Friday, February 24, 2012

Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope

Inspirational. Readers who are down in the dumps about whatever curve life has thrown lately can feel motivated and inspired by the new biography titled, Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope. Few of us were familiar with the representative of Arizona’s 8th congressional district, Gabrielle Giffords or her astronaut husband, Mark Kelly, until the day she was shot. Thanks to their work on this book, assisted by the late Jeffrey Zaslow, their lives are described in depth for readers to get to know them better. The subtitle tells it all: this is a finely written account of courage and hope.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats

Breathing. Roger Rosenblatt’s fine writing rescues a scattered collection of thoughts and turns them into lucid reflections that many readers will find comforting. Titled Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats, Rosenblatt uses this book to continue to share with readers the ways in which he has been dealing with the death of his daughter. Sometimes it comes down to breathing. Readers who have experienced the loss of a loved one will find in this book an expression of feelings and behavior that will be familiar.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Wild Abandon

Commune. There are some wickedly funny passages in Joe Dunthorne’s novel, Wild Abandon. Set in a commune in Wales, the characters are quirky and the odd situations in which they find themselves make for some lively plot threads. By the end of the novel I realized that I had developed no empathy for any of the characters and found almost all of them to be weakly developed. Much of the novel involves their beliefs, including the imminent end of the world, and I found all that to be amusing, but Dunthorne’s satire never quite satisfied me. Readers who like finely written dark humor are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee

Legend. Readers who enjoy biographies of 20th century figures are those most likely to enjoy Karen Abbott’s book titled, American Rose: A Nation Laid Bare: The Life and Times of Gypsy Rose Lee. Abbott structured this book like a striptease: she sways back and forth in time and reveals a little here and a little there. The versions of a life presented here are interesting and entertaining. The characters, especially Rose herself, her mother, sister Joan and son Erik are intriguing and complex. Abbott presents the people and their times with vivid anecdotes and finely written prose. I was engaged from beginning to end by this interesting life.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Friday, February 17, 2012

The Fear Index

Alive. I was highly entertained by Robert Harris’ latest novel, The Fear Index. A quirky quant, Dr. Alex Hoffmann, has developed computer programs to create a machine that learns and produces huge returns for a hedge fund because of its ability to anticipate market movements. The power of the machine to learn has consequences for the inventor and others, and the thrilling plot kept me entertained throughout. Somewhat ripped from the financial pages about high volume nanosecond trades in and out of securities leading to market disruptions, this novel carries the power of the machine to a logical outcome. Readers who like thrillers are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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An Available Man

Charming. There are at least a half dozen ways in which Hilma Wolitzer could have messed up her latest novel, An Available Man, and one way or another she avoided every potential pitfall and wrote a fine book. The protagonist, Edward Schuyler, is a sixty-two year old science teacher at a private school whose wife has died of cancer. The novel picks up as Schuyler’s grief has progressed to the point where can date again. Readers are likely to recommend this book to others by relating one or another anecdote from these dates. This tender and charming novel will appeal most to those readers who like a good love story packed with the confusion setbacks and humor of every life.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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The Fry Chronicles

Worker. Stephen Fry continues to write about his own life in a new book titled, The Fry Chronicles. The 400+ pages of witty and engaging narrative focus on the busy life he led in his 20s. A reader can become exhausted from the work pace that Fry describes. This is a tale of man who could never say no, had a constant desire to please others, and is able at the current distance of time to describe that life in a way that entertains readers. The stories of his university years and his friendship with Hugh Laurie and Emma Thompson are told with excitement and verve. Readers who enjoy well told stories of interesting lives are those most likely to enjoy this autobiography.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Death Benefit

Organs. It’s been a long time since I finished reading a Robin Cook medical thriller without being annoyed. Perhaps I’ve set the bar too low, but I felt pretty good when I finished Death Benefit and concluded that Cook entertained me. The protagonist, Pia Grazdani is a beautiful and smart medical student who is still damaged from a troubled childhood. Her mentor’s research lab has made a breakthrough in stem cells that shows promise in providing patients with replacement organs. Not everybody is pleased, and the behavior of hedge fund villains and the Albanian mob spice up the plot. Recurring characters Laurie Montgomery and Jack Stapleton make their appearance very late in this novel, and that seemed just right. Readers who like medical thrillers and can overlook some clunky writing are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Forgotten Affairs of Youth

Introspective. One reason I never tire of reading the short novels in the multiple series written by the prolific Alexander McCall Smith is that the characters and their situations always make me feel good. In the latest Isabel Dalhousie novel, The Forgotten Affairs of Youth, the moral philosopher continues to closely question herself about her preconceptions and biases. This philosopher lives a closely examined life! Most of the plot in this novel involves Isabel helping a fellow philosopher discover the identity of her birth parents. The usual cast of Edinburgh characters is present, and Charlie gets a little bit older, while still eating olives. Readers who like feel-good novels are those most likely to enjoy this one.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Antics. Readers expect two things from Dave Barry novels: laughs and zany characters. Barry’s latest book, Lunatics, written with Alan Zweibel, provides an abundance of zany characters in hilarious situations. The implausibility of the situations in which the protagonists find themselves adds to the mayhem, and Barry and Zweibel maintain the laughter and antic behavior throughout the book. Readers looking for something funny to read are those most likely to enjoy this book.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Identity. Elmore Leonard never seems to add a second word when one will do, whether in dialog or description. Raylan is his latest novel featuring U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens as the central character. Readers who are unfamiliar with this character from previous novels or from the TV series, Justified, may find the character developed in this novel to be a bit spare. For fans, this is a worthy installment featuring an intriguing character, and the writing soars. The subject matter of drug and body part sales in former coal mining country provides a lively backdrop of characters and situations for Givens to play out his role. Readers who like well written crime fiction are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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A Covert Affair

Friendship. The declassification of secret records can provide authors with a treasure trove of material about individuals and situations. Jennet Conant’s book, A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS, tells a bundle of interesting anecdotes about the wartime adventures of the Childs and how their postwar life led to challenging times for them and their friends. The central character of the book, Jane Foster, was a friend of the Childs, and she was accused of being a Soviet spy. That led to McCarthy challenges of the loyalty of her friends. Even with many American and Russian documents declassified, it remains unclear whether or not Foster was a spy. Fans of Julia Child may feel shortchanged by all the pages that are not connected to her. Readers interested in this era are those most likely to enjoy this account of some fascinating people and events of the 1940s and 1950s.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Friday, February 3, 2012

All I Did Was Shoot My Man

Paternal. The more Walter Mosley develops the character of protagonist Leonid McGill, the greater the desire of fans to want the series to grow. The fourth novel of the series is titled All I Did Was Shoot My Man, and the contrasting love and loss, joy and sorrow of McGill, the tragic hero and private detective, caught me from the beginning and held me to the end. The complex relationship between fathers and sons is a motif in this novel, and the plot will require close attention. First time readers of the McGill series can begin here, but those who have read the earlier novels will be best prepared for the richness of this latest installment.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That: A Modern Guide to Manners

Witty. Readers looking for a few laughs about our own foibles and those of others will find witty prose in Henry Alford’s book titled, Would It Kill You to Stop Doing That: A Modern Guide to Manners. Alford presents aspects of contemporary life that made me laugh, and got me through the parts of the book that seemed to drag a bit. Readers looking for an Emily Post update won’t find that kind of expertise here. If you like witty writing, this is a book should consider.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington

Personal. It took a lot of perseverance for me to slog through the 750+ pages of Condoleezza Rice’s memoir of her time in Washington, titled No Higher Honor. Rice tells her side of the story of that time, following memoirs by Rumsfeld, Bush and Cheney, each of whom has told a version of the same events. Rice settles some scores with Rumsfeld and Cheney in a gentle way, and remains fully loyal to Bush, as readers would expect. While I disagree with most of the policies she pursued, I was charmed often while reading this book when she’d inject personal asides and anecdotes. Those lively paragraphs made up for dense chapters and reminded me of the humanity of political figures who can become depersonalized through the lens of policy differences. Partisans and fans of Rice will find this as required reading, and readers with a strong interest in contemporary politics are those most likely to enjoy this memoir.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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The Impossible Dead

Outsider. Ian Rankin is a master of character-based crime fiction, and his skills are prodigious in his latest Malcolm Fox novel titled, The Impossible Dead. Fox is a police detective outsider, assigned to the professional standards unit or internal affairs, called by most, the Complaints. Sent to the Fife Constabulary on a case, he ends up investigating murder, while being drawn back home to visit his ill father and repair his relationship with his sister. Fox is a complex individual that Rankin creates in ways that make him familiar, fully human, and prompts readers to care for what happens to him. Rankin provides realistic dialogue, a captivating plot, and deep character development that will appeal to all readers who like those elements in well-written fiction.

Rating: Four-star (Highly Recommended)
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Blink of An Eye

Insecurity. Former Senator and former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen has written another novel in the thriller genre, this one titled, Blink of An Eye. Packed with clunky writing and acronyms, this novel focuses on the detonation of a nuclear device on U.S. soil, and the rush to retaliate. The protagonist is a National Security Advisor named Sean Falcone, and this character is drawn in the heroic tradition. The plot moves quickly, some of the characters are interesting, and in the back of my mind, the insider knowledge of Cohen made me shiver even more that the plot required. Readers who like thrillers and can overlook some weak writing are those most likely to enjoy this novel.

Rating: Two-star (Mildly Recommended)
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1861: The Civil War Awakening

Forces. Readers of history looking for a fresh take on a familiar topic are those most likely to enjoy reading Adam Goodheart’s 1861: The Civil War Awakening. Goodheart uses the 450 pages of this book to explore an answer to the question of what forces drove peaceful Americans into a bloody civil war in a relatively short period of time. Goodheart breaks down the answer to the question through a series of stories about the people and events that transformed the entire nation. These stories are presented with insight and context and through writing that will engage most readers.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Trillin on Texas

Tasty. While I enjoy reading whatever topic Calvin Trillin chooses, I think I enjoy his food writing best because of the obvious pleasure that eating brings to his prose. A small collection of Trillin essays was assembled by the University of Texas Press and targeted his connections to the Lone Star State. Titled Trillin on Texas, this book includes pieces on politics and crime, but soars when it comes to food. Some of the connections to Texas are tenuous, but the writing is fine throughout, and will attract readers who appreciate fine writing and the wit of a master like Bud Trillin.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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Dick Francis's Gamble

Mindless. Readers who like a slow-paced mystery that requires little brain activity are those most likely to enjoy Felix Francis’ debut novel in the family business titled, Dick Francis’s Gamble. Consistent with prior novels from the family, this one uses the backdrop of horse racing to present and solve a mystery. The characters are developed just enough to prompt a reader to care, the dialogue not quite realistic, and the exposition more than ample to fill in the modest plot twists and obvious clues. I’ve read the Francis novels regularly and quickly as an entertaining diversion. This book provided that and met my expectations.

Rating: Three-star (Recommended)
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