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Duffbert's Random Musings is a blog where I talk about whatever happens to be running through my head at any given moment... I'm Thomas Duff, and you can find out more about me here...

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Co-author of the book IBM Lotus Sametime 8 Essentials: A User's Guide
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07/15/2014

Book Review - Field of Prey by John Sandford

Category Book Review John Sandford Field of Prey
Field of Prey (A Lucas Davenport Novel Book 24)

I burned out a bit (a lot?) on the John Sandford Prey series a while back. The stories started to lack that "something" that kept me looking forward to the next one. I recently picked up Field of Prey to see if Lucas Davenport and company had regained their mojo, and I was pleasantly surprised. Field of Prey started off strong and kept up the pace right up to the finish.

Davenport's back to a more hands-on crime-solving approach in this novel. He's called into a serial killer case that is rather gruesome. Two kids fooling around in a field ran across a buried cistern, but it wasn't used for water any longer. Over twenty female bodies were dumped there over a period of many years, and the Minnesota police forces go into high gear to try and determine who the bodies belong to and who put them there. Of course, the media is having a field day with the story, and the pressure is high to solve the crimes quickly before someone loses their job. The killer decides to toy around with the police, and it becomes clear that the murders are not yet over. He might even be targeting people very close to Davenport if Lucas can't figure things out before he strikes again.

Sandford reveals the killer early on in the story, so the plot weaves between the attempts to solve the case and the killer's fixation on certain people who are involved. Part of the mystery that drives the story is that certain investigators apparently had leads to who the killer was, but they met an untimely demise before reporting in to Davenport and others. I enjoyed how Davenport kept getting shut down in all his attempts to narrow down the killer's identity, as it maintained a "how is he going to figure this out in time" feeling running throughout the story. There are also a couple of wicked plot twists at the end that I didn't see coming, and they change the whole tone of everything that happened prior...

I hope Field of Prey signals the return of Lucas Davenport of old. If so, the Prey series will head back to the "must read immediately" list.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

07/08/2014

Book Review - Rogue Code by Mark Russinovich

Category Book Review Mark Russinovich Rogue Code
I really like how how Mark Russinovich mixes computer technology and spy/techno/action thriller material together in his novels. His latest, Rogue Code, continues his string of great reads, especially for those of us who are computer geeks.

Russinovich takes on a hot topic currently in the news... high-frequency trading in the stock market. He uses it to build a story based on his main character, cyber-security expert Jeff Aiken. Aiken and his partner are called in to do a penetration test on the trading engine of the New York Stock Exchange. Starting from a normal level of access, they quickly tunnel their way into the crown jewel servers of the Exchange, where they find they aren't the only ones who shouldn't have made it that far. As they investigate the malware present on the servers, they discover that some group is using high-frequency trading techniques to skim off millions from regular trades. The people behind the malware aren't ready to give up their upcoming huge payday, so they set up Aiken to look like he's the person doing the skimming. Now Aiken has to stay out of jail long enough to prove what's going on and salvage his reputation.

Since Russinovich is a technical expert in real life at Microsoft, the tech angles on his stories are all solid. He also did a good job in understanding the issues surrounding high-frequency trading and how it could easily send the financial system into a tailspin with the wrong nudge at the wrong time. I like how they pair up the tech geek (Aiken) with an ex-CIA security operative (Frank Renkin) so you get the mix of spymaster who can (and has) killed people with the computer expert who isn't really sure he wants to be part of that world. It makes for interesting situations which work well as the story flows along.

I'll admit that those with a tech background will probably get the most enjoyment out of Rogue Code, as they'll be able to track the story better when the discussion turns to computer hacking. Even so, fans of techno-thrillers will like Russinovich's latest effort.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

07/03/2014

Book Review - Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King

Category Book Review Stephen King Mr. Mercedes
Mr. Mercedes: A Novel

The last few Stephen King novels I've read have been very good, and Mr. Mercedes is no different. It starts off with a mass killing event by a deranged individual, and the suspense and action doesn't slow down. I normally associate King with paranormal stories, but he doesn't even approach that genre here. But the change in material doesn't make a bit of difference in turning out a story that I only put down when I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer.

