Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The End of Wall Street

Intervention. Roger Lowenstein’s The End of Wall Street, is not the first book to try to make sense of the recent financial crisis, nor will it be the last. As with his earlier books, this is a valuable contribution to the general reader’s understanding of what happened, who did what, what conditions and policies facilitated it all, and what it might mean. This is a journalist’s approach to the subject: lots of interviews with the players involved, and plenty of research into what was being done throughout the crisis. The depth of changes within a short period of time transformed Wall Street. The amount of government intervention has been enormous and was done by individuals who were opposed to such intervention before being placed in the situation that demanded such action. Lowenstein’s writing takes familiar events and situations and adds context, perspective, and inside color. Any reader interesting in learning more about this pivotal time will enjoy reading this book.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The End of Wall Street from amazon.com.

The Ask

Failure. There’s enough misery, failure and disappointment in the world to go around, so why read a comedic novel like Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask? Maybe it’s that delicate feeling of schadenfreude that brings readers looking for an escape from one’s own real world to the situation of someone in even worse shape. Protagonist Milo Burke is failing at work, marriage, parenting and friendship. A failed painter, he works in development for a low-tier university. A college friend, Purdy, becomes a prospect for a big donation, and Milo becomes the point person. Purdy asks Milo to do some other things for him, which adds to the humor in the novel. Each character in this novel will bring both humor and sadness to a reader. All the comedy is dark, and readers who enjoy that will find much to like on these pages.

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

The Angel's Game

Dense. Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s latest novel, The Angel’s Game, presents a writer as protagonist, David Martin, influenced by a mentor, then commissioned by a mysterious publisher to write a special book. Gothic Barcelona takes form almost as a character in this novel, and the depths and mysteries of people and places, past and present, flow past the reader. It seems as if the process of writing can be like falling under a spell, enlightened by divine inspiration or bedeviled by dark forces. Martin finds himself in a high-stakes game, a suspect in murders, and obsessed. This is a dense novel that requires a patient reader, willing to place oneself in the writer’s hands and wait to see where it all ends up.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Angel’s Game from amazon.com.

Shanghai Girls

Destiny. Lisa See’s latest novel, Shanghai Girls, presents a sweeping and intense story of two sisters, Pearl and May, and their turbulent lives from wealth in Shanghai in the 1930s, through wartime atrocities, and to a struggling immigrant life in Los Angeles. The heartbreak and suffering in their experience will envelop many readers, and the intensity of their sibling relationship will resonate for many other readers. The emotional volume is turned high throughout this novel, and the plight of Pearl and May becomes more compelling as time passes. See does a fine job in presenting the theme of destiny with a light touch and a deep impact.

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

A Question of Belief

Inescapable. The August heat in Venice is inescapable, even for Commisario Guido Brunetti who receives a call to return to the city on a murder case even before the train taking him and his family to a vacation in the cool mountains has arrived at its destination. This nineteenth mystery in this series by Donna Leon is titled, A Question of Belief, and I find than I never tire of this character. In this installment, Brunetti calmly confronts corruption on many levels: he tries to release a colleague’s aunt from the pull of a charlatan stealing her money; he investigates a judge who specializes in delaying trials; and he solves a murder. Leon is a talented writer who continues to enrich an already well-developed character. She presents dialogue and description in ways that bring readers to Venice so vividly that I almost felt the heat.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase A Question of Belief from amazon.com.

Bite Me: A Love Story

Chuckles. Humor requires a receptive audience. Live humor can rise and fall on the energy level between the humorist and the live audience. Written humor can become dicey depending on the willingness of a reader to appreciate character and plot as presented by a witty author. Christopher Moore can write plot and characters that make readers laugh. In the latest installment of his bloodsucking fiends series titled, Bite Me: A Love Story, the characters and plot provide loads of chuckles to any receptive reader. The vampire angle provides some fuel for plot and to attract select readers. For me, the lovesick characters and their behavior was universal, and I laughed often at dialogue and the ways in which the characters interacted. A reader looking for humorous escape fiction will find brief entertainment and a few laughs from these pages.

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

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine

Leverage. Michael Lewis is an adept storyteller, and his latest book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, presents a perspective on the subprime mortgage fiasco with both explanation and captivating drama. Lewis introduces readers to eight odd individuals, each of whom saw the subprime mortgage market problems and found ways to profit from their prediction of the market’s dramatic fall. Readers looking for a comprehensive presentation of the financial crisis can find hundreds of pages elsewhere. In this book, there’s an entertaining quality, perhaps schadenfreude, at the ways in which these eight characters gained from the misery of others.

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

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

Resolution. Stieg Larsson completed the third novel in the Lisbeth Salander trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, by lifting the darkness from the middle novel, and pulling all the pieces together by the end of this 600 page installment. I don’t know how the language flows in the original Swedish, but this English version provides fine dialogue throughout, and a narrative flow that made pages fly by a dozen or more at a time, as I wanted to bring this story to its end. I found the resolution very satisfying, and realized at the end that with Larsson’s death, I will miss Salander, and remember her as one of the most memorable characters in modern fiction.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest from amazon.com.

