A long-time reader, I have wide ranging interests in both fiction and non-fiction: popular fiction, history, travel, world religion and philosophy. Some of my favorite books are Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen), Brothers of the Wild North Sea (Harper Fox), The Tao of Pooh (Benjamin Hoff), In a Sunburned Country (Bill Bryson), and A Short History of Byzantium (John Julius Norwich). You never really know what I’ll read next.
The Woman on the Orient Express – Lindsay Jayne Ashford (322 pages, 2016)
In 1928, Agatha Christie leaves England and takes the famous Orient Express to Damascus. Her former husband, Archie Christie, will soon be marrying the woman he left her for, and she simply doesn’t want to be anywhere near England when it happens. On the journey, she meets two other women with their own secrets: Katherine Keeling and Nancy Nelson. Katherine is going back to work on an archeological dig in Iraq and marrying the leader of the expedition. She claims she doesn’t love him, but as a single woman, it’s the only available option for her to keep working the dig. Nancy has secretly left her aristocratic husband and fled England, believing herself pregnant with another man’s child. Katherine invites them both out to the dig, and it’s while they are there that most of the action takes place, including Agatha meeting her second husband. There’s plenty of excitement in this story, both on the train and in Iraq. If you’re looking for local and historical atmosphere, you’ll find an abundance of that, too.
The author, Lindsay Jayne Ashford, is a former BBC journalist and the first woman to graduate from Queen’s College, Cambridge. She has a degree in criminology and has publish five previous books in the United States.
If you like historical fiction with a fast pace and well-developed characters in unusual settings, give The Woman on the Orient Express a try. I enjoyed it very much, and I hope you will too.
That’s Not How We Do It Here – John Kotter, Holger Rathgeber (159 pages, 2016)
This title is directed toward people working in organizations that are not reaching their fullest potential. They may have been successful in the past, but now they are having problems, particularly problems with responding to the accelerating pace of change. Kotter and Rathgeber offer a new way of organizing that promises to increase creativity and agility while maintaining a traditional management structure which will keep that creativity focused on the organizations objectives.
The book is laid out in two parts. The first, about half the book, is a fable about meerkats and their clans. The main characters, Nadia, Nicholas, Matt, Lena and Ayo, are distinctive and entertaining. The story is well-written, and makes its points very well. The first clan is large and beginning to fail due to pressure from outside changes (drought, increased predators, etc.). Its leadership responds by doing more of the same: more following policies and procedures, pressuring its members to do their jobs, follow the rules and work harder. Feeling there must be a better way somewhere, Nadia leaves her brother Nicholas and accompanied by Ayo, seeks out other clans who might be more successful. They find a clan that is thriving and growing. This is due to Lena’s leadership, which encourages experimentation and creativity. The clan grows until it reaches a point where things begin to fall apart due to lack of structure and discipline. Realizing that the solution is a combination of the more controlled structure of her old clan and the looser organization of her new one, Nadia explains her ideas to Lena. She and Ayo return to the old clan to see if these ideas can help save it. At the end of the fable, the clan is doing better than ever, and the ideas are spreading to other areas.
In the second half of the book, the authors describe the distinction between management and leadership: “Management and leadership serve different functions: The first can get the regular work done well, reliably, and efficiently, even in exceptionally large and complex systems; the second can energize us, despite barriers, to innovate swiftly and propel us into a prosperous future, despite changing problems and opportunities. Management and leadership are not two ways to achieve the same end. They serve different ends, both of which are essential in complex organizations that operate in changing environments.”
The point of the fable is obvious. Lena’s clan is loaded with leadership: everything is exciting and fresh. Creativity is everywhere. But without management, things become chaotic. Nadia’s old clan has plenty of management, but no leadership. Unable to cope with a changing environment, it is ultimately doomed. The authors make suggestions on how to meld the two organizations to foster both stability and creativity.
I would recommend this title to anyone interested in management, leadership, or just responding to rapid change. If the last quarter-century has shown us anything, it is that change is inevitable, and comes at an increasingly fast pace.
City of Wolves – Willow Palecek
111 pages (2016)
City of Wolves is an interesting, if short, book. But sometimes you need a quick read. The author, Willow Palecek, has worked mostly on role-playing games, and it shows. The action is fast, description is well-detailed for a book of this length, and everything seems well planned (characteristics of both a good writer and a good game master). That’s not to say there’s nothing that I found to be a problem, For example, why does it take the main character so long to realize what type of creature he’s dealing with?
That main character, Alexander, Drake, is a private investigator called in to determine who, or what, is behind the death of one of the nobility of Lupenwald. Lord Abergreen was found on the ground outside his window, with numerous bite marks all over his nude body. His will is missing, and his younger son, Colin Abergreen, wants to find out what happened. Drake is opposed in his inquiry by the official government investigator, Sir Ernst Loxley-Birmingham.
