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.


Stalkers. Protagonist Victoria Trumbull returns in the latest Martha’s Vineyard novel by Cynthia Riggs titled, Touch-Me-Not. Three generations of strong Trumbull women are featured in this novel, along with an interesting set of characters and a plot that draws on everything Victoria has learned over her ninety-two years. Although Victoria’s daughter arrived on the Island expecting to move Victoria into some form of assisted living, it is Victoria who provides the needed assistance. Victoria and her granddaughter have a warm relationship and it’s unclear who takes more care of whom. The theme of the novel involves stalkers and the havoc they wreak. A group of mathematical knitters provide lots of local color. Any reader who likes a simple mystery with compelling characters will find a lot to enjoy in this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Touch Me Not from amazon.com.

The Thieves of Manhattan

Fakers. Adam Langer’s new novel, The Thieves of Manhattan, had me laughing once I caught onto his clever devices. His topic is literary fakery, and he develops his plot with the swap of a memoir for a novel between two characters. Peppered throughout the short book are references to literary figures with signature characteristics, which Langer describes in a glossary. In other words, instead of using their proper names, Langer selects a defining characteristic of a writer and uses their name as a part of speech. Readers who enjoy clever wit and who are likely to understand his references will really enjoy this novel. Consider savoring it with a glass of faulkner, or even two fitgeralds.

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

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Curiosity. Mary Roach has a lot of curiosity and she exercises that quality with abundance in her new book, Packing for Mars. Every question I’ve ever thought of about life in zero gravity and the space program, Roach asks and answers in this book, with a verve and sense of humor that had me laughing out loud. I hadn’t considered what a friend gravity is until she explored the challenge of hygiene in space, and now I know more about the topic that I ever really wanted to know. Roach presents a history of the space program as part of this book and passes along many of the aspects of the program that NASA may not appreciate, and the candor of astronauts was lively. Any reader with an interest in odd science writing and a good sense of humor will enjoy this book.

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

The Capitol Game

Accountability. Brian Haig’s latest novel, The Capitol Game, tells a story of financial shenanigans that kept me engaged for all four hundred pages, despite some distracting ways in which Haig doesn’t understand business. What he does well is keep the plot moving, as his protagonist, Jack Wiley, lives true to his name as he carefully skirts the boundaries of illegal activity. Greed leads certain characters to fall into Wiley’s traps and the whole idea of accountability for behavior becomes a theme of the novel. Any reader looking for an action thriller will find excitement in the world of government contracting and private equity that Haig presents here.

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

The Grand Design

Thinking. Philosophers, theologians and physicists all ask the really big questions, like why do we exist? In the new book, The Grand Design, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow present a brief and readable perspective on the theories that lead them to conclude that we expect because our planet is in just the right location to support life, and that this could have occurred without any divine intervention. The authors explore the developments in M-theory, a unified set of theories that answer the questions about why the universe behaves the ways it does. As a non-physicist, I found this book readable, although I expect that while I understood the words, I still don’t quite get it. Nonetheless, it’s rewarding to be exposed to the thinking of these scientists in an accessible way, and to think along with them about those really big questions.

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

Friday, September 10, 2010

Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality

Grave. I was unaware of the extent of longevity research until I read Jonathan Weiner’s entertaining new book, Long for This World: The Strange Science of Immortality. I found myself recalling the daily remark of a high school teacher who began each class with the glooming, but accurate, statement: “Here we are, one more day closer to the grave.” Weiner presents how some scientists are exploring ways to dramatically extend human life spans. The eccentric British scientist Aubrey de Grey provides much of the color in this story, and I found myself alternating between thinking of him as a visionary or a crackpot. Any reader who would like to ponder some of the what-ifs about extending life spans will find a lot to think about on the pages of this interesting book.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Long for This World from amazon.com.

Star Island

Celebrity. Carl Hiaasen is back with a funny novel titled, Star Island. This book is packed with odd characters, who over the course of a few hundred pages remain unlikeable but become sympathetic. Hiaasen focuses his attention here on the cult of celebrity, and in the case of character Cherry Pye, talentless celebrity. The antics of a full cast of characters lead to laughter and the satisfaction that so many characters receive exactly what they deserve. Skink, the former governor turned swamp rat returns in a heroic role, and Cherry Pye’s body double, Ann DeLusia, steals the show through the ways in which her behavior rises above all those around her. This is escapist fiction that intends to entertain, so those readers ready to laugh are the ones most likely to enjoy the outsized characters and zany plot.

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

The Passage

Dystopia. Justin Cronin asks readers to stay with him on many journeys over almost 800 pages in his new novel, The Passage. I remained on board for the entire trip, but felt by the end that the journey could have been shorter by at least half. The novel presents science run amok, as a virus creates mutants who destroy most of the population. A remnant of people escaped the virus, and it is their story of survival that consumes the energy of the book. The novel is absorbing and engaging, and Cronin’s writing style kept me engaged, but for far longer than I would have wished. Readers with the patience to enjoy an 800-page novel may love this novel, but others may find the commitment too large for the value derived from the experience.

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

Three Stations

Survival. Martin Cruz Smith has reprised his popular Russian detective Arkady Renko in a new novel titled, Three Stations. Set in modern Moscow, Renko is hanging onto his job by a thread, and many fellow Muscovites are struggling to survive corruption and crime while trying to eke out a living. Renko injects himself into a murder case, which is followed by what appears to be serial homicides. Gangsters are trying to pursue a runaway prostitute, whose child was stolen upon her arrival in Moscow. For her and for others, Renko works to get to the bottom of everything, and along the way, he’s willing to sacrifice his job and himself, since he seems to have nothing else to lose. Smith has continued to deepen his development of the Renko character with this novel, and his plot pacing and descriptions of Moscow make for quick and enjoyable reading.

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


Incarceration. Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, Freedom, is a great big sweeping novel that attempts to capture the early part of the 21st century in America. While the key dynamic in his previous novel, The Corrections, involved inter-generational conflict, this novel focuses on marriage and love relationships. While I found the characters in the previous novel to be unappealing in a distracting way, in this novel, the characters are sympathetic and nuanced enough to become appealing, no matter how they behave. The theme of freedom takes on multiple forms throughout the novel, and readers are led to reflect on the ways in which we become handcuffed by some aspects of freedom, and that free markets aren’t necessarily good. The bird on the cover makes its first appearance on page 210, which I found amusing, given that I was waiting to see where it would fit into the novel. Franzen’s writing is sometimes so finely done that it becomes overdone. Overall, I found this novel to be enjoyable and the writing was outstanding.

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

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Isolated. David Mitchell uses each of the almost 500 pages of his new historical novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, to draw readers into the setting, characters and plot. The setting is Nagasaki, Japan at the beginning of the 19th century when that country was cut off from the rest of the world by its own policies. Protagonist de Zoet arrives as a clerk at the Dutch trading outpost on a quarantined island named Dejima in 1799. His first job is in forensic accounting to uncover fraud against the Dutch East India Company by its local employees. His principled, but isolated stance against his new boss leads him toward personal setbacks. Instead of spending six years in Japan, he lives there for twenty. The supporting cast of characters is rich, and Mitchell develops each with precision and skill. The plot has enough twists to keep readers alert, and the poetic writing makes the scenes come alive. Any reader who likes historical fiction and fine writing will find much to enjoy in this novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet from amazon.com.