Tag Archives: Think of a Number

Santa’s Book List

We recently met with Santa Claus at the North Pole to work on a list of possible presents for book lovers.   Here’s what we came up with.Santa Claus

For the Fiction Reader

You Came Back: A Novel by Christopher Coake (Grand Central Publishing), and Gone: A Novel by Cathi Hanauer (Atria).

Two of the best novels of the year, both dealing with loss.   A man’s life is irrevocably changed when his young son dies, and a wife and mother is lost when her husband drives the babysitter home and never returns.

Sacrifice Fly: A Mystery by Tim O’Mara (Minotaur Books)

This may be the best debut crime novel by anyone since Think of a Number by John Verdon.   A disabled NYPD cop turned public school teacher decides to solve a crime that involves one of his former students.

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A Possible Life: A Novel in Five Parts by Sebastian Faulks (Henry Holt)

A story is told through the lives of five different human beings who live in different times, including the past and the future (2029).   Those who loved the innovative novel American Music by Jane Mendelsohn may be drawn to this one.

Blackberry Winter: A Novel by Sarah Jio (Plume)

A perfect cold case story for cold weather reading.   As a late-Spring snowstorm hits Seattle, a reporter tries to get to the bottom of an 80 year-old kidnapping.

Forgotten: A Novel by Catherine McKenzie (William Morrow)

A young female Canadian lawyer, presumed to have died while visiting a village in Africa destroyed by an earthquake, returns home to find that everyone’s moved on without her.   From the author of Spin and Arranged.

Tuesday Night Miracles: A Novel by Kris Radish (Bantam Dell)

Four women with legal and personal issues are required to attend weekly group counseling sessions with a rather unconventional counselor.   Serious issues covered with a “wry sense of humor” (The Sacramento Bee).

For the Music Lover

The Wrecking Crew: The Inside Story of Rock and Roll’s Best-Kept Secret by Kent Hartman (Thomas Dunne Books)

The story of the musicians who anonymously played on most of the biggest-selling rock songs recorded between 1962 and 1975.   This book provides “Good Vibrations” for the music fanatic.

Bruce by Peter James Carlin (Touchstone)

The author of Paul McCartney: A Life shows us the very human side of The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.

I Got a Name: The Jim Croce Story by Ingrid Croce and Jimmy Rock (Da Capo)

Fans of the late singer-songwriter will be enthralled by this overview of his all-too-short life.

Is This the Real Life?: The Untold Story of Freddie Mercury & Queen by Mark Blake (Da Capo), and Mercury: An Intimate Biography of Freddie Mercury by Lesley-Ann Jones (Touchstone)

These well-written biographies of the late Queen front man will make readers revisit their Queen music collections, or purchase new ones.Mercury 2

For Those with Special Diets

You Won’t Believe It’s Salt-Free!: 125 Healthy, Low-Sodium and No-Sodium Recipes Using Flavorful Spice Blends by Robyn Webb (Da Capo Lifelong Books), and Gluten-Free On a Shoestring Quick & Easy by Nicole Hunn (Da Capo Lifelong Books)

It’s not easy to cut down on either sodium or gluten in our diets, but these two authors illustrate how you can do so and still enjoy eating.

For the Sports Fan

Best of Rivals: Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the Inside Story Behind the NFL’s Greatest Quarterback Controversy by Adam Lazarus (Da Capo)

If you think the San Francisco 49ers have a quarterback controversy now, Lazarus reminds us of what happened on the team between 1987 and 1994.

The Longest Shot: Jack Fleck, Ben Hogan, and Pro Golf’s Greatest Upset at the 1955 U.S. Open by Neil Sagebiel (Thomas Dunne Books)

The amazing story of when an unknown golfer by the name of Jack Fleck beat his idol, the great Ben Hogan, at the U.S. Open major tournament.   Truth is stranger than fiction, and in ’55 the Open was played at the Olympic Club in San Francisco (just like this year’s U.S. Open).

For the Animal Lover

Following Atticus by Tom Ryan (William Morrow)

An overweight man’s health is saved, and his life is rescued by a small mountain-climbing miniature schnauzer named Atticus M. Finch.   A fine, touching memoir.

Following Atticus (audio)

Atticus-at-the-top-of-mount-washington

Joseph Arellano

Review copies were provided by the publishers and/or publicists.   A Possible Life will be released on Tuesday, December 11, 2012.

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Think of a Number: A Novel by John Verdon (Broadway, $14.00, 448 pages)

“On the one hand, there was the logic of the law, the science of criminology, the process of adjudication.   On the other, there was pain, murderous rage, death.”

