Friday, December 16, 2011

The Time of Our Lives

Community. Veteran journalist Tom Brokaw has written a conversational book titled, The Time of Our Lives. This is a call for Americans to return to a community life, shared values and civic engagement. Brokaw uses examples from his own life and that of his children and grandchildren to reflect on where we’ve been and where we need to go to restore the American dream. Readers who like plain speaking common sense are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Time of Our Lives from amazon.com.

Your Medical Mind: How to Decide What Is Right for You

Anecdotes. Doctors Jerome Groopman and Pamela Hartzband present an array of personal and patient anecdotes in their book, Your Medical Mind: How to Decide What Is Right for You. I found that this book was less helpful to me in deciding what is right for me medically, but very useful in understanding how different people have made decisions for themselves. In some ways after reading this book, I feel better capable of making certain medical decisions. In other ways, I feel that I will be caught in some cognitive traps when the time comes to make key decisions. Readers who are interested in medical treatment decisions are those most likely to enjoy this book.

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

Zone One

Survivors. After reading Colson Whitehead’s novel, Zone One, covering three days in the lives of survivors of a plague, I concluded that being a survivor can be worse than dying. Whitehead’s prose describes the setting and the characters with literary skill, and those readers who appreciate fine writing will find much to appreciate and enjoy on these pages. I’m not a regular reader of the zombie genre, but I’ll hazard a guess that few other zombie novels display this high level of writing skills.

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

Safe Haven

Contrived. The central characters of Nicholas Sparks’ novel, Safe Haven, slowly develop a romantic relationship. Katie has fled to North Carolina to protect herself from an abusive relationship. Alex is a widower, now a single parent. We learn their backstories gradually, at the same pace as their relationship develops. At some point, Sparks departs from a gradual pace, accelerates the action, and resorts to a contrived character to perform a deus ex machina role. Readers who like soap opera fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

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

Blue-Eyed Devil

Mastery. The late Robert B. Parker excelled at two elements of fiction: dialogue and character development. Both those elements are superb in his western novel, Blue-Eyed Devil. Characters Virgil Cole and Everett Hitch return to Appaloosa where they had once been the only lawmen on the scene. The current and ambitious chief of a force numbering a dozen asks for their help. They refuse, and the excitement that follows will keep readers entertained, especially those who like character-driven fiction in which everything comes to resolution by the end of the novel.

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

The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible

Hope. There is a phenomenon called “the third man factor” in which many individuals close to death have a sense of someone with them who encourages them to try to get through the experience. Globe and Mail editor John Geiger explores whether this is a scientific mystery or a religious experience in his book, The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible. Through many stories of this phenomenon, mostly from mountain climbing, and an overview of the latest science, Geiger’s writing will engage most readers, especially those with an interest in unusual phenomena and those who like hearing stories about the real experiences of others. I think that believers are likely to consider the feeling of another presence to be a form of divine intervention. Scientists aren’t likely to find Geiger’s reporting to be compelling.

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

Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage

Changed. Following her successful Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert chucked what she wrote next, and tried again. The result, Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, comes through as a clear and confident voice that examines and explores matrimony. There’s no escape from the irony that this author who concluded that marriage was not for her turns around and gets married. Isn’t life like that? This book explores what brought Gilbert into matrimony and how entering this institution can be a great way to live.

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

Ed King

Greek. I can imagine David Guterson having fun writing his latest novel, Ed King. He decides to retell the Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex (hence Ed King, protagonist and title) and proceeds to unveil to readers how he things such a story would play out in today’s world. The characters he creates are venal and self-centered, so the sense of tragedy for some readers will fall short, since each seems to get what he or she deserves. Long on exposition and short on dialogue, the novel has a remoteness that became disengaging for me at times. While I was somewhat interested in what would happen to the characters, I realized that their shallowness left me cold rather than caring. Guterson is creative and daring in this novel, and I found his writing craftsmanship superb. Readers who like literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

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

The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout

Scout. Jill Abramson’s book, The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scout, will appeal to those readers who live with dogs and those who don’t. The first group will want a puppy after reading the book, and so will the second. Abramson is the executive editor of The New York Times, and part of this book came from a popular column she wrote on the paper’s website at the time Scout came into her life. Her writing keeps a reader interested and engaged in all the big and little things about living with a puppy.

