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.