Friday, February 18, 2011

The Metropolis Case

Devices. I gave the benefit of the doubt to Matthew Galloway for most of his debut novel, The Metropolis Case, as he constructed a complicated story set in modern New York and 19th century Europe, centered on the world of opera, especially Wagner’s challenging Tristan und Isolde. He connects four main characters to the music, and moves back and forth in time as he draws readers into the story. Along the way, no single character becomes fully developed, and Galloway ends up relying on the devices of a magical serum and coincidences to tie together the missing links of the story. Long on exposition and short on realistic dialogue, the language of the novel seemed heavier than the heldentenor. For a first-time novelist, some of these shortcomings can be overlooked by a patient reader.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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Cleopatra: A Life

Determined. I picked up Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, with half-hearted interest. After all, I’ve read and seen the Shakespeare play, and Elizabeth Taylor must have nailed the role in the movie, since her image remains vivid in my memory. I quickly became engrossed in this finely written historical account of a powerful woman who became a very capable queen, acting with bold defiance against those who could do her harm. Her ambition was formidable, and she acted in ways that continually increased her power. Schiff acknowledges that much of the historical account is missing, but what she presents seems quite plausible. Readers who like history will enjoy this account which takes a mythic figure and fleshes her out in ways that separate myth from likely reality.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Thousand

Musical. I’m undecided after reading Kevin Guilfoyle’s second novel, The Thousand, if there is more to it than meets the eye, or less. Protagonist Canada Gold (Nada) has an experimental neurostimulator that was implanted in her brain to relieve ADHD, and as a consequence of the stimulation she has increased perceptual powers. A group of Pythagoreans called The Thousand want to retrieve the device to use for their own purposes, and they are divided into competing forces, the acusamati and mathamatici. Nada’s father was a musician who was murdered, and his manuscript which was his finished version of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor, has been missing. A flawed and diligent Chicago detective provides color, as does Nada’s boyfriend. In some respects Guilfoyle has written a symphony in prose: there are motifs that come and go, and movements that are slower or faster. When I closed the last page, I put the book down and thought, “now what was that all about?” I’m still unsure of the answer. Readers who like a good puzzle, and novels with interesting characters are those most likely to enjoy this thriller.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Journey. Swamplandia! might be the most unusual coming-of-age novel I’ve ever read. I enjoyed the creativity in Karen Russell’s debut short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, and that same unique and quirky voice soars in Swamplandia! The title refers to the alligator amusement park owned and operated by the Bigtree family, that has fallen on hard times following the death of star alligator wrestler, Hilola Bigtree. Her daughter, 13-year-old protagonist Ava Bigtree, decides to search the swamp for missing sister, Osceola, 16, who left home to marry a ghost. Their father moved to the mainland, and 17-year-old brother, Kiwi, has gone to work for a competing amusement park, the World of Darkness. Ava’s journey is described in language that led me to reread some sentences as I savored the carefully chosen words a second time. Readers willing to try out a new and young author, and who enjoy unpredictable writing are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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You Know When the Men Are Gone

Collateral. Siobhan Fallon’s debut short story collection is titled, You Know When the Men Are Gone. Fallon sets these eight stories at Fort Hood, Texas, and she explores the various lives of the women whose husbands are deployed in foreign wars. Each story packs a wallop of emotion and poignancy. The lives of these women are usually overlooked when most of us think about the impact of military deployment, especially for our volunteer army. We can understand readily the physical wounds of soldiers, and these stories can help any interested reader understand the collateral damage to those women who are left behind during deployments. This writing is fresh and engaging, and is likely to be enjoyed by most readers.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Friday, February 11, 2011

The Empty Family

Taut. Colm Toibin wastes no words in the nine stories of his collection, The Empty Family. He brings characters to life with impressive efficiency, and places them in situations and relationships that unveil the complexities of love and loss and longing. Fans of the short story genre will appreciate the skill displayed in these stories, and most readers will find the stories engaging, especially because of his lyrical and precise writing. Readers of Toibin’s novels may find the shift in form leaves one wanting more, or asking “is that all there is?” after completing a story. For those who want more, re-read one of these stories, or revisit one of his novels. Toibin’s considerable talent is worth a reader’s time.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Sentry

Adversaries. The crime fiction from Robert Crais usually provides lots of action pitting a better-than-real hero against a very evil villain. In The Sentry, Crais reprises two protagonists from earlier novels, Joe Pike and Elvis Cole, and pits good against evil in dramatic ways. Murders and mayhem provide the backdrop for Joe and Elvis to perform heroic acts, and a very competent killer provides Pike with a very worthy adversary. The prose is clunky at times, but the action never falters, and the characters remain true to the behaviors that readers have come to expect. Whether a fan or new reader, anyone who finds crime fiction entertaining will get some thrills from this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Comfort to the Enemy