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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party

Comfort. Reading any of the novels of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels is like savoring a huge portion of macaroni and cheese (or your version of comfort food) on a cold night. The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party is the twelfth in the series, and the very familiar characters continue to develop in this installment. Readers who like wholesome characters and novels that are uplifting to the human spirit are those most likely to enjoy this novel and this series.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party from amazon.com.

The Double Comfort Safari Club

Contentment. All the familiar elements of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels are present in The Double Comfort Safari Club, along with a larger than usual degree of drama. Fans will appreciate more time spent with Precious Ramotswe and Grace Makutsi and the familiar secondary characters. I usually close each book in the series feeling good, and that was true with this one. Readers who enjoy character-driven fiction that brings all tension to resolution by the end will enjoy this novel and the others in this series.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Double Comfort Safari Club from amazon.com.

Apple Turnover Murder

Reliable. Readers looking for predictability and reliability in a world packed with turmoil can find an escape in Joanne Fluke’s novel, Apple Turnover Mystery. Each of the novels in this series features baker Hannah Swensen whose baking and relationships have a wholesomeness and predictability that can be comforting. The mystery doesn’t require much mental engagement from the reader, and the many recipes provide transitions to put the novel aside and nibble on something sweet.

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

Devil's Food Cake Murder

Food. Joanne Fluke’s novels make me hungry. I read them in part for the recipes and in part for the development of the wholesome characters. In Devil’s Food Cake Murder, protagonist Hannah Swensen solves another murder, and bakes plenty of sweets along the way. Hannah’s romantic relationships proceed at the measured pace a baker follows when combining ingredients. Readers who like wholesome characters and a relaxing plot will find those ingredients here, along with a recipe or two to try out at home.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Devil’s Food Cake Murder from amazon.com.

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One

Language. Language lovers will revel in a short book by Stanley Fish titled, How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Each of the ten short chapters by this English professor explores the form, style and content of a sentence. Any reader with a desire to be taught some fundamentals about writing and reading by a skilled teacher will enjoy the time spent reading this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase How to Write a Sentence from amazon.com.

Aleph

Journey. The popularity of Paulo Coehlo’s novels led me to read his latest, Aleph. The last time I read a novel this odd was fifteen years ago with The Celestine Prophecy. These new age pseudo-spiritual journey novels may appeal to certain readers, but not to me. I found the writing weak, the characters poorly developed and the premise and plot annoying. Read a sample before you consider reading this novel. If you develop any interest at all from the sample, you’ll find more of the same in the full novel. Otherwise, take a pass.

Rating: One-star (Read only if your interest is strong)
Click here to purchase Aelph from amazon.com.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Chango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes

Revolution. Only a writer as skilled as William Kennedy could pack so much into the three hundred well written pages of his new novel, Chango’s Beads and Two-Toned Shoes. Three time settings provide the backdrop for this story of love and revolution: 1936 in Albany, 1957 in Havana, and 1968 in Albany. Dialogue, characters and descriptive language display Kennedy’s great skill. Keeping up with what’s going on can be a challenge worth facing by any reader who enjoys literary fiction and fine writing.

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

Holidays in Heck

Droll. Any parent who has traveled with children will find something familiar in P.J. O’Rourke’s new essay collection, Holidays in Heck. There are a dozen or so finely written pages here. Out of almost three hundred, you have to decide if it’s worth the effort to find them. I found his writing mostly droll, and too often, tiresome. Perhaps because I think he’s an excellent writer, I expected more from this collection. I felt like he pounded these pieces out without much care, and a few of the best nuggets stand out.

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

I'd Know You Anywhere

Intensity. Laura Lippman departs from her Tess Monaghan detective series to write a psychological novel focused on two individuals: Eliza Benedict and Walter Bowman. In her novel, I’d Know You Anywhere, Lippman explores the lives of these two individuals with intensity, both in the current time, and twenty years earlier. Walter kidnapped Eliza when she was a teen. Now, he’s on death row for his conviction in killing another teen. He contacts her in a desire to avoid his execution. Lippman unveils what happened in the past and what it means today, for both characters. Readers who like psychological novels are those most likely to enjoy this one.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase I’d Know You Anywhere from amazon.com.

Devil's Gate

Strained. Fans of Clive Cussler novels are those most likely to enjoy the latest NUMA adventure featuring Kurt Austin titled, Devil’s Gate. I enjoyed the usual Cussler attention to technical detail and to a fast moving plot. Unfortunately I found Austin’s heroics to be so far beyond belief that I began to laugh at his exploits. Other characters were so poorly developed that even the villains were unbelievable. Happily, these novels can be read quickly, so not much time is wasted in seeing if the strained effort to bring all the tension to resolution is achieved. It’s no spoiler to disclose that the good guys win, and for those readers who like fast action and confident resolution to threats, this novel may be a perfect fit.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase Devil’s Gate from amazon.com.