The basic story line revolves around a retired police detective, Bill Hodges. Life hasn't been overly kind to him since he's left the force, and he's pretty much just marking time until he dies (and he may make that happen sooner than later). He left the force with a good record, but there were a small number of unsolved cases that always haunted him. The worst was where an unidentified person drove a Mercedes (thus the title) into a crowd of people lined up early in the morning for a job fair event. They never found the individual, and there was never any follow-on events that pointed to someone specific.

Hodges is just drifting along until he gets a letter from a person claiming to be the Mercedes killer. If true, Hodges might be able to resolve the one case that has bothered him all these years. But the letter writer has a few other games in mind, and Hodges isn't sure whether he's trying to prevent another killing or stop his own death. But to get to the end of the game, he has to break a lot of rules in the process, and even winning may mean he loses what's left of his freedom and life.

King creates some memorable characters in Mr. Mercedes, and I found myself caring about all of them. He also adds a layer of psychological and pathological behavior to some of the characters to keep things unbalanced (no pun intended). The angle of the story is a bit different than many action/crime thrillers. King reveals early on who was responsible for the crime, so it's not a whodunit. The story quickly focuses on the mental games and physical interactions between Hodges and the killer, and it gives King a lot of room to explore the two main characters while still pulling the story along at a rapid pace.

This is a very enjoyable novel, and it's worth reading (even if you don't normally like King and "paranormal" novels). Once you pick it up, you might have a hard time setting it aside for other things.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

06/28/2014

Book Review - The Decline and Fall of IBM: End Of An American Icon? by Robert X. Cringley

Category Book Review Robert X. Cringley The Decline and Fall of IBM: End Of An American Icon?
The Decline and Fall of IBM: End of an American Icon?

I'm a tech professional who specialized in IBM/Lotus software from 1996 through about 2012. I've read Robert Cringely's I, Cringely columns over the years, and watched how he documented the decline of IBM as a company where employees were respected and organizations received value for their money. The Decline and Fall of IBM: End of an American Icon? is Cringely's effort to take all his columns over time and present the material in a cohesive and comprehensive manner. With very few exceptions, I have to agree that his assessment is dead on (based on my observations and interactions with others), and the future does not look bright based on the path IBM is taking.

There are a number of factors that are contributing to the decline. One of the worst problems is the relentless cost cutting that lays off experienced employees and shifts their jobs overseas to untrained personnel. The problem is that while the trench workers are cut and/or overworked, the management structure and layers just continue to grow. The drive to get to $20 EPS by 2015 has decimated the morale and capabilities of staff, and it's tragic that no one in IBM management has stepped up to say that's a meaningless goal by a prior CEO and it's gutting the company. If there were only a handful of (ex-)employees sharing bad experiences, it might be tempting to think that it's only a minority of people who are complaining. But the numbers of stories are huge, and the examples are too many to be isolated incidents.

The current CEO is tossing big bucks at "the next big thing" to try and restore IBM to a dominant position as an industry leader. But until/unless those pan out (Watson and cloud come to mind), their execution on existing software and services continues to go downhill as they don't have the experienced staff any longer as they were "too expensive". The future will tell whether IBM or Cringley ended up being right on the outcomes, so it's not as the death of IBM is a done deal. But history is littered with large tech companies that are no longer around, and IBM is not "too big to fail."

If you are (or were) interested about or associated with IBM at some point, The Decline and Fall of IBM is an interesting read. The second half of the book is padded (in my opinion) with blog comments he's received on his articles. You could easily read those online if you were interested. But the first half of the book makes for some persuasive arguments.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Amazon
Payment: Purchased

06/28/2014

Book Review - The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey

Category Book Review M. R. Carey The Girl With All The Gifts
The Girl With All the Gifts

For not being a regular zombie genre reader, I certainly seem to be on a zombie bent of late. The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey looked interesting from the description I happened to read (it didn't sound zombie-like), so I decided to give it a try. Overall, it was good... not quite the normal "boy meets girl, boy bites girl, boy and girl live happily ever after biting others" story line.

