Book review: The Good Knight by Sarah Woodbury

The Good Knight (Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mysteries, #1)The Good Knight by Sarah Woodbury
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is the first in a mystery series that takes place in medieval Wales. The characters are interesting, and I always enjoy books where the protagonist is a woman. The secondary characters were well characterized and had sometimes outsized personalities. The author is clearly extremely knowledgeable about the time period and setting. The plot was quite clever, with a last-minute twist that was both unexpected and plausible.
My only issue (but it’s a big issue) is with the writing. The dialogue was flat and two dimensional, and the writing seemed unnecessarily simple. There was not much nuance or subtlety–when a point needed to be made, it was made with a sledgehammer. I would have preferred more deftness in the book.
That being said, I was torn between 3 and 4 stars and decided to give the book 4 stars. The author definitely gets points for writing about a culture and place that doesn’t get enough attention (Wales tends to be overshadowed by its larger neighbor). And I am intrigued enough by the characters to be willing to try the second book to see if the writing matures as the series progresses. I’ll keep you posted! 🙂

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Book review: Thief of Hearts by Teresa Medeiros

Thief of HeartsThief of Hearts by Teresa Medeiros
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t typically review the romances I read (although I read a lot of them!), but this one is an exception. The author is a recent discovery for me, and I’ve enjoyed reading all of her books so far, but this one was a cut above the rest. It’s difficult to say why, although I think it’s because the hero and heroine are both so well fleshed out in this book. The hero is handsome (of course!) but with a conflicted past, a thirst for (justifiable) revenge, and dark corners in his soul. The heroine is beautiful (naturally!) but has a distant parent, a repressed upbringing, and a spirit that has somehow flourished nonetheless. They make for a lovely couple. Add into that the choices each makes at different points in the book (revenge over compassion? principle over love? loyalty over truth?), and this book consists of a multi-layered, complex plot and characters. It is a book to soothe and nourish the romance in your soul (assuming you have some). 🙂
If historical romances are your thing, this is a must-read!

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Book review: Where Serpents Sleep by C.S. Harris

Where Serpents Sleep (Sebastian St. Cyr, #4)Where Serpents Sleep by C.S. Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t always review individual books in a mystery series after the first book, unless one book particularly stands out. This is one of them. The Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries series is set in Regency England but instead of using the frothy tone of most books set during that time period, this series exposes the reader to the dark side of the period.
The reason this particular book stands out (and I’m still working my way slowly through the series) is because of the development of the relationship (if you can call it that) between Sebastian St. Cyr and Hero Jarvis, the daughter of a powerful noble and enemy. In addition, the book examines the issue of prostitution during this era, the assumptions made about the morality of the women who were prostitutes, the different business models, and how they were treated by others. Occasionally, the tone is a tad didactic, but the topic is interesting and well-integrated into the plot. In some ways, the book demonstrates that civilization has not moved forward in its attitude towards prostitutes some 200 years later.
As with my previous review of this series, I highly recommend it!! (The series is definitely best read in order.)

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Book review: Beguiling Beauty by Sherry Thomas

Beguiling the Beauty (Fitzhugh Trilogy, #1)Beguiling the Beauty by Sherry Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first book I’ve read by this author (who seems to have a remarkable writing range, from fantasy to mysteries to historical romances). I found myself quite taken by this story, despite some significant flaws. Without trying to reveal spoilers (although it *is* a romance, after all), the basic plot is hero falls in love with heroine at first sight, hero learns of heroine’s perfidy and reveals it publicly, heroine swears revenge, and the couple lives happily ever after. 🙂
The author’s best writing happens during the period when the heroine is seeking her revenge. The somewhat unrealistic (even for a romance!) plot device results in an authentic and gripping romance that is the highlight of the book. The book weakens after the revenge subplot predictably blows up in the heroine’s face, and the ending, while highly satisfactory from a romance novel point of view, seems to happen at breakneck speed and without the subtlety of the rest of the book. (It’s almost as if the author realized she was in danger of going over her page limit and had to end the book sooner rather than later.)
The presence of the secondary characters who are clearly in line for their own novels is somewhat distracting, as they are almost forcibly inserted into certain parts of the book without any need for their existence.
But the book totally redeems itself during the period when the hero and heroine are discovering each other’s true selves. There is heartfelt romance and a deft and subtle touch in revealing it.
I am not so in love with the secondary characters in this book that I plan on reading the rest of the trilogy, but I will definitely be trying her other books, in particular the Lady Sherlock Holmes books. She’s definitely an author worth keeping an eye out for!

