Monday, December 29, 2014

Review: The Secret Servant

The Secret Servant
The Secret Servant by Daniel Silva

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another great Allon novel from Daniel Silva. While the last novel in this series left me wanting a little more, this one hit all the right notes. It had all the usual features of a spy thriller and these were all well executed by Silva. I especially enjoyed the unexpected humor in the denouement. One thing that makes this series so interesting is the way Silva gets into the minds of Allon and his foes. The terrorists are rarely just evil caricatures; Silva gives space for acknowledging that some of their gripes are legitimate—while giving no quarter to their methods. He also shows you the psychic damage to Allon for being like his namesake, the angel of judgment. Killing, even when justified and necessary, leaves a mark. This novel, involving both the Americans and the British, highlights the ineptitude of the West in dealing with Islamic terrorism.

---Spoiler Alert---

Shamron is clearing dying; it'll be interesting to see what Silva does with Allon as he loses this guiding figure in his life. Also, I am curious to see how the marriage with Chiara plays out.

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Saturday, December 27, 2014

Review: The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children

The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children
The Blessing Of A Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children by Wendy Mogel

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was disappointed in this book. I loved the title and the idea of it; it’s been on my ‘to-read’ list for a while. But it wasn’t really what I expected. Don’t get me wrong, there are many good and interesting ideas. Mogel connects worthwhile parental advice to Jewish wisdom and teaching. However, this connection seemed somewhat superficial. The parental advice is mostly conventional and typical of parenting books. The Jewish teachings often felt like an afterthought.

Two other aspects of the book led me to an overall negative review. First, Mogel is a clinical psychologist and uses her cases and experiences to illustrate her advice. That is fairly typical for books like this, but nonetheless, it is too anecdotal for me. I would have liked the anecdotes to be more grounded in some data.

Second, the religiousness of the book was surprising and put me off. Now, with a book with a subtitle of “Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children”, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But I was. As a secular Jew, I see the value of Jewish teachings without a lot of God-talk. I expected something more along the lines of using Talmudic teachings or other forms of Jewish wisdom to illustrate points. Mogel, though, goes beyond this towards advising particular religious practices as part of her parental advice. I don’t want to overplay this. Mogel wasn’t proselytizing or making constant references to God. This aspect was more subtle and something that I was more sensitive too.

There is some very good advice in these pages. In particular, her advice on the need to avoid overindulging and overprotect children is important and she offers some practical tips to help parents on this front. But overall, I am not comfortable recommending this book without the caveats about my concerns raised above.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Review: Wool Omnibus

Wool Omnibus
Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wool is a creative and original post-apocalyptic dystopian work that is gripping, unpredictable, and thrilling. The story mainly takes place in the Silo: a self-contained, underground city of 150 stories. As far as the inhabitants know, this is the entirety of existence. Speaking of anything beyond this is prohibited. The why of this taboo and the existence of the Silo is slowly explained through the book's five parts.This mystery and the impact it has on the characters is the driving force of the story.

While there are plenty of ideas in play: freedom vs control; liberty vs security; facing uncomfortable truths vs ignorance is bliss; fate vs choice; justice vs the collective good; and the obvious allusion to Plato's Cave, these don't overpower the characters and the story. Like all great sci-fi, the characters are dealing in world that is in many ways distant from our own but still we know them and their concerns.

Howey is a great story teller; looking forward to reading much more of him.

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Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Review: What the Buddha Taught with Texts from Suttas & Dhammapada

What the Buddha Taught with Texts from Suttas & Dhammapada
What the Buddha Taught with Texts from Suttas & Dhammapada by Walpola Rahula

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is a solid and straightforward overview of the basic philosophic tenets of Buddhism. The text itself is relatively short (less than 100 pages), but it is not simplistic. Rahula explains the main points and directs the reader to the sources for these ideas. For the most part, it doesn’t get into more esoteric details or points of dispute between different branches of Buddhism. He does indicate a few points of disagreement over interpretations, but leaves that more for the reader to go and explore on his own. Rahula explains the ways that Buddhist ideas have been misinterpreted or misunderstand by Western thinkers and he tries to correct these errors. The latter half of the book contains translations of original sources for those interested. This is definitely a good starting place for people interested in Buddhist ideas.

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Review: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness
How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness by Russ Roberts

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Russ Roberts’ new book on Adam Smith is part introduction/summary and part self-help. Roberts takes a fresh look at Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments to see what we can learn about how to make our own lives better. Along the way, we are introduced to Smith’s ideas of morality, economics, and human nature.

