Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Neighbors. While there is crime in Ruth Rendell’s novel, Portobello, I found this book to be a portrait of a neighborhood, and a character study about habits, relationships, and the interconnected lives of the rich and poor who live as neighbors. In some ways, Rendell does for Portobello Road what Alexander McCall Smith has done for Edinburgh. Rendell brings each character to life with efficiency and clarity, and places them in situations that move the plot along briskly over the three pages of the novel. Her skill entails packing a lot of people and action into a setting that she presents with just enough description to make the place come alive. Any reader who appreciates a dose of social commentary injected into a well crafted story is likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Portobello from amazon.com.

Of Love and Evil

Installment. Anne Rice’s second installment in her Songs of the Seraphim series is titled Of Love and Evil. Protagonist Toby O’Dare returns and is sent on an assignment back to Rome in the 16th century. The story is imaginative and entertaining, and very brief, coming in at under two hundred pages. I recall that Rice’s vampire novels were longer and more intricately written. I felt that this novel was more like a chapter in her early novels. Perhaps the dark side was easier to expand than the stories of angels. The early part of this novel refers back to the first in the series, and a cliffhanger ending prepares readers for a sequel. Those readers who started the series will enjoy spending a short while with the second. First time readers can sample here, and move back if interested. This is light entertainment that the author seems to be dribbling out in small installments.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Of Love and Evil from amazon.com.

U is for Undertow

Plodding. The 21st Kinsey Millhone novel from Sue Grafton is titled U is for Undertow. One pleasure of reading a character-based series comes from a reader’s familiarity with the personality and quirks of the protagonist. Now age 37, Kinsey is well-known to fans, and her actions in this novel remain true to character as she struggles to get to the bottom of a case involving memory. While set in 1988, the events of 1967 play a major role in the case. An added feature in this novel is more information about Kinsey’s own family and childhood, which adds to her depth as a character. I found the pace of the novel to be a bit on the slow side, but readers who are entertained by mysteries and like strong female protagonists are likely to enjoy this novel. Those addicted to the series are already looking forward to the next installment.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase U is for Undertow from amazon.com.

Making Toast

Grief. In the usual order of life, children do not die before their parents. When the unusual occurs, the grief can become overwhelming. Roger Rosenblatt’s book, Making Toast, describes the change in his life and that of his wife following the sudden death of their daughter at age 38. The Rosenblatt’s moved in with their son-in-law to take care of three young grandchildren. While most readers will tear up when reading some pages, this book celebrates life, and how even unimaginable tragedy can lead to even the most mundane activities, like making toast, taking on meaning and purpose. Rosenblatt’s fine writing and the light touch he uses to tell this story will appeal to any reader experiencing grief, and especially to those looking for comfort.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Making Toast from amazon.com.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

Abandonment. A reader looking for an entertaining and well-written novel about love and relationships could take a look at Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport. Protagonist Betty Weissmann finds herself divorced after fifty years of marriage, and both her daughters have faced setbacks and losses, so the three end up living together. What follows is an exploration of relationships and family, and the discovery of love, as three women move on and life renewed and enriched lives.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Three Weissmanns of Westport from amazon.com.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis

People. Financial journalists Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera move the dialogue about the financial crisis from what happened to who were the people who were in the thick of this and what led them to do what they did. Their new book, All the Devils Are Here, is the product of ample interviews, and reading the many published accounts that have already been produced. The result is a readable and interesting presentation of the people involved and their motivations, incentives and flaws. Readers who have been interested in the financial crisis will find this book to be a valuable contribution to gaining an understanding of who was involved in the crisis.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase All the Devils Are Here from amazon.com.

Hell's Corner

Surprises. Many readers enjoy escapist action thrillers as relaxing entertainment that demands the use of a small number of brain cells. David Baldacci fills that niche with most of his novels, and the latest Camel Club novel, Hell’s Corner, provides enough surprises and plot twists to entertain, but not enough insight to require thought. Protagonist John Carr finds himself in a new set of implausible situations, and with the support of others, performs the impossible more than once. Readers will find this to be quick and easy reading, and a book that provides entertainment without straining the mind.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Hell’s Corner from amazon.com.

