and as the book begins she finds herself once again ensnared in the case that didn’t quite close.

From the very, very beginning, Masterman takes her readers by the frontal lobe and hurls them at break-neck pace through a uniquely suspenseful story line. The real hook of the story is set within the first eight pages and after that one is exceptionally disinclined to put the book down for any reason. Our author renders her characters with great skill that invokes disgust, pity and hatred with just a few words. For a debut novel this one shines quite brightly.

In addition to the skill with which the characters are rendered, the story just has a very real feel to it. With many first novels there are times at which credibility hits a brick wall but not so in ‘Rage Against the Dying’ as one could very believably read this same story in a newspaper. Masterman paints a picture that is at once horrifying, graphic and creepily believable. One almost wants to buy a security system after reading it.

To summarize, I often judge a book by the pool of people to whom I would consider passing it next. Given the VERY dark and graphic nature of this book, that pool is fairly small. Anyone offended by vivid portrayals of pure human evil would be well advised to keep their distance. Contrarily, this is one of the few books I’ve read in the past couple years that made good material for reading while on the exercise bike. It’s gripping enough that a fairly substantial workout will vanish between its gory and primitive depths, a wonderful and gritty debut for a budding author. Brava!

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The Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist

The Different GirlThe Different Girl by Gordon Dahlquist

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First off and as usual, it should be noted that I received this book free from GoodReads in a drawing. Despite that typical and abundantly kind consideration my candid feedback resides below.

Over the past 20 books or so I’ve tried with great assiduity to accentuate the positive aspects of the titles that GoodReads is so kind to provide. Until this most recent submission, that mindset has been fairly easy to adhere to. Even the worst book provides an entertaining diversion if looked at in the proper light. This book isn’t really bad per se as much as it just seems to be missing something. Allow me to attempt to illuminate without unintentionally illuminating the actual plot. Or to put it more succinctly and more firmly in the vernacular, let me try to describe this without spoilers.

The nearest and simplest analogy I can draw for this book is to ask you to imagine an episode of the Twilight Zone, but limit yourself to only the middle third of it. “The Different Girl” lacks any real beginning as the reader is called upon to piece together what has come before through anecdote and implication. In general, this isn’t a bad way for a book to go because readers love to figure things out as they read, unraveling the Gordian Knot of character history tidbit by tidbit. Unfortunately, the history isn’t really all that surprising or unusual. Any fan of Serling or Bradbury or Bova or Asimov has read pretty much this plot already. If this had been written in 1954 it would have been marvelous but sadly we’re all much too attuned to this sort of plotline to be at all surprised.

Flipping to the other periphery of the book, it doesn’t really have much of a conclusion either. I found myself 10 pages from the end grumbling that things couldn’t possibly be concluded satisfactorily in the time left. As it turns out I was right because we didn’t actually reach any sort of wry twist. We just sort of…. well, ended. It was disappointing because the book has some real potential. In general, one can be happy with a book without a beginning. One can be happy with a book without an end. But one finds it difficult to enjoy a book which in fact lacks both.

On the positive side, the book is well written enough and does have a certain epistemological feel to it as our protagonists-four explore their world and try to unravel the mystery of their own existence. I (think) I can see where the author wants to go here. How do we learn to live in our world? How do we process divergent and contradictory inputs into some logical whole? How does our humanness shape those interpretations? There’s a great thread of philosophy here if you tease it out enough but it does take some teasing.

In summary, “The Different Girl” is fairly disappointing. I expected something fresh and got something stale and reminiscent of the 50s. Dahlquist’s skill as a writer is not to be doubted but there’s just a bit of something missing to make this into the mainstream. TDG is sure to inspire much thought and conversation but much of that will be somewhat disgruntled.

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The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti

The Almond TreeThe Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As is the usual preamble, I received this book as part of a GoodReads giveaway like hundreds of other people. Never before have I seen a book promoted so profusely on GoodReads with a dozen giveaways of 100 books each. I’m relatively certain that anyone who wants a copy no doubt already has one.

To summarize the story, The Almond Tree is the story of one man’s life on the losing side of history. Our protagonist is a Palestinian in Israel who rises above his circumstances through education. As subject matter goes, this book hits the proverbial nail firmly and repeatedly on the head. The content is gripping, evocative and filled with local color and cultural references to things we just don’t have much awareness of in our American worldview. If even half the atrocities portrayed in this book are at all drawn from true events, then the world needs to really rethink its stance on this area of the world. I’m in no position to vouch for the veracity of any of the claims made in The Almond Tree but one tends to suspect that since the author is Jewish that there’s more than a grain of truth here.