While I am familiar with Smith’s TMS and his approach to morality, I am no expert and the refresher of key elements and ideas was most welcomed. To understand Smith, one needs to return to him again and again. Like many profound thinkers, his insights seem obvious once you get them, but before that you need to go back to Smith many times to grasp what he is getting at.

Roberts takes Smith’s insights and applies them to how one lives his or her own life. How should we think about the pursuit of material wealth and good? How do we treat loved ones, strangers? And what does that treatment say about us?

One of the more interesting sections is where Roberts looks at what an understanding of Smith can tell us about making the world a better place. He doesn’t focus on grand gestures or big plans. It is more about the little things we each do every day: smiling at the store clerk, being honest and trustworthy, or being good at one’s work. All of these are things that are good to do, and they also help make the world better. Appealing to Smith’s idea that social norms and civilization evolves out of the aggregation of all the actions we all take, the more good actions we do, the better the world gets. We show other people what counts as goodness. We encourage other people to good. We reinforce our own habits of acting well. Conversely, when we do bad things – even small, seemingly minor things – we make the world a little worse.

Roberts also examines the “Adam Smith Question”: how to reconcile the apparent (and I think seriously overplayed) inconsistencies between TMS and The Wealth of Nations (WN). The latter is supposedly focused on humans as self-interested actors while the former focuses on the so-called altruistic virtues of love, sympathy, and justice. Roberts’ response is that TMS is about how we interact with those we know and care about it: our personal interactions. WN is about our market and commercial interactions which are mostly with strangers and usually are one-off. Smith isn’t using a different theory of human nature; he is focused on understanding human nature in different contexts, so the focus is different. The nice way Roberts sums this up is: “Love Locally, Trade Globally.”

This is a quick, easy read; worthwhile for anyone interested in Smith, morality, and those interested in how to live better in their own lives. Warning: it’ll make you want to go and read Adam Smith.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: Roast Mortem

Roast Mortem
Roast Mortem by Cleo Coyle

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I was disappointed with this contribution to the Coffeehouse Mystery series. What draws me to these novels is the fun of the mysteries built around connections to coffee. And that's where this volume really fell short. Sure there was some nice descriptions of espresso crema, but the story didn't really have anything to do with coffee. The other aspect of the book that was less appealing for me was that I just don't care about the romantic relationship between Quinn and Claire. It's a little too much Harlequinn for my taste. It'll be a while before I come back to the Blend for a taste.

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Friday, October 03, 2014

Review: The Fantasy Sport Industry

I recently reviewed The Fantasy Sport Industry: Games within Games (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society) by Andrew C. Billings and Brody J. Ruihley for the Nordic Sport Science Forum.
The central idea of Andrew Billings and Brody Ruihley’s book, The Fantasy Sport Industry¸ is that fantasy is a game-changer. It is a game-changer in the way sport is covered by and represented in the media. It is a game-changer for the fans and how they consume sport. Indeed, it is potentially a game-changer for the very sports on which these games are based.

Fantasy Sports have been around for several decades. They started small, the domain of, so the stereotype goes, geeky guys in their basements. But these games have expanded exponentially in the last twenty years. Something like thirty five million North Americans play fantasy sport in some manner: that’s more than the numbers of people who play golf, watch the American Idol finale, or own iPhones (Berry, 2; Billings and Ruihley, 5). Fantasy is now a regular and frequent feature of the broadcasts and news reports of sporting events. Networks such as ESPN have dedicated programs for fantasy. There is even a TV sit-com centered on the members of fantasy football league called, appropriately enough, The League (of which this reviewer confesses he is a big fan). Much of all this revolves around Fantasy Football, but there are fantasy leagues for all the major professional sports (indeed there are fantasy leagues for non-sporting activities as well: Fantasy Congress and Celebrity Fantasy to name two).

Given all this interest, it is no surprise that fantasy has become big business with billions of dollars in revenue. Billings and Ruihley set out to provide a much needed look at this growing industry. The first chapter provides the overall context. The authors discuss the philosophical question of just what makes something a fantasy sport and breaks down the basics of how fantasy games are played. They demonstrate the popularity and growth of fantasy and through this ask the main question of the book. Why do people play fantasy? This raises the important follow-up question: what effect does fantasy have on all the ways we normally consume and understand sport?
You can read the rest of the review:

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Review: The Haunted Mesa

The Haunted Mesa
The Haunted Mesa by Louis L'Amour

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was not what I expected at all, but I really enjoyed it. I picked this up because I enjoy western films and wanted to read some westerns. I've read Robert Parker's Virgil Cole mysteries, but I wanted to read some of the classic western authors. I've read a Zane Grey and so I figured L'Amour would be a good next try. Yes, it takes place in Utah and involves Native Americans and a few cowboys, but it is more fantasy/sci-fi and takes place in the 1980s. It's also a mystery as you (along with the protagonist) try to figure out just what is going on. I really liked the narrative voice and the characters. The main character, Mike Raglan, has some interesting musings about the Anasazi, native Americans, and the growth and death of civilizations.