John Verdon, a former advertising firm executive in Manhattan, has produced a brilliant debut novel that offers a cynical and skeptical look at today’s criminal justice system.   In Verdon’s words, “…the justice system is a cage that can no more keep the devil contained than a weather vane can stop the wind.”   If one read this novel with no knowledge of the writer’s background, one would guess that he’s a retired policeman or prosecutor.   It is quite hard to believe that Verdon has no personal knowledge of the bleak and challenging world that he writes about so expertly in this work.

In Think of a Number, retired detective David Gurney and his wife Madeleine live in the hills of Delaware County.   She is the smarter of the tow, although he is considered to be the most brilliant crime solver who ever worked for the New York City Police Department.   Gurney is so legendary that his adult son says to him, “Mass murderers don’t have a chance against you.   You’re like Batman.”

But Gurney may have met his match when he’s asked by the county district attorney to serve as a special investigator on a serial murder case.   The killer seems to do the impossible.   First, he sends his intended victim a message asking him to think of a number, any number at all.   Once they think of the number they are instructed to open a sealed envelope left in their home; this envelope contains a piece of paper with the very number they thought of written down in ink.   As if this is not amazing and frightening enough, the killer subsequently calls his intended victim and asks him to whisper another number into the phone.   After he does so, he is instructed to go to the mailbox.   There he retrieves a sealed envelope with the very number he just whispered typed on a page that was in the envelope.

Gurney is fortunate in that he’s very ably assisted by Madeleine, the spouse who often sees the very things he’s missed.   But no one can figure out how the serial murderer performs his tricks with numbers, or how to capture him.   In order to solve the puzzles, Gurney is going to have to consider making himself a target of the killer.   Gurney’s logic and research tells him that the serial killer is a control freak, one who kills victims in different states (like Ted Bundy) but operates according to a strict if twisted plan.

Gurney must come up with a theory as to what connects these male victims – who seem to have no apparent connection – in order to figure out why they were killed.   Once he does so, he begins to formulate a plan that will put him face to face with a madman genius.   (The reader, luckily, will not even come close to predicting what’s ahead.)

Think of a Number is a fast-moving, cinematic-style suspense thriller.   It’s easy to see this novel being made into a film.   At heart, it’s an old-fashioned morality play in which a retired white-hat wearing man must come out of retirement to battle with an all too clever mean-hearted outlaw.   Detective Gurney engages the enemy – a modern devil – while understanding that in the gritty field of criminal justice there are no final victories.

This is an impressively written and addictive story – especially so, as it’s a debut novel.   One is advised to refrain from starting it without having cleared a large block of hours on your schedule; otherwise, hours of sleep will be lost.   Once finished, you will no doubt begin to look forward to Mr. Verdon’s next satisfying thriller.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   A trade paperback version of Think of a Number was released on June 5, 2012.   It is also available as a Kindle Edition and Nook Book download, and as an unabridged audiobook, read by George Newbern.

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A Summer Reading List

Our local fish wrapper challenged its avid readers to come up with their own list of books to read this summer.   Here’s my list of ten (10):

Shut Your Eyes Tight: A Novel by John Verdon (July)

The second retired NYPD Detective Dave Gurney novel from the author of the mind-blowing Think of a Number.

Very Bad Men: A Novel by Harry Dolan (July)

Not quite as good as Think of a Number, but a close and exciting runner-up.

Fault Lines: A Novel by Anne Rivers Siddons (January)

From the author of Off Season, it’s set in the redwood country near Santa Cruz, with stops in Atlanta, San Francisco, and Hollywood-Los Angeles.

Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, and the Marriage of the Century by Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger (June)

The true story of the monumental love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.   “Reads like a Shakespearean drama.”   USA Today

Skipping a Beat: A Novel by Sarah Pekkanen (February)

Her debut novel, The Opposite of Me, was endorsed by Judith Weiner.   Enough said.

Guilt by Association: A Novel by Marcia Clark (April)

I’ve read it, but it was so much fun that I look forward to reading it again!

The American Heiress: A Novel by Daisy Goodwin (June)

What happens after a storybook wedding?

The Astral: A Novel by Kate Christensen (June)

This story has as many weaknesses as it has strengths, but it is highly engaging in an inexplicable way.

Robert Redford: The Biography by Michael Feeney Callan (May)

Biographies of famous but  secluded figures tend to be either brilliant or full and complete disasters.   I’m interested in seeing which category this one falls into.