Unfortunately, while the content is masterful, the writing is rather lackluster. The author skims over all the events portrayed with an inappropriate equanimity that is rather frustrating; this reader at least wishes more time was taken to provide more details. At 350 pages of large type the book covers a rather long and eventful life but fails at times to fully flesh out the situation. Editing too seems uneven as characters seem to appear and disappear without any real introduction or conclusion to their roles.

In summary, The Almond Tree is the seed of a great idea. I could imagine the novel doing much better at double its current size or even as a protracted series. The story is an important one that needs telling but with a bit more patience and care.

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Witchbreaker: The Dragon Apocalypse 3 by James Maxey

Witchbreaker: The Dragon Apocalypse 3Witchbreaker: The Dragon Apocalypse 3 by James Maxey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As is my usual preamble, I received this book as part of a GoodReads giveaway. In fact, I would like to thank the author once again because not only did he send me this book in specific, but also the two predecessors as well. Despite this very kind consideration, I give my honest feedback below.

So, you’ve no doubt noticed that in addition to this book I also made my way through the previous two books the author sent along. When I received the unexpectedly voluminous package in the mail I will admit that my first thought was, to put it succinctly, “I sure hope these don’t suck.” There’s nothing worse than 1100 pages that you feel mildly obligated to read. Luckily, those thousand plus pages were really quite engaging.

In previous reviews I’ve gone on and on about Maxey’s originality, his ability to stretch the typical “ogres and dwarves” platform to entertaining limits and his unique ability to mix sex, violence and fantasy in just the right ratios. In deference to those recent reviews I won’t prattle on further about those characteristics. However, a new thing that I realized about the series in this book specifically was that he has a very solid way of just letting things go once they’ve played out. In a lot of modern books characters and plotlines carry on far beyond their welcome. They’re like Joe Montana in a Chiefs uniform. You can understand why someone might have thought it was a good idea but ultimately you just wonder if it would have been better had things just ended. Authors seem to get married to their characters and drag them on and on through book after book. In Maxey’s books when a character’s work is done they just die. You mourn for a moment and then, like life, Maxey comes along with something else to entertain you. He’s an author who’s in love with his world, but like any God he’s willing to just let bits and pieces go for the benefit of the whole. It’s surprisingly refreshing.

In summary, I will relate a brief illustrative story. My fiancée perused a few pages on the strength of my previous reviews and after a short read she handed it back to me and stated simply, “reads like Tolkien.” Early on I had the same thought but felt it rather cliché to put such a thing in a review but I think she’s right. There’s just something that rings true about Maxey’s work, a richness that’s missing in almost of all of his modern peers. It should be noted that my fiancée didn’t express any desire to read the rest; this is clearly ‘guy lit’ but that should not diminish the positivity with which it should be regarded.

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Weird Things Customers Say in Bookstores by Jen Campbell

Weird Things Customers Say in BookstoresWeird Things Customers Say in Bookstores by Jen Campbell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Plenty of reviews precede this one so I will not blather on at length.

Campbell’s compilation of customer quotes is a short, pleasant and light read. A few real gems crop up like the customer who wanted a novel written by the million monkeys with typewriters that mythology says could write Shakespeare. At times there are a few slower moments and sections but on the whole it’s well worth the hour it takes to read it.

It does give one a new perspective on readers in general, however. However erudite many of us may imagine ourselves, there are plenty of those roaming about the bookstore rather devoid of basic facts. That adds all the more to the charm of the book as it reveals the sometimes insane world in which booksellers find themselves.

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Hush (Dragon Apocalypse, #2)

Hush (Dragon Apocalypse, #2)Hush by James Maxey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a slight variation to a usual theme, I received this book as a result of a GoodReads giveaway but somewhat indirectly. I won the third book in the series but the author was exuberantly kind enough to send the entire series. Despite this wonderfully kind consideration, my candid opinions follow below.

Like Maxey’s immediately previous novel, Greatshadow, this book has a touch of everything. Sex, violence, and humor abound in optimal proportions. Hush picks up exactly where Greatshadow leaves off and continues the same basic plotline. While this is a continuation of previous work Maxey does a good job of helping the second novel stand on its own if you haven’t made time for the first.

Hush is a novel almost identical in tone to the first though at one point the story does become rather maudlin. Otherwise our author does very well at build a milieu for the reader that is not only entertaining but thought provoking. As usual Maxey proves himself a master of the fantasy genre.

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