The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes

Uncertainty. Readers who like creative and thrilling plots are those most likely to enjoy Marcus Sakey’s novel, The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes. Sakey keeps readers uncertain about what’s going on especially by having the protagonist suffer amnesia. Readers interpret actions through Hayes’ limited and unclear recollections. Sakey also keeps it unclear about who’s on Hayes’ side and who’s the enemy. Despite the thrilling plot, I found that I developed no empathy for any of the characters.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes from amazon.com.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Cat's Table

Voyage. Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The Cat’s Table, presents the story of a boy’s journey by boat from Sri Lanka to England in 1954 using two perspectives: as it was underway and how it was remembered much later. I found Ondaatje’s writing to be outstanding throughout this novel, and the characters became richly developed from both perspectives. The descriptive and poetic language became beguiling at times, and I found myself re-reading passages that were particularly enjoyable. The title refers to the shipboard table located furthest from the Captain’s table, the one at which all the strays were gathered. It is these strays that become the liveliest characters in the novel. Readers who appreciate literary fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Cat’s Table from amazon.com.

The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food

Yummy. If one of your favorite meals is to savor a finely constructed sentence, sit down at the table and enjoy reading Adam Gopnik’s The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food. Intelligent readers who appreciate fine writing and have a strong interest in food are those most likely to enjoy this book. Gopnik can alternate between taking food very seriously and poking fun at the ways in which we inject meaning in food. There’s much in this book about the history of restaurants, cooking for others, and the pleasure of sharing a table. If any of those topics interests you, thanks to Gopnik’s talent, reading this becomes a feast.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Table Comes First from amazon.com.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Marriage Plot

Burdens. The three protagonists of Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel, The Marriage Plot, carry heavy burdens. They came to Brown from different Oregon, Detroit and New Jersey, and as they graduate in 1982, they are uncertain what comes next. Madeline Hanna is considering post-graduate work in literature, but Yale did not accept her. Leonard Bankhead met Madeline in a Semiotics class that Eugenides describes in rich detail. Leonard has bipolar disorder, and his manic and depressive episodes dominate the book. The third protagonist, Mitchell Grammaticus, is a religious studies major who heads to India after graduation. The three characters are in a love triangle that would have developed one way in Jane Austen’s world, and develops in another way under Eugenides. The fine writing here is lively and descriptive, and the burdens carried are made real through the ways in which Eugenides brings the characters to life. These are not necessarily appealing characters, but they are real. The love relationships mirror the reality of our contemporary society.

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

Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life

Contagious. We want to be around joyful people. James Martin is a Jesuit priest, a prolific writer and an editor at America magazine. His latest book, Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life, explores the many ways in which spirituality becomes evident through joy, humor and laughter. He explores each of those areas with wit and self-deprecating stories. The result is an entertaining book that leads to laughter as well as to reflection. I found myself passing along at least two or three anecdotes from this book. Readers who like spiritual themes and humor are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Between Heaven and Mirth from amazon.com.

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories

Unease. Don DeLillo’s novels have received raves from readers over four decades. His debut short story collection covers that time period, and is titled, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories. I can’t recall reading any of these stories before. In each one, I discovered the same precise writing from DeLillo’s novels, and the way in which he holds a mirror to readers about our unease and discomfort with what’s happening around us. The difference between these stories and his longer fiction is that I had the sense that every single word in his stories was carefully chosen, and that nothing extra was needed. He leads readers to see what he sees in American life, and presents connections between his characters and readers that are unmistakable.

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

What It Is Like to Go to War

Warriors. Karl Marlantes answers a question the majority of Americans cannot answer because of our lack of experience. In his book, What It Is Like To Go To War, Marlantes uses his own experience in Vietnam to try to explain with honesty and openness what war was like. Those who have been in war may find that Marlantes speaks for them or describes something quite different from their own experience. Through fine writing, Marlantes explores the psychological intensity of the experience of war, both at the time and for long afterward. He examines spirituality and the process of reflection about what took place in shadow.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase What It Is Like to Go To War from amazon.com.