Before Ever After: A Novel by Samantha Sotto (August)

A debut novel about a woman who finds out that her dead husband (going on three years) may very well be alive.

Joseph Arellano

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Ballad of a Thin Man

The Vaults by Toby Ball (St. Martin’s Press; $24.99; 307 pages)

“Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is.   Do you, Mr. Jones?”   Bob Dylan

Toby Ball’s debut novel starts off with the feel of John Verdon’s excellent debut, Think of a Number.   That’s the good news.   The bad is that Ball’s story is far more complicated, involving more protagonists and characters – perhaps too many.   “The City,” unidentified in The Vaults, may be a windy Chicago or a mean Philadelphia or an old Los Angeles (“The purple light above The City…  And those searchlights beaming from the top of City Hall…”), but it sometimes felt as if Ball was attempting to populate the novel with every one of its inhabitants.

There are three male protagonists, each of whom happens to be accompanied by a female or male partner or colleague, and there are several political, labor and law enforcement officials who have notable roles.   Oh, and I have yet to mention the criminals – guys with names like Blood Whiskers and Otto Samuelson – who become key players.   This reader knows that a story has become complex when he needs to take out the old legal note pad to chart the characters.

Set several decades in the past, The Vaults begins with a criminal records archivist named Puskis, who comes to fear that someone is tampering with the files under his control.   Some of the conviction records contain the notation “PN,” which stands for something unknown to Puskis.   This is where we begin to suspect that corruption is going on in The City run by the power-hungry mayor Red Henry.

Puskis is not alone in his quest to find out what’s going on.   There’s also an investigative newspaper reporter, the well-known Frings, and a P. I. named Poole who smells something wrong as he searches for a missing child.   Puskis collaborates with his predecessor Van Vossen; Poole with his union-based activist and lover Carla; and Frings with his girlfriend and popular jazz singer Nora.   (Together they will learn that PN stands for something known as the Navajo Project – therein lies the tale.)

With all of these figures on-stage and off, I began thinking of Robert Altman’s film Nashville, which had a cast of myriad characters.   As with Nashville, you know here that the characters are going to come together at the story’s resolution.   This is not a surprise and, at about four-fifths of the way through the novel, the reader can see the ending that’s in sight.   The ending was logical, predictable and preordained; not the type of conclusion one would expect in a mystery.

With some mysteries the end is opaque until the final pages, which is perhaps as it should be.   For example, with the sci-fi mystery novel Everything Matters! the author needed not one but two endings to come to a conclusion.   Even then, some found the conclusion discomforting.   I loved Everything Matters! specifically because I didn’t see either ending coming, the fake one or the reprise that constituted the true ending.

Toby Ball has a tremendous imagination, and possesses what appears to be a great deal of knowledge about the criminal justice system.   Because of this, The Vaults is unique and is worth reading.   This reader, however, would love to see Ball’s skills applied the next time around to a tighter-woven and simpler story.   One that feels more natural.   The Vaults sometimes struck me as a type of engineering-as-writing exercise – “If this piece goes here, then this other piece must go there.”

“…it is all chaos.”

Reaching the end of this review, we must come to a conclusion.   We’re rating this novel as Recommended – but with a caution.   Those who like big cinematic stories with a mega-cast of characters are going to be carried away by The Vaults and they’ll enjoy the time they spend in The City.   But those who like smaller stories – micro rather than mega, human scale rather than I-MAX – would be advised to instead pick up a calm and concentrated family novel.

Take Away:  This novel starts off in third gear before moving quickly into fourth and skirting with overdrive.   However, the excitement and originality of the first half of the book was lacking in the second – the latter part seemed to lag in second and first gear.   Overall, more pluses than minuses.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Win Blind Man’s Alley

Thanks to Judy at Doubleday, we have a copy to give away of Blind Man’s Alley: A Novel by Justin Peacock, the author of A Cure for Night.   This book has a retail value of $26.95 and this is a first-run hardbound copy.   The novel is said to be “an ambitious and compulsively readable novel set in the cutthroat world of New York real estate.”   Here is the official synopsis:

A concrete floor three hundred feet up in the Aurora Tower condo development in SoHo has collapsed, hurling three workers to their deaths.   The developer, Roth Properties (owned by the famously abrasive Simon Roth), faces a vast tangle of legal problems, including accusations of mob connections.   Roth’s longtime lawyers, the elite midtown law firm of Blake and Wolcott, is assigned the task of cleaning up the mess.   Much of the work lands on the plate of smart, cynical, and seasoned associate Duncan Riley; as a result, he falls into the powerful orbit of Leah Roth, the beautiful daughter of Simon Roth and the designated inheritor of his real estate empire.

