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.