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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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02/22/2010

Book Review: The Pack: Winter Kill (Volume 1) by Mike Oliveri

Category Book Review Mike Oliveri The Pack: Winter Kill (Volume 1)
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This one surprised me... The Pack: Winter Kill (Volume 1) by Mike Oliveri.  While at a conference last month, a friend of mine (who is also a friend of the author) gave me a copy of Winter Kill to read.  While I tend to like the occasional supernatural thriller, I must confess that the werewolf genre isn't one I'm automatically drawn towards.  But the book isn't that big, and my friend told me it was pretty good.  He wasn't kidding... I started Winter Kill one evening as I went to bed and finished it on my bus ride home from work the next day.  

The story isn't overly complicated or drawn out.  The action starts within the first couple of chapters and continues at a constant pace throughout.  Oliveri also doesn't waste many words on being overly melodramatic or over-describing a scene.  All the characters have a role to play, and what appears on the page is necessary to keep the story moving.  And the ending, while hinted at somewhat throughout the story, has a twist that I wasn't completely ready for.  Had I not read the last line of the back cover before starting, I don't think I would have seen it coming at all.

There's obviously plenty of room to fill in the backstory of how the characters got to be the way they were, and I'm willing to give Oliveri room to leave some things unclear here, knowing that there are other installments to come.  In fact, in this case it makes me a little more excited for the next episode to appear, as I really do want to see where he lets this series go.  In any case, I think I've found a new author that I'll look forward to reading.

And no, I bear him no malice over the fact that he named one of the bad guys "Duff", and that Duff meets with a gruesome end.  I'll just assume my friend put him up to it. :)

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Author
Payment: Free

02/21/2010

Book Review: The Skinny on Willpower, How to Develop Self Discipline by Jim Randel

Category Book Review Jim Randel The Skinny on Willpower How to Develop Self Discipline
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I was recently contacted by the publisher of a new book series called "The Skinny On."  The concept is that people are busy, so the authors take a topic and distill down the essential information into a book that allows you to get the core information quickly.  Illustrated by stick figures, it made for an interesting concept in my mind.  The first book I decided to look at was The Skinny on Willpower, How to Develop Self Discipline by Jim Randel.  After seeing the concept in action in this title, I must say I rather like it.  Randel does an excellent job in getting the core points on how willpower works across to the reader in a quick and amusing fashion.  Even if you've read a dozen books on motivation and goal setting, The Skinny on Willpower will still help to remind you of the key elements.

At 144 pages, Willpower will not take you long to read.  The story revolves around Billy and Beth, two stick figures ("skinny", get it?) who have a couple goals they want to reach.  Billy wants to lose 10 pounds, while Beth wants to open a fashion boutique but needs to write a business plan to get a loan.  The married couple interact with each other as they fail and falter in making progress.  The author makes a few stick figure appearances to help them get back on track and teach them the skills they need to keep on moving forward towards their goals.  Among the way, Randel gives the reader plenty of core information as to how willpower works in real life, as well as a 15 point plan at the end for improving your discipline and willpower in a realistic, honest fashion.

You might think that this is a gimmicky, "follow these steps" plan promised by many self-help authors, but that's not the case.  Randel doesn't go off into esoteric mumbo-jumbo and promise magic results.  He acknowledges that self-discipline is hard, you will fail along the way, and you have to get back up and keep trying to be successful.  And if you're not one who's much for reading a 300 page book on the subject, The Skinny on Willpower will quickly and easily give you the framework you need to start moving in the right direction.  I even found it personally motivating to be reminded of the key points, and to refocus on what's important.

I have one other Skinny book to read and review, as well as an open offer to read and review any other titles in the series.  I have a feeling that I might be taking them up on that offer...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publisher
Payment: Free

02/20/2010

Book Review - Secret Portland, Oregon 2010: The Unique Guidebook to Portland's Hidden Sites, Sounds, and Tastes

Category Book Review Ann Carroll Burgess Tom Burgess Secret Portland Oregon 2010: The Unique Guidebook to Portland's Hidden Sites Sounds & Tastes
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Even if  you've lived in a city for over 40 years, there's a strong likelihood that you haven't seen or experienced all it has to offer.  I really felt that way while I was reading Secret Portland, Oregon 2010: The Unique Guidebook to Portland's Hidden Sites, Sounds, & Tastes by Tom Burgess and Ann Carroll Burgess.  Secret Portland is made up of 205 "secret" topics, or places and ideas you may not have known about in the City of Roses.  While you probably won't be interested in all of them (secret dog friendly places don't apply to me), there's plenty of other things that make you want to start scheduling some outings.