Hot. The character Carl Webster is one of the finest created by Elmore Leonard. This U.S. Marshall was known as “The Hot Kid,” and he behaves with cool competence in all situations. Readers who want to sample Leonard’s writing in a small dose will find Comfort to the Enemy to be an enjoyable introduction. While I prefer Leonard’s novels to his shorter fiction, this novella and story collection provides enjoyable reading entertainment.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Illumination

Pain. What would happen in the world if instead of the trite expression, “I feel your pain,” anyone can respond to the suffering of others with the acknowledgement, “I see your pain?” In the world Kevin Brockmeier creates in his novel, The Illumination, a worldwide event has occurred and suddenly light emanates from the part of the body that feels pain or suffering. A cut to one’s skin produces a beam of light. Brockmeier deftly explores how individuals respond to experiencing life in a new way, and uses a journal of love notes as a way to tie together the various characters he presents in the novel. Readers who appreciate creativity in looking at the world in new ways are likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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When the Luck of the Irish Ran Out: The World's Most Resilient Country and Its Struggle to Rise Again

Troubles. David Lynch has written a lively account of the bubble and bust of the Celtic tiger in his book, When the Luck of the Irish Ran Out. He covers the politicians and the bankers along with the property developers and the Irish consumers. The key word in the title is “luck;” Lynch makes the point that the Irish had good luck on the way up, and bad luck on the way down. If you haven’t selected your Saint Patrick’s Day reading yet, consider giving this book a try, and lift a pint or two to commiserate with the troubles of the Irish. A short and finely written essay on the same topic comes from Michael Lewis in the March 2011 issue of Vanity Fair titled, “When Irish Eyes Are Crying.” If you like Lewis’ article, chances are good that you’ll enjoy Lynch’s book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Friday, February 4, 2011

The Widower's Tale

Sweeping. Julia Glass constrained herself to just over 400 pages as she combines a truckload of contemporary issues with a busload of characters in her novel, The Widower’s Tale. The widower is 70-year-old protagonist Percy Darling, who lives in a historic home on a pond outside Boston where he grieves the death of his wife decades earlier. From that sentence, I’ve already disclosed that Glass is dealing with the issues of aging and loss, which could be enough. To those, she adds love, eco-terrorism, historic preservation and adaptive reuse, cancer, illegal immigration, inter-generational relationships, gay marriage, health insurance, and others. All the issues come to life through characters that most readers will find interesting, and the time spent with them enjoyable. The sweeping scope that Glass tackles could be overwhelming, but somehow she pulls it off, leaving readers with ample satisfaction by the end of the novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Lady Matador's Hotel

Guests. We count on good novelists to present us with realistic characters in settings that come to life. Cristina Garcia’s short novel, The Lady Matador’s Hotel, describes six characters at the Hotel Miraflor in the capital city of an unnamed Central American country. In addition to the matadora, Garcia unveils an attorney, a factory owner, a waitress, a colonel and a poet. They have more than the hotel in common. Garcia deftly entangles their lives and stories and does so with wit and poignancy as she brings these interesting and odd characters to life. Readers who can tolerate reading fiction that contains violence, and who can find humor in the midst of oppression and horror are most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Last Time I Saw You

Reunion. Sometimes a novelist can speak to his or her contemporaries in ways that resonate perfectly with one’s personal experience. Readers born a few years on either side of 1950 can find such a novelist in Elizabeth Berg. Her novel, The Last Time I Saw You, is required reading for anyone of that age cohort who is heading to a school reunion. Berg writes with a gentleness and tenderness that reveals a range of human behavior, and she always leaves a reader uplifted by the end of the novel. This is light reading that provides amusing entertainment.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter

Understanding. Stephen Prothero’s new book, God Is Not One, is a finely written primer on the fundamental tenets and practices of eight major world religions. Prothero attacks those who gloss over the differences among religions as insignificant because they represent different paths to the same God. Prothero highlights the differences, explains them, and focuses our attention on why the differences are important in gaining understanding and insight. Any reader with limited knowledge about different religions will find this book fascinating. Those readers who already understand much about different religions may find this book inadequate and far too basic. I found that I learned more about the Yoruba and Confucianism from this book than I had gleaned from others.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Caribou Island

Cold. Almost everything about David Vann’s debut novel, Caribou Island, is cold. The setting in Alaska presents the climatic cold landscape that Vann describes in language that’s often poetic and always visual. The marital relationship of the protagonists Irene and Gary has evolved in bitterness, disappointment and disconnectedness to something far beyond frigid. Their children are also in relationships that are rooted in selfishness and maintained by expectations that are likely to be unmet. The bleakness of the situation provides a backdrop for some fine writing that presents aspects of human behavior that come alive in the circumstances and life experiences of these characters. Readers willing to give a debut novelist a chance will find talent on these pages. Perhaps because I read this novel during a blizzard, I can still feel the chill of the story. Those readers susceptible to personal immersion into fiction may want to watch for signs depression and gloom after spending time with these characters in this setting.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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