The story starts off with Melanie, a little girl who is wicked smart, but is locked away in some sort of a prison-like compound. She's isolated in a cell, and her keepers show up once a day to strap her into a wheelchair (under armed guard - wrists, ankles, AND neck to keep her totally immobilized) and take her to a classroom with others like her. At the end of the class, she's taken back to her room and released. She doesn't know why she's there or what it's all about, but she knows she's "different".

Melanie finds herself emotionally attached to one of the teachers, Miss Justineau, who seems to be one of the few people in her life that treats her like a normal person. But when Miss Justineau touches Melanie one day (against the rules), Melanie discovers that she has uncontrollable urges to feed, and it's all she can do to keep those urges under control. It becomes even worse when a breakdown in the security of the compound occurs, and now she's in close contact with regular humans who don't trust her and would rather just kill her to ensure their own safety.

Melanie is probably the most likeable "not normal" character I've encountered in a zombie novel. Carey takes a different slant on the typical story line, and it makes for some interesting dilemmas and sub-plots. The characters surrounding Melanie and Miss Justineau are also interesting, and they help to set up the tension that drives the story to the ultimate twist and finish.

The only thing that bothered me is that the book seemed to go on for a very long time (and I've been told I read quickly). It's listed at 408 pages, and it felt like it might have been a faster pace at around 300 pages or so. But that's just me... others might wish it was even longer. Either way, The Girl With All The Gifts is worth reading if you like zombie genre books.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Netgalley
Payment: Free

06/22/2014

Book Review - The Butcher by Jennifer Hillier

Category Book Review Jennifer Hillier The Butcher
A picture named M2

The Butcher by Jennifer Hillier was one of those novels that got me turning pages and spending too much time reading when I should have been doing other things. It starts out with an early twist, and then I couldn't wait to see how it was going to play out.

The story is set in Seattle in current times. Matt Shank, an up-and-coming restaurateur, is the son of Edward Shank, the Seattle chief of police back in 1985 when the city was in a panic over a serial killer named The Butcher. Chief Shank killed the Butcher in a police raid, and the crisis appeared to be over. But new killings are showing up with the same pattern as the old cases, and Matt's girlfriend, a crime writer, is convinced that The Butcher is still alive. Her mother was killed two years after the supposed death of The Butcher, and she's writing a book to try and get the case reopened. Meanwhile, Matt is dealing with his own demons and discoveries about his past, and it threatens to destroy everything he's earned in his life.

Hillier does a great job with plot and pace here. She throws in an early twist that changes the format from a "whodunnit" to a "how many lives will this destroy before it ends?" story. Putting it all up-front like that adds a psychological element to the story that made it a quick read for me since I couldn't put it down.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Netgalley
Payment: Free

06/20/2014

Book Review - FaceOff edited by David Baldacci

Category Book Review David Baldacci FaceOff
FaceOff

What do you get when you pair up various thriller writers and have them collaborate on a story with their main characters? You get the anthology FaceOff edited by David Baldacci. I'll admit that I haven't read all the authors included in the various stories, but they were all good (with some outstanding collaborations based on my favorite authors and characters).

One of my favorite stories was when Jeffrey Deaver and John Sandford put Lincoln Rhyme and Lucas Davenport together in an antagonistic effort to stop a serial killer. Their personalities played off each other perfectly, and it was a "best of both worlds" for someone who likes both those series.

For me, the best story was by two of my top writers, Joseph Finder and Lee Child. Having Nick Heller and Jack Reacher meet up by chance in a Boston bar, both drawn there for a playoff game between the Red Sox and Yankees. As they're warily checking each other out via the mirror behind the bar, they're separated by one person sitting between them, someone who is obviously very nervous and is expecting to be the target of violence. Watching them figure out the issue and determine how it will play out, all without much direct conversation, is pitch perfect material for Heller and Reacher. My only issue is that I would have liked for it to be another 200 pages long.

Anthologies can be hit or miss, and I don't expect all the stories to be five-star additions. But FaceOff was better than most, and a number of the stories were excellent.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

06/20/2014

Book Review - Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook

Category Book Review Kenneth Cook Wake in Fright
Wake in Fright (Text Classics)

I was tipped to this Australian literary classic and decided to pick it up at the library. Wake in Fright by Kenneth Cook was written back in 1961, and it portrays one man's bleak and frightening experience when he wanders into Bundanyabba, a town in the desolate outback. What should be an overnight stay on his way to Sydney becomes a nightmare from which he never fully recovers.