Some of the most useful secret items are the restaurants for different food types.  Secret Middle Eastern listed a couple of options that sound like they'd be rather tasty.  Secret Italian sounded pretty good also.  Secret Japanese goes beyond the restaurants and points you to other items of interest like Uwajimaya's, a supermarket for all things Asian, and Wakai Dokokai, a Portland school to teach you the "way of tea."  Unless you had kids interested in skateboarding, you may not know about one of the Secret Skate Parks located under the Burnside bridge (very hidden and grunge).  And who could resist Secret Museums, where two of the offerings include a vacuum cleaner museum and the Velveteria, an honest-to-goodness museum of nothing but velvet paintings (yes, "Keep Portland Weird" is our motto for a reason!)

A copy of Secret Portland will give you months of entertainment as you seek out areas in the city you didn't know existed.  I also kept thinking that using Secret Portland as a guidebook for pictures of the city might also be an interesting project.  Either way, Secret Portland is a nice book to help you uncover the real Portland.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library

Payment: Borrowed

02/20/2010

Book Review - Volkswagen Transporter The First 60 Years by Richard Copping and Brian Screaton

Category Book Review Richard Copping Brian Screaton Volkswagen Transporter The First 60 Years
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This is another one of those "new books at the library" selections that just happened to strike my fancy when I saw it... Volkswagen Transporter The First 60 Years by Richard Copping and Brian Screaton.  It's a coffee-table-sized book that covers the full history of the Volkswagen Van, from the first models to roll off the assembly line until today.  Copping and Screaton do a very good job of combining both text and images, so by the end you have the complete story of the van, both down to the minute body specs and with pictures to show each change along the way.

For a VW fanatic, this would be a must-have book.  The authors go into detail about how the idea of the Transporter came about, the struggles to get it out the door, and the personalities that shaped the vehicle over the years.  For those of us who just fondly remember the "happy face" design, the images can take you down memory lane if you ever had the opportunity to ride in a VW Bus or go camping in one.  

I personally didn't realize just how influential and groundbreaking the Transporter design was at the time it was introduced.  It was a vehicle designed for a specific purpose... carrying cargo.  No luxuries, no frills, just basic function with unique cargo-carrying design at the time.  Over the years, VW added additional models to expand the line and target audiences.  I didn't know there were specific models designed to be ambulances, hydraulic lift platforms, tipper trucks, and mobile work stations.  And of course, the addition of passenger seats turned the Transporter into what was probably the original mini-van.  

When you look at the models of today, they're sadly lacking in that distinctive look that made VW so easy to spot and recognize.  But with this book, you can relive the glory days of the Volkswagen Transporter,  Almost makes me want to put on a tie-dye shirt and play some Grateful Dead music... :)

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library

Payment: Borrowed

02/20/2010

Book Review - Le Crime by Peter Steiner

Category Book Review Peter Steiner Le Crime
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A friend recommended Le Assassin by Peter Steiner, and in the process of putting that on hold I found that Le Crime was the first in the series.  So to keep things straight, I decided to start at the beginning.  Now, since my friend has not steered me wrong in recommendations so far, I *will* be reading Le Assassin.  But if I were to judge it by Le Crime, I'd probably pass.  Le Crime was a slow espionage novel, with most of the action taking place in the mind and not in the real world.  I felt as if I had missed a major chunk of the story somewhere, and the whole book left me feeling a bit underwhelmed.

Louis Morgon is a former State Department official who has moved to France to escape his past.  He was forced out of his position by rumors and accusations about his ability and decisions he made during critical world events, and now he just wants to put it all behind him.  Unfortunately, the past comes back in a gruesome way when he finds a dead body on his doorstep, a man with his throat slit.  The local French police captain is pressured to ignore the crime, but he and Morgon continue to dig a bit deeper into what may have led to this body showing up.  Was it random or a warning to Morgon?  Is it something from Morgon's past, or perhaps is it tied to current world events?  Morgon has his ideas as to what it means and who is behind it, and starts to pick at mental and physical threads in hopes that those responsible will tip their hands and reveal themselves.