Griftopia: Bubble Machines, Vampire Squids, and the Long Con That Is Breaking America

Criminals. There’s no hemming and hawing or doubt about the author’s point of view in Matt Taibbi’s book, Griftopia. Using blunt and judgmental prose, he calls Goldman Sachs “a company of criminals” and refers to Alan Greenspan as an “asshole.” For some readers, such crass prose may be dismissed as shallow, but Taibbi is not superficial: he follows the money, and with clear and cogent prose opines on great lies and behavior that is not for the common good. He makes the point that “organized greed always defeats disorganized democracy.” While he reprises his original Goldman Sachs story from Rolling Stone, with the vampire squid image, there’s much more covered in this book beyond the financial crisis: he covers health care and commodities speculation with the same serious edge. Any reader who has followed the financial crisis will find this book to be another valuable contribution to understanding what has been going on for the past few years.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Griftopia from amazon.com.

Sunset Park

Broken. Each character and every place in Paul Auster’s new novel, Sunset Park, has been broken or wounded by tragedy or crisis or twists of fate. While hope is present, and a chance for redemption seems in sight, something always happens to make life more difficult. Through multiple narrators, readers enter the world of these characters and find both familiar and extraordinary people, places and events that allow Auster to explore aspects of human nature that reveal much about who we are. Auster’s writing is carefully crafted, and readers who appreciate fine writing will admire this work.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Sunset Park from amazon.com.

Dead or Alive

Bloat. It’s been almost a decade since I read a Tom Clancy novel, and I decided to take a deep breath and try the new one, Dead or Alive. Memories came back at once of the trademark Clancy: a bloated narrative with more description and detail that’s necessary (more than anyone would need to know about weaponry); rapid movement from scene to scene and one part of the world to another; and repetition that made me think that even the author glossed over a lot of the text. In the new novel, Clancy creates a fictional Osama bin Laden called the Emir, and puts a secret group called the Campus in a dramatic adventure to hunt him down. Readers who enjoy action fiction and like a lot of pages for the money are likely to enjoy this novel. I would have enjoyed five hundred fewer pages.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Dead or Alive from amazon.com.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration

Drama. Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s outstanding new book is titled, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. Having conducted extensive research on the six million blacks who left the Jim Crow South for different lives in the North, Midwest and West, Wilkerson selects three individuals whose stories enliven this experience. I found the six hundred pages of this book to fly by as I read about what was an immigrant experience because the situation in different parts of the United States was as if one left one country for another. While I was aware of the migration before reading this book, I came to understand it much better through Wilkerson’s fine writing, productive research, and the liveliness of the three people she follows throughout their lives. Any reader who enjoys history, especially the American experience, will find great writing and insight on these pages as Wilkerson makes history come alive.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Warmth of Other Suns from amazon.com.

The Surrendered

Trauma. How does a reader remain engaged in reading a novel of almost five hundred pages describing suffering and sadness? I think one has to care about the characters and find the writing to be fine enough to overpower the heartbreak of the plot. In The Surrendered, Chang-rae Lee never lets up on the pain and trauma experienced by the characters, and his vivid descriptions can be difficult to read without wincing. Lee brings the reader forward and backward in time often, every opportunity used to better understand who these people are, how they have been formed by both trauma and love. As the novel progresses, I found that I began to care more about these characters, and to some degree felt their pain as they struggle with relationships that never seem to lead to redemption. Any reader willing to endure grim settings to experience good writing is likely to appreciate this novel. Those readers looking for happy endings and better days ahead should look elsewhere.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Surrendered from amazon.com.

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey

Fire. Walter Mosley is well-known for his Easy Rawlins novels, and more recently for those featuring Leonid McGill. Mosley departs from those series with a finely written new novel titled, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey. Protagonist Mr. Grey is ninety one years old and experiencing the onset of dementia. Mosley presents Grey with such care and precision that all the heartbreak of losing one’s mind pervades these pages. Grey is surrounded by people trying to take advantage of him until seventeen-year-old Robyn Small becomes his caretaker. She cleans up his cluttered apartment, making it clean and functional, and takes Grey to a doctor who provides an experimental drug that temporarily reinvigorates all Grey’s thinking and memories. The last weeks of Grey’s life are spent in ensuring a legacy that will provide meaning. A theme of fire runs through this novel, from a childhood scene to the powerful drug burning up his body and mind. Any reader who likes good character-based fiction is likely to enjoy this novel. Anyone who has direct experience of dementia will find this novel realistic and poignant.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey from amazon.com.

Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge's View

Trust. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer’s new book, Making Our Democracy Work, presents a civics primer about how the court fits into our society and government. This practical book is accessible to all readers and can provide insight into the context in which the court operates, and the historical and current importance of securing and maintaining public trust. An ongoing question is whether or not the public will follow the court’s decisions, and Breyer sees an important role of the court in helping laws work well in practice. He provides a perspective on past and current cases that is both readable and interesting for any citizen.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Making Our Democracy Work from amazon.com.

Moonlight Mile

Struggle. Dennis Lehane has again reprised protagonists Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro along with character Amanda McCready and placed them in the middle of struggling times of economic challenges and raising a child. The new novel titled, Moonlight Mile, can stand on its own, but in the context of the prior novels seems richer. Lehane’s plot and dialogue are the strengths of this novel, while supporting characters can come across as more caricature than real. In a troubled world, one good person can struggle against overpowering forces, and Lehane presents that strain with skill in this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Moonlight Mile from amazon.com.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Decision Points

Painless. The five hundred pages of George W. Bush’s autobiography, Decision Points, met my expectations, and I expect will be well-received both by readers who think favorably and unfavorably of the person and his presidency. Readers looking for insight and understanding aren’t likely to find either; as Bush himself says, historians will need many decades to be able to place his time in office in perspective. Supporters will read with pleasure about Bush’s values and principles, and how he applied them to every critical issue. Readers with unfavorable opinions about Bush will read about the ways in which he forged ahead without much curiosity about important issues, and how he could be manipulated by those who played to his personality. As I expected, he put the best possible spin on the topics he covers, and while I wanted to find an answer to the question, “What was he thinking?,” that insight was absent from this book. Any reader interested in politics will find that this book is required and painless reading.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Decision Points from amazon.com.

I Remember Nothing: and Other Reflections

Musings. I read Nora Ephron’s new essay collection, I Remember Nothing, in a single sitting. In the title essay, she muses about not being able to remember more and more things as she ages, and that which she remembers seems incidental rather than important. Her wit is sharp, her insights cogent, and these musings were light and humorous. Here’s a sample of her taking a serious point and leading the reader to a smile: “Alcoholic parents are so confusing. They’re your parents, so you love them; but they’re drunks, so you hate them. But you love them. But you hate them.” (p. 38). Readers who like short, well-written essays are likely to enjoy this book, especially those who are old enough to join AARP.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase I Remember Nothing from amazon.com.

The Reversal

Surprises. Master crime novelist Michael Connelly’s new novel is titled The Reversal, and reprises criminal defense attorney Mickey Haller and detective Harry Bosch, his half-brother. These quirky and competent characters could bear the full burden of the novel, but Connelly supports them with a well-constructed plot that kept me engaged from beginning to end, with enough surprises to add to the overall entertainment. Haller agrees to an unusual proposal from the D.A. that he sign up as a special prosecutor for the retrial of an old case. Haller reluctantly agrees, and enlists his ex-wife as co-counsel and Bosch as investigator. All the family and relationship issues provide added enjoyment for Connelly fans, and the teenagers provide enough background to draw out more balanced dimensions from the hardworking main characters. Readers who like crime fiction are likely to find reading pleasure from this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Reversal from amazon.com.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Fall of Giants

Sweeping. I approached Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy with a decision to make: the first novel, Fall of Giants, came in at almost a thousand pages, and I knew that if I became hooked, this would be many hours of reading, not just for this novel but expecting that I would read the next two as well. I’ve read a lot of Follett’s work, and feel that his compact Eye of the Needle is the best of all, although the historical novels Pillars of the Earth and World Without End were entertaining and engaging. I took the plunge. Set in the 20th century, the new novel uses the characters in five families to present the historical events, including the Russian Revolution, World War I, prohibition, and the fight for women’s rights. Follett’s history seems accurate, and the vivid characters he presents draw readers into their personal stories. A minor annoyance I experienced was from plot: the improbable circumstances that brought characters together. I was reminded of the John Jakes historical novels where at every turn a character bumped into a historical figure or another main character. Readers who enjoy historical fiction will find many enjoyable pages to read in this first installment, and may look forward to learning what happens next to these characters.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Fall of Giants from amazon.com.

