Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22

Place. There’s double pleasure in Erica Heller’s memoir, Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22: the family anecdotes she selects are finely written, and the setting for many of them, the apartments in the Apthorp, provide a context and a sense of place that bring the words to life. There’s enough humor throughout this memoir to offset those aspects of family relationships that are marked by alienation and disappointment. All life is packed with contradictions, and Heller writes in a way that most readers will find engaging and interesting.

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

One Summer

Melodrama. David Baldacci has taken a break from thrillers to write a family melodrama titled, One Summer. This sappy tear-jerker read as if it were intended for a made for TV after school special. The family dynamics across generations are predictable and the life-changing events are out of a soap opera. Character development is flat. The story can be engaging at times, and after a while most readers will want to stick with it to find out how things get resolved.

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

No Rest for the Dead

Serial. Writing is usually a solitary experience, and many readers can recognize a writer’s style from a sample. In a break from that consistency, Andrew Gulli assembled over two dozen writers to contribute chapters to a mystery titled, No Rest for the Dead. The result is something like improv: the pleasure of a unique voice, riffing with other voices and assembling a shared piece of art that brings enjoyment. I sampled some chapters trying to guess the writer before seeing his or her name, and I had a lot of lucky guesses. For most readers, then, this may be a chance to see the work of many favorite writers in a single book. The mystery itself was pretty good, and considering the challenges of multiple writers, wrapped up in a satisfying way.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase No Rest for the Dead from amazon.com.

Starting from Happy

Zany. Prepare for pleasure, even laughter, when you read Patricia Marx’ zany novel, Starting from Happy. All relationships are quirky, but Imogene and Wally are two of the oddest characters readers are likely to encounter, and enjoy getting to know. The structure of the novel itself is funny: short chapters, as brief as a single word, including author commentary. Her experience at Saturday Night Live and The New Yorker comes through with skit-like narrative and perfectly chosen words. Read any sample, and if you like it, you’re likely to enjoy the whole thing.

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

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Sauvignon Secret

Deception. Readers new to the Wine Country series as well as old friends can equally enjoy the mystery Ellen Crosby presents in The Sauvignon Secret. Protagonist Lucie Montgomery is a Virginia winemaker and in this outing she tries to unravel deception and a cover-up following the discovery of a wine merchant found hanged not far from her vineyard. Lucie’s grandfather is back along with her paramour, Quinn. They are following the mystery from Virginia to California and back trying to figure things out. This novel provides gentle and evenly paced entertainment, especially for those readers who like continuity of character in serial novels. One can pick up the story here and be satisfied, or go back and start from the beginning. Most will close this novel and look forward to the next installment.

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

House of Holes

Porny. Nicholson Baker’s novel, House of Holes, is a dirty and funny novel that will entertain some readers and gross out others. Baker has more names for body parts and sexual acts than most readers have ever imagined. Those terms and the attempts at sexual pleasure are what brought me to laughter on many pages of this book. Certain sensitive readers will label this pornography and find no redeeming value whatever. In our visual age marked by the use of sex to sell so many products, it was something of a relief to be reminded that the mind and imagination can be the source of pleasure and satisfaction. Let’s just hope that this novel is not made into a movie. Some of these scenes are best left to the imagination.

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

The Curfew

Puppets. Pick a sunny day to read Jesse Ball’s latest novel, The Curfew. There’s despair and darkness in a city under authoritarian rule. In this dystopian setting, William and Molly, father and daughter, try to carve out a life rooted in their love for each other. Ball’s lyrical writing contrasts with the bleak context, and the puppet show at the end of the novel allows a fantasy to pull the story together. Readers who like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are likely to enjoy this novel.

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

Bright's Passage

Curiosity. It was curiosity that led me to read the debut novel, Bright’s Passage, by songwriter Josh Ritter. Would this be an example of someone trying to extend a personal brand to make more money with a weak effort, or could Ritter’s skill be more than musical? I concluded that Ritter can write a good novel, and he did so in this first attempt. Protagonist Henry Bright returns to West Virginia after World War I to a life that is as out of control as his war experience. Ritter’s descriptive language and poignant character development allow this novel to be a reflection on the ravages of war and the search for peace. Readers who are curious and willing to give a debut novel a chance are likely to find good entertainment from this book.