For me, the book was just far too slow with not enough action that I normally expect in an espionage story.  A significant part of the book deals with flashbacks and ties to his children, how he neglected them growing up, and how his primary suspect ruined his life and career while appearing to be solidly supportive.  And given that both the main characters are well past the age of 60, it's not as if there are thrilling action scenes and life-or-death physical struggles.  Mostly the action takes place in the mind, and in this case, it wasn't enough to keep me overly involved.  I'll give Le Assassin a chance following this, but there may be a few books between now and then, as I'm not feeling highly compelled to dive back into Morgon's world.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Library

Payment: Borrowed

02/15/2010

Book Review - The Leap: How 3 Simple Changes Can Propel Your Career from Good to Great by Rick Smith

Category Book Review Rick Smith The Leap: How 3 Simple Changes Can Propel Your Career from Good to Great
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I had heard about the book The Leap: How 3 Simple Changes Can Propel Your Career from Good to Great by Rick Smith in a few of the productivity blogs and tweets that I follow on a regular basis.  These types of books tend to capture my interest, so I was pleased when I was offered a review copy of the book.  In short, this is a book that spoke to me deeply for my current situation.  You *don't* have to be a daredevil and risk everything to find yourself in a place where your passion and strengths come together in an incredible calling or career.  

Contents:
"Great Work, You're Fired!"; The Now Trap - Stuck in the Status Quo; Breaking Away - The Three Rules; Primary Colors - Tapping the Energy Within; What Is My Primary Color?; Big Selfless, and Simple - How Ideas Become Contagious; The Spark Sequence - Stacking the Deck; Aristotle on a Lily Pad - A Perspective on Life-Work Design; Acknowledgments; Index

Rick Smith was like many of us... average.  Not outstandingly excellent in what he did, but not at the bottom of the barrel, either.  His job as a headhunter was OK, but it didn't light any fires within him.  It wasn't until he wrote a book, The 5 Patterns of Extraordinary Careers, that he started to regain some passion.  Unfortunately, that passion was not something that fit in his employer's plans, and he found himself unemployed.  He used that event and severance to launch an idea he had for a executive level networking group.  And it took off far beyond what he could have ever imagined.  But he was still just an average Joe.  What was it that caused him to succeed in something that most people wouldn't even attempt?

Looking at his experience and the experiences of others who traveled that same path, he found three consistent steps that played out in many of those cases.  First, you find your primary color, the spot where your passions overlay your strengths.  Next, bring that primary color to bear on an idea that is big, selfless, and simple.  These are ideas and plans that attract, inspire, and involve others.  Then finally, you let the spark sequence happen.  You mitigate your risks and let the idea move towards its inevitability into reality.  It's this path that makes it possible to accomplish incredible things even though you're just "average", without the resources of a Bill Gates or a Richard Branson.

As I read The Leap, I kept looking back at some of the things I'd like to do and realized that there's really nothing keeping me from moving in that direction.  This is a perfect book for someone who has big dreams but thinks that it'd be impossible to get anywhere on them because they just don't have the resources to pull it off.  Leap is an excellent read, packed with practical advice and plenty of motivation to step out and make the jump to something that really matters to you.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publicist
Payment: Free

02/08/2010

Book Review - The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises by James Scott Bell

Category Book Review James Scott Bell The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies Tactics and Exercises
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Because I do a few (HA!) book reviews, I generally don't end up buying too many books as I'm often overwhelmed with reading material.  But this book is one that I couldn't NOT purchase, as I start to think about moving into some fiction writing... The Art of War for Writers: Fiction Writing Strategies, Tactics, and Exercises by James Scott Bell.  Modeled after the Sun Tzu book The Art of War, Bell offers up a wealth of tips and techniques to improve the quality of your writing, as well as increasing the chances of actually seeing your work make it to print.  In short, I love this book.

Contents:
Part 1 - Reconnaissance; Part 2 - Tactics; Part 3 - Strategy; A Final Word from Sun Tzu and me; Index

Art has 77 tips (you might even call them "chapters") that cover the gamut of fiction writing.  Part 1, Reconnaissance, goes into the mental makeup of the fiction writer/novelist.  These mental frameworks are essential if you expect to be able to endure long-term.  Topics such as "A foundation in discipline is always the first step towards victory" and "The career novelist will develop a writing improvement program, beginning with a notebook" may sound lofty, but Bell packs a ton of practical, down-to-earth advice into each two to five page topic.  Part 2, Tactics, moves into the structure of the story.  Just because you have a good idea doesn't mean the story will write itself.  Here you get topics such as "Test your premise to prove it worthy" and "The key to reader bonding is to fall in love with the Lead" help you to step away from the action and look at how and why a good story "works."