Meanwhile, Riley pursues a seemingly small pro bono case in which he attempts to forestall the eviction of Rafael Nazario and his grandmother from public housing in the wake of a pot bust.   One night Rafael is picked up and charged with the murder of the private security cop who caught him, a murder that took place in another controversial “mixed income” housing development being built by…  Roth Properties.   Duncan Riley is now walking the knife-edge of legal ethics and personal morality.

Blind Man’s Alley is a suspenseful and kaleidoscopic journey through a world where the only rule is self-preservation.   The New York Times Book Review said of A Cure for Night that “(Peacock) heads toward Scott Turow country…  he’s got a good chance to make partner.”

In order to enter this book giveaway contest just post a comment here, with your name and e-mail address, or send that information via e-mail to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will be considered to be your first entry.   For a second entry, tell us who your favorite crime or courtroom drama author is – Scott Turow, John Grisham, Steve Martini, Julie Compton, Jonathan Kellerman, Robert Rotenberg of Canada (City Hall), John Verdon (Think of a Number), David Baldacci or someone else?

You have until midnight PST on Sunday, October 10, 2010 to submit your entry or entries.   The winner will be drawn by Munchy the cat and will be contacted via e-mail.   In order to enter this contest you must live in the continental U.S. and have a residential mailing address.   Books will not be shipped to a P.O. box or a business-related address.

This is it for the “complex” contest rules.   Good luck and good reading!    

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A Numbers Game

Think of a Number by John Verdon (Crown, July 2010, 432 pages)

“On the one hand, there was the logic of the law, the science of criminology, the processes of adjudication.   On the other, there was pain, murderous rage, death.”

John Verdon, a former advertising firm executive in Manhattan, has produced a brilliant debut novel that offers a cynical and skeptical look at the modern criminal justice system.   In Verdon’s words, “…the justice system is a cage that can no more keep the devil contained than a weather vane can stop the wind.”   If one read this novel with no knowledge of the writer’s background, one would guess that he is a retired policeman or prosecutor.   It is quite hard to believe that Verdon has no personal knowledge of the bleak and challenging world that he writes about so expertly in this work.

In Think of a Number, retired Detective David Gurney and his wife Madeleine live in the hills of Delaware County.   She is the smarter of the two, although he is considered to be the most brilliant crime solver who ever worked for the New York City Police Department.   Gurney is so legendary that his adult son says to him, “Mass murderers don’t have a chance against you.   You’re like Batman.”

But Gurney may have met his match when he’s asked by the county district attorney to serve as a special investigator on a serial killer case.   The killer seems to do the impossible.   First, he sends his intended victim a message asking him to think of a number, any number at all.   Once they think of the number they are instructed to open a sealed envelope; this envelope contains the very number they thought of written in ink.   As if this is not amazing and frightening enough, the killer subsequently calls his intended victim and asks him to whisper another number into the phone.   After he does so, he is instructed to go to his mailbox.   There he retrieves a sealed envelope with the very number he just whispered typed onto a  page that was in the envelope.

Gurney is fortunate in that he’s ably assisted by Madeleine who often sees things he’s missed.   But no one can figure out how the serial murderer performs his numbers tricks, or how to capture him.   In order to solve the puzzles, Gurney is going to have to consider making himself a target of the killer.   Gurney’s logic and research tells him that the serial killer is a control freak, one who kills victims in different states (like Ted Bundy) but operates according to a strict plan.

Gurney must come up with a theory as to what connects these male victims – who seem to have no apparent connection – in order to figure out why they were killed.   Once he does so, he begins to formulate a plan that will put him face to face with a madman genius.   (The reader, quite fortunately, will not come even close to predicting what’s ahead.)

Think of a Number is a fast-moving, cinematic-style thriller.   It is easy to see this novel being made into a film.   At heart, it’s an old-fashioned morality play in which a retired white-hat wearing man must come out of retirement to battle with an all too clever mean-hearted outlaw.   Detective Gurney engages the enemy – a modern devil – while understanding that in the gritty field of criminal justice there are no final victories.

This is an impressively written and engaging story.   One is advised to refrain from starting it without having cleared a number of hours on one’s schedule; otherwise, hours of sleep will be lost.   Once finished, you will no doubt begin – as this reader has – to count the months until Mr. Verdon delivers his next very satisfying thriller.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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