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Book review: Setting the Table by Danny Meyer

Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in BusinessSetting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business by Danny Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Danny Meyer has created an extremely successful restaurant empire that includes restaurants as varied as The Modern (in MOMA), Union Square Cafe, Blue Smoke, and Shake Shack. In his book, he relates how he built his restaurant business and what he thinks the keys to success are.
While the author’s background is definitely in the restaurant and hospitality business, his outlook and his philosophy, not to mention the rules he has for his business, are applicable to all businesses (and non-profits). The Union Square Hospitality Group (the name of Danny Meyer’s business) focuses on treating its employees well, attracting and retaining customers, being community-oriented, and delivering an excellent product. All of this, the author believes, results in a profitable business model.
The results speak for themselves. The restaurants in his portfolio all have a reputation for excellent food and outstanding customer service. The author discusses how he looks for “a hospitality heart” when hiring employees.
I am generally not a fan of business books, but this one is well-written, straightforward, and thoughtful. In particular, I like how the author presents his philosophy and gives concrete examples of how that philosophy creates a successful business model. (This goes much further than “the customer is always right.”). In fact, the author states explicitly that even when the customer is not right, focusing on giving the customer a positive experience still is the correct approach.
Anyone who believes in emphasizing customer satisfaction, especially those in service-oriented businesses would benefit from reading this book. Heads of non-profits—where care and feeding of their donors is key to thriving—should also read this book. I highly recommend it! (Which, given that it is a business book, is unheard of!)

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Movie review: The Big Sick

Brief synopsis: A Pakistani-American man and a Caucasian-American woman fall (reluctantly) in love. When Emily suffers a life-threatening illness, Kumail meets her parents and struggles to reconcile his family obligations with his love for Emily.

This appears to be a semi-autobiographical movie based on the lives of Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon (the co-writers). For those of you who are fans of the television show 
“Silicon Valley,” Nanjiani plays the character of Dinesh.

Jim and I were pleasantly surprised at the movie’s excellence. It is funny, sad, and moving and deals with the cross-cultural assimilation aspects of an immigrant family, which really resonated with me. (My favorite line is when Kumail asks his parents, “Why did we come here if you didn’t want me to have an American life?”).

Holly Hunter and Ray Romano portray Emily’s parents. Their evolving relationship with Kumail is the most emotionally complex relationship of the movie. (The poor actress who plays Emily—Zoe Kazan—is in a coma for a good portion of the movie.) All four actors play their roles with nuance and delicacy and a light touch that prevents the movie from sinking into cliche.

The only criticism I have of the movie is that the pacing was a bit uneven. There were definitely some parts that moved rather slowly. Overall, however, this was a small gem of a movie, and both Jim and I highly recommend it!

 

Book review: A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet

A Promise of Fire (Kingmaker Chronicles #1)A Promise of Fire by Amanda Bouchet
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is an unusual cross-genre book–part fantasy and part romance. There is deeper character development and more sparkling dialogue than you find in most fantasy novels. The author also takes care in developing her world, although much of it is by inference and implication rather than narrative. The advantage of this, of course, is that the novel moves much faster, and you learn about the character at the same time you learn about the world.
The story is told in first person by the heroine, Cat. She is an accomplished, snarky, and flawed character. I liked her immensely. The hero, Griffin, too, is very appealing. I also like that the romance is turned on its head, and it’s Cat who is reluctant to move the relationship forward, rather than Griffin. The secondary characters are well-developed and have their own personalities, especially Griffin’s team.
The weakness of most cross-genre books is that it does a mediocre job of both genres, and it’s the combination that makes such a book unique. The length of this book enables the author to treat each genre with the attention it deserves, so that fantasy and romance readers are both satisfied. And if you’re like me and love both genres equally, this book is deeply satisfying. Or, as satisfying as a swords-and-knives bodice ripper can be. (Which is, to say, quite a bit.) I am looking forward to reading the second book in this series!