There were times were it felt a bit repetitive (Raglan goes over the same set of circumstances in his mind). Also, there were times where the plot seemed to jump: I sometimes checked to make sure I didn't miss a page. Not much is every explained about the workings of the passages (And so it's more fantasy than sci-fi in my view).

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems

Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems
Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World's Problems by Michael Strong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was primed to love this book. I admire the main author, Michael Strong, and the previous work he has done (both in terms of his writing and activism). Others I respect have recommended the book as well. However, though there are great things about the book, I was left somewhat disappointed.

I like the ideas in the book: many of them are important and essential for human progress and development. The goals of the authors are worthwhile and idealistic.

Nevertheless, I was hoping for more focus and specifics on the different entrepreneurs and the kind of things they did to help alleviate and deal with different kinds of problems. There was some of that, but not nearly enough.

The chapters were uneven. Some had great nuggets of insight but others were either too foofy or too new-agey. The best parts where the ones that focused on real entrepreneurs and their work. The weaker parts where the attempts at pop psychology and self-help that made up the chapters on the FLOW vision.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: The Third Option

The Third Option
The Third Option by Vince Flynn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an intriguing and gripping thriller. Rapp is a great hero, although as I have written before, he is not all that distinguishable (at least at this point) from other heroes in this genre. In the first half of the book, it drags a bit at points. The story took a little bit to find itself before it takes off. Dr. Kennedy is a character I'd like to see and expect to see developed more. The development of the main antagonist--one that feels like a multi-book antagonist--is interesting. It sets up a compelling dynamic between the protagonists and antagonists. So much so that I am starting immediately on the next book.

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Thursday, July 24, 2014

Review: Pebble in the Sky

Pebble in the Sky
Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this last in the Galactic Empire trilogy. It has similar faults to the previous two (primarily the thin characters and weak female characters). The plot here was also too fantastical with the time-travelling and the 'mind touch' thing. (It is interesting that Asimov has written several works involving a kind of ESP.)

Asimov again and again uses the plot device of one set of characters interacting coincidentally while another set of characters perceive these interactions as planned or conspiratorial. These latter characters then act in ways that make their suspicions self-fulfilling. It can be clever, but reading too many Asimov stories in a row makes it a bit too formulaic.

Nevertheless, the novel was fun and interesting.

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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: The Messenger

The Messenger
The Messenger by Daniel Silva

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I continue to love this series and its characters. Nevertheless, while I enjoyed this novel, it lacked a certain something. There was a lot of set up and then a quick resolution. Still, Gabriel is a fascinating character and Silva's storytelling draws me in.

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BAD DEEDS by Robert Bidinotto

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved Bidinotto’s first novel, Hunter, but Bad Deeds just might be better. It’s hard to put my finger on precisely why. It is exciting and well-plotted. The protagonists and antagonists are well-drawn, interesting, and realistic. One thing that I liked better in Bad Deeds is that it didn’t have as much of the romantic story line. Don’t get me wrong, the relationship between Hunter and Annie develops and grows and is an important part of the plot. In the first novel, it felt a little over-bearing for my personal taste. I think Bidinotto hit a better balance here.

If one enjoys the thriller genre (writers such as Brad Thor, Vince Flynn, Daniel Silva, etc.), then one will definitely love Bad Deeds.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Review: Free Market Fairness

Free Market Fairness
Free Market Fairness by John Tomasi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When Tomasi’s book first came in 2012, it got a lot of attention in libertarian circles. He challenged a lot of preconceived notions about libertarianism, fairness, and justice. Tomasi sets out in this book to create a kind of hybrid between the commitments typically associated with libertarians (and/or classical liberalism, market liberalism, etc.) and the commitments normally tied to what he calls High Liberalism (welfare liberalism, modern liberalism, egalitarian liberalism, etc.).

