Category Archives: contemporary

Sting by Sandra Brown

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One of the perks of working in a library is getting recommendations from patrons on what they read and liked. Many of the novels that I have come to love the most were little gems that came from these suggestions, so when a number of library members with whom I normally share reading tastes said read “Sting” by Sandra Brown, I put it on my to-read list.  I’d read Sandra Brown years ago, when she was firmly in the romance or romantic suspense period of her career so I thought this would be more of the same and was delighted to find she’d carved out a great thriller, instead.

The novel begins with poised and polished Jordie Bennett in a seedy Southern bar, where she has attracted the attention of the bar patrons, especially two particular men.  Unknown to her, these men are hired assassins and she is their target.  Within a few pages, the hit has turned into a kidnapping as one of the killers, decides that rather than collecting a paltry sum for her death, he can shake her brother down for the 30 million in stolen mob money that he may have access to.  The story then twists into a neat little cat and mouse between Jordie and her kidnapper, Shaw Kinnard, a man with secrets of his own.  In this situation, Jordie must rely on her wits to survive.

“Sting” is like a roller coaster ride of a book, weaving happily in one direction before vering off somewhere completely different. I have read a number of thriller or romantic/thrillers but this one was full of surprises. Everything here works; the characters, the situation, the dialogue and the romantic elements complement each other well.

A number of writers who have honed their skills in the traditional romance market, like Catherine Coulter and Tess Gerritsen have moved on to write superb thrillers which I enjoy, now I will add Sandra Brown to that list. My only regret is that it took me forever to try her again. PS. I just checked out another of her books, “Friction”.

 

 

City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong

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Werewolves, witches, and omens….are exactly what you won’t find in the newest series by supernatural queen Kelley Armstrong. She is best known for series’ such as Otherworld and Cainsville but with City of the Lost she takes a hard turn away from her signature style and ventures into murder mystery completely based in the human realm. This series is also referred to as the Rockton series or the Casey Duncan series in reference to the central locale and character.

Rockton is a town of last resorts and only accepts a select few. You won’t find it on any map or website and to become a resident you must apply to town council for approval, and even that comes with a limited term for your stay there. Imagine walking away from everything and everyone you know and disappearing into the Yukon to live without any luxuries or conveniences of modern urban life. It is supposed to be a safe haven for those with nowhere else to run – but recently the town has experienced its first murder. Enter Casey Duncan, a homicide detective with a secretive past and every reason to go off the grid. She arrives with her best friend who carries her own fair share of secrets and soon the action really gets going.

This should definitely be on your spring reading list – even if you haven’t been an Armstrong fan in the past but enjoy thrillers and murder mysteries.

Review: The Wealthy Barber vs. The Wealthy Barber Returns by David Chilton

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About a year and a half ago, I realized how ignorant I was with regards to money and started to educate myself in matters of personal finance in order to resolve my ignorance. Since then, I have read a number of books and articles, significantly improved my spending, started living below my means, and started saving. As I began my journey to becoming financially literate, one book that I was always recommended was The Wealthy Barber by David Chilton (1989). The book being nearly 3 decades old, I was hesitant to read it since I know financial matters are time sensitive. What I decided to do instead, was read The Wealthy Barber Returns by David Chilton (2011) first, then go back and read Chilton’s first book.

I’ve actually read The Wealthy Barber Returns twice. The first time was in January 2016. The second time was just last month to get a refresher before starting his first book. I credit Wealthy Barber Returns with kicking my butt into gear and getting me to save at least 10% of my income, and opening up a RRSP. The illustration that caused me to do so was the following from this book: twins open up RRSPs. Each of them contributes $4,000 a year at 8% rate of return compounded annually. Hank opens up his RRSP and makes these contributions starting at age 25 for 10 years. Simon contributes starting at age 35 for 30 years. Because of the “magic” of compound interest, at 65, Hank’s RRSP is worth $629,741 and Simon’s $489,383. In spite of the fact that Hank saved for a third less time, he comes out $140k ahead by starting early. After reading this, I knew that even if could only contribute a few hundred dollars a year to start out, it was worth starting in my young 20s to get the compound interest ball rolling.

Besides a 10% fund, I also appreciated the various advice found in The Wealthy Barber Returns. Some of his advice is very simple (If shopping is your weakness and causes you to waste money, avoid the malls) while other advice is more complicated and situational, such as his banter on TFSAs vs. RRSPs and renting vs. owning. Although I agreed with the majority of what Chilton had to say, I did disagree with him on a few points-the main one that sticks out is his dislike of emergency funds (he claims that although great in theory, they don’t work out in practice). Regardless, I still believe The Wealthy Barber Returns is still a good introductory book for finance for Canadians- it certainly helped me better my finances.