Continuing on to Part 3, Strategy looks at the fiction writing process from the business side.  People are not just sitting around waiting for your Great American Novel to show up on their doorstep.  You have to know how to sell your story to an agent... how to make them want to read it so they can turn around and sell your story to a publisher.  "You are a business, and your books are the product" and "Approach agents intelligently by knowing what they do and don't want"  may sound like you're selling out your creative side to the emotionless cogs of business, but it's the reality of how publishing works.  And if you don't (or can't) sell your work effectively to others, then you probably won't go very far (and definitely won't reach the levels of accomplishment that you dream of).

For me, this book clarified a number of ideas and exposed me to other areas that I didn't know existed.  While still far from diving into my first fiction work, I came away from The Art of War for Writers with a much better idea of what I need to do, and more importantly, who and what I need to be to make this all happen.  I'd consider this a high-priority read for anyone venturing into writing as a business.  It might well be the difference between seeing your work on the shelf versus only seeing it as a document on your computer...

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Bookstore

Payment: Purchased
 

02/06/2010

Book Review - Christianish: What If We're Not Really Following Jesus at All? by Mark Steele

Category Book Review Mark Steele Christianish: What If We're Not Really Following Jesus at All?
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Now this is a book that is all too timely in today's culture... Christianish: What If We're Not Really Following Jesus at All? by Mark Steele.  Based on the behavior of far too many who call themselves "Christian", we've allowed the term to be turned into something negative, something it was never intended to be and stand for.  The aspect of a relationship with Christ has been replaced with a set of rules and regulations (applied with little love or care) that isn't appealing to anyone.  And it's all due to too many people trying to live a "Christianish" life...

Contents:
i am Christianish; scandalous - revealing the rough stuff; wholiness - it is also written; phariseesaw - perhaps I am my nemesis; shut up already - righteousness is not the change agent; God said no - standing in my own way; losers for Jesus - the painful give; vanilla me - going without; upside is a downside - becoming unhuman; the grace discount - ministry is surgery - the Jesus show - love is a muscle; in Jesus' name, amends - willing to transform; i am Christian

In each chapter, Steele relates a story from his own life and then weaves it into the topic at hand.  The stories are quite funny, but painfully real to many who read it.  One of my favorite chapters is Shut Up Already.  He talks about an event in his life when he went to a Christian school.  There was a contest called the Academic Bowl, where Christian schools met up to compete on biblical knowledge and other such stuff.  Steele was *very* knowledgable about all the questions being asked, but there was just one problem... he was in the audience, not on the team.  He constantly berated his schoolmates for not knowing the answers to such "simple" stuff, and otherwise made a nuisance of himself showing off his knowledge.  A few days later, he was picked to do the same type of competition in a school assembly.  But little did he know that the contest had been rigged, with impossible questions designed to knock him down a few pegs on the ego scale.  And that it did...

His message in that chapter is that knowing all the facts, or being "righteous", didn't change anything.  In fact, it was a relationship with Jesus that led to being righteous.  Beating people over the head with facts and "holier than thou" messages did the exact opposite of what was intended... it drove people away.  And how often do we see that in churches and in the news these days?  Christianish people are demanding righteousness before you're allowed to join their "exclusive" club... when in reality, we're all broken and getting to righteousness is the end goal, not the entry price for admission.

Hopefully, those who read Christianish will come away with an understanding that it's not all about following some rules to be perfect... it's all about a relationship.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publicist
Payment: Free

02/06/2010

Book Review - What's Next . . . For You?: The Gussin Guide to Big Changes, Big Decisions, and Big Fun by Robert and Patricia Gussin

Category Book Review Robert Gussin Patricia Gussin What's Next . . . For You?: The Gussin Guide to Big Changes Big Decisions and Big Fun
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I'm not *quite* to the stage of retirement, but it's definitely getting to the point where I can make it out on the horizon.  And my thoughts have started to wander to the "and what will I do next?" series of questions.  Robert and Patricia Gussin have a book titled What's Next . . . For You?: The Gussin Guide to Big Changes, Big Decisions, and Big Fun that walks you through what they went through to answer that question...  life decisions that weren't expected, but that they had the courage to embrace and run with.  I can only hope that I'm willing to be open to those same types of opportunities that will no doubt come up for me also.