Our Kind of Traitor

Insiders. Our Kind of Traitor is the most interesting and enjoyable novel from David Cornwell as John Le Carre that I’ve read in years. Having abandoned both anti-Americanism and cerebral puzzles, Le Carre returns to the core of the spy genre: interesting characters and the presence of larger games afoot than is first evident. The large cast of characters in this novel is both well-developed and fleshed out through back stories that provide a context for current behavior. The powerful insiders who control the action remain the less visible operators, but the ones who count the most. At the center of this story is money laundering, and an honorable criminal who wants to escape his current life and resettle his family under the protection of the British government. While the world he is trying to leave has its complicated relationships, the people and schemes that entangle those trying to help him are the most intricate of all. Readers who like reading fine prose within a well-constructed complicated plot will enjoy this book.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Our Kind of Traitor from amazon.com.

The Confession

Abolition. The stimulating legal issue of interest in John Grisham’s novel, The Confession, is the death penalty. Set in Texas, the plot reveals all the potential weak links in the criminal justice system, and the irreversible consequences when the system kills an innocent person. In the case at the center of the novel, Grisham uses a heavy hand rather than nuance to present the flaws of the system: a coerced confession; a prosecutor and judge with conflicts of interest; disengaged appeals justices; a governor whose interest is politics, not justice. Grisham’s characters are more caricature than recognizable people. Honest professionals in the criminal justice system will be offended by Grisham’s extreme case. Any reader will come away from this novel with a single conclusion: the death penalty makes no sense and should be abolished. Readers who like novels with a clear point of view will like this book, as will those who prefer plot over character.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Confession from amazon.com.

Worth Dying For

Recovery. Lee Child’s fifteenth novel to feature the heroic and uber-competent Jack Reacher is titled Worth Dying For, and answers the cliff hanger from the previous novel to those fans of the series. Readers need not have read the earlier novels to appreciate this story in which Reacher stumbles into a rural Nebraska town controlled by a criminal family who intimidate everyone in the area. Child draws readers into the story quickly, and maintains plot momentum throughout 400 pages of thrilling entertainment. It’s no spoiler to reveal that by the end of the novel, Reacher has beaten the bad guys and restored the citizens of the town to normal ways of living. Readers who like strong and competent protagonists will enjoy this novel, as will those who like plot resolution that ties together all the loose ends.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Worth Dying For from amazon.com.

Irish Tweed

Bullying. There’s a feel-good quality to every novel written by Chicago priest Father Andrew Greeley. In Irish Tweed, Greeley presents a modern story of bullies going after the good guys, alternated with a historical tale of a woman overcoming opponents. The strong characters are drawn in ways that highlight the best and worst of human nature, and Greeley always shows how it is the best of our humanity that rises to the occasion and overcomes both evil and those who try to bully or smother goodness. Readers who like the satisfaction of reading a novel in which goodness triumphs over evil will find pleasure on these pages.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Irish Tweed from amazon.com.

101 Places Not to See Before You Die

Stretched. There are a dozen or so funny pages in Catherine Price’s book, 101 Places Not to See Before You Die. Having taken the contrarian approach to the bucket list genre, Price must have easily come up with thirty or forty choices for her list, and was able to write witty prose that provided the bulk of the entertainment in this book. It seemed to me that to come up with her target of 101 places, she had to stretch quite a bit, and the humor often disappeared, and the shtick became tiresome. Readers who like a quick laugh will find some chuckles here, but getting to them requires a journey to some places that are better left unvisited. Readers with the patience to move briskly past the boring parts will be rewarded with some good laughs.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase 101 Places Not to See Before You Die from amazon.com.

Corduroy Mansions

Characters. London is the setting for a new character-driven novel by prolific author Alexander McCall Smith, titled Corduroy Mansions. Fans of Smith’s earlier novels set in Scotland and Botswana will enjoy a change in locale and the familiarity of a large cast of interesting characters, both the loveable and the despicable. The relationships in the new novel are often in stress: father and son; mother and son; lovers; and the cover art clues the readers that a dog will also find a way into some relationships. The entertainment from Smith’s novels comes from the fun readers have in observing ordinary lives brought to life in the capable hands of a writer who can catch our attention and help us care about what happens to others. Any reader who likes those novels that tell clear stories about recognizable characters will appreciate this and other Smith novels.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Corduroy Mansions from amazon.com.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pinheads and Patriots: Where You Stand in the Age of Obama