Now onto Chilton’s first book- The Wealthy Barber. The first thing that surprised me when I started the book was the fact it was put in story format and didn’t discuss finances until Chapter 4. The narrative format has been praised as helpful to get the average reader engaged in a topic they otherwise wouldn’t have touched, but for me, knowing that the characters are fictional I was bored and ready to get to the heart of the book. I hate to say it, but if the useless banter between fictional characters were removed, the book would have been under 100 pages. However, I did get a refresher on things I already knew and learned a few things as well. The main point of the book is “save 10%- pay yourself first” which is an excellent reminder and cannot be emphasized enough. Chilton also talks about trying to evaluate your possible retirement needs and save in an RRSP, which is so crucial in this day of fewer pensions.

Nonetheless, I have to admit this book is dated. It started with the characters referencing VCRs several times, and more concerning, outdated financial advice. For example, when referring to RRSPs, the characters never mentioned the Home Buyers’ Plan (HBP) which allows you to withdraw up to $25,000 from your RRSPs to buy or build a home. Same with TFSAs- they came about in 2009 (20 years after the publication of this book) and they are a great way for Canadians to save, so someone starting with this publication would miss that valuable info. Also, a few weeks ago the government announced they will be doing away with the Canada Savings Bond program which was mentioned numerous times throughout this book as an option for saving. And when it comes to investing or buying a home, the characters referenced making 13% on a mutual fund annually, buying a home for $57,000 (at an 18% interest rate!), and buying a condo for $80,000. Any Canadian who gets their percentage figures from this book is going to be really surprised when s/he looks online for modern prices.

For all these reasons, I would much rather recommend The Wealthy Barber Returns over Chilton’s original publication. Finances are a time sensitive thing: prices and percentages change, new products are introduced and old products are done away with. Even though The Wealthy Barber is encouraging in some ways, it’s too out of date as a beginner’s guide to personal finance. My recommendation is to stay within the past decade for anything to do with personal finance; possibly less if it’s about a specific product.

 

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman

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The world has changed much in 30 years: today, we have access to more information than we’ll ever need in 100 lifetimes through a device that fits in our pocket. We can communicate face to face to relatives across the world in real time through a screen. These are just a couple of the many differences found in early 21st century society, so one would think that a book written about technology in 1985 would be irrelevant to today’s technology users. Ironically, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman is even more important today than 3 decades ago. To be certain, there are some laughable anecdotes: near the end of the last chapter, Postman claims that computers are “a vastly overrated technology” which couldn’t be farther from the truth today. Nonetheless, so much of what he says in Amusing Ourselves is spot on and even truer today.

Postman compares Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World.  People are always concerned about  a real life “Big Brother”government control, censorship and spying to name a few. While these concerns have been a reality found in recent history, Postman claims North American society is much closer to Brave New World than 1984. Postman claims that there will always be opposition to totalitarian control and censorship as it is very identifiable and a clear infringement on a society’s rights. It is Huxley’s theory of an entertainment culture- one too absorbed to care about oppression- that is the greatest threat to our society. North American society has come to adore their amusing technological oppression.

Postman looks at the print society of the enlightenment years- schooling was few and far between, yet books couldn’t be printed fast enough to satisfy society’s thirst for knowledge. Postman cites the debates Abraham Lincoln had with Stephen A. Douglas: Douglas would first be given an hour to speak, Lincoln an hour and a half, then Douglas again for an hour and a half reply. These debates were shorter than what they were accustomed too, and yet common men and women would attend them as an informing, yet restful event. The attention span of today’s average Joe would not be able to handle such a long, complex activity. As a comparison, Postman especially criticizes television news for this reason: each news story is given minutes (if that) to be presented before it is quickly switched out for the following story. The viewer barely has time to think about what s/he just saw before being pummeled with more information. I recall a few months back watching television news with family (I do not have cable in my own home so this is a rarity for myself) and I was shocked to see things like murders, protests, and other devastating issues being given seconds of screen time vs. the ten minutes a feel-good story about an abstract painter was given. Viewers don’t want to end off on a sad note lest they start thinking of implications for their own lives.

Even though Postman focuses on television culture, these observations and even more true today. Distraction culture is more prominent now with smart phones: individuals can barely make it through an hour without checking their updates, replying to a text or scrolling through the web. When groups of people go out to eat or to other social activities, most of the time is now spent looking at phones instead of conversing. We are more interconnected than ever before, yet lonelier than ever because we have lost the art of meaningful conversation and appreciation for enjoying activities that don’t revolve around a screen.