A more provocative way to put what Tomasi gives us in this book is a Rawlsian libertarianism. I over simply here, but Tomasi essentially takes the core premises of Rawls’ conception of justice as fairness and uses it to defend a kind of libertarianism. Or rather, he argues that a proper understanding of what is required by justice as fairness and the moral premises behind it is best realized in a regime that thoroughly protects economic liberty (alongside—and for similar reasons—political liberty). Further, the demands of social justice are best met under such a system as well.

Whatever you might ultimately think about the overall argument (and I remain skeptical though sympathetic), you have to give Tomasi credit for engaging in this huge revisionary project. At worst, it is an engaging and enlightening exercise to see what might happen if you accept Rawlsian starting points but add to it the moral importance of economic liberty. It’s an interesting way to learn about and further one’s understanding of Rawls (as well as economic liberty). At best, Tomasi has put forward a program the reunites the divided liberal house and sets it a more solid moral foundation.

Ultimately, I don’t think Tomasi’s project is successful on the latter account. This is because I do not think the moral foundations upon which the project is based are the correct ones. Nevertheless, the book is worth a read by anyone interested in liberty or justice. If you more libertarian minded, you will get a presentation of the modern liberal point of view that is fair, charitable, and clear. This better prepares you to understand the philosophical viewpoint that you are up against without misrepresentation or oversimplification. If you more in the Rawlsian vein, you ought to read it because it will challenge many of the ways you might think about justice as fairness and related ideas. Either way, you may not come to agree with Tomasi but you will most certainly learn something.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Review: Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment

Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment
Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal Ben-Shahar

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ben-Shahar presents the reader with a straight-forward, quick book that lays out the highlights of research into happiness and into what make us happy. The book, though, is more practicum than theory. Each chapter has exercises that help the reader put these ideas into action. I read the book straight through first and will go back to do the exercises. But already the insights that Ben-Shahar discusses have helped me to think differently about the nature of happiness and its relation to aspects of one’s life (such as work or the future).

Ben-Shahar's uses his own life experiences, hypothetical cases, and metaphors to concretize the theory. I particularly liked his quadrant of the rat-race, hedonism, nihilism, and happiness. This captures more of the nuance of what kind of life (or rather one's perspective on life) is more likely to lead to happiness.

Ben-Shahar's advice is practical and doesn't rely on quick fixes or some formula. It's intellectual work. It's about thinking about one's values and the hierarchy of those values: find out what is important and how to balance these in your life. It is also about finding the balance between past, present, and future. Living in the past or living for the future is not a recipe for happiness. One needs to be present, but can't forget their past or their future either. None of this is easy to do: but the pay off of a happy, fulfilling life is worth the work.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

New Boston Sports Pod Episode: Red Sox in Free Fall!

In this episode of the Boston Sports Pod, Joe and I try to figure out what is going on with the Red Sox and their slide into last place. We close with a look at the surging Revs.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Boston Sports Pod: Episode 3: Bruins: Looking Back and Moving Forward

In this episode, Joe and Shawn discuss what happened in the Bs playoff series loss to the Canadiens. What does it mean for the team's legacy? How did this happen? And what do the Bs do now?

Episode 3: Bruins: Looking Back and Moving Forward

Previous Episodes:
Episode 2: Bruins Playoffs, Patriots Draft, and Liverpool
Episode 1: Bruins and Habs, Red Sox, and more

You can (and should!) subscribe to the podcast on iTunes:

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Review: Robert B. Parker's Cheap Shot

Robert B. Parker's Cheap Shot
Robert B. Parker's Cheap Shot by Ace Atkins

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the third Ace Atkins Spenser; and it may be the best one. Atkins does a great job of mimicking Parker’s style and pacing, but adds some depth and subtle to the story. With Parker, it was never really a who-dunnit. It was more about how Spenser would react and what he would do. There would be a conflict among the goals Spenser had and he would use his code to resolve it. Atkins maintains that, to a degree, but also adds more of a mystery (red herrings and unexpected twists). I hope that Atkins keeps the Spenser code in focus. It is essential to what makes Spenser, Spenser. Spenser isn’t just some wisecracking detective. He is the embodiment of an autonomous moral code.

I especially like how Atkins writes Hawk and Z. There seems to me to be a little more texture here with these characters. This is especially the case with Z, since he was under developed when Parker passed. In general, Atkins is aware of and committed to the Spenser Universe. He references older cases and characters in very natural ways. These may just be shout-outs to the fandom, or they might be signals of future developments (e.g. Rachel Wallace).