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Book review: Blythe by John Kramer

BlytheBlythe by John Kramer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have no idea how to classify this book–it’s as if the author of The Hunger Games trilogy went drinking with Friedrich Hayek (“The Road to Serfdom”) and C.S. Lewis, and they all decided to write a novel together (while drinking). 🙂
The book is all about faith and freedom and redemption, and, yet, it is about none of these things. I have concluded that it is one of those rare books where you get out of the book what you put in, only with your thoughts more deeply developed and your words more lyrically written.
I realize my review is somewhat cryptic, but the book defies classification and is one of those books that stays with you long after you’ve finished it. It isn’t the kind of book I normally read, and it’s not always a comfortable read (intentionally so). Even with those caveats, I really enjoyed it, and it will keep me thinking for quite a while.
If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary to get your mind to go down roads it doesn’t normally travel, I highly recommend “Blythe” to get those brain cells going!

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Asia 2017

Beijing was the first stop on our tour. We went with family friends and since it was their first trip to Beijing, we played tourist. This process was helped disproportionately because our former exchange student was in Beijing at the time. She helped come up with the itinerary and arranged for tickets for many of our stops.

pretending to like each other at the Peninsula Hotel, Beijing

Highlights included the Summer Palace (my favorite stop in Beijing),

the 17 arch bridge at the Summer Palace

the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest,

entertainment at the Water Cube

Bird’s Nest

inside the Bird’s Nest

the Great Wall (on a misty and rainy day) where we discovered that the locals had conveniently blocked off traffic to the closest parking lot to the wall and paid off the local police so that they could offer a local “guide” who thoughtfully would enable us to drive up to the closest parking lot for a small fee and lunch at their farmstead. It was an instructive lesson in the demonstration of corruption-fueled capitalism. I have never seen the Great Wall in weather conditions like this—it has usually been clear and hot when we’ve been there. While conditions were a bit wet, the fog drifting across the wall and the mountains made for stunning views.

the Great Wall

We had a private tour of the National Museum, thanks to Jim’s connection with the Freer-Sackler. I am not certain the rhinoceros was the most impressive thing that we saw during the tour, but it clearly captured the boy’s fancy.

the most amazing item at the National Museum?

The Forbidden City was also a mandatory stop.

Forbidden City

inside or outside the urn?

They have now opened up the balcony where Mao made his famous speech declaring the formation of the People’s Republic of China while overlooking Tiananmen Square. (No further comment.) The views of the square are stunning.

view of Tienanmen Square

After Beijing, we went to Tokyo, for the US-Japan Leadership Program alumni weekend. While we did interesting conference-like activities, the kids went off to Tokyo Disney Sea. My only requirement for their visit is that they have a minimum of two photos together, looking like they liked each other. (I got 3 photos—way to go above and beyond the bare minimum, children!) :p

Tokyo Disney Sea

We had a fabulous trip, and it was way fun to play tourist after several years of not getting back to China.

Summer 2017: Honolulu

I know it seems as if we go to Honolulu all the time, but all I can say is that we aren’t ever there often enough.

We were the winning bid at a charity auction for a week at a house in Honolulu belonging to Kathy Ireland (note: our kids had no idea who she was) and decided to try out the staying-at-a-house concept over staying at the Halekulani. We cajoled some friends of ours to join us on our trip.

sunrise at Villa Elizabeth

view from Villa Elizabeth

view from Villa Elizabeth

The kids took surfing lessons and hung out at the beach, but we also managed to fit in some semi-educational moments. The Punchbowl (officially known as the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific) contains not only a detailed description of the battles in the Pacific but also some of the most stunning views of the city.

National Memorial of the Pacific

view from the Punchbowl

view from the Punchbowl

And you can see why Hanauma Bay was reserved for the Hawaiian royal family. My personal highlight was seeing a sea turtle for the first time. (My inability to see a sea turtle before this trip might have been related to my reluctance to go into the ocean, which is generally cold by my standards, but I doubt it.) 🙂

Hanauma Bay

But Honolulu isn’t Honolulu if we didn’t spend at least a couple of days at our favorite hotel, the Halekulani. The views from the hotel are just as stunning as ever.

view from the Halekulani

All in all, one of our favorite trips to Hawaii. (But don’t we say that every time we go?)