Patricia is a physician and Robert was a chief scientific officer for a global firm in their professional lives.  But like most couples that both have high-powered careers, the stress and time demands started wearing them down.  Their adventures in following new paths began when they decided, mainly on a whim, to purchase some beach property in an area that they both enjoyed visiting.  What was to be a "future investment" and eventual beachside cottage turned out to be a six bedroom home built shortly after they bought the property.  So much for savings and no mortgage.  But this habit of following and doing what they loved continued on.  They ended up purchasing a small vineyard in New Zealand, as well as becoming authors and running a small independent book publishing company.  In nearly all cases, they didn't know much of anything about what they were going to do, but they knew enough to ask for help and surround themselves with quality people.  So now, at a time when most "retirees" would be slowing down and downsizing, they're living a life they love with never-ending adventures and opportunities.

What's Next . . . For You? is not a "do this, do this, do this" type of methodology cookbook.  In fact, you could almost label it a memoir of sorts.  But what's important is their underlying message that opportunities and adventure are out there, and "retirement" does not have to mean playing bingo or bridge with your friends all day (assuming that's all you can afford to do).  This book rekindled my desire to keep working on those things outside my chosen profession that make me happy as well as bringing in side income.  There's a real chance that those activities could be parleyed into something more, something that would make my retirement far more exciting and fulfilling than my "regular job" ever was.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Publicist
Payment: Free

02/06/2010

Book Review - Think Twice - Lisa Scottoline

Category Book Review Lisa Scottoline Think Twice
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I normally don't end up reading Lisa Scottoline's books when they first come out.  No real reason... just don't tend to pick up on them early.  But when Amazon Vine had her latest, Think Twice, up for review, I figured I'd get an early jump on this one.  Think Twice is an interesting concept using twins to show how low someone might be able to go to regain their identity.  I probably lost a bit of the impact given that the characters have a history from other books that I didn't read, but it was still an enjoyable book nonetheless.

The plot revolves around Bennie Rosato and her twin sister Alice Connolly.  Bennie is the successful lawyer who has the money through careful living.  Alice is her twin sister with an evil streak that runs very deep.  Bennie successfully defended Alice from a murder charge awhile back, but they still are not close by any stretch.  Alice lures Bennie to her "home" for a dinner gathering, basically to just "catch up."  Alice has different plans, however.  She drugs Bennie's drink and proceeds to box her up and bury her, pretty much thinking she'll die a cruel and slow death.  Meanwhile, Alice steals Bennie's identity and impersonates her just long enough to get an off-shore account set up to transfer three million dollars. As a con artist, she's *almost* fully convinced everyone that she really is Bennie, but there are a few lingering doubters still left.  And what she didn't plan on was Bennie somehow surviving her burial and returning to hunt her down with a score to settle...

Overall, Think Twice was an enjoyable read.  Yes, there's a bit of "suspension of reality" that needs to occur, but it's a novel... just go with it.  It also made you think about what it might be like to have no way to prove you are who you say you are, especially when someone else has taken over your identity and convinced everyone that you're someone else.  A few of the secondary characters seemed to be missing some development, but I can chalk that up to this being a series of novels using the same people, and me not having read the previous ones.  When Think Twice makes it out to your bookstore, it'd be worth the read.

Disclosure:
Obtained From: Amazon Vine Review Program
Payment: Free

02/02/2010

Beautiful story of a bagpiper who was late for a funeral

Category Humor


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As a bagpiper, I was asked by a funeral director to play at a graveside service for a homeless man who had no family or friends. The funeral was to be held at a cemetery in the remote countryside and this man would be the first to be laid to rest there.

As I was not familiar with the backwoods area, I became lost and being a typical man, did not stop for directions. I finally arrived an hour late. I saw the backhoe and the crew who were eating lunch but the hearse was nowhere in sight.

I apologized to the workers for my tardiness and stepped to the side of the open grave where I saw the vault lid already in place.

I assured the workers I would not hold them up for long but this was the proper thing to do. The workers gathered around, still eating their lunch. I played out my heart and soul.

I played and I played like I'd never played before, from Going Home and The Lord is My Shepherd to Flowers of the Forest . As I played the workers began to weep. I closed the lengthy session with Amazing Grace and walked to my car.

As I was opening the door and taking off my coat, I overheard one of the workers saying to another...

"Sweet Jaysus, Mary 'n Joseph, I have never seen nothin' like that before and I've been putting in septic tanks for 22 years."

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Thomas "Duffbert" Duff

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