Boring. I’ve wondered what makes Bill O’Reilly appealing and why he has become popular. After reading his book, Pinheads and Patriots, I’m beginning to understand. He judges and divides every person and issue in ways that can entertain and come across so definitively that any middle ground or gray area evaporates. One is either a pinhead or a patriot. That seems to play well to our divided society, especially along political lines. While behaving as a bombastic bully, he pretends to reflect the perspective of real Americans in a fair and balanced way. For those who agree with him, O’Reilly is an articulate spokesperson for their opinions. For those who disagree with him, he can raise one’s blood pressure with his rhetoric. Those fans of his show may not find much new on these pages; curious readers will find some insight into the author and his views, and those who disagree with him will probably not pick up this book. Overall, I found the book boring; without hearing the author’s voice, the words fall a bit flat on the page, reminding me that above all, O’Reilly is a showman who demands to be heard. When one can read his words slowly, there’s not much to think about, and his authority comes not from insight or perspective, but from having a soapbox in prime time.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Pinheads and Patriots from amazon.com.

Lost Empire

Puzzles. The Fargo Adventure sub-brand of the Clive Cussler conglomerate has released the second novel in the series, Lost Empire. Protagonists Sam and Remi Fargo continue their treasure hunting off the coast of Tanzania, and stumble into an adventure that pits them in the crosshairs of the nationalist president of Mexico who wants to keep a big secret. Once the thriller action starts when the bad guys pursue Sam and Remi the pace remains constant to the end. The Cussler writers are in no hurry to reveal more than is necessary in any one Fargo novel, so I came away from this novel with as many questions about the protagonists as I had the first time. Nonetheless, this is reliable entertainment for those readers who like alternative versions of history and a high dose of excitement.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Lost Empire from amazon.com.

The Dark Vineyard

Terroir. Martin Walker’s mystery novel, The Dark Vineyard, reprises municipal police officer Bruno Courrèges and the small town of Saint-Denis in the Dordogne region of southwest France. In this engaging and entertaining novel, Walker brings the area and characters to life in rich and vivid ways that are best enjoyed when accompanied by a glass or two of the local wine. There’s plenty of modernity in the quaint town: a research station is doing something with genetically modified crops, and a California winery has a proposal to bring jobs to the area. Bruno has to navigate local politics while he investigates arson and murder. Readers who like novels in which place and character dominate will find much to enjoy in this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Dark Vineyard from amazon.com.


Curiosity. It was curiosity that led me to Tom McCarthy’s novel, C. From the first page through the last, I remained curious and questioning: just what is he doing here and what is this all about? In many respects, this is the most unusual novel I’ve read in a long time. McCarthy riffs on all kinds of “C’s” from the protagonist’s name (Carrefax) to carbon, caul, chloroform, cocaine, communication, cysteine, connection and dozens more. Carrefax behaves with enough eccentricity to feed one’s curiosity and other characters arrive and depart without making much of an impression. Readers with the patience to slog through digressions and disconnections might find pleasure on these pages. For me, it was curiosity that maintained my page turning, and I was as bewildered at the end as I was at the beginning and in the middle. Sample a few dozen pages before deciding whether or not this a novel for you.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase C from amazon.com.

Bryant & May Off the Rails

Haunting. I plunged into the eighth Peculiar Crimes Unit novel by Christopher Fowler without having read any of the earlier books in the series. I found Bryant & May Off the Rails to stand well on its own, and Fowler’s writing is clever and funny throughout. Senior detectives Arthur Bryant and John May find their special unit threatened with dissolution following the death of a colleague when a murderer in custody escaped. The setting for the latest novel is the London Underground, especially King’s Cross Station, and there’s a haunting aspect to this world below ground that provides the perfect atmosphere for a crime novel. The stakes are high for Bryant & May, and joining them on this adventure was great reading entertainment. Any reader who enjoys clever mystery writing will likely appreciate this novel and this series.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Bryant & May Off the Rails from amazon.com.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Devil

Darkness. Ken Bruen’s eighth novel to feature former Garda and private eye, Jack Taylor, titled, The Devil, pits Jack against a worthy opponent: the divil himself. Jack meets Mr. K. or Karl or Kurt, as he’s stopped from leaving Ireland for America. Back in Galway, Jack and Mr. K. engage in a battle of trying to do good versus evil. Bruen’s writing is spare and effective. Readers of previous novels have an advantage of knowing enough about the character Jack Taylor to best appreciate his current situation. That said, this novel stands well on its own, and is likely to be appreciated by those readers who enjoy character-based novels and clever writing.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Devil from amazon.com.

