Sunday, June 29, 2014

Disruptive Genius

Michael Jackson, Inc: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire – Zack O’Malley Greenberg (Atria Books)

Before the likes of Russell Simmons, P-Diddy and Jay Z ever came along to build empires based not only on their music business savvy; spinning of wide ranging and diverse business empires there was there was Michael Jackson.

Forbes Magazine senior editor, Zack O’Malley Greenburg tracks Jackson’s musical genius, which spawned his business genius, from the beginning days of his career in Gary, Indiana; being managed by the Jackson family’s hard-nosed patriarch, Joe Jackson, and the start of the Jackson 5. Michael Jackson, Inc: The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of a Billion-Dollar Empire takes us forward through his meteoric solo/business career, his financial downfall and his after death, rebirth of the Jackson empire.

Greenburg recounts the King of Pop’s financial downfall, which can be tied to legal troubles and confrontations with the likes of slimy “journalists” like Martin Bashir who focused on Jackson’s at times less than stellar life choices. While his undeniable musical genius could not always over-shadow the ills and allegations that Jackson faced during his period of financial and personal difficulty, his untimely passing could.

While so may find it hard to comprehend, Greenburg recounts that since his death five years ago, the Jackson estate has generated nearly half of his life time career earnings, which exceed one billion dollars.

With the current and future projects on the drawing board it is easy to speculate that Michael Jackson, Inc, will easily and quickly usurp that figure within the next few years. Without new personal foibles to derail any progress and his popularity still intact, the Jackson estate is on stable footing to continue that rapid growth position.  

How Much Is Enough?

Conform – Exposing the Truth About Common Core and Public Education – Glenn Beck (Threshold Editions/Mercury Radio Arts)

For years when it comes to public education, I have been asking the question; how much is enough? That simple question has now taken on a much greater meaning; while I was asking it about from the straight forward financial perspective, with the advent of Common Core, that question has now expand to include government control of our and our students lives.

Media mogul Glenn Beck offers up the second installment in his Control series; Conform – Exposing the Truth About Common Core and Public Education, which offers up a basic primer not only on the roots and breadth of Common Core, but also spells out a broad based break down of systemic problems with the U.S. public education system.

Naturally, because Beck is who he is, this will no doubt engender howls of protest and name-calling, but the fact of the matter is he does arm folks with the basic understanding they need to fight back against Common Core before it becomes deeply engrained in the education system. While the career path training may sound good and has certainly proven the strange bedfellows analogy by drawing interest and support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and business organizations across the U.S., the longitudinal computer tracking of students through out there educational career and on into their career path is downright scary.

Clearly, anyone with even a modicum of common sense will recognize that Common Core’s twisted approach to education will do nothing to improve outcomes and sets up the perpetual argument that the only reason why it failed is of course, because we didn’t spend enough money! Not that it was doomed to fail from the start.

The U.S. education system is beyond repair until we address the systemic issues that have become deeply seated and are protected by education fiefdoms and teachers unions. Taxpayers are saddled with too many school districts that duplicate too many administrative functions at too great a cost. The city that I grew up in upstate New York is divided into four separate school districts in a relatively small geographic area. There are 500(!) school districts spread across the 67 counties that make up Pennsylvania; that means 500 school superintendents, 500 district administrative staffs and the high costs inherent to these systems.

Unions are designed to do two things; perpetuate unions and protect the worst teachers, keeping them in the classroom and subjecting students to their mediocre skills. Until we create a system that properly measures and rewards highly skilled teachers and frees those less than stellar teachers to pursue their true career path, we will continue to lag behind the rest of the world in educational outcomes.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

What Happens at the Farm…

The Farm – Tom Rob Smith (Grand Central Publishing)

Think about the number of classic novels that have had the storyline set in motion by one seemingly simple action. A phone call is all it takes to set Tom Rob Smith’s latest, The Farm in motion; however it was not just any phone call.

An older couple, cash strapped after the financial meltdown takes what remains of their life savings and moves to Sweden, the wife birthplace, to live out their retirement on a simple farm. This idyllic sounding life comes crashing to a halt when the husband calls their son to announce that the wife is under psychiatric care in an asylum.

Smith weaves an intricate tale as the mother tells the son the story of a not so idyllic life as she builds what she believes to be a sturdy case involving murder and mayhem. Smith cuts in an abundance of dialogue to move the story forward and offers detailed descriptions of settings and locales and spices things with a tension involved in all of the relationships in the book.

While the dialogue can prove to be a bit jumpy and the amount of detail is at times overwhelming, Smith does manage to drag you along to the pay off, with all of this device.  While The Farm may not live up to the title of classic, it is another winner for Smith.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Going Deep Into Old Weird Bob

Dylan: The Biography – Dennis McDougal (Turner Publishing)

Easily one of the most difficult tasks facing any writer that wants to delve into the career, the music, the personal life or any other conceivable facet of a renowned musical artist life is to either develop a hook that no one else has tackled or to dig deeply enough to track down new information of greater detail than has been revealed by other authors.

When you consider an artist that has had a career that has spanned fifty years plus like Bob Dylan and has been written about in literally dozens of books, hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles and dissected from every imaginable angle; the task to break new ground is a daunting one.

Veteran author/journalist/producer Dennis McDougal faced that challenge head on; aspiring to tackle the subject of Bob Dylan by sheer volume of information in the 540 page epic, Dylan: The Biography. At times, McDougal lets a bit of his unabashed fan-boy shine through, comparing Dylan to the likes, not of legendary musicians but legendary scribes like Mark Twain, William Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens.