I enjoyed this book. I really hope it’s the start of a series, because I would love to see the setting and characters developed more. It’s an interesting concept, and some of the characters are fascinating. Of course, there’s only so much that can be done in 110 pages. Palecek is an entertaining writer, and if you’re a reader who enjoys role-playing games or steampunkish fantasy, I believe you’ll enjoy this (sadly too-short) book.
Arsenic with Austen – Katherine Bolger Hyde
312 pp. (2016)
On the day before summer break, Reed College professor Emily Cavanaugh receives an unexpected letter: her great-aunt Beatrice has died, and the funeral is the next day in the small Oregon town of Stony Beach. Also, Emily is named as co-executor of her great-aunt’s will. She rushes to Stony Beach, where she is stunned to learn that Beatrice has made her the major beneficiary of her will, to the tune of three-fourths of the town’s business district property, Windy Corner (her mansion of a home), and 6.5 million dollars. As a further surprise, at the funeral she meets Luke Richards, the man she fell in love with at the age of 16 and who swore he would love her forever. He is now the county’s lieutenant sheriff in Stony Beach.
As in many cozy mysteries, Emily starts to hear rumors that her great-aunt did not die of natural causes. The death of the housekeeper at Windy Corner a few days later in a suspicious accident would seem to confirm those rumors. Working with Luke (and rekindling that old flame), Emily sifts through suspects and motives, and faces attempts on her own life, eventually bringing this mystery to a satisfying conclusion.
I admit, I’m a fan of cozy mysteries, and I thoroughly enjoyed Arsenic with Austen. The quotes from various Jane Austen books that begin each chapter are an added treat. There are lots of quirky characters, some more enjoyable than others. Motives for murder abound, but somehow all come together at the end. The setting on the coast of Oregon is nicely described, making me want to experience it for myself.
This is not to say the book is perfect. As with many first efforts, there are a few things in it that bothered me. It seemed a little implausible to me that Emily and Luke would pick up where they left off 35 or more years ago so quickly and easily (although I was rooting for them get back together). The plot seemed more convoluted than strictly necessary. I lost track of where I was a couple of times. Of course, to be honest, that was probably my fault for not keeping better track of the plot threads. My main complaint, and it’s not a big one, is with the characterizations. Some of the minor players in the story seemed a little stereotypical. More caricature than character. This was especially true of Emily’s friend, French professor Marguerite Grenier. She was just too, too much the ideal Parisian woman of style and fashion.
In spite of these minor issues, I enjoyed Arsenic with Austen, and I’m looking forward to the next title in the series. I have no hesitation in recommending this title to fans of Christie, Beaton, or other cozy mystery authors. If that includes you, check it out and let me know what you think.
Fractured State – Steven Konkoly
392 pp. (2016)
Set 20 years in the future after an ecological catastrophe has nearly destroyed the American southwest, Fractured State is a military, political, and technological thriller in every sense. In California, everything in life centers around conserving and recycling as many resources as possible. This leads to living conditions that many today would see as intolerable, but which are accepted as a part of everyday life in 2035. Much of this first book is devoted to making such a world believable, and in this Konkoly succeeds admirably. As the first in a series, Fractured State doesn’t resolve the main conflict (whether or not California will successfully secede from the USA or remain a part of the union), but it does an excellent job of introducing it.
The plot can be difficult to follow at times. There are a lot of characters and names to keep track of, and until you get further into the book, the plot threads are confusing. At least they were to me. Also, while this is an advance copy, there were some typos that added to the confusion. Hopefully, those will be cleaned up by publication date.
Main characters include Nathan Fisher, an employee of the San Diego Water Authority, his wife Keira and young son Owen, and a childhood friend (now Marine officer) David Quinn. These are the “good guys” we spend most of our time with. Although they’re all likable characters with believable motives, I didn’t like Keira as well as the others. Although she improved over the length of the book, she seemed kind of paranoid, and too prickly for my tastes. As for the “bad guys,” the two most important are Nick Leeds and Mason Flagg, both associated with Cerberus, the military branch of a multinational corporation called Sentinel. Watch out for them. All the important characters are well-written, and in the case of the good guys develop nicely over the course of the book. The bad guys, well, not so much. We also don’t learn a lot about Sentinel in this first book, but I suspect we’ll be finding out a lot more in later books.
For a book set in the future, even the near future, Fractured State is surprisingly believable. Konkoly knows his weapons and technology (not surprising given his own background in the Navy and Marines), and makes his advances in those fields seem very realistic. He also has a good understanding of how a society might develop when facing events such as he proposes. He creates worlds that make sense in themselves, which is not always easy to do successfully. Fans of Clive Cussler, Brad Thor and other authors of military-based thrillers are going to love this book. Personally, I can’t wait for the next book in the series. Until it comes out, I’ll just have to content myself with reading his earlier books. I suspect they’ll be just as good.
My final evaluation? If you like military or political thrillers, or dystopian futures, you’ll get a kick out of Fractured State. Having read it, I’ve already ordered it for our library.