A Man of Parts

Cranky. It didn’t take me long to get cranky while reading David Lodge’s fictional biography of H.G. Wells titled, A Man of Parts. Perhaps the genre of fictional biography leaves me cold. While I found Lodge’s writing to be engaging, I found the character of Wells to be far less interesting than either Wells’ writing or Lodge’s. The constraints of this quirky subject who lived a complex and vibrant life became tiresome for me after a hundred or so pages. I slogged through to the end, but remained cranky to the last. Readers with affection for Wells or who enjoy Lodge’s writing are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
Click here to purchase A Man of Parts from amazon.com.

Eisenhower: The White House Years

Middle. Readers of political biography usually want two elements to dominate: a vivid portrait of the individual that makes him or her come alive, and a description of the context or world situation in which the subject engaged. Jim Newton’s biography, Eisenhower: The White House Years, masters both elements. For readers like me who think of the 1950s as a boring and stable decade, and who recall Ike as a grandfatherly golfer who led his Administration with a light touch, this book debunks such myths. This was a very complex time and Ike was fully engaged on the issues and challenges we faced. He pursued a middle path that seems quaint in the context of today’s partisan political environment. Readers who enjoy good writing and lively political biography are those most likely to enjoy this book.

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

Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today

Sharp. I rarely read Philip Galanes column in the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times. After I picked up a copy of his new book, Social Q's: How to Survive the Quirks, Quandaries and Quagmires of Today, I came to appreciate how witty and crisp writing can apply to almost any topic. Galanes’sharp writing style is entertaining and he knows how to turn a phrase. Fans of the column will savor this large dose. Any reader who likes wit and enjoys the social commentary that an advice column can provide will find much to enjoy in this entertaining book.

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Litigators

Cheery. Many of John Grisham’s novels have been ponderous or overly dramatic, with odd dialogue and predictable plots. The Litigators is lighthearted with endearing characters (even the lawyers), realistic dialogue and a well-paced plot. I found myself rooting for protagonist David Zinc, and genuinely interested in how things would turn out. Maybe it was the Chicago setting that made the characters come alive with their Midwestern authenticity. Readers who have given up on Grisham should give this one a try.

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

The Caller

Troubles. Karin Fossum continues her entertaining Inspector Sejer mystery series with a novel titled, The Caller. Fossum takes an ordinary situation, injects it with danger and crime, and then allows multiple perspectives to envelop the reader. In this novel, we see the situation from the criminal’s perspective, the victims, and the detectives. While we learn early who the criminal is, interest remains strong because of the skilled character development and the ways in which Inspector Sejer deals with the pieces of information he grasps. A twist at the end brings added pleasure to mystery fans. Fossum’s a skilled writer and this novel will provide rich entertainment to those readers who like this genre, even in translation.

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

The Great Leader

Character. Readers who like novels that develop deeply rich and complex characters are those most likely to enjoy Jim Harrison’s novel, The Great Leader. Protagonist Simon Sunderson has recently retired as a detective in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and he can’t let go of his last case, which involved a cult leader named Dwight, called the Great Leader by his followers, often teenage girls. Each character and the physical environment are presented and developed by Harrison with lyrical writing and understanding of human behavior. The engagement and kindness and desires of characters in this novel will keep readers interested from beginning to end.

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

No More Mr. Nice Guy

Raunchy. Readers who can tolerate an abundance of explicit and raunchy sexual narrative will find Howard Jacobson’s novel, No More Mr. Nice Guy, entertaining and funny while addressing the serious subject of marital relationships. Protagonist Frank Ritz finds himself thrown out of his house by his partner Melissa Paul. He travels around the country remembering sex past and looking for sex present. His introspection about his life and sexual activity leads him to view his life in a more complete way. I picked up this novel after I read Jacobson's Man Booker award winning novel, The Finkler Question. The two books hold little in common in subject matter and style, but share fine quality writing from a skilled novelist.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase No More Mr. Nice Guy from amazon.com.

That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back

Rediscovery. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has teamed with foreign policy professor Michael Mandelbaum to write a stimulating book titled, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back. As with earlier Friedman books, this one is packed with a ream of selected observations and facts that are used to support the authors’ opinions and desired policies and actions. The core approach is that we need to rediscover how we came to be the country we are today, and to restore those things that made us great. The authors propose that we need to answer the questions of what world are we living in and what do we need to do to thrive in that world. They propose a rediscovery of the public-private partnership we’ve embraced since our founding and deal with education, infrastructure, research and development, immigration and regulation. Whether readers agree or disagree with the diagnosis and prescription, the subject is interesting, the authors offer a lively presentation, and readers are prompted to engage in the issues raised.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase That Used to Be Us from amazon.com.