If Postman were alive today, I would be very interested to hear what he’d say about today’s entertainment culture. I know for myself his book had a profound influence for me and I have begun to examine myself when I am spending excess time on social media or other wasteful forms of entertainment. I have been spending more time doing more meaningful activities that are still restful, and I have been appreciating the fruits that come from that. I recommend everyone to evaluate themselves using Amusing Ourselves, and to make positive changes in their lives.

 

 

Mount! by Jilly Cooper

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I was thrilled to spot a new book by one of my favourite authors on display at the Brodie Library a few months ago, and it didn’t disappoint. Jilly Cooper is popular British writer who has a passion for horses, and a knack for relationships. Her newest book, Mount! focusses on Rupert Campbell-Black’s horse racing empire.  Rupert was introduced in Cooper’s first book, Riders, as a fun-loving young playboy who goes on to win an Olympic gold medal in show jumping. Nine books later he hasn’t changed much. Mount! begins with a descriptive list of both human and animal characters, which I skipped over at first, but did find handy to refer to when reading. Rupert doesn’t like to lose, and runs his racing and breeding stables with a firm hand. His staff of grooms and trainers live on his estate and for the most part get along as they are all horse lovers.

Ambition, loyalty and Rupert’s laser-focus on winning take their toll however, and this is where Cooper’s skilled writing about relationships shines. The story starts with a flash back to Rupert’s great (x 6) grandfather’s ill-fated horse race through a spooky wood.  This plants many seeds for the rest of the book, including rivalry, revenge and family ties. Cooper brings in characters from her other books, but I don’t think you need to have read them to enjoy Mount! International intrigue is woven into the story as Rupert travels to expand his business. Mount! is a big juicy story which takes readers within the high-stakes world of horse racing.

 

Someone You Know by Brian McGilloway

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someoneOn my first trip to Ireland, I found myself in a bookstore discovering a number of new authors to me, including couple of great mystery writers, Liz Nugent and Brian McGilloway.  While, Nugent has yet to break the North American market, McGilloway has been quietly building a fan base with his Benedict Devlin and DS Lucy Black series.  Both writers are very distinctly Irish and the landscape, the language and the history of Ireland figure into the subplots giving a flavour to the books that adds to experience.

“Someone You Know” is the second in the Lucy Black series and begins about two weeks before Christmas, when the body of an at-risk sixteen-year-old girl is found lying on the train tracks. The body was placed there just before a scheduled train run but a railroad mechanical failure prevented the murder from looking like a suicide.  The girl was known to the police due to her tragic home life and had disappeared from a care home a few days before her death. It quickly becomes clear that as well as the victim a number of other girls are being groomed by a stalker and that the police are in a race against time to prevent more murders. The identity of the killer seems obvious at first until a series of twists take both the reader and the police into unexpected directions.

Lucy Black grounds the book with a deep back story that is woven into her persona and effects hurt2how she works through the mystery.  She is a damaged character, carrying the scars of a broken childhood with conflicted feelings about her father, who is suffering from dementia and her mother who abandoned the family but is now working as an administrator for the police force.  The secrets she carries have made it difficult to trust anyone but empathic to the victimized and abused women and children that make up her caseload.

When I saw the book on the shelves at Eason, (the Irish equivalent of Chapters), the novel was called Hurt, but whatever the title it’s a great read and the perfect choice to introduce you to a fabulous series.

On What Grounds by Cleo Coyle

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What could be better than curling up on a grey morning with a steaming mug and a cozy mystery! Possibly the only improvement to be made would be if that cozy mystery were focused on the world of coffee. Thankfully, and this is in no way a spoiler, the coffee plays no direct part in the murder. It does play a pivotal role in setting the groundwork for the Coffeehouse Mystery series; about the Village Blend coffeehouse in New York, its staff and the many adventures swirling like an intricate piece of latte art.

Clare Cosi manages the day to day operations of the Village Blend – a business steeped in history and no stranger to drama over the years. She arrives to work one day to find her assistance manager has been killed. The police come and go in what appears to be a simple accidental death case; but Clare is convinced there is something else going on and, like any truly dedicated and well caffeinated gumshoe, she gets to work.

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This first book in the series brings the reader all the elements you would expect in a cozy mystery. And for the readers who love all things coffee, it brings even more with information and advice that proves its author has certainly done her research into the coffee industry. So far I have read two books from this series and have 14 left to go. Time to put on the coffee pot and settle in for a cozy Sunday morning!

 

 

Jesse Roberts – http://www.tbpl.ca