The Lovers

Grief. Yvonne, the protagonist of Vendela Vida’s new novel, The Lovers, has lost the bearings in her life following the accidental death of her husband, Peter. Vida captures the elements of grief in the spare novel, as readers follow Yvonne’s journey toward a new life. She travels from Vermont to Turkey, to the town where she and Peter spent their honeymoon, and tries to find a life that got lost somewhere along the way. Her relationship to her son, Matthew, who is engaged to be married, and to her daughter, Aurelia, a recovering addict, are explored by Vida with precision and the language itself seems to reinforce the strains felt by all. Yvonne befriends a young boy in Turkey and other characters who seem to reflect the emotional turmoil Yvonne cannot escape. Readers who enjoy psychological novels are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Lovers from amazon.com.

Fubarnomics: A Lighthearted, Serious Look at America's Economic Ills

After about twenty pages, the writing style that Robert Wright uses in his book, Fubarnomics, began to drive me nuts. With the knowledge that 300 more pages followed, I gave up. My impression as I departed was that the book is more pedantic than interesting, and far less clever than Freakonomics.

Rating: Shelf of Ennui.
Click here to purchase Fubarnomics from amazon.com.

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing: From the Files of Vish Puri, Most Private Investigator

Tricks. The second novel by Tarquin Hall to feature India’s most private detective, Vish Puri (Chubby), is titled, The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing. Fans of the debut novel will remember the returning cast of characters, especially Mummy, and the skill with which Hall brings the sights and sounds of India to the pages of the novel. The plot involves scientists, gurus and magical tricks, but plot is secondary here to the ways in which the characters come alive, no matter what they are doing. Most readers will find the novel to be entertaining and enjoyable and those who love Indian cuisine can almost taste the foods that Chubby consumes as he solves the mystery.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing from amazon.com.

Washington Rules: America's Path to Permanent War

Education. Any engaged citizen will find much to learn and reflect about by reading Andrew Bacevich’s new book, Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. Those weary of our current foreign entanglements will find a context and perspective in this book, as retired Army colonel Bacevich describes how the cold war thinking of the mid-twentieth century continues to be the prime driver of our foreign policy, and especially the role of the military in world affairs. Those with a stake in the status quo don’t necessarily want an engaged citizenry to question the wisdom of the cost and consequences of our massive military forces. Any independent thinker will find a lot to think about after reading this book, and may, like me, come away with second thoughts about whether or not we should continue to pursue our military strategy.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Washington Rules from amazon.com.


Confinement. It’s not often that one finds an adult novel narrated by a five-year-old boy. Emma Donoghue pulls off that feat with great skill in her novel, Room. Young Jack has spent all five years of his life living with his mother in an 11x11 space he calls “room” and which has been the totality of his world view. The slow disclosure of how they ended up in this situation and the depth of love that sustained them becomes the core of the novel. Donoghue’s writing kept me engaged from beginning to end, and in some respects, I was reminded of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, in how well Donoghue explores parental love and the ways in which love overcomes any obstacle or limitation. Book clubs will likely enjoy this selection, and any reader looking for an unusual novel with fine writing will likely enjoy this book.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Room from amazon.com.

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation

Patterns. At the beginning of Where Good Ideas Come From, author Steven Johnson describes his purpose in writing the book: “The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments. I have distilled them down into seven patterns….” (p.17) Johnson devotes a chapter to each pattern, and peppers the text with ample examples to keep the book lively. I found Johnson’s approach to be intriguing and interesting. I expect that any reader who works in product development, planning, strategy, or any creative pursuit, will find special interest in this book. As a general interest reader, I’m in no position to critique Johnson, but I expect that most readers will come away from this book thinking about innovation in new ways.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Where Good Ideas Come From from amazon.com.

Painted Ladies

Persistence. The 38th Robert Parker novel to feature private detective Spenser was completed at the time of the author’s death last January. Painted Ladies ratchets up the ways in which Spenser confronts danger and takes personal risks. When asked to protect art historian Ashton Prince as he exchanges cash in ransom of stolen art, Spenser can do nothing when a bomb explodes and kills Prince. Spenser returns the fee he didn’t earn, and persistently pursues the case to its resolution. Along the way, the tension is high as Spenser confronts skilled opponents who try hard to kill him. Susan Silverman keeps Spenser grounded to earth, caring for each other, while he puts his life in danger. Readers of the series will not want to miss this installment, and any reader who likes crime fiction will likely find this book to be enjoyable and entertaining.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Painted Ladies from amazon.com.

