The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team from Worst to First – Jonah Keri.

It is too tempting, and too easy, to call this Moneyball 2.0&. Where Michael Lewis examined how the Oakland Athletics built a winner on a meager budget through the use of (then) obscure, advanced statistical analysis, Keri details how the Tampa Rays went from MLB laughingstock to one of the best franchises in the game through their own innovative look at the MLB talent pool.

Sadly, the book just isn’t as good as Lewis’. Which is an unfair measure, as Lewis is an incredible reporter and writer. Keri seems a bit out of his element here. Although he’s written about finance and baseball for many national publications, his style strikes me as better suited to magazine articles, or lengthy essays in collections, than to book-length efforts. I didn’t like the flow or organization of the book.

That’s not to say it’s bad. It just isn’t as good as it could be, or the book it can’t help but be compared to.

Redshirts – John Scalzi.

Most of the time when I attempt to read science fiction I am disappointed. I just can’t get my brain to accept the assumptions required of a sci-fi novel. This was a big exception to that, though, and I enjoyed it as much as any sci-fi novel I’ve ever read.

Perhaps that is because this is a very gimmicky book. But gimmicky in a good way. The story is set 400 years in the future, as new recruits on a spaceship notice that a lot of things just aren’t right. The science of some of their projects makes no sense. Some crew members suffer incredible injuries in battles with alien life forms and miraculously recover. And, aside from a few core members of the crew, it seems like the rank and file of the crew get killed at disturbingly high rates when they go exploring new planets and abandoned space stations.

Turns out while they are living, breathing humans, through some weird wrinkle in time and space, all their actions are determined by the script of a 21st century television show. Guess what? They have to time travel back to 2010 to convince the writers of the show to stop offing everyone.

Which sounds pretty silly, or very stupid, depending on your perspective.

But Scalzi pulls it off. He’s a terrific writer and handles the problems his concept raises rather nicely. The core story is rather lean, checking in at just over 200 pages. There are three codas, though, that explore the aftermath of the interactions between the 25th and 21st century parties, one of which is tremendously touching.

The Trinity Six – Charles Cumming.

I’ve heard lots of praise for Cumming as one of the best espionage novelists going these days. Roughly 150 pages into this, I wondered what the fuss was for and if I was about to abandon another book. I forced myself to get through 30 more pages, just to give it one last chance. That was a wise decision. The book took off right around page 200 and didn’t stop until the very end.

It centers on Sam Gaddis, a British professor who gets sucked into one of the great, lost secrets of the Cold War: a high-level member of the British intelligence service first served as a spy for the Soviet Union before and during World War II and then flipped to act as a double agent until the fall of Communism. The retired agent, and those who came in contact with him, holds extremely embarrassing information about the current Russian president, and members of the Russian spy service are slowly, methodically wiping out each person who has knowledge of these secrets.

Gaddis stumbles through Europe, chasing clues and avoiding trouble with the help of a sympathetic agent back in London who saves his ass multiple times. The last 150+ pages absolutely crack with tension and action. There aren’t any great mysteries to be unspooled. Just page after page of terrific action and suspense.

King of Cuba – Cristina García.

Finally for this entry in the Reader’s Notebook, a terrific, farcical novel about two once powerful men dealing with the ends of their lives and the accompanying loss of respect from and influence over the people around them.

The two men in question are Fidel Castro, the aging dictator of Cuba, and Goyo Herrera, a rival of Castro’s from his pre-revolutionary days, who lives in a luxurious condo in Miami. The novel flips back-and-forth between the two men as they see the empires they built in younger days fall apart through the incompetence of those around them. Cuba is falling apart, and Castro views it not as a failure of his revolution, but because of the fall of the Soviet Union, the poor leadership of his younger brother, and a lack of faith by the Cuban people. For Herrera, his fortune is slipping away through the drug addictions of his son, the interference of his daughter, and unscrupulous contractors in New York who are ripping him off as they attempt to salvage the crumbling apartment building that provides his income. Meanwhile, they keep an eye on their respective fates. For Castro that means the inevitable plot against him that succeeds. For Herrera, it is being the man who finally puts a bullet in Castro’s head.

That all sounds kind of heavy. But García turns it into a hilarious, absurdist tale in which the oldest, frailest men are still the smartest and most powerful in any room, but no longer have the juice to bend people to their wills. Even their inevitable meeting goes awry, with each man managing to get both what he wants and be disappointed at the same time.