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

A Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life

Improbable. Readers who are weary of the nastiness of politics and desire a break can find a feel-good story in Deval Patrick’s memoir, A Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life. In just over two hundred pages, Massachusetts Governor Patrick reflects on the twists and turns of his life and the friendship, faith and perseverance that has brought him to where he is today. Patrick writes in a conversational style and the story he tells will engross most readers, especially those who are tired of political mudslinging.

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


Suspense. Mark Billingham delivers another well-written crime novel featuring detective Tom Thorne and titled, Bloodline. A serial killer challenges Thorne’s ability to get a step ahead of evil plans. Billingham maintains an emotional tautness throughout this novel as he skillfully moves the plot forward and allows the character development to ease readers into understanding of the mystery. The suspense kept me turning the pages with interest and speed. Readers who enjoy crime thrillers are those most likely to enjoy this one.

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

Keys to the Kingdom

Embarrassing. I should be the ideal reader for Senator Bob Graham’s debut novel, Keys to the Kingdom. I am entertained by spy thrillers and I have a strong interest in politics. While I read this novel from beginning to end, I winced often from the bad writing in the form of stilted dialog and erratic plot fits and starts that felt like being a passenger in a car with standard transmission driven by a novice driver. Protagonist Tony Ramos came across as one dimensional and unreal. My expectations for the novel were high given the author’s experience on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. An editor or a ghostwriter could have made a big difference. It seems no one told the Senator and former Florida governor that he’s not a writer.

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

Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America's Schools

Racing. No matter what opinions and perspectives a reader holds relating to public education, there are facts and viewpoints that will please and infuriate after reading Steven Brill’s new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. Journalist Brill has contacted scores of sources for the material in this book, and he assembles the narrative with such great skill that the almost 500 pages flew by for me. Whatever you’ve heard or know about No Child Left Behind, the Race to the Top, school funding and charter schools, there’s something new to learn and understand thanks to Brill’s excellent writing. One of the kernels of new information that I picked up was just how large a financial hole Mayor Bloomberg of New York City will leave behind for taxpayers thanks to the generous labor contracts with teachers that he negotiated to get re-elected. Every reader is likely to learn something new and close the book felling positive about the passion with which many individuals are working to fix our schools, and with frustration about how hard this job will be.

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

Portrait of a Spy

Thwarted. Daniel Silva reprises Israeli superspy and art restorer Gabriel Allon in a new novel titled, Portrait of a Spy. As Allon ages more gracefully than most humans, he alone notices a terrorist in Covent Garden and is about to stop him when Allon is thwarted by British intelligence. As usual, Allon is right, and the bureaucrats remain an obstacle, second only to the evildoers he pursues to deliver vengeance and justice. Readers who like fast paced action and character-driven action novels are likely to enjoy this one. Silva’s writing seems effortless, but he packs this novel with more political commentary than many readers will not find entertaining.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase Portrait of a Spy from amazon.com.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Finkler Question

Talmudic. After Howard Jacobson’s novel won the Man Booker Prize, I picked up a copy of The Finkler Question. This is a funny and wise novel that explores the question of what it means to be Jewish in the 21st century. The backdrop for this exploration is the interplay between three characters whose friendship, competitiveness, and life’s experiences provide fine reading entertainment, especially for those readers who enjoy quality writing.

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

A Week in December

Laughter. Readers who appreciate fine wit and a good poking at contemporary life should consider reading Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December. I’ve had this novel sitting around for eighteen months and had set it aside at page 100 about a year ago. I finished it recently, and am glad I did. Faulks assembles a diverse cast of characters including a hedge fund manager, a home grown terrorist, an underemployed lawyer, a snarky book reviewer, and a tube train driver. In a city like London, these are our neighbors, those with whom we live in community. Needless to say, a lot can happen in a week. There’s enough about the financial crisis here to entertain business types who read some fiction but like to stay on a subject close to home.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
Click here to purchase A Week in December from amazon.com.

You Lost Me There

Island. Some relationships remain strong because of the power of shared memories. What happens when one’s memory of certain events varies from the recollection of a loved one who was present? Rosecrans Baldwin sets his debut novel, You Lost Me There, in Maine on Mount Desert Island, and he uses the grief of a spouse on the death of his wife as a way to explore the power of memory in our relationships. It’s ironic that protagonist Victor Aaron is an expert on Alzheimer’s disease especially after he learns from his late wife Sara’s notes that her experience of their three-decade marriage varied a lot from his version of what their life was like. Readers who like to sample the work of new authors will find much good writing in this book.

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