The Race

Soars. Clive Cussler takes protagonist Isaac Bell to the skies as the heroic Van Dorn detective protects a skilled aviatrix from harm during a cross-country airplane contest. This latest novel, set in 1910, is titled The Race, and no fan of this series will be surprised to learn that Bell masters the skill of flying a plane with ease. There’s a wide cast of interesting characters, and the usual level of detail that Cussler readers demand. Bell’s romance with his fiancĂ© Marion Morgan proceeds at what seems like a glacial pace. The usual contest between the good guys and bad guys turns out as expected. Readers looking for some light reading that entertains without requiring a lot of thought are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

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

Inheritance

Understanding. The four volume series that Christopher Paolini started writing as a teenager comes to a conclusion with Inheritance. Readers of the earlier books will want to read the finale to see how everything turns out. I’ve been wondering how Eragon would deal with Galbatorix in this last book and the clever way in which Paolini resolved their conflict was one of the highlights of the book for me. Readers who like a lot of pages for their dollar with find value here. The quality of writing is spotty, but the combination of plot and character provide enough momentum for most readers to overlook the shortcomings. The heroic story in all four volumes might have been better if condensed, but Paolini indulged readers by stringing us along in a story that developed slowly and left the door open to future books with these now familiar characters.

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

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Night Circus

Repercussions. Erin Morgenstern uses the setting of a magical circus as a place to unveil many components of human relationships that bring illumination to the best and the worst of human behavior. The Night Circus caught my attention from the outset and maintained my engagement throughout. As the complexity of the plot and the development of characters progressed, I gained increased respect for Morgenstern’s skills. The circus becomes the locus of a contest between magicians. Thanks to her writing skills, it became much more than a competition, and the repercussions of what was set in motion became significant. This is a novel that most readers will want to discuss with others.

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

Damned

Spunky. Readers who enjoy satire will find a lot to like in Chuck Palahniuk’s latest novel, Damned. Each chapter begins with these two sentences: “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.” We get to see the hell of Palahniuk’s imagination through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Madison who finds herself there. She’s a spunky and lively character in every chapter, and the descriptions of hell are vintage Palahniuk.

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

What I Hate: From A to Z

Neurotic. As a longtime fan of Roz Chast’s cartoons in The New Yorker, I thoroughly enjoyed reading her new collection, What I Hate: From A to Z. A perfect riff on a children’s ABC book, Chast chronicles her list in both grim and hilarious scope. Any reader who can laugh at a bit of neuroticism in oneself and others will appreciate this book. It can also provide a perfect gift to that special someone, especially a person who hates at least one of the things that Chase highlights.

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

Blue Nights

Disconnected. How can one speak about what life is like following the death of a spouse and a child within a short span of time? Joan Didion finds a way to do that in her new book, Blue Nights. Whatever form of grief a reader has experienced will become raw again as one reads this book. Even Didion’s writing seems lost and disjointed at times as she describes her experience. One poignant scene was of Didion filling out her own medical form and struggling with the selection of who to notify in case of emergency. The two people closest to her are dead, and she feels lost.

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

Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain

Perspective. Curious readers will gain a rare perspective from reading Jim Lehrer’s book, Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates, from Kennedy-Nixon to Obama-McCain. Having moderated so many political debates, Lehrer can provide both an inside view as well as perspective about this important element of American political life. This short book is presented in the folksy manner that has made Lehrer a popular journalist. Political junkies will devour this book as a tasty diversion from the current round of debates.

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

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President

Mismanagement. Over the course of 500 pages in a book titled, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington and the Education of a President, Ron Suskind presents the many missed opportunities and mismanagement in the early years of the Obama administration. He also explores every possible meaning of “confidence.” Assembled from hundreds of hours of interviews with hundreds of people, I found this book to be comprehensive, and also packed with errors in details that were sometimes distracting. Given the broad scope and journalistic style, some errors are to be expected, and historians should sort it all out. The villains of the book are Larry Summers and Rahm Emmanuel, the best examples of Suskind’s key premise: “the key president’s authority was being systematically undermined or hedged by his seasoned advisors” (p. 458). Any reader interested in contemporary politics will enjoy this book.