Beatrice and Virgil

Horrors. If you liked reading Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, don’t pick up his new novel, Beatrice and Virgil until you understand how different it is. The one element these novels share is the use of animals as characters. The subject of the new novel is the holocaust, and the horrors abound throughout these pages. A writer is experiencing a bloc and becomes interested in a play that a taxidermist is writing. The violence becomes numbing, and by the end of the novel, the extreme brutality becomes horrible through the description of games. This is a work of art about a difficult subject and is written in ways that can lead a reader to revulsion. That can be a strength of art, or an indication that the work is lousy. Readers are likely to love or hate this novel. I think it is finely written, but caution readers to think twice before experiencing the horror on these pages.

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

Imperfect Birds

Trust. Parents of children younger or older than adolescents can safely read Anne Lamott’s novel, Imperfect Birds, without undue anxiety. Those readers with children smack in the throes of adolescence may be wise to defer reading this novel to another time. Lamott presents the elaborate lies of teens and the parents’ desire to believe and the struggles of a young woman and her parents in dealing with a challenging situation. Rosie seems to be a good student until she isn’t, as she experiments with drugs and alcohol to great excess. Her lies, including the ways in which she sabotages the drug tests she is forced to take, create real tension for everyone. The title of the novel comes from Rumi, “Each has to enter the nest made by the other imperfect bird.” Rosie’s mother, Elizabeth and her stepfather James create the best nest they can in forming a family. The novel unveils deep love and great pain, and explores the question of how trust is formed and maintained.

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

The Lake Shore Limited

Accidents. It’s interesting to examine the many ways in which novelists grapple with the events of 9/11/2001 and find different ways to express this in their work. Sue Miller uses a story within a story model for her novel, The Lake Shore Limited. A playwright, Billy Gertz, writes about a train accident caused by a terrorist. Her lover, Gus, died in a 9/11 plane crash. Gus’s sister, Leslie, grieves for him through maintaining a relationship with Billy, without knowing that Billy was about to end her affair with Gus at the time of his death. Leslie imagines a loss for Billy that exceeds Billy’s actual feelings. Leslie fixes an architect friend, Sam, up with Billy, who sleeps with Rafe, the lead actor in her play. If you’ve gotten all that straight, now be prepared to shift narrators and see events from the perspective of different characters. Miller does a fine job of presenting the complexity of relationships and the interplay of giving and receiving love and dealing with loss. The accidents and misunderstandings of life can become defining moments in relationships, and Miller’s fine writing helps uncover this for any reader who enjoys reflective literary fiction.

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

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Vintage Caper

Breezy. Peter Mayle’s latest book is a breezy romp from California to Marseille titled, The Vintage Caper. Protagonist Sam Leavitt investigates the theft of wine from a California mogul, which leads him to France. Along the way, there’s great food, drink, and interesting characters. The story moves fast, and is best consumed with a glass of wine or two. Any reader looking for light reading entertainment will find some pleasure from these pages.

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

Bold Endeavors: How Our Government Built America, and Why It Must Rebuild Now

Activism. It’s rare to find a book from an investment banker that represents a call to action in the form of government activism. Former Lazard Freres leader Felix Rohatyn’s new book is titled Bold Endeavors: How Our Government Built America, and Why It Must Rebuild Now. Rohatyn provides ten examples of how the government has been the indispensible investor in our nation. It’s not often fun to read about infrastructure, but Rohatyn makes the call for investment one that’s backed by facts, and lively to read. Those believers of the view that government is the problem will find a contrary position in this book.

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

The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt anbd the Fire that Saved America

Proven. Do yourself a favor and consider reading Timothy Egan’s book, The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America. August 2010 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the largest wildfire in American history, one that consumed three million acres of Western land. Teddy had just left office, and his head of forestry, Gifford Pinchot, was under fire from member of Congress who were questioning the need for forest rangers, who were seen as good for nothing. Egan does a fine job in telling the story of the fire, the people and the impact of this catastrophe on the century that followed it.

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


Youth. Readers looking for something new and creative to read might want to try Joe Dunthorne’s debut novel, Submarine. The protagonist, Oliver Tate, is an almost-fifteen-year-old living in Swansea, Wales. The log of his daily observations reveals a precocious child on the one hand, and an adolescent bully on the other. His observations of his parents lead him on an investigation, as he looks to lose his virginity. Dunthorne’s writing kept my interest throughout, and he offers a new voice that I found quite entertaining.

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


Soliloquies. When Robin Cook talks to himself in his novels, is anyone listening? His latest novel, Intervention, is filled with long explanations of what Cook is trying to convey, and the tedious dialogue to deliver his messages became overwhelmingly frustrating at times. On the positive side, the return of protagonists Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery provided some entertainment. A trip to Rome added to the excitement, since Jack in New York can be more than a little manic. Readers who love medical thrillers may find some reading pleasure here, as will returning fans of Jack and Laurie. Other readers can find much better books to read.

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