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Charming Quirks of Others

Schemes. One advantage of reading a new novel from a series is that the characters are well-known and their behavior can be anticipated and enjoyed readily. The seventh Isabel Dalhousie novel from prolific Alexander McCall Smith is titled, The Charming Quirks of Others. This time out, moral philosopher Dalhousie uncovers new insights into human behavior as she sees the schemes that some will pursue to achieve their desired ends. Isabel’s fiancée, Jamie, is being pursued by a cellist, Prue, who tells him she has terminal cancer, and in a make-a-wish sense would like to enjoy carnal pleasure from him. While that tempest builds, Isabel accepts an assignment to vet three candidates vying for the position of headmaster at a school, following an anonymous letter about the skeleton in the closet of one of the candidates. Another schemer is behind that, and Smith uses Isabel’s richly developed character to uncover the scheme and gain insight. First-time readers and fans will find an engaging story with interesting and very human characters.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Charming Quirks of Others from amazon.com.

I Curse the River of Time

Bleak. I recommend reading Per Petterson’s novel, I Curse the River of Time, on sunny days only. This melancholy story can bum out the most cheery reader when clouds are present. In 1989, protagonist Arvid Jansen finds everything changing, and not necessarily for the better: his mother is dying of cancer, he and his wife are getting a divorce, and communism is falling. Looking back at his life thus far, Arvid searches for understanding and meaning to discover what can be ahead for him. The writing is spare and Arvid’s memories expose complicated relationships and choices that are both in the open and developed unspoken in a rich interior life. There is a rich reality about relationships, life and death on these pages, and Petterson’s writing is outstanding. For those readers who can handle melancholy, this novel is fine choice.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase I Curse the River of Time from amazon.com.

Parrot and Olivier in America

Voices. I almost want to read Peter Carey’s novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, a second time to see if I can understand how he did it. Carey presents a fictional character, French aristocrat Olivier-Jean-Baptist de Clarel de Barfleur, based on Alexis de Tocqueville, and sends him off to America to flee the troubles in late 18th century and early 19th century France, paired with a servant John Larrit, known as Parrot. What Carey does so expertly is present their contrasting voices and places in society with great care, and the selection of the perfect words and descriptions at every turn. The supporting characters and their relationships are presented both in the context of their time, and with a immediacy that readers will recognize as modern human behavior. So how does Carey do it? How does he use a historical setting to write a modern novel? Beats me, but this is fine writing that most readers are likely to enjoy.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Parrot and Olivier in America from amazon.com.


Intervention. It’s likely that Karin Fossum’s novel, Broken, is the oddest book I’ve read in a long time. In some chapters, we read the development of a story, and in others, we have the author interacting with the protagonist. It’s almost as if we are watching the writing process, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on. Both parts are of one story, and Fossum plays with us as she presents the ways in which protagonist Alvar Eide intervenes in the lives of others. Alvar is a middle-aged single man living an orderly live until he offers a stranger a cup of coffee. That little acorn grows into a complicated oak tree, full of twisting branches, limbs and leaves. Fossum’s writing is interesting and unique, which will be appealing to some readers, and off-putting to others. If you’re looking to read something unusual, give this a try. Otherwise, choose something a bit more conventional.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Broken from amazon.com.

Body Work

Courage. Two protagonists dominate Sara Paretsky’s latest novel, Body Work: private detective V.I. Warshawsky and the city of Chicago. In the fourteenth novel by Paretsky to feature both these characters they remain both consistent and adapt to what’s going on the world. Over the course of 450 pages, Paretsky brings in the war in Iraq, wounded veterans, the exploitation of women, crime, and corporate malfeasance, all the while using a familiar cast of characters to move the story along. Vic, her cousin and other characters need extra courage to take on all the forces they encounter. Paretsky’s political and social views are rarely disguised in her novels, and some readers may become impatient by this, while others will appreciate her point of view. The plot moved quickly enough for me, and I found myself caring about what happened. I’ve enjoyed this series, and look forward to future installments.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Body Work from amazon.com.