Cook does an excellent job in painting the despair of the main character, John Grant, when he loses all his travel money in a gambling game. Without any money, contacts, or resources, he finds himself stranded in this small town with virtually no options to leave. The people he meets are... friendly, but they are a different breed, one given to killing and drinking as an essential part of their dull existence. Grant has to go along since they are his only means of food, drink, and lodging, but he quickly loses all sense of who and what he is.

Cook doesn't pull punches nor does he go for the happy ending. The story starts out grey and gets totally dark by the end. The hopelessness of Grant drips from every page, and the only question is how far he might descend before he hits rock bottom. Wake in Fright is a relatively quick read, and I can see why it's considered a classic. I now want to see the movie that was made based on the book, as I'm sure it'll add even more layers of depression onto the story.

I don't know that I'd consider this an "enjoyable" read, but it's well worth reading.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library
Payment: Borrowed

06/17/2014

Book Review - The Forever Man by Pierre Ouellette

Category Book Review Pierre Ouellette The Forever Man
A picture named M2

This is the type of book that I'll pick up and read every time... The Forever Man by Pierre Ouellette. It's a near-future sci-fi novel set in Portland, Oregon (my town), and I found it fascinating to see how Ouellette set his dark story among landmarks and locations I know well. I was probably more caught up in the imagery than the actual story, as I found it hard to tie together the multiple things going on at any given time. Still, it was an entertaining read.

The world has been divided into haves and have-nots, and Portland is no exception. The high-end expensive communities and conclaves are surrounded by areas that are war-torn and ruled by street justice. The main character, Lane Anslow, is a contract cop who is trying to eke out a living. His brother is a bipolar genius who has discovered a medical breakthrough that promises eternal youth. When his brother goes missing (likely by some big money people who will kill to get what he has), Lane decides to do whatever's necessary to find him. However, Lane has to trust people who have multiple (and often conflicting) motivations.

My main issue with the story is that it took a long time to see the motivations of one of Lane's main adversaries play out. That's normally not a major deal, except this adversary was driving most of the action behind the medical processes. I kept wondering when things were going to kick into high gear with that angle, and it never did at the level I expected. Had I not been engrossed into the Portland angle, it might have taken me longer to get through.

Overall, this was a good read, especially with the local angle.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Netgalley
Payment: Free


06/17/2014

Book Review - The Book of Hard Truths: 16 Facts of Life We Should Learn to Accept by Eran Dror

Category Book Review Eran Dror The Book of Hard Truths: 16 Facts of Life We Should Learn to Accept
The Book of Hard Truths: 16 Facts of Life We Should Learn to Accept

This may be one of the shortest life-examining books I've ever read... The Book of Hard Truths: 16 Facts of Life We Should Learn to Accept by Eran Dror. It's less than forty pages, and it's not happy, happy, joy, joy material. However, these truths all come with a silver lining that can improve how you experience life.

The sixteen facts are formatted with one fact per two facing pages. The left side has an illustration that humorously (and accurately) captures the truth being discussed. The opposite page has the text, which lists the cold hard fact, what it means, what it can mean once you accept it, three questions to ask yourself, and an additional resource you can read to find out how best to deal with the truth to make your life better.

Just taking fact #1 as an example... "You're going to die." The title *does* say "hard truths"... "Let's stop to really consider what this means. In just a few short decades everything that you are will cease to exist. Your body, good looks, thoughts, and memories will all be gone, and gone forever." (Note to review readers: I know this may not square with your religious beliefs, but the bottom line is that your life here on earth *will* end.) But the content ends with this: "You can't live forever, but you can make the most out of the time you have left." This can't/can relationship is what pulls all the truths from major depressive fact to something that can free you up to do the things that matter to you.

This will take you (not counting the additional resources) less than fifteen minutes to read. But if you really think about what you just read, it'll last far longer than that. If you have the chance to read The Book of Hard Truths, I'd recommend doing so.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free


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