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

The Dog Who Came In From the Cold

Warm. One reason that I enjoy reading books by Alexander McCall Smith is that I know that when I finish, I will have both a smile and a warm feeling. In The Dog Who Came In From the Cold, Smith brings readers back to Corduroy Mansions and to a familiar dog, Freddie de la Hay. Freddie has caught the attention of MI6, who want to use him to spy on a Russian. The many characters in this novel keep a reader engaged as the simple plot proceeds and resolution takes place. Readers who like tender and warm stories are those most likely to enjoy this and other Smith novels.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Dog Who Came In From the Cold from amazon.com.

Misterioso

Jazz. Sometimes when I read a novel translated from its original language, I wonder what I am missing from the original. I never once had that feeling when I read Arne Dahl’s novel, Misterioso. Plot takes prominence in this crime novel, as does character development. The title refers to a classic jazz piece by Thelonious Monk, and like music, this story needs no translation. The protagonist is a detective, Paul Hjelm, and Dahl develops his character in ways that engaged me throughout the novel. The slow pace of the novel and the gradual solution of the mystery was very satisfying; it always seemed just right.

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

The Lady of the Rivers

Fortune. Philippa Gregory has written another fine historical novel set the time of the War of the Roses. Titled, The Lady of the Rivers, this book presents readers with the life and times of Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, and the mother of Elizabeth Woodville, who became the white queen. In what seems like endless war, the wheel of fortune turns for Jacquetta and her family one way or the other every fifty pages or so. Readers are taken up in the vivid description, and the development of characters that makes us feel that we are in that time and those places. Readers who like historical fiction, especially that period of turmoil in England, are those most likely to enjoy this novel. Also, readers who like to see history from a woman’s point of view will find precisely that on these pages.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase The Lady of the Rivers from amazon.com.

Lost Memory of Skin

Shadows. It’s a rare novelist who can hold up a mirror to readers about modern life by using unsympathetic characters to provide insight into human nature from the behavior of outcasts. The shadows and dark corners of society and personality are explored by Russell Banks in his new novel, Lost Memory of Skin. A protagonist whose only name is The Kid, finds himself in his early twenties as a convicted sex offender, a virgin, and living underneath a Florida causeway, the only place far enough away from children to meet the terms of his probation. Another nameless character, The Professor, is also an outcast. Banks uses both characters to lead readers to think about people around us, and ourselves, in new ways.

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

A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness

Normal. If you’ve ever thought that someone would have to be nuts to run for political office, there’s a book to give you backup for this view. Psychiatrist Nassim Ghaemi has written A First-Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness. Ghaemi presents the psychological profiles of certain leaders, mostly political figures, and presents a case showing that individuals with certain mood disorders can be more successful when facing crisis than their “normal” counterparts because of the resilience they have developed in dealing with their own problems. Readers are likely to think of leadership and mental illness in new ways after reading this book. Anyone interested in psychiatry or leadership will likely find this book to be a good reading experience.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase A First-Rate Madness from amazon.com.

The Novice: A Story of True Love

Response. Renowned Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh has rewritten an old Vietnamese story in a new book titled, The Novice: A Story of True Love. As with most Buddhist teaching, this story helps readers understand the response of love to situations of injustice and suffering. For readers who want to take a break from daily concerns and read a short book that can lead to reflection about our responses to what life throws us, this book is a great choice.

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

Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World

Delusions. In a case of one good book leading to another, Michael Lewis leaped from his recent book, The Big Short, to a series of Vanity Fair articles focused on financial delusions taking place around the world. Those articles have been bundled in a new book titled, Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World. As a financial tourist, Lewis takes readers to personal and corporate stories in Greece, Ireland, Iceland, Germany and California. In each setting, Lewis’ writing is lively, likely to engage readers of any level of financial acumen. I enjoy the breezy way in which Lewis gets to the heart of a situation, and finds a way to convey what can be a complicated story into one that is easily grasped by any reader.

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

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Submission

Faith. Amy Waldman’s debut novel, The Submission, tackles a sensitive subject with skill. The plot involves the selection of a design for a 9/11 memorial in New York. The judges select a garden motif from a vast selection of blind submissions. When it turns out that the architect is Muslim, the wonderfully crafted characters react in ways that address trust, vulnerability, and the multiple levels and meanings of “submission.” Mo Khan, the architect, reacts with a coldness and rigidity that adds to strength of the novel. Waldman spares no one as the story proceeds, and she allows multiple perspectives to develop simultaneously. Readers can identify with any number of characters. Any reader who likes fine writing, complex characters and a satisfying plot is likely to enjoy this novel.

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