Pirates. The deft writing style of Elmore Leonard hides in the background of his latest novel, Djibouti, as this master storyteller delivers character, dialogue and plot to readers. The clever ways in which Leonard shows off his skills prove that at age 85 the author not only has maintained his craft, he continues to improve and excel. The setting for this novel involves Somali pirates, a documentary filmmaker and an old guy who still has game. Consistent with the characters, the structure of the novel includes reviewing what has been filmed and how to make a story from the images. Most readers are likely to enjoy Leonard’s expert storytelling in this finely written novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Djibouti from amazon.com.


Invincible. Philip Roth’s new novel, Nemesis, displays that fine writer’s skill in packing so much into a short work. Set in Newark in summer of 1944, protagonist Bucky Cantor is changed forever by events and decisions that unfold with quick dispatch. Bucky’s eyesight made him unfit to join his pals in fighting in the war, but his life seems charmed as he becomes engaged to be married, and is a hero to the children he supervises at a playground due to his athleticism and skilled javelin throwing. A polio epidemic breaks out in the city, and Bucky’s choices about his job, his fiancée and his life become the core of the novel. It takes until close to the end for readers to learn who the narrator is, and by then we understand Bucky’s character and are left to think about the consequences of guilt, evil and the reality that no one is invincible.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Nemesis from amazon.com.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Visit from the Goon Squad

Time. Jennifer Egan’s new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, presents a cast of characters in the music business during various time periods in their lives. Jumping back and forth, she riffs like a musician as she deepens our understanding of the lives and times of the characters. Time is the goon. We change in ways that can improve our lives, and in ways that lead to decline and decay. In some ways, the music remains constant, and in other ways, new music emerges from new life experiences. Egan’s writing keeps readers engaged, provided one remains patient with the shifting time periods. Any reader who enjoys novels that reveal insights into our human condition will likely enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase A Visit From the Goon Squad from amazon.com.

A Stranger Like You

Terror. Elizabeth Brundage’s novel, A Stranger Like You, presents a set of characters whose connections provide the basis on which the author develops each character in ways that enlighten any reader about what we don’t know and what we know about those close to us and those who are strangers. The plot involves stalking and abduction which engenders suspense, even terror. The real grist of the novel involves the things we do for and to each other, and how we are vulnerable to others. Set in Hollywood, there’s plenty of color here for those readers who enjoy the movie business and its quirks. Readers who enjoy fine writing that focuses on intense character development will enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase A Stranger Like You from amazon.com.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

Choices. Paul Greenberg presents both problems and alternative solutions in his new book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. Greenberg presents the history and current situation with four fish: salmon, cod, tuna and bass. He explores sustainability and the issue of wild and farmed fish. He presents what he calls four clearly achievable goals for wild fish: a reduction in fishing effort; no-catch areas of the ocean; protect unmanageable species, and protect the bottom of the food chain. This is a readable and informative presentation of an interesting issue. Any reader who’s interested in fish, science or more knowledge about what we eat, will likely enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Four Fish from amazon.com.

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

Meandering. Bill Bryson provides an entertaining and eclectic look at his house and ours in his new book, At Home: A Short History of Private Life. I take some exception to this being “short,” since at 500 pages, it seemed long, but for a history, or for all that Bryson could have included, I guess for him, short it is. Since his own house was built in the mid-nineteenth century, there’s an extra focus on Victorian times, and since the first owner was a rector, his life and time are well-covered. I came away from this book with reams of useless information that I’m certain to inject with confidence in some future conversation. Any reader who likes a meandering story filled with wit will find lots of interesting anecdotes and factoids on these pages.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase At Home from amazon.com.

Red Hook Road

Asylum. Ayelet Waldman’s new novel, Red Hook Road, almost demands discussion among members of a book club. Dramatic action begins with a tragedy: bride and groom are killed in an auto accident on their way to the wedding reception. Married less than hour, and killed off at the beginning of the novel, their lives and relationship provide the grist for the other characters, especially for their mothers, Iris and Jane. Set in Maine, the contrast between the two families is intense: summer versus year-round; blue versus white collar; well-off or getting by. A single misstep changes all their lives, their expectations, their dreams and their obligations. Each character seeks some form of refuge or asylum from their pain and suffering, some way to get through the physical and mental storms. Waldman’s writing is powerful and intense, the characters are well-developed, the plot fast-moving, and the descriptive language brings each setting to life.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Red Hook Road from amazon.com.