While Dylan-philes may be well familiar with much of the material included in this block-like edition, those who have never tackled the Dylan story in print would be advised to use this as winning starting place. McDougal does a nice job of balancing opinion and journalism throughout this epic journey.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Summer Reading Stampede…Part 3

The annual stampede of great summer reading is upon us; here is round three of my look at what to expect from both the tried and true veterans of the form to up and some up and coming new talents.

Suspicion – Joseph Finder (Dutton Books)

I love thrillers, there is just something exciting about being on that twisting turning rollercoaster that keeps me coming back for more. When you boil it down, one of the things that puts the thrill in thrillers is the writer’s ability to create tension in the story; the ability to pull that rubber band taught, almost to the snapping point. Simply put; no one does tension better than Joseph Finder.

Finder’s latest, Suspicion, finds struggling writer Danny Goodman caught squarely between a rock and a hard place; he needs a quick infusion of cash or this single father will need to tear apart his daughter’s life and remove her from a pricey private school. When a new school friend’s well to do father offers a life line in the form of no strings attached loan, how could Goodman resist?

When it turns out the loan came from a suspected money launderer for the brutal Sinaloa drug cartel, the DEA comes knocking on Goodman’s door waving around fraud charges and an “opportunity” the story is off to the races. Finder does a masterful job with the classic fish out of water storyline; what would a struggling biographer know about drug cartels and being law enforcement snitch? Goodman reacts like any father and does what he can to protect his family and himself and therein lays the tension in the story.

Rogue Code – A Jeff Aiken Novel – Mark Russinovich (Thomas Dunne Books)

Mark Russinovich is a senior tech guru for Microsoft and the author of numerous technical writings, who in his spare time has managed to knock out a series of high tech thrillers featuring computer security expert Jeff Aiken. The third book in the series, Rogue Code tackles the all too realistic threat that the New York Stock Exchange could be hacked and accounts plundered to the tune of millions and millions of dollars.

Aiken is called in to investigate a potential security at the NYSE, only to discover not only that they have been hacked, but it appears someone has left the proverbial door open. From there the race is on to not only get himself out from trumped up charges, but to put a stop to what could become a multi-billion dollar theft.

Often cited by those in the know for his tech accuracy, Russinovich may lose some readers with the sheer volume of not only technical jargon, but of the description of what is happening in a given scene. At times the book screams for a shot of additional dialog, but overall still delivers the goods.

Wolf – A Jack Caffery Thriller – Mo Hayder - (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Best-selling author Mo Hayder serves up the 7th installment of the Detective Jack Caffrey series, Wolf. This being my first venture into the mind of Ms. Hayder, I didn’t know quite what to expect. What I got was the desire to go back and flesh out some of the depth that is clearly part and parcel of the Caffery character; simply put there is a whole lot more to this guy then can be found in just one book.
Some may chafe at some of the more vicious twists and scenes that Hayder weaves into this tale of a home invasion that is also more than meets the eye, but I think she uses the device well to set the hook for the “final” twist. This is one that has kept me thinking and shivering well after I closed the back cover.




Sunday, June 1, 2014

Summer Reading Stampede…Part 2

The annual stampede of great summer reading is upon us; here is round two of my look at what to expect from both the tried and true veterans of the form to up and some up and coming new talents.

Target America – A Sniper Elite Novel – Scott McEwen with Thomas Kolonair (Touchstone Books)

With the untimely passing of Vince Flynn we lost not only a great person, he remains one of my all-time favorite author interviews, but a fantastic writer and more adventures with Mitch Rapp. The authenticity of Rapp’s character and actions made the stories even better.

It is that been there done that authenticity that makes the second installment in Scott McEwen’s Sniper Elite series, Target America – A Sniper Elite Novel and the lead character Gill Shannon such a solid potential candidate to fill the Rapp void.

Chechan terrorists smuggle a pair of Cold War era leftover Russian “suitcase nukes” into the United States; when one gets detonated in a drug tunnel on the U.S., Mexican border, the race is on to track down the second nuke. Shannon and his band of highly trained Seal Team 6 Black operatives are on the hunt and the ripped from today’s headlines story line about the rights of U.S. Citizens who want to do us harm is just one of the sub-storylines.

McEwen, the bestselling, co-author of late, Seal Sniper Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, clearly taps into some insider sources to craft this entertaining read.

Don’ Ever Look Back – Daniel Friedman (Minotaur Books)

Retired long-time Memphis detective Buck Schatz is a cantankerous, cranky, 88 year old resident of an assisted living facility; the latter of which he is clearly not happy about. Author Daniel Friedman, who scored an arm load of award nominations and won the Macavity for best first novel, for Shatz debut in Don’t Ever Get Old, is back with  the second installment in the series; Don’ Ever Look Back.

When Buck is confronted by an old nemesis, Elijah, over some bad scrambled eggs and with an odd request for help. Buck must wrestle with old demons as well as new maladies. While Friedman is clearly skilled with mystery, it is his ability to interject Buck’s biting humor into the mix that makes the character stand out. The intertwining of current events and those of the past bring an interesting contrast that help to drive the story.

Unlucky 13 – James Patterson and Maxine Paetro (Little Brown Books)

The 13th entry in James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series, Unlucky 13 weaves an intriguing set of mysteries for the four lead characters to unravel and solve; a seemingly straightforward auto accident takes an unexpected turn when it turns out the wreck was caused by ingestible belly bomb and then the FBI sends Detective Lindsay Boxer a recent photo of one of the Club’s most dangerous killers, Mackie Morales.
While the belly bomb angle is certainly had the potential to carry the book, but seems to get lost in the mix of tracking down the elusive Mackie, and ends up being left unresolved. The Women’s Murder Club is a winning franchise based largely on the characters who drive the story and they continue front and center here. With the return of Mackie, I am hoping the plans call for bringing the belly bomb angle to conclusion at a later date.