At times, however, Atkins does seem to overdo or over use Spenser’s sarcasm. Some of the Pearl the Wonder Dog comments feel forced. But these are minor quibbles. Atkins has been the perfect writer to continue the Spenser-verse and I hope he stays on.

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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World

Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World
Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The most surprisingly thing about this book is that it is many ways a self-help book. It discusses games in the context of how game-playing (and understanding games) can help make one’s life better. In the closing paragraphs, McGonigal says: “Games don’t distract us from our real lives. They fill our real lives: with positive emotions, positive activity, positive experiences, and positive strengths” (354). Much of the book is explaining and defending these claims.

The first half of the book was much more interesting and engaging for me. McGonigal discusses how games affect individuals: their work, their happiness, their relationships. The games she brings in here seemed appealing. It made me want to go and play some of them. Typically the games where not in any way designed with these positive effects in mind; they were just games that had these results.

McGonigal also sees games as a way of changing the world and solving various kinds of large scale problems. This last part of the book was less convincing and less engaging. Maybe it’s because the games here seemed too contrived or the results too unrealistic, I am not sure. But in any case, something was missing in her discussion here that made me skeptical of the ways games (qua games) could be used to solve real global crises.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2014

The Boston Sports Pod: Episode One: Bruins and Habs, Red Sox and More

Joe and I have started a new podcast: The Boston Sports Pod. Two long-time Boston sports fan talking all things Boston sports.

The first episode is up: Episode One: Bruins and Habs, Red Sox, And More. Joe and I discuss the first two Bruins and Habs playoff games, the struggling but improving Red Sox, the Patriots' draft needs, and close with updates on the Revolution and Liverpool.

You can (and should!) subscribe to the podcast on iTunes:

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Review: Saving Mars

Saving Mars
Saving Mars by Cidney Swanson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A surprisingly well-done YA sci-fi series. It's a mix of a coming-of-age, save the world, fight the power story. It's pretty well paced with a good mix of action, back story, and character development. While it doesn't really dwell on these, it raises issues about mind-body relation, differing cultural norms, security and privacy, and authority and autonomy.

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Sunday, February 23, 2014

Second Call: Steve Jobs and Philosophy

I am still looking for a few more papers to include in Steve Jobs and Philosophy. This volume is part of Open Court's popular Pop Culture and Philosophy series. 
  • Papers must focus on topics or ideas that are significantly connected to the life, work, and/or cultural impact of Steve Jobs. 
  • Submit abstracts of 300 words to: 
  • Direct any questions about possible topics to: 
  • Completed paper due: May 9, 2014 (or thereabout)
  • 3,000-word philosophy papers written in a conversational style for an intelligent lay audience 
I have most topics already covered, but there are few topics that are important for including in the volume.
  • Ethical and/or Epistemological issues of creativity (related to how Jobs sought to inspire and cultivate creativity and innovation at Apple, NeXT, and Pixar)
  • Epistemological issues in intuitionism and its role in Jobs’ thinking. (How does Jobs' focus on intuition relate to -- or does not relate to -- philosophical approaches to intuition?)
  • Philosophical lessons learned by failure and success (Jobs is successes were preceded by flops: Lisa before the Mac; Newton before the Ipad; Jobs getting pushed out and then returning to lead Apple to even greater success) 
  • Some thing on the Apple Fanboy/girl phenomenon. 
  • The juxtaposition of Jobs’ counter-culture attitude and his capitalistic success. In particular, how does this mix highlight how conventional left-right/liberal-conservative dichotomies actual fail to capture most people?

Please contact me if you are interested in any of these or any other topic that is well-suited for this volume. If you know of someone who might be, please forward this page to them.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Review: Silent Night: A Spenser Holiday Novel

Silent Night: A Spenser Holiday Novel
Silent Night: A Spenser Holiday Novel by Robert B. Parker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a longtime fan of Spenser, I always enjoy returning the world and characters Parker created for his readers. Parker was working on Silent Night when he died and it was completed by his longtime literary agent, Helen Brann. It is not clear how much was completely by Parker and how much was done by Brann. If one did not know this, one probably wouldn't guess it. One would think it was just another mediocre, though enjoyable, installment of Spenser. It is a classic Parker plot with the standard cast of characters (even Paul makes an appearance--sort of). Nevertheless, there is something off, mostly in the dialogue. This was often Parker's strongest suit, and it isn't quite right here. A sharpness, a wittiness, that is missing, especially with Hawk. Nevertheless, I liked it as I always do. While I like what Ace Atkins is doing with his Spenser novels, it is sad that this is the last Spenser directly